James Gunn’s brief time away from Disney and Marvel was filled in exactly the way it should have been. With The Suicide Squad, he made a film that, for reasons both obvious and surprising, the film industry’s leading monopoly would never have allowed. Having demonstrated his utility with a team-up film with two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Gunn again takes on lesser-known comic book characters and makes the fifth or sixth one on the call sheet more interesting than characters who’ve appeared in half a dozen superhero films. It’s generally not a good thing that this genre dominates the cinematic landscape, but the idea becomes more tolerable when directors like Gunn are allowed to take big and irreverent and even challenging chances like this one.
In The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s lonely men get another workout. The film functions as a loose continuation from First Reformed, such that the cause of the self-imposed loneliness is located in the War on Terror. Where Ethan Hawke’s Father Toller encouraged his son to enlist and die in a pointless conflict, Oscar Isaac’s William Tell took a more direct approach. Isaac, long overdue for a return to prestige filmmaking after several lucrative but creatively bankrupt years in the superhero/Disney Star Wars wilderness, couldn’t have found a better vehicle than a Schrader starring role to catapult back into critical good graces. However, where Schrader’s grasp of Big Christianity and black-pilled environmentalism was ironclad in First Reformed, the world of The Card Counter is loose and undefined, while Isaac’s costars aren’t given the material necessary to keep up with him. The director-lead actor combination here is brilliant, but the film that contains it is not.
The great underrated horror entry of the late slasher era gets a modern revamp with Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, a film that builds on its predecessor while not surpassing it. The 1992 film made exceptional use of Tony Todd as the titular vengeful spirit while also being far more intelligent than its genre typically requires. Some of Candyman’s themes are visible in DaCosta’s version, but the world’s a different place than it was 30 years ago and her film reflects that. Working from a script cowritten by Jordan Peele, Candyman has a lot on its mind. It has to effectively convey its ideas while also serving up the kills and mayhem, but DaCosta’s film is often is at war with itself over which interest it’s trying to serve.
Dark Ages imposter syndrome takes center stage in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. This viewer has long thought Lowery was an imposter himself, scratching my head at the overheated praise for works like his flimsy adaptation of Pete’s Dragon and his ponderous A Ghost Story. With his adaptation of an ancient Arthurian story, Lowery finds a setting to match his mythic impulses and finally gets over the hump with something close to a masterpiece. The Green Knight wraps its mossy arms around the ambition and the hypocrisy of medieval feudalism as its lead character tries and fails to fulfill expectations that are on his back from birth. This epic film does that with a foot in the cold steel armor of the Christian world and another in the mysterious natural world of whatever came before. Both feet are planted firmly in a cinematic fantasia of rasping foxes and loping giants, making The Green Knight into a package that generates awe in the moment and contemplation long after.
After a detour in universe building with Split and Glass, M. Night Shyamalan is back to his usual self with Old, a film that posits a beach that ages people rapidly. This kind of high-concept premise rhymes Old with The Happening, where the twist that Shyamalan is famous for is not some third-act development but a wacky what-if scenario, and the result is about the same. Shyamalan’s growth between the 2008 disaster and his latest is an increased talent for casting. There’s no dumbfounded Mark Wahlberg to wonder where the bees have gone, but just because he’s working with better actors doesn’t mean they contribute to the script. Old is a mess of manipulative and incoherent filmmaking that fails to make much of its premise.
Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw featured exquisite body horror and cannibalism as sexual awakening. For all its squickiness and extremity, it was also fully graspable as a film that a group of viewers could take in and arrive at a similar conclusion as to what it was trying to say. That’s not the case with Durcournau’s Palme d’Or winning follow-up Titane, a messier but more assured and daring film that frolics in the same visceral pool that Raw did. Digesting Titane is a more difficult task, but what’s easy is acclaiming Ducournau as a rising star with two unforgettable films to her name. Both ecstatic and repulsive, tense and hilarious, Titane is a gnarly sojourn through gender, male affection, and the attraction between a human and a car.
The long-delayed and overdue Black Widow provides Scarlett Johansson’s longtime Marvel Cinematic Universe character her first standalone film in the ongoing franchise. A superspy who’s also one of the main cast’s few non-superpowered characters seems like an obvious Bond-esque film waiting to happen, but the studio instead chose to wait until after Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff had been killed off. Black Widow jumps back a few years in the MCU timeline to give Romanoff her due in a film that doubles as a means to fold in new characters, placing Romanoff on the back burner in her own starring vehicle. Now free to do whatever else she wants after tying herself to the globally successful MCU, Johansson will be fine going forward. However, Black Widow feels like one final slight towards a character who’s been around longer than almost every MCU major player. Studio kiss-off aside, director Cate Shortland puts together a perfectly competent version of a globe-trotting espionage thriller, albeit several years too late.
Nicolas Cage, patron saint of ham, has a low hit rate. Whether for financial distress or a love of being on a set, the man doesn’t say no to much, regularly appearing in half-a-dozen or more films every year. Most of those go straight to video, never to be seen by anyone but bad-movie podcasters and insomniacs who’ve already watched every other movie in existence. However, Cage’s considerable talent sometimes runs into the right project and the viewing public remembers that under the accents and the random voice modulation and the bulging eyes is a man who can readily access depth and sincerity when he wants to. It’s only been three years since Cage’s last reminder, with Mandy and Into the Spider-Verse, but he’s amassed another 11 movies in that space. With Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s stunning debut, Cage puts away his high-volume theatricality for a quiet performance that, while lacking in volume, is missing none of the actor’s unforgettable presence. An untouchable lead performance paired with Sarnoski’s precise direction and a lacerating script makes Pig into one of the best films in recent memory, thus lending Cage the credibility to go make another ten straight-to-video money laundering schemes.
Sixteenth-century Italian monk and cosmologist Giordano Bruno famously and apocryphally pointed his finger at the people who would judge him as a heretic and yelled, “Your god is too small!” Bruno surmised that the universe contained life beyond what was found on earth, preaching a humility that a religion which says the supreme being created humans in its image cannot handle. Rigidity runs headlong into wonder in different Italian setting some five centuries later with Luca, Pixar’s latest and the first from longtime in-house animator Enrico Casarosa. A familiar story infused with palpable love and detail from Casarosa’s own life, Luca creates a world filled with joy and endless possibility, if one can only stick their head above the water.
With releases from dad David, son Brandon, and daughter Caitlin on the tentative schedule for 2022, the entire Cronenberg family will be bringing body horror and psychological trauma to theaters for some time to come. While each of these upcoming films achieve the status of must-see based on pedigree alone, Brandon has established himself as current king of the hill with his most recent film, Possessor. After his long-ago debut Antiviral, Brandon has sat dormant for almost a decade, gestating a horror masterpiece and singular cinematic experience that ranks amongst the most accomplished works of anything with a Cronenberg name on it. Immediately recognizable as something David would be proud of and eventually something that builds on and contemporizes the themes of his father, Possessor is both of the moment and concerned with uncomfortable human truths as old as the species. The genre that David Cronenberg thrived in is in very safe hands.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.