When I decided last month to go back to the theater for only the second time since the pandemic began (and the first time since May), the two top contenders for my box office dollars were Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter.” As an Asian American, I felt somewhat duty-bound to go see the first Asian super-hero film from a major Hollywood studio—twelve-year old me would have been pretty excited by the prospect. But, having watched other diversity “firsts” from Marvel like the sadly overrated “Black Panther” and the shabbily inconsequential “Captain Marvel,” I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Instead I bought myself a ticket to “The Card Counter,” which, if you’re not familiar, stars Oscar Isaac in a breezy, fun-filled romp through the wacky world of professional gambling. Just kidding! This movie is as grim and despairing as the darkest night of the damned, but it’s also the purest, most delicious kind of cinema. That’s about what you’d expect from the unflinching mind that brought us “First Reformed” several years ago and “Taxi Driver” many years before that. Like those landmark films, “The Card Counter” also draws you in to its world with astonishing force: it takes you deep into its windowless, airless casino lounges and shows the depths from which the quietly despondent, unreachable souls that populate them carry forth. Like most Shrader films, it doesn’t shy from topical and political relevance, but the reach of this particular plot is unexpected and even abrupt, though never less than convincing. I left the theater completely reenergized by the whole idea of what cinema can do—and by what seeing film in a theater can feel like. And to think, there wasn’t a single post-credits teaser for any kind of expanded universe tie-in, either.
I watched thirteen total films in September, none of which wound up being “Shang-Chi,” though I expect that’ll happen sooner or later. Here they are…
“The Kid Who Would Be King” (2019) ★½Rewatched. I really hoped this would seem better on a second viewing but it was just as disappointing as the first.
“Cluny Brown” (1946) ★★½ Lubitsch is a legend but he’s hit or miss for me, and this romantic comedy really only hits its groove when it gets absolutely ruthless.