What to Watch This Weekend 9/10/21

"The Card Counter" in theaters, "Come From Away" on Apple TV+

What to Watch This Weekend 9/10/21

Does it matter that Paul Schrader keeps making the same movie over and over if the movies are as good as “The Card Counter”? The film opens theatrically today (in Boston at the multiplexes, the Landmark Kendall Square, and the Coolidge) and it doesn’t have a streaming date as of yet (I’ll put up a link back to this post when it does). Whichever way you see it, prepare yourself for a performance by Oscar Isaac that is a remarkable feat of stillness and control.

Oscar Isaac in “The Card Counter”

The parallels to Schrader’s previous movie, “First Reformed” (2018), are obvious, not to mention to a filmography that stretches back to his screenplay for “Taxi Driver” (1976). A hero who’s isolated by temperament and circumstance, who flagellates himself into a spiritual agony of doubt. Who keeps a diary that he reads to us in wracked voiceover. And who moves inexorably toward a climactic act of violent transcendence. “The Card Counter” ticks off the boxes yet stands on its own. Isaac plays William Tell – at least that’s what his character tells people – who travels across America haunting one casino after another. He plays poker and calculates his odds at Blackjack (thus the title) while making sure never to attract attention by winning big. William does nothing big: Every gesture is considered, every sentence he speaks is quiet, compact, thought-out, and final. Yet there’s an intensity to him that scares some people away while drawing in others – a shaggy kid (Tye Sheridan) who might become a protégé, a high-stakes poker manager (Tiffany Haddish, moving confidently into a dramatic role) who wants to back William on the tournament circuit. To the latter especially, he’s a sealed-off riddle, and that makes him kind of hot.

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in “The Card Counter”

None of them knows that when William goes back to his hotel rooms, he wraps all the furniture in sheets, as if to protect himself from damage, or maybe to protect the furniture from him. It seems that he did something very bad sometime in the past. When we learn what it is, about 30 minutes in, everything we know about the character changes.

The publicity materials for “The Card Counter” are giving away the secret — that’s why I’m not linking to the trailer — as will many reviewers. But the movie works better when it rabbit-punches an audience with the particulars of William’s sin, which has a real-world resonance that may make you suck in your breath. The character’s a classic Schrader penitent, measuring his distance from God with every stroke of the lash, and the director’s debt to the films of the austere French master Robert Bresson has never been clearer. If “First Reformed” was Schrader’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (which it very consciously was), then “The Card Counter” may be his version of Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” with a taciturn hero throwing himself at fate and daring the universe to find anything in him worthy of redemption.

“First Reformed” remains the stronger movie – the supporting actors in the new film aren’t as incisive, for one, and the ending literally looks away – but there’s no arguing with the central performance. Isaac can be a mercurial player, busy with business, but what he does here is shorn of anything even slightly extraneous. This is acting of pure economy, almost miserly until you realize what William might be saving himself for. At the same time, Isaac conveys a relentless internal pressure through the set of William’s jaw, the straightening of a shirt cuff, the flip of a poker chip. The combination is both absurdly watchable and emotionally devastating. For all the man’s reserve, he burns a hole in the screen that swallows everyone else.

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Jen Colella in “Come From Away”

If you don’t feel like going to a movie theater this weekend – and I can’t say I blame you – there are streaming premiere options: A “Rear Window” knock-off called “The Voyeurs” that Amazon declined to show me, and “Kate,” a Netflix original about a cold-blooded hitwoman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has 24 hours to find out who poisoned her – think “D.O.A.” with ultraviolence. And over on Apple TV+ is “Come From Away,” a filming of a May 2021 performance of the hit Broadway musical about airline travelers stranded in a small Newfoundland town after the attacks of 9/11.

That last is the better bet. I’m a Sondheim snob with an allergy to many modern stage musicals – a little show-kids energy goes a long, long way with me – but once “Come From Away” relaxes the jazz hands after the opening number, it’s an affecting and even nuanced experience. The meeting of the townsfolk of Gander (pop. 9,000) with the passengers of 38 grounded jets (pop. 7,000) is portrayed as an exercise in stressed-out and heavily choreographed can-do, with the busy cast of twelve (including original cast members Petrina Bromley and Jenn Colella) doing double-, triple-, and quadruple-duty portraying all the characters. The songs are tuneful if not especially memorable, and the show is honest enough to include some less than admirable human behavior – the bigoted treatment of an Egyptian passenger, for one – along with a lot of full-throated positivity. More important, “Come From Away” acknowledges the unimaginable loss of that day in a way commensurate with where we were then and where we are now. And if the subplot about a  romance between a woman from Texas and a guy from England seems far-fetched? Sorry, it really happened.

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