Film Reviews: Ema, The Card Counter, Mainstream
Ema (c) Music Box Films
On Showtime, streaming and Blu-Ray
Pablo Larraín had two films released in 2021 in the U.S. “Spencer” is probably his most high-profile, but “Ema” might just be the most experimental of his career. The movie made its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, and after opening in most of the world since, it finally made its post-pandemic debut in U.S. cinemas last fall. Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is a dancer in her husband Gaston’s (Gael Garcia Bernal, in his most mature role to date) dance company in Chile. But at the start of the movie, she is being shunned by everyone for deciding to abandon her adopted son Polo and return him to the foster care system after a tragic accident. The movie’s tone feels like a poetic mix of directors Lynne Ramsey and Gapser Noe. Everything feels surreal, even though the central theme of guilt and placing blame is very real and permeates the film. Is Ema becoming unhinged in the aftermath of giving up Polo? Her relationship with Gaston borders on emotional sadomasochism and her sexual experimentations wouldn’t feel out of place in the movie “Titane” (to be fair, Ema doesn’t go so far as to sleep with a car). Most of the time I didn’t understand what was going on in this bizarre landscape that represents Ema’s emotional state, but Larraín kept me on my toes, so I couldn’t look away, whether from the fire imagery or random dance interludes that punctuate scenes. It all sort of gets explained by the film’s end, and whether it’s satisfying or not depends on if you are on Ema and Larraín’s wavelength.
The Card Counter (c) Focus Features
Film: The Card Counter
Oscar Isaac plays his best role since the title character of “Inside Llewyn Davis” in Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter.” Isaac’s William Tell (maybe not his real name?), a small-time blackjack player who learned how to count cards when he was in prison, and now just goes to out-of-the-way casinos to make enough money to get by. He is approached by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father knew Tell, and what they have in common starts both of them down a road of revenge without the possibility of redemption. Isaac has consistently done good work, even in the “Star Wars” sequels, but in 2021, he was involved in three excellent projects: “Dune,” “Scenes from a Marriage” (on HBO) and this one. Even with his suave exterior and cool demeanor, Tell carries with him a sadness and anger that you can tell is one confrontation away from being unleashed. And except for the finale, which is needlessly bloody and full of toxic grandstanding, Isaac plays Tell with the right balance of trying to lay low and stay afloat. Tiffany Haddish is also good as a fellow gambler. A lot of people loved Schrader’s last film, “First Reformed,” but I had problems with its tone, especially its equally disturbing climax. This one feels more naturalistic and surprisingly funny at times, and I was always invested in Isaac’s portrayal of William Tell.
Mainstream (c) IFC Films
Andrew Garfield has had quite a 2021. He is on the road to Oscar with his performance in “tick, tick…Boom!,” gave needed support as Jim Baker to Jessica Chastain for her wonderful take on Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” and starred in a movie he swore to interviewers he wasn’t in, he proved that the third time is the charm in the movie-that-shall-not-be-named. But, Garfield likes to do experimental stuff (“Under the Silver Lake” anyone?) and in 2021 it was “Mainstream,” Gia Coppola’s meditation on social media and fame. Maya Hawke plays Frankie, a bartender who wants to be internet famous but doesn’t get anywhere until she films a street artist named Link (Garfield) and posts his rant. Trying to capture the magic again, she convinces the aimless Link to have her film him, and with the help of fellow bartender Jake (Nat Wolff), starts a series of YouTube videos called “No One Special.” The movie has some interesting things to say about the cost of escalating fame, but there’s a juvenile streak to it that makes the film’s world feel like a fairy tale, thus diluting its message. Garfield is in full manic mode here, and a little of Link goes a long way. An interesting failure to be sure.
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