Okay, another big change to this series because now that we’re at the heat of the awards season, when the heavy hitters start to come and make their play for serious Oscar attention, I cannot handle two months apiece for what will become a mammoth telescope into the future over the rest of the year. Our old frenemy Marvel does make an appearance, but for the most part this month’s most anticipated releases are going for the gold and will be inviting speculation as such.
And that kind of speculation creates short novels where articles should be. And what do I look like, an overindulgent Boomer icon filmmaker who surrounds myself with people who aren’t allowed to tell me “No,” anymore? So now I’m going to be cutting these down into bite-sized monthly chunks for more reasonable snacking. A prognosticator’s version of “portion control,” if you will. With balanced macros, hopefully.
So let’s dive in, shall we?
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS – In Theaters September 3 and Disney+ October 18
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Simu Liu, with Awkwafina and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
What is it about? Shang-Chi has to confront his past when he’s recruited into the Ten Rings secret society.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Marvel Studios is in a weird place right now. The film division of their parent company is under new management and the distribution landscape that they’ve dominated for the better part of a decade is going through seismic changes unlike any the industry has had to deal with since the advent of VHS tapes.
On top of that, we’re two years removed from Avengers: Endgame, which finally achieved their longtime goal of dethroning Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time and also closed out a major “phase” of their cinematic universe, bidding farewell to two of their inaugural headline characters Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Young fans who were teenagers when the first Iron Man was released in theaters are now adults with jobs and families of their own. Fans are now having to keep up with multiple streaming shows covering increasingly convoluted plotlines with the introduction of alternate universes and now alternate characters, as opposed to the relatively easy-to-follow two or three movies a year. Add all those factors together and you have the perfect conditions for a huge segment of the moviegoing public deciding to bail on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking its cultural omnipresence with it.
This could, of course, just be me narcissistically projecting my own growing disinterest with this series onto everyone else. I didn’t even bother with WandaVision or Loki and my reactions to the upcoming releases of Spider-Man: More Tedious Franchise Housekeeping Hahaha Eff You Amy Pascal and Eternals have been indifference at best and exasperation at worst. What in the world could lure me back in for more Marvel? It seems Keven Feige is betting on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, one of their first true “origin story” superhero movies in quite a while and a further claim on trying to attract more racially and culturally diverse audiences. This one stars Simon Lieu, Awkwafina, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in a movi-*LOUD RECORD SCRATCH* waitwaitwaitaminute, back the hell up, THE Tony Leung is going to be in a Marvel movie?!?! For those of you who may not realize what a big deal this is, Tony Leung Chiu-wai is like the Daniel Day-Lewis of Hong Kong. He is their #1 male movie star and has headlined some of the greatest films ever produced in the continent, including such timeless classics as In the Mood For Love. He is revered by the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. And we’ve been trying to get him over here in the West for a very long time.
For Disney to finally be the studio that successfully lured him to Hollywood for a mainstream feature film is further proof of their astonishing, terrifying power and their inevitable march toward owning most of the world. All Hail Our Mouse Overlord.
So yeah. Good job, Disney. I can’t not see a movie of yours promising a juicy role for one of the greatest movie stars in the world, even if he’s part of a cynical “experiment” that the distribution of their future movies hinge on for some reason. Gee, I wonder why their first predominantly Asian-led movie is getting saddled with this responsibility instead of, say, Black Widow? I guess we’ll never know! What we do know is that the pre-release reception has been very positive, with our own Joey Magidson hailing it as one of Marvel’s best outings in a long time. I’ve been burned before on pre-release “not a typical Marvel movie!” hype before… but… but Tony Leung, man. Something about this project has to be special for him to be part of it, right?
THE CARD COUNTER – In Theaters September 10
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Oscar Isaac, with Tye Sheridan and Tiffany Haddish
What is it about? A gambler attempts to give guidance to a young man who is out for revenge against a mutual enemy.
How am I feelin’ about this one?Paul Schrader is one of the most prolific and successful screenwriters of his generation, and after decades of making his mark, finally received his first Academy Award nomination two years ago for his heavy Calvinist drama First Reformed. He’s also probably a guy who shouldn’t be on social media, but that’s another story. The story that matters now is what he does with this newfound recognition from a directorial effort that received more praise than arguably anything else he’s worked on not helmed by Martin Scorsese. How does he decide to spend his unprecedented amount of creative capital?
We’re about to find out this month (and in fact, the embargo on Joey’s thoughts lifts this afternoon on social media), with something far less dark and more akin to a Steven Soderberg-esque thriller starring the somehow still nomination-less Oscar Isaac as a felon and card counter who teams up with a young protégé (played by Tye Sheridan) to settle a score against a mutual enemy played by that always reliable of cinematic mutual enemies (unless he’s maintaining a cheap motel in South Florida), Willem Dafoe.
It’s hard for me to see much in the way of originality from the trailer, synopsis, or any promotional materials, but originality isn’t a requirement for capers like these to be hugely successful. That certainly wasn’t the case with Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, or Hustlers and those were superior to most of the Best Picture nominees in their years of release. But it’s possible that, in a year of misery and continued isolation and international humiliations and just so… so much stupidity, audiences and Academy voters could be more receptive to a clever lark featuring smooth, competent criminals getting back at scumbags through a thrillingly-executed scheme with double- and triple-crosses.
Along with Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish is flexing her dramatic chops as William Tell’s… seriously, that’s his name? Okay… anyway, she’s going to be playing her lover and ally in his revenge plot against Dafoe, which hopefully will continue to open even more doors for her than her comedic breakthrough in Girls Trip did.
EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE – In Theaters and Amazon Prime September 17
Directed by Jonathan Butterell
Starring Max Harwood, with Lauren Patel and Richard E. Grant
What is it about? A teenager from Sheffield, England wants to be a drag queen.
How am I feelin’ about this one?More musicals! Amazing! Just an avalanche of singing and dancing movies this year after years of suffering a drought of them with the exception of Oscar-baiting mediocrities, bold-but-obscure indies (though we’ve definitely been graced with at least one of those already this year), and Tom Hooper’s monstrosities from the darkest corners of existence from which no life can survive. This time, we’re getting a more overt love letter to one of the communities vital to keeping this genre alive even through its darkest periods of unpopularity.
That’s right – we’re getting a musical about drag queens! Which means we’re getting enough camp, color, and gender nonconformity to give J.K. Rowling an aneurysm. The trailer promises a pretty formulaic premise of a young man who isn’t “normal” and just wants to be himself in a community that doesn’t accept such flamboyant excess and a disapproving father who resents his son not being a “real man.” I know, I know, not exactly the most unique premise for a movie, but this is apparently based on a hit stage musical telling a true story of a teenage boy who really did overcome societal prejudices to become a successful drag queen performer in real life.
So yes, I doubt there will be anything in the way of narrative surprises (speculating as someone who has never seen the stage musical or the documentary that apparently inspired it), so like a lot of feel-good musicals, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is setting out to make up for that in energy, songs, dance choreography, and heart. Jonathan Butterell, in his feature film debut, is bringing decades of experience as a dance choreographer, so with any luck we’ll actually get a musical that properly frames and cuts around the stylized movement of bodies instead of hacking blandly-shot sequences to pieces in the editing room (lookin’ at you with my stinkeye, Rob Marshall). The script is from Threesome showrunner Tom MacRae, and the titular character is being played by newcomer Max Harwood. Worth noting that debut performances from men have been far less likely to get attention from the Academy than debut performances from women.
The supporting cast includes several veteran performers including Sarah Lancashire, Ralph Ineson, and the shoulda-won-two-years-ago Richard E. Grant in what all appear to be meaty roles as adults navigating the unusual dreams of our misfit protagonist.
CRY MACHO – In Theaters September 17
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, with Dwight Yoakam and Fernanda Urrejola
What is it about? A one-time rodeo star and washed-up horse breeder takes a job to bring a man’s young son home and away from his alcoholic mom.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Clint Eastwood is 91 years-old and there is a very real chance that this will be the last time we ever see him onscreen. Yes, I am aware that one could have said the same thing about him in The Mule, but it’s difficult for anyone to direct a film as an octogenarian, and for a nonagenarian to direct, produce, and star in one is practically a miracle. Even the premise screams “swan song for a film legend near the end of his life.”
I say this all because the release and reception to Cry Macho, adapted from a novel by N. Richard Nash which has been in development hell since 1975, will almost certainly be colored by this fact. We’ve been hit with the deaths of Christopher Plummer, Sean Connery, and Hal Holbrook just within the last year; men who were very much of Clint Eastwood’s generation of male screen icons. It’s wild that he’s still active at his age and not enjoying a quiet retirement like Gene Hackman. And yes, I know he’s a bit of an unhinged right-winger who gained infamy for yelling at a chair at the Republican National Convention in 2012, and he’s also a vindictive misogynist who actively ruined his ex-wife Sondra Locke’s film career. People contain multitudes, and his legacy should be taken in with the good and the bad.
I think it’s fair to ruminate on his legacy since the film’s trailer appears to be inviting these retrospectives of his complicated legacy, scenes overlaid with a wearied voice speaking about what actually matters in life. You know what this movie recalls to me? Lucky, that small indie directed by David Carroll Lynch that primarily served as a love letter to prodigious character actor Harry Dean Stanton in his final role. Like Lucky, this looks to be an modest story with a small-scale conflict providing its star with a spotlight to pour his heart and soul in front of the camera for… possibly the last time in his long career.
As for Oscar possibilities: honestly, who cares? The man already has four, so it’s not as if there’s going to be a sense of urgency with them this time, and I can’t imagine he gives a damn about their recognition at this point. This feels like a movie made for one reason and one reason only: a last hurrah for the Man With No Name himself, on his terms.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE – In Theaters September 17
Directed by Michael Showalter
Starring Jessica Chastain, with Andrew Garfield and Cherry Jones
What is it about? The true story of evangelical scam artists Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker.
How am I feelin’ about this one?I am approaching The Eyes of Tammy Faye with no small amount of trepidation because… well, it’s not entirely clear this movie is going to be upfront about certain key details of the lives of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. It is apparently going to tell their story from the perspective of the wife, and her point-of-view (at least as she told it) is very much a point of contention even today.
**Content Warning: Descriptions of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse**
If this is going to start with them meeting and getting married before going on the road with their ministry, that means we will likely not learn about Jim Bakker’s emotionally-deprived childhood from his cold and stern Pentecostal parents. By Jim’s own admission, “I never experienced the sensation of my family members’ touch” and once had his mouth washed out with soap for saying “gee whiz.” It is possible that this movie, if it is firmly locked to Tammy Faye’s point-of-view, will not even mention that Jim was repeatedly molested by an adult man named Russell when he was 11 years-old.
None of this is required for a compelling story about the spectacular rise and fall of these arch grifters, but it does make me wonder how that very specific perspective will skew the recounting of the full breadth of their financial scams and how their marriage eventually collapsed. Tammy Faye was never charged with any crimes and she maintained to her death that she never knew the extent of about Jim’s acts of wire fraud, tax evasion, and rape.
Oh right, that’s another part of his legacy the movie may or may not portray – in 1980, Jim allegedly gang-raped an intern of his named Jessica Hahn with one of his bodyguards. She publicly accused him in 1987 and was a major factor in his resignation from Praise The Lord ministries in 1987, but because the 80’s sucked, he was never formally investigated for this allegation and most reporters portrayed it as some lurid sex scandal instead of a horrifying act of violence (Nancy Grace described it as a “tryst!”). Hahn’s name is not listed as a credited character on the film’s IMDb page, but her allegation came right around the same time Tammy Faye suffered a mental breakdown spurred on by her drug abuse and The Charlotte Observer’s series of articles detailing PTL’s fiscal crimes so it’s hard to imagine the film being able to avoid Hahn’s part in all this even if it wanted to. It all came crumbling down for the two of them fast, and juggling these cascading scandals in a narratively clarifying way will be a major challenge for director Michael Showalter and Abe Sylvia.
Any word on if they succeeded? We don’t know yet; Joey is under embargo until the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off next week. But anyway, enough history, now it’s time to spitball awards possibilities. Since this movie is being produced by Jessica Chastain and she’s playing the titular character, I would be shocked if the release of this movie didn’t come with an aggressive push for her in Best Lead Actress at a minimum, along with a competitive shot at Best Makeup & Hairstyling (yes, the real Tammy Faye was done-up like that on PTL, which made her an unlikely LGBT and drag icon in the last years of her life). If the movie is really good, we could be seeing plaudits for Showalter, Sylvia, Garfield, and perhaps some long-overdue recognition for longtime supporting actor and Law & Order player Vincent D’Onofrio as the loathsome televangelist Pat Robertson.
I guess at this point it’s all in the Lord’s hands…
BLUE BAYOU – In Theaters September 17
Directed by Justin Chon
Starring Justin Chon,with Alicia Vikander and Mark O’Brien
What is it about? A Korean-American adopted by an American family at a young age risks everything to fight deportation from ICE so he can stay in the only home he’s ever known.
How am I feelin’ about this one? You know what I appreciate because they’re becoming increasingly rare in the 21st century? Kitchen sink melodramas. It’s why I always root for Lee Daniels even though most of his movies aren’t very good. There’s just something… emotionally pure, about a shameless tearjerker dead-set on getting the waterworks flowing from its audience; a movie that wears its big, messy, direct appeals on its sleeve and invites the viewers to not hold back on weeping with their heroes.
Justin Chon, aka the director of Gook and Ms. Purple,aka Eric from The Twilight Saga (what an unexpected springboard of talent that franchise ended up being, huh?), is directing, writing, and starring in his third feature film about a man’s fight with our immigration system in Blue Bayou. There’s no attempt at hiding the emotional rollercoaster he has in store for us, and I for one welcome it, especially at a time when we will be welcoming an influx of Afghan refugees coming to the United States to start a new life after the end of the longest war in American history.
Joining Chon in his struggle to stay in the only home his character has ever known is Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander as his beleaguered wife. Her glassy-eyed, hyper-expressive face is an ideal fit for this kind of movie (God! Can you imagine how perfect she’d have been in a Douglas Sirk movie?), and the supporting cast includes Mark O’Brien and Emory Cohen. How has it been playing so far in early screenings? So far it’s been a bit mixed, with some hailing it as a powerful and harrowing family drama that tears your heart out, and others are dismissing it as a shameless maudlin soap opera. Joey has seen it, but his lips are sealed for the time being.
The split reactions portend a movie that will inspire a lot of heated debate and passionate support from some corners, which will almost certainly position it as a film everyone (on #FilmTwitter, at least) will have to watch so they don’t miss out on The Discourse. That’ll make it a must-see no matter how many awards it wins at the end of the year.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN – In Theaters September 24
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Starring A Very Much 27 Year-Old-Looking Ben Platt, with Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg
What is it about? A “teenager” who suspiciously looks like he’s pushing thirty has a therapeutic self-intended letter stolen by a classmate who later dies by suicide, and their grieving family mistakes it for being sent to Evan by their late son.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Oh, dear… I want to keep an open mind and all, and I actually do see the merit with arguments for prohibiting kids from acting in these kinds of professional productions for ethical reasons… but come on, Ben. You looked too old to play a teenager when you were 21 years-old, and you sure as hell look way too old to play a teenager now. Your co-star Kaitlyn Dever is only three years younger than you and she can. Alex Wolff is younger than both of you and he can already convincingly play a metropolitan restaurant bro in his mid-twenties. The genetic lottery is unpredictable and weird and we just gotta roll with the punches.
But clinging to a Broadway role of a high school student long after you’ve aged into Todd from Community? That would be like if Lin-Manuel Miranda insisted he could still play Usnavi in In The Heights despite being in his forties now. Which he didn’t do, because that would be stupid, so he gracefully handed off the character to the age-appropriate Anthony Ramos for the film adaptation. Because that’s what actors do – they play a lot of different characters, and that window of which characters they can believably play shifts as they get older. Sean Connery was a sex symbol in 60’s and 70’s; by the 80’s and 90’s he was playing fathers and grandfathers. C’est la vie.
And if you’re right, if this movie’s existence hinges on your participation, and only you are the thing that motivated Hollywood to bring this Tony Award-winning hit musical to the big screen? Boy oh boy does that say a lot about its viability as a film.
Anyway, now that we’ve got that 27 year-old adult elephant who should not be playing teenagers out of the way, what about the rest of the movie? Well, as I mentioned earlier, it is adapted from a hit Broadway musical that won a lot of Tonys. Sometimes this leads to great movies. Sometimes it doesn’t. It seems to depend on, among other factors, how amenable the story and milieu are to the change in medium, and a modern story with a complicated protagonist at its center dealing with anxiety, loneliness, grief, and suicide would appear to be ripe for thematic depth that a lot of audiences can connect to.
Another key to the success or failure of an award-winning Broadway musical is the filmmaking team behind it. The team behind Dear Evan Hansen is director Stephen Chbosky (of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder), the Tony Award-winning writer of the musical book Steven Levenson (who also wrote the miniseries Fosse/Verdon), Can You Ever Forgive Me? cinematographer Brandon Trost, and prolific television editor Anne McCabe. Which is a pretty strong team, with Levenson providing that link to the original stage musical in a group of mostly movie-centric collaborators, which is crucial for balance. The rest of the cast is a remarkable pool of talent, including Amandla Stenberg, Amy Adams, and notably, Julianne Moore in the role that won Rachel Bay Jones a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
It’s really a toss-up, possibly being better suited to a movie treatment than any of us are anticipating and bound for major year-end awards attention. Then again…