A kinder, gentler, quieter, September 2021 is what we get, a breather from the upstart and colorful August behind us (Ryan Reynolds just had to insist and deliver another $100m earner), and from the forthcoming blockbuster monstrosity that awaits in October (no, really, 'a lot' of huge movies are scheduled for next month, and they're not going anywhere).
September 2021 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
September 11, 2021
Clint Eastwood, James Wan, and Jessica Chastain form much of the crux of September's few wide releases, and as they do what they do best, they'll have to contend with doing it next to the behemoth of yet another, additional, supplemental Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, a film which has already opened beyond any sane and reasonable prediction and now will have a good three additional weekends until the next Marvel adaptation is out... all the better to make itself the biggest movie of the year so far.
Hey, that's... great...
1. Cry Macho (September 17th)
Clint Eastwood's new film has a title comes as naturally and simply to his screen persona as the recent designation "Honest Thief" did to Liam Neeson's. Eastwood, even at the age of 91, is indeed a quite macho individual, prone to decisive action and sudden bursts of righteous violence; and yet if you stick around to the ending of most of his rightfully acclaimed morality tales (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby), often he'll be just a li'l bit conflicted about that fact. Would he go as far as roll up a tear or two? Of course not. The "Cry" in Macho remains a metaphor.
Here, after only a handful of recent on-screen turns, Eastwood stars, front-and-certain. He's got that cowboy hat on, too, on the poster, if anyone was not feeling the sufficient tings of nostalgia well up yet. Oh, don't worry, they will. They will.
He plays a former rodeo star who's tasked with taking a young boy from Mexico to his father in the United States, whether by measured negotiation or well-aimed extra-judicial force, and therefore the man enters a plotline so established and natural to grown action stars that not only did Hugh Jackman star in the exact same premise, retooled as a superhero movie, just a few short years ago (it was Logan!); but Liam Neeson also did the same just this January (The Marksman was the film). Whatever it is that draws these hard men to nod yes at this plot description, we can be sure that a retired/washed-up/aging instrument of violence dragging young children fro (and sometimes to, of course) the Mexican border makes for compelling cinema.
Eastwood directs, too, of course. And that comes as naturally as acting to the man. He first braved behind the camera all the way back in the 1970s, actually, just a few short years after western films established him as a movie star in the mid 1960s. Play Misty for Me, which Roger Ebert graded at four stars, was the first film he directed, and the man busied himself with action thrillers for two decades before jazz drama Bird (1988) and then the masterwork Unforgiven (1992) cemented him into his modern incarnation, a high-class author of violence, value, and vengeance, and rumination on all the above.
The last film Eastwood both directed and starred in, The Mule (2018), also involved a little cross-border sneaking around (the Mexico-U.S. dividing line appears to be the subject of both romanticism, and fear, in the psyche of many, perhaps for largely the same reasons); and it was such an astute holiday-time alternative to relatively insubstantial supernatural adventures like Aquaman and Mary Poppins, that The Mule just went ahead and quietly topped $100m while no one was looking. Like the title animal, it moved at a certain pace, but got the job done.
Cry Macho has actually been brewing at the script level for almost the entire length of the aforementioned directing career. The novel, by N. Richard Nash, was released in 1975 and went through various leading men before landing on perhaps the one who fits the film name most naturally. Heck, he could've starred in it all the way back then. But he does it now. HBO Max ride-sharing might borrow some of the film's legs, but I think it'll definitely get seen.
Opening weekend: $12 million / Total gross: $39 million
2. Malignant (September 10th)
James Wan directs the long-time mystery project that's gone kind of under the radar, but may well turn out to be the highest-grossing film of the month (I don't count Shang-Chi, since that's just cheating - Marvel movies always make a filthy s--tload of money and no one can ever really say how, and, certainly, why).
Wan helped launched the torture porn genre with Saw in 2004 (that was a compliment), and then left his hanging, missing limb days behind him to launch another decade-defining horror tradition, first with Insidious in 2011 and then The Conjuring two years later, two R-rated movies about spooky events befalling already-weeping families and the friendly exorcist/medium types (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lin Shaye) who rode to their rescue before galloping on to any number of sequels/spin-offs that also required their supernatural intervention (yes, this was the rare time that the protagonists of horror films branched into a franchise rather than the antagonists. It's been weird for me, too).
Over the last decade, we saw a lot of exorcisms at the movies. A lot. And Wan had been standing in command position not far from many of them.
Malignant recalls Insidious in title, that's clear (the latter word has a somewhat different precise definition than the former, but no one knows that). And it may also include demon-removing ceremonies and incantations. But at least from the stated premise, a young woman who sees violent deaths in her mind and then perhaps everywhere else, the film makes stabs at that old mainstay, "I have a psychic link with a serial killer;" the subgenre that used to bedevil so many film reviewers about 25 years ago. (Annette Bening, psychically linked to drag-wearing child murderer Robert Downey, Jr. in the film In Dreams, was perhaps responsible for keeping the premise off the table ever since).
But now it's back. Or maybe not. There's most likely more to the film than disclosed. But we know that Annabelle Wallis plays our tormentee, with McKenna Grace, who's now starred in as many ghost films as worth at least one set of fingers, plays her younger self. Maddie Hasson and that tough old stuntwoman Zoë Bell are also on hand. And since Wan directs, there's a good chance at quality from the critics. HBO Max has been nibbling at the bit of a few films lately, and will have the chance to do so again here.
Opening weekend: $11m / Total gross: $23m
3. Queenpins (September 10th)
After three or four weekends of nothing but genre-oriented programming, STX Entertainment quietly opens this light and unassuming, R-rated, comedy, reprising the same theme of profanely treacherous women righteously battling against a cruel system, the same plot design that netted their previous hits Hustlers ($106m) and Bad Moms ($113m) the type of blockbuster-level success hardly foreseen by the average numbers guy.
As with the latter film, the heroes of this tale are rebellious housewives, and this time they're breaking more than social norms. The film recruits Kristen Bell from the Moms team, and pairs her with Kirby Howell-Baptiste (of Cruella); housewives clipping coupons and grossing millions of dollars through complex schemes to defraud major corporations, that by film's end will no doubt result in the women 1), keeping a decent share of their loot, and 2), avoiding any serious time at an incarceratory facility.
Casting and poster design hint at those outcomes: Since the leads are the heroes of a jovial comedy and not a sturgid morality tale, their winning supposition will come naturally. Since their pursuers from whichever unlucky law enforcement department will be forced to take credited for them are pictured on the film's poster as squinting meanies, played by Vince Vaughn and Paul Walter Hauser no less, we know those two'll be outsmarted and bested, at least in spirit. And since Bell's husband is played by Joel McHale, there's every chance in the world she'll end the film a single woman.
Predictability, assuming the film has it, isn't a vice. When it comes to its potential audience, Queenpins goes to serve the underserved, and could gross some millions above expectations given that fact. Assuming one of those Disney-owned franchises doesn't lure them away first, though it's always good to root for the underdog.
Opening weekend: $4 million / Total gross: $14 million
4. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (September 17th)
Those eyes cry every night. Do they?
The eyes of Tammy Faye bore bright, translucent make-up and a pair of voluptuous eyelashes, above a face that rarely carried anything but a smile. And the film of that name follows Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim, a pair who reigned over a remarkably lucrative evangelical empire for much of the 1970s and 1980s, in a then-original if unstable mix of religion and entertainment that's been widely imitated, and, naturally often mocked, for its unapologetic excess.
They hosted the PTL Club on TV, presided over mail-cash solicitations (uh oh!), and even built a theme park, Heritage USA, down at Fort Mill, South Carolina, which was not some kind of "dinosaurs are bad" display but rather a big old fashioned water park running at over 2300 acres. A lot of money was rolling in, with some eventually finding its way into the type of improper destinations where its presence had not gelled with America's legal system. As the 1980s glory wound down, much behind-the-scenes unpleasantness made its way to the public eye, Jim was arrested and sent over to what would amount to a five year stay in an incarceratory facility; and Tammy, left blameless legally, continued life in the public arena as an evangelist, and then, almost inevitably, and approvingly, a gay icon and reality television star. She died in 2007. I think she was a nice lady.
Bakker's life and curious times were previously depicted in another film with the same name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the 2000 documentary from which star and co-producer Jessica Chastain has drawn inspiration. And after what might have been some deliberation, the film chose not to one-up on the exact name for the film by trying for another. With Chastain in the lead, Andrew Garfield co-stars as Jim, and any number of old-school TV evangelists will also be portrayed (Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, all shall be scene-checked). Any comparisons between the Bakkers' television domination and the modern-day reality-tv world that could be made, shall be.
Michael Showalter directs, and we can perhaps expect a tone similar to his satirical and occasionally serious work as writer and/or director on the likes of Wet Hot American Summer and The Big Sick (the opposite approach, I hope, from the current American Crime Story: Impeachment on TV. 'That' material was crying out for comedic treatment, and so far seems very sky-darkeningly glum).
And the box office? For the first time, Tammy Faye may face some uphill in packing them in. The film is actually one of the first stabs at an awards contender, at a time when it seems the average filmgoer has gotten younger and younger, and thus stereotypically less favored to such enterprises (the 2020s seem to have exacerbated ongoing trends, sometimes sinisterly). Will grown adults, who've given Aretha Franklin/Respect $20m so far, come back to memorialize another slice of their reasonably distant past on screen? Pray for it.
Opening weekend: $3 million / Total gross: $10 million
5. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (September 3rd)
Forecasting Marvel Cinematic Universe movies is like predicting the weather in hell.
If you're a box office prognosticator - with all the education, experience, and considerable wisdom the title entails - and you see one of 'em MCUers on the schedule, you know your job is now done for the day. Time to hit the beach.
A Marvel Cinematic Universe motion picture operates like particularly pedantic clockwork. For one thing, it is absolutely assured unanimous or near-unanimous critical acclamation. Indeed, Shang-Chi comes in at 92% on the RT meter.
No MCU movie has ever contrived to score itself a "Rotten" at Rotten Tomatoes, and that's all the way back to the beginning, with Iron Man and Hulk 2 in 2008. That would make for 25 Fresh films out of 25. Twenty-five "see its." 25 eternities in doom, etc. (by the end of the year, that's 27 out of 27, of course; please don't ask about 2022).
In fact, with this 25th release also rated "Fresh," the MCU officially matches the consecutive "Fresh" record of legendary directors Martin Scorsese, and also Steven Spielberg. (just kidding. The MCU matched Spielberg's 16 out of 16 consecutive Fresh films back with Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. We're way beyond that now. And Scorsese's film-per-year rate is far from Marvel's villainous prolificity).
How to explain such unerring perfection? How does Marvel knock back every single one of moles on the 'ol Whac-A-Mole score?
No one knows. Those with much more understanding, street smarts, and raw-date IQ scores have tried to answer the question. All have failed. (And I am not for one second suggesting any money changed hands under the table here. would that it did! That at least would provide a logical explanation for this behaviour.)
Next on my accusations list, MCU movies open extremely well at the box office, sometimes preternaturally well, almost to heights of comic absurdity (a $357m opening for Endgame. Lord. did that really happen?), and indeed, here we are again, with Shang-Chi spiralling out of control from a meek and unassuming $45m forecast by many unambitious souls to what it actually ended up making, some ridiculous Labour Day record like $75m for three days and $94m (!) (!) (!!!) for four. Would the film have done even better in an alternate, strife-free 2021? Only those possessing a truly macabre imagination could fantasize about those particular box office numbers.
Say, I've written so much of my boilerplate anti-superhero sentiment here already, that I forgot to ask, what is Shang-Chi, anyway?
A superhero created in the 1970s as a "Master of Kung Fu" and a "Brother Hand;" an urban avenger with occasional stabs at international intrigue; and tied to that daredevil of villainy, Fu Manchu, initially, but over time losing that unpleasant association so much so that he seems to face-off against The Mandarin in this film (does Ben Kingsley reprise? oh, don't ask).
Simu Liu stars as Shang Chi, and he's joined by Awkwafina, who brings comedic relief and potential romantic interest in one fell casting swoop; Meng'er Zhang, as a martial arts expert tied to our lead by blood, both borne of and that ready to be spilled; Michelle Yeoh, who almost effortlessly finds herself on the cast list, and Tony Leung (perhaps most famous for Lust, Caution on these shores), who is the bad guy sitting grimly on his throne on the poster, surrounded by at least a handful of the ten rings in question (I can't speak for his intentions, but I assume he has very specific plans for the future of humanity that are almost certainly extra-judicial). The plot (Asian child with great destiny is plucked from his North American idle to fulfill an action-packed destiny) almost mimics the events of Snake Eyes from July. But that film, which was actually pretty good, grossed $28m and then was quickly swiped from the cultural arena. Shang-Chi, I imagine, will remain, and there's probably a chair at Avengers headquarters that's getting colder and colder waiting for that just-right owner.
So the film's reception, and its plot outline, were and are a given. But there's one thing I wouldn't have called, exactly: after its thunderous opening bow, Shang-Chi is now on track to become the highest-grossing film of 2021 so far, beating, oh, no, no, no, yet another Marvel CU film, Black Widow.
Will Shang-Chi retain this title? No, probably not. Will it get thwacked down by a luxurious brand name musical, such as West Side Story? A second-chance reboot of apparently unassailable material, like Ghostbusters? Or a big-risk, high reward possibility like, say, a fourth Matrix film?
No. No. And no. Of course not. If anything will overtake Shang-Chi this year, it will be Spider-Man: No Way Home, provided Eternals doesn't also do it, and do it better.
Both films, of course, call Marvel their home and master.
Have we come all the way for this?
Total gross: a bajillion dollars, roughly around $270m of them from North America