Film Clips

29 Nov

‘Strange World’ (2022)

Props to Disney for stepping it up and putting a mainstream face on inclusion. In this animated adventure into the unknown, not only is the family at the center interracial, but the teen son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) is gay. On the planet of Avalonia, the Clades are famous: Grandpa Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) is a legendary explorer with a statue in the village square – he’s also been missing for 25 years – and pop Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) has his own monument for discovering and harnessing a plant called pando that provides sustenance and a source of power for airships – think “Avatar” (2009). The pando supply is dying, which has something to do with a big hole that just opened up in the mountain, so Searcher reluctantly joins a military detachment to explore the phenom and hopefully save the planet. Ethan, who can’t land his crush and is bored working on the family pando farm, wants to get out and be like grandpa; even though told not to go, Ethan ends up in the mix, as does mom (Gabrielle Union), an ace pilot, and the family’s three-legged dog. In the hands of veteran animators Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who collaborated on “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), “Strange World” channels such classic adventure fare as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959) and “Fantastic Voyage” (1966). It checks all the Disney boxes, though the degree of genuine conflict, even across the generations, feels a bit subdued despite the envelop being pushed.

‘She Said’ (2022)

In a just twist, disgraced multiple-Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein becomes the central subject of a dramatization about two New York Times reporters who investigated his sexual misconduct and helped ignite the #MeToo movement. We meet can-do Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) reporting on allegations that Donald Trump assaulted multiple women (that “grab ’em” tape with Billy Bush was fresh at the time), which gets no traction; later she teams with Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) to dig into Rose McGowan’s cataclysmic accusations against Weinstein. Both are mothers with young daughters and feel the urgency to break the story; there’s also pressure from Rowan Farrow poking around over at The New Yorker. The paper chase for the truth comes mostly down to getting victims to go on the record, and that proves challenging because of airtight settlement gag orders. Big-name stars wronged by Weinstein including McGowan (heard only by phone and voiced by Keilly McQuail) and Gwyneth Paltrow stay mostly out of frame, but Ashley Judd, playing herself, steps to the fore in more ways than one. Supporting players Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher as the dutiful Times editors overseeing the effort and Jennifer Ehle and Angela Yeoh as victims add to the rich ensemble. Like Kitty Green’s astute 2020 fictional take on the evils of all things Weinstein, “The Assistant,” Harvey also remains mostly off-screen – you never see his face – but is often heard and always felt as a bellowing bull through the phone, bullying, berating and denying. Director Maria Schrader and writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz make sure the focus is on the victims who were silenced by an omnipotent megalomaniac who commanded a squad of legal wranglers to cover his crimes. They now get to have their harrowing ordeals heard.

Bones and All

26 Nov

Searching for where she belongs consumes this cannibal teen

By Tom Meek Friday, November 25, 2022

Not really the kind of movie to see after a Thanksgiving Day feast, or even after the leftovers. No, “Bones and All,” the latest from director Luca Guadagnino (“Suspiria,” “A Bigger Splash”) is not for the meek, squeamish or recently well fed, as its subject matter are the folk known as “eaters,” aka cannibals, and it is, at times, quite gory. (There’s a degree of perversity at play here, as Guadagnino’s career-cementing “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017 starred Armie Hammer, who in the years following would be brought up on sexual abuse allegations that included purported cannibalistic yens.)

Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, the film begins innocently enough with 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell) hanging out with friend as a slumber party. It’s all what normal girls in nightgowns eating junk food and talking about crushes do, until Maren playful nips one of her cohort’s fingers. It’s no big thing until the third or forth nip, when she tries to bite the whole thing off. Friends intercede and Maren sprints off home, where she and her father (André Holland) pack up and depart to a new whereabouts with new aliases. Dad seems to be a champion of his daughter, but shortly thereafter, Maren is on her own with a tape from her father that she plays now and then, through which we learn about her past misdeeds (babysitters fare poorly in the film). Troubled by her condition, which appears to be genetic, Maren decides to find her mother, whom she never really knew. The quest takes her from northern Maryland to Minnesota, with a lot of lessons and feasting along the way.

The setting is the early 1980s, when it was impossible to find a flesh-eaters chat group online – but that’s okay, because these special folk can smell each other. As Maren waits for a bus along the way, a daffy, dapper guy named Sully (Mark Rylance, creepy in a limited role) strolls up and, in an avuncular, Southern twang, tells her he could smell her a mile away and asks her to a house down the way for a bite. Maren naturally is reluctant, and she’s apprehensive as Sully chats away while dressing Cornish game hens. Is this the nourishment he was talking about? Nope. Turns out the house belongs to an elderly woman who’s fallen and can’t get up, and Sully’s waiting for the right moment to feed – just at the moment she dies, because warm food is what’s most desired by the cannibals among us. If the eaters could place an order via Grubhub, the delivery time would most certainly be too long.

Maren moves on from Sully and partners up with a rangy lad named Lee (Timothée Chalamet, who became an A-lister with Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name”) whose methods are more straightforward and seem to benefit society at large – who’s going to miss a convenience story bully? On their meander to Minnesota they swing through Kentucky to give Lee’s 16-year-old sister driving lessons. It’s a strange sojourn, with the pair living on the fringe as vagabond outsiders. They bond, but not really romantically, and encounter other eaters along the way. As you can expect, Sully makes a return appearance, which unfortunately is one of the film’s least credible yarns.

Russell, so good in Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” (2019) grows as as performer, conveying Maren’s inner turmoil with a nuanced physicality. Chalamet’s laconic Lee comes off as a vulnerable, reflective soul while emanating an aura of quiet lethality. The film is also bolstered by indelible turns by Chloë Sevigny, David Gordon Green (yup, the director of “Joe” and the recent, unbearable “Halloween” series reboot) and Michael Stuhlbarg in small parts, but to say more about the what and why would be to ruin the film.

I can say that there will be times when the eaters feed that you may need to look away or thorough split fingers – and even then will hear the ripping and groans of satiation. It’s not cartoonish like some zombie flicks, but visceral, grim and disturbingly real, like Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” (2001) and Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” (2016). “Bones and All” is definitely not a movie for a family, but it about family, roots and tradition, no matter how troubling that tradition may be.

Film Clips

23 Nov

‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ (2022)

A somewhat cheeky follow-up to “Knives Out,” a 2019 whodunit (shot in and around Boston) that was rightly likened to the 1970s classic “Murder by Death.” So cheeky, yes, but not on par. Ex-Bond boy Daniel Craig is back as the Clouseau-daffy detective Benoit Blanc, who scores an invitation to a remote Greek Island owned by an Musk-esque billionaire (Edward Norton) to take part in a weekend-long murder-mystery party. Blanc is on point and solves the charade murder in 20 seconds, much to the island owner’s chagrin – but there’s a real murder when one guest guzzles poisoned whiskey. Among the suspects/guests there’s a fetching young woman aptly named Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), Dave Bautista as a gun-waving male-dom influencer, Kate Hudson as the washed-up supermodel unaware of what a sweatshop is, and Leslie Odom Jr. and Jessica Henwick, mostly wasted in roles that feel pushed to the periphery. The last outing made Craig’s Blanc the centerpiece; here director Rian Johnson splits time between Blanc and a woman of mystery played by Janelle Monáe, and it’s just not as sharp as its predecessor, though the cameos by Hugh Grant, Ethan Hawke and Serena Williams are spikes of punchy good fun. Here’s another clue: The walrus was Paul.

‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ (2022)

This year we saw Robert Zemeckis’ live-action take on Pinocchio with Tom Hanks as the avuncular Geppetto. That Disney reboot of the 1940 animated classic was a bit wooden and too by the numbers; here del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water,” “Nightmare Alley”) mixes it up. This takes place in World War II Italy with Mussolini as a puppet fan who actually abhor’s Pinocchio’s propaganda puppet show turned into a scat fest. Yup, it’s that much of a change-up. It’s the war that takes Geppetto’s boy from him, and a woodland spirit that imbues a wooden puppet with a child’s spirit. Del Toro’s animated imagining of Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) is inspired – he’s more the raw wood incarnation than the Disney versions. (The name in Italian roughly means “pine eye.”) The vast voice talents on del Toro’s version include Cate Blanchett as a sphinx-like creature named Spazzatura (“garbage” in Italian), David Bradley as Geppetto, Ewan McGregor in full-on Scottish Brogue as Sebastian J. Cricket and Finn Wolfhard and del Toro regular Ron Perlman as the bad actors trying to ply and exploit the wooden boy. At one point an agent of Mussolini even debates weaponizing Pinocchio. As gonzo as that may sound, the narrative ultimately falls into line. The new ripples are interesting, and there’s more life in this one that in Zemeckis’, but I still want to know how the grandfatherly Geppetto sired a child at such an advanced age.

RRR (2022)

S.S. Rajamouli’s three-hour-plus epic is a bold, outrageous spectacle, peppered with thrills, jaw-dropping stunt work, breakouts into Bollywood dance and a poke in the Western eye about the evils of colonialism. The Indian production takes place in the 1920s, when the country was under British rule. Our bigger-than-life heroes come in the form of Raju (the highly charismatic Ram Charan Teja), an Indian soldier under British command, and Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), a can-do villager and mechanic whose daughter has been abducted by the British governor (Ray Stevenson). The governor’s so hyperbolically nefarious they could have just called him Snidely Whiplash and been done with it, and his wife (Alison Doody) is nearly as nasty; at one point she supplies a torturer with a barbed whip. We meet each protagonist separately, each performing Herculean feats: Raju battling through a throng of hundreds, who hammer and pound him, to apprehend a suspect; Bheem outrunning a wolf and, bare-chested, shouting down a tiger. (The CGI is pretty low budget, but it hardly matters.) Later the two team up to save a boy above a flaming river, but even later in the epic run time find themselves at odds because of Raju’s allegiance and Bheem’s ceaseless quest to regain his daughter from Raju’s higher-up. “RRR” (for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”) is astonishingly energetic from start to finish, tongue-in-cheek craziness that sometimes strains but never breaks the wild turning and dropping ride.

The Menu

18 Nov

Chef has a taste for the wicked

Tom Meek, Thursday, November 17, 2022

Penning this feels somewhat ironic, in that I, a food reviewer and film editor, am about to slice into a film that’s all about haute cuisine and whose plot has at its heart heavy attachments to a heartless food critic. Like a reservation-only, time-slotted, prix fixe once-in-a-lifetime indulgence, “The Menu” is grand in presentation, titillating in its wafts of promise, but in consumption I’m not so sure the endive justifies the moussaka.

The casting and framing of “The Menu” is rich, flavorful and brilliant. The plot, however, is gruel-thin. It has a series of diners paying something like $1,250 a pop to take a boat to an isolated island where a renowned chef (Ralph Fiennes, perfect in the large yet limited role) in an Ikea-spartan chalet with open-window views of the sea (where much of what is eaten is harvested) will serve a multicourse gourmet meal with a crew that’s all in on the chef’s vision, no matter what or how bloody that is. The distinguished guests are not all that distinguished – spoiled and rich, sure (not limited to old white folk, but they’re clearly in the mix), but flops in personality and levity. The ones that stand out are a last-minute date of a regular and one Fiennes’ chef Slowik did not anticipate as a diner (Anya Taylor-Joy, commanding in the part and pretty much carries the film), and the food critic (the great Janet McTeer) who “discovered”  Slowik. The assemblage has something of a “Murder by Death” (1976) sheen to it, but as courses come out and the texture of the film and the meat served becomes darker, it crosses over into “Saw” territory. To say more would be to take a big spoonful of creamy custard flan before dropping it at your table, licked spoon and all.

“The Menu” is a high-concept selection from director Mark Mylod (“Game of Thrones,” “Succession”) that while big-screen in production values and star power, is small-box in plot and composition. Other recent near misses “Amsterdam” and “Glass Onion” fill the same bill; “Menu” feels like an episode of “White Lotus” stretched into a feature film, and because of that format, as enjoyable as it is, it’s a garnish without a meal to go on.

Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth

13 Nov

Aa jolting path through a liminal space

By Tom Meek, Friday, November 11, 2022

Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (2022). Daniel Giménez Cacho as Silverio. Cr. Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.V. Courtesy of Netflix

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s last two films, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014) and “The Revenant” (2015) hung in that thin, ephemeral space between life and death. That earlier effort had a former action film star (Michael Keaton) trying to reinvent himself as a stage actor while falling into bouts of suicidal depression and delusion; the latter had a New World trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) mauled by a bear, unable to walk, left to die in the frozen northern plains and hunted by vengeful Native Americans protecting their land and some of his own looking to peddle flesh for profit. Iñárritu’s latest, “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth,” comes replete with a paradoxical subtext to the title and unfurls something of a long, limbo-esque dream that haunts and horrifies as much as it hypnotizes.

In Buddhism, “bardo” is the intermediate or transitional state between death and rebirth. Author George Saunders played deftly with the concept in his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” while here Iñárritu, making his the first film back in Mexico in nearly 20 years, leverages it to blur the lines between being and not being. The sense of rooting is never firm, and that’s one of the many pleasures of this handsomely composed vision filled with autobiographical references and meta contemplations.

We center on the life (or death) of Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican journalist turned documentary filmmaker with family homes in L.A. and Mexico City. As we catch up with Silverio, he’s up for an award in L.A., but first must make a sojourn south of the border. Along the way we get a sense of grief from Silverio and his wife Lucía (Griselda Siciliani, scene-stealing without stealing the scene) regarding the loss of a child. The pain is still there, and palpably so, though they do have two grown children: Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) and Camila (Ximena Lamadrid).

One of the first rips in the fabric separating realms comes during a talk show interview, when the host (Francisco Rubio), something of a frenemy from Silverio’s past, hangs Silverio out to dry before a live audience, questioning his integrity and the quality of his work. The audience laughs and the host mockingly cuts deeper, but Silverio just sits there, mute, seemingly unable to respond. It’s like a dream in which you just keep falling with no end in sight. Later, during a graphic act of passion, a small child makes an entrance that’s beyond coitus interruptus, and it’s there that you know you are no longer on the corporeal plane. 

The elegiac sojourn, shot with a slightly distorted wide-angle lens by Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” “Delicatessen,” “Midnight in Paris”) to enhance the sensory-warping aura, plays with themes of colonialism, identity and lived-in authenticity. In some scenes there’s reenactors re-creating the Spanish conquest and Mexican-American War; in others, some of those Mexican liberating forces, in full regalia, simply enter the modern-day drama as if part of the everyday. The disorienting camera effect and absurdist blending feel somewhat Fellini-esque or Kubrick-esque, or more to the point, like the two great visionaries feuding on a remake of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” (1970). Back to those themes, in one early interview Silverio is pushed on his indigenous roots; later, at an LAX checkpoint, he’s detained and questioned by a TSA agent of Mexican origin who harshly refutes Silverio’s claim that L.A. is his “home.” A firestorm erupts between Silverio’s family and the agent, with the agent’s higher-up trying to hold the peace until the Mexican militia charge in.

If there’s a downside to “Bardo” one might cite its overindulgence, but it’s also a deeply personal essay in which the auteur wrestles with his legacy and mortality – would one ever critique a eulogy for a lost parent, spouse or child?

As much as Iñárritu’s meticulous craftsmanship shapes “Bardo,” it doesn’t work without Cacho (“Zama,” “Cronos”) as the director’s committed stand-in. There’s a great weariness to his Silverio, like he needs to atone for something but is unsure of what, and intermittent bouts of bewilderment and bursts of steely resolve. It makes for a full-circle portrait of highs and lows, travails and challenges – some earned, some not – where in between a creator can have a one-on-one with Cortez and huddle on a subway car with an aquarium bag full of axolotls.

The Banshees of Inisherin

29 Oct

Going to extremes to remove the banal, one Irish finger at a time

By Tom Meek Friday, October 28, 2022

What would happen if the principals in Samuel Beckett’s existential “Waiting for Godot” took their uneasy alliance to a grim frenemy high? That’s about what “The Banshees of Inisherin” amounts to, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who cut his teeth as a playwright (“The Pillowman,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan”), and whose features “In Bruges” (2008), “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) have a very much play-to-the-screen feel to them. “Inisherin” included, they’re dialogue and character driven. If you’ve seen a McDonagh effort and walked away wondering what characters’ motivations were, you were clearly napping.

“Inisherin” returns Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell from “In Bruges.” In that film they played two assassins wrestling with life choices; here they play Colm and Pádraic, respectively, gents on a small Irish island where there’s nary a tree but plenty of cliffs and stone-enclosed fields. It’s also 100 years ago, with the Irish Civil War near its apex; we see explosions on the mainland a mile or so away and hear occasional gunfire, but life is fairly isolated from the bigger goings-on. Colm and Pádraic meet each day at 2 p.m. for a pint at the local (and only) pub until one day Colm tells Pádraic he no longer wants to be friends, calling him a dull man who jabbers away about his donkey’s poop or dairy cows’ moods. Siobhan (Kerry Condon, so good in “Better Call Saul” and owning her scenes here), Pádraic’s sister, confirms as much, but is sympathetic to her siblings dismay. Each day the crestfallen Pádraic approaches Colm in the pub, until one day Colm says that if Pádraic doesn’t back off, he’ll cut off one finger from his hand for every infraction. It’s a threat taken seriously by all, as Colm is the pub’s fiddle master, and part of his reason for parting with Pádraic is to spend the remainder of his life doing something more significant – composing the ballad of the film’s title.

Things escalate in small strokes that, as you can expect, are bloody and overreactive, though not to the degree of “In Bruges.” At the heart of the film is the search or want for meaning and art and how one’s legacy is remembered, or not. The film’s gorgeously shot by Ben Davis, who’s worked with McDonagh before (“Psychopaths” and “Billboards”) and done a handful of Marvel entries (“Eternals,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain Marvel” among ’em), now with almost a doleful lens emblematic of life on the emotionally barren isle. Some comic relief comes in the Sunday arrivals via boat of a priest (David Pearse) who looks hauntingly like Peter Lorre in “M” (1931) in the confessional booth and drops F-bombs when incensed. Adding to the unhappy olio is Barry Keoghan (“The Green Knight,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) as a strange, simple young man interested in Siobhan and Gray Lydon as his abusive father and town constable, who wields his power inappropriately and has it in for Pádraic for sheltering his son.

There’s a grim, gray pale that hangs over “The Banshees of Inisherin,” one that doesn’t have to be there. The characters make fateful choices for seemingly trite reasons. The main reason to see “Inisherin,” besides Davis’ brilliant work, is Gleeson and Farrell. The latter imbues his character with a gruff, steely resolve that clearly says “don’t tinker with”; the former has to evoke baffled curiousness, a shaggy-dog need for affection even after being kicked, and emotional longing. These are great performance that rise above the film’s material and lift the film to the heights of Davis’ lofty lens looking down on an island of lonely people.

Till

29 Oct

‘Till’: Mother’s first step seeking justice for son ensures that world sees the violence against him

By Tom Meek Friday, October 28, 2022

Everyone should know the story of Emmett Till, who became a civil rights flashpoint when he was lynched in Mississippi while on school break during the summer of 1955. If you don’t, you now have a personal mandate to see “Till.”

In her telling of the Till saga, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (“Clemency”) makes some wise narrative choices. First, the film does not crescendo with Emmitt’s unconscionable murder. That hate crime – the very definition of one – happens in its first third, with the brutality remaining off-screen yet still visceral and grim. Secondly, Chukwu gives us both viewpoints as to what happened in a general store when black northerner Emmett (Jayln Hall, giving a wide-eyed, affable turn) bought candy and interacted with Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the white proprietor of the establishment. We get Emmett’s boyish interaction with Bryant, telling her that she looks like the movie star he carries a photo of in his wallet (in real life, it was a girl in his school class in Chicago). Later, at trial, Bryant claims she was sexually assaulted by the 14-year-old boy, a story now widely held as fabrication and one that appears pretty unbelievable during sham court proceedings.

What Chukwu homes in on is the journey of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler, “Station Eleven” and “The Harder They Fall”), and her quest to exact justice in the Jim Crow South at a time no black person could reasonably hope to find justice. Mamie’s character arc is radical, rewarding and well done, thanks to Deadwyler’s effusive commitment and heartfelt conveyance. When we meet Mamie she’s apprehensive about Emmett’s sojourn south by himself to visit cousins. The warnings from Mamie, Emmett’s uncle (John Douglas Thompson) and cousins – to not engage with or raise an eye to a white person and, if you do, to submit and back off – are profuse. Later that evening after the encounter, Bryant’s husband Roy (Sean Michael Webber) and friend J.W. Milam (Eric Whitten) and a small posse show up and abduct Emmett from his uncle’s house.

Crushed by the news of Emmett’s death, Mamie demands the body. After encouragement from the NAACP to fight the crime, she holds an open-casket funeral to show the world what was done to her son; the rendering of the bloated, mutilated body is not easy to take, which was the point then and now. If you had yet to be sparked by outrage, here’s your match.

With the resources of the NAACP, Mamie is able to press charges and get Roy and J.W. in court. But as history shows, they were acquitted (by an all-white jury). Shortly afterward, they confessed to the murder in a story in Look magazine for which they received $4,000. Carolyn Bryant also allegedly confessed in an interview with Duke University scholar Timothy Tyson that “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” though those conclusive words were not recorded.

To its credit, the film does not end on such a defeatist note, but moves on from the trial with Mamie’s continuing to fight in the civil rights movement. The transformation from fraught, worrying mother to empowered activist is earned and complete. At the core is Mamie’s deep emotional resolve despite her initial apprehension to step onto a national stage, but once there, there is no wavering. Next to Cate Blanchett’s remarkable incarnation of an egomaniacal conductor in “Tár,” Deadwyler delivers the most essential and critical performance in a film this year. The film’s also crafted with caring nuance, as much about a mother’s personal journey as about social shifting events. There’s nothing didactic or shaming and there’s no need; the shame is right there in history, an inglorious, senseless bloody stain – the film is just a reminder of it. Feeling too late but not too little, the The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law this year, amending the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Tar

14 Oct

Blanchett is the maestro offscreen and on, where her conductor composes a coming discord

By Tom Meek, Thursday, October 13, 2022

As an actor, Todd Field has had some interesting bit parts. In Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), he played the mealy piano player who hooked Tom Cruise up with the password to a high society orgy (a scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò” if orchestrated by Emily Post); earlier, he was a nebbishy partygoer in “Sleep With Me” (1994) who, trapped by a keg, has his ear bent by Quentin Tarantino ranting about the LGBTQ merits of “Top Gun” (1985, Tom Cruise again). Before the camera Field has never achieved Tom Cruise status, not even close, but behind the lens, he has quietly shown cinematic mastery that’s notable, perhaps even Kubrick-level notable. No one would confuse Field’s films with Kubrick’s, but like Kubrick, Field is very particular about the movies he makes. Kubrick in his storied career made only 13 features and one was not so great – that being his first, “Fear and Desire”(1953). Field has made just three, but an impressive three it is. His first two were adaptations of local authors’ novels: His 2001 debut, “In the Bedroom,” was based on Andre Dubus’ story “Killings”; “Little Children” (2006) morphed Tom Perrotta’s Belmont-set marriage drama into a slow burn of once-bonded souls’ sudden fractious parting. Now, some 15 years later, Field the filmmaker gives us “Tár,” a film that likely could not come into existence without its star, Cate Blanchett, who delivers a turn so bravura, lived-in and essential that it may just be the most defining performance of a highly accomplished career that to date already has notched two Oscars (“Blue Jasmine” and “The Aviator”).

Folks coming to see “Tár,” tagged as a drama about an internationally renowned conductor (Blanchett) caught up in a self-triggered scandal, might come in thinking Field’s latest is a biopic. It’s not – to begin with, I’m not aware of an internationally renowned female conductor, which in part is the film’s seeding; Blanchett’s Lydia Tár is a barrier breaker. Even more so, she’s a breaker of souls. She’s head of the Berlin Orchestra and commandingly so as we embed with the maestro at the top of her game. The fact she is a she evidently had little consideration as to how she ascended, and she’s more cutthroat and conveniently aloof than any man or other human on screen. There’s a quick sojourn to Juilliard, where Tár lectures about the virtues of Bach, during which a self-proclaimed Bipoc pansexual student reveals that they’re not interested in the tunes of an old (dead, mind you) white guy who sired a bunch of illegitimate kids. Tár begins her response with her own self-label of being a “U-Haul lesbian,” and from there lights the student up for being narrow, a conformist of the moment, inert to exploring music for its emotional depth and instead, driven by social media chatter. The way Blanchett’s Tár delivers it, it’s an evisceration that would make a velociraptor blush and Freddie Kruger turn green. Later we learn that Tár, who is married to her orchestra’s lead violinist (a perfectly understated Nina Hoss) and has a daughter (Mila Bogojevic) to whom she is “father,” loves to play cruel boardroom games, though her shenanigans have aims beyond the semi-obvious schadenfreude; she pulls young apprentice female conductors (the most recent played by a dutiful yet dour Noémie Merlant, from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) or aspiring performers (newcomer Sophie Kauer as the irrepressible new cellist invite) into her sphere, intimating success in return for loyalty and more. Just what that “more” actually is remains vague. There’s sexual tension, but never a tryst in Tár’s pied-à-terre, though enigmatic emails from a former protege keep popping up. What’s not murky is Tár’s crossing of lines, which are blurred to the viewer because Field inverts the prism with a high-achieving lesbian operating with the self-interested indemnity of an entitled elite, taking what she wants and balking at the woke.That will be the thing about “Tár” that many will come at – one way or the other – and rightly so. 

Beyond Blanchett’s full-on effort (just give her the statue now) is Field’s meticulous orchestration of the narrative. Given the somber and staid nature of classical music and its milieu, there’s high tension in nearly every frame and a few scenes that achieve sheer terror, be it Tár jogging though a verdant park when she hears a woman wailing in panic somewhere in the deep woods or, in a moment of hopeful lust, when she follows that young cellist into an abandoned building that feels like we just rolled onto the set of a serial-killer flick. Back to her Juilliard speech, Tár tells the class there’s a correlation between a human’s intelligence and their sensitivity to sound, something Field plays with adroitly throughout the film. Tár wakes in the middle of the night to the sounds of a muffled metronome coming from an unlikely location, or a faint alarm or cellphone ringtone from an apartment above. Blanchett’s face connotes both annoyance and wonder as Tár drinks in the sounds and ponders them as if tasting wine at a fine restaurant. In one case, she rushes to her piano to tap out aping notes as if trying to communicate with the entity behind the sound, the way scientists did with ETs in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). 

How the curtain comes down on “Tár” isn’t quite the grand crescendo you might suspect, but a basso rumble that fills your chest, one that lingers, fading in and out, rising and falling, poking at your conscience and taking on new meaning.

Amsterdam

10 Oct

Murder mystery with an A-list cast

David O. Russell has made some broad-ranging films. His debut, “Spanking the Monkey” (1994) roiled literally in the Oedipal; “Three Kings” (1999), semi-famous for George Clooney and the director rankling each other, was one of my favorites of the 1990s; the locally shot story of Micky Ward in “The Fighter” (2010) was a gritty something-else for Russell; and then there was the almost-never-released “Accidental Love” (2015), an Affordable Care Act satire starring Jessica Biel as a waitress who gets a nail stuck in her head (the original title was “Nailed”) and experiences nymphomaniacal impulses. That last film has an abysmal IMDB ranking of 4.1 and came on the heels of two highly successful Jennifer Lawrence collaborations, “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and “American Hustle” (2013). To cleanse his palate of “Accidental Love,” Russell reteamed with Lawrence for the Home Shopping Network spoof “Joy” (2015), but his camera has been silent since. Given the ambitious scope of his latest, “Amsterdam,” that’s understandable.

If some confused Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) for a Wes Anderson film, get ready for more: “Amsterdam” has that “Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) punchiness to it, and an equally eclectic ensemble of quirky A-listers. We begin between the two great wars in New York City (the sets are super impressive) with Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a fallen-from-grace practitioner who uses his own meds, and his pal, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney looking into the suspicious death of a decorated World War I general (Ed Begley Jr.). To get information, our sleuths seek out the general’s daughter (Taylor Swift), but before she can whisper that big thing her father was on to, bad happenstance befalls her and Burt and Harold are on the hook for it.

From there it’s off to (or a flashback to) France and the Great War, with Burt as an officer assigned to lead a platoon of black soldiers because their last leader, a racist, had Harold, the spokesmen for the platoon, on the verge of mutiny and a likely court martial. In action, the pair get pretty well shot up. Burt loses an eye, and the two spend weeks in a hospital where a smart-mouthed French nurse played by Margot Robbie pulls shrapnel from their backs and buttocks. The war ends, a romance blossoms between Harold and Robbie’s Valerie, who it turns out is not really French, and the three head off to Amsterdam to mend and unwind as Burt, in moments of pause, mewls for his less-than-attentive wife back home (Andrea Riseborough, who played a similar aloofness in “Oblivion”).

But what of that mysterious death of the general and Ms. Swift, looking 1930s glam, onboard for such a brief intonation or two? Well we have the rise of Hitler, Robert De Niro (who worked with Russell on “Silver Linings”) in the mix as another war hero general, Rami Malek as an overly patriotic philanthropist, Anya Taylor-Joy, as his wife with neatly coiled braids that rival those of Princess Leia, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon as bird-loving spies, Chris Rock as Harold’s sergeant-at-arms and the ever elegant Zoe Saldana as Burt’s patient nurse and potential love interest. There’s a lot going on, to say the least, and it builds nicely in a frenetically chaotic murder-mystery way with smart twists and turns. The final end feels like an arduous goose chase without the gander – you almost wish the film never ended. Bale is at his shaggy-dog, disheveled best, far from his turns as Batman but not too far from his maniacal performance of the drug-abusing Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter,” for which her won an Oscar. It’s also good to see Washington, who was somewhat inert as a covert agent in “Tenet” (2020), return to the warmhearted intensity and signs of promise he showed in “BlackKklansman” (2018). The buddy bond that Bale and Washington forge goes a long way to holding “Amsterdam” together, and Robbie’s free-spirited third cements it.

Blonde

24 Sep

Ana de Armas is all-in as Marilyn

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 22, 2022

Andrew Dominik’s new spin on the legacy of Marilyn Monroe is a lurid layer cake of sex and spectacle, with occasional intimate segues into a vulnerable soul screaming for love and a safe space. “Blonde” is also a downright riveting flick from frame one until the credits roll; just how much of it is true is another issue. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ mega-paged tome, which is admittedly fictionalized, there’s threesomes, sexual assault, on-set meltdowns, daddy issues, delusions, emotional juicing and more – enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. If you take anything from the film, it’s that Monroe, for all her accomplishments and fame, led a pretty shitty life from start to finish, thanks mostly to men who wanted to control her, own her and consume her.

There are a few reasons for the film’s engrossing success, even though it feels so opportunistic and exploitative that you want it to fail. First are the stylistic choices by Dominik, such as cutting in and out of black and white, impressive recreation of screens from Monroe classics such as “Some Like it Hot” and “Niagara,” and the hard Marilyn POV that pays off – kind of – when she’s with JFK and pumped up on sedatives by a doctor ever slinking around the edges of the set. There’s also an emotive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and, of course and most of all, Ana de Armas, who conjures Monroe effortlessly: her breathy, hazy intones and the toggle between perfect shiny object before the camera and hot troubled mess otherwise. 

The young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) as painted has daddy issues – namely that she doesn’t have one, and it becomes an affliction that eats at her over time. Later in life Marilyn refers to her husbands in wispy coos as “daddy.” It’s heavy-handed but fits right in, as men and possible father figures loom large, for the most part with unpleasant results. An early first interview at a studio with a Mr. Z (Zanuck?) comes with requisite (bent-over-the) desk sex, whether wanted or not. Then there’s the hubbies, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), protective and sensitive until he gets fed up with Marilyn’s sex-bomb image and becomes abusive and worse, and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), in touch with Marilyn’s inner demons but inert when it comes to helping. The real kicker is JFK (Caspar Phillipson), lounging on a bed in hotel room, shirtless but in his infamous back brace, on the phone conducting presidential business. When Marilyn enters, passed on by an agent keeping watch at the suite’s open door, he gives her a series of gestures imploring oral service – the door remains open and Dominik (“Killing Them Softly,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ”) invites us to join in, dropping the camera right into the middle of the act. There’s no full frontal, but the experience is overwhelmingly visceral. Given all that came before, it’s just another indignity in the life of Ms. Monroe. The time Marilyn does find true comfort in the men’s arms, it’s an ongoing, imagined three-way romance with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), racily rendered but also one of the movie’s more piquant and liberating tear-aways.

This isn’t the first time the inner turmoil of Marilyn has deconstructed and rewritten the script for Hollywood’s most iconic starlet. Back in 2011 Michelle Williams played Monroe at odds with Laurence Olivier on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) in Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn.” Much here is asked of Armas, who is topless almost as much as she’s not. As Ryan Gosling’s virtual love interest Joi in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), she demonstrated the sensuality gene that was such an ingrained part of Monroe’s public persona. She notched comedic flair in “Knives Out” (2019), lively action chops in the recent Bond blast “No Time to Die” (2021) and, maybe more to the end of the Monroe role, played an emotionally and sexually complex wife in Adrien Lyne’s twisted erotic thriller “Deep Water” this year. 

Like Oates’ book, “Blonde” is long, nearly three hours, but it ticks by in a sprightly way due mostly to the manic nature of Monroe’s depicted private life, brought to crescendos and crashes by Armas’ all-in effort. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin (“BlacKkKlansman”) is another staunch asset, as is Julianne Nicholson’s turn as Marilyn’s unstable single mother. It’s an undeniably well crafted film that rescripts history and delivers revelation under the guise of verisimilitude. The question is, does it really do its subject justice?