Archive | October, 2022

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.


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.


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.


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.