Tuesday, November 22, 2022

TAR*****


TAR is the obverse of SHE SAID: it is a film that has no interest in the alleged victims of sexual harassment or in those that seek to expose it.  Where SHE SAID denies the aggressor screen time and has no interest in his motivations, TAR puts the accused in every frame.  TAR is unabashedly interested in genius and the way in which it goes hand in hand with narcissism and the structures that enable that power to be abused.  TAR is a film that dares to be sophisticated and nuanced and provocative:  SHE SAID plays like a TV movie of the month with a pantomime villain and unequivocal heroines.  Maybe that’s the correct approach in the latter film because it deals with the real-life heinous crimes of Harvey Weinstein and the brave women who came forward and took him down. But it makes for a far less interesting film, sad to say.  Maybe TAR, creating a fictional and more ambitious story of abuse, can allow itself to be more slippery, and is therefore more fascinating and compelling.

The film stars Cate Blanchett in the performance of a lifetime of incredible performances. She plays the self-created worldwide star conductor Lydia Tar, currently in residence as the Berlin Phil and about to record the seminal Mahler 5.  She is leonine and masterful and imperious: striding on the world stage in her power suits.  When we meet her she is on stage being interviewed by real-life New Yorker editor Adam Gopnik, being feted for her skill. We see her artfully create the apparently artless cover art for her new recording.  She lives in luxury with her partner and adopted daughter. Her life seems infinitely curated to beauty and brilliance.

On the peripheral vision of our screen experience the cracks start to show.  Tar’s assistant and aspiring conductor (PARIS 13TH DISTRICT’s Noemie Merlant) reads emails sent from a frantic young woman - another aspiring conductor - who claims Tar tried to seduce her and then blocked her career. Who is the aggressor here? Tar claims the woman is a stalker and dismisses the messages so quickly you can almost forget they occurred, and get taken up again in the juggernaut of Tar’s professional ambition.

But then, later in the film, we see Tar cultivate a young cellist and deliberately bulldoze convention to create an amazing career opportunity for her.  Is this favouritism, sexual grooming, or just aggressive meritocracy and the bestowing of favour on an admittedly great talent? We are in ambiguity although for those who want to see it, patterns might be condemnatory.  When Tar dismisses an ageing, fading, deputy conductor, he tells her everyone knows what she does, and social media seems to confirm it.

The final act fall from grace is swift and merciless and perhaps deserved. The beauty of the film is that while we can see Tar’s flaws we also inwardly cheer at some of her politically incorrect victories.  When she censoriously destroys a young conservatoire student who casually dismisses Bach as a misogynist, viewers of my generation and mindset cheer for a champion of the dead white male Canon and not imposing anachronistic demands of their regressive values. Similarly, what parent doesn’t wish she could scare the shit out of a schoolyard bully?  

Yes, reader, I must admit that I am indeed Team Tar and to see her, a woman who controlled time, reduced to conducting against a time-track, was rather depressing to me. The triumph of mediocrity and the cancelling and constraining of genius. This is, I think rather the point of the film.  That of course one must punish abuse, but is cancelling really justice?  Should we not prosecute according to law and not on social media?  Tar was certainly guilty of being an egomania. What great conductor isn’t? But is she guilty of harassment as charged?  We will never know.

TAR is rated R and has a running time of 158 minutes. It played Venice, Telluride and Toronto 2022. It was released in the USA last month and goes on release in the UK on January 20th.

Friday, November 18, 2022

THE WONDER*****


THE WONDER is one of the best movies I have seen this year: sublime cinematography and score; a breathtakingly good central performance from Florence Pugh; and a script that takes us deep into discussion with ourselves about the nature of faith and family. Kudos to director Sebastian Lelio - who seems to specialise in giving us films that interrogate and shine a light on complex female characters in tough situations - whether in GLORIA, A FANTASTIC WOMAN or DISOBEDIENCE - the latter also deeply concerned with the interactions of religious extremism and our physical experience.

The woman in question here is Florence Pugh's Libby - a Crimean War nurse and widow despatched to central Ireland to sit watch over an apparently miraculous young girl called Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) who has sustained herself for months despite not eating.  People are already travelling from far and wide to observe this miracle, and Anna's demeanour is one of serene acceptance of her role. Her mother and father are deeply religious and resist Libby's common sense scientific injunctions to let the girl eat, even if by forced feeding.

Libby's ally in scepticism is the journalist William (Tom Burke). He bears the scars of earlier experience, just like Libby, and they find common cause against the insular town elders and priest (Toby Jones most notably and Ciaran Hinds).  

It soon becomes clear that we are living in a world where the consuming or withholding of food is a weapon and a punishment and a martyrdom. This is an Ireland not far gone from the horrors of the Famine, which touched William's life particularly tragically.  We are also in an Ireland so doused in religion that fasting takes on meaning and martyrdom, and perhaps penance. Survival by merely eating is then relegated to the profane. Modern viewers cannot help but see prefigurement of further colonial injustices with the forced feeding of hunger strikers, and their modern day self-described martyrdom. And of course, where there is religious control we are now - sadly - conditioned to expect abuse.

The highest praise goes to Florence Pugh in a performance that is full of humanity but also resolute strength and intelligence.  I also loved the real-life mother daughter combination of Elaine and Kila Lord Cassidy. The former in particular is playing one of the most ambiguous and elusive roles as Anna's mother and I am still debating her motivations.

Behind the lens we must start with DP Ari Wegner (THE POWER OF THE DOG) who creates a film of oppressive interiors where the Dark Ages of religious belief feel as though they have been manifested in a house.  This contrasts with Libby and Will walking through open wild moors allowing us to breathe for a moment.  Then we have an excellent script - written by Alice Birch who also adapted Pugh's breakout film LADY MACBETH.  The screenplay is adapted from a book by Emma Donoghue, most famous for ROOM. It is so full of layered meaning and slipperiness that I am left in awe. Last but not least we must mention composer Matthew Herbert (A FANTASTIC WOMAN) with an eery, spectral score that gives the scrupulously period film an uncanny and anachronistic feeling that hints at the subject matter that transcends the era of the film.

THE WONDER is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes. It played Telluride, Toronto and London 2022 and is now on release on Netflix.

DISENCHANTED*


DISENCHANTED is a joyless, tuneless mess of a sequel that may well put Amy Adams' career to bed. Think about it: when was the last time she was the leading lady in an actual hit?  But the real issue here isn't anyone's performance (although to be sure, no-one looks like they're having a good time).  The real issue is a messy,  overly-complex script that doesn't seem to know what it wants the film to be about. 

As the movie opens, we see our fairytale princess Giselle (Adams) now married to her Manhattan lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey).  They're both over-tired and stressed parenting a new baby daughter and a surly teenage Morgan (newcomer Gabriella Baldacchino). So, they move to suburbia and meet Maya Rudolph's Malvina - the oppressively perfect mean girl who seems to run the town. At this point we think the plot is going to be about Giselle coping with the reality after Happy Ever After, and dealing with a real-life villain.  

But no. To add a needless complication and magical Macguffin we have King Edward (James Marsden) and Queen Nancy (Idina Menzel) turn up with a magic wand that Giselle uses to turn her town into a fairytale, and herself into a wicked stepmother.  This totally unanchors the plot, which is now about which mean girl will win. By the end, I think the point the movie is trying to make is that Morgan has to accept Giselle as her real mum.  But all that stuff about middle-aged and middle-class ennui seems to have been forgotten, and Malvina is presumably still harrumphing around the town scaring all in sight.

There was nothing charming or funny or wonderful about this film. It felt joyless and directionless and cheap. The quality of the songwriting was particularly disappointing. I am awarding it a sole star for the only decent and mischievous number - where Giselle and Malvina debate who is the most wicked. The rest is disposable.

DISENCHANTED is rated PG and has a running time. It is on release on Disney+.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER**


WAKANDA FOREVER is a film that is hobbled by its earnestly expressed grief for actor Chadwick Boseman, the T'Challa of its predecessor.  This memorialising is welcome in the early part of the film, and beautifully handled both in the Marvel opening credits and in the way iwriter-director Ryan Coogler incorporates the death of the character into its opening act.  But as we move into the film's second half, and another character dies, we realise that this movie is leaning into grief to a level that slows the pace, brings down the mood, and creates a rather mawkish and morbid end-product.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister and science nerd.  As written by Coogler and played by Letitia Wright, Shuri spends the entire film crying and quiet. Even the final scene is of her burning mourning clothes. I feel we could have gotten to her decision to move forward and adopt the mantle of Black Panther half way through the excessively long run-time.

The claustrophobically negative atmosphere spreads to the B-plot which sees Tenoch Huerta introduced as the character Namur. He leads an underwater kingdom of mer-people who also have access to Vibranium.  Namur is pissed off that T'Challa took the decision to tell the world about its wonders and so put his own kingdom at risk of colonial exploitation from the Americans.  

I really liked Huerta's performance and the design of this kingdom but the whole plot seemed weak as fuck.  He wants to ally with Wakanda against the imperials, but tells them if they don't ally with him he'll launch war on them.  Charming! So you end up with a massive battle between the two Vibranium super-powers with the real-world power of America left on the sidelines along with all of the American characters - Martin Freeman's CIA agent, his ex-wife - a wasted Julia Louis-Dreyfus who is now his boss, and Dominique Thorne as the MIT student who invented the vibranium detector.  The fact that the latter is squeezed out of screen-time is particularly sad, as it means the movie doesn't really explore the issue of the African-American versus African experience.

I also wonder how actual Africans feel about a film where lots of African-Americans are putting on a variety of accents and an African-American writer-director is creating a version of wise oracular Africa guided by its ancestors.  Not to mention the LGB community who must be looking at the almost embarrassed way the movie hints at a lesbian relationship between Danai Gurira's general and her sidekick played by Michaela Coel.  Somehow being so embarrassed about showing a proper kiss is even worse than not having any representation at all. 

WAKANDA FOREVER has a running time of 161 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is on global release.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

ENOLA HOLMES 2****

I was an enormous fan the original Enola Holmes film and I’m please to report that the sequel, reuniting most of the talent in front of and behind the lens, is just as smart and funny. It’s even more pleasing that the central murder-mystery is really well-constructed, and that the movie manages to incorporate its real history of the rise of the women’s labour movement with a light touch that is genuinely moving, rather than being crude or too on the nose.

The film opens with Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) struggling to find customers who take her detecting skills seriously. In desperation she takes the case of a missing match-girl which leads to the wider mystery of why so many of these factory workers are dying of typhus and why the profits at the factory have mysteriously rocketed. This brings Enola into the path of her famous elder brother Sherlock (Henry Cavill) whose case about corruption at the highest levels of government and industry is seemingly connected with Enola’s.  

Along the way, we get to re-connect with Enola’s aristocratic love interest Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), the martial arts supremo Edith (Susan Wokoma) and of course the proto-feminist that is Enola’s mum (Helena Bonham Carter).  And of the new cast members, David Thewlis is particularly scene-chomping as the nasty policeman, Inspector Grail. We also get a marvellous cameo from Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who was so impressive as Liet-Kynes in the recent DUNE remake.

The resulting film is fast-paced and often Guy Ritchie-inspired in its kinetic fight scenes.  There’s plenty of fun and even some meta-comedy at the expense of the knowing fourth-wall breaking catchphrase “Tis I!”

The only character I can’t get my head around is Cavill’s Sherlock, playing against type because his character has far less action than the female characters. He mostly looks grave and concerned and doesn’t entirely convince in his early scene as a drunk.  It’s interesting to see that the writers have given him a sidekick - Dr Watson - in the final credits scene. Let’s see how Cavill does in a more conventional buddy-comedy role.

ENOLA HOLMES 2 has a running time of 129 minutes and is rated PG-13. It is released on Netflix today.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY***** - BFI London Film Festival - Closing Night Gala


I was not the world's biggest fan of KNIVES OUT - Rian Johnson's closed-house murder-mystery starring Daniel Craig as the detective with the broad southern drawl. I sat stony silent in a packed London Film Festival screening with the rest of the audience having the time of their life.  I thought the mystery wasn't complex or interesting and the performances fell flat for me. I just didn't get it. As a result, I had zero expectations for its high-budget sequel, GLASS ONION, and was cringing at the thought of its two-hour twenty minutes running time. 

Well reader, I can happily report that GLASS ONION is one of my favourite movies of the year!  It flew by its running time in a haze of laugh-out loud comedy; brilliantly-acted outlandish characters; and a proper mystery that's both tricksy, meta-textual and politically biting!

The movie stars Daniel Craig, once again returning as Benoit Blanc, and leaning even further into the camp of a fussily over-dressed and anachronistic famous detective in the Agatha Christie style. The new villain of the piece is Ed Norton's tech billionaire Miles Bron, clearly based on Elon Musk. He's a vainglorious fake-hippie who invites all of his old college friends to a yearly retreat, this time on his supervillain island lair.  As the movie unfolds, in good detective tradition, we realise that each of the characters needs Miles for his money or connections and has a motive to kill him. There's even a MacGuffin - a piece of a new renewable energy-producing crystal widget that is also - oh no! - rather dangerous!

The heart of the piece - or maybe its moral compass in a sea of characters that are more or less self-interested and despicable - is Janelle Monae's Andi Brand.  As the movie unfolds we discover that Andi was in fact the brains behind Miles' big invention and they haven't really spoken in years. So why has she shown up on the island? And who invited Benoit?

The first half of the movie explores the connections between the characters and leads us to the murder. The second half of the film goes back and reveals what was really happening. This might sound tedious but it's so damn clever, smart and involving I promise you it won't feel like a rehash. But I can't tell you exactly why it works for fear of spoiling the plot - so I'll just encourage you to watch.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 139 minutes. It played Toronto 2022 and will be released on Netflix on December 23rd.