Friday, November 25, 2022


Glass Onion isn’t exactly a sequel to Knives Out. It’s simply another complicated case for its sole returning character to puzzle through. Good thing detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is such great company, oozing Southern charm and confidence, while behaving an enlightened, affable gentleman who can slip right into any social context. He somehow stands out and blends in, the better to be underestimated as he gathers clues. And good thing, too, that writer-director Rian Johnson knows a thing or two about constructing a sequel that zigs when you’d expect it to zag, and ends up satisfying even more for giving you what you didn’t know you’d like to see. This one is a larger film, trading the first’s bickering family clad in cute sweaters, holed up in a cozy New England house while all their grievances tumble out, for a palatial mansion, with enormous sunny sets on a private Greek island filled with rich friends hanging around in sunglasses and beachwear. If Knives Out had an autumnal Thanksgiving vibe, Glass Onion is pure summer vacation.

It finds Blanc invited to a murder mystery party. He’s the ringer, and stranger, in a group of obscenely wealthy friends—a satirical send-up of every contemporary societal ill. There’s the host: an out-of-touch, and out-of-his-mind, tech bazillionaire (Edward Norton). And there are the guests: a hypocritical politician (Kathryn Hahn), a private-sector scientist-for-hire (Leslie Odom, Jr.), an alt-right YouTuber (Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend (Madelyn Cline), a ditzy model-turned-mogul (Kate Hudson) and her assistant (Jessica Henwick), and a former business partner who may be out for revenge (Janelle Monáe). It’s pretty easy to believe one of them will actually be murdered, and that they’ll all be so greedy and stupid that it might give Blanc quite a challenge. Johnson gives us a long, glittery, rambling opening hour that provides introductions to all of the characters and their dynamics. Invitations are delivered. The group assembles in Greece for the boat ride to the island. (Set during the first COVID summer, the way they wear their masks upon arrival is a big clue about their personalities.) They settle in for their first night in the mansion—a massive high-tech structure with dozens of rooms and topped with a gargantuan glass onion. The camera often pulls back to sweep around in bright establishing shots and drink it in, the sets and the setting providing a gleaming backdrop for the scheming. And throughout, Johnson, by taking his time, makes these political cartoons into bantering people we can size up and keep in mind as believable variables at play as the plot unfolds.

By the time the screenplay springs its surprises, doubling back on itself and deliberately filling in gaps I hadn’t paused to realize were left open, the film reveals it is awfully clever in a way that never stops paying out. There’s plenty of enjoyment on the surface of the movie, but when the setup reveals its full intentionality, there’s an added layer of rewards for the attentive viewer. This is a charmer of a mystery that you could practically chart on graph paper as its various setups converge with supremely satisfying reveals and conclusions. There’s an airtight clockwork construction at play, with each gear of plotting and character and humor turning at just the right time to click into place for crowd-pleasing punchlines and payoffs. Johnson’s a filmmaker with a great sense of genre play. See his straight-faced high-school noir Brick, or pretzel-logic time-travel thriller Looper, or his vivid, moving Star Wars episode. Here he’s totally at home, and clearly having fun, constructing these crafty mystery plots. They twist and turn, dangle detours and dole out tricks of perspective, but they always play fair with the audience. You can keep up with the logic, and by the end see the details close in with a pleasing snap. (It’s the dialogue and editing that does all the crackling and popping.) There’s evident delight in the construction, and that extends to the ensemble’s winning commitment to throwing themselves into the proceedings with wit and verve, too.

This has been a busy year for the whodunit movie. We got Greg Mottola’s shaggy, appealing Confess, Fletch. There was Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, excessive, and over-acted adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile; that has its velvety 70mm melodrama pleasures. We got a quaint and cozy little jewel box of a Christie homage, See How They Run; that’s a cute, winking meta-movie about a fictionalized murder mystery around the stage production of Christie’s The Mousetrap. (That movie actually brings Christie onstage, as if to say it was Agatha All Along.) But Glass Onion is head-and-shoulders above the rest. Rather than falling into homage or dutiful resuscitation of old tales, it’s the real deal itself. It’s built for maximum audience pleasure, and is quite pleased with itself, too. It’s formula without being formulaic. We return to these stories, not to be shocked and appalled or grossed out, but to take the mental exercise. Maybe it’s the cozy comfort of knowing, though the film may start with a dead body, it’ll end with a murderer revealed, and something like justice doled out.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Visions of Light: THE FABELMANS

In the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, it’s a snowy night in 1952 and a little boy is a little nervous about going to see his first movie. The prospect of giant people filling a wall in the downtown movie palace makes him leery. So his parents cheerfully try to calm his nerves. His father (Paul Dano), a meek, bespectacled engineer, launches into a technical explanation. Movies are just an illusion, he says: still photographs passed quickly before a light projecting the impression of moving pictures. His mother (Michelle Williams), who we’ll learn is a frustrated musician who battles depression, takes a more metaphorical approach. Movies are dreams, she says: dreams you never forget. Right there, in the opening dialectic between mother and father, science and art, reality and dreams, is the whole picture. It’s also a whole life, and a whole career. Anyone with an understanding of Spielberg the man and Spielberg the filmmaker will recognize that that boy, though he’s Sammy Fabelman here, is little Spielberg himself. Those are his parents’ occupations and personalities. And there he is, at his first movie, ready to discover The Greatest Show on Earth.

The movie that follows finds the boy’s growing interest in moviemaking, and dawning awareness that his parents’ marriage isn’t happy. These two aspects of his personal education are seen through a broader dawning of awareness of the world around him, and we see how a variety of influences inform who this young person starts to become—as an artist, and a man. Co-writing with Tony Kushner (in their fourth productive collaboration), scenes spanning his youth and teenage years are rich with character details that build out the world of this family, and their small circle of friends and relatives, as well as the reactions and habits that suggest their inner lives. We get amusing dinner-table chatter and passive-aggressive sniping and warm expressions of sympathy and acceptance. We also get those cross-currents of competition and concern that can push and pull on the decorum of a family. And further still, we get lots of happy moments, where the boy and his sisters and buddies make elaborate home movies and eccentric relatives float through and long car trips give a child new landscapes to feed his sharpening eye for noticing. (Great classic movies are doing that for him, too.) The scenes are framed in such a way that an adult eye can pick up on the unspoken details a child might not, but the perspective does so with such subtlety that there’s a fine-tuned generosity, and a lack of judgement. This isn’t a movie about a boy sometimes angry with his parents that is actually angry with the parents. There’s a lot of love here, foregrounded in the story, and some regret in the telling.

Spielberg approaches this semi-autobiographical sketch with the sensitivity to portray the dynamics honestly, the empathy to extend understanding to all involved, and the distance to deepen and resonate its ideas. This isn’t a retelling for self-aggrandizement or self-pity. Instead, it draws on a rich understanding of the relationships involved, and a lack of judgement on their actions. The boy finds much to be angry or sad about, and solace in honing his craft, but the movie itself is too compassionate to give in. This is a mature, even-handed look at specific moments in one particular family’s life. He keeps up the motif of the mechanical and the metaphorical, the technical and the emotional, light’s illusion and reality, throughout. The contrast between father’s machines—something to be taken apart, retooled, repaired—and mother’s music—piano practice filling the house with melancholy classical works—stand in for their ability to be complementary influences in a relationship. But it also stands in for their incompatibility. They’re trying, and there’s genuine affection there, but it just can’t connect consistently for the long term. It’s the figure of the boy, whose love for the movies becomes a love for the process—in long, loving montages behind-the-scenes of ingenious amateur filmmaking tricks and the procedural montages of previewing and cutting and adjusting 8mm reels—becomes the join between the head and the heart, the machine that makes ideas.

For that’s what the movies are: a technical feat that hits the heart. That’s what makes it a craft and an art. (So, too, says the movie, a calling.) By looking with such thrill of discovery at the makings of beginners’ films—and a beginning filmmaker—The Fabelmans reminds us that the movies are illusions that show us the world. They are collective dreams that hold us captive and can reveal something beyond the real and tangible—the deeper truths any great art form can access. Families are like that too, sometimes, built on shared dreams and memories, fueled by careful editing and elisions, motifs of light and shadow, rules and intuition. It’s about the framing, in what you see and know, and when, and how. It’s about whose perspective we share, what conclusions can be drawn, or faked, or ignored. Spielberg makes this movie with a clear-eyed love for family and film. It’s perhaps his most restrained work, with great blocking and image-making, but little of the obvious virtuosic camera moves or soaring scores for which he’s known. But it’s still, as so many of his movies are, about people seeing, or realizing, something amazing, and puzzling over its implications.

Moviemaking may be artifice, but the resulting art is, at its best, beautiful, and true, and real. And personal. Scenes of Sammy showing his movies to crowds are electric with pleasures and tensions. Seeing the audience react to one of his filmic tricks, you can see satisfaction sharing space with the wheels turning about how to grow and evolve as a technician and artist. Late in the film, Sammy, having shown one of his movies, is startled to discover he’s accidentally reframed reality for a character—and the gap between the screen and their daily existence opens up a crisis about how they’ll never live up to that image. This is a mirror of a scene in the middle where a few characters see an uncomfortable truth in some raw footage, a family secret hidden in plain sight. The movies can hide as easily as they reveal. And in the alchemy that takes them from an idea, to a camera, to a process, to art—there it is, real and unreal and all its consequences.

This is a movie about the thrilling act of creation, and the feedback loop between artist and audience. And it’s about how transporting and fulfilling it can be to see that screen light up with images you never knew you needed. Few movies about movies get this as right, perhaps because it’s not simply an ode to the form, but about the feelings and talents that come out of life lived full of complicated situations and shifting relationships. In the end, the movie’s final shot reminds us that all of this is framed with intentionality, considered for its implications, and shifted to clearly communicate its ideas. Here’s a movie from a master filmmaker, making the argument that everything one experiences goes into one’s art, and the results, with enough hard work, talent, and luck, can be transcendent. He’s right.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Adventure Time: STRANGE WORLD

Strange World is Disney Animation once again returning to its least frequent mode: the cheery, red-blooded adventure film. We might get notes of that threaded through their usual animal antics or fairy tale musicals, but when they decide to go all out—the Atlantis: The Lost Empires, the Treasure Planets—the results can be quite entertaining. In the case of Strange World, we’re introduced to a family of explorers whose patriarch (Dennis Quaid) never returns from an attempt to cross the seemingly insurmountable mountain range that surrounds their expansive home valley. This leaves his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) to become a farmer instead. This is an imagined old world where electricity is grown on the vine, and thus allows an agrarian society to have sparkly sci-fi vehicles and gadgets run off of freshly harvested glowing orbs. Farming may not be as exciting as exploring, but it’s perhaps more important. Decades pass, and this farmer, who now has a son of his own (Jaboukie Young-White), is recruited to join an expedition. The crops are dying of a mysterious disease and a group is off in a hovering aircraft—that and the environmentalist bent make for a clear Miyazaki nod—to track down the source. And so off they go, reviving the old family tradition. The movie is told with a similar pluck, traipsing from one appealing cliffhanger to the next in true serial fashion, complete with a soaring heroic orchestra theme and a band of appealing characters.

There’s a Boy’s Adventure magazine aesthetic to the plot’s development, shot through with a refreshingly casual 21st-century diversity—there are men and women, with figures of every color and a couple orientations and it’s no big deal, which is, of course, the big deal. And the world the team discovers, deep in the roots of their prized crop, is a feast of vibrant colors and fluffy surfaces. They find towering Seussian trees and curling DayGlo cliffs, fields of koosh-ball tentacles and grasses, flocks of floating fish and herds of rolling blobs. There’s even a cute blue gummy glob that splats around with chipper personality and becomes the obvious critter sidekick. And guess who else has been trapped down there? In this swirling mystery world of topsy-turvy dangers, there is, of course, room for intergenerational caring and conflict as three generations of guys—a tough grandpa, a stubborn son, and a sensitive grandson—have to learn to work together and truly discover a new way to survive. (Having a great mom (Gabrielle Union) involved helps, too.) Writer-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) weave this family story through the adventure quite naturally, in a charmingly busy picture of constant color and movement. By the end, it’s also brought into focus a parable of ecological collapse and a need to reform an economy around alternatives to destructive industries. All this and a breezy fantasy adventure with eye-pleasing visuals and the earnest ode to family togetherness? Why, that’s just about all you’d want from a satisfying family movie night.

Saturday, November 19, 2022


In this new Gilded Age, the rich are a fat, juicy target for any satirist. But in fact, the obscenely wealthy hoovering up our resources and headlines are often far more ridiculous than any satirist could invent. It doesn’t take a political cartoonist to balloon their buffoonery; they’re already doing that on their own. Still, it leaves plenty of room for an astute storyteller to put them before us anew and bite with sharp portraiture to draw bitter laughs. That’s the project of The Menu and Triangle of Sadness, two complementary, and similarly half-successful, movies that take service industry jobs as their window into the one-percenters’ transactional heartlessness that’s at the core of so many societal ills. The willingness to diminish a person to their job is a hop, skip, and a jump from not seeing their humanity at all.

Revenge is the dish served in The Menu, in which a high-level chef (Ralph Fiennes) has invited a collection of horrible people to dinner. Each course ramps up the tension as his cultish cooks and servers twist the knife—sometimes literally—by slowly revealing that 1.) the guests are trapped in the restaurant, and 2.) each tiny, artsy, deconstructed course is designed to steadily reveal ever more of their personal foibles and secrets. There’s a smorgasbord of character actors (Janet McTeer! John Leguizamo! Reed Birney! Judith Light! Nicholas Hoult! And more!) for the ensemble as crooked tech bros, apathetic blue bloods, a snooty food critic and her editor, a washed up actor and his embezzling assistant, and a misogynistic foodie realize they’re being led to a slaughter. The one innocent (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a hired date of one of the diners. So at least there’s one person for whom to wish survival. The characters are all thinly sketched, leaning on our prejudices for implied critiques, and that puts a cap on the sick pleasures it could offer.

There’s a lack of specificity in its energy, and its understandings of its characters. It’s like they know they’re posing for a fiction. The chef himself is an unfair Gordon Ramsey riff, what with his employees shouting “Yes, chef!” upon every command as they run around a kitchen and dining area that looks like a cross between Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef sets. But it’s never clear what his grievance is, other than, as he says late in the picture, that his guests are the kind of people ruining the art of food. The result is a satire that’s pretty clever line to line—one of the screenwriters comes from the world of Late Night talk shows—and works well enough scene by scene. But it doesn’t really add up to much, with a visual style and pace that’s as smoothly stereotypical as its characters. The movie’s ultimately too pleased with its glibness to dig in and mean something of any consequence. I’ve seen lesser Saw sequels with a better sense of social commentary. Shame this one’s so undercooked.

Triangle of Sadness
gets off to a better start because writer-director Ruben Östlund knows how to spin up types and let them crackle with specificities. That’s what makes his best film, Force Majeure, so bleakly funny with its story of a vacationing family’s tensions after a mishap at a ski resort reveals way more about deep character flaws than anyone could’ve anticipated. His The Square does a similar thing with incidents set in a hollowed-out, corporatized, faux-transgressive art world. Sadness has a male model (Harris Dickinson) and his influencer girlfriend (Charlbi Dean) bickering over money before they arrive at a luxury yacht. The middle portion of the movie is dedicated to sharply needling vignettes in which they, or the other insanely privileged, preposterously selfish guests aboard the cruise, are blind to the needs of workers around them. Meanwhile, the smarmy customer service mangers wrangle and cajole their underlings to plaster on those fake smiles and never say “no.” All of these scenes are as precisely observed as they are darkly amusing. By the time Woody Harrelson exits his cabin as the alcoholic leftist captain, the movie’s setting up some pretty obvious ideological collisions, especially as he starts trading Communist critiques with a crooked Russian capitalist’s Thatcherite babbling.

There’s always a sleek intentionality to Östlund’s images, and a stately chill that lets the squirming satire scrambling within them twist all the more uncomfortably. That works right up until it doesn’t in this case. The movie builds up a healthy head of steam on its outrage over inequality. That bursts on a turbulent night that sends these rich folk tumbling through vomit and sewage. That’s a pretty hilarious as a fit of scatological schadenfreude. But it’s the film’s endless final third that slowly unravels anything potent about the early going. Set post-shipwreck on a small tropical island, it thins out its class critiques with a reductive tromping through human nature as a struggle to survive. This doesn’t level the playing field, but reverses it in a reductive, and vaguely condescending way. The result is basically a less astute Lord of the Flies with assholes. And then it concludes—or really just peters out—with a limp joke and some inscrutable ambiguity. That’s the sort of ending that not only is unsatisfying in the moment, but retroactively makes the early going feel weaker, too. It misses the mark.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

No One Will Guide You: ARMAGEDDON TIME

What’s ending in James Gray’s Armageddon Time is a boy’s ignorance of life’s complicated problems. Everything else—the injustice, the inequality, trickle-down Reaganism, and, above all, the wisdom to see through it—feels nearer a beginning than an end. At least it is in the fleeting ephemeral time of one mortal life. The movie is set in New York City in 1980. The late 70’s malaise sits heavily on the proceedings, like a fog that’ll only superficially lift before returning all the worse. Within it, a sweet, artistic boy is about to be caught up in a moment that’ll make him aware of the rotten, unfair systems that surround him. Less a coming-of-age story than a becoming-aware story, the boy gradually gets some glimmer of a world swamped with prejudices, and narrated by elites’ inflated sense of self-worth. One has to play the game to get ahead, his mostly well-meaning family insists. His mother (Anne Hathaway) wants to run for school board, and his father (Jeremy Strong) makes a decent living as a plumber. They want their son to have more. It’s up to his warm grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) to encourage his arts and projects, and to give him the twinkly-eyed—and sometimes contradictory—straight talk that he needs to hear. Stand up for yourself, he says. Do the right thing. Fit in when you can, but stand up when you must. Resist the prevailing cultural pressures to see wealth as power, education as utilitarian, art as a hobby, and difference as deficit. What luck this kid has such a mensch in his life. And yet, there’s always more to learn.

Here’s a movie, beguilingly low-key and yet persuasively heavy, about the ways in which a younger person discovers the world around them. It sees the innocence of a child slowly fade in the face of that dawning realization that everyone around them—parents, teachers, politicians—are just as fallible and complicated as anyone. We’re all just getting by. It’s not just a matter of figuring out how to live one’s own life, becoming one’s own person, stepping out from the comfort of a cozy familial unit to find one’s own taste in art, in music, in philosophy. It’s about testing out definitions, and becoming aware society is already drawing boundaries around one’s potential. The boy is privileged, in some ways, to cross class boundaries. His comfortable middle-class Jewish family wants to send him to a private school where he can be away from “bad influences.” Sure, they mean large class sizes, a disinterested teacher, and the pernicious potential of drugs. But also mean Black kids. And they want to give the boy a foothold in a ladder of success by getting in good with the upper-class. They disagree with Reagan—“morons from coast to coast,” the dad will quip about the Gipper’s voters—but are somehow products of his disingenuous bootstrapping spirit nonetheless. The rich WASPy folk they end up fleetingly crossing paths with are even worse in that regard (and their identities are stranger than fiction).

Gray, always a precise, classically restrained filmmaker, understands the importance of detail in making a period piece. His films, like Ellis island melodrama The Immigrant, explorers’ epic The Lost City of Z, and 70s cops-and-robbers picture We Own the Night, are rich in evocative character moments nestled in expertly-chosen mise-en-scène. He knows the irreducible complexity of a historical moment can only be glimpsed through its accumulated details, from the ways people speak, to the facets of culture around them, to the furniture and lamps and technology and clothes and toys in every corner. Armageddon Time's particular historical moment is one he’s very familiar with, as it’s a semi-autobiographical story of his own family and friends at this time. Watching it feels like walking into a memory. It has that frisson of reality, and the crystallization of small noticing, that characterizes great short stories or photographs, drawing the mind’s eye with gestures and design that are poignant, and evocative. There are whole lives lived here, and we’re lucky to glimpse them for a little while. We see a flurry of changes taking place slowly, and all at once, over family dinners and school events, as well as milestones and mistakes. This film is shot in warm, intimate shadows and chilly, autumnal public spaces, balancing the comforts of family with harsher realities slipping into the boy’s awareness. In both settings, there are often subtle shots and blocking that leave space in the frame, offering plenty of room for those dawning implications.

Here, with every detail so well-chosen, and the characters so precisely drawn, the downward pressure of the unspoken grows all the stronger. In this case, there’s added weight to the small, closely-observed story of this boy in the largely untold story of a friend he makes. This other kid, an orphaned Black boy living with his dementia-addled grandmother, is glimpsed mainly at school, and then later in quick moments in shadow or through chain-link fences. Their paths cross meaningfully, but only for a brief time. The lead boy doesn’t entirely understand the full ramifications of the friend’s troubles, or how an attempt to help will inevitably make things worse. An adult audience in 2022 can understand. We can feel the extra sadness around the edges, and fill in the negative space left just off stage, the ballast from an entire, sadder other story largely unseen. In drawing one boy’s life so sensitively and fully, watching the dawning awareness of implications beyond him, it remains frustrating and moving how the boy’s vision—and those influences around him—still can extend only so far. The story builds, not to some grand revelation, but a quiet, subtle shift in understanding. In its particulars—granular, nuanced, specific—it finds something small and sad and true.

Saturday, November 12, 2022


I don’t envy the cast and crew of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever's task in creating a sequel after its star unexpectedly passed away. Imagine being obligated to make a blockbuster feature film for the most popular ongoing franchise for the biggest studio, but it has to be about the sudden death of your friend and co-worker. That writer-director Ryan Coogler and his collaborators manage to make a movie that’s simultaneously enormous spectacle and gently grief-stricken is some kind of miracle. It has such incredible liftoff that it manages to avoid the downward drag of Marvel formula for more of its runtime than you’d expect. Wakanda Forever is a superhero movie. Technically. But it’s not really interested in building huge CG slugfests, and, indeed, is at its worst when it has to fill half of its climactic confrontation with hectic effects shots of big armies blandly hurtling at each other. What does work is its mournful qualities, which extend not only to its characters mourning the death of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, but to its exploration of the legacies left by tragedies—familial, royal, colonial. It opens with a funeral, and throughout finds tenderness in scenes with Queen Angela Bassett and Princess Letitia Wright. Starting with such somber celebration—a franchise sendoff that would be crass if it didn’t stay just on the right side of an honest salute—it keeps a fragility throughout.

This sequel finds the fictional African nation tossed into uncertainty as Western nations seek to exploit its resources. Meanwhile, Wakandans are also confronted with another secret nation—an underwater kingdom populated by mutant descendants of a lost Mayan tribe. And so the encroaching conflict is about indigenous survival in the face of genocidal oppression, and the ways in which the pressures of potential colonization turn tribes against each other. Coogler takes the time to build the antagonistic king of the underwater people, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), into a richer character than we usually see in the more formulaic of these pictures. With evocative backstory filled in quickly, in generously evocative historical flashbacks during a sensitive monologue, we see the pain of Namor’s past sits close to the surface. And the angling between Namor and the Wakandans takes on some complicated real-world edge as characters on all sides consider taking violent steps to protect their own, even at the cost of others. Pity that their conflict has to run through some scenes with Martin Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus back in the States, especially since they tease a promising geopolitical wrinkle that’s summarily dropped. Besides, it’s underwater and in Africa that the movie is most alive.

We get a sense of history in the ways the characters speak to each other, in their gestures and intentions, and as the frames push out into small, suggestive, murky glimpses of a fantastical setting. Coogler keeps his camera close to the characters, but pulls back just enough to give a sampling of worlds populated by unique peoples and cultures their rulers want to protect. The plot globe-hops in a way that feels expansive, and the stakes feel genuinely large. Turns out when you build conflict rooted in character and expressed through their emotional deliberations and deep lineages, you can suggest world-changing suspense without shooting a blue laser into the sky or summoning swarms of aliens or robots to punch for an hour at a time. The result is a comic book plot—complete with side-quests and living MacGuffins—that’s often warmly characterized. Wright, in contrast to the eager comic relief she played last time, is sunken with grief, and sees opportunity for connection with new characters before growing tempted by sorrowful vengeance. Bassett is strong regal suffering—a speech culminating in “Have I not given EVERYTHING!?” is a powerful expression of emotional pains. Returning supporting characters (Lupita N’yongo, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira) have slightly less to do, and I wish there was more attention paid to their moral dilemmas, but their presence is a warm reminder of what the first film did so well: building a community of characters whose words and deeds have consequences, and who relate to each other in ways that have actual weight.

Coogler, unlike most directors working for Marvel, has ideas and knows how to communicate them. His work—a day-in-the-life of a man murdered by police, Fruitvale Station; a celebration of an old franchise by reframing its perspective, Creed; and the original Black Panther—has consistently considered questions of what one can build for oneself while alive, and what one leaves behind for others once gone. He’s suited to make a film about an absence, about characters struggling to live up to a good example that’s been taking from them too soon. But this is also a movie that complicates this easy sadness. It’s earnestly committed to questioning violence and lamenting cycles of retribution. It comes by this honestly, engaged with issues of vengeance and victimhood, expectation and exploitation. Namor is never entirely in the wrong; Wakandans are never entirely right. This makes for good drama, with our heroes wrestling with a sense of morality, weighing what’s satisfying in the moment against what might be better long term. In the movie’s most exciting moments, the spectacle—a fun car chase with an instantly-compelling new character, a concussive water-bombing of Wakanda—runs hand-in-hand with a thrilling sense of wondering how these peoples can find a way to deescalate.

By the end, though, the movie has lost some track of these ideas, burying them in so much zapping and stabbing and chaos that’s atypically, for Coogler, and typically, for Marvel, unreflected upon. I found myself puzzling back through the chain of events and lamenting the shortcuts and sanding-down that had to happen to force a more typically Marvel climactic collision. Here’s a movie that pretty persuasively makes its own case against the formulaic stuff that’s weighing it down. It’s difficult to care about armies colliding, let alone the teases for future conflict, when the movie itself has made it clear it is about, and builds towards more characters realizing, that war does not make one great. Coogler has made an open-hearted franchise picture that’s often genuinely funereal and always interested in rebuilding its heroes’ broken hearts by helping them find new purpose. For the first couple hours, it’s alive and engaged and animated by interesting ideas beneath the fast vehicles, big explosions, and sparingly deployed quips. And in its final moments, it returns to a soft, quiet, tender spirit. That’s the stuff that will linger long after the noisy, simple, limp action of the finale fades.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Improper Conduct: TÁR

Lydia Tár is a brilliant conductor. She can read all the nuance embedded in a sheet of music, feel deeply the gestures and textures of a composer’s choices, and expertly sculpt an orchestra into ecstatic musicality. To listen to a great piece of music with her, or to sit at a piano and see her pull beautiful notes out of the air, you can see her lose herself in its power. She’s also willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the great composers of the past, to see their intent and try to realize it ever better for contemporary audiences. How interesting, then, that she’s so quick to ignore the nuance, the gestures, the textures, of the people in her life. And as for the benefit of the doubt, well, that she only reliably extends to herself. Todd Field’s Tár is a fascinating character study of this fictional woman, and an ice-cold dissection of this peculiar trait of some powerful artists: an ability to bring so much empathy and emotionality into their work that they have little left over for anyone else.

Cate Blanchett plays Tár with imperious confidence in her job. As she rules over the Berlin Philharmonic with an iron grip, we see how, with a wave of her hand, the orchestra blasts bombastic power to the rafters or, in a quick flick of the wrist, falls dead silent. She extends this control in backroom negotiations and extemporaneous lectures, too. She stalks the stage of a college classroom, casts sharp eyes on underlings as they swiftly act on her command, and snaps off learned analysis in interviews and lunches with various high-culture interlocutors. But, for an actress so supremely in control, Blanchett is also quite good at showing the seams around the surfaces of this woman’s life, the quiet insecurities, easy entitlement, and fierce temper battling beneath her regal posture. These are imperfections that can lead to an unravelling, a loose end that frays with her sense of self. Tár has, after all, become used to the status—feted and praised until fettered with the very privilege that affords her multiple fancy apartments, private intercontinental flights, and ready access to eager, vulnerable, starstruck people who end up exploited in one way or another for a chance at breaking into a career in the arts. Tár’s sense of privileged and narrow focus leaves her blind to mistakes this hierarchy breeds.

Field, the writer-director behind deeply felt, finely-tuned dramas In the Bedroom and Little Children, here shapes a film that’s imposing and inviting, drawing us into a specific world populated with fascinating figures. It’s simultaneously a relatively straightforward character study and a cold work packed with elusive and mysterious detail, puzzling elisions, and tantalizingly unresolved facets of plot and character. (“Loose ends,” an important one-scene character shrugs toward the end of the nearly three-hour runtime.) Around Tár we find: her wife and daughter, her personal assistant, various orchestra players and staff, potential lovers, rival conductors, fawning fans, retired musicians, and mysterious missives from a troubled former mentee. For each, she’s, almost unconsciously, putting on a show to maintain her prestige, and her relationships, as facets of the self she’s built for display. This potential material for modern melodrama is kept on an ominous low boil under a frosty surface as Field carefully frames his figures in imposing structures—both literal, in Berlin blocks, roomy apartments, and New York streets, and metaphorically, in the levels of bureaucracy and embedded prejudices within this rarified air.

Within these spaces, during these few weeks in the life of its characters as they prepare for a book launch and a recording of a piece by Mahler, is a sharp statement about how complicated life is. Particularly, this complication is rooted in the thorny discussions of what to do about great art made by troubled, or troubling, artists. It does so by not only seeing this conductor in all her potential for destruction in her own life and in the lives of others, but by considering the art world’s culpability in uplifting and maintaining the structures that enable those like her, and those worse than her. And yet, such beautiful, imposing, enveloping music! The movie pointedly passes by every potential off-ramp of easy explanation, simple judgment, or pat conclusions. Fittingly, it has a gray palate—stone and glass—and a spacious soundtrack full of pregnant pauses and unspoken implications between the symphonic movements. And the film moves with metronomic certainty, stepping so surely as it presents a fully-realized character (and, in its most uncomfortable moments, a performance that’s a performance of a performance) in all her successes and talent, and her irreconcilable flaws and foibles. How true. Why, to reflect on the film is to reflect on a character who almost feels like a real person we’ve met.