Tár: a Good Film that Could Have Been So Much More

Tar.

Tár is a meticulously crafted film, boasts a towering performance from Cate Blanchett, and tackles a serious subject in a carefully considered and measured way. So why does it leave the viewer quietly deflated?

Todd Field made his directorial debut in 2001 with In the Bedroom, and followed that up with his adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, in 2006, both of which are superb. 

All his films are clearly a conscious riposte and antidote to a culture that seems to have traded seriousness and depth for ephemeral trivia and empty if immediate gratification. And in each film, the lives of comfortable but sympathetic middle class protagonists are suddenly uprooted by external threats they’re incapable of comprehending.

Lydia Tár, played by Blanchett, is that rare thing, a respected and successful conductor in the world of classical music, who happens to be gay. Though happily ensconced with her partner and their 7 year old daughter, she clearly is or was romantically engaged with her assistant, Francesca, and had earlier had some sort of a tryst and or relationship with a musical protégée called Krista. 

Enter Olga, the newly arrived and much younger cellist in the orchestra, who Blanchett instantly develops a crush on. Indeed, the only reason Olga secures her position is precisely because of said infatuation.

In the Bedroom, 2001

But when, and without giving anything away, it’s discovered that Krista has committed suicide and has somehow implicated Blanchett, her comfortable existence begins to unravel. 

The problem is, the film spends far too much time establishing its classical music credentials, and not nearly enough exploring the dramatic questions it raises. What exactly is Blanchett accused of doing, what does she think she did, what actually happened, and how big is the gap between the public perception of what she’s accused of and what she actually did?

If the film had failed to fully address any of its dramatic questions, and had insisted instead on remaining steadfastly enigmatic over the course of, say, a 90 minute film, then that might have been one thing. But Tár goes on for the guts of 2 and ¾ hours. 

And what you get instead are extended discussions of Mahler’s 5th, and the mildly contentious question around the tempo of its adagietto, and reams and reams of her jogging, rehearsing and composing. The opening scene in particular, in which she’s interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, goes on for ev er.

Little Children, 2006.

You’d love to have sent them away for a month with their script and a rigorous script editor. Or alternatively, to have been left alone with the finished film and a pair of scissors in an editing suite.

When it does focus on the drama, as for instance with the scenes between Blanchett and Olga, or between Blanchett and her wife and daughter, the film sizzles and sparks fly. It just fails entirely to produce any kind of satisfying third act.

Tár is impeccably made and impressively serious, and it’s comfortably one of the best films to come out of Hollywood in years. But, disappointingly, that’s all it is. When it could and should have been so much more substantial. 

You can see the trailer for Tár here:

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the best and worst in film, television and music!

“Bones and All”, “Aftersun”; teenagers times two

Bones and All.

As I came out the cinema after watching Bones and All, I wondered briefly whether that was perhaps the most instantly forgettable film since whatsitcalled with whatshisname, you know, that one that was nominated for all those Academy awards. And I presumed that that would be the very last time that it ever crossed my mind. 

But over the few weeks that followed, to my baffled bewilderment, a slew of starry-eyed reviewers lined up to loudly sing its praises. The Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Irish Times, the London Independent and even, if you don’t mind, the New Yorker’s august Anthony Lane all managed to momentarily divest themselves of their critical faculties to be born forth on its agricultural rhythms. 

raio Argento’s Suspiria.

It’s like watching somebody sitting on an inflatable pool toy as it rests stubbornly motionless on your living room floor. While they flash you an excited smile, bobbing gamely this way and that, telling you that the water is amazing, and wondering why you’re not jumping in to join them. 

Let’s get one thing straight. Bones and All is absolutely not a bad film. It’s very competently made and is as inoffensive as you could possibly wish for. And if you’re familiar with Guadagnino’s films, you’ll not be surprised by what you’re being presented with.

As with his pointless remake of Dario Argento’s towering Suspiria (reviewed earlier here), where he neutered any sense of beauty to focus instead on producing an accurately researched reproduction of dreary, drab, dull, grey 1970s Germany, here he concentrates carefully on recreating grim, grimey rust-belt, middle America, circa 1989. 

It’s commendably convincing, but utterly devoid of anything approximating drama, and is entirely free of tension. 

Obviously, if you’re a teenager, confident in the certainty that you have all the time in the world, then the prospect of watching two attractive would-be teenagers gaze lovingly into one another’s eyes, as they amble aimlessly across the plains of America from one trailer trash dive to the next, will quite possibly strike you as time well spent. 

But for any chicken for whom spring is, alas, a now distant memory, you’ll be left quietly seething at having fruitlessly wasted more than two golden hours on glorified Wallpaper.

Aftersun.

Aftersun is about a teenager, but is very much a film for grown-ups. And is in fact one of the films of the year, and comfortably so. As such, it’s the ideal palette-cleanser for Bones and All.

I’ll say very little about the plot. Indeed, there’s little to say about it. It’s slow, measured, apparently languid, and yet there’s a tension that quietly and then ominously builds. 

Paul Mescal is the barely thirty something year old father of an 11 year old daughter, played by the dazzling newcomer Frankie Corio. And he’s taken her to a resort in Turkey to spend some quality time together, now that he and her mother have separated. 

Meticulously paced, precisely shot and carefully considered, its shoestring budget is visibly but fleetingly. Other than which, it’s consciously cinematic in a way that few films any more bother to be. Written and directed by first time Scottish film maker Charlotte Wells, it’s the most confident and impressive feature debut for many a moon.

You can see the trailer for Aftersun here:

And the trailer for Bones and All here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

‘Triangle of Sadness’ – Gallic shrug emoji

Triangle of Sadness

Triangle of Sadness won Swedish director Ruben Östlund his second Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, having previously won in 2017 with The Square. So I was slightly perplexed by the reviews it garnered when it was released, which seemed to suggest that they’d enjoyed the film, but had remained quietly underwhelmed by it. 

Surely a classic art house film either dazzles and bewitches, or leaves you shaking your head in utter bewilderment at what all the fuss had been about – vide Parasite, reviewed here. And yet.

The problem with the film is, in a word, its obviousness. It’s not just that its plot is lifted from, amongst others, an episode of The Simpsons. A group of upstanding citizens get stranded on a desert island, and their social hierarchy is turned on its head. Nor even the fact that it takes Östlund the guts of 2 ½ hours to do what The Simpsons did in 24 minutes. It’s the fact that the film is supposed to be a social satire. 

O Lucky Man!

The targets you’d expect an art house film to be satirising are the sorts of people who go to, or make, award-wining art house films like this. Hence, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (’60), Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (’73) and Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (’72). Triangle of Sadness aims its poisoned darts at the fashion world, and the 0.1% who fund it.

The problem with Östlund goes back to and stems from the success he enjoyed with his third feature, and his break out film, Force Majeure, from 2014. Which was wonderfully unsettling, and looked and felt for all the world like quintessential art house fodder. 

But it’s obvious from The Square, which was something of a mess, and now this, that Östlund is one of those very competent but conventional Hollywood film makers, who just happens to be working in Europe. In much the same way that the likes of Alan Parker and Jim Sheridan used to do in the past. 

Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Which is absolutely fine. But what it means is that how you respond to Triangle of Sadness will depend on the type of film you’re hoping for. If you’re looking for a lush, plush and completely unchallenging companion piece to The Devil Wears Prada, that’s beautifully shot, impeccably acted and wholly predictable, then you’re in for a treat. 

But if a duel winner of the Palme d’Or creates expectations of genuine substance, I’m afraid you’re going to be as underwhelmed by its longueurs and as perplexed by its success as the rest of us.

You can see the trailer for Triangle of Sadness here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

‘Destroyer’, starring Nicole Kidman

Destroyer

I missed Destroyer first time around, when it was released in 2018. Inexplicably, so did everybody else, and it grossed just $5 million, barely half its budget. Which is criminal, as it’s one of the most intelligent and gripping thrillers made in the last decade.

The fifth film by Karyn Kusama, it was written by her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, and is their third collaboration together. 

And although her feature debut, Girlfight (2000), was lauded at Sundance and Cannes, it fared poorly at the box office. As did her next two films, Aeon Flux (‘05) and Jennifer’s Body (’09). So she spent the following 5 or 6 years working as a director for hire on television. 

Kidman’s best performance since To Die For in 1995.

But she went back to the silver screen in 2015 for The Invitation, a well-regarded horror that had only a limited release. But Destroyer takes her work to a whole new level.

Confidently plotted and impeccably scripted, the direction and cinematography are constantly thoughtful and carefully choreographed. Which ought of course to be true for every film, but almost never is. While the twist is low-key, subtle and, cleverly, structural.

But the entire film revolves around the vortex that is Nicole Kidman. The gravitational pull of her self-destruction seems to drag the whole of Los Angeles down into the hole she’s hell-bent in burrowing for the grave she’s determined to dig for herself.

Kidman’s a funny one. Her choices are actually almost always both challenging and impressively intelligent. But the few duds are so glaring, they can be momentarily blinding. But really, it’s only The Stepford Wives (’04), Bewitched (’05) and Australia (08) that baffle. Birth (’04), Margot at the Wedding (’07) and Nine (’09), for instance, might not work as films, but they were all choices and risks worth taking.

This though is comfortably her best performance, and is the answer she’ll give when St Peter asks her to point to the one thing that could move him to open the pearly gates for her.

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

As for Kusama, she presumably finds herself once more at a crossroads. Having had her fingers burnt trying to produce commercial fodder for the Hollywood bean-counters, she was once again offered the chance to get her hands on a sizable budget, for a re-make of Dracula, only to have the project cancelled. So which way does she go now, to the left or to the right?

Does she follow the path of Kathryn Bigelow, and trade in her intelligence for dollar bills, or that of Lynne Ramsay (whose You Were Never Really Here I reviewed here) and Debra Granick, into the undergrowth and uncertainty of the independent world?

I hope somebody sits her down and forces her to watch repeated viewings of Zero Dark Thirty (’12). There but for the grace of God…

You can see the trailer for Destroyer below:

Sign up for a subscription right of below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

‘Elvis’, the trailer, plus a film about music made by a grown up

Elvis

What a joy to be able to see the world as Baz Luhrmann does, through the eyes of a 9 year old boy. Many 9 and 10 year olds note what pleasure they get from eating the icing on a cake. And they have the brilliant idea of asking for one made of nothing else. 

But they note their parent’s weary dismissal of that idea, and they spend a few years investigating gastronomy, learning about appetite and acquiring taste. And they come to appreciate that pleasure without pain, light without darkness and euphoric highs without the depths of despair simply cannot be. They are mutually dependent.

The Velvet Underground, Nica and Andy Warhol

But Lurhmann has said, sod that. I’m staying just as I am. And he’s spotted how much we all enjoy watching music videos and movie trailers, and he’s had the brilliant idea of making feature length versions of them. 

So we got Romeo + Juliette, which manages to defang Shakespeare’s play of its tragedy, and turn it into a poptastic costume fest. Then there was Moulin Rouge, which was a 2 hour music video, pure and simple. Likewise The Great Gatsby

Which, I have to confess, I’ve not been able to actually sit through. So it’s perfectly possible that it’s a carefully considered and thoughtful meditation on doomed youth and fin de siècle disillusionment. But I’m going out on a limb, and presuming that it’s just A N Other 2 hour plus music video.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

And now we have 2 ¾ hour movie trailer about Elvis. So, as with any trailer, you get told immediately who the goodies and baddies are. And every line of dialogue is on the nose and means exactly what it says – just like this sentence. And every frame is stuffed full of information, because you’ve only got two minutes to tell the audience about all the different elements in your story. 

Only it doesn’t go on for two minutes. This is kept up for nearly three hours. There’s stuff stuffed into every frame and on every corner of the soundtrack. It’s like watching a teenage boy who’s just been shown what all the buttons do in his editing software. And so pleased is he with all the effects they can produce, that he can’t stop pressing them, repeatedly. And he’s completely oblivious to the reaction of his parents when he shows them what he’s done.

It’s relentless in its blind bombardment of the senses, and the tedium that results is incessant and mind-numbing.

The Velvet Underground

I always admire though rarely warm to the films of Todd Haynes. But his eponymous documentary on The Velvet Underground is an unqualified joy from start to finish. Serious music from an extraordinary collective who came together at a fascinating moment in time. 

Structured in an appropriately left of field way, it’s a quietly intelligent and thoughtful film about a uniquely influential band. Their first album is one of the great works of art of the 20th century. And remarkably, this film does them justice. 

Watching it after sitting through Elvis is like dropping your child off at a birthday party, only to be greeted there by the excited stare of the birthday boy, as he offers you a slice of his solid icing cake. When suddenly, you’re taken by the elbow and gently led out into the back garden, where you’re handed an ice cold beer and a glass of Jameson. And you sit down together and lean back to contemplate the stars.

You can see the trailer for The Velvet Underground below:

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I’ll keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!