Tár

Posted on October 13, 2022 at 5:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language and brief nudity
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and medication
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, accident with bloody injury
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 14, 2022
Date Released to DVD: December 19, 2022

Copyright 2022 Focus
Author and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (playing himself) introduces us to “Tár‘s” subject, Maestro Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) at one of those events that certify the highest levels of achievement, an interview before an appreciative audience of highly cultured Manhattanites. As he reads out her almost preposterously accomplished resume, her beleaguered assistant mouths silently along. Tár is one of a tiny group to have been awarded the four prizes that make up the EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. She has a PhD for her years of research on ethnographic music in the Amazon Basin. She has a book coming out called Tár on Tár. She has conducted prestigious orchestras all over the world and composed movie scores. And she is now in one of the most revered positions in classical music, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. All of this is in a rarified world that has been at best unwelcoming to women (see the documentary, “The Conductor,” about pioneering maestro Marin Alsop).

I admit to wondering a few minutes into the film, “Am I at a movie or a TED Talk?” That does not mean the thoughtful questions from a very respectful Gopnik and the also-thoughtful and engaging answers from the maestro are not fascinating. But we cannot help asking ourselves where a character so completely in control and so impeccably on top of the world can possibly go from here.

The answer, of course, is down.

We get a slight hint of that possibility from the beginning, as an unseen person is texting someone about Lydia as she sleeps on a luxurious private jet. Not everyone is as unconflicted in admiring her as the New Yorker festival audience.

Still, between the deeply researched dialogue from writer/director Todd Field (in his first film since 2006’s “Little Children”) and the truly spectacular performance by Blanchett, Lydia Tár is a mesmerizing character. She seems to be supremely in command, whether rehearsing with the orchestra, responding to a student who tells her that as a “BIPOC pansexual” he cannot be interested in Bach, politely but firmly setting boundaries with an important funder who wants her to share her conducting notes, or threatening the child who has been bullying her young daughter. Blanchett’s physicality in the role is never less than stunning, the masterful arm movements as she conducts communicating to us as much as to the musicians she is leading. As Tár explains to Gopnik that she is not a “human metronome” but she does use her right hand to control “the essential piece of interpretation,” time.

As she prepares to complete her final recording for the complete set of Mahler symphonies, the legendary 5th, Lydia, always exquisitely sensitive to sound and fiercely in control, is increasingly disrupted by noises, a rattle in the car, knocks on the door of the apartment she keeps as a studio. That studio, like the other brilliantly designed settings of the film by Marco Bittner Rosser, cement and metal, stark, institutional, according to the architectural style of brutalism. Her bespoke suits, from costume designer Bina Daigeler, are impeccably tailored but similarly severe. There is no softness or vulnerability. As her wife (Nina Hoss), who is concertmaster of the orchestra, tells her, every relationship Lydia has is transactional. She excepts their daughter, but we may not agree.

The movie takes its time with the story; it is two hours and forty minutes long. But it is as spare as the settings; not a moment is wasted. As Lydia’s carefully constructed life and persona begins to unravel (we will learn just how constructed in an extraordinary scene near the end), she at first is certain she can continue to maintain control. But her failure to understand the limits of her control is evident in some key mistakes. First, just because you delete some emails does not mean they disappear from the inboxes of the recipients. Second, just because someone is an enabler who puts up with abuse for a long time does not mean that will go on forever.

The sound design will be studied in film schools; it makes a huge contribution to the atmosphere and the storytelling. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Hoss, Noémie Merlant as Lydia’s assistant (and more) and real-life cellist Sophie Kauer as a potential new member of the orchestra who attracts some special attention from Lydia. Their lunch scene together is mesmerizing as we see the unstated shifts of power. Lydia may have all of the power of her achievements and the opportunities she can bestow. But the cellist has the power of Lydia’s longing. The movie gives us an enthralling character who keeps our sympathies shifting as we consider questions of seduction, privilege, predation, and cancel culture. And its final scene is breathtaking.

Parents should know that the themes of this movie include sexual predation and #metoo issues as well as cancel culture. A child is bullied and a character has a bad fall with bloody injuries. There are tense emotional confrontations about infidelity and characters use some strong language, drink, and take and abuse medication.

Family discussion: Was Lydia Tár fairly judged? How would you have responded if you were Francesca? If you were on the board of the orchestra? What is the meaning of the final scene?

If you like this, try: Field’s other films, “Little Children” and “In the Bedroom” and the documentary about Marin Alsop, “Meeting Venus,” and “Black Swan.” You may also enjoy learning about Gil Kaplan, an American businessman whose passion for Mahler’s 2nd Symphony led to intense study and performance as a conductor with many orchestras, a possible inspiration for the character played by Mark Strong in this film, also named Kaplan.

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Where’d You Go Bernadette

Posted on August 14, 2019 at 5:44 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress and loss, reference to serious illness of a child and miscarriages
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 2, 2019

Copyright 2019 Annapurna Pictures
The screen adaptation of Maria Semple’s charming book, Where’d You Go Bernadette is…less charming, though perfectly pleasant in a late summer comfort food kind of way. Semple, a sharp and witty writer for television (“Mad About You,” “90210,””Arrested Development”) moved from LA to Seattle and her sense of dislocation inspired the book, with a sharp take on the crunchy, self-consciously wholesome culture of the Pacific Northwest in contrast to the glossier, smugger world of Los Angeles. Note the title, a question without a question mark. And in this version, the question mark-less question is for no discernible reason, answered at the very beginning, followed by most of the film as a flashback.

Missing the epistolary format of the book, which allows us to follow much of the storyline through the characters’ voices, the sharpness is softened in Richard Linklater’s film. Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette, a devoted mother of Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson). Clinically, she might be classified as struggling with depression or anxiety or agoraphobia, but as we will learn, the behavior that is un-social and non-productive is her way of responding to devastating personal and professional loss. She does not want to talk to anyone, except maybe Bee, with whom she has an easy, natural connection. Bernadette loves her husband, Elgy (Billy Crudup), but he has a demanding job at Microsoft, the reason for their move to Seattle, and is not around much. Bernadette ran from personal and professional loss by devoting herself to Bee. But now Bee will be going away to boarding school and she has nowhere to run.

Bernadette is an architect, but her house is a mess of unfinished repairs. When she spots a bump under the carpet that turns out to be a blackberry bush sprout from beneath the house, instead of pulling it up by the roots she neatly scores the carpet to bend the corners back and staple them to the floor so the bush can keep growing. She has contempt for the moms at Bee’s school who go on about their compost heaps. She refers to them as “gnats” and she is not above some passive aggression, including allowing one to create a lot of damage.

Elgy’s new assistant there is Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), one of the gnats, who loves to gossip about how weird Bernadette is with Audrey (Kristen Wiig), one of those “Big Little Lies”-type school moms who likes to run everything, talks about her perfect life a lot, and has very strong views on how everyone should behave.

Bee reminds her parents that they rashly promised her a wish if she got perfect grades all through middle school. Her wish is a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette wants to give Bee her dream, but for someone who can barely leave the house, it is an insurmountable challenge — until other challenges of staying home become even more insurmountable.

This is disappointingly one-dimensional work from one of the world’s most talented and versatile directors, Richard Linklater. Instead of the innovative, perceptive work we saw in “Boyhood,” the “Before” series, “School of Rock,” “Waking Life,” “Bernie,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” “Where’d You Go Bernadette” has all the depth of the Charlene song “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, some mayhem, some mild peril, and some discussion of miscarriages and serious medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Bernadette tell her family where she was going? What problems are you good at solving?

If you like this, try: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” also starring Wiig.

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Oceans 8

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 10, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Heist films are irresistible, especially when they are as twisty and stylish as “Oceans 8.” First, there is the practicality of the puzzle part. I always love the way they set it up to show us how impossible it is, so we can fully appreciate the cleverness of the characters in coming up with plans to surmount the various traps and security features. And then things always go wrong in the moment, so we have the fun of seeing problem-solving in real time. But just as important is the luxury of the fantasy element. We get to identify with people who, like wizards and superheroes, operate outside of the usual rules. All we need is some very slight reason not to worry about the people who are being stolen from (they are usually either unworthy or so institutional it seems impersonal), and we’re on board.

“Oceans 8” has another reason to intrigue us as well. We are already very familiar, perhaps too familiar with the “Oceans 11” series, which rather wore out its welcome by the last in the trilogy and perhaps the original, starring Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Freshening up the concept with an all-female group of grifters and thieves with a cast that features three Oscar-winners and a sensationally beautiful style icon gives it an embedded freshness and underdog quality. “A him gets noticed; a her gets ignored,” Debbie Ocean says. “For once, we want to be ignored.”

Debbie (Sandra Bullock) is just out of prison after five years, eight months, and twelve days. She explains to the parole board that she has learned her lesson and all she wants is “the simple life. Hold down a job, make some friends, go for a walk after work in the fresh air, pay my bills.” They buy it. And soon she is out, shoplifting herself a new wardrobe and swindling herself a hotel room. She visits the grave of her brother, Danny (the character played by George Clooney in the male “Oceans” movies), though the movie does leave open the possibility that his death might just be another con. And she gets in touch with two of her partners in grift from the past, Lou (Cate Blanchett), who has been dealing in petty cons like watering vodka, and art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), against whom Debbie seems to have quite a grudge.

Debbie has spent her time in prison devising a heist of delightful complexity and ingenuity. Of course in reality it was devised by director Gary Ross, who wrote the script with Olivia Milch, and one of their best ideas was to set the robbery at the most glamorous event in America, the annual Met Gala (that’s GAH-la, not GAY-la). Their plan: to get the event’s celebrity chair, an air-headed actress named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a $150,000,000 diamond necklace so they can steal it.  And this gives us a peek into the most exclusive party of the year, with a delicious chance to get up close to huge celebrities in fabulously over-the-top gowns (though gala empress Anna Wintour is played by an anonymous extra in an impeccably coiffed wig).

This will involve a combination of talents from the psychological (persuading Kluger to choose an out-of-fashion designer and persuading Cartier to loan the necklace) to the technological (everyone needs a hacker these days) to the embedding of various moles to good old-fashioned pickpocketing. As we used to say in the 70’s, sisterhood is powerful.  I won’t spoil any of the twists or surprises; I’ll just say that I enjoyed them all very much and this crowd and they are welcome to steal a necklace from me any time.

Parents should know that this film has criminal behavior, some mild peril, brief strong language, alcohol, and marijuana.

Family discussion: If you had a crackerjack team of thieves, what would you want to steal? What would be the biggest obstacle? What was the movie’s biggest surprise?

If you like this try: the documentary about the Met Gala, The First Monday in May and other sophisticated heist movies like the original and remake versions of “Oceans 11,” “The Italian Job,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” as well as “How to Steal a Million” and “Topkapi”

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Thor: Ragnarock

Posted on November 2, 2017 at 10:14 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book fantasy peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 5, 2018

Copyright Disney 2017
New Zealand director Taika Waititi is exactly what Marvel/Disney needed, a true fanboy who loves superheroes because they are fun. Away with you, brooding and tortured comic book characters! What we want to see is a superhero who gets messed with, some colorful characters, a fascinatingly deranged villain, some thrilling action and slamming special effects, a surprise cameo, and, after a suitable series of setbacks, triumph. Plus some post-credit scenes. There’s all of that in this movie, plus some of the funniest moments on screen this year. It is irreverent, even cheeky. It has a sense of humor about itself while never, ever making fun of comic books or their fans.

Waititi, with a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, has taken one of the most serious of the Avengers, with only Chris Hemsworth’s imperishable charm keeping him just this side of wooden, and made use of his fellow antipodean’s true superpower, which is that he is a superb comic actor.

What does Thor have going for him? He has his dad, the king of the gods, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), his home, Asgard, his strength, his hair, his divinity, his confidence, and his hammer. He loses most of that pretty quickly, and stripped down Thor suddenly becomes a much more relatable character, more deserving of our support because he actually seems to need it. You might even say down to earth, except that earth does not really come into it this time.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Thor begins. “Oh, no, Thor is in a cage.” He’s not talking to us, and finding out who he is telling his story to is the first hint we get that we are operating in a slightly cracked universe. But then, reassuringly, Thor does his Thor thing and gets himself out of a big mess with endless panache.

And then things go wrong. The Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) turns up to crush his hammer in her hands. She intends to take over Asgard and there does not seem to be anything he can do about it. He ends up on a planet that is essentially a junk pile, where he is discovered by scavengers. “Are you a fighter or are you food?” they ask him. Before they can gobble him up, he is captured by another scavenger (a terrific Tessa Thompson), who turns out to have a connection to Asgard. But she sells him to the Grandmaster (a glam Jeff Goldblum), who runs a lucrative gladiator show for galactic fans. Waiting to go to battle in the arena, Thor meets the movie’s most endearing character, a rock creature named Korg, played by Waititi himself. And then Thor sees his opponent in the battle to the death: his old Avenger buddy Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). We may love seeing the Avengers join together to take on the bad guys, but we love seeing them fight each other, too, and the Thor/Hulk fight is a smash. Literally.

Loki is there, too, I’m happy to say, and I only wish that someday he will have a movie of his own. Tom Hiddleston’s silky bad boy admits at one point that his loyalties shift moment to moment, and his mercurial impishness is perfectly calibrated. Despite her best efforts, Blanchett’s villain is not nearly as interesting as the other characters, and the resolution does not have the emotional weight that it does in the comics. But she barely diminishes the sheer fun of this film and I hope Marvel keeps Waititi on the roster for as many of these as he is willing to take on.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!

Parents should know that this is a superhero movie with a lot of peril and action-style fantasy violence and some disturbing images, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What does Loki want? Which Avenger would you most like to be? What makes someone significant?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Avengers movies

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