Pretension, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And in his searingly powerful TÁR, a work as slyly hilarious as it is intensely dramatic, writer/director Todd Field makes pretension his chief subject so brazenly that the film itself could easily be mistaken for pretentious. I'm not sure Field did it right, though. No two-hour-and-40-minute movie about inappropriate transactional relationships, cancel culture, the #MeToo movement, and the challenges of conducting Mahler's 5th Symphony should be this much freaking fun.
We may as well begin with the title, because unlike Best Picture winner CODA, the all-caps TÁR isn't an acronym, and that acute over the “A” is deliberate. What kind of highfalutin' so-and-so, when naming his movie, employs both block letters and an accent mark? Meanwhile, before the narrative begins, we're given the opening credits, which is traditional – except that these opening credits are profoundly untraditional. Presented in black-and-white with no accompanying dialogue (though a soloist does sing a cappella in a foreign tongue), they more accurately resemble closing credits, in that for more than two full minutes, the screen is positively plastered with names and positions: assistant editors, dolly-grip operators, overseas film companies. Everyone involved in the shoot or its pre- and post-production appears to be listed – everyone, that is, but the actors, meaning that you'll learn the identity of the on-set caterer before seeing the name of TÁR's leading lady. Who does this Todd Field character think he is?!
That query winds up paling next to the question of “Who does Lydia Tár think she is?”, and in the movie's first scene, we begin to get our answer. Field's saga begins with the titular musician – portrayed with blistering, thunderous vivacity by Cate Blanchett – being interviewed on-stage by The New Yorker's Adam Kopnik, who plays himself. (More pretension, perhaps, but Kopnik is excellent in the role.) In quick succession, we hear of Tár's myriad accomplishments: her landmark tenures as the first female conductor of numerous national orchestras; her current appointment as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; her compositional successes making her the rare recipient of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony – wins that place her, as Gopnik amusingly reminds the audience, among the legendary EGOT ranks of Richard Rodgers and Mel Brooks. While Kopnik's and Tár's subsequent, extended conversation is lofty yet refreshingly down-to-earth, there's just enough stilted affectation in Blanchett's readings to suggest the grand esteem in which she holds herself. This wildly talented, self-professed “U-Haul lesbian” would have no problem with a film of her name in bold block letters. (Fittingly, the memoir she's currently writing is titled Tár on Tár.) It's after the New Yorker interview, however, that the cracks in her self-possessed armor start to show, and the momentum of TÁR begins to grow indistinguishable from that of a simmering psychological thriller.
Through a series of exceptionally well-written, cagily acted sequences, a fuller picture of Tár emerges. She's blithely condescending with a less-gifted fellow conductor (Mark Strong); brittle with her concertmaster spouse (Nina Hoss); loving yet distant with their young daughter (Mila Bogojevic); cruelly dismissive of the nervous “BIPOC pangender” Juilliard student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who, in the midst of her lecture, exits while calling Tár “a f---ing bitch.” Yet it's in her dealings with devoted assistant Francesca (Noémie Meriant) and the philharmonic's new Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) that the seemingly plotless early nature of Field's film morphs into an evident story. Although we never witness any actual incidents, Lydia Tár is most assuredly a person who would use her intimidating cachet and sense of entitlement to trade professional favors for sex. Maybe she recently has. And maybe someone, or a number of someones, is ready to call her out for it.
He may only have helmed two previous films, both of them (2000's In the Bedroom and 2006's Little Children) quite a while ago, but Field has clearly established himself as a disciplined auteur with a very particular niche: He makes domestic dramas that feel like horror movies. Lydia Tár is, in many ways, a monster, which we accurately glean, if we hadn't already, in the uncomfortable scene of her terrorizing her daughter's grade-school bully … and in German, no less. (“I'll get you,” she promises, “and if you tell any grown-up what I just said, they won't believe you, because I'm a grown-up.”) But she's also plagued by monsters – at least the ones in her head. Sensing that the walls are slowly crumbling around her and threatening to destroy her standing, Tár suffers from nightmares and is driven to near-madness by subtly oppressive, increasingly menacing sounds in her rented apartment: sing-songy doorbell rings, an old woman's wailing, a metronome that starts itself. TÁR may be a tale of moral and professional comeuppance, but it plays like Rosemary's Baby, and Field adds to our giddy discomfort by making his movie so fiercely of-the-moment, with references to the pandemic and disgraced conductor James Levine sitting alongside Alec Baldwin's interview of Tár for his Here's the Thing podcast. (A nicely meta touch, given that Baldwin played Blanchett's husband in Blue Jasmine.) It doesn't merely feel as though the events in Field's fiction are really happening; they appear to be happening right now, and with the force of a horrific car crash you can't tear your eyes away from.
While the first 130 minutes of Field's latest are, I propose, inarguably great, I can't necessarily say the same of the final 30 – though they're certainly arguable. Following a shocking act of bloodless violence that made me both audibly gasp and, afterward, think “Wait … really?”, the film goes off on an odd, apparently directionless tangent that makes narrative sense but doesn't boast anything close to the emotional pull of what came before. Yet even the lesser gambits toward the climax, and definitely the final tracking shot, are haunting me more than 95 percent of what I've seen in the rest of 2022's cinematic output to date. And regardless of whether you have problems with the work as a whole, it's inconceivable that anyone could fail to be wowed by Blanchett, who dives so furiously into her complex, repellant, intoxicating figure that her Oscar-winning Jasmine French almost feels like a warm-up act. Blanchett isn't just at a career peak in TÁR. She's an astounding, unmatchable STÁR – block letters, italics, and accent mark all richly deserved.
A straightforward, relatively conventional biographical drama buoyed by strong direction and a spectacular central performance, director/co-writer Chinonye Chukwu's Till tells of the detestable murder and enduring legacy of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who was lynched in Mississippi during a 1955 summer vacation visiting his cousins. Like many people, probably, I knew of Emmett more than I knew the particulars surrounding his tragically abbreviated life, and am positive that I had never seen the photos that were widely circulated – at the insistence of his mother Mamie – of the young man lying in an open casket at his funeral. Without making the images in any way exploitative, Chukwu and her makeup team recreate Emmett's corpse, and it's a sickening shock, as it must be. His body bloated and his complexion purplish from three days spent underwater, his unrecognizable face marked by severe bruises and a gunshot wound to his temple, the closest thing to a human he resembles is “elephant man” Joseph Merrick. Yet after the initial trauma of viewing Emmett's decomposed form in the morgue, Mamie (played by an incandescent Danielle Deadwyler) looks at her boy on the gurney and, later, in his casket, and sees nothing but beauty – a beauty too pure for the ugliness of his fate, and of this world.
Prior to Till, I'm not sure that I'd ever seen a mother's love presented as the sort of palpable, physical sensation we experience here. When Mamie reacts to the unimaginable sight of her child after the hospital bed sheet has been lifted from his head and torso, Deadwyler's guttural howls of rage and grief are overwhelming; it seems impossible that someone could carry, and subsequently release, this much pain. Yet aided by Chukwu's sensitive direction, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski's crisp photography, and a score by composer Abel Korzeniowski that appears to be working in tandem with Mamie's central nervous system, Deadwyler gives her every encounter with Emmett, and about Emmett, a pulsating sense of feeling. All of those feelings are tied to love.
It's there in Mamie's buried panic when she sends Emmett (a heartbreakingly endearing Jalyn Hall) on his ill-fated trek to the Deep South; in her steely determination when arguing for an open-casket funeral, demanding that the world see precisely what racists did to her boy; in her empowered forthrightness when, months after the murder, she becomes a staunch advocate for civil rights. When Mamie testifies at Emmett's murder trial, Chukwu films her entire testimony in a single shot without cuts. It's a significant performance feat that Deadwyler underplays with aching restraint, yet what radiates most clearly isn't sadness or anger so much as affection. She speaks of knowing the touch of her son, even in his appalling post-execution form, so well that she'd recognize him even with eyes and ears closed, and while Mamie talks, she can't help but reminisce about Emmett – even on the stand in front of a hatefully bigoted crowd – with a tender smile. During her testimony, Mamie does tear up. We, in contrast, weep buckets.
A number of civil-rights and civil-rights-adjacent films have been released over recent years, but Till is one of few that doesn't inherently feel like medicine – the movie you attend because it's inherently Good for You and will earn you more karmic points than you'd get with a fifth screening of Top Gun: Maverick. That's partly due to Chukwu's edgy yet supremely humane direction – see also her 2019 death-row stunner Clemency starring a never-better Alfre Woodard – and partly to a topnotch team of collaborators that extends to her co-screenwriters Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, her designers, and her ensemble that boasts such iconic Black talents as Whoopi Goldberg, Frankie Faison, and Roger Guenveur Smith. But even when the movie briefly falters, as it does (as most works of its type tend to) with the introduction of generically loathsome Southern louts whose arrivals may as well be accompanied by subtitled “BOO!” and “HISS!” instructions for the audience, Deadwyler makes the film absolutely essential viewing. The next Oscars ceremony lands in March, and most days, I not-so-secretly wish I was a voting member of the Academy. But I gotta admit that this year, with the Best Actress race set to feature some combination of riveting work by Deadwyler, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, and Michelle Yeoh in addition to the still-to-be-seen contenders, I'm utterly relieved to not have a ballot.
Till is what is commonly, oftentimes patronizingly referred to as a “well-meaning” drama, in that its subject matter is so inherently noble in its messaging that the movie kind of succeeds even if it fails. Chinonye Chukwu's Emmett Till bio-pic, however, transcends that “well-meaning” label. Phyllis Nagy's Call Jane exemplifies it.
Set primarily in the late-summer and fall of 1968, director Nagy's feature-film debut (she was Oscar-nominated for her screenplay for 2015's Carol) is a fictionalized exploration into the very real Jane Collective: the group of Chicago women who, with considerable personal risk, arranged for other women to have safe, illegal abortions until the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made the organization superfluous – happily so for those who championed its cause. Obviously, a recent Supreme Court ruling has made the film far more timely now than it must have been during its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival. I only wish the added months had also made the movie better, because what I endured was a decently acted but almost hopelessly phony empowerment tale that routinely trashed its own good intentions through cardboard characters, grossly illogical sitcom scenarios, meaningless detours, and so much reflexive and aggressive back-patting that the film should immediately check itself for bruises. It's “well-meaning,” to be sure. It also largely sucks.
Soft-pedaling everything in sight, Nagy and co-screenwriters Hayley Shore and Roshan Sethi present us with the most theoretically unimpeachable abortion-drama heroine imaginable: a white, blonde, friendly, happily married suburban mother – one named Joy, no less – who needs (but pointedly doesn't want) the procedure because her heart condition brings with it a mere 50-percent chance of surviving the child's birth, and no Illinois doctor, under law, will allow it. Casting Elizabeth Banks in the role certainly helps, as the eternally appealing performer nearly always seems impervious to cruddy material. But after Joy joins the Janes in their movement, and assists with abortions, and eventually performs abortions, no one is helped by the obvious, relentless speechifying, to say nothing of the laughably fraudulent scenarios that allow Joy to convince her husband (Chris Messina), next-door neighbor (Kate Mara), and newly menstruating teen daughter (Grace Edwards) that she's attending art class when she's secretly in a run-down downtown apartment building with forceps in hand.
Yet somehow, Nagy's film is even worse when it's not focused on being an ode to Joy. Every scene involving the skeevy abortionist (Cory Michael Smith) with the Davy Jones haircut – especially the one that finds him playing strip-truth-telling with the Jane Collective head played by 73-year-old Sigourney Weaver (!!!) – is excruciating, as is the quickly tossed-off subplot involving a potential affair between Joy's hubby and best friend. The cartoonishly one-dimensional nature of the patients and fellow Janes is offensive. The frequently employed period-song selections are disastrous. (Malvina Reynolds' “What's Goin' On Down There” as aural accompaniment to a vaginal exam? Seriously?!) Despite the moderate gusto that Banks, Weaver, John Magaro as an insinuating detective, and Wunmi Mosaku as the Janes' token Black representative bring to the movie, the distractingly grainy-looking Call Jane is a total slog, plus a waste of potentially moving, even mobilizing subject matter. “Well-meaning” might be the only time the word “well” would feel appropriate when discussing this movie… unless it was used in the sentence “Well, that sure was a disappointing two hours.”
PREY FOR THE DEVIL
A busier-than-usual weekend schedule meant that I only had time for one of our area's two horror-flick debuts, and despite the sequel's current “You'll vomit! You'll faint! You'll wet yourself!” marketing campaign, the inconveniently unwieldy 138-minute running length for Terrifier 2 meant that I had to instead opt for a screening of director Daniel Stamm's higher-profile exorcism chiller Prey for the Devil. I'm pretty sure I got the fuzzy end of that lollipop.
The movie is a depressingly tepid, remedial tale of a spunky 20-something nun (Jacqueline Byers) who realizes that her childhood traumas, including her mother's suicide, are demonically following her into adulthood. So it's like Smile, but, you know, schlocky. Also boring as sin, with Byers' solid portrayal consistently waylaid by lame CGI, predictable jump scares that aren't at all scary, prototypical ramblings about the history of the Catholic church, and one of those creaky “Boo!” finales that fright films should've dispensed with, like, shortly after 1976's Carrie. Young Posy Taylor looks to be having fun as Prey for the Devil's surrogate Linda Blair, and once I recognized her (which took longer than I would have expected), I applauded the casting of the great Virginia Madsen as a smart, sane hospital staffer, the horror vet graciously ceding her Candyman cred to a new generation. Still, I was so uninvested throughout this diabolically lackluster PG-13 yawn-fest that, at some point, I started mentally composing a shopping list that I planned to attack the second the end credits rolled. I may have been bored silly by this garbage, but at least I remembered to pick up garbage bags.