Category Archives: Film Review

Tár (2022)

Tár is perhaps not the most exciting title ever conceived for a film, but a character as narcissistic as Lydia Tár wouldn’t dare permit any confusion about who’s in charge here. This is her story, and in Tár’s mind that means she alone is the owner of that story. A story, a piece of music, a relationship, a marriage — these are not conversations or discussions, not malleable things that allow for multiple participants. These are possessions, shouldered entirely by their owner, and in a way those possessions define the identity of the owner herself. Any attempt by another to repossess those things, then, would be akin to destroying that identity.

If you’ve ever found yourself in contention with a true narcissist, you know how threatening that idea really is. Here, in Todd Field’s first film in sixteen years (his previous being the excellent Little Children), Cate Blanchett gives her all as the embattled and egomaniacal Tár, a decorated classical conductor on the verge of completing a massive cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. At first, the success Tár enjoys seems well-earned. She credits her mentors, gives back to the community and has amicable relationships with her assistant and her guest conductor. As the recording session for the final symphony approaches, though, we begin to see how Tár’s success has been built on a sinister foundation.

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Good action direction is its own beast, a delicate balance of choreography, cinematography and editing that usually has two distinct goals: be exciting and be coherent. Those goals can be at odds, of course, as the more frantic and fast-paced an action sequence gets, the more likely it is to lose the viewer. 2002 was a watershed year for the actioner with the release of The Bourne Identity, which sported a super-fast-cutting editing style that worked brilliantly in its best moments; Bourne Supremacy, the sequel, doubled-down on this technique and arguably set the bar even higher than its predecessor. But many of the films that aped Bourne in the ensuing years failed to balance those two goals, resulting in messy fight scenes and chase sequences that were hard to follow. Heck, there are even a few moments in the trilogy-capping Bourne Ultimatum that lose the thread of logic in their haste.

I suppose that’s preferable to the other alternative, which is an action scene that focuses so intently on retaining an internal logic that it fails to be exciting (looking at you, Obi-Wan Kenobi). But neither are an issue in Mad Max: Fury Road, which is quite straightforwardly one of the best action movies ever made. The sheer amount of tomfoolery occurring onscreen should be utterly disorienting, with Max fighting his way over moving vehicles as they careen across the desert, pursued by several distinct war parties, some of whom have these pole-vault-looking thingies that launch attackers into the air high above those moving vehicles, and that’s not to mention the action of the landscape around them as sandstorms and falling cliffsides lend additional pressure from all sides…oh, and Max is literally chained to another person for like half of this. Follow all that?

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Johnny Guitar (1954)

Strong female character is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in woke film crit, and it’s probable that the arbiter of this particular criteria should maybe be someone other than weak male film critic — but here we are. Watching a movie as fantastic as Johnny Guitar, it’s hard not to wonder if the phrase is in fact more often applied to female characters who basically act like male characters, resorting easily to physical and verbal violence. The leads in Captain Marvel and Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow are handy in a fight, sure, but they also lack flaws, for the most part, and therefore lack real complexity. Holding those characters up as the gold standard for strong females in film has always rung hollow.

The fact that all of those modern action films are directed by men is not inconsequential (and is its own problem), but then again so is Johnny Guitar, helmed by the great Nicholas Ray, which still manages to feature a lead character who — in addition to being handy in a fight — has complex relationships with the men and women around her, has self-doubt in tandem with self-confidence, has flaws and imperfections and weaknesses, all of which paradoxically contribute to the strength of this character. This character is Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloonkeeper on the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town, a brash and opinionated woman frequently at odds with the town’s cattlemen. The arrival of the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) complicates Vienna’s already-contentious relationship with the other townsfolk, particularly her sworn enemy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).

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Contempt (1963)

“Chekhov’s Gun” is a commonly-quoted dramatic principle underscoring the necessity of every element of a narrative story. If a gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired in the third. Elements that do not impact the story — unfired guns — should be removed entirely, so as not to make false promises or clutter the story with unnecessary details. Chekhov’s principle is intrinsically related to foreshadowing, and there are several ways to use it. You can use it well, giving your story the qualities of a fine-tuned machine. You can use it poorly, relying on it as a crutch such that your story loses its natural, organic feeling. Or you can use it like Jean-Luc Godard uses it in Contempt: as a massive fuck you to anyone who dares insist that dutifully following the rules is going to make your story better.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, but the handgun that appears in Contempt is indeed shown several times with great intention. It is never fired, nor is it brandished with the threat of being fired, nor is its owner really the type of man who would ever shoot anyone. That man is Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter working on a new adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey while contending with pressure from his American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) and navigating marital strife with his spouse Camille (Brigitte Bardot). After a mere glimpse at Paul we understand he is not the type of man to resort to violence, much as we understand after Contempt‘s opening shot that Godard is not the type of director who’d forget that he put a loaded gun in the hand of his hero.

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Bend of the River (1952)

Jimmy Stewart was in a lot of Westerns. From Destry Rides Again (1939) all the way to The Shootist (1976), the actor’s continual returns to the frontier nearly end up signposting the decades-long rise and fall of the genre itself. In the early 1960s, just prior to the introduction of a violent revisionism courtesy of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Stewart teamed with John Ford and turned out classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West was Won. Prior to that, as the Western was enjoying its heyday in the 1950s, Stewart starred in the progressive-for-the-time Broken Arrow and in a string of Westerns from director Anthony Mann, including the eventual classic Winchester ’73. But the most underrated Stewart Western — and maybe one of the most underrated Westerns period — is another feature from Mann called Bend of the River.

It’s an unlikely candidate for that mantle, maybe, if only for the lack of stereotypical Western tropes. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a tough cowboy who puts himself at risk to ensure a delivery of supplies reaches a budding homestead in the Northwest Frontier. The route takes him by valley and mountainside, through Portland, and back and forth across the eponymous river, all the while accompanied by friend and foe of varying loyalties. This question of loyalty — who’s the real villain? —is very much at the heart of Bend, and the guessing game we play as viewer is a big part of what makes the film so great. (Also, it must be noted, “Glyn McLyntock” is an all-timer of a character name.)

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The Northman (2022)

I am admittedly predisposed to movies like The Northman — bloody, epic revenge tales with a strange angle, a hyper-specific period setting, or both. I’m also a huge fan of The Lighthouse, the previous film from writer/director Robert Eggers, one of the most unique American films of the 21st century. So the hype level for this flick was more or less at carrying capacity at this week’s screening, and Eggers and Co. did not disappoint. Starring Alexander Skarsgård as the vengeance-bent Viking prince Amleth, The Northman has Eggers’s blend of folklore and historical fidelity all wrapped up in a potent, ferocious epic. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it has some of the most stunning storytelling you’ll see onscreen this year.

Much has already been written on Skarsgård’s insane transformation into Amleth, a beastly and primal performance that puts the mere term macho to shame. Of course it’s far deeper than machismo, and Skarsgård imbues Amleth with a vulnerability that makes the character — and thereby the picture — really work. He’s doing everything Leonardo DiCaprio did as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but unlike Glass, Amleth’s character is wholly defined by his relationships with others. His bond with his father and mother (Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman) and his hatred for his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) drive his every action. He’s frequently referred to as a wolf, and we see all sides of that metaphor: the young and uncertain pup, the lone stray seeking a home, the feral creature commanding a pack of other wolves, and finally the wisened alpha. Skarsgård goes all the way and then some, and Northman couldn’t exist without him.

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Best of 2021

Another weird year for cinema means another caveat-laced Best Of list, something just south of comprehensive, perhaps, largely due to a significant scaling-back of my usual moviegoing frenzy. I like to think I saw all the big blockbuster stuff in the cinema — as opposed to on the couch — like Dune, Last Night in Soho, No Time to Die, a few Marvel flicks, etc. And a few of the “smaller” films that actually made my Top Ten were also experienced out in the wild, which I’m thankful for, not that this ultimately had much bearing on how good or bad the film actually was.

Fact remains that I saw fewer movies this year than I usually do, so this Best Of list does not reflect Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth, Sian Heder’s CODA, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, and a bunch of other films that would likely upset the following rundown. Still, from what I did see, here are the ones that moved me the most.

And as always, please remember to visit our Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters.

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Red Rocket (2021)

Independent Film Festival Boston presented Red Rocket at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA last night, and before I fawn over Sean Baker’s latest film it’s worth mentioning that it’s damn good to be back. The last film I saw at the Brattle was almost exactly two years ago — The Lighthouse, with director Robert Eggers in-person — and I didn’t quite realize how much I’d missed the comfort of that room. Props to IFFBoston and the Brattle for making that return as safe as possible.

Up on the screen, though, was a homecoming of a decidedly different sort. Red Rocket follows Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a washed-up L.A. pornstar returning to his impoverished hometown of Texas City. Mikey’s a narcissistic bastard, to put it mildly, sporting a gravitational pull of destruction that threatens his old acquaintances after his 20-year absence. Mikey’s delusions imperil a new relationship, too, when he meets the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Something about Mikey is undeniably electric, though, and so every new obstacle he faces presents an opportunity for him to redeem himself of his despicable ways. Maybe he’ll do the right thing this time, we think. Maybe he’ll turn it all around.

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Pale Rider (1985)

The traditional Western is perhaps not known for subtlety, nor for its interpretive qualities, nor for self-awareness, and yet Pale Rider has all of those things and is very much a late-game classic of the genre. “Classic,” here, should indicate that this is not a revisionist Western, despite being released long after the genre had been declared dead. The plot concerns a fledgling California village under the thumb of a ruthless mining corporation, and Clint Eastwood’s mysterious loner rides into town and kicks ass in the name of the little guy. This, as you may have heard, is about as classic as the plot of Western gets (see also: Shane, Django, A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s own High Plains Drifter, etcetera).

Of course, none of those frontier tales double as a ghost story. By the end of Pale Rider, the implication is that Eastwood’s nomadic preacher is in fact not of this Earth (Higher Plane Drifter, maybe? Sorry). In the context of pretty much any other genre, such a twist would play out as little else: a twist, a cheat that we might have seen coming. Heck, the title signals in no uncertain terms that we’re about to behold a figure of otherworldly nature. If Pale Rider were a cop drama, or a crime noir, or a war film, we’d spot Preacher’s true colors from the start, spoiling that tantalizing ambiguity along the way.

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Seven Men from Now (1956)

The arrival of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s might be credited as the major pivot point for the film Western on the whole, but a subtler shift began more than a decade earlier. American director Budd Boetticher was familiar with the genre in 1956, having helmed six or seven Westerns in the early ’50s, films starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford. By and large these fit the mold of what you’d expect from the era, right down to the leading man: young, chiseled cowboys with a strong moral compass and a way with horses. Typified by Hudson, Ford, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and especially John Wayne, the Western Heroes of the time are jokingly (or not?) said to have had only two emotions on display: “hat on” and “hat off.”

The Spaghetti Western, of course, bucked that cleancut protagonist so far off the horse that he never really saddled up again. Sergio Leone introduced heroes that were as dirty as the villains, both literally and figuratively, first embodied by a snarling Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Leone would later cast Henry Fonda — the blue-eyed all-American known for playing Honest Abe and the least-angry man in 12 Angry Men — as the ruthless villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, solidifying the death of the unambiguous good guy/bad guy depictions that had defined the genre to date.

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