Award season is in full force, as plenty of contenders have arrived, providing audiences with a variety of notable performances, noteworthy direction, and more. This set of reviews includes a psychological drama, a neo-noir romance, a coming-of-age drama minus the nostalgia, an important true story, a crime thriller based on actual events, and a medieval comedy. The following features reviews for Tár, Decision to Leave, Armageddon Time, Till, Holy Spider, and Catherine Called Birdy.
The Setup: We meet Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the groundbreaking conductor of a major German Orchestra, at the height of her career, as she’s preparing both a book launch and a much-anticipated live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Over the ensuing weeks, her life begins to unravel in a singularly modern way. The result is a searing examination of power and its impact and durability in today’s society.
Review: While it’s easy enough to frame Tár as an example of Oscar bait, I think this goes much deeper with that loaded term. For one thing, a two-and-a-half hour+ look at a chief conductor’s psychological breakdown doesn’t have the same mainstream appeal as Shakespeare in Love. Regardless, what matters is the effort from all involved that’s clearly displayed. Most importantly, Blanchett is clearly operating in top form here. Beyond the obvious aspects, such as learning how to conduct and speak German, it’s how she reveals more and more about who Lydia is as the film goes along. Writer/director Todd Field frames some of this film against “cancel culture,” but that’s not at all its primary focus. Instead, seeing the ramifications of one’s actions takes the audience on a journey that starts subtly and grows into a series of situations that deal not only with accountability but self-destruction, ego, genuine talent, and privilege. As the clarity of these ideas comes into focus, the sound mix for the film grows in complexity as well. While I expected scenes involving composition and conducting to have the right effect, I found the quiet moments informed by stray noises haunting Lydia just as impressive. It’s all handled pretty terrifically and finds Tár in a class of its own when considering the symphony of talents coming together.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: A man plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei). But as he digs deeper into the investigation, he finds himself trapped in a web of deception and desire.
Review: A number of South Korean directors have found international praise over the past couple of decades. Bong Joon-ho felt like the apex when he won multiple Oscars, including Best Director. With that in mind, I have no reason to count out Park Chan-wook, who is delivering his first film since 2016’s The Handmaiden. While not engaging in the more twisted sensibilities seen in his Vengeance Trilogy or Thirst, Decision to Leave features plenty of the hallmarks that make Park Chan-wook films so compelling while instilling a level of patience in the proceedings to keep this Hitchcockian mystery feeling somewhat grounded. With that in mind, several elaborate sequences lean into the film’s sense of humor, let alone genre material that best gets to the heart of this film’s personality. All this, and the movie can still get a lot out of the superb efforts from the film’s lead performers. They occupy the space of the detective and a different sort of femme fatal (assuming that’s even the case here), finding exciting shades to play when defining the quiet romance that emerges. And, because it needs to be said, this is easily one of the best-edited films of the year.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: A coming-of-age story about the strength of an American Jewish family and the generational pursuit of the American dream in the face of various troubles, such as racism around them.
Review: Whether or not director James Gray has fond memories of his childhood to go with the more challenging times, rarely are they seen here in this coming-of-age story focused on a significant moment in his life. Sure, this is a semi-autobiography, as opposed to a full-on recreation, but there’s enough depicted to understand that layers of authenticity are present. As opposed to many filmmakers who take a look back at their past with rose-colored glasses (which is not necessarily a fault), Gray is choosing to focus on Queens, New York, in the 80s as it was – an area where it wasn’t at all easy for everyone, particularly families coming from Jewish immigrants and, of course, the Black community. Banks Repeta does fine work as Paul Graff, the young son of a working-class family, and while his story is significant, there’s so much to take from the rest. Particularly Jeremy Strong as Paul’s father, Irving. Presented as an unassuming man at first, seeing him turn to rage to punish and beat his son charges the film with unexpected energy. Anne Hathaway somewhat fades into the background as Paul’s mother. However, her father, played by Anthony Hopkins, turns in incredible work as a senior still healing from his escape from Europe and wishing to impart the right advice to his grandson. The film struggles to find more of a center, but some key speeches, including one from Irving to Paul, do plenty to provide intriguing conflict between hope and the film’s Clash-inspired title.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: The true story of Mamie Till-Mobley’s relentless pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who, in 1955, was brutally lynched while visiting his cousins in Mississippi.
Review: There should be little doubt that a story surrounding Emmet Till will be difficult to watch to some degree. Those who know further details about who was involved and what came of those responsible know the immediate response for that time doesn’t get much better. However, director Chinonye Chukwu has structured this film around the pursuit of Emmet’s mother, Mamie (a fantastic Danielle Deadwyler), and it’s the way Till observes her that allows it to be as powerful as it is. Yes, certain biopic conventions simply can’t be overlooked when considering the necessity of a particular arc to encompass this story, but plenty is still working in favor of what’s seen on screen. Given the brutality involved, rather than actually showing the murder, only some of it is heard from a distance. More time is focused on how to wash this movie in warm colors and fantastic lighting to better portray the relationships that matter. It may seem like a small thing, but scenes that allow Mamie to be in full focus have a much harder impact because of very deliberate camera choices. Tight close-ups and proper lighting leave no room for error. Whether it’s discussions among friends, courtroom testimony, or public speeches, Till’s highlights come from a strong lead performance (with solid support all around) that leaves nothing on the table.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Set in the early 2000s, a journalist descends into the dark underbelly of the Iranian holy city of Mashhad as she investigates the serial killings of sex workers by the so-called “Spider Killer,” who believes he is cleansing the streets of sinners.
Review: Acting as a crime procedural and psychological thriller, Holy Spider attempts to bridge the gap between two sides of a true story and is only so successful. Director Ali Abbasi clearly wants to weigh in not only on the horrific acts of a man who went on to kill over a dozen women but the role religion, misogyny, and police intervention played in this investigation. At times, it’s hard to tell which side of this story is more successful. Mehdi Bajestani delivers solid work as Saeed, the killer who has no real skill beyond his determined beliefs but has gotten by thanks to a lack of effort on the part of authorities who are less concerned due to their views on the morality of what’s taking place. Meanwhile, Zar Amir Ebrahimi makes a good case for her journalist character, where the implications of her role as a woman investigating these murders make her a target in more ways than one. Taking a sharper edge toward Abbasi’s critiques would have served the film more favorably. As it stands, there’s still troubling material being put on display effectively enough.
Where To Watch: Now playing in New York. Opening in LA theaters starting November 4, 2022.
The Setup: In medieval England, the daughter of a financially destitute Lord thwarts her father’s plans to marry her off to a wealthy suitor. When the most vile suitor arrives, her parent’s love for her is tested.
Review: What works quite well about Catherine Called Birdy is its choice to aim to please. This is not a slight effort from director Lena Dunham, adapting the script from Karen Cushman’s 1994 novel. Instead, it’s more of a story so light on its feet that it’s easy to breeze through without considering some of the meatier ideas being commented on. With the main focus on Bella Ramsey’s Catherine, aka Birdy, it’s not as though this film is trying to say everything in one story. Still, digging into the concept of families arranging for suitors and the way tradition overrules independent spirits, plenty is being said about the power dynamics of standard relationships and the evolution of gender roles. Plus, the film is quite funny. Andrew Scott makes for a fine counter to Birdy as her father, Lord Rollo. Other familiar British faces help round out the cast quite well. A bright spot of a film featuring a headstrong lead.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Prime Video.