REVIEW: “Tár” (2022)

Cate Blanchett cements her next Oscar nomination (and quite possible a win) with “Tár”, the latest film from writer-director Todd Field. It’s Field’s first time behind the camera since 2006’s “Little Children”, and he has once again put together a movie that’s getting a lot of awards season buzz. His story follows a fictional conductor and composer named Lydia Tár who’s at the height of her career. But when accusations of misconduct arise, she watches as her life of success and renown begins to unravel.

Blanchett plays Lydia Tár with a fierce confidence that bleeds over into the character. It can be quiet and subtle, or it can be unbridled and consuming. It’s that very confidence that makes Lydia such a fascinating, complicated, and at times loathsome character. It’s a trait that has made her one of the greatest living composers. It has led her to become the Berlin Philharmonic’s first female chief conductor. It’s put her in place to lead the upcoming live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It has even enabled her to publish her own biography.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But we watch as that same confidence that has afforded Lydia so many opportunities crushes the people who dare to get close to her. It’s seen through a collection of relationships she has, mostly business but occasionally personal. They include people such as her diligent assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), her concertmaster and significant other Sharon (Nina Hoss), her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), the manager of her fellowship program Eliot (Mark Strong), and a young Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer).

Field uses these relationships for much of the film’s near 160 minute runtime to try and give us a full picture of Lydia Tár. As a character study it mostly works although it does leave some of the supporting players doing little more than servicing Lydia and her story. It’s a shame because the film sports a compelling cast. But rather than building on them, we get several showy, pretension-soaked scenes that can be a lot of fun, but would be even better if Field would have pushed his story a little more off the rails.

But the film’s self-seriousness eventually gets Field into trouble, especially as he breezes by the heavier subject matter (allegations of inappropriate conduct, sexual harassment, suicide, etc.). None of them gets the attention they need. He also skirts around what seems like important details – the accusations themselves, the backlash, the legal hearings, the consequences.

All of that is exacerbated by some frustrating pacing decisions. The first two hours (plus some) of the film moves at such a patient (and at times borderline lethargic) pace. It can be slow yet it’s often observant. But then in the final 30 minutes it’s as if Field checked his watch and said “We need to wrap this up.” He frantically jumps from place to place as he shows Lydia’s house crumbling down on her. It’s an intentional choice that simply doesn’t have the desired effect. Ultimately it leaves the ending feeling terribly rushed and woefully unsatisfying.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Whether Lydia is conducting in Berlin or teaching at Julliard, Blanchett munches her scenes with a conviction that’s hard to turn away from. At the same time, in many of these very same scenes you can see the movie working hard to earn its prestige status. Take the film’s opening, Lydia’s ego-stroking interview with The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik. It’s an compelling scene, but I found myself more interested in watching what Blanchett was doing than getting an introduction to Lydia Tár. It’s not her fault. It’s just that the scene (like several others) exudes a vanity that almost rivals that of the main character.

“Tár” has a lot to admire even if it doesn’t all coalesce into something truly satisfying. And while it attempts to tackle some pretty hefty issues, its story blurs too many details which does more to obscure any truth than actually reckon with it. So much so that I found it hard to get a grasp the movie’s convictions. For some, Blanchett’s domineering performance will be enough to cover any flaws or at least divert attention away from them. Me, I’m stuck on the fence, appreciating the things that fit with what I hoped the movie would be, and a little frustrated with how things ultimately turned out.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend” (2022)

I’ve always been a fan of Frank Grillo and have often found him to be underrated as an actor. A lot of it may have to do with his choices of roles, some of which aren’t especially good at showing off his talent. That’s why it’s nice to see him get a meaty lead spot in a movie like “Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend” – one that doesn’t rely so heavily on Grillo’s bankable tough-guy persona. And to no surprise, Grillo is quite good playing luxury car maker and namesake Ferruccio Lamborghini. If only the film itself wasn’t so disappointingly flavorless.

Sadly, “Lamborghini” turns out to be a frustratingly bare-bones biopic that never gets out of neutral. What we end up getting is more of sketch than a full-fledged portrait of the man behind the world famous automobiles. The film hits on the most basic points in Ferruccio Lamborghini’s life, many of which are easy to predict mainly because they stick so close to the tried-and-true biopic formula. As a result, the film does nothing that makes Lamborghini’s story stand out against the countless other celebrity biographies that have came down the movie pipeline.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

The film opens in 1982 at the Lamborghini vineyard in Umbria, Italy, where an aged Ferruccio Lamborghini (Grillo) sits alone, looking down at a model of a blue Lamborghini Countach. He begins to recall his past life, including a seemingly friendly street race he had with rival Enzo Ferrari (a woefully underused Gabriel Byrne) that never amounts to much. I’m still not sure whether the older Ferruccio’s reflection is meant to be a framing device. It’s too vaguely presented to know for sure. Either way, writer-director Robert Moresco quickly ushers us back in time to kick off his story.

In Cento, Italy shortly after World War II had ended, a younger Ferruccio Lamborghini (played by Romano Reggiani) returns home from the war. His first order of business is to surprise his girl Clelia (Hannah van der Westhuysen). Then he heads home to see his father and brothers. We learn Ferruccio was a mechanic during the war and learned all about engines. Now he wants to take that knowledge to make and sell tractors, much to the chagrin of his farming father. But Ferruccio’s ambition and thirst for success can’t be quenched.

From there the movie chronicles Ferruccio’s push to turn his dream into a reality. He and his best friend Matteo (Matteo Leoni) go to work building building their first engine and designing their first tractor. Soon they’re starting up their own company. But as Ferruccio’s ambition turns to obsession, he finds himself alienating those closest to him.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Later, Moresco hops ahead to 1963 when Ferruccio (now played by Grillo) runs his own successful tractor company. But he wants more. After being turned down and insulted by Ferrari, Ferruccio decides to get into the luxury car game. He puts together a crack team of engineers and designers who tell him his vision in impossible. But Ferruccio’s zeal is infectious and soon he’s showing the Lamborghini 350 GT at the prestigious Geneva Auto Show. But his desire for greatness keeps driving him, resulting in him becoming one of the most renowned car makers in the world. It also sees him once again alienating those who have loved and stood by him.

I’m sure it all sounds familiar to anyone who has seen a high-profile biopic and for good reason. There is a dramatic turn or two that feels meaningfully personal, and we get a few stretches of car talk that gearheads will probably appreciate. Also, Moresco is more than capable with the camera, capturing some beautiful imagery with a vibrant palette. But the movie is missing what it needs most – personality. It has an interesting subject with an equally interesting life to explore. Sadly, we only get glances of what made Ferruccio Lamborghini a compelling figure.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Devotion” (2022)

Two rising stars, Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell shine in “Devotion”, a war-drama based on the inspiring friendship between fighter pilots Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first African-American pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s flight training program. Along with his wingman and devoted friend Tom Hudner, the pair would become two of the Navy’s best pilots during the Korean War, with Brown earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Directed by J.D. Dillard and written for the screen by Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart, the film is based on the novel “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice” by Adam Makos. Dillard hones in on a segment of Jesse Brown’s life, starting from the time he met Tom Hudner at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. He shows their eventual friendship, but even more time is put on Jesse’s struggle as a black man in the desegregated military of 1950.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

If you’ve seen the trailer you know “Devotion” has some war-time action and air combat scenes (they’re exhilarating and worth seeing on the biggest screen possible). But the meat of the movie is Jesse’s experience and the unexpected friendship forged with his wingman. For that reason, more time is spent building the characters (especially Jesse) and some of the story’s key relationships. And while it may take a little while to get off the ground, this development is crucial and ends up significantly helping things down the line.

When we meet Jesse (played with dignity and quiet resolve by Majors), he’s already an accomplished pilot who is generally respected for his skills yet still looked down on by many due to the color of his skin. New to his squad is Tom Hudner (an utterly convincing Powell) who is immediately assigned to be Jesse’s wingman. On top of earning Jesse’s trust in the air, the naive but genuine Tom also seeks to earn his trust as a man. But it takes some time, especially as we get a better understanding of the adversity Jesse has fought to overcome for his entire life.

While showing Jesse’s military service is a big part of the story, we also get a few touching moments with him at home with his wife Daisy (a really good Christina Jackson) and their young daughter. In many ways she’s his anchor, and the film uses her inclusion to reveal another side of Jesse – one as equally important to the story as his piloting scenes. Then there is the racial tension which comes in all sizes. Sometimes it comes from snide remarks that may seem harmless, especially when Jesse appears unfazed. But the film makes it clears that there’s no such thing as harmless racism, and over time it has taken a toll on Jesse despite his best efforts to hide it.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The movie is also helped by the strong chemistry between Majors and Powell which makes what unfolds between their characters feel genuine and true. While the movie could have put a little more time into fleshing out Hudner, his eventual friendship with Jesse doesn’t come across as a made-for-screen concoction. There are actual barriers they must break down and hurdles they’re forced to navigate. It’s an honest and thoughtfully conceived relationship that’s cemented in the final 20 minutes when they’re called into combat as the Korean War intensifies.

The big fighter plane scenes leading up to the finale are a thrilling mix of practical and digital effects that look amazing and thrusts us into the heart of air combat. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wanting more of it. But the heart of “Devotion” is with the characters, namely Jesse Brown. Dillard, Crane, and Stewart never lose sight of that which makes this more than your standard-issue war movie. Instead it shares the story of someone we all should know about while highlighting a friendship that we all could learn from. “Devotion” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

Movie Poster Spotlight: “White Noise” (2022)

Noah Baumbach’s new film “White Noise” hits Netflix late next month. I recently had the chance to see it at an awards season press screening (I’ll have a full review coming soon). It’s an odd and fascinating film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s odd and fascinating 1985 novel. So it’s kind of fitting that it also has three odd and fascinating character posters. I absolutely love them, and crack up every time I see them. There’s no need to say much more. I’ll let you check them out yourselves. Let me know what you think.

DIRECTOR – Noah Baumbach

WRITER – Noah Baumbach

STARRING – Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, Lars Eidinger, André Benjamin

RELEASE – December 30, 2022

REVIEW: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (2022)

I’ve always loved the story of Pinocchio. But since becoming a father, it has taken on a much different meaning. These days it resonates with me on a much deeper level than before. Earlier this year, Richard Zemeckis revisited “Pinocchio” through his well-made (and fashionably throttled) live-action remake of Disney’s 1940 animated classic. But leave it to filmmaking visionary Guillermo del Toro to truly energize this beloved story by shaking it up visually, narratively, and in some cases thematically. What we get is something truly special.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is brimming with heart and features its creator’s signature on nearly every frame. Del Toro, along with his co-director Mark Gustafson and his co-writer Patrick McHale, retell the 1883 Carlo Collodi fairytale with unshakable passion. Nothing about their film feels rehashed or half-hearted. In fact, it has a fresh energy all its own while still maintaining the emotional weight that made Collodi’s tale so impactful. It’s an incredible achievement from its exquisite stop-motion animation to its thoroughly affecting storytelling.

The story is set in 1930’s Italy where fascism was widespread, even reaching the small hillside hometown of a woodcarver name Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley). In a moving flashback we see the love Geppetto had for his beloved son Carlo. But when a passing warplane mistakenly dropped a bomb on their quiet little village, young Carlo was killed. Geppetto was devastated. As years passed, the world moved on but Geppetto did not. Overwhelmed with sorrow, he sank deeper into despair and the bottle.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

During a particular difficult day and in a fit of mournful anger, a drunken Geppetto haphazardly builds a wooden boy out of pine. Being a product of his creator’s grief, the boy looks nothing like the cute, polished, toy-like creation from the Disney films. He has lanky, out of proportion limbs. His gnarly head is highlighted by a sharp spiked nose. He’s held together by jagged nails which protrude from his body. It’s an abrasive sight but a fitting representation of Geppetto’s frame of mind.

You probably know where the story goes next. While Geppetto sleeps it off, a glowing benevolent Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) appears. She brings the wooden boy to life and names him Pinocchio (who’s wonderfully voiced by the earnest and lively Gregory Mann). The newly animated lad turns out to be a ball of endless curiosity and rambunctious energy which rattles a stunned, confounded Geppetto.

Pinocchio also catches the attention and sparks the concerns of the once amiable townsfolk who are now quick to criticize and judge their neighbor and his peculiar and very much alive wooden handiwork. Among them is the hypocritical (and slyly funny) local priest (Burn Gorman) and the town magistrate Podestà (Ron Perlman), a Mussolini fascist preparing to ship his son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) and other area kids off to military youth camp.

Observing it all is Sebastian J. Cricket, voiced with a near regal sophistication and charm by Ewan McGregor. Sebastian took up residence in a hollow tree trunk where he was preparing to write his memoirs. Unfortunately for him, he chose the very tree the drunken Geppetto chopped down to build his wooden boy. Now Sebastian has been tasked by the Wood Sprite with watching over Pinocchio. If he does so, he will be granted one wish – anything his heart desires. Through McGregor, Sebastian makes for a memorable sidekick, and he has a couple of great running gags that earn laughs every time.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Adding another dramatic layer is Count Volpe (a slithery Christoph Waltz), an interesting fusion of the classic characters Mangiafuoco, the Fox, and the Cat. Volpe is a down on his luck and shamelessly unscrupulous puppet-master working for a ramshackle traveling carnival. He too gets wind of the wooden boy without strings and sees him as his golden goose. We’re also treated to the voices of John Turturro, Time Blake Nelson, and Cate Blanchett (sorta) along the way.

Regardless of how familiar things may seem, nothing about the movie feels old hat. Del Toro brings something unique to the table at every turn. He adds his own spins to the story, his own twists to the characters, and his own imagination to the world-building. You can’t miss his deep reverence for the source material, yet he never seems shackled to it or handcuffed by expectations.

Guillermo del Toro has called “Pinocchio” his passion project, and after seeing it you can tell. He has poured his heart and soul into this beautiful vibrant experience, sticking firm to his original stop-motion vision despite the rejections of unwilling studios. It’s enchanting and heartfelt but also darkly funny and with a touch of the macabre. It’s voiced to perfection, immaculately scored by Alexandre Desplat, and animated with painstaking detail and incredible artistry. And it all flows from del Toro, who has turned this age-old tale into something undeniably his own. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” hits Netflix December 9th.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

I love Thanksgiving. It’s a great time here in States to celebrate all that we’re thankful for. For many of us it’s a fun-filled day of family, food, and football. So whether you’re celebrating the holiday or not, I want to wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for all the time you’ve spent reading, following, liking, and commenting on this little site. I can’t express how much I appreciate it.

Again, have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a joyful holiday season!