“If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours.”
Todd Field’s third film, after 15 years of unrealised projects, is an astonishing work of psychological intrigue and majestic musical performance that never speaks down to its audience, instead trusting the viewer to engage and form an opinion. Blanchett is perfect as the troubled maestro, fictional conductor-composer Lydia Tár, internationally renowned yet manipulative and domineering. From the marketing, one would be forgiven for believing Tár is a biopic, and some female conductors have bemoaned the choice not to shine a light on the rare women at international-level conducting. From the interview that opens the film, it is clear that Field’s focus is not on Tár as a female conductor but on the dynamics of identity and power. She wants to be judged on her skills in isolation, berating a Juilliard student’s identity politics in expressing distaste for composers with problematic pasts, yet her hypocrisy emerges a few scenes later when she adopts the same approach in discussing Schopenhauer. The central use of Mahler’s work is deliberate, given his own abuse of power in restricting his wife’s work as a composer. By writing Tár as a lesbian, making both the perpetrator and potential victims female, Field forces the viewer to remove misogyny from the equation (notwithstanding the overtly masculine traits conveyed through Blanchett’s body language and her wardrobe). Field deliberately obscures the facts of Tár’s past indiscretions, and it is unclear whether her latest protégé is a matter of lust, an exercise of control over her orchestra, or powerlessness before the effect of her music. As allegations of impropriety undermine Tár’s position (some have reductively labelled Tár a film about “cancel culture”), Field examines the fragility of power in the current climate when pitted against the greater power of public perception. The final act subverts climactic expectations but leaves an indelible impression.
“People are sometimes afraid of things they don’t know.”
This is the second high-profile adaptation of Pinocchio in 2022 alone. Whilst Zemeckis continued Disney’s creatively barren attempts at live action remakes of its beloved animated features, Guillermo del Toro’s is a true retelling of the story in his own inimitable way. Within the framework of a family film, it feels as though del Toro has crafted a companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth with shared themes of death and fascism. Pinocchio’s very creation is an act of grief — after Geppetto cuts down his dead son’s tree in a drunken fit of rage — and his early moments of life are reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, inspiring fear in both his creator and the villagers. Although the familiar story beats remain intact, del Toro’s sympathies have always lain with outsiders struggling to find their place in society, as everyone’s ideas for Pinocchio are exploitative — a father wishing to replace a lost son, Christoph Waltz’s wonderfully mercurial circus owner (“You may have no strings but I control you”) sensing profit, and the fascists who wish to turn him into an undying soldier. Stop motion is perhaps the perfect medium for Pinocchio since it turns all the characters into stringless puppets. There is a genuinely handcrafted feel to Pinocchio, roughly hewn with nails sticking out of his back, and the physical sets scale wonderfully with the puppetry. Although there is a slew of high profile actors, there is no stunt casting and only Ewan McGregor’s narration as Cricket was distractingly recognisable. The musical numbers are the film’s weakest aspect, interrupting the pacing and entirely forgettable. To explore what it means to be human, however, Pinocchio is a rich and satisfying adaptation.
“People are desperate to tell you who they are. Desperate to be seen.”
Where Guillermo del Toro’s previous film, The Shape of Water, featured a mute protagonist, the manipulative Stanton Carlisle is quite the talker. However his larconic introduction, sporting an Indiana Jones silhouette and barely speaking for the opening 20 minutes, allows us to breathe in the 1930s carnival world that lends itself to del Toro’s visual mastery, at once fascinating and unpleasant. When the plot demands that Carlisle’s mentalism act graduates from carnival to cabaret, Nightmare Alley remains sumptuous but can feel hollow. The cast is excellent, with a smattering of star power and a smorgasbord of supporting character actors. Bradley Cooper is on strong form as the noir anti-hero, charming yet greedy, perfectly offset by Cate Blanchett’s underestimated femme fatale — their scenes together are the best part of a deliberately slow burn story that meanders for slightly too long, punctuated with an abrupt jump that makes a well-signposted conclusion less satisfying. Whilst its storytelling can be faulted, Nightmare Alley is never less than vividly captivating.
“You guys, the truth is way more depressing. They are not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”
Written pre-pandemic as a satire of human inaction in the face of climate change, Don’t Look Up‘s commentary on scientists and experts being ignored in favour of entertainment and maintaining the status quo feels even more relevant in the COVID era, but relevance does not automatically equate to success. Don’t Look Up is Adam McKay’s bleakest work to date and features fewer creative flourishes, unfolding in a rather straightforward and heavy-handed fashion. Its satirical tone is wry rather than biting, which seems oddly insufficient for its end-of-the-world subject matter; by the end it has shifted more toward farce than insightful social commentary. The failure to skewer its targets more decisively may be necessary to reach the broad audience it desires, its “both sides” approach peaking with the wilful ignorance of a crowd chanting “don’t look up” paralleled with another crowd showering adoration on a pop star singing a vapidly meaningless “just look up” power ballad. The stellar cast produces dramatically and comedically compelling performances, and name-recognition alone should allow the film to meet Netflix’s success metrics, but they are not written with any emotional depth or sympathy. Don’t Look Up is arguably most effective when it broadens its scope to target media obsessed by “engagement” and tech industry billionaires’ self-aggrandisement and control over a political system hopelessly corrupted by wealth and self-interest. Its meandering focus is exacerbated by poor editing that allows the film to run over two and a half hours, when its ideas might have been more effectively communicated in a tighter 90-minute cut. As for reflection on how individuals respond to an apocalyptic crisis, McKay’s perspective is painfully shallow by comparison to existing efforts like Von Trier’s Melancholia or Scafario’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
I don’t think I have felt so bittersweet about ending a trilogy since The Lord of the Rings concluded 15 years ago but, fittingly, at its heart the final film is about letting go. Unlike Pixar’s recent string of sequels, Dreamworks Animation is driven more by storytelling than cashing in on nostalgia (writer/director Dean DeBlois conceived the second and third films together), although there are wonderful flourishes that refer back to original film through dialogue, through actions, and through the score. Building these characters over the course of a decade allows for emotion to be conveyed subtly, like a silent gaze from Astrid as she realises how her adherence to values of traditional masculinity unintentionally hurts Hiccup. Viking society continues to provide an excellent backdrop against which to explore modern notions of masculinity (as in the underrated Norsemen TV series), particularly as Hiccup shoulders new burdens as chief. Although the discovery of a female “Light Fury” is the inciting incident that takes the whole village of Berk on the move, the changing relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the real focus. The swashbuckling action is impressive and keeps the energy high but it rarely feels as compelling as spending time with the characters from Berk, leaving the dragon-poaching subplot often feeling like a distraction (or, more likely, a concession to viewers new to the franchise). These movies have always excelled in presenting majestic vistas and here the exceptional eye for detail is kicked up a notch, in a few places the realism of the environments even making the stylised characters seem a little out of place. Overall this is a delightfully satisfying conclusion that, although lacking the freshness of its predecessors, still retains their magic.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.