Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

























Current Reviews


She Said

“She Said” is a new drama based on the recent New York Times investigation that exposed film producer Harvey Weinstein's history of abuse and sexual misconduct against women who worked at his Miramax Studios in New York.



Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan are crusading journalists in “She Said.” Photo by JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures - © Universal Studios.

It is based on the 2019 book of the same name chronicling the investigation led by Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey. It is a splendid picture in the spirit of its forebears (see below). The film stars Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as Twohey and Kantor, respectively, alongside Patricia Clarkson as the duo’s editor-boss, Rebecca Corbet, as well as Andre Braugher (as Times editor Dean Baquet), Jennifer Ehle, and Samantha Morton in supporting roles, and Ashley Judd appearing as herself.

The book was optioned in 2018, and the film announced in 2021 as a co-production between Annapurna Pictures and Plan B Entertainment, ultimately to be distributed by Universal Pictures, with direction by Maria Schrader from a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The evocative score was composed by Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”). The film had its world premiere at the 60th New York Film Festival in October and is being released theatrically in the US on November 18.

The film triggers immediate comparisons to the classic “All the President’s Men” (1976), especially for its tandem of two dogged (female this time) journalists wearing out their shoe leather to track down reluctant sources who will finally give in to their persistence. Similarly, it evokes the great “Spotlight” (2015), where the parallel with running down a major, wide-spread sexual scandal among Catholic priests is even more exact. And it can stand up to those landmark movies through its painstaking, careful pacing as Meghan and Jodi seek out and gently cajole potential witnesses to Weinstein’s crimes.

The film shows, in myriad interviews, how reluctant the abused women were to talk, partly because of their assumption of guilt (most were very young) and the loss of their careers, and partly because many had signed Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) legally binding them to silence. Also, many respondents just wanted to forget the whole ghastly thing! (An exception among those celebrities sucked into Weinstein’s orbit was actress Judd).

But, drip-by-drip, some of the victims absorb the Twohey-Kantor pressure and decide to fight the Master Abuser. In the film’s textual finale, a statistic states that eventually, many dozen casualties spoke up. (Note: the male focus of the film--Weinstein himself—is never really seen; his broad back appears in one shot and he is heard on tape and on the phone at different points of the investigation.)

Both Mulligan (“An Education”) and Kazan are the core of this excellent film, Mulligan, as the more mature Twohey, stands up to constant rejection with a calm and cool demeanor (a stance which is broken only once in the film when, in a bar, she roasts a sleazy guy with a tirade of obscenities). Kazan (“The Big Sick”) matches her as a younger, poker-faced grinder with a mission, gently eliciting tears and confessions from her interviewees. Look for them to be nominated at Oscar time.

(The film is rated “R” for sexual subjects and runs 126 minutes.)

(November 2022)


Tár

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a woman at the very top of her game, conductor of the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic, co-founder of a non-profit organization to aid worthy musicians, teacher at New York’s Juilliard School, mentor to young performers, and living in a luxurious apartment with partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their adopted child Petra. We see her when she is prepping to perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on live television as well as ready to launch a memoir.



Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in her element, conducting a symphony orchestra. Photo by Florian Hoffmeister, courtesy of Focus Features.

In an early scene from “Tár,” we see her converse with intellectual vigor and sweeping knowledge of classical music and the role of the conductor (with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik as moderator). We see, too, that Tár can also be personable and a good communicator with her orchestra. In sum, a paragon when assessed from afar...and perhaps too good to be true.

It’s a heady life; she has been at the podium of the world’s best ensembles (Cleveland, New York, Boston, etc.), with Berlin as the capstone. That life is also undeniably pressured, with her quiet assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) watching her every move. We see her at Juilliard contend with a balky student who rejects her musical judgements and taste. We see her as an irritated mom who threatens a child at Petra’s school who she thinks has mocked her daughter. We see her try to handle cracks in her relationship with Sharon. We see her having to fire her older, longtime assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner)...

The pressures mount. Things become more dicey with Sharon, who is also her concertmaster (and a kind of conscience). She pops handfuls of pills to get by. She hears foreboding noises. She favors an attractive, young Russian cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) over other veterans of her string section. Incriminating video emerges of her badgering that Juilliard student mentioned above. Worst, she becomes implicated in the suicide of another young woman she mentored and has to face questioning by the orchestra’s Board.

The movie’s style is intricate and somewhat frenetic, and some content may be opaque to viewers not versed in the classical music world. Also somewhat opaque is the depiction of Tár’s demise. The film is long (153 minutes) and full of incident, but her fall from glory is only treated in the last 20 minutes in a flurry of international travels and unidentified locations, leaving the viewer confused. A hurried fall from grace.

The film, written and directed by the talented Todd Field (his first movie in 16 years) tells Tár’s story in a blizzard of scenes, some arresting, some puzzling, through the arc of her life, from triumphs to disgrace. Field has emphasized that “This script was written for one artist, Cate Blanchett. Had she said no, the film would have never seen the light of day.” He sees her as “a master supreme.” “She raised all boats,” Field has said and added: “The privilege of collaborating with an artist of this caliber is something impossible to adequately describe.”

“Tár” is, understandably, dominated by Blanchett, present and omnicompetent in almost every scene. She can be mesmerizing but still impossible to fathom: a driven workaholic who cannot see her carefully crafted world crumbling. It is an impressive performance but leaves little room for sympathizing with her promethean character.

Director Fields himself had a worthy acting career for 20 years before switching to directing in 2001 with a splendid debut in “In The Bedroom,” offering superior roles for Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. His great work with actors continued in the suburban drama “Little Children” in 2006. Those films earned its actors a total of five nominations for Academy Awards. But after that: zip, nothing until “Tár.” It would be no surprise if his latest opus attains another nomination for the rich work of his star, Blanchett, a maestro easy to admire but hard to fully grasp.

(This film, now in independent theaters, is rated “R” and runs 153 minutes.)

(October 2022)


From the Hood to the Holler

Political campaign documentaries at this time in the electoral cycle are to be expected, just like the new film “From the Hood to the Holler.” The surprise is this movie, depicting the bid of Democrat Charles Booker for a Senate seat in Kentucky in 2020 (held by Mitch McConnell), traces the story of a loser; Booker lost in the primary that year, but the vigor of this charismatic politician and the singular momentum of his efforts make for an especially striking documentary (to be fair, this is Mr. Booker’s show and his opponent and her campaign are barely shown).



Kentucky Senate Candidate Charles Booker, shown here during his current 2022 campaign. Photo from Double Exposure Films.

Booker, a Democratic member of the Kentucky legislature since 2019, is an openly liberal candidate in a solidly Republican state with aims of unseating one of the Senate’s most intractable pols, McConnell, running for the seventh time. But winning the primary was no sure thing, with Amy McGrath, an ex-Marine fighter pilot, standing in the way and anointed by her party.

While Booker plainly appealed to the Black vote in his state, he knew that that constituency would not be enough for him to win, and he worked strenuously to expand his election staff and voting base. His aim was to try and tap voters all over the state, including the small towns and the farm counties (e.g., the “hollers”). Booker was attempting one of the biggest upsets in U.S, political history by challenging establishment-backed McGrath.

“From the Hood to the Holler” follows Booker’s campaign across Kentucky, from its urban centers to the most rural settings, with he and his team rewriting the campaign playbook. Instead of exploiting divisions in a most divisive political climate, they emphasized the idea that average Kentuckians have common bonds in one of the nation’s poorest states, united by their shared everyday struggles to survive.

Booker aimed to represent Kentuckians, both Black and White, who feel alienated from or left out of the political process. His campaign message was clear: Whether you are from the city’s “hood,” like Booker, (he’s a livelong native of Louisville) or from the Appalachian “holler,” you are worthy of a politician’s attention and commitment. His inclusive nature was shown in the fully integrated nature of his personable and loyal staff, several of whom are interviewed throughout the film and present a humane and rounded picture of their candidate.

It turns out that the story of Charles Booker is not yet done. This spring (2022) he won the Democratic primary easily and will face quirky Sen. Rand Paul in the general election.

This film is rated “PG-13,” runs 142 mins. and after a brief run in theaters, is now available in a series of streaming services.)

(October 2022)


A Rundown on Some Notable Films for the Holidays

This month’s column offers filmgoers a preview of upcoming major films—mainstream and indie—coming out during the holiday season, films that may likely contend for end-of-year awards. All will be released in DC area theaters between Thanksgiving and New Year’s and already carry varying degrees of buzz. First, some notable sequels to watch for:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

It was inevitable, after its gigantic world-wide success in 2018, that Marvel Pictures’ “The Black Panther” epic would come out with a sequel. And while it does not have its original centerpiece -–the deceased Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa—it returns with major characters from the original. Also, Ryan Coogler is back as director-writer for this follow-up uniting much of the production team from the original. The film continues exploring feminist themes from the first film, with actresses like Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, and Florence Kasumba confronting other countries’ challenges to the kingdom’s reign. Expect lavish African symbols and designs and titanic battle scenes done with flash and spirit.

(Out November 11,2022)


Avatar: The Way of Water

Another, highly anticipated sequel arrives l3 years after its original (“Avatar,” 2009) continuing the profligate CGI vision of the invented world of the Na’vi. The new wrinkle is that much of the film takes place with elaborate “performance capture” creatures performing underwater for the first time. Several original cast members return such as Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana (heads of the Sully family), Stephen Lang, and Sigourney Weaver, inter alia, along with newcomers Kate Winslet, Edie Falco, Michelle Yeoh, and Vin Diesel. According to the studio (20th Century Fox), this sequel “begins to tell the story of the Sully family, the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure.”

(December 16, 2022)


Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery

This is a follow-up to director/writer Rian Johnson’s very sophisticated whodunit wherein a cynical all-star cast confronted a baffling murder in a closed mansion. An exception to the cynical trend is the detective in the case, the New Orleans sly dog Benoit Blanc played by Daniel Craig, who returns in this new mystery. The setting this time is exotic Greece where Benoit is drawn to solve his next crime. Again, he is accompanied by a varied and intriguing cast (with no holdovers from the first film). Turns out that Johnson’s series has enough momentum for his studio to already shoot “Knives Out 3,” scheduled for release in 2024. Intriguing note: just after leaving the 007 character, Craig takes on another recurrent character with Blanc.

(December 2, 2022)


Then, some other major Hollywood efforts:


The Fabelmans

After years of musing on the idea, director Steven Spielberg has finally created his long-contemplated, semi-autobiographical movie about his own coming of age as a filmmaker. The picture, a comedic drama, follows his alter ego, Sammy Fabelman, (Gabriel LaBelle) from the ages of seven to 18, growing up in suburban Arizona with his sisters and his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his father Burt (Paul Dano), the first a gifted pianist and the second a computer expert. It’s a family, as Mitzi says, “between the artist vs. the scientist” The film re-creates Sammy’s early passion for the movies and his experience making his early films with a Super-8 camera. Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris and Seth Rogen, as a family friend, also play major roles. Spielberg teams up with long-time collaborators Tony Kushner (as his co-writer), John Williams (as composer), and Janusz Kaminski (as cinemaphotographer).



Steven Spielberg (center) directs a scene from his upcoming semi-autobiography “The Fabelmans.” Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

(November 23, 2022)


I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Standard musical biopic about the legendary R & B singer Whitney Houston, who died too young. It follows a roughly annual motion picture about recent major pop figures, such as “Rocket Man,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Respect,” and this past year’s “Elvis.” Directed by the talented Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet,” “Talk to Me”), it stars British newcomer Naomi Ackie as Whitney, Stanley Tucci as famous record producer Clive Davis, Tamara Tunie as Whitney’s mom Cissy, and Ashton Sanders as Bobby Brown. As with other recent biopics of this nature, it shows the star’s arc of rising from obscurity through discovery to superstardom. Be prepared for a panoply of Houston’s greatest hits.

(December 21, 2022)


A Man Called Otto

Besides sequels in movies, remakes also have their place. Case in point, “A Man Called Otto” an English-language redo of the lauded 2015 Swedish dark comedy “A Man Called Ove,” nominated for best Foreign Language Film. This American version has a first-class curmudgeon named Otto, played by an irascible Tom Hanks. The story plays out in Pittsburgh, where a 60-year old widower, still shaken by the recent death of his wife and the loss of his long-time job, decides to commit suicide. Yet his earnest efforts are continually thwarted by his new neighbors. This comedy-drama was directed by German-Swiss Marc Foster whose features range from his early “Finding Neverland” to the Bond blockbuster “Quantum of Solace.”

(December 14, 2022)


Finally, a couple of independent films from literary sources:


Women Talking

Look for a heavy but heartfelt drama in this Canadian work based on a 2018 novel written by Miriam Toews which director Sarah Polley has adapted for the screen. A community of conservative Mennonite women living in Bolivia have been subject to collective sexual assault and a select group of them, gathered in a hayloft, confess their experiences to a local teacher. The women who serve as witnesses form a lineup of current major cinematic talents including Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Rooney Mara, among others. Polley, once a prominent Canadian child actor, turned feature director in 2006 and last created one of cinema’s most intriguing documentaries with “Stories We Tell” in 2012.



The main cast of “Women Talking” re-lives their past traumas. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion

(December 30, 2022)


White Noise

An apocalyptic black comedy film adapted from the 1985 novel of the same name by novelist Don DeLillo and written and directed by Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”). It chronicles the life of one Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at an obscure midwestern university, husband to Babette, and father to a mixed bag of four children, whose life is devasted by "the Airborne Toxic Event", a cataclysmic train accident that casts chemical waste creeping over his town. Adrien Brody plays Jack, while Gerta Gerwig (long-time collaborator of Baumbach) is Babette. Don Cheadle also graces the cast. DeLillo’s “White Noise” was lauded by literary critics when it came out as a gem of dystopian fiction—but hardly filmable. It will be a test to see if the clever Baumbach can actually pull it off as a movie.

(December 30, 2022)