Review: ‘TÁR,’ starring Cate Blanchett

October 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“TÁR”

Directed by Todd Field

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Berlin and New York City, the dramatic film “TÁR” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An internationally famous classical music conductor finds her life spiraling out of control when her past actions come back to haunt her. 

Culture Audience: TÁR” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Cate Blanchett, writer/director Todd Field and well-acted movies about powerful people who experience a scandalous fall from grace..

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in writer/director Todd Field’s “TÁR” makes it a psychological minefield of a drama. It’s an absorbing portrait of someone intoxicated by her own power and facing a reckoning that’s as unwelcome to her as a nasty hangover. Blanchett’s Lydia Tár character is a classical music conductor who has reached the top of her field, which makes her public downfall such a disastrous mess. Viewers can decide for themselves if this downfall could have been diminished based on how it was handled by the movie’s central character.

“TÁR” is Field’s first movie as a writer/director/producer since his Oscar-nominated 2006 drama “Little Children,” another movie about how a woman is affected by a sex-related scandal. Whereas “Little Children” told the story of a private citizen in a suburban U.S. neighborhood, “TÁR” is about a public figure who is an internationally famous entertainer. “TÁR” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and subsequently had premieres at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

In “TÁR,” Lydia fits every definition of a type-A personality who’s an overachiever. The movie’s opening scene takes place at The New Yorker Festival, where writer Adam Gopnik (playing a version of himself) is interviewing Lydia in a one-on-one Q&A in front of the audience. It’s a laudatory interview, where her accomplishments are listed like badges of honor: She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. Lydia is also a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute, and she has a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru.

At one time or another, she has been a conductor for all of the “Big Five” American orchestras: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Lydia is a rare entertainer who is an EGOT winner: someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She considers herself to be a New Yorker, and has a home in New York City, where she still visits on a regular basis. However, for the past seven years, Lydia has been living in Berlin, because she has been a conductor for an unnamed German orchestra.

Lydia, who describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” lives with her German domestic partner Sharon Goodnow (played by Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (played by Mila Bogojevic), who is about 6 or 7 years old. Sharon is a violinist in the German orchestra that Lydia conducts. It’s the first sign in the movie that Lydia has a tendency to blur the lines between her job and her personal life.

Lydia is a loner who doesn’t have a close circle of friends, so Sharon is Lydia’s closest confidante. Sharon knows a lot of Lydia’s secrets. However, Sharon eventually finds out that she doesn’t really know everything about Lydia. Two American men also have an influence on Lydia, and they give her advice, whether she wants to hear it or not.

Eliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong) is an investment banker and amateur conductor, who has financed a non-profit program called the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, which is led by Lydia. The fellowship gives apprenticeships and job opportunities to aspiring female classical music conductors in this very male-dominated field. Near the beginning of the movie, Lydia tells Eliot during a lunch meeting that she’s thinking that the program recipients shouldn’t just be one gender.

The other man who plays an influential role in Lydia’s life is her mentor Andris Davis (played by Julian Glover), who was her predecessor at the German orchestra that Lydia currently conducts. Andris was the one who recommended her for the job, although it’s made clear throughout the movie that Lydia’s talent is so highly respected and sought-after, she probably didn’t need to a recommendation to get the job. What started out as a temporary job for Lydia to be the guest conductor position at this German orchestra turned out to be a long-term, permanent position.

If viewers believe the narrative that Lydia tells people, one of the reasons why she and Sharon decided to settle in Berlin was to be closer to Sharon’s family members who live in the area. But as the story unfolds, it becomes pretty obvious that Lydia might have had a reason to avoid living in New York full-time. It turns out that Lydia has a “stalker” who lives in New York City.

Lydia’s French assistant Francesca Lentini (played by Noémie Merlant) knows who this “stalker” is, because this person has been sending obsessive and threatening email messages to Lydia. Francesca has permission to access these messages, because Francesca screens Lydia’s mail. Francesca is an aspiring conductor who greatly admires Lydia and considers Lydia to be her mentor.

Over time, based on the way that Francesca acts and what she says, Francesca seems to assume that she will be Lydia’s first choice if any big job opportunity comes along that Lydia can help Francesca get. Lydia expects unwavering loyalty from Francesca, but Francesca expects the same loyalty in return. There’s some sexual tension between Lydia and Francesca that will make viewers speculate if or when the relationship between Lydia and Francesca ever became sexually intimate.

Just like a lot of hard-driving, ambitious and accomplished people, Lydia is a perfectionist who is just as hard on herself as she is on other people. A very telling scene is when she is a guest teacher in a classical music class at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The students seem very intimidated by Lydia’s reputation for being merciless in her criticism, but she’s also full of praise for anyone who meets or exceeds her high standards.

During this class session, Lydia singles out a student named Max (played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist) and asks him, “What are you actually conducting?” Max is so nervous in her presence, one of Max’s legs is literally shaking as Max talks to her. However, Max isn’t so afraid of Lydia that Max won’t challenge some of the things that she lectures to the students.

For example, Lydia tells the students any great conductor or musician can find something to relate to in the music of classical icons Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven. Max disagrees and tells Lydia and the rest of the people in the room: “As a BIPOC [black, indigenous, or person of color], pan-gender person, it’s impossible to take Bach seriously.”

Lydia tells Max that she doesn’t know what BIPOC and pan-gender means, and her attitude is that she doesn’t care to know. She treats Max dismissively, like an ignorant young person whose opinions matter very little to her, because she’s the more experienced, older person. Finally, a fed-up Max gets tired of feeling belittled by Lydia, and Max walks out of the class. Before leaving the room, Max tells Lydia, “You’re a fucking bitch.”

In response, a stone-faced Lydia calls Max a “robot.” Throughout the movie, Lydia mentions that she dislikes it when people act like robots. During her lunch with Eliot, she says, “There’s no glory for a robot. Do your own thing.” Ironically, when Lydia’s world starts to come crashing down on her, she represses her emotions and turns to rigid routines (such as rigorous jogging and boxing) to cope, and thereby acts very much like a “robot,” in an attempt to tune out her troubles.

Lydia is under enormous career pressure when things start to fall apart for her. The German orchestra is preparing for a Deutsche Grammophon live recording date of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which will be a major accomplishment in her career. In addition, Lydia is working on writing an original classical piece. However, she seems to be having writer’s block, and she doesn’t really want to admit this problem to anyone.

While in Berlin, Lydia meets a Russian cellist Olga Metkina (played by Sophie Kauer), who is 18 or 19 years old. Olga acts like a star-struck fan with Lydia, who is flattered. Lydia also seems to be sexually attracted to Olga. Meanwhile, Olga seems to be aware of this attraction and makes it clear that she’s eager for any opportunity to work with Lydia.

“TÁR” is fascinating to watch for how it unpeels the layers of Lydia’s contradictory character that is capable of hiding a web of lies and secrets. Lydia can be charismatic and funny, but she can also be ruthless and cruel. She is a workaholic who doesn’t spend a lot of quality time with her daughter Petra, but Lydia quietly threatens the girl at Petra’s school who has been bullying Petra.

Lydia claims to be open to collaboration and hearing different ideas, but when anyone dares to question her ideas or decisions, she gets revenge in passive-aggressive ways. An elderly orchestra member named Sebastian Brix (played by Allan Corduner) finds out the hard way how vindictive Lydia can be. What happens to Sebastian sets off a certain chain events that will accelerate the scandal that could lead to Lydia’s downfall.

In telling the story of this complex person, Field also uses haunting flashback techniques that resemble a fever dream, where Lydia remembers things related to the scandal that threatens to end her career. Lydia also sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to random sounds, such as a metronome that seems to have started on its own. It further fuels the sense that Lydia is being haunted. How much of it is her own doing? As the tension builds and things get worse for Lydia, the movie’s cinematography (played by Florian Hoffmeister) and the music (by Hildur Guðnadóttir) become more foreboding, creating a sense that the proverbial walls are closing in on her.

The character of Lydia is so well-written and embodied with such realism by Blanchett, people who don’t know anything about the world of classical music might mistake “TÁR” for being a biopic based on a real person. All of the other cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as effective without Blanchett’s masterful performance. (Field has said in interviews that he wrote the “TÁR” role only for Blanchett.) It’s the type of virtuoso, top-notch performance that would make Lydia Tár very proud.

Focus Features released “TÁR” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The Contractor’ (2022), starring Chris Pine

April 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Chris Pine in “The Contractor” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Contractor” (2022)

Directed by Tarik Saleh

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and in Berlin, the action film “The Contractor” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former Green Beret takes a mercenary job as a private contractor, and he finds himself at going against orders and being hunted by his former colleagues. 

Culture Audience: “The Contractor” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Chris Pine and anyone who likes formulaic “shoot ’em up” movies.

Gillian Jacobs and Chris Pine in “The Contractor” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Contractor” is as generic and dull as its title, with an over-used action-movie plot of a bitter military veteran who goes rogue. Throw in some ‘daddy issues,’ sloppy editing and a drab Chris Pine—and that sums up this soulless film. It’s also got an awkward mix of trying to be gritty and sentimental, often in the wrong places.

Directed by Tarik Saleh and written by J.P. Davis, “The Contractor” (formerly titled “Violence of Action”) is being marketed as an action thriller, but any “action” or “thrills” are utterly predictable and don’t really come until the last half of the movie. The first half of the movie is a dreary slog showing what led to James Harper (played by Pine) going from being a Green Beret to joining a shady mercenary operation as a private contractor. James is living in the shadow of his father Mason, a high-ranking U.S. military officer who expected James from an early age to also go into the military.

In the beginning of “The Contractor,” James has been estranged from his father for years, for reasons that remain vague. However, flashbacks and conversations reveal that Mason (played by Dean Ashton) was an overly demanding and emotionally abusive father during James’ childhood. The movie starts off with James as a U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant first class, also known as a Green Beret. James is also a war veteran, and he sustained injuries during his war duties. James is currently stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Now seemingly recovered from his injuries, James is due to go before a board of military decision makers who will determine if he will be reinstated as a Green Beret. However, James has a secret: Because he’s desperate to be in the type of physical shape where he can be re-instated, James has been illegally taking human growth hormones through needle injections.

The U.S. Army finds out when James tests positive for these drugs. He is honorably discharged, but as punishment, he won’t be getting his military pension or insurance benefits. It comes at a very bad time, because James and his homemaker wife Brianne (played by Gillian Jacobs) are heavily in debt and getting dangerously close to going bankrupt. They’re so financially broke, they’re behind on their utility bills. When debt collectors call, James just ignores the phone calls.

In addition to having a financial strain on their marriage, James and Brianne have grown emotionally distant from each other. Brianne and James have a shy and introverted son named Jack (played by Sander Thomas), who is about 8 or 9 years old and the couple’s only child. Because James has spent a long time away from home, Jack is bashful around James, but James wants to be a loving and attentive father, so he makes an effort to get closer to his son, by doing things such as teaching Jack to swim in a public pool.

Not long after getting the bad news about his military discharge, James finds out that his father has died. This death seems to trigger some strange behavior in James, in obvious indications that he has unresolved issues with his father. For example, Brianne finds James doing repairs on their house’s roof in the middle of the night. When Brianne wants an explanation, James says defensively to her: “I’m not my father.”

And in cliché-ridden tripe such as “The Contractor,” that means you’re going to see some hazy-looking flashback scenes of James as child of about 10 or 11 years old (played by Toby Dixon) and James’ father Mason, who was a stereotypical stern and macho military type. As seen in flashbacks, Mason was the type of father who expected James to be tough from a very early age. He even forced a pre-teen Mason to get a tattoo at a tattoo parlor, even though it’s illegal for tattoo parlors to give tattoos to people under the age of 18.

At his father’s funeral, James reconnects with his former military best friend Mike (played by Ben Foster), who is happily married to a woman named Christine (played by Tyner Rushing), who likes and respects James too. Mike and Christine have two children: Mike Jr. (played by Nicolas Noblitt), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, and Kelly (played by Eva Ursescu), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. When James goes to Mike’s house for dinner, Brianne is not with him, which is another indication of the cracks in their marriage.

During this visit at Mike’s house, James confides in Mike about his financial problems. Mike tells James that if James is interested in private contractor work, Mike can easily help James get a contractor job that pays $350,000. It’s an offer that’s too tempting to refuse, and James desperately needs the money, so he says yes. This “private contractor” work is really mercenary-for-hire work, usually done by ex-military people, for secretive employers who want to keep these “black ops” jobs as confidential as possible.

Brianne isn’t too pleased about this decision, especially since James promised her that he would never do this type of work. James has already made up his mind though, and there’s nothing Brianne can do to stop him. James’ family life then gets mostly sidelined, as the rest of the movie is about his private contractor job.

James’ supervisor in this job is a rough and jaded character named Rusty (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who says that James will get $50,000 up front as payment, and the remaining $300,000 after the job is completed. To launder his money, Rusty owns a company that imports and exports coffee.

Rusty knows that James is taking this job because James was essentially ousted from the U.S. military. Rusty tells James: “I was you. That’s why we started our own tribe.” Rusty also warns James about the ruthless mercenaries he will encounter in the job. “The stink of those guys, they will rub off on you.”

It’s an assignment that will take James, Mike and some other people on this black-ops team to Berlin. The other members of the team include a cunning operative named Katia (played by Nina Hoss) and a muscle-bound brute named Kauffman (played by Florian Munteanu). Later, James meets a mysterious recluse named Virgil (played by Eddie Marsan), who might or might not be helpful to James.

In Berlin, this black-ops group has been tasked with hunting down a 42-year-old man named Salim Mohsin (played by Fares Fares), a retired professor of virology who used to work at Humboldt University in Berlin. Salim is doing privately funded research, and he’s suspected of being involved in bioterrorism, because he is developing a poisonous gas that could be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

Salim’s research is being funded by Farak Ojjeh, the founder of El Sawa, a charity with known links to Al Qaeda in Syria. Salim and his wife Sophie (played by Amira Casar) have a 9-year-old son named Olivier (played by Tudor Velio) and a 7-year-old son named Yanis (played by Aristou Meehan). And predictably, this family will be caught up in some way in whatever dirty dealings happen in the movie.

Things happen during this mission that don’t sit right with James, so he decides to not follow orders. It leads to James and Mike going on the run from their colleagues, with double-crossings and shootouts in the mix. The action scenes aren’t impressive. And too much of the action has clunky editing, thereby making some of the chase scenes look very phony.

It all just leads to a very formulaic conclusion, where the people who die and those who survive are too easy to predict. All of the cast members just seem to be going through the motions in the action scenes. The only attempt at some emotional depth is in the underdeveloped family scenes near the beginning of the film.

“The Contractor” has all the cinematic resonance of a mediocre video game. That might be enough to entertain some viewers watching a movie with talented cast members who deserve better material. Everyone else can skip “The Contractor,” because they won’t be missing out on anything meaningful.

Paramount Pictures released “The Contractor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 1, 2022. The movie is set for release on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on June 7, 2022.

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