Archive for December, 2021

Licorice Pizza

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 30, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Never underestimate the power of a simple story exquisitely told by a passionate filmmaker. The year is 1973 and the setting is the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine is a 15-year-old teen but with the confidence of a man twice that age. Actor Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s got personality to spare. It’s school picture day at his Tarzana high school and he’s smitten by the photographer’s assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane. Actress Alana Haim is memorable in her feature film debut. In real life, Alana is a musician in the pop/rock band Haim. Her familial group also includes her two older sisters, Este and Danielle who play her siblings in this movie.

Gary and Alana are an odd couple romance. She’s the yin to his yang. I wouldn’t say they exactly hit it off. He flirts and she fends off his persistent verbal advances. He’s a decade her junior after all. I’ll concede their age difference seems inappropriate. However, they look about the same age and she still lives at home so they seem compatible on a maturity level. His persistence pays off. She agrees to meet him for dinner at this bar/restaurant where he’s a regular. Thus begins a fascinating relationship with many ups and downs.

Gary is a hustler that gets by on sheer determination. His mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) works for an advertising company that Gary created. He’ll start a water bed company and open a pinball palace during the chronicle. Gary boasts he’s an actor. At first, it sounds like something he simply made up to impress Alana, but we soon discover it’s the truth.

Licorice Pizza is a brilliant movie that flawlessly weaves reality with fiction into a compelling tale. The character is based on Gary Goetzman, a Hollywood producer who was a former child actor. Goetzman’s presence in the comedy Yours, Mine and Ours inspires a most delightful production number. In a personal appearance, Gary performs on stage with a shrewish star named Lucille Dolittle — a thinly disguised portrayal of Lucille Ball. In a year where Being the Ricardos exists, who knew the funniest depiction of the comedienne would come from Christine Ebersole? That’s not the only tie to the real world. Sean Penn portrays a highly fictionalized version of William Holden, Bradley Cooper hams it up as hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters and Benny Safdie is Joel Wachs, an LA politician running for mayor.

This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature and his fifth to be set largely in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived most of his life. It’s a place the director knows well. The title refers to a bygone chain of record stores in southern California. The Glendale-based business flourished in the 1970s. The words “Licorice Pizza” are never uttered or referenced but its aura informs the narrative. Cherry-picked tunes are catchy selections you haven’t heard a million times. They perfectly convey the laid-back ambiance: “Stumblin’ In” by Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro, “Peace Frog” by The Doors, “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and “Life On Mars?” by David Bowie are just a few. The music truly enhances the mood.

I love a director that has done his homework. Licorice Pizza is an engaging dive into the early 70s aesthetic. This is an auteur working at full capacity and the results are an absolute joy. The finely tuned ensemble piece highlights a series of captivating vignettes. On the surface, it’s a meandering saga with a lackadaisical plot. Yet the journey back in time is perfectly realized. I was amazed at the detail. Honestly, the portrait is so convincing, I question whether Anderson used a time machine to film this picture. In a word, it’s immersive.

12-25-21

Don’t Look Up

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on December 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It’s never a good sign when you’re rooting for the end of humanity in a movie. Nevertheless, I did experience gleeful anticipation as an impending comet loomed ever closer to destroying all life on Earth — a planet filled with a complete bunch of dum-dums.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two astronomers who discover a comet is plunging toward the planet. They soon determine that the celestial sphere is extremely dangerous. It will kill all life as we know it in 6 months. Naturally, they contact the authorities. NASA scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) is totally on board, but President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is not. Meryl Streep is doing a version of Donald Trump in a female form complete with a nitwit son Jason (Jonah Hill) who also happens to be her Chief-of-Staff. At first, President Orlean avoids doing anything about the problem. Then decides with mid-term elections approaching, a response would benefit her campaign.

This is a heavy-handed parable with a lot of stars working extra hard to portray unpleasant people to elicit laughs. The central conceit is that the scientists speak the truth, but no one listens or cares. A raft of celebrities inhabit incidental subplots. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play perky TV personalities on a Morning Joe-style TV show. Ariana Grande noticeably flexes her acting muscles to play a vacuous pop star that sings a soaring ballad about our imminent doom. Timothée Chalamet embodies a directionless teen who has a fling with Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Ron Perlman yells a lot as a general who will pilot the spacecraft that will divert the trajectory of the cosmic snowball in question. Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwood, the placid CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company. His Elon Musk-ish billionaire steps in to help out when it’s discovered that the comet can be mined for valuable resources.

Subtle political satire is difficult to pull off. Why address grave concepts like climate change or the pandemic head-on when a physical object hurtling toward the world is so much easier to grasp? The filmmakers exploit that obvious metaphor by repeatedly hammering the same point using different actors in assorted situations for a mind-numbing 138-minutes. This sanctimonious sermon would have been so much more effective (and enjoyable) if presented in half that time. Honestly, there are plenty of funny jokes that land. I would have given this a recommendation if 50 minutes of the repetitive tedium were excised. Writer and Director Adam McKay is working from a story by David Sirota. McKay applies the same haphazard but smug approach he used in The Big Short and Vice. Hard to believe, but this is the same guy that once gave us the breezy comedy triumvirate of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. Oh, how I miss that guy.

Don’t Look Up is a clashing hybrid of drama and comedy. We can cite the inspirations of the past. Dr. Strangelove or Network are the acknowledged classics. As a matter of fact, when Leonardo DiCaprio loses it on the air, he seems to be channeling Peter Finch’s famous meltdown. The screenplay is more potent as a silly comedy. There are occasional laughs. A running joke which cites Kate’s inability to get over the fact that General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) charged her for free snacks is so random, it’s amusing. There are many hilarious lines. Indeed I chuckled throughout. However, Adam McKay’s method grows increasingly didactic over a punishingly long runtime. The tone is irritable when the narrative would have been better served by a lighter touch. Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy also exploited a similar vibe in its sendup of human nature. Where that lighthearted parody had many targets, this oppressive spoof has one: America is one big country of stupid people. Thanks. I already get that perspective from the news (and it’s delivered in under 30 minutes to boot!).

12-26-21

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spider-man has had a long and varied history on film. It all began rather inauspiciously in 1977 with a made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man series on CBS. That starred Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music). Since then, we’ve gotten productions with a considerably higher budget: the Sam Raimi directed pictures (2002–2007) starring Tobey Maguire and those helmed by Marc Webb (2012–2014) with Andrew Garfield. Sony’s Licensing agreement with Marvel Studios then allowed a group of movies featuring Tom Holland to officially become a part of the MCU. There was Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), then Far From Home (2019), and now the latest No Way Home. The recurring word “home” appearing in every title has always made differentiating these titles a little difficult for this reviewer. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed them. The latest is no exception.

The story is refreshingly succinct at heart. After Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man, Peter appeals for help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to conjure a spell to make people forget his true identity. Complications arise.

What makes the 8th Spider-Man entry different in yet another SONY-produced installment is the way it effectively embraces nostalgia. Peter Parker must contend with a panoply of villains in this episode. These include the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). This then is the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album if you will. Still using that analogy, I will offer there are a few bonus cuts as well. The additions will delight longtime fans of the franchise. It’s a superficial pleasure, but a genuine one.

The screenplay’s attempts at poignancy and significance will resonate more with people who come to this movie already invested. Learning from your mistakes and the link between power and responsibility are imparted as words of wisdom. Another lesson is giving people second chances, even at the expense of making some extremely bad choices. A key plot point is that Peter is conflicted by people who divide over whether he is a hero or a menace to society. J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons ) is a conspiracy theorist with his own news show on the internet. Jameson vociferously speaks out against the web-slinger. The public seems divided, although we the audience are invited to view Jameson as a crackpot.

Then Peter makes a choice. Director Jon Watts is working from a script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Up until this point, they had managed to keep me on board with the various machinations of the story. Even the leap required to accept that Doctor Strange would agree to cast that ridiculous spell. Peter’s error in judgment goes against the strict admonitions of Doctor Strange. It is a highly flawed decision that I could never get behind. Quite frankly, it’s indefensible. “You only have yourself to blame!” was my reaction to every bad thing that happens thereafter. This includes someone’s death.

No Way Home is still a sturdy, entertaining flick. You’ll get the requisite battles and they’re fine. More appreciated is the camaraderie between these beloved characters. Actors Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ Jones-Watson), and Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) have a rapport that is deeply affecting. They have a connection. You truly believe in their core friendship. However, I would argue that Holland has become so ultrabuff he looks out of place, especially in one scene where he appears shirtless. Their interactions are what carried me through the standard-issue action scenes. The screenplay seeks to inject sentimentality into the narrative with emotional developments. These efforts are more meaningful because of their chemistry. The relationship of this trio goes a long way into making us care.

To say this picture has resonated with audiences is an understatement. Spider-Man: No Way Home has accomplished what heretofore seemed impossible post-pandemic. At $260 million, it’s the 2nd biggest U.S. opening OF ALL TIME. Only Avengers: Endgame did more with the $357 million it earned in April 2019. Given that the theatrical landscape was a lot more welcoming in 2019, it makes the achievement even more incredible. This made more in just one weekend than the entire gross of any movie since 2019. The last was Rise of Skywalker with $515 million. No Way Home may just top that. Stay tuned.

12-21-21

The Hand of God

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on December 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The expression “the Hand of God” could denote the twists of fate that occur in life, but it’s also a phrase that Argentine footballer Diego Maradona used to describe a goal he made at the 1986 World Cup. 17-year-old Fabietto is a big fan of the athlete. There’s a rumor that Maradona might be moving to Naples. This gets the whole town talking, but it’s just one of many details in this coming-of-age tale.

The autobiographical chronicle is set in the 1980s and concerns a young man. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) clearly represents the director as a teen. It’s a study of his family. This meandering collection of vignettes takes place while growing up. Fabietto lives with his parents (Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo) in Naples. Mother Maria enjoys playing practical jokes. However, the first person we meet is his Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She’s something of a muse to the young boy. The vibrant woman has enchanted all the men of the town with her exhibitionism. Oh, but before you cast judgment, please note she is deeply troubled. Then we are introduced to various other people. There are some odd developments. One stands out. He has an elderly gray-haired neighbor, Baroness Focale (Betti Pedrazzi). The scene begins with her asking for him to get rid of a bat that flew into her bedroom. It ends with an even more bizarre request. He doesn’t seem traumatized by her behavior, but I was.

The Hand of God is a loosely constructed anecdotal collection of random events. The Italian drama is written, directed, and produced by Paolo Sorrentino. This is Italy’s hope for a nomination at the upcoming Academy Awards next March. Given its pedigree, I’d say its chances are pretty good. Sorrentino is best known for the 2013 film The Great Beauty which won both the Oscar and the BAFTA for Foreign Language Film. The first half is fairly happy and then adversity strikes midway through. The second section is sadder as Fabietto deals with his grief. I hoped the tragedy would provide some focus. Plenty happens but the account remains superficial. The seeds for the future director’s interest in cinema are detailed, but it has little else to say. Some praise or condemnation for what transpires might have instilled this screenplay with a point of view. This rambling saga merely presents a lot of stuff. The story is aimless. Some of it captivated me. Naples is a beautiful city. Daria D’Antonio’s cinematography captures that, but I craved more momentum.

12-17-21

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on December 19, 2021 by Mark Hobin

On Sunday, November 14th, I was on talkSPORT radio to discuss several current films that could be vying for Oscar nominations next year: SPENCER, BELFAST, and PASSING. My segment begins 7 minutes into the 2:30 – 3:00 section (about 23 minutes from the end). Click below and enjoy!

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on December 19, 2021 by Mark Hobin

On Sunday, November 7th, I was on talkSPORT radio to discuss the Marvel movie ETERNALS. That is the big release but I also cover the science-fiction drama FINCH starring Tom Hanks on Apple TV+. My segment begins 4 minutes into the 2:30 – 3:00 section (about 26 minutes from the end). Click below and enjoy!

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Being the Ricardos

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I discovered the TV program I Love Lucy when I was 5. I’ve been hooked ever since. I used to watch it regularly when it was broadcast in reruns. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I saw every episode — many more than once. Then the DVDs were gradually released between 2003 and 2007. They afforded me the luxury to see the show whenever I felt like it. At some point, I had seen every single one at least ten times and classics like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” or “Job Switching” on more occasions than I can even count. I’ve bought numerous books on the series and read extensively on the matter. It would be an understatement to say I adore I Love Lucy.

Being the Ricardos is about the creators and stars of that sitcom. Yet the focus is much more fixed. It’s centered on one turbulent week in the preparation of their hit television show. The account revolves around the 22nd entry of their first season, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” which was filmed on January 30, 1952. The episode itself is not particularly memorable, but it features Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons). The narrative compresses a variety of challenging developments into that narrow period. Issues include Lucille Ball’s announcement of her actual pregnancy, accusations that she was a communist, and Desi Arnaz’s alleged affairs. These all veritably happened, just not in the same week.

Being the Ricardos is an intriguing window into the production of their program. Most of the events depicted here occurred in different years. The biopic seeks to educate and entertain but stuffing so much in this cramped time frame can get a little chaotic. An assortment of time hops also includes recreations of two other installments: “Lucy Tells the Truth” and “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” Then flash-forwards depict actors portraying the writers in the present day reflecting back on their show documentary style. It’s a lot to absorb.

This is an intense study of the details in putting on a TV show. A heightened discussion about how the episode at hand should even begin is a bone of contention with the star. Ricky sneaks up behind Lucy as she sets the dining table to play a game of “Guess Who.” The scene doesn’t sit right with her. TV rarely mirrors real life. If your image of Lucy is that of a ditzy redhead, prepare to be shocked. Lucille Ball was one tough cookie. This presentation furthers the idea that she was a demanding woman in charge. She frequently spars with producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) in fighting for what she wants. The writing team of Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy) are also heavily featured as well.

The audience must have a willing suspension of disbelief. The performances are not transformative. I never forgot these were actors portraying Lucy and Desi. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem neither look nor sound like their real-life counterparts. And that’s fine. It may have taken me roughly 30 minutes before I could get past this fact, but once I did, it’s pretty good. I will always favor an in-depth analysis of an individual’s persona in a biopic over a superficial impersonation. That’s what you’ll get here. Both ultimately rise to the challenge. Kidman has brief flashes where her mannerisms eerily channel the legend. The actors give life to Sorkin’s fascinating screenplay. His signature rapid-fire, extended monologues entertained me with an insider’s perspective. As such, this is a movie for aficionados of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, not fans of the comedienne. It’s an edgy portrait, not a loving one. Nicole Kidman embodies the relentlessly determined control freak behind the scenes. Sadly Kidman lacks the brilliant comedic timing that Ball had in front of the camera. This is an engrossing chronicle about one of, if not THE funniest sitcom ever made. The irony is that it’s a largely serious affair, oddly devoid of humor.

11-27-21

West Side Story

Posted in Crime, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’ve got to hand it to Steven Spielberg. In his 50 years of making movies, he has never directed a musical before and when he decides to start, he chooses to remake one of the most illustrious of all time. That takes guts. The 1957 Broadway show was conceived by Jerome Robbins featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It became a landmark 1961 film that made $43.7 million ($400 million adjusted for inflation) and won a whopping 10 Oscars including Best Picture. The soundtrack spent 54 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts, giving it the longest run at No. 1 of any album in history. It was an imposing task. I’m happy to say the gamble pays off.

The beloved tale is a well-known formula of timeworn components. Rival street gangs face off in NYC. It concerns the Sharks who hail from Puerto Rico vs. the nativist white gang the Jets. Side note: actor Mike Faist is a revelation as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and the story isn’t even about him. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a former Jet who went to jail and is now a reformed character. He meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), a beautiful 18-year-old at a community dance. Tony and Maria instantly fall in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. Ah, movies! Complicating matters is that she’s the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Anita (Ariana DeBose) is his assertive girlfriend. More on her later. Trying to keep the peace is Valentina (Rita Moreno), a widow who now runs Doc’s general store. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a doomed romance between star-crossed sweethearts. In this case, from different sides in 1950s Manhattan.

This bright, uplifting musical got my emotions going. Each production number is a big rousing larger-than-life event. “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “Somewhere” – I’ve loved these tunes for years. Every fan will cite a favorite. For me, the highlight has always been the spirited “America” sung by the Puerto Ricans that pits the women who list all the things they champion about their adoptive country against their male counterparts who play up all the negative aspects. I appreciate the mixed meter of a chant that espouses pro-American views but is rooted in vibrant Latin rhythms and Spanish guitar. It’s both funny and athletic. When the women start twirling their dresses as the men leap and jump while the camera zooms in and out, I thought, THIS is cinema. I was enthralled. The singing is stellar across the board. In a cast of many highlights, the MVP goes to Ariana Dubose as Anita. She has some pretty big shoes to fill. Rita Moreno famously received a well-earned Oscar for that role. Ariana is more than up to the task.

In a word, West Side Story is spectacular. This grand production is a perfect marriage of old and new. There is such respect for its iconic predecessor. Composer David Newman arranges Bernstein’s timeless score with passion and verve. Meanwhile, Justin Peck updates Jerome Robbins’ influential dance routines. Peck is the resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet. They honor the source material but gently modernize the piece for a 2021 audience. The balletic moves are more realistically violent when depicting the fights. Additionally, screenwriter Tony Kushner spends extra time fleshing out the Puerto Rican personalities. Many have called this the “greatest musical ever made.” * I walked in arms folded with the attitude, “Why are we remaking this classic?” and I left the theater thinking, “Did that just top the original?” The leads as written in the play have never been the most captivating characters. The supporting parts have so much more charisma. That’s true once again, although I’d argue Tony and Maria are slightly more compelling here than their 1961 equivalents. Apologies to Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Whether this tops that version overall is debatable. I can’t give a decisive answer because I’m still not sure. However, just the fact that I’m even entertaining the idea, speaks to the immense talent that is Steven Spielberg.

12/09/21

*Not a definitive list, but offhand I know I enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and The Sound of Music more.

King Richard

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports on December 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’d think a sports biopic about tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams would frame them as the stars. That’s what makes King Richard so radical. The chronicle centers on their father and how he raised them to be champions. But the surprises don’t stop there. This is an engaging portrait of a difficult, even irascible man. He can be downright aggravating. Fiercely controlling, his choices occasionally hinder their advancement in the tennis world. However, the love and devotion he holds for his daughters are never in doubt. He’s a flawed hero.

As the title would suggest, Richard Williams is the centerpiece. He is a self-taught coach with a 78-page blueprint for his daughter’s success. He and his wife have raised their daughters since birth to excel. Venus’ (Saniyya Sidney) early rise takes the spotlight in the 2nd half. Serena’s (Demi Singleton) talent is somewhat less conspicuous by comparison. We know that would change. The drama features another career-defining performance from Will Smith. He’s been acting for three decades. We know he’s a good actor, but it’s nice to be reminded. I haven’t seen him disappear into a role so convincingly since The Pursuit of Happyness where he also portrayed a dedicated father. He received an Oscar nomination for that part, and it’s all but a foregone conclusion he will receive another.

As you can appreciate, he is a demanding authoritarian — an overly protective father if you will. There’s an inherent understanding of the racial dynamics. He must be this way, although the script rarely makes an explicit point of it. It’s 1995 and 14-year-old Venus Williams is being interviewed shortly after she turns professional. She emanates determination over her next opponent. Venus affirms, “I know I can beat her.” The reporter is incredulous, taken aback by her brazen courage. “You say it so easily,” he presses, “why?” Richard promptly interrupts the conference. He doesn’t want his daughter’s confidence diminished. His angry outburst tells us so much. The confrontation happened exactly the same in real life. I’ve seen the original video.

If anyone can stand up to his strong temperament, it’s his wife Oracene Price. Actress Aunjanue Ellis embodies the woman that radiates steely resolve. Oracene — who goes by Brandy — is a force of nature herself. At least one passionate outburst unleashed on her husband comes from years of frustration. “I stay here because of my girls,” she attests. “I stay here because I answer to something higher than Richard Williams. Because if I was staying here for you, I would have been gone a long time ago.” The declaration is so powerful I thought, “There’s your Oscar clip.” Brandy is a captivating individual. She has three daughters from a previous marriage and is a talented trainer in her own right. Also worthy of mention is Jon Bernthal as coach Rick Macci. His sweetly comic personality lightens the narrative. He is amusing and understandably exasperated by Richard’s somewhat bullying behavior.

The story of two black girls from Compton, California who became legendary tennis icons is an anomaly so compelling it demands a movie, more than one. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) working from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin, takes a specific section of their lives and details it brilliantly. The account is such a family-friendly flick, a wholesome audience-pleasing sentiment. King Richard entertains with fascinating characters and allows their mission to drive the feel-good narrative. It’s gratifying to see an uplifting — if simplified — idea promoted that hard work and perseverance pay off. Although I still contend that even if I practiced 24/7 during my teenaged life, I would have never achieved the level of athletic achievement that these girls did. Ah, but the story made me believe that I could.

11-2-21

The Power of the Dog

Posted in Drama, Romance, Western with tags on December 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The “power of the dog” can be those physical and psychological forces that come to destroy us. Jane Campion’s latest is a western of sorts, but given the output of the iconoclastic director, you know this won’t be a straightforward actioner with cowboys and gunfights. She’s helming a feature film for the first time in 12 years. The New Zealand filmmaker’s last was Bright Star (2009), but she is best known for The Piano (1993). Her current feature is a character-based drama that she adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Call it an anti-western.

This tale set in the 1920s concerns the Burbank brothers. Ranchers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) live together on their parents’ sprawling ranch in Montana. Phil is a spiteful man consumed by personal demons. Unloveable and seemingly incapable of love. He is a bully, dominating others before he can be dominated. On the other hand, George is considerably more civilized: quiet and polite. He still affects the air of a gentleman. To put it more simply, George takes baths. Phil doesn’t bathe. Despite being less intellectually inclined than Phil, George handles the paperwork of the ranch as the businessman.

The languid story begins to take shape at the Red Mill restaurant. During a cattle drive, they stop at the establishment run by a fragile widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Soon after meeting, George reveals that he and Rose have married. Their relationship will prove to be a thorn in Phil’s side. Phil’s bitter dislike of Rose festers over time. His behavior has a detrimental effect on her well-being. She also has a son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a frail teen the oppressive Phil insults. These interactions will weigh on his mother.

A sample of one antagonism that really got under my skin. When Phil and Peter first meet, the boy is waiting tables at the restaurant. Phil is a patron. The intricate paper flowers Peter has created adorn the tables. We’ve seen the care he puts into making each one. The exquisitely made decorations embody delicacy and beauty. “I wonder what little lady made these,” Phil taunts. He casually sets one afire to light his cigarette in front of its creator. The callous act is the gleeful destruction of hard work, and it’s unnerving in a way that’s hard to explain. The sinister gesture perfectly clarifies his outlook more than pages of words ever could.

The Power of the Dog is an impressive ensemble piece concerning individuals with ambiguous motives. Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all contribute memorable performances. But it’s the nuanced achievement from Benedict Cumberbatch as the tragic figure at the center of it all that unites the chronicle. He exposes the compelling depths of the human psyche within this multi-faceted soul. The narrative can be seen from more than one point of view. The aching void of loneliness has reduced Phil to a hateful shell. George is trying to eke out a happy life in a savage frontier. Meanwhile, Peter wants to save his mother’s descent into alcoholism brought on by a pernicious presence in her home. The three form a triad that engages the viewer. These are impressively complicated personalities. For example, Peter is capable of creating exquisite centerpieces from paper, but can also unemotionally dissect a cute bunny rabbit in his desire to become a surgeon.

The Power of the Dog is an unrelenting depiction of sadness. The saga can be difficult to embrace. However, there is so much to appreciate here. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (True History Of The Kelly Gang) beautifully highlights the visual sweep of the American West. The expansive vistas evoke the work of legendary directors John Ford and George Stevens. Johnny Greenwood’s (Phantom Thread) uneasy score is the aural manifestation of impending danger. The methodic pace of the gradually unfolding account builds. I kept second-guessing the intentions of the characters at every turn until the very end. The narrative takes quite a while to get started but things get pretty intense in the final 30 minutes. The ending is a shocker that will undoubtedly inspire conversation. I’m still thinking about these people and their motivations. Our contempt and disdain are elicited throughout the picture. Yet these people have humanity which means sometimes our gut reactions may not be justified. Jane Campion’s meticulous portrait ends in tragedy. Where the tragedy truly lies, however, is open to interpretation.

12-02-21