The Power of the Dog: Film Review

Netflix

I’ve been hearing rave reviews about The Power of the Dog, written and directed by Jane Campion, ever since its debut in Venice in September so I had high hopes for the film and it sadly fell short of them.

This Western is set in Montana in 1925 and follows volatile, feared rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). He torments his brother George (Jesse Plemons)’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) when they move into the family ranch until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.

I didn’t really know what this film was about – I hadn’t seen a trailer or read a full synopsis – and I never would have predicted the direction this film takes. It goes to an unexpected place yet doesn’t feel as dramatic as it should and that’s perhaps because Campion has made her film extremely subtle and understated. Hardly anything is done or said in a direct or obvious manner, which can pretty frustrating sometimes. The film is simmering with tension about what might happen next and it always feels like whatever’s bubbling beneath the surface could explode at any moment – but it never does. It felt like it was building towards a BIG moment, I was sure of it, so I felt a bit disappointed not getting what I felt like we’d been promised.

There is still a lot to appreciate about this slow-burner though, from the unsettling atmosphere Campion creates within the ranch, the gorgeous shots of New Zealand landscapes and the performances she brings out of the cast.

Cumberbatch isn’t known for playing nasty, domineering characters so his casting as Phil is quite an unexpected choice but going against type has paid off. He fully convinces as this permanently sweaty and dirty rancher who is filled with rage, jealousy and resentment and doesn’t know how to express that besides being cruel to others. He is the perfect embodiment of toxic masculinity. Plemons is the polar opposite as his brother – he is kind, polite, caring and well-dressed.

I hope Dunst receives supporting actress nominations this awards season because I think she does a stellar job with Rose, who becomes increasingly unnerved and melancholic in the ranch and turns to booze to cope. Smit-McPhee was a revelation as her effeminate son, the subject of ridicule among the ranchers, and this is his most grown-up performance yet. He is so still and subtle and has this quiet power that makes you wonder if he’s not as innocent as he seems.

I have no doubt that this is a well-made film, but I can’t praise it as much as everyone else because it’s a bit too slow-moving and understated for its own good and I wanted so much more from the ending.

On Netflix from Wednesday 1st December

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Antlers: Film Review

Searchlight Pictures

After suffering multiple delays as a result of the pandemic, the Keri Russell-led creature feature Antlers finally comes to cinemas in time for Halloween.

Russell plays Julia Meadows, who has recently returned to her small hometown in Oregon to live with her brother, local sheriff Paul (Jesse Plemons), following the death of their abusive father. As the new teacher in school, she becomes concerned about her student Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), who is pale, dirty and worryingly thin, all warning signs of abuse, and she sets out to investigate his home situation – little does she know that he’s hiding a supernatural creature in his house.

Scott Cooper creates a dark, moody and ominous atmosphere filled with plenty of tension and a sense of foreboding. It isn’t particularly scary but there are some gruesome body horror moments (one scene especially grossed me out), bloody and violent kills and the creature is ugly and horrifying. It’s often the case that a creature is scarier when you don’t know what it looks like as your imagination runs away with you so thankfully this beast – based on the mythological creature wendigo – wasn’t revealed in its entirety until the end as it immediately lost its impact.

The set-up is very promising and I liked how the story gradually unravelled and we learned more about Julia and Paul’s past and the trauma she’s been through as well as the creature in Lucas’ house. It didn’t lay all its cards on the table at once and it was intriguing. However, the film didn’t tie all the threads together in a satisfying way and I came away from it feeling pretty meh.

Russell gives a strong performance as an abuse survivor who is haunted by her memories after returning to her childhood home and finds a project to focus her mind on. She sees herself in Lucas and has this fearless determination to protect him in the way she wasn’t. Plemons was simply fine as the sheriff flummoxed by the unusual and gory deaths in his small town. We know that he’s capable of so much more than this so it’s a shame it’s such a snoozy role for him. It’s hard to say whether it’s his performance, the material or a combination of both.

Antlers is produced by Guillermo del Toro – a pro at the creature feature – and you can’t help but wonder what the project would have been like in his hands.

In cinemas Friday 29th October

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jungle Cruise: Film Review

Jungle Cruise

Photo by Frank Masi. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

I absolutely love classic family-friendly action-adventure films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed Jungle Cruise big time.

Taking inspiration from the Disneyland theme park attraction of the same name, Jungle Cruise is set in 1916 and follows Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a botanist who wants to find the Tears of the Moon, a flower which is believed to have healing powers that could benefit modern medicine. After stealing an arrowhead from a society in London, she heads to Porto Velho in Brazil with her reluctant brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to find a riverboat captain to take them up the Amazon River on their quest. But in a case of mistaken identity, she ends up meeting skipper and tour guide Frank (Dwayne Johnson) instead of his more esteemed rival Nilo (Paul Giamatti). Their journey is filled with peril in the form of deadly animals, raging rapids, cursed mercenaries and a German aristocrat named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in hot pursuit.

Jungle Cruise reminded me of films such as Romancing the Stone, The Mummy (1999), the first Pirates of the Caribbean and the Indiana Jones franchise – I love all of these movies so Jungle Cruise was right up my street and I know that if I was still a youngster I would have watched this over and over again. It’s just so much fun! It is an entertaining thrill ride for all the family – there’s screwball comedy, tons of exciting and amusing action setpieces and stunts, heartfelt scenes, and some darker moments that kids may find scary.

There are a few downsides – I thought the film was way too long so I was fully ready for it to wrap up as it approached its (very predictable yet heartwarming) conclusion. Also, the film is too heavy on the CGI, particularly with the animals and the cursed villains.

Blunt is perfectly cast as the determined and fearless Lily, who won’t take no for an answer and wears the trousers (quite literally). She is a pioneering woman, a trailblazer for all female scientists and I loved her as this character. She has great chemistry with Johnson and they both seem to be having a great time making this. I wasn’t totally convinced Johnson was the right fit for Frank in terms of physicality but he was a lot of fun and his dad jokes were very bad.

A lot of people took issue with Whitehall being cast as Disney’s first-ever openly gay character, which I can understand, but I personally thought he embodied the spoiled rich boy character well, even if his jokes didn’t always work. I’m glad the film included a scene which addressed his sexuality, but it’s a shame that Disney wouldn’t let them actually use the word “gay”. This scene could easily go over the heads of many and I’m sure that was the intention.

Plemons has been tapped to play the antagonist many times in the past and that’s because he does it so well. He was hilarious as the campy villain. His accent was fantastic and he seemed to really enjoy himself in the role. While he is the fun villain, there is also Edgar Ramirez as Aguirre, a cursed mercenary that has quite a scary appearance – I would put him on a same level as the Captain Barbossa reveal in Pirates.

Jungle Cruise is a feel-good throwback action-adventure that looks set to be the family movie of the summer.

In cinemas and Disney+ with Premier Access from Friday 30th July

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Judas and the Black Messiah: Film Review

Judas and the Black Messiah

Daniel Kaluuya recently won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for his role as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and now I’ve seen the performance, I can fully appreciate why.

Shaka King‘s movie is not a biopic about Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, but a snapshot of the latter years of his life in the ’60s, and how Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal at risk of going to jail, was recruited by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) to work as their informant and infiltrate the Panthers to help them take down Hampton, an operation which resulted in the assassination of the activist.

I wish this film had been a proper biopic about Hampton because I felt this narrative device never gave us a real insight into who he was as a person. We just see him through O’Neal’s eyes and he never got super close – Hampton never fully trusted him and let him into his proper inner circle – so we never get to know him in any real, intimate way. I also came away with no detailed understanding of his legacy and what he achieved during his short life and as chairman. In this film, Hampton is mostly seen given rousing preacher-style speeches to large crowds and while they are fascinating to watch, I wanted more scenes where that public persona is stripped away and Hampton is just Hampton. We get some moments depicting his relationship with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) but these are underdeveloped.

I think Kaluuya is an incredible actor and he delivers a barnstorming performance as the chairman but he’s 31 – 10 years older than Hampton was when he died. His death scene and how it was portrayed was shocking, but I think it would have been even more impactful and emotionally devastating if the actor was closer to the correct age. This is the same for Stanfield too. O’Neal and Hampton were so young when this all happened and I only found that out when I did research afterwards. Not casting actors of the right age means the audience doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation.

Like Kaluuya, Stanfield gives a strong performance too. He’s our window into the world of the Black Panthers and he brings such humanity, regret, and vulnerability to a part that could have easily been a straightforward villain character. He doesn’t want to help the FBI but they have him over a barrel and he has no choice but to betray Hampton. Footage of the real O’Neal speaking about his actions in a documentary is played before the credits and it was fascinating. I also want to praise Fishback for injecting as much heart and soul into Johnson as the screenplay allowed – the final shot of her in this movie is haunting – and Plemons for being so good at being bad.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells a powerful and shocking story that still resonates today, but I thought it focused too much on the historical events and hitting the beats of what happened next to let us get to know the characters, who really needed more depth. I also found the pace a little slow and struggled to connect with the story. Despite all this, I recommend giving it watch simply because it tells a story everybody should be aware of.

Available to rent at home on premium video-on-demand platforms from Thursday 11th March

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Films I want to see this September

Mulan

It’s baaaaack! For the first time since March, there seem to be enough movie releases to bring back my monthly movie preview.

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Vice: Film Review

Vice received the most nominations for this year’s Golden Globes so I just assumed it would be a movie I would like and I was excited to check it out – so naturally, I was surprised that I didn’t like the movie much at all.

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Game Night: Film Review

The trailer for Game Night was crap, and given trailers are supposed to show the highlights and encourage people to watch a film, I naturally came to the conclusion that Game Night would be absolutely rubbish. However, I was completely wrong and Game Night is properly entertaining and very funny.

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The Post: Film Review

I love Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks separately so having them all collaborating on a movie is the dream, not to mention the fact that it is a movie about journalism! This ticks the boxes for me so much.

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Bridge of Spies: Film Review

bridge3

I had high expectations for Bridge of Spies because it reunites the dream team of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who have made incredible movies together such as Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can. But I’m sorry to say this is the weakest of them all – it was far too long for a film where not a lot happens.

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Black Mass: Film Review

mass3

I had been raring to see this for ages because it looked set to be Johnny Depp’s best performance in years and he is bloody amazing. He is virtually unrecognisable and absolutely terrifying. This is a total must-see for his performance alone.

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