The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog, directed by Academy Award-winning director Jane Campion, and her first feature film in twelve years.  The movie presents itself as a Western, but it’s actually a bleak character study set in a Western context.  Filled with impressive camera work and interesting performances, The Power of the Dog spends far too much time documenting the misanthropy of its central character Phil, a hard-driving cattle rancher who is not what he seems.  Cumberbatch’s acting definitely earns our attention, but his character’s underlying mystery is telegraphed early on.  The movie’s primary concern is to make the audience uncomfortable watching Phil make the lives of the other characters miserable.  Ultimately, it tests our patience and concludes with an intriguing payoff that almost makes it all  worthwhile, but not quite.  Not recommended.

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Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a gem of a movie and easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2021.  An autobiographical take on his own childhood, the movie focuses on the last year Buddy (Branagh’s stand-in) and his family lived in Belfast, Ireland before financial troubles and The Troubles forced them to relocate to Manchester.

Belfast is a beautiful movie, perfectly shot in gorgeous black-and-white.  Yes, B&W is the go-to way to depict the past (see: Mank, Roma, The Lighthouse).  Unlike other films, where B&W seems more like a gimmick, each scene in Belfast takes on a storybook quality that invites you in instead of drawing attention to itself.  The acting is exceptional throughout, featuring touching performances by Caitriona Balfe as Ma and Jamie Dornan as Pa.  Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds round out the exceptional supporting cast as Granny and Pop.  Their scenes together, where Pop’s Irish Wisdom meets its match in Granny’s acerbic wit, are priceless.  Branagh struck gold in casting Jude Hill as Buddy, an unknown before this movie but likely a rising star from here on out.

If I could only use one word to describe Belfast, it would be affection.  Branagh, and by extension Buddy, clearly loves everything about this period of his life: his family and friends, the neighborhood and its streets, even the thick clouds that fill the sky.  Branagh’s story is a sentimental one, but it’s emotions are earned honestly.  The script is pitch perfect, with every conversation feeling real and lived-in.  There are moments of Irish wit, but that comes with the territory.  (The movie is incredibly funny throughout.)

Belfast represents Branagh’s most personal directorial effort yet.  In a career that started with much fanfare, only to dovetail into more workaday projects (Thor, Cinderella, Artemis Fowl), this movie represents more than a return to form.  It’s an elevation of his art to an entirely new level.  Highly recommended.

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The Last Duel

At its core, the story The Last Duel tells is straightforward.  Set in France circa 1386, it concerns itself with three characters whose lives become fatefully intertwined: Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the woman who both covet, albeit for vastly different reasons.  Based on our knowledge of other movies or television shows, one might comfortably assume that these three would comprise a standard love triangle.  As the movie progresses, however, any preconceived notions that the story will be romantic in any way, shape or form are thoroughly and decisively trounced.  

The Last Duel begins with an almost casual, unassuming tone, concerning itself with Carrouges and Le Gris fighting the good fight, as they are commanded to do.  A reckless action by Carrouges puts him on the outs with Count Pierre (Ben Affleck).  Le Gris, intelligent and ingratiating, strikes up a relationship with Pierre, who quickly becomes prosperous, often at the expense of his former friend Carrouges.  As the enmity between the two grows, the movie’s tone dramatically shifts from uncomfortable, then to brutal, ending with terrifying.  As a man in the audience, I likened the overall experience to being repeatedly punched in the gut.  I suspect women will be able to take solace (relief?) in how the movie ends, but the journey itself is long and arduous, regardless of your gender affiliation.

The movie clearly is a polemic, a categorization I don’t apply dismissively.  The Last Duel may be a tale involving medieval knights set in the fourteenth century, but it is also unequivocally (and unapologetically) a #MeTo story.  The movie serves as a pretext for the argument that the injustices on display in the movie have been endured by women for centuries, long before there was a hashtag associated with it.

Directed with gusto by Ridley Scott, scenes in the movie will certainly echo with those familiar with Gladiator.  As expected, there are scenes of snow-flecked battle vistas that work in spite of being poorly framed.  The scope of the battle gets lost among screams, sudden spurts of blood and clanging swords.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are where Ridley excels, and the duel for which the movie gets its name is a tour de force.

The emotional and moral center in The Last Duel is Marguerite.  As acted by the incredibly capable Jodie Comer, she brings raw, emotional honesty to a character whose life is in the hands of men who are pigheaded, self-absorbed and deceitful by varying degrees.  Matt Damon fares well as human battle axe Carrouges, useful during a fight but simplistic and vacant in all other environments.  Adam Driver serves up oily charm as the opportunistic Le Gris, employing 

his intellect only to satisfy his desires.  Damon and Affleck’s portrayals are a bit heavy-handed and cartoonish.  Damon’s Carrouges is presented as thick-headed and prideful, and could have used more subtlety.  Affleck’s performance is geared towards comic relief, and comes across as a strange mashup of Jeremy Irons aristocratic drawl and John Malcovich debauchery.

At two-and-a-half hours, The Last Duel is an incredibly riveting and engrossing endurance test.  This is the rare movie that is completely unsparing towards its characters and its audience, forcing both to relive a brutal sexual assault in its entirety twice.  What the movie lacks subtlety it makes up for with an unsparing view of the reality for women, past and present.  Few movies set out to intentionally damage their audience, and this one definitely succeeds, dishing out a bloody nose and a black eye along the way (metaphorically speaking).  I’ve long since recovered from my wounds, but I suspect the resulting scars will never completely fade away.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.  Recommended.

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Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills is the second entry in a trilogy of Halloween that takes the 1978 movie as their starting point and pretends that all previous sequels don’t exist.  That bit of artistic amnesia is certainly warranted, as pretty much every sequel that followed the original movie only served to cheapen what is generally considered a horror classic.  Halloween (2018), the first movie in the trilogy, was definitely guilty of raided the closest of the original.  There’s a tense opening credit sequence featuring a pumpkin, John Carpenter’s iconic film score, copious throwback scenes and a convincing performance by Jamie Lee Curtis.  Most importantly, that movie had an interesting story to tell.  Specifically, what impact did Michael have on Laurie Strode’s life from that point on, and how did Laurie’s reaction to that trauma affect her family?

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Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan, the creative force behind The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, returns with Midnight Mass, a new limited series on Netflix.  Similar to his two previous series, Midnight Mass is a combination of earnest performances, thoughtful, introspective dialog and stealth horror elements.  This time around, Flanagan has decided to de-emphasize the scary stuff, and the result is incredibly underwhelming, to the point where the series should have been titled Tedium.

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