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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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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Fear Street: Part One 1994

Fear Street:1994 opens promisingly with a skull-masked slasher taking out a young, pretty bookseller at the mall.  The movie then introduces five high schoolers who unwittingly unleash the malevolent spirit of the Fier witch when they disturb her bones lying in the forest.  The witch was killed back in 1666, but has been the influencer behind inexplicable homicides for decades.  The actors portraying the teenagers either bring too much or too little intensity to their roles, resulting in a “who cares” attitude when they are eventually stalked by resurrected killers from the past.  1994 Is competently directed, and I liked its day-glo aesthetic, but its reliance on  Nineties music becomes a distraction.  Not recommended.

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The Woman in the Window

In The Woman in the Window, Amy Adams plays Anna, an agorophobic-asexual-alcoholic child psychologist who’s life turns into a weak copy of Rear Window.  The movie mainly exists as a device to persecute and torture Amy Adams’s character.  If you enjoyed seeing Adams essentially repeat her character from Sharp Objects, you may enjoy this movie.  As it stands, the movie doesn’t let her take any pleasure from her voyeurism, and instead repeatedly punishes Anna for her transgressions, past and present.  She’s Joan of Arc with a telephoto lens.  Not recommended.

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Things Heard & Seen

Things Heard & Seen is an unwieldy amalgamation of two genres: disintegrating marriage and haunted house.  While both elements of this surf-and-turf narrative are mildly interesting on their own, the combination of the two ultimately is not rewarding, with one cheapening the impact of the other.  Further confusing things is the ending, which applies a #MeTo, “sisterhood of the ghosts” resolution as a way of justifying the misery that compromises almost all of the movie’s runtime.  The ending is as bizarre as it sounds, and must be seen to be believed.  In spite of all that, and the fact that I don’t recommend watching this movie, I can’t entirely dismiss it, either.

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Lupin (Netflix)

Lupin stars Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a Senegalese immigrant in France who models his life on the twentieth century thief Arsène Lupin. Known as the “gentleman burgler”, Assane has a gift as a chameleon, able to change his appearance and slip into various roles with ease whenever necessary. The sudden reappearance of a necklace that lead to his father’s incarceration and death spurs Assane to both steal it and prove his father’s innocence. Sy has charm to spare, the various heists are exciting to watch and every episode feels like a feature film. Lupin also addresses the racism that lead to the death of Assane’s father, and that he still deals with in modern France twenty five years later. Lupin is solidly entertaining, with a message that is as deftly delivered as it is timely. Highly recommended.

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Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (Netflix)

This limited series focuses on the mysterious disappearance and death of Elisa Lam while staying at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.  This story could have served as a fascinating single episode of Unsolved Mysteries.  Unfortunately, what we get is four overly padded episodes that eventually confirm what I suspected all along.  Worse still, significant time was devoted to talking head commentary that is irrelevant to the case, especially the commentary made by several self-described “YouTubers”, “web sleuths” and “journalists”.  The commentary they made online at the time was entirely baseless speculation on what happened to Ms. Lam.  The decision to include them along with the interviews of the actual detectives and forensic specialists involved in the case was a decision that turned what could have been a serious examination into the case into laugh-inducing material.  Not recommended.

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (or TTC7) presents itself as an historical reenactment, and it is that to a certain degree.  Set during the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in 1968, the movie is actually an Aaron Sorkin greatest hits package, with a bit of Oliver Stone visual razzle-dazzle thrown in to emphasize both the anarchy of the riots and the absurdity of the trial afterwards.  Fans of Sorkin’s trademark rat-a-tat dialog will not be disappointed, but few of the performances stand out from the superficial treatments of their characters.  Unfortunately, the directorial missteps outweigh the few good choices made, and the movie comes off more as a one-sided diatribe than an objective examination of the events presented.  That the movie has a topical connection to present-day events some fifty years later does not give it a pass for its flippant regards towards history.  Recommended for Sacha Baron-Cohen’s performance only.

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Pieces of a Woman (2020)

Pieces of a Woman asks a question we never want to answer: how would I handle the death of a child?  The movie provides answers to that question through the perspectives of the mother, the father and the mother-in-law.  The acting in the movie is exceptional, and the childbirth scene is a riveting scene to behold.  After the initial tragedy, the movie becomes a character study in grief, and is effective because the performances are so honest.  Recommended.

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