FlixChatter Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

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This is the kind of film that is best experienced when you have very little information about the story. So with that in mind, I’ll skim on details about the plot and let you discover them on your own.

At the center of the story is a wealthy rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) who lives in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Right away it’s evident these two have contrasting personalities. Phil is dominant, crass and brutish while George is a mild-mannered, sensitive soul. The two are close, they even sleep in the same bed in their ranch house, but their bond is thrown off after an encounter with a widow, Rose, who owns a restaurant that he ranchers visit one day. 

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There is immediate strain between Phil and Rose’s teenage son Peter, who often helps his mom at the restaurant, starting with Phil insulting Peter’s paper flowers that drive him to tears. As fate would have it, George falls for Rose and the two got married. While Peter is away in school and George is on business trips, it’s Rose who has to bear the brunt of Phil’s overt bullying. 

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The film is the quintessential slo-burn drama with not much action in the first act, but there’s layers upon layers being peeled for those who pay close attention. In fact, I feel like this is the kind of film that’d be more rewarding on subsequent watch as it’s packed with a plethora of details that one might miss the first time around. Jane Campion wrote and directed the film based on Thomas Savage’s novel with such a masterful stroke. There’s an unsettling mood and tension permeating every minute that takes hold of you and wouldn’t let go.

The performances are excellent all around. Starting with Cumberbatch, a refined English gent of an actor who at first glance is a really odd choice to play a tough American cowboy. Yet the fact that he seemed ‘unfit’ for the role actually works in the character’s favor… let’s just say Phil is someone who isn’t comfortable in his own skin, which Campion exploits in Cumberbatch’s performance to great effect.

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It’s so great to see the talented Kirsten Dunst in a prominent role, I feel like I haven’t seen her on screen in a while. She embodies the brittle role of a mother so beautifully… and the way she crumbles under Phil’s terrorizing ways is painfully palpable. Kodi Smit-McPhee is an actor I’m not that familiar with but he’s absolutely terrific here in a subtle yet impactful performance. His svelte figure is integral to the story as he becomes the butt of jokes for Phil and the male workers at the ranch who think ranch-living are only for scruffy, brawny men. Jesse Plemons doesn’t have much screen time here but he’s a reliable actor who always deliver a memorable performance.

I love how the film plays with our expectations and in many ways. Phil’s machismo is so exaggerated as if he’s trying to impress that on Rose and Peter, yet the way he practically worships at the altar of late cowboy Bronco Henry whose saddle sits like a shrine in his barn is very telling. The scene where he cleans the leather with such tender loving care is also very telling. I appreciate the subtle and nuanced way things are revealed in due time, a heart-wrenching deconstruction of toxic masculinity by an astute feminist lens.

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The visual aesthetic is meticulously crafted in such a way that even the texture and scale tell a story. Earlier in the film, there’s a close shot of paper being strung up in Peter’s room as he’s making those paper flowers, then later in the third act, we see a close shot of sliced-up cow hide hanging which is later used as rope. The visual parallel is absolutely brilliant and literally made me gasp when I realize its significance.

Glad to see a female DP here and Ari Wegner lensed the film beautifully, it’s both elegant and harsh in equal measure, filled with covert visual clues that informs the narrative. I had to look away when Peter stumbled on a decaying dead cattle during a hike, which proves to be an important clue that he’s not as fainthearted as Phil assume him to be.

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The setting of 1920s Montana with its vast open land, majestic mountains and lakes is so picturesque it could sub for the state’s travel vlog, except it’s actually filmed in Campion’s hometown of New Zealand. It’s one of those films where the location itself is a character in the film. Johnny Greenwood complements the visuals with his ominous, brooding yet melancholic score. I didn’t realize Greenwood is Radiohead’s guitarist whose score for Phantom Thread was nominated for Oscar.

The Power of The Dog is one of the most potent and haunting psychological drama that really gets under my skin. I find myself thinking about it even weeks after I watched it and recounting some of its layered mystery and meaning. A quiet but tremendous film with plenty of undercurrents beneath the surface. It’s simply exquisite, a word I don’t usually use to describe most films. SPOILER ALERT The title itself refers to a Bible verse (Psalm 22: 20), which is interesting given Campion compared what happened between Peter and Phil to the David vs Goliath story. 

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This is Campion’s feature film in over a decade (after Bright Star in 2009). I’m not sure why it took her that long in between film projects (apart from her directing work in Top Of The Lake series), but I really hope we won’t have to wait too long for her next one.

4.5/5 stars


Have you seen The Power Of the Dog? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: ANTLERS (2021)

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Directed by: Scott Cooper
Written by: Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, Scott Cooper

Antlers follows middle school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) as her concern for student Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) leads her to discover that the child’s home life isn’t just troubled, but dangerous. Along with her sheriff brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), Julia discovers that an ancestral legendary creature has a grip on Lucas through his father (Scott Haze) and younger brother (Sawyer Jones).

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I wanted to like this movie so badly. It’s produced by modern horror royalty Guillermo del Toro, stars actors I’ve enjoyed in other projects, and is centered around a monster from Native American mythology, which is a really cool concept for a big-budget film. Overall, though, I was disappointed. First, let’s start with the elephant in the room: despite the movie being based around a Native American legend, there is only one named Indigenous character in the film (Warren Stokes, played by Graham Greene), and his main role seems to be to dump a couple minutes of sloppy exposition on the protagonists. This could have been a great chance for a blockbuster movie to highlight Native American culture, and a few lazy and throw-away lines make it seem like they wanted to at least pretend they were doing that, but for the most part, it was a disappointing missed opportunity.

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The cultural problem isn’t the only writing issue in this movie. It’s badly paced; at barely over an hour and a half, it isn’t a long movie, and it could have used even an extra 15-20 minutes to flesh out the story and made it feel a little more balanced, but as it is, the beginning is a slog, and the development of the monster part of the story feels rushed. Additionally, several of the characters (specifically Amy Madigan’s Principal Ellen Booth and Rory Cochrane’s Daniel Lecroy) make decisions so stupid that it’s impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. 

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That’s not to say there isn’t anything to enjoy in this film. The cinematography is beautiful, and setting a horror movie in bleak, foggy small town Oregon works well. Russell and Plemons both give solid performances despite the less than impressive material they have to work with. And the young actors, Jeremy T. Thomas and Sawyer Jones, do incredible work, especially considering they go for long stretches without any dialogue, and I hope that we see them in more projects going forward.

While this isn’t the worst horror movie I’ve seen, it’s by no means good, and I have no interest in revisiting it. A friend told me the short story it’s based on is good, though, so that might be worth checking out.

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Have you seen ANTLERS? Well, what did you think?

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FlixChatter Review: JUNGLE CRUISE (2021)

Disney once again capitalize on one of their Disney park’s attraction and turn it into a movie. I suppose that’s no surprise since the last franchise based on a popular Disney ride, Pirates Of The Caribbean grossed a total of $4.5 Billion globally with five movies, making Johnny Depp extremely wealthy with a reported $300 mil total for playing Jack Sparrow. I’ve actually never ridden either rides before, despite having visited both Disneyland AND DisneyWorld several times. The original Jungle Cruise opened in July 1955 at Disneyland Park, making it one of its oldest.

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At the center of the story is Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), an explorer who’s a bit like Indiana Jones meets Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy. Armed with a map her father gave her and an ancient artifact object she acquired from in a fun heist opening sequence, she is off to the Amazon in search of an ancient tree which flower holds miraculous healing power. Thanks to a scenario of mistaken identity and a clever ploy involving a Leopard, Lily ends up hiring Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a wisecracking skipper with predilection for cheesy dad jokes on his ramshackle boat La Quilla. His intro during an actual jungle cruise tour is pretty amusing and fun.

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Much like in The Mummy, Lily and Frank didn’t get off on the right foot initially but surprise, surprise, they form a bond throughout the journey. Blunt and Johnson may seem like an unlikely duo but they have a pretty effortless chemistry and the two play each other off quite well, though some of the jokes/puns are cringe-worthy, especially Frank’s obsession with Lily’s pants. In fact that is his nickname for her, a light commentary of the misogyny of the 1930s period. Now, the plot is a bit too convoluted for a movie based on a ride, and the PG-13 rating is warranted given some of the petrifying jungle scenes and supernatural bits. It’s best not to overthink it and just enjoy the ride as it were, and marvel at the visual beauty of the Amazon river and the lush rainforest. 

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Barcelona-born Jaume Collet-Serra, known for his action flicks with Liam Neeson and the shark movie The Shallows (which I quite enjoyed) is pretty adept in directing the action scenes. “Everything that you see wants to kill you…and can.” Frank says, but of course the scenes of perils aren’t really that scary in a Disney movie, which automatically takes the suspense out of even the most intense action sequences. 

As far as the supporting cast go, Paul Giamatti is rather over the top as Nilo, a successful businessman in the Amazonian port town who often extorts money from Frank. Jack Whitehall plays Lily’s hapless brother MacGregor who’s often the butt of jokes for being absolutely clueless about what this dangerous journey entails. Disney attempts to be more inclusive with including an LGBT character though his coming-out scene is downplayed and feels like an after-thought. Edgar Ramírez is Captain Aquirre, one of the three soldiers in the mythology of the ancient tree, but he became kind of a throwaway character given how the ending is written (more of that later). Lastly, we’ve got a scene-stealing performance from Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim, who’s basically a cross between an Indiana Jones + Bond villain complete with his hilarious German accent. I’ve only seen him in one Black Mirror episode so I’m not totally familiar w/ his work. His talking-to-bees scene and casually yelling “Hallöchen!” from his submarine while holding a machine gun are wildly amusing. I’m still giggling over how he pronounced ‘jungle’ as ‘chunkle’ in a German accent, mwahahaha!

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My biggest issue is the way Disney is forcing the romance between Lily and Frank. It’s so hugely unnecessary and adds nothing to the story. I realize that Romancing the Stone is one of the main inspiration for the movie, but the romance just seems so forced and would’ve worked better if Emily and Dwayne are just platonic friends. I also have an issue with the ending SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) Now, in the beginning of the movie Lily says she’s convinced the flower from the ancient tree would change the future of medicine forever, and she’s willing to risk her own life to get it. Yet when she finally got the petal, literally by the skin of one’s teeth, she quickly gives it away to bring Frank back to life. The movie also wants to have the cake and eat it too by making the flower miraculously appear AFTER Frank is back alive again, render her sacrifice inconsequential. I think there’s an opportunity for the team of writers to offer somewhat of a redemption to Aguirre and his soldiers which would have been a more intriguing character arc instead of just having them being trapped by the jungle all over again.

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Given Disney has removed the ride’s problematic colonialism stuff and the racially-insensitive depiction of the jungle natives, the movie also wisely subvert that narrative of them being primitives and offer a fun twist about the indigenous people. Visually, the movie looks beautiful, which is to be expected given the large budget. The movie is shot in Hawaii though obviously there are plenty of CGI use for most of the action scenes. Just don’t expect a gritty depiction of the jungle, everything looks too clean and artificial, down to Lily’s hair and red lips that doesn’t seem to be affected by all the hullabaloos. The production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos is fun to look at and I enjoyed the music James Newton Howard, apart from the weirdly bombastic rock music playing during the jungle flashback scene.

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At over 2 hours, it’s a bloated adventure movie that could’ve easily been trimmed down. Overall though it’s entertaining enough for the whole family, though perhaps not for really young kids. Surely they’re banking on Jungle Cruise to be another lucrative franchise for the Mouse House, though it’s not one I personally am clamoring to see. I’m being generous with the rating here, but a full point belongs to Plemons’ hilarious portrayal, I actually can’t wait to rewatch the movie on Disney+ just for Prince Joachim’s scenes!

3/5 stars


What did YOU think of JUNGLE CRUISE?

FlixChatter Review – Judas and The Black Messiah (2021)

The script of the life of Fred Hampton has been floating around Hollywood for many years but it never got made into a film until now. Hampton was one of the leaders of the Black Panthers movement and the youngest of the group back in the 60s and his assassination by the FBI is well known and that’s probably the reason the film of his life has had trouble making it to the screen. Maybe, because of our current political climate we’re living in now, his life story is finally being told, and I think it’s more relevant than ever.

The film starts out with an interview footage of the real Bill O’Neil in 1989 and then flashes back to 1968 when the young O’Neil (LaKeith Standfield) poses as an FBI agent to steal cars from locals in Chicago. One night, his antics got him arrested and while being held in the interrogation room, an actual FBI agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) showed up and offered a chance to turn his life around. Since O’Neil likes to pretend to be someone he’s not, Michell offers him to be a mole for the FBI.

He tells O’Neil that the Black Panthers are terrorist groups, and he’s needs an inside man to be his eyes and ears in order to bring them down. Of course, O’Neil doesn’t have a choice, if he doesn’t take the deal then he goes to prison. He reluctantly accepts the offer and goes undercover and meets Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), a young charismatic leader of the Chicago Black Panthers division. Once O’Neil became part of Hampton’s group, he realized that the Black Panthers aren’t the people that Michell told him about. They’re a group that tries to give a better life to the black community in the rough part of Chicago. But because O’Neil doesn’t want to go to prison, he keeps feeding the FBI information about the Panthers’ activities that eventually led to Hampton’s assassination.

I actually watched a documentary about Hampton’s life a couple of years ago, so I knew the story and while I’m sure some of the events has been alter for dramatic purposes for this film, it’s still pretty accurate account of what happened. The screenplay is written by Will Berson and Shaka King, the latter directed the picture. It’ a well written story and I wish the actual film is longer. At only 2 hours long, I feel there’s so much we don’t know about Hampton and O’Neil and I would have liked to see more of their lives explored in the film. I’ve never seen any of King’s work but I’m very impressed with what he did with this film. The only negative thing I see here is how he depicted the FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen in poorly prostatic makeup), he’s like a cartoonish Bond villain and I don’t think that’s very accurate.

Performances were excellent. Standfield, who I think looks a lot like a young Dave Chapelle, is very good as the conflicted person who sees the Panthers as a group of peaceful activists who wants to better the lives of black people. But he knows that he can’t back out of a deal he’d made with the FBI. Kaluuya is excellent as Hampton, a passionate man who sees himself as peacemaker but knows what the authority sees him as a threat. Dominique Fishback (who was terrific in Project Power) continues to impress me with her performance, here she plays Hampton’s lover. As mentioned earlier, I wish the film were longer, so we get to see more of their relationship. Plemons is always good, and he’s great here as the father figure to O’Neil. He uses O’Neil to impress his bosses at the FBI and also advances his career. At first, he acted like a friend to O’Neil but when he didn’t get what he wanted, he became a very nasty person who holds a lot of power.

This is probably one of the better films I’ve seen in the early part of 2021, I just wanted it to be a bit longer. I feel it’s too condensed, but it’s very well made with great performances by the lead actors.

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So have you seen Judas and the Black Messiah? Well, what did you think?