Produced by: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier, Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy etc.
Cinematography: Ari Wegner
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Set in 1925 amidst the spectacular terrain of Montana, The Power of the Dog (2021), centres around a ranching family’s everyday relationships, romances, hatreds and choices. Two brothers run the Burbank ranch, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons). George is the kinder man who leans more toward progress and business. Phil is more of the land and the traditional cowboy. However, he is incredibly intelligent and could have made more of his education. Instead, he is driven to follow in his hero and mentor, Bronco Henry’s wake, work the ranch and command men.
While hiding a deep secret, Phil is absorbed by the cowboy lifestyle and thrives on controlling those around him. But when George meets Rose (Kirsten Dunst) at a cattle drive inn, he falls for her. Soon they marry and George agrees to provide for Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil immediately becomes upset by the intruder to the family equilibrium. Soon Rose and Peter fall foul of his bullying and superiority complex. Thus, begins a series of subtle and ambiguous clashes where Phil and Rose clash, before the bright, androgynous Peter manoeuvres to protect his beloved mother.
The stunning cinematography and vistas of, The Power of the Dog (2021), are more luminous dressing when compared to the compelling characterisation and incredible performances delivered via Jane Campion’s confident direction. Indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee are so good you could have set the story on an empty soundstage (like Dogville (2003) and the searing properties of the drama would have been carried just as potently. Cumberbatch is exceptional. This is an Oscar winning performance. His bitter and envious alpha male broods and hides behind violence and biting words. Every now and then he threatens to burst, but is pulled back. Phil wants to love but is so trapped by social expectations and prejudices that he is trapped tragically by the era. The sensitive Peter doesn’t care what people think and that sadly makes him a victim. But still waters run very deep. Peter has a plan.
This film will give you heartburn. It’s subtle and bubbles like acid, reaches the throat before scarring the pit of your stomach. Now, I’m not always a fan of oblique and poetic cinema, especially within a narrative presented as a quasi-Western. Mostly I like to be punched in the gut, not branded slowly from the inside out. Yet Jane Campion’s expert adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, The Power of the Dog (2021), contains some bite. You just don’t see when and how it happens. Expect awards galore for this fine drama.
NETFLIX FILM REVIEW – I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Produced by: Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Salerno, Stephanie Azpiazu
Screenplay by: Charlie Kaufman (Based on: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid)
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
Music by: Jay Wadley
Cinematography: Łukasz Żal
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I read some background information online about Charlie Kaufman’s latest film adaptation for Netflix, I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020), and there is a leaning to describe it as a psychological horror. Of course, in order to market their films, studios write copy to entice an audience for their film. However, this adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel is far more than a psychological horror. It has elements from a whole plethora of genres including: surrealism, comedy, romance, thriller, arthouse, road movie, and even dance, animation and musical genres. Safe to say that once again Charlie Kaufman has delivered yet another ingenious cinematic smorgasbord that defies easy categorization. But is it any good?
The film opens gently with the lilting voice of Jessie Buckley’s voiceover. We hear her character deliver a set of poetic existential queries, and her mantra throughout the film: “I’m thinking of ending things. . .” over a set of seemingly unconnected images. She waits for her boyfriend of a couple of months, Jake (Jesse Plemons), as they plan to meet his parents, portrayed by David Thewlis and Toni Collette, for the first time at their farm. So far, so straightforward; kind of. However, as Jake and the young woman’s (whose name changes during the film) drive through picturesque and snowy landscapes, Kaufman intercuts to an elderly Janitor going about his cleaning duties at a high school. How these juxtaposed situations eventually marry together is open to many interpretations. While certainly obtuse and narratively impenetrable to many, I really connected with Kaufman’s surreal trip. Because I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020) is certainly as much about the journey than the ultimate destination.
As he has demonstrated since his debut feature film screenplay, Being John Malkovich (1999), Kaufman has an urgent desire for original invention, sight gags, existential examination, exploration of mental health, relationship breakdowns, non-linear structure and intellectual discourse. The respective journeys of characters like Jake and the young woman are taken by road and in the mind. Whose mind the film is in and out of is also open to question. The car journey is treacherous both due to the weather and the anxious tension between the couple. This is brought about by the young woman desiring to end things. Is it her life or her relationship she wants to end? Or is it both? Things between the two aren’t made easier by the surreal visit to Jake’s parents’ farm. Thewlis and Collette inject much humour and pathos into their characters. Their performances, a succession of visual punchlines and the brilliant dialogue combine to really bring the film to life during the middle act.
After the couple leave the parents’ farm and head back home, events get even stranger as connections with the aforementioned Janitor intensify. An extremely anxious pitstop at an ice-cream parlour, an animated pig and a ballet dance sequence threatened to destabilize the narrative. But once I had suddenly interpreted my truth and understanding of Iain Reid’s and Kaufman’s vision, it all kind of almost made sense. Indeed, compared to Kaufman’s surreal meta-fictional masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York (2008), I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020) is arguably more accessible, funnier and less bleak.
Having said that, given Kaufman’s predilection for characters on the edge of nervous, depressive and existential breakdowns, some may find this film’s journey tough to complete. But I loved the invention and constant ideas on show throughout. Kaufman’s takes risks structurally, visually and thematically and I congratulate him for challenging the audience. Lastly, I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020) has a wondrously cinematic look, sound and dreamlike feel to it. Plus, in Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, Kaufman has cast two exceptional acting talents, who are certainly worth going on the road with. However, bizarre and twisted that road may be.
Written by: Stephen Zaillian – based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt
Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Gaston Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gerald Chamales, Irwin Winkler
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannevale, Stephen Graham, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba and many more.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
******MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ******
“I heard you paint houses…”
As well as watching new films that have yet to be released, one of the pleasures of film festivals can be when the filmmakers, writers, crew and actors themselves attend and introduce their work. Having said that, I’m not usually one for big and lengthy introductions and back-slapping celebration. I’m also not one for star-gazing and celebrity-spotting hysteria. They are just human beings; let them get about their business in peace.
But, when the cinematic geniuses that are: Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel took to the stage for the premiere ofTHE IRISHMAN (2019), even I was star struck! Add the brilliant actors Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin and Jack Huston to the mix and I can confirm I was in the presence of all-round film greatness.
Scorsese is the best genre filmmaker still living today. But what of THE IRISHMAN (2019)? Is it yet another cinematic masterpiece to add to an incredible list of classics that Scorsese has directed? On first watch I would say both yes and no. I sit on a fence because the film is SO long, detailed and intense, I need another sitting to really nail an absolute opinion. It’s very, very good – BUT is it a great? I remember first watchingGoodfellas (1990) and feeling dazed by the end of it. It is now one of my favourite films of all time.
First impressions are that, once again, Scorsese has delivered yet another impeccable film in the gangster movie genre. Film is a collaborative endeavour though and he has surrounded himself with an army of major talents in the production and acting departments.Robert De Niro, who himself, optioned the book on which the film is based, takes the lead as Frank Sheeran. In support are the aforementioned Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin, Jack Huston and the out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. All work from a superlative screenplay adaptation from uber-writer Steven Zaillian
The story is structured, in many ways, like another gangster classic, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). An elderly character looks back on key aspects on their life; the highs, the lows, the deals, the crimes, the relationships and the bloody carnage. Frank Sheeran, as delivered by De Niro and Scorsese, is another complex presentation of masculinity. He was a trained soldier who did his duty in World War II against the Nazis. Then, on return to America, he found himself driving trucks. With a family to support he finds he cannot turn down the chance to “paint houses” and carry out important work for the mob family run by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). I must say that Pesci is a revelation as the quiet shot caller, in the shadows, giving orders out of the spotlight. His mob boss is the total opposite from the psychopaths he’s played before.
Talking of great performances, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa steals the whole film. It is incredible to think this is the first Scorsese film he has been in. It was definitely worth the wait. De Niro himself is also impressive. His role as narrator and story conduit guides us through many exhilarating scenes involving gangland deals, explosive action and violent hits. Moreover, we are also compellingly embroiled in Hoffa’s Teamster Union business conflicts, as well as, some of the most iconic historical moments from U.S. politics and history.
Scorsese’s approach to style is less frenetic when compared to his other gangster films or the rapid velocity of say, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). There are fireworks and gunfights of course, plus explosive arguments between the angry and powerful men which inhabited this era. The heated debates between Hoffa (Pacino) and Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) are especially memorable. Plus, I liked that Hoffa’s character had very specific demands in regard to time-keeping and punctuality. It’s beautifully filmed but the pace is not as say, rock and roll, as his other films. In one long tense sequence toward the end of the film, Scorsese uses silence rather than trademark rock music to enhance the visuals.
Overall, themes of death, murder, loyalty, friendship, politics and regret dominate the story narrative. From the nursing home where Frank Sheeran begins his epic tale, to the multitude of hits and shootouts we experience, the Grim Reaper follows these characters like a constant shadow. I wasn’t sure how I was meant to feel about Frank Sheeran by the end. He is a complex character who, as a trained killer, is difficult to empathise with. But his, the bosses and Hoffa’s stories are compelling nonetheless. However, the last part of the film raises a lot of emotionally painful questions with equally difficult answers.
Lastly, certain things about the film, such as the “de-aging” CGI and lengthy running time, detracted from my initial enjoyment. However, Netflix have an absolute monster of a gangster film here, with Scorsese once again delivering a very special cinematic offering. The irony is that it will only have a limited theatre release. THE IRISHMAN (2019), therefore, deserves to be painted and seen on the biggest screen you can find.
Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick, Will Ferrell, Adam Mckay
Written by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
Unlike the previous Oscar Bingo attempts for A Star Is Born (2018) and First Man (2018), this review has full knowledge of the nomonations. So, rather than be guess work this review of Vice (2018) is intended to be based on more constructive critiques of the Oscar nominated films I have seen.
BEST FILM CHANCES – 8/10
For starters, Vice is certainly worthy of its award nominations. I have seen some criticisms that it is cartoonish and simplistic and while I actually agree with this, it is also a brilliant and scabrous work of satire. Yes, it’s preaching to the liberal and left-winged Hollywood choir, but it definitely presents a fascinating snapshot of Dick Cheney’s rise from alcoholic wastrel to powerful political figure.
While I believe Roma (2018) will win the Best Film, I enjoyed Vice more from a stylistic, educational and emotional perspective. I was drawn into the murky world of American politics by McKay and his fantastic ensemble cast, and was compelled by the machinations of Cheney’s manipulative puppet-master to Bush’s marionette President. McKay’s film, while certainly one-tracked, powers along picking apart and satirising one of the most shadowy political figures of recent years.
BEST DIRECTOR CHANCES – 8/10
In terms of tone and narrative, McKay’s The Big Short (2015) was arguably a more cohesive film. Indeed, Vice is presented more as a non-linear monatge and sketch style recreation of key events in Cheney’s life. But I loved the style and McKay should be praised for his editing choices. He throws the veritable formalistic kitchen sink at the film using: direct address, Shakepearean monologue, cross-cutting montage, fake credits, voiceover, freeze frames, fake footage, stock footage, flashbacks, flash forwards, inter-titles, third-party narrator and many more stylised tropes. In my view his directorial bag of tricks are utilised without losing emotional impact too. While Alfonso Cuaron will probably win McKay certainly deserves kudos for enlivening his subject matter with such storytelling choices.
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE CHANCES – 10/10
Christian Bale should win. I have not seen Rami Malek, Viggo Mortensen or Willem Dafoe’s acting in their respective roles but Christian Bale is astonishing. Fair enough, he has taken a real person and delivered an emulation performance, but he also brings to Cheney to life with formidable cinematic style. Of course, the physical transformation could take the headlines but in terms of emotion and mentality he really raises the perfomance bar. Cheney may be an enigmatic character but Bale brings quiet menace, whispers and manipulation to the role. There is also a sly humour there too which makes Bale’s Cheney another memorable acting monster he’s created.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE CHANCES – 8/10
Amy Adams is one of my favourite actors. Not quite a Lady Macbeth character, her Lynn Cheney pushes Dick forward mercilessly to make a better man of himself. She is the foundation and rock of their relationship and glues his life together when he faces health issues and political setbacks. Adams nails the role, and while Rachel Weisz will probably win for The Favourite (2018), Adams may finally get the Oscar she deserves.
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE CHANCES – 5/10
Sam Rockwell is excellent in emulating George W. Bush but he only has a few scenes. While Rockwell dumbs down with the best of them I would have nominated Steve Carell instead. His Donald Rumsfeld, was a creeping, neurotic and conniving joy and definitely deserved the nomination in this category.
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY CHANCES – 7/10
The film benefits from a sparky screenplay which keeps a potentially dull subject spinning along in an entertaining fashion. It takes a complex set of characters and scenarios, and despite simplifying to fit a leftist agenda, still constructs intelligent analyses of Cheney and Washington at large. Ultimately, Cheney is shown to be an opportunist and dangerous person who manipulated information and policy to finagle the USA and allies into a war for profit. Even worse he did so from the position of Vice President – boo Cheney! Boo! While McKay deserves praise for his brave creative choices, I would go for Paul Schrader’s exceptional First Reformed (2018) in the original screenplay category; Schrader deserves it more.
I am a big fan of satirical works such as: Private Eye, Yes Minister, Spitting Image, The Thick Of It, Veep and South Park. They seek to undermine and take critical shots at our leaders, illustrating the danger, absurdity and stupidity of those in power. They also, in an entertaining way, carry a message that those serving their country are often serving themselves more. Conversely, a film like Vice, however cartoonish or broad, still has the power to highlight the corruption and horror of a man like Cheney. While the script and direction are tonally scatter-gun, Bale’s incredible rendition, and the marvellous supporting cast, anchor the film and ensure this satirical ship rarely hits the rocks.
Producer(s): Barney Reisz, Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones
Distributors: Endemol UK – Netflix
Season 4: 6 Episodes
Writer(s): Charlie Brooker plus William Bridges (USS Callister)
Directors: Toby Haynes, Jodie Foster, John Hillcoat, Tim Van Patten, David Slade, Colm McCarthy
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel, Billy Magnussen, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brenna Harding, Andrea Riseborough, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Andrew Gower, Georgina Campbell, Joe Cole, Maxine Peake, Douglas Hodge, Letitia Wright etc.
Technology: the final frontier; allowing humans to boldly go where no human has gone before. Indeed, one of the most incredible elements of our world is the technological breakthroughs we have made over the past century or so. We have: electricity, nuclear power, robots, driverless vehicles, television screens, computers, mobile phones, satellites, GPS tracking, drones, 3D printing, smart home air-conditioning, Hadron Colliders, huge space-ships which travel beyond the stars, WI-FI, the world-wide-web connecting everyone with anyone, holograms, the social media phenomenon, virtual reality head-sets, software algorithms, x-rays, gamma knifes, DNA, cloning, MRI scans, Hyperloop tube trains, Sat-Nav, Google, immersive video-games; plus many more medical, military and industrial inventions which make our lives so easy today.
But with such wonderful and fantastic discoveries there is always a dark side. While we may create a medical breakthrough which cures on the one hand we’ll ultimately invent some new weapon or means with which to kill ourselves. So while technology is mainstay of our existence it also can feed our obsessions and thus become an extension of our poor choices, violence and insanity. The scariest thing is we think technology is absolutely necessary and we cannot live without it. I mean, all we really need to survive is water, air, food, shelter and perhaps, as The Beatles sang, love. For all its’ positives, technology is an addiction and can be used to do wrong and cause harm.
Charlie Brooker’s sublime anthology series Black Mirror is now in its 4th Season (2nd on Netflix). It taps into the fear factor technology brings and presents nightmare scenarios that more often than not possess a prescient twist. Who can forget the very first episode of BM which had Rory Kinnear’s Prime Minister having to fuck a pig as a means to pay a hostage ransom? The subsequent tabloid news that our then former Prime Minister David Cameron had, allegedly, stuck his member in a pig’s mouth suddenly made BM incredibly prophetic. This season is another televisual triumph with an incredible array of acting, directing and production talent with each episode offering the feel and scope of a cinema release. I’ll be honest being a massive Charlie Brooker fan I would probably enjoy a video of him dancing in a tutu whilst juggling tomatoes; however, I can confirm these six episodes were beyond brilliant too.
Within the fabric of each episode Brooker holds a mirror up to the future and invariably it will come back black. However, the touching love story of San Junipero (from Season 3) offered some light in the BM universe and similarly Hang the DJ (officially 3rd in the Season 4 list) contained a wonderful love story at its’ heart with Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole giving humorous and touching performances. It also contains a Truman Show (1998) style ending and a twist that I thought was absolutely fantastic. Indeed, what appears to reflect the dystopic controlling techno-world of romance apps becomes something entirely real and beautiful by the end.
While Hang the DJ offers hope, the remainder of the episodes are bittersweet, brutal and unforgiving in their rendering. Actually, I suppose the Star Trek pastiche USS Callister has a kind of optimistic ending and is bloody funny in its affectionate satire of Trek archetypes and monsters. However, Jesse Plemons downtrodden Silicon Valley programmer holds a dark secret during his immersive Virtual Reality gaming experiences. Full of Star Trek references and themes, the clever script merges ideas relating to gaming and DNA technology with fantastic sci-fi meta-textual moments.
Arkangel also has an element of brain implanted software which enables a neurotic mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) to track and view her daughter’s every move on a computer screen. Despite the revolutionary software used this story is based wholly in familial reality as the relationship between mother and daughter becomes strained as she enters her rebellious teenage years. The danger of “helicopter” or overbearing parenting becomes too apparent in satisfying soap operatic story.
Brooker relates many of his scripts in genre territory so the more outlandish or fantastic ideas are grounded with an identifiable cultural identity. The horrific murder plot of Crocodile unfolds in true Hitchockian fashion as an insurance adjuster tracks down the details relating to a vehicle accident but tragically stumbles on something altogether more deadly. The ending of this story is particularly far-fetched, as Andrea Riseborough’s architect gets deeper and deeper in the mire, however, Brooker must be praised for taking risks with his twists.
Rather simpler is the pursuit thriller Metalhead, presented in crisp black and white, as a woman (the brilliant Maxine Peake) attempts to survive in a dangerous land full of robotic guard-dogs. It’s mainly a tense one-hander and the future never looked so drained of hope and colour. The final episode Black Museum was even more grisly as Douglas Hodge shows Letitia Wright’s tourist around his grim parade of exhibits. Brooker’s writing is as strong as ever and the horrors of the entwining anthology stories are shocking and powerful. It’s a dark, dark episode which contains the fantastic idea of uploading one’s digital soul into a loved one’s to share their consciousness. This plays out with both horror and humour in a compelling end to the season.
Being a total Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror fan; a big lover anthology stories; plus a fanatic of horror and tales with a twist it’s obvious to say I loved this seasons offerings. They are clever, dark, funny, sickening, silly, romantic, scary, twisted stories full of satire and warnings about the dangers of technological progress. Ultimately, though it is not science or computers or mechanics which are the danger; but rather humans use and abuse of said technology. Because, for all our ingenuity and invention we more often than not use machines negatively and Black Mirror reflects that (im)perfectly.