REVIEW: “The Power of the Dog” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” is a crafty anti-Western with all the visual flavor of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, or Delmer Daves. But at its core Campion’s film (she both writes and directs) is a slow-boiling psychodrama that seeks to explore the darker shades of human nature. It’s a master-class of tone management and the patient steady rhythm of Campion’s storytelling keeps us glued to every frame even as the story butts heads with itself later on.

With New Zealand posing as Montana, the movie is set in 1925. The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), run a profitable cattle business off their sprawling family ranch in the heart of beautiful Big Sky Country. While they’re good business partners, they couldn’t be more opposite. George is the gentlemanly sort; mild-mannered and soft-spoken but with a deceptively fervid aspiration to climb up the social ladder. He’s sensitive and gentle, tending to the business side of the ranch while brushing off his brother’s relentless insults.

Phil is a hardened cowboy whose cauterized emotions have turned him into a cold calloused brute. With thick brown chaps, a thick layer of grime caked on his face, and a constant scowl, Phil moves with a stiff-shouldered gait as if forcefully projecting a distinct image. His ranch-hands follow him like disciples, listening close as he recalls the wisdom of his late mentor and friend Bronco Henry. His men also channel their alpha-male leader’s bullish antagonism towards anyone who doesn’t meet their hyper-masculine standard.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Phil and George live on a slippery slope. But the tension between them reaches a simmer while taking a herd of cattle to market. The brothers and their cowhands visit a restaurant owned by a young widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her awkward teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Repulsed by what he perceives as weakness, Phil pounces on the shy lanky boy, viciously mocking his slight lisp and burning an intricate paper flower Peter made as a centerpiece. It’s an unsettling sequence, but also one that highlights Campion’s remarkable control.

Later, a sympathetic George returns to the restaurant to see Rose and apologize for his brother’s cruelty. It sparks a sweet romance that eventually leads to marriage. With Peter off to medical school, Rose sells her restaurant and moves to the ranch. This triggers a jealous and embittered Phil who makes it his goal to crush his brother’s newfound marital bliss. To Phil, Rose (and later Peter) are threats to his manly order of things. That conflict drives the remainder of the film and sends the movie careening down a path with no happy ending in sight.

While some find a critique of masculinity in nearly every movie these days, Campion provides one of the most vivid and clear-eyed examinations yet. She uses Cumberbatch’s commanding and at times terrifying performance to not only reveal what warped manhood looks like, but to also show the destruction it can leave in its path. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a blunt force with a domineering aura and his methodical psychological assault can be hard to watch. Dunst gives a devastating portrayal of a woman who is both a victim of Phil’s unyielding harassment and of the era’s oppressive societal norms.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Things only intensify once Peter arrives to spend the summer at the ranch. Smit-McPhee’s poker-faced presence and (again) Campion’s confident control keeps the character at an arm’s length. This makes Peter impossible to read; every bit as enigmatic as he is peculiar. It also makes him a prime target for Phil’s abuse. With a tormented Rose withering away from depression and alcoholism, the story shifts towards Phil and Peter. Meanwhile Plemons gets the short end of the stick as George (sadly) all but vanishes for much of the second half.

While the film’s exploration of masculinity is a good one, it’s undone a bit by the implications of another theme that comes fully into focus late in the story. I won’t spoil it for those unfamiliar with Savage’s book, but it’s a “twist” that adds a new layer to Phil while inadvertently giving him an excuse for his emotional savagery. I doubt that’s the intent and it won’t play that way for some, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Campion’s attempt at adding richness to her story ends up undermining one of its biggest strengths.

Tangled themes aside, “The Power of the Dog” ends on a strong note as the movie’s Psalm-inspired title clicks firmly into place. It’s a finish that again showcases Campion’s deft management of her scenes and her audience. Accompanied by the painterly beauty of Ari Wegner’s cinematography (among the year’s best), the simple yet haunting Jonny Greenwood score, and superb performances top to bottom, Campion has crafted a striking Western with all the leathery textures of the genre, but with the assured and probing touch of an auteur. “The Power of the Dog” is now showing in limited release and streams on Netflix starting December 1st.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” (2021)

Confession time: I have no real attachment to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. I haven’t seen any of the films past the first two. I couldn’t tell you anything about the timeline or how any of the six movies connect (if they connect). Even more, the entire found-footage phenomenon ran its course for me years ago. It was cool for a movie or two, but like many I grew tired of it pretty quick.

So what on earth would entice me to watch “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin”, the seventh installment in the supernatural horror franchise? First, producer Jason Blum announced that the film would be a reboot of the series rather than a direct sequel. So no attachments needed. Next, I was intrigued by the premise and the setting, both of which actually fit well with the whole found-footage thing.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

“Next of Kin” sees the PA franchise remodeling itself, using some of the series’ usual techniques but telling a new kind of story. It begins at a Denny’s in Scottsdale, Arizona where a young woman named Margot (Emily Bader) is about to meet her “first biological relative”, a young man named Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown). He’s around Margo’s same age and recently left the Amish community where her family originated. Adopted as a baby, Margot is anxious to find out where she came from and more specifically what happened to her mother who disappeared years earlier. Videoing the occasion is her friend Chris (Roland Buck III), who is collecting footage for a “prestige documentary” she’s making about her experience.

Samuel agrees to take Margot, Chris, and their goofball (because there always has to be a goofball) sound guy Dale (Dan Lippert) to the snowy secluded Baylor Farm. Once there the crew is greeted by the community’s cautious elder Jacob (Tom Nowicki) who reluctantly allows them to stay and shoot for a couple days. The aggressively private farm folk are leery of the outsiders but slowly warm up to them.

At first Margot and her friends are drawn to the group’s simple way of life. But to absolutely no one’s surprise, she and her crew begins noticing some eerie happenings around the farm – sinister red lights glowing in the night, strange animal howls, and what’s with that creepy old church in the woods. They all lead to a messy final third that really leans into the movie’s cool blood-curdling setting. Unfortunately it also features a handful of missteps, most notably the mind-boggling decision-making from the characters that turns curiosity and investigative into glaring stupidity.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

To director William Eubank’s credit, “Next of Kin” makes for a nice change of atmosphere. I say that fully realizing that franchise faithfuls may see it differently. It shares some of the same tricks as its predecessors, but the welcomed new environment is part of what made it appealing. I also liked that (thankfully) it’s not entirely found-footage. Mostly for sure, but there are a handful of welcomed breaks that also help the look of the film. And this is a nice looking film. From the warm orange glow of kerosene lamps in the interior shots to the icy harshness of the outdoors, the visuals prove to be a real strength.

There are a few other interesting touches (such as the early references to COVID-19 that forever ties the movie to our current day). But there are also elements of film that never quite land, specifically the mystery of Margot’s mom. You get a feeling for what’s going on pretty early so it comes down to waiting for it to finally be revealed. In the meantime, the characters do one dumb thing after nothing. It’s something you find baked into too many horror movies, and it doesn’t really help Eubank and company here. “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” is streaming now on Paramount+.

VERDICT2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (2021)

This is no “Pig”! Admittedly that’s a strange way to start a review. But those of you who have had the pleasure of watching Nicolas Cage’s poignant and remarkably restrained performance in the movie “Pig” from earlier this year will get the reference (if you haven’t seen it, it’s absolutely worth seeking out). Cage’s latest film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is as far removed from “Pig” as a movie could possibly be.

Figuring out Cage’s recipe for choosing roles is as big of a movie mystery as the contents of the briefcase in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” or Bill Murray’s whisper to Scarlett Johansson at the end of “Lost in Translation”. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to his process. It’s tempting to write it off as simply an actor cashing checks and maybe there’s some truth to that. But some of his choices have been intriguing and dare I say audacious. Perhaps there actually is an artistic method to his madness. Maybe he’s up to more than just amassing the biggest and wackiest filmography ever put on a Wikipedia page.

Then you have renegade filmmaker, author and poet Sion Sono. A notorious provocateur, Sono is well known throughout his native Japan but not always fully embraced. His movies are often described as idiosyncratic and subversive by fans but also perverse and divisive by detractors. Due to his transgressive style, some find his work too controversial. Others toss it into the category of ero guro nansensu, a self-explanatory Japanese art movement derived from the English words “erotic, grotesque, and nonsense”.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

When two enigmatic swirls of creative energy like Cage and Sono come together you get something like “Prisoners of the Ghostland”, a logic-defying genre mashup that’s nuttier than a can of Planters. This is Sono’s first English-language film and it sees him working in weirdness the way fine artists work in oils or marble. Screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai give the director the narrative space to run amuck and Cage takes it on with a wild-eyed gusto that ensures things are never boring. Baffling at times and utterly absurd, sure. But never boring.

Cage plays a hard-nosed criminal who eventually takes the name Hero. We first meet Hero as he’s rotting in jail after a bank robbery with his fittingly named partner Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) goes terribly (and violently) bad. In a terrific bit of wacky tone-setting, a grime-covered Cage wearing nothing but shackles and a cheeky fundoshi (picture that image while keeping a straight face) is summoned by the Governor of Samurai Town (played by Bill Moseley sounding identical to Captain Obvious from those Hotels.com commercials). The Governor has a job and if Hero pulls it off he’ll be set free.

Turns out the Governor’s “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella) ran away and has vanished in the post-apocalyptic wilds known as the Ghostland. Hero’s job sounds pretty straightforward – head into the Ghostland, find Bernice, bring her back. But there’s nothing straightforward about this movie, and Sono’s unbridled indulgent spirit ensures that nothing is plain sailing.

To make things even more absurd (because why not?), Hero is forced to wear black leather coveralls rigged with neuro-sensors and ‘strategically’ placed explosives. If he returns the Governor’s granddaughter “unsoiled” in the allotted five days he gets to go free. If he gets out of line or doesn’t return in time…well, KABOOM. So off he goes on what turns out to be a fever dream redemption tale.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

From there the story ventures into the bizarre and incomprehensible, with Sono mostly focused on building gaudy and extravagant locations and littering them with a wild assortment of extras rather than telling a cohesive story. His sets are a peculiar melding of cultures, time periods and movie genres that manage to be both fascinating and excessive. And he fills them with trenchcoat wearing cowboys, samurai, zombies (I think that’s what they were) and radioactive mutants among other groups. They’re basically there to add to the showiness.

Meanwhile the central plot borrows from “Mad Max”, “Escape from New York” and even “Army of Darkness”. But that eclectic blend of inspiration can’t make up for the movies clear lack of depth. We do get a murky rebuke of nuclear war as well as allusions to class disparity and the tyrannical nature of time. But those handful of themes and the story itself take a back seat to the zany pomp and showmanship. Even Cage ends up on the short end of the stick. Sure, he gets a few wacky opportunities to scream “BANZAI” and utter hilariously absurd lines “I AM RADIOACTIVE”. But far too often he’s stuck watching Sono’s gonzo theatrics.

This meeting between these two cinematic wildmen ends up being equally fascinating and frustrating. It’s just a shame that Sono’s story always feels secondary and his lust for the surreal is so overpowering. Still it’s easy to be pulled in by the wackiness and there’s certainly fun to be had. And you have to love Cage’s continued willingness to buck convention. And to think, he’s delivered both his wildest and his most restrained movie all in the same year. Further proof that you never know what to expect from him. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is out September 17th in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Protégé” (2021)

When gazing over the cinema landscape it’s hard to find anything more en vogue right now than assassins. Movies featuring assassins are nothing new, but they got a boost with the immensely popular John Wick franchise. Now they’re everywhere. And female assassins are especially popular. Just recently we had “Anna”, “Ava” and even one called “Kate” coming later this year. Oh, and then there’s “Gunpowder Milkshake”, but its title doesn’t quite fit with the others.

Next up is “The Protégé”, the Maggie Q led action thriller with a couple of other big names attached – Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a slick and stylishly made genre film that incorporates countless assassin movie tropes into its story. There’s the traumatic past event that led to the lead character becoming an assassin. There’s the quiet yearning for a normal life. There’s the violent act that sends the assassin hunting for revenge. And of course, there’s the bloody showdown where the assassin’s particular set of skills are unleashed.

“The Protégé” comes from director Martin Campbell whose résumé has its share of hits (topped by 2006’s stellar “Casino Royale”) and a few misses (sorry “Green Lantern”). Here he’s working from a script by Richard Wenk who penned the two Denzel Washington “Equalizer” movies. Both are well-versed in the action genre and for the most part stick to what they know. But there are a handful of fun and flashy flourishes that keep the otherwise buy-the-books story entertaining.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Maggie Q plays the film’s protagonist Anna. She enjoys cooking, owns an antique book store, and loves hanging out with her mentor and second father Moody (Jackson). Oh, and she’s also a lethal assassin who earns a good living killing really bad people. She’s really good at her job and Q never leaves us in doubt.

A new contract puts Anna and Moody in the crosshairs of a powerful black market broker played by David Rintoul. Moody is brutally murdered which sends Anna on a revenge-fueled hunt to find and take out her friend’s killer. Along the way she encounters a charismatic hitman named Michael Rembrandt (Keaton, always good). He’s been sent to stop her but the two engage in this weird cat-and-mouse game that’s part seduction and part murder.

Campbell’s globetrotting bullet-riddled adventure bounces from Vietnam to Romania to London and then back to Vietnam, all as Anna tries to track down the person who ordered the hit on Moody. She plows through a plethora of low-level hoodlums in an assortment of high-energy sequences that highlight Q as a legitimate action star. Even Keaton who’s pushing 70 gets to let loose in a couple of well shot and we’ll edited fight scenes. And while their relationship doesn’t always make sense, each time Q and Keaton come together, whether it’s to play mind games or tear each other apart with their unbridled physicality, it’s quite a treat.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

While Robert Patrick showing up as the thinly-sketched leader of a biker gang doesn’t quite pop, most of the other character work is good. I’ve talked about Q and Keaton, but there’s also some good supporting work from Jackson. It’s the kind of role the 72-year-old screen veteran can do in his sleep, but he’s a good presence and always worth a few laughs. Of the three main characters his storyline is the biggest headscratcher, but Jackson is rock solid.

The storytelling isn’t quite as polished. The main plot-line is pretty straightforward and done well enough. But as these types of movies often do, it tends to stray at times, with characters venturing off in search of a clue here or a particular person of interest there. In this case it’s not always easy to follow what the characters are doing in large part because there is a vagueness to some of its details that can make things a little hazy.

Despite its shortcomings, “The Protégé” makes for a palatable action movie as well as a fairly entertaining new entry into the growing assassin sub-genre. It’ll never win over anyone with its originality and its story occasionally wanders off into some needless directions. But Maggie Q is a great lead, Michael Keaton is his normal wily self and Samuel L. Jackson is as sturdy as ever. The movie is worth watching for that star power alone.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Pig” (2021)

Neon and Nicolas Cage. There’s a match I would watch any day of the week. Neon has earned its reputation as one of the industry’s top distributors of independent films. The 57-year-old Cage churns out movies at an astounding rate. Case in point – in a two year period (2018-2019) he was in a whopping fourteen movies. FOURTEEN! Some may say he’s been slacking as of late, starring in only three movies this year, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”, “Willy’s Wonderland”, and his latest, “Pig”.

Written and directed by Michael Sarnoski, “Pig” is a surprisingly textured drama about a man looking for his stolen pig. Of course, as you might expect, there is more to it than that and Sarnoski uses this somewhat simply premise to explore a variety of themes. Most importantly there is an undercurrent of humanity that resonates through the entire film. We see it most in Cage’s performance which is a welcomed reminder that with the right material he’s still a really good actor with an Academy Award on his mantle.

Image Courtesy of NEON

Set in the Pacific Northwest, the movie opens by introducing us to Cage’s character, a recluse living off the grid in an old shack in the woods. Seeing his rumpled clothes, scruffy beard and long unkempt hair, it may be tempting to make certain judgments about the man. But there’s more to him than meets the eye and Sarnoski takes his time revealing the soul underneath the thick mane and blank solemn stare. He’s not an easy man to read, but he’s fascinating to watch thanks to Sarnoski’s patience and Cage’s quiet intensity.

The man, who we later learn is named Robin, lives all alone except for his faithful companion, a plump truffle-hunting pig. Robin’s one connection to the human world is Amir (Alex Wolff), a snarky twentysomething who comes by once a week bringing supplies in exchange for truffles (a surprisingly lucrative ingredient within the culinary world).

Robin’s quiet secluded life is rattled when two thugs armed with lead pipes bust into his cabin during the dead of night, knock him out, and steal his pig. When he finally comes to he wastes no time resolving to get back his porcine pal. A battered Robin pulls the tarp off his beat-up pickup truck and heads out. But his cabin is barely out of sight before the truck sputters to a stop. So he walks several miles to a roadside diner where he calls Amir to come pick him up. From their the two polar opposites head to Portland where Robin is forced to reconnect with a past that he has spent 15 years trying to forget. Anything for his pig.

When the trailer for “The Pig” came out it left a lot of people wondering what kind of movie it would be. I remember reading all kinds of speculation. A few wondered if it could be some kind of dark fairytale; others saw it as a John Wick-styled revenge flick. Even in the movie itself Sarnoski does a good job keeping his audience in the dark, letting his story play out to a slow boil and his main character gradually come to light.

Image Courtesy of NEON

But you shouldn’t bring along any genre expectations. At its core “The Pig” is a thoughtful and introspective character study of a complex man seemingly broken and full of pent-up emotion. We do learn a few details along the way such as he was once a renowned Portland chef with a photographic memory. “I remember every meal I ever cooked. I remember every person I ever served.” And there are hints of a past love mostly concealed on an old cassette tape labeled “For Robin” that he can’t bring himself to play.

Yet there’s a lot we never learn, and as much as I love the film’s restraint we never really get to know Robin. There’s also a side story with Amir and his father (Adam Arkin) that’s desperate for more attention which never quite comes. These things hold the film back and keep us from fully connecting with the characters. But there’s still a lot to like about “Pig” and it’s great to see a subdued Nicolas Cage really lose himself in a role. I was completely absorbed in Robin’s journey and Sarnoski fully earns our empathy despite not fully satisfying our curiosity. “Pig” hits theaters this Friday (July 16th).

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Percy vs Goliath” (2021)

It’s sad to say but there aren’t enough meaty roles out there for actors and actresses past a certain age. And unfortunately that means there are certain kinds of stories that simply aren’t being told. It’s a shame considering the wealth of incredibly talented performers this crappy trend ignores and the missed opportunities at exploring an often untapped segment of the human experience. That’s one reason it’s such a treat whenever a movie like “Percy vs. Goliath” comes around.

This biographical drama from director Clark Johnson sees 78-year-old screen legend Christopher Walken playing 73-year-old Percy Schmeiser, a Saskatchewan farmer best known for his headline-grabbing court battle with the multinational agrichemical company Monsanto during the late 1990s. This textbook David vs. Goliath story saw a modest lifelong farmer reluctantly become an international inspiration and spokesman for independent farmers rights. The screenplay by Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hilary Pryor hits all of the story’s high points, especially regarding the prolonged legal wrangling. As a result the more emotional elements don’t quite get the attention they deserve.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Walken is a natural fit for Percy, a proud and earnest canola grower who farms land that has been in his family for generations. He’s what you would call a seed-saver which essentially means he saves seeds from his successful harvests to use in future seasons. It’s the way his father farmed and his grandfather before him. But one day Percy is notified of a court order allowing representatives from agro giant Monsanto to take samples from his fields. They find traces of their own manufactured gene in his crops and end up suing him for patent infringement.

Percy hires local lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) to handle his defense but they quickly learn it’s going to be an uphill battle. Monsanto’s team of bullish attorneys led by Martin Donovan use their client’s limitless resources to add both public and financial pressure. As the case picks up traction with the media, Percy is approached by an opportunistic environmentalist named Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci). She encourages him to go public which is far from Percy’s style. “Getting his drivers license photo is too much limelight for him,” says his gentle and loving wife Louise (a wonderful Roberta Maxwell) who really is the heart of film.

Soon Rebecca has Percy at speaking engagements, on television talk shows, even flying to India. A true grassroots defense springs up with checks and letters of encouragement coming in from farmers around the world who were forced to settle with Monsanto. Johnson’s film focuses just as much on Percy shedding his pride and seeking the help from others as it does the actual courtroom drama.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Unfortunately some of the story details fall through the cracks. There’s clearly some tension between Percy and his bitter and disgruntled son Peter (Luke Kirby) but it never gets touched. The movie acknowledges their rift but never gets into the root cause. We also get a handful of brief scenes referencing how Monsanto’s campaign to vilify Percy turns the local community against him. But the scenes are brief and leave a lot of potentially fertile dramatic ground unplowed (how’s that for a beautifully bad pun).

Still, there’s a lot of inspiration in the movie and particularly in Walken’s performance. He grounds Percy Schmeiser in a way that gives us an vivid image of a proud, honest man who through circumstances outside of his control becomes a reluctant hero to many around the globe. He’s an easy character to root for especially in these current days. So much more of Percy’s personal life is left begging to be explored, but the film gives us enough to gain a good understanding of how the little man can be strategically and methodically squashed by big corporate power. And as you watch this little man fight back you can’t help but be encouraged. “Percy vs. Goliath” opens today (April 30th) in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS