The Power of the Dog

While Oscar season is my favorite time of year, there is something that really bugs me about movies that feel as if they were made JUST for Oscar season. The Power of the Dog is one of those films. Director Jane Campion, who has made just four films since her breakout success of The Piano twenty-eight years ago, is a lot like Terrence Malick: they don’t make a lot of films, but, when they do, it’s treated as the second coming. It probably doesn’t help that I wasn’t a fan of The Piano, but I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to admire about The Power of the Dog, which is a lush, complex and brutally visceral story that features some incredible production values and performances. Campion adapted the screenplay from Thomas Savage’s novel (which I’m told is excellent), which is set in Montana in 1925 and focuses on two ranching brothers, Phil and George Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons. Despite having the same background, Phil and George could not be more different. Phil is cocky and abrasive, while George is introspective and sweet. Phil is a consummate bully, looking for any reason to belittle anyone he perceives as either inferior to him or some kind of a threat. So, when George takes a liking to Rose, a widow innkeeper, played by Kirsten Dunst, Phil takes the opportunity to mercilessly and cruelly tease her, along with her effeminate grown son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. As the story unfurls, we learn what’s behind Phil’s cruelty and find that Rose and Peter may not be as weak as Phil may believe.

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Swan Song

There’s no escaping the fact that writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s debut film, Swan Song, feels very familiar. This “lo-fi sci-fi” film, set in the not-too-distant future, deals not with aliens and robots, but instead grapples with a much more subtle approach to how the advances of technology impact human lives, very reminiscent of several recent films and television shows, such as Black Mirror, Ex Machina and Devs. Where Cleary’s narrative diverges into its own territory, however, is in his approach to the subject. While most recent thoughtful sci-fi films have offered up cautionary tales, Cleary’s screenplay chooses to explore the emotional impact of technology on our lives much more than the physical. And while that makes it a much more significant theoretical experience, it unfortunately proves to be a slightly more tedious one as well.

Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali plays Cameron, a happily married family man who seems to have it all. His wife, Poppy, played by Naomie Harris, is newly pregnant with their second child, and all is well. But what Cameron hasn’t told Poppy is that he’s dying and his oncologist has given him the name of a clinic that could offer him a unique opportunity to eliminate any of the pain for his family that would come from Cameron’s illness and death. After visiting the clinic, run by the enigmatic Dr. Scott (played by Glenn Close), Cameron has to make a decision that will affect his family’s life forever.

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Fight movies are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, so to find a new way, a new approach to the genre is difficult and rare. Which makes it surprising that Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry would choose one to make her directorial debut with. She must have felt she had something unique to say, and, for the most part, she does come at the traditional fight movie from a new angle, but, unfortunately, the rest of it is still disappointingly standard.

Bruised is written by Michelle Rosenfarb and directed by Berry, who also stars as Jackie Justice, a former Mixed Martial Arts champion who was somehow disgraced at the end of her career, and is now cleaning toilets and living with her abusive boyfriend/manager, played by Adan Canto. Per standard genre rules, Jackie may be out of the ring—or octagon—but she still has the fire inside, so, when a promoter (Shamier Anderson) approaches her with a chance at a title fight with the current world champion, she decides to go for it. Because, of course she does. But Jackie has more to contend with than just preparing for her bout, as her estranged mother (Adriane Lenox) shows up on her doorstep with a six-year-old boy in tow (Danny Boyd, Jr.), Jackie’s son who had been living with his father, who has been suddenly killed, leaving the boy now in Jackie’s custody. Jackie has no clue how to be a mother and doesn’t know what to do with this boy, who is so traumatized by his father’s sudden death that he doesn’t speak and barely eats. Jackie must find a way to be a mother to her son, while at the same time prepare for the biggest fight of her life, one that might save her life or might just put her down for good.

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House of Gucci

Whenever there is an opportunity to fictionalize a true story, especially one that’s already sensational, there is an inherent danger of going over the top—subtlety is hard to achieve if the subject matter itself is already larger than life. In the case of House of Gucci, the new Ridley Scott film which stars Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, being larger than life is just the beginning. The rest is just delicious gravy.

The film begins in Italy in the early 70’s, and Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, an ambitious young woman who falls in love with Maurizio Gucci (Driver), the heir to the Gucci fashion empire. But when Patrizia meets and marries Maurizio, he is merely a modest law student, with no interest in being part of the family business. However, when Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) pleads with Maurizio to join him in New York to run the company because his own son, Paolo (Jared Leto) is incompetent, he acquiesces. But when internal family politics begin to threaten Maurizio’s rising position within the company, Patrizia’s true colors and ambitions are revealed, as she manipulates everyone, including Maurizio, in order to maintain her position within the family and control over the business. When Maurizio finally sees her for the power-hungry social climber that she is, it sets off a deadly chain reaction that threatens not only the survival of the family, but the future of the family business.

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tick, tick…BOOM!

What happens when the voices of the last two generations of musical theatre converge in one film? In the case of tick, tick…BOOM!, the new Netflix film that has director Lin-Manuel Miranda bringing Jonathan Larson’s story to the big screen, the result is pure magic.

Miranda, the Emmy, Grammy and Tony-winning genius behind Hamilton, chose this screenplay, by Steven Levenson, to make his feature directorial debut, and it’s no wonder, because it finally brings to life Larson’s story, the same-level genius behind RENT, the musical that defined an era, launching Broadway into the modern stratosphere, the same rare air that Miranda now breathes. In many ways, Larson paved the way for Miranda, expanding the definition of what a musical could be, breaking down barriers and injecting a youthful realism to an art form that was in dire need of new blood. And new blood is exactly what Larson was, the definition of a starving artist, slinging hash in a diner, living in a low-rent walk-up, watching all his friends move on to real jobs, wives and families, while he continued to slave away, creating his musical masterpiece. The ironic part about all of it, however, is that the musical that Larson spent more than eight years of his life writing, the one that sits at the center of this film, is not RENT, nor is it his other famous musical, this film’s titular rock monologue. As it is with most artists, the great work from Larson came after his first piece, but all the lessons he learned from his failure are what paved the way for his future successes. In that way, tick, tick…BOOM! is not only the story of Larson, and all of his anguish and fortitude, but it is an examination of the creative process, of art itself, which truly comes from the most unexpected places.

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Focus Features

Three years ago, writer/director Alfonso Cuaron gave us Roma, a semi-autobiographical film about his childhood in his native Mexico City. It was gorgeously shot in black-and-white, and told a story of a turbulent world as seen through the eyes of a young boy. It is impossible to not think of Roma when you first look at Belfast, a new film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, which is also semi-auto-biographical, shot in black-and-white, and told through the eyes of a young boy.

Obviously, Roma and Belfast are completely different films, but the comparison may help break down if Belfast is right for you or not. Both films are extremely personal, artistic and clearly borne of a sentimentality that will either speak to you or won’t. But, it must be said that, despite some clearly common denominators, Belfast is a far different film from Roma, mainly in the fact that it will be much more accessible to American audiences. It is set in Belfast, Ireland in the late ‘60s, during the early days of The Troubles, when Belfast was at the center of the bitter and violent battle between Irish nationalists and those loyal to Great Britain. The main character is a young boy named Buddy, played by newcomer Jude Hill, who lives in Belfast with his parents, played by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, brother, played by Lewis McAskie, and grandparents, played by Judi Dench and Cieran Hinds. The family tries to go about their normal lives, but the political upheavals that surround their quiet street eventually seep in. Buddy’s parents are forced to make some tough decisions about whether to stay in their home and fight, or leave for the safety of their family.

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The Harder They Fall


The Harder They Fall is the Western we never knew we needed. Writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s debut feature is an eminently re-watchable, funny, entertaining and scathingly violent old-fashioned Western with a very modern style. Samuel borrows unabashedly from many others, including Tarantino and Leone, but the total package is uniquely stitched together with a bravado that is all at once awe-inspiring and terribly risky. But he pulls it off, giving us a slick, confident and full of swagger story chock full of characters that are not only great fun to spend time with, but are all kinds of badass.

It helps that the cast is beyond insane: Regina King, Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield and Delroy Lindo—no wonder Samuel was so confident. Every single actor is at his or her finest here, Beetz and King particularly finding their characters with ease and delivering with gusto. Every character is based on a real person, and The Harder They Fall revels in its own history, paying homage to the oft-forgotten black pioneers and cowboys who played a large part in settling the West—along with the criminals who helped define it.

While The Harder They Fall is not a social commentary (race is never a spoken issue), Samuel does poke fun more than once at the white/black status quo. There is a Spike Lee-style irreverence that imbues The Harder They Fall with an underlying purpose, but it never once diminishes the quality of the storytelling, acting or phenomenal production design, all of which are exceptional. If you like Westerns, especially ones with humor, personality and style, The Harder They Fall is unmissable. Do not sleep on this film, it is one of the best of the year and available on Netflix now.


As humans, we are inherently drawn to tragedy. From the ancient Greeks to the evening news, the one thing that always lures us in is a story of another human enduring unfathomable pain, a result of circumstances or events that are too horrific to ponder. Perhaps the only thing that could compete with our love for a tragic story is our love for one with a happy ending, especially if it comes wrapped in a fairy tale or fantasy. Our ordinary, average lives long to live vicariously in these extremes, either the most dire or the most wonderful, so that the lack of catharsis in our everyday lives can be satiated by their drama. And the best dramas to watch are the ones that could either never happen to us (i.e. the fairy tale) or we would never WANT to happen to us (tragedy). And when that rare example in real life comes along that somehow encompasses both fairy tale and tragedy, it becomes undeniably compelling—even better than Hollywood could have itself scripted.

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Apple TV+
Leave it to Tom Hanks to make a family-friendly film about the apocalypse. America’s Dad has taken audiences to some challenging places before, but his latest film, set on an Earth that has been decimated by a solar flare, makes Cast Away look like child’s play. Finch, directed by Miguel Sapochnik and written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, takes place in the (not too distant?) future, where a solar flare has made all organic life on Earth impossible, due to the destruction of the ozone layer. Without the ozone layer, all life bakes in the 150+ degree heat, and any exposure to direct sunlight literally melts the skin. Hanks plays Finch, a scientist who happened to be in his subterranean office when the flare hit, so he survived, and has figured out a way of existing since. He goes out during the day, in a protective suit, to scavenge for any remaining food he can find, and, at night, he toils away in his lab, building a robot, which will not only serve as a companion to him, but will act as a protector to the dog that Finch found and now looks after. When Finch sees there is a storm coming that they may not survive, he packs up his dog and his robot and they head out in an RV across the treacherous, barren landscape, in hopes of somehow finding a more hospitable place.

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Bleecker Street
Sometimes, a film comes along that doesn’t need any fanfare, CGI, costumes or beautiful cinematography to work. While film is most certainly a visual medium, it is sometimes essential to be reminded of what lies at the core of every film, and is the one thing—sometimes the only thing–that is necessary in order for any film to work: storytelling. And true storytelling is held wholly in words and performance. And you will find no greater example this year of those two elements than Mass, the staggering debut film from writer/director Fran Kranz.

Normally, I complain about movies that feel like plays. If I wanted theatre, I’d go to the theatre. But, for some reason, the experience that Mass offers is so deep, so poignant, and so brutally honest, that it feels right for the screen. It is a simple premise, with no bells and whistles. Mass is four people sitting around a table, having a conversation. But it’s what that conversation is about and where that conversation goes that is astounding, heartbreaking, agonizing and vitally important.

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