Leader of the Pack

The Power of the Dog

by George Wolf

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

Psalm 22:20 pleads for protection from pack animals that attack the vulnerable. And in the first film in 12 years from writer/director Jane Campion, the leader of the pack is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranchers in 1925 Montana. George is soft spoken, well-dressed, polite and empathetic. Phil is none of those things.

So Phil is nothing but resentful when their family dynamic is upended by George bringing home Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and introducing her as his new wife. Though Phil doesn’t hide his suspicions of the new Mrs. Burbank, it is Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), that becomes his new favorite target.

Peter is quiet, gentle, and artsy, the perfect foil for Phil to belittle in front of his ranch hands. A master at exposing vulnerabilities, Phil doesn’t hesitate to loudly question Peter’s masculinity and his worth at the ranch – if not in the world.

So it surprises everyone – most notably the resilient, cautious Rose – when Phil seems to reverse course and take the young man under his wing. Peter needs new skills to be accepted into the ranch life, and Phil begins taking extra time to personally mentor him, passing on lessons that Phil himself learned at the feet of local legend Bronco Honey.

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Campion gives Plemons, Dunst and Smit-McPhee the room to craft indelible characters, and they each respond with tenderly restrained excellence. But Cumberbatch is also the leader of this pack, delivering a magnificent, completely immersive performance sure to get awards season attention. Phil is unclean, both physically and spiritually, and Cumberbatch makes him a darkly compelling character, a feeling that directly feeds the unease that comes when Phil reasses his relationship with Peter.

What made Phil such an unforgiving brute? Are his new intentions truly kind, or is Peter in danger? And maybe Peter is seeing Phil more clearly than we realize.

The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

Cat Fancy

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

by Hope Madden

Did you know that there was a time, at least in England, when cats were not a popular house pet? And it wasn’t really that long ago. How weird is that?

Not weird enough to stand out in the highly unusual and very endearing film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The ever-reliable Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, artist whose drawings of adorably anthropomorphized cats took Victorian England, and then the world, by storm. Will Sharpe’s biopic looks to introduce us to the eccentric, charming, and ultimately tragic world of this friend of the feline.

Sharpe’s film is a swirl of color and energy led onward by the droll musings of narrator Olivia Colman, who gets all the best lines. (“Aside from its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit, Victorian England was also a land of innovation and scientific discovery.”)

As Wain’s life unravels before us, wonderful actors populate the screen: Toby Jones as the publisher who sees great, if unusual, things in Wain; Claire Foy as the governess-turned-wife whose love would bring Wain joy and scandal; Andrea Riseborough, as the eldest sister far better suited to the world of business and awfully frustrated with her unsuitable brother.

At the center of everything is Cumberbatch, more than up to the challenge of creating a lovable outsider, a man so full of something wonderful and so destined to be eaten alive.

Sharpe has trouble with that balance, even if Cumberbatch does not. While Wain’s talent brought joy to many across the world, his gullible nature, wild lack of business savvy and likely mental illness made him an easy mark in a callous world. Sharpe, who co-wrote the script with Simon Stephenson, has a difficult time conveying the madness that would be Wain’s undoing.

He keeps us at arm’s length from Wain, even as Cumberbatch repeatedly invites in. The actor and performance are wonderful, outdone only by an underused Riseborough as the one character even more shackled by the realities of the world.

But Sharpe’s vision is not sharp enough, and he ties up Wain’s frantic and messy life with far too much tidiness, a cinematic shortcut that doesn’t suit the film or the subject. Too much effort goes into wrestling Wain’s madness into a coherent, cinema-friendly plotline and it feels like the artist is being cheated once again.

Imitation Games

The Courier

by Hope Madden

Your regular Joe Schmo can do anything. He can save the world. He can even learn to love ballet.

Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a garden variety salesman in England in 1960, right about the time a highly decorated Soviet leader and member of Khruschev’s inner circle found a clever way to announce to the right people in the West that he wanted to share intel.

Think of The Courier as England’s version of Bridge of Spies, sort of. There’s even some cast in common.

Essentially it is a solidly made if tight-lipped political thriller about an unlikely duo racing against time to save humanity.

A bit like The Imitation Game. (Again, cast in common.)

Director Dominic Cooke has had remarkable success directing the British stage. His first foray into features, 2017’s On Chesil Beach, suffered from a choice to keep the protagonists at arm’s length. The same problem hampers the effectiveness of The Courier.

Merab Ninidze does what he can to come closer. As Oleg Penkovsky, or Alex, as his friend Greville calls him, Ninidze finds opportunities for the character to surrender to his own warm nature. He gives the Russian “traitor” a tenderness and heart that brightens even the greyest scenes.

Cumberbatch is characteristically solid, his demeanor just the right mixture of vanity, insecurity and good-natured humility to make him the perfect salesman. Likewise, Jessie Buckley (Oscar-worthy in last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) provide spot-on support as Greville’s wife and CIA contact, respectively.

The true story itself is tragic, astonishing and in need of public airing. We should know that these men existed and what we owe them. But regardless of a slew of sharp performances, Cooke plays it too safe, leaving us with little to remember.

There is nothing wrong with The Courier. It’s well made and informative. Which is to say, it’s kind of a waste of a great cast and an even better story.

Rough Justice

The Mauritanian

by George Wolf

In the face of the highest of ideals, America is capable of horrible things. According to his own writings, Mohamedou Ould Salahi believed in those ideals, until he was held without charge in Guantanamo Bay for over 14 years.

Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald and a cast full of veteran talent tell the story of The Mauritanian with impressive craftsmanship, a proud conscience and a narrative cluttered with good intentions.

Not long after 9/11, Salahi (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet and The Past) was apprehended with suspicions of being a Bin Ladin confidant and the “Al-Qaeda Forrest Gump.” His was to be the first death penalty prosecution of The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld response, until human rights attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) took up Salahi’s case pro bono.

The script, adapted from Salahi’s book by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, picks the emotional teams early. Salahi is a sympathetic character, and quickly charms Hollander’s assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) while Hollander herself remains unmoved, committed only to the rule of law.

This commitment serves her well, especially against Marine lawyer Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has a personal and professional stake in seeing Salahi put to death.

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, One Day in September) breaks from the pack of similarly-themed films with a tone that shifts between self-congratulations and tearful apology. The “rough justice” abuse Salahi suffers is clearly barbaric but still feels sanitized, and part of a larger question the film eschews in favor of heavy hearted hindsight.

But there isn’t a false note in this cast. Even when their character arcs may feel predetermined, every player – from principals to supporting – delivers enough heart and humanity to keep the lessons of Salahi’s ordeal resonating.

Landing at a time when the conscience of the country is literally being voted on, The Mauritanian is a committed if somewhat unwieldy reminder of the stakes.

The Wizard of Meh-nlo Park

The Current War

by Matt Weiner

Isn’t there a rule that you shouldn’t make a movie about a subject that sets itself up for so many electricity-related puns if the final product is going to be so dim?

That’s the fate that befalls The Current War, a diverting but disjointed biopic that relies on an impeccable cast and flashy style to make up for its confused substance.

The bright spot: The Current War is much better than its protracted release history would suggest. After an expected holiday release in 2017, the movie was put on hold after the Weinstein Company imploded when news broke about Harvey Weinstein’s rape allegations.

Two years and a fresh re-cut from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon later, The Current War briskly takes us through key moments leading up to the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, excellent as always but maybe even better suited for Edison—or better still, just playing all the leading weirdos for an even more interesting gonzo edit) to power the Chicago World’s Fair.

The contest was the culmination of the War of the Currents, which pitted the world-famous inventor Edison and his direct current against the alternating current favored by Westinghouse, with an assist from Edison’s former employee and eccentric futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

The historical details alone should have made for an unusually exciting biopic. Edison might not deserve the blame for Topsy, but his animal body count is still high enough to start his own abattoir.

But whether it’s the invention of the electric chair or Westinghouse’s (stylized) backstory, the film lacks either the interest or the courage to pursue any of the subplots with any real depth.

Which would be surmountable, but the main action participants suffer the same neglect. As much as The Current War’s quick cuts and glassy sound effects try to ape the frenetic spirit of invention, the film is neutered when it comes to having anything of substance to actually say about these people and the trajectory they put the world on.

That’s a bizarre oversight for a script by Michael Mitnick that at least attempts some hand-waving toward a dark reflection of the very same world we’re now living in over a century later: a Gilded Age redux, the foundational mythmaking that has always been tied up between this country and the Great Men doing what it takes in the name of creation, even the vaporware of Silicon Valley (er, Menlo Park) luminaries.

But how about the powerhouse acting! That distraction alone coupled with the film’s tortuous journey to screens suggests that while The Current War isn’t the most insightful biopic, it has a good claim to the one we deserve at the moment.

A Sincere Form of Flattery

The Imitation Game

by George Wolf

Here’s the thing about historical dramas: they’re not documentaries. Factual liberties are going to be taken by filmmakers searching for the right mix of and accuracy and emotional punch. The Imitation Game is one that almost scores a knockout.

It manages to be both an exciting historical mystery and a heartfelt look into the complicated soul at its center.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Oscar-worthy as Alan Turing, the English mathematician and all-around brilliant thinker who played a major role in cracking the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code during World War II.

Director Morton Tyldum (the underseen 2011 Norwegian gem Headhunters) expertly weaves the breathless quest by Turing and his team of code breakers together with Turing’s personal journey of loneliness and longing. Set designs that appear too tidy for 1940s wartime are negated by Tyldum’s impeccable sense of pacing, as he simultaneously builds the tension in both plot lines while steering clear of excess melodrama.

He’s blessed with an impressive debut screenplay from Graham Moore, adapting Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing:  the Enigma”. This is a film about secrets of all kinds, and Moore’s taut, nuanced script covers all angles in exploring their wages.

Cumberbatch leads the stellar ensemble cast with a wondrous turn. He presents Turing as a complex, unique individual blessed with an exceptional mind and a puzzling personality. Is it a dead-on reflection of the actual Alan Turing? I doubt it, but it is a multi-dimensional performance that any “based on true events” film would be lucky to have driving it.

Keira Knightley shines as Turing’s teammate and eventual fiancé Joan Clarke, subtlety creating a brilliant, outgoing personality where Turing finds comfort. Kudos, too, to Charles Dance and Mark Strong, both able to make lasting impressions with limited screen time as Turing’s superior officers.

As the human drama and the historical heroics both come to weighty conclusions, the film pulls back right when it might have cemented itself as truly unforgettable. Erring on the side of understatement is certainly the safe way home, but still disappointing. After Turing’s repeated pleas to pay attention, shying away from the tough questions raised leaves a film filled with logic feeling a touch too calculated.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5CjKEFb-sM





Bilbo’s Misty Mountain Hop

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

by Hope Madden

This Christmas, Peter Jackson gives us the gift of his final trip to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Enough Already).

I went reluctantly to LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001. I am not a big fan of fantasy and was never able to make it through one of Tolkien’s epics as a kid, so a cinematic adaptation held no interest. But I did go, and immediately celebrated that decision.

Peter Jackson (previously know to me solely for splatter-gore comedies) had such a facility for the landscape and heart of these Middle Earth sagas that I was immediately beguiled. And while by hour 4 of the third installment I had wearied of this first trilogy a bit, still I marveled at the accomplishment. Jackson and his versatile cast had carved out genuine characters, which made the peril and adventure all the more absorbing. The fact that Jackson’s native New Zealand lent an authentic backdrop to the derring do completed the fantasy.

The Hobbit has become a tougher slog. Though Martin Freeman continues to be a joy as Master Burglar Bilbo Baggins, the balance of the cast struggles to find dimension for their characters, and Jackson falls back far too often on swelling strings, dramatic lighting and lengthy, ponderous shots to emphasize drama.

What drama? Well, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) flies toward innocent Laketown to unleash his fiery fury; meanwhile Thorin Oakenshield (of the Glorious Mane Oakenshields) (Richard Armitage) begins his descent into madness, victim of the Dragon Sickness. Unbeknownst to him and his band of wee warriors, Azog the Defiler (now that is an awesome name) leads Orc armies to claim the mountain Smaug just vacated. Plus some fairies have grievances.

Unfortunately, the most interesting character is done away with before the opening credits, and though the film boasts almost constant action, it fails to hold attention.

Jackson’s first trilogy worked as well as it did because he managed to ground the high fantasy in something authentic. His second go at Tolkien abandons authenticity, creating stagey sets and falling back on theatrical performance and uncharacteristically so-so CGI. The late-film nods to the LOTR films only serve as reminders of that trilogy’s superiority. It’s time to ramble on.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars





File This One to Squee

Penguins of Madagascar

By Christie Robb

This movie may well provide the cure for seasonal affective disorder. What’s not to love? Adorable animated baby penguins? Check. John Malkovich playing a demented doctor octopus? Check. Nonstop action? Check. Ridiculous puns? Check. Werner Herzog and Benedict Cumberbatch? Check.

Penguins of Madagascar was an almost perfect hour and a half of zany fun.

(I say almost perfect only because Cumberbatch was drawn as a wolf and not, more appropriately, as an otter.)

The film follows the adventures of the four beloved penguins from the Madagascar franchise. Trapped inside a vending machine full of Cheezy Dibbles, they are kidnapped by Malkovich’s Dave the Octopus—a formerly adored aquatic attraction bumped from zoo to zoo in favor of the lovable antics of Antarctica’s flightless waddlers.

Rejection has taken its toll. Dave, now bent on revenge, has concocted a serum that will mutate the squee little penguins into monsters.

Joined by a secret interspecies task force, the North Wind (led by Cumberbatch’s Agent Classified); Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private take on Dave and his army of octopi henchmen and attempt to preserve cuteness as we know it.

If you are looking for a way to entertain the kiddos for 90 minutes this holiday weekend while avoiding a turkey-induced coma yourself, this is a fantastic option.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Counting Down Holiday Must-Sees

Both Whiplash and Rosewater open this weekend at the Drexel and Gateway Film Center respectively. Both are must-see independent films with Oscar buzz aplenty, but they also signal the end of the fall films. Next weekend, things move toward holiday hoopla, and the awards-baiting indies flow alongside giant blockbuster contenders – indeed, the two sometimes even intersect. What are the holiday films to look out for?

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (11/21)

Not every adolescent novel series turns into quite this strong a film franchise. Much credit goes to the boundless talent of Jennifer Lawrence, whose surly heroine goes beyond games and into real revolution in the third of four installments.

Horrible Bosses 2 (11/26)

Will it garner Oscar nominations? No. But early word on the sequel to the surprisingly hilarious Horrible Bosses looks to have upped its game, and I want to play.

The Theory of Everything (11/28)

Get to know Eddie Redmayne. This guy can do no wrong, and he may finally get the notice he deserves in this film. Redmayne plays young Stephen Hawking in the magnificent James Marsh’s dramatization of Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones).

The Imitation Game (12/5)

Benedict Cumberbatch is impressing early audiences in his turn as Alan Turing, an Englishman who helped break the Enigma code during WWII. Director Morten Tyldum’s last film Headhunters was too enthralling to miss his follow up.

Wild (12/19)

Reese Witherspoon is already the frontrunner in a an Oscar race not yet underway, but her turn as a woman who walks 1100 miles alone to get her head straight is impressing early audiences that much.

Unbroken (12/25)

Angelina Jolie goes behind the camera again, this time to direct the biopic of Olympian and POW Louis Zamperini. Actor-to-watch Jack O’Connell stars, but what’s more impressive is that Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction text.

The Interview, (12/25)

This Is the End proved that Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg were solid comedic filmmakers. The two return to their spot behind the camera and pen, with Rogan and BFF James Franco starring as two shoddy journalists who head to North Korea to interview/assassinate Kim Jong-un. No taboo shattering there! It should prove to be uncomfortable, but smart money says it’ll be funny as hell.

Big Eyes (12/25)

Perennial Oscar contenders Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz star in Tim Burton’s biopic of artist Margaret Keane. Early predictors put Adams in the running for best actress, but if this is the film that returns Burton to solid directorial ground, it’s a victory already.

Into the Woods (12/25)

Rob Marshall brings the Sondheim musical to the screen, spinning a yarn that knots Brothers Grimm tales together and sees Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine playing recognizable fairy tale characters. Early word is that the cinematic version boasts inspired performances, particularly from Depp and Streep as The Wolf and The Witch, respectively. We’re in.

Come January we can expect a couple late-running heavy hitters including Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper before the winter blahs hit theaters. Foxcatcher’s been a moving target, but it looks like local audiences will finally get a chance to see that by mid-January. But you know what? As far as we know, the Browns may still be in contention in January, so we may still have something to watch!

Wait, did we just jinx us?





Privacy Versus Transparency: Discuss

The Fifth Estate

by Hope Madden

The Fifth Estate tries to be a lot of things: a character study, an international thriller, a magnifying glass on the eternally combustible definition of journalism. Had its focus been less fragmented, a powerful film might have emerged.

Back in 2006, an Australian Internet activist launched a website with the goal of sharing classified documents globally by making it impossible to trace sources. He believed he was protecting the whistleblowers. As Oscar Wilde and Julian Assange say: Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.

Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was that charismatic “hacktivist”, and he soon collected a handful of loyal underlings, as well as 1.2 million classified documents.

Within months, Assange and crew were in hot water with the US government, among others, as their unfiltered version of journalism begged the question: Are there things that should not be shared with the public?

It’s a fascinating debate centered around an intriguing figure, but director Bill Condon can’t manage what David Fincher made look so easy: tell a socially relevant tale about how technology is revolutionizing our lives, anchor the story with a fascinating yet oh-so-nerdy character, and keep away from the death trap image of a guy at a keyboard. Because The Fifth Estate and The Social Network are essentially the same story.

Sure, no one died because of Facebook, but otherwise, it’s the look-alike tale of a social misfit, his zeal and brains and toxic insecurities, and the friends he hurt in the name of success. But Condon’s story contains a built-in excitement the Zuckerberg story couldn’t hope to reach.

Perhaps Condon put too much faith in screenwriter Josh Singer, a scribe primarily known for work in TV. Singer adapts two nonfiction titles on the topic, which may account for the splintered vision. His script too often tells rather than shows, relies on the most obvious kind of shorthand to explain Assange’s personal baggage, and offers ham-fisted proclamations to drive points home.

Condon doesn’t help matters with unfortunate and thematically misplaced dream sequences.

To his credit, Condon certainly cast the picture well. Cumberbatch owns the film. He is characteristically wonderful, bringing life to the ego, charisma and insecurity that mark a zealot. The yin to his yang, Daniel Bruhl offers his second excellent performance of the season (after his award-worthy turn in Rush) as the level-headed line around Assange’s chaos.

The underused but magnificent Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci also help keep the film entertaining. In fact, the strong performances are reason enough to spend some time with the film, but given the source material, the pull should be more compelling.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars