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.

Into the Woods

Antlers

by Hope Madden

Hey, do you remember what a non-stop laugh riot Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace was? No? Well, compared to his latest — the long, long-awaited horror Antlers — it is.

The film takes us to depressed, smalltown Oregon at the height of the opioid crisis. Julia (Keri Russell) has returned after decades away. She lives with her brother, the town sheriff (Jesse Plemons), teaches middle school and deals with her demons.

Someone else’s demons are less metaphorical.

Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, who adapts his own short The Quiet Boy. The short uses fairy tale language to cast an image of abuse and horror — an idea Antlers plays with but eventually abandons for more heavy-handed parallels between child abuse, addiction and economic blight.

At the center of the action is 12-year-old Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) in a remarkable turn. Hollow-eyed and tragic, he conveys secrecy and desperation in equal measure. And as soon as your heart breaks for Lucas, you see his little brother Aidan (a crushingly adorable Sawyer Jones).

The boys have a problem that seems unsolvable, but it might have played better if Cooper could have kept the focus a little more on the monster movie and a little less on the metaphor.

There is a monster —literal and figurative—in this film. The creature effects for the literal monster amaze and unnerve, thanks to an impressive design and to emotional seeds planted early in the film by actor Scott Haze.

Antlers looks great, whether cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s camera lingers in the woods, tiptoes down hallways, or witnesses red-flare lit doom in a mine. But Cooper is an odd choice for a supernatural film, and perhaps an entirely wrong-headed filmmaker to take on the perspective of a child to tell a horrific fairy tale.

Whimsical he ain’t.

In the end, the film suffers from a lack of imagination. Cooper and team lead us through a dour metaphor full of familiar genre tropes and leave us with a brutal, great-looking, well-acted lecture.

Pants and Skippy

Jungle Cruise

by George Wolf

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wears trousers in 1916 London, so she’s “pants.”

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the skipper Lily hires to guide her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the Amazon jungle, she he’s “skippy.”

As Lily and Frank’s verbal sparring grows more and more flirtatious during the swashbuckling adventures of Jungle Cruise, the sheer charisma of the two leads succeeds in steering the film away from dull waters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra fills Disney’s latest with plenty of wink-wink spirit from the original theme park ride, right down to the cornball jokes Frank insists on telling to his tour boat clients.

But Lily is no tourist. She’s a botanist in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree said to contain magical healing powers. The closer Frank gets them to the prize, the more dangers come out of the jungle. Not only does Kaiser Wilhelm’s son Joachim (Jesse Plemons) also want the magic flowers, but a 400-year-old undead conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) is seeking to break the curse that ties him to the jungle.

Yes, there’s much going on, but Collet-Serra keeps the CGI action sequences (some of which will remind you plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean) front and center on a journey that never loses the family adventure vibe.

Not that the five credited writers have forgotten about us grown-ups who took this actual Disney ride as kids. An extended bout of Blunt v Johnson innuendo becomes a frisky delight, while the subtle nods to marriage equality and the savagery of colonialism are fleeting but effective.

The film’s third act delivers a major surprise, which results in extended exposition and the first signs of treading water. But even at its most formulaic, there’s enough humor, heart and genuine movie star appeal here to make Jungle Cruise an excursion full of rollicking good fun.

Avenging Fred Hampton

Judas and the Black Messiah

by Hope Madden

Daniel Kaluuya’s range is simply unreal. From the vulnerable hero of Get Out to the chilling sociopath of Widows, he’s prepared us for quite a gamut of characters. I’m not sure he’s prepared us for his Chairman, though.

Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party circa 1969, in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. A feeling of mortality permeates his performance, and with it a melancholy sense of urgency. His quiet moments swell with tenderness and turmoil, and his speeches burn through the screen. We’ve seen some great performances this year, but we’d give Kaluuya the Oscar right now.

That’s a lot to live up to, but the balance of King’s cast meets the task. LaKeith Stanfield, as police informant Bill O’Neal, strikes the right balance between cowardice and regret. He doesn’t try to make us pity O’Neal and the deal he’s struck with the devil, but he gives the character an energy that suggests more emotional and psychological layers than what’s found on the page.

As FBI Agent Roy Mitchell, Jesse Plemons is as solid as ever, delivering lines with enough genuineness that Mitchell doesn’t become an outright villain until he, along with O’Neal, have gone too far to pretend they’re anything else.

Their performances draw support from an understated Dominique Fishback as a firmly but not blindly committed comrade—Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, Dominique Thorne has badassedness to burn as part of a deep ensemble that impresses in most every turn.  

The film never feels like a biopic. The rendering is far more crime thriller, and had this been a simple fictional account of a mole in a political organization, King’s film would have been riveting. Performances alone would have elevated the genre beats.

The real star may be King’s script, co-written with Will Berson and Keith and Kenneth Lucas. There’s no placating. There’s no playing to the masses. King doesn’t water down Hampton’s message of unifying the poor or throwing off the oppression of a police state. In fact, this is a film that means to show the difference between revolution and the “candy coated façade of gradual reform.”

Clowns Against Humanity

Game Night

by Hope Madden

Nobody does dry, self-deprecating humor as well as Jason Bateman. He’s such a natural as the put-upon husband/brother at the center of the Game Night tension, he becomes the action/comedy’s effortless center of gravity.

And the way this story orbits, circles back, veers around and comes back again, gravity is important.

Bateman plays Max who, with his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams), hosts a weekly game night at his house. But Max’s super cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) wants to host this week, and Max’s creepy neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons, creepy perfection) wants to come. Well, things are spinning out of control, aren’t they?

A tight script by Mark Perez gives a game cast (see what I did there?) plenty of opportunity to riff on each other and nerd up the place. The chemistry onscreen, particularly between couples—each of which is given the chance to create believable unions—elevates the hijinks.

McAdams steals scenes with comic charm, reminding us again of her spot-on timing and ability to generate plausible relationship backstory with anybody. Meanwhile, funny bits from Sharon Horgan and Lamorne Morris, in particular, keep the larger Game Night ensemble from letting the storyline lag.

The easy humor spilling from this cast pulls the film away from absurd comedy and turns it into something more comfortable. Because, even though there may or may not (or may?) have been a kidnapping and they may or may not (or may?) be making things worse, they have actually trained for this moment for years.

Because what is it that will help these couples live through the bizarre and twisted mess their game night has become?

Teamwork.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Vacation) keep the action low key. This allows the entire effort to indulge in the “so this is happening right now, then? Ok, let’s deal with that” kind of humor that is so characteristically Bateman. The comedy is upbeat and fun (though sometimes surprisingly violent) and true to the characters and their relationships.

It’s consistently fun and ultimately forgettable. Like a game night.