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.

Dream Baby Dream

Woodshock

by Hope Madden

Do you know the Suicide song Dream Baby Dream?

For some, it’s a profound and moving meditation. For others, it is the longest, most unendurably boring song on earth. It figures prominently in one scene in the film Woodshock, becoming maybe the strongest (perhaps unintentionally as well as intentionally) metaphor in the picture.

The film, written and directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy—better known as fashion icons Rodarte than as filmmakers—follows one woman as she descends from melancholy to full-blown madness.

Theresa (Kirsten Dunst, doing much with very little) works part-time at a legal pot dispenser somewhere in California’s logging country. Marijuana is legal; assisted suicide is not, but many of the shop’s clients are suffering greatly—including Theresa’s terminally ill mother.

The film opens on Theresa dripping some kind of liquid into the contents of a joint, then holding her mother as she passes painlessly from this life.

Painless hardly describes the future Theresa has found.

Hers is a slow—very slow—downward spiral. Woodshock is a character study. Unfortunately, Theresa’s conflict and chaos happen internally, so we spend an enormous amount of time watching her do basically nothing. At the one hour 29 minute mark, she does something. That’s a long wait.

The Mulleavys attempt to offer glimpses into Theresa’s psyche with dreamlike imagery. Their lawless style is equal parts mesmerizing and frustrating. For the power they infuse in their visual presentation they deserve praise. They need to stop ignoring story, though.

Terrence Malick films can sometimes become a confoundingly beautiful amalgam of free-form imagery, episodes disguised as story providing the whisper of a plot. The reason Woodshock doesn’t hold together as well is that the few plot points provided are each of profound importance to character development. Rather than a meditation, the film becomes a highlights reel padded with hallucinatory imagery.

The sisters’ work is formally confident, and rightfully so, but their investment in story is too weak to hold attention. Woodshock offers style to spare, but it’s too shy with substance.





Calculating Ladies

Hidden Figures

by George Wolf

When you learn whose story is being told by Hidden Figures -three African American women who were instrumental to the success of America’s space program – no one could blame you for fearing the “white savior.”

Thankfully, director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) avoids that pitfall…for the most part, anyway.

In the 1960s, mathematicians Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) were working in segregated areas of Langley Research Center in Virginia. As pressure mounted for the U.S. to catch up in the “space race,” Johnson (a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient in 2015) was promoted to calculating launch and flight data for Project Mercury, while Vaughan and Jackson blazed similar trails in computer programming and engineering, respectively.

It is an inspiring piece of history, one that is overdue for a big screen tribute, and Melfi -who also helped adapt the script from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book-gives it as much respect as he can without fully committing to the heroines themselves.

That’s not to say this is patronizing fodder on the order of The Blind Side or even The Help, far from it. But some moments of achievement from these African American women are framed as if the credit should go to the white people (mostly men) for realizing the ills of segregation and courageously allowing these geniuses to contribute.

When NASA director Al Harrison (a fictional composite played by Kevin Costner) reverses Langley’s segregated restroom policy, he does it in the most grandstanding, heroic way possible as the music swells to self-congratulatory crescendos. Dramatic? Oh yes. Pandering? You bet, and unnecessary.

A late exchange between Vaughan and a supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) has the subtle bite that shows Melfi content to merely knock on a door that needed opening.

The three principal actors are terrific, Costner, Dunst and the rest of the ensemble (including Mahershala Ali and Jim Parsons) provide fine support, the film is competently written and judiciously paced.

Hidden Figures has all the parts for what could have been a more meaningful sum, if it was a bit less concerned with playing it safe. And considering the subject matter, that’s ironic.

You might even call it a miscalculation.

Verdict-3-0-Stars