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.

Say My Name

Dolemite Is My Name

by George Wolf

Can’t you just hear Dolemite now?

“I’m so m*&^@f#$@!^*’ bad they got that m*&^@f#$@! Eddie Murphy to play me in a m*&^@f#$@!^’ movie!”

They did, and Murphy could very well ride it to an Oscar nomination in this brash, funny, and often wildly entertaining look at the birth of a cultural icon.

“Dolemite” was the brainchild of Rudy Ray Moore, who created the character for his standup comedy act in the early 70s. Moore’s raw material was much too adult for record companies at the time, but the success of his early underground comedy albums (sample title: “Eat Out More Often”) finally gave Moore the cheering crowds he longed for – and the urge to take Dolemite to the big screen.

Moore’s string of so-bad-their-good blaxploitation classics not only became important influences in the expanding independent film market, but also for rappers and young comics like Murphy himself.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who penned the scripts for The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood and Man on the Moon among others, are certainly at home fleshing out the stories behind creative legends, and their script fills Dolemite Is My Name with heart, joy and raunchy laughs.

Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) keeps the pace quick and energetic, crafting a bustling salute to the creative process that never forgets how to be fun.

Two pivotal and very funny scenes bookend the film’s biggest strengths.

Early on, Moore and his crew leave a movie theater dumbfounded by the white audience’s love for a popular feature that had “no titties, no funny and no kung fu!”

Then, during filming of the original Dolemite, Moore doesn’t feel right about his big sex scene until his character’s prowess is pushed to ridiculous levels. We’re laughing, but there’s no doubt we’re laughing with Moore, not at him. And while we’re laughing, we’re learning how Moore took inspiration from the world he lived in, and why he wouldn’t rest until his audience was served.

At the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Murphy said he wanted this film to remind people why they liked him.

Done.

Leading a terrific ensemble that includes Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Kodi Smit-McPhee and a priceless Wesley Snipes as the “real” actor among these amateurs, Murphy owns every frame. This film wouldn’t work unless we see a separation between Moore and his character. Murphy toes this line with electric charisma, setting up the feels when Moore’s dogged belief in himself is finally rewarded.

Dolemite Is My Name tells a personal story, but it’s one that’s universal to dreamers everywhere.

And it’s also m*&^@f#$@!^* funny, suckas!

Survivorman

Alpha

by Christie Robb

Visually stunning, but emotionally monotonous, Alpha seems like a planetarium show scaled up to feature length, given a sketch of a plot to justify shots of a human staring up at the firmament and trudging through various majestic terrains.

Set 20,000 years ago in Europe, a hesitant young man, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), sets out on his first hunt with the goal of making his dad proud. But when one of the beasts fights back, Keda takes a header off a cliff and is left for dead.

What follows is his somewhat preposterous journey to get back to his settlement.

It’s a little bit Cast Away, a little bit 127 Hours, with wide, sweeping shots of Keda’s journey that are very reminiscent of iconic scenes from the Lord of the Rings movies.

And there are glorious vistas to enjoy, any number of which would make a fantastic desktop picture for your work computer. But to properly enjoy it, you kind of have to turn the thinking part of your brain off. (At least a little bit. You still have to be able to read the subtitles to parse the Neanderthal language being spoken.)

For example, the hunting ground presumably is close enough to Keda’s settlement to allow the hunters to bring back the spoils before they, you know…spoil. And yet, on the way home, Keda climbs a few mountains, treks through a dessert, passes a swamp, skirts a volcano, and grows a delightfully thin adolescent mustache. For quite a time, he is doing this on a recently dislocated ankle and while carrying a full grown wolf.

Cause, oh yeah, he’s got a wolf buddy who he basically domesticates on the way home.

Billed as the heart of the story, Keda’s relationship with Alpha the wolf supposedly “shines a light on the origins of man’s best friend.” Given this, I was expecting the relationship to have a certain amount of complexity and emotional give and take. But this falls flat. The domestication happens so easily that it seems inevitable. I’ve adopted dogs that were harder to train. And despite the harsh environment and the occasional menacing hyenas, at no point do Keda and Alpha seem in any ultimate danger.

All, in all, Alpha would probably be best viewed if you’re jonesing for an easy visual escape or if you want inspiration for upgrading your winter wardrobe. Cause those suspiciously healthy-looking folks eking out their existence during an Ice Age have some beautifully made clothes. Now, I’m off to search for a pair of leather pants online.