‘The Power of the Dog’

A riveting sweep of a film, The Power of the Dog is simultaneously broad in scope, claustrophobic in content as, buoyed by superb performances, it explores masculinity in an isolated 1920s Montana cattle ranch.

Two brothers run the Burbank family ranch but it’s the charismatic but feared Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game, August: Osage County) who makes the decisions. When gentle George (Jesse Plemons – Judas & the Black Messiah, The Irishman) marries the widow Rose and the two move into the shared home, a toxic Phil’s sense of normality is threatened. The presence of Rose’s teenage son, the fey Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee – Romulus My Father, Let Me In) is particularly unsettling.

With a career-defining performance by Kirsten Dunst (The Beguiled, Marie Antoinette) as Rose, the first film in more than a decade from director Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) exudes a quiet strength as it evolves determindedly in its narrative of repressed passions and emotions.

Expect Oscars aplenty to follow its many already received awards (including best director at the Venice Film Festival).

Nominated for 12 Oscars in 2022 including best film, actor, supporting actor (both Plemons and Smit-McPhee), supporting actress, adapted screenplay, won 1 for best director.

Rating: 91%

‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’

Based loosely on a true story, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman – Hud, Cat of a Hot Tin Roof) heads a group of outlaws – the Hole-in-the-Wall-Gang – in early 1900s Wyoming. But the boys rob one train too many – with Union Pacific railroad boss, EH Harriman, paying a posse to remain on their trail until Butch and marksman Sundance (Robert Redford – The Sting, The Natural) are both killed. The two avoid capture but, recognising their days are numbered if they stay, head to Bolivia with Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place (Katharine Ross – The Graduate, The Stepford Wives) to seek their fortunes.

Directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, with the iconic song Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and its pairing of Newman and Redford, has gone down in the annals of Hollywood history. Yet it’s not very good! The chemistry between the two leads carry what is a lighweight adventure yarn that develops into a slow, ponderous narrative. It looks good (cinematographer Conrad L. Hall – Road to Perdition, American Beauty) but with an almost slapstick, vaudevillian period in South America, the film just trails off into disinterest.

Nominated for 7 Oscars in 1970 including best film, director, sound – won 4 for original screenplay, cinematography, soundtrack, song.

Rating: 50%

‘The Sisters Brothers’

An easy going western as famed sharpshooting assassins the Sisters Brothers are dispatched to the Californian goldfields by the Commodore to deal with one Herman Kermit Warn.

Patrick deWitt’s award-winning The Sisters Brothers is a gripping, darkly funny and wholly compelling novel. Condensing the sprawling nature of the brothers journey from Oregon in its adaptation for screen, Jacques Audiard (Rust & Bone, A Prophet) cuts to the chase, with brothers Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Walk the Line) and John C Reilly (Stan & Ollie, Chicago) quickly catching up with Warn (Riz Ahmed – Venom, The Reluctant Fundamentalist). But not everything is what it seems – resulting in the boys reconsidering their long term prospects.

There’s a great deal lost in translation from page to screen – in particular Eli’s moral and ethical rumination of life as a gunslinger. But, in his first English language feature, Audiard has captured the boisterous, humorous gung-ho of the genre, supported by a great cast and, albeit foreshortened, an offbeat and garrulous storyline.

Rating; 72%

Who’s going to win? Oscar thoughts.

academy_award_trophyWith the Oscars dished out this coming weekend, and, having seen all nine features up for best film, thought a little personal ruminating would not go amiss (there’s enough of others out there).

Naturally, it’s a personal take on those nine films. Some I do not think should even be on the list; others are noticeable by their absence (Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals in particular). But of those nine, my choice for best film falls unequivocally for Moonlight.

The Golden Globes got it right when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted it best film – drama. The two separate categories for best film – drama and comedy/musical – certainly helped the Barry Jenkins-helmed feature avoid competing against the critical behemoth that is La La Land. But it’s the better film (personally speaking). Resonant, poignant, performed by an ensemble cast with quiet dignity, it’s a quite extraordinary film.

La La Land, the odds-on favourite to win a swag of Oscars including best film, fell into that ‘it’s good but not that good’ category for me – and is only fifth of the nine on my list. But in its celebration of LA and Hollywoodland (and a quite haunting soundtrack), it will probably win the big one (at least).

Any other year, the indescribably sad Manchester by the Sea would have likely topped my favourite of the year. Like Moonlight, it’s another quiet drama with superb performances from all and sundry, although in her few scenes Michelle Williams is devastating (as is Casey Affleck).

It’s hardly original – and we’ve seen Jeff Bridges play laconic lawmen for what seem forever (partly because he’s so good at it!) – but Hell Or High Water is a particularly fine example of its genre but unlikely to cause any surprises (it’s a film that appears to be constantly finding itself second or third in all its categories).

Lion surprised me by the respect it gave to the early part of its narrative – almost half its running time is set in a subtitled India. It’s a true story very well told and it was good to see Dev Patel gain recognition at the BAFTAS for his performance (it would be a major surprise if he repeated the feat and picked up Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali in Moonlight).

The rest of the nine films are likely to be also rans, although Fences is a powerhouse in terms of acting. August Wilson’s film betrays too much of its theatrical roots to be truly convincing as a feature film. Arrival is an intelligent sci-fi but, like Hell or High Water, features high on lists of five or ten without topping any of them. Hackshaw Ridge surprised by finding itself in the running for best film. Highlight of Mel Gibson’ war film is the superb editing and cinematography (sadly no recognition for Simon Duggan in the latter category). And then there’s Hidden Figures which was a great true story disappointingly told.

So I’d love it if Moonlight took home the best film award but it’s hard to see it beating out La La Land.

Personal ratings of the films nominated for the best film Oscar

Moonlight (91%)
Manchester by the Sea (88%)
Hell or High Water (80%)
Lion (75%)
La La Land (73%)
Fences (69%)
Arrival (67%)
Hackshaw Ridge (63%)
Hidden Figures (57%)

‘The Magnificent 7’

magnificent7_intl_1sht_englishAction-packed thrills with a perfunctory storyline and little in terms of character development. Yet, surprisingly, it doesn’t matter one jot.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) reunites with Denzel Washington (Training Day, The Equalizer) in an engrossing and exciting (second) remake of Kurosawa’s Japanese classic. Lots of shoot outs and macho strutting – but then, it is a western.

And I love the political statement at the end (of the seven, check out who survives!)

Rating: 73%

‘The Hateful Eight’

the-hateful-eight-poster-2The Hateful Eight is exactly what you would expect from a Tarantino film – razor sharpe dialogue, fabulous characterisation, OTT violent shoot-outs with bursts of laugh-out-loud humour.

Wyoming in the midst of winter blanketed in snow is the setting, providing magnificent vistas for this bloody western that is both sprawling and intimate, with most of the action taking place in Minnie’s Haberdashery. The eight are holed up due to the snow storm and, like a staged whodunit, the characters slowly reveal themselves for who they really are.

Tarantino regular Samuel L Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained) is a joy, Walton Goggins (Django Unchained, TV’s The Shield) a revelation and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Kill Your Darlings, Road to Perdition) worthy of her Oscar nom for best supporting actress.

Too claustrophobic to be a ‘western’ in the true sense of the word, The Hateful Eight is a hugely entertaining piece of filmed theatre.

Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2016 (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Robert Richardson, cinematography), won 1 (Ennio Morricone – soundtrack)

Rating: 79%