Everything Everywhere All at Once

This crazy/wonderful film is well described by its title, and brought to mind Run Lola Run, Shakespeare in Love, Dr. Strange, the last Spider-Man film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, any number of Marx brothers films, and that amusement park ride that spins in circles while roughly throwing its passengers from one side of the seat to the other.

The film brims over with dizzying energy, almost too many themes, and top-notch performances. IIMDB describes the plot as “An aging Chinese immigrant is swept up in an insane adventure, where she alone can save the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.” That’s as good a description as any, but falls quite short of giving you an idea of this film, which can’t be “seen” as much as experienced.

Stephanie Hsu, the incredible Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Run Lola Run comparison is because the film gives alternate life possibilities depending on the choices of the characters. The Dr. Strange and Spider-Man comparisons are because of the extended world/s of the multiverse, which gives writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert the thread on which to hang any number of crazy side trips, some which work and some which don’t.

Thankfully, all of this is held together brilliantly by the legendary Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among many others), who at this point in the year is my pick for Best Actress. That’s where a memory on Shakespeare in Love comes in. I remember reading an article that said that practically any skilled actress playing the part that won an Oscar for Gwyneth Paltrow could have been won by any other skilled young actress, because the part was so juicy. Here, Yeoh is playing so many different parts in so many different places that I lost count, but she maintains the heart of the central character in a way that takes us viewers into all of her experiences and alternate realities without getting lost. Yes, the film makes good use of Yeoh’s reputation as the queen of martial arts films, but her character is much more human than that, and much more relatable. It’s a stunning performance in that it’s not all over the place, but she rather miraculously keeps things grounded as her “realities” move all over the place.

Someone I’d present as a Best Supporting Actress possibility is Stephanie Hsu as the daughter. Hsu, currently being seen as Mei in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is in her early thirties but gets away with playing a teen here. She puts on a lot of hats, and dresses, and identities—much more than Yeoh—and much of the energy of the film comes from her character and her various expressions. Hsu burns through the film from beginning to end, and if Yeoh provides the solid center, Hsu pulls on the viewers and takes them on a series of wild rides.

A big surprise is the character of the husband, played by Ke Huy Quan (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies). It would be a spoiler to describe why this performance is so good, but it’s a delightful surprise.

Then there is Jamie Lee Curtis in a performance you haven’t seen from her and would never have imagined (and quoting Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

There are crude elements that are thrown in and which tend to cheapen the film here and there, and there is a family conflict between grandfather and granddaughter that is simultaneously something parents might want their children to avoid, and which also is borderline cliché, and at this point, a tired trope. And like a Marx Brothers film, there are a thousand things thrown against the wall, with only the majority sticking and leaving the rest quickly forgotten in the cinematic chaos. On the other hand, since this is a film where everything AND the kitchen sink has been thrown in, it was intriguing to see themes of connection, love, commitment, and the power and worth of kindness—something we rarely see in mainstream films, and which was unexpected in such a wild and crazy film.

It’s safe to say that you have never seen another film quite like this, even though I opened this with film comparisons. But nothing has ever contained this unique combination of elements. Many folks will want to see this more than once, and even that may not be quite enough. Come for the experience, but stay for some of the year’s best performances.

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2022 Oscar Thoughts and Predictions

Rumor has it we’re “back to normal” this year with everyone gathered in an auditorium, and with three—count ‘em!—hosts. The film world is still recovering from both COVID and the rise of streaming services with good films. This will likely be the year that a streaming service film will win Best Picture.

In their infinite wisdom, the Academy has decided to award some EIGHT categories before the ceremony that we usually get to see as part of the show, featuring clips of acceptances sprinkled throughout the show. This of course will shorten the show, but will deny the craftspeople in these categories their full moment in the sun. (The categories are hair and make-up, editing, sound, production design, original score, and the three short-film categories.) Probable Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain has announced that the is ready to skip the red carpet to witness those awards. The Academy really knows how to step in it…and usually “it” is of its own making. At least they have backed off from instituting “The Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film”. Quel horreur! Listen, Academy, I have some great ideas of shortening the show if you’d ever ask, suggestions that don’t leave anyone out.

Not really caring as much this year to get predictions right, I’ll be throwing in the occasional thought about the following categories if I have one. Let’s start with some of the “bumped” categories, sans the names of all the nominees:

Best Hair and Make-up: The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Like previous winner La Vie en Rose, the make-up and the story are so intermingled as to be inseparable.

Editing: Not sure here, as for some crazy reason, West Side Story wasn’t even nominated in this category. The winner might be The Power of the Dog, the presumed Best Picture winner until recently, but that’s a slow film, and Best Editing is sometimes interpreted as Most Edited Film. But I hope Tick, Tick…Boom! wins. Its editing was beautifully integrated into the music and the rhythms of the lead character’s creativity, which is why I think it might be overlooked because it was so seamless. Dear Academy, please don’t give it to Don’t Look Up, for so many reasons. Yes, I know it’s furiously edited and snarky at times, but please don’t….

Sound: Dune is expected to win a haul of technical awards, and will likely win here. In another year, it would have been West Side Story.

Production Design: See previous winner. And in another year, it would also have been West Side Story.

Original score: I loved what Jonny Greenwood did in The Power of the Dog, but Dune’s Hans Zimmer will likely win because it’s Dune and it’s Hans Zimmer.

Best Costume Design: See Production Design and the “in another year” sentence above.

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees:

            CODA

            Drive My Car

            Dune

            The Lost Daughter

            The Power of the Dog

CODA has been getting a lot of love lately, but The Power of the Dog is my preference. Could be either one. Should be Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog—a great script.

Best Original Screenplay

            Belfast

            Don’t Look Up

            King Richard

            The Lost Daughter     

            The Worst Person in the World

Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up) has been a popular choice in the past, but see my thought on its editing above. Let’s give it to Belfast’s writer and director Kenneth Branagh, nominated eight times with no wins up to this point.

Best Animated Feature

This is a tough one to call. Encanto is quite popular, but Flee has the socio-political vote (though it will likely win in the Best Documentary category), and The Mitchells vs. the Machines has gotten the most critical praise. The lazy vote might give it to Encanto.

Best Documentary Feature

For sheer joy, it should be Summer of Soul, which includes politics with its never-before-seen footage of music (always an Academy favorite combination). But with no Holocaust films in the mix this year (a cynical observation but true), it will likely go to Flee.

Best Original Song

There is no “Let It Go” this year, though the folks behind Encanto’s “Dos Oruguitas” should have re-thought a bit and let “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” into the line-up. Who knew? But we have the beloved Beyoncé (“Be Alive”) up against 13-times-nominated-yet-hasn’t-won Diane Warren, who wrote “Somehow You Do,” a song few people know from Four Good Days, a film no one has seen. Should be interesting.

OK, let’s get into the top 7 awards.

Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Language Film)

Drive My Car

Flee

The Hand of God

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

The Worst Person in the World

I would be shocked if Drive My Car didn’t run away with this. It probably got the best reviews of any film this year, but it has the “let’s honor it but not give it the award” nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director Categories. The love for Flee will be covered (see above) in other categories, leaving Drive My Car the winner. The only spoiler could be The Worst Person in the World, which is peaking in its visibility, and is apparently loved by everyone who saw it.

Best Supporting Actor

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast

Troy Kotsur, CODA

Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog

J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos

Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

This was supposed to be wrapped up for Kodi Smit-McPhee for his stellar work in The Power of the Dog, but CODA’s Troy Kotsur has come on strong lately. That puts a newcomer with a brilliant future up against a respected veteran in his breakout role in a feel-good film. With the rising support for CODA and Kotsur’s recent wins and acceptance speeches, I’ll give it to the veteran.

Best Supporting Actress

            Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter

            Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

            Judi Dench, Belfast

            Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog

            Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

The one lock of the night: Ariana DeBose for West Side Story. Film nerds will appreciate the symmetry, as DeBose’s co-star Rita Moreno won the same award for the same character 60 years ago (that’s not a typo). I have cynical thoughts about how this push for this award was handled in the media, but will get into trouble if I express them in writing.

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick…Boom!

Will Smith, King Richard

Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

This is the year that the Academy has decided to crown Will Smith for his work in King Richard. It’s a solid performance, and the always-likable Smith didn’t back away from the more negative aspects of the character—especially his occasional meanness, his crudeness, and his stubbornness. The Academy likes that as much as beautiful actresses going ugly. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Power of the Dog is actually richer and deeper, but it seems the Academy knows he’ll likely win this award in the future. Right now, it’s Will Smith coronation time.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter

Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos

Kristen Stewart, Spencer

This one is supposed to be up in the air, and it’s true that there is no obvious winner like DeBose or Smith. My money is on Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Chastain has been nominated a couple of times before (The Help and Zero Dark Thirty) and is a well-respected actor among her peers. It feels like it’s her turn, especially with there being no clear consensus winner. Plus the nomination for Stewart is her reward, and the other three already have an Oscar.

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza

Kenneth Branagh, Belfast

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car

Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Definitely Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. She was nominated way back in 1993 for her work on The Piano (she won that year’s Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for it), her breakout film. She’s done interesting work in the meantime, but many thought The Piano would be her last great film. Not so. The Power of the Dog will be a classic, and this gives the Academy extra self-congratulation points for giving this award to a woman two years in a row. But the good news is that she deserves it.

Best Picture

Belfast

CODA

Don’t Look Up

Drive My Car

Dune

King Richard

Licorice Pizza

Nightmare Alley

The Power of the Dog

West Side Story

Up until last week, I would have thought The Power of the Dog was a lock. But CODA might be this year’s Green Book, a feel-good film that is just good enough to attract votes away from a dark but brilliant film. It’s won major awards recently, and has the self-congratulatory aspect voters love of featuring talented deaf actors in a story about deafness. It’s a well-done and enjoyable film. But it doesn’t compare to The Power of the Dog. We’ll see what mood the newly-enlarged and inclusive Academy is in this Sunday.

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The Batman (2022)

Robert Pattinson as The Batman

The Batman is perhaps the most unusual of Batman films. It’s certainly the most beautiful, the slowest, the longest (just under three hours), and the most enigmatic. It’s part Taxi Driver, part Joker (which was already part Taxi Driver), part detective story, and part modern noir. Putting Twilight star Robert Pattinson in the cowl has been getting most of the press, but he is a part of much larger and richer picture.

This is not simply a new version of the Batman story, but whole new and fresh take on it. Best friend Clint Morgan likens this film to the rest of the Batman series as Logan is to the X-Men movies—a creative and inventive spin-off with a life of its own.

OK—Pattinson. He has come a long, long way—as has his Twilight film partner Kristen Stewart—and both are now considered legitimate and talented actors (Stewart having won a French César and an Oscar nomination). Pattinson swerves back into the pale-faced, intense character he has played before, but adds an emo and goth sensibility to it for this new take on the Caped Crusader. Except for action scenes, Pattinson moves slowly, thinks deliberately, and responds to outside stimuli almost glacially. This is the quietest Batman we’ve ever had, and perhaps the most human. This is apparently an early incarnation of Batman, before he settled down a bit and grew in confidence. Here he is angsty and coiled-up angry, and (spoiler alert) calls himself Vengeance. He is also not yet experienced in making quick getaways with his Batsuit, and there is a lovely moment of relatable human fear just before he takes off with it to escape. The Batman isn’t technically an origin story, and the moment of his parents’ deaths is only alluded to and not given in flashback. But this is clearly an early version of the character, and leaves a wide-open door for at least one sequel.

The film is also well titled, as this is all about the Batman, and hardly about Bruce Wayne at all. Bruce Wayne here is nothing like the dashing and energetic character we have seen, but is unkempt, hesitant, and weary. He slips in to places rather than “arrives,” and there is no arm candy to be seen. This is a film that is about Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne rather than the opposite.

The film is also a great example of good cinematography and production design. There are some stunningly beautiful scenes, and some of the darkest film work since The Godfather: Part II. Likely Oscar winner (for last year’s Dune) Greig Fraser has created an exemplary palette of dark and muted colors that form some of the most arresting images one might see in a superhero film. (It reminds a little of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s work in Spectre, that most visually stunning of Bond pictures.) Fortunately, the world created by the film is less typically dystopian (a word I will be happy never to have to type again) than dark, shadowy, and beat-up.

Another technical aspect to the film that succeeds greatly is the score, which should garner a great deal of attention and analysis in coming weeks and months. It’s by Michael Giacchino, best known up to his point for his Oscar-winning work in Up, and for Ratatouille. The score blends with the film’s images, characters, and pace as few recent films have, and it’s a model of creative work. Warning: A transcendent “sacred” song becomes positively creepy by the end of the film.

Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and the two more recent Planet of the Apes films) and Pattison’s take on the character works largely because of two other characters in the film that ground it all in reality and honest emotion. They are Jeffrey Wright as Lt. Gordon and the underused Andy Serkis—here in completely human form—as Alfred. They are ethical, relatable, and honest, and are what the viewer can connect with as emo Batman makes his way through the plot.

But since this is the world of Batman, we also have the more outlandish characters. The first is an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the Penguin, who is as far from Danny DeVito’s impersonation as possible. This Penguin is an almost believable Mafia character, and doesn’t pull the film into near-fantasy. That is left for the end of the film, when the talented Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), Escape at Dannemora) rips into his version of the Riddler. Yes, he chews every bit of furniture in sight, but he stays of a piece with the rest of the film. One, we know the Riddler is nuts, and will be when we meet him. But we also have seen his dastardly work throughout the film, and we bring an anticipation that provides a perfect context for this outlandish personality when we finally get to experience it.

What doesn’t work, but what doesn’t not work, is Zoë Kravitz’s Salina Kyle/Catwoman. Kravitz redefines sexy/slinky, and provides a little (and I mean little) romance with the Batman (who is so quiet and unmoving that she has to kiss him). But though she acquits herself well in the role, the role doesn’t really add anything to the film beyond the pallid lip locks. We already know he’s a loner and works on his own, so it’s no surprise when they don’t form a real team. Perhaps we’ll see more of her in a way that makes more sense in the sequel/s.

The original Batman was apparently a detective story (thanks again, Clint), and this version returns the franchise to that. This is a serial killer detective story that happens to have the Batman as its central character. That adds a certain much-needed energy and drive to a story with a quiet, recessive character at its core.

Pattinson as Bruce Wayne

Last thoughts: I’m looking forward to seeing it again, I’m looking forward to any sequels, and I’m hoping that, as with Silence of the Lambs years ago, that a film released in the winter will be remembered by the Academy 10 months from now—at least in cinematography, production design, and score.

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Licorice Pizza

Coper Hoffman and Alana Haim in “Licorice Pizza”

Licorice Pizza has been nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay). It’s been honored by several other groups, and has been hailed as a refreshing departure from director Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and Inherent Vice, among others. It’s sunny, colorful, and something of a glorious mess. One’s enjoyment of it will depend on one’s response to “glorious” or “mess.” There’s also an awkward element at the heart of it that can be like a squeeze of lemon juice in one’s morning coffee.

This certainly feels different from PTA’s previous work. He is bringing back the ‘70s in California with a vengeance; the production design and costumes bring us back to another world, and the direction and acting shout of a time when everything seemed possible—even this crazy “romance” at the heart of the film. The camerawork includes breathtaking tracking shots down road filled with period cars, shops, and clothes. Many of those shots are of one or more of our two leads running almost as much as Franka Potente in Lola rennt. (Many a film paper will likely be produced on the meaning of running in the film.) There is an almost dizzying excitement created here that occasionally spins off the rails into parody; some have found this delightful….

Aside from the sense of time and place so beautifully recreated here, the two leads are extraordinary, especially considering that this is their first film. Alana Haim is the more experienced performer, as a member of the band Haim with her sisters Este and Danielle. She’s a complete natural, and steps into a challenging role with so much ease that it doesn’t look like acting. Cooper Hoffman, son of acting legend Philip Seymour Hoffman (who had a long history with PTA), plays her friend/boyfriend/who knows? and has an equally challenging role as a 15-year-old. ( Alana Heim was actually 28 at the time of filming, and Hoffman was 17.)

Their unusual relationship is credible because the characters work, the actors are wonderful, and the context of California in the 70s is presented as either an “anything goes” time or a time of infinite possibilities, depending on how you want to read the relationship. It’s comically and rightly won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists EDA Special Mention Award for “Most Egregious Age Difference Between the Leading Man and the Love Interest.” I would have flipped that and talked about the age difference between the Leading Lady and her love interest, as she is supposed to be the more mature one. But here is where the uncomfortable magic of the film is. Newcomer Haim is entirely believable as a mid-twentysomething who finds a connection with a 15-year-old. Newcomer Hoffman plays a believable young man whose intellect and experiences have given him an aura of maturity, but who is still often a teenage jerk underneath. The relationship borders on smarmy here and there, but fortunately doesn’t do anything more but put its toe in those waters. I can’t think of another relationship like it in a film, and tobe honest, I hope to not see that again anytime soon.

The film also features supporting performances from Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Christine Ebersole, Tom Waits, John C. Reilly, John Michael Higgins, and PTA’s life partner Maya Rudolph. Bradley is getting all the attention for an over-the-top portrayal of hairdresser/producer/old boyfriend of Barbra Streisand. It’s good for a lot of laughs, and Bradley gives it everything he has, but it takes the film from its barely believable portrayal of a near-impossible relationship and sends it into camp. That also applies to the smaller performances of the others mentioned here, with the exception of Rudolph, whose short time on screen is now my favorite of her work on film.

The film, however, lives or dies on its central relationship. It’s awkward, it’s nothing a sane person would recommend, and the film gets away with it. Part of that is because of the back-and-forth nature of the two leads, being mature one minute, then with pulling away (Haim’s character) or acting like an immature adolescent (Cooper’s character) the next. That makes it believable. The whole thing is a high-wire act that the film, though just barely, gets away with.

Perhaps what will keep this film being remembered is that it launched the acting careers of a young man and woman with great talent. It’s to be hoped that the two leads will go on to other wonderful work. But if this ends up being the only film they end up acting in, it’s worth one’s time just enjoying them here.

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Thoughts on 2022 Oscar Nominations

Thoughts on 2022 Oscar Nominations

This year’s crop is a mixed bag, with some pleasant and unexpected surprises, and some that seem tired and just plain off. But generally, the Academy tended to share the love, and it’s becoming more obvious that the new members (more international and inclusive) are having a slight impact.

Note: With far too many funerals to attend, and with having COVID, I haven’t been able to see as many films as I’ve liked. So my thoughts are often due to my reading about rather than experiencing.

Real-life couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Best Picture

Belfast

CODA

Don’t Look Up

Dune

King Richard

Licorice Pizza

Nightmare Alley

The Power of the Dog

West Side Story

Of the ones I’ve seen, I would be happy to see either The Power of the Dog or West Side Story win; I believe both are worthy, though very different from one another.

CODA is this year’s Sound of Metal: It’s an indie, it’s a surprise feel-good film available on streaming (Amazon Prime and Apple TV+), it features a strong male performance, and it’s about the deaf community. This is the academy’s tip of the hat to the indies, the deaf community, and films from streaming services. It doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of winning, but as is often the case, the nomination is the award.

Belfast is being tossed about as a possible winner, as it’s arty, full of Kenneth Branagh (writer and director, and a respected actor who doesn’t act in this personal film), features good performances, and is black-and-white, which today screams serious or arty or both.

Dune is expected to mop up in the technical awards, and didn’t get a director’s nod for Denis Villeneuve, which likely limits its chances of winning Best Picture.

King Richard wouldn’t have a made a top 5 list, but is here because it got OK reviews and features two great performances from Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis as Venus and Serena Williams’ parents.

Nightmare Alley and Licorice Pizza are respected films that are from great filmmakers who are doing excellent work this year. Neither is gaining tremendous popularity, but they are getting great reviews.

My money at this point is on The Power of the Dog, with the highest number of nominations (12). It’s a Western (albeit set far outside of the usual window of late 19th century), and it’s a Netflix production—both limiting factors. But it’s such a solid work, with a great screenplay, beautiful cinematography, and some of the best performances of the year.

The only alternative to TPOTD would be West Side Story, which might have been the favorite if it had been more financially successful. Perhaps without the fear of returning to theaters that COVID has wrought in audiences, especially among an older demographic, this might have been a sure-fire winner, especially with Steven Spielberg directing one of his best films. Certainly there is the aura of disappointment around this wonderful film; few seemed to predict the lack of interest and excitement.

Director Jane Campion

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza

Kenneth Branagh, Belfast

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car

Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Nothing’s a big surprise here. It’s a bit of a jolt that Denis Villeneuve didn’t get a nomination for the stunning and visionary Dune. But there is often one director left off the list that gets replaced by a director whose picture doesn’t have a chance of winning, but a person the Academy would like to honor. Drive My Car is nominated beyond Picture and Director for its screenplay and as Japan’s representative for Best International Feature Film. It has some of the best reviews of the year, and its appearance here among the nominations is only a surprise to those who haven’t noticed how many other awards this film has been racking up, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film.

Branagh is greatly respected, and might have been a lock if Belfast had been more successful critically and financially. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a big change of pace for him, but is something of a sprawling mess (not necessarily a criticism). Spielberg would be a worthy winner. But Campion has the edge at this point.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick…Boom!

Will Smith, King Richard

Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

This year was looking to be a coronation of Will Smith for an excellent and different performance until The Power of the Dog appeared, featuring a for-the-ages performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. Bardem doesn’t belong on the list (plus he’s already won in the supporting category for No Country for Old Men). Denzel probably won’t win (a good thing), but the nomination says “I love you” from the Academy anyway. I was happy to see Garfield on the list, as this was a great performance but one I feared would be overlooked. I can’t make any kind of prediction here, only that Bardem and Washington won’t win.

Chastain, Colman, Cruz, Kidman, Stewart

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter

Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos

Kristen Stewart, Spencer

This category seems the most confusing at the moment. Colman won recently, so she probably won’t win again quite so soon—plus her character (brilliantly portrayed by Colman) is difficult and distancing. Cruz has already won in the supporting category, and this might be just a nod to the respect for her work here. Foreign-language actresses have won before (Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard), but they are rare.

Stewart was considered the anointed one earlier last year, but has since faded. Her presence here is something of a comeback, and she is a dark horse in a year that doesn’t feature a towering performance that most can agree upon. Kidman is actually excellent in Being the Ricardos, and is doing what few others are capable of in terms of voice and characterization. But she is a past winner as well, and the mixed feelings about her performance may count her out.

I had always thought that Chastain would be the winner with her next great performance, and this is that performance. But the film hasn’t been all that successful, and most are seeing it, if at all, on their televisions.

Without a clear frontrunner, this category is both exciting and head-scratching.

Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actor

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast

Troy Kotsur, CODA

Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog

J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos

Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Starting with those unlikely to win, we have Kotsur (sign of respect only), Plemons (the same), and J.K. Simmons, a previous winner in this category. Some have found fault with his performance and its similarity to his Oscar-winning work in Whiplash. I think they may share some similarities in terms of crankiness, but these are two different characters, and Simmons leans in brilliantly here as William Frawley.

Usually having two actors up for Best Supporting signals a danger of one canceling out the other. I don’t think that will be the case here. At the moment, I think the Oscar will go to Smit-McPhee. There is a chance that respected character actor Hinds might get a career appreciation Oscar à la Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, George Clooney, etc. If so, it might be considered a vote for the film as well in place of other awards such as Picture and Director.

Best Support Actress

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter

Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

Judi Dench, Belfast

Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog

Aunjanuie Ellis, King Richard

Usually when a person in the supporting category “owns” their movie, they have a great chance of winning. Examples like Angelica Houston (Prizzi’s Honor) and Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) come to mind. DeBose has been the front runner for a long time, and she truly owns WSS. To be cynical, she also ticks certain demographic boxes that the Academy prides themselves on honoring. Also, it makes a great story—60 years after the first Anita (Rita Moreno) won, the second wins. Great symmetry and sentimentality there. Also, she deserves it.

Dench can’t make a false move, and probably deserves an Oscar for every other performance. But she already has one. Dunst might have been an early favorite, but she is in the Amanda Seyfriend in Mank category; pretty young thing grows up and spits out a great performance, and gets respect among her peers, but no award.

Ellis is in the “one great scene” category, which often gets a nod, but rarely wins the award. Buckley does a classic supporting turn in The Lost Daughter, genuinely supporting the lead performance by Colman by providing context and taking the heat her older character by demonstrating the selfishness and prickliness that formed the basis for Colman’s performance.

I was disappointed not to see Olga Merediz in this lineup for her work in In the Heights, but that film was completely ignored by the Academy. But if you see it, keep an eye out for her strong work here.

But…this is DeBose’s year.

Other thoughts

Why didn’t West Side Story get a Best Editing Award?

Drive My Car has a lock on Best International Feature

I hope Jane Campion wins Best Adapted Screenplay for The Power of the Dog.

Predictions will come later.

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Award-Winning Screenwriters and Their Flawed Current Screenplays: Being the Ricardos, Don’t Look Up, and West Side Story

WARNING: Major film nerd writing ahead.

The pre-Oscar nominations by the Writers Guild of America are out, and the usual past Oscar winners and nominees are nominated this year. We have Aaron Sorkin (Oscar for adapted screenplay for The Social Network; this nomination is for Being the Ricardos), Adam McKay (Oscar for adapted screenplay for The Big Short; this nomination is for Don’t Look Up); and lastly, the legendary Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Oscar nominations for adapted screenplays for Lincoln and Munich, both directed by Steven Spielberg; this nomination is for Spielberg’s West Side Story.)

I know—who am I to critique the work of these great writers? Just someone who found an irritating flaw in all these screenplays, and who still thinks that Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog script (not nominated by the WGA) may well be the best of the year. (I haven’t seen everything, of course.)

Being the Ricardos by Aaron Sorkin

Apparently, Sorkin likes to create constriction and conflict in his scripts, according to an interview with TCM’s Ben Markiewicz. He also loves structures that confine and compress, evident in the structures of both The Social Network and The Trial of the Chicago Seven. But he misuses his creative license here, and contorts history to the breaking point. In short, Sorkin takes events that happened over a period of years and squeezes them all into one week. There are three big conflicts: Lucy’s having registered as a Communist in her younger years, Lucy discovering she is pregnant and having to figure out what that means for her show, and Lucy discovering that Desi was unfaithful. These are all great dramatic stories in the lives of this famous couple, but they didn’t happen at the same time. Lucy’s trouble with her Communist registration was in 1953. Her pregnancy was a year earlier. And Desi was a serial philanderer for years, and Lucy knew it; in fact, she threatened divorce a few years into their marriage for this reason (among others). To have her “discover” this fact during this one week makes her look naïve and stupid, which she was anything but.

This crunching of information is something that documentaries do, and purported fact-based films needs to be careful about. It’s an exhilarating ride that Sorkin takes us on, and Nicole Kidman and J.K. Simmons in particular are excellent. But it seems either a bit lazy or just too “artistically creative” to impose such a structure on the real history of real people. We’re living in an age where some will think that Sharon Tate survived the Manson Gang, where we stopped Hitler, and that Queens Elizabeth and her cousin Mary actually met face-to-face. And don’t even get me started about the gross historical injustice done to Queen Anne in The Favourite (well-acted but howlingly and wrongly inaccurate on so many counts. See https://film-prof.com/2019/01/26/the-favourite-a-death-knell-for-truth-in-film/)

Lucy and Desi Arnaz and the Ricardos make for a fascinating story. It’s just didn’t occur in one Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.

Don’t Look Up by Adam McKay

In short, this script had the same weakness as his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Big Short. And that problem is attitude. McKay is a smart-aleck (the word I am using when I really mean a word that is two letters shorter). I found it arrogant and alienating in The Big Short, and Don’t Look Up is even more infected with the attitude. The film is filled with Oscar winners and nominees (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, etc.) trying their best, which can be fun at times. The tone, however, is all over the place, which is part direction and part screenplay.

McKay wants to be deadly serious about this allegorical climate change screed, but the only serious parts of the film are the acting from DiCaprio and Lawrence. Blanchett (who really is wonderful) and Tyler Perry are just too ridiculous, and therefore too much, and therefore too alienating. Streep is in a world of her own—a comic one, to be sure, and demonstrative of her incredible range. But it’s hard to take political and media satire seriously when the parts are so over the top. The strongest statement being made here is how smart the screenwriter thinks he is, not what’s wrong with this world.

What helped Ant-Man (written by McKay) be funny is just getting in the way in Don’t Look Up. McKay has a lot to say. He just needs to be less of a smart-aleck.

West Side Story by Toni Kushner

Less is being written about the screenplay of this marvelous film than about its director (Steven Spielberg) and its shining new stars (Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist), and that’s as it should be. But by going back to the play rather than the 1961 classic film, and by wanting to “clarify” some things, Kushner did a great deal of expansion. Too much, in fact. I’m not quibbling about the use of Spanish, the rearrangement of the songs (though I think one big goof was made there: https://film-prof.com/2021/12/18/west-side-story-2021/) or the backstory fleshed out for Tony, or the greater attention given to Chino, etc., etc. It’s that Kushner tends to overwrite (see Lincoln), making the playwright’s mistake of relying on words and not enough on cinematic language). His “clarifications” about Tony make his story clearer, and help us to see his ferocious side, but it robs him of the mystery needed to add heft to this already difficult character. Plus, the story can temporarily lose focus and power by expanding too much. To paraphrase Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Amadeus, “There are simply too many words.”

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American Underdog

Anna Paquin and Zachary Levi in American Underdog

American Underdog is a real-life Rudy combined with all the Rocky films put in an acceptable-to-most-folks Christian film structure. As a feel-good story of a real-life underdog, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner, it’s well acted and generally well produced. It’s better than the traditional television “movie of the week,” and it’s very engaging because it’s true.  As a “Christian film,” it is way above the average and marks a rather significant development in a couple of ways.

One, it is clearly more aimed at a general audience than most films about Christian believers have been in the last couple of decades. The story, of course, is as American as it gets, especially being about football, love, struggle, and success. That’s of general interest, and the story doesn’t have to add anything to its already dramatic story arc. So it’s more story-driven and less didactic, as didacticism has almost always been a weakness in Christian films.

Two, because it’s aimed at a wider audience, it can be accused of watering down the faith elements of the story, which are real and powerful in their own right. I found the faith elements to be thinner than I expected, including the removal of “Thank you, Jesus!” from his famous “First Things First” speech upon winning the Super Bowl. Is that a compromise? I can’t (and won’t) judge. The film ultimately doesn’t back away from the faith journey that Brenda and Kurt went on, but the story focuses more on their relationship and the failure-to-success journey of Kurt.

One problem handled well is the fact that the Warners’ story doesn’t fit neatly into the “I got saved and then followed Jesus closely right away.” The film doesn’t back off from showing, if discretely in terms of imagery and dialogue, that the two lived together for a season before getting married. It’s actually confusing from a Christian perspective what they were both thinking and why, but the film manages to be honest about it without letting that part of the story distract from the main plot lines.

The film is generally competently directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin (the brother team behind I Can Only Imagine and Woodlawn, among others) and that only occasionally gets preachy or engages in too many platitudes, another weakness of many Christian films which violate the “show-don’t-tell” guide of most good films. Some of the dialogue could easily have been cut in half, with the last “lesson” or “wise saying” part left to be inferred by the viewer. But again, the storytelling approach is an improvement over previous such films.

Another strength is the talent and charm of its leads. Though this is Warner’s story, his wife Brenda is way more than “the girlfriend” and “the wife” here, much to the film’s benefit. Having Oscar-winning actress Anna Paquin (The Piano) play Brenda gives the film its strong center, especially in terms of her acting. Paquin admitted her hesitance about playing a person of faith, since she herself doesn’t share Brenda’s Christian faith. But like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Paquin found a way of inhabiting a character with strong Christian beliefs when she was initially challenged by the very idea. (Most expressions of Christian faith by non-believing actors are way off the mark, usually falling into a dramatic extreme or ending up being embarrassing or condescending. Sorry—that’s been my experience.) Paquin’s talent and the ample room the picture gives Brenda hold the film together. Without her struggles in life and in her faith, the film would be simplistic and much less rich than it is.

This is not to take away from Zachary Levi’s portrayal of Warner. Levi is a multi-talented actor and singer (TV’s “Chuck,” Disney’s Tangled, and Broadway’s She Loves Me). His acting isn’t necessarily deep or wide, but he more than makes up for it with amiability and charm. He certainly looks the part, and he clearly bulked up for the role. Ironically, unlike the usual Hollywood approach, the real Kurt Warner is actually better looking than the guy playing him. But I’m not sure there is another actor who looks enough like Warner and is built like him who could bring the charm that Levi brings to this (and to be honest, every) role.

Many a film has been described as one that is “so needed” during this dark time. This is one of those films. There are few underdog stories as compelling and heart-breaking as Warner’s. (I’m not going to spoil the film, but if I’d written the script, my old screenplay professor would have insisted that I cut out one of the real things that happened in this story because it was “over the top” and too dramatically unbelievable.)

If you need a feel-good film right now, this is the one for you, especially since it’s true. As a “Christian film,” it is a fascinating step into a more mainstream approach—hence a kind of experiment. But I’m encouraged that except for a few platitudinous moments, it’s a dramatically solid if traditional film.

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West Side Story (2021)

In a word, it’s fantastic. Don’t wait for it to come to a streaming channel, and don’t wait to rent it. Just go to a big theater and watch it. You can thank me later.

I think I had the same thoughts and reactions as many did when I heard that Stephen Spielberg was going to do a new version of West Side Story. Why mess with a classic that was ground-breaking and innovative? It seemed unnecessary and … wrong. But this version is fresh, inventive, very cinematic, and (dare I say it?) even better than the original in many ways.

My wife and I just saw the original last week in preparation, and we were surprised by two things: how much we’d forgotten and how good it was. So yes, the original was firmly and lovingly placed in my mind when I saw the new one.

Where to begin? Director Robert Wise was a very good director (he edited Citizen Kane, and won his second director’s Oscar for The Sound of Music). The first film is now 60 years old, and still seems relevant and full of life. The music of course is first-rate and legendary, the cinematography still vibrant, and the two supporting stars Rita Moreno and George Chakiris (both Oscar winners for this film) still amazing to watch. Jerome Robbins’ choreography is still breath-taking, and the editing is top-notch.

Rita Moreno and George Chakiris with their newly-won Oscars.

Yet, in so many ways, the new version is stronger, more authentic, just as cinematically inventive if not more so, and has better performances all around. The original Maria and Tony (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) are not really as bad as history has recorded. Wood is a good actress, and her scene at the end is actually stronger than Rachel Zegler’s new version. Of course Wood is White with a Russian background, and is as Latin as Taylor Swift. And of course she is dubbed by trouper Marnie Nixon (also the main singing voice for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). But Wood’s acting is stronger than she’s often given credit for. Beymer on the other hand is rather bland, but as has been pointed out, he brings more joy to the role than Ansel Elgort does in the new one (to me a rather meaningless observation, if still true). And Beymer was dubbed as well.

Zegler (left) and Wood

All of this brings me to perhaps the strongest aspect of the new one: the two leads are really good, and are a significant improvement over the 1961 version. Zegler’s real-life background story is the stuff of Hollywood legend (Google it if interested), and her acting is astounding, especially for a newcomer to film. When I first heard a recording she’d done a while back on a non-WSS song, I was afraid she’d bring a Disney princess approach to the singing with all the lightness and sweetness and pop sounds that entails. But Zegler’s voice is lovely and strong, if not quite (yet) glorious. But she is a real high soprano, and sings effortlessly and meaningfully. She’s also the right age for the part.

Elgort actually has the most problematic role as Tony. The character of Tony is the driver of most of the story’s action, but it is often what happens to him and around him that drives the plot. Tony himself is often more of a straw man than a character, and Beymer rounded it out his character with smiles, rather generic acting, and height. Elgort is actually an inch taller, seems more dangerous and is a better actor. He also does his own singing, which is a surprise to those who only know him from Baby Driver or The Fault in Our Stars. He has a lovely smooth voice, and his falsetto is pure and tender, which adds a sweetness to his character without his having to do anything to prove that Tony has that side to him.

The 2021 leads (left) and the 1961 leads

Traditionally, lead voices in Hollywood musicals tended toward the professional and semi-operatic, a trend apparently started by Louis B. Mayer, who replaced many a strong but “Broadway-sounding” voice with something more classic and standard. Bernstein took this to the extreme with his 1985 re-recording of the music with opera stars José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa in the leads. This was apparently how he wanted it to sound “originally,” yet anyone who grew up with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert singing the original Broadway version would likely disagree that the later effort is an improvement. All told, the two leads in the new West Side Story provide a pop-oriented sound backed by classical training. IMHO, this and the original Broadway version provide the definitive performances of these songs.

Lawrence and Kert, the original Maria and Tony on Broadway

The new West Side Story is respectful of the songs, their earlier performances, and the choreography, but updates things successfully. Sometimes the songs are in a different place (“I Feel Pretty”), and many of the solos or near-solos now share lines with other characters. The singing is less operatic, and slightly more casually enunciated, which works well. The one change I didn’t love (spoiler alert) was giving “Somewhere” to a character other than the leads. (Yes, I know that the leads didn’t sing it originally.) Zegler and Elgort sound so good together that I was disappointed not to hear them sing this song. The new placement and singer work thematically and historically, but I missed the duet, and a heartbreakingly lovely song only gets a musically mediocre treatment. (I can receive hate mail at markwdupre@gmail.com)

The choreography is clearly founded on Robbins’ work, but it has been updated by Justin Peck with a greater toughness but with just as much energy. Both versions are spectacular, and the dancing throughout this new film is stunning.

The first WWS had two of the greatest supporting performances of any film musical. The new one comes close, with Ariana DeBose (Hamilton and TV’s Schmigadoon!) standing side by side with Rita Moreno’s dazzling work. DeBose’s acting is full-blooded, her singing is strong, and her dancing is expectational—just try to take your eyes off her even in a large group number. She could never erase what Moreno did, but she stands on her own. Of course, if you know anything about the new film, you know that Rita Moreno appears again, this time as Doc’s widow and the owner of the drugstore. It’s not a cameo, and the casting isn’t a stunt. But the change only adds a historic rush to a small section of the viewing audience (like me); she’s fine and does her job admirably.

DeBose and Alvarez as Anita and Bernardo

David Alvarez is a tougher and more dangerous Bernardo than Chakiris, and he is just as good a dancer. (He won a Tony as one of Broadway’s Billy Elliots). But he doesn’t pop from the screen like Chakiris did, which isn’t his fault—the camera can be tricky. The one who does pop from the screen is Mike Faist as Riff, who rips the role from the softer and more likable Russ Tamblyn and completely remakes it in his own image. If anyone is going to get an Oscar nomination in the supporting category here, I would vote for Faist over Alvarez. A star is born.

Mike Faist redefining Riff

The screenplay provides more motivational context for the action, and allows the film to take its time explaining different character and plot dynamics. Screenwriter (and playwright) Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, both with Spielberg directing) tends to overwrite and he does here as well, but most of the changes are working to make the film more realistic and grounded.

To say that Spielberg does it again sounds like a cliché. He’s given us so many great films in so many different genres. I thought he might be stretching his talents too much by doing a musical—his first musical—and a remake of a revered classic, no less. This new West Side Story is an incredible piece of filmmaking. I was moved again and again, and as a sometimes-harsh critic when it comes to voices, I went back and forth between being impressed and being blown away.

The female half of the couple we saw the film with made what works as a final statement. This film was supposed to be released a full year ago, but it makes its appearance now. The tension and messages of West Side Story were relevant in 1957 and 1961, and in some similar and some different ways, are as powerful and pertinent today as at any time in our country’s history. Come for the music and dancing, and stay for the powerful messages (or vice versa).

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Quick Takes on Some Streaming Films

Red Notice

Tick, Tick…BOOM!

Encounter

Certainly the best new film streaming at the moment is The Power of the Dog (https://film-prof.com/2021/12/07/the-power-of-the-dog/). But of course there are several others that are relatively new, and they’re of varying quality.

Note: I’m writing about them in the order I viewed them, not in ascending or descending order of quality.

Red Notice (Netflix)

Red Notice is a pretty bad film. But if you’re in the right mood and need to turn off your brain, it can be a diverting couple of hours. The cast sounds promising: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot. Johnson is Johnson, Reynolds is perhaps as snarky as he has ever been (with of course a soft center that keeps moving, and yes, I’m including Deadpool), and unfortunately, Gadot is only OK. There are some interesting turns that might be unexpected as well. But really, it’s just a high-gloss international spy/action/heist film with three glamorous and famous stars. When I saw it, that was enough.

Tick, Tick…BOOM! (Netflix)

Tick, Tick…BOOM! is easily the best of these three, and contains what I believe and hope will be an Oscar-nominated performance for lead actor Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man), who has already won some awards for this performance, and has garnered many more nominations for it. It’s also the first film by director (and actor/singer/songwriter/playwright/Pulitzer Prize winner) Lin-Manuel Miranda, still most known for Hamilton. If you’re waiting to see what limits this creative genius has, you won’t find it demonstrated here. It’s a great first film, and since it is about Jonathan Larson, the writer of Rent who died before that play became big, it features the issue of creativity by a director who knows something about the process. (Note: It’s not specifically about the creation of Rent, but about the play that shares the film’s title.) Miranda’s deep understanding of  the creative process and Garfield’s performance are the gems here. Garfield learned to sing and play the piano for the role, and he has the perfect singing voice for this kind of artist. If you’re familiar with the actor, you’ll be surprised by the energy, cluelessness, vulnerability, and sheer kookiness he brings to the role.

Is there anything Miranda can’t do? Well, he’s only an OK actor, he’s a limited singer, and his dancing is pretty bad. But what does that matter when he does everything else so well? And now he is an accomplished film director. Folks were waiting to see what major work Miranda would do after Hamilton, looking to the stage for his next major offering.  We have an answer to that, and it’s not on the stage. Try looking here at this film.

Encounter (Amazon Prime)

Actor Riz Ahmed, straight off his Oscar-nominated role in The Sound of Metal (2019), has the lead in Encounter. Ahmed plays a father working to save his sons from an alien invasion. (Please note: The aliens are like bugs, and if you don’t like bugs, you’ll hate the first 20 minutes of the film.) The film leans completely on his performance at the beginning, and then puts some of the weight of the film on the kids playing his sons as we go along—especially his older son, played by Lucien-River Chauhan

Ahmed is as good here as he was in The Sound of Metal. I hesitate to think what a weak film this would have been with a lesser actor. Ahmed holds the film together by himself, and gives multiple shades to his character. He is the main reason to see the film, but…there are a couple of great cinematic moments that are all the more powerful for being presented matter-of-factly. Let’s just say that the film doesn’t always go where you think it’s going, but you’ll be happy you went along for the ride.

Final note: There are also themes of family worth discussing with those viewing with you.

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The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog isn’t for everyone. It certainly isn’t for children, the squeamish, or those bothered by a constant state of dread and anticipation. For the rest, it’s a dark revisionist Western that doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. It’s got a practically airtight screenplay, and the acting and cinematography are excellent.

It takes place in 1925 Montana, which puts it well out of the 25-year window of most classic westerns (1865-1890). It’s a fascinating combination of old (the landscape, the cattle, the cowboys) and modern touches such as a car and a fairly modern bathroom. The clash between the old West and modernism is at the core of the film.

A simple retelling of the plot seems to give away the film, but it doesn’t. We have two brothers, one a very soft-spoken and kind man, and the other a combination of John Wayne playing his worst characters and Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life. The kind one marries a widow with a rather effeminate son, and the harsh brother can’t seem to stop from bothering him. The rising tension is palpable, but that’s all that should be said.

This is director Jane Campion’s return to form. Most would remember her from The Piano, which won Holly Hunter her Oscar. (Coincidentally, a piano figures into this film as well.) The directing is slow and deliberate, almost studied and careful, but intelligent. Her script is worthy of study, and happens to be divided into chapters, a gamble that doesn’t always pay off, but does here. There are a few moments that seem unsupported to me, even upon a second viewing. But there is a steady inevitability to the film that makes it captivating. Advice to casual viewers: Don’t be casual. You have to pay attention to what’s going on in every scene, as Campion gives you all the information you need, but never makes a particular big deal out of any one action.

Some have said this is Campion’s attempt to make a Terrence Malick film (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life), with its slow pace and its many, many nature shots. But the film is more like Campion’s version of There Will Be Blood. There is a strong central male performance of a character we really don’t like. There are beautiful shots of a landscape both inviting and menacing. But perhaps most striking is Jonny Greenwood’s score. He scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phantom Thread, and most tellingly, There Will Be Blood.

In some unfortunate ways, The Power of the Dog can be seen as a pale imitation of TWBB. It’s not, but there are real reasons to think so. The music is a less intense version of There Will Be Blood’s, with all the dissonance accompanying the visuals. It’s no longer a new approach, so it might seem simply derivative. Also, and perhaps most important to the comparison, is the lead character. Benedict Cumberbatch is deservedly already winning awards for his performance here for his charismatic and problematic Phil, and he’ll certainly be nominated for an Oscar. But if you’re comparing this excellent actor to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in TWBB, Cumberbatch can unfairly suffer from the comparison. For one, as good as he is (some of his work in Sherlock is a master class in acting), Daniel Day-Lewis is simply the greatest English-speaking actor of this generation (IMHO). Also, Plainview stands in for America and much more in TWBB, while Cumberbatch’s Phil is a particular individual. Yes, his character is working to upend stereotypes, and he stands for a revisionist look at Western masculinity (at least). But Phil simply isn’t as broad as Daniel Plainview, and he is rightly not played that way. Cumberbatch is excellent here, and shows us the incredible range of his talents.

Playing the romantic couple at the heart of the story are real-life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons. Dunst turns in her best and most mature performance here, and there has been a great deal of talk of her first Oscar nomination. She may get that, and she is very good here, but she almost certainly won’t win. Plemons is solid but very soft; his part is necessary, especially in contrast to his brother, but he nearly disappears at times. The blazing star of the film is Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays (or to be more accurate, underplays) the son of Dunst’s character and therefore step-nephew to Phil. Smit-McPhee has been acting for most of his life (The Road, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Apocalypse), but this is the very definition of a breakout role, even with as internal a performance as he gives. The tension between his character and Phil is extraordinary, with many shades of meaning and possible meaning. And to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

It’s been 12 years since Campion has directed a feature (Bright Star), and nearly 30 years since The Piano. The Power of the Dog is a tough, smart, and a work of art full of surprises, and we can only hope it’s not another 12 years before we see another film from this director.

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