The Power of the Dog by Jane Campion [7/10]

The Power of the Dog review

Celebrated filmmaker Jane Campion tackles the sunset days of the American cowboy era in “The Power of the Dog,” her screenplay based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Set in Montana in 1925, with the motor car just arriving on the scene, the movie centers on two brothers running a cattle farm. Benedict Cumberbatch is a mesmerizing, fearsome ball of fury as the macho one of the pair, while Jesse Plemons is also perfectly cast as the besuited gentler brother. When the quiet one falls for a widow (played pitch perfectly by Kirsten Dunst) running a restaurant, the furious one begins a war of intimidation, one rendered even more suspenseful and unpredictable by the entry of the widow’s gangly, effete son (Kodi Smit-McPhee almost steals Cumberbatch’s thunder in this role). The four of them swirl around each other with a growing sense of approaching calamity, underscored by unsettling music from Jonny Greenwood. As always with Campion’s films, the cinematography is exquisite, with metaphor and meaning in every frame. Campion is an “arty” filmmaker in the best and worst sense of the word: while the tension builds almost unbearably, the spare, unsentimental direction makes identification with the characters hard to attain. Nonetheless, The Power of the Dog is a powerful, intriguing movie, a must-see.

The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson [8/10]

The French Dispatch review

Wes Anderson’s movies, whimsical and quirky, infuriate some and delight others. I am one of the latter, and “The French Dispatch” is a quintessential example of his vision and craftsmanship, and, for a certain audience, a hoot to boot. The movie is a doting homage to The New Yorker magazine, presented as a Kansan newspaper’s offshoot magazine set in a fictional French (extremely French) town, the storyline being three magazine articles (each so emblematic of a New Yorker article), each presented (in various forms) by one of the magazine’s eccentric stable of writers. A prison-bound homicidal abstract painter, a moody 1968 demonstrator, a police chef dealing with a kidnapping … you get the picture. Nothing makes any sense plotwise, except as the cogs producing a magazine issue under the relentlessly editing gaze of its founder (played perfectly by Bill Murray). A cast of luminaries (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Adrian Brody, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, plus many more) hams up the stories with po-faced solemnity. Unlike his other films, there is nothing overtly funny, except every moment is deliciously amusing. Anderson clearly obsesses over every frame, every object, every nostalgic aspect. I loved The French Dispatch. You might also.

Don’t Look Up by Adam McKay & David Sirota [7/10]

Don't Look Up review

A courageous, take-no-prisoners, madcap satire on climate change, “Don’t Look Up” kicks off brilliantly from the outset, resetting the frame to something even more certain than our current climate emergency. When astronomer Randall Mindy (played convincingly by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his student, Kate Dibiasky (another strong performance from Jennifer Lawrence) observe a planet-destroying comet six months out from taking out Earth, they sound the alarm. Thrust into a world of vacuous cable news hosts (played with glee by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett), a Trumpesque president (Meryl Street nails this role), and a tech billionaire (Mark Rylance), the pair encounters ever means of deflection and inaction that our climate scientist heroes have faced for over two decades. Adam McKay’s direction is brisk and sure-handed, the cinematography works well, and the ending has some nice, quasi-sentimental touches that try to lift the film out of crazy mode. Don’t Look Up has much to offer and is salutary, easy viewing for anyone with a brain and a heart in 2021. I just wish the jokes amused me more and the antics were more intelligently focused. Overall: worth watching but a missed opportunity.

The Chestnut Man [8/10]

The Chestnut Man review

The Chestnut Man” is a Danish serial killer mystery with oodles of atmosphere and a cracking, baffling plotline. In other words, Netflix has another winner on its hands. After a gory prologue, the case opens with an experienced female detective taking on a last case, a gruesome murder of a woman. Chestnuts are everywhere. Add the imposition of an unwanted male detective who seems incompetent, and a seemingly unconnected subplot of a Danish minister returning to work after her daughter was abducted, and we know we’re in for a ride. The two lead actors, Danica Curcic and Mikkel Boe Folsgaard fully inhabit their roles, and there is not a single misstep with the rest of the cast. The serpentine plot unfolds with tremendous narrative skill, and each of the six episodes closes at a peak of tension. For mystery novel lovers, but also for general viewers, The Chestnut Man hits all the right buttons with flair and drama.

Des [7/10]

Des review

True crime dramatisations are generally tedious, but “Des,” directed and part written by Lewis Arnold, is a welcome exception. The three-part series jumps straight in, plunging a London homicide detective (played flawlessly by Daniel Mays) into a serial killing crime scene. A seemingly mild-mannered man has complained about blocked drains, which quickly are found to be jammed with body parts. The man, Dennis Nilsen, AKA Des, quickly confesses, although he never finally reveals if he murdered (and bizarrely treated and regaled post-death) just a dozen men or more. Given that we know the killer within minutes, what is remarkable about Des is the ratcheting tension, aided by a mood of grim horror, but mainly driven by the detectives obsession with finding all the victims’ bodies. And what allows Des to shine is the superlative, controlled, freaky-deaky performance of David Tennant as the serial killer. This is not refreshing viewing but Tennant’s performance lingers after the final frame.

Clickbait [8/10]

Clickbait review

One of the two creators of “Clickbait” is Christian White, and therein lies a clue, for White is a devilishly clever crime fiction author. Nothing is as it seems in Clickbait, an eight-part series which has the first seven episodes told (mostly) from the viewpoint of seven among the swirling cast of characters, with the final instalment titled “The Answer” and delivering an almighty twist. The basic storyline is … well, it is almost clickbait: an ideal family man is kidnapped and snapped for online social media with a sign saying he’s an abuser and will be killed after five million hits. Nothing in the trailer or the story summary suggests a compelling thriller but from the opening scene, Clickbait is tense, intelligent, and involving. The acting is adequate, with four actors making the series pop: Zoe Kazan is utterly believable as the family man’s sister; Phoenix Rael compels as the dogged policeman; and the two sons are brilliantly portrayed by Camaron Engels and (especially) Jaylin Fletcher. All up, Clickbait provided eight nights of gripping entertainment, and is recommended.

2021 Top 10 Movies/Series

2021 Top 10 Movies

2021 was a tale of two halves. While I had many enjoyable experiences with movies or TV series in the second half of the year, eight of the Top 10 were viewed in the first half. The Top 10 comprised two thrillers, one police procedural, one science fiction movie, two documentaries (very dissimilar), and four general dramas. One documentary (The Dissident) received a perfect score of 10/10. . (Links below are to my reviews.)

The Dissident—flawless, thrilling storytelling by Bryan Fogel, and this in aid of the true story of the Russian blogger chopped up in a Turkish embassy!

Succession Season 3—much anticipated and justifiably so, the third outing for the Murdoch-like billionaire patriarch and his four reprehensible but oh-so-human children is spellbinding. I know some folks can’t get past the awfulness of every damned character but that’s what gives this show its Macbeth-like stature.

The Queen’s Gambit—cool and cerebral, a fine, visually arresting 7-parter about a female American chess champion.

Your Honor—Bryan Cranston in top form, playing a judge covering up for his son, in a series fraught with tension and imbued with moral dilemmas.

Mrs. America—a triumphant acting role by Cate Blanchett, but this dense 9-episode series about seventies’ feminism never misses a beat.

Bosch Season 7—firmly rooted in the police procedural genre, this longstanding series never falters in terms of quality and watchability. If it has now settled into the realm of the comfort watch, the grave, deep performance of Titus Welliver as Detective Harry Bosch ensures it shines.

The Midnight Sky—George Clooney’s masterpiece, an elegiac dystopian sci-fi that entrances.

Staged Season 2—Even more post-ironic and maniacal than the first season, this made-during-lockdown season of eight episodes, about the making of lockdown series, is hilarious.

City on a Hill Season 2—brilliant eight-parter, savage and heartfelt equally, about crime and race in Boston in the nineties

Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World—artfully and respectfully composed, an inspiring look at one year in the life of an inspiring person.

Mr Inbetween Season 3 [8/10]

Mr Inbetween Season 3 review

What a shame, selfishly speaking, that Season 3 of “Mr Inbetween” is apparently the final hurrah. Season 1 was superb and Season 2 was even better. In Season 3, once more we follow the mostly humdrum everyday life of Ray Shoesmith, with his daughter and his friends, a life punctuated by brutal violence, for Ray is an assassin and a fixer. The show’s core rationale is the exploration of Ray’s alien but quotidian character amidst a netherworld of crims. As writer, Scott Ryan is a master at gently interweaving Ray’s paradoxical strands, and in his portrayal of Ray, Ryan is flawless. The other actors are as perfect, often in very Ocker roles. Throughout, any dialogue is pitch perfect. The nine half-hour episodes making up Season 3 whip past as unmitigated delight, and when the final credits roll, I realized that even though I long for Season 4, perhaps Scott Ryan is right when he says, in a Sydney Morning Herald interview, “It feels like it’s time to do something else now, you know?”

Dune by Denis Villeneuve [8/10]

Dune review

Dune,” a fresh cinematic telling of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction masterpiece published over half a century ago, is surely one of the most visually spectacular movies ever. Shot with sumptuous grace by Greig Fraser, it offers not one blancmange frame. Director and co-scriptwriter Denis Villeneuve, whom I have admired since Arrival, offers us the complex Dune world and all the incredible dramas of the book, in an intelligently laid out storyline that never baffles. Essentially, Dune is the tale of a young heir of an aristocrat, who accompanies his family to a bleak desert world containing one of the all-powerful Empire’s most vital minerals. Battles ensue and the heir and his mother end up throwing their lot in with the indigenous people who have learnt to live in the harsh terrain. A particular hazard is huge sand worms whose cinematic depictions need to be seen to be believed. The acting is consistently strong, highlights being young Timothée Chalamet in the lead role and Javier Bardem as a local. The action sequences are brilliant and Hans Zimmer’s ear-splitting, somber music enhances the mood. Overall, Dune is essential viewing, especially when one considers that it is labelled as Part 1 and only progresses halfway through Herbert’s first book. Let’s hope Parts 2 and onwards roll out quick smart.

Succession Season 3 [9/10]

Succession Season 3 review

You might think Succession, a streaming series depicting the battles amongst four progeny of a media magnate, to be for specialized tastes. Not so. Certainly my own delight in the show derives partly from journeying with characters spookily like business acquaintances I vividly recall, and from catching a glimpse of shareholder machinations familiar to me. I found Season 1 to be brilliant and I was transfixed by Season 2. But the appeal of Succession is much more than its milieu, rather it springs from a sophisticated, deep plotline enacted by superb actors. You will have heard of Brian Cox playing the patriarch and Sarah Snook as the daughter, but Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin’s performances as two of the sons are pitch perfect. Throw in Matthew Macfadyen, so subtle and real as a son-in-law, and, increasingly in Season 3, Nicholas Braun as the hapless cousin, and the viewing experience comprises one riveting scene after another. Season 3 opens with Kendall Roy, having betrayed his father at the end of Season 2, on the attack, and Logan Roy flailing, but (no spoilers here) the storyline twists and complexifies with each episode. The last of the nine episodes may well be the best Succession hour yet. One of a kind, must be watched.