Movie Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

The Burbank brothers jointly own a ranch in Montana of 1925. Both are bachelors.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the rough cowboy who manages the physical work on the ranch. He is rough, uncouth, obnoxious, brutal actually, and as a result of those qualities he happens to be successful running the cattle ranch and the bunch of cowboys who do the work.

George (Jesse Plemons) takes care of the business side of the ranch. He is quiet, gentle, calm, sensitive and somewhat overweight. On a cattle drive on horses, while Phil wears chaps, George wears a suit and tie, sometimes even a bow tie. They are wealthy enough to be part of Montana society, and when the governor is in town, George invites him to the ranch for dinner.

The brothers have deep respect for one another, almost to the point of co-dependency. Phil calls George “Fatso” in front of the men, and George grudgingly accepts it. When Phil is expected to make a showing at the table with the governor, George tells him awkwardly that he should wash up before joining. Phil stinks.

One day, on a cattle drive, George meets Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the widow inn-keeper with an awkward but smart young son who is studying to become a doctor. George and Rose get married, and the dynamics on the ranch change drastically.

The Power of the Dog is a highly acclaimed film with great reviews, and yet, I could do very little with it. From the very beginning, I found it very slow-moving. For the most part I didn’t know what was going on, I still don’t know what the power of the dog means. I had to look it up. There is a bible verse:

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

If you can figure this out, please comment here and let me know.

There are many mysteries about the plot and the story, and what is actually going on. One scene has to do with anthrax, which caused me to look up the origin of the substance:

Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. Anthrax is rare in the United States, but sporadic outbreaks do occur in wild and domestic grazing animals such as cattle or deer.

There is a lot of mystery around this film, and perhaps it is one of those that requires you to read the novel first. It is based on Thomas Savage’s  1967 novel of the same name. Here is the description in Amazon:

Set in the wide-open spaces of the American West, The Power of the Dog is a stunning story of domestic tyranny, brutal masculinity, and thrilling defiance from one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in American literature. The novel tells the story of two brothers — one magnetic but cruel, the other gentle and quiet — and of the mother and son whose arrival on the brothers’ ranch shatters an already tenuous peace. From the novel’s startling first paragraph to its very last word, Thomas Savage’s voice — and the intense passion of his characters — holds readers in thrall.

Maybe I need to read the book to understand it.

Everything else would be speculation.

Movie Review: The Menu (2022)

The Menu has a rating of 89% on the Tomatometer, that’s why we chose it for tonight’s movie night out. Here is the only description I found:

“A couple (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.”

After just reading about Michelin star restaurants recently in Shucked, I looked up all the three Michelin star restaurants in the country (there are only some 20 or so). Two of them are by chef Thomas Keller: The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in New York City. This movie is about such an exclusive restaurant and an iconic chef.

It’s a comedy, a satire, and a parody about expensive restaurants, the kind where after spending a few hundred dollars on a meal, you leave hungry. Except this restaurant has some non-culinary surprises, which makes the movie somewhat of a thriller. It least it tries to be a thriller.

It didn’t work for me – at all. First, I can’t relate to restaurants of that class, never having actually been to one. And I don’t drink wine, so you can skip the pairing.  I could not relate to any of the patrons. Their vapid dialog left me uninterested, the food descriptions seemed comical, and the entire movie was flat out boring to me. I found myself tapping my foot, waiting for it to be finally over.

Here is an example of a highly rated movie that I would definitely not recommend at all. Do yourself that favor, don’t bother, and you won’t miss anything.

To give away the plot: It all comes down to a cheeseburger in the end.

 

 

Movie Review: Ticket to Paradise (2022)

Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) is 25 years old and just graduated from law school. To reward herself, she and her best friend Wren (Billie Lourd) book tickets to Bali for a vacation “in paradise.” When they get there, Lily falls in love with a handsome young local man – a seaweed farmer. She decides to stay in Bali and marry into the family, and give up her career.

When her parents David (George Clooney) and Georgia (Julia Roberts) get the word, they freak out. While David and Georgia have been non-amicably divorced for 20 years, this news unites them and they make a pact to travel to Bali and sabotage Lily’s marriage. They believe she’s about to make the same mistake they did when they first got married, and they want to save her.

Ticket to Paradise is completely predictable. You know what’s going to happen the minute the movie starts, and you check off your predictions one at a time as the events unfold. But that did not seem to matter to me, and I truly enjoyed the story.

It’s funny, at times emotional, and who cannot like the scenery in Bali – paradise after all!

There is a message that comes through in the end, that has already affected some of my decisions since:

“Why save the good stuff for later?”

To find out what this means in the movie and for you as a message, you’re just going to have to go see Ticket to Paradise.

Movie Review – The Woman King (2022)

I like a movie best when it makes me think, and even more, when it makes me research afterwards.

In Smithsonian Magazine, I found an article about the Agojie, which starts out with this paragraph:

At its height in the 1840s, the West African kingdom of Dahomey boasted an army so fierce that its enemies spoke of its “prodigious bravery.” This 6,000-strong force, known as the Agojie, raided villages under cover of darkness, took captives and slashed off resisters’ heads to return to their king as trophies of war. Through these actions, the Agoije established Dahomey’s preeminence over neighboring kingdoms and became known by European visitors as “Amazons” due to their similarities to the warrior women of Greek myth.

Dahomey was a kingdom on the south coast of West Africa, approximately in the southwest area of today’s Nigeria. Throughout its history, starting in the 1600s, the kingdom was instrumental in its role of supplying slaves to European and later American slave traders.

The Woman King is inspired by true events in the 1825 timeframe. The female warriors of the Dahomey kingdon were called the Agojie. They were highly trained, fierce and skilled warriors. The army of women numbered in the thousands and essentially ruled the entire area for centuries.

The Woman King depicts the life of General Nanisca (Viola Davis). She leads her army with an iron will, as she trains the next generation of recruits. While the historical background is real, the individual stories are fictional. Yet, the plot is highly emotional and gripping, and it presented me with a view into the lives of Africans during the period of colonization by the Europeans and the exploitation of the black people. I usually thought about slaves being captured in Africa by traders and hauled across the sea. This movie shows that it was way more complicated than I ever realized, and how the African nations were complicit in the destruction of their own social fabric. You cannot sell your own people to the  world as slaves and maintain a thriving nation at home.

The movie tells a powerful story and it puts things for Dahomey into a much better light than the realities of history actually were. Read the article in the Smithsonian I quoted above for rich detail, about the country, its kings, and the Agojie.

The fighting scenes are extensive, brutal and graphic. There were many times when I had to close my eyes. While there is a lot of death and destruction, it is never shown as graphic blood and gore. It just makes your imagination create it.

Viola Davis has won many acting awards, including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Fences which I predicted when I wrote my review in January 2017. Let me make another prediction: She’ll win the Oscar for best leading actress for The Woman King.

 

Movie Review: Breaking (2022)

Our nation has been sending young men and women into endless wars in faraway continents for many decades. We supposedly revere our military, we thank them for their service when we see them in airports or in the lines at stores. They go overseas and many of them come home broken. Some never come home. Some come home with limbs missing. Some come home with terrible diseases due to exposure to poisons. Some come home with broken spirits. When they come home, we owe them.

But we don’t seem to pay our debts.

We have the Veterans Administration, or short the VA, whose mission it is to “take care” of our veterans. I am sure sometimes they do. But, as we all know from anecdotes of people we know, from the stories in the media in general, and from the crazy political machinations we watch on TV, all too often our veterans are not taken care of.

Sometimes they end up homeless, begging on street corners, rejected, abused and  addicted to drugs.

According to a study completed in 2021, 30,177 American active duty military and veterans after 9/11 have died by suicide. During that same 20-year period, 7,057 service members were killed in combat. Suicide kills four times as many service members as combat does.

Breaking is based on a true story of the soldier Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine whose disability check gets diverted due to no fault of his own. In a crazy scheme, to get public attention to his plight, he holds up a bank – not to rob money, but to get his $850 check that he says the VA owes him. That’s all he wants.

As he finds out quickly, holding up a bank to get on TV does not work, and he tries to somehow exit the situation with honor and alive.

After the movie, on the way home, I was not really able to talk. The images of the deep pain and despair haunted me. The pictures of the waiting room at the VA kept flashing through my mind, where seemingly hundreds of dejected men and women were languishing in endless lines, their dignity taken, their spirits broken, almost like cattle at the trough, just to collect what is due them, what we, as a country, owe them for their service: To care for their wounds – that’s all.

Breaking puts a spotlight on their blight.

Thank you for your service.

Movie Review: A Call to Spy (2019)

 

At the beginning of World War II, the British were desperate for information, and the traditional methods of espionage didn’t seem to work sufficiently.

In an age were women in war were not a common occurrence, Churchill requested that the spy agency, the SOE or Special Operations Executive, recruit women to work behind enemy lines and pass information back home via wireless Morse code transmitters.

Using those transmitters was a very dangerous activity. The units were bulky, the size of a suitcase, had to be set up in secret locations and could only be used for a short time. The problem was that they were easily traceable, so the users had to be on the move all the time. And if a “wireless operator” was intercepted by the enemy, the team that depended on him or her were left stranded without a connection home and had to operate “in the dark.”

Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) was the head of the spy department at the SOE. Among many other men and women, she recruited two very unusual candidates: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) was an American woman who had been turned down in her quest to become a diplomat because she had a wooden leg. She was very capable and ambitious, and took on the challenge. The other was a Muslim woman named Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a pacifist, but a soldier nonetheless, because she believed in defending her and her people’s rights. Noor was the wireless operator, and Virginia the relentless spy and operative.

Together they helped to undermine the Nazi regime in France. Albeit at a terrible cost, they left a powerful legacy in their wake.

A Call to Spy was inspired by true stories and the credits at the end listing the fates of the players left me inspired about the heroism of that generation and the tremendous sacrifices they made – so we all could live in this world we built for ourselves after the war.

Movie Review: Elvis (2022)

I was never an Elvis fan. I certainly didn’t know much of his life story other than the stereotypes we all know.

Watching this movie, I learned so much about the person behind the legend and the idol that I didn’t know before, so I really appreciated it. I had prejudices about Elvis, the star, and some of those got squashed as I watched how he grew up, obviously very talented, how he became an icon and a star, and how life caught up with him very quickly.

Of course, it’s a film about music, and the sound track is – as you’d expect – incredible.

Tom Hanks does an incredible job playing Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker. I also never knew that Parker basically abused and exploited Elvis throughout his career.

My recommendation is simple: Watch the movie! You’ll like it.

Movie Review: Operation Mincemeat (2021)

In World War II, the British need to deceive the Germans that they are about to attack Greece, turning German attention away from Sicily, their actual target.

To do that, they float a corpse of a British officer in the ocean to be found by the Germans. The officer holds a briefcase of classified material, fabricated to support the story. The problem is, how to make it convincing and foolproof. The Germans are smart and the whole plot turns into a game of “do they know that we know that they know that we know?” Thousands of lives of the soldiers attacking Sicily on the fateful day depend on the Germans falling for the ruse. If they don’t, it will be a bloodbath on the beaches of Sicily.

Operation Mincemeat shows the shadow warriors behind the scenes, who do their work from desks. It’s a spy thriller, based on a true story.

Movie Review: Where the Crawdads Sing (2022)

I read the book when it first came out in 2019 and I gave it four stars in my review.

Having read the book gave me a much better understanding of the movie, and I believe I benefitted from that. I don’t know how much a viewer would understand only from the content of the movie alone.

Kya is a little girl when the story starts in 1953. The family lives in a ramshackle house in the coastal swamps of North Carolina. The father is a drunk and he regularly beats his children and his wife for minor reasons. One morning, Kya’s mother walks out and never comes back. In the coming months, all her older siblings disappear, until only she is left living with her father. Then one day, he too does not return. Kya is left fending for herself. She avoids interaction with people, dodges Social Services and maintains herself by selling fresh mussels early in the morning to a friendly local storekeeper. She grows up illiterate, but has an intense love of nature and great artistic ability. She catalogues the ecosystem of the swamp world around her.

Two local boys attract her attention. Tate is a true friend, teaches her to read and write and eventually love. When Tate goes off to college, Chase, another boy from town, courts her. His motives are not as pure as Tate’s and soon Kya’s trust is broken.

Where the Crawdads sing is a wonderful movie that stays quite true to the book, but of course leaves out a lot of detail. As I said above, I think viewers who read the book first will get more out of the experience. The characters and the feeling of the location the movie portrays matched very closely those in my head and rounded out my view of the story.

Movie Review: Hustle (2022)

Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) is a pro basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. The life on the road for a scout is brutal. His daughter is a teenager, and he has missed all of her birthdays. While his family is loving and understanding, the stress on him is enormous. The owner of the team and his mentor suddenly dies, and when his son takes over the management, Stanley soon finds himself fired.

He goes on a scouting mission in Madrid, Spain and accidentally discovers Bo Cruz, an amateur player who plays hustle basketball on the streets for money. When he sees a possible superstar, the convinces Bo to let him coach and train him for the NBA.

There is a bit of Rocky in Hustle, and the training scenes, even though they are somewhat drawn out, are very reminiscent of Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the steps that have become known as the Rocky Steps. Bo also trains in the early morning hours in Philadelphia. Hustle is a predictable underdog movie. If you like pro basketball, you’ll enjoy some of the legends who appear and play themselves.

Movie Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is an unemployed oil worker in Texas. After his mother passed away, he is about to lose the family ranch due to the foreclosure by the Texas Midland Bank. He is divorced and his two sons live with his ex-wife.

His brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) is released from prison. To get even with the bank, the two brothers start a string of bank robberies, always targeting Texas Midland Bank branches.

Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is just before retirement, when he is intrigued by this case and decides to solve it. He gets into the heads of the robbers, tries to find their motive and expect their next move.

Hell or High Water is a story about despair and hopelessness in rural Texas. It’s an adventure story where the heroes don’t have superpowers and gun shots kill. Jeff Bridges does a great job playing a crotchety old ranger with a lot of experience who uses his brain to outfox the thugs.

Movie Review: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a wacky movie that works exceedingly well. Remember when John Malkovich starred as himself in Being John Malkovich? 

Well, here is Nicholas Cage playing himself: Nick Cage. He is an actor, and when his accountant tells him that his finances are disastrous, he is at a loss as to what to do. Then there is this obscure gig to appear at a billionaire’s birthday party on the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. Apparently, the playboy is a huge fan of Nick. After turning it down outright, he later comes to his senses and ends up going.

When he finally meets his fan, Javi Gutierrez, the two quickly become friends. That is, until the CIA approaches him, tells him that Javi is a drug lord and crime boss, and forces him to become an informant.

The action quickly gets out of control, and Nick and Javi are drawn in to a cat and mouse game that could end up deadly for both them and their families.

The film supposedly plays on the island of Mallorca, but it was mostly filmed in Croatia over a period of 15 days in October 2020. Croatia Weekly stated that several scenes were shot in and around “Dubrovnik at Villa Sheherezade, as well as in Konavle, Cavtat, Popovica, Trsteno, and Čilipi Airport.”

Reading this meant more to me than it would have otherwise, since I just came back from a two-week vacation in Croatia, with a stop in – yes – Dubrovnik. While there we saw extensive evidence that many episodes of Game of Thrones were filmed there. We actually saw a number of the locations. This has spawned an entire industry of paraphernalia and tourist attractions related to Game of Thrones. Yet nobody talked about Nick Cage that I remember.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a delightful action comedy that you will enjoy, unless you absolutely hate Nicholas Cage – which is unlikely. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other actor pulling this off – well, maybe John Malkovich could.

Movie Review: The Rose Maker (2021)

Eve Vernet is one of France’s pre-eminent horticulturalist. She creates and cultivates roses. It’s been the family business for generations.

Now, however, the business is on the verge on bankruptcy. While she knows how to create roses, she does not have much business sense. The only employee she has left is her secretary and helper Véra, who shows more loyalty to Eve and the business than is probably warranted. To help out, Véra contracts with a rehabilitation agency and signs up three ex-convicts as employees to get the business back on its feet. However, none of them have any gardening experience, let alone know about roses.

Through creativity, hard work, and a little bending of the rules, they come up with a plan to rescue the farm.

The Rose Maker is a French comedy with subtitles. Due to that, I am sure I missed a lot of subtleties in the culture and the language that probably diminished my experience of the film. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about roses, and I have looked at my own roses in front of my house with new appreciation. The Rose Maker is a fun movie, and so non-Hollywood it’s refreshing.

Movie Review: CODA (2021)

Alright, before I get into the movie itself, it’s important to note that CODA is a “highly decorated movie” with three Oscars.

First, it won Best Picture of the Year, and by doing so it became the first movie produced by a streaming service to win Best Picture. This is an Apple Original Film, which by itself boggles my mind. I still remember when Apple became a company in 1976. Who would have thought that the company would eventually become the most valuable company on the planet – and, as a computer company, it would produce Oscar-winning movies?

Second, it won Best Adapted Screenplay by Sian Heder.

And finally, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Troy Kotsur, who is also the first ever deaf actor to win an Oscar.

And boy did he win that Oscar, alone for the “my balls are on fire” scene at the doctor’s office.

I watched this movie on the airplane from London to New York, starting about two hours into the flight. The windows were all darkened, I sat in a window seat in the exit row, headphones on, and I was outright crying during the ending scene, when Ruby, the lead, sang Clouds From Both Sides Now in the ending scene. The man next to me was into his own movie and so I had my privacy. After wiping my eyes dry when it was over, I pulled up the window shades and looked down on the clouds of Greenland – from above.

I didn’t know what CODA was all about when I picked the movie, I just knew it had won awards. I also didn’t know what CODA even meant, until I actually did the research to write this review now. It means “Child of Deaf Adults.”

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family. Both her parents and her brother are completely deaf. They operate a fishing boat. Ruby goes out with them early in the morning, they bring in their catch, they take it to the market, where Ruby leads a key role as the family’s communicator and negotiator, all before she gets ready to go to high school.

While life as a fishing family is hard, not only brutally hard and dangerous work on a boat, but also hard to make ends meet in a fickle market, the Rossi family is happy. The parents are madly in love and can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. They have wild sex in their bedroom with no thought to the fact that Ruby can hear the ruckus all over the house.

But what could Ruby possibly be interested in for her own life that is about as far removed from the appreciation of her family as it can get? Ruby has a passion and great talent for singing. Her parents need her on the boat and for the family business, and Ruby wants to pursue a life, passion and career that they can’t even comprehend, let alone appreciate?

So here you have it all, a powerful story, an emotional subject, a clash of cultures, and world-class acting – yes, a deaf man acting as a deaf man. It does not get any better than that.

I have seen clouds from both sides now….

Movie Review: Top Gun – Maverick (2022)

Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is one of the Navy’s most decorated and skilled aviators after thirty years of flying fighter planes. Most of his companions from his years at the Top Gun school outrank him by two or three stars. He has purposely dodged being promoted to admiral so he could remain in flying status.

As one of the most skilled test pilots, he is called in to lead a mission in the Middle East that is nearly impossible. He trains a group of pilots half his age, but he uses his maverick instincts, much to the dismay and disapproval of his superiors.

Top Gun is a well-crafted sequel to the original 1986 movie. It’s full of tense flying scenes and I am sure any aspiring or actual pilot will very much enjoy it. I have to admit that the movie far exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed the story, the cinematography, the sound track and the acting. Even the plot made sense and tied very well back to the 1986 edition, with some of the key characters woven into it now.

Of course, I had to disregard a number of impossibilities, one of which I’ll describe here without it being a spoiler. At the beginning of the movie, Maverick makes a record-breaking flight on a new concept aircraft similar to the famed SR-71, only with today’s technology. To advance in the contract, the plane has to meet a milestone of flying Mach 10 – which is ten times the speed of sound. For comparison, the SR-71 holds the aircraft speed record of Mach 3.3 at an altitude of 85,000 feet. At that speed, the aircraft heats up the 450 degrees F near the back of the aircraft. When fired upon, it can simply outrun the missiles shot at it. Well, Maverick reaches Mach 10.3 when the aircraft breaks up. In the next scene, he is walking into a restaurant in the desert, a little battered up, helmet in hand, asking for a glass of water.

Needless to say, the human body would be torn apart by the g-forces and then burned to a crisp flying near space at Mach 10 without the protection of an aircraft around it. There is no way Maverick could have survived the fall from that altitude and speed to see another day. But it’s Top Gun, right, and we like our heroes.

Once I discounted all the crazy impossible stuff, what’s left was a very enjoyable movie that kept me at the edge of my seat.

You gotta go!