Archive for The Power of the Dog

News from Catland

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2021 by dcairns

The Benedict Cumberbatch cat movie is better than the Benedict Cumberbatch dog movie, in our view. Not just because the dog movie has no dogs, just shadow that looks a but like one, whereas the cat movie has actual cats, lots of them, some of which speak to us via subtitles, but because the cat movie is surprising, original, wonderfully moving, and because it is inside the realm of stuff B.C. can do compellingly well. Not that it doesn’t stretch him, but it stretches him into places he can actually reach.

You have to stick at it: Will Sharpe’s film, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, co-written with Simon Stephenson, documents the life of Edwardian cat painter Louis Wain, and his undiagnosable strangeness, and it uses several techniques that get it off to an uncertain start. There’s an omniscient narrator, Olivia Coleman, who sometimes makes it feel too much like a documentary, or worse, a tape-slide presentation — Arthur Sharpe’s score sometimes has a docu-quality too, the way it runs on from one scene through another — however, it is absolutely gorgeous, and weird, the best film score I’ve heard lately. The other problems seemed to me to lie in an over-fussy condensation of images, as if the film had been mired in post-production with a lot of competing voices arguing over the first act (there are twelve producers listed), and a tendency for the wide-angle lens to be observing from too far away or from the wrong side altogether. When it calmed down and simply observed the performances (Cumberbatch is great, Claire Foy is great) things immediately got better.

As an artist biopic, the natural comparison for it would be the works of Ken Russell — and the VO makes it early Russell. But it’s photographed inside the artist’s mind, so it also has aspects of mid-period Russell. The two best periods, arguably. And it’s its own thing, at the end of the day: not hugely like anything else out there.

Cumberbatch has a false nose, a distant stare, awkward body language, an accretion of old age makeup (very effective) — but it seems to me a truly FELT performance, not a bunch of tricks. Since Louis is always a step or two away from consensus reality, the early parts of the film also suffer a little from our difficulty in getting close to him, especially since his sisters, the other main characters at this point, are rather noisy and unsympathetic. Foy’s entrance into the film forms a bridge to Louis, allowing us greater access to his emotions. It clearly allows HIM greater access to his emotions, too.

Totally recommend this one, but you have to give it more than half an hour, brushing aside impatience and irritation and waiting for the catmagic to take hold. I picked up the director’s previous film, BLACK POND, a while back, now I must watch it.

Baby It’s Ewe

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 11, 2021 by dcairns

LAMB is good, I think. Does it amount to that much? We weren’t sure, but it keeps you riveted. Best seen knowing as little as possible. The blurb described it as a genre-defying blend of folk tale and horror, which had me thinking, there is LITERALLY a relatively newly-defined genre called “folk horror.” This one looks for a while like it has the same plot as THE REVENGE OF BILLY THE KID, a bad film made in Cornwall in 1991, but it’s quite different, really. Slow-moving and atmospheric. Proof that such films CAN work on the small screen, very well, which makes me feel better at being bored by THE POWER OF THE DOG. And EYES WIDE SHUT.

There’s some graphic lambing early on, with Noomi Rapace getting down and dirty in the placental goop, which worried me, because it meant anything not so real in the film would have to be portrayed in just as graphic and photorealist a way, a challenge for the SFX team. But director Valdimar Jóhannsson is a former effects man himself, and has thought it out. Although the aesthetic has to be based around seeing the effects as rarely as possible, to conserve the budget, and I was conscious of that. The whole mise en scene was being bent out of shape to accommodate the VFX budget. But that meant every time I saw an effect, its charm was quite strong. I realised how numbing big-budget effects-heavy films become.

There’s very little dialogue, lots of atmosphere and amazing scenery. The story is told visually and it unfolds in such a way that everything that happens is mysterious at first, then becomes clear, so there are always multiple intrigues on the go. Question marks are shaped like hooks because questions dig into you and pull you along.

I got a sense that it was going to choose its moment and then just stop, instead of delivering a standard satisfying finish, with everything neatly rolled up in a ball, and it did. But that’s OK. Asides from special effects being used sparingly, another thing you don’t often see these days is the abrupt, unexpected ending, that causes you to realise it’s over before you were ready for that.

Enough Rope

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2021 by dcairns

Um. This is the first time I can remember feeling the pressure that I suspect broadsheet reviewers suffer from. The way they seem to go in lock-step so much of the time, even remarking on the same points in the films under discussion. Occasionally you’ll get a “look at me” review where someone will defend a movie that’s been trashed by everyone else. Rarer to get a lone negative review. One feels like one is missing out on something perceived readily by others.

So it feels vaguely sacrilegious of me to be writing that I found Jane Campion’s film THE POWER OF THE DOG a little… dull. Incredibly lovely-looking. Good performances. But neither Fiona or I felt the dread that others have talked about. We felt a notable lack of tension, actually. It may be because Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t a natural tough guy. I’m not sure tough is something you can act. Though certainly a lot of movie tough guys were probably not so tough in reality, they looked it on the screen, and Benedict doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with his acting. He’s clearly committed to the physicality. His character is nasty — Fiona wanted someone to hit him, immediately. It wasn’t clear why nobody did, because he didn’t seem like the kind of fellow they’d be scared of.

Kubrick reckoned that intelligence was the only quality that couldn’t be acted, which sounds good, but doesn’t seem true to me. If the actors learn the lines and how to pronounce the big words, they can make it seem like they’re thinking them up — that’s what actors do. OK, maybe Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist is pushing it, but usually the illusion is achievable. As John Huston cruelly observed, in FREUD, Montgomery Clift makes us believe he’s thinking.

So I think a certain kind of danger, toughness, hardness, is the unactable quality, it’s a matter of physiognomy and essence. If R. Lee Ermey can’t make Matthew Modine look like a killer, what chance does Jane Campion have with the lovely Mr. Cumberbatch? In fact, BC may have the opposite problem: he can’t hide his intelligence. So he can’t say “It’s time she faces up to a few — whatchacallum? — facts!” and make us believe he’s that inarticulate. The solution would be for him to get so furious he starts to lose his language, but does he have that kind of anger in him?

Without the fear seeming real, the movie becomes a succession of attractive scenes of people who don’t communicate. Which is of only mild interest, until things get strange with Kodi-Smit McPhee.

THE POWER OF THE DOG: KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

We did get really excited about the bit with the dog though. There’s a shape in the hills — a barking dog — and only two of the characters can see it. It’s a shadow. The hills themselves vaguely resemble crouching animals, but when they talk about the dog, it took me ages to see it. And then I helped Fiona see it. It’s good and subtle. Imagine what a scene we’d have made in a cinema. (We watched on Netflix.)

Can you see the dog?

I guess I’m doing something human and stupid — assuming that because I wasn’t bowled over by the film, others who say they were are being insincere. I guess also if I felt my opinion had any chance of affecting Campion’s employment prospects — it’s been too long since her last film, and the climate is not favourable to anyone making dramas without people getting punched through buildings — I would bite my tongue. And if I were interviewing Campion and she started talking about getting Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons to waltz together so they would learn each others smell and feel like brothers, I might not suggest getting them to wrestle instead. But I would think it.