Friday, December 31, 2021

The Power of the Dog

Gloves Off
"Well, Well...I Wonder What Little Lady Made This?"
Jane Campion knows her Westerns. You can tell that with an opening shot of The Power of the Dog, tracking along the windows inside a house, the interior black, but the outside bright with sunlight, focusing on the outsider walking along parallel to the side of the house, but not a part of it, echoing John Ford and echoing The Searchers, but in her own way.
Like Ford, she will play with light and shadow in her western, even depending on it for a visual motif that will form a sub-text in the film, and she will pay particular attention to landscapes that separate people and must be conquered if anything resembling civilization is to take root in that wilderness. Ford's westerns were all about that and the land he photographed was itself a character in that/those stories, not merely a back-drop, not location-for-location's sake. 
But, that's what she takes from Ford and goes her own, entirely different way, leaving him and the dream of civilization in the dust. For Campion, the world-building of westerns is as much a myth as the westerns themselves. Civilization is about what people decide to agree on, and if the point of rugged individualists is to play by their rules, there won't be much agreement. Or very little civil.
The man in the window is Phil Burbank (
Benedict Cumberbatch), who, with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) is part of a well-to-do family with a cattle ranch in 1925 Montana. Both brothers—"Romulus and Remus" Phil calls them—are college educated with George knowing the law and Phil the classics of English literature. But, the two couldn't be more different, from each other and their educations. Phil is rough in speech and manner and does most of the work around the ranch, while George is sensitive and does the paper-work. Where Phil is coarse and brutal, George is quiet and empathetic.
They've been working the ranch for a long time, with George leavening the coarseness and conflicts the acerbic Phil causes in whatever he does. At the end of their cattle drive, the crew stops into an inn run by Rose Gordon (
Kirsten Dunst) for drinks and chow. They're served by Rose's son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slight, effeminate, and shy. Peter becomes an easy target for Phil's malice, making fun of everything the boy does, including using the artistic center-pieces that Peter has meticulously created to light his cigarette. Rose breaks down over this and George tries to apologize, since Phil wouldn't think of it, nor would he were it suggested to him.
But, this starts a series of events that drives a wedge between Phil and George, starting with the gentler brother marrying the Gordon woman—Phil considers her (as he says to her face) "a cheap schemer" only after the family money, and once she sells the inn and moves to the Burbank ranch-house, he begins a campaign of intimidation and hostility towards her that drives her to drink—a habit that she had previously disdained. George has paid for Peter to go away to college, but when he comes back, he finds his mother a wreck, and an open hostility against him from the cowboys working the ranch.
Campion breaks with Ford in the portrayal of women as revered stabilizers in the wilds of the West—Rose doesn't have the strength to take command and be the influence that Ford's women are in the isolation of the prairie—and Phil's cunning brute is too entrenched in his "man's world" view to allow any sort of control out of his grasp. The presence of a woman is just too intrusive to his staked-out territory.
But it's more complicated than that. And to say anything more would be to take away some complexities and motivations that might spoil the bumps and shocks that the movie has in store and could ruin its journey for audiences. Let's just say this: Campion has made a Western in locale (and borrowed some tropes from the genre), but she has other influences as well, taken from psychological thrillers and even thrown a shade of Hitchcock, making The Power of the Dog a definite hyphenate. It starts out as one thing—which may make some reconsider if they want to watch something that dark—and eventually changes into something else—something much darker.
But, one cannot parse just how beautiful The Power of the Dog is. Campion, working with cinematographer
Ari Wegner, has created images of vistas and landscapes that at times take the breath away, sometimes mimicking iconic shots from previous Westerns, at times taking their cue (as in the shot above) from the paintings of Frederic Remington—as previous directors had done. Sometimes you just want to hold on an image before it inevitably movies on, wondering at how it managed to be lit by a single match, or how it captures the troubling disquiet of twilight.
It's a good watch, that will inspire questions and cast a refraction on past examples of the Western—whether the winning of the West wasn't as much a loss, and whether in bringing European culture to the frontier, we didn't drag along something horrible in the process, something that only seemed tame, in our taming of the frontier.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Merry Gentleman

Written at the time of the film's release...

"Fat Man Doesn't Want to be Fat—Still Eats the Fries"
Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald) has escaped an abusive relationship from her policeman-husband (Bobby Cannavale), and is now hiding out in another town, anonymous, working, and giving varying excuses for the "shiner" she's sporting. She doesn't want to get involved, but ends up fighting off questions and the advances from all sorts of flawed men. That includes the police detective (Tom Bastounes, who will go far, I'll bet) investigating the "jumper" that Kate saved the same night that a man in her office building was killed by a sharp-shooter across the street.

What she doesn't know and the detective suspects is that they were one and the same man. Tom Logan (
Michael Keaton) is a tailor by day, but freelances as a hitman in Chicago. He's good at both jobs, but only one of them makes him suicidal. And in one of the neat touches of the screenplay,
Kate and Tom have this odd habit of saving each other's lives.
Actors want to direct. But not all actors can. For every vain-glorious exercise of star-clout, there are the actors—like Redford, Gibson, even Ben Affleck—who surprise you and make you realize that they probably should have always been behind the camera.
Add Michael Keaton to the list. The duality that he's displayed on-screen—at least the conflict between the comedic and the dangerous—is just as potent in The Merry Gentleman, his directorial debut.
Spare, austere, almost seeming like a British mystery, Keaton lures you with a tightly static camera that lulls you until it starts to move, as it does rarely. Keaton the director is extremely generous with his actors, holding back his own performance—it's all in his eyes, deepening the mystery, while providing great showcases for the rest of the cast—all of whom feel they walked in on the set from their day-jobs being those people. Kelly MacDonald (the Scottish actress who played Josh Brolin's wife in No Country for Old Men) has the most prominent role, trying to maintain a happy face on her own double life, trying to avoid past mistakes and failing miserably, something she has in common with most of the characters in the film. It's an incredibly assured directing debut (of a good screenplay by Ron Lazzeretti), with only a couple stumbles on ancillary characters where things aren't as tight—and that's because Keaton didn't go for a close-up. He was shooting for the movies, not for TV. That's the kind of mistake I'll take.
The Merry Gentleman is an interesting little movie—it feels like it's been told before (hit-man finds he has feelings)—but never in so subtle or so clever a way. It's well worth seeing. And I'm looking forward to Keaton's next directing job.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Don't Make a Scene: A Christmas Story

The Story: It's a little late to do a Christmas scene seeing as how Christmas arrived on a Saturday. Next year, a properly-timed Christmas scene for this Sunday feature (Hmmm. Maybe Die Hard)

But it is the day after Christmas—my father's birthday and we were always reminded that it was improper to fold the two into one celebration as My Old Man had had enough of that in his life, thank you very much.

It is also the traditional day when people minimize the damage done on the Holiday by returning presents that are the wrong size, the wrong color, or are just plain wrong—to prevent unnecessary hassle, it was a tradition in our house that all presents came with receipts, as my mother was in retail, thus speeding up the return process.

The day after Christmas—Boxing Day in the UK—was the traditional time to do that. It was better to get the embarrassing mistake out of the house as quickly as possible and never speak of it again. Things would then return to some kind of normalcy, all wrongs being righted or written off.

Ralphie and his bunny suit from A Christmas Story came immediately to mind for a scene on this day, with which I wish you clement conditions and short waiting periods.
Oh. And many happy returns!
The Set-Up: Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) has completed his OCD gauntlet of trying to ensure the gift of a Red Ryder BB gun from Santa for Christmas. And the Holy Day has finally arrived. 
But, there is one more challenge to face.
NARRATOR Christmas had come. Officially. 
We plunged into the cornucopia,
quivering with desire... 
and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice. 
Didn't I get a tie this year? 
RANDY A zeppelin! 
THE OLD MAN ...A can of Simonize. 
Ralphie, what did Aunt Clara give you? Show everybody. 
RALPHIE I don't want to. 

Ralphie, show everybody what Aunt Clara gave you. 
Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that... I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl. 
MOTHER She just always gives you...  
...the nicest things, Ralphie. 
isn't that sweet? 
Ralph, go upstairs and try it on you-- 
I don't want to! 
Go upstairs right now and try on that present! 
She went to all that trouble to make it! Now go on. 
MOTHER While Ralphie is changing, I'm going to play Santa Claus. 
Now, let me see what can I find. I see something! 
Randy. This is for you, honey. 
And this is for Daddy. 
From me to you.
THE OLD MAN (squeakily)
Thanks a lot. 
I wonder what it could be?
Only one way to find out, isn't there? 
Well, it's a blue ball! 
It's a bowling ball. 
Thank you, darling. 
MOTHER Do you like it?  
THE OLD MAN Yes! Very much! Very much. 
Ralphie. We're waiting. 
Oh, come on, Mom. 
Right now! 
NARRATOR Immediately my feet began to sweat as those two fluffy little bunnies... 
...with the blue button eyes stared sappily up at me. 
MOTHER Come down here so I can see you better. 
NARRATOR I just hoped that Flick would never spot them as the word of this humiliation... 
...could easily make life at Warren G. Harding School a veritable hell. 
Isn't that cute? 
That is the most precious thing I've ever seen in my life.
Randy laughs
Shut up, Randy. 
He looks like a deranged Easter bunny. 
Randy laughs harder
He does not! 
He does, too. He looks like a pink nightmare. 
Are you happy wearing that?
Ralphie shakes his head vigorously.
Do you want to take it off?
Ralphie nods his head more vigorously.
You tell the kid to take it off. 
MOTHER Alright.
You'll only wear it when Aunt Clara visits. 
Go on and take it off. 
THE OLD MAN Take it off!
Words by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark
A Christmas Story is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment.