Review: The Power of the Dog and The French Dispatch — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

If you’re looking for a break from made-for-TV Christmas drivel, try these excellent films by Jane Campion and Wes Anderson.

Scenes from the films The Power of the Dog and The French Dispatch
Left: The Power of the Dog (Kristy Griffin/Netflix); Right: The French Dispatch (Searchlight Pictures)

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The Power of the Dog

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

Rating: R

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Writer/Director: Jane Campion

In Theaters and on Netflix

 

Anyone who appreciates the work of writer/director Jane Campion — particularly her Oscar-winning 1993 drama The Piano — knows you’ve simply got to let her take the wheel and drive. Yes, she’s going to follow the scenic route, and yes, she’ll insist on stopping along the way to stretch her legs, but in the end you’ll be more than happy to have been along for the ride.

This is true primarily for two reasons: Campion always coaxes majestically jaw-dropping vistas from her cinematographers…and quiet, yet career-defining, performances from her actors.

Campion is in rare form with The Power of the Dog, the meandering coming-of-age tale of Peter, a sensitive young man played with glorious awkwardness by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In).

Struggling to make it as a road house owner, Peter’s widowed mother (Kirsten Dunst, vulnerable yet defiant) marries a sweet-natured rancher named George (Jesse Plemons, perhaps a bit too whiny). She moves to George’s spread, takes up residence in the incongruously grand Victorian mansion at its heart — and comes face-to-face with George’s brother Phil.

And here begins one of the finest screen performances of this or any year, as Benedict Cumberbatch, trading his dulcet British tones for a western twang that would do Dennis Quaid proud, unravels the tangled psyche of Phil — a Harvard-educated classics major who is as at ease quoting Greek philosophers as he is castrating a bull.

If The Power of the Dog takes a bit longer than we’d like to unfold, there’s consolation in having more time with Cumberbatch’s Phil, and the actor’s masterfully systematic sequence of startling, infuriating, and ultimately heartbreaking revelations.

 

 

The French Dispatch

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

Rating: R

Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Murray, Edward Norton

Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman

Director: Wes Anderson

Video on Demand

 

Wes Anderson hands out a fistful of love letters in his new movie: To France, to literary magazines, to old-time newspaper foreign bureaus, to anthology filmmaking, to comic books…and to the ensemble of stars who have faithfully populated his films for nearly three decades.

The full title of Anderson’s brisk and beautiful film is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun (an inside newspaper joke: “Sun” papers generally published in the morning; afternoon/evening papers were called the “Star”). It’s a convoluted name for a tangled, gangly movie — set in a chaotic world given form and order through Anderson’s trademark just-so set design and deadpan deliveries.

Three stories unfold here within a quirky framework: It is 1975, and after 50 years, The French Dispatch, a weekly supplement to the aforementioned Kansas daily newspaper, is publishing its final edition, an event prompted by the sudden death of its founder/editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr., played in flashback by Anderson stalwart Bill Murray.

The issue’s main feature stories play out for us on screen: The tale of a violent criminal (Benicio Del Toro) who also happens to be an artistic genius…A first-hand report of the 1970s French student uprisings…And a thrilling account, by the magazine’s food writer (Jeffrey Wright), of a child’s kidnapping.

Swirling through these narratives, like flakes in an exquisitely designed snow globe, are members of Anderson’s long-established repertoire group (including a breezy opening segment about a bicycling reporter played by Owen Wilson, who starred in Anderson’s first short film, Bottle Rocket, way back in 1994). Listing the full cast would border on the tedious, but to those names at the top of this review add Léa Seydoux (Midnight in Paris), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), Bob Balaban, Henry Winkler, and Mathieu Amalric (a four-time Oscar nominee), and you’re about halfway through the major stars who pop up.

Every Wes Anderson film has its charms; The French Dispatch bundles everything admirers love most about his work and presents it to us, warm and inviting, like an apple tarte tatin soaked in gin and dappled with juniper. Dig in. C’est magnifique.

Featured images: Left: The Power of the Dog (Kristy Griffin/Netflix); Right: The French Dispatch (Searchlight Pictures)

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