“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Hungry Hearts” (2014) starring Adam Driver

Jude (Adam Driver) is a young engineer living in NYC. He becomes trapped in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant w/ Mina (Alba Rohrwacher), who works at the Italian embassy. Despite this awkward first encounter, Jude and Mina begin a relationship and move in together. Some time later, Mina wakes to a phone call from her employer; she will be relocated to her native Italy in 2 mos. Mina soon discovers she is pregnant. Jude and Mina are married at a beachside cafe on Coney Island. A fortune teller labels her baby as an “Indigo child. Mina believes that her son is needs to be “protected” from doctors, meat, and sunlight. Her extreme actions create intense worries for Jude, as well as his mother (Roberta Maxwell).

This indie film is based on the novel Il Bambino Indaco (The Indigo Child) by Marco Franzoso. It was directed by Saverio Costanzo; he worked a handful of indies, then on the Italian version of the TV show In Treatment (2013-2016). Most recently, he directed eps of My Brilliant Friend (2018-2020). Hungry Hearts was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice International Film Festival; Driver and Rohrwacher won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively. It was also screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). When the credits rolled, I learned that the Production Manager was one of my former classmates from grad school (Fordham)! Rashi DeStefano grew up in Brooklyn (her father is Italian, her mother is Indian), was a Teaching Fellow at a public HS in Manhattan (while in grad school), but then studied filmmaking.

[1] With the current uproar of vaccinations, there is certainly a modern day link to the story line of mother’s instincts vs. doctor’s orders.

[2] A psychological drama – tense at times, perhaps – but it really doesn’t have all that many thrills.

[3] The idea of having the diet of a child being the source of conflict between a couple is unique in cinema, but a very real concern. …the duo’s impeccable performances do their characters justice and it’s often heartbreaking.

[4] It has a good storyline and some incredibly emotional scenes. Adam Driver does an amazing job portraying Jude- a father who is conflicted between pleasing his wife and saving his son- and I believe his performance makes the movie. However, throughout the film, the camera is inconsistent and shaky.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“While We’re Young” (2014) starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, & Charles Grodin

Josh: For the first time in my life I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a child imitating an adult.

Cornelia: You feel that way too?

NYC-based documentary filmmaker, Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller), is 44 y.o. and married (for many yrs.) to 43 y.o. Cornelia (Naomi Watts). She produces films for her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a respected/successful veteran documentarian. Josh and Cornelia’s relationship has been boring lately; they don’t travel or do anything out of their routine. On the personal front, they may still want to have a baby, like their BFFs Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz- also a member of Beastie Boys). On the professional front, Josh seems to have lost inspo (working on one film for 8 yrs, but nowhere near completion). Thing change when they meet a creative/hipster couple in their mid-20s- Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie expresses great admiration for Josh; he aspires to become a documentary filmmaker himself. Darby makes ice cream in unique flavors.

Cornelia (to Marina and Fletcher): It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.

Greta Gerwig (the partner of director Noah Baumbach) was cast, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts; Seyfried replaced her. When Josh leaves his father-in-law Leslie’s apartment, a sign is visible next door for the National Arts Club. Leslie lives on Gramercy Park, one of the most prestigious ‘hoods in NYC; the homes face Manhattan’s only private/gated park (only residents have the keys). The Lincoln Center tribute to Leslie Breitbart was filmed at the Time Warner Center/Shops at Columbus Circle bldg; I went to grad school nearby and was often there (it had a Whole Foods, offices, retail). The speaker who presents Leslie with his award is Peter Bogdanovich, a film historian/director.

Josh: It’s weird, you know, I’m at that age where the things you think are only going to happen when you get older are actually happening.

Jamie: If I’m going to be totally honest with myself, I don’t think I’m ever going to die. I know that’s crazy.

Josh: It’s crazy.

Jamie: I think I’m pathologically happy.

If you’re a fan of Driver, you’ll really enjoy this film (free on Amazon Prime)! Jamie is energetic, warm-hearted, and wears some interesting outfits (incl. hats). This is the time when the actor grew his thick/dark hair longer (to cover his large ears). Those big/elaborate tattoos on the arms are fake. He moves in a quirky manner; Baumbach had the “idea of Jamie being like water.” Jamie and Josh have a touching bromance; Josh even starts to dress differently. I liked the set design; the places you see all looked lived-in. The younger couple have many albums (not CDs), videos (not DVDs), a typewriter, a rooster (in a small cage), kittens, and a roomie (renting the loft space). There is a (LOL) scene where Josh and Cornelia practice hip hop dancing at home; Darby had taken Cornelia to such a class. I don’t want to give more away, so check it out if interested!

While We’re Young” takes a turn in the third act as it grapples with some ethical dilemmas, and it doesn’t quite work. It becomes angrier and heavier as Josh uses his inquisitive nature to unearth some dark truths—both about himself and his new friends. It feels like a totally different movie as it reaches its very public climax, and an inferior one. -Christy Lemire, film critic

[1] I love the sharp jabs launched at Josh’s expense. That may annoy some people who are uncomfortable with the awkward truths being poked at. All four leads are doing amazing work. Adam Driver is the big difference. Noah Baumbach is at his sharpest up to this date.

[2] The film spends the first hour weaving a tale and presenting us with flawed but likeable characters. Then of course the “twist” comes in at about an hour (typical for all films). At this point the film which had me hooked, loses me. It was a twist I felt coming…

[3] A lot of the jokes and digs at the hipster culture may be deserved for simple pretentious ways…

…by the last act Josh becomes so one-note in his obsession over uncovering the BS of Jamie that it gets to be a bit much.

Luckily… much of the movie is funny. Stiller is quite funny, in some instances when he becomes the foil for Driver, and the latter actor has a weird kind of charm and energy, filling in this hipster’s shoes a 100%. He doesn’t look like he should be a really good comic actor, but he carries a lot of odd, quirky interest…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Frances Ha” (2012) starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, & Michael Zegen

Frances lives in New York, but she doesn’t really have an apartment. Frances is an apprentice for a dance company, but she’s not really a dancer. Frances has a best friend named Sophie, but they aren’t really speaking anymore. Frances throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles. Frances wants so much more than she has but lives her life with unaccountable joy and lightness. —IFC Films Summary

Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig) is a 27 y.o. “apprentice” dancer in NYC; she doesn’t yet feel like “a real grown-up.” She lives w/ her BFF since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who works as an editor for Random House. They’re both trying to figure out adult life/responsibilities, BUT Sophie seems to be a bit more confident and put-together than Frances. The friends often sleep in the same bed and act like sisters. Frances breaks up w/ her bf, Dan (Michael Esper- primarily a theater actor). Dan had wanted them to live together and get cats (a rather pricy/ugly breed). Then, Sophie wants to move to her “dream apt. in Tribeca” w/ another friend; Frances is saddened that they won’t live together anymore. She makes two new friends, Lev (Adam Driver- before fame) and Benji (Michael Zegen- who co-stars on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who have space in their Chinatown apt. available. Unlike most of her circle, Frances doesn’t come from money; her parents are middle-class. At a dinner party, Frances heard that Sophie and her bf, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), are moving to Japan for his job! What will happen to their friendship?

Lev: Just because you bought dinner doesn’t mean I’m gonna sleep with you.

Frances: I’m not trying to sleep with you.

Lev: No, I was pretending to be a liberated woman.


The way Adam says it is like a song: “Ah-ma-zinnggg.” I always think of that word that way now.

-Noah Baumbach, director

I came across this charming film when I was looking up works w/ Driver; he doesn’t appear much here (but his character is memorable). Driver and Baumbach became very good friends; he is the 2nd male lead in While We’re Young (2014) and the lead in the much-acclaimed Marriage Story (2019). The movie was shot in black and white to “boil it down to its barest bones,” and create an immediate “history” and “a kind of instant nostalgia” (according to Baumbach- who also directed). Frances goes on one date w/ Lev (who is a sculptor), but may have a connection w/ writer Benji (a stand-in for Baumbach w/ his dark hair/eyes, and slim/short build). I was pleasantly surprised to see that romance isn’t at the heart of this story- it’s about female friendship.

Sophie (on her visit to Lev and Benji’s apt): The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.

Charlotte d’Amboise, who plays the head of the dance company (and a former dancer) is a well-known Broadway dancer, w/ such shows as Cats, Chicago, A Chorus Line, and Pippin. Frances’ parents are played by Gerwig’s real-life parents, Gordon and Christine. Gerwig was raised as a Unitarian Universalist; there’s a scene in the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento (which she grew up attending). Rachel (Grace Gummer) stars as one of the modern dancers; her mother (Meryl Streep) starred as Aunt March in Little Women (2019) directed by Gerwig. The college seen in the movie is Vassar, a liberal arts university in Poughkeepsie, NY (which Baumbach attended).

Frances: I’m poor.

Benji: That’s actually offensive to poor people.

I could relate to this movie in many ways, as I also lived in NYC when I was in my late 20s. I went to grad school at Fordham. Like Frances, I was (usually) broke, since I worked as a substitute teacher (as well as a few smaller jobs in the summers). I lived in two NOT so fabulous apts (though the rents were high- as you’d expect). Unlike Frances, I didn’t have one particular bestie, BUT I did meet many smart/interesting people (some of whom became friends and I stay in touch w/ 10+ yrs later). I didn’t know where my life was going, BUT I think I put myself out of my comfort zone and kept a positive attitude (which Frances does as well).

[1] I felt there was something truly raw and authentic about everything in here, especially the characters’ interactions and dialogs. Apart from that, there is some great music… Lead actress Greta Gerwig scored a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal here and it was very deserved I must say, especially as she also came up with the excellent script.

[2]The feeling of Frances not really knowing where she is going, bouncing from one flat-share to the next (albeit awesome flats) is very well done and Gerwig delivers it very well, somehow managing to get through all the traps of the genre.

[3] I’m not saying you should live your life like her or take advice from the movie. But it is very refreshing to see something, that is not very obvious. I couldn’t tell where the movie was going, but it was interesting to find out. And while some might find this boring, others will rejoice.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“This is Where I Leave You” (2014) starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, & Corey Stoll

Judd: I don’t understand the Shiva. Mom’s not even Jewish, and dad was an atheist.

Wendy: A Jewish atheist, and this is what he wanted.

Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is a radio producer in NYC who finds his wife, Quinn (Abigail Spencer), in bed w/ his boss/radio personality, Wade (Dax Shepard). A few mos. later, after Judd becomes divorced, his father passes away in their hometown upstate. His final wish is for the family to hold shiva (though their family wasn’t religious). Judd’s sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), is married w/ a toddler son. Judd’s mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), is a famous therapist/author who overshares. Judd’s younger brother, Phillip (Adam Driver), is the “wild child” who runs his mouth, drives too fast, and is seeing an older woman. The eldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), takes care of the hardware store (the family biz) and is married to Annie (Kathryn Hahn); they are desperate to have a child. Judd runs into an younger friend of his, Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), who used to have a crush on him.

Judd: My marriage is over. I don’t have a job.

Hillary: That’s why you didn’t come see him these last few weeks? You thought he’d think less of you?

Judd: I think less of me. I’ve got nothing. Look at me. Way too old to have this much nothing.

Sitting shiva is the Jewish ritual of mourning after a loved one dies. The relatives of the deceased (his or her parents, children, siblings, and spouse) gather daily at one house and receive visitors who offer condolences (and often food). The Hebrew word “shiva” literally means seven, as the Altman’s family friend/rabbi (Ben Shwartz) explains. Hillary also explains that they need to sit in low chairs (as they are close to the earth).

Judd: It’s hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up, you know.

This isn’t technically a holiday movie, BUT it will give you many of the same vibes. The 4 adult sibs are forced to stay in their childhood home for 7 days- yikes! They retreat to the roles they had as kids (which is what you’d see in any family). There are secrets that will be uncovered- some small and some pretty life-changing. The cast is quite strong; they actually seem like a (dysfunctional) family. The actors have good chemistry together; it looks like making this movie was fun. However, there is TOO much going on! Some of the dialogue is quite touching, but there are also lines which come across as obvious, cliched, cringe-worthy. The hometown folks don’t have much characterization, as some critics/viewers commented; Penny comes across as a “manic pixie dream girl.”

Phillip: Dad was a stoner?

Judd: No, it was probably medicinal.

Phillip: It always is.

This movie was directed by Shaw Levy (Date Night, Stranger Things, Free Guy, etc.) and written by Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the novel based on his own family’s stories). It’s nice to see Fonda, but I wish many of her lines were better. Bateman and Fey seem to usually play these type of roles and they do well. Stoll said this was his first time working on a comedy; he started in the theater and I liked him since House of Cards. Driver (before he became famous) is the lil bro who still has to grow-up; he plays the stock market and his love life is messy. Driver (funny/carefree) looked like he was enjoying this role; it was also the time when he was working on Girls. Stoll and Driver also acted together in The Report (which I will post about soon).