One may as well call this an award contender round-up, given all the notable films here, but I wouldn’t want to lump good movies with a certain Star-driven dud under the same moniker. This set of reviews includes an intense western story, a coming-of-age comedy-drama, a race-based period drama, an adventure flick with big stars, an offbeat Hollywood satire, and the director’s cut of a sports movie favorite. The following features reviews for The Power of the Dog, C’Mon C’Mon, Passing, Red Notice, Violet, and Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago.
The Setup: Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Review: While there’s a narrative one can put into detail, it’s less of a matter than what director Jane Campion is going for. Coming in at two hours with a leisurely pace, The Power of the Dog is far more concerned with taking its time to put the viewers in the mind space of each of the key characters. There’s the smart but soft-spoken George (Jesse Plemons), the fragile Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the awkward Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and the imposing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch).
As this makeshift family comes together, time is spent showing what kind of power Phil has over everyone, while the film makes various statements about masculinity, allowing the material to feel unstuck in time. The intimidation tactics from Phil have a purpose, but what does Peter think of all of this? He observes the life of a rancher while taking on interests of his own. Similarly, is Rose bound to only hold onto certain fears when she’s not drowning her sorrows in bourbon?
This slowburn of a film finds a way to eventually release its tension in ways more psychologically interesting than it has time for. With that said, the setting up of all these pieces will be worthwhile to those wanting to be absorbed by the atmosphere. Cumberbatch is a force to be reckoned with in his nomination-bound role. Along with his co-stars, the other highlights are the cinematography by Ari Wegner, using the New Zealand countryside to represent Montana, and the terrific score from Jonny Greenwood, who once again finds all the right ways to play into emotion in unexpected ways.
Campion may have been away from the world of cinema for some time (her series, Top of the Lake, was one great way to keep her occupied), but The Power of the Dog shows her continued ability to hit at various extremes with a fine level of nuance.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters, starting November 17. Available to stream on Netflix, beginning December 1.
The Setup: A radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) left to take care of his precocious young nephew (Woody Norman) forges an unexpected bond over a cross-country trip.
Review: There’s a recurring device deployed frequently during this character comedy/on-the-road drama that could be too much, but it’s actually quite effective. As a radio journalist, Johnny is interviewing children for a project, and the viewers occasionally get to listen to unfiltered bursts of wisdom from the future generation. Not all of these moments directly connect to the prime narrative, but it does speak to where young people are coming from and what they can comprehend, based on the actions of the adults they look up to or question.
Writer/director Mike Mills seems to have a lot on his mind, but he’s still able to distill what he’s aiming for with C’mon C’mon, the story of two people trying to find an understanding. While Norman’s Jesse is a young ball of energy who can only understand so much about why his mom (Gaby Hoffmann) needs to step away to deal with an unstable father (Scoot McNairy), there’s still a sense that his curiosity will be a beneficial quality. Temper tantrums and other emotional outbursts aside, this is an interesting kid to watch.
As for Johnny, well, Phoenix is regarded as one of our finest actors for good reason. Playing a regular guy for a change of pace, there’s nothing outwardly remarkable about this character, but his struggles are achingly human. He has to figure out how to take care of a nephew he’s basically never spent much time with while continuing to get his work done. The parenting difficulties present themselves, and the film knows how to find variations on the drama that unfolds and the natural comedy.
Mills certainly wants the film to appear as striking as possible, thanks to DP Robbie Ryan’s black & white cinematography. Does this choice do much for the film’s narrative? Not that I could specifically identify, but hard to fault the movie for looking as good as it does while holding onto a relaxed pace.
It may just mean the film looks fantastic when turned into still images. Still, outside of this presentation, C’mon C’mon lives on the chemistry shared between the two leads. There’s enough thoughtfulness for it to all come together.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, starting November 19.
The Setup: In 1920s New York City, a Black woman (Tessa Thompson) finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend (Ruth Negga) who’s passing as white.
Review: Not to use one film to comment on another, but compared to Mills’ feature, Passing‘s choice to film in black & white absolutely applies to the narrative, and it is better for it. While Thompson and Negga are lighter-skinned black performers, there’s a certain amount of narrative setup the audience needs to buy into. However, it’s because of how this premise sets up certain story opportunities and speaks to the roles of colorism and racial politics that Passing is a success.
While everything that unfolds plays with ideas fit for a Douglas Sirk story, not unlike Sylvie’s Love (also starring Thompson), the role of black relationships is an interesting focus. For all the melodrama, the intrigue obviously comes from watching two women explore a rekindled friendship and understanding the different ways they fit in the world based on how they rely on their skin color.
Director/writer Rebecca Hall is patient with these characters. Whatever impending tragedy may occur (Alexander Skarsgard plays Negga’s racist husband, who is unaware of who he married, so, of course, that will have to come into play), there’s still room for the film to breathe. With that level of control, the actors are allowed to dig into their roles, making for rich performances. Thompson’s Irene is the more defined, given what we learn about her, her husband (Andre Holland), and her family. Negga’s Clare is purposefully more aloof, despite the chemistry she forms with others, much to the chagrin of Irene. Nevertheless, it’s terrific work.
With specific layers of subtext and a move to end the film with deliberate finality, I’m not sure Passing fully realizes its potential. However, with the strength of these performances and confidence in the filmmaking, there’s more than enough thematic material at play, especially when noting how it continues to reflect today’s society.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: In the world of international crime, an Interpol agent (Dwayne Johnson) attempts to hunt down and capture the world’s most wanted art thief (Gal Gadot), only to be forced to team up with the second most wanted (Ryan Reynolds).
Review: Everything that can be seen as what’s wrong with Netflix’s original films can be found in Red Notice, an awful adventure movie. Not unlike the worst that DreamWorks Animation has to offer, this is a film that relies on a big budget and the appeal of A-list stars to make up for the lack of creative energy. Aside from very few humorous asides supplied by the cast’s natural charisma, almost nothing works here, and, on top of that, it’s a very ugly $200 million movie.
Hopefully Johnson finding some sort of kinship with director Jaume Collet Sera means DC’s Black Adam will be better than Jungle Cruise because, once again, teaming with director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence, Skyscraper) is not proving to be a partnership worth championing. Even with all of the money in the world, Red Notice never rises to the occasion of providing anything dynamic as far as the action or adventure. This is a globetrotting treasure hunt movie, but the scale never feels apparent, no matter how much non-seamless CG is utilized.
As for the stars, they offer nothing beyond their established personas. That may be enough for some, but it grows really tiring quickly when it’s two hours of mugging and no interesting depth (all three characters have dull backstories involving bad dads). Plus, in an attempt to keep up with these three, one of the film’s villains, Chris Diamantopoulos, relies on an accent to make him sound about 30 years older. It’s one of the film’s odder touches, but not in a charmingly quirky way.
While Netflix has provided end-of-year, action-packed entertainment (Bright and 6 Underground come to mind), Red Notice is just the latest example of how bad the brand can get when relying on big names, with very little solid foundation. Put Red Notice on red notice, it should be arrested.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix, starting November 19.
The Setup: Violet (Olivia Munn) realizes that her entire life is built on fear-based decisions and must do everything differently to become her true self.
Review: If anything, it’s impressive how little involvement people can have with the entertainment industry yet still see how much truth there is to what’s presented in Violet. Munn is given the opportunity to play a character put down by the “men’s club” that exists around her, let alone others that see her as “less than,” along with her own crippling self-doubt (which takes the form of a voice provided by Justin Theroux). It can be frustrating to watch, but it’s also some of Munn’s best work as a performer.
I only wish writer/director Justine Bateman was able to develop this story more. As it stands, it’s compelling enough. There’s enough story to tell to capitalize on the basic concept and see it in action throughout the film’s slickly presented 90 minutes. There are jarring transitions, recurring uses of intense color, exaggerated on-screen text, and more to help convey Violet’s inner psyche. At the same time, some aspects become repetitive, and moments that feel as though they should be expanded to push this satire to the next level.
While the uncomfortable ride can only accomplish so much, there’s obviously a build to a certain level of satisfaction once Violet does find ways to overcome what’s crushing her soul and take action into her own hand. The fact that Violet still finds ways to punish its characters makes the most sense as far as mirroring reality, but perhaps there could have been a way to do more with this continued level of angst. As it stands, there’s enough solid footing to make this an interesting watch, even if it ends up feeling a bit unfulfilling.
Where To Watch: Now available on VOD.
The Setup: Rocky IV famously pitted The Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) against his most formidable opponent: the towering Soviet terror Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Rocky’s friend and mentor Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring. During the Covid-19 shutdown of 2020, Stallone tackled his long-planned director’s cut of the film: the result is a fine-tuning of the legendary film as well as a fascinating time capsule of a pop-cultural
Review: More of a curious experiment than a massive overhaul, I was still thrilled to not only see Rocky IV on the big screen for the first time but to take in a version that reflects where Stallone is now as a filmmaker and a person. This new cut of Rocky IV relies on around 40 minutes of alternate footage to change up certain areas of the film, better reflecting the characters while reducing the sillier elements. It’s still an 80s movie all the way, but there’s a maturity to it that allows the film to fall more in line with Rocky, II, and Balboa.
The most notable changes revolve around Apollo and Drago. The former is given more emphasis as a tragic figure too caught up in fighting a losing battle. More focus on his decision to fight Drago allows for a couple of good scenes early on, along with a different depiction of the match. The film cleverly allows Drago’s perspective to witness Apollo’s spectacle as he dances around the stage with James Brown. However, once we watch the fight, it’s still a sad result, but Apollo puts in more effort to show what he has before being beaten.
Drago, on the whole, is made more human. Apparently, that meant cutting out Brigitte Nielsen almost entirely (curious about Stallone’s frame of mind there). Still, while the other Russian characters come off even more as villains, Drago has some beats to make him more sympathetic, which actually, in turn, benefits Creed II in the grand scheme of things. There’s also an alternate version of the end that’s kind of wild. The big speech is edited differently, and the closing moments are pretty moving, based on certain exchanges.
The film is not really better or worse than the original cut. There’s plenty of fun to have with Paulie’s robot and the music video-driven nature of the theatrical version. Rocky vs. Drago is more serious, to whatever degree that matters (Talia Shire’s Adrian benefits the most from this). The overall experience feels like the work of someone who is earnestly trying to capitalize on the depths of the franchise for what it is. Regardless, Rocky IV still appropriately sets hearts on fire, as it should.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on VOD, starting November 12.