By Anne Brodie
Benedict Cumberbatch unleashes Phil, a psychotic rancher Montana’s Wild West circa 1925 in The Power of the Dog. He’s a Yale classics graduate who has chosen to live the cowboy life, unwashed, mean and toxic as a junkyard dog, boss of a bunch of admiring cowhands who like to watch him neuter bulls and humiliate people with his poison tongue. His sensitive and canny brother George (Jesse Plemons) unintentionally turns the screws on him when he brings home a wife and her devoted son (Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Phil comes for her, proverbial guns blazin’. She’s catatonic with fright so drinks to get through the days. Her son is frail-looking so Phil lays into him but looks are deceiving. Jane Campion’s beautifully shot (in New Zealand) parable goes to extreme places and builds insurmountable tension in lifelike ways, haunting, both ugly and beautiful. Cumberbatch reaches for the skies and touches them as, as this powerful, violent elegy continues to haunt me two months after I saw it. A version of Psalm 22.20 reads “Deliver my soul from the sword, My darling from the power of the dog”. In select Theaters including TIFF Bell Lightbox on Nov. 17 and on Netflix Dec 1
Disney+ Dopesick is a true story. Purdue Pharmaceuticals had blood on its hand and stars in its eyes when it invented Pain as the “5th Vital Sign of health”. Overnight, pain obsessed the American public. Purdue pulled out its latest weapon – oxycontin, claiming it was non-addictive, only 1% of users were hooked. Doses lasted twelve hours, so patients took two pills a day. It created an addiction and habit, and ‘psychic tension’. Oxy was a runaway success, so Purdue created pills eight times the strength of the initial run. In fact, oxy was highly addictive, five times stronger than morphine. Thus was set in motion the worst drug crisis in US history. Michael Keaton plays Dr. Samuel Finnix, a Johns Hopkins trained doctor who chose to work and live in a small town in Appalachia, coal mining country where health and safety are key. He’s wined and dined by Purdue and regularly prescribes oxy to his patients with whom he has strong communal bonds. Meanwhile Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg) head of Purdue shows a rabid obsession with oxy, tying it to his and his family’s legacy and won’t listen to cautions, as he plans to market it globally. A DEA agent (Rosario Dawson) investigates the oxy epidemic but her department drops the case. Overdoses pile up in Appalachia and Finnix questions Purdue; his rep assures him again that oxy is non-addictive. But what caused so many deaths in such a short time, why so many violent crimes, and why are the jails full? West Virginia, Kentucky and Maine, all labour intensive states report huge spikes. Patients appear in a “commercial” for it without ever saying “oxycontin”. Purdue knows. This riveting crime thriller took place in real life and this excellent limited series lays it out with rich storytelling, a mournfully beautiful score and events that would be tough to make up.
Brian Wilson is considered to be one of the most significant songwriters of the 20th century. Friends and admirers Al Jardine, Don Was, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Nick Jonas, Jim James, Jakob Dylan, Gustavo Dudamel, and Taylor Hawkins sing his praises in Brent Wilson’s far-ranging documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road. Rolling Stone writer and longtime friend Jason Fine spends time with Wilson as he reflects on his phenomenally successful career that began as composer and musician with the Beach Boys back in 1961, through to his solo career, a nine-year absence while under 24-hour therapy by manipulative shrink Eugene Landy, and his re-emergence to write and tour again. Wilson’s open about his mental illness, auditory hallucinations from schizo-affective disorder, and drug and alcohol addiction; he speaks simply, honestly and slowly. His extraordinary music is compared to the great classical composers. Good Vibrations was recorded in four studios, using orchestral instruments, complex harmonies, reflecting the “orchestra in his head”. Wilson’s precision, ingenuity and unique gifts shine. Bruce Springsteen says no one has touched him, that he is the greatest artist who ever walked the face of the earth. And Elton John reminds us that the Beatles had George Martin working their magic, but Brian did it himself. This remarkable man has weathered things we can’t know and out-lived his brothers to raise an extended family and tour for the fans still, at 79. This doc is a bit of magic, in theatres and TVOD later in November.
Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd – People magazine’s newly-minted Sexiest Man Alive – find themselves in a weirdly co-dependent relationship that manages to spin their lives out of control in Apple TV+’s The Shrink Next Door. The fact-based story of Dr. Ike Herschkopf (Rudd) and his longtime patient Marty Markowitz (Ferrell) is wry and dark, unexpected material from two comic actors. Marty, a wealthy fabrics heir and beekeeper suffers from acute panic disorder but refuses to get help; he’s too scared. Slick Ike manages to win him over in an office meeting and insinuate himself into Marty’s life. It starts with Ike’s carefully crafted image; he has fake photos with Jacquie Stallone, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, OJ Simpson and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and that’s a tiny tip of the iceberg. He passes himself as Marty’s lawyer and moves into his Hamptons home lock, stock and barrel, and Marty moves to the guesthouse. He then assumes the presidency of the family business and keeps friends and family away. Kathryn Hahn plays Marty’s sister Phyllis, his closest friend and banishes her. He prepares Marty’s will and leaves his home to his own wife. The long con ran nearly 30 years until journalist Joe Nocera moved in next door and took notice. What a story! Yikes!
Kids will get a kick out of Clifford the Big Red Dog and likely shed a tear or two. Emily (Darby Camp) is a little girl living in New York with her single mum whose life is turned upside down – for the better – when she finds a ruby red dog she calls Clifford. John Cleese plays a magic man with a French Regency animal sanctuary in Central Park, home to all kinds of wonderful creatures. It was love at first sight with Clifford. Unbeknownst to her, the more love she gives him, the bigger he gets until one day, he’s THIS big. Dogs are not allowed in their building, and it’s tough to hide Clifford. He’s energetic and shreds the place in short order. Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) comes to sit her when mum’s away, and he isn’t all that grown up. The threesome get into trouble all over the city as gawkers stare at Clifford, unable to absorb a MASSIVE mastiff (maybe a mastiff?). Tony Hale plays a tech billionaire who wants Clifford for experiments and manages to secretly microchip, then claim possession. But Emily and Casey aren’t having it and fight back. Hijinks begin in earnest -the tech guy never gives up. Sweet, lovely, emotional but not TOO emotional, Clifford is a great all-ages adventure. Co-stars Izaac Wang, David Alan Grier, Russell Peters and Jessica Keenan Wynn of the Wynn acting dynasty. Based on the popular Scholastic series of books and in theatres.
Ascension (登楼叹), a startling documentary by Jessica Kingdon details daily life in China, and it’s kind of scary. We’re taken inside factories, job marts, to assembly lines for bottled water, ultra-lifelike sex dolls, inside military training classes, stores, charm schools and the bedrooms of social media stars earning their keep hawking the latest things to buy. Freedom is replaced by rigid teaching and surveillance, physical punishment, in harsh, pre-ordained paths. Free thought is discouraged, but there is plenty of enforced clapping, singing, chanting and marching. The “New China” driven to be the world power produces, innovates and controls in ways we can’t imagine. Shot in 51 locations, crossing all social and economic strata, we see how the people fit into pre-ordained, never-changing roles, rich person, servant, or cog. It’s incredible that Kingdon had such access, She records private conversations between workers apparently without their knowledge and blows the lid off the dream of prosperity they all have but likely won’t see, like this doc. An eye-opener. On Paramount+ Nov 15
And Season 6 of yet another topnotch adaptation of an Ann Cleeves mystery novel and if you’re looking for unusual storylines, superior characterizations and writing, set against a breathtaking wild landscape, BritBox has Shetland. Douglas Henshall returns as Det. Jimmy Perez, on duty in the place he grew up – Shetland, on the Shetland Islands between northern Scotland and Norway. It’s not easy investigating the many murders that occur in this tiny place, almost as often as they do in Cabot Cove, USA. Both are set hard by the sea. Det. Perez, given to poetry, tackles the case of a local lawyer shot in his doorway at high noon; the man took on impossible and unpopular cases, a tempting target. There’s a cocaine addict, a Nazi “ghost” bullet, Killer Kinnick’s return and a seaman with something to hide with a drone. Meanwhile, an evil genius teen with a picture of Leopold and Loeb on his wall is ruining local lives as a hacker. There’s plenty to ponder, and the music from John Lunn is the gorgeous icing on the cake. Wait a sec, the wild and barren North Sea landscapes are. Also gorgeous.
The corny Soulmates isn’t exactly a masterwork but it’s competing for space with award season-heavy hitters. Two best friends since childhood live in small-town Maple Country, Vermont’s syrup belt. Local families have thrived for generations within the local maple industry, but Big Business has stomped into town to buy up family farms and create a high-tech mega maple syrup factory. Jessamine (Stephanie Lynn) and Samantha (Alexandra Case) live together in a cute tiny home and represent all the idealised memes of country living and fellowship, wool, flannel, lace, toques, scarves and baked goods. People think the girls are gay but Jess meets Landon (Mark Famiglietti) and quickly becomes engaged. She knows he’s the face of the dreaded Peterson Maple Intl and it’s all ok until the firm buys her father’s farm. Sam’s unhappy that she’s now second place in Jess’ life and acts out. They made a childhood pact that means Jess can’t marry Landon till Sam has a man. Ok, that enough. In theaters and TVOD Nov 12th.
See You Next Christmas, writer-director Christine Weatherup’s look at a group of friends’ Clarkmas, is a holiday trifle with no snow or diversity. Elizabeth Guest, AJ Meijer and Vin Vescio play LA friends who get together at the Clarks, who host the holiday tradition. It’s not all fun and games as the dictatorial hostess is laser-focused on perfection in the guest list, food and decor, with little room for adjustment. Natalie shows up early – everyone’s nightmare – and feels like an intruder. Eventually, others appear, fashionably late, including Logan. He and Natalie connect. The following Clarkmas, they meet again, he has no memory of her as she asks him why he stopped calling, and it’s all so uncomfortable. But it keeps happening so they start to think there’s something to it. Not especially Christmassy or engaging. TVOD.
Some people think the pandemic’s nearly over, others think it’s here to stay but its impact, specifically during lockdown has been felt in every aspect of human life. But what about the animals? This weekend’s The Nature of Things special doc Nature’s Big Year on CBC TV and CBC GEM goes there and finds they’ve had a very good two years! Lockdown gave all manner of animals, birds, fish and insects a grace period when few people intruded on their spaces, and they had room to stretch their wings. Scientists found lockdown helped turtles nest more successfully on Juno Beach, wolves and their prey shifted their schedules to daylight, large animal herds made their way through towns and cities. Birds sang louder, stronger, snow geese grew healthier, there was less roadkill, expanded territory meant a more natural life. Chelsea, Mass, just outside Boston is considered the loudest city anywhere with sea and airports. When those businesses locked down wildlife returned. Just goes to show how big and negative our impact is on the natural world.