At The Movies: The Power Of The Dog chills, The French Dispatch charms

Movie still from The Power Of The Dog. PHOTO: NETFLIX

The Power Of The Dog (R21)

128 minutes, Netflix

4 stars

On a turn-of-the-century American ranch, two adults fight for the soul of a young man.

New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion could have turned this story into a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil, or perhaps a western tale about hard men in a hard place.

The Oscar-winning Campion (for the drama The Piano, 1993) develops both these ideas, but adds the element that gives her films their bite: psychosexual tension.

Adapted from novelist Thomas Savage's book of the same name, the spiritual tug-of-war occurs between wealthy rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and new arrival Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the wife of Phil's browbeaten brother George (Jesse Plemons).

Phil considers her a social climber, his low opinion of her reinforced by the appearance of her son from a previous marriage, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whom Phil considers a weakling. But when the bully takes a fatherly interest in the lad, Rose's crumbling mental state comes close to shattering.

Cumberbatch's Phil is one of the nastiest main characters in recent memory. Driven by an icy rage and an urge to humiliate, the rancher embodies everything "alpha male", to use a phrase bandied about on male-dominated parts of the Internet.

The English actor takes the mildly unlikable part of his superhero character from Doctor Strange (2016) and cranks it up several notches. Campion believes viewers will find this portrait of an abusive leader compelling - and she is correct.

The French Dispatch (M18)

108 minutes, opens Dec 9

PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

4 stars

With every movie, American film-maker Wes Anderson walks a tightrope. His distinctive, easily parodied style lends itself to work which could fall into an abyss of cuteness. On occasion, it does - see the stop-motion animation Isle Of Dogs (2018).

But when his balance is perfect, the output is a magnificent blend of whimsy and heartfelt emotion, as shown in his Oscar-winning movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Those who like Budapest will find plenty to like here. It has the same stylised yet meticulous recreation of a European ideal that had existed only in the minds of those who dreamt of living in the Paris, Cherbourg or Cannes of the lifestyle magazine pieces submitted by American expatriates.

The somewhat flimsy piece of narrative string tying up this anthology is the death of publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), founder of the writerly magazine that gives the film its title. His will stipulates that on his passing, the magazine will produce its final issue. The four stories that comprise the final edition form the rest of the film.

These short works, each expressing an aspect of Anderson's Francophilia, range from a journal entry about street life (The Cycling Reporter, featuring Owen Wilson as Sazerac, the scribe on wheels) to a food memoir, involving a form of cuisine unique to the police force (The Private Dining Room Of The Police Commissioner).

While both Budapest and Dispatch share a love of Europeanness as an aesthetic, they differ in form and, unfortunately, in quality. With the former, it felt like Anderson was trying to tell a story. The latter feels like Anderson showing off an inspirational scrapbook - a beautifully curated, thoughtful and charming one, but still a scrapbook.

Monster Family 2 (PG)

103 minutes, opens Dec 9, not reviewed

PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The sequel to the 2017 original sees the return of the Wishbone clan, voiced by British actors Ethan Rouse, Jessica Brown Findlay, Emma Watson and Nick Frost, among others. In a new adventure, the otherwise normal family must embrace their monstrous alter egos to rescue the people they love from a monster hunter.

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