Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

Screening Room: ‘Stowaway’

In Stowaway, launching tomorrow on Netflix, the crew of a spaceship heading to Mars discovers an unexpected fourth crewmember on board, which is a problem since they only have enough oxygen for three.

My review is at Slant:

This would seem to have potential for white-knuckle tension and even heady discussions about whose life has more value, as there’s not enough oxygen for everyone on the Mars-bound vessel to reach their destination alive. But the film hits its dramatic and philosophical ceiling long before the tiresome conclusion has drained the scenario of any interest…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Night Stalker’

My review of the new Netflix true-crime series Night Stalker ran at Slant:

Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, a four-part series about Richard Ramirez, the sadistic serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s, is dramatically satisfying but structurally rote. Director Tiller Russell glosses the story over with more cinematic panache than you might see on 48 Hours, all straight from the Southland-noir template, including eerie tracking shots of a full moon behind dark palm trees and Michael Mann-ish overhead views of nighttime highways. But despite a story filled with big-hearted good guys, a depraved villain, and an edge-of-your-seat finale, the series feels overly pat and formulaic…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The White Tiger’

In the new movie from Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451), a kid from a dirt-poor Indian village discovers the price that must be paid to move up the social ladder. Based on the fantastic novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is coming to Netflix later this month.

My review is at Slant:

Narrating the film’s fast-paced plot with sly showmanship, Balram (Adarsh Gourav) lays out the humiliations that he endured and sins he committed in his rise from a poor Indian villager to a Bangalore entrepreneur. The speed of his change in circumstances, and his canny maneuvering of class differences, brings to mind everything from Charles Dickens to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. But as Balram pointedly says in one of his many asides to the audience, after witnessing yet again the powerlessness of the poor, “don’t think for a second there’s a billion-rupee gameshow you can win to get out of it.” Instead, his escape route is through the rich family that he sacrifices everything to work for…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Prom’

Now that the only way to see Broadway is on TV, it’s a good thing that Netflix is getting in on the theater game. Next week sees the release of the star-heavy adaptation of the 2018 musical The Prom.

My review is at PopMatters:

Turning a high school dance into a crucible for a showdown about acceptance and homophobia via some high-kicking dance numbers and tongue-in-cheek humor feels like a reimagining of Ryan Murphy’s Glee. Now that Murphy has adapted the musical for Netflix, the process has come full circle, though not always in a good way…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Life Ahead’

In this Italian-set adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel The Life Ahead, a Holocaust survivor (Sophia Loren) and a 12-year-old Senegalese orphan (Ibrahima Gueye) find common cause despite a rough first meeting when he steals her pursue.

The Life Ahead will be available on Netflix this Friday. My review is at Slant:

The Life Ahead transfers the story from Paris to the southern Italian seaside town of Bari, whose palm trees and buttery sunshine contrast with the hardscrabble realities of life for the characters. The star of the piece is ostensibly Sophia Loren, who brings a combative hauteur to the role of Madame Rosa, an Italian-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and former streetwalker who runs a kind of ad-hoc nursery for the children of her colleagues out of her apartment. While presenting herself as diamond-hard, Rosa is beginning to chip a little around the edges, and more in need of a friend than she would admit…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Rebecca’

Not surprisingly, Ben Wheatley’s new take on Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca is just a bit less captivating than Alfred Hitchcock’s.

Rebecca is playing now in some theaters and also on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

While staying in a posh resort on the French Riviera, an unnamed young woman (Lily James) working as traveling companion for acid-tongued, man-hunting dowager Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), is romanced by dashing and recently widowed aristocrat Max de Winter (Armie Hammer). In quick order, the somewhat lost-seeming woman marries Max and refashioned as Mrs. de Winter, the new lady of Manderley, Max’s sprawling coastal estate that becomes her gilded cage…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Getting a limited theatrical opening (whatever that means in pandemic times) before coming to Netflix in October, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatizes the story of the biggest, oddest political show trial of modern American history. Also: Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman.

My review is at Slant:

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Old Guard’

Based on Greg Rucka’s comic-book series, The Old Guard is a big-budget attempt to start a new action franchise, this one centered around a band of centuries-old mercenaries who are (mostly) immortal.

The Old Guard launches today on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Wasp Network’

Wasp Network

In the 1990s, the Castro regime sent several operatives to infiltrate the Cuban-American emigre community in Miami. Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network is a fictionalization of that somewhat forgotten sidenote of the post-Cold War years.

Wasp Network is available on Netflix today. My review is at Slant:

Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Irishman’

the-irishman2a.jpg

In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a reputed hitman who charts a course through a baroque landscape of postwar American intrigue, crime, and paranoia.

The Irishman is playing in a few theaters now, as well as on Netflix. My article about it is at Eyes Wide Open:

Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, about the decades Sheeran spent as a Zelig-like mob enforcer and assassin,The Irishman is one of the more curious and hard-to-pigeonhole gangster movies that Scorsese has ever done. Pulling back from the music-strobed buzziness of Goodfellas and Casino, and worlds away from the Nouvelle Vague/Cassavetes jitters of Mean Streets, it’s a cool, elegiac, and somewhat detached epic whose three and a half hours float by with a disconcerting calmness…

 

Screening Room: ‘The Great Hack’

The Great Hack is a new documentary about how Cambridge Analytica worked with private user data happily served up by Facebook in order to minutely target propaganda that helped win the 2016 election for Donald Trump.

Not available on Netflix until this Wednesday, it is already stirring up legal issues in the UK.

My review is at The Playlist:

It’s a sign of how quickly it feels like the world is being torn apart around us that even a ripped-from-the-headlines documentary, such as Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s “The Great Hack,” can feel almost dated…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

Lily Colins and Zac Efron in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (Netflix)

Taking a break from true-crime documentaries (the Paradise Lost trilogy, among others), Joe Berlinger directed a narrative adaptation of Elizabeth Kendell’s book The Phantom Prince, about her relationship with the serial killer Ted Bundy.

My review of Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, running now on Netflix, was published at Eyes Wide Open:

Of all the serial killers who entered the lexicon of American culture over the past half-century, Ted Bundy, who confessed to over two-dozen murders committed in the 1970s and was executed in 1989, remains something of a standout. The likes of the Zodiac Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Dennis Rader (aka the BTK) have shocked for many reasons, most particularly their depravity and ability to elude capture. Bundy, or at least the legend of him, followed a different trajectory…

Here’s the trailer: