December 07, 2021

The Power of the Dog
M *****

Jane Campion’s latest film, The Power of the Dog is based on a novel by Thomas Savage and set in 1920s Montana. It centres on the brothers Burbank who run a flourishing cattle ranch. Gentlemanly George (Jesse Plemons) quietly endures ongoing jibes from outgoing, macho Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Although academically and physically gifted, Phil is a narcissistic, manipulative bully, who encourages equally nasty behaviour in his cowhands.

So appalling is his behaviour at the Red Mill restaurant en route to market with their herd of prime beef cattle, that widowed proprietor Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit- McPhee) are reduced to tears.

When George subsequently marries Rose, and brings her back to their ranch, Phil sets about making her life miserable.

This fascinating psychological study of individuals and their relationships makes a most engaging story. Cumberbatch’s performance is formidable, while Plemons, Dunst and Smit-McPhee give impressively nuanced characterisations in their less showy roles.

Production designer Grant Major’s recreation of the Burbank homestead and other locations are convincingly authentic, as are Kirsty Cameron’s gorgeous costumes. Beautifully shot in New Zealand by Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog looks superb, especially on the big screen.

The Duke
M ****

The recent British Film Festival opened with The Duke, a delightful film based on the 1961 trial of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton, for having stolen Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Art Gallery. Written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, and directed by Roger Michell, The Duke stars Jim Broadbent as Bunton, with Helen Mirren playing his long-suffering wife, Dorothy.

The family dynamics are complex. An autodidact with a social conscience that regularly gets him sacked, Bunton is a prolific, but unsuccessful, playwright. His latest piece is inspired by his grief over daughter Marion’s accidental death, for which he blames himself.

Having recently spent thirteen days in gaol for his refusal to buy a TV licence, Bunton is incensed by the government paying £140,000 to keep a portrait of the Duke of Wellington in England. So, he steals this “half-baked portrait by a Spanish drunk” from the National Gallery and demands a ransom of £140,000 pounds be paid to charity to provide free TV licences for the country’s old age pensioners.

Believing that the theft is the work of an international mastermind, Scotland Yard takes a while to accept that Bunton really is the thief. When he is finally remanded to stand trial, the real fun begins.

Ably represented by Jeremy Hutchinson QC (a deliciously suave Matthew Goode), Bunton nevertheless seizes every opportunity to expound his socio-political beliefs during crossexamination, quoting liberally from a wide range of literature.

Bunton becomes a cause celebre: supporters from all walks of life fill the gallery, thoroughly relishing the legal thrust and parry.

Broadbent’s performance is a veritable tour de force in this entertaining and often touching film.

Most enjoyable!

M ****

Described by one of her many friends and colleagues who contributed to this film as “a cultural force”, Julia Child was in her 50s when she demonstrated how to cook an omelette during a TV interview in 1961 to publicise the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This appearance led to her TV show The French Chef, which ran for decades in America.

However, this documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West is about much more than Julia’s career as a celebrity cook.

Julia recounts the fascinating life story of a singularly interesting person. For 30-yearold Julia McWilliam, America’s entry into World War 2 provided a means of escape from a privileged but rigidly conservative life in Pasadena. Too tall at 6’3” to enlist, she joined the Office of State Security. Deployed to Ceylon in 1944, she was introduced to the delights of local cuisine there, and in China, by Office of State Security graphic artist Paul Child.

Post-war, they married and moved to Paris in 1949 where Paul worked with the US Foreign Service. After savouring her first filet de sole meunière at la Couronne, Julia embraced French cuisine. She enrolled at the prestigious Cordon Bleu school, persevering despite the discrimination she encountered in this male-dominated profession. With Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Julia subsequently established l’École des Gourmandes, teaching small groups of women in her home kitchen. This collaboration led to Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Cohen and West relate her journey through a stream of anecdotes. The commentary is illustrated with archival footage, the Childs’ personal correspondence and photos. Both Julia and Paul lived into their nineties, remaining devoted to each other in sickness and in health. Her “3F” recipe for a happy marriage illustrates the cheeky charm that endeared her to so many!

Described as a “tomorrow person”, Julia was always ready and willing to learn. She espoused social causes, making appearances at fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and AIDS research, which provoked the ire of conservative picketers.

The Card Counter
M ****

Professional poker player William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a card-counter, a skill he mastered during the eight and a half years he spent in military prison.

Employing his knowledge of the mathematical odds and his ability to read his opponents’ body language, this enigmatic loner earns sufficient winnings in low-stakes gambling games to finance a modest existence on the gambling circuit.

Each night, after having transformed his motel room into a neutral space by wrapping everything in white fabric, he pours himself a glass of whisky and writes in his journal.

We learn that Tell is seeking redemption for his deeds at the infamous Abu Ghraib interrogation facility, under Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe). He sees a possible means of expiation as mentor to Cirk (Tyler Sheridan) the son of a former colleague. At the same time, Tell is tentatively falling in love with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish).

The Card Counter is a classic Paul Shrader film: tough, provocative and enthralling.

No Time to Die
M *****

From the lengthy pre-titles sequence onwards, this latest film from the Bond franchise is utterly enthralling. Daniel Craig’s fifth appearance as Ian Fleming’s MI6 agent 007 is arguably his best, due not only to his acting ability, but also to the extremely well written screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller- Bridge and director Cary Joji Fukunaga. Referencing various characters and incidents in Ian Fleming’s later novels, as well as the previous Bond films, the screenplay allows Craig and the core cast to flesh out their characters.

M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Tanner (Rory Kinnear), Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Bond’s paramour Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) are joined by deranged villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), and Nomi (Lashana Lynch), Bond’s successor as 007. Christoph Waltz makes a brief but memorable reappearance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, while Ana de Armas is thoroughly delightful as eager CIA recruit Paloma, whose first mission after only three weeks’ training is to help Bond ‘cover’ a Spectre convention in Cuba.

While such scenes are tempered with humour, the central narrative is intense and action-packed, as Bond and co desperately endeavour to prevent Safin unleashing the Heracles bio-weapon developed by rogue scientist Obruchev (David Dencik). Bond’s emotional armour is off and he reveals himself to be a vulnerable, complex human being.

Trust me, this Bond film is well worth seeing.

Blue Bayou
M ****

Justin Chon wrote and directed this powerful family drama. He also plays the central character, Korean-American Antonio LeBlanc, brought to America by his adoptive parents in 1991. In Blue Bayou, Chon highlights the plight of more than 500,000 children from other countries, adopted by American families before 2000, when a bill was passed that automatically grants citizenship to adopted children. Unfortunately, this bill was not retrospective.

Antonio is a tattoo artist who lives with his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and her 7-year-old daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) in New Orleans. Antonio and Jessie have a special bond, which fans the ire of her biological father, a local police officer Ace (Mark O’Brien). His policing partner Danny (Emory Cohen), a racist redneck, takes every opportunity to hassle Antonio.

When an altercation between Ace and Antonio escalates, largely due to Danny’s interference, Antonio is not only arrested, but charged with being an illegal immigrant. Had they been aware that his adoptive parents had never secured his US citizenship, Antonio and Kathy could have taken steps to rectify this. To do so now will be expensive and will require him to confront painful childhood memories, which he is reluctant to do.

Despite the emotionally draining narrative, Blue Bayou has many lyrical and uplifting scenes, especially those shot at Antonio’s ‘special place’, the eponymous blue bayou. The film is beautifully shot by Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang. Colour is central to Bo Young Shin’s production design and Eunice Jera Lee’s costumes, subtly enhancing the mood throughout.

Tricia Youlden retired from teaching pre-COVID. She is infinitely proud of her former profession and applauds the great work teachers did throughout lockdown and continue to do in the NSW Department of Education.



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Authorised by Maxine Sharkey, General Secretary, NSW Teachers Federation, 23-33 Mary St. Surry Hills NSW 2010

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