Review: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee

December 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog”

Directed by Jane Campion

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana in 1925, the dramatic film “The Power of the Dog” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A bullying rancher, who is secretly gay and who comes from a wealthy family, tries to make life miserable for his younger brother’s new wife and her young adult son from a previous marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Power of the Dog” will appeal primarily to fans of star Benedict Cumberbatch, filmmaker Jane Campion and well-made Westerns where the challenges are more psychological than physical.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog” gives an unflinching and riveting portrait of toxic masculinity, homophobia and family tensions. Even though the movie is set in 1925 Montana, the themes are universal and timeless. Written and directed by Jane Campion (who adapted the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name), “The Power of the Dog” is a masterfully made film on every level. Many parts of the movie are not easy to watch, but unless you have a heart of stone or only want to watch mindless junk movies, it’s nearly impossible not to be affected in some way after seeing “The Power of the Dog.”

The story of “The Power of the Dog” essentially centers on four people, who end up being caught up in a maelstrom of mistrust and hard feelings. There are varying degrees of love and fear that drive the motives behind these characters’ actions and words. The four characters who are the focus of the story are:

  • Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the aggressive alpha male rancher, who seems ultra-skilled at almost everything except staying in a healthy and loving relationship.
  • George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons), Phil’s mild-mannered younger brother, who is the opposite of Phil in almost every way.
  • Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), the widow restaurateur who becomes of one the targets of Phil’s scorn, especially after Rose marries George.
  • Peter Gordon (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, young adult son from Rose’s first marriage, who also gets Phil’s wrath because Peter is unapologetically effeminate.

Many other characters come and go in “The Power of the Dog,” but the most interesting and best parts of the movie are about the four main characters. Campion (who is also one of the movie’s producers) wisely pared down the “Power of the Dog” novel by choosing the parts that have the most cinematic impact. If everything in the book had been adapted to the screen, the “The Power of the Dog” would’ve been a miniseries, not a feature-length movie.

Still, the deliberately slow pacing in the beginning of the movie might be a bit of a turnoff to people with short attention spans. The first third of the movie takes place before Rose and George get married. She’s the sole owner/manager of a small eatery called the Red Mill restaurant, which is her only source of income since her first husband, Dr. John Gordon, passed away. Dr. Gordon was a loving husband and father, by all accounts. Peter helps out at the restaurant as a waiter/busboy.

Phil (who is in his mid-40s) and George (who’s in his early-to-mid 30s) come from a wealthy rancher family and live together on the family’s expansive ranch property in Montana. (“The Power of the Dog” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Their parents are both deceased. Phil (a never-married bachelor) is in charge of the ranch, where he shows off his cowboy skills to his underlings. Phil oversees the ranch’s day-to-day manual operations, while the better-educated George handles the ranch’s business affairs. But if push came to shove, everyone knows that Phil is really the boss of the ranch.

Phil isn’t just talented at ranch responsibilities. He also plays the banjo, which he learned how to play with ease and speed beyond what the average person would be able to do. Later in the movie, Phil uses his banjo playing as a weapon to emotionally torment Rose. Because Phil is so multi-talented and has a charismatic side (he’s well-known for enrapturing people with his storytelling), he gets away with a lot of appalling things with people who seem to both admire and fear him.

Rose and Peter (who’s in his early 20s) are still grieving over the loss of Dr. Gordon, but they do what they can to survive in an often-harsh world. They experience some of this harshness when Phil and his rancher cronies come into the restaurant and put their toxic masculinity on full display. Phil is a bully who likes to taunt and insult people he thinks are vulnerable, just so he can feel superior to them.

Phil makes obnoxious and cruel comments to Rose and Peter while he’s a customer at the restaurant. Phil’s rancher buddies just laugh and do nothing to stop Phil. These weak-willed enablers often join in on Phil’s bullying. One day, at the restaurant, Phil’s bad behavior becomes potentially dangerous, when he deliberately sets fire to a bouquet of paper flowers that’s on display on the restaurant table. The fire doesn’t spread to cause any significant damage. However, this arson is the first sign that Phil has destructive tendencies.

During this restaurant meal, Phil leads a group toast to his deceased best friend Bronco Henry, who died in 1904 at the age of 50. Bronco Henry (who is not seen in flashbacks) is described as a mentor to Phil. As time goes on, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that reveals that Bronco Henry was more than a best friend/mentor to Phil. It’s the scene that reveals that Phil is gay and in the closet about his true sexuality. It’s left open to intepretation if Phil and Bronco Henry had a sexual relationship, but it’s clear from this scene that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry.

Until that scene happens, the movie drops big hints that Phil’s homophobia is masking his own self-hatred about being gay. The biggest indication is in how Phil zeroes in on Peter for Phil’s worst bullying. Peter, who is shy and very intelligent, is contemplating going to medical school. He has no interest in a job that would require athletic prowess. Therefore, Phil delights in calling Peter a “sissy” and other derogatory names so that Phil can let it be known to everyone that he thinks Peter is probably gay.

Peter’s sexuality is not identified or defined in “The Power of the Dog,” because Peter doesn’t state what his sexuality is, and he doesn’t show interest in dating anyone at this point in his life. Peter is definitely a “mama’s boy” though, and his mother is very protective of him. Having an annoying and homophobic customer who comes into the restaurant is one thing. Having him become part of Peter’s family is another.

And so, it’s with growing dread that Peter (who does voiceover narration in the movie) notices that Phil’s younger brother George has taken a romantic interest in Peter’s lonely mother Rose. George is very smitten with Rose. The feeling isn’t mutual, but she likes George enough to entertain his amorous attention.

There’s an ulterior motive for Rose to consider marrying George: She needs money to pay for Peter’s medical school fees. Her restaurant is also struggling, and she wouldn’t have to work outside the home anymore if she married this wealthy rancher. Rose appreciates that George is kind to her, but she doesn’t have the same romantic passion for him that he does for her. She’s also living in an era when a woman’s financial stability depends largely on what kind of man she marries.

Peter isn’t the only one who doesn’t really want Rose to marry George. Phil tries to discourage George from marrying Rose. During a private conversation between the two brothers, Phil reminds George that they’ve had fun together when they visit prostitutes. Phil also warns George about not being seduced into paying the “nancy boy’s” medical school fees. George is undeterred in his pursuit of Rose because he’s truly in love with her.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take Rose long to decide she’s going to marry George. Rose and George have a whirlwind courtship, they get married, and she and Peter move to the Burbank family ranch. It’s during this life transition that things start to get ugly for Rose and Peter. George is often away on business, so he’s at first oblivious to what goes on at the ranch when he’s not there. And he’s sometimes clueless about the trouble that’s brewing, even when he’s at the ranch.

Because of George’s trusting nature, he lives life in an open and transparent way. By contrast, Phil is very secretive and highly manipulative. Phil sees life almost like a chess game where he always has to end up as the winner. George tends to dismiss the bad things that he hears about Phil, partly because Phil is his only sibling (and closest living relative) and partly because George likes to think that all people are essentially good.

Rose is a talented piano player, but Phil is the type of egomaniac who can’t stand the thought of anyone outshining him in any talent, especially in his own home. And so, one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie plays out, when Phil engages in psychological warfare with Rose, by using the music he plays on the banjo, how he plays it, and when he plays it. The marriage of Rose and George also threatens the closeness that Phil and George once had but is now changed because most of George’s attention is now on Rose, not Phil.

You also don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Phil is also jealous of George because George has found love and is with a spouse who makes him happy. It’s something that Phil knows he can never experience as a gay man, when homosexuality is forbidden in every way in this 1925 society. Over time, Rose starts to care deeply for George, and that makes Phil even more jealous.

A warning to viewers who are sensitive about seeing animal abuse depicted in movies: There’s a shocking and disturbing scene where Phil takes out his anger by brutally and repeatedly punching a horse. This act of animal cruelty is not entirely shown on camera, but the sound effects are sickening. And there are other scenes of horses being mistreated when Phil and his ranch workers use rough methods to “break” a horse in training. (There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s end credits that confirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.)

People who abuse animals usually abuse other people too. Needless to say, Phil tries to make Peter’s life a living hell at the ranch. And when Peter temporarily goes away to attend medical school, Rose gets the brunt of Phil’s animosity. While on a break from medical school, Peter comes back to the ranch to visit. Rose is shocked and fearful when Phil suddenly starts treating Peter like a protégé.

Even though Phil has stopped overtly bullying Peter, Rose is suspicious that Phil’s sudden transformation into being a “nice mentor” is all an act, and that Phil is setting up Peter for something sinister. Rose confides in George about her suspicions, but George doesn’t really know what to think. Peter seems happy and grateful that Phil is no longer bullying him. The movie delivers a knockout punch to audiences in showing how all of this turmoil is resolved.

All of the cast members give terrific performances, but the biggest standouts are Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, and they have an easy chemistry together. Where things really get really shaken with unease is in how Phil, Rose and Peter navigate their relationships with each other in this very uncomfortable blended family situation.

Rose and Phil predictably don’t get along with each other. But what Dunst portrays so well is being emtionally knocked-off balance when she sees that Phil and Peter, who could easily be enemies, are now starting to become close to each other and could possibly become friends. Phil knows that Peter is the person whom Rose loves the most, so what better way to disturb Rose than to gain the loyalty and trust of Peter?

It’s easy to see why Rose would feel emotionally betrayed by Peter too. Peter is starting to assert his independence, so he seems to want to ignore his mother’s increasing apprehension that Phil does not have good intentions for Peter. The tension is ramped up even more in scenes where Peter and Phil spend time alone together. As the hard-to-read Peter, Smit-McPhee probably has the most diffcult character to play because Peter doesn’t express his emotions as easily as the other main characters.

Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career as the ruthless and complicated Phil. This character is by no means an “anti-hero”—he’s a villain, through and through. But the movie can inspire thoughtful discussions over how much homophobia plays a role in Phil’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. If Phil had been able to live his life openly as a gay man, would he still be a jerk? That question is definitely open to debate.

It’s one of the many aspects of Campion’s version of “The Power of the Dog” that make it intriguing cinematic art. The movie does not offer easy answers and weaves a rich-enough tapestry in the story that’s open to interpretation. The movie’s cinematography, production design and musical score enhance the film’s ability to be both hypnotic and suspenseful. It’s easy to see why Campion won the Best Director prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “The Power of the Dog” had its world premiere. The movie also screened at other prestigious film festivals in 2021, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

“The Power of the Dog” gets its title from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the movie, a mountain range can be seen from the ranch, and the characters talk about how the mountain has a specific rock formation that resembles a dog, if looked at in a certain way. Phil represents any toxic force that threatens to ruin someone’s life. And the powerful message of the movie is that you can either fear this toxicity and look away, or you can look at it directly and confront it head-on.

Netflix released “The Power of the Dog” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2021, and on Netflix on December 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Antlers’ (2021), starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane and Amy Madigan

October 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Antlers” (2021)

Directed by Scott Cooper

Culture Representation: Taking place in Cispus Falls, Oregon, the horror film “Antlers” feature a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Native Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A schoolteacher finds out that a 12-year-old student in her class is hiding a horrible secret.

Culture Audience: “Antlers” will appeal primarily to people interested in horror movies that are about how damage to Earth’s environment can have terrifying consequences.

Jesse Plemmons, Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

More than the typical “creature on the loose” horror movie, “Antlers” tells a haunting yet somewhat sluggish story about how a decaying environment can wreak havoc if the problem is ignored. The dangers of this denial of also run deep in the movie’s human relationships that are plagued by abuse and neglect. The movie falls into some very predictable and repetitive traps, but there’s enough suspense in “Antlers” to hold most people’s interest.

Scott Cooper, a filmmaker known for his outlaw-inspired movies about troubled loners (such as 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” and 2015’s “Black Mass”) directed “Antlers” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca. The screenplay is based on Antosca’s 2019 short story “The Quiet Boy.” Guillermo del Toro is one of the producers of “Antlers,” so you know it’s going to be some kind of story involving a mysterious creature hiding among humans. Cooper is also one of the producers of “Antlers.”

The reason why this movie is called “Antlers” is revealed about halfway through the film, which takes place in the small town of Cispus Falls, Oregon. And once this information is disclosed to viewers, the movie just becomes a countdown to when certain people in this small town will find out the secret that a mysterious killer beast is living among them. The fact that “Antlers” is about some kind of deadly monster is part of this movie’s marketing, which includes movie trailers that already showed flashes of this creature. What’s revealed when watching the movie is how the monster ended up this way, why the creature is in this small town, and how this beast has been able to hide.

Fortunately, “Antlers” doesn’t take a stereotypical “slasher flick” route of of just being scene after scene of generic people getting killed. The movie takes its time to let viewers know the main characters of the story. “Antlers” has some not-so-subtle messages about the dangers of polluting the environment. But the movie also has depressing observations about how easily children can be neglected and/or abused, as well as how that trauma can be passed down through generations.

“Antlers” opens with a scene of two grungy-looking men in an abandoned mine shaft. Their names are Frank Weaver (played by Scott Haze) and Kenny Glass (played by Michael Eklund), and they have the type of dirty and disheveled appearance of people who’ve haven’t slept or cleaned themselves in at least a few days. Frank has left his 7-year-old son Aiden Weaver (played by Sawyer Jones) in Frank’s truck outside and ordered Aiden to stay there. He tells Aiden that he has to do some work and that it’s no place for kids.

If this sounds like Frank and Kenny are involved in drugs, it’s because they are. They’re both using the mine shaft as their meth lab. But their meth cooking is about to be interrupted by a mysterious creature that attacks them. After some time has passed, Aiden becomes restless and curious to find out what’s taking his father so long. He goes into the mine shaft and then movie abruptly cuts to the next scene.

Julia Meadows (played by Keri Russell), a bachelorette in her 40s, has recently moved back into the area (Cispus Falls is her hometown) after living in California for 15 years. She works as a teacher at the local middle school. Her younger brother Paul Meadows (played by Jesse Plemons), who is in his 30s, is the sheriff of Cispus Falls. Just like his sister Julia, Paul is single with no children.

It’s eventually revealed in the movie that Paul and Julia have had a somewhat strained relationship because she abruptly moved away from this hometown. Paul felt abandoned by his older sister. And there are still bitter feelings between both siblings for why they became estranged.

In one scene, Paul and Julia have a brief heart-to-heart talk about it. Julia tells Paul about her feelings of guilt about this long exit from his life: “Just know that I have spent my entire life trying to deal with leaving you.” Julia also says that she would understand if Paul still resents her, but she couldn’t stay in their family household anymore.

Paul seems to understand but he also wants it known how Julia’s departure hurt him. “I spent my entire praying that you’d come back,” he tells her. What caused this family rift? It’s shown in nightmares that Julia has that she and Paul had an abusive father (played by Andy Thompson), who is now deceased. One of the flashbacks (with Katelyn Peterson as an adolescent Julia) makes it clear without showing anything too explicit that Julia’s father was a deeply troubled man who sexually abused her. The mother of Paul and Julia is also dead, and it’s unknown how much she knew about this abuse.

In her classroom, Julia is frustrated because her students don’t seem to be connecting with her. The kids seem bored or unimpressed with her style of teaching. At this point in the cirriculum, she is teaching them about folklore and fables. Julia asks for the students to volunteer what they know about these types of stories that can be centuries old.

Eventually, Julia finds out that a quiet and shy 12-year-old boy in her class named Lucas Weaver (played by Jeremy T. Thomas) has been drawing some disturbing images in his notebook. The illustrations include demon-like animal figures in the woods. Does one of the creatures have antlers? Of course it does.

One day, Julia asks Lucas to tell her and the classroom of students what’s the story behind one of the drawings. Lucas then tells a creepy tale of a little bear that lives with a big bear and a small bear that are different because the big bear and small bear are always hungry. Based on the reactions by the other students in the class, Lucas is now perceived as even more of a “freak” who is a social outcast at the school.

Even before Lucas told this story, he was being bullied at school by some other boys. The leader of the bullies is a mean-spirited brat named Clint Owens (played by Cody Davis), who gets his comeuppance when Lucas puts dog excrement in Clint’s backpack for revenge. It sets off a feud between the Clint and Lucas. And if you know how horror stories like this usually go, things will not end well for one of these boys.

In the meantime, Julie notices that Lucas looks pale and undernourished. She gently and tactfully tries to find out from Lucas what his home life is like. The only thing that Lucas will tell her is that his mother is dead, and that his 7-year-old bother Aiden is homeschooled. Lucas resists Julie’s attempts to befriend him. Julie feels like she can relate to Lucas, because they are both treated like outsiders at the school.

Julie takes her concerns about Lucas to her boss, Principal Ellen Booth (played by Amy Madigan), who seems distracted and very reluctant to get involved. Principal Booth tells Julie that after Lucas’ mother died of a drug overdose, child protective services investigated suspicions that the Weaver household was abusive, but CPS didn’t find enough evidence to warrant taking the children away from the home. And so, Frank Weaver was allowed to keep custody of Aiden and Lucas. Principal Booth promises Julie that she will stop by the Weaver household in the near future to check up on the children.

Cispus Falls has been on an economic decline for years. And it’s been made worse by the opioid crisis and meth epidemic that have ravaged Cispus Falls and its surrounding areas. However, the drug-related crimes that have been plaguing the community somewhat pale in comparison to the murders that have suddenly begun to happen in Cispus Falls: Mutilated bodies, including one of the meth lab men from the opening scene, are being discovered in the town’s wooded area.

Paul and his small team of police officers begin to suspect that a people-killing wild animal is on the loose. But there are many signs that this is no ordinary animal. Footprints indicate that this creature can walk upright. And the bite marks are unlike anything that the local forensic pathologist has ever seen.

There are some supporting characters in “Antlers” that are quite formulaic. Rory Cochrane portrays Daniel Lecroy, one of the cops on the Cispus Falls police force. Grahame Greene is Warren Stokes, a stereotypical elder resident of the town who seems to know everyone’s business and the town’s history. Warren is also the one who talks about the Native American folk tales that offer clues into the mystery behind the creature.

Between the disturbing drawings made by Lucas and the discovery of the mutilated bodies, it doesn’t ake a genius to figure out what’s going on. Julie does her own investigating, and Paul eventually finds out what she’s learned. Therefore, the main suspense in the story comes from wondering who’s going to die and who’s going to survive.

The bond that Julia tries to form with Lucas runs almost parallel to her trying to heal her fractured relationship with her brother Paul. There’s an underlying message of how children with dysfunctional or absentee parents can often find strength and support with each other if they don’t put up too many emotional barriers. Lucas’ plight becomes very personal to Julia. She feels like she wants to “save” Lucas because she knows what it’s like to be a kid who needed help but no one was there to save or protect her.

As expected, the creature’s full physical appearance is eventually shown in the movie. These scenes with the monster attacks should bring enough chills to horror audiences, but “Antlers” ultimately does nothing groundbreaking with how this creature looks or acts. (Dorian Kingi portrays the antlered monster.) The movie doesn’t over-rely on CGI visual effects for gimmicks, but it does rely on a suspension of disbelief that all the mayhem the creature causes wouldn’t eventually be noticed by more people and would eventually make big news. For example, if this situation happened in real life, it would need more than a small-town police department to handle it.

An argument could be made that “Antlers” should have been a short film. And there’s some validity to the argument, since the movie tends to drag for long stretches to an inevitable conclusion. However, the principal cast members’ performances serve the story in a competent way. No one is a bad actor here, but no one is outstanding either.

One of the big issues that “Antler” doesn’t address adequately is how Lucas has been able to keep his big secret for as long as he has without raising suspicions sooner. However, it might be the movie’s way of showing how abuse and neglect of children can happen in plain sight and nothing is really done about it. People (such as Principal Booth) who should be mindful of the warning signs sometimes prefer to deny that there’s a problem and make any excuse they can to avoid getting involved. In that respect, you don’t need an antlered monster to know that these real-life tragedies are their own horror stories.

Searchlight Pictures released “Antlers” in U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti

July 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dwyane Johnson and Emily Blunt in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Jungle Cruise”

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1912, in Brazil and England, the action-adventure film “Jungle Cruise” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American Asian and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A sassy researcher and her fussy botanist brother, who are both from England, enlist the help of a wisecracking American skipper of a ramshackle cruise boat to go to a Brazilian jungle to find a magical tree which has a petal with the power to save lives.

Culture Audience: “Jungle Cruise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of any Disney adventure films, but might not hold much interest to people who’ve seen better family-friendly adventure films that take place mostly in a jungle.

Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Overstuffed with generic villains and too rambling for its own good, “Jungle Cruise” offers nothing new or exciting to people who’ve seen higher-quality and more unique adventure films with a jungle at the center of the action. It’s a bland misfire that borrows heavily from 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and 1951’s “The African Queen.” Viewers already know how a movie like “Jungle Cruise” is going to end, so “Jungle Cruise” needed to have other elements to make it stand out from similar movies that have a wisecracking male hero and his adventurous love interest who wants to be treated as his equal. Unfortunately, “Jungle Cruise” is stuck in a rut of mediocrity that will make this movie forgettable soon after watching it.

At a total running time of 127 minutes, “Jungle Cruise” over-indulges in characters and scenes that weren’t needed for the movie. Children under the age of 8 and people with very short attention spans might get bored or irritated by the unnecessary convolutions to the plot, which just weigh the story down more than stagnant muck in a jungle swamp. Don’t be surprised if some parts of the movie will make you want to go to sleep.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Jungle Cruise” was written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa and Michael Green. The extraneous plot contrivances seem entirely designed to stretch out the movie’s running time, as if the writers were afraid that that sticking to a simple concept wouldn’t work. In addition, too many parts of the movie seem forced and very fake, such as the romance between the male and female protagonists.

There are also some heavy-handed references to sexism and feminism that are repeated to irksome levels, as if the “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers think viewers are too dimwitted to notice the first three times these same references are in the movie. A running commentary in “Jungle Cruise” is that some of the men can’t believe that the female protagonist is wearing pants. The male protagonist even starts calling her “Pants” as a nickname. It’s a tired joke that wears very thin quickly. And the “feminism” messages in “Jungle Cruise” come across as extremely phony when this movie’s cast members who get top billing are several men but only one woman.

“Jungle Cruise” takes place in 1912, but there are flashbacks throughout the story to previous centuries. The movie opens with a voiceover explanation about the ancient legend that serves as the catalyst for this story. (The musical score during this intro uses an instrumental version of Metallica’s 1991 ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” which is kind of distracting for viewers who know this song.)

In the Legend of the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree called Tears of the Moon exists in the Amazon jungle. This tree has a petal that can cure any illness and break any curse. Over centuries, many explorers sought to find this petal. One of these explorers was a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s named Don Lope de Aguirre (played by Edgar Ramírez), also known as Aguirre, who got injured during his exploration and was found by the guardians of the tree.

After these guardians nursed Aguirre back to health, he demanded that the guardians give him a sacred arrowhead, which is believed to be the key to finding the Tears of the Moon. Aguirre and his conquistadors attacked the guardians, and the jungle fought back. (And yes, there are predictable scenes of trees coming to life and using their branches to tie up people.) As a result, Aguirre was cursed and held captive by the jungle trees for eternity.

In London in 1912, botanist MacGregor Houghton (played by Jack Whitehall) is making a presentation pitch to an all-male group of high-society members in a museum lecture hall. He’s reading a speech from index cards that were written by his much-smarter sister Dr. Lily Houghton (played by Emily Blunt), a researcher who is watching nervously from the balcony. MacGregor wants to convince this group of elites that the Legend of the Tears of the Moon is real, so that they can invest in a trip that MacGregor and Lily want to take to the Amazon jungle to find this magical tree.

MacGregor is fairly unskilled at public speaking (or he didn’t take the time to rehearse his speech), because on the index cards, where Lily wrote in parentheses “pause for dramatic effect,” he actually reads out loud the words “pause for dramatic effect.” MacGregor’s speech is not well-received, to put it mildly. He gets a resounding “no” from the group when requesting funding for the exploration trip.

As McGregor verbally flounders and gets flustered on stage, Lily sneaks off into an off-limits room to find the sacred arrowhead that supposedly will lead whoever possesses it to the Tears of the Moon tree. She pries open a crate, sees the arrowhead and steals it. But before Lily can leave undetected, she runs into a museum official named Sir James Hobbs-Coddington (played by Andy Nyman), a stern and greedy bureaucrat.

He’s about to secretly sell the arrowhead to a visiting German royal called Prince Joachim (played by Jesse Plemons), who sees that Lily has the arrowhead and demands that she hand it over. A predictable chase ensues in the room with some unrealistic choreography involving a ladder that leads to Lily hanging out of a window where she could fall and die. Prince Joachim has her cornered and tells Lily that if she hands over the arrowhead, he will rescue her.

Lily gives Prince Joachim a small box that she says has the arrowhead, but he pushes her off the building anyway. Just then, a double-decker bus with an open top drives by, and Lily lands in the bus. Inside the building, Prince Joachim sees that what’s inside the box isn’t the arrowhead but a duck-hunting decoy shaped like a toucan. Meanwhile, MacGregor gets kicked out of the lecture hall with perfect timing to be outside in the same place as Lily when she landed. MacGregor and Lily make their getaway on the bus. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

You know the rest: Lily and MacGregor find a boat navigator who can take them to the Porto Vehlo, Brazil, where their Amazon jungle adventure will begin. He’s a skipper named Frank Wolff (played by Dwayne Johnson), who makes a meager living as a tour guide to visitors on his run-down steamer boat La Quila. One of Frank’s identifying qualities is that he constantly likes to tell jokes with bad puns. People will either find it charming or annoying.

For example, while ferrying a group of unlucky tourists who have to listen to his bad jokes, Frank points out a pair of toucans and says, “Only two can play.” Frank’s “wink and nudge” tone is: “Get it? The words ‘two can’ rhyme with ‘toucan.'”

He tells another groan-inducing pun joke to the people on his boat: “I used to work in an orange juice factory, but I got canned. I couldn’t concentrate. Yeah, they put the squeeze on me too.” A young girl on the boat tour voices what a lot of viewers will be thinking about Frank and his cheesy jokes: “Make him stop!”

“Jungle Cruise” is very self-aware that the jokes are silly, but after a while it does get very tiresome and comes across as lazy screenwriting not to have anything else about Frank’s personality that’s memorable. In fact, one of the reasons why “Jungle Cruise” is so disappointing is that none of the characters in this movie has an outstanding personality. You know a movie is bad when it has three villains/antagonists, and they’re just watered-down versions of many other movie villains.

The most obvious villain is Prince Joachim, who spouts cliché lines and does everything a stereotypical villain does but twirl his moustache. Plemons struggles with having a believable German accent in this role. It’s like he’s trying to do a parody of a Christoph Waltz villain, but it doesn’t land very well because Prince Joachim’s dialogue is so witless. Prince Joachim doesn’t come across as cunning or dangerous as much as he comes across as a spoiled and stupid royal who wants his way.

Another villain is Aguirre, who shows up later in the movie. The “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers wouldn’t have taken all that time in the beginning of the movie to tell viewers who Aguirre is without him making an appearance. Aguirre could’ve had an interesting personality and story arc, but he mostly just growls his words and gets into fights.

A third villain, who’s in the movie for less than 10 minutes, is Nilo (played by Paul Giamatti, speaking in a questionable Italian accent), a rival riverboat tour operator who is after Frank for debts that Frank owes to Nilo. If Frank doesn’t pay up, Nilo will get Frank’s boat. Nilo is probably the movie’s most useless character that has a well-known actor in the role. Most people who see “Jungle Cruise” won’t remember who the Nilo character is and what he does for a living.

There’s a time-wasting sequence where Frank impersonates Nilo when he first meets Lily, who’s looking to hire a boat navigator. She soon finds out who the real Nilo is, so her first impression of Frank is that he’s a liar and a con artist. The expected bickering between Lily and Frank ensues, which we all know will eventually lead to them feeling romantically attracted to each other.

MacGregor is a high-maintenance dandy who’s upset that he can’t take many of his possessions—such as a large wardrobe of clothes and tennis rackets—with him on Frank’s boat. Frank’s way of dealing with this issue of MacGregor’s extra luggage is to throw away the luggage in the water. How rude. Later in the movie, it’s implied but not said directly that MacGregor is a semi-closeted gay man. MacGregor talks about how grateful he is that Lily is his sister, because she protects him from being persecuted.

Frank has a pet leopard named Proxima, which is introduced in the movie in a very dubious way: Frank has trained the leopard to scare people away in a restaurant. How is that supposed to be funny? The visual effects for this CGI leopard are not very convincing. It looks every inch like the computer-generated animal that it is.

In fact, all of the visual effects in “Jungle Cruise” are very ho-hum or look bogus enough to be distracting to the movie. The hair and makeup are overdone for Lily, who looks too polished in certain action scenes, where realistically her makeup would’ve sweated off of her face, and her hair would be lot more disheveled.

As for the “jungle adventure,” Frank, Lily and MacGregor have the predictable experiences with jungle tribes, as well as chase scenes with Prince Joachim and his henchmen. There’s also the “eccentric exotic person” who seems to be in every jungle movie. In “Jungle Cruise,” this character is a tribe leader named Trader Sam (played by Veronica Falcón), who becomes an ally to these adventurers. And there are more bad pun jokes from Frank.

But when it’s revealed that Frank has a secret identity, that makes the movie go off the rails. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Frank’s secret identity meant that he grew up in a country where English is not the primary language. However, Frank has a very American accent throughout the movie. This discrepancy can be explained by Frank living enough of his adult life in the U.S. that he now has an American accent.

But the movie’s tone gets a little too dark for a family film when Frank says that he wants to die. (And it’s not a joke.) It puts a weird damper on the rest of the “adventure,” because it’s an unnecessary death wish for the hero of the story to have, after it’s made obvious that he has romantic feelings for Lily. (And yes, they’ve already kissed each other at this point.) Apparently, no one told Frank that telling a potential lover that you want to die is not the way to romance someone.

Anyway, we all know that this “death wish” is a very manipulative part of the story just to create unnecessary drama. After all, why kill off the hero when there are potential “Jungle Cruise” sequels to be made? Do the filmmakers really think viewers are that stupid?

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt isn’t convincing enough to make Frank and Lily look like they could be in a real long-lasting relationship. Sparring partners in arguments? Yes. But as romantic partners? No. “Jungle Cruise” tries very hard to make it look like Frank and Lily are a great couple. But after this trip is over, it’s hard to imagine that Frank and Lily would enjoy each other’s company and have a lot to talk about in their everyday lives.

In “Jungle Cruise,” Johnson and Blunt do versions of characters that they’ve already played in other movies. There’s nothing fresh or intriguing about their “Jungle Cruise” performances. Johnson just isn’t very good at portraying someone from an era that happened before he was born. The way he talks and his mannerisms are better suited for roles that take place in his contemporary time period.

Everything about “Jungle Cruise” (which is inspired by the Jungle Cruise theme park ride at Disneyland and Disney World) is supposed to be fun, original and adventurous. Instead, too much of it looks and sounds over-calculated and ripped off from other movies. (And the hackneyed “Jungle Cruise” musical score by James Newton Howard is overbearing at times.)

There’s a pivotal scene in “Jungle Cruise” where an entire jungle lights up in purple, but it looks like it was copied from a pivotal scene in Pixar’s 2017 Oscar-winning film “Coco.” Simply put: “Jungle Cruise” takes no bold or creative risks when it could have. “Jungle Cruise” is more like “Jungle Snooze.”

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Jungle Cruise” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 30, 2021. 

Review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield

February 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield (in front) and Daniel Kaluuya (in back) in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Directed by Shaka King

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Chicago in 1968 and 1969, the drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” features a predominately African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing people involved in the civil rights movement and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: The Black Panther Party, including Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton, was the target of FBI investigations that included hiring an African American paid informant named Bill O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party to help the FBI bring down Hampton and his colleagues.

Culture Audience: “Judas and the Black Messiah” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about the civil rights movement for African Americans.

LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which is based on true events, mostly succeeds as presenting a rousing and riveting depiction of a troubling side of the U.S. civil rights movement that is rarely seen as the central plot of a movie: How African Americans were used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to betray African American civil rights leaders who were labeled as “troublemakers” by the FBI. It’s a necessary and sometimes uncomfortable examination of specific people in the late 1960s history of the civil rights movement, even though “Judas and the Black Messiah” has some awards-bait dramatics that were obviously manufactured for the movie.

Directed by Shaka King (who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson), “Judas and the Black Messiah” shows two very different sides of the African American experience with the civil rights movement. On the one side is the urgent activism embodied by Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. On the other side, is the passive political apathy of William “Bill” O’Neal, a car thief who was lured into betraying the Black Panthers by being a paid confidential informant for the FBI, in exchange for the FBI keeping O’Neal out of prison for his past crimes, such as car theft and impersonating a FBI agent.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which takes place primarily in Chicago, is told from perspective of O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), but Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is most definitely portrayed as the heroic soul of the movie. In real life, Hampton and O’Neal were in their early 20s when this movie takes place from late 1968 to late 1969. Thankfully, the filmmakers chose “Judas and the Black Messiah” as the movie’s title, instead of the movie’s original and very misleading title “Jesus Was My Homeboy.” Jesus is not a major theme in this movie at all.

The term “black messiah” refers to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s fear that the civil rights movement would gain momentum under a powerful and charismatic leader. For a while, that leader was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), until he was brutally assassinated on April 4, 1968. “Judas and the Black Messiah” starts off in late 1968, when the civil rights movement became increasingly fractured by ideological divides between those who wanted to follow MLK’s non-violence philosophy and those such as the Black Panthers, who wanted to follow a more left-wing-leaning “any means necessary” philosophy, even if those means included violence.

Hoover has been depicted in various ways in movies and television, but in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” there’s no doubt that Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, in prosthetic makeup) is the movie’s chief villain. In an early scene in the movie, Hoover is presumably at FBI headquarters as he addresses an auditorium full of FBI agents (all white men, as Hoover reportedly preferred), with an oversized projection screen that looks a little too ahead of its time, as if he’s giving a TED Talk. This is supposed to be 1968, not 2018. It’s one of a few details that don’t ring true in the movie.

During this FBI assembly, Hoover sneers, “The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a black messiah among their midst, one with the potential to unite Communists, the anti-war and the new left movements.” A photo of Hampton then appears on the giant projection screen, to make it clear that Hampton is now one of the FBI’s main targets.

Meanwhile, O’Neal is shown being a small-time car thief with an unusual method of operation: He impersonates a FBI agent (including having a fake badge) and pretends to arrest someone for having a stolen car. He looks for potential victims, by at least finding out their names and what kind of car they have, so the fake arrest can look real. And he chooses people who are probably into illegal activities and aren’t likely to go to the police when the theft victims find out they’ve been tricked. It’s implied that all of O’Neal’s theft victims are black, since he knows he’d have very little chance of getting away with this FBi impersonation stunt if he tried it on white people.

What usually happens during this fake FBI arrest is that O’Neal gets the handcuffed person’s car keys and steals that person’s car. Except when viewers first see O’Neal in this movie, that plan backfires in a bad way. O’Neal walks into a bar while some men are playing pool and tries to arrest one of them, but this stranger resists being handcuffed. The “arrestee” has a few friends who also try to stop the detainment. They’re all immediately suspicious of this “arrest” and chase after O’Neal in the car.

One of the friends jumps on the car roof with a knife and starts stabbing through the roof and ends up stabbing O’Neal. The injuries aren’t serious, but they’re enough for this car theft to be completely botched. O’Neal barely manages to get away from the angry group when he’s pulled over by police.

The movie then fast-forwards to O’Neal in a meeting with the FBI special agent who will be the one to lure O’Neal into the FBI sting: Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons), an ambitious smooth talker who asks O’Neal why he impersonated a FBI agent for a car theft. O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

Mitchell then asks O’Neal how he felt about the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X. O’Neal replies that he was a “little bit” upset over MLK’s murder and he didn’t give much thought to Malcolm X’s murder. It’s at this point that Mitchell knows that O’Neal doesn’t care much about politics or the civil rights movement, and therefore O’Neal can be easily manipulated into being an informant.

First, Mitchell says that the only way that O’Neal can avoid prison is to work as an informant for the FBI. Whenever O’Neal starts to express doubts about being an informant (and this happens several times throughout the story), Mitchell tells O’Neal that the Black Panthers aren’t much different from the Ku Klux Klan, because Mitchell says both are radical, unpatriotic groups that want to divide people by their races and overthrow the U.S. government.

It doesn’t take long for O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in Chicago and gain the trust of Hampton, who makes O’Neal the head of security. Hampton is a smart and magnetic leader who is respected by other party members because he often shows through words and deeds that the cause he’s fighting for isn’t about his ego but is about the people and future generations. Unlike other Black Power leaders, who wanted to keep black people separate from people of other races, Hampton embraced alliances with like-minded people of other races.

Hampton is credited with creating the Rainbow Coalition in 1969, which aimed to unite other anti-establishment groups for shared causes. It was a concept that was met with some resistance from the separatist Black Panthers, but because this is a movie, the Rainbow Coalition’s origins are a little too oversimplified and streamlined. One minute, Hampton and some other Black Panthers are showing up uninvited to meetings by the Young Patriots (a group of working-class white people) and the Young Lords (a group of Puerto Ricans) and making themselves known as unexpected allies. The next minute, Hampton is leading a Rainbow Coalition rally with members of the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords in attendance.

The movie also shows how Hampton spearheaded the alignment of the Black Panthers with a Chicago-based African American gang called the Crowns, in order for the Black Panthers to have access to weapons and armed security backup. And what do you know, one of the Crowns just happens to be someone who was in that group that chased after O’Neal in that botched car theft. There’s a very “movie moment” when O’Neal is sure this guy is going to remember him, thereby making O’Neal more paranoid that his cover will be blown.

Some of the other Black Panther Party members who are featured in the movie include Jimmy Palmer (played by Ashton Sanders), Jake Winters (played by Algee Smith), Judy Harmon (played by Dominique Thorn) and Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback), a wide-eyed student who is in awe of Hampton and ends up becoming his girlfriend. In real life, Johnson is now known as Akua Njeri, and she gave birth to Fred Hampton Jr. in December 1969. Njeri and Hampton Jr. both were consultants on “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Of course, in any movie that involves spying, there are double crosses and constant questions about loyalty, honesty and who can be trusted. The movie ramps up the tension not only outside the Black Panther Party but also within it. “Judas and the Black Messiah” also raises thought-provoking questions that will make people wonder about the prices that people pay for freedom, however freedom might be defined by individuals. And when there are informants or spies who are paid to betray, to what extent should they be branded as the “enemy”?

“Judas and the Black Messiah” has undoubtedly powerful performances by Kaluuya as Hampton and Stanfield as O’Neal. Kaluuya has the flashier role that will get more attention, mainly because there’s no ambiguity about his purpose in the film: depicting Hampton as a civil rights hero. In the few times Hampton was depicted in scripted projects before “Judas and the Black Messiah” was made, Hampton was usually a marginal character who didn’t have much depth, such as in the Netflix 2020 movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hampton is a larger-than-life personality who gets the big speeches, the leadership position at rallies, and the martyrdom when he lands in prison at the height of his power. Hampton’s biggest showcase speech scene comes after he’s released from prison and gets a hero’s welcome during a Black Panther rally in Chicago. After leading the crowd to chant, “I am a revolutionary!” several times in the speech, he declares poetically: “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation! You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution! You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom!”

Stanfield has the more difficult and nuanced role as the conflicted and duplicitous O’Neal. On the one hand, O’Neal knows he’s a traitor. On the other hand, O’Neal is portrayed as someone who genuinely became friends with many people in the Black Panther Party, but he felt powerless to stop the informant deal that he made with the FBI. There are times when O’Neal shows so much loyalty to the Black Panthers that FBI agent Mitchell doubts whose side O’Neal is really on.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t let O’Neal completely off the hook for his betrayal, but the movie gives the impression that his decisions were not about the money but about his fear of going to prison if he didn’t comply with what the FBI wanted. In real life, O’Neal gave only one TV interview about his Black Panther/FBI informant experience. It was in 1989, in an interview for the PBS show “Eyes on the Prize 2,” which aired the interview on January 15, 1990. Clips of this interview are recreated in the movie.

The performances in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are impactful and deserving of high praise. Where the movie falters is in some of the scenarios depicting the interactions between O’Neal and his FBI contact Mitchell. In the movie, Mitchell deliberately kept O’Neal’s identity a secret from most his FBI colleagues. (Hoover knew though.) Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that the movie shows O’Neal and Mitchell openly meeting several times in upscale restaurants, where O’Neal is obviously the only black person there as a dining patron. It wouldn’t have been hard for the movie’s screenwriters to keep all of the meetings between O’Neal and Mitchell in less public places.

O’Neal’s wardrobe gets a little more stylish as he starts to make more money from the FBI. But in the beginning, O’Neal definitely stands out in these restaurants because he’s dressed inappropriately (too casual) for these kinds of dining establishments. If you were to believe this movie, in 1969 Chicago, a black man in “street clothes” can walk into an upscale restaurant where all the other patrons are white, sit down, have dinner with a white man in a suit, and no one notices, stares or questions why this inappropriately dressed black man is there. Things like that would’ve definitely gotten noticed in the real world. And this scenario is not exactly O’Neal and Mitchell keeping their relationship undercover or incognito.

Another “only in a movie” contrivance is in a scene where a despondent O’Neal ends up in a bar, where a woman shows a romantic interest in him after she rejects a fur-coat-wearing motormouth at a nearby barstool. The rejected man (played by Lil Rel Howery), who is identified only as Wayne in the movie’s end credits, is a stranger to O’Neal, but Wayne drops hints that he knows that O’Neal is working for the FBI.

O’Neal, who is already feeling very uneasy, follows Wayne out to Wayne’s car and demands to know who he is. The movie, with anxiety-filled music building to a crescendo, then has Wayne reveal something that’s meant to shock O’Neal and the audience. It’s highly doubtful this confrontation ever happened in real life, but fans of the Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out” will be happy to see “Get Out” co-stars Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery reunited as cast members for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

As the only women with significant speaking roles in the movie, Fishback (as Hampton’s girlfriend Johnson) and Thorne (as Black Panther member Harmon) show considerable talent, although this is definitely a male-dominated film. Johnson’s character evolves from being a star-stuck fangirl of Hampton to being a loyal romantic partner to being a strong-willed expectant mother, who can’t help but feel impending heartbreak and doom when she hears Hampton give a speech saying that he will probably die for his people. Thorne’s Harmon is a badass who can get down and dirty in fight scenes just like the men do, such as in a tension-filled shootout between the Chicago Police Department and the Black Panthers.

The flaws in the movie’s screenplay are outweighed by the significant talent of the cast members and the ability of director King to maintain a suspenseful edge. Even though many people watching this movie might already know what happened to Hampton and O’Neal in real life, “Judas and the Black Messiah” triumphs in capturing the essence of this era of the civil rights movement in America. There might be fabricated “only in a movie” moments, but the film authentically conveys the passion and necessity for civil rights.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Judas and the Black Messiah” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ starring Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of the U.S., the drama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman, who have been dating each other for six weeks, go on a road trip to meet his parents, but the trip turns out to be more than meets the eye, as they experience arguments, family conflicts and secrets from the past.

Culture Audience: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s unconventional style of filmmaking.

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

People who aren’t familiar with the work of writer/director Charlie Kaufman won’t be fully prepared for the eccentric head trip that is his dramatic film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” Kaufman won an Oscar for co-writing the original screenplay for 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which is probably his most famous movie), and he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplays for 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and 2002’s “Adaptation.” He also wrote and directed the 2014 animated film “Anomalisa” and 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York.” What all of these movies have in common is that they defy convention and are often about characters that spend a lot of time inside their heads. People who hate Kaufman’s movies usually think the movies are too weird.

Therefore, anyone who watches “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (which Kaufman adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name) should know in advance that it won’t be a story told in a straightforward way, and people are doing to say and do things in a bizarre manner. The movie starts out by giving the impression that it’s going to be told from the perspective of one character, but then it ends up being the story of another character. In other words, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” can only be recommended to people who are up for a ride that isn’t really supposed to be logical but it’s more about conveying atmosphere, capturing moods and presenting themes in an often-abstract way.

The foundation of the story is a road trip during heavy snowfall that could turn into a storm. Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley) are an American couple who are both in their late 20s. Jake is driving them to his parents’ farmhouse, where his girlfriend will be meeting his parents for the first time. Jake and his girlfriend have been dating each other for about six weeks. They plan to have dinner with Jake’s parents before leaving to go back on the road that night, since his girlfriend has to get up early the next morning for work.

The girlfriend doesn’t officially have a name in the story, but throughout the movie, she is called different names that start with the letter “L” (such as Louisa, Lucia and Lucy), which is bound to confuse people watching this film. And, at different times in the movie, she is described as having different professions, such as artist painter, gerontology student or waitress. The parents don’t have names either, but Jake’s mother (played by Toni Collette) is American, while Jake’s father (played by David Thewlis) is British. The movie also doesn’t mention where in the United States this story takes place.

Before, during and after this dinner, Jake’s girlfriend contemplates the pros and cons of staying in this relationship with Jake. Her inner thoughts are heard in voiceover narration. And throughout the movie, she keeps repeating “I’m thinking of ending things,” every time she mulls over whether it’s better to break up with Jake before the relationship turns bad or if it’s worth sticking with him to see if things will improve between them. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jake is more infatuated with his girlfriend than she is with him.

She’s already starting to doubt that they’re compatible, and she figures that meeting his parents will give her a better idea what kind of family she’ll have to deal with if her relationship with Jake becomes more serious. She says in one of her inner thoughts, “Jake’s not going anywhere. People tend to stay in relationships past their expiration date.”

While driving to the farmhouse, the girlfriend thinks, “I should be more excited, but I’m not.” On the other hand, she admits to herself why she would want to stay in this relationship with Jake: “It feels like I’ve known Jake longer than I have … We have a very real connection.”

During the ride, Jake and his girlfriend talk mostly about music and poetry. She is surprised to find out that Jake is a big fan of musical theater, and “Oklahoma!” is his favorite musical. (There are several references to the “Oklahoma!” musical in this movie.) Jake also mentions poet William Wordsworth and his “Lucy” poems. When his girlfriend recites a poem that she wrote, Jake assumes he was the inspiration for that poem, and she’s annoyed by the assumption. Jake comments, “That’s why I like road trips. It’s good to remind you that the world is bigger than outside your head.”

Jake seems nervous about his girlfriend meeting his parents. When Jake and his girlfriend arrive at their destination, he insists on giving her a short tour of the property before heading into the main house. They go to a barn, where a few sheep have frozen to death. The girlfriend is slightly horrified, but Jake nonchalantly says that the sheep’s bodies are too frozen to move and the bodies will be moved when the bodies become naturally thawed out. Jake also mentioned that the pig sty in the barn was where a pig was found being eaten alive by maggots. Life can be cruel on a farm, Jake says.

Inside the house, Jake’s parents don’t appear right away. Jake’s girlfriend looks uncomfortable until she sees the family’s friendly Border Collie, because she likes dogs. She also notices that the basement door has dark scratch marks all the way up to the top of the door. When she asks Jake what caused those scratches, he says it was the dog, but that answer isn’t believable at all, because the dog wouldn’t be able to reach that high. Jake also says, “I hate the basement.” The secret of the basement is revealed in bits and pieces during the rest of the movie.

And viewers soon see why Jake was so nervous about his girlfriend meeting his parents. When Jake’s parents finally appear, they start out as very friendly and effusive to his girlfriend. But as they sit down for dinner, his parents say inappropriate things and at times act mentally unbalanced. His mother cackles and snorts loudly at the wrong moments and at her own jokes that only she thinks are funny. Jake’s father is overly critical and thinks he is always correct.

For example, Jake’s girlfriend mentions that she is an artist who likes to paint landscape portraits. She shows Jake’s parents some photos of her paintings that are on her phone. When she mentions that she hopes to convey certain emotions with these paintings, Jake’s father vehemently disagrees and tells her that the only way emotions can be expressed in a painting is by having a human being in the painting. Jake’s girlfriend shares her opposite point of view, but out of politeness she chooses not to get into an argument with Jake’s father about it.

Meanwhile, Jake’s parents are very argumentative with each other. Jake tries to hold back and not get involved in taking sides, but at one point he snaps and tells his parents to stop being so obnoxious. The more time that Jake’s girlfriend spends at the family home, the more she sees that Jake has had long-simmering tensions with his parents that seem to go all the way back to Jake’s childhood.

One of the recurring themes of the movie is that Jake’s girlfriend is anxious to go back home, but Jake keeps thinking of reasons to delay this return trip. Meanwhile, the snowfall outside is getting worse and Jake’s girlfriend doesn’t want to be stuck in a snowstorm. Jake and his girlfriend get into arguments that start to escalate.

While some of this relationship drama is going on, the movie cuts back and forth between scenes of an elderly janitor (played by Guy Boyd), who works at a high school. (The janitor’s relevance to the rest of the story is explained later, but not in a straightforward manner.) There are also various choreographed dance scenes from “Oklahoma!” and other musical numbers at the high school and elsewhere. Jake breaks out into song at one point in the movie. And there are scenes involving diners and waitresses that won’t make much sense until toward the end of the film.

In one of these scenes, the janitor watches a movie on a TV monitor at the high school where he works. The movie he’s watching is of a man surprising his waitress girlfriend at the diner with an elaborate show of adoration, but it’s disruptive to the customers, and she ends up getting fired. The movie that the janitor is watching then cuts to the end credits to show that it was directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an example of the type of quirky comedic touches in the story that are best appreciated by movie aficionados who might get some inside jokes.

Even if people find this movie’s storyline hard to take, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is still compelling to watch for the performances by the main actors in the cast. Collette is wonderfully unhinged as Jake’s mother, while Buckley gives some impressive monologues during the movie. Plemons’ Jake character is the most complex because it’s hinted at throughout the story that he has some secrets hidden underneath his mild-mannered exterior. Thewlis plays a self-righteous and arrogant character as Jake’s father, but he’s never boring to watch.

At 134 minutes, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a little too long and could have used some fine-tuning in its editing. The movie is actually written and structured more like a play than a traditional narrative film. But it’s the kind of movie that, if people like it enough, it’s probably better experienced after a repeat watching, to pick up on things that might have been missed on the first viewing. However, “I’m a Thinking of Ending Things” is a perfect example of why Kaufman’s filmmaking is definitely an acquired taste and not everyone will want to go back for a second helping.

Netflix premiered “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on September 4, 2020.

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