The Power of the Dog / Bad Luck Banging

The Power of the Dog

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

* * * 1/2

During the end credits of Jane Campion’s new feature The Power of the Dog, she thanks a colleague who gave her the novel on which it is based. Her friend thought she’d like it; it’s easy to see why. I haven’t read the book but Campion’s screenplay and filmed version of it echoes repeatedly in all manner of ways with her acknowledged masterpiece, The Piano (1993).

That film, set in the mid-1800s in isolated New Zealand, placed a newly-married woman and her daughter into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. This film, set in 1925 in isolated Montana, places a newly-married woman and her son into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. There’s even, not only a piano for the woman to play, but a scene of rough-as-guts workers carrying it across rugged landscape into a refined house for her: a case of a director paying almost risibly direct homage to herself.

The film pans out differently, but thematically it’s of a piece with The Piano, and shares with that film plenty of top-tier craft, including a suite of excellent performances and an outstanding original score (this time by Jonny Greenwood). But the film hums frustratingly along on that single frequency of psychosexual tension without a huge amount of actual dramatic energy. The Piano swept you along: it was ecstatic cinema. The Power of the Dog is restrained for its entire two hours and six minutes, and we, the audience, unfortunately may feel as bound and suffocated by its reserve as the woman, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) does by her observed, isolated new life.

By all means see the film, and preferably on the big screen; it’s sure to feature heavily in awards – including Oscar – conversations, and it does have an eerie, enigmatic quality (and some great acting). But be prepared to settle calmly in your seat, as this film settles into its one very consistent tone.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Opens 25/11 in Australian cinemas.

* * *

Much has been made at various festivals, including the recent Sydney Film Festival, of the explicit opening of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. And it is indeed full of genitalia and explicit sexual acts – for about three minutes. After that the film settles into a story of how those acts, as featured in a sex tape privately filmed by a school teacher, gets her into hot water when they appear online. The film is a colourful, unsubtle attack on hypocrisy and conservatism, in Romania and beyond, in the time of Covid: there are masks, and attitudes to wearing them, all over the film. Jude is shrewd: his film won’t make Marvel Box Office, but it’s precisely engineered for maximum festival marketability. Hopefully if you come for the porn, you’ll stay for the social critique.

Titane

* * * *

Seemingly inspired by Boys Don’t Cry (1999), feature documentary The Imposter (2012) and David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Julia Ducournau’s Palme D’Or-winning follow-up to Raw (2016) – my favourite film of the past five years – is tender and raw, ferocious and funny, and, despite wearing its influences on its diesel-stained sleeve, a true original. While not as brilliant as Raw (and I should not spend Ducournau’s career seeking something that is; Welles never topped Kane, right?), Titane is a major work by a major filmmaker, and echoes in the mind long after its loud credits roll.

Ready for a bonkers one-line synopsis? A young female exotic dancer serial killer goes into hiding with a grief-stricken fireman after having sex with a car. Yep. And that’s kind of spoiler-free. There’s a lot more.

The fireman is played by Vincent Lindon and it’s in his performance, and the relationship he builds with the murderous dancer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, making an astonishing feature debut), that tenderness resides. At its heart, outside of the crowd-freaking acts of violence and depravity (no greater, by the way, than any in Raw), this is that old chestnut: a tale of two lost, deeply damaged souls finding each other. The film becomes increasingly – yes, tender – as it goes on, culminating in an ending as perfect, and perfectly moving, as it is inevitable.

No Time To Die

Time to Love.

* * * *

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond film is a dark, emotional epic. Deliberately and consistently harking back – musically, thematically, and tonally – to the purist’s secret favourite Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, No Time To Die is a love story, and a successful one: the complicated chemistry between Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux is supremely well played. Acting at this level was simply absent in the pre-Daniel Craig era, and this is probably the best acted entry in the entire series.

It’s also a team effort: Bond is rarely solo for this film’s two hours and forty-three minutes, and watching him and his crew – including Q and M, plus a new female agent and good ol’ Moneypenny – share the third act feels entirely appropriate. Earlier, Craig shares the film’s best action set-piece, in Havana, with Ana De Armas, who makes a spectacular impression with very little screen time. She is simply delightful, and her ability to make a fast strong impression is very much in keeping with the historical tradition of the First Act Bond Girl.

The film, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, looks sublime, at times rivalling the cinematography of Skyfall. Most of the action is gripping, and the locations, particularly Norway, are moody and evocative.

The plot itself, featuring a biological weapon, is creepily Covid-prescient (of course unwittingly, as the film was finished by the advent of the pandemic and its release delayed for two years because of it). But plot is not story, and the story – the love story – is heartily and admirably committed to.

This is mature Bond for a mature audience, even if the (main) villain could have stepped out of the 60s Connerys. Played in a hard-to-hear weird dialect by Rami Malek, he’s a fun throwback, but no Silva (Javier Bardem in Skyfall), let alone a Goldfinger, a Scaramanga, or Terry Savalas’ Blofeld.

But this Bond is not about the villain. This Bond is about love, Léa Seydoux is very much the second lead, and she’s terrific. Dame Diana Rigg would approve.

The Many Saints of Newark

WARNING: Minor Spoilers.

The US reviews for The Many Saints of Newark, the big-screen Sopranos prequel, were lukewarm, and I was reticent in seeing it. But bada bing, I enjoyed it, quite a lot. It’s full of richly evocative late 1960s / early 1970s US urban period ambiance, it’s nicely shot (looking great on the huge screen I saw it on at Event Cinemas in the Sydney CBD) and the acting is a lot of fun. I also found the story compelling. But here’s the thing (and the reason, I think, mild disappointment surrounds the film): it’s not really Tony Soprano’s ‘origin’ story. It’s the story of his uncle Dickie, played very well by Alessandro Nivola. Young Tony is in it, as a child and a teenager, but he really doesn’t do much of anything at all. He’s an observer in Dickie’s movie. And I enjoyed Dickie’s movie.

The story revolves around the tension between the established Italian crime bosses in Newark and the rising opposition of Black gangsters. It’s exciting and the dialogue is witty. Vera Farmiga, as Livia, is the standout among those playing established characters from the series; the most exciting new character is a young Italian woman brought over to Newark and into the family, played passionately and cleverly by Michela De Rossi. Ray Liotta also has a couple of delicious roles.

It’s a fun, well crafted period mob story. Enjoy it as such; but if you’re hoping to see Tony’s blooding, you may well be very disappointed.

The Last Duel

In Cinemas 21 October.

* * * 1/2

Sir Ridley Scott’s sprawling, very expensive-looking, old-school epic throwback The Last Duel is a strange beast. Featuring masterfully designed and executed art direction (it’s set in France in the 1300s, with castles, horses, gates, bridges, lances, swords, ladies in waiting, armour, medieval Paris, and about sixty never-not-roaring fireplaces), a superb central performance from Jodie Comer, and three fruity turns from Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, it succeeds in being engaging and entertaining throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime despite an icky story.

Scott uses Rashomon’s structure: an alleged sexual assault, told three times from three different perspectives, including that of the victim (Comer, of course, with Driver the accused). It’s rather shocking, seeing a big-budget rape drama (with an A-List actor playing the alleged rapist); to see rape portrayed at all demands sensitivity and kid gloves, and this movie’s gloves are all made of heavy metal.

Frankly, the themes are too grave for the flamboyant treatment, yet it’s the treatment that’s entertaining. Filled with astonishing visuals, and perhaps saved by Comer’s precise performance, the film succeeds despite itself, a ravishing relic.

Nitram

Now in Cinemas

* * * *

You have every right and reason not to go see Justin Kurzel’s new film Nitram, despite its impeccable craftsmanship and staggeringly effective performances. It chronicles events leading up to the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it’s as bleak and depressing as cinema gets. Stay away, by all means. This is not for everybody.

Is it for anybody? And by that, what I really mean is, does it have a reason to exist? About halfway through I wasn’t so sure; by the end I was, absolutely. For Nitram is a thorough, methodical, detailed, unsensational and sincere examination of mental illness; it is also a quietly powerful anti-gun plea for common sense.

The film makes the effective case for the shooter’s mental health leading directly to his actions, and along the way reminds us that, often, warning signs of serious trouble are evident. It is not so much that it’s sympathetic to the shooter; rather, it tries to wrestle with how things like this could happen: not because of ‘evil’, but when certain very disturbed people get their hands on guns. Without blaming society, or any one person in particular, the film couldn’t be clearer that mentally ill people need help, and we shouldn’t have guns circulating in society. Both concepts sound self-evident, obvious, but the film delivers the message with great impact and fresh clarity.

Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor at Cannes for his lead role, and it is truly an astonishing performance, the best I’ve seen this year. We have come far in the depiction of mental illness on film, and this surely sets the new benchmark. Everything he does rings true. He is supported by equally precise naturalistic performances from Judy Davis (as his mother), Anthony LaPaglia (his father) and particularly Essie Davis as Helen, a woman with whom he develops an unusual and impactful relationship.

This is clearly similar territory for Kurzel to Snowtown (2011), his terrifying examination of the events leading up to the Adelaide serial killings. There are great tonal and aesthetic similarities, and a similarly bleak sense of existential despair, but there are also crucial differences. Snowtown featured graphic scenes of horrific violence and essentially operated as a horror film, albeit one of impeccable integrity and craftsmanship. Nitram has no onscreen violence and operates as a cautionary, sad drama. They are easily Kurzel’s two best films, and Nitram is one of the best films of the year, but one I can only recommend with reservations. Put it this way: if you think it’s not for you, you’re probably right.

Only Murders In The Building, Hacks, Foundation

Milieu is everything in Only Murders In The Building (Disney+), a half-hour cosy mystery set in a gorgeous, sprawling, classic Manhattan apartment building. Steve Martin and Martin Short continue their forty year or so on-again off-again collaboration as two mature show-biz types whose prime days are way past; true-crime podcast obsessives, they hook up with a third, a young woman played by Selena Gomez, to solve a murder in the building. It’s warm, charming and sweet: total lockdown comfort food. It’s also underwritten, at times rather casually directed, and features a very weird, even off-putting, performance by Gomez. But watching Martin and Short together is a treat, and the milieu is delicious.

Sometimes the right actor just gets the right TV role, and hits the jackpot. That’s an intentional, albeit lame, pun, as Jean Smart’s role in Hacks (STAN), as Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers-like stand-up comedian, sees her revelling in all things Las Vegas. Vance, as Rivers was, is a star of the Vegas Strip, performing a hundred shows a year, and making unimaginable amounts of money. But the guy who owns the casino she works in wants to slowly decrease her workload, so to give the appearance of sharpening up her act, she agrees to her agent’s request to hire a young joke-writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who is at least 45 years younger than her and light years away in all sensibilities.

Their culture clash forms the spine of this feted half-hour comedy, but the depiction of a ludicrously lavish Las Vegas lifestyle is more than half the fun. Rivers was famously loaded, as is Vance, and the wealth porn on display is magnificent and eye-opening. Why would you ever work Vegas? Well, this house is why, and this lifestyle. Much like Rivers herself was, Vance is simultaneously a fan of Vegas and a woman of some taste, and seeing that culture clash – how to be tastefully obscenely wealthy in an obscenely tasteless place – is fun indeed. Smart won the Emmy recently, and she’s the reason to watch: she’s fantastic, making the most of every single moment.

On Apple TV+, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation gets a very expensive outing. One of the first vehicles we see in the first episode is extremely close to Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder from Star Wars, and myriad other references – especially to ‘Empire’ – make it clear that Asimov’s novel was indeed, for George Lucas, a foundational text. But Star Wars is fantasy, and this is ‘hard’ sci-fi, so everyone is giving a stoic performance, and solemnity is the key tone. Sometimes the mood is deliberately lightened, clearly to aid accessibility, and when it is, the tone clashes jarringly. I’ve not read the Asimov, but I doubt there was such importance played to a shipboard romance as there is here. Thankfully, there’s an awful lot of science, or pseudo-science, and mathematics going on as well, which is, I gather, what the Asimov heads will want, along with spectacular VFX world-building (and there are a lot of worlds). It feels mostly respectful to Asimov’s tone and story, which may make it good for the fans and incomprehensible to the rest of us.

Diana’s Wedding, The Chair, Impeachment

At select cinemas across Australia from 23 September, Diana’s Wedding, a decades-spanning tale of the marriage of two spiky Norwegians who get hitched the same day as Princess Diana,is warm, charming, observant, honest, with absolutely winning performances from the two leads. It’s the best Norwegian film I’ve seen in a few years. Delightful and absolutely worth your time. * * * 1/2

Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, wrote comedies of academic life, and the central conflict often involved a culture clash between ageing professors and the youthful progressive students. So it is with The Chair, a new Netflix half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh as the newly-minted chair of an American University’s English department. Her professors are stuck in their ways; she’s stuck in the middle. It’s not the most biting satire and the more invested you are in woke politics the less authentic it will feel; instead, it’s light, charming, and very easily swallowed. You won’t be fighting over the dinner table about issues it raises so much as singing the praises of the older character actors populating the stuffy department, particularly Holland Taylor as a feisty boozy flirt. A central (romantic) entanglement between Oh’s character and one of her male professors is far less interesting than watching the shenanigans of the older thesps.

American Crime Story: Impeachment on Foxtel, the latest Ryan Murphy extravaganza, sees his muse Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the ex-White House Counsel secretary who nudged Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) into the world’s brightest spotlight. So far (one ep in) it’s typically Murphyesque: overblown and melodramatic yet compulsive storytelling. And it is the story itself that’s compelling, along with Paulson’s sharp, specific performance. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is in it for about a second and a half; this is Tripp and Lewinsky’s story.

Under The Volcano

* * * *

VOD from 1 September.

Australian director Gracie Otto follows her excellent 2013 feature documentary The Last Impresario, about producer Michael White, with another enormously entertaining and charmingly breezy entertainment feature doco, Under the Volcano, about Sir George Martin’s post-Beatles adventure building and running a music studio on the West Indian island of Montserrat.

Air Studios only operated from 1979 to 1989 on the small volcanic island, but in that time a rather incredible batch of your favourite childhood albums were recorded there, including Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Too Low For Zero by Elton John, Steel Wheels by The Rolling Stones and Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, along with seminal albums by Jimmy Buffet, Duran Duran, Ultravox and many others.

The Police are interviewed in full, along with members of Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Buffet and so forth; also included are staff and crew from the studios, Montserrat locals, and, in lieu of Martin himself, his son, who speaks with great insight into his dad’s dreams and methods. Since the gang’s all here and they did their two most important albums there, The Police get the most screen time, and while Sting remains incredibly charismatic and handsome, it is Stewart Copeland who provides the most energetic and amusing recollections. He’s a character, that Copeland.

The eventual demise of the studio – and the island – gets short shrift. Under The Volcano is a celebration, not an elegy, and does everything it can to remain as upbeat as a track from side one of Brothers In Arms. I loved every minute.