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.

Hotel Coolgardie

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Watch CJ’s review of this film on WATCH THIS.

***1/2 (out of five)

Pete Gleeson’s creepy fly-on-the-wall portrait of mining-country Australia (specifically, the area called Goldfields in Western Australia) is an eye-opener, even as it feels like it’s pulling its punches. It isn’t quite the documentary equivalent of Wake In Fright (or Hostel, for that matter) but it certainly has pungent things to say about isolation, masculinity, alcohol and Australia. If it bends over backwards not to decimate its subjects, it also can’t help it when they implicate themselves.

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Comfortable, lucky, Sydney-based me had no idea that young female backpackers are constantly being given short-term deployments to isolated outback mining-town pubs, where the local workers await their arrival as “fresh meat” (a term literally uttered ravenously by one of this film’s charming denizens). Such is the case with Lina and Steph, who – having had their credit cards stolen and their savings drained in Indonesia – are sent to work on a three-month contract at the insanely named Denver City Hotel in Coolgardie, as isolated and barren a place as might exist on earth (but only 39kms from Kalgoorlie!) There, they are slobbered over by grotesqueries masquerading as men, and, were it not for the sense of camaraderie the viewer feels with Gleeson himself (they’re being filmed, therefore Gleeson is there, and we assume Gleeson is a nice enough guy) we may very reasonably fear greatly for their safety.

There are jaw-dropping moments galore, and not a lot of salvation. Lina and Steph’s journey is not so much towards greater understanding or cultural awareness as it is towards failure and escape. And who in the world could blame them? The Hotel at Coolgardie is hell with beer.

There is one moment where Lina seems in real danger, and the camera lurches forward, as though Gleeson has made the decision to intervene. One can only imagine the moments left unfilmed, in the undocumented version of this story, which repeats itself, in three-monthly cycles, out there in the red dust, where the men wait for young travellers like mangy dogs for carrion.

WHITNEY: Can I Be Me

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**1/2 (out of five)

Nick Bloomfield is not the greatest documentarian, even if he’s one of the most famous. He made his significant name with provocative titles such as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, putting himself into the picture with his signature boom mike and even-more-signature idiosyncratic British drawl (if you’ve seen the work of Louis Theroux you’ll be hip to Bloomfield’s early style). He stays out of Whitney: Can I Be Me, his feature doc on Whitney Houston, but, as with the majority of his work, he takes a point of view; trouble is, as with much of his work, that point of view is muddy and obtuse.

Whitney’s death is the big feature here, and the film is framed as something of a detective story, not a “whodunnit?” but a “howdidit?” Unfortunately, the answer is pretty clear: long term drug use killed the deceased, Your Honour, case closed. So Bloomfield, seeking to spice things up, dwells on the love triangle at the centre of Houston’s universe – between herself, husband Bobby Brown, and best friend and possible lover Robyn Crawford – with diminishing returns, as we realise that Crawford isn’t going to appear on camera.

Her absence leaves a gap too thematically large for the many talking heads to fill; it’s kind of like a piece of journalism missing the most important source. There is a lot of footage from Houston’s final tour – seen for the first time – that certainly shows both the astonishing talent and the ravages of addiction, and there are often terribly sad revelations, such as the on-camera admission by Houston’s mother Cissy that she could not abide homosexuality on her daughter’s part. But Houston herself remains a weirdly remote, distant figure, which is a big problem for the subject of a feature doc.

The overwhelming feeling this film provokes is sadness, and not just because of the drugs and the brilliant life cut short. There isn’t any celebration here; like a lot of Bloomfield’s work, there is only casualty.

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