Film reviews

Flipping out

Somersault
dir. Cate Shortland.

Australian writer/director Cate Shortland’s first feature, Somersault, has been garnering high praise of late. It’s been nominated for 15 AFI awards in 13 categories, received a standing ovation at its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival, and seems to be carrying the hopes of the moribund Australian film industry for a revival of its waning fortunes. The local industry has been regarded as being in something of a crisis since its successes of the ’90s, and funding bodies, filmmakers and critics alike have been flailing about for reasons (and solutions) to account for the paucity of decent films.
 
A common response to this issue has been to note the lack of script and project development in many Australian films. One of the solutions (of which Shortland and her film have been beneficiaries) is a ‘hot-housing’ approach. Promising directors take their scripts and projects into intensive development and mentoring workshops with experienced writers, producers and directors. On the basis of Shortland’s film, it appears that the experiment is worth continuing.

The film itself is driven by the internal lives of the characters, in particular Heidi (Abbie Cornish), a young woman struggling (and often failing) to negotiate the minefield of youth, love, sex and power in a world of often predatory and exploitative men. Attempts to convey an interior life through the visual medium of film all too often results in films where the expressive possibilities of action are lost, and nothing really takes its place. Nothing happens and nothing is felt—apart from the boredom of the audience. Somersault manages to avoid this risk, drawing on the expressive possibilities of the film form, especially colour rather than action, to express and articulate the lives of its characters.

This results in what is often described as a ‘European’ sensibility, as opposed to ‘American’ action. In Shortland’s case this is a sensibility mediated through Asia, and in particular, her admiration for Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle’s work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. It is to her credit that Shortland largely achieves her goals in her first feature. In particular the secondary characters are intriguing and engaging in a way that Australian films all too often lack. The film’s most moving scene belongs not to Heidi, but to the motherly owner of the hotel she makes her temporary home. Real care has been taken with the integration of formal and thematic elements throughout.

Nevertheless, it is a first film, and betrays the influence of Shortland’s greater experience in short film and in TV (she directed for The Secret Life of Us). Its fragmented and inconclusive narrative will frustrate some viewers. It does seem that the praise being heaped on the film is out of proportion to its achievements. It is a fine start, and Shortland shows great promise for the future, but it’s hard not to worry that her next film, and her development as an artist, may be swamped by the excessive expectations with which both are being burdened.

Allan James Thomas


Feline fizzer

Catwoman
dir. Pitof.

America’s worst fears about WMDs and terrorism have been reflected in Hollywood’s recent obsession with super heroes. Is it the need to escape to a place where all it takes to save America’s ails is a man with some kind of super power? Female super heroes seem few and far between. Enter Halle Berry with super feline abilities and a nifty leather S&M outfit. And yes. The WOM (word of mouth) is true.

The story should be engaging. Imagine killing off your main protagonist, have her then resurrected by a rare Egyptian Mau cat which leaves her confused and with cat-like abilities and a thirst for revenge.

Meek graphic designer Patience Phillips (Berry) is transformed and walks a fine line between villain and hero. Like most super heroes, she lives two lives.

Patience, the shy and sensitive failed artist who has sold out to a large multinational, as Catwoman, becomes first a petty thief (think catburglar) before seeking revenge on her would-be killers.

Like a dopey puppy following Catwoman around, detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) falls initially for Patience but is mesmerised by her new alter ego. It also seems odd that detectives work alone, but that is apparently the case here. Maybe the writers realised that if they gave Tom Lone (geddit?) a partner then his partner would tell him the bleeding obvious. Underneath the funky leather gear slinks his new squeeze, Patience.

In a thinly veiled swipe at Botox and the beauty industry, Patience discovers the multinational cosmetics company (Hadare Cosmetics) that she has been working for has some serious problems with their latest miracle skin care product. Side effects seem to include headaches, disfigurement and death, but boy does your skin look good!

Sharon Stone as Laurel Hadare seems to rise above it all and is intriguing and almost brave as an older woman desperate to maintain her beauty at any cost. Laurel is driven to extremes when her husband decides to use a younger model as the face of Hadare’s new anti-wrinkle cream. Ending in an inevitable catfight, you can’t help but compare the veteran Stone to the younger Berry against a Hollywood backdrop of ageing and being usurped by younger beauties.

The strange thing is, there seems to be no particular trigger for Catwoman to emerge. Similar superhero scenarios such as the Hulk or Jeckle/Hyde are transmuted by external forces, usually anger and provocation, which unleashes a superhero/villain from within. Catwoman/Patience just seems to decide to don the gear and strut her stuff.

Directed by former visual effects director Pitof, this film is lame. It won’t even satisfy escapist pop status. Maybe if you had a particular obsession seeing Halle Berry prance around in skin-tight leather, but its hollow story and simplistic overbearing exploration of the female/feline nexus is laughable. Fhiiisssss

John Brawley

Heavy metal

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
dirs. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

 ‘I just ... I wanna go out and not be famous,’ avers Metallica frontman James Hetfield in pre-rehab mode, as he burns down the road in a painfully low-to-the-ground hotrod emblazoned with orange flames stark against its black metal frame.

Flash-forward to Presidio, an ex-military barracks the band has acquired for a recording studio. The idea was to take the band out of their comfort zone, setting up a spartan recording environment watched over by ‘group therapist’ Phil Towle. Towle earns $US40,000 per month to act as mentor and mediator for the ailing music industry super-beast that is Metallica. Directors Berlinger and Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper) transform hundreds `of hours of raw video footage into a cogent three-act rock ‘n’ roll psychodrama.

The stars of this intimate documentary are the very mortal Metallica rock gods themselves: on vocals, James ‘I can only work from noon till 4pm’ Hetfield; on worried lead guitar, Kirk ‘Leaving out guitar solos would make the record too trendy’ Hammett; and Lars ‘I hope we all feel like Phil is an investment in our music’ Ulrich on drums.

Shortly after production starts at Presidio, the band nicks off for a two-week holiday. A nervous, fidgeting Hetfield returns from Russia with bear-hunting stories, and explains how he toasted his son’s first birthday in absentia and in vodka.

A frustrated Lars Ulrich rages daily at Hetfield through the wordy veil of psycho-babble—unintentionally hilarious. During these exchanges their faces betray the inner struggle to repress egotism, resentment, fear and the desire to shout expletives loudly and often. Storming out, Hetfield leaves for rehab, leaving the recording in limbo.

Hetfield returns nearly a year later, almost unrecognisable in horn-rimmed yellow-tinted designer shades and slicked-back hair. His demons seem dormant, and though self-absorption still rules his agenda, the creative process restarts. Metallica auditions bass players from other acts with rock cred. After several jams they choose Robert Trujillo, (the bassist from Ozzy Osbourne) whose mastery of the instrument inspires Metallica to share with him the iconic status they enjoy.

In one sense, the real story is of human interaction, struggle, and pressure, both commercial and personal, to make another number one album. The camera shows truth, rife with character flaws and complexity. The music video for the single of their return album St Anger, is shot at San Quentin maximum security prison in front of the inmates. It is a triumph contrasted with the fading role of therapist (‘I feel like I’m in the band’) Towle as he moves to protect his job, when Metallica is most focused, least receptive to his buzzword machinations, and finishing the album. The millions of Metallica followers are ‘legions of die-hard fans’ personified, but you don’t need to have worn a flannelette shirt and headbanged to heavy metal to appreciate Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, because this is a fine piece of work.

Gil Maclean

 

 

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