Dailies—September/October 2009

FILM, Home Video, In Cinemas
STUART LYNCH and ALEXANDER BISLEY recap the best and rest in film and DVD. In this edition: Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, Somersault, Pete Seeger: Live in Australia 1963, Until Proven Innocent, Soul Men, Notorious, Defiance, The Wrestler (DVD); Cathay Pacific Italian Film Festival 2009, The Strength of Water, Disgrace, District 9 (Film).

Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities (Roadshow, $59.95): Channel Nine’s much anticipated prequel to last year’s smash Underbelly strikes a similar chord, with heaps of sex and violence, surprisingly slick direction and more than a little dodgy acting along the way.
A Tale Of Two Cities follows the personal life and ever expanding empire of New Zealand drug smuggler Terry ‘Mr Asia’ Clark (played by Matthew Newton) from 1976 to 1987, assisted by ‘Aussie’ Bob Trimbole (Roy Billing) and girlfriend Allison Dine (Anna Hutchison). There are also many sub-plots surrounding corrupt police and underworld bigwigs, and plenty of torture and assassinations in some pretty full-on scenes.
Like its predecessor, there are also excessive amounts of sex scenes. Not a problem in itself perhaps, but most of them involve Clark, and frankly the image of diminutive Matthew Newton as porn star is more than we need to see. Also, the scenes are often drawn out and not particularly relevant to the plot, suggesting a formulaic approach as opposed to confident plot-building.
Newton gives his best Kiwi-by-numbers accent and almost gets away with it, if you can forgive the occasional over-pronunciation. A Tale Of Two Cities is a decent effort, lacking the pizzazz and variety of the original Underbelly, but succeeding in all the right areas and giving the people what they want—a hard-nosed gangster drama with a flimsy thread of historical content presented in a format that is easy to digest.
The second prequel, and third instalment in the Underbelly series, The Golden Mile, is due to air in Australia in early 2010, and will rely on many characters from the previous two programmes. With Aussie icon Vince Colosimo set to star in a main role as Alphonse Gangitano, Channel Nine may well once again be onto a winner. Let’s just hope they keep Matthew Newton fully clothed for this one. (4-disc set, no special features.)—Stuart Lynch

Somersault (Roadshow, $19.95), one of the best Australians films of the last six years, has been resonating with me since I saw it on its New Zealand cinematic release. Its lack of prudish tut-tutting is refreshing. What is it with the media’s attitude to youth sexuality? Movies hardly set an example. From Larry Clark (Ken Park) incinerating the cinematic envelope and masturbating on the ashes to hacks like Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door), directors priggishly moralise about their subjects while indulging voyeuristic ogling.
Cate Shortland sensitively tells the story of Heidi (Abbie Cornish), a fragile young Australian woman who is finding herself through experimentation. After a scrap with her mother, emotionally challenged Heidi runs away to a rural backwater. A kindly maternal local (Lynette Curran) takes an interest in her. Heidi develops a relationship with farmhand Joe (Sam Worthington) and attempts to suss out the difference between shagging and love. “When you leave you still feel her on your skin,” Joe lyrically describes Heidi and Somersault. On another note, Bob Dylan could have been singing about Heidi: “She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does/And she aches just like a woman/But she breaks just like a little girl.”
Shortland’s thoughtful, empathetic debut fuses the fierce intelligence and potent lyricism of Rain and In My Father’s Den with the sinewy toughness and tactile menace of The Boys, while eschewing pat quaintness. Her striking ear for contemporary relations involves: “Yeah, I’ve got friends like that, too.”
In the extras Shortland and cinematographer Rob Humphreys discuss their intuitive, sensual visual style. DVD also features Shortland’s short film Flowergirl about a Japanese man saying sayonara to Sydney.
Cornish and Worthington’s terrific, immensely promising performances have kept them near acting’s top table. Worthington gave Terminator Salvation some grounded Ocker edge; while Cornish was the ideal – but weirdly corseted into turgid—choice for Jane Campion’s disappointing Bright Star. Australia has another Cate to be proud of, and I’d like to see Shortland work with Blanchett. (Making of featurette, interviews, deleted scenes, ‘Flower Girl’ short film.)

Pete Seeger: Live in Australia 1963 (Roadshow, $24.95): One of the joyous moments of Obama’s inauguration was Pete Seeger and Bruce Willis leading the crowd singing ‘This Land is Your Land’, including a swipe at America’s treatment of those at the bottom of the economy. That joy can also be found in Pete Seeger’s 1963 Melbourne gig. The eclectic music he effortlessly creates employing a banjo and guitar is remarkable, from a haunting Japanese anti-nuclear song to Ludwig Van to agitprop ‘What Did You Learn in School Today?’ After quitting Harvard to learn music from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Seeger was banned from American TV for more than fifteen years. Fresh from seven years fighting and quashing a sentence of ten years in the huscau (and a massive fine) just for telling Congress to uphold the US Constitution, Seeger delivered a pearler in Victoria. The finest track is Seeger’s awesome ‘Freihart’ (‘Freedom’). This Spanish International Brigade anthem was composed by a German who escaped a Nazi concentration camp. (Interviews, additional performances + more.)

Until Proven Innocent (Roadshow/TVNZ, $29.95): John Barlow, Scott Watson, Mark Lundy, etc. are overwhelmingly guilty. David Dougherty, however, is innocent. Until Proven Innocent, based on this true story, tracks Dougherty’s wrongful 1993 conviction for abducting and raping an eleven year-old girl and his fight (more than three years) to clear his name. (Dougherty’s $868,000 compensation isn’t mentioned.) Jodie Rimmer and Peter Elliott convince as tenacious journalist Donna Chisholm and Dougherty’s defence lawyer Murray Gibson; Cohen Holloway is terrific as Dougherty. Sunday Theatre at its best, this is palpable, compelling drama.

Soul Men (Roadshow, $29.95) made me a bit sad, thinking about the great, tragically late Bernie Mac, dead last August at 50. Hollywood too often gave the big-hearted stand-up comic below-par material to portray; it’s work like Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy we’ll remember fondly. In Malcom D Lee’s Soul Men, Mac plays soul man Floyd Henderson. Floyd persuades his grumpy old band bud Louis Hinds (Samuel L Jackson) to reunite to play a tribute concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. The duo embark on a lively, very funny roadtrip across America. In refreshing contrast to the sanctimonious, insipid Dreamgirls, Malcolm Undercover Brother Lee’s canny film both celebrates and gently makes fun of soul music. The salty, argumentative duo also meet a ridiculous rapper, Lester the Jester. Since Pulp Fiction Jackson has been Hollywood’s Dr Ice-Cold and Louis doesn’t disappoint. Jackson and Mac share an effortless rapport and charisma, which almost makes it seem churlish to quibble about Soul Men’s flaws. As with Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, it’s bizarre a film this entertaining goes straight to DVD. (Various featurettes, deleted scenes + more.)

Notorious (Roadshow, $29.95): Whatever Biggie’s faults, and they were sizeable, Christopher Wallace is undoubtedly a major cultural figure. (Not to mention history’s most obese sex symbol). See the way the crowd erupts during his funeral procession when a man cranks out rousing Hypnotize on a ghettoblaster. Notorious is a solid, enjoyable entertainment. Defiance (Roadshow, $34.95): Daniel Craig stars as a mightily tough Jew who hides and protects more than a thousand Jews from the Nazis in East Poland/West Belarus’ forests during World War Two. It’s a compelling story, based on truth. The Wrestler (Roadshow, $34.95): Mickey Rourke makes a strong comeback in Darren Arofonosky’s realist one-two. Requiem for a dream, indeed. (Featurettes, deleted scenes.)—Alexander Bisley

*   *   *

Films at the Cathay Pacific Italian Film Festival (various centres, until December) have sometimes been bettered by the delicious kai before; not 2009’s Il Divo though. Paolo Sorrentino’s biopic courageously damns Giulio Andreotti, the domineering, spectacularly dodgy Italian politician known as The Prince of Darkness. Sorrentino’s relentless film on power as pathology, better than Gomorrah, is the pick of this year’s festival. Gomorrah’s Toni Servillo is exceptional as Andreotti and also as The Girl by the Lake’s inspector, a role that won him Best Actor at the Venice.

It’s been a longtime since In My Father’s Den; The Strength of Water is the finest New Zealand film in ages. The sacred Hokianga is a powerful presence in this evocative, beautifully shot story of loss and resilience. Bravo to director Armagan Ballantyne and impressive actors Jim Moriarty, Nancy Brunning, Shane Biddle, Isaac Barber, Melanie Mayall-Nahi and Hato Paparoa. Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s richly complicated work about the Rainbow Nation and academia, is one of the greatest novels ever written. Steve Jacobs does it justice in this atmospheric, nuanced adaptation. John Malkovich is ideal as disgraced English Professor David Lurie. District 9 is a rare science-fiction movie. Grounded in reality, deeply felt and audacious. Neill Blomkamp directs this hilarious, intelligent movie with imagination and heart.—Alexander Bisley