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.

Berlin Syndrome

BS_Poster*** (out of five)

Opens April 20th in Australia

Movies where disturbed men imprison women actually began on the A List, with 1965’s The Collector, directed by William Wyler from John Fowles’ novel. Starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, it was nominated for three Oscars. Since then, the idiosyncratic sub-genre – call it the “Female Captive Movie”, perhaps – has taken a stroll into more exploitative territory, through such diverse fare as Boxing Helena (1993), Black Snake Moan (2006) and Captivity (2007), the last one being a definite B Picture. (Last year’s excellent Room cannot be considered part of this sub-genre; it doesn’t focus on the captive/captor relationship, nor does it follow many of the genre’s primary tropes).

Australian director Cate Shortland gives the subject the A List treatment with Berlin Syndrome, and in doing so highlights its limitations. Impeccably directed, shot and acted, there’s no denying that the script is just another take on an unhinged man who kidnaps an attractive woman and holds her captive; it is tense and suspenseful but really has nothing new to say.

As a thriller, though, it’s great fun. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a solo tourist in Berlin. She gets picked up on the street by Andi (Max Riemelt) and, after a promising and very sexy start, things go very, very wrong. There’s not much else to say about the plot – if you know the genre, you know the story. But the execution is above average for the material. Palmer is terrific; she paints Clare in more colours than the script would seemingly allow. From the moment we meet her, we suspect Clare has more going on beneath the surface than most poor backpackers taken hostage in Europe; it feels like she’s trying to escape some sadness or tragedy, though, if so, it’s never made explicit. Once a captive, Palmer is vividly proficient at all the stages of Clare’s terror, desolation and resolve, but the actress brings even more than that, creating a physicality of fear that brings to mind Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – and that’s high praise indeed. Riemelt is a strong presence too, although his character’s mental imbalance calls for him to present as dispassionate and immoveable, which limits his performance.

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Shortland uses the camera well, creating some beautiful images, but she continually falls back on her favourite trick, which is to fall into a dreamy, slow-motion montage with over-reliance on an increasingly intrusive soundtrack by Bryony Marks. If you’ve seen Shortland’s debut feature, Somersault (2004), you’ll know the technique; it’s ill-used here, interrupting and slowing down the narrative and contributing to its significantly overlong running time of 116 minutes. In trying to elevate her lurid material, Shortland ignores one of its basic demands: she drops the tension. The result is an entirely watchable movie with some excellent elements, but which is an uncomfortable fit, a square peg straining to squeeze into a round hole.

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