From tor­ment to loud te­dium

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

ARE Aus­tralian films get­ting bet­ter? Silly ques­tion. It’s never a good idea to gen­er­alise, and I’m averse to the kind of solemn stock­tak­ing and ret­ro­spec­tive navel- gaz­ing that pro­lif­er­ates as the award- giv­ing sea­son draws nigh. But by any test, surely, it has been a good year for the lo­cal in­dus­try.

One thinks grate­fully of Lucky Miles , The Bet , Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther and The Fi­nal Win­ter , none of them en­tirely sat­is­fac­tory but all in­tel­li­gent, heart­felt and with some­thing to say. Two of the year’s re­leases I’d rate close to flaw­less: Matthew Sav­ille’s star­tlingly orig­i­nal po­lice thriller Noise and Tim Slade’s de­light­ful 4 , which breathed new life into the mu­si­cal doc­u­men­tary.

Per­haps it was only to be ex­pected that one or two fair- to- mid­dling ef­forts would come along to spoil the mood of cel­e­bra­tion, and here they are: one the vic­tim of over­in­flated am­bi­tion, the other not nearly am­bi­tious enough. Gabriel is an apoca­lyp­tic fan­tasy ( for want of a bet­ter term), di­rected by Shane Abbess; All My Friends are Leav­ing Bris­bane is a flimsy ro­man­tic slice of life with a loud sound­track, di­rected by Louise Al­ston.

Both were made with mod­est bud­gets by gifted young en­thu­si­asts and may yet make money for their back­ers. Al­ston’s film was well re­ceived at the Bris­bane Film Fes­ti­val, and world dis­tri­bu­tion rights for Gabriel have been sold to Sony Pic­tures in Los An­ge­les, which must have thought more highly of the film than I did.

If com­mit­ment and dar­ing were guar­an­tees of qual­ity, Gabriel might be rated a mas­ter­piece. It was shot in a mere nine weeks. Abbess has ac­knowl­edged the in­flu­ence of his favourite screen gen­res, but ex­actly what th­ese are is hard to say. Is this a fu­tur­is­tic ver­sion of The Lord of the Rings , an­other in­ter­ga­lac­tic strug­gle be­tween good and evil, Star Wars with­out rock­ets or space­ships?

The fol­low­ing syn­op­sis, which I re­pro­duce in an ef­fort to be help­ful, comes cour­tesy of the film­mak­ers: ‘‘ For cen­turies, a se­cret war has raged be­tween Arc An­gels, the guardians of The Light, and the Fallen, guardians of The Dark, over the souls of the in­hab­i­tants of Pur­ga­tory. All looks to be lost. Now The Light sends its last war­rior, the Arc An­gel Gabriel, who must take on hu­man form and, one by one, kill the Fallen.’’

Such words are cal­cu­lated to make any critic’s heart sink in an­tic­i­pa­tion, but let’s be fair. The hu­man form as­sumed by Gabriel is that of ac­tor Andy Whit­field, a hand­some fel­low with a strong screen pres­ence. This is a film with seem­ingly end­less close- ups of tor­mented faces in a ru­ined, graf­fiti- smeared waste­land. And for a time noth­ing much seems to hap­pen. Shad­owy fig­ures move against rainy back­grounds. Then Gabriel pro­duces a cou­ple of guns from be­neath his gar­ment and the ap­pear­ance of recog­nis­able ob­jects comes as a re­lief. Some kind of plot must be de­vel­op­ing. And in­deed it’s not long be­fore Gabriel does bat­tle with a Drac­ula- like fig­ure armed with a knife, who may be Sam­mael ( Dwaine Steven­son), the ruler of The Dark, or is he the bloke with the long white dread­locks?

I had no prob­lem iden­ti­fy­ing Jade ( Sa­man­tha Noble), the beau­ti­ful hooker whom Gabriel saves from a fate worse than death, though she goes by an­other name, Ami­tiel ( which is a lit­tle con­fus­ing). Most of the other char­ac­ters have bib­li­cal­sound­ing names, in­clud­ing the mys­te­ri­ous Lilith, who looks rather like Cate Blanchett in one of her spook­ier roles. Some­one men­tions a Gov­ern­ing Ruler, whom we never see.

The lo­ca­tions are ef­fec­tively spooky: a derelict bus in a drive- in theatre, sub­ter­ranean pas­sage­ways, a home for the des­ti­tute, a gar­ish es­tab­lish­ment in­con­gru­ously named the Fun­house. But it’s all pretty te­dious and silly. Hav­ing tum­bled to the fact that the al­tru­is­tic Gabriel has ex­pended much of his pre­cious en­ergy sav­ing the in­no­cent and killing other ad­ver­saries, I was in a re­cep­tive mood for the cli­mac­tic con­fronta­tion. This turns out to be quite ex­cit­ing, though it’s a pity the Gov­ern­ing Ruler couldn’t have brought it on ear­lier.

* * * AT least we’re in a real and recog­nis­able world in All My Friends are Leav­ing Bris­bane . Could a ti­tle be more de­light­fully parochial? I ad­vise the Queens­land tourism peo­ple not to worry, as the film con­tains more than enough shots of Bris­bane’s snazzy sky­line, and the cast seems pretty switched- on to the at­trac­tions of the place. Some­one ob­serves ( per­haps not al­to­gether ap­prov­ingly) that Bris­bane is a great place to grow up and have chil­dren, and that real es­tate prices have been boom­ing. You won­der why any­one would want to leave.

Anthea ( Char­lotte Gregg) is 25, sin­gle, has­sled at work and gen­er­ally dis­con­so­late. All her friends are leav­ing Bris­bane or get­ting mar­ried. She has an odd re­la­tion­ship with her best friend, Michael ( Matt Zeremes), who seems to have found a real girl­friend in Si­mone ( Ro­many Lee). Anthea, mean­while, is at­tracted briefly to Jake but is tempted to head for Lon­don and get away from it all. Michael’s the­ory ( oft re­peated) is that sup­pos­edly in­no­cent male- fe­male friend­ships are be­set by un­re­solved sex­ual ten­sions.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing premise ( prob­a­bly true), and I wish the film had made more of it. But it’s all too clear from the start that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Michael and Anthea is more than pla­tonic.

Will it be re­solved be­fore Anthea boards her flight for Lon­don, or will her taxi turn around at the last minute?

The char­ac­ters are all recog­nis­able em­bod­i­ments of youth­ful yearn­ing and con­fu­sion. It’s pos­si­ble to like them and feel sorry for them. Gregg makes an es­pe­cially be­guil­ing Anthea.

But the story is too slight, too loosely con­structed to en­gage our in­ter­est in th­ese trou­bled young lives. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one keeps telling me to move on,’’ bawls Stephanie ( Sarah Kennedy), un­happy for rea­sons of her own. Her words are a kind of motto for the film and might have made an­other funny ti­tle.

I wish some­one had told the film­mak­ers to move on and keep the story bub­bling. What’s needed is a lit­tle more nar­ra­tive drive, less vac­u­ous chat, fewer rock songs in the back­ground and fewer lapses into quirk­i­ness. I have a feel­ing Al­ston’s next film will be a bet­ter one than this, and I hope she gets the chance to make it.

Over­reach­ing: Andy Whit­field’s strong screen pres­ence is not enough to save Gabriel

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