From torment to loud tedium
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