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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Adapting and expanding their 2013 Tropfest finalist short film of the same name, Ben Howling and Yolande Ramke’s Cargo takes a familiar genre trope – the zombie apocalypse – and imbues it with considerably more heart and pathos than usual by the simple expedient of framing it through the experiences of an ordinary man who is trying to get his infant daughter to safety.

The twist is that he has been bitten, and has a scant 48 hours before he too becomes one of the ravening undead. The clock, as they say, is very much ticking.

Martin Freeman is our everyman hero, Andy, who has things ratcheted pretty tight when we meet him, living on a houseboat with his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and baby, Rosie, and scavenging for supplies while the world goes to hell around them. This static situation cannot last, of course, and soon Kay is dead, and Andy is on foot, infected, and desperate to find a safe harbour for his daughter.

While the original short film is almost all concept – and works wonderfully because of it – the feature version must, of course, expand on that original conceit, something screenwriter and co-director Ramke does in interesting and resonant ways. The presence of a couple of government-supplied gadgets – a 48 hour countdown clock and a spring-powered bolt gun meant for suicide – indicate that we’re in the midst, or perhaps the very tail end of, an ongoing apocalypse, and there are other indicators of semi-functional but faltering infrastructure and authority.

In such dire circumstances you might forgive Andy if his own ethics falter, but Cargo refuses to embrace the nihilism that sits at the heart of almost every zombie movie. Given the choice between leaving Rosie with Vic (Anthony Hayes), an amoral scavenger who nonetheless has created a fortified enclave in the wasteland, and rescuing a young Indigenous girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers), and returning her – and Rosie – to her people, he chooses the latter, no matter what the potential cost to himself.

Freeman’s performance as Andy is Cargo‘s beating heart. Here is an average man in the most awful circumstances, possessed of nothing out of the ordinary except for an incredible sense of decency and grim determination – he simply won’t give up. The presence of his baby makes his predicament all the more immediate – you can read Cargo as a metaphor for how we’re all doomed to let our kids down sooner or later, if you like – but rather than cut himself off from the world in order to protect his own, Andy repeatedly shoulders more responsibility, helping first Andy’s “wife”, Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), and then Thoomi. He acts with a kind of workaday empathy and kindness that is made remarkable by the horrific circumstances of the film. Casting amiable, careworn Freeman in the central role is a bit of genius, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else carrying the film so well.

He’s buoyed and balanced by Landers as Thoomi, whose presence makes the feature largely a tow-hander in contrast to the original short’s one man show. Whereas part of Andy’s strength is his ability to move forward – his wife is dead and the world is on fire, but he has a job to do and a deadline – Thoomi is trapped by the past when we meet her, trying to care for her zombified father, who she still sees as human. With only one other screen credit to her name (the NITV series Grace Beside Me), Landers nonetheless delivers a complex performance here: Thoomi is bereaved, angry, frustrated, and possessed of the beaten stoicism of the marginalised. She’s also smart, resourceful, driven, determined, and kind. It’s a really great turn.

Cargo has an interesting relationship with the past. While the action of the film all but yells that the past is dead weight in a crisis – Andy’s wife, Thoomi’s father, Andy himself, ultimately – the characters’ final goal is to hook up with a group of Indigenous people who have returned to their traditional easy and are dealing with the undead hordes in an organised, methodical way. It’s a treatment of Indigenous culture that edges right up to the uncomfortable but doesn’t quite cross over, in that we have a couple of white filmmakers iportraying Indigenous Australians with a nigh-mystical ability to dispatch zombies, but in a way that lacks cultural specificity. Cargo’s credits list a number of cultural advisors, and we can assume that the film’s treatment of Indigenous characters and elements have been handled in good faith, but nonetheless it does smack of the kind of romanticism with which some colonised peoples were viewed in the 19th century.

Such a misstep  – if you think it is one, and your mileage may vary – stands out, perhaps, because everything else is handled so well (Cargo‘s predictable tendency never to utter the Z word notwithstanding – coyness is a trait genre fiction needs to rid itself of). The film is incredibly deftly shot and assembled; Ramke and Howling enlisted veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (The Last Days of Chez Nous, Oscar and Lucinda) for the project, and he gifts the film with a sense of scope that belies its modest budget. The first-time feature directors’ tonal control is on point, nimbly pivoting from the horror of the apocalypse to the hope and humanity represented by Andy and his desperate mission.

That hope is what really sets Cargo apart from the pack. By this stage of the game the zombie genre should be dead and buried by this stage of the game. Who’d have thought that the secret to new life would be to inject a little humanity into the old shambling corpse?

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Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In a small country town in the South West of Western Australia in the 1970s, two best mates navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. Thoughtful and introspective Bruce “Pikelet” Pike (Samson Coulter) and reckless, larrikin Ivan “Loonie” Loon (Ben Spence) might seem to have little in common, but they are united by a shared obsession with increasingly dangerous risk-taking, and a growing fascination with surfing. Those two drives are combined and exacerbated when they come into the orbit of Sando (Simon Baker), a reclusive former world champion surfer who urges them to join him in riding bigger waves and riskier breaks.

For his elegiac, closely observed first feature film as director, Simon Baker adapts Western Australian author Tim Winton’s 2008 novel of the same name to excellent effect. Baker’s film evokes both Winton’s unparalleled grasp of place and his astute sense of the rites and habits of Australian masculinity. In other words, when it comes to capturing the joys and traumas associated with coming of age in that particular time and place, Breath absolutely nails it.

Perhaps we can chalk that up partly to Winton’s own hand in the screenplay, which is also credited to Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie), but the directorial choices are all Baker’s own, and he draws excellent performances from his young cast. As our point of view character and narrator (Winton himself provides the adult Pikelet’s voice), Coulter does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, giving a truly impressive performance.

Admirably, Breath avoids the common pitfalls of literary adaptations by never over-explaining itself. Voice over is deployed when necessary to fill in narrative gaps or to comment poetically on the action, but the film definitely shows rather than tells, trusting the audience to read the emotional transactions being carried out. Coulter is given the challenging task of growing older before our eyes, and his path from reactive boy to proactive, self-determining man (or at least youth – Breath‘s temporal span is short, though it’s emotional journey is epic) is wholly convincing.

By contrast, Ben Spence’s Loonie is a more archetypal character who does’t grow so much as become who he was always going to be: aggressive, rebellious, wounded and, though he would never admit it, broken on a fundamental and secret level. There’s a Loonie or six in every country town: products of violent homes willing to risk life and limb for even the slightest sliver of affection because they have nothing else to offer, fiercely loyal and almost certainly doomed. Spence will remind you of every one you’ve ever met.

Baker is solid in support as a character who could have been unbearable in less dexterous hands. There’s a touch of the guru to Sando (the obvious cinematic reference point would be Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi in Point Break) and he clearly delights in being mentor to the boys, dispensing advice and coveted wetsuits alike, but there’s a sad and wounded quality that grounds him. Indeed, his wound is externalised in the form of his American wife, Ava (Elizabeth Debicki), sullen and withdrawn after her ski-jumping career was ended by a catastrophic knee injury and, it is hinted, the reason he has withdrawn from public life.

If Sando is mysterious, Ava is all but unknowable, but in the way that mature, complex women are unknowable to adolescent boys – it’s worth keeping in mind whose point of view we’re seeing these events from. When Sando and Loonie take off on a surfing safari and Ava becomes the focus of Pikelet’s awakening sexuality, the film moves into murky and uncomfortable territory that contrasts with the potentially dangerous but jocular adventures of its first half. Drowning is always a possibility, and a broken arm might be the price of admission into the ranks of manhood, but sex, infidelity, secrecy and betrayal are much harder things to deal with than the possibility that you might break your damn neck in the course of some foolhardy stunt.

For her part, Debicki is tasked with the difficult job of giving a distant character a sense of inner life, but not letting us see exactly what that life is. For much of the film, Ava is either an obstacle or an enigma – a wan figure that limps around Sando’s rustic bush hut, drawing the boys’ gaze and rebuffing their attentions with icy disdain. The character could have been a misstep. Ava is not the focus here, for all that she is an object of fascination and obsession for several characters, but Debicki is able to elevate the character into something more than just a plot point or trophy, imbuing her with a weird alchemy of pain, wisdom, and self-destructiveness that both makes her a whole character and makes her all the more alluring to young Pikelet.

That’s indicative of the messiness in Breath that is both refreshing and discomfiting. This is a literary adaptation that retains the sometimes woolly plotting of literature, rather than eliding away the rough edges and tightening up the loose reveries. Not every loose end is tied up, not every sin is paid for and forgiven, nor is every rift mended. A happy ending is impossible not because the film is pessimistic, but because it acknowledges that things don’t really end the way stories say they do – we just learn what lessons we can and keep on keeping on. That’s a bitter pill to swallow at any age, and a difficult theme to communicate effectively; that Breath does so is a testament to Baker’s directorial skill.

Still, the other key theme borrowed from Winton’s novel – the importance and addictive nature of risk-taking – is somewhat muted here. The film’s deliberate pacing and somewhat painterly visual style don’t communicate the adrenal thrill of danger that is inherent in the lifestyle depicted here. In focusing on the more cerebral and philosophical elements in play, Baker has pulled a little too far back from the visceral, and you’ve got to wonder what a more concerted attempt to marry the two might have delivered (Rick Rifici’s surf photography, however, is absolutely stunning).

That’s a minor negative, though, in the face of what has been achieved here. In Breath, we can hear two voices – Winton the writer’s and Baker the director’s – working in concert to a rare degree. This is an excellent, thematically complex, emotionally truthful coming of age story, and a truly impressive directorial debut.

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The Song Keepers

Australian, Featured, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A years-in-the-making account of a unique example of cultural cross-pollination, Naina Sen’s The Song Keepers tells the story of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, culminating in the group’s successful tour of Germany.

What’s the connection? The choir has its roots in the work of German Lutheran missionaries who ministered to the local Indigenous people in the area, teaching them – among other things – Lutheran hymns. Those hymns, now reconfigured for the Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara languages, are the basis for the modern choir’s songbook.

The result is a striking example of benign cross-cultural communication, and one that flies in the face of accepted narratives about colonialism. Not that Sen’s film shies away from the thornier elements of Imperialism; softly spoken and enthusiastic choir leader Morris Stuart, a black Guyanese, relates his own experiences with racism, while later in the proceedings stories told by the choir members themselves paint a picture of callous cruelty and prejudice against children of mixed descent.

Yet the nameless German missionaries, whose shadow looms large over the narrative, are depicted as all but saintly, rescuing abandoned children, protecting abused women, and even saving their charges from becoming part of the Stolen Generations. The film admirably but gently disabuses us of the usual simple binaries, condemning racism and colonialism, but illustrating that some degree of altruism can exist within those structures (to be fair, the problems we’re told the Lutherans dealt with are all a result of colonisation anyway, so…).

While Sen’s film doesn’t gloss over these issues, the focus remains firmly on the music and the German tour, and it is certainly something to hear a 4th century hymn sung in an Indigenous language. The tour itself is a wholly joyful affair, with the ladies of the choir almost overwhelmingly excited about leaving Australia for the first time. Even then, the institutional issues affecting Indigenous people occasionally comes to bear, as when the choir is confronted with the bureaucratic challenge of arranging passports for people who lack birth certificates. On the whole, though, The Song Keepers much prefers to accentuate the positive. This is a rousing, feel good film tempered with just enough grit and complexity to leave the viewer in a thoughtful mood afterwards.