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Cargo

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Adapting and expanding their 2013 Tropfest finalist short film of the same name, Ben Howling and Yolanda 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 Vic’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 two-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 traditions 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 portraying 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. 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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Black Panther

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In the overstuffed but hugely enjoyable Captain America: Civil War we were introduced to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, who adopts his heroic mantle after the death of his father to wreak vengeance on the man responsible (thought at the time to be Cap’s ol’ mate Bucky, and thank god we cleared that up). The Panther cut a striking figure in his brief but instantly iconic turn, all sleek athleticism and stentorian pronouncements of honour and retribution, but that’s all surface razzle dazzle. Now, in his eponymous solo outing, we get to dig deeper into T’Challa, his world, and his meaning as symbol, and we are not left wanting – although we may be left somewhat exhausted.

He’s a difficult character to sum up, after all. What if Batman was an African king? What if James Bond was black? What if Tony Stark put his incredible technological prowess towards bettering the world instead of building armour? What if The Phantom wasn’t weighed down with a shedload of White Saviour nonsense? The Black Panther is vast; he contains multitudes. It’s perhaps a bit of overcompensation rooted in the character’s creation at the hands of comics giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966; in making one of the very first black superheroes, they made him the best at everything – he’s a high tech magical ultra-rich super genius who wields massive political power to boot. Thankfully, over the years a multitude of creators, mostly African American, have managed to synthesise T’Challa’s hodge-podge of super-attributes and, more importantly, humanise him, culminating in this take by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed).

And so we have a man struggling with both his place in the world, and his country’s place in the world. The plot sees T’Challa returning to Wakanda to deal with the rites of succession following the murder of his father, T’Chaka (the great South African actor John Kani), and ascend to the throne – a task he feels no small trepidation for. T’Challa’s personal crisis, however, is well and truly overshadowed by our introduction to Wakanda – or should we say WAKANDA; the fictional country makes such an impact, it feels like it deserves all the capslock.

An absolute monarchy, Wakanda’s chief resource is the insanely valuable fictional metal Vibranium (Captain America’s shield is made out of it), not that anyone outside the nation’s borders would know about it. To the outside world, Wakanda is a third world country of little consequence on the global stage, but inside its borders? Flying cars! Towering skyscrapers! Holograms! Nanotech! The works. It’s an afrofuturist near-utopia, rendered in a stunningly vibrant sub-Saharan palate that’s like nothing else we’ve seen on screen before – a mix of traditional indigenous African cultures and the dizzying techno-mythic dreams of Jack Kirby.

Note the use of “near” to modify “utopia” though. Wakanda’s prosperity comes at a cost: absolute isolation and secrecy. There’s little diplomacy, no trade at all, no immigration, and the government is effectively a benevolent dictatorship, built on a deep foundation of tradition and inculcated loyalty. The chief concern of of the film is set up in a prologue flashback in which T’Chaka, in his role as the previous Black Panther, punishes a Wakandan operative gone rogue in America: what is Wakanda’s duty to the rest of the world in general, and the African diaspora in particular? Is it just to prosper while you brothers and sisters suffer in American ghettos?

T’Challa’s military regent and right hand man, W’Kabi (Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya) counsels reforming the outside world by force, but traditionalist factions in Wakanda’s power structure prefer the status quo. The largely hypothetical debate gets forced to crisis when the villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan, a striking and, crucially, understandable antagonist) starts making his move. A special forces veteran and international terrorist, Killmonger knows more about Wakanda than any outsider should – enough to make his designs on the throne a reality by manipulating the culture’s rigid codes of honour and custom. With his kingdom taken from him, Black Panther must gather all his strength and… well, you know how it goes.

With its blend of mysticism and futurism and its concerns with dynastic power struggles, Black Panther resembles nothing so much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on Frank Herbert’s Dune, with T’Challa as the messianic changer of ways at the centre. That’s all macro, thematic stuff, though; Black Panther also sings in the more tangible details. It’s a film that feels alive, taking us into a culture and a situation that feels organic, lived-in and vital, stepping away from the now familiar Asian-by-way-of-Blade-Runner or boy-wasn’t-2001-a-heck-of-a-film visions of the futuristic that have dominated cinema for decades (and let’s not even go near Star Wars).

This includes the characters we meet, and the film does a bang-up job of introducing a packed ensemble, including Okoye (Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead), the fierce traditionalist leader of T’Challa’s personal guard; Shuri (Letitia Wright), his tech-genius teen sister, already a strong contender for breakout character; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) his ex- and no doubt future-girlfriend; political rival turned ally M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a fierce tribe who worship mountain gorillas; lorekeeper Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). And let us not forget the Tolkien white guys, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent caught up in all this malarkey, and Andy Serkis having an absolute ball as venal South African mercenary Ulysses Klaue.

They’re all deftly sketched and leave an impression regardless of their screen time, but the film is careful to keep its focus on the battle between Black Panther and Killmonger, and rightly so. Marvel has been justly criticised for defaulting to the “dark mirror” antagonist model too often, but it’s never been better handled than here. Killmonger is a monster, an unrepentant murderer, but his agenda makes sense in the context of his life: orphaned, raised in poverty on the street and then taken into the military like so many African American men before him, and then to be confronted with a black-run paradise he has been unequivocally denied access to, unless he takes it by force. He is, as T’Challa calls him at one point, a monster of their own making, and a remarkably sympathetic one, thanks in large to the charismatic performance from Jordan.

He’s perfectly countered by Boseman’s knowingly regal yet warm and thoughtful portrayal of T’Challa, a man raised in privilege and opulence who knows that the traditions that brought him to such a high position must change for the good of all – something Thor: Ragnarok tackled as well. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, the saying goes, and our hero is troubled by the notion that he must wear a crown at all – surely down the track we’ll be seeing a film dealing with the possibility of Wakandan free elections?

Which all sounds like Black Panther is a rather moribund treatise on globalism, colonialism, and privilege, but never fret, the action kicks well over the requisite amount of ass; indeed, the first act rather plods until we get to a top notch extended action setpiece when T’Challa and company head to South Korea on the trail of some stolen vibranium – a sequence that the 007 crew should be taking notes from, by the way. The whole shebang builds to an epic crescendo, effectively  Wakandan civil war – there are Battle Rhinos, team, and you’d have to be pretty jaded not to want to see that. The action never quite hits the level of visceral engagement that Coogler’s boxing matches in Creed did, but perhaps that wasn’t the target; still, there are a couple of moments where the action defaults to “CGI things hitting each other” that rather lets the side down.

There are a couple of tone deaf line readings where the script tries to make its subtext just plain text that feel a little insulting, too, as though the film doesn’t quite trust the audience to pick up what it’s putting down, and one undercuts the power of the emotional climax a little. Which is to say that Black Panther is not flawless – it’s just very, very good. It’s a vision, and a remarkable one; perhaps the most complete on-screen encapsulation of the wild flights of imagination comics are capable of, grounded in astute, modern political sensibilities. See it, see it a couple of times, and marvel (heh) at the idea that, this far into the age of the cinematic super hero, we’re still seeing films this bold, striking and fun.

 

 
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Martin Freeman: A Good Man in Africa

He's been Bilbo and Watson and will soon be seen in the upcoming Australian zombie flick, Cargo, out later this year. But first, Martin Freeman will be reprising his Captain America: Civil War role of CIA Agent Everett K. Ross in the hotly anticipated Black Panther.
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Sherlock S4E3: “The Final Problem”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

Sherlock is over so quickly isn’t it? One week you’re celebrating its return and less than a month later, you’re waving it bon voyage. And after the last two weeks of plotting, it’s no surprise the fervour people had for this – the final episode of Season 4 and, potentially, the last episode of Sherlock for a very long time.

It’s little wonder that creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writing together as they did for The Abominable Bride, wanted to give their supporters something to wave their flags to. Think of The Final Problem as the Greatest Hits of Sherlock, with choice cuts of your favourite moments repackaged into a handy 90-minute feast. Sadly, as pleasant as it is to see the two writers clearly having fun in their sandbox, the real problem for the viewer was trying to work out how the two previous episodes could justify such a lukewarm finale.

Having revealed a third Holmes sibling and putting the life of John Watson (Martin Freeman) in danger last week, we were given a rather rushed resolution as to the Doctor’s fate.

Apparently, Eurus (Sian Brooke), Sherlock’s evil sister, had merely stunned Watson and run away. An impossibility according to brother Mycroft (Gatiss) who insisted that she was trapped within a super-prison by the name of Sherrinford which was stuck on an island out to sea. All of which was a massive surprise to Sherlock, who had completely forgotten he’d ever had a sister. If that part sounds like a tough pill to swallow, The Final Problem produced a number of other headscratchers that unfortunately lowered the plausibility of its narrative.

Things started off strong with a small girl waking up on a plane in which all its passengers and crew had passed out. Answering a ringing phone in the hopes of calling for help, she’s greeted by the voice of the late consulting criminal, Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Elsewhere, having escaped the detonation of 221b Baker Street – another one of Eurus’ games – the Brothers Holmes and Watson break into Sherrinford to understand how the meddling sister is able to break out.

Before continuing, it should be noted that Sherlock has dipped its toe in the surreal before. Season 2’s The Hounds of Baskerville, for instance, attributed its hell hound to psychotropic gas. Indeed, the very idea of Sherlock himself is a flight of fancy in the real world. However, The Final Problem was something else.

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As well as being superior to her brothers intellectually, Eurus was shown to be able to ‘reprogramme’ those around her and, as such, had unbelievably managed to take over her own asylum, giving her free passage to leave her island prison as and when she felt like it. Spurred on by a meeting with Moriarty several years prior – in a hilarious cameo by Scott –  she had decided to take her vengeance out on Sherlock for reasons that never feel satisfactory. Over the last few seasons, a lot has been made of the name Redbeard and its influence on Sherlock’s persona. Previously thought of to be a beloved pet, the final twist turned out to be something much sinister and had led to Eurus’ incarceration. Gatiss and Moffat try to turn what would be a childhood trauma for Sherlock into a reason for his thirst for solving mysteries. But as an attempt to give Sherlock back his humanity, it just didn’t convince.

Neither did the system of Saw-like problems Eurus put her siblings through, with a different room in Sherrinford leading to a new and deadly conundrum. As Eurus pulled her brothers’ strings, the continuing train of thought was ‘How can she afford to do all this? Literally, who is funding this person?’ and ‘Does anybody remember John had a baby daughter?’ When the girl on the plane was revealed to be Eurus in a mind palace of her own waiting for Sherlock’s approval, The Final Problem revealed itself to be trying too hard.

Thank heavens then for the positives that didn’t make this a complete washout. Take for example Molly, played by Louise Brealey. Criminally underused this season, Brealey brought much needed emotion in a scene that saw her bare her soul to Sherlock, whilst being an unwitting pawn in Eurus’s schemes. As we cheer on Sherlock’s sociopathic qualities, we often forget how they can deeply cut others. It was a wonderful moment, only somewhat surpassed by Mrs Hudson thrashing around to Iron Maiden in her slippers.

As the dust settled, Sherlock ended, as perhaps it was always going to, with a massive press of the reset button that allowed Gatiss and Moffat to bring a close to their 6-year story in a deserved self-congratulatory tone, whilst tentatively leaving the tiniest of margins for a possible return. And whilst this wasn’t the ending some of us will have been expecting, the journey to get this far has at least consisted of more highs than lows, with a heavy vein of experimentation throughout. For that reason alone, Sherlock is still, as a whole, a quality British drama.