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Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his flighty, religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis, credited as Melissa Davis) find their quiet, rather mournful lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd, credited as The Norm) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a blistering yellow desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad interloper keeps his origins to himself. Betty thinks he might be a demon. Smith jokes – or does he? – about being able to fly – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. For Betty, change is evil. Is Smith?

For years now, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds has been all but a lost film. The first feature by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), it was filmed on 16mm around Broken Hill in the same period Proyas was shooting the music video for INXS’ “Kiss the Dirt”, and used mostly the same crew, to boot. After an extremely truncated limited theatrical run and a stint on the festival circuit, it shuffled onto VHS rental and quickly dipped below the radar of all but the most dedicated followers of Australian genre fare, enjoying a brief resurgence of notoriety after The Crow brought Proyas to prominence, sending film students and goth kids alike off to scour the Cult section of their local video library in hopes of tracking it down.

Even in the digital age, Spirits has remained a rare beast, with extremely dodgy VHS rips on the usual streaming sites being the only spoor. That’s all changed now, though, with the nigh-legendary film recently getting a painstaking 2K restoration and screening at MIFF before getting a home release through Umbrella’s Beyond Genres specialty label.

It’s a fascinating viewing experience. A low budget post-apocalyptic fable, Spirits of the Air owes more to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it does to George Miller. Proyas’s After the End scenario is sketched in strikingly off-kilter visuals and drenched in dense, often impenetrable symbolism (the crucifixes that festoon the Crabtree house are easy enough to parse; the line of ’50s-era convertibles half buried nose-down in the sand, less so). The narrative is elliptical, the performances opaque. The film is largely a three-hander, and Proyas draws heightened, theatrical turns from his actors, building on-screen characters that are more like archetypes from an unfamiliar pantheon rather than psychologically real people. That might test some viewers – it’s hard to find a point of identification when one character’s mad, another’s an enigma, and the third either manic or drunk.

However, counterpoint: it is so goddamn beautiful, it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty pat these days to note that Proyas is one of Australian cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, but if nothing else it’s certainly handy to have a decent copy of Spirits of the Air on hand to point at and note that, having honed his craft in music videos, Proyas’ prodigious chops were clearly evident right out of the gate. Working with cinematographer David Knaus and production designer Sean Callinan, Proyas gives us a wondrous and wonderfully dreamlike apocalyptic landscape – a deliberately weird interstitial space, on the edge of the desert, on the dividing line between land and sky, and perhaps life and death (there’s a lot of a death imagery here – you can’t throw a rock without hitting some symbol of the infinite void in Spirits of the Air). That it was pulled together on the cheap with nothing but love, guts, and skill is evident even in the squared-off 16mm frame, but only makes it all the more arresting; the film feels like a handcrafted afterlife, with not a prop, a rock, or a swatch of costuming out of place or not deliberately chosen.

The visuals are perfectly complimented by Peter Miller’s gorgeous score, which combines Morricone-esque flourishes with haunting vocals and minimalist electronica to create a suitably haunting soundscape to underpin Proyas’ parable.

The film’s principal flaw is that it is so dramatically inert; the audience is directed to look at objects rather than experience action, and this rather stately, occasionally lethargic pacing can be trying at times, even when the milieu is so jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s possible that, because of that, for modern audiences, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds will remain a curio, formally interesting but unengaging. However, if your interests lie in the history of Australian film, the cinema of the fantastic, the career or Alex Proyas, or all three, this is an indispensable work, and one we’ve been awaiting for far too long.

 
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The Predator

Featured, Review, Theatrical, This Week 4 Comments

Do you measure The Predator against cinema as a whole, or do you measure it by the modest achievements of the franchise so far? It’s an interesting philosophical question, given that of the previous five films to feature the man-hunting, mandible-sporting aliens, only John McTiernan’s 1987 original could be called great, while every other iteration of the series runs the gamut from fun-but-flawed (Predator 2, Predators), to holy-god-what-were-you-thinking (Alien Vs Predator:Requiem). Which is the key to enjoying The Predator, Shane Black’s sequel and hopeful franchise re-starter: it’s not a great movie per se, but it’s a pretty enjoyable Predator flick.

And that’s because it’s a B movie, and it knows it. Black (and yes, he was Hawkins in the original, lest we forget) and his co-writer, Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, House) have sharply defined B movie sensibilities, having both come up at a time when the drive-in fodder of the ’70s was turning into the tentpole blockbusters of the ’80s (see Black’s own screenwriting breakthrough, Lethal Weapon). That trend has continued and these days pulp-as-mainstream is the default, but even in these heady times where superhero films are taken seriously and people actually argue about the potential merits of a Masters of the Universe movie “where they get it right”, The Predator may take it a step too far for most audiences.

Which is a damn shame, because if you’re open to the film’s throw-everything-against-the-wall charms, it’s a hoot. This is a film that pits a brain-damaged Dirty Half-Dozen against alien killing machines, after all, with everyone (well, chiefly Keegan-Michael Key) rattling off Black’s trademark filthy testosto-zingers in between the gunfire, explosions and viscera.

To get there takes a few ungainly plot machinations and tonal shifts, though. After special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook of Logan) has a run-in with a Predator and his whole squad is minced, he’s packed off to the funny farm, but not before he manages to mail off some Predator technology that, for reasons that don’t need going into at this juncture, wind up in the hands of his young, autistic son (Jacob Tremblay). When an even bigger, badder Predator drops out of the sky to recover the missing gadgets, Quinn has a busload of fellow damaged military veterans, including the aforementioned Keegan, former Punisher Thomas Jane, Game of Thrones dickputee Alfie Allen, and Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes, to call upon in the fight to save his kid and estranged wife (Aussie actress Yvonne Strahovski, a long way from Gilead here).

There’s a bit more to it, including Sterling K. Brown showing up to complicate matters as a shady government agent ala Gary Busey in Predator 2 (Jake “son of Gary” Busey has a brief cameo), but that’s basically your lot: The A-Team’s stunt doubles vs ferocious extra-terrestrial big game hunters in Spielbergian suburbia.

Which sounds great, but when you’re operating at this particular pitch of drive-in insanity, you pretty much have to include some bad ideas, which in this case involve some nonsense about the Predators harvesting their prey species’ DNA, and a big ol’ sequel hook that will never, ever, be acted upon – The Predator is all but destined to be derided and ignored on first release, and adored a decade or two down the track. Why? Because Thomas Jane’s character has Tourette’s, someone’s legs get sliced off by a force field, and there are Predator hunting dogs, one of which becomes the movie’s cute pooch. Those aren’t bugs though – they’re features. Like the pickle on a good cheeseburger, they exist to add piquancy. Perfection is boring.

If it sounds messy and slipshod, it is. Whether that’s by design or through last minute panicked editing is hard to say, although word is that some serious retooling went down right up to the release date. If that’s the case, we would love to get a look at whatever insanity Black and Dekker originally intended – if this is The Predator with the weirder angles sanded down, the prototype must be mind-blowing.

Perhaps the irony is that, for a film designed to resurrect a 21 year old franchise, The Predator feels about 30 years out of date. If it actually were a relic of the late ’80s sci-fi actioner direct-to-video boom, it’d be regarded as an absolute cult classic – a trait it shares with the recent and rather wonderful Beyond Skyline. If you have an affection for that kind of thing, run to The Predator – it has the fix you need. If you don’t, a matinee of The Book Club is no doubt playing somewhere nearby.

 
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Ladies in Black

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

Sydney, 1959. While she waits to see if her exam results will open a pathway to university study, bright teen Lisa (Angourie Rice) takes a Christmas job as a sales assistant at the luxurious Goodes department store. There she is taken under the wing of the vivacious Magda (Julia Ormond), a post-WWII immigrant from Slovenia who runs the store’s haute couture department.

Magda is a figure of mystery and a little suspicion to the other “ladies in black” who work the women’s fashion floor, including Patty (Alison McGirr), who is struggling to reach her taciturn, emotionally cut-off husband, and Fay (Rachael Taylor), who is looking for love but disillusioned by the quality of men she attracts. However, to Lisa, Magda is a guiding hand, introducing her to a world of fashion and sophistication that seems a far cry from the more prosaic world inhabited by her working class parents (Shane Jacobson and Susie Porter, perfect).

Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black, Ladies in Black is a bright, brisk, optimistic coming of age tale that dexterously brings to life a mosaic picture of a city on the brink of modernity. The deft script by director Bruce Beresford and producer Sue Milliken touches lightly on a whole swathe of themes and issues – women in the workforce, the right to education, the immigrant experience, sexual liberation – but never dwells on any one, and never lets the potential heaviness of any given topic drag the proceedings down.

In effect, this means that the various dramatic arcs in play are fairly flat parabolas. Nobody really faces any particularly challenging hurdles on their journey to a happy ending, and that’s the only kind of ending the film is interested in (but we do take in a happy beginning and a happy middle on our way there). However, that doesn’t mean that the film is bereft of tension. Rather, that tension exists on a metatextual level because this is a) an Australian film b) about women c) set in the ’50s, so we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will Lisa’s old man forbid her from pursuing a university degree? Will Patty’s husband turn abusive? Will Rachael’s immigrant love interest, Rudi (Ryan Corr, charming as hell) be revealed as a war criminal (a bit of a stretch, but there’s a line of dialogue that hints at the possibility)?

Catharsis comes when the resolutely romantic and upbeat Ladies in Black refuses to wander down potentially dark paths, instead delivering a buoyant, upbeat, cinematic treat precisely crafted by Beresford and his team. It’s not so much a journey to be taken as an experience to luxuriate in, taking in the detailed period setting, vibrant camera work, gorgeous fashions, and winning, charismatic performances.

It’s the latter that really carries the day. Ladies in Black is populated with characters you want to spend time with, from Rice’s spirited ingenue to McGirr’s loving but frustrated wife, to Jacobson’s simple but big-hearted working dad to Noni Hazelhurst’s near-cameo as the ladies’ supervisor who, with Nicholas Hammond’s store manager, functions as a kind of Greek chorus for the action. British actress Ormond gets the showiest role as Magda, all world-weary continental charm and wry sophistication, but it’s Rachael Taylor who is the stand out, giving a luminous performance as the vulnerable Fay that is like something straight out of a Golden Age of Hollywood classic melodrama. If there’s any justice in the world, it’ll be regarded as a star-making turn that puts Taylor firmly on the A-list.

The men are sidelined a little but that’s to be expected and besides, performers the calibre of Corr and French actor Vincent Perez, who plays Magda’s husband Stefan, are smart enough to know their job here is to accentuate the women at the centre of the film, bringing colour and character but never overshadowing the real stars.

There’s a chance that Ladies in Black won’t sit well with some viewers who mistake lightness for simplicity, but this is a thematically complex film not in spite of its bubbly surface, but because of and in tandem with it. Its strength is that it proves that important themes can be addressed at a higher register; not everything has to be a dirge. Ironically for a film so squarely focused on the experience of women, the one term that best fits Ladies in Black is “masterful.”

 

 
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Paul Yates: Keep Wellington Paranormal

Spinning off from the hit Kiwi comedy What We Do in the Shadows, Wellington Paranormal follows the exploits of New Zealand cops Minogue and O'Leary as they fight back a rising tide of supernatural mayhem in the titular sleepy city. We caught up with producer and writer Paul Yates.