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Review: Cargo

In delivering its moral pabulum, Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s film forgets to frighten its audience.

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Cargo
Photo: Netflix

Adapted from their viral short film of the same name, Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo opens on a series of wide shots of the Australian Outback. A beautiful place shot through with rot, the landscape looks almost Martian—palls of black smoke and bare ashen trees dotting the hills. Winding through it is an olive-drab river, as still as paint, its green banks stippled with tufts of yellowing grass. Along that river, Andy (Martin Freeman) and his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and their infant daughter, Rosie, travel by boat. Their vessel looks like a hulking foursquare funicular: on its bottom deck, laundry flaps on the line, and up top a set of plastic patio chairs are set out. The plan is to head for a military base, but an excursion to purloin cargo from a wrecked yacht brings their boating trip to an abrupt and ultimately tragic halt.

In the post-apocalyptic world of Cargo, the undead shuffle about with eyes that seem to weep marmalade, a symptom of a mysterious disease that’s swept across Australia. If the living are contaminated, they have 48 hours before they become undead. After being bit by a zombie, Andy finds himself with a baby strapped to his back, and a countdown timer clasped to his wrist. Throughout Andy’s feverish pilgrimage to wherever he can ensure Rosie’s safety, the filmmakers reveal their debt to John Hillcoat’s The Road. But where Viggo Mortensen’s ghostly inanition made him feel otherworldly and alien, Freeman, eyes wide with bewilderment, is the everyman in extremis.

Before long, Andy and Rosie come across a couple of survivors, Vic (Anthony Hayes) and Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), who’ve built themselves a fortress-like homestead of corrugated iron, circled with barbed wire and chain-link fences. In John Maclean’s Slow West, Pistorius’s character is a vision of modernity; those bright shots of whitewashed wood and dishes of butter were a gleaming domestic future in stark contrast to the wilds of the frontier. Here, Lorraine welcomes Andy with a clinking china tea set, a fossil of civility in a world of ruin. Pistorius plays Lorraine with the same furrowed focus as she played her character in Slow West: a survivor sidelined, annealed by savage heat.

Vic is a suppurating wound on the world. He lures the dead to cages with slops of flyblown meat, and snipes them from a distance. Elsewhere, he scavenges for gas and jewelry, foreseeing the return of order: “When this country gets back on track, people are going to want things,” he says to Andy. “Make hay while the sun shines.” To which Andy replies: “Sun’s not shining, Vic.” Soon after, he meets Thoomi (Simone Landers), an aboriginal girl who ran from her tribe, and tends to her undead father in the bush. Landers’s gloomy saucer-eyes betray a quiet knowledge and an accusing flicker.

In Vic, Cargo’s theme is writ large: that this plague might just stem from a deeper moral decay. “Frack Off!” reads a sign Andy finds near a mine. “There’s not much left. They cut our funding years back,” says Etta (Kris McQuade), a lone survivor in an abandoned government shelter, speaking of the nearby hospital. And an old sage, Daku (David Gulpilil), warns, “They’re poisoning this land you know. This country’s changing. It’s sick. We all get sick. You get sick too.” In an amusing conceit, the undead are sensitive to bright light and bury their heads in the sand, as if punished to purgatory for complacence.

The viewer might feel a similar urge, so thickly is this moral malaise laid on and so light are the thrills. Cargo makes the mistake of benching its menace, banishing the undead to blurred shots on the horizon, while doggedly pursuing its theme. It’s as if the film doesn’t want to lower itself to genre. Cargo could learn a lesson from that genre’s master purveyor, George A. Romero. The social subtext in Romero’s films was delivered with his knack for intravenous visual poetry. Think of the opening of Day of the Dead: peeling, crumpled dollar bills stirring in the breeze like dead leaves. Think of Dawn of the Dead: escalators ferrying decaying queues to the upper reaches of a shopping mall as if over the River Styx. All of this, in a few fleeting shots, and never at the expense of real fear. In delivering its moral pabulum, Cargo forgets to frighten us. In focusing on its subtext, all else goes blurry.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Susie Porter, Anthony Hayes, Caren Pistorius, Simone Landers, Kris McQuade, David Gulipilil, Lily-Anne Mchperson-Dobbins, Marlee Jane Mchperson-Dobbins Director: Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling Screenwriter: Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

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The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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