Sony // 2007 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // February 25th, 2008
Far From Grace
In Gabriel a war is being fought between angels and demons for the right to control purgatory. Angels control heaven, demons control hell, but there is no clear understanding of the in-between. When the film begins, the demons have the upper hand, and the inhabitants of purgatory -- those not worthy of heaven, nor deserving of hell -- are living in a dispiriting darkness. However, "the light" has not given up fighting, and it sends down one of the bravest of its ranks, the archangel Gabriel (Andy Whitfield), to turn the tide. However, the demons, led by the spooky Sammael (Dwaine Stevenson -- think a beefier Trent Reznor circa The Downward Spiral), are not about to surrender purgatory easily. They've already cowed every other archangel sent to stop them, so why should Gabriel be any different?
The most noteworthy aspect of this film by far is its budget. Gabriel, an Australian movie, was shot for only $150,000 in local currency. While it's only marginally impressive when someone like Ed Burns can make a mediocre melodrama on a shoestring, I was astounded at the film writer/director Shane Abbess was able to make for what in Hollywood might cover the cost of craft services. Abbess has recruited two capable actors for the lead roles and, more impressively, created a dark, atmospheric city populated by effective special effects that are the greatest asset to the film's foreboding tone. Though I can't say that Gabriel is a great film -- it's far from it -- it still has one of the best entertainment-per-dollar ratio of all the films I've seen this year.
Of the problems with the film, many relate back to the lack of funds. The dark lighting does create an effective mood -- and covers over the low-budget sets -- but it is so pervasive that it becomes distracting. Additionally, though Whitfield and Stevenson are serviceable in the leads, the supporting cast is far from ready for feature film work. Of course, a leaden script doesn't help matters. The screenplay, written by Abbess and Matt Hylton Todd, has all the characters speaking in stilted, melodramatic platitudes that constantly remind you that this is a low-budget horror movie. Whitfield and Stevenson do the best they can, though their performances are still overly earnest to the point of awkwardness; for the most part, the supporting actors do not have the temerity to utter these lines with real sincerity. While I sympathize with them, their inexperience shows and creates some cringe-worthy, or worse, moments. While I attempted to follow the film's somewhat convoluted plot, my wife would often burst out laughing at an overwrought comment.
But really, I don't want to condemn Gabriel. For all its flaws, it is still better than a lot of big-budget Hollywood fare, and I do think Abbess has a bright future, not just in his native Australia, but in Hollywood if he is so inclined. He's ambitious, he has a great eye for atmosphere, and he's shown an ability to work with limited resources: Why not see what he can do with a real budget? In fact, the ingenuity of Gabriel reminded me of John Carpenter's feature-length student film Dark Star (though, of course, Gabriel looks much better). So maybe Abbess is ready to make his Assault on Precinct 13 next.
Not surprisingly, the picture on the DVD is compromised by the film's low budget. With the abundance of darkness in the film, the scenery is sometimes lost in a sea of blackness. But still, the film has strong visuals and is very attractive to look at. The extras on the DVD are extremely interesting, as it contains three making-of featurettes. These are not so much interesting for the making of the movie itself, but to learn about how a group of filmmaking neophytes were able to create a beautiful film with almost no budget to speak of.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site