Perfect Sense (2011)

2017 #131
David Mackenzie | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | UK, Sweden, Denmark & Ireland / English | 15 / R

Perfect Sense

It’s funny, sometimes, the journeys we take to watch a movie. I distinctly remember Ewan McGregor appearing on a chat show to promote this back in 2011. I thought it sounded like a good setup for a story, so the film’s existence lodged itself somewhere in the back of my memory. Clearly the film itself didn’t have much impact, and so, with no one talking about it, and no releases or TV screenings or whatever that were high-profile enough for me to notice, it went on the back burner. Until last year, when I noticed it was available to rent on Amazon Video.*

Anyway, the aforementioned setup is a global epidemic that causes people to have an intense emotional outburst followed by losing one of their senses — for example, the first stage is an uncontrollable bout of crying followed by losing the ability to smell. Over a short period everyone experiences the same thing, then the world learns to adapt… until it happens again, losing another sense. While this is going on, we follow the relationship of Michael (McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), a member of a team trying to find a cure for the disease. Obviously, this provides our human connection to events, with the grand world-changing stuff providing more of a backdrop.

Life goes on...

It’s ironic, then — or at least counterintuitive — that there’s more emotional power in the montages about senses and what was being lost — the ideas-y stuff — than there is in the character- and relationship-based bits. Those are actually surprisingly clunky at first, with even McGregor and Green — both actors I like a good deal — struggling to make them work. Things do smooth out in that regard, but the romance plot proceeds to conform to a pretty standard shape. Was the sci-fi crisis meant to reflect the relationship, or is the relationship a down-to-earth framework on which to hang a big sci-fi story? I suspect the latter, because it’s the end-of-the-world theatrics that prove more interesting.

Those are kept grounded and plausible: despite the ever-worsening situation, people keep getting used to the new status quo and going on as normal — until the sensory deprivation goes too far to ignore, of course. There are lots of neatly observed and imagined little bits in how this unfolds, like how after taste is lost the rituals of going out to restaurants remains, with focus moved to the sounds and physical sensations of the environment and the food; and newspaper critics still review places for this, naturally. This “life goes on” thing feels very much like how we as a society genuinely react to big changes or threats.

...until it doesn't.

So, it’s not a perfect film, but Jesus, the negative reviews I sampled (chosen at ‘random’, where “random” means “the top results on Google”) were shitty pieces of criticism. Their points include things like it’s preposterous (well, the plot is propelled by an unexplained virus — it’s less preposterous than, say, Spider-Man), or the characters fall in love while the world falls apart (because no one ever seeks comfort in others during times of stress or tragedy), or the screenwriter has kind of a funny name (seriously — a supposedly professional review dedicated some of its limited word count to basically going, “lol, foreigner’s got name that looks funny!”) It annoys me that some people get paid to write bollocks like that.

As I said at the start, no one ever really talks about Perfect Sense, even after its director has gone on to bigger things (Starred Up attracted a lot of praise and Hell or High Water earnt Oscar nominations), but it’s worth a look for anyone interested in broadly-plausible end-of-the-world dramas.

4 out of 5

* Having rented it, I was surprised to see it begin with a BBC Films logo, because most BBC Films productions end up on BBC Two within a year or two. So I checked, and it turned out it had been on TV, just once, in November 2012. (You’d think they’d’ve shown it more than that in the five-and-a-half years since — I mean, they’ve shown The Ides of March six times in four years.) Worse than that, though, was when I checked my iPlayer downloads and found I had actually downloaded it, so paying for the rental was a waste of money. Well, at least it was only £1.99, and I paid with vouchers anyway. But the colour grading of the two was completely different, which was just odd. Anyway, back to the review: ^

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

2015 #118
Lorene Scafaria | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Singapore, Malaysia & Indonesia / English | 15 / R

This melancholic apocalyptic comedy wasn’t too well received, which is a shame because I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

As an asteroid heads inevitably towards Earth, Steve Carell decides to go on a road trip to reconnect with his high school sweetheart. Neighbour Keira Knightley tags along. Quirky things happen; they bond; as the end of the world nears, they rethink their lives.

Carell gives a very good performance, trading in the kind of understatement that makes him a much more interesting actor than his stock-in-trade outrageous comedies continue to imply. I guess Knightley is playing a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least to an extent, but I thought she was a plausible character nonetheless. There are certainly more egregious examples of the trope. It’s another strong performance, anyway, containing a lot more truth than your average MPDG.

Also, there’s a really, really cute lickle doggie.

The thing both leads nail, as does writer-director Lorene Scafaria, and what made the film so good for me, is an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It’s a hard feeling for films to evoke, I think — more complex than happiness or sadness, or excitement, or even fear. It comes to a head in an ending that actually brought a tear to my eye, a rare enough feat that it cemented a five-star rating.

5 out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Parabellum (2015)

2015 #150
Lukas Valenta Rinner | 75 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | Argentina, Austria & Uruguay / Spanish

Screened at the London Film Festival earlier this month, then made available on MUBI in the UK (where you can, if you want, watch it until midnight on 11th November), the latter lured me in by describing it as “a meticulous and immersive portrait of the end of the world, where the apocalypse is out of frame. Who said sci-fi required big budgets? Clever, and chilling.” Intrigued? Don’t be.

Parabellum (which apparently translates as “Congratulation”, though that doesn’t seem to mean anything here) is the kind of movie where nothing much happens. Well, things do happen, but co-writer/director Lukas Valenta Rinner has chosen to tell the story in such a way that it feels like nothing happens. A bunch of people gather at a remote survivalist training camp in Argentina, where they’re taught things like camouflage, hand-to-hand combat, and shooting. We don’t see them talk to each other; we only see snippets of their lessons; no one explains why they’re there, what’s going on in the wider world to have inspired them to come, or anything else.

After over half an hour of this, we see what appears to be a comet, but may be a missile or something, fall in the background of a shot. Is this the end of the world, then? Suddenly, the instructors don’t seem to be around anymore, and half-a-dozen of the trainees set off by boat to… well, I’m not sure what their goal is, but they break into someone’s house and kill him, and later they migrate to a bigger boat and continue travelling; and then one of them commits suicide, and eventually the guy we’ve ‘followed’ from the start sets off in a small boat towards a distant city, where numerous comet-missiles are raining down non-stop.

That’s the whole movie, more or less. I haven’t spoiled it for you because you’re not going to watch it because why would you? There is no discernible story or meaning; there is no characterisation; there is nothing but imagery and snippets of moments that signify nothing. It is a movie that has deliberately left out any explanations. Apparently the director has said it’s all a criticism of global capitalism, or something. Even with that extra-filmic information, it’s still difficult to ascertain much meaning. This isn’t realism — this isn’t avoiding “hello, person who is my brother” dialogue — this is obtuseness for obtuseness’ sake.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that “movies are real life with the boring parts cut out.” Valenta Rinner’s movie is the opposite of this in every respect: it isn’t real life, which is fine, but he only left the boring parts in, which isn’t.

1 out of 5

Parabellum is, as noted, part of MUBI’s UK selection until midnight on 11th November.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

2015 #125
George Miller & George Ogilvie | 107 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG-13

The third (and, for 30 years, final) Mad Max movie sees the titular post-apocalyptic drifter (Mel Gibson) rock up at last-outpost-of-humanity Bartertown in search of his pilfered car and camels. Max finds himself dragged before the town’s ruler, Aunty (Tina Turner), who has a job for him: kill the mutinous overseer of the city’s power supply, Master Blaster. As payment, she’ll arrange for the return of his belongings. The only conditions are he can’t reveal Aunty has employed him, and he has to do it in a fair fight in the town’s arena of combative justice — the Thunderdome. And then the story goes beyond that, funnily enough.

Writer/director/creator George Miller hadn’t intended to make a third Mad Max film, but when he conceived a story about a man stumbling across a gang of kids in a post-apocalyptic world, someone suggested that man should be Max, and Beyond Thunderdome was born. That might explain why the end result feels a bit like two different movies stuck together: the very Mad Max-y first part in Bartertown awkwardly transitions into the society-of-kids segment, before the two clash for a Mad Max 2-emulating chase-through-the-desert climax. It might not make for the smoothest throughline — the movie almost stops and starts again — but at least it exposes us to a different facet of the series’ post-apocalyptic Australia.

Not everyone agrees; indeed, I hadn’t realised quite how poorly regarded Beyond Thunderdome was by many fans (though not critics, who generally liked it). Reading up, there are some genuine criticisms — like that stop-start plot, or the kids’ cod-babyspeak dialogue — but an awful lot of it boils down to childish “it’s a PG-13 and I wanted R-rated violence” reactions. Which is kinda ironic. I have to say, I didn’t even notice the change in level until I read those comments afterwards. The film still reaches a 15 certificate in the UK, so clearly it isn’t toned down that much. And the lack of visible blood doesn’t mean it lacks creativity: Roger Ebert described the Thunderdome duel as “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies”, and he may well be right.

The changes do stretch beyond the level of violence, with a slightly slicker feel to the filmmaking. This is also viewed negatively, many attributing it to a reported influx of US funding that also led to the PG-13 and the casting of Tina Turner. Personally, I saw it more as part of Miller’s development as a filmmaker: Mad Max 2 is appreciably ‘slicker’ than Mad Max, after all. Some call Beyond Thunderdome “Indiana-Jones-ified”, though. I can see the similarities, but I didn’t find it so different from the previous Max film that it really bothered me.

And from a very personal, very 2015 point of view, Mad Max 2 has already earmarked itself a place on my year-end top ten, and if Fury Road lives up to the hype then it will surely prebook a slot too, so it’s probably for the best that Beyond Thunderdome isn’t quite up to that standard or my top ten would look a little bit weighted.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed Beyond Thunderdome. The Bartertown stuff works incredibly well, and a community of children who survived the apocalypse without an adult influence is also an interesting concept. It feels a bit like two Mad Max short stories that have been forced to coexist because neither was enough to sustain an entire feature, but at least neither part feels unduly padded, meaning the narrative keeps on rolling. It doesn’t hit the same heights as the exceptional Mad Max 2 — especially with a climax that invites a direct comparison, and is good but not as good — but, as a post-apocalyptic action-adventure movie in its own right, it’s a good film.

4 out of 5

The fourth Mad Max movie, Fury Road, is released in the UK on digital platforms today, and on DVD and Blu-ray on October 5th.

The World’s End (2013)

2014 #36
Edgar Wright | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 15 / R

The World's EndShaun of the Dead is the favourite of critics and fanboys, and Hot Fuzz seems to have attained widespread popularity, but The World’s End may be the most mature and, in its own way, subtly subversive of the ‘Three Flavours Cornetto’ trilogy. Does that make it the best? Well…

The story sees man-child Simon Pegg gathering his old gang of Sixth Form friends — all now grown-up with proper jobs and lives — to attempt their hometown’s twelve-stop pub crawl, which they failed as teens. Despite lingering tensions within the group, all starts well enough — until they begin to notice there’s something oddly familiar about their old town… almost as if it hasn’t changed at all for a couple of decades… Cue sci-fi hi-jinks with special effects and action galore, mixed with some deft character-derived humour — the Cornetto trilogy’s usual M.O., in other words.

That’s not a criticism. This is a thematic trilogy, and as such you expect certain elements to be there. No one wants a beat-for-beat rehash, because what’s the point, but there are certain stylistic and tonal elements you want to be present. The World’s End largely achieves that, though not enough for some — those after nought but genre spoofery and non-stop humour may be disappointed.

This is a more mature work than its two predecessors. While they were clever genre mash-up/pastiches, this goes lighter on that crowd-pleasing bumf. There are still generous segments of that in the film, but the genre being manipulated is less clearly defined thanBottoms up “zombie movie” or “Hollywood action movie”, and occasionally co-writers Pegg and Wright have substituted character development and thematic points for send-up. It may not play to the genre-loving fan-audience that the trio’s previous work has accumulated (demonstrably so, based on many a viewer review), but it does make for a more grown-up film.

I noted that the film is definitely a part of the Cornetto trilogy, but there’s an element of growing up and moving on about it. Shaun of the Dead was made when Pegg and Wright were in their early 30s, but now they’re in their early 40s — a very different time, with different personal concerns. Some people may wish to remain young forever (as per Pegg’s character in the film), but others mature, and it seems Pegg and Wright have more grown-up aims in mind with their filmmaking. In that sense The World’s End may be transitional, from the genre-focussed spoofery of their ‘youth’ to a more considered, perhaps even realistic (at least as far as character and theme are concerned), style of storytelling. Of course, it’s quite meta that the film they’ve made to grow up and move on from the Cornetto trilogy is all about growing up and moving on.

It’s a shame some viewers can’t get on board with this more mature approach. While the consensus appears to be “very good, but definitely the weakest of the trilogy”, there are (normally sane) people who seem to genuinely despise it (what was that I was saying about immaturity again…), and at least a couple who cite it as their favourite of the lot. It’s been a long time since I last watched Shaun or Fuzz so I’m not going to offer my definitive opinion on their relative merits, but I can see that this could be my favourite.

Frost PeggIt will definitely reward multiple viewings: it’s littered with signs, omens and portents (in fairness, a good few can be grasped on an attentive first go). There’s a featurette on the BD (but not the DVD) which helps point out any major ones you may’ve missed; though I have to say, even at seven minutes long, and even with it pointing out some that felt too obvious to be worth mentioning, I swear it left some stuff out. That could be a deliberate decision of course, to leave some things for people to just spot.

Clearly too mature for some viewers (and I don’t mean in the sense of swearing and violence), Wright and Pegg’s trilogy-capper is a thoughtful character movie about growing up and moving on… paired with the usual Cornetto trilogy genre-riffing hi-jinks. The result may just be the trilogy’s pinnacle.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.