Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

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The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

2018 #162
Vincent Ward | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Australia & New Zealand / English | 12* / PG

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

1348: the Black Death is sweeping across Europe. A remote mining village in Cumbria is yet to be afflicted, but they fear the disease is close at hand. When young Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) reveals he’s been having visions of a quest to a great cathedral, they decide this is their best hope for salvation: a band of brave men will follow Griffin’s vision and make an offering to God so he will protect the village. The journey begins by travelling down a pit so deep it’s rumoured to lead to the other side of the world. As they emerge, they’ve unwittingly travelled not only across the world, but also forward in time some 640 years, to New Zealand, 1988.

If that sounds like an adventure movie but also a bit, well, weird, then you’ve probably got a handle on The Navigator already. It’s a men-on-a-mission time travel adventure quest filtered through an arthouse sensibility — writer-director Vincent Ward trained at a school of fine art, intending to become a sculptor and painter, before getting sidetracked into moviemaking; and he’d previously helmed the first New Zealand film to screen in competition at Cannes, Vigil. (I didn’t realise until after viewing that he’d gone on to direct What Dreams May Come and also did a lot of development on Alien³ (the “wooden planet populated by monks” version), but once you know that, the aesthetic similarities seem obvious.) The Navigator has thus been likened to the work of Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, but also Terry Gilliam.

So, on the one hand, it can play as a straightforward heroic quest, but the sometimes slow pace and occasional presence of symbolism suggest, on the other, a film with greater depths. Primarily, I think, this is the way the villagers’ fear of the plague is reflected by our modern-day fears — or, as the film’s press book rather nicely puts it, in the present day the adventurers are “surrounded by echoes of the fear which haunted medieval England”. So, for example, their journey is disrupted by the rise of a monolithic submarine, presumably a nuclear one; the issue of nuclear deterrence is also brought up on a TV broadcast; and that’s followed by a famous Australian AIDS commercial, perhaps the most obvious mirror of the plague there could be for an ’80s movie.

Plagued by the, er, plague

It’s also a somewhat spiritual film, though not in a heavy-handed, pro-religion kind of way. After all, the men are on a quest to seek protection from God, and the climax revolves around placing a spire atop a church. Naturally, the reliance of medieval folk on their belief in God is counterposed with the modern world’s disregard for such values — though, again, the comparison isn’t made in too forceful a manner. For example, when they first arrive in the present they look out over the city to find the cathedral, because a church is always the tallest building, but, to their confusion, they can’t see it because of all the skyscrapers. The point is subtly put: we worship different gods today.

But aside from all these nods to philosophising, the film does work as an adventure movie, with certain sequences relying on the gang overcoming obstacles rather than musing on the state of the world. Standout set pieces include crossing a four-lane motorway (it was Ward trying to do exactly that in Germany that first gave him the idea for the film!), and the climax atop the church, which — between John Scott’s superb editing and Griffin’s premonition that one of them will die there — is as suspenseful a finale as you could ask for. Scott’s editing also shines in the sequences depicting Griffin’s visions, which become cleverly sprinkled in so that at times you’re wrong-footed about whether what you’re seeing is happening or another premonition. Although the film never chooses to play this for a big twist, it keeps things dynamic.

The real star from the crew, however, is probably cinematographer Geoff Simpson. The entire movie is gorgeously shot in a couple of styles: the medieval stuff is presented in high-contrast black & white, which combines with the snowbound setting to create a stark, gritty beauty; then the present day stuff is in colour, mostly lit in rich oranges and blues so that it feels almost opulent, with the choice of colours drawing inspiration from medieval art. Ward’s reasoning for this delineation was to emphasise how striking the modern world would feel to someone coming from the grimness of the plague years, and it works. A word too for composer Davood A. Tabrizi, an Iranian émigré here charged with writing Celtic-esque music. Inspired was taken from genuine ethnic music that was especially researched in Britain, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia, and the score was performed entirely with traditional instruments. The resulting folksy sound is entirely fitting and very atmospheric.

Steeple chase

The film doesn’t devote much time to fleshing out the characters of its band of heroes, but they’re succinctly delineated nonetheless. Standouts include Bruce Lyons as Connor, Griffin’s admired older brother, an experienced adventurer, but that also leaves him prone to thinking he knows best; and Marshall Napier as Searle, a likeable but pragmatic and sceptical man, with a tragic backstory. Young Hamish McFarlane also acquires himself well as Griffin, a young lad whose unexplained gift leaves him with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but a determination to live up to what’s needed of him. (Incidentally, although he did act a couple more times, during filming of The Navigator McFarlane apparently became fascinated by the process of filmmaking, and he’s gone on to have a career behind the scenes — his most recent credits as first AD include episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead, Supergirl, and forthcoming giant shark movie The Meg).

All of the above mixes together to create a film that both has familiar elements, but also feels strangely unique. It’s at once a straightforward heroic quest, with sequences of adventure, tension, and humour, and also a thoughtful, spiritual, philosophical musing on communal fears, how we deal with them, and how they resurface. Or, you know, something. It’s a marvellously idiosyncratic film in that regard, and while I wouldn’t say I loved it, it’s an experience I’d definitely take again.

4 out of 5

The Navigator is released on Blu-ray this week by Arrow Video in both the UK and US.

* It used to be rated PG in the UK too, until Arrow had it reclassified for the Blu-ray. The higher certificate is due to a man stuck on a speeding train, a boy climbing a church spire, and the “unsettling” psychic visions. Frankly, it strikes me as needlessly excessive — the PG was fine. ^

Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

2017 #42
George Miller | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Australia / English | U / G

Babe: Pig in the City

Between making the first Mad Max trilogy and winning an Oscar with kids’ animation Happy Feet, George Miller produced beloved family flick Babe, which was such a success he took the directing reins for this follow-up. I remember it going down very poorly at the time — Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t quite support that, but a quick scan reveals many of the reviews to be retrospective. Some were wise to it from the off, however: Roger Ebert gave it full marks and his presenting partner Gene Siskel chose it as the best movie of the year! Not everyone’s got on that bandwagon (it still has a low rating on IMDb), but it’s definitely developed a cult following. Sign me up, because I too thought it was rather brilliant.

Set immediately after the events of the first film, it sees everyone’s favourite sheep-pig travelling to the big city to raise money to save his farm. There, he ends up staying at a kind of hotel for animals, and winds up in all kinds of hijinks. There’s no point trying to describing it — the movie is barking. Also oinking, and quacking, and… yeah, you get the joke.

In some ways it feels like a kids’ movie made for adults. Sure, it’s about cute talking animals, but a lot of the jokes are squarely aimed at knowing grown-ups, as is some of the emotional stuff, such as a scene where the Jack Russell is clearly running off to Heaven, which probably (hopefully, even) goes over younger children’s heads. As that may suggest, it’s also a very dark movie. Most of the darkness is eventually undercut, subverted, or rescued, but not always immediately — the situations are allowed to get bleak first.

Pig in a hotel

There’s an above-the-call-of-duty quality to the filmmaking, too. It’s lovelily designed, in a hyper-real cartoon-strip way, and beautifully shot, by Andrew “Lord of the Rings” Lesnie no less. Plus there’s a credits song written by Randy Newman and performed by, of all people, Peter Gabriel. And that’s not some kind of “they used a song by them” coincidence — its lyrics are based around the famous “that’ll do, Pig” catchphrase. Barmy.

Pig in the City made me really made me want to rewatch the original — I enjoyed it as a kid, but as an adult would I see all sorts of extra stuff that I missed before? Or was it the success of the “cute talking pig movie” original that gave Miller & co the freedom to cut loose in the sequel? Comments I’ve read suggest the latter. Well, even if Babe doesn’t merit revisiting as an adult, this sequel certainly does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything else quite like it.

4 out of 5

Road Games (1981)

aka Roadgames

2016 #132
Richard Franklin | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG

Road Games

I hadn’t even heard of Ozploitation thriller Road Games before April last year, when Make Mine Criterion posted an excellent write-up proposing it for release by Arrow Video. That piqued my interest, so when it was announced for release by Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment the very next day, I jumped on a pre-order lickety-split. Just a couple of months later, a film I had only recently found out about was in my hands, in a better-than-its-ever-looked remaster, having arrived from literally the other side of the world, for about the same cost as a new release from Masters of Cinema or Arrow, i.e. under £14, including postage. (Makes you wonder how Criterion justify their £17.99 price tag…)

Leaving aside the wonders of today, the film stars Stacy Keach as lorry driver Pat Quid, who one night happens to witness some shady goings on that may’ve been a murder. The next day he’s given the task of transporting a container full of carcasses to the other side of the country, because there’s a butchers’ strike over there and Aussies need their meat goddammit! On the road, he spots a vehicle connected to the possible-murder, and wonders if he’s on the trail of a killer — or if the killer’s on his. The tension only deepens when he picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who may become the next victim…

It's impossible to find good quality stills from Road Games

Road Games’ low-budget roots and exploitation-derived genre tag may give the impression it’s a slasher movie or something, but nothing could be further from the truth (though there is one gory shot — so gory it’s a wonder the film got a PG in the US). Rather, it could best be described as Rear Windscreen, because fundamentally it’s the same story: our hero spies on a guy from a distance because he thinks he saw him commit a murder, but is it all in his head? Where Hitchcock staged that impressively in a single confined location, writer-director Richard Franklin opens it up to the whole Australian outback. In some respects that’s an even more impressive feat — of course neighbours are smooshed up against each other, but long-distance travellers? However, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that Quid keeps bumping into the same people, such is the skill of the construction.

Keach makes for an affable lead, whether chatting to his dog early on or bonding with Curtis after he picks her up. Their shared ponderings about the possible murderer are just as effective as the Stewart/Kelly interactions from the Hitchcock film, though perhaps more conspiratorial. It’s easy to draw these comparisons and mirrorings with Rear Window, but it does Road Games a bit of a disservice — it’s not simply an off-brand remake or set-in-a-different-location pseudo-sequel. That said, the parallels are equally unavoidable. There’s also some Duel in the mix, as the killer notices he’s been noticed and turns the tables on our hapless trucker — an inversion, of course, as in Spielberg’s film it’s the trucker who’s the villain.

Seeing red

Basically, while acknowledging these undoubted similarities, I’m trying not to make Road Games sound too derivative, because I don’t think it is. It’s a masterful mystery, using ever-building tension to create a properly nail-biting thriller, which leads to an unpredictable final act (the benefit of many an independently-produced thriller is that it doesn’t necessarily have to comply with a studio’s view on how it should end). While it may owe a debt to one or both of the aforementioned movies, it’s a gripping work in its own right; one which deserves a bigger audience.

5 out of 5

Road Games placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

2016 #104
Zack Snyder | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | PG / PG

Legend of the GuardiansLegend of the Guardians is pretty odd.

It’s an action-fantasy movie… starring owls. It’s animated, but in a dark, realistic way (think Rango with less cartoonishness and less light). It’s based on a kids’ book series… but directed by Zack Snyder, clearly reining in his R-rated impulses (violence occurs just off screen, leading to “did that happen?” confusion). The story has been relocated to Australia, the cast filled with well-known antipodean actors and their accents.

The cumulative effect is kind of surreal, retaining too much Snyderness to function properly as the kind of movie it wants to — perhaps should — be.

3 out of 5

Quigley Down Under (1990)

2016 #27
Simon Wincer | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15* / PG-13

Tom Selleck is Quigley, who has the ability to shoot things at implausibly long distances, and whose hair has the ability to stay implausibly coiffed even after days abandoned in the outback. He’s been employed by Alan Rickman, who we know is the villain because this was released in 1990. Alan Rickman has brought Quigley to Australia on the pretence that he’s to kill dingoes, but he actually wants Quigley to kill Aborigines. Quigley doesn’t take kindly to this, because he’s the hero, and so pretty much as soon as he turns up he’s left to die in the outback. The end.

No, not really! Quigley manages to acquire his gun and becomes some kind of mythical saviour of the Aborigines. (Let’s not get into the whole race politics of that, okay?)

Despite how the title sounds, it isn’t a sequel to a film called Quigley. It kinda feels like it is, though — you know, those sequels they used to do where you just send your hero off to a new place (often a different country) for essentially more of the same, but because it’s a churned-out cash-in it’s not as fine-tuned as the first film and so never quite as good? If I didn’t know better, I’d believe this was one of those.

It also has a very odd tone. Daft comedic bits rub up against brutal tragedies, like the mass slaughter of Aborigines, or the random death of innocent bystanders, or Crazy Cora’s backstory. It’s like someone wrote a very serious Western, then someone else came along and attempted to zhoosh it up so it could star Tom Selleck and The Funny Villain From Die Hard. And it has very cheesy, derivative, generic Western music, as if they felt it really needed ramming home that, yeah, it’s set in Australia, but actually it’s a Western.

I only heard about Quigley Down Under after Alan Rickman passed away, when a few blogs flagged it up as a great forgotten performance of his. He does bring some of his Die Hard / Prince of Thieves-era skills to the piece, but it’s a paler imitation of those roles. The rest of the film has things to commend it: Selleck is a decent, square-jawed, old-fashioned leading man; Laura San Giacomo finds surprising nuances in Cora, who could’ve just been crazy; leaving the dated politics aside, it’s a decent narrative. The end result is a solid, if ultimately unremarkable, Oz-set Western.

3 out of 5

* Rated 12 in cinemas in 1991, but rated 15 on video in 1991 and 2003. ^

Predestination (2014)

2016 #21
The Spierig Brothers | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

A man walks into a bar in ’70s New York. The bartender strikes up a conversation, which leads to a wager: if the man’s story is the most incredible the bartender has ever heard, he’ll give him a free bottle of whiskey. It had better be pretty good, because what we know that the man doesn’t is that the bartender, played by Ethan Hawke, is an agent for the Temporal Agency, travelling through time to stop crime before it happens; and he’s just had his face burnt off and completely rebuilt while failing to stop a notorious terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Beat that.

That said, the man’s story is pretty incredible too — but as the telling of it makes up over half the movie, and it’s full of its own twists, I shan’t get into spoiler territory. Predestination is a film that rewards knowing as little as possible, especially as the seasoned sci-fi viewer/reader has a fair chance of guessing a good number of its twists (possibly all of them) long before they’re revealed by the film. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, because the tale remains an engaging and thought-provoking one, with many thematic points to consider, and not just of a science-fictional nature — there are human and historical issues in play here too, which is undoubtedly a rarity in modern screen SF.

We’re guided through this by a laid-back performance from Hawke, which turns intense when needed, but even more so by an affecting, transformative, award-winning turn from Australian actress Sarah Snook. She really should be much in demand after this. Chunks of the film are just a two-hander between Hawke and Snook, yet it effortlessly captivates throughout these stretches. That’s in part thanks to the fascinating nature of the narrative, adapted faithfully from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies (it has nothing to do with zombies — the story’s from the ’50s, before our modern conception of a zombie was formulated), as well as the direction of the Spierig brothers.

I don’t know how many people will remember, but the pair got a bit of attention back in the early ’00s with their debut feature Undead, because they not only wrote and directed it, but also edited it and created the CG effects at home on their laptops. That’s more commonplace nowadays (well, Gareth Edwards did it for Monsters, anyway), but was A Big Thing in certain circles back then. (I bought Undead on DVD at the time but have never got round to watching it. Plus ça change.) I thought they’d disappeared after that, but they were responsible for vampire thriller (and Channel 5 staple) Daybreakers in 2009. This is their third feature. Working from a low budget once again, they take us to alternate-history versions of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from bars to orphanages to universities to training for the space programme to the headquarters of a time travelling police organisation and more. To my eyes, it never looked cheap. Sure, it’s not overloaded with CGI, but it doesn’t need to be. I never got the sense anyone was having to hold back because of the low budget. Others may disagree, because I have seen people express the opposite opinion, but I think they’re wrong, so there.

Predestination is the latest reminder that “sci-fi” is not a byword for “action-adventure”. It certainly won’t satisfy the needs of the action-hungry fan (it’s not devoid of the odd punch-up or explosion, but they’re far from the point). For anyone interested in something a bit more intellectual, a bit more thought-provoking, particularly if you like the (potential) complications of time travel, or issues of gender and identity, then Predestination has a lot to offer, even if you guess the twists.

5 out of 5

Predestination placed 5th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

It is available on Sky Movies on demand and Now TV from today. It debuts on Sky Movies Premiere next Friday, February 12th, at 11:30am and 10:20pm.

Purists be aware: existing British releases completely muffed up the aspect ratio (reportedly it’s both open matte and cropped), so there’s every chance Sky’s copy will be similarly afflicted.

Happy Feet Two (2011)

2015 #193
George Miller | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | U / PG

Mumble and his penguin pals return for another adventure, in a series the Australian film industry are reportedly inordinately proud of.

Not as fun as the first, Happy Feet Two suffers from messy storytelling that can’t seem to settle on a narrative thread. For example: a massive subplot featuring a pair of Pythonesque philosophical krill, voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, is the film’s most fun element, but never significantly connects to anything else.

At least there are a few good musical sequences, one again re-appropriated from existing pop tunes, not least an Australian-accented elephant seal rendition of Rawhide.

3 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

2015 #142
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

After a decades-long diversion into children’s movies like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, director George Miller here returns to the post-apocalyptic action series that made his name, and in the process managed to create a blockbuster that was not only critically acclaimed and well-received by audiences, but looks set to be a major award season contender too.

The story sees future drifter and sometime-hero Max (now played by Tom Hardy) arrive in a town ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who keeps the populace in check by controlling the flow of water. He’s also created a heavily caste society, including suicidal warriors like Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and his Five Wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton), who he keeps locked away for breeding purposes. During a routine run for oil, Joe’s best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), veers off course, and it’s soon discovered it’s a bid for freedom with the wives. Joe and his amassed forces give chase. For the rest of the film.

You can certainly watch Fury Road as just a two-hour chase and (presuming you like action antics) get something out of it. The volume of action, the style with which it’s executed, and the impressive audacity of the stuntwork, all mean the film functions on a purely visceral level. That said, the action sequences are almost more incredible for how they were achieved than for how they’re presented in the finished film. The end product is perhaps a little too frenetic, the CG boosts a little too heavy-handed — all the talk of “doing it all for real” may be more or less true, but it feels like an awful lot of that ‘reality’ has been augmented with wire/rig removal and the compositing of multiple practically-performed stunts into single shots. The end result is unquestionably better than empty pure-CGI mayhem, but the awe-inspiring impressiveness of the stunt performers’ work is better conveyed in the special features than the film itself.

I say that, but the finished film is visually stunning on two levels: cinematography and editing. It was shot by John Seale, and Miller had him amp up the saturation. The point was to do the opposite of most post-apocalyptic blockbusters, which are normally desaturated to heck, and it indeed creates something strikingly different. Conversely, Miller has intimated the ideal version of the movie is in black and white with no dialogue, just the score — completely visually-focused storytelling. I have a feeling he’s right, or that it would at least work well. Some nuance would be lost, but all the major plot points and character arcs would be followable.

This is in part thanks to Margaret Sixel’s editing. Chosen precisely because she’d never edited action before, Sixel brings classical touches to the work — like eye trace and crosshair framing — that keep the film exceptionally followable even in the midst of some fast cutting. The one poor choice, in my opinion, is the occasional use of a ‘step’-y effect, which just makes it look like you’re streaming on a not-quite-fast-enough connection or watching a badly-encoded pirate downloaded. I thought it might’ve been a badly produced Blu-ray at first, but apparently it was like this in cinemas too.

For those after more than just action and visuals, the film does have something to offer — despite what you might’ve heard. I think some more dismissive viewers miss it because, a) you don’t expect it, and b) it’s achieved so economically. The characters, relationships, and situations are quickly sketched in, be it through well-placed snatches of dialogue or with purely visual storytelling, but all are deftly executed. That it doesn’t expound on these at length, or linger on their detail, means you have to pay attention to get the most out of that side of the film. I guess some would counter that with, “you have to look hard because you’re reading something that isn’t there,” but I refute that. That it doesn’t spell everything out at length, or hammer home its points and themes heavy-handedly, is a good thing.

Relatedly, the Mad Max series has always been concerned with legend and mythology, both its own and the classical ideas of such. The latter informs the general style and shape of the narratives: these are legends of heroism, perhaps passed down orally from one teller to the next, emphasising the scale of the derring-do. This endures even though Max is, in some respects, the supporting lead in his own film (it even uses the old Towering Inferno left-low/right-high billing at the start for Hardy and Theron). As for the series’ own mythology, that’s well continued here, with significant additions to Max’s storied array of characters and situations: Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa, the Five Wives, the War Boys…

With all that considered, that Fury Road is only the second best film in the Mad Max series is merely testament to the enduring excellence of the first sequel. However, there’s possibly an element of expectation in this opinion: I expected basically nothing of Mad Max 2, particularly after I had mixed feelings about the first film (even though the sequel’s fame and acclaim is greater). Fury Road, on the other hand, has been relentlessly hyped by critics and viewers alike ever since it came out — a very different starting perspective. How much effect did this have? Impossible to say. A true comparison would necessitate watching them back-to-back in a few months, or even years, divorced of that initial build-up. Even then I’d be carrying in my memories of my initial viewings. Point being: it’s impossible to be entirely objective; to divorce a film (or films) from some kind of personal context. (Ooh, that turned a bit philosophical, didn’t it?)

Whatever. There can be no doubt that Fury Road is an exceptional achievement in visuals-driven action-adventure moviemaking, which merits its inclusion in discussions of 2015’s finest works of cinema.

5 out of 5

For my review of the “Black & Chrome” version of Fury Road, look here.

Mad Max: Fury Road placed 6th on my list of The Ten 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.

The Babadook (2014)

2015 #170
Jennifer Kent | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & Canada / English | 15

Essie Davis is best known for playing the sassy title role in popular Australian Christie-esque TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (for now — she’s in Game of Thrones next year), but here goes completely against type as single mother Amelia, who has to battle not only the stress of her awkward child, but also a strange storybook that may contain some kind of monster… but that would be silly… wouldn’t it?

Perhaps it’s best to not say too much about what’s going on with all that, because the film does a fantastic job blurring the lines between reality and dreams, facts and imaginings, whether it’s all happening or is all in Amelia’s head. For the majority of the film you’ll wonder: is this real? Is she being pranked? By who? A stalker? Her kid? Is she going insane and imagining it all? Sure, it’s a horror movie, so you’re thinking it’s real, but that’s what twists are for — the scares may be real, doesn’t mean the monster is.

And the scares are very real indeed. Not simplistic jump scares, but a festering tension that occasionally bursts forth in moments of specific terror. That doesn’t work for… a certain kind of viewer (to put it politely), but, for me, it makes the film far more genuinely scary, and memorably so, than being made to jump out of my seat a couple of times. Some have also criticised The Babadook for not being 100% original. Well, what is after a century of moviemaking and millennia of storytelling? What it does do is rearrange the familiar in new and terrifying ways, and tap into seams of fear that are harder to access and consequently too rarely touched by horror films. In that regard, the film it most reminded me of was The Shininga horror film for people who think about what they’re watching, rather than just waiting for something to be thrown at the screen to make them jump. The slow burn tension will bore those content with the latter, who I suspect don’t tend to think a great deal (for one thing, they’d spot most of the jumps coming if they did).

Underpinning this is an incredible performance by Essie Davis. If this were merely a drama about a single mother coping with grief, rather than a genre movie, I’m sure she’d’ve been being rewarded all over the place. Again, I guess this turns off the ‘gorehound’ cadre of horror fans, but it’s the combined strength of the writing (by director Jennifer Kent) and Davis’ performance that mean the entire film is interpretable as a drama about grief and mental illness, rather than about an attacking monster or demonic possession or whatever else it might seem is going on (trying to avoid spoiling it again there!) For more on that, see this interpretation, for instance (bearing in mind it’s obviously spoilersome).

Although it’s Davis’ film, Noah Wiseman gives an accomplished performance as her kid. Well, maybe he’s too young to call it “accomplished”, I don’t know, but it must’ve been a difficult role to play — it calls for him to be a sweet little boy one minute, and a nightmare demon-child (in the real-world rather than horror-movie sense!) the next. He starts off immensely irritating — you can see why no one in the film likes him! — but he does grow on you. The next best performance is, of course, by their very cute little dog. (Do not watch this movie just because of the dog. Seriously.)

There is little in The Babadook that will make you jump, and even less that will make your stomach turn in disgust, but that’s absolutely fine. What it will do is chill your blood, make your hair stand on end, make you worry about every little creak or thump you hear elsewhere in the house after dark, and make you want to sleep with the lights on. Not just the bedroom lights, all the lights. Because once you’ve seen it, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

5 out of 5

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