Judy & Punch (2019)

2019 #143
Mirrah Foulkes | 106 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15

Judy & Punch

Australian actress turned writer/director Mirrah Foulkes makes her feature debut with this live-action version of the (in)famous Punch and Judy puppet show. I don’t know how well-known the show is outside the UK (I guess it reached Australia, at least), but here it’s a staple of seaside children’s entertainment — although given its propensity for violence and misogyny, it’s suitability has been the subject of a small degree of controversy over the last couple of decades, and its prevalence is on the wane.

There’s no set version of Punch and Judy — each puppeteer has their own spin on the events of the tale and which characters show up — but there are certain elements that are, I suppose, considered standards and widely associated with the show. Here, Foulkes takes all of those familiar tropes and remixes them into a freshly imagined origin story. The real Punch and Judy comes out of the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, a fact which has very loosely inspired Foulkes’s take.

The setting is somewhere in Europe (never specified, and there’s a wide-ranging mix of accents to be heard), sometime in the past (it seems quite medieval, but there are buildings and notions that date from later), in a town called Seaside… which is nowhere near the sea. Judy & Punch comes with a hefty dose of absurdity and whimsy that calls to mind the work of Terry Gilliam as a reference point, and with dialogue and music choices that range from cod-medieval to very modern-sounding (especially in some of the references thrown up, which I won’t spoil), it’s clear Foulkes is taking a playful attitude to the material. Well, fair enough — “a live-action version of Punch and Judy” does sound a bit ridiculous, and so the film takes an appropriately irreverent tack. It won’t work for some people, for various reasons, but I was easily on board with the concept.

Punch and Judy

So, in this town we meet the self-proclaimed great puppeteer Mr Punch (Damon Herriman, most noticed for his small role as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who is of course at least equally responsible for the brilliance of their show. Now, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the original that Punch beats his wife. One day he takes it too far and he leaves her for dead. But this being a modern telling with feminist inclinations, that’s not the end of her role. No spoilers, but some viewers will consider where this ends up to be too preachy — literally, considering there’s a grand speech given at the climax. It’s a shame Foulkes pushes it to such a blunt point; not because I disagree with what she and her characters have to say, but because it ends up a little heavy-handed. The rest of the film makes its point well enough and is entertaining with it, so do we really need it to end with a polemic? Personally, I can let that slide because I was enjoyed the rest enough that it barely mattered by that point, but I know some other viewers found it a bit much.

And really, that could be said about the entire film. Like much of Gilliam’s work, it’s an acquired taste, with a distinct oddness and tonal mix that some will find distasteful. In my screening, one particular key moment drew what seemed to be a 50/50 mix of genuinely shocked gasps and stifled guffaws. I think that’s the kind of reaction it’s meant to provoke — a mix of shock and laughter — although I imagine anyone who genuinely found it gasp-inducing might not take to the fact that, actually, it is played for the laugh. But then there’s some quite genuine emotional fallout. Anyone who struggles with a variable tone, or with visual signifiers that don’t match said tone (the production design is muted and realist, not bright and whimsical), might not get along with the way the film dances merrily back and forth.

Horse and Judy

For me, it nailed what I was expecting in that regard. This is a film that kinda wants to tell the Punch and Judy story seriously, but knows it’s kinda silly to take Punch and Judy seriously, and so it manages a balance between a grounded grit and a comical daftness. There’s a lot of inventiveness in how it incorporates the familiar elements of the original, but, unfortunately, not quite enough to sustain it all the way — if it were a bit shorter (or pacier in the middle), or had just a few more bright ideas to see it through to the finale, I would’ve loved it. As it is, it’s a bold effort that I liked a lot. That is, indeed, the way to do it.

4 out of 5

Judy & Punch is in UK cinemas from today.

Little Monsters (2019)

2019 #138
Abe Forsythe | 94 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | Australia, UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Little Monsters

The zombie comedy — or zom-com — is basically a recognised subgenre (or sub-subgenre, really) at this point, birthing both high-profile hits (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland) and smaller cult successes (Cockneys vs Zombies). For some reason this doesn’t seem to work with other monsters (Lesbian Vampire Killers, anyone?), so what is it about zombies that lends them to comedy? Perhaps it’s their roots in social satire. Perhaps it’s just that an enemy who can only shamble along slowly is inherently ridicule-worthy.

Whatever, the latest entry in this sub-subgenre comes from Australian writer-director Abe Forsythe. We’re introduced to Dave (Alexander England), a washed-up wannabe musician whose argumentative long-term relationship has just imploded, leaving him on his sister’s couch being a bad influence on his young nephew, Felix (Diesel La Torraca). After he meets Felix’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), Dave is smitten, agreeing to be a chaperone on a class trip to a farm. There they first meet kids’ TV star Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), and then an outbreak of zombies from a nearby military research facility.

I guess taking a leaf out of Shaun’s playbook, Little Monsters invests a lot of time in its setup before it gets to the promised zombie action. As we witness Dave’s life fall apart, it feels more like a blokey indie comedy than a genre sendup, and it’s an age before Nyong’o turns up, never mind the zombies. I guess this is meant to be character stuff to get us invested, but its problem is it’s not terribly original — Dave is basically Dewey from School of Rock, and/or every other character that has already imitated that. Later, Teddy McGiggle is revealed to actually hate kids; he wanted to be a serious actor; now he’s an alcoholic; etc, etc. Asking us to invest in the characters is fine, but it helps if their arcs aren’t entirely predictable.

Miss, you've got red on you

Strumming a ukulele in her yellow sundress as she communicates with children on their level, Miss Caroline screams “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. Fortunately, in the hands of Oscar-winner Nyong’o, there’s more to her than that, be it her savvy handling of Dave (clearly the latest in a long line of lustful dads) or wielding a spade to fight the undead. That sentiment perhaps extends to the film as a whole: it may be constructed from familiar building blocks, but its peppered with enough little moments of freshness that it provokes plenty of laughs. Most of that comes from having a class-full of little kids in tow, with the adults trying to pretend it’s all a big game for their benefit. Especially when watched with a late-night crowd up for the experience, it’s good fun.

Often with films of this nature I say they’re “for genre fans only” or something like that, but I wonder if Little Monsters might actually play best for those unfamiliar with all the other movies it’s a bit like. Of course, forgiving genre fans will also be entertained. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a light and largely likeable hour-and-a-half.

3 out of 5

Little Monsters is released on Sky Cinema and in some cinemas in the UK today.

FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

2018 #99
Bill Kroyer | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Australia / English | U / G

FernGully: The Last Rainforest

I remember ignoring FernGully when it came out (probably when it hit rental video rather than at the cinema) because it looked a bit rubbish. I mean, it was an animated movie but it wasn’t made by Disney — “could such things even exist?”, wondered little me (probably). As the years went by, I kinda assumed everyone else had ignored or forgotten it, leaving it as some curio I vaguely remembered from video shop walls. But fastforward to 2009 and suddenly everyone was talking about it, because it had been remade as a big-budget 3D sci-fi epic by James Cameron. Okay, Avatar wasn’t actually a FernGully remake, but the disparaging comparison came up a lot. Fastforward another decade to now (a time when Cameron’s fourfilm remake of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue (yes FernGully got a sequel) is still over two years away (provided they don’t push it back again)), and on a whim I finally watched FernGully to see this supposed likeness for myself.

So, what’s FernGully actually about? Well, not blue creatures on an alien moon, although it’s equally as fantastical. It’s set in the Australian rainforest, where fairies live in isolation, believing humans to have gone extinct… that is until loggers turn up to destroy their home. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) shrinks human Zak (Jonathan Ward) down to her size to save him from a falling tree, at which point he learns about their way of life — oh, right, Avatar here we are. Anyway, many years ago an evil entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) was trapped inside a tree, which the loggers cut down, and suddenly everyone’s at threat.

If it’s not obvious already, FernGully is pretty heavy on the environmental messaging (it’s even dedicated to “our children and our children’s children”, and there’s a note at the end of the credits about donating proceeds to the Smithsonian for environmental work). I seem to remember this was all viewed as being kinda-loony eco stuff back when the film came out. Now, of course, acceptance of those views is much wider, and what the film has to say seems a little obvious. Though we’re still destroying the planet, so I guess we’ve not learned that much in the three decades since.

Batty, indeed

Even more of-its-time are the musical numbers. They’re very 1992, and not in a good way. That said, although it’s a terrible song, If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You) is one of the best titles ever.

One of the people lumbered with an awful tune is Robin Williams, playing a mentally-deranged rapping bat. Nonetheless, he’s definitely one of the best things in the film — not as much as his Genie was in Aladdin, but he does occasionally bring a similar irreverence. It’s needed when the rest of the film is being a bit po-faced about the magic of nature. The other vocal standout is Tim Curry, who always gives good villain. He’s supported by nice design and animation, with Hexxus visualised as a dripping oil-creature, plus a couple of other forms as the film goes on, all of which look pretty effective. Like the rest of the movie, his characterisation and motivation are very underdeveloped, and Curry’s given little to do after his initial birth/song sequence, but the character looks good.

All in, FernGully is a decent little animated adventure — a tad earnest perhaps, but not too bad — but it’s held back by weak music and a thin plot.

3 out of 5

Upgrade (2018)

2019 #44
Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

Change can be painful

On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

4 out of 5

Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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.

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. Inspiration was taken from genuine ethnic music that was specially researched in Britain, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia, and the score was performed entirely with traditional instruments. The resulting folksy sound is wholly 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 acquits 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-it’s-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. ^