Mad Max: Fury Road (Aus-US, 2015)

What's cookin'?

What’s cookin’?

‘It’s a long time since I enjoyed a Hollywood summer movie,’ says the jaded fifty-plus blogger who’s seen too many samey films. Mad Max is samey; the originals were made 35 plus years ago and I vaguely remember them. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is different because it’s a fabulous, unironic two hours of action with dashes of character development and a hugely welcome dose of sexual politics that sees women on top (at least some of the time). Charlize Theron’s fantastically named Imperator Furiosa harks back to Ripley of the alien series with her haircut (from Alien3) and her indomitable refusal to let men get in her way.

The original Mad Max creator, George Miller, returns and uses Warner’s millions to get it right spending the dosh on old skool stunts, though there are obviously also lashings of CGI. It takes a lot to get me excited in action cinema, but Miller pulls it off by ensuring we are always clear who is where and doing what to whom. My only quibble is the 3D – though that’s my fault for choosing the format – as it made all objects and characters look flat in a three-dimensional narrative world. It was no better than the way Georges Melies created the waves 110 years ago.

It’s not just positive about women, we can see Furiosa’s disability in the picture above, old age gets a welcome action cinema re-write too. These differences, alongside great stunts (those poles are fantastic), make Mad Max: Fury Road a go-to movie for anyone who likes chase movies.

Rabbit Proof Fence (Australia, 2002)

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity

This ‘cry from the heart’ rattled Australia, apart from right-wing apologists, as it dramatised the racist treatment that ‘mixed race’ (‘half-caste’ in the words of the time) children suffered. The true story, set in the 1930s, of three young girls who rebelled against their treatment is intensely shot, Chris Doyle’s cinematography is as ‘out of this world’ as the story, and brilliantly performed. The three youngsters seem naturals for the camera and Kenneth Branagh is suitably stuffed as the ‘Protector’ of the Aborigines.

Director Philip Noyce, who made his name with some great films made during the renaissance of Australian cinema in the 1970s, frames the action with striking compositions. He’s equally at home with the drama of action and the necessary slow pace of the girls’ journey.

I’ve said very little about the narrative because it is barely believable: an extraordinary tale. The ending is particularly devastating. I’ve seen the film four times now and it improves with age.

Wake in Fright (Aus, 1971)

Watch in fright

Watch in fright

This is a literally rediscovered film; the editor, Anthony Buckley, tracked down a useable negative which led to this terrific restored digital print. And it was certainly well worth rediscovering. As a teacher, under Education Secretary Gove’s ridiculous rule, I often feel victimised however protagonist John Grant is forced to teach in the outback or pay his $1000 bond back. My predicament pales in comparison. Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff, summarises the Outback with the opening 360-degree pan so we can see he is, literally, in the middle of nowhere. As Sight & Sound put it, such overwhelming spaces entrap more than liberate. On his way to Sydney, for a holiday, Grant gets caught up in a gambling game, in the hope of clearing his debt, which is the prelude to a nightmarish weekend.

Wake in Fright flopped commercially on its original release, probably because the mirror it holds up to the machismo of the ‘loveable’ Aussie ‘larrikin’ is not flattering. As one character says of Bond: ‘Would he rather talk to a woman than drink beer?’ The character, by the way, is played by that stalwart of the Australian film industry, Jack Thompson, in his first film. Directors of the subsequent Australian ‘new wave’, however, hailed the film’s influence. If you’re interested in Australian cinema, check out the new edition of Senses of Cinema. We follow Bond on his journey where he’s confronted by his bourgeois sensibilities, similar to the narrative of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) but far more harrowing. Central to this is a kangaroo hunt that is shot as it actually happened (independently of the film it has to be said). A note at the film’s end says that the scene was included after consultation with animal welfare groups; kangaroos are now an endangered species.

The brilliant Donald Pleasance lends his malign presences as the Doc, the man who Grant might become. Pleasance’s eyes look demonic without even trying. Another Aussie icon, Chips Rafferty in his final film, plays the local cop who takes Grant under his wing when he first arrives in the ‘city’ (really a town). It’s a classic western scene, a stranger in town entering a bar but the ‘sheriff’ plies our protagonist with beer rather than warning him to behave. It’s such moments that play against expectation, later it’s the sexual tension between Grant and the daughter of another deranged character, that make the film as unsettling as it is.

It’s one of the few films to have played Cannes twice; on its release and, in 2009. If you’re after a nightmare ride or want to catch a missing movie of Australian cinema, here’s your chance.

Lore (Ger-Aus-UK), 2012

The losers' version

The losers’ version

I going to have to watch director Cate Shortland’s other film (Somersault) after seeing her brilliant direction in this tale of what might happen to children of the SS just after the end of the war. To further confuse matters, it’s also a ‘coming of age’ story of Lore who finds herself discovering her sexuality whilst being responsible for getting her four younger siblings to Hamburg from the Black Forest.

Shortland uses extreme close ups of the environment to counterpoint the often disturbing images of collapse in post-War Germany as children embark on their ‘road trip’. The film shows the ‘ordinary’ German’s reactions to images of concentration camps (American actors) as the seek solace in denial. Of course Lore encounters a ‘Jew’ on her journey to, in true melodramatic tradition, confront her own prejudices.

Saskia Rosendahl is spellbinding in the lead; the performances throughout are as good as the direction (particular mention for the baby who’s woeful eyes follow his departing mother). The film’s shot in super 16mm, the grainy image gives a surreal quality, accentuated by the close ups, that befits a disturbing time.

Sleeping Beauty (Australia, 2011)

Not a fairy tale

In the movie previous to this, Emily Browning played Babydoll in Sucker Punch (US-Can, 2011) and is maybe in danger of being typecast as a vacant, sexy being (I don’t know whether that was her character in the film but name suggests as much). Glancing at the current issue of Elle I noticed that the feature on Alexa Chung called her ‘Britain’s premiere clotheshorse’; well, full marks for honesty I suppose but it’s another example of the dehumanisation of women that is symptomatic of the tide that’s pushing back the gains of the 1960s-70s feminists.

Lucy, played by Browning, is certainly dehumanised as we see her work as a waitress, a guinea pig for experiments and, mostly, as a prostitute. She’s a ‘working girl’ funding her studies, a method that no doubt will increase more with fees going up to £9k in the UK this year. She’s entirely vacuous, that’s not to say she’s stupid but, until the end, seems incapable of expressing any feeling. She’s like the postmodern beings that inhabit Cronenburg’s Crash (Can-UK, 1996) where sex has no meaning because the characters have lost contact with their humanity.

George Monbiot writes of how Ayn Rand’s psychotic philosophy is becoming increasingly influential in the UK: selfishness is the only good. That may sound absurd but then we hear the suggestion that the 50% tax rate for the rich should be abolished; the poor sods, how do they manage? I don’t understand why tax is a ‘burden’; it is a necessity. As we become increasingly defined by what we buy, or what labels we wear, we will lose our humanity; we should not forget that we are citizens not consumers.

Sleeping Beauty allows us to see Lucy subject herself to ever more bizarre encounters that culminate in featuring her body as a fetish for old men who can no longer ‘get it up’. They have lost their humanity, having drowned their wealth. All this is portrayed in an exceedingly distanced, and distinctly unerotic, fashion that demands hard work from the viewer. I thought it was making a good point but there are surely better ways of saying the same thing.

It was writer-director Julia Leigh’s first feature, she’s also a novelist. The film was made under the mentoring of Jane Campion.

Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus, 2010)

Too much of a story to tell?

What can you say about a film when you admire its message and dislike its way of telling? It’s both good and bad, I suppose. This terrific story about a social worker who discovers that 130000 children were deported illegally, with governments’ connivance, from Britain to Australia and attempts to reunite them with their… well, it always seems to be mothers, but they must have had dads too. Therein lies one of the problems: the lack of detail.

The film suggests that, as in The Magdalene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002), that the children are the produce of ‘fallen women’ but I guess the destitute (as shown in the director’s dad’s Cathy Come Home, BBC, 1966) weren’t spared. There’s a great tale of class prejudice and exploitation here, the children were treated like slaves in Australia, but this is the story of Margaret Humphreys, the amazing woman who brought the injustice to light. Could you tell her tale and the political chicanery behind it? Possibly only via a documentary.

What we’re given is a blur of events; a massive sense of injustice; deep admiration for Humphreys and her long-suffering family. That’s a lot but, for me, it wasn’t enough. The deportations only ended in 1970, some of  the people involved will still be alive and they should be DONE for what they did.

District 9 (US-New Zealand, 2009)

The Fly meets Robocop

Genre films, particularly SF, are great for smuggling interesting messages into mainstream entertainment and premises don’t come much better than this where aliens arrive in a pathetic state and end up being corralled in a township in Johannesburg. The parallel with apartheid is clear, though it must be remembered that, for many cinemagoers, apartheid is history. The form of the film, as a mix of television documentary, TV news reports and omniscient (ie normal) filming, helps tell the tale with immediacy; though it wouldn’t stand up to an analysis of a  consistent narrative voice. But…

Genre films can degenerate into cliche, District 9 mines every narrative trope available, and the characters are deeply under-developed. So the last half of the film is a raging yawn; that said, it is 119th on the imdb and was a commercial hit. More worrying is its politics: whilst the idea of aliens being degenerate is a fascinating one, the apartheid parallel then becomes extremely worrying. Or maybe they’re not degenerates, we are not given enough detail to understand why they are scavengers and why they appear not to be able to operate their spaceship. Is their behaviour a result of how they are treated on Earth or were they a load of criminals dumped on Earth, similar to the way Britain used to send convicts to Australia? Ambiguity is fine but in offering an allegorical reading the film has a duty to be clearer in what it’s trying to say.

And the representations of the Nigerians…?! How is it okay to group the superstition-ridden gangsters as Nigerians?

This should have been a great film but the script’s far too weak.