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Kytherian Cinema Review

Happy Meet. [George Millers creative influence].

David Poland

The Hot Button


February 12, 2007

What are the odds that two filmmakers, best known for their work on action/fantasy films, would bring up the significance of quantum physics on storytelling in the same 32 hours? But I had the good fortune of hearing it from both George Miller and Guillermo del Toro last Tuesday/Wednesday.

I also had the good fortune, thanks to GdT, to have a shoot the shit with Larry Gordon, one of my "childhood" movie heroes, over a drink. Gordon, with Joel Silver as a sidekick, was the Bruckheimer of his era, but so much saltier that he didn't quite maintain the even strain that has kept Bruckheimer so powerful for so long. After a few great, unrepeatable stories, I asked when he'd be writing his book. He responded, not unexpectedly, that it would only happen when he was done with the business, citing his old pal Julia Phillips, who really couldn't eat lunch in this town again after she told tales out of school.

But I digress…

It's hard to explain how important George Miller has been to me as a creative voice over these last 25+ years. I actually paid money to go see Mad Max in the AMC Omni multiplex in Miami when I was a 14 years old. And I didn't much care for it. I saw something in it, but I thought it was rather a mess. So I was relieved to find out that, when asked if he ever thought one of his films was not up to snuff, that Mad Max was his only choice. Mine too.

The opening moments of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior suggested a whole different, considered sense of filmmaking from Miller, as the picture starts out too small for the screen format, before expanding out into breathtaking widescreen. And the excitement never stops.

Miller reminds me, intellectually, more than a little of another Miller who moved from being a doctor into the arts, the very British Jonathan Miller. The two couldn't be more different in style. Jonathan Miller has the droll look of a living Gerald Scarfe drawing, with a smile that is hard to draw, but generous on arrival. George Miller is a kind-eyed man whose smile is generous and warm. He is curious - or at least endlessly polite - about what goes on around him. But both men share a deep curiosity about the world and a profound interest in understanding. I don't know if it's true of J.M., but my sense of G.M. is that he is pleased to be challenged by that which eludes him, alive to the challenge.

Happy Feet is a perfect example of his curiosity. He learned the things that worked and didn't work in the CG universe by way of Babe, which he produced, and Babe: Pig In The City, which he directed. Happy Feet was another step in the evolution of the medium. While others were obsessing on the dance moves, Miller was pushing the animation team to focus on the eyes of the penguins, which is how humans communicate the majority of the information they share between one another.


Interestingly, the humans who appear in the third act of the film, posed a different challenge for Miller & Co. They shot the live footage of the humans and CG-ified it, thinking that the difference between the CG Mumbles and the humans would be too disconcerting. But as it turned out, Mumbles, the lead penguin, became so photo-realistic over the course of creating the film's penguins, that the odd looking almost-humans became the distraction and they went back to the raw footage they had started with.


As we discussed the film, Nicole Kidman came up in Miller's conversation in a relaxed, obvious kind of way. I had forgotten that Miller has been to Australian cinema much like Walter Salles is now to Brazil. Philip Noyce's worldwide breakout launch, Dead Calm… produced by Miller. John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting, which bookended Dead Calm and Days of Thunder for Nicole Kidman and also gave us Thandie Newton… again, produced by George Miller. Miller produced Chris Noonan's work up until and through the Oscar-nominated Babe.

But it is Miller as director that I truly adore. His segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, with John Lithgow going crazy in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet was the best in the bunch. For me, The Witches of Eastwick became so much about the on-set issues that the very enjoyable movie got a little lost. But for me, 2/3 of the actresses were very compelling and sexy, Nicholson was really at the height of his Mad Jack powers, and Miller did some great work, though the blow-up Nicholson remains one of those things that would be best redone in CG were there to be any demand at all for a redux version.

Lorenzo's Oil is really a masterpiece, painful though it is. I was living in Los Angeles when it played in 1992, one of the first films I saw in a then-brand-new AMC Century 14 (now replaced by another new AMC theater in that mall.) But the use of action film technique on what was basically a medical drama, combined with some spectacular performances… wow. (The film died at the box office, in no small part, drowning in the wake of Universal's bigger Oscar film, Scent of a Woman.) But what Miller did, which many wanted to avoid experiencing, was to make the panic, fear, and pain of a sick child so visceral that it was undeniable. Ironically, a film like Babel is better at making the good moments visceral than the painful one. As talented as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is, to see George Miller's version of the Moroccan village sequence would be something indeed.

For me, as I prefer Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom to the other Raiders films, I prefer the Miller-directed Babe: Pig In The City to the kinder, gentler Babe. The two films are kind of like a John Ford family film (hee hee) sequeled by a near silent two-reeler combined with a Marx Brothers comedy, using the same characters. Miller was, off-screen, the Groucho, while Magda Szubanski was the Margaret Dumont, and Babe was the Allan Jones. And the other animals were, in their way, the Harpo, the Chico, and most of the silent films stars in one way or another. It was a very dark movie compared to the first, but while about talking animals, it was more adult than you would likely see now. In fact, with all the talking animal animations this last year, Babe: Pig In The City would likely be a critics' favorite this year, finally appreciated for its originality in sequeldom.

And now, Happy Feet, easily the smartest, most challenging, and rigorous animations of 2006. In some ways, it is more akin to The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. than anything else that's come along in the CG era. Brilliantly unexpected. (For me, Finding Nemo taps into something deeper than any of them… something at our core that remains unconscious for most viewers.)

So as we're talking about physics and movies, I naturally brought up Contact… which I had no idea that Miller was on for a year before Warner Bros decided not to make the movie that he had been working towards. (I have great warmth towards Zemeckis' version, in spite of McConaughey as an intellectual rep of religion.) But the funny thing about Miller… and one of the reasons I like him even more than I ever expected to… is that his memory of not making that film, of investing a year of his life, is that it was one of his favorite years ever… because he spent it with Carl Sagan and other great minds exploring something bigger than himself, something bigger than us all. And that is who this emergency room doctor, who gave Mad Max all the urgency of a bloody car wreck being shipped into his workplace, really is. A man who is in love with his sense of exploration. A man who stays out of the insanity of Hollywood, but knows how to work it to his advantage, to allow him to do his work. And whose films pay off almost every time.

He is one of the good guys. Two hours in a movie theater or two hours at a table, just as entertaining, just as stimulating, just as happy an experience walking away. And really, what more could you ask of him. And that other guy talking math and movies? Similar. It makes engaging a joy.

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