‘EO’, a splendid Polish gem about the inner life of a donkey; ‘Mavka’, a fine fantasy animation from Ukraine; Painfully unfunny ‘comedy’ in ‘Mafia Mamma’; ’65’ delivers high-grade action in a sci-fi survival adventure

Donkey in danger: The titular star of ‘EO’.

EO **** (89 minutes) M
Brimming with style, subtlety and emotional gut punches, EO is an understated stunner, an outside-the-square gem that sends us on a singularly captivating odyssey, its visionary images and perceptive direction a prime example of the type of exploratory, non-mainstream film that gives arthouse cinema a good name.

From the opening moments we are transported into the mind of EO, a performing donkey in a Polish circus that is soon harangued by animal rights activists whose protests tear the creature from its devoted keeper Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska).

Her love and care for the animal stand in stark contrast to the experiences that beset the hapless beast as it is forced into a world beyond the security and affection it has known.

It’s a gruelling journey for EO who experiences cruelty and kindness in equal measure as happenstance- or, perhaps, fate – sees it face death several times, including in one extraordinary sequence when it turns up to a soccer game between two feuding teams and their rabid supporters.

The process of imbuing animals with human-like qualities – or anthropomorphism, a most unwieldy term – has always presented challenges for filmmakers, who often resort to giving the animals voices (anyone remember the cleverly directed Francis the Talking Mule films from the 1950s?) or voiceovers.

Here, director Jerzy Skolimowski – the veteran Polish director who gave us Moonlighting, The Shout and Torrents of Spring – illuminates EO’s thoughts purely through images to create the compelling impression that we can read the donkey’s mind.

Skillful editing effectively takes us inside the mind of EO as it registers a wide range of feelings, from love and comfort to imprisonment and abuse.

Stuck in a truck being taken to who-knows-where, EO peers through wooden slits to glimpse a herd of running horses, an immensely moving glimpse of the animal’s constant yearning for freedom. We even sense the animal planning its escape from a stately mansion, where it has been deployed as a cheap lawnmower.

In terms of story and style, EO owes a huge debt to the brilliant 1966 Robert Bresson film Au Hasard Balthazar, which Skolimowski openly cites as his chief inspiration. He serves that peerless classic well.

Still, a more recent and obvious influence is Steven Spielberg’s Warhorse (2011), which also excelled in conveying an animal’s thoughts via purely optical means.

Toggling between understatement and emotionally charged visual flourishes, the film is graced with splendid cinematography from Michał Dymek. Ceaselessly evocative and impressionistic, the images continually speak to us about what EO is feeling.

While the donkey itself might not be a beautiful creature, the environments through which it traverses often are, including one notable sequence featuring an imposing man-made waterfall that appears to be cascading in reverse. Wow.

It’s also worth noting how In an era where every second movie includes drone coverage, EO has the distinction of featuring some of the best drone footage yet.

In particular is a prolonged tracking shot that propels us through a dark forest, down a rippling creek and up to a wind farm where the motion of a turbine’s giant blades is perfectly matched by rotating camera frame, making them appear motionless as the world revolves around them. You’ve never seen a drone do anything that impressive before.

A gem of a film from top to tail, EO easily lands as one of the best films yet about the bonds between people and creatures, ultimately seeking to strengthen the case for treating animals with feeling and dignity. Even lowly beasts of burden like EO.

You’re terrible, Muriel: Toni Collette in the godawful comedy ‘Mafia Mamma’.

MAFIA MAMMA 1/2 (102 minutes) MA
Everything’s off in this godawful, witless mess in which Toni Collette – usually so good in everything she’s touched since Muriel’s Wedding in 1994 – plays an American suburbanite who travels to Italy after inheriting the position as a mafia boss.

Collette’s daffy performance is off-key, Monica Bellucci is wasted and the graphic violence is completely out-of-place, as if lifted from another film. Whatever happened to the art of comic action? Or storytelling? To wit: the closing 20 minutes are truly execrable.

Catherine Hardwicke hadn’t directed a comedy before this film. On the evidence spewed up before us here, it could be powerfully argued that she still hasn’t.

Mavka with friend in the Ukrainian animated family film ‘Mavka: Song of the forest’

MAVKA: SONG OF THE FOREST *** (99 minutes) PG
A sweet-spirited, colourful semi-fantasy based loosely on a Ukrainian legend.

Made wary of the alleged badness of humans, forest fairy Mavka has to contend with conflicting emotions when Lucas, a handsome young travelling performer, comes searching for a tree with magical healing properties.

He’s desperate to cure his ailing uncle, and is in the employ of a wicked, wonderfully snarky and very sexy corporate cow called Kylina, a Madonna look-a-like (down to the beauty spot) who is keen on eternal beauty and exploiting the local woodlands with the usual complement of bulldozers and chainsaws.

It’s a kid’s film so it has to have an eco-message, it seems.

High-end animation and snappy pacing aptly sell the story’s overarching theme about the dangers of bigotry, pointless feuds and mob hysteria, with the humans regarding the forest spirits as demons.

Unavoidably, whatever enjoyment one derives from this beautifully produced Ukrainian family film is offset somewhat by the devastation the war with Russia is wreaking on the country.

Footnote: While a quick Google scan shows that much license has been taken with the actual legend, the film’s closing credits attest to a long inventory of cultural consultation.

Adam Driver faces the cast of Jurassic Park in the sci-fi action/adventure ’65’.

65 ***1/2 (92 minutes) M
In a very nifty, action-crammed sci-fi survival adventure that unspools like the intelligent version of After Earth, an alien space explorer named Mills and who resembles Adam Driver (Adam Driver) steers his stricken spaceship onto the jagged surface of a hostile planet after it is hit by a large space rock.

The only other survivor of the crash is Koa (Ariana Greenblatt) a girl who doesn’t speak the same language as Mills and who happens to be the same age as his ill daughter. Together they must trek 12 kilometres to the top of a mountain where sits the escape shuttle from the ship.

As luck would have it, the planet they’ve crash-landed on is Earth, 65 million years ago, which, as we’ve all known since 1993 when we saw the poster for Jurassic Park, means that the place is crawling with dinosaurs.

These magnificently rendered beasties cause no end of trouble as the pair fight and shoot their way through the undergrowth of the prehistoric forests.

And time’s a tickin’ because, in a beautifully crafted contrivance, that rock what hit the spaceship was no ordinary piece of random space debris but a splinter from a Very Special Comet that is on the verge of making a very big impact on Earth’s evolution.

The relentlessly paced lark is very proficiently directed and written by Scott Beck & Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place), who rarely let a minute go by without something going drastically wrong or a plan of action being derailed or some marvelously nasty cousin of the cast of Jurassic Park showing up to take another bite at the duo.

With its excellent, double-strength VFX work and whole-hearted embrace of B-movie aesthetics that demand there not be a dead second anywhere, it’s terrific entertainment with outstanding cinematography from veteran Salvatore Totino, who worked on plenty of Ron Howard films (The Missing; The Da Vinci Code; Frost/Nixon) giving the film a visual polish that sits several grades above what we typically see in Marvel films.

As to why 65 has attracted such cool reviews, go figure.

Footnote: Apologies for getting to this film so late. It wasn’t previewed by Sony, so had to catch it in-season during a hectic period. Once it hits the stream we’ll repost.