Pig Sees Nicolas Cage Shine in One of the Year’s Best Films

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

There seems to be a trend of films and film titles revolving around farm animals in the last 18 or so months. From Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019/2020) to Valdmiar Johansson’s Lamb (2021) and Michael Sarnoski’s Pig (2021); each of these films places these animals at the forefront, but each one tells a vastly different story and to different avail.

Pig is a film that centres on themes of grief and loss, but it is also about acceptance and surviving. It sees a truffle hunter, Robin (played by the unsurprisingly great Nicolas Cage) have his pig companion stolen in the middle of the night while living off-grid in some cabin. This results in him setting out to find his pig with the help of Amir (Alex Wolff) who pays Robin for his truffle work.

For what it’s worth, the premise is deceptively simple as it plays on audience expectations that Robin will go out on a killing spree until his pig is found. This deception is particularly true given that the man playing Robin is Cage, who audiences almost expect will go on a killing frenzy comprised of outbursts and sadistic rage like in Mandy (2018), Color Out of Space (2019), or Vengeance: A Love Story (2017), to name a few.

While there are moments of rage bubbling beneath the surface (with the most extreme outburst seeing Cage kick the crap out of a yellow Camaro’s door), Sarnoski never goes down that predictable rabbit hole (which would be a great name for another animal film). Rather, Sarnoski uses Robin’s loss and grief as a catalyst for exploring how sometimes we can’t control what happens to us — sometimes our efforts are in vain even if we think there is a silver lining at the end of the tunnel.  

What is especially interesting to note is that Robin isn’t just some weirdo who drew the short straw and is now out to exact revenge, but he is a renowned former chef whose name is uttered like a long lost legend. He’s had his share of fortune, has mingled with the city folk, and has lived under the false pretences of success that capitalism masquerades as — ultimately seeing him swap city lights for green bushland. What this approach allows Sarnoski to do is to paint capitalism as a grotesque construct that can tear down even the most successful people if they aren’t willing to adapt to the changing world around them.

Nicolas Cage in Pig

There’s a particular scene in a high end restaurant where Robin — in his rugged, beat-up state — calmy rips into the chef of the restaurant (who happens to be a former intern of his) for allowing himself to forgo his dreams and settle for a world built around falsity and conformity. It is one of the many profoundly moving scenes in the film that gets to the heart of selling ones soul and settling — ultimately forgetting about what it is that we really care about. Robin asserts to that chef that “we don’t get a lot of things to really care about”; In essence, the pig and the lengths Robin goes to in order to find it, represents that pursuit for what we really care about, which is often quashed by settling.

In a sense, you’d be forgiven for thinking this film plays out somewhat semi-biographically for Cage where he sees his own past mistakes and strives to protect and salvage what he cares about, but may have ignored in the past. There’s the whole ‘fall from grace’ type approach where Robin is an esteemed chef (Cage is an esteemed actor) who disappeared from the spotlight only to re-emerge out of nowhere and still cook (act) like a pro. Heck, a character asserts to Robin that “I remember a time when your name meant something to people, Robin”.

It makes for a resounding 90 minutes that gives Cage a platform to showcase why he is among the top 10 actors of all time. Cage himself asserted in recent interviews that the acting came easy for him here because he didn’t need to act as much due to having dreams and thoughts about losing his cat — which he channelled into Robin. In this sense, Cage plays Robin with a degree of verisimilitude that many (including yours truly) will be able to relate to. Whether someone has lost an animal, a loved one, or just an inherent desire — it’s about finding what you care about and protecting it at all costs, no matter the outcome.

The comparisons between John Wick and Pig have been plentiful due to the nature of messing with one’s animal companion and then hunting down the perpetrators. However, Sarnoski’s take on the revenge storyline plays out in a resoundingly different light. Robin is the one that gets beat down (physically and mentally) throughout the whole film without so much as throwing a punch. It’s a unique take on what we might expect to have happened, but it adds a level of humanism and honesty that captures how things don’t always end up the way we want them to.

The film is a masterclass in exploring how we deal with grief and how we learn to live with it in a system that encourages people to forget about what they truly care for and move on. Nicolas Cage delivers one of his most subtle and sublime performances ever, and the result is one of the most touching, sombre and best films of the year.

Pig is streaming on Palace Home Cinema

9 Campy, Schlock Horror Films to Watch this Schlocktober

It’s that time of year again when people across the world start getting their pumpkins ready for carving and their costumes ready for wearing. It’s also that time of year when horror fanatics dive into their favourite horror films as Halloween nears. To prepare you for Halloween on the 31st of October, I thought I’d make a list of 9 campy, schlock-horror films to watch before the 31st. Most of these films are about as B movie as you can get with their small budgets, practical effects, zany plots, and comical performances. So lets look at some of the titles.

Bad Taste (1987)

As a life-long devotee to anything Peter Jackson related (given I’m a Kiwi), Bad Taste is about as great a debut feature as one can make. Not only was this film made with a small budget, but it was able to do so much with how little it had. Jackson made this with his friends and shot most of the film at his parents NZ house, with a documentary somewhere online showing his mum handing out sandwiches in-between takes.

The film has some structure for about the first 15-20min and then just quickly goes off the rails as practical effects subsume all coherency, and all out carnage ensues. There’s a scene involving barf drinking, there’s blood squirting almost consistently, there’s dudes in ninja costumes, guns galore, and there’s RPG explosions.

The film is really a testament to Jackson’s creativity and it’s far from his best schlock induced work (Braindead would follow), but it is a thrilling and outright enjoyable 90 minutes that never gives you any respite. It’s crazy to think studio executives would give Jackson The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) to direct, but boy did they make the right choice.

The Evil Dead (1981)

It’s hard to make a list like this without including Sam Raimi’s ever celebrated The Evil Dead. In its 40 years, the film has withstood the test of time to become a cult classic in the horror genre. The film, while definitely more of a professional, serious production, would go on to inspire and pave the way for a wave of 80’s and 90’s schlock horror and campy films.

The premise revolves around a bunch of college students, a cabin in the woods, and a mysterious book that unleashes a demonic force to hunt the students down. It really is a premise with three signature horror elements that has been parodied and done-over countless times.

It’s another example of making do with what you’ve got, and boy does Raimi make do. Plenty of gore to be had and also scares, which is something that this film has over the others on the list as it is more of a nuanced horror that happens to fall into this schlock category as well.

Frankenhooker (1990)

Frankenhooker is just as its name suggests — a Frankenstein zombie made from the body parts of prostitutes. Made by Frank Henenlotter, known for such titles as Basket Case (1982) and Brain Damage (1988), Frankenhooker is about a guy that blows up some prostitutes and stitches them back together to create his dead fiancé (who was killed by a lawnmower).

The film is a comical exploitation film that leans into physical humour for laughs. Though the film falls under sexploitation and is no doubt misogynistic, it has retained a cult status for its nonsensicalness and bemusing premise. The film gets more wild as the scenes roll on, with Elizabeth (the concoction of those prostitute parts) eventually getting a greater consciousness and exacting revenge.

There is evidently a lot of love and care that has gone into the film which give it that rewatch status and it’s no doubt a trashy 90 or so minutes to be had.  

Braindead (1992)

If I haven’t made it obvious, I’m a sucker for anything Peter Jackson related. Braindead is no exception and is one of the best films in the schlock horror, B movie category.

New Zealand humour and LOTS of blood subsume the film in this gore fest where Jackson is pretty much set on just destroying any and all human costumes and props. From the outset, Jackson is set on entertaining the audience as he leans into chaotic scenes involving intestine like creatures, zombies, swinging babies, and all while injecting the film with delirious gags and infectious humour.

Braindead is to the comedy-horror genre what Blade Runner (1982) is to the sci-fi genre.

Night Train to Terror (1985)

I don’t know where to start with this film. It’s like if Snowpiercer (2013) met Zoolander (2001) and Step-Up (2006), and even then that would still be an understatement. The film is quintessential viewing if B movie, schlock horror comedies are your thing.

Everything takes place on a train and the stories are absurd with multiple different ones intertwined throughout. The acting is bonkers, the humour feels out of place but works because it is, the practical effects are a staple of the time, and for some reason God and Satan are just having a casual chat amidst all the chaos.

It’s really an experience to be had rather than one that can be articulated as, like Sean Baker says on Letterboxd, the film is “Such an insane mess of a movie”.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

As its name suggests, the film is about some killer clowns from space that come to earth and terrorise those they meet.

There really isn’t much to say in the way of what to expect or what works. Everything works because it doesn’t — the absurdness of the plot and performances lean into a humorous telling, and there is just a bunch of nonsensical killing that many would find is “so bad it’s good”.

I’m usually not good with horror movies in general let alone horror movies with clowns, but because this film (like most on this list) are as crude and bizarre as horror movies go, it was worth a mention.

Chopping Mall (1986)

Aside from having one of the greatest simple titles of any film on this list, Chopping Mall is also (from memory) the only film on here (save for Death Spa) that brings robots into the equation!

I like to think of this film as The Breakfast Club (1985) meets WALL-E (2008), only WALL-E is a killer robot. Teens basically get trapped in a shopping mall after the mall goes into lockdown, only for security robots to go on a killing spree to rid these ‘intruders’. That’s really it.

The film is about as 80’s B movie as they come, with lots of satirical elements (particularly pertaining to mall culture and how prominent that was among teens at the time), scenes involving electrocution and also laser death.

Death Spa (1989)

Like Chopping Mall but also unlike Chopping Mall, Death Spa sees the spa computer system turn the workout equipment and other facets of the spa (including steam rooms and hair driers) against the spa goers.

It’s a ludicrous film (but what film on this list isn’t?), with garbage acting and a forgettable premise, but it keeps people coming back for its absurdity and how it doesn’t hesitate to knuckle down on its trashiness. The props and practical effects are lacking in comparison to most of the films on this list, but it has that 80’s vibe and colour palette that seem to be enough to keep viewers coming back.

The only thing missing from the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger and this would have been the Mr Olympia training film of the century.  

TerrorVision (1986)

Rounding off the list is a film where a family’s newly installed satellite dish attracts alien signals and eventually, the aliens themselves.

The film is a bizarre delight with cheap set designs, a very satirical undertone (basically ripping into everything 80’s), goofy characters, a surprisingly diverse cast (including Gerrit Graham, Jon Gries, and Bert Remsen), a very cartoony feel, and practical effects that get the job done. 

Essentially, if you wanted to get an idea of what the 80’s looked and felt like (from the hairdo’s, fashion, music and comedy), then this is the film for you.

Coupon Comedy Film Queenpins is all but Funny

Rating: 2 out of 5.

With Paramount + starting to kick into second gear with more content being released, it seemed fitting to check out the streaming providers latest original title, Queenpins (2021).

As its name suggests, in a rather unsubtle manner, the film is a take on the kingpin story that has been tried and dried since cinemas inception. To elaborate, there’s an idea that hits the protagonist, which ultimately leads to an illegal business involving money laundering, and then a culmination of a series of events that either see the protagonist get away with their dirty work or end up caught.

That ‘idea’ is what the film leans on for support and uses to try and differentiate itself from more serious films in the sub-genre. Connie Kaminski (played by the ever delightful Kristen Bell) finds a loophole in the supermarket coupon system where, after having complained to companies via email over the quality of their products, she is sent coupons to obtain those items for free. It isn’t until her YouTube-wannabe-star friend JoJo (played by Bell’s The Good Place co-star, Kirby Howell-Baptiste) suggests the potential to resell these coupons for half price, that Connie sees the potential to make some dough.

This is what directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly use to try and incorporate the more comical side of the film whilst also retaining a level of seriousness of the real life events that inspired the film. For the most part, the concept of the film is actually quite comical in and of itself. Evidently, Bell’s presence brings a level of warmth to this character that works alongside the premise of the film to make her not fall into the standard anti-hero of kingpin criminal films.

Connie’s backstory also helps to bring a level of sympathy to her character as she struggles financially due to undergoing expensive IVF treatments with her husband Rick (an incredibly underutilized Joel McHale). Subsequently, while her actions of counterfeiting coupons never really becomes something that sends fear down her spine should she be caught (particularly due to the naivety shown during the laundering process), it does give a more playful version of events.  

Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn in Queenpins

Joining Bell and Howell-Baptiste in this very buddy-up style comedy is Paul Walter Hauser and the quintessential serious-funny-guy type in Vince Vaughn. Hauser plays Ken Miller, a supermarket Loss Prevention Officer, while Vaughn plays Simon Kilmurry, a U.S Postal Inspector. Ken and Simon are the other side of the coupon counterfeiting coin as the FBI effectively demotes the issue as unimportant, and it is up to the two of them to crack the coupon case.

When spending time with Ken and Simon, the film leans into that buddy-cop type telling where the humour lies. Most of this humour comes from the very fact that the duo aren’t FBI agents, they’re serious about a coupon crime, and they have small gags that are aimed at drawing a laugh (Ken defecates in the car while out scouting Connie and JoJo with Simon). Most of these gags will either bring about a laugh or two, or simply just fall flat seeing as they just spontaneously pop up seemingly for the sake of a cheap laugh (a sign that the humour just isn’t great).

It’s easy to see that pairing the female leads together and the male leads together gives the film a lot more to work with as the actors play off of each other quite nicely when we do spend time with them. The problem with this duality is that we end up with two perspectives that seem to play out as two separate films. In essence, both the Bell/Howell-Baptiste and Vaughn/Hauser dynamic would really have worked better had they been two separate versions of this story or had we spent more time with Bell and Howell-Baptiste.

At the end though, the film banks on those back and forths between the female and male pairings. The actual coupon issue doesn’t carry enough weight behind it and just simply never feels like it raises the stakes due to how measured and composed Bell and JoJo are, even when they’ve been caught (an issue on the part of characterisation that is lacking). When all is said and done, Queenpins is a light-hearted but hardly humorous two hours.

Queenpins is now streaming on Paramount +

Annette is a Whirlwind of Ideas Mashed into one very Unique Feature

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Few films of recent memory have been as visually abstract and wavering in their focus as Leos Carax’s Annette (2021). It’s one of those films that leans into art-house conventions of filmmaking and asks its audience to latch onto them for dear life as the film zig-zags through a minefield of ideas, set pieces, and oddness to provide an experience unlike any other in 2021.  

So where does one start with a film that is more interested in keeping its audience guessing than providing them with a clear cut narrative? Well for starters, Annette unfolds in an operatic-like showcase that echoes early French Avant-Garde filmmaking (particularly that of Jacques Demy whose influence is definitely felt). For instance, dialogue is often sung throughout the film, scenes are choreographed to play out like live theatre, and there is a particular emphasis on the unnaturalness of how the actors move through space and time.

With a screenplay by the Mael brothers (Sparks Brothers) and Carax, Annette is never short on surprises and wackiness as it leans into a romantic-fantasy-musical akin to what I can best describe as Beauty and the Beast (1991) meets A Star Is Born (2018).

At its core though, the premise of the film is a relatively simple one revolving around romance and the struggles of stardom. Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) are both performers — a comedian and soprano, respectively. As with most celebrities, their life and personal affairs cannot escape the public eye, and Henry becomes more agitated and narcissistic as the film progresses, while Ann gradually begins to pull back and become somewhat of a muse. This is particularly true for both characters as they welcome their baby daughter Annette, into the world.

Annette herself is presented in puppet form which raises interesting ideas pertaining to artifice, especially when it comes to how Henry and Ann see the world around them. Both characters seemingly awaken following Annette’s birth in that they realise the life they have been living up until now has all been a farce so as to maintain the illusion of contentedness. Annette’s presence sees that illusion be torn down as the film spirals into a hodgepodge of visual cues, symbols and motifs that are really difficult to grapple with (oh and did I mention Annette is gifted with an incredible musical voice?).

Marion Cotillard in Annette

The music of the film is also a big reason for why its zaniness works — perhaps because it was conjured up by the equally zany Sparks Brothers. With lyrics that penetrate and carry over between each set piece (especially “We Love Each Other So Much”) Carax is able to nurse the film into a level of tenderness that becomes crucial to living up to the films tragic finale. The repetition of music and lyrics has a level of sadness that brings to light the illusory truth effect where, the more something is repeated, the more likely it is an individual will believe it to be true.

But for Henry and Ann, there is a level of truth to their repetition no matter how much it seems to divide them. Carax makes this apparent by intertwining the aforementioned lyrics into very physical actions and events (i.e. Henry performing oral sex on Ann, Ann giving birth while those in the birth theatre sing). In this sense, Henry and Ann aren’t repeating for the sake of wanting to believe that they love each other, rather, as Henry lyrically asserts to Ann’s former partner The Conductor (Simon Helberg), “that song was our song”. In the same way, that love was their love — it was born out of truth and remained so, even as Henry continued to descend into a deeper low (which I won’t spoil).

The film isn’t without its shortcomings though. Carax is less interested in drawing an emotional response from audiences due to the lack of avenues from which to draw that response (at least for the first two acts), and is instead interested in using symbols and motifs (Annette in her puppet state, Ann’s distinct vocal pattern etc.) to build up the audiences understanding of events. For most of the second act, the film relies on these cues to give some sort of structure and direction to an otherwise unruly narrative. Sure, fans of Carax will band together to point out that Carax’s style is less about narrative coherency as it is about using the affordances of the medium in a Lynchian fashion, but it’s an absence, nonetheless.

Most of Annette relies on the audiences desire to be in equal parts submissive to the subversive form of the film, and to experience the film through its wandering structure. It’s a unique experience that can often feel exhausting which I have no doubt is intentional as Henry and Ann’s relationship is an exhausting one, but it’s worth taking the ride.

Annette is currently screening in select cinemas, and on Palace Home Cinema

Greyhound: Tom Hanks Writes and Stars in WW2 Thriller

Rating: 2 out of 5.

With WW2 and war films continuing to permeate film culture, it is no surprise that Tom Hanks would find himself at the helm of a war destroyer in open seas. Greyhound (2020) represents Apple TV’s first proper dip into distribution of a large scale film, and for the most part, it is a clear and simple adaptation of C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd.

The film centres around Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks), a US Navy Commander who has the mission of escorting a large convoy across the Atlantic during WW2 while German U-boats (submarines) stand in the convoys way. With air support unavailable in the central part of the journey (known as the ‘Black Pit’) due to the range, it is up to Krause and his crew to keep the convoy afloat as they carry their supplies to Allies.

Unlike Hanks’ prior performances in war films Saving Private Ryan (1998) and sea escapades like Captain Phillips (2013), Greyhound sees the two-time Oscar winning actor play a more fixed and vocal role. This isn’t necessarily a drawback of the film as Hanks’ screenplay cuts out all of the fat and exposition that often subsumes most war films, and instead settles on the action at sea and the man at its centre.

Director Aaron Schneider, known for Get Low (2009) and Two Soldiers (2003), complements Hank’s more vocal and contemplative temperament by focusing in on the tension of the battles and the ferocity of the sea. Schneider keeps most of the film centred on the bridge of the ship in order to effectively heighten the tension of each given moment and capture the spacial limitations and helplessness of being out at sea. This makes for plenty of thrilling moments as the German U-boats circle like a pack of wolves (as they assert) while Krause and his crew yell out bearings and directions.

Tom Hanks in Greyhound

In terms of some of the production aspects, the action and battle scenes are predominately CGI’d, but they hold up for a budget of US $55 million. Also, Blake Neely’s score complements the CGI’d battles in its low tone that has a constant sonar echo, and the dull green/grey colour palette is fitting for the period being depicted.

When comparing the film to other war films of recent like Dunkirk (2017) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Greyhound is more limited in its scope and ambitions. Not much is known about the character of Ernest Krause; there is a brief insight into his past as a commander at Pearl Harbour as well as a pre-Greyhound scene involving his significant other. However, for the most part, Hanks and Schneider want to keep the attention solely around the ship itself in order to immerse audiences in the Greyhound ship experience.

For what it’s worth, that on-ship isolation works in removing all the weight of narrative expectations that some might see as being essential (including yours truly). However, unlike something like the aforementioned Dunkirk, the same level of practicality that comes with a Nolan war film and the diversity of tense moments isn’t the same here. That might be due to the lack of space that comes with being at sea, or it might be the repetitive nature of the films events that Hanks and Schneider knuckle down on. Regardless, there isn’t much leg room to wiggle into backstory and character building that one might expect.

For a first major feature on Apple TV, Greyhound is rife with Navy lingo and sea battles, and with Tom Hanks at the helm, it makes sense that it received Oscar nominations this past year. As a war film, it isn’t as compelling as some of the films mentioned, but it is clear in its focus and objective and for the most part, it manages to provide an engaging viewing experience.

Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV

Infinite: Reincarnation has Never Looked so Boring

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

With film studio Paramount having launched its streaming service Paramount +, it seemed fitting to watch its first drawcard feature Infinite (2021) starring the ever bankable Mark Wahlberg. This comes some months after Amazon Prime’s recent sci-fi thriller The Tomorrow War (2021), starring an equably bankable Chris Pratt in the lead role. While The Tomorrow War had a relatively tolerable premise, Infinite is an insufferable mess that proves studios are willing to throw their money at just about anything as long as Wahlberg is in it.

To say that Mark Wahlberg is the problem would be an oversight. His performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) is as iconic today as it was over 20 years ago, and he seems to have found a resonance with Michael Bay — having shone in Pain and Gain (2013) and the last of Bay’s two Transformers films. However, Infinite reduces Wahlberg’s often fast-talking and physical performance to a dreary and tedious display that can only be summed up by Wahlberg’s own confused facial expressions as events of the film unfold.

Antoine Fuqua is known for his action packed films like Training Day (2001), The Equalizer (2014) and frequent collaborations with the likes of Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar for Training Day), Jake Gyllenhaal, and now Mark Wahlberg (both of whom he has worked with twice). However, Infinite represents a departure from a simple action premise to something more akin to Doug Liman’s dreadful action sci-fi, Jumper (2008). It is adapted from D. Erik Maikranz’s 2009 novel The Reincarnationist Papers (which is, by all accounts, equally underwhelming).

Infinite is essentially about a small group of people known as the infinites who are pretty much reincarnated after they die, in the sense that they can eventually remember their past lives and skills obtained in those lives. Evan McCauley (Mark Wahlberg), who is known to the other reincarnated as Heinrich Treadway (one of his past reincarnation names), lives most of his new life never really knowing he is one of the reincarnated and is instead diagnosed as a schizophrenic. What Evan doesn’t know is that somewhere in his memories lies the location of an object known as the egg, which the infinites are trying to find before Ted (Chiwetel Ejiofor), another infinite who goes by the name of Bathurst, finds it.

Mark Wahlberg in Infinite

Fuqua essentially orients his film around this plot device and creates a goose chase for his characters in the process. This plot device is desired by Bathurst who wants to harness it to destroy the world so that there is nothing left to reincarnate to — effectively rendering the reincarnation process as finished. The problem with the film is that it relies too much on this specific object as a catalyst for creating cause and effect, and this leaves the events of the film lacking substance.

Mark Wahlberg looks confused and bored for most of the film, with his real flair coming during the action set pieces, which themselves amount to nothing as they are too few and far. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character is also incredibly underwritten and exists purely for the sake of being an antagonist — he delivers some lines about his purpose, kills off some equally underwritten characters, and is waterboarded with gasoline for some reason. In essence, both the protagonist and antagonist are uninspired, especially when compared to The Tomorrow War’s protagonist and alien entity which are miles better for an action sci-fi.

Perhaps Antoine Fuqua should have found a way to incorporate another 40minutes for greater clarity (seeing as Paramount already seemed set on going all in on this) or perhaps he should have focused on releasing one feature this year instead of two, seeing as The Guilty (2021) arrives later this year. Regardless, Infinite is a forgettable viewing experience and is a reminder that Michael Bay is still the only director to get the best out of Wahlberg in the last 20 years. Lets hope Paramount can bring its lacking streaming service some content worth audiences time and money.

Infinite is now streaming on Paramount +

MIFF ’21: Notturno Forces us to Face the Realities of War that we Often Ignore

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With colonisation comes a struggle for independence and identity; oftentimes war ensues, and people are either left with less than they had before, or nothing at all. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Notturno (2020), paints a perplexing picture of what life after war looks like. The Oscar-nominated documentarian lets his camera do the talking as he traverses the war ravaged Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon over the course of three years. The result is a film that captures the aftermath of war ravaged lands, and the people left to endure the mess made by others.

Rosi is no stranger to focusing on people facing hardship as a result of injustice and corrupt systems. His Golden Bear winning film, Fire at Sea (2016), explores the European migrant crisis and some of the people at the centre of the migrant landings at Sicilian island, Lampedusa. While Notturno isn’t as specific in its focus as Fire at Sea, it serves to remind audiences of the realities that people on the other side are living.

In Notturno, Rosi captures the sprawling and almost barren wasteland’s of some of the aforementioned Middle-Eastern countries, and his cinematography is comprised of an array of wide shots that give the land itself an added layer of complexity. There is almost no life in Rosi’s shots, with the environment seeming akin to that of Frank Herbert’s fictional Arrakis (or Dune) — there is a desert-like openness, structures are left behind from ISIS raids, and minimal life exists save for birds that are hunted. The purpose here is to reinforce what many of the people in the film already voice — these people’s homeland has been taken from them and losing their identity is at risk as well. Subsequently, the camera serves as this invisible observer in motion.

Unfortunately, Rosi isn’t as interested in providing more context on the people in the film, with many of them going about their lives without us ever gaining a sense of who they are. There is an instance where some children draw and describe horrific pictures from experiences they’ve had with ISIS, but that’s about as close as we come to an emotional investment beyond the shots themselves.

A mother grieving for her son in Notturno

The film seems more concerned with allowing the setting to nurture our understanding of the people who occupy it rather than through the people themselves. These people enter the frame and the nothingness around them in order to reinforce just how little this land is actually theirs — it isn’t welcoming or even supportive of its occupants. In this sense, the land and Rosi’s shots of it is being used to demonstrate the governments (or lack thereof) failure to provide for its people.

One of the subjects in the film is a boy, Ali, who supports his mother and his many siblings by hunting for birds with various unknowns. When observed outside of the long and mid shots of his home where there is a sense of control and identity, he is often framed as a spec in the wider vastness of Rosi’s wide-shots. It’s a clever approach on Rosi’s part, but it provides the bare minimum in terms of understanding Ali’s situation and how he and his family make sense of the world around them.

The most profound aspect of the film, however, is Rosi’s ability to let the land speak for itself. There is little to no dialogue which creates an eerie sensation given that the countries in question are known for the violence and chaos that eschews the normalcy that otherwise exists. The only real sounds that continually penetrate the film are those natural ambient noises (birds chirping, water rushing, wind breezing etc.). When something other than natures sounds begins to present itself, it tends to be in the form of guns clocking and war trucks rolling. For what it’s worth, Rosi juxtaposes that aspect really well and leaves an uneasiness in one’s stomach.

Perhaps now more than ever, Notturno reminds audiences that colonisation and external interference in a once functioning nation, only does more harm than good — with the current situation in Afghanistan exacerbating that claim. Sure Rosi could have done with a greater engagement with his subjects, but it’s easy to see that his camera and the setting it captures are there to do the talking. While not as moving as Fire at Sea is during its best moments, Notturno is an essential viewing if not for its contemplative look on the countries at the centre of it, then for its relevance at this very point in time.

Notturno is currently streaming on MIFF Play until the 22nd of August.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Revisited, 20 Years On

It’s been almost 20 years since Sir Peter Jackson introduced audiences — both new and familiar — to the world of Middle Earth, on the big screen. In those 20 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), nothing, save for the sequels to The Fellowship of the Ring, has managed to capture the awe and bravado of Jackson’s Middle Earth. Franchises have come and gone, and Jackson has also adapted The Hobbit (2012 – 2014) for the big screen, but The Lord of the Rings continues to inspire as well as keep audiences coming back for more as the years roll on. Much has been said and written about the trilogy, but I believe it’s important to remind audiences why this trilogy has remained a staple in cinema history. What follows is an analysis of why Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings has continued to permeate film culture, how it redefined the Fantasy genre, and what made the franchise as celebrated as it is.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Before the Acclaim

Before delving into the aforementioned concerns of the piece, it is important to first outline the trajectory of The Lord of the Rings in cinema culture — from its inception, up until Jackson’s adaptation. In the years before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings adaptation came to fruition, there had been an animation adaptation in 1978 by Ralph Bakshi, which opened to a fair reception, and the Beatles had apparently wanted to star in a live-action adaptation of the books, with Stanley Kubrick said to have been their choice to direct. Kubrick allegedly turned down the offer to direct the planned film after saying that it was unfilmable (at least in terms of the technology not being there yet). As J.R.R Tolkien owned the rights to his work, he also turned the proposed Beatles film down as he didn’t want his work to be taken by the band and turned into something outlandish for the big screen.

It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-90s that the idea of a Jackson-led The Lord of the Rings adaptation began to circulate in the media. With Jackson’s earlier films like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992) being the epitome of schlock horror — films characterised by their absurd plots, quirky characters, campy humour, and so forth — it was no surprise that doubts were raised over the announcement that Jackson was to adapt the work of beloved and trailblazing author, J.R.R Tolkien.

Jackson had come off of directing a decently received, The Frighteners (1996), before pitching the idea of turning The Lord of the Rings into a live-action trilogy, to Miramax. Miramax said that they would be able to make two films instead of the proposed three, with the cost of the films driving their decision. However, Miramax eventually decided that that they were unable to fund the making of two films at the scale proposed. Subsequently, Jackson was allowed to pitch the idea for the films to other studios, and was eventually able to bring New Line Cinema on board to finance the film.

With New Line greenlighting the proposal for an adaptation helmed by Jackson, the next big hurdle came with the budget increase for each film. New Line had reportedly agreed to spend around US $60 million on each film, but that budget proved unrealistic with how audacious and large each film ended up becoming. Instead, New Line ended up spending around US $120 million on each film, with that eventual sum being agreed upon through much deliberation and even heat between Jackson and film executive Michael Lynne. It wasn’t until a 20 minute preview screening at Cannes in 2001 that the studio’s fears regarding the increase in budgeting, were alleviated. This was primarily due to the positive reception the footage of The Fellowship of the Ring received, and the realisation that the money invested into the film was paying off (with the Balrog scene being one that was shown).

With The Fellowship of the Ring eventually being made, and its sequels releasing within the next two years, the trilogy had officially survived the struggles of pre-production, production, and Harvey Weinstein. The trilogy would go on to become one of the highest grossing and consistently well received franchises of all time.

Hugo Weaving, Peter Jackson, and Ian Mckellen on the set of The Lord of the Rings

What Made the Trilogy as Influential and Beloved as it is?

Trying to provide a single answer to why Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is as iconic and influential as it is, simply cannot be done. Therefore, I will break down some of the key aspects of the trilogy and why they’ve seen the trilogy continue to enjoy the success that it has.

For starters, one of the biggest issues Jackson faced was trying to transpose such a well regarded and nuanced piece of fantasy literature as faithfully as he could, and in the time he had. Tolkien’s writing is renowned for its ability to capture the minutiae of any given aspect of the world of Middle Earth — whether that be a blade of grass or a trickle of water. In saying that, Jackson was fortunate that he had a lot to work with from Tolkien’s writing, particularly because the drawn out descriptions Tolkien provides, ultimately led to a level of clarity that Jackson simply moulded for a modern audience. Sure there was no Tom Bombadil or the battle for the Shire or the character of Gildor Inglorian, but given the scale of Tolkien’s world (those who have read The Silmarillion will know the struggle of making sense of everyone and everything being described), Jackson was able to focus on the fundamentals of the book in order to guide audiences through the three films.

A major factor that contributed to the trilogy’s acclaim and success is the fact that all facets of production aligned and worked to support each other for the entirety of the three films. There were two units that worked on the film: one that was helmed by Peter Jackson, and the other, by John Mahaffie (Second Unit Director). Both units were well equipped with resources to traverse the New Zealand landscape and country side (which is explored more in the exquisite documentary-like, behind the scenes), and Weta Workshop went above and beyond to produce sets, costumes, armour, weapons, creatures and miniatures. What this all means is that there was a sense of totality and scale unlike anything seen before or since, in a blockbuster or film of any kind. The result is one that led to the record breaking Oscars sweep for The Return of the King (2003) which won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for, and is tied with Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997) for most award wins in Oscars history.

But aside from the recognition from award wins and box office success, Jackson’s trilogy has continued to amaze viewers (included yours truly) across multiple viewings in the 20 years since. Some of the reasons why include the thematic consistency as the films went on; the largely practical approach to making the films; Howard Shore’s mesmerising score that speaks to various scenes and characters; the epic battle sequences both large and small; the memorable performances from each and every actor involved; and how the trilogy paved the way for fantasy films (and shows) to be taken as seriously as they are today.

The way in which Jackson developed a sense of forwardness from the first film to the last meant that the pacing always felt consistent, and audiences were given ample time to spend with various side characters and events, while never losing sight of the primary goal of The Fellowship. For instance, The Fellowship itself and its eventual separation, serves to engage the audience with the likes of Theoden (Bernard Hill), Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Emoer (Karl Urban), Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Faramir (David Wenham) and so forth. All of these characters have role to play in The Fellowship’s quest, but they also bring to surface the lore of Middle Earth that cannot be wholly accounted for.

The battle sequences also stand out, particularly due to how practical they were and how little they relied on CGI in contrast to blockbusters being released today. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is another film that comes to mind in terms of being remembered for the amount of choreography it had and the lack of CGI it used. Rarely are modern blockbusters as hands on in their approach to large scale battles as The Lord of the Rings was, and that’s another big drawcard for revisiting the trilogy — the action strived to create an out-of-body experience that sucked audiences into the world.

Another major aspect that contributed to the ongoing success of The Lord of the Rings is the way in which the show put the fantasy genre in the limelight for film and television. The point here is simply to highlight how Jackson’s films have paved the way for the fantasy genre to be taken more seriously as a form of art. A show like HBO’s Game of Thrones has won multiple Emmy awards and has been compared to The Lord of the Rings (and rightfully so given that George R.R. Martin is greatly inspired by Tolkien). Netflix’s The Witcher show has also emerged in the last couple of years and has quickly become a fan favourite. So essentially, Jackson and his first trilogy of films have brought as much attention to the fantasy genre as George Lucas and his first Star Wars trilogy did for the Sci-Fi genre.

Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings

Closing Thoughts

In the 20 years since The Fellowship of the Ring, the trilogy continues to be shown in cinemas worldwide and has had a successful shelf life (with a 4K remastering having been overseen by Jackson and released last year). With a Lord of the Rings show coming to Amazon Prime in late 2022 (supposedly exploring an earlier part of the Second Age of Middle Earth), now is the perfect time to begin revisiting Middle Earth and Jackson’s trilogy. Whether or not the show will capture the hearts of audiences and critics alike is yet to be seen, but judging by a recently released still from the show, it’s anyone’s guess. What is known is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Jackson’s adaptation of the book are just as influential today as they were during their inception, and will continue to be in another 20 years.

Sources Consulted:

  1. https://screenrant.com/lotr-everything-know-kubrick-beatles-unproduced-adaptation/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/12/movies/gambling-film-fantasy-lord-rings-shows-new-line-cinema-s-value-aol.html
  3. https://www.thethings.com/how-harvey-weinstein-almost-ruined-the-lord-of-the-rings/
  4. https://www.indiewire.com/2021/07/peter-jackson-screamed-studio-lord-of-the-rings-budget-battle-1234649369/