From the very moment Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021) opens, it makes sure to emphasise that the film is a “fable from a true tragedy”. In essence, the film isn’t a factual retelling, albeit many will see the truth in how this fictional drama around Princess Diana portrays her internalised trauma and struggle for a semblance of normality in an otherwise abnormal world.
From the films outset, Larraín establishes the very unsettling tone that will persist for the rest of its 105 or so minutes. We open to a convoy of army trucks driving to the grounds of the Sandringham Estate where the film is set, with soldiers unloading multiple boxes labelled with ‘Barrett .50 caliber’. Amidst this convoy is a dead pheasant on the road — a symbol that plays a big role later on — narrowly not being flattened by the large vehicles passing by. The soldiers situate these boxes in a kitchen where it is revealed some moments later that they are actually filled with food, not guns, but as the film progresses they may as well have had guns in them.
This brings us to Diana (played incredibly by Kristen Stewart) as she seemingly struggles to find her way to the Estate in time for a Christmas Eve dinner and weekend with the Royal family. The land is familiar to her as she grew up in the neighbourhood, but she is lost. It’s a well crafted opening sequence that really establishes the unnerving events that will take place over the course of the Christmas weekend in the film, as Diana begins to break away from the grip of the structured life she leads.
Spencer revolves around a short window of time in the early 90s when Diana and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) were growing increasingly estranged from one another (especially as news of an affair circulated). Larraín focuses on Diana’s response to this truth and crafts a series of spellbinding scenes that leave you wondering whether you’re actually watching a drama or the year’s best thriller.
One of those scenes occurs early on in the film as Diana reluctantly joins the rest of the royal family for a Christmas Eve dinner. Larraín masterfully captures the anxiety plaguing Diana as she is essentially made to share a space with the cheating Charles while wearing a pearl necklace that he has also implicitly gifted to his mistress. As the scene progresses, this necklace continues to tighten around Diana’s neck, and Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score accentuates that tightness, ultimately extending it beyond the screen and wrapping it around you like a straitjacket — you can feel the suffocation taking place. Eventually, Diana rips the necklace off which lands in her pea soup, and she ends up stuffing her face with the peas and pearls. By this point, Greenwood’s score has reached a crescendo and is now dying down — it is experiencing the same relief that Diana is experiencing.
There are multiple sequences like this in Spencer that border the fine line of drama and thriller as various elements like story, sound, camerawork and performance work in tandem to highlight the anxiety Diana is experiencing. Larraín took a similar approach in his melancholic drama, Jackie (2016) — the biopic on the First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). The two films share various similarities including the focus on a glamorous public figure of a country, the aforementioned focus on the internal trauma and struggle that comes with that lifestyle, and the very sombre tone.
It is through Stewart’s performance though that we come to perceive how far from normal Diana’s situation was. Stewart plays Diana with a degree of verisimilitude (tapping into the very innocence of her gestures and expressions) and relatability that can be best quantified through Stewart’s own star persona and her very gentle, reserved demeanour in the public eye. Stewart wholly embodies Diana and gives her an added layer of complexity that may have escaped the public eye.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon (best known for shooting one of 2019’s best films, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) does an incredible job at capturing both the loneliness Diana experienced and the suffocating lifestyle of being a royal. She uses a Super 16mm camera for the most part and focuses on sprawling wide shots that frame Diana alone in the vastness of a world that overwhelms her; high angle shots that place an emphasis on the overbearing and watchful eye of those around her; and close-ups and extreme close-ups during interior sequences to heighten how confined and constricted she is in the artificial world she’s now a part of.
The film isn’t perfect though as Steven Knight’s screenplay is sometimes too on-the-nose and just not subtle enough which would make sense if this was a beat-for-beat retelling, but because there is a level of fictionalisation going on here, there could have been less obviousness in some of the dialogue spoken. The supporting cast is also quite unused but that actually makes sense in the wider scheme of things given this is focusing on Diana and is emphasising that distance between her and others which plays into the muted ambience Larraín is going for.
There’s a particular moment towards the films end where Diana ponders over how she will be remembered in the distant future. She notes that Elizabeth the first has been reduced to “The Virgin Queen” while George the third would be known as “The Mad King”. While the tragic circumstances of Diana’s life and death are known, if Larraín’s Spencer is anything to go by, Diana drives into the sunset on her own terms.
Spencer is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.
With another year having drawn to a close, Rating Frames is looking back at the best new releases of the last twelve months.
It was a difficult year for the medium, owing to numerous delays and cancellations – these retrospectives would be quite different had MIFF been able to run its full schedule – but there were still some excellent films released that we all wanted to celebrate.
In the last of our end-of-year articles, Arnel Duracak will be revealing his ten favourite pictures of 2021.
In arguably one of cinema’s most challenging years ever, 2021 surprisingly stood the test of time to become one of the best years for films and film lovers in the 21st century.
There were films by Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Denis Villeneuve, Todd Haynes, Edgar Wright, Jane Campion, David Lowery, Lana Wachowski, Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Shaka King, Zack Snyder, Sean Baker, Mike Mills, James Gunn, Lin Manuel Miranda, Adam McKay, and Ridley Scott (two from him) all coming last year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
My point is, as impacted as cinema was in 2021, there was a silver lining in terms of the films we got from the large pool of iconic filmmakers available. My list is a sum of my experiences with some of those filmmakers and their films, and here’s to a promising 2022.
10. The Last Duel
Having one new Ridley Scott film these days feels like a rarity that needs to be savoured, but two? Now that’s like seeing a UFO. But The Last Duelisn’t just rare because it’s a film from a legendary filmmaker in his later years, it’s also a film that doesn’t come around too often. In fact, this film is Ridley Scott at his directing best, all the while bringing in the grit and tension that make his films so enjoyable.
Through a chapter like structure, this film is about the closest thing we have to Scott’s iconic Gladiator (2000) as it keeps you engaged right throughout courtesy of some clever editing and writing, and it sees Jodie Comer deliver her best performance yet (even outshining her male counterparts Adam Driver, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck to a lesser extent given his minimal on-screen time).
The Last Duel is also memorable due to its practical filmmaking (incorporating practical combat rather than taking the easy route through CGI), well worked story, and captivating performances. Unfortunately, Scott’s other film of 2021, The House of Gucci, doesn’t hit the same high as this one but both are worth watching if not for want, then for the icon that is Ridley Scott.
Currently streaming on Disney+.
I can only imagine that screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s logline to get this screenplay green-lit was “John Wick but with Bob Odenkirk dialled up to 11”. Nobody is the John Wick (2014) of 2021 and this was one of the first films I saw in a packed cinema at the start of 2021. It was an exhilarating experience and one that got me excited to get back into the cinema.
With a relatively simple premise that sends Odenkirk on a revenge killing spree after his daughter’s Hello Kitty bracelet is nabbed during a failed house robbery, Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody is a joy ride from start to finish. While the film doesn’t capture the awe and suddenness that came with seeing a rampant Keanu Reeves in John Wick back in 2014, Nobody is still a rowdy 90 minutes at the cinema.
The closing sequence is one of my most memorable from last year with a shotgun wielding Christopher Llyod going berserk alongside Odenkirk — Doc and Saul Goodman really paint the town red here.
Currently streaming on Prime and Binge.
8. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
When adding films to my top of the year list, I kept asking myself “why does this film deserve a spot on my list?”; in the case of The Mitchells vs. The Machines the answer was pretty simple: there wasn’t an animation like it in 2021.
Michael Rianda does a stellar job with telling a story about family and the drama of family life, while also managing to tap into ever present fears around technology as it becomes more advanced. This animated road movie is essentially We’re The Millers (2013) meets I, Robot (2004) but it’s actually funny and it actually handles its subject matter quite well.
The animation style here has been spoken about a bit, and while it does take a bit of time to adjust to the striking style like with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), the animators prove that animation doesn’t need to be a cookie cutter process.
Currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.
The second of my two 2020 films seen in 2021 courtesy of Australia’s awful theatrical schedule, Minari is a compelling piece of storytelling by Lee Isaac Chung that focuses on themes of family, loss, the American dream (or whatever that means today), and the immigrant experience.
With a cast that gives it their all (comprised of Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, and Youn Yuh-jung whose performance won her an Oscar), a well written script, and excellent direction, Minari has a bit of everything for everyone.
Coming from an immigrant background with refugee parents, this film really hit home in terms of the difficulties families experience when moving to a new country and the struggles of growing up relatively poor. If you haven’t seen Minari yet, what are you waiting for!
Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.
6. The Father
The Father is a heartfelt and considerate film that provides a unique outlook on the struggles of dealing with dementia from the perspective of a character dealing with the condition.
Director Florian Zeller directs his play of the same name and he’s evidently had the look of this film down pat for a while — focusing on enclosed spaces with lots of mid-shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups and using space to his advantage.
With Anthony Hopkins winning his second Best Actor Oscar and making history as the oldest actor to win a Best Actor Oscar at the ripe age of 83, this film is all about the performance. It’s an interesting idea to look at the condition from the perspective of the patient, and Zeller does so by brilliantly playing with time through smart editing and staging (take note Nolan).
While this film is technically listed as a 2020 release (as is another on this list), Australia unfortunately has an awful theatrical window so I’ve had to adjust accordingly and this film deserves a place on my list.
Currently streaming on Prime Video and Foxtel Now.
Having read Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name shortly before its release, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is blockbuster filmmaking at its very best that honours Herbert’s writing through visual splendour that only the cinema can offer.
The film has everything you want from a blockbuster: scale, mesmerising world-building, a lived in feel, a large ensemble, wondrous set pieces, a resounding score, and (for the most part) grounded storytelling.
Villenueve has once again proven his worth by tackling a piece of fiction and an iconic title often deemed unfilmable due to its scope and depth, and he’s left his imprint on it in the process. He incorporates his fondness for slow cinema with plenty of moments of recollection and contemplation to be had, and he sets the stage for a sequel that will no doubt have a lot more riding on it given the success of this picture (especially considering his 2017 feature, Blade Runner 2049 was a box office flop).
The film is not flawless given that characters aren’t all that interesting and the performances are quite mute (there’s not one that stands out from the other), but it’s a fitting first adaptation of half of Herbert’s novel and lays the foundation for a (hopefully) more spectacular part two.
Currently screening in theatres nationwide and will soon be on Blu-Ray.
4. C’mon C’mon
A film that was unbeknown to me for the majority of last year, C’mon C’mon is one of those cozy and warm films that you would just want to hug if it was a tangible object.
Mike Mills writes and directs this tender story of connection and self-discovery, with two resounding performances from the incomparable Joaquin Phoenix and newcomer Woody Norman. Phoenix plays Johnny, the uncle of Norman’s character Jesse, and the two of them spend the film together after Jesse’s mother leaves town for a week or so to tend to her mentally ill husband. What ensues is a sweet and earnest film that revolves around a shared journey of self growth as the two characters confide in one another and open each others eyes to the world around them.
The film is shot in black and white which works to its advantage as, even among the very colourlessness of the world, the two characters stand out like a sore thumb; in other words, by being in each others company and experiencing the world through unfiltered conversations (particularly from Jesse), these two become the most colourful parts of the world. Mills meticulously builds his story through the characters’ shared experience to the point where their bond and relationship leads Johnny to view the world in a different light and have a much needed awakening or wake up call.
Children and their world view is at the forefront of the film as Johnny interviews various child subjects due to his radio profession, but Jesse is his gateway to something more real, and Mills makes sure that reality is felt beyond the diegetic world.
Releasing in select Australian cinemas on the 17th of February 2022.
3. In The Heights
In what felt like the year of the musical with West Side Story, Tick Tick Boom, Dear Evan Hansen, and Annette, it was In The Heights that reigned supreme in 2021. I’m usually not a big fan of the musical genre — with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) being an exception — but In The Heights rekindled my faith in the genre and in its future in cinema.
Jon M. Chu directs the hell out of this adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s first successful broadway musical, which is filled with brilliant choreography and item numbers, a dedicated cast, an infectious energy that sucks you in the longer the film plays out, and a considerate, thought provoking perspective on gentrification and the Latino community at its core.
I must say, I’m yet to see West Side Story, but In The Heights was really the film to get me excited for everything else that would grace our screens in 2021, and it came at the right time during the despondent events that continue to plague the world.
Currently available for rent on Prime and for purchase on DVD.
Michael Sarnoski’s Pigmoved me in ways that no other film in 2021 had. With a simple yet gripping story and an emotionally charged Nicolas Cage cashing in his best performance in years, this film hit all the right emotional chords for me — leading me to rewatch it a few days after my initial viewing.
Pig doesn’t go down the conventional route of a revenge thriller even though it might appear that that’s the direction Sarnoski is heading; instead, the film is about reflection, mourning and a wider commentary on how we forgo what we love in favour of a life of conformity in a capitalist system where we ultimately lose sight of who and what we are.
There are so many layers in Pig for a runtime of around 90 minutes, and had Licorice Pizza not been released, this would have been at the tippity top of my list.
Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.
1. Licorice Pizza
That brings me to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, or the quintessential film of 2021. It takes everything we know and love about PTA — his undying connection to the San Fernando Valley, the 70s period, characters that are larger than life, the themes that underpin his work, the formal devices from his cinematic toolkit — and meshes it all into one. The result is a heartwarming tale of self-discovery and companionship, and one that traverses the fine line of adolescence and adulthood while managing to bridge the two worlds together.
Acting newcomers Cooper Hoffman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son) and Alana Haim (from the pop rock band Haim), deliver captivating and confident performances of youth angst and free spiritedness. Their chemistry is magical and infectious and it’s hard not to see bits of yourself in their performances (such is the magic of PTA’s screenplays).
Licorice Pizzawas always going to be a shoehorn for one of my favourite films of 2021 due to the man at its helm, but it deserves all the praise it has received and it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
Currently screening in select theatres nationwide.
Honourable Mentions: Encanto, Annette, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Matrix Resurrections
Set against the backdrop of the 70s San Fernando Valley, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021) paints a perplexing and wholesome picture of what it’s like to grow up as a youth in a rowdy 70s setting and go on to discover new emotions and experience new highs and lows like everyone else at the time, but unlike everyone else at the time.
Perhaps that’s because this is a film made up of ‘firsts’: PTA takes a swing at the coming-of-age genre for the first time; Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim take on their first acting roles; and the characters are constantly rolling with the punches while welcoming every new obstacle that comes their way as if it were a means to something greater and more real.
Those characters are the budding entrepreneur and smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the pessimistic optimist coasting by with a high school photoshoot day-job, Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The two meet at Gary’s yearbook high school photoshoot in what is easily PTA’s most inviting opening sequence and one that really sets the tone for the cruisy, laidback feel and tone of the rest of the film.
The two characters share a unique bond and find themselves traversing the valley and sharing each others company as they walk the fine line of adulthood and adolescence — each learning from their counterpart and ultimately bridging the two worlds together. The relationship between Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was much the same in that regard and this film shares much with that one in terms of scope and even scale as PTA relishes the intimate moments ahead of large scale ones.
Much has been said on the age disparity between the characters, with Haim playing a 25 year old and Hoffman being 10 years her junior in the film (12 years in real life), ultimately fluffing some progressive feathers. But PTA is too smart to buy into that criticism as he acknowledges that difference throughout, but never uses it for anything other than building a story based on a shared experience between likeminded individuals who happen to have some attraction in the mix as well.
If Boogie Nights (1997) was about how the porn industry finds and offers lost souls solace and interconnectedness by bringing them into surrogate families, then Licorice Pizza is about how free souls find each other and create families born out of friendship. PTA does a stellar job in guiding his characters through this lively world courtesy of his formal cinematic tools that have become so pertinent in his oeuvre — tracking shots, long takes, a classical narrative structure — while at the same time creating a sense of forwardness and momentum that never seems to slow down.
The characters embrace the ambiguity of their future and the unknown that awaits them, but they never dwell on it. In this way, Licorice Pizza also represents a shift in PTA’s interest in human unknowability and it instead sees him place an emphasis on living in the moment. This very much plays into the spontaneity of the characters in how they make decisions and approach their lives — Gary jumps between businesses while Alana is indecisive with what she wants from life as she moves from freedom to stability and back to freedom. Subsequently, PTA lets youths be youths at a time where hippy culture and its messages of peace and love were more embraced.
There’s no denying that PTA’s films from, and since, Punch-Drunk Love place a greater emphasis on the more intimate and subdued moments between characters. Whether that be the impenetrable relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell in The Master (2012) or the push-pull teasing between Reynolds Woodcock and Alma in Phantom Thread (2017); each of these character dynamics allow Anderson to entertain his fascination with characters whose connection works because it’s so strange, distant, and against the grain of expectation.
That’s why Licorice Pizza is so striking. PTA’s latest return to the San Fernando Valley sees his fascination with this character dynamic reach a climax, but the end product works to different avail.
The innocence of Hoffman and Haim’s characters breathes an air of freshness into a period that was already so fresh, alive and teeming with avenues for self-discovery and growth. Their performances as Gary and Alana exude a truth and understanding of PTA’s vision and his fascination with characters that would appear to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, but need each other to coexist because the universe would have it no other way.
Further to that, Hoffman and Haim’s performances echo the awkward muteness and hesitance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread whilst simultaneously capturing the charm and innocence of Adam Sandler and Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love. In this way, these characters are equally the same and different to all the PTA characters before them in that they’re bound to one another but also to the freedom that their youth offers — always following impulse rather than reason.
Alana tries to break that pattern of reckless decision making that her bond to Gary has brought by looking for different avenues for growth and something more stable. She finds herself in the company of esteemed actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and film director Rex Blau (played by a rapturous Tom Waits) before rekindling a past friendship and becoming an advisor of sorts to city council candidate Joel Wachs (a dapper looking Ben Safdie). Ultimately, she succumbs to impulse and realises that she is inextricably linked to a life with no measure of time and to people that share that outlook.
Theirs is a relationship that is neither wholly platonic nor wholly sexual and it finds its place in somewhat of a middle-ground as exacerbated by the tension between adolescence and adulthood. Earlier I mentioned that Gary and Alana are approaching everything head on as though that were a means to something more real (Alana running after the police car driving Gary away, Gary smashing the windshield of Jon Peters who Bradley Cooper steals the show as) and that’s precisely what the condition of their relationship is: as long as there is something to look forward to, as long as they aren’t encumbered in ways that PTA’s other duos are encumbered, then they can keep on reaching for the stars — wherever and whatever they may be.
It has to be said that PTA is no stranger to the entertainment industry having been raised in a show business family, with his father Ernie Anderson working on the likes of the ‘Carol Burnett Show’, announcing on the ABC, and being close friends with comedian Tim Conway. Of the nine siblings and step siblings from two of his father’s marriages, PTA would be the only one to go down the road of show business.
Magnolia (1999) is the last film where Anderson explored the highs and lows that come with working in the entertainment industry (alongside that films’ more deep-rooted concerns), so it feels kind of bittersweet that he’s decided to draw back the curtain and look at the industry in a different light at a different time in his life.
It’s an intoxicating and alluring world that PTA conjures up and one where the backbone that is the script holds its own. What follows is an Andersonian ride filled with a level of zest and sincerity that hasn’t been felt since Punch-Drunk Love. You’d even be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a Richard Linklater trip instead — Dazed and Confused (1993) will cross many people’s minds.
So much of Licorice Pizza works because of the man at its helm; the film is truly as testament to just how well PTA wrangles his troops on set to create something special. It’d be hard to put it past an Oscars sweep this year with Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score being a possible contender for Best Score (even with how little he actually did here), while PTA’s screenplay will undoubtedly be the script to beat for Best Original Screenplay.
PTA has crafted his most personal film yet, one that is born out of family and love, and one that takes all the best ingredients from his oeuvre and meshes them together. In a way, the film’s title is almost a perfect reflection of how two things that would appear polar opposites and that carry their own flavour can come together and just make sense the longer you stare at them. It has to be said then that Gary and Alana’s relationship is much the same as it also merges the sweet and savoury together — they are Licorice Pizza at its core.
Licorice Pizza is currently screening in cinemas nationwide
It’s no secret that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most celebrated film directors of the past 25 years. After having spent the better part of 2020 researching and writing about Anderson for my Honours thesis, I’ve come to appreciate the intricacies, nuances and overlooked aspects of his oeuvre (like his fascination with damaged male characters and their function in his films). With the director returning to roots in his latest 1970s, San Fernando Valley set Licorice Pizza (2021), it seemed fitting for me to rank Anderson’s work before the film hits Australian cinemas this month (I will update this list after watching the film). This list is very much a subjective one, but it it is a sum of my time spent with his films and the various journal articles, interviews, and reviews that I have read when writing my thesis. Therefore, I hope that any controversial rankings are taken with a grain of salt as, for what it’s worth, Anderson is one of my favourite film directors so I very much adore all of his films in their own way.
8. Hard Eight (1996)
While the first film of a director’s oeuvre often sits on the lower end of a ranking list due the belief that directors just become better as they make more films, Hard Eight (1996) is deservedly in the number eight spot.
Originally titled Sydney, Anderson experienced plenty of headaches with then production company Rysher Entertainment, as he battled for creative control and control over the final cut. The film was ultimately re-titled to Hard Eight due to the name better suiting the sort of promotion that Rysher were looking for, but Anderson managed to send his final cut to Sundance which was a longer version than the one Rysher had cut, and the one that Sundance would showcase.
Most directors today would be more than happy to claim Hard Eight as their magnum opus should they have made it, but Anderson isn’t most directors. The simple fact is that Anderson’s later films are both more stylistically pronounced as they begin to reveal who Anderson truly is as an auteur (his stylistic signature, technical competence, and interior meaning by Andrew Sarris’ measure), they dig deeper into his thematic concerns, and they present much more complex characters that are some of the most difficult to grapple with in recent times.
Hard Eight represents a taste of what Anderson would serve up in larger doses in his films thereafter. The best example of this is the themes that penetrate the directors work like the absence of the mother figure, dysfunctional families and even isolation as explored through largely distant and impregnable characters — all of his films following Hard Eight went deeper with those concerns.
Hard Eight also marks the start of what would be frequent collaborations with Phillip Baker Hall (who Anderson was a fan of and cast in the short film that would inspire Hard Eight, Cigarettes & Coffee), John C. Reilly, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The film also introduces audiences to the cinematic tools that Anderson continues to use today. For instance, there is a particular tracking shot and long take in a casino that tracks Phillip Baker Hall’s character as he moves through the casino and eventually lands at a gambling table. This is the first instance where Anderson applies the use of formal tools pertinent to indie cinema, in his filmography. This moment is significant as it marks the ever-present relationship between indie and more classical cinema (like narrative storytelling) conventions in Anderson’s work.
7. Inherent Vice (2014)
Inherent Vice (2014) is one of those films that I needed multiple viewings to wrap my head around which isn’t new when it comes to an Anderson film — they’re made to keep you coming back.
Anderson adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, a figure who has evaded the public eye for so long you’d think he’d write a how-to book on the subject. What Anderson conjured up was a neo-noir unlike any from recent time. The film marks one of the directors most dialogue heavy films and easily his most hilarious script which is peppered with so much twists and turns that you’d be forgiven for not seeing the full picture the first time around.
In response to the lengthy dialogue scenes in Inherent Vice, Anderson said, “Look, cuts are great, and they’re exclusive to movies, but when you have a lot of dialogue with ping-ponging back and forth, staying out of the way is always preferable” (Hemphill, J. 2014).
Staying out of the way is what Anderson ultimately does as he lets the stellar ensemble comprised of Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro and countless others, run the show.
The film is also Anderson’s second to be set in the 70s as it places a thriving Joaquin Phoenix in the mind of a hippy detective in what can only be described as perfect casting. With his mutton chops, sandals, long hair, notepad and blunt, the character of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is what Christopher Llyod’s Doc from Back to the Future would look like had he gone the route of peace, weed and inquisitiveness.
Placing this film in seventh position is a disservice to just how giving this film is upon multiple viewings. There’s always something new to decipher and there are plenty of moments that beg for your close attention and maybe even the pause button (like the recreation of the last supper but with hippies). My rating for this film gradually climbed to five stars and this placement is purely based on how I rated the films higher up in this list the same way after the first viewing. So, if that isn’t a sign of my feelings for just how near flawless Anderson’s filmography is, I don’t know what is.
6. Phantom Thread (2017)
I’ll never forget the first time I saw this in a cinema comprised of a significantly older demographic; one gentleman in his 80s turned and said to me, “you’re here to watch a real movie” and boy was his right.
Phantom Thread (2017) is an interesting film for multiple reasons. For starters, it’s the last film Daniel Day-Lewis would perform in but it is also the first film Anderson would set outside of the US social milieu that has informed and even shaped the the stories and characters he has brought to life.
Anderson takes the thematic concerns that have become a staple of his work (absence of mother figures) and tailors them to a British setting, ultimately providing a nuanced account of a dressmaker, his muse, and the tense and strange push-pull condition of their relationship (with one of my favourite closing sequences in recent times).
The story came about through a moment where Anderson found himself sick and helpless, with his wife Maya Rudolph, tending to him; that was the seed of the story but it had to grow.
The film also marks a shift from what is often a personal endeavour for Anderson as he writes his scripts on his own, to something more involving with Daniel Day-Lewis. With Phantom Thread, “his [Anderson’s] star practically co-wrote their second film together, refining the script and even choosing the protagonist’s hilarious, yet dignified name, Reynolds Woodcock.” (Solem-Pfeifer, 2018). Anderson had worked in a similar way (co-authorship) with “Phil [Seymour Hoffman] on The Master”, however on Phantom Thread, “I had less than I had ever had before when coming to Daniel, which I found to be a really good way of working, actually. We had the seed of the story and the character, but it had to grow.” (quoted in Bell, 2018, Pg. 22)
The result is one of Anderson’s most mature features as he explores this complex and impenetrable relationship of which its conditions are too formidable to access (with the latter having first stemmed from The Master); he takes on the role of cinematographer for the first time in his career (with frequent collaborator Robert Elswit not being involved); and writes one of his most hilarious scripts to date (behind Inherent Vice).
To top all of this off, Vicky Krieps’ performance as Alma matches Day-Lewis’ portrayal as the set-in-his-ways Reynolds Woodcock. Krieps matches Day-Lewis through her own ability to capture Alma’s headstrong nature, and the result is two performers working at the top of their game.
5. The Master (2012)
If the central relationship between Reynolds and Alma is one that is difficult to penetrate, The Master (2012) does a stellar job at rendering the viewer completely expendable when it comes to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) relationship.
With The Master, Anderson delves deeper into ideas pertaining to human unknowability and surrogacy by using Quell and Dodd to play around with form — ultimately creating a greater disconnectedness between the audience and the narrative.
As George Toles writes, The Master (along with Anderson’s two films before it) represents a “departure from traditional, readable narrative structure” which “seems to be a necessary corollary for Anderson’s deepening fascination with human unknowability” (Toles, 2016, Pg. 4). In this way, The Master is a film that is difficult to grapple with due to just how far it deviates from a traditional narrative structure to the point where Freddie Quell can’t be relied upon to help guide your understanding of the narrative or to build an emotional connection with — he’s as far from a protagonist as you can get.
The Master is therefore more akin to Magnolia (1999) in terms of wandering focus as Anderson anchors us to Freddie who himself isn’t anchored to anything — he’s detached from the world around him.
Anderson uses Freddie to reinforce the subversive form of the film whereby the character himself begins to represent formlessness at a structural level while Lancaster Dodd begins to represent form. When the two characters clash and reconcile at various moments throughout the film, Anderson is taking formlessness and form and throwing them at each other, ultimately experimenting in his own way with the two (like with the informal processing sequence). In a way, Lancaster believes that he can tame the formlessness of Freddie and this is where Anderson’s other, more recognisable theme of surrogacy intersects with the theme of human unknowability — Lancaster assumes a surrogate role.
By the closing sequence of the film, Lancaster relinquishes his attempts to tame and nurture Freddie and chooses instead to release him — to release formlessness back into the world.
What is fascinating is how multiple different story and technical elements are in a constant tension in The Master — both in isolated instances, and altogether. Whether that be formlessness and form (structure), human unknowability and surrogacy (themes), Freddie and Lancaster (character) or each of the elements (structure, theme and character) between each other — Anderson creates an experience that is unlike any he has before or since.
Ultimately, The Master either landed for audiences or it didn’t due to its impregnable nature, the ambiguity it revels in, and its unrelatable anti-hero Freddie Quell. When considered in relation to the four films above it on this list, it could just as easily be in one of those positions, however it retains a solid position as number five.
4. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia (1999) is easily Anderson’s most ambitious film. The film is comprised of multiple storylines that connect the characters to each other even if they can’t see that they are connected to the other characters in their suffering.
Both Magnolia and Boogie Nights (1997) are the closest Altmanesque films we have from Anderson as they are very much ensemble pictures that offer the actors a degree of freedom that isn’t felt in the same way in Anderson’s other films. Unlike with Altman’s films like Nashville (1975) and Mash (1970), Anderson still retains a level of control that, while offering his ensembles more freedom (very much an Altman staple), allows him be more stringent when it comes to dialogue being delivered as written or characters serving clear narrative and thematic functions.
In this way, Magnolia is very much about a collective that experience a shared misery, but what separates it from Anderson’s other films is that this film prioritises character ahead of narrative. Essentially, audiences view one single diegetic day in the lives of these characters and the film is banking on the audience buying into “the passionate, melodramatic circumstances of characters living out another day in their lives,” (Sperb, 2013, Pg. 137).
This film explores the plights of these characters and, in a very Andersonian fashion, redeems and punishes certain characters by the closing sequence — which plays on the biblical ideas underpinning the film. The closing sequence is one of Anderson’s most poignant and philosophical as the raining frogs almost serve to allow Anderson to reach in beyond the diegetic world and inject it with this element of fantasy that alerts all the characters to a presence that makes all of their problems disappear, if but for a moment — leading some to certain realizations while punishing others for their wrongdoings.
Magnolia is an experience unlike any other with an incredible cast (Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Phillip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and countless others), multiple storylines that are handled so well, and even an item number where the characters are unified through a spontaneous rendition of Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’.
There’s nothing quite like Magnolia, and as with any other Anderson film, depending on the emotions you carry with you into one of his films, Magnolia could just as easily be number one on someone’s Anderson ranking list.
3. Boogie Nights (1997)
The film that introduced me to Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights (1997) is an alluring, inviting, and intoxicating feature that draws you in the longer it plays. It would be superfluous to mention every aspect that made Boogie Nights as incredible as it is, after all this is a ranking list rather than a review, but here are some.
Set in the late 70s and early 80s Reseda, Boogie Nights paints a perplexing picture of the porn industry and almost dignifies it in a way as the ensemble of characters here find solace in their interconnectedness within the industry.
That approach sits in stark contrast to Magnolia’s characters who are connected without ever having met each other (for the most part, while some do cross paths), whereas in Boogie Nights the Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) household becomes more than just a ticket to an unconventional success story.
Keeping in mind that Anderson was 26 at the time, Boogie Nights is one of those films that a director like Quentin Tarantino wishes he had made but never did. Anderson makes you care for each of these characters while still exploring the business side of the porn industry (the need to adapt as video becomes more attractive and affordable than film) and weaving in concerns pertaining to surrogate families, family issues, and exotic danger.
Boogie Nights has plenty of incredible sequences (the ‘Jessie’s Girl’ sequence with Alfred Molina, Jack Horner’s new years party etc.), a mix of experienced and (then) young talents that all give it their all, and all the while managing to weave in its multiple storylines and provide a holistic viewing experience that continues to outdo itself.
Anderson clearly drew upon the work of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman while forging his own place in cinema discourse, ultimately putting himself on the radar as one of the most exciting directors to emerge in recent times.
The result is one of the most celebrated films of the 90s and one of those films that lends itself to multiple viewings. Boogie Nights could just as easily be Anderson’s number one film.
2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
My placement of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) in second position might be viewed as the most controversial ranking on this list.
To put it in Anderson’s own words, Punch-Drunk Love is “an art-house Adam Sandler movie” (quoted in Brooks, 2003) but it is also a film that goes against conventional rom-coms and their structure. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) pushes everyone away (and with due cause) and even his eventual love interest Lena (Emily Watson) refuses to allow the audience any access into the connection she builds with Barry.
Barry expresses himself in such odd ways yet it’s the only way he knows how. For instance, he tells Lena that he desires to smash her face with a sledgehammer during an intimate scene and he even uses physical violence against those who unintentionally hurt Lena while trying to get to him, both for the sake of protection but also to express himself to her through these acts of violence.
What’s peculiar is that Lena reciprocates these emotions to Barry by, for instance, also playfully expressing that she wants to “scoop out” his “eyes” and “eat them”. Yes, these are all playful albeit odd expressions, but usually in rom-coms, if a character is ridden with defects, the ‘other’ in the relationship is the explanatory character who is there to explain their attraction to a character like Barry, but this is not the case with Lena. George Toles (author of the 2016 scholarly book on Paul Thomas Anderson) reaffirms this by writing that for a “normative” character like Lena, the “attraction or gradual succumbing to the problem figure’s initially well-masked allure” is usually met with an “ample explanatory framework” (2016, Pg. 45).
Punch-Drunk Love is just unlike any romantic comedy out there due to the way its characters interact and due to the use of unconventional (long take, jump cuts, tracking shots, dreamlike blue filters that overlay scenes) formal tools. But more than that, Punch-Drunk Love is filled with striking moments of cathexis and their eventual release (Barry destroying his sisters glass window/door after enduring ridicule, the confessions of love between Lena and Barry, the flipping car). All of these qualities allow Anderson to really assert himself and to forge his own identity that go on to contribute to his auteur status (a term so misused these days, it’s baffling).
With Adam Sandler playing the role of Barry in such a Sandler-like fashion (the boyish charm matched with the sudden outbursts that render him socially inept), he ends up cashing in his best performance. To top this off, Sandler’s knack for playing largely comical and flimsy characters is essentially perfect casting here (or a ‘perfect fit’ by Richard Dyer’s measure) as it sits in line with the unexpectedness Anderson is striving for.
From the methodical patience it creates to the unexpectedness of intense moments that follow — Punch-Drunk Love is unquestionably Anderson’s own. As Anderson told The Sunday Times in 2003, Punch-Drunk Love is “referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow— and I’m proud of that.” (Sperb, 2013, Pg. 152). But more than that, it is a rom-com unlike any other and one that sees Adam Sandler at the top of his game after some hits, misses, but overall enjoyable films prior to this one.
If There Will be Blood (2007) didn’t exist, Punch-Drunk Love would be a shoehorn for Anderson’s most Andersonian film and his best.
1. There Will be Blood (2007)
Anderson’s magnum opus, the quintessential 21st century film, a classic before the fact — There Will be Blood (2007) is an achievement that feels as momentous and unreal today as it did 14 years ago.
I’ve mentioned that anything I write about these films is superfluous as there are countless reviews and analyses of Anderson’s films (including my own), but There Will be Blood was an event that really cemented Anderson in the pantheon of cinemas greatest directors.
With an Oscar winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the ruthless prospector-turned-oilman Daniel Plainview (one of the greatest performances of all time), a rousing score by the legendary Johnny Greenwood, exquisite cinematography by Robert Elswit, and a perfect screenplay and direction by Anderson, There Will be Blood is what happens when all of the ingredients mesh into something complete.
Anderson created the ultimate period piece with so many iconic moments (the opening sequence in the oil-well, the legendary explosion of the oil-rig, the bowling alley skull bashing) and such an incredible script (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’). The film eschews a traditional, readable narrative structure so as to allow Anderson to entertain his now heightened interest in human unknowability. I mean, what better way to explore that thematic concern than by literally putting forward a greedy, power-hungry character who shuns everyone (even after he begins to trust them like Henry) and goes against the very will of god and plays god in his own life and the oil industry — as exacerbated by the films religious undertones.
What is most profound about Daniel Plainview is how Anderson is able to make him one of the most loathsome anti-heroes of all time, yet one that you can’t help but sympathise with. It’s a testament to just how incredible a performer Day-Lewis is that he is able to practically keep other characters and the audience out of his life, but you still feel like there is justness to his cause.
The supporting cast is also quite good (especially Paul Dano), but Day-Lewis outshines everyone and really captures the idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s characters. In turn, Day-Lewis transmutes everything you know about what an Anderson character looks, feels, and acts like, into something greater. Due to the performance and all of aspects of production, There Will be Blood ends up hitting a different level of ecstasy that is both frightening, and rewarding.
Everyone is at the top of their game in There Will beBlood and each scene plays out like a carefully crafted artwork. Had No Country for Old Men (2007) not been released in the same year (with both films having a relatively similar tone and setting), the 2008 Oscars would have been swept by Anderson’s once in a lifetime masterpiece. Even to this day, I vehemently believe that There Will be Blood deserved so much more than what it got even with the Coen Brothers having decided to make their own masterpiece in the same year. There are films and then there are films, and Anderson’s There Will be Blood is a lot of film to be had.
We’re a couple of years down the track in Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off series, Hawkeye — set in the bustling and Christmassy New York City in the years post-snap. It’s a fitting setting given the opening sequence of episode one takes audiences back to the alien infested, war-torn New York City of 2012’s Avengers in order to establish the character of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld).
That opening sequence quickly introduces audiences to Kate in her adolescent years as she experiences the fateful events of the Avengers battle with evil, from the ravaged apartment she and her family reside in. In the distance on the roof of another building, the shows eponymous hero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) tusks it out with the aliens before eventually saving and inspiring Kate through a swift shot from his bow — changing the course of her life forever.
We eventually fast forward to present day (which is a few years ahead of 2021) where Kate is now 22, living in her own apartment, and her mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) has become acquainted with Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) following the death of her husband all those years ago. On the flip side we have Clint Barton who is living a more steady life with his family as he seemingly still struggles internally to come to terms with the aftermath of Thanos’ wrath. It isn’t until a gala auction event goes sideways, that the story begins to pick up. A Russian street gang known as the Tracksuit Mafia infiltrate the auction where among many items, a Ronin suit from one of the Avengers is present. Kate nabs the suit and legs it, unaware that her actions will bring her face-to-face with Barton, the Tracksuit Mafia, and further trouble.
These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvels other shows from earlier this year like Loki and WandaVision. Director Rhys Thomas takes a much more playful approach to the storytelling here, never really subjecting viewers to a myriad of complex information (timekeepers and worlds-within-worlds) and instead opting to focus on the banter and push-pull dynamic between Steinfeld and Renner.
To much surprise, that approach works in the shows favour as Thomas lays all his cards on the table from the outset and builds on Steinfeld’s energy and Renner’s reluctance to help her beyond the amount he requires. It makes for some amusing back-and-forths and on-the-nose one liners.
The plotting feels a bit inadequate in comparison to the actors chemistry as it’s almost built on a ‘as you go’ basis rather than as something worth stimulating an audience members curiosity. Essentially, not much happens that couldn’t be predicted by casual audiences and not much is left to an audience members imagination. For those that have read the comic, perhaps that approach works, but hopefully the episodes that follow will provide a little more intrigue, albeit not to the extent that Loki did (especially with the sublime Florence Pugh scheduled to make an appearance).
It has to be said that Renner is side-lined by Steinfeld who channels her teen charisma from Bumblebee (2018) & The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She injects the show with a Tom Holland-esque charm seen in the Spider-Man films, as she brings a likeable on-screen presence that is hard not to buy into. Renner plays that more reserved, subduedness that he carried with him in the Avengers films and it makes me realise how my desires for him to take the forefront in this show wouldn’t have worked to the shows advantage judging by these two episodes.
Both episodes keep you engaged through Steinfeld’s performance and the consistent humorous tone that has become a staple of Marvel, but rarely hits home. The fact that Thomas leans into that tone from the get-go while building our engagement with this peaceful, yet disrupted New York setting through the leads, means that the occasional comical comment from a Mafia henchmen for instance, doesn’t feel out of place. Too often a Marvel production will fluctuate tonally from episode to episode which can work given that no two directors are the same if multiple directors are directing, but Thomas has set a sound, but somewhat tilted foundation to build on from these two episodes.
Marvel has always looked to the future with its work and for ways to pass the torch onto its new recruits, and Hawkeye will be no different in that regard. With Steinfeld playing the protagonist in a show about Hawkeye, it’ll be interesting to see whether that sentiment will carry true to its entirety or whether Hawkeye himself begins to play a more active role as the events of the show unravel. Either way, there’s plenty to look forward to in Hawkeye over the coming weeks.
What happens when you put three lead actors, with completely different acting chops, on the screen together? The answer is a hodgepodge of nothingness. It’s hard to know whether that fault lies with the A-list trio of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, or whether it’s because Rawson Marshal Thurber’s Red Notice (2021) is a film wrought by the same inadequacies that have plagued similarly awful films before it.
Being one of Netflix’s most expensive films at $200 million (I believe Scorsese’s 2019 gangster film The Irishman might still hold that title) and their most viewed opening ever, you’d think that the next 115 minutes will be something that’s sure to be worth your time. Unfortunately, this film manages to look both expensive and cheap at the same time as it’s ridden with unflattering CGI, flat performances, and contrived storytelling.
The film wants to be a mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mission: Impossible (any from that franchise), but ends up becoming something more akin to Tower Heist (2011) and basically any of the films Johnson and Reynolds have been in prior.
It’s a film that centres on a historical artifact (instead of the lost ark, you have three golden eggs once gifted to Cleopatra) and sends three different, albeit similarly minded characters on a goose chase to locate all three eggs. The characters in question are John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), and The Bishop (Gal Gadot). Hartley wants to secure the eggs and put Booth and Bishop behind bars for their thevious crimes, while Booth and Bishop are out to find the eggs in time for an Egyptian billionaire’s daughter’s wedding for a large pay-out.
Honestly, the actual premise isn’t what drives this film into the dustbin of film history, it’s everything in-between. The filmmaking doesn’t have any flair and is really banking on the chemistry between the three leads who all seem to be playing the lead in their own movie here. Reynolds is channelling his inner Deadpool and really every character he has ever played with those cheesy one-liners and shtick that never lands; Gadot is popping up when you least expect her to and kicking everyone’s butt like Wonder Woman; and Johnson just seems to be there for the ride as the big stiff brute with zero charisma that reaffirms why his desire to be Bond would be a kick to action’s figurative groin.
The film is clearly inspired by the aforementioned films, with comparisons also coming in with the likes of the James Bond and National Treasure films, but Red Notice is also equally uninspired. It’s a film thwarted by all the cliches that subsume Reynolds and Johnson’s recent films: from a level of incessant self-awareness to the worn out buddy-cop plotline that should be retired at this point (I’m looking at you, the soon-to-be acquired Jason Momoa & Dave Bautista buddy-cop film).
Not to mention, that self-awareness becomes so intolerable that at one point Reynolds’ character even sarcastically calls the final egg in the journey the MacGuffin. If you’re blatantly going to point out the unimportance of a plot device that is supposed to be driving the events of the narrative, then you might as well break the fourth wall while you’re at it. In other words, the audience is treated like they’re the ones silly enough to watch this film — which I guess we are.
Netflix and the big studios have become too comfortable in churning out money for pop-corn cinema that really could have been used better in more capable hands. I’m certain that 60% of this films budget went to the star trio alone and in turn, you’re left with characters that don’t captivate you, performances that are drab, and a plot that deviates too much like a zig zag road. The recent Netflix feature Army of Thieves (2021) at least had something that separated itself from all the heist and artifact films before it, but Red Notice doesn’t even try to be different.
Man and dog almost always seem to go hand-in-hand when post-apocalyptic settings come into question — they’re like buddy-up cop films minus all of the cheesy one-liners and recycled cliches. From I Am Legend (2007) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) to the more recent Love and Monsters (2020) and now Finch (2021); man’s best friend has had a long spanning place in this genre of films.
The film marks the second feature that Hanks has starred in for Apple TV following last year’s Greyhound (2020), and the second feature from Miguel Sapochnik following Repo Men (2010).
Like the aforementioned films before it, Finch focuses on themes pertaining to companionship and surviving, but it is also a much more quiet and reflective post-apocalyptic film that digs into the importance of trust, honesty and loyalty — values exhibited by man’s best friend.
It sees a former engineer and all round tech guru Finch (Tom Hanks) and his dog Goodyear, scavenge for food and supplies in a world where most life has been wiped out due to a sun flare which has resulted in large amounts of radiation infecting the world. Finch’s own health has been impacted by this radiation so he decides to create a robot companion whose main directive among all others will be to take care of Finch’s doggo should he die. That robot, who becomes imbued with vast knowledge through some tech savvy work by Finch, decides to call himself Jeff (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) and develops an interesting, if not coy relationship with Finch. The three companions eventually set out to San Francisco as a deadly storm closes in on their haven in St Louis.
Hanks begins to play Finch in a similar way to his iconic Chuck Noland from Cast Away (2000) where he’s often talking at something (his dog) as opposed to with someone. This is where the talking robot Jeff comes into play as he helps steer the film away from Cast Away territory to something more involving as opposed to a version of this film that would bank on Hanks’ performance for its entirety.
Jones gives Jeff a level of complexity that becomes more revealing as the trio trudges on in their motorhome and interact with each other. Hanks adopts a more paternal presence as he literally brings this robot into existence whilst also having the job of feeding and taking care of Goodyear and another little non-speaking robot compadre.
For what it’s worth, the trio of man, dog, and robot is actually quite endearing and heart-warming that makes me think of this film as Chappie (2015) meets I Am Legend but without the boxing and killing, respectively. It’s very much a tale of companionship that pays respect to the importance of man’s best friend and celebrates that relationship by seeing Finch echo the values of trust, honesty and loyalty at the robot he has made, so as to help Jeff build a relationship with Goodyear that is comprised of those values once Finch is gone.
While the film doesn’t necessarily offer much in the way of unique spins on the post-apocalyptic genre, it does retain a sincerity and truth that can be felt through the script — especially the dialogue. When all is said and done, it looks like the biggest winners in a world with minimal human existence will be man’s best friend — given they’ll still have someone to play catch with.
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s widely beloved novel of the same name, Dune (2021), is a remarkable feat in blockbuster filmmaking that reaffirms why Villeneuve is one of the best working directors today. Villeneuve’s adaptation honours Herbert’s writing by matching it with visual splendour and creating an on-screen world that feels lived-in — something that hasn’t been felt on the big screen since the director’s last film, Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
There’s a reason why Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel had always been deemed unfilmable in the same way as J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like The Lord of the Rings, Dune is comprised of a level of detail that captures the minutia of the world it creates and the characters that occupy it; whether that be through numerous internal monologues, vivid imagery through carefully selected wording, or just the fact that the ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t approached in a way that would seek to validate the protagonist’s actions.
That protagonist is the Muad’Dib, Lisan al Gaib, Kwisatz Haderach, Messiah — Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). Mentioning all of the ways in which Paul is referred to in the book and film is important because it highlights just how nuanced of a character he is. Paul is many things to many different groups and people, be it the Bene Gesserit who are a sisterhood conditioned in superhuman ways; the Fremen who are the desert people of the planet Arrakis; and to those that know him across the story like Chani (Zendaya), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), to name a few.
When it comes to the plot, two houses (House Atreides and House Harkonnen) have been feuding with each other for ages. It isn’t until the Padishah Emperor requests that Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and the rest of House Atreides move to and oversee the desert planet of Arrakis (Dune), that tensions begin to further boil between the houses as deceit and betrayal ensues. On the planet is the galactic currency known as the spice (a melange like substance) that is the source for discontent, power, and wealth, and as mentioned in the novel, “he who controls the spice controls the universe”.
Alongside all of this is Paul who has a unique destiny that will change the lives of all of those around him. Paul is viewed as a messiah of sorts that has been bred and trained by the Bene Gesserit for the purpose of leading people into a better future, though at the expense of bringing about a potentially worse future known as the jihad (or ‘war’, as the film westernizes the term).
The story itself is a rather complex one, if not for Herbert’s aforementioned approach to writing the book, then for its emphasis on ideas pertaining to feudalism, mysticism, perennial truth, and a plethora of other nuanced ideas and leanings. Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villenueve do a good job of dissecting some of Herbert’s ideas for the screenplay, and adapting them for the screen through visual cues, motifs, and worldbuilding.
They take the heart of the story in Paul Atreides, and allow him to guide us through each given moment using visual storytelling and the affordances of the cinematic medium. In this way, for anyone that hasn’t picked up the novel, it’s relatively easy to follow the film and pick up on some of the concerns and ideas that penetrate Herbert’s telling through visual cues.
Villeneuve is a master of using visual storytelling to tell a complex story while leaving his own print on that story; It’s a large reason why Blade Runner 2049 worked so well and why Dune works just as well. The world he creates on-screen speaks for itself with its own visual language through setting, colour, visual effects, and cinematography. For instance, there is a scene involving the Sardaukar (the Padishah Emperor’s specially trained elite force) that captures the very essence of this force by using no dialogue. Rather, Villeneuve utilises framing, composition, visual effects and sound in a sequence that lasts barely a minute, but is able to depict the very ruthlessness of the Sardaukar in this short sequence. That’s just one of the many examples where Villeneuve shows and doesn’t tell — everything you need to know about this force is shown to you in this condensed form.
What Villeneuve isn’t able to do with Dune like with Blade Runner 2049, is give you a reason to care about the characters in this film. The first half of the film is paced incredibly quickly which is understandable given there is a lot of ground to cover in Herbert’s novel, however characters are what audiences latch onto for emotional support. The character of K (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049 was multifaceted for an android, and the scale of the film never overwhelmed that connection built with him.
Some might view Villeneuve’s treatment of character as one that is reflective of Herbert’s own reluctance to provide overly accessible characters, however films need that connection otherwise you’re relying on visual bravado to take you where you need to go (which it does, but that aspect is a shortcoming nonetheless). I’d make the case that Herbert’s own novel offers characters like Gurney Halleck, Duke Leto, and even Paul to an extent, for emotional support and for connection.
That said, as with any adaptation of a novel or novels as rich in detail as Dune, Villeneuve has to sacrifice key aspects of the novel in favour of an adaptation that is worthy of a 155minute feature. Certain characters like Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) become side-lined more than others where in the book they would play a much more pivotal role in understanding Paul and the motifs that underpin the film.
Some of those motifs include the significance of water on a planet where water is like its own currency. A film like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) did a stellar job in capturing the significance of water in a largely desolate desert setting where it is treated as a controlling tool. Villeneuve’s Dune has moments where its significance is brought to light, but it never fleshes that out in a way that would make an audience member (unless you had read the book) realise the significance of the still-suits that the characters wear, or the cannibalistic like re-purposing of a deceased persons water.
But at its core, Villeneuve’s Dune is a film that pushes what the medium can achieve at this scale and is a masterful cinematic experience that epitomizes blockbuster filmmaking. The score composed by Hans Zimmer is piercing and fitting, and makes for an enthralling soundscape (which one would hope it would be given how long he has been sitting on it for a modern Dune film); the visuals are breath-taking and unlike anything I have seen in a film before where the world feels like it exists or will exist (as though Villeneuve is his own messiah who has seen the state of the world in 10,000 years); and the cast is incredibly talented and exciting to watch (especially Stellan Skarsgard as The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in a role that echoes the muteness of his character in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).
For those that haven’t read the books and even those that have, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune part 1 is a breath-taking feat in filmmaking that deserves to be seen. It’s a film that places emphasis on worldbuilding and scale at the expense of some characterisation, but it is an experience that is unlike any you will have this year. It would have been great to have had a trilogy greenlit in order to explore the complexities of Herbert’s novel in greater detail, however the fact that there will be a sequel at all is a win for fans of the book, Villeneuve, and cinema.
Dune is now streaming on HBO Max until the 22nd of November and in Australian cinemas next month
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.