The Art of the Murakami Adaptation

In an age dominated by IP acquisitions in cinema, the art of the adaptation has seemingly narrowed and expanded in equal measure. Whether it’s adapting a recent YA novel series or the countless comic book blockbusters adapted from stories told in print from a half-century ago, cinema has leaned heavily on interpreting pre-existing literary works with established audiences to tell its stories. 

But the art of adaptation is not solely a monetary endeavour in modern moviemaking. There are opportunities to explore older works to uncover deeper truths in an artist to achieve newly interesting films. Two such examples are the recent critical darlings Burning (2018), and Drive My Car (2021), both based on the Murakami short stories Barn Burning and Drive My Car respectively.

Both films share many similarities; interpreting sub-50 page Murakami stories into films epic in length (148m for Burning, 179m for Drive My Car), exploring the interpersonal relationships that were only suggested within the source text, and exploring a place and time unique to their works. Lee Chang-dong shifted the story of Barn Burning from Japan to South Korea, whilst Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe shifted the story of Drive My Car from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

Exploring works of adaptation in cinema is a rewarding experience in understanding both works and creators better, and is worth comparing these two excellent films in tandem with Murakami’s short stories.

Drive My Car 

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Tôko Miura in Drive My Car

“Murakami’s writing is wonderful at expressing inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them. But it’s really difficult to re-create those inner feelings in film.” – Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Fresh off multiple Oscar nominations including best adapted screenplay, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s masterpiece expands on every moment from Murakami’s short story while introducing his own fresh moments that truly thrive within the three-hour romantic drama epic.

So much is added to the story within the 40-minute prologue Hamaguchi and Oe create in the film. In literary fiction, the absence of a character is much easier to express to an audience. But in film, it is much harder for an audience to garner a relationship to a character that is only referenced. Imagine Up (2009) without its opening montage. The absence of Ellie through the rest of the film is profoundly felt by both Carl and the audience because of the impact the character had on us at the beginning of the story. Hamaguchi makes a crucial decision to further explore the intimate relationship between Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima) during the prologue, deepening our relationship with the couple. Oto’s absence casts a deep shadow that hangs over the entire film in a profound and moving way.

Where the adaptation feels closest to Murakami is surprisingly in an original scene, where Yûsuke goes to dinner with Gong Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon), Lee Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim), and the driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). It is here that Yûsuke feels comfortable enough to compliment Misaki’s driving, stating, “I hardly feel gravity. Sometimes I forget I’m in a car.” This explanation of a seemingly mundane skill perfectly executed is described so beautifully, the surrounding world feels overwhelmed with character. This is a style that Murakami has perfected in his writing and this sequence is Hamaguchi’s nod to the story’s original writer.

In the short story, Murakami uses Misaki’s driving and its mundane grace to explore Yûsuke’s unexplored feelings and memories of his wife, writing, “for some reason, he recalled her (Oto) more frequently now that Misaki was doing the driving.” Hamaguchi follows this evolution of Yûsuke opening up about his feelings while Misaki is driving in a similar graceful manner, something he also explored in his other wonderful 2021 release, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Sonia Yuan (left) and Park Yu-rim in Drive My Car

Murakami’s one gripe with the film was the change from the car being a yellow convertible Saab to a red sun-roofed Saab, a change he ultimately accepted. The red of the Saab cuts through the stark whites and navy blues of the environments Hamaguchi places it in. In a film built on the foundations of its long dialogue sequences, the simple visual style of the film is constantly engaging. By adding a roof to the now-iconic car, Hamaguchi creates a secluded space that creates a vacuum for the characters to enter. Whilst not as visually appealing as a convertible, the red Saab is a more striking cinematic object, gliding through the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo and Hiroshima.

A fascinating alteration to the original text is the character of Takatsuki, the young actor who has an affair with Oto in the film. In Murakami’s short story, the actor is in his early 40s and doesn’t share the same troubled past as a former star like his film counterpart. Through this change, the infidelity of Oto feels less connected to Yûsuke in terms of being a romantic stand-in, and more of an individual character decision, opening up the character to being more realised than in the short story. This change also deepens the conversations Yûsuke has with Takatsuki throughout the story – an element that takes up large portions of Murakami’s original text – as it creates a more interesting power dynamic between the pair as they search for a connection through Oto’s absence.

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Tôko Miura in Drive My Car

Murakami’s short story focuses heavily on the theme of performance and acting, often citing, “we’re all acting aren’t we?”. Hamaguchi both explores these ideas deeper through the Uncle Vanya play while also obscuring Yûsuke’s ideas on acting by focusing the story more on his directing profession than his acting career, no doubt an area the director is more personally invested in.

One of the lasting images of the film is actually a profound moment in the short story too, of Yûsuke allowing Misaki to smoke in the car, which she accepts but also has too much respect for Yûsuke, but more importantly the car, as she smokes out the window.

Hamaguchi and Oe received an Academy Award nomination for Adapted Screenplay (an award most likely to be given to the outstanding Power of the Dog) and is everything the award should recognise. The film is a masterclass in extrapolating and personalising another writer’s story into the film medium, one that doesn’t overshadow the original, but mines new elements out of it to craft something truly special.


Burning 

Yoo Ah-in (left), Jeon Jong-seo (centre), and Steven Yeun (right) in Burning

Murakami’s writing in the short story is most compelling in between sentences. Burning works wonderfully as a work of adaptation as it is constructed to explore and expand on these silences on the page, without ever feeling pressured to over-explain.

The time spent between Hae-mi in Africa and returning is expressed with a single space on Murakami’s page, whereas in the film, Lee uses this time to explore our protagonist in this period of extended isolation. 

“Are you going to come back to Japan?” I asked her, jokingly.

“Of course I am,” she replied.

Three months later she was back, …

Barn Burning pg.2

This sequence runs for 10 minutes, showing him masturbating in Hae-mi’s room multiple times as well as going to his father’s assault trial. By adding these new layers to the character, the film adaptation seeks to expand both the Jung-su character as well as emphasise the absence Hae-mi leaves in his life.

A key scene taken straight from the short story is Hae-mi and Jung-su’s first night drinking together at a bar, where Hae-mi pantomimes eating an orange. This reads intriguingly in the Murakami story, introducing this charming and compelling character that both our protagonist and audience are unsure of. In Burning, we can see the scene performed, which greatly adds to the character’s performance of the pantomime and seeing Jung-su’s completely engrossed face as it is occurring.

A crucial thematic element to Lee’s film is the story of the African Bushmen’s two hungry people; Little Hunger, those who are physically hungry, and Great Hunger, those who are hungry for life’s meaning. It is clear even with Murakami’s short story that the female character of Hae-mi is looking for a purpose in the world that is soon to envelop her, ideas that are expanded and stretched further in Lee’s adaptation. 

Lee foreshadows Ben’s speech on burning barns in a restaurant scene between the three characters. Ben says he wants to “tell his story” to Jung-su, as he is a writer. Both the short story and the film characterise Ben as being interested in our protagonist as he is a writer. By foreshadowing this story instead of it appearing spontaneously like in the original text, Lee introduces a feeling of suspense and unease surrounding the mysterious Ben, for both Jong-su and the audience.

Jeon Jong-seo in Burning

The film’s most iconic scene is the dance sequence set to Miles Davis’ Generique, a powerfully solemn and introspective piece written for the Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). Burning and Drive My Car both follow a lot of Murakami’s western influences into their adaptations, an aspect which no doubt endeared itself to a wider audience.

Murakami does not specify which Davis song is heard in the short story, allowing Lee to add a layer of artistic decision-making to his adaptation. Using Generique, Lee is layering the groundwork for a dreamlike sequence not unlike something you’d see in a Malick or Lynch film, particularly the red room in Twin Peaks (1990-91); a dream-state environment where key characters’ subconscious expresses itself openly. 

What makes Lee’s adaptation so entertaining is his willingness to explore the subtext of Ben’s unnerving nature through genre tropes of a psychological thriller. By expanding these notes of Ben’s character from Murakami’s original story, Lee is able to lure both the protagonist and the audience into the story before it culminates in the farm sequence where Ben describes his barn burning hobby, the launching point of the short story’s narrative.

An important and oftentimes overlooked element of the literary adaptation is to have well defined visual and sonic components. If there is no visual or audible interest in the adaptation, then the filmmaker is not using the advantages of the medium to full effect. Burning has a distinct visual and audible style which Lee uses throughout his adaptation to emphasise the mood of the film. Whether it be the thriller-tinged score by Mowg, or the sapphire soaked sky during Jong-su’s daily runs in the second half of the film, Lee is creating a world that is unique to Murakami’s original text, exploring new depths to the short story while still maintaining a connected through-line.

Steven Yeun in Burning



What makes both of Murakami’s short stories so compelling and rich for adaptation is his ability to create compelling characters in remarkably succinct ways. There is a deftness in its layered character work to be mined within 20-40 pages like in Barn Burning and Drive My Car that leaves Lee and Hamaguchi a groundwork to adapt to the screen, while also crafting characters an audience would want to explore more deeply in film. 

Much has been made of these two successful adaptations being long compared to the source text, displaying how much depth can be uncovered from Murakami’s short pieces. Both Lee and Hamaguchi seem keenly interested in the genre elements of his stories (detective noirs in Burning, domestic melodramas and theatre as subtext stories in Drive My Car), while also wanting to deeply explore these rich characters over the course of their adaptations. 

A common criticism of Murakami is his lack of female characters, something we see in both of these short stories. Perhaps the greatest inclusion Lee and Hamaguchi make to these stories are the two female characters that haunt both Burning and Drive My Car. By making both Hae-mi and Oto not just real characters, but truly charming people that an audience can get engrossed in, the directors are able to lay the groundwork for the narrative momentum of the stories. Just as Jung-su and Yûsuke are obsessed and entranced by these characters, so too are the audience, making their eventual absences create a cavity within the film that will not be filled.

Both films ask interesting questions on the art of adaptation. By exploring a short piece of writing by a revered writer, both Lee and Hamaguchi are able to create layered, dense dramas that extend far beyond their original text. Would these films have worked nearly as well without Murakami’s imprint on key moments? Or is it the duet of writer and interpreter, an overriding theme of Hamaguchi’s film, that gives these stories such powerful meaning?

The Batman is a Wonderfully Grimy Noir in Superhero Clothes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s a beautiful thing, when each element of a film is working so harmoniously together, where nothing dominates the other, all working to execute a singular vision. There was a mountain of expectations put on Matt Reeves to create a unique Batman story, a character so embedded into the story of the last 35 years of Hollywood filmmaking, and, most surprisingly, the filmmaker has met those expectations.

We are entering the Batman story a couple years into Bruce Wayne’s journey as the Caped Crusader. With so many recent iterations of the character in film, the writing here is aggressively avoiding overlapping elements from the other franchises. There is no scene of Martha Wayne’s pearls falling to the floor (although it could be argued this iteration required this scene more than any other), or extended montages of Bruce learning to fight. Modern films are increasingly aware of its audience’s background with these stories, allowing each individual film to spread its wings and flourish on its own terms.

It is here that The Batman flourishes. Reeves has crafted a true auteurist vision inside a blockbuster superhero film that is remarkable. With an outstanding cast and arguably the best working cinematographer behind the camera – Melbourne’s own Greig Fraser – The Batman shows us that with enough creativity and craft, the superhero genre can still execute high-level filmmaking.

We should start with the casting, which is excellent and wonderfully refreshing. Pattinson helms the ship like it’s an A24 trauma thriller, with a performance of an emerging Batman and still grief-ridden Bruce Wayne that has you deeply compelled and tense throughout. Pattinson is an impressively nervy actor who is able to show us a mask that is just on the verge of cracking. The film positions Pattinson’s more dour Batman with a wonderful cast of actors, all at the top of their game, to ground the story in a level of humanity that could easily have gone missing in a story like this. The ensemble of Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Jeffrey Wright as Commissioner Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, Paul Dano as The Riddler, an unrecognisable Colin Farrell as The Penguin, and Andy Serkis as Alfred, are all excellent and are perfect counterweights to Pattinson’s aura throughout the film.

Robert Pattinson (left) as Batman and Zoë Kravitz (right) as Catwoman in The Batman

Reeves’ previous experience as a horror director (2010’s underrated Let me in) comes through in several chilling scenes with Paul Dano’s Riddler, a character that has been adapted from one of the campiest in the rogue’s gallery to a harrowing villain that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Saw franchise.

It was clear from the beginning they wanted to craft a story that leaned more heavily into the grime and detective noir aspects of the character, with several scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in Seven (1995). The use of Riddler in the Batman franchise has always called upon a more detective and serial killer-tinged story, an aspect the film runs headfirst into instead of avoiding. It’s pretty remarkable that this film was able to achieve an M rating in Australia (PG-13 rating).

The level of craft in The Batman is where this film shines and this review could definitely pick each individual element to highlight how it perfectly sits in the pocket of the vision Reeves has for the film. One crucial element I will highlight is the score. The Jaws-ifying of the iconic Batman theme by Michael Giacchino throughout the film works brilliantly, showcasing Pattinson’s iteration of the character as a foreboding presence.

This is further emphasised by Fraser, cribbing from his own work in Rogue One (which Giacchino also scored) of Darth Vader in the hallway, a sequence that has now become that films defining moment and one of the best in the Star Wars franchise, with Batman stepping out of the darkness to enact vengeance.

Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman

It’s impossible not to view the film from the lens of the other Batman films, in particular the Nolan franchise which is still the benchmark for this sort of superhero storytelling. While there are no individual performances as totemic as Heath Ledger, there are many moments that The Batman has improved upon from those films. The political narrative that Nolan experimented with on Dark Knight Rises (2012) has been refined here. In Nolan’s film, the political aspect centred around an Occupy Wall Street allusion felt pasted onto the story being told. Whereas in Reeves’ film, the political narrative is rooted deeply in every aspect of the story, and is a large reason Paul Dano’s Riddler works so effectively. In 2022, there is no more apt American villain than a QAnon leader whose ultimate plan involves a mass shooter plot at an iconic New York venue (I won’t spoil which). Reeves and Pattinson have been active in the press the last month expressing how bleak and dark this iteration of Batman is, and it is in this story choice where that darkness is evident and chilling.

But this film is still a big-budget blockbuster and there are some exhilarating sequences, including a remarkable car chase that maintains the same viscerality that defines every moment of Reeves’ film. The Batman’s legacy will most likely focus on the emo vibe and the runtime, but its action set pieces are worthy of the same acclaim given to Nolan’s trilogy.

What The Batman has achieved feels momentous. After almost 20 years of superhero dominance in Hollywood, it is remarkable to have a filmmaker come in and make the genre feel as fresh and vital as it’s ever been. The Batman is a showcase for some of the best craftspeople and performers in the industry, and is hopefully just the beginning for this new caped crusader.

Kimi is a True Covid-era Thriller

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We are fast approaching the second anniversary of the launching point of the Covid pandemic – it is still marked for me by the weekend of NBA calculations due from the Rudy Gobert positive case on March 11th – and for the most part, we have avoided including any reference to it in our films. There has clearly been zero appetite to see our bleak reality projected onto screens. There have been a couple bright spots; the terrific Zoom horror film Host (2020) captured the screen-dominated world we found ourselves in with lockdown, while still managing to craft an enjoyable film about a Zoom seance. The other that comes to mind is last year’s wonderful Romanian comedy Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), which shows the iconography that we have come to know from the pandemic with face masks and social distancing.

It may be years until the quintessential Covid-era movie is released, but for now, the top of the contenders should be Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful paranoia thriller Kimi (2022). No other film of the past two years has captured the paranoia and anxiety of the pandemic in such stark terms while remaining light on its feet and enjoyable throughout.

The film centres on the agoraphobic Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), a sound tech worker for the company Amygdala and their Siri-esque home device KIMI. What sets KIMI apart from its real-world counterparts is that any error in communication from the device is given to remote workers like Angela to fix. Set almost completely within Angela’s Seattle loft apartment, the tension of this paranoia thriller is heightened once she hears what appears to be a violent crime on one of the files and is compelled to investigate.

Angela’s agoraphobia has forced her paranoia to be tangible for years, something a few years ago would’ve felt like a stretch for audiences, but not now. The film’s Jenga stack of Covid paranoia, tech surveillance paranoia, and the recent true crime content boom is perfectly positioned for 2022, creating a series of escalating tensions that keep you on the edge of your seat throughout its brisk 89-minute runtime.

It shouldn’t be any real surprise that Soderbergh crafted a Covid-era thriller that speaks to our moment brilliantly. Early in 2020, the Academy-award winning filmmaker received a lot of attention for his prescient pandemic film Contagion (2011), an extraordinary film that rocketed to the top of VOD charts during the pandemic. Due to this, he has often been asked for his opinions on the pandemic while in interviews for his recent features (which I highly recommend seeking out), he is one of the great talkers of Hollywood. Since March 2020, Soderbergh has crafted three enjoyable features for HBO Max with Let Them All Talk (2020), No Sudden Move (2021), and Kimi at a feverish pace that can be felt throughout each film.

Zoë Kravitz as Angela Childs in Kimi

After the unjust cancellation of the excellent High Fidelity (2021), a show that confirmed Kravitz’s bonafides as a magnetic screen presence ready to become a star, I was eagerly anticipating her next project. The pairing of Soderbergh and Kravitz is perfect, as they match each other’s nervy exuberance that creates friction at the heart of Kimi that gives the film an enjoyably frenetic energy. 

The film is also buoyed by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez’s charming score that focuses on longer mood pieces overplaying up the paranoia thriller elements of the film. Soderbergh clearly enjoys living in the world of the genre but is always cautious to never dip too heavily into certain tropes. This allows him to stay ahead of his audience whilst never exuding smugness, something that Martinez is crucial in achieving. 

The acclaimed director has experimented with paranoid thrillers in the past with Unsane (2018), an enjoyable film shot on an iPhone which ultimately felt more like a genre exercise than a high-quality film, something he has achieved here.

Soderbergh, taking up his regular posts as director, cinematographer (as Peter Andrews), and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), never ceases to amaze in his innovation at shooting single location scenes whilst maintaining a relentless efficiency in shotmaking. You can never accuse the academy award-winning filmmaker of taking the long way round a story.

Zoë Kravitz in Kimi

The screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible) is weightier than the breezy paranoia thriller it’s contained within, including a truly tense scene centred on Amygdala executive Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson) spouting these empty MeToo platitudes that are pressed on Angelica in an executive suite that grow more and more unnerving.

Soderbergh has always been a difficult auteur to pin down for a definitive style – other than the relentless efficiency in his shotmaking and the opinionated anti-capitalist point of view in most of his films – something that makes each of his films feel fresh and innovative. This is a filmmaker that mastered his craft so completely, he briefly retired. Now, the famed director is seemingly content making enjoyable, sub-two-hour features for HBO Max that lack any burden of pretence, and we should be grateful.

Kimi is a film with a long and very evident film history, drawing from the paranoia thrillers of the 70s as well as Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Soderbergh uses this well-defined genre to speak to this moment through a modern interpretation of Blow Out (1981) and Rear Window, which is everything one can hope for out of a pandemic era film release. The legendary filmmaker continues the modernisation of De Palma’s 80s thriller here with a sound editor as its protagonist, a profession that lends itself well to the paranoia of their eras. 

While Soderbergh never lets up in his taut 90-minute thriller, he does leave audiences with many interesting ideas to sit with, including the invasive nature of modern tech, even in the world of a woman who never leaves her apartment. The combination of Kravitz and Soderbergh elevates the material to create one of the best new releases of the year.

Kimi, play Sabotage.

Kimi is currently streaming on Binge and HBO Max.

Neeson Returns as a Grizzled Action Hero in Blacklight

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Blacklight screener provided by Rialto Distribution

Liam Neeson has long been one of Hollywood’s most dependable and compelling screen presences. In recent years, the iconic Irish actor has been working as much as he ever has, spanning many locales including Northern Canada in The Ice Road (2021) to right here in Australia for Blacklight (2022). 

Set in Washington D.C. but filmed mostly here in Melbourne (with a crucial car chase sequence shot in Canberra), the film follows Travis Block (excellent action movie name), an OCD-inflicted FBI fixer who finds himself on the tail end of a career working in the shadowy underbelly of the FBI, working directly with the director of the bureau Gabriel Robinson (Aiden Quinn). Block must reckon with his role as a shadowy figure and how that life has impacted his personal life, including his daughter Amanda (Claire van der Boom) and granddaughter Natalie (Gabriella Sengos).

The film is a serviceable action conspiracy thriller that feels perfectly of a piece with the political moment we find ourselves in. Director and co-writer Mark Williams (Ozark co-creator, Honest Thief 2020)) reunites with Neeson from a script by first-time screenwriter Nick May, a former Obama-era Justice Department attorney. 

FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aiden Quinn, left) and Travis Block (Liam Neeson, right)

Blacklight certainly has some moments of first-screenplay-itis, but the story is a fresh and interesting take on the modern government conspiracy thriller. There is something chilling about a former government attorney writing his first script about a J. Edgar Hoover-esque villain at the head of the FBI, an idea that will stay with you longer than any car chase.

Now, we need to talk about the action in Blacklight. Neeson, at almost 70, is a tremendous actor but is far too old to be the star of an action thriller that seems designed to have the legendary actor chase and hand-to-hand fight people a third his age. In the past, Neeson action films have revolved around the iconic star being either stationary (The Marksman (2020) or in a fast-moving vehicle (The Commuter (2018)), but here we see Neeson closer to his Taken (2008) role with foot chases and athletic explosive action sequences. Recent action films like Nobody (2021) or John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) have built around the limitations of its star to make entertaining films, something Blacklight would have benefited greatly from.

This would not have been as big an issue, however, if the film didn’t also feel so dependent on these action sequences, as Blacklight’s dialogue was not enjoyable or emotive enough to make up the action deficit. Dialogue is never too important in these movies – only Michael Mann has really perfected both sides of the coin – as it is often the thrilling action sequences that make the genre enjoyable. Unfortunately, Blacklight falters in both areas to make it as enjoyable as some of Neeson’s best action films.

Where Blacklight is most interesting is in its choice of villain and plot. This is a massive shift away from the Eastern European villain tropes from Taken and the John Wick series, centring on a conspiracy plot with an impossible to miss Hoover parallel (there is even a scene of Quinn quoting the man). It’s easy to forget that just a decade ago J. Edgar Hoover was played reverentially by Leonardo DiCaprio – as well as featuring in a truly baffling scene in Being the Ricardos (2021) – to now being essentially the villain of an action thriller who has an AOC stand-in assassinated.

While not a great film, Blacklight is an entertaining action thriller starring a legendary actor that is capable of getting any project made and elevates any material he is given. Let’s never take Liam Neeson for granted.

Blacklight will be screening in theatres nationwide from February 10th.

Best of 2021: Darcy’s Picks

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 second of our end-of-year articles, Darcy Read will be revealing his ten favourite pictures of 2021.

The majority of the year was dominated by great television (It’s a Sin, The Underground Railroad) as cinemas were closed and films were delaying their releases as filmmakers faced massive challenges in production due to the pandemic. But absence makes the heart grow fonder as the last three months of the year had me going back to the theatre as often as possible.

In a year spent mostly watching films at home, it’s perhaps surprising to see the majority of my list be films seen in theatres, although that definitely influenced my enjoyment of each film seen on the big screen.

10. The Father

The earliest entrant on my list, with many lists placing it on the 2020 calendar instead, but a very small amount of the audience for Florian Zeller’s The Father actually saw the film that early, so here it is on my list. I am usually not fond of filmed plays, but Zeller’s work is undeniable and the care and consideration taken to adapt his own play into the medium of cinema is remarkable. 

Currently streaming on Prime Video and Foxtel Now.

9. Red Rocket

Sean Baker’s new feature Red Rocket is a unique prospect in modern American moviemaking. It is a difficult and enthralling challenge to the audience that even in its final moments, you aren’t sure what side of the fence you land. Mikey is a true antihero; a loathsome, motor-mouthed, hustling suitcase pimp returning home to Texas City after 20 years working as an adult film star in LA. The film will have you questioning your feelings and emotions throughout, with Baker expertly weaponising his humanist approach towards an individual that may or may not deserve retribution. You will never hear NSYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’ the same way again.

Currently screening in theatres nationwide.

8. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

The year of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi will no doubt culminate in an Oscar for his critically beloved Drive My Car (2021), a film that no doubt would’ve been on my list if it was released in time (the film is not slated to release in Australia until February), but I hope the success of that film does not cloud the achievement of Hamaguchi’s other release of the year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

This extraordinary short film triptych floats elegantly through ideas of love, chance, and opportunity in three 40-minute short films that have stuck with me longer than most other films this year. You will bring yourself to each story and each viewer will no doubt have a different personal favourite with mine being the second story “Door Wide Open”, a compelling story that may have been my favourite film of the year if it was stretched into a feature.

Will hopefully be available online soon.

7. Pig

What originally sounded like a Nic Cage led John Wick (2014) film set in Portland, eventuated into a deeply human tale of art, creativity, and love set in the intoxicating world of Oregon fine dining. Michael Sarnoski’s feature debut Pig has the feel of a grizzled vet reflecting on a long career, making it all the more impressive and rewarding to watch. A name to keep an eye on for years to come.

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

6. The Velvet Underground

The film I have thought about more than any other this year. Director Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground has crafted an immersive world of 60s New York counterculture on the immortal band that had little to no live performances captured on film, whilst never feeling this absence. Haynes is one of the best working American directors and has crafted one of his most complete works celebrating his favourite band and arts movement. If only it could be seen on the big screen and have the opening credits and ‘Venus in Furs’ wash over a packed theatre.

Currently streaming on Apple TV+

5. Dune

There is an overwhelming visual splendour that can’t be overstated with a film like Dune. In an era of blockbuster cinema dominated by Marvel Studios, the visual flair that Villeneuve developed with the extraordinary Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and has deployed with precision here, is both refreshing and awe-inspiring. Dune is only half of Herbert’s story so rating it as a whole is difficult, but the film works so well on its own to more than earn its place on this list.

Currently screening in theatres nationwide.

4. The Power of the Dog

A striking film from a returning legend, The Power of the Dog is a slow build that creeps under your skin and never leaves. The most anxiety-inducing scene of the year can be found in the film between Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, a piano, and a mocking banjo. Campion weaponises her emotive writing and filmmaking trademarks with a combination of sharp-toothed writing and superb performances that gives the film an off-beat flow that keeps its cards close to the vest and its audiences on the edge of their seat.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

3. The Green Knight

The 2021 released film I’ve rewatched the most, The Green Knight is a well of ideas that is a treat to return to. Each viewing uncovers new elements as well as cementing key moments in this peculiar and deeply rewarding fantasy story that revels in its ambiguity. The director David Lowery’s assuredness throughout the film to be comfortable leaving the audience confused for stretches of Gawain’s quest, knowing the emotionality of the film work as a guide rope through the darkness, is wonderful and all too rare in modern American cinema.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

2. The Worst Person in the World

It’s the quiet moments mixed into the loud ones that make it special. A walk home alone from a party. A conversation with your distant father after he misses your 30th birthday. Taking a friend’s photo as you explore his old apartment building. Joachim Trier’s masterpiece The Worst Person in the World will knock you off your feet early on and send you tumbling down its emotional rapids for its runtime.

His previous film of his “Oslo Trilogy”, Oslo, August 31st (2011) (2006’s Reprise being the first entrant), has a consistent bleakness that slightly calloused the viewing experience, preventing an audience from falling in love with his wonderfully crafted characters. This is not the case with The Worst Person, which mixes humour and pure rushes of love with the ennui that will have you enraptured.

Not enough can be said about Renate Reinsve’s performance as Julie, a truly star-making performance that is by far the year’s best. Where Reinsve shines brightest is when Julie allows herself to be herself, a high we find ourselves chasing with her throughout the film’s 12 chapters. One such moment is the party meeting sequence between Julie and Elvind (Herbert Nordrum); 20 perfectly balanced minutes of the magically intimate waltz of words and emotions that make their inevitable coupling so exhilarating and is among the film’s several transcendent scenes.

For a film with a title like The Worst Person in the World that deploys a post-modern narrator commenting on Julie’s decisions other than merely describing them, Trier has crafted a coming-of-age story that is unbelievably kind and welcoming, which helps the audience feel looked after and willing to give themselves over to the film.

Currently screening at select cinemas.

1. Licorice Pizza

My most anticipated film of the year was always going to feature highly on this list, and Paul Thomas Anderson did not disappoint in this often surprising, frequently hilarious coming-of-age film. Licorice Pizza sees possibly my favourite director loosen his collar and explore ideas of adolescent stagnation whilst never indulging in the nostalgia of his own past. There is no doubt this film will eventually become my most-watched film of the year with an enchanting world that will no doubt grow and evolve as the years go by.

Licorice Pizza is my favourite film of 2021, coming from a filmmaker that feels at his most comfortable while also being able to thrill in equal measure. Anderson is a writer and filmmaker like no other working today. He has created a 70s coming-of-age film with two of the most realised characters of recent American cinema history in Gary and Alana that will live on long in my memory.

Allow this film to wash over you with its gorgeous visuals and recreation of the 70s in The Valley, and find yourself totally engrossed in a story of teenage and early 20s stagnation while searching for your place in the world.

In a year stuck at home with little else to do but take stock of one’s life, it feels only right that the two films that sang to me this year are two that were not these immaculately crafted pieces of artistic achievement but instead worked as mirrors, seeing myself in the eyes of each and every person shown on screen, both their emotional peaks and valleys.

Currently screening at select theatres nationwide.

Honourable Mentions: Zola, Malignant, In the Heights, Azor

Red Rocket is a Wonderful and Complicated Trip

Rating: 4 out of 5.

20 years after leaving his hometown of Texas City to make it as an adult film star in LA, Mikey washes up on the door of his ex/current wife Lexey’s house looking for money. You can practically smell the stale cigarette smoke on his clothes in the theatre. Red Rocket (2021), written and directed by Sean Baker, is a true antihero tale of a loathsome suitcase pimp that challenges its audiences throughout in uncomfortable and compelling ways.

We are introduced to Mikey on the bus ride home to the tune of NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye, the film’s theme. The song is played multiple times throughout the film, gaining different contexts and meaning each time it is played, being chopped up and remixed differently throughout. There is something deeply strange but delightful in hearing the pop song in a movie theatre, but the longer it plays as we follow Mikey’s trip home, the more the connections to dated 2000’s culture become apparent.

The film unfolds itself to the audience slowly – yet still with a kinetic sense of momentum to Baker’s storytelling – as Mikey attempts to build some sort of life after returning home to the tiny Gulf Coast town of Texas City after 20 years in LA, through sheer charm and force of will. He is a hustler by nature. He knows if he can just talk long enough, he can get what he’s after. The film takes a deeply uncomfortable turn as Mikey becomes transfixed on the 17-year old donut shop waitress who goes by Strawberry (first-time actress Suzanna Son), which pushes the audience’s moral boundaries to its limit.

Baker has a better eye for casting than possibly any in the industry, as his neo-realist leaning of non-actor casting or inspired lead choices including Willem Dafoe and Simon Rex set his films apart in modern American filmmaking. The latter, a product of the early 2000s that has faded into obscurity in a similar way to Mikey where the subtext just feels like text.

Rex carries a nervous energy throughout the film, even when he’s bragging about his past life, or convincing someone to hire him, he seems aware that even at his “highest” moments of the film, he has still constructed a house of cards.

There are multiple instances in Red Rocket where Baker is showing the audience that even the film itself is checking out of Mikey’s motor-mouthed wheeling and dealing. Inspired by one of the best scenes in Taxi Driver (1976) where Scorsese shows the audience that even the film is embarrassed by its protagonist, Baker deployed similar tactics to tune out its loathsome protagonist in a subtle and effective way. The film achieves this either by drowning out Mikey with sound effects (having a train go past and obstruct Mikey pleading with Strawberry near the climax of the film) or by pulling the camera’s focus literally off of Mikey as he is explaining why he left LA to Lexey. Baker rarely flashes moments of commentary within his films, but it is so necessary here to undercut the more challenging aspects that may be interpreted as his values.

The peripheries of the film are littered with Trump-era politics, showing a MAGA billboard but obscuring the former president. The film is set in the run-up to the 2016 election, with the RNC broadcast on the TV throughout, gesturing to the audience heavily to compare Mikey’s slick and opportunistic motormouth to Trump.

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son as Mikey and Strawberry in Red Rocket

The charm of Baker’s previous films has been his ability to tell deeply empathetic stories of people on the fringes, but here the central figure of Mikey, the washed-up adult film star, is so unlikeable that he asks the audience more difficult questions throughout.

These questions Baker is asking the audience are challenging and deeply engaging, as the final shots ask the question of what we really want out of this story and out of Mikey. Are we just along for the ride, anticipating the inevitable car crash, or have we spent enough time with this motormouth charmer that we want him to succeed?

Baker is a deeply humanist filmmaker that always understands his characters in intimate ways, as well as having the awareness to know how an audience member will feel about his characters. That assignment is wildly different here in Red Rocket in comparison to Tangerine (2015), as Baker weaponises similar humanistic techniques to ask the audience how far are they willing to go down this path with Mikey? A simple focus pull in a kitchen can tell you everything about how Baker wants the audience to feel about Mikey’s yarn spinning, and who we should be empathising with within the scene. 

Red Rocket will not be for everyone with its difficult subject matter and protagonist, but Baker is such a tremendous filmmaker and tells such deeply human stories of people on the borders of society that it’s definitely worth your time.

Red Rocket is screening in cinemas nationwide from January 6th.

Jane Campion Returns with The Power of the Dog

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 12 long years away from the big screen, the extraordinary auteur Jane Campion has returned, backed by Netflix, with an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 American western psychodrama The Power of the Dog (2021). The film centres on two brothers, the charismatic but menacing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the meek and gentle George (Jesse Plemons), successful Montana ranchers whose lives are quickly changed as George decides to marry the widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who brings her doctor-to-be son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live with them on the ranch.

Phil sees this incursion by Rose and Peter as a personal affront to his ideal world and responds by setting out to torture Rose psychologically in a sequence of scenes that has Campion at her venomous best.

The Power of the Dog sits on a knife’s edge for the entire runtime, with Campion keeping her cards close to the chest as the drama unfolds with the patience of a long novel. There are four central characters to the film and the audience is unsure throughout who is gaining the upper hand in the family dynamic and the film as a whole.

The film has a certain offbeat cadence in its storytelling. It will sit in quiet moments we are yet to understand the importance of, while other scenes quietly obscure that dramatic temporal shifts in the characters’ lives. A more traditional version of this film would climax with a violent confrontation between brothers, but the power of Campion’s writing and Savage’s prose comes from how we are being led through the fog into an illuminating, yet rather understated final act.

What’s always jumped out to me about Campion’s writing is her ability to complicate seemingly archetypal characters into three-dimensional figures. There are countless examples in fiction of the sorts of characters in The Power of the Dog, but it’s Campion’s masterful command of storytelling that blooms in the grey areas, not by reducing everyone down to their lowest moments, but by elevating the humanity of even the most abhorrent figures.

Set in Montana but shot in New Zealand, The Power of the Dog relishes in the rolling hillsides of Campion’s homeland that feel overwhelming and mythical all at once. You truly feel the seasons change over the course of the film, from the encroaching white snow on the mountains and the farm which forces the family inside, to the glaring sunlight that ratchets up the tension. 

Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) with terror in her eye in The Power of the Dog

Ari Wegner’s cinematography powerfully contrasts this natural world that is shot during as much magic hour as could be achieved I’m sure, with the almost German expressionist lighting choices inside the family home, giving those scenes a nightmarish quality. These lighting decisions help emphasise Cumberbatch’s angular features into a figure that haunts every inch of the Montana estate.

The Power of the Dog deploys an extraordinary use of both diegetic and nondiegetic music that echoes Campion’s breakout feature The Piano (1993), with possibly the first use in cinema of a banjo as an instrument of menace. Phil is constantly heard whistling a melody that buries itself under Rose and the audience’s skin that feels unrelenting. This sadistic side of Phil is so well established early in the film that even in the later stages where Campion opens Phil up to the audience, we are still able to see him from Rose’s perspective, creating a murkier area for the audience to perceive Phil as a character.

Much has been made of Cumberbatch’s performance and it certainly feels like the actor is in career-best form, although I will admit to not being a big fan of his work to date. The power of his performance lies in how Phil works to be outwardly projecting his idea of masculinity, and how that projection changes depending on who he is surrounded by. Campion captures fleeting moments with Phil that illuminate the character in truly spectacular ways, from his attachment to his brother’s presence, to how he luxuriates in the brief moments he’s able to wash away his protective armour in the river.

The connections to There Will be Blood (2007) are boundless here, even to the point of Plemon’s character originally planned to be Paul Dano before scheduling issues intervened. Greenwood’s atonal score at times felt like There Will be Blood B-sides but they quickly took on their own shape within this story. There are also moments where Cumberbatch carries a similar menace to Daniel Day Lewis’s character, but they are deployed in different and unique ways that work in their respective films. The two films are in conversation with each other visually, sonically, and thematically, with differing views on male desire and its relationship with ambition and cruelty. Both films are also so overpowering on initial watch – for completely different reasons – that repeated viewings feel necessary to fully grasp what you’re witnessing.

This film is a classic slow build that is working and growing on you long after you leave the theatre – or your couch as almost all viewers will see it on Netflix – which is common for most Campion films. She has also created an adaptation that truly sucks you into the story to the point of feeling compelled to immediately read Savage’s novel. This is not a world I particularly want to linger any longer in but is a story I have a deep desire to see how it compares to Campion’s interpretation.

There is a meticulous method to Campion’s unfolding narrative that may leave audiences cool and detached as rarely do moments feel spontaneous, which can work wonderfully in some films but detract from others. The Power of the Dog is a film that may feel expanded upon rewatch, as it takes time to fall into its syncopated rhythms. You could reduce the film down to a psychodrama about toxic masculinity, but that feels ultimately reductive to the work Campion is doing here.

The Power of the Dog is in select theatres now and will be available on Netflix December 1st.

The Green Knight is a Brilliant and Unique Work of Adaptation

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 18 long months, Australian fans of filmmaker David Lowery were rewarded with the release of his critically-lauded feature The Green Knight (2021). The film has had a long Covid-delayed release, from a canceled SXSW debut in March 2020 – a date that feels weightier with each passing month – to theatres pulling the film from the calendar completely. US audiences were finally able to see the gorgeous and beguiling film in theatres in late July, but Australian audiences had to wait three more months before being able to see this wonderful film on Amazon Prime. 

Whether it was this long delay or the enveloping world Lowery has constructed here, but it felt so necessary to savour every moment on screen. Lowery has stated in interviews that this release delay allowed him to go back and edit large swathes of the film, not dissimilar to the eventual creation of Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant The Limey (1999) which involved the director re-editing the film after being dissatisfied after an early screening was shown. Whilst that film was recut with a focus on more experimental uses of editing, The Green Knight found its rhythm in its new cut, “allowing it to breathe” as Lowery describes. This is felt in the extended shots that have become the director’s signature, especially his use of a methodical 360° pan that never fails to draw the audience in (more on that later).

The Green Knight is a work of adaptation that keeps in the spirit of the original chivalric romance’s beguiling nature while also changing many details that are deceptively interesting that are sure to be picked over for years to come. There is a lot of meat on this bone that will propel you to return to the film often (a key bonus to having the film available on a streaming service.)

At the centre of our story is Gawain, a knight played by the wonderful Dev Patel with a mixture of youthful eagerness and unassuredness that propels every moment of the story, accepting the challenge from the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) during a Christmas day celebration in King Arthur’s round table court. Whether you’re familiar with the story or not, Lowery lays out the stakes with an assured pace, moving smoothly into Gawain’s quest for knightly honour, and to discover what that even means to him.

David Lowery is an auteur that works across genres and styles but is firmly rooted in the Del Toro camp of fairytale filmmakers. Whether it’s a grizzled career criminal, a lyrical film poem about the concept of haunting and death, or one of the best live-action Disney films of the 21st century about an orphan and a dragon, Lowery is able to breathe a sense of sincerity and beauty into his worlds, whilst never bogging down in the plots of his stories. The director’s assuredness throughout the film to be comfortable leaving the audience confused for stretches of Gawain’s quest, knowing the emotionality of the film work as a guide rope through the darkness, is wonderful and all too rare in modern American cinema.

The story unfolds patiently, following Gawain’s journey to understanding his own virtue and courage in the face of the inevitability of death. The Green Knight is a story about understanding and respecting the natural order of death and decay, themes that in less deft hands would become overbearing with a sense of mourning and sorrow. Lowery has said that he originally planned on the film to be under two hours but during his re-edit discovered it needed more time to breathe, but it feels necessary to the film’s ability to not be dragged down by its themes or become too oblique as to lose the momentum of the narrative that might’ve occurred if the film stretched into the 150-180 minute range that most period epics sit.

The titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in The Green Knight

One of the most admirable and deeply compelling aspects of the film is Lowery’s use of visual storytelling and sound design in extended sequences that allow the audience to sit with and contemplate the themes and ideas being laid out, something that is quite unique to the cinematic form. In The Green Knight, this sequence arrives at the dead centre of the film as we find Gawain bound in a forest. We are shown this through a patient 360° pan as we see and hear the seasons change around the forest, as well as the growth of green moss consuming the forest, ultimately landing on the bones of a long-deceased Gawain. It invites the audience into being an active participant in the storytelling, asking you to put your own thoughts and emotions into the film that will develop and grow like moss on a forest bed over the duration of the film. Scenes like this can be seen throughout cinema, from the many films of Yasujirō Ozu, the procession scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), and in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul that all allow the viewer to meditate on the ideas of the film while still very much experiencing it.

One of the best things in cinema is when a filmmaker, whether consciously or not, creates a double feature/trilogy in their filmography, thematically linking separate films that go deeper than just their aesthetic sensibilities. It’s impossible not to see the connections between Lowery’s previous two films A Ghost Story (2017) and The Old Man & The Gun (2018) with The Green Knight. All three features have a quest to find the meaning in death, not in trying to outwit it like a Bergman film, but in coming to terms with it and respecting it, both by meeting it head-on and from beyond the pale.

Crafting one of the best cake-and-eat-it ending sequences in recent memory, Lowery is able to convey a rich tapestry fit for the Arthurian legend with a sense of grace that is truly remarkable. While the author of the original chivalric romance is unknown, the author of this adaptation is firmly Lowery, an auteur that is building an extraordinary filmography. Lowery is one of the best American filmmakers to emerge in the last 10 years and is only a year away from the release of his return to Disney with an adaptation of Peter Pan, a dream pairing of storyteller and story that will not disappoint.

The Green Knight is on Amazon Prime now.

The Velvet Underground Found Their Scribe in Todd Haynes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are infinite ways to tell the story of The Velvet Underground. An infinite amount of people have been profoundly influenced and changed by the band, with every individual latching onto different elements from specific moments to the point where the famous Brian Eno quote about the band somehow understates their impact. So if you asked 10,000 filmmakers to capture The Velvet Underground and what makes them personally influential to them, you would be given 10,000 vastly different films. Luckily for us, Todd Haynes is a perfect scribe for the group in his debut documentary film.

In a similar way to Haynes’ extraordinary 2007 Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, many may be left wanting by this documentary if you come to it with your own expectations for what this film should be. If you are deeply versed in The Velvet Underground’s story and want this film to chronicle their entire arc from 1964 to their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996, you will not find that here. If you are seeking a film stacked with unearthed concert footage, unfortunately you will be left disappointed (this would have taken the film to a truly transcendent place but alas, that footage barely exists). If you have only vaguely heard of the band, of the names Lou Reed and John Cale, and only recognise the Warhol banana through t-shirts and couch cushions, I genuinely don’t know how you would feel about this film but you may be left beguiled and full of questions, while also hopefully gaining an understanding of the reverie so many have for the group.

Too often music documentaries focus on either deconstructing the art to the point of banality, or mythologising to the point of absurdity. What makes Haynes’ film so refreshing is his ability to deconstruct individual moments of the Velvets history without removing the artistic mystery that made the band grow as a source of creative inspiration for generations, whilst never overstating that cultural weight. An entire documentary could be made about the bands that owe their entire musical identity to The Velvet Underground – or even just a single song – but that would not create a compelling film and is not something a filmmaker of Haynes’ calibre would create when given the opportunity. Instead, Haynes focuses on the birth of the band and the environment they were sculpting and being sculpted by.

By focusing on the polarity of John Cale’s avant-garde tendencies and Lou Reed’s lyricism and pop sensibilities, Haynes captures what makes the band’s early years so powerful and unique, while never shying away from how those tensions would inevitably divide the group. Haynes further illustrates this polarity through the film’s style. Heavily influenced from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s split-screen feature Chelsea Girls (1966), the documentary constantly shows us two images, sometimes to pair with the narrative of the sequence, but often in stark contrast, made most potent whenever Haynes shows Cale and Reed’s profile footage from The Factory side-by-side.

John Cale (left) and Lou Reed (right) in The Velvet Underground

A master of period filmmaking, Haynes captures the early 60s art moment in New York beautifully. By focusing on the visual and aesthetic elements of the film, Haynes has created a truly visceral project that is rare in documentary filmmaking, especially in the genre of retrospective music documentary. Haynes has curated a filmography out of deconstructing genres and movements from Douglas Sirk to Bob Dylan, while also being able to freeze a moment in amber. One would think a filmmaker that constantly goes back to previous era would fill their films with nostalgia and sentimentality, but what makes Haynes’ films so poignant and fresh is his ability to articulate the universality of stories. The magic trick Haynes is constantly able to pull off in his films is the ability to interrogate a moment heavily while never devaluing it. In a similar way he critiqued while also showing deep admiration to Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes takes a similar approach to the 60s New York art movement, centred around Warhol’s Factory.

An absolute treat of the documentary is the interview with American avant-garde icon Jonas Mekas, who died in early 2019 which had to have been not long after the interview was conducted. Haynes pays great respect throughout the film to the underground and avant-garde movements that inspired him, as well as the icons that inspired Warhol and Cale like Mekas, John Cage, and La Monte Young. You can feel the deep connection Haynes has to this movement and how important it was to the establishment of The Velvet Underground and how it contrasted so heavily with Reed’s pop leanings that created the tension of the band. Tension that ignited into extraordinary music that ultimately drove Cale and Reed apart.

The spectre of Lou Reed is palpable through the documentary which culminates in a piece of fascinating final footage that shows even after everything they went through, he was still close to Cale. The documentary does not aim to dispel the mysteries of the band – an impossible task given the lack of concert footage as well as the ability to interview Reed for the film. A seemingly unknowable person, it is apparent throughout the film that people were hesitant to speak for Lou, making the audience constantly ponder what Reed would think about each moment in their storied history.

The visual splendour coupled with The Velvet’s music makes for a mesmerising experience that would’ve been greatly improved by being viewed in a theatre. The sequences and images of the band playing live at Warhol’s Studio 54 should be projected onto walls, and the slow crawl of the opening sequence set to “Venus in Furs” should be seen and heard in a loud, dark room. It is a sad reality that this opportunity is unavailable to us due to its production through Apple, but at least we got this treasure of a film at all.

The Velvet Underground is on Apple TV+ now.

Becoming Cousteau Documents Jacques Cousteau’s Lifelong Pursuit of the Sea

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Screener provided by Rialto Distribution

It feels somewhat reductive to call Jacques Cousteau an explorer. He was a pioneer, an inventor, a filmmaker, an author, and, at the later stages of his life, a conservationist to say the bare minimum. Sporting his unmistakeable red beanie, Cousteau set out on a lifelong journey to understand the depth of the ocean, which he and his team on the Calypso saw as an endeavour on the scale of space travel. People unfamiliar with his story may recognise his iconography through the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), where Cousteau was the main inspiration for Bill Murray’s titular character, albeit with vastly different personalities.

Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus and a mountain of Cousteau’s own archival footage, this documentary is an honest and, at times, quite moving film about how an individual’s singular passion can be inspiring while also blinding them to the relationships to the people and world they inhabit. The film is neither a pure work of lionisation or exposé like many recent documentaries end up being. Garbus is able to toe that incredibly difficult and constantly shifting line that has made her one of the best in the business in working with subjects of immense cultural weight like Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone.

From the outset, the film strikes you with a certain somber energy, constructed primarily through its voiceover interview delivery as well as the Desplat-esque score from workhorse film composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, furthering the Wes Anderson connection. In a documentary that uses almost entirely archival footage (which is much more effective than a constant barrage of talking heads in hotels), audio is one of two crucial elements Garbus has to involve the audience (the other being the editing), and is where the films grounds itself wonderfully. This gives the film this off-beat energy that never holds your hand into feeling certain emotions while the extraordinary footage of the Calypso’s archival footage crashes over you in waves. This is best illustrated in an early sequence where we are shown actual footage of one of Cousteau’s closest friends, a fellow “musketeer of the sea” Maurice Fargues, which felt somehow both confronting and respectful to the depths they were willing to go to achieve their insatiable goal of exploration.

Jacques Cousteau in Becoming Cousteau

Becoming Cousteau is sequenced in an interesting and poignant way, tracking the transformation of Cousteau from a young passionate man driven to conquer the unknown depths of the ocean, to a seasoned traveller tasking himself with its protection. Garbus does an excellent job shaping Cousteau’s narrative in a cinematic way, from a visionary explorer ahead of his time that was all too often used for his passions by seperate interests (the revelation that the Calypso can be directly linked to the discovery of oil on the Qatari coast felt especially heartbreaking as the film went on), that had to eventually grapple with those earlier decisions.

In the era of the docuseries, it’s hard not to ponder the idea of Cousteau needing an extended runtime to dive deeper into each step of his journey. The films 90-minute runtime oftentimes felt to be moving at warp speed through many nuggets of narrative, from his Oscar and Palme d’Or winning documentary The Silent World (1956) that did The Abyss (1989) two years after James Cameron was born, to his struggles and achievements as a conservationist in his later years. While there is a certain charm to the quick burst documentary film, Becoming Cousteau definitely falters in its execution as a cradle-to-grave story, an issue with most single subject documentary and biopic features, but works well in creating an honest portrait of an inspirational figure that gave us the gift of his own journey on film.

Becoming Cousteau is coming to select national cinemas October 22nd.