Best of 2021: Tom’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 first of our end-of-year articles, Tom Parry will be revealing his ten favourite pictures of 2021.

Unlike his fellow critics at Rating Frames, yours truly has spent the last twelve months away from Melbourne, avoiding protracted lockdowns yet also missing frequent visits to his favourite haunts – no theatre in regional Victoria can match the majesty of a communal screening at Nova, nor can any town provide the satisfaction of a post-cinema burger at one of Naarm’s many fried-food eateries.

This author’s temporary relocation has also meant being unable to see many of the titles listed by his two Melburnian counterparts (which shan’t be spoilt… for now) and as such, the following list is of a lesser quality than theirs. But the pictures below are just as worthy of acclaim, and at the very least, offer a more… egalitarian alternative to Arnel and Darcy’s choices.

10. My Name is Gulpilil

The passing of its main subject in November has given even further resonance to this pick, which was always intended to be his final on-screen appearance; yet even without that knowledge, My Name is Gulpilil remains one of 2021’s best, being a poignant, stirring narrative told by David Gulpilil himself – one that is open, honest and never shies away from his demons. It’s nothing short of a fitting, touching finale to a fixture and icon of the Australian screen.

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

9. Lupin III: The First

Here’s one that hasn’t been covered on Rating Frames, nor anywhere else by this author until now. Given a limited, brief theatrical release here last January – 13 months after debuting in its native Japan – Lupin III is (ironically) the umpteenth feature-length adaptation of the famed manga series; but it is The First to be drawn and animated via computer-generated imagery, looking fantastic whilst remaining true to the original designs of the manga. Witty, energetic and slightly absurd, it’s an adventure well worth seeking.

Currently available on Blu-Ray and select on-demand services.

8. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Sony Pictures Animation is possibly the only studio countering the unassailable dominance of Disney and Pixar right now – where the Mouse House and its subsidiary are producing movies more formulaic than the last, Sony is taking the opposite approach and releasing films that are unique to all others, including their own. There’s much to love about The Mitchells vs. The Machines, chiefly an inimitable art-style and zippy animation, both of which need a large screen to be truly appreciated. (We want that theatrical release, Sony!)

Currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.

7. The Suicide Squad

It should come as no surprise to know that James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is irrefutably better than David Ayer’s similarly-titled, hapless adaptation; indeed, the more surprising feat is how entertaining Gunn’s film is in its own right, not only besting DC’s recent output in terms of action, humour and heart, but also a majority of instalments in the MCU. Eccentric in nature and distinctive from the competition, it’s a gratifying alternative to the superhero norm.

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

6. Nitram

Director Justin Kurzel is no stranger to telling controversial stories, making him the ideal candidate to helm a feature about one of the most chilling events in Australia’s history. Just like his past work, Nitram sees Kurzel handle the sensitive material with restraint and grace, yet he doesn’t shy away from confrontation, demonstrating the brave, bold style of film-making that has been lacking in our industry of late. Be sure to watch for the turns of Judy David and Caleb Landry Jones as well.

Currently streaming on Stan.

5. Judas and the Black Messiah

A biographical drama that benefitted from a delayed and extended Awards season, as well as a powerful debut from an African-American director. There’s an enormous degree of nuance to Shaka King’s Judas, which never defines its characters as good or bad; instead, they’re a group of complex, fluid individuals who constantly evaluate their allegiances and question their choices. And of course, it’s lead by three of the finest actors of their generation, all of whom put forward captivating performances.

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

4. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

The highest-grossing theatrical release of 2021 in Japan, and with good reason. Hideaki Anno bids farewell to his medium-defining franchise by instilling Thrice Upon a Time with all the usual hallmarks – think philosophical screenplay, exquisite animation, haunting imagery, and majestic soundtrack – while easing back on the bleakness and rectifying the drawbacks of its predecessors. The result is a feature-length anime that ranks not only as the best animated picture of the year, but one of the greatest ever made.

Currently streaming on Prime Video.

3. Minari

A darling of Sundance and another latecomer to the 2020 Oscar race, it wasn’t until February of 2021 that the majority of Australians got to experience Lee Isaac Chung’s drama. Those fortunate enough to see Minari were treated to some astonishing performances from a gifted cast; and a pensive narrative, one that will particularly resonate with migrants regardless of where they’ve hailed from, or where they live now.

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

2. Summer of Soul

This music documentary and directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson very narrowly misses out on the top spot in this list, its only faults being some questionable choices for interview subjects, and the varying quality of concert footage. Otherwise, Summer of Soul is close to perfect, an insightful and compelling documentary about African-American pride that doubles as a showcase for the greatest musicians of an era gone by, such as Mavis Staples and Mahlia Jackson (pictured above).

Currently streaming on Disney+.

1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

As an unabashed fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and to a lesser extent, the Spider-Man films – this was always guaranteed to be a personal highlight of 2021; yet even with the enormous hype surrounding it, Jon Watts’ threequel was still able to exceed expectations. No Way Home serves as a tribute to its forebears, drawing inspiration from their examples whilst also functioning as the perfect denouement to three separate franchises, all while not forgetting to be a fun, moving and thrill-laden blockbuster.

Currently screening in theatres; available on home-video March 23rd.

Honourable Mentions: Last Night in Soho, Dune, West Side Story, Amphibia: True Colours

Resurrections is An Ineffectual Matrix Retread

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Reintroducing a franchise to cinemas is always a tricky prospect, but most have found appeal by taking the best attributes of their older films and refining them for a contemporary audience. To be a long-term success though, a series revival needs to be innovative, to offer its viewers something fresh – a criterion this science-fiction reboot fails to meet.

Decades after the liberation of Zion, a group of humans analysing The Matrix witness code belonging to Neo (Keanu Reeves), who was thought to have sacrificed himself during said liberation. This same group of humans enters The Matrix in hope of locating Neo, only to happen across an event eerily similar to Neo’s origin story, and a rogue Agent (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wanting answers to his strange visions.

As it happens, Neo is residing elsewhere in The Matrix, having reverted to his old alter-ego of Thomas Anderson and become an accomplished video-game designer. He has presently been tasked with designing a sequel to his best-selling trilogy of games, a project which is causing him undue stress, leaving him miserable, and triggering memories of his past life – including those spent with his lost love, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Neo’s situation and that of Lana Wachowski, who is returning to the Matrix franchise (sans her sister Lilly) after an 18-year absence. Those comparisons are made most obvious in the dialogue, which provides unsubtle critiques of the discourse surrounding the original trilogy and even disparages fans by rubbishing their theories. Not to be outdone, Lana even throws shade at her corporate overlords, directly mocking them and their insistence on rebooting the series.

Of course, subtlety has never been the modus operandi of the Wachowskis – even in The Matrix (1999), their most celebrated production, the screenplay is quite overt with the religious symbolism and literary allegories, leaving no doubt as to what the film is trying to convey. This philosophy is found in another Wachowski trademark, featured quite prominently in The Matrix Resurrections (2021): lengthy, convoluted monologues that force-feed exposition to the audience and explain everything that is happening, or has happened, in intricate detail.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a Morpheus-adjacent character in The Matrix Resurrections

The unwelcome Wachowski motifs don’t end there, as Resurrections also demonstrates an over-reliance on computer-generated imagery. The visuals here appear to be inspired by George Lucas’ later works, with the machines and environments of Zion particularly lacking in character and detail, with little attempt made to hide their digital origins. For a franchise that’s frequently hailed for its forward-thinking use of CGI, scenes like these are most baffling and embarrassing to witness.

In Matrix films past, these irritants would be offset by the action, incorporating slow-motion, large-scale destruction and an impeccable sense of style to craft a thrilling, inimitable set of fight sequences. Such action is present in Resurrections too, yet it lacks the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing spectacle of scenes like the foyer shootout from the first picture, or the highway chase from The Matrix Reloaded (2003), instead being a succession of bland moments that are indistinguishable from those any other blockbuster released in the past two decades.

Thankfully, there are a couple of improvements over the previous Matrix films, one being the characterisation of the protagonists, who are at their most human here. Resurrections adds a depth, fragility and tenderness to its heroes that was otherwise lacking in the first three instalments, ensuring the viewer’s sympathies in the picture’s more emotional moments and allowing for a more satisfying resolution than The Matrix Revolutions (2003). If only these qualities could be retroactively applied to the original trilogy.

A film with the lineage of The Matrix Resurrections should be a ground-breaking triumph of special effects, grandiose stunt-work and insightful commentary; in its place is a mediocre blockbuster that fails to build upon the legacy of its originator and does not amaze on any level. Still, it’s no more disappointing than the third movie.

The Matrix Resurrections is screening in cinemas nationwide from December 26th.

Afterlife Keeps the Ghostbusters Spirit Alive

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nearly four decades have passed since Canadian director Ivan Reitman first brought a story about middle-aged men hunting ghosts to the big screen, becoming a runaway hit and spawning a franchise in the process. Now his son, Jason has been handed the reins to the series, and produced a movie that ought to make his father, and fans, proud.

Science prodigy Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), her teenage brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and their mother Callie (Carrie Coon) are a family in arrears, forcing a move to the rural outpost of Summerville – an old mining town made interesting only by the unexplained earthquakes that occur daily. There, on the locale’s outskirts, the three will be living in a dilapidated farmhouse inherited from Callie’s deceased father, home to a yard of rusted cars, strange electronic devices, and a spectral presence with an apparent connection to Phoebe.

There’s a great burden borne by Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), a film which serves as a direct sequel to one of the funniest and most-revered blockbusters of the Eighties. The original Ghostbusters (1984) brought together three of the then-biggest names in comedy – Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and Harold Ramis – to produce a film that was equal parts humorous, heartfelt and scary, whilst also being accessible to younger viewers. That’s a huge legacy to live up to, and yet, it’s one that Afterlife comes surprisingly close to matching.

Chief to the appeal of Afterlife is its cast, with every player being a welcome presence. Of all the actors, it’s Mckenna Grace who impresses most, showing great assuredness and sweetness in the role of Phoebe; as the protagonist with the most screen-time, she gets to prove herself quite often. Grace is aided in her performance by fellow youngster Logan Kim as “Podcast”, Phoebe’s Summerville classmate, who constantly demonstrates a level of quick-wittedness and energy beyond his years.

There are plenty of other familiar faces to be seen in Afterlife, most notably the ever-likeable Paul Rudd as Mr Grooberson, a science teacher at Summerville’s public school. But unfortunately, most of these thespians are seen only fleetingly, and aren’t given the opportunity to flaunt the full scope of their abilities – examples include character actor Tracy Letts, given just one scene as the owner-operator of a local hardware store; and Bokeem Woodbine, who barely incites an emotion as Summerville’s sheriff.

Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd) alongside Callie (Carrie Coon) in Ghostbusters: Afterlife

The wasting of certain actors is not the only shortcoming present in Afterlife. Among the others are the pacing, fluctuating between too quick and not quick enough; a screenplay attuned to fan service, containing scenes and gags made solely to appease those who adore the original picture; and the humour, which is lacklustre when compared to the film’s quip-laden 1984 namesake – but then again, most comedies are these days. And, to be truly honest, there are some pretty decent laughs within the script.

A propensity for jokes is just one of the many connections Afterlife shares with its originator. Aside from the plentiful references, such connections include Rob Simonsen’s soundtrack, which takes its cues from Elmer Bernstein’s work; a perfectly-balanced tone that walks the middle-ground between scary and sentimental; and an impressive utilisation of visual effects, with lifelike models and puppetry favoured over digital technology where practical. As a result, the film is very much in-keeping with the spirit of its Eighties predecessor – and by extension, its 1989 sequel.

Happily though, Afterlife is no mere imitation of the pictures which have come before it, doing just as much to craft a legacy of its own. The visual effects, for instance, make clever use motion-capture technology and computer-generated imagery in certain scenes, ingenuity which is bound to inform other franchises with their inevitable remakes and reboots; and then there’s the slight variation in tone which some viewers may deem schmaltzy, but other will find most endearing.

Carried by a bright young cast and a generous helping of nostalgia, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a wholesome picture with all the qualities expected of a modern blockbuster. Although skewed toward those with an investment in the original two films, Jason Reitman’s sequel remains accessible to newcomers, who are sure to find resonance in its touching story.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife will be screening in Australian cinemas from New Year’s Day.

No Way Home Hits All The Right Nostalgic Notes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ambitious crossovers have become the forte of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the point where grand encounters between its heroes are nowadays a given. The latest MCU venture is one that fulfils those expectations, and immediately surpasses them, drawing inspiration from some rather unlikely sources to produce a truly amazing, spectacular blockbuster that enriches the legacy of its namesake.

Following his defeat of an Avengers-level threat in Europe, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been publicly identified as the alter-ego of Spider-Man, and is now being persecuted for his vigilantism. He’s not the only person facing judgement, since friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and M.J. (Zendaya) and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are being hounded by the authorities and the populace for merely being associated with the web-slinger.

Hoping to rectify the situations of those he holds most dear, Peter ventures across New York City and approaches fellow superhero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is versed in the mystic arts. Doctor Strange offers his help by conjuring a spell that will ensure the entire world forgets Spider-Man’s secret identity; but after being botched by Peter’s constant interruptions, Strange’s magic instead unleashes a peril far greater than either hero could ever imagine.

The full ramifications of this wayward conjuration deserve not to be spoiled, suffice to say that it brings to the fore a concept that has long been gestating within Kevin Feige’s MCU: the Multiverse. The notion that every reality is connected to a series of parallel dimensions was initially floated by Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016), teased in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) and eventually confirmed as canon in the Disney+ series Loki (2021), before being effectively applied to the animated series What If…? (2021).

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Spider-Man: No Way Home

There are, of course, other Marvel-branded projects that have utilised a multiverse-spanning narrative, most notably the feature-length animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). With said film being a critical and commercial success, there would be every temptation for this live-action production to emulate its greatest strengths, and in some instances it does – there’s certainly an influence in the self-referential humour. But the latest Spider-Man flick is certainly no facsimile of its animated counterpart, since it owes more to its live-action forebears.

In truth, the films that best inform Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) are those of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007), and not just for… the obvious. Raimi’s movies – yes, even the maligned third chapter – triumphed by instilling heart into the conflict, humanising the antagonists with their personal struggles and adding tender, delicate moments that kept the narrative grounded. Similar, if not identical, attributes are present in No Way Home, which keeps an eye on the finer details and constantly looks for the good in others, no matter what their failings are.

This heartfelt tone is not the only quality present in the screenplay, for there are plenty more smarts contained within. Most impressive is how coherent and easy to follow the narrative is, succinctly establishing the conflict and deftly balancing a multitude of characters who each have their own arcs, all of which is done without No Way Home spiralling into an incongruent, slapdash mess. Additionally, the script has a fair amount of emotional heft, with one or two scenes being among the most poignant this franchise has ever produced.

Part of the reason why these moments hit so hard is because of the performances, with just about every actor providing a phenomenal turn. Undoubtedly, the thespians who leave the greatest impression are those who play the villains from alternate universes, their portrayals being an adroit balance between cheesy and sinister, while not forgetting to convey the tenderness in their characters. What’s more, everybody in the cast has fantastic chemistry with one-another, despite most having not shared the screen previously.

The Iron Spider suit, as seen in Spider-Man: No Way Home

All of these traits pleasingly help to distinguish No Way Home from the many other Marvel blockbusters; but even so, this is still a picture tied firmly to the MCU, sharing various components with the two prior Spider-Man films to ensure that the look, tone and sound of this chapter is in keeping with what audiences are accustomed to, whilst also paying homage to its earlier precursors – for instance, the orchestral score of returnee Michael Giacchino incorporates elements of Danny Elfman’s work in the Raimi trilogy, as well as James Horner’s compositions for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Although No Way Home is unquestionably a very pleasing affair, it’s not a faultless one. The most pressing of these faults is the film’s pacing – during the first two acts, the story flows briskly yet smoothly, before slowing right down as it heads into the third act and loosing steam altogether by the epilogue. Of further annoyance is the lengthy conversations had between characters in this final act which not only contribute to the slowness, but also ensure that it feels needlessly bloated.

There are other quibbles to be had with No Way Home, including the humour, which is funnier than Far From Home yet never reaches the comedic heights of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Into the Spider-Verse. And while the plot can be followed without having to revisit every previous Spider-Man film, its numerous revelations and throwbacks aren’t going to be as satisfying nor as rewarding for uninitiated viewers. But these are only minor problems when compared to the issues of pace, and even they aren’t enough to spoil enjoyment of the picture.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a euphoric celebration of Marvel’s web-slinging superhero, one that cheekily yet adoringly pays homage to the films that came before it. With a humanist screenplay that deftly balances multiple characters, and an all-star cast at the peak of their talents, this blockbuster represents another fantastic entry in the MCU, and an utter treat for Spider-Man fans of any generation.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

David Gulpilil: Ten Defining Performances

Content Warning: First Nations readers are advised that the following article contains the name and likeness of a person who has died. Both are respectfully used with the permission of the deceased’s family.

Last week, Australia and the world mourned the loss of an eminent, indelible fixture in the medium of cinema. The artist, David Gulpilil Ridjimiralil Dalaithngu, was born and raised in the Mandhalpuyngu clan, plucked from obscurity to appear in a motion-picture, and later became an informal ambassador for his Indigenous culture through his traditional dance, painting and public speaking.

But of course, David Gulpilil (as he’s most often credited in projects) is best recognised as an actor, having appeared in some of the most iconic Australian movies and delivered one fantastic performance after another. In honour of his memory, Rating Frames has put together a list of the ten roles that best shaped and defined his career, all of which are essential viewing for anybody who considers themselves a fan of Australian cinema.

Walkabout (1971)

In his debut role, filmed when he was just a teenager, Gulpilil plays an Aborigine on “Walkabout”, an adolescent ritual where a boy must traverse the bush alone in order to achieve manhood; on his journey, the teenager happens across a white girl the same age as he (played by Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son) both of whom come to rely on him for survival.

Walkabout is often cited, wrongly, as the first picture to star a First Nations actor; and the first to have a Black performer in the role of an Aborigine, rather than in blackface – it’s beaten to each milestone by Jedda (1955) and The Overlanders (1946) respectively. But, it is the first known instance of Indigenous Australian culture being accurately and respectfully represented in a feature-length film, which Gulpilil does almost effortlessly.

Storm Boy (1976)

Gulpilil’s next feature-length role came five years later, a picture based on Colin Thiele’s junior novel of the same name. This crowd-pleasing affair centres on Mike (Greg Rowe), a boy who lives with his reclusive father Tom (Peter Cummins) on the Coorong – the wetlands that separate the Murray River from the Southern Ocean – and his friendship with a pelican he names Mr Percival.

The character that Gulpilil portrays here is Fingerbone Bill, a local Aborigine who befriends young Mike and becomes his mentor. His performance is more energetic and upbeat when compared to that in Walkabout, and yet, the actor demonstrates the same relaxed and natural presence in front of the camera. (Incidentally, Storm Boy would be adapted again in 2019, with Gulpilil quite fittingly playing the father to Fingerbone Bill.)

Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

The same year that Gulpilil appeared in the family-friendly Storm Boy, he also starred – alongside Dennis Hopper (pictured above, right) – in a violent, confronting biopic set during Australia’s colonial era. In said biopic, Gulpilil plays an accomplice and confidant to the titular bushranger, guiding him through unfamiliar terrain and abetting his crimes.

Mad Dog Morgan is an example of the “Meat Pie Western”, a term affectionately given to an Australian production that utilises the tropes of a Hollywood Western. Its success, both at home and internationally, helped spur the New Wave of antipodean cinema and gave rise to numerous imitations in the decades that followed; one such example is The Proposition (2005), which featured Gulpilil in a minor role as an interpreter.

Crocodile Dundee (1986)

Here’s a movie that needs no introduction. It’s the worldwide box-office smash that made Kakadu a top holiday destination for tourists locally and abroad, renewed interest in Australia and its culture, and transformed Paul Hogan from a TV larrikin to an international star. Neville is the character Gulpilil plays here, who meets with friend Mick Dundee (Hogan) and American journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) on his way to a Corroboree – a ceremonial gathering of First Nations peoples.

The briefest of Gulpilil’s roles on this list, and possibly the one he’s recognised most-widely for, Neville is viewed as the embodiment of modern Indigenous culture; caught between modernity and tradition, practising the ways of his ancestors while also adhering to the white man’s norms – it’s most evident in his appearance, with Neville seen wearing traditional face-paint with jeans and a wristwatch.

The Tracker (2002)

The first film to credit Gulpilil as a lead performer, this low-budget drama tells of an Indigenous man tasked, at the behest of the white authorities, with locating a fellow Aborigine accused of murder. Ironically, the actor performed in a very similar role for Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (also 2002) albeit as a supporting player with less screen-time – and hence, is never given the opportunity to truly flex his acting chops.

The Tracker marked Gulpilil’s first collaboration with director Rolf de Heer, and netted him an AFI Award for Best Actor. It’s an accolade that’s rightfully deserved, for he does well to convey the conflicted emotions of his character – the apprehension, fear, guilt and anger, sometimes all at once – and does so with an unflinching ease, outshining all of his co-stars in the process.

Ten Canoes (2006)

Following the success of The Tracker, Gulpilil and de Heer reunited for another narrative, and a particularly ground-breaking one at that. It’s a tale of sacrifice, leadership, covetousness and warfare that takes place before European settlement, is spoken in the Yolngu Matha language and features a cast of First Nations actors in traditional dress. As a result, Ten Canoes is the most authentic representation of a nomadic, tribal lifestyle ever put to film.

Unlike his two other partnerships with de Heer, Gulpilil doesn’t make a physical appearance on this occasion, with his son Jamie (pictured above) playing the lead instead. But the elder Gulpilil still has a presence in Ten Canoes, taking on the role of narrator in both the English and Yolngu Matha versions of the picture, complete with his trademark energy and dry wit.

Australia (2008)

Baz Luhrmann’s Northern Territory-set epic was much-hyped at the time of its release, stirring the emotions of many an Australian with its allusions to the Stolen Generations and re-enactment of the World War II bombing of Darwin. Also generating hype was a star-laden cast that included the two biggest Australian thespians of the day, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, in addition to David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Ben Mendelsohn, Jack Thompson and, of course, Gulpilil.

The latter plays an Indigenous elder known to the white settlers as King George, who’s also the grandfather of Nullah (Brandon Walters), the half-caste child adopted by Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman). ‘Tis a more restrained and mostly silent performance from the venerable actor, one that doesn’t make full use of his abilities; but his presence in this big-budget, Hollywood-backed blockbuster did, at least, immortalise him as a legend of the Australian screen.

Charlie’s Country (2014)

The years that followed Luhrmann’s Australia were some of the most turbulent for Gulpilil, who spent time in jail for physical assault and as such, failed to find work. His experience in prison, and in poverty, would eventually inform his third collaboration with de Heer, in which he plays a semi-fictionalised version of himself named Charlie. It’s a deeply personal narrative, yet one that resonates widely, for his story is reflected in First Nations communities across Australia.

Charlie’s Country had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, with the lead winning an award for his performance as part of the Un Certain Regard program; this feat would later be replicated at that year’s AACTA Awards, with Gulpilil winning Best Actor for a second time. More importantly though, the film revived Gulpilil’s dormant career, ensuring that audiences hadn’t seen the last of his talents.

Goldstone (2016)

A contemporary take on the Meat Pie Western, Goldstone is a sequel to Ivan Sen’s excellent Mystery Road (2013) and sees journalist-turned-actor Aaron Pedersen return to the role of Detective Jay Swan. This story has Swan working undercover, attempting to locate a missing person in a remote mining community; and, just like its precursor, examines issues of prejudice and corruption in regional townships.

Harking back to his roles in Mad Dog Morgan and Storm Boy, here Gulpilil plays a sage elder who guides Jay through the landscape and tells legends of his ancestors. The part is rather unassuming, but nevertheless, Gulpilil lends it a gravitas that only a performer of his calibre can, being a charming and welcome presence as per usual.

My Name is Gulpilil (2021)

“This is my story, of my story,” says a gravel-voiced Gulpilil as he fixes his eyes on the viewer, wearily but warmly. Produced and narrated by its very subject, this tender, intimate documentary recounts the significant events in Gulpilil’s life, observes his routine as a cancer patient and ponders what his legacy will be once he departs this world.

Even before his untimely death, this was always intended to be Gulpilil’s final on-screen role, but is no less impressive, leaving the viewer transfixed throughout. Gulpilil is at his most vulnerable, physically and emotionally, yet still manages to deliver an insightful, compelling tale about himself, a testament to his abilities as a storyteller. For those reasons, this raw portrait has earned a place as one of the greatest performances of David Gulpilil’s fifty-year career.

The Last Duel Captivates, Though Only In Parts

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

There are very few directors whose name alone is a drawcard for the masses, but Ridley Scott is one who can be considered among that company. Most recently, Scott’s touch has been applied to this medieval-set picture, drawing upon his wealth of experience to form a reasonably engrossing, if imperfect movie.

In 14th Century France, a squire and solider of the King is accused of sexual assault by a noblewoman, an act he empathically denies. The lady’s husband, a knight, supports her claims and demands justice, challenging the accused to a trial by combat – a duel to the death. Should the knight win, his wife’s accusations shall be seen as true to the eyes of God and her honour restored; should the squire win, he shall be deemed innocent, and his accuser punished for dishonesty.

Although the premise of The Last Duel (2021) is straightforward, its narrative structure wishes to be anything but, being non-linear in manner and split into three chapters, each focused on a different character. The first chapter’s subject is Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), the accuser’s husband; the second Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the alleged perpetrator and estranged friend of Sir Jean; and the third Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the alleged victim.

In each of these three parts, the story is told from the perspective of the subject and what they deem to be “The Truth”. It’s a noble and rather interesting approach, yet one that’s ultimately pointless, since the film is more or less convinced that Lady Marguerite’s account is absolute fact; thus, the perspectives of the other two men are rendered null and void, an unnecessary distraction from the main conflict. Had it dispensed of its all-sides-considered angle, and instead stuck with a singular, cohesive plot, The Last Duel would be just as compelling, if not more so.

Adding to woes, the picture devotes an inordinate amount of time to establishing the relationship between Jacques and Sir Jean, which does little to advance the plot – watching these chivalrous exchanges, viewers get the sense that Lady Marguerite’s assault is an event of secondary importance to the narrative, despite it being billed as the main conflict. Admittedly, there is some appeal in listening to their eloquent, well-spoken dialogue, but this soon becomes tiresome, paling in comparison to the film’s other merits.

Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, left) and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) prepare for their battle in The Last Duel.

One such merit is its world-building, with The Last Duel having fashioned a vast, enchanting and rather accurate medieval setting for its characters to inhabit. There’s no shortage of beautiful scenery, with the feature having been shot on-location in Ireland and France; the meticulous set design adds further to the realism, as do the costume designs of Janty Yates – a regular collaborator of director Ridley Scott – who adorns the characters in era-appropriate fabrics and all other manner of regalia. Truly, this is the closest a Hollywood production can come to being an authentic recreation of the feudal era.

It’s a view that’s further enforced by the knightly battles that Sir Jean and Jacques partake in. These action sequences of clashing swords and armour-clad soldiers on horseback are littered throughout The Last Duel, evoking Scott’s work on Gladiator (2000) and warranting praise for being tense, brutal and expertly choreographed. Yet more excitement is generated through the close-up cinematography and terrific sound editing in these scenes, allowing viewers to feel that they are very much part of these violent encounters.

Eliciting just as much satisfaction are the performances of the leads, both the young and not-so-young. Adam Driver and Jodie Comer are their usual luminous, unflappable selves, once again providing turns that belie their age and experience; Matt Damon is also solid, though the same cannot be said for his impression of a British accent. Surprisingly, the highlight is actually Damon’s producing partner and real-life buddy Ben Affleck, whose carefree, amusing and somewhat irreverent effort as Count Pierre d’Alençon constantly brings a smile to the face.

Through its acting, direction and vivid replication of the medieval era, The Last Duel manages to be an intriguing drama with serviceable thrills. Ridley Scott’s film is not a masterpiece by any means – the male characters are given too much focus, and the plot’s chaptered structure is somewhat pointless – but nonetheless is a reminder of why he’s considered one of the industry’s greats.

The Last Duel is currently screening in select cinemas.

Port Arthur Gets the Snowtown Treatment in Nitram

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Australia has long had difficulty reconciling with its past, whether it be pertaining to its colonial practices, its treatment of First Nations peoples, or its storied xenophobia. This biographical picture explores a more recent chapter in the country’s dark history, one that’s bound to provoke discomfort, yet is worth sitting through all the same.

A disaffected young man (Caleb Landry Jones) lives in the outer suburbs of Hobart, Tasmania with his cold, domineering mother (Judy Davis) and lackadaisical father (Anthony LaPaglia), ostracised by society and dependent on others to care for him. His only source of compassion is Helen (Essie Davis), an older woman whose fondness for him is eclipsed only by her passion for Gilbert & Sullivan operas; but like everybody else, she has limits for his eccentric behaviour.

Nitram (2021) is a veiled portrait of Martin Bryant, who is infamously and inextricably linked with the slaughtering of innocent people at the historical Port Arthur convict settlement in 1996. Interestingly, although Bryant is the narrative’s central figure, at no point does the film refer to him by name, nor does it mention where the atrocity he committed took place, with the focus instead being placed on the moments leading up to the event in hope of understanding the perpetrator’s mindset.

Material of this sort is not new to director Justin Kurzel, who previously helmed the picture Snowtown (2011) to critical acclaim. Said picture is a semi-fictionalised retelling of the Snowtown murders – so-named because of the South Australian locale where the bodies were hidden – that centres on an assailant to the crimes, detailing his troubled upbringing as a reason for his actions. This level of sympathy is somewhat absent in Nitram, since the film is non-committal in deciding who is at fault for the main character’s behaviour.

Similar levels of caution are applied throughout Nitram, being more delicate and poised than its subject matter would suggest – viewers are never shown instances of graphic violence at the hands of the characters, and likewise are spared having to witness the horrific bloodshed inflicted upon people at Port Arthur, ensuring that the picture is respectful to Bryant’s victims. And yet, although instances of violent behaviour are few, they are nonetheless terrifying when they do occur.

Judy Davis, as she appears in Nitram

Another peculiar facet of Nitram is how the story never seems to reach its climax. Like a powder-keg that never ignites, tension slowly and steadily builds throughout, yet that tension is never released, with the conclusion arriving just as the pressure reaches its peak. Amazingly, these last moments prove to be the most eerie and affecting part of the entire picture, with pointed intertitles referencing the proliferation of gun violence, followed by credits that roll to absolute silence.

Of greater fascination are the astounding performances from the main players, including Caleb Landry Jones. The Texan actor’s commitment cannot be faulted, for he speaks with a seemingly-natural Strine, and conveys his character’s vulnerability and underlying cruelty with considerable ease – qualities that rightfully won him Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Nitram had its world premiere. His brilliance is equalled by industry veteran Judy Davis, whose baleful matriarch is sure to earn the scorn of audiences.

Regrettably, the excellence of Nitram is devalued by a poor choice in filming locations, with the Victorian city of Geelong acting as an unconvincing stand-in for Hobart and its surrounds. Aside from one aerial shot of tree-laden hills surrounding an undisclosed body of water, none of the scenery inhabited by the characters shares so much as a resemblance with southern Tasmania, being flat, arid and most unflattering to the eye; what’s more, there’s even a blatant disregard for continuity – at one point, a V/Line train can be seen travelling in the background.

Ignore this laziness though, and what’s left is unequivocally the best Australian production of the year, bar none. Guided meticulously by Justin Kurzel, Nitram doubles as both a gripping biography of a disturbed soul and an effective slow-burn thriller, further bolstered by the phenomenal acting of the leads.

Nitram is currently screening in select cinemas, and will be streaming on Stan from this Wednesday, November 24th.

Eternals is a Rare Misfire for Marvel Studios

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Despite what its very vocal critics say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been afraid to deviate from the norm, frequently toying with its formula to deliver creative and outlandish pictures. More often than not, these risks have paid off handsomely; here though, is a rare example where the deviations don’t work to the material’s advantage.

Several millennia ago, the Celestials – omnipotent forces responsible for the creation of all life within the universe – placed on Earth a group of immortal, superpowered beings known as Eternals, and tasked them with defending humanity from outside forces that impeded their evolution. Said beings are presently living peaceful lives and have not needed to intervene in human affairs for centuries; but after a worldwide tremor, and the re-emergence of an old enemy, they feel compelled to embrace their former roles and defend the planet once more.

Directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, Eternals (2021) is so distinct from its Marvel stablemates that it barely qualifies as a superhero movie, being closer in spirit to a meditation on living purposefully. Throughout the narrative, the protagonists constantly reiterate their vow to not interfere with the evolution of humanity, philosophising whether this stance has resulted in further woes, if they should have done more to ease the world’s suffering, and the consequences of contributing too greatly to the human race’s development.

Other discussions in the film lean more towards the existential, as the ageless characters ponder whether a meaningful existence among mortals is even possible. It’s a struggle best exemplified by Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal who resembles a teenage girl, and as such cannot enjoy all the pleasures that her adult-looking counterparts can; meanwhile, the “older” Eternals struggle to maintain relationships and livelihoods, such as Sersi (Gemma Chan) who cannot commit to her human boyfriend, Dane (Kit Harrington) despite their obvious love for each other.

To place so many philosophical musings in a Marvel flick is a peculiar direction to take, but Eternals is by no means the first in this Universe to do so – that honour belongs to Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016) which drew interest by, among other things, pondering the futility of existence. That’s pretty much where the similarities end though, because where the Sorcerer Supreme’s film balances its existentialism with hypnotic imagery, inventive action sequences and shades of humour, Eternals offers nothing of the sort, resulting in a less exciting, less riveting blockbuster.

From left: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikarus (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Eternals

Zhao’s picture isn’t just weak when compared to Doctor Strange; it’s the weakest instalment in the MCU to date, lacking any of the spectacular elements associated with its forebears. There are no large-scale battles like those in the Avengers movies, nor the tense, close-quarters combat witnessed in the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) or, more recently, Black Widow (2021); it does not possess a jaunty pop-rock soundtrack á la Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and certainly doesn’t share the rich comedic stylings of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Thor: Ragnarok (also 2017).

This insipidness is reinforced by the elongated, gratuitous run-time of two-and-a-half hours – courtesy of the slow pacing – that solidifies Eternals as the second-longest picture in the franchise, behind only Avengers: Endgame (2019). Because of the film’s leisurely flow, there’s no sense of urgency to keep the viewer invested; nor is there a feeling of peril, even when situations are at their most dire. And on top of that, the narrative lacks any rousing, uplifting or showstopping moments, resulting in a tone that is way too sombre for a Marvel-stamped property.

In any other MCU entry, these problems would be alleviated by the efforts of the performers; yet here, not even a cast brimming with Hollywood’s most talented, charismatic actors can improve proceedings. This includes players such as Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, the funny Kumail Nanjiani and the eminently loveable Brian Tyree Henry, all of whom lack the magnetism they usually instil into their roles, and are never given the opportunity to demonstrate just how capable they are. In other words, they’ve all been wasted.  

Mercifully, the experience is not all bad, having been made somewhat bearable by the reasonably stunning visuals, at least by Marvel’s standards. Zhao made a point of prioritising on-location shoots for Eternals, rather than the usual sets and green-screens, and her decision has proven a good one, for the sun-bathed locales – superbly photographed by frequent Marvel contributor Ben Davis – provide a level of beauty hitherto unwitnessed in a superhero movie. Given the large budgets and healthy returns of Marvel’s output, one has to wonder why more of their releases can’t utilise similar techniques too.

Yet despite this splendour, and the nuanced discussions it also possesses, nothing can escape the fact that Eternals is the most tedious, least inspiring entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. The action is underwhelming, the cast under-utilised, and the narrative unsatisfying, drawbacks that are certain to test the most devoted of Marvel fans.

Eternals is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

Daniel Craig Gets a Semi-Rousing Farewell in No Time to Die

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The release of a new James Bond film is always greeted with keen anticipation; on this occasion though, the mood is more solemn, since the latest instalment also heralds the end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as the gentleman spy. While it’s undoubtedly one of the better chapters in the long-running series, when viewed as a tribute to its much-loved star, the picture proves less appeasing.

The British intelligence agency known as MI6 has been compromised, yet again, after an experimental weapon is stolen from one of their top-secret research facilities in London. Its theft has huge ramifications for global security, not just because of the potential harm it can inflict on humanity, but also due to its secrecy, with only a select few individuals being aware of the weapon’s existence – not even Britain’s Prime Minister has been informed of its development.

In years gone by, MI6 would have called upon the services of James Bond (Daniel Craig) to rectify affairs like this; but the secret agent is now long-retired from the organisation, living off-grid and isolated in Jamaica with no desire of returning to duty. That is, until Bond is greeted by his CIA counterpart and friend, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who informs him of the raid’s connection to SPECTRE, the criminal syndicate believed to have been thwarted five years earlier.

No Time to Die (2021) marks the 25th entry in Eon Productions’ James Bond film franchise, the release of which has been a long time coming. Initially set for a global debut in late 2019, delays in development and production saw that date pushed to March 2020, only for you-know-what to see the picture delayed again until September of this year. Australians have had to wait longer still to see the feature, with lockdowns in their two most-populous cities resulting in a six-week delay for the theatrical release.

MI6 agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch) makes her debut in No Time to Die

Those who have been eagerly awaiting Bond’s newest adventure will be pleased to know that No Time to Die has plenty of exciting action sequences, possibly the best of any Bond film. Among these sequences are some ferocious close-quarters encounters with impeccable choreography; intense gun fights between parties that have an unnerving realism; and two sublime car chases – the first through an Italian village in Bond’s iconic Aston Martin DB5, the second an off-road argy-bargy in a decidedly unexotic Toyota Prado.

Long-time fans of the franchise will be equally thrilled by the constant allusions to the previous Bond flicks, including the aforesaid DB5, as well as Timothy Dalton’s V8 Vantage from The Living Daylights (1987), and the occasional musical reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Yet undoubtedly, the most recognisable trademark is Bond’s dry humour, here crafted with the input of another personality known for their sardonic wit: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is credited as one of No Time to Die’s four screenwriters.

Waller-Bridge’s comedic influence can also be found in the two “Bond girls” making their franchise debut. One is the cool, assured Nomi (Lashana Lynch), an MI6 operative and Bond’s replacement; the other is the giddy, yet resourceful Paloma (Ana de Armas) who is contracted to the CIA. The latter is a particular highlight – despite being seen only briefly, Paloma adds a vast amount of liveliness to proceedings with her unique, quirky personality, certifying herself as a protagonist who deserves a larger role in a future Bond instalment.

Although these many qualities help distinguish the 25th film from its precursors, No Time to Die is not one to deviate from the established formula, being closest in spirit to the previous chapter, Spectre (2015). This association is most evident in the lethargic pacing, flowing at a patience-testing speed that ensures the blockbuster seems every bit as long as its advertised 163-minute length would suggest. Still, both pictures remain an improvement on Quantum of Solace (2008) and its rapid-fire editing.

Another of Bond’s allies, Paloma (Ana de Armas) as she appears in No Time to Die

There is a greater problem with No Time to Die, and that’sits chief antagonist, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). In addition to possessing a convoluted plan and opaque motivations, Safin is an uncompelling character, lacking the intriguing backstory, maniacal personality and ruthless mentality of Bond villains past, with a slight facial disfigurement and soft French accent being his only distinguishable traits. Malek himself does nothing to help matters, his performance being bland, remote, and failing to convey even the slightest hint of emotion.

And on the subject of emotion, it’s worth noting that No Time to Die isn’t quite the heartfelt send-off that it’s trying so hard to be. There are numerous stirring moments within the story, yet very few of these moments feel earned, and have seemingly been put forward solely to get a cheap reaction out of the audience. What’s more, because this screenplay forms part of a serialised, five-part narrative, the emotional scenes will only find resonance with viewers who’ve seen Craig’s previous outings as 007.

25 films and very nearly six decades into its existence, the James Bond franchise is one that continues to delight and surprise, with No Time to Die profiting from superbly choreographed action sequences, welcome nods to the character’s past and the contributions of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This may not be the satisfying denouement that Daniel Craig deserves, but it’s a fitting one nevertheless.

No Time to Die will be screening in cinemas from this Thursday, November 11th.

Licence to Steal: The Unofficial Bond Films

Given their ubiquity, changes in cast and wildly varying degrees of quality, casual moviegoers could be forgiven for thinking that the James Bond films are always produced by a different studio, their rights exchanging hands more frequently than Bond himself changes lovers. In actual fact, these rights have stayed with the same two companies for decades, both holding the exclusive licence to adapt Ian Fleming’s stories and characters to celluloid.

Well, almost.

In the six decades since producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli were granted Fleming’s permission to turn his novels into feature-length pictures, there have been 27 films released with Agent 007 as the lead character. 25 of those movies – including the upcoming No Time to Die (2021) – have been made by Eon Productions, a company founded by Broccoli with the sole purpose of creating Bond films; the remaining two have not.

The production and release of these movies was, on both occasions, made possible due to legal loopholes that allowed individuals to circumvent Eon’s authority and craft their own adaptations of Fleming’s works. Neither picture is remarkable, but nonetheless, both are important pieces of cinematic history that contribute to Bond’s legacy, and as of such are worthy of discussion here on Rating Frames.

The first of these two films is Casino Royale (1967) which arrived at the height of James Bond’s popularity and mere weeks before Eon’s You Only Live Twice (also 1967) hit theatres. Its title is shared with Fleming’s debut novel, and not by coincidence – the rights to this book were optioned by American producer Charles K. Feldman, who unsuccessfully tried to adapt the story with Saltzman and Broccoli. When his relationship with the pair fell through, Feldman decided to continue on with the project alone, eventually securing the backing of Columbia Pictures.

Peter Sellers with Ursula Andress in 1967’s Casino Royale

Feldman’s Casino Royale is a picture that deviates wildly from its source material, being a slapstick parody that centres on an older James Bond (David Niven) coming out of retirement to mitigate a crisis at the behest of his former superior. The picture benefitted from a celebrity-laden cast that included not just Niven, but also the likes of John Huston, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles (yes, really!) and original “Bond girl” Ursula Andress, in addition to future stars Woody Allen, Jacqueline Bisset, Ronnie Corbett, Bernard Cribbons and John Bluthal.

Why actors of such calibre wanted to be involved is a mystery, because Casino Royale is an unmitigated mess of a movie, with the pacing being too fast, the screenplay lacking coherence, and the comedy being atrociously unfunny, with just about every gag falling flat. Its only redeeming feature is an irreverent finale that appears to have inspired Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), but even this moment of absurdity proves just as underwhelming as any other scene in the picture.

By comparison, the second of these “unofficial” Bond films is a masterpiece, if only because it possesses a level of competence non-existent in Feldman’s production. The film in question is Never Say Never Again (1983), which owes its existence to screenwriter Kevin McClory. Prior to Saltzman and Broccoli’s acquisition of the film rights, McClory was approached by Fleming to adapt one or more of his books, but instead chose to write an original story with Fleming’s input – a story that was novelised by Fleming and published under the title of Thunderball in 1961.

A middle-aged Sean Connery with a young Kim Basinger in Never Say Never Again

A legal battle between McClory and Fleming ensued, one that went to court and saw McClory awarded damages plus joint authorship of the novel. With this small credit, McClory also had control of the rights to Thunderball, thus gifting him with the power to make his own picture if he saw fit. Those rights were eventually sold to film producer Jack Schwartzman; but since there was already a movie called Thunderball (1966), significant changes were needed to differentiate between the two – most obviously the title.

Never Say Never Again is a virtual rehash of Thunderball’s screenplay, with the fresh cast, updated visuals and the like doing little to disguise this fact; moreover, the newer adaptation is less fun than the Eon production, for it lacks the Sixties aesthetics and fantastic music that make the original picture such a charmer. Yet because it lacks camp and takes itself rather seriously, the film manages to be better than the “official” Bond title released that very same year, Octopussy (1983). Though only just.

In short, both of these movies pale in comparison to their Eon counterparts – one fails as both a compelling spy movie and an astute satire of the source material; the other is serviceable, yet unable to offer anything new or unique. If this author were to place them in our countdown of the other 25 Bond films, Casino Royale would be dead last, while Never Say Never Again would fall between Moonraker (1979) and Licence to Kill (1989), neither of which are 007’s finest hour.

If there’s one positive that can be said about the two unofficial films, it’s that they provide the viewer with a greater appreciation of the Eon-produced pictures, demonstrating the value of Saltzman and Broccoli’s input and why their movies have endured, instead of becoming relics from a bygone era. Or how not to do a Bond flick.