MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Historically, tennis has been a gentleman’s game, and there’s arguably no player who better personifies this philosophy than Arthur Ashe. Embodying this same spirit is a feature-length documentary about the late athlete and activist which, while fascinating and well-told, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Born in the former capital of the Confederacy and raised in the shadow of segregation, Ashe overcame socio-economic disadvantage to achieve a bold ambition he set himself in his youth: doing for tennis what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. On the court, he devoured opponents with an icy elegance and disarming modesty; off it, he was a polite yet passionate advocate for civil rights the world over. His relentlessness continued well into retirement, using his name and voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS – a disease which he himself contracted, with fatal consequences.

It’s quite fitting that Citizen Ashe (2021) should be screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Our city is, of course, home to the Australian Open, the Asia-Pacific’s premier tennis tournament; but it’s also the place where Ashe obtained his last ever Grand Slam title, winning the Men’s Doubles competition with Aussie player Tony Roche in January 1977. Additionally, its showing continues the Festival’s affinity with politically-minded sports documentaries, with previous examples including The Witches of the Orient (2021) and The Australian Dream (2019). That’s right – this is no mere tennis story.

Ashe’s sporting achievements have since been overshadowed by the likes of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, so it’s not surprising that directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard have opted for a greater focus on the politics and social issues that shaped the athlete’s mindset. Insights are provided by the likes of Johnnie Ashe, who discusses his older brother’s upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama and his military service; and Harry Edwards, a former Black Panther who reflects on the tennis star’s passive approach to racism.

What’s most intriguing, and impressive, about Citizen Ashe is how Miller and Pollard tell their story. Fresh interviews with Edwards, Johnnie Ashe and others are woven together with archival video, and audio, of its subject appearing on current affairs programs and chat shows, all of which is expertly edited – to the point where the film negates the need for a dedicated narrator. At times, it’s almost as though Arthur Ashe is speaking directly to the viewer, his soundbites seemingly uttered with this very documentary in mind. And the ingenuity of the screenplay doesn’t end there.

Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Johnnie is one of the talking heads in Citizen Ashe

Every good tale needs an adversary, and Ashe has one in Jimmy Connors. Having emerged on the tennis scene just as Ashe was reaching his peak, Connors appears to be everything that his counterpart isn’t, a man who’s strong, brash and loud – he’s widely recognised as one of the first “grunters” in the sport. Connors’ game-changing techniques contrast with the more traditional, tactical approach of his rival, making him the Connors is the James Hunt to Ashe’s Niki Lauda, or the John McEnroe to the other’s Bjorn Borg. So intriguing is this rivalry that it could be a fascinating movie or mini-series on its own.

The same could be said for the rest of the documentary, for that matter. Every aspect of Ashe’s extraordinary life – whether it be his childhood, his studies in California, his military service, his visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, his coaching of the American Davis Cup team, his relationship with John McEnroe, his marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy, or his AIDS diagnosis – is worthy of the feature-length treatment. But instead, Citizen Ashe condenses it all into a 95-minute runtime. While this is a commendable feat, the film needs at least another half-hour to thoroughly study its namesake, and reflect upon his legacy.

As a result of its abbreviated duration, the tone of Citizen Ashe is somewhat remote. His many achievements and milestones are made to feel more like footnotes, never reaching the cathartic highs of other documentaries about the African-American experience, such as Summer of Soul (2021). And in being so emotionally distant, the picture never becomes the profound, moving tale that it ought to be, nor does the viewer feel compelled to emulate its central figure and become a better person – as was the case in The Australian Dream.

Much like the man himself, Citizen Ashe refrains from melodrama, telling its narrative with poise and intelligence. The documentary falters as a tribute to the professional athlete, for it is overly clinical in its delivery, though it does serve some purpose as a neat introduction to those who are unfamiliar with all that Arthur Ashe accomplished in his remarkable, all-too-short life.

Citizen Ashe is streaming on MIFF Play until Sunday, August 28.

Turning Red is a Bold, Welcome Deviation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Critics are fast running out of superlatives to describe the filmography of Pixar Animation Studios. Every release by the company, especially of late, has possessed a rousing soundtrack, heartfelt screenplay, top-notch voice-acting and of course, computer-generated illustrations beyond compare, almost to the point of conformity. That all changes with this production, and for the better.

Toronto resident Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is on the verge of adolescence, lusting after boys she ordinarily wouldn’t and engaging in activities that draw the disapproval of her otherwise doting mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). But puberty is not the only drastic change the youngster is having to contend with – now that she’s a teenager, Mei finds herself transforming into a giant red panda whenever her emotions are heightened, a source of embarrassment greater than any other in her life.

The driving force behind Turning Red (2022) is writer-director Domee Shi who, just like Mei, is a proud Torontonian with Chinese heritage. Shi’s career trajectory is more interesting than most, having joined Pixar as an intern before garnering widespread acclaim with her allegorical short film Bao (2018). After this success, Shi was promoted to Pixar’s “Brain Trust” and given the opportunity to craft her own feature-length production; in turn, the film-maker has concocted the most energetic, inimitable Pixar film yet.

The most distinguishing element of Turning Red is the art-style. While there are shades of Pixar’s influence in the design of the characters and settings, the look of the film is distinct from any of the studio’s previous feature-length productions, a change that is most welcome. Soft colours dominate the architecture of Toronto, and clothing of those who inhabit its surroundings; humans of all sizes and body types interact with one-another, while their faces are adorned with large teeth and pupils that comically dilate or contract depending on their mood.

The animation, too, is a point of difference from other Pixar films. Where in the past, a character would move smoothly and gracefully (one could even say “realistically”), in Turning Red, the movement of the protagonists is quick and frenzied, welcomely leading to some well-timed physical gags that border on slapstick. Adding to this witty and frantic vibe is the editing, which occasionally employs some Edgar Wright-style quick cuts to further discern the picture from its contemporaries. Yet the differences go even deeper than that.

Ming Lee and daughter Meilin are often at odds in Turning Red.

Further distinctions are found in the screenwriting, which matches the vibrancy of Turning Red’s visuals. The plot is narrated in the first-person by a self-aware figure who frequently breaks the fourth wall and wears her geekiness with pride, forgoing the usual stereotype of an introverted, awkward teenager. Likewise, her friends are eccentric, outgoing and unashamedly nerdy, offering the perfect social and moral support – another rarity in coming-of-age tales. Additionally, it’s a tale that feels quite timeless, despite the film’s early-2000s setting.

Yet for all the freshness this script provides, it is stymied by the occasional flaw. One such example is the antagonistic Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), who is underwritten and poorly developed – efforts made by the film to complexify and soften his character are tame at best and confusing at worst. Another letdown is the third act, relinquishing the vim and momentum present elsewhere in Turning Red, slowing events to an underwhelming conclusion, and providing a left-field revelation about Tyler that bears no relevance to the conflict.

The one upside to these blemishes is that they aren’t a common sight in Pixar’s filmography, offering further proof that the team at Emeryville are no longer adhering to a formula or norm. Between this flick and Luca (2021), it looks as though Pixar is shying away from being a safe, comfortable brand and instead following the route of its fellow CGI powerhouses, DreamWorks and Sony in taking risks -– they’re hiring new people, toying with different art-styles and telling more diverse stories.

Turning Red heralds a promising future for Pixar Animation Studios, providing the medium with a fresh and distinctive voice in Domee Shi. Viewers will find themselves drawn to the quirky characters, original story, lively animation and bright illustrations of a stylised Toronto, making for an entertaining and resonant experience regardless of one’s background.

Turning Red is now available on home-video and on-demand services, and streaming on Disney+.

The Secrets of Dumbledore is Fantasy Without The Majesty

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

From the moment a young Harry Potter received his first letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry two decades ago, filmgoers have been rapt by the magical universe of J.K. Rowling and the characters that inhabit it. But ever since the launch of the Fantastic Beasts film series, that admiration has waned, a trend that looks set to continue with the release of an underwhelming third movie.

Several months after the events of The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is recruiting a small group of wizards and witches to defend against the dark forces of his childhood friend and now adversary, Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) who is preparing for a war with the non-magical world. Knowing that his foe can see into the future, Dumbledore has devised a cunning plan to win the battle: confuse Grindelwald by sending his allies on illogical quests.

Perplexing though this plot may seem, it is truthfully one of the better elements of The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022). The script on this occasion is co-penned by Steve Kloves, who previously adapted six of Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels for the screen, and his nous is more than apparent here – gone is the depressing atmosphere and the lazy setting-up of sequels, with both elements replaced by an ever-so-slightly hopeful tone and satisfying resolution to the conflict.

On the subject of replacements, there is none better in the third Fantastic Beasts than Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Unlike his predecessor Johnny Depp, who appeared bored and disinterested in the role, Mikkelsen appears to relish playing Grindelwald, with a wry smile and twinkle in his eye apparent every time he carries out a devilish deed. More to the point, there’s a charisma to his performance that was lacking in Depp’s portrayal of the antagonist, providing a reason as to why his followers are drawn to him, as well as Dumbledore’s love.

And that, unfortunately, is where the praise ends.

Although there are certain areas where it improves over the first Fantastic Beasts (2016) and its sequel, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a tepid affair, doing little to build upon the Harry Potter legacy. This is largely the fault of director David Yates, who has once again failed to imbue this world with any sense of majesty, and likewise proved incapable of adding a sense of flair to distinguish his work from all others. Knowing this, one must wonder why the producers continue to believe he is the best person to inspire a new generation of Potterheads.

Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) is the lone bright-spot of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Perhaps Yates’ biggest misstep is his inability to manage tone, which is best exemplified in a sequence where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) must break his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) out of prison. In one moment, Newt must bypass a group of vicious creatures by imitating their crablike walk, complete with a corny, screwball soundtrack; the next, a vicious beast is spewing magma at the escaping siblings. So disparate are these changes that this author suspects studio interference may have played a role.

The issues extend beyond the monotonous direction of Yates, since The Secrets of Dumbledore is riddled with them in all other departments, too. Even with the involvement of Kloves, the screenplay is not great, being heavy on exposition and rather bloated; the visual effects are neither special nor convincing, even by the standards set twenty years ago; and the soundtrack of James Newton Howard lazily references the Harry Potter motifs of old, presumably in a desperate bid to generate nostalgia.

None of this bodes well for the future of the Fantastic Beasts series, which is already reeling from the aggressively transphobic views of Rowling, and looks to be dented further after its dismal box-office returns. If this franchise is to continue with a fourth and fifth instalment as originally planned – which seems unlikely, if the ending is any indication – then Warner Bros. should consider hiring a fresh set of eyes, a new team who can rekindle the magic of the early Harry Potter films and provide the sort of wide-eyed wonder that it sorely needs.

Yet the fact remains that after three attempts, any flaws this franchise held should have been rectified by this point, which quite simply isn’t the case. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is blockbuster film-making at its laziest, being monotonous, remote, and possessing only the palest hint of cheer. Not even the presence of Mads Mikkelsen can save this picture from being a stinker.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

West Side Story is a Surprisingly Endearing Remake

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Steven Spielberg has done just about everything in his five-decade career, from horror to comedy, science-fiction to historical drama. Yet until now, there is one genre that Spielberg has not ventured into, and after seeing the final product, viewers will be left scratching their heads as to why the legendary director waited so long to do so.

In the late Fifties, amidst a period of gentrification in New York City, tensions between working-class communities are at their peak – principally the Italian-American adolescents, known collectively as the Jets, and the Puerto Rican youths called the Sharks. Caught between this feud are two star-crossed lovers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) whose adoration for one another risks causing an even greater rift between these warring factions.

Originating as a Broadway production, Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) is the second motion-picture adaptation of the celebrated musical, the first having originated in 1961 under the direction of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The 2021 version contains plenty of homages to its film and stage forebears, the costuming being such an example – colours help to distinguish where the loyalties of the characters lie, with the Sharks being dressed in warmer colours like reds and oranges, while the Jets typically wear blue clothing.

Another, more obvious link is the soundtrack, originally composed by Leonard Bernstein with Stephen Sondheim, and re-arranged here by David Newman. None of the songs contained within have lost their charm nor their infectiousness, so even those who’ve never seen West Side Story before are bound to recognise iconic numbers like “Maria”, “Tonight” and “America”. And further connection is made through Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Anita, who in Spielberg’s version plays the role of Valentina, a gender-swapped Doc – the shopkeeper who mentors Tony.

Although adapting a six-decade-old musical may seem a retrograde step for a legend like Spielberg, the director does plenty to keep the material fresh. For one, it atones for the lack of representation in Wise & Robbins’ production by casting actors with Puerto Rican, Latin-American and Hispanic heritage as the Sharks – actors like Rachel Zegler, who shines in her film debut as Maria; David Alvarez as Maria’s hot-headed brother Bernardo; and Ariana DeBose, rightfully tipped as the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor gong at this month’s Academy Awards.

In recent months, much of the criticism surrounding West Side Story has involved Ansel Elgort in the lead role of Tony. Although not as insufferable as some commentators are suggesting him to be – his performance isn’t half bad, and his singing is rather impressive – Elgort’s presence is something of a sore-point for the film, given the allegations of assault and grooming of a minor that linger over him. But even if said allegations can be ignored, the fact remains that Elgort doesn’t possess the natural charisma of, say, a young Hugh Jackman or Ryan Gosling to carry the role of Tony.

The Jets face-off against the Sharks in West Side Story

Such a casting decision speaks to Spielberg’s lack of experience when it comes to directing musicals, which is evident elsewhere in his West Side Story too. Although there is a flamboyance to proceedings, it’s not consistent, with some scenes possessing a level of dourness that is endemic of Spielberg’s recent output; additionally, the film has a weird placement of songs – for instance, one upbeat number sung by Maria and her fellow Sharks takes place immediately following the death of a major character.

Problems like this may explain why West Side Story wasn’t the hit that 20th Century Studios hoped it would be. The Omicron wave has undeniably had an impact as well, yet in this reviewer’s eyes, Musical Fatigue is the reason for this picture’s shunning by the masses. Recently, there’s been a saturation of musicals not witnessed since the genre’s heyday, with Spielberg’s film arriving within months of films such as Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen, Disney’s Encanto, Sony’s Vivo, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! and John M. Chu’s In the Heights.

Talking of the latter, one of the more pointed traits Spielberg’s West Side Story shares with Chu’s In the Heights is a substantial amount of Spanish dialogue, none of which is translated by text – the normal practice in this medium. Such an approach is fine in the United States, where Spanish is spoken or at least learnt by most of its inhabitants; but in a country like Australia – where most people don’t speak Spanish, nor are exposed to it in their everyday life – most viewers would benefit from the so-called barrier of subtitles to understand what is being said.

Yet even with the lack of English translations, and other gripes besides, West Side Story easily ranks as the best musical of 2021. There’s a vibrancy to the choreography and visuals that is lacking in most contemporary live-action musicals, the decades-old numbers barely need updating, and the story remains as charged, moving and timely as it was all those years ago. More importantly, the film is comforting proof that Steven Spielberg still has that magic touch, even as he enters his sixth decade working in the industry.

What’s here is more than remake of a renowned musical. With a terrific cast and welcome throwbacks, this is a vibrant adaptation that pays tribute to its originators whilst doing more than enough to differentiate itself for the better. And of course, it boasts the direction of a venerable artist who rarely ever falters – one can only hope that West Side Story isn’t the last musical to be directed by the Great Man.

West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+.

The Stylish, Scary Last Night in Soho is Horror Done Right

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a great anxiety or even terror that comes with moving to a new place, but especially for females, since they are more likely to fall victim to perverts and predators who seek to take advantage of them. This horror film is one that brilliantly plays to those fears, benefitting from the helmsmanship of an ever-solid director.

Cornish teenager Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is leaving her rural home for the bright lights and bustling streets of London, where she hopes to fulfil her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Her romanticised notion of the city is tarnished upon arrival, with leering cab drivers, conniving roommates and loud dorm parties all making her experience an unpleasant one, forcing her to move off-campus and into a dingy flat.

Ellie’s new accommodation brings with it a series of strange dreams that transport her back to 1966 and into the body of Sandie (Anja Taylor-Joy) – a blonde who aspires to be a famous singer in West End. Initially, Ellie is enamoured by Sandie’s world and the characters that inhabit it; yet within days, these slumber-induced visions become increasingly nightmarish, before creeping their way into Ellie’s everyday life.

Last Night in Soho (2021) marks a long-awaited return to horror for director Edgar Wright, who has not dabbled in the genre since Shaun of the Dead (2004), the comedic blockbuster that garnered him worldwide fame. Not that he’s completely disassociated himself from the field, mind – in the intervening years, Wright has helmed films such as the buddy-cop parody-pastiche Hot Fuzz (2007) and the humour-laced science-fiction The World’s End (2013), both of which contain horror elements without being outright scary.

Wright’s latest feature, meanwhile, is one that’s crafted to frighten everybody and anybody, even viewers who aren’t usually startled by horror movies. The nameless monsters of Last Night in Soho are some of the most creative and original in years, ranking among the creepiest ever witnessed in the medium. What’s more, Wright is also able to generate scares by leaning quite heavily into the horror genre’s tropes, smartly utilising the clichés seen in countless other films and then subverting them – it’s rather clever stuff.

Jack (Matt Smith) in Last Night in Soho

The cast is excellent too, with great acting from all involved – praise that applies to rising stars McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, the relatively-unknown Michael Ajao, octogenarian Terence Stamp with his sinister aura, and the late Diana Rigg in her final on-screen performance. Yet of all the thespians, it’s Matt Smith who impresses most as Jack, the sharply-dressed, well-spoken London gent who grooms Sandie into becoming part of his seedy empire, his evilness becoming more pronounced as he does.

Long-time fans of Wright’s work will be gratified to know that his affinity for music has not been lost, since Last Night in Soho is paired with a fantastic soundtrack, as per tradition for the director. Tying into Ellie’s affinity for all things retro, there’s a wide array of Sixties pop songs to be heard – some that are familiar to the ear, others more obscure – that contribute to a fun, upbeat atmosphere; and when proceedings are creepier, Wright utilises the talents of composer Steven Price, who delights once again with a neat orchestral soundtrack.

While Last Night in Soho is undoubtedly a great film, there are some faults that prevent it from being perfect. The most glaring of these flaws is a persistent bugbear of Wright’s, that being a predictable screenplay, with the twists and revelations being rather easy to foresee. Of smaller consequence is the comparatively sedate direction of Wright, who has shown more liveliness and flair in releases past, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and Baby Driver (2017).

Regardless, this is still a fun romp that satisfies anybody in need of a good scare. With a fantastic soundtrack, cast, monsters and ability to generate dread, Last Night in Soho represents yet more excellence from one of the most creative, eclectic and original blockbuster directors working today.

Last Night in Soho is available now on home-video and on-demand platforms.

Behold the Ineffectual Sequel, Death on the Nile

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

There’s never been a crime writer quite like Agatha Christie. Her countless novels about pompous aristocrats meeting grisly ends have captivated millions of readers, and become the template for all murder-mysteries that have followed, ensuring her the undisputed Queen of the Whodunit. Christie’s legacy is further cemented by the multiple adaptations of her work, with this picture being one of the poorer examples.

Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is sightseeing in Egypt when he encounters Bouc (Tom Bateman), an acquaintance from a previous case. Guy tells Poirot that he is in Northern Africa to attend a wedding between the wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her working-class fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) who met only a matter of weeks prior in a London club – a meeting which, coincidentally, Poirot himself happened to observe.

The moustachioed sleuth is promptly invited by Guy to join the festivities, only for the celebrations to be dampened by the arrival of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), the ex-partner of Simon. Wanting to avoid the scornful gaze of his former lover, Simon and Linnet hire a paddle-steamer for the wedding party, Poirot included, to cruise the River Nile; but the danger is just as great on-board, because there are several guests who also have their grievances with the newlywedded couple.

Death on the Nile (2022) is the second of Christie’s mysteries to be adapted by Kenneth Branagh, who previously helmed and starred-in Murder on the Orient Express (2017). The director once again plays the lead role of Poirot, and is joined by an ensemble cast of comedians (Russell Brand, Dawn French), young thespians (Ali Fazal, Rose Leslie), Britons playing American characters (Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders) and, weirdly, Americans portraying British characters (Annette Benning, plus the aforementioned Hammer).

Like Orient Express, it’s a rather strange mix of talent that Branagh has opted to work with, and some of those choices are more peculiar than most. Chief among that cohort is Benning, who gives a decent performance as Bouc’s mother Euphemia, yet does so with a wavering, semi-convincing accent that proves a constant distraction – surely, she’d be better suited to playing the Marie Van Schuyler, as that character is an American; but instead, that role is inhabited by Britain’s own Jennifer Saunders, whose own accent is nothing to write home about.

Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile

Nor, for that matter, is the remainder of Nile, which pales when compared to its precursor in most respects. The warmth, quirkiness and verve present in Orient Express is lacking here, replaced with an overly-serious tone that allows no room for amusement; the pacing is woefully slow, with too many minutes spent delivering exposition; and the orchestral soundtrack of returning composer – and Branagh’s favoured collaborator – Patrick Doyle is even more bland and less inspiring than last time.

Yet by far the biggest grievance to be had with Death on the Nile is the awful digital effects. Oftentimes, on-location shoots in the natural beauty of Egypt are eschewed in favour of studios and a green-screen backdrop, with computer-generated environments added in post-production and zero effort made to disguise this fact. It’s not just the landscapes that are animated with computers, but the steam-boat too, its visuals rendered with such low quality that they rival the sweeping shots of the ill-fated cruiser in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) for realism.

Blessedly, not all of Nile is appalling to witness. The costume designs of Paco Delgado are great, with the men looking particularly dapper in their colourful three-piece suits; the set design is reasonably attractive too, particularly the construction of the paddle-steamer’s interior. In terms of the narrative, Michael Green’s screenplay is mostly faithful to Christie’s book and remains absorbing, but the outcome will be obvious even to those who aren’t familiar with the story.

Although not without its pleasures, Death on the Nile is a rather insipid adaptation of a beloved Agatha Christie text. Kenneth Branagh’s sequel is marred by odd directorial choices, below-par effects and a general sense of dullness, stifling what should be an otherwise gripping tale. Cinemagoers are best advised to save their money and wait for the inevitable television screening, or arrival on Disney+.

Death on the Nile is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

Wes Anderson Triumphs Again with The French Dispatch

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

He’s a director who shouldn’t need an introduction. As one of the few, true auteurs actively working in Hollywood and certainly the most popular, Wes Anderson’s name has become shorthand for offbeat, idiosyncratic cinema, and drawn a legion of passionate followers. And for those same devotees, or even newcomers to his filmography, his latest picture is nothing short of enjoyable.

The year is 1975, and in the village of Ennui, France, an American literary journal known as “The French Dispatch” is about to publish its final issue ever. Among the articles planned for its pages are an essay from Ms. J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) about incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro); details of a student uprising through the eyes of Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand); and the words of Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as he recounts the kidnapping of a policeman’s son.

Anderson’s film is a visual depiction of these magazine stories, with each writer serving as a narrator for their respective pieces. All three reports are told from a contemporary perspective, with happenings in the present bathed in the auteur’s trademark pastels and those of the past in greyscale, which is occasionally livened by splashes of colour. While Anderson purists may bemoan a dearth of vibrant hues in these flashback sequences, the black-and-white photography is no less impressive, for the meticulous lighting and shading ensures a sense of artistry in every shot.

Being a Wes Anderson picture, the grey sheen applied to historic events is just one of many peculiarities to be found in The French Dispatch (2021). Another worth noting is the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, previously utilised by Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – as with that film, the director uses the tighter frame and subsequent lack of space to his advantage, imbuing affairs with an intimate and cosy vibe. The difference here is that the smaller ratio is employed throughout the narrative and only changes during particular sequences, such as when the film is showing different points-of-view simultaneously.

To help realise his vision, Anderson has called upon the services of his favoured collaborators, including production designer Adam Stockhausen, whose adorable dollhouse aesthetics are visible throughout; costume designer Milena Canonero, who adorns every character in dapper, retro clothing; cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who shares the auteur’s eye for symmetry and detail; and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score retains the trademark playfulness of his previous efforts. The result, naturally, is a film that looks and sounds unmistakably like a Wes Anderson product.

Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in The French Dispatch

It’s a feeling that’s reinforced by the ensemble cast, with most of its players having appeared previously in Anderson’s projects – among them Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, and Bill Murray, who has been a mainstay of the director’s filmography since Rushmore (1998). Though the performances from all involved are memorable and faultless, the highlight is undoubtedly Jeffrey Wright, who exudes charisma and appears more than comfortable in his role, suggesting that he and Anderson shall have many more collaborations in the years ahead.

Because The French Dispatch contains so many of the motifs found in his previous works, comparisons with it and Anderson’s other movies are inevitable, and in most respects his latest fares well. This picture is wittier, more quotable and slightly more energetic than his preceding feature, Isle of Dogs (2018), whilst also being lighter and breezier than his earlier output; yet the narrative here is less compelling than usual, lacking the intrigue and emotional heft of Anderson screenplays past. It would probably benefit from adding more impishness to its protagonists too, most of whom are bland and indistinguishable.

There has been criticism from some quarters about The French Dispatch being formulaic and too similar to Anderson’s prior films, but in this author’s view, such claims lack merit. Although this movie is never one to stray from that which has come before – and it certainly won’t change the opinion of the auteur’s detractors – Anderson does just enough set it apart from its contemporaries through the anthological plot, greyscale imagery and intermittent use of hand-drawn animation, ensuring he can’t be accused of lazily using the same old tropes in this instance.

The French Dispatch is yet another pleasurable turn from Wes Anderson, emanating with the distinctive visuals and quirky, irreverent humour for which he is renowned, and made even more resplendent by the settings, cast, and old-school touches. For strangers to Anderson’s work, it’s an ideal entry-point; for the converted, it’s a just reward for their dedication.

The French Dispatch is currently streaming on Disney+, and available to purchase on home-video and on-demand services.

A Tranquil, Reflective Journey Awaits in Drive My Car

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For many people, the car isn’t just a mode of transport – it’s a means of escape, a source of passion, or even a way of life. It’s a fact that is recognised by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who has chosen to make an automobile the star of his feature-length drama Drive My Car (2021), even though it’s the human protagonists and their struggles that are given the centre stage.

A widowed playwright, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has been invited to Hiroshima, where he is to work for the next two months as a director-in-residence. Kafuku is a keen motorist, and anticipated he would be making the hour-long journey between his accommodation and the city in his cherished Saab 900 Turbo; instead, much to his dismay, Kafuku’s employers have assigned to him a chauffeur, and stipulated that he is not allowed to drive anywhere by himself.

Designated to fulfil the role of chauffeur is a young woman named Misaki (Toko Miura), who quickly earns the approval of Kafuku with her sedate driving style and shared love of motoring. In the days and weeks that follow, the car-bound companions engage in deep conversation and reveal intimate details about their past, all while Kafuku mulls over the development of his upcoming stage-play – a multilingual adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

Oddly, Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya is the most engrossing aspect of this picture, offering a welcome deviation from the relative mundanity of his automotive journeys. Every step of the playwright’s creative process is shown, beginning with him meeting his financiers, through to casting and rehearsals, before a momentary glimpse of the final product – one that’s made even more absorbing by the transnational cast speaking in their native languages, a delightfully unconventional choice that more directors, be they real or fictitious, should emulate.  

As a fellow practitioner in the arts, this author was always going find the character of Kafuku relatable, yet found himself connecting even further with the main protagonist than anticipated, thanks to a mutual appreciation for driving. There is no activity more cathartic for a keen motorist than a long, solo drive; so naturally, when that outlet is taken away, a driver cannot help but feel a sense of melancholy or loss, which is palpable in Kafuku’s body language and expressions. That inability to drive is made even more painful by the winding roads and scenic views on the outskirts of Hiroshima, routes that any petrolhead would love to traverse if given the chance.

Young thespian Koshi Takastuki (Masaki Okada) chats with playwright Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Drive My Car

But this is not a film that exclusively romanticises about the automobile; instead, it’s an examination of the human psyche and soul, pondering what constitutes a meaningful, satisfying existence. These discussions are manifested in the thespians who appear in Kafuku’s stage-play – like Koshi (Masaki Okada) who joins the production as a means of reconnecting with his lost love, or Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim) who seeks to rekindle her love of performing – and in Kafuku himself, who longs for intimacy and connection yet also values his solitude.

Interesting though these philosophical musings are, they can become tiresome and will no doubt draw the ire of certain viewers, as will the ambiguous conclusion, run-time of three hours (or very close to) and the slow pacing. The latter grievance is evident from the earliest stages of the picture, with its prologue lasting a good 40 minutes before the titles appear. Moreover, since its events are recounted several times throughout the narrative, this entire first act could probably be removed altogether – as is the case with Haruki Murakami’s short story, on which this picture is based.

Pleasantly, there isn’t much else to fault with Drive My Car, which is brimming with artistic excellence throughout. The soundtrack, composed by Eiko Ishibashi, is light and ethereal, pairing impeccably with the film’s serene tone; its beauty is matched by the cinematography of Hidetoshi Shinomiya, whose framing and lighting of each shot is flawless, whether it be on-location or in the confines of Kafuku’s Saab. And then there’s the extraordinary cast, every member of which gives a dedicated, naturalistic performance regardless of experience.

Drive My Car is a pensive, genteel and tender drama made transfixing by its behind-the-scenes observations of an unusual stage production, reflections on what it means to be human, and beautiful driving sequences across the landscapes of Japan. Even with its drawbacks of length and slowness, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is one of 2021’s best, and should be a strong contender for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Drive My Car will be screening in select theatres from February 10th.

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 rather 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.