Celebrating The Adventures of Tintin, The Dream Collaboration

The adventure serial was once a staple of cinema, with theatregoers each and every week treated to fresh takes of heroes in exotic, faraway lands. After a decades-long period of dormancy, the genre saw a brief revival in the 1980s, only to fade into obscurity once again; but for a brief moment in the early 2010s, it looked as though adventure films were here to stay, all thanks to a pair of the medium’s modern-day pioneers.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a famed investigative reporter whose journeys and discoveries have enraptured millions across Europe, and whose latest mystery involves the model of a sailing ship – bought by him at a flea market for a minimal sum – which no less than two men are willing to pay a substantial amount of money for. As it happens, the seemingly innocuous model is of a naval vessel known as the Unicorn, fabled to have sunk with countless riches.

One of the men seeking to acquire the model from Tintin’s possession is Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who believes it holds the key to the real ship’s final resting place, and therefore the treasure sunken with it. So dogged is Sakharine in his pursuit of the plunder that he’s even kidnapped Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), a descendant of the Unicorn’s captain, to prevent him from laying claim to the ship’s fortune – by which he has rights to.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) was a long-gestating project for veteran director Steven Spielberg, who first took an interest in the character thirty years prior. Whilst promoting his film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in Europe, Spielberg noted that many French reviews repeated the phrase “Tintin”, unaware what was being referred to. He soon learned that critics were referencing the Tintin comics, written and drawn by Belgian artist Hergé, which they claimed bore a similarity to the escapades of Indiana Jones.

The antagonistic Sakharine, as he appear in The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg initially envisaged the film as a feature-length animation, then as a live-action production, procuring the services of Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, to create a computer-generated version of Tintin’s faithful dog, Snowy. Being a long-time fan of Hergé’s work, Jackson took a keen interest in the project, eventually convincing Spielberg to utilise motion-capture technology for the final product, resulting in visuals that fused photorealism with the “traditional” look of Tintin.

This imagery proved rather polarising upon the film’s release, with some viewers unsettled by the not-quite-human looks of the protagonists; yet for others, including this author, the 3D representations of Tintin and his associates are quite charming, striking a perfect balance between the cutesy drawings of Hergé’s work and the lifelike renderings of other motion-capture projects, such as The Polar Express (2004) – and just like said project, the faintest hint of an actor’s likeness can be seen in the characters they portray.

The character designs are certainly the most talked-about element of The Adventures of Tintin, but they are far from the most notable; in actuality, the most enthralling aspect is the animation, which is masterfully rendered and quite fluid. The high quality of the illustrations allows for some exciting sequences, including a flashback scene of a piratical raid on the Unicorn; a one-shot motorcycle chase through a Moroccan city; and a climactic battle in a dockyard featuring all manner of destruction.

Also appreciable is the orchestral score, composed by musical legend and Spielberg’s favoured collaborator, John Williams. Although not as perpetually hummable as his work for other franchises (think Star Wars, Harry Potter), Williams’ compositions here provide a sense of whimsy and grandeur that fits perfectly with the adventurous tone of the story. So impressive was The Adventures of Tintin’s soundtrackthat it earned John Williams his 46th nomination at the Academy Awards, breaking the record of fellow composer Alfred Newman.

A naval battle, one of the many astonishing scenes in The Adventures of Tintin

A less commendable element of The Adventures of Tintin is the screenplay – it’s certainly captivating enough, with a strong mystery element and decent gags, but is also blemished by the occasional cliché; and there’s further irritation to be had at the characterisation of Captain Haddock, who is way too buffoonish for him to be taken seriously. These faults aside though, The Secret of the Unicorn is a rousing adventure, and an ideal entry point for children too young to witness the exploits of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.

Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin generated plenty of buzz upon its initial release in 2011, with foreign markets taking a particular interest. Even before earning decent reviews from critics and becoming a modest box-office success, discussion of a sequel was fervent, with both directors expressing their interest in a potential Tintin trilogy and Jackson even confirmed to helm the second instalment. And yet, despite the picture’s critical and financial triumphs, audiences are still waiting for a sequel.

It would seem that neither director is in a hurry to make the next Tintin film. On the verge of Unicorn’s tenth anniversary, Spielberg is currently directing an autobiographical film about his childhood, while Jackson is promoting his latest documentary project Get Back (2021); but beyond that, the former is consigned only to production duties, and the latter has no other projects planned, so there’s every possibility that a new movie from the pair is just around the corner – and we all sorely hope that’s the case.

In the meantime though, there’s immense pleasure to be had in rewatching the original collaboration. Lovingly woven together by two giants of cinema, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a picture that encapsulates the qualities of both Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, its enjoyment solidified by fantastic animation, unceasing thrills and a majestic soundtrack.

The Adventures of Tintin is currently streaming on Netflix, Prime Video, and Stan.

A Big Heart Defines the Colourful Musical Vivo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In 2021, seemingly everybody wants a piece of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Sony Pictures Animation is no exception. The studio looks to be pinning its hopes on the Puerto Rican’s ceaseless popularity with its newest release – support it may not have needed, given the production’s strengths lie elsewhere.

Andréas (Juan de Marcos González) is a musician and street entertainer living in Havana, Cuba, who for years has entertained locals with his dancing kinkajou – a tree-dwelling, monkey-like mammal with golden fur – which he calls Vivo (the abovementioned Miranda). The pair are most happy living and performing together, but their relationship is tested when Andréas is invited to play alongside his long-lost love, songstress Marta (Gloria Estefan) in Miami, the city she now calls home.

After some internal deliberation, Vivo decides to join Andréas on his trip Stateside, only for a twist of fate to quash their plans and leave the latter’s affections for Marta unaffirmed. It’s at this point that the kinkajou decides on journeying alone to Miami, eventually alighting at the port town of Key West, Florida, three hours’ drive from his intended destination. Luckily, Key West is also the home of Andréas’ great-niece, Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) who pledges to help Vivo in his quest to locate Marta.

Vivo (2021) is the latest project to bear the stamp of the multitalented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been busier than ever this year – he’s already produced a widely-acclaimed film adaptation of his stage musical In the Heights, made an appearance in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, written songs for the upcoming Disney feature Encanto, and next month will be making his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! On this occasion, Miranda’s song-writing abilities are utilised in addition to his vocal talents, undoubtedly pleasing fans of his work and riling those who find him less appealing.

In keeping with the film’s settings, there’s a clear Latin American and Afro-Caribbean influence to the tunes, which is unfortunately the only praise that can be afforded to the soundtrack. Miranda’s music is more grating than ever in Vivo, his hybridised rapping-singing making for an inelegant accompaniment to the visuals, and almost none of his numbers being memorable – the sole outlier is Gabi’s song “My Own Drum”, if only for how obnoxious and annoying it is. Indeed, so unremarkable are these compositions that they are enough to eradicate any tolerance for Lin-Manuel’s stylings.

The young Marta and Andréas in a dreamlike 2D dance sequence in Vivo

Another weak element of Vivo is the screenplay, being of a lesser standard than what other studios are producing. It’s storytelling at its most basic on display here, including a familiar narrative arc and tropes diligently adhered to, resulting in a plot that is quite bland and unimaginative. That stated, the story is a heartfelt one, with its resonant struggles and touching moments between characters ensuring an emotional wallop for viewers of all ages; and for younger demographics, the film offers considered, thoughtful messaging about dealing with grief.

More pleasing still are the visuals, with Vivo’s distinctive illustrations and unique designs echoing the quality of its Sony Pictures Animation stablemates, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (2018) and The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) – although neither are surpassed in this instance. Highly stylised versions of Havana and Miami have been rendered, featuring thick, blocky architecture shaded the brightest of colours, while the human characters are all round- or wide-shaped figures that differ from the artform’s norm. (There’s even some brief, yet nonetheless enjoyable 2D sequences, as evidenced above.)

Also worthy of compliment is the voice-cast, with every actor performing solidly. Ynairaly Simo leaves the greatest impression, being the perfect choice for the outgoing, rambunctious Gabi, even managing to outdo established celebrities like Zoe Saldana, who voices Gabi’s mother, Rosa. And on the subject of celebrities, there’s a fair number who lend their vocal talents to the movie, the most entertaining of which are Brian Tyree Henry as a lovesick spoonbill, and Michael Rooker as a sinister python, both of whom put all their effort into their performances despite being heard only briefly.

Save for a cliched plot and middling soundtrack, Vivo is a pleasurable distraction that benefits from great voice-work, vibrant imagery and, above all, scenes of tenderness that are bound to move even the most hardened of viewers. Consider the inclusion of Lin-Manuel Miranda as an added bonus – or minus, depending on preference.

Vivo is currently streaming globally on Netflix.

Black Cinema Gains a New Voice Via the Summer of Soul

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

African-American directors have long used their powerful voice to admonish racism and injustice – think John Singleton, Ava DuVarney, Jordan Peele and of course, Spike Lee with his signature Joints. Newly ranking among this cohort is Ahmir Thompson, utilising long-lost footage of a monumental event to concoct a narrative of equal distinction.

In 1969, amidst a Climate of Hate in the United States, the New York neighbourhood of Harlem played host to a series of outdoor concerts, featuring musicians both prominent and rising, locally famed and internationally recognised. The free events, promoted as the Harlem Cultural Festival, took place over successive weekends during the Summer, their family-friendly façade masking an ulterior intention – as interviewee Darryl Lewis bluntly puts it, “to keep Black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

Despite being attended by as many as 300,000 people, and earning the public support of New York City’s white, Republican Mayor, John Lindsay, press coverage of the Festival was limited, and a proposed film documenting the performances was shelved after failing to garner an investor. Multiple reels of video and audio that had been recorded for a documentary instead lay dormant in storage, unseen by the public eye for over five decades – hence this picture’s, full title, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021).

Director Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, is best known for his work in the realm of music, and that melodic expertise is more than apparent in his selection of performances that are showcased within the feature. Highlights include a young Stevie Wonder’s masterful playing of the drums and keyboards; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ powerful duet of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; Ray Barretto on bongos trading fours with his double bassist; Sonny Sharrock wildly shredding on the electric guitar; Nina Simone’s eloquent prose in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”; and Sly and the Family Stone’s call-and-response with the Harlem crowd.

Just about every performance that’s seen in Summer of Soul is reminisced about through present-day interviews with Festival attendees, social commentators, the musicians themselves, and a handful of celebrities with the most tenuous of links to the Festival – comedian Chris Rock being such an example. Most of the input these subjects provide amounts to little more than soundbites, but their statements are nonetheless insightful, and the fondness with which they recollect events appears earnest and genuine.

Stevie Wonder performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in Summer of Soul

Not content with directing a concert film, Thompson also shapes Summer of Soul as a historical document of the African-American experience. Each performance is seceded by a brief interlude that explains, through archival footage and clips from the abovementioned interviews, the happenings in Harlem, the United States and the world that led to the Cultural Festival, demonstrating its place in a broader cultural movement of “Neo-Super Blackness” (as interviewee Greg Tate aptly describes it) and how it assisted in propelling it.

Some viewers might be baffled at this suggestion, given the lack of prominence afforded to the concerts until now. Summer of Soul hypothesises that an overshadowing of the Festival by two other events is the cause of that, said events being the Moon Landing in July of the same year, and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which took place the very same weekend that Nina Simone and B.B. King performed in Mount Morris Park. (In a delicious case of irony, the film treats both of these cultural touchstones with indifference.)

One gripe, admittedly minor, to be had with Summer of Soul is the varying quality of the concert footage. Video and audio of the event has been digitally restored from the original tapes, most of which looks and sounds pretty crisp; yet there are occasions when markings and damage to the recordings are rather visible, detracting from the experience. What’s needed is some further enhancement, or cleaning of the original imagery in order to truly, fully do the Harlem Cultural Festival justice.

Ahmir Thompson’s directorial debut is more than the recreation of a significant moment in history – it’s a stirring celebration of Black culture with a central message that’s just as relevant today. Possessing a voice that’s as loud and proud as the singers featured within, Summer of Soul is a documentary that ought to be seen and heard by all.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now streaming on Disney+.

Free Guy is a Serviceable, Yet Sweet Action-Comedy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sometimes, there’s just no saving a picture from mediocrity; but in the right hands, even a milquetoast production can win the hearts of a cynical audience, provided it has the necessary elements. Said elements could be a poignant story, or dazzling visuals, or simply a charming performance from a famous thespian… or even a combination of the three.

Free City is a place where crime is so widespread that it’s more or less accepted as a daily occurrence by those who live there, casually treating the most violent of felonies as a minor inconvenience. What the city’s many residents don’t realise is that their home is actually the setting for an open-world video-game, and they are the non-playable characters – or NPCs – who have been programmed to endure any and all hostile behaviour.

The only NPC with a shred of self-awareness is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller who wonders if there’s more to his existence than stamping cheques and being threatened at gunpoint. Guy’s theory that proves true after a chance encounter with Molotov Girl, the avatar of human user named Millie (both played by Jodie Comer) who, much to her bemusement, explains how Guy can actively play the game, rather than just be part of it.

Much like Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) or Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), the appeal of Free Guy (2021) relies heavily on the viewer’s knowledge and appreciation of pop-culture, and gaming culture in particular – those who adhere to the latter category will undoubtedly distinguish Guy’s Free City game as an amalgamation of Grand Theft Auto Online and Fortnite. Non-gamers need not fear though, since these references to other properties are infrequent, and a greater emphasis is placed on the surprisingly compelling struggles of the characters.

One such character is Guy, whose desire to want more out of life is by no means unique, but is made endearing by his sweet, innocent and wholesome personality. It’s a performance that refreshingly deviates from Ryan Reynolds’ usual schtick, forgoing the snark and self-referential humour whilst retaining the exuberance which he now readily identifies with. Thus, Free Guy marks one of the rare instances where the presence of Reynolds doesn’t become grating.

The live-action antagonist of Free Guy, Antwan (Taika Waititi)

Of equal interest is the secondary plot involving Millie, which sees her scouring Free City to locate a stolen piece of software supposedly hidden within the game. This conflict has much higher stakes than Guy’s, thereby being the more engaging of the two; but again, its charm is due largely to the performer – in this instance Jodie Comer – adding a disarming sweetness to their character. (It’s something of a trend for Comer, who has flexed her acting muscles on TV’s Killing Eve and is now well on her way to conquering Hollywood.)

Comer and Reynolds aren’t the only charmers in Free Guy, with the film profiting from the inclusion of plenty more talented actors. Lil Rel Howley is the standout within the digital realm of Free City, offering his usual buoyant energy as Guy’s lazily-named friend, Buddy; in live-action settings, events are made pleasant by the likes of Utkarsh Ambudkar and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, both playing coders who work under the eccentric game developer Antwan, as performed by the ever-delightful Taika Waititi.

Weirdly, the sprawling Free City is a sight that proves just as alluring. Most of the location’s exterior shots have been filmed in Boston, Massachusetts, with visual effects being utilised when required to mask similarities and maintain the illusion of a video-game, the result being an environment that looks ideally suited to a free-roaming adventure. And for petrolheads, there’s extra fun to be had in spotting all the cars and motorcycles littered throughout.

While the visuals and cast are exemplary, the other aspects of Free Guy are somewhat lackadaisical. This includes the action, which is well-choreographed yet lacks the tension and excitement of that in other blockbusters; the comedy, with plenty of quips and gags but only one or two producing a giggle; and the references, which are of such low effort that they generate no glee whatsoever. All three of these elements do nothing to elevate the picture, serving only to make proceedings decidedly plain.

Yet when all is considered, Free Guy remains deserving of appreciation, even by those with only the slimmest awareness of pop-culture. A group of gifted performers, impressive effects and an unexpectedly touching screenplay are what satisfy most, all ensuring the film is never tedious nor bland.

Free Guy is currently screening in cinemas where open, and streaming on Disney+.

Trippy Visuals and Laughs Abound in The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sony Pictures Animation was once a minnow of the medium, its prosaic releases barely a threat to the dominance of the industry’s heavyweights. That order is looking shakier nowadays, with the company doing everything and anything possible to distance itself from the competition, much to its benefit, with this feature being a recent example.

The Mitchell family – consisting of patriarch Rick (Danny McBride), his wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), teenage daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), youngest son Aaron (the film’s director, Mike Rianda) and their pet dog Monchi – is driving from their home in Michigan to California, where Katie will be attending Film School. For Rick, the road trip represents one last chance to connect with his daughter; for Katie, it’s just the latest instance of her father’s undermining ways.

As the Mitchells make their way across state lines in their weathered station wagon, an artificial intelligence system known as PAL (Olivia Colman) gains control of the world’s electronic devices to launch a machine-led, Terminator-style apocalypse, enslaving humanity in the process. The only people to escape PAL’s tyranny, funnily enough, are the Mitchells, who take full advantage of their freedom by tasking themselves with saving humanity through their own wacky, unconventional means.

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021) was due for a cinematic release in 2020 under the moniker of Connected, delayed several times in the wake of the pandemic before its financier, Sony Pictures, eventually scuttled the film’s distribution plans altogether. Instead, the movie was tendered to various streaming websites and eventually purchased by Netflix, which secured global rights to the picture and a change in title – one preferred by the producers and initially rejected by Sony.

An immediately distinguishable feature of The Mitchells is the art-style, looking unique to any other Hollywood production. Although computer-generated like most animated pictures, the illustrations have been rendered and shaded in such a way that each frame better resembles an acrylic painting, lovingly hand-crafted on a patch of canvas. The character designs are equally distinctive, being adorned with flat faces, wide eyes, gangly bodies and brightly-coloured clothes to truly set the film apart from its brethren, from Sony or otherwise.

Rick Mitchell (left) with daughter Katie in The Mitchells vs the Machines

These beguiling images are energised by the exceptional animation, comparable in quality to another Sony feature, the much-loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)­. Throughout The Mitchells, people and objects are seen moving with a remarkable amount of freedom, apparently unhampered by technological limitations; in quieter, more emotional scenes, these movements are smooth and fluid, becoming quick and frenetic during scenes of action, and faster still in the comedic sequences to synchronise perfectly with the film’s zany tone.

Therein lies another forte of The Mitchells: its comic sensibilities. The movie is rife with humour, containing a plentiful number of visual gags, generous amounts of slapstick and a selection of decent one-liners – including some ironic, pointed statements about America’s technology giants that surely aren’t lost on Netflix. For cinephiles, there’s even more pleasure to be derived from the copious references to other works, including no less than two welcome homages to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003).

Disappointingly, there is an area where The Mitchells lags behind its contemporaries, and that’s in the screenplay department. The story is one that follows some very familiar beats, incorporating timeworn elements such as a young protagonist struggling to bond with their parent, and revelations of deceit that cause greater conflict between characters, neither of which are appreciated. Even so, the plot remains relatively compelling, courtesy of some clever turns thwarting the progress of the characters.

And anyhow, it’s the comedy and animation that are the picture’s greatest strengths, hallmarks shared with Into the Spider-Verse ­– and surely not by coincidence. With these two films, it appears that Sony is readying itself as a pioneer of the industry; a company that doesn’t compromise on the artists’ vision, encouraging innovation rather than adherence to a particular style or image. In an era where movies are increasingly subject to studio interference, it’s an approach that’s sorely needed.

Blessed with an abundance of creativity, colour and zaniness, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the kind of picture that other studios could only dream of emulating. Its distinctive visuals, brilliant animation and hilarious antics are more than enough to overcome a cliched plot, all showing why Sony Pictures Animation has a bright future ahead.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is currently streaming on Netflix.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is an Irreverent, Unhinged Joy

DC’s cinematic output has been rather disparate of late, to say the least, with their releases range in quality from good to woeful, and most being mediocre at best. Now comes another blockbuster branded with the DC moniker, this one outshining everything that has come before it – especially its 2016 namesake.

Task Force X is a secretive branch of the United States government that oversees military operations deemed too dangerous, or too sensitive, for America’s heroes to be involved in. Their agents are inmates of the Belle Reve Correctional Centre – home to the evilest of supervillains – who are recruited in exchange for reduced sentences, provided they comply with their commands; should they not, the agents will be killed by their superiors.

The organisation’s newest recruit is Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) who has been sought by the director of Task Force X, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to lead an operation on the despotic island-state of Corto Maltese. DuBois has no desire to be involved whatsoever, until Waller threatens the safety of his teenage daughter, thereby forcing his hand into joining and reluctantly leading the mission.

The entity of Task Force X previously made its cinematic debut in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), which found commercial success despite being widely panned by critics for its appalling direction, unfunny humour and jarring, inconsistent tone. In developing the sequel, Warner Bros. ditched Ayer and handed directorial duties to James Gunn – who had just been fired from Marvel Studio for a series of tasteless posts on social media – and gave him complete creative freedom.

As a result of said freedom, Gunn’s new film bares next to no correlation with its Ayer-helmed precursor, despite sharing a similar title in The Suicide Squad. The extended cast serves as the only discernible connection between the two movies, with the abovementioned Davis reprising her role, in addition to Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flag; Australia’s own Margot Robbie as the squeaky-voiced jester, Harley Quinn; and fellow Australian Jai Courtney as the intensely ocker Captain Boomerang.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) makes a return to the screen in The Suicide Squad

Joining them are a bunch of fresh recruits who operate under Bloodsport’s command, including macho gunman Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith (John Cena); a man who can conjure explosive polka-dots, Abner Krill (David Dastmalchian); an anthropomorphic shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); a young woman who can summon and control rats, Cleo Cazo (Daniela Melchior); and finally, Cleo’s pet rat Sebastian (voiced by animal impressionist Dee Bradley Baker).

The Suicide Squad spends the majority of its time focused on the latter group of characters, and rightly so, because they’re nothing but a charm. This appeal is fuelled largely by the performers who play them, with all the newcomers looking poised and relaxed, and each gifting their respective roles with a distinct personality. Through their efforts alone, these actors have turned a group of obscure antagonists into loveable rogues who deserve to lead every sequel and spin-off that follows.

Just as admirable is the film’s screenplay, solely and cleverly written by Gunn. In addition to the main conflict, each character is gifted with their own story-arc that pertains to a troubled backstory, developing and maturing as they seek to address it. Although these struggles are relatively minor, they do aid in further humanising the protagonists; what’s more, their arcs prove just as gripping as the central plot without ever distracting from it, nor overwhelming the audience with narrative.

The screenplay’s strength doesn’t just lie in its ability to fuse multiple storylines into a coherent package, for it is equally adept at toying with the viewer’s expectations. Gunn sets the stakes of his picture high from the outset, showing characters being killed left, right and centre with little regard for how established they are, and even less for the celebrities chosen to portray them. After the first few minutes, there’s no knowing where the film is heading, nor if anybody will survive the climactic showdown.

As much a part of The Suicide Squad’s appeal is the mature content, being more vulgar and graphic than the average superhero blockbuster, courtesy of the profanity-ridden dialogue, sporadic glimpses of nudity and gratuitous levels of violence. Blood and gore are abundant in Gunn’s picture, with all manner of body parts bursting open whenever a character is slaughtered, and the majority of those deaths being played for laughs.

Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) confronts Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in The Suicide Squad

On the subject of laughs, there’s some pretty decent ones to be had throughout, with frequent, fast-paced quips coming from every character, as well as the occasional slapstick gag; yet the best comedy is mined from the desk-bound bureaucrats of Task Force X – played by Steve Agee, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden and Jennifer Holland, among others – who utter the funniest one-liners of the entire movie, very nearly outmatching the likeability of the main characters.

Amusingly impish though The Suicide Squad is, there are some aspects in which it falls short. One such aspect is the characterisation of Bloodsport who, despite the film’s best efforts, cannot shake the fact that he is practically identical to Deadshot from the other Suicide Squad film – both are played by black actors, both wear silly masks, both are sharpshooters with impeccable aim, and both are absent fathers wanting to do right by their respective daughters. Were it not for Elba’s British accent, there would be nothing to distinguish between them.

Another disappointment is the music that accompanies proceedings. As per his work on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014, 2017), Gunn has personally curated a soundtrack of retro songs to pair with events, but this one doesn’t have the same appeal, for it lacks the catchy, kitschy tunes of his Marvel Studios playlists. The result is a soundtrack that pales not only to Gunn’s previous features, but even to a picture like Cruella (2021), which demonstrated a far better utilisation of classic hits.

Those grievances notwithstanding, The Suicide Squad is unequivocally the wittiest, warmest and most gratifying DC film to date, and an irreverent alternative to the superhero genre’s usual offerings. Idiosyncratic characters, fantastic performances, gory action sequences and some hearty chuckles solidify the picture as a winner, all but atoning for the sins of its predecessor.

The Suicide Squad is currently screening in cinemas where open, and available for digital download through select services.

Thrice Upon a Time is a Deserving Farewell for Evangelion

To conclude a ground-breaking saga is an unenviable task, not least because the resulting product needs to honour its forebears whilst leaving a legacy of its own. It’s a position in which this animated feature finds itself, and deftly succeeds in doing so, being as close to flawless as a send-off can possibly be.

Hidden beneath the city of Paris, the paramilitary organisation known as NERV has stored weaponry created as part of the Evangelion project, heavily guarded by an autonomous defence system. An assault on the city is launched by rival outfit WILLE, which seeks to liberate Paris from its captive state, and retrieve said weaponry for its own means – namely, defeating NERV and preventing it from curating another cataclysmic event.

Meanwhile, in the ruins of Japan, Shinji Ikari is listless after failing to thwart the actions of NERV and, by extension, his own father. He and Rei Ayanami – or an entity that purports to be her – follow his fellow EVA pilot Asuka Langley Shikinami to a rural village, there meeting with survivors of the Third Impact. As their days in the village pass, Shinji’s depression only worsens, with his friends fearing he’ll never engage with the outside world again.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time marks the definitive conclusion to the multifaceted Evangelion saga that began a quarter of a century ago with Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode television series that challenged the medium’s conventions and revived Japan’s dormant animation industry. The series’ creator, Hideaki Anno, seemingly concluded the narrative with a feature-length, theatrically-released picture called The End of Evangelion, only to begin afresh with a new set of films that shared the show’s title, plot and themes.

Shinji’s EVA Unit-01 brandishes a new Spear in Thrice Upon a Time

Belonging to this same set of films – collectively known as the Rebuild of Evangelion – is Thrice Upon a Time, accordingly sharing many a quality with the instalments that came before. One such trait is the impressive animation, which again combines traditional cel animation with computer-generated imagery, and is striking throughout. The environments are richly detailed, the designs slick, and the fight scenes bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours, all ensuring this is the best-looking entry in the entire Evangelion franchise.

Another strength carried over from Evangelion films past is the music, crafted once again by franchise stalwart and Anno’s favoured collaborator, Shiro Sagisu. Most of Sagisu’s compositions are drawn from his previous work on the television series, here being slowed down and re-arranged to better match with the imagery, providing a suspenseful, chilling or heroic atmosphere as the need arises. Bookending the excellent soundtrack is Hiraku Utada’s “One Last Kiss”, a hauntingly tender pop song that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination (or Grammy).

Being part of the Rebuild saga, Thrice Upon a Time consequently and unfortunately shares the drawbacks of its precursors, too. One is the infrequency of the action sequences, with most of the film’s time spent observing Shinji’s pensive state; another is the hyper-sexualisation of the young female protagonists, who are oftentimes dressed in fetish-gear or shown from a suggestive angle – both elements serve only to alienate the franchise’s newcomers, who will doubtless already be confused by proceedings.

Asuka looks into the distance in Thrice Upon a Time

Truthfully though, this isn’t a picture made to appease the uninitiated; rather, Thrice Upon a Time is for those already converted to the Church of Evangelion, whose devotion is constantly rewarded. The film contains plenty of throwbacks to the series and previous films, including surprise appearances from much-loved supporting characters, as well as fitting, poetic farewells for a select few. Furthermore, there’s an uplifting, life-affirming epilogue that perfectly concludes the years-long Evangelion narrative.

Finally, Thrice Upon a Time also deserves commendation for rectifying a sore point of the Rebuild films, that being Mari Illustrious Makinami. Upon her introduction in 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009), Mari was a character who appeared superfluous to the conflict, with no backstory nor function, a feeling that remained in 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012); but with the final chapter, Mari’s inclusion is finally justified, thanks to revelations about her past and her connection to Shinji – which deserve not to be spoilt.

Containing the franchise’s trademarks of spellbinding animation, splendid music and thoughtful storytelling, Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is a compelling finale and a highpoint for the most prestigious of anime sagas. Ultimately, it’s best viewed as the celebration of a venerable series, embodying all the tropes for which it will forever be renowned.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Wolfwalkers Exemplifies The Might of Irish Cinema

Animated films have long regaled viewers with their retellings of folk and fantasy legends, a tradition that extends back to the medium’s dawn, and continues here in this feature-length production from Ireland. But this film is not here merely to capitalise on a time-honoured trend – in fact, it’s more likely to establish a new standard for the artform.

In the mid-17th Century, a young girl named Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) moves from England to Kilkenny, Ireland, where her father Bill (Sean Bean) has been tasked with capturing the wolves that prey on the townsfolk. Robin is adventurous by nature, and longs to accompany her father on his wolf-hunting duties; but unfortunately, she is forbidden from venturing beyond Kilkenny’s walls, due to her age and gender.

Robin eventually sneaks through the town’s gates and into the nearby forest, hoping to find and kill a wolf herself. Instead, she encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), an unkempt girl of smaller stature who calls herself a Wolfwalker – the name given to a mystical human who lives among the wolves. After an acrimonious greeting, a friendship between the two girls soon develops, and Robin’s perception of wolves with it.

It’s no coincidence that Wolfwalkers is based in Ireland, since the feature is one produced by Cartoon Saloon, a studio based where the film is set: Kilkenny. Just like the studio’s previous releases, The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Song of the Sea (2014), there’s a strong Celtic influence to this production, as evidenced by the voice-cast, soundtrack and screenplay – the latter of which draws its inspiration from an Irish folk tale.

Despite its mythological origins and Cromwellian setting, Wolfwalkers contains a fresh, contemporary story that grows more compelling with each minute that passes. The writing is masterful, with the film seamlessly, gracefully morphing from one conflict to another, the stakes heightening as it does so. If there is one complaint with the screenplay, it’s that the conflict between Robin and her father does come across as hackneyed at times, though never to the extent of annoyance.

Robin (left) and Mebh, the central protagonists of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers

By far the most appealing element of Wolfwalkers is the distinctive art-style, ensuring it looks unlike any other animated feature – including those previously made by Cartoon Saloon. There’s a storybook-like simplicity to the hand-drawn illustrations, witnessed in both the characters and scenery, that charms profoundly, with the best images undoubtedly found in the forest scenes, their gorgeous watercolour backdrops contrasting heavily with the bleak, yet nonetheless striking, greyscale palette of Kilkenny.

Paired with the animation is an equally wonderful soundtrack, composed by Bruno Coulais with the assistance of Kíla, a traditional Irish folk band. The compositions of Coulais and Kíla make use of acoustic instruments such as fiddles, mandolas and tin whistles, sounding quite ethereal when listened to in isolation, yet suiting the tone and imagery of Wolfwalkers perfectly. There’s even the odd pop song to be heard, including a beautiful re-recording of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”.

Yet another aural delight is the cast of voice-actors, most of whom are of Irish nationality or descent. The most famous name, and recognisable voice, to the layperson will be Sean Bean, whose mellow, fatherly tone is perfectly suited to Bill Goodfellowe; Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey are good also as the two girls, but to this author’s ear, the finest vocal performer is Simon McBurney, who provides an understated, menacing turn as Kilkenny’s Lord Protector.

Wolfwalkers is simply exquisite, with great voice-acting, stirring music, magnificent artwork and an elegant narrative combining to form a wondrous experience. Very few feature-length animations come close to this level of quality, making this not only a great film but also, quite possible, the best ever to emerge from Ireland.

Wolfwalkers will be screening online as part of the Irish Film Festival from September 3rd to 12th. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

The film is also available for streaming now on Apple TV+.

Australia’s Irish Film Festival Goes Virtual For 2021

The Republic of Ireland typically isn’t a country associated with cinema – aside from Alan Parker’s The Commitments or the works of John Carney, it’s difficult to think of a film that hails from the land of St. Patrick. Yet in recent years, the Republic’s output of productions has grown exponentially, priming themselves as a key player in the industry.

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the line-up for the annual Irish Film Festival, set to begin this week. Years past have seen the event grace theatres in Sydney and Melbourne; but with both cities currently subject to lockdowns, the Festival will heading online in 2021, allowing cinephiles across Australia to see the very best movies that Ireland has to offer.

Headlining the virtual festival is the Academy Award-nominated Wolfwalkers, a feature-length animation from Cartoon Saloon – the studio behind critically-acclaimed films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Breadwinner (2017). Having already been screened overseas, the picture currently has a near-perfect 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it among the highest-rated movies on the site. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because Wolfwalkers has been an exclusive title on Apple TV+ for some months now, making this is a rare opportunity to view the feature outside of its usual confines.

A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, featuring protagonist Robin and her wolf spirit

Wolfwalkers is something of an outlier at the festival, since most of the films being shown are low-budget features making their Australian debut. The most intriguing of these debuts is Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, which sees a missing woman return to Northern Ireland and reunite with her sister, hinting at a Dragon Tattoo-esque storyline. Similar themes permeate the crime thriller Broken Law, a narrative about two brothers – one a cop, the other an ex-crim – trying to escape their past.

Those looking for a more humorous proposition may enjoy The Bright Side, focusing on a stand-up comedienne who tackles her cancer diagnosis with plenty of dry wit; or the Festival’s other dark comedy offering, Deadly Cuts, telling of a group of hair-stylists who dare to challenge the gangs of Dublin. The two other comedies playing at the Festival are Boys From County Hell, an Irish take on Shaun of the Dead, and A Bump Along the Way, following a middle-aged woman who falls pregnant after a one-night-stand.

For the musically inclined, there’s three music documentaries to whet the palette, including one filmed here in Australia: Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour, charting the subject’s journey from domestic violence victim to renowned folk singer. Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away documents the largely-unknown life of Thin Lizzy’s front-man and Ireland’s greatest rock star, while Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan looks at the pioneer of Celtic punk.

Phil Lynott, the lead singer of Irish rock band Thin Lizzy and subject of Phil Lynott: Songs For When I’m Away

The musical theme continues with the Gabriel Byrne-led Death of a Ladies’ Man, a dramedy inspired by, and paired to, the songs of Leonard Cohen. And for lovers of all things sports, there’s a documentary examining the psyche of Jack Charlton, an enigmatic soccer player from England who became coach of Ireland’s national team, aptly titled Finding Jack Charlton.

Although the selection of twelve films is meagre when compared to its contemporaries, this year’s Irish Film Festival is definitely not short on quality – if this is just a taste of what Ireland has to offer, there’s every chance of the nation becoming a cinematic powerhouse in just a few short years. And while nothing beats the theatrical experience, being able to watch each of these films from your couch, at your own convenience, comes a pretty close second. In short, this Festival is definitely worth checking out.

The Irish Film Festival begins this Friday, September 3rd. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

Disney’s Jungle Cruise is a Ride to Be Forgotten

There’s a prestige and heritage to the Disney brand that other studios can only envy – it’s a fact the corporation itself recognises, having produced a new picture that plays to its traditions. An initial glance suggests that said picture is primed for success; one viewing is enough to prove otherwise.

At the height of the First World War, Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is venturing to the Amazonian rainforests of South America, where she hopes to locate a rare flower with fabled healing properties in the name of science. Upon arrival, she engages the services of tour guide Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who offers to pilot Lily – and her accompanying, neurotic brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) – in his own boat along the Amazon’s many tributaries.

Their journey is one that will be fraught with the deadliest of dangers, including carnivorous beasts, turbulent rapids, and native tribespeople who are unwelcoming to outsiders; yet the greatest threat of all is a pursuing German officer, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who seeks the flower for his own warped, egocentric benefit as much as his beloved Vaterland.

Jungle Cruise is the latest blockbuster to be adapted from a Disneyland attraction, joining the likes of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, as well as less popular efforts such as The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland. Of these releases, it’s the Pirates franchise that Jungle Cruise most closely aligns with, hoping to emulate the former’s box-office success – a feat that looks unlikely, not just because of recent outbreaks of a certain strain of virus, but also the sheer mediocrity of the picture.

One advantage that Jungle Cruise does possess is a talented cast, including two leads who are familiar to the Disney faithful. Emily Blunt is the top-billed female, having previously fronted the cameras for Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, albeit with more singing; her male counterpart, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no stranger to the studio either, with starring roles in The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain and Moana.

Undoubtedly, Blunt and Johnson’s historic involvement with Disney is what endeared them to the producers, and perhaps why both actors perform with a laidback confidence – their respective characters seem more an extension of their own charming selves than a transformation. This is particularly evident when the two personalities share the screen, demonstrating the kind of chemistry that is usually found in more seasoned duos, not a pair who are sharing their first credit together.

The villainous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) as seen in Jungle Cruise

One performer who has taken the transformative approach, and played against type in the process, is Jesse Plemons. Where in other roles he would be understated with only a hint of menace, here Plemons gleefully portrays the antagonistic Prince Joachim with a fitting level of camp, eccentricity and accented speech. It’s yet another delightful performance from Plemons, who by now is well on his way to conquering Hollywood.

Sadly, that praise does not extend to the secondary villains of Jungle Cruise: a group of zombified Spanish conquistadors who are clearly inspired by Captain Barbossa’s crew. Despite their unique appearances – the men take their physical form with the help of rainforest features such as vines, snakes and hornets – there’s nothing remotely interesting nor memorable about these foes, who lack the personality and wickedness necessary for this kind of role.

Matters are made worse by the substandard visual effects, which look as though they were rendered two decades ago; the comedic elements, which barely incite so much as a chuckle; and the underwhelming soundtrack from James Newton Howard, which lacks a rousing theme a la the Pirates movies. Yet these problems are minor when compared to the biggest issue of all: the confusing action sequences.

By most measures, the thrills of Jungle Cruise are pretty serviceable, with decent choreography and stunt-work; but they are made difficult to appreciate due to the shaky camerawork and frantic editing. Such techniques have been utilised by many a Hollywood blockbuster in recent times, proving just as annoying here as they do elsewhere – it’s high time producers learned that they don’t make the action any more exciting.

It’s baffling to think that a film with six producers and the backing of the world’s largest studio could be so mediocre. Despite having some gifted actors at its disposal, Jungle Cruise serves only as a passing distraction, with most of its other attributes being adequate at best. If this film is to herald a new Disney franchise, it’s not a promising start.

Jungle Cruise is screening in cinemas nationally where open, and available for streaming with Premium Access on Disney+.