The 5 Best Johnny Depp Performances, Ranked

Geoffrey Rush has hailed him as “one of the great character actors of our time, trapped in a leading man’s body” and whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Johnny Depp has cashed in some of the most unique and memorable performances of the last 30 or so years. From Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Donnie Brasco right through to Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Sweeny Todd  — there’s no shortage of the irreverent and iconic. These are Johnny Depp’s five best performances, ranked.

5. Donnie Brasco in Donnie Brasco (1997)
Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco

Directed by Mike Newell and based on a true story (‘Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia’), Donnie Brasco represents the first real instance where Depp plays a straight shooting, no nonsense character on the big screen.

Depp’s character, Joe Pistone, infiltrates the New York mafia under the guise of Donnie Brasco where he befriends Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) and works undercover to expose mafia leader Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).

It is through the Depp/Pacino on-screen dynamic that this film separates itself from simply being another cliched 90s gangster, mafia type ordeal. Pacino plays a much more heartfelt character while channelling all the qualities (loud voice, edgy movements, alluring eyes) that have underpinned his performances prior.

Depp compliments Pacino’s supporting role by matching him in those qualities while also proving that he has more reach as an actor should he be offered the right role to display it. He plays the anxiousness of this character so effectively and you can sense the difficulty of his characters position as an informant through this anxiousness.

4. Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994)
Johnny Depp as Ed Wood

The first of two Tim Burton collaborations on this list, Ed Wood is perhaps best known for Martin Landau’s Oscar winning support performance, but Johnny Depp’s portrayal as the titular cult classic filmmaker was just as profound.

Like the real Edward Wood, Depp has certain eccentricities that can come across as quite peculiar, and they have allowed him to play strange characters, like Wood, on-screen in ways that other actors would not have. Depp’s casting as Wood can be considered a “perfect fit” by Richard Dyer’s work on Star Theory, as his star image fits perfectly with all the traits of the character, and he leans into the strangeness of Tim Burton’s own unique vision to bring the character to life.

In this way, Depp’s performance as Ed Wood is the first real instance where the actor finds a balance between the humorous characteristics he would later inject into his performances to a greater extent, as well as the more heightened moments of ecstaticity.

3. John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009)
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

Depp’s performance as the notorious American gangster/outlaw John Dillinger is perhaps the most contentious on this list. That might be due to the film in question, with Public Enemies being one of Michael Mann’s less layered works compared to say Heat (1995) or Collateral (2004), but it works because Mann is able to get the best out of his performers.

John Dillinger was evidently quite a misunderstood man by Mann’s depiction as he was more interested in taking from the state rather than from regular folk and found a certain connection to the people, and they to him. Depp can be seen as quite a misunderstood figure as well if not for his really uncanny demeanour, then definitely for the way he approaches his work and collaborations.

His performance as Dillinger is quite a strong one in that sense and it also represents a return to performances and films more akin to Donnie Brasco and a later mafia-esque film in Black Mass (2015).

2. Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands is easily one of Depp’s best performances due to how well the actor brings Tim Burton’s interest in outsiders and outcasts to light. Burton has never been shy on exploring characters who separate themselves from the public eye (like in his Batman films) or characters immersed in strange, gothic settings (like in 1988’s Beetlejuice).

A large reason why films like Edward Scissorhands and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) work is because the synergy between Depp and Burton allows them to get to the heart of why these characters are the way they are.

There’s no doubt that Burton has nurtured Depp’s performances in ways other directors haven’t, but it’s in that very strangeness where Depp is at his best and can convince you that there could well be someone like Edward Scissorhands (figuratively speaking) out there. This performance is one of his best due to how well he uses his facial expressions, physicality and gestures, as the character rarely (if ever) actually speaks.

1. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017)
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow

It wouldn’t be a ‘best performances by Johnny Depp list’ without the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow. Aside from the fact that Gore Verbinski’s original Pirates trilogy is one of the most audacious and well worked in cinema history, it simply wouldn’t be as memorable without Depp’s very individualised performance as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Depp not only imbued Sparrow with his own signature idiosyncrasies and oddness, but he also drove a majority of the creative choices around the character. From the Pepé Le Pew and Keith Richards inspired look/feel, to the very specifics of how he walked and talked — this character went against the grain of expectation that Disney had initially wanted.

Depp subverted the image of how pirates historically acted and carried themselves by playing the role in a very caricature like manner. He injected Sparrow with a certain flamboyance courtesy of his gestures, and gave him a drunken demeanour even when Sparrow was at his most sober. Depp went as far as to suggest that the character should walk normally when he is on the ship, while being off-kilter and erratic when on land.

All of these choices alongside the bravado with which Depp delivered them through his performative toolkit are what gave the Pirates franchise such clear bearings. There is no Pirates of the Caribbean without Jack Sparrow and there is no Jack Sparrow without Johnny Depp.

Notable omissions: Sweeny Todd in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), William Blake in Dead Man (1995), and Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999).

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 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 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.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a Sensory Overload

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

So rarely will a group of people in a theatre howl with glee and terror in equal measure while watching a film, but that is the reaction that directing duo Daniel’s (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) newest feature Everything Everywhere All at Once elicits throughout its 144-minute runtime.

The film follows the Wang family, helmed by matriarch Evelyn (the legendary Michelle Yeoh), who is preparing for an audit from the IRS, full-time work in her struggling laundromat, Evelyn’s father Gong Gong (James Hong) arriving that morning from China, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) trying to give her divorce papers, and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) trying to get her mother to accept her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel). Everything is happening everywhere all at once for Evelyn, and this is all before the threat of the multiverse collapsing has entered their lives. Shock and extremity is the name of the game for Daniels so I won’t be spoiling any moment here as they would lessen the impact.

It would be so simple for Daniel’s to toss aside this opening act to get into the zany adventures in the centre of the film, but it is clear from the jump that the entire emotional weight is set up at the beginning and is allowed to mature over the runtime. This is what makes the great weird films like Back to the Future (1984) work for audiences, a clear goal and set of stakes for the story being told that is established in the opening 20-minutes, working as the firm ground to stand on as a hurricane of madness whirs around you for the rest of the film.

Those unfamiliar with the directing duo’s previous film Swiss Army Man (2016) will be taken aback by the pair’s slapstick and crude humour, as well as their frenetic pace between visually creative moments. Daniel’s crashed into the scene with their work in music videos – a common pathway for some of the industry’s best visual stylists (Michael Bay and David Fincher to name a few) – with the iconic Turn Down for What by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, one of the most-watched music videos ever. While it’s clear in their previous works the directing pair have filmmaking chops to spare, they achieve a greater scope and emotional weight in Everything Everywhere that matches with their visual creativity, a balancing act that is quite astounding.

Stephanie Hsu (left) as Joy, Michelle Yeoh (centre) as Evelyn, and Ke Huy Quan (right) as Waymond in Everything Everywhere All at Once

Floating along a constant stream of intertextuality, self-referentiality, and reverence to the films that paved the way to gift this film into audiences’ laps (The Matrix (1999), In The Mood for Love (2000), any Charlie Kaufman film), Everything Everywhere feels like a cinematic miracle that is at risk of breaking at any point. We’ve all made food (let’s say, a bagel) that we’ve overstuffed with nothing but things we enjoy eating, not realising until it’s too late that the meal has tipped over the edge into being inedible, or at the very least a meal spoilt by clashing ingredients. Like tastebuds, every person will respond to the film’s propulsive mania in different ways which are exciting, making the viewing experience with a packed audience all the more rewarding.

Everything Everywhere is a technical marvel of small budget filmmaking, from its mind-blowing costume and production design to its sound design and visual effects, but the real hero of the film is editor Paul Rogers. Rogers’ work here is nothing short of miraculous. Tasked with building a feverish momentum for over two hours while having each individual emotional moment land as impact-fully as each comedic or absurdist one. Rogers moulds the filmmaking duo’s creative madness into a deeply resonant and enjoyable film, not just another overly ambitious indie that feels more like a creative dare than a work of art with deep truths.

The film also wouldn’t work as well as it does without a perfect collection of onscreen talent that is all game for the absurdity being thrown at them. Whether it’s with IRS agent Jamie-Lee Curtis who is up for all manner of madness here and is having a blast, to Stephanie Hsu as Joy, who quickly becomes the emotional and narrative crux of the narrative, elevating an already entertaining film to transcendent levels. I am deeply looking forward to what else Hsu and Daniels can achieve together. 

The film works similarly to the hyper pop genre in modern music. Both Everything Everywhere and hyper pop are mining pure emotion within the heart of excess and artifice. The movement is a direct response to the nihilism and despair of the 90s and 00s with artists like Charli XCX and the PC Music label paving the way. This form of hyper-aware, hyper-stylised emotive filmmaking operates just like a Charli XCX album; bouncing around multiple ideas with youthful energy, whilst never losing its heart and emotion. It is truly thrilling to see a similar approach made in cinema.

Some may call this film exhausting, and perhaps on a different day I may agree, so I can’t guarantee how you will feel until you witness what Daniels are doing here. But, I would stress to anyone who has seen the film and felt it exhausting, please see it again as your mood at the time you see this will heavily influence what you think of it, and it is definitely worth your time.

The Everything Everywhere All at Once is in theatres now.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Celebrates Nicolas Cage

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are actors and then there are actors, but there’s also Nicolas Cage, a thespian unlike any other who has long been swimming in his own pool of creativity, films and the characters left in their wake. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) represents a celebration of all things Nic Cage, serving as its own museum that displays (quite literally) some of Nic’s most iconic on-screen moments, characters and artifacts while at the same time offering an enjoyable buddy-up action comedy.

Out of all the odd and unique actors throughout cinema history, it seems fitting that it would be Nicolas Cage who would play a hyper-fictionalised version of himself to such an extent. The actor’s unrivalled commitment to exploring all aspects of his craft has seen him play some of the most craze-filled (Red in 2019’s Mandy, Caster Troy/Sean Archer in 1997’s Face/Off) and heartfelt (Robin in 2021’s Pig, Joe Ransom in 2013’s Joe) characters of all time.

What Director Tom Gormican has provided with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a service to all fans of Cage. With Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage) running short on money and struggling to balance his work and home life, he decides to take his agent’s (Neil Patrick Harris) advice to attend a birthday party for Cage superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) and get paid $1 million. What Nick doesn’t realise is that behind the lovey-dovey, Cage-admiring Javi, is a drug kingpin, crime family and a missing girl. Unbeknownst to Nick, CIA agent Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) plants a tracking device on him and soon informs him of Javi’s dangerous side. It is up to Cage to find the truth of it all by channelling his most iconic screen characters to save himself and those around him.

The film plays out like a pastiche on the body of Cage’s work while also offering something new in the way of performance. Cage has often spoken of his “nouveau shamanic” neologism as an approach to performance that tries to get to the essence of a character through a deeper engagement with one’s imagination — ultimately enabling a performance that is as true as can be. He has also said in a recent Reddit AMA (ask me anything) that playing Nick Cage was the most challenging role he has taken on, with the need to “protect a person named Nick Cage” and make sure that he “facilitated the director’s absurdist vision of so-called Nick Cage”.

Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

It’s no surprise then that even for an actor of Cage’s calibre, it would take more than a “nouveau shamanic” approach to performance to truly play Nick Cage. But play Cage, Nicolas Cage does, as he brings all of his signature idiosyncrasies to the table: explosive moments of rage, overzealous mannerisms, signature one liners and so forth. There is a level of self-awareness here that never borders on excessiveness as Cage plays into these idiosyncrasies in a way that would speak to Gormican’s absurdist vision of what a hyper-fictionalised version of the actor and his life would look and feel like.

It’s easy for films to poke too much fun at their source material to the point where they overdo it — like in This is the End (2013). Ultimately, there is a still a need to provide a plot that brings everything together and serves a purpose beyond the gimmicks, and fortunately Gormican manages to keep a level head amongst the excitement of it all. Gormican uses the situation that Nick finds himself in to prompt the action that follows while at the same time managing to bring it all back to the crux that is Cage. The fact that Javi isn’t an unlikable antagonist (or an antagonist at all really) also helps to keep it light hearted and grounded, even with the tonal shift that happens around the second act.

It is quite fitting that, out of all the moments of overblown absurdity, the most striking moment —Nick Cage French-kissing a young, Wild at Heart (1990) era Cage— would come from the mind of Cage himself. The film pays homage to outlandish moments like this from the actor’s career and yet the process of making this film has brought another intrinsically “Nicolas Cage” moment; this moment hits like the smell of sea salt as you make your way to the beach for the first time in the summer, and it’s a beautiful feeling.

Never short on pop culture references (any mention of 2017’s Paddington 2 is always welcome) and always set on celebrating the cultural significance of its star lead, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is everything fans of Nicolas Cage will have wanted it to be and more. While having massive talent might be unbearable, a film with Nicolas Cage playing Nick Cage is anything but unbearable — it might just be what cinema and the world has been missing.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens nationally from the 21st of April, 2022

94th Academy Awards: Predictions

There are just a few mere hours until this year’s Oscars ceremony, and the team at Rating Frames are feeling more excited than ever, eagerly awaiting the live telecast and yearning to see who will be victorious.

As with most cinephiles, the three resident writers at this site have been making their prognostications as to what, or who, will win in each category, and will be putting them to the test come Monday morning, when the ceremony is scheduled to begin Melbourne time.

Below are the films that Arnel, Darcy and Tom are predicting will walk away with a coveted statuette at the 94th Academy Awards, and their personal vote, in each category.

Best Picture

What will win // What deserves to win

Arnel: The Power of the Dog // Licorice Pizza

Darcy: CODA // Drive My Car

Tom: The Power of the Dog // Drive My Car

Best Director

Arnel: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Darcy: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Tom: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car)

Best Actor

Arnel: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) // Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)

Darcy: Will Smith (King Richard) // Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) // Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)

Best Actress

Arnel: Kristen Stewart (Spencer) // Kristen Stewart (Spencer)

Darcy: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) // Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers)

Tom: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) // Kristen Stewart (Spencer)

Best Supporting Actor

Arnel: Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog) // Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog)

Darcy: Troy Kotsur (CODA) // Kodi Smit-Mcphee (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Troy Kotsur (CODA) // Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog)

Best Supporting Actress

Arnel: Kristen Dunst (The Power of the Dog) // Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter)

Darcy: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) // Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter)

Tom: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) // Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog)

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza
Best Original Screenplay

Arnel: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Darcy: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Tom: Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) // Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier (The Worst Person in the World)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Arnel: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Jon Spaihts, Dennis Villeneuve & Eric Roth (Dune)

Darcy: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe (Drive Me Car)

Tom: Sian Heder (CODA) // Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe (Drive Me Car)

Best Animated Feature

Arnel: Encanto // The Mitchells vs The Machines

Darcy: Encanto // The Mitchells vs The Machines

Tom: Encanto // The Mitchells vs The Machines

Best International Feature

Arnel: Drive My Car // The Worst Person in the World

Darcy: Drive My Car // Drive My Car

Tom: Drive My Car // Drive My Car

Best Documentary Feature

Arnel: Summer of Soul // Summer of Soul

Darcy: Summer of Soul // Flee

Tom: Summer of Soul // Summer of Soul

Stevie Wonder performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in Summer of Soul
Best Documentary Short Subject

Arnel: The Queen of Basketball

Darcy: The Queen of Basketball

Tom: The Queen of Basketball

Best Live-Action Short

Arnel: On My Mind

Darcy: The Long Goodbye

Tom: The Long Goodbye

Best Animated Short

Arnel: Bestia

Darcy: Robin Robin

Tom: Bestia

Best Original Score

Arnel: Hans Zimmer (Dune) // Hans Zimmer (Dune)

Darcy: Hans Zimmer (Dune) // Jonny Greenwood (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Hans Zimmer (Dune) // Hans Zimmer (Dune)

Best Original Song

Arnel: No Time to Die // No Time to Die

Darcy: No Time to Die // No Time to Die

Tom: No Time to Die // Encanto

Timothee Chalamet in Dune
Best Sound

Arnel: Dune // Dune

Darcy: Dune // Dune

Tom: Dune // Dune

Best Production Design

Arnel: Dune // Dune

Darcy: Dune // Dune

Tom: Dune // Dune

Best Cinematography

Arnel: Greig Fraser (Dune) // Greig Fraser (Dune)

Darcy: Greig Fraser (Dune) // Greig Fraser (Dune)

Tom: Greig Fraser (Dune) // Greig Fraser (Dune)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Arnel: Cruella // House of Gucci

Darcy: The Eyes of Tammy Faye // The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tom: The Eyes of Tammy Faye // Cruella

Best Costume Design

Arnel: Jenny Beavan (Cruella) // Jenny Beavan (Cruella)

Darcy: Jenny Beavan (Cruella) // Jenny Beavan (Cruella)

Tom: Jenny Beavan (Cruella) // Jenny Beavan (Cruella)

Best Film Editing

Arnel: Joe Walker (Dune) // Joe Walker (Dune)

Darcy: Joe Walker (Dune)// Peter Sciberras (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Joe Walker (Dune)// Joe Walker (Dune)

Best Visual Effects

Arnel: Dune // Dune

Darcy: Dune // Dune

Tom: Dune // Spider-Man: No Way Home

The Art of the Murakami Adaptation

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

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

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

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

Drive My Car 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Burning 

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

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

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

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

“Of course I am,” she replied.

Three months later she was back, …

Barn Burning pg.2

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

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

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

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

Jeon Jong-seo in Burning

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

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

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

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

Steven Yeun in Burning



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

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

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

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

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.

The Batman is a Wonderfully Grimy Noir in Superhero Clothes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman

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

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

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