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.

Behold the Ineffectual Sequel, Death on the Nile

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the Nile is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

Kimi is a True Covid-era Thriller

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Zoë Kravitz as Angela Childs in Kimi

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

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

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

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

Zoë Kravitz in Kimi

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

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

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

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

Kimi, play Sabotage.

Kimi is currently streaming on Binge and HBO Max.

Neeson Returns as a Grizzled Action Hero in Blacklight

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Blacklight screener provided by Rialto Distribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wes Anderson Triumphs Again with The French Dispatch

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in The French Dispatch

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

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

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

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

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