See How They Run is a Delightful Farce

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A film seemingly designed to be released in between Knives Out films, See How They Run (2022) is a star-studded period comedy that feels perfect for a Sunday matinee, but perhaps not for an opening night. The film includes wonderful comedic turns from some of our best performers with Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, Adrien Brody, and David Oyelowo. 

The 1950s, London West-End set farce, centred around the longest-running ever show, the murder mystery The Mousetrap, which has its run abruptly ended when the director (Brody) of a planned filmed version of the play is murdered. If you think that’s a rather meta plot for a film, that’s just scratching the surface of the meta-textual humour that is the engine of Mark Chappell’s script.

It’s the similar meta, postmodern humour that can be seen more and more often in film and television, usually with tiring results. For every example of 2016’s Fleabag (the best modern use of meta humour), there are your She-Hulk’s (2022) and Deadpool’s (2016). These latter shows and films use their meta humour to address the script’s flaws whilst never truly experimenting with its form. This is a trend that may be the prevailing screenwriting quirk of the past 15 years and that is quite an upsetting thought. See How They Run at least bakes its meta humour into its conceit, as a whodunit inside of a play version of a whodunit, with the ambitions of being adapted into a film.

See How They Run laces in the real aspects of the era (Richard Attenborough is the lead in the play, performed by Harris Dickinson), with the fictional characters of Constable Stalker (Ronan) and Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell, named after the esteemed playwright). 

Sam Rockwell (left) and Saoirse Ronan (right) in See How They Run. Searchlight Pictures

The ensemble is clearly delighted to be involved in this farcical production, something that is palpable in every scene, especially by Ronan who is having a blast with the script. Brody appears to have walked directly off the set of The French Dispatch (2021) and into this film, with the same energy and acerbic tone that makes his inevitable demise all the more understandable. 

The screenplay is full of wonderfully funny moments, especially when it choses a more jovial whimsy tone over caustic, a style that doesn’t not fit into the rest of the film. There is an inconsistency to the tone and filmmaking style, like the film is being pulled apart at the seams. For as many funny sequences the filmmakers throw at you, there is an equal amount of dead air which creates an unevenness to the film. This dead air is also extended to the frame, with a curious choice made to extend the headroom on most shots. With a film scattered with Wes Anderson frame homages, these choices are jarring and dislocate the characters from their environments more than they are welcomed into them.

The film is straining itself in its clever pursuits, which is no better illustrated than having all the characters coalesce in Agatha Christie’s house for the inevitable final act reveal. Many jokes land, but then consistently go a step further to wink at its audience. Too often the film sprints over the line of meta-commentary most films toe over. There is a screenwriting expression “hanging a lantern” which refers to illuminating a flaw in a story for the audience in an attempt to disguise it. In the case of See How They Run, stadium floodlights are used in every room.

See How They Run is in theatres nationwide now.

Ticket to Paradise Revives the Rom-Com

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The heyday of the rom-com might be behind us, but a film like Ol Parker’s Ticket to Paradise (2022) is a stark reminder that there may still be hope for the subgenre. In fact, a ‘ticket to paradise’ is exactly what’s on offer in this George Clooney/Julia Roberts helmed feel-good flick, and that might just be what the once thriving subgenre has been missing.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been the odd romedy in recent years, with Long Shot (2019), Marry Me (2022) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) all coming to mind. But until Ticket to Paradise, there hasn’t really been a rom-com that one can firmly say is reminiscent of the biggest and best the subgenre has to offer. Titles like Notting Hill (1999), Pretty Woman (1990), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and my personal favourite, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), in many ways defined what a romantic comedy is, what it looks like, and what sort of faces work in bringing these far-fetched stories to life.

One of those —and perhaps the most prominent— is Julia Roberts. No other name is as synonymous with rom-coms as her, with the proof being in the pudding of some of those aforementioned titles. She brings a certain warmth and infectious magnetism that reminds viewers that everything will be okay, even though that is known long before you’ve even entered the cinema. But when you pair Roberts with Clooney, you’ve got a recipe for success.

The dynamic duo, re-united for the first time since Money Monster (2016), play a divorced couple who want nothing to do with each other. It’s their daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), however, who acts as the bridge that keeps the two connected; this so much so that her abrupt decision to marry a Balinese seaweed farmer, Gede (Maxime Bouttier) while holidaying in Bali is the perfect dilemma to bring her estranged parents back together, but for a common cause — to prevent her from throwing her life and career away in a rash decision.

(from left) Wren (Billie Lourd, back to camera), Gede (Maxime Bouttier) and Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) in Ticket to Paradise, directed by Ol Parker.

The premise is about as rom-com centric as can be: you have a star-led couple who loathe each other (tick), you have the obstacle that ultimately brings the characters together (tick), and you have a tropical setting that builds and restores love (tick). These are obviously ingredients that have been employed in films like Couples Retreat (2009) and Just Go With it (2011), and they can be moulded to fit different romedies.

With Ticket to Paradise, however, Parker knows how to make the most of these elements. He lets his star duo play off of each other with such an ease and with the room to adlib if necessary. Of course, being the Hollywood heavyweights that they are and maintaining a great friendship off screen, that’s hardly difficult for Clooney and Roberts. But it’s in the way Parker frames his actors and how, even with the predictability of where the film is going, he is able to maintain this finesse in getting you where you need to go plot wise.

It’s something that’s often lacking in modern romedies where, like Couples Retreat or Just Go With It, too often the dialogue falls flat as most of it is throwaway for the sake of a cheap laugh. Even with the constant verbal jousts that Clooney and Roberts display, there is a method to their madness, and it isn’t without purpose. It ultimately makes that predictable ending all the more worthwhile as, like the characters who fall for each other either for the first time or those that fall for each other all over again, the audience is nurtured to fall for them as well when all is said and done.

In order to get that point though, Georgia (Roberts) and David (Clooney) have to act like the cool, calm and collected adults they know they aren’t. Doing all they can to sabotage the wedding, Georgia and David engage in childlike antics. Whether that’s nabbing the rings from the young and oblivious child ring bearer or setting up a tour of a temple that curses all unmarried couples, there isn’t a shortage of things they won’t do to prolong the wedding.

At the end though, Ticket to Paradise is a reminder that no two people are the same, and by extension no two paths are the same. Nothing is ever set in stone if you don’t want it to be, be it a career choice or a divorce. Love ultimately triumphs, or at the very least, the realisation that not everything has to be planned out — sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

Ticket to Paradise is screening in cinemas nationwide.

Avatar Remastered, Revisited

The highest grossing film of all time when not adjusting for inflation (1939’s Gone with the Wind will always have that title), not based on established IP, and created by Steven Spielberg’s successor as king of the blockbuster James Cameron, should have an indelible mark on 21st Century culture, right? 

2009’s Avatar is perhaps the most curious artefact in the history of cinema. At once a totemic text seen by an entire generation, reviving 3D as the preferred medium for primetime blockbuster entertainment (as well as leading electronics companies to release 3D TV’s), until audiences grew weary years later. And yet, why does the film seem to lack any form of lasting cultural imprint?

This is a film Roger Ebert opened his four-star review by stating, “Watching “Avatar,” I felt sort of the same as when I saw “Star Wars” in 1977.” So, why does a film celebrated by critics and seen by an enormous audience at the time feel so disconnected from cinema history and modern culture?

Now, in 2022, 20th Century Fox (now owned by Disney) has remastered Avatar, putting it back in theatres before the release of Avatar 2: The Way of Water (2022). I was not writing about films when the film was in theatres in 2009, but I was among the masses that saw the film in IMAX, an experience that left a mark on my psyche, even if the film itself did not. By remastering and rereleasing the film into theatres upon the release of its long gestated sequel, they are giving a new generation the opportunity to live through that again, but does it hold up?

Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri in Avatar

Surprisingly, it really does. The film is an 80s action film dressed in the clothes of a 21st sci-fi epic. The performances are hammy (Stephen Lang is an all-time 80s villain in this), creating a buoyancy between scenes. This buoyancy allows Cameron to do what he does better than almost any filmmaker; pace an engaging film, no matter the runtime. Genuinely one of the breeziest 160+ minute films you’re likely to see, something that has been severely lacking in modern Hollywood filmmaking.

Visually, the film is without comparison. It is ridiculous to consider the budget for the film is akin to this year’s The Gray Man, the cinematic equivalent of a beige wall. The visuals have been upscaled and remastered for this new version returning to cinemas and is remarkable to see a film of this quality on screen, especially within a quiet month of theatrical releases. Cameron has always been able to get the most out of a budget, finding new ways to scale up even an enormous sci-fi epic. 

Avatar was once the story of the 2000s, and as we get further away from its release the clearer it is that the film excels in stark contrast to modern blockbuster filmmaking. You could do a lot worse this weekend than seeing the somehow ill-remembered, but still high-quality mega-blockbuster from one of Hollywood’s living legends.

Avatar Remastered is having a limited release in theatres from September 22nd.

MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit the Road is a Road Trip Worth Savouring 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Road trip comedies have always been an effective vehicle for cinema, especially for low-budget indie filmmaking. Forcing a collection of people, whether it be friends, family, or strangers, into a contained space for long stretches of time allows comedy and drama to play out in unique ways, assuming the dialogue is airtight. 

A gorgeously written, confident, and assured debut by the son of famed Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, Hit the Road (2021), wipes away any thought of nepotism in its opening frames. The film feels deeply personal to the story of the Panahi family but is never weighed down by their history. This is due to the film being a comedy-focused film used to buoy not just the scenes, but also the characters who are using humour to hold the serious nature of their trip at bay.

What stands out immediately with the film is the beautifully realistic direction of a family, all with specific, nuanced dynamics that play out in an always engrossing comic drama. Panahi mines the relationships between all four characters to their emotional core with impressive brevity. So many debuts suffer from over-explaining plots or character motives that bog down strong scripts, something Panahi has seemingly mastered already.

Hit the Road operates with such economical storytelling through its extraordinary collection of performances, with a true firecracker from Rayan Sarlak as the 9-year-old brother. The way the family interact with him is a constant source of humour, with a late scene suggesting that the father gets up earlier and earlier each morning to get some time away from his manic energy. 

Mohammad Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha, and Rayan Sarlak in Hit the Road. Screening provided by Rialto Distribution.

Compositionally, the film is gorgeous and begs to be seen on the big screen. Panahi and cinematographer Amin Jafari capture both the sprawling vistas and confined car sequences with a considered lens. They allow the emotion and tension to play out in contrast in these two locations; the vistas allow the weather and distance to exude emotion, while the confined interiors of the car force us into the family trip and all of its complications.

There is an engrossing amount of ambiguity as to the situation of the family, something that is only amplified by their hesitancy to talk about it at all that is true to their dynamic. The comedy is at the forefront of the film, with Sarlak’s performance as its engine. Even in scenes where he isn’t the focus, his presence is never absent.

Panahi plays not just with what’s seen and not seen in terms of mise en scene, but also with the edges of the family’s story. There is a confidence in the piecemealing out of the family’s backstory, knowing that the strong dialogue and performances will keep the audience engaged instead of focusing purely on the mystery of their trip.

But that mystery is what heightens so many scenes. It works as the riveting narrative pull, running through the entire film, asking us why. Why is this family on a road trip? Why is the mother so concerned as to bury her 9-year-old son’s phone on the side of the road? Why is the driver so crippled with apparent anxiety as to barely speak in the first act? Panahi stretches these questions out, allowing us to peer into the window of this family’s lives and our imagination to run wild with ideas, all within the confines of their small car.

Hit the Road is one of the year’s best films, and a powerful debut to remember. It works as a political thriller, road trip comedy, and family drama all at once, with a keen eye for cinematic storytelling. With a standout cast that is sure to make a star out of Sarlak, this is a trip you don’t want to miss.

Hit the Road is in select cinemas now.

MIFF 22: Cheap Laughs Abound as Triangle of Sadness Lays Waste to the Wealthy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In Ruben Östlund’s latest overblown, satirical romp, Triangle of Sadness (2022), there is a wealthy German stroke survivor whose only words of communication are “in der wolken” (translated: in the clouds). It’s a phrase she yells out countlessly across the film to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if it pops its head in like an M. Night Shyamalan twist at the film’s close. It never does though, but it perfectly captures the underlying message behind Östlund’s rich ripping, caste crushing film — the wealthy just love to live in the clouds, out of touch with reality, no matter how dire a situation can get.

While most of the rich folk in this film are overblown caricatures that breach the threshold of excessiveness, for Östlund, excessiveness is the name of the game. Structuring his film into three chapters (three edges that make up a “Triangle of Sadness”, if you will), Östlund takes aim at the false pretences that the wealthy hide behind — fancy yachts, material goods like Rolex watches, and cosmetic procedures among other things — and bares them for viewers in all their grotesqueness. It’s nothing that hasn’t been depicted throughout cinema history in the past (2013’s The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind from recent films), but Östlund isn’t privy to subtlety, rather, he’s going all in until you’re either exhausted, squeamish, or both.  

Where there is beauty, there is deceit — at least that’s part of the message that underpins Triangle of Sadness. Set on a luxurious yacht for the most part, the film is comprised of a solid ensemble that plays seamlessly off of Östlund’s material and each other. It’s Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), two models and partners-with-benefits, that serve as the entry point into the mayhem that ensues. Both characters skimp by on their looks, and it’s part of the reason they find themselves in the company of millionaires and billionaires on the aforementioned yacht as Yaya is gifted a free trip courtesy of her influencer status.

On the ship we find a bunch of rich folk and everyone in-between including the ship’s crew. There’s a British couple who boast about their contribution to the munitions industry including their role in creating land mines and hand grenades (which Östlund returns to in explosive fashion); a down-on-his-luck code-seller whose partner didn’t join him on the cruise; the vessel’s drunk captain (Woody Harrelson); a Russian billionaire who made his money selling manure; and the chief stew of the ship, among others.

Charlbi Dean Kriek in Triangle of Sadness

Each character has a role to play in Östlund’s charade as events spiral from controlled to chaotic in an instant. He rocks the boat to the point where characters are literally spewing their guts out (of both ends) after a slimy buffet and storm, he throws in a pirate attack at one point, and in the third act he leaves some characters stranded on an island where he flips the hierarchical triangle on its head.

There’s a lot happening in Triangle of Sadness to the point where you can feel the lengthy runtime weighing proceedings down. This is undoubtedly a conscious choice on Östlund’s part as he leans into the satire he is going for to create an equally exhausting experience for his characters (especially in that third act).

At times it feels like his screenplay is made up of a bunch of short films or mini sketches that have just been welded together. There’s a scene involving the yacht’s captain and the rich Russian Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) as they indulge in a Marxist and capitalist back-and-forth while playing a drinking game that they continue in the captains quarters over the yacht’s PA system. There’s also a sexploitation sequence on the island portion of the film where the yacht’s Toilet Manager pays Carl for his services with pretzel sticks and shelter. All of these sequences are comical, but there’s never greater substance or deeper subliminal messaging beyond the superficiality of being rich and the vanity of these characters.

Triangle of Sadness is at its best during its first half, where it plays around with ideas of inadequacy and superficiality at a more measured level. The longer the film chugs on though, the more it tailspins into a cartoonish satire that trades subtlety for unhinged chaos, where you’re fed what you know and nothing more.

Triangle of Sadness hits Australian cinemas in late December.

MIFF 22: Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is a Beautiful Portrait of Resilience

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After making a festival run in 2021, including being selected as the Chadian entry for last year’s Academy Awards, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s engrossing and often stunning family drama Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (2021) arrives at MIFF with acclaim. The film is slight, coming in at just 87 minutes, but is always deeply engaging.

We begin with a dedicated Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother crafting intricate stoves out of the wiring in car tyres to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) in the Chadian city of N’Djamena. The sequence is shot beautifully, as most scenes are by cinematographer Mathieu Giombini, focusing on Amina’s breathing and her drive to support her family. 

What Amina does not yet know is she will have to do much more to support Maria, who she is soon to learn is pregnant, and wants an abortion. We learn of this with Amina through a meeting with Maria’s school principal, who informs her she has been expelled because of her pregnancy, stating that it’s “bad for our image.” This explanation is heartbreaking to hear, especially from a woman similar in age to Amina.

What follows is a gripping confrontation between mother and daughter in one of the most extraordinary framed and blocked sequences of the film that is truly stunning. There is a certain grace Haroun is deliberately pairing with the harshness of this confrontation and circumstance that is where the film truly clicks into place and becomes quite special.

Achouackh Abakar Souleymane in Lingui, the Sacred Bonds. Screening provided by Rialto Distribution.

I hesitate to call this an abortion drama, as the film is much more focused on the mother-daughter and the bonds they hold as the navigate their city, religion, and their perception. While similar subject matter has been shown with a clinical harshness to harness the stark reality in films like Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (2020) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Haroun instead centres this story on the community of women that have to support one another in this city. 

The beauty in the film comes from seeing these two women grow in front of our eyes, a remarkable achievement in character work in such a slender film. The pair of performances from Souleymane and Alio are quite special. They are able to embody the quiet, seething rage necessary, as well as the desperation the story requires. Many of these stories can be guilty of wallowing in despair and misery of the characters’ situation, something Haroun is able to navigate around remarkably. Lingui is always focused on its namesake, the bonds between the women of the film, rather than the situation they are in.

There is a remarkable level of restraint that only heightens the dramatic tension scene to scene. Haroun avoids any clean outs in the story, so even with its slender frame, Lingui never feels predictable or dishonest. It is slow to unfold, but once it does you will be struck by its elegance and beauty. The performances and frame widen and lighten that makes the restrained opening worthwhile. If the beginning of the film is a tight series of hyperventilating inhales, the final act feels more like a relieving exhale.

There is a maternal warmth that emanates throughout the film’s female characters, illuminating the necessary bonds these women have with each other in the city that is truly powerful. Depictions of this are so fleeting in film, especially by a male filmmaker, that makes the film so captivating and fresh. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds move slowly on its course, but once the end of the tunnel is in sight, you will be astounded by how much it affects you.

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds will be in select theatres till August 21st and on MIFF Play from August 12th to 28th.

MIFF 22: Rewind & Play is a Must-See for Jazz Fans

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Taking place at the conclusion of Jazz titan Thelonious Monk’s European tour in 1969 on the French TV show Jazz Portrait, Rewind and Play (2022) gives us a window into how he was treated by even those that believed they were celebrating his genius. French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis uncovered this footage while working on a fictional, mosaic film based on the legendary musician. This is the filmmaker’s first documentary feature and is a remarkably selfless act to show this footage of unflinching honesty to a broader audience. 

Similar in style to Peter Jackson’s miracle of a Beatles documentary Get Back (2021), Rewind and Play gives us a window into one of Jazz’s biggest figures playing his instrument to what is ostensibly no audience. That alone is worth the price of admission. 

Right at the beginning of the film, you are struck by Monk, hunched and dripping with sweat. His exhausted breathing slowly overwhelms the rest of the audio, drowning out the host. In a film with a strong restraint in editorialisation of footage, Gomis from the first minute of screen time shows that he wants us to feel the harsh lights and environment the legendary pianist finds himself in. Gomis, throughout the documentary, uses Monk’s words and, more importantly, his piano, to drown out the words of those around him.

As soon as the host Henri Renaud begins to interview Monk, the callous and horrible treatment we are soon to endure rears its ugly head. When asked about his first time in France, Monk immediately mentions how he was ossified, something the host doesn’t want to be included in the show, as “it’s not nice”. The statement is also used by Gomis in the film’s opening credits.

Thelonious Monk in Rewind & Play. Screening provided by Andolfi Productions

Monk, like many musicians, communicates through his instrument. The language barrier is larger than the English and French divide here. He is clearly uncomfortable discussing his life, especially in front of a piano that he would rather be playing. Renaud is constantly interjecting his own experiences with Monk throughout the show, while also lazily translating what the pianist is saying back into French, usually in service of himself. The lack of respect and even acknowledgement of Monk’s playing is beyond frustrating, something we see draped across his face constantly.

The sadness from the documentary comes from Monk’s constant civility, coupled with an inability, or lack of desire, to combat with the host and crew on this french late night show. This is not James Baldwin on the couch of a French talk show trading barbs, Monk can only talk his frustrations out on the Steinway in front of him.

The repetition and rigidness of the talk show format is such an antithesis to the early jazz style, which centred on free-flowing, emotive pieces that had no desire to be replicated. The power of the Blue Note jazz movement came from the spontaneous outbursts in creative musicality that can be shared with an audience.

To have one of Jazz’s preeminent figures reduced to essentially a hotel lobby pianist is truly heartbreaking. And it’s not like these tv producers have an issue with the musician. They clearly adore Monk’s music and place in modern Jazz, but they cannot help themselves with their stereotypical ideas about him.

Gomis ironically closes the film with a cross-cutting sequence of Monk playing as the host describes a story of seeing the musician in a Harlem club, playing during a knife fight. The host asked Monk after the club shut down “Thelonious, how come you had the nerve to go on playing?” To which Monk replied, “it was no big deal, there was no need to stop”. This quote perfectly encapsulates the legendary musician’s relationship with music and the chaos of the world around him, highlighting the host’s lack of understanding about the man he was dealing with, then and now.

Rewind & Play will be in select theatres from August 17th to 21st and on MIFF Play from August 12th.

MIFF 22: Millie Lies Low is a Propulsive Debut to Remember

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What would you do if a simple lie could get you out of an uncomfortable situation with the people you love? That is the central dilemma in this terrific debut feature out of New Zealand, a deeply relatable tale of anxiety that never shies away from the hard truths its protagonist desperately trying to avoid. Confidently directed by MIFF Accelerator alum Michelle Savill, Millie Lies Low (2021) embraces its titular character’s resourcefulness and willingness to keep the narrative alive with a relentless, anxiety-inducing farce that will break your heart.

The film tracks architecture student Millie’s web of lies and schemes as a result of her leaving the New York-bound plane on the tarmac due to a panic attack. Instead of returning home to organise a new flight, the anxious Millie (Ana Scotney) decides to create a facade through Zoom and Instagram to her friends and family that she has indeed arrived in the Big Apple.

The film is acted wonderfully and with real compassion by the whole ensemble, with Scotney a real breakout as Millie. A truly compelling lead that buoys the entire story. Scotney fills every inch of the frame with her manic, cunning, and deeply human presentation of an anxiety-filled, self-destructive young person who is impossible not to relate to on some level. There is a level of care and empathy the film takes in showing Millie digging herself further into this hole.

Co-written by Savill and Eli Kent, the film has real compassion for all its characters that allows the film to never devolve into gawking at the cringeworthy situations. All of the supporting characters are just that, true supporters who only want the best for Millie.

Much in the mould of modern anxiety-cinema staples like Good Time (2017) and Eighth Grade (2018), Millie Lies Low propels its narrative with reckless abandon. Before you can even scream out to tell Millie to release herself from this prison she has made for herself, she is already being flung into the next desperate attempt to keep the facade going. 

The narrative of Millie’s life is told with heartbreaking honesty, never giving us more than we need to work with scene to scene. Millie is a survivor who is capable of making quick decisions to continue on her path, even if they are detrimental to her in the long run. 

There is a terrific sequence where Millie is walking through her friend’s party, the night she is meant to have landed in New York, with a poncho and motorbike helmet on. She is able to overhear her friends talking about her, filling her with more anxiety and pain. Millie is able to move through the party like a phantom, a ghost peering into the lives of her friends without their knowledge. This sequence gives us a window into the other characters of the film while still allowing Scotney to maintain a literal presence on screen for the entire film’s runtime. 

Savill and cinematographer Andrew Stroud shoot Wellington in a truly cinematic way, with a clear inspiration stemming from the best of indie New York cinema. The New Zealand capital is captured by people who clearly adore the city, even within a narrative as heartbreaking as this one.

Ana Scotney as Millie in Millie Lies Low. Screening provided by Rialto Distribution.

Unfortunately, the final act felt quite unbalanced in comparison to the energy of the first hour as the many spinning plates Savill and Kent have been managing begin to slow, with the narrative beginning to lean on tropes and flimsy choices that are glaring in contrast to the impressive tightness of its relentless opening.

These sorts of anxiety-inducing, propulsive solo pieces work best with a deeply subjective camera, where any moment without its lead can suck the energy out of the space. Thankfully, Millie Lies Low understands this and maintains Scotney’s white-knuckled grip on her audience for the entire runtime. We are never able to release ourselves from her story, just as she is never able to remove us from witnessing it.

Millie Lies Low will be in select theatres from August 10th to 20th and on MIFF Play from August 12th.

Thor: Love and Thunder Brings Both in Equal Measure

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth collaborated on the wonderful Thor: Ragnarok (2017), no one would have foreseen the Marvel character entering its 11th year of films, with the possibility of many more, but here we are. The God of Thunder returns to the Marvel franchise with possibly the best comedy of the year in Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), the 4th instalment in a character that Waititi and Chris Hemsworth are able to bring the best out of consistently.

This time around, Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster returns to breathe new life into the franchise in a wonderfully charming performance. Her return feels like a notable response to the criticisms of the previous film, Thor: Ragnarok, which lacked a true emotional throughline. Adding to the emotional weight of the film is the inclusion of Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher, who is able to toe the line of outrageous superhero villain with real pathos that made Josh Brolin’s Thanos such a hit with audiences.

There are a suite of comedic bits throughout the film that place you firmly within the returning vibe of Waititi’s previous Marvel film, feeling closer in parts to his earliest work with Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) —the distant girlfriend-as-weapon bit feels taken straight from the show— a distinctly comedic tone that feels oftentimes removed from the Marvel house style. The film revolves more around its comedy set-pieces than its action ones, a refreshing shift for the franchise that has often had lacking action moments. Love and Thunder is a comedy-focused superhero film, with Waititi clearly given carte blanche to make the silliest and most enjoyable film possible. 

The more recent Marvel films, especially Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), have such a burden of being more than just a film about their hero that it drags down the emotional and narrative weight of the individual films. A key reason Love and Thunder works is due to its breezy and fresh narrative that flows in the absence of these burdens, allowing it to thrive in a similar way the first phase of Marvel properties do. Unfortunately, this appears to be a rarity in this newest phase of Marvel.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Marvel Studios’ THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

What really allows Love and Thunder to excel is the level of filmmaking craft top to bottom throughout. Chief Mandolorian cinematographer Barry Idoine joins the franchise, which is a major step up for him after working many years as a camera operator for the upper echelon of filmmakers in the industry including Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. Love and Thunder is constantly seeking to expand the visual dynamism of the Marvel style that has become well-trodden and allows it to feel weightless in comparison to other recent Marvel entries. 

Idoine and Waititi use the tone of the Thor scenes and the audience’s expectations for the film as a compelling counterpoint to the scenes with Bale’s Gorr, shot in borderline german expressionist shadows, mostly without a score or soundtrack, with one striking sequence taking place in a world with no colour. Being able to display a superhero story through tone and colour is an impressive feat the film is able to achieve and is the sort of craft audiences should seek out, even in franchise blockbuster entertainment.

Christian Bale as Gorr in Marvel Studios’ THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Sadly for audiences, the film is also potentially Taika’s final involvement with Marvel, moving onto a yet unnamed Star Wars film, as well as being in production on a live-action adaptation to the iconic 80’s anime film Akira (1988). Waititi is so comfortably able to imprint his writing and filmmaking style onto these super-budgeted films that are so beyond other filmmakers in the medium of the franchise blockbuster. It was great to see him branch out into a film like Jojo Rabbit (2019), but what makes him a truly singular talent is his ability to scale up without ever diminishing the product or undercutting the story in any way.

Surprisingly, after winning his Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, Waititi has operated mainly in the television space, writing, acting, and producing in fantastic series’ What We Do in the Shadows, Reservation Dogs (one of the best new shows of last year), and Our Flag Means Death. He is one of the brightest lights in the industry with one of the most fascinating careers to follow, becoming one of the most must-see filmmakers working.

Love and Thunder is a real throwback to older Marvel sequels like Iron Man 3 (2013), (a film I will defend as possibly the franchise’s best), where a writer-director auteur is allowed to throw their weight around inside a mega-franchise structure without breaking any load-bearing walls. The film thrives in its eccentricities and the ensemble’s commitment to Waititi’s tone, making it a great watch that feels more of an established, stand-alone piece, rather than a stepping stone to something larger.

Thor: Love and Thunder is is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.