The Secrets of Dumbledore is Fantasy Without The Majesty

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

And that, unfortunately, is where the praise ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a Sensory Overload

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Everything Everywhere All at Once is in theatres now.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Celebrates Nicolas Cage

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.