Best of 2021: Tom’s Picks

With another year having drawn to a close, Rating Frames is looking back at the best new releases of the last twelve months.

It was a difficult year for the medium, owing to numerous delays and cancellations – these retrospectives would be quite different had MIFF been able to run its full schedule – but there were still some excellent films released that we all wanted to celebrate.

In the first of our end-of-year articles, Tom Parry will be revealing his ten favourite pictures of 2021.

Unlike his fellow critics at Rating Frames, yours truly has spent the last twelve months away from Melbourne, avoiding protracted lockdowns yet also missing frequent visits to his favourite haunts – no theatre in regional Victoria can match the majesty of a communal screening at Nova, nor can any town provide the satisfaction of a post-cinema burger at one of Naarm’s many fried-food eateries.

This author’s temporary relocation has also meant being unable to see many of the titles listed by his two Melburnian counterparts (which shan’t be spoilt… for now) and as such, the following list is of a lesser quality than theirs. But the pictures below are just as worthy of acclaim, and at the very least, offer a more… egalitarian alternative to Arnel and Darcy’s choices.

10. My Name is Gulpilil

The passing of its main subject in November has given even further resonance to this pick, which was always intended to be his final on-screen appearance; yet even without that knowledge, My Name is Gulpilil remains one of 2021’s best, being a poignant, stirring narrative told by David Gulpilil himself – one that is open, honest and never shies away from his demons. It’s nothing short of a fitting, touching finale to a fixture and icon of the Australian screen.

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

9. Lupin III: The First

Here’s one that hasn’t been covered on Rating Frames, nor anywhere else by this author until now. Given a limited, brief theatrical release here last January – 13 months after debuting in its native Japan – Lupin III is (ironically) the umpteenth feature-length adaptation of the famed manga series; but it is The First to be drawn and animated via computer-generated imagery, looking fantastic whilst remaining true to the original designs of the manga. Witty, energetic and slightly absurd, it’s an adventure well worth seeking.

Currently available on Blu-Ray and select on-demand services.

8. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Sony Pictures Animation is possibly the only studio countering the unassailable dominance of Disney and Pixar right now – where the Mouse House and its subsidiary are producing movies more formulaic than the last, Sony is taking the opposite approach and releasing films that are unique to all others, including their own. There’s much to love about The Mitchells vs. The Machines, chiefly an inimitable art-style and zippy animation, both of which need a large screen to be truly appreciated. (We want that theatrical release, Sony!)

Currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.

7. The Suicide Squad

It should come as no surprise to know that James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is irrefutably better than David Ayer’s similarly-titled, hapless adaptation; indeed, the more surprising feat is how entertaining Gunn’s film is in its own right, not only besting DC’s recent output in terms of action, humour and heart, but also a majority of instalments in the MCU. Eccentric in nature and distinctive from the competition, it’s a gratifying alternative to the superhero norm.

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

6. Nitram

Director Justin Kurzel is no stranger to telling controversial stories, making him the ideal candidate to helm a feature about one of the most chilling events in Australia’s history. Just like his past work, Nitram sees Kurzel handle the sensitive material with restraint and grace, yet he doesn’t shy away from confrontation, demonstrating the brave, bold style of film-making that has been lacking in our industry of late. Be sure to watch for the turns of Judy David and Caleb Landry Jones as well.

Currently streaming on Stan.

5. Judas and the Black Messiah

A biographical drama that benefitted from a delayed and extended Awards season, as well as a powerful debut from an African-American director. There’s an enormous degree of nuance to Shaka King’s Judas, which never defines its characters as good or bad; instead, they’re a group of complex, fluid individuals who constantly evaluate their allegiances and question their choices. And of course, it’s lead by three of the finest actors of their generation, all of whom put forward captivating performances.

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

4. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

The highest-grossing theatrical release of 2021 in Japan, and with good reason. Hideaki Anno bids farewell to his medium-defining franchise by instilling Thrice Upon a Time with all the usual hallmarks – think philosophical screenplay, exquisite animation, haunting imagery, and majestic soundtrack – while easing back on the bleakness and rectifying the drawbacks of its predecessors. The result is a feature-length anime that ranks not only as the best animated picture of the year, but one of the greatest ever made.

Currently streaming on Prime Video.

3. Minari

A darling of Sundance and another latecomer to the 2020 Oscar race, it wasn’t until February of 2021 that the majority of Australians got to experience Lee Isaac Chung’s drama. Those fortunate enough to see Minari were treated to some astonishing performances from a gifted cast; and a pensive narrative, one that will particularly resonate with migrants regardless of where they’ve hailed from, or where they live now.

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

2. Summer of Soul

This music documentary and directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson very narrowly misses out on the top spot in this list, its only faults being some questionable choices for interview subjects, and the varying quality of concert footage. Otherwise, Summer of Soul is close to perfect, an insightful and compelling documentary about African-American pride that doubles as a showcase for the greatest musicians of an era gone by, such as Mavis Staples and Mahlia Jackson (pictured above).

Currently streaming on Disney+.

1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

As an unabashed fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and to a lesser extent, the Spider-Man films – this was always guaranteed to be a personal highlight of 2021; yet even with the enormous hype surrounding it, Jon Watts’ threequel was still able to exceed expectations. No Way Home serves as a tribute to its forebears, drawing inspiration from their examples whilst also functioning as the perfect denouement to three separate franchises, all while not forgetting to be a fun, moving and thrill-laden blockbuster.

Currently screening in theatres; available on home-video March 23rd.

Honourable Mentions: Last Night in Soho, Dune, West Side Story, Amphibia: True Colours

Paul Thomas Anderson Returns to Roots in the Delightful Licorice Pizza

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Set against the backdrop of the 70s San Fernando Valley, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021) paints a perplexing and wholesome picture of what it’s like to grow up as a youth in a rowdy 70s setting and go on to discover new emotions and experience new highs and lows like everyone else at the time, but unlike everyone else at the time.

Perhaps that’s because this is a film made up of ‘firsts’: PTA takes a swing at the coming-of-age genre for the first time; Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim take on their first acting roles; and the characters are constantly rolling with the punches while welcoming every new obstacle that comes their way as if it were a means to something greater and more real.

Those characters are the budding entrepreneur and smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the pessimistic optimist coasting by with a high school photoshoot day-job, Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The two meet at Gary’s yearbook high school photoshoot in what is easily PTA’s most inviting opening sequence and one that really sets the tone for the cruisy, laidback feel and tone of the rest of the film.

The two characters share a unique bond and find themselves traversing the valley and sharing each others company as they walk the fine line of adulthood and adolescence — each learning from their counterpart and ultimately bridging the two worlds together. The relationship between Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was much the same in that regard and this film shares much with that one in terms of scope and even scale as PTA relishes the intimate moments ahead of large scale ones.

Much has been said on the age disparity between the characters, with Haim playing a 25 year old and Hoffman being 10 years her junior in the film (12 years in real life), ultimately fluffing some progressive feathers. But PTA is too smart to buy into that criticism as he acknowledges that difference throughout, but never uses it for anything other than building a story based on a shared experience between likeminded individuals who happen to have some attraction in the mix as well.

If Boogie Nights (1997) was about how the porn industry finds and offers lost souls solace and interconnectedness by bringing them into surrogate families, then Licorice Pizza is about how free souls find each other and create families born out of friendship. PTA does a stellar job in guiding his characters through this lively world courtesy of his formal cinematic tools that have become so pertinent in his oeuvre — tracking shots, long takes, a classical narrative structure — while at the same time creating a sense of forwardness and momentum that never seems to slow down.

Bradley Cooper & Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

The characters embrace the ambiguity of their future and the unknown that awaits them, but they never dwell on it. In this way, Licorice Pizza also represents a shift in PTA’s interest in human unknowability and it instead sees him place an emphasis on living in the moment. This very much plays into the spontaneity of the characters in how they make decisions and approach their lives — Gary jumps between businesses while Alana is indecisive with what she wants from life as she moves from freedom to stability and back to freedom. Subsequently, PTA lets youths be youths at a time where hippy culture and its messages of peace and love were more embraced.

There’s no denying that PTA’s films from, and since, Punch-Drunk Love place a greater emphasis on the more intimate and subdued moments between characters. Whether that be the impenetrable relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell in The Master (2012) or the push-pull teasing between Reynolds Woodcock and Alma in Phantom Thread (2017); each of these character dynamics allow Anderson to entertain his fascination with characters whose connection works because it’s so strange, distant, and against the grain of expectation.

That’s why Licorice Pizza is so striking. PTA’s latest return to the San Fernando Valley sees his fascination with this character dynamic reach a climax, but the end product works to different avail.

The innocence of Hoffman and Haim’s characters breathes an air of freshness into a period that was already so fresh, alive and teeming with avenues for self-discovery and growth. Their performances as Gary and Alana exude a truth and understanding of PTA’s vision and his fascination with characters that would appear to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, but need each other to coexist because the universe would have it no other way.

Further to that, Hoffman and Haim’s performances echo the awkward muteness and hesitance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread whilst simultaneously capturing the charm and innocence of Adam Sandler and Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love. In this way, these characters are equally the same and different to all the PTA characters before them in that they’re bound to one another but also to the freedom that their youth offers — always following impulse rather than reason.

Alana tries to break that pattern of reckless decision making that her bond to Gary has brought by looking for different avenues for growth and something more stable. She finds herself in the company of esteemed actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and film director Rex Blau (played by a rapturous Tom Waits) before rekindling a past friendship and becoming an advisor of sorts to city council candidate Joel Wachs (a dapper looking Ben Safdie). Ultimately, she succumbs to impulse and realises that she is inextricably linked to a life with no measure of time and to people that share that outlook.

Theirs is a relationship that is neither wholly platonic nor wholly sexual and it finds its place in somewhat of a middle-ground as exacerbated by the tension between adolescence and adulthood. Earlier I mentioned that Gary and Alana are approaching everything head on as though that were a means to something more real (Alana running after the police car driving Gary away, Gary smashing the windshield of Jon Peters who Bradley Cooper steals the show as) and that’s precisely what the condition of their relationship is: as long as there is something to look forward to, as long as they aren’t encumbered in ways that PTA’s other duos are encumbered, then they can keep on reaching for the stars — wherever and whatever they may be.  

Alana Haim & Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

It has to be said that PTA is no stranger to the entertainment industry having been raised in a show business family, with his father Ernie Anderson working on the likes of the ‘Carol Burnett Show’, announcing on the ABC, and being close friends with comedian Tim Conway. Of the nine siblings and step siblings from two of his father’s marriages, PTA would be the only one to go down the road of show business.

Magnolia (1999) is the last film where Anderson explored the highs and lows that come with working in the entertainment industry (alongside that films’ more deep-rooted concerns), so it feels kind of bittersweet that he’s decided to draw back the curtain and look at the industry in a different light at a different time in his life.

It’s an intoxicating and alluring world that PTA conjures up and one where the backbone that is the script holds its own. What follows is an Andersonian ride filled with a level of zest and sincerity that hasn’t been felt since Punch-Drunk Love. You’d even be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a Richard Linklater trip instead — Dazed and Confused (1993) will cross many people’s minds.

So much of Licorice Pizza works because of the man at its helm; the film is truly as testament to just how well PTA wrangles his troops on set to create something special. It’d be hard to put it past an Oscars sweep this year with Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score being a possible contender for Best Score (even with how little he actually did here), while PTA’s screenplay will undoubtedly be the script to beat for Best Original Screenplay.

PTA has crafted his most personal film yet, one that is born out of family and love, and one that takes all the best ingredients from his oeuvre and meshes them together. In a way, the film’s title is almost a perfect reflection of how two things that would appear polar opposites and that carry their own flavour can come together and just make sense the longer you stare at them. It has to be said then that Gary and Alana’s relationship is much the same as it also merges the sweet and savoury together — they are Licorice Pizza at its core.

Licorice Pizza is currently screening in cinemas nationwide

Red Rocket is a Wonderful and Complicated Trip

Rating: 4 out of 5.

20 years after leaving his hometown of Texas City to make it as an adult film star in LA, Mikey washes up on the door of his ex/current wife Lexey’s house looking for money. You can practically smell the stale cigarette smoke on his clothes in the theatre. Red Rocket (2021), written and directed by Sean Baker, is a true antihero tale of a loathsome suitcase pimp that challenges its audiences throughout in uncomfortable and compelling ways.

We are introduced to Mikey on the bus ride home to the tune of NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye, the film’s theme. The song is played multiple times throughout the film, gaining different contexts and meaning each time it is played, being chopped up and remixed differently throughout. There is something deeply strange but delightful in hearing the pop song in a movie theatre, but the longer it plays as we follow Mikey’s trip home, the more the connections to dated 2000’s culture become apparent.

The film unfolds itself to the audience slowly – yet still with a kinetic sense of momentum to Baker’s storytelling – as Mikey attempts to build some sort of life after returning home to the tiny Gulf Coast town of Texas City after 20 years in LA, through sheer charm and force of will. He is a hustler by nature. He knows if he can just talk long enough, he can get what he’s after. The film takes a deeply uncomfortable turn as Mikey becomes transfixed on the 17-year old donut shop waitress who goes by Strawberry (first-time actress Suzanna Son), which pushes the audience’s moral boundaries to its limit.

Baker has a better eye for casting than possibly any in the industry, as his neo-realist leaning of non-actor casting or inspired lead choices including Willem Dafoe and Simon Rex set his films apart in modern American filmmaking. The latter, a product of the early 2000s that has faded into obscurity in a similar way to Mikey where the subtext just feels like text.

Rex carries a nervous energy throughout the film, even when he’s bragging about his past life, or convincing someone to hire him, he seems aware that even at his “highest” moments of the film, he has still constructed a house of cards.

There are multiple instances in Red Rocket where Baker is showing the audience that even the film itself is checking out of Mikey’s motor-mouthed wheeling and dealing. Inspired by one of the best scenes in Taxi Driver (1976) where Scorsese shows the audience that even the film is embarrassed by its protagonist, Baker deployed similar tactics to tune out its loathsome protagonist in a subtle and effective way. The film achieves this either by drowning out Mikey with sound effects (having a train go past and obstruct Mikey pleading with Strawberry near the climax of the film) or by pulling the camera’s focus literally off of Mikey as he is explaining why he left LA to Lexey. Baker rarely flashes moments of commentary within his films, but it is so necessary here to undercut the more challenging aspects that may be interpreted as his values.

The peripheries of the film are littered with Trump-era politics, showing a MAGA billboard but obscuring the former president. The film is set in the run-up to the 2016 election, with the RNC broadcast on the TV throughout, gesturing to the audience heavily to compare Mikey’s slick and opportunistic motormouth to Trump.

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son as Mikey and Strawberry in Red Rocket

The charm of Baker’s previous films has been his ability to tell deeply empathetic stories of people on the fringes, but here the central figure of Mikey, the washed-up adult film star, is so unlikeable that he asks the audience more difficult questions throughout.

These questions Baker is asking the audience are challenging and deeply engaging, as the final shots ask the question of what we really want out of this story and out of Mikey. Are we just along for the ride, anticipating the inevitable car crash, or have we spent enough time with this motormouth charmer that we want him to succeed?

Baker is a deeply humanist filmmaker that always understands his characters in intimate ways, as well as having the awareness to know how an audience member will feel about his characters. That assignment is wildly different here in Red Rocket in comparison to Tangerine (2015), as Baker weaponises similar humanistic techniques to ask the audience how far are they willing to go down this path with Mikey? A simple focus pull in a kitchen can tell you everything about how Baker wants the audience to feel about Mikey’s yarn spinning, and who we should be empathising with within the scene. 

Red Rocket will not be for everyone with its difficult subject matter and protagonist, but Baker is such a tremendous filmmaker and tells such deeply human stories of people on the borders of society that it’s definitely worth your time.

Red Rocket is screening in cinemas nationwide from January 6th.

Resurrections is An Ineffectual Matrix Retread

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Reintroducing a franchise to cinemas is always a tricky prospect, but most have found appeal by taking the best attributes of their older films and refining them for a contemporary audience. To be a long-term success though, a series revival needs to be innovative, to offer its viewers something fresh – a criterion this science-fiction reboot fails to meet.

Decades after the liberation of Zion, a group of humans analysing The Matrix witness code belonging to Neo (Keanu Reeves), who was thought to have sacrificed himself during said liberation. This same group of humans enters The Matrix in hope of locating Neo, only to happen across an event eerily similar to Neo’s origin story, and a rogue Agent (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wanting answers to his strange visions.

As it happens, Neo is residing elsewhere in The Matrix, having reverted to his old alter-ego of Thomas Anderson and become an accomplished video-game designer. He has presently been tasked with designing a sequel to his best-selling trilogy of games, a project which is causing him undue stress, leaving him miserable, and triggering memories of his past life – including those spent with his lost love, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss).

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Neo’s situation and that of Lana Wachowski, who is returning to the Matrix franchise (sans her sister Lilly) after an 18-year absence. Those comparisons are made most obvious in the dialogue, which provides unsubtle critiques of the discourse surrounding the original trilogy and even disparages fans by rubbishing their theories. Not to be outdone, Lana even throws shade at her corporate overlords, directly mocking them and their insistence on rebooting the series.

Of course, subtlety has never been the modus operandi of the Wachowskis – even in The Matrix (1999), their most celebrated production, the screenplay is quite overt with the religious symbolism and literary allegories, leaving no doubt as to what the film is trying to convey. This philosophy is found in another Wachowski trademark, featured rather prominently in The Matrix Resurrections (2021): lengthy, convoluted monologues that force-feed exposition to the audience and explain everything that is happening, or has happened, in intricate detail.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a Morpheus-adjacent character in The Matrix Resurrections

The unwelcome Wachowski motifs don’t end there, as Resurrections also demonstrates an over-reliance on computer-generated imagery. The visuals here appear to be inspired by George Lucas’ later works, with the machines and environments of Zion particularly lacking in character and detail, with little attempt made to hide their digital origins. For a franchise that’s frequently hailed for its forward-thinking use of CGI, scenes like these are most baffling and embarrassing to witness.

In Matrix films past, these irritants would be offset by the action, incorporating slow-motion, large-scale destruction and an impeccable sense of style to craft a thrilling, inimitable set of fight sequences. Such action is present in Resurrections too, yet it lacks the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing spectacle of scenes like the foyer shootout from the first picture, or the highway chase from The Matrix Reloaded (2003), instead being a succession of bland moments that are indistinguishable from those any other blockbuster released in the past two decades.

Thankfully, there are a couple of improvements over the previous Matrix films, one being the characterisation of the protagonists, who are at their most human here. Resurrections adds a depth, fragility and tenderness to its heroes that was otherwise lacking in the first three instalments, ensuring the viewer’s sympathies in the picture’s more emotional moments and allowing for a more satisfying resolution than The Matrix Revolutions (2003). If only these qualities could be retroactively applied to the original trilogy.

A film with the lineage of The Matrix Resurrections should be a ground-breaking triumph of special effects, grandiose stunt-work and insightful commentary; in its place is a mediocre blockbuster that fails to build upon the legacy of its originator and does not amaze on any level. Still, it’s no more disappointing than the third movie.

The Matrix Resurrections is screening in cinemas nationwide from December 26th.

Afterlife Keeps the Ghostbusters Spirit Alive

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nearly four decades have passed since Canadian director Ivan Reitman first brought a story about middle-aged men hunting ghosts to the big screen, becoming a runaway hit and spawning a franchise in the process. Now his son, Jason has been handed the reins to the series, and produced a movie that ought to make his father, and fans, proud.

Science prodigy Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), her teenage brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and their mother Callie (Carrie Coon) are a family in arrears, forcing a move to the rural outpost of Summerville – an old mining town made interesting only by the unexplained earthquakes that occur daily. There, on the locale’s outskirts, the three will be living in a dilapidated farmhouse inherited from Callie’s deceased father, home to a yard of rusted cars, strange electronic devices, and a spectral presence with an apparent connection to Phoebe.

There’s a great burden borne by Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), a film which serves as a direct sequel to one of the funniest and most-revered blockbusters of the Eighties. The original Ghostbusters (1984) brought together three of the then-biggest names in comedy – Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and Harold Ramis – to produce a film that was equal parts humorous, heartfelt and scary, whilst also being accessible to younger viewers. That’s a huge legacy to live up to, and yet, it’s one that Afterlife comes surprisingly close to matching.

Chief to the appeal of Afterlife is its cast, with every player being a welcome presence. Of all the actors, it’s Mckenna Grace who impresses most, showing great assuredness and sweetness in the role of Phoebe; as the protagonist with the most screen-time, she gets to prove herself quite often. Grace is aided in her performance by fellow youngster Logan Kim as “Podcast”, Phoebe’s Summerville classmate, who constantly demonstrates a level of quick-wittedness and energy beyond his years.

There are plenty of other familiar faces to be seen in Afterlife, most notably the ever-likeable Paul Rudd as Mr Grooberson, a science teacher at Summerville’s public school. But unfortunately, most of these thespians are seen only fleetingly, and aren’t given the opportunity to flaunt the full scope of their abilities – examples include character actor Tracy Letts, given just one scene as the owner-operator of a local hardware store; and Bokeem Woodbine, who barely incites an emotion as Summerville’s sheriff.

Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd) alongside Callie (Carrie Coon) in Ghostbusters: Afterlife

The wasting of certain actors is not the only shortcoming present in Afterlife. Among the others are the pacing, fluctuating between too quick and not quick enough; a screenplay attuned to fan service, containing scenes and gags made solely to appease those who adore the original picture; and the humour, which is lacklustre when compared to the film’s quip-laden 1984 namesake – but then again, most comedies are these days. And, to be truly honest, there are some pretty decent laughs within the script.

A propensity for jokes is just one of the many connections Afterlife shares with its originator. Aside from the plentiful references, such connections include Rob Simonsen’s soundtrack, which takes its cues from Elmer Bernstein’s work; a perfectly-balanced tone that walks the middle-ground between scary and sentimental; and an impressive utilisation of visual effects, with lifelike models and puppetry favoured over digital technology where practical. As a result, the film is very much in-keeping with the spirit of its Eighties predecessor – and by extension, its 1989 sequel.

Happily though, Afterlife is no mere imitation of the pictures which have come before it, doing just as much to craft a legacy of its own. The visual effects, for instance, make clever use motion-capture technology and computer-generated imagery in certain scenes, ingenuity which is bound to inform other franchises with their inevitable remakes and reboots; and then there’s the slight variation in tone which some viewers may deem schmaltzy, but other will find most endearing.

Carried by a bright young cast and a generous helping of nostalgia, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a wholesome picture with all the qualities expected of a modern blockbuster. Although skewed toward those with an investment in the original two films, Jason Reitman’s sequel remains accessible to newcomers, who are sure to find resonance in its touching story.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife will be screening in Australian cinemas from New Year’s Day.

No Way Home Hits All The Right Nostalgic Notes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ambitious crossovers have become the forte of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the point where grand encounters between its heroes are nowadays a given. The latest MCU venture is one that fulfils those expectations, and immediately surpasses them, drawing inspiration from some rather unlikely sources to produce a truly amazing, spectacular blockbuster that enriches the legacy of its namesake.

Following his defeat of an Avengers-level threat in Europe, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been publicly identified as the alter-ego of Spider-Man, and is now being persecuted for his vigilantism. He’s not the only person facing judgement, since friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and M.J. (Zendaya) and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are being hounded by the authorities and the populace for merely being associated with the web-slinger.

Hoping to rectify the situations of those he holds most dear, Peter ventures across New York City and approaches fellow superhero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is versed in the mystic arts. Doctor Strange offers his help by conjuring a spell that will ensure the entire world forgets Spider-Man’s secret identity; but after being botched by Peter’s constant interruptions, Strange’s magic instead unleashes a peril far greater than either hero could ever imagine.

The full ramifications of this wayward conjuration deserve not to be spoiled, suffice to say that it brings to the fore a concept that has long been gestating within Kevin Feige’s MCU: the Multiverse. The notion that every reality is connected to a series of parallel dimensions was initially floated by Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016), teased in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) and eventually confirmed as canon in the Disney+ series Loki (2021), before being effectively applied to the animated series What If…? (2021).

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Spider-Man: No Way Home

There are, of course, other Marvel-branded projects that have utilised a multiverse-spanning narrative, most notably the feature-length animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). With said film being a critical and commercial success, there would be every temptation for this live-action production to emulate its greatest strengths, and in some instances it does – there’s certainly an influence in the self-referential humour. But the latest Spider-Man flick is certainly no facsimile of its animated counterpart, since it owes more to its live-action forebears.

In truth, the films that best inform Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) are those of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007), and not just for… the obvious. Raimi’s movies – yes, even the maligned third chapter – triumphed by instilling heart into the conflict, humanising the antagonists with their personal struggles and adding tender, delicate moments that kept the narrative grounded. Similar, if not identical, attributes are present in No Way Home, which keeps an eye on the finer details and constantly looks for the good in others, no matter what their failings are.

This heartfelt tone is not the only quality present in the screenplay, for there are plenty more smarts contained within. Most impressive is how coherent and easy to follow the narrative is, succinctly establishing the conflict and deftly balancing a multitude of characters who each have their own arcs, all of which is done without No Way Home spiralling into an incongruent, slapdash mess. Additionally, the script has a fair amount of emotional heft, with one or two scenes being among the most poignant this franchise has ever produced.

Part of the reason why these moments hit so hard is because of the performances, with just about every actor providing a phenomenal turn. Undoubtedly, the thespians who leave the greatest impression are those who play the villains from alternate universes, their portrayals being an adroit balance between cheesy and sinister, while not forgetting to convey the tenderness in their characters. What’s more, everybody in the cast has fantastic chemistry with one-another, despite most having not shared the screen previously.

The Iron Spider suit, as seen in Spider-Man: No Way Home

All of these traits pleasingly help to distinguish No Way Home from the many other Marvel blockbusters; but even so, this is still a picture tied firmly to the MCU, sharing various components with the two prior Spider-Man films to ensure that the look, tone and sound of this chapter is in keeping with what audiences are accustomed to, whilst also paying homage to its earlier precursors – for instance, the orchestral score of returnee Michael Giacchino incorporates elements of Danny Elfman’s work in the Raimi trilogy, as well as James Horner’s compositions for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Although No Way Home is unquestionably a very pleasing affair, it’s not a faultless one. The most pressing of these faults is the film’s pacing – during the first two acts, the story flows briskly yet smoothly, before slowing right down as it heads into the third act and loosing steam altogether by the epilogue. Of further annoyance is the lengthy conversations had between characters in this final act which not only contribute to the slowness, but also ensure that it feels needlessly bloated.

There are other quibbles to be had with No Way Home, including the humour, which is funnier than Far From Home yet never reaches the comedic heights of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Into the Spider-Verse. And while the plot can be followed without having to revisit every previous Spider-Man film, its numerous revelations and throwbacks aren’t going to be as satisfying nor as rewarding for uninitiated viewers. But these are only minor problems when compared to the issues of pace, and even they aren’t enough to spoil enjoyment of the picture.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a euphoric celebration of Marvel’s web-slinging superhero, one that cheekily yet adoringly pays homage to the films that came before it. With a humanist screenplay that deftly balances multiple characters, and an all-star cast at the peak of their talents, this blockbuster represents another fantastic entry in the MCU, and an utter treat for Spider-Man fans of any generation.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

The Last Duel Captivates, Though Only In Parts

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

There are very few directors whose name alone is a drawcard for the masses, but Ridley Scott is one who can be considered among that company. Most recently, Scott’s touch has been applied to this medieval-set picture, drawing upon his wealth of experience to form a reasonably engrossing, if imperfect movie.

In 14th Century France, a squire and solider of the King is accused of sexual assault by a noblewoman, an act he empathically denies. The lady’s husband, a knight, supports her claims and demands justice, challenging the accused to a trial by combat – a duel to the death. Should the knight win, his wife’s accusations shall be seen as true to the eyes of God and her honour restored; should the squire win, he shall be deemed innocent, and his accuser punished for dishonesty.

Although the premise of The Last Duel (2021) is straightforward, its narrative structure wishes to be anything but, being non-linear in manner and split into three chapters, each focused on a different character. The first chapter’s subject is Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), the accuser’s husband; the second Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the alleged perpetrator and estranged friend of Sir Jean; and the third Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the alleged victim.

In each of these three parts, the story is told from the perspective of the subject and what they deem to be “The Truth”. It’s a noble and rather interesting approach, yet one that’s ultimately pointless, since the film is more or less convinced that Lady Marguerite’s account is absolute fact; thus, the perspectives of the other two men are rendered null and void, an unnecessary distraction from the main conflict. Had it dispensed of its all-sides-considered angle, and instead stuck with a singular, cohesive plot, The Last Duel would be just as compelling, if not more so.

Adding to woes, the picture devotes an inordinate amount of time to establishing the relationship between Jacques and Sir Jean, which does little to advance the plot – watching these chivalrous exchanges, viewers get the sense that Lady Marguerite’s assault is an event of secondary importance to the narrative, despite it being billed as the main conflict. Admittedly, there is some appeal in listening to their eloquent, well-spoken dialogue, but this soon becomes tiresome, paling in comparison to the film’s other merits.

Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, left) and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) prepare for their battle in The Last Duel.

One such merit is its world-building, with The Last Duel having fashioned a vast, enchanting and rather accurate medieval setting for its characters to inhabit. There’s no shortage of beautiful scenery, with the feature having been shot on-location in Ireland and France; the meticulous set design adds further to the realism, as do the costume designs of Janty Yates – a regular collaborator of Scott’s – who adorns the characters in era-appropriate fabrics and all other manner of regalia. Truly, this is the closest a Hollywood production can come to being an authentic recreation of the feudal era.

It’s a view that’s further enforced by the knightly battles that Sir Jean and Jacques partake in. These action sequences of clashing swords and armour-clad soldiers on horseback are littered throughout The Last Duel, evoking Scott’s work on Gladiator (2000) and warranting praise for being tense, brutal and expertly choreographed. Yet more excitement is generated through the close-up cinematography and terrific sound editing in these scenes, allowing viewers to feel that they are very much part of these violent encounters.

Eliciting just as much satisfaction are the performances of the leads, both the young and not-so-young. Adam Driver and Jodie Comer are their usual luminous, unflappable selves, once again providing turns that belie their age and experience; Matt Damon is also solid, though the same cannot be said for his impression of a British accent. Surprisingly, the highlight is actually Damon’s producing partner and real-life buddy Ben Affleck, whose carefree, amusing and somewhat irreverent effort as Count Pierre d’Alençon constantly brings a smile to the face.

Through its acting, direction and vivid replication of the medieval era, The Last Duel manages to be an intriguing drama with serviceable thrills. Ridley Scott’s film is not a masterpiece by any means – the male characters are given too much focus, and the plot’s chaptered structure is somewhat pointless – but nonetheless is a reminder of why he’s considered one of the industry’s greats.

The Last Duel is currently screening in select cinemas.

The Bow is Strung in Marvel’s Hawkeye, Now’s the Time to Shoot

We’re a couple of years down the track in Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off series, Hawkeye — set in the bustling and Christmassy New York City in the years post-snap. It’s a fitting setting given the opening sequence of episode one takes audiences back to the alien infested, war-torn New York City of 2012’s Avengers in order to establish the character of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld).

That opening sequence quickly introduces audiences to Kate in her adolescent years as she experiences the fateful events of the Avengers battle with evil, from the ravaged apartment she and her family reside in. In the distance on the roof of another building, the shows eponymous hero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) tusks it out with the aliens before eventually saving and inspiring Kate through a swift shot from his bow — changing the course of her life forever.   

We eventually fast forward to present day (which is a few years ahead of 2021) where Kate is now 22, living in her own apartment, and her mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) has become acquainted with Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) following the death of her husband all those years ago. On the flip side we have Clint Barton who is living a more steady life with his family as he seemingly still struggles internally to come to terms with the aftermath of Thanos’ wrath. It isn’t until a gala auction event goes sideways, that the story begins to pick up. A Russian street gang known as the Tracksuit Mafia infiltrate the auction where among many items, a Ronin suit from one of the Avengers is present. Kate nabs the suit and legs it, unaware that her actions will bring her face-to-face with Barton, the Tracksuit Mafia, and further trouble.

These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvels other shows from earlier this year like Loki and WandaVision. Director Rhys Thomas takes a much more playful approach to the storytelling here, never really subjecting viewers to a myriad of complex information (timekeepers and worlds-within-worlds) and instead opting to focus on the banter and push-pull dynamic between Steinfeld and Renner.

To much surprise, that approach works in the shows favour as Thomas lays all his cards on the table from the outset and builds on Steinfeld’s energy and Renner’s reluctance to help her beyond the amount he requires. It makes for some amusing back-and-forths and on-the-nose one liners.

Hailee Steinfeld in Hawkeye

The plotting feels a bit inadequate in comparison to the actors chemistry as it’s almost built on a ‘as you go’ basis rather than as something worth stimulating an audience members curiosity. Essentially, not much happens that couldn’t be predicted by casual audiences and not much is left to an audience members imagination. For those that have read the comic, perhaps that approach works, but hopefully the episodes that follow will provide a little more intrigue, albeit not to the extent that Loki did (especially with the sublime Florence Pugh scheduled to make an appearance).

It has to be said that Renner is side-lined by Steinfeld who channels her teen charisma from Bumblebee (2018) & The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She injects the show with a Tom Holland-esque charm seen in the Spider-Man films, as she brings a likeable on-screen presence that is hard not to buy into. Renner plays that more reserved, subduedness that he carried with him in the Avengers films and it makes me realise how my desires for him to take the forefront in this show wouldn’t have worked to the shows advantage judging by these two episodes.

Both episodes keep you engaged through Steinfeld’s performance and the consistent humorous tone that has become a staple of Marvel, but rarely hits home. The fact that Thomas leans into that tone from the get-go while building our engagement with this peaceful, yet disrupted New York setting through the leads, means that the occasional comical comment from a Mafia henchmen for instance, doesn’t feel out of place. Too often a Marvel production will fluctuate tonally from episode to episode which can work given that no two directors are the same if multiple directors are directing, but Thomas has set a sound, but somewhat tilted foundation to build on from these two episodes.  

Marvel has always looked to the future with its work and for ways to pass the torch onto its new recruits, and Hawkeye will be no different in that regard. With Steinfeld playing the protagonist in a show about Hawkeye, it’ll be interesting to see whether that sentiment will carry true to its entirety or whether Hawkeye himself begins to play a more active role as the events of the show unravel. Either way, there’s plenty to look forward to in Hawkeye over the coming weeks.

Hawkeye is now streaming on Disney+

Port Arthur Gets the Snowtown Treatment in Nitram

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Australia has long had difficulty reconciling with its past, whether it be pertaining to its colonial practices, its treatment of First Nations peoples, or its storied xenophobia. This biographical picture explores a more recent chapter in the country’s dark history, one that’s bound to provoke discomfort, yet is worth sitting through all the same.

A disaffected young man (Caleb Landry Jones) lives in the outer suburbs of Hobart, Tasmania with his cold, domineering mother (Judy Davis) and lackadaisical father (Anthony LaPaglia), ostracised by society and dependent on others to care for him. His only source of compassion is Helen (Essie Davis), an older woman whose fondness for him is eclipsed only by her passion for Gilbert & Sullivan operas; but like everybody else, she has limits for his eccentric behaviour.

Nitram (2021) is a veiled portrait of Martin Bryant, who is infamously and inextricably linked with the slaughtering of innocent people at the historical Port Arthur convict settlement in 1996. Interestingly, although Bryant is the narrative’s central figure, at no point does the film refer to him by name, nor does it mention where the atrocity he committed took place, with the focus instead being placed on the moments leading up to the event in hope of understanding the perpetrator’s mindset.

Material of this sort is not new to director Justin Kurzel, who previously helmed the picture Snowtown (2011) to critical acclaim. Said picture is a semi-fictionalised retelling of the Snowtown murders – so-named because of the South Australian locale where the bodies were hidden – that centres on an assailant to the crimes, detailing his troubled upbringing as a reason for his actions. This level of sympathy is somewhat absent in Nitram, since the film is non-committal in deciding who is at fault for the main character’s behaviour.

Similar levels of caution are applied throughout Nitram, being more delicate and poised than its subject matter would suggest – viewers are never shown instances of graphic violence at the hands of the characters, and likewise are spared having to witness the horrific bloodshed inflicted upon people at Port Arthur, ensuring that the picture is respectful to Bryant’s victims. And yet, although instances of violent behaviour are few, they are nonetheless terrifying when they do occur.

Judy Davis, as she appears in Nitram

Another peculiar facet of Nitram is how the story never seems to reach its climax. Like a powder-keg that never ignites, tension slowly and steadily builds throughout, yet that tension is never released, with the conclusion arriving just as the pressure reaches its peak. Amazingly, these last moments prove to be the most eerie and affecting part of the entire picture, with pointed intertitles referencing the proliferation of gun violence, followed by credits that roll to absolute silence.

Of greater fascination are the astounding performances from the main players, including Caleb Landry Jones. The Texan actor’s commitment cannot be faulted, for he speaks with a seemingly-natural Strine, and conveys his character’s vulnerability and underlying cruelty with considerable ease – qualities that rightfully won him Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Nitram had its world premiere. His brilliance is equalled by industry veteran Judy Davis, whose baleful matriarch is sure to earn the scorn of audiences.

Regrettably, the excellence of Nitram is devalued by a poor choice in filming locations, with the Victorian city of Geelong acting as an unconvincing stand-in for Hobart and its surrounds. Aside from one aerial shot of tree-laden hills surrounding an undisclosed body of water, none of the scenery inhabited by the characters shares so much as a resemblance with southern Tasmania, being flat, arid and most unflattering to the eye; what’s more, there’s even a blatant disregard for continuity – at one point, a V/Line train can be seen travelling in the background.

Ignore this laziness though, and what’s left is unequivocally the best Australian production of the year, bar none. Guided meticulously by Justin Kurzel, Nitram doubles as both a gripping biography of a disturbed soul and an effective slow-burn thriller, further bolstered by the phenomenal acting of the leads.

Nitram is currently screening in select cinemas, and will be streaming on Stan from this Wednesday, November 24th.

Red Notice is a Discount Indiana Jones & Mission Impossible Mess

Rating: 1 out of 5.

What happens when you put three lead actors, with completely different acting chops, on the screen together? The answer is a hodgepodge of nothingness. It’s hard to know whether that fault lies with the A-list trio of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, or whether it’s because Rawson Marshal Thurber’s Red Notice (2021) is a film wrought by the same inadequacies that have plagued similarly awful films before it.

Being one of Netflix’s most expensive films at $200 million (I believe Scorsese’s 2019 gangster film The Irishman might still hold that title) and their most viewed opening ever, you’d think that the next 115 minutes will be something that’s sure to be worth your time. Unfortunately, this film manages to look both expensive and cheap at the same time as it’s ridden with unflattering CGI, flat performances, and contrived storytelling.

The film wants to be a mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mission: Impossible (any from that franchise), but ends up becoming something more akin to Tower Heist (2011) and basically any of the films Johnson and Reynolds have been in prior.

It’s a film that centres on a historical artifact (instead of the lost ark, you have three golden eggs once gifted to Cleopatra) and sends three different, albeit similarly minded characters on a goose chase to locate all three eggs. The characters in question are John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), and The Bishop (Gal Gadot). Hartley wants to secure the eggs and put Booth and Bishop behind bars for their thevious crimes, while Booth and Bishop are out to find the eggs in time for an Egyptian billionaire’s daughter’s wedding for a large pay-out.

Ryan Reynolds & Dwayne Johnson in Red Notice

Honestly, the actual premise isn’t what drives this film into the dustbin of film history, it’s everything in-between. The filmmaking doesn’t have any flair and is really banking on the chemistry between the three leads who all seem to be playing the lead in their own movie here. Reynolds is channelling his inner Deadpool and really every character he has ever played with those cheesy one-liners and shtick that never lands; Gadot is popping up when you least expect her to and kicking everyone’s butt like Wonder Woman; and Johnson just seems to be there for the ride as the big stiff brute with zero charisma that reaffirms why his desire to be Bond would be a kick to action’s figurative groin.

The film is clearly inspired by the aforementioned films, with comparisons also coming in with the likes of the James Bond and National Treasure films, but Red Notice is also equally uninspired. It’s a film thwarted by all the cliches that subsume Reynolds and Johnson’s recent films: from a level of incessant self-awareness to the worn out buddy-cop plotline that should be retired at this point (I’m looking at you, the soon-to-be acquired Jason Momoa & Dave Bautista buddy-cop film).

Not to mention, that self-awareness becomes so intolerable that at one point Reynolds’ character even sarcastically calls the final egg in the journey the MacGuffin. If you’re blatantly going to point out the unimportance of a plot device that is supposed to be driving the events of the narrative, then you might as well break the fourth wall while you’re at it. In other words, the audience is treated like they’re the ones silly enough to watch this film — which I guess we are.

Netflix and the big studios have become too comfortable in churning out money for pop-corn cinema that really could have been used better in more capable hands. I’m certain that 60% of this films budget went to the star trio alone and in turn, you’re left with characters that don’t captivate you, performances that are drab, and a plot that deviates too much like a zig zag road. The recent Netflix feature Army of Thieves (2021) at least had something that separated itself from all the heist and artifact films before it, but Red Notice doesn’t even try to be different.

Red Notice is now streaming on Netflix