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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor: Love and Thunder Brings Both in Equal Measure

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Rise of the Spin-Off Series

It seems we’re living in the age of the spin-off series. Intellectual property (IP) that has proven successful is now seeing a surge of either origin or ‘where-are-they-now’ stories surrounding established characters (Better Call Saul, Young Sheldon, the upcoming That 90s Show etc.), or shows providing more context on the show they are spun-off from (1883, How I Met Your Father etc.). No truer is that than in Disney’s wave of Star Wars limited series.

There’s no question that the Star Wars universe lends itself to this surge of content more than any other property available. That’s not to say that there aren’t other major IP’s that have the same possibilities, with the widely popular Game of Thrones set to see Kit Harrington reprise his role as everyone’s favourite, nothing-knowing Jon Snow.

But in Star Wars, Disney has a well with an endless supply of content, and one that the entertainment behemoth is unlikely to ever to stop drilling. From The Book of Boba Fett to the latest Obi-Wan Kenobi show, the last year has seen Disney already churn out two Star Wars-centric shows for two iconic characters from the franchise. And with a long pipeline of further shows to come —Andor, Ahsoka and Lando, to name a few— it looks like spin-offs are on the menu and Disney is ready to keep serving them.  

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka

That’s not necessarily a problem though. Even with a minority of fans that would like to see more shows in the vein of The Mandalorian than that of a bounty hunter whose fate was seemingly set in stone almost 40 years ago, there’s still lots of good to come with the bad.

The one big positive is the sheer amount of talent that has been involved in each of the shows. From less renowned directors like Rick Famuyiwa, Kevin Tancharoen and Bryce Dallas Howard, to more established directors like Taika Waititi, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau — the spoils have been shared across the board.

It’s in Obi-Wan Kenobi though, that Disney have managed to return to something so familiar and etched in Star Wars history. By allowing Deborah Chow to direct all six episodes of the show, there is a level of balance restored to the force (as it were) and the franchise. The singular vision of Chow’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is one that goes back to the roots of what made the franchise so iconic in the first place — George Lucas.

That’s not to say that the show is without its faults, as there isn’t much in the way of storytelling beats that you wouldn’t find in The Mandalorian. The premise is really similar to that of The Mandalorian (a hero thrust into the far reaches of the galaxy to escort a child home safely is hardly exciting) albeit that isn’t a fault of Chow’s given she didn’t pen the episodes. But to call this a shortcoming of Obi-Wan Kenobi isn’t a large criticism, given that The Mandalorian has offered the most compelling storytelling of all the current crop of Star Wars shows, so if any other Sci-Fi oriented shows are drawing from it, then more power to them.

Still from The Mandalorian

Unfortunately some of those shows include Paramount’s expensive adaptation of the beloved video game Halo which has had more problems than simply trying to emulate The Mandalorian‘s success. If anything really lets Obi-Wan Kenobi down it’s that it was always sold as a six episode limited series as opposed to something like The Mandalorian which will push three seasons next year.

There’s speculation that a second season of the show could happen, but one can’t help but wonder how much more refined the show could have been if it had stretched out its characterisation and storylines across more episodes. Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to be a success —after all, it’s ‘Star Wars’, and sees fan-favourites Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen return— so why take a limited series approach? To have people request a second season at the show’s conclusion anyway?

It’s understandable that certain entertainment companies will want to play it safe by taking up a limited series format and waiting for the public reception before greenlighting a further season. But Disney is the biggest entertainment company in the world, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to do well. By limiting the show to only six episodes and cramming everything (including that long awaited battle) into these episodes, there really isn’t a reason to bring Hayden Christensen back for a second season even though he’d love to, and which will probably happen in some capacity anyway. Obi-Wan Kenobi would have benefitted from more episodes to give the character a more refined arc than simply a baby-sitter who finds strength and hope as a result of said babysitting.

Maybe I’m being too harsh as I do feel that Deborah Chow found her groove by being the sole director here, and it was a delight to see Ewan and Hayden put on the jedi-esque robes and Darth Vader suit, respectively. It might be my adulation for a show like Better Call Saul and its extraordinary writing, but if there is to be a second season of Obi-Wan Kenobi, let’s hope that it’s given ample time to develop further and does keep some mystery tucked away for later.

All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming on Disney+

Hustle is an Impressively Real NBA Drama

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The history of basketball and the NBA in cinema is long and interesting, going from Julius Erving (who also cameos in Hustle) in The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Flying High! (1980), and Michael Jordan in Space Jam (1996), to more legitimate performances from players like Ray Allen in Spike Lee’s iconic He Got Game (1998), and Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems (2019). All these films use their NBA stars to bolster the credibility of the basketball film (sans Flying High!), but very rarely has a movie been made directly about the NBA. Enter basketball super fan and walking green light Adam Sandler.

Sandler is a notorious basketball obsessive – famously setting up a net at most of his productions – with even NBA legends vouching for his skill on the court, so it’s no surprise to see him making a movie in this world. The film follows Sandler as ageing scout Stanley Sugerman for the Philadelphia 76ers, owned in this world by Robert Duvall’s Rex Merrick. After Rex’s death and ownership changes hands to his petulant son Vince (Ben Foster), Stan is forced to scout internationally to find a player, which he does in Bo Cruz, played by actual NBA player Juancho Hernangomez. 

The film is ultimately a paint-by-numbers inspirational underdog sports movie, closer to Rocky (1976) than The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, but what makes the film worthwhile is the extraordinary verisimilitude of the NBA world, as well as some truly impressive basketball set pieces that tie the film together. Zagar deploys several extended training montages—a staple in any sports film—including Cruz running up steps in Philadelphia that Sandler had to point out during the sequence. The fact that even this moment is played earnestly is an example of the tone the creators are striving towards that separates it from a suite of recent films.

Juancho Hernangomez (left) and Anthony Edwards (right) in Hustle


Shot wonderfully on film, director Jeremiah Zagar mines intimate moments out of Hernangomez and his family that are as affecting as the high-octane basketball scenes, especially those between Kermit Wilts (played incredibly by NBA star Anthony Edwards) and Bo Cruz. Any fan of the NBA in recent years could tell you Edwards has exploded onto the scene as one of the best personalities in the sport, and Hustle uses his charm and confidence in a wonderful heel turn as Cruz’s rival leading into the draft.

Hustle is a modern sports film made with a high level of skill by Zagar, but it comes at an interesting moment in the genre. The modern sports film finds itself in a precarious position, with the dominance of sports documentary films and series crowding the market. On top of this, the only avenue for filmmakers to create a sports film or series in the 2020s seems to be the involvement of the athlete in question or as part of an athlete-led production company. Hustle is no different here with the involvement of LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s production company, Springhill Company involved, no doubt a key reason the film was able to achieve such a high level of NBA verisimilitude.

While not a terribly innovative or imaginative sports drama, Hustle continues Sandler’s recent run of more serious performances, growing into his later years as an actor that is choosing to work in more interesting and creative spaces. Die-hard NBA fans will lap this film up, while also having enough quality sports filmmaking moments to entertain the less sports averse.

Hustle is currently streaming on Netflix.

Top Gun: Maverick is the Perfect Sequel at the Perfect Time

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

By all accounts, the 80s were quite the decade for the pop culture scene with rapturous music, unique fashion, and iconic films that spoke to the sentiment of the times. It was also an era coming to terms with the aftermath of the Vietnam war which saw a plethora of action-induced, patriotic films being churned out and inspiring the youth of the time.

The most profound of those films is easily Tony Scott’s now iconic Top Gun (1986), a film that both turned Tom Cruise into the poster-boy for American patriotism, and also captured the hearts of audiences young and old with its dazzling displays of all things 80s Americana. It’s telling then that 36 years later, Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick (2022) has managed to surpass the awe of its predecessor, and at the same time, deliver a sequel to rival all sequels.

It might be that the last few years have left an uncertainty in their wake in the same way that the Vietnam war did in the many years after its conclusion. The state of the world today is wrought with turmoil including ever-ravaging wars, a pandemic that continues to linger, the propulsion of gun violence in the USA, and growing speculation of an incoming recession (like the early 80s Reagan-recession). Maverick feels like a response to these last few years, or at the very least, a banner of hope that audiences have embraced with open arms.

Perhaps that’s because Kosinski’s film places audiences into a two hour, jet-fuelled cockpit of escapism that pauses all the worries in one’s mind and creates an unnatural sensibility for what is being showcased. It’s a polished and daring display of practicality that sends goosebumps across one’s body as soon as Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ roars in the opening sequence — and that’s before any of the “out-there” moments even come to pass.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

Narratively speaking, Maverick follows Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) in the years after his short-lived spell at the Top Gun academy for aviation. Now in his mature years, Maverick has traded dog fights for test flights, taking some of the latest aircrafts and pushing them to their limits in the sky. It’s a fitting reintroduction to the character and the direction of his arc for the remainder of the film, as he himself becomes pushed to his limits in the events that unfold.

Most of the film revolves around reconciliation, or coming to terms with the past, with the clearest example being in the death of Maverick’s wingman “Goose” that continues to plague our otherwise steadfast protagonist. It’s through Goose’s son, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), that we see this internal struggle and guilt of Maverick’s, surface. The film rides this wave of reconciliation for its majority, but it works because there is no throwaway dialogue here. The screenwriters, helmed by a trio comprising Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and frequent Cruise-collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie, do a great job of balancing Maverick’s place in the world with the passing-of-the-torch to the young.

But even with all the side characters —including a short, heartfelt appearance by Val Kilmer’s Tom “Iceman” Kazansky— Maverick is still unequivocally Cruise’s. The actor has come a long way since his Risky Business (1983) days, even if there is a part of me that still craves to see more performances in the vein of Jerry Maguire (1996) or Magnolia’s (1999) Frank T.J. Mackie. Maverick feels like the first real film to see the actor come to terms with his place in cinema. For all the ‘old-timer’ and ‘relic’ lines that are thrown around, Cruise is still the biggest blockbuster name outside of the Marvel engine, and it’s no surprise that he’s being hailed as the last major Hollywood star.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

The actor shows no signs of slowing down here, in fact, if his last few films are any indication, he still has some fuel left to burn. It helps that he has a young supporting cast that almost mirrors the antics of the original cast (Glen Powell’s Hangman is a spitting image of Val Kilmer’s young and cocky Iceman). He also has a new objective: to prepare these young pilots for a dangerous mission in enemy terrain.

The details of the mission aren’t nearly as important as the actual flying and shooting, or in other words, the stuff that gets you your money’s worth. The bravado of the film is nestled in the spectacle of its third act, where the cast is crammed into their F/A-18’s and made to feel the full force of the turns and hoops that ensue. Kosinski, clearly in his element here, shoots these death defying air-scapades with a desire to achieve as much realism as he can, and realism is what he gets, with heart-in-your-throat level action that makes Marvel seem like a rusty kids playground in need of a major renovation.

What’s true for Maverick is that it does feel like a polished playground of possibility, one that is set on pushing the limits of what’s possible for the cinematic medium. This has been true for anything Cruise related for years now, but with Maverick there is a bittersweetness in realising that films like this only get made because there is someone willing to push the medium to its breaking point and not play it safe — in that way, Cruise and Maverick aren’t so different.

Top Gun: Maverick is is currently screening in cinemas nationwide

Turning Red is a Bold, Welcome Deviation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Critics are fast running out of superlatives to describe the filmography of Pixar Animation Studios. Every release by the company, especially of late, has possessed a rousing soundtrack, heartfelt screenplay, top-notch voice-acting and of course, computer-generated illustrations beyond compare, almost to the point of conformity. That all changes with this production, and for the better.

Toronto resident Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is on the verge of adolescence, lusting after boys she ordinarily wouldn’t and engaging in activities that draw the disapproval of her otherwise doting mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). But puberty is not the only drastic change the youngster is having to contend with – now that she’s a teenager, Mei finds herself transforming into a giant red panda whenever her emotions are heightened, a source of embarrassment greater than any other in her life.

The driving force behind Turning Red (2022) is writer-director Domee Shi who, just like Mei, is a proud Torontonian with Chinese heritage. Shi’s career trajectory is more interesting than most, having joined Pixar as an intern before garnering widespread acclaim with her allegorical short film Bao (2018). After this success, Shi was promoted to Pixar’s “Brain Trust” and given the opportunity to craft her own feature-length production; in turn, the film-maker has concocted the most energetic, inimitable Pixar film yet.

The most distinguishing element of Turning Red is the art-style. While there are shades of Pixar’s influence in the design of the characters and settings, the look of the film is distinct from any of the studio’s previous feature-length productions, a change that is most welcome. Soft colours dominate the architecture of Toronto, and clothing of those who inhabit its surroundings; humans of all sizes and body types interact with one-another, while their faces are adorned with large teeth and pupils that comically dilate or contract depending on their mood.

The animation, too, is a point of difference from other Pixar films. Where in the past, a character would move smoothly and gracefully (one could even say “realistically”), in Turning Red, the movement of the protagonists is quick and frenzied, welcomely leading to some well-timed physical gags that border on slapstick. Adding to this witty and frantic vibe is the editing, which occasionally employs some Edgar Wright-style quick cuts to further discern the picture from its contemporaries. Yet the differences go even deeper than that.

Ming Lee and daughter Meilin are often at odds in Turning Red.

Further distinctions are found in the screenwriting, which matches the vibrancy of Turning Red’s visuals. The plot is narrated in the first-person by a self-aware figure who frequently breaks the fourth wall and wears her geekiness with pride, forgoing the usual stereotype of an introverted, awkward teenager. Likewise, her friends are eccentric, outgoing and unashamedly nerdy, offering the perfect social and moral support – another rarity in coming-of-age tales. Additionally, it’s a tale that feels quite timeless, despite the film’s early-2000s setting.

Yet for all the freshness this script provides, it is stymied by the occasional flaw. One such example is the antagonistic Tyler (Tristan Allerick Chen), who is underwritten and poorly developed – efforts made by the film to complexify and soften his character are tame at best and confusing at worst. Another letdown is the third act, relinquishing the vim and momentum present elsewhere in Turning Red, slowing events to an underwhelming conclusion, and providing a left-field revelation about Tyler that bears no relevance to the conflict.

The one upside to these blemishes is that they aren’t a common sight in Pixar’s filmography, offering further proof that the team at Emeryville are no longer adhering to a formula or norm. Between this flick and Luca (2021), it looks as though Pixar is shying away from being a safe, comfortable brand and instead following the route of its fellow CGI powerhouses, DreamWorks and Sony in taking risks -– they’re hiring new people, toying with different art-styles and telling more diverse stories.

Turning Red heralds a promising future for Pixar Animation Studios, providing the medium with a fresh and distinctive voice in Domee Shi. Viewers will find themselves drawn to the quirky characters, original story, lively animation and bright illustrations of a stylised Toronto, making for an entertaining and resonant experience regardless of one’s background.

Turning Red is now available on home-video and on-demand services, and streaming on Disney+.

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 a 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 held 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