Babylon Is A Frenetic Fable on Silent-Era Hollywood

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The only story more common in Hollywood than a film about filmmaking is an award-winning director cashing in a blank check to make a dream project they may never get the chance to do again. Babylon (2022), the new film by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, is an all-in movie for a filmmaker who knows the opportunity to make a big-budget, silent-era Hollywood romp with A-list stars will not come around again. We should be grateful the prodigious filmmaker chose to use seemingly every ounce of industry capital he had to get this oddball movie made, as even if the film isn’t great, there are enough transcendent moments, particularly early on, that makes it a ride worth taking. 

Inside this whirlwind of frenetic Hollywood excess is a group of artists striving for their place in the moviemaking circus as it begins to transition from the silent era into the talkies. These include the star-to-be Nellie LaRoy (pitched to eleven Margot Robbie); a hustling upstart looking for his place in the movies and true heart of the film, Manuel Torres (Diego Calva); and ageing star with a waning grip on the top, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt); including a suite of other terrific performers in this frenetic tragicomedy that you won’t soon forget.

Calva is wonderful in the film and a true revelation, but the standouts for the film are Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo, who play singer and artist Lady Fay Zhu and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer respectively. Both characters are great in limited time, but even in a film of this width, their stories are sidelined too easily. There are essentially four films worth of story in Babylon, from Manny and Nellie’s rise, to Palmer’s rise in the industry that does not value him, to Lady Fay’s weaving through a constantly changing industry without the recognition she deserves, to finally Jack Conrad’s slow decline from the heights of stardom into irrelevancy. All these dense stories deserve more time than they are given, sidelined in favour of ambitious dalliances into the debauchery of the industry Chazelle seems so persistent to explore.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu and Jovan Adepo (back right) plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Surprisingly, given the long runtime, Babylon is stretched thin by its wide array of storylines. Jack’s story rarely interweaves with Nelly and Manuel’s, making them feel isolated. Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) work emotionally as two-handers between the leads, whilst here the key characters are oftentimes isolated from each other, striving for their own ambitious goals alone in a chaotic world. This is clearly by design, as Jack’s declining trajectory works alongside his divergence from the young upstarts who are looking to take over the budding talkies boom, but the film ultimately falters because of it.

Where Babylon never falters is in the deliriously bombastic score from Justin Hurwitz, which will no doubt pick him up another Oscar. This may be his crowning achievement as a film composer as Chazelle allows him room to dominate. Full of bombastic horns and drums that propel us into each scene with boundless energy, Hurwitz is the shining light in an uneven film with easily the year’s best score.

A surprisingly dark film visually, with Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren opting for a more natural use of lighting which heightens the dynamic contrast between the debaucherous night sequences and the bright daylight where the work gets done. This is most effective through the opening two sequences from the coke-fuelled bacchanalia prologue into the extended scene of manic moviemaking. It is clear this is where Chazelle finds himself most comfortable and where Babylon truly shines. Watching Manuel organise a mass of skid row extras for Jack’s war film or Nellie’s first day on set is electric, set to Hurwitz’s bombastic score, all within the ticking clock structure of the single day shoot, is one of the best sequences of the year. While I am always in favour of directors taking big ambitious swings when given the opportunity, there is a tinge of sadness that Chazelle moves away from these high points later in the film. 

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Chazelle has always been a filmmaker who wears his influences on his sleeve, which has been felt in the past, with Whiplash and of course La La Land, like a prodigious young filmmaker attempting to brush shoulders with both modern and canonical directors simultaneously. Here, the Oscar-winning director is working to rewrite the legendary Singin in the Rain (1952) as a tragicomedy structured somewhere between Scorsese classics Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or Paul Thomas Anderson’s braggadocio Hollywood epic Boogie Nights (1997). This is a lofty goal that is certainly appreciated, even if it doesn’t hit the mark consistently.

By wielding PTA as a key inspirational pole instead of the Boogie Nights director’s idol Robert Altman, Chazelle is playing a game of telephone with this style of film, ending up with a story with smoothed-over edges. Scenes of freneticism are shown cleanly, never feeling dangerous to the audience or its key players. Nellie and Manuel glide through manic scenes as smoothly as Sandgren’s graceful camera, creating a certain inevitability to their landing point that while interesting as a decision, ultimately flattens most defining sequences.

There are thematic depths to mine in Babylon, but they feel oftentimes short-changed in favour of larger set pieces. Manuel’s narrative of assimilation and identity is compelling and the most consistent thread being pulled throughout this 188-minute cinematic feast. We follow this immigrant story of a man who must essentially remove his nationality in pursuit of his ambitions within a rigid Hollywood system. Total annihilation of personhood for your art is something that clearly compels Chazelle as it is a key driver for his characters across his filmography, but it is here with Manuel that these themes truly land. We see him transform throughout the film, shifting into whiter clothing, changing his name to Manny more diligently, and even telling producers that he is Spanish, all in the hope that it gets him closer to his goal.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

What separates PTA’s writing from Chazelle’s is ultimately what is lacking in a garish epic like Babylon: romanticism towards its characters. This does not mean fawning over them but treating them with respect and humanity that allows us to connect with them. Chazelle too often uses his characters as vessels for obsession and ambition in a primordial sense, making them kinetic and engaging, but rarely emotionally involving. The most personal moment of the whole film is wedged between its two great opening set pieces, as we see the modest living arrangements of Nellie and Lady Fay after seeing them command the attention of the lavish Hollywood party through their powerful charisma.

Chazelle has made a career of crafting sequences with wide dynamics, thrilling highs hard cut into crushing lows that usually work wonders like in Whiplash and La La Land. Unfortunately, adding to its issues with being stretched thin, these dynamics end up compressing the emotionality into dust.

The anguish-laden death march that consumes much of the second half sucks all air and exhilaration from the theatre, so the film is unable to coast off his own momentum as it languishes to its finale. This total fever dream opening into a death spiral has been done to great effect before (Boogie Nights and Goodfellas), but in Babylon the work on characters is less involved on a human level so the feeling is widely cheapened.

Ultimately, Babylon feels like a terrarium of meticulous detail about a revered moment in Hollywood history, with the edges sanded down to create a smooth glass dome. Even its finale, which is attempting a Godard-esque swing for the fences, feels strained. Authenticity was not the predominant goal of the film (this is not 2009’s The Artist but with coke), but somewhere along the way, the heart of the film was sidelined in terms of gawking ambitious set pieces. There are incredible sequences here that will be burned into my retinas to the tune of blaring trumpets, but you may not feel anything at the end.

Babylon is in select theatres now.

Best of 2022: Darcy’s Picks

With films returning to their native home of the theatre, 2022 delivered an interesting year of releases. Returning to some sort of cinema normalcy, even if the industry has been quite radically changed by Covid, the year has been full of quality films, including a large suite of self-reflexive stories from filmmakers old and new, to surprising and uber-entertaining box office hits, and the return to form for some incredible directors.

My 2022 list is surprisingly different to my most anticipated list from March, with Nope being on both lists, as my favourite works of the year came from unexpected places. This list includes two debut features (Hit the Road, Aftersun), a film from a filmmaker I’ve struggled with in the past (Armageddon Time), and a filmmaking blindspot I need immediately filled (Tár). While no five-star classics exist in this year of film, an impressive level of depth made this a difficult list to order and will no doubt change years from now. But for now, here is my list of the best films of 2022.

10. Hit the Road

A cheeky but politically and thematically resonant road trip dramedy of a young Iranian family attempting to smuggle their son out of the country to avoid military duty.

Panah Panahi, son of legendary filmmaker Jafar Panahi, is no stranger to the industry, but what he is still able to achieve on a debut feature is remarkable. Weaving in a deft political statement with a director well aware of where he is crafting his films, Hit the Road is elevated by a delightful and emotive family ensemble, centred by a lightning rod performance by Rayan Sarlak as the little brother.

9. Moonage Daydream

Filmmaker Brett Morgen, known for his wonderful 2015 documentary, Cobain: A Montage of Heck, declared this an experience about Bowie, not a biography of David Jones, and he truly delivered on this promise. Moonage Daydream (2022) is a deeply arresting piece of nonfiction cinema that operates as a mood piece that will be put up next to the very best in the genre.

The film weaponises its breathless propulsion in sly and interesting ways that sneaks up on you emotionally, much like Bowie’s very best work. It takes time to show its form to you, but once it does its effect is moving and profound. Morgen found something deeply relatable in his pursuit of capturing the figure of Bowie on film, unveiling a beautiful portrait of isolation for an artist that created community, showing us an image of the chameleonic legend that you won’t soon forget.

8. Broker

A master of humanist cinema, Hirokazo Kore-eda has crafted his most challenging makeshift family yet. Following a duo of child brokers of babies left at the local church’s baby box, Broker is complicated but deeply enriching in its portrayal of morality in the greyest of areas. Not of the same quality as Kore-eda’s Japan set masterpieces After Life (1999) and Shoplifters (2017), but is still one of the year’s best.

7. Nope

The film that grew on me the most this year. Peele has crafted a deeply engaging and entertaining riot of a sci-fi, Hollywood western that breezes through its first two acts to crescendo at a massive final act with a truly unique antagonist. While the film does lack in character work, its wielding of spectacle while also throwing those audience compulsions back in our faces is extraordinary, and is a brilliant use of the massive studio budget Peele is able to receive for these original stories.

6. Armageddon Time

Armageddon Time is emotionally devastating in ways that evolve beautifully over time, lingering long in the heart like a critical memory. What allows the emotion to thrive is the outstanding cast that could all individually contend come awards season. A gorgeous ensemble that introduced layers of nuance and understanding to each character over the runtime, highlighted by Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins.

5. 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.

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 with as much impact as each comedic or absurdist one. Rogers moulds the filmmaking duo’s creative madness into a deeply resonant and enjoyable work, not just another overly ambitious indie that feels more like a creative dare than a work of art with deep truths. Don’t take for granted what an achievement this film is.

4. Aftersun

The debut feature of the year (in a uniquely stacked debutant class), Charlotte Wells’ memory drama of a young father bringing his 12-year-old daughter on a holiday to Turkey is so beautifully crafted, teeming with empathy and respect for the perspectives of both individuals’ experiences. Paul Mescal is enthralling in the year’s best performance as Calum, a tortured bird that must force himself to put up a front to protect his daughter. There are some ideas explored in Aftersun, like the fear of parents with mental illnesses handing it down somehow to their child, that will obliterate you. Wells wields a flexible script that is explored with care and restraint that is extraordinary for a first-time feature filmmaker, making her the director to watch in the next few years.

3. The Fabelmans

Spielberg’s whole heart is on the screen, warts and all. What makes The Fabelmans succeed is its lack of pure saccharine while still maintaining his signature warmth. The power of Spielberg’s clear-eyed and impassioned filmmaking, mixed with Kushner’s deft hand at profound characterisation, allows the audience to see themselves in every character. This is as much a film about Mitzi and Burt as it is about Sammy, with Kushner able to establish an extraordinary amount of emotional depth out of these personal stories for Spielberg whilst never feeling overly soft or cruel to their lives. 

2. The Banshees of Inisherin

A densely compacted fable on friendship, breakups, art, passions, and how one chooses to spend a life, that is never less than wonderfully entertaining. A brilliant balancing act that consistently grounds itself in the earth of its characters, never allowing its more ethereal themes to float into wistful abstraction. McDonagh is at the top of his game both as a writer and director here, allowing the non-dialogue-heavy moments to shine as much as the musicality of his feckin’ barbs.

McDonagh has grown exponentially as a visual storyteller, allowing his sharp pen to relax and using the other aspects of cinema to communicate his themes and ideas in deeply rewarding ways. 

1. Tár

In a year without a true five-star film, several films on this list could have made it to number one, and perhaps in a couple years this order will change, but as of posting, this film has a way of burrowing into my subconscious and bubbling up every other day. American films just aren’t like this anymore. A provocative thriller that has no easy answers that will have you enthralled over its long but rewarding 158-minute runtime.

Todd Field returns after a 16-year absence from the cinema with the year’s best film about a deeply flawed figure that’s warts are shown under a fierce precision, never allowing a scene to end with an easy answer. Tár is a tangled web of clashing ideas that have sparked some of the best film writing around an American film in who knows how long. Field has crafted a film of ideas that gives nothing to the audience easily, but rewards all who view this strange and entrancing object.

Tony Gilroy described the film as “hard and perfect on the outside. Mayhem brewing within. Masterwork.” These competing forces of interiority and external poise are the powerful tempest that builds throughout Tár, creating a singular viewing experience, and one of the year’s best films.

Honourable Mentions: After Yang, Barbarian, Crimes of the Future, Kimi, Top Gun:Maverick, RRR, The Northman, and Lingui

Avatar: The Way of Water Sees Pandora Return Bigger and Better Than Ever

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Avatar: The Way of Water preview screening provided by Disney

In a year where caped crusaders have played second fiddle to F18’s and dinosaurs, Avatar: The Way of Water sees James Cameron swimming in his exclusive pool of opportunity; a sandbox style, open world, video game feeling film that is as hearty as it is beefy. Cameron, unsurprisingly, is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what a high concept blockbuster looks like. Setting the trend with The Terminator (1984), he’s always been out to entertain first, and worry about everything else second. The Way of Water speaks to that sentiment and culminates in a sensory experience unlike any at the cinema this year.

This is, after all, a film that —like the original Avatar (2009) before it— places an emphasis on out-of-body living, on connecting with the surrounding world and learning how to nurture and care for it. Cameron, an environmental activist in his own right, made Avatar and has pursued these sequels in part because he sees them as an opportunity to raise more awareness about our own world and environment.

In The Way of Water, he follows similar concerns to that of the first film, but trades the fullness of the foresty terrain, for the breadth and depth of the oceanic surroundings. The Na’vi continue to thrive, with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) now leading the tribe alongside his partner Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They also have a few mini-Sully’s of their own: two sons —Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton)— and a daughter, Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). They also care for Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who has a connection to Weaver’s character from the first film, but one that is kept intentionally vague.

The actual events of the film take place some 10 years after those of the first one. Humans continue to arrive to Pandora to harvest resources, and are even continuing to create avatars of their own. One of those is Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang), whose DNA and memories have been imbued in one of the lab grown blue beings to the point where he acts and talks like the Colonel in the first film, but he’s not him per se.

(L-R): Jake Sully, Ronal, and Tonowari in 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

In essence, the stakes feel similar: Jake and co are on the backfoot while the Sky People pursue and hunt them. Sometimes the actual motive behind this continued hunting isn’t explained all that clearly — the Colonel seems to have retained the same grudge for Sully in his avatar form as he had in his human form, but beyond that, the plot plays out like a game of hide and seek. Most of that hiding happens in the distant islands far off the mainland, where other tribes reside and have grown and learned the way of water. A good chunk of the film is spent leading up to Sully’s retreat into this unseen part of Pandora, but once out in open waters, the film opens up both visually and sonically.

Cameron has a penchant for anything aqua related, and it shows in these deep diving areas. The flora and fauna pop in ways that make one believe this world is tucked away somewhere in our own oceanic backyard. Maybe seeing all of this unfold through Cameron’s other love, 3D, might have heightened the immersion? But there is an evident care for this world that entraps and allures you, and makes you believe it’s real, if but for a split second.

It helps that the frame rate is bumped up to 48fps at certain parts. Character movements are crisp and almost life-like, where there is a fluidity to the motion. This is especially noticeable in the underwater portions of the film that are as visceral as they are breathtaking, with colours popping out like a Van Gogh painting as you try and absorb each section of the frame.

Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) in 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Cameron makes it easy to care for these characters, who have more nuance splashed across their digital faces and more realness behind their big anime-like eyes, than any of the beings before and since Avatar. The technology is a large reason why this film works, because there just hasn’t been anything like it in cinemas previously, Avatar included. The film’s weakest link tends to be anything that isn’t digitised to the gills, like the Tarzan-esque boy Spider (Jack Champion) who was left an outcast and was essentially adopted by the Sully’s. While the film justifies his presence, it’s more jarring to spend time with anything that isn’t wholly CGI.

Cameron’s brilliance ultimately rests in his unmatched understanding of scale — of how to get all of his story points in a basket while showcasing them in the biggest way possible. He swiftly transitions from moments of bonding and connection between tribes and creatures, to large battles sequences involving these tribes and creatures as they glide over the ocean. You might not end up caring for the whale like Tulkin beasts that end up playing a more vital role in the plot than anything else, but it’s enough to believe that Cameron does. It’s a large reason he takes so long with these films, and especially with The Way of Water, as he finds that balance between telling a story about big blue people and everything in between that’s worth caring about, with the trailblazing action and scenery on display.

Even if the plot is very akin to that of the original film, The Way of Water is a sum of all of Cameron’s experiences and experiments up until now, where he pours his heart and soul into each and every frame, as though this could be the last ride in Pandora even with most of the sequels penned and planned out. The Way of Water hits like a tidal wave, and it’s worth getting drenched for.

This post was originally published on SYN

Avatar: The Way of Water opens nationally from the 15th of December, 2022.  

Don’t Worry Darling is a Much Ado about Nothing

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Hollywood is littered with examples of filmmakers getting into relationships with an actor on set, causing friction with the rest of the production, as well as stoking a spectacle of drama and conflict that almost always overshadows the work. Most famous of this occurring was Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Roberto Russellini, which was unveiled just before the release of their film Stromboli (1950).

Don’t Worry Darling is the rare film where the situation involved a female director, with all the nuances that come with that difference. There will no doubt be tomes written about this production, but, for now, let’s simply discuss the text itself.

After the rapturous acclaim of 2019’s Booksmart, there was a bidding war for the follow-up feature of Olivia Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman, who have returned with one of the most confusing and underbaked films in years. Where their debut was an enjoyable yet frictionless teen comedy, Don’t Worry Darling is a big swing, period thriller that is after sweeping ideas on the modern world. Ideas that become exceedingly unclear the further away you get from the theatre.

Taking place in the 1950s, in a company town for the mysterious corporation Victory that is driven to create a new world, helmed by visionary Frank (Chris Pine), Don’t Worry Darling centres on young newlyweds Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles). The couple is very much in love and can barely keep their hands off each other. 

As Jack goes off to work (at the same time as the rest of the men on the street in one of many gorgeous sequences from cinematographer Matthew Libatique), Alice is left to clean and busy herself at home, which she seems content with. This seemingly ‘perfect’ life for Alice begins to come crashing down as she seeks to discover the town’s true nature and the work being done by Victory. 

Don’t Worry Darling is intended as a social thriller but is lacking any clear vision or identity in its story, which causes issues with the well-intentioned and well-executed design of the film. It forces its themes and motifs to become immediately literal. The idea of Alice’s world crashing down around her is shown with an unexplained tremor while she and Jack are in the kitchen in the very first scene. Not every film needs to be subtle and coy with its storytelling, but it’s a crucial element to the thrillers Don’t Worry Darling is cribbing from, so when you remove that element from the story, you better be doing it to heighten another aspect to make it an enjoyable experience.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in Don’t Worry Darling

The film is also doing itself a disservice by avoiding the story’s more thriller and horror aspects, which were crucial pillars in similar films like The Stepford Wives (1975) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967). The film has lazily been compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) due to its socially conscious thriller nature, however, what allows Get Out to thrive as a piece of social commentary is how it fits within the structures of the genre, something Don’t Worry Darling is sorely lacking. 

Florence Pugh is doing the most with what the film offers, using her established skills at conveying palpable tension over the course of a film’s duration. Unfortunately, in contrast to Katharine Ross in Stepford Wives and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Pugh’s Alice is somehow always behind on what the audience knows, even when we are both unsure what’s going on. Perspective is usually the most important tool that is weaponised by filmmakers in these thrillers but is so muddled in this seemingly first-person narrative with Alice that the film becomes increasingly tiresome.

Pugh isn’t helped in the film by her partner in marriage, Jack, played by pop superstar Harry Styles. The pop star is a classic example of an arena-sized bundle of charisma and coiffed hair that is unable to translate into the film, offering nothing compelling in the crucial two-hander scenes he shares with Pugh. There is also a serious lack of chemistry between the pair which proves fatal in many of these romantic scenes. 

Some of the controversy surrounding the film has been about Shia LaBeouf’s role as Jack shifting over to Styles late in pre-production, which would’ve been equally as baffling a casting choice. That being said, with no hints towards spoilers, the final reveal makes the casting of Styles so utterly bizarre and only emphasises the baffling decision.

Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll, and Chris Pine in Don’t Worry Darling

To Wilde’s credit, she has created a lush aesthetic with a suite of impressive visual flourishes with the help of Libatique and production designer Katie Byron, but it’s unfortunately always in service of a truly lacking script. There is much to like in the design of the film and will surely allow Wilde to take another bigger budget swing like this, hopefully with a tighter and more compelling story. 

However, Don’t Worry Darling is so smugly showing off its production design and recreation of 1950s America, instead of placing the story within its lavish designs. This is no better exemplified than in the opening minutes of the film where we are shown Alice’s hallucinations. No time is spent establishing the baseline world we find ourselves in before the film is trying to upend it. This would be an interesting decision if the film chose to do anything with the extra time afforded by speeding through the standard opening to most thrillers, but it doesn’t.

The film is caught up in its own withholding plot structures that never let the ideas ferment in any way. Everything feels surface level because to address the nature of the film would be giving the game away. It’s hard not to see the film in a similar way to M Night Shyamalan’s unsuccessful films like The Happening (2008) or 2015’s The Visit (although that movie has been reclaimed since release), but even that honestly feels like a compliment.

By withholding its reveal until the end, the film doesn’t allow itself to examine the implications of the world it has spent two hours crafting, preferring instead to leave the audience shocked. We are instead left confused by these decisions. In a film so heavy-handed in its choice of motifs (there is enough humming and circular imagery in this film to die from sigh-induced exhaustion), is it confounding how little air is given to its final revelations.

Don’t Worry Darling’s central issue is ultimately the striving to be a discourse movie for 2022, but without any modern ideas worth exploring. There isn’t anything new here that wasn’t explored in feminist texts 60 years ago (the film does not deserve the waves of feminist retaliatory think pieces it will stoke). This wasn’t an issue with the filmmaker’s previous film Booksmart, a low-stakes, fun teen comedy that was without friction, opting to always play it safe socially and politically. 

In Don’t Worry Darling, however, Wilde and Silberman are attempting to grasp at something outside their reach. One of the most exciting things Hollywood can do is give a large budget to give creatives the opportunity to take risks. Whether those risks land or not is up to audiences to decide. Don’t Worry Darling is a strange mix of massive risks and unfortunate turns to safety that will ultimately leave you somewhere in the flat, uninteresting middle.

Don’t Worry Darling is in theatres now.

Avatar Remastered, Revisited

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

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

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

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

Zoe Saldaña as Neytiri in Avatar

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

West Side Story is a Surprisingly Endearing Remake

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Steven Spielberg has done just about everything in his five-decade career, from horror to comedy, science-fiction to historical drama. Yet until now, there is one genre that Spielberg has not ventured into, and after seeing the final product, viewers will be left scratching their heads as to why the legendary director waited so long to do so.

In the late Fifties, amidst a period of gentrification in New York City, tensions between working-class communities are at their peak – principally the Italian-American adolescents, known collectively as the Jets, and the Puerto Rican youths called the Sharks. Caught between this feud are two star-crossed lovers, Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) whose adoration for one another risks causing an even greater rift between these warring factions.

Originating as a Broadway production, Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) is the second motion-picture adaptation of the celebrated musical, the first having originated in 1961 under the direction of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The 2021 version contains plenty of homages to its film and stage forebears, the costuming being such an example – colours help to distinguish where the loyalties of the characters lie, with the Sharks being dressed in warmer colours like reds and oranges, while the Jets typically wear blue clothing.

Another, more obvious link is the soundtrack, originally composed by Leonard Bernstein with Stephen Sondheim, and re-arranged here by David Newman. None of the songs contained within have lost their charm nor their infectiousness, so even those who’ve never seen West Side Story before are bound to recognise iconic numbers like “Maria”, “Tonight” and “America”. And further connection is made through Rita Moreno, the 1961 film’s Anita, who in Spielberg’s version plays the role of Valentina, a gender-swapped Doc – the shopkeeper who mentors Tony.

Although adapting a six-decade-old musical may seem a retrograde step for a legend like Spielberg, the director does plenty to keep the material fresh. For one, it atones for the lack of representation in Wise & Robbins’ production by casting actors with Puerto Rican, Latin-American and Hispanic heritage as the Sharks – actors like Rachel Zegler, who shines in her film debut as Maria; David Alvarez as Maria’s hot-headed brother Bernardo; and Ariana DeBose, rightfully tipped as the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actor gong at this month’s Academy Awards.

In recent months, much of the criticism surrounding West Side Story has involved Ansel Elgort in the lead role of Tony. Although not as insufferable as some commentators are suggesting him to be – his performance isn’t half bad, and his singing is rather impressive – Elgort’s presence is something of a sore-point for the film, given the allegations of assault and grooming of a minor that linger over him. But even if said allegations can be ignored, the fact remains that Elgort doesn’t possess the natural charisma of, say, a young Hugh Jackman or Ryan Gosling to carry the role of Tony.

The Jets face-off against the Sharks in West Side Story

Such a casting decision speaks to Spielberg’s lack of experience when it comes to directing musicals, which is evident elsewhere in his West Side Story too. Although there is a flamboyance to proceedings, it’s not consistent, with some scenes possessing a level of dourness that is endemic of Spielberg’s recent output; additionally, the film has a weird placement of songs – for instance, one upbeat number sung by Maria and her fellow Sharks takes place immediately following the death of a major character.

Problems like this may explain why West Side Story wasn’t the hit that 20th Century Studios hoped it would be. The Omicron wave has undeniably had an impact as well, yet in this reviewer’s eyes, Musical Fatigue is the reason for this picture’s shunning by the masses. Recently, there’s been a saturation of musicals not witnessed since the genre’s heyday, with Spielberg’s film arriving within months of films such as Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen, Disney’s Encanto, Sony’s Vivo, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! and John M. Chu’s In the Heights.

Talking of the latter, one of the more pointed traits Spielberg’s West Side Story shares with Chu’s In the Heights is a substantial amount of Spanish dialogue, none of which is translated by text – the normal practice in this medium. Such an approach is fine in the United States, where Spanish is spoken or at least learnt by most of its inhabitants; but in a country like Australia – where most people don’t speak Spanish, nor are exposed to it in their everyday life – most viewers would benefit from the so-called barrier of subtitles to understand what is being said.

Yet even with the lack of English translations, and other gripes besides, West Side Story easily ranks as the best musical of 2021. There’s a vibrancy to the choreography and visuals that is lacking in most contemporary live-action musicals, the decades-old numbers barely need updating, and the story remains as charged, moving and timely as it was all those years ago. More importantly, the film is comforting proof that Steven Spielberg still has that magic touch, even as he enters his sixth decade working in the industry.

What’s here is more than remake of a renowned musical. With a terrific cast and welcome throwbacks, this is a vibrant adaptation that pays tribute to its originators whilst doing more than enough to differentiate itself for the better. And of course, it boasts the direction of a venerable artist who rarely ever falters – one can only hope that West Side Story isn’t the last musical to be directed by the Great Man.

West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+.

The Stylish, Scary Last Night in Soho is Horror Done Right

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a great anxiety or even terror that comes with moving to a new place, but especially for females, since they are more likely to fall victim to perverts and predators who seek to take advantage of them. This horror film is one that brilliantly plays to those fears, benefitting from the helmsmanship of an ever-solid director.

Cornish teenager Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) is leaving her rural home for the bright lights and bustling streets of London, where she hopes to fulfil her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Her romanticised notion of the city is tarnished upon arrival, with leering cab drivers, conniving roommates and loud dorm parties all making her experience an unpleasant one, forcing her to move off-campus and into a dingy flat.

Ellie’s new accommodation brings with it a series of strange dreams that transport her back to 1966 and into the body of Sandie (Anja Taylor-Joy) – a blonde who aspires to be a famous singer in West End. Initially, Ellie is enamoured by Sandie’s world and the characters that inhabit it; yet within days, these slumber-induced visions become increasingly nightmarish, before creeping their way into Ellie’s everyday life.

Last Night in Soho (2021) marks a long-awaited return to horror for director Edgar Wright, who has not dabbled in the genre since Shaun of the Dead (2004), the comedic blockbuster that garnered him worldwide fame. Not that he’s completely disassociated himself from the field, mind – in the intervening years, Wright has helmed films such as the buddy-cop parody-pastiche Hot Fuzz (2007) and the humour-laced science-fiction The World’s End (2013), both of which contain horror elements without being outright scary.

Wright’s latest feature, meanwhile, is one that’s crafted to frighten everybody and anybody, even viewers who aren’t usually startled by horror movies. The nameless monsters of Last Night in Soho are some of the most creative and original in years, ranking among the creepiest ever witnessed in the medium. What’s more, Wright is also able to generate scares by leaning quite heavily into the horror genre’s tropes, smartly utilising the clichés seen in countless other films and then subverting them – it’s rather clever stuff.

Jack (Matt Smith) in Last Night in Soho

The cast is excellent too, with great acting from all involved – praise that applies to rising stars McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, the relatively-unknown Michael Ajao, octogenarian Terence Stamp with his sinister aura, and the late Diana Rigg in her final on-screen performance. Yet of all the thespians, it’s Matt Smith who impresses most as Jack, the sharply-dressed, well-spoken London gent who grooms Sandie into becoming part of his seedy empire, his evilness becoming more pronounced as he does.

Long-time fans of Wright’s work will be gratified to know that his affinity for music has not been lost, since Last Night in Soho is paired with a fantastic soundtrack, as per tradition for the director. Tying into Ellie’s affinity for all things retro, there’s a wide array of Sixties pop songs to be heard – some that are familiar to the ear, others more obscure – that contribute to a fun, upbeat atmosphere; and when proceedings are creepier, Wright utilises the talents of composer Steven Price, who delights once again with a neat orchestral soundtrack.

While Last Night in Soho is undoubtedly a great film, there are some faults that prevent it from being perfect. The most glaring of these flaws is a persistent bugbear of Wright’s, that being a predictable screenplay, with the twists and revelations being rather easy to foresee. Of smaller consequence is the comparatively sedate direction of Wright, who has shown more liveliness and flair in releases past, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and Baby Driver (2017).

Regardless, this is still a fun romp that satisfies anybody in need of a good scare. With a fantastic soundtrack, cast, monsters and ability to generate dread, Last Night in Soho represents yet more excellence from one of the most creative, eclectic and original blockbuster directors working today.

Last Night in Soho is available now on home-video and on-demand platforms.