The Secrets of Dumbledore is Fantasy Without The Majesty

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

And that, unfortunately, is where the praise ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story is a Surprisingly Endearing Remake

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Jack (Matt Smith) in Last Night in Soho

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

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

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

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

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

The Batman is a Wonderfully Grimy Noir in Superhero Clothes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s a beautiful thing, when each element of a film is working so harmoniously together, where nothing dominates the other, all working to execute a singular vision. There was a mountain of expectations put on Matt Reeves to create a unique Batman story, a character so embedded into the story of the last 35 years of Hollywood filmmaking, and, most surprisingly, the filmmaker has met those expectations.

We are entering the Batman story a couple years into Bruce Wayne’s journey as the Caped Crusader. With so many recent iterations of the character in film, the writing here is aggressively avoiding overlapping elements from the other franchises. There is no scene of Martha Wayne’s pearls falling to the floor (although it could be argued this iteration required this scene more than any other), or extended montages of Bruce learning to fight. Modern films are increasingly aware of its audience’s background with these stories, allowing each individual film to spread its wings and flourish on its own terms.

It is here that The Batman flourishes. Reeves has crafted a true auteurist vision inside a blockbuster superhero film that is remarkable. With an outstanding cast and arguably the best working cinematographer behind the camera – Melbourne’s own Greig Fraser – The Batman shows us that with enough creativity and craft, the superhero genre can still execute high-level filmmaking.

We should start with the casting, which is excellent and wonderfully refreshing. Pattinson helms the ship like it’s an A24 trauma thriller, with a performance of an emerging Batman and still grief-ridden Bruce Wayne that has you deeply compelled and tense throughout. Pattinson is an impressively nervy actor who is able to show us a mask that is just on the verge of cracking. The film positions Pattinson’s more dour Batman with a wonderful cast of actors, all at the top of their game, to ground the story in a level of humanity that could easily have gone missing in a story like this. The ensemble of Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Jeffrey Wright as Commissioner Gordon, John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, Paul Dano as The Riddler, an unrecognisable Colin Farrell as The Penguin, and Andy Serkis as Alfred, are all excellent and are perfect counterweights to Pattinson’s aura throughout the film.

Robert Pattinson (left) as Batman and Zoë Kravitz (right) as Catwoman in The Batman

Reeves’ previous experience as a horror director (2010’s underrated Let me in) comes through in several chilling scenes with Paul Dano’s Riddler, a character that has been adapted from one of the campiest in the rogue’s gallery to a harrowing villain that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Saw franchise.

It was clear from the beginning they wanted to craft a story that leaned more heavily into the grime and detective noir aspects of the character, with several scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in Seven (1995). The use of Riddler in the Batman franchise has always called upon a more detective and serial killer-tinged story, an aspect the film runs headfirst into instead of avoiding. It’s pretty remarkable that this film was able to achieve an M rating in Australia (PG-13 rating).

The level of craft in The Batman is where this film shines and this review could definitely pick each individual element to highlight how it perfectly sits in the pocket of the vision Reeves has for the film. One crucial element I will highlight is the score. The Jaws-ifying of the iconic Batman theme by Michael Giacchino throughout the film works brilliantly, showcasing Pattinson’s iteration of the character as a foreboding presence.

This is further emphasised by Fraser, cribbing from his own work in Rogue One (which Giacchino also scored) of Darth Vader in the hallway, a sequence that has now become that films defining moment and one of the best in the Star Wars franchise, with Batman stepping out of the darkness to enact vengeance.

Colin Farrell as The Penguin in The Batman

It’s impossible not to view the film from the lens of the other Batman films, in particular the Nolan franchise which is still the benchmark for this sort of superhero storytelling. While there are no individual performances as totemic as Heath Ledger, there are many moments that The Batman has improved upon from those films. The political narrative that Nolan experimented with on Dark Knight Rises (2012) has been refined here. In Nolan’s film, the political aspect centred around an Occupy Wall Street allusion felt pasted onto the story being told. Whereas in Reeves’ film, the political narrative is rooted deeply in every aspect of the story, and is a large reason Paul Dano’s Riddler works so effectively. In 2022, there is no more apt American villain than a QAnon leader whose ultimate plan involves a mass shooter plot at an iconic New York venue (I won’t spoil which). Reeves and Pattinson have been active in the press the last month expressing how bleak and dark this iteration of Batman is, and it is in this story choice where that darkness is evident and chilling.

But this film is still a big-budget blockbuster and there are some exhilarating sequences, including a remarkable car chase that maintains the same viscerality that defines every moment of Reeves’ film. The Batman’s legacy will most likely focus on the emo vibe and the runtime, but its action set pieces are worthy of the same acclaim given to Nolan’s trilogy.

What The Batman has achieved feels momentous. After almost 20 years of superhero dominance in Hollywood, it is remarkable to have a filmmaker come in and make the genre feel as fresh and vital as it’s ever been. The Batman is a showcase for some of the best craftspeople and performers in the industry, and is hopefully just the beginning for this new caped crusader.

Behold the Ineffectual Sequel, Death on the Nile

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

There’s never been a crime writer quite like Agatha Christie. Her countless novels about pompous aristocrats meeting grisly ends have captivated millions of readers, and become the template for all murder-mysteries that have followed, ensuring her the undisputed Queen of the Whodunit. Christie’s legacy is further cemented by the multiple adaptations of her work, with this picture being one of the poorer examples.

Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is sightseeing in Egypt when he encounters Bouc (Tom Bateman), an acquaintance from a previous case. Guy tells Poirot that he is in Northern Africa to attend a wedding between the wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and her working-class fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) who met only a matter of weeks prior in a London club – a meeting which, coincidentally, Poirot himself happened to observe.

The moustachioed sleuth is promptly invited by Guy to join the festivities, only for the celebrations to be dampened by the arrival of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), the ex-partner of Simon. Wanting to avoid the scornful gaze of his former lover, Simon and Linnet hire a paddle-steamer for the wedding party, Poirot included, to cruise the River Nile; but the danger is just as great on-board, because there are several guests who also have their grievances with the newlywedded couple.

Death on the Nile (2022) is the second of Christie’s mysteries to be adapted by Kenneth Branagh, who previously helmed and starred-in Murder on the Orient Express (2017). The director once again plays the lead role of Poirot, and is joined by an ensemble cast of comedians (Russell Brand, Dawn French), young thespians (Ali Fazal, Rose Leslie), Britons playing American characters (Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders) and, weirdly, Americans portraying British characters (Annette Benning, plus the aforementioned Hammer).

Like Orient Express, it’s a rather strange mix of talent that Branagh has opted to work with, and some of those choices are more peculiar than most. Chief among that cohort is Benning, who gives a decent performance as Bouc’s mother Euphemia, yet does so with a wavering, semi-convincing accent that proves a constant distraction – surely, she’d be better suited to playing the Marie Van Schuyler, as that character is an American; but instead, that role is inhabited by Britain’s own Jennifer Saunders, whose own accent is nothing to write home about.

Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile

Nor, for that matter, is the remainder of Nile, which pales when compared to its precursor in most respects. The warmth, quirkiness and verve present in Orient Express is lacking here, replaced with an overly-serious tone that allows no room for amusement; the pacing is woefully slow, with too many minutes spent delivering exposition; and the orchestral soundtrack of returning composer – and Branagh’s favoured collaborator – Patrick Doyle is even more bland and less inspiring than last time.

Yet by far the biggest grievance to be had with Death on the Nile is the awful digital effects. Oftentimes, on-location shoots in the natural beauty of Egypt are eschewed in favour of studios and a green-screen backdrop, with computer-generated environments added in post-production and zero effort made to disguise this fact. It’s not just the landscapes that are animated with computers, but the steam-boat too, its visuals rendered with such low quality that they rival the sweeping shots of the ill-fated cruiser in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) for realism.

Blessedly, not all of Nile is appalling to witness. The costume designs of Paco Delgado are great, with the men looking particularly dapper in their colourful three-piece suits; the set design is reasonably attractive too, particularly the construction of the paddle-steamer’s interior. In terms of the narrative, Michael Green’s screenplay is mostly faithful to Christie’s book and remains absorbing, but the outcome will be obvious even to those who aren’t familiar with the story.

Although not without its pleasures, Death on the Nile is a rather insipid adaptation of a beloved Agatha Christie text. Kenneth Branagh’s sequel is marred by odd directorial choices, below-par effects and a general sense of dullness, stifling what should be an otherwise gripping tale. Cinemagoers are best advised to save their money and wait for the inevitable television screening, or arrival on Disney+.

Death on the Nile is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

Most Anticipated Films of 2022

The presence of Omicron notwithstanding, the next twelve months are primed to be the era when cinemas return to their former glory, with plenty of new releases to anticipate. The team at Rating Frames are just as excited for the year ahead, and to prove such, our three resident critics have selected the films they are most keen on viewing over the coming months.

The Batman

DC’s nocturnal crusader is getting another reboot, this time with indie darling Robert Pattinson under the hero’s mask and the proficient Matt Reeves calling the shots behind the camera. From the numerous stills and trailers that have been doing the rounds, it appears that Reeves’ interpretation borrows heavily from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) but with just enough unique elements to set it apart. -Tom.

Australian release March 3rd nationwide.

The Northman

Easily my most anticipated film of 2022, Robert Eggars returns with a Viking epic with an extraordinary cast that boasts Alexander Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, and Björk. It feels like a miracle that a studio has given Eggars a $60m budget to bring a stacked cast to Iceland to recreate an adult drama centred on a 10th Century viking legend, something I hope we all don’t take for granted. -Darcy.

Australian release April 21st in select theatres.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

I’ve always been excited for any and all Nicolas Cage films that have been released over the years. Whether that be the mesmerising Mandy (2018) and Pig (2021) or even the more underwhelming Primal (2019) and Rage (2014), my excitement and enjoyment of these films has always been the same when I see the name Nicolas Cage associated with them. When news that Cage would play a fictionalised version of himself first surfaced earlier last year, I was instantly excited. It’s now early 2022 and my excitement has yet to dwindle; in fact, it’s just growing as each day passes. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is quite possibly my most anticipated film of the year, if not for the man at its helm, then definitely for that title alone. If you’re a Cage fan like me, this will be a film you can’t miss. -Arnel.

Australian release April 21st in select theatres.

Turning Red

Pixar’s 25th feature-length picture is a safe bet for being one of 2022’s best, owing to the animation firm’s past successes and the input of Academy Award-winner Domee Shi, who helmed the outstanding short film Bao (2018). Expect a humorous, tear-jerking tale about adolescence, family and acceptance, paired with a superb voice-cast and detailed visuals. -Tom.

Streaming March 11th worldwide on Disney+.

Petite Maman

Originally planned for MIFF ’21, Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to her masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) finally reaches Australian audiences. Petite Maman (2021) follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a child who has recently lost her grandmother and is helping clean out her mother’s childhood home. Sciamma earned herself a patron for life with her previous feature so you will no doubt see me at the first possible screening of this film. -Darcy.

Australian release May 5th in select theatres.

Jurassic World: Dominion

The latest Jurassic series of films have been…underwhelming to say the least. It’s both surprising and unsurprising given that any follow up to a Steven Spielberg film (let alone two Spielberg films) is bound to be a mammoth feat, but technology in cinema is at the point where a T-Rex on-screen looks like something found and shot in a David Attenborough documentary. That said, I grew up wanting to be a paleontologist and my love for Spielberg’s two Jurassic Park films (and even the less iconic third film in that trilogy) has carried over into the latest Jurassic World films, and that sentiment is at a high this time around. The reason for that is we’re getting the legendary trio of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum all reprising their roles and sharing the screen together. If that doesn’t get your nostalgia going this year, I don’t know what will. -Arnel.

Australian release June 9th nationwide.

Top Gun: Maverick

Hoping to cash in on the recent trend of belated blockbuster sequels, Maverick will be arriving in theatres 36 years after its divisive originator – some love the kitschy Eighties attributes of Top Gun (1986), while others believe it borders on parody. The practical stunt-work and immersive visuals are being touted as the selling-point, and will undoubtedly look striking on a big-screen, even if the plot proves to be a dud element. Between this and the seventh Mission: Impossible instalment, audiences should get no shortage of Tom Cruise-infused thrills. -Tom.

Australian release May 26th nationwide.

Nope

Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele reunite for a new horror film in 2022, featuring Steven Yeun and Keke Palmer. We have no additional information about the film, and Peele’s more recent projects like The Candyman (2021) and The Twilight Zone (2019) haven’t been very successful, but Get Out (2017) was such a miracle of a film debut that every subsequent film of his remains a must-see. -Darcy.

Australian release TBC; U.S. release July 22nd.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One)

The first sequel to the Oscar winning animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Across the Spider-Verse (Part One) has climbed up the ranks of my most anticipated films list for multiple reasons. The first being that one of the films screenwriters, Chris Miller, shared news recently that due to the film having multiple dimensions, each dimension will have its own unique artstyle in a bid to provide even more ingenuity to an ingenious first entry. The second reason is that more stars will be joining in the Spidey fun with Hailee Steinfeld and Oscar Isaac both involved as well as a new trio of directors with Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin Thompson taking the reigns. What’s certain is that Across the Spider-Verse will no doubt push the animation medium to new heights and will be a must-see for fans of the original and of Spider-Man. -Arnel.

Australian release TBC; U.S. release October 7th.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

With a fervent, unabashed fanbase to satiate, the expectations placed on Loren Bouchard’s animated feature are greater than just about any other releasing in 2022, not least because it shares the same art-style, voice-cast and writing team as the situation-comedy on which it’s based. Those not familiar with the shenanigans of Bob and co. haven’t been forgotten, with Bouchard promising that the picture has been made with newcomers in mind, too. Either way, consider this author hyped! -Tom.

Australian release TBC; U.S. release May 27th.

The Son

After the success of Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020), all eyes are on the playwright’s follow-up, an adaptation of his equally revered play The Son. Expect an equally compelling family drama here, with a knockout cast including Hugh Jackman, Vanessa Kirby, Laura Dern, and the returning legend Anthony Hopkins. -Darcy.

Australian release TBD; expected to arrive late 2022.

Avatar 2

It feels like it’s been an eternity since Avatar (2009) was released — the record-breaking blockbuster and highest-grossing movie of all time (in case you live under a rock). To be exact, it’s been almost 13 years since the blue folk of Pandora graced our screens and reignited people’s interest in the 3D format, with multiple films going on to to be shown in 3D in the years thereafter (the Transformers films, the Avengers films etc.). We’re now in 2022 and we’re finally getting the first of James Cameron’s many sequels to Avatar, with Avatar 2 hitting screens at the end of this year (if all goes to plan). For some reason, my curiosity for this film is at a high, if not for the fact that we haven’t had a James Cameron film for 13 years, then definitely for the fact that Cameron is a master at making tentpole blockbusters and getting audiences into cinemas. With a large ensemble comprised of Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver and more, expectations will no doubt be high for this long awaited sequel and I’m riding the wave of hype all the way through to December. -Arnel.

Australian release December 16th nationwide.

Resurrections is An Ineffectual Matrix Retread

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterlife Keeps the Ghostbusters Spirit Alive

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Way Home Hits All The Right Nostalgic Notes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternals is a Rare Misfire for Marvel Studios

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Despite what its very vocal critics say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been afraid to deviate from the norm, frequently toying with its formula to deliver creative and outlandish pictures. More often than not, these risks have paid off handsomely; here though, is a rare example where the deviations don’t work to the material’s advantage.

Several millennia ago, the Celestials – omnipotent forces responsible for the creation of all life within the universe – placed on Earth a group of immortal, superpowered beings known as Eternals, and tasked them with defending humanity from outside forces that impeded their evolution. Said beings are presently living peaceful lives and have not needed to intervene in human affairs for centuries; but after a worldwide tremor, and the re-emergence of an old enemy, they feel compelled to embrace their former roles and defend the planet once more.

Directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, Eternals (2021) is so distinct from its Marvel stablemates that it barely qualifies as a superhero movie, being closer in spirit to a meditation on living purposefully. Throughout the narrative, the protagonists constantly reiterate their vow to not interfere with the evolution of humanity, philosophising whether this stance has resulted in further woes, if they should have done more to ease the world’s suffering, and the consequences of contributing too greatly to the human race’s development.

Other discussions in the film lean more towards the existential, as the ageless characters ponder whether a meaningful existence among mortals is even possible. It’s a struggle best exemplified by Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal who resembles a teenage girl, and as such cannot enjoy all the pleasures that her adult-looking counterparts can; meanwhile, the “older” Eternals struggle to maintain relationships and livelihoods, such as Sersi (Gemma Chan) who cannot commit to her human boyfriend, Dane (Kit Harrington) despite their obvious love for each other.

To place so many philosophical musings in a Marvel flick is a peculiar direction to take, but Eternals is by no means the first in this Universe to do so – that honour belongs to Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016) which drew interest by, among other things, pondering the futility of existence. That’s pretty much where the similarities end though, because where the Sorcerer Supreme’s film balances its existentialism with hypnotic imagery, inventive action sequences and shades of humour, Eternals offers nothing of the sort, resulting in a less exciting, less riveting blockbuster.

From left: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikarus (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Eternals

Zhao’s picture isn’t just weak when compared to Doctor Strange; it’s the weakest instalment in the MCU to date, lacking any of the spectacular elements associated with its forebears. There are no large-scale battles like those in the Avengers movies, nor the tense, close-quarters combat witnessed in the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) or, more recently, Black Widow (2021); it does not possess a jaunty pop-rock soundtrack á la Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and certainly doesn’t share the rich comedic stylings of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Thor: Ragnarok (also 2017).

This insipidness is reinforced by the elongated, gratuitous run-time of two-and-a-half hours – courtesy of the slow pacing – that solidifies Eternals as the second-longest picture in the franchise, behind only Avengers: Endgame (2019). Because of the film’s leisurely flow, there’s no sense of urgency to keep the viewer invested; nor is there a feeling of peril, even when situations are at their most dire. And on top of that, the narrative lacks any rousing, uplifting or showstopping moments, resulting in a tone that is way too sombre for a Marvel-stamped property.

In any other MCU entry, these problems would be alleviated by the efforts of the performers; yet here, not even a cast brimming with Hollywood’s most talented, charismatic actors can improve proceedings. This includes players such as Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, the funny Kumail Nanjiani and the eminently loveable Brian Tyree Henry, all of whom lack the magnetism they usually instil into their roles, and are never given the opportunity to demonstrate just how capable they are. In other words, they’ve all been wasted.  

Mercifully, the experience is not all bad, having been made somewhat bearable by the reasonably stunning visuals, at least by Marvel’s standards. Zhao made a point of prioritising on-location shoots for Eternals, rather than the usual sets and green-screens, and her decision has proven a good one, for the sun-bathed locales – superbly photographed by frequent Marvel contributor Ben Davis – provide a level of beauty hitherto unwitnessed in a superhero movie. Given the large budgets and healthy returns of Marvel’s output, one has to wonder why more of their releases can’t utilise similar techniques too.

Yet despite this splendour, and the nuanced discussions it also possesses, nothing can escape the fact that Eternals is the most tedious, least inspiring entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. The action is underwhelming, the cast under-utilised, and the narrative unsatisfying, drawbacks that are certain to test the most devoted of Marvel fans.

Eternals is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.