Wes Anderson Triumphs Again with The French Dispatch

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

He’s a director who shouldn’t need an introduction. As one of the few, true auteurs actively working in Hollywood and certainly the most popular, Wes Anderson’s name has become shorthand for offbeat, idiosyncratic cinema, and drawn a legion of passionate followers. And for those same devotees, or even newcomers to his filmography, his latest picture is nothing short of enjoyable.

The year is 1975, and in the village of Ennui, France, an American literary journal known as “The French Dispatch” is about to publish its final issue ever. Among the articles planned for its pages are an essay from Ms. J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) about incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro); details of a student uprising through the eyes of Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand); and the words of Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as he recounts the kidnapping of a policeman’s son.

Anderson’s film is a visual depiction of these magazine stories, with each writer serving as a narrator for their respective pieces. All three reports are told from a contemporary perspective, with happenings in the present bathed in the auteur’s trademark pastels and those of the past in greyscale, which is occasionally livened by splashes of colour. While Anderson purists may bemoan a dearth of vibrant hues in these flashback sequences, the black-and-white photography is no less impressive, for the meticulous lighting and shading ensures a sense of artistry in every shot.

Being a Wes Anderson picture, the grey sheen applied to historic events is just one of many peculiarities to be found in The French Dispatch (2021). Another worth noting is the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, previously utilised by Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – as with that film, the director uses the tighter frame and subsequent lack of space to his advantage, imbuing affairs with an intimate and cosy vibe. The difference here is that the smaller ratio is employed throughout the narrative and only changes during particular sequences, such as when the film is showing different points-of-view simultaneously.

To help realise his vision, Anderson has called upon the services of his favoured collaborators, including production designer Adam Stockhausen, whose adorable dollhouse aesthetics are visible throughout; costume designer Milena Canonero, who adorns every character in dapper, retro clothing; cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who shares the auteur’s eye for symmetry and detail; and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score retains the trademark playfulness of his previous efforts. The result, naturally, is a film that looks and sounds unmistakably like a Wes Anderson product.

Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in The French Dispatch

It’s a feeling that’s reinforced by the ensemble cast, with most of its players having appeared previously in Anderson’s projects – among them Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, and Bill Murray, who has been a mainstay of the director’s filmography since Rushmore (1998). Though the performances from all involved are memorable and faultless, the highlight is undoubtedly Jeffrey Wright, who exudes charisma and appears more than comfortable in his role, suggesting that he and Anderson shall have many more collaborations in the years ahead.

Because The French Dispatch contains so many of the motifs found in his previous works, comparisons with it and Anderson’s other movies are inevitable, and in most respects his latest fares well. This picture is wittier, more quotable and slightly more energetic than his preceding feature, Isle of Dogs (2018), whilst also being lighter and breezier than his earlier output; yet the narrative here is less compelling than usual, lacking the intrigue and emotional heft of Anderson screenplays past. It would probably benefit from adding more impishness to its protagonists too, most of whom are bland and indistinguishable.

There has been criticism from some quarters about The French Dispatch being formulaic and too similar to Anderson’s prior films, but in this author’s view, such claims lack merit. Although this movie is never one to stray from that which has come before – and it certainly won’t change the opinion of the auteur’s detractors – Anderson does just enough set it apart from its contemporaries through the anthological plot, greyscale imagery and intermittent use of hand-drawn animation, ensuring he can’t be accused of lazily using the same old tropes in this instance.

The French Dispatch is yet another pleasurable turn from Wes Anderson, emanating with the distinctive visuals and quirky, irreverent humour for which he is renowned, and made even more resplendent by the settings, cast, and old-school touches. For strangers to Anderson’s work, it’s an ideal entry-point; for the converted, it’s a just reward for their dedication.

The French Dispatch is currently streaming on Disney+, and available to purchase on home-video and on-demand services.

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.

9 Campy, Schlock Horror Films to Watch this Schlocktober

It’s that time of year again when people across the world start getting their pumpkins ready for carving and their costumes ready for wearing. It’s also that time of year when horror fanatics dive into their favourite horror films as Halloween nears. To prepare you for Halloween on the 31st of October, I thought I’d make a list of 9 campy, schlock-horror films to watch before the 31st. Most of these films are about as B movie as you can get with their small budgets, practical effects, zany plots, and comical performances. So lets look at some of the titles.

Bad Taste (1987)

As a life-long devotee to anything Peter Jackson related (given I’m a Kiwi), Bad Taste is about as great a debut feature as one can make. Not only was this film made with a small budget, but it was able to do so much with how little it had. Jackson made this with his friends and shot most of the film at his parents NZ house, with a documentary somewhere online showing his mum handing out sandwiches in-between takes.

The film has some structure for about the first 15-20min and then just quickly goes off the rails as practical effects subsume all coherency, and all out carnage ensues. There’s a scene involving barf drinking, there’s blood squirting almost consistently, there’s dudes in ninja costumes, guns galore, and there’s RPG explosions.

The film is really a testament to Jackson’s creativity and it’s far from his best schlock induced work (Braindead would follow), but it is a thrilling and outright enjoyable 90 minutes that never gives you any respite. It’s crazy to think studio executives would give Jackson The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) to direct, but boy did they make the right choice.

The Evil Dead (1981)

It’s hard to make a list like this without including Sam Raimi’s ever celebrated The Evil Dead. In its 40 years, the film has withstood the test of time to become a cult classic in the horror genre. The film, while definitely more of a professional, serious production, would go on to inspire and pave the way for a wave of 80’s and 90’s schlock horror and campy films.

The premise revolves around a bunch of college students, a cabin in the woods, and a mysterious book that unleashes a demonic force to hunt the students down. It really is a premise with three signature horror elements that has been parodied and done-over countless times.

It’s another example of making do with what you’ve got, and boy does Raimi make do. Plenty of gore to be had and also scares, which is something that this film has over the others on the list as it is more of a nuanced horror that happens to fall into this schlock category as well.

Frankenhooker (1990)

Frankenhooker is just as its name suggests — a Frankenstein zombie made from the body parts of prostitutes. Made by Frank Henenlotter, known for such titles as Basket Case (1982) and Brain Damage (1988), Frankenhooker is about a guy that blows up some prostitutes and stitches them back together to create his dead fiancé (who was killed by a lawnmower).

The film is a comical exploitation film that leans into physical humour for laughs. Though the film falls under sexploitation and is no doubt misogynistic, it has retained a cult status for its nonsensicalness and bemusing premise. The film gets more wild as the scenes roll on, with Elizabeth (the concoction of those prostitute parts) eventually getting a greater consciousness and exacting revenge.

There is evidently a lot of love and care that has gone into the film which give it that rewatch status and it’s no doubt a trashy 90 or so minutes to be had.  

Braindead (1992)

If I haven’t made it obvious, I’m a sucker for anything Peter Jackson related. Braindead is no exception and is one of the best films in the schlock horror, B movie category.

New Zealand humour and LOTS of blood subsume the film in this gore fest where Jackson is pretty much set on just destroying any and all human costumes and props. From the outset, Jackson is set on entertaining the audience as he leans into chaotic scenes involving intestine like creatures, zombies, swinging babies, and all while injecting the film with delirious gags and infectious humour.

Braindead is to the comedy-horror genre what Blade Runner (1982) is to the sci-fi genre.

Night Train to Terror (1985)

I don’t know where to start with this film. It’s like if Snowpiercer (2013) met Zoolander (2001) and Step-Up (2006), and even then that would still be an understatement. The film is quintessential viewing if B movie, schlock horror comedies are your thing.

Everything takes place on a train and the stories are absurd with multiple different ones intertwined throughout. The acting is bonkers, the humour feels out of place but works because it is, the practical effects are a staple of the time, and for some reason God and Satan are just having a casual chat amidst all the chaos.

It’s really an experience to be had rather than one that can be articulated as, like Sean Baker says on Letterboxd, the film is “Such an insane mess of a movie”.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

As its name suggests, the film is about some killer clowns from space that come to earth and terrorise those they meet.

There really isn’t much to say in the way of what to expect or what works. Everything works because it doesn’t — the absurdness of the plot and performances lean into a humorous telling, and there is just a bunch of nonsensical killing that many would find is “so bad it’s good”.

I’m usually not good with horror movies in general let alone horror movies with clowns, but because this film (like most on this list) are as crude and bizarre as horror movies go, it was worth a mention.

Chopping Mall (1986)

Aside from having one of the greatest simple titles of any film on this list, Chopping Mall is also (from memory) the only film on here (save for Death Spa) that brings robots into the equation!

I like to think of this film as The Breakfast Club (1985) meets WALL-E (2008), only WALL-E is a killer robot. Teens basically get trapped in a shopping mall after the mall goes into lockdown, only for security robots to go on a killing spree to rid these ‘intruders’. That’s really it.

The film is about as 80’s B movie as they come, with lots of satirical elements (particularly pertaining to mall culture and how prominent that was among teens at the time), scenes involving electrocution and also laser death.

Death Spa (1989)

Like Chopping Mall but also unlike Chopping Mall, Death Spa sees the spa computer system turn the workout equipment and other facets of the spa (including steam rooms and hair driers) against the spa goers.

It’s a ludicrous film (but what film on this list isn’t?), with garbage acting and a forgettable premise, but it keeps people coming back for its absurdity and how it doesn’t hesitate to knuckle down on its trashiness. The props and practical effects are lacking in comparison to most of the films on this list, but it has that 80’s vibe and colour palette that seem to be enough to keep viewers coming back.

The only thing missing from the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger and this would have been the Mr Olympia training film of the century.  

TerrorVision (1986)

Rounding off the list is a film where a family’s newly installed satellite dish attracts alien signals and eventually, the aliens themselves.

The film is a bizarre delight with cheap set designs, a very satirical undertone (basically ripping into everything 80’s), goofy characters, a surprisingly diverse cast (including Gerrit Graham, Jon Gries, and Bert Remsen), a very cartoony feel, and practical effects that get the job done. 

Essentially, if you wanted to get an idea of what the 80’s looked and felt like (from the hairdo’s, fashion, music and comedy), then this is the film for you.

Coupon Comedy Film Queenpins is all but Funny

Rating: 2 out of 5.

With Paramount + starting to kick into second gear with more content being released, it seemed fitting to check out the streaming providers latest original title, Queenpins (2021).

As its name suggests, in a rather unsubtle manner, the film is a take on the kingpin story that has been tried and dried since cinemas inception. To elaborate, there’s an idea that hits the protagonist, which ultimately leads to an illegal business involving money laundering, and then a culmination of a series of events that either see the protagonist get away with their dirty work or end up caught.

That ‘idea’ is what the film leans on for support and uses to try and differentiate itself from more serious films in the sub-genre. Connie Kaminski (played by the ever delightful Kristen Bell) finds a loophole in the supermarket coupon system where, after having complained to companies via email over the quality of their products, she is sent coupons to obtain those items for free. It isn’t until her YouTube-wannabe-star friend JoJo (played by Bell’s The Good Place co-star, Kirby Howell-Baptiste) suggests the potential to resell these coupons for half price, that Connie sees the potential to make some dough.

This is what directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly use to try and incorporate the more comical side of the film whilst also retaining a level of seriousness of the real life events that inspired the film. For the most part, the concept of the film is actually quite comical in and of itself. Evidently, Bell’s presence brings a level of warmth to this character that works alongside the premise of the film to make her not fall into the standard anti-hero of kingpin criminal films.

Connie’s backstory also helps to bring a level of sympathy to her character as she struggles financially due to undergoing expensive IVF treatments with her husband Rick (an incredibly underutilized Joel McHale). Subsequently, while her actions of counterfeiting coupons never really becomes something that sends fear down her spine should she be caught (particularly due to the naivety shown during the laundering process), it does give a more playful version of events.  

Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn in Queenpins

Joining Bell and Howell-Baptiste in this very buddy-up style comedy is Paul Walter Hauser and the quintessential serious-funny-guy type in Vince Vaughn. Hauser plays Ken Miller, a supermarket Loss Prevention Officer, while Vaughn plays Simon Kilmurry, a U.S Postal Inspector. Ken and Simon are the other side of the coupon counterfeiting coin as the FBI effectively demotes the issue as unimportant, and it is up to the two of them to crack the coupon case.

When spending time with Ken and Simon, the film leans into that buddy-cop type telling where the humour lies. Most of this humour comes from the very fact that the duo aren’t FBI agents, they’re serious about a coupon crime, and they have small gags that are aimed at drawing a laugh (Ken defecates in the car while out scouting Connie and JoJo with Simon). Most of these gags will either bring about a laugh or two, or simply just fall flat seeing as they just spontaneously pop up seemingly for the sake of a cheap laugh (a sign that the humour just isn’t great).

It’s easy to see that pairing the female leads together and the male leads together gives the film a lot more to work with as the actors play off of each other quite nicely when we do spend time with them. The problem with this duality is that we end up with two perspectives that seem to play out as two separate films. In essence, both the Bell/Howell-Baptiste and Vaughn/Hauser dynamic would really have worked better had they been two separate versions of this story or had we spent more time with Bell and Howell-Baptiste.

At the end though, the film banks on those back and forths between the female and male pairings. The actual coupon issue doesn’t carry enough weight behind it and just simply never feels like it raises the stakes due to how measured and composed Bell and JoJo are, even when they’ve been caught (an issue on the part of characterisation that is lacking). When all is said and done, Queenpins is a light-hearted but hardly humorous two hours.

Queenpins is now streaming on Paramount +

Free Guy is a Serviceable, Yet Sweet Action-Comedy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sometimes, there’s just no saving a picture from mediocrity; but in the right hands, even a milquetoast production can win the hearts of a cynical audience, provided it has the necessary elements. Said elements could be a poignant story, or dazzling visuals, or simply a charming performance from a famous thespian… or even a combination of the three.

Free City is a place where crime is so widespread that it’s more or less accepted as a daily occurrence by those who live there, casually treating the most violent of felonies as a minor inconvenience. What the city’s many residents don’t realise is that their home is actually the setting for an open-world video-game, and they are the non-playable characters – or NPCs – who have been programmed to endure any and all hostile behaviour.

The only NPC with a shred of self-awareness is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller who wonders if there’s more to his existence than stamping cheques and being threatened at gunpoint. Guy’s theory that proves true after a chance encounter with Molotov Girl, the avatar of human user named Millie (both played by Jodie Comer) who, much to her bemusement, explains how Guy can actively play the game, rather than just be part of it.

Much like Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) or Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), the appeal of Free Guy (2021) relies heavily on the viewer’s knowledge and appreciation of pop-culture, and gaming culture in particular – those who adhere to the latter category will undoubtedly distinguish Guy’s Free City game as an amalgamation of Grand Theft Auto Online and Fortnite. Non-gamers need not fear though, since these references to other properties are infrequent, and a greater emphasis is placed on the surprisingly compelling struggles of the characters.

One such character is Guy, whose desire to want more out of life is by no means unique, but is made endearing by his sweet, innocent and wholesome personality. It’s a performance that refreshingly deviates from Ryan Reynolds’ usual schtick, forgoing the snark and self-referential humour whilst retaining the exuberance which he now readily identifies with. Thus, Free Guy marks one of the rare instances where the presence of Reynolds doesn’t become grating.

The live-action antagonist of Free Guy, Antwan (Taika Waititi)

Of equal interest is the secondary plot involving Millie, which sees her scouring Free City to locate a stolen piece of software supposedly hidden within the game. This conflict has much higher stakes than Guy’s, thereby being the more engaging of the two; but again, its charm is due largely to the performer – in this instance Jodie Comer – adding a disarming sweetness to their character. (It’s something of a trend for Comer, who has flexed her acting muscles on TV’s Killing Eve and is now well on her way to conquering Hollywood.)

Comer and Reynolds aren’t the only charmers in Free Guy, with the film profiting from the inclusion of plenty more talented actors. Lil Rel Howley is the standout within the digital realm of Free City, offering his usual buoyant energy as Guy’s lazily-named friend, Buddy; in live-action settings, events are made pleasant by the likes of Utkarsh Ambudkar and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, both playing coders who work under the eccentric game developer Antwan, as performed by the ever-delightful Taika Waititi.

Weirdly, the sprawling Free City is a sight that proves just as alluring. Most of the location’s exterior shots have been filmed in Boston, Massachusetts, with visual effects being utilised when required to mask similarities and maintain the illusion of a video-game, the result being an environment that looks ideally suited to a free-roaming adventure. And for petrolheads, there’s extra fun to be had in spotting all the cars and motorcycles littered throughout.

While the visuals and cast are exemplary, the other aspects of Free Guy are somewhat lackadaisical. This includes the action, which is well-choreographed yet lacks the tension and excitement of that in other blockbusters; the comedy, with plenty of quips and gags but only one or two producing a giggle; and the references, which are of such low effort that they generate no glee whatsoever. All three of these elements do nothing to elevate the picture, serving only to make proceedings decidedly plain.

Yet when all is considered, Free Guy remains deserving of appreciation, even by those with only the slimmest awareness of pop-culture. A group of gifted performers, impressive effects and an unexpectedly touching screenplay are what satisfy most, all ensuring the film is never tedious nor bland.

Free Guy is currently screening in cinemas where open, and streaming on Disney+.

Trippy Visuals and Laughs Abound in The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sony Pictures Animation was once a minnow of the medium, its prosaic releases barely a threat to the dominance of the industry’s heavyweights. That order is looking shakier nowadays, with the company doing everything and anything possible to distance itself from the competition, much to its benefit, with this feature being a recent example.

The Mitchell family – consisting of patriarch Rick (Danny McBride), his wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), teenage daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), youngest son Aaron (the film’s director, Mike Rianda) and their pet dog Monchi – is driving from their home in Michigan to California, where Katie will be attending Film School. For Rick, the road trip represents one last chance to connect with his daughter; for Katie, it’s just the latest instance of her father’s undermining ways.

As the Mitchells make their way across state lines in their weathered station wagon, an artificial intelligence system known as PAL (Olivia Colman) gains control of the world’s electronic devices to launch a machine-led, Terminator-style apocalypse, enslaving humanity in the process. The only people to escape PAL’s tyranny, funnily enough, are the Mitchells, who take full advantage of their freedom by tasking themselves with saving humanity through their own wacky, unconventional means.

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021) was due for a cinematic release in 2020 under the moniker of Connected, delayed several times in the wake of the pandemic before its financier, Sony Pictures, eventually scuttled the film’s distribution plans altogether. Instead, the movie was tendered to various streaming websites and eventually purchased by Netflix, which secured global rights to the picture and a change in title – one preferred by the producers and initially rejected by Sony.

An immediately distinguishable feature of The Mitchells is the art-style, looking unique to any other Hollywood production. Although computer-generated like most animated pictures, the illustrations have been rendered and shaded in such a way that each frame better resembles an acrylic painting, lovingly hand-crafted on a patch of canvas. The character designs are equally distinctive, being adorned with flat faces, wide eyes, gangly bodies and brightly-coloured clothes to truly set the film apart from its brethren, from Sony or otherwise.

Rick Mitchell (left) with daughter Katie in The Mitchells vs the Machines

These beguiling images are energised by the exceptional animation, comparable in quality to another Sony feature, the much-loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)­. Throughout The Mitchells, people and objects are seen moving with a remarkable amount of freedom, apparently unhampered by technological limitations; in quieter, more emotional scenes, these movements are smooth and fluid, becoming quick and frenetic during scenes of action, and faster still in the comedic sequences to synchronise perfectly with the film’s zany tone.

Therein lies another forte of The Mitchells: its comic sensibilities. The movie is rife with humour, containing a plentiful number of visual gags, generous amounts of slapstick and a selection of decent one-liners – including some ironic, pointed statements about America’s technology giants that surely aren’t lost on Netflix. For cinephiles, there’s even more pleasure to be derived from the copious references to other works, including no less than two welcome homages to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003).

Disappointingly, there is an area where The Mitchells lags behind its contemporaries, and that’s in the screenplay department. The story is one that follows some very familiar beats, incorporating timeworn elements such as a young protagonist struggling to bond with their parent, and revelations of deceit that cause greater conflict between characters, neither of which are appreciated. Even so, the plot remains relatively compelling, courtesy of some clever turns thwarting the progress of the characters.

And anyhow, it’s the comedy and animation that are the picture’s greatest strengths, hallmarks shared with Into the Spider-Verse ­– and surely not by coincidence. With these two films, it appears that Sony is readying itself as a pioneer of the industry; a company that doesn’t compromise on the artists’ vision, encouraging innovation rather than adherence to a particular style or image. In an era where movies are increasingly subject to studio interference, it’s an approach that’s sorely needed.

Blessed with an abundance of creativity, colour and zaniness, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the kind of picture that other studios could only dream of emulating. Its distinctive visuals, brilliant animation and hilarious antics are more than enough to overcome a cliched plot, all showing why Sony Pictures Animation has a bright future ahead.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is currently streaming on Netflix.

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is an Irreverent, Unhinged Joy

DC’s cinematic output has been rather disparate of late, to say the least, with their releases range in quality from good to woeful, and most being mediocre at best. Now comes another blockbuster branded with the DC moniker, this one outshining everything that has come before it – especially its 2016 namesake.

Task Force X is a secretive branch of the United States government that oversees military operations deemed too dangerous, or too sensitive, for America’s heroes to be involved in. Their agents are inmates of the Belle Reve Correctional Centre – home to the evilest of supervillains – who are recruited in exchange for reduced sentences, provided they comply with their commands; should they not, the agents will be killed by their superiors.

The organisation’s newest recruit is Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) who has been sought by the director of Task Force X, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to lead an operation on the despotic island-state of Corto Maltese. DuBois has no desire to be involved whatsoever, until Waller threatens the safety of his teenage daughter, thereby forcing his hand into joining and reluctantly leading the mission.

The entity of Task Force X previously made its cinematic debut in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), which found commercial success despite being widely panned by critics for its appalling direction, unfunny humour and jarring, inconsistent tone. In developing the sequel, Warner Bros. ditched Ayer and handed directorial duties to James Gunn – who had just been fired from Marvel Studio for a series of tasteless posts on social media – and gave him complete creative freedom.

As a result of said freedom, Gunn’s new film bares next to no correlation with its Ayer-helmed precursor, despite sharing a similar title in The Suicide Squad. The extended cast serves as the only discernible connection between the two movies, with the abovementioned Davis reprising her role, in addition to Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flag; Australia’s own Margot Robbie as the squeaky-voiced jester, Harley Quinn; and fellow Australian Jai Courtney as the intensely ocker Captain Boomerang.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) makes a return to the screen in The Suicide Squad

Joining them are a bunch of fresh recruits who operate under Bloodsport’s command, including macho gunman Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith (John Cena); a man who can conjure explosive polka-dots, Abner Krill (David Dastmalchian); an anthropomorphic shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); a young woman who can summon and control rats, Cleo Cazo (Daniela Melchior); and finally, Cleo’s pet rat Sebastian (voiced by animal impressionist Dee Bradley Baker).

The Suicide Squad spends the majority of its time focused on the latter group of characters, and rightly so, because they’re nothing but a charm. This appeal is fuelled largely by the performers who play them, with all the newcomers looking poised and relaxed, and each gifting their respective roles with a distinct personality. Through their efforts alone, these actors have turned a group of obscure antagonists into loveable rogues who deserve to lead every sequel and spin-off that follows.

Just as admirable is the film’s screenplay, solely and cleverly written by Gunn. In addition to the main conflict, each character is gifted with their own story-arc that pertains to a troubled backstory, developing and maturing as they seek to address it. Although these struggles are relatively minor, they do aid in further humanising the protagonists; what’s more, their arcs prove just as gripping as the central plot without ever distracting from it, nor overwhelming the audience with narrative.

The screenplay’s strength doesn’t just lie in its ability to fuse multiple storylines into a coherent package, for it is equally adept at toying with the viewer’s expectations. Gunn sets the stakes of his picture high from the outset, showing characters being killed left, right and centre with little regard for how established they are, and even less for the celebrities chosen to portray them. After the first few minutes, there’s no knowing where the film is heading, nor if anybody will survive the climactic showdown.

As much a part of The Suicide Squad’s appeal is the mature content, being more vulgar and graphic than the average superhero blockbuster, courtesy of the profanity-ridden dialogue, sporadic glimpses of nudity and gratuitous levels of violence. Blood and gore are abundant in Gunn’s picture, with all manner of body parts bursting open whenever a character is slaughtered, and the majority of those deaths being played for laughs.

Robert “Bloodsport” DuBois (Idris Elba) confronts Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) in The Suicide Squad

On the subject of laughs, there’s some pretty decent ones to be had throughout, with frequent, fast-paced quips coming from every character, as well as the occasional slapstick gag; yet the best comedy is mined from the desk-bound bureaucrats of Task Force X – played by Steve Agee, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden and Jennifer Holland, among others – who utter the funniest one-liners of the entire movie, very nearly outmatching the likeability of the main characters.

Amusingly impish though The Suicide Squad is, there are some aspects in which it falls short. One such aspect is the characterisation of Bloodsport who, despite the film’s best efforts, cannot shake the fact that he is practically identical to Deadshot from the other Suicide Squad film – both are played by black actors, both wear silly masks, both are sharpshooters with impeccable aim, and both are absent fathers wanting to do right by their respective daughters. Were it not for Elba’s British accent, there would be nothing to distinguish between them.

Another disappointment is the music that accompanies proceedings. As per his work on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014, 2017), Gunn has personally curated a soundtrack of retro songs to pair with events, but this one doesn’t have the same appeal, for it lacks the catchy, kitschy tunes of his Marvel Studios playlists. The result is a soundtrack that pales not only to Gunn’s previous features, but even to a picture like Cruella (2021), which demonstrated a far better utilisation of classic hits.

Those grievances notwithstanding, The Suicide Squad is unequivocally the wittiest, warmest and most gratifying DC film to date, and an irreverent alternative to the superhero genre’s usual offerings. Idiosyncratic characters, fantastic performances, gory action sequences and some hearty chuckles solidify the picture as a winner, all but atoning for the sins of its predecessor.

The Suicide Squad is currently screening in cinemas where open, and available for digital download through select services.

MIFF ’21: Indie Darling Freshman Year is an Unassuming Charmer

If Hollywood is to be believed, college is one big, endless party rife with booze, drugs and sexual encounters. What’s needed is an exploration of the minutiae of tertiary education, those quieter moments that prove just as key to the experience – a void this indie feature has just filled.

Having moved from his family home in Texas, teenager Alex (Cooper Raiff) is struggling in his first year of university in California, feeling isolated physically and emotionally with only his dog plush for company. That loneliness eases upon a chance encounter with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a fellow dweller in his dormitory, who Alex falls in love with over the course of one night, only to be rejected by her the very next morning.

Freshman Year is the directorial debut of Cooper Raiff, who also wrote the screenplay in addition to starring. His picture first garnered attention last year on the festival circuit under the title of Shithouse, earning near-unanimous praise and securing Raiff as a film-maker to watch in the months and years ahead. Those are some pretty lofty ambitions to meet, especially when one considers that Raiff’s film is quite modest in its presentation.

Raiff impresses as both an actor and director – fronting the camera, he looks assured and comfortable in the role of Alex, keeping his emotions restrained and never resorting to melodrama; likewise, his helmsmanship is solid, with the film having steady pacing, clean cinematography, and mise-en-scene that’s perfectly suited to an indie feature. What’s here certainly doesn’t break new ground, but it demonstrates that Raiff does have a firm understanding of his craft.

Where Freshman Year differs from other indie, coming-of-age or college movies is in its fly-on-the-wall depictions of dorm life. There are no rowdy frat-houses or wild riots to be witnessed in Raiff’s picture, which is more preoccupied with discussing the ennui of university, hypothesising that living on-campus is not the endless thrill that others proclaim it to be. In that sense, one could consider the film as the antithesis to the likes of Animal House and Bad Neighbours.

Freshman Year is best appreciated though as a sweet, humble tale of two lovers. Raiff and Gelula’s chemistry is palpable throughout, their endearing nature swiftly ensured by their soft, amicable conversations in the first act, and further cemented by a cathartic night-time walk. In these moments, both Alex and Maggie prove so likeable that one can forgive the awkward, cliched moments they share in the latter half of the film. Well, almost.

While far from a revelation, Freshman Year is a respectable first effort from writer-director Cooper Raiff, who does well to reflect the experiences of a disaffected student, yet also proves adept at delivering a romance that viewers yearn for. It’ll be interesting to see what he crafts next.

Freshman Year is currently streaming on MIFF Play until August the 22nd.