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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor: Love and Thunder Brings Both in Equal Measure

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka

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

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

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

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

Still from The Mandalorian

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

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

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

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

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

Ranking Pixar’s Filmography

27 years ago, Walt Disney Pictures took a massive gamble in distributing Toy Story, the world’s first feature-length film animated entirely with computer technology. Said film has since gone on to become a cultural touchstone, and the Emeryville-based crew that created it has morphed from a humble software firm to an entertainment juggernaut, its name as synonymous with animation as the corporation which acquired it.

The team at Rating Frames has been fortunate enough to witness the meteoric rise of Pixar Animation Studios first-hand – with our eldest writer being only a year older in age than Toy Story, we have never known a world without Pixar’s movies in it. Our earliest cinematic memories have been forged by their releases, which in turn have informed our love of the medium today.

Pixar made a return to theatres this weekend just past with Lightyear, breaking a two-year tradition of its pictures being released exclusively on Disney+. To celebrate this achievement, and his unflinching admiration for the company, our resident animation expert Tom Parry is ranking every prior Pixar feature from worst to best.

25. Cars 2 (2011)

This one’s appearance at the very bottom of our list should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with Emeryville’s filmography. With a nonsensical, chaotic story that makes its originator look passive, and a penchant for violence and destruction, this sequel is the let-down in an otherwise stellar family of high-achievers.

24. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Despite being undeniably sweet and filled to the brim with gorgeous visuals – particularly those near-realistic landscapes – this seen-it-all-before screenplay squanders any potential by failing to build upon its (admittedly) clever premise. Ordinary by the standards of most; underwhelming by the standards of Pixar.

23. Cars 3 (2017)

Seeking to atone for the mess that was its predecessor, this threequel took the series back to its roots by opting for a more placid approach, and removing the juvenile antics – mostly. Although these changes are welcome, they result in a picture that feels too safe and lacks the magic of its stablemates.

22. Cars (2006)

Barely a nose ahead of the second and third Cars movies is the very product that inspired them. Some elements prove enjoyable, such as the tranquil driving sequences and surprisingly decent soundtrack; others are less so, like the infantile morals it seeks to impart on the viewer.

21. A Bug’s Life (1998)

One of the earlier releases from Pixar that has almost been lost to time, owing to the many quality productions in its wake. Needlessly mean-spirited and possessing a screenplay riddled with clichés, today it looks closer to another studio’s product than an early example of Pixar’s greatness.

20. Brave (2012)

A backward step for the esteemed folk of Emeryville as they follow the route usually taken by their superiors – telling a narrative about a princess in a medieval setting. But it’s saved from mediocrity by the Scottish backdrop, Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack and reasonably engaging conflict between the central protagonist and her mother.

19. Monsters University (2013)

The first and, to date, only prequel from Pixar, utilising the well-worn formula of the college movie and combining it with the ingenious concepts of its originator. Never reaches the emotional or intellectual heights of its contemporaries, but does have some amusing moments and a smart, thoughtful message.

18. Finding Dory (2016)

Andrew Stanton’s return to the deep-blue tugs at the heartstrings without ever reaching the heights of its highly-acclaimed and much-loved precursor. Nonetheless, it’s a delight, and worth watching alone for an utterly wild third-act.

17. Luca (2021)

Riding on an easy-going, carefree tone and possessing anime-inspired visuals, Enrico Casarosa’s Italy-set adventure is the most distinct feature of this bunch. A little too sweet and gentle when compared with its brethren, yet still an absolute charmer – one could almost describe it as catharsis in motion-picture format.

16. Onward (2020)

Nestled in the rich and imaginative world of New Mushroomton is a compelling, witty and warm tale about brotherly love, paired to an epic soundtrack of power ballads. Spoiling the otherwise-pleasing narrative is a trite conflict between siblings that a studio of this calibre should be avoiding at all costs.

15. Toy Story 4 (2019)

The least compelling entry in the Toy Story franchise, for it dispels its fantastic roster of deuteragonists and has rather disparate messaging. Even so, the screenplay is absorbing, the laughs hearty, the new characters likeable, the struggles relatable and the familiar voice-cast a reassuring hug from an old friend.

14. Incredibles 2 (2018)

A long-awaited, much-anticipated sequel that nearly lives up to the hype. Brad Bird’s movie carries over the superhero protagonists and multiple qualities of its predecessor, but forgets one key ingredient: an imposing, inimitable villain.

13. Coco (2017)

While comparisons with another Day of the Dead-themed animated feature, The Book of Life (2014) are inevitable, Pixar’s effort proves enjoyable in its own right due to the astonishing visuals and fabulous soundtrack. Only a hackneyed script hinders it from outright greatness.

12. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Never afraid to wrench a few hearts, Emeryville delivered its biggest tearjerker yet with this stirring threequel about everybody’s favourite playthings. Unfortunately, it’s spoilt by being a touch too dark at times, utilising the same themes as its precursor, and needing knowledge of the two prior films to be fully appreciated.

11. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

The directorial debut of Pete Docter takes a common trope – the belief that monsters terrorise children in their bedrooms at night – and applies its own unique spin to deliver a clever, heartfelt story. The characters are iconic, the dialogue endlessly quotable, the designs creative and the voice-cast peerless, though proceedings do get a bit outlandish.  

10. Finding Nemo (2003)

Andrew Stanton’s ocean-faring debut feature possesses much the same strengths as Docter’s door-hopping tale, such as fantastic characters, quotes and voice-acting; yet Nemo gets the edge over Monsters for being the more grounded conflict. Plus, the blue of the deep sea helps lend a tranquil, serene tone.

9. Toy Story (1995)

After all these years, the movie that started it all remains a solid watch thanks to a timeless narrative and litany of distinctive personalities. If anything sours the experience, it’s the evident limitations of the technology available at the time. That, and the actions of the characters are quite extreme on occasion.

8. Turning Red (2022)

Released only a few months ago, Domee Shi’s coming-of-age comedy is already a certified classic for the studio. It’s also the most individual film of the bunch, containing slick designs, amusing slapstick gags, extroverted protagonists and an exuberance which is absent from most other Pixar movies.

7. Ratatouille (2007)

Its premise is bizarre and brilliant in equal measure – a rodent with a passion for gastronomy becomes a chef at his idol’s restaurant by using a lowly garbage boy as his vessel. But look behind the zaniness, and there will be found an investing conflict, stunning imitations of Parisian streetscapes, playful orchestrations and a monologue in the third-act that one never tires of hearing.

6. The Incredibles (2004)

Well-written protagonists facing a memorable, formidable villain. Detailed, superbly-rendered worlds. Quotes that stand the test of time. A brassy, catchy soundtrack from one of the industry’s all-time great composers. This isn’t just one of the best Pixar films, nor animated features; it’s one of the best superhero blockbusters ever released.

5. Soul (2020)

The least childlike product to emerge from Emeryville, which is no bad thing. Pete Docter’s pensive, adult-minded drama wins viewers over with its clever screenplay and exceptional soundtrack, proving that animation is a medium for all ages. It’s also, quite possibly, the only good thing to come from the year 2020, film or otherwise.

4. Wall-E (2008)

An ambitious, mesmerising piece of cinema that’s loaded with allegories and offers plenty of commentary of modern consumerism, yet at its basest level is a touching, charming tale about a tiny, lonesome robot who seeks a greater purpose in life. Visuals, music, sound editing and writing are all stellar.

3. Toy Story 2 (1999)

The first of many sequels and spin-offs from this company that set a very high benchmark for every production since. Aspects improved upon over the first Toy Story include better rendering, a more nuanced antagonist and some insightful ruminations on purpose and mortality, while the only irksome element is the pacing – it leans a tad toward the fast side.

2. Inside Out (2015)

Until the release of Soul, this was the most profound, mature and resonant feature in Pixar’s relatively short history. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic premise, loud colours and cartoonish designs of the main characters, for they mask a screenplay that’s clever and moving in the most unexpected of ways.

1. Up (2009)

The 2000s well and truly witnessed the peak of Pixar Animation Studios – it’s the decade that bore Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Wall-E, five of the features which have drawn universal acclaim and come to define the company almost as much as the Toy Story franchise has. And at the very end of that decade came the picture that would top them all: Pete Docter’s Up.

The film has it all – a melodic orchestral soundtrack from Michael Giacchino; an emotion-filled montage of married life; endearing characters, both human and non-human; outstanding voice-acting from all involved; and a script that deftly fuses adventure, comedy, romance, fantasy and thrills. It is, quite simply, perfection in animated form, and deserves to be seen by everybody young and old.

Hustle is an Impressively Real NBA Drama

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Hustle is currently streaming on Netflix.

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

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

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

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

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

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

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

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

Top Gun: Maverick is is currently screening in cinemas nationwide

Turning Red is a Bold, Welcome Deviation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 Best Johnny Depp Performances, Ranked

Geoffrey Rush has hailed him as “one of the great character actors of our time, trapped in a leading man’s body” and whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Johnny Depp has cashed in some of the most unique and memorable performances of the last 30 or so years. From Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Donnie Brasco right through to Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Sweeny Todd  — there’s no shortage of the irreverent and iconic. These are Johnny Depp’s five best performances, ranked.

5. Donnie Brasco in Donnie Brasco (1997)
Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco

Directed by Mike Newell and based on a true story (‘Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia’), Donnie Brasco represents the first real instance where Depp plays a straight shooting, no nonsense character on the big screen.

Depp’s character, Joe Pistone, infiltrates the New York mafia under the guise of Donnie Brasco where he befriends Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) and works undercover to expose mafia leader Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).

It is through the Depp/Pacino on-screen dynamic that this film separates itself from simply being another cliched 90s gangster, mafia type ordeal. Pacino plays a much more heartfelt character while channelling all the qualities (loud voice, edgy movements, alluring eyes) that have underpinned his performances prior.

Depp compliments Pacino’s supporting role by matching him in those qualities while also proving that he has more reach as an actor should he be offered the right role to display it. He plays the anxiousness of this character so effectively and you can sense the difficulty of his characters position as an informant through this anxiousness.

4. Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994)
Johnny Depp as Ed Wood

The first of two Tim Burton collaborations on this list, Ed Wood is perhaps best known for Martin Landau’s Oscar winning support performance, but Johnny Depp’s portrayal as the titular cult classic filmmaker was just as profound.

Like the real Edward Wood, Depp has certain eccentricities that can come across as quite peculiar, and they have allowed him to play strange characters, like Wood, on-screen in ways that other actors would not have. Depp’s casting as Wood can be considered a “perfect fit” by Richard Dyer’s work on Star Theory, as his star image fits perfectly with all the traits of the character, and he leans into the strangeness of Tim Burton’s own unique vision to bring the character to life.

In this way, Depp’s performance as Ed Wood is the first real instance where the actor finds a balance between the humorous characteristics he would later inject into his performances to a greater extent, as well as the more heightened moments of ecstaticity.

3. John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009)
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

Depp’s performance as the notorious American gangster/outlaw John Dillinger is perhaps the most contentious on this list. That might be due to the film in question, with Public Enemies being one of Michael Mann’s less layered works compared to say Heat (1995) or Collateral (2004), but it works because Mann is able to get the best out of his performers.

John Dillinger was evidently quite a misunderstood man by Mann’s depiction as he was more interested in taking from the state rather than from regular folk and found a certain connection to the people, and they to him. Depp can be seen as quite a misunderstood figure as well if not for his really uncanny demeanour, then definitely for the way he approaches his work and collaborations.

His performance as Dillinger is quite a strong one in that sense and it also represents a return to performances and films more akin to Donnie Brasco and a later mafia-esque film in Black Mass (2015).

2. Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands is easily one of Depp’s best performances due to how well the actor brings Tim Burton’s interest in outsiders and outcasts to light. Burton has never been shy on exploring characters who separate themselves from the public eye (like in his Batman films) or characters immersed in strange, gothic settings (like in 1988’s Beetlejuice).

A large reason why films like Edward Scissorhands and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) work is because the synergy between Depp and Burton allows them to get to the heart of why these characters are the way they are.

There’s no doubt that Burton has nurtured Depp’s performances in ways other directors haven’t, but it’s in that very strangeness where Depp is at his best and can convince you that there could well be someone like Edward Scissorhands (figuratively speaking) out there. This performance is one of his best due to how well he uses his facial expressions, physicality and gestures, as the character rarely (if ever) actually speaks.

1. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017)
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow

It wouldn’t be a ‘best performances by Johnny Depp list’ without the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow. Aside from the fact that Gore Verbinski’s original Pirates trilogy is one of the most audacious and well worked in cinema history, it simply wouldn’t be as memorable without Depp’s very individualised performance as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Depp not only imbued Sparrow with his own signature idiosyncrasies and oddness, but he also drove a majority of the creative choices around the character. From the Pepé Le Pew and Keith Richards inspired look/feel, to the very specifics of how he walked and talked — this character went against the grain of expectation that Disney had initially wanted.

Depp subverted the image of how pirates historically acted and carried themselves by playing the role in a very caricature like manner. He injected Sparrow with a certain flamboyance courtesy of his gestures, and gave him a drunken demeanour even when Sparrow was at his most sober. Depp went as far as to suggest that the character should walk normally when he is on the ship, while being off-kilter and erratic when on land.

All of these choices alongside the bravado with which Depp delivered them through his performative toolkit are what gave the Pirates franchise such clear bearings. There is no Pirates of the Caribbean without Jack Sparrow and there is no Jack Sparrow without Johnny Depp.

Notable omissions: Sweeny Todd in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), William Blake in Dead Man (1995), and Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999).

The Secrets of Dumbledore is Fantasy Without The Majesty

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

And that, unfortunately, is where the praise ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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