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+.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a Sensory Overload

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

So rarely will a group of people in a theatre howl with glee and terror in equal measure while watching a film, but that is the reaction that directing duo Daniel’s (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) newest feature Everything Everywhere All at Once elicits throughout its 144-minute runtime.

The film follows the Wang family, helmed by matriarch Evelyn (the legendary Michelle Yeoh), who is preparing for an audit from the IRS, full-time work in her struggling laundromat, Evelyn’s father Gong Gong (James Hong) arriving that morning from China, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) trying to give her divorce papers, and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) trying to get her mother to accept her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel). Everything is happening everywhere all at once for Evelyn, and this is all before the threat of the multiverse collapsing has entered their lives. Shock and extremity is the name of the game for Daniels so I won’t be spoiling any moment here as they would lessen the impact.

It would be so simple for Daniel’s to toss aside this opening act to get into the zany adventures in the centre of the film, but it is clear from the jump that the entire emotional weight is set up at the beginning and is allowed to mature over the runtime. This is what makes the great weird films like Back to the Future (1984) work for audiences, a clear goal and set of stakes for the story being told that is established in the opening 20-minutes, working as the firm ground to stand on as a hurricane of madness whirs around you for the rest of the film.

Those unfamiliar with the directing duo’s previous film Swiss Army Man (2016) will be taken aback by the pair’s slapstick and crude humour, as well as their frenetic pace between visually creative moments. Daniel’s crashed into the scene with their work in music videos – a common pathway for some of the industry’s best visual stylists (Michael Bay and David Fincher to name a few) – with the iconic Turn Down for What by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, one of the most-watched music videos ever. While it’s clear in their previous works the directing pair have filmmaking chops to spare, they achieve a greater scope and emotional weight in Everything Everywhere that matches with their visual creativity, a balancing act that is quite astounding.

Stephanie Hsu (left) as Joy, Michelle Yeoh (centre) as Evelyn, and Ke Huy Quan (right) as Waymond in Everything Everywhere All at Once

Floating along a constant stream of intertextuality, self-referentiality, and reverence to the films that paved the way to gift this film into audiences’ laps (The Matrix (1999), In The Mood for Love (2000), any Charlie Kaufman film), Everything Everywhere feels like a cinematic miracle that is at risk of breaking at any point. We’ve all made food (let’s say, a bagel) that we’ve overstuffed with nothing but things we enjoy eating, not realising until it’s too late that the meal has tipped over the edge into being inedible, or at the very least a meal spoilt by clashing ingredients. Like tastebuds, every person will respond to the film’s propulsive mania in different ways which are exciting, making the viewing experience with a packed audience all the more rewarding.

Everything Everywhere is a technical marvel of small budget filmmaking, from its mind-blowing costume and production design to its sound design and visual effects, but the real hero of the film is editor Paul Rogers. Rogers’ work here is nothing short of miraculous. Tasked with building a feverish momentum for over two hours while having each individual emotional moment land as impact-fully as each comedic or absurdist one. Rogers moulds the filmmaking duo’s creative madness into a deeply resonant and enjoyable film, not just another overly ambitious indie that feels more like a creative dare than a work of art with deep truths.

The film also wouldn’t work as well as it does without a perfect collection of onscreen talent that is all game for the absurdity being thrown at them. Whether it’s with IRS agent Jamie-Lee Curtis who is up for all manner of madness here and is having a blast, to Stephanie Hsu as Joy, who quickly becomes the emotional and narrative crux of the narrative, elevating an already entertaining film to transcendent levels. I am deeply looking forward to what else Hsu and Daniels can achieve together. 

The film works similarly to the hyper pop genre in modern music. Both Everything Everywhere and hyper pop are mining pure emotion within the heart of excess and artifice. The movement is a direct response to the nihilism and despair of the 90s and 00s with artists like Charli XCX and the PC Music label paving the way. This form of hyper-aware, hyper-stylised emotive filmmaking operates just like a Charli XCX album; bouncing around multiple ideas with youthful energy, whilst never losing its heart and emotion. It is truly thrilling to see a similar approach made in cinema.

Some may call this film exhausting, and perhaps on a different day I may agree, so I can’t guarantee how you will feel until you witness what Daniels are doing here. But, I would stress to anyone who has seen the film and felt it exhausting, please see it again as your mood at the time you see this will heavily influence what you think of it, and it is definitely worth your time.

The Everything Everywhere All at Once is in theatres now.

West Side Story is a Surprisingly Endearing Remake

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney+.

Behold the Ineffectual Sequel, Death on the Nile

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the Nile is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

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.

A Tranquil, Reflective Journey Awaits in Drive My Car

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For many people, the car isn’t just a mode of transport – it’s a means of escape, a source of passion, or even a way of life. It’s a fact that is recognised by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who has chosen to make an automobile the star of his feature-length drama Drive My Car (2021), even though it’s the human protagonists and their struggles that are given the centre stage.

A widowed playwright, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has been invited to Hiroshima, where he is to work for the next two months as a director-in-residence. Kafuku is a keen motorist, and anticipated he would be making the hour-long journey between his accommodation and the city in his cherished Saab 900 Turbo; instead, much to his dismay, Kafuku’s employers have assigned to him a chauffeur, and stipulated that he is not allowed to drive anywhere by himself.

Designated to fulfil the role of chauffeur is a young woman named Misaki (Toko Miura), who quickly earns the approval of Kafuku with her sedate driving style and shared love of motoring. In the days and weeks that follow, the car-bound companions engage in deep conversation and reveal intimate details about their past, all while Kafuku mulls over the development of his upcoming stage-play – a multilingual adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

Oddly, Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya is the most engrossing aspect of this picture, offering a welcome deviation from the relative mundanity of his automotive journeys. Every step of the playwright’s creative process is shown, beginning with him meeting his financiers, through to casting and rehearsals, before a momentary glimpse of the final product – one that’s made even more absorbing by the transnational cast speaking in their native languages, a delightfully unconventional choice that more directors, be they real or fictitious, should emulate.  

As a fellow practitioner in the arts, this author was always going find the character of Kafuku relatable, yet found himself connecting even further with the main protagonist than anticipated, thanks to a mutual appreciation for driving. There is no activity more cathartic for a keen motorist than a long, solo drive; so naturally, when that outlet is taken away, a driver cannot help but feel a sense of melancholy or loss, which is palpable in Kafuku’s body language and expressions. That inability to drive is made even more painful by the winding roads and scenic views on the outskirts of Hiroshima, routes that any petrolhead would love to traverse if given the chance.

Young thespian Koshi Takastuki (Masaki Okada) chats with playwright Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Drive My Car

But this is not a film that exclusively romanticises about the automobile; instead, it’s an examination of the human psyche and soul, pondering what constitutes a meaningful, satisfying existence. These discussions are manifested in the thespians who appear in Kafuku’s stage-play – like Koshi (Masaki Okada) who joins the production as a means of reconnecting with his lost love, or Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim) who seeks to rekindle her love of performing – and in Kafuku himself, who longs for intimacy and connection yet also values his solitude.

Interesting though these philosophical musings are, they can become tiresome and will no doubt draw the ire of certain viewers, as will the ambiguous conclusion, run-time of three hours (or very close to) and the slow pacing. The latter grievance is evident from the earliest stages of the picture, with its prologue lasting a good 40 minutes before the titles appear. Moreover, since its events are recounted several times throughout the narrative, this entire first act could probably be removed altogether – as is the case with Haruki Murakami’s short story, on which this picture is based.

Pleasantly, there isn’t much else to fault with Drive My Car, which is brimming with artistic excellence throughout. The soundtrack, composed by Eiko Ishibashi, is light and ethereal, pairing impeccably with the film’s serene tone; its beauty is matched by the cinematography of Hidetoshi Shinomiya, whose framing and lighting of each shot is flawless, whether it be on-location or in the confines of Kafuku’s Saab. And then there’s the extraordinary cast, every member of which gives a dedicated, naturalistic performance regardless of experience.

Drive My Car is a pensive, genteel and tender drama made transfixing by its behind-the-scenes observations of an unusual stage production, reflections on what it means to be human, and beautiful driving sequences across the landscapes of Japan. Even with its drawbacks of length and slowness, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is one of 2021’s best, and should be a strong contender for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Drive My Car will be screening in select theatres from February 10th.

The Last Duel Captivates, Though Only In Parts

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

There are very few directors whose name alone is a drawcard for the masses, but Ridley Scott is one who can be considered among that company. Most recently, Scott’s touch has been applied to this medieval-set picture, drawing upon his wealth of experience to form a reasonably engrossing, if imperfect movie.

In 14th Century France, a squire and solider of the King is accused of sexual assault by a noblewoman, an act he empathically denies. The lady’s husband, a knight, supports her claims and demands justice, challenging the accused to a trial by combat – a duel to the death. Should the knight win, his wife’s accusations shall be seen as true to the eyes of God and her honour restored; should the squire win, he shall be deemed innocent, and his accuser punished for dishonesty.

Although the premise of The Last Duel (2021) is straightforward, its narrative structure wishes to be anything but, being non-linear in manner and split into three chapters, each focused on a different character. The first chapter’s subject is Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), the accuser’s husband; the second Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the alleged perpetrator and estranged friend of Sir Jean; and the third Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the alleged victim.

In each of these three parts, the story is told from the perspective of the subject and what they deem to be “The Truth”. It’s a noble and rather interesting approach, yet one that’s ultimately pointless, since the film is more or less convinced that Lady Marguerite’s account is absolute fact; thus, the perspectives of the other two men are rendered null and void, an unnecessary distraction from the main conflict. Had it dispensed of its all-sides-considered angle, and instead stuck with a singular, cohesive plot, The Last Duel would be just as compelling, if not more so.

Adding to woes, the picture devotes an inordinate amount of time to establishing the relationship between Jacques and Sir Jean, which does little to advance the plot – watching these chivalrous exchanges, viewers get the sense that Lady Marguerite’s assault is an event of secondary importance to the narrative, despite it being billed as the main conflict. Admittedly, there is some appeal in listening to their eloquent, well-spoken dialogue, but this soon becomes tiresome, paling in comparison to the film’s other merits.

Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, left) and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) prepare for their battle in The Last Duel.

One such merit is its world-building, with The Last Duel having fashioned a vast, enchanting and rather accurate medieval setting for its characters to inhabit. There’s no shortage of beautiful scenery, with the feature having been shot on-location in Ireland and France; the meticulous set design adds further to the realism, as do the costume designs of Janty Yates – a regular collaborator of Scott’s – who adorns the characters in era-appropriate fabrics and all other manner of regalia. Truly, this is the closest a Hollywood production can come to being an authentic recreation of the feudal era.

It’s a view that’s further enforced by the knightly battles that Sir Jean and Jacques partake in. These action sequences of clashing swords and armour-clad soldiers on horseback are littered throughout The Last Duel, evoking Scott’s work on Gladiator (2000) and warranting praise for being tense, brutal and expertly choreographed. Yet more excitement is generated through the close-up cinematography and terrific sound editing in these scenes, allowing viewers to feel that they are very much part of these violent encounters.

Eliciting just as much satisfaction are the performances of the leads, both the young and not-so-young. Adam Driver and Jodie Comer are their usual luminous, unflappable selves, once again providing turns that belie their age and experience; Matt Damon is also solid, though the same cannot be said for his impression of a British accent. Surprisingly, the highlight is actually Damon’s producing partner and real-life buddy Ben Affleck, whose carefree, amusing and somewhat irreverent effort as Count Pierre d’Alençon constantly brings a smile to the face.

Through its acting, direction and vivid replication of the medieval era, The Last Duel manages to be an intriguing drama with serviceable thrills. Ridley Scott’s film is not a masterpiece by any means – the male characters are given too much focus, and the plot’s chaptered structure is somewhat pointless – but nonetheless is a reminder of why he’s considered one of the industry’s greats.

The Last Duel is currently screening in select cinemas.

Port Arthur Gets the Snowtown Treatment in Nitram

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Australia has long had difficulty reconciling with its past, whether it be pertaining to its colonial practices, its treatment of First Nations peoples, or its storied xenophobia. This biographical picture explores a more recent chapter in the country’s dark history, one that’s bound to provoke discomfort, yet is worth sitting through all the same.

A disaffected young man (Caleb Landry Jones) lives in the outer suburbs of Hobart, Tasmania with his cold, domineering mother (Judy Davis) and lackadaisical father (Anthony LaPaglia), ostracised by society and dependent on others to care for him. His only source of compassion is Helen (Essie Davis), an older woman whose fondness for him is eclipsed only by her passion for Gilbert & Sullivan operas; but like everybody else, she has limits for his eccentric behaviour.

Nitram (2021) is a veiled portrait of Martin Bryant, who is infamously and inextricably linked with the slaughtering of innocent people at the historical Port Arthur convict settlement in 1996. Interestingly, although Bryant is the narrative’s central figure, at no point does the film refer to him by name, nor does it mention where the atrocity he committed took place, with the focus instead being placed on the moments leading up to the event in hope of understanding the perpetrator’s mindset.

Material of this sort is not new to director Justin Kurzel, who previously helmed the picture Snowtown (2011) to critical acclaim. Said picture is a semi-fictionalised retelling of the Snowtown murders – so-named because of the South Australian locale where the bodies were hidden – that centres on an assailant to the crimes, detailing his troubled upbringing as a reason for his actions. This level of sympathy is somewhat absent in Nitram, since the film is non-committal in deciding who is at fault for the main character’s behaviour.

Similar levels of caution are applied throughout Nitram, being more delicate and poised than its subject matter would suggest – viewers are never shown instances of graphic violence at the hands of the characters, and likewise are spared having to witness the horrific bloodshed inflicted upon people at Port Arthur, ensuring that the picture is respectful to Bryant’s victims. And yet, although instances of violent behaviour are few, they are nonetheless terrifying when they do occur.

Judy Davis, as she appears in Nitram

Another peculiar facet of Nitram is how the story never seems to reach its climax. Like a powder-keg that never ignites, tension slowly and steadily builds throughout, yet that tension is never released, with the conclusion arriving just as the pressure reaches its peak. Amazingly, these last moments prove to be the most eerie and affecting part of the entire picture, with pointed intertitles referencing the proliferation of gun violence, followed by credits that roll to absolute silence.

Of greater fascination are the astounding performances from the main players, including Caleb Landry Jones. The Texan actor’s commitment cannot be faulted, for he speaks with a seemingly-natural Strine, and conveys his character’s vulnerability and underlying cruelty with considerable ease – qualities that rightfully won him Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Nitram had its world premiere. His brilliance is equalled by industry veteran Judy Davis, whose baleful matriarch is sure to earn the scorn of audiences.

Regrettably, the excellence of Nitram is devalued by a poor choice in filming locations, with the Victorian city of Geelong acting as an unconvincing stand-in for Hobart and its surrounds. Aside from one aerial shot of tree-laden hills surrounding an undisclosed body of water, none of the scenery inhabited by the characters shares so much as a resemblance with southern Tasmania, being flat, arid and most unflattering to the eye; what’s more, there’s even a blatant disregard for continuity – at one point, a V/Line train can be seen travelling in the background.

Ignore this laziness though, and what’s left is unequivocally the best Australian production of the year, bar none. Guided meticulously by Justin Kurzel, Nitram doubles as both a gripping biography of a disturbed soul and an effective slow-burn thriller, further bolstered by the phenomenal acting of the leads.

Nitram is currently screening in select cinemas, and will be streaming on Stan from this Wednesday, November 24th.

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.

Revisiting Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Blessing for a Disaffected World

Every so often, there comes a film that transcends boundaries to find mainstream success. Such an example is this feature-length animation from 2016, a narrative that spans multiple genres and subverts expectations to be one of the artform’s most beautiful, original and compelling offerings, leagues above anything else from that same period.

Teenagers Mitsuha and Taki lead very different lives – the former is an introverted girl who resides in the Japanese countryside with her grandmother and younger sister; the latter has no siblings and shares an apartment with his father in Tokyo. Over the course of several months, these two strangers will awake in each other’s bodies, altering and manipulating their usual routines to the point where they become different people entirely.

As its manga-style designs make obvious, Your Name (or Kimi no Na Wa) is a feature-length anime, being one of several released in its home country of Japan every year; yet despite their ubiquity, very few of these pictures make their way into the Western hemisphere, and fewer still attain any semblance of popularity – arguably, only the releases of Studio Ghibli have managed to do so. This fact alone is enough to make the prominence of Your Name noteworthy, but what makes it all the more extraordinary is knowing who directed the feature-length production.

Responsible for helming Your Name is Makoto Shinkai, who had developed a modest following with his oeuvre in the years prior. Many of the themes in Shinkai’s previous films are rekindled in his 2016 effort, including adolescence, time and companionship, as are the fantasy elements that he so often incorporates. Think of it less as somebody lazily applying the same old tropes, and more an auteur utilising his motifs, like Hayao Miyazaki and his recurring morals of environmentalism and pacifism.

One of the greatest strengths of Your Name is how fluidly it morphs between genres, dabbling in fantasy, science-fiction, romance and drama without tying itself to any one in particular. Just when the picture looks to have settled on a tone – just when the viewer thinks they’ve worked out where the screenplay is heading – along comes an unexpected turn that sees it transform, almost into an entirely different narrative. Impressively, these transitions are never jarring or bewildering, but rather a smooth, natural progression of the story.

Mitsuha scribbles on her face in Your Name

Just as investing is the development of the protagonists, who become more likeable as the movie progresses. From the outset, audiences will find themselves relating to the struggles of Mitsuha and Taki, but their naivety and timidness are evident; as the plot continues, both characters mature and gain confidence through their body-swapping experiences, changing from archetypal youths to well-rounded adults. As a result, the viewer grows so attached to Mitsuha and Taki that the film’s emotional moments are made absolutely heart-wrenching.

Another reason to love Your Name is the animation, which is of a quality seldom witnessed in a Japanese production. All of the illustrations, be they the character designs, landscapes, vehicles or otherwise, are superbly detailed and splashed with colour, with the highlight being an ethereal, dreamlike sequence that sees Taki transported through time. This is Ghibli-levels of artistry on display here, with images so gorgeous that they deserve to be placed on the walls of a museum.

Although there’s plenty to distinguish this picture from its anime brethren, Your Name still ties itself firmly to the medium. Frequent references are made to Japanese culture and tradition, tropes of the artform appear every so often, and there’s an upbeat J-pop soundtrack provided by Radwimps that’s surprisingly pleasant to the ear. That’s the beauty of Your Name – clichés that would detract from the experience in another feature prove nothing but endearing here.

Unfortunately, there is one drawback to Your Name, and that’s the epilogue. While touching and by no means bad, these last few minutes feel like an eternity, needlessly delaying the inevitable outcome to the point where the film overstays its welcome. In fairness though, this is only a minor criticism that in no way frustrates, nor does it sour the rest of Your Name, which is as close to faultless as any feature-length anime has come in the past decade.

Taki (centre) with friends Miki and Tsukasa in Your Name

That consensus is one that’s widely shared by critics and cinemagoers – Your Name earned rave reviews in Japan upon its theatrical release and shattered records at the domestic box-office, being the highest-earning film of 2016 by a considerable margin and becoming the second highest-grossing anime film of all-time, behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. (It’s now in third position, with Demon Slayer: Mugen Train having usurped the top spot.) Those accomplishments were later mirrored in the West, where the movie generated far more interest than usual for a Japanese release.

Your Name’s unexpected success in the Anglosphere can be attributed to two factors. One is the releases it performed against: a myriad of ordinary blockbusters that did squat to innovate the medium, and just as little to appease cinephiles. The second factor is the downbeat period in which the picture was released – remember, 2016 was a particularly miserable time for many people, owing to Trump, Brexit, and a swathe of beloved celebrities passing away, among other things. What this movie provided wasn’t just an alternative to its lacklustre contemporaries, but an escape from the glum realities of life.

Three years after Your Name, Shinkai would attempt to capitalise on his global triumph with the release of Weathering With You, a film that shares many of the same attributes. In addition to utilising the plot mechanics from his prior works, Shinkai’s follow-up boasts beautiful illustrations, charming protagonists and an accompanying Radwimps-penned soundtrack; yet it also suffers from the identical problem of a prolonged third act. One thing Weathering fails to capture though is the magic of its predecessor, lacking that sense of wonder – but then again, there a few other films that do possess such wonder.

Placing in the top tier of animation and eclipsing most live-action productions, Your Name is a disarming, spellbinding feature with beautiful illustrations, loveable characters and a fresh screenplay that is unpredictable in the best possible way. It’s essential viewing for anybody who calls themselves an anime fan, and an ideal entry-point for those wanting to immerse themselves in the artform.

Your Name is currently streaming on Netflix.