The Secrets of Dumbledore is Fantasy Without The Majesty

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

And that, unfortunately, is where the praise ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Green Knight is a Brilliant and Unique Work of Adaptation

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 18 long months, Australian fans of filmmaker David Lowery were rewarded with the release of his critically-lauded feature The Green Knight (2021). The film has had a long Covid-delayed release, from a canceled SXSW debut in March 2020 – a date that feels weightier with each passing month – to theatres pulling the film from the calendar completely. US audiences were finally able to see the gorgeous and beguiling film in theatres in late July, but Australian audiences had to wait three more months before being able to see this wonderful film on Amazon Prime. 

Whether it was this long delay or the enveloping world Lowery has constructed here, but it felt so necessary to savour every moment on screen. Lowery has stated in interviews that this release delay allowed him to go back and edit large swathes of the film, not dissimilar to the eventual creation of Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant The Limey (1999) which involved the director re-editing the film after being dissatisfied after an early screening was shown. Whilst that film was recut with a focus on more experimental uses of editing, The Green Knight found its rhythm in its new cut, “allowing it to breathe” as Lowery describes. This is felt in the extended shots that have become the director’s signature, especially his use of a methodical 360° pan that never fails to draw the audience in (more on that later).

The Green Knight is a work of adaptation that keeps in the spirit of the original chivalric romance’s beguiling nature while also changing many details that are deceptively interesting that are sure to be picked over for years to come. There is a lot of meat on this bone that will propel you to return to the film often (a key bonus to having the film available on a streaming service.)

At the centre of our story is Gawain, a knight played by the wonderful Dev Patel with a mixture of youthful eagerness and unassuredness that propels every moment of the story, accepting the challenge from the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) during a Christmas day celebration in King Arthur’s round table court. Whether you’re familiar with the story or not, Lowery lays out the stakes with an assured pace, moving smoothly into Gawain’s quest for knightly honour, and to discover what that even means to him.

David Lowery is an auteur that works across genres and styles but is firmly rooted in the Del Toro camp of fairytale filmmakers. Whether it’s a grizzled career criminal, a lyrical film poem about the concept of haunting and death, or one of the best live-action Disney films of the 21st century about an orphan and a dragon, Lowery is able to breathe a sense of sincerity and beauty into his worlds, whilst never bogging down in the plots of his stories. The director’s assuredness throughout the film to be comfortable leaving the audience confused for stretches of Gawain’s quest, knowing the emotionality of the film work as a guide rope through the darkness, is wonderful and all too rare in modern American cinema.

The story unfolds patiently, following Gawain’s journey to understanding his own virtue and courage in the face of the inevitability of death. The Green Knight is a story about understanding and respecting the natural order of death and decay, themes that in less deft hands would become overbearing with a sense of mourning and sorrow. Lowery has said that he originally planned on the film to be under two hours but during his re-edit discovered it needed more time to breathe, but it feels necessary to the film’s ability to not be dragged down by its themes or become too oblique as to lose the momentum of the narrative that might’ve occurred if the film stretched into the 150-180 minute range that most period epics sit.

The titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in The Green Knight

One of the most admirable and deeply compelling aspects of the film is Lowery’s use of visual storytelling and sound design in extended sequences that allow the audience to sit with and contemplate the themes and ideas being laid out, something that is quite unique to the cinematic form. In The Green Knight, this sequence arrives at the dead centre of the film as we find Gawain bound in a forest. We are shown this through a patient 360° pan as we see and hear the seasons change around the forest, as well as the growth of green moss consuming the forest, ultimately landing on the bones of a long-deceased Gawain. It invites the audience into being an active participant in the storytelling, asking you to put your own thoughts and emotions into the film that will develop and grow like moss on a forest bed over the duration of the film. Scenes like this can be seen throughout cinema, from the many films of Yasujirō Ozu, the procession scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), and in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul that all allow the viewer to meditate on the ideas of the film while still very much experiencing it.

One of the best things in cinema is when a filmmaker, whether consciously or not, creates a double feature/trilogy in their filmography, thematically linking separate films that go deeper than just their aesthetic sensibilities. It’s impossible not to see the connections between Lowery’s previous two films A Ghost Story (2017) and The Old Man & The Gun (2018) with The Green Knight. All three features have a quest to find the meaning in death, not in trying to outwit it like a Bergman film, but in coming to terms with it and respecting it, both by meeting it head-on and from beyond the pale.

Crafting one of the best cake-and-eat-it ending sequences in recent memory, Lowery is able to convey a rich tapestry fit for the Arthurian legend with a sense of grace that is truly remarkable. While the author of the original chivalric romance is unknown, the author of this adaptation is firmly Lowery, an auteur that is building an extraordinary filmography. Lowery is one of the best American filmmakers to emerge in the last 10 years and is only a year away from the release of his return to Disney with an adaptation of Peter Pan, a dream pairing of storyteller and story that will not disappoint.

The Green Knight is on Amazon Prime now.

East Meets West in Marvel’s Dazzling Shang-Chi

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before the advent of the motion-picture, the martial arts were Asia’s greatest cultural export, imitated and appropriated by Western societies for decades. The latest film to continue this tradition comes from, of all places, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, albeit with a lot more care and consideration than is normal for a Hollywood production.

Since fleeing his homeland of China as a teenager, Shaun (Simu Liu) has led a modest life in San Francisco, keen to shun the criminal lifestyle practised by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). The only connection he keeps to his past is a jade pendant – gifted to him by his deceased mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen) – which is worn around his neck for safekeeping; but the value of the pendant is more than sentimental, since armed mercenaries are willing to fight Shaun for it on public transport.

Though said mercenaries don’t reveal their motivations, nor their affiliations, Shaun is convinced that they are tied to Wenwu’s shady dealings, and will remain a threat to himself and others – principally his American friend, Katy (Awkwafina) with whom he shares a close bond; and his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who is thought to be living in Macau. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: Shaun will need to confront his murky past if he wants to ensure his future.

On most fronts, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is rather innovative for a Marvel Studios feature, heavily drawing inspiration from the wuxia films that have long dominated Asian cinema. Kung fu is frequently incorporated into the action sequences, making for a refreshing chance from the usual superhero fisticuffs; there’s an Eastern influence in the soundtrack of Joel P. West too, with woodwind instruments and thumping drum beats heard throughout; and, more noticeably, the majority of the film’s narrative takes place in China.

The influence of Eastern movies even extends to the majority Asian cast, with Shang-Chi boasting two iconic stars of Hong Kong cinema – the aforementioned Leung, and Michelle Yeoh. While both actors provide delightful turns, it’s the lead performers who leave the greater impact, with Simu Liu looking confident and relaxed as the titular hero in his first-ever headline role; and Awkwafina constantly elevating key moments with her charisma alone. And there’s further delight still to be garnered from the supporting actors, such as comedian Ronny Chieng, and regular MCU bit-player Benedict Wong.

Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Although Shang-Chi does a great deal to singularise itself from its Marvel brethren, the film is somewhat lacking in originality, particularly in the screenplay department. The story here shares a few too many similarities with that of another MCU instalment released less than four months ago, Black Widow (2021) – both pictures follow a protagonist reuniting with an estranged sibling and returning to their country of birth to defeat a paternal figure. Whether intentional or not, these parallels will serve only to validate the notion that Marvel Studios’ output is becoming rather formulaic.

Other weaknesses are present in Shang-Chi, minor yet nonetheless irritating. One is the fight sequences, which have great choreography but could be more thrilling, for they lack the kind of death-defying stunts that Jackie Chan is renowned for executing. Also in need of refinement is the comedy, being decent and well-timed without ever reaching the level of hilarity found in other Marvel films. If Kevin Feige’s superhero factory is to continue beyond a fourth phase, both elements sorely need to be improved in any future releases.

There are some areas where this picture does improve over its predecessors, one being the depiction of its villain – blessedly, Shang-Chi has one of the better antagonists of the MCU in Wenwu, who is sinister, restrained and cool all at once, while possessing far more complexity and humanity than the average Marvel foe. The music too is above Marvel’s usual standards, with West being the closest a composer has come to matching the opulence of Alan Silvestri’s work in the Avengers movies – he deserves to be called upon for more of Feige’s projects in the years ahead.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does for the world’s Asian communities what Black Panther (2018) did for the African diaspora, utilising the familiar Marvel tropes to craft a visual and aural celebration of Eastern culture. It’s not perfect, owing to the muted humour and unoriginal script, but more than ably satisfies with its beguiling action scenes, glorious soundtrack and exceptional cast.

Shang-Chi is currently screening in theatres, and will be available to stream on Disney+ from November 12th.

Celebrating The Adventures of Tintin, The Dream Collaboration

The adventure serial was once a staple of cinema, with theatregoers each and every week treated to fresh takes of heroes in exotic, faraway lands. After a decades-long period of dormancy, the genre saw a brief revival in the 1980s, only to fade into obscurity once again; but for a brief moment in the early 2010s, it looked as though adventure films were here to stay, all thanks to a pair of the medium’s modern-day pioneers.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a famed investigative reporter whose journeys and discoveries have enraptured millions across Europe, and whose latest mystery involves the model of a sailing ship – bought by him at a flea market for a minimal sum – which no less than two men are willing to pay a substantial amount of money for. As it happens, the seemingly innocuous model is of a naval vessel known as the Unicorn, fabled to have sunk with countless riches.

One of the men seeking to acquire the model from Tintin’s possession is Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who believes it holds the key to the real ship’s final resting place, and therefore the treasure sunken with it. So dogged is Sakharine in his pursuit of the plunder that he’s even kidnapped Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), a descendant of the Unicorn’s captain, to prevent him from laying claim to the ship’s fortune – by which he has rights to.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) was a long-gestating project for veteran director Steven Spielberg, who first took an interest in the character thirty years prior. Whilst promoting his film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in Europe, Spielberg noted that many French reviews repeated the phrase “Tintin”, unaware what was being referred to. He soon learned that critics were referencing the Tintin comics, written and drawn by Belgian artist Hergé, which they claimed bore a similarity to the escapades of Indiana Jones.

The antagonistic Sakharine, as he appear in The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg initially envisaged the film as a feature-length animation, then as a live-action production, procuring the services of Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, to create a computer-generated version of Tintin’s faithful dog, Snowy. Being a long-time fan of Hergé’s work, Jackson took a keen interest in the project, eventually convincing Spielberg to utilise motion-capture technology for the final product, resulting in visuals that fused photorealism with the “traditional” look of Tintin.

This imagery proved rather polarising upon the film’s release, with some viewers unsettled by the not-quite-human looks of the protagonists; yet for others, including this author, the 3D representations of Tintin and his associates are quite charming, striking a perfect balance between the cutesy drawings of Hergé’s work and the lifelike renderings of other motion-capture projects, such as The Polar Express (2004) – and just like said project, the faintest hint of an actor’s likeness can be seen in the characters they portray.

The character designs are certainly the most talked-about element of The Adventures of Tintin, but they are far from the most notable; in actuality, the most enthralling aspect is the animation, which is masterfully rendered and quite fluid. The high quality of the illustrations allows for some exciting sequences, including a flashback scene of a piratical raid on the Unicorn; a one-shot motorcycle chase through a Moroccan city; and a climactic battle in a dockyard featuring all manner of destruction.

Also appreciable is the orchestral score, composed by musical legend and Spielberg’s favoured collaborator, John Williams. Although not as perpetually hummable as his work for other franchises (think Star Wars, Harry Potter), Williams’ compositions here provide a sense of whimsy and grandeur that fits perfectly with the adventurous tone of the story. So impressive was The Adventures of Tintin’s soundtrackthat it earned John Williams his 46th nomination at the Academy Awards, breaking the record of fellow composer Alfred Newman.

A naval battle, one of the many astonishing scenes in The Adventures of Tintin

A less commendable element of The Adventures of Tintin is the screenplay – it’s certainly captivating enough, with a strong mystery element and decent gags, but is also blemished by the occasional cliché; and there’s further irritation to be had at the characterisation of Captain Haddock, who is way too buffoonish for him to be taken seriously. These faults aside though, The Secret of the Unicorn is a rousing adventure, and an ideal entry point for children too young to witness the exploits of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.

Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin generated plenty of buzz upon its initial release in 2011, with foreign markets taking a particular interest. Even before earning decent reviews from critics and becoming a modest box-office success, discussion of a sequel was fervent, with both directors expressing their interest in a potential Tintin trilogy and Jackson even confirmed to helm the second instalment. And yet, despite the picture’s critical and financial triumphs, audiences are still waiting for a sequel.

It would seem that neither director is in a hurry to make the next Tintin film. On the verge of Unicorn’s tenth anniversary, Spielberg is currently directing an autobiographical film about his childhood, while Jackson is promoting his latest documentary project Get Back (2021); but beyond that, the former is consigned only to production duties, and the latter has no other projects planned, so there’s every possibility that a new movie from the pair is just around the corner – and we all sorely hope that’s the case.

In the meantime though, there’s immense pleasure to be had in rewatching the original collaboration. Lovingly woven together by two giants of cinema, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a picture that encapsulates the qualities of both Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, its enjoyment solidified by fantastic animation, unceasing thrills and a majestic soundtrack.

The Adventures of Tintin is currently streaming on Netflix, Prime Video, and Stan.

Free Guy is a Serviceable, Yet Sweet Action-Comedy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfwalkers Exemplifies The Might of Irish Cinema

Animated films have long regaled viewers with their retellings of folk and fantasy legends, a tradition that extends back to the medium’s dawn, and continues here in this feature-length production from Ireland. But this film is not here merely to capitalise on a time-honoured trend – in fact, it’s more likely to establish a new standard for the artform.

In the mid-17th Century, a young girl named Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) moves from England to Kilkenny, Ireland, where her father Bill (Sean Bean) has been tasked with capturing the wolves that prey on the townsfolk. Robin is adventurous by nature, and longs to accompany her father on his wolf-hunting duties; but unfortunately, she is forbidden from venturing beyond Kilkenny’s walls, due to her age and gender.

Robin eventually sneaks through the town’s gates and into the nearby forest, hoping to find and kill a wolf herself. Instead, she encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), an unkempt girl of smaller stature who calls herself a Wolfwalker – the name given to a mystical human who lives among the wolves. After an acrimonious greeting, a friendship between the two girls soon develops, and Robin’s perception of wolves with it.

It’s no coincidence that Wolfwalkers is based in Ireland, since the feature is one produced by Cartoon Saloon, a studio based where the film is set: Kilkenny. Just like the studio’s previous releases, The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Song of the Sea (2014), there’s a strong Celtic influence to this production, as evidenced by the voice-cast, soundtrack and screenplay – the latter of which draws its inspiration from an Irish folk tale.

Despite its mythological origins and Cromwellian setting, Wolfwalkers contains a fresh, contemporary story that grows more compelling with each minute that passes. The writing is masterful, with the film seamlessly, gracefully morphing from one conflict to another, the stakes heightening as it does so. If there is one complaint with the screenplay, it’s that the conflict between Robin and her father does come across as hackneyed at times, though never to the extent of annoyance.

Robin (left) and Mebh, the central protagonists of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers

By far the most appealing element of Wolfwalkers is the distinctive art-style, ensuring it looks unlike any other animated feature – including those previously made by Cartoon Saloon. There’s a storybook-like simplicity to the hand-drawn illustrations, witnessed in both the characters and scenery, that charms profoundly, with the best images undoubtedly found in the forest scenes, their gorgeous watercolour backdrops contrasting heavily with the bleak, yet nonetheless striking, greyscale palette of Kilkenny.

Paired with the animation is an equally wonderful soundtrack, composed by Bruno Coulais with the assistance of Kíla, a traditional Irish folk band. The compositions of Coulais and Kíla make use of acoustic instruments such as fiddles, mandolas and tin whistles, sounding quite ethereal when listened to in isolation, yet suiting the tone and imagery of Wolfwalkers perfectly. There’s even the odd pop song to be heard, including a beautiful re-recording of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”.

Yet another aural delight is the cast of voice-actors, most of whom are of Irish nationality or descent. The most famous name, and recognisable voice, to the layperson will be Sean Bean, whose mellow, fatherly tone is perfectly suited to Bill Goodfellowe; Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey are good also as the two girls, but to this author’s ear, the finest vocal performer is Simon McBurney, who provides an understated, menacing turn as Kilkenny’s Lord Protector.

Wolfwalkers is simply exquisite, with great voice-acting, stirring music, magnificent artwork and an elegant narrative combining to form a wondrous experience. Very few feature-length animations come close to this level of quality, making this not only a great film but also, quite possible, the best ever to emerge from Ireland.

Wolfwalkers will be screening online as part of the Irish Film Festival from September 3rd to 12th. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

The film is also available for streaming now on Apple TV+.

Disney’s Jungle Cruise is a Ride to Be Forgotten

There’s a prestige and heritage to the Disney brand that other studios can only envy – it’s a fact the corporation itself recognises, having produced a new picture that plays to its traditions. An initial glance suggests that said picture is primed for success; one viewing is enough to prove otherwise.

At the height of the First World War, Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is venturing to the Amazonian rainforests of South America, where she hopes to locate a rare flower with fabled healing properties in the name of science. Upon arrival, she engages the services of tour guide Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who offers to pilot Lily – and her accompanying, neurotic brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) – in his own boat along the Amazon’s many tributaries.

Their journey is one that will be fraught with the deadliest of dangers, including carnivorous beasts, turbulent rapids, and native tribespeople who are unwelcoming to outsiders; yet the greatest threat of all is a pursuing German officer, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who seeks the flower for his own warped, egocentric benefit as much as his beloved Vaterland.

Jungle Cruise is the latest blockbuster to be adapted from a Disneyland attraction, joining the likes of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, as well as less popular efforts such as The Haunted Mansion and Tomorrowland. Of these releases, it’s the Pirates franchise that Jungle Cruise most closely aligns with, hoping to emulate the former’s box-office success – a feat that looks unlikely, not just because of recent outbreaks of a certain strain of virus, but also the sheer mediocrity of the picture.

One advantage that Jungle Cruise does possess is a talented cast, including two leads who are familiar to the Disney faithful. Emily Blunt is the top-billed female, having previously fronted the cameras for Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns, albeit with more singing; her male counterpart, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no stranger to the studio either, with starring roles in The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain and Moana.

Undoubtedly, Blunt and Johnson’s historic involvement with Disney is what endeared them to the producers, and perhaps why both actors perform with a laidback confidence – their respective characters seem more an extension of their own charming selves than a transformation. This is particularly evident when the two personalities share the screen, demonstrating the kind of chemistry that is usually found in more seasoned duos, not a pair who are sharing their first credit together.

The villainous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) as seen in Jungle Cruise

One performer who has taken the transformative approach, and played against type in the process, is Jesse Plemons. Where in other roles he would be understated with only a hint of menace, here Plemons gleefully portrays the antagonistic Prince Joachim with a fitting level of camp, eccentricity and accented speech. It’s yet another delightful performance from Plemons, who by now is well on his way to conquering Hollywood.

Sadly, that praise does not extend to the secondary villains of Jungle Cruise: a group of zombified Spanish conquistadors who are clearly inspired by Captain Barbossa’s crew. Despite their unique appearances – the men take their physical form with the help of rainforest features such as vines, snakes and hornets – there’s nothing remotely interesting nor memorable about these foes, who lack the personality and wickedness necessary for this kind of role.

Matters are made worse by the substandard visual effects, which look as though they were rendered two decades ago; the comedic elements, which barely incite so much as a chuckle; and the underwhelming soundtrack from James Newton Howard, which lacks a rousing theme a la the Pirates movies. Yet these problems are minor when compared to the biggest issue of all: the confusing action sequences.

By most measures, the thrills of Jungle Cruise are pretty serviceable, with decent choreography and stunt-work; but they are made difficult to appreciate due to the shaky camerawork and frantic editing. Such techniques have been utilised by many a Hollywood blockbuster in recent times, proving just as annoying here as they do elsewhere – it’s high time producers learned that they don’t make the action any more exciting.

It’s baffling to think that a film with six producers and the backing of the world’s largest studio could be so mediocre. Despite having some gifted actors at its disposal, Jungle Cruise serves only as a passing distraction, with most of its other attributes being adequate at best. If this film is to herald a new Disney franchise, it’s not a promising start.

Jungle Cruise is screening in cinemas nationally where open, and available for streaming with Premium Access on Disney+.

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.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Revisited, 20 Years On

It’s been almost 20 years since Sir Peter Jackson introduced audiences — both new and familiar — to the world of Middle Earth, on the big screen. In those 20 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), nothing, save for the sequels to The Fellowship of the Ring, has managed to capture the awe and bravado of Jackson’s Middle Earth. Franchises have come and gone, and Jackson has also adapted The Hobbit (2012 – 2014) for the big screen, but The Lord of the Rings continues to inspire as well as keep audiences coming back for more as the years roll on. Much has been said and written about the trilogy, but I believe it’s important to remind audiences why this trilogy has remained a staple in cinema history. What follows is an analysis of why Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings has continued to permeate film culture, how it redefined the Fantasy genre, and what made the franchise as celebrated as it is.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Before the Acclaim

Before delving into the aforementioned concerns of the piece, it is important to first outline the trajectory of The Lord of the Rings in cinema culture — from its inception, up until Jackson’s adaptation. In the years before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings adaptation came to fruition, there had been an animation adaptation in 1978 by Ralph Bakshi, which opened to a fair reception, and the Beatles had apparently wanted to star in a live-action adaptation of the books, with Stanley Kubrick said to have been their choice to direct. Kubrick allegedly turned down the offer to direct the planned film after saying that it was unfilmable (at least in terms of the technology not being there yet). As J.R.R Tolkien owned the rights to his work, he also turned the proposed Beatles film down as he didn’t want his work to be taken by the band and turned into something outlandish for the big screen.

It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-90s that the idea of a Jackson-led The Lord of the Rings adaptation began to circulate in the media. With Jackson’s earlier films like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992) being the epitome of schlock horror — films characterised by their absurd plots, quirky characters, campy humour, and so forth — it was no surprise that doubts were raised over the announcement that Jackson was to adapt the work of beloved and trailblazing author, J.R.R Tolkien.

Jackson had come off of directing a decently received, The Frighteners (1996), before pitching the idea of turning The Lord of the Rings into a live-action trilogy, to Miramax. Miramax said that they would be able to make two films instead of the proposed three, with the cost of the films driving their decision. However, Miramax eventually decided that that they were unable to fund the making of two films at the scale proposed. Subsequently, Jackson was allowed to pitch the idea for the films to other studios, and was eventually able to bring New Line Cinema on board to finance the film.

With New Line greenlighting the proposal for an adaptation helmed by Jackson, the next big hurdle came with the budget increase for each film. New Line had reportedly agreed to spend around US $60 million on each film, but that budget proved unrealistic with how audacious and large each film ended up becoming. Instead, New Line ended up spending around US $120 million on each film, with that eventual sum being agreed upon through much deliberation and even heat between Jackson and film executive Michael Lynne. It wasn’t until a 20 minute preview screening at Cannes in 2001 that the studio’s fears regarding the increase in budgeting, were alleviated. This was primarily due to the positive reception the footage of The Fellowship of the Ring received, and the realisation that the money invested into the film was paying off (with the Balrog scene being one that was shown).

With The Fellowship of the Ring eventually being made, and its sequels releasing within the next two years, the trilogy had officially survived the struggles of pre-production, production, and Harvey Weinstein. The trilogy would go on to become one of the highest grossing and consistently well received franchises of all time.

Hugo Weaving, Peter Jackson, and Ian Mckellen on the set of The Lord of the Rings

What Made the Trilogy as Influential and Beloved as it is?

Trying to provide a single answer to why Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is as iconic and influential as it is, simply cannot be done. Therefore, I will break down some of the key aspects of the trilogy and why they’ve seen the trilogy continue to enjoy the success that it has.

For starters, one of the biggest issues Jackson faced was trying to transpose such a well regarded and nuanced piece of fantasy literature as faithfully as he could, and in the time he had. Tolkien’s writing is renowned for its ability to capture the minutiae of any given aspect of the world of Middle Earth — whether that be a blade of grass or a trickle of water. In saying that, Jackson was fortunate that he had a lot to work with from Tolkien’s writing, particularly because the drawn out descriptions Tolkien provides, ultimately led to a level of clarity that Jackson simply moulded for a modern audience. Sure there was no Tom Bombadil or the battle for the Shire or the character of Gildor Inglorian, but given the scale of Tolkien’s world (those who have read The Silmarillion will know the struggle of making sense of everyone and everything being described), Jackson was able to focus on the fundamentals of the book in order to guide audiences through the three films.

A major factor that contributed to the trilogy’s acclaim and success is the fact that all facets of production aligned and worked to support each other for the entirety of the three films. There were two units that worked on the film: one that was helmed by Peter Jackson, and the other, by John Mahaffie (Second Unit Director). Both units were well equipped with resources to traverse the New Zealand landscape and country side (which is explored more in the exquisite documentary-like, behind the scenes), and Weta Workshop went above and beyond to produce sets, costumes, armour, weapons, creatures and miniatures. What this all means is that there was a sense of totality and scale unlike anything seen before or since, in a blockbuster or film of any kind. The result is one that led to the record breaking Oscars sweep for The Return of the King (2003) which won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for, and is tied with Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997) for most award wins in Oscars history.

But aside from the recognition from award wins and box office success, Jackson’s trilogy has continued to amaze viewers (included yours truly) across multiple viewings in the 20 years since. Some of the reasons why include the thematic consistency as the films went on; the largely practical approach to making the films; Howard Shore’s mesmerising score that speaks to various scenes and characters; the epic battle sequences both large and small; the memorable performances from each and every actor involved; and how the trilogy paved the way for fantasy films (and shows) to be taken as seriously as they are today.

The way in which Jackson developed a sense of forwardness from the first film to the last meant that the pacing always felt consistent, and audiences were given ample time to spend with various side characters and events, while never losing sight of the primary goal of The Fellowship. For instance, The Fellowship itself and its eventual separation, serves to engage the audience with the likes of Theoden (Bernard Hill), Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Emoer (Karl Urban), Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Faramir (David Wenham) and so forth. All of these characters have role to play in The Fellowship’s quest, but they also bring to surface the lore of Middle Earth that cannot be wholly accounted for.

The battle sequences also stand out, particularly due to how practical they were and how little they relied on CGI in contrast to blockbusters being released today. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is another film that comes to mind in terms of being remembered for the amount of choreography it had and the lack of CGI it used. Rarely are modern blockbusters as hands on in their approach to large scale battles as The Lord of the Rings was, and that’s another big drawcard for revisiting the trilogy — the action strived to create an out-of-body experience that sucked audiences into the world.

Another major aspect that contributed to the ongoing success of The Lord of the Rings is the way in which the show put the fantasy genre in the limelight for film and television. The point here is simply to highlight how Jackson’s films have paved the way for the fantasy genre to be taken more seriously as a form of art. A show like HBO’s Game of Thrones has won multiple Emmy awards and has been compared to The Lord of the Rings (and rightfully so given that George R.R. Martin is greatly inspired by Tolkien). Netflix’s The Witcher show has also emerged in the last couple of years and has quickly become a fan favourite. So essentially, Jackson and his first trilogy of films have brought as much attention to the fantasy genre as George Lucas and his first Star Wars trilogy did for the Sci-Fi genre.

Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings

Closing Thoughts

In the 20 years since The Fellowship of the Ring, the trilogy continues to be shown in cinemas worldwide and has had a successful shelf life (with a 4K remastering having been overseen by Jackson and released last year). With a Lord of the Rings show coming to Amazon Prime in late 2022 (supposedly exploring an earlier part of the Second Age of Middle Earth), now is the perfect time to begin revisiting Middle Earth and Jackson’s trilogy. Whether or not the show will capture the hearts of audiences and critics alike is yet to be seen, but judging by a recently released still from the show, it’s anyone’s guess. What is known is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Jackson’s adaptation of the book are just as influential today as they were during their inception, and will continue to be in another 20 years.

Sources Consulted:

  1. https://screenrant.com/lotr-everything-know-kubrick-beatles-unproduced-adaptation/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/12/movies/gambling-film-fantasy-lord-rings-shows-new-line-cinema-s-value-aol.html
  3. https://www.thethings.com/how-harvey-weinstein-almost-ruined-the-lord-of-the-rings/
  4. https://www.indiewire.com/2021/07/peter-jackson-screamed-studio-lord-of-the-rings-budget-battle-1234649369/