Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is the Year’s Best Animation, and it isn’t Even Close

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Breathing life into an intellectual property (IP) that has had countless iterations is no easy feat, yet Guillermo del Toro has done exactly that with his unique and heartfelt take on Disney’s iconic wooden boy, Pinocchio. In fact, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) —or just Pinocchio— might be the best entry in this fabled story, and it’s easily one of del Toro’s best.

Like the careful craftwork of Geppetto, the woodcarver that creates Pinocchio, del Toro masterfully creates a heartfelt story of grief and loss through the lens of a fascist-set Italy. Unlike the year’s other Pinocchio film which felt like a sanded-down, stringless remake of the celebrated original, this one is coated in all the gloss that epitomises del Toro’s career: otherworldly creatures, a looming air of gloominess, a darker palette, religious commentary and evocative imagery. It’s in the un-del Toro-ness of the visual component —stop motion animation— that all of those ingredients shine, and where the film separates itself from the director’s past films.

Pinocchio has some of the best stop motion work, period; unsurprising given that del Toro co-directed the film with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Animation Director, Mark Gustafson. The world has an air of freshness and almost appears like a series of dioramas that have been stuck together. The details of the world are sharp and striking, right from the spaces the characters inhibit like a church and foresty area earlier on, to the underworld and Monstro scenes in later stages. It’s an enticing vista that sucks you in the more the film unfolds, and it’s clear that animators were given ample time to carefully workshop the look and feel that del Toro was going for. When coupled with Alexandre Desplat’s spine-tingling score that is in the vein of his score for The Shape of Water (2017), there is an added layer of enchantment that emerges.

In terms of the story itself, it hits all of the key beats from Carlo Colldi’s original book —the circus scenes, the water monster Monstro in the later stages, etc.— but del Toro works around these moments to add his own flourishes and feel. Whether that be the aforementioned fascist leanings, where he explores the loss of innocence from children in the face of conscription and nationalism, right through to those underworld moments where he asks questions pertaining to mortality and the significance of life and death.

They’re heavy themes and leanings for a story that has always been depicted as light and fluffy, and has mainly covered ideas relating to growing up and fitting in. It helps that del Toro immediately jumps into a moment of anguish, as Geppetto (voiced with a gut wrenching croakiness by David Bradley) mourns the loss of his son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann who also voices the titular character), after a bomb is dropped on the town church by unsuspecting war planes above. This whole opening sequence that explores the prelude to Geppetto’s grief and prolonged mourning, establishes the sort of grimness that will persist.

Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) and Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

It also introduces the running commentary on religion that has underpinned most of del Toro’s oeuvre from and since The Devil’s Backbone (2001). For instance, the destruction of the church and its subsequent rebuilding goes on to symbolise Geppetto’s own rebuilding of his son. This is especially true as Pinocchio (after he has been magically brought into being) assumes the role of Carlo by helping Geppetto build out a wooden Jesus in the church (the last task the father and son shared). He goes on to raise one of the film’s most significant lines relating to why everyone likes the wooden Jesus but not him. This undercuts the road to self-discovery that Pinocchio ultimately takes as he faces death and rebirth numerous times, before enacting a moment of selflessness in the film’s final act that would bring him as close to ‘being a real boy’ as he can come.

In order to get to that point though, he has to face various hurdles including a money-hungry circus ringmaster, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz); a fascist government official from the town, who is set on sending the puppet with immortality to war (del Toro’s frequent go-to, Ron Perlman); the prospect of living forever and seeing those around him die; and his own desire to experience the fullness of the world.

Along the journey he is also accompanied by the talking cricket Sebastian (formerly, Jiminy) voiced by a comforting Ewan McGregor who injects the film with some of the comedic relief (e.g. being squashed countless times, being interrupted just as he’s about to break-away into song). Tilda Swinton also has a subtle role as an angelic spirit of life that brings Pinocchio into the world, and she also plays the sphinx-looking, death alter-ego that meets him every time he dies. Each of these characters have a distinct look that is both familiar and different in the ethereal way that del Toro’s creatures tend to be.

While finding one’s purpose and identity comes with its challenges, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio helps the wooden puppet get there, and at the same time creates an experience with a unique identity of its own.  

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is in select cinemas and will be streaming on Netflix from December 9.

You Will Be Satisfied By The Menu

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A high-tension, comedic thriller on a bed of murky yet compelling satire, The Menu (2022) blends many styles and influences together with an entertaining wit and snark that is sure to delight audiences. With a strong combination of performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes heightening this loosely structured comedy, The Menu manages to maintain an impressive level of tension and suspense that elevates some of its lacking cultural critiques.

We begin almost in media res as Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) and Margot (Taylor-Joy) wait to board a boat en route to the prestigious and uber-exclusive Michelin three-star restaurant Hawthorn headed by the revered Chef Slowik (Fiennes). By beginning moments before the arrival at the restaurant where the entire film will take place, we are given an active role in sleuthing out details about Tyler and Margot, as well as the other guests and the restaurant. This allows The Menu to be wonderfully engaging, giving the film an almost Agatha Christie-like momentum to the narrative.

Succession director Mark Mylod and writer Will Tracy collaborate with The Onion writer Seth Reiss (Tracy also worked at The Onion for a period) on this uniquely satisfying thriller comedy that blends styles of modern satire, to mostly enjoyable results. Unlike the Palme D’Or winning high-class satire of Triangle of Sadness (2022), the targets of satire in The Menu are not always clear. As the untethering of Chef Slowik’s mind allows an undercutting of his goals to widen the scope of the movie’s satire, Reiss and Tracy take aim more at the culture around the industry through a wider range of archetypes and ideas than cheaply mocking the individuals. This cloudiness may not add depth to its satirical lens, but it certainly adds intrigue through its obscuration. 

Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu

Mylod’s style of heightened realism mixes compellingly with long-time Lynch collaborator Peter Deming’s work as a cinematographer to create a series of tense but compelling images that you will want to savour. Mocking the foodie content that permeates the internet while also executing it to an absurd degree, Deming and Mylod allow the audience to laugh alongside them, while also enjoying the voyeurism of experiencing fine dining from a theatre seat.

Working with three-star Michelin chef Dominique Creen as a consultant, there is an air of realism to this highly arch film that allows the comedic moments to flourish. The best of these moments are handled by the maître d’ Elsa, played by the perfectly cast Hong Chau, who makes an absolute meal out of this script.

Having a compass realignment structure of the courses, formalised in the metronomic Slowik clap, allows the film to bounce around different ideas and set pieces over the night. A series of comedic set pieces set out in an episodic format established by the meal courses, The Menu feels at times like a free-flowing sequence of comedic bits, attached to a lifeline of the structure established by the restaurant. This freedom allows the film to have its cake and eat it too; exploring different characters and comedic moments, while always having the ability to return to the tense thriller story with a powerful clap.

Certain writing decisions feel rebellious, like allowing us access to Chef Slowik’s motives early on, destabilising your expectations of where the night will take you. This creates an almost free-associative middle act that makes each individual moment enjoyable but lacks a certain level of cohesion (a comment literally made on one of the film’s many spinning-food-plate sequences) that leaves a unique taste in the mouth. This complication of knowing whether these decisions improve the film or work to its detriment will make The Menu a fascinating rewatch.

Ralph Fiennes in The Menu

A consistently compelling and interesting script, critiquing a form of art culture in a very similar style to 2019’s Velvet Buzzsaw, without the third-act issues that derailed that film. Where filmmaker Dan Gilroy asked the most from Jake Gyllenhaal in a truly bombastic performance, Mylod has Fiennes working with a sense of reserved enlightenment that allows the film to thrive in a truer thriller sense, while still achieving a wonderfully arch critique on both the creators and consumers of a certain high art field.

Joining a group of truly enjoyable all-in-one-night films, The Menu thrives more in its balance of genuine tension and comedy than its biting satire of high-end dining culture. It does, however, leave the audience much to chew on about the codependent relationship between consumer and creator in all forms of art mediums, with high-end dining as the most literal example. It’s impossible not to empathise with Slowik when he asks his regular customers to tell him what their last meal was, his existential dread permeating out of the screen, to find his obsessive devotion to his craft has not been responded to in kind.

Whilst not overly successful as a satire (we may be in a cinematic era that is impossible to craft a successful satire), The Menu is highly enjoyable as a comedic thriller in the world of fine dining. Like any great restaurant or food spot, it’s important to appreciate a location on its own terms, and the film’s like The Menu are no different. Anchored by terrific genre performances by Fiennes and Taylor-Joy, you will be charmed by the biting and absurdist humour while you also find yourself on the edge of your seat.

The Menu is in theatres now.

Nicholas Stoller Interview

Our very own, Arnie, spoke to film Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah MarshallNeighborsThe Five Year Engagement) about his latest rom-com Bros, starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane.

The film is Billy’s first major leading role, he’s the first openly gay man to co-write and star in his own major studio film, it’s the first romantic comedy from a major studio about two gay men, and it’s also the first studio film in history with an entirely LGBTQ+ principal cast.

This interview was originally published on SYN

Bros is screening in cinemas nationwide from October 27.

Barbarian Lights Up Halloween Season

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are two forms of successful horror film: one that plays the notes on the familiar scale of horror tropes and ideas, and one that is aware of those notes and plays around them deliberately, keeping you off balance. The latter form is much harder to pull off, as when it lands flat, you can feel audiences disengage and get frustrated with the filmmakers.

To say Barbarian pulled off this magic trick is underselling how enjoyable a theatrical experience it was. This wildly entertaining, formally inventive horror film will have you hiding between your fingers, cackling with glee, and clamouring to see it again all within its tight 102-minute runtime.

To set the table, we begin on a rainy night in a dishevelled area of outer Detroit. Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives alone at her Airbnb, only to discover the house has been double booked by a man (Bill Skarsgård). With as much of a guard as Tess can put up, she enters the house to get out of the rain as she just wants to sort out this mess.

The power of a great horror film is in its believable conceit, allowing the protagonist to become our avatar throughout the story. What feels certain from the opening moments of Barbarian is that writer-director Zach Cregger is making a film that is keenly aware of audience expectations at every single moment. With the success of Jordan Peele and now Cregger (who got his start with the online series Whitest Kids U’ Know), there’s something about being a sketch comedy filmmaker that clearly makes you keenly aware of what your audience expects from a horror film, and how to lean into or subvert those expectations.

This begins with the casting, perhaps Barbarian’s greatest strength. Georgina Campbell (known for her terrific performance in the Black Mirror episode ‘Hang the DJ’), as Tess, exudes stern confidence, making it clear from the opening moments that she is possibly within the framework of a horror film and working to prevent that from happening. She is locking every door she enters, with her guard all the way up. And then there is the casting of Bill Skarsgård, which allowed a level of subversion to take place within the narrative. Garnering a reputation as a horror villain icon, Skarsgård’s character seems keenly aware of this audience awareness and Tess’ weariness of the situation, attempting to put everyone at ease while also heightening the tension with his every action. Too many horror films are weighed down by the baggage of casting bigger actors, but in this situation, the baggage Skarsgård brings to the story only heightens the viewing experience.

Finally, there is the casting of the criminally underused Justin Long as the garbage person AJ. The less said about his character before audiences have seen the film, the better, but there is a surprising amount of social commentary being made in Barbarian that will be great to unpack at a later stage.

Georgina Campbell in Barbarian.

Barbarian is a rare type of gear shift film that makes you want to immediately return for another viewing. Perhaps due to its high level of craft or the stellar casting, Barbarian does not hang solely off its off-kilter structure the same way other similarly structured films do. I am hesitant to even use comparative films to talk about Barbarian, as it may give away some of the shifts that had the audience enraptured. 

It can’t be stated enough how enjoyably bananas Barbarian is. Cregger builds tension to a perfect crescendo only to wrong-foot you on multiple occasions that will elate, not aggravate you. This is a film both intelligent and enjoyable enough to warrant a potential follow-up piece as it is increasingly difficult to discuss this film without specifics. Luckily it should arrive on Disney+ later in the year.

What stands out about Barbarian is the level of visual craft on display that is striking while never overwhelming. A beautiful visual motif is introduced with Tess reflecting sunlight onto a full-length mirror to illuminate what is essentially a dungeon inside this Detroit home, which follows through multiple levels of the film as we delve deeper. Just as Tess is illuminating a new area in this home, Cregger is illuminating new elements to this truly disorientating film experience. Barbarian is designed to spring new elements around every corner to shock and surprise the audience, something it achieves consistently over its entire runtime with a visual flourish that is always aiming to entertain the audience first.

There are rollercoaster films, and then there are films that give you an all-access pass to the amusement park. Barbarian is the latter. With a pitch-perfect cast and a surprisingly deft hand from Cregger, Barbarian is elevated to the best horror film of the year, and a must-see this Halloween.

Barbarian is in theatres now.

Everything in Between Falls Short, But Shows Promise

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Taking place in Sydney, Everything in Between is a debut feature by local filmmaker Nadi Sha that centres on Jason (Jordan Dulieu) and Liz (Freyja Benjamin), who find themselves in hospital for very different reasons. Jason has just arrived after a harrowing suicide attempt, giving the audience a pit in their stomach that lingers throughout the film. Introducing us to the lead of a film this way before we understand anything about them is a bold decision that feels exceedingly callous towards both Jason and the audience the longer the film goes on.

We are introduced to Liz through a smoking ceremony and psychedelic sequence which includes a vision of herself on an operating table. The next time we see Liz is at the same hospital Jason arrived at, setting up a meet-cute. At this stage, the narrative seems destined to walk the same path as similar coming-of-age medical romance The Fault in Our Stars (2014), but with a messier, but perhaps more compelling origin. Instead, the pair spend little time at the hospital, but their circumstances create a lingering atmosphere that never leaves the story.

While Everything in Between is a decently made debut feature, where the film falters is in its strange lack of empathy, opting instead for an angered detachment and cynicism, from Jason’s parents to the doctors. This is designed to elevate the scenes with Liz, but even they are tinged with a level of cynicism that drags down even those parts. A decision at the midpoint of Everything in Between puts it onto a path of pathos and frustration over empathy and warmth that flattens a lot of scenes out that should be its emotional centre.

Freyja Benjamin (left) and Jordan Dulieu in Everything in Between.

As an astrology obsessive, Jason bumps up against Liz’s optimism with his existential nihilism. Astrological cynicism versus positivity is a deeply engaging idea for a film and as a bedrock for this relationship that is larger than romance. Unfortunately, these ideas are only explored in a few scenes, outweighed by scenes with Jason’s parents Meredith (Gigi Edgley) and Dave (Martin Crewes) instead. Expanding this story into the whole family would’ve been an interesting decision, combining their issues and narratives into Jason and Liz’s, but they never do, ultimately feeling like distractions instead.

There is an absence of a school or life outside of the home which feels unique to this sort of story, which allowed for a tighter plot centred purely on the four characters. However, too often these absences are filled with extended scenes that neither further the plot nor the emotionality of the film, like seeing Meredith anxious about Jason scratching her car, or seeing Dave’s failed lunch with his mistress Sammy (Ayeshah Rose).

The parents are a real drag to the story (deliberately so), which wouldn’t be an issue if they didn’t overwhelm many of the stronger moments between Jason and Liz. This is their story together and the film would’ve been stronger by focusing more on that relationship over the outside influences of the world, whether it be Jason’s parents or Liz’s illness.

Visually, the film is impressive for a first feature. Well composed and shot throughout, with several well-constructed locations, especially the wonderfully shot final scene with Jason and Liz at the hospital. 

Liz’s illness reduces the light she shone onto Jason’s life, who is seen to be thriving as she is wilting. There is a strangely vampiric sense to this exchange that is jarring and disconnects the film from its earlier stages, muddying the ideas the film introduces. 

The final scenes between Jason and Liz are where Everything in Between really shines through. Too many scenes get away from this story throughout the film but when we are given the two of them, the film shows real promise. The runtime allows this relationship to mature over time, but we are too often distracted by side characters that lack dimension to expand the central narrative.

Everything in Between will be screening at 31 cinemas nationally from October 20th, with an additional 18 Hoyts locations commencing from October 27th.

A Taste of Hunger is a Satisfying Food Drama

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The best restaurants, no matter where in the world, tell their story through food. A beautiful combination of complimentary flavours and textures, coalescing into one satisfying meal. A Taste of Hunger attempts to weave the story of the relationship of Danish restaurant owners Maggie (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) and Carsten (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), through their relationship with food. Resting on a bed of passion and desire, A Taste of Hunger flutters between flashbacks of their relationship fermenting and a present-moment quest to obtain a Michelin star for their restaurant. 

The enchanting chemistry between Coster-Waldau and Greis-Rosenthal that begins right from the opening frames allows us to immediately invest in this pairing. Greis-Rosenthal especially is electric in every scene, it is impossible not to get caught up in her charm and passion the same way Carsten does. Unfolding slowly is Carsten’s need for control butting up against Maggie’s free-flowing and spontaneous nature, something that created the spark in their relationship.

The stakes of the present tense narrative are low, even taking into consideration the character’s driven pursuit of a Michelin star. Director Cristoffer Boe attempts to heighten the stakes by adding a clock to the scenes, but it is hard to invest in this aspect of the story. Perhaps it is due to the film’s lack of time spent in the restaurant, but the audience’s engagement is squarely focused on the family dynamic, not on the success of their already successful restaurant.

Katrine Greis-Rosenthal and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in A Taste of Hunger

Outside forces are usually the antagonist in these restaurant dramas, so it was refreshing to spend time in this family, understanding where the original passion came from, while also understanding how that same passion works against them. The passion between Carsten and Maggie sustains the entire course, allowing small moments to flourish, especially scenes with their children August and Chloe, characters that are usually sidelined in these stories but felt integral to the film as a whole.

There is a wonderful patience to the edit, rare for the usual frenetic restaurant drama. This decision prevents the film from being a collection of foodie insert shots, instead allowing the audience’s gaze to fall upon those making and eating the food. The most sensual moments of cooking are scenes when the pair are cooking together, a stark contrast to their restaurant when Maggie is not around. A Taste of Hunger is a drama about a family making food and how it consumes them, with the food itself operating as the object of passion for the characters more than the passion for the filmmakers.

A Taste of Hunger shines in its structural pairing of its flashbacks, contextualising the present tense scenes wonderfully. By attributing cooking components of sweet, fat, salt, sour, and heat, to sequences, director Christoffer Boe guides us through the story while still allowing the audience room to perceive the characters more honestly.

Unfortunately, A Taste of Hunger lacks a depth of flavour in its storytelling that becomes apparent the longer this simple story stretches out. Co-writers Boe and the acclaimed Tobias Lindholm (2012’s The Hunt, 2020’s Another Round) use a few thematic prop crutches in its narrative (the knife, the hot dog, the letter), that work well in isolating sequences, but as a collective story, there is a strained repetition that undermines what originally felt satisfying. A good story and script is dense enough in its thematic ideas to not need them littered in every scene, so when they arrive later down the road, they leave a more satisfying taste on the palette.

All the flavours are here for a dense and rich film, but the ideas never get pushed into truly compelling places. Save for some Giallo lighting choices, the film is very plain, which is not to say it was unsatisfying, but it could’ve been an expansive drama and one of the year’s best. 

A Taste of Hunger is in select theatres now.

Don’t Worry Darling is a Much Ado about Nothing

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Hollywood is littered with examples of filmmakers getting into relationships with an actor on set, causing friction with the rest of the production, as well as stoking a spectacle of drama and conflict that almost always overshadows the work. Most famous of this occurring was Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Roberto Russellini, which was unveiled just before the release of their film Stromboli (1950).

Don’t Worry Darling is the rare film where the situation involved a female director, with all the nuances that come with that difference. There will no doubt be tomes written about this production, but, for now, let’s simply discuss the text itself.

After the rapturous acclaim of 2019’s Booksmart, there was a bidding war for the follow-up feature of Olivia Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman, who have returned with one of the most confusing and underbaked films in years. Where their debut was an enjoyable yet frictionless teen comedy, Don’t Worry Darling is a big swing, period thriller that is after sweeping ideas on the modern world. Ideas that become exceedingly unclear the further away you get from the theatre.

Taking place in the 1950s, in a company town for the mysterious corporation Victory that is driven to create a new world, helmed by visionary Frank (Chris Pine), Don’t Worry Darling centres on young newlyweds Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles). The couple is very much in love and can barely keep their hands off each other. 

As Jack goes off to work (at the same time as the rest of the men on the street in one of many gorgeous sequences from cinematographer Matthew Libatique), Alice is left to clean and busy herself at home, which she seems content with. This seemingly ‘perfect’ life for Alice begins to come crashing down as she seeks to discover the town’s true nature and the work being done by Victory. 

Don’t Worry Darling is intended as a social thriller but is lacking any clear vision or identity in its story, which causes issues with the well-intentioned and well-executed design of the film. It forces its themes and motifs to become immediately literal. The idea of Alice’s world crashing down around her is shown with an unexplained tremor while she and Jack are in the kitchen in the very first scene. Not every film needs to be subtle and coy with its storytelling, but it’s a crucial element to the thrillers Don’t Worry Darling is cribbing from, so when you remove that element from the story, you better be doing it to heighten another aspect to make it an enjoyable experience.

Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in Don’t Worry Darling

The film is also doing itself a disservice by avoiding the story’s more thriller and horror aspects, which were crucial pillars in similar films like The Stepford Wives (1975) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967). The film has lazily been compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) due to its socially conscious thriller nature, however, what allows Get Out to thrive as a piece of social commentary is how it fits within the structures of the genre, something Don’t Worry Darling is sorely lacking. 

Florence Pugh is doing the most with what the film offers, using her established skills at conveying palpable tension over the course of a film’s duration. Unfortunately, in contrast to Katharine Ross in Stepford Wives and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Pugh’s Alice is somehow always behind on what the audience knows, even when we are both unsure what’s going on. Perspective is usually the most important tool that is weaponised by filmmakers in these thrillers but is so muddled in this seemingly first-person narrative with Alice that the film becomes increasingly tiresome.

Pugh isn’t helped in the film by her partner in marriage, Jack, played by pop superstar Harry Styles. The pop star is a classic example of an arena-sized bundle of charisma and coiffed hair that is unable to translate into the film, offering nothing compelling in the crucial two-hander scenes he shares with Pugh. There is also a serious lack of chemistry between the pair which proves fatal in many of these romantic scenes. 

Some of the controversy surrounding the film has been about Shia LaBeouf’s role as Jack shifting over to Styles late in pre-production, which would’ve been equally as baffling a casting choice. That being said, with no hints towards spoilers, the final reveal makes the casting of Styles so utterly bizarre and only emphasises the baffling decision.

Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll, and Chris Pine in Don’t Worry Darling

To Wilde’s credit, she has created a lush aesthetic with a suite of impressive visual flourishes with the help of Libatique and production designer Katie Byron, but it’s unfortunately always in service of a truly lacking script. There is much to like in the design of the film and will surely allow Wilde to take another bigger budget swing like this, hopefully with a tighter and more compelling story. 

However, Don’t Worry Darling is so smugly showing off its production design and recreation of 1950s America, instead of placing the story within its lavish designs. This is no better exemplified than in the opening minutes of the film where we are shown Alice’s hallucinations. No time is spent establishing the baseline world we find ourselves in before the film is trying to upend it. This would be an interesting decision if the film chose to do anything with the extra time afforded by speeding through the standard opening to most thrillers, but it doesn’t.

The film is caught up in its own withholding plot structures that never let the ideas ferment in any way. Everything feels surface level because to address the nature of the film would be giving the game away. It’s hard not to see the film in a similar way to M Night Shyamalan’s unsuccessful films like The Happening (2008) or 2015’s The Visit (although that movie has been reclaimed since release), but even that honestly feels like a compliment.

By withholding its reveal until the end, the film doesn’t allow itself to examine the implications of the world it has spent two hours crafting, preferring instead to leave the audience shocked. We are instead left confused by these decisions. In a film so heavy-handed in its choice of motifs (there is enough humming and circular imagery in this film to die from sigh-induced exhaustion), is it confounding how little air is given to its final revelations.

Don’t Worry Darling’s central issue is ultimately the striving to be a discourse movie for 2022, but without any modern ideas worth exploring. There isn’t anything new here that wasn’t explored in feminist texts 60 years ago (the film does not deserve the waves of feminist retaliatory think pieces it will stoke). This wasn’t an issue with the filmmaker’s previous film Booksmart, a low-stakes, fun teen comedy that was without friction, opting to always play it safe socially and politically. 

In Don’t Worry Darling, however, Wilde and Silberman are attempting to grasp at something outside their reach. One of the most exciting things Hollywood can do is give a large budget to give creatives the opportunity to take risks. Whether those risks land or not is up to audiences to decide. Don’t Worry Darling is a strange mix of massive risks and unfortunate turns to safety that will ultimately leave you somewhere in the flat, uninteresting middle.

Don’t Worry Darling is in theatres now.

Ticket to Paradise Revives the Rom-Com

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The heyday of the rom-com might be behind us, but a film like Ol Parker’s Ticket to Paradise (2022) is a stark reminder that there may still be hope for the subgenre. In fact, a ‘ticket to paradise’ is exactly what’s on offer in this George Clooney/Julia Roberts helmed feel-good flick, and that might just be what the once thriving subgenre has been missing.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been the odd romedy in recent years, with Long Shot (2019), Marry Me (2022) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) all coming to mind. But until Ticket to Paradise, there hasn’t really been a rom-com that one can firmly say is reminiscent of the biggest and best the subgenre has to offer. Titles like Notting Hill (1999), Pretty Woman (1990), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and my personal favourite, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), in many ways defined what a romantic comedy is, what it looks like, and what sort of faces work in bringing these far-fetched stories to life.

One of those —and perhaps the most prominent— is Julia Roberts. No other name is as synonymous with rom-coms as her, with the proof being in the pudding of some of those aforementioned titles. She brings a certain warmth and infectious magnetism that reminds viewers that everything will be okay, even though that is known long before you’ve even entered the cinema. But when you pair Roberts with Clooney, you’ve got a recipe for success.

The dynamic duo, re-united for the first time since Money Monster (2016), play a divorced couple who want nothing to do with each other. It’s their daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), however, who acts as the bridge that keeps the two connected; this so much so that her abrupt decision to marry a Balinese seaweed farmer, Gede (Maxime Bouttier) while holidaying in Bali is the perfect dilemma to bring her estranged parents back together, but for a common cause — to prevent her from throwing her life and career away in a rash decision.

(from left) Wren (Billie Lourd, back to camera), Gede (Maxime Bouttier) and Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) in Ticket to Paradise, directed by Ol Parker.

The premise is about as rom-com centric as can be: you have a star-led couple who loathe each other (tick), you have the obstacle that ultimately brings the characters together (tick), and you have a tropical setting that builds and restores love (tick). These are obviously ingredients that have been employed in films like Couples Retreat (2009) and Just Go With it (2011), and they can be moulded to fit different romedies.

With Ticket to Paradise, however, Parker knows how to make the most of these elements. He lets his star duo play off of each other with such an ease and with the room to adlib if necessary. Of course, being the Hollywood heavyweights that they are and maintaining a great friendship off screen, that’s hardly difficult for Clooney and Roberts. But it’s in the way Parker frames his actors and how, even with the predictability of where the film is going, he is able to maintain this finesse in getting you where you need to go plot wise.

It’s something that’s often lacking in modern romedies where, like Couples Retreat or Just Go With It, too often the dialogue falls flat as most of it is throwaway for the sake of a cheap laugh. Even with the constant verbal jousts that Clooney and Roberts display, there is a method to their madness, and it isn’t without purpose. It ultimately makes that predictable ending all the more worthwhile as, like the characters who fall for each other either for the first time or those that fall for each other all over again, the audience is nurtured to fall for them as well when all is said and done.

In order to get that point though, Georgia (Roberts) and David (Clooney) have to act like the cool, calm and collected adults they know they aren’t. Doing all they can to sabotage the wedding, Georgia and David engage in childlike antics. Whether that’s nabbing the rings from the young and oblivious child ring bearer or setting up a tour of a temple that curses all unmarried couples, there isn’t a shortage of things they won’t do to prolong the wedding.

At the end though, Ticket to Paradise is a reminder that no two people are the same, and by extension no two paths are the same. Nothing is ever set in stone if you don’t want it to be, be it a career choice or a divorce. Love ultimately triumphs, or at the very least, the realisation that not everything has to be planned out — sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

Ticket to Paradise is screening in cinemas nationwide.

MIFF 22: Darcy’s Notebook

With another great year completed at Melbourne’s International Film Festival, our writers have come out the other end bleary-eyed and brimming with excitement. MIFF 20222 was an impressively consistent festival with new releases from a combination of old masters and emerging talents, both internationally and locally.

Here, our writer Darcy has dropped his notebook full of notes and thoughts on the many films he was able to catch at the festival, all of which should hopefully be brought to larger audiences throughout the rest of the year.

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells) 2022:

A gorgeous film about age, parenthood, and mental health that has such a warm and caring heart, it allows its heavy moments and ideas to linger with the audience.

Aftersun is a debut so assured, so confidently written and directed by Charlotte Wells you will be scrambling to discover her short film work. The film is an achingly intimate portrait of a young father on holiday with his 11-year-old daughter, played touchingly by Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio.

It will be hard to find a more affecting film this year, one so beautifully written you can’t help but see yourself in both characters. I both dread and can’t wait to return to the glow of Aftersun.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Broker (Hirokazu Koreeda) 2022:

In contention for best film of the festival, Broker is a deeply complicated but always empathetic drama from a true modern master. Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have a certain sticky quality, maturing in your mind long after the credits roll. His films will always affect you emotionally, but their true power is the depths he is able to mine from a collection of characters.

Broker, leaning into the more Korean style of cinema, is more forceful and plot-driven in its storytelling than Koreeda’s other films, but is more successful than his previous non-Japanese film, The Truth (2019).

The film is quite astonishing and deeply felt, with perhaps the only false note being its loud, heavy-handed moments. These moments are further leaned on by quite an obtrusive and manipulative score by Jung Jae-il, especially by Koreeda standards, who usually allows emotions to develop more naturally in his films.

Thank you for being born. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Decision to Leave (Park Chan-Wook) 2022:

A deeply sensual romance under the guise of a quirky police mystery. Park Chan-Wook has always had a keen understanding of his audiences, usually to an extreme effect like in Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016). 

The film requires a rewatch as the pieces all work individually but I’m unsure as to their cohesion as the film rounds out into a melodrama. The two lead performances are complicated and layered with conflict, making the film engaging but hard to latch onto as a whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Dual (Riley Stearns) 2022:

Dual (2022) is a vacuum-sealed dry comedy that owes a lot to Yorgos Lanthimos. Riley Stearns’ idiosyncratic comedic style burst onto the scene with the deeply funny film The Art of Self-Defense (2019), thanks in large part to the terrific performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola. Like Lanthimos, it is clear actors get a certain excitement from working with his dialogue, but not all are suitable for it. It’s unclear if Dual’s lead Karen Gillan or its uber-dry dialogue lets down this film in contrast to his previous work, but it is certain to be missing a key element.

That being said, Dual is still deeply funny in places, in particular the doctor’s visits which feel the most inappropriately appropriate locale for Stearns’ dialogue. What is largely absent in the dialogue and writing as a whole, however, is any semblance of humanity and life. With this style of upfront, dry comedy writing, you lose the ability to play between the lines, as everything is pitched straight down the middle to the viewer.

Stearns has achieved success through his idiosyncratic writing style, a mountaintop many writers never reach. Now it’s time for him to seek to expand on it, engaging with his audiences more emotionally, something which would make for a pretty special film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford) 2022:

A solid crime drama with a pointed look at the economic lives of millennials, anchored by a truly great dramatic performance by Aubrey Plaza. Emily the Criminal (2022) works wonderfully as a cascading waterfall of small, utterly reasonable decisions until they come crashing down in its final act.

The film is a great debut by John Patton Ford that is certain to spark hopefully a long and interesting career. Ford’s script is the film’s highlight, especially in its ability to connect the criminal world of the film with the economic reality too many millennials find themselves trapped within.

Even though some of the decisions made in its final act undercut a lot of the messaging and themes, it is still wildly entertaining and painfully relatable, making it a deeply worthwhile watch.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Fire of Love (Sara Dosa) 2022:

A charming, playful documentary about French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft. Their work is highly specific but their passion is relatable and life-affirming. The film is a wonderful companion piece to the Jacques Cousteau documentary, Becoming Cousteau (2021), a clear inspiration to the Krafft’s, even down to the iconic red beanie.

The voiceover by filmmaker Miranda July is sweet and feels deeply entwined with the style of Sara Dosa’s documentary, allowing the film to work both emotionally and narratively.

A truly affecting moment was the shift from watching the couple evolve their focus from a totally self-absorbed drive for witnessing and studying volcanoes, to using their knowledge and relentless drive to protect the people living near dangerous volcanoes.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (Dean Fleischer-Camp) 2021:

A joyful, all-ages film that was a perfect note of contrast to the festival’s more dramatic highlights, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021) will win over even the more serious audiences. Based on a viral video series that is cleverly woven into the feature film’s narrative, Marcel follows an anthropomorphic shell named Marcel and an amateur documentarian (Fleischer-Camp), who has discovered the shell while staying at an Airbnb.

The film somehow never tips over into pure saccharin which is impressive given its story, which is a credit to the writing and the performances of Jenny Slate and Fleischer-Camp. It’s impossible to not get swept up in Marcel’s journey to find his family, but you may be surprised by how affected you will be by its simple story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Meet Me in the Bathroom (Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern) 2022:

Based on Lizzie Goodman’s totemic book of the same name, Meet Me in the Bathroom tracks the rise of the 2000s New York rock movement after many years in the wilderness, told through the words and lives of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and many other important figures.

A deeply complicated time period to capture as a documentary, with the looming figure of 9/11 across so much of the music that came from the scene. It’s impossible for this sobering moment to not emanate outward into the rest of the film, even when we are witnessing rock stars being born.

It’s of course going to feel sparse in comparison to the 800-page oral history time that is Lizzie Goodman’s book, but it could’ve felt more focused. The approach is scattershot and without a propulsive narrative, something that is commonly absent in most documentaries but is what separates the true greats.

Lovelace and Southern’s great achievement is in the LCD Soundsystem’s Last Waltz-esque, one-last show documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), a monument to the power of access in nonfiction filmmaking. The film also indulges in copious amounts of self-mythologising (something they allow James Murphy to do again here) but is vindicated at the conclusion of the film as we become a Murphy disciple inside a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgen) 2022:

Filmmaker Brett Morgen, known for his wonderful 2015 documentary, Cobain: A Montage of Heck, declared this an experience about Bowie, not a biography of David Jones, and he truly delivered on this promise. Moonage Daydream (2022) is a deeply arresting piece of nonfiction cinema that operates as a mood piece that will be put up next to the very best in the genre.

The film weaponises its breathless propulsion in sly and interesting ways that will sneak up on you emotionally, much like Bowie’s very best work.

It takes time to show its form to you, but once it does its effect is moving and profound. Morgen found something deeply relatable in his pursuit of capturing the figure of Bowie on film, unveiling a beautiful portrait of isolation for an artist that created community, showing us an image of the chameleonic legend that you won’t soon forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman & Saul Williams) 2021:

Recipient of the MIFF Bright Horizons award, Neptune Frost (2021) is a gorgeously experimental afro-futurist musical that is never short on ideas.

The heart of the story is of revolution, with a character going through their own personal revolution sparking a larger revolution in others through their connection to both land and technology. Too often technology-focused sci-fi is based on fear, not on what is possible through it. There is beauty in Uzeyman and William’s use of technology that makes the film instantly unique and fascinating. 

Feels close to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, focusing on a spiritual journey over a traditional narrative. This style is in stark contrast to the musical moments of the film, which play out as wondrous set pieces that create contemplative valleys afterwards. This wildly inventive approach to the film works more often than it doesn’t, toeing a nearly impossible line with confidence and style. 

You will not find another film like Neptune Frost, with the thematic density of the best science fiction stories, surrounded by wildly inventive musical set pieces that will be burned into your mind.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Ostlund) 2022:

Triangle of Sadness (2022) is so arch you fear it will snap in half. Outrageous and offbeat with some truly theatre-rupturing moments, with the climactic dinner scene feeling closer to a disaster movie than the dinner sequence in The Square (2017). Unfortunately, the film is terribly bloated. This wouldn’t be as big an issue if Ostlund had put any humanity into his film. This cheapens any impact of the outrageous moments, as well as the satirical ones. 

The middle chapter is the highlight of the film, which will answer the question, “What if a Jackass skit was shot well enough to win a Palme d’Or?” 

What usually holds Ostlund’s wild scripts together is the tremendous performances of its main cast (Claes Bang in The Square, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Kuhnke in Force Majeure), which feels absent in Triangle of Sadness. His scripts are difficult to instil emotion and humanity into, but Bang, Kongsli and Kuhnke have in the past been able to achieve it, leading to those films’ great success.

Ostlund was definitely striving for a social satire in the vein of the legendary Luis Buñuel (1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) but instead felt closer to Adam McKay. The ideas of this satire are quite murky and messy, but rarely in an endearing or interesting way. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot) 2021:

The surprise hit of the festival so far, Saloum (2021) is a film destined for cult status. A kinetic western-horror genre mashup that leaves you wanting so much more, something I pray Shudder also realises.

The story follows three mercenaries, transporting a Mexican cartel member across Africa whose plane runs out of gas over Senegal and must stay at a local village. The film is full of unique characters and is told with such style and a deft hand you won’t even notice the more fantastical moments until Herbulot wants you to focus on them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Return to Seoul (Davy Chou) 2022:

A unique mix of Korean and French cinema styles allow Return to Seoul (2022) to always feel fresh and new.

The story focuses on French-Korean 20-something Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a complicated and compelling character that elicits empathy and frustration in equal measure. She has returned to Seoul to find her birth parents, having been adopted by a french couple as a baby. Freddie has seemingly taken this trip on a whim, and as the film continues her self-destructive tendencies that seem at first like a quirk in her character, quickly form a heartbreakingly predictable pattern.

The film loses its momentum and the audience as it transitions into short, time-jumping vignettes in its final third. Not that each individual scene isn’t compelling and breathes new life into Freddie’s story, but the decision comes so late in the film’s runtime that it catches the viewer off guard, and not for greater results. The important connective tissue in this final act is unfortunately thin and leaves you mixed on a film that was rather special up until this point.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller) 2022:

A real ‘one for me’ film for George Miller, Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) is sure to divide audiences in ways only he can. Sandwiched between working on large-budget Mad Max franchise films, the famed Australian director has crafted a visually stunning, narratively dawdling feature that will charm and beguile audiences.

Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s collection of short stories, an important context to give the film as Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore have decided to give the film a similar structure. Leaping between casual conversations shared by narratologist Alithea (the ever off-kilter but charming Tilda Swinton) and Idris Elba’s djinn, shared in an Istanbul hotel room, and the djinn’s story of how he came to be beholden to her.

The film works in its visually dense production design which is Miller’s cinematic superpower, but never really excels in its more meandering storytelling approach. It does, however, feel like exactly the sort of film that will excel several years down the road as we live longer in these stories, constantly revisiting the couple in Istanbul for just one more story.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Sweet As (Jub Clerc) 2022:

A charming, coming-of-age teen drama that feels beautifully lived in and tinged with autobiographical detail. Sweet As (2022) feels both deeply Australian but also universal, something that could allow it to really break through overseas which is incredibly exciting.

The film is gorgeously shot by the terrific Australian cinematographer Katie Milwright, allowing the natural contrast between the mining town to billow out through the Kimberley region that could easily moonlight as a travel ad for the Northern Territory.

There are rough edges around Sweet As, as most debuts do, but the emotional maturity of Clerc is what shines through in every scene. She has a keen sense and care for her characters that make it impossible not to fall in love with them.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Something in the Dirt (Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson) 2022:

There’s nothing like a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi on a late night at a film festival, especially by a couple of cult film legends in Moorhead & Benson. 

Something in the Dirt (2022) operates as a mock documentary, something that may feel like a tired narrative framing for a low-budget indie, but the directing pair makes the film seem boundless.

There is a certain awe that comes when a film feels like it could’ve come straight out of film school, but with all of the confidence of a veteran.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Historically, tennis has been a gentleman’s game, and there’s arguably no player who better personifies this philosophy than Arthur Ashe. Embodying this same spirit is a feature-length documentary about the late athlete and activist which, while fascinating and well-told, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Born in the former capital of the Confederacy and raised in the shadow of segregation, Ashe overcame socio-economic disadvantage to achieve a bold ambition he set himself in his youth: doing for tennis what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. On the court, he devoured opponents with an icy elegance and disarming modesty; off it, he was a polite yet passionate advocate for civil rights the world over. His relentlessness continued well into retirement, using his name and voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS – a disease which he himself contracted, with fatal consequences.

It’s quite fitting that Citizen Ashe (2021) should be screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Our city is, of course, home to the Australian Open, the Asia-Pacific’s premier tennis tournament; but it’s also the place where Ashe obtained his last ever Grand Slam title, winning the Men’s Doubles competition with Aussie player Tony Roche in January 1977. Additionally, its showing continues the Festival’s affinity with politically-minded sports documentaries, with previous examples including The Witches of the Orient (2021) and The Australian Dream (2019). That’s right – this is no mere tennis story.

Ashe’s sporting achievements have since been overshadowed by the likes of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, so it’s not surprising that directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard have opted for a greater focus on the politics and social issues that shaped the athlete’s mindset. Insights are provided by the likes of Johnnie Ashe, who discusses his older brother’s upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama and his military service; and Harry Edwards, a former Black Panther who reflects on the tennis star’s passive approach to racism.

What’s most intriguing, and impressive, about Citizen Ashe is how Miller and Pollard tell their story. Fresh interviews with Edwards, Johnnie Ashe and others are woven together with archival video, and audio, of its subject appearing on current affairs programs and chat shows, all of which is expertly edited – to the point where the film negates the need for a dedicated narrator. At times, it’s almost as though Arthur Ashe is speaking directly to the viewer, his soundbites seemingly uttered with this very documentary in mind. And the ingenuity of the screenplay doesn’t end there.

Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Johnnie is one of the talking heads in Citizen Ashe

Every good tale needs an adversary, and Ashe has one in Jimmy Connors. Having emerged on the tennis scene just as Ashe was reaching his peak, Connors appears to be everything that his counterpart isn’t, a man who’s strong, brash and loud – he’s widely recognised as one of the first “grunters” in the sport. Connors’ game-changing techniques contrast with the more traditional, tactical approach of his rival, making him the Connors is the James Hunt to Ashe’s Niki Lauda, or the John McEnroe to the other’s Bjorn Borg. So intriguing is this rivalry that it could be a fascinating movie or mini-series on its own.

The same could be said for the rest of the documentary, for that matter. Every aspect of Ashe’s extraordinary life – whether it be his childhood, his studies in California, his military service, his visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, his coaching of the American Davis Cup team, his relationship with John McEnroe, his marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy, or his AIDS diagnosis – is worthy of the feature-length treatment. But instead, Citizen Ashe condenses it all into a 95-minute runtime. While this is a commendable feat, the film needs at least another half-hour to thoroughly study its namesake, and reflect upon his legacy.

As a result of its abbreviated duration, the tone of Citizen Ashe is somewhat remote. His many achievements and milestones are made to feel more like footnotes, never reaching the cathartic highs of other documentaries about the African-American experience, such as Summer of Soul (2021). And in being so emotionally distant, the picture never becomes the profound, moving tale that it ought to be, nor does the viewer feel compelled to emulate its central figure and become a better person – as was the case in The Australian Dream.

Much like the man himself, Citizen Ashe refrains from melodrama, telling its narrative with poise and intelligence. The documentary falters as a tribute to the professional athlete, for it is overly clinical in its delivery, though it does serve some purpose as a neat introduction to those who are unfamiliar with all that Arthur Ashe accomplished in his remarkable, all-too-short life.

Citizen Ashe is streaming on MIFF Play until Sunday, August 28.