Red Notice is a Discount Indiana Jones & Mission Impossible Mess

Rating: 1 out of 5.

What happens when you put three lead actors, with completely different acting chops, on the screen together? The answer is a hodgepodge of nothingness. It’s hard to know whether that fault lies with the A-list trio of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, or whether it’s because Rawson Marshal Thurber’s Red Notice (2021) is a film wrought by the same inadequacies that have plagued similarly awful films before it.

Being one of Netflix’s most expensive films at $200 million (I believe Scorsese’s 2019 gangster film The Irishman might still hold that title) and their most viewed opening ever, you’d think that the next 115 minutes will be something that’s sure to be worth your time. Unfortunately, this film manages to look both expensive and cheap at the same time as it’s ridden with unflattering CGI, flat performances, and contrived storytelling.

The film wants to be a mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mission: Impossible (any from that franchise), but ends up becoming something more akin to Tower Heist (2011) and basically any of the films Johnson and Reynolds have been in prior.

It’s a film that centres on a historical artifact (instead of the lost ark, you have three golden eggs once gifted to Cleopatra) and sends three different, albeit similarly minded characters on a goose chase to locate all three eggs. The characters in question are John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), and The Bishop (Gal Gadot). Hartley wants to secure the eggs and put Booth and Bishop behind bars for their thevious crimes, while Booth and Bishop are out to find the eggs in time for an Egyptian billionaire’s daughter’s wedding for a large pay-out.

Ryan Reynolds & Dwayne Johnson in Red Notice

Honestly, the actual premise isn’t what drives this film into the dustbin of film history, it’s everything in-between. The filmmaking doesn’t have any flair and is really banking on the chemistry between the three leads who all seem to be playing the lead in their own movie here. Reynolds is channelling his inner Deadpool and really every character he has ever played with those cheesy one-liners and shtick that never lands; Gadot is popping up when you least expect her to and kicking everyone’s butt like Wonder Woman; and Johnson just seems to be there for the ride as the big stiff brute with zero charisma that reaffirms why his desire to be Bond would be a kick to action’s figurative groin.

The film is clearly inspired by the aforementioned films, with comparisons also coming in with the likes of the James Bond and National Treasure films, but Red Notice is also equally uninspired. It’s a film thwarted by all the cliches that subsume Reynolds and Johnson’s recent films: from a level of incessant self-awareness to the worn out buddy-cop plotline that should be retired at this point (I’m looking at you, the soon-to-be acquired Jason Momoa & Dave Bautista buddy-cop film).

Not to mention, that self-awareness becomes so intolerable that at one point Reynolds’ character even sarcastically calls the final egg in the journey the MacGuffin. If you’re blatantly going to point out the unimportance of a plot device that is supposed to be driving the events of the narrative, then you might as well break the fourth wall while you’re at it. In other words, the audience is treated like they’re the ones silly enough to watch this film — which I guess we are.

Netflix and the big studios have become too comfortable in churning out money for pop-corn cinema that really could have been used better in more capable hands. I’m certain that 60% of this films budget went to the star trio alone and in turn, you’re left with characters that don’t captivate you, performances that are drab, and a plot that deviates too much like a zig zag road. The recent Netflix feature Army of Thieves (2021) at least had something that separated itself from all the heist and artifact films before it, but Red Notice doesn’t even try to be different.

Red Notice is now streaming on Netflix

Jane Campion Returns with The Power of the Dog

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 12 long years away from the big screen, the extraordinary auteur Jane Campion has returned, backed by Netflix, with an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 American western psychodrama The Power of the Dog (2021). The film centres on two brothers, the charismatic but menacing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the meek and gentle George (Jesse Plemons), successful Montana ranchers whose lives are quickly changed as George decides to marry the widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who brings her doctor-to-be son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live with them on the ranch.

Phil sees this incursion by Rose and Peter as a personal affront to his ideal world and responds by setting out to torture Rose psychologically in a sequence of scenes that has Campion at her venomous best.

The Power of the Dog sits on a knife’s edge for the entire runtime, with Campion keeping her cards close to the chest as the drama unfolds with the patience of a long novel. There are four central characters to the film and the audience is unsure throughout who is gaining the upper hand in the family dynamic and the film as a whole.

The film has a certain offbeat cadence in its storytelling. It will sit in quiet moments we are yet to understand the importance of, while other scenes quietly obscure that dramatic temporal shifts in the characters’ lives. A more traditional version of this film would climax with a violent confrontation between brothers, but the power of Campion’s writing and Savage’s prose comes from how we are being led through the fog into an illuminating, yet rather understated final act.

What’s always jumped out to me about Campion’s writing is her ability to complicate seemingly archetypal characters into three-dimensional figures. There are countless examples in fiction of the sorts of characters in The Power of the Dog, but it’s Campion’s masterful command of storytelling that blooms in the grey areas, not by reducing everyone down to their lowest moments, but by elevating the humanity of even the most abhorrent figures.

Set in Montana but shot in New Zealand, The Power of the Dog relishes in the rolling hillsides of Campion’s homeland that feel overwhelming and mythical all at once. You truly feel the seasons change over the course of the film, from the encroaching white snow on the mountains and the farm which forces the family inside, to the glaring sunlight that ratchets up the tension. 

Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) with terror in her eye in The Power of the Dog

Ari Wegner’s cinematography powerfully contrasts this natural world that is shot during as much magic hour as could be achieved I’m sure, with the almost German expressionist lighting choices inside the family home, giving those scenes a nightmarish quality. These lighting decisions help emphasise Cumberbatch’s angular features into a figure that haunts every inch of the Montana estate.

The Power of the Dog deploys an extraordinary use of both diegetic and nondiegetic music that echoes Campion’s breakout feature The Piano (1993), with possibly the first use in cinema of a banjo as an instrument of menace. Phil is constantly heard whistling a melody that buries itself under Rose and the audience’s skin that feels unrelenting. This sadistic side of Phil is so well established early in the film that even in the later stages where Campion opens Phil up to the audience, we are still able to see him from Rose’s perspective, creating a murkier area for the audience to perceive Phil as a character.

Much has been made of Cumberbatch’s performance and it certainly feels like the actor is in career-best form, although I will admit to not being a big fan of his work to date. The power of his performance lies in how Phil works to be outwardly projecting his idea of masculinity, and how that projection changes depending on who he is surrounded by. Campion captures fleeting moments with Phil that illuminate the character in truly spectacular ways, from his attachment to his brother’s presence, to how he luxuriates in the brief moments he’s able to wash away his protective armour in the river.

The connections to There Will be Blood (2007) are boundless here, even to the point of Plemon’s character originally planned to be Paul Dano before scheduling issues intervened. Greenwood’s atonal score at times felt like There Will be Blood B-sides but they quickly took on their own shape within this story. There are also moments where Cumberbatch carries a similar menace to Daniel Day Lewis’s character, but they are deployed in different and unique ways that work in their respective films. The two films are in conversation with each other visually, sonically, and thematically, with differing views on male desire and its relationship with ambition and cruelty. Both films are also so overpowering on initial watch – for completely different reasons – that repeated viewings feel necessary to fully grasp what you’re witnessing.

This film is a classic slow build that is working and growing on you long after you leave the theatre – or your couch as almost all viewers will see it on Netflix – which is common for most Campion films. She has also created an adaptation that truly sucks you into the story to the point of feeling compelled to immediately read Savage’s novel. This is not a world I particularly want to linger any longer in but is a story I have a deep desire to see how it compares to Campion’s interpretation.

There is a meticulous method to Campion’s unfolding narrative that may leave audiences cool and detached as rarely do moments feel spontaneous, which can work wonderfully in some films but detract from others. The Power of the Dog is a film that may feel expanded upon rewatch, as it takes time to fall into its syncopated rhythms. You could reduce the film down to a psychodrama about toxic masculinity, but that feels ultimately reductive to the work Campion is doing here.

The Power of the Dog is in select theatres now and will be available on Netflix December 1st.

A Big Heart Defines the Colourful Musical Vivo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In 2021, seemingly everybody wants a piece of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Sony Pictures Animation is no exception. The studio looks to be pinning its hopes on the Puerto Rican’s ceaseless popularity with its newest release – support it may not have needed, given the production’s strengths lie elsewhere.

Andréas (Juan de Marcos González) is a musician and street entertainer living in Havana, Cuba, who for years has entertained locals with his dancing kinkajou – a tree-dwelling, monkey-like mammal with golden fur – which he calls Vivo (the abovementioned Miranda). The pair are most happy living and performing together, but their relationship is tested when Andréas is invited to play alongside his long-lost love, songstress Marta (Gloria Estefan) in Miami, the city she now calls home.

After some internal deliberation, Vivo decides to join Andréas on his trip Stateside, only for a twist of fate to quash their plans and leave the latter’s affections for Marta unaffirmed. It’s at this point that the kinkajou decides on journeying alone to Miami, eventually alighting at the port town of Key West, Florida, three hours’ drive from his intended destination. Luckily, Key West is also the home of Andréas’ great-niece, Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) who pledges to help Vivo in his quest to locate Marta.

Vivo (2021) is the latest project to bear the stamp of the multitalented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been busier than ever this year – he’s already produced a widely-acclaimed film adaptation of his stage musical In the Heights, made an appearance in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, written songs for the upcoming Disney feature Encanto, and next month will be making his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! On this occasion, Miranda’s song-writing abilities are utilised in addition to his vocal talents, undoubtedly pleasing fans of his work and riling those who find him less appealing.

In keeping with the film’s settings, there’s a clear Latin American and Afro-Caribbean influence to the tunes, which is unfortunately the only praise that can be afforded to the soundtrack. Miranda’s music is more grating than ever in Vivo, his hybridised rapping-singing making for an inelegant accompaniment to the visuals, and almost none of his numbers being memorable – the sole outlier is Gabi’s song “My Own Drum”, if only for how obnoxious and annoying it is. Indeed, so unremarkable are these compositions that they are enough to eradicate any tolerance for Lin-Manuel’s stylings.

The young Marta and Andréas in a dreamlike 2D dance sequence in Vivo

Another weak element of Vivo is the screenplay, being of a lesser standard than what other studios are producing. It’s storytelling at its most basic on display here, including a familiar narrative arc and tropes diligently adhered to, resulting in a plot that is quite bland and unimaginative. That stated, the story is a heartfelt one, with its resonant struggles and touching moments between characters ensuring an emotional wallop for viewers of all ages; and for younger demographics, the film offers considered, thoughtful messaging about dealing with grief.

More pleasing still are the visuals, with Vivo’s distinctive illustrations and unique designs echoing the quality of its Sony Pictures Animation stablemates, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (2018) and The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) – although neither are surpassed in this instance. Highly stylised versions of Havana and Miami have been rendered, featuring thick, blocky architecture shaded the brightest of colours, while the human characters are all round- or wide-shaped figures that differ from the artform’s norm. (There’s even some brief, yet nonetheless enjoyable 2D sequences, as evidenced above.)

Also worthy of compliment is the voice-cast, with every actor performing solidly. Ynairaly Simo leaves the greatest impression, being the perfect choice for the outgoing, rambunctious Gabi, even managing to outdo established celebrities like Zoe Saldana, who voices Gabi’s mother, Rosa. And on the subject of celebrities, there’s a fair number who lend their vocal talents to the movie, the most entertaining of which are Brian Tyree Henry as a lovesick spoonbill, and Michael Rooker as a sinister python, both of whom put all their effort into their performances despite being heard only briefly.

Save for a cliched plot and middling soundtrack, Vivo is a pleasurable distraction that benefits from great voice-work, vibrant imagery and, above all, scenes of tenderness that are bound to move even the most hardened of viewers. Consider the inclusion of Lin-Manuel Miranda as an added bonus – or minus, depending on preference.

Vivo is currently streaming globally on Netflix.

The Guilty is a Stripped Back but Lacking Drama

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Shot in just 11 days through strict Covid restrictions, Jake Gyllenhaal and director Antoine Fuqua once again collaborate on a remake of Gustav Möller’s 2018 debut feature Den skyldige, with mixed results. The script, adapted by crime drama maestro Nic Pizzolatto, maintains the same structure and narrative beats from the original, but lacks the propulsive energy that made Möller’s so gripping and entertaining.

The film centres around the LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is benched to 911 response duty during a wildfire while he awaits trial for an incident while on duty, something that is giving him extreme anxiety. His night takes a turn when he receives a call from a kidnapped woman (Riley Keough) that he takes upon himself to save. While predominately a solo performance, the film is helped out greatly by quality voice acting performances from an ensemble of actors too long to mention that help ground the film that is limited in its ways to communicate the story.

The Guilty is all about limitations and the feeling of being trapped on the other side not being able to do enough to help, and in that regard, Fuqua largely succeeds by focusing on a more vulnerable lead performance than the original. This allows the audience to engage with Joe’s situation on a more emotional level which is Gyllenhaal’s bread and butter, and must’ve appealed to him about the role.

Unfortunately, too much of the film feels like a rushed first draft of a film, and not in the endearing two takes and that’s lunch Eastwood way. There is a serious lack of experimentation and innovation in a project that desperately calls for it, being handcuffed to one character on the phone for 90 minutes, that makes the 11-day shoot painfully apparent. Maybe it is unfair to ask for more than an average movie from that absurdly short turnaround from quality creators, but the work we’ve seen from Fuqua, Pizzolatto, and Gyllenhaal in the past warrants it.

Jake Gyllenhaal consumes every inch of the frame in The Guilty

Coming from the perspective of someone who has seen and enjoyed the original film which screened at MIFF in 2018, it is a more interesting exercise to dive into what is added in this work of adaptation. Firstly, thematically and narratively speaking, the story is actually improved by centring around an LAPD officer, as it adds an entire history for the audience that changes the context to many scenes, especially in comparison to the original story set in Denmark.

By setting the film in LA, the audience views the actions of Joe in a profoundly different way compared to Asger’s (the lead Jakob Cedergren in Den skyldige), as we immediately question his first response in situations of extreme pressure, namely leaping to violence as the only answer. Having this seed of doubt coupled with Gyllenhaal’s rapidly deteriorating mental state is where the film truly separates itself from the original, and if given more time, may have been where a more polished version of this movie would’ve put more consideration into.

The other aspect that centred the film’s setting is the California wildfire that is present throughout the film, but is never a true character that it needed to be. The roaring fire is only present in brief mentions by officers on the phone, as well as on the large monitors that bear down upon Joe’s desk, but add no actual weight to the story or emotionality Pizzolatto was going for and is another instance of the film greatly needing more time and care to expand its ideas.

While The Guilty is a commendable film and an interesting touch point in the recent history of US adaptations of European films, it is difficult to recommend this over the original film Den skyldige, even if it is only available to rent in Australia (it is currently streaming on Hulu). This is a film that may end up being merely a footnote in the collaborative journey between Gyllenhaal and Möller, as they adapt the graphic novel thriller Snow Blind, which will be Möller’s first English-language feature.

The Guilty is streaming on Netflix now.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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