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.

Thor: Love and Thunder Brings Both in Equal Measure

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

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

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

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

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

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

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

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

Top Gun: Maverick is is currently screening in cinemas nationwide

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Celebrates Nicolas Cage

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are actors and then there are actors, but there’s also Nicolas Cage, a thespian unlike any other who has long been swimming in his own pool of creativity, films and the characters left in their wake. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) represents a celebration of all things Nic Cage, serving as its own museum that displays (quite literally) some of Nic’s most iconic on-screen moments, characters and artifacts while at the same time offering an enjoyable buddy-up action comedy.

Out of all the odd and unique actors throughout cinema history, it seems fitting that it would be Nicolas Cage who would play a hyper-fictionalised version of himself to such an extent. The actor’s unrivalled commitment to exploring all aspects of his craft has seen him play some of the most craze-filled (Red in 2019’s Mandy, Caster Troy/Sean Archer in 1997’s Face/Off) and heartfelt (Robin in 2021’s Pig, Joe Ransom in 2013’s Joe) characters of all time.

What Director Tom Gormican has provided with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a service to all fans of Cage. With Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage) running short on money and struggling to balance his work and home life, he decides to take his agent’s (Neil Patrick Harris) advice to attend a birthday party for Cage superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) and get paid $1 million. What Nick doesn’t realise is that behind the lovey-dovey, Cage-admiring Javi, is a drug kingpin, crime family and a missing girl. Unbeknownst to Nick, CIA agent Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) plants a tracking device on him and soon informs him of Javi’s dangerous side. It is up to Cage to find the truth of it all by channelling his most iconic screen characters to save himself and those around him.

The film plays out like a pastiche on the body of Cage’s work while also offering something new in the way of performance. Cage has often spoken of his “nouveau shamanic” neologism as an approach to performance that tries to get to the essence of a character through a deeper engagement with one’s imagination — ultimately enabling a performance that is as true as can be. He has also said in a recent Reddit AMA (ask me anything) that playing Nick Cage was the most challenging role he has taken on, with the need to “protect a person named Nick Cage” and make sure that he “facilitated the director’s absurdist vision of so-called Nick Cage”.

Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

It’s no surprise then that even for an actor of Cage’s calibre, it would take more than a “nouveau shamanic” approach to performance to truly play Nick Cage. But play Cage, Nicolas Cage does, as he brings all of his signature idiosyncrasies to the table: explosive moments of rage, overzealous mannerisms, signature one liners and so forth. There is a level of self-awareness here that never borders on excessiveness as Cage plays into these idiosyncrasies in a way that would speak to Gormican’s absurdist vision of what a hyper-fictionalised version of the actor and his life would look and feel like.

It’s easy for films to poke too much fun at their source material to the point where they overdo it — like in This is the End (2013). Ultimately, there is a still a need to provide a plot that brings everything together and serves a purpose beyond the gimmicks, and fortunately Gormican manages to keep a level head amongst the excitement of it all. Gormican uses the situation that Nick finds himself in to prompt the action that follows while at the same time managing to bring it all back to the crux that is Cage. The fact that Javi isn’t an unlikable antagonist (or an antagonist at all really) also helps to keep it light hearted and grounded, even with the tonal shift that happens around the second act.

It is quite fitting that, out of all the moments of overblown absurdity, the most striking moment —Nick Cage French-kissing a young, Wild at Heart (1990) era Cage— would come from the mind of Cage himself. The film pays homage to outlandish moments like this from the actor’s career and yet the process of making this film has brought another intrinsically “Nicolas Cage” moment; this moment hits like the smell of sea salt as you make your way to the beach for the first time in the summer, and it’s a beautiful feeling.

Never short on pop culture references (any mention of 2017’s Paddington 2 is always welcome) and always set on celebrating the cultural significance of its star lead, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is everything fans of Nicolas Cage will have wanted it to be and more. While having massive talent might be unbearable, a film with Nicolas Cage playing Nick Cage is anything but unbearable — it might just be what cinema and the world has been missing.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens nationally from the 21st of April, 2022

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.

Companionship Between Man, Dog and Robot Encompasses the Endearing Finch

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Man and dog almost always seem to go hand-in-hand when post-apocalyptic settings come into question — they’re like buddy-up cop films minus all of the cheesy one-liners and recycled cliches. From I Am Legend (2007) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) to the more recent Love and Monsters (2020) and now Finch (2021); man’s best friend has had a long spanning place in this genre of films.

The film marks the second feature that Hanks has starred in for Apple TV following last year’s Greyhound (2020), and the second feature from Miguel Sapochnik following Repo Men (2010).

Like the aforementioned films before it, Finch focuses on themes pertaining to companionship and surviving, but it is also a much more quiet and reflective post-apocalyptic film that digs into the importance of trust, honesty and loyalty — values exhibited by man’s best friend.

It sees a former engineer and all round tech guru Finch (Tom Hanks) and his dog Goodyear, scavenge for food and supplies in a world where most life has been wiped out due to a sun flare which has resulted in large amounts of radiation infecting the world. Finch’s own health has been impacted by this radiation so he decides to create a robot companion whose main directive among all others will be to take care of Finch’s doggo should he die. That robot, who becomes imbued with vast knowledge through some tech savvy work by Finch, decides to call himself Jeff (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) and develops an interesting, if not coy relationship with Finch. The three companions eventually set out to San Francisco as a deadly storm closes in on their haven in St Louis.

Tom Hanks and Goodyear in Finch

Hanks begins to play Finch in a similar way to his iconic Chuck Noland from Cast Away (2000) where he’s often talking at something (his dog) as opposed to with someone. This is where the talking robot Jeff comes into play as he helps steer the film away from Cast Away territory to something more involving as opposed to a version of this film that would bank on Hanks’ performance for its entirety.

Jones gives Jeff a level of complexity that becomes more revealing as the trio trudges on in their motorhome and interact with each other. Hanks adopts a more paternal presence as he literally brings this robot into existence whilst also having the job of feeding and taking care of Goodyear and another little non-speaking robot compadre.

For what it’s worth, the trio of man, dog, and robot is actually quite endearing and heart-warming that makes me think of this film as Chappie (2015) meets I Am Legend but without the boxing and killing, respectively. It’s very much a tale of companionship that pays respect to the importance of man’s best friend and celebrates that relationship by seeing Finch echo the values of trust, honesty and loyalty at the robot he has made, so as to help Jeff build a relationship with Goodyear that is comprised of those values once Finch is gone.

While the film doesn’t necessarily offer much in the way of unique spins on the post-apocalyptic genre, it does retain a sincerity and truth that can be felt through the script — especially the dialogue. When all is said and done, it looks like the biggest winners in a world with minimal human existence will be man’s best friend — given they’ll still have someone to play catch with.

Finch is now streaming on Apple TV+

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.

Annette is a Whirlwind of Ideas Mashed into one very Unique Feature

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Few films of recent memory have been as visually abstract and wavering in their focus as Leos Carax’s Annette (2021). It’s one of those films that leans into art-house conventions of filmmaking and asks its audience to latch onto them for dear life as the film zig-zags through a minefield of ideas, set pieces, and oddness to provide an experience unlike any other in 2021.  

So where does one start with a film that is more interested in keeping its audience guessing than providing them with a clear cut narrative? Well for starters, Annette unfolds in an operatic-like showcase that echoes early French Avant-Garde filmmaking (particularly that of Jacques Demy whose influence is definitely felt). For instance, dialogue is often sung throughout the film, scenes are choreographed to play out like live theatre, and there is a particular emphasis on the unnaturalness of how the actors move through space and time.

With a screenplay by the Mael brothers (Sparks Brothers) and Carax, Annette is never short on surprises and wackiness as it leans into a romantic-fantasy-musical akin to what I can best describe as Beauty and the Beast (1991) meets A Star Is Born (2018).

At its core though, the premise of the film is a relatively simple one revolving around romance and the struggles of stardom. Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) are both performers — a comedian and soprano, respectively. As with most celebrities, their life and personal affairs cannot escape the public eye, and Henry becomes more agitated and narcissistic as the film progresses, while Ann gradually begins to pull back and become somewhat of a muse. This is particularly true for both characters as they welcome their baby daughter Annette, into the world.

Annette herself is presented in puppet form which raises interesting ideas pertaining to artifice, especially when it comes to how Henry and Ann see the world around them. Both characters seemingly awaken following Annette’s birth in that they realise the life they have been living up until now has all been a farce so as to maintain the illusion of contentedness. Annette’s presence sees that illusion be torn down as the film spirals into a hodgepodge of visual cues, symbols and motifs that are really difficult to grapple with (oh and did I mention Annette is gifted with an incredible musical voice?).

Marion Cotillard in Annette

The music of the film is also a big reason for why its zaniness works — perhaps because it was conjured up by the equally zany Sparks Brothers. With lyrics that penetrate and carry over between each set piece (especially “We Love Each Other So Much”) Carax is able to nurse the film into a level of tenderness that becomes crucial to living up to the films tragic finale. The repetition of music and lyrics has a level of sadness that brings to light the illusory truth effect where, the more something is repeated, the more likely it is an individual will believe it to be true.

But for Henry and Ann, there is a level of truth to their repetition no matter how much it seems to divide them. Carax makes this apparent by intertwining the aforementioned lyrics into very physical actions and events (i.e. Henry performing oral sex on Ann, Ann giving birth while those in the birth theatre sing). In this sense, Henry and Ann aren’t repeating for the sake of wanting to believe that they love each other, rather, as Henry lyrically asserts to Ann’s former partner The Conductor (Simon Helberg), “that song was our song”. In the same way, that love was their love — it was born out of truth and remained so, even as Henry continued to descend into a deeper low (which I won’t spoil).

The film isn’t without its shortcomings though. Carax is less interested in drawing an emotional response from audiences due to the lack of avenues from which to draw that response (at least for the first two acts), and is instead interested in using symbols and motifs (Annette in her puppet state, Ann’s distinct vocal pattern etc.) to build up the audiences understanding of events. For most of the second act, the film relies on these cues to give some sort of structure and direction to an otherwise unruly narrative. Sure, fans of Carax will band together to point out that Carax’s style is less about narrative coherency as it is about using the affordances of the medium in a Lynchian fashion, but it’s an absence, nonetheless.

Most of Annette relies on the audiences desire to be in equal parts submissive to the subversive form of the film, and to experience the film through its wandering structure. It’s a unique experience that can often feel exhausting which I have no doubt is intentional as Henry and Ann’s relationship is an exhausting one, but it’s worth taking the ride.

Annette is currently screening in select cinemas, and on Palace Home Cinema

The Mad Women’s Ball is a Deeply Compelling and Arresting French Period Drama

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Centred around the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital during the reign of Jean-Martin Charcot in the late 19th century, The Mad Women’s Ball (or Le Bal des folles in its native french, 2021), written, directed, and starring the terrific Mélanie Laurent (who audiences will recognise as Shoshanna from Inglorious Basterds or as Two from 6 Underground), is a compelling and gripping period drama, adapted from the critically acclaimed 2019 novel from Victoria Mas of the same name.

The film focuses on Eugénie Cléry (played by a mesmerising Lou de Laâge), a wealthy and defiant woman who is desperate to experience the world around her through books and exploration, a world that to her feels as tight and restricting as a corset (more on that later). We quickly come to learn that Eugénie has the ability to communicate with spirits, in several gripping sequences that would not feel out of place in Hereditary (2018), which keep the audience on edge for the entire first act, unsure of where the story is headed.

The film turns as Eugénie’s family discovers her abilities and, out of fear, admits her to the famous hospital, in the care of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) and head nurse Geneviève Gleizes (Mélanie Laurent). Based on previous expectation of films and novels set in psychiatric wards, we assume Geneviève will be the antagonising presence of the film, but is quickly apparent that the relationship and bond between Geneviève and Eugénie will be the driving force of the film moving forward.

It is in this two-hander that the film truly excels, with Laurent and Cléry playing off each other tremendously with a quiet electricity only the best can achieve. Laurent has experience capturing Cléry’s intoxicating screen presence in her 2014 coming-of-age film Breathe and that familiarity is immediately apparent with a creative relationship that will hopefully continue into the future.

What separates a protagonist like Eugénie from those in similar films is her undying faith in her abilities. Even while under extreme duress inflicted upon her in barbaric fashion by the doctors in Salpêtrière, Eugénie never once backs down from her belief, all but guaranteeing her imprisonment but endearing her to those around her. Her lack of doubt in what she sees is truly refreshing, not bogging the narrative down in the swamp of a protagonist questioning themselves, as their resolve is the survival mechanism they require to withstand the world around them.

 Lou de Laâge and Mélanie Laurent are extrordinary together in The Mad Women’s Ball

The Salpêtrière is shown to us and Eugénie immediately as a monstrous place, with the howls of women echoing throughout the walls as she is dragged from her carriage – her father François (Cédric Kahn) and brother Théo (Benjamin Voisin) barely able look at her out of shame – unable to face the nightmare they have condemned her to. This is a famed hospital, the largest in Paris and known for its discoveries in neuroscience, but this film sets out to show us that within these hallowed walls, there is great pain and trauma being inflicted on the women inside, imprisoned here and experimented on in truly barbaric ways.

These acts of barbarism would weigh down most films, but Laurent is able to dull the blade of the men’s savagery through the close and careful attention given to the women Eugénie meets in the dormitory, who develop a wonderful camaraderie over the course of the film. A quietly moving moment happens after Eugénie returns from a horrific stay in hydrotherapy where we see her truly open up to the other inmates around her, embracing those she originally turned away from.

Whilst The Mad Women’s Ball is very much an actor’s showcase, there are some truly wonderful flourishes from Laurent and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. There is a beautiful use of natural lighting which was displaying throughout, highlighted in images echoing still life paintings of tea cups and hairbrushes that places the film firmly in the set period of the 19th century. It is common for actor-turned-director’s to focus on their actor to a fault, but Laurent is shown to have a clear vision for the story that is consistent and thoughtful throughout the film.

In a film full of thematic motifs and imagery, the corset stands out, climaxing in a gripping intercut sequence between Eugénie and Geneviève, removing the symbolic restrictions placed upon the two women by a patriarchal world that looks to dominate them. The scene is a climax of earned melodrama, which a lot of films fall short of achieving, but when it is captured it can be quite transcendent. The motif of the corset is established not just through the literal clothing item, but in the constant hounding from Eugénie’s father François, telling her to fix her posture in almost every scene they share, attempting to drill his ideas of appearance and respectability through societal pressures into his daughter.

This is Laurent’s largest production to date and is setup for big things next year with an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah on the horizon next year, starring Dakota and Elle Fanning, that is sure to further launch her into the next level of her terrific filmmaking career.

The Mad Women’s Ball is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Worth Tackles Questions of Loss and Tragedy in 9/11 Drama

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Releasing onto Netflix in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sara Colangelo’s Worth (2020) asks the daunting question of valuing a human life and the emotional turmoil of asking an individual to calculate that number in dollars and cents. That is the task of Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) and Camille Biros’s (Amy Ryan) law firm after the tragedy of the September 11th attacks, a task only Feinberg jumps at the opportunity to pursue. Just over a week after the attacks, the US Congress passed a bill to compensate the families of those that were lost, with the promise of not suing the airlines involved in the attacks, an act we are told would sink the economy, with Feinberg’s task to be to find the right number value for this compensation.

The film is setup well and has a high level of care given to the events that tell the audience immediately the sort of 9/11 drama this will be. Yes, there will be emotional scenes with grieving families breaking down in law offices, but the film will not confront you with the horrors of the events, that is not where its interests lie.

Keaton is a standout here, having an impressive command of the film while never being flashy, maintaining a consistent and measured demeanour, never wanting the emotional weight of tragedy the job requires to cloud his judgement. There are no “they knew!” scenes of emotional release that Spotlight had here – which won’t help it come awards season – the emotion of the film instead was carried through the circumstances and the testimonies of the families, an aspect Colangelo never abused, peppering these scenes in to create a measured flow to the film.

But this was no one-man show. The whole cast was excellent and individualised, especially Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanathan, who at times were given the task of grounding and transferring the emotional weight of the film from the families to the firm, something she did with a certain energy and grace that was quite remarkable. It did on occasion lean too heavily into the tropes of the grizzled boomer man needing to be taught empathy by the women in his life, but the performances of Keaton, Ryan, and Ramanathan ground it just enough to avoid falling over.


Colangelo and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino (who worked together on Colangelo’s complex previous film The Kindergarten Teacher) also created an engaging and compelling visual language to Worth that should be celebrated. There’s a heavy use of negative space throughout the film, emphasising the isolation the lawyers are feeling as they attempt to connect with different parties, as well as an interesting use of centre framing, something quite unique in this sort of biopic film that stylises it in a singular way. Too often movies of this nature focus too much on dialogue in dull fluorescent lit offices and ignore the infinite ways filmmaking techniques can communicate a theme and emotion that makes the best films so impactful.

Stanley Tucci and Michael Keaton’s pivotal confrontation in Worth

One area that didn’t feel as considered as the framing, however, was the haphazard score, with different styles being thrown around between very quiet and sterile scenes. Even with the musical connection of opera and classical music being formed between Keaton and Tucci’s characters, this bond is never felt on a filmic level, with some score choices feeling at odds with the nature of the scenes they are intended to accompany. Compare that to Spotlight, something impossible to ignore throughout the film, which has one of the best scores of the 2010s by legend Howard Shore. What makes that score transcendent isn’t the flashy, rousing orchestral moments we usually attribute to the best scores, but in how well it connects to the film it is contained within and elevates in its emotional weight, something Muhly’s score falls short on.

The Shore score is measured, inquisitive, and almost mourning, matching and amplifying the tone of the film. The Muhly score, however, feels disjointed with its use of different instruments and styles with no real sense of cohesion between pieces, and rarely matched the emotional stakes of the scenes they were in which limited the film’s ability to transcend the more cliche and typical aspects of the film. It may feel harsh to harp on just this one aspect of the film but it feels a microcosm for the issues of the film and what holds it back from being great.

Worth is an admirable film that is considered and thoughtful about an important time in our history that needs to be viewed more closely and has set Colangelo up for a potentially long career oscillating between indie and studio filmmaking. It’s worth your time. (I couldn’t help myself.)

Worth is currently streaming on Netflix.