Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Rise of the Spin-Off Series

It seems we’re living in the age of the spin-off series. Intellectual property (IP) that has proven successful is now seeing a surge of either origin or ‘where-are-they-now’ stories surrounding established characters (Better Call Saul, Young Sheldon, the upcoming That 90s Show etc.), or shows providing more context on the show they are spun-off from (1883, How I Met Your Father etc.). No truer is that than in Disney’s wave of Star Wars limited series.

There’s no question that the Star Wars universe lends itself to this surge of content more than any other property available. That’s not to say that there aren’t other major IP’s that have the same possibilities, with the widely popular Game of Thrones set to see Kit Harrington reprise his role as everyone’s favourite, nothing-knowing Jon Snow.

But in Star Wars, Disney has a well with an endless supply of content, and one that the entertainment behemoth is unlikely to ever to stop drilling. From The Book of Boba Fett to the latest Obi-Wan Kenobi show, the last year has seen Disney already churn out two Star Wars-centric shows for two iconic characters from the franchise. And with a long pipeline of further shows to come —Andor, Ahsoka and Lando, to name a few— it looks like spin-offs are on the menu and Disney is ready to keep serving them.  

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka

That’s not necessarily a problem though. Even with a minority of fans that would like to see more shows in the vein of The Mandalorian than that of a bounty hunter whose fate was seemingly set in stone almost 40 years ago, there’s still lots of good to come with the bad.

The one big positive is the sheer amount of talent that has been involved in each of the shows. From less renowned directors like Rick Famuyiwa, Kevin Tancharoen and Bryce Dallas Howard, to more established directors like Taika Waititi, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau — the spoils have been shared across the board.

It’s in Obi-Wan Kenobi though, that Disney have managed to return to something so familiar and etched in Star Wars history. By allowing Deborah Chow to direct all six episodes of the show, there is a level of balance restored to the force (as it were) and the franchise. The singular vision of Chow’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is one that goes back to the roots of what made the franchise so iconic in the first place — George Lucas.

That’s not to say that the show is without its faults, as there isn’t much in the way of storytelling beats that you wouldn’t find in The Mandalorian. The premise is really similar to that of The Mandalorian (a hero thrust into the far reaches of the galaxy to escort a child home safely is hardly exciting) albeit that isn’t a fault of Chow’s given she didn’t pen the episodes. But to call this a shortcoming of Obi-Wan Kenobi isn’t a large criticism, given that The Mandalorian has offered the most compelling storytelling of all the current crop of Star Wars shows, so if any other Sci-Fi oriented shows are drawing from it, then more power to them.

Still from The Mandalorian

Unfortunately some of those shows include Paramount’s expensive adaptation of the beloved video game Halo which has had more problems than simply trying to emulate The Mandalorian‘s success. If anything really lets Obi-Wan Kenobi down it’s that it was always sold as a six episode limited series as opposed to something like The Mandalorian which will push three seasons next year.

There’s speculation that a second season of the show could happen, but one can’t help but wonder how much more refined the show could have been if it had stretched out its characterisation and storylines across more episodes. Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to be a success —after all, it’s ‘Star Wars’, and sees fan-favourites Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen return— so why take a limited series approach? To have people request a second season at the show’s conclusion anyway?

It’s understandable that certain entertainment companies will want to play it safe by taking up a limited series format and waiting for the public reception before greenlighting a further season. But Disney is the biggest entertainment company in the world, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to do well. By limiting the show to only six episodes and cramming everything (including that long awaited battle) into these episodes, there really isn’t a reason to bring Hayden Christensen back for a second season even though he’d love to, and which will probably happen in some capacity anyway. Obi-Wan Kenobi would have benefitted from more episodes to give the character a more refined arc than simply a baby-sitter who finds strength and hope as a result of said babysitting.

Maybe I’m being too harsh as I do feel that Deborah Chow found her groove by being the sole director here, and it was a delight to see Ewan and Hayden put on the jedi-esque robes and Darth Vader suit, respectively. It might be my adulation for a show like Better Call Saul and its extraordinary writing, but if there is to be a second season of Obi-Wan Kenobi, let’s hope that it’s given ample time to develop further and does keep some mystery tucked away for later.

All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming on Disney+

The Art of the Murakami Adaptation

In an age dominated by IP acquisitions in cinema, the art of the adaptation has seemingly narrowed and expanded in equal measure. Whether it’s adapting a recent YA novel series or the countless comic book blockbusters adapted from stories told in print from a half-century ago, cinema has leaned heavily on interpreting pre-existing literary works with established audiences to tell its stories. 

But the art of adaptation is not solely a monetary endeavour in modern moviemaking. There are opportunities to explore older works to uncover deeper truths in an artist to achieve newly interesting films. Two such examples are the recent critical darlings Burning (2018), and Drive My Car (2021), both based on the Murakami short stories Barn Burning and Drive My Car respectively.

Both films share many similarities; interpreting sub-50 page Murakami stories into films epic in length (148m for Burning, 179m for Drive My Car), exploring the interpersonal relationships that were only suggested within the source text, and exploring a place and time unique to their works. Lee Chang-dong shifted the story of Barn Burning from Japan to South Korea, whilst Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe shifted the story of Drive My Car from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

Exploring works of adaptation in cinema is a rewarding experience in understanding both works and creators better, and is worth comparing these two excellent films in tandem with Murakami’s short stories.

Drive My Car 

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Tôko Miura in Drive My Car

“Murakami’s writing is wonderful at expressing inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them. But it’s really difficult to re-create those inner feelings in film.” – Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Fresh off multiple Oscar nominations including best adapted screenplay, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s masterpiece expands on every moment from Murakami’s short story while introducing his own fresh moments that truly thrive within the three-hour romantic drama epic.

So much is added to the story within the 40-minute prologue Hamaguchi and Oe create in the film. In literary fiction, the absence of a character is much easier to express to an audience. But in film, it is much harder for an audience to garner a relationship to a character that is only referenced. Imagine Up (2009) without its opening montage. The absence of Ellie through the rest of the film is profoundly felt by both Carl and the audience because of the impact the character had on us at the beginning of the story. Hamaguchi makes a crucial decision to further explore the intimate relationship between Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima) during the prologue, deepening our relationship with the couple. Oto’s absence casts a deep shadow that hangs over the entire film in a profound and moving way.

Where the adaptation feels closest to Murakami is surprisingly in an original scene, where Yûsuke goes to dinner with Gong Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon), Lee Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim), and the driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). It is here that Yûsuke feels comfortable enough to compliment Misaki’s driving, stating, “I hardly feel gravity. Sometimes I forget I’m in a car.” This explanation of a seemingly mundane skill perfectly executed is described so beautifully, the surrounding world feels overwhelmed with character. This is a style that Murakami has perfected in his writing and this sequence is Hamaguchi’s nod to the story’s original writer.

In the short story, Murakami uses Misaki’s driving and its mundane grace to explore Yûsuke’s unexplored feelings and memories of his wife, writing, “for some reason, he recalled her (Oto) more frequently now that Misaki was doing the driving.” Hamaguchi follows this evolution of Yûsuke opening up about his feelings while Misaki is driving in a similar graceful manner, something he also explored in his other wonderful 2021 release, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Sonia Yuan (left) and Park Yu-rim in Drive My Car

Murakami’s one gripe with the film was the change from the car being a yellow convertible Saab to a red sun-roofed Saab, a change he ultimately accepted. The red of the Saab cuts through the stark whites and navy blues of the environments Hamaguchi places it in. In a film built on the foundations of its long dialogue sequences, the simple visual style of the film is constantly engaging. By adding a roof to the now-iconic car, Hamaguchi creates a secluded space that creates a vacuum for the characters to enter. Whilst not as visually appealing as a convertible, the red Saab is a more striking cinematic object, gliding through the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo and Hiroshima.

A fascinating alteration to the original text is the character of Takatsuki, the young actor who has an affair with Oto in the film. In Murakami’s short story, the actor is in his early 40s and doesn’t share the same troubled past as a former star like his film counterpart. Through this change, the infidelity of Oto feels less connected to Yûsuke in terms of being a romantic stand-in, and more of an individual character decision, opening up the character to being more realised than in the short story. This change also deepens the conversations Yûsuke has with Takatsuki throughout the story – an element that takes up large portions of Murakami’s original text – as it creates a more interesting power dynamic between the pair as they search for a connection through Oto’s absence.

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Tôko Miura in Drive My Car

Murakami’s short story focuses heavily on the theme of performance and acting, often citing, “we’re all acting aren’t we?”. Hamaguchi both explores these ideas deeper through the Uncle Vanya play while also obscuring Yûsuke’s ideas on acting by focusing the story more on his directing profession than his acting career, no doubt an area the director is more personally invested in.

One of the lasting images of the film is actually a profound moment in the short story too, of Yûsuke allowing Misaki to smoke in the car, which she accepts but also has too much respect for Yûsuke, but more importantly the car, as she smokes out the window.

Hamaguchi and Oe received an Academy Award nomination for Adapted Screenplay (an award most likely to be given to the outstanding Power of the Dog) and is everything the award should recognise. The film is a masterclass in extrapolating and personalising another writer’s story into the film medium, one that doesn’t overshadow the original, but mines new elements out of it to craft something truly special.


Burning 

Yoo Ah-in (left), Jeon Jong-seo (centre), and Steven Yeun (right) in Burning

Murakami’s writing in the short story is most compelling in between sentences. Burning works wonderfully as a work of adaptation as it is constructed to explore and expand on these silences on the page, without ever feeling pressured to over-explain.

The time spent between Hae-mi in Africa and returning is expressed with a single space on Murakami’s page, whereas in the film, Lee uses this time to explore our protagonist in this period of extended isolation. 

“Are you going to come back to Japan?” I asked her, jokingly.

“Of course I am,” she replied.

Three months later she was back, …

Barn Burning pg.2

This sequence runs for 10 minutes, showing him masturbating in Hae-mi’s room multiple times as well as going to his father’s assault trial. By adding these new layers to the character, the film adaptation seeks to expand both the Jung-su character as well as emphasise the absence Hae-mi leaves in his life.

A key scene taken straight from the short story is Hae-mi and Jung-su’s first night drinking together at a bar, where Hae-mi pantomimes eating an orange. This reads intriguingly in the Murakami story, introducing this charming and compelling character that both our protagonist and audience are unsure of. In Burning, we can see the scene performed, which greatly adds to the character’s performance of the pantomime and seeing Jung-su’s completely engrossed face as it is occurring.

A crucial thematic element to Lee’s film is the story of the African Bushmen’s two hungry people; Little Hunger, those who are physically hungry, and Great Hunger, those who are hungry for life’s meaning. It is clear even with Murakami’s short story that the female character of Hae-mi is looking for a purpose in the world that is soon to envelop her, ideas that are expanded and stretched further in Lee’s adaptation. 

Lee foreshadows Ben’s speech on burning barns in a restaurant scene between the three characters. Ben says he wants to “tell his story” to Jung-su, as he is a writer. Both the short story and the film characterise Ben as being interested in our protagonist as he is a writer. By foreshadowing this story instead of it appearing spontaneously like in the original text, Lee introduces a feeling of suspense and unease surrounding the mysterious Ben, for both Jong-su and the audience.

Jeon Jong-seo in Burning

The film’s most iconic scene is the dance sequence set to Miles Davis’ Generique, a powerfully solemn and introspective piece written for the Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). Burning and Drive My Car both follow a lot of Murakami’s western influences into their adaptations, an aspect which no doubt endeared itself to a wider audience.

Murakami does not specify which Davis song is heard in the short story, allowing Lee to add a layer of artistic decision-making to his adaptation. Using Generique, Lee is layering the groundwork for a dreamlike sequence not unlike something you’d see in a Malick or Lynch film, particularly the red room in Twin Peaks (1990-91); a dream-state environment where key characters’ subconscious expresses itself openly. 

What makes Lee’s adaptation so entertaining is his willingness to explore the subtext of Ben’s unnerving nature through genre tropes of a psychological thriller. By expanding these notes of Ben’s character from Murakami’s original story, Lee is able to lure both the protagonist and the audience into the story before it culminates in the farm sequence where Ben describes his barn burning hobby, the launching point of the short story’s narrative.

An important and oftentimes overlooked element of the literary adaptation is to have well defined visual and sonic components. If there is no visual or audible interest in the adaptation, then the filmmaker is not using the advantages of the medium to full effect. Burning has a distinct visual and audible style which Lee uses throughout his adaptation to emphasise the mood of the film. Whether it be the thriller-tinged score by Mowg, or the sapphire soaked sky during Jong-su’s daily runs in the second half of the film, Lee is creating a world that is unique to Murakami’s original text, exploring new depths to the short story while still maintaining a connected through-line.

Steven Yeun in Burning



What makes both of Murakami’s short stories so compelling and rich for adaptation is his ability to create compelling characters in remarkably succinct ways. There is a deftness in its layered character work to be mined within 20-40 pages like in Barn Burning and Drive My Car that leaves Lee and Hamaguchi a groundwork to adapt to the screen, while also crafting characters an audience would want to explore more deeply in film. 

Much has been made of these two successful adaptations being long compared to the source text, displaying how much depth can be uncovered from Murakami’s short pieces. Both Lee and Hamaguchi seem keenly interested in the genre elements of his stories (detective noirs in Burning, domestic melodramas and theatre as subtext stories in Drive My Car), while also wanting to deeply explore these rich characters over the course of their adaptations. 

A common criticism of Murakami is his lack of female characters, something we see in both of these short stories. Perhaps the greatest inclusion Lee and Hamaguchi make to these stories are the two female characters that haunt both Burning and Drive My Car. By making both Hae-mi and Oto not just real characters, but truly charming people that an audience can get engrossed in, the directors are able to lay the groundwork for the narrative momentum of the stories. Just as Jung-su and Yûsuke are obsessed and entranced by these characters, so too are the audience, making their eventual absences create a cavity within the film that will not be filled.

Both films ask interesting questions on the art of adaptation. By exploring a short piece of writing by a revered writer, both Lee and Hamaguchi are able to create layered, dense dramas that extend far beyond their original text. Would these films have worked nearly as well without Murakami’s imprint on key moments? Or is it the duet of writer and interpreter, an overriding theme of Hamaguchi’s film, that gives these stories such powerful meaning?

Kimi is a True Covid-era Thriller

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We are fast approaching the second anniversary of the launching point of the Covid pandemic – it is still marked for me by the weekend of NBA calculations due from the Rudy Gobert positive case on March 11th – and for the most part, we have avoided including any reference to it in our films. There has clearly been zero appetite to see our bleak reality projected onto screens. There have been a couple bright spots; the terrific Zoom horror film Host (2020) captured the screen-dominated world we found ourselves in with lockdown, while still managing to craft an enjoyable film about a Zoom seance. The other that comes to mind is last year’s wonderful Romanian comedy Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), which shows the iconography that we have come to know from the pandemic with face masks and social distancing.

It may be years until the quintessential Covid-era movie is released, but for now, the top of the contenders should be Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful paranoia thriller Kimi (2022). No other film of the past two years has captured the paranoia and anxiety of the pandemic in such stark terms while remaining light on its feet and enjoyable throughout.

The film centres on the agoraphobic Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), a sound tech worker for the company Amygdala and their Siri-esque home device KIMI. What sets KIMI apart from its real-world counterparts is that any error in communication from the device is given to remote workers like Angela to fix. Set almost completely within Angela’s Seattle loft apartment, the tension of this paranoia thriller is heightened once she hears what appears to be a violent crime on one of the files and is compelled to investigate.

Angela’s agoraphobia has forced her paranoia to be tangible for years, something a few years ago would’ve felt like a stretch for audiences, but not now. The film’s Jenga stack of Covid paranoia, tech surveillance paranoia, and the recent true crime content boom is perfectly positioned for 2022, creating a series of escalating tensions that keep you on the edge of your seat throughout its brisk 89-minute runtime.

It shouldn’t be any real surprise that Soderbergh crafted a Covid-era thriller that speaks to our moment brilliantly. Early in 2020, the Academy-award winning filmmaker received a lot of attention for his prescient pandemic film Contagion (2011), an extraordinary film that rocketed to the top of VOD charts during the pandemic. Due to this, he has often been asked for his opinions on the pandemic while in interviews for his recent features (which I highly recommend seeking out), he is one of the great talkers of Hollywood. Since March 2020, Soderbergh has crafted three enjoyable features for HBO Max with Let Them All Talk (2020), No Sudden Move (2021), and Kimi at a feverish pace that can be felt throughout each film.

Zoë Kravitz as Angela Childs in Kimi

After the unjust cancellation of the excellent High Fidelity (2021), a show that confirmed Kravitz’s bonafides as a magnetic screen presence ready to become a star, I was eagerly anticipating her next project. The pairing of Soderbergh and Kravitz is perfect, as they match each other’s nervy exuberance that creates friction at the heart of Kimi that gives the film an enjoyably frenetic energy. 

The film is also buoyed by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez’s charming score that focuses on longer mood pieces overplaying up the paranoia thriller elements of the film. Soderbergh clearly enjoys living in the world of the genre but is always cautious to never dip too heavily into certain tropes. This allows him to stay ahead of his audience whilst never exuding smugness, something that Martinez is crucial in achieving. 

The acclaimed director has experimented with paranoid thrillers in the past with Unsane (2018), an enjoyable film shot on an iPhone which ultimately felt more like a genre exercise than a high-quality film, something he has achieved here.

Soderbergh, taking up his regular posts as director, cinematographer (as Peter Andrews), and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), never ceases to amaze in his innovation at shooting single location scenes whilst maintaining a relentless efficiency in shotmaking. You can never accuse the academy award-winning filmmaker of taking the long way round a story.

Zoë Kravitz in Kimi

The screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible) is weightier than the breezy paranoia thriller it’s contained within, including a truly tense scene centred on Amygdala executive Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson) spouting these empty MeToo platitudes that are pressed on Angelica in an executive suite that grow more and more unnerving.

Soderbergh has always been a difficult auteur to pin down for a definitive style – other than the relentless efficiency in his shotmaking and the opinionated anti-capitalist point of view in most of his films – something that makes each of his films feel fresh and innovative. This is a filmmaker that mastered his craft so completely, he briefly retired. Now, the famed director is seemingly content making enjoyable, sub-two-hour features for HBO Max that lack any burden of pretence, and we should be grateful.

Kimi is a film with a long and very evident film history, drawing from the paranoia thrillers of the 70s as well as Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Soderbergh uses this well-defined genre to speak to this moment through a modern interpretation of Blow Out (1981) and Rear Window, which is everything one can hope for out of a pandemic era film release. The legendary filmmaker continues the modernisation of De Palma’s 80s thriller here with a sound editor as its protagonist, a profession that lends itself well to the paranoia of their eras. 

While Soderbergh never lets up in his taut 90-minute thriller, he does leave audiences with many interesting ideas to sit with, including the invasive nature of modern tech, even in the world of a woman who never leaves her apartment. The combination of Kravitz and Soderbergh elevates the material to create one of the best new releases of the year.

Kimi, play Sabotage.

Kimi is currently streaming on Binge and HBO Max.

The Bow is Strung in Marvel’s Hawkeye, Now’s the Time to Shoot

We’re a couple of years down the track in Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off series, Hawkeye — set in the bustling and Christmassy New York City in the years post-snap. It’s a fitting setting given the opening sequence of episode one takes audiences back to the alien infested, war-torn New York City of 2012’s Avengers in order to establish the character of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld).

That opening sequence quickly introduces audiences to Kate in her adolescent years as she experiences the fateful events of the Avengers battle with evil, from the ravaged apartment she and her family reside in. In the distance on the roof of another building, the shows eponymous hero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) tusks it out with the aliens before eventually saving and inspiring Kate through a swift shot from his bow — changing the course of her life forever.   

We eventually fast forward to present day (which is a few years ahead of 2021) where Kate is now 22, living in her own apartment, and her mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) has become acquainted with Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) following the death of her husband all those years ago. On the flip side we have Clint Barton who is living a more steady life with his family as he seemingly still struggles internally to come to terms with the aftermath of Thanos’ wrath. It isn’t until a gala auction event goes sideways, that the story begins to pick up. A Russian street gang known as the Tracksuit Mafia infiltrate the auction where among many items, a Ronin suit from one of the Avengers is present. Kate nabs the suit and legs it, unaware that her actions will bring her face-to-face with Barton, the Tracksuit Mafia, and further trouble.

These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvels other shows from earlier this year like Loki and WandaVision. Director Rhys Thomas takes a much more playful approach to the storytelling here, never really subjecting viewers to a myriad of complex information (timekeepers and worlds-within-worlds) and instead opting to focus on the banter and push-pull dynamic between Steinfeld and Renner.

To much surprise, that approach works in the shows favour as Thomas lays all his cards on the table from the outset and builds on Steinfeld’s energy and Renner’s reluctance to help her beyond the amount he requires. It makes for some amusing back-and-forths and on-the-nose one liners.

Hailee Steinfeld in Hawkeye

The plotting feels a bit inadequate in comparison to the actors chemistry as it’s almost built on a ‘as you go’ basis rather than as something worth stimulating an audience members curiosity. Essentially, not much happens that couldn’t be predicted by casual audiences and not much is left to an audience members imagination. For those that have read the comic, perhaps that approach works, but hopefully the episodes that follow will provide a little more intrigue, albeit not to the extent that Loki did (especially with the sublime Florence Pugh scheduled to make an appearance).

It has to be said that Renner is side-lined by Steinfeld who channels her teen charisma from Bumblebee (2018) & The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She injects the show with a Tom Holland-esque charm seen in the Spider-Man films, as she brings a likeable on-screen presence that is hard not to buy into. Renner plays that more reserved, subduedness that he carried with him in the Avengers films and it makes me realise how my desires for him to take the forefront in this show wouldn’t have worked to the shows advantage judging by these two episodes.

Both episodes keep you engaged through Steinfeld’s performance and the consistent humorous tone that has become a staple of Marvel, but rarely hits home. The fact that Thomas leans into that tone from the get-go while building our engagement with this peaceful, yet disrupted New York setting through the leads, means that the occasional comical comment from a Mafia henchmen for instance, doesn’t feel out of place. Too often a Marvel production will fluctuate tonally from episode to episode which can work given that no two directors are the same if multiple directors are directing, but Thomas has set a sound, but somewhat tilted foundation to build on from these two episodes.  

Marvel has always looked to the future with its work and for ways to pass the torch onto its new recruits, and Hawkeye will be no different in that regard. With Steinfeld playing the protagonist in a show about Hawkeye, it’ll be interesting to see whether that sentiment will carry true to its entirety or whether Hawkeye himself begins to play a more active role as the events of the show unravel. Either way, there’s plenty to look forward to in Hawkeye over the coming weeks.

Hawkeye is now streaming on Disney+

Port Arthur Gets the Snowtown Treatment in Nitram

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Davis, as she appears in Nitram

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 Green Knight is a Brilliant and Unique Work of Adaptation

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Knight is on Amazon Prime now.