Arnie, Darcy and Tom recap the 95th Academy Awards, including everything from Ke Huy Quan’s extraordinary journey to win the Best Supporting Actor award; his fellow cast member Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress win; the biggest winner of the night in Everything Everywhere All At Once; All Quiet on the Western Front‘s underdog wins; and Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor win to cap off his run of wins — we have it all.
Skinamarink is a Childhood Nightmare Shot on VHS
Early contender for the strangest and most fun internet explosion curio in film circles of the year, Skinamarink (2022) is an atmospheric, extremely lo-fi creepypasta horror seemingly born out of a haunted VHS tape. This may be the hardest film to have a blanket recommendation for due to its upsetting atmosphere centred around young children, durational cinema tendencies, and an active refusal to follow cinematic conventions that will annoy many audiences. It may be easier to recommend Skinamarink to lovers of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Chantal Ackerman films than horror fanatics looking for a low-budget thrill, a place I sit on both ends of.
The filmmaker, Kyle Edward Ball, has been making horror short films for years based on user-submitted stories about their nightmares on YouTube. There is a simplistic effectiveness to many of these videos, with a certain aesthetic formed that grew into Ball’s debut feature, Skinamarink.
Set one night in a family home, Skinamarink follows two young children, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), who have seemingly been abandoned one night as their father disappears without a sound. This childhood nightmare of abandonment is immediately heightened as the doors and windows to their home also begin to disappear, and there is a distorted voice seemingly coming from upstairs beckoning them.
The effectiveness of the film’s horror is its depiction of a universal childhood fear shown from an actual child’s perspective. Ball is tapping into primordial fears that dwell within all of us, using the constraints of his very modest budget to heighten the atmosphere of dread across its extended run time. The film is certainly too long for its narrow scope coming in at 100 minutes, but when Skinamarink is working, it is one of the most effective horror experiences in years.
What has allowed Skinamarink to explode as a curio of indie horror cinema (including several in-demand screenings at The Astor Theatre and Palace Cinemas) is its experiential, durational cinema-styled horror that has a clear lineage in the genre, whilst feeling entirely new. Think Paranormal Activity (2007) but with actual aesthetic choices and storytelling ideas. Those films had some good scares scattered throughout the franchise, but the flat filmmaking in the name of realism makes them a chore to get through. The mixture of base human fears with an individual cinematic style that heightens digital noise and extremely low lighting, allows Skinamarink to feel familiar yet new, creating a deceptively compelling horror.
Its weaponisation of digital distortion is pretty special while still feeling familiar, turning one of indie cinema’s biggest issues (access to only cheap equipment), into its greatest strength. At its strongest moments, Skinamarink will have you questioning your own eyes, not sure if you’re seeing something that is not there or if Ball is manipulating everything on screen. Establishing an off-kilter immersion from the outset allows you to never be sure of that answer, drawing you further into each scene and the encroaching feeling of dread.
Ball gives us just enough narrative to get a sense of the family dynamic here before this fateful night. In a film centred around parental control, beginning with the four-year-old child Kevin apparently falling down the stairs (an act, like many in the film, we do not see but only hear) sets an early tone and has us questioning the children’s parents. The oldest child, six-year-old Kaylee, not wanting to speak to the mother further layers the themes of domestic issues and how they play a role in our childhood fears. In a regular horror film, a disembodied voice beckoning you to “come upstairs” would regularly have you questioning why our young protagonist would do such a thing, but here, we have an understanding about the likelihood this situation isn’t too far removed from their previous experience.
Its central set piece, which involves Kaylee going upstairs into her parent’s room, is one of the most haunting film sequences in years. After 40 minutes of atmospheric buildup, completely unsure of where we are being led, you will be wishing to return to watching cartoons downstairs and staring at Legos. The extended long take in this scene ratchets up the tension to a boiling point, with your palms a sweating mess in a sequence that seemingly goes for eternity. This is no doubt the peak of the film, with only smaller moments in the proceeding hour that match its tension and atmosphere. Structurally, Skinamarink could’ve taken some notes from its predecessors Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project (1999), by peaking in its final moments, but the atmosphere is definitely more of the Ball’s focus than the bigger scares the film has. Unfortunately, this makes the film drag in its second half, even for a great lover of durational cinema as I am.
A film sure to annoy and entice in equal measure, Skinamarink is a curious and mostly effective piece of atmospheric horror filmmaking from an interesting internet-focused filmmaker that is able to use his constraints to his advantage. Whilst not of the same quality as The Blair Witch Project, or the level of engagement culturally so far, Skinamarink is a more interesting and worthwhile horror experience than almost any found footage-style films in the genre.
Skinamarink is on Shudder now.
Best of 2022: Darcy’s Picks
With films returning to their native home of the theatre, 2022 delivered an interesting year of releases. Returning to some sort of cinema normalcy, even if the industry has been quite radically changed by Covid, the year has been full of quality films, including a large suite of self-reflexive stories from filmmakers old and new, to surprising and uber-entertaining box office hits, and the return to form for some incredible directors.
My 2022 list is surprisingly different to my most anticipated list from March, with Nope being on both lists, as my favourite works of the year came from unexpected places. This list includes two debut features (Hit the Road, Aftersun), a film from a filmmaker I’ve struggled with in the past (Armageddon Time), and a filmmaking blindspot I need immediately filled (Tár). While no five-star classics exist in this year of film, an impressive level of depth made this a difficult list to order and will no doubt change years from now. But for now, here is my list of the best films of 2022.
10. Hit the Road
A cheeky but politically and thematically resonant road trip dramedy of a young Iranian family attempting to smuggle their son out of the country to avoid military duty.
Panah Panahi, son of legendary filmmaker Jafar Panahi, is no stranger to the industry, but what he is still able to achieve on a debut feature is remarkable. Weaving in a deft political statement with a director well aware of where he is crafting his films, Hit the Road is elevated by a delightful and emotive family ensemble, centred by a lightning rod performance by Rayan Sarlak as the little brother.
9. Moonage Daydream
Filmmaker Brett Morgen, known for his wonderful 2015 documentary, Cobain: A Montage of Heck, declared this an experience about Bowie, not a biography of David Jones, and he truly delivered on this promise. Moonage Daydream (2022) is a deeply arresting piece of nonfiction cinema that operates as a mood piece that will be put up next to the very best in the genre.
The film weaponises its breathless propulsion in sly and interesting ways that sneaks up on you emotionally, much like Bowie’s very best work. It takes time to show its form to you, but once it does its effect is moving and profound. Morgen found something deeply relatable in his pursuit of capturing the figure of Bowie on film, unveiling a beautiful portrait of isolation for an artist that created community, showing us an image of the chameleonic legend that you won’t soon forget.
A master of humanist cinema, Hirokazo Kore-eda has crafted his most challenging makeshift family yet. Following a duo of child brokers of babies left at the local church’s baby box, Broker is complicated but deeply enriching in its portrayal of morality in the greyest of areas. Not of the same quality as Kore-eda’s Japan set masterpieces After Life (1999) and Shoplifters (2017), but is still one of the year’s best.
The film that grew on me the most this year. Peele has crafted a deeply engaging and entertaining riot of a sci-fi, Hollywood western that breezes through its first two acts to crescendo at a massive final act with a truly unique antagonist. While the film does lack in character work, its wielding of spectacle while also throwing those audience compulsions back in our faces is extraordinary, and is a brilliant use of the massive studio budget Peele is able to receive for these original stories.
6. Armageddon Time
Armageddon Time is emotionally devastating in ways that evolve beautifully over time, lingering long in the heart like a critical memory. What allows the emotion to thrive is the outstanding cast that could all individually contend come awards season. A gorgeous ensemble that introduced layers of nuance and understanding to each character over the runtime, highlighted by Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins.
5. Everything Everywhere All at Once
Floating along a constant stream of intertextuality, self-referentiality, and reverence to the films that paved the way to gift this film into audiences’ laps—The Matrix (1999), In The Mood for Love (2000), any Charlie Kaufman film—Everything Everywhere feels like a cinematic miracle that is at risk of breaking at any point.
Everything Everywhere is a technical marvel of small-budget filmmaking, from its mind-blowing costume and production design to its sound design and visual effects, but the real hero of the film is editor Paul Rogers. Rogers’ work here is nothing short of miraculous. Tasked with building a feverish momentum for over two hours while having each individual emotional moment land with as much impact as each comedic or absurdist one. Rogers moulds the filmmaking duo’s creative madness into a deeply resonant and enjoyable work, not just another overly ambitious indie that feels more like a creative dare than a work of art with deep truths. Don’t take for granted what an achievement this film is.
The debut feature of the year (in a uniquely stacked debutant class), Charlotte Wells’ memory drama of a young father bringing his 12-year-old daughter on a holiday to Turkey is so beautifully crafted, teeming with empathy and respect for the perspectives of both individuals’ experiences. Paul Mescal is enthralling in the year’s best performance as Calum, a tortured bird that must force himself to put up a front to protect his daughter. There are some ideas explored in Aftersun, like the fear of parents with mental illnesses handing it down somehow to their child, that will obliterate you. Wells wields a flexible script that is explored with care and restraint that is extraordinary for a first-time feature filmmaker, making her the director to watch in the next few years.
3. The Fabelmans
Spielberg’s whole heart is on the screen, warts and all. What makes The Fabelmans succeed is its lack of pure saccharine while still maintaining his signature warmth. The power of Spielberg’s clear-eyed and impassioned filmmaking, mixed with Kushner’s deft hand at profound characterisation, allows the audience to see themselves in every character. This is as much a film about Mitzi and Burt as it is about Sammy, with Kushner able to establish an extraordinary amount of emotional depth out of these personal stories for Spielberg whilst never feeling overly soft or cruel to their lives.
2. The Banshees of Inisherin
A densely compacted fable on friendship, breakups, art, passions, and how one chooses to spend a life, that is never less than wonderfully entertaining. A brilliant balancing act that consistently grounds itself in the earth of its characters, never allowing its more ethereal themes to float into wistful abstraction. McDonagh is at the top of his game both as a writer and director here, allowing the non-dialogue-heavy moments to shine as much as the musicality of his feckin’ barbs.
McDonagh has grown exponentially as a visual storyteller, allowing his sharp pen to relax and using the other aspects of cinema to communicate his themes and ideas in deeply rewarding ways.
In a year without a true five-star film, several films on this list could have made it to number one, and perhaps in a couple years this order will change, but as of posting, this film has a way of burrowing into my subconscious and bubbling up every other day. American films just aren’t like this anymore. A provocative thriller that has no easy answers that will have you enthralled over its long but rewarding 158-minute runtime.
Todd Field returns after a 16-year absence from the cinema with the year’s best film about a deeply flawed figure that’s warts are shown under a fierce precision, never allowing a scene to end with an easy answer. Tár is a tangled web of clashing ideas that have sparked some of the best film writing around an American film in who knows how long. Field has crafted a film of ideas that gives nothing to the audience easily, but rewards all who view this strange and entrancing object.
Tony Gilroy described the film as “hard and perfect on the outside. Mayhem brewing within. Masterwork.” These competing forces of interiority and external poise are the powerful tempest that builds throughout Tár, creating a singular viewing experience, and one of the year’s best films.
Honourable Mentions: After Yang, Barbarian, Crimes of the Future, Kimi, Top Gun:Maverick, RRR, The Northman, and Lingui
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is the Year’s Best Animation, and it isn’t Even Close
Breathing life into an intellectual property (IP) that has had countless iterations is no easy feat, yet Guillermo del Toro has done exactly that with his unique and heartfelt take on Disney’s iconic wooden boy, Pinocchio. In fact, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) —or just Pinocchio— might be the best entry in this fabled story, and it’s easily one of del Toro’s best.
Like the careful craftwork of Geppetto, the woodcarver that creates Pinocchio, del Toro masterfully creates a heartfelt story of grief and loss through the lens of a fascist-set Italy. Unlike the year’s other Pinocchio film which felt like a sanded-down, stringless remake of the celebrated original, this one is coated in all the gloss that epitomises del Toro’s career: otherworldly creatures, a looming air of gloominess, a darker palette, religious commentary and evocative imagery. It’s in the un-del Toro-ness of the visual component —stop motion animation— that all of those ingredients shine, and where the film separates itself from the director’s past films.
Pinocchio has some of the best stop motion work, period; unsurprising given that del Toro co-directed the film with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Animation Director, Mark Gustafson. The world has an air of freshness and almost appears like a series of dioramas that have been stuck together. The details of the world are sharp and striking, right from the spaces the characters inhibit like a church and foresty area earlier on, to the underworld and Monstro scenes in later stages. It’s an enticing vista that sucks you in the more the film unfolds, and it’s clear that animators were given ample time to carefully workshop the look and feel that del Toro was going for. When coupled with Alexandre Desplat’s spine-tingling score that is in the vein of his score for The Shape of Water (2017), there is an added layer of enchantment that emerges.
In terms of the story itself, it hits all of the key beats from Carlo Colldi’s original book —the circus scenes, the water monster Monstro in the later stages, etc.— but del Toro works around these moments to add his own flourishes and feel. Whether that be the aforementioned fascist leanings, where he explores the loss of innocence from children in the face of conscription and nationalism, right through to those underworld moments where he asks questions pertaining to mortality and the significance of life and death.
They’re heavy themes and leanings for a story that has always been depicted as light and fluffy, and has mainly covered ideas relating to growing up and fitting in. It helps that del Toro immediately jumps into a moment of anguish, as Geppetto (voiced with a gut wrenching croakiness by David Bradley) mourns the loss of his son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann who also voices the titular character), after a bomb is dropped on the town church by unsuspecting war planes above. This whole opening sequence that explores the prelude to Geppetto’s grief and prolonged mourning, establishes the sort of grimness that will persist.
It also introduces the running commentary on religion that has underpinned most of del Toro’s oeuvre from and since The Devil’s Backbone (2001). For instance, the destruction of the church and its subsequent rebuilding goes on to symbolise Geppetto’s own rebuilding of his son. This is especially true as Pinocchio (after he has been magically brought into being) assumes the role of Carlo by helping Geppetto build out a wooden Jesus in the church (the last task the father and son shared). He goes on to raise one of the film’s most significant lines relating to why everyone likes the wooden Jesus but not him. This undercuts the road to self-discovery that Pinocchio ultimately takes as he faces death and rebirth numerous times, before enacting a moment of selflessness in the film’s final act that would bring him as close to ‘being a real boy’ as he can come.
In order to get to that point though, he has to face various hurdles including a money-hungry circus ringmaster, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz); a fascist government official from the town, who is set on sending the puppet with immortality to war (del Toro’s frequent go-to, Ron Perlman); the prospect of living forever and seeing those around him die; and his own desire to experience the fullness of the world.
Along the journey he is also accompanied by the talking cricket Sebastian (formerly, Jiminy) voiced by a comforting Ewan McGregor who injects the film with some of the comedic relief (e.g. being squashed countless times, being interrupted just as he’s about to break-away into song). Tilda Swinton also has a subtle role as an angelic spirit of life that brings Pinocchio into the world, and she also plays the sphinx-looking, death alter-ego that meets him every time he dies. Each of these characters have a distinct look that is both familiar and different in the ethereal way that del Toro’s creatures tend to be.
While finding one’s purpose and identity comes with its challenges, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio helps the wooden puppet get there, and at the same time creates an experience with a unique identity of its own.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is in select cinemas and will be streaming on Netflix from December 9.
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.
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.
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+
Rating Frames Podcast Episode 2: 94th Oscars Recap
Arnie, Darcy and Tom discuss all the highs and lows from the 94th Academy Awards. From that controversial slap, to Dune’s technical awards sweep, right through to CODA’s Best Picture win, we have it all.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.