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.

Dune is a Movie Experience that Beckons to be Lived

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s widely beloved novel of the same name, Dune (2021), is a remarkable feat in blockbuster filmmaking that reaffirms why Villeneuve is one of the best working directors today. Villeneuve’s adaptation honours Herbert’s writing by matching it with visual splendour and creating an on-screen world that feels lived-in — something that hasn’t been felt on the big screen since the director’s last film, Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

There’s a reason why Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel had always been deemed unfilmable in the same way as J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like The Lord of the Rings, Dune is comprised of a level of detail that captures the minutia of the world it creates and the characters that occupy it; whether that be through numerous internal monologues, vivid imagery through carefully selected wording, or just the fact that the ‘hero’s journey’ isn’t approached in a way that would seek to validate the protagonist’s actions.

That protagonist is the Muad’Dib, Lisan al Gaib, Kwisatz Haderach, Messiah — Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). Mentioning all of the ways in which Paul is referred to in the book and film is important because it highlights just how nuanced of a character he is. Paul is many things to many different groups and people, be it the Bene Gesserit who are a sisterhood conditioned in superhuman ways; the Fremen who are the desert people of the planet Arrakis; and to those that know him across the story like Chani (Zendaya), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), to name a few.

When it comes to the plot, two houses (House Atreides and House Harkonnen) have been feuding with each other for ages. It isn’t until the Padishah Emperor requests that Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and the rest of House Atreides move to and oversee the desert planet of Arrakis (Dune), that tensions begin to further boil between the houses as deceit and betrayal ensues. On the planet is the galactic currency known as the spice (a melange like substance) that is the source for discontent, power, and wealth, and as mentioned in the novel, “he who controls the spice controls the universe”.

Timothee Chalamet in Dune

Alongside all of this is Paul who has a unique destiny that will change the lives of all of those around him. Paul is viewed as a messiah of sorts that has been bred and trained by the Bene Gesserit for the purpose of leading people into a better future, though at the expense of bringing about a potentially worse future known as the jihad (or ‘war’, as the film westernizes the term).

The story itself is a rather complex one, if not for Herbert’s aforementioned approach to writing the book, then for its emphasis on ideas pertaining to feudalism, mysticism, perennial truth, and a plethora of other nuanced ideas and leanings. Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villenueve do a good job of dissecting some of Herbert’s ideas for the screenplay, and adapting them for the screen through visual cues, motifs, and worldbuilding.

They take the heart of the story in Paul Atreides, and allow him to guide us through each given moment using visual storytelling and the affordances of the cinematic medium. In this way, for anyone that hasn’t picked up the novel, it’s relatively easy to follow the film and pick up on some of the concerns and ideas that penetrate Herbert’s telling through visual cues.

Villeneuve is a master of using visual storytelling to tell a complex story while leaving his own print on that story; It’s a large reason why Blade Runner 2049 worked so well and why Dune works just as well. The world he creates on-screen speaks for itself with its own visual language through setting, colour, visual effects, and cinematography. For instance, there is a scene involving the Sardaukar (the Padishah Emperor’s specially trained elite force) that captures the very essence of this force by using no dialogue. Rather, Villeneuve utilises framing, composition, visual effects and sound in a sequence that lasts barely a minute, but is able to depict the very ruthlessness of the Sardaukar in this short sequence. That’s just one of the many examples where Villeneuve shows and doesn’t tell — everything you need to know about this force is shown to you in this condensed form.

What Villeneuve isn’t able to do with Dune like with Blade Runner 2049, is give you a reason to care about the characters in this film. The first half of the film is paced incredibly quickly which is understandable given there is a lot of ground to cover in Herbert’s novel, however characters are what audiences latch onto for emotional support. The character of K (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049 was multifaceted for an android, and the scale of the film never overwhelmed that connection built with him.

Some might view Villeneuve’s treatment of character as one that is reflective of Herbert’s own reluctance to provide overly accessible characters, however films need that connection otherwise you’re relying on visual bravado to take you where you need to go (which it does, but that aspect is a shortcoming nonetheless). I’d make the case that Herbert’s own novel offers characters like Gurney Halleck, Duke Leto, and even Paul to an extent, for emotional support and for connection.

(From left to right) Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Timothee Chalamet

That said, as with any adaptation of a novel or novels as rich in detail as Dune, Villeneuve has to sacrifice key aspects of the novel in favour of an adaptation that is worthy of a 155minute feature. Certain characters like Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) become side-lined more than others where in the book they would play a much more pivotal role in understanding Paul and the motifs that underpin the film.

Some of those motifs include the significance of water on a planet where water is like its own currency. A film like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) did a stellar job in capturing the significance of water in a largely desolate desert setting where it is treated as a controlling tool. Villeneuve’s Dune has moments where its significance is brought to light, but it never fleshes that out in a way that would make an audience member (unless you had read the book) realise the significance of the still-suits that the characters wear, or the cannibalistic like re-purposing of a deceased persons water.

But at its core, Villeneuve’s Dune is a film that pushes what the medium can achieve at this scale and is a masterful cinematic experience that epitomizes blockbuster filmmaking. The score composed by Hans Zimmer is piercing and fitting, and makes for an enthralling soundscape (which one would hope it would be given how long he has been sitting on it for a modern Dune film); the visuals are breath-taking and unlike anything I have seen in a film before where the world feels like it exists or will exist (as though Villeneuve is his own messiah who has seen the state of the world in 10,000 years); and the cast is incredibly talented and exciting to watch (especially Stellan Skarsgard as The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in a role that echoes the muteness of his character in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).

For those that haven’t read the books and even those that have, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune part 1 is a breath-taking feat in filmmaking that deserves to be seen. It’s a film that places emphasis on worldbuilding and scale at the expense of some characterisation, but it is an experience that is unlike any you will have this year. It would have been great to have had a trilogy greenlit in order to explore the complexities of Herbert’s novel in greater detail, however the fact that there will be a sequel at all is a win for fans of the book, Villeneuve, and cinema.

Dune is now streaming on HBO Max until the 22nd of November and in Australian cinemas next month

Coupon Comedy Film Queenpins is all but Funny

Rating: 2 out of 5.

With Paramount + starting to kick into second gear with more content being released, it seemed fitting to check out the streaming providers latest original title, Queenpins (2021).

As its name suggests, in a rather unsubtle manner, the film is a take on the kingpin story that has been tried and dried since cinemas inception. To elaborate, there’s an idea that hits the protagonist, which ultimately leads to an illegal business involving money laundering, and then a culmination of a series of events that either see the protagonist get away with their dirty work or end up caught.

That ‘idea’ is what the film leans on for support and uses to try and differentiate itself from more serious films in the sub-genre. Connie Kaminski (played by the ever delightful Kristen Bell) finds a loophole in the supermarket coupon system where, after having complained to companies via email over the quality of their products, she is sent coupons to obtain those items for free. It isn’t until her YouTube-wannabe-star friend JoJo (played by Bell’s The Good Place co-star, Kirby Howell-Baptiste) suggests the potential to resell these coupons for half price, that Connie sees the potential to make some dough.

This is what directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly use to try and incorporate the more comical side of the film whilst also retaining a level of seriousness of the real life events that inspired the film. For the most part, the concept of the film is actually quite comical in and of itself. Evidently, Bell’s presence brings a level of warmth to this character that works alongside the premise of the film to make her not fall into the standard anti-hero of kingpin criminal films.

Connie’s backstory also helps to bring a level of sympathy to her character as she struggles financially due to undergoing expensive IVF treatments with her husband Rick (an incredibly underutilized Joel McHale). Subsequently, while her actions of counterfeiting coupons never really becomes something that sends fear down her spine should she be caught (particularly due to the naivety shown during the laundering process), it does give a more playful version of events.  

Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn in Queenpins

Joining Bell and Howell-Baptiste in this very buddy-up style comedy is Paul Walter Hauser and the quintessential serious-funny-guy type in Vince Vaughn. Hauser plays Ken Miller, a supermarket Loss Prevention Officer, while Vaughn plays Simon Kilmurry, a U.S Postal Inspector. Ken and Simon are the other side of the coupon counterfeiting coin as the FBI effectively demotes the issue as unimportant, and it is up to the two of them to crack the coupon case.

When spending time with Ken and Simon, the film leans into that buddy-cop type telling where the humour lies. Most of this humour comes from the very fact that the duo aren’t FBI agents, they’re serious about a coupon crime, and they have small gags that are aimed at drawing a laugh (Ken defecates in the car while out scouting Connie and JoJo with Simon). Most of these gags will either bring about a laugh or two, or simply just fall flat seeing as they just spontaneously pop up seemingly for the sake of a cheap laugh (a sign that the humour just isn’t great).

It’s easy to see that pairing the female leads together and the male leads together gives the film a lot more to work with as the actors play off of each other quite nicely when we do spend time with them. The problem with this duality is that we end up with two perspectives that seem to play out as two separate films. In essence, both the Bell/Howell-Baptiste and Vaughn/Hauser dynamic would really have worked better had they been two separate versions of this story or had we spent more time with Bell and Howell-Baptiste.

At the end though, the film banks on those back and forths between the female and male pairings. The actual coupon issue doesn’t carry enough weight behind it and just simply never feels like it raises the stakes due to how measured and composed Bell and JoJo are, even when they’ve been caught (an issue on the part of characterisation that is lacking). When all is said and done, Queenpins is a light-hearted but hardly humorous two hours.

Queenpins is now streaming on Paramount +

Black Cinema Gains a New Voice Via the Summer of Soul

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

African-American directors have long used their powerful voice to admonish racism and injustice – think John Singleton, Ava DuVarney, Jordan Peele and of course, Spike Lee with his signature Joints. Newly ranking among this cohort is Ahmir Thompson, utilising long-lost footage of a monumental event to concoct a narrative of equal distinction.

In 1969, amidst a Climate of Hate in the United States, the New York neighbourhood of Harlem played host to a series of outdoor concerts, featuring musicians both prominent and rising, locally famed and internationally recognised. The free events, promoted as the Harlem Cultural Festival, took place over successive weekends during the Summer, their family-friendly façade masking an ulterior intention – as interviewee Darryl Lewis bluntly puts it, “to keep Black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

Despite being attended by as many as 300,000 people, and earning the public support of New York City’s white, Republican Mayor, John Lindsay, press coverage of the Festival was limited, and a proposed film documenting the performances was shelved after failing to garner an investor. Multiple reels of video and audio that had been recorded for a documentary instead lay dormant in storage, unseen by the public eye for over five decades – hence this picture’s, full title, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021).

Director Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, is best known for his work in the realm of music, and that melodic expertise is more than apparent in his selection of performances that are showcased within the feature. Highlights include a young Stevie Wonder’s masterful playing of the drums and keyboards; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ powerful duet of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; Ray Barretto on bongos trading fours with his double bassist; Sonny Sharrock wildly shredding on the electric guitar; Nina Simone’s eloquent prose in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”; and Sly and the Family Stone’s call-and-response with the Harlem crowd.

Just about every performance that’s seen in Summer of Soul is reminisced about through present-day interviews with Festival attendees, social commentators, the musicians themselves, and a handful of celebrities with the most tenuous of links to the Festival – comedian Chris Rock being such an example. Most of the input these subjects provide amounts to little more than soundbites, but their statements are nonetheless insightful, and the fondness with which they recollect events appears earnest and genuine.

Stevie Wonder performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in Summer of Soul

Not content with directing a concert film, Thompson also shapes Summer of Soul as a historical document of the African-American experience. Each performance is seceded by a brief interlude that explains, through archival footage and clips from the abovementioned interviews, the happenings in Harlem, the United States and the world that led to the Cultural Festival, demonstrating its place in a broader cultural movement of “Neo-Super Blackness” (as interviewee Greg Tate aptly describes it) and how it assisted in propelling it.

Some viewers might be baffled at this suggestion, given the lack of prominence afforded to the concerts until now. Summer of Soul hypothesises that an overshadowing of the Festival by two other events is the cause of that, said events being the Moon Landing in July of the same year, and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which took place the very same weekend that Nina Simone and B.B. King performed in Mount Morris Park. (In a delicious case of irony, the film treats both of these cultural touchstones with indifference.)

One gripe, admittedly minor, to be had with Summer of Soul is the varying quality of the concert footage. Video and audio of the event has been digitally restored from the original tapes, most of which looks and sounds pretty crisp; yet there are occasions when markings and damage to the recordings are rather visible, detracting from the experience. What’s needed is some further enhancement, or cleaning of the original imagery in order to truly, fully do the Harlem Cultural Festival justice.

Ahmir Thompson’s directorial debut is more than the recreation of a significant moment in history – it’s a stirring celebration of Black culture with a central message that’s just as relevant today. Possessing a voice that’s as loud and proud as the singers featured within, Summer of Soul is a documentary that ought to be seen and heard by all.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now streaming on Disney+.

The Guilty is a Stripped Back but Lacking Drama

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

Jake Gyllenhaal consumes every inch of the frame in The Guilty

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

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

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

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

The Guilty is streaming on Netflix now.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinite: Reincarnation has Never Looked so Boring

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

With film studio Paramount having launched its streaming service Paramount +, it seemed fitting to watch its first drawcard feature Infinite (2021) starring the ever bankable Mark Wahlberg. This comes some months after Amazon Prime’s recent sci-fi thriller The Tomorrow War (2021), starring an equably bankable Chris Pratt in the lead role. While The Tomorrow War had a relatively tolerable premise, Infinite is an insufferable mess that proves studios are willing to throw their money at just about anything as long as Wahlberg is in it.

To say that Mark Wahlberg is the problem would be an oversight. His performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) is as iconic today as it was over 20 years ago, and he seems to have found a resonance with Michael Bay — having shone in Pain and Gain (2013) and the last of Bay’s two Transformers films. However, Infinite reduces Wahlberg’s often fast-talking and physical performance to a dreary and tedious display that can only be summed up by Wahlberg’s own confused facial expressions as events of the film unfold.

Antoine Fuqua is known for his action packed films like Training Day (2001), The Equalizer (2014) and frequent collaborations with the likes of Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar for Training Day), Jake Gyllenhaal, and now Mark Wahlberg (both of whom he has worked with twice). However, Infinite represents a departure from a simple action premise to something more akin to Doug Liman’s dreadful action sci-fi, Jumper (2008). It is adapted from D. Erik Maikranz’s 2009 novel The Reincarnationist Papers (which is, by all accounts, equally underwhelming).

Infinite is essentially about a small group of people known as the infinites who are pretty much reincarnated after they die, in the sense that they can eventually remember their past lives and skills obtained in those lives. Evan McCauley (Mark Wahlberg), who is known to the other reincarnated as Heinrich Treadway (one of his past reincarnation names), lives most of his new life never really knowing he is one of the reincarnated and is instead diagnosed as a schizophrenic. What Evan doesn’t know is that somewhere in his memories lies the location of an object known as the egg, which the infinites are trying to find before Ted (Chiwetel Ejiofor), another infinite who goes by the name of Bathurst, finds it.

Mark Wahlberg in Infinite

Fuqua essentially orients his film around this plot device and creates a goose chase for his characters in the process. This plot device is desired by Bathurst who wants to harness it to destroy the world so that there is nothing left to reincarnate to — effectively rendering the reincarnation process as finished. The problem with the film is that it relies too much on this specific object as a catalyst for creating cause and effect, and this leaves the events of the film lacking substance.

Mark Wahlberg looks confused and bored for most of the film, with his real flair coming during the action set pieces, which themselves amount to nothing as they are too few and far. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character is also incredibly underwritten and exists purely for the sake of being an antagonist — he delivers some lines about his purpose, kills off some equally underwritten characters, and is waterboarded with gasoline for some reason. In essence, both the protagonist and antagonist are uninspired, especially when compared to The Tomorrow War’s protagonist and alien entity which are miles better for an action sci-fi.

Perhaps Antoine Fuqua should have found a way to incorporate another 40minutes for greater clarity (seeing as Paramount already seemed set on going all in on this) or perhaps he should have focused on releasing one feature this year instead of two, seeing as The Guilty (2021) arrives later this year. Regardless, Infinite is a forgettable viewing experience and is a reminder that Michael Bay is still the only director to get the best out of Wahlberg in the last 20 years. Lets hope Paramount can bring its lacking streaming service some content worth audiences time and money.

Infinite is now streaming on Paramount +

Wolfwalkers Exemplifies The Might of Irish Cinema

Animated films have long regaled viewers with their retellings of folk and fantasy legends, a tradition that extends back to the medium’s dawn, and continues here in this feature-length production from Ireland. But this film is not here merely to capitalise on a time-honoured trend – in fact, it’s more likely to establish a new standard for the artform.

In the mid-17th Century, a young girl named Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) moves from England to Kilkenny, Ireland, where her father Bill (Sean Bean) has been tasked with capturing the wolves that prey on the townsfolk. Robin is adventurous by nature, and longs to accompany her father on his wolf-hunting duties; but unfortunately, she is forbidden from venturing beyond Kilkenny’s walls, due to her age and gender.

Robin eventually sneaks through the town’s gates and into the nearby forest, hoping to find and kill a wolf herself. Instead, she encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), an unkempt girl of smaller stature who calls herself a Wolfwalker – the name given to a mystical human who lives among the wolves. After an acrimonious greeting, a friendship between the two girls soon develops, and Robin’s perception of wolves with it.

It’s no coincidence that Wolfwalkers is based in Ireland, since the feature is one produced by Cartoon Saloon, a studio based where the film is set: Kilkenny. Just like the studio’s previous releases, The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Song of the Sea (2014), there’s a strong Celtic influence to this production, as evidenced by the voice-cast, soundtrack and screenplay – the latter of which draws its inspiration from an Irish folk tale.

Despite its mythological origins and Cromwellian setting, Wolfwalkers contains a fresh, contemporary story that grows more compelling with each minute that passes. The writing is masterful, with the film seamlessly, gracefully morphing from one conflict to another, the stakes heightening as it does so. If there is one complaint with the screenplay, it’s that the conflict between Robin and her father does come across as hackneyed at times, though never to the extent of annoyance.

Robin (left) and Mebh, the central protagonists of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers

By far the most appealing element of Wolfwalkers is the distinctive art-style, ensuring it looks unlike any other animated feature – including those previously made by Cartoon Saloon. There’s a storybook-like simplicity to the hand-drawn illustrations, witnessed in both the characters and scenery, that charms profoundly, with the best images undoubtedly found in the forest scenes, their gorgeous watercolour backdrops contrasting heavily with the bleak, yet nonetheless striking, greyscale palette of Kilkenny.

Paired with the animation is an equally wonderful soundtrack, composed by Bruno Coulais with the assistance of Kíla, a traditional Irish folk band. The compositions of Coulais and Kíla make use of acoustic instruments such as fiddles, mandolas and tin whistles, sounding quite ethereal when listened to in isolation, yet suiting the tone and imagery of Wolfwalkers perfectly. There’s even the odd pop song to be heard, including a beautiful re-recording of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”.

Yet another aural delight is the cast of voice-actors, most of whom are of Irish nationality or descent. The most famous name, and recognisable voice, to the layperson will be Sean Bean, whose mellow, fatherly tone is perfectly suited to Bill Goodfellowe; Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey are good also as the two girls, but to this author’s ear, the finest vocal performer is Simon McBurney, who provides an understated, menacing turn as Kilkenny’s Lord Protector.

Wolfwalkers is simply exquisite, with great voice-acting, stirring music, magnificent artwork and an elegant narrative combining to form a wondrous experience. Very few feature-length animations come close to this level of quality, making this not only a great film but also, quite possible, the best ever to emerge from Ireland.

Wolfwalkers will be screening online as part of the Irish Film Festival from September 3rd to 12th. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

The film is also available for streaming now on Apple TV+.

Australia’s Irish Film Festival Goes Virtual For 2021

The Republic of Ireland typically isn’t a country associated with cinema – aside from Alan Parker’s The Commitments or the works of John Carney, it’s difficult to think of a film that hails from the land of St. Patrick. Yet in recent years, the Republic’s output of productions has grown exponentially, priming themselves as a key player in the industry.

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the line-up for the annual Irish Film Festival, set to begin this week. Years past have seen the event grace theatres in Sydney and Melbourne; but with both cities currently subject to lockdowns, the Festival will heading online in 2021, allowing cinephiles across Australia to see the very best movies that Ireland has to offer.

Headlining the virtual festival is the Academy Award-nominated Wolfwalkers, a feature-length animation from Cartoon Saloon – the studio behind critically-acclaimed films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Breadwinner (2017). Having already been screened overseas, the picture currently has a near-perfect 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it among the highest-rated movies on the site. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because Wolfwalkers has been an exclusive title on Apple TV+ for some months now, making this is a rare opportunity to view the feature outside of its usual confines.

A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, featuring protagonist Robin and her wolf spirit

Wolfwalkers is something of an outlier at the festival, since most of the films being shown are low-budget features making their Australian debut. The most intriguing of these debuts is Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, which sees a missing woman return to Northern Ireland and reunite with her sister, hinting at a Dragon Tattoo-esque storyline. Similar themes permeate the crime thriller Broken Law, a narrative about two brothers – one a cop, the other an ex-crim – trying to escape their past.

Those looking for a more humorous proposition may enjoy The Bright Side, focusing on a stand-up comedienne who tackles her cancer diagnosis with plenty of dry wit; or the Festival’s other dark comedy offering, Deadly Cuts, telling of a group of hair-stylists who dare to challenge the gangs of Dublin. The two other comedies playing at the Festival are Boys From County Hell, an Irish take on Shaun of the Dead, and A Bump Along the Way, following a middle-aged woman who falls pregnant after a one-night-stand.

For the musically inclined, there’s three music documentaries to whet the palette, including one filmed here in Australia: Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour, charting the subject’s journey from domestic violence victim to renowned folk singer. Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away documents the largely-unknown life of Thin Lizzy’s front-man and Ireland’s greatest rock star, while Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan looks at the pioneer of Celtic punk.

Phil Lynott, the lead singer of Irish rock band Thin Lizzy and subject of Phil Lynott: Songs For When I’m Away

The musical theme continues with the Gabriel Byrne-led Death of a Ladies’ Man, a dramedy inspired by, and paired to, the songs of Leonard Cohen. And for lovers of all things sports, there’s a documentary examining the psyche of Jack Charlton, an enigmatic soccer player from England who became coach of Ireland’s national team, aptly titled Finding Jack Charlton.

Although the selection of twelve films is meagre when compared to its contemporaries, this year’s Irish Film Festival is definitely not short on quality – if this is just a taste of what Ireland has to offer, there’s every chance of the nation becoming a cinematic powerhouse in just a few short years. And while nothing beats the theatrical experience, being able to watch each of these films from your couch, at your own convenience, comes a pretty close second. In short, this Festival is definitely worth checking out.

The Irish Film Festival begins this Friday, September 3rd. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

A Beginner’s Guide to Evangelion, The Monolithic Anime Franchise

This week heralds a momentous event: the worldwide debut of Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, the definitive conclusion to Hideaki Anno’s anime franchise, on Prime Video. Why is it momentous? Well, because the Evangelion series is widely celebrated for reinvigorating and redefining the Japanese animation industry, with its production values, narratives, religious allegories, and musings on humanity all being of exceptional quality. These attributes have resulted in Evangelion amassing a legion of fans across the globe, and hence, a great deal of anticipation for the feature-length finale.

For those who are unfamiliar with Evangelion, and wanting to see the new film without being mystified, Rating Frames has provided this handy recap of the entire series, from its televisual origins right up until the third instalment of the cinematic reboot. This article will contain spoilers, so those wanting their viewing experience of the other Evangelion media to be unsullied are best advised to look away now.

The TV Series

In the beginning, there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode series that debuted on October 4th, 1995 in its native Japan. Its story takes place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that is under attack from large, omnipotent monsters referred to as “Angels” throughout the series. Defending against these threats is a well-financed, transnational militant outfit known as NERV, which has developed giant mechanical weapons capable of defeating the Angels. There’s a catch though – the machines can only be operated by a teenage pilot who is linked to the interface.

The programme largely centres around Shinji Ikari, the pilot of EVA Unit-01, whose father Gendo is the director of NERV’s operations. Shinji fights the Angels alongside the “First Pilot”, Rei Ayanami, and the two are later joined by the feisty Asuka Langley Soryu, who pilots EVA Unit-02. When not defending the world against an Angel attack, Shinji lives in Tokyo-3 under the guardianship of Misato Katsuragi – who is also his superior at NERV – and attends school, there struggling to connect with his fellow students.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was created and overseen by Hideaki Anno, who drew inspiration from the mecha anime of his youth, as well as his own experiences with depression. The latter is what better informs the narrative, being an examination of loneliness, mortality, purpose, and the burden of expectation. Though fleeting in comparison to these philosophical discussions, the giant robot fights are quite exhilarating too, being among the best that the industry has ever produced.

There are some inherent weaknesses with the series, including the concealed motivations of the characters, slow pacing, and the sexualisation of the female characters; yet the harshest judgements are often reserved for the final two episodes, which some viewers deemed too vague and allegorical for their tastes. Nevertheless, the programme remains a standard-bearer for the medium and, alongside Pokémon and Cowboy Bebop, is broadly regarded for popularising anime in the West.

Death, Rebirth & The End

After the mixed reception to the final episodes of Neon Genesis, Anno set to work on a feature-length production that would serve as a comparatively straightforward conclusion. The narrative would eventually be released in two parts, the first of which, Evangelion: Death & Rebirth premiered in March 1997. Much of the film was little more than a clip-show summarising the key moments of the TV series, with the exciting, all-new material saved for the last half-hour – which itself was essentially an extended teaser for the second movie.

Said movie was ultimately released three months later as The End of Evangelion, a retelling of Episodes 25 and 26 of the show. This picture serves as a grand culmination of everything hinted at in the TV series, directly and explicitly revealing what happens to the characters through the most haunting, harrowing and enduring imagery ever witnessed. What’s more, in a continuation of the series’ tone, the film also offers complex, existential discussions about what it means to live meaningfully.

Quite ironically, Evangelion fans who loathed the series finale found themselves even more displeased by End of Evangelion, taking aim at the depressing plot and ambiguous epilogue. Some circles have gone further in their criticisms to suggest that the movie is Anno’s way of trolling his audience, pointing to not only the screenplay, but also the credits rolling mid-film, and an extended live-action sequence that includes a crane shot of a bored crowd in a cinema.

Yet for every detractor, there is just as much fervent support for End of Evangelion – it’s often cited as one of the best anime films of all-time and one of the greatest animated films generally, thus cementing the franchise’s legacy. Its creator was lauded too as a visionary and innovator of the artform; but Anno, ever the perfectionist, was unsatisfied with his work and soon began development on another feature-length instalment.

You Can (Not) Rebuild

A decade after The End of Evangelion came the first in a series of films known as the Rebuild of Evangelion, ostensibly starting the franchise afresh and introducing it to a new generation. Titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, the picture is a virtual rehash of the TV series’ first six episodes, with only the slightest of changes to the music and plot. The visuals are the most noticeable difference, with large objects such as the EVA Units and Angels being computer-generated animations, while the hand-drawn characters, surroundings and backgrounds are all richer in colour.

Next came 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, going in the opposite direction and deviating wildly from the source material by gifting fan-favourite Asuka with a new introduction, different surname and fresh character arc. The ending of the film is a wilder change still, retconning the series’ timeline by seeing Shinji inadvertently trigger a second apocalypse in a desperate attempt to save Rei’s life – a conclusion that is heart-wrenching on multiple levels. Less appealing is the character of Mari, a newly-introduced, hyper-sexualised EVA pilot whose sole function is Fan Service.

Following the highs of the second Rebuild film was the relatively sedate 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, taking place 14 years after the prior movie’s events. Shinji awakes – having been placed in a coma since the “Third Impact” – to find himself in the custody of WILLE, a ragtag command of defectors from NERV and other freedom-fighters. It’s a slow and rather obscure narrative, one that will surely test the patience of even the most ardent Evangelion devotee; in all other respects though, the picture is satisfying, containing the same exquisite illustrations and music as its predecessors.

And now comes the fourth and final instalment of the Rebuild saga after quite a lengthy delay, arriving five months after its Japanese premiere and eight years after the previous movie’s theatrical run. The response in Evangelion’s homeland has been largely positive, with Thrice Upon a Time breaking box-office records – despite the pandemic’s ongoing presence in the country – and critics lavishing praise upon the film, but whether that success will be repeated internationally remains to be seen.

In any case, all of this will hopefully provide some context as to why a film about giant fighting robots is one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of 2021.

Availability

A freshly-dubbed version of the original television series is available for streaming globally via Netflix, which also has the rights to The End of Evangelion and an abbreviated version of Death & Rebirth, titled Death(True)2.

All of the Rebuild films, including Thrice Upon a Time, will be available worldwide on Prime Video from this Friday, August 13th.