MIFF 22: Darcy’s Notebook

With another great year completed at Melbourne’s International Film Festival, our writers have come out the other end bleary-eyed and brimming with excitement. MIFF 20222 was an impressively consistent festival with new releases from a combination of old masters and emerging talents, both internationally and locally.

Here, our writer Darcy has dropped his notebook full of notes and thoughts on the many films he was able to catch at the festival, all of which should hopefully be brought to larger audiences throughout the rest of the year.

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells) 2022:

A gorgeous film about age, parenthood, and mental health that has such a warm and caring heart, it allows its heavy moments and ideas to linger with the audience.

Aftersun is a debut so assured, so confidently written and directed by Charlotte Wells you will be scrambling to discover her short film work. The film is an achingly intimate portrait of a young father on holiday with his 11-year-old daughter, played touchingly by Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio.

It will be hard to find a more affecting film this year, one so beautifully written you can’t help but see yourself in both characters. I both dread and can’t wait to return to the glow of Aftersun.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Broker (Hirokazu Koreeda) 2022:

In contention for best film of the festival, Broker is a deeply complicated but always empathetic drama from a true modern master. Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have a certain sticky quality, maturing in your mind long after the credits roll. His films will always affect you emotionally, but their true power is the depths he is able to mine from a collection of characters.

Broker, leaning into the more Korean style of cinema, is more forceful and plot-driven in its storytelling than Koreeda’s other films, but is more successful than his previous non-Japanese film, The Truth (2019).

The film is quite astonishing and deeply felt, with perhaps the only false note being its loud, heavy-handed moments. These moments are further leaned on by quite an obtrusive and manipulative score by Jung Jae-il, especially by Koreeda standards, who usually allows emotions to develop more naturally in his films.

Thank you for being born. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Decision to Leave (Park Chan-Wook) 2022:

A deeply sensual romance under the guise of a quirky police mystery. Park Chan-Wook has always had a keen understanding of his audiences, usually to an extreme effect like in Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016). 

The film requires a rewatch as the pieces all work individually but I’m unsure as to their cohesion as the film rounds out into a melodrama. The two lead performances are complicated and layered with conflict, making the film engaging but hard to latch onto as a whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Dual (Riley Stearns) 2022:

Dual (2022) is a vacuum-sealed dry comedy that owes a lot to Yorgos Lanthimos. Riley Stearns’ idiosyncratic comedic style burst onto the scene with the deeply funny film The Art of Self-Defense (2019), thanks in large part to the terrific performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola. Like Lanthimos, it is clear actors get a certain excitement from working with his dialogue, but not all are suitable for it. It’s unclear if Dual’s lead Karen Gillan or its uber-dry dialogue lets down this film in contrast to his previous work, but it is certain to be missing a key element.

That being said, Dual is still deeply funny in places, in particular the doctor’s visits which feel the most inappropriately appropriate locale for Stearns’ dialogue. What is largely absent in the dialogue and writing as a whole, however, is any semblance of humanity and life. With this style of upfront, dry comedy writing, you lose the ability to play between the lines, as everything is pitched straight down the middle to the viewer.

Stearns has achieved success through his idiosyncratic writing style, a mountaintop many writers never reach. Now it’s time for him to seek to expand on it, engaging with his audiences more emotionally, something which would make for a pretty special film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford) 2022:

A solid crime drama with a pointed look at the economic lives of millennials, anchored by a truly great dramatic performance by Aubrey Plaza. Emily the Criminal (2022) works wonderfully as a cascading waterfall of small, utterly reasonable decisions until they come crashing down in its final act.

The film is a great debut by John Patton Ford that is certain to spark hopefully a long and interesting career. Ford’s script is the film’s highlight, especially in its ability to connect the criminal world of the film with the economic reality too many millennials find themselves trapped within.

Even though some of the decisions made in its final act undercut a lot of the messaging and themes, it is still wildly entertaining and painfully relatable, making it a deeply worthwhile watch.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Fire of Love (Sara Dosa) 2022:

A charming, playful documentary about French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft. Their work is highly specific but their passion is relatable and life-affirming. The film is a wonderful companion piece to the Jacques Cousteau documentary, Becoming Cousteau (2021), a clear inspiration to the Krafft’s, even down to the iconic red beanie.

The voiceover by filmmaker Miranda July is sweet and feels deeply entwined with the style of Sara Dosa’s documentary, allowing the film to work both emotionally and narratively.

A truly affecting moment was the shift from watching the couple evolve their focus from a totally self-absorbed drive for witnessing and studying volcanoes, to using their knowledge and relentless drive to protect the people living near dangerous volcanoes.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (Dean Fleischer-Camp) 2021:

A joyful, all-ages film that was a perfect note of contrast to the festival’s more dramatic highlights, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021) will win over even the more serious audiences. Based on a viral video series that is cleverly woven into the feature film’s narrative, Marcel follows an anthropomorphic shell named Marcel and an amateur documentarian (Fleischer-Camp), who has discovered the shell while staying at an Airbnb.

The film somehow never tips over into pure saccharin which is impressive given its story, which is a credit to the writing and the performances of Jenny Slate and Fleischer-Camp. It’s impossible to not get swept up in Marcel’s journey to find his family, but you may be surprised by how affected you will be by its simple story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Meet Me in the Bathroom (Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern) 2022:

Based on Lizzie Goodman’s totemic book of the same name, Meet Me in the Bathroom tracks the rise of the 2000s New York rock movement after many years in the wilderness, told through the words and lives of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and many other important figures.

A deeply complicated time period to capture as a documentary, with the looming figure of 9/11 across so much of the music that came from the scene. It’s impossible for this sobering moment to not emanate outward into the rest of the film, even when we are witnessing rock stars being born.

It’s of course going to feel sparse in comparison to the 800-page oral history time that is Lizzie Goodman’s book, but it could’ve felt more focused. The approach is scattershot and without a propulsive narrative, something that is commonly absent in most documentaries but is what separates the true greats.

Lovelace and Southern’s great achievement is in the LCD Soundsystem’s Last Waltz-esque, one-last show documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), a monument to the power of access in nonfiction filmmaking. The film also indulges in copious amounts of self-mythologising (something they allow James Murphy to do again here) but is vindicated at the conclusion of the film as we become a Murphy disciple inside a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgen) 2022:

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 will sneak 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.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman & Saul Williams) 2021:

Recipient of the MIFF Bright Horizons award, Neptune Frost (2021) is a gorgeously experimental afro-futurist musical that is never short on ideas.

The heart of the story is of revolution, with a character going through their own personal revolution sparking a larger revolution in others through their connection to both land and technology. Too often technology-focused sci-fi is based on fear, not on what is possible through it. There is beauty in Uzeyman and William’s use of technology that makes the film instantly unique and fascinating. 

Feels close to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, focusing on a spiritual journey over a traditional narrative. This style is in stark contrast to the musical moments of the film, which play out as wondrous set pieces that create contemplative valleys afterwards. This wildly inventive approach to the film works more often than it doesn’t, toeing a nearly impossible line with confidence and style. 

You will not find another film like Neptune Frost, with the thematic density of the best science fiction stories, surrounded by wildly inventive musical set pieces that will be burned into your mind.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Ostlund) 2022:

Triangle of Sadness (2022) is so arch you fear it will snap in half. Outrageous and offbeat with some truly theatre-rupturing moments, with the climactic dinner scene feeling closer to a disaster movie than the dinner sequence in The Square (2017). Unfortunately, the film is terribly bloated. This wouldn’t be as big an issue if Ostlund had put any humanity into his film. This cheapens any impact of the outrageous moments, as well as the satirical ones. 

The middle chapter is the highlight of the film, which will answer the question, “What if a Jackass skit was shot well enough to win a Palme d’Or?” 

What usually holds Ostlund’s wild scripts together is the tremendous performances of its main cast (Claes Bang in The Square, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Kuhnke in Force Majeure), which feels absent in Triangle of Sadness. His scripts are difficult to instil emotion and humanity into, but Bang, Kongsli and Kuhnke have in the past been able to achieve it, leading to those films’ great success.

Ostlund was definitely striving for a social satire in the vein of the legendary Luis Buñuel (1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) but instead felt closer to Adam McKay. The ideas of this satire are quite murky and messy, but rarely in an endearing or interesting way. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot) 2021:

The surprise hit of the festival so far, Saloum (2021) is a film destined for cult status. A kinetic western-horror genre mashup that leaves you wanting so much more, something I pray Shudder also realises.

The story follows three mercenaries, transporting a Mexican cartel member across Africa whose plane runs out of gas over Senegal and must stay at a local village. The film is full of unique characters and is told with such style and a deft hand you won’t even notice the more fantastical moments until Herbulot wants you to focus on them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Return to Seoul (Davy Chou) 2022:

A unique mix of Korean and French cinema styles allow Return to Seoul (2022) to always feel fresh and new.

The story focuses on French-Korean 20-something Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a complicated and compelling character that elicits empathy and frustration in equal measure. She has returned to Seoul to find her birth parents, having been adopted by a french couple as a baby. Freddie has seemingly taken this trip on a whim, and as the film continues her self-destructive tendencies that seem at first like a quirk in her character, quickly form a heartbreakingly predictable pattern.

The film loses its momentum and the audience as it transitions into short, time-jumping vignettes in its final third. Not that each individual scene isn’t compelling and breathes new life into Freddie’s story, but the decision comes so late in the film’s runtime that it catches the viewer off guard, and not for greater results. The important connective tissue in this final act is unfortunately thin and leaves you mixed on a film that was rather special up until this point.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller) 2022:

A real ‘one for me’ film for George Miller, Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) is sure to divide audiences in ways only he can. Sandwiched between working on large-budget Mad Max franchise films, the famed Australian director has crafted a visually stunning, narratively dawdling feature that will charm and beguile audiences.

Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s collection of short stories, an important context to give the film as Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore have decided to give the film a similar structure. Leaping between casual conversations shared by narratologist Alithea (the ever off-kilter but charming Tilda Swinton) and Idris Elba’s djinn, shared in an Istanbul hotel room, and the djinn’s story of how he came to be beholden to her.

The film works in its visually dense production design which is Miller’s cinematic superpower, but never really excels in its more meandering storytelling approach. It does, however, feel like exactly the sort of film that will excel several years down the road as we live longer in these stories, constantly revisiting the couple in Istanbul for just one more story.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Sweet As (Jub Clerc) 2022:

A charming, coming-of-age teen drama that feels beautifully lived in and tinged with autobiographical detail. Sweet As (2022) feels both deeply Australian but also universal, something that could allow it to really break through overseas which is incredibly exciting.

The film is gorgeously shot by the terrific Australian cinematographer Katie Milwright, allowing the natural contrast between the mining town to billow out through the Kimberley region that could easily moonlight as a travel ad for the Northern Territory.

There are rough edges around Sweet As, as most debuts do, but the emotional maturity of Clerc is what shines through in every scene. She has a keen sense and care for her characters that make it impossible not to fall in love with them.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Something in the Dirt (Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson) 2022:

There’s nothing like a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi on a late night at a film festival, especially by a couple of cult film legends in Moorhead & Benson. 

Something in the Dirt (2022) operates as a mock documentary, something that may feel like a tired narrative framing for a low-budget indie, but the directing pair makes the film seem boundless.

There is a certain awe that comes when a film feels like it could’ve come straight out of film school, but with all of the confidence of a veteran.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hit the Road is a Road Trip Worth Savouring 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Road trip comedies have always been an effective vehicle for cinema, especially for low-budget indie filmmaking. Forcing a collection of people, whether it be friends, family, or strangers, into a contained space for long stretches of time allows comedy and drama to play out in unique ways, assuming the dialogue is airtight. 

A gorgeously written, confident, and assured debut by the son of famed Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, Hit the Road (2021), wipes away any thought of nepotism in its opening frames. The film feels deeply personal to the story of the Panahi family but is never weighed down by their history. This is due to the film being a comedy-focused film used to buoy not just the scenes, but also the characters who are using humour to hold the serious nature of their trip at bay.

What stands out immediately with the film is the beautifully realistic direction of a family, all with specific, nuanced dynamics that play out in an always engrossing comic drama. Panahi mines the relationships between all four characters to their emotional core with impressive brevity. So many debuts suffer from over-explaining plots or character motives that bog down strong scripts, something Panahi has seemingly mastered already.

Hit the Road operates with such economical storytelling through its extraordinary collection of performances, with a true firecracker from Rayan Sarlak as the 9-year-old brother. The way the family interact with him is a constant source of humour, with a late scene suggesting that the father gets up earlier and earlier each morning to get some time away from his manic energy. 

Mohammad Hassan Madjooni, Pantea Panahiha, and Rayan Sarlak in Hit the Road. Screening provided by Rialto Distribution.

Compositionally, the film is gorgeous and begs to be seen on the big screen. Panahi and cinematographer Amin Jafari capture both the sprawling vistas and confined car sequences with a considered lens. They allow the emotion and tension to play out in contrast in these two locations; the vistas allow the weather and distance to exude emotion, while the confined interiors of the car force us into the family trip and all of its complications.

There is an engrossing amount of ambiguity as to the situation of the family, something that is only amplified by their hesitancy to talk about it at all that is true to their dynamic. The comedy is at the forefront of the film, with Sarlak’s performance as its engine. Even in scenes where he isn’t the focus, his presence is never absent.

Panahi plays not just with what’s seen and not seen in terms of mise en scene, but also with the edges of the family’s story. There is a confidence in the piecemealing out of the family’s backstory, knowing that the strong dialogue and performances will keep the audience engaged instead of focusing purely on the mystery of their trip.

But that mystery is what heightens so many scenes. It works as the riveting narrative pull, running through the entire film, asking us why. Why is this family on a road trip? Why is the mother so concerned as to bury her 9-year-old son’s phone on the side of the road? Why is the driver so crippled with apparent anxiety as to barely speak in the first act? Panahi stretches these questions out, allowing us to peer into the window of this family’s lives and our imagination to run wild with ideas, all within the confines of their small car.

Hit the Road is one of the year’s best films, and a powerful debut to remember. It works as a political thriller, road trip comedy, and family drama all at once, with a keen eye for cinematic storytelling. With a standout cast that is sure to make a star out of Sarlak, this is a trip you don’t want to miss.

Hit the Road is in select cinemas now.

MIFF 22: Cheap Laughs Abound as Triangle of Sadness Lays Waste to the Wealthy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In Ruben Östlund’s latest overblown, satirical romp, Triangle of Sadness (2022), there is a wealthy German stroke survivor whose only words of communication are “in der wolken” (translated: in the clouds). It’s a phrase she yells out countlessly across the film to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if it pops its head in like an M. Night Shyamalan twist at the film’s close. It never does though, but it perfectly captures the underlying message behind Östlund’s rich ripping, caste crushing film — the wealthy just love to live in the clouds, out of touch with reality, no matter how dire a situation can get.

While most of the rich folk in this film are overblown caricatures that breach the threshold of excessiveness, for Östlund, excessiveness is the name of the game. Structuring his film into three chapters (three edges that make up a “Triangle of Sadness”, if you will), Östlund takes aim at the false pretences that the wealthy hide behind — fancy yachts, material goods like Rolex watches, and cosmetic procedures among other things — and bares them for viewers in all their grotesqueness. It’s nothing that hasn’t been depicted throughout cinema history in the past (2013’s The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind from recent films), but Östlund isn’t privy to subtlety, rather, he’s going all in until you’re either exhausted, squeamish, or both.  

Where there is beauty, there is deceit — at least that’s part of the message that underpins Triangle of Sadness. Set on a luxurious yacht for the most part, the film is comprised of a solid ensemble that plays seamlessly off of Östlund’s material and each other. It’s Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), two models and partners-with-benefits, that serve as the entry point into the mayhem that ensues. Both characters skimp by on their looks, and it’s part of the reason they find themselves in the company of millionaires and billionaires on the aforementioned yacht as Yaya is gifted a free trip courtesy of her influencer status.

On the ship we find a bunch of rich folk and everyone in-between including the ship’s crew. There’s a British couple who boast about their contribution to the munitions industry including their role in creating land mines and hand grenades (which Östlund returns to in explosive fashion); a down-on-his-luck code-seller whose partner didn’t join him on the cruise; the vessel’s drunk captain (Woody Harrelson); a Russian billionaire who made his money selling manure; and the chief stew of the ship, among others.

Charlbi Dean Kriek in Triangle of Sadness

Each character has a role to play in Östlund’s charade as events spiral from controlled to chaotic in an instant. He rocks the boat to the point where characters are literally spewing their guts out (of both ends) after a slimy buffet and storm, he throws in a pirate attack at one point, and in the third act he leaves some characters stranded on an island where he flips the hierarchical triangle on its head.

There’s a lot happening in Triangle of Sadness to the point where you can feel the lengthy runtime weighing proceedings down. This is undoubtedly a conscious choice on Östlund’s part as he leans into the satire he is going for to create an equally exhausting experience for his characters (especially in that third act).

At times it feels like his screenplay is made up of a bunch of short films or mini sketches that have just been welded together. There’s a scene involving the yacht’s captain and the rich Russian Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) as they indulge in a Marxist and capitalist back-and-forth while playing a drinking game that they continue in the captains quarters over the yacht’s PA system. There’s also a sexploitation sequence on the island portion of the film where the yacht’s Toilet Manager pays Carl for his services with pretzel sticks and shelter. All of these sequences are comical, but there’s never greater substance or deeper subliminal messaging beyond the superficiality of being rich and the vanity of these characters.

Triangle of Sadness is at its best during its first half, where it plays around with ideas of inadequacy and superficiality at a more measured level. The longer the film chugs on though, the more it tailspins into a cartoonish satire that trades subtlety for unhinged chaos, where you’re fed what you know and nothing more.

Triangle of Sadness hits Australian cinemas in late December.

MIFF 22: Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is a Beautiful Portrait of Resilience

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After making a festival run in 2021, including being selected as the Chadian entry for last year’s Academy Awards, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s engrossing and often stunning family drama Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (2021) arrives at MIFF with acclaim. The film is slight, coming in at just 87 minutes, but is always deeply engaging.

We begin with a dedicated Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother crafting intricate stoves out of the wiring in car tyres to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) in the Chadian city of N’Djamena. The sequence is shot beautifully, as most scenes are by cinematographer Mathieu Giombini, focusing on Amina’s breathing and her drive to support her family. 

What Amina does not yet know is she will have to do much more to support Maria, who she is soon to learn is pregnant, and wants an abortion. We learn of this with Amina through a meeting with Maria’s school principal, who informs her she has been expelled because of her pregnancy, stating that it’s “bad for our image.” This explanation is heartbreaking to hear, especially from a woman similar in age to Amina.

What follows is a gripping confrontation between mother and daughter in one of the most extraordinary framed and blocked sequences of the film that is truly stunning. There is a certain grace Haroun is deliberately pairing with the harshness of this confrontation and circumstance that is where the film truly clicks into place and becomes quite special.

Achouackh Abakar Souleymane in Lingui, the Sacred Bonds. Screening provided by Rialto Distribution.

I hesitate to call this an abortion drama, as the film is much more focused on the mother-daughter and the bonds they hold as the navigate their city, religion, and their perception. While similar subject matter has been shown with a clinical harshness to harness the stark reality in films like Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (2020) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Haroun instead centres this story on the community of women that have to support one another in this city. 

The beauty in the film comes from seeing these two women grow in front of our eyes, a remarkable achievement in character work in such a slender film. The pair of performances from Souleymane and Alio are quite special. They are able to embody the quiet, seething rage necessary, as well as the desperation the story requires. Many of these stories can be guilty of wallowing in despair and misery of the characters’ situation, something Haroun is able to navigate around remarkably. Lingui is always focused on its namesake, the bonds between the women of the film, rather than the situation they are in.

There is a remarkable level of restraint that only heightens the dramatic tension scene to scene. Haroun avoids any clean outs in the story, so even with its slender frame, Lingui never feels predictable or dishonest. It is slow to unfold, but once it does you will be struck by its elegance and beauty. The performances and frame widen and lighten that makes the restrained opening worthwhile. If the beginning of the film is a tight series of hyperventilating inhales, the final act feels more like a relieving exhale.

There is a maternal warmth that emanates throughout the film’s female characters, illuminating the necessary bonds these women have with each other in the city that is truly powerful. Depictions of this are so fleeting in film, especially by a male filmmaker, that makes the film so captivating and fresh. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds move slowly on its course, but once the end of the tunnel is in sight, you will be astounded by how much it affects you.

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds will be in select theatres till August 21st and on MIFF Play from August 12th to 28th.

94th Academy Awards: Predictions

There are just a few mere hours until this year’s Oscars ceremony, and the team at Rating Frames are feeling more excited than ever, eagerly awaiting the live telecast and yearning to see who will be victorious.

As with most cinephiles, the three resident writers at this site have been making their prognostications as to what, or who, will win in each category, and will be putting them to the test come Monday morning, when the ceremony is scheduled to begin Melbourne time.

Below are the films that Arnel, Darcy and Tom are predicting will walk away with a coveted statuette at the 94th Academy Awards, and their personal vote, in each category.

Best Picture

What will win // What deserves to win

Arnel: The Power of the Dog // Licorice Pizza

Darcy: CODA // Drive My Car

Tom: The Power of the Dog // Drive My Car

Best Director

Arnel: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Darcy: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Tom: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car)

Best Actor

Arnel: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) // Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)

Darcy: Will Smith (King Richard) // Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) // Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)

Best Actress

Arnel: Kristen Stewart (Spencer) // Kristen Stewart (Spencer)

Darcy: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) // Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers)

Tom: Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) // Kristen Stewart (Spencer)

Best Supporting Actor

Arnel: Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog) // Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog)

Darcy: Troy Kotsur (CODA) // Kodi Smit-Mcphee (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Troy Kotsur (CODA) // Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog)

Best Supporting Actress

Arnel: Kristen Dunst (The Power of the Dog) // Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter)

Darcy: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) // Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter)

Tom: Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) // Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog)

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza
Best Original Screenplay

Arnel: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Darcy: Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) // Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza)

Tom: Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) // Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier (The Worst Person in the World)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Arnel: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Jon Spaihts, Dennis Villeneuve & Eric Roth (Dune)

Darcy: Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) // Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe (Drive Me Car)

Tom: Sian Heder (CODA) // Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe (Drive Me Car)

Best Animated Feature

Arnel: Encanto // The Mitchells vs The Machines

Darcy: Encanto // The Mitchells vs The Machines

Tom: Encanto // The Mitchells vs The Machines

Best International Feature

Arnel: Drive My Car // The Worst Person in the World

Darcy: Drive My Car // Drive My Car

Tom: Drive My Car // Drive My Car

Best Documentary Feature

Arnel: Summer of Soul // Summer of Soul

Darcy: Summer of Soul // Flee

Tom: Summer of Soul // Summer of Soul

Stevie Wonder performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in Summer of Soul
Best Documentary Short Subject

Arnel: The Queen of Basketball

Darcy: The Queen of Basketball

Tom: The Queen of Basketball

Best Live-Action Short

Arnel: On My Mind

Darcy: The Long Goodbye

Tom: The Long Goodbye

Best Animated Short

Arnel: Bestia

Darcy: Robin Robin

Tom: Bestia

Best Original Score

Arnel: Hans Zimmer (Dune) // Hans Zimmer (Dune)

Darcy: Hans Zimmer (Dune) // Jonny Greenwood (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Hans Zimmer (Dune) // Hans Zimmer (Dune)

Best Original Song

Arnel: No Time to Die // No Time to Die

Darcy: No Time to Die // No Time to Die

Tom: No Time to Die // Encanto

Timothee Chalamet in Dune
Best Sound

Arnel: Dune // Dune

Darcy: Dune // Dune

Tom: Dune // Dune

Best Production Design

Arnel: Dune // Dune

Darcy: Dune // Dune

Tom: Dune // Dune

Best Cinematography

Arnel: Greig Fraser (Dune) // Greig Fraser (Dune)

Darcy: Greig Fraser (Dune) // Greig Fraser (Dune)

Tom: Greig Fraser (Dune) // Greig Fraser (Dune)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Arnel: Cruella // House of Gucci

Darcy: The Eyes of Tammy Faye // The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tom: The Eyes of Tammy Faye // Cruella

Best Costume Design

Arnel: Jenny Beavan (Cruella) // Jenny Beavan (Cruella)

Darcy: Jenny Beavan (Cruella) // Jenny Beavan (Cruella)

Tom: Jenny Beavan (Cruella) // Jenny Beavan (Cruella)

Best Film Editing

Arnel: Joe Walker (Dune) // Joe Walker (Dune)

Darcy: Joe Walker (Dune)// Peter Sciberras (The Power of the Dog)

Tom: Joe Walker (Dune)// Joe Walker (Dune)

Best Visual Effects

Arnel: Dune // Dune

Darcy: Dune // Dune

Tom: Dune // Spider-Man: No Way Home

The Art of the Murakami Adaptation

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

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

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

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

Drive My Car 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Burning 

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

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

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

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

“Of course I am,” she replied.

Three months later she was back, …

Barn Burning pg.2

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

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

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

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

Jeon Jong-seo in Burning

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

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

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

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

Steven Yeun in Burning



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

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

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

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

A Tranquil, Reflective Journey Awaits in Drive My Car

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For many people, the car isn’t just a mode of transport – it’s a means of escape, a source of passion, or even a way of life. It’s a fact that is recognised by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who has chosen to make an automobile the star of his feature-length drama Drive My Car (2021), even though it’s the human protagonists and their struggles that are given the centre stage.

A widowed playwright, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has been invited to Hiroshima, where he is to work for the next two months as a director-in-residence. Kafuku is a keen motorist, and anticipated he would be making the hour-long journey between his accommodation and the city in his cherished Saab 900 Turbo; instead, much to his dismay, Kafuku’s employers have assigned to him a chauffeur, and stipulated that he is not allowed to drive anywhere by himself.

Designated to fulfil the role of chauffeur is a young woman named Misaki (Toko Miura), who quickly earns the approval of Kafuku with her sedate driving style and shared love of motoring. In the days and weeks that follow, the car-bound companions engage in deep conversation and reveal intimate details about their past, all while Kafuku mulls over the development of his upcoming stage-play – a multilingual adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

Oddly, Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya is the most engrossing aspect of this picture, offering a welcome deviation from the relative mundanity of his automotive journeys. Every step of the playwright’s creative process is shown, beginning with him meeting his financiers, through to casting and rehearsals, before a momentary glimpse of the final product – one that’s made even more absorbing by the transnational cast speaking in their native languages, a delightfully unconventional choice that more directors, be they real or fictitious, should emulate.  

As a fellow practitioner in the arts, this author was always going find the character of Kafuku relatable, yet found himself connecting even further with the main protagonist than anticipated, thanks to a mutual appreciation for driving. There is no activity more cathartic for a keen motorist than a long, solo drive; so naturally, when that outlet is taken away, a driver cannot help but feel a sense of melancholy or loss, which is palpable in Kafuku’s body language and expressions. That inability to drive is made even more painful by the winding roads and scenic views on the outskirts of Hiroshima, routes that any petrolhead would love to traverse if given the chance.

Young thespian Koshi Takastuki (Masaki Okada) chats with playwright Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Drive My Car

But this is not a film that exclusively romanticises about the automobile; instead, it’s an examination of the human psyche and soul, pondering what constitutes a meaningful, satisfying existence. These discussions are manifested in the thespians who appear in Kafuku’s stage-play – like Koshi (Masaki Okada) who joins the production as a means of reconnecting with his lost love, or Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim) who seeks to rekindle her love of performing – and in Kafuku himself, who longs for intimacy and connection yet also values his solitude.

Interesting though these philosophical musings are, they can become tiresome and will no doubt draw the ire of certain viewers, as will the ambiguous conclusion, run-time of three hours (or very close to) and the slow pacing. The latter grievance is evident from the earliest stages of the picture, with its prologue lasting a good 40 minutes before the titles appear. Moreover, since its events are recounted several times throughout the narrative, this entire first act could probably be removed altogether – as is the case with Haruki Murakami’s short story, on which this picture is based.

Pleasantly, there isn’t much else to fault with Drive My Car, which is brimming with artistic excellence throughout. The soundtrack, composed by Eiko Ishibashi, is light and ethereal, pairing impeccably with the film’s serene tone; its beauty is matched by the cinematography of Hidetoshi Shinomiya, whose framing and lighting of each shot is flawless, whether it be on-location or in the confines of Kafuku’s Saab. And then there’s the extraordinary cast, every member of which gives a dedicated, naturalistic performance regardless of experience.

Drive My Car is a pensive, genteel and tender drama made transfixing by its behind-the-scenes observations of an unusual stage production, reflections on what it means to be human, and beautiful driving sequences across the landscapes of Japan. Even with its drawbacks of length and slowness, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is one of 2021’s best, and should be a strong contender for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Drive My Car will be screening in select theatres from February 10th.

David Gulpilil: Ten Defining Performances

Content Warning: First Nations readers are advised that the following article contains the name and likeness of a person who has died. Both are respectfully used with the permission of the deceased’s family.

Last week, Australia and the world mourned the loss of an eminent, indelible fixture in the medium of cinema. The artist, David Gulpilil Ridjimiralil Dalaithngu, was born and raised in the Mandhalpuyngu clan, plucked from obscurity to appear in a motion-picture, and later became an informal ambassador for his Indigenous culture through his traditional dance, painting and public speaking.

But of course, David Gulpilil (as he’s most often credited in projects) is best recognised as an actor, having appeared in some of the most iconic Australian movies and delivered one fantastic performance after another. In honour of his memory, Rating Frames has put together a list of the ten roles that best shaped and defined his career, all of which are essential viewing for anybody who considers themselves a fan of Australian cinema.

Walkabout (1971)

In his debut role, filmed when he was just a teenager, Gulpilil plays an Aborigine on “Walkabout”, an adolescent ritual where a boy must traverse the bush alone in order to achieve manhood; on his journey, the teenager happens across a white girl the same age as he (played by Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son) both of whom come to rely on him for survival.

Walkabout is often cited, wrongly, as the first picture to star a First Nations actor; and the first to have a Black performer in the role of an Aborigine, rather than in blackface – it’s beaten to each milestone by Jedda (1955) and The Overlanders (1946) respectively. But, it is the first known instance of Indigenous Australian culture being accurately and respectfully represented in a feature-length film, which Gulpilil does almost effortlessly.

Storm Boy (1976)

Gulpilil’s next feature-length role came five years later, a picture based on Colin Thiele’s junior novel of the same name. This crowd-pleasing affair centres on Mike (Greg Rowe), a boy who lives with his reclusive father Tom (Peter Cummins) on the Coorong – the wetlands that separate the Murray River from the Southern Ocean – and his friendship with a pelican he names Mr Percival.

The character that Gulpilil portrays here is Fingerbone Bill, a local Aborigine who befriends young Mike and becomes his mentor. His performance is more energetic and upbeat when compared to that in Walkabout, and yet, the actor demonstrates the same relaxed and natural presence in front of the camera. (Incidentally, Storm Boy would be adapted again in 2019, with Gulpilil quite fittingly playing the father to Fingerbone Bill.)

Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

The same year that Gulpilil appeared in the family-friendly Storm Boy, he also starred – alongside Dennis Hopper (pictured above, right) – in a violent, confronting biopic set during Australia’s colonial era. In said biopic, Gulpilil plays an accomplice and confidant to the titular bushranger, guiding him through unfamiliar terrain and abetting his crimes.

Mad Dog Morgan is an example of the “Meat Pie Western”, a term affectionately given to an Australian production that utilises the tropes of a Hollywood Western. Its success, both at home and internationally, helped spur the New Wave of antipodean cinema and gave rise to numerous imitations in the decades that followed; one such example is The Proposition (2005), which featured Gulpilil in a minor role as an interpreter.

Crocodile Dundee (1986)

Here’s a movie that needs no introduction. It’s the worldwide box-office smash that made Kakadu a top holiday destination for tourists locally and abroad, renewed interest in Australia and its culture, and transformed Paul Hogan from a TV larrikin to an international star. Neville is the character Gulpilil plays here, who meets with friend Mick Dundee (Hogan) and American journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) on his way to a Corroboree – a ceremonial gathering of First Nations peoples.

The briefest of Gulpilil’s roles on this list, and possibly the one he’s recognised most-widely for, Neville is viewed as the embodiment of modern Indigenous culture; caught between modernity and tradition, practising the ways of his ancestors while also adhering to the white man’s norms – it’s most evident in his appearance, with Neville seen wearing traditional face-paint with jeans and a wristwatch.

The Tracker (2002)

The first film to credit Gulpilil as a lead performer, this low-budget drama tells of an Indigenous man tasked, at the behest of the white authorities, with locating a fellow Aborigine accused of murder. Ironically, the actor performed in a very similar role for Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (also 2002) albeit as a supporting player with less screen-time – and hence, is never given the opportunity to truly flex his acting chops.

The Tracker marked Gulpilil’s first collaboration with director Rolf de Heer, and netted him an AFI Award for Best Actor. It’s an accolade that’s rightfully deserved, for he does well to convey the conflicted emotions of his character – the apprehension, fear, guilt and anger, sometimes all at once – and does so with an unflinching ease, outshining all of his co-stars in the process.

Ten Canoes (2006)

Following the success of The Tracker, Gulpilil and de Heer reunited for another narrative, and a particularly ground-breaking one at that. It’s a tale of sacrifice, leadership, covetousness and warfare that takes place before European settlement, is spoken in the Yolngu Matha language and features a cast of First Nations actors in traditional dress. As a result, Ten Canoes is the most authentic representation of a nomadic, tribal lifestyle ever put to film.

Unlike his two other partnerships with de Heer, Gulpilil doesn’t make a physical appearance on this occasion, with his son Jamie (pictured above) playing the lead instead. But the elder Gulpilil still has a presence in Ten Canoes, taking on the role of narrator in both the English and Yolngu Matha versions of the picture, complete with his trademark energy and dry wit.

Australia (2008)

Baz Luhrmann’s Northern Territory-set epic was much-hyped at the time of its release, stirring the emotions of many an Australian with its allusions to the Stolen Generations and re-enactment of the World War II bombing of Darwin. Also generating hype was a star-laden cast that included the two biggest Australian thespians of the day, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, in addition to David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Ben Mendelsohn, Jack Thompson and, of course, Gulpilil.

The latter plays an Indigenous elder known to the white settlers as King George, who’s also the grandfather of Nullah (Brandon Walters), the half-caste child adopted by Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman). ‘Tis a more restrained and mostly silent performance from the venerable actor, one that doesn’t make full use of his abilities; but his presence in this big-budget, Hollywood-backed blockbuster did, at least, immortalise him as a legend of the Australian screen.

Charlie’s Country (2014)

The years that followed Luhrmann’s Australia were some of the most turbulent for Gulpilil, who spent time in jail for physical assault and as such, failed to find work. His experience in prison, and in poverty, would eventually inform his third collaboration with de Heer, in which he plays a semi-fictionalised version of himself named Charlie. It’s a deeply personal narrative, yet one that resonates widely, for his story is reflected in First Nations communities across Australia.

Charlie’s Country had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, with the lead winning an award for his performance as part of the Un Certain Regard program; this feat would later be replicated at that year’s AACTA Awards, with Gulpilil winning Best Actor for a second time. More importantly though, the film revived Gulpilil’s dormant career, ensuring that audiences hadn’t seen the last of his talents.

Goldstone (2016)

A contemporary take on the Meat Pie Western, Goldstone is a sequel to Ivan Sen’s excellent Mystery Road (2013) and sees journalist-turned-actor Aaron Pedersen return to the role of Detective Jay Swan. This story has Swan working undercover, attempting to locate a missing person in a remote mining community; and, just like its precursor, examines issues of prejudice and corruption in regional townships.

Harking back to his roles in Mad Dog Morgan and Storm Boy, here Gulpilil plays a sage elder who guides Jay through the landscape and tells legends of his ancestors. The part is rather unassuming, but nevertheless, Gulpilil lends it a gravitas that only a performer of his calibre can, being a charming and welcome presence as per usual.

My Name is Gulpilil (2021)

“This is my story, of my story,” says a gravel-voiced Gulpilil as he fixes his eyes on the viewer, wearily but warmly. Produced and narrated by its very subject, this tender, intimate documentary recounts the significant events in Gulpilil’s life, observes his routine as a cancer patient and ponders what his legacy will be once he departs this world.

Even before his untimely death, this was always intended to be Gulpilil’s final on-screen role, but is no less impressive, leaving the viewer transfixed throughout. Gulpilil is at his most vulnerable, physically and emotionally, yet still manages to deliver an insightful, compelling tale about himself, a testament to his abilities as a storyteller. For those reasons, this raw portrait has earned a place as one of the greatest performances of David Gulpilil’s fifty-year career.

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Marion Cotillard in Annette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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