THE BOW IS STRUNG IN MARVEL’S HAWKEYE, NOW’S THE TIME TO SHOOT

“These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvel’s other shows…”

By Arnel Duracak

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

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

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

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

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

Hailee Steinfeld in Hawkeye

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

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

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

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

Original Piece: Rating Frames

Hawkeye is now streaming on Disney+

PIG SEES NICOLAS CAGE SHINE IN ONE OF THE YEAR’S BEST FILMS

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“Nicolas Cage delivers one of his most subtle and sublime performances ever…”

By Arnel Duracak

There seems to be a trend of films and film titles revolving around farm animals in the last 18 or so months. From Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019/2020) to Valdmiar Johansson’s Lamb (2021) and Michael Sarnoski’s Pig (2021); each of these films places these animals at the forefront, but each one tells a vastly different story and to different avail.

Pig is a film that centres on themes of grief and loss, but it is also about acceptance and surviving. It sees a truffle hunter, Robin (played by the unsurprisingly great Nicolas Cage) have his pig companion stolen in the middle of the night while living off-grid in some cabin. This results in him setting out to find his pig with the help of Amir (Alex Wolff) who pays Robin for his truffle work.

For what it’s worth, the premise is deceptively simple as it plays on audience expectations that Robin will go out on a killing spree until his pig is found. This deception is particularly true given that the man playing Robin is Cage, who audiences almost expect will go on a killing frenzy comprised of outbursts and sadistic rage like in Mandy (2018), Color Out of Space (2019), or Vengeance: A Love Story (2017), to name a few.

While there are moments of rage bubbling beneath the surface (with the most extreme outburst seeing Cage kick the crap out of a yellow Camaro’s door), Sarnoski never goes down that predictable rabbit hole (which would be a great name for another animal film). Rather, Sarnoski uses Robin’s loss and grief as a catalyst for exploring how sometimes we can’t control what happens to us — sometimes our efforts are in vain even if we think there is a silver lining at the end of the tunnel.  

What is especially interesting to note is that Robin isn’t just some weirdo who drew the short straw and is now out to exact revenge, but he is a renowned former chef whose name is uttered like a long lost legend. He’s had his share of fortune, has mingled with the city folk, and has lived under the false pretences of success that capitalism masquerades as — ultimately seeing him swap city lights for green bushland. What this approach allows Sarnoski to do is to paint capitalism as a grotesque construct that can tear down even the most successful people if they aren’t willing to adapt to the changing world around them.

Nicolas Cage in Pig

There’s a particular scene in a high end restaurant where Robin — in his rugged, beat-up state — calmy rips into the chef of the restaurant (who happens to be a former intern of his) for allowing himself to forgo his dreams and settle for a world built around falsity and conformity. It is one of the many profoundly moving scenes in the film that gets to the heart of selling ones soul and settling — ultimately forgetting about what it is that we really care about. Robin asserts to that chef that “we don’t get a lot of things to really care about”; In essence, the pig and the lengths Robin goes to in order to find it, represents that pursuit for what we really care about, which is often quashed by settling.

In a sense, you’d be forgiven for thinking this film plays out somewhat semi-biographically for Cage where he sees his own past mistakes and strives to protect and salvage what he cares about, but may have ignored in the past. There’s the whole ‘fall from grace’ type approach where Robin is an esteemed chef (Cage is an esteemed actor) who disappeared from the spotlight only to re-emerge out of nowhere and still cook (act) like a pro. Heck, a character asserts to Robin that “I remember a time when your name meant something to people, Robin”.

It makes for a resounding 90 minutes that gives Cage a platform to showcase why he is among the top 10 actors of all time. Cage himself asserted in recent interviews that the acting came easy for him here because he didn’t need to act as much due to having dreams and thoughts about losing his cat — which he channelled into Robin. In this sense, Cage plays Robin with a degree of verisimilitude that many (including yours truly) will be able to relate to. Whether someone has lost an animal, a loved one, or just an inherent desire — it’s about finding what you care about and protecting it at all costs, no matter the outcome.

The comparisons between John Wick and Pig have been plentiful due to the nature of messing with one’s animal companion and then hunting down the perpetrators. However, Sarnoski’s take on the revenge storyline plays out in a resoundingly different light. Robin is the one that gets beat down (physically and mentally) throughout the whole film without so much as throwing a punch. It’s a unique take on what we might expect to have happened, but it adds a level of humanism and honesty that captures how things don’t always end up the way we want them to.

The film is a masterclass in exploring how we deal with grief and how we learn to live with it in a system that encourages people to forget about what they truly care for and move on. Nicolas Cage delivers one of his most subtle and sublime performances ever, and the result is one of the most touching, sombre and best films of the year.

Original Piece: Rating Frames

Pig is streaming on Palace Home Cinema

RED NOTICE IS A DISCOUNT INDIANA JONES & MISSION IMPOSSIBLE MESS

Rating: 1 out of 5.

“…Red Notice (2021) is a film wrought by the same inadequacies that have plagued similarly awful films before it.”

By Arnel Duracak

What happens when you put three lead actors, with completely different acting chops, on the screen together? The answer is a hodgepodge of nothingness. It’s hard to know whether that fault lies with the A-list trio of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, or whether it’s because Rawson Marshal Thurber’s Red Notice (2021) is a film wrought by the same inadequacies that have plagued similarly awful films before it.

Being one of Netflix’s most expensive films at $200 million (I believe Scorsese’s 2019 gangster film The Irishman might still hold that title) and their most viewed opening ever, you’d think that the next 115 minutes will be something that’s sure to be worth your time. Unfortunately, this film manages to look both expensive and cheap at the same time as it’s ridden with unflattering CGI, flat performances, and contrived storytelling.

The film wants to be a mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mission: Impossible (any from that franchise), but ends up becoming something more akin to Tower Heist (2011) and basically any of the films Johnson and Reynolds have been in prior.

It’s a film that centres on a historical artifact (instead of the lost ark, you have three golden eggs once gifted to Cleopatra) and sends three different, albeit similarly minded characters on a goose chase to locate all three eggs. The characters in question are John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), and The Bishop (Gal Gadot). Hartley wants to secure the eggs and put Booth and Bishop behind bars for their thevious crimes, while Booth and Bishop are out to find the eggs in time for an Egyptian billionaire’s daughter’s wedding for a large pay-out.

Ryan Reynolds & Dwayne Johnson in Red Notice

Honestly, the actual premise isn’t what drives this film into the dustbin of film history, it’s everything in-between. The filmmaking doesn’t have any flair and is really banking on the chemistry between the three leads who all seem to be playing the lead in their own movie here. Reynolds is channelling his inner Deadpool and really every character he has ever played with those cheesy one-liners and shtick that never lands; Gadot is popping up when you least expect her to and kicking everyone’s butt like Wonder Woman; and Johnson just seems to be there for the ride as the big stiff brute with zero charisma that reaffirms why his desire to be Bond would be a kick to action’s figurative groin.

The film is clearly inspired by the aforementioned films, with comparisons also coming in with the likes of the James Bond and National Treasure films, but Red Notice is also equally uninspired. It’s a film thwarted by all the cliches that subsume Reynolds and Johnson’s recent films: from a level of incessant self-awareness to the worn out buddy-cop plotline that should be retired at this point (I’m looking at you, the soon-to-be acquired Jason Momoa & Dave Bautista buddy-cop film).

Not to mention, that self-awareness becomes so intolerable that at one point Reynolds’ character even sarcastically calls the final egg in the journey the MacGuffin. If you’re blatantly going to point out the unimportance of a plot device that is supposed to be driving the events of the narrative, then you might as well break the fourth wall while you’re at it. In other words, the audience is treated like they’re the ones silly enough to watch this film — which I guess we are.

Netflix and the big studios have become too comfortable in churning out money for pop-corn cinema that really could have been used better in more capable hands. I’m certain that 60% of this films budget went to the star trio alone and in turn, you’re left with characters that don’t captivate you, performances that are drab, and a plot that deviates too much like a zig zag road. The recent Netflix feature Army of Thieves (2021) at least had something that separated itself from all the heist and artifact films before it, but Red Notice doesn’t even try to be different.

Original Piece: Rating Frames

Red Notice is now streaming on Netflix

PETER JACKSON’S THE LORD OF THE RINGS REVISTED 20 YEARS ON

By Arnel Duracak

It’s been almost 20 years since Sir Peter Jackson introduced audiences — both new and familiar — to the world of Middle Earth, on the big screen. In those 20 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), nothing, save for the sequels to The Fellowship of the Ring, has managed to capture the awe and bravado of Jackson’s Middle Earth. Franchises have come and gone, and Jackson has also adapted The Hobbit (2012 – 2014) for the big screen, but The Lord of the Rings continues to inspire as well as keep audiences coming back for more as the years roll on. Much has been said on the trilogy, but I believe it’s important to remind audiences why this trilogy has remained a staple in cinema history. What follows is an analysis of why Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings has continued to permeate film culture, how it redefined the Fantasy genre, and what made the franchise as celebrated as it is.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy before the acclaim

Before delving into the aforementioned concerns of the piece, it is important to first outline the trajectory of The Lord of the Rings in cinema culture — from its inception, up until Jackson’s adaptation. In the years before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings adaptation came to fruition, there had been an animation adaptation in 1978 by Ralph Bakshi, which opened to a fair reception, and the Beatles had apparently wanted to star in a live-action adaptation of the books, with Stanley Kubrick said to have been their choice to direct. Kubrick allegedly turned down the offer to direct the planned film after saying that it was unfilmable (at least in terms of the technology not being there yet). As J.R.R Tolkien owned the rights to his work, he also turned the proposed Beatles film down as he didn’t want his work to be taken by the band and turned into something outlandish for the big screen.

It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-90s that the idea of a Jackson-led The Lord of the Rings adaptation began to circulate in the media. With Jackson’s earlier films like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992) being the epitome of schlock horror — films characterised by their absurd plots, quirky characters, campy humour, and so forth — it was no surprise that doubts were raised over the announcement that Jackson was to adapt the work of beloved and trailblazing author, J.R.R Tolkien.

Jackson had come off of directing a decently received, The Frighteners (1996), before pitching the idea of turning The Lord of the Rings into a live-action trilogy, to Miramax. Miramax said that they would be able to make two films instead of the proposed three, with the cost of the films driving their decision. However, Miramax eventually decided that that they were unable to fund the making of two films at the scale proposed. Subsequently, Jackson was allowed to pitch the idea for the films to other studios, and was eventually able to bring New Line Cinema on board to finance the film.

With New Line greenlighting the proposal for an adaptation helmed by Jackson, the next big hurdle came with the budget increase for each film. New Line had reportedly agreed to spend around US $60 million on each film, but that budget proved unrealistic with how audacious and large each film ended up becoming. Instead, New Line ended up spending around US $120 million on each film, with that eventual sum being agreed upon through much deliberation and even heat between Jackson and film executive Michael Lynne. It wasn’t until a 20 minute preview screening at Cannes in 2001 that the studio’s fears regarding the increase in budgeting, were alleviated. This was primarily due to the positive reception the footage of The Fellowship of the Ring received, and the realisation that the money invested into the film was paying off (with the Balrog scene being one that was shown).

With The Fellowship of the Ring eventually being made, and its sequels releasing within the next two years, the trilogy had officially survived the struggles of pre-production, production, and Harvey Weinstein. The trilogy would go on to become one of the highest grossing and consistently well received franchises of all time.

Hugo Weaving, Peter Jackson, & Ian Mckellen on the set of The Lord of the Rings

What exactly made the trilogy as influential and beloved as it is?

Trying to give a single answer to why Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is as iconic and influential as it is, simply cannot be done. Therefore, I will break down some of the key aspects of the trilogy and why they’ve seen the trilogy continue to enjoy the success that is has.

For starters, one of the biggest issues Jackson faced was trying to transpose such a well regarded and nuanced piece of fantasy literature, both as faithfully as he could and in the time he had. Tolkien’s writing is renowned for its ability to capture the minutiae of any given aspect of the world of Middle Earth — whether that be a blade of grass or a trickle of water. In saying that, Jackson was fortunate that he had a lot to work with from Tolkien’s writing, particularly because the drawn out descriptions Tolkien gave of every place you visit in the books, ultimately led to a level of clarity that Jackson simply moulded for a modern audience. Sure there was no Tom Bombadil or the battle for the Shire or Gildor, but given the scale of Tolkien’s world (those who have read The Silmarillion will know the struggle of making sense of everyone and everything being described), Jackson was able to focus on the fundamentals of the book in order to guide audiences through the three films.

A major factor that contributed to the trilogy’s acclaim and success is the fact that all facets of production aligned and worked to support each other for the entirety of the three films. There were two units that worked on the film: one that was helmed by Peter Jackson, and the other, by John Mahaffie (Second Unit Director). Both units were well equipped with resources to traverse the New Zealand landscape and country side (which is explored more in the exquisite documentary-like, behind the scenes), and Weta Workshop went above and beyond to produce sets, costumes, armour, weapons, creatures and miniatures. What this all means is that there was a sense of totality and scale unlike anything seen before in a blockbuster or film of any kind. The result is one that led to the record breaking Oscars sweep for The Return of the King which won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for, and is tied with Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997) for most award wins in Oscars history.

But aside from the recognition from award wins and box office success, Jackson’s trilogy has continued to amaze viewers (included yours truly) across multiple viewings in the 20 years since. Some of the reasons why include the thematic consistency as the films went on; the largely practical approach to making the films; Howard Shore’s mesmerising score that speaks to various scenes and characters; the epic battle sequences both large and small; the memorable performances from each and every actor involved; and how the trilogy paved the way for fantasy films (and shows) to be taken as seriously as they are today.

The way in which Jackson developed a sense of forwardness from the first film to the last meant that the pacing always felt consistent, and audiences were given ample time to spend with various side characters and events, while never losing sight of the primary goal of The Fellowship. For instance, The Fellowship itself and its eventual separation, serves to engage the audience with the likes of Theoden (Bernard Hill), Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Emoer (Karl Urban), Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Faramir (David Wenham) and so forth. All of these characters have role to play in The Fellowship’s quest, but they also bring to surface the lore of Middle Earth that cannot be wholly accounted for.

Liv Tyler & Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings

Closing Thoughts

In the 20 years since The Fellowship of the Ring, the trilogy continues to be shown in cinemas worldwide and has had a successful shelf life (with a 4K remastering having been overseen by Jackson and released last year). With a Lord of the Rings show coming to Amazon Prime late next year (supposedly exploring an earlier part of the Second Age of Middle Earth), now is the perfect time to begin revisiting Middle Earth and Jackson’s trilogy. Whether or not the show will capture the hearts of audiences and critics alike is yet to be seen, but judging by a recently released still from the show, it’s anyone’s guess. What is known is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Jackson’s adaptation of the book are just as influential today as they were during their inception, and will continue to be in another 20 years.

Sources Consulted:

  1. https://screenrant.com/lotr-everything-know-kubrick-beatles-unproduced-adaptation/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/12/movies/gambling-film-fantasy-lord-rings-shows-new-line-cinema-s-value-aol.html
  3. https://www.thethings.com/how-harvey-weinstein-almost-ruined-the-lord-of-the-rings/
  4. https://www.indiewire.com/2021/07/peter-jackson-screamed-studio-lord-of-the-rings-budget-battle-1234649369/

This piece originally appeared on Rating Frames

BEST SELLERS SEES MICHAEL CAINE AND AUBREY PLAZA SHINE ON-SCREEN

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Best Sellers screener provided by Rialto Distribution

“…it is those heartfelt moments and enjoyable back-and-forths between Caine and Plaza that leaves Best Sellers feeling like a novel worth reading”

By Arnel Duracak

It’s hard not to imagine Michael Caine’s delight when the role of a grouchy, old, drunk novelist who just wants to be left alone, landed on his lap. One would imagine that a character who exclaims ‘bullshite’ to a rousing applause and drinks his way through a book tour is someone even Caine didn’t imagine he’d ever end up playing in his career. But, that’s what Lina Roessler’s heart-warming comedy Best Sellers (2021) offers Caine.

Helmed by one of the more interesting actor pairings of the year with the legendary Caine and deadpan specialist Aubrey Plaza, Best Sellers sees the pair delve into the world of publishing and touring on this charming, if not lacking, 100 minute ride.

Caine plays Harris Shaw, an esteemed writer long past his heyday who lives alone with his cat far from the rowdiness of city life. On the other side of the coin is Aubrey Plaza’s Lucy Stanbridge, a publisher who is trying to keep the business she inherited from her father afloat with little traction coming her way. With time of the essence for Lucy’s business, she sets out to find anything to publish from some of the novelists she may or may not have worked with in the past. It’s not until she finds a contract once signed by the best selling novelist Shaw, that she sees an opportunity to save her business.

For what it’s worth, the premise isn’t what holds this film together. It’s a relatively shoddy script with lots of ridiculousness plastered throughout, especially considering how Caine’s character isn’t believable in the slightest and how the events of going on the book roadshow to sell Shaw’s now novelised manuscript, just don’t add up.

You have this underlying commentary on the business of publishing and how the commerce of it all just isn’t what it used to be, and you have the character of Shaw who has barely any sort of following for a novelist that wrote a best selling novel in the past — a stretch to say the least. Furthermore, the plot is incredibly predictable and doesn’t have any meat on the bone as it’s all laid out in front of you with little left for imagine that’ll catch even casual film audiences off guard.

Aubrey Plaza & Michael Caine in Best Sellers

What does hold this film together, which was evidently Roessler’s goal from the outset, is the dynamic between Caine and Plaza. Caine’s cantankerous Shaw is complimented by Plaza’s disheartened, albeit determined Lucy. Both actors find their groove alongside one another, with Roessler building their relationship to a point where Shaw sees Lucy’s passion and interest, and he begins to change as a character to something more akin to his past self. There’s a certain pleasure in seeing the two share the screen, with the respect between the actors clearly on display.

The two actors also make the material before them somewhat bearable. One would think that hearing Caine say ‘bullshite’ or tell someone to ‘f**k off’ for the 20th time would get tiresome, but it’s so out of character for the actor that you’re almost looking forward to his next cuss.

The film also shifts tonally at multiple points as it falls into this jolly comedy about an old man seemingly wasting a young woman’s time, to a heartfelt tearjerker about loss, legacy and art. Ultimately, it is those heartfelt moments and enjoyable back-and-forths between Caine and Plaza that leaves Best Sellers feeling like a novel worth reading.

Original Piece: SYN

Best Sellers opens nationally from the 25th of November 2021.

COMPANIONSHIP BETWEEN MAN, DOG AND ROBOT ENCOMPASSES THE ENDEARING FINCH

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“…the trio of man, dog, and robot is actually quite endearing and heart-warming…”

By Arnel Duracak

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

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

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

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

Tom Hanks & Goodyear in Finch

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

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

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

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

This review was first published by Rating Frames on the 14th of November 2021.

Finch is now streaming on Apple TV+

DUNE IS A MOVIE EXPERIENCE THAT BECKONS TO BE LIVED

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“…Dune part 1 is a breath-taking feat in filmmaking that deserves to be seen”

By Arnel Duracak

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 RingsDune 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.

This review was first published by Rating Frames on the 6th of November 2021.

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

THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK WILL EITHER BE A HIT OR MISS FOR FANS OF THE SOPRANOS

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Screener provided by Universal Pictures

“…a prequel to the Tony Soprano story that many have long awaited, but one that may be divisive among audiences, depending on whether you’ve seen the show or not”

By Arnel Duracak

A couple of years ago, fans of the beloved, award-winning show Breaking Bad (2008-2013) were treated to a sequel of the show in the form of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019). Now over 14 years later, the equally celebrated show The Sopranos (1999-2007) has provided its fans with The Many Saints of Newark (2021). The film is a prequel to the Tony Soprano story that many have long awaited, but one that may be divisive among audiences, depending on whether you’ve seen the show or not.

In watching the show, audiences will most likely find their bearings relatively quickly in this late 60’s, early 70’s set New Jersey world, while those who haven’t (including yours truly) may find it more difficult to make sense of who’s who and what’s what (even with all the unsubtle exposition).

Like most mobster/mafia films from the last 40 years, the film revolves around themes pertaining to family, betrayal, loss and violence; It’s a world that is all too familiar and has been tried and dried much better in films before it (anything Scorsese’s related and Coppola related). That isn’t to say that there is no merit in exploring this period of time again, it just plays out like a film that was intended to be a show or at least could have worked better as a show.

Though a prequel to James Gandolfini’s iconic character Tony Soprano, the film is less about Tony (played in an almost uncanny fashion by his son Michael Gandolfini) and more about those around him. You have Salvatore Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Giuseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi), Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga), and Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). That’s not necessarily an issue had those around him been at least somewhat interesting in the film. But because of how overstuffed the narrative is, most of these characters feel like caricatures of mafia members.

Michael Gandolfini & Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark

The most interesting character of the film is one that was absent from the show (by all accounts); Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is the films lead, and the character who will guide us through a relatively jam packed two hours of storytelling. He is easily the most nuanced of the films characters and Nivola channels that Jersey accent and injects the character with a level of charisma that keeps him interesting enough for the films duration. Dickie is essentially Tony’s “uncle” who sports that charming but deceiving persona as he deals with his father Salvatore, a mistress (who his father had married before he was taken out), his own family, and the business he is embroiled in.

That business comes in the form of his former footman-turned-adversary Harold who is on the other side of this rusty mafia coin. Harold decides he no longer wants to be the mafia’s errand boy after witnessing a civil rights protest and violence occur following the arrest of (and possible death of) an African-American man. He instead chooses violence himself and murders one of the Soprano crew members — effectively spiralling the films focus towards retaliation and more violence.

For what it’s worth, the smoky Jersey setting, the melancholic tone and unfiltered acts of violence all  bear a semblance to the show (given I have dropped in on an episode here and there over the years). However, in viewing the film from a relatively isolated experience (again, having not seen the show from start to finish), the familiar tropes and disjointed narrative (weaving in multiple storylines) leaves the film feeling like something that really is banking on nostalgia. David Chase no doubt wrote up one of the most widely celebrated shows of all time, but the characterisation here falls flat and would no doubt have worked better in a limited series format.

The Tony Soprano story is ultimately side-lined in The Many Saints of Newark, which opts instead to provide a more broad view on the sort of environment that would go on to shape Tony Soprano. The resulting film doesn’t give much in the way of a Tony Soprano backstory, but there are some moments and characters that fans of the show will just be glad they got to witness in the same way that Breaking Bad fans got to witness Jessie Pinkman’s exploits in the aftermath of that shows events.

The Many Saints of Newark opens nationally from the 4th of November 2021. 

BECOMING COUSTEAU HIGHLIGHTS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF JACQUES COUSTEAU’S WORK IN TODAY’S WORLD

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Screener provided by Rialto Distribution

“While not ground-breaking in its account of Jacques Cousteau, Becoming Cousteau nonetheless reminds audiences of the continued significance of the iconic oceanographer and explorer.”

By Arnel Duracak

As the title of the film suggests, Becoming Cousteau (2021) is very much about charting how the infamous oceanographer-turned-conservationist Jacques Cousteau came to be. However, it also represents a transformation from the man that was Jacques Cousteau to the symbol of change that he stands for today — a symbol that suggests that ‘becoming Cousteau’ is something of a process that is open to all should we be curious enough to apply ourselves like the man himself.

Throughout most of Liz Garbus’ very conventional documentary approach (tracing Cousteau’s life in a linear fashion from start to finish), she doesn’t necessarily offer much in the way of new information regarding Cousteau (things that weren’t already known, aside from some never-before-seen footage), but she does structure her documentary as a process that highlights Cousteau’s own transformations. This is particularly true as Garbus uses archival footage and interviews alongside audio from Cousteau and those that knew him, as well as vocal readings from diaries.

Having first encountered a version of the renowned man with the red beanie and his minesweeper ship through Wes Anderson’s Cousteau-inspired The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), it’s easy to see how Cousteau’s uniqueness and adventurer status lends itself to interpretation. Of course, Anderson’s interpretation with Bill Murray in the lead role carries its own meanings and complexities. But the fact that Cousteau’s life and status are something of a means to further exploration (be it on screen through interpretations or otherwise), is indicative of his significance to the world as we know it today.

Garbus captures the key moments and milestones in Cousteau’s life, but he was evidently a much more complicated man, stating at one point that “I’m not interested in analysing myself…I’m interested in the world outside me…my world inside is nothing for me”. This mentality becomes more pressing in the films second half where Cousteau’s life had experienced more tragedy (particularly following his son Phillipe’s death), and as his work had shifted from curiosity for the ocean to an understanding of his role in speaking to his experiences across the world.

The pacing in the second half of the film is noticeably more abrupt considering how the latter half of Cousteau’s life became more about conservation rather than exploration (which is not to say he wasn’t still exploring). Garbus cleverly focuses on the strain and toll that tragedy and the celebrity status had on Cousteau in the films second half — ultimately giving a deeper insight into the mistakes and regrets the oceanographer had (something that is relatively new judging by how most accounts of his life have focused on his achievements and conservationism).

Today, the name Cousteau is synonymous with change perhaps more than ever, in a world where climate change continues to threaten life, but the response is lacking to the extent needed. The Cousteau Society (established in 1972 by the man himself) continues to thrive in its endeavours to preserve our oceans and incite change through action. Garbus captures that change in mindset in Cousteau over the course of the documentary’s 90 minute runtime, where Cousteau reflects on his earlier work with disapproval (including his 1956, Palme d’Or winning feature, The Silent World).

While not ground-breaking in its account of Jacques Cousteau, Becoming Cousteau nonetheless reminds audiences of the continued significance of the iconic oceanographer and explorer. The film is ultimately an insightful examination of who Jacques Cousteau was both professionally and in his personal life (the latter of which has often escaped the public eye). Seeing as most of today’s younger generations (including yours truly) aren’t familiar with Cousteau and the importance of his work, Garbus’ documentary serves as an important reminder of how Cousteau’s legacy and efforts are as important today as ever.

Becoming Cousteau opens in select national cinemas from the 22nd of October 2021.

THE 2021 MIFF SHORTS AWARD WINNERS

Original Piece: SYN

Words By Arnel Duracak

With the 69th MIFF concluding this Sunday, it is fitting to end the festival on a high following the adjustments MIFF has had to make to its program and structure given Victoria’s recent lockdowns. That high comes in the form of the MIFF Shorts Winners for 2021 in what has been a stellar year for short films and their filmmakers.

Now in its 60th anniversary, the prestigious MIFF short film competition has seen eight out of the 80 short films in the program, receive awards from esteemed jury members Osman Faruqi (award-winning journalist), Natalie Erika James (writer/director), and Alexandra Burke (industry expert). Alongside the awards, MIFF has announced that the recipients of the MIFF Shorts Awards were rewarded with more than $63,000 in prizes.

The awards and their winners in question are as follows:

  1. City of Melbourne Grand Prix for Best Short Film goes to Roman Hodel for The Game
  2. Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film goes to Brietta Hague for Baltasar
  3. Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker goes to Jordan Giusti for Reptile
  4. Award for Best Fiction Short Film goes to Zou Jing for Lili Alone
  5. Award for Best Documentary Short Film goes to Audrey Jean-Baptiste and Maxime Jean-Baptiste for Listen to the Beat of Our Images
  6. Award for Best Animation Short Film goes to Matisse Gonzalez for Gravedad
  7. Award for Best Experimental Short Film goes to Simon Liu for Happy Valley
  8. Blackmagic Award for Best Cinematography in a Short Film goes to Akinola Davies Jr for Lizard

Shorts Programmer Mia Falstein-Rush said of the films, “What an incredible and competitive line-up of films nominated for the awards this year”, adding “I’m thrilled with the selection by the jury for the awards – some tough decisions in there, but I think they have made the winning filmmakers across the globe extremely happy”.

The winning films are now available to view as part of a Best MIFF Shorts package which is screening on MIFF Play across Australia until Sunday the 22nd of August.

Tickets for the Best MIFF Shorts package can be found here.