Free Guy

The movies are back, baby!

Shawn Levy’s 2021 action comedy “Free Guy” is one of those frothy popcorn flicks which actually benefit well from being viewed with an enthusiastic audience. After cinemas being closed since June due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the audience for the Friday night session I attended laughed, gasped and cheered in all the right places and then some, and I was happy to be back.

Ryan Reynolds plays “Guy”, a NPC (non-player character) in an open-world video game called “Free City”, similar to Grand Theft Auto who breaks free from his designated role in the background and becomes the hero of his world. But Guy doesn’t know that he’s only a NPC, he doesn’t know that he doesn’t exist in the physical world and he doesn’t know that he’s not supposed to be thinking the things he’s thinking or feeling the things he’s feeling. Back in the physical world, code writers Keys (Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer) are working together to try and prove that the developer of “Free City”, the conniving and ruthless Antwan (Taika Waititi) actually stole the code that they had designed for their own game. Once Antwan announces that there is 48 hours until the sequel to “Free City” is being launched and the original “Free City” universe will be completely erased, Millie teams up with Guy in the “Free City” world to find the evidence they need to expose Antwan.

It’s an inventive concept, fairly similar in tone and theme to 2014’s “The Lego Movie”. I think “The Lego Movie” probably had a bit more fun with playing around with the idea though, and at times I definitely felt like “Free Guy” rested a little too much on the concept itself and lacked the dry self awareness of “The Lego Movie” which made it such a hit. Some of the scenes between the two films are almost identical; Guy and “The Lego Movie’s” hero Emmett wake up every morning and do the same things, both of them have mundane jobs and catch phrases and both of the characters are everyday individuals looking for something greater. For some reason though, Emmett seemed more like an original character, whereas I started to notice more and more that Guy was more or less Buddy the Elf from “Elf”. Ryan Reynolds is funny as Guy, but I think he works better with edgier humour and there were times where I felt like he was wasted in the nice guy role, especially since he was so iconic as Deadpool. I would have loved to have seen a version of this where they really went for it and went with some raunchier humour and more full on violence, especially since these types of games are the ones where you can literally beat up pedestrians on the street and rob strippers. The PG-13 rating I think limited the film at times, but its obvious that this is a conscious choice and the filmmakers don’t want to miss out on their under 15 demographic.

While its not side split-tingly funny, I did chuckle quite a few times. The actual appeal in the film is as a family-friendly action adventure movie. Taika Waititi is a pretty decent villain and you want him to fail as much as you want the heroes to succeed. The action sequences are sensational and its fun watching the fight scenes which are different to other action movies because the characters have access to all the cool power-ups and weapons of video games. Interestingly enough, there’s also a philosophical question not dissimilar to that of “Blade Runner” or the episode of South Park where Cartman pretends he’s a robot; what is a human? What constitutes life? Should Guy, an amalgam of computer code, who can think and feel and love for himself, be considered as much a valuable human soul as much as the people who created him? Could Millie, a living human, really fall in love with a computer game character who doesn’t exist outside of the game hard drive? Of course its not explored in too much depth but its an interesting little feature of the film and one I enjoyed!

J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan, famously placed young children strategically in his audiences so that the older members of the crowd would feel less self conscious and allow themselves to be swept up in the magic of it all. Perhaps not on the same scale, but there were some kids, I’d say around nine or ten, who were having the time of their lives during Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy” and before long, so were the rest of us. It was nice to enjoy a film with a crowd again, I’ve missed it. “Free Guy” is not groundbreaking or even particularly memorable, but its good fun entertainment and exactly the kind of flick I’m happy I was able to share.

By Jock Lehman

The Pink Panther (1963)

*Sunday Classic*

Originally written as a vehicle for charming British actor David Niven to star in a string of films centred around the devilish jewel thief “The Phantom” and his escapades, “The Pink Panther” ended up becoming a comedy series oriented around Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau due to his unprecedented popularity with audiences. Handsome playboy Sir Charles Lytton has been eluding capture for years as the masked bandit “The Phantom” and has his eye on his latest conquest, the famed “Pink Panther” diamond. He follows the owner of the diamond, Princess Dala of Lugash, (Claudia Cardinale), to an exclusive ski resort in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and seeks to woo the Princess and steal her jewel. Hot on his heels is Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling policeman who has been investigating the Phantom and has intelligence that he may be poised to strike again. Little does he know that his wife Simone (Capucine), is a double agent and has been having an affair with Lytton for years, helping him avoid detection and pull of his heists. Will Clouseau outwit the Phantom after all this time? Whether he does or doesn’t, its a fun ride nonetheless.

The film is in many ways so typical of films in the 60s, incredibly stylised and invested in the art of pure entertainment and escapism. It’s a cinema experience in a way that is different to films of today, which are often so determined to instil realism and grittiness and bad lighting as if in some kind of morbid contest on which director can paint the bleakest picture of the world possible. In this world however, the men are impeccably dressed in their suits and smoking jackets, and the women are stylish and sexy in that distinctive 60s sort of way. In this world, the rooms are impeccably and luxuriously furnished, people are at least reasonably attractive, if somebody falls out a window there is a handy five feet of snow to catch them, there is always enough whiskey and champagne to go around and no shortage of people offering. Its a fantasy world, and its intoxicating. Even the stakes throughout the film are never really that high; if Lytton gets caught and goes to prison he’ll con his way out, if Clouseau never catches the Phantom he’ll be forgiven because nobody really expects to catch him anyway, if Princess Dala loses her diamond, she’ll be sad but she’ll have plenty more to keep her company.

As I said earlier, this was initially designed with David Niven in the forefront, so Clouseau isn’t actually in the film as much as I thought he would be. The main laughs, aside from Clouseau knocking things over and falling over his own feet, come from some pretty elaborate farcical style sequences. One involves Lytton, Simone, Clouseau and Lytton’s nephew George (Robert Wagner) running in and out of Clouseau’s bedroom, behind the curtains, under the bed and out the window, always just in the nick of time to avoid the other. Its typical of the farcical plays and films of the 1960s, often British, where the physical comedy is orchestrated, perfectly timed and incredibly difficult to get right. Some of it is funnier than the rest of it, and strangely these moments are scattered throughout the film rather than the comedy being the driving force. The romance between Lytton and Dala is strung out for far too long and its not terribly interesting, the pacing for both a comedy and heist movie is far too slow and the bizarre rendition of “Meglio Stasera” in the middle of the whole thing seemed out of place. Despite this, there are genuine moments of comedic brilliance by Sellers and even by Niven, and you can tell that the cast are all enjoying themselves.

I suppose I always had an impression in my mind of what Peter Sellers’ famous Inspector Jacques Clouseau would be like. He was a perfectly formed picture of a little man with a neat moustache, loudly and shamelessly throwing his weight around where it wasn’t welcome with his purposefully obscene French accent, arms flailing wildly and eyes popping out of his head as he ultimately, but completely accidentally, saves the day. I have to say, Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther” is completely different to what I was expecting, or what Steve Martin’s interpretation led me to believe it would be at least. Sellers’s Clouseau is surprisingly understated; when he trips or knocks something over it’s still within the realms of what a clumsy person would actually do and he doesn’t ever come across as a caricature or cartoon. Is it hilarious? On the whole I don’t necessarily think so, save for a couple of real belly laughs. But its fun and surprisingly sweet with some incredible set pieces and elaborately staged farcical romps and I did not expect for my final thoughts on Clouseau to be of him as a sweet natured guy who loves his wife and wants to help as much as he can rather than as a buffoon or one trick clown.

By Jock Lehman

Field of Dreams

Watching Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 “Field of Dreams” was like being repeatedly doused in the face by some kind of lukewarm, perfumed tea, but its being sprayed in your face by the local librarian with a bright green water gun. And then the librarian rides off on a giraffe, leaving you without a towel and no idea what in the name of sweet flying hell just happened.

“Field of Dreams” opens with our hero Ray (Kevin Costner) narrating about how his father raised him with stories of the great baseball players but was never able to become one himself. Ray and his father grew distant as Ray became older and got swept up in the spirit of rebellion and free love during college in the sixties. Now Ray is a husband and father and having recently purchased a corn farm in Iowa, he worries that he will never be able to achieve his dreams and is doomed to live out his life like his father, never living out his dreams and growing old, mediocre and forgotten. That is until one day walking out in his corn crop, he hears a mysterious voice saying “If you build it, he will come”. He envisions a baseball field with a lone figure standing in the middle in a baseball uniform, who he instinctively recognises as legendary player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). Something tells Ray that this vision means something pretty special, and he convinces his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) that they should level a portion of their crop and build this baseball field. So they do, and the ghost of Shoeless Joe appears, later leaving and bringing his other Black Sox teammates to play. The strange voice keeps popping up with more vague whispers, taking Ray all over the country where he collects J.D. Salinger-esque writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) for the journey while his farm is about to be foreclosed on and the story concludes with Ray throwing a ball with a younger version of his ghost Dad and a shot of a seemingly endless motorcade of cars all coming to visit the pitch.

Some of the most iconic and exciting films have been about sporting teams overcoming adversity and can inspire an emotional response in a way that other films can’t. I didn’t feel inspired, excited or even remotely interested in the game of baseball once during “Field of Dreams”, especially since none of the characters ever raise their voices above a sultry whisper. I think that’s probably the biggest problem with the film; there’s no urgency. Nobody really seems to care either way about what happens to them – Ray isn’t remotely phased that he may lose his farm or that dead baseball players are running around his cornfield. Everyone seems to be walking around in a sleepy, contented sort of trance, except for the film’s villain, Ray’s brother in law Mark (Timothy Busfield), who was the only person remotely concerned that Ray is hearing voices and going off on bizarre whims never minding that he has a wife and a kid with dimples to support. It’s not even that he is throwing caution to the winds for the pursuit of something noble or heroic, he’s jumping to conclusions that make no sense and are basically impossible to correlate with the whispered riddles and is only doing so because he’s worried about not following his dreams, or hallucinations at least. The magic of the film itself is wildly inconsistent too; some of the players are imprisoned within the pitch while others grow old when leaving it. Some people can see the ghosts and other’s can’t, but the film finishes with hundreds of cars lining up to watch the ghosts play.

This was probably one of the most confusing and misguided films I’ve ever seen. Its hard enough trying to figure out what the ham fisted moral of the story is but when the story itself makes absolutely no sense at all, its just a blur of sardonic speeches, bizarrely motivated ghosts, an oddly placed spat of time travel and a smattering of smug but incredibly dumb characters who had no business making the decisions they made with the motivations they had and getting off scot-free. There are of course stories where its necessary to suspend our disbelief and just go along with the fantasy. Even so, the worlds of our favourite fairy tales still had some logic and rules that governed them; Cinderella had until midnight before the magic wore off, Pinnochio’s nose would grow if he told a lie and even the old witch’s gingerbread house probably needed marzipan between the bricks to keep the whole thing upright.

There’s nothing better than a bit of escapism, and maybe I’m being a bit of a killjoy, but nothing about “Field of Dreams” exhilarated or excited me at all. It was a befuddling and sappy mess, and by the credits I was convinced that I probably would have enjoyed the film more had Ray never heard that voice and we followed him as he harvested that year’s corn crop.

By Jock Lehman

Stand By Me

I have a feeling that Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming of age drama “Stand By Me” is one of those entities that has benefited extraordinarily well from nostalgia. If I was twelve years old in 1986 and I saw this film in the cinema, it probably would have blown my freaking mind and I would have rolled up my sleeves like River Phoenix and pretended to smoke cigarettes with pencils. Watching it for the first time as a twenty seven year old, it didn’t hit me as much as if I was a teenager and I wasn’t able to draw on happy memories of watching it when I was a kid and how it made me feel then. It’s the world seen from the eyes of a teenage boy in 1959, and while there are some themes which still translate to today, there are some that just don’t; teenage boys now will still think their fathers don’t understand them, their mates are their whole world, and the thought of the forthcoming school year and the daunting prospect of change can be scary. But… gone are the days of complete freedom and autonomy, of disappearing for days on end without parents calling in to check, being able to feed yourself and three mates for two days with just the change in your pockets and smoking cigarettes and flicking through Playboys in tree houses.

Based off Stephen King’s novel “The Body” and supposedly one of the only filmic adaptations of King’s works that he actually liked (he famously despised the direction taken for “The Shining”), “Stand By Me” tells the story of four young boys who set off one weekend to find a dead body so they can tell the papers and be seen as heroes, maybe even be on TV! The four lads, Gordie (Will Wheaton, the leader of the gang who feels resented by his father following the death of his older, more impressive brother), Chris (River Phoenix, the tough kid with the messed up family who doesn’t want to end up like his Dad and get out of their small town), Teddy (Corey Feldman, angry and bitter and quick to defend his mentally ill and abusive father with claims that he stormed the beaches of Normandy), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell, earnest and funny and not quite as cool as the other boys) all set off with their backpacks for their adventure, unaware that this weekend would be the most formative of their young lives. Along the way, local bully and sociopath John “Ace” Merrill (Keifer Sutherland) gets wind of the body and wants to report it to the papers himself, and the boys stand up to him and his gang in one of the more bizarre and intense stand offs in movie history.

The success of this film is found in how well Reiner was able to match his young cast to their characters and the performances he was able to derive from what is a notoriously tricky and risky demographic to work with. The performances from each of the young actors are seriously impressive, particularly from River Phoenix and Jerry O’Connnell. The rapport between the four boys feels genuine and earned, Rob Reiner put them through two weeks of acting games from Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater” prior to shooting in an attempt to create a sense of real camaraderie and closeness between them. The beats of the more lighthearted dialogue feels exactly like four boys trying to one up each other; there is exaggeration and bravado and when pushed, a devastatingly placed insult about somebody’s mother and “two for flinching”. Some of Vern’s bits in particular are patently hilarious, especially where he brings along his comb in case they get interviewed on TV and his answer to the question of if he could only have one food for the rest of his life – “Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.” The more adrenalin inducing scenes, especially where the boys are running away from the oncoming train, are well done and well positioned in amongst the banter of the lads.

Some of the moments between the boys where they bring up their fears and vulnerabilities at times feels a little too laboured, a little too forced and a little too strategically placed, where even though you may believe River Phoenix’s tears, it’s more like tears from a grazed knee than because of deeply rooted torment. I think it would have probably been more impactful if there wasn’t so much of the boys interchanging their emotional anguish until they found the body. Once the boys find the body and Gordie breaks down, insisting that it should have been him who had died rather than his brother, that was the sort of thing that rang true because it felt like a genuine response to a pretty traumatising sight. The boys summoning their courage to stand up to Ace and his possy did however feel like a proper coming of age moment, especially in the face of such a terrifying character as Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace; that voice and empty black eyes is a harrowing image, when he pulled out his flick knife you genuinely believe that he would use it and find a way out of it.

I don’t think that “Stand By Me” will have the lasting impact that it undoubtedly has had on men of my parents’ generation, or even on those who watch it while the same age as the heroes of the story. There’s a lot to admire here though; some sensational performances from some talented young men, a resounding sense of adventure and a gentle reminder of the wonder that can be found in friendship.

By Jock Lehman

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

*Sunday Classic*

Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is so many bizarre and unexpected things at once; simultaneously darkly comic, terrifying, tragic and strangely exhilarating, all wrapped up in a sumptuously twisted and irresistible little package. The film’s two lead stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford portray an extraordinary relationship of two bitterly conflicted sisters, but the film’s production and the genuine off screen hatred between the actresses has become part of movie folk lore. It’s a shame that the film itself has been somewhat overshadowed by the legend of Davis’ and Crawford’s feud, because it’s an absolute ripper.

The film opens on the Shirley Temple-esque child star Baby Jane Hudson performing to an adoring crowd in 1917, while her plain older sister Blanche looks on enviously from the wings. Baby Jane is spoiled and nasty, running rings around her father who manages her act and Blanche vows that she’ll never forget how Jane has treated her. Some years later, Blanche has become a highly sought after film star and the Hollywood executives only keep Jane in pictures because good natured Blanche has insisted that they produce one film for Jane for every one of hers. One night after one of their glamorous parties, Blanche is mysteriously injured in a car accident and confined thereafter to a wheelchair. Jane is unofficially held responsible for Blanche’s injury, but she can’t remember a thing about it and is found three days later drunk and holed up in a hotel room. When Davis and Crawford finally appear on screen, they live with each other in a grand home in Los Angeles, the good natured and long suffering Blanche (Crawford) confined to her wheelchair and Jane (Davis) bitterly and sardonically bringing her trays of food while mercilessly mocking and antagonising her. The film gradually turns into a psychological thriller as Jane becomes more and more unhinged, Blanche’s attempts at escape are foiled and she is eventually bound and gagged in her room while Jane becomes infatuated with a local musician amid hopes she will revive her childhood stardom.

I’m sure that Crawford has done great work in other films, and she does a reasonable job here, but she’s completely overshadowed by Davis. Perhaps some sense of jealousy fuelled some of their off screen angst, but I do think a lot of it has to do with Jane being the more interesting character. Davis is incredibly gutsy to appear on screen as she did; her costuming is unflattering and Davis herself has said that the applied the make-up herself with the idea that Jane wouldn’t have ever washed her face or looked after herself, just drowned herself in booze and reapplied the make up on top of it. Her iconic voice is absolutely dripping in poison and she takes such delicious glee in torturing her sister: “No Blanche! You didn’t eat your din-dins!” “But you are Blanche! You are in the chair!” I expected the story to be mainly a character study between the two sisters, but its actually one of the better thrillers I’ve ever seen. You can sense Blanche’s desperation every time Jane leaves the house and we are sitting with our hearts in our mouths as she throws that note asking for help to her neighbour and Jane finds it instead. There are many similarities for instance to Rob Reiner’s “Misery”, and both do well by making the tension and danger bound by the rules of the real world. The themes found throughout the story are universal and even though its a little strange for us today to think of child stars in the early twentieth century, it still works on so many levels today. It works as a horror, as a thriller, as a cult classic, as a comedy, as a cautionary tale for jealousy and the brutal world of show business where talent is thrown out as soon as something more relevant comes along.

I was a little confused by the side plot with Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), as it seemed to try and emulate the infatuation created in “Sunset Boulevard” but just didn’t seem to fit Jane’s character. Her decline into insanity and her girly, sickly sweet disposition at the end of the film took me by surprise too; if she was regressing to her state as a little girl, shouldn’t she still be as spoiled and selfish as she was as Baby Jane?

Perhaps the dynamic between Jane and Blanche would have been as electric had they been amicable off screen, but its definitely more fun this way. When the scene came where Bette Davis had to slap Joan Crawford to the floor and drag her across the room, Crawford attached heavy weights under her clothes to make it more difficult for her. Bette Davis installed a Coca Cola machine on set, knowing that Crawford was the widow of Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele. When Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role, she was the favourite to win and would have been the first woman to ever win three Oscars in history, but Crawford campaigned heavily for Anne Bancroft to win instead, even accepting the award on her behalf when she won. What’s bizarre about this in particular is if Davis had won the award, the film would have done better and they both would have earned an additional $1 million US.

Cinema owes a lot to this film, especially so for older actresses. Its incredible watching these two actresses who were seen to be beyond their prime, delivering such powerful performances and producing such an iconic entity which is still quoted now. Bette Davis famously said during an interview promoting the film that when the two women were suggested to star in the film, Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner replied that “(He) wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either one of those two old broads.” The next day, Crawford sent her a telegram saying “In the future, kindly do not refer to me as an ‘old broad'”.

By Jock Lehman 

The Wizard of Oz

*Sunday Classics*

“The Wizard of Oz” is one of those things I can’t remember not knowing. I think every family has its handful of favourite Saturday night movies, and for me and my sisters, “The Wizard of Oz” alongside “Matilda”, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Sound of Music” rounded off our top five. Mum has kept a project I did in kindergarten where I described what happens in “The Wizard of Oz” and she typed it up for me. I did the pictures myself.

I loved the story, I loved the magic, I loved the characters (especially the Wicked Witch), I loved the action, I loved the songs and I loved the familiarity of the whole thing that was as warm and welcoming as a favourite blanket. I haven’t seen the movie for at least fifteen years, and it’s only this time round and having done a little reading up on the production of the film that I properly understood how much of a beautiful and miraculous accident it was that “The Wizard of Oz” happened at all, let alone turned out the way it did.

The production of “The Wizard of Oz” was largely an unmitigated disaster; the film’s final director, Victor Fleming, was the fourth director appointed, Dorothy was originally dressed with a blonde wig and cutesy “Shirley Temple” make up, Jack Haley was cast as the Tin Man after Buddy Ebsen suffered a severe allergic reaction to his aluminium face paint, the Wicked Witch was initially written as a beautiful seductress like the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch) experienced severe burns from the burst of flames used in her exit from Munchkinland, the munchkins caused delays in filming by constantly turning up drunk, the Oscar winning “Over the Rainbow” was only added in the last minute as it was thought to distract from the story and the original draft of the script had no fantasy elements to it at all.

The set design is distinctive and magical in that wonderful way old fashioned way that existed before modern special effects. I love that the backgrounds are painted on and the colours are a little too bright and garish, because the way we see things in our dreams isn’t like the real world. Actors in make up and wings being hurled through the sky on fishing wire is somehow so much more horrifying than any digitally created flying monkey could ever be. Even after eighty years, the simple transition when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkinland and the picture switches from sepia to technicolour is still such a glorious moment. I can’t imagine the excitement it would have generated in 1939 when colour in film was still a novelty.

Even now there are a number of sequences which are unsettling; Miss Gulch transforming into the Wicked Witch in the middle of the twister, the winged monkeys shrieking and ransacking Dorothy and her friends, and the Wicked Witch herself still stands as probably one of the best villains of any film since. Everything about Margaret Hamilton’s performance was phenomenal, from that sensational cackle and the way she cricked her fingers when she was being wicked, to her voice and to the way she genuinely relished it when she taunted the heroes. It’s a pretty intense thing for a kid’s film to lock the heroine in a dark room and tell her she’s going to die by time all the sand trickles through the hourglass, but the darker elements are important to the story because it cuts through the treacle and provides balance to the town of tiny people with flowers growing out of their shoes and hats.

What I think is so special about “The Wizard of Oz” is how perfectly it encapsulates a child’s imagination. As kids, we always fantasised that there was somewhere more exciting and extraordinary beyond our own backyards. But just like our imaginations and the worlds we created, not all of Oz is beautiful. There was nothing terrifying than the monsters we created in our own minds, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that or assume that the kids in the audience can’t handle some of the scary stuff. I’ve mentioned this before, but its what Roald Dahl did so well; he didn’t pander to kids, he gives them the credit they’re due and they loved him for it. And again, when we were kids we see the world in a very simplistic way; the Wicked Witch is wicked, Glinda the Good Witch is good, you can make lifelong friends in a matter of moments and there’s nothing and nowhere more wonderful when you’re tired and scared than your own bed.

“The Wizard of Oz” represents how we perceive the big wide world as children; its a beautiful, terrifying but wondrous thing and I’m so happy that I’ve been able to experience it again. I love everything about this movie, and is one of the choice films I can’t wait to share it with my own children one day. Whether they want to or not.

By Jock Lehman

Sunset Boulevard

*Sunday Classic*

Very famously at the 1951 Oscars, Bette Davis for “All About Eve” and Gloria Swanson for “Sunset Boulevard” were pinned against each other and the newspapers couldn’t decide who would win. Both gave what were considered the best performances of their careers and gave cinema arguably two of the most iconic and influential female characters of the twentieth century in Margo Channing and Norma Desmond. Neither woman won the Best Actress Oscar that year, the trophy instead going to Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” and it’s said that the two titans cancelled each other out and left it open for the relative newcomer.

This has happened a few times now, but its always exciting to me when I see an old film that has been the subject of parody (usually on The Simpsons). As soon as William Holden sauntered onto the screen as out of luck screenwriter Joe Gillis with his sardonic narration, it was pretty obvious where Matt Groening found the origins of Rex Banner from the episode where Homer becomes a bootlegger during Springfield’s prohibition. The film opens with a gaggle of press crowded around a dead body in the pool of an enormous mansion, and Joe explaining via voiceover that we need to go back a few months to understand what happened. Through this flashback, we see Joe being pursued by two repo guys after he’s fallen behind on his car payments, and hides his car in a seemingly abandoned old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. A woman’s voice calls out to him, mistaking him for the man she organised to bury her pet chimp, and Joe realises that he has stumbled upon the home of forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond.

Norma lives by herself with her devoted servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) in her opulent but now decrepit mansion surrounded by photographs and relics of her time as a star. Norma asks Joe to read over a script she’s written, and with some clever psychological trickery, she hires him as a script doctor. He lives with her in the house, indulges her fantasies, allows her to fawn over him and shower him with extravagant gifts until her insanity and jealousy reaches such a degree that she shoots him in the back. And that’s how Joe ends up in Norma Desmond’s pool.

It’s an incredible performance, Swanson teetering dangerously between the tragic and the absurd as she swans about her mansion with those enormous eyes and salubrious voice and gesticulations. She is proud and willingly blind to the cruel reality that the world that once adored and loved her has left her in the shadows. Its an eerie image, this formidable woman decked out in her furs and diamonds while her home is falling apart around her, vines and thickets creeping across the walls, the beautifully gilded halls dusty and unused. The film is filled with striking images, many with Norma Desmond in extraordinary silhouettes, head tilted back and her arms raised with her hands poised like talons. Her entire life is a delusion, and to convince herself that the world she has created for herself is indeed a reality, her behaviour is, in a strange way, understandable. Until of course, her insanity completely consumes her and she glides down her stairs to a house full of policemen and reporters thinking she’s filming on set, to deliver one of the most famous closing lines in cinema, “Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

I often think the role women have played in film get a bad rap, again Gloria Swanson demonstrates the calibre of performances and the strong, individualistic and empowered characters which women have played in cinema since the Golden Age. While I think that her performance is absolutely on par with Bette Davis, arguably even more so, I don’t think “Sunset Boulevard” as a film is quite as compelling as “All About Eve”. When Swanson isn’t on screen, the story actually drags a little and the romance between Joe and his screenwriting assistant Betty (Nancy Olson) feels laboured and uninteresting, serving only really as a plot device to incense Norma’s jealousy. The film shines when Swanson is able to shine, and interestingly enough, is one of those rare cases of art imitating life. Having not grown up in the times when silent films were the norm, its fascinating to think about the actors and directors who were so big during the twenties and thirties all of a sudden being abandoned in the wake of the talkies. Swanson herself was a silent movie star, as was Erich von Stroheim, and the film is probably the first of its kind to highlight what a brutal transition it often was for those in the industry.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a unique and harrowing experience, with a deservedly acclaimed performance from the film’s lead. Gloria Swanson commands the audience’s complete attention, so much so that the scenes in which the camera diverts from her feel somewhat underwhelming. Even so, this is an important role, and one of those few performances which I think has potentially influenced the course of cinema ever since.

By Jock Lehman

The Guns of Navarone

*Sunday Classic*

What an absolute beauty!

J. Lee Thompson’s “The Guns of Navarone” is a roaringly entertaining action WWII flick, complete with sterling performances from some of the best actors of its time and some pretty interesting commentary on the ethics of warfare. There was a moment about three quarters of the way through, where I had been watching and wondering why the film felt so familiar, and I realised that it was because I had seen it with my grandfather when I was about seven. Admittedly I had been waiting until he fell asleep in his big comfy telly chair (this wasn’t too much to ask for considering he nodded off all the time and I had just poured him a whiskey, my special job whenever my sisters and I visited) to turn it over to Cartoon Network, but it was a fun little memory nonetheless. It did make me a little bit sad however, to realise that he used to love the old films on Fox Classics and I never really paid attention, because it would have been fun to watch “The Guns of Navarone” with him again now.

WWII epics are a great genre in their own right; I’m excited to see “Bridge Over the River Kwai” having now seen “The Guns of Navarone”. The film isn’t exactly steeped in fact, but is based off Alastair MacLean’s 1957 novel off the same name following the efforts of a commando unit comprising an assortment of individuals from the Allied forces to destroy a formidable German fortress on an the Greek island of Kheros, which was threatening and preventing Allied naval ships from freeing some 2000 British soldiers marooned. Comprising this assault team are Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), acclaimed spy Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck with a confusingly American accent considering he’s playing a British Captain), Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), a Colonel from the Greek army, explosives expert and devilishly charming Corporal Miller (David Niven) Greco-American and Navarone local Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) and “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker) so named because of his expertise in knife fighting. They are later joined by Spyros’ sister Maria (Irene Papas) and her friend Anna (Gia Scala), who hasn’t spoken since she had been captured and tortured by German soldiers.

Despite the film being well over two hours, its so action packed and slickly paced that the run time just flew by. The dialogue between the characters is clipped and beautifully written, aided of course by Niven’s sensational old school British brogue and Gregory Peck’s transatlantic lilt. The sparring between the protagonists is particularly gripping when they debate the moral justifications of manipulation and deceit in the name of the mission, and the danger that misplaced mercy can play in warfare. The plot is interesting, because the primary goal in terms of the war is gripping enough in itself, but when the individual resentments and conflicts within the group threaten the mission, (and a brilliantly executed betrayal that came out of absolutely nowhere), its absolutely spellbinding.

As an action film, “The Guns of Navarone” is jam pack full of spectacle and suspense. The set pieces and stunt work are phenomenal, especially so when their boat is barraged with cyclonic rain and when the men scale a towering cliff off the coast of Greece before launching their attack on Navarone. The combat scenes are fast paced and sharp and the game of cat and mouse between our crew and the enemy is wildly entertaining. The baddies are real baddies, the soundtrack is patriotic and exciting and we want the good guys to win and there’s something so refreshing about how uncomplicated it all is. My heart pounded when things were looking tense, I was often genuinely sitting on the edge of my seat and (the film’s been around for a little while now so hopefully this isn’t spoiling it for anybody) when the good guys do win and the baddies get whats coming to them, I was practically beaming.

Epic action flicks from this era really do it well. This was a riveting, often thought provoking and wonderfully fun ride, with some superb actors doing their thing and a barrage of phenomenal action scenes which still hold up today. This is the kind of movie that knows exactly what its doing and knows what its audience is looking for. “The Guns of Navarone” is a good old fashioned romp of a movie which I’ll no doubt be returning to again, maybe next time with a glass of whiskey and a cheers to my grandpa.

By Jock Lehman

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

The worst thing a horror movie can be is boring.

If the characters are idiots and the scares are stupid and predictable and the monsters are cheesy then the experience becomes fun on an ironic level. If the plot is nonsensical but the jump scares are half decent then at least we get a bit of an adrenaline rush and something different than if we had chosen one of the other movies screening that day. If a horror movie is dull though, there’s none of the fun, none of the kick and all those other annoying elements which would have been excusable if the movie had actually been scary come to the forefront. The third instalment in the “Conjuring” series, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”, has none of the finesse or slick suspense of the first two and drags on for nearly two hours with a dry plot, cookie cutter characters, no decent scary bits and a seriously boring villain made even more disappointing considering it came at the back of the iconic imagery of the Nun in “The Conjuring 2”.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is based on the true story of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a young man who in 1981, pleaded not guilty to murder of his landlord by means of demonic possession. It was pretty sensational at the time, and I think the trial itself may have been a lot more interesting than the direction the film ended up going. Demon busting Ed and Lorraine Warren, (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are back again to kick ass and send the spirit that infiltrated the bodies of little 8 year old David Glatzel and Arne Johnson back to the underworld. That’s pretty much the story, although this time round there’s a bit of a police investigation slant to it, as this demon has been popping up over the country for a while now and the Warrens have to put on their detective hats as well as their ghost busting… pants.

It’s a pretty remarkable story considering the court case and murder actually happened, and one which would have done well if it had been steeped in reality and we had the opportunity to follow the trial and watch it all play out. We don’t get to see any of this though, and as a ghost story, it’s pretty average. There’s a pissed off demon, some creepy looking pagan altars and some reasonably impressive exorcism scenes but none of it was particularly scary or memorable. And because there’s nothing left to distract us, it’s suddenly pretty blatant how painfully boring and uninteresting the Warrens really are. Vera Farmiga in particular is actually a pretty decent actress, but the perpetual crease of concern in between her unbelievably wide eyes grew pretty tiring and I found it strange that both of them still respond with abject horror when they make contact with naughty worldly spirits, considering that it’s been their career for thirty years.

The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of a proper monster or villain, which for these kinds of horrors are important. The Nun in “The Conjuring 2” haunted me for days after I saw it, and importantly was established early in the film so we knew as an audience what we were supposed to be afraid of. In this instance, the shape and form of the demon keeps changing and it’s incredibly anti-climactic when we finally learn that the source of all the hassle is an anaemic looking woman who became obsessed with cults as a teenager.

This whole thing felt rushed, sloppy and was an incredibly disappointing conclusion to the trilogy, surprisingly so considering the source material is actually pretty unique and in the right hands could have been a fascinating and gripping watch. Instead, director Michael Chaves has slugged out an unmemorable and uninspired hash of lukewarm horror movie tropes that takes itself too seriously to be any fun but was nowhere near slick enough for the audience’s collective heart rate to transcend anything above what we experienced while watching the trailer for “Raya, The Last Dragon”.

By Jock Lehman

Cruella

These live action Disney remakes aren’t going anywhere by the looks of it. Some of them have been shocking (“The Lion King”, “Dumbo”, any of the Tim Burton “Alice” disasters), some have been average (“Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin”) and some have actually been fantastic and properly demonstrated why remakes can work and warrant their production (“Maleficent”, “Cinderella”, “The Jungle Book”). Craig Gillespie’s 2021 “Cruella” probably fits somewhere in between the latter two categories; the story is fun for the most part, its visually stunning, the set pieces and costume design are engaging and clever, there are a few good plot twists and heist sequences, but as an origin story for the iconic character of Cruella De Vil, it really doesn’t do the job at all.

The film opens with the first of many erroneous narrations by Cruella (Emma Stone) telling us that “from the beginning she’s always made a statement, not everyone appreciated that”. And in case you couldn’t click that Cruella was different to the other kids, she handily tells the audience that “from an early age, I realised that I saw the world differently than everyone else”. Get it? Because she’s different. Born Estella, she gets her nickname from her mother who says to her while they’re sewing and Estella decides not to use the pattern… “Your name is Estella, not Cru-ella!” I sure hope someone patted themselves on the back for that. Estella is orphaned at a young age when her mother is killed by a mysterious assailant at a glamorous ball in the countryside, and she falls in with two young thieves who live in an abandoned warehouse and grift all over London. They grow up together, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) Oliver Twist-ing it all over the place but Estella longs to work in high fashion. Through a series of well timed ruses, Estella catches the eye of fashion legend “The Baroness” (Emma Thompson) and lands a job in her glamorous design house. Soon enough however, the sweet Estella is overcome by the devastatingly fabulous, ambitious and snarky persona of Cruella and a battle ensues between Cruella and the Baroness for the pinnacle of London fashion.

When the script isn’t trying desperately to leap through hoops to convince us that the characters in this film are really the same characters as in “101 Dalmations”, there’s a good little heist movie here. Not that it really makes any sense that Cruella De Vil got to where she was through a cross between intricate spy work and a well executed PR campaign, but its fun nonetheless. The scenes in which Cruella and her team ambush the Baroness’ public events with flashy and edgy expositions of Cruella’s new couture designs are seriously impressive. The costumes too deserve mention, I think as an audience member you only really notice the costumes in a film if they’re particularly good or particularly terrible, and these were sensational. These are the strongest elements of the film, with some genuinely impressive plot twists and some unbelievable heist sequences set to a fun score and some creative camera work. But as an origin story… boy it misses the mark badly.

I like Emma Stone as an actress; I think she’s funny and endearing, by far the best part of 2016’s “La La Land” and well deserving of her Oscar. Unfortunately here though, she’s been incredibly miscast. Its not that her performance is necessarily bad, its just that its not Cruella De Vil. Despite her best efforts, Stone comes across as far too wide eyed, awkward and naive to ever be properly considered a true villain. While I was watching her performance, I was remembering Glenn Close in the 1995 live action version of “101 Dalmations” and realising just how far Stone had missed the mark, portraying a villain closer to Miranda Priestly than Miss De Vil. Emma Thompson as the Baroness does a reasonable job, again nothing that we haven’t seen Meryl Streep or Bette Midler do before, with a haughty and icy demeanour and a whole lotta shoulder pads, but a reasonable job nonetheless.

The thing is, Cruella De Vil is evil. She’s not a scary corporate figure or passive aggressive matriarch, she’s properly evil, with a frenzied, manic laugh and prone to sudden and violent rages which totally consume her and flare up those wicked old eyes. All Stone has really taken from the character is the Patsy Stone-esque sort of voice, the high fashion and the black and white hair. Nothing in how she carried herself or spoke oozed with the arrogance, insanity, confidence and, well, cruelty that the character requires. Where is Cruella’s famous long cigarette? Why is Cruella De Vil, who is famous for wanting to skin and murder puppies for a designer coat, running around London with a terrier as her sidekick? And why are the two witless and incompetent conmen from “101 Dalmations” all of a sudden her childhood friends, even going so far as suggesting a romantic connection between her and Jasper? There’s not even anything to suggest why she becomes as despicable as she is in “101 Dalmations”; by the end of the film she’s still a hero, having vanquished the true villain and righted the wrongs with the friends she treated badly. When you compare the reasoning behind the character’s supposed transition to wickedness to say, the harrowing scene in “Maleficent” where Maleficent wakes up and realises that her wings had been stolen from her, it doesn’t even come close.

What Disney has done here is create an entertaining story which exists well enough independently, but is then compromised by trying to messily cram in tenuous and inorganic references to the “101 Dalmations” world in which these characters are supposed to inhabit. The story is surprisingly fun, but its not a story which fits the universe of Cruella De Vil and Emma Stone is not the actress who should have been taking it on.

By Jock Lehman