Who’d have thought that Ben Affleck would end up becoming one of Hollywood’s most interesting and consistent directors? His latest venture “Air”, is just as slick, just as urgent and just as gripping as “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” or “Argo”, and somehow manages to be so while telling a story rooted in the comparatively drab world of sports marketing. “Air” follows in the stead of such real life, behind the scenes dramas as “Moneyball”, “The Social Network” or “The Post” and succeeds in taking a very narrow, very specific and seemingly inconsequential aspect of legendary NBA player Michael Jordon’s ascension to stardom and making it, if not sexy, then exciting at the very least.

“Air” tells the true story of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the somewhat rogue basketball talent scout for the fledging Nike basketball shoe division, who in 1984 revolutionised the industry by investing Nike’s entire talent budget of $250,000.00 (intended for three basketball different players) in generational young talent Michael Jordon and building the now legendary Air Jordan sneakers around his image. The film follows Vaccaro from the conception of his idea, navigating initial resistance from the Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) and convincing Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis) to sign on Jordon as spokesperson before the 1984 draft.

“Air” surprisingly relies very little on Michael Jordan as an athlete or even really features him at all; Affleck cleverly barely shows the face of the actor playing the 21 year old Jordan, explaining in a recent interview that “Jordan is too big. He exists above and around the story, but if you ever concretize him, if you ever say, ‘Yes, that’s Michael Jordan,’ we know it’s not, really. It’s fake.” And he’s right. In this film Michael Jordan hasn’t yet become Michael Jordan; he’s still a concept and a business risk. There is a whole other film to be made about Michael Jordon’s time as a basketball star, but this one is not it. I also think it could strangely be seen as a sign of respect to Jordan and how much of a legend he is – no mortal actor could possibly emulate him and it would be sacriligeous to try. One thing I did think was clever however was during the corporate meeting with Jordan, his parents and the Nike executives in which Vaccaro explains what is likely to happen to him if he takes on this deal and how the media would villify him, while showing real life footage and newspaper headlines of the scandals that would later tarnish his career.

The tricky thing here is being able to maintain suspense and urgency where the audience already knows what’s going to happen, and the film is able to do so because of a tightly orchestrated script. We already know that Nike is eventually successful in signing Jordan and that Jordan becomes a giant in the sporting world, but it’s still a genuinely hair raising scene as Sonny sits by the phone waiting for the call from Jordan’s mother to confirm that he’s taken the offer. It’s an extremely dialogue heavy film, and it’s understandable why; Affleck can’t rely on car chases or escape sequences like in his other thrillers to generate atmosphere. What was unexpected however was the amount of comedic relief in the film, particularly between Vaccaro and Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) demonstrated by some pretty genius schoolboy level insults in one scene – “Everyone has herpes! You know why you don’t Sonny? Because no one will fuck you! No one!”

This film is so much fun, due largely to a sensational screenplay from Alex Convery and some bang on performances from an ensemble cast of well established Hollywood veterans. The stakes may not be as high as your typical action thriller (Jason Bourne with a paunch and a daggy golf shirt makes that pretty obvious from the start), but I think that’s all part of the appeal. Affleck has taken a story which has no business being interesting at all and turned it into a solid piece of entertainment.

By Jock Lehman

The Whale

Darren Aronofsky is known for his intriguing central protagonists; not necessarily tragic heroes in the traditional sense but individuals who at least convey some sense of morality or innocence when they’re first introduced. And then Aronofsky absolutely destroys them; physically, morally, spiritually. We watch as these characters succumb to depravity of the most devastating order; finally obtaining what they always wanted but sacrificing their souls in the process. Sara Goldfarb in “Requiem for a Dream” receiving electroshock therapy in her beautiful red dress that she was going to wear on television, Nina in “Black Swan” reaching artistic perfection but dying upon achieving it, Randy Robinson in “The Wrestler” ignoring the pains in his chest and performing his signature move to the screams of his adoring fans. They are all somewhat grotesque in their downfall, a horrific and tragic shadow of whatever semblance of the good person they once were. What is interesting about “The Whale”, is that Charlie’s character arc is actually one of redemption. And that’s a significant subversion in Aronofsky’s style; the film’s protagonist actually achieves what he desires at the film’s inception, but also conversely gains peace with the world.

“The Whale” is a very simple story; Charlie Harkonnen (Brendan Fraser) is an English instructor – gay, divorced, morbidly obese after the loss of his boyfriend, estranged from his daughter and confined to his dingy house where his only visitor is his nurse Liz (Hong Chau). Liz constantly urges Charlie to go to hospital as he’s at severe risk for congenital heart failure, but he insists that he can’t afford it. This is a lie however; he has $120,000 in his bank account and offers it to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is also somewhat of a derelict, to spend time with him without telling her mother. He will also rewrite her English essays since she’s failing, his only condition that she write honestly for him in a notebook he gives her. We learn about his world, confined to his dark flat, and his interactions through the glass with his pizza deliveryman. As Charlie’s health deteriorates, he abandons all pride or shame about his condition in a final desperate attempt to find something good and honest before he dies.

Aronofsky’s capacity for portraying the grotesque and horrific is on full display here. Just like the symbol of Moby Dick the white whale (which is effectively albeit perhaps a little heavy handedly evoked throughout the film), Aronofsky challenges us to see beyond the monstrous image of what Charlie has become to the good man underneath. And the imagery is deliberately confronting; the sight of Charlie lumbering shirtless across his house is one that barely resembles a man at all anymore, but a hulking, terrifying beast. A spectacle which is both awe inspiring and terrifying. The sound as he chows down on his bucket of fried chicken is exacerbated to evoke revulsion; again, not a man but a pig going to town on its bucket of slops. Aronofsky has been criticised for being insensitive or even cruel in his portrayal of Charlie. I don’t think this is justified however; there is an ongoing theme in this story of finding beauty where others aren’t able to. In order for this theme to make any sense at all, it needs to be evident why Charlie is afraid to show himself to the world outside. And why he doesn’t feel he deserves to be seen.

This is where casting Brendan Fraser was such a brilliant move; there is a beautiful warmth in Fraser’s face and eyes which permeates through all the make up and prosthetics. Even his voice in the opening credits feels like a welcome cuddle from an old friend. And in a sense it is, this is Fraser’s first major film role in years. He too in a way had been forgotten and cast aside from the world, so the whole thing just fits. And his performance is phenomenal. Of course the prosthetics have played a major role in being able to portray the character, but the way in which Fraser has embodied the physicality of Charlie and the strength required to even walk with that kind of weight is extraordinary. Fraser brings humanity to Charlie, and humour and pain. However his relationship with Liz is probably the only one that really rings properly true, due largely to the chemistry between Chau and Fraser, but also because the other characters in the film aren’t as well constructed. The way his disgruntled deadbeat daughter Ellie is written isn’t entirely convincing, and as such their reconciliation and her obnoxious teenage angst felt somewhat forced. As is the unusual subplot involving Ellie and a missionary named Thomas (Ty Sympkins).

There is a lot to admire in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale”, far beyond just the film’s make up and prosthetics team. This is a powerful, fable-esque story with a formidable central performance in Brendan Fraser and an unexpectedly beautiful message in the redemptive power in seeking “something honest” in life.

By Jock Lehman

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Originality is important in cinema, especially at the moment where the market is so heavily saturated in prosthetic heavy biopics, franchise sequels and bastardised live action remakes of Disney animations that a fresh story is relatively scarce to come by. So in this sense, Daniel Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s (known collectively as the “Daniels”) absurdist action comedy ninja inspired family melodrama “Everything Everywhere All At Once” should be commended; it’s a highly creative premise and uniquely, even effectively at times blends a number of genres. Unfortunately, originality alone isn’t enough to result in a good quality film, and by every other available metric, “EEAAO” is a wash of half baked concepts deluded with philosophical grandeur and some talented actors who try their hardest to keep up with it all.

As I said, the core premise is a clever one; Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a Chinese American immigrant who runs a laundromat with her timid and browbeaten husband Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan) and is at constant war with her gay daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), antagonising her even further when she introduces Joy’s girlfriend to the family patriarch Gong Gong (veteran actor James Gong) as her “very good friend” instead of her girlfriend. Evelyn is disenchanted with her life, and longs for excitement and adventure. While their business is being audited by humourless IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is accosted by an alternate version of her husband who tells her that there are infinite parallel universes created by the choices that people make. A version of Evelyn created the technology necessary to jump across these universes and absorb the experiences and talents of all of individual’s alternate selves. Evelyn is now faced with the reality that a hellish, all powerful version of Joy, called Jobu, and Jobu’s army, are set to destroy the multiverse and Evelyn is the only one who can stop her.

One of the biggest issues with this film is that there is absolutely no subtlety, no nuance or even a brief moment of reprieve for the audience to properly process the story. And if the film was just an action, sci-fi, ninja kind of film then that might not matter, but it insists on being all of that as well as a family melodrama and an existential exploration of existence and the meaning of life as well as a critique on gay relationships within the Chinese culture. It just seems like every easy road that could have been taken has been taken; it’s far easier to hurl at an audience surface level profundity a dozen different ways rather than just properly exploring one or two. Oh and then for good measure they’ve thrown in some seriously lazy comedy because hey, these boys are deep but they can still have some fun. Perhaps the “Daniels” realised that they had bitten off more than their audience can chew, and knowing that they don’t have the time to spare that it would take to properly flesh out any of these themes, they’ve written dialogue that instructs the audience how they’re supposed to feel instead. “The Only Thing I Do Know Is That We Have To Be Kind. Please, Be Kind. Especially When We Don’t Know What’s Going On.” Goodie. They’re some quality Best Screenplay Oscar worthy words right there.

Performance wise, none of the lead roles are particularly strong. It’s almost insulting that Michelle Yeoh is being honoured for this considering how powerful she was in 2001’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (one of the best films of the 2000s). That was an Oscar worthy role; dignified and timeless with actual depth to her performance. To see her go from that to the crude spectacle of her scoring cheap laughs with kung fu sequences peppered with dildos, sausage fingers and butt plugs was embarrassing. Also, and this goes for Ke Huy Kwan as well, because a lot of the dialogue is in English and the fast paced nature of the action scenes require a rapid delivery, both actors aren’t able to deliver their lines with the same authenticity and urgency as if they had spoken in their native tongue. It’s such a relief when they are able to speak with each other in Mandarin; the flow of the conversation is so much more organic and you can tell the actors are finally able to concentrate on emoting rather than getting the English perfect. As for Jamie Lee Curtis, this is probably one of the least deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscars ever awarded. What exactly does she do in this film that is so extraordinary? She wears an unflattering cardigan and a dowdy wig and delivers about a dozen lines of completely forgettable dialogue with no tonality in her voice. Some have argued that it’s a career Oscar (which all three were undoubtedly intended, in the same vein as Judi Dench and Alan Arkin), but since when has Jamie Lee Curtis been so valuable to Hollywood that a token Oscar was ever even warranted? She’s been in a handful of decent comedies, a couple of good action flicks and the Halloween horror series, so who knows, perhaps as she acknowledged, her status as a “nepo baby” has helped.

Even now I found it hard to see what else exactly “EEAAT” has going for it. The performances are lack lustre (as nice as it was to see Ke Huy Kwan be presented with an Oscar by Harrison Ford, it doesn’t take away the fact that neither he, Jamie Lee Curtis or Michelle Yeoh deserved their awards for these performances), the character development is almost non existent, the script is clumsy and heavy handed and the whole thing just felt a little cheap, and needed to be edited with a whipper snipper. The appeal in the creativity of the core story manages to creep through every once in a while, but is far too often lost in what is a truly garbled mess of a film, with no depth, no finesse and (as much as it might have tried), no heart.

By Jock Lehman

The Banshees of Inisheerin

Martin McDonagh has found an unlikely but endearing partnership in Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Their on screen chemistry was a crucial ingredient in the success of the 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges”. While it’s perhaps not as organic in his latest film “The Banshees of Inisheerin”, the duo’s rapport is still a solid foundation for what is a hauntingly beautiful and fable-esque tale about friendship and identity. There are admittedly times when the script could have been a little tighter and some of the roles are potentially a little underdeveloped, but overall, “Inisheerin” is a thoroughly original and evocative story, with the stunning backdrop of the eerily beautiful Achill Island off the coast of Ireland acting as a central character in itself.

The film opens in 1923 near the end of the Irish civil war, in a small agricultural community on a remote island called Inisheerin. Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) have been close friends for years, but one day when Padraic sits next to Colm for a beer at their local pub, Colm tells him not to sit with him. Not only that, Colm has decided that he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Padraic hasn’t done anything, Colm isn’t mad, Colm just doesn’t like him anymore and wants to spend the rest of his waning years focusing on his composing. Not only that, but every time Padraic talks to him from then on, Colm promises that he will chop off one of his fingers with his shears and throw it at Padraic’s front door. The dynamic of this new relationship plays out across the course of the film; not only how it affects them, but also the local townsfolk, including Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) and local nineteen year old sweet natured simpleton Dominic (Barry Keoghan).

To begin with, the concept of a long term companion telling another that he doesn’t want to continue the friendship is a fairly novel one. We’re used to seeing romantic relationships break up in films, but other than that one episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry debates how to break up with an obnoxious friend of his, I can’t think of another example of it. And it’s a strong premise for a story. By setting it on an island at this time in history, the usual routes of simply avoiding the friend wouldn’t work. I think there’s an interesting story to be told of how this would play out within the confines of usual human dynamics, but this isn’t that film. It takes a very surreal and dark turn quite quickly, as Colm begins to lop off his fingers and hurl them at Padraic’s door. It’s an almost Shakespearean twist to the story, but it’s somewhat jarring and the dialogue between the characters as they try and reconcile it doesn’t quite fit the same tone.

Actually, the script in general isn’t the film’s strongest suit. The interactions between Padraic and Colm to me don’t ring true, and a big part of that is because we never actually see them when they’re originally friends. I think that the loss of the friendship would have been more impactful had we been able to see what was good and special about it in the first place. There’s also an ongoing theme of “being nice”, and it’s brought up constantly, and spoken about constantly. I’m not sure why exactly, but it just seemed like lazy and very literal writing to me. ““My mammy, she was nice. I remember her. And my daddy, he was nice. I remember him. And my sister, she’s nice. I’ll remember her. Forever I’ll remember her.”Perhaps it’s just a little heavy handed, in a film where symbolism is otherwise paramount to the story.

This is a strong ensemble cast, and Farrell does especially well in showcasing the bewilderment and hurt in Padraic’s good natured face gradually transition to resentment and bitterness. As Colm loses his fingers, so too does Padraic lose his optimism and belief of the goodness in his world. This transition is also reflected in the cinematography and how the island is portrayed. The serene beauty of Inisheerin’s sloping hills transgress to menacing cliffs and brutal seas as the story darkens. The stand out performance however is undoubtedly Barry Keoghan as Dominic, responsible for many of the film’s genuinely hilarious moments but also evokes some gut wrenching pathos. The scene in which he professes his love for Siobhan was so beautifully done, and was the moment when he clinched his Best Supporting Actor nom. (As happy as I am for He Huy Kwan for his win at the Oscars, Keoghan objectively gives the better performance and he was absolutely robbed). Kerry Condon is also impressive as the headstrong voice of reason. She knows that Padraic is a fool, and a dull fool at that, but he doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him and Condon’s depiction of Siobhan’s no nonsense, protective nature is pitch perfect.

“The Banshees of Inisheerin” is not without its faults; it meanders at times and the moral of the story sometimes does clash with the realities of human nature. However, what McDonagh has done is created a thought provoking and whimsical film with an outstanding ensemble cast; often funny, surprisingly dark and always exquisitely Irish.

By Jock Lehman

The Menu

The world of fine dining restaurants is prime for satire, but one which I haven’t necessarily seen done well before. While watching Mark Mylod’s “The Menu”, I imagined a mockumentary in the style of Christopher Guest’s 2000 hit “Best In Show” in which various members of the elite world of Michelin star restaurants and gastric infusions are interviewed in the lead up to a high end New York restaurant being awarded its third Michelin star. The various wacky characters of this world would be interviewed and everyone would have a good time. And now that Jennifer Coolidge is back in everyone’s good books, she could play the rich heiress who is eating her caviar without toast since she’s on Atkins. The thing is, “The Menu” has all the building blocks for something exactly like this and for the first say half hour to forty minutes of the film, this is sort of the direction in which the film was going anyway. It’s quick, slick, biting and often very funny. But then, about a third of the way through the film, the often clever and sharp satire with whispers of something sinister is abruptly subverted into a full blown horror, and unfortunately it’s just not a very good one.

An elite party of guests have been invited to Hawthorn, an enormously exclusive and acclaimed fine dining restaurant run by eccentric celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and located on an island only accessible for guests by boat. We have ardent foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sanctimonious food critic and her editor, a wealthy older couple who use Hawthorn as their regular haunt, a group of sleazy businessmen and a D grade movie star and his publicist. It becomes clear very soon that this is no ordinary evening and Chef Slowik has not prepared an ordinary menu for this group. As the evening progresses, the twisted intentions of Slowik and his staff are revealed as a sadistic game in which each course of the menu teaches the guests some kind of perverse and violent lesson of morality (not dissimilar to the murders in David Fincher’s “Se7en”. And it’s not to be an evening which any of them will survive).

As I said, the initial commentary on the pretentiousness of this world is pitch perfect, down to the description of a Pinot Noir which has been hyper-decanted with an immersion blender to awaken it from its slumber and a flavour palate of Slavonian oak, rich cherry and tobacco notes, with a faint sense of longing and regret. Or the first course of plants from around the island, placed on rocks from the shore, covered in barely frozen, filtered seawater which will flavor the dish as it melts. The pontification around the food and the culinary process is pompous to the point of ridiculous, but never so far that it’s completely removed from reality. And listening to the guests justifying and pretending to comprehend the genius of some of the more outlandish items of the menu (for instance that the decision not to serve bread as it’s the food of the common man, not fit for the likes of the guests attending Hawthorn) is hysterical.

Once it becomes obvious that Chef and the restaurant staff aren’t putting on a show but are actually deranged, the film loses what made it unique and fun. It stops becoming a critique of the silliness of the world of fine dining, which is an intriguing and original premise, and becomes just another entrapment thriller with a sociopath at the helm. The motivations of Chef Slowik as a villain are pretty flimsy (not that they necessarily need to be steeped in logic for a movie like this, but there’s a fair bit of philosophical and moralistic musings that go on with not a whole lot of substance to them). The performances suffer as well once the shift to horror occurs, because each character has been created based on how they fit in to the wanky world of high class restaurants. So each of the guests are pretty intriguing for the first act, but soon dissolve into faceless horror movie drones with nothing remotely interesting to do other than respond to the increasing amounts of blood being splattered across the place. Fiennes too is far more engaging when we think he’s an eccentric and highly strung chef, because once you find out he’s a mass murderer, the bar for his character to be unique shifts dramatically. We’ve seen plenty of psychopathic whackos in film so any new ones have got to be pretty impressive for them to stick out.

During the first few courses, (before the guests figure out for sure that Slovik is insane and probably going to kill them all), there is an underlying sense of unease and creepiness about the whole place which is chilling. Somehow this is more unnerving than when the film loses all pretence and becomes a full blown slasher, abandoning all subtlety. I suppose similar to the way in which it’s always scarier when Michael Myers is hiding in the shadows compared to when he actually springs forth and stabs his victims.

There was such a promising premise here, and for a good 40 minutes of “The Menu” I was completely sold. The underlying sense of foreboding was enough to make the audience feel uneasy while still leaving room to poke fun at the high fliers of the culinary world. It was a winning formula which got thrown out the window far too quickly, and it’s a shame. And Christopher Guest, if you’re reading (what am I talking about, of course you are) I’ve already got some dialogue written for the food critic who is convinced that tapioca is the new frontier in fine dining.

By Jock Lehman

Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical

Danny DeVito’s 1996 family comedy “Matilda” is one of my favourite films. Perfectly dark, funny, terrifying and heartwarming, with brilliantly constructed and beautifully ridiculous character, it convinced kids all over the world that they too could move things with their mind if only they concentrated hard enough. I’m pretty sure I popped a blood vessel in my eye trying to topple my sister’s glass of milk into her stupid face during breakfast one day. Although I probably should have known better, being 19 years old at the time. Thankfully, Tim Minchin’s new adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is not an attempted remake of DeVito’s movie and bears little resemblance to it at all (in reality it’s a filmic adaptation of Minchin’s stage musical of the same name). It allows the audience to enjoy a new and fresh interpretation without compromising their memories of the original, which of course can’t be said for any number of the recent horrendous Disney live action remakes.

One of the biggest differences between the two films, and probably more in keeping with the original book, is that Minchin’s Matilda is set in Britain, complete with dreary weather, grey school uniforms, gothic style buildings and twee English accents. I like how much Minchin has leaned into it as well, there are a number of uniquely English expressions used by the characters which I thought would have been cut out to accommodate American audiences, and I’m glad he didn’t. Dahl himself was British, and it was nice to see his work represented through this lens.

As far as the characters go, they’re certainly not as well rounded as in the book or as in DeVito’s. Mr and Mrs Wormwood (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough) feature much less in this version, and are ridiculous to the point of cartoonish. This may have to do with the fact that this is a musical and a fairly campy one at that so the supporting cast doesn’t necessarily have the time to be properly fleshed out in lieu of yet another thigh slapping show tune. Lashana Lynch is sweet as Miss Honey, but the whole sub-plot of Matilda creating stories in her mind that ended up being Miss Honey’s actual tragic life story was a bizarre and unnecessary addition in a film that was already running long.

Strangely, even though Alisha Weir as Matilda is plucky and extremely likeable, and does a pretty extraordinary job for a little girl (I had to keep reminding myself of this, that all the chorus members flipping off tables and somersaulting in mid air were only kids), I don’t think how the character is written really represents the little girl in Dahl’s book. Matilda in the story and DeVito’s version is softly spoken and lonely, finding solace and friendship only in her books. That’s why it was such a sobering moment when Harry Wormwood tears up Matilda’s copy of Moby Dick in the DeVito version, whereas in this version it’s a comedic moment where he struggles with it in an over the top fashion and the scene is silly rather than, well, traumatic. Over the course of the story, Matilda’s confidence and courage grows as does her magic. In Minchin’s version, Matilda is already yelling and stomping her feet and hashtagging girl power all over the place from the moment she steps foot in Crunchem Hall so there’s no real character arc over the course of the story. And there’s a surprising lack of engagement with regard to Matilda’s magic too; one minute she’s making something wobble and two seconds later she’s summoning a demon from the underworld made out of chains to jelly wrestle Miss Trunchbull.

As far as Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull goes, she’s categorically fine. She doesn’t blow the performance out of the water and she doesn’t do the character an injustice either. It’s just that I don’t know how many ways there really are to interpret Miss Trunchbull; she’s a pretty distinctive creation and Pam Ferris did it so perfectly that Thompson didn’t really stand a chance to make it her own. The chorus of school kids however are phenomenal, and the song and dance sequences, particularly in the climactic final scene, are spectacular.

Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” is frenetic, exciting, funny and oh so British with an extraordinary debut performance by twelve year old Alisha Weir as Matilda, some catchy songs (albeit perhaps a little too many) and spellbinding set pieces. It’s not without its flaws, but overall, this is a fresh and energetic interpretation of Dahl’s story, and best of all, completely enjoyable in its own right.

By Jock Lehman

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

There’s a scene in Rian Johnson’s latest murder mystery “Glass Onion” in which the film’s sleuth proclaims to his room full of suspects that the murderer’s attempt at pulling the wool over his eyes was just dumb. So dumb it’s brilliant, someone asks. No, just dumb. It seemed to me a strange thing to draw attention to, especially since the plot of “Glass Onion” and the twists of the murderer’s scheme are exactly that; flimsy, uninspired and well, dumb. This is particularly disappointing as Johnson’s earlier instalment “Knives Out” had been such an elegantly and meticulously written story, certainly in league with the Agatha Christie whodunnits that Johnson himself has admitted to have drawn inspiration.

Daniel Craig returns as Benoit Blanc, the smooth talking Southern detective who has achieved worldwide fame for his high profile cases but has found himself at somewhat of a loose end during COVID and reduced to playing Clue online in the bathtub with Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim. So when he and a group of individuals, each prominent in the public eye, each receive a mysterious puzzle box and an invitation to eccentric tech billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) Greek island for a murder mystery party, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered to bring him out of his funk. Once Blanc arrives however, he realises that the members of the party are friends from years before, and are individually indebted to Bron to some degree for their success. Rest assured, a murder occurs, a prior murder is uncovered and it is up to Blanc to uncover the mystery and stop the murderer before they strike again.

“Glass Onion” may have been marketed as a murder mystery, but it would be more appropriate to describe it as a vehicle for social commentary on public figures in post COVID 21st century and the corruption inherent in climbing the ladder to success. The problem with that it that there are just too many individuals on the island for Johnson be able to make any kind of meaningful statement about any of them, and so each one comes across as shallow and pretty feeble parodies instead. Edward Norton as Miles Bron is undoubtedly supposed to be Elon Musk, Kate Hudson as outspoken fashionista Birdie Jay is Kim Kardashian, Dave Bautista as men’s rights Youtube activist Duke Cody is Joe Rogan and Kathryn Hahn as Claire Debella, is any corrupt DC politician. If he had taken any one of them and fleshed them out properly I’m sure there could have been something there, but a murder mystery with a gaggle of potential suspects just isn’t the right platform for it. The characters in “Knives Out” for instance all had their political biases, but this was largely confined to one party scene in which they debate illegal immigration, for the rest of the film the family are all united in their greed in trying to revert the contents of the grandfather’s will to their own benefit.

The characters in “Glass Onion” are so heavily defined by their politics and by the figures that Johnson is trying to critique that it’s actually quite difficult to see them as what they are actually supposed to be, which are suspects in a murder. Their sole purpose is to provide conflicting motives, red herrings and assist the audience and sleuth in piecing together what happened. That’s genuinely it. These kinds of movies aren’t the platform for character studies, and I think Johnson has become a little misguided in trying to bite off more than he could chew. And the film suffers as a result.

The big reveals come across as rushed and unoriginal, and rather than the audience following Blanc as he interviews the suspects and solves the case, a third of the film is spent instead rewatching the first act from a different angle and it’s just not enjoyable. So when Blanc comes to the pivotal moment when he explains to everyone his theory, it’s as if he just came up with it on the spot. We haven’t accompanied him during his process and his eureka moments feels unearned; this is even despite the fact that the murderer hasn’t committed anything remotely clever or fiendish or swashbuckling.

One thing he does well, again in the style of Agatha Christie, is to create a setting and tone, down to the costuming, which is unique and completely isolated from his first film. While “Knives Out” was all about the rich greens, tweeds and mahoganies of New England, “Glass Onion” is equally about the dazzling turquoises and whites of the Greek islands. I was reminded of Christie’s “Evil Under the Sun” or “Death on the Nile”, and am sure that any further instalments will again feature some unique exotic location, perhaps a casino in Monte Carlo or a convent in Ireland. A ranch in Argentina or a Safari resort in the Savannah. It’s kind of fun to come up different combinations; a restaurant in Brussels, or a beekeeping estate in the Maldives? An emu farm in Alice Springs or a sultana plantation in Antartica?

I hope that Johnson continues to make these films, he’s a talented director and he’s got a distinctive, quite artistic style which I’m keen to see more of. The danger he faces I think is over complicating things. “Knives Out” worked as well as it did because it was a well orchestrated and well thought out murder mystery. By trying to force feed additional political and social critique where there just wasn’t room for it, “Glass Onion” has sacrificed the sophisticated writing and meticulously crafted plot points that made “Knives Out” so refreshingly exciting. “Glass Onion” is slick, beautifully and artistically shot, but in trying to coerce the film into being too many things at once, Johnson has produced a property that doesn’t really succeed at any of them.

By Jock Lehman

See How They Run

“Whodunnits” are surprisingly difficult to pull off. It’s a bit like horror films – there are plenty of them, most are mediocre, some are terrible and a very select few are memorable enough to really stand out. Tom George’s “See How They Run” certainly doesn’t bode well with the film’s constant reminders of the works of Agatha Christie, because it absolutely pales completely by comparison. As a whodunnit, it’s not horrendous but it’s still definitely nothing more than average and the requisite reveal at the film’s climax is underwhelming. Surprisingly though, the subpar plot and the bland murder mystery doesn’t completely upend the film, it’s the fun and unnecessarily delightful performance of Saoirse Ronan that makes “See How They Run” a diverting and entertaining hour and a half.

In the West End of 1950s London, the obnoxious director of Agatha Christie’s play “The Mousetrap” is found brutally murdered at the afterparty for the show’s 100th performance. Of course, in the style of Christie herself, everybody is a suspect and weathered Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), who has seen a thing or two in his life, is appointed to the case with wide eyed newbie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) hot in his wake writing down everything that’s being said with painstaking efficiency. Their investigation reveals a whole sordid underworld of London’s elite theatre types and a murderer that they never could have suspected, although Christie’s Hercule Poirot probably could have in about five minutes.

It’s genuinely such a pleasure to see Ronan in this film, she’s so talented at accents that it’s easy to forget her native Irish lilt. I’ve never really thought of her as a comedic actress (it’s hard to when her film catalogue boasts such lighthearted romps as “Atonement”, “Little Women” and “The Lovely Bones”) but she’s got undeniably good timing and her Leslie Knope-esque style performance is wholesome and endearing. In many ways, the times when Ronan’s dialogue is diverted to exposition or solving the murder is a shame because it reminds us how uninteresting the actual story is. Rockwell is nothing special as the battle hardy and embittered Stoppard, and largely serves as somebody to react to Stalker’s antics. What the director does manage to do is create a family friendly type of film where the comedy is wholesome, the grizzly death is muted and all the supporting cast (this is one aspect where a comparison to Christie is warranted) are all cheerfully unbothered that they’re all suspected murderers.

Unfortunately, despite Ronan’s best efforts, an audience is still going to expect a satisfying twist and at least some of that trademark Christie flair. The film’s “aha” moment is so lukewarm that I can barely remember it now. 2019’s “Knives Out” is a good example of a whodunnit which incorporates a modern flair into that timeless formula which makes Christie’s works like “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile” so accessible even now. “See How They Run” is still a fun time, and an easy “PG” flick which is accessible for the whole family, with a few unexpected laughs along the way.

By Jock Lehman

Don’t Worry Darling

Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” takes a concept and plot that’s not exactly new to Hollywood (I’m of course referring to the two filmic adaptations of Ira Levin’s 1972 feminist horror novel “The Stepford Wives”) and delivers something that has moments of style and fun but doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be or what point it’s trying to make and not even Florence Pugh’s admirable efforts can save it from derailing as it did.

As I said, the plot of this film is simply a re-interpretation of “The Stepford Wives”. Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) live in the idyllic 1950s-styled neighbourhood of Victory, California. Every morning, the men of the town drive off in unison in their Caddilacs to work for the mysterious “Victory Project” while their perky, sex kitten wives stay at home to tend to the chores, drink by the pool with the other women and prepare sumptuous steaks for when their hubbies return home, where they are waiting for them with a martini and a push up bra at the front door. Alice senses something isn’t quite right though, and isn’t as quick to dismiss her friend Margaret’s seemingly paranoid and deluded warnings about the Victory Project as the rest of the town is. What is it that the men of the town are hiding? What is actually going on at the ‘Victory Project” and who really is Frank (Chris Pine), their charismatic leader?

First and foremost, Florence Pugh is a phenomenal actress. She just is, and it won’t be long before she has an Oscar of her own. It’s obvious that she’s doing the best with what she’s given here, and Wilde makes the sensible decision to keep the camera on Pugh as often as possible. Unfortunately though, if a more mediocre actress had been cast in the lead role, it wouldn’t have been so obvious how meandering and clunky the rest of the film is. Pugh manages to dredge out some suspense and humour out of her performance, but is largely wasted and at times you can almost sense her frustration with this shallow script and banal direction. Harry Styles is irritating and distracting in a role that really should have been forgettable, although it didn’t help that every time he came on the screen the throngs of teenage girls in the audience either laughed or cheered. There’s one scene where he has long hair and they lost their freaking minds.

The initial depiction of the township of Victory is handled well, with a bright pastel aesthetic and some cool synchronised sequences of the women cleaning their houses and all waving goodbye to their suit and tie wearing hubbies. The thing is though, this is the easy part. The 2004 version of “The Stepford Wives” with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler did the same thing, with rows and rows of impeccable houses and women with perfectly starched skirts and hypnotic smiles. At least with this interpretation it was easy enough for us an audience to sense that there’s something sinister underlying in the community (in that case, that the women had been equipped with various chips to become Betty Crocker-esque robots). In “Darling”, the women just seem like ordinary women who have made the choice to be stay at home wives. Alice cracking some eggs to find they’re empty inside just doesn’t seem to have the same kick as a room full of perky blondes in perfect make up taking part in a series of exercise routines based on household appliances. And it’s not that Wilde has necessarily done the wrong thing by directing the film as a horror, because in the right hands it absolutely could have worked. And if it is supposed to be a horror, why was none of it even remotely scary? The entire film is a mismatched hack job with elements of different genres, none of which really land or are properly developed so what results is a confusing mug of incredibly weak and lukewarm tea. The 1972 version of “The Stepford Wives” isn’t a great film, but it sure is chilling, and shows how this type of material is prime for a more sinister take.

I won’t talk about the film’s conclusion, because some people might enjoy it and discussing it here would ruin the (albeit fairly lame) twist. I will say though, once the reality of the world of “Victory” is revealed, it comes as more of a surprise because it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the film. None of the motivations of the characters are properly revealed and what was especially disappointing was that we never really see how the other couples ended up there or even how the wicked Frank managed to pull off what he did, or why. So many questions go unanswered, and rather than feeling gratified that the antagonists get what’s coming to them, the audience is left bewildered and trying to make sense of the tenuous connections and ham fisted conclusions that Wilde is trying to inflict upon us.

I think the biggest problem is that Wilde has driven the entire film around one or two pretty weak premises about “incel” culture and some blatantly false understandings of the teachings of Jordan Peterson. She’s not sure what the point is that she’s trying to make, and tries to distract the audience with some heavily stylised and artsy flourishes that aren’t remarkably effective on initial glance and quickly become heavy handed. “Don’t Worry Darling” is like watching someone trying to light a fire with a couple of dim sparks in the middle of a thunderstorm; the sparks are promising in the fleeting moments that we can see them, but are soon snuffed out and forgotten in the deluge.

By Jock Lehman

Rain Man

*Guest Review*

5 stars – How could it be anything less?

You don’t have to be a savant to appreciate the brilliance of this movie. I took a trip into the classics and watched this 1988 road comedy-drama for the first time, at the behest of blog tsar Jock (us both being Tom Cruise fans). It did not disappoint and has aged as well as its cast which include Tom Cruise as Charlie Babbitt and Dustin Hoffman as his estranged autistic savant brother Raymond. I can’t believe it was filmed 2 years after Top Gun, and that Cruise’s filmography now spans over 40 years! Speaking of longevity, the abundant retro transition scene music in Rain Man was orchestrated by none other than Hans Zimmer, who it appears cut his teeth in the 80’s synth wave genre – alas I digress!

This was a heart-warming, funny and deeply serious film and I found it easy to stay emotionally attached to all the characters from start to end. The film begins with Tom Cruise fast talking his way around the various stakeholders of his burgeoning collectables business. From the outset its clear he’s a cocky and self-interested macho man looking to make waves in a big way. His girlfriend Susanna, played by the wonderful Valeria Golino, tries to temper the worst aspects of his personality but to little avail.

Charlie then discovers his father has recently passed away, and has bequeathed his $3m inheritance to a small mental institution in Cincinnati called ‘Wallbrook’. Travelling to Wallbrook with Susanna he then meets his estranged brother Raymond, whom we are told is a ‘high functioning autistic savant’. Much is made these days of actors portraying individuals with disabilities, as it can be fraught with insensitivity, however Hoffman’s portrayal I think is one that shows a lot of respect, and undeniably leads to many very funny scenes with Cruise. 

The story broadly follows the brothers travelling from Cincinatti to Los Angeles as Charlie attempts to ransom Raymond for part of their late fathers’ estate. Charlie attempts to drag Raymond onto a flight to LA to which Raymond spat’s out the various flight accident fatalities of all the major US airlines. All flights crash right? Not Qantas! as Raymond reminds us, much to the delight of all Australian viewers including myself, and much to the chagrin of Charlie who now has to drive them both on secondary roads, as interstate highways are, of course, also death-traps. 

There are countless scenes where Raymond’s unique disposition leads to comical situations; Charlie and Susanna are being intimate and Raymond wonders into the room imitating their love making, his daily need to watch the 5pm news leads them to practically break into a stranger’s living room, constantly saying ‘uh-oh’ whenever they are close to missing another of his myriad daily routines. These scenes are sprinkled in amongst a serious plot that sees Cruise transform from a narcissistic and crude bully to a both loyal and sensitive brother. One scene in particular I found especially moving where Charlie discovers that his imaginary friend as a child, the ‘Rain Man’ was in reality his older brother and protector ‘Raymond’ before his father institutionalised him due to his fears of accidentally hurting himself or Charlie. 

During the film I kept thinking that Cruise makes this same character transformation again and again in his other roles, from Top Gun to Jerry Maguire to A Few Good Men, he changes from the cocky upstart to the humbled gentlemen. They are all very similar characters, yet I always find myself getting swept up in it all. Hoffman deservedly won the Oscar for his efforts, but Cruise has to be acknowledged his role too. To be sure, I also thought his jumping on Oprah’s couch back in the day was a ground-breaking role for him. 

The scene that gets the most playback these days are those of Raymond as the mastermind card counter in Las Vegas, where Charlie leverages his brothers’ eidetic memory to repay his creditors. Its an awesome scene to be sure, but the deeper moment is afterwards when it becomes clear that for the first time since they met, they are now friends as well as brothers. Neither brother understands people, albeit for quite different reasons, but now at least they understand each other. Hoffman and Cruise have a great chemistry and it was very moving in the final scenes where Charlie made the decision to forego a big money payoff in favour of continuing relationship with his brother (I didn’t tear up, but word on the grapevine is that Jock did). 

Perhaps my favourite part of the movie was actually the ending. As Charlie puts Raymond on a train back to Cincinatti, the film ends with a simple promise from Charlie to Raymond that he’ll be seeing him in 2 weeks – or more accurately 1,209,600 seconds as Raymond quips. 

Sweet, funny and a neat way to end a really classic flick.

By Nick Tankard