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

Pinocchio (2022)

It’s enough now. Please let it be enough.

New generations of children aren’t enjoying these Disney live action remakes and the grown ups who enjoyed the originals as little ones and are revisiting the remakes solely for nostalgia are feeling ripped off. Nobody is coming out of these pictures with a sense of wonder, or whimsy, or joy or anything that the Disney animations used to inspire. Instead, these films are creating resentment, not only for the remakes, but also by tainting the memories of the original properties by association.

So now comes “Pinocchio”, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as the voice of Pinocchio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy and Tom Hanks as Geppetto. And it sucks. It’s genuinely and objectively awful on almost every level with a slight exception perhaps for the set design and costuming. It’s basically a shot for shot remake (but not done nearly as well) with some poorly chosen musical numbers, extended superfluous dialogue and the addition or some pretty erroneous new characters. Every creative choice that’s been made has either leached something beautiful out of the original source material or added something cynical and shallow instead. And the 1940 “Pinocchio” isn’t even one of my favourite Disney classics! The thing about the original though is that it is quite dark, absolutely the darkest of all those Disney animated pictures; the scene in which Pinocchio’s little friend gets turned into a donkey at Pleasure Island is genuinely the stuff of nightmares.

One of the biggest things that filmmakers underestimate with regard to these remakes is that what works in animation doesn’t necessarily work in live action. Jiminy Cricket as an animated little character is cute and funny and when he gets caught in the mechanics of one of Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks it’s funny and you know he’s not really getting hurt. Jiminy Cricket’s CGI real life counterpart is creepy and reptilian and when he gets tracked through the cogs it doesn’t make sense that his head doesn’t explode. While the design of Pinocchio as a cartoon works, his CGI real life counterpart looks stupid, especially when his eyes are so blatantly animated in contrast to the rest of his body. Also, his voice is unbelievably irritating and the little bastard never shuts up! Benjamin Evan Ainsworth does a pretty good job at imitating the voice of the original puppet, but has no tonality in his voice and has such incessant banal dialogue delivered in the exact same nauseating pitch that I wouldn’t have minded so much if he did end up being turned into a donkey.

Tom Hanks as Geppetto is out of place as well (he hasn’t exactly been on a winning streak lately, I wasn’t the biggest fan of him in “Elvis”). The character of Geppetto only works as a sweet, frail old man, at least in his 80s, where his eccentricities are forgivable because he’s, well, a little senile. Portrayed as he is by Hanks in his mid fifties, he just comes across as a bit of a creepy middle aged weirdo who tickles his pet fish and it’s not exactly endearing. His accent is half assed and inconsistent, (considering its supposed to be set in 1800s Italy) and it’s as if Hanks has clocked out a bit and knows that if he puts on a wig and mumbles a little with his trademark warmth then that’ll be enough. One plot change which I did think was warranted was adding a little back story to Geppetto and why he wanted a kid so badly; he had a wife and child whom he lost and that’s why he carved a puppet that looked just like his son.

The script, apart from where they’ve literally just taken the words from the original and rehashed them, is unbelievably exposition heavy, uninspired and hackneyed, insipid where it’s supposed to be sweet, irritating when it’s supposed to be funny (and it’s not like they didn’t try, there are so many jokes crammed in here that fall absolutely flat) and stupid where it’s supposed to be terrifying. But apart from all of that, the whole thing just draaaaaags! It’s so unforgivably boring, which is an achievement in itself for while the story isn’t one of my favourites, it’s certainly not a dull one. Perhaps most unforgivably of all, the Blue Fairy doesn’t even turn Pinocchio into a real boy at the end of the film, Jiminy Cricket narrating that it didn’t matter because in his heart he was as real as any real boy could be. What an absolute crock. Of all the plot points to mess with, this is the one that makes no sense at all. If I was Pinocchio, I’d feel absolutely jipped. He’s proven himself honest and unselfish and now the Blue Fairy isn’t going to deliver on her end of the deal? Is he supposed to just spend eternity now as a five year old wooden puppet? Can he grow older? Or have a family? Or go swimming without worrying about growing moss or sleep without being eaten by termites?

I think what’s so disappointing is that when Disney has taken original stories and produced new films in the last few years like “Moana”, “Frozen”, “Inside Out” or “The Brave Little Toaster” (this isn’t necessarily a recent film, but a genuine film from 1987, and follows the lives of kitchen appliances and what antics they get up to after dark), they’ve been unbelievable successes and generated entire new fan bases without shitting all over the legacies of the films that have come and gone. People are rightfully protective of these films and the memories that they associate with them, and unless the remake actually improves on the original somehow, and handled with proper love and care and good humour, then they just need to be left the hell alone.

By Jock Lehman

The Graduate

Watching Mike Nichols’ 1967 cult classic “The Graduate” was, more than anything else, a very confusing experience for me. What began as a funny, stylish (in the most 1960s way possible), sexy and intelligent story about a young man’s affair (Dustin Hoffman in his first film role as Benjamin Braddock) with the alluring and seductive Mrs Robinson at some point disintegrated into a bland, clumsily written and superficial, well, durge. There are a smattering of iconic moments which have become hallmarks of 20th century cinema, and it was fun to finally see how they fit into the context of the film. But, following the promising opening act of the film, that’s about it.

The initial scenes between Hoffman and Bancroft are incredibly funny, Hoffman’s awkwardness and naivety reflected perfectly in Bancroft’s commanding and experienced Mrs Robinson. She is the allure of the grown up world, in all its wondrous, sexy excitement and Hoffman’s depiction of Braddock as a timid little sparrow trying to take his first feeble flaps is where the film really hits its comedic strides. Nichols famously told Hoffman not to “act” necessarily, but for him to respond as if it was actually him with a friend of his parents being asked to go to bed. There’s a great scene in which Benjamin arranges to meet Mrs Robinson at the Taft Hotel, where he registers under the pseudonym “Mr. Gladstone” and ends up confessing to being a member of a next door party to avoid revealing his rendezvous. Mrs Robinson arrives, rolls her eyes in exasperation, but sees his inexperience as endearing. This is how the film should have progressed throughout its entire run time, because that’s where the characters had chemistry and where the set ups were actually clever. Of course it should be acknowledged how scandalous this frank portrayal of sexuality would have been in the 1960s, especially between an older woman and a college student, and its totally understandable how Bancroft became such a figure of fantasy for generations of young men.

As soon as Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross, who was bizarrely nominated for an Oscar for her perfectly fine but extremely forgettable role) comes onto the scene, the whole story takes a ridiculous and unsubstantiated plot turn where Benjamin meets her once, falls madly in love with her, follows her to Berkeley where she’s been forced to marry a blonde, faceless fraternity boy she briefly dated, storms the wedding and they flee on a bus together after barricading the church door closed. While the first act of the film is a wry, insightful and often incredibly funny depiction of these characters and their insecurities, the tone of the film changes so rapidly that its quite jarring. The characters act so bizarrely and without any real human emotion or instinct, and in my mind I think that the director was so intent on that final climactic scene where Benjamin and Elaine elope that he just had to get them there and didn’t care how that happened. Also, I like Simon and Garfunkel as much as the next guy, but this was like getting repeatedly bashed over the head with Simon’s flat cap.

The final shot of the film, in which Benjamin and Elaine sit at the back of the bus and the excitement and adrenaline fades from their faces as Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” plays is certainly a thought provoking conclusion. Has the young couple just realised the gravity and reality of what they’ve done, or are they sitting back in peace now that all the nonsense is behind them? Did Benjamin ever really love Elaine or did he perform the way he did out of spite? It’s a great note for the film to finish upon, but as I said, it shouldn’t have taken so much confusing and dull exposition to get there. There are enough laughs in the first act to warrant a watch here and the performance from Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson is sensational, but “The Graduate” isn’t what I was expecting and now that I’ve seen it, won’t be something that I’ll be revisiting any time again soon.

By Jock Lehman

Elvis

Biopics of famous musicians have long been a favourite go-to of Hollywood, and understandably so. One of the biggest challenges for filmmakers is making their audience feel some kind of familiarity or connection to a film’s story or characters, and by featuring the songs that shaped the 20th century, it generates a sense of intimacy that is otherwise difficult to manufacture. The songs and influence of Elvis Presley are no exception here, and Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 “Elvis” is probably the most effective of the smattering of films from the last few years about famous singers at actually demonstrating why the world reacted the way they did and why the artist’s music generated such a fervent adoration. It wasn’t evident in Rami Malek playing Freddie Mercury (I hated “Bohemian Rhapsody” so damn much), or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, or Taron Egerton as Elton John, because all these films focussed on telling the story of the lives and relationships of each of these people, and what made them ordinary, rather than what made them extraordinary. Austin Butler as Elvis Presley is phenomenal, and has captured Presley so perfectly, not only from the voice and mannerisms but to that unbelievably distinctive and magnetic stage presence. But that’s the thing, this is not just a surface level imitation, Butler is viscerally transformed and its completely conceivable that he could be considered the King. If Malek can nab an Oscar for that dumpster fire of a performance then Butler should in principle take home the Lead Actor award with no trouble.

Baz Luhrmann isn’t necessarily one of my favourite filmmakers. He’s certainly got an instantly recognisable style which is somewhat of an accomplishment in itself, but it only works with precisely the right story. I didn’t enjoy “Romeo and Juliet”, or “Australia”, or “The Great Gatsby”, and while I didn’t particularly love “Moulin Rouge”, I can understand why people did. Funnily enough, Luhrmann’s first feature film “Strictly Ballroom” is on my top 20 film list, so I’m never really sure what to expect with one of his new releases. When Luhrmann gets it wrong, he gets it very wrong, but when he lands, its something pretty spectacular. “Elvis” is definitely the strongest of Luhrmann’s catalogue after “Strictly Ballroom”, the frenzied and dazzling visage of Elvis Presley exactly the kind of story that plays to Luhrmann’s strengths. This is in no way a run of the mill biopic; Luhrmann resists the temptation to simply bring to screen the main plot points of Presley’s life with a couple of his key songs interwoven in sporadic montages. So much of the run time is dedicated to Presley on stage, and I’m glad that it was. That’s where he was an icon and that’s where people loved him. I’m so glad they didn’t waste too much time on his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) or his role as a father with Lisa Marie. For me, this sort of fluff in biopics never really tell us more than we could have already guessed ourselves and slows down the overall tempo of the film.

“Elvis” is driven by everything that made Presley iconic and when Presley first girates his hips following a lukewarm performance by neutered country singer Hank Snow and the women in the audience are overcome with animalistic, primal screams, I’m not saying that I was driven to necessarily the same state as they were but I could understand why. Right on sisters, I thought to myself. Admittedly, I would say that the first perhaps quarter of the film, Luhrmann gets a bit too carried away with himself. The amount of cuts, spinning frames and technicolour is just a little too much of an assault of the senses and there’s no moments of quiet for the audience to process what has happened in the previous scene. The other thing is, for some bizarre reason, Luhrmann has whacked in a few rap songs early on and its completely jarring. It bears no resonance with Presley’s music or his roots in Memphis’ Beale Street and luckily it wasn’t an ongoing motif throughout the film otherwise it really would have been to its detriment. And I do think that Tom Hanks probably wasn’t the best choice to play Presley’s scumbag of an agent Col. Tom Parker, because as thickly as he lays on the Dutch accent, to me that voice is just too distinctive and distracting to ever really work here. As much as I tried, I kept picturing Woody the cowboy wearing clogs and it’s a voice which is associated with one of Hollywood’s ultimate nice guys. Not the best way to portray a man who was ultimately a complete fraudster and remarkably cruel to Presley. I had no idea of the extent of Parker’s corruption, but its undoubtable (assuming that the film is relatively honest in this sense) that Parker contributed at least in part to Presley’s early death. I have to say, Presley’s decline is handled wonderfully well and it is heartbreaking to see such a talented and seemingly good hearted young guy be manipulated as brutally as he was.

I’ve always known of Elvis’ music but I’ve never properly appreciated it until now. I was genuinely and wholeheartedly moved by this film and for the first time in my life, a film depicting a famous singer has given me some sort of semblance as to what it would have been like to hear their music for the first time. My wife and I are pregnant with our first child right now, and we’ve been playing “If I Can Dream” to her belly to see if he’ll kick. We like to think that this song gets him moving more than usual but we’re probably being optimistic. Either way, because we saw this film, we now have a weirdly specific connection with Elvis that we never would have had before. Despite its early flaws, I absolutely loved this film, and if more people grow to love Elvis’ music because of this film then Luhrmann has achieved something remarkable in this sense alone.

By Jock Lehman

Top Gun: Maverick

Yeeeeeeee-freaking-haaaaaa!!!

This is what I’m talking about! This is a proper, edge of your seat, action blockbuster that doesn’t hold back and hasn’t been artistically compromised by trying to pander to the whims of whichever woke cause is yelling the loudest. My favourite decade of movies is the 1990s, (I was born in ’93 so that’s probably got a bit to do with it), and Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” feels like a 90’s movie in every way, and I don’t think that’s by accident. Tom Cruise is back in fine form as the consummate movie star, the action sequences are exciting, the soundtrack is rousing with just enough nods to that of the original and it’s actually kind of refreshing to see US servicemen and women as young, cool, attractive and optimistic people who aren’t victims of the system or suffering from PTSD. Obviously those are stories which are important and interesting as well, but there are also plenty of soldiers and aviation officers out there who love their job and serve their country proudly. And it was nice to see them being portrayed as heroes again, because they absolutely are and Top Gun: Maverick makes sure that its audience knows this.

Thirty years after his time in the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, more commonly known as “TOPGUN”, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is recruited by Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) to train an elite group of pilots on a top secret and highly dangerous mission to bomb an unnamed enemy country’s uranium enrichment plant. Maverick takes on the young troops, conflicted by the fact that he might be past his prime and that his old crew have moved up in the world (Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) has progressed to Admiral). Not only that but he’s forced to contend with his old friend Goose’s son Rooster (Miles Teller) being part of this dangerous mission and his instincts to protect the kid from the fate of his father. Returning to the Top Gun base also means that Maverick is able to reunite with his old flame Penny (Jennifer Connolly), as she reminds him that everything he’s been searching for isn’t up in the skies, but right there with her all along. And then they make out on top of her sweet ass Porsche in the sunset.

I don’t have the strongest feelings about the original Top Gun, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting to love the sequel. In saying that, I can absolutely see why audiences have flocked to it. There is something so unashamedly old school about this film, there are no references to social media, influencers or even modern music (Maverick even has a confronting flashback because Rooster jams away at “Great Balls of Fire” in the local bar just like his Dad). It was potentially a bit of a risk, but it’s paid off beautifully as we are allowed to enjoy the fun and spectacle of the film rather than how it fits into the modern world. I was waiting with bated breath for some kind of criticism of the US military, the diversity of the recruits or some kind of implication of the dangers of toxic masculinity but it never came! There is an underlying sense of patriotism throughout the film, for while the enemy is faceless and never really specified, there is certainly no ambiguity as to who the good guys are. The Top Gun pilots do what they do for their fellow recruits, for their country and for their flag, there’s nothing cynical or condescending about it and movie goers worldwide heaved a collective sigh of relief.

More than anything else, “Top Gun: Maverick” is fun and unashamedly entertaining; from Tom Cruise racing a plane taking off from the runway on his Harley Davidson with “Highway to the Danger Zone” blaring, to the genuinely astonishing acrobatics of the fighter jets, to the recruits playing football on the beach with their shirts off in the setting sun for no discernible reason. Jennifer Connolly as Penny is cool and sexy and knows how to sail, Miles Teller as Rooster has good chemistry with Cruise and is a surprisingly good match as Goose’s son.

I’m glad that they kept Maverick as the central character rather than Rooster. The entire premise that the old dog still has some grunt in him doesn’t quite work if the new pup takes centre stage, and I don’t think anybody was really interested in seeing Tom Cruise taking a back seat for this one. Nobody has really come close to taking Tom Cruise’s spot as the ultimate Hollywood action star, and just like Maverick, it doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down any time soon.

By Jock Lehman

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

*Sunday Classics*

As one of only three films in Oscar history to win all of the “Big Five” (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress), the other two being “It Happened One Night” and “The Silence of The Lambs”, what’s incredible about Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is how blatantly it refuses to be constrained to a genre and how it doesn’t pigeon hole its characters. This is a hauntingly beautiful film; equal parts funny, endearing, horrifying, sweet and surprising with two of the most iconic lead performances of the 20th century. There’s a lot to this story, but essentially, convicted felon Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred to a mental asylum by feigning insanity to get out of hard labour for the last few weeks of his sentence. Once admitted, he turns the ward completely upside down with various acts of rebellion and encouraging his fellow patients to defy the tyranny of the icy and controlling Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Nurse Ratched and McMurphy engage in a battle for power in the ward and for the loyalty of the patients.

Even now I think people still have difficulty trying to define what this film is actually about, which is why it’s often subject to analysis by film groups and university students. Is it a film setting out to depict individuals suffering from mental illness? Potentially, but then again the suite of quirky patients depicted only really seem to be insane to the point of zany, with many of them shedding their ailments fairly definitively once McMurphy comes onto the scene and brings a little bit of frat house style fun to the place. So no, I don’t think the film is seeking to have some deep and intrinsic insights into mental illness, other than perhaps that those suffering deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity. Could it be about the dangers of conformity and the importance of resistance against tyranny? It could well be, and with such a formidable symbol of the benevolent dictator in Nurse Ratched I can see the merit in this argument as well. It should be noted how impressive Louise Fletcher is as Nurse Ratched; it’s one of those phenomenal performances that is so iconic that the actor never really reaches the same heights again (think Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz or even Jennifer Grey as Baby Housemen). She is absolutely terrifying, yet in a way that is so understated, coldly calm and collected that she is even more unsettling than if she had been frothing at the mouth and wielding an axe. Her icy adherence to rules and principles even in the face of human suffering is the perfect foil for McMurphy’s rough and pleasure driven impulsiveness.

Does it work as a depiction of the horrors faced by patients in asylums in the 1960s? Again, perhaps. The electric shock therapy and lobotomies and other barbaric practices by the psychiatric practitioners are such a small, albeit powerful aspect of the film that if that’s the goal of the filmmakers I imagine they would have honed in on it more. This ambiguity is I think a clever and very deliberate approach by the filmmakers, because not only are the themes of the film a little clouded, but so too are the characters. McMurphy is the undoubtable hero of the story; charismatic and anti-establishment and responsible for bringing some joy to the sullen and repressed existence of the other patients. But the entire reason he’s been transferred to the hospital is because he pretended to be insane to get out of hard labour after being convicted for the rape of a fifteen year old girl. So it’s not like he’s exactly the soundest moral example, and it could easily be argued that what he does for the other patients isn’t for them at all, but for his own ego and to antagonise Nurse Ratchett. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case though, I think that despite him being a scumbag out in society, he does care for the patients and would consider them his friends.

The point is though, he’s not a straight forward individual and its not a straightforward story. Just like the doctors trying to evaluate McMurphy and determine if he’s genuinely insane or not, so too are we as an audience kept on our toes trying to determine what sort of cinematic experience the film is providing. And in the final profound and again, emotionally somewhat confusing scene, we come to the horrifying realisation that McMurphy has been lobotomised and is now a shell of a person now, with no discernible consciousness or soul left. McMurphy’s unlikely friend, the supposedly mute Native American named Chief (Will Sampson) tells him that he’s coming with him and smothers him to death. But instead of finishing on the sombre and grim note that could have easily (and understandably) been undertaken by the director, we are left with the uplifting visage of Chief picking up the marble hydrotherapy fountain that McMurphy had tried and failed to lift earlier in the film, smashing a window and escaping while the other patients cheer him on and he runs into the glowing sunrise.

I don’t think the film gets the credit it’s due for being (for the most part at least), an often funny and wholesome experience. It features a smattering of impressive performances beyond the lead performances (including first time appearances from Christopher Lloyd as the antagonistic and intense Max and Danny De Vito as the infant like Martini). The scenes in which the patients are all just having a good time with each other and ribbing each other for being, well, insane, are light hearted and scripted perfectly. Again, this film has no business providing so many happy moments; it’s set in a mental asylum in the 1960s and often deals with some extraordinarily sinister concepts. And yet it does still manage to be a hopeful and joyous story; defying what we expect as an audience and by making us laugh with the characters and feel happy for their wins, we feel their disappointment, their uncertainty and their terror all the more as well.

By Jock Lehman