Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

*Sunday Classic*

Norman Jewison’s beloved “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) is not a perfect film. The story is somewhat repetitive, the second act doesn’t benefit from the memorable musical numbers of the first act, the entire thing suffers a little from a lack of continuity and its veeery long. The story however isn’t the important thing here – but rather its an opportunity to see a world and values and traditions (the good and the bad) which have long since faded.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is an adaptation of the much loved 1964 Broadway musical, the story of Tevye (Topol), a poor milkman living in a small rural village with five daughters and struggling to maintain his beliefs and religious traditions in a changing world. His three eldest strong willed daughters each want to marry for love and outside of the traditions that Tevye knows and cherishes; one to a poor man, one to a radical young Marxist who wants to leave their village for the big city, and one to a man who is not part of the Jewish faith. Tevye goes about his days mulling over what this all means with ponderings to the audience and to God, meanwhile his beloved village is being targeted by the local authorities under the order of the Tsar to expel the Jews.

Topol as Tevye is probably one of the reasons the film works to the extent it does. A lot of the run time is spent in conversation with the man, and he’s incredibly engaging. He’s big and warm and funny and wise, and its fun to be his friend as he tells us his story and as he sings his songs. Jewison (who funnily enough isn’t Jewish at all) has done a pretty good job in bringing the magic of the stage show to the screen while maintaining a realism that the stage show couldn’t achieve. The singing is not technically impressive, but deep and gravelly, the film benefits from the grand plains of Croatia but was filmed with a woman’s stocking over the camera to create a more earthy and gritty tone.

What is nice is getting to know the villagers and how they go about their lives, their customs, the mannerisms of the characters, their Yiddish expressions and idiosyncrasies. The film is jam packed with quick and funny moments, particularly at the hands of Tevye trying to avoid getting in trouble from his sharp and formidable wife Golde (Norma Crane) and the flurry of townspeople spouting wisdom always with a touch of cynicism, (the village Yente has a few well timed little snipes).

The musical numbers are big and theatrical, catchy, and often touching. I was a little surprised that there weren’t more big group numbers featuring the entire ensemble cast, its certainly the type of musical that would suit it – “Tradition” has the entire chorus getting into it, but they don’t appear on screen and it’s a bit of a shame. “Matchmaker” is fun and has some nice choreography, “Sunrise, Sunset” is beautiful (my girlfriend’s grandad got very choked up over this one) and “Miracle of Miracles” is one of those joyous tunes that I found myself humming days later. But these are all in the first half of the film, by the time the intermission rolls around, the tunes are fairly uninspiring and by this point the story has all but dried up and there’s not a whole lot to keep us rooted to the screen.

I think the biggest issue in the story is that the main complications come from each of Tevye and Golde’s daughters marrying outside of the Jewish customs. But by the time the eldest daughter marries the poor but honest tailor, there’s no real appeal in seeing the same thing happen twice again. The film touches on the political climate at the time and the persecution the Jews faced under the order of the Tsar and their eviction from the village, but only barely, and serves as only a distraction. So somehow the film is three hours long, spending far too much time on something that maybe should have been a third of the run time and then skims over other themes that perhaps could have fleshed out the narrative nicely.

For all it’s flaws, “Fiddler on the Roof” is a joyous and vibrant experience, with memorable characters and an iconic soundtrack. My girlfriend’s family is Jewish and we had put off watching Fiddler until we could do it with her grandparents, and I’m glad we did. For both of them, they had parents who lived in Eastern European countries at the turn of the twentieth century living in villages like the one Tevye and his family live in and it was obvious that getting a glimpse into this world for them was a beautiful and important thing.

By Jock Lehman

The Kid (1921)

I knew at some stage I’d have to review a Charlie Chaplin film, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. When I was a kid we had a VHS tape of some Chaplin films and he absolutely terrified me. There was something about the fact that he didn’t talk and that his eyes never really changed expression that gave me nightmares. And of course, they’re black and white silent films, so I figured when I watched one it would be like going to a museum or taking an ice bath. I never anticipated to actually enjoy myself. Or laugh. Or be genuinely moved.

Charlie Chaplin described 1921’s “The Kid” as “a picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear,” and as simple as that is, and it is a simple story, it delivers on both counts. A young mother (Edna Purviance) leaves her newborn baby in an expensive automobile outside a grand mansion with a note saying “Please love and care for this orphan child”. Two thieves steal the car and leave the baby in an alley, where the Tramp (Chaplin) finds him and though he initially tries to sneak him into another mother’s pram and considers leaving him down a gutter, he brings the child to his dilapidated home and names him John. Meanwhile the young mother has had a change of heart, and when she returns to where she left the baby and learns that the car has been stolen, she faints in despair. Five years on, the Kid and the Tramp are thick as thieves (literally) and have come up with a ruse where the Kid runs around throwing rocks at windows and just as the owner of the house comes outside and gesticulates angrily at the sky, the Tramp conveniently walks by with window panes at a competitive price. Meanwhile, the young woman has become a glamorous actress but is left hollow and pining after the baby she left behind. We follow the characters as they go about their lives, dodge the authorities and ultimately reunite the Kid with his mother (I think spoilers are allowed by now).

First and foremost, this is a funny movie. The dynamic between the Kid and the Tramp is sweet and believable; they’re good buddies and have a fun little routine together. The Kid is a plucky little thing, and one of the funniest scenes in the movie is him getting into a fist fight with another local street urchin, but once the Tramp realises the other kid’s dad is huge and scary, the Tramp tries to get the Kid to throw the fight. I laughed at the Tramp’s funny walk and getting hit by things, and I laughed at the way the Kid runs away whenever he’s done something naughty. It was pretty incredible to see; when a movie is stripped back to basics, without even the luxury of dialogue, it can still make people laugh, and cry, over a century later.

Chaplin wrote the score for the film himself, and it still stands up today; again, without dialogue, its incredible how powerful the music is in conveying the emotion of the scene. I can understand Chaplin’s importance to cinema; this film is surprisingly well balanced and structured and its easy to empathise with the characters and root for them. The Tramp and the Kid love each other and the image of the Kid holding his arms out and reaching for the Tramp when the local orphanage authorities come to collect him is brutal and heart wrenching.

This is a beautiful, funny, sweet and moving story. It’s everything that movies should aspire to be, silent or not, and a pretty remarkable experience knowing where cinema has gone since then. Without all the bells and whistles that films have the luxury of today, Chaplin was able to weave a pretty captivating little tale by using the bare bones of storytelling and appealing to the most primal of our common experiences as people. And I haven’t had a nightmare about Charlie Chaplin since.

By Jock Lehman

The Father

I was completely blindsided by this film.

From the promotional material and trailer, Florian Zeller’s poignant new drama “The Father” seemed fairly synonymous to the story in 2012’s “Amour”, about a French man and his wife who suffers a stroke, but in this instance focussing on Alzheimer’s and the relationship between father and daughter. I expected it to be beautifully and tenderly acted (Anthony Hopkins is amongst the best of what Hollywood has to offer and Olivia Colman is certainly heading that way herself), probably heartbreaking (but in a touching sort of way) and heavy on the importance of family and how cruel old age can be. And while it certainly was all of those things, what I wasn’t expecting was the suspense that came with the film’s non-linear and often ethereal structure and the fact that we as the audience are perpetually unsure of what is real and what isn’t. For once we are not the outsiders looking in on the terrifying reality of Alzheimer’s, but in a way we are experiencing what it must be like for ourselves in a way we never could have before. Beautiful, heartbreaking, gripping and expertly crafted, “The Father” is not only the best new release I’ve seen in the last twelve months but beyond anything I’ve ever seen of its kind before.

Based on the French play written by the film’s director, “The Father” tells the story of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins, so named because Zeller had Hopkins in mind for the protagonist role from the film’s inception), a charming and cheeky elderly man who is rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. When the film opens, we are introduced to Anthony in his stylish and beautifully decorated London flat and his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) who is trying to find a new nurse for her Dad for when she moves to Paris to be with her boyfriend. Anthony is hurt and confused, but then when he sees Anne again, she has no recollection of the conversation and her husband (Mark Gatiss) is sitting in the living room. This happens progressively throughout the story; characters and settings change, Anthony’s watch is never where he thinks he left it, conversations and days go around and around in unsettling loops and as an audience, we can see why Anthony would be scared.

It’s evident why this would have worked so well as a play, the structure of the story works so that we learn little bits of information at a time, enough to keep us hungry until the final scene when the reality of Anthony’s world is revealed. Beyond anything else, Hopkins is phenomonal. He portrays the character with such a well developed understanding of how people react when confronted by illnesses of this kind, most importantly in his steadfast desire to maintain a sense of dignity and the illusion of control. He is always cleanly shaven and well dressed, and is embarrassed when a visitor comes and he’s still in his pyjamas. He constantly insists that there’s nothing wrong with him, that he doesn’t need looking after and is often cruel to his daughter when she tries to help him.

This in particular was a well crafted element to Anthony’s character and an unfortunately unfair truth for elderly people in cognitive decline; when people from outside his little world come in, Anthony can be charming and articulate, regailing them with incredibly detailed stories from his life. Once alone with Anne though, the one who has looked after him and supported him for years, he is blatantly nasty and constantly refers to his younger daughter as his favourite and can’t understand why she hasn’t come to visit him in so long. That’s the awful thing about Alzheimer’s; in Anthony’s mind, he’s still in control, its the world around him which is betraying him, not him fading away from it. Colman is perfect in this role; there’s something about her that is so quintessentially British and translates perfectly as Anne tries her darndest to maintain her “stiff upper lip” and not show how hurt she is when Anthony is cruel or doesn’t recognise her. Then again you can see the relief and gratitude she feels in the smallest of things, when he says her hair looks nice or when he has a brief moment of comprehension after she helps him with his jumper and thanks her for everything she does.

I was completely blown away by this film. This isn’t a light watch and be prepared to have a good cry, but this is one of those cathatic experiences that leaves you somehow simulataneously exhausted but emotionally comforted at the same time. Hopkins absolutely deserves an Oscar for this, and I would be thrilled if it won Best Picture and Best Director too. To handle such a tricky topic with as much sensitivity and insight as Florian Zeller has is commendable in itself, but then to deliver it in such a way as to actually simulate the fear, hurt and confusion of somebody in that world is flat out extraordinary.

By Jock Lehman

Nobody

This was an unusual cinema experience for me. For at least the first twenty minutes of watching Ilya Naishuller’s new film “Nobody”, I was sure that the film was a dud and everything from the dialogue to the stupid plot and barely dimensional characters was flat out disastrous. Then it clicked… it was all on purpose. With the pointedly heinous Schwarznegger-esque one liners, the main character’s irritating children and vanilla pain of a wife, the ridiculous Russian villain with a barely interpretable accent straight out of a late 1960s Bond film and the non-sensical fight sequences, I thought that surely the director and production crew couldn’t be serious. Once I realised that in fact they weren’t, that everybody involved was blatantly taking the piss out of themselves, then this movie became a whole lot of fun.

The plot doesn’t matter a whole lot here; it doesn’t make any sense and its not supposed to. Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) is an ordinary guy, leading an ordinary and boring humdrum life with a wife who sleeps with a wall of pillows between them and a teenage son who thinks he’s a weiner. Or so it seems… When a couple of burglars make off with his angelic little daughter’s Hello Kitty watch, Hutch decides to go and beat up the burglars and ends up somehow taking on a group of obnoxious baddies on a bus and kung-fuing them into the pavement. Turns out, Hutch is actually a retired assassin of the highest degree of skill and deadliness formerly employed by the US government. Unfortunately for Hutch, one of the men on the bus was the younger brother of psychopathic Russian drug lord Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksei Serebyakov), and now Hutch has to protect his family and take out the bad guys with the most brutal yet resourceful use of everyday household items since the Joker and his pencil. Oh and Hutch’s sweater wearing father (Christopher Lloyd) who lives in an aged care home comes to help out with a machine gun and flame thrower.

Once you accept that everything is tongue in cheek and that nothing is supposed to be realistic or feasible, it becomes incredibly easy to see the funny side of the whole thing. The tipping point for me was when Hutch decides to completely shatter his secret identity, expose his family and take on the assassins of most of Eastern Europe because his giant eyed daughter’s $5 Hello Kitty watch got stolen. Bob Odenkirk is a master at self deprecating humour, and he delivers his lines only just shy of winking at the camera (a barrage of Russian bad guys with sniper rifles and machetes arrive at his house, Hutch shoves his family down into his state of the art bunker and pauses to growl at them “Don’t call 911”). The fight scenes are sensationally absurd, up there with John Wick if not a little more grisly (you often hear the sound of bones crunching and Hutch himself doesn’t come out unscathed either). Unlike John Wick though, these fight scenes are deliberately pack filled with gags, my favourite being when Kuznetsov and his goons are taking on Hutch in an industrial warehouse, Hutch is hurled up against one of those signs that says “250 days since incident”. He wipes away the 250 and writes 0 there instead.

There’s not really a whole lot to say about a film like this; it’s good, clean, mindless entertainment and gives a nice twist on some of those revenge crazed vigilante stories which take themselves a bit more seriously. Its a surprisingly good parody of the action thriller genre and when the penny drops, its fun to be in on the joke and enjoy the spectacle of the middle aged guy who very nearly got cast as Michael Scott in the US Office take on half of the Russian mafia. “Who am I? I’m nobody…”

By Jock Lehman

Nomadland

It’s an impressive thing, when a filmmaker is able to make the unremarkable things in the world seem remarkable. In a sense, that’s what “Nomadland” is all about; director Chloé Zhao has woven a simple story about what extraordinary things can be found in the ordinary, what kindness can be found in strangers and what beauty there can be in an often cruel and unforgiving world.

“Nomadland” doesn’t follow a typical narrative structure; Fern (Frances McDormand) has sold her house and possessions following the death of her husband and the impact of the 2008 recession on her small town, and now lives as a “nomad”, living in a campervan and going wherever the road takes her. The film follows a few months of her life as she travels across the American mid west; we encounter the colourful characters she encounters, sympathise with her when times are tough, sit with her as she boils her noodles on her little stove and hold our breath when she visits the undisturbed and awe-inspiring beauty of the American desert.

Chloé Zhao has a good chance for Best Director at the Oscars this year, having won both Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Directing at the Golden Globes. Visually, the film is beautiful and the cinematography in particular is incredible, following on with the story’s theme of finding beauty in unexpected or unexplored places. The camera sits right up front with the film’s subjects, so closely that we can see the kindness in the crinkles at the corners of their eyes and the weathering of their skin from being out in the sun. The soundtrack by Ludovico Einaudi is particularly moving and often quite intense, especially when Fern is alone with nature or reflecting upon one of the many breathtaking sunsets. The script has been beautifully crafted and is incredibly authentic, aided by the fact that a number of the supporting cast were real life “nomads” who are playing fictionalised versions of themselves.

McDormand too is in the running for an Oscar for her performance here; this is an incredibly stripped back performance from an extraordinarily talented and insightful actress. Fern is guarded and reserved, she doesn’t let people in and there’s an understated quality in McDormand’s performance which reflects this. There’s nothing in this role that suggests that Fern isn’t as much a part of this world as those people in the film that have literally been plucked out of it.

Many of the characters have experienced hard lives which have often been marred by tragedy, and are living the way they do often out of necessity but come to enjoy the sense of friendship that comes with such a community. What’s interesting is that Fern isn’t there out of necessity; she is lucky enough to have friends and family who offer for her to live and build a life with them, opportunites many of the nomads she encounters along the way would jump at. Fern isn’t doing what she’s doing because she has no other choice, she’s doing it because she’s terrified of the responsibility that comes with relationships and the fear of being abandoned or hurt herself. Fern isn’t supposed to be an honourable or virtuous person, she’s just a person and people don’t always do what is best for them or do what is best for others. She seeks a life of isolation, even if it comes as the expense of the people in her life who care for her and can offer her stability and fulfilling relationships. This is a scary thing for her, and she is prepared to sever ties and hurt people to protect herself.

“Nomadland” is a film which takes its time, allowing us to become fully immersed in the lives of the characters, without passing judgement on them or their choices, but instead providing its audience with a window into their lives. It’s a film about life, in all its wonder and imperfection; its both beautiful and tragic, unsettling and illuminating, reminding us of both the joy in the world and the heartache.

By Jock Lehman

The Defiant Ones

This is an important film. Set in the deep South during the years of racial segregation in the 1950s, Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” is a story of the capacity for friendship to overcome prejudice and, when stripped of everything, the sacrifices individuals are willing to make in the name of such friendship. It’s an extraordinarily forward thinking film for its time, highlighting the inhumanity of Jim Crow pre the Civil Rights era of the 1960s while also incorporating a genuinely thrilling action story with stellar lead performances from Tony Curtis but especially so from Sidney Poitier.

“The Defiant Ones”, directed by Stanley Kramer (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”) tells the story of Noah (Sidney Poitier) and John (Tony Curtis), a black convict and a white convict respectively who are shackled together and escape from a prisoner transport truck when it runs off the road. Bound by their chains, the two men are initially resentful of each other but are forced to cooperate for self-preservation. Eventually, with a mob of policemen (led by Theodore Bikel as a police captain in an Oscar nominated role), bloodhounds and a motley crew of curious locals chasing them all over the countryside, the two convicts come to respect each other and see beyond the dabilitating societal limitations of the time to consider each other friends.

Its quite jarring seeing the way in which the characters speaks to Noah, not only by means of the constant racial slurs but also in the way he is treated next to John, both of whom are in chains and wearing the same prison uniform. When the pair encounter a young boy, he runs to John and pleads to protect him from Noah, then asks if John is taking Noah to prison and that’s why they were chained together. Later the boy’s mother (Cara Williams in another Oscar nod) prepares a meal for John, but asks if he wants for Noah to be fed as well. It’s unsettling and horrifying, especially the sad dignity in which Noah accepts such things. There’s something incredibly powerful about Sidney Poitier’s presence on screen; he was an extraordinary actor in his prime and a true Hollywood legend, revolutionising representation of black actors on screen. I can remember using “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as a related text in English and thinking that Poitier even then was phenomonal and I stand by that; he’s genuinely one of the better actors of the twentieth century, black or white.

I didn’t quite buy that Noah could have almost beaten a man to death (which is what he was imprisoned for), Poitier is far too likeable to play somebody who would have killed in cold blood and as such I was a little disconnected at times. Curtis however, plays the scumbag John brilliantly. John on the other hand isn’t a likeable character at all; he’s cowardly, bitter, resentful and selfish and the juxtaposing leads play off each other beautifully. Poitier and Curtis spend a lot of time together on screen, and their chemistry is impressive, especially when the dynamic starts to shift and the characters are discovering it at the same time we are as an audience. The escalations between them feel genuine, particularly when Noah is able to let loose on John and express all his angers and frustrations without the fear that would normally restrict a black man from doing so in regular society.

As an action film, its really good fun! Watching some of the scenes in this film, knowing that it was shot in 1958 with no luxury of special effects, what they manage is particularly impressive. One sequence in which the two men are stuck down a muddy hole and spend a good five minutes trying to climb out is surprisingly exciting to watch, because there’s no way they could have faked it! They’re actually stuck down there and when their shoes slip and when John grunts in pain pulling Noah up over the top, they’re barely even acting anymore. The chase scenes are done well and the final moments in which they run after a freight train and struggle to clamber aboard is gripping. The sequence in the middle of the film with the little boy and his mother I think went on for a little bit too long, as John and the boy’s mother exchange luvvy duvvy sololiquies I found myself growing impatient.

Both leads in “The Defiant Ones”, against their own expectations, discover brotherhood and sacrifice their own freedom to save the other. There is a beautiful message in this film; two men divided by the prejudices of an unjust time are bound by circumstance, chains and ultimately by friendship.

By Jock Lehman

The Little Things

This was as ordinary as could possibly be; perhaps not enough for it to be overtly “bad”, but enough to make you question how something like this was allowed to be made in the first place. An unoriginal and cliché heavy script and a flat out boring story reduces three talented lead actors to giving performances far below the standard they should be aspiring to and what we should be expecting of them.

John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” opens in 1990, grizzled deputy sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) has arrived in Bakersfield, Kern County to pick up some evidence relating to a recent murder. While in town however, Joe meets Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), who has been recently appointed lead detective for the search for a serial killer at large in the community and accompanies him to a crime scene. Here he notices that the details of the murders seem to match those of an older case that he was involved in, and he decides to stay in town and help Jimmy find the killer. Local weirdo Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) becomes a person of interest almost immediately, with Joe and Jimmy scrambling to make sure that Sparma doesn’t strike again, or find out who the true killer is before its too late.

From the get-go, it’s pretty obvious that the film isn’t going to be bringing anything distinctly remarkable or groundbreaking in terms of genre or character or even story. And to be honest, I was initially fine with that! There’s nothing wrong with a film fully embracing a style, especially one as popular as the “neo-noir thriller”. But it still has to be done well. As soon as Deacon arrives in Bakersfield, there was a barrage of cheesy one-liners which were only really ever used in D grade, made for TV films in the first place – ranging from “Look what the cat dragged in”, to this fun little exchange:

Detective Sal Rizoli: The man, the myth, the legend.
Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon: Hey, Sal. You still hanging around?
Detective Sal Rizoli: No rest for the ugly. What are you doing here?
Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

It’s difficult to take a gritty murder flick seriously while cringing at this sort of dialogue. And it’s consistent throughout; Joe and Jimmy sit in their car during a stake out and ponder existentially why they do this, Sparma spouts creepy philosophy and none of them seem very good at anything they’re supposed to be doing. The film’s title comes from Joe saying to Jimmy that solving a crime all comes down to keeping an eye out for the little things, the things that aren’t supposed to be there. When I heard that I thought that at least we’d get to see some cool detective work that maybe would venture beyond what any old sheriff was capable of. Nope! Instead Joe and Jimmy mess up potential leads, talk a about why they can’t sleep at night and waste a whole lot of time basically being incompetent. Oh and then Jimmy returns to a home that must have been decorated by Vogue Living to his supportive wife and cute little girls who literally only exist so he can be seen with his shirt rolled up at the end of the day telling them to sleep tight.

Honestly, all of this wouldn’t have annoyed me that much if the film at least had a half decent crime story to tell! I don’t know how the director managed to make a film about a serial killer seem so damn boring, but he’s absolutely managed it. The film’s ending is fine I suppose, but it’s nowhere near what it should have been and still leaves most of the film’s primary questions unanswered. Every actor in this comes out looking a little ridiculous, with the possible exception of Jared Leto, but even then, his character is so superficial and lacks any back story, motivations or complexity at all that he comes across more like an actor auditioning for the role rather than actually playing it.

“The Little Things” bears all the superficial tonal markings of the neo-noir thrillers of the nineties (“Se7en”, “Mystic River”, “Q&A”), without any of the substance which actually makes audiences return to them. What’s left instead is a hollow shell of a film with some seriously squandered opportunity.

By Jock Lehman

The Birds

“Sunday Classic”

This is the third Alfred Hitchcock film I’ve reviewed, and I’m a little worried that I’ve peaked with “Rear Window” when I first began my “Sunday Classics”. I was underwhelmed by “Psycho” and I was downright disappointed with 1963’s “The Birds”. Unlike “Psycho”, I knew almost nothing about the film apart from the fact that swarms of angry birds create bedlam and the little information I could garner from a few memorable Simpsons references. What is an initially well paced and intriguing introduction to some twisted but interesting and charismatic characters quickly becomes a series of admittedly terrifying scenes strung together by stretches of incredibly dull and dry filler. Yes these scenes are impressive and have become understandably iconic considering the era in which the film was made, but they were few and far between and certainly not enough to uphold what eventually deteriorated into a fairly vapid and shallow story.

Wealthy San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels with a wicked knack for practical jokes (Tippi Hedren) meets swanky lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird store, he recognises her but pretends to mistake her as for an employee and asks whether they sell love birds. She plays along. Once he reveals that he had been messing with her so that she could experience what its like to be on the brunt end of a joke, she uses the resources at her father’s newspaper to find out his name and address and sets off to seaside town Bodega Bay just north of San Francisco to drop off the birds herself. After discovering Melanie’s surprise, Mitch invites her round for dinner at his family home where he stays on the weekends with his icy and over-protective mother (Jessica Tandy) and angelic little sister (Veronica Cartright). Melanie becomes intrigued by Mitch and his history, deciding to stay for the weekend with one of his ex-girlfriends Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) who is now a local school teacher. While Melanie and Mitch flirt and suss each other out, the little town starts to notice the local birds acting strangely. Initially its as little as birds flocking in unusual patterns and the odd bird flying into a building but as the film progresses, the birds become increasingly violent and hostile and eventually the entire town is overrun by swarms of the murderous things and everybody has to fend for themselves.

What’s strange is that had the film simply followed the lives of the central characters over the course of the weekend and let their various personalities and dynamics collide, it probably would have ended up becoming a more entertaining and complete product. I was enjoying the development of each of the characters and how Melanie had inadvertedly stumbled upon something potentially sinister and twisted in this little town. The thing is, once the birds start attacking all of this goes out the window! All of the politics and games that they were playing and we had spent a good hour becoming invested in are abandoned and each of the characters basically become faceless people in the fight against the birds. Perhaps this was Hitchcock’s intention – to demonstrate the folly and triviality of our daily troubles when confronted by genuinely life threatening situations. Melanie’s pranks and practical jokes amount to nothing when she’s running for her life away from a rabbid swarm of beaks and talons, as do Mrs Brenner’s possessiveness and Annie’s infatuation with Mitch. It’s an interesting theme, but I don’t think it was executed particularly well.

What “The Birds” is remembered for isn’t necessarily the story though, its the suspense and of course the terrifying spectacle of the winged monsters themselves. Apparently upwards of 3,200 birds were trained for the film, with some $200,000 spent on mechanical birds for the close up shots. The scenes with the swarms of birds are still quite effective, especially one of the final scenes where Mitch is walking through hundreds of birds as quietly as he can (as I mentioned earlier, there’s a great Simpsons bit where Homer walks through a sea of babies in the same fashion who are all sucking on their dummies). Unfortunately though, the mechanical birds haven’t fared as well and look pretty silly today, like somebody is throwing stuffed bird toys at the actors, though this of course isn’t to say that they weren’t impressive when audiences saw it back in the 1960s. The scenes I found most harrowing were actually the ones where Melanie and Mitch barricade themselves in Mrs Brenner’s house and the sound of the birds outside gets louder and louder. The famous scene in which Melanie gets trapped in a bedroom and attacked is fairly well done (apparently live birds were tied by strings to Hedren’s clothing to achieve a more authentic sense of fear). Although I was put off by the fact that she literally opens the door, sees it was full of the birds which had been trying to eat them all for the last two days, proceeds forward into the room, closed the door behind her and only then started scrambling for the doorknob behind her while getting pecked and clawed to the point of unconsciousness.

There’s no question as to why the film is considered iconic, so much so that it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress in 2016 and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry. Its important to recognise that for its time, the technical aspects of “The Birds” were groundbreaking as was the now legendary Hitchcock art of suspense. Unfortunatley, the film just hasn’t aged well and is unable to fall back on a well developed story to ensure the sense of timelessness that other films from this era have enjoyed.

By Jock Lehman

Penguin Bloom

I think we all have fond memories of pet themed movies from when we were kids – “Fly Away Home”, “Turner and Hooch”, “Free Willy”, “E’Lollipop”, “Beethoven” or even “Old Yeller” (though the older I’ve gotten the less kid-friendly that thing became). Its an almost universally and uniquely uniting theme; we either grew up loving our pets or envying the other kids in the neighbourhood who did have them, and when there’s a bad guy in a movie who threatens or hurts the family pet then you know they’re a special kind of evil. The animal in question has to be a real life proper animal though with a trainer off camera, what do I care if a CGI puppy dog gets rubbed out?

Never thought I’d think of a magpie that way though! “Penguin Bloom” is the adaptation of the real life story of Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), an Australian woman who fell from a balcony while on holiday with her family in Thailand in 2013 and became a paraplegic. The film follows Sam’s life following the accident, how it had turned her life upside down and how it impacted her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln), her three sons and somwehat overbearing mother (Jacki Weaver). Sam is despondent and overwhelmed by helplessness returning to life in Australia in a wheelchair; she can’t get up to look after her boys in the middle of the night when they’re sick (“They used to call for me if they woke up scared…”), resentfully looks at the photographs on the mantlepiece of her surfing and running, and avoids interacting with her friends and family who are reaching out to support her, preferring instead to sit in the dark with the blinds closed. Things all start to change however when Sam’s eldest son Noah finds an injured magpie chick and brings her home to recover. They name her “Penguin”, (because she’s black and white) and quickly becomes a fixture of the family, snuggling with them while they watch TV and following them around the house. Sam develops a friendship with Penguin, and as Penguin regains strength, Sam too begins to regain hope and optimism for her recovery.

The film’s director Glendyn Ivin has done well in creating an authentic dynamic; the boys just seem like regular little boys rather than overly cutesie little cherubs and there are scenes where Ivin just lets the camera follow the brothers as they play and muck around. Beyond this, Ivin did well to portray Sam’s paraplegia with as much authenticity as possible while limiting emotional contrivance and Watts finds the balance beautifully. You can see the frustration in her eyes as the simplest things have now become exhausting – getting into bed, having a shower, turning over in the night. Watts initial depiction is rooted fairly strongly in anger and disillunisonment and importantly doesn’t portray Sam as completely reasonable as she readjusts to her new reality. There are many moments where she unfairly snaps at her husband Cameron (Andrew Linvoln from “The Walking Dead” with a surprisingly good Australian accent) who is doing the best he can with a newly incapacited wife and three young boys while still operating as a professional photographer to provide for them all. There are times when she does appear to be ungrateful and bitter but I’m glad that they took that approach because that’s what the reality would have been! It would have been ridiculous if Sam had returned home and taken the fact that she can’t move half her body with gentle good humour, sitting prettily with a blanket and a smile like Deborah Kerr in “An Affair to Remember”. It’s completely appropriate that it takes her time and introspection to rediscover hope, and of course some help from her little friend Penguin.

If this wasn’t a true story, the symbolism attached to Sam’s friendship with Penguin accompanying her own recovery might seem a bit too on the nose. Penguin learning to fly just as Sam spreads her own wings… Sam perhaps seeing that she owes herself a little kindness too as she nurses the little bird back to health. Sometimes the script is a little clunky and exposition heavy, and I don’t think the eldest son Noah’s narration at the beginning and throughout was really necessary or helpful. Like I mentioned earlier though, I didn’t think once that any of it seemed disingenuous or too sickly sweet; its perfectly reasonable how Penguin came into the Blooms’ lives and that Sam would benefit from having something to look after and possibly even be inspired by.

Beyond all of this, Penguin is just fun to have on screen! She potters around and chirps away and provides plenty of comedic relief surrounding some of the heavier scenes in the film. While at lunch for Sam’s birthday at her mother’s house (Jacki Weaver is great but a little underutilised here), Penguin is attacked by two other magpies and its genuinely horrifying. Following this, Sam confronts her eldest son Noah about him blaming himself for her accident and for letting Penguin play outside that day. It’s a pretty exhausting and intense little scene, and as soon as they had all hugged and fell into each other’s arms crying, a little kid at the back of my cinema said loudly to his mum “But I’m still worried about Penguin”. As much as I was happy for the Blooms, I was too.

This is a lovely film. It’s real, touching, beautifully Australian and Sam’s character arc and the family coming to terms with what happened to her feels earned and justified. By the end of the film I think the entire cinema had not only fallen in love with Penguin just like the Blooms, but also felt properly warm and fuzzy that this sweet little family was happy again.

By Jock Lehman

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

*Sunday Classic*

Watching Mike Nichols’ 1966 adaption of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, I noticed that at several times throughout the runtime I was actually holding my breath. The tempo of the film rises and falls, between a scared and timid little creature to a snarling and vicious beast foaming at the mouth. The film was barred from many theatres when it first premiered, due to its highly provocative and vulgar language and the strict standard of moral guidelines for films at the time which screenwriter Ernest Lehman deliberately defied and reportedly paid a $5000 fine to allow the profanity contained in the original play. Even now there’s something that seems so edgy and provocative about it, not necessarily because of the language, (it’s fairly benign by today’s standards) but because the script and performances are filled with such ruthless vitriol that it genuinely makes it an uncomfortable experience.

Based off Edward Albee’s 1962 play of the same name, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is centered around the volatile and complex marriage of Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton), two middle aged academics who have harboured resentment and animosity for years yet are also strangely dependent on each other. Arriving home late from a faculty drinks, Martha informs George that she has invited a young couple she met earlier that night round for a night cap. Throughout the evening, George and Martha become more and more violent and heated in their arguments, and while Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) are initially uncomfortable in the environment, eventually become engrossed in it and reveal some more sinister undercurrents within their own marriage too.

The play itself was an incredible success on Broadway, and many in theatrical circles were unconvinced that a filmic adaptation would do the play justice, partly because of the highly restrictive censorship standards and especially so when it was announced that Elizabeth Taylor had been cast as Martha. At that stage, Taylor was 33 years old while the character was in her early fifties, and more importantly, Taylor was considered at that time the most beautiful and glamorous actress in the world, far from the frumpy and bitterly middle-aged Martha. Despite this, Taylor’s portrayal of Martha, apart from her role in 1963’s “Cleopatra”, became arguably Taylor’s most famous and widely acclaimed role. She is absolutely terrifying; venomous yet wounded, incensed but vulnerable and confused. She seeks to portray to the world one image of herself but what lies behind the mask she’s donned reflects the dichotomy of the film overall and the ongoing theme of appearance versus reality, or “truth and illusion” as its referenced. Nichols is able to incorporate some pretty interesting camerawork into this aspect of the story too, with many of the low angle shots adding a real sense of surreality as the musings get more and more sinister.

George Segal and Sandy Dennis do well as the young couple being unwittingly intertwined in George and Martha’s twisted world, so much so that Dennis won a Best Supporting Actress at that year’s Oscars and Segal receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. They’re both a little forgettable when next to Taylor and Burton but that’s understandable and even preferable, although Dennis does have some funny moments as she gets trollied on brandy and stumbles over her own toothy smile. The chemistry between Burton and Taylor is phenomenal, perhaps a reflection of their famously tumultuous and passionate marriage off screen. It’s hard to gauge who’s actually scoring points on the other as the arguments intensify, but each knows the deepest and sickest fears of their partner and how to exploit them.

I think Taylor’s acclaim for this film is justified, but I also think that Burton deserves credit here; his character is written as a contrast to Martha so he cannot shriek and embody the same emotional depravity as she does because then it doesn’t work. In a way he actually has the more difficult role since the character of Martha is definitely the more flashy of the two (lots of stumbling and drunken yelling with the classic alcoholic and cigarette laden screech). Burton underplays his role brilliantly, acting with passive aggression to Martha’s aggression, and softly spoken prose to Martha’s brutally hurled insults. This night is significant, because Martha is able to break him and make him lose the control that usually makes their marriage function. They both venture into previously forbidden and untouched territory, thus stripping bare the reality of their relationship and the fact that they are in fact co-dependent and strangely perfect for each other.

This is electrifying, exhilirating filmmaking with some truly iconic performances. Lehman and Nichols took some undeniable risks in their approach, and its resulted in one of those rare instances where the adaptation may have actually improved upon the original source material. It’s understandable why “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is still well respected today; there’s a timeless quality to it and one which will grow and change as the audience grows and changes. I’m closer to the ages of Nick and Honey right now, by the time I’m at George and Martha’s stage of life, with all that life has had to throw at me, I may rewatch this film and discover something different entirely.

By Jock Lehman