Top Gun: Maverick


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

Terms of Endearment

*Sunday Classic*

Everybody thinks that other people’s families are bizarre. We grow up assuming that everybody’s parents talk to each other the way our own do, that everybody has the same bed time and that everybody has the same go to Friday night treat for dinner. It’s therefore understandable that when we’re children and go for sleepovers at friends’ houses, the things we see just make no sense at all and there’s no way we can rationalise it. James L. Brooks’ 1983 “Terms of Endearment” is a film which at its core is the story of the relationship between a mother and daughter, but the dynamic between the two of them is so bizarre and contradictory that had the performances of the lead actresses not been as compelling as they were, there’s no way the film would have worked.

Widowed Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is disapproving when her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) marries young, slick college professor Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels) and again when she moves away with their children for Flap’s new job. Emma loves her mother but agrees to the move to escape Aurora’s controlling and intrusive parenting. As Emma’s marriage quickly becomes strained, she struggles to raise her children as Flap drifts further and further away, culminating in her having an affair with a local man (John Lithgow) and Flap fooling around with his fellow buxom professors. Aurora meanwhile, after years of keeping two mild mannered, neutered admirers at bay (Danny DeVito and Norman Bennett), she allows herself to be swept away by the charming and roguish ex-astronaut Garrett living next door (Jack Nicholson) in a passionate romance which she confides to Emma with teenager like giddiness. When Emma is diagnosed with cancer and told she has only months to live, Flap and Aurora are forced to confront their differences as Emma struggles to reconcile her fate, culminating in a genuinely heartbreaking scene as she says goodbye to her sons.

Aurora is certainly not delicate in her interactions with Emma, telling her that her husband is a lowlife, that she’s not special enough to overcome a bad marriage, that there’s no way her life is going to get any better if she keeps having children with him. It’s never really explained why Aurora has become so embittered; there’s no mention of her husband and what their life was like before he passed away. Her relationship with Emma flies from fiery and venom lipped bickering to giggling small talk to excruciating screeching in Emma’s hospital ward when the nurses are late in administering her pain medication. We never see them really reconcile after they have an argument; perhaps they have such a deep understanding of each other that no apology is necessary, or maybe Brooks has deliberately omitted these scenes because it’s not important how they reconciled. Emma knows that Aurora does what she does out of love, as misguided as her actions may seem. We aren’t exposed to the full scope of their relationship, and that’s why the volatility of it seems jarring, but that’s alright. A lot of it didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t figure out why the two women often acted the way they did, but maybe if Aurora and Emma Greenway were to sit as a fly on the wall and watch the goings on of my family, they might think it was a little strange themselves.

One thing that didn’t sit right with me was Aurora’s relationship with Garrett next door. It seemed somehow disingenuous and artificial in amongst such convincing and complex portrayals of families, friends and lovers. Also, Nicholson’s performance is just a little boring and uninspired and certainly not deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar; all he seemed to do was grin and raise his eyebrows an awful lot just like, well, Jack Nicholson. The whole schtick of the rouge playboy being tamed by an unlikely and earthy older woman seemed so surface level and lazy in this film and I found myself growing impatient when these scenes dragged on.

The lead female roles however, (of which MacLaine won her first Oscar), are unique and especially pivotal to this story. In many ways the performances, while maybe not superseding the script, certainly elevate it in a way which couldn’t have happened had MacLaine and Winger not been involved. What was especially surprising to me was how sweet and funny this film is, because I had heard about the infamous scene in which Emma says goodbye to her boys from her hospital bed and had assumed that the film would largely be a depressing experience. It’s a shame, because “Terms of Endearment” is so much more than that. One of the messages of the Jewish holiday of Passover is that existence is equally bitterness and sweetness, but all important in the journey of life. I was reminded of that sentiment while watching this film. I certainly grew teary as promised in Emma’s final scene with her sons, but I would say that this is a story as much about the humour, silliness and beauty of life as well as the tragedy.

By Jock Lehman

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Jon Watts’ latest instalment in the Spider-Man franchise is big and loud and overstuffed, perhaps a little more convoluted and ambitious than it needs to be. But it is also bursting with creativity, humour, impressive action and has taken a huge risk by radically broken the fourth wall by incorporating the three leads of the property from the last twenty years into the one film. And it works! It was a little silly but the film knows that and it was just fun to watch the three, very different interpretations of the character bounce off each other. More than anything else, this is a great action movie and the battle sequences incorporating the different villains with their respective superpowers is exactly what’s called for in something like this and it’s executed phenomenally.

Following on from the events of “Spider-Man: Far From Home”, Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) identity as Spider-Man has been exposed and the world now knows that he is responsible for the murder of the superhero Quentin Beck. Peter has lost his anonymity and the lives of his friends and family are beginning to be infiltrated by the media, and he, his giflriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) are rejected from MIT because of all the bad press. Not sure how to handle this, Peter approaches Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for him to cast a spell to make the world forget that he is Spider-Man, but corrupts the spell by continuing to made amendments to it mid-cast. Instead of making the world forget Peter Parker, instead the multi-verse is cracked open and the Spider-Mans from other worlds (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and the villains from the other worlds (Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius, William Dafoe as the Green Goblin, Rhys Ifans as Lizard, Jamie Foxx as Electro and Thomas Haden Church as Sandman) spill out. Holland Spider-Man wants to try and redeem the villains, to bring them back to the men they were before they became monsters, but meanwhile, he, the other Spideys, MJ and Ned have to try and contain them as they cause mischief all over the city.

Jon Watts knows very well that bringing the three Spider-Mans into the same film as well as their accompanying villains (who we all thought had been blown up or electrocuted or sliced in half by a hover craft) will send hordes of Comic-Con enthusiasts into fits of spidey-gasms. The introductions of each character is dramatic and accompanied by a good few (very deliberate) seconds without dialogue to allow for the audiences to scream and lose their minds in the cinemas. Watts has taken the time to make sure that the three of them have some proper conversations, and it’s kind of cool watching three different versions of the one person reveal things to the other in a couple of pretty touching little scenes that they absolutely wouldn’t have revealed to anybody else. I think they’re in the film for just the right amount of screen time, because this is still Tom Holland’s show and too much would have felt confusing and disingenuous. Having that many of the villains in the one film though probably was a little heavy handed and hard to keep track of, and its definitely more in keeping with the Marvel universe where there are multiple central characters front and centre. It was exciting to see Octavius and the Green Goblin back in fine form again, but Lizard, Electro and Sandman probably weren’t necessary and its obvious that most of their screen time was making sure that they were all getting their fair share.

Holland has definitely grown on me; I can remember reviewing “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and saying that he wasn’t quite right as Spider-Man. I still do prefer Tobey Maguire, but Holland definitely works better with Watts as a director, because these are definitely lighter, more comedic interpretations of the source material and Holland is a more contemporary superhero. In saying that though, he’s not a bad dramatic actor either and there are a couple of more serious moments where he holds his own beautifully. He has this very particular way of stuttering and speaking very quickly when he’s upset as he tries to reassure himself or whoever is in trouble that things will be okay, and its a really nice little technique because it’s exactly how people do act when they’re overwhelmed and scared.

The latest films starring Tom Holland as Spider-Man are definitely much lighter in tone and much more tongue-in-cheek than those of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, and seeing the actors all working off this one new style was a little jarring (I was reminded of that Family Guy/ Simpsons crossover where Seth MacFarlane wrote the episode and seeing his words come out of Homer Simpson’s mouth just didn’t quite sit right). But, for what it is – this is a lighthearted, good-natured instalment with some impressive action, well timed humour and is true to the world that Jon Watts has sought to establish, and the sort of thing in which both hard core fans and those looking for a solid couple of hours of easy, fun entertainment will absolutely find common ground.

By Jock Lehman

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The world of evangelical Christian personalities Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is one I had never really been exposed to, having grown up in the 1990s and never really seeing these types of characters on the television (except unless I got up too early for Cheez TV and decided to do a little channel surfing). My first reaction was how bizarre the Praise the Lord network was, but also that, watching Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy Faye, I could see why people liked her and was able to see why the Bakkers were successful in their swindling of thousands of their followers. Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” reflects the contradictions of their world; where people preached kindness and selflessness but then embezzled millions and engaged in exactly the kind of behaviour they had made a business out of condemning. At the centre of this is Tammy Faye, a walking contradiction in herself; Chastain has captured, with an admirable likeness, a woman who seems earnest in her faith, her vulnerability and and her love for her fellow man. However, she also, if not actively participated, at least turns a determinedly blind eye to her husband’s appalling criminal behaviour while surrounding herself with the luxury that his exploitation generated.

The storyline of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” follows the standard plot points of the Hollywood biopic fairly religiously (you get that one for free). Tamara Faye LaValley grows up in a small religious community in International Falls, Minnesota, with a typically hard lined and strict mother (Cherry Jones) who constantly reminds her of how she was conceived in her prior marriage which had ended in divorce and that if her brothers and sisters were going to hell, it was because of her. She develops a love for Christianity, and grows up wanting to spread the word of the Lord. While at Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets another passionate young student, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and the two soon marry. The film follows the journey of the two evangelicals as they develop their own Christian television program where Jim preached and Tammy sang gospel music and telling the stories of the Bible and tales of morality with puppets, eventually creating the PLT (Praise the Lord) network and reaching dizzying heights of fame and wealth, despite some controversy with her willingness to support the gay community and AIDS patients. Eventually, suspicions arise over the financial dealings of he PLT network (particularly through the obtaining of millions of dollars worth pledges from their followers), and also allegations over Jim engaging in homosexual activities over the course of the prior 20 years and engaging in an affair where the woman involved was paid $200k for her silence. Jim is eventually arrested, and Tammy Faye is stripped of all her luxuries and is reduced to living in comparatively meagre means and total rejection from the Christian world. The film concludes with Tammy Faye performing for the first time in ten years as a guest star at Oral Roberts University.

Was she an unwitting victim in all of this? Or as culpable as Jim was in defrauding all those poor people who contributed their money in hopes of spreading the good word of Jesus Christ? I think its probably a little of both; Tammy Faye Bakker was my no means a fool, nor was she a monster. As far as this film is concerned, she wanted so badly to believe in the good in the world, in the Lord, and in her husband that she blocked out the wickedness she knew was there. Whether that manifested itself in her addictions, her excessive spending, her increasingly garish make up and surgeries, Tammy Faye certainly didn’t come out of everything that happened unscathed. The film is undoubtedly kind to Tammy Faye, significantly minimising her involvement in the embezzlement and providing an admittedly superficial examination of what actually happened at the PTL Network. I was thinking though, that’s not what the film seeks to be; Jim Bakker and PTL are very much secondary characters in this story, this film is telling the story of Tammy Faye and how she viewed the world. We may not see much of the darker and more sinister dealings that went on because (according to the film anyway), she either genuinely didn’t know what was going on or chose to delude herself and continue on believing that she and Jim were doing the work of the Lord and their critics were simply their enemies out to get them.

Chastain is a wonderful actress, and though I don’t necessarily think this is the best performance of her career I do think she deserves the Best Actress Oscar this year. Her portrayal has obviously been meticulously prepared, down to the mannerisms and that very specific voice, not to mention doing all her own singing. Some have said that her performance and in particular the make up and prosthetics used are distracting and over enthusiastic. While this may be true to a degree, (I had a quick look at some old footage of the real Tammy Faye Bakker and its undeniable that Chastain has definitely turned up the dial just a bit), I don’t think this necessarily detracts from the film. The laugh is a little louder, the accent is a little more Minnesotan and the very characteristic tilt of the head is just so slightly moving more towards 45 degrees. I do think though, that this was a very deliberate choice and it’s obvious that Chastain isn’t going for that dead on, uncanny evocation. Tammy Faye Bakker was an outrageous character in real life, but watching a film as an audience, we always tend to need a little more in order to elicit that same reaction. Chastain has made the right creative choices in slightly exaggerating everything she did, because this also represented how Tammy Faye was larger than life and that she was such a shocking contrast to the overweight, balding and monochromic men who had lead the evangelical movement up to that point. As likeable as Chastain’s Tammy Faye is, that is how unlikeable and slimy Garfield’s Jim Bakker is. Garfield has captured every sycophantic, weak, bullying, self-righteous and egotistical trait that personified this dreadful man, and manages to create someone where the audience can imagine themselves punching him in his big, stupid bloated face.

I enjoyed “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” very much. I know its shamelessly Oscar bait-y and without Jessica Chastain’s central performance probably wouldn’t be anything too memorable, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. There’s an entirely different film to be made about the corruption that went on at PTL and the Bakker’s role in it, but that’s not what this film is. It’s about a unique woman who had her flaws and was almost certainly more culpable than the film lets on, but was undeniably talented and passionate in her faith and work, and really did have a way of connecting with people. In the final scene as Tammy Faye sings “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to her audience for the first time in a decade, initially timid but growing in confidence as the song escalates, I could genuinely see why she touched people the way she did. This was her story told through her eyes, however clouded they may have been.

By Jock Lehman


Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is a thing of absolute joy.

A painstakingly earnest, heartfelt and honest portrayal of a young boy’s coming of age during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland in the 1960s, Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale is elegantly crafted, heartbreaking at times and while it beautifully upholds some of the tropes of the genre, it cleverly avoids a number of somewhat obvious but emotionally manipulative and unnecessary plot points and the story is in this sense refreshingly unique.

“Belfast” which Branagh has described as his “most personal film”, is told from the perspective of 9 year old Buddy (Jude Hill), and depicts the lives of Buddy and his working class, Ulster Protestant family as conflicts escalate in Belfast at the hands of a violent, Protestant loyalist group targeting the remaining Catholic residents living in their area. Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) is targeted by the local leader of the Protestant “cause” and insists upon his involvement, threatening him and his family if he were not to comply. Buddy is a young and chirpy lad, and doesn’t quite understand the clashes, or why his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) is sometimes sad or the fact that his Pa has to go away to England to work. Or even how to best tell the smartest and most beautiful girl in his whole class, Catherine, that he loves and wants to marry her, since she’s a Catholic and all.

It’s evident that there was a lot of love invested into this production by Branagh, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed. The dialogue is outstanding, and clearly written with a real understanding and familiarity of that iconic, quick witted Irish sense of humour and intricate word play and sense of story. It was a real gamble having the film oriented so heavily around a nine year old (as the old Hollywood adage goes, never work with kids or animals) but Buddy as the protagonist is so incredibly likeable that far from detracting from the story, Jude Hill is actually one of the strongest and most admirable elements of “Belfast”. In terms of demonstrating the impacts of the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, it was a clever creative choice for us an audience to experience it all through the eyes of those who genuinely have no stake in the fight but have been caught up in the conflict through no fault of their own. What Branagh has managed to demonstrate, is that even though Buddy and his family are living in amongst the fighting, its not the centre of their world. Of course they worry about the danger and for their neighbours and what will happen to the Catholics, but they still worry about the health of Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), financial strains and find moments of joy of their own. It’s a scary time, but life goes on.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is one in which, after attending a funeral, Pa sings “Everlasting Love” with the band and dances with Ma in front of the guests. It’s such a heartwarming little scene in so many ways; we see a mother and father through the eyes of total and complete adoration from their little boy, we see citizens caught up in trying and scary times finding moments of happiness and we see a young couple, very much in love, just having some fun. I think its one of the reasons that Branagh decided to film in black and white the way he did. The cinematography is incredibly beautiful, as if every individual shot could exist in its own right as a work of art. Every now and then, when the characters are watching something on stage or the television, we see it in colour, as they do. Visually it’s a very striking technique, and could represent the characters finding beauty or light in their dark times, or perhaps Ma and Pa deliberating to take their family away from Belfast in search of a safer life for their children. It could be for a number of reasons, but its nice to see a filmmaker play around with the medium because it’s what’s right for the film rather than for pure tokenism.

I’m not going to spoil the film for those of you who haven’t seen it, but towards the end, there’s a scene which I felt sure was going to end in a certain way. I had seen it coming for a little while and was disappointed that that’s where the story was heading. But then… what I had expected didn’t happen! I frowned for a moment and then realised that that’s not what this film was about, it’s instead something completely different. It was a brave thing for Branagh to do, and I was impressed that he was able to stick to his vision of what he wanted his story to be, instead of what Hollywood would have ordinarily called for (especially those attracting Oscar buzz).

This is absolutely my favourite film of this upcoming Oscar season, and I hope that it wins Best Picture. Often Best Picture winners are those which are artistically very sombre and depicting depressing stories which audiences would rarely engage in otherwise (“The Shape of Water”, “The English Patient”, “Nomadland”). “Belfast” is a beautiful story and an unashamed crowd pleaser, with a resounding message of the importance of one’s country, family and neighbour. It’s a film which will make audiences feel lighter and happier when they leave, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

By Jock Lehman

Being the Ricardos

Now this is how you do a biopic!

Aaron Sorkin is an absolute master; “Being the Ricardos” hosts an incredibly strong performance in Nicole Kidman, but Sorkin has managed to avoid the trappings of relying solely on the leading role to carry the entire film and producing an otherwise formulaic and unimaginative narrative. Don’t get me wrong, Kidman as Lucille Ball, while fans of the world’s most famous flaming red head initially criticised Sorkin’s casting, is phenomenal and I would say probably most deserving of the Lead Actress Oscar this year, but its Sorkin’s sharp and slick style and his way of playing around with the film’s structure that makes the story of a sit com star from the 1950s as captivating and fast paced as a political thriller. This shouldn’t be surprising I suppose, nobody really anticipated a story about a mean spirited little computer nerd would become one of the most acclaimed dramas of the 21st century.

The film takes place over the course of a week in 1953 during the filming of an episode of “I Love Lucy”, with flashbacks throughout of how Lucille moves from “Queen of the B Movies” to America’s most beloved sitcom star and her intense and often tumultuous relationship with Desi Arnez (Javier Bardem). During the course of this week, Sorkin has compressed a number of major events that took place over a number of years into these few days which, for the purpose of the story actually works quite well. During these few days; Lucille and Desi work with their co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) on that week’s show, Lucille falls pregnant so she and Desi negotiate with CBS producers for Lucy to have a baby in the show (which was unheard of at the time due to the insinuation that children in sit coms then just miraculously appeared fully formed), Lucille is accused of being a Communist in a national newspaper, and Lucille and Desi struggle with Desi’s infidelity. Big week for the Ricardos!

First and foremost, this is probably the best performance of Kidman’s career. I was nervous how she would go with recreating Lucille Ball’s iconic voice, since accents haven’t necessarily been her strong suit, let alone trying to imitate an actual living person. Regardless, she absolutely embodies Lucille Ball’s voice, her manner and that real strength and assertiveness that came from succeeding as a woman in a male dominated industry. Kidman also makes some really astutely made creative choices to distinguish Lucille Ball from Lucy Ricardo, and its an important juxtaposition to make considering the gravity of what was happening to the woman behind her slapstick and wisecracking persona. What was especially impressive was the way in which Sorkin showed Lucille’s creative process and her insistence on perfection with such a logical and almost scientific process in every scene of her show. The producers pitch skits to Lucille, and each time her visualisation of how the scene would look is played out on screen in black and white, and she responds to them with a humourless affirmation or rejection of their premise. She has little time nor patience for fools, she knows exactly what it takes for her audience to laugh, and she knows that her audience isn’t stupid either and won’t forgive her for treating them like children. Seeing her work on a dinner scene with the other actors in the “I Love Lucy Show” and the backs and forths of whether there should be flowers on the table for dinner was such a fun and immersive way of demonstrating how Lucille Ball approached her work. In the same way in which a biopic about a singer needs to have plenty of footage of them actually singing, it would have felt unfair if a film about Lucille Ball didn’t showcase what exactly made her so talented as a performer.

Beyond Kidman’s performance and Lucille Ball’s story, this film is a really interesting depiction of the entertainment industry in the 1950s. The whole issue surrounding the depiction of pregnant women was fascinating, and I liked that Sorkin took time to show entire conversations between the studio executives, Lucille Ball and Desi and the reasonings behind the unusually harsh network censorship in post war American television. The production design and costumes are seamless, and the supporting performances from Arnes, Simmons and Vance are pitch perfect. The issue of the widespread fear of the “Red Menace” and the threat of Communism was handled well, and interesting to observe in the twenty first century where the inverse is true and conservative leaning actors are often blacklisted or intimidated due to the overwhelmingly progressive politics of modern Hollywood. I doubt that the film intended this as a cautionary tale, but it was interesting to observe nonetheless.

“Being the Ricardos” is an intelligent and sleekly crafted piece of Sorkin brilliance. Kidman has demonstrated again why she is considered up there with Hollywood’s best and the film has again shed a light on a property which I certainly had little exposure to. That’s what I like about films like this; where they’re done well, they can inspire a new audience from an entirely different generation to appreciate something which may have otherwise been left forgotten.

By Jock Lehman

West Side Story (2021)

Undertaking a remake of any of the iconic 1960s musicals was always going to be a daunting task, especially when there’s not necessarily the demand to fix what just ain’t broken. “The Sound of Music”, “My Fair Lady”, “Oliver”, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” are all such beloved entities that people just don’t want reimaginings of them, which in a way is strange because they’re based off stage plays which are reproduced all the time! In saying that though, I wouldn’t consider “West Side Story” in that same category. After I watched the 1961 version I can remember reading Roger Ebert’s review, where he named it one of his “Great Movies” and stated that it “remains a landmark of musical history”, and wondering why… It certainly wasn’t one of the staples of the family video box growing up and I can’t imagine it really being one for other families in the same way that those earlier films I mentioned would be.

The story itself is famously based off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, substituting the Capulets and Montagues for the New York gangs the Jets (white New Yorkers) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans). The musical itself just isn’t one of my favourites, although I find Stephen Sondheim to be a bit hit and miss in general. I find a lot of the music itself to be somewhat flat and not especially memorable (especially the romantic numbers like “Tonight” and “Maria”) and the love story itself to be a little annoying. That being said, the appeal of “West Side Story” for me is the spectacle; its the colours, dance sequences and the dichotomy between the white New Yorkers and the Puerto Ricans which really lends itself to working so well on stage. And who better to bring spectacle to screen than Steven Spielberg!

It’s really the dance sequences that make this production special. Of particular note is the dance at the gym, where Spielberg has made a deliberate artistic choice with the costumes to show the division between the rival gangs; the white New York women are all wearing cooler blues and whites, while the Puerto Rican women are in contrasting reds and yellows and burnt oranges. The back and forth and the flurry of skirts is visually incredibly striking and continues throughout the film, particularly with “America”, which is an example where Spielberg has diverted from the original, which is undeniably a fun number, by ramping up the scope and bringing the scene out onto the street and thereby allowing the crowds to create a dance routine on a much grander and visually more impressive scale. Its these sequences which bring the film life and vivacity, because unfortunately, a lot of the solo numbers just don’t have that same appeal and really slow down the momentum of the story. “Something’s Coming” for instance is so durgy and boring that if I ever watch this at home I’d happily skip through it, but again, that’s not Spielberg’s fault, that’s just the play itself.

Performance wise, this is a seriously strong group of actors and have all been cast beautifully. Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita are particularly impressive, the former being so strikingly beautiful and endearingly innocent with the latter bringing the required strength, sass and sex appeal that was so striking in Rita Moreno’s performance in the 1961 version and her well deserved Oscar. Ansel Elgort and David Alvarez also deserve credit for their roles as Tony and Bernardo respectively. As for Rita Moreno returning in this version as Valentina, a reimagined version of the original character Doc, I think it actually works quite nicely and brings a maternal influence to the boys, who really are barely more than children and shows the tragedy of the fact that their own mothers or fathers haven’t been there for them. It was also a nod to the original which didn’t feel forced; Moreno still has a strong stage presence and the creative decision ultimately benefited the film.

Apart from being a master story teller, there is something so visually captivating and moving about Steven Spielberg’s productions. Spielberg’s interpretation of “West Side Story” is a knock out. Even though there are elements of the musical itself which I still don’t necessarily enjoy, Spielberg has taken the strongest parts of the stage show and made them the focal point of the film. It’s exciting and spectacular, and one of those rare instances where a modern take has done the source material real justice and brought something which may not have been seen otherwise to a whole new audience.

By Jock Lehman

House of Gucci

I’m sure there is a documentary out there about the Guccis and Patrizia Reggiani, and if you’re interested in the story and how it all panned out then that’s probably the better way to do it. Because as glamorous and as illustrious as the Guccis were, Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” basically boils down to a family squabble over some unsigned share certificates, and a lot of the time it just doesn’t make for entertaining viewing.

In the early 1970s, the ambitious and charming Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), the heir to a 50% interest in the Gucci fashion house at a party and is determined to marry him and gain access to the fortune and legacy that comes with the Gucci name. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) warns Maurizio about Patrizia and that she is only after his money, and that if he proceeds with marrying her then he will be written out of his will. Upon their marriage, Patrizia sets about reconciling Maurizio with his uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and then as well with Rodolfo. As the film progresses, Patrizia becomes more and more brazen and manipulative, double crossing Maurizio’s boofoon of a cousin Paolo (Jared Leto), with Maurizio following suit and selling out his uncle and cousin before leaving Patrizia and almost driving Gucci into the ground with excessive spending and poor management. Patrizia becomes incensed after trying to reconcile with Maurizio, and with the help of her psychic friend Giuseppina “Pina” Auriemma (Selma Hayek) and two boorish hitmen, Maurizio is assassinated outside his home. The film closes with Patrizia, Pina and the two hitmen being charged with his murder.

On the surface, this should be a slam dunk, but it doesn’t take long for the flaws in the film’s construction and the flimsiness of the narrative to show. There’s no doubt that there’s an enormous amount of talent in this cast, but the script has been written in a way that lacks continuity and seems to jump sporadically across years, hairstyles and varying degrees of family hostility with none of it really feeling earned. Despite the best efforts of the actors, its hard for any of them to develop any sense of character arc because the film is trying to cover a course of twenty five years and every notable event that happened to the Guccis, so it ends up flowing more like a series of individual short movies which work perfectly fine by themselves but makes for a jarring and unsettling run time. The story just doesn’t suit a chronological structure; what would have worked better is if the film had been oriented around Patrizia’s trial and used flashbacks to her days of glamour and glitter to really highlight just how far she had fallen in society. On top of that, some of the key events in the film have been barely justified. For example, prior to his assassination, Maurizio is bought out by the investment company which bought out Aldo’s shares because of his reckless spending and managerial incompetence. This comes as a complete slap in the face however because the only indication we’re given of this is that he has bought a Ferrari in the previous scene. 

The performances across the board are strong, particularly from Pacino and Irons. Although, and I can’t quite figure out why, but there’s something a little odd about Lady Gaga’s. It’s as if she’s come to a party dressed as Patrizia Reggiani and has practiced her accent for a party trick. I never once bought her as the complex person she was supposed to be portraying; the many times Patrizia cries and leaves a perfect mascara streak down her cheek, I thought to myself – that’s kind of cool that Lady Gaga can cry on cue, rather than buying it as a response to what the character is feeling. In a strange way, this could have worked in the actress’ favour, because Patrizia Reggiani herself was playing a role her entire life. She was duplicitous and manipulative and managed to convince an awful lot of people that they could trust and love her. Unfortunately though, Lady Gaga’s disconnect from the character seems to carry through to when she is alone and supposedly at her most vulnerable. This is with one notable exception. There’s a scene in which Patrizia and Maurizio are dining in Aspen with a smattering of Maurizio’s glamorous friends. Patrizia tries to lead the conversation by telling a story about the best macaroons in the world, which of course are found in Paris. Maurizio cuts her down with snide comments and humiliates her, but she presses on with increasingly desperate airiness. She’s not from the same world as these people, and she knows that not all the designer clothes, jewellery or real estate in the world can change that. This is where Gaga shines; you can see the frustration and humiliation and hurt, and her desperation to convince the blue bloods that not only does she truly belong there, but that she’s better than them. 

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” in which Patrizia Gucci discovers that there is a ring of counterfeit Gucci merchandise being circulated. She’s mortified, because even though the handbags and scarves may look an awful lot like the real thing, the stitching is shoddy, the material is cheap and abrasive and the dyes are lack luster. These fake Gucci goods are strangely symbolic of “House of Gucci” itself; the costumes are flashy, the scenery is magnificent, the cast ensemble is glittering with some real relics of Hollywood royalty, in short – the whole thing looks a lot like the real deal. However, Lady Gaga’s performance lacks nuance, the pacing is inconsistent, the plot line seems to be missing some crucial details and the most exciting part of the whole story (the assassination of Maurizio Gucci) is essentially a footnote at the conclusion of the story. There are enjoyable elements in this film, its just that its not the piece of 1980s Gucci couture that it so desperately wants to be.

By Jock Lehman

Dune (2021)

By the House of freaking Atreides, they didn’t stuff it up!

2021’s “Dune” could have so easily been over-gorged, over-ambitious and so reliant on spectacle and special effects that any sense of story got thrown out the window, just like the litany of its mediocre adaptations to film and television since the 1980s. The 1960s series of novels on which the film is based is notoriously convoluted and complicated, sprawling across galaxies and political dynasties and hundreds of pages in Old Testament size text so converting it to film was always going to be an insurmountable task. Not only have screenwriters Dennis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth managed to condense the novel (into an admittedly still long 156 minute run time), they’ve done so in a way that has simplified and streamlined the story so its not only palatable but genuinely gripping and immersive.

The story is akin to the big, rich, old school space operas that inspired Star Wars; its 10191 and all the planets in the universe are under the control of an aristocratic empire. Duke Leto of the House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been appointed as the new ruler of the desolate desert planet Arrakis, which has been commodified due to being the only planet with “spice”, a valuable substance that bestows its users heightened vitality and expanded consciousness. The Duke’s teenage son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is the story’s hero, not only the heir to the House Atreides but also the son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is one of a long line of a mystical sisterhood whose members possess magical mind control powers. When the House Atreides is overthrown, Paul must rise up as his father’s replacement, forge an alliance with the native people of Arrakis, and save Arrakis from House Harkonnen, a breed of fat bald men who can levitate and headed by the biggest and baldest of all of them, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). And of course, everyone has to dodge the giant sandworms which roam the desert looking for things to swallow.

“Dune” is a big, unapologetic Hollywood motion picture; brilliant and slick and dazzling and grand in the steed of old-fashioned epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Ben-Hur”. I loved this film; I loved the world that was created, I was invested in the political power struggles and the magical forces at play, I loved the scope and grandness of the whole thing and as soon as the credits rolled I checked my phone for when the second instalment was due (October 2023 by the way). The cinematography is phenomenal and fully embraces the spectacle of the vast desert world of Arrakis, the eerie wailing score by Hans Zimmer creating the perfect illusion that these conflicts and lands are part of something ancient and prophetic. What is done perfectly is that even though I have no doubt that the source material is intricately and meticulously woven, watching the film I wasn’t distracted by trying to piece together who everybody was or their motivations. I was dropped right in the middle of this universe and the film was constructed so well that I was able to simply be washed away with it rather than having to struggle to stay afloat. That’s good storytelling.

Sci-fi fans won’t be disappointed either; there are plenty of flash guns, aircraft, and futuristic gadgets and a seriously cool device that attaches to your belt and projects an invisible shield over the wearer’s body and flashes red when its integrity is being compromised. The performances from the stellar cast were dignified and pitch perfect, particularly so for Timothee Chalamet, who is fast becoming one of the most interesting and promising young actors in Hollywood and strikes just the right balance between a young and inexperienced child and the man who is going to take responsibility for what he knows to be his destiny.

“Dune” is an uproariously entertaining and beautifully crafted movie, telling what truly is a pretty epic tale with dexterity and an obvious respect to the source material. Films like this are designed for the cinema; with the rest of the world blocked out, the lights dimmed, your phone on silent and nothing but the story to sweep you away. At one stage I could have sworn I felt the sand of Arrakis between my toes.

By Jock Lehman