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

Belfast

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

No Time to Die

Review #100!

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “No Time to Die” isn’t perfect by any means, but its somehow the most fun to be had in a Bond flick since “Die Another Day” in 2002. In terms of ticking the Bond boxes (cool cars, beautiful women, exotic locations, impeccable suits, a villain with a creepy accent and physical disfigurement, impressive stunts and fight scenes, a plot to take over the world, some witty one liners and at least one vodka martini), “No Time to Die” comes close to ticking all of them! However, while spy action films aren’t exactly known for air tight storylines and logical motivations, the storyline and characters in “No Time to Die” just unequivocally make no sense at all. And not in a “that laser probably couldn’t blow up the whole world” kind of way, more in a “where did that horse come from and how does he know how to operate a laser at all without fingers” kind of way. It’s also probably the least like the other Daniel Craig Bond films out of all of them which may turn off some fans, but I actually prefer the more playful and less gritty take that the earlier flicks (and novels too) had taken. And if you haven’t seen this yet, hold off until you watch it because I’ll be dishing out a few spoilers.

The film opens with a flashback to when Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) is a little girl and witnesses her mother get murdered by the last surviving member of a family that Madeleine’s father had assassinated as a member of Spectre, with the Bond villain-esque name of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). For an unknown reason, he lets her live. We then return to present day, and Bond (Daniel Craig) and Swann are in the throws of their new romance in 100% Egyptian cotton against the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean, but when Bond is nearly assassinated by Spectre, he suspects Swann’s involvement and puts her on a train, never to see her again. Five years later, Bond has left active service with MI6, but is recruited by the CIA to locate a kidnapped Russian scientist who has developed a bioweapon containing nanobots which can specifically infect a target based on their DNA. Bond rejoins MI6 (where there is bizarrely a new 007 agent who has replaced Bond since he left (Lashana Lynch) but isn’t cool, suave or even remotely a good agent but is somehow just always there to remind Bond that she’s 007 now and he’s not) and with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Swann, Bond must infiltrate Safin’s creepy island headquarters where he is developing the bioweapon and cultivating a garden of poisonous flowers, stop the bad guy, get the girl and save the world!

As I said, this movie’s key attraction more than anything else is that it’s fun. Bond has regained some of his cheekiness and British charm that has been somewhat missing in Craig’s other films and it’s a welcome change of pace. The opening scenes in Italy with Bond being chased by bad guys on his motorbike and then driving round and round in circles in his kitted out Rolls Royce with a machine gun in the bonnet are about as Bond as you can get. There’s later a sequence in Cuba in which Bond is recruited by the CIA to retrieve the Russian scientist and is joined by CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) and in terms of pure, old fashioned James Bond entertainment value, it’s pitch perfect. It’s a lot more choreographed and stylistic than the bleak and brutal sequences that we’re used to with Craig’s Bond; usually we would be expecting for Bond to snap his assailant’s forearm in half and then hear the gurgling in the assassin’s throat as he chokes on his own blood, while here, Paloma and Bond pause in between ass kicking baddies to down martinis. But then Paloma is gone never to be seen again, and we’re stuck with Madeleine Swann and her marble face which is somehow incapable of showing emotion. This is what doesn’t sit right with me; if this is the woman that is going to turn Bond into a monogamous family man and to make him forget about Vesper (Eva Green) from “Casino Royale”, and make Bond question his life so much that he starts delivering introspective, philosophical monologues about how all the pain in his life was worth it for five minutes with her, then surely they could have given us someone with more personality than a Volvo 940! The romance between Bond and Vesper was handled so well, and I could understand him giving up the MI6 life for her. For him to do so for Madeleine, I just didn’t buy it.

The same can be said for the villain; Rami Malek seems like a slam dunk to play a Bond villain, considering how weird and creepy the guy is in real life anyway without the trademark Bond villain face impairment. Here though, he seems completely redundant. Especially since Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is still alive and well and has been locked up in a special government facility as a kind of German Hannibal Lecter, and is somehow controlling Spectre from inside the prison, which could have been a really cool story if they went further down that road! Why then all of a sudden is Safin introduced, who saves Madeleine as a kid, and is weirdly obsessed with her, until he’s all of a sudden just, not? Then he’s obsessed with her oddly obedient and quiet 4 year old daughter, then lets her run away because she bites his hand. Then he’s hell bent on destroying the world with his bioweapon, for no real reason at all (usually the reasons for world domination are pretty superficial, but at least the old school Bond villains stood by their principles!). Then he and Bond face off, and it’s seriously anticlimactic. And that’s that. Nothing about this character fits, and if he’s the one who’s going to be responsible for the death one of the most iconic characters in film or literature, then surely you’re going to give Bond a worthy adversary! When you think about the most famous Bond villains of all time (Dr. No, Goldfinger, General Orlov) even those more recent ones in the Craig films (Le Chiffre, Raoul Silva), it seems a bit of a cop out for Bond to die without a proper showdown at the hands of Freddy Mercury.

In saying all that, I did enjoy “No Time to Die”. It’s probably not the ideal send off for Craig but it’s at least an enjoyable one which is going to largely satisfy its target audience. Its sometimes cheeky and kitch in the old school Bond style, but then often solemn and introspective more in keeping with Craig’s interpretation of the character. It did make me excited to see who the new Bond is going to be and what version of 007 will we see next time? Whoever it is, I hope they see this film as a reminder of how much fun this franchise can really be. James Bond is something that doesn’t necessarily need to depict the bleak reality of the world of espionage, sometimes its just fun to see a cool spy wearing a nice suit drive a cool car and do cool karate moves on the bad guy while saying cool one liners and then kiss a beautiful woman and for us not have to think too much more about it.

By Jock Lehman

Inglorious Basterds

It must be a genuine thrill to be part of a Quentin Tarantino production. To be part of the creative process of somebody who is as uniquely talented as he is, with such an obvious love for storytelling and playing with the structures of film and narrative would be invaluable for anybody, but there’s also that added thrill that nobody can really anticipate what goes on in that gigantic head of his or what the finished product will resemble. “Inglorious Basterds” is so beautifully and lovingly layered as a story; Tarantino has created an entire fabrication of history which (for the most part) feels somehow credible and intensely gripping, and though it is of course pure fantasy, its so easy to get totally absorbed by this film, as we swallow what we know to be true and relish in the comforting embrace of what could have been.

The film is structured through a series of storylines running parallel to each other, each with its own distinctive and memorable central characters and the most explosive moments occurring when the protagonists clash and the storylines cross over. The film opens with Standartenführer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in his Oscar winning turn) interviewing a French farmer as to the whereabouts of a Jewish family, and offers to save him and his family in exchange for turning them over. Landa and his soldiers shoot the hiding family through the floorboards, one of the daughters, Shoshanna, escaping. Some years later in the midst of WWII, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has gained notoriety throughout Europe for his troop of Jewish-American soldiers who target Nazis and brutally scalp them to instil fear throughout the Third Reich. Meanwhile, Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) has made it to Paris and reinvented herself under the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. She operates a small cinema, and following a meeting with Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a German sniper famed for killing 250 Allied soldiers in a battle and the star of the new Nazi propaganda film “Stolz der Nation” (Nation’s Pride), propaganda minister Joseph Goebells (Sylvester Groth) chooses to host the national film premiere at Shoshanna’s cinema, where Hitler himself will be attending. Shoshanna hatches a plan to trap and kill all the guests and the senior members of the Third Reich, unaware that Britain has organised a covert mission to do the exact same thing with Raine and his Basterds.

Perhaps more so than any other Tarantino film, “Inglorious Basterds” is superbly entertaining; its a juicy story and some unbelievably strong performances. The brief but consistent bursts of intense violence are typical of Tarantino, but isn’t as much of a feature as say “Kill Bill” or “Reservoir Dogs”, although he was sure to get a good shot of Hitler getting pulverised by a machine gun. This is far more character driven, and the characters are so well done; you can tell the amount of love and thought that has gone into this script. This is with one major exception however, and I’m sure this is contentious because this is where a lot of the film’s comedy comes from, but I didn’t like Brad Pitt in this at all. For the character he was playing, Pitt is far too much of a pretty boy to pull this off, especially since Raine is supposed to be a grizzled, tough and merciless ex-soldier. I get that his accent is supposed to be a little cartoonish, but he seemed out of place to me for the entire film and was the only aspect of the story I couldn’t really get on board with. This is especially so when Raine meets with Landa, and Pitt scores a couple of cheap laughs by saying “Buonjourno” with his heavy Southern accent. For that entire scene, the credibility of the story, the characters and the plot all went out the window and it even felt somehow dishonest or blasphemous to see the convergence of those two narratives. Then Landa takes Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) off to a separate room and the trajectory of the story is back on track. Luckily, this is the only questionable performance in the film; Waltz is phenomenal, so sadistic and chillingly charming, but Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna is very impressive as well, playing her character as tough and resourceful while allowing the audience to sneak glimpses into her occasional moments of terror (particularly so when she dines with Landa, all the while knowing that he was the man who had killed her family).

What is most striking about the film are a number of stand out scenes in which the parties know that they are moments away from death but maintain the facade of pleasantries and cordiality. One is where Landa sits with the French farmer and interrogates him as to the whereabouts of the Jews hiding under the floorboards. Landa knows that they’re under there, the farmer knows that too, and every one of Landa’s honey toned remarks or friendly smiles are so terrifying because we know that Landa is only prolonging the inevitable bloodshed for his own cruel game. Another is between British commando Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) as he is undercover as a Nazi officer and Major Dieter Hellstrom, a sadistic member of the SS, play cat and mouse with each other in an underground bar. Both are as intelligent and charming as the other, and the tension of the scene is excruciatingly drawn out until everything finally explodes. What Tarantino does so well in these scenes is the use of close up camera angles and accentuated sounds, whether it be the dolloping of cream onto a plate or the filling of a glass with whiskey, almost as if to show how in the moments so close to death, the senses become heightened; the smallest things become exaggerated and amplified and the seconds seem to last an eternity because in that moment, there’s nothing else in the world, only those moments before the end.

“Inglorious Basterds” is slick, masterful, gripping and showcases a beautifully crafted story that subverts a well documented and known time history in a way that’s ridiculous and implausible yet somehow still conceivable. Tarantino knows that people will be expecting some kind of “Tarantino-esque” revenge for Hitler and the officers of the Third Reich, the more brutal the better. He delivers this in spades, and the result is satisfying and strangely cathartic; we know in our hearts that Hitler didn’t come to the grisly end that the movie portrays, and we know that the man in the film isn’t really Hitler either, but to pretend just for that moment and to imagine that there was some retribution for the evil he brought into the world is a welcome feeling.

By Jock Lehman