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

Halloween (1978)

*Sunday Classic

“The strongest human emotion is fear. It’s the essence of any good thriller that, for a little while, you believe in the boogeyman.”
John Carpenter

The most terrifying things in the world are the things which hide in the shadows, where our own imaginations can fill in the blanks of what could be there. Apparently, when choosing the mask for Michael Myers in 1978’s “Halloween”, the final two to choose from were a crazed looking clown mask and a 1975 Captain Kirk mask with the eyebrows and sideburns ripped off, painted grey and the eyes made wider. Audiences felt that the second mask was the more terrifying, because it showed no emotion at all. And it makes sense, I can remember thinking that even the killer in “Scream” is only scary before their identity is revealed.

“Halloween” is a film purely designed to scare us, so the plot is largely redundant. After stabbing his older sister to death as a child, Michael Myers (Tony Moran) is locked up in a nearby mental institution. Fifteen years later, on Halloween, Michael escapes and returns to his home town, where he notices young high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, famously the daughter of Janet Lee, the female lead in “Psycho”) dropping off a key at long-abandoned Myers house that her father is trying to sell. Laurie starts noticing Michael around the town and outside her bedroom window, but doesn’t think too much of it and her friends tell her she’s being paranoid. That night, Laurie babysits and her girlfriends meet up with their boyfriends for sex while their parents are out of the house for the annual Halloween party. As the night goes on, Michael murders each of the teenagers, until he comes across Laurie and she proves a more difficult target…

Many critics have framed this film as a moral critique on teenage sexuality, that Laurie was spared because she was sexually repressed and didn’t give into sexual depravation like her friends did. Carpenter himself has dismissed the claim, purporting instead that the reason that all the horny teens die is simply because they were so preoccupied with getting lucky that they don’t notice that there’s a masked lunatic stalking them for an entire day. I don’t completely buy this; I don’t think its a coincidence that Michael killed his sister after she had slept with her boyfriend and that Michael targeted sexually active teenage girls and their boyfriends when he broke out of the asylum. In saying that though, its not like Michael let Laurie get away scot free, so maybe the fact that she hadn’t been thrown off guard by those randy local lads played in her favour.

What’s incredible about Halloween is how meticulously and deliberately the horror is drawn out. It’s a good fifty minutes into the eighty minute run time before anybody is actually hurt at all. Up until then, the suspense slowly builds to the point of excruciating. Sporadically throughout the first act of the film, Carpenter will establish a shot of a suburban street from Laurie’s perspective, maybe as as she’s walking somewhere with her knee high socks and backpack of biology books. Initially, there’s nothing unusual about the picture, then we notice a shadow or a figure that’s slightly darker or out of place, but then the camera cuts away so we think we’ve imagined it, but then the camera cuts back and there’s Michael standing there. He’s silent and his mask is emotionless, but then, as quickly as we think we’ve seen him, he’s gone and the world is just as it should be. Carpenter himself composed the score, and a lot of the terror generated I genuinely think comes from the creepy piano soundtrack. That tune haunted me in my dreams that night.

Where the film lost me was in its final act; where the suspense has been shot to pieces and Laurie and Michael actually go head to head. After all that suspense, the final confrontation seemed to happen so quickly and didn’t seem to have the same finesse as the first half of the film. It would have been nice to have one last twist before the credits rolled, and unfortunately all the suspense that was so beautifully built seemed to come to nothing. What Carpenter does so well is highlighting the reality which we have all felt where we don’t believe our own eyes. When Laurie sees Michael, she tells her friends and they reassure her that its nothing or that her imagination is getting carried away. Then when the kid Laurie is babysitting sees Michael and tells her that the boogeyman is outside, she doesn’t believe him either.

There’s an interesting irony to this whole dynamic; Laurie is old enough for her protestations to be heard if she makes them loud enough, but her grown up common sense tells her that there’s very little likelihood that a serial killer is following her throughout town. That little boy is screaming at the top of his lungs that the boogeyman is outside, because he trusts his instincts, but he’s only little and nobody believes a kid. Carpenter does it so well, because he’s right – he makes us believe our basest fears and instincts so that we too believe that the boogeyman could be just round the corner.

By Jock Lehman

Free Guy

The movies are back, baby!

Shawn Levy’s 2021 action comedy “Free Guy” is one of those frothy popcorn flicks which actually benefit well from being viewed with an enthusiastic audience. After cinemas being closed since June due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the audience for the Friday night session I attended laughed, gasped and cheered in all the right places and then some, and I was happy to be back.

Ryan Reynolds plays “Guy”, a NPC (non-player character) in an open-world video game called “Free City”, similar to Grand Theft Auto who breaks free from his designated role in the background and becomes the hero of his world. But Guy doesn’t know that he’s only a NPC, he doesn’t know that he doesn’t exist in the physical world and he doesn’t know that he’s not supposed to be thinking the things he’s thinking or feeling the things he’s feeling. Back in the physical world, code writers Keys (Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer) are working together to try and prove that the developer of “Free City”, the conniving and ruthless Antwan (Taika Waititi) actually stole the code that they had designed for their own game. Once Antwan announces that there is 48 hours until the sequel to “Free City” is being launched and the original “Free City” universe will be completely erased, Millie teams up with Guy in the “Free City” world to find the evidence they need to expose Antwan.

It’s an inventive concept, fairly similar in tone and theme to 2014’s “The Lego Movie”. I think “The Lego Movie” probably had a bit more fun with playing around with the idea though, and at times I definitely felt like “Free Guy” rested a little too much on the concept itself and lacked the dry self awareness of “The Lego Movie” which made it such a hit. Some of the scenes between the two films are almost identical; Guy and “The Lego Movie’s” hero Emmett wake up every morning and do the same things, both of them have mundane jobs and catch phrases and both of the characters are everyday individuals looking for something greater. For some reason though, Emmett seemed more like an original character, whereas I started to notice more and more that Guy was more or less Buddy the Elf from “Elf”. Ryan Reynolds is funny as Guy, but I think he works better with edgier humour and there were times where I felt like he was wasted in the nice guy role, especially since he was so iconic as Deadpool. I would have loved to have seen a version of this where they really went for it and went with some raunchier humour and more full on violence, especially since these types of games are the ones where you can literally beat up pedestrians on the street and rob strippers. The PG-13 rating I think limited the film at times, but its obvious that this is a conscious choice and the filmmakers don’t want to miss out on their under 15 demographic.

While its not side split-tingly funny, I did chuckle quite a few times. The actual appeal in the film is as a family-friendly action adventure movie. Taika Waititi is a pretty decent villain and you want him to fail as much as you want the heroes to succeed. The action sequences are sensational and its fun watching the fight scenes which are different to other action movies because the characters have access to all the cool power-ups and weapons of video games. Interestingly enough, there’s also a philosophical question not dissimilar to that of “Blade Runner” or the episode of South Park where Cartman pretends he’s a robot; what is a human? What constitutes life? Should Guy, an amalgam of computer code, who can think and feel and love for himself, be considered as much a valuable human soul as much as the people who created him? Could Millie, a living human, really fall in love with a computer game character who doesn’t exist outside of the game hard drive? Of course its not explored in too much depth but its an interesting little feature of the film and one I enjoyed!

J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan, famously placed young children strategically in his audiences so that the older members of the crowd would feel less self conscious and allow themselves to be swept up in the magic of it all. Perhaps not on the same scale, but there were some kids, I’d say around nine or ten, who were having the time of their lives during Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy” and before long, so were the rest of us. It was nice to enjoy a film with a crowd again, I’ve missed it. “Free Guy” is not groundbreaking or even particularly memorable, but its good fun entertainment and exactly the kind of flick I’m happy I was able to share.

By Jock Lehman

The Pink Panther (1963)

*Sunday Classic*

Originally written as a vehicle for charming British actor David Niven to star in a string of films centred around the devilish jewel thief “The Phantom” and his escapades, “The Pink Panther” ended up becoming a comedy series oriented around Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau due to his unprecedented popularity with audiences. Handsome playboy Sir Charles Lytton has been eluding capture for years as the masked bandit “The Phantom” and has his eye on his latest conquest, the famed “Pink Panther” diamond. He follows the owner of the diamond, Princess Dala of Lugash, (Claudia Cardinale), to an exclusive ski resort in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and seeks to woo the Princess and steal her jewel. Hot on his heels is Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling policeman who has been investigating the Phantom and has intelligence that he may be poised to strike again. Little does he know that his wife Simone (Capucine), is a double agent and has been having an affair with Lytton for years, helping him avoid detection and pull of his heists. Will Clouseau outwit the Phantom after all this time? Whether he does or doesn’t, its a fun ride nonetheless.

The film is in many ways so typical of films in the 60s, incredibly stylised and invested in the art of pure entertainment and escapism. It’s a cinema experience in a way that is different to films of today, which are often so determined to instil realism and grittiness and bad lighting as if in some kind of morbid contest on which director can paint the bleakest picture of the world possible. In this world however, the men are impeccably dressed in their suits and smoking jackets, and the women are stylish and sexy in that distinctive 60s sort of way. In this world, the rooms are impeccably and luxuriously furnished, people are at least reasonably attractive, if somebody falls out a window there is a handy five feet of snow to catch them, there is always enough whiskey and champagne to go around and no shortage of people offering. Its a fantasy world, and its intoxicating. Even the stakes throughout the film are never really that high; if Lytton gets caught and goes to prison he’ll con his way out, if Clouseau never catches the Phantom he’ll be forgiven because nobody really expects to catch him anyway, if Princess Dala loses her diamond, she’ll be sad but she’ll have plenty more to keep her company.

As I said earlier, this was initially designed with David Niven in the forefront, so Clouseau isn’t actually in the film as much as I thought he would be. The main laughs, aside from Clouseau knocking things over and falling over his own feet, come from some pretty elaborate farcical style sequences. One involves Lytton, Simone, Clouseau and Lytton’s nephew George (Robert Wagner) running in and out of Clouseau’s bedroom, behind the curtains, under the bed and out the window, always just in the nick of time to avoid the other. Its typical of the farcical plays and films of the 1960s, often British, where the physical comedy is orchestrated, perfectly timed and incredibly difficult to get right. Some of it is funnier than the rest of it, and strangely these moments are scattered throughout the film rather than the comedy being the driving force. The romance between Lytton and Dala is strung out for far too long and its not terribly interesting, the pacing for both a comedy and heist movie is far too slow and the bizarre rendition of “Meglio Stasera” in the middle of the whole thing seemed out of place. Despite this, there are genuine moments of comedic brilliance by Sellers and even by Niven, and you can tell that the cast are all enjoying themselves.

I suppose I always had an impression in my mind of what Peter Sellers’ famous Inspector Jacques Clouseau would be like. He was a perfectly formed picture of a little man with a neat moustache, loudly and shamelessly throwing his weight around where it wasn’t welcome with his purposefully obscene French accent, arms flailing wildly and eyes popping out of his head as he ultimately, but completely accidentally, saves the day. I have to say, Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther” is completely different to what I was expecting, or what Steve Martin’s interpretation led me to believe it would be at least. Sellers’s Clouseau is surprisingly understated; when he trips or knocks something over it’s still within the realms of what a clumsy person would actually do and he doesn’t ever come across as a caricature or cartoon. Is it hilarious? On the whole I don’t necessarily think so, save for a couple of real belly laughs. But its fun and surprisingly sweet with some incredible set pieces and elaborately staged farcical romps and I did not expect for my final thoughts on Clouseau to be of him as a sweet natured guy who loves his wife and wants to help as much as he can rather than as a buffoon or one trick clown.

By Jock Lehman

Field of Dreams

Watching Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 “Field of Dreams” was like being repeatedly doused in the face by some kind of lukewarm, perfumed tea, but its being sprayed in your face by the local librarian with a bright green water gun. And then the librarian rides off on a giraffe, leaving you without a towel and no idea what in the name of sweet flying hell just happened.

“Field of Dreams” opens with our hero Ray (Kevin Costner) narrating about how his father raised him with stories of the great baseball players but was never able to become one himself. Ray and his father grew distant as Ray became older and got swept up in the spirit of rebellion and free love during college in the sixties. Now Ray is a husband and father and having recently purchased a corn farm in Iowa, he worries that he will never be able to achieve his dreams and is doomed to live out his life like his father, never living out his dreams and growing old, mediocre and forgotten. That is until one day walking out in his corn crop, he hears a mysterious voice saying “If you build it, he will come”. He envisions a baseball field with a lone figure standing in the middle in a baseball uniform, who he instinctively recognises as legendary player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). Something tells Ray that this vision means something pretty special, and he convinces his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) that they should level a portion of their crop and build this baseball field. So they do, and the ghost of Shoeless Joe appears, later leaving and bringing his other Black Sox teammates to play. The strange voice keeps popping up with more vague whispers, taking Ray all over the country where he collects J.D. Salinger-esque writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) for the journey while his farm is about to be foreclosed on and the story concludes with Ray throwing a ball with a younger version of his ghost Dad and a shot of a seemingly endless motorcade of cars all coming to visit the pitch.

Some of the most iconic and exciting films have been about sporting teams overcoming adversity and can inspire an emotional response in a way that other films can’t. I didn’t feel inspired, excited or even remotely interested in the game of baseball once during “Field of Dreams”, especially since none of the characters ever raise their voices above a sultry whisper. I think that’s probably the biggest problem with the film; there’s no urgency. Nobody really seems to care either way about what happens to them – Ray isn’t remotely phased that he may lose his farm or that dead baseball players are running around his cornfield. Everyone seems to be walking around in a sleepy, contented sort of trance, except for the film’s villain, Ray’s brother in law Mark (Timothy Busfield), who was the only person remotely concerned that Ray is hearing voices and going off on bizarre whims never minding that he has a wife and a kid with dimples to support. It’s not even that he is throwing caution to the winds for the pursuit of something noble or heroic, he’s jumping to conclusions that make no sense and are basically impossible to correlate with the whispered riddles and is only doing so because he’s worried about not following his dreams, or hallucinations at least. The magic of the film itself is wildly inconsistent too; some of the players are imprisoned within the pitch while others grow old when leaving it. Some people can see the ghosts and other’s can’t, but the film finishes with hundreds of cars lining up to watch the ghosts play.

This was probably one of the most confusing and misguided films I’ve ever seen. Its hard enough trying to figure out what the ham fisted moral of the story is but when the story itself makes absolutely no sense at all, its just a blur of sardonic speeches, bizarrely motivated ghosts, an oddly placed spat of time travel and a smattering of smug but incredibly dumb characters who had no business making the decisions they made with the motivations they had and getting off scot-free. There are of course stories where its necessary to suspend our disbelief and just go along with the fantasy. Even so, the worlds of our favourite fairy tales still had some logic and rules that governed them; Cinderella had until midnight before the magic wore off, Pinnochio’s nose would grow if he told a lie and even the old witch’s gingerbread house probably needed marzipan between the bricks to keep the whole thing upright.

There’s nothing better than a bit of escapism, and maybe I’m being a bit of a killjoy, but nothing about “Field of Dreams” exhilarated or excited me at all. It was a befuddling and sappy mess, and by the credits I was convinced that I probably would have enjoyed the film more had Ray never heard that voice and we followed him as he harvested that year’s corn crop.

By Jock Lehman

Stand By Me

I have a feeling that Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming of age drama “Stand By Me” is one of those entities that has benefited extraordinarily well from nostalgia. If I was twelve years old in 1986 and I saw this film in the cinema, it probably would have blown my freaking mind and I would have rolled up my sleeves like River Phoenix and pretended to smoke cigarettes with pencils. Watching it for the first time as a twenty seven year old, it didn’t hit me as much as if I was a teenager and I wasn’t able to draw on happy memories of watching it when I was a kid and how it made me feel then. It’s the world seen from the eyes of a teenage boy in 1959, and while there are some themes which still translate to today, there are some that just don’t; teenage boys now will still think their fathers don’t understand them, their mates are their whole world, and the thought of the forthcoming school year and the daunting prospect of change can be scary. But… gone are the days of complete freedom and autonomy, of disappearing for days on end without parents calling in to check, being able to feed yourself and three mates for two days with just the change in your pockets and smoking cigarettes and flicking through Playboys in tree houses.

Based off Stephen King’s novel “The Body” and supposedly one of the only filmic adaptations of King’s works that he actually liked (he famously despised the direction taken for “The Shining”), “Stand By Me” tells the story of four young boys who set off one weekend to find a dead body so they can tell the papers and be seen as heroes, maybe even be on TV! The four lads, Gordie (Will Wheaton, the leader of the gang who feels resented by his father following the death of his older, more impressive brother), Chris (River Phoenix, the tough kid with the messed up family who doesn’t want to end up like his Dad and get out of their small town), Teddy (Corey Feldman, angry and bitter and quick to defend his mentally ill and abusive father with claims that he stormed the beaches of Normandy), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell, earnest and funny and not quite as cool as the other boys) all set off with their backpacks for their adventure, unaware that this weekend would be the most formative of their young lives. Along the way, local bully and sociopath John “Ace” Merrill (Keifer Sutherland) gets wind of the body and wants to report it to the papers himself, and the boys stand up to him and his gang in one of the more bizarre and intense stand offs in movie history.

The success of this film is found in how well Reiner was able to match his young cast to their characters and the performances he was able to derive from what is a notoriously tricky and risky demographic to work with. The performances from each of the young actors are seriously impressive, particularly from River Phoenix and Jerry O’Connnell. The rapport between the four boys feels genuine and earned, Rob Reiner put them through two weeks of acting games from Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater” prior to shooting in an attempt to create a sense of real camaraderie and closeness between them. The beats of the more lighthearted dialogue feels exactly like four boys trying to one up each other; there is exaggeration and bravado and when pushed, a devastatingly placed insult about somebody’s mother and “two for flinching”. Some of Vern’s bits in particular are patently hilarious, especially where he brings along his comb in case they get interviewed on TV and his answer to the question of if he could only have one food for the rest of his life – “Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.” The more adrenalin inducing scenes, especially where the boys are running away from the oncoming train, are well done and well positioned in amongst the banter of the lads.

Some of the moments between the boys where they bring up their fears and vulnerabilities at times feels a little too laboured, a little too forced and a little too strategically placed, where even though you may believe River Phoenix’s tears, it’s more like tears from a grazed knee than because of deeply rooted torment. I think it would have probably been more impactful if there wasn’t so much of the boys interchanging their emotional anguish until they found the body. Once the boys find the body and Gordie breaks down, insisting that it should have been him who had died rather than his brother, that was the sort of thing that rang true because it felt like a genuine response to a pretty traumatising sight. The boys summoning their courage to stand up to Ace and his possy did however feel like a proper coming of age moment, especially in the face of such a terrifying character as Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace; that voice and empty black eyes is a harrowing image, when he pulled out his flick knife you genuinely believe that he would use it and find a way out of it.

I don’t think that “Stand By Me” will have the lasting impact that it undoubtedly has had on men of my parents’ generation, or even on those who watch it while the same age as the heroes of the story. There’s a lot to admire here though; some sensational performances from some talented young men, a resounding sense of adventure and a gentle reminder of the wonder that can be found in friendship.

By Jock Lehman

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

*Sunday Classic*

Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is so many bizarre and unexpected things at once; simultaneously darkly comic, terrifying, tragic and strangely exhilarating, all wrapped up in a sumptuously twisted and irresistible little package. The film’s two lead stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford portray an extraordinary relationship of two bitterly conflicted sisters, but the film’s production and the genuine off screen hatred between the actresses has become part of movie folk lore. It’s a shame that the film itself has been somewhat overshadowed by the legend of Davis’ and Crawford’s feud, because it’s an absolute ripper.

The film opens on the Shirley Temple-esque child star Baby Jane Hudson performing to an adoring crowd in 1917, while her plain older sister Blanche looks on enviously from the wings. Baby Jane is spoiled and nasty, running rings around her father who manages her act and Blanche vows that she’ll never forget how Jane has treated her. Some years later, Blanche has become a highly sought after film star and the Hollywood executives only keep Jane in pictures because good natured Blanche has insisted that they produce one film for Jane for every one of hers. One night after one of their glamorous parties, Blanche is mysteriously injured in a car accident and confined thereafter to a wheelchair. Jane is unofficially held responsible for Blanche’s injury, but she can’t remember a thing about it and is found three days later drunk and holed up in a hotel room. When Davis and Crawford finally appear on screen, they live with each other in a grand home in Los Angeles, the good natured and long suffering Blanche (Crawford) confined to her wheelchair and Jane (Davis) bitterly and sardonically bringing her trays of food while mercilessly mocking and antagonising her. The film gradually turns into a psychological thriller as Jane becomes more and more unhinged, Blanche’s attempts at escape are foiled and she is eventually bound and gagged in her room while Jane becomes infatuated with a local musician amid hopes she will revive her childhood stardom.

I’m sure that Crawford has done great work in other films, and she does a reasonable job here, but she’s completely overshadowed by Davis. Perhaps some sense of jealousy fuelled some of their off screen angst, but I do think a lot of it has to do with Jane being the more interesting character. Davis is incredibly gutsy to appear on screen as she did; her costuming is unflattering and Davis herself has said that the applied the make-up herself with the idea that Jane wouldn’t have ever washed her face or looked after herself, just drowned herself in booze and reapplied the make up on top of it. Her iconic voice is absolutely dripping in poison and she takes such delicious glee in torturing her sister: “No Blanche! You didn’t eat your din-dins!” “But you are Blanche! You are in the chair!” I expected the story to be mainly a character study between the two sisters, but its actually one of the better thrillers I’ve ever seen. You can sense Blanche’s desperation every time Jane leaves the house and we are sitting with our hearts in our mouths as she throws that note asking for help to her neighbour and Jane finds it instead. There are many similarities for instance to Rob Reiner’s “Misery”, and both do well by making the tension and danger bound by the rules of the real world. The themes found throughout the story are universal and even though its a little strange for us today to think of child stars in the early twentieth century, it still works on so many levels today. It works as a horror, as a thriller, as a cult classic, as a comedy, as a cautionary tale for jealousy and the brutal world of show business where talent is thrown out as soon as something more relevant comes along.

I was a little confused by the side plot with Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), as it seemed to try and emulate the infatuation created in “Sunset Boulevard” but just didn’t seem to fit Jane’s character. Her decline into insanity and her girly, sickly sweet disposition at the end of the film took me by surprise too; if she was regressing to her state as a little girl, shouldn’t she still be as spoiled and selfish as she was as Baby Jane?

Perhaps the dynamic between Jane and Blanche would have been as electric had they been amicable off screen, but its definitely more fun this way. When the scene came where Bette Davis had to slap Joan Crawford to the floor and drag her across the room, Crawford attached heavy weights under her clothes to make it more difficult for her. Bette Davis installed a Coca Cola machine on set, knowing that Crawford was the widow of Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele. When Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role, she was the favourite to win and would have been the first woman to ever win three Oscars in history, but Crawford campaigned heavily for Anne Bancroft to win instead, even accepting the award on her behalf when she won. What’s bizarre about this in particular is if Davis had won the award, the film would have done better and they both would have earned an additional $1 million US.

Cinema owes a lot to this film, especially so for older actresses. Its incredible watching these two actresses who were seen to be beyond their prime, delivering such powerful performances and producing such an iconic entity which is still quoted now. Bette Davis famously said during an interview promoting the film that when the two women were suggested to star in the film, Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner replied that “(He) wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either one of those two old broads.” The next day, Crawford sent her a telegram saying “In the future, kindly do not refer to me as an ‘old broad'”.

By Jock Lehman 

The Wizard of Oz

*Sunday Classics*

“The Wizard of Oz” is one of those things I can’t remember not knowing. I think every family has its handful of favourite Saturday night movies, and for me and my sisters, “The Wizard of Oz” alongside “Matilda”, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Sound of Music” rounded off our top five. Mum has kept a project I did in kindergarten where I described what happens in “The Wizard of Oz” and she typed it up for me. I did the pictures myself.

I loved the story, I loved the magic, I loved the characters (especially the Wicked Witch), I loved the action, I loved the songs and I loved the familiarity of the whole thing that was as warm and welcoming as a favourite blanket. I haven’t seen the movie for at least fifteen years, and it’s only this time round and having done a little reading up on the production of the film that I properly understood how much of a beautiful and miraculous accident it was that “The Wizard of Oz” happened at all, let alone turned out the way it did.

The production of “The Wizard of Oz” was largely an unmitigated disaster; the film’s final director, Victor Fleming, was the fourth director appointed, Dorothy was originally dressed with a blonde wig and cutesy “Shirley Temple” make up, Jack Haley was cast as the Tin Man after Buddy Ebsen suffered a severe allergic reaction to his aluminium face paint, the Wicked Witch was initially written as a beautiful seductress like the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch) experienced severe burns from the burst of flames used in her exit from Munchkinland, the munchkins caused delays in filming by constantly turning up drunk, the Oscar winning “Over the Rainbow” was only added in the last minute as it was thought to distract from the story and the original draft of the script had no fantasy elements to it at all.

The set design is distinctive and magical in that wonderful way old fashioned way that existed before modern special effects. I love that the backgrounds are painted on and the colours are a little too bright and garish, because the way we see things in our dreams isn’t like the real world. Actors in make up and wings being hurled through the sky on fishing wire is somehow so much more horrifying than any digitally created flying monkey could ever be. Even after eighty years, the simple transition when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkinland and the picture switches from sepia to technicolour is still such a glorious moment. I can’t imagine the excitement it would have generated in 1939 when colour in film was still a novelty.

Even now there are a number of sequences which are unsettling; Miss Gulch transforming into the Wicked Witch in the middle of the twister, the winged monkeys shrieking and ransacking Dorothy and her friends, and the Wicked Witch herself still stands as probably one of the best villains of any film since. Everything about Margaret Hamilton’s performance was phenomenal, from that sensational cackle and the way she cricked her fingers when she was being wicked, to her voice and to the way she genuinely relished it when she taunted the heroes. It’s a pretty intense thing for a kid’s film to lock the heroine in a dark room and tell her she’s going to die by time all the sand trickles through the hourglass, but the darker elements are important to the story because it cuts through the treacle and provides balance to the town of tiny people with flowers growing out of their shoes and hats.

What I think is so special about “The Wizard of Oz” is how perfectly it encapsulates a child’s imagination. As kids, we always fantasised that there was somewhere more exciting and extraordinary beyond our own backyards. But just like our imaginations and the worlds we created, not all of Oz is beautiful. There was nothing terrifying than the monsters we created in our own minds, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that or assume that the kids in the audience can’t handle some of the scary stuff. I’ve mentioned this before, but its what Roald Dahl did so well; he didn’t pander to kids, he gives them the credit they’re due and they loved him for it. And again, when we were kids we see the world in a very simplistic way; the Wicked Witch is wicked, Glinda the Good Witch is good, you can make lifelong friends in a matter of moments and there’s nothing and nowhere more wonderful when you’re tired and scared than your own bed.

“The Wizard of Oz” represents how we perceive the big wide world as children; its a beautiful, terrifying but wondrous thing and I’m so happy that I’ve been able to experience it again. I love everything about this movie, and is one of the choice films I can’t wait to share it with my own children one day. Whether they want to or not.

By Jock Lehman

Sunset Boulevard

*Sunday Classic*

Very famously at the 1951 Oscars, Bette Davis for “All About Eve” and Gloria Swanson for “Sunset Boulevard” were pinned against each other and the newspapers couldn’t decide who would win. Both gave what were considered the best performances of their careers and gave cinema arguably two of the most iconic and influential female characters of the twentieth century in Margo Channing and Norma Desmond. Neither woman won the Best Actress Oscar that year, the trophy instead going to Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” and it’s said that the two titans cancelled each other out and left it open for the relative newcomer.

This has happened a few times now, but its always exciting to me when I see an old film that has been the subject of parody (usually on The Simpsons). As soon as William Holden sauntered onto the screen as out of luck screenwriter Joe Gillis with his sardonic narration, it was pretty obvious where Matt Groening found the origins of Rex Banner from the episode where Homer becomes a bootlegger during Springfield’s prohibition. The film opens with a gaggle of press crowded around a dead body in the pool of an enormous mansion, and Joe explaining via voiceover that we need to go back a few months to understand what happened. Through this flashback, we see Joe being pursued by two repo guys after he’s fallen behind on his car payments, and hides his car in a seemingly abandoned old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. A woman’s voice calls out to him, mistaking him for the man she organised to bury her pet chimp, and Joe realises that he has stumbled upon the home of forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond.

Norma lives by herself with her devoted servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) in her opulent but now decrepit mansion surrounded by photographs and relics of her time as a star. Norma asks Joe to read over a script she’s written, and with some clever psychological trickery, she hires him as a script doctor. He lives with her in the house, indulges her fantasies, allows her to fawn over him and shower him with extravagant gifts until her insanity and jealousy reaches such a degree that she shoots him in the back. And that’s how Joe ends up in Norma Desmond’s pool.

It’s an incredible performance, Swanson teetering dangerously between the tragic and the absurd as she swans about her mansion with those enormous eyes and salubrious voice and gesticulations. She is proud and willingly blind to the cruel reality that the world that once adored and loved her has left her in the shadows. Its an eerie image, this formidable woman decked out in her furs and diamonds while her home is falling apart around her, vines and thickets creeping across the walls, the beautifully gilded halls dusty and unused. The film is filled with striking images, many with Norma Desmond in extraordinary silhouettes, head tilted back and her arms raised with her hands poised like talons. Her entire life is a delusion, and to convince herself that the world she has created for herself is indeed a reality, her behaviour is, in a strange way, understandable. Until of course, her insanity completely consumes her and she glides down her stairs to a house full of policemen and reporters thinking she’s filming on set, to deliver one of the most famous closing lines in cinema, “Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

I often think the role women have played in film get a bad rap, again Gloria Swanson demonstrates the calibre of performances and the strong, individualistic and empowered characters which women have played in cinema since the Golden Age. While I think that her performance is absolutely on par with Bette Davis, arguably even more so, I don’t think “Sunset Boulevard” as a film is quite as compelling as “All About Eve”. When Swanson isn’t on screen, the story actually drags a little and the romance between Joe and his screenwriting assistant Betty (Nancy Olson) feels laboured and uninteresting, serving only really as a plot device to incense Norma’s jealousy. The film shines when Swanson is able to shine, and interestingly enough, is one of those rare cases of art imitating life. Having not grown up in the times when silent films were the norm, its fascinating to think about the actors and directors who were so big during the twenties and thirties all of a sudden being abandoned in the wake of the talkies. Swanson herself was a silent movie star, as was Erich von Stroheim, and the film is probably the first of its kind to highlight what a brutal transition it often was for those in the industry.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a unique and harrowing experience, with a deservedly acclaimed performance from the film’s lead. Gloria Swanson commands the audience’s complete attention, so much so that the scenes in which the camera diverts from her feel somewhat underwhelming. Even so, this is an important role, and one of those few performances which I think has potentially influenced the course of cinema ever since.

By Jock Lehman