Red (2010)

 

We’ve seen a few notable trends in the past few years, regarding action films. The first is the return of the unself-conscious action flick- a little bit gratuitous, a little hyperactive and a lot of fun. We’ve seen Stallone play Stallone, Tom Cruise play Tom Cruise, and, um, Adrien Brody play Schwarzenegger, sometimes to great effect. The second is the appropriation of smaller comic book franchises for major studio treatment – see Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Wanted. And the third, seen in Gran Torino, Harry Brown and Wild Hogs, is the “old-guys have still got it” subgenre – old folks, usually men, show through the power of story that they still, in fact, exist.

In the new Robert Schwentke film Red, then, we should be three for three, and onto a winner. But Red fails to maintain its own level of defiant energy, and for but a few key moments remains an unmemorable blip on the action radar. The film’s setup is quite fun and breezy – Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), retired CIA, finds himself targeted by some very over-equipped special-ops ‘wet groups’, and embarks on a cross-country trip to get these guys off his back. Kidnapping, incidentally, his love-interest Sarah (Marie-Louise Parker, from TV’s Weeds) whom he had never before seen in person. This original tension between the two is promising, and indeed original, but is soon resolved in favour of some stunt casting and paint-by-numbers action sequences.

Moses sets out to “get the band back together”, the band being an idiosyncratic group of ex-agents including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. While Malkovich plays the paranoiac Marvin Boggs with relative ease, Freeman and Mirren are left with little to convey by the script, which falls back on those ‘back-in-the-game’, ‘still-got-it’ –type one-liners that often fall flat. Now, there’s nothing wrong with stunt casting, but the idea is that you play these actor/character hybrids to type. So we do get Willis playing Willis, and it’s very solid, but Mirren’s turn as ‘Helen Mirren if she talked about killing a lot’ doesn’t even spark as an interesting turnaround.

But I think that the major failing of Red’s action-spectacle plot is the lack of a consistent villain. While the faceless teams of the start and Karl Urban’s sinister Agent Cooper make for an exciting start, the conspiracy blossoms to include some less-than-stellar bad guys. The two central villains are not introduced until halfway, and subsequently fail to do much except be objects to be acted upon by the good guys. The one good villain is domesticated, and the rest are simply uninteresting. Oh, and Julian MacMahon got fucking old and bloated…

Despite the charms of the assembled cast, and the promise of some comic-style original violence, Red ends up rapidly changing pace, ignoring the potential for characterisation, and falling back on cliché. It’s OK for a film to grin knowingly at you, but if it’s going to grin this smugly, it better be for a reason.

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David Lynch Corner: Blue Velvet (1986)

For all the human intrigues and noir mysteries in David Lynch’s work, there is always the intrusion of the otherworldly, and a foreboding sense of that which lurks beneath the story. The most famous examples of this are those supernatural beings which occupy the corners of his films – the dancing Man from Another Place and his Twin Peaks cohort and Lost Highway’s Mystery Man are two paradigm cases. But while the bizarre and uncanny are clearly evident in Blue Velvet, it’s hard to say that anything is truly ‘otherworldly’ going on. How does the straightforward narrative of a young man’s descent into the criminal underside of small-town USA become invested with such menace, such magic?

The answer is sound, the creation and command of acoustics and physical space that goes one further than a visual, classical mode of filmmaking. Of all Lynch’s films, this is most clear in Blue Velvet – in the opening sequence, we are repeatedly made aware of the importance of sound and its relationship to the events to follow. Against the opening, full-colour tableau of flowers, picket fences and sunlit suburbia, we hear the floating tune of Bobby Darin’s ‘Blue Velvet’, and the encroaching sounds of insects, running water and barking dogs. After a schmaltzy radio bite, introducing us to the tone of the town of Lumberton, USA, we meet a silent Geoffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who tosses a stone into whistling grass. Geoffrey does two things before the main plot truly begins – he visits his ailing father, who fails to communicate to him, and then he finds a human ear.

The ear becomes a gateway into the main plot, and the terrifying truths of Lynch’s universe. The mystery of the ear’s owner, leading into the stories of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her abusive ‘captor’ Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), is repeatedly moved forward by sound and hearing. From the facts of the case, overheard by Sandy Williams (Laura Dern, in her first of many critical roles in Lynch), to the bizarre coupling of Vallens and Booth, described by Michel Chion as a “an archaic acoustic impression”, that is, a weird image reconstructed from sounds, a great deal of the film’s key scenes arise first in the acoustic register.

Not since the singing, dancing Lady in the Radiator has the performed song been so prominent in Lynch. ‘Blue Velvet’ reappears, sung by Dorothy Vallens at the Slow Club. Her song doubles with the fetish-object of her nightgown, the blue velvet that muffles Frank’s voice, transforming Hopper’s Booth from caricature villain to nightmarish human being. Later, Frank will sing to Geoffrey – Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’, which has earlier been lip-synched by “suave motherfucker” Ben (Dean Stockwell) to magical effect. And in one of the film’s pivotal scenes – Laura Dern recounts her dream of the robins and a “blinding light of love” – Chion writes that “she has the eyes of a blind person”. Though vision and Lynch’s stunning cinematography are prominent parts of Blue Velvet, the ideas of sound and voice are most central to the narrative and Lynch’s thematic treatment.

The result of this acoustic filmmaking is, as in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, the masterful command of space and time, the creation of a living, breathing location. Lynch’s treatment of small-town America, in Lumberton, Wild at Heart’s Big Tuna, and of course Twin Peaks, gives you the sense of having lived and wandered in these places. This command of space carries onto the map of relationships and psychology that makes Lynch’s characters so memorable, characters that speak, weep and resonate with the world around them. This return to sound is not a regression, as it might seem from the image of the ear as gateway to sin and corruption, but rather a return to the type of understanding that envelops, enfolds its subject. As Geoffrey and Sandy dance together to the sound of Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love”, we see the hopeful signs of a David Lynch that hopes to take us through the dark.

New to DVD: Animal Kingdom, Daybreakers, Harry Brown

New to Schlock Footage, it’s “New to DVD”. Pretty self-explanatory really. Let’s jump in.

Animal Kingdom, an Australian crime film by writer-director David Michod, is a devastating slice of human aggression in the confines of Melbourne suburbia. Josh Cody (James Frecheville) is forced to reacquaint himself with his extended, notorious family upon his mother’s death. Vengeful domestic explosions occur as the Codys are threatened by Melbourne’s Armed Robbery Squad, and Josh (along with the audience) is drawn into a tense, life-threatening domestic space.

At the poles of good and evil stand powerful performances from Guy Pearce as a committed investigator, and Ben Mendehlson as the leering, Smerdyakov-type “Pope.” Frecheville plays it straight, almost deadpan, a perfect fit for an awkward 17-year-old, while the supporting cast all shine, particularly Joel Edgerton and Jacki Weaver. The cinematography never fails to capture the sleepy yet foreboding presence of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, setting the scene for a slow march towards a violent, inevitable end. 92%

Daybreakers – Now, I didn’t see Daybreakers in the cinema because frankly, the promotional poster carried this fairly overused image – row upon row of human beings, bound by some clearly unfriendly apparatii, with the tagline “In 2019, the most precious natural resource… is us.” Yikes, no thank you.

It turns out, of course, that Daybreakers is in fact a vampire movie, with some dashes of dystopian sci-fi thrown in. And the big surprise? It’s really pretty good. The “vampire mechanics” are consistent, yet not overused, Ethan Hawke carries the show with some big, soulful eyes, and the supporting cast (Daybreakers was filmed in Australia) will have you thinking back fondly to The Secret Life of Us (Though, now that I think about it, so will Animal Kingdom).

There are some storytelling issues – namely, the relationship between Hawke’s Dalton and his brother (Michael Dorman) is underdeveloped, and the otherwise-perfect turn of Sam Neill as the calculating Bromley is muddied by a directionless subplot, revolving around his daughter (Isabel Lucas). However, the film’s main conceit – vampires are now the majority, and they’re out of food – is executed without too many hitches, and the blending of vamp-horror and sci-fi cinematography is pretty fresh. 80%

Harry Brown – Michael Caine is one part Charles Bronson, one part Clint Eastwood, two parts Michael Caine in this British revenge fantasy. The police are too busy being bureaucratic to deal with escalating gang violence in London, and when Brown’s friend Len (David Bradley, the unintelligible farmer from Hot Fuzz) has his own run-in with those filthy youths, it’s up to Harry Brown to exact vengeance.

The problem here is not in the execution – performances are routinely superb, from Caine’s angst-ridden pensioner/fucker-upper to Emily Mortimer’s turn as the compassionate DI. The problem is with Harry Brown’s dubious politics, wherein the wish-fulfilment aspect of the film’s revenge fantasy goes unchallenged – the bad guys (boys), though humanised through some great young actors, are steamrolled by the violent trajectory of the plot. Harry Brown works as a more old-fashioned actioner, but the “vigilante pensioner” (Empire, Nov 2010) is handled with far more nuance elswehere, particularly in Eastwood’s Gran Torino. 73%

David Lynch Corner: The Elephant Man (1980)

Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned a lot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out all about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembired about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like everyone.

Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon

 

Our command of language, whether we use it to craft an Oscar-nominated film or to order a cup of coffee, is what allows us to function as human beings, alone and in society. Nonetheless, there is always the sense that language regulates, or perhaps covers up, one or two basic facts about ourselves as subjects. Lacan talks about this a lot – he divides human identification into the Imaginary (one-to-one, aggressively narcissistic identification with a threatening other) and the Symbolic (identification mediated through the system of language, the Big Other), with the Real occasionally intruding. But more importantly, David Lynch shows this to us in The Elephant Man, charting the movement of a threatened, voiceless soul into a community of language and friendship, with all the pitfalls in between.

When Fredrick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins) wanders deep into the corridors of a Victorian freak show, he passes an array of fragmented, disconnected images – namely midgets and bearded ladies. The Elephant Man that he eventually meets (John Hurt) is caught in a system of humiliation, spectacle and aggression – the audience comes to be terrified of him, and he is rightfully terrified of them for it. Horribly disfigured, the Elephant Man’s only hope of functioning as a human being is contained in the phrase “My name is John Merrick; I’m very pleased to meet you.” Though he speaks with difficulty, hampered by the realities of his body, Merrick’s newly-discovered voice is sweet, even musical. It is through his discovery of language that Merrick is able to articulate his plight, and gain acceptance by the Victorian community.

But in Merrick’s movement, from the carnival to the hospital to bourgeois society, the nature of his embodiment never goes away. There is always a sense, discussed by many of the characters in the film, that the public’s ‘fascination’ with Merrick is no different from the leering, primal horror of the carnival crowd. This is most clear in the fact of Merrick’s ongoing abuse at the hands of the night watchman (Michael Elphick) – the carnival returns, only this time in that dark inversion of language, the market. Once more, Merrick is made into an object, but unlike Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones), who declares of Merrick, “He is my partner… my treasure,” the night porter’s actions work intelligently to destroy our Elephant Man.

The juxtaposition of these scenes – Merrick in language/society and Merrick in language/marketplace – reminds us that, while language must step in to mediate our frightened desires, this mediation is still a source of pain. When we begin to distinguish words and things, we begin to create objects for consumption – the aggression we seek to overcome is in fact sanctioned by the systems we put in place to control it. This is what keeps Fredrick Treeves awake at night, causes him to ask “Am I a good man? Or a bad man?” Are we any better off, given language and community, if the result is to be made a spectacle of in new and cruel ways?

But John Merrick offers an answer to this question: “My life is full because I know I am loved.” In the crucial theatre scene towards the end, Merrick marvels at the movement and shifting patterns of the pantomime theatre. He is at once a child, scared of the unknown, and a man, grateful for it. In a very sincere way, Merrick is a model for all of us, a limit-case of the difficulties we find in reconciling those parts of ourselves – the child threatened by their reflections, and the subject trapped in language. But there is a kind of joy to be found here, when those aspects of ourselves are reconciled, through art, through human connection and through engagement. At The Elephant Man’s conclusion, Merrick has constructed an entire cathedral having only seen its tower from his window. And we have reconstructed his subjectivity, from the outside-in, and found it to be a beautiful place.

David Lynch Corner: Eraserhead (1976)

I put every damn pipe in this neighbourhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!

-Mr X, laying some pipe

 

As part of my Lynch series, now a pilgrimage from start to finish as I pretend to speak authoritatively on my thesis topic, I can’t help but begin at Eraserhead. David Lynch’s debut feature, which rose to infamy alongside Jodorowsky’s El Topo as part of the 1970s ‘Midnight Film’ phenomenon, still holds a powerful place in the Lynch canon. This is partly due to its unforgettable, horrific imagery, but Eraserhead holds its own against the director’s later works in terms of themes, treatment and pure atmosphere.

So let’s all have a look at the film that made Mel Brooks call David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.” I won’t be recapping the entire film, but I will begin with a closer reading of the opening sequence:

Henry Spencer (Lynchian hero Jack Nance) begins this film as a horizontal, floating head, superimposed over a moon-sized, grainy ‘planet’. So far so good. Inside this planet, the appropriately-named Man Inside the Planet pulls a few levers and voila! Out of Henry’s mouth there issues the first of many stringlike, swimming white creatures. This intrepid little creature eventually drops into a milky crater on the side of the planet. Shortly after that, we see a tracking shot down a hairy tunnel towards a circular light. It’s impossible to get around – you’ve just witnessed sex, and the birth that sometimes ensues.

And Henry Spencer? He’s a dick. A swinging dick, for better or worse. He wanders his apocalyptic home like a chubby Charlie Chaplin, his feminine moon-shaped counterpart replaced by the unforgiving architecture of industrial Philadelphia. And Henry will be contrasted against his surroundings and fellow characters for the rest of the film, as his swinging dick-ness becomes the subject matter of Eraserhead.

To clarify, the film revolves around fathering and fatherhood, according to Lynch, to which I would add the question “What is it that the male-as-subject actually does towards fathering?On paper, it would seem that the father (Henry) has helped in creating life, but the child he fathers with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart, who reappears as Don Davis’ wife in Twin Peaks) is an absolute monster, an animatronic prop of movie folklore, gurgling and chuckling his way into the psyche of all concerned. You can’t help feeling, alongside Henry Spencer, that his procreation was really an act of destruction.

Destruction abounds in Eraserhead. From the empty hollows of Philadelphia, to the dead trees that populate pots throughout the various interiors we see, to the tiny portrait of a mushroom cloud in Henry’s room, we are moved to see a world emptied of life, emptied of energy. Notably, by the film’s shocking, apocalyptic end, the mushroom cloud has disappeared from Henry’s wall. Even the apocalypse is swept away by the time Henry finds his scissors. Because Henry decides that his only hope for agency is to be the eraser on the hard tip of the pencil, obliterating his child (and castrating himself in the process, as the film binds the two of them together) and the world that he inhabits.

So yeah, the film has an unhappy ending, and its construction of masculinity is a little bit nihilistic. But David Lynch was an impoverished young artist with a baby on the way – how do you think he felt? Well, we know at least the dark side of what he imagined was to come. In this side of the Lynch universe, pipes don’t grow, they get driven into the earth, turning “pastures” into “hellholes.” Fortunately for his sake, Lynch was to refine and temper his approach to the subject in the three decades that followed. But Eraserhead forever sits at the heart of his (and our) own fears and dreams, and continues to resurface at points of rupture in his work. The results of this are often the most memorable.

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