Four Frames – Mulholland Drive (2001)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout March, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘dreams’. I argue as much in this piece on David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed.

David Lynch’s films have always existed in their own Red Room, somewhere between surreal reality and unbridled nightmare.

The chorus for Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, lipsyched so memorably by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, are an even more suitable fit for the noirish themes of murderous obsession, unrequited love and broken dreams (both literally and figuratively) that permeate his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive:

In dreams I walk with you
In dreams I talk to you
In dreams you’re mine all the time
We’re together in dreams, in dreams

While critics continue to interpret the director’s intentions, the evidence to support the theory that much of Mulholland Drive is a long, unspooling dream taking place in the emotionally damaged mind of ‘Betty’ (Naomi Watts, giving a superb breakout performance) is tangible.

The film opens with a trippy jitterbug sequence which concludes with a smiling and happy Betty bathed in the spotlight before cutting to a woozy POV shot of a bed that dissolves to black – suggesting what follows may not be entirely reliable.

The noir-heavy framing device of Mulholland Drive centres on Betty, an aspiring actress who arrives in Hollywood and encounters an amnesic woman (Laura Harring) hiding in her aunt’s apartment. As they draw closer while exploring the mystery surrounding the car accident ‘Rita’ was involved in, the story widens its scope to involve director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) being pressured by nefarious mobsters to cast actress Camilla Rhodes in his next movie. After discovering a dead woman in an apartment belonging to ‘Diane Selwyn’, a name Rita remembered earlier, the two are drawn to the enigmatic Club Silencio and discover a mysterious blue box, the contents of which can be unlocked with a key in Rita’s possession.

Clues that what we are watching is not real are sprinkled throughout. Betty’s exaggerated mannerisms early on (a shot of her with arms crossed behind her head is especially posed) and ‘golly gosh’ dialogue smack of artifice, while the overarching plot could be lifted straight from a 1950s B-movie (alongside the various other nods to the period, such as the jitterbug dancing, a shot of Sunset Boulevard and the fact Rita names herself after a poster of Rita Heyworth).

 

Furthermore, an audition scene in which the naive and sweet Betty is able to completely dominate the room by transforming herself into a sexually charged seductress seemingly comes out of nowhere and lends added weight to the suggestion she is employing dream logic.

There are numerous dialogue cues too, such as when Betty says to Rita “we can pretend to be someone else” or when Betty calls Diane Selwyn’s apartment and suggests to Rita: “It’s strange to be calling yourself.”

Likewise, just moments after the blue box is opened, jettisoning us out of the dream and into the real world, the sinister Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), seen earlier threatening Kesher, says “hey pretty girl, time to wake up” to Betty/Diane as she lies broken and bereft in the same bed we saw her in at the start of the film.

The numerous narrative threads that are seemingly unrelated at first interlock, whether it be the real identity of Camilla Rhodes or the episode early on involving a man who comes to a Winkies diner (a key location of the movie) to see whether a nightmare he’s experienced about meeting a terrifying black figure will occur in real life.

Lynch is a master of using light and darkness to amplify the pervasive sense of dread that lingers on the periphery of each frame. The aforementioned scene involving the pale-faced Cowboy and Kesher is lent extra peril by just how calm he is in his demeanour and the fact he won’t tolerate the “smart alec” behaviour of the director.

The use of sound and music, as in all of the director’s work from his queasy debut feature Eraserhead (1977) is just as powerful in its ability to move and unnerve, none more so than during the Club Silencio sequence when Rebekah Del Rio performs her Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying to spine-tingling and surreal effect. Likewise, Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting and ethereal score further muddies the waters between reality and dreamscape.

Like many of Lynch’s films, it has only grown in stature, so much so that it topped the BBC’s list of greatest 21st century films and was one of only two films from this millennium to make it onto Sight and Sound’s most recent poll of the greatest films of all time.

In dreams Mulholland Drive walks with us and talks to us, rewarding and beguiling us with each subsequent viewing.

Review – Logan

It’s a shame it’s taken nine films and 17 years, but one of comic’s most iconic characters finally gets the film he – and we – deserve.

While not being nearly as good as it thought it was, the huge success of 2016’s profane and bloody Deadpool almost certainly helped pave the way for this, the third and final (we are told) solo outing for The Wolverine, aka Logan.

Logan PosterThe heavily elegiac tone of the film, mixed with the sort of graphic, savage violence hitherto absent from the character’s previous appearances marks Logan out as a genuine stand out in an increasingly cluttered universe(s) of superheroes torn from the pages of copious comics.

It’s to Hugh Jackman’s credit that he refused to reprise the role until he and Director James Mangold got to tell the story they wanted. Hints at what might have been were evident in their previous solo picture, 2013’s The Wolverine, before it lost its nerve and turned into a generic beat-‘em-up involving a giant robot.

LoganHere we finally witness the carnage adamantium claws can inflict and the consequences of “living with the killing”- to lift a quote from one of the film’s biggest influences, 1953’s Shane.

Indeed, while ostensibly a comic book movie, Logan has more in keeping with the western, particularly the sub-set of lone gunman pictures such as Shane and 1992’s Unforgiven; another picture that examines the stomach-churning impact of violence, both on its victims and perpetrators.

LoganSet in 2029, the film finds the titular character a broken man, drinking heavily and surviving day-to-day. Far from being the next stage in evolution, mutantkind is on the verge of extinction and Logan and fellow outcast Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are existing on the fringes, doing what they can to look after the increasingly senile Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

Logan finds himself sucked into a situation inadvertently of his own making when he is approached by a fearful employee of the nefarious Transigen corporation to ferry her and 11-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) to a supposedly safe haven called ‘Eden’. Transigen’s Dr Mengele-esque chief surgeon Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is prepared to go to great lengths to get Laura back, though and sends the relentless Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and a man in black (another nod to the western) after the fleeing Logan, Charles and co.

LoganIt’s been fascinating watching how Jackman has grown into his signature role over the years. Almost two decades after starring in 2000’s X-Men, the film that ushered in the new cinematic paradigm of comic book superheroes, it’s fitting that the actor’s final performance as the mighty mutant should arguably be the genre’s most mature work to date.

Based loosely on the graphic novel Old Man Logan, its themes of oppression, morality, death and the unrelenting march of time are similar to Frank Millar’s celebrated The Dark Knight Returns. Not for nothing is the film called Logan; this is the story of a man whose alter-ego he has been trying, and failing, to leave behind.

LoganWhile we’ve seen him fly into a berserker rage on screen before, here the gloves truly come off as Logan cuts loose to protect those around him in scenes often filmed in exhilarating, unbroken takes. It’s a breathtaking performance from Jackman, easily his best in the role, as he finally finds some form of redemption while having to say goodbye to old friends.

Stewart is equally excellent, expressing the frustration and guilt Charles feels at having “a degenerative brain disease in the world’s most dangerous brain (his seismic seizures are brilliantly filmed) and being so reliant on Logan. Their scenes together are wonderfully played by the two actors, whether it be the awkwardness of helping Charles to the toilet or the father/son bickering that takes place as Logan tries to get his former teacher to take his medication.

LoganHowever, they are both nearly upstaged by young Keen in her first feature, giving an impressively physical turn as the mysterious young girl who spends much of the film mute and expressing everything she needs to say with her eyes.

As the Marvel and DC cinematic universes get ever more crowded and elaborate in their scale, the last stand of Logan reminds us that there is another way, one that is prepared to take risks to intoxicating effect.

Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

Superior action films are few and far between, but Keanu Reeves has landed himself another gun-toting franchise every bit as shamelessly over-the-top as his Matrix movies.

In much the same way as The Bourne Identity and The Raid, 2014’s John Wick crept up on audiences like a silent assassin and showed the numerous pretenders how to deliver the goods.

John Wick: Chapter 2 PosterIts no-nonsense approach, flab-free economy and sense of its own ridiculousness singled out Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s visually arresting original. In keeping with the unwritten rule of movie sequels, Chaper 2 amps up its predecessor’s unique selling points and expands the focus of the world it created.

While not quite in the same class as its forebear, the second chapter in the story of “the man, the myth, the legend” is still better than it has any right to be and offers enough balls-out action to satisfy any bloodthirsty cinemagoer.

John Wick: Chapter 2Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, assassin John Wick (Reeves) is trying to return to the retirement he had been pulled out from following the murder by Russian mobsters of his puppy, a gift from his terminally ill wife.

The bargain he struck to get out of the game comes back to haunt Wick when he is given no choice by Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) but to honour a blood oath and travel to Rome to take out a member of the ‘high table’, a council of high ranking crime kingpins.

Unsurprisingly, such a hit carries its own consequences and soon Wick is having to use all of his skills to fight his way out of the hellish nightmare he’s found himself in.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Right from the off, Chapter 2 cranks up the action (often filmed in pleasingly long takes for added effect) and rarely takes its foot off the gas over the course of its 122 minute running time. The immediate aftermath of the original is dealt with swiftly as Wick takes back his beloved Mustang car from Russian gangster Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare in one of those ‘one-dimensional foreigner’ performances he gives from time to time) – a sequence that allows for much motor mayhem.

The sequel settles into its groove with Wick’s arrival in Rome, a second act that owes more than a passing debt to Bond as the assassin visits numerous Q-esque contacts to tool himself up for the task ahead.

John Wick: Chapter 2The celebrated night club shoot-em-up from the first film gets a fresh coat of paint here as Wick goes to work on a gamut of gun-wielding goons at an elaborately staged concert. Refreshingly for a film of this ilk, while there’s no denying Wick’s superhuman ability to wipe out countless red shirts, the impact of each blow he receives gradually wears him down to the extent that, come the end, he’s virtually staggering to get away, his face cut to ribbons.

The world constructed around its leading man is one of the film’s strongest assets and Chapter 2 takes the time to invest further, giving extra running time to Ian McShane’s Winston, owner of New York’s Continental hotel where blood-letting is a strict no no.

McShane is, as always, great value and isn’t the only memorable supporting player. Lance Reddick stands out as concierge Charon, while Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne (looking like Brando and Welles in the latter stages of their life; i.e. large) gnaws at the scenery with a wildly exaggerated performance (“somebody PLEASE get. This. Man. A gun.”).

While we didn’t realy need to see the pencil trick he’s famous for, the high gloss brutality of John Wick: Chapter 2 bodes well for the insanity guaranteed in the inevitable third act.

In Retrospect – The Goonies (1985)

As the cult around one of the ’80s most beloved of flicks has grown, so too have the calls for a belated sequel.

Anybody who watches The Goonies will have their favourite character, but the thought of settling down to catch another adventure with the likes of Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman more than 30 years after their search for “One-Eyed” Willy’s treasure is not an appealing one.

the-goonies-posterThe Goonies was, in writer Chris Columbus’ words “Indiana Jones for kids”, a movie that not only stars youngsters, but is also fundamentally about them – about the scrapes that young friends get into before the complications of adult life get in the way.

The modern wave of teen flicks began in the ’80s as Hollywood reacted to the explosive success of Star Wars by tapping in to the inpatient youth market. Alongside the Brat Pack movement led by the guiding hand of John Hughes, Steven Spielberg was overseeing a revolution in family movie entertainment.

the-gooniesThe term ‘Spielbergian’ was coined to describe a certain type of popcorn-friendly feature and Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985) perfectly fits the mould. Executive produced (and co-directed according to some) by the bearded one, the film is fantastical, fun and acutely sentimental in equal measure.

The self-labelled Goonies are a gang of social misfits facing the prospect of their last day together as the neighbourhood they live in prepares to make way for a new golf course. Hanging out in Mikey’s (Astin) attic, they stumble across a map pointing them to the fabled “One-Eyed”Willy’s loot. Against the better judgement of Mikey’s older brother Brand (Brolin), the gang go in search of the gold and, along the way, must contend with the pirate’s booby traps as well as an escaped family of criminals, led by the cragged Mama (Anne Ramsey), who learn of the treasure.

The film smartly spends time establishing the close bond of the kids before they embark on their adventure. It’s these early scenes that are strongest as we get a sense that the characters are desperately trying not to think about the seemingly inevitable events on the horizon – most effectively captured in a brief, sad hug between Mikey and Brand.

The GooniesDonner encouraged improvisation on set, which perhaps inevitably led to the excited young actors (some of whom like Astin and Brolin were starring in their first feature) speaking over each other in an effort to get the last line in. Although subsequently defended by a number of the cast, it often leads to scenes becoming cacophonous as dialogue gets drowned out by screams and shouts.

The dialogue itself is very much of its time (the word “shit” would never get uttered as much in a kids film today), while the big speeches don’t land with as much weight as you imagine Donner and Columbus had originally intended.

The subterranean caverns the Goonies must contend with owe more than a passing nod to Indiana Jones, but are beautifully designed and evoke a real sense of danger. Furthermore, “One Eyed”Willy’s pirate ship (built lovingly to scale) remains a sight to behold and the look of gleeful amazement on the actor’s faces as they first set eyes on it is wonderful.

The GooniesLess successful are the interactions between the Goonies and the dastardly Fratelli clan. Their initial encounter in a run down old restaurant (the starting point for the treasure quest) is clumsily handled and the film can’t seem to decide just how threatening to make its family of criminals.

The film’s opening scene has Jake (Robert Davi) escaping prison after convincing a guard he’s hanged himself (something else we probably wouldn’t see in a film of this ilk these days). Another scene later on finds Goonie Chunk (Jeff Cohen) having been captured by the Fratellis and threatened with having his hand mangled by a blender unless he tells them everything. It’s unnerving stuff, lightened by Chunk taking their threat literally by tearfully owning up to every minor infraction he’s ever committed.

James in particular veers between pantomime villain and wicked witch, while Davi and fellow Fratelli Joe Pantoliano enact the sort of bumbling villainy made famous a number of years later in Columbus’ Home Alone.

The GooniesThrown into the mix is the character of Sloth (John Matuszak), the horribly disfigured brother of Davi and Pantoliano’s Fratellis, who is chained away and later befriends Chunk. Largely ignoring the darkly disturbing aspects surrounding such a tragic character who only wants to be loved, the film instead plays Sloth for light-hearted fun, even going so far as to throw in a Superman gag (a nod to Donner’s 1978 big screen take on the Man of Steel).

While a bit ragged around the edges, The Goonies remains a warm-hearted celebration of the power of friendship and the importance of living every last second of childhood.

Review – T2 Trainspotting

So, how do you follow an era-defining testament of 90s youth?

Well, you can’t, and Danny Boyle is smart enough to know that, much like his leading men, trying to match your previous escapades is likely to end in disaster.

T2: Trainspotting PosterWhat we get instead from this sequel to 1996’s kinetic Trainspotting is a contemplative look through the rear view mirror of lives beset by regret, anger, inertia and a deep frustration at what could have been.

While the world has changed irrevocably, Rent Boy/Mark (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy/Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud/Daniel (Ewen Bremner) and Begbie/Franco (Robert Carlyle) have largely stagnated since that fateful drug deal in London more than two decades ago in which, to quote Spud, “first there was an opportunity… then there was a betrayal”.

That opportunity and betrayal proves the focal point for T2‘s narrative, based loosely on Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up Porno, which picks up with Mark returning from Amsterdam to an Edinburgh that is both barely recognisable and utterly familiar.

T2: TrainspottingIn one of the film’s numerous sly nods to Trainspotting, it picks up just as the original did with Mark running, except this time it’s not from security guards, but rather on a treadmill. Boyle flashes between this and the end of the first film with Mark’s defiant walk across Waterloo bridge, not only to act as a literal bridge between the two films but also to underscore the passing of time.

Mark fled to Amsterdam in part to get away from his “so-called friends” and fully realises there’s a price to be paid by returning home. While Spud is still a heroin addict and all the more tragic for it, Sick Boy has been reduced to blackmailing businessmen in order to make ends meet, while Begbie remains in prison. Both Sick Boy and Begbie continue to be consumed with vengeance, believing Mark not only stole their share of the drug deal but also their hopes and dreams for a life less ordinary.

T2: TrainspottingIt’s to John Hodge’s credit as writer and Miller’s performance that we are kept guessing as to Sick Boy’s true intentions towards his old friend. Whilst there is undoubted anger and jealousy, the brotherhood and joy the character also exhibits following Mark’s return feels just as genuine.

McGregor slips back into his most iconic role and injects a fearful guilt into his portrayal. In a beautifully touching moment, Mark sits next to his father at the dinner table, with the light casting a human shadow onto the empty chair his late mother would have sat on – another pointed reminder of the cruel march of time.

Carlyle is properly unhinged as Begbie, a powder keg of self-loathing and hatred who  can’t escape the narrow path his upbringing at the hands of a wastrel father set him on.

T2: TrainspottingA terrific cast, which sees the return of several familiar faces from the original, is topped by a moving turn by Bremner as Spud. Blessed with a face that exudes so much with a single look, Bremner injects a growing defiance into the most fragile of the central leads. Mark’s return acts as a reawakening for Spud, who’s told by his friend to channel his addictive energy away drugs into something more creative and fulfilling – the results of which become the film’s beating heart and key source of nostalgia.

Rather than be used as a direct homage to Scorsese as was the case in the original, the heavy use of freeze frame has been attributed by Boyle to his characters capturing a moment in time, much like a Polaroid. It’s a nice touch, although used too liberally by the director so that it ends up becoming something of an affectation.

T2: TrainspottingThat said, the film (and Edinburgh especially) looks stunning and while the needle-drop soundtrack (a big part of the original film’s cultural impact) may not be quite as memorable this time around, it’s in keeping with the tone (Underworld’s Slow Slippy in particular).

In Trainspotting, Mark asks: “So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore. Is that it?” The march of time notwithstanding, T2: Trainspotting can hack it with the best of them.