Tag: Justin Theroux

Mulholland Dr (2001)

Mulholland Dr (2001)

Surrealist, dream-like images fill a film that’s wilfully complex, perplexing and probably Lynch’s masterpiece

Director: David Lynch

Cast: Naomi Watts (Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Laura Harring (Rita/Camilla Rhodes), Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Ann Miller (Coco), Mark Pellegrino (Joe), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliane), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliane), Michael J Anderson (Mr Roque), Monty Montgomery (The Cowboy), Lee Grant (Louise Bonner), James Karen (Wally Brown), Chad Everett (Jimmy Katz), Melissa George (Camilla Rhodes), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lori Heuring (Lorainne Kesher)

Spoilers: I’ll be discussing in detail the plot (if you can call it that) including its final act reveals which are crucial for understanding the film. So watch it first!

Where do you begin? Mulholland Drive feels like the culmination of Lynch’s work, a perfect boiling down of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet into a surrealistic meditation on Hollywood, wish-fulfilment, dreams and reality. It’s both wilfully inaccessible and surprisingly clear, both coldly cruel and achingly tender, full of hope and devoid of happiness. It’s tough, cryptic, engrossing viewing and unpeels like an onion (and likely to have the same effect on you as that vegetable). Every scene may mean everything or nothing, but there is not a moment of it that isn’t darkly, thrillingly engrossing.

It starts with a car crash on Mulholland Drive – but not before a stream of seemingly disconnected images that only later reveal their importance, including a women on a bed and a dizzying array of disconnected jittybug dancers drifting across the screen like paper cut-outs before a purple background. The car crash involves a mysterious woman ‘Rita’ (Laura Harring) who narrowly escapes being murdered but is left with amnesia. She stumbles to the house of Betty (Naomi Watts), a newly arrived girl in Hollywood, eager to become an actress. With only a bag of money and a mysterious blue key to go on, Rita and Betty search to find out who Rita is. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) finds his film (which Betty wants to audition for) being taken over by gangsters. Did I also mention an incompetent-but-brutal hitman, a supernaturally omniscient albino cowboy and a monstrous goblin-like hobo who lives behind a diner and can kill on sight?

Mulholland Drive grew out of Lynch’s plans for a new Twin Peaks style TV series. He shot a pilot, the footage from which takes up much of the first two thirds. Like Twin Peaks it was full of mysterious alleyways to be explored: it’s amnesiac lead, mysterious money and blue key, shadowy gangsters (even led by Twin Peaks veteran Michael J Anderson, here in a Red Room style hide-away, his head attached to a prosthetic body), creepy supernatural nightmare elements. Alas, the executives hated it (it wasn’t exactly Desperate Housewives), but French investors stepped in to fund Lynch turning it into a surrealist movie, with an additional half an hour of footage to an ending (of a sort).

A sort of ending is what we get. Mulholland Drive is a famously confusing, impenetrable film. But to me it seems clear. Lynch’s solution was to turn all the pilot footage into a bizarre and terrible dream – and latch on an ending set in the ‘real world’ which re-presents characters, events and throwaway moments in surprising new lights, leading us to radically reinterpret everything. Effectively, the first two-thirds are the guilt-ridden nightmare of Diane (Watts again), a failed actress in Hollywood who paid for a hit on a star actress Camilla (Harring again) who she believes seduced and spurned her. In her dream, Diane reimagines both herself and Camilla exactly as she wishes they were: herself unspoilt by Hollywood with preternatural talent, Camilla as an amnesiac utterly reliant on her.

What we have here is dreams as wish fulfilment: and what city is more about that, than Hollywood? Mulholland Drive plays as the dark underbelly of Sunset Boulevard (pretty dark and bitter already!). Lynch’s Hollywood is a vicious, heartless, bloody place, where cruelty and death are commonplace. In ‘the dream’ the gangsters – terrifying cameos from Hedaya and composer Badalamenti, the latter dribbling inadequate coffee from his mouth during a meeting in a grotesque power play – call the shots. Reality might be worse. This heartless factory of dreams chews up and spits out innocents like Diane, turning her from naïve and optimistic into  bitter, twisted shell, emotionally maladjusted, locked in her apartment tearily in thrall to her worst instincts.

It makes sense in a way that the film is dominated (probably) by a dream. Hollywood is the town of stories, and it’s perversely logical that the unreality should feel so detailed, engrossing and narratively compelling while what is (probably) reality is fragmented, mundane and laced with cruelty. To the people of films, stories are richer and more freeing than anything that happens in real life and infinitely more comforting.

Comfort is what our dreamer wants. Naomi Watt’s Betty seems like a cliché of a small-town girl, swept up in the big city. Full of aw-shucks charm, the eagle-eyed will spot little moments of strength that feel out of character. There are micro-flashes of anger and she’s determined to break into a mysterious, abandoned house to find a clue when Rita runs. She’s a gifted actress, turning a mundane script in an audition (a script she and Rita laugh at) into a simmering performance of sexual control that stuns the room. But this is a multi-layed performance, just one facet of a whole.

Because Betty’s talent is recognised in the way her ‘real-world’ counterpart Diane – stuck in small supporting roles, gifts from Camilla – never is. There are touches of this in that audition: the director is the least involved and speaks only in vague bullshit. Its not just that talent recognition: in the dream she can turn her lover Camilla, an independent and (perhaps) selfish figure, into someone so dependent on her that she literally doesn’t even know who she is. She even turns the man Camilla leaves her for, into a deluded, humiliated cuckold in thrall to gangsters.

Lynch’s crafting of this dream is flawless. He can mine tension from even the smallest moments. Innocuous events – two men sitting in a diner, a kind old couple in a cab, a business meeting, a singing audition – drip with menace and unknown horror. His camera frequently, almost imperceptibly weaves, as if held floating in space. Logic jumps and sudden transitions abound. Lights flicker and time never obeys rules. He is also a master of black humour: a hit-job gone wrong (with bodies and a vacuum cleaner joining the carnage) is hilarious, as is Kesher’s unexpected arrival home to find his wife in bed with a muscular pool cleaner.

Mulholland Drive is also a sensitive and highly emotional romance story between two lost souls. Betty, naïve and helpful and Rita, who clings with gratitude and adoration to the woman who helps her. Moments of sexual tenderness between these two are shot with erotic beauty: contrasted sharply with the more sordid, aggressive couplings between them in ‘reality’.

But these mix with moments of chilling, unspeakable horror. The hideous goblin living behind a diner, an embodiment of all that is cruel, evil and twisted, later clutching a box the releases the furies themselves seem to leap from. Is this a dark expression of the dreamer’s own guilt (which seems to be transferred to “Dan” a man we see literally dying of fright in a diner that becomes crucial later)? The Cowboy, who may or may not be of this world, glanced at two dreadful moments (just as he promises) seems to guides the dream. And the Silencio club, a theatre of the bizarre, disturbing auditory and visual twists and turns that serves as the gateway between dream and reality – something Betty subconsciously knows, vibrating in terror in her seat, knowing this fantasy she has crafted is under siege from dark elements of the truth demanding she acknowledge them.

Mulholland Drive deconstructs itself at every turn, aided by Lynch’s wonderful, hypnotic surrealistic touches. What’s beautiful about it, perhaps, is it leaves it very much up to you. For me, the desire for dreams to be fulfilled is crucial. It’s all captured in Watts and Harring’s multi-layered performances, their versions of the same women contrasting and complementing each other. Lynch allows their personalities to blur both in character and in visuals (Rita ends up in a matching wig in touches of Vertigo while the film’s blurring of two personalities echoes Bergman’s Persona, including a homage via a shot where both faces seem to merge into one).

An intense, fascinating dream-like exploration of several classic Lynchian themes, Mulholland Drive is his finest, most rewarding film. One which, whatever interpretation you place on its events, grips and challenges you at every moment, full of scenes which spark a mixture of imagination, horror and intrigue. Powered by two wonderful performances at its lead, both with just the right mix of reality and fantasy about them, it’s an extraordinary film.

Bumblebee (2018)

A heart warming double bill in surprising “genuinely good Transformers film” Bumblebee

Director: Travis Knight

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld (Charlie Watson), John Cena (Colonel Jack Burns), Jorge Lendeborg Jnr (“Memo” Gutierrez), John Ortiz (Dr Powell), Jason Drucker (Otis Watson), Pamela Adlon (Sally Watson), Stephen Schneider (Ron), Glynn Turman (General Whalen), Len Cariou (Hank), Dylan O’Brien (Bumblebee), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Angela Bassett (Shatter), Justin Theroux (Dropkick)

Michael Bay started making Transformers films in 2007. These massive, action-packed, technological marvels are testament to the skill of special effects gurus to create live-action versions of these transforming robots – and a testament to the lack of soul in Michael Bay as the films became increasingly empty, sprawling, noisy, pornographic (not in that sense!), tasteless, sexist efforts that leave a bad taste in the mouth. Bumblebee is a soft-reboot of the franchise – and the very first time it feels like this is a Transformers film that those growing up with the cartoons could recognise, and that you would be happy to show to kids.

In 1987, Cybertron has fallen and the Autobots have scattered across the galaxy. Young Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) is sent to Earth, where he loses his voice, his memory and nearly his life combating a Decepticon. Taking refuge as a beat up Volkswagen Beetle, Bumblebee is found by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) a young car mechanic enthusiast mourning the sudden death of his father and struggling with her mother (Sally Watson) starting to move on with a new boyfriend Ron (Stephen Schneider). While Charlie and Bumblebee bond, more Decepticons – on the hunt for Bumblebee who they hope can lead them to Optimus Prime – arrive on Earth and join forces with anti-Transformer agency Sector 7, represented by Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena), to track Bumblebee down.

Travis Knight came to the film from directing several successful animation films – and his understanding of the nuances of inflection and character that you need in order to bond with animated characters. He also brings back an innocence, a dignity and a sense of honour to the franchise. Where the Autobots in past films had increasingly become brash blowhards or brutal warriors (not least Optimus Prime who seemed to become more psychotic as the series went on) this film made them again the noble defenders of the weak that they were in the comics and cartoons. It’s not an exaggeration to say if the fans were waiting for a film that got closer to the spirit of the original, they had been waiting for this one.

Knight’s mastery of animation makes Bumblebee a true character, an endearing, bumbling (sorry), accident-prone, scared little kid who is also a tender, caring and understanding friend. With Bumblebee mute for most of the film, the character communicates solely through his body language – and his hugely expressive eyes – and Knight has redesigned the character to have a larger, more open face that immediately makes him a warmer character. Knight also has a brilliant line in visual comedy, with Bumblebee hilariously trashing a house at one point in a stumbling display of silent comedy that works extremely well. 

It also helps that Knight has such a strong, marvellous performance from Hailee Steinfeld as Bumblebee’s carer and protector. Seeing Steinfeld in this film is a real reminder of what brash, very male, figures Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg cut in the past few films, where women were even objects of tasteless ogling or rebellious kids to be protected by men. All that is thrown out of the window here (thank goodness), with this being the first film in the series written by a woman, Christina Hodson. Steinfeld is allowed to develop a character who is not a Tomboy, a hot scientist or a teenage girl stereotype, but someone who feels very real and hugely charming. Steinfeld brilliantly creates a bond with Bumblebee – no mean feat for a creature that is not there – and the film hinges perfectly on her growing emergence from the shell of trauma and loss at the death of her father, through finding a new purpose with Bumblebee. It’s a great performance anchoring a film full of special effects.

Knight’s film can still handle all the action you want – but unlike with Bay, where spectacle and violence is always considered way more important than story and character, his action scenes are shot with a simpleness and clarity that put character at the forefront. In fact character is what every scene is about, not the shattering punching and tastelessly sadistic, pornographic violence of robotic dismemberment that Bay’s film’s degenerated into. This is a film which feels inspired by the vibe of ET, about two damaged souls who come together to protect each other and find themselves. It’s a film that is about friendship and affection, and Knight’s action scenes carry a sense of these qualities, this desire to protect people, into them.

With the film’s light comic touch – not least from John Cena who is on good form as a Colonel with a grudge against all Transformers (“They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?”) and Jorge Lendeborg Jnr, very endearing as Charlie’s would-be love interest – it feels like a film genuinely made by people who loved the original and loved it’s innocent, good-vs-bad themes. Knight also returns the design of the characters back far closer to the look of the 1980s – the opening on Cybertron, with all the characters appearing as souped up versions of their 1980s cartoon form is virtually a love letter to anyone who grew up watching these characters. Knight not only gets the visuals right, with a warmth and depth of character none of the rest of the films have had, he also understands the bravery and heroism of the Autobots in a way Bay never did – Knight’s Optimus Prime is a million miles from the prisoner-executing loonie Bay created.

Bumblebee for sure is no Citizen Kane (although it has lashings of Spielberg in it, not least ET). But it’s on a different planet to the rest of the series, and a film with tonnes in it to enjoy. With its careful balancing of themes from loss to survivor guilt it also has more to it than meets the eye.

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Felicity Jones does earnest, dedicated work in an earnest, dedicated film: On the Basis of Sex

Director: Mimi Leder

Cast: Felicity Jones (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Armie Hammer (Martin Ginsburg), Justin Theroux (Mel Wulf), Kathy Bates (Dorothy Kenyon), Sam Waterston (Erin Griswold), Cailee Spaeny (Jane C Gisnburg), Jack Raynor (James H Bozath), Stephen Root (Professor Brown)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an extraordinary person, her pioneering work to bring about sexual equality in the USA something that has made an actual, permanent change to her country for the better. This biopic covers the early years of this campaign in the 1970s, and if it at times gets a little too bogged down in the conventions of these sort of biopics, it does tackle them with genuine passion.

At Harvard in the mid-1950s, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of the first women allowed in to study law – and finds that she faces a battle to constantly prove that she deserves to be there. Her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), himself an accomplished lawyer, is endlessly supportive and encouraging, but Ruth continues to find that she struggles to be treated as an equal in the male dominated legal world of the 1950s and 60s. All this changes when her husband brings to her attention a tax case that discriminates against a male carer – and she realises this could be a vehicle to establish a precedent that American laws are unconstitutional when they discriminate on the basis of sex.

Mimi Leder directs a film full of warmth, respect and feeling for the importance of the story it is trying to tell. While it at times seems a tiny bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of bringing such a pioneering person’s story to the screen, it still manages to bring enough character and flair to it to make it an engaging watch. Perhaps you might feel at times you are only beginning to scratch the surface of RBG’s extraordinary life – but the film still treats you with the respect to assume that you can follow the legal arguments being outlined, even as it structures much of the film with clichés.

It does have some fine sequences in it though, not least a running visual image of Ruth walking up steps towards important buildings. The opening sees her lost in a crush of young male Harvard students, struggling to find her own space in a male dominated world. Later she climbs the steps outside the Court of Appeals, this time at the head of a progress of men following her behind. And finally the film bookends its opening Harvard steps sequence with Ruth – this time alone – climbing the steps of the supreme court: shots and cuts echo the opening of the film as Felicity Jones is slowly replaced by the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Felicity Jones does a decent job as Ginsburg, although she struggles with a slightly awkward make-up job to age her up. She however captures the fire in Ginsburg’s belly and her passion to right wrongs, as well as the demanding intellectual ability that at times made her a domineering and difficult person. She doesn’t always find much wit in the role, but she really wins the empathy of the audience with the injustice she faces – not least from the very start having to justify why she has taken a place at Harvard from a man in the first place.

It helps as well that she has such a fine scene partner for so much of the film in Armie Hammer, who is excellent as her supportive, way-ahead-of-his-time husband Martin. Taking on most of the domestic chores – and combined with his own brilliant career – Martin was as much a fascinating figure as Ruth. Hammer plays with a joyful, charismatic relish, perfectly mixing intellectual curiosity with an innate decency. It’s also a generous performance that complements Jones perfectly.

The relationship between these two is the emotional heart of the film, frequently raising warm smiles from the audience. An early scene where Martin is diagnosed with cancer after collapsing during a game of charades tugs at the heartstrings, not least for the sudden pained look of panic that crosses Martin’s face as he collapses, and Ruth’s protective rush to his side. These two argue once in the film – and that an argument based around Martin encouraging Ruth to live the life she wants – and the film goes out of its way to show that their life together was an equal partnership, where both were determined to support and protect the other.

It’s a lovely relationship to place at the film’s centre – even if Hammer is essentially playing the supportive wife role that so many biopics of men have featured (Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything for starters springs to mind!). That points at one of the weaknesses of the film: its predictability. Structurally it follows the route of many of these sort of biopics, with initial struggle, a cause, set-backs, pep-talks, sudden nerves before the eventual demonstration of triumph. Frankly nothing in the film narratively is remotely surprising, and Leder, despite a few touches of flair, largely directs with a workmanlike assurance.

Workmanlike is a little harsh, but is probably the film’s main weakness. While it’s well-played and has an excellent story – and, I will say it again, a script that largely expects its viewers to follow the legal points – it also can’t quite figure out a way to tell the story that doesn’t squeeze it into the biopic clichés that you’ve seen dozens of times before. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Not exactly: but it also makes the film at heart an engaging middle-brow drama, which seems a shame when Ruth Bader Ginsburg is anything but.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

Emily Blunt on a commute into danger in the underwhelming Girl on the Train

Director: Tate Taylor

Cast: Emily Blunt (Rachel Watson), Rebecca Ferguson (Ann Watson), Haley Bennett (Megan Hipwell), Justin Theroux (Tom Watson), Luke Evans (Scott Hipwell), Allison Janney (DS Riley), Edgar Ramirez (Dr Kamal Abdic), Lisa Kudrow (Martha), Laura Prepon (Cathy)

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is a lonely, divorced alcoholic who takes the train into New York every day to spy on her husband (Justin Theroux) and his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson), whose house the train passes. However, she also becomes obsessed with the seemingly happy marriage of her ex’s neighbours (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), who live an apparently Instagram-perfect life of coffee on the balcony and candlelit sex in their perfect living room (with the curtains conveniently left open – everyone leaves their curtains open in this film, no matter what they are doing). When the picture-perfect wife goes missing, she inveigles her way into their lives to try and help.

This is not a good film. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s a flat and lifeless one – a plot-boiler that simmers along without ever really getting exciting.  The story feels like it’s been pulled together from crumbs swept from the table of Gillian Flynn. It’s a hotchpotch mess, tangled, unclear and not that interesting. I can’t be the only person un-intrigued by the mystery of who shags who among the middle classes. Even a murder doesn’t spice it up. The small cast makes many mysteries obvious – when one character is found to be pregnant, but two of the three male characters we’ve been introduced to have been ruled out, you don’t need to be Poirot to work out who the father might be. Even the title is a call back to better thrillers, with its Girl with the Dragon Tattoo styled title.

The story drifts on and on, never really getting anyway or explaining anything properly. It doesn’t help that it’s mediocrely filmed. Look at the lean, compelling and sharp film David Fincher made of (the much better) Gone Girl. Then look at the murky, plodding, dull execution here. Particularly damningly it’s a shock to find out this is less than 2 hours, because it feels a hell of a lot longer.

The story has been switched from the book’s original London to somewhere outside Manhattan, which doesn’t help either. There is something quite small scale and domestic about the story that the sweeping vistas and huge houses of wealthy American suburbia don’t match up with. The very concept of the film – seeing into houses from commuter trains paused at signals – doesn’t even work removed from London’s architecture (the train in this film stops regularly on a huge expanse of track due to rail works that go on for ever and ever). Edgar Ramirez’s psychiatrist keeps the name Kamal Abdic (with its suggestion of middle Eastern roots) but now seems to be Mexican. Everyone in the film looks like a fashion model. Lots of other small moments just don’t make sense in the way they would have done in the original setting.

Emily Blunt is pretty good in the lead role, much better than the film deserves. Okay the drop-dead gorgeous Blunt doesn’t even remotely look like the overweight, sweaty alcoholic described in the book. But she nails her drunk acting, and carries the emotional heft of the film rather well, with an engaging vulnerability. She is, perhaps, even a little too engaging – the book’s original version of her character is apparently pretty unlikeable. The script trims away her needy obsessiveness, and creepy stalker tendencies. But Blunt is a little too likeable, and a little too sophisticated (despite prosthetic eyebags), to really convince as the pathetic Rachel. The switch to America doesn’t help here either – basically Brits make better losers than Americans tend to.

The rest of the cast are okay, but there is hardly a stand out among them. I have to admit I found Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson (with their identikit blond hair dyes) hard to tell apart at times (this may be due to staying up all night watching the 2017 British election the night before).

By the end, when the killer is revealed (with a graphically suggestive flashback) you’ll find it hard to really care. In fact the final reveal is so clumsily put together all the implications aren’t clear at all. It’s a load of fuss about nothing. Taylor is trying to turn a pulpy novel into an arty thriller – but he doesn’t have the cinematic know-how to do it. He’s far too bland and middlebrow. Maybe that makes him a suitable match – a derivative director for a derivative book – but it hardly helps make this a good film. If he’d gone for a more B-movie approach, playing up the dark satire you could find in the story, then we could have had something interesting here. But he didn’t and we don’t.