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Posts Tagged ‘yuck’

Rumours were rife a few years ago that the revered Canadian auteur David Cronenberg was considering retiring from film-making, simply because trying to find financing for his projects had become too much of a grind. Whether or not this is true (the current rumours are of a possible film noir-ish movie, shooting this year with Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen), there has been a bit of a gap, and Cronenberg seems to have filled his time by writing a novel, Consumed.  Some might be surprised that the acclaimed director of such historical dramas and psychological thrillers as Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method should choose to go into print with what’s essentially a horror novel about cannibalism and techno-fetishism, but there is a reason why Cronenberg is still routinely referred to as a cult horror director and the high priest of body-horror in particular.

This is a label Cronenberg picked up back in the 1970s and early 80s, off the back of a string of films with titles like Shivers, Rabid, and Scanners. I think it’s fair to say that early Cronenberg has a very strong and distinctive taste, and one which still lingers in certain aspects of his later work: it might not be going too far to suggest the main theme of the Cronenberg canon is a fascination with all things psycho-sexual, an interest which initially manifested in a string of no-foolin’ horror movies.

The psycho-sexual element is present front-and-centre right from the start of Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, which opens with unorthodox mental health professional Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) deep in a therapy session with a clearly troubled man. Raglan’s favoured method is something known as psychoplasmics, in which the patient’s repressed emotions manifest through physiological changes in their body: tiny lesions erupt all over the skin of Raglan’s subject as the psychoplasmic demonstration continues.

Watching this is architect Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), whose estranged wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) is currently receiving intensive treatment from Raglan. The relationship between Frank and Nola is acrimonious, to say the least, and much of the trouble centres around the question of who gets custody of their five-year-old daughter Candy. When Candy returns from a visit to see her mother with scratches and bruising, Carveth is naturally concerned and starts looking for legal grounds to block Nola’s access to her, or at least keep Candy away from Raglan’s clinic.

Meanwhile, Raglan continues Nola’s therapy, encouraging her to work through her repressed anger and resentment towards various people in her life, including her mother. It is quite clearly not coincidental, then, when Nola’s mother is brutally bludgeoned to death by someone or something (Cronenberg makes it quite clear the killer is not a normal human being) while baby-sitting Candy.

The tragedy repeats itself when Nola’s father, visiting the house while drunk and grieving, meets a similar fate. Carveth himself confronts the killer, who expires in front of him: a deformed, sexless midget, with no digestive system or umbilicus. But what is the connection to Nola and Raglan, and why does the creature bear a slight but disturbing resemblance to Candy herself…?

Well, and needless to say spoiler alert, it seems that Nola has proven an exceptional subject for psychoplasmic therapy, and her body has been sprouting cysts or sacs, each of which produces one of these homuncular creatures: born of a deeply troubled psyche, they act upon Nola’s subconscious desires without her being aware of it. Raglan, who despite his serious and urbane demeanour is clearly a lunatic mad scientist of the classic type, has getting on for a dozen of these things locked up at his clinic, but they have started breaking out and articulating Nola’s repressed emotions in an actually physical way…

A response of ‘Ewwww,’ is entirely acceptable, and may in fact be obligatory for the scene where Eggar produces yet another of her psychoplasmic spawn, tearing open the birthing pouch with her teeth. (Cronenberg complained that a lengthy shot of Eggar licking the newborn creature was edited by the censors with the result it gave the impression she was actually eating it, ‘much worse than I was suggesting.’) To be fair, though, apart from a little bit of bloody violence, this is a relatively restrained film prior to the climax: indeed, until the first murder, the focus is almost domestic, with Carveth and Nola more concerned about their family situation than anything else.

Bearing this in mind perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cronenberg himself had recently been through fraught divorce proceedings, to which this film formed a response: the director suggested it was a variation on the same theme as Kramer Vs Kramer, ‘only more realistic’. Perhaps it says something about the essentially cerebral nature of Cronenberg’s work that this never really feels like a personal story, the director working out an issue of his own – indeed, the characters are quite thinly presented, just adding to the sense this is on some level an allegory or fable. There is perhaps something problematic in this interpretation: Carveth is the loving, misunderstood father; Nola a vindictive loon.

Cronenberg himself has suggested this is the closest of all his films to being a ‘classic’ horror movie, and if I was going to be harsh I would suggest The Brood certainly features a lot of horror movie acting as it is stereotypically (and perhaps unfairly) understood, by which I mean that Hindle is a bit wooden and Eggar is over the top, and the best performance comes from the mad scientist. At this point in his career Oliver Reed was just transitioning from (ahem) brooding, saturnine leading man to brooding, silver-fox, borderline-unemployable character actor, and he is unusually restrained but as effective as ever as Raglan. You kind of wish he was in the movie a bit more; if nothing else he provides serious gravitas.

The classic-horror-movie-ish-ness of The Brood extends beyond the presence of a mad scientist doing weird experiments; the homicidal midgets inevitably recall the killer from Don’t Look Now, and there is something of the slasher movie in the way the creatures sneak into their victims’ home or place of work before suddenly unleashing bloody slaughter upon them (though ‘basher movie’ might be more apropos given their clear fondness for blunt force trauma). There is inevitably some tonal unevenness when it comes to the combination of schlocky, slightly camp horror and intense psychological drama, but on the whole this just gives the film a distinct identity of its own. This may not be one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious or visually striking films, but it’s satisfyingly intelligent and repulsive in a way he manages uniquely well.

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Jennifer Lawrence was as prominent as ever at the Oscars the other night, as befits a star of her calibre and popularity (I can’t remember when they started calling her ‘America’s Sweetheart’, and even if this was originally meant semi-ironically, that doesn’t seem to be the case any more). She wasn’t actually up for a gong this year, and one is tempted to suggest this is mainly because David O Russell didn’t have a film out this year (her last three Academy nods have all come from appearances in Russell movies).

Instead, she was plugging her new movie Red Sparrow, directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation, I find myself obliged to say), which mainly appeared to involve showing up on a cold London rooftop in a slinky and rather revealing black dress while her male co-stars were decked out in nice warm coats and scarves. Needless to say, t’internet had things to say about this double standard, and most of it was not complimentary. Surprisingly enough, reaction to Red Sparrow itself has been rather more mixed – personally, while I find Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to appear in that dress to be fairly unremarkable, I find her decision to appear in Red Sparrow to be borderline baffling.

The film is mostly set in present-day Russia and eastern Europe, not that this is immediately apparent. Lawrence plays Dominika, a nice young ballerina whose career comes to an end after a gruesome work-related injury nearly results in one of her legs coming off. Things look bleak for her and her poorly mum, until her sinister uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the security services, appears with an offer: if she exploits her natural charms to get close to a person of interest, he will see she and her mum are looked after.

Well, naturally things do not go quite according to plan (or do they…?) and Dominika is presented with a choice of options: be shot in the head and dumped in the river as a witness to a secret operation, or go to a special training school and become a ‘sparrow’, a highly-trained specialist spy-stroke-prostitute (and you can probably guess what gets stroked the most). After due consideration of the alternatives, Dominika agrees to enrol in what even she describes as ‘whore school’.

Intercut with all this is the marginally more conventional tale of rugged CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – do not let the fact his name means ‘ours’ in Russian, as any fule who have seen From Russia With Love kno, lead you to expect a twist – who is running a top-level mole inside Russian security. He knows who the mole is. The Russians know he knows who the mole is. He knows the Russians know he knows who the mole is. Rather than let this go on indefinitely, sinister uncle Ivan decides to send in Dominika to make contact (hem-hem) with Nash and persuade him to reveal who the traitor is. But will she stay loyal to the motherland? Could she in fact be playing a game of her own?

I suppose the first thing one has to say about Red Sparrow is to question the extent to which it is in good taste to make blockbuster entertainment about Russian espionage activities at the moment. Whether you think that Russian involvement in western politics and society is a serious problem (as I write this the UK news is full of what appears to be an attempted assassination on a former Russian national which took place on British soil, to say nothing of the protracted shenanigans in which President Man-Baby finds himself embroiled), or that the Russian government is an essentially harmless paper tiger, this kind of depiction is unlikely to move the world closer to unity and peace. ‘Your body belongs to the state!’ snaps the commandant of sparrow school, played with inimitable menace by Charlotte Rampling, who later goes on to announce ‘It is time for Russia to take its place at the head of other nations’. Russia is shown, in short, as being an almost cartoonishly awful and sinister place.

However, and somewhat startlingly, this doesn’t even begin to deal with all the most problematic elements of Red Sparrow. All right, films are in production for a long time – years, in the case of one like this – and I’m sure no-one involved had any more inkling that the Post-Weinstein Moment was on its way than the rest of us. But it remains the case that this film feels almost uncannily, supernaturally misjudged in its sexual politics, at the moment. We’re no more than twenty-five minutes in before the first time Jennifer Lawrence is forced to undress, and this is followed by a sequence which plays almost like a reconstruction of certain of the allegations that have been doing the rounds, as a rich and powerful man engages in a violent sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman in a hotel bedroom.

This isn’t the only recent film to add a little dash of this sort of thing – I have occasionally complained about Hollywood’s blase attitude to misogynistic violence in mainstream thrillers in the past – but what makes Red Sparrow different is that, ever since the first trailer, its advertising and marketing has focused solely on the fact that this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and she is a very comely young woman. The whole subtext of the trailers could really be summed up as ‘Jennifer Lawrence as a sexy spy – cor! I mean – COORRRR!!!’ And the film is really no different – it really does feel like the sine qua non of the film is to show Lawrence in various alluring states of undress, and engaging in various provocative activities. It’s overwhelmingly prurient and actually rather repugnant: I emerged from the theatre feeling like I wanted to be hosed down with sheep dip, the film is that icky.

So, as I say, you really have to wonder what possessed as sharp a customer as Lawrence to make a film where she is depicted almost entirely as a sexually-objectified victim, where her physicality seems to have been at least as important as her acting ability. With regard to rooftopdressgate, Lawrence’s response was that she liked the dress, thought she looked good in it, and it’s nobody else’s damn business what she chooses to wear. Which I suppose is good strong feminist stuff, from a certain angle at least. And I expect one could make a similar defence of her appearance in the movie – it’s her career, after all, and if she wants to receive a massive cheque for doing gratuitous nude scenes in tacky sex-thrillers then that’s nobody’s business but hers. She owes no responsibility to anyone else.

Well, therein hangs the question, of course: Lawrence is free to do whatever she wants, and is unlikely to be casually exploited, no matter what happens. Other young women who are not influential celebrities with an estimated net worth of £84 million may find themselves in a different situation, and the issue is the extent to which Lawrence is personally responsible for the state of the world.  It’s a big one, of course, and probably too big to be properly discussed here, but I will just say this: Lawrence’s talent and power means she is never going to be short of films to appear in, so I don’t see why she felt it necessary to appear in this particular one, given it is so tawdry and unpleasant.

The thing is that once you get past the objectionable sexual politics of Red Sparrow, all you are actually left with is a turgid and overlong spy thriller. There are plenty of twisty-turny bits along the way, but it all feels curiously inert and is never especially engaging. For most of the film, the agendas and goals of the different characters remain enigmatic and shrouded in mystery: the problem is that this doesn’t engage or intrigue the viewer very much, you just don’t care, for some reason. This is despite a couple of pretty decent performances from Jeremy Irons (who recently, and with no discernible sense of irony, announced in a TV interview that actors shouldn’t pocket a big cheque if it means appearing in rubbish) and Schoenaerts.

Of course, even when it’s not being leery and exploitative, the film still often finds time to be graphically, sadistically violent – and there are even bits where it manages to be leery and sadistic at the same time: oh, look, here’s Lawrence having her clothes cut off preparatory to torture! Here she is actually being tortured! Here’s someone else being flayed alive!

Normally I would say all the violence was over-the-top, but in Red Sparrow‘s case it suits the tone of the rest of the movie all too well; that’s really the problem. And, as I’ve said (possibly at too great a length: what can I say, I’m a Guardian reader), this film does have more serious issues going on. It is competently made, up to a point – this is almost a problem in itself, as it gives the film a veneer of respectability it really doesn’t deserve – but beneath that surface is something comprehensively misogynistic and deeply objectionable.

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With Awards Season pretty much over (nice job, Spotlight) we can hopefully get back to more quotidian fare for a bit – although, as previously mentioned, Blockbuster Season seems to be creeping outwards in both directions – not that long ago we routinely got a couple of months’ breathing space between the Oscars and the first big popcorn movie of the year – it’s down to about three weeks now. Frankly, I was glad of the change of pace and so along I trotted to see Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the latest vehicle for (deep breath) GERARD! BUTLER!

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Extremely long-term readers may recall my one-time enthusiasm for GERARD! BUTLER! and concern for his career, following winning supporting turns in otherwise dodgy films like Reign of Fire and Tomb Raider 2, but then a couple of things happened: firstly, Jason Statham came along, and just as you can only really support one football team, so you can only really get behind one slightly ridiculous action star, and secondly, GERARD! BUTLER! made 300 – so I figured he should be okay from now on, firmly established as a proper leading man.

Hmmm, well. On paper, London Has Fallen looks like silly popcorn fun, a good Bad Movie in the making. You hope to come out of it feeling slightly ashamed but nevertheless generally entertained, but there are always the possibilities of it either being simply dull and foolish, or – perhaps most remote of all – actually a pretty accomplished film. You don’t expect to emerge feeling genuinely appalled and quite angry, and yet this is more or less what happened to me.

The film opens as it means to go on with a US drone strike blowing up the wedding of an arms dealer’s daughter in Pakistan, and instantly one gets a strong sense of taste barriers being well and truly breached. We skip forward a couple of years and encounter (or catch up with, for those who’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, to which this is a sequel) US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his ace bodyguard, swivel-eyed maniac Mike Banning (Butler – I’m going to stop shouting now). A number of rather mechanical character beats follow, as we learn that Banning’s wife is heavily pregnant and he is considering resigning from the Secret Service to raise his child.

Then, however, the British Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead, leading to a short-notice funeral gathering in London, attended by numerous world leaders (at one point the movie describes this as a ‘state funeral’, which is almost certainly wrong, but this is a tiny, tiny issue compared to everything else going on here). Obviously the dead PM is not Chinless Dave, but the film-makers have a bit of nudge-wink fun in their depiction of the various statespeople – the German chancellor is a severe-looking middle-aged blonde woman, the Italian premier is a bit of a lady’s man with a much younger wife, and so on.

So far the film has been a bit of a hard slog, with a lot of plot and character stuff being rather laboriously plumbed in, and no particular sign of a sense of humour on display. Then, however, in the space of a matter of seconds, the film executes an astonishing change of gear and soars off into a realm of howling absurdity. It turns out that most of the emergency services of London, not to mention the British army itself, has been heavily infiltrated by terrorist fanatics, and the whole funeral has been arranged as a massive trap for the visiting dignitaries. The scale on which this happens is utterly ridiculous: every passing ambulance driver pulls out a grenade launcher and starts trying blow Banning and the Prez up. The bearskin-wearing soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace start mowing down onlookers. Every tower block in London suddenly has a terrorist packing a missile launcher on the roof. Logic and credibility are completely discarded in the cause of finding new things to shoot at and/or blow up.

Well, of course, that arms dealer whose daughter got blown up at the start is back for revenge against the forces of the west, and he and his family will not stop until they’ve completed their sweep of world leaders by taking out the US President too. However they have reckoned without Banning and his swivel-eyed mania!

And, um, yuck. To be honest, it’s almost enough to make you long for the omni-competent president of Clinton era films like Independence Day and Air Force One, because I suspect we would then have been spared a dreary, ugly character like Banning at the centre of the film. I wonder how much Eckhart is being paid to essentially play second banana: he inevitably comes across as a rather soft and ineffectual figure, simply because Butler looks better as a result. (Eckhart doesn’t even get to make the big stirring speech at the end of the film – that job goes to Morgan Freeman’s Veep, because you always want Morgan Freeman making your big speeches if you can manage it.) I say ‘better’: I found the character almost impossible to like. There’s a scene where Banning gives someone a painful, drawn-out death by stabbing, mainly so the victim’s listening brother can hear it. ‘Was that really necessary?’ cries the President, aghast. ‘No,’ says Banning. It’s a sign of London Has Fallen‘s lack of self-awareness that one plot element is the difficulty people have in telling good guys from bad guys; well, I know how they feel.

I’m not sure such an uncompromising character would be improved by being played with more of a twinkle in the eye and an attempt at warmth, but Butler doesn’t even seem to try. At one point he’s about to set off to butcher another squad of terrorists, ordering the Prez to hide in a cupboard while he does so. ‘What happens if you don’t come back?’ bleats the leader of the free world. ‘You’re ****ed,’ says Banning, and again it’s not clear if this is supposed to be funny or not.

Then again, as I mentioned up the page, London Has Fallen has serious tone issues throughout. There’s nothing wrong with a crazed action movie sensibility, with one man crunching his way through legions of faceless goons and lengthy sequences resembling nothing so much as a shoot ’em up computer game, but I think that kind of disqualifies you from attempting to make serious points about contemporary geopolitics and the attendant ethical issues. This won’t be the year’s only film where drone strikes are a plot point, but hopefully it’s the most messed-up one. The villains are, of course, pretty much presented as evil incarnate once they start bumping off world leaders and tearing down London, but you would have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel that they kind of have a point – the movie starts off with a wedding being bombed by the ostensible good guys, after all. The film concludes with another drone attack, and while it’s probably supposed to be interpreted as the righteous vengeance of the good guys, I just got a queasy sense of an endless cycle of bitter violence gearing up for another iteration.

In short, any moral ambiguity in London Has Fallen is almost certainly not an intentional creative choice – the characters and dialogue are too gung-ho cartoony for that to be credible – but actually the result of artistic incompetence. I mean, the film is technically proficient, but that’s meaningless as a piece of praise these days, it’s like saying ‘well, at least they remembered to turn the cameras on’. There’s also a sense in which the film is actively disingenuous – the bad guys are, we’re repeatedly told, super-villain arms dealers, not motivated by any other religious or ethical creed. Hmmm, yeah, but they’re arms dealers with a middle-eastern surnames and complexions, much given to beheading prisoners on live internet feeds. You would have to be thicker even than this film’s target demographic not to figure out what’s really going on.

We live in a more dangerous world than was the case a few years ago – or at least that’s how we perceive it, which may amount to much the same thing. Spectacular terror atrocities on the streets of western nations are not just the stuff of fantasy any more, and there are arguably worthwhile and interesting films to be made on this topic. But just making a bone-headed video-game style shooter with fantastically thin characters and no sense of moral compass or the actual issues involved isn’t just crass, it’s dangerous and insulting. It’s just exploiting fear and feeding it, rather than trying to take any steps to improve the situation (unless you genuinely believe that blowing people up is the answer to every problem – funnily enough, the bad guys in this film would seem to agree with you).

At the end of the film, Gerard Butler’s character cradles his new-born daughter and asks ‘What are you going to be passionate about?’ Well, jingoistic nonsense, human rights violations and stabbing people to death, if she’s anything like her dad. I would have the mite taken into care forthwith. Whether the same measures would help Gerard Butler’s film career, I don’t know, but it’s probably worth a try. This movie is horrible, and I’ve a nasty feeling that left to his own devices, Butler is only going to get worse.

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