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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007


It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.


Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.


In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.


The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.


Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.


Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.


But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.


This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.


There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.


But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.


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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007


In much the same way he mined hip-hop culture for his acclaimed debut Hustle & Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer turns his attention to the blues for his equally musical sophomore effort Black Snake Moan. A newly slimmed down Christina Ricci plays Rae, a young, white trash tramp whose horniness possesses her like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which leads her into the bedroom of any willing man in the county. After a particularly rough night, she is dumped on the side of a road and left for dead, only to be found and subsequently held captive by ex-bluesman and struggling Christian Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson).


Up until this point, Black Snake Moan presents a fantastic concept; a god-fearing man looking to reform someone of their wicked ways, and by force if necessary. Wrapped up in the trappings of blues mythology, it promises some intriguing developments. But Brewer’s script never finds the right tone. Both over-the-top and deadly serious, ironic and earnest, Jackson, Ricci and the rest of the talented cast give excellent performances despite writing and situations that at times are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Worse, Brewer seems to try and alleviate the problem with supporting characters and plotlines that enter and leave the picture on a whim. Rae’s relationship with her longtime boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), Lazarus’ fledgling romance with local pharmacist Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson) and Reverend R.L.’s (John Cothran Jr.) efforts to bring Lazarus back to the church are largely underdeveloped and leave more questions than answers.


If there is any bright spot in this otherwise pointless exercise in Southern exploitation melodrama, it is the music. Samuel L. Jackson’s singing, particularly his stunning version of the traditional blues cut “Stagolee”, is far more evocative here than the puerile “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” that became the center of Hustle & Flow. But like that film, Brewer addresses and even embraces African-American stereotypes but can’t transcend them. Black Snake Moan amounts to nothing more than another picture in which damaged white characters find healing in the ways of slightly off-the-radar African-Americans and their culture. That certainly isn’t to mention the film’s preoccupation with African-American male’s genitalia - a source of constant wonder for Rae.


I wish I could say Black Snake Moan was simply poorly made and inconsequential, but Brewer’s film goes a dangerous step further. Rather than turning stereotypes on their head, by the film’s truly cornball ending, he practically embraces them and tries to sell them as authentic drama. At least for myself, and the audience I was with, we weren’t buying it.



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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007


Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, Espinazo del Diablo, El (The Devil’s Backbone) is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement.


But with the release of Laberinto del Fauno, El (Pan’s Labyrinth) and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that his films have long mandated. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us.


When we first meet Ofelia, our world-weary juvenile heroine, we immediately see the toll this national uprising has taken on its people. It is written all across her wrinkled brow. She’s a tired child, her face formed into an almost constant state of sorrow. In her hands she carries several books, her only escape from an existence without security, without love, and most recently, without a father. All of these factors will play an important part in Del Toro’s designs. He will take this innocent’s fears, amplify them via an alternative narrative based in classic Brother’s Grimm-like fairytales, and create a kind of commentary on the harsh realities of life during wartime.


Moving from the city to the country, Ofelia is at the whim of her situation. Upon arrival, she meets a friendly face in Mercedes, one of the few adults who actually considers Ofelia more than merely an under-aged nuisance. At this point, we expect the movie to be a kind of indirect parent and child partnership, a desperate rebel sympathizer and an impressionable kid trying to stay safe inside a realm of deception, despair and death. Ofelia’s actual mother is pregnant, the suggestion being that she sold out her husband and carried on with the corrupt Captain Vidal, resulting in the spouse’s death and her current delicate condition. Indeed, the subsequent marriage and move to a more secure rural location is killing her, making Ofelia even more fearful of her status.


Within this setting, Del Toro then subverts the story. Instead of focusing solely on Mercedes and Ofelia, both characters take off in different directions. As the maid with radical motives helps the freedom fighters in the hills, Ofelia explores the garden maze just off the primary path to the Captain’s headquarters. There, she finds the fairies of her books, and an earthen spiral staircase that leads to the realm of the title faun - a half man, half beast who holds the keys to the child’s chance of survival. He will provide her with three challenges, each one testing a specific mantle. If she passes each one, there’s a promise of passage into a realm of happiness and hope.


It’s here inside this rather complicated set-up, battles with fantastic creatures juxtaposed against real life combat, the gaining of magical objects and powers presented alongside the spilling of actual blood, where the movie finds its focus. But surprisingly enough, Del Toro is not trying to spin a simultaneous allegory – Ofelia’s trials vs. those of Spain in general. No, in each one of the little girl’s tests, choice is a key component. In essence, Del Toro is attempting to describe and define conviction, to show how opportunity meshed with option creates decisiveness, and with it, purpose and assurance. Indeed, Ofelia’s adventures are all about defiance and discovery, centering on confrontation with hope the ultimate prize.


Take her journey into the lair of the Pale Man. She has been warned by the faun Pan not to eat or drink anything found on the disturbing figure’s table. She is to pursue her goal and nothing else. Yet the little girl, given over to feelings of being left out and ignored, can’t refuse the inviting items spread out along this baneful banquet. She makes a minor decision, one she thought was meaningless since it was so insignificant in the grand scheme of her quest. Yet the repercussions are truly terrifying, and the long term ramifications lead to one of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s most important points. Del Toro is showing how one small decision can snowball into a life or death disaster – and how we never consider the consequences at the time we make the choice.


A lot of Pan’s Labyrinth plays on such subtexts. When we learn that the house doctor is also a rebel sympathizer, that Captain Vidal is a tripwire psychopath that can kill a man as easily as he can order a meal, that an unborn child can become a bargaining chip in the ongoing clash between people and politics, we recognize the director’s complicated designs. He is showing us how most people parlay their everyday existence into a series of conflicts and compromises, living with the judgments they make and suffering in silence with the secret strategies they find important. By giving us the little girl’s learning curve, and placing it alongside people who have already discovered these lessons, Del Toro is piecing together his own puzzle – and the images it shows are unsettling indeed.


There will be those put off by the brutality of Franco’s soldiers, their mindless destruction of their fellow Spaniards all in the name of “winning and losing”. Vidal even states that the reason behind the genocide is really just a matter of supporting the proper position. “They just don’t recognize who won” he says, and he wants to make sure that the individuals plotting their resistance pay the price for such ignorance. Unlike The Devil’s Backbone, which was more supernatural in its tone, Pan’s Labyrinth is a bloodier, more visceral experience. While not obsessed with gore, Del Toro does not shy away from the grotesque that accompanies hostilities. Torture is not downplayed – its physically corrupting consequences are shown in sickening, shocking realism.


But it’s the fantasy facets that really astonish us. Bringing an unbridled imagination to the movie’s main setpieces, Del Toro delivers amazingly memorable entities, from the insect like fairies to the giant toad who holds a magic key in its mucus-lined mouth. Pan himself is a combination of the seductive and the sinister. We can never truly decipher his motives, and there are moments when we wonder if he too is manipulating Ofelia for some other ominous purpose. From a purely visual standpoint, Pan’s Labyrinth stands alongside the works of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam for unbelievable optical flair, and just like these amazing auteurs, Del Toro’s incorporation of such material is seamless. We never once doubt that what we see is being experienced by Ofelia, or the other characters in the film.


With its flawless performances, amazing combination of exquisiteness and cruelty, and careful narrative construction that builds to one of the more superb endings in recent memory, Guillermo Del Toro has finally delivered his mainstream missive, a film that argues so effectively for his abilities that it can’t be easily dismissed as the ravings of a horror nut or a superhero scenarist’s filmic fluke. No, when the history of foreign film is finally written, Del Toro and his fellow Mexican filmmakers (Alfonso Cuoran, Alejandro Iñárritu) will argue that, in 2007, they illustrated that, as a language, cinema is both international and insular, a product of both the artform and the individual working within it. And no one has more inner demons to deal with and defend than fantasy’s new agent provocateur.


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Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Children of Men where the reality of what is going on finally sinks in. It doesn’t occur when our hero, Theo, narrowly escapes death as a bomb goes off in his local coffee shop. Nor is it the sequence where a band of rebels known as the Fish kidnap this disgruntled civil servant and ask him for a bureaucratic favor. No, in a scene so subtle it almost gets away with its subversion, Cuarón lets us look at the London kept unaffected by the ongoing apocalypse around it. Behind well guarded gates, past lawns loaded with all manner of English tea party pageantry, zoo animals mingle with the privileged and the upper crust, palace guards parading down archetypical streets, everything glazed with proper British ceremony.


Theo, there to visit a relative in the ministry, gets to see the spoils of a world gone warlike. The “rescued” statue of David sits in the foyer, as memento of a raid in Florence. Similarly, a trip to Spain garners Picasso’s Guernica, it’s images of death and destruction used to line a dining room wall. As he sits and eats, sipping wine and drinking in the artificial atmosphere, we see a shockingly familiar site just beyond our view. Sure enough, right outside the window, is yet another lesson in preserving the past. It’s the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd’s Animals album, once again sitting perched within its Battlesea Power Station setting.


Call it dystopian or future shocking, but Children of Men is nothing more than a sensational cinematic allegory as bona fide art. Fashioned from PD James famed novel about a world gone infertile (and the horrors that accompany such a biological barrier), a legion of screenwriters have boiled the metaphorical wake up call into a look at the planet circa 2006. The technology visible is not quite beyond our current comprehension (even if computer screens float freely in the air) and the destruction not predicated on massive acts of global extermination. It is clear from the neo-fascist regime ruling Britain that Earth has died from the inside out, unable to cope with the demise of implied immortality. One of the ideas that this stellar motion picture exploits effectively is the hopelessness of those unable to contemplate the inability to continue on with the species. Instead of finding ways to channel this despair, to join together to fight, they turn on each other, creating police states where citizenship is more important than solutions.


The scenes where immigrants – or ‘fugees’, for refugee – are rounded up and placed in camps smack of so many historical atrocities that it’s hard to pick just one. Between references to the Troubles, the Holocaust and post-9/11 America to the Cuban Boat Lift of the ‘80s and the Japanese internment of the ‘40s, it is clear that Cuarón sees the world as a constant power struggle between the established and the excluded, a continuation of colonialism and imperialism wrapped up in jingoistic jargon and problematic patriotism. When we learn that Theo’s being recruited to help Kee, a pregnant black migrant, escape the city to a supposed scientific project, his stupefaction over seeing a woman with child provides him with an answer to everyone’s problems. “Tell them”, he says, “tell the world.” Naturally, he is scoffed at, one member of the resistance making it clear that Britain would never stand for the first new baby in 18 years being a non-citizen. Of course, there is another reason for their rejection of Theo’s plan, but it’s clear from their conviction that Kee’s existence would only escalate the problem.


Part of the beauty of this film is its exquisite attention to detail. Songs like “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Hush” and “Ruby Tuesday”, obviously chosen for their ready recognizability, also set the tone for these looking backward times. The Beatles are nowhere to be heard, and bands from the later part of the Brit-pop movement fail to make an appearance as well. Indeed, when Theo’s hippy friend, a pot growing ex-political cartoonist named Jasper (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) wants to “rock out”, he puts on some discordant noise which sounds like techno gone tainted. Memories from the past are important to the people of Children of Men, but they also realize that without a future generation to share them with, such recollections are more or less pointless. They too will die one day. Even Theo’s ex-lover, the Fish leader Julian (Julianne Moore) reminds her partner (and father of their now dead child) that you never really forget what came before, you simply try and learn to live with it. Since each performance is amazingly effective – Clive Owen, as Theo, argues for his place as one of today’s best big screen actors – and the world Cuarón creates so precise, we don’t need long scenes of expositional explanation to get the feel of this tentative time period.


The camerawork here is equally amazing. Mostly handheld, sometimes with the addition of a Steadicam, Cuarón places us alongside the characters, letting us overhear conversations and viewing potential dangers from a clear first person POV position. Some may see this as a trick – along with a couple of sensational tracking shots that, in one take, cover substantial narrative and action ground – but it works to keep us attached to the storyline. Something as unfathomable as Children of Men‘s crisis needs to stay immediate and focused. Sit around too long, or maintain too much distance from the situations and people begin to pick away at plotpoints. Similar to the style Stephen Spielberg employed during War of the Worlds, Cuarón is making it clear that this is no time for thinking. Thought went away over 18 years ago, and now governments wage war against humanity in order to save their own sense of sovereignty. We are supposed to be swept up in events like these, not sit back in the comfort of our stadium seat and rationalize a way for these desperate people to simply get along.


Yet there’s another element at play here, something sly and rather underhanded. It is clear that Children of Men is offering up a weird sort of warning sign, telling a social structure that clearly sanctifies all offspring to be careful what they live vicariously through. The notion of biology as a balm has long been a staple of the cinematic experience. Couples are fighting, families are in free fall, the wicked are wearing down the world. Have a baby, and suddenly, everything is lollipops, roses and puffy pink (or blue) clouds. The implication, both from the opening news report on “Baby Diego” and the glimpses we see of other catastrophes, is that without kids, adults go insane. Unhappy, unfulfilled and without a means of channeling their fear of death into something that will theoretically live on, the supposedly more mature members of society become unglued, guiding the populace toward genocide, isolationism and religious radicalism. Both Christians and Muslims get their moment to muck things up (never outwardly, but in the background) and it’s interesting how God becomes an incomplete catalyst. Kee is seen as a miracle, but one only a phantom group of scientists can supposedly help.


In addition, the film forces a confrontation between the diplomatic minded among the liberal set and the far more iron fisted forces in charge. The parallels to Iraq and other recent US foreign policy blunders are more than obvious, and scenes where armed forces battle rebels for control of a refugee facility have a war correspondent feel to their filmmaking. Cuarón keeps his camera fluid during these moments, never letting it settle even in sequences of outrageous histrionics or nail-biting stealth. He also avoids the brave new worldisms of most futuristic films, keeping police state Britain recognizable, with minor touches here and there to amplify the unfamiliarity. In the end though, Children of Men is more about the present than what we can anticipate years from now. It holds up a mirror to our sentimentalized selves and argues that, without a conduit for our care and consideration, we will turn on our fellow man and destroy all civilizing concepts around us. In a year that saw masterpiece works from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a cinematic clinic on how to make images work both as metaphors and movie. Definitely one of 2006’s best, Children of Men helps reinstate the sagging fortunes of serious sci-fi. Too bad all filmmakers can’t be as specific – and sensational – as Cuarón.


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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006


David Lynch would like you to know that Hollywood will drive you to the brink of insanity and that it certainly cannot be trusted. In fact, it could even kill you. Not exactly a subtle way of saying “up yours” to the very industry that professes to love him while still restraining him, but it’s a clever platform from which to launch his latest, most infuriatingly challenging film, Inland Empire.


Mr. Lynch would also like to share with you his penchant for eerily billowing red velvet curtains. And maybe he harbors a pervy little “thing” for lesbian kisses. The point is David Lynch is weird. At least that seems to be the popular opinion. Generally, there is a point to his eccentricity that is simultaneously elusive and obvious: take for example Lynch’s masterful juxtaposition of the benign comings and goings of denizens of a small town called Twin Peaks with the absolute evil of a supernatural force involved in the murder of a homecoming queen. He is able to mix normal with insane quite effortlessly; Lynch is able to wring suspense out of thin air it seems. Inland Empire is the most daring leap of faith Lynch has asked his cultish audience to take: the film is savagely disjointed, more so than any other offering in the maestro’s cannon. It is jam-packed with so many little tidbits of trademark Lynch-isms that after a certain point you will either just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow or you will hate it. A compelling argument could be made either way, honestly. It all depends on you, the viewer.


Beginning with a hooker and her john making a deal in an Eastern European hotel room, Inland Empire starts out vaguely disturbing almost immediately, and continues for a totally incomprehensible three hours of mind-boggling, awesome nonsense. It somehow weaves together Polish gypsies, a woman with a screwdriver protruding from her gut, and human-sized rabbits on some sort of terrifying sitcom. It’s easy to get lost in all of the bizarre-o details that sometimes don’t really add up to anything. For example, why is star Laura Dern in a hotel room watching a gaggle of whores doing a song and dance routine to “The Loco Motion”? The answer? Who cares? It’s perverse, stupid, and enthralling. You’re not going to see this at the multiplex next to the new Mel Gibson movie and you’re not going to see Reese Witherspoon puking up a torrential amount of blood in her next starring vehicle any time soon, I bet. Inland Empire doesn’t intend to reveal any promises or any explanations. It is a relentless, bleak, and uncompromising film that demands the rigorous participation of it’s viewer’s imagination.


While he might be “weird” according to most people, Lynch is the only American director who elevates the medium to this kind of art form: one that isn’t necessarily polished or beautiful (the film was shot entirely on digital video and each scene was written immediately before it was performed), and one that provokes extreme expressive reactions. He has created his own cinematic language and signature style that is unmistakable, and with Inland Empire Lynch raises the standards he helped to set. Comparisons to everything from Lynch’s own Lost Highway, to silent German cinema and classic ‘40s film noir are applicable here. True to form, Lynch returns to the struggle between good and evil forces, and their mysterious connections to his characters, only this time he manipulates the concepts of reality and identity in an aggressive, almost menacing way that he only began to touch on in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a movie which serves as a nice companion piece to the proceedings.


While Mulholland Drive is the sort of mystery that, while inexplicable in it’s own right (and also a damning exploration of theme of Hollywood as a brutal mistress), it can be at least partially explained with plausible theories or tidy little answers, Inland Empire doesn’t really afford it’s viewer that luxury: some things just don’t connect, and you will just have deal with it.


Characters appear and disappear without much notice (and are played by such luminaries as Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Mary Steenburgen, Justin Theroux, and William H. Macy). There are wild shifts in time and reality, which when you are flashing between ‘30’s Poland and the troubled emotional life of a character played by an actress in a film within a film, gets a little perplexing. There is an absurdly long sequence in which a rusty screwdriver is wielded by more than one character in a manic, murderous way. This lends an air of ominous unpredictability to the film that feels thrilling some times, exasperating others. Surely there is some sort of connection of these seemingly random events (in the mind of Lynch), but to enjoy this film, such mundane conventions must be abandoned.


What essentially glues Lynch’s jagged pieces together is Dern’s tremendous performance. In her third outing with Lynch over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1986 with Blue Velvet and their 1990 collaboration Wild at Heart), Dern’s Inland Empire work marks a turning point in her career as an actress: she is fearlessly committed to a performance that is like nothing else you will see this year. She begins the film as a sort of innocuous, prim actress named Nikki (who lives in a cold, luxurious home, and is trying to land a dream role), and ends up as someone else entirely: a character known as “Sue”, who at one point is covered in filth and blood, laying in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard screaming “I’m a whore, I’m a freak”.


When Nikki gets the part and throws herself into her character, Dern splits her dual identity into so many different personalities that it is impossible to categorize them all: is she a hooker or an actress? Who is real, the actress or the character? Soon she unable to answer that question for herself (“Look at me. Tell me if you recognize me from somewhere”, she says at one point). Co-Producer Dern is capable of navigating all of these wild shifts and nuances with such skill and depth that is impossible to think of any other actress of her generation being capable of doing such an experimental, gutsy part. This is a performance that has some outrageous demands: grotesquerie, murderous rage, romanticism, and humor are among a tiny fraction of the multitude of tasks Dern seems to breeze through in a complicated, ferociously well-thought out performance.


Dern matches Lynch measure for measure in artistry, each of them working at top form. Their collaboration here will no doubt be dismissed by a disappointing amount of people as being typical Lynch weirdness, but if it is an atypical parade of horrifying surrealism that you’re after, Inland Empire is the film for you. His images may be positively harrowing (just take, for one example, the gorgeous black and white shot of a needle skipping on a record player), and his motives may be unclear, but if you blindly trust David Lynch to take you on an emotional artistic journey, you will not be let down. This is the only film this year to be so unapologetic in its artiness and so confident in its lack of vanity, and coming from a heavy-hitter like Lynch, it packs a powerful punch. It is unquestionably a most refreshing, nasty little change from all of the boring coherence and relentless sparkle of the holiday film season’s current offerings.


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