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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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Wednesday, Nov 8, 2006


Sometimes, it’s hard for a critic to sum up his or her feelings about a film. It usually occurs on those rare occasions – and they are indeed few and far between – when a movie literally makes you forget all the reasons why you are viewing – and eventually reviewing it - in the first place. The narrative catches you completely off guard, the plotting provides more intrigue and enjoyment than you could have possibly imagined. Even better, the themes and emotional underpinnings which motivate the expertly drawn characters are so involving and deep that, before you know it, you’ve completely forgotten about deadlines, word count and being a clever cinematic scholar. All you care about is the spellbinding experience in front of you. This is indeed what happened to me as I settled in to take on Christopher Nolan’s latest mindblowing masterwork, The Prestige. After 135 minutes of nearly flawless filmmaking, it is safe to say that I had lost all concept of critical impartiality. This film is, without a doubt, one of 2006’s greatest artistic achievements.


Nolan, a motion picture non-entity nine years ago when he arrived on the scene with his whimsical short Doodlebug, argues for his place among the seemingly small class of post-modern, post-millennial auteurs with this fascinating, finely tuned effort. With only five full length feature films under his belt – 1998’s Following, 2000’s Memento, 2002’s Insomnia, 2005’s Batman Begins and now The Prestige – this amazingly gifted Brit continues to baffle as well as make believers out of fans who just can’t figure out how he does it. Before he came along, the murder mystery was seen as an old fashioned b-movie subject. But Memento‘s backwards narrative audacity avoided obvious gimmickry to redefine the genre and become an exceptionally fine film. Similarly, big budget superhero movies were a dime a couple dozen in the free-spending Hollywood of the last decade, and yet Nolan managed to make Batman viable again by positing The Dark Knight with a real and recognizable psychological underpinning. The result? One of last year’s best efforts.


And now we have The Prestige. How does one begin to describe how delicate and demanding this movie is? How to be respectful without resorting to full bore film geek love. It is safe to say that the remarkable ensemble cast that Nolan compiles – including award worthy turns from Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and, believe it or not, David Bowie – is matched in majesty only by the brilliant script adaptation that the director and his screenwriting brother Jonathan carved out of Christopher Priest’s prized novel. This is not a film about how certain tricks are accomplished (though we do learn a few secrets along the way), nor is it merely the tale of an increasingly antagonist rivalry between two talented magicians. Instead, The Prestige takes its title literally, asking us to believe in the power that stature and esteem has over two dark, desperate men, to witness how far both will go to achieve it for themselves…and more importantly, prevent it from happening for the other. The plot is complex, weaving in and out of obsession, doubt, ovations and despair. In Nolan’s completely capable hands, what could have been muddled or melodramatic is monumental – and quite moving.


This is indeed the kind of experience one goes to the movies for. It’s escape, but not the pure popcorn and eye candy kind. Like a rich meal or a decedent desert, The Prestige is the kind of motion picture meal you savor, a movie that requires your utmost indulgence to deliver maximum satisfaction. If a cutthroat competition between two incredibly multifaceted men that skips across time and place to deliver its layers of intrigue and eventual decisive denouements leaves you cold, if you would rather see a pretty period piece, unevenly executed and lacking a real feel for the era in question, then by all means avoid The Prestige and pick out something else to spend your hard earned leisure lira on. But if you don’t mind a test, if you’re up for experiencing the sights, the smells, and the sensations of a turn of the century world, if brilliant acting by performers getting completely lost in their characters fills you with the kind of cinematic joy that’s rare in this pre-packaged and focus grouped entertainment environment, then this is the film for you. It is indeed rare when a movie can make your forget the very reasons why you came to the theater in the first place. Like all the elements that make up this stellar motion picture, it is all part of The Prestige‘s amazing magic.


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Monday, Aug 7, 2006


On paper, Little Miss Sunshine plays like a joke with a punch line no one wants to hear. What do you get when you take a failed inspirational speaker, a suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin addicted grandfather, a depressed teenager, and a driven to the edge mother and her daughter, pack them all in a Volkswagen van, and send them traveling to California for a beauty pageant? Well, in anyone else’s hands, a formulaic, predictable film in which life lessons are learned and everything is wrapped up in a neat, little bow. However, in the hands of husband and wife directors, Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, using a first time script by Michael Arndt, the result is a moving, hilarious and raw examination of family who can’t stand each other, but need each other all the same.


Blessed with an astonishing ensemble performance by a cast that includes Steve Carell (who steps comfortably into a dramatic role without the baggage that someone like Robin Williams brings to similar endeavors), Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine is ostensibly about a wacky trip to a beauty pageant for six and seven year olds. But in taking us there, it tackles with honesty and clarity the dreams that sustain these characters, as well as the lies they tell themselves to keep going, avoid reality and dodge the pain of failure. Dayton and Faris get all the details, big and small, with a bull’s-eye precision. From an opening scene at the dinner table, in which mismatched plates and cups are set out for a take-out fried chicken dinner, to a remarkably touching sequence in a diner in which the family convinces a weight concerned, potential beautiful queen, to eat her ice cream, the directors keep the film from slipping into contrived emotions or obvious showdowns.


Little Miss Sunshine offers the kind of movie experience that is extremely rare at the summer multiplex. It traverses its territory and treats its audience with intelligence and caring, offering huge laughs and equally sized tears. You will leave the theatre fulfilled, not because these characters all meet happy endings, but because sometimes life is complicated, shitty, hilarious and unpredictable—something that Dayton and Faris got completely right.


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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006


What makes Clerks II one of the best movies of the summer? Is it the focus on interspecies erotica? The discussions centering on body parts that aren’t necessarily supposed to be combined? Maybe it’s the mindless debate over which is better—Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—or the pop culture poetry of hearing the Go-Bots referred to as the “K-Mart of Transformers”. Whatever the rationale, writer/director Kevin Smith has done the impossible: he stayed true to his original black and white opus from 1991, while successfully arguing for the value of sequels. It turns what could have been bothersome into pure cinematic bliss.


You don’t have to be a member of the filmmaker’s fanboy View Askew universe to appreciate the many insular intricacies present. Smith has always been known for his clever, cutting scripts, but elements like emotion and context occasionally escape his grasp. With this return to Randall and Dante’s slacker domain, replete with familiar faces (Jay and Silent Bob) and wonderful new additions (Trevor Fehrman’s fantastic Elias, Rosario Dawson’s dynamic Becky) Smith discovers new layers to explore. He acknowledges the passing of time, allowing what seemed like a reasonable lifestyle choice a decade ago to now come across as lazy and aimless. By using throwback musical moments (the Jackson Five’s “ABC”, The Smashing Pumpkins “1979”) to underscore his viewpoint, he even manages to move us.


Some may say that every Kevin Smith movie is the same. Take a few dozen of his obsessions, mix them with a heaping helping of foul language, and stir in some scatological silliness just to spice things up, and there you have it. Unfortunately, such a simplistic description doesn’t even begin to address Clerks II’s many significant joys. Before it gets bumped out of theaters, treat yourself to one of the best collections of dirty diatribes you’ll even overhear. The art of conversation may indeed be dying, but with Kevin Smith around, there’s hope for the verbal life skill yet.


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Monday, Jul 31, 2006

The early press on Edmond has focused largely on the screenplay’s racial and violent content, but very little on its actual themes. Scripted by David Mamet and based on his 1982 play written in the wake of a divorce, the film’s politically incorrect language and bursts of bloodshed are merely asides to a darkly brilliant exploration into how men define their masculinity.


Edmond Burke, in yet another fantastic performance by William H. Macy, decides one day to leave his wife. He no longer loves her, he’s bored, he’s wasted his life. That’s it. Where another film would’ve spent another half hour carefully outlining all the reasoning, Edmond throws its audience, along with it’s titular lead character, into a single night in which he will try to wrest some control from a life he feels he no longer directs. Feeling completely emasculated, he ventures into New York City’s underbelly to find something that will make him feel like a man again.


Edmond’s journey finds him trying to assert himself sexually, violently, financially and otherwise with results that are shocking, hilarious and disturbing, sometimes all at the same time. The morally corrupted schemers and lowlifes that are usually the focus of Mamet’s work are merely catalysts here for Edmond’s rite of passage. And though written in the ‘80s, it thematically not only addresses masculinity but simply how we communicate in society that values capitalism over personal relationships.


The film itself is very good, with some wonderful supporting roles—particularly by Joe Mantegna and Mena Suvari. However, Edmond misses being great due to merely competent direction. Helmed by Stuart Gordon, best known for his ‘80s cult hit Re-Animator, his over-the-top, distracting gore and unsure hand with some of the dramatic scenes (particularly the sequence involving Macy and Suvari) are disappointing. Even Macy’s makeup for the final act of the film elicited laughter from the audience, and it’s unfortunate, because the closing scenes bring the Edmond and its themes to an astonishing close. One wonders at the masterpiece Edmond could’ve been in the hands of a more seasoned dramatic director, or in those of Mamet himself.


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