Friday, February 16, 2007

Inland Empire (2006)

Writing a review of any new David Lynch film is a dodgy prospect, almost as disturbing to contemplate as the film is to watch. In the case of Inland Empire, the task is especially daunting. Any opinion expressed will be too temperate for either camp—this movie, it seems to me, is a love-it-or-leave-it event. Either it makes no sense at all and is really really long, or it’s a masterpiece of an experimental vision.

Unless, of course, you’re eternally equivocal like me and think it’s… interesting.

Inland Empire is like the last half of Mulholland Drive made by someone who’d been re-watching Eraserhead a lot. And surprisingly enough, aside from some absurdities I believe are meant to be funny and/or just weird, it has a more coherent plot than you might expect from that description. The story follows the making of a film, “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” a remake of a Polish film that never got finished due to the murder of its two leads. The current production is also plagued, but this time by altered reality. Characters and actors conflate and overlap; narratives run into each other; sets are indistinguishable from homes. Laura Dern is the film’s through-line, playing several different characters whose exact number is not clear. I have never liked Dern in anything but Citizen Ruth (because what’s not to like about abortion comedy?) but she is amazing in this film. The rest of the cast, likewise, admirably takes on the trial of weaving these tangled threads. And look terrible doing it.

Because this film, in an echo of Eraserhead’s shoestring budget (though without its arresting visual beauty), was filmed in DV on a “midrange,” consumer-model camera. And it looks like it. Blown up to 35mm for theater viewing, every flaw of digital video is obvious. Dark lines appear at edges; faces look harsh and washed-out; everything has that flat, handheld look of really seriously messed up home movies. And while it looks awful, you don’t really notice after a few minutes, and it’s a lovely message for a filmmaker like Lynch to send to the potential filmmakers of the future. Everything looks like it was filmed by some guy who just happened to be on a movie set while the real movie was being filmed. Which is especially odd when you remember that the movie is about movie-making.

As to the experience itself, it has very little in common with any other evening you can get in a conventional theater. It is exhausting, not only due to its 3 hour length but in the sheer nonlinear nightmarish goings-on. People break out into song. Large rabbit furries appear in a (really awful) play. Random Polish people (from that other production) show up and play their scenes. In Polish. Laura Dern looks anguished. A lot. And while there is a certain logic to the plot as a whole, the events themselves are not designed for easy watching. And this makes most people uncomfortable. Still other people see meaning in the experience itself, the sheer inundation of images and feeling. I feel caught between granting too much meaning to it and cynically assuming Lynch means absolutely nothing. In truth, I think it’s somewhere in the middle: the film has an explanation, but it is not possible to fit everything into a coherent tale.

In the end, as far as I’m concerned, Inland Empire just can’t be codified. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable experience, and if you like your movies to be cozy and fun, this is not for you. But if you want an adventure, and if you’re willing to sit back and let it come to you and not try too hard to figure it all out, you’ll be rewarded. If, that is, unforgettable, uncomfortable experiences are their own reward. Read more!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

“It's only a word,” Ofelia's mother tells her when instructing her daughter to call her new stepfather “papa.” Of course, nothing is ever “only a word” when it comes to fairy tales, even violent and dark ones like this.

Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a young girl trapped in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Her father is dead, her mother remarried, and she is whisked away to a remote mansion-fortress in the country. She has her books—though mother is somewhat contemptuous of her attachment to children's stories. Ofelia sees bugs as fairies and sees life as a set of puzzles to solve. She becomes caught up in a fantasy world of fauns, secret doors, and giant toads. Only in such dark times would this fantasy seem preferable to reality; she is told that she is a lost princess who must complete certain tasks to be taken back, but there is no guarantee her secret world is any better than this one. It just has to be.

As Ofelia navigates between her secret trials and the uncertain quantity of mother's new husband, the rest of the household divides its loyalties and fights their own fight. Everyone has secrets, and everyone is in danger. The film is dark and violent, though gorgeous, and I wish I had seen some other of Guillermo del Toro's films before seeing this one. I might have been prepared, then, for the fact that he is less interested in exploring the fairy world Ofelia is trying to escape to than the one she's trying to escape from. I was expecting more of the labyrinth—the trailers certainly emphasized these elements—and was caught off guard by the real-world focus of the narrative. In the end, it is difficult to determine what really happened and what didn't. It is Amelie in wartime.

But it is all put together beautifully. Ofelia is wonderful, and the rest of the cast seems to move effortlessly through the strange landscape. The cinematography is brilliant as well; there is some exciting editing using the trunks of trees to hide edits between scenes and everything's awash in a gold-green glow that alternately suggests history and fantasy. The film, indeed, bridges that gap naturally. Everything fits, ugly as it may be. Fairy tales were never benign children's stories, and neither is this. Read more!

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Uh oh. Someone's written another comedy about writers! Second-only to comedies about filmmaking in its self-indulgence, this genre is an automatic green-light at production companies. Maybe it's because of that “write what you know” thing, or maybe it's an easy way to appear clever. Dating back to the 20's, Hollywood has considered itself the highest form of entertainment rather than the mere purveyor of such. That's how we get movies like Stranger than Fiction.

What's different about this movie is that despite telling a story-with-a-story that's really kind of stupid, it's not as bad (or pretentious) as it could have been. Despite opening with Will Ferrell brushing his teeth.

Why Will Ferrell? It's almost as if Hollywood has decreed that no comedy shall emerge from that sacred space without Will Ferrell. I don't know why this should be, as he's nothing special—I have no quarrel with him aside from his ubiquity, but is he really that much funnier than everyone else? Did someone see Talladega Nights and insist this was the guy to round out Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Much to my relief, Ferrell is never conspicuously funny in this film, and maybe that's the point his Will and his agent are trying to make. “Look! I'm not just stupid! Remember that cheerleader on SNL? Well don't!”

Anyway. Harold is a very boring IRS agent who sees everything in numbers and has no life. We get to partake in this with translucent numbers and graphics laid over the film reminiscent of effects used in the South Korean film Please Take My Cat, among others. One day, as Harold is counting his toothbrush strokes, he hears a British lady narrating this activity. He stops. So does she. He starts again. As does she. This continues through the next several days: as Harold goes about his business, he hears it played back at him. What follows is one of those “I'm not crazy!” movies where he discovers, eventually, that someone is actually writing a book about him and is going to kill him off. The character, that is. But if he's the character, doesn't that mean he'll die?

All of this, including an unlikely romance between IRS agent and liberal tax-dodging baker, comes off pretty standard. There aren't many surprises. But I found it very entertaining for a few reasons. Mostly because it was like a less pretentious and more commercial version of I Heart Huckabees, which has a similar existential theme but took itself way seriously while being conspicuously funnier. (And yes, I know I was supposed to like Huckabees. I didn't.) But on top of that, there were little touches here and there which showed that someone had actually written it.

For instance, I liked when Harold decides to start narrating himself. And when he and his love interest, the really attractive Maggie G, are filmed conversing over the weird effect of the middle of a double-length bus, where it accordions in and out and which holds a personal fascination for me. Or when he comes over for dinner and rises to help her with the dishes, only to have her say, “Don't worry about it, I'm only putting them in the sink.” That is natural. That is something people would say to each other. And stuff like that hardly ever makes it into the movies.

Now, the big logical problem I have with the story is that Emma Thompson narrates everything except Harold's discovery that he's a character. So if she knows everything going on in his life, whether she's controlling him or he's controlling her narrative, she should be aware of him screaming at the heavens for her to shut up. Furthermore, without the parts where Harold's screaming at the heavens for her to shut up, it's a really boring story. This would not be a movie if he wasn't aware of his status as a character in it. But we're led to believe she's this brilliant novelist who gets college courses taught about her work. This would imply that this screenplay, too, is as good as her book. Which would actually put her somewhere just above “hack” in the hierarchy of writers. I don't know about you, but for me credibility is lacking. But then, I sometimes forget we're supposed to ignore paradox. What do I want for $3 at the second-run theater?

Actually, this movie is perfect for a second-run theater. Solid value, not too much thought, but satisfying on a weeknight. Come to think of it, my narrator wouldn't have a lot to say about me, either. Read more!

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Once upon a time, there lived a queen who had lots of shoes, did almost nothing, and never said “let them eat cake.” Sofia Coppola, who had made a really very good film a few years earlier about people who weren’t doing anything but were still self-aware enough to be kind of worried about it, decided her follow-up would be about this queen, except wait! She’d put early 80’s new-wave songs into the soundtrack, in case we had trouble relating to Kirsten Dunst in a period costume.

Just so you know where I stand on the issue, using “I Want Candy” in any movie is pretty much a cop-out, a gesture as empty as the puffed pastries and shoes the song is used to illustrate. I can’t imagine what I’m supposed to learn by this juxtaposition which is more of a shallow reiteration—is it that Marie Antoinette was a party girl who liked nice things? Amazing! Now, if Coppola had decided that New Order was the perfect commentary on the excesses of the pre-Revolutionary French court, then fine. I can roll with that, but she has to work for it. It doesn’t even seem like she’s making a comment on the early 80’s, as far as I can tell. It might have been cool if she’d used more MTV techniques, or integrated the anachronism in a ballsier fashion, but she didn’t. It just seems tacked-on.

The movie does a good job of showing us the utter otherworldliness of life at Versailles. Antoinette clearly has no idea what goes on outside the palace grounds. Trouble is, neither do we. For a film about someone who was the ultimate victim of class warfare, there’s a shocking lack of class discussion in it. A lot of time is spent not exploring why the king can’t get it up for Dunst, and then pow! the natives are restless, and coming for you! In a way, I suppose we’re as isolated as the royals from the unrest of the people, and that’s valid I suppose. But the absence of intrigue is almost total, and a cursory examination of the wikipedia article on the queen will reveal lots of juicy note-passing and backstabbing that’s apparently hardly worth mentioning. But would have made a more interesting film.

Coppola’s point seems to be that Marie was a hapless victim of national upheaval; irresponsible but oh such fun! But she doesn’t even address the family’s downfall; the first third of the film is an effective and attractive portrayal of a girl forced to “grow up” fast without ever really doing so, and then it dissolves into an eventless evocation of a rather boring life interrupted in time for the credits. Marie Antoinette actually got pretty interesting at this point, which makes the ending a confusing decision on the director’s part.

It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with the film. It’s more that not much is really satisfyingly right, either. Everyone does well, and it’s pretty, and the soundtrack is fun. But the only way I can call the film successful is if the purpose was to make me feel profoundly indifferent to it. Which pretty much still makes it unsuccessful, I’m afraid. Read more!