Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006)

“He never changes, he just reveals.”

This statement, uttered by one of the two character’s Laura Dern plays in David Lynch’s new cinematic nightmare Inland Empire, can also describe the enigmatic director himself. Lynch has always been an allusive artistic force, and with Inland Empire he constantly reveals different representations of inner turmoils often addressed in his other film’s, specifically the duality and conflict of female representation within the Hollywood studio system, achieved more tragically and convincingly in Mulholland Drive. But Inland Empire is a revelation, at least for most of it’s 3 hour 15 minute running time. Consisting of multiple realities, a dynamic and hypnotic score by Lynch himself, and a mesmerizing set of performances by Laura Dern, Inland Empire functions as Lynch’s most complex and dubious mind fuck, an inclusive, specialty blow out for Lynch followers and cult film fans alike. One can’t help to feel people will look long and hard at Inland Empire and try and “figure it out”. I think it’s best left as an emotional experience, not a narrative puzzle.Inland Empire represents Lynch’s first feature film foray into digital photography, creating a sometimes muddy merging of mise-en-scene and a sometimes shockingly strident glow within interiors. I can’t say I prefer it to the layered, wonderfully composed images of his earlier work, but this strategy fits perfectly with Inland Empire as an experience. Lynch utilizes the grainy look of Inland Empire in multiple ways; first using this imperfection of image as a succinct parallel to the many character’s breaking psychosis’, second as a blurring of the many different sphere’s of reality Lynch wishes to explore, and thirdly, and probably most importantly, as a fuzzy reminder of the fluidity storytelling and filmmaking can have, and so often lack in today’s Hollywood system. Inland Empire exists on a grad scale, maybe too big for the film’s own good, opening doors as other’s close, light’s turning off and on as easily as faces blur, character’s recognizing their own faulty outlook on reality. Lynch pits his camera, often from behind/OTS, and in extreme wide angle close-up, more as a way of confronting the fragility of both the character’s and the actor’s playing them in the movie within a movie. Lynch wants to mess with the viewer, in turn calling into question whether or not film can transcend dreams or nightmares. I’d argue Lynch comes close to doing both.While a fascinating ride through a great artist’s mind, Inland Empire is above all a bloated creation. It’s running time and redundancy are exhausting, compelling the viewer to hold tight as multiple scenes play out over and over again with various differences in tone. However stifling, these moments fit perfectly within Lynch’s ideal fun-house, and it’s up to the viewer to go all in or shrivel up and hide. One gets the sense Lynch, who is apparently handling distributing himself, has finally attained the freedom/control he’s desired throughout his career. I’m not sure this situation has created the masterpiece most critics have called his latest venture. But I’d go as far as saying Inland Empire demands to be seen, multiple times maybe, and experienced for the enthralling mixture of German expressionism and Neo-noir it accomplishes beautifully. Above all, Lynch has crafted a lofty and fascinating tale of the many lost souls enhabiting/fighting to survive within the City of Angels, a place that can harbor the best of times, but mostly the worst ones you could ever imagine. I just hope David Lynch reveals a little more change in the future.

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Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)

David Lynch has a way of expressing mood like no other director I’ve come across. In Blue Velvet, his mise-en-scene is textured with specific qualities existing primarily to advance atmosphere over story, something he even delves deeper later in his career in my favorite Lynch film Mulholland Drive. What strikes me about this viewing of Blue Velvet (a film I hadn’t seen since high school), has to do with Lynch’s use of sound and music as cues to character’s impressions, desires, and ultimately changes in perspective. Even Frank’s sniffs on the oxygen tank reveal character, each horrific gasp a glimpse into his monstrous and unexamined upbringing. Lynch’s obsessions with the fringes of the mind have never been more colorful or controlling than in Blue Velvet, the last scene with the bug in the bird’s mouth a prime example of a hidden, disturbed underground constantly knocking on the front door of the “normal” American family. Brilliant.

The Gladiators (Watkins, 1969)

Impressive for its scope and range of critiques concerning highly important global issues, specifically the globalization of entertainment, military agenda’s seen through the lens of popular culture, and the impotency of reactionary forces against right wing hierarchies. In the future, the fictional “Peace Games” pits different countries against each other in a sort of Olympics/Roman Gladiators, a substitute for modern warfare and an attempt to attain international synergy through popular live television (kind of like Surivor, but with guns). Great idea, but Watkins’ film is incredibly disjointed, a jumble of fascinating situations cut together without any clear cut backbone or structure. Allies square off against the Communists, but very little human contact occurs, instead an unseen machine coordinates attacks between the rival forces. Feels like a lack of budget hindered Watkins from going all out, but he does foresee countless modern day complexities between war and entertainment which feel even more important today. Peter Watkins is a visionary, and The Gladiators shows his brilliant use of montage (toward the end he uses still photographs reminiscent of La Jetee). But Watkins’ pseudo-documentary style has been more effective elsewhere, namely his devastating The War Game.

The Pursuit of Happyness (Muccino, 2006)

We have very few true movies stars today, actors that can overcome generic scripts and direction to create a dynamic impression on the viewers hearts and minds. In my mind, the short list includes Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, maybe Julia Roberts still, and Will Smith. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith plays Chris Gardner, a hardworking father and husband who’s life and livelihood go through a multitude of harsh realities checks, some because of bad luck, bad timing, or a lack of opportunity. Chris, a beacon of hope and perseverance, never gives up, and the film is weakest when this theme is pounded into the ground during the second act. Thankfully, Will Smith radiates an earnestness rarely seen in Hollywood today. Casting Smith’s real life son Jaden in the movie is a brilliant coup, not only allowing Smith to gain a personal connection with the material but inciting countless interactions between father and son which feel honest, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful. While not a transcendent piece, The Pursuit of Happyness is devoted to many ideas concerning luck, hope, and hard work, and how closely all three are tied together. Because of these messages, and Smith’s enthralling presence, the film offers gratitude for a man determined to raise his son the right way, his lessons born out of care and experience, lessons we can all learn from in some form or fashion.

The Road to Guantanamo (Winterbottom, 2006)

Truly horrifying if even half of the material concerning a real life case of torture and miscommunication is remotely true. Mixing documentary interviews with fictional recreations always raises red flags with me, mainly because of the mirroring and preaching affect it has on the viewer. I almost wish Winterbottom went with one style or the other. Still, an incredibly well made film, the progression of the narrative both hallucinatory and easily believable, if not altogether based out of a breakdown in common sense. I mean, come on guys, going into Afghanistan to “help” a month after 9/11? The early part of the film seems to be as much a critique of international helplessness in the face of Western pressures than anything else. But the real substance comes from the second half, where the three English Pakistani narrators get to witness our current incarnation of American foreign policy at work, with all of it’s inhumane, gory details coming into focus. For all it’s conflicted sensationalism in terms of substance and style, The Road to Guantanamo is still a must see example of grand, conflicted political filmmaking.

Blood Diamond (Zwick, 2006)

While on screen Leonardo DiCaprio flat out demands the viewer’s eye and without his Danny Archer, a conflicted South African mercenary turned diamond smuggler, Blood Diamond would be little more than a bogus Hollywood expose of social ills occurring thousands of miles away. His Archer is complicated, flawed, and unpredictable, a great anti-hero and foil to Djimon Hounsou’s Solomon Vandy, a noble fisherman in search of his kidnapped son in Sierra Leone circa 1999. A civil war rages between the seldom seen and ineffective government troops and the viscous rebel forces who needlessly slaughter villagers and journalists alike (one would think even America would take notice after a whole bus full of foreign writers are killed). Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire), Blood Diamond rightly emphasizes every important moment on these two men, Archer’s crafty will to live making an obvious compliment to Vandy’s quest to find his son, who has been brainwashed into being a child soldier for the rebel army. But this long, sometimes tedious film relies too heavily on it’s actors to push the story along, slowly adding to a falseness in narrative, outweighing the good intentions the filmmakers clearly had in bringing this sordid and brutal conflict into focus. More to the aesthetic point, the booming score heightens just at the right moments, the tears fall just in the right places, and only a few scenes ring true (the moment of truth between Vandy and his son is heart-wrenching mainly because of Hounsou’s acting skill). Which brings me back to Leo, who continues to amaze me with his adept ways of expressing sadness and grief without shedding a tear. He’s a craftsman who I’d follow into any story at this point. I think he’s the best we’ve got right now, and it’s a testament to his acting chops Blood Diamond works at all.

The Descent (Marshall, 2006)

I have an unabashed love for Neil Marshall’s schlock masterpiece Dog Soldiers, a brutal and bloody mini-epic which pits a platoon of Scottish soldiers against a legion of uber werewolves. Swords, machine guns, and beautiful campy dialogue; “pure joy” as my best bud Andy astutely stated after our first viewing. Now, with a better production value and increased expectations, Marshall gives us The Descent, a well crafted, tensely paced story about a group of women spelunkers who come across…well, I let you find out for yourselves…because these creatures are pretty creepy. But The Descent is somewhat of a letdown from the glorious mayhem of Dog Soldiers, instead tightly focusing on both space and angle, the cave locations acting as a multitude of metaphors for the women’s descent into madness (take your pick between womb, soul, hell). Each heroine, typical in character and motivation, show their true colors when hard pressed to survive, and it’s just as scary as the creatures themselves. The battle scenes at the end of the film require multiple viewings alone, not only for Marshall’s excellent use of faint color and harsh contrast in sound, but for their direct parallel to the characters inner workings. Moments of pure joy.