Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Drive by reviews - Inland Empire, Bubble, Down in the Valley

Inland Empire (d. David Lynch): C+

* An inversion of Mulholland Dr. If the earlier film was the desperate starlet fantasy of a depressive never-was, this is the nightmare of a Hollywood has-been. Except Inland Empire, like Lost Highway before it (and unlike the more conventional Mulholland Dr.) annihilates narrative logic, collapsing dream and reality, past and future, backstory and story, actor and character. Everything's wrapped up in one. Or to put it more precisely: Inland Empire employs Lost Highway's radical anti-narrative-logic framework to get at Mulholland Dr.'s deeper emotional truths, the anguish culled from the dreams of those actresses destroyed or abandoned by the Dream Factory and left to rot on Hollywood Blvd.

It all sounds so awesome...in theory. And if Lynch had made this film with much greater care, instead of stringing together a host of individually awesome or tedious scenes (read: rabbit sitcom) into a frustrating mish-mash, this would indeed be the Lynch movie to end all Lynch movies. But as it is, it's an indulgent misfire, too visually ugly and incoherent to finally work as the kind of transcendental artistic experience its scores of supporters claim for it. As with Terrence Malick's The New World, Inland Empire is a signature piece that showcases its maker's singular talents -- and most glaring flaws -- in all their naked glory. Guess what I'm trying say is that there's such a thing as too much, and the movie's just too Lynchian.

* Look, I'm not one of those people who needs to have something "make sense". Both Lost Highway and Fire Walk With Me floor you with the wtf? moments, but even when they're operating wholly on Lynchian anti-logic, they're visual-aural pleasures. Lynch is perhaps most audio-centric of the great stylists, and while his genius for sound-design remain evident in Inland Empire, his newfound obsession with low-grade DV imagery is really quite tragic. It's as if, in middle age, Vladimir Horowitz decided that he will perform publicly only on a Casio starter keyboard. Notably distracting were the careless, or perhaps deliberately artless compositions and sloppy camera movements, which suggests that the much touted "freedom" that DV provides might prove to be too much of a good thing.

* How do you know if someone is a Lynch cultist-fanboy who will lap up anything with the David Lynch appellation? When they start to tell you how our nightmares are supposed to look exactly like the images captured by the Sony PD-150. It's one thing to say that the low-grade DV has interesting effects, such as stretching and flattening faces in close-up (though a wide-angle lens will give you the same gargoyle effect, no?) or the creepy mood evoked by the desaturated, pixellated imagery. But when you start suggesting that nightmares are supposed to look like low-grade DV, which includes not just the aforementioned (all of which can be replicated by a much better camera), but the poor color contrasts, the abysmally shallow depths of field, and just plain ugliness, you're in nutbar territory.

* How amazing was Laura Dern in this movie?

Bubble (d. Steven Soderbergh): B-

Back when I frequented the arcades, I'd always run into that one virtuoso gamer who wanted to show that he can kick my ass using every Street Fighter II character. He might challenge first with the unplayable Dhalsim, drilling me to death. Then this fucker might intentionally dump a match just to challenge again with a different character, maybe savagely piledriving my ass silly with the awkward Zangief. Can Steven Soderbergh really be taking his career cues from a 5'7" Vietnamese gamer? Consider Soderbergh's output since Y2k: (1) a solemn, demanding Tarkovsky remake; (2) a Dogme '95 guerrilla project that lampoons celebrity culture; (3) a jokey, star-studded Topkapi-style caper; (4) a self-referential, Lestereque goof disguised as a blockbuster sequel; (5) a simulacrum of a 40s Warner Brothers programmer; and this, an indie working class portrait by way of late Bresson. Eclectic doesn't do it justice. It's as if the dude wants to spend his life proving that he can do anything in any style, creating an oeuvre that recalls that chapter in Ulysses where Joyce imitates various historical prose styles from Chaucer to Gibbons to Dickens. But hey, if anyone can succeed as a chameleon-auteur, it's Soderbergh (surely before Winterbottom, anyway).

But while the rigor of Bubble is quite admirable, there doesn't seem to be a point except for the formal challenge of it. On a formal level, it's superb, a beautifully austere film, shot in a tableaux vivants style designed to minimize the degree of difficulty for the non-professional cast. And if you eat up exquisitely composed shots of factory work -- and I do (it's not for nothing that this picture is one of my all-time faves) -- this is a little slice of heaven. Those disquieting shots of the disembodied doll heads, held for three or four seconds, are especially memorable.

But I'm afraid that the S-man is in danger of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. The movie stumbles when it pivots from an observational slice-of-life mode to a thoroughly unconvincing murder mystery, in effect shifting into a half-assed L'Humanite (albeit a less retarded one but without Dumont's mythoreligious ambitions). Generally, a random, unmotivated murder in the 2nd act is a tell-tale sign of a project desperate for a point. Right on cue, Soderbergh trots out this old standby to get this formal gambit-in-search-of-story from A to B. Watching something like Bubble makes me more fully appreciate the Dardennes' movies all the more. Soderbergh observes these working class characters from a lofty perch, like a marine biologist studying the mating habits of sea cucumbers. But he doesn't really get these people. The Dardennes make movies on the ground level, blending astutely observed behavioral detail and motivated action into perfectly realized parables of underclass desperation. Go with the guys who know how to do it, I say. Also, I suppose there's the idea that the narrative turns into a kind of hear-me-roar from the most underexposed, oft-ignored American type, the overweight middle-aged Midwestern woman, casually dismissed by pretty young things at their peril. But color me unimpressed: remember when Kathy Bates performed this kind of "narrative seizure" in Misery? Not so awesome.

* Check out this weird, Bubble-like story, which is even more insane than the utterly batshit crazy astronaut love triangle story.

Down in the Valley (d. David Jacobson): B

* I'm probably overrating this cowpoke-in-the-Valley story, as it gets pretty stupid down the stretch. Can anyone provide a good rationale for turning Ed Norton's ingratiating cowboy into Travis Bickle? Anyone?

* On one level, the genre self-consciousness is kind of annoying. Undoubtedly, Jacobson has a sophisticated understanding of Westerns, and how the genre will often dramatize a central thematic conflict (among them, individualism v. community values, urban v. rural, civilization v. the "wild", authority v. rebellion/liberty) as a battle between models of masculinity. Think Red River, The Man from Laramie, or The Lusty Men. And I appreciate that he's trying to show his understanding not by blogging about it, but by actually making a weird, contemporary movie stocked with interesting Western tropes. But it doesn't quite work. What's the point of pitting two psychos against one another, a face-off between David Morse's gruff, authoritarian child-abuser vs. Ed Norton's flaky charismatic wacko? Is Jacobson making a critique of father figures, suggesting that the Western's lionization masculine role models is lame? If that's the idea, the movie fails by giving in to sentimentalism. And the My Darling Clementine setpiece? Less said the better.

* But Jacobson's direction is quite superb, nailing the hollowed-out mallscape and the lazy rhythm of the San Fernando Valley -- an ironic endpoint of manifest destiny -- without quite descending into snark. Flanked by endless rows of tract housing and framed in gorgeous CinemaScope, Norton's dress-up cowboy seems almost heroic, like Gary Cooper in Man of the West as he rides into a ghost town. A widescreen movie with visual authority of an Anthony Mann Western? That I like.