Doodad Kind of Town

"No Country for Old Men," Charlie Wilson update
December 29, 2007, 7:39 pm
Filed under: Coen Brothers

I’m a little late to the party on “No Country for Old Men.” It’s been kicking around the multiplexes for awhile; I’ve been avoiding it as part of my larger quest to stay away from violent, depressing movies. But once I saw “Sweeney Todd,” I had to consider my boycott of all things bleak and bloody to be effectively over, so it was time to take in the Coen Brothers’ latest opus.

Some disclosures: I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel on which this film is based, nor have I ever seen the Coens’ “Blood Simple” or “Miller’s Crossing.” So I can’t evaluate “No Country for Old Men” in terms of either its source material or of the Coens’ most closely related work.

That being said, I found “No Country for Old Men” to be nearly brilliant at times, maddening at others, and ultimately lacking in any kind of cohesive center. There’s a soullessness to the film that goes beyond the moral emptiness of its main characters, and little indication of who we’re supposed to root for in a story that is as bleak as the parched Texas landscapes on which it takes place.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting on the West Texas prairie one afternoon when he stumbles upon a murder scene, bloodied bodies scattered among abandoned pickup trucks, along with a stash of heroin. He ignores the pleas for help of the one man still alive at the scene, and takes a pistol from the hand of one of the dead men, plus a satchel containing two million dollars in cash.

Moss moves through this very matter-of-factly, with no hesitation and no indication whatsoever that he might be weighing the possible consequences of his actions. Later though, feeling remorseful about failing to help the survivor, Moss returns to the scene. But others arrive, shooting at Moss and unleashing a pit bull to to attack him. He escapes, but puts his young wife (Kelly MacDonald) on the next bus to her mother’s house in Odessa, and goes on the lam himself.

Of course, someone is coming after him: a hired gun named Anton Chigurh (Jaiver Bardem), a ruthless, soulless killing machine in a bizarre Dutch-boy haircut. Bardem is one of the scariest psychopaths I’ve seen in a long time – not so much cold, but single-minded and frighteningly efficient in pursuit of his prey. He does away with a number of sweet, hapless Texans who in their unfailing politeness and eagerness to help are unable to grasp the depths of his depravity. (Thus we get the Coens’ usual lineup of amusing character cameos, but this time they all end in bloodshed.)

Tommy Lee Jones is Sherriff Tom Bell, who tries to hunt down Chigurh and save Moss. Jones brings an eloquent sense of suffering and world-weariness to his role; there’s a sadness etched into his face which indicates he’s seen too many terrible things in his years on the force and feels the weight of it closing in on him. It’s both suggested and told to us outright (in Jones’ opening narration) that Bell has been broken by the culmination of years of dealing with ever-greater, ever less comprehensible evil. But his journey from idealism and innocence to cruel reality isn’t echoed elsewhere in the film, and doesn’t seem entirely connected to the rest of this particular story.

I keep hearing that Brolin is brilliant in his role, but I can’t see that either. I have no clue why Moss decided to take the money and run. I mean, sure, it’s two million dollars and all – but after you watch Moss get shot at by Chigurgh over and over, repeatedly wounded and repeatedly forced to flee, you’ve gotta ask “DUDE! What were you thinking?” (I’m reminded of Marge Gunderson’s bewildered rumination at the end of “Fargo”: “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? “). I had no sympathy for his character, and after a while, no patience for him either. There’s never a redemptive moment for Moss, let alone a moment in which the clue phone rings and he actually picks up! He’s let unstoppable evil into his life by taking that satchel of cash, but he sadly never seems to grasp that. Perhaps that’s as intended. But I think I can be forgiven for wanting either Brolin or the Coens to show us the wheels turning inside Moss’ head


A day after seeing “Charlie Wilson’s War,” I stumbled upon a History Channel special, “The True Story of Charlie Wilson’s War.” It’s unfortunate that it won’t be aired again soon, because it’s a great companion piece to the film. There are interviews with the real Wilson and Joanne Herring, but the damnedest thing is this: not only is the film very true to the actual events, but some events that were omitted in the film are even more dramatic that what was left in. (Wilson committed a drunken hit-and-run on the night before he was scheduled to leave for a critical fund-raising junket in Pakistan, nearly lost a re-election bid, and suffered congenitive heart failure during the years when he was working to obtain arms for the Afghans. None of that made it into the movie.)

Most amazing of all: Wilson really did watch Dan Rather’s report on Afghanistan while soaking a in a Caesar’s Palace hot tub with three strippers. I’d have sworn that scene was an invention of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but it turns out – it’s all true!

"Charlie Wilson’s War"
December 27, 2007, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Mike Nichols

I wanted to like “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but mostly it just made me uneasy.

With Mike Nichols in the director’s chair, and Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles, I knew I was in for some slick, sophisticated, well-acted entertainment. But it left a distinctly sour taste in my mouth afterwards.

Wilson was the Texas congressman who obtained funding for a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan – a war that the Afghan mujahideen, equipped with American-supplied weapons and training, eventually won. It led directly to the end of the cold war and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which most people would agree were desirable outcomes in the short run. But six years after 9/11, we all know to what end those weapons and training were eventually applied. As the quote from Wilson which is framed in the film’s final shot reminds us: “We fucked up the endgame.”

Tom Hanks plays Wilson with a blend of rascally charm and soulful conviction. Wilson was a boozer and a ladies’ man (he explains the universal comeliness of his congressional staff thus: “You can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em how to grow tits”), but also a dedicated liberal of genuine political conscience. The opening scene, in which Wilson watches Dan Rather’s coverage of Afghanistan intently while soaking in a Vegas hot tub with three strippers, establishes Wilson’s moral ambiguity with clever economy.

Julia Roberts plays Joanne Herring, a wealthy, passionately anti-communist Texas divorcee who goads Wilson into staging a covert war through an expert application of sexual wiles and tough-minded calculation. Like Wilson, she’s also a bundle of contradictions; a fervent Christian, she is nonetheless all too willing to take Charlie to bed or indulge in a Bombay martini or two.

And that points to what I like most about “Charlie Wilson’s War” – the notion that people can embrace passionate political and spiritual ideals even as they take unapologetic pleasure in the wordly pleasures of sex and spirits. In a film season full of dogged good intentions and boring, over-earnest do-gooders, the randy good spirits of this film’s leading characters are blessedly welcome.

Rounding out the trio of protagonists is Philip Seymour Hoffman as rogue CIA agent Gus Avrakotos. His coarse, pugnacious refusal to suffer fools gladly has tarnished his career at the agency. Approached by Wilson, he sees a chance to actually accomplish something in the fight against the Soviets – a fight to which the American government has given little more than lip service at film’s starting point in 1980.

It almost goes without saying that all the actors are great; Nichols nearly always leads his actors to deliver award-worthy work. Hanks has both the easy charm and the inner conviction to fully embody the complexities of Charlie Wilson, and his performance both grounds and enlivens the film. Hoffman perfectly captures all the nuances of a frustrated outsider who is dying to get into the heat of a real fight. For what it’s worth, I’ve never been a member of the Julia Roberts fan club. (For years, it seemed her acting skills consisted entirely of defiantly tossing her wild auburn mane while fixing the nearest male with her patented “I’m tough, yet vulnerable” gaze.) But Nichols coaxed out one of her least predictable performances in the otherwise loathsome “Closer” a few years back, and he works magic again with Roberts on this outing. She sinks her teeth into the role of Texan grand dame with dazzling conviction. Now that Roberts is 40 – and thus past the hair-tossing phase of her career – I’m looking forward to more work from her at this level.

It also goes without saying that Nichols is most adept at handling scenes with crisp, smart, political dialogue, and there are plenty of those in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Pay attention, though, as some of these conversations are so heavy on background information as to be challenging to follow. In particular, an early scene in which Charlie soaks in the tub as Joanne briefs him on the Afghanistan situation while primping in front of a makeup mirror is hard to watch; she delivers complicated exposition while using the point of an open safety pin to separate her freshly mascaraed lashes. I guarantee you will not hear a word she’s saying, because your brain will be too busy screaming “JESUS! She’s going to stab herself in the eye with that thing!!!”

Nichols is far less assured in scenes that ought to have emotional wallop, but don’t. Wilson is converted to the Afghan’s cause after spending day in one of their refugee camps, but these scenes of wounded children and grieving mothers feel perfunctory and detached. Compassionate, heart-wrenching material has never been Nichols’ forte, and “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a bit poorer for that deficiency.

The shadow of 9/11 hangs low and dark over “Charlie Wilson’s War,” undercutting whatever sense of excitement and purpose its characters may have by subtly invoking our queasy knowledge of what would come later. It was especially uncomfortable to see this film, as I did, on the same morning that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan. (There is a scene in which Pakistan’s then-prime minister – who killed Bhutto’s father in a political coup years earlier – is honored at a Houston luncheon.) And even though screenwriter Aaron Sorkin winds up with a few quick scenes that underscore the ambiguity of Wilson’s victory, you still come away from the film a little confused. Those final scenes feel hastily tacked on to a story that mostly celebrates its larger-than-life characters as heroes.

"Sweeney Todd" On Screen At Last!!! – My Review
December 22, 2007, 3:30 pm
Filed under: Musicals, Stephen Sondheim

It’s been an odd sort of a Christmas season for me, musically. Oh sure, I’ve got the usual collection of holiday CDs rattling around in my car. There’s “Christmas with the Rat Pack,” “Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas,” “The Barbara Streisand Christmas Album,” “Charlie Brown Christmas” – all my annual favorites. But in between the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” “jingle all the way” and Vince Guiraldi’s tinkling piano, there are some other refrains blasting from my dashboard. Like:

“We all deserve to die
Tell ya why, Mrs. Lovett, tell ya why”

Or the eminently memorable:

“There’s a hole in the world like a great, black pit
And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And it goes by the name of London”

Not your average Yuletide fare, but then, this isn’t your average Christmas season. This is the Christmas when Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterwork “Sweeney Todd” will at last be seen on the big screen. And I am among the Sondheim-o-philes who have been breathlessly, anxiously awaiting this moment in cinema history.

So, of course, I’ve had the original Broadway cast recording in my CD player regularly over the last couple of weeks. And every time I listen to it, I’m filled with as much giddy good cheer as if I’d been swigging rum punch and snogging a cute boy with candy-cane breath under the mistletoe.

Yep, I swoon for “Sweeney Todd;” it’s long been my favorite stage musical. I even performed in the chorus of a Indianapolis production of “Sweeney” in 1993. Its combination of Grand guignol horror, dark wit, and indescribably beautiful music have haunted me for years. Lest the above-quoted lyrics scare you off, be assured that there are lush, romantic ballads and lively comedy numbers to offset the darker musical interludes.

For the uninitiated, “Sweeney Todd” is rooted in a London legend about a barber who “shaved the faces of gentlemen” and then slit their throats. In Sondheim’s musical telling, there’s a back story in which a judge, who coveted young Sweeney’s wife, sent him to prison in Australia, the better to get to his missus and young daughter. The story opens as Sweeney returns to London, by which time his wife has poisoned herself, and his daughter has become the ward of the judge, who now intends to marry her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett -the widow who runs the meat pie store below Sweeney’s old barber shop (and “always had a fondness for him”) recognizes Sweeney and moves him into her flat. Eventually, Sweeney’s barber chair victims end up under the crusts of her pies.

It’s all a bit sick and twisted for musical comedy (not to mention for the holiday season), so who better than director Tim Burton to bring it all to the silver screen? Burton has solid credentials in the realm of the weird and macabre (start with “Beetlejuice” and go right through his entire career), plus some demonstrated affinity for musicals (in his animated films “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride”). And he had both Sondheim’s blessing and active participation. So I came to the film version of “Sweeney Todd” with an open and optimistic mind.

Or at least, I thought my mind was wide open. Turns out, my love of the source material is so strong that I have a very hard time judging Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” solely on its own merits. Had I never seen a stage version of “Sweeney,” I think I would have found the film version to be satisfying, even brilliant. But as a devotee of the original work, I find the heavily edited score and the uneven casting to be major disappointments.

My love of “Sweeney Todd” is all about my love of its rich, complex, challenging musical score. That a large portion of that score has been jettisoned here in the interest of moving the story along for restless cinema audiences is understandable – but the result is that Burton’s film is not the same “Sweeney” I love so much. And I tend to question if all the cuts were really in the interest of storytelling economy, or were necessitated by the singing limitations of the actors.

Which brings me to one of my personal cardinal rules for filmmakers: NEVER cast a musical with non-singers!

A corollary of this rule: Directors should not cast their non-singing girlfriends in leading musical roles. Peter Bogdanovich learned this last lesson the hard way 30 years ago after letting his paramour, Cybil Sheppard, loose on Cole Porter tunes in “At Long Last Love.” Unfortunately, Helena Bonham Carter is already getting a lot of acclaim – and probably tying up an Oscar nomination – for a performance my friend accurately described as “an abomination.”

I’ll concede that Bonham Carter has some fine moments of tenderness and slatternly humor. But Mrs. Lovett is not the kind of character role you can pull off without a real singing voice. It’s a vocally demanding role that requires a two-octave range and the ability to sell two big comedic solo numbers. Bonham Carter has maybe four good notes, and her weak, breathy, trying-to-be-a-Cockney-sexpot voice suggests that no one taught her how to sing from her diaphragm. She can barely get enough air to make it through one phrase. Her big numbers -“Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea” only manage to work because Burton, stages them in a manner that actually takes the focus off Lovett and milks laughs from Depp’s reactions to her. The humor in the lyrics is all but lost.

While Johnny Depp is not really a singer, either, I was far more satisfied with his performance. He acts the hell out of the title role, of course -you really wouldn’t expect any less. Depp has a pop/rock timbre, not the ‘legitimate’ voice that you normally associate with Sweeney. It isn’t powerful, but it’s expressive and shaded with the perfect amounts of anguish and rage for a character teetering on the brink of madness and obsessed with revenge. In his major duets with Bonham Carter (“My Friends” and the first-act closer “A Little Priest”), Depp carries the day brilliantly. In fact “A Little Priest” is probably the musical highlight, virtually the only song in “Sweeney” that generates the same mad, electric thrill on celluloid that it did on stage.

Among the supporting cast, there are also delights and disappointments.

Sascha Baron Cohen is a hoot as Pirelli, a faux-Italian dandy hawking his miracle hair-growth elixir (and he can sing!) The role of Tobias, a lad who works first for Pirelli, then for Sweeney and Lovett, is usually portayed as a simple-minded young man, possibly in his early twenties; in the film, he’s played by a pre-pubescent boy (with the the prematurely middle-aged-sounding name of Ed Sanders.) Sanders has a beautiful voice, and his extreme youth underscores the poignancy of his mistreatment by Pirelli. He has the show’s best ballad, “Not While I’m Around,” and he delivers it beautifully.

Alan Rickman plays the Judge with a delicious, restrained depravity. He’s given considerably more lines in the film, which is appropriate since his big song, “Johanna,” is gone. Rickman frankly doesn’t have the pipes to pull off the song, so his new dialogue establishes the depths of his evil in a way the song did in the stage version.

Timothy Spall is all you could hope for in a Beadle (the Judges’ slimy, sycophantic sidekick) – except a countertenor, which is the vocal range this part was written for. Spall, while he can sing well enough, is a baritone, and so the Beadle’s numbers are almost completely gone. The snippet of “Ladies and their Sensitivities” that remains made me wonder how the entire song would have sounded without the high notes; I doubt it would be as good.

There is a subplot involving a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter and tries to rescue her from the Judge. Bower, with his long, wavy hair, big eyes, and fine features looks more like a 16-year-old girl than a young man who has “sailed the world/beheld its wonders.” However, he does justice to the show’s other big ballad, “Johanna” (not to be confused with the judge’s “Johanna” or another “Johanna” sung by Sweeney later – I told you the music was complex.) The young lovers are cute enough, but their roles have been severely reduced for the film; they’re not onscreen enough for us to care what happens to them, and we don’t find out anyway.

Some other changes, most of which I didn’t care for:

– The Beggar Woman, a major supporting character in the original, has been effectively reduced to an extended cameo in the film The cryptic clues to the surprise, twist ending that she delivers throughout the show are virtually gone.

– The chorus is gone, too. I didn’t really miss the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd;” it ‘s used as instrumental underscoring throughout the film, anyway. But the omission of the chorus parts in big numbers like “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “God, That’s Good” make those songs a whole lot less fun.

– My favorite scene in the play was Act 2, Scene 2 – in which Sweeney sings his “Johanna” while methodically doing away with the men who sit in his barber chair, while the sailor sings his “Johanna” in juxtaposition to Sweeney while wandering the dark streets of London in search of his lost love. It doesn’t work nearly as well in the film, and that’s because a third voice is missing, that of Johanna herself, singing of her hope that the sailor will “marry me one day.” That song has been cut from the film altogether.

– Big “duh!” here, but the film is about fifty times gorier and more graphic than the stage version. On stage, when Sweeney wields his razor, you see maybe a trickle of raspberry syrup across the victim’s throat. In the film, there are great, gushing spurts of preternaturally red blood spurting from severed arteries. Be warned, it’s a little hard to watch.

If you’re still reading at this point, you probably are also a devotee of the original “Sweeney Todd,” and I’ve told you more than you needed to know. I will repeat my original point: if you are not particularly connected to the source material, and you like Tim Burton’s movies in general, you are likely to love this film. But we Sondheim-o-philes have some serious getting-over-ourselves to do if we want to embrace it.

A couple of final points: I would be seriously remiss if I did not mention that “Sweeney Todd” is – like all Burton’s films – visually stunning, with sets that perfectly evoke the creepiness of London’s Victorian East End. And although much of the original music is gone, that which remains is beautifully orchestrated. The Oscars for Art Direction, Set Direction, Costume Design and Adapted Musical Score are pretty much wrapped up here, I think.

And now –

I must wish you all a happy holiday! I will be out of the blogosphere for the next several days, gone to spend Christmas with family (including my elderly parents who don’t own a compute, let alone have an internet connection.) Please travel safe this season, and enjoy your holiday. I will be back next week.

(all photos are from

Time for Two Movies: "East Side Story" and "Eraserhead"
December 19, 2007, 11:39 pm
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited, David Lynch, Musicals

Every year, I say I won’t let it happen, but every year it does.

Once again, I have succumbed to the hectic pace of the season, managing to postpone most of my shopping/mailing/cooking duties to the final week before Christmas. As such, my available time to see and write about movies has been severely reduced.

But, never fear; amidst all the seasonal stress and flurry, I have managed to squeeze in not just one, but TWO more Netflix rental viewings. Neither of the films I watched were particularly appropriate to the season, but both were eminently worthwhile.

If you’re a lover of musicals with a taste for the offbeat, you might enjoy “East Side Story,” a 1997 documentary about the musical films of the Soviet Communist era. Yes, you read that right. Turns out Joseph Stalin was a fan of the movie musical genre (who knew?)and happily supported an industry which cranked out songfests about the joys of working on the farms or in the factories of the glorious Socialist state.

So we get clips from “Tractor Drivers,” in which men on tractors and women with pitchforks sing happily about “harvesting wheat to make the bread/to feed our heroes and athletes.” Presumably there were a whole lot of perfectly ordinary people partaking of that same bread, but why sing about them? In another film, a fresh-faced platinum blonde in peasant garb sings to her pigs as she leads them to the trough: “All I ask is that you eat and get fat!” Hog sloppin’ never looked like this much fun before, and the young songstress is actually quite charming. I wanted to see more of that number.

In fact, that is my biggest criticism of “East Side Story;” you always want to see more than it shows you. It teases you with clips that are outrageous, astonishing or just plain silly, but usually too abbreviated to really give you a sense of what’s going on. All too often, it cuts away to one of many “talking heads,” former actors and directors from Socialist film studios of the era. Virtually all their commentary is straightforward and serious in nature; there is no one on hand to be snarky or sarcastic. And after awhile, you just want someone to cut loose with a smart-assed remark. Either that or shut up altogether, so you can just enjoy these strangely entertaining films for yourself.

Much like their Hollywood counterparts, the musicals of the Stalin era presented fantasy worlds into which its characters (and audiences) could escape. That’s what the solemn, scholarly narrator tells us anyway. Unfortunately, her comments play over a dream sequence in which a sort of Comrade Angel wakens a young woman and whisks her off to a gleaming, golden city. Here she is taken to a huge factory (the machines so loud she has to cover her ears) where she is given… a broom! Yes, that’s right; this character’s Utopian vision is to sweep a factory floor! It’s hard to believe that even the staunchest party apparatchik thought they could pass this off as heaven on earth. Those of us in the West whose personal musical-comedy Utopias contain Fred Astaire in white tie and tails and a swanky Manhattan penthouse or two can be forgiven for dreaming a little bigger, I think.

When Stalin died, so did the Soviet Union’s musical film industry, but other Communist countries started producing their own takes on the Western musical form, usually subverted to glorify party ideals. As in the Stalinist films, there is frequently a fresh-faced young woman dancing joyously in factory-worker coveralls. The two most intriguing films, shown at the greatest length here, are “My Wife Wants to Sing” and “Midnight Revue.” The first is a comedy about a housewife who dreams of a singing career, to the dismay of her ultra-traditional husband, She spends a lot of time singing love songs while wearing elegant gowns, and one delicious scene features a whole kick line of East German “Rockettes” in fishnets. The latter is a comedy in which a group of writers is kidnapped by the party and forced to write a musical. Both films are shot in full color, and both look and feel very much like Hollywood musicals of the same era (the 1950s). These are two movies I really would like to see in their entirety.

“East Side Story” winds down with a look at the Soviet Union’s attempt to cash in on the “youth musical” market of the 1960s with a swingin’ Socialist tunefest called “The Hot Summer.” It opens with groups of young men and young women singing about how hot – how really, really hot! – it is today. (“If I see some cool water, I’ll jump right in,” the boys tell us.) It’s at this moment, that you most long for a good shot of snark from the narrator; these “hot” youngsters might be considerably cooler if they peeled off their long-sleeved jackets and turtleneck sweaters and headed for some shade trees instead of dancing around on sun-baked city pavement. I guess it comes down to this: whether a musical is borne of Socialist ideals or Western decadence, logic is the last thing on its mind.

My other Netflix night took me back into the oeuvre of David Lynch. After my baffling experience with “Inland Empire,” I decided to go back to the beginning, and so I saw “Eraserhead” for the very first time.

I hesitate to say I liked “Eraserhead;” it’s too weird to like, exactly. But I admired it. It is creepy, disturbing and nightmarish. Surreal, too, of course, but I thought it was far more accessible than “Inland Empire,” and, at a mere 108-minute running length, its weirdness was far more tolerable.

I’ve never read much of anything about “Eraserhead,” so what follows is my own take; I may be re-stating the obvious, or I may be off on a whole, strange tangent. I thought the lead character, Henry Spencer (the brilliantly deadpan John Nance, at times looking and acting like a silent film clown),was a sort of baby-man. In that opening scene, he looks like he is floating in a womb, and when he moves out of the frame, he’s being born. From then on, the film is a pure, surreal meditation on the worst of his anxieties about sex, women, parenthood and growing up in general. And Lynch makes it pretty over-the-top icky. Thus we have Henry carving up a game hen at his girlfriend’s house and having it ‘bleed’ from between its legs. We have his girlfriend’s mother alternately interrogating him and coming on to him. Then there’s that mutant child he fathers, which embodies everyone’s absolute worst nightmares: a sort of fetal version of “ET” who whimpers pathetically day and night. I found the scenes with the mutant baby grotesque and painful to watch.

But I did understand the appeal for Henry of the Lady in the Radiator, that angelic blonde with the weird, jowly cheeks and the soothing assurance that “in heaven, everything is fine.”

There is also a character I can’t begin to explain called the Man from Another Planet; he’s played by Jack Fisk, who is the offscreen husband of Sissy Spacek. At the end of the film , there is a “Special Thanks to” list which includes Fisk and Spacek, plus various members of Lynch’s family and Nance’s wife, Catherine Coulson (who was also a camera operator). I like the whole raggedy, made-by-family-and-friends feeling of this early, low-budget effort – it felt a whole lot less pretentious than Lynch’s most recent film. I wouldn’t watch “Erasehead” again, but I would like to see more of the David Lynch films that I’ve missed.

Saturday Movie Clip: "Love Actually"
December 15, 2007, 5:44 pm
Filed under: Richard Curtis, Romantic Comedies

Because it’s another busy day at my house, I’m just posting a clip from the movie I’ll be watching while wrapping gifts and addressing cards this afternoon. Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” is a big, overstuffed Christmas stocking of rom-com bliss,and has become one of my favorite seasonal guilty pleasures. A lot of characters in this film boldly declare their romantic intentions “because you tell the truth at Christmas” – must be a British thing, ’cause I never thought of Christmas as a “coming clean” sort of holiday. Oh, well… Enjoy this scene and enjoy your weekend!

Busy Days and David Lynch flicks: "Inland Empire"
December 12, 2007, 12:47 am
Filed under: David Lynch

This blog is written at/from/about the intersection of the movies and my life.

Sometimes, the moviegoing part of my life idles at the red light for days on end, while the other parts of my life are greenlighted all the way. That’s how it’s gone for me lately. Amid all the holiday hubbub (shopping, parties, extra choir rehearsals, root canal appointments) and recurring sleet storms, my movie watching has been put on the back burner. It’s probably a good indication of how low my “holiday spirit” is running that, when I finally had a free Sunday afternoon this weekend, I spent it watching Billy Wilder’s uber-cynical “Ace in the Hole.”

Last night, I finally found the time to dive back into my Netflix queue, and spent a whole 3 hours being mildly absorbed in David Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” I’m still trying to convince myself it wasn’t a waste of time.

I don’t have to tell you that “Inland Empire” was weird and surreal and didn’t have a plot or a point; it was a David Lynch film, after all. I’m not a big fan of Lynch’s either – I don’t think I’ve watched anything he’s done since his “Twin Peaks” days on television, and I found that show too precious by half. So why did I rent “Inland Empire”? Two words – Laura Dern.

I think Dern is the most criminally underappreciated actress at work today. Every performance she gives is beautifully nuanced and endlessly fascinating to watch. For starters, she has incredible comedy chops that don’t get used nearly enough. She got some well-deserved accolades years ago for “Rambling Rose,” but not nearly enough attention was given to her riotously committed turn as the dim-witted, glue-sniffing mother-to-be in Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth.” Or her cheerfully sozzled Texas socialite in “Dr T. and the Women.” Or her hyper-vigilant, overprotective mommy in the recent “Year of the Dog.” Any time Laura Dern turns up in a film, it’s a happy surprise. Even though “Inland Empire” was anything but a comedy, I’d figured Laura’s starring presence would make it a great ride. And she was great, but here’s what happened:

I fell asleep three times, twice during the first 45 minutes. The second time I woke up to see Julia Ormond with a screwdriver in her side and a whole lot of blood everywhere, and I have no idea how it happened. And I didn’t rewind to find out. With 40 minutes to go, I started having an argument with myself about whether to stick it out or just hit the “Stop” button and turn on Anthony Bourdain’s Holiday special on the Travel Channel. “Inland Empire” eventually won out, but it was a hollow victory.

Dern plays an actress who gets cast in a remake of a rather melodramatic Polish film called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” by a pretentious British director (Jeremy Irons). She falls for her co-star, but the line between their onscreen and offscreen relationship blurs. Then she wanders into a sort of interior dreamscape where sometimes she’s a pregnant, white-trash housewife and sometimes she’s a tough-talking streetwalker in a seedy psychiatrist’s office (where she utters a great line: “Some men change. Well, they don’t change – they reveal.” How true!) Sometimes she hangs out with a group of women who look like porn stars and have a tendency to burst into songs like “The Loco-motion.” Interspersed with these scenes are scenes from the original Polish version of her film. And then there’s the absurdist sitcom performed by human-sized talking rabbits.

It all sounds way more entertaining that it actually is.
Movies like “Inland Empire” ultimately make me feel a little insecure. I like to think I am an intelligent, discriminating moviegoer. I can appreciate that it this film is wildly original and and has about 50 times as much imagination and audaciousness behind it as any mainstream movie you can name. (In fact, my recurring thought as I watched it was “Wow! Isn’t it great that David Lynch can still get financing for weird-ass stuff like this?”)

And yet…

It is such a slog to get through! So boring and so maddening, and so damn long! And there’s something so self-consciously clever, so art student-y about Lynch’s apparent infatuation with his own weirdness and his refusal to make any sort of sense. It’s like a weird, cool collage of heart-stopping sounds and images – but ultimately, a collage is only interesting (to me) for about 30 minutes, and “Inland Empire” drags on for another damn 142 minutes past the interesting point!

I can’t recommend it, even as I can’t quite dismiss it out of hand. I’m guess I’m glad I watched it, but I’m also glad I don’t have to sit through it again. It’s definitely art, but if it were up to me, it’d be shown on a continuous loop in one of those little rooms off to the side of a gallery in the MOMA or the Guggenheim – so you could wander in and watch it for a few minutes, rather than commit 3 hours of your life to it.

And, BTW, Laura Dern is fantastic in “Inland Empire” – but if it’s a Laura Dern fix you need, rent “Citizen Ruth.”

The Sex and the City Movie! A Little Preview…
December 8, 2007, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Sex and the City

I’m too busy to post this week, but thought I’d pass on this trailer for the new “Sex and the City” movie. I loved the series, and I can’t wait for this!