Wednesday, March 14, 2012

David Lynch's canon: "Blue Velvet," "Wild at Heart," "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me," "Lost Highway," "Mulholland Drive," and "Inland Empire"

Blue Velvet (1986) 
120 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

"Bizarrely perverse" could describe both the psyche of filmmaker David Lynch and his first and most experimental film, "Eraserhead," in 1976. Same goes for "Blue Velvet", a flamboyantly nightmarish exploration into the dark, seedy underbelly beneath the facade of white-picket-fence small-town Americana. 

After an amusingly penetrating mise-en-scène of something out of a Norman Rockwell painting in the small picture-postcard town of Lumberton, our detective boy-hero is Kyle MacLachlan as a clean-cut college guy who discovers a severed human ear in a field. When he takes it to the police station as evidence to a case, he thinks he's solving a murder but only gets more than he bargains for in a hidden world, stemming from a kinky, enigmatic nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) who shares an abusive sadomasochistic relationship with a psychopath (Dennis Hopper), also the kidnapper of her husband and son. 

Scribe-director Lynch sets out to reveal that rot and corruption lie underneath the blue skies and chirping robins and his "Blue Velvet" is quite an audacious, luridly beautiful vision. As off-base as the story can get (and does it ever when Dean Stockwell comes on screen), the whole film is an alternately depraved, challenging, and mesmerizing piece of work that holds a hypnotic, unsettling power. However, Rossellini feels more like a prop, walking around naked and bruised when she's not wearing her blue velvet robe or on stage singing “Blue Velvet” (which is heard throughout). As for Dennis Hopper, Lynch seems to let him go off with eyes bulging and teeth baring in a blustering, disturbingly off-the-wall performance as the sadistic adult baby on amyl nitrate (!), and what a memorably evil character he is. 

Too artistically offbeat and controversial a film to ignore, but too strange for many to enjoy. Since it does have a fervent cult following, "Blue Velvet" is definitely unlike any other film and worth a look to curiosity seekers who could even admit this is one of Lynch's more coherent works about something. 

Wild at Heart (1990) 
124 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

"Wild at Heart" is a suitable title for wild filmmaker David Lynch. What is on the surface a 1950s rock n' roll road picture, the film wears its weirdness on its sleeve, but as “wild at heart and all weird on top” (as one character says), it's more linear than most, in a Lynchian sense that is. Lynch is up to his old tricks, calculating his shocks and oddness, with a bunch of overt "Wizard of Oz" references. 

Young lovers Sailor (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con in a snake-skin jacket who talks and croons like Elvis, and Lula (Laura Dern), a wallflower-turned-white-trasher who poses and talks like Marilyn, go on the lam to Oz, er, California. Her wicked witch of a mother, Marietta (Dern's real-life mom, Diane Ladd) desperately wants to get rid of Sailor and sends her flying monkeys, er, mobsters to kill him. Can you spot all the Oz references floating through the picture? Someone even clicks their red heels together! 

As expected as it is, Lynch's story (based on Barry Gifford's novel) does lose its way when spending way too much time on introducing new characters rather than just focusing on Sailor, Lula, and Marietta. But he gathers some of his “Twin Peaks” players in minor weirdo roles, including Sherilyn Fenn, Grace Zabriskie, Sheryl Lee, Jack Nance, and vets Harry Dean Stanton and Isabella Rossellini. Crispin Glover even gets his chance to act crazy as a Christmas-crazy relative of Lula's who puts cockroaches in his underwear and believes aliens are out to get him. A cornball Cage is one of the more controlled performers, which is really saying something, as Ladd's psychopathic, over-the-top Mommie Dearest turn and Willem Dafoe's wacko, leering cowboy Bobby Peru (with a scary set of brown teeth and a pencil mustache) reach a don't-miss-it camp level. 

Although violence is a staple for Lynch's body of work, scenes that are intended to shock just seem gratuitous and self-indulgent, such as when the film (ironically playing Glenn Miller's jazzy “In The Mood”) startlingly opens to Sailor beating a black man to death, with his brains splattering all over the walls, or when we get a shot of flies on vomit. These bits don't add or subtract anything from the film. Perverse, strangely romantic, and maybe a little too offbeat for its own good, "Wild at Heart" is still a flamboyant original with ugly behavior and “hotter-than-Georgia-asphalt” sex. It won't be for the populist crowd, but should connect with Lynch cultists all the way. 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) 
135 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

A typically dream-like, weird-for-weird's-sake prequel to David Lynch's idiosyncratic cult TV series, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" feels like a campy self-parody of Lynch's work, if that can even be believed. Set a week before the death of murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee, who's like a younger Sharon Stone), Lynch purports to tell how and why the poor nymphet ended up dead in a plastic wrap. 

But all we get is a convoluted quilt of nonsensical scenes about Laura's too-close father (Ray Wise), a green ring, and the Black Lodge; characters speaking in a laughably baffling sort of code ("I am the muffin!" and "I"m blank as a fart!"); and a bunch of walk-ons by offbeat characters played by a "who's who" cast of actors that are mostly given walk-ons (including Kiefer Sutherland and David Bowie). Even Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper regrettably only has a handful of scenes. As the breathy, desirable young cokehead, Lee is oddly touching in her portrayal but overacts most of the time. 

Although in full-bore Lynchian fashion, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" offers strains of Angelo Badalamenti's wonderfully dreamy theme, and some trippy, surreal imagery that you'd find in a nightmare. The craggy-faced, stringy-haired BOB sneaking through Laura's bedroom window to mount her. A white horse appearing in a bedroom. After a while, why not? You're either a fan of Lynch's mazes or you're not, but it makes "Blue Velvet" look completely comprehensible. 

Lost Highway (1997) 
135 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

If you thought David Lynch's debut "Eraserhead" didn't make sense (or "Blue Velvet" or "Wild at Heart" for that matter), good luck trying to understand his seventh nonlinear outing, "Lost Highway." It may be incomprehensible and weird, but that's redundant in Lynchland. 

In this “21st century noir horror film,” jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) assumes his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair. After receiving a series of manila envelopes on their Los Angeles doorstep, they open to find video tapes as if someone has snuck into their home and recorded them sleeping. Next, Renee is dead and Fred is accused of murdering her, sending him into the slammer. Somehow his spirit gets reincarnated into a young, greaser-haired mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty), who doesn't know what happened but gets entangled in an affair with a blonde temptress (Patricia Arquette in a dual role), the girlfriend of mobster Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia). Don't ask, don't tell, just see it. 

"Lost Highway" might examine identity, good and evil, and betrayal, but the nightmarish, luridly stylish visuals are key when his narrative is less coherent (with dual characters that are more like figments) and might take multiple viewings to understand more than before. For once, with the exception of a blustering Loggia, the performances are pretty low-key for the filmmaker's work, although Getty's performance as Pete is less interesting than Pullman's as Fred. Robert Blake is memorably creepy as the Grim Reaper-like Mystery Man, who claims he's met Fred/Pete at his house. 

As always, Lynch makes great use of soundtrack (Marilyn Manson's “I Put a Spell on You” cover and This Mortal Coil's powerful “Song to the Siren”) and sound effects to heighten the sense of dread and unease; the use of a loud ringing phone is particularly chilling.

Mulholland Drive (2001) 
146 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

"Mulholland Drive" is defiantly plotless, so it must be a David Lynch film. But it's also a stylish, hypnotic, and audacious film noir. 

Laura Elena Harring plays a brunette amnesiac who survives a car accident on Mulholland Drive and finds shelter from a perky, blonde aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts), staying in her aunt's bungalow. Instead of reporting the stranger, Betty offers to help the woman, who calls herself Rita (as in Rita Hayworth off of a 1940s movie poster), reclaim her memory. The rest involves a mysterious blue box and key, a dwarf tycoon, a mobster, a bungling hit man, a cowboy, and so much more that you just have to stop reading and see it for yourself. 

"Mulholland Drive" was born as a TV pilot, but rejected, probably because it doesn't make any linear sense...and because it includes some hot lesbo action. In this pure Lynchian maze, there's more than meets the eye and it'll take more than a single viewing to dig deeper into the enigmatic strangeness and unexplainable dream logic. Prototypically weird and as serpentine as the real Mulholland Drive, but that could only mean one thing: it's a Lynchian picture, so it's not for all tastes. 

But if it is your taste, "Mulholland Drive" is a masterful Rubik's Cube of a dream with knockout dual performances by Harring and Watts, as well as Justin Theroux as a dweebish movie director and veteran Ann Miller in a feisty small role as the apartment manager Coco. 

Inland Empire (2006) 
180 min., rated R.

Diehard David Lynch fans will rejoice at the three-hour opus, shot on unattractive DV, that is "Inland Empire," which he shot without a complete script and distributed himself without a studio's help. Somewhat of a companion piece to Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," this bold but maddening and terminally weird “stunt” defies description like most of the filmmaker's work. Then again, if any of it made sense it wouldn't be the man's singular work. Lynch's idiosyncratic touches—a roaring soundtrack, surreal images out of a dream, a teasing narrative—are all here in this expectedly disjointed piece, but this time, he has his blurry camera shooting actors in such extreme close-ups from the forehead to the chin, which just adds to the disorientation of his storytelling. 

In a demanding, sometimes scary performance of duality, Laura Dern plays Nikki, a married, faded actress playing the role of Sue in a remake of a cursed movie “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” based on a Polish gypsy folktale, that was never finished because the leads were murdered, says the director (Jeremy Irons). She begins an affair with her co-star, Devon (Justin Theroux), as their off-screen dialogue begins resembling their on-screen words. Then Nikki gets lost (as do we) as if she's really playing Sue, and art blends in with reality. Let's not even get started on Julia Ormond in a police interrogation room with a screwdriver sticking out of her bloody side, or when a crew of young prostitutes start line-dancing to “The Locomotion.” And Lynch likes bouncing back and forth to his 2002 short film "Rabbits," a show involving a three-person family in rabbit suits spewing unfunny dialogue that's answered by a canned laugh track. 

The film is full of creepy images, from Dern manically grinning and running at the camera to Nikki getting a daunting visit from a new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie). But in the end, "Inland Empire" goes down so many abstract rabbit holes that it becomes more of a discombulating endurance test than one of Lynch's hallucinatory head-trips where you'll constantly be asking “David, are we there yet?” Lynch always marches to his own drummer, but weird for weird's sake just isn't enough this time.

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