Tag Archives: Neo Noir

331. DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

“The fleetingly improvised men are transient figures of human shape, which naturally disappear or slowly dissolve after a short period of existence. Their appearance always is the result of a wonder.

Fleetingly improvised men lead a dream life. As a result, they are incapable of entering a regular conversation with people around them.

Fleetingly improvised men sometimes resemble dead people.”–M. Rautenberg, Daniel Paul Schreber: Beginner’s Guide to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard O’Brien,

PLOT: John Murdoch awakens in a bathtub, remembering nothing: certainly not the reason why the dead, mutilated woman is in the other room. As he travels through a night-cursed city to discover his identity, John is simultaneously pursued by a dogged police detective, a psychiatrist who knows more than he lets on, and a coterie of very pale gentlemen in black coats and hats. Ultimately he discovers that his alleged past is just that—and that the forces behind the frame-up are responsible for something far more grand and sinister.

Still from Dark City (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • The opening narration, included over Alex Proyas’ objections, was included at the insistence of producers who feared the audience would be confused by being thrown into this world. Many fans think it’s a spoiler of the worst kind. Proyas’ director’s cut of the film excises the exposition.
  • Proyas based the Strangers’ looks and mannerisms on Richard O’Brien’s “Riff Raff” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Proyas also wrote the role of “Mr. Hand” specifically for O’Brien.
  • The Matrix not only ripped off did a variation of Dark City’s central premise, it also re-used a number of its actual sets after Dark City‘s production had wrapped up.
  • Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Dr. Daniel Schreber, was named after an early 20th-century schizophrenic who wrote a memoir of his illness.
  • Proyas intended the final showdown between John Murdoch and Mr Book to be an homage to the famed manga comic (and anime) Akira.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll cast aside the montages of warping buildings, stylish noir streets, and sinister Stranger gatherings in favor of the mirroring scenes of Mr. Hand and John Murdoch after their respective imprints. Both rise from the gurney with comparable looks of grim determination, after painfully twitching through a series of forced memories.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Steampunk brain syringes; quick-rise concrete; creepy kid with teeth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About five years ago we argued that Dark City shouldn’t make the list. Since then, our minds have been changed—possibly while we were asleep. Any movie the plot of which can be described as “telekinetic collective memory space jelly bugs abduct tens of thousands of earthlings to populate a jumble-Noir cityscape in perpetual darkness in order to find out more about us” deserves a slot on the list of the weirdest movies ever made. The fact that it follows its dream logic into uncanny valley Gothic visuals is to its credit as well.


Original trailer for Dark City

COMMENTS: Focus. Focus. Every event flows into, bolsters, and undermines every other event. John Murdoch can defeat the Strangers Continue reading 331. DARK CITY (1998)

CAPSULE: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Peckinpah

FEATURING: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández

PLOT: Bennie enjoys a low-key existence as a pianist in Mexico City until he seeks a reward for proof of Alfredo Garcia’s death; Garcia’s head causes unimaginable trouble for Bennie and his friends as thugs converge on it to collect the bounty.

Still from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The ubiquitous South-of-the-Border heat eventually saturates the addled brains of the characters and filmmakers, but Peckinpah’s gritty classic is very much “just” a film noir entry from some decades after their heyday. Still, casual conversations about culpability and forgiveness with a rotting head in a sack isn’t something you see every day.

COMMENTS: Sam Peckinpah is regarded by many as the ultimate “bad boy” director. Held in awe by people ranging from comedian Denis Leary, film critic Roger Ebert, and even neophyte director Ryan Prows, Peckinpah’s films have a merited reputation for gritty intensity. While he won’t become a member of the esteemed 366 canon of directors, Peckinpah should be regarded as a dear friend. His scorched, nihilistic, and impressively grisly Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia comes up trumps in its genre (Post-Western-Neo-Noir?), but also veers enough into pathos-filled idiosyncrasy to warrant a good look.

The succinct plot provided above doesn’t quite do justice to the proceedings. Things start brutally enough with a dressing down (literally?) of a defiant daughter by her tyrannical father—a powerful Mexican plutocrat, complete with posse and compound. The daughter has become pregnant from relations with—you guessed it—Alfredo Garcia. His dalliance was his death warrant, and a swarm of hit-men (all eager to claim the one-million-dollars on offer) surge out of the compound to hunt him down. Two such assassins encounter our friendly neighborhood barman, Bennie (Warren Oates), and this initially bloodless series of events quickly starts to steadily ratchet up the death count as Bennie and his girl (Isela Vega) look for Garcia. The third act is, well, a series of violent punctuations punctuated themselves by little bits of philosophical musing.

As Bennie’s journey inexorably leads him to a head in a bag, so to does the flow of this review. Between a couple of dramatic scenes (a truly tragic death and a comparably tragic mass murder) we enjoy a conversation that, had it continued, might have let Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia butt its way onto the list. I don’t know if it was the film stock used or the mediocrity of the Blu-Ray transfer, but the film’s atmosphere—which was already teetering on the verge of collapse from sun stroke—becomes truly hellish. Flies fill Bennie’s beat-up Impala as a stench permeates the vehicle (almost wafting to the viewer), and through this fog of death and heat, Bennie has exchanges with the million-dollar head. Bennie chastises Alfredo, shouts at Alfredo, and bargains with Alfredo. At a roadside cantina, we wonder if the jig is up when a small boy cleaning his filthy car windows inquires about it. Bennie, cool despite it all, explains, “Cat. Dead cat. Used to belong to a friend of mine.” Ultimately, Bennie even forgives Alfredo.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is so infused with violence that most contemporary genre pictures pale in comparison. Peckinpah captures almost every slaughter with the greatest impact possible. We don’t ever see the titular character (not alive, at any rate), and his head is merely a plot device which forces us to bear witness to the lives of men and women at the bottom of the food chain and at the end of their tether. Pathos borders on bathos as Peckinpah turns the screws on the initially carefree and affable Bennie. Even in the company of its peers, it is surprising to see a movie so relentlessly cynical, particularly when this cynicism is only ever interrupted by one man’s conversation with a decomposing head.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, sometimes becomes a psychic ballet.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: ROAD TO THE WELL (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Jon Cvack

FEATURING: Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall R. Teague, Rosalie McIntire

PLOT: To avoid being implicated in a murder, a browbeaten white-collar drone and his drifter friend take a trip to dispose of the body, only to find obstacles and growing suspicions at every turn.

Still from Road to the Well (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Road to the Well is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced neo-noir thriller. It falls firmly in the tradition of wronged men trying to get out from under a dangerous situation, and while a couple scenes are tinged with oddness, in every important respect the film is not at all weird.

COMMENTS: The deck is already stacked for this movie by throwing out the word “noir.” Noir is a handy label for a subset of a subset: the kind of thriller where morals are muddled and the protagonist gets what’s coming to him just as surely as the villain. In its classic form, black-and-white photography is augmented with an ominous soundtrack, hard-bitten dialogue, and high-contrast shadows, all contributing to a sense that our hero is trapped in a universe from which escape seems nigh impossible.

If there’s a more loaded phrase than “noir” in the annals of film criticism, it would probably be “neo-noir.” All genres mature, and the dismissal of the strictures of the Production Code changed the nature of noir. No longer could you be sure that characters would invariably pay for their mistakes. Color allowed filmmakers to add new signifiers of good and evil to their palette. Motivations became more complex, the lines between good and bad muddier, and the very concept of redemption was sometimes rejected outright. Neo-noir acknowledged the themes of its progenitor, but expanded their boundaries, to the point where critic Robert Arnett would lament, “Any film featuring a detective or a crime qualifies.”

Having said all that, writer/director Jon Cvack’s debut film checks all the boxes for neo-noir. When desk jockey Frank (Fuller) finds himself implicated in the brutal murder of a woman he just met, it’s a wrong-man scenario suitable for Hitchcock, and his questionable decision to try and cover up the crime sits comfortably in the pantheon of noir-hero bad ideas. The interesting variant here is the presence of a friend, itinerant goof-off Jack (Parker), who readily agrees to lend a hand by facilitating the disposal of the woman’s body. The result is a road movie in which truth and comeuppance always seem to be just a couple car-lengths behind.

There’s a feel of thrillers of a more recent vintage, such as Blood Simple or A Simple Plan. But Cvack has none of the ‘ absurdist view of life; even the ridiculous sight of Frank and Jack trying to haul the dead girl up the stairs in a suitcase is played completely straight. All the troublesome elements are explored: cleaning up blood, covering up the smell, finding a suitable burial site… they’re all here. Most significantly, of course, are the people you meet along the way, who seem to sense guilt coming from a mile away.

Those interesting people turn out to be part of the problem with the movie. Consider, for example, the film’s most potent scene, a tense encounter with a retired military chaplain whose intimidation has the force of morality, anger, and a secret agenda behind it. He’s in the movie for somewhere around 10 minutes, but his presence and impact dwarf that of the two leads. Compare that with Frank, ostensibly our hero but in actuality a complete cipher. Although he makes choices that lead down the story’s dangerous path, they are invariably so passive that it becomes far too easy to blame others, especially Jack. Frank is utterly lacking in agency, which is apt for his ultimate fate, but problematic when assessing the momentous choice he is called upon to make. Even under these most extreme circumstances, Frank struggles to establish a presence for himself , and ends up being a vacuum in his own story.

It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of suspense about the nature of Frank’s predicament. We are given critical information at the start of the film, and while we do not understand its meaning out of context, it creates an expectation that hangs over the proceedings. When we finally get the piece of information that ties it all together, it qualifies less as a twist than as validation of common sense.

Road to the Well looks spectacular, and the filmmakers know it; cinematographer Tim Davis is the first name credited after Cvack. Also contributing is the evocative, pizzicato-laced score of composer Conor Jones, who adds layers of foreboding and menace to scenes which don’t really go anywhere on their own. The production quality of the movie far exceeds its sub-six-figure budget, and Cvack and his collaborators deserve a look from big-time producers looking for great moviemaking talent. But his calling card is strangely uninvolving, mirroring Frank’s journey: a beautiful, tension-filled trip to another dead-end job.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cvack’s screenplay and direction is terrific in its ability to create mood, develop a sense of dread, and keep the performances and individual scenes consistently bizarre and uneasy. Even when all sense of logic sometimes abandons the film – certain sections feel disjointed or seem to be missing important pieces of information – the dedication to tone keeps the story from spinning out of control. …It works, and works well, again blending elements of the Coen Brothers with a Lynchian sense of off kilter madness.” — Larry Taylor, Monkeys Fighting Robots

CAPSULE: YESTERDAY WAS A LIE (2008)

DIRECTED BY: James Kerwin

FEATURING: Kipleigh Brown, Chase Masterson, John Newton

PLOT: A female private investigator tracks a physics professor and a sultry torch singer while looking for a notebook with clues as to why she’s trapped in a dreamlike film noir world.

Still from Yesterday Was a Lie (2008)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “A lot of people think of it like putting puzzle pieces together,” the mystical “Singer” tells our dame Hoyle, “but I’d like to think of it as more like shutting off your left brain… realizing it’s all disconnected, or connected in a different way.” That’s advice for watching this film, and it also expresses our preferred mode of criticism here at 366 Weird Movies. That sense of camaraderie makes it more painful that we can’t recommend Yesterday Was a Lie for the List of the Best Weird Movies of all time. It’s an overambitious film that has a good heart, and mind; but the slight air of amateurism works against its weirdness. (Ironically, in stupider, sloppier movies, more profound amateurism often enhances the weirdness—it’s a fine line indeed).

COMMENTS: Yesterday Was a Lie is full of half-sketched abstract ideas about Jungian psychology, Surrealist aesthetic theory, quotes from T.S. Eliot, and fringe quantum physics, which makes it seem like it was written during a semester where the writer has yet to decide on a major. Unfortunately, he did not pay enough attention to the characterization lecture in his creative writing course. The story slides by on film references and deconstructionism, but doesn’t make us want to invest our time or emotion in the self-reflective investigations of its cipher detective chasing down arbitrary clues. The flurry of character development and plot connections that occurs in the last half hour will arrive too late for most viewers. Also (and beware that I am getting close to spoiler territory here) the final act slings the movie off in a relationship drama direction that, while organic, is nonetheless disappointing, given the cosmic buildup.

The fact that timelines twist and curl back upon each other—Hoyle keeps waking up in the hospital from the same gunshot in the shoulder, and she keeps seeing ‘s “Persistence of Memory” popping up all over—-adds to the confusion, but embarking on this much weirdness is a weighty task if you’re name is not or and you don’t have much money to work with to compose eye-catching set pieces. Conceptually and budgetarily, stretches of Yesterday remind me of a better-scripted and photographed, but worse-acted, version of the notorious PBS sci-fi production Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. Kipleigh Brown and Chase Masterson are statuesque blondes who look great in silhouette, but they lack the resources to tackle these difficult roles. Since we’re dealing with iconic film archetypes, it’s a true challenge to simultaneously evoke Bogey and/or Bacall while placing your own stamp on the characters. Switching the gumshoe gender from male to female scores a few novelty points, but Brown, though game, always looks like a cheerleader with a cute fedora and a prop highball glass as accessories. She never generates a sense of danger. By contrast, the lighting and cinematography are excellent (a gritty 1940s film grain is missed, obviously, but better to go with a crystal clear digital presentation than add an obviously fake effect). A few nicely-lit shots do not a movie make, unfortunately, and I’d be lying if I said Yesterday earned more than a “nice try” rating.

Writer/director Kerwin released an informal “web series” revolving around a minor character on the Internet; it deals with the same subject matter, though not in the same noirish style as the movie. The seven mini-episodes are now available on the production company’s website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

a clunky David Lynchian cosmic mystery… James Kerwin’s conceptually ambitious low-budget debut offers stunning black-and-white HD cinematography, a sultry jazz score and a refreshingly high-minded script, but feels hopelessly amateurish in the acting department.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “BogartsHat,” who said it was “[n]ot only weird, but also a very good movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

Recommended

“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , , , Martin Short

PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
  • According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
  • Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Continue reading 206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

LIST CANDIDATE: INHERENT VICE (2014)

Inherent Vice has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Read the Certified Weird entry here.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , Katherine Waterston, , Martin Short

PLOT: In 1970 Los Angeles, private investigator and marijuana enthusiast “Doc” Sportello investigates several converging cases while dodging a hippie-hating police detective out to get him.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Paul Thomas Anderson’s work has flitted around the edges of the bizarre, beginning with the baffling ending to Magnolia, through the reader-recommended oddity Punch-Drunk Love and the existential meanderings of The Master. With this stoned adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s studiously esoteric novel, Anderson may finally have passed over to the weird side for good.

COMMENTS: I don’t think it’s a mistake that’s it’s easy to misread the title Inherent Vice as Incoherent Voice. This smoky noir in which everything connects, but nothing does, is like a comic version of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” (the novel, not the movie); but instead of an expatriate junkie’s 1950s nightmare, it’s an American pothead’s 1960s reality of a world of alarming signifiers (Vietnam, the Manson family, Nixon rallies) that float past, occasionally colliding and combining like the hot wax spheres in a lava lamp. The plot is doled out in fits and starts, as if Doc is suffering from blackouts. He probably as; at one point he writes “not hallucinating” in his detective’s notebook as an act of self-reassurance. Characters like Reese Witherspoon’s hot-to-trot assistant D.A. or ‘s maritime lawyer plop in to drop bits of exposition without much explanation of who they are, where they came from or why they care. Like a slightly more coherent Branded to Kill, deconstructing  American detectives instead of Japanese yakuza, Inherent Vice assembles its pseudo-story out of warped genre tropes: hard-bitten detectives who inhale bong hits instead of slamming shots of bourbon; femme fatales who manipulate saps into giving them a good spanking.

Better to think of Inherent Vice not as a plotted movie, but as a movie composed of free-associated plot elements. There’s a decadent real-estate magnate with a private sex cult, Aryan biker gangs, hippie-hating flattoped cops, a disappearing surf-sax player, an insane asylum that doubles as a private prison, and a vertically integrated Taiwanese heroin consortium. For added oddness, there’s conspicuous product placement for nonexistent brands, ridiculous fang-shaped skyscrapers that pop up in formerly empty lots, and a manic Martin Short as a drug-snorting, cradle-robbing dentist. There is even resolution, of a sort: Doc discovers all of the missing persons before the end credits roll. But you may be mystified as to how he did it.

Inherent Vice is the new masterpiece of hippie noir. It rides that fine line between rationality and irrationality, heading towards a hazy neverland where universal paranoia holds sway. Not only does it ride that line, it eventually snorts it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to see it, to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, , , , Ian Richardson, , Bruce Spence

PLOT: J. Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a dingy hotel bathroom. In the adjoining bedroom lies a dead prostitute, and Murdoch is soon suspected of murdering five women, although he has no memory of these events. Inspector Frank Bumstead (Hurt) interrogates Murdoch’s wife, Emma (Connelly), who hasn’t seen her husband in days.

Still from Dark City (1998)

WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: What seems like a typically Hitchcockian “wrong man” scenario gradually turns into something far more complicated and weirder… but not weird enough (in my mind) to be considered one of the 366 weirdest films of all time. I suspect Dark City seems “weird” mainly to people who consider all science fiction weird (and revealing that the film is science fiction may already be giving too much away). Still, it is a truly fascinating and visually stunning production that continually asks the question, “what is reality?,” and does so in a far more sophisticated manner than the similar and much more popular The Matrix.

COMMENTS: At first Dark City seems to be film noir, and the look of the movie is vaguely 1940’s, with almost every scene taking place at night; all of this is somewhat similar to director Alex Proyas’ previous The Crow. The film’s highly impressive art direction (by Battlefield Earth’s Patrick Tatapolous) is reminiscent of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil, although on his director’s commentary, Proyas denies any such influence. Kiefer Sutherland plays creepy Dr. Schreber, Murdoch’s therapist, in a manner that subtly recalls 1940’s character actor Peter Lorre. But the 1990’s-style special effects, produced some 15 years ago, are still flawless. The sight of skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground predates Inception by more than a decade. And the musical score by Trevor Jones (The Dark Crystal), part of which was used to advertise the first X-Men film, is electrifying. Dark City is a true gem, and, unlike The Matrix and its sequels, it raises the questioning of reality, and then actually grapples with the idea, instead of forgetting all about it and simply indulging in showy displays of special effects. Dark City presents plenty of visual spectacle, but that spectacle is actually germane to the storyline. It’s well worth seeing.

This Director’s Cut DVD is about 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The changes seem relatively minor, although Sutherland’s opening narration, which gave away too much of the plot, has been removed for this new cut. Also, Connelly plays a nightclub singer, but her singing isn’t very good in this extended version; in the theatrical cut, a woman with a better voice dubbed her. Somehow, the fact that her singing is now rather flat and… sleepy… only adds to the film’s dreamlike, creepy atmosphere. The DVD extras are quite extensive. There are three audio commentaries, one from Proyas, a rather dull one from screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David (The Dark Knight) Goyer, and another from Roger Ebert, who admires this film a great deal. He has only done two other audio commentaries: for Citizen Kane and Casablanca! There is also an on-screen introduction from Proyas, who explains why he assembled this new cut in the first place, the theatrical trailer, a couple of “Making Of” documentaries, and a Production Gallery of photographs taken by Sewell, who was apparently a real shutterbug on the set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way… Proyas… is a walking encyclopedia of weird science-fiction and horror imagery.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TRANCE (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Danny Boyle

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: After torture fails, gangsters hire a hypnotherapist to help their amnesiac comrade remember where he hid a stolen painting, but can they trust her not to play with the subject’s mind?

Still from Trance (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s watchable and a little weird (once the hallucinations finally start), but not as entrancing as it would need to be to make the List.

COMMENTS: Trance features a lot of twists and turns as it explores the corridors of memory, but ultimately this trippy guided imagery only leads to off-topic revelations, an action movie finale that could have fit in a Vin Diesel vehicle, and a smugly ambiguous postscript. If you’re highly suggestible, though, you may be able to relax and enjoy the trip through Simon’s tortured mind as he struggles to recall where he hid the stolen painting before petty gangster Franck loses patience and lets his thugs take a turn at more than his fingernails. The rough patches Trance encounters come solely from the script, not from the game cast, who do their best to sell the peculiar material. As another of Danny Boyle’s beleaguered, boyish (Boyle-ish?), in-over-his-head heroes, James McAvoy serves as an effective anchor. (Fifteen years ago this role would have gone to fellow baby-faced Scot ). Vincent Cassel, as always, embodies suave Continental decadence. But it’s Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth Lamb, the bored but sexy hypnotherapist, who steals the show, gradually overshadowing Simon to emerge as the movie’s central character. Brought in by Franck in a desperate attempt to recover Simon’s strangely repressed memory, she quickly, if subtly, asserts psychological control over the criminals. Tired of dealing with over-eaters and premature ejaculators, the doctor relishes her dangerous new assignment, and it’s not quite clear whether she’s in it more for the money or the thrills. Seizing control of the mission, she leads Simon (and occasionally the others) on a series of increasingly complicated guided hypnotherapy sessions; her subject always balks just before remembering the fatal hiding place, subconsciously terrified that if he gives up the information, he’ll be killed. As he is led deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of his mind, it becomes unclear where his trance state ends and reality resumes. Are sparks really flying between him and Dr. Lamb, or is it just transference? If he appears to get the upper hand on his captors, is it just a mental trick to get him to reveal the location? It’s a good, if somewhat hard to swallow, start for a psychothriller, and the film does keep you guessing through the early reels. But the plot ultimately doesn’t make much sense; it’s too contrived, and not just in the obvious sense that hypnotherapy has nowhere near this kind of mystical power. The story is also too concerned with misdirection, forgetting to find an emotional center; we have no real rooting interest among the characters. The trance sequences, which are for the most part meant to be indistinguishable from real life, seldom deliver the surreal payoffs that weirdophiles crave (although there is one excellent, startling image involving Vincent Cassel’s head that I unfortunately can’t describe it without ruining the surprise). Once the missing painting is finally found, there’s an empty feeling. Emerging from Trance, you feel like you’ve been to see a middle-of-the-road Vegas magician; you were entertained while the show was on, sure, but you’re already forgetting the tricks on the ride home.

If anything about the movie is hypnotic, it’s Dawson’s full-lipped sexuality. Fans of the actress’ vulva will definitely want to check Trance out; her pubic hair is a minor plot point.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anything goes, which may make all this great fun for the hallucinogenically inclined, but since nothing in these sequences has any lasting consequences, suspense is difficult to amplify… the film is under the mistaken impression that its unmoored trance sequences are compelling enough to justify their implausibility.”–Zachary Wigon, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

Recommended

“In my mind, it’s so much fun to have something that has clues and is mysterious — something that is understood intuitively rather than just being spoonfed to you. That’s the beauty of cinema, and it’s hardly ever even tried. These days, most films are pretty easily understood, and so people’s minds stop working.”–David Lynch

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia

PLOT: Fred is a free jazz saxophonist who finds that mysterious videotapes are being dropped off on his doorstep. After an encounter with a mysterious pale man at a party, he blacks out finds himself accused of the murder of his wife. In prison Fred begins having headaches, and then one day he disappears and a completely different man—a young mechanic—is discovered in his death row cell.

Still from Lost Highway (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay to Lost Highway was co-written by Barry Gifford, who also wrote the novel “Wild at Heart” that Lynch adapted into a film in 1990.
  • Lost Highway received two “thumbs down” ratings from Siskel & Ebert’s “At the Movies” syndicated movie review program. Lynch insisted the movie poster be rewritten to highlight the critics’ dual pans, describing the bad ratings as “two good reasons to go and see Lost Highway.”
  • The film cost about 15 million dollars to make but grossed less than 4 million at the U.S. box office.
  • Lost Highway boasts a number of cameo roles, including rockers Henry Rollins as a guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn actor,  mainstay  in a voiceover, and Richard Prior as one of Pete’s co-workers.
  • This film marks the last onscreen appearance of , who appeared in all of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Robert Blake’s “Mystery Man,” an eyebrow-free, perpetually grinning pasty-faced ghoul who likes to crash L.A. cocktail parties and whose idea of small talk is to call himself on his cell phone to deliver obscure metaphysical portents of doom.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine you’re on a desert highway. It’s long past midnight and you can ‘t see anything but the onrushing yellow traffic lines a few feet in front of the car’s headlights.  is crooning “funny how secrets travel” from the stereo. David Lynch is at the wheel, he’s jittery from drinking too much coffee, and neither you nor he has no idea where you’re going. Strap yourself in. It’s going to be a wild ride.


Original trailer for Lost Highway

COMMENTS: Made five years after the divisive mixed blessing that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway marks the beginning of the Continue reading 133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

“Do not demystify.  When you know too much, you can never see the film the same way again. It’s ruined for you for good. All the magic leaks out, and it’s putrefied.”–David Lynch, explaining to Terrence Rafferty why he will not record director’s commentaries

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Laura Harring,

PLOT: A woman (Harring) is involved in a nighttime accident on Mulholland Drive and flees into the city of Los Angeles with amnesia; she sneaks into an apartment soon to be occupied by naive young Betty (Watts), who has come to Hollywood hoping to find stardom.  Meanwhile, a film director (Theroux) finds himself pressured by mysterious mobsters to cast an unknown actress in his upcoming project.  Betty helps the amnesiac woman try to recover her identity, but the clues only lead to a strange avant-garde nightclub, a key, a box, and a sudden reality shift that throws everything that came before into confusion.

Still from Mulholland Drive (2001)


BACKGROUND:

  • Lynch originally intended Mulholland Drive as a TV series in the mold of “Twin Peaks.”  When the networks passed on the pilot, the French producer Studio Canal stepped in with additional financing to turn the pilot into a feature film.  In between ABC’s proactive cancellation of the series and the creation of the film version, all of the sets and props were dismantled, forcing Lynch to come up with a different way to complete the story.
  • Monty Montgomery, whose appearance as “The Cowboy” is an uncanny show-stopper, is a Hollywood movie producer (who produced Wild at Heart for Lynch).  Mulholland Drive is his only acting credit (he’s listed as “Lafayette Montgomery” in the credits).
  • Lynch insisted no chapter stops be included on the DVD.
  • The original DVD release included an insert from Lynch containing “10 Keys to Unlocking This Thriller.”
  • Mulholland Drive received significant critical acclaim, nabbing Lynch a Best Director award at Cannes (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a Best Director Oscar nomination.  It was voted best picture of the Year by the Boston Film Critics Society, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the new York Film Critics Circle, and the Online Film Critics Society (where it tied with Memento in the voting).  It was also voted best foreign picture by the Academy Award equivalents of Brazil, France, Spain, and Australia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Silencio nightclub, decorated in Lynch’s trademark red velvet drapes and staffed by his trademark subconscious monsters.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If the massive reality shifts and actresses unexpectedly playing


Original trailer for Mulholland Drive

multiple roles is not enough for you, then the monster behind the Winkie’s, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” delivered by a woman who collapses onstage, and a mafia-style media syndicate run by a deformed dwarf who uses an eyebrowless cowboy as his right-hand man will convince you that we are deep in that subconscious pit of eroticism, kitsch and weirdness that can only go by the name Lynchland.

COMMENTS:  Oddly enough, what may be the most important scene in Mulholland Drive Continue reading 97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)