Tag Archives: Neo Noir

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)

CAPSULE: THE BIG BANG (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Sienna Guillory, , Robert Maillet, Autumn Reeser, William Fichtner, Jimmi Simpson, Snoop Dogg

PLOT: An L.A. private eye goes looking for a missing stripper and uncovers a twisted plot involving the Russian mob, stolen diamonds, and the search for the God particle.

Still from The Big Bang (2011)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The fact that it’s only a bit offbeat means that we won’t have to dig too deeply into its filmic deficiencies; basically, it’s not weird enough.

COMMENTS: Most critics consider The Big Bang a cosmic failure, but, although the movie’s a mess, there may be just enough quirky particles floating around it to keep fans of the offbeat engaged.  Any movie that includes an invulnerable seven-foot Russian boxer, three different hair colors on Sam Elliot’s head, a horny waitress with quantum physics tattoos, a search for the origins of the universe, and a Snoop Dogg cameo is, in my book, worth at least a look.  The film also features entertaining (if often superfluous) visuals: crazy color schemes (you’ve never seen so much lavender outside of an aromatherapist’s waiting room), a dreamy overnight cruise in a convertible through a surreal CG desert, and some arresting tricks with spotlights whose beams stop short or bend around characters caught in its glare.  For the most part, the missing girl/stolen diamonds plot hangs together both as a mystery and a noir tribute, drawing you through to the end (even though that end doesn’t make a lot of sense).  The movie’s stylistically scattershot, with every color in the spectrum taking a turn dominating the palette (and the aforementioned lavender taking more than its fair share of turns) and magical realist digressions (like the catapulted flaming dwarf) popping up at unexpected times.  The eclecticism keeps it from being boring, but also prevents it from attaining the consistency it needs to be really effective.  The direction often seems improvised; the script, too, is a mixed bag.  The storyline is satisfactory, but the updated faux-Raymond Chandler patter lacks panache (“we’ve all got kinks… contrary to what science tells us, all DNA does not twist the same.”)  Despite an attempted application of quirkiness, the characterizations end up familiar and shallow: hard-boiled P.I., brutish boxer, stripper with a heart of gold, and so forth.  Elliot (as a hippie industrialist who builds supercolliding superconductors as a hobby), Reeser (as a quirky and perky waitress) and Simpson (as a synesthesiac scientist) add nuance to their portrayals, but the rest of the cast play their archetypes broadly.  Particularly disappointing is Banderas, who, squint and growl as he might, doesn’t bring anything new to the hard-bitten private dick role except his accent.  Maybe it’s not his fault, as the script doesn’t seem written with Antonio in mind: he’s given a Hispanic name (Cruz), but other than that there’s no acknowledgment of his foreign origin—which might have been the one thing the script could seize on to distinguish him from Phillip Marlow, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and their numerous clones.  The story stresses the detective’s philosophical acumen—his search for the missing girl becomes a metaphor for man’s search for meaning—but existentialism has always been the subtext of film noir, and The Big Bang just makes over-obvious what was implicit in the 40s.  The movie also wants to make sure you catch its many, many nods to subatomic physics, so it writes its references in letters three feet high (a warehouse named after Schrödinger, a cafe named after Planck).  Maybe The Big Bang‘s biggest problem is that it’s overanxious to impress us with its cleverness and style; it comes across like a desperate first date.  But that desperation also makes the movie crazy, and if you catch it with the right expectations you just may enjoy it.  It’s a movie that seems made to play on late night pay cable: if you caught it by accident at 2 AM on a sleepless night, you’d be incredulous, and wonder if you were actually dreaming.

Director has been a very successful producer, guiding several critically acclaimed TV shows (including cult favorites “Sports Night” and “24”).  He was also on the production team for David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive.  He knows how to put together a professional-looking movie, but his directorial efforts (which also include the mildly surreal horror Sublime), though filled with interesting bits and pieces, have never really come together.   He’s got obvious visual talents and the right (i.e. weird) sensibilities, though, so he’s still someone to keep an eye on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the film’s bleary, neon glamour and penchant for the bizarre suggests an attempted—and wayward—homage to David Lynch.”–Michelle Orange, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SINGAPORE SLING [Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma] (1990)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Nikos Nikolaidis

FEATURING: Meredyth Herold, Michele Valley, Panos Thanassoulis

PLOT: An alcoholic detective searches for a lost love, presumably dead, and ends up acaptive of two psychotic women. The women (a mother and daughter) ceaselessly torture the helpless and incapacitated victim. He remains mute as they participate in bizarre sexual practices and flaunt their derangement, sometimes literally in his face.

Still from Singapore Sling (1990)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Singapore Sling is one of the rare films where practically every frame is teeming with weirdness. The imagery, behavior, and even the strange nuances in the women’s dialogue are often over-the-top and perverse, yet even while the viewer is made to feel uncomfortable, there is an overwhelming desire to see what comes next. Just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any weirder it somehow manages to top itself.

COMMENTSSingapore Sling is one messed up film.  It is a twisted take on the film noirs that filled cinemas in the early part of the 20th century.  Specifically, it pays homage to Otto Preminger’s stylish classic Laura (1944).  I use the word homage very loosely here, however.  The original film’s music theme is used sporadically throughout, the detective’s lost lover is named Laura, and the nutcase daughter has a painted portrait of herself like Gene Tierney’s Laura character.  The similarities pretty much end there.  Deviance always played a central part in noirs, but not anywhere close to the degree that is on display here.  I have to smile thinking about a dolled up 1940’s socialite having a night out at the theater, dressed to the nines in her pearl necklace and pillbox hat, witnessing this vulgarity.  “What is she going to do with that kiwi fruit”?  Gasp!

Film noir translates to “black film” and Singapore Sling is the purest black possible.  Actually, the black and white cinematography is surprisingly lush and almost seems too perfect for a film with this subject matter.  The beautiful crispness works to its advantage and the film would not have the same impact if shot in color.  The contrast of the blacks and whites are stark and sets the mood perfectly.  If I have any quarrel with the movie it is with the decision to Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SINGAPORE SLING [Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma] (1990)

CAPSULE: TERRIBLY HAPPY [FRYGTELIG LYKKELIG] (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Henrik Rubin Genz

FEATURING: Jakob Cedergren, Kim Bodnia, Lene Maria Christiansen

PLOT: After a mysterious nervous breakdown, city cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is

Still from Terribly Happy (2009)

re-assigned to a claustrophobically small, rural town as its only marshal. He quickly discovers the town’s frightful dynamic: its inhabitants all aware of resident bully Jørgen’s (Kim Bodnia) adulterous and abusive antics, but no one takes a stand against him.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though riddled with strange characters and unexpected darkness, for the most part Terribly Happy is played as a straight thriller with Coen brothers-style humor.  There are a few weird and creepy moments to create tension, but nothing truly unreal.

COMMENTS: Poor Robert.  As played in an understated performance by Jakob Cedergren, he’s a stand-up guy whose darker side is persistently tested as he meets with more and more obstacles.  The more he pushes for change, the more the town’s internal politics and penchant for keeping secrets rise up against him.  The old marshal spent most of his time drinking and allowed a lot of “accidents” and petty crimes to go by undocumented.  After Jørgen’s desperate wife Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christiansen) comes to Robert with evidence of her husband’s physical abuse, he is determined to convict him, but is frequently hindered by both the town’s strict social structure and his own conflicting passions.

This movie feels as if it’s made by someone whose biggest cinematic influences are Blood Simple and Fargo, and that isn’t a bad thing.  Most of Terribly Happy does seem like the Coen Brothers appropriated the premise of Hot Fuzz with Danish actors and more dramatic intent.  A lot of the story plays as an extremely black comedy, but as the film progresses, the development and uncovering of Robert’s character become more focused, and it twists itself into a somewhat bleak but gripping drama.

The narrative is filled with a number of comedic moments placed up against truly unsettling ones, with certain simple visual cues to either send a shiver down the spine or elicit a knowing smile.  Director Henrik Ruben Genz utilizes the expansive boggy fields surrounding the town to create a slightly desolate atmosphere, which results in some visually interesting scenes.  The script, while well-written, is a little uneven and doesn’t do anything especially new, but the strengths of the cast and twisted tone make this film a cool experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It may not sound funny, but there’s a bleakly comic air about the story, and a bit of surrealism, suggesting the most caustic side of the Coen brothers.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is also published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT:  A man suffering from an inability to form short term memories hunts for his wife’s murderer, relying on notes he leaves himself and important facts he tattoos on his body.

Still from Memento (2000)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It isn’t weird.  Other than the unconventional narrative structure, Memento could even be viewed as a bit of hardcore realism.   But it is easy to see why lovers of the weird are attracted to it; the cloudy mystery that attaches to the story and its central cipher doesn’t lift until the very end, creating a disorientation that feels subjectively weird even though the story is actually firmly grounded in reality.

COMMENTS: Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this paragraph.  To appreciate just how intricately Memento is constructed, and how big of an accomplishment the movie is, try reading the sentences in a story or essay backwards, from the last to the first, and see how much sense they make and how satisfying the experience is.  This time, it’s executed flawlessly.  The movie is epistemologically pessimistic, but artistically invigorating; it’s one of those rare, unique plot hooks that come around once or twice a decade, and you can only hope the filmmakers don’t compromise and do invest the extra work required to pull it off.  It’s a simple concept but far more than a gimmick; the inversion of cause and effect works wonders.  Nothing distracts our attention from trying to unravel the puzzle.  The direction and the performances by the three principals are professionally transparent; the script is the star, as it should be in a mystery.  Leonard insists that memory is faulty, eye witness testimony is unreliable, and that the only thing he can depend on is facts—the notes he inks indelibly on his own body—but as the story works its way from the conclusion to the origin, we start to suspect that there may be nothing that we can accept at face value.  It quickly becomes apparent that it would be Continue reading CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

CAPSULE: THE PERFECT SLEEP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Alter

FEATURING: Anton Pardoe, Roselyn Sanchez, Patrick Bauchau

PLOT: A man returns to dark, nameless city to save the life of “the one who got away,” putting his life at risk and his very soul at hazard while navigating the streets and his own past for clues as to her whereabouts.

Still from The Perfect Sleep (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the features of a shadowy noir city full of hyper-naturally Hammett-esque characters smack of something rather strange, The Perfect Sleep really isn’t all that odd, nor is it really that good. It’s more of a hyperbolic homage, a sort of tip-of-the-hat to the noir films of the 40s and 50s that’s so hard and abrupt that it tips the person under the hat. There’s tribute, there’s parody, and then there’s The Perfect Sleep, both somewhere in-between as well as something else entirely.

COMMENTS: There’s something to be said for the positively assaulting aesthetics that pervade this film. This town The Perfect Sleep exists in, extreme (and extremely hilarious) anachronisms aside, fully commits to the idea of the dark and atmospheric urban sprawl that populated so many crime dramas after World War II. Every alleyway seems dangerous, and nobody is who you think they are once you pass them in the night that seems to last forever. But once one soaks in the impressive scenery, The Perfect Sleep quickly becomes a bland song-and-dance routine that feels like an amalgam of Last Man Standing, Dark City, and Double Indemnity, aped poorly and without the safety net of an exorbitant budget. I feel, personally, that this movie’s prime directive should have been to let me in on the story at hand, what will be happening soon. Instead, we are allowed to get lost while the hero, Anton Pardoe, reads exposition distantly from a poor script. It’s like the story, and what our nameless hero is doing, is none of our business, and we’re supposed to just continue blithely along, hoping it will all get sorted out in the end.

The Perfect Sleep makes for a very passive movie watching experience that could have taken an example from The Big Sleep, a noir that had a rather weak story but a dynamic style that kept everyone engaged, thus making the mile-long plot holes seem to vanish into thin air. Instead of taking a page from that movie, though, we find ourselves locked into a story that the characters take incredibly seriously, but whose meaning is lost on the audience. As a weird movie, I would not even suggest it for its unusual moments. Some scenes, like when a freaky doctor punctures the lungs of a couple of strangers with a scalpel, work as unorthodox thriller moments or unnerving horror. But these bits are insignificant compared to the massive time spent amidst the clichés of a period crime drama/dark gangster flick. The critics were, for the most part, unanimous about The Perfect Sleep‘s banality, and I’m afraid I have to throw my hat into the ring with them, this time. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing very weird about that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfortunately, Alter’s often inventive work is kneecapped by a deliriously nonsensical script, which misses the mark as both over-the-top parody and straight-faced homage, and could have been intended as either.”-Andrew Barker, Variety

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DARK COUNTRY (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Thomas Jane

FEATURING: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, Laurie German

PLOT: Two newlyweds returning from their Vegas wedding hit a man in the middle of the road; he lives, but the couple finds he is not all that he seems.

Still from Dark Country (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Dark Country is a bit obtuse at times, and it frustratingly delights fans of the obscure by not explaining its motives or workings very often, but I hesitate recommending mainly because it relies a little too heavily on genre standbys and noir reverence instead of blazing new fantastic territory. It is a 50s thriller/noir mixed with a modern horror, but it doesn’t create its own identity between the two stylings. There are moments of heavy cinematic distortion and interesting ideas that run through the story like a highway across the hungry desert, but it can’t quite escape some level of mediocrity as it bends prostrate for that which has already been done.

COMMENTS: Dark Country represents a promising debut effort from a director who is willing to try new things. What’s really impressive from the start is the writing. It is intense and full of good, genuine human touches that help the movie flow from scene to scene. From the first scene to the end, I felt rapt with attention to these immersive characters and their odd relationship, especially after the drive out of Las Vegas.

It is a journey through dark and unforgiving territory, perhaps a metaphor for the new marriage between main characters Gina and Dick, newlyweds who don’t really know what they’re in for. The young couple just made it official in Vegas, and are ready to go home, but even before their fateful accident, things aren’t what they seem between them. There is tension, there are incidents between the two that are hinted at, and they have secrets from each other right off the bat. After their encounter in the desert with the strange man they hit, things only get worse between them. From an artistic standpoint, Dark Country can be commended as a smart thriller with some brains to back up its craziness.

Visually, it’s a feast for the eyes, and it’s tonally interesting. Thomas Jane wants a very engrossing visual experience, but he is also on a budget here, so we are caught in a limbo of many special effects, none of which really hit the mark in a spectacular way. The CG is on the cheap side (it looks like a violent episode of “Reboot” when they wreck the car near the end!) The green screen is not very successful in melding the real and fake, but the color effects are interesting, not to mention plentiful, and we are treated to some good old fashioned camera trickery with slick editing and nifty shots.

But while it’s a solid debut for Jane, and an offbeat one at that, we’re still not treading across any bold new frontiers with Dark Country. This is a movie I have seen before, in bits and pieces: intense psychological implications, a noir aesthetic, and the lush, frightening mysteries of the deep desert. It’s not anything breathtaking or unflinching. It’s a good and often disturbing take on some classic thriller ideas, and it has a twist in the story that will have you on your toes, but I wouldn’t consider this to be one of the weirdest movies I’d ever seen. With a good cast, a taut script, some interesting effects, and a more intelligent angle than your average thriller, Dark Country has a lot going for it. Just don’t expect it to be too weird, because you might be disappointed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The developments in Tab Murphy’s script are never quite as shocking to us as they are to Dick and Gina, and the story eventually builds the feeling of marking time on the way to its TWILIGHT ZONE-esque resolution… Jane’s visual sense assures that the film is always a spooky pleasure to watch, though…”–Micgael Gingold, Fangoria (contemporaneous)