Inland Empire [A Woman in Trouble]

(USA/France/Poland 2006)

“What the bloody hell is going on?” asks Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) at one point during Inland Empire, David Lynch’s last (so far) full length feature film. It’s an excellent question, one that anyone watching this three-hour nightmare no doubt has already wondered by this point.

Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, an elegant actress up for the lead in a new film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, due to start shooting very soon. A strange Polish neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) who lives “just up the way” drops by her California mansion one afternoon and casually but ominously brings up a murder in the film. “That’s not part of the story,” Nikki tells her visitor, who insists she’s wrong and throws a tantrum right there in the sitting room, screaming about “brutal fucking murder” and an unpaid bill. Annoyed and visibly freaked out, Nikki has her butler (Ian Abercrombie) remove her.

Nikki gets the part. Some weirdness happens, and the film’s director (Irons) tells Nikki and her rugged costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) that the film is supposedly cursed: it’s a sort of remake of an old Polish movie called 47 that was never completed because of a double murder on the set. The actors are upset but they agree to proceed with production despite the producers’ lack of transparency.

Meanwhile, Nikki is falling for Devon. The narrative gets weird here, ping-ponging back and forth between Nikki and Devon and their characters, Susan and Billy, as well as Susan’s husband, Smithy (Peter J. Lucas), who knows something is going on. Billy’s wife (Julia Ormond) proves to be a character of interest of ever increasing importance, bleeding into another seemingly unrelated subplot about Sue Blue (Dern), a rough and caustic Hollywood chick who finds herself pregnant. The problem is, her husband (Lucas) is sterile. And just who are all these hookers hanging out with Sue, smoking and dancing to “The Loco-Motion” in her living room?

Interspersed between all this is yet another triangular subplot set in 1800s Poland: a cheating wife (Karolina Gruszka) learns that her husband (Krzysztof Majchrzak) plans to kill her lover (Lucas). And just to keep thing interesting, Lynch throws in “The Rabbits,” a spooky sitcom about a family of…rabbits. Actually, actors in rabbit suits (one of them has the voice of Naomi Watts). Later, Sue somehow ends up in their living room.

Probably his most indulgent film, Inland Empire is the kind of thing I imagine most people associate with David Lynch: a surreal trip through the subconscious, the imagination, alternate universes, and time that starts out with a discernible plot but disintegrates into seemingly disjointed events, actors playing multiple characters, bizarre and vivid imagery, random upbeat pop songs, and a creepy score by Marek Zebrowski. Flashes of Lynch’s usual sense of humor pop up here and there, but for the most part this is a dark and somber film about betrayal, loss, and karma. Perhaps its strongest aspect is its overriding sense of dread, and the worst thing about is that it’s impossible to tell whether the scary part is coming or has already arrived.

Inland Empire is surely a horror film. I imagine not many people getting into it, and most even being turned off. Length and structure—or lack thereof—aside, it’s not an easy film to watch or understand, and frankly I’m not entirely sure I grasp what the whole thing is about. Indeed, different characters say “I don’t understand” over and over, and Devon/Billy tells Grace/Susan a few times that she isn’t making sense. A common thread that ties the multiple plots together eventually emerges, but I get the impression that this is merely a heap of undeveloped ideas Lynch assembled into one big project.

Still, I found myself mesmerized all the way through it. The ending, where Sue’s fate plays out over the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is dowright distressing. In a way, it’s also beautiful. Lynch offers a lot to chew on here; I’ve gone over it multiple times since I saw it. I have my theory of what really transpires in Inland Empire, and someday I’ll watch again with an eye toward backing it up. It won’t be anytime soon, though.

Post script: I had the pleasure of seeing John Waters speak in the afternoon before I caught Inland Empire. Needless to say, it required a major shift in gears.

With Harry Dean Stanton, Diane Ladd , Mary Steenburgen, Terry Crews, William H. Macy, Leon Niemczyk, Nastassja Kinski, Monique Cash, Latrina Bolger, Fulani Bahati, Ashley Calloway, Erynn Dickerson, Jovonie Leonard, Jennifer Locke, Helena Chase, Nae

Production: Absurda, Studio Canal, Fundacja Kultury, Camerimage Festival

Distribution: Ryko (USA), 518 Media (USA), Absurda (USA), Studio Canal (International), Mars Distribution (International)

180 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.inlandempirecinema.com

http://www.davidlynch.de

Body of Evidence

(USA 1993)

“That’s what I do. I fuck. And it made me eight million dollars.”

—Rebecca Carlson

As true blue a Madonna fan as I am, I haven’t bothered to see a considerable number of her movies. Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence is one of them (she has top billing here, so yes, it’s a Madonna movie). On a ridiculously cold and rainy Saturday night, I decided to change that when I saw it showing on cable. Now that I’ve seen it, what surprised me most about Body of Evidence is that it’s actually not that bad. To be clear, it’s not good—it’s fluffy erotic fromage designed to be “provocative,” a sort of lame Basic Instinct (as if that’s a good movie)—but it’s not quite the disaster I expected.

Madonna is Rebecca Carlson, a femme fatale accused of slipping cocaine into her older lover’s nasal spray and “fucking him to death”—i.e., arousing him to the point of inducing a fatal heart attack. Willem Dafoe is her defense attorney. Of course, he gets involved with her despite his happy marriage to Julianne Moore.

Brad Mirman’s writing is pretty basic; his script feels a lot like a Law & Order episode, skipping through real life things like discovery and motions in limine to get right to the court stuff. I half-expected to hear that clang sound between scenes. His dialogue is often silly and, as demonstrated above, at times cringeworthy.

The promotional poster for Body of Evidence promises to make Fatal Attraction and the aforementioned Basic Instinct “look like Romper Room;” it doesn’t. The candle wax scene is kinda hot, but that’s it. The cast is impressive, but sadly no one gives a remarkable performance. Moore’s role, one of her first in a major studio release, is so small it’s background. Madonna pretty much plays Dita, her alterego from her Erotica album and Sex book, both of which came out just a few months before Body of Evidence. Her acting isn’t good, but somehow she comes off slightly less wooden than any character from her earlier movies, even A League of Their Own. Her look is exactly the same as in the video for “Bad Girl.” I’m not sure what Dafoe or Joe Mantegna, both good actors, saw in this project.

Body of Evidence is ultimately a forgettable snooze of a film. If it’s offensive at all, it’s because it’s boring.

With Anne Archer, Lillian Lehman, Stan Shaw, Charles Hallahan, Mark Rolston, Jürgen Prochnow, Frank Langella

Production: Dino De Laurentiis Communications, Neue Constantin Films

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (USA), Guild Film Distribution (UK)

99 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) D+

Cool World

(USA 1992)

“That one, she’s a waste of ink.”

“What, you got ink for brains? Get down!”

—Det. Frank Harris

Oh boy. Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World is not good. It probably started out with some fun ideas, but man did they get lost in a morass of crap. A jailed cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) draws a scantily clad floozie, Holli Would (Kim Basinger), whom he fantasizes about and no doubt spills a lot of seed over while he’s locked up. Upon his release from the big house, he gets zapped into Cool World, a fifth dimension where humans (“noids”) interact with cartoons (“scribbles”). They can’t have sex with each other, though—as if that’s the first thing you want to do with a cartoon.

Oh, there’s also a random, inelegantly placed storyline about Detective Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), Cool World’s one-man vice squad, and how he ends up there after a motorcycle accident that kills his mother (Janni Brenn-Lowen).

Where to begin? The plot is full of unexplained holes, and I didn’t care enough to bother trying to fill them in. The jokes are lame, and there’s an awful lot of filler. I’ve never seen Basinger as boring as she is here, with lines like, “Now you can buy me more fries, dickhead.” Whatever. Byrne is an even bigger snooze, unable to feign an ounce of excitement over…anything. Cool World is a blatant ripoff of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, and even Tim Burton’s Batman; sadly, the finished product doesn’t come close to any of them. 

The animation, however, is cool: a kind of retro-futuristic Ren and Stimpy thing. The soundtrack, which features original songs by the likes of David Bowie, Thompson Twins, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, is great even if it’s so 1992 with its techno-industrial sound. Plus, Pitt is actually decent despite the material, his affected accent and the awful suit and tie combo straight from U Men or Oak Tree aside. It’s strange and sad to see him in something as soulless as Cool World, but he’s nice to look at.

With Michele Abrams, Dierdre O’Connell, Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Production: Rough Draft Studios

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

102 minutes
Rated PG-13

(MoviePlex) D-

Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary

(USA/Jamaica 2016)

How low can a punk get? Director James Lathos gives a pretty good idea with Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary, a sympathetic if sensationalistic picture of the ups and downs of punk/reggae frontman Paul “H.R.” Hudson, also known by his Jamaican name Joseph I. The film is a companion of sorts to Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains by Lathos and Howie Abrams.

Lathos lays out essential information about Hudson’s unconventional and rather nomadic upbringing, his path to the limelight via the ’80s D.C. punk scene, and his spiritual journey. That last part sounds wretchedly dull, but it’s not: Hudson became a Rastafarian, and his music reflected it. The problem is, he also started to unravel around the same time, frequently leaving and rejoining Bad Brains like a dreadlocked Ross Perot.

Sure, there are early live performances that are obligatory in a documentary like Finding Joseph I; fortunately, they’re also pretty damned cool. Many of Hudson’s contemporaries offer insightful, astute, and often entertaining commentary. If he doesn’t avoid nostalgia, Lathos at least doesn’t get sappy. Smart.

All that said, I found the whole thing disconcertingly exploitative. I appreciate that somewhere in here is a point about mental health. Frankly, though, it could have been advanced without making Hudson look like such a hopeless freak. I doubt it was intentional, as this really does come off as a labor of love and not mean-spirited. Nonetheless, Finding Joseph I has an insidious ring to it.

With Earl Hudson, Ras Michael, Guy Oseary, Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Duff McKagan, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Sonny Sandoval, Cro-Mags, Chino Moreno, Deftones, Fishbone, Sublime, The Wailers, Englishman, Chuck Treece, Rakaa Iriscience, Alec MacKaye, Ian MacKaye, Saul Williams, Opie Ortiz

Production: Giraffe Productions, Small Axe Films

Distribution: Small Axe Films

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Jay Mohr

92 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) C+

CIMMfest

http://hrdocumentary.com

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration [Sounds of Exodus: An Ode to the Great Migration]

(USA 2016)

Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards made some waves with his 2015 documentary A Ferguson Story, which delved into some of the events following Officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The subject of Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration isn’t as heavy or bleak, but it’s every bit as intriguing.

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration is a smooth, flashy short film that honors the music and dance forms that black Americans brought to other parts of the country, mostly industrialized cities, through the Great Migration from the South during the first half of the 20th Century. In just a few minutes, Edwards demonstrates how both assimilated into urban life and continue to shape modern culture. I couldn’t find credits, but the guy tap dancing in the stairwell stood out; his taps are downright melodious.

Production: 11 Dollar Bill

Distribution:

4 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) B

CIMMfest

https://www.soundsofexodus.com

Heart Like a Wheel

(USA 1983)

“Trying to make us damned…golf!

—Connie Kalitta

Heart Like a Wheel is the kind of movie you see on late night TV: a mildly amusing true story about someone you’ve never heard of and her struggle to overcome adversity and maybe find herself in the process. In this case, that someone is Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia), later known as “Cha Cha,” a 1960s housewife who became the first woman to obtain a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the first person ever to win two and then three Top Fuel titles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Muldowney). Her struggle consists of establishing herself as a serious dragster. The adversity, well, that’s the sexist all-male drag race scene. You might say the whole thing is a drag.

One night, Shirley’s mechanic husband, Jack (Leo Rossi), lets her race his sports car on the street. She beats Jack’s rival and discovers that she digs the thrill of drag racing. Soon, she’s hanging out at the racetrack, where she meets Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), a veteran racer and womanizer. Jealous of her success, Jack leaves Shirley to her own devices.

I picked up Heart Like a Wheel for one reason, and one reason only: I read that My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult sampled this movie in a song or two. Overall, it’s a mixed bag, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s better than mediocre. The acting is good. Ken Friedman’s screenplay is competent if not exactly deep, peppered with some snappy dialogue. When a skeezy reporter (Martin Casella) asks Shirley what a beautiful girl like her is doing at a racetrack, for example, her one-word response is casual, bored, and totally fucking awesome: “Winning.” Director Jonathan Kaplan stages realistic fight scenes, particularly between Connie and Shirley’s teenage son, John (played by a young Anthony Edwards). He even throws in a couple of real racers (Steve Evans and Sam Posey) and fire. It was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1984). The whole thing comes off like a soap opera, but it works. I never did catch those samples, though.

Bonus: the DVD I have includes trailers for four other films, The Turning Point, Kenny & Company, Rhinestone with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, and Six Pack with Kenny Rogers and Anthony Michael Hall. They all look as awful as “Born to Win” by Jill Michaels, the Heart Like a Wheel theme song.

With Hoyt Axton, Creed Bratton, Tiffany Brissette, Michael Cavanaugh, Diane Delano, Mitzi Hoag, Nora Heflin, Brandon Brent Williams

Production: Aurora Productions

Distribution: 20th Century Fox

113 minutes
Rated PG

(DVD purchase) C

1 Mile to You

(USA 2017)

High school senior track star Kevin (Graham Rogers) is livin’ the dream in his Mississippi small town: he’s handsome, athletic, and setting records in the state. He and his girlfriend, sweet Ellie (Stefanie Scott), are working on a way to end up in the same city for college next year so they can be together.

Kevin’s happiness implodes after a track meet one Saturday in the fall: his coach (Tim Roth) loses control of the bus carrying his entire team, which leads to an accident that kills everyone on board—including Ellie, who happens to be his coach’s daughter. The only reason Kevin isn’t on the bus is because he has to go somewhere with his parents after the meet.

Kevin deals with his grief and his guilt by running—a lot. And hard. He quickly discovers that he can “communicate” with Ellie during the runner’s high he gets toward the end of a sustained, hard run. The chance to be with her again makes him run faster and faster, more and more.

For some reason—maybe his whole class was on the track team, I don’t know—Kevin switches schools. His new principal (Peter Coyote) coerces him into joining the track team, and he participates grudgingly. Kevin doesn’t like his new school, his new coach (Billy Crudup), or Henny (Liana Liberato), the girl who follows him everywhere. On top of that, a running rival (Thomas Cocquerel) is giving him shit. It’s all getting in the way of his time with Ellie.

Based on Jeremy Jackson’s Life at These Speeds: A Novel, 1 Mile to You is not what I expected. It’s an underwhelming melodrama disguised as a sports tragedy. The plot is somewhat promising and the film has a few good scenes, but the story lacks intensity. I’m not sure whether the problem is Marc Novak’s screenplay or Leif Tilden’s directing, but the characters don’t fully develop and Kevin’s catharsis is given shallow treatment. The whole thing is dull. Plus, the special effects that tell us Kevin is in his trance are, in a word, cheesy.

Tilden has a lot of talent to work with, but he underutilizes everyone except Rogers and maybe Crudup. While I won’t be surprised to see Rogers in bigger and better things in the future, 1 Mile to You did not impress me.

With Melanie Lynskey, Ty Parker, Peter Holden, Elizabeth Canavan, Jaren Mitchell, Casey Groves

Production: Cinema Revival, Culmination Productions, Ingenious Media, LATS Productions, WeatherVane Productions

Distribution: Paseo Miramar Pictures, Gravitas Ventures

104 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) C-

https://m.facebook.com/1MILETOYOU/

Empire Records

(USA 1995)

“I’m the idiot, you’re the screw up, and we are all losers,” sums up Empire Records general manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) when he realizes that clerk Lucas (Rory Cochrane) blew the store’s receipts in Atlantic City the night before, which incidentally was the first time Joe let him close shop. His heart was in the right place: Lucas wanted to raise capital to buy the store before owner Mitchell (Ben Bode) sells it to a lame corporate chain called Music Town. Empire Records, you see, is more than a retail outlet: it’s a haven for floundering misfits, including a young shoplifter (Brendon Sexton) who goes by “Warren Beatty.”

Empire Records was a box office bomb (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=empirerecords.htm). Carol Heikkinen’s script is earnest in its desire to (I guess) reveal some revelation about ’90s youth, but the plot is all too predictable, coming off as a third-rate The Breakfast Club. The cast, though, is impressive; loaded with professionals (Debi Mazar and Maxwell Caulfield) and future stars like Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler, the actors collectively ooze a credible chemistry. Director Allan Moyle pulls some decent performances out of them. A playfully snarky sense of humor about American culture pervades this film, evident in such nifty devices as “Rex Manning Day” and a dream sequence involving Gwar.

Empire Records is very much a product of its time, but that’s what makes it interesting to watch now. This no doubt is why it was selected as the third screening of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series.

With Robin Tunney, Johnny Whitworth, James “Kimo” Wills, Ethan Embry, Coyote Shivers

Production: Monarchy Enterprises B.V., New Regency Pictures, Regency Entertainment, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Public Chicago) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

Wait Until Dark

(USA 1967)

A heroin smuggling ring. A creepy doll. A corpse. A blind woman alone in her basement apartment in the West Village. These are the elements of Wait Until Dark, a quaint and dingy little crime thriller adapted from Frederick Knott’s 1966 play by screenwriters Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Carrington.

Suzy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) is the hapless gudgeon who, being blind, already has the proverbial wool over her eyes. Her husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), comes home from a business trip with a doll that unbeknownst to him contains a hidden stash of heroin sewn into it. This does not bode well for Lisa (Samantha Jones), the glamorous and sexy stranger who asks him to hold it for her at JFK International Airport.

A case of mistaken identity leads a pair of small time crooks (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) to Sam and Suzy’s apartment, where psychotic hooligan Harry Roat (Alan Arkin) coerces them into helping him find the doll—as soon as they dispose of a dead body. Nice. They devise an elaborately devious scam to recover the doll when they realize Suzy, who walks in on them, is blind.

Terence Young’s directing is certainly competent. I last saw this movie on some late night UHF station when I was a kid, and two things have stayed with me: a sense of severe claustrophobia as the story unfolds, and that fucking groovy apartment. The plot has flaws that strain credibility. For one thing, Suzy is far too unguarded for a New Yorker. Why doesn’t she lock her door? Roger Ebert pointed out this detail (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/wait-until-dark-1968). I didn’t obsess over it like he did, but I noticed it and thought the same thing. When Roat tells her he knows she has the doll, why doesn’t Suzy hand it over? Why does she tell Gloria (Julie Herrod) to meet Sam at the train station instead of going to the police? Why do the guys bother to put on disguises if Suzy can’t see them?

Despite these glaring issues, Young ultimately succeeds in bringing Wait Until Dark to a boil. It lives up to its hype: I saw people jump in their seats at the end. The acting here overcomes any shortcomings in plot. Hepburn is little more than a blind Holly Golightly, but at certain points she reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck screaming that she can’t wake up from a nightmare in, I think, The Night Walker. Weston is a little too bumbling, but Crenna and Arkin are chillingly menacing and foreboding even if they are silly by today’s standards (yeah, sunglasses at night went a long way making Corey Hart look tough). Henry Mancini’s eerie score is the clincher in setting the right mood.

A trivial point of interest: Suzy’s apartment is in the same block of rowhouses as the one used for the Huxtable residence on The Cosby Show (http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/w/Wait_Until_Dark.html#.WRU0W1LMyWY). The small street, St. Luke’s Place, has a bit of literary history, too (http://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/27/realestate/in-a-village-enclave-15-remarkable-rowhouses.html).

With Jean Del Val, Frank O’Brien

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers/Seven Arts

108 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

Kill Bill: Volume 1

(USA 2003)

“Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest. And like a forest, it’s easy to lose your way. To get lost. To forget where you came in.”

—Hattori Hanzō

“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack,” The Bride (Uma Thurman) plainly informs one of her assailants before she exacts revenge. “Not rationality.” Uh, really? Right off the bat, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 (not to be conflated with Kill Bill: Volume 2, which is longer but not quite as good) is an action film packed with snark and coolness. Uma Thurman is The Bride (codeman Black Mamba), who in the sepiatone opening scene is lying on the floor of a chapel in El Paso, Texas. She’s in a wedding dress, bleeding and pleading for her life. “It’s your baby,” she tells Bill (David Carradine, who has a bigger part in the second installment). He shoots her in the head.

Four years later, The Bride wakes up—midfuck, mind you—from a coma in the hospital. There’s no baby. She takes out a would-be rapist, Jasper (Jonathan Loughran), and an orderly named Buck (Michael Bowen), who pimped her out. Incidentally, Buck has a catchphrase that rhymes with his name—you figure it out. The Bride runs off with Buck’s truck, the “Pussy Wagon.” Once she gets her feet and legs moving, she sets out to settle a score—or six. First, though, she has to persuade retired master swordsmith Hattori Hanzō (Sonny Chiba), who runs a sushi bar in Okinawa, to make her a sword.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is totally far fetched, but that’s not important. Like most Tarantino films, the emphasis here is on the characters and the action, not the plot; otherwise, two hours of not much more than a badass blonde babe methodically killing teammates who double-crossed her when she was a member of something called the Viper Assassination Squad wouldn’t work. Originally intended as one long film (http://killbill.wikia.com/wiki/Kill_Bill:_Vol._1), Kill Bill: Volume 1 depicts two of the paybacks: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), who’s now a housewife and mother in suburban Los Angeles, and O’Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the head of the Tokyo Yakuza.

Beautifully staged and shot, the violence is over the top yet perfectly choreographed. The scene at the House of Blue Leaves is eloquent right down to the blood in the snow. Tarantino plays around with the sequence of events and mixes genres including anime. He employs his penchant for sharp dialogue, snazzy settings with memorable names, and sick humor. Plus, he throws in cool music and clothes; Daryl Hannah dressed as a nurse, for example, is fucking fabulous! As a result, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a dazzling bloodfest. It takes a certain type to love a film like this—and it’s one of my favorites.

With Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, James Parks, Sakichi Sato, Ambrosia Kelley

Production: A Band Apart

Distribution: Miramax Films

111 minutes
Rated R

(Logan Theatre) A

https://www.miramax.com/movie/kill-bill-volume-1/