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

Wild at Heart

(USA 1990)

“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘O.'”

—Sailor Ripley

 

“And this here’s a story with a lesson about bad ideas.”

—Lula Pace Fortune

 

“Don’t turn away from love, Sailor.”

—Glinda the Good Witch

Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s more maligned films. Roger Ebert hated it to the point of indignation (https://www.google.com/amp/www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amp/wild-at-heart-1990). Vincent Canby seemed perplexed—I can’t tell whether he was bored, annoyed, or just flummoxed (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE5D7123EF934A2575BC0A966958260). Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “appalling,” “inept,” and “debasing” (https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/08/bad-ideas/). A host of other critics rolled their eyes and sighed, dismissing it, I suppose, as a violent and exploitive piece of shock fluff.

I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.

An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.

Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.

OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.

As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.

Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.

What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.

Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.

With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films

Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)

125 minutes
Rated X (alternate version)

(Music Box) B

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de

Pretty in Pink

(USA 1986)

Being a full-fledged child of the Eighties—I entered the decade at 9 years old and came out of it at 19—John Hughes spoke to me. Naturally, his teen movies (before he started aiming for Millennials with drivel like Home Alone and Curly Sue) hold a special place in my heart. It seems strange then that even though I played the soundtrack so many times I had to replace it twice, I never saw Pretty in Pink from start to finish. So, when a theater near me screened it to commemorate the 30th anniversary, I thought, “fuckin’ A, why not?”

Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her mother abandoned her and her father (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s lost in sorrow because of it. Andie attends an apparently elite high school mainly for “richies”—poor girl slang for “rich kids.” Prom is looming, and no one has asked Andie, something she laments to her boss (Annie Potts) at the record store where she works. One of the aforementioned “richies”—Blane (Andrew McCarthy)—suddenly takes an interest in Andie, sparking jealousy and resistance from Duckie (John Cryer), Andie’s buddy since childhood, and Steff (James Spader), Blane’s best friend. Things get ugly when Blane asks Andie to be his date to the prom—uglier than that homemade dress she wears to it.

Hughes went for something a little more dramatic and maybe mature than what he had done up to this point. Nice try, but no cigar: Pretty in Pink doesn’t totally suck, but it’s not one of his better movies. The acting is good, particularly the scenes with Ringwald and Potts. However, the plot—poor girl meets rich boy—was a cliché even at the time. Hughes himself explored the idea of class and social hierarchy many times before in more interesting and thoughtful ways. The writing lacks the punch of, say, Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. The characters, even Duckie, are colorful but hollow compared to other Hughes films. I found it hard to relate to any of them. Even the alternate ending—Andie ends up with Duckie—is no improvement.

Perhaps its worst flaw is that Pretty in Pink is not one bit fun—it lacks the wit that marks a John Hughes films from this period. The subject matter is heavy, and there’s too much going on that weighs down the story—the business, for example, with Andie’s missing mother and having to coach her father back into reality coupled with the hate she and Blane face from their respective friends give Pretty in Pink a dour vibe. There’s a palpable cynicism that doesn’t work because it comes off as bitter. On top of that, there’s far less comic relief from the sidelines—Potts does her job here, but Cryer is more annoying than funny. Sure, there are some nice moments and a few good lines, but that’s it. Hughes hadn’t lost his touch—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out later the same year—but Pretty in Pink is a drag.

All that said, no movie from the Eighties is complete without a soundtrack—and Pretty in Pink was a great one. When my music vocabulary was culled from pop radio and MTV, it introduced me to stuff I otherwise would have missed. I still listen to it today; in fact, I’m going to put it on now.

(AMC River East) C-

Paris, Texas

(USA 1984)

I wasn’t sure what to make of Paris, Texas at first. It opens with a twangy Ry Cooder slide guitar playing as some grubby dude in a tattered suit and a red baseball cap wanders through a desert in the American Southwest. Carrying only a plastic gallon water jug, he stumbles into a gas station bar and passes out. When he comes to, he’s in some town hospital– a sad, one-room affair staffed with a lone German physician (Bernhardt Wicki)– and refuses to speak. Insert eyeroll here.

This man, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), has a brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who comes from Los Angeles to a dubious rescue. Slowly, it is revealed that Travis has been M.I.A. for four years. He had a family and a life, and lost everything except a plot of land in Paris…Texas, that is. Walt reunites Travis with his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). After an awkward adjustment, Travis and Hunter hit the road in search of wife and mom Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who sends Hunter a check each month from a bank in Houston even though she no longer speaks to him.

I love this film, and I can’t come up with anything negative to say about it. Written by playwright Sam Shepard, adapted by L.M. Kit Carson, and directed by Wim Wenders, it’s closer to perfect than any other film I’ve seen in a long time. The story is beautifully simple, and unfolds poetically (as corny as that sounds). The characters, on the other hand, are anything but simple; they’re flawed, searching, frustrating, and real. So much happens without a lot of action: the small, quiet events that transpire here are big, magic moments of truth. The desert scenery, highways, and big sky are more than just a stunning backdrop: they reinforce themes of loss, redemption, and sacrifice that surface throughout the story. Absolutely timeless and flawless.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A+