Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Defensive Cinema #4: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Defensive Cinema is a series devoted to films seemingly dismissed by the greater population. And me getting all defensive like and telling you why my opinions hold more water than yours.

"When this fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises... And then all goodness is in jeopardy."

I understand any fan's disappointment over not getting closure to the classic series Twin Peaks. No new revelations, no Doppelganger Dale Cooper. And I certainly can't blame them for being angry at not seeing its many beloved characters back in their eerie, offbeat digs -- especially when in the place of that is the most depressingly dark incest drama you'll ever see. It's befitting then that the film opens with piercing screams as a television set is smashed to bits. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me seems best suited to fans of the director's most ambiguous efforts. Those tuning in just for the coffee and cherry pie are about to get served something blacker than midnight on a moonless night.

"Your Laura disappeared. It's just me now."

David Lynch always saw Twin Peaks as a show about a girl, Laura Palmer. It's quite clear that when the series lost sight of her, it did (ever so slightly) derail. Once the mystery of her killer was solved, the series inevitably had to lose much of its compelling center. Pushing the focus in on Laura, as this "prequel" does, ultimately pushes the familiar setting into its most strange places, to the aid of some deeply disturbing and moving cinema, but to the loss of narrative ease and the characteristic charms of its TV origins. I'm content with that since it's another of Lynch's abstract art-pieces. His best films are something to experience, and despite this film's darkest recesses of innocence lost, it's one to lose yourself in. More often than not threads of the story seem senseless or random, and yet their placement, their staging, their overall essence render them completely captivating. No one turns Americana into atmospheric hell better than Lynch. We're not in Kansas anymore. We're WAY off the map.

: Do you think if you were falling in space you would slow down after awhile, or go faster and faster?

Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything... Then you'd BURST into fire. Forever. And the angels wouldn't help you, because they've all gone away.

Sheryl Lee gives a singular, pulverizing performance that surpasses anything we've seen from her as either Laura or Maddie on the series. She plays each of her scenes on the verge of a painful hysteria - a lost little girl and a madwoman confined behind her last shred of sanity, and her last days on earth. She extends her emotions beyond the obvious sympathy though: the fact that Laura's merely a child who has been sexually abused by the men of her idyllic small town for the better (worst) part of her life. Laura knows she has nothing left, even if she's so far been able to veil her consuming inner demons behind charity work and a spiraling drug addiction. She is a girl on fire whose only hope is to be extinguished, and perhaps the most grim notion of the film is that Laura knows, and occasionally desires, that her end is near.

David Lynch's directorial feat is breathtaking all the while offputting. The content is hideously ugly yet masked behind layers of visual arrest, and Angelo Badalamenti's masterful mix of melancholy jazz fusion consistently punctures through to the film's bleak heart. This film's no different from Lynch's infinitely more praised Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr., as it channels lives in the balance like the static fuzz of an electrical current. Images and characters speak in riddles, and the audience becomes a confused passerby in Laura's tragic dual dimensions. The picture postcard perfection of Twin Peaks shreds through to each of her chilling alternate worlds: the photo of a doorway that leads back to the bedroom where her nightmares began, a Canadian bar where she becomes a teenager transformed for male pleasure, and a Red Room which holds all of Laura's misery, madness, and maybe her only existence of hope.

Fire Walk With Me is at once a harrowing horror film, an oddball family drama, a surrealist satire, and above all the devastating attempt to peel back the layers of a homecoming queen whose life and death has been "wrapped in plastic." If the series is about the pieces of a town left in mourning, Fire Walk With Me is about the primal scream that shatters it.

--There's even more Lynch-inspired love for Laura Dern in my latest "Signatures" post at Film Experience. I promise... no more talk of incest, just huffing paint.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Drag Me to Paradise Falls or Drag Me to Hell

Club Silencio is back with two brief film reviews for two new-ish films. What I lack in being current or prolific, I often make up for with poorly timed innuendos and swearing. Welcome to the Club!

Movin' on Up to a deluxe townhouse in the sky.

Pixar is like the fine dining of children's entertainment. There's always something fresh on the kid's menu, but you can stilll depend on their classic mac and cheese and tater tots because they too are so often cooked to perfection. Up is another refined but youthful dish; a whimsical fantasy that sidesteps the crass fart jokes and trite musical numbers we as a culture have become accustomed to shoving down our kids throats.

It's a bit of a filmmaking marvel really - not much different from the logistics of a house tied to balloons. Up manages to float effortlessly over topics like divorce, miscarriage, the disenfranchisement of the elderly, the falsehood of childhood idols... Amongst talking animals no less! But it's these nuances that highlight Pixar's most profound worth: making entertainment for all ages of emotional maturity. They're films that can truly grow with their audience. We can go from laughing at that dog with the funny voice, to sobbing over the ravages of age and wayward childhood dreams. Fun all the same, for the young and dangerously old. Even so Up is never a downer. Tinged with sad moments -- a montage of our hero's greatest love and loss is especially surprising and touching -- there's a hope and reach behind this otherwise lighthearted fare.

As retired Carl Fredricksen finds himself old and alone, his only hope in his waning years is to give his wife the adventure she always wanted and a home at the edge of Paradise. (Well, Paradise Falls in South America.) The youthful spirit of exploration finds Carl tying balloons to his home with the unknowing help of an adorable young camper, Russell. Together they ascend to Paradise Falls where they befriend rare birds, talking dogs, and a maniacal explorer hellbent on finishing his life's work. In summary the film sounds explicitly superfluous, but that discredits a big and genuine heart, and enough laughs to surpass most live-action adult fare this summer.

Fair enough the "talking dogs" element never quite works for the movie, but it never really works against it either. By the time Carl lifts off we're in a fantasy world, beyond the city and beyond the clouds to a place known as Disney Logic. Animals must be cute, lovable and verbose... at least all but one of them who is mean and will be punished or humiliated by Act III. Fantasy is fantasy and the film embraces it with more extremes as the film progresses (dog fighter pilots), but then it also never loses its humor about it (dog fighter pilots steering with chew toys). There's more than enough sweetness and sentimentality but it always feels earned, and it's always cleverly undercut for laughs or the next thoughtful development.

Pixar's hot streak continues (off-roading only once with anthropomorphic cars), and it's with a kid's movie about the elderly, which is something of a comfort in these oft-jaded times. Nemo's mom died and so did Grandma Ellie, but life still goes on and so do the dreams that take flight in childhood - much like a house floating into the heavens and landing in unexplored lands.

What gets gypsy out of your hair?

Obvious, protruding exposition seems a worthless criticism when we're dealing with gooey gypsy curses and lethal handkerchiefs. Even if it's easily choreographed, Sam Raimi's slapstick stew still keeps boiling with just enough hellish heat, if mostly because it seems so aware of its all-nonsense approach. There's a thoughtful undercurrent to Drag Me to Hell that's perfect for our economic woes, and the tried and true lesson that one should always help others in need - no matter if it's an old woman losing her home or a powerful gypsy with ties to a goat demon. There's a purpose behind all of the film's ridiculousness, but it never aims to be anything more than a demented good time. As fans of Raimi's Evil Dead films should know, we're here to see something nasty thrown in our lead character's face. Thankfully Alison Lohman seems up to this sweet-to-savage challenge, and that includes plenty of icky obstacles (maggots, toothless old women) that should make Bruce Campbell fans retch with glee.

Christine Brown (Lohman), once the county fair "Pork Queen," sees potential for personal growth that includes finally meeting her lover's pompous family and seeking a promotion at her bank job. With personal gain comes some casualty when a desperate elderly customer is refused by Christine, her sights set on Assistant Manager. If only Christine knew she was dealing with a gypsy (didn't she SEE the handkerchief and costume jewelry) and her bank's parking garage was patrolled by security. A bitch of a curse is soon placed on her head (or the button of her jacket) and soon Christine will be... dragged to hell. Simple, stupid, and lovingly so is Raimi's return to horror.

It's nice not only to see an original horror film in theaters but one that has this much fun with itself. Here Raimi wants his audience to feel each jolt of his absurdity and revel in bad taste. Mind you we do have a few modern drawbacks that are all too common. There's a feeling the film drew back for its PG-13 rating, which isn't a hindrance necessarily since the film isn't driven by excessive gore but by excess alone. Besides that there are too many crucial shock bits cluttered with clumsy CGI. That's what three Spidermans will do to you I suppose, but Raimi's visual trickery is joyous enough without all that pixelated plasma. One can take pleasure in seeing people stapled in the face, corpses sucking face, uprooting the dead... but this kind of flagrant CGI is just vulgar.

Drag Me to Hell is best described as a Harvest Cake. It's a gritty blend of questionable taste, and while I wish the ingredients were even a bit more surprising, it sure is a delightful waste of calories.

* These reviews were clearly written in extreme hunger. Instead of comments, leave snacks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Walking and Talking and Bathing in Virgins

"You know, maybe we're - we're only good at brief encounters, walking around European cities in warm climate."
Before Sunset

I'd travel anywhere with Julie Delpy, not just Vienna and Paris. Even if she becomes a manic-depressive activist, I'd still like her! I'd still want to hang out with her!

She's so smart, funny and talented, I already have my bags packed for our trip to Hungary. Although I urge the virgins out there to pack light...

Virgin bloodbaths will definitely be a new experience - especially to those of us used to seeing a milder Julie Delpy speculating and swooning over life and love. Nevertheless, Julie's latest directorial venture, The Countess, seems like a trip worth taking. If anything it sounds rejuvenating.

Sadly the trip to Hungary isn't scheduled for departure until June 25th, and that's only if you're in Germany. The rest of us will have to wait and take mundane, virgin-less baths until the as-yet-undecided date.

In the meantime venture to Film Experience for my latest "Signatures" post in which I go sightseeing with Julie Delpy. What do we see on this tour? A whole lot of Julie Delpy, with a detour to Julie Delpy. Oh, and a gondola!

Other recent "Signatures" excursions:

  • The unsinkable Kathy Bates takes us into her Colorado home where she abducts romance novelists. Then to her quaint home in Maine, where she disposes of husbands and elderly employers.
  • The creative Catherine O'Hara takes us on a tour of the art world in bustling Chicago and fabulous New York City. And she still forgets Macaulay Culkin.
  • The revitalizing Jamie Lee Curtis brings us along on a surprising journey from Haddonfield, Illinois to Lindsay Lohan, California.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Defensive Cinema #3: Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Defensive Cinema is a series devoted to films seemingly dismissed by the greater population. And me getting all defensive like and telling you why my opinions hold more water than yours.

"Margot tried to murder me when we were girls. She put me on a baking sheet, sprinkled me with paprika and put me in the oven."

Margot at the Wedding is a film about what it means to be a family. That includes selling them out for your novel, contemplating their abandonment on a bus, and trying to sabotage their happiest day.

Noah Baumbach's sour little saga is the antithesis of what we usually consider a "family film." Unlike Dan in Real Life, another 2007 film about ties that bind, Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her bloodline don't engage in talent shows and morale-boosting morning workouts. The sisters in Margot at the Wedding get their heartiest laughs from a relative's rape by a horse trainer. It's one of the film's meager moments of warmth and it's cold as ice. But there's more truth, humor and psychological horror in these fractured bonds than anything inside that formulaic fluff labeled "Real Life." Margot's ties may be toxic but their roots are grounded in reality. Sometimes family is there to pick you up, and sometimes they're there to really put you down.

Truthfully Margot's greatest talent, outside of being a "fiction" writer, is the art of the insult: seldom-subtle attempts to bring about her own misery and shortcomings in everyone around her. If only they gave the Booker Prize for that...

Margot on a good day:
"If you keep telling him he's like everyone else he's going to wonder why he isn't."
"He's not ugly, he's just completely unattractive."

Bitterness nibbles away and consumes Margot's daily life, and by effect, those of her loved ones - in particular her confused and attached son, Claude (Zane Pais), and free-spirited but floundering sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When she hears of Pauline's impending vows to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed oaf she's known but a year, Margot's abhorrent agenda is set in motion. Her plan to attend her sister's wedding becomes a cover for her to promote her latest book, start up anew with an old flame, and attempt to detach from her son. All that and she doesn't even bring a gift...

"We're supporting her."

This is a character piece first and foremost - a bruising, scathing, warts and all look at people you'd rather not be related to in real (too real) life. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has pulled prickly truths out of family dysfunction in the past with his heralded The Squid and the Whale, but Margot's story has its own brand of caustic wit. Like Squid it's funny while it scalds. But Margot is a more daring venture for Baumbach because it hardly feigns an interest in audience sympathy, and its muted visuals, while appropriate, are hardly a feast for the eyes. The script is wonderfully woven out of minor moments and somehow it still manages to cut away all the excess; plenty of nuance but it always goes unpronounced. You'd almost have to see the film twice to fully appreciate Baumbach's inventive and organic approach - the way scenes end abruptly, beginnings and endings blur, and those minuscule tidbits carry the bulk of dramatic and comic weight.

Beyond that it's a stage for really superb actors to dig into some fascinating, flawed characters. Jennifer Jason Leigh is such an underused actress, and it could be due to being so close to her husband's script during its development that she gives this part its refreshingly lived-in quality. It's natural and effortless, and one of Leigh's best performances in years.

Of course the highlight, not surprisingly, is Nicole Kidman. It's a showcase of her ability to fully commit to a part - even if her character needs to be committed. Every beat of judgment and venom is masterfully undercut with an unknowing frailty. Likewise, Kidman's "showcase" scene is a subtle knockout. A humdrum Q&A session at her reading turns into her brutal public shaming when she's confronted by the assertion that her treacherous lead character is merely Margot in disguise. She becomes embarrassed, exposed, and then ducks for cover. As delivered by Kidman it's simultaneously funny, odd and wincingly painful; basically Margot at the Wedding in a monologue.

"Why do you assume that -- I mean we all take from life...
I had to have our refrigerator repaired the other day, at our apartment in Manhattan, and uhh... I was alone with this guy - I think he was Puerto Rican. He was, um, sent over by Whirlpool, who I think it is makes our fridge... Umm... Although he did say he worked for an independent organization that Whirlpool subcontracts... I think he was retarded. There was an anger in him, and uh... suddenly... suddenly I became afraid for my life. I called, um... Jim, at NYU, and I asked him to come home -- I think it was Frigidaire that made our fridge... I'm going to need to take a moment here."

Seeing as Margot at the Wedding is a film about family, it's appropriate then that at the film's center is the family tree - which Margot attempts climbing and gets stuck, which has roots that are rotting the property, and which threatens to topple over during Pauline's special day. But I guess that's what you get when all your family has to sow are seeds of resentment.

You can watch this movie at

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ankle Biter

Pet Sematary was a horror hit and boy does it deserve it. (Childish rhyming for a post about children - Club Silencio is all about innovation.) It's still a very effective little chiller, based largely on the strength of its performances, somber direction and brutally bleak core. A film about the living trying to cope with the dead and vice versa. And how rare it is to see children killed in horror films, let alone brought back only to be killed again. Stephen King and director Mary Lambert take to audience sympathies like a truck would to a cat - or child - crossing the highway.

It's emotionally decimating stuff that deals with the ultimate contemplation: accepting death. Of course our lead, Louis, is a doctor who tries his hands at toying with the balance several times, unable to deal with life's most vicious conclusion. And Louis never quite learns his lesson... But then who can blame him when we're talking about losing one of the most adorable children in horror film history in one of its most tragic moments.

"No fair. No fair, no fair."

Miko Hughes should be a household name to horror fans at this point, with his painfully sweet and unsettling debut as Gage, as well as a roles in Wes Craven's New Nightmare and equally dread-induced episodes of Full House. He was also the educational tool for many adolescents with the seminal line, "Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina," from Kindergarten Cop. He has to be one of the most memorable and unsung child actors. Not only was he crushingly cute, he seemed to actually know what he was doing on-screen. And most importantly, he was never annoying. (Someone tell that kid from the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Ring... He'll hear it on the schoolyard eventually.) It also helps that he's one of the few children who has played both horror movie victim and horror movie icon within the same film. He gets to say, "I love you, Mommy," while he literally and figuratively rips her heart out.

-- Accordingly then Miko Hughes is all grown up (now 23) and has a blog (now defunct) wherein he links to recipes for cooking weed and says one of his favorite movies is "porno." He's also a DJ and he's on Myspace. I for one would love to see him dabble in acting again as an adult... but not in adult films. And I'd really love to have him cook for me.