David Lynch’s big screen prequel/sequel to his television phenomenon Twin Peaks departs from the shows light, kooky and benignly eccentric sensibilities. It starts at the more surreal, dark atmosphere which sometimes materialized in the show, especially in the last episode, and plunges headlong down a rabbit hole of sex, murder, mysteries, federal agents, parallel universes, psychological torment, otherworldly spirits, supernatural phenomena, incest, more cups of coffee (Im not even kidding, there’s a scene where a stressed out looking Harry Dean Stanton makes a ‘cup of good morning America’), and above all, Laura Palmer. The beautiful, mysterious homecoming queen we only saw as a corpse in the series comes to wild, screaming life in this film, and what a performance from the gifted Sheryl Lee. She perfectly captures the menace, hurt, confusion, hope, torment and wild desperation of Laura, in a towering, stunning performance. Ray Wise is equally magnificent as Leland Palmer. Angelo Badalamenti switches up the tone as well, letting the beautiful Laura theme and the classic Twin Peaks tones only play in limited, selective fashion. His theme for the film is a powerfully dark, otherworldly melody which lulls you right into the film’s deep velvet grasp and haunts you in ways you can’t describe. The angel of the Roadhouse, Julee Cruise, gets another tune to croon as well, and it might just be my favourite of the bunch. Laura tearfully looks on as Cruise intones ‘Questions In A World Of Blue’, a transfixing lament that seems to be meant for her alone. Lynch is a true master of the subtle touch, and you’d have to read many an online forum as well as watch the film and the show several times to pick up on all the hidden implications and shrouded ideas that aren’t readily presented to you in a traditional narrative. That inaccessibility and refusal to play by the rules by serving things straight up is difficult for many people to get their heads around. To me though it’s such a fascinating way to tell a story. He doesn’t necessarily leave everything open to interpretation, he just hides the answers in a bewitching blanket of surreality, subtlety and dream logic, challenging the viewer to think using the unconscious mind and intuition to feel your way through the story, as opposed to tallying up facts and plot turns to analytically arrive at your cinematic destination. Perhaps this is why he meticulously oversees many of the DVD releases for his films, leaving out scene selections and unnecessary bells and whistles. The story matters most to him, in singular, unbroken form, a segment of his soul encapsulated on film in one cohesive effort, like a dream caught unawares by the lens. Fire Walk With Me was unfairly bashed, booed and downright critically clobbered for its stark and outright changes from the shows lighter tones, as well as its leaving out of some of the more popular characters that fans loved. Although this is jarring, I feel like Lynch has distilled all the elements in the show that mattered the most to him, and woven a gorgeous, seductive tapestry of pure Twin Peaks ‘feel’ and spectacle, as a loving gift to the fans who truly get it and are open to the wilder ideas explored briefly in the show. The film expands greatly on the ominous Black Lodge, and it’s dwelling spirits, including the strange Tremonds, the one armed Mike, and the little red suited Man From Another Place. The killer demon Bob is very prevalent in this film, and if you thought he was scary in the show, well.. His scenes in this are downright soul shatteringly. Moira Kelly makes a softer, doe eyed version of Donna Hayward, which I quite liked. Miguel Ferrer returns as the cynical wise-ass Albert, Lynch as the hard of hearing FBI boss Gordon Cole, as well as Heather Graham, Grace Zabriskie, Eric DaRe, Madchen Amick, Peggy Lipton, etc. Newcomers to the Twin Peaks mythology are great as well, including Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as more FBI agents investigating the case of Teresa Banks in Deer Meadow, Jurgen Prochnow as a trapped soul in the spirit world, and a confused looking David Bowie as an agent who has been mired in the time bending fog of the spirit world long enough to render him brain fried. It’s a love letter to the fans, really, but one that doesn’t compromise an inch and is every ounce a Lynch picture, capturing the director at his most creative adventurous. He strives to plumb the depths of human behaviour and the forces beyond our perceptions which govern and influence from other planes. Seeing these tricky themes explored so rawly in a film based upon a TV show that had heavy roots soap opera and an often lighthearted tone only garnished with the disturbing elements in the film can be hard to swallow, which is no doubt the reason for the sour reception upon release. The film has stood the test of time and aged wonderfully though, seen by many grateful, loving fans as a dark dream straight from the heart, and a perfect film. If one is willing to accept the changes in tone and ambiguous, challenging nature of Lynch’s storytelling (which I love!) then Fire Walk With Me is a sumptuous, gorgeous looking, vital piece of the Twin Peaks world, and in my mind Lynch’s masterpiece.
Before Nicholas Winding Refn blew up into the big time with intense, stylish stuff like Bronson, Drive and Valhalla Rising, and after he made his bloody emergence into cinema with Pusher, he made another film that no one seems to remember or even even like all that much. It’s easy to see why Fear X wasn’t that well received or remembered: it’s choppy and confusing, even by Refn’s terms, and doesn’t pull it’s third act into a cohesive resolution, instead favoring a disconcertingly surreal descent into subconscious, abstract imagery, which we all know (the careers of Lynch and others are examples) is an aesthetic not always absorbed by the most open of minds when it comes to the masses. Now that we got that out of the way, here’s my take. I adore the film. It’s a skitchy Midwestern nightmare that starts of gently gnawing at the fringes of your perception with a sense of dread that’s intangible in its possibility, an outcome as vast and unknowable as the desolate prairie setting that calls to mind the fear and degradation of Fargo without an ounce of its good humour, black or otherwise. John Turturro inhabits this setting with a twitchy, anxious aura, suggesting a haunted mindscape beneath those famous curls. And well he should be haunted, considering his wife recently disappeared without a trace. For him, not knowing what happened is worse than any kind of grisly answer, for its a sick hollowness that chokes out any room for him to grieve. He works by day as a mall security guard, busting shoplifters and scanning snowy surveillance screens to distract himself. Then, his co-worker (Stephen Eric Mcintyre) hands him a videotape that may contain answers and be the first breadcrumb in a trail leading to his wife’s killer, and possibly his solace. In a lot of films and shows like these, the protagonist ventures to a small town with sordid secrets simmering just beneath the crust of the cheerful looking pie held by the pretty waitress at the local diner. Some artists find their own groove without riffing on other’s work too much, and some fall flat-footed into derivitive motions. Refn is bold yet subtle in his direction once Turturro arrives in the town, and casts a deceptively innocuous yet insidiously creepy spell over the proceedings. It’s essentially where the film really exits utero and manifests, the danger before that was only glimpsed on the horizon now a very real possibility, like waking up from a bad dream into a worse reality. Turturro is met with cold stares and grim greetings, especially by a deputy who becomes predatory upon seeing part of the clues he has brought with him, vaguely tied to a local resident. From there he is led to a suspicious Sheriff (James Remar), and the sheriff’s wife (Deborah Kara Unger). Remar may have been involved in his wife’s death, and he plays with the curtain of his performance wonderfully, pulling it back ever so slightly in scenes with Unger (some of his best work) and stirring up confusion while menacing Turturro. It’s an unheralded best from him and a rare occasion where he gets to be subtle and eerie, as opposed to his usual brash, cocky characters. Unger is similar to Remar in the sense that she has made a point over the course of her career in picking obscure, challenging and unique roles to play. In playing a couple here they feel kind of star-crossed just by the nature of their careers, fed by their smoldering chemistry. The film proceeds like any thriller would, with only intangible hints at the weirdness to come, until the last half of the third act, where it abandons logic completely and dives headlong into a dreamlike abyss of surreality, without a readily discernable warning or narrative signpost. Is Turturro unstable? Or is it Remar? Or are events just taking a turn fpr the supernatural as a result of the town messing with people’s psyches, a la The Shining? We will never know, and honestly I doubt Refn did, or ever will either. It’s him in the sandbox, free from logic or consequence, and hate it with all your might if you wish, but you can’t deny it’s a psychologically galvanizing experience that toys with your perception and spooks to the core. The film deals with themes of not knowing, and open ended tragedy masked by confusion and spiraling ‘what ifs’. Perhaps Refn implemented all the metaphysical hoo-hah as an extreme metaphor for Turturro’s consciousness, fractured and torn by the absence of resolution to the point of madness. Or maybe Refn just likes making weird shit. That’s the eternal debate with artists like him and Lynch: do they have some plan, a secret marauders map to the strangeness that they present to us on screen which only they are privy too, or are they simply making it up as they go along, hurling paint at the canvas until they are satisfied with the result, regardless of comprehending it? We’ll never know, and that for me is the beauty of it. With Fear X Refn crafts a polarizing thriller that is the very proto – example of ‘love it or hate it’. It’s definitely not for everyone. But love it or hate it, there’s no escaping it’s power.
Veteran cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC has compiled a wide-ranging mix of theatrical and television credits throughout the years that stretch various genres and styles. After getting a start as a camera operator on Robert Altman’s brilliant 1978 comedy A Wedding, he moved into second unit work, getting a chance to cut his teeth on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China. In recent years, he’s developed a close working relationship with maverick indie director Richard Kelly on the cult classics Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, as well as the underrated sci-fi thriller The Box, which approximated the look and feel of the 1970’s in ways that few modern movies ever attempt. He shot the provocative Los Angeles sexual drama Spread from rising star director David Mackenzie (Perfect Sense and Starred Up), Ridley Scott’s 1987 neo-noir thriller Someone to Watch Over Me, audience favorite Rocky V, the subversive and totally wild sequel Big Top Pee Wee, and 80’s classics Strange Brew and The Boy Who Could Fly. In addition to his duties behind the camera, Steven currently serves as President of the International Cinematographers Guild, and in previous years, served as President of the American Society of Cinematographers. His upcoming projects for 2016 include the horror sequel Amityville: The Awakening, a new Richard Kelly movie, and the indie drama All Good Things. He’s an artist always looking to change it up with varying material and specific aesthetic choices, while always stressing smart control with imagery and a disciplined sense of camera placement.
Donnie Darko announced the arrival of the challenging filmmaker Richard Kelly, and the film became a calling card for the director, and for a generation of high school and college kids looking for something offbeat and unique. A big reason for the film’s overall level of success is the dreamy visual style that Poster brought to the project. Shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and frequently emphasizing the middle of the frame, the film has an ominous tone all throughout, with much of the story set at night, while Poster’s camera glides through one surreal cinematic moment after another, using slow-motion in a perfect fashion, heightening the emotional moments with force and purpose. Another Poster/Kelly collaboration is Southland Tales, the divisive, Dr. Strangelove-esque political and social satire that feels like 10 movies stuffed into one, with an aesthetic style that feels like a smart and logical extension from Donnie Darko, again maximizing the use of the widescreen space, filling the screen with hallucinatory images that wash over you like some sort of wild, psychedelic trip. The saturated colors favored by Poster in this film made the volatile world being presented in the narrative all the more seductive, while the final 30 minutes represent something of a stylistic freak-out on the part of everyone involved, with Poster emphasizing the otherworldly through lens flares, bold nocturnal images, with an exploding zeppelin and a floating ice-cream truck providing him with the opportunity to craft images that feel like nothing you’ve ever seen. And Poster’s work on Ridley Scott’s underappreciated thriller Someone to Watch Over Me is a clinic on how to shoot a neo-noir that never feels overly slavish to other genre entries, always taking cues from the past while imbuing it with a (for the time) slick and sexy visual style that feels oh-so-gloriously late 80’s in retrospect. Shadows, smoke, darkness, moonlight, neon, and all sorts of atmospherics played a big part in Poster’s overall mise-en-scene, and under the firm direction of Scott, Poster was able to craft one of the best looking films of his stellar career.
How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly crazy and divisive film Southland Tales? Kelly, whose debut was the incredibly enjoyable cult classic Donnie Darko, totally shot for the moon and back with his second directorial effort, which is filled with an insane amount of ambition and spontaneous sense of creativity. A sprawling, Los Angeles-based head-trip, Southland Tales feels like one of the most expensive experimental films ever made, bowing to zero concessions, devised by a mad scientist who often times feels like he’s making up new rules as he goes along. For some, Southland Tales will inevitably be a maddening viewing experience, especially upon first glance, but over the last few years, I’ve grown to absolutely love the movie, and I constantly feel compelled to revisit it. The film’s extra-packed midsection, at first, seemed purposefully meandering, but I’ve realized that it’s just extra dense, and requires some careful dissection. While some may feel that Kelly possibly bit off more than he could chew overall, it’s impossible to dismiss this film the way a majority of critics did, if for no other reason than it takes serious chances as a piece of storytelling, and because it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with immense talent and a high level of chutzpah.
The film starts off in 2005, at a backyard, Fourth of July barbeque in Texas. Home video camera footage shows families playing with sparklers and eating hot dogs. Then, the unthinkable—a mushroom cloud can be seen in the horizon. An atomic bomb has been dropped in Abilene. The world is forever changed. We then jump three years into the future to Los Angeles; again, it’s July 4, but the world we knew is gone. Society stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. A fascist government is in control with big brother lurking everywhere. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is an action-movie star who’s stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a calculating porn star named Krysta Now (a sassy Sara Michelle Geller), who, among other things, is developing her own reality television project. The two of them concoct a movie idea that has Boxer set to play a cop. Meanwhile, good-guy police officer Ronald Taverner (an excellent Sean William Scott), agrees to allow Santaros to shadow him so he can get the feel for police life in an effort to turn in a convincing performance. But, it turns out that Taverner may hold the key to a vast conspiracy that nobody is ready to comprehend. There’s a lot more to Southland Tales than that. Radicals are stirring up a political uprising, using Venice beach and Santa Monica as their staging ground, while much of Los Angeles has been reduced to a DMZ. Armed soldiers monitor the beaches and streets with itchy trigger fingers. Then there’s the finale with two Roland Taverners, time-portals that open up into new dimensions, a floating ice cream truck, rocket launchers, and an exploding, futuristic zeppelin. There’s more…much more…but I’m at a loss to know how to summarize all of it. It’s a massive piece of filmmaking, going off on tangents and filling the frame with tons of visual detail (Kelly’s regular collaborator, the versatile Steven Poster, handled the aggressively stylish cinematography). This is a film that takes elements of political satire, post-apocalyptic nightmare, science-fiction fantasy, romantic drama, and movie-musical and throws them all into a blender and swirls them up into a wild smoothie of a movie.
Making all of these seemingly disparate threads add up to a cohesive whole had to have been a herculean task. This is a staggeringly original piece of work, filled with homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique vision all its own. While narratively stuffed at times, and with performances that veer this way one moment and the other way the next, Kelly’s film is never boring and is fascinating on many levels, mostly because Southland Tales is satirizing a world that doesn’t totally exist. Kelly created a frightening political and social landscape, one that in fact may not be too far away for all of us in reality. But by not basing his vision in any sort of fully realistic setting, the audience isn’t in on the joke as much as Kelly; he’s poking fun at a world that is removed from our own, and as such, the satire sometimes feels a bit esoteric. But that’s because Kelly truly KNOWS this world that he’s created. The performances are broad, and in many respects, over the top, but that was likely the directorial intention. The true acting surprise of the film was easily Sean William Scott, still best known at the time for his immortal role as “Stifler” in the American Pie franchise, and here, give the chance to be someone totally different from the lovable and immature clown that he so memorably portrayed. Granted, his character (much like the audience), spends most of the film in a fog of confusion, but the charm and ease that he brings to this zany movie is very effective and emotionally engaging. I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more to him as an actor, and throughout much of Southland Tales, he makes good on that promise.