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Eyes Wide Shut

David Lynch dreams the impossible dream with maximum overDrive

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David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is like a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are identically cut: You can arrange them any number of ways, and you probably still won't see the clear picture. Audacious, infuriating, and the sort of movie we've come to expect from one of America's most idiosyncratic filmmakers (clearly, 1999's lovely, G-rated The Straight Story is the odd film out on his resume), Mulholland Drive, like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Von Trier's Dancer In the Dark, is guaranteed to split viewers with all the precision of Moses parting the Red Sea. It's easy to see both sides of the argument: Lynch's visual and aural flourishes can often seem the filmic equivalent of being trapped in a closet with a screech owl, and the fact that many of his works appear to spin out of control offends the sensibilities of those who only enjoy narrative line drives. On the other hand, Lynch is a master at superbly self-contained set pieces ­ the sort of isolated moments of expression that lend themselves to incessant analysis ­ and in today's often complacent movie marketplace, his attempt to arouse viewers one way or the other shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Mulholland Drive actually began life as a boob tube candidate ­ specifically, it was a pilot Lynch shot for a proposed ABC series. Of course, once the network suits took a look at what Lynch had concocted (and perhaps mindful of the fact that their previous dalliance with Lynch, the superb Twin Peaks, petered out after a strong first season), they decided to pass on it, relegating it to TV's unseen phantom zone. With his eye now on a theatrical release, Lynch received backing from French financiers to shoot additional scenes to provide the pilot with a semblance of an ending. The result: a high-profile debut at Cannes, as well as the festival's Best Director prize for Lynch (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn't There).

Armed with knowledge of the project's genesis, it's more apparent that Mulholland Drive is a melding of Lynch's two different mindsets. The first two-thirds or so play just like a multi-faceted prime-time drama (like Twin Peaks, or a very warped Dallas), with various characters and storylines appearing one after the other. Take, for instance, the two cops played by Jackie Brown's Robert Forster and A Simple Plan's Brent Briscoe. They appear in one early scene to offer Dragnet-dry comments about a car accident on Mulholland Drive. If this had indeed made it as a TV series, you could imagine these two guys appearing for a few minutes each episode, constantly staying one step behind whatever mystery needed to be solved or whichever villain needed to be apprehended. As it stands, they pop up for this one scene, never to resurface again (a shame, since Forster's screen appearances are always welcome).

While these two gumshoes may be insignificant to the plot, the car crash they're investigating proves to be one of the film's defining events, introducing us to a character we know only as Rita (Laura Elena Harring). It turns out Rita was involved in the auto accident; she's the only survivor, but the experience has left her with amnesia (hence the need for a fake name, which she takes from a poster for Rita Hayworth's Gilda). In a daze, she stumbles into an apartment building she believes to be empty. Instead, its current occupant is Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a fresh-off-the-farm blonde who has traveled from Deep River, Ontario, to LA in the hopes of making it as a movie star. Temporarily shacking up in her aunt's vacant abode, the wholesome Betty allows this complete stranger to stay with her, eventually offering to help her solve the mysteries surrounding her lost identity, a wad of cash stashed in her purse, and a blue key that serves as the film's Hitchcock-inspired McGuffin.

In the other plotline of note, an aloof director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting set to cast the principal female role in his movie when he's informed by the picture's shady backers that he must cast a young actress named Cammie Rhodes in the part. After he balks, he's taken to a secret meeting with The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), a pale figure who insists on the casting decision and states, "If you do good, you'll see me one more time; if you do bad, you'll see me two more times." (The Cowboy is arguably the creepiest character in a Lynch film since Dennis Hopper's psychotic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.) It certainly isn't Adam's day ­ in addition to his celluloid woes, he finds out his wife is having an affair with a hunky handyman (played by, of all people, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus) ­ but the young moviemaker has an epiphany of sorts when, at the auditions, he spots Betty Elms, the fresh-off-the-farm blonde from Deep River, Ontario.

Will Adam ignore the threats, cast Betty in the part, and turn her into an overnight star? Sure, if we were discussing something on the order of 42nd Street. But just as we're reaching the point at which the film's myriad threads will logically be brought together, Lynch goes ballistic, tacking on a concluding half-hour in which supernatural shenanigans start occurring, the timeline gets shifted and folds back on itself, and the two leading actresses seemingly take over other characters' roles. The result is an unnerving motion picture that yields no easy answers but instead forces the viewer, in Memento mode, to mentally play the entire film backward and determine what's possibly real, what's probably a dream (a Lynch obsession dating back to his excellent breakthrough film, Eraserhead), and where this ultimately leads.

With Mulholland Drive, Lynch borrows elements from seminal Hollywood works like Sunset Boulevard and Vertigo and applies them to a movie that frequently comments on the very nature of cinema itself, from its necessary practice of requiring people to play complete "strangers" to its ability to pull the rug out from under our pre-programmed expectations. On that level, and as an exercise in bravura moviemaking, the film works quite well. But on an emotional level, it's one of Lynch's most distant pieces, with practically all the characters being moved around the sets like so many chess pieces. The unsung strength of Twin Peaks was its ability to make us care for almost all its characters ­ heroes and villains both ­ but in this picture, it's only the unexpectedly complex portrayal by Watts that adds any lasting resonance to the tangled events. The marvel of her performance only becomes truly clear as the picture moves forward, as she adds the human element to a movie that, with apologies to Winston Churchill, can best be described as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."


Menace II Society

Jack the Ripper resuscitated in street-smart drama

By Matt Brunson

Accomplished film directors know a thing or two about pigeonholing. When Martin Scorsese first announced he was going to make a movie version of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, many insiders snickered that the end result would be akin to a raging bull in a china shop (never mind that Scorsese has long cited elegant motion pictures like The Heiress and The Red Shoes as among his personal favorites). Heads turned sharply when David Lynch, who never met a disturbing R-rated vision he didn't like, released the G-rated family film The Straight Story. And even the king of shock schlock, the infamous John Waters, caught viewers offguard with the sweetly nostalgic (and PG-rated) Hairspray back in 1988.

Look for The Hughes Brothers, aka Allen and Albert Hughes, to have to contend with this sort of chatter as their new feature From Hell makes the multiplex rounds. These African-American siblings made a startling debut with their 1993 effort Menace II Society, about daily life (and death) in a dangerous LA 'hood, and then followed it with 1995's Dead Presidents, which looked at the desperate route many blacks felt forced to take after returning home from the Vietnam War. Jumpcut to the present day, and we find the pair tackling a drama that's set in 1888 London and focuses on the infamous Jack the Ripper. What gives?

Actually, it's admirable when any artist is able to break the shackles of preconceived notions, but for those still requiring some sort of connective tissue, it's fairly obvious that From Hell is no different from its predecessors (especially Menace II Society) in that they all deal with the poverty, violence and drugs that are readily found on the mean city streets. In fact, what makes From Hell more than just a slasher flick with a pedigree is its insistence on presenting its sordid tale at ground level, exploring the social chasm that existed between the upper and lower classes as much as recreating the killer's grisly handiwork.

Adapted by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias from Alan Moore's acclaimed graphic novel, From Hell casts Johnny Depp as Inspector Abberline, who's been assigned to investigate the particularly gruesome murders of several prostitutes. A tortured soul who hangs out at opium dens during his down time, Abberline is known for his clairvoyant abilities which have enabled him to break big cases in the past. This particular investigation, however, has left him baffled; although those around him, including his friend and associate Sergeant Godley (reliable Robbie Coltrane), believe the killer is probably a lowlife thug, Abberline's evidence suggests that the Ripper is actually an educated man with a working knowledge of surgical tools. After enlisting the royal family's personal physician (Ian Holm) to aid him in his investigation, he then devotes much of his time to protecting a sweet prostitute (Heather Graham) who seems fated to be the Ripper's next victim.

From Hell may not possess the macabre sense of showmanship that made Sleepy Hollow (which also featured Depp as a policeman investigating bizarre murders) such a kinky kick, but on its own terms, it's an effective thriller containing a lot more plot than anyone might have expected (or at least anyone not familiar with the source material). The story spends a good amount of time out on the streets, never flinching from the horrendous circumstances that defined the lives of these poor working girls. These sequences offer a sharp contrast to the ones involving the members of "polite" society, such as the baldly elitist police chief (Ian Richardson) who figures Jack the Ripper must be a foreigner because an Englishman would never commit such horrible crimes (this same character almost chokes when Abberline suggests that the killer is not only English but also upper society).

As Abberline becomes more immersed in his investigation, we become more immersed in the period world that the Hughes and their crew have created. Between the sets constructed by Shakespeare In Love Oscar winner Martin Childs (who built an entire London district just outside of Prague for this film), the costumes designed by Kym Barrett (The Matrix), and the mood-setting cinematography by Peter Deming (whose startling style can also be seen in Mulholland Drive), this exudes authenticity right down to the last cobblestone.

Well, OK: The Marilyn Manson song that plays over the closing credits may not exactly conjure up images of 1888 London, but that's a small concession I'm willing to make.


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