Friday, August 24, 2007

Camera Obscura - The Lookout; Sunshine; Lynch's Empire: and Finally Some Real Kubrick on DVD

It's time for some movie recommendations, meaning good movies, and only partly obscure. Also some fantastic news for fans (like me) of the late, great Stanley Kubrick.

I was eager to see "The Lookout" from writer/director Scott Frank, a highly praised screenwriter responsible for the stories in "Get Shorty", "Out of Sight" and "Minority Report." Those scripts were just first-rate work and showed a film noir style with modern settings, somehow both easy-going and taut at the same time. Characters are vividly captured in such works.

"The Lookout"
does not disappoint, though it easily could have. The story follows Chris Pratt, played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Chris was a hot-shot high school athlete from a very wealthy family until a senseless, random car crash scrambled his brains. Now he can just barely make it on his own, working as a night janitor, sharing an apartment with a blind friend (Jeff Daniels in an excellent supporting performance) and forced by his mental incapacities to keep a notepad with him at all times to remind him of what to do and when to do it.

Chris can remember his glorious past and yearns for it desperately - which plays perfectly into the plans of a group of violent thugs who want to rob a bank where Chris works. The story is carefully told from Chris' viewpoint and the details of his past and present are revealed in layers and through great writing and acting. It reminded me of the work of John Huston and other great crime-caper directors and writers.

As the movie reached it's final scenes I was almost cringing, fearing where and how the conflicts would be resolved. It is so carefully constructed and based in realism, it needed an ending true to the characters and not the needs of a Hollywood ending. Frank does end the story well, much to my surprise, and stays as real as the characters and the tale being told. It's one of the best films of 2007.

I also watched one of the highly praised films of 2006 this week, "Little Miss Sunshine". The reason, despite it's acclaim, that I was reluctant to watch is some shoddy marketing. I could not tell what the movie was really about and what I could tell did not interest me. The story of how the movie had to travel far and wide to reach production and distribution must be linked to the fact that it is so hard to easily summarize into a type. So let me first say - just watch it!

The movie follows a dysfunctional and comical family -- Dad (Greg Kinnear) is a bumbling and somewhat offensive wannabe Self-Help Expert, Grandad (Alan Arkin) has been kicked out of a home for the elderly because he's often snorting heroin ("I'm old! I can do what I want!!), Mom (Toni Collette) is patient and caring for all the loose ends of her family, and has just brought home her suicidal brother (Steve Carell), and her teenage son (Paul Dano) reads Nietzsche and has decided not to speak until he can get accepted as a fighter pilot, and young daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is suddenly given a chance, amidst all the family chaos, to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. (See, very hard to make all that into an advertising headline!)

Very sharp and simple writing brings all the characters into hilarious life, matched by excellent acting by all the cast. The trio of Arkin, Kinnear and Carell is just brilliant. These three are at the top of their game, though Toni Collette manages to keep them all in line and remind them they are a family.

Not long after the family has decided to drive from New Mexico to California so Olive can compete in the pageant, the cheery yellow VW van they drive blows out the transmission. The only way they can drive it is to push it so Kinnear can get it into 3rd gear and the family then has to run from behind the van and jump in while it's moving. It's a funny scene, but clearly shows that despite all their anger and frustrations with each other, this family is a solid, unified unit. And it tells you that as the journey progresses, they'll find themselves firmly united. For all the weird elements here, this is a nice little family film, though it is for adults and not the kiddies to watch.

Now on to the more obscure recommendation of the day -- David Lynch's newest movie, "Inland Empire". I traveled through two counties to find a copy to rent, and found just one, which of course no one else bothered to rent or even notice. My good fortune!

"Inland Empire" is a three hour dream/nightmare and the companion disc is even longer, chock full of behind the scenes info. What's the movie about? Well it's kind of like stretching Lynch's subconscious musings over your own brain, raiding someone else's dreams and never being sure if you'll ever find your way out. Mysterious or meaningless, it all depends on you.

Actress Laura Dern plays an actress, who is cast in soap-opera style movie, which, it turns out is based on a script which has been cursed by Polish gypsies. And yeah, that makes me laugh to just write that down. As with most all of Lynch's work, there is mystery and character doubling and even a symbolic family of rabbits added for ... well, I'd have to watch it a few more times to figure that out.

I suppose you could say the movie is about the abuse of women (with the subtitle "A Woman In Trouble"), but it's also about how Lynch uses the screen as a canvas for abstract expression. On the extras disc, there is a fascinating behind the scenes collection of Lynch overseeing the large and the tiny elements to this movie, one of the best examples ever of how he works. He absolutely has this movie as a finished product in his mind, even though it may seem to be nothing more than a collection of his abstractions. Still, he certainly knows how to make his imaginings find life on the screen.

It was all shot on digital video, so at times the movie has the intimacy and immediacy of a news report or a home movie, sometimes so close it becomes claustrophobic, all blended together. Yes, I like the movie, though non-Lynch fans will think it dull and pointless. It isn't. It's a major mark from a truly cinematic composer.

Which brings me to the best DVD news I've heard in a long time. Warner Brothers is releasing both boxed-sets and individual DVDs for Stanley Kubrick's movies: "2001: A Space Odyssey", "A Clockwork Orange", "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket", and "Eyes Wide Shut." These double discs are loaded with extras, like commentary from Malcolm McDowell for "Clockwork", and the movies are finally remastered in widescreen. And also, "Eyes Wide Shut" will be offered in the unrated and rated versions, so those digital additions made to the orgy scene for the US release will be gone!!

I've been waiting for decent and original presentations of these classics, which hit the stores in late October.

UPDATE: Dennis Lim at Slate pegs the intentional look and feel of "Inland Empire", created by digital video:

Watch Inland Empire on the DVD that came out last week and you sense that this lurid, grubby fantasy springs from deep within the bowels of YouTube as much as from inside its heroine's muddy unconscious. The DV that Lynch has come to cherish is the medium of home movies, viral video, and pornography—the everyday media detritus we associate more with television and computer monitors than movie theaters, more with intimate or private viewing experiences than communal ones. And not only does Inland Empire often look like it belongs on the Internet, it also progresses with the darting, associative logic of hyperlinks."


  1. Thanks for the heads-up on the Kubrick set, Joe. I'll probably buy this one to sit beside my other Kubrick box set, just like an obsessed fanboy is supposed to do. ;-)

    However, I'm pretty sure the films in the new set (except for "2001") were originally shot in fullscreen mode (4:3). I know "Eyes Wide Shut" and "The Shining" were filmed that way at least, and I think "Full Metal Jacket" was as well. "The Shining" and FMJ were then masked along the top and bottom of the frame to make them fit screens in movie theaters (1.66:1).

    EWS (my favorite Kubrick film) wasn't masked at all, but was instead released in fullscreen mode in theaters. It looked odd, but that's the way he shot it.

    Thanks for the reviews. You've given me some more titles to add to my Netflix queue.

  2. Russ:

    Some info on how Kubrick shot films and saw them released via video/DVD from

    "Kubrick had total control over the aspect ratios (ratio of the width of a film image to its height) of his films, in their theatrical release and on home video. He liked to experiment, and he liked to question conventions regarding aspect ratios, so it’s no surprise that there is no real consistency regarding the home video versions of his films.

    Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey were the only films he shot using a "widescreen" format (Super Technirama on Spartacus and Super Panavision on 2001), so those would be the only two really hurt by not being letterboxed (both are available on video and DVD letterboxed to approximately their proper aspect ratios).

    A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon were shot and released in most theaters in the matted 1.66 : 1 widescreen ratio, and The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut were shot open-matted (or full-frame) and framed for a theatrical release in the American standard ratio of 1.85 : 1.

    However, Kubrick preferred on all these films that they be transferred to home video fullscreen (a ratio of about 1.37 : 1). Had he remained alive to see the rising popularity of widescreen and high-definition TVs, he may have eventually changed his mind about these films."

    So I am happy to see these new versions and delirious at the extras with each film.

  3. Anonymous2:41 PM

    glad you tracked down INLAND EMPIRE. i have felt like one of the few who've seen it. i think laura dern's performance here is revalatory and the academy should be ashamed of themselves for overlooking her. what more should an actor be required to give to be noticed?


  4. excellent point, Blair.

    she is in so much of the movie, must carry off so many different styles and is very much in synch with Lynch. I cannot imagine why she got such little regcognition for this work.

    i think in time this movie will be listed among Lynch's and Dern's best work.

  5. Anonymous3:14 PM

    Joe...your blog is great. Thank you for giving alternatives to Blockbuster's top renters! I'm excited to check out Inland Empire, mainly because I think Laura Dern is so talented. She was great in Citizen Ruth, another film not many saw.

    Mr. McFly

  6. Anonymous3:16 PM

    I love David Lynch. He is a true auteur and is way beyond the norm in Hollywood. I like that you mentioned him in the same post with another visionary, Stanley Kubrick. I look forward to finding INLAND EMPIRE.

  7. Anonymous3:22 PM

    I stumbled across your blog while searching for articles on INLAND EMPIRE's dvd release. I can't wait to see the extras. I saw the film in the theatre twice and it blew me away. It's so layered and really requires the audience to participate. You have to stay right in the zone while watching it or potentially be lost forever. David Lynch proved here that if you have a vision, just grab a camera and make a movie! No need to wait on film. Laura Dern is his perfect muse, and her acting in this movie is legendary. Such a shame more people didn't see it. Glad you did! True Lynch fans will get it.

  8. I is delighted so many Lynch fans have responed, because Inland Empire is a monumental achievement in my opinion.

    And yes, mentioning Lynch and Kubrick both was most intentional.

    And a big HELL YES for Citizen Ruth. An amazing, hilarious movie which focuses on much of the hypocrisy infesting the country.

  9. Anonymous3:32 PM

    i'm with you, joe. a big HELL YES on Citizen Ruth. amazing that alexander payne was able to make fun of BOTH sides of the issue equally. perfect ending, too.

    i just got sent this link to your blog and i really dig it. i'm a big laura dern/david lynch fan and i cannot wait for IE.
    tallahassee, fla

  10. Anonymous3:37 PM

    yes, yes, yes. so nice to read positive comments and reviews on INLAND EMPIRE. i have been waiting literally for YEARS for this film to come out...since i first heard that david and laura were working together again. they are a great team an i can't imagine another actress who could roll with the punches the way she can. THEY HAD NO SCRIPT!!! i don't know why she doesn't work more. she has such class and is the most talented actor of her generation. i hope people will now recognize that. who could see INLAND EMPIRE and deny what a talent she is? also, loved that lynch cast justin theroux, another underrated actor.

    Doug Thomas