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."