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Cinema Inferno

By Shawn Stone

Inland Empire

Directed by David Lynch

A man and woman enter an apart ment. We can’t see their faces; the faces have been blotted out using a crude video trick. The man tells the woman to take her clothes off. She does. She says she’s afraid. He tells her she should be afraid.

Three actors are on a stage. It’s an apartment sitting-room set. One actor, in a pink dress, is at the rear, stage left, ironing something at an ironing board. The other two are seated on a couch, one in a blue suit, the other in another pink dress. A phone rings. The actors exchange enigmatic, unfunny lines that prompt a chorus of canned laughter.

All three actors are wearing full-head, furry bunny masks.

A woman welcomes a stranger into her palatial suburban home. The butler and maid serve coffee. After some cheerful small talk, the stranger tells a bizarre fable about the origin of evil and begins, Tourette’s style, spouting inappropriate language. She is asked to leave.

The scene is a Hollywood studio office. A director tells the assembled actors and crew that this will be a star-making film. This film will be the one. Everyone is smiling and happy.

David Lynch’s latest movie does begin with a straightforward plot. A movie is being made. The leads are Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). The director is the very British Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons); the assistant director is crusty Hollywood vet Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton). Shortly after production begins, it is revealed that a previous attempt to film the same script ended in a double murder. Next, Nikki’s creepy husband (Peter J. Lucas) warns Devon not to fool around with his wife. Filming starts, Nikki and Devon may (or may not) begin an affair—and then the story goes completely out the window. You know, Alice in Wonderland, over-the-rainbow gone. One minute the characters are on Hollywood Boulevard; the next they’re in snow-covered Warsaw. Actors appear out of nowhere: You find yourself wondering, “Was that Mary Steenburgen? Nastassja Kinski? That was Julia Ormond, right?” Bits of dialogue are repeated in new contexts. A roomful of hookers sing and dance “The Locomotion.” Someone goes up the stairs in a theater and ends up in a low-rent tract house.

And then Lynch cuts to the actors wearing the bunny heads. Again.

Inland Empire is a ritualistic fantasy; it’s an extended meditation on acting and the acting process; it’s a phantasmagorical blurring of the line between reality and fiction; it’s a nightmare you don’t want to end. Shooting for the first time with cheap, low-res digital video equipment, Lynch creates smeary, frightening images that exploit the alternately harsh and fuzzy attributes of the format. (The dude’s an artist; Lynch could paint watercolor on celluloid and it would be worth checking out.) Funny thing is, Lynch never loses the audience on this journey. Emotional threads connect scene to scene, locale to locale, with a mix of terror and longing and humor that is, well, distinctively Lynchian. (For lack of a better phony-baloney term.)

It’s a three-hour-long trip into an alternate universe that leaves you strangely exhilarated. Inland Empire defies categorization.

It’s Lynch’s show, but it all hangs on Laura Dern’s towering performance. Dern plays a dozen characters in one, and is on screen for most of the picture. Her look of delight during the jubilant end credits sequence says it all—this was the acting ride of a lifetime.

Tooned Out

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Directed by Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis

In retrospect, one can only marvel at Mike Judge’s achievement with Beavis and Butt-head Do America. He took a short-form TV ’toon and expanded it into a credible feature film. Judge solved the problem of “re-sizing” his dysfunctional duo for the big screen; sure, all he did was put them into the “road picture” template, but it worked. In other words, he expended some effort. The creators of this lo-fi mess didn’t.

That said, the not-giving-a-crap attitude is the bedrock principle of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim division. And they’ve done well with it. Now out of production, Aqua Teen Hunger Force was one of the original Adult Swim programs. The characters are mutant fast-food creatures: Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad. Designed, primarily, to entertain late-night-TV-watching stoner college students, each episode packed a concentrated combination of gross-out humor, pop-culture detritus, bad puns, and visual non sequiturs into 11 minutes of cheap cartoonage.

Often, it was hilarious. Who could forget their encounter with the Broodwich, the most evil sandwich in the universe? Or the hilarity that ensued when the 2-D moon creatures brought the “Foreigner belt” to earth, granting each successive wearer the wondrous “Cold as Ice” powers of the “Dirty White Boy”?

With the TV show over, all that was left to do, it seems, was to cash in with this miserable failure of a feature. While each episode of the show was fast-paced and overstuffed with gags, the film is draggy, and stingy with the jokes. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good bits, like Rush’s Neil Peart (as himself) bringing the dead to life with his magic drum kit, or the indolent Mooninites, indulging themselves, as ever, in petty criminal acts. But even the flaming chicken can’t compensate for the tired plot and endless in-jokes.

Turns out that the cleverest thing about this picture was that nutty, Lite-Brite viral marketing stunt that cost Time Warner a pile of money and made a lot of Massachusetts politicians look like idiots. While those Mooninite light boards weren’t bombs, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters sure is.

—Shawn Stone


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