Inland Empire (2006) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 180 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Inland Empire just might be director David Lynch at his Lynchiest. Take note that I didn’t say “at his best.” This surreal, three-hour endurance test starts off well enough before letting its stream-of-conscious storytelling get the better of it. The plot, if there is one, is about married actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) getting a leading role in a Hollywood romance film (which may have a cursed production) and possibly developing feelings for her leading man, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux).

It’s not really about the story, though, as this is largely a mood piece. It soon becomes a dreamlike mish-mash of random scenes that test the patience. For a surrealist feature of this length, I think David Lynch dropped the ball by mostly focusing on vignettes of people walking through doorways or talking to each other. Yes, there’s a good scare or two, but the movie is largely forgettable due to its occasionally boring set-pieces. Compare and contrast this with the oneiric masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1929), which packed more haunting imagery into sixteen minutes than this one did into three hours.

Dream logic is strong with this one, and the mood radiates marital anxiety and insecurity. Don’t develop those romantic feelings for your co-leading actor, or you’ll just end up another “bad girl!” The iconic image of Inland Empire is perhaps that of the eerie sitcom featuring people in rabbit costumes, complete with laugh-track. These scenes are some of the best in the picture, but they appear too few and far between to have much of an impact on one’s viewing experience.

I like the idea behind Inland Empire: three hours of Lynch experimenting with surrealist, elliptical storytelling. The problem is that it’s too talky to be effective. Dreams are fast-paced things, not drawn-out conversations between several people. The imagery should’ve been more striking than just a guy standing next to a house with a lightbulb in his mouth. I can’t recommend this, even to fans of quirky, dreamlike cinema. There are better movies of that style out there.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Blue Velvet (1986) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

One day, resident of American suburbia Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a decomposing, severed human ear in a field, setting him off on an investigation to find out whose it is. It’s a set-up to a wildly popular mystery-thriller, but this one failed to get under my skin the way it has for countless other viewers. I appreciate director David Lynch’s style, but Blue Velvet is one of his more forgettable feature films in my experience.

This semi-surreal thriller is set in a weird version of suburbia that seems uncanny. Something’s “off.” There’s an undercurrent of melancholy. Blue Velvet is all about the sinister mysteries that could be lurking under the clean veneer of your hometown, just waiting to be discovered if you only wanted to find them. This film dares to explore the dark corners of its community, and the results are somewhat disappointing. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not terribly memorable.

The best part of this work is Dennis Hopper’s unpredictable, foul-mouthed, gas-huffing villain, Frank Booth. However, the motion picture could have benefited from some more surrealism, in my opinion. For a David Lynch flick, it almost feels too “normal” at times. Sure, there’s that classic Lynchian sense of unease, but I think I might’ve preferred the movie if it was Eraserhead Moves to the Suburbs. Many, perhaps most, will disagree with this take, but I’ll stand by it for now.

I like the ideas that went into Blue Velvet, but the execution didn’t thrill me. It does have all the right elements of a crackerjack thriller. It’s a respectable neo-noir as it stands now, but I just don’t enjoy it as much as most people seem to. This picture is frequently hailed as a masterpiece, and I can sort of see why, yet I can’t really agree with the consensus. It’s too odd to be a conventional mystery feature, yet not crazy enough to be a full-on David Lynch “freak-show” extravaganza.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mulholland Drive (2001) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 147 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The story here is about aspiring Hollywood actress Betty (Naomi Watts) trying to help amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) uncover her true identity. Look, I love surrealism…I truly do, but there’s a time and place for it, and I think that its use in Mulholland Drive is out-of-place and hinders the flick. I wish that I could’ve liked this one more than I did.

Sometimes feeling like it should’ve been titled “David Lynch’s Greatest Hits,” this is a psychological thriller that starts out weird-but-not-too-weird before jumping off the surrealist deep-end in the second half. The blurb for James Berardinelli’s review on Rotten Tomatoes sums it up better than I could: “Lynch is playing a big practical joke on us. He takes characters we have come to care about and obscures their fates in gibberish.” Ouch. The impenetrable second half of the movie offers no real, accessible answers to the puzzles of the first part, only bizarre and random episodes.

To be sure, there’s some good stuff here. Some of the “sketches” in the film, like the one involving the world’s most incompetent hitman or the one with a man recalling a dream he keeps having in a diner are choice. A mysterious character simply known as “The Cowboy” (Monty Montgomery) steals every scene he’s in. There are a couple of sequences that suggest that this could’ve been an excellent showbiz-drama-from-Hell picture. A lot of the redeeming value is drowned out by the craziness of the second half.

I enjoy movies like Un Chien Andalou (1929), Castle Keep (1969), and director David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a dream. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, starts off as a compelling mystery story that you want to see satisfactorily resolved, before throwing all of that out the window in favor of oneiric madness. I wish it would’ve chosen one or the other, because this work had a lot of potential. Many people love this one, and I’m disappointed that I couldn’t be one of them.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Big Sleep (1946) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second (of four) onscreen collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was the endlessly complicated film-noir The Big Sleep, released in 1946. Badass, womanizing private-eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called upon to investigate a blackmailing scheme, and ends up trapped in a web of gambling and murder. Sounds great, right? Well, just wait until you try to untangle the movie’s plot.

Even the most die-hard of The Big Sleep defenders are quick to admit that it’s impossible to follow what’s going on onscreen. It’s certainly one of Hollywood’s most famous examples of plot convolution. Instead of focusing on who and why people are getting killed, critics suggest paying attention to the picture’s intense, nocturnal mood and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.

Okay, those aspects of the feature deserve praise. This is a shadowy, sinister, seedy world that the characters inhabit, and the cinematography really brings this out. The nighttime scenes are memorable, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. The banter between the two leads (which occasionally thumbs its nose at the Hollywood Production Code of the time) is fun to listen to.

Professional critics really seem to bend over backwards for this one, loving it for what it could’ve been (if the plot was easier to follow), rather than for what it is. It’s not bad, but I generally prefer films where I can tell what is happening (unless it’s something intentionally surreal). According to one famous anecdote about the making of the motion picture, the filmmakers asked Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on) about one of the murders in the production in order to figure out the “who?” and “why?” behind the killing. Apparently, Chandler didn’t know either!

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Devil (2010) Review

Director: John Erick Dowdle

Genre(s): Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

M. Night Shyamalan, known for his twisty thrillers, didn’t direct Devil, but he did come up with the story and also co-produced it. The movie’s story is about five strangers who find themselves trapped together on an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper…and somebody’s killing them off one-by-one. This flick gets figurative points for its interesting premise, but its execution is only so-so.

Devil largely revolves around the five distinct characters in the broken elevator, which makes the film feel appropriately claustrophobic. That being said, a significant part of the runtime takes place outside of the lift, with security guards and first responders trying to unjam the elevator and figure out just who the murderer is. This gives the feature a light whodunnit quality, even if the focus is primarily on the scares.

The resolution of the mystery at the heart of Devil is perhaps the weakest part of the picture. I wouldn’t really describe it as “unsatisfying,” but it does come across as a bit hokey. The movie veers a little out of control at times, and you may need to stifle a laugh or two at something that wasn’t intended to be comical. However, I do enjoy unintentional humor, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.

Devil wraps up in less than an hour-and-a-half, so, even if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be out too many minutes of your time. I’ll give the flick credit for its creative ideas and fine pacing, but it does feel borderline-tacky at times. In the end, I don’t really say “watch it” or “avoid it;” just know that it can be a little silly.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Breakheart Pass (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.

Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?

Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.

I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Shutter Island (2010) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

With 2010’s Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese waded into the world of the psychological horror-thriller film…and he did so quite effectively, in my opinion. Set in the 1950s, this movie is about two American federal agents – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – who’re sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an offshore asylum for the criminally insane. Despite a somewhat mixed reception from critics, many moviegoers have latched onto this menacing mind-bender.

Professional film reviewers are generally quick to compare this picture to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, but there are also notable elements of noir and pulp here, too. I can’t help but feel that the aforementioned pulpy aspects threw some critics, who may have expected something a bit more grounded, for a loop. Anyway, this flick’s paranoid thriller style is supremely foreboding and sinister.

With its high-impact imagery and tense musical choices (collected by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame), Shutter Island is gripping from the start and never lets up. It starts off mysterious and uneasy before building up to fever dream-like ferocity. Some audience members have found some of the production’s plot points to be predictable, but I think that it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination in this case.

This feature got a divisive reaction, and I happen to fall on the side believing that it’s a superb piece of suspense and psychological terror. Its plot is alluring and the pacing is swift enough to keep the viewer from questioning some of its potential excesses. For fans of trippy cinema that messes with your head while remaining somewhat mainstream (we’re not talking Un Chien Andalou [1929] levels of nuttiness here), this is an easy one to recommend.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Knives Out (2019) Review

Director: Rian Johnson

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Now this is the kind of film that director Rian Johnson should be making, instead of “subverting [the] expectations” of Star Wars fans with Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) (which is still a movie I enjoy on some level). After famous murder mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) brings in the writer’s family to see if foul play was involved. This is an excellent whodunit murder mystery picture that made me want to see more adventures of Daniel Craig’s character.

The plot of Knives Out is intricate, but, by mystery movie standards, it doesn’t feel convoluted. I’m no good at following flicks that are like the latter, so if I could understand what was going on, you, almost certainly, will be able to as well. Fortunately for the audience, the various characters in this feature are mostly well-defined and played by an all-star cast. Despite all of the twists and turns, the film doesn’t really try to confuse the viewer or make following the details difficult.

Knives Out, in addition to being a mystery/thriller movie, is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s definitely the murder-related elements that keep it afloat. It’s certainly self-aware, but that doesn’t become a hindrance to enjoyment (Knives Out isn’t as cheeky as critics of The Last Jedi may have feared). It’s interesting to note that Christopher Plummer’s character’s home is filled with knick-knacks that seem to stare back at the audience and the people within the film. This may be a reference to Sleuth (1972), which did something similar.

This work left me wanting more…in a good sort of way. It doesn’t really matter if it would be other murder mysteries or another picture or two featuring Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc. I suppose that’s a sign that something went right. Knives Out is an admirable flick, largely thanks to a well-told plot and a cast of characters that the viewer can keep track of. Oh, yeah, it’s pretty funny as well.

My rating is 8 outta 10.