‘Mulholland Dr.’ takes us through shiny dreams and devastating nightmares

Mulholland Dr./2001/Universal, Studio Canal/145 min.

Let’s face it, reality sucks. So, on second thought, let’s not face it.

David Lynch

Instead, pluck an image from your fantasy du jour, then jump into your limousine, Lamborghini roadster or sedan chair and head to “Mulholland Dr.” for poolside cocktails with your dear chum writer/director David Lynch.

Or just put your feet up and watch the movie. This terrific neo-noir mystery is a story within a story within a story within a story about Hollywood, its shimmering promise and dark secrets, its cut-throat power and caustic pain, and its huge cast of heroes, hopefuls, heavies and hangers-on. The film is also a visual poem and Lynch’s highly personal, surrealistic imagery resonates long after you see it.

Lynch’s Tinseltown reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes in “The Great Gatsby,” the famous Hollywood sign, like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, set amid wild delight and staggering decadence.

Lynch’s detractors complain that his motifs – portals and shadowy rooms, lurking danger beneath an innocent exterior, secret languages, nightclub singers and stages, for example – are shallow gimmicks that Lynch leans on from film to film. (His other work includes: “Eraserhead” 1977, “Blue Velvet” 1986, “Wild at Heart” 1990, the TV series “Twin Peaks” 1990-91, “Lost Highway” 1997, “Inland Empire” 2006).

Nevertheless, in each film, Lynch creates a unique cinematic world that takes your breath away with its striking beauty, sly humor, intense characters and uncommon depth. In “Mulholland Dr.” Lynch invites us into a shiny dream as well as a devastating nightmare. Though it’s a contemporary setting, there are so many retro references that the story almost feels like a period piece.

In part one, we meet golden girl Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a young actress who’s just arrived in Hollywood. Sweet, perky and hopeful, Betty has a retro-chic apartment to live in and an audition set up for a role in a major movie. Just in case she needs to borrow a cup of sugar, her charming landlady Coco (Ann Miller, in her last movie role) is ready and waiting to help.

Laura Elena Harring

Ann Miller

Nothing throws this girl, not even finding a stranger using her shower. This particular mystery woman calls herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring) because she can’t remember her own name or anything else about her life. Arrestingly beautiful, with raven hair and ravishing features, Rita appears to be on the run from some nefarious mobsters but she doesn’t know why, natch.

Nor does she have any idea why she has a key and $50,000 in her handbag, which the girls hide in a hatbox. (Well done! If you’ve picked the right frock and got your lipstick on straight, why bother to carry cash?)

Betty decides that Rita needs to retrace her steps in order to regain her identity. But first Betty must prepare for her audition. Rita helps her rehearse and the next day Betty wows everyone in the room, including her debonair co-star Jimmy Katz (Chad Everett). Afterward, Betty is whisked away to meet edgy young director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who’s casting a flick called “The Sylvia North Story.”

Later, over coffee at a diner (Lynch always loves a diner), Rita remembers the name Diane Selwyn; this leads them to an apartment where they make an unsettling discovery. That night, Rita has a few tricks up her sleeve for Betty – first a seduction, then a visit to a strange, nearly empty dive bar called Club Silencio, where Rebekah Del Rio, playing herself, performs a stunning a capella rendition of Roy Orbison‘s “Crying.” When they return home, Rita uses her key to open a box and Betty disappears.

Watts, Lynch, Harring and Theroux

There are several subplots involving a fantasy creature in a diner parking lot; a hitman (Mark Pellegrino) who steals an address book, then casually kills three people; and slick-suited heavies (including Dan Hedaya as Vincenzo Castigliane) pressuring Kesher to cast unknown blonde actress Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) in his movie. Oh, and Kesher’s wife (Lori Heuring) is sleeping with the pool guy (Billy Ray Cyrus).

In part two, Lynch rejiggers this world. The glossy, fun-filled days and Betty’s wholesome aspirations are gone, replaced by pitch-black, sinister nights, acts of betrayal and quests for revenge.

“Mulholland Dr.” – whose abbreviated title may be a tribute to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” – deserves high praise, for its look, its performances, its humor, its risks, its weirdness. Angelo Badalamenti (he has a cameo as gangster Luigi Castigliane, a man who takes espresso extremely seriously) contributes a stellar soundtrack and Peter Deming’s cinematography, with bright light and saturated color, is a treat.

Most of all, though, Lynch’s direction is superb. So is the acting. Watts easily shifts from fluffy and fierce, graceful to gritty. Similarly, Harring makes a fluid transition from lost soul to lady in charge. Though the plot is sometimes thorny, the actors are breezy and believable.

To think that Renée Zellweger received a Best Actress Oscar nom for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Watts didn’t make the list is baffling. (Halle Berry won that year for “Monster’s Ball.” The other contenders were Sissy Spacek for “In the Bedroom,” Nicole Kidman for “Moulin Rouge” and Judi Dench for “Iris.”)

Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Ron Howard won for “A Beautiful Mind,” which also won Best Picture. At Cannes, however, “Mulholland Dr.” received the Palme d’Or for best direction. (Lynch shared the honor with Joel Coen for “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Don't want to keep Clive waiting ...

Of all that’s been written about “Mulholland Dr.” critic Stephanie Zacharek sums it up best: “‘Mulholland Dr.’ is the most womanly of David Lynch’s movies. … It’s wily and sophisticated, stylized like an art deco nude, and suffused with so much feline glamour and beauty and naked eroticism that its chief aim seems not to be to dazzle us with its typically Lynchian plot twists, but to seduce us into its sway and keep us there. This is a movie with hips.”

Speaking of seducing, I must dash back to my fantasyland. I’m meeting with my agent so I can sign that $3 million book deal. Then, I’m off to dinner and dancing with Clive Owen at the Stork Club. Ta ta!

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Fabulously funny, edgily dark, ‘Big Lebowski’ is out on Blu-ray

The Big Lebowski/1998/Universal/117 min.

Post a comment on any story this month and you’ll be entered into a draw to win this Blu-ray release from Universal.

By Michael Wilmington

Jeff Bridges is matchless as The Dude.

“The Big Lebowski,” that class-by-itself, goofball masterpiece by Joel and Ethan Coen is a fabulously funny and edgily dark comic movie tribute to the time-wasters, layabouts and oddballs of the world. Especially the ones in Los Angeles, a city that the Coens catch here with devilish bite and angelic wit.

It’s as sharp and dead-on a picture of LA as you’ll see ever: of its rotten upper-crust and its laidback subculture, and especially of its well-lit bowling lanes.

Funny as hell, it’s a goddamn ode to all those guys who are too off-the edge to work out some halfway normal existence – embodied here in star Jeff Bridges, that man among men and dude among dudes Jeff Lebowski – who indeed prefers the name “The Dude.”

The Dude is … well, what can we say? He’s the Dude! He’s Santa Monica Boulevard on a sunny day; he’s the Farmer’s Market at sunrise; he’s Hollywood Boulevard at 10 p.m.

“The Big Lebowski” tells the story of this ’70s guy in a ’90s world. It’s also a great neo noir, a sort of thriller that plunges the Dude into a Raymond Chandler-style detective story, with the Dude as an impromptu detective who can’t really detect much, but gives it a try anyway.

Accompanying the Dude are his two bowling buddies, wired-tight Vietnam vet and Jewish convert Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and quiet ex-surfin’ Donny Karabatsos (Steve Buscemi). In the tangled plot, The Dude is mistaken for another, much richer Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), a phony philanthropist. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the other Lebowski’s shit-eating grin of a secretary. Julianne Moore is his artsy daughter and a sort of femme fatale, Maude Lebowski.

Julianne Moore

What a show. The writing is razor sharp and so is the filmmaking. Roger Deakins shot it immaculately, and the sound track, supervised by T-Bone Burnett, is fantastic – ranging from Mozart and Korngold to Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy” to Dean Martin singing “Standing on the Corner” and Nina Simone singing “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” to Booker T. and the M. G.s to Townes Van Zandt covering that great underperformed Rolling Stones classic “Dead Flowers.”

As for Jeff Bridges … well, Jeff Bridges was born to play the Dude. The other actors are super, sometimes great, especially Goodman. But Bridges is beyond great, beyond wonderful, beyond Mombasa. He‘s the Dude. His Dudeness. Take it easy, man. But take it.

Extras: Documentaries; Featurettes; Jeff Bridges photos.

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Free stuff: Win ‘The Big Lebowski’ Blu-ray limited edition

The winner of the July reader giveaway has been selected. For August, I am giving away a copy of Universal’s new Blu-ray release of “The Big Lebowski,” the much-loved 1998 neo noir by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Jeff Bridges as the Dude. I’ll run a review on Aug. 16, the official release date. For info on upcoming fan events, visit Lebowski Fest.

To enter the August giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Aug. 1-31. The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early September. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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Coen Brothers’ ‘Man’ is darkly moody, handsomely shot

The Man Who Wasn’t There/2001/Good Machine, et al/116 min.

Scarlett Johansson plays a high-school student in this 2001 film.

What would life be without a dark and handsome companion at night? One I highly recommend is “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This homage to vintage film noir, gorgeously shot in black and white by cinematographer Roger Deakins, conjures a guy you’ll always remember.

Set in 1949, the film introduces us to a choice cast of characters. Top of the list is introspective and blasé Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who has fallen into a comfortable, if dull, life in Santa Rosa, Calif. He’s fond of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand), both cynical and oddly sweet, but there’s never been any passion between them.

To earn a living, Ed cuts hair with his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) at the family barbershop. (“I don’t talk much,” Ed tells us. “I just cut the hair.”) Doris is a bookkeeper at Nirdlinger’s, the town’s big department store, and together they have it “made” – after all, Ed points out dryly, they have a garbage grinder built into the sink.

When he’s not working or tossing scraps down their fancy drain, Ed kills time mainly by smoking and taking care of Doris after she’s had too much to drink, which is quite often. Doris passes the hours of their lives by playing bingo and having an affair with her boss at Nirdlinger’s, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), a blustery WW2 vet. Dave’s married to Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz), whose family owns the store. Ed knows about the affair but, as he does with everything, takes it in stride.

Ed’s life changes forever the day that unctuous big-mouth businessman Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) walks into the barbershop as it’s about to close, gets a very quick trim and happens to mention that he’s in town trying to raise money to invest in drycleaning, which he’s convinced is “the biggest business opportunity since Henry Ford.”

Ed decides later that night that he wants in on the putative drycleaning empire and figures he can raise the requisite $10,000 by anonymously blackmailing Dave. No sooner does Ed get the cash than Tolliver takes off with it. And because Tolliver is so quick to bend ears and beg for money, Dave gets to the bottom of the blackmail scheme and intends to get his money back.

What Dave doesn’t count on is that Ed’s mild facade hides nerves of cold steel; when cornered, Ed’s response to him is quick, instinctive and deadly. But, after news breaks of Doris and Dave’s affair, Doris is arrested for Dave’s murder. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’

The Man Who Wasn’t There/2001/Good Machine, et al/116 min.

What would life be without a dark and handsome companion at night? One I highly recommend is “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This homage to vintage film noir, gorgeously shot in black and white by cinematographer Roger Deakins, conjures a guy you’ll always remember.

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini, and a peerless supporting cast.

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