Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: 'Mulholland Dr.' on Blu-ray


Getting into “Twin Peaks” in the nineties hipped me to the idea that television could be cinematic, experimental, genuinely scary, and uncomfortably challenging. I tried to sate my yen for such shows with things like “Northern Exposure” and “The X-Files”, but nothing came close to recapturing that air of dreamy creepiness and creeping dreaminess unique to “Twin Peaks”. So when I read that David Lynch would finally be returning to the little screen with a new show called “Mulholland Dr.” for ABC in 1999, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, after seeing Lynch’s pilot, the confounded ninnies at the network passed on it in favor of contemporary classics like “Oh, Grow Up” and “Odd Man Out”. Though heartbroken, Lynch has never been a guy who allows a good idea to go to waste. He reclaimed his 90-minute pilot, shot a new ending for it, and released it theatrically in 2001, thus cobbling together the best feature film of a decade that had barely begun.

(Spoilers Ahead, so you may want to skip to the next bolded heading.)

As far as I’m concerned, a truly great film transports the viewer in ways that transcend mere issues of plot mechanics, it reveals something never before seen, something that conjures a completely realized world in which the viewer may dwell for the duration of the film. With the possible exception of Stanley Kubrick, no filmmaker ever did this better than David Lynch does. In Mulholland Dr., that world is ostensibly Hollywood, but as the film unfolds, we come to learn that the real landscape is a psychological one (which is the case in most of Lynch’s films). Naïve, beautiful ingénue Betty (Naomi Watts) has traveled from Ontario to L.A. to make it big in the movies. When she meets sexy but damaged amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring), Betty discovers that delving into a real-life mystery (Who is Rita? Where did she come from? Why is her purse full of cash and a mysterious blue key?) and striking up a romantic relationship with her new friend is more rewarding and exciting than any role in a movie.

As the T.V. pilot portion of Mulholland Dr. reaches its conclusion, Betty’s concept of reality crumbles, her true self emerges, and it ain’t pretty. The transformation of sweet Betty into seething Diane Selwyn halfway through Mulholland Dr. is utterly devastating. Part of this power derives from Lynch’s direction and script, but a great deal of the credit must also go to Naomi Watts. When I first saw Mulholland Dr., I thought, “Gee, she’s cute, but she’s not a very good actress” as Watts enters the film as the kind of two-dimensional “I’m gonna be a big star!” rube one might see in a thirties musical. Then came the famed movie-audition scene, which forced me to completely reevaluate that opinion. Lynch obviously intended the revelation that goofy Betty is actually a brilliant actress to be a shock, but that surprise would have completely fallen flat had Watts not been able to shift gears so radically while remaining true to the character she’d already established. I would say that Watts gives the performance of the decade in Mulholland Dr. if that didn’t completely underestimate what she actually accomplishes in the picture; it’s the finest acting I’ve ever seen.

As well as a film that houses one of the cinema’s most fascinating plot twists and the cinema’s greatest acting feat, Mulholland Dr. is also a trove of wonderful, unforgettable individual scenes: Adam Kesher’s unnerving encounter with a buggy-ridin’ cow poke with an aversion to smart alecs; the scene in which he gives his wife’s jewels a bath in a can of pink paint, which leads to fisticuffs with Billy Ray Cyrus; Betty’s exchange with a meddling medium; a thug’s increasingly disastrous attempt to pull off the theft of an address book; a perky starlet’s lip-syncing of “I’ve Told Every little Star”; a songbird’s annihilating a capella rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” at a surreal nightclub. Lynch also crafts several of the most unexpectedly frightening sequences in film, as when a man recounts a nightmare to a friend only to live the nightmare while awake, Betty and Rita’s discovery of a rotting corpse in a bungalow, and a feverish confrontation between Diane and a pair of old folks at the film’s climax. For its rich atmosphere, magnificent acting, mesmerizing music, and provocative twists— its eroticism, humor, scariness, humanity, and epic structure—Mulholland Dr. gets my vote for the greatest film of the twenty-first century thus far.

(Now entering a spoiler-free zone.)

I’m not the only one who holds this opinion, and Mulholland Dr.’s blu-ray debut has been highly anticipated for years. That anticipation just got higher when rumors that the Criterion Collection would be handling the film’s U.S. hi-def release started circulating several years ago. Now, those rumors have become reality, and film fans are being treated to an absolutely gorgeous transfer of what could be Lynch’s final work shot on celluloid. Mulholland Dr. is probably Lynch’s most colorful and textural film since Blue Velvet, and those elements look sumptuous on Criterion’s blu-ray, while the celluloid grain remains intact.

Extras are dominated by contemporary interviews. We get Lynch and Watts sitting together to discuss the project’s TV origins (and Lynch confirms that Mulholland Dr. did, indeed, begin life as a “Twin Peaks” spin-off), the casting of Ann Miller, and the harrowing shooting of Watt’s masturbation scene and the audition scene that made her a star. Composer Angelo Badalamenti’s interview is just as illuminating, as he discusses his early musical and career experiences before getting to working with Lynch, being cast in a minor role in Mulholland Dr., and being permanently banned from ever acting for Lynch again! Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, and casting director Johanna Ray share an interview featurette largely devoted to the casting process. Theroux's explanation of how he became a human idiot board for Monty Montgomery is the highlight of this one. In the final interview featurette, production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer Peter Deming talk about the look of the film, the terrifying scene behind Winkie’s Diner, and how the pilot was expanded into a feature film.

There are also 26 minutes of on-set footage, which is an unedited version of a six-minute extra on the old Japanese edition of the DVD, and a brief deleted scene that shows a bit more of Robert Forster’s cop character so briefly glanced in theatrical cut. It isn’t a great scene, but it is of some historical importance since it is the only scene from the TV pilot that Lynch cut from the feature. Rumor has it we may be seeing Forster play a cop for David Lynch again soon since he was the director’s original choice to play Sheriff Truman on “Twin Peaks” and Michael Ontkean will not be reprising that TV role. While we wait another year or two for “Peaks” to return, we Lynch fans can fill our time by diving into Criterion’s dreamy new edition of Mulholland Dr. I’ll eat my hat if there’s a better home video release than this one in 2015.

Get the Criterion edition of Mulholland Dr. on Amazon.com here:
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