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They Cut Glass. And Hands.

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Having passed the Mulholland Drive exam with flying colors, I was almost recklessly confident going into David Lynch’s newest dreamscape, Inland Empire: primed to follow the story as it splintered, reformed, folded back in on itself, and splintered again; prepared for the notion that all identity is mutable and all reality approximate. Three hours later, I barely knew my name, let alone what had happened in the movie. Inland Empire is way, way beyond my powers of ratiocination. It’s the higher math.

It appears to be about an illicit affair between characters played by Laura Dern and Justin Theroux, although whether she’s a famous actress married to one of the richest and most powerful men in Los Angeles or the pugnacious working-class wife of a man who wants to run off with a Baltic circus is unclear. The film is a dream, but who is the dreamer? Or is that question deeply irrelevant, insofar as the woman—called Nikki or Sue—is the same regardless of her trappings, the two lives connected by an alleyway that might as well be a pipeline from one part of the brain to another? There are so many pieces of this cryptogram: an old movie script—it’s being remade, directed by Jeremy Irons—with a Gypsy curse on it; an old Slavic woman (Grace Zabriskie, tipsy from the high camp of her lines) who recites a verse about a little girl lost in a marketplace followed by Evil; a prostitute watching Dern’s life on a television screen with tears running down her face; a singing, dancing chorus of floozies; and, most mysteriously of all, a sitcom peopled by three giant rabbits waiting for … what I know not.

As much as I thrilled to every minute of Mulholland Drive, I remembered, watching Inland Empire, why Twin Peaks began to hemorrhage viewers in its second season. There are really enough distorted lenses, absurd non sequiturs, portentous warnings, and inexplicable symbols for ten canceled TV shows. And yet … and yet … Lynch serves up enough irrationally disturbing images for 100 classic Asian horror films, and the bedraggled Dern is so overflowingly open that you can’t dismiss the movie as an arty exercise. Someday I’ll get to the bottom of Inland Empire—but when I do, you might have to shoot me.

The smash-hit animated penguin picture Happy Feet has been in the news lately because prominent conservative commentators have attacked its underlying message of, uh, conservation. Thanks to overfishing, the penguins in the movie are going hungry, and it falls to the hero, Mumble, to deliver a message to the world to respect the penguins’ ecosystem. This he does by dancing—probably the next target of social conservatives.

If you can stomach all that subversive pinko propaganda, you should see Happy Feet—not only because it’s stupendous, but also because it features the best dancing you’ll see on the screen this year. Mumble comes tap-tap-tapping out of his egg, and all I could think as I watched was that somewhere Ray Bolger was smiling. It’s not big, swinging, ecstatic Gene Kelly–Donald O’Connor tapping. Mumble uses tap to work out his frustrations, so sometimes it’s staccato and furious, and sometimes it’s a tap and a little wiggly soft-shoe slide along the ice. Happy Feet could kick-start a vogue for soft-shoe ice-skating.

Blood Diamond
Directed by Edward Zwick. Warner Bros. R.

Inland Empire
Directed by David Lynch. 518 Media. R.

Happy Feet
Directed by George Miller. Warner Bros. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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