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Case Number 04311

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Laurel Canyon

Sony // 2003 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mark Van Hook (Retired) // April 28th, 2004

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All Rise...

You may not have seen this indie flick, but Judge Mark Van Hook did, and says you should too.

The Charge

Somewhere between Hollywood and the rest of the world.

Opening Statement

Yet another indie gem to slide in under the radar in 2003. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon is an intelligent and coolly hypnotic portrait of a place unlike any in the world and what that place can do to people unequipped to handle its seductive charms. The film features some strong lead performances from young actors Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, but it's Frances McDormand who steals the show and once again proves herself to be one of the best, most chameleonic actresses in the business.

Facts of the Case

Sam (Christian Bale, American Psycho) is a straight-arrow psychiatry student who decides to move out to LA with his equally prudish fiancé, Alex (Kate Beckinsale, Pearl Harbor). The setup is ideal—Sam's record-producer mother, Jane (Frances McDormand, Fargo), will move into her house in Malibu, leaving Sam and Alex her place in Laurel Canyon, where Alex will have the peace and quiet to write her dissertation.

Upon arrival, however, the two find that Jane is still living in Laurel Canyon, having given up her place in Malibu to her old lover and now living with a new one (Alessandro Nivola, Jurassic Park III), a rock star whose record she is currently producing. The group sets up an uneasy coexistence in the house, and soon Alex becomes increasingly seduced by Jane's world of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, while Sam finds himself drawn to an entrancing co-worker (Natasha McElhone, Love's Labour's Lost). As this uptight couple drifts further apart, they'll be forced to reexamine just how committed to each other they really are.

The Evidence

A few weeks back, when I wrote about a film called The Secret Lives of Dentists, I mentioned it was one of the films in 2003 that simply flew too far under the radar for anyone to really take notice, and that although it was a great year for fringe pictures, a few still managed to slip through the cracks. Laurel Canyon is another such film, although the lack of public receptiveness for it seems even more baffling. Whereas Dentists featured finely tuned performances from actors Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, it's easy to see how the lack of star power made it a tough sell. Canyon doesn't have this problem, featuring a number of actors who, while not necessarily stars of blockbuster caliber, have still shown the ability to draw audiences time and time again. Now that I've seen it, I have to ask, just how did this thing get swept under the rug?

Laurel Canyon is no classic, mind you. It's a bit unfocused, and feels strangely half-formed, as if the framework for a great story was there but the independent nature of the production kept writer/director Cholodenko (High Art) from wanting to add too much in the way of a traditional Hollywood "plot." What it does have, though, is a terrific sense of time and place, and at least one dynamite performance from an actress who may arguably be the best working in the business right now.

That actress is Frances McDormand, and her character, Jane, is a true original. According to Cholodenko, Jane is based partly on Joni Mitchell, the recording star who always played by her own rules and lived her life the way she wanted. Jane is a pot-smoking, free-spirited firebrand, a true relic of the sex, drugs, and rock n' roll era '60s who is good at what she does, and has a knack for finding (and bedding) music talent. While she's undoubtedly a free spirit, she's also worldly enough to know she's been a terrible mother to Sam, who, we're told, essentially had to raise himself, which has resulted in his ultra-conservative personality. In fact, the best scenes in the film are those that feature just these two characters as they lounge by the pool and talk about their regrets—his for not having a real mother, hers for not being one. In these scenes we see an underlying pain residing within both of these people, and even though they clearly love each other and respect the separate paths that they've taken, they both wish they could have done things differently. It's great to see Bale playing a goody-goody for once, as he's usually resigned to playing "meanies" (as Cholodenko puts it), but it's McDormand who has the most to work with, and she's really the reason to see the film.

The rest of the ensemble is uniformly solid. Beckinsale doesn't have too much to do, as her straight-laced character is somewhat one-note (even when she loosens up a bit towards the end, it's in a conservative kind of way), but she manages to throw in a few little nuances that keep Alex from being a bore. Nivola is particularly good at humanizing Jane's glam-rock beau, and provides some comic relief when the drama starts to teeter into the heavy. McElhone, though saddled with an unfortunate Israeli accent that doesn't quite come off, is appropriately alluring as Sam's co-worker seductress. On the whole, Cholodenko selected a fine group of actors in casting the film, and her gambles in casting against type (Bale, for instance), all pay off.

The other keys to Canyon's success are the production design, by Catherine Hardwicke (who recently directed her own indie breakout film, Thirteen), and the cinematography by Wally Pfister, which combine to give the distinct California setting a unique, otherworldly feeling. The film was shot mostly on and around its actual location, and as photographed by Pfister, the rolling hills of Laurel Canyon are bathed in a dreamy haze of golden sunlight and cool shadow, with dilapidated buildings and overgrown fauna giving a sense this is truly a place forgotten by time. Hardwicke's gorgeous production design is most apparent in Jane's record-producer house, which feels incredibly authentic, with its bookshelves lined with album covers, and platinum records adorning the walls. The design and look of the film lends it a credibility that gives the viewer the sense that this could be a real story happening in a real place, albeit a place unlike one they have ever known.

As the story ends, as a major conflict has taken place between all of the major characters, and everyone has emerged with a clearer sense of who they are and what they want. Yet the film's final note is one of ambiguity, as Sam's temporary bliss is interrupted, and he finds himself at a crossroads. It's Cholodenko's intention to leave the story open-ended, with a sense that the entire tale hasn't been told, and the momentary peace achieved by the film's end won't last. It's a note-perfect capper to an otherwise very good film, a movie that didn't earn nearly the respect it deserved in theaters, and one I hope will find an audience on disc.

Columbia's DVD treatment of Laurel Canyon certainly helps to make this an intriguing proposition, as the video quality is sensational. Pfister's lush cinematography is beautifully realized in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, with absolutely no digital artifacting present, and only the slightest bit of edge enhancement noticeable. The source print is pristine, with very little grain apparent, just as one would expect a recent film to appear.

Audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and sounds just fine, though for a small, independent film like this, no one would expect the audio to blow anyone's doors off. Most of the sound comes through the front and center channels, with the rear channels used mainly for ambient music. It's not perfect, but it's perfectly adequate.

Despite such an under-the-radar theatrical release for the film, Columbia has included some, albeit very writer/director-centric, extras. First up is a screen-specific audio commentary with Cholodenko, who seems aware of her own tendency to ramble, which doesn't stop her from doing it early and often. She spends very little time explaining thematic elements of the story, instead choosing to mostly describe what's happening onscreen, unaware that those of us listening to the track have probably already viewed the film, and don't need it explained for us. It's a pretty dull track, and I can't really recommend a listen except for those who just fall head-over-heels in love with the film.

The disc's other extra of note is a 20-minute featurette. Actually, this is just another interview with Cholodenko, and a practical alternative to the commentary track, distilling everything important into a more digestible time frame, while omitting the excessive rambling.

What's missing from the disc is input from any of the other participants in the making of the film, be they cast or crew members. I would have loved to hear McDormand describe what drew her to the character of Jane, who she was clearly born to play, or Bale and Beckinsale, soon to become major franchise stars (in Batman Begins and Van Helsing, respectively), discussing what drew them to such an offbeat production. Sadly, all we get is Cholodenko, who gives precious little insight into anything other than the production history.

The usual cast and crew bios and theatrical trailers round out the disc.

Closing Statement

Despite the lackluster extras, I'd certainly recommend giving Laurel Canyon a rental, as chances are you probably missed it in theaters. It's got more terrific work from the perpetually great Frances McDormand along with the rest of the ensemble cast, and the cinematography and production design look magnificent on disc.

The Verdict

Acquitted on all counts. Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 80
Extras: 65
Acting: 96
Story: 79
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• French
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko
• Featurette
• Cast & Crew Biographies
• Theatrical Trailers


• IMDb
• Official Site

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