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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Laurel Canyon (2003)

"You're lucky, you know that? You can control your heart."
- Sam (Christian Bale)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: August 04, 2003

Stars: Frances McDormand, Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola
Director: Lisa Cholodenko

MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, language and drug use
Run Time: 01h:43m:02s
Release Date: July 15, 2003
UPC: 043396002166
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BBB- C+

DVD Review

The prevailing trend in American letters has been to follow the dictum of Horace Greeley, but not everybody has gone west, young man. Some Californians, in fact, have run feverishly the other way—expatriate Golden Staters finding refuge in the Northeast haven't stanched the flow to the left coast, but there are some notable members of this intrepid band: Leslie Epstein, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, to name a few. The hero of this movie is one of their number, and it's his return to the belly of the beast, to Mommy's house in the neighborhood of the title, that makes this intriguing movie run.

Sam (Christian Bale) has fled Los Angeles and established an East Coast pedigree for himself: Harvard credentials, with the high-powered fiancée to match. Alex (Kate Beckinsale) is finishing a joint Ph.D/M.D. program, and the plan is for her to write her dissertation when she moves west with Sam, who, after med school, will be doing his psychiatric residency in L.A. They're going to crash out in Sam's mother's empty house, in Laurel Canyon; she's supposed to be off at the beach pad, in Malibu.

Things don't quite work out that way. Sam's mother Jane (Frances McDormand) is very much in the house, with the band whose record she's currently producing, and whose lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), she's currently sleeping with. Sam is mortified by his mother, and thinks that her home is a den of iniquity; Alex doesn't share his horror, but looks a little put upon when her future mother-in-law offers her a bong hit inside of ten minutes.

The interactions of these conflicted souls make up the bulk of the movie, which works better early on, when they're all loaded with unasked questions and unspoken resentments and desires, than it does as those things bubble up to the surface. Alex is intrigued with the world that Sam has been running from, and she's more than just a novelty to the guys in the band, Ian especially. (Part of that, surely, is because she looks like Kate Beckinsale.) When Jane and Ian invite her in to the recording studio, Alex is the geeky little girl finally getting to hang with the cool kids, and she shudders with excitement.

A variety of plot complications ensue, which I won't spill here; many of them involve Sarah (Natasha McElhone), the dangerously sexy resident at the same hospital as Sam. The strengths of the piece are the characters, and the fierce acting—the first hour especially offers more penetrating eye contact between people on screen than you'll see in a dozen movies. McDormand is especially brave and wonderful, inhabiting this woman who is successful and has had more than her share of screw-ups, and knows the differences between them, and isn't ashamed of any of them.

The weak link in the chain, though, is Sam—he starts out as a pill, and remains one pretty much throughout. When he's done some dirt, we can't help but think that he's got it coming to him, and that it's time for him to get over his mommy issues, already—he's the kind of guy who's very busy telling everybody in his life that they're crazy. (This is not a winning attribute in anyone, and seems a flaw of astronomical dimensions in a psychologist.) You can't help but think that his mother is right: Sam should just get over himself, already, loosen up with a drink or a joint or something, for God's sake.

The payoffs, then, aren't as strong as the setups, and on more than one occasion, you may feel the embarrassment of watching other people's intimacies—they're not especially revealing of their character, and just feels like entirely too much information. It's like the friend we've all had at one point, the one who relates everything about their bodily functions and sexual predilections in excruciating detail, and won't shut up, because hey, they're being honest.

But there's a whole lot here that's worth attending to, ranging from the some of the sharp dialogue to the impressive acting to the very particular sense you get from this Los Angeles neighborhood. The storytelling isn't always as sure-footed as you might hope, but there are a lot of smart and funny things in this movie.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Occasional scratches are evident on the print—this was not a high-budget affair—but the film captures the light in the Hollywood Hills as well as any movie I've seen, and the rich, saturated colors, especially at sunset, look strong on this DVD.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio track is generally pretty rich and atmospheric, but there are more than a few looping problems, and they weren't well compensated for in the mix; you can hear some awkward audio cuts that must have been introduced for the purposes of dialogue replacement. But otherwise the moody audio is pretty clean.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring All the Real Girls, Love Liza, Talk to Her
2 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Lisa Cholodenko
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko provides a commentary track, and while a few too many times she narrates the scenes for us, she's obviously passionate about this project and is full of insight. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and the trip down Laurel Canyon Boulevard from the valley to the city seems to have been an especially magical one for her as a child, and listening again to Joni Mitchell's album Ladies of the Canyon seems to have catalyzed this project in Cholodenko's head. The gorgeous house where much of the action takes place is actually in Santa Monica Canyon; it's owned by one of the film's producers, and was designed by Richard Neutra, probably the greatest mid-century Southern California architect. Cholodenko also has an obvious affection for her actors—she relates, for instance, that Beckinsale thought of this as her rehab project after months and months shooting Pearl Harbor.

An accompanying making-of documentary (21m:37s) is essentially an extended interview with Cholodenko, who covers some of the same ground on the commentary track; here she lavishes particular and well-earned praise on Wally Pfister, her ingenious director of photography. (He also shot Memento, among other notable credits.) Filmographies are for Cholodenko and the five principal actors (McDormand, Bale, Beckinsale, McElhone and Nivola); I'm guessing that the subtitles were rendered in French only because the film played at the Cannes Film Festival.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Strong on atmospherics and character but less so on story, Laurel Canyon offers much that's provocative, but sometimes it feels like that's merely for the sake of provocation. Still, it's ambitious and artfully made, and the supplements indicate that the writer/director brims with passion for her work.


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