Laurel Canyon review by Mike Long

There are many interesting things that go along with being a movie-fan. One of the best aspects is the ability to compare films. Once you've seen enough movies, you can compare styles, stories, and actors. But, it's rare that I compare performances. However, that's one of the few high points of Laurel Canyon, in which Oscar-winner Frances McDormand plays the antithesis to her popular role from Almost Famous.

Sam (Christian Bale) is working on his M.D. in psychiatry and plans to do his residency at a respected hospital in Los Angeles. His lovely girlfriend, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who is also pursuing her M.D., will accompany him. Despite all of these positive aspects, Sam is somewhat hesitant about going, because the couple will be using his mother's house, and Sam doesn't get along very well with his mom. Once they reach the house in Laurel Canyon, Sam finds that thing are worse than he thought. His mom, Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer, has fallen behind on her latest project, and she, and the band, led by Ian (Alessandro Nivola), are still inhabiting the house. Sam and Alex plan to relocate, but they can't find anywhere to move, so they are forced to stay with the wild and unpredictable Jane. Sam spends his days at the hospital, where he befriends fellow resident, Sara (Natascha McElhone), while Alex works on his dissertation at the house. Will the free-spirited Jane influence these two young go-getters and wreck their plans for the future?

OK, here's where we separate the snobby, artsy critics from the down-to-earth movie reviewers. The DVD cover for Laurel Canyon displays the fact that the film was an official selection at the Toronto International, Sundance, and Cannes film festivals. But, here's the bottom line: this film is a missed opportunity, and a boring one at that. Knowing that Laurel Canyon is a slice-of-life movie, it's not surprising that it isn't chock full o'action. But, the movie sets up situations and takes far too long to follow through with them. We know that due to Jane's influence, something crazy is going to happen to Sam and Alex. But, the film makes us wait...and wait. And the sad part is that Laurel Canyon could have been a truly interesting film if it had gone a bit further in exploring its characters. Here we have a female record producer, a psychiatrist, a geneticist, and a rock musician -- four intriguing careers. But the movie never really delves into them. Actually, the psychiatric portrayal falls squarely into the stereotypical ploys that we've seen in so many movies.

The only redeeming feature in the film is the cast. McDormand is excellent as Jane, playing a character who is slightly more out of control than we are used to seeing. It's especially fun to contrast Jane to the rock 'n roll hating Elaine Miller from Almost Famous. Also playing against type is Christian Bale, as Sam is much more human than the characters which Bale has played recently in films such as American Psycho, Reign of Fire, or Equilibrium, and this change of pace is good for him. Beckinsale is good as Alex, and Nivola musters just the right amount of scumminess as the lascivious Ian. But, these performances can't make up for the dull script, and even the actors look bored at times.

As should always be the case, Laurel Canyon looks good for a new movie. The film is presented in an anamporphic widescreen, and the image has been letterboxed at 1.85:1. The picture is very clear and sharp, showing very little grain or any major defects from the source print. The colors look very good, as director Lisa Cholodenko has shot the film in a very naturalistic style. There is some minor artifacting at times, but otherwise, the transfer looks good. As for the audio, the primary audio track on the DVD is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The music from Ian's band sounds very good (and their sound is unusually catchy). But, as this is primarily a dialogue-driven drama, the track doesn't provide much in the way of surround sound effects or subwoofer action.

This DVD contains a handful of extra features. We start with an audio commentary from director Cholodenko. She speaks at length throughout the film and most of her comments are very scene specific. She pays attention to the themes of the film and talks about the actors. This chat isn't the most exciting commentary ever, but it is informative. This is followed by a 22-minute "featurette", which is basically an interview with Cholodenko that includes some behind-the-scenes shots. Here, she repeats some of the thoughts which she sets forth in the commentary. The disc also includes filmographies for the primary cast and crew, 2 TV spots, and the theatrical trailer for Laurel Canyon.

4 out of 10 Jackasses

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