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In his last feature film, 1999's "Julien Donkey-Boy," writer/director Harmony Korine walked the plank of unrelenting art-house surrealism and eagerly jumped into the cold waters of obscurity. The years haven't diluted Korine's peculiar imagination or willingness to indulge his every impulse, but there's a thick stream of compassion to his new film "Mister Lonely" that registers as proof of maturity. The newfound sense of tact is quite appealing.
Living as a Michael Jackson impersonator in France, "Michael" (Diego Luna) is growing weary of his environment. While entertaining at a nursing home, Michael meets "Marilyn" (Samantha Morton), a kindly Marilyn Monroe mimic who encourages the king of pop to return home with her to a Scottish island, populated exclusively by fellow impersonators. When Michael arrives, his presence electrifies the group, but it's only a matter of time before discontent seeps back into the community, with Marilyn bearing the brunt of the brutality from husband "Charlie Chaplin" (Denis Lavant).
Once Korine wrestled control of his material away from other filmmakers, establishing his own directorial routine, the results ("Gummo," "Julien Donkey-Boy") were interesting potions of interpretational unrest, most centered on the disgusting habits and psychological wounds of small-town America. Being something akin to a performance artist, Korine was always more than willing to elongate his askew characterizations to make equally horrifying and comedic impressions, and that cockeyed bravado was entertaining, if not always aesthetically pleasing. Even with his taste for mischief, Korine was never boring. He was missed during those eight years of absence.
"Mister Lonely" stays faithful to the filmmaker's taste for the fringe, only now the objects of social isolation are endearing souls (well, a few of them) who have separated themselves from the world to live in a communal fantasyland where ridicule is unable to plague their daily existence. On this island lives a foul-mouthed Abraham Lincoln, Buckwheat, a smelly Pope (James Fox), The Three Stooges, James Dean, Shirley Temple, Sammy Davis Jr., Madonna, and the Queen of England (Anita Pallenberg). With this roster of household names, "Lonely" observes the psychological detachment the characters undertake to live their lives in peace, fearing the horrors of the world so much, their only choice is to become someone else; assuming personalities who bring joy to the masses and epitomize poses of power and distinction. The subtext is thick in "Lonely" and Korine is wise to let the themes of the movie work themselves out, sticking with his cast to supply the torment while he monkeys with the tone.
The performances are acceptable under the circumstances, with most of the actors hanging on for dear life as the picture moves from comedy to forbidding drama to a full-out musical with breakneck speed. Morton and Luna are perhaps the most compelling, being the only two cast members to achieve a rounded presentation of solitude, keeping Korine honest as his chases a few wacky tangents better left alone. More specifically: a subplot that follows a priest (Werner Herzog) stumbling over an exploitable miracle when a nun falls out of an airplane and crashes to the ground unhurt (the "skydiving" sequence hypnotizes). Now there's a compelling moment of holy circumstance, but Korine smothers the awe by allowing Herzog to endlessly improv his way through scenes. Not an unexpected bit of a direction intended to unearth raw emotion, but a film-stopper for sure.
Also of note is the cinematography by Marcel Zyskind, which has to be some of the finest photography I've seen so far this year. Creating a rural environment of beauty and bitter isolation, Zyskind maintains Korine's vision magnificently, capturing the cornucopia of behavioral moments with a rare quality in today's indie film world: patience. It's a gorgeous movie that could even be embraced with the sound turned off. For some of Korine's dreadful ideas of whimsy, silence should be a requirement.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation for "Mister Lonely" mercifully does justice to Zyskind's superlative photography. Preserving the vast colors and autumnal Scottish locations, the DVD maintains the heart of Korine's creation by keeping the image crisp and free of noticeable tinkering. Black levels are tight as well, allowing the eye to drink up the vistas and characters without fear of subpar transfer quality.
Set loose on a feature film that enjoys musical asides of all shapes and sizes, the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is a respectful, occasionally uplifting event. Dialogue and soundtrack selections are well organized, while atmospheric events (and the film has plenty of 'em) are given a full life in the surround channels.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
"The Making of 'Mister Lonely'" (11:58) interviews cast and crew on the creation of this odd picture, with the participants directly addressing the camera with their thoughts. The information is satisfying, but the real gift of the featurette is the BTS footage, offering the chance to watch Korine and his crew at work.
"Deleted Scenes" (36:27) open up Michael's social world in France and on the island, permit Herzog more screentime to ramble, and offer up more meaty bits of Korine-approved weirdness (some without the benefit of subtitles).
"Mister Lonely" doesn't come together with an emotional wallop, but the effort from Korine to tie the audience into the drama is commendable, using tragedy and agonizing self-realization to further develop the decomposition of Michael and his makeshift family of look-alikes. Like anything Korine creates, the film remains a specialized product for adventurous tastes in art-house distraction, but the visual beauty of this picture, combined with its fascinating thematic aspirations, offers a feature of substantial peculiarity and inimitable observation to consume.