Sunday, May 24, 2009

Recent Screenings

La Moustache (2005) - French writer Emmanuel Carrère directs his first fictional feature film based on his own novel by the same name. As with most current French thrillers, the back of the DVD calls it "Hitchcockian." Evidently, no other director ever made a psychological thriller. But Hitch never made a dreamy, non-linear film like this. The one movie that came to mind for a while was actually Gaslight, which was directed by Geroge Cuckor, but even that comparison breaks down as the story plunges further into surreal territory. In fact, I can't think of any film that really resembles La Moustache. All I know is that I really enjoyed it.

The film concerns a man named Marc, who casually asks his wife in the opening scene what she would think if he shaved off the mustache he's had for years. She doesn't think it would be a good idea. And, as it turns out, it's not a good idea. After he shaves it off, she appears to not even notice. This increasingly irritates him. When they have dinner that night with two friends, neither of them, nor their little girl, notice either. Finally, on the way home, he gets really angry with his wife for not saying anything. To which she, with a look of terror, tells him that he's never had a mustache.

And so it goes. His colleagues at work don't notice anything either. Is this a conspiracy of some kind? As it turns out, we learn from the dinner scene that the wife's honesty may be questionable. Is she gaslighting him? Are his colleagues in on it? He sees a recent photo of himself with his mustache, yet everyone tells me he never had one. His wife tells him to see a psychiatrist, and he does seem to be having some kind of breakdown. As things deteriorate, he overhears his wife and his business partner whispering about having him committed. He flees his home, and after going around the city for a while in a taxi looking for his mother's house, he decides to take a last-minute flight to Hong Kong. He travels back and forth on the ferry between the island and the mainland. He grows his mustache back, stays in a rundown hotel and seems at peace as some kind of expatriate. Until events turn again.

It's hard to describe La Moustache. I can tell you the plot - or what I can fathom of the plot - and you can read the synopsis on back of the DVD, and it doesn't sound like much. How can you base an entire film on a guy who shaves off his mustache? I asked myself that many times as I would pick up, then put back the DVD. But it works. Carrère uses the psychological thriller as a means of exploring issues such as identity and our conception of reality. (I think.) Yet, he keeps the film moving well, never fully abandoning the thriller genre for a slog through philosophical meditation. It's sort of a cross between the more poetic explorations of Claire Denis, where plot doesn't seem to matter at all, and the conventional structures of something like Gaslight. (Or Hitchcock!)

Vincent Lindon, who has worked with Caire Denis, does an outstanding job as Marc, and the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) plays his wife Agnès. These two actors already have seven César nominations between them, and it's a pleasure to watch them at work here as a successful professional couple living in Paris who seem to love each other but may be going through a difficult time. There are some powerful and tender moments between them. You know, when she's not gaslighting him. If she is. Or when he's not freaking out and tearing through the garbage to show her the hairs he trimmed off. If he actually had a mustache to begin with.

If you want everything ironed out at the end, you will be disappointed in La Moustache. But if you just let go and go for the ride, you may be pleasantly surprised. This is a cool little journey through territories of cinema we rarely get to see.

RECOMMENDED for those who can live without plot resolution. If you're trying to control everything in life, you're not going to like this. Men with mustaches may feel uneasy.

Frost/Nixon (2008) - Frank Langella and Michael Sheen deliver great performances as Richard Nixon and David Frost. And though they didn't get much attention when the film came out, the key supporting actors also do very well, including Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and Matthew Macfadyen. The screenplay is by Peter Morgan, who wrote the original Broadway production which garnered so many accolades. The story of Nixon and Frost's now historic series of interviews in 1977 is fascinating, not only for the mythic elements of a fallen king jousting with a pretty-boy journalist out to prove something, but also for the wheeling and dealing Frost had to do to even get the interviews on the air in the U.S.

So with all this excellent acting, a good screenwriter and a great story, why did I feel somewhat empty afterwards? Two words: Ron Howard. Is there any other director in Hollywood who can produce such competently made yet hollow films? They look good. They move well. They usually have actors delivering excellent performances. They're entertaining. Yet they never add up to much. Frost/Nixon may be his best effort yet. It's definitely worth seeing, especially for the acting. It's a good movie. Very good in some ways. But given this material and this cast, it should've been a profound movie. In the hands of another director, it could've been.

Swing Vote (2008) - This propaganda film disguised as a comedy is meant to encourage participation in our electoral system, but its obvious emotional manipulation, its condescending attitude towards its audience, and the participation of real-life figures like Arianna Huffington, Bill Maher, Larry King and others left me feeling more cynical than ever about the twisted and parasitic relationship between the media and our political system. The election of 2008 plays out like a repeat of Bush-Gore, with the fate of the country hinging on one poor, dumb drunk named Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) whose vote wasn't completed because of a technical glitch. (I did my best to get past that ridiculous set-up.) Both presidential candidates and their teams come to the small town - you know, "real" America, unlike the cities, where everyone's a fake - to convince Bud to vote for them. While Swing Vote is touted as a bi-partisan film, I found it interesting that both candidates are played by longtime Republican supporters, Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper. Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci play their campaign managers, and you can imagine from the casting what that's going to be like. Bud's daughter, who's miraculously intelligent and wise despite coming from two somewhat slow parents with substance-abuse problems, is the real heart of the story, and she's played well by young Madeline Carroll. She and George Lopez, as a local TV news producer, are the best parts of the film. Costner is okay, but he gets annoying after a while. There are some funny moments here and there, especially as the candidates change their platform positions to win over Bud, who doesn't even know what he thinks about anything, but you have to wade through a lot of bad writing for those little treats. It's hard to argue with the premise that every vote counts, especially after Bush-Gore, but after watching the cynical, self-serving media-political complex try so hard to convince me of that fact, my initial reaction is to skip the next election. The least one can do is to skip this film.

The Hallelujah Trail (1965) - This wonderful comedy western tells the story of an oncoming harsh winter and panic among miners in Denver because they've run out whiskey. The liquor distributor (Brian Keith), who's almost bankrupt, leads 40 wagons of precious cargo to Denver. Indians want to steal it. A temperance group wants to stop it. One group of cavalry is sent to guard the wagon train, another is forced to escort the temperance group to Denver. Meanwhile, Irish drivers on the wagon train threaten to go on strike. Burt Lancaster plays a cavalry commander and man's man battling the feminist-temperance leader, played with spark by Lee Remick. Despite his toughness, she continually outwits him, getting him to do more and more that he doesn't want to do. The film has a funny, well-executed meta-fiction element, with a serious-sounding off-screen narrator growing steadily confused as he tries to map out the story for the audience. And the big showdown, when all of the various groups collide in a raging sandstorm, belongs on a list of great comedy sequences in cinema. Under-appreciated director John Sturges (The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) keeps the action moving, and Robert Surtees delivers spectacular Technicolor cinematography of the glorious landscapes around Shiprock, New Mexico. RECOMMENDED.

Angel and the Badman (1947) - John Wayne stars in this somewhat unusual film that also marks his first effort (of 20) at producing. The movie literally opens with a bang, as Wayne has a shootout and then rides, wounded, for miles through the desolate west while the opening credits roll. By the time they stop, he collapses near an isolated ranch that happens to be run by a Quaker family. Nursed back to health by the lovely daughter, played by Gail Russell, he spends the rest of the film struggling between his love for her, curiosity about her funny Quaker pacifism, and his own desire to settle down on one hand, and his own gunslinging ways, a sheriff determined to hang him, and the hard realities of the west on the other. A little corny at times, but for 1947, it's a thoughtful look at violence, masculinity, and the tension between Christian ideals and the quest for power. It makes me wonder: How would Jesus have dealt with the American West?

Twilight (2008) - Yawn. A toothless vampire love story. Perfect for an uptight, prudish, adolescent-souled society that yearns for real passion. La Reina read the book (has anyone ever seen a man reading Twilight?) and thought the movie was okay but didn't capture the story as well. Pattison and Stewart have some chemistry, but it's mostly squandered. The movie won't kill you - it moves well enough and has some good moments, but it's ultimately forgettable. You want vampire passion, skip this and (re-) watch Herzog's Nosferatu.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Recent Screenings

Transsiberian (2008) - Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are Americans who've gone to China with Roy's church to work with underprivileged children. A train buff, Roy books them passage on the Transsiberian Express from Beijing to Moscow, before flying back to the States. On the journey, they meet Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a sexy, well-travelled Spaniard who seems to knows a lot about Customs, and Abby (Kate Mara), a young woman who has run away from Seattle.

Meanwhile, Grinko, a Russian narcotics detective (Ben Kinglsey) is tracking down whoever killed a drug dealer in Vladivostok and vanished with both the drugs and the money.

Jessie, who had a fairly wild past before marrying Roy and trying to settle down, feels sympathetic towards the seemingly lost Abby. And she feels something more unsettling for Carlos, who gives off an aura of raw sexuality and physical danger. When the train stops at a snowy village somewhere in Siberia, Roy goes looking at old coal locomotives with Carlos. When the train starts up again, Roy is no longer aboard.

Hoping that Roy has simply missed the train, Jessie gets off at the next village to make inquiries. Carlos and Abby decide they will stay with her until she finds her husband. They're concerned about her safety. In this isolated, wintry and foreign environment, the sexual tension between Carlos and Jessie begins to heat up, culminating in an abandoned Orthodox church off in the woods near the village.

The pacing of Transsiberian reflects that of the train itself. It starts off slowly -- introducing these people, telling their back stories and actually developing characters and relationships -- and then picks up more and more speed as the film chugs along. The subtle tension in one scene links to another, which links to another, until the total becomes almost unbearable. It's Hitchcock, not Quantum Solace or other contemporary "thrillers" that substitute action and quick edits for genuine suspense.

Director and co-writer Brad Anderson (The Machinist) offers some good twists and turns on the trip, which keeps the film moving along in surprising ways. The story of Jessie and Carlos doesn't end in the Orthodox church in Siberia, it only marks the beginning of a new stage in the journey.

Despite excellent acting all around, the film really belongs to Emily Mortimer. Transsiberian is Jessie's story in the end, and Mortimer does a great job of portraying the internal struggle between her restless nature, with its wild past, and her desire to live a positive life and love Roy, who saved her both physically and emotionally after she slammed head-on into his car while she was drunk. Jessie makes some really poor decisions on this journey. But Mortimer gives her the dignity of a human being really wrestling with good and bad aspects of herself, and the fact that they may be more intertwined than we normally care to admit. As she says to her husband at one point, quoting Tennessee Williams, "Kill off all my demons, Roy, and my angels might die, too."(So that's where Tom Waits got the line.)

But this isn't just a metaphorical journey. It is a physical one as well, through contemporary Russia, and Anderson does a great job capturing the ambience of traveling through a strange land, both in the small details and in the starkly beautiful shots of the train passing through the Siberian wilderness. While the landscape and people can seem exotic to the Americans, there's also a sense of the chaos, hardship and danger in the post-Soviet Union era. This becomes more evident as the film progresses. As one character says, "In Russia, we have expression. 'With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.' Do you understand this, Jessie?"

Where is that line? At what point can you no longer turn back? Brad Anderson has fashioned a fine suspense film that touches on these darker questions as it speeds on its way to a dramatic climax, with action sequences that seem to organically rise out of the need of the moment rather than being a constructed set-piece to show off CGI. The writing and directing are excellent. The acting is consistently great, with special kudos to Woody Harrelson, who has the thankless task of playing a fairly simple guy who's positive by nature, but who imbues Roy with real humanity. The cinematography by Xavi Giménez is top notch. There's a lot going on in this film. It lingers well and leaves you slightly unsettled. And it's easily the best movie that takes place on a train in a long, long time.

STRONGLY RECOMMENDED, unless you must have hyper-kinetic action with lots of explosions.

Duplicity (2009) - Clive Owen and Julia Roberts in a corporate espionage screwball comedy. Tony Gilroy, who did such a great job with Michael Clayton, offers up a much lighter take on capitalist morality this time. Owen is ex-MI6, Roberts ex-CIA, and now they both work in corporate espionage, for competing cosmetic companies. They love each other and are scheming together to make their big pay day and get away from it all.

Or are they? She may be playing him. He may be trying to get revenge for the first time they met, when she seduced him, knocked him out and stole Egyptian military secrets from him. That never set well. They're at competing companies, but she's a mole for the company he works for, and now he's her handler. Or is she a mole for the other company, using him to get information?

Gilroy piles on the layers of doubt, especially in the relationship between Owen and Roberts, which is both passionate and wary. They know they're both liars and schemers. Will they stay together, because they understand each other so well? Or will they be unable to resist the temptation of getting the best of the other? It's classic screwball comedy material taken to another level. Despite a deep vein of cynicism, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert in the same roles.

The best part: The film feels like it was written for adults. There may not be a lot here, but at least it's smart and savvy and knowing. If you like Clive and Julia, they have some good chemistry and the film is a lot of fun. And we finally know now: Clive Owen can do comedy. He actually has the funniest scenes in the film, getting excited over developments in the secret battles between two frozen pizza giants. This from a man who once stole Egyptian military secrets. (And that is the sly, darker underside to the film. Gilroy, who explored corporate espionage in Michael Clayton, doesn't go in depth much on the subject, but you realize afterwards how weird this whole new era is in some ways.)

The best sequence in the movie, however, may the opening credits, as Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson - heads of the competing cosmetic corporations who hate each other - get into a delicious slow-motion fistfight on the tarmac between their two executive jets.

RECOMMENDED, especially if you're in the mood for some smart fluff. Not recommended for Julia-haters.

Quantum of Solace (2008) - Casino Royale was such a pleasant surprise in the Bond franchise: Action, class and a dash of tough humanity, thanks to Daniel Craig, the best 007 since Sean Connery. Unfortunately, Q of S exchanges any of the human touches in Casino Royale for even bigger and sillier action sequences. The plot of the film is so unimportant that you don't even know what's going on at times. It's like watching a scene unfold as you pass by in a fast-moving car: "What was that? Who was that?"

On the positive side, we get more Judi Dench. M stands for Mother now, with 007 as her favorite son who gets into trouble all the time. (He's gonna break her heart.) How she keeps winding up in obscure international settings so quickly was weird though.

Strangely, I've never seen a Bond film so intricately tied to the previous one. Someone should've warned me that I had to re-watch Casino Royale immediately before starting this one. I'm supposed to remember all of these people and story lines from the last movie? The director and screenwriters obviously don't care about their characters or plot, though, so why should I?

Too bad. There are some interesting elements at play here, but everything get lost in the blur.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - I should write extensively about this one, because it's truly a classic, and a landmark in trial films. If it seems unusually dark and cynical for late 1950s Hollywood, that's because it's directed by Otto Preminger. Jimmy Stewart is great, and well chosen for the role of a small-town lawyer who gets involved in a rape and murder case. Lee Remick was way sexy in 1959 - and later, too. The score is famous in and of itself, coming from Duke Ellington, who has a small role in the film. Highly recommended.

Burn After Reading
(2008) - No, it's not up to the level of No Country for Old Men, but it's much better than some reviewers said when it first came out. Funny, dark, weird. It's classic Coen Brothers. Brad Pitt excels. And the scenes between two confused CIA superiors are worth everything. "Report back to me . . uh . . . when it makes sense."

2 Days in Paris (2007) - Julie Delphy wrote, directed, starred in, and even did the music for this film about a New York couple - Jack and Marion - who stop at Marion's parents' house in Paris for two days before returning to the States after a long trip. Things haven't gone well between the couple, with tensions brewing, restlessness showing its head, and possible incompatibility issues. While showing indebtedness to both Annie Hall and Richard Linklater's pair of Sunrise/Sunset films that starred Delphy, 2 Days in Paris creates its own personal identity, thanks mostly to Delphy's intelligent script. Some very funny scenes, a lot of excellent dialog, and delightful performances by the director's real-life parents. Delphy, who recently completed a film-making degree at NYU, has made an impressive directorial debut.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Ronald Reagan: Hard Left Ideologue

From Glenn Greenwald's post yesterday at Salon - "Ronald Reagan: vengeful, score-settling, Hard Left ideologue":

Ronald Reagan, May 20, 1988, transmitting the Convention Against Torture to the Senate for ratification:

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention . It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.

Convention Against Torture, signed and championed by Ronald Reagan, Article II/IV:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. . . Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law.
The views that Ronald Reagan not only advocated, but signed a treaty compelling the U.S. to adhere to, are ones that are now -- in the view of our dominant media narrative -- the hallmarks of The Hard Left: torture is never justified; there are "no exceptional circumstances" justifying it; it must be declared to be a serious criminal offense ; and -- most of all -- the U.S., as Ronald Regan put it, "is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution." Reagan's explicit view that the concept of "universal jurisdiction" permits signatory nations (such as Spain) to prosecute torturers from other countries (such as the U.S.) is now considered so fringe that it's almost impossible to find someone in mainstream American debates willing to advocate it. . . .

It's literally true that if you say today verbatim what Ronald Reagan said in 1988 about torture and the need to prosecute those who do it, then you are immediately and by definition a rabid score-settler from the Hard Left who is unfit to be trusted with national security decisions. Conversely, the views that Reagan vehemently rejected by words and by treaty -- that torture can be justified in some circumstances; that torturers should be shielded from prosecution; that other countries have no right to prosecute the torturers from other countries under "universal jurisdiction" -- are now not merely acceptable, but are required views in order to be not only a conservative, but to be a centrist. That's how severely the political spectrum and our elite consensus on these questions have shifted -- descended -- even from the time of the right-wing Reagan era when American exceptionalism and military aggression thrived.