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.


Liam said...

As serious vampire fans, our household (everyone, including the cat) enjoy all kinds of vampire films. We really like the Underworld series, though it has been panned by others.

But... none of us has any desire to read a novel or watch a film about teenage Mormon vampires. We will have nothing to do with that, thank you.

Apart from that, I think we will watch more good movies now that the horror, the horror is over. imperatrix pulcherrima Africae Occidentalis and I watched "The Petrified Forest" on Friday (fantastic) and I got "The Adventures of Marco Polo" out of the library (no idea whether it's good, but a 1938 movie about Marco Polo with my cousin Tyrone Power has to be at the least great fun).

Of course, we're going to see "Star Trek" today.

cowboyangel said...

Tyrone Power wasn't really your cousin, was he?

The Petrified Forest rocks. Hah!

Are you telling me there's a Mormon element in Twilight? Or was the author a Mormon?

I'm not sure about the new Star Trek. I may be too much a fan of the old show to run out and see it. The previews haven't done much for me. But I'll be curious to hear your take on it.

Liam said...

Tyrone Powers family were the Powers of Kilmacthomas, County Waterford, as were one branch of my mother's family. She always said he looked just like her Uncle Red.

The author of Twilight is extremely Mormon.

We promised filius i.p.A.o. we would go see Star Trek. I have heard that if nothing else, it's a fun ride.

cowboyangel said...

Well, that explains the toothlessness of Twilight.

David Niven, in his very enjoyable book Bring on the Empty Horses said there were three people that everyone in Hollywood loved: Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Tyrone Power. In such a vicious, envious, back-biting world, that's quire a compliment.

I've only seen him in The Black Swan, a great little swashbuckler. Would like to see him as Zorro.

Hey, wait a minute, I just looked up Power on IMDB, and he's not in The Adventures of Marco Polo!

Yeah, well filius i.p.A.o. probably doesn't realize that the chubby old guy doing the priceline commercials used to save the galaxy on a regular basis. He's free of all the baggage. Enjoy the movie. If it's a good ride - and I did like Abrams Srenendipity - we might go see it.

Liam said...

Right. It was Gary Cooper. Why was I thinking Tyrone Power?

Star Trek was fun -- gaping holes in the screenplay, but apart from that it was well acted and paced (I thought the very beginning was a bit slow, but after that it picked up).

Garpu said...

Oh God. You actually watched Twilight? I read the first two books, and immediately wished I hadn't.

cowboyangel said...


How can someone read TWO books and "immediately" wish they hadn't? :-) Sounds like you're not being honest with yourself! You liked the first one - admit it. :-)

I watched it because I love my wife. These things happen.

cowboyangel said...


Because it sounds like a movie Tyrone Power might be in? Moreso, I would say, than Gary Cooper!

We should both watch the Mark of Zorro.

I am intrigued by Simon Pegg as Scotty. How did he do?

Is it all just special effects and action, or does it have some of the narrative flavor of the original?

Garpu said...

Okay, i read most of the second one. I was on a flight from Boston to Seattle and had nothing else to read. Finally I couldn't take any more when we were about over New York. After I'd read my seatpocket magazine, it was a very, very long flight. I nearly chewed my own arm off, for something to do.

Jeff said...

Yes, the whole Twilight thing is vampirism being co-opted to make a Mormon point about chastity. It was an idea that does a disservice to vampires, Mormons, and chastity alike. It's the same kind of thing that's wrong with the idea of "Christian Rock." It's an insult to both Christianity and Rock.

crystal said...

Frost/Nixon sounds good. I think Ebert liked it too.

I haven't read Twillight but I started another book by the same writer (I think) - The Host. It was so-so but the library wanted it back before I was finished and it had a huge list of others on the waiting list, so I had to give it back.

My brother-in-law has written a vampire detective novel and is trying without luck to get an agent.

Liam said...

I'd say at least some narrative flavor -- I don't want to commit myself too much.

Simon Pegg was great as Scotty -- though perhaps he was the one whose performance least resembled the original character.

cowboyangel said...


You had nothing else to read? And you just happened to be carrying the 2nd book with you? Did someone sneak the book into your bag at the airport? Or had someone left it behind in the seat pocket on the plane? Or did you actually purchase the sequel to Twilight? Eh? Come on, admit it. :-)

I'm just trying to get at the heart of the matter. :-)

La Reina bought the 2nd book as well, despite telling me more than once that the preview chapter for it at the end of the first book didn't look that good. I'm guessing that it's summer and people are looking for a certain kind of book and aren't really finding it. No more Harry Potter. How sad.

cowboyangel said...


It was an idea that does a disservice to vampires, Mormons, and chastity alike. That's not a sentence I thought I'd hear this week!

Well, it's done something to create both dedicated fans and people bothered by it. It was the shortest review I offered, yet it seems to be generating most of the comments here. I'm a bit puzzled.

Have you read the book or seen the movie? Or your daughters - I'm guessing they're target audience for Twilight, no? Have you talked to them about it?

I'm curious about our society's current obsession with vampires (and zombies). What's going on that people are so hung up on the undead? Why have we turned creatures who've generally thought to be evil into cool figures? I mean, they're not super heros doing good deeds. They drink blood or eat people. They're symbols of death, degeneration and destruction. My sense is that it has something to do with 9/11 and the threat of Al-Qaeda, but that's just a guess. That and the puritanical forces that have become so strong. We're looking for a "safe" way to be bad, so why not vampires?

I don't know.

Maybe it's related to the whole "torture" debate. We want to torture people, to commit evil, but we don't want to call it torture, we don't actually want to be evil people. We want the goodies without paying the price. We want to be good torturers. Like good vampires.

Then, Twilight adds a whole other weird layer of sociology.

cowboyangel said...


Yeah, Roger liked Frost-Nixon more than I did. Along with a lot of others, I guess. I thought it was good, but a bit airy in the end. I think The Queen, which also stars Michael Sheen and deals with political figures, is a better example of what could've been done.

And though he's been ill, and I should feel sorry for him, I'm not happy with Ebert after his sugary review of Swing Vote. Yecccch.

I like the vampire detective idea.

Liam said...

Vampires have always been in style. I know that I've always enjoyed vampire movies. Perhaps the latest pop culture wave before the Twilight thing was Anne Rice -- who made the vampires the heroes, though conflicted ones -- and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the vampires were basically monsters, although a couple of them transcended that situation. The vampire thing has always had a strong sexual element, so in that way the Twilight thing makes sense -- at least as much sense as Bristol Palin lecturing teenage girls about pregnancy.

cowboyangel said...


Yeah, I know they've always been popular. I guess I've felt something different recently, but I could be wrong. Obviously, Dracula has been popular for a long time.

Just a quick search, though, of the NYT (in Lexis-Nexis and Factiva) does show a significant increase in the number of articles with the word VAMPIRE since 9/11. 1587 articles AFTER 9/11. 1007 articles from the same length of time BEFORE 9/11. That's a 50% increase.

ZOMBIE also shows a dramatic increase. 216 articles in the pre-9/11 NYT. 603 since then. That's 3 times the number of articles. And the WaPo and Financial Times showed similar increases for both terms.

I don't know if the numbers mean anything. But I do feel like there been much more of a mainstream presence of vampires and zombies.

Even if there hasn't been a big post 9/11 increase, what's the attraction, do you think?

crystal said...

I agree there's a romantic element about vampires. I liked some vampire novels by Tanya Huff, though they weren't as good as Rice;s. One made for tv movie I liked was about Vlad the impaler and how he became a vampire - "Dark Prince: the True Story of Dracula". Sorry, for some reason I can't paste th link, but wikipedia has a page on it. Roger Daltrey was the King of Hungery :)

Jeff said...

Yes, my daughters have seen and read Twilight. They are in the target age group, but I can't say they were overwhelmed by it. Some of their friends are obsessed with it.

I confess I can't see the point of Frost/Nixon when the footage of the authentic interviews still exist.

I saw a TV show recently about "real" vampires. People who get their fangs done up, hang around in dance clubs, and actually "feed."

Three best vampires, IMHO:

1) Klaus in Nosferatu.

2) Jonathan Frid in the 60's gothic soap opera Dark Shadows... Barnabas Collins. Quentin, the guy with the muttonchops, was even better as a werewolf.

3) Jack Palance in a made-for-TV version of Dracula in the 70's. Very sultry.

Any fans of Gary Oldman in the newer version of Dracula?

Anne Rice hass announced that she won't be doing any more vampire novels and erotica since she's come back to faith, but I don't think she's turning down any royalties from her old stuff either.

Garpu said...

I'm ashamed to admit I did buy nieces love the books, and I wanted to be up on at least one of their trends. I'm getting to the point where I'm not hip, but I'm hip because I'm not hip. That make any sense? Doesn't to me. Guess it does if you're 13.

Anyway, we had a good talk about appropriate relationship boundaries after I'd read what I did.