La moustache (2005)

“How would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?” So begins Emmanuel Carrère’s 2005 film La moustache, a dark and heartbreaking investigation of madness and identity. Marc has worn his upper-lip rag for the past 15 years, as his wife points out, so it might be a little strange if he shaves it off. But shave he does, whimsically, excitedly – and yet no one notices, not his wife nor his friends. In fact, as Marc’s wife tells him in a state of confusion, he has never had a mustache at all in the past 15 years…

Watching La moustache descend from that point onwards is not a task that will result in immediate satisfaction (it may, however, result in an immediate WTF). Marc says that surely their friends will vouch for his facial hair…leading Marc’s wife to inform him that the friends of whom he speaks are also nonexistent. Marc references his parents…and Marc’s wife slowly and cautiously reminds him that his father has been dead for years. Marc soon runs off to Hong Kong to get away from the crumbling world around him.

My interpretation leans much more to the abstract side, as I suspect most interpretations must. You could argue easily enough that a portion (or two, or three) of the fractured film is a dream or a hallucination on Marc’s part, or that the entire thing is imagined. You could just as easily argue that Marc is eminently sane and that an elaborate ruse à la The Game has been constructed by his wife, friends, parents, whoever. It’s respectable that Carrère (who first wrote La moustache as a novel) was able to build something very obviously open to warring readings, but the film as a whole begs a more involved interpretation; it nearly demands you come up with a theory and stick to it, otherwise La mustache just sits uncomfortably like an undigested meal.

While the whole movie is perplexing, the Hong Kong Star Ferry sequence is possibly the most eyebrow-raising: Marc is shown going back and forth on the ferry, arriving, departing, paying for his ticket, moving through the turnstiles, facing one way, facing the next, over and over. Is this a part of his actual existence, or at the very least a representation of how lonely he is? If so, the first chunk of the film could act as a construct wherein Marc has a loving wife, friends, a home, a life. Changing one element of this carefully constructed fantasy (i.e. shaving his mustache off) forces the entire house of cards down. Systems resist change by their very nature, and Marc’s fantasy is upset by a simple lack of hair on his face. He tries to hold onto this – going so far as to dig through the trash to retrieve the remnants of his mustache – but the change is irreparable.

Marc writes a postcard to his wife from Hong Kong, stating that he does not trust his own eyes but only what he sees through the eyes of his wife. At the end of the film, when Marc’s wife is inexplicably present in Hong Kong as if none of the previous conundrums had occurred, Marc disposes of the postcard that he never mailed. Perhaps he has found a new way to make his fantasy work by imagining his wife with him in Hong Kong, and he discards the postcard upon the realization that the original fantasy clashes with the new one.

This could very well be a weak interpretation of the first 95% of the film, but I think it’s one that lends the last 5% a particular beauty. Fully-bearded Hong Kong Marc asks his wife “How would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?”, and when he does it this time around she smiles, compliments him on the change, and invites him into bed. His efforts at change within such a lonely existence were met with impossible resistance over the course of the first acts of the film, obstacles that he alone had to endure and overcome. His pain, his conflicted sense of self, the overpowering sense that no one in the entire world is on his side – all of it seems to melt away when his wife recognizes the change that he has enacted.

Your reading may be very different. The fact remains that La moustache is a weird little movie, and one that will undoubtedly get you thinking. Vincent Lindon is fantastic as Marc, and his performance is one of the few indelible elements in a story about transformation of the self.

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The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Continuing our mini-retrospective on actor and director Richard Attenborough, one notices that Netflix only musters seven films with his name in the credits – three of which he directed, three of which he acted in, and one of which is a documentary. Shouldn’t there be more of a selection for a guy who acted in nearly 80 different projects and directed twelve feature films, one of which won a Best Picture Oscar? Shouldn’t he have at least half of the Netflix catalogue awarded to William Shatner? Anyway.

Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles is an interesting one to be included in that hors d’oeuvre-sized offering, and it’s a film in which Attenborough shines. Steve McQueen takes the spotlight, as Steve McQueen is wont to do from time to time, but Attenborough’s character serves as a perfect compliment to the protagonist. McQueen’s Jake Holman and Attenborough’s Frenchy Burgoyne are aboard a U.S. gunboat (The San Pablo, though pronounced by some as Sand Pebbles) in the heart of China in 1926. It’s a time of revolution and both men get wrapped up in local and national affairs during their long tour.

Attenborough has said Pebbles was the longest shoot he ever worked on, including the epic Gandhi, and that the cast and crew spent 8 months in Taipei filming. Wise spent a full four years bringing the project to fruition, and the time spent and the care taken is evident in the epic sweep of the final product.

The film is sluggishly slow in most places. McQueen’s Jake cultivates a relationship with the engine of the ship (in the picture above he’s just said “Hello, Engine. I’m Jake Holman”) while Attenborough’s Frenchy cultivates a relationship with a local Chinese woman. The characters couldn’t be more unlike each other, but they build a mutual respect and even loyalty as their tour progresses. Also, Attenborough sports one hell of a handlebar mustache.

The Sand Pebbles takes its time, but is worth watching to see McQueen and Attenborough in two of their most distinctive roles.

Sorcerer (1977)

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer had the unfortunate timing in 1977 of being released concurrently with a movie called Star Wars, which people ended up liking a little bit. Friedkin was hot after releasing The French Connection and The Exorcist earlier in the decade, but Sorcerer ultimately failed at the box office and slipped into relative obscurity in favor of his other movies. This is a shame, because Sorcerer is a monster of a film.

Based on The Wages of Fear, the first third of the film essentially amounts to four separate prologues for four separate characters from Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey (one of these things is not like the other). Roy Scheider cashes in on the success of Jaws two years earlier as lead man in Sorcerer (the New Jersey one), but the time spent with each of the characters is intimate and highly involved; the Walon Green script, too, is like a tough steak that tastes good but has to be chewed and wrestled with. It’s difficult to tell throughout this opening act where Sorcerer might turn next.

Continue reading Sorcerer (1977)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Lest anyone get too comfortable watching good movies, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For flawlessly and disappointingly checks all the boxes on the Sequel Checklist. Six smashed windows, fourteen severed heads, incalculable gory kills. A death from the first movie is a major plot device and a character says the subtitle of the movie in the movie. Eva Green has 42 minutes of screentime and is naked for 39.5 of them.

And while most of those stats are made up, A Dame to Kill For still ends up being one of those movies you want to like only because you liked the first one. Like the 2005 original, the sequel divides time between several main characters, most of whom are the same main characters from the first movie. Marv and Dwight are back with Mickey Rourke reprising the former and Josh Brolin taking over for Clive Owen on the latter; Jessica Alba is back as Nancy, out for revenge after the events of the first film; Bruce Willis comes back as John Hartigan, but he’s really just a ghost because he died in the first movie and cute little Haley Joel Osment hasn’t gotten around to telling him he’s dead yet.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is new as the gambling Johnny, who gets in deep with the villainous Senator Roark and provides the best scenes in the movie. Unfortunately, his story is noticeably shortened in favor of Marv’s, Dwight’s, and Nancy’s.

Basically A Dame to Kill For has the same ingredients as the first film and, despite the nearly decade-long gap between releases, it’s obvious no one spent the time to put those ingredients together. There’s probably a comparable number of death-by-sharp-thing moments, but no one we care about is ever the one being killed. There’s more than enough nudity, but it’s a blatant and tasteless display, and the kind that makes me feel the need to type it out as NUDITY because it’s virtually written in BIG NEON LETTERS. Eva Green is highly attractive but not that great of an actress, and the NUDITY very nearly distracts from that fact. NUDITY.

While the hyperstylized black-and-white occasionally lends itself to some brilliant imagery (especially in a night scene at the pool), the second Sin City just can’t hope to recapture the razor-sharpness of the first.

Enemy (2013)

A second viewing of Denis Villeneuve’s dark mindbender Enemy doesn’t illuminate the WTFs of the film in the way that most would hope. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who discovers and confronts what seems to be his exact lookalike, the Kafkaesque Enemy is very much experimental and very much a work of abstract filmmaking on many levels. It also happens to be one of the most spellbinding, terrifying, and downright fascinating little movies of recent memory.

Set in a concrete-and-metal Toronto draped in beautiful shadows of industrial noir, there’s really nothing poor to say about the look and tone of Villeneuve’s most recent tale (he and Gyllenhaal also teamed on Prisoners in 2013, another intense and beautifully shot film). Enemy is intercut with close-ups of the characters and wide panning cityscapes, gridlocked traffic jams juxtaposed alongside messy bedsheets, and at times the effect of the editing is truly mesmerizing.

Gyllenhaal, too, is tough to look away from, and he plays both Adam (the “main character”, if such a thing exists in Enemy) and Anthony (the doppelgänger who seems to take more and more screentime from Gyllenhaal No. 1) with subtlety and — dare I say it — brilliance. Hard to pin brilliance on the guy from Prince of Persia, but I suppose it’s equally exciting that Gyllenhaal has abandoned those moneygrab projects in favor of stuff like Enemy, Prisoners and the upcoming Nightcrawler, which looks great.

There are more than a few shots throughout the course of Enemy that are just impossible to process, I think, regardless of how many times you’ve viewed it. Like some similar moves by David Lynch, Villeneuve’s insertion of these impossible images really make the overall film more compelling. Not only will the final shots of the film leave you scratching your head, but they’ll eventually lead you to question even the “believable” elements of Enemy that came before.

So while a light isn’t suddenly flicked on by watching Enemy twice — there’s really no hope of turning all of the ?s into !s — a second viewing does shine a different kind of glow on things. The imagery, again, is just plain beautiful – but it’s also telling a story on its own, showing things that lurk in plain sight, things we’re very obviously terrified by, things we attempt to control, things that are inevitable. Whatever it is that Enemy ultimately presents is almost certain to stay in your head long after the credits roll.

All Night Long (1962)

Do you like jazz? Do you like Shakespeare’s Othello? Do you like to smoke marijuana? Do you want to plead the fifth on that last one in case your mom overhears? Hi Mom!

Continuing our rundown of Richard Attenborough films in the wake of his passing (which really consists of searching “Richard Attenborough” on Netflix and watching whatever comes up), the jazz-driven All Night Long ended up being a hidden gem of sorts. The Netflix synopsis describes it as a retelling of Othello, which it certainly is, but like any great remake or adaptation the majority of All Night Long is highly original.

On one level the movie is really just a vehicle for jazz greats Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Ray Dempsey, and Charles Mingus. Guys like Mingus don’t get nearly enough screentime, but it’s still cool to see them in this context and to have the video of them at all. Brubeck, on the other hand, gets an entire song right smack in the middle of the film, which he seems to relish. His presence and obvious passion for jazz also lend a lot to the main story.

And the main story is actually quite well executed. Attenborough is slightly tangential as the rich host of the London-set all-night session; Paul Harris is the Othello figure and bandleader Aurelius Rex; Marti Stevens, who looks like a zombie when she sings, is the Desdemona character and object of everyone’s attention; Keith Michell is great as saxophonist and wrong-guy-at-the-wrong-time Cass Michaels.

But Patrick McGoohan as Iago figure Johnny Cousin is the real treat here, and he’s what elevates the film from a mere parade of jazz cameos to an actual story. Johnny Cousin, unlike Iago, has a clear motive for destroying the relationship between Rex and Marti Stevens’s Delia, as doing so will allow Delia to join his band instead. His methods – really only seen by the audience, as they involve a deception on nearly everyone else at the session – are brutal and extremely low. Cousin is a drummer, and a drummer with a massive ego to boot – his drums say “Johnny Cousin” in flowing script on the front of them – and McGoohan plays the music scenes nearly flawlessly. He sweats and struggles over the snare and the high hat and the crash and the bass drum, but it’s clear to the audience that the objects in the room he’s really working on are the people.

And at the end of All Night Long, when it’s very obvious not only to the viewer but even to the partygoers that something fishy is afoot, Cousin has nothing to say for himself and just accepts that he has run his game into the ground. His ploy started with a clear motive, yes, but it ended with a different one – not one of gain or desire, but one of straight evil. After everyone has left him to his shame, his wife still approaches him with his coat to leave, telling him that she loves him, you see? “I don’t see,” he says. “I don’t love anyone. Not even Johnny.” This plays fantastically off of the underscores on his ego from earlier, and McGoohan knocks it out of the park.

Also, he can really play the drums:

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

The passing of cinema giant Richard Attenborough has prompted a return to some of his greatest and most overlooked films. Be on the lookout for reflections on his acting, his directing, and on the occasional documentary film if and when I confuse him with David Attenborough.

Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix remains a masterclass in ensemble filmmaking. The big names — James Stewart, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Kruger, George Kennedy, and Attenborough himself, among others — promise more than enough entertainment during the opening credits. It’s the characters, though, that impress past the set-up, and each and every man is drawn to be a unique and interesting person. Consider:

-Jimmy Stewart is Captain Towns, ostensible main character and old-timey pilot who believes his know-how to be worth more than any technical mumbo-jumbo. He’s essentially Waldo Pepper a decade before Redford was Waldo Pepper.

-Attenborough and Kruger arguably share second fiddle. The former is the lovable drunk who could have been a pilot if not for his addiction, and thus has been relegated to the duties of a navigator. Kruger’s Dorfmann is the stubborn and brilliant plane designer, holding a secret that he doesn’t even realize. Both are endlessly watchable.

-Finch, Borgnine, Ian Bannen as “Ratbags” Crow, Ronald Fraser as Sgt. Watson — usually this tier of an ensemble cast is in there just to fill out the field, to inform the “real” characters in the tiers above. But Borgnine’s oafish Cobb, for example, ends up having a deceptively complex character arc; Finch’s Captain Harris ventures out alone to find help, refusing the assistance of Cobb on the basis of his poor physical condition (and, it’s implied, his pathetic mental capacity). Cobb can’t comprehend this and defiantly charges into the desert after Harris, only to die in the heat. He scrawls one final message in the sand in his final moments: his name, “Cobb”, one of the only things he’s sure of.

-George Kennedy isn’t an Academy Award winner at this point, and he has very few lines throughout the course of Phoenix. But his downtrodden face and his futile punches at his own leg when a fellow passenger succumbs to death early in the film still provide a major insight into his character — and that pain comes full circle when the makeshift aircraft finally roars to life at the climax of the film, Kennedy roaring along with it.

-Even those who die in the initial crash — occurring less than ten minutes into the 2.5 hour film — are memorable and complete, are inhabited much more so than any supporting characters in today’s ensembles. Bill has his ouzo and Tasso has his bouzouki, both shown as men with things that they love. Both are then shown crushed in the wreckage, the dripping ouzo bottle and the demolished instrument inches from their still hands. These aren’t throwaway characters (“we loved you so, so-and-so”); their deaths have an effect on Stewart’s Captain Towns, as he feels responsible, so we feel their deaths are important as well. And in less than ten minutes!

So take Last Vegas and Expendables and other “ensembles” and forget them (oh, you already did?). Consider, too, that this isn’t the kind of ensemble connected by the whole six-degrees thing, wherein films like Crash and Babel and Love, Actually posit that the cast is intertwined by themes and experiences that are common instead of experiences that are actually the same. In the tradition carried on by the likes of Murder on the Orient Express and Traffic years later, The Flight of the Phoenix is an ensemble film in the truest sense of the phrase, and because of that is wildly entertaining.

Evidence of Blood (1998)

A late-’90s made-for-TV flick by no-name director Andrew Mondshein starring hardbody sex idols David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell? Sign me up!

While there’s literally not one thing to get excited about when looking over Evidence of Blood on paper, it passes with a push from a realistic script and fairly believable twist ending. Strathairn stars as crime novelist Jack Kinley, who returns to his smalltown home (as all such protagonists seem to do) and gets embroiled in a decades-old murder mystery (as all such protagonists seem to do). McDonnell and the rest of the supporting cast sport drawling Southern accents and go around wondering why city boy Kinley can’t just let the past be the past, for Chrissake.

Also notable here is the overused protagonist-has-suppressed-the-one-thing-that-cracks-the-case trope, wherein Kinley’s childhood nightmares end up informing the whodunit in a highly convenient way. Was that trope overused in 1998, though? Does it matter?

The script, again, is realistic to a fault and quite solid as far as made-for-TV flicks go – and sad, then, that the aforementioned “quirk” of the protagonist is not only unrealistic but also jarring in such an otherwise true-to-life landscape. These “quirks” are super prevalent today, apparent in Dr. House and every “gifted” crime investigator on CSI and NCIS and LAPD Whatever. Hell, even Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective had spells of hallucinations amidst his obsessive and manic mannerisms.

Is no main character interesting enough without these kinds of fabricated “connections” ingrained somewhere in their psyche? That screenwriter Dalene Young and/or book author Thomas H. Cook (maybe it worked better in the novel?) succumbed to this trope is ultimately what sets this writer-solving-a-mystery story below stronger efforts of similar sensibility, like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The framing and cinematography may also be what set Evidence of Blood aside as TV fodder rather than something fit for theatrical release, and Kinley’s dreams and premonitions fade in and out of the reality of the story with barely a trace of care or subtlety. They just happen. In better hands, the weak points in the story could still have been fashioned into compelling viewing, which is to say that in better hands Evidence of Blood could have been a heck of a lot more affecting.

Child of God (2014)

Welcome to Review Basket! Reviewbasket? Different title altogether? Probably. Yes! But for now, let’s start doing what we’re here to do – namely, churning out quick reviews of every movie on the freakin’ planet.

I know you’re thinking A brand spanking new movie review site simply MUST start with James Franco’s latest film Child of God, and so it shall. Anyone familiar with the seemingly frantic shuffling of personalities calling itself “James Franco” will almost immediately recognize Child of God as a work by degree-holding Lit-Crit As I Lay Dying Franco, rather than fuck-the-po-lice Pineapple Express Franco. That much is obvious, but the question is whether or not it makes Child of God any more enticing or worthwhile.

And the answer: sorta. Sorta kinda. CoG is a much more controlled effort than Franco’s As I Lay Dying, partly due to the nature of the books from which these films are adapted and partly, I think, I hope, due to the fact that Franco is learning how to actually direct a movie. It helps that Scott Haze plays Lester Ballard, the heart, soul, and entirety of the movie, and he’s so spot-on creepy that for the majority of the runtime it probably didn’t matter who was behind the camera.

I’ve no doubt that Franco understands the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and yet bringing it to the screen and representing that understanding on film seems to be another matter altogether. The novel retains value today not only because of shock value but because of, among other things, a dichotomous representation of Lester: Lester himself is dregs, despicable, disgusting, cast out, but the writing that he lives in is elevated, beautiful, nearly biblical in the simplicity of it all. Franco’s directing is getting better, I think, but it’s hardly on par with what we’ve just described. One of the opening shots of the film is of Lester painfully going to the bathroom and wiping his ass with a stick, which we’re treated to in great detail from a rearward angle. Shocking, yes, representative of Lester’s condition, yes, but hardly elevated or beautiful or nearly biblical in the simplicity of it all.

Overall, Child of God is worth a watch for Haze’s performance alone. The book is perhaps one of McCarthy’s lesser-known novels, even among his early “Appalachian” set of efforts, and it doesn’t approach the genius of McCarthy’s later efforts in Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy. Let’s hope Franco doesn’t get ahold of any of those.