Ode to a Grecian Hitchcock in The Two Faces of January

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In 1960’s Greece, a dapper middle-aged American chap named Chester (a groggy but dashing Viggo Mortensen) on holiday with his trophy bride Colette (an effortlessly alluring Kirsten Dunst) spot a charming but suspicious young fellow (a cool Oscar Isaac) eyeing them at various locales.  Daringly, Collette confronts him while in line at a rest room and finds out he’s an American, too, and a freelance tour guide named Rydel.  Much to her husband’s chagrin, she’s invited Rydel to show them around the markets.  The audience already knows Rydel is a bit of a scam artist, pretending to haggle in Greek with the merchants for his clients and pocketing the difference in price or flim-flamming them during monetary exchanges.  After a night on the town for dinner and drinks, Chester has Rydel all figured out, though he and his wife have been thoroughly charmed by the con man’s company.  Later at their hotel, a private investigator comes searching for Chester and sets off a series of unfortunate events that leave the couple in deep trouble and turning to Rydel for help.

The Two Faces of January deals with the duplicity of human beings and the fragility of their relationships.  It’s adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel (the author best known for creating the character of Tom Ripley) and is competently scripted and directed by first time helmer Hossein Amini (best known for his sparse and effective Drive screenplay).  With its beautiful travelogue vistas and breezy charm, it echoes the highbrow classiness of a bygone era of filmmaking…suspenseful without being salacious, intriguing without a whiff of trashiness.

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Side Effects May Include Smirks, Butts on the Edges of Seats, and Oh No She Didn’t’s!

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, you sly dog, you!

Everyone is Side Effects talks in hushed, measured, careful tones even when angry or sad… or acting. It’s as if Soderbergh had the entire cast tranquilized. Everything about his camera and framing is measured as well. The opening shots (with Thomas Newman’s best score since American Beauty playing on the soundtrack over innocuous credits) echo Hitchcock’s Psycho. We’re in a city…we’re zooming in on a building…a window…slowly we enter a room… there’s blood on the floor…and clues. Shots, tight, not lingering. Not wasting a moment. And then…three months earlier…the title card announces.

After that hint of suspense, Soderbergh tranquillizes the audience. We think we’re watching some topical drama about the dangers of prescription drugs and societal malaise during the Great Recession. Pretty, thin little Emily (a perfectly cast Rooney Mara) looks like a strong wind will blow her away. She suffers from depression, and her husband (a cavalier and charming Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison where he served a short term for insider trading. Emily, struggling to cope, slams her car into a wall and then goes under the watchful care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, appropriately arrogant but empathetic) who thoughtfully tries to find the right cocktail of medication to get her through her “poisonous fog.” He even takes care to contact her former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Seibert (a deliciously cold Catherine Zeta-Jones).
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Chloe for One

"Um, excuse me, but there's this Canadian out there who wants us to star in his film."

 Here’s the plotline for Atom Egoyan’s latest flick straight from the IMDB: 

“A doctor hires an escort to seduce her husband, whom she suspects of cheating, though unforeseen events put the family in danger.” 

Yup, that’s about all you need to know going into this thing.  The doctor is played by Julianne Moore (stunning), the husband is Liam Neeson (lifeless), and the escort is Amanda Seyfried (all googly-eyed and flippantly seductive).  If you’re a fan of Egoyan, you know he’s going to direct this thing to the nines, dress it up in beautiful cinematography and camera angles (Toronto and Julianne Moore never looked better…and let’s not even go there with Amanda Seyfried) and not even care that he didn’t have anything to do with the screenplay (by Erin Cressida Wilson, remaking the French film Nathalie).  The film somehow manages to be both totally French (in plot) and totally Canadian (in setting, all cold and modern, eh), a nifty little trick that only Egoyan could pull off.  The whole thing is pretty preposterous, but you can’t help but be entertained, and it’s far more engaging than the last time Egoyan was hired to do an artsy piece of trash, Where the Truth LiesContinue reading

The Ghost Writer

A nameless writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to finish the autobiography of the shamed former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) after the first man on the job dies under mysterious circumstances in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ oh-so-timely political thriller.  Polanski uses the contemporary thriller to play on his classic theme of a man pretending to be an artist (or is it an artist pretending to be a man?) getting in way too deep and swept up into events much larger than himself.

What a treat it has been for cineastes this bitter February (normally the harshest of months for fans of the art form) as we’ve had new entries from filmdom’s greatest living masters, both putting their own stamp on the Hitchcockian thriller: Martin Scorsese’s bombastic and psychologically disturbing Shutter Island and Roman Polanski’s subtly handled political potboiler, The Ghost WriterContinue reading

Shutter Island Part Two: The Film

Ashes to ashes...dust to dust.

In 1950’s Boston, two U.S. Federal Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) get trapped on an island that is home to a hospital for the criminally insane during a hurricane while investigating the disappearance of a psychotic patient (Emily Mortimer) in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel. 

How long was the wait?  Well, it was long enough for me to read Lehane’s book between the original and actual release dates.  And was it worth it?  Oh, you betcha!  And let’s get another thing straight, boss.  Shutter Island is a “lesser” Scorsese…as in Full Metal Jacket is a “lesser” Kubrick.  It also means this is the Scorsese I fell in love with as a kid.  Yup, my first exposure to the greatest living American director was Cape Fear, another “lesser” film.  Continue reading