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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If It Was Never New and It Never Gets Old Then It’s a Coen Brothers Film

Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac and Cat

The milieu of Inside Llewyn Davis wraps around the Coen Brothers and their audience like a cozy sweater in the dead of winter.  Watching it is akin to sitting down with an old friend you haven’t seen for years during the holidays, perhaps with hot tea or coffee cupped in your chapped hands, a fireplace hopefully roaring nearby, and listening to them tell a story…maybe one you’ve heard before, maybe one that seems new only to reveal the classic themes of your lives, and you’re held wrapt, comfortable, and full of bittersweet feelings.

The film, which chronicles the ups and – well, let’s be honest – primarily downs of gallows humor-laden folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, perfectly melancholy and full of piss and heartache), is bathed in the soft muted glows and dark greys of wintertime and 1960’s New York City, strung up wall to wall with amazing folk tunes, and filled to the brim with opportunities and love lost.  The Coens, who previously found their hearts tied to music with their blue-grass fueled Southern-fried odyssey O’ Brother Where Art Thou? have never had their love of music tied more closely to their themes – the film (like all of their best films, lest we forget the homespun folksy wisdom of Fargo) is itself a kind of folk song.  There are hints of an odyssey here, too, as Llewyn flounders about from place to place struck with bad luck, bad timing and a perpetual failing when it comes to life’s big decisions, and he finds a bit of a kindred animal spirit in a series of cats who cross his path on their own odysseys through life, and one of the felines is not coincidently named Ulysses. Continue reading

Let’s Go for a Drive

Just your typical afternoon Drive...

What are you going to do?

Hey, Ryan Gosling!  Here’s the scoop, friend.  You’re a low-rent stunt driver for Hollywood.  When not flipping over cars, you’re working in a body shop for that old guy (Bryan Cranston) who’s helped you out like you were his own son.  You moonlight for criminals (giving them five minutes and five minutes only) driving getaway cars under strict rules that keep your record clean.
 
In step some shady characters looking to invest in drag racing.  There’s the Jewish Pizza shop guy (Ron Perlman – thuggishly good) and Mr. Money Bags (Albert Brooks – slow to menace).  Hey, slow down, here’s the deal.  The old guy builds and sells them a custom car – and, that’s right – you just might get to be the driver.  This might be your ticket out!
 
But then you meet a swell gal (Carey Mulligan – cute as a button and donning a hairstyle that would fit Naomi Watts circa Mulholland Drive) who turns out to be your neighbor, a waitress, and single mom to a neat kid (Kaden Leos) who knows a bad guy when he sees ‘em.  Turns out her hubbie (Oscar Isaac) is in jail.  Just as she’s gettin’ all sweet on ya, he gets out.  But guess what?  He’s actually a nice guy just hard on his luck.  You wanna be his friend – for her – for the kid’s sake.
 
Your new friend has some bad guys after him – looking to shake him down for protection they gave him while in the slammer.  Continue reading

Ridley and Russell Sitting in a Tree

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first.  Russell Crowe is in his mid-forties and playing the “younger” Robin Hood — you know, as is the trend these days to show us how the men became the legends.  He’s utterly mis-cast in the role.  Being such a chameleon of an actor in his younger days has taken its toll on Mr. Crowe, and he hasn’t aged well.  He’s reached that point in his career where he now only plays Russell Crowe — you know, that bullish, overweight, talented dude full of piss and vinegar on and off the screen.  Thankfully, his old pal Ridley Scott still loves him, and you have to give the director some props for not giving a damn about the age thing (hell, Sir Ridley is in his seventies himself) and casting ol’ Russell in the title role of his revamp of Robin Hood.  He then had the good sense to cast (shouldn’t she be Dame by now?) Cate Blanchett as a feisty Lady Marion, and for fans of old school Hollywood epics, it’s a real treat to see two accomplished Oscar winners create palpable chemistry and act against each other within the comfortable context of well-worn characters.

Ridley Scott has traversed many genres, but he — more than any director out there — knows his way around historical epics.  Let’s not forget it was his first marriage to Russell Crowe in Gladiator that brought the two their biggest hit — and deservedly so.  His Robin Hood (though I already can imagine a bloated director’s cut coming to Blu-Ray) is surprisingly quick-footed.  Continue reading