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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The Road Often Taken

Over the years these grisly post-apocalyptic scenarios have become a dime a dozen in film and literature.  When award-winning author Cormac McCarthy decided to put his spin on the idea with his novel The Road, people took notice.  By focusing on a father-son relationship instead of the usual action and horror that lends itself so well to post-apocalyptic tales, McCarthy received mountains of praise for his stark, horrific fable.  Now, just in time for the holiday film season — and honestly, what screams holidays with the family more than a cannibal holocaust? — director John Hillcoat (previously responsible for the grim Aussie western, The Proposition) delivers his adaptation of McCarthy’s celebrated novel to the big screen. Continue reading

Being There, Done That

BEING THERE:

I recently watched for the first time Hal Ashby’s 1979 satire, Being There, which I found amusingly prophetic.  Satire is so hard to do, and Ashby’s film does it fairly well, though it never achieves the scathing brilliance of Sidney Lumet’s Network, a film made just three years prior.  In Being There, Peter Sellers plays a TV-obsessed idiot savant gardener who through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings becomes the toast of Washington D. C.  For the most part, Ashby plays the satire light and bubbly, until the eerie closing scenes that become rich with overt symbolism and end with Sellers literally walking on water not knowing yet that he has been handpicked by the Masonic cabal to become the nation’s next political wunderkind.

Whereas Network envisioned a society in which reality TV runs amok, corporate fascism rules supreme, and Saudi Arabian oil money holds a controlling interest in American media and politics–sound familiar?– Being There paints a picture of America in the midst of an economic meltdown where a bumbling idiot is gifted the Presidency by the ruling class–wow, that could never happen.  One of the funniest bits in Being There is when the media falls in love with Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner and considers him a breath of fresh air because he doesn’t read any newspapers.  In fact, he doesn’t even know how to read or write.  The public sees him as brilliant because he boils down the economic crisis to a simpleton’s terms by using a gardening metaphor.  There’s also a great bit where his former caretaker (an elderly African-American maid) sees him on TV and proclaims, “That boy is as dumb as a jack-ass.  This proves all you have to be is White in America and you get what you want.”  In 1979 that was spot on, but, wait, have things actually changed?

Well, as we now have one idiot who didn’t read newspapers leaving office after eight horrendous years that produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and another idiot who failed to get into Washington D. C. after being advertised as a breath of fresh air sweeping down from Alaska, we are about to inaugurate an eloquent African-American as our next President who has proven hard work can trump nepotism in a renewed America.  It seems the era Being There warned of has already come to pass and it was even more horrifically funny than the film that prophesized it.

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DONE THAT:

In the “done that” category, I finally read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  You know, The Road is one of those books everyone you know who reads has read and has been telling you, “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS”, but you didn’t read it until you heard it was being made into a movie.  The Road is a grim tale of a father and son roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to survive.  In this dark future, ash covers everything, charred bodies litter the landscape, most animals have become extinct, and marauding groups of cannibals pick off survivors one by one.

McCarthy crafts the novel in a stark, lean style meant to mirror the savage existence he describes.  I found the fragmented sentences and unmarked dialogue hard to get used to, but the book moves at such a quick and horrific clip that it soon becomes easy to overlook the stylistic idiosyncrasies.  Much of the storyline is repetitive:  father and son search for food, father and son find food, father and sun run out of food, father and son search for more food, they stumble upon a cannibal here, a terrifying scene there, they find an idyllic shelter they only have to leave too soon out of fear–and many readers will find it frustrating that the apocalypse is never explained and the ending arrives all too conveniently.  I also found the religious underpinnings to be overly simplistic.

Despite these flaws, The Road held me mysteriously captivated.  It was the fist time since I was a child that I raced through a book in only two days.  I don’t know if that speaks to the style in which the book is written or the power of its story.  When I was a teenager, I was more inclined to enjoy these post-apocalyptic-sci-fi-horror-infused tales, and this would’ve been just the type of thing my immature mind would’ve loved.  Now, I’m a bit more cynical and tied to the real world, and The Road seems like the relic of a juvenile past.  I give credit to McCarthy, however, for delivering something that is completely unlike anything I’ve read in the past five years.  It will be awhile before I fully digest his vision.

The film adaptation of The Road is set for an early 2009 release.  It is directed by John Hillcoat, who was responsible for the grim Aussie Western The Proposition, and stars Viggo Mortensen.

Written by David H. Schleicher

A Review of David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”

Haunting Low Wattage Glows in Dank London Night, 24 September 2007
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

An emotionally distraught London midwife (Naomi Watts) finds a mysterious diary on the body of a Russian teenage girl who died in childbirth and slowly sinks deeper into the grimy underbelly of London and uncovers a Russian mob where a lowly driver (Viggo Mortensen) is about to make a stunning play for power. Luckily for the audience, “Eastern Promises” is more in tune with screenwriter Steven Knight’s most recent film (the superb “Dirty Pretty Things”) than it is with director David Cronenberg’s previous endeavor (the criminally overrated “A History of Violence”).

Cronenberg has been honing a disturbingly minimalist directorial style in the later half of his career. It was so low-key the last time around, he actually managed to become the first person to un-direct a film with “A History of Violence.” My theory of un-direction stems from when a director films a piece of work in so minimalist a style, it actually negates any reason for the film to exist. Shockingly, this minimalist technique is put to some good use in “Eastern Promises” as it allows for the emergence of other far superior elements: the elegantly dark and gritty blue-gray cinematography of Peter Suschitzky, the evocative Russian-influenced score from Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore, the crafty and tightly focused screenplay from Knight, and most importantly, the amazing performances from the entire cast.

In the lead role of Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen, in tattoos from head to toe, adds new meaning to the idea of an actor throwing himself completely into a “physical role.” He delivers a raw, tense performance that is arguably the greatest of his career.

As Anna, Naomi Watts serves as the heart and soul of the film, giving the audience someone to relate to and root for as the plot grows increasingly dark and grim. Watts has been unfairly dismissed by some as an overly emotive post-modern “scream-queen” due to her roles in films like “Mulholland Drive,” “The Ring,” and “King Kong.” As she has matured as an actress, Watts has grown more subtle and nuanced in her method, and her performance here is richly textured and deeply rewarding as it emerges on the heels of her revelatory work in “The Painted Veil.” She’s the dim glow of hope in this stinking London underworld, and her character haunts the scenes of grotesque violence and criminal power plays that occur when she is off screen.

“Eastern Promises” also deserves credit for the tension it builds as the story unfolds. Cronenberg succumbs to his sadistic natural tendencies at clearly defined intervals throughout the film where shocking spurts of gore and violence rip through the minimalist style like a knife through the heart. This rising and sinking tension culminates in a Turkish sauna knife fight that is the violently dramatic flip-side of the comedic nude wrestling hotel scene in last year’s “Borat.” Like that scene, it exists only to shock, and it will have people buzzing.

Despite the inherent flaws of Cronenberg’s style which always seems to leave a bad taste in your mouth, “Eastern Promises” has just the right amount of star-power, classy production values, and shocking plot twists to be considered one of the best thrillers of 2007.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0765443/usercomments-59