Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Two Faces of January Review

In Hossein Amini’s—the screenwriter of “Drive”—thriller “The Two Faces of January” things start off so simple and pedestrian that you wait eagerly on the edge of your seat for the trouble to start. An American, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are vacationing in Greece during the early sixties. They visit ancient ruins, sit in outdoor coffee shops and meet a fellow American Rydal (Oscar Isaac) who works as a tour guide. The three go out to dinner and seem to get along well.

However, things go wrong fast. Trouble, in the form of a private investigator, shows up at Chester and Collette’s hotel room. Chester is a financial advisor and the investigator represents “clients” that have been scammed by him. With a gun in his pocket he’s come to collect money from Chester. Things get even worse when Chester kills the investigator and soon enough he and Collette go on the run. Rydal goes with them because he knows his way around Greece and knows how to get them fake passports.

“The Two Faces of January” can be classified as an On the Run thriller but Amini handles things in a more patient, subtle way compared to most other movies in this subgenre. We aren’t bombarded with car chases and shootouts with cops or other baddies, in fact there really isn’t that much action. We never hear about the “clients” again and no other cronies are sent after them. Instead Amini keeps things concentrated on the trio’s relationship and ratchets up the tension. It’s suggested that Chester and Collette have had to run from trouble before and this time it begins to take a toll on their relationship. On top of that, Chester begins to think Rydal may be trying to get with Collette.

More than anything, the picture is about the gradual demise of Chester, and Mortensen’s nuanced performance perfectly illustrates that. At the beginning he’s well put together and assured; he wears a sleek expensive white suit and a Panama hat, similar to Klaus Kinski’s getup in “Fitzcarraldo.” He’s relaxed and in control. But when he goes on the run that fa├žade slowly melts away. He becomes increasingly frantic and paranoid. He drinks heavily, neglects Collette and is mean to Rydal for no reason. By the movie’s end he’s reduced to a pathetic mess. 

Isaac is also good, his Rydal initially comes off as charming and helpful but his real intentions and motivations aren’t always clear. Why is he going to so much trouble to help a couple he doesn’t even know? Does he actually want to get with Collette or is that in Chester’s imagination? Dunst does fine in her role even though she’s not given much to do. Except for a couple scenes Collette isn’t that interesting and serves more as a point of tension between the two males.

 “The Two Faces of January” is a good, tense little thriller but it’s also slight. Amini does a great job of sustaining surprise and building intrigue in his characters throughout but the ending feels too neat and underwhelming. And even though it travels from Greece, to Crete and finally to Istanbul, the movie feels rather small in scope. Still, thanks to two very solid performances from Mortensen and Isaac and a large amount of anxiety, the picture is worthwhile.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tracks Review

For a movie that involves trekking 2,000 miles across the harsh Australian Outback, John Curran’s “Tracks” plays things surprisingly safe. Based on a true story, the picture revolves around Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a young Australian gal who finds herself fed up with life in the city and all the minute little problems that come with it. Most of all, she’s fed up with people; so along with her loyal black Lab and three camels she sets off on the barren, dangerous wilderness to find herself.

For being an inexperienced hiker, Robyn sure makes things look easy. Most of the time she seems so relaxed, with a slight smile on her face, looking like she’s in a state of Zen. While it’s great that she doesn’t spend the movie freaking out or panicking, I feel like she’s too nonchalant most of the time. Looking through my barely legible notes I took during my screening, I noticed I wrote and underlined the phrase: ”Where’s the danger?” Twice. Now, as I’m writing this review I’m still wondering, where’s the danger?

She gets a few sunburns, loses track of the camels for short period and has a few hallucinations but other than that her journey is relatively stress free. The only major dramatic thing that happens is she has to put one of her fury companions down. I realize that this incident most likely happened to the real Robyn but within a movie, the decision to kill off an animal companion is a cheap manipulative way to draw an emotional reaction out of the audience. And the fact that it’s the only thing we react emotionally to on screen during the movie makes it feel even more cheap and manipulative. The movie doesn’t earn this sad moment.

“Tracks” is beautifully photographed by Mandy Walker, containing a lot of gorgeous wide shots of the sunbaked Australian desert. I also learned some interesting facts about the continent; did you know that Australia has the largest feral camel population? I didn’t. But overall the movie is rather dull, when it should be gripping and exciting. Even worse, because it’s not gripping or exciting it’s not inspirational. By the end of the movie we’re supposed to feel happy that Robyn accomplished this major feat but Curran doesn’t make that “feat” look all that impressive.

Worst of all, while the movie purports to be about one woman’s journey across the Outback she keeps running into helpful people along the way. Specifically men. At one point she’s lucky enough to have a native Aboriginal lead her through a section of the way. We can’t just leave a woman alone in the wilderness, can we? Not yet anyways. On paper, “Tracks” should have been great but in execution it simply fails to be engrossing or inspirational.