Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

November 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

two faces

First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 7)

December 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I think we’re slowly getting there, but there are still a few more installments to come in what feels like a never-ending movie blitz.

Melancholia (2011)

Lars von Trier makes some strange films, and Melancholia is one of them. To be honest, had I watched this film a few years ago I would have categorised it as another contrived arty farty film that bores with pretentious pretty images and little substance, but I guess as I get older I am starting to appreciate these kind of things better.

I’m not sure if this is a spoiler but Melancholia is actually an apocalypse movie. Well, it’s actually a family drama disguised as an apocalypse movie, so don’t expect to see any asteroids or Bruce Willis blowing stuff up. The first half is set at Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard’s dysfunctional wedding, where a lot of melodrama happens, and the second half is about the aftermath and how they deal with their impending doom.

I’ll admit, there is some interesting stuff here. The film is lovely to look at and full of, um, melancholy, as the title suggests, and Kirsten Dunst has arguably never been better as the depressed bride. But it’s not really my type of movie, and there is a lotta fluff. I mean, can we really say it’s not gratuitous to have a naked Kirsten Dunst laying on the grass under the moonlight? Not that I’m complaining, but still.

3 out of 5

One Day (2011)

One depressing film to the next. One Day is based on the book of the same title by David Nicholls and focuses on the relationship between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess, not the serial killer), following them every day on July 15 from 1988 to 2011.

That sounds like an interesting idea for a novel but a potentially and brutally boring one for a movie if handled poorly. Fortunately, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) has enough tricks up her sleeve to keep the film compelling enough to keep me intrigued for the majority of its 108-minute running time. The dialogue is crisp and the chemistry between the two leads, powered by strong performances, feels genuine, although Hathway’s accent has apparently been criticised for its inconsistency.

On the other hand, there is the unavoidable monotony of the film’s structure and the occasionally strained melodrama that is more infuriating than romantic. I have to admit that the ending got to me, which was surprising because I didn’t really believe I cared about the characters until then.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Whistleblower (2011)

The Whistleblower tells the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a US police officer who goes to post-war Bosnia to work for a security company under the UN where she discovers a shocking human trafficking ring. When she tries to lift the lid on the crimes she finds herself being stifled by the UN at every turn because it does not want to lose its lucrative security contracts.

I was really captivated by this powerful film from start to finish, although I suspect it was more the harrowing subject matter than anything else. It’s revolting what some people would do to make a buck and watching officials perpetrate abuse against the very people they were paid to protect is deeply disturbing.

This bleak but inspiring film is driven by a super performance from Rachel Weisz, even if she is far too pretty to play the role. In many ways, it’s a typical woman-against-the-system type of movie, but I found it surprisingly effective due to the sense of paranoia and frustration created by debut Canadian director Larysa Kondracki. I’d definitely recommend catching this on DVD if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5

50/50 (2011)

Seth Rogen movies are often hit and miss for me, but 50/50 might very well be the best Seth Rogen movie ever because he’s only a supporting character. Thankfully, 50/50 is dominated by the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who continues to demonstrate his range as Adam, a 27-year-old who finds out that he has cancer. The film is based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser and is directed by Jonathan Levine, who has done a bunch of films I’ve never heard of people.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of comedy dramas, or dramedies, as they are known, because they tend to be stuck painfully in the middle by being neither truly funny nor dramatic. But if they’re all like 50/50 then maybe I would have loved them from the beginning.

This is a real eye-opener and crowd-pleaser that manages to be both genuinely funny and moving. How people deal with cancer is an interesting area that is seldom attempted in cinema, let alone a young man who has his entire life ahead of him, with all those hopes and dreams waiting to be fulfilled. You would think it’s destined to be a bleak film or a disturbing black comedy, but 50/50 reflects life and all its amusing complications and contradictions far better than anyone could have expected.

Perhaps the film works so well is because it contains jokes that worked in reality. I know the fact it’s a true story is likely to be the reason why Rogen shines as Adam’s best friend, because he played the same role in real life to Reiser. He essentially plays himself, generally insensitive, crass and vulgar, but shows flashes of humanity and decency when he needs to. He’s funny in doses but doesn’t annoy, which is when he’s at his best. Rogen should consider retiring right here because it’s unlikely he’ll ever top this performance.

This is a thought-provoking, sweet and touching film that’s as good as any comedy or drama I’ve seen this year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2D) (2012)

July 3, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

 

I have mixed feelings about The Amazing Spider-Man, the reboot of the Sam Raimi franchise which began in 2002 and ended just five years ago. On the one hand, it is a spectacular action film with cool special effects that is arguably more faithful to the comics (Spider-Man’s web, for instance, was invented by Peter Parker rather than biological), but on the other it felt too similar to the 2002 film.

I had high expectations for The Amazing Spider-Man, and it’s not just because I am a much bigger fan of the two new lead stars, Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin from The Social Network) and Emma Stone, than the original duo of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. And it’s not because the film is directed by Marc Webb, who was at the helm of one of my favourite movies, 500 Days of Summer. It’s simply because I think Spider-Man is a cool superhero and an interesting character. And because the reboot of the Batman franchise with Christian Bale has been so ridiculously awesome and different to the Michael Keaton/Val Kilmer/George Clooney one that I expected a completely new spin on the character and story.

Unfortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man is not all that different to the film made 10 years ago. Yes, there are some major differences in the story, such as a new love interest (Stone plays Gwen Stacy — who was played by Bryce Dallas Howard in Spider-Man 3) and a new villain, The Lizard, played by Rhys Ifans. Both are actually upgrades on Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. Yes, this one also has a slightly more in-depth origin story that is linked back to Peter Parker’s parents (though more will probably be revealed in the inevitable sequel). But a lot of the plot points were virtually identical (without giving anything away), begging the question of why they needed to reboot the franchise in the first place.

If you haven’t seen the 2002 version or it’s not fresh in your mind, then you will probably have a great time. For some reason, I still remember a lot of it vividly, and as a result I kept getting a sense of deja vu. I know a lot of it was inevitable because they are core plot points in the Spider-Man origins story, but it certainly sucked the freshness out of it. I never got that feeling watching Batman Begins, which was a genuine “reboot” in every sense of the word.

On the bright side, The Amazing Spider-Man is exciting. The action sequences are clearer and more fluid than they were 10 years ago, and also very creative in the way they play out. I didn’t watch the 3D version but I suppose 3D effects could have enhanced certain scenes.

Rhys Ifans makes a wonderful, tormented semi-villain, and Dennis Leary has great presence as the city’s police chief. And how awesome is it to have Martin Sheen and Sally Field playing the uncle and aunt?

The new Peter Parker, Andrew Garfield, is more likable than Tobey Maguire. Interestingly, I thought Garfield looked pretty good for a high school student, but he’s actually 28, and a year older than Maguire when the latter played Spider-Man in 2002. I did have a slight problem with the character in that he wasn’t exactly geeky or nerdy enough. He’s thin, but taller and lankier than Maguire and also rides a skateboard. And it didn’t take much for Gwen Stacy to fall for him. It didn’t really make a whole lot of sense for him to be bullied or ignored by girls at the start of the film.

Emma Stone is also quite good as Gwen. Strong personality with just the right amount of feistiness and teenage angst. Funnily enough, I thought she looked too old to be a high school student, even though she’s five years younger than Garfield at 23.

The weakest link, though, had to be Irrfan Khan as an employee of Oscorp. He was plain bad and unintentionally hilarious at times.

I had a couple of other issues with the film’s editing and tonal imbalance, but these are relatively minor. Even though the film was more detailed than the 2002 version overall, at times I felt they rushed a few key scenes, while others might have been dragged out longer than necessary. And at 136 minutes it was, as usual, about 15 minutes too long. And am I being anal when I say the music score of the ordinarily dependable James Horner was occasionally distracting?

So at the end of the day, if Tobey Maguire’s 2002 version of Spider-Man is still fresh in your mind, chances are you won’t be wowed by this film. For me personally, The Amazing Spider-Man, while spectacular at times and very enjoyable in its own right, was not quite “amazing.”

3.25 stars out of 5

 
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