STRANGER DANGER: The Guest, The Two Faces of January and Copenhagen

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The-Guest1Have you ever been in a room full of people and someone tells a joke and you’re the only one who doesn’t get it?
Well, okay, I never have, I’m not usually that obtuse (it’s been touch and go sometimes, but usually I manage to roll my eyes in at least a smattering of understanding, though there was that one about the elephant and the oversize wedding ring…anyway).
But still, that’s what I felt like as I was watching The Guest, the new thriller about a stranger who shows up on a family’s doorstep claiming to know their late son.


It’s doing rather well at the box office, from what I understand. And it has near 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.


But I’m sorry, I don’t get it. I don’t think I found anything about it that worked, perhaps outside the Paul Newmanic blue eyes of the lead actor Dan Stevens.


No, this one went right over my head.


In fact, I thought the film was almost impossible to sit through.


So sue me.


The basic outline of the plot has to do with a soldier, David, who makes his way to the home of the family of a fellow soldier who had died in battle. He quickly worms his way into their good graces and stays on a few days.


But oh, what a difference a few days can make.


Yes, not that surprisingly, he is not who he seems to be. Which would be fine, except that who he turns out to be isn’t really any more interesting that who he claimed to be at the beginning.


David is played by Stevens and he reeks of charm.


How reeky is he?


He is so reeky, it attaches to him like leeches filled with cheap cologne.


He’s so reeky, it oozes out of his sweat glands and shoots out of his eyes and toothy smile like lightning bolts.


He’s so reeky, it’s obvious he’s lying about something from the moment the mother opens the door and he turns and flashes his pearly whites and azure orbs at her, and you just can’t understand why the family can’t see past those baby blues.


Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Their daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), smells this rat almost immediately. I half expected her to be the Birdie Coonan of the movie and say, “What a story! Everything but the hounds snappin’ at his rear end”. (Why is she the only one? Well, you wouldn’t have a movie otherwise, would you?)


It is quite possible that some of this could have been resolved with a different opening scene, one that establishes who David is to some degree and that he is psychotic. That way, when he does appear, we’d be able to tell the difference between an actor playing an insincere part and an actor giving a bad performance (it’s not like not revealing David’s true nature beforehand is going to ruin the surprise of his turning psychotic later on since he’s so crazy, we can tell even though his back is turned when he first appears).


At the beginning of act two, the story does take a bit more of an interesting turn for awhile. This psychotic actually starts helping the family solve their dysfunctional problems. At that point, I suddenly had some optimism that something could actually be made of the whole shebang.


But it’s not long before the whole thing just gets sillier and sillier, and in my opinion, takes some wrong turns and then some more wrong turns and then some more, until the story made less and less sense as it went along.


Stevens, a British actor, has one of those flat, uninteresting, tad slurry, middle-American accents that people from other countries often employ when playing a local. He does what is expected of him. The problem is what is expected of him.


Not long after the story gets started, all I could think was, “Stevens had himself killed off on Downton Abbey so he would be available for stuff (well, I’m using a euphemism here, but you know what I mean) like this?” By the time the movie was over, I swear he had pulled one hell of a David Caruso.


But then again, I seem to be the only one in the world who thinks that, so maybe he was right, and this might be proof that no actor should ever take career advice from me.


But I don’t think he’s very good (though I think it’s more the part that the actor). And the rest of the performers don’t fare much better (though I did rather enjoy Chase Williamson’s turn as a sweet, stoner, slacker boyfriend).


At the end, when the government comes by to track down their errant experiment (because, you know, that’s what he is, Jason Bourne on a budget), I just didn’t know how to react.


Perhaps the funniest moment is when a character says that David has been programmed to clean up any loose ends. My immediate thought was that I wish the writer (Simon Barrett) had been programmed to do the same thing.


I mean, David’s cover’s been blown. The wrath and full brunt of the government is being brought down on the situation. But instead of getting the hell out of Dodge, he sticks around to kill off everyone who knows the truth about him (i.e., the loose ends).


The problem is that once the government knows that he’s alive and where he is, the rest of the characters are no longer loose ends. They can’t tell the government anything the government doesn’t already know, so there’s no point in getting rid of them.


In fact, trying to get rid of them only makes things worse for David. It just delays his doing the most logical thing his programming should have more dictated—self preservation by moving on.


Unless, of course, he already knows he’s going to survive. But, of course, the only way he can know that is if he’s read the script ahead of time. But this guy is so remarkable, maybe he has.


The Guest is directed by Adam Wingard and I have to be honest and say I’m not that appreciative of the results. It all looks a bit cheap, like a 1970’s independent film. And the action scenes are fairly run of the mill and of the David can kill twenty men with one gun while the government can’t kill one man using an AK 47 approach.


Some people have called the whole thing a homage. But to what is was homaging, I wasn’t sure. The climactic scene takes place at a high school fun fair haunted house filled with mirrors. I suppose one could say this is a tribute to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai—but if so, only if Ed Wood had directed it.
But again, I do want to be fair and emphasize that I seem to be the only person who feels this way (hell, even my best friend in Chicago loved it). The critics have all waxed rapturously over it and, as far as I can tell, it might not be a super hit, but the audience seems to appreciate it and it’s not doing badly when it comes to ticket sales.


And the writer and director also did an earlier film (which I haven’t seen yet) called You’re Next. It also got a lot of attention.


So, who knows? Maybe you’ll get the joke.


Good luck.


two facesIf nothing else, The Two Faces of January, the new thriller written and directed by Hossein Amini (who wrote the wonderful Drive, but then also contributed to the not so wonderful Snow White and the Huntsmen, so go figure) is a Mad Man’s dream of an advertisement for Greece.


It’s a beautifully shot film with languorous and lovely views of the Greek countryside and/or top tourist attractions, like the Parthenon. In addition, the period costumes and sets are also aesthetically pleasing. From a technical point of view, The Two Faces… is a success.


There’s also a lot of talk about Greek mythology. Theseus and the death of his father is referred to a couple of times and I assume the title refers to the God Janus who had two faces, one on the front, the other on the back of his head (though the original story takes place in the month of January; I’m not sure if the movie mentions this or not).


At the same time, I guess I should be honest here and say I didn’t quite understand how these references applied to the film as a whole. If there’s a Theseus among the characters, I missed him.


The story has potential. Based on a novel by the great Patricia Highsmith (who has provided us with the source material for such films as Strangers on a Train, Purple Noon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, An American Friend and Ripley’s Game), the setup is quite intriguing.


Rydal (Oscar Isaac, late of Inside Llewyn Davis), an American, is a small time grifter living in Greece who fleeces people by misrepresenting what the Greek drachma is worth and shortchanging his marks.


He meets a couple, Chester McFarland and his much (much) younger wife (today we’d use the word trophy in referring to her), Colette. They are played by Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst respectively.


Rydal becomes their tour guide. But things go a bit awry when McFarland turns out to be something of a con artist himself and a private detective arrives wanting back some money McFarland swindled out of some people. McFarland unintentionally kills him and in trying to hide his deed, is discovered by Rydal (this particular set of scenes are very strong).


He convinces Rydal that the detective isn’t indeed dead, but still they must flee, with Rydal helping because he has a thing for Collette.   But then not only does Rydal find out that the detective is dead, he realizes he could be implicated.


Okay, got all that? Because that’s just the first half. The plot gets a bit more complicated after that.


And with that you’d think you’d have the makings of a first rate thriller. And you do. The makings that is. I’m afraid the result is a bit less.


I mean, the story in theory is filled with tension. The characters should be bouncing off the walls, filled with anxiety and fear and worry, even terror, at what is going on.


But as the plot goes forth, it never feels as if anyone feels that much of said tension. I mean, here are these people on the run from a murder, but they are running so lethargically, they’d all come in dead last at a fifty yard sprint. Just as the pressure should surge, it slows to almost a crawl.


I think one possible reason for this is that Rydal is not enough of the central character. He is not driving the story. I suspect the movie might have worked better if Rydal had been more of a Hitchcockian hero (as in The 39 Steps and North by Northwest) rather than just one of three leading characters with the story more or less evenly divided among them.


Because of this, the tension gets somewhat diluted as the three characters have to fight for attention. And instead of focusing on Rydal and his growing relationship with Collette and his trying to figure out how to resolve the situation, we have a few too many scenes of McFarland getting drunk and abusive and looking for his wife and Rydal and of the characters just wandering around to no strong purpose.


I also believe it’s a big mistake that Rydal and Collette don’t go to bed together. It’s that way in the book, but I don’t care. It seems odd to me that Amini didn’t go in that direction. And for someone named after a famous seductress, Collette doesn’t seem to be practicing her art all that much.


And then in the second half, something else happens and there are some nice scenes and twists at an airport, but as well done and written as these scenes are, they are a bit too little too late for me (though they did show, like the scenes concerning the death of the private detective, what could have been achieved if the rest of the story had been as strongly told).


I also didn’t buy the ending. Though I sort of understand why Amini went that way. And it seems to be the ending of the book. But I don’t think Amini quite sold it.


With David Warshofsky, the crew member who complained to Captain Philips in the movie Captain Philips, as the private detective. He seemed so sleazy, I swear he applied oil to his pores before knocking on McFarland’s hotel room door.


copenhagenAh, beautiful, beautiful Copenhagen, as Danny Kaye so memorably warbled in his 1950’s musical vehicle, Hans Christian Anderson.


And if nothing else, Copenhagen, the new drama written and directed by Mark Raso (it’s his first full length film), will make you want to go to that city for no other reason than to put a coin in a rent a bike stand and ride through the cobblestone streets. There was just something so free and freeing when the central characters take to the road on their two-wheelers.


I’m afraid beyond that, Copenhagen didn’t really do a lot for me. In fact, it’s what I would call something of a bait and switch.


It starts out as a story about a young man, William, who has been instructed by his late father to deliver a letter to William’s grandfather. William has never met the man and doesn’t know where he is.


But soon after starting his hunt, William makes somewhat of a startling discovery. His grandfather was a Nazi and his mother was shamed after the war for her, uh, collaboration with the enemy.


What a great idea. It’s sort of a variation on the wonderful Polish film Ida, where a novitiate discovers, just before taking her vows, that she is actually Jewish and was hidden as a Christian during World War II.


So here the audience is, ready to join in with William and his compatriots on their bike rides to find out just where this discovery will take our hero.


And then Raso switches subjects. See, it turns out that there is this waitress who decided to help William. Her name is Effy and she’s a really nice person. And as the two start their search, first sexual tension grows and then emotional tension grows, and the two begin to have deep feelings for each other.


But she’s fourteen (fifteen in a couple of months as she keeps pointing out).


And at that point, the whole story turns into one about whether “will they” or “won’t they”.


And a movie about a young man discovering that his grandfather is a Nazi, becomes a movie about whether he’s going to have sex with a fourteen year old.


No, I am not shitting you here. And my response to this change in the proceedings is…Really? I mean, really?


And I have to also add, I wasn’t just confused, I was offended.


After all, if you want to make Lolita, then make Lolita. There’s nothing wrong with that.


But don’t be a cock tease about it. Don’t tell me your story is going to be about one thing and then suddenly switch it to something else as if that is going to make the new subject matter more palatable.


Because, in fact, it makes it even less palatable.


The movie is not helped by Gethin Anthony, who plays William. Probably best known over here for playing Renly Baratheon on Game of Thrones, Anthony is certainly a good looking guy. And he definitely has presence.   And he definitely is working very hard.


But his character is one of those narcissistic, egomaniac, alpha males in his own mind with a sense of entitlement and who doesn’t understand why the world doesn’t revolve around him.   One way of describing him is that he’s the sort of person for whom it’s not enough that he goes home with someone for the night, but his best friend must go home alone.


Now, actually, none of this would be a problem except that the character has committed what may be the unpardonable sin in movies: he’s just not very interesting (and certainly not as fascinating as he thinks he is).


And Anthony tends to push the performance, telegraphing everything and wearing his Stanislavsky on his sleeve. James Dean is more subtle than Anthony, and Dean wasn’t very subtle.


Frederikke Dahl Hansen plays Effy, and she gives the most relaxed performance in the film. She tends to more just inhabit her character and let it do its own things. She also plays just about the only nice Dane in the whole movie (the rest tended to be a bit on the, shall we say, prickly side).


With Baard Owe, the wonderful actor of O’Horten, as a relative on William’s mother’s side who drops the boom on who William’s grandfather really was.



So tell me what you think.

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