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Knight at the Movies: Two Faces; This Is Where...; Devil's Door; Innocents
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-09-24

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Movie-wise, we're in that pocket between summer blockbusters and meaty awards contenders—that time of year when most of the movies are "medium" rather than "good" or "bad." And even with audiences finding new ways to watch movies, sidestepping the Cineplex altogether, the majority of what they're being offered—whether it be in theaters, On Demand, at a streaming site or on Blu-ray—in this time period still seems to fall into the also-ran category. Here are four cases in point—well, three sorta goods and one classic.

In person, the late bisexual mystery writer Patricia Highsmith was, by most accounts, a nasty person one should avoid at all costs but, on paper, to read Highsmith is to fall hard for her. The flinty, evocative prose welded to her sensual ( and very sexual ) subtext—lots and lots of it gay—are just one of the pleasures to be counted on in Highsmith's novels. It's little wonder that Strangers On a Train and the Tom Ripley novels ( with The Talented Mr. Ripley being the most famous ) are esteemed classics. One of her lesser-known thrillers, The Two Faces of January, has now been given a very fetching screen adaptation.

Helmed by Hossein Amini—the screenwriter of Drive and The Wings of a Dove who is making his directorial debutÃïï—the film focuses on a wealthy and dazzlingly beautiful couple: Chester MacFarland and his much-younger wife, Collette ( Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst ), who are vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962. They are spotted by Rydel ( Oscar Isaac ), a handsome American expat who makes a living as a tour guide, glomming onto pretty young heiresses, hoping for a big score. Rydel figures the McFarlands to be his latest pigeons but soon learns, at least as far as Chester's concerned, that he's in way over his head.

Greed outweighing his good judgment, Rydel helps Chester cover up a man he has accidentally killed over a money dispute—but how accidental? As the trio flees across the Greek islands and on to Istanbul, the tension ratchets up, along with the underlying sexual implications. Although the plot is a bit straightforward and could have used a couple more twists, The Two Faces of January is nonetheless stylish, cinematically lush and well-acted by its gorgeous three leads. This is a more-than-satisfying mystery thriller filled with plenty of the patented acrid Highsmith touches.

This Is Where I Leave You, which has been in theaters for a week, is an all-star dysfunctional family variation on August: Osage County and many other movies of this ilk. Jane Fonda is the sexed-up mother who insists her adult children and their significant others, returning home for their father's funeral, live under one roof for the seven days of shiva that follow.

During the week, naturally, secrets are uncovered, old wounds are brought to the surface and life lessons are learned. This being a comedic spin, the movie, with Shawn Levy ( Night at the Museum 2, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 ) directing with the blandness that has come to be his stock in trade, includes a "hilarious" pot-smoking scene, repeated sight gags centered on Fonda's enormous breasts, her grandkid's morning poop sessions and a last-minute gay twist that feels as contrived as the rest of Jonathan Tropper's script ( based on his best-selling novel ).

Jason Bateman and Tina Fey are the two siblings at the center of the movie with Adam Driver ( from TV's Girls ) as the younger and truly obnoxious, spoiled younger brother, with Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, et al., in the lineup. The knockout cast does wonders with the predictable characters and situations but, in doing so, constantly make one yearn for worthy material. This Is Where I Leave You deserves to get left behind.

Budding horror-meister Nicholas McCarthy, who broke through with 2012's The Pact, now writes and directs At the Devil's Door ( available On Demand, various streaming sites and playing at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Friday, Sept. 26 ). A young real-estate agent named Leigh ( Catalina Sandino Moreno ) stops by her new listing and stumbles upon some rather odd things in the empty house. Suddenly, the daughter of the owners appears out of nowhere and just as quickly disappears when Leigh tries to get her story.

As we quickly learn, it's a much more sinister figure. Is it a teenage girl who committed suicide in 1987—or was it actually a satanic spirit possessing the girl that murdered her? Now that same malevolent spirit is after Leigh and her sister Vera ( Glee's Naya Rivera ) and nothing, it seems, can stop it. Juxtaposing the young teen's story in 1987 with the current plight of the two sisters, McCarthy pours on a lot of the familiar psychological horror tropes and the film definitely has … something creepy going for it. With all of these elements in place it would seem that we'd be in for a bloody good time; however, McCarthy's marvelously unnerving set pieces are in service to a headscratcher of a story that never coagulates.

McCarthy and all other students of the psychological horror film should immediately get their hands on the new Criterion Collection's edition of Jack Clayton's The Innocents, which is just out on Blu-ray. Clayton's 1961 adaptation of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw used the play based on it ( by William Archibald ) as his primary source, and gay icon Truman Capote wrote most of it. The Innocents is that rare ghost story that fires on all cylinders: It's tremendously acted, sensationally photographed in deep-focus black and white by Freddie Francis ( in CinemaScope, no less ), sumptuously produced and, best, genuinely frightening.

Deborah Kerr ( in her greatest screen performance ) plays the inexperienced governess who finds herself in charge of a young brother and sister, the niece and nephew of a fabulously wealthy man who has left them to their own devices on his enormous estate in the English countryside during the Victorian era. The governess soon suspects that the previous caretakers for her young charges—who seem rather adult in manner—are haunting the estate, trying to use the children for their own insidious purposes. Repressed and filled with moral indignation, the governess attempts to gain control of the situation and her young charges before it is too late. Not only does the Criterion's new Blu-ray edition look sensational but the fascinating psychological underpinnings in the script added by Capote and other little known details offered up by cultural historian Christopher Frayling in the supplements and audio commentary are reason enough for an upgrade. This edition of The Innocents is a great way to kick off the Halloween movie season.

Film notes:

—Samuel L. Jackson, Kim Cattrall, Billy Joel and Eve Ensler are among the mega-achievers profiled in The Boomer List—the latest "list" documentary from filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders—which focuses on 19 baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. Well-known queer baby boomers Rosie O'Donnell, Dave LaChappelle and AIDS activist Peter Staley ( profiled in this issue of WCT ) are also included. The film is playing on PBS throughout the month. The DVD version and a coffee-table book tie-in are both arriving Oct. 1. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/the-boomer-list/about-the-film/3123/

—The 32nd edition of Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival has been going on since last week and continues tonight with two exceptional screenings the Queer Film Society is sponsoring: Lilting, starring out actor Ben Whishaw, and Drunktown's Finest, a transgender drama Robert Redford is executive-producing—scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., respectively. The fest closes tomorrow night, Thursday, Sept. 25, with the queer-themed Blackbird, starring Mo'Nique and Isaiah Washington. All screenings take place at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. www.reelingfilmfestival.org

Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014—a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Times—is now available. www.knightatthemovies.com


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