The Two Faces of January kicked off the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival with style, including a Q&A with writer-director Hossein Amini.
Whether it’s as a starving misanthropic musician or a mysterious American swindler in Greece, Oscar Isaac positively oozes charisma. It makes it hard not to like him even if he’s playing a schmuck, as he did in Inside Llewyn Davis and now in Hossein Amini’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s (The Talented Mr Ripley) The Two Faces of January. As the small-time con artist, Rydal, Isaac couldn’t be more physically different from Llewyn: his gait is confident and casual with his hands at his side, palms facing backward, he takes up considerable space.
He works as a tour guide in Athens and finds himself tagging along with a couple of rich American tourists, Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Collette (Kirsten Dunst), who need his help and are willing to pay handsomely for it. This psychological thriller is a pas de deux – there’s always someone on the outside — between these three great performers as the power dynamics shift and the characters become increasingly entwined. If the scale is tipped toward Rydal, it’s only because we see him first.
The Two Faces of January, which marks writer-director Amini’s debut as a filmmaker, opened the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre last night. The Castro Cinema, a restored 1920s art deco cinema, itself an homage to the past, proved the perfect venue to transport us into the glamorous past: the film is set in the 1960s when men and women both donned remarkably stylish hats.
With more than half the seats reserved for press, donors, and friends of the festival, the opening night film was a momentous occasion that still attracted a large lay audience: the lineups already stretched around the block an hour before showtime. After a long-winded introduction, first by the new San Francisco Film Society director Noah Cowan (formerly of the Toronto International Film Festival), then by the Festival’s head of programming, and finally by the film’s director, who was also in attendance.
Amini is already an acclaimed screenwriter, having penned Drive and The Wings of the Dove, another story centered around a love triangle. But this is the first time he has stepped behind the camera. The result is an often sure-footed, beautiful-looking film, which is a great and absorbing ride for the first hour, until it drags in the last thirty minutes, with far too many predictable situations meant to be suspenseful: anyone who has ever watched a movie knows you don’t go out on a ship deck alone at night when there’s someone on the boat who wants you dead. But Amini gets wonderful performances from his leads, and the film is more about the nuances of character than the machinations of plot.
In the Q&A after the film, Amini noted that when he worked on Drive (in which Isaac had a supporting role), he had the opportunity to do so while living in LA, bouncing off rough drafts on the actors. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, which he wanted to replicate. For The Two Faces of January, he scheduled his rehearsals with the actors a month before production, rather than just a few days before filming began, as is customary. This allowed him to incorporate what he learned in rehearsals into a revised script that they ultimately filmed.
Although he’s no stranger to the editing room, Amini shared that he found it to be an entirely different experience now that he was in the director’s chair: there’s no one else to blame if the film doesn’t work. Editing his own film ended up teaching him about screenwriting, specifically the importance of pacing: three back-to-back dialogue-heavy scenes simply don’t work. He has since gone back and revised the script he was working on for a John Le Carré film based on what he learned in the making of January.
There will be plenty of other Q&A’s with filmmakers and actors throughout this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, including with Gia Coppola for Palo Alto” (reviewed here), Tom Dolby for Last Weekend (reviewed here), Nikolas Rossi for Heaven Adores You (reviewed here), and Richard Linklater for Boyhood (reviewed here). Starting today, there will be daily programming at the Sundance Kabuki Theatre and the New People Theatre, as well as some screenings at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. With 168 films, and over 200 expected guests, there’s much to look forward to this year. Don’t forget to check out our guide for what to see and what to skip at the festival, as well as our preview of what to expect at SFIFF57.
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