Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” – An odd bit of erotica

Two seconds. That’s how long it takes for Amanda Seyfried’s breasts to appear in this film, and as she begins a wistful voiceover about what it means to be a prostitute, it is with this first artfully lit shot that Atom Egoyan’s Chloe (a remake of a 2003 French film) presents itself with decidedly European sensibilities. But while the Europeans might decry my American puritanical sexualization of the female breast, I must confess that this shot (and many similar ones that followed) put me somewhat on guard. There are few things that take me out of a film faster than the feeling that I’m being manipulated by the screen. If this were a film about gargantuan fighting robots, I could certainly ignore the feeling, but Chloe strives for a good deal more. As it went on, I was forced to decide whether I was watching a thoughtful and emotionally complex exploration of sexual obsession and jealousy or being titillated just for the sake of it.

The premise is certainly a provocative one. The Stewarts are a pair of well-off professionals whose marriage is gradually drifting apart – David (Liam Neeson), a college professor, is friendly and semi-flirtatious with every woman he meets, and his wife Catherine (Julianne Moore), a doctor, is becoming increasingly insecure and jealous. From the outset, we are as much in the dark as Catherine about her husband, as she becomes more and more suspicious that he’s cheating on her. She finds a friend and confidante in an escort named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), whom she hires to try and seduce David.

“I usually meet the client directly,” starts Chloe.

“I’M the client” declares Catherine.

And indeed, nearly all we see from this point on is through the interactions between these two women. As Chloe recounts her various encounters with David, Catherine insists she spare no detail. These graphic recollections are nothing new in cinema (they reminded me a great deal of Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer), but they still rang true for me. They spoke to the secret shame shared by private detectives and their cuckholded clients alike – when you’ve been betrayed by someone you love, you want to know every last disgusting detail.

It is this obsession that the film and its actors convey so effectively. The plot takes a number of rather predictable twists, but I really can’t fault it for this. As Catherine watches the destruction of her marriage, she gradually realizes that it may be her own mistrust and jealousy that precipitated its end. By the final act, the film only seems predictable in the sense of people being reliably self-destructive, and Julianne Moore proves to be the tragic heart of this film, turning in a performance that is both fearless and believable.

But what an enigma is Amanda Seyfried… This is an actress whose work I’ve nearly always enjoyed, who often elevates lesser films with her performances. But for the first half of this film, her line delivery is nearly as flat and devoid of character as porn star Sasha Grey in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. As she recounted the vagaries of life as a high-class call-girl, I just didn’t buy it. And while her performance certainly improves in the second half, it’s balanced out by some rather preposterous character twists (for which I place equal blame on the screenwriter).

This is certainly an ambitious film, and its successes manage to stay a bit more interesting than its failures. The film looks great, featuring some gorgeous cinematography from DP Paul Sarossy. It delivers a fantastic performance from Moore and solid supporting work from Neeson. And perhaps most importantly, despite the absurd lengths the film goes to in order to destroy its characters, it delivers a few remarkable relationship insights. I have to think that if only something had elevated the character of Chloe, I wouldn’t have been left to ponder whether this film is exploitative or gratuitous. The film strives for something like Closer but becomes something more akin to Heartbreakers. The result is something worse than one, but better than the other, and fascinating nonetheless.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” – Another horror remake? And it’s GOOD?!

Breck Eisner’s The Crazies is the tale of Ogden Marsh, an idyllic Iowa farming community exposed to a biological agent that turns the townspeople turn uncontrollably violent. And I won’t bury the lead on this… It’s one hell of a ride. A deliberate pace, ratcheting sense of doom, and awesome use of setpieces make this an extremely effective horror film. In fact, the last time I had this much fun with a horror remake was with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and from the outset, this film has some stark similarities. It’s another remake of a 70s Romero film featuring another dark Johnny Cash song (in an amusing nod to Dr. Strangelove), and two of the main characters are a cop and a doctor. We get the briefest glimpse at their normal lives, and then all hell breaks loose.

The formula is familiar, but The Crazies does plenty to distinguish itself. Unlike typical zombies, these creatures retain varying degrees of their human intelligence, running the gamut from free-running, flesh-eating monsters to what can only be described as “super-rednecks”. While this makes them only marginally more interesting as characters, it’s still impressive to see zombies put to more substantial use than the nihilistic slaughter fantasy they usually amount to. What’s more, the film takes just enough time to establish an authentic setting and some sympathetic characters with very real stakes. From the outset, Ogden Marsh feels every bit like a real small town, with everyone on a first-name basis with town sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) – also the town’s doctor. When the military moves in to quell the infection, the plot becomes more like 1995’s Outbreak, but told from the perspective of the townspeople. From the moment the hubristic mayor dismisses the impending threat from what might be the only cornfield swimming pool in Iowa, the film barrels forward and never lets up. The result is a very well-paced chase thriller, told through the eyes of these characters by way of some brilliant but simple setpieces (there’s a sequence in the third act involving a drive-through carwash that I can only describe as pure joy).

As I think back, the tone of this film seems remarkably well balanced. There are many genuinely terrifying moments, and it adequately conveys the senseless human tragedy of it all while never shying away from a healthy dose of pitch-black humor. As it went on, I found myself genuinely afraid for the lives of the remaining characters, but could still chuckle as Timothy Olyphant took a sprawling tumble onto the floor of a funeral home and narrowly escaped getting his scrotum sliced open by a runaway electric bone saw. Indeed, Eisner’s direction makes a number of admirable choices, seemingly utilizing jump scares for the sole purpose of screwing with the audience, and then jarring them out of their seats as they slowly realize there’s an out-of-focus super-zombie still and salivating in the corner of the room.

The performances are quite adept, establishing a tense and believable dynamic between the three characters. Olyphant has long since proven that he can do no wrong as a small-town sheriff, and he and Mitchell make a convincing married couple, their performances helped along by many effective little moments of dialogue (“Don’t ask me why I can’t leave without my wife, and I won’t ask you why you can leave without yours”). Additionally, the shifting relationship between sheriff and deputy is one of the most fascinating aspects to the film. Between Anderson’s adept performance and the character’s well-written arc, the deputy’s plot stirs a sense of imminent danger and infection paranoia unparalleled since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

As soon as the credits rolled, I typed a single line for this review, demanding that Breck Eisner come down to my theater immediately and pry me loose from the edge of my seat. When I wrote up the film’s balls-out-audacious trailer back in October, I expected this film to be a good bit of cheese – a solid, shlocky B-horror film. What I finally saw was that and much more. Eisner’s direction balances the tone of the film perfectly, injecting just the right mix of horror, comedy, and drama. The allegorical elements are none-too-subtle, from the concentration camps to the good soldier who “didn’t sign up for this,” but they still imbue the film with some welcome depth. The Crazies takes the relatively straightforward premise of “zombies that can think” and turns it into a menacing and memorable piece of horror.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10