REVIEW: The Girl on the Train

5 10 2016

Arguably the most famous close-ups in cinema history take place in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the 1928 silent classic that elevated the expressively tight framed shot of facial contortions to the position of high art. Dreyer later said of the close-up, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.”

It’s a blessing Dreyer did not live to see Tate Taylor’s “The Girl on the Train,” a film that puts the close-up to shame through bludgeoning and excessive use. This specific shot is the movie’s only language to convey the internal agony of its three leading female characters. No need to waste time detailing the multitude of other techniques available at Taylor’s disposal, so let’s just leave it at the fact that the close-up is lazy shorthand for emotional intimacy.

The camera tries to substitute the reservoirs of feeling hidden by the icy women, each with their own secrets to bury and axes to grind. Their blank stares into the distance are meant to convey restraint or secrecy; instead, they convey nothing. One only needs to hold up the work of star Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train” alongside her performance in “Sicario” to see the difference. In the latter film, the most minuscule movement in Blunt’s face communicates a complex response to the ever-shifting environment around her character Kate Macer. Here, as the alcoholic voyeur Rachel Watson, Blunt is reduced to gasps and gazes that do little to illuminate her psychology.

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REVIEW: Hands of Stone

24 08 2016

It’s generally always a pleasure to hear the voice of Robert DeNiro, but “Hands of Stone” writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz finds a way to render it ineffective. The legendary actor plays fabled Ray Arcel, yet for whatever reason, he gets tasked with telling the backstory of lightweight prizefighter Robert Duran (Edgar Ramirez). As he recounts a Panamanian youth tinted with rebellion against the United States’ neocolonialism, it raises the question … can’t Duran tell this story himself?

The film quickly jumps seven years and inexplicably turns Duran from scrappy youngster to full-blown man. At this point, one expects Arcel to assume center stage a little bit more as he elevates the boxing skills of his protege. But that moment never comes. He’s a glorified supporting character who, by virtue of being played by Robert DeNiro, has to hog a little bit of the spotlight. “Hands of Stone” should not be a two-hander, co-lead kind of film. But it is, and nearly every aspect of the film suffers from trying to much and achieving too little.

For example, “Hands of Stone” begins setting up Duran’s success in a clash of civilizations narrative. On television sets throughout the film, Jakubowicz plays out the diplomatic drama between America and Panama. Duran is positioned as an allegorical figure for his country to fight back against their perceived humiliation by the United States. But once Duran starts fighting Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV, as multi-platinum artist Usher would now you have call him), their rumbles in the ring becomes mere clashes of egos.

The film gets mired in far too many subplots beyond just Arcel’s presence. There’s the romantic lives of all three leading men – Duran, Arcel, Leonard – receiving way too much screen time. An estranged daughter abandoned by Arcel decades prior to the film’s events drops in for an odd scene. Yes, we get all of these things, but hardly any of what people really crave from boxing movies: rapport between trainer and fighter, genuine pulse-pounding fights, a sense that the sport actually means something more than just brute force. When it comes to what matters, “Hands of Stone” is just swinging at the air and whiffing. C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Joy

16 01 2016

“Hands, give me the hands,” Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker vehemently instructs a cameraman filming Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sells her Miracle Mop on QVC. For Walker, the consummate showman (and perhaps the stand-in for writer/director David O. Russell), these appendages are the attribute that sets stars apart from the average person. Hands are important because, in his words, “that’s what people use.”

Russell uses hands as a motif running throughout “Joy,” a hymn to ingenuity and perseverance inspired by true stories of daring women. To him, hands mean physical labor, the kind of work traditionally delegated to men. But that traditional division of duties never stopped Joy, who built kingdoms out of paper as a child, dog collars as a teenager, and finally a self-wringing mop as an adult. Her knack for creation, when coupled with her practicality and pragmatism, means she has real potential for success.

Indicative of just how overextended Joy is among her large family, her hands spend most of their time at home doing household repairs like plumbing which would normally be left to the male authority figure. (Her ex-husband, Edgar Ramirez’s failed singer Tony, spends most of his day crooning in the basement.) On top of all the emotional labor of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of her two young children, she has virtually no time to pursue a path that could bring fulfillment and fortune. Yet another mess Joy must clean up enables her to dream up the revolutionary mop after shards of glass lead to gashes all over her hands.

In order to turn her flailing life around, Joy has to compete in the man’s world of business to get her product in front of customers. She has virtually no cues as to how to operate in this sphere; repeated asides from a fictional soap opera show the kind of cues from which Joy can draw. Boys get “The Godfather.” Girls get puffed-up camp like “The Joyful Storm.”

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REVIEW: The Counselor

25 10 2015

Ever wondered what it would look and sound like if Aaron Sorkin took a pass at adapting “No Country for Old Men?” It might resemble Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” a film taken from a script by great novelist Cormac McCarthy himself. For someone so sparse and minimalistic in prose, his first screenplay sure feels bombastic.

It’s hard to fathom that someone so widely lauded as one of the most significant writers of our time could turn in a work full of fortune-cookie dialogue and overwrought, self-serious drama. (Wait, maybe this was the blueprint for season 2 of “True Detective.”) At times, it even feels like McCarthy has to be pulling some kind of elaborate prank on his audience. How else could anyone possibly explain why “The Counselor” goes on a bizarre tangent to depict Cameron Diaz’s Malkina sexually pleasuring herself on the windshield of a Ferrari?

Or perhaps McCarthy needs a strong authorial buffer like the Coen Brothers to translate into the medium of cinema. (John Hillcoat really just didn’t cut it on “The Road.”) Ridley Scott assembled quite the cast to bring the writer’s vision to life, but none of these talented thespians can transcend the schlock of the script. It even renders Michael Fassbender almost ineffective, and that’s really saying something.

In somewhat of a change of pace, McCarthy goes heavy on conversation and light on characterization. His saga of greed, money and jealousy set along the U.S.-Mexico border plays as little more than a collection of connected events since the various personalities involved never get explored in much depth. There’s at once too much and not enough happening in “The Counselor.” Rather than trying to resolve these contradictions, I’d rather just forget that all involved even spent their time on this.  C2stars