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: Sicario

30 12 2015

SicarioIn Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” the border is not a mere setting. It is the very subject of the film.

And not just the U.S.-Mexico border, either. Of course, that line serves as a shorthand for a number of the film’s dialectical battles: chaos vs. order, civility vs. barbarism, domestic vs. foreign. But none of these provide any easy demarcations like the fence does; these divisions prove far more permeable.

The uncertainty, and even dread, that comes with such free exchange gets echoed in every aspect of “Sicario.” It starts in the script and gets amplified in the direction, the acting and even the photography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins tells the story primarily through two contrasting shots: hovering aerial landscapes and tightly-held close-ups. The first showcases a vast, unfeeling terrain that dwarfs all human activity. The second, though a smaller canvas, provides an equally robust commentary on the men and woman traversing the territory.

Though mere chess pieces in a much larger board game, the minute details of how each characters processes information and suppresses emotions provide a second layer of story running throughout “Sicario.” No face receives more attention than that of Emily Blunt, who plays the film’s protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer. Practically every scene in the film happens twice, first as it unfolds and then again as reflected through Kate’s face.

Blunt’s performance is screen acting at its finest. Villeneuve and Deakins maximize ability of the camera to pick up the smallest of twitches and motions, which might otherwise be imperceptible to the naked eye. Rarely has the quiver of a lip as it gulps down the smoke from a cigarette registered so much. Blunt makes her character the farthest thing from a blank slate, ensuring that each infinitesimal shift of her face reveals her fast-racing mind. To that end, Kate’s big, explosive scene unfolds in a shot taken from a great distance where her emotions remain obscured. She’s a compass, steadfast but still a little shaky.

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Random Factoid #573

1 02 2015

For what it’s worth, I have actually stuck to my New Year’s Resolution to eat healthier for a whole month.  (No better way to jinx it than to put it in print, though.)  I now stock my tiny dorm room refrigerator with all sorts of healthier choices, in everything from 10 calorie Jello-s to fresh fruit to protein shakes.  And no Diet Coke, which is the bigger deal.  I still wonder what on earth I’m supposed to drink at movie theaters now…

Perhaps most surprisingly, I have also taken to eating string cheese after workouts, which is apparently a smart way to replenish your body after heavy exertion.  I used to scorn this style of consuming dairy, ranking it only slightly above aerosol spray cheese in the hierarchy of forms it can take.  But now, I find myself actually craving them.

Which, of course, always makes me think of one movie and one character.  Emily, my soul sister…

Diet

I also relate to “The Devil Wears Prada” now in many more ways than I did when I first saw it at the age of 13.  Back then, naïve Marshall had no idea what the corporate world was like.  If you want me to elaborate on how my life has resembled the movie, you’ll have to find me in person because there is NO WAY I will ever put that in print.





REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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REVIEW: Edge of Tomorrow

7 06 2014

It would have been all too easy to write off “Edge of Tomorrow” with a few jokes about familiarity.  Given the nature of its plot, which involves Tom Cruise’s character doomed to relive the same day until he can defeat an invading alien force, I would not have been surprised if I felt a frustration tantamount to his character.  That is to say, I expected to feel like I was caught reliving a hackneyed story until I reached the point of insanity.

But to my surprise, director Doug Liman finds a way to make “Edge of Tomorrow” feel fresh and exciting even though it isn’t reinventing the blockbuster wheel.  It takes the film a little while to find its footing after a sped-through expository opening sequence and a fairly standard beginning of the time travel process.  Once Emily Blunt enters the picture as a gritty soldier who once suffered a similar “Groundhog Day”-esque affliction, though, things start to get a little more intriguing.

That’s mainly due to the smart script by Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of “The Usual Suspects,” with the help of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who penned Liman’s underrated “Fair Game.”  While their screenplay might not be nearly as cerebral as Duncan Jones’ superb 2011 time travel thriller “Source Code,” it certainly shows the signs of real effort to be clever.  They avoid falling into obvious traps of the sub-genre and find some nice moments for Cruise and Blunt to play on the path less traveled.

Credit is due to Liman as well for finding creative ways to present and re-present events that have to be repeated.  It’s often beat into filmmakers to show something rather than tell it.  Liman finds a two-handed approach to work just fine, however, and “Edge of Tomorrow” feels invigoratingly as a result since each section feels a little different from the one before it.

This does contribute to making the film slightly uneven, but even so, it’s one of the better big-budget blockbusters I’ve seen in a while.  If there was one I had to sit through again and again, there could be worse than this.  Like Cruise’s character in the film, I could probably find new ways to improve it each time though.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Young Victoria

1 09 2013

The Young VictoriaI know I’ve never been a fan of Victorian-era England costume dramas … or really 19th century tales of the royal or luxurious (see my less than thrilled response to “Bright Star” and my outright repudiation of “Anna Karenina“).  But believe it or not, I had actually been meaning to see “The Young Victoria” for quite some time now.  And it was not just to check the box off some virtual film bucket list; I think I genuinely wanted to watch it.  Going to London for the semester finally gave me the impetus to do so.

And after about 15 minutes, I was reminded of why I normally don’t care for these kinds of movies.  “The Young Victoria” has very little to offer save a spirited but hardly redeeming performance by Emily Blunt.  I’ve been a fan of the actress since she stole the darkest portions of my heart as the brutally sardonic Emily in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but the role is just one in a string that doesn’t recapture her triumphant entrance onto the Hollywood scene.  (It’s not even her best since then –  that would be her performance in “Your Sister’s Sister.”)

Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is a rather turgid spectacle of costumes and set design.  It has remarkably little drama, perhaps due to the rather strange narrative arc designed by screenwriter Julian Fellowes.  I’d argue the film’s emotional climax comes at about the 30-minute mark, and everything else afterwards feels like falling action.  Queen Victoria’s romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) takes up the majority of the film, but there’s never any passion or tension being stirred up.  When the end finally rolls around, “The Young Victoria” just feels like a rather anti-climatic waste.  C2stars





REVIEW: Looper

30 12 2012

It’s about time for a changing of the guard in science-fiction, and “Looper” heralds perhaps the sign that the genre is in young, fresh, and good hands.  Rian Johnson’s time-traveling tale is an intelligent film that hopefully points to revitalization by the people who grew up on the classics of the 1980s.  Its delicate construction and serious contemplation moves Johnson into the league of J.J. Abrams and Duncan Jones in terms of directors moving what was formerly considered kitsch into respectable art.

“Looper,” upon a little bit of pondering, feels very much inspired by James Cameron’s “The Terminator.”  Though we still watch that movie nearly three decades later, it’s mainly to be amused by the ex-Governator, not to be wowed by the script or the direction (and most definitely not by the performances).  And yes, it’s in the Library of Congress and is unilaterally praised, but “The Terminator” is able to get away with its unabashed Roger Corman, B-movie background now largely because of our fondness for nostalgia.

Johnson takes what worked about “The Terminator,” the time traveling plot device and the thematic weight, and sets it in a frame evoking “A Clockwork Orange” or “Blade Runner.”  His “Looper” takes place in a future not blatantly dystopian, but rather cleverly thought out with depth that doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Viewers willing to take the plunge into Johnson’s world multiple times will undoubtedly be rewarded by the subtle details he hides throughout the film.

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