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: Get On Up

4 08 2014

In any musical biopic, the key ingredient is channeling the persona of its subject.  So in that regard, “Get On Up” succeeds behind Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Boseman captures the firebrand in all his passionate fits of rage and spirited swaggering dance moves, and he does it with such astonishing accuracy that I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that I was in fact watching a fictional portrayal of Brown.

Beyond Boseman’s towering turn, however, there is very little else in “Get On Up” that manages to rouse. Most of the film’s issues, sadly, are deeply rooted in Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script. With the very blueprint of the movie so wonky, it’s tough to judge anyone involved in the film too harshly. They likely just did the best with what little they were given.

The problem has less to do with individual scenes, which were more or less fine when evaluated independently. The Butterworths’ problem is that these units drawn from various times at James Brown’s life simply do not cohere nor do they ever move in any distinct direction. Unlike “Boyhood,” the mere passage of time in “Get On Up” is not cause enough to watch a movie or maintain attention.

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REVIEW: The Help

9 08 2011

Cynics would say a movie like “The Help” is just a slightly high-brow appeal to white paternalism and guilt, an ex post facto vindication of prevalent attitudes thanks to some mettlesome few (an appeal that “To Kill A Mockingbird” may or may not have ridden to classic status).  But I challenge the cynics to sit through the movie and not be moved.  Because whether it’s set in the past, present, or future, a movie about courage that is well-written, pristinely directed, and impressively acted can be nothing but moving and inspiring.

The movie is being released in a time frame in the cinematic calendar year usually reserved for light chick lit, and while “The Help” will definitely appeal to women, it’s hardly flippant or breezy.  The movie tackles prejudice, both beyond and within the realm of race, and other issues that still affect women to this day.  Director Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of author Kathryn Stockett, gives them the treatment they deserve while also retaining that page-turner bliss that comes only from reading a great novel, a rarity in adaptations nowadays.  He captures not just a moment in time but larger, universal truths about human reactions to injustice, be they from the side of they oppressed or the oppressors.

Had he not appreciated how each self-contained storyline affected the work as a whole, “The Help” would be a bloated, convoluted haul of a film.  Taylor flows seamlessly between the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her nearly surrogate mothering of young Mae Mobley while her real parents neglect her, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and her new job cleaning and practically nannying the air-headed but goodhearted Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Skeeter (Emma Stone) and her rebellious challenging of social and cultural norms for young white women, and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the scared white woman pushing “separate but equal” nearly a decade after it was ruled unconstitutional.  With some help from a fabulous ensemble of dedicated actresses, all the stories feel complete by the end, and none shines excessively brighter than the others.

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