Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Manchester by the Sea"

 4.5 / 5  

Kenneth Lonergan's quietly heartbreaking movie Manchester by the Sea is bookended with shots of the ocean, of fishing boats and a quiet coastal village a few dozen miles north of Boston.

It's the sort of place we romanticize: "Let's live there when we retire."  So picturesque, so quaint, so American with its colonial architecture and slightly ramshackle, fishing-boat appearance.  We pass through and talk to the locals and imagine their lives, smiling along the way.  They have their losses, though, every one of them.

Manchester by the Sea shows us a man who appears to be not much more or less than average: Lee Chandler, a guy who never went to college, who's much better looking than he knows and capable of much more than being an apartment-building janitor who unclogs excrement-filled toilets of single women who quietly lust after him.  He's oblivious to the menial work and to the sultry looks; he's oblivious, really, to life.

When Manchester by the Sea opens, Lee gets the sort of phone call that always happens when we're in the middle of something else, that takes us by such surprise that we don't, as movies so frequently depict, break down in tears or devolve into a wailing mass of emotion -- we respond to these sort of calls the way Lee does: We listen to the information, we figure out what we need to do next, we do it. These are the sort of phone calls that place us on auto-pilot.

In Lee's case, the call is from a hospital in a town between Boston and Lee's hometown of Manchester by the Sea.  Lee's brother, Joe, has died suddenly.  Joe's best friend, George, tries to explain but can't -- there they were, looking at boats, and Joe just sort of fell down.  George thought he was joking.  He couldn't believe it could happen so fast.

Lee knows how fast things happen, and not just because Joe's 16-year-old son, Patrick, becomes Lee's instant responsibility.  There's much more going on in Manchester by the Sea, which the film takes some time to reveal.  Lee and Patrick both have their worlds shaken, but in one long, stunning, near-wordless scene -- gripping and beautiful in its form, shocking in its content, all set to the bombastic strains of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor -- Lonergan's impeccably crafted screenplay reveals the horrific depths of Lee's grief.  Joe's unexpected death is downright manageable in light of what Lee has experienced with his ex-wife Randi.

So impossible was the scenario he faced some years ago that retreating to the safe anonymity of Boston made the most emotional sense -- minimum wage and toilet plungers can be something of a relief.

And yet, now Lee is faced with yet another life-changing event he didn't want: Joe has appointed him legal guardian over the strong-willed, bright, perpetually horny Patrick.  Who knows how long it's been since they saw each other?  Maybe not since Patrick was a little boy and his mother finally had one too many alcohol-driven blackouts, which finally proved too much for Joe.

Whatever the case, it doesn't matter, which is part of the point that Manchester by the Sea is making: It's irrelevant whether we're close or distant, whether we're blood or friends -- we're tied to the people who have, for better or rose, made us.  We can't escape them.  "The past is never dead," Faulkner wrote, "it isn't even past."

We can't escape the people, we can't escape the events, we can't escape the little successes and the minor failings, the silly mistakes and the profound ones.  They're all who we are.  But some of us deal with that better than others, and Manchester by the Sea's real brilliance is in how it takes a character who resists conventional notions of healing and moving on, but who has to keep plowing forward all the same.

Casey Affleck plays Lee with such understated anger and simmering hostility that it's both a shock and a cathartic relief the couple of times he hauls off and punches people in the movie.  He needs to do something.  Patrick, played by a genuinely revelatory actor named Lucas Hedges, doesn't struggle with the transition between his father and Lee.  He doesn't like his father's death, but he knows he can't do anything about it -- his sensibility, which is combined with a deep and affecting emotional fragility, is very much at the core of Manchester by the Sea.

The movie becomes, for a while, a sort of battle of wills between these two, a touching and honest look at what it would be like for a middle-aged man to suddenly have to take on the responsibility of a 16-year-old old boy.

But then there is the other thing -- the thing that Manchester by the Sea wisely keeps a secret for quite a while, the thing that turned Lee into the kind of guy who will randomly punch people.  Patrick knows about it.  Everyone in town knows about it, and that includes Lee's former wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who he sees from time to time.  The incident is rarely discussed, but weighs on the rest of the film as it weighs on Lee's life.

As he struggles with his new responsibilities and his failure at breaking free from the past, he forms a deep connection with Patrick, but the film never stoops to the simplicity of giving them all a pat ending.  There are no endings in Manchester by the Sea, not for anyone -- toward the end of the movie, an old man tells Lee the story of how the man's father took off on a tuna boat one day in 1958 and never came back.  No one knows what happened.

There is no trace of self-pity in the story; it is not maudlin.  It just is.  One day, Lee may be able to tell his own story that way: It just happened.  But not yet.  The same goes for Patrick and Randi and everyone else affected by these enormous tragedies that, Manchester by the Sea at least hints, aren't really all that enormous, but no less powerful for being quotidian.  They are all around us if we just notice them, and they will happen, in one way or another, to all of us.  Every closed door has its own story to tell.

When they happen, we may be, for a time -- maybe forever -- as beaten down and hopeless as Lee. Or we might be as youthfully optimistic as Patrick.  Or as helpful and stalwart as George.  But somehow, likely with the help of others -- and sometimes despite their best intentions -- we'll get through it.  That's what we do.

That's why the tides keep going in and coming out.  Why the seagulls flock.  Why the snow falls.  It happens.  We can't stop it from happening.

And so it goes.

In that beauty, that rhythm, that quiet assurance that even if we're not at all "OK," we really are all going to be all right in the end, Manchester by the Sea achieves a beauty that is both visual (how could it not be with this setting) and emotional.  It's as honest, as deep, as thoughtful an examination of grief, loss and pain as you'll ever see.  It's tempting to call Manchester by the Sea a working-class Ordinary People, but it's very different than that upper-class study of polite behavior in the midst of chaos, though it shares many of the same observations: hopeful ones in the midst of the sorrow, and sorrowful ones in the midst of loveliness.

Manchester by the Sea doesn't want to try to find answers, because they are as elusive as the cold wind that buffet the coast.  The winds will never stop, nor will the grief -- but they will quiet down from time to time, and it's then that we can see there's still something beautiful all around us.

Viewed Dec. 1, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Nocturnal Animals"

 4.5 / 5 

There is something roiling under the calm, sleek surface of Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford.  Like his first film, the exquisitely painful A Single Man, the polished veneer hides real pain -- but Ford gets at it quite differently this time, offering up a complex, puzzling thriller that, both thematically and stylistically, invites and mostly lives up to comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock.

Ford begins Nocturnal Animals with a baffling, uncomfortable but mesmerizing scene: Overweight women, completely naked, dance in slow motion to a lush symphonic score.  The dancing women, it turns out, are part of an art installation overseen by the decidedly not overweight Susan, a distant and unhappy woman who lives in a Hollywood Hills mansion run by servants and drivers and who seems still dissatisfied.

Icy, impenetrable and surrounded by excessive luxury, she is a quintessentially Hitchcockian female, except here she is the lead, or at least it seems as the film begins.  Perfectly groomed, perfectly poised, Susan is so pampered that when a mysterious paper-wrapped package arrives on her desk one morning and she cuts her finger opening it, she can't continue -- she calls over one of her servants and tells him to finish the task and to read aloud the letter that comes with it.

It's the galley of a novel written by her ex-husband, a man she hasn't seen in 20 years.  He has dedicated the novel to her.  The unexpected arrival rattles Susan but almost no one around her, least of all her strapping, chiseled current husband (Armie Hammer), whose financial -- and other -- proclivities are threatening their livelihood.

While he travels (and cheats), Susan begins to read the novel, also called Nocturnal Animals.  She knows the meaning of the title: She's never been one to sleep.  But as the novel's story consumes her, she drifts further into insomnia -- and into memory.

Nocturnal Animals tells Susan's story, both in the past and in the present, as her ex-turned-author Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) falls in love with her -- perhaps a bit too deeply -- but also dramatizes the novel.  It's a dark, violent, brutal tale of torture, rape, murder and revenge.  Gyllenhaal, whose puppy-dog face is used to its fullest extent in the flashbacks of Susan and Edward, takes on a completely different persona in the story-within-a-story.

In this version of Nocturnal Animals, he's Tony, a doting West Texas husband and father who wants to takes his wife and daughter on a camping trip to Marfa but crosses paths with some sadistic hoodlums, including the seriously unhinged Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  Left for dead in the forlorn desert -- whose wild uncertainty stands in stark contrast to the visually perfect world in which Susan moves -- Tony escapes and finds himself paired with a drawling Texas detective (Michael Shannon) who has an extraordinarily strong sense of justice.

As they hunt down the murderers and thugs, Noctural Animals spins an engrossing crime story that seems to have little to do with Susan -- and she takes the story at face value, and takes the opportunity to reach out to Edward for the first time in decades.

Ford, who also wrote the screenplay (adapted from Austin Wright's novel), never strains to directly connect the two stories, but spends most of its time in Susan's mind, revealing her vision of the way Tony's story plays out while digging into her memory to explore the dissolution of her relationship with Edward.

Through it all, Ford never loses his sense of pacing or, unsurprisingly, style.  He doesn't try quite as hard to be visually sumptuous as he did in his first film, but that's not to say the scenes aren't exquisite.  He has a rare ability to convey difficult, distant emotions through film: loneliness, fear and disconnection are everywhere in Nocturnal Animals -- but it's not a distant film.  It's visceral and expertly calculated; it takes time to build, then release, considerable suspense.  At least twice, the audience I was with audibly gasped at plot developments, and I was right there with them.

Of immeasurable aid to Ford's vision are startling central performances by Adams, Gyllenhaal and, particularly, Shannon, who creates what I suspect will go down as one of the all-time great character roles.  If he's a standout, Adams and Gyllenhaal are no less noteworthy as the film offers multiple perspectives on Susan, Edward and his fictional surrogate Tony.  Gyllenhaal's ability to move from sweetness to rage is astonishing, and Adams finds a sincere, honest depth to Susan, which is enhanced by a single memorable scene with Laura Linney as Susan's socialite mother.  She's on screen for perhaps five minutes, but Linney leaves an indelible impression.

So, too, does the film.  There aren't many filmmakers with the precision, style and skill that Ford showcases here.  He's done the near impossible, something usually left for such rarefied names as Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese: Nocturnal Animals explores rich, deep cinematic and literary themes that are clearly well considered.  It's a film worthy of study and examination.  Yet, despite the seriousness of its both its intention and its execution, Nocturnal Animals never fails to be the one thing a thriller should be -- thrilling.

Viewed Nov. 9, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, November 5, 2016


 5 / 5 

A few minutes after Moonlight ended I was thinking about the physical beauty of the movie, and about the way it was put together, considering its considerable technical achievements, when I started to cry.  It took me a while to realize just how moved I had been by this movie, and that may well be by design.

Moonlight makes no effort to tell a universal story of a hero who could just as easily be any of us.  Its story is a specific one, and pointedly so -- because its director, Barry Jenkins (who wrote the screenplay from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney) knows just how used we are to seeing movies that tell stories about people who are entirely unlike Moonlight's protagonist.

We've all seen movies in which rich white people muse about their lives in Santa Monica or ponder why things are so difficult in modern London.  They look for love in the urban jungles of New York, meeting cute while bumping heads getting into the taxi after dropping off their child at a private preschool. Moonlight may not be trying to deny the truth of those movies, but it doesn't exactly endorse them, either.

Instead, it takes us to a place we almost never see depicted in modern storytelling: a black slum that isn't in South Central or New York.  Moonlight is mostly set in and around Liberty City, Miami's notoriously violent, drug-laden neighborhood.  Half of its residents live in poverty and a third are unemployed. Jenkins and his film are justifiably outraged about this, but Moonlight is not a movie about politics or race relations or social apathy.

It's the singular story of a boy named Chiron (say it like "Tyrone" with an "sh" at the front), who has grown up all his life knowing his single mother is addicted to drugs.  She gets some of her drugs from Juan, who one day finds Chiron running away from school bullies.  Juan has no idea that his drug-dealing connects him to Chiron, and since the traumatized little boy won't talk to him, Juan takes him home.  His wife, Theresa, coaxes some information out of the kid: Everyone calls him "Little."

That's how the first part of Moonlight starts.  The movie plays out in three clearly delineated chapters: the first shows how Juan becomes the only father figure Little has ever known.  The second shows how the world continues to heap abuse on high-school aged Chiron.  In the third, he's known as Black, and though he's probably not even out of his twenties yet, all he knows is regret -- until he gets an unexpected phone call.

In two of the sections, Chiron gets a fleeting moment of happiness, each of which happens along the beach, a place that is only a few miles from his home but seems impossibly out of reach.  In the third, Chiron returns to the beach, and to the possibility of happiness, and Moonlight leaves us wondering if he will be able to to get it.

The odds, it has to be acknowledged, aren't good.  But Moonlight, despite its seething anger at the unfairness of life, tries to find optimism and even romance in its hard and mean surroundings, and it plays all of its emotions with a muted caution that is both unnerving and artful.  In one integral moment, Chiron's mother summons all the hatred she has toward the world, pulls it all into her, then hurls stinging, poisonous words at her only son, but Jenkins removes the sound -- we can't hear the words, but they are no less painful.  In another key moment, the death of a major character is revealed in passing, as if this kind of tragedy and loss is an everyday part of Chiron's life.

And throughout all of it, there's the truth that Moonlight is almost as fearful to reveal as Chiron is himself, because it's already hard enough for him: Chiron is gay.  He knows it almost from the start.  Certainly his mother knows -- it's yet another reason for her to reject him, as if he needed another.  Juan and Theresa know, too, and urge him only to make his own way in the world.

But that is what Moonlight knows is the hardest thing to do, not just for Chiron, but for anyone.  His way out of Liberty City is already unlikely enough; the last thing he needs is a reason for it to be harder.   Maybe that's why he hardly speaks: He can't think of anything to say that would help.

Moonlight casts three remarkable actors in the role of Chiron: Alex Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as Black.  They share the extraordinary ability to convey both quiet strength and silent anxiety, to balance Chiron's seemingly dual nature as frightened and injured but determined to get through life with dignity intact.

And while it's not quite as showy a role, Moonlight offers up a second character whose played by three different actors: Chiron's best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), who orbits Chiron's life like a moon whose tides inexorably pull him back to Miami.

Those two central roles, and six fearless performances, are enhanced by the genuinely breathtaking performances of Naomie Harris (who couldn't be more different than her Bond "girl" role -- she is spectacularly raw here), who plays Chiron's mother; Mahershala Ali as Juan; and Janelle Monáe as Theresa.  All three exude a tangible presence even when they're not on screen.

Yet it's the three actors playing Chiron who dominate, and while it seems unfair to single one out, we're left, in the end, with Rhodes' Black, who has tried to remake himself in the physical image of the only man he's ever really admired, but who seems still reticent and afraid despite his hulking, imposing physical presence.

And in its final act, Moonlight does something I've never seen a movie do this effectively, persuasively or beautifully: It shows two men being emotionally and physically romantic, and makes us forget almost completely about their gender.  Moonlight makes us forget, in those moments, that we're watching the story of a gay, black drug dealer -- all we care about in the end is all Moonlight wants us to care about: That Chiron is a person who wants to be loved.

With artistry, beauty, honesty, anger and forgiveness, Moonlight demonstrates that movies, when they are really good, bind us to the characters they show, make us feel what they feel and know what they know.  Moonlight is not simply really good.  In a particularly good year for films, Moonlight is one of the very best.

Viewed Nov. 5, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, November 4, 2016


 4.5 / 5 

A woman loses her daughter to a long and painful illness in the opening moments of Denis Villeneuve's grand, ferociously intelligent science-fiction movie Arrival.  In the scenes that follow the death, the same woman, a college professor played by Amy Adams, is trying to teach a class of linguistics students, but they cannot focus on what she's saying because the world has just changed.

Most everyone who sees Arrival will be familiar with the moment the world changes.  We remember when it did that on a late-summer day.  We know the way that you hear something that your mind doesn't quite process, then you sense there's something bigger going on, then you find out the facts and you still can't process them because the rules that have been in place your whole life have been broken with a catastrophic suddenness.

That's what happens for Louise Banks, the character Adams plays in this marvelous, expectation-shattering movie.  She has spent her life studying languages, and now the government wants her to work for them to help unravel the explanation-defying incidents that have happened simultaneously around the globe.

Twelve large objects have descended from space and have parked themselves in various locations.  It's a setup reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's sci-fi classic Childhood's End, but instead of waiting for generations to learn what's inside the spacecraft, the aliens in Arrival aren't keeping themselves invisible.  But there's a problem: They don't speak any of the languages known to humans.  They can't understand us, and we can't understand them.

That's where Adams' linguistics professor comes in.  She's teamed up with Ian Donnelly, a mathematician played by Jeremy Renner, in the hope that at least one of them -- the one who speaks or the one who calculates -- will be able to communicate with the aliens.  They need to answer a simple question, one that has been the backbone of science-fiction from the beginning: Why are you here and what do you want?

The Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) who has brought them both in makes it clear that if they can't get that question answered, one of those 11 other nations will, which will be bad for the U.S. and bad for the world.  Louise and Ian take the threat seriously, and head up into the spaceship to find out what they can learn.

What's most interesting about Arrival, the reason I'm eager to make this a movie I return to time and time again, is that its script by Eric Heisserer, which is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, has no interest in solving the central puzzle in a way that follows standard Hollywood conventions.  The script and Villeneuve's realization of it openly defy the usual expectations: Only once are guns even fired in this film, and then at a distance; there are no CG-laden skirmishes with the aliens, no thrillingly edited chases, no battles.

There is, instead, intelligence and curiosity.  Banks does not learn the aliens' language easily, but as she does, she becomes overwhelmed by the task and its consequences.  This is a film about smart people doing smart things for smart reasons.  Adams and Renner both excel in the portrayal of their intelligent, committed characters.  Indeed, if there is a minor flaw to be found in Arrival its in its almost overwhelming braininess: The revelations and their underlying explanations (and this is the rare film that takes time to explain what is happening) are so impressively based in the nuances of language and communication that they are sometimes hard to keep up with.

And yet, like any really great mystery, the answer is right in front of us from the very beginning, hidden, at least partly, in the form of how the aliens communicate.  As the film progresses, it reveals even more about their subtleties and meanings, which weigh on the plot in unexpected ways.  There's also a beautiful design to their language, which contains a secret that, when it's finally revealed, is both so obvious that it makes total sense -- and so unexpected that the direction in which it takes Arrival is turns out to be similarly complex and simple.  It leads to a climax of remarkable beauty and restraint.

Arrival is not the film I expected it would be, and that is its biggest and most enticing surprise.

Although Arrival out against a grand scale, with no less than the fate of Earth (and maybe even more) hanging in the balance, it is also an impressively quiet and thoughtful movie.  It's intense, but not in the same way of Villeneuve's Sicario (which was one of last year's best movies); even though the two films share a similar propulsive force, Arrival and Sicario could hardly be less similar, which makes Villeneuve's accomplishment perhaps even more impressive: How could one director create films with such vastly different approaches and perspectives?

The bleak hopelessness of Sicario is nowhere to be found in Arrival.  Instead, this a movie suffused with kindness, patience and even tenderness toward humanity and certainly toward its central characters, who grow and change in surprising ways.

Although it's not a political allegory -- it's way too smart to be concerned with something as petty as politics -- there is a certain irony to arrival of Arrival. It's debuting in theaters just days after the most contentious and unpleasant election in modern U.S. history comes to an end.  By eschewing the simpler approach it could have taken in telling a story of an alien invasion, it underscores a more important point: When it's all said and done, we're all in this together.

Are we ever.

For better or for worse.

Viewed Nov. 3, 2016 -- Los Angeles Film School


Saturday, October 15, 2016

"The Queen of Katwe"

 4.5 / 5 

The Queen of Katwe is a movie about a girl from a Ugandan slum who becomes a chess player.

That might be the worst high-concept logline for a movie since, "A boy from an Indian slum becomes a contestant on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'" but Slumdog Millionaire went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and The Queen of Katwe bears a lot of resemblance to that movie in the best possible way, especially in their shared sense of quiet, defiant optimism.

Phiona Mutesi, a real-life chess prodigy played flawlessly by first-time actress Madina Nalwanga, cannot read or write, she is just a little girl, but her life has already been defined for her: She will help her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) sell corn on the streets.  Her sister, named Night (Taryn Kyaze) has seen her own way out, through finding a fast-talking man on a motorcycle.  (The movie, which is rated PG and released by Disney, implies but never directly states prostitution.)

But Phiona and Brian stumble across a ministry-sponsored chess club run by Katende (David Oyelowo), and though the unbathed, slovenly Phiona is mocked by the others on her first day, she refuses to accept their taunts.  Katende is impressed.  Chess, he observes, is a game about fighting, and Phiona is a fighter.

From here, The Queen of Katwe follows a familiar sports-movie trajectory: training, success, unexpectedly devastating defeat, resilience and victory.

The Queen of Katwe is as predictable as they come, but director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler turn that familiarity into an asset, and the extraordinary cast capitalizes on it.  The strength of the movie rests on how much we are willing to believe we haven't seen this story again, and Nyong'o, Oywelwo and, especially, Nalwanga make us believe.

Chess, of course, isn't exactly a cinematic game, and most movies that have tried (Searching for Bobby Fischer is a noteworthy exception) don't generally succeed in making it particularly compelling.  The Queen of Katwe solves the problem of the complexity and general unfamiliarity with the chess by ignoring it.  The specifics of the game aren't important; the concepts of the game are: strategy, long-range thinking and discipline.

They're not qualities that would generally be rewarded in the kind of world in which Phiona lives, but Katende, her coach, gets her and us to understand why they matter.  In one of the movie's most affecting scenes, when Phiona has lost a key match and wants to give up, he reveals some of his own childhood, and then gets to the movie's meaning: Losing isn't easy, but what's important is not (contrary to conventional wisdom) how you've played, but in how you reset the board and line up the pieces to try again.

It's a beautiful moment in a beautiful film, one matched in emotional honesty when Katende reveals to his wife (Esther Tebandeke) that he has turned down a job in order to keep coaching his kids.  Her response runs counter to every cinematic stereotype we've ever seen of the long-suffering-but-stoic wife, and the same could be said for the movie.

The Queen of Katwe could all too easily have slipped into condescension, but it consistently avoids the easy way out; it's an intelligent, emotionally open-hearted and frequently surprising movie, a film that takes a story that follows a trajectory that seems entirely familiar but sends it into a place that feels new, warm and completely fulfilling.

In large part due to its flawless cast and the honestly won catharsis of its final scenes, The Queen of Katwe is a movie that reminds us why, to paraphrase a popular Internet meme, everything is going to be OK.

Viewed Oct. 15, 2016 -- Century Regency


Monday, October 3, 2016

"The Girl on the Train"

 3 / 5 

Other than a puzzling and thoroughly unnecessary relocation of the action from suburban London to suburban New York, the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train holds no surprises at all for anyone who's read the snappy, twisty, addictive novel with the same name.

Indeed, to call The Girl on the Train an "adaptation" isn't quite right; this is what used to be called a "filmization," a direct re-telling of the action with almost no embellishment.  Emily Blunt's drunken, meddling title character (and it's hard to consider her as anything other than the latter, really) is exactly the image millions of people had in their heads while reading the book.

The same goes for the other characters, the settings, even the interiors.  There were times, watching The Girl on the Train, that the images on screen felt a little creepy: I had seen this movie before, but it was last year while on vacation in Europe while I was reading Paula Hawkins' novel.  Clearly, Ms. Hawkins has a talent for writing film-ready novels, because The Girl on the Train was apparently as film-ready as they come.

None of that necessarily makes The Girl on the Train any less of a movie than it is, but the disappointing part is that it doesn't make it any more of a movie, either.  No one will walk out of this movie unsatisfied by the outcome, but the filmmakers also missed an opportunity to do something unexpected with the source work, to give it just enough of a twist to leave audiences surprised that they didn't know exactly how every beat of the ending would play out.

Of course, that's not the kind of "adaptation" a big studio does anymore -- the days of Hitchcock playing with Psycho or even Spielberg playing with Jaws are over, and no one can afford to gamble with the investment money, which will probably pay off very handsomely for the producers of The Girl on the Train.  Perhaps I was just holding out a little too much hope that there would be something boldly unpredictable about the movie version.

It begins with such fidelity to the book that it even starts by introducing each of the main characters in "chapters" that use their first names.  But this strict adherence to the book leads to a confusion that seeps through the rest of the movie, too; as it jumps around in time, from character to character, it frequently lacks some clarity.  It works in print because if we're confused we can just flip back and re-orient ourselves, but there's no such opportunity in linear filmmaking.

Even more confusing is that two of the characters look astonishingly alike.  They're meant to, of course, it factors in to the plot; but it leads to some frustrating moments since the movie just keeps plowing ahead, not giving any chance to think about what we're seeing.

That is, naturally, part of the plan.  It's a murder-mystery, after all, one that features a highly unreliable narrator.  For her part, Blunt plays the hell out of the pathetic, continually drunk Rachel, whose life has been in a shambles ever since her husband (Justin Theroux) left her, and the younger, prettier, sexier new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) moved into their beautiful home on the Hudson River.

Every day, Rachel takes the train into New York and passes right by their old house.  She's trained herself not to look at it, but instead has grown increasingly obsessed with fantasizing about the perfect couple who lives a couple of doors down, Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) and his wife Megan (Haley Bennett).

One day, Megan goes missing, and Rachel is shocked to discover that she has literal blood on her hands and knows only that she was drunk as a skunk that night, got off at her old suburban stop, and then blacked out.

It's a great setup for a mystery, and on the page it plays like gangbusters.  For those who haven't read the novel, it will probably be great, too.  But like any mystery, once you know the secrets, you also see how the trick is done, and because The Girl on the Train is so slavishly faithful to the book, that means one of the biggest tricks of the story is all too clear: The key clues and evidence are withheld from everyone -- from Rachel and from the readers and viewers -- until they need to be revealed.

Like the best magicians, really great mysteries do it right in front of you and you're never the wiser until you get to the end, when you can turn back to the beginning again and see it all laid out.  That's not the case here, and the flip-flopping perspectives, the too-large cast and the too-jumbled motivations end up being more perplexing than thrilling.  We learn too much about the backstories of some characters and too little about the history of Rachel herself.  We have no hope of piecing it all together ourselves because we're not given enough information.

(Oddly, several of its characters are played by actors with missplaced accents, making the transposition of the action from London to New York even more mystifying.  One of the central characters -- and suspects -- is Eastern European in the novel, and in the film retains his Croatian-sounding name, but inexplicably speaks Spanish, while the screenplay has to go out of its way to comment on Blunt's out-of-place British accent.)

In the book, the surprises are truly surprising, and the novel is a page-turner until the very end.  But as a movie, The Girl on the Train ends up being a bit too twisty for its own good.  If you haven't read the book, it might all come as a nasty little surprise (and these are, make no doubt, nasty characters, each of them as sick and unpleasant as they are beautiful to look at).  But what if you did finish novel?  Well, the only surprise may be how easily the denouement all comes rushing back.

That leaves The Girl on the Train as something less than completely fulfilling but still better than average, which is due in no small part to Blunt's terrific, frantic performance, along with some great scenery and the chance to see some pretty people who live in catalog-ready homes and have a rather eye-opening amount of sex in a rather eye-opening variety of locations.

Blunt's performance alone almost wholly redeems The Girl on the Train, as does a fine cameo by Lisa Kudrow, who's the one truly new addition, but whose character (as good as Kudrow is) feels a little like cheating.

Though its plot twists and turns, this adaptation mostly ends up being as straight-on, relatively uneventful and, perhaps to its credit, as reliable as a commuter train through suburbia.

Viewed Sept. 28, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, September 24, 2016


 2.5 / 5 

How could this happen?  How could a filmmaker as passionate, sometimes even lunatic, as Oliver Stone have taken the tale of Edward Snowden and turned it not into a deeply paranoid thriller but instead an overlong, over-talky and moderately dull recitation of the facts?

Even the mere facts of Edward Snowden's story should make compelling cinema.  In fact, they already did in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which is a better movie not simply for its veracity but for its straightforwardness.  Citizenfour tells us what happened, and Stone's Snowden shows us what happened, but it never gets to the heart of exactly why and what it means.

In part, that's because Stone is not offering up any whacked-out conspiracy theories like he did in JFK or being as deliriously passionate as he was in Platoon, he barely even seems worked up about the revelations Snowden made about government surveillance of American citizens.

Strangely, we're not even all that worked up about it; after the initial flurry of coverage, outrage has given way to -- what? -- resignation?  Simple apathy?  Snowden should be full of righteous fury, but there's none.  It should be fueled by tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoia, but there's virtually none of that.  At one point, Snowden, having made up his mind to blow the whistle on the government, tells his girlfriend that her phone and maybe their house is bugged.  The most enthusiasm he can muster is to take her on to the patio.

Remember those great 1970s films in which the guy who thinks the government is going to kill us all suddenly realizes that everyone around him is suspicious?  As a society, we became so deeply fearful of the government, of everything we once believed was safe and secure, that the fear infused our popular culture.

So, how come there's none of that palpable sensation in Snowden?  After all, it's a movie based not on a wild conspiracy theory but a proven fact that our government has been spying on us.  But in the hands of Stone, who co-wrote the long-winded screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald, Snowden is little more than a recounting of a lot of unnecessary backstory.  There's a long sequence that shows how Snowden trained to be in the Army but broke his legs and ended up in the hospital, which is where he went on an online dating site, which is where he met a woman and told her that he was a deeply conservative patriot who believed his country could do no wrong, but she was a liberal -- and at that point, I started losing a lot of interest in Snowden.

As the movie follows Snowden into the CIA, where he isn't just smart but maybe the smartest guy anyone has ever seen, it detours into a long and ultimately extraneous story about how Snowden wanted to be a more active agent but developed a distaste for it after he found out the government could gather almost any sort of data on anyone anywhere.

This is where Snowden gets really problematic, because it never once places into doubt Snowden's near-sainthood, nor does it delve particularly deeply into his suspicion and paranoia.  It just dutifully dramatizes the stories we've heard before, that Snowden himself told in Citizenfour.  It is, in fact, a strange thing to see a big-budget film that is essentially a dramatic re-enactment of a highly publicized documentary.

Despite its simplicity and lack of any real perspective, Snowden coasts into near respectability thanks to a compelling central performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is always an interesting actor and here manages to flatten both his voice and his usual exuberance to create a version of Snowden who somehow can be simultaneously intense and practically asleep.  Levitt captures the same sort of hangdog look that we've come to know from the real-life figure, who's never really exuded a deep charisma.

The rest of the cast mostly flounders with desperately underwritten characters.  Shailene Woodley is Snowden's stand-by-your-man girlfriend, while a strangely unrecognizable Rhys Ifans is the embodiment of sinister, secretive government, both mentor and antagonist to Snowden as the script sees fit.

He's not a very good villain, but the only other choice Snowden had was to make everyone the bad guy, to pit an unknown CIA analyst against everybody and everything, but that would have required the kind of energy, passion and paranoia that Snowden just can't seem to muster.  Which makes me a little worried -- if Oliver Stone can't get us frightened, angry and bewildered at the discoveries Snowden made, who can?

Viewed Sept. 23, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks