Emily Blunt Best Part of Brooding Thriller THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)

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girl_on_the_train

 

I wish the girl had been on a faster train.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016), the new thriller starring one of my favorite actresses, Emily Blunt, and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins, is a decent enough flick, but it moves at such a deliberately plodding pace that it never reaches out and grabs you by the throat, never goes for the jugular, although truth be told there is a bloody stab-in-the-neck scene late in the film which is one of the more effective scenes in the movie.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a sad alcoholic who rides the train every day to and from a job she doesn’t have anymore, and from this train each day she observes a beautiful young woman Megan (Haley Bennett) with her husband Scott (Luke Evans) both outside and through curtain-free windows inside their home.  Rachel fantasizes about the happy life the couple share with each other.

Rachel used to live next door to Megan and Scott, in a house still occupied by Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their new baby.  Furthermore, Megan now works for Tom and Anna as their baby’s nanny.  Small world!

Rachel is a depressed young woman, and in her drunken stupors she becomes unhinged. At one point, she walks into Tom and Anna’s home and takes their baby, albeit only as far as their front lawn.

Anyway, one day Rachel observes Megan at her home with another man, which disturbs Rachel, since it ruins her fantasy of Megan’s and Scott’s happy life together.  One night, when she’s drunk, Rachel returns to the neighborhood, sees Megan jogging, pursues her, screams at her that she’s a whore, and then passes out.  When she awakes from her blackout, she is covered in blood.

And when it’s discovered the next day that Megan has disappeared, the mystery begins, and Rachel finds herself as an early person of interest by the police, since she was seen in the neighborhood, and since it’s on record that she’s been a threat to Tom and Anna, and that Anna and Megan bear a resemblance to each other.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN isn’t exactly the most compelling thriller you’ll ever see.  It has moments here and there, but for the most part it’s all rather sad and dull.

The best thing THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN has going for it is its three female leads.  I really liked the fact that the three main roles in this movie were women.  But that being said, none of these roles are all that exciting.

I’m a huge fan of Emily Blunt, and she doesn’t disappoint in this movie.  She’s very good as Rachel and captures the depressing sad life, the misery, in which Rachel exists.  In some ways, it’s a thankless role, because she spends most of the film in a drunken stupor. The biggest drawback, which can be said for the entire movie, is there’s never that one moment, that big payoff, where things are taken to the next level.  Blunt is very good here, but it’s not  a role, as written, where you’re thinking, Oscar material.  As such, I enjoyed Blunt more in SICARIO (2015) and in the Tom Cruise science fiction movie EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014).

Haley Bennett is okay as Megan, in yet another role that isn’t written as effectively as it could have been, and that holds true for the entire movie.

The screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson presents an elaborate mystery with lots of characters but none of these chararacters are developed as deeply as they should have been.  It seems to be a clear case of trying to cover all the events of a novel and getting them into one movie, which is difficult since novels and moves are so different.  That being said, it’s not a bad screenplay, it’s just a little too peripheral and superficial to  really work.  Wilson also wrote the screenplay to a similar thriller some years back that I liked a bit more than this movie, the film CHLOE (2009), starring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, and Amanda Seyfried.

Getting back to Haley Bennett, she enjoys a few good moments as Megan, but for the most part the role was underplayed.  I’ve seen Bennet a lot lately, as she was just in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) as Emma Cullen, the woman who hires the Seven.  She was also in HARDCORE HENRY (2015), THE EQUALIZER (2014), in which she also co-starred with Denzel Washington, and way back when she played Molly Hartley in the mediocre horror movie THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008).  Bennett is good in all these movies, but I’m still waiting for her to have that break-out role where she’s better than “just good.”  The most memorable thing about her performance here in this movie is that at times the way she is photographed she resembles Jennifer Lawrence.

The third female lead is Anna, played by Rebecca Ferguson, with similar results.  Decent acting, superficial role.

Justin Theroux plays Rachel’s husband Tom and gives an okay performance in yet another role that struggles to be three-dimensional.

I thought Luke Evans was very good as Megan’s slimy husband Scott.  He looks like a hothead and he acts like one, but there are some scenes where he reveals that there’s more to him than just being a controlling husband.  Evans played Vlad/Dracula in the underwhelming DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), a film I really didn’t like all that much, but Evans was pretty good in it.

And one of my new favorite actors, Edgar Ramirez, shows up in a key role as psychiatrist Dr. Kamil Abdic.  I first noticed Ramirez in his supporting role as Jennifer Lawrence’s husband in JOY (2015), but he’s been in a bunch of other movies, most recently playing Roberto Durant in HANDS OF STONE (2016), a film that got swept under the rug this year but is one of my favorite films that I’ve seen in 2016.  Ramirez also starred as the demon-hunting priest in the lackluster horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  Here in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, other than Emily Blunt, Ramirez gives the best performance.

Allison Janney  is quite good in a small role as Detective Riley.  The film really doesn’t follow the police investigation very much, and as such the police play a very small part in the film, which focuses more on Rachel, Megan, and Anna.  But in her brief time, Janney is very good.  As is  Laura Prepon as Rachel’s sister, Cathy.

And Lisa Kudrow shows up in a very, very small role, yet one which plays an important part in the plot.

Another thing I didn’t like about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN that I thought hurt its story is it tells its tale through different characters’ perspectives.  It’s funny, becasue this is the type of storytelling that I love in a novel, but it’s easier to do in a novel, where you can have entire chapters told from different characters’ perspectives, so that you learn one thing about the plot from one character’s point of view, and then later you see it differently through the eyes of another character.

This doesn’t translate as well in a movie, or at least it didn’t here in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.  It comes off as more of a cheat.  You see a certain character act in a certain way through the whole movie, and then later, you learn, nope, that character is not that way at all.  The person you thought was decent really isn’t.

The film definitely manipulates its audience, and I have to say I for one didn’t enjoy being manipulated in this way.  I felt cheated.  In a novel, you would know exactly which character was telling the story.  In this movie, it comes off as something that is held back from the audience to fool them, as opposed to watching the story unfold from different characters’ points of view.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN was directed by Tate Taylor to mixed results.  He captures the mood of the piece for sure.  It’s all very gray and gloomy, depressingly so.  The film looks like the embodiment of what is to be Rachel.

But in terms of being a thriller, Taylor’s direction doesn’t cut it.  The pacing just isn’t there, nor is the suspense.  It’s all very interesting in that you want to know who did what to whom, especially since the movie goes out of its way to confuse you with its changing points of view, but it never ever becomes edge-of-your seat material.  And although there are a couple of nicely shot brutal murder scenes that may make you turn your head from the screen, neither of these are so intense or shocking that they’re all that memorable.

I enjoyed similar thrillers GONE GIRL (2014) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO (2011) better than this movie.

That being said, if you’re an Emily Blunt fan, as I am, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is worth a look.  She’s the main reason to see this brooding thriller.

 

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

SICARIO (2015) – TAUT THRILLER IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR

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MOVIE REVIEW:  SICARIO (2015)Sicario poster

By Michael Arruda

 

In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit man.”  In English, it means “hit movie.”

That being said, SICARIO is not exactly tearing it up at the box office, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO is the new thriller by director Denis Villeneuve.  Its story about the hunt for a Mexican drug lord has it all:  riveting direction by Villeneuve, a multi-layered and deeply resonating screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and fantastic acting performances all around, led by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.  And wow again.

Del Toro has been exceptional in a bunch of movies, so it would be difficult to call his role in this movie as the mysterious and oh-so-cool and deadly Alejandro his best, but he is phenomenal here.  Alejandro instantly joins the ranks of cinema’s most fearsome hitmen.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who in the film’s opening segment leads a drug raid on an Arizona home that leads to both a gruesome discovery and tragedy.  Kate and her agents discover over two dozen dead bodies buried within the walls of the house, and later as the agents continue to scour the grounds, a bomb goes off killing members of Kate’s team.

Kate’s exemplary work attracts the attention of special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and he invites Kate to join his team.  His mission is to hunt down the drug lord responsible for the death of Kate’s men, and so naturally Kate wants in, despite her misgivings about the operation, fueled by Graver’s evasive answers to her questions.  For instance, he refuses to give her a straight answer regarding the government agency for which he works.

Kate’s by-the-book partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) warns Kate not to go, but she is determined to take down those responsible for her agents’ deaths.  Things grow murkier when Kate learns that they’re not going to El Paso as promised but to Mexico.

On the plane to Mexico, Kate meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose demeanor immediately raises a red flag for Kate.  She demands to know who Graver and Alejandro are working for, and she wants to know if they are, as she suspects, CIA.  Graver, in his usual relaxed, calm, confident manner, tells Kate to chill and to simply go along for the ride to observe and learn, because as he says, the battle that they’re taking to Mexico, is on its way to the States, and she’ll soon be waging a similar battle back home.

Kate relents and goes with Graver and Alejandro to Mexico, where she sees firsthand the horrors and crimes committed by the drug lord they are seeking, a man known as Fausto Alarcon.  Graver has assembled a crack team including Texas Rangers and other military types to complete their mission which is to go in and extract one of Alarcon’s cousins in order to stir things up and ruffle Alarcon’s feathers.  Kate is uncomfortable by the methods she witnesses, knowing they are illegal, but she stays with Graver and his team anyway.

They get their man, and in one of the film’s tenser sequences, attempt to bring him back across the border to the States, where Graver’s work is far from finished.  As Kate is drawn deeper into a world she wants no part of, a world where the lines between friend and foe become more and more difficult to discern, she struggles between keeping to her ideals and knowing what is right, and helping Graver, a man who’s eventual goal in spite of his off the chart methods is exactly what Kate wants to achieve.

SICARIO tells a fascinating story that works on multiple levels.  It’s written by Taylor Sheridan, who has worked more as an actor than as a writer.  Sheridan played Deputy David Hale on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2010). SICARIO is his debut screenplay, and it’s pretty darned impressive!

We are immediately drawn into Kate Macer’s story from the very first scene.  We share her determination to hunt down the man responsible for her team’s death, but this is no vengeance plot.  Like Kate, we become increasingly frustrated by the constant slipperiness of Matt Graver.  We are made uncomfortable by the cold presence of Alejandro.  And like Kate, we are increasingly torn between these men’s methods and their goal.

Alejandro’s story might be even more compelling.  At first, he’s this shadowy figure who we, like Kate, immediately suspect is not who he seems.  And we’re right.  But his back story explains his motivations, and as the movie goes on he becomes more of a central player.  The best part of Alejandro is his complexity. He puts Kate on edge immediately, and yet he’s the man when they’re in Mexico who seems to have her back.  She eventually trusts him, but later his actions cause her to pull a gun on him, an action he quickly makes her regret.

And the plight of the Mexican people, caught in the crossfire between the drug cartel on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other, is captured brilliantly yet simply in a touching subplot involving a corrupt Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and the relationship he shares with his son.  The simple shot near the end of the movie of his son standing next to his empty bed is just one of the many powerful images captured in SICARIO and succeeds in making its point far more effectively than any long drawn out scene of dialogue.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO is full of potent images.  From the disturbing sight of naked mutilated bodies hanging above Mexican streets, to the more subtle scenes of Mexican children playing soccer with the sound of gun shots in the distance, to the blazing display of gunfire and explosions in the Mexican night witnessed by Kate from a distant rooftop.

Villeneuve also directed the well-received kidnapping thriller PRISONERS (2013) starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.  I enjoyed SICARIO better than PRISONERS, as it tells a more complex story and it’s more of a complete package.

SICARIO also features some of the more riveting film sequences I’ve seen in a while.  The trek to extract the prisoner from Mexico, where Graver’s convoy gets stuck in traffic because of an accident, allowing drug hitmen the time they need to descend upon them, is one of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences in the film.  Likewise, later in the film a pursuit into an underground tunnel is just as exciting.  There are plenty of nail-biting moments in SICARIO.

The cast is flawless.

Emily Blunt delivers her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt delivers perhaps her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt is outstanding as Kate Macer.  She’s the perfect combination of tough-as-nails strength and later as her world crumbles around her, frightened vulnerability.  Blunt’s performance in the Tom Cruise science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) was one of my favorite parts of that movie.  She’s even better here in SICARIO. It’s Blunt’s best performance to date.

Even better is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro.  He possesses such a presence in this movie that he can unnerve you just by standing there without uttering a line.  And when he gets into his adversary’s faces, and he does, up close, you can feel their trembling.  Yet, as played by Del Toro, Alejandro is not a one-note heartless robot of a killer.  He’s much more intricate than that, and while he may be one of the more cold-blooded hit men you’ll find in a movie, his backstory and its resolution, may have you shedding a tear.

Benicio Del Toro delivers yet another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Benicio Del Toro in another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Alejandro also shares a bond with Kate.  When he tells her that she reminds him of someone special from his past, it’s not a cliché set-up for a long lost love, but something deeper and more touching.

Josh Brolin is just as good as his fellow co-stars, playing the evasive and confident Matt Graver who doesn’t seem to have a straight answer for anything, and yet he often is the most honest man in the story.  And that’s because in the process of not answering Kate’s questions, he tells the truth.  It’s just not what Kate wants to hear, but the information is accurate.  If ever there was a true CIA man it’s Graver.  Brolin is perfectly cast as the relentless government agent who is so relaxed chasing mass murdering drug lords that he wears sandals during high level meetings and sleeps like a baby on flights into enemy territory.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Daniel Kaluuya is memorable as Kate’s loyal partner Reggie Wayne.  In addition to being an FBI agent, he’s also a lawyer, and he represents law and order in this story, constantly attacking Graver and Alejandro and their methods.  He’s also loyal to a fault to Kate, and in a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust and who might shoot you in the back, it was refreshing to have a character like Daniel in the story.

Victor Garber [ARGO (2013)] makes a memorable impression as Kate’s boss Dave Jennings, and Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) impresses in a small role as a man Kate meets in a bar for what seems like a harmless sexual encounter, except that in this story very little is as it seems.

Probably the best of the supporting roles belongs to Maximiliano Hernandez who plays the Mexican police officer Silvio.  In a series of brief scenes, we get to know him as a father to his young son, which makes his ultimate and unfortunate fate as he crosses paths with Alejandro all the more sad and touching.

SICARIO also has an effective music score by Johann Johannsson which completely captures the mood of this one and complements the edge-of-your seat suspenseful scenes.

SICARIO is the perfect combination of suspense and drama.  It’s riveting from start to finish, and it’s full of deep layers that keep this one from being superficial and trite.  It’s as complex as the multi-faceted drug world it portrays, and yet it’s never confusing.  Like Kate, we are torn by this world, are put off by the methods and partnerships embraced by our own government officials to get the job done, and yet also like Kate, at the end of the day we are not completely sure we want them to be stopped.

SICARIO is a deeply satisfying and rewarding movie that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

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