PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017) – Supernatural Drama More Interested in Questions Than Answers

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PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017), the second collaboration between French director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart, is the type of movie that gives me fits.

It’s complex and artistic, and its story is purposely left unclear, and for a story guy like me, that drives me crazy.  It’s like reading a well-written poem.  You appreciate its artistry and spend hours pouring over its words looking for meaning, trying to find out just what it is the poet is trying to say, and on those occasions when you fail to reach a satisfying conclusion, you have to ask yourself:  was there anything there to begin with?  Which is why when all is said and done, I prefer to read novels.

That’s how I felt while watching PERSONAL SHOPPER, a ghost story that plays out like a supernatural drama as opposed to a horror movie or thriller, and that’s okay.  I loved the style of this movie.  But the wheels inside my head are still spinning over its content.

Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper to a celebrity who due to her fame cannot shop unencumbered.  But the real reason Maureen is there, and the reason she is so somber and haunted, is her twin brother died there a month earlier.  And Maureen isn’t just mourning.  She’s looking for a sign.

Her brother was a medium, as is Maureen, and he had promised her that if he died he would send her a sign from the other side.  And so she spends dark nights inside the house where her brother had lived, waiting for his message.  In fact, at one point in the movie, when asked what she is doing in Paris, she actually says she is waiting.  Her search isn’t restricted to her brother’s house, but pretty much everywhere she goes in Paris, she is on the lookout for some sign from her brother, and when she is contacted, whether through strange noises in the dark or haunting apparitions or mysterious text messages, it sets off a myriad of questions.  Is it her brother?  Is it someone else? If it is someone else, is it a spirit or a real person?  Or are there multiple spirits/persons trying to contact her?  Do they pose a threat?

These are all fascinating questions, and I enjoyed following Maureen on her search for answers.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really provide satisfying responses to these questions, as it remains vague about most of them.  Perhaps this is the point, that when seeking out those things that haunt us, there aren’t always clear definitive answers. Either way, PERSONAL SHOPPER is definitely a movie more about questions than answers.

Director Olivier Assayas drew me in immediately with his gloomy and somber cinematography as the film opens with Maureen arriving at her deceased brother’s home, which sets up a very creepy scene early on:  Maureen’s first night alone in the house. She’s there in the dark, and she hears a noise, and unlike heroines in traditional horror movies who call out “Hello?” loudly and hyperventilate, Maureen silently and slowly makes her way through the pitch black corridors.  Of course, at this point in the movie, the audience isn’t aware of what she is doing there or who she is looking for, which only adds to the weirdness of the sequence.

And this is pretty much how director Assayas’ screenplay  unfolds.  He doesn’t really tell the story in a straight narrative.  For instance, the film nearly reaches its halfway mark before it’s revealed clearly what Maureen’s job is, that she works as a personal shopper.

PERSONAL SHOPPER is one very moody and somber film, and as such, is driven by Kristen Stewart’s subtle yet dominating performance.  She’s in nearly every scene of the movie, and the film doesn’t suffer for it.  She is captivating to watch, and in spite of the purposely vague narrative, she held my interest throughout.  Her performance here reminded me a bit of Casey Affleck’s performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Like Affleck, she’s haunted and pained throughout, as if she is suffering from a permanent migraine. Her intense search for answers becomes almost palpable.

It’s interesting thematically that while on the one hand Maureen is dealing with spirits while she searches for a sign from her brother, on the other hand, her job keeps her in contact with a celebrity who also seems more dead than alive, who treats people horribly and is oblivious to everyone around her, as if she, like a spirit, is living in some other world. Likewise, even though she has a boyfriend back home who she communicates with via Skype, Maureen struggles with human relationships.  She seems to enjoy being alone. It’s almost as if she too is living in another world,  and there are certainly parallels between her story and her brother’s.

For example, they’re twins.  They’re both mediums.  They both share the same cardiovascular defect which caused her brother to suffer a heart attack and die while only in his twenties.  Her brother is literally dead, and she seems to be figuratively dead.  The film shows two different worlds intertwined, so that it’s difficult to know which one is which and who is in which one.  It’s fascinating to think about, and the film throws out hints and suggestions that come close to turning the entire plot on its head.

The film doesn’t skimp on the suspense either.  There’s the aforementioned opening scene in the dark house which is as creepy as they get.  There are scenes of spectral appearances, and one of the most suspenseful sequences involves Maureen receiving a series of strange text messages which she at first hopes are from her brother, but then she has doubts and fears that perhaps someone- a spirit or a very real person – might be stalking her.

The best part of PERSONAL SHOPPER is it’s about as far from a by-the-numbers thriller as you can get.  It’s a much more complex movie than most, and for that alone, it’s worth watching.

It’s a haunting film, empowered by Kristen Stewart’s mesmerizing performance, and by Olivier Assayas’ artistic direction.    The camera gets in real close during the suspense scenes, and it takes its time with the spectral sequences, allowing for full impact when apparitions appear.

Other scenes end in mid-dialogue, often giving the distinct notion that what we are seeing, especially in terms of Maureen, is only part of what is going on.  Indeed, this is a movie where the missing parts seem to be more prominent and powerful than the parts we are shown.

Assayas’ cryptic screenplay is like a puzzle, and as such, for a moviegoer like myself who enjoys a good story, it’s frustrating.  The ending in particular leaves its audience with one big question mark.

Yet, this doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the movie.  Its somber mood and unsettling eeriness perfectly permeate the tale of Maureen’s heartfelt and painful search for her deceased brother.

PERSONAL SHOPPER is a movie more interested in questions than answers.  Maureen spends the whole movie asking questions, looking for answers, and by the end of the movie, she seems to have found them, but just what they are and what they mean for her and for the audience, remains unknown.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) – An Exercise in Artistic Horror

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The new thriller A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.

A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center.  The company is in trouble, and in order to get through a complicated merger that will save it, they need their CEO, a man named Pembroke, who has declared that he has found life’s answers at this wellness center and will not return.  The company disagrees and sends the ultra ambitious Lockhart to Switzerland to bring back his boss.

The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all.  When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick.  The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.

Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back.  The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs)  tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him.  So, Lockhart leaves and decides to book a hotel room, but on his drive from the resort, he is involved in a car accident.  When he awakes, he’s in a bed with a broken leg, and he finds himself as a patient at the spa.  When he resists, Dr. Volmer tells him that he already cleared it with his company, that since his leg is broken, he might as well remain there in order to rest and heal.

Volmer advises Lockhart to drink plenty of water, because he says the climate there can dehydrate people, and the water there not only hydrates people but also possesses powerful purifying abilities.

During his stay, Lockhart learns a bit about the history of the castle, how a doctor conducted strange experiments there years ago, and how afterwards there was a catastrophic fire.  Lockhart also befriends a mysterious young girl Hannah (Mia Goth) who, like him, is the only other young person being treated there.  Lockhart eventually finds Pembroke and tries to convince him to leave, but his former boss isn’t interested.

Lockhart ultimately learns that no one leaves the spa, and as he begins to discover what really is going on there, things become far more horrific.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very creative thriller that I liked a lot.

It’s full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling.  Chief amongst these images are the eels in the water. The water at the spa is advertised as being a natural purifier, but to Lockhart it tastes weird and he begins to see things in it, a glimpse here, a shadow there, and when he is inside a sensory deprivation tank, he becomes aware that he’s not alone, that there are eels swimming in the water with him.  He begins to see them everywhere.  Are they really there?  Or are they just imagined, images caused by the breakdown he seems to be suffering from?

There are other images as well, odd ones involving deer, for example, and bizarre flashbacks involving Lockhart and his parents.  The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller.

And with its weird imagery, it reminded me somewhat of THE NEON DEMON (2016), although I found THE NEON DEMON more disturbing.  I also thought the story worked better in THE NEON DEMON.  The twist in that movie I didn’t see coming, whereas here in A CURE FOR WELLNESS I did see it coming, and early on.

It’s directed by Gore Verbinski, the man who directed the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, as well as the American version of THE RING (2002), and also the awful THE LONE RANGER (2013).  That’s a wide variety of movies.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS might be his best movie yet.

It looks great, from all the weird images to the elegant photography of the castle spa in the Alps.  It’s so convincing that at times I found myself wishing I could be there vacationing as well.  And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it does take on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear.  So, there’s a lot to like.

It’s pretty much a compelling mystery.  The film throws enough things at the audience to keep them guessing, but the eventual reveal is one I definitely saw coming.  Even so, I enjoyed the screenplay by Justin Haythe. It creates memorable characters, puts them in an ominous setting, and thrusts them into a truly horrifying tale of mystery and madness.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is also interesting thematically.  The idea that we are making our bodies sick from the stress of overworking, and that a spa could be the solution, resonates, because the need for a physical cure to our aging bodies is real, and so like the patients there, the audience easily buys into it.

And what is really going on with those eels is pretty horrifying.  This part of the story really worked for me.

I also enjoyed the cast.

Dane DeHaan is very good here as Lockhart.  At first I thought he was too young to be a corporate executive, but his performance grew on me, and he gets better as the movie goes along.  Early on he doesn’t come off as a sympathetic character at all, but as the story moves forward, and we see everything that he goes through—and he goes through a lot in this movie—and how he handles it, he becomes more likeable.  At times, he reminded me of Vincent Kartheiser who played Pete Campbell on the TV series MAD MEN.

DeHaan is a fine young actor. Unfortunately, he got stuck playing the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the awful THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014), but he was memorable before that in the very good science fiction flick CHRONICLE (2012).

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer.  Isaacs strikes the perfect balance with the character.  You don’t trust the guy, but he keeps coming back, speaking in level-headed and reassuring tones that he’s really there to help, and each time Lockhart believes him, and the audience does as well.  His performance reminded me of Timothy Dalton.  I could have easily seen Dalton playing this role.

Even better than both DeHaan and Isaacs is Mia Goth as Hannah.  She makes Hannah such an innocent and awkward character, she’s mesmerizing to watch.  There’s a scene where Lockhart and Hannah escape to a local pub, and Hannah plays a song on a jukebox and starts dancing in front of the local youths.  It’s a mesmerizing moment as we see this confused and misunderstood youth begin to express herself through movement.  It’s one of the best scenes in the movie.  Goth nails the sequence.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is not perfect.  It does go on a bit too long.  The film runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes, which was about 20 minutes too long.

Not everything in the movie makes sense.  There’s a couple of scenes with Lockhart and his mother which I’m not sure I understood, as at one point it’s shown that she is dead yet in another scene she’s speaking to him about his trip to the spa.  Also, there’s a confusing scene near the end where all the patients have a rather strange reaction to Lockhart’s words.

Plus the main story, in spite of all the imaginative imagery, is pretty straightforward.

All in all, though, I really liked A CURE FOR WELLNESS.  It’s an interesting hybrid of artistic cinema and straightforward horror, and it makes for a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

Leading Ladies: FAY WRAY

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Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in King Kong’s clutches in KING KONG (1933).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.  Up today, it’s Fay Wray, the woman who King Kong carried to the top of the Empire State Building in KING KONG (1933).

Fay Wray had a ton of credits.  She began her career as a teenager in silent movies, and so by the time she made KING KONG in 1933 at age 26, she had already amassed fifty four screen credits!

All together, Fay Wray had 123 screen credits, but none bigger than her role as Ann Darrow in KING KONG.

Here’s a partial list of Wray’s movie credits:

GASOLINE LOVE (1923) – Fay Wray’s first screen credit.

THE COAST PATROL (1925) – Beth Slocum- Wray’s first feature film role.

DOCTOR X (1932) – Joanne Xavier- horror movie with Lionel Atwill, famous for being shot in Technicolor.

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) – Eve Trowbridge – Thriller directed by KING KONG director Ernest B. Schoedsack and featuring Carl Denham himself, Robert Armstrong.

THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)- Ruth Bertin- classic horror movie featuring Lionel Atwill, Melvyn Douglas, and Dwight Frye.  Atwill is the mad scientist, Douglas the hero, Wray the heroine, and Frye is the creepy guy the villagers think is the vampire— but they’re wrong.  Very atmospheric creepy horror movie.

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) – Charlotte Duncan – Reunited with Lionel Atwill in yet another classic horror movie.  Like DOCTOR X, it was also shot in color and was believed to have been lost for decades before being re-discovered in the late 1960s.  Directed by Michael Curtiz, who also directed that little wartime movie, CASABLANCA (1942).

KING KONG (1933) – Ann Darrow – the film that made Fay Wray a star, and she spends most of it screaming, as she is abducted and chased by Kong throughout.  Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with an outstanding music score by Max Steiner, and starring Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Wray, and of course King Kong.  Amazing special effects by Willis O’Brien.  This classic movie still holds up wonderfully today.  By the way, Wray was not blonde.  She wore a wig for her most famous role.  That is her real scream, though.

MASTER OF MEN (1933)- Kay Walling- The last of eleven movies Wray made in 1933!

BLACK MOON (1934) – Gail Hamilton – Horror movie about a voodoo curse, directed by Roy William Neill, the man who in addition to directing many of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies also directed FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

WOMAN IN THE DARK (1934) – Louise Loring – Crime movie starring Ralph Bellamy and Melvyn Douglas, based on a book by Dashiell Hammett.

THE CLAIRVOYANT (1934)- Rene – Effective mystery/horror movie with Claude Rains as a fake clairvoyant who suddenly finds himself with real predictive powers.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955) – Kay Stanley – Film-noir with Edward G. Robinson and Alan Ladd.

CRIME OF PASSION (1957) – Alice Pope- more film-noir, this time with Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, and Raymond Burr.

TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR (1957) – Mrs. Brent-  First of four “Tammy” movies, starring Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Nielsen, and Walter Brennan.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS – “Dip In The Pool” (1958) – Mrs. Renshaw/  “The Morning After” (1959) – Mrs. Nelson – two appearances on the ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS TV show.

PERRY MASON – “The Case of the Prodigal Parent” (1958) – Ethel Harrison/ “The Case of the Watery Witness” (1959)- Lorna Thomas/ “The Case of the Fatal Fetish” (1965) – Mignon Germaine – several appearances on the classic PERRY MASON TV show starring Raymond Burr.

GIDEON’S TRUMPET (1980) – Edna Curtis – Fay Wray’s final screen credit, in this TV movie starring Henry Fonda based on the true story of Clarence Earl Gideon.

Even though she never had a bigger role than Ann Darrow in KING KONG, Fay Wray enjoyed a long and successful movie career.  She passed away in 2004 at age 96.

Fay Wray – September 15, 1907- August 8, 2004.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of LEADING LADIES.  Join me again next time when we look at the career of another Leading Lady.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ACCOUNTANT (2016) – Exciting, Entertaining Flick

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It’s Batman vs. the Punisher!

Well, not really, but THE ACCOUNTANT (2016),  the new thriller starring Ben Affleck as a math savant who uncooks the books for some of the most dangerous criminals and terrorists in the world, does pit Affleck—Batman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)— against Jon Bernthal, who plays The Punisher on Marvel’s DAREDEVIL TV show.

In THE ACCOUNTANT, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an accountant with a penchant for working with menacing clients.  As such, he has attracted the attention of Treasury Department head Ray King (J. K. Simmons) who handpicks agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to track down and learn the identity of this mysterious accountant.  With the feds on his tail, Wolff decides to lay low and  work next for a legitimate client.

Wolff is hired by a robotics company run by the philanthropic Lamar Black (John Lithgow) where their young accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy on their books.  It doesn’t take Wolff long to uncover the root of the problem, and when he does, he finds out that this “legitimate” job is just as dangerous as the shadier ones.

And not only are the feds on Wolff’s trail, but there’s also a mysterious enforcer (Jon Bernthal) closing in on him.

I liked THE ACCOUNTANT a lot, and it’s one of those movies where the less said about the plot, the better.  Not that it’s full of surprises, but it does tell an intricate story with enough twists and turns to keep its audience off balance yet satisfied.

There are a lot of things about this one I liked.  I particularly enjoyed its take on autism.  Wolff has autism, and it’s not shown here to be a disability but simply a different ability, which is consistent with contemporary thinking on this condition.

Now, young Wolff learns his fighting skills at a young age from his hard-driving military father (Robert C. Treveiler) who refused to put his son in a special school and instead taught and trained him by himself, with the mindset that he had to make his son face his fears and toughen him up.  I found these flashback scenes particularly frustrating because the father’s ideas for helping his son are questionable at best, but these scenes work because they explain how Wolff became such an effective killer.

That’s right.  There’s a reason why he has survived all these years working for dangerous clients.  Wolff is rather dangerous himself.  He’s quite the assassin and could give Jason Bourne a run for his money.  Actually, there was something about the early training scenes here that reminded me of Marvel’s DAREDEVIL.  In DAREDEVIL, Matt Murdoch learns how to be a superhero in spite of his being blind.  Here, Wolff becomes super hero-like in spite of his autism.

Again, I really liked the way the film approached autism, not viewing it as a disability but as something that simply makes people who have it different, but no less complete than those of us without it.

THE ACCOUNTANT also boasts a very strong cast.  I really enjoyed Ben Affleck here, much more than his recent portrayal of Batman.  Of course, he’s working with a better script here.  The screenplay by Bill Dubuque tells a compelling story, creates likable characters, and contains lively dialogue.

But back to Affleck.  He really captures what it’s like to be a man like Christian Wolff.  He gets inside Wolff’s head, and he lets us know what he is thinking, which is impressive, because the rest of the cast is confused by his autistic personality.  Affleck nails the autism part, and we see him struggling to be sociable, as we know he wants to be, but it just doesn’t come easily for him.  When he makes a comment that is misunderstood at one point, he quickly quips “it was a joke,” and we know immediately that the line is simply a cover-up to mask his embarrasment.

Affleck also is completely believable as the math savant, as well as making for a cool unruffled assassin.  The scenes where we see Wolff in action are among the best in the movie.  I’ve really been enjoying Ben Affleck in recent years, in films like GONE GIRL (2014), RUNNER, RUNNER (2013), ARGO (2012), and THE TOWN (2010).  Heck, even though I did not like BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) at all, I thought he was pretty good as Batman.  For me, I first became an Affleck fan after seeing him portray George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006).  His performance here in THE ACCOUNTANT might be his best since ARGO.

And Affleck is supported by a fine supporting class.  J.K. Simmons is solid at Treasury Chief Ray King, and I enjoyed Anna Kendrick as accountant Dana Cummings.  I particularly enjoyed her scenes with Affleck, thought they shared some chemistry, and I wish she had been in the movie more.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson was okay as Treasury Agent Marybeth Medina, as was John Lithgow as company owner Lamar Black.

Jeffrey Tambor makes his mark as Francis Silverberg, a man Wolff meets in prison and who is instrumental in helping Wolff get started in his new “career.”  And as shadowy hitman/enforcer Brax, Jon Bernthal is once again very good.  I seem to enjoy Bernthal now in nearly everything he does, and so it was fun to see him here as the man who’s tracking down Wolff from the other side of the law.  Granted, I enjoyed Bernthal more as the Punisher on DAREDEVIL, and I’m looking forward to his own PUNISHER  TV show, but still, he’s enjoyable here in THE ACCOUNTANT.

And I thought Robert C. Treveiler was particularly effective as Wolff’s hardnosed military father.  I wanted to hate the guy, but there was something redeemable about him, the way he saw things through.  I didn’t agree with what he was doing with his sons, but at least he was there for them.

I thought director Gavin O’Connor did a fine job.  I liked the way he told the story. It was clear that opening scene was holding back information, and I liked the way the film went back to that scene later to fill in some plot points.  I enjoyed the action scenes here, especially the scene where Wolff comes to the aid of two of his clients, an elderly couple, when some unsavory characters show up at their farm.

I also thought the ending was handled well.

THE ACCOUNTANT drew me in early and kept me there, with well-written characters, an interesting plot, solid peformances all around, and some decent excitement.

It all adds up to one very entertaining movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

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

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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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THE INVITATION (2015) Keeps Its Audience Off Balance

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If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  Then again, maybe your emotional baggage is just making you paranoid.

That’s the overwhelming feeling generated in the taut thriller THE INVITATION (2015) in which main character Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has the haunting feeling that the dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband is all so very wrong and dangerous; yet, he can’t deny that his head is clouded by grief over the death of his young son, a death he and his ex-wife still have not come to terms with.

THE INVITATION opens with Will and his current girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to Will’s ex-wife’s dinner party, when their car strikes a deer.  The animal is badly injured, and without hestitation, Will puts it out of its misery using a tire iron, which says something about his resolve and temperament right at the outset.

Will feels uncomfortable immediately upon arriving at his former home, even though he’s surrounded by a large group of his friends who are already there at the party.  Seeing his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) only opens old wounds for him, and it doesn’t help that her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) is overly sympathetic and syrupy sweet, but there’s something off-putting about him that continually rubs Will the wrong way, so much so that he becomes suspicious of every little thing the man does, like seemingly locking them inside the house, an action that David dismisses as the innocent act of locking one’s door.

Will also takes issue with David’s decision to invite a couple of his friends to the dinner party.  Will was under the impression that the gathering was supposed to be a closed reunion of old friends.  And when Will perceives what he considers to be weird things happening, he tries to warn everyone, but they dismiss his charges as the emotional misgivings of a grieving parent and urge him to relax and see things through.  The more the evidence seems to support his friends’ assertions that there really isn’t anything wrong inside the house, the more Will questions his own feelings.

After all, his friends are right.  He’s still grieving over his son’s death.  There’s nothing really sinister going on inside Eden’s and David’s house, is there?

Well, is there?

And that’s the fun of THE INVITATION.  It plays its shell game well.  The movie does a terrific job masking the truth.  The audience feels the same way Will does. There’s just something very peculiar about David and Eden and their new friends.  And yet, all the peculiarities can be explained away, but still, Will can’t shake that troubling feeling that they are all in danger.  To make matters more frustrating, Will is completely on his own. None of his friends or his girlfriend Kira feel the same way he does or see the same things he does.  It’s all very maddening, yet it’s a heck of a lot of fun as it makes for a very suspenseful story.

The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is sharp and incisive, and it plays like an intricate puzzle.  We empathize with Will, but we really don’t want him to be right, even though we tend to believe him because he doesn’t come off as overly disturbed.  Sure, he’s emotional, he’s grieving, but he seems to be a pretty solid well rounded guy, except that he’s now wounded by his son’s death. The movie does a really good job keeping its audience off balance.

It’s a strong screenplay by Hay and Manfredi, much better than their work together on the subpar remake CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010).  They also co-wrote the box office bomb R.I.P.D (2013) starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges.

Director Karyn Kusama has made a very tight and scary little thriller.  It kept me guessing throughout, and the payoff was frightening and satisfying.  The film also doesn’t skimp on the violence.  There are some jarring scenes in this one.

Logan Marshall-Green is very effective as Will, and his performance drew me in immediately.  I felt for him and believed that he was seeing things that were weird enough to be concerned about, even if no one else in the movie believed him.

Tammy Blanchard is sufficiently weird as Eden, as is Michiel Huisman as her new husband David.  There’s something so very off-putting about the two of them, and yet David always says the right things to put people at ease and disarm their fears.

John Carroll Lynch and Lyndsay Burdge are also very good as David’s creepy yet seemingly sincere friends.

The film has excellent acting all around.

I had heard good things about THE INVITATION, but really didn’t know what to expect.  It lived up to my expectations and then some.

If you like tense thrillers in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock you’ll love THE INVITATION.  It’s as engrossing as it is deadly.

It’s one invite you’ll be glad you didn’t pass up.

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MR. HOLMES (2015) – Sherlock Holmes Tale An Outstanding Period Piece And Solid Vehicle for Ian McKellen

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Mr.  Holmes

Blu-ray Review:  MR. HOLMES (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

We all grow old.  Even Sherlock Holmes.

That’s the premise of MR. HOLMES (2015), the story of an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) trying desperately to remember the details of his final case, a case which ended so horribly it convinced him to retire.  But remembering is no easy task since he’s dealing with early stages of dementia.

Holmes, now in his 90s,  lives in a plush quiet home in the country along with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). The year is 1947, and Holmes has been retired for thirty years.

He finds himself haunted by his final case, because he knows the events of that case caused him to retire outright.  The trouble is, he cannot remember any of it.  He tries all sorts of methods to stimulate his memory, but what he finds works best and inspires him most is spending time with young Roger, who loves Holmes and constantly encourages him to come out of retirement and solve another case.  So Holmes spends considerable time with the boy, often teaching him about beekeeping, in the hope that his memory will return.

And it does, but in bits and pieces and over the course of the movie, where we learn the fascinating details of the case which led Sherlock Holmes to an early retirement.  Since this is a mystery, the less said about the plot the better.

There are several reasons to see MR. HOLMES.  One is the cinematography.  The English countryside has never looked more inviting.

Better than the cinematography is the acting, led of course by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.  McKellen does more with just his facial expressions in this movie than most actors accomplish with their entire bodies.  Director Bill Condon takes full advantage of close-ups of McKellen’s face, showing us the pain, annoyance, wisdom, frustration, and flat out devastation felt by the aged Holmes.

As Holmes, Ian McKellen shows us a man struggling with memory loss, who at times still possesses the mental faculties which made him the world’s greatest detective.  He can be grumpy and aloof, but also compassionate and caring.  And in flashbacks from thirty years earlier, we witness a Holmes in his 60s working on that fateful case which would force his retirement.  McKellen handles these different stages of Holmes’ life with relative ease.

Young Milo Parker as the boy Roger is the perfect complement for McKellen’s Holmes here, and the two share the best scenes in this movie.  Laura Linney is also very good as Roger’s mother and Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Munro.  Tired of Holmes’ crabbiness and lack of cooperation, she actively wants to seek employment elsewhere, but that’s the last thing Roger wants since he idolizes Holmes.  It’s also not what Holmes wants since his time with Roger seems to be the only thing that sparks his memory.

The rest of players also do a very good job.  MR. HOLMES features splendid acting throughout.

The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Mitch Cullen, and using characters written by Arthur Conan Doyle, works on multiple levels.  It’s a poignat tale about the relationship between a very old person, Holmes, and a very young person, Roger, and on this level alone the film succeeds.  But it’s also a very compelling mystery, as Holmes’ final case involves the investigation into a supposed unfaithful wife, as well as a fateful trip to China.

Director Bill Condon does a nice job here.  For a film about an elderly Sherlock Holmes, the pacing is quick, and the film flies by, even though it is an hour and 44 minutes long.  Condon also directed McKellen in GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an excellent movie about FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, in which McKellen starred as the famous filmmaker.  But Condon also directed the last two TWILIGHT movies.  MR. HOLMES, no surprise, is much closer in quality to GODS AND MONSTERS than to the dreadful TWILIGHT films.

The other thing I liked about MR. HOLMES is that in spite of its central character dealing with dementia, the film resists the temptation to overplay the sympathy card.  Holmes harldly speaks of his memory troubles.  He just deals with them.

MR. HOLMES is an outstanding period piece, featuring a superb performance by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes, and solid acting by the rest of the cast.  It’s well-directed, exhibits beautiful cinematography, and contains a first-rate mystery to boot.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson.  This one is definitely worth a look.

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