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

0

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.

 

—END—

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

0
hands of stone

Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

—END—