Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review: "Jackie"

Director: Pablo Larrain
Runtime: 99 minutes

Though it features only the briefest moments of blood and gore, there is something so deeply immersive and unsettling about Jackie that made me queasy. The lives, legacies, and tragedies of the Kennedy clan have been in the public consciousness for decades. Movies, miniseries, plays, novels, and conspiracy theories about the Kennedys have congealed into their own industry, and that industry has taken hold as its own sub-genre of American culture (Kennedy Kitsch? Kennedy Camp?). Yet none have pierced through shield of the Kennedy mythos quite like director Pablo Larrain. A native of Chile, Mr. Larrain's English language debut, despite centering on American royalty, feels as fresh and urgent as his film's directly tied to his homeland's socio-political conscious.

Even though Jackie opens with a familiar framing device (the subject is being interviewed, with length flashbacks filling in the gaps), Larrain is quick to distance himself from decades' worth of mythologizing and hagiography. Before Jackie O (Natalie Portman, astounding) even appears on screen, the viewer is jolted by the otherworldly strains of the score. There are no patriotic tunes of either the upbeat or mournful variety. Instead, avant garde composer Mica Levi (who also wrote the haunting music for Under the Skin) floods the soundscape with a swirl of alien notes and tones. The score, which seeps out like a frozen, enveloping embrace, is disorienting to brilliant effect. 

The Kennedy brothers (Jack is Caspar Phillipson, Bobby is Peter Sarsgaard) make their appearances throughout Jackie, but Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim keep the focus on the titular First Lady of Camelot. With whole life thrown into chaos, Jackie finds herself being unravelled at all angles, and Levi's music does an overwhelmingly powerful job of communicating her emotional discord. There are no elaborate swooping camera moves in Jackie, but Levi's music and Stephane Fontaine's images mix like vodka and Xanax. It's off-putting, then hypnotic, and climaxes with a sense of dissociation that leaves your nerves exhausted, your mind numb, and your innards hollow and tumultuous.

Jackie sustains its limited premise through its craftsmanship, but it's thanks to Portman that it transcends. It's a brilliant example that proves finding the right actor to play a historical figure goes beyond (and can even exclude) exact likeness. Portman's features have some glaring differences, and there appears to have been no use of padding or prosthetics to bridge the gap between artist and subject. Yet the instant those rounded words glide out of Portman's mouth, all doubt vanishes: it's her. 

Of course, vocal inflections and the right hair do not a rounded performance make, and Portman and Larrain are well aware of this. Oppenheim's screenplay, aided by Sebastian Sepulveda's editing, positions the various flashbacks like an orchestra of mirrors. They reflect and refract, with Portman functioning as the story's anchor more so than the scenes involving the journalist (Billy Crudup). Even if everything had been handled with an emphasis on linearity, it would do nothing to diminish Portman's work, which takes Jackie O through so much complex emotional territory and distills it into a character both deeply empathetic and not quite of this world (often at the same time). In short, it makes Portman's Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan look like amateur hour. 

The driving thesis of Jackie, which is pointed out early on, concerns reality's relationship with historical narratives and fairy tales. Portman, Larrain, and Oppenheim repeat the idea a few times (perhaps one too-many), but consistently find new ways to play it out in scenarios that feel possible and plausible, even if some liberties are taken in the name of drama. Did Jackie O ever try on a bunch of her clothes, sashay through the White House in a drug-and-booze addled stupor with the soundtrack to Camelot blasting out of the record player? I'm perfectly content never knowing the answer. Reality and history make strange bedfellows, and that discomfort lies at the heart of what makes Jackie sing so beautifully as a film. Larrain, whose dramas sometimes squander great set-ups on drawn-out, overwrought execution, could not have been a more inspired choice. 

Larrain's perspective is a thrilling compliment to the American iconography on display, and he guides Jackie's journey with masterful control of timing and tone (Oppenheim's script includes some welcome moments of mordant and mournful wit). Few scenes this year will merge great writing, acting, and directing the way Jackie does when the First Lady appears to break the news of JFK's death to her children. It is mesmerizing, stomach-churning, white-knuckle intense, and ultimately shattering. Larrain's guiding hand, Portman's face, and Oppenheim's words (and silences) take two horrendous moments (one personal, one political) and blow them up to operatic proportions: The President is dead...My husband is dead...My husband the President is dead. Those unspoken statements hang there through all of Jackie, and their weight only increases with time. When Crudup's journalist asks Jackie if she has any advice, she replies, "Don't marry the President." After spending just over 90 minutes in Jackie's head, you'll understand why.

Grade: A

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: "Allied"

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 124 minutes

All's murky in love and war, especially when you and your spouse have both spent time working the international espionage racket. So goes the world of Robert Zemeckis' Allied, which oscillates between Casablanca homage and grim antidote to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Despite a twisty set up, generally strong production values, and solid performances, Allied comes up short when it's time to wrap up its mission.

While much of what we see on screen has a welcome Old Hollywood gloss, Zemeckis' recent love of visual effects starts Allied off on a distractingly modern note. A rather embarrassing opening shot follows a hilariously fake parachute landing into a desert landscape that's only marginally more convincing. Emerging from the fakery is Max Vattan (Brad Pitt), who has arrived in French Morocco to meet up with a French resistance operative to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. The operative turns out to be Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard, in full Golden Age glamor mode), who helps Max pose as her (fake) husband prior to the assassination. For Marianne, the trick lies in keeping the fakery of their work grounded in some kernel of authenticity.

It's notion that Cotillard pulls off beautifully, making it all the more frustrating that the film around her often fails do follow suit. Allied's sets and costumes are richly designed, but there is often a certain sheen to the imagery which goes beyond romanticism and into fakery. An early scene set in a Casablanca plaza looks the part at first glance, but the longer you soak it in, the more it appears to take place in a vacuum. Tilt the camera the wrong direction by just an inch or two, and the framework of the soundstage would make an unwelcome appearance.

Thankfully, things improve once the action moves back to England. Max and Marianne's fake relationship blossoms into a genuine one, and they settle down and have a baby. Then, right on schedule, the other shoe drops: British intelligence informs Max that Marianne may be a deep cover Nazi spy, and that he'll need to set up a trap to prove her innocence or guilt. 

The answers that eventually come our way, courtesy of screenwriter Steven Knight, largely prove satisfying. Whatever quibbles one might have with the plot's internal logic, Allied boasts enough first rate design and star power to allow for comfortable suspension of disbelief in the moment. But while Knight's story is a fun guessing game, Zemeckis' direction often gets in the way. Allied's opening passages are punishingly slow, with the build up to the assassination taking up far too much time. The Casablanca scenes lay the necessary groundwork with clues and red herrings, but Zemeckis directs on autopilot through much of it. Spycraft lives or dies by the details, but in Allied, those details exist as exposition that need to be trudged through before getting on to the good stuff.

By the time Allied finally introduces the question of Marianne's innocence, you might be ready for the story to just end already. But wait, there's more! The superior second half, when finally given room to take off, is no faster than the opening, but it moves with more confidence and better sustains the intrigue. Act 1 is an overlong obligation, while Act 2 gets to the heart of the matter. Livening things up are short performances from a strong group of supporting performances filled out by the likes of Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan (kudos for including an LGBT character), Matthew Goode, and Simon McBurney.

Without enough genuine character development to support the film's star power, however, the bulk of Allied never consistently catches fire. The twists, thankfully, give the story more heft by providing questions worth considering (as opposed to derailing the plot, which they easily could have). Allied's eventual conclusion is convincingly solemn, in large part thanks to Cotillard's multifaceted performance. The story's lack of focus, coupled with Zemeckis' lack of verve, leaves you with the feeling that you've just witnessed a halfhearted take on what could have been a tense mix of romance and thrills. At least Cotillard provides the fizz in an otherwise flat concoction.

Grade: C

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: "Nocturnal Animals"

Director: Tom Ford
Runtime: 116 minutes

It's perhaps not the greatest sign that the scene that has stuck with me the longest from Nocturnal Animals is the one that absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot. A mesmerizing series of grotesques set to Abel Korzeniowski's lush score kicks things off in a way that would make David Lynch proud. What follows, sadly, has the basic blueprints for a mesmerizing Russian Nesting Doll of a story, yet struggles to get beneath the artifice to something worth savoring. Fashion designer Tom Ford, in his second feature, continues to showcase his hidden gifts as a director (following the achingly beautiful A Single Man 7 years ago). And he's assembled a cast of talented actors to make it all sound convincing. But what gets in the way of Ford's Nocturnal Animals is Ford himself...or at least, his screenplay.

Adapted from Austin Wright's novel "Tony and Susan," Nocturnal Animals is either three stories in one or one story fragmented into three volumes. In the first, we meet Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner trapped in an increasingly hollow marriage to a philandering Ken Doll of a husband (Armie Hammer). Susan is jolted from her sterile LA lifestyle when she receives a manuscript for a novel from her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads through the draft (also titled "Nocturnal Animals"), she traces the connections between it and her relationship with Tony, which ended under less than pleasant circumstances. 

What transpires is, on paper, a compelling slice of modern noir punctuated with heavy doses of a grimy Texas-set revenge thriller. Working with many of the same technical collaborators from A Single Man, Ford has crafted another luxurious cinematic experience, ranging from the aforementioned music to the chameleonic photography (and of course, the clothes). It looks the part, sounds the part, and even adds a few new tricks to Ford's directorial skill set. The dramatization of Tony's novel (in which Susan imagines Tony in the lead role) kicks off with a terrifically staged car chase on an empty West Texas road, and builds to a chilling climax. 

But what's missing from Nocturnal Animals is the psychological acuity that gave such weight to A Single Man. There's a lot of external activity on screen, but precious little of it gets beyond the surface of the beautiful faces on screen. What transpires often enthralls in the moment, but dissipates soon after. You'll likely find yourself wanting to be investing in these people, but Nocturnal Animals too often refuses to even meet you halfway.

Credit then, belongs to the actors for filling out these roles as best they can. Adams, coming off Arrival, turns in another quiet, introspective performance. But while Arrival allowed the actress room to take her character on a journey, Nocturnal Animals too often relegates her to the same position as the audience: a watcher. She is pushed to the margins, and spends more time staring out of windows and taking off her (admittedly killer) reading glasses than she does contributing to the story. 

Gyllenhaal, though occasionally pushed to go over the top, is also effective in both of his grief stricken forms, while Michael Shannon nearly steals the show as a sickly sheriff in Tony's novel. Taylor-Johnson is suitably menacing, though eventually his backwoods terrorizer schtick becomes repetitive. Actors like Hammer, Andrea Riseborough, and Michael Sheen do what they can with limited time, while Laura Linney makes the most of her 1 scene cameo as Susan's imperious mother.

Just about everything in Nocturnal Animals is at least watchable, and for large stretches it's perfectly engaging. But while the narrative's structural divisions are admirable, their proportions are all off. So much time is spent bringing Tony's novel to life that Susan's current existence and her past life with Tony feel like add-ons struggling to justify themselves. And yet, if you were to cut them out, Tony's novel on its own wouldn't be enough to justify a full film. Ford spends so much time figuring out how to cobble the story together that he seems to have neglected to make even the faintest point out of everything. For all of its beauty, it's the ugly imperfections that linger longest. Nocturnal Animals pretends to get its hands dirty, but upon closer inspection, there's never a speck of dust under its immaculately manicured fingernails. 

Grade: B-

Review: "Things to Come"

Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Runtime: 101 minutes

A deceptive mundanity permeates Things to Come, the latest feature from France's Mia Hansen-Love. The central character, philosophy teacher Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), undergoes a series of disruptions to her everyday life, yet Hansen-Love refuses to portray any of them as end-of-world scenarios. Though it takes place over considerably less time, Things to Come in some ways recalls Boyhood. It's not entirely a shock; like Richard Linklater, Hansen-Love is fixated on people's various relationships with time, ranging from major life events to the connective tissue that fills up everything else. Yet from the mundanity of Things to Come emerges a whisper of transcendence. The ordinary is not inflated to become something greater than it is. Instead, it's handled with a mix of sensitivity and level-headedness that leads to something warm and wise.

Like Elle, another striking vehicle for Huppert (an actress continually finding new ways to be excellent), Things to Come technically hinges on a life-altering incident. But then it pulls back and forces its protagonist to cope not by putting all of their energy towards it, but by tending to it while still moving along with all else that adult life entails. Elle, with its violent rape and hints of sadomasochism, takes the darker, naughtier route. Things to Come, meanwhile, moves gently, thought not without purpose. Nathalie's life, turned upside down by her husband's affair, proceeds without too many major detours. She still has lunch with her kids, teaches class, counsels former protege Fabien (Roman Kolinka), and deals with her increasingly senile mother (Edith Scob).

Plenty of films have been made involving middle-aged men and women reinventing themselves, but few do so with the wisdom and lack of sentimentality on display here. Following the sprawling dance music saga Eden, Hansen-Love has scaled back her narrative ambitions, and emerged as a more precise storyteller. For a film composed of scene after scene of what amounts to daily life (with a few diversions), it moves with remarkable assurance and focus. It's not exactly hypnotic, but it's gently compelling in its honesty in a way that makes you want to get lost in it all. You may not share Nathalie's age, socio-economic status, or family set up, but her experiences touch on the universal without coming across as a series of bland boxes to be ticked off.

Then again, it's hard to be too bland when you've centered your movie on Isabelle Huppert. The actress is at her softest and gentlest here (compared with her ice-queen work in films like Elle, The Piano Teacher, White Material, La Ceremonie, etc etc), but she remains as galvanizing a screen presence as ever. The ups and downs of Nathalie's life are charted with the precision of an X-Acto knife, yet there's never a moment of the performance that comes off as overly calculated. Huppert has made a career out of playing characters with whom one can empathize, but not always sympathize. In the case of Nathalie, she has both, and the scenes in which her face, a mask of severity and poise, cracks, are breathtakingly moving.

So, as Nathalie moves from one moment to the next, Hansen-Love (who also wrote the beautiful script) follows her with an easy-going refinement that's all too rare in slice-of-life dramas. Even in the film's darkest moments, Hansen-Love keeps it all thrillingly alive. People bicker, people chat, people discuss philosophy, take care of their ailing parents, and sometimes they chase after their obese house cats...such is life (incidentally, between this and Elle, 2016 has been a fantastic year for those who enjoy Isabelle Huppert sharing the screen with felines). Things to Come manages to have it both ways: it celebrates the chance for reinvention, while still placing it in the context of the vast ocean of experiences and routines that define our every day existence. You don't need to be a philosophy expert to find something worth cherishing.

Grade: A-

Review: "Evolution"

Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Runtime: 78 minutes

Brevity is the soul of wit. Turns out that it also lies at the heart of head-spinning psychological thrillers. At just 78 minutes, Evolution, the second film from French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, accomplishes what similarly themed films struggle to over vastly longer durations. Favoring a steady drip of ambiguous clues over dense plotting and explanation, Hadzihalilovic's first film in over a decade is the cinematic equivalent of a near-perfectly delivered short story that lingers due to the questions left unanswered.

It's not long after we first meet young Nicolas (Max Brebant) that we stumble upon the first of several puzzling, gently unsettling sights. On a morning swim, Nicolas comes across the corpse of a boy his age, with a red starfish fixed around his stomach. Understandably alarmed, he rushes home to his village, a cluster of white buildings isolated along the coastline of black rocks and sand. He informs his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), eventually goes under the water to see for herself. When she resurfaces, she comes holding the red starfish, and tells Nicolas and the other boys in town that there never was a dead body. In the meantime, other families, composed of male children and female adults, mill about by the water. 

Hadzihalilovic, from the outset, displays an extraordinary sense of cinematic time, and proportions her film accordingly. Though Evolution would qualify as slow, its pacing is taut, never dawdling for too long before nudging its story into (and then deep down) the rabbit hole. The routines of the village dwellers, which include the adults feeding an inky black mush to the boys as part of a treatment, are shown enough for us to understand their place in the characters' lives, but not so much that the film leaves us thinking "oh come on, not this again." 

Evolution may be light on plot and character development, but it counters beautifully through its stoic performances, beautiful lighting, and masterful command of mood. Much of what takes place defies easy explanation, but the questions that Hadzihalilovic leaves unanswered come from a place of assured filmmaking. The director has the answers and knows all of the rules, and uses ambiguity to push the viewer, rather than as a cop out. And the actors, though often blank in expression, all commit to the material with chilling directness. Though young Nicolas is the film's lead, the most nuanced turn comes from Stella (The White Ribbon's Roxane Duran), a nurse (or someone dressed as a nurse) at the island's medical facility. Initially just another face overseeing the "cure" of the local boys, Stella's facade cracks in an unexpectedly tender way, throwing a wrench into our perception of what the hell is going on.

There's a razor thin line between compelling ambiguity and head-scratching emptiness, and Hadzihalilovic never falters. Her story has literal and symbolic implications, with issues of gender dynamics, societal manipulation, and bodily autonomy all intersecting over the course of Nicolas' journey (not unlike 2014's Under the Skin). It's a muted mix of abstract sci-fi thrills and low-key body horror with a less-is-more approach only amplifies its deeply unnerving psychological impact the longer it swims around in your head.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: "Elle"

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Runtime: 131 minutes

It's not every day you see a movie that opens with rape and then, mere minutes later, prods you to laugh uncomfortably. Assault and rape are tricky to tackle in a visual medium, given the thin line that separates honest discomfort and repugnant exploitation (look no further than high end cable dramas like Game of Thrones and Outlander). Leave it to Paul Verhoeven, then, to craft a psychological thriller/black comedy like Elle that occupies the elusive intersection of melodramatic noir thrills and pop-psychology. 

Which is not to say that this is the first time Verhoeven has waded into these waters. This is, after all, the same man who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls. It's been a decade since Verhoeven's last film (the Dutch drama Black Book), and above all else, he remains an effective provocateur. Yet in Elle, adapted from French novelist Philippe Djian's "....Oh," Verhoeven reveals that he's moved on from hollow shock value. His new film is a silky smooth, Hitchcockian exercise buoyed by a sharp script and a mesmerizing lead performance.

Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke provide a sufficiently intricate framework, but the real heavy lifting comes down to the actress who plays Michele, the story's protagonist. In the hands of French actress Isabelle Huppert, it all looks astonishingly effortless. That sort of acting prowess is necessary given the psychological hoops Michele jumps through over the course of the film's two hours. So many (too many) similar female characters have been confined to victimhood in the aftermath of a rape, and Michele is a wonderfully complex corrective. Rather than wilt, Michele does her best to go about her usual routine. So much so, that you'd be forgiven for wondering if the incident had phased her at all.

Verhoeven plays the long game with Elle, and though it can sometimes be a bit bewildering, the approach helps the film standout and surprise. The evolution of Michele's "relationship" with her masked assailant is given as much screen time as her affair with her friend's husband, her garish mother, and the various oddballs and jackasses at her video game company. The revelation of Michele's childhood trauma further throws a wrench into how everything fits together.

Elle has a lot of pieces in its puzzle, but Verhoeven and Birke keep the story flowing along smoothly. At times, certain scenes beg the question "ok, why are we here/where is this going?" Ultimately, the mundanity of some of the narrative works in the film's favor. In giving so much focus to the regular aspects of Michele's life, Elle is able to smoothly compartmentalize its story the way its protagonist does. The story presents dozens of opportunities for Birke's screenplay to take the mawkish, "oh why me?" route with Michele's journey, yet the writer sidesteps them all.

The biting sense of humor is an equally valuable component of Elle's success. Rather than cheapen the gravity of Michele's trauma, the stabs of comedy elevate the film into a richer, more nuanced exploration. The blend of tones reaches its apex in a fantastic dinner party scene, where humor and tragedy collide in subtly breathtaking ways. It's all a high wire act that would fall apart in the hands of a less daring performer. 

Yet even those who know Huppert's work might be taken aback by the way the actress' fearlessness manifests in this performance. In films like Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Huppert demonstrated her prowess through fiercely contained bursts of emotion. Elle, though no less complex, doesn't boast the shame type of obvious expressiveness. But just when it seems like the actress might be coasting, she throws out some little jab of black humor or murky despair that brings the whole balancing act into focus. 

The performance is so strong and so consistently intriguing that it would be easy to dismiss the behind the scenes contributions. First and foremost is Verhoeven's elegant direction, which toes the line between high end psychological drama and paperback thriller. The faded, fall-into-winter color palette works well by casting even the most innocent moments in a murky mood. Anne Dudley's melodramatic score is a standout as well, lending scenes the right touch of menace and mystery without becoming intrusive. Despite the heavy nods to cinematic styles of the past, Verhoeven's stamp on Elle ensures that it all manages to still come across as forward-thinking. Whatever your thoughts on the director's previous work, he at least deserves credit for finding new ways to tease and provoke.

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: "Arrival"

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 116 minutes

There is a moment in Arrival in which an observation about language caused me to freeze in my seat. If I was shocked, it was due not to some sensational revelation. For a "big moment," it is played with an almost disorienting amount of elegance and reserve. And yet this delicate, seemingly banal line about the nature of languages (or rather, one language in particular) left me in the same state of awe as the climactic passages of 2001, Solaris, or Stalker. It serves not as a copout, but as a mind-warping enrichment of everything that comes before and after.

Adapted from Ted Chiang's acclaimed short story "The Story of Your Life," Arrival's set up is hardly novel. Aliens land, and it's up to us to figure out what they want (and, in the worst case scenario, to fight back). So it's all the more astonishing that, Arrival has been allowed to exist in its present form. As written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), Arrival represents the most extreme opposite of bellicose blockbusters like War of the Worlds or Independence Day. Though the special effects are impressive, they pale in comparison to what is achieved through the enigmatic storytelling, and the haunting lead performance from Amy Adams.

Adams plays Louise Banks, an expert linguist called upon to help the US government following a global incident. 12 UFO's, which look like elongated obsidian eggs, have touched down across the globe, including one in America's backyard, Montana. At the forceful request of Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), she is rushed out to US-bound spacecraft, and paired with theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the aliens' intentions. 

Global tensions, understandably, run high, and yet the plot's trajectory never fails to subvert expectations. The linguistics conversations are not an entryway to a standard thriller plot, but rather the launchpad for a richer tale of time, memory, and communication. Deciphering a language, much like editing a book, is not a process that lends itself to screen-drama. And yet, somehow, Heisserer's screenplay often does what so many others struggle to accomplish. The writing is devoted to explaining various connections and theories, but never allows them to grind the narrative to a halt. 

And even when the dialogue becomes purely expository, it is gracefully complimented by Villeneuve's overall grasp on the material. Since making the leap from Quebec, the Canadian helmer has become a first rate director of the sort of mid-budget, adult-targeted dramas that are so hard to come by in Hollywood. With each new project, Villeneuve moves to different genres and settings, yet maintains a devotion to keeping his stories grounded in the authentic. Arrival has far loftier intentions than Villeneuve's previous work, and it works because of, not in spite of, its fantastical elements.

With so much emphasis on ideas and plot trickery, one might understandably fear that the human element of something like Arrival would be an inconvenience. But what ultimately gives Arrival its tremendous impact comes down to its refusal to separate the emotional and cerebral components. The eventual intersection of the large and small scale conflicts, which could have so easily derailed the film, builds to an ingenious series of developments that drastically alter the stakes, but in the most unexpected ways.

Louise is at the center of all of Arrival's plot threads and themes, and Adams is nothing short of stunning in the role. Much like Emily Blunt's protagonist in Sicario, Louise is often quite withdrawn. She is a reactor, not an actor, but that doesn't make her a blank slate. For all of her guardedness, Adams is still tremendously expressive throughout. The movements of her face and eyes appear to hold several lifetimes worth of emotion. Louise is out of her depth, yet somehow has all of the answers. She has moments of understanding, yet can't figure out how she got from point A to point B to begin with. Despite playing the put-upon hero of sorts, Adams delivers the antithesis of a star performance; her work is defined by introspection and nuance.

Renner and Whitaker are reliable, though of the humans it all comes down to Adams. The Heptapods (our name for the aliens) are appropriately enigmatic, as if the monolith from 2001 sprouted legs and communicated through inky hieroglyphs. Tech credits are excellent across the board, with the score and editing standing out in particular. 

Yet even with the Heptapods and their spaceship, the images (photographed by the outstanding Bradford Young) that seem to linger most in Arrival are among the simplest. A shot of an empty house, two people embracing, Louise's eyes lighting up as she connects the latest series of dots. Or, in one case, the way the camera holds on Adam's exhausted, solemn expression as the spaceship sits in the background, obscured and out of focus. The utter stillness of the moment crystallizes everything that's beautiful about Arrival. Here is a science-fiction story defined not by promises of effects-driven chaos, but by a paradoxical mix of melancholy and hope in the face of the great infinite beyond. 

Grade: A

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: "Loving"

Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 123 minutes

Despite building towards a Supreme Court decision, it would be a mistake to label Loving as any sort of courtroom drama. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, and this year's Midnight Special) has taken a slice of history and made it less dramatic. There are no long, tearful speeches or impassioned arguments about right and wrong. But the film is called Loving, not Loving v. Virginia, and Nichols avoids the legal aspects for as long as possible. Nichols opens his film with Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) sitting together on a porch. In the moment of stillness, there are no worries of racial injustice or threats to their safety. It's just two people who love each other and want to lead ordinary lives. 

Extra emphasis should be placed on the word ordinary, as Nichols deftly avoids turning his leads into simple martyrs. Loving is a love story, but it's one where the central couple is already deeply in love at the start. If only those around them would just leave them be. Yet even with run ins with the local sheriff (Marton Csokas), Richard and Mildred's scenario is consistently handled with sensitivity and a bit of distance. In between legal troubles (the couple's county of residence forbid interracial marriages), they race cars, go to family gatherings, and work on the local farmland. Were it not for the pesky law, the Lovings would be in their own Eden.

Though the message seems simple (Lovings good, racist law bad), Nichols and his actors do a beautiful job of conveying the Lovings' struggle without becoming redundant. The performances from both Edgerton (a native of Australia) and Negga (of Irish/Ethiopian descent) are so quiet, yet they positively radiate with warmth and tenderness. Early on, Richard takes Mildred to an empty parcel of land. Mildred questions her husband with neutral curiosity as to why he's brought her to such a place. And then he tells her that this is where he plans to build them a house. Mildred hesitates, her eyes flicker, and she looks around again, as if she's suddenly been transported. The moment, like many others, is so simple, so gorgeously evocative of the love between husband and wife.

Whether experiencing a moment of triumph or a setback, Edgerton and Negga keep their performances 90% internalized, and to watch react with such modesty is a thing of beauty. Edgerton, keeps his head down through much of the film, which makes his few displays of distress that much more haunting. When he drunkenly whispers "I can protect you...I can protect you," it comes loaded with the weight of a lifetime of frustration. While Edgerton deflects, Negga does the opposite. She holds herself up as best as she can, never a damsel in need of man's rescue. To look into her silent moviestar eyes is find yourself bombarded with wave after wave of emotion. The body language of the actors is an integral part of their performances, rather than a show-offy crutch to fall back on ("wow, he put so much effort into slouching!").

Despite the loveliness of Richard and Mildred's scenes together, the time does come for the legal portion of the story to intervene, and Nichols integrates it all seamlessly. We are shown as little as possible, and no scene is devoted to dense legal strategizing. A few meetings with the lawyers are all Loving has time for, and next thing you know it's time for opening statements at the Supreme Court. All the while the Lovings move around, have kids, and do their best to carry on as if nothing was wrong. Tales of social justice and civil rights are often exercises of fiery passion. Loving opts for nothing more than humility over the course of its stately two hours, but that certainly didn't stop it from making my eyes well up at the simplest of gestures. The Lovings' ordinariness is a wonder all on its own.

Grade: B+/A-

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review: "Christine"

Director: Antonio Campos
Runtime: 115 minutes

My apologies to Stephen King, but the name 'Christine' belongs to Antonio Campos now. Or at least, it initially belongs to Mr. Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich, as they dramatize the downward spiral that led Christine Chubbuck to shoot herself on live television. But move beyond the architecture of Christine, and the same belongs, appropriately, not to Mr. King, Mr. Campos, or any man at all. Instead, it finds note-perfect ownership in British actress Rebecca Hall, who sits at the center of this compelling character study built around her towering performance.

I've been a fan of Hall's work ever since her first breakthrough, as a love interest for Christian Bale in the thriller The Prestige. Amid starry names like Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johansson, Hall managed to make her mark in what could have been a throwaway role. Since then, she has largely stuck to smaller fare (including the lovely Please Give, in which she's excellent), never quite forcing her way into the conscience of the American movie-going public. Hopefully Christine, arriving 10 years after The Prestige, changes that.

Chubbuck's story is an easy one to mine for cheap tragic theatrics, but Christine makes the wise decision to dramatize the reporter's life, rather than attempt to recreate it. That leaves Campos, Shilowich, and Hall tremendous room to mine what we know of Chubbuck's life for an absorbing look inside a complex woman who is defined by more than her tragic end. Gangly and stilted, Hall's Chubbuck is not the warm, easy-going type. A perfectionist to a fault, she clashes regularly with her station manager (Tracy Letts) at the local Sarasota news station, never letting up even when she should take a hint and back off. When we first see her, she's practicing for an imaginary interview with President Nixon, and asking a co-worker (Maria Dizzia) if she nods her head "too sympathetically."

Amid the shifting landscape of TV news, Chubbuck struggles most with the knotty dilemma of how we present ourselves to each other, and how we feel others perceive us. Though Shilowich's screenplay is sporadically on-the-nose, it largely provides a gripping series of obstacles that push Christine to her breaking point. Such a straight forward march toward death may sound like a grim slog, but Shilowich finds moments of awkward humor that keep the film from drowning in depressive moods. A perky, bubbling score contributes to the flashes of levity as well, without becoming distracting or overbearing.

Yet even if Christine were a tonally one-note exercise in misery, it would still be worth it thanks to Hall. With her rigid posture and grating voice, Chubbuck isn't an easy protagonist to latch onto, but Hall is transfixing throughout. Lesser films and performances would be all about the look and the voice, but Christine pushes right past that, and subtly digs into the underlying mental health issues that eventually took hold. Whether fighting with her hippie mother (J. Cameron Smith) or trying to pitch a news story, Chubbuck is a hard presence to ignore. Hall's unwavering stare, coupled with her unsteady mask of a face, keeps up an icy front while allowing bottled up emotions to flood out. It's immensely subtle, yet still hauntingly expressive.

Only at the story's end do the limitations of the script become apparent, although not to the point of undoing the film's accomplishments. This is a performance vehicle through and through, with the larger issues of mental health, self doubt, and workplace sexism only marginally explored as they suit the story's needs. There's also the matter of the film's final 10 minutes or so, which end Christine on a puzzling note. Rather than conclude with either solemn remembrance or bitter irony, Christine's ending takes a stab at, well, I'm not quite sure. There's a "point" in there somewhere about the role of TV and entertainment and news, but it never really lands. It's a bizarre pivot for a film that seemed to understand its limitations. You had me at Rebecca Hall giving the best performance of need to push for more.

Grade: B

Review: "The Handmaiden"

Director: Park Chan-wook
Runtime: 142 minutes

Is it really a "return to form" if you never really tumbled from grace to being with? That was the question that lingered in my head as I realized that I was starting to fall for The Handmaiden, the latest opulent melodrama from South Korea's Park Chan-wook. The director's last film, Stoker, was a rare English-debut that was, to me at least, a success despite a few wobbles. That film received mixed reviews, with some questioning if Park to lose his edge. Now, three years later, the director is back with a roaring statement that he's still a force to be reckoned with. Most surprisingly, he accomplishes this not by doubling down on his tendency towards sensationalized violence, but by turning his attention an an intricate web of double and triple crosses.

Adapted from Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, Park transplants the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, putting himself back on his home turf. Not that he needed to, seeing as his highly stylized directing is as forceful and confident as ever. Like an immense German cuckoo clock, The Handmaiden is full of little pieces that are exhilarating in their intricate connections to each other.

In the straightforward opening, a young maid named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) arrives at a lavish manor for a reclusive noblewoman and her powerful uncle. But just as Sook-hee gets settled for her first night in service of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Park pulls the rug out from under us. Sook-hee is not just a maid, but a trained con-artist. Handpicked by fellow con Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), Sook-hee sets out to push Lady Hideko into sham marriage to secure a share of her immense fortune (the majority of which will go to the Count).

If the 10 minute mark of a 142 minute movie seems too soon to break out the big story-telling moves, fear not. Park hasn't gotten impatient to played his hand too soon. He's just laid one of many traps that will steadily contort the narrative in ways that even the most accomplished Cirque du Soleil troop wouldn't attempt. 

This dedication to such dense plotting is a big part of what makes The Handmaiden such a thrilling success. Melodrama, in which plot takes precedence over emotion, is sometimes thought of as being lesser. Drama takes the form of Ibsen plays and Philip Roth novels, and melodrama manifests as what we sometimes refer to as "airport novels." Lots of plot, lots of twists, but perhaps lacking in authenticity. But, like Gone Girl (and many of Park's own movies), The Handmaiden makes an emphatic case for dropping the pretense of introspective drama, and just telling a labyrinthine yarn. Right on, man.

And despite plot being of greater importance than character development, Park remains adept at drawing engaging performances from his actors. Most enjoyable, perhaps becuase of the layers of deception at hand, is Kim Min-hee's work as Lady Hideko. Initially cast as a sheltered woman-child defined solely by her naiveté, she eventually takes hold of the film's most thrilling sequence of narrative reversals and switchbacks. 

Every bit as compelling is Park's attention to the world his colorful characters romp around in. Regardless of your feelings about his filmography, it's hard to deny that he's an aesthetic magician. Sets and costumes are all sumptuous, and Chung Chung-hoon's restless, prowling camera drinks up every square inch of Hideko's mansion, a beguiling fusion of English and East Asian architecture. Like Hideko's mansion, everything in The Handmaiden is expertly designed to pull you in and take you just up to the point of being scandalized, without ever fully crossing the line into exploitation (well, barring a few scenes). Guided along by Jo Yeong-wook's majestic score, The Handmaiden glides along like the elegant page-turner it originated with. 

To go too much further in depth into the three part structure of The Handmaiden is to spoil it. So, to avoid giving away too much, I'll simply throw out a few choice elements and let your imagination do the rest. Ingredients in The Handmaiden include, but are not limited to: unreliable narrators, mercury, a giant octopus, lesbians, Japanese erotica, and an insane asylum. How do all of those fit together? Discovering that for yourself is all part of the fun. The Handmaiden is the cinematic equivalent of one of the clubs recommended by Bill Hader's Stefon character. "This place has everything!" And then some.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: "Moonlight"

Director: Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 110 minutes

The events that would otherwise consume a standard coming-of-age tale - deaths, brushes with the law, drug addiction - all happen off screen in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. Jenkins' adaptation of Terrell McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" is narratively uneventful on the surface. And yet, for all of the radical events and cultural shifts that happen offscreen or in the background, what's most arresting is the apparent simplicity of the three-act story. Like its central character, Moonlight often hesitates to speak, yet the roiling emotions under the surface nevertheless make themselves known and beautifully felt.

Set over three defining periods in the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes), Moonlight uses its intimate specificity to construct a mesmerizingly textured essay on identity, masculinity, sexuality, and self worth. Chiron's youth is littered with elements that could easily come off as cliche (an abusive mother, bullies, drug dealers, gangs), but are so precisely inserted into the story that they all feel vital to defining who Chiron is and who he'll become. Jenkins refuses to turn up the volume of his story and his protagonist's state of mind. Instead, he acts much like Chiron's father figure Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali), providing gentle guidance without ever intruding.

Chiron's story unfolds over such a short period of time (each section comprises only a few days), yet it registers deeply. It is both a slice of life, and an intimately epic portrait of young adulthood and hidden desires. Though its setting (not to mention ethnic makeup) could not be more different, Moonlight in many ways resembles last year's Carol. It is a film of stolen glances, barely perceptible reactions, and simple gestures that come loaded with volumes of feeling that defy articulation. In the middle section, featuring the one instance of sexual exploration, Jenkins' conveys the confused, heated passion of a first kiss not by jamming the camera in the actors' faces, but by focusing on teenage Chiron's hand clenching the sand underneath it. If at first it seems a bit distant, give it time - the final third has the hushed tension of the best tales of "forbidden" romance.

And despite the similarities shared with Haynes' masterful film, Jenkins' direction puts its own firm stamp on the thematic material. Mixing fluid long takes (the opening shot practically involves the camera making figure eights around the actors) with jumbled, earthy handheld work, cinematographer James Laxton gorgeously captures the Miami setting in all its washed out pastels and pulsing neons. Whether showing the vivid motion of young boys playing, or the solemn stillness of an uncomfortable conversation, Jenkins and Laxtons images are a beautiful mix of post-card prettiness and rapturous mundanity.

The hushed tones of the sound work are equally critical, effortlessly putting us in Chiron's stiflingly introverted headspace. Chiron's seeming lack of place in the world is magnified by the distancing effect of the muted sounds that make their way in from the world at large. The minute sonic details of the real world are, instead, supplanted by a small soundtrack and Nicholas Britell's achingly beautiful string score.

Yet even though there are moments where the stylistic flourishes threaten to overstep, Jenkins keeps his performers front and center, perfectly positioned within his artful abstractions. The three actors who play both Chiron and on/off friend Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/The Knick's Andre Holland) are all wondrous in their own ways. But while the youngest actors often play second fiddle to the adults like Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris), Juan, and Theresa (singer Janelle Monae), their development never loses focus. In truth, they are a bit blank, in the way young kids are; they're still waiting to discover themselves while being shaped by those around them.

Moonlight is, in many ways, open-ended, yet it's also a masterclass of how to fragment a narrative and have each section perfectly build on what preceded it. It's not a fast process, but as boyhood becomes adolescence, and adolescence becomes manhood, the characters only become richer. When Chiron and Kevin reunite as adults in a Miami diner, Jenkins' film reaches full bloom, and it's magnificent to watch. Rhodes and Holland are spectacular together, and I wouldn't have minded watching their segment continue on for another two hours. But just as soon as Moonlight reaches another moment of dramatic intensity, he lets it slip back into the steady flow of time. In watching these characters transform, we see how they evolve as people, with entire lives stretching out both behind them and off into the distant future. I can only thank Mr. Jenkins and his actors for allowing me to have even a few disparate chapters of their stories.

Grade: A

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: "The Innocents"

Director: Anne Fontaine
Runtime: 115 minutes

Regardless of a story's basis in reality, a film still has a duty to make sure "real events" stand on their own. All too often, films that proudly proclaim that they're "based on actual/true events" use reality as a crutch. They live solely on their connection to reality, often forgoing legitimate drama. This is most often the case when it comes to biopics, particularly those that chart a notable figure from cradle to grave. "All of this stuff happened, isn't that something?" Well, sure it is, but how that stuff gets presented still matters. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but that doesn't mean it's automatically more compelling.  

For an example of "based on true events" filmmaking done right, one need look no further than Anne Fontaine's exquisite The Innocents. First released in the US in the spring, the film is finally available to rent, own, or stream. Be warned, however. Watching this one on a laptop or TV (even a big one) will have you kicking yourself for missing out on seeing it in a theater.

Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, The Innocents opens with a group of Polish nuns singing hymns. Despite the ravages of war, the nuns' rituals open the story in a moment of prayerful serenity. Everything is business as usual...almost. A far off scream punctures the atmosphere, at least for one member of the faithful, and she scurries away to a different part of the monastery. Turns out, one of her fellow Brides of Christ is in labor. Not long after, the monastery enlists the help of Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French doctor stationed in town, who soon discovers that the situation extends beyond this one incident.

The story presents plenty of opportunities for one-sided lecturing, but Fontaine avoids the temptation at every turn. Rather than set up science vs. faith debates, the screenplay forgoes contrived clashes and allows characters to reveal their ideologies with mesmerizing restraint. Some of the justifications for the nuns' actions and beliefs may seem absurd, but Fontaine refuses to condescend. Mathilde, thanks to de Laage's lovely performance, is there to help, even when that means acquiescing to the sisters' faith or making compromises with it. 

Faith-based films tend to fall into two categories: simplistic endorsements of religion, and scathing indictments. The Innocents, however, finds a beautiful middle ground, similar to the way last year's Spotlight did. It points out hypocrisies, and subtly challenges them, but never tries to show off. Faith matters to many of the women on screen, so it matters to the film as a whole. Despite the presence of some standard-issue Catholic guilt, the film is filled with surprising nuance. 

This is echoed in everything from the performances, which are uniformly excellent without pulling focus from the larger storytelling concerns. Mathilde could have easily been pushed front and center as a traditional hero, but Fontaine keeps the story's perspective community-oriented. The French doctor is integral, but she can leave the screen for significant periods of time without leaving the film adrift. Some of the nuns aren't terribly complex, defined more by their situation than their personality, but the handful Fontaine zeroes in on are magnetic to watch. Agata Kulesza's (the alcoholic aunt in the Oscar-winning Ida) stern mother superior is a brilliant combination of conflicted faith and self-aggrandizing martyrdom. Her subordinate, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), led a previous life as party girl with several lovers. Whether sharing a scene or operating separately, these two characters are masterfully composed studies in subtle contrasts. Buzek, in particular, is a revelation as she peels back the layers of Maria's past and present lives.

And even with such loaded material, Fontaine is able to inject a surprising amount of energy into the narrative without going overboard. The camera often gently moves across and around the actors, adding movement to what could have been a flat, heavy handed experience. Rather than leave all the heavy lifting to the actors, Fontaine does a remarkable job of framing and positioning her actors in the minimalist sets cradled in pale winter light. There are dozens and dozens of shots that have the attention to placement of a Vermeer painting, albeit one with a chillier color scheme. 

Every facet of The Innocents is so thoughtful, and so gorgeously rendered that, by the time the end titles appeared, the fact that this was based on a true story was the least interesting part of the whole enterprise. Rather than let truth get in the way, The Innocents uses factual basis as a springboard to not merely recount a story, but to dramatize it with a haunting beauty that makes it all actually worth telling.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: "Certain Women"

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 107 minutes

A truck runs off of the road. Someone has an affair. A routine legal case escalates into a hostage situation. Characters from disparate stories cross paths. All of these occur in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, yet they're hardly what lingers after an unhurried hour and 45 minutes. Instead, Reichardt, one of American indie cinema's most reliable poets, draws attention to the breaths that take place in between words and actions. The small gestures take center stage, and what Reichardt pieces together, despite starting slow, builds to a series of gently moving conclusions. 

Arriving two years after the more accessible eco-terrorist thriller Night Moves, Reichardt is back in more familiar territory with her latest. Adapted from the short stories of author Maile Meloy, Certain Women elegantly weaves together the lives of three different women, and those around them, as they do their best to stake their claim in the world.

Despite the vast emptiness of Montana setting, there are any number of obstacles, most of them in some way intangible. For Laura Wells (Laura Dern), it means dealing with men who either won't listen to her, or who only enter her life when they need to use her. Laura's client (Mad Men's Jared Harris) refuses to take her legal advice until he hears it from a male colleague, while the man in her life (James LeGros) only needs her as an escape from the tensions in his marriage. Elsewhere in the Treasure State, Gina (Michelle Williams) scouts for raw materials for a home she hopes to build. And lastly, Native American rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone) strikes up a friendship (and possibly more) with a night school teacher (Kristen Stewart).

So much of what happens in Certain Women is mundane, but Reichardt manages to stealthily craft a delicate, sensitive tribute to the ordinariness of her character's lives. Aided by beautiful, rough-hewn visuals, the writer, director, and editor paints an understatedly rugged portrait that hits home in surprising ways. Rather than force an "everyone is connected" overarching narrative, Reichardt is content to merely have her various characters brush shoulders at most. Each little reaction and movement counts, even if it seems inconsequential at first.

Even at their most accessible, Reichardt's stories never move with urgency, and she doubles down on the approach here. But patience is rewarded once the Gladstone/Stewart part of the triptych guides the film into its second half and mini-finales. Carol director Todd Haynes is credited as a producer on the film, and that shines through most evidently in the third story. The inciting incident is almost random, but from the moment Stewart wanders into Gladstone's line of sight, an inexplicable sliver of tension slips in. A few conversations later, juxtaposed with Jamie's repetitive duties on the ranch, and the intensity of unrequited affection blossoms into something astoundingly realized. 

The third segment could easily have been its own full feature, yet it never feels shortchanged by being forced to share time with two other stories. Yet by placing the most complete section at the end, Reichardt is able to construct a master arc encompassing three small stories that each have their own starts and finishes. The least developed of the three is Williams' story, which feels more connective and symbolic, but nonetheless is still a worthy addition. Parts 1 and 3 focus on women dealing with situations and emotions they can't completely control, while Williams' Gina is her own boss (and likely the breadwinner of her household). These women are all distinct, yet they're all cut from the same multi-textured cloth.

So much of what drives Certain Women rests on Reichardt and her behind the scenes team, but the women in front of the camera are equally vital. Even though we know precious little about these people, Dern, Williams, Gladstone, and Stewart are all constantly adding shades of depth without interfering with the reserved tone of the film around them. There are deep wells of desire, frustration, and exhaustion coursing through these women, all in ways that feel authentic and lived-in. Even when Reichardt flat out states a Talking Point in dialogue, she does so with elegance and brevity ("...if I were a man, people would listen and say, 'ok.'"). The men aren't too shabby either. LeGros brings gentleness to what could have been a detestable character, and Rene Auberjonois is quietly heartbreaking as an old man sought out by Gina. And, in his final scene, Harris brings unfathomable nuance to his part through only a handful of perfectly chosen words. 

And while Dern, Williams, and Stewart all have the most name value, but it's Gladstone who ends up shining brightest among the women. Her low key kindness seamlessly transitions into deeply felt moments of longing without missing beat. It's star-making turn, only without all of the flashy theatrics that usually come with such a "moment" for a performer. Like the film around her, Gladstone's performance is founded on introspection and empathy. While it may not jump off of the page as traditionally exciting or entertaining, those traits are what make Gladstone's work, and Certain Women as a whole, such a tender triumph. And all without a single car crash or shootout in sight.

Grade: A-

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: "The Girl on the Train"

Director: Tate Taylor
Runtime: 112 minutes

Sometimes book adaptations get the filmmakers they deserve, and sometimes they don't. Unfortunately, for The Girl on the Train, aka Gone Girl: Gaslighting Edition, the film adaptation has fallen into the latter camp. Roughly two years ago, David Fincher's twisty, black-hearted Gone Girl showcased a filmmaker capable of handling (and cinematically elevating) juicy source material. Train director Tate Taylor (The Help), on the other hand, can barely keep up with Hawkins' novel or Erin Cressida Wilson's adaptation. Even an ensemble of reliable actors can't give this one the consistent spark (and malicious allure) it desperately needs.

Chief among the actors trying to hold Taylor's film together is a terrifically committed Emily Blunt, as the story's less-than-reliable narrator. Blunt's Rachel used to have it all, but an ugly divorce has caused her to implode. Now, she's an unemployed alcoholic mess who's only stability in life comes from her commute to and from Manhattan each day. Left alone with her thoughts on the train, she develops an obsession with a seemingly perfect couple (Luke Evans and Hayley Bennett) living in the house next door to her ex-husband and his new wife (Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson). One night, Rachel's evening commute, combined with a convenient blackout after a heavy bout of drinking, ends with her covered in blood, some of which may not be hers. And then Bennett's Megan is reported missing.

Rachel is a fantastically set-up character, and Blunt dives headfirst into the unstable messiness inherent in the role. If only Taylor were more adept at capturing and maintaining control of her performance. Despite the visible effort Blunt exerts, Taylor has a habit of filming his leading lady in ways that threaten to work against the performance. In her moments of black-out drunkness, Blunt looks less like a mentally unstable alcoholic, and more like a woman experience a light bout of demonic possession. These extreme pieces of Rachel's personality are hammered home so clumsily at the outset, that after the first 20 minutes or so, Blunt runs out of nuances to dig up. 

Taylor's odd ability to direct the film on autopilot while still making the proceedings overwrought is fascinating in all the wrong ways, and that applies to the way he handles the rest of his cast. Evans, Theroux, and Edgar Ramirez (as Megan's therapist) are given little to do (even when playing out the fantasies in Rachel's head), while Laura Prepon and Allison Janney are utterly wasted in throwaway roles. Of the three central women, Bennett largely gets by unscathed, seeing as her role is basically just a rehash of Rosamund Pike's flashback scenes in Gone Girl. Also, Lisa Kudrow stops by for two (two and a half?) scenes that - a ha! - wind up being the key turning point of the mystery.

Poor Rebecca Ferguson (and her wig), on the other hand, is completely let down on all fronts. After being such a delight in last summer's Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ferguson is oddly cast as the blindly loyal Emma. And though Ferguson tries her best to make the most of the part, she can't quite overcome the character's near-total uselessness, even during the story's most critical scenes. Ferguson and Blunt wind up as opposing extremes, the former wasting away with nothing to do, while the latter is forced to go full-throttle from the opening scene and never let up.

Below the line credits do little to help create a sustained sense of narrative intrigue. The visuals range from competent to ugly (when in doubt, avoid Dead Leaf Brown for your color scheme), while the great Danny Elfman turns in one of the most mechanical, anonymous scores of his career. There's some minor elegance to the film's jumbling of perspectives and timelines, but there are times when you may groan and wonder why the whole thing couldn't have been assembled more linearly.

Yet even Taylor's clammy grip on the story isn't enough to dilute a few of the film's twists and revelations. By the time Kudrow inadvertently steers the film towards its conclusion, it's hard not to be minimally engaged as the various lies and manipulations finally wash away. But a few nifty shocks and some paper-thin commentary on abusive relationships aren't enough to justify either the overheated opening or the punishingly mundane middle acts. When The Girl on the Train was initially published, it (and the instantly greenlit adaptation) was hyped as the next Gone Girl. But I get the sense that, if either David Fincher or Gillian Flynn see Taylor's film, they won't be losing any sleep.

Grade: C