Blunt Convincingly Boozy in Tedious, Dreary 'Girl on the Train'

Directed by: Tate Taylor; Runtime: 112 minutes
Grade: C-

I admit, Paula Hawkins' novel "The Girl on the Train" didn't really strike my interest until the movie adaptation -- starring the delightful Emily Blunt -- was announced, as it always appeared to be a knock-off of another pulpy domestic thriller released a few years prior: this year's "Gone Girl". While some of those suspicions were affirmed after finally experiencing the twisted tale of Rachel Watson and her self-destructive brush with a missing person's case, it was tough not to revel in its unlikable characters, glimpses at alcoholism, and the flickers of dark humor and melancholy desperation in Rachel's hazy decisions. In book form, The Girl on the Train understands that it shouldn't be an entirely grim affair, diluting its gloomy mixture of substance dependency and domestic abuse with splashes of self-deprecation and shock value. Director Tate Taylor serves all that seriousness straight-up, and aside from Emily Blunt's weatherworn performance as the boozy antiheroine, this wobbly and overly gloomy whodunit doesn't go down very smoothly.

Blunt plays Rachel, a divorced public relations professional who commutes every day on a train to New York, disguising her daily, consistent alcohol consumption with one of those trendy filtered water bottles. While traveling each day, she sneaks a peek through the train window at a pair of houses next door to one another. The first contains a beautiful, storybook couple whom Rachel sees talking, snuggling, even sleeping together. Next door to them, she sees the house she once lived in with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), who has remarried and now has a child with striking blonde Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), yet continues to stay in the same house despite the history. The tenuous balance in their lives gets thrown off the rails when Megan (Hayley Bennett), the girl who lives next door, goes missing, and Rachel holds a key piece of information in her daily observations ... though she's also dealing with her own mystery, given that she woke up that morning with blood-stained clothes and no memory of the night before.

Similar to Hawkins' novel, The Girl on the Train zooms between time periods across roughly six months, focused on flashes of character development that run parallel with the escalation of Megan's disappearance in the current era. It's always tricky to take a book so focused on shifting first-person accounts and achieve the same internalized details on the silver screen, but director Tate Taylor really struggles to get one invested in any of the supporting characters ... not even through Rachel's eyes. Her obsession with both the glorified couple-next-door and with her husband's new life should play a critical role in the rhythm of the story, both in her motivation for getting involved with the case and the cause of her persistent alcoholic tendencies. Instead, her observations from the train come across as hollowed-out distractions that intensify and weaken depending on the day. They're just pretty reflections of Rachel's past life, not the kind of transfixing motivation that would fuel suspicion about what she's capable of doing if she were drunk enough.

Despite that, Rachel's alcoholism does become a significant, albeit simplified and obscured, feature in The Girl on the Train. Emily Blunt's red-faced, rickety performance conveys the attitude of a woman who's lost herself to the numbing properties of the drink, finding a way to make the stunning actress unappealing to passengers and passersby. Nailing down the appearance of being a grim shadow of her character's former self, Blunt gets wrapped up in the brash, capricious nature of Rachel's drunken escapades, erratically stumbling and sloshing along with her depressing existence until she wakes up in the battered state that gets the film's mysterious engines churning. She earns both sympathy and ire as the deliberately unreliable protagonist, whose boozy and damaged state of mind could feasibly be responsible for crossing any number of boundaries, especially once the film emphasizes which ones she's already stumbled over in the past.

The Girl on the Train uses Rachel's alcoholism to build curiosity over the ominous period she can't remember and how it fits into the evolving disappearance case, and there's an inherent pulpiness to the thrills over what she'll do next to figure it out. Alas, there's a dire lack of suspense involving the fate of Megan and the ineffective red herrings diverting one's attention from what really happened, and director Tate Taylor cannot elevate the dime-store melodrama into whatever kind of meaningful depiction of addiction or abuse that might make someone overlook the flatlined intrigue. Masculine intimidation, mental instability, and domestic protectiveness are all present and should meddle with one's suspicions, but the execution lacks passion and purpose beyond the story's deliberate concealment of the truth. These are token, stereotypical entities surrounding Rachel, merely serving the deflective functions expected of them for a quasi-Hitchcockian buildup.

The destination doesn't justify the ride, either. By way of vexing flashbacks and a convoluted slow-feed of details about what Rachel really encountered that evening, The Girl on the Train arrives at a big reveal of Megan's fate that uncorks its many conflicts -- overbearing husbands, promiscuity, alcoholic black-outs -- in a grandiose twist that's equally preposterous and tepidly anticlimactic. That, however, comes with the territory of Paula Hawkins' novel, since little was changed in its execution; aside from the unnecessary shift in location to New York and additional touches of exposition that fill in the gaps left by the absence of first-person narration, it's a fairly direct adaptation. Thing is, Tate Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson have distilled The Girl on the Train to its most churlish and leaden state, resulting in one of those functional but unpleasant trips through the familiar sights of the thriller genre that can't arrive at its stop soon enough.

Film review also appeared over at [Click Here]

'The Shallows' A Tense, Methodical Shark-Attack Thriller

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra; Runtime: 86 minutes
Grade: B

Aquatic creature features like to flaunt the dangers looming in the depths of the oceans, adding mystery and ominous possibilities to the endless, dark expanses under the water's surface. As one can tell by the film's title, The Shallows takes a different approach. Instead, it brings the presence of cinema's favorite seafaring man-eaters into the low levels of a Mexican inlet populated with gnarly rocks, coral formations, and, more importantly, a clear view of it all from the shore. Mixing the shallow-water setting with a genuinely emotional back-story for the film's heroine, director Jaume Collet-Serra swirls the recognizable traits of dorsal-fin suspense into a potent, conscientious tale of survival. The harshness of the elements, the stalking of a predator, and a grieving surfer-girl's determination to endure and paddle her way to safety culminates into an overstated, yet inventive and exhilarating rejuvenation of the subgenre, propelled by Blake Lively's embodiment of a drained yet resolute foe for a territorial and hungry shark.

On vacation from Texas, medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) has long thought about the moment when she'd discover the beauty of a "secret beach" in Mexico that her mother once enjoyed. In the midst of a life crisis and a mourning period, she's grabbed her surfboard and headed to find it, eventually landing on this secluded and breathtaking lagoon. While soaking in the sights and getting swept up in the experience, Nancy encounters a shark while out surfing by herself in the water, leaving her severely injured and stranded on a rock formation among the shallow waters. With the large beast circling around, she must figure out a way to get to the shore -- which, in a perfect world, is a short swim and a shorter paddle away -- or until she's rescued by the locals, counting down the minutes and nursing her wounds until then.

Before stranding Nancy out on these rocks, The Shallows takes its time in setting up the young surfer's traits, her motivations and mental space upon arrival at this "secret beach" in Mexico (actually shot in Australia). Staggeringly beautiful, at-times intense photography of the isolated paradise from cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano captures her travels to the locations and her killer surfing abilities once she's suited up and paddling out. High, wide shots of the lagoon and vigorous plunges underneath the crisp blue water cleverly establish the geography of the area, while the music kicking off every time the perspective dips under the surface is a sublime touch. Underneath the purely engulfing photography, a conscientious and solemn portrait of Nancy's stalled medical career and reflection upon her mother comes to the surface, which also works as a diligent, relatively deep justification for the cavalier decisions that ultimately get her in trouble. By the time she's fighting for her life, it's easy to get -- and appreciate -- her mental state, why she's there and how she might be better equipped to handle the scenario.

Because of this, The Shallows also doesn't rush into the crimson bloodshed and visceral tension of shark attacks, instead properly setting up the intensity to come within the secluded environment, along with the rationale behind why the predator has entered the low waters in the first place. Even after Nancy's initial brush with the shark -- a tense and unsettling display that twists the film's visual beauty into something beautifully darker -- the film keeps its composure while letting the realities sink in of her bout to survive on the rocks, concentrating on subtle mood-builders involving blood loss, tide levels, and her almost tauntingly close proximity to freedom. Blake Lively handles the panic-stricken attitude of such a trapped, injured individual exceptionally well, a frightened and incrementally weakening performance that's counterbalanced by her character's sharp thinking, limited tools, and kinship with a persnickety seagull. With Nancy trapped on a small craggy patch with both salvation and dorsal fins in her progressively blurring sight, the tension literally closes in and elevates around the surfer's limited surroundings, relishing every inch.

Nancy's working against the clock, though, and that's also a countdown to the meaty thriller elements of The Shallows: the anticipated clashes with this large, intimidating predator of the sea. The line between natural shark encounters and intimidating entertainment gets stretched in the scenario, giving this hunter a degree of determination and rivalry more akin to the genetically-engineered mako sharks in Deep Blue Sea or the vendetta-driven great white in the later Jaws films, with its mammoth body circling the tiny rocks night and day in anticipation of the human prey it believes to be upon them. Matched with the vigorous but unnatural visual effects orchestrated by director Jaume Collet-Serra, the large shark's villainy demands a bit more forgiveness in the credibility department than the events that came before all this calculated hostility. While this makes for a hair-raising villain, a voracious elevated-reality version of one of the ocean's "monsters", it also undercuts the relatively realistic misfortune -- and honest character motivations -- that stranded Nancy out there in the first place.

The tactics that Nancy attempts while escaping the situation lead to a rousing, albeit hard-to-believe culmination of twists and turns in The Shallows, cleverly recalling the film's early world-building in her victories and challenges. Working from a script that appeared on 2014's "Blacklist" of impressive unmade movies, director Jaume Collet-Serra strips contrivances down to the bare necessities, ensuring that most of the unavoidable ones he's included also propel the heroic qualities of the young surfer. Careful use of gore and brutal off-screen attacks quicken the pulse while pushing the boundaries of the film's PG-13 rating, all smartly contained around Nancy so that each elevation in her trauma and each bright idea mustered in her desperation result in progressively intense, gratifying thrills. The Shallows ebbs and flows when it comes to realism, but ultimately the film stays afloat by clutching onto both the unforgiving style and soulful substance of the surfer's troubles in paradise, while never losing sight on how the distinctive setting sets it apart from other shark-attack thrillers.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

Two Decades Later, 'Once Were Warriors' Still a Powerhouse

Directed by: Lee Tamahori; Runtime: 102 minutes
Grade: A

Glimpsing into the workings of another culture through cinematic storytelling can be rewarding on its own, but those kinds of films hold even more power when they tie together and reflect upon widespread, relatable social concerns. Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors offers such a look at New Zealand's indigenous Maori tribe and their perseverance in the modern era, highlighting how different descendants interpret -- or eschew -- their heritage. This cultural perception works as a filter, though, the added context behind a moving and harrowing glimpse at raising children amid alcohol dependence, poverty, and violent control over women. The events that transpire in Once Were Warriors aren't easy to stomach, yet the fraught, magnetic performances and the ways in which Tamahori binds those social issues to the tribal lineage makes for an effortlessly compelling and unforgettable portrait, one that justifies its zealous drama with poetic messages about one's roots.

After leaving their small Maori town and marrying young amid much disapproval, Beth Heke (Rena Owen) and her husband, the brutish Jake the Muss (Temuera Morrison), live in a ramshackle house with their five children close to a New Zealand city. Jake struggles to hold down jobs, leaving him on government welfare ... and, gauging by his daily drinking and partying, seems perfectly content to continue doing so. Beth cleans for some extra money, but mostly she sticks around the house and cares for her husband and children, while also sporadically joining in with the boozy, singing lifestyle Jake brings home. Their children run the gamut: the two boys are rapidly approaching the realm of being full-on criminals, one, Nig (Julian Arahanga) who's close to joining a gang and another, Boogie (Taungaroa Emile), who has an approaching court date for minor felonies; the daughter, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), on the other hand, has a gentle, poetic soul who helps clean up the house and care for the other two, much younger siblings. Disdain runs through them all for Jake the Muss, whose volatile attitude goes on the upswing shortly after losing his most recent job.

Lurking in the corners of the city and within Jake's regular bar, Once Were Warriors locates the descendants of the Maori people scattered around the poor sections of the unidentified New Zealand town, depicting the clash of tribal and urban ways of life as a tattered, tattooed, rough-and-tumble existence burdened by criminal activity. Alan Duff, the author of the eponymous book that the film's based upon, drew from his own experiences while conceiving the story, and that honesty and rawness comes through in the film's depiction of the social, economic, and philosophical challenges encountered by the indigenous people. By way of unflinching, sepia-leaning photography and a mix of jazzy local tunes and a soulful guitar-oriented rhythm from composers Murray Grindlay and Murray McNabb, Once Were Warriors pours those issues into the cramped Heke household, where sing-a-longs and laughter convey effortless camaraderie as the beer bottles pile up and the children listen in on the fleeting merriment from upstairs, awaiting the inevitable change in mood and the mess they leave afterwards.

The years have taken a toll on the relationship between Beth and Jake, yet there's still passion and love there, making Beth's tolerance of her husband's behavior all the more heartbreaking. Sporting a few tattoos -- less than those of the local Maori gang members, mind you -- and a thick, intimidating frame, Jake the Muss is a force of nature who does little to control his dominant tendencies, largely because of the praise he receives from his buddies while doing so. It's the kind of respect one can imagine a burly warrior receiving at essentially any other time and place throughout history, though his love of guzzling beer and conquering foes clashes with the domestic life he should be tending to at home, something he cannot seem to grasp. Instead, he routinely upends his house with loud parties and even louder arguments with Beth whenever she's not accommodating to his needs, or, quite simply, when he's had too much to drink, fueled by Temuera Morrison's bestial body language and wide, piercing eyes.

The viewpoint changes throughout to show how Jake's lifestyle reverberates across the entire Heke family, from the eldest son Nig's involvement with an imposing gang as a sort of surrogate family to the evolution of their gentle daughter, Grace, while surrounded by misogynistic, boozy instability. Amid all this, however, it's tough not to look at Beth as the heroine of Once Were Warriors, the one directly trapped underneath Jake's might whose actions and responses could dictate the future of her children. An absorbing portrait forms around how she navigates between the restrictions of being so poor, the threat of physical abuse from her brute of a husband, and the devotion she has toward holding her family together, commanded by a performance from Rena Owen that beautifully and naturally transforms Beth's trauma into a rediscovery of what those of her bloodline are capable of doing. Her wistful reflections on the past inform her tolerance and frustration with the present, which create a layered outlook on the highs and lows of Beth's maternal capabilities.

Every member of the Heke family embarks on their own journey in Once Were Warriors, forming into equal measures of heartrending tragedy and bittersweet triumph suffocating under the might of their patriarch. Director Tamahori creates an unrestrained perspective on the examples set and the ill-fated atmosphere created by Jake the Muss, then balances it out with the subtle ways in which these descendants of proud Maori people find ways of recapturing the spirit of their origin, enriched by the modern-day application of tribal tattoos, fighting with staves, and primal ceremonial chants. None of this happens easily, though, with the story leading the characters' difficult paths toward a poignant yet devastating conclusion that, in the midst of its saddening layers, also musters the strength of its characters and their ancestry. While specific to New Zealand's indigenous heritage, Once Were Warriors ultimately endures as a daring and universal portrayal of breaking whatever abusive, seemingly hopeless stranglehold life sometimes inflicts upon people.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]