Tuesday, November 29, 2016

[Review] Loving

With acclaimed southern tales like Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a big-time talent in indie cinema. Earlier this year, he continued the streak by shifting slightly with the sci-fi tinged Midnight Special. His latest film, Loving, is a more grounded, based-on-real-events historical drama entailing a supreme court decision on interracial marriage.

Beginning in Virginia 1958 (not that long ago, is it?), the story revolves around Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a kind and reserved couple who are building a house and expecting a child. Their content life is maddeningly interrupted when authorities break up their marriage and throw them in jail. From there, the two fight the legal system just to be together.

Suiting for the spirit of the central characters, Nichols takes a quiet but distressful, understated yet affecting approach. The lead performances from Edgerton and Negga are superb--both displaying impressive sensitivity and gracefulness. As far as their emotions and thoughts, so much is shown strictly through the eyes and facial expressions, and in a film of this nature--that's all that's needed. In a surprising casting choice, oddball comic Nick Kroll takes on the role of a freshman civil rights lawyer, and he does a solid job. In a not so surprising casting choice, Michael Shannon shows up as an earnest, likable magazine reporter (because it wouldn't be a Nichols film without him).

Some sections of the narrative feel more like lulls than story developments, as they mostly work to convey passages of time. But it all eventually builds to something major. Something only rightful. The film's themes of division, injustice, and changing the system still resonate during current times.

Loving. How apt a last name. How apt a title. How necessary a film for today.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, November 28, 2016

[Review] Moana

She's not a princess. She's MOANA.

Disney's latest surefire hit is a dazzling South Pacific adventure that splashes and beams with jubilance. Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) is a wide-eyed independent soul with her heart toward the sea, despite her Chief father's insistence on keeping her rooted at shore. But when an ancient darkness threatens to destroy their island's livelihood, Moana secretly sets out to find a shape-shifting demigod named Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), and the two must sail across the ocean in order to return a mystical relic to a powerful island goddess, in hopes of breaking the curse.

The journey is exciting, dangerous, and memorable, as Moana and Maui encounter Kakamora pirates, cantankerous sea monsters, and a hot-headed lava goddess. It's all so visually gorgeous: The tropically lush, green and mountainous island scenery... The bioluminescent coral reefs... The splendid sparkle of the clear, starry skies... Maui's creatively kinetic tribal tattoos... Then there's the glistening blue ocean--in addition to being wonderfully animated, the endless body of water is also rendered as its own character, serving both as a majestic guide and an ominous and stormy force.

And of course there's a lot of playful humor. A guaranteed fan-favorite is a loopy stowaway rooster named Heihei, who seems to be a distant relative of Becky from this year's Finding Dory. The bickering, head-to-head dynamic between Moana and Maui is quite a treat as well. They roast each other, they bounce off of each other, they learn from each other, and they complain about each other. At one point Maui utters something like, "You're not gonna start singing are you?" ...Which brings me to the film's catchy soundtrack. Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel "Hamilton" Miranda (he's everywhere!) blend traditional Hawaiian melodies with Disney's trademark of ear-wormy pop sing-alongs and power ballads to boost the film's buoyancy and forgivably on-the-nose themes. The main theme song "How Far I'll Go" is pretty much destined to become the new "Let It Go", so enjoy it now before it gets played to death. (Interesting how both tracks embrace the word "Go".)

There are a few scary moments to contrast the sunny vibes, but for the most part, this is a really light and breezy film. Maybe too light and breezy for some audiences' preferences. However, it's without a doubt a genuinely uplifting and applause-worthy tale of bravery and forming your own path. It also enthusiastically explores and celebrates a vibrant Polynesian culture and mythology that's not often seen like this on the big screen.

Moana will warm your body, your spirit, and your heart.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

[Review] The Edge of Seventeen

Oh, high school...

The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be praised for its sheer sense of genuineness. Wonderfully written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this teen dramedy is up there with some of the best modern coming-of-age films in recent memory. It's refreshingly frank, funny, heartfelt, and yes--relatable.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a frequently bullied outcast who's stuck in a constant state of awkward. She's also brutally honest and unapologetic, spiting the "winners" of the world. Luckily, her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is always by her side. But their tight relationship shatters, and their social statuses fluctuate when Krista begins dating Nadine's popular, tight shirt-wearing older brother (played by Blake Jenner from this year's lively Everybody Wants Some!!).

Driven by a terrific performance from Hailee Steinfeld, the story navigates through Nadine's growing pains, angsty confusion, and new endeavors. We're with her the whole way, flaws and all. Her dynamic interactions with her surrounding peers and family reveal a lot about her character, whether it's the chats with a friendly classmate who shows interest in her, or a clumsy encounter with her elusive "Too cool for school" crush who has yet to accept her Friend Request on Facebook. Seriously, it's just out there waiting in the abyss! The snappy bouts with her messy mother are a hoot, and the conflict reaches boiling levels when she fights with her rival of a brother, especially as the two still are coming to terms with the recent death of their father. Best of all, are the lunchtime conversations (she avoids the cafeteria) with her brash and apparently non-caring history teacher (Woody Harrelson in perfect form). He's one of my favorite supporting characters to grace the screen this year.

Kelly Freemon Craig's (I was going to abbreviate it as KFC but that sounded weird) script is hilarious, effectively uncomfortable, and rounded out with emotion. The sharp dialogue and comical raunch is fitting and in-touch the generational zeitgeist. The story taps into contemporary technology debacles like accidentally-sent text messages, as well as prevalent gut-punches like that sinking feeling of cutting ties with longtime best friend. Sure, there are a lot of familiarities and genre tropes here, but who's complaining when this flick is so immensely watchable and greatly intended. Some of the elements are freshly spun too, like its brief scene that casually de-stigmatizes antidepressants, or its well-drawn and stereotype-free depiction of an under-represented Asian character (Hayden Szeto in a breakthrough role). There's also a handclap slaying of skeezy dirtbags for the ages.

The Edge of Seventeen will make you cringe. It'll make you nostalgic. It'll make you wish you could go back to when you were a Junior and change stuff... or completely block that time out of your memory. Nadine just wants everything to work out and go her way--just like all of us did during those formative years.

* 9.5/10 *

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Monday, November 21, 2016

[Review] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

One of my many favorite aspects about the Harry Potter film series was the quirky and mystical creatures that inhabited the wizarding world, you know--the things that good ol' Hagrid liked to hang out with in the forest. So when I heard J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was making its way to the big screen, I figured there'd be room for some cool potential. Of course it's unfair to expect this spinoff prequel to capture the same magic, heart, and overall fandom of Harry, Ron, and Hermione's now iconic journey. However, it's still a decent piece of fantasy fare.

Meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a shy and timid magizoologist--his fluff of bangs practically a shield against eye contact. He travels to an impressively rendered 1920s New York City for some secret business, with nothing but a small suitcase at hand. After a run-in with a local muggle (or "No-Maj") named Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a few magical beasts escape from the suitcase, and the mismatched pair must track them down before the city goes into a frenzy. Meanwhile, an investigator (Katherine Waterston) plans to turn Scamander over to MACUSA, a security organization headed by a wizard with a shady agenda who goes by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

Even with its colder tone, the film makes sure to keep some playful humor intact. Kowalski is a primary source of laughs, basically functioning as an amusing ball of slapstick who gets swept up into the mischief. Then there's the Niffler--a little platypus-like critter with a taste for the finer things in life (it darts toward every gold coin and piece of jewelry it can find). But what's disappointing is that we don't actually learn a whole lot about these beasts, or where they come from, or where to find them. Maybe that'll be covered in the FOUR upcoming sequels. The closest we get to that feeling is when we step inside Scamander's suitcase, yes--step inside. In classic Rowling fashion, the suitcase contains its own expansive world, like a whimsical wildlife refuge with countless rare creatures basking about. It's definitely the most wondrous and visually astounding moment in the film.

What weighs Fantastic Beasts down is its less-than-interesting subplots that move on a much slower plane than the central story. The threads eventually converge in a chaotic cluster of action in the big city, not entirely unlike this year's Ghostbusters or the recent Doctor Strange. Fortunately, the cute twists that the resolution provides at least make up for some of the climax's lack of uniqueness. I've also seen some complaints about Eddie Redmanye's lead performance, but I found him to be fittingly cast. I think the only surprising thing is that he isn't a Weasley. But seriously, the real problem is that--aside from his immense compassion to preserve misunderstood beasts--the character itself just isn't developed very deeply here. Again, probably more of that in the FOUR upcoming sequels.

Despite its flaws, Fantastic Beasts is still a fairly fascinating place to slip into for a couple of hours. Let's just hope there's more to discover next time.


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Thursday, November 17, 2016

[Review] Little Men

Attentive humanist Ira Sachs is the director of intimate and observational adult-geared dramas like Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange. With his latest film, Little Men, he keys into the perspectives of--as the title suggests--two young boys, and it's his best work to date.

Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are new best friends in Brooklyn. Their opposite personalities truly complement each other. While Jacob is reserved, stately and studious, Tony is brash and rough around the edges (he throws down during a cafeteria fight at school). But they do share a common dream--they both want to be artists when they grow up. Oh yeah, and they love playing video games. Their warm bond is tested when their parents engage in a legal battle (that becomes personal) over the lease of a struggling local dress shop.

It might not sound like the most compelling plot, but there's a lot of nuanced emotion and impressive realism here, displaying the power in subtlety. The tone is expectedly low-key and serious, however there's a particularly riotous scene that takes place at an acting class when Tony gets into an extended shouting match with the course's eccentric teacher. It's one of the most amusing scenes of the film, and it's by far the loudest. The rest is immensely quiet, mining for drama in muted moments, especially as the conflicts of Jacob and Tony's respective parents sadly trickle down to them.

The performances are all really good and natural. The kid actors Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are easy standouts, while Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia (who was terrific as a lead in the Chilean film Gloria), and Alfred Molina round out the solid supporting cast of adults.

Little Men hits some delicate notes of poignancy in the end. It's small business. But it's significance business.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

[Review] The Handmaiden

Director Park Chan-wook puts his wicked spin on a Victorian crime novel by Sarah Walters. Retitled as The Handmaiden and set in 1930s Korea, the films works as both a gothic suspense tale and a creeping erotic thriller, or more frankly--it's an epic doozy, and I mean that in a good way.

A young woman named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to be the maid of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), an extremely wealthy heiress who dwells in an opulent mansion (it's huge!). But Sook-Hee is doing more than just dusting furniture and zipping up dresses. She's actually part of a seductive scheme led by a snide con-artist who goes by "The Count" (Ha Jung-woo). Basically, the guy wants to steal Lady Hideko's inheritance. However, nothing goes as planned. And nothing is as it seems.

The slow-burning madness, along with its exquisitely grand settings and lush scenery, is gorgeously shot with really marvelous framing. The active camera glides, zooms, scans, and slithers like a snake. This twisty tale of jealousy and deception is fittingly layered with a dark yet giddy sense of humor. It's perverse. It's sensual. It's disturbing. It's luxurious. It's sweeping. It's intimate. It's classy. It's trashy. And it's all terrifically performed. The characters brim with a chemistry that alternates between cold and smothering. And an extravagant musical score cranks up the high melodrama.

The duration can be a bit long-winded, and I got the impression that it would probably be best when watched in separate chunks (the film is even divided into two distinct parts). With that said, the events still remain interesting, as the narrative back-tracks and unfolds, playing with the presentation of what's initially revealed and what isn't. So as nasty as things get, The Handmaiden is a film that keeps on giving and giving.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, November 14, 2016

[Review] Arrival

Where did they come from? Why are they here? What do they want?

Arrival director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) expounds on these questions in this brainy, urgent, and deeply emotional UFO visit drama that instills hope in the good of humanity.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor, reeling from losing her daughter to cancer. Louise's world (and the rest of the world) shifts even more when a dozen extraterrestrial spacecraft touch down across the Earth. Given Louise's renowned skills in language, she's abruptly recruited in an attempt to communicate face-to-face with the aliens. Whoa, right? Along for the mission are a US Army Colonel (played by Forest Whitaker) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner).

Don't go into this film expecting the explosions of Independence Day, the horrors of Alien, or the sweetness of E.T. Instead, Villeneuve opts for a tone of hushed chaos and hypothetical realism, administering heady concepts of language, science, perception, and time. How does one even process, let alone approach first contact with beings from outer space? (They're classified as "Heptapods" here.) It's complicated, to say the least. But impossibly intriguing.

Villeneuve and buzzing cinematographer Bradford Young capture it all with expansive shots of grandeur, as well as more focused and minimal views through a Terrence Malick-esque lens. The stunning sets defy what we usually come to anticipate in alien invasion flicks. Rather than blinking flying saucers, the spaceships appear to be more like bold, colossal, vertically crescent eggs. The Heptapods convey their complex messages with gloriously cinematic ink blots from the other side of a bright and smoky wall of glass that seems to be specifically designed for a big, wide movie theater screen. The film is cut with beautifully intimate flashbacks of interactions between Louise and her daughter, contrasting the brooding greyscale of the military bases, alien craft, and ominous skies.

Amy Adams delivers an excellent performance that will be a surefire land for an Oscar nomination, if not a win. She convincingly captures the distress and awe of how someone might react when coming face-to-face with strange and unpredictable extraterrestrial creatures. There's a significant bravery and determination there, especially when everyone around her (mostly men) questions her methods and threatens to derail her careful strategies. Jeremy Renner is solidly cast too, functioning as form of comic relief within the serious, solemn tone. He names the Heptapods "Abbott & Costello", whom, by the way, kind of look like more monstrous versions of the Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons.

As Jóhann Jóhannsson's stirring musical score crescendos, the film unfurls a remarkable revelation. Like the best twists, it rattles your mind, pierces your heart, and makes you rethink the entire story while begging for a second viewing (and possibly crying). The narrative also explores some relevant and important themes regarding patience and understanding, as opposed to forceful conflict.

I truly believe that this operation deserves to be mentioned as one of the best sci-fi films of the decade. Arrival is out of this world. Literally.

* 10/10 *

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

[Review] Trolls

Like a sneeze of sprinkles or a fart of glitter, Trolls is a rainbow-blasted romp with a high concentration on dazzling visuals and sugary pop songs, but it's low on savory story.

It opens with a cutesy paper cutout sequence about the hug-y dance-y sing-y history of Trolls, as if South Park overdosed on Starbursts and kindness. In the present, we meet the exuberant Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and a party-pooper named Branch (Justin Timberlake). The two opposites must team up in order to save a bunch of captured Trolls from the evil, warty ogre-like BERGENS.

This animated universe of smooth and fuzzy textures and pastel colors is stocked with an abundance of wedding reception dance floor tunes (the often-played tracks will either bring joy or annoy, depending on your mood and preferences). But if your ears aren't pleased, at least the musical montages pop with some wildly creative (and sometimes trippy) imagery. Like a swirling sugar rush of designer flair, the film bursts with various aesthetics of neon and Day-Glo tinted patterns. The screen virtually warps into a big and busy Candyworld-esque feast for the eyes.

As for the script, the humor is decent at best and the narrative is slightly soured with its unmemorable characters and well-intended but run-of-the-mill exploration of optimism and pessimism. Happiness and sadness. Naivety and realism. Of course I wasn't expecting a whole lot from the story. It isn't a bad one, however it didn't really tickle my fancy either. But look on the bright side. Your kids will probably like the movie, and the runtime is only 80 minutes long. Now I'm gonna go eat a cupcake.

( 6.5/10 )

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

[Review] Hacksaw Ridge

With Hacksaw Ridge, Mel "Maniac" Gibson delivers his first directorial effort since 2006's Apocalypto. Based on the real life of Army vet Desmond Doss, this visceral World War II film is full of conflicts and contradictions, but at its heart is a moving tale of unconventional bravery.

Early on we're introduced to a deeply Christian fellow who goes by the name of Doss (Andrew Garfield). His ear-to-ear smile practically screams "Aw shucks!" Shortly before proposing to a lovely nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), he enlists in the military as a combat medic. But there's one glaring exception: He refuses to pick up a rifle. After overcoming some litigation hurdles and enduring harsh mental and physical ridicule from his higher-ups and comrades, Doss enters the frontline to not only prove his competence, but also his unwavering heroism.

It's both glossy and gruesome. The first half wallows in melodrama with its schmaltzy love story, lit with classical Hollywood sheen. But once Doss heads off to the Battle of Okinawa, the film trudges into some intense and harrowing war sequences. Gibson doesn't shy away from hurling blood, guts, headshots, and severed limbs into our face. (At one point someone uses a dead body as shield.) Oh yeah, and there's flamethrowers. In fact, the filmmaking tactics are so jolting and brutal that, stylistically, they feel more like stuff that's straight from the horror genre. A certain scene that takes place amidst underground tunnels is particularly heart-racing. And as expected, the story oozes with heavy emotion, piling on the stirring moments. Toward the end as I started to feel a lot of feelings, I briefly glimpsed around the theater and noticed each and every audience member wiping tears away.

The performances, for the most part, are terrific. Andrew Garfield, who's mostly known as the new Spider-Man and for his great roles in The Social Network and 99 Homes, is a tour de force here. He captures a relentless tenacity, as well as a modest sense of altruism. The English actor's southern accent even seems more convincing than a lot of American actors (at least to my ears). As for Vince Vaughn, although no stranger to darker and straight-faced roles (#TrueDetectiveSeason2), is awkwardly miscast. His comedic quips are amusing, but it's difficult to take him seriously as a hard-nosed Sergeant, especially within the tone of this film. The rest of the cast are fully game, though.

With all that said, the film is not without its controversial elements: There's the almost sadistic and exploitive views of violence. The sketchy depiction of the Japanese characters. And well, Mel Gibson. Still, we can find solace in our noble protagonist, who happens to be the antithesis of all those issues: He's adamantly against any form of violence. He aides the Japanese soldiers' wounds too. And well, he's not Mel Gibson. When the conclusion of the film arrives, it's pretty clear that Desmond Doss is no "everyman"--he's an extraordinary human being.

Hacksaw Ridge is an undeniably powerful film that serves an unbelievable story.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, November 7, 2016

[Review] Doctor Strange

Doctor who? Doctor Strange.

The titular character is the cerebral focus of Marvel Studios' latest installment. It's part Inception. Part The Matrix. Part Harry Potter. And it's definitely a multidimensional experience.

After a bad car wreck, an arrogant brain surgeon named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses feeling in hands. So in an act of desperation, he travels to Kathmandu to seek out a sacred and mysterious healing temple, but he gets way more than he bargained for. Under the intense guidance of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange learns the mystic arts: magical spells, astral projection, dimension-hopping and time-bending powers. Eventually, he's forced to use them against a bad apple named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen with stellar eye makeup).

Doctor Strange employs the usual formulas of the Marvel cinematic machine. You know--the prolonged origin story... the bombastic climax in a big city while stuff gets sucked into the sky... the obligatory setups for sequels... But these methods have never quite looked this visually astonishing before. Flaunting its impressive plethora of special effects, the film sees buildings shift, invert, and reflect--like an elaborate kaleidoscope of escalators and conveyor belts. Vibrant colors glow, warp, and dazzle, as if the universe were one humungous lava lamp. There's even an acid-driven oddity sequence that gives us a taste of what might happen if Terry Gilliam ever got ahold of a Marvel superhero movie. The script also brings the laughs, from physical bloopers to new age humor, and by 'new age humor' I mean jokes about Wi-Fi passwords and Drake references.

But there are some plot holes and leaps in the story that don't really flow all that well, and sometimes the action setpieces can be a bit confusing and incoherent. What shiny thing does what? Which portal leads where? You kind of just have to go with it. At one point Strange says, "I don't even know what this is." I often wondered the same thing. But whatever this is, it's pretty frickin' cool.

( 8/10 )

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

[Review] Certain Women

Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone star in director Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women--a quiet portrait of loosely connected lives in rural America.

Well-shot with it's painterly frames of barren landscapes, this minimal film takes place in the small town of Livingston, Montana. Dern plays a lawyer tasked with being a mediator for her disgruntled client who winds up in a police standoff. Williams is a hopeful homebuilder looking to negotiate a deal to obtain a mound of sandstone. And Stewart is a teacher juggling day & night jobs and long drives. In the meantime, she befriends a timid rancher named Jamie (Lily Gladstone).

The ensemble piece functions as a set of the (mostly) separate chapters--all containing similar themes of simply (or not so simply) trying to make a living, the strains of overtime work and the loneliness that comes along with it, and the empathy that arises when dealing with struggling customers. The whole thing is very meditative, observational, and subtly devastating.

All the performances are really solid across the spread, but it's Kristen Stewart that truly stands out with her intensely nuanced realism and magnetic eyes, further proving that she's low-key one of the greatest actresses of this generation (don't let Twilight fool you). Not only does she embody the most interesting character here, but it also happens to be the most intriguing story out of the three. In fact, this final chapter is so deeply felt that you almost forget about the two that come before it.

This film won't please everyone, though. It moves at a tedious pace and lacks the dramatic punch and resolution that most audiences are used to. At times I even wished there were a little more happening. Because let's be honest--daily mundane tasks and prolonged silences aren't always the most compelling events to witness on the big screen. Still, there's a lot to admire about Certain Women.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

[Review] The Girl on the Train

Adapted from Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train has frequently been billed as "This year's Gone Girl." And not just because Girl is in the title--or the fact that it also released during a first weekend of October--but it, too, is a twisty whodunnit enhanced with clever POV narration and steeped in themes of voyeurism and the general descent into the depths of suburban sadness. With that said, there's a glaring difference between David Fincher's Gone Girl and Tate Taylor's The Girl on the Train--One of these films is great, and it's not this one.

Disheveled and recently divorced Rachel (Emily Blunt) is yes--the girl on the train, observing the lives of a "perfect couple" in daily passings and becoming insanely obsessed along the way. Stalkerish even. Okay, beyond stalkerish. She eventually gets entangled in the mystery of a missing woman named Megan (Haley Bennett). Turns out, they share some significant connections...

The story's told in non-linear fashion--bits and pieces of foggy memory flashes. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work very well. It's muddled with humdrum exposition and fractured time jumps, like it can't decide which pieces it wants to show or tell (and when). And for being considered as a psychological thriller, the film really doesn't elaborate a whole lot on the psyche of any of the characters. They're all virtually walking flesh and bones of one-dimensional misery.

Initially, The Girl on the Train at least holds enough intrigue to make you want to see how this mess transpires. But after a while it just grows tiresome--like a Lifetime melodrama but with better acting. Or "Dateline"-inspired fiction on the big screen. The climax is certainly dark and maddening, but it isn't really anything surprising, highly revelatory, or mind-blowing. Emily Blunt gives a strong and emotional lead performance, and emerging star Haley Bennett is quite impressive in her supporting role, but they both get lost in the film's flat tone and dull unraveling of the narrative.

In addition to Gone Girl, this film has even drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window. But honestly, the only rear window I wanted to see The Girl on the Train through was when I was driving away from the movie theater.

( 5.5/10 )

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