The Girl on the Train (2016)

★★★

The Girl on the Train PosterDirector: Tate Taylor

Release Date: October 5th, 2016 (UK); October 7th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux

Despite author Paula Hawkins’ protestations, The Girl on the Train is in many ways similar to Gone Girl. Structurally, individually, thematically — Tate Taylor’s film adaption feels like it could be set in the same deceitful world and the same deceitful suburban neighbourhood. Those who enter having seen Gone Girl (also adapted from a popular novel) will likely struggle to keep David Fincher’s film wholly out of mind for the duration of this new domestic horror show, just as Taylor’s movie struggles to escape the spectre of its superior predecessor: the main character, a woman hampered by emotional scarring, mellowly narrates her own miserable life, perking up only during self-constructed imagination sequences within which false scenarios play out (a perfect relationship, crucially). There’s a familiar aesthetic slickness too, white, crisp text decorating a black background each time we skip from present to past.

But most significantly, The Girl on the Train revisits Gone Girl’s wistful tale of a woman who yearns for an idealistic life that is never forthcoming. She is Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic devoid of any sort of plan. It’s apt that she spends most of her time aboard a train, going places without ever really getting anywhere. These journeys are less journeys and more pockets of time within which Rachel can ogle at the apparently superior lives of others, notably that of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), a couple she often sees from the train window in a state of embrace. Until one day that embrace doesn’t include Scott — or perhaps it does; Rachel’s perception isn’t exactly up to scratch — at which point perfect worlds crumble, and Megan goes missing.

“Are you alone?” “Yeah.” This first interaction tells us all we need to know about Rachel. (Or so we think.) Blunt wears her character’s alcoholism with raw fervour: lips cracked from sucking on a straw channelling vodka, shaky hands rendering her unable to properly apply lip balm, eyes watery, bloodshot, terminally lost in a daze. She is obsessed, her obsession with other people forming the basis for the film’s creeping milieu — the sense that something just feels off. Which is to say Rachel isn’t, or hasn’t, been particularly great company over the past few years. Pal and landlord Cathy (Laura Prepon) can attest to that. And still, we want to root for her because as humans our innate humanness calls upon us to empathise with those who are struggling, but also because Blunt affords Rachel a subdued sense of purpose and accountability. A speech at an AA meeting is quite devastating, hauntingly delivered by the actor.

Unfortunately Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson use alcoholism less as a character trait and more as a structural device. Which brings us to coherence, or the lack of it, an aspect which lets the film down. You can understand Taylor’s mindset; to view the world through his protagonist’s untrustworthy eyes, visualising a collection of blurry incidents rather than a natural arc. This is something that would likely work better with fewer key characters — there are at least six here, all interconnected in various ways. Keeping track of who knows whom from when and where is difficult enough, and that difficulty increases as the story hops from scene to scene without any palpable sense of time or space (we know which events are taking place in the past and in the present, but don’t get much of a feeling for timelines within each space).

Set in the midst of a winter of discontent, the outing draws upon classic Hitchcockian themes such as suspicion. The obvious comparison is Strangers on a Train, and indeed this focus on movement funds the suspicious mood. For people are constantly on the move. They might run as a form of exercise, or as way to temporarily exorcise any domestic demons. Others are seen figuratively running from the law, not that you would blame anyone for literally hightailing it from Allison Janney, superb as a police detective fully versed in the art of dressing-down. And there is the train itself, hanging on for dear life as gravity does its best to tear it from the tracks, loud and a bit unstable as all trains are. Echoing, in a sense, Rachel’s own daily existence.

This is the age of paranoia: Édgar Ramírez’s psychiatrist defiantly confirms his American citizenship when engaged in an otherwise innocuous conversation with a client. Given the film is set in New York, it is possible he has just heard Trump threaten to send non-Americans to the moon, thus we should cut him some slack. Rebecca Ferguson, as Anna, also succumbs to the neurotic atmosphere, frantically guessing laptop passwords in a bid to find out more about those around her. She is married to Tom (Justin Theroux) who used to be married to Rachel, and their nanny is Megan. It’s complicated. There does come a time, about halfway through, when you wonder if you care at all for anybody on-screen, at which point the piece loses momentum. Fortunately not for too long as some characters reignite, but you do have to survive a bunch of platonic conversations unable to maintain the paranoid air.

The Girl on the Train wants to be more uncomfortable than it is, and this becomes apparent when it plummets into unnecessarily nasty territory towards the end. Threads of emotional abuse and physical violence are explored only tentatively, perhaps because there are too many characters for the film to juggle and not enough time spent with each one (Rachel aside). But it is intriguing at worst, and there are signs in the minutiae of proceedings that the filmmakers know what they are doing. Look out for Rachel’s discreet reaction to a lipstick stain on a mug, and think about what said moment entails. It’s a terrific blink-and-you’ll-miss-it incident astutely pitched by Emily Blunt, who is worth the price of admission alone.

The Girl on the Train - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actress

Having already construed a list of the best male performances (which you can read here), as I agonise over who to include in my female selection I think it is fair to say 2015 was the year of the actress. Sure, the guys were great, but the depth of superb performances from the women of film was quite astonishing.

And that depth incorporated numerous genres too, from summer blockbusters to low-key dramas. It’s clear that Hollywood still has a significant way to go in terms of achieving true diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it, but until then at least those who have been given an opportunity are waving that equality flag by way of their respective bodies of work.

It will be the same format as before: five leading performances and five supporting performances. As always, this list is based on UK release dates.

Leading Roles

5. Marion Cotillard — Macbeth

Forgive my lack of knowledge on Shakespeare’s famous play; there is a scene towards of the end of Justin Kurzel’s visceral silver screen adaptation that pits Marion Cotillard front and centre, the camera unwilling to manoeuvre too far from her sorrowful face as the actress hauntingly laments the preceding brutality that her character helped concoct. By many accounts, Lady Macbeth’s role in proceedings is not as prominent as it ought to be, but that scene is the stand out moment and Cotillard, arguably, the stand out performer.

Macbeth - Cotillard & Fassbender

4. Rooney Mara — Carol

It is fairly common knowledge on the awards circuit that Rooney Mara — backed by Harvey Weinstein — has been campaigning as a supporting actress, but those who have seen Carol will know her role in the film is a leading one. She spends as much time on-screen as her classy counterpart Cate Blanchett who, for my money, Mara actually outshines. Therese, young and therefore still unravelling her place in 1950s New York, is the more relatable of the two and Mara plays the shop assistant with such generosity and innocence it is practically impossible not to get wrapped up in her story.

Carol - Rooney Mara

3. Emily Blunt — Sicario

Violent cartels, corporate bureaucracy and untamed revenge dominate Sicario, and Emily Blunt’s capable FBI agent gets caught up in it all. She is our eyes and ears throughout, unfairly treated by the macho lot supposedly on her side yet unwavering in her quest for answers and, ultimately, justice. Blunt had a very good 2014 playing Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow; Kate Macer shares Vrataski’s endurance, but she also bears a genuine vulnerability that only serves to enhance her humane traits in an inhumane world.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

2. Felicity Jones — The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar at the start of the year but it could easily have been Felicity Jones clutching the iconic trophy and charmingly stumbling her way through a speech. Unlike her co-star Eddie Redmayne’s overtly physical portrayal of Stephen Hawking, Jones’ appearance as wife Jane is imbued in subtlety and inner anguish. While you would expect to be naturally drawn to Redmayne’s face, it is actually Jones who commands your attention — her expressions vary by scene, telling a story and rendering words irrelevant in the process.

The Theory of Everything - Jones

1. Saoirse Ronan — Brooklyn

Speaking of facial expressions, there was nobody better in 2015 at relaying meaning through eye movement than Saoirse Ronan. The supporting cast, the screenplay, the setting, the direction — it is all there and it is all very good. But Brooklyn is Ronan’s movie and she rinses every emotional fibre out of every second she has on-screen. In Eilis, Nick Hornby’s screenplay funds a beautiful character; Ronan gives her depth and richness. How often have we bore witness to failed romantic endeavours on film? To false partnerships fuelled by an over-eagerness to retread well-worn paths? Brooklyn avoids that trap by focusing not just on its protagonist’s relationship status, but on Eilis’ actual life too. It’s all about the Irish immigrant and as such the film rests entirely on Ronan’s shoulders. Her acting muscles more than support the weight.

Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan

Supporting Roles

5. Rebecca Ferguson — Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

Unknown quantity Rebecca Ferguson sprung onto the scene towards the end of a blockbuster heavy summer, and in Rogue Nation she seems to be relishing every minute. Affording the action genre some much-needed female flair alongside the likes of Daisy Ridley and Charlize Theron (it pained me to leave Theron off the previous list), Ferguson exchanges wit and brawn with Tom Cruise and more than holds her own. She has been cast — alongside Emily Blunt, no less — in the highly anticipated Girl on the Train adaptation, and with justification.

Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation - Rebecca Ferguson

4. Jessica Chastain — Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro’s Victorian splendour-piece divided opinion upon release. I liked it, and a lot of that had to do with Jessica Chastain’s chilly turn as plotting sister Lucille (come on, even her name denotes bad news). She maintains an eerie distance throughout the movie, seemingly ambivalent to the romance between her brother (Tom Hiddleston) and his muse, played by Mia Wasikowska. Of course when the you-know-what inevitably hits the fan, Chastain unleashes a furore that has you grinning and then grimacing.

Crimson Peak - Jessica Chastain

3. Kate Winslet — Steve Jobs

In an interview with Wittertainment captain Simon Mayo, Kate Winslet revealed just how dense Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay was, though admitted her co-star Michael Fassbender had the toughest challenge given his ever-present showing. As Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ personal adviser of sorts, Winslet’s words often carry a practicality born out of fondness for the ideas man. She is only person throughout the film whose appearance normalises Jobs; as he is knocking back all other individuals with undisguised hostility, you still find yourself invested his relationship with Hoffman and a lot of that is down to Winslet’s receptive allure.

Steve Jobs - Kate Winslet

2. Alicia Vikander — Ex Machina

A number of test sessions act as a segmented pivot from which Ex Machina’s ideas are spun and examined, interviews designed to analyse an android’s capacity for humanness. The android in question is Ava, played with uncanny stoicism by Alicia Vikander: she somehow looks like both a robot and a human, and somehow acts with both an artificial and authentic inclination too (“She moves with odd mechanical smoothness and glides with inhuman grace”). Vikander draws us in under a guise of mystery and does not relent until it is too late. We’ve been had — brilliantly.

Ex Machina - Alicia Vikander 3

1. Fiona Glascott — Brooklyn

I think any supporting player worth their salt should seek to achieve two things: remain present and effective in auxiliary scenes, and inject the overall story or main character with added substance. The second of those is especially important, and it’s something that Fiona Glascott does poignantly. She plays Eilis’ older sister who remains in Ireland while her sibling traverses the Atlantic. The pair share a few quietly moving moments pre-trip and although Glascott does not figure an awful lot thereafter (apart from a dinner scene bursting with suppressed grief), her presence constantly lingers over the movie. It appears the actress won’t be formally recognised at the Oscars, which is a shame. We’ll always have John Crowley’s film though, and that is indelible.

Brooklyn - Fiona Glascott

Images credit: Collider, The Telegraph

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight PicturesLionsgate, Paramount PicturesStudioCanal, Universal StudiosThe Weinstein Company

Sicario (2015)

★★★★

Sicario PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (US); October 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Drama

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

For Denis Villeneuve, Sicario marks something of a departure from Enemy’s odd intricacies and the personal anguish of Prisoners. It has more in common with the latter — a nasty streak and a bleak underbelly — but Villeneuve’s third English-language outing is a different beast entirely. It’s a very cold film. There is so much bloodshed that you almost become impervious to feeling, though attempts to humanise its various players are admirable and fairly successful. Sicario’s concerns are wrapped up in the (under)world of grisly cartels, and in how the war on drugs has fostered moral imprecision, even on the ‘good side’.

FBI agent Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt) is part of that good side, and one of only a few individuals whose outlook relays consistent righteousness. We realise instantly that Kate is both strong and capable, yet not at all infallible. Nobody is for that matter — when her team finds a myriad of deceased bodies plastered behind the walls of a house, physical and mental repulsion take over (there’s a lot of vomiting). This discovery triggers an IED explosion that kills two agents, setting in motion a covert investigation into some serious criminal wrongdoing. Kate, driven by a need for revenge, volunteers for the job.

She has to navigate a landscape dominated by important-looking men wearing suits and asking personal questions (“Do you have a husband?”). Josh Brolin’s Matt Garver is one of those men, an advisor-cum-field officer whose macho posture is supported by a spine of arrogance — for some reason he wears sandals during mission briefs. Garver leads the field operation, batting back Kate’s inquisitive questions with vague swings; you get the sense his unwillingness to reveal all has less to do with bureaucracy infecting law than it does pomposity.

Pitting Kate in amongst cowboys and sheriffs and gruff Texans with gristly beards seems to be Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s way of acknowledging reality while also challenging the effectiveness of a masculine culture. While most of the men — not all, Kate’s partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is similarly noble, though he too is portrayed as an outsider — are energised by the presence of their egos, Kate, indiscreet and somewhat inexperienced, is our key moral fibre. It’s through her gaze that we peer into an immoral world, and it increasingly feels like only her actions can reshape said immorality.

Sicario is clear in its admission that nothing is clear. People are neither good nor bad (in fairness some are quite bad) but instead exist somewhere along an ethical spectrum. A Mexican cop whom we visit throughout the film is shown interacting with his family, particularly his football-loving son. Joe Walker’s editing — which cuts from the search operation to the officer’s modest home — implicates the cop in some form of corruption, yet his family-conscious roots are never invalidated. The vast majority of people on-screen are treated as human beings, a trait often missing in films that depict warring factions (see American Sniper).

If government agencies and drug cartels are the factions at war, Juárez, Mexico is the battlefield. The city is introduced as a final level boss: maze-like, audibly inscribed with tales of dread, bookended by a pulsating score. It’s the urban equivalent of Everest’s Death Zone — the longer you stay, the more likely you are to die. Perennial, and future, Oscar nominee Roger Deakins often gives scenes time to breath, funding the perception of encroaching danger. Civic infection has wreaked havoc upon the people of Juárez, so much so that civilian life is now inseparable from criminal activity. Just ask Silvio, the aforementioned policeman.

Early on, we take a drive through the cartel capital in a stretch of truly exceptional filmmaking. It’s tense, eerily subdued. It makes you feel ill, and its conclusion ushers forth one of the most anxiety-ridden traffic jams in silver screen history. Following the film’s incredible opening third (which is ostensibly a 40-minute horrorfest) the pulse inevitable drops. What follows isn’t quite as interesting; it’s the downtime between assignments, where Kate and co. swan around bars and stare diligently at maps, invoked to add character depth.

One of those characters is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the titular sicario. Del Toro saunters on screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. Gillick says very little, affording extra reverence to the few words he does speak: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time”. Or, in layman’s terms, conquering a complicated cartel network is inescapably complex.

Lines are blurred and identities masked in Sicario’s post-9/11 society. This is Zero Dark Thirty with a narcotic skin. There is a wonderful sequence that precedes the final act (at which point the tension re-escalates): darkened human silhouettes descend into the black abyss below a brooding, orange-tinted skyscape. It’s a sublimely serene moment in a film otherwise dominated by impending threat. The serenity, like life in Juárez, is short-lived.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

★★★★

Edge of Tomorrow PosterDirector: Doug Liman

Release Date: May 30th, 2014 (UK); June 6th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction

Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt

The key to any film baring a looped narrative is the provision of compelling characters. Or, at the very least, engaging performances. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code, for instance. Two aptly mentioned films each of which share an obvious connection with Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman’s newest creation that sees the former’s witty humour and the latter’s pulsating mystery combine with a Vantage Point-esque tactical retreading to devise a two hour thrill ride. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt energetically shepherd proceedings through any potentially damaging plot miscues, coming out the other side battle-worn but not out-battled. The jigsaw doesn’t quite fit together with uniform perfection but assembling it is pretty damn fun. In fact, this might be Tom Cruise’s best outing in a decade.

Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) awakens in familiar surroundings: an army barracks at Heathrow Airport, the word “maggot” ringing in his ear. It’s the near future and Earth is under attack. Aliens known as ‘Mimics’ — experts in adapting to combat human strategy — lead the invasion, and Cage’s interaction with one of the beasts has sent him spiralling into a time loop. A glorified military advertiser, the Major must train both body and mind with the aid of war machine Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) in order to quell the fighting and save humankind.

Edge of Tomorrow presents an often pondered scenario, then repeats until fluency reigns. If you were to throw a pebble into a river, would the water change course forever or eventually restore its old pathway? In this case, we swap pebble for soldier and water for war. There’s no grand idea to ponder, at least not a new one, but sometimes sticking with a winning formula ushers forth success and Liman’s film proves that. What the director does infuse, if not originality, is vitality; a freshness that cleanses with bounce and intrigue upon repetition. We watch as Cage lives out the same day countless times over, yet there’s never a sense that what we’re seeing is merely bland duplication. Quite the opposite actually. For every familiar bellow from Master Sergeant Farrell there’s a modicum of change. A card game hidden under bedsheets, for instance. Smartly, sameness becomes a weapon for both Cage and the viewer: he, attempting to win a war, and us, trying to put the puzzle pieces together. Every time he dies, we start over. Undeniably, there’s a method to the litany. (“An enemy that knows the future can’t lose.”)

The way the narrative plays out is akin to that of a video game. There’s a peculiar humour that comes with the frustration of being unable to bypass a certain stage, a mental headache that, once you finally advance to the next level, beckons in excitement. What’ll happen next? This is the sort of mind-jogging that Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay dazzles with, and it’s sort of infectious. “What do we do now?” asks Rita. “I don’t know, we never got this far,” replies Cage with sparkling glee, the audience almost expecting him to follow up with a knowing wink in the camera’s direction.

The pair driving proceedings are having as good a time as any, which helps. Both Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt get stuck in, be it whilst careering through a mass of monstrous treachery or delivering gags with precise timing and just as much effort. The camera stalks Cruise throughout the entire film yet we never tire of seeing his face — admittedly, it is rather amusing watching the Hollywood star’s reactions as he perishes in a variety of ways. Blunt chalks in another talent-affirming performance as the ironclad Full Metal Bitch, getting the better of her co-star more often than not. It’s also worth noting Bill Paxton’s hammed up turn as the aforementioned Farrell, his numerous communications with Cruise increasing in hilarity as time progresses.

Quite surprisingly, Edge of Tomorrow detours down comedy alley a whole lot, hitting more than its fair share of home-runs. There are a number of intense battle scenes that are harsher in meaning than actual visual depiction, but these are balanced out by smatterings of light relief. James Herbert and Laura Jenning’s rapid editorial input comes in handy here, ensuring that there are never any lulls: while we’ve only just let out a guffaw at Cage’s prophetic qualities, the film is on to the next optical spectacle or witty bantering. Cruise and Blunt conjure up a dynamic that not only feels authentic, but that also sparks with comic prowess. The whole thing is quite ridiculous in a way and the film acknowledges so. Since it doesn’t take itself too seriously, we can relax and let the occasional disbelief slide. Playfulness supersedes sternness, and it’s for the best.

That’s not to say Edge of Tomorrow is bulletproof, because it ain’t. The plot teeters along a knife edge at times, hampered by its mass and volume. There’s a lot to take in and not all of it immediately makes sense, such as how easy it is to become encased within a time loop. (Not to mention Rita’s relationship with the concept — she could re-enter the groundhog procedure at any point, surely.) State of the art combat suits are developed to give humans a greater fighting chance against the aliens, yet these technologically superior battle weapons are juiced by batteries. There must not be any electric motor charging sockets around future London. Finger out, Boris.

Doug Liman’s track record since The Bourne Identity is sketchy at best, but this offering is a sure-fire career reviver. His direction is more or less spot on, striving for humour rather than overbearing solemnity. The film’s leading duo deliver on numerous fronts, injecting a fresh lease of life when necessary. The periphery can be a tad rough at times but Edge of Tomorrow will most certainly claim a lofty spot atop a vast amount of summer success lists, at least for the foreseeable future.

Edge of Tomorrow - Cruise and Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.