Monday, January 16, 2017

This week's DVD releases

The Girl on the Train *½

Paula Hawkins is on record as disliking comparisons of her sensationally successful 2015 best-seller The Girl on the Train to the previous "girl" crime fiction smash, Gone Girl. There's no doubt that Tate Taylor, the director of the film version of Hawkins' novel, will also object to having his work held up next to David Fincher's cinematic take on Gone Girl, as the juxtaposition will certainly not be to his benefit.

A morose, grim and intensely one-dimensional thriller about an alcoholic's struggle to make sense of a close-to-home murder as well as her own mind, this major release from Universal can count on a panting public to rent or steam this when it first becomes available tomorrow. But this train may hit a yellow commercial light sooner than expected down the line.

Distinguished only by a quite extraordinary musical score by Danny Elfman, working in an entirely uncharacteristic mode, and some adventurous camerawork from Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the film is very faithful to the book both structurally and in dramatic incident. The changes lie elsewhere: The setting has been shifted from greater London to the New York City suburbs, the milieu is much more upscale than in the book and the title character in the film is both more physically attractive and less ironic than on the page.

As the cinema is arguably the artistic medium most conducive to conveying sustained voyeurism, this particular story held a great deal of potential. The first mistake of cast-off ex-wife Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is to continue to live in immediate proximity to her ex, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux), and his beautiful new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), especially now that they have a baby, something a jealous Rachel was unable to produce.

While drowning her sorrows with the bottle and having long since lost her job due to drunkenness, Rachel spies on and harasses Tom and Anna with persistent phone calls, unwanted visits and, unbeknownst to them, prying looks as Rachel passes by their house twice a day on the Metro North commuter line on her way to idle days in the city.

Along this river route also lies the house shared by ultra-macho Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) and his gorgeous young mate Megan (Haley Bennett), who not only bears an acute resemblance to Anna but, at the outset, works as the nanny for Anna's child. Rachel likes to spy on her, too, and one day her prying eyes hit pay dirt when she spots Megan on an upstairs deck kissing a man who is decidedly not her husband.

In fact, it is the local ladies' favorite shrink, dreamy-looking Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), a problematic character in that, a) he has some professional ethics issues he ought to sort out, b) he just sort of disappears from the narrative at a certain point and c) his name suggests Middle Eastern descent (explicitly so in the book) but the role is performed with a light Spanish accent. Once it was decided to cast Ramirez, an excellent actor, why not just change the character's name instead of inviting perplexity?

The sometimes formidable screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has retained Hawkins' storytelling architecture, which involves shuffling three female first-person points of view as well as hopscotching among past and present time frames. Still, the central voice belongs to Rachel, who spends a good deal of her time trying to remember the details of an awful drunken night when something very bad happened.

The problem, however, is that Rachel just can't stay off the sauce. Taylor and his cinematographer move the camera around in any number of disorienting, unsteady, focus-changing ways to communicate the protagonist's instability. But the bottom line is that what we're looking at much of the time is a woman with bleary eyes, blotchy complexion and a demeanor of sour discontent who nonetheless remains movie-star pretty. In the book, Rachel says of herself, "I am no longer desirable, I'm off-putting in some way. It's not just that I've put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it's as if people can see the damage written all over me … ." Try as the actress might, all of Blunt's grimaces, slurred words and unbalanced walking don't really convince that she is Rachel; it feels like an act.

But the real problem is that she's a drag, as is virtually everyone else who populates this dire tale of serial misbehavior among would-be-but-not-really friends. The puzzle of how the various personal and narrative pieces will eventually fit together exerts a smidgen of interest, but the characters are so dour and lacking dimension as to invite no curiosity about them. The two main men, Tom and Scott, are humorless, ornery, sexually presumptuous and incapable of saying an interesting word about anything. The women aren't much better: The sullen Megan resembles a beautiful zombie, Anna can think or speak of little other than her baby and Rachel only with great difficulty emerges from her booze-soaked cocoon. Taylor's first feature was called Pretty Ugly People; that could equally serve as the title for this one.

All of this wouldn't matter quite so much if the central mystery had been more compelling. But the ever-present possibility of trick endings to the side, it isn't too difficult to come up with the most rational supposition as to who the baddie is, and the revelation, when it comes, isn't the least bit gasp-inducing. The other suspense rates as little more than curiosity, as to whether or not Rachel will ever pull herself together and pour the hooch down the drain instead of down her throat.

A few nice character performances lurk around the edges, including those by Allison Janney as an approachable cop; Laura Prepon, given too little screen time as Rachel's indulgent landlady; and especially Lisa Kudrow, who brings exceptional verve to a nothing role.

The lone creative element to command coercive interest here is Elfman's score, which employs sonic currents of tonal irregularities, pulsations and mood instigators rather than melodies, typical tension tropes or any of his trademark gambits from the Tim Burton collaborations. He almost makes the film seem good from time to time.

Keeping Up with the Joneses *
Greg Mottola has made some fine contributions to big-screen comedy — including sweet-and-salty teen flicks Adventureland and Superbad — but his new film, Keeping Up With the Joneses, is decidedly not one of them.

Stale as week-old bread and every bit as bland, the movie saddles a strong cast with a groaningly ineffectual script (courtesy of Michael LeSieur, who wrote 2006’s You, Me and Dupree) and wastes the director’s gift for bringing lived-in charm and feeling to broad comic premises. It’s been obvious for a while now, but bears repeating: At a time when we’re spoiled with satisfyingly funny small-screen options, laugh-challenged fare like Keeping Up With the Joneses just doesn’t cut it. Why shell out anything for this junk if you can tune into the latest season of Black-ish, check out new gems like HBO’s Insecure, FX’s Better Things and Amazon’s Fleabag, or just google Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on SNL? Even by standards of low-IQ escapism, the film falls short. At least Masterminds, another recent goof-fest headlined by Keeping Up With the Joneses star Zach Galifianakis, gave the actor an epically awful pageboy hairdo to divert our attention from its disappointments.

Mottola’s movie wasn’t without potential. There's an appealing quaintness to its story of a married couple who become convinced their glamorous neighbors are spies. Unlike most studio comedies these days, Keeping Up With the Joneses isn’t brashly vulgar, nor does it try, aside from a lame Caitlyn Jenner joke, to be zeitgeisty. The problem is that it doesn’t really try at all. Imagine Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery plus I Love You, Man, multiplied by Mr. & Mrs. Smith, divided by TV series The Americans. Minus all the wit, spark and deftness.

Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) enjoy a life of comfortable if numbing suburban averageness in the Atlanta area. He’s a straight-arrow HR manager who cheerfully submits employees to asinine trust games and conflict resolution exercises. She’s a perky interior decorator suffering from a lack of inspiration. With their kids at camp for the summer, Jeff and Karen vow to spend some quality time together, but empty-nest syndrome starts to take hold.

That’s when distraction, and possibly danger, arrives in the genetically blessed forms of Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot), who move into the house next door. Tim, a travel writer, speaks multiple languages and has a head of hair made for shampoo commercials. His wife Natalie is a social media editor and food blogger with runway-ready legs and cheekbones for days. Jeff and Tim begin a tentative bromance — dorky Jeff seems flattered that the suave, casually macho Tim even acknowledges his existence — but Karen decides that "there’s something off" about the Joneses. When she finds Tim snooping around upstairs during a barbecue hosted by the Gaffneys, she sets out to do some snooping of her own.

Thuddingly obvious hijinks ensue as Karen, "incognito" in a hat and sunglasses, follows Natalie around town — an operation that concludes with the two women facing off in a lingerie store dressing room. (The movie’s use of lesbian "tension" to titillate and amuse, culminating in an especially depressing girl-on-girl kiss, feels dated and desperate.)

Mottola and LeSieur fumble the big set pieces, including a sequence that finds the Gaffneys breaking into the Jones residence to look for clues; the rhythm is off, the jokes don’t land, the gags are sluggish and unimaginative. You know things are dire when one of the most amusing bits consists of Jeff accidentally smashing Karen’s head into a wall. Even scenes that have a flicker of comic invention — as when, toward the end of the film, the Joneses start bickering at a diner, the sexy, unflappable twosome momentarily unraveled by the same neuroses that haunt normal couples — peter out before they get good.

Galifianakis, in what might be described as the Will Ferrell role, has a few giggle-worthy lines (sitting down at an underground Chinese eatery, he marvels, "Look at all these little ethnic condiments!"). But it's safe to say the actor is better at playing creepy man-children than regular squares. He and the always likeable Fisher pull faces and do pratfalls, throwing their considerable skill and timing at material that, apart from a throwaway touch or two (there's a good quip about crooked British teeth), is essentially irredeemable.

Hamm offers up a breezy variation on his tormented Mad Men protagonist Don Draper, and he's a pleasure — the only one who doesn't seem to be trying too hard. Gadot looks fittingly stunning and bad-ass, though on the basis of her work here, comedy may not be her strong suit.

The sparse supporting cast includes Veep's terrific Matt Walsh, an inadvertent reminder of how much more fun we could be having watching something else.

This Week’s Other New Releases
Zero Days *** Because the movie’s subjects who are best positioned to provide new information are also the least likely to talk, much of the movie is devoted to rehashing previously published reports, which director Alex Gibney does with both cogency and style.
Ouija: Origin of Evil **½ The movie takes a while to get going, and the demonic possession plot pretty much runs on rails. And yet there’s plenty to admire here: strong performances (E.T. legend Henry Thomas is a welcome sight as a kindly priest), top-notch jump-scares, and some unexpected lovely, almost Far From Heaven-ish autumnal photography.
The Whole TruthPlays like an especially claustrophobic courtroom procedural, drably photographed and generically framed.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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