Part two of my ongoing series of posts for some quick reviews of films I watched in January. Enjoy!
Every so often, a surprise little gem makes it way out of obscurity to find you, and Captain Fantastic is certainly one of them. One of the defining themes of the film revolves around mankind's ties to the wilderness, about how the outside world has made us lose touch with our once basic needs for survival, and how the constant distractions have damaged our learning capabilities. But at the same time, there's always a constant moral battle going on about not only whether a simpler life is the better option, but about a larger topic of whether it's right to have the choice of children taken away from them, and confine them to only the knowledge we see fit to give them, in many ways making them socially awkward and overly candid. These are tricky balancing acts in which Viggo Mortensen's Ben has to traverse, with the actor delivering a fantastic central performance that anchors the film with heart and melancholy, and the overall result is a delightful oddity, wearing its quirky spirit proudly like a badge.
**** / *****
Director Paul Verhoeven has always had a keen interest in the twisted and darkly comical, and his French thriller Elle is no exception, easily standing as one of his finest films. Playing like a dark take on terrible Lifetime movies, the film largely revolves around heavy emphasis on sexual liberation, and the sense of dominion inherent with it. All of this is best embodied in Isabelle Huppert's fantastic performance in the lead role. Despite the film opening with the aftermath of her rape by masked assailant, Elle never seems to respond too strongly to it, tidying up her kitchen and going about her daily routine as if it didn't even happen. A businesswoman and natural matriarch to her family, she seems somewhat cold, but completely ordinary to anyone who sees her, but in actuality, those mundane ticks also have dubious connotations. She's also very methodical and subtle in how she works, progressively and coyly pulling strings to move her family members, friends, and co-workers like pawns in a game. She begins to take sinister strength from that earlier experience, wielding her powers of manipulation and seduction with firm hands, to the point that the unknown assailant appears less like a threat, and more a minuscule blip as our lead character plays her twisty psychological games.
****1/2 / *****
The Girl on the Train:
All kvetching about this movie desperately wanting to be the next Gone Girl aside, the adaptation of Paula Hawkins' novel is an imperfect, but entertaining and pulpy thriller. Director Tate Taylor elicits a genuine sense of dread and mistrust all throughout the film, piecing together disparate narrative puzzles of contradictory and often eerie context based on perspective, with secrets and misdirection so twisted and numerous, they feel as dark and endless as the forests within the film. It's a credit to how engaging the mystery of the film is (despite subconsciously already knowing the answer) that it always kept me guessing at every new development, often also gaining strength from its central conflicts of abuse, both self-inflicted and unwillfully given. Emily Blunt has certainly given better performances, but her voyeuristic turn as an agonized and recovering alcoholic who can't even trust her own mind is still compelling stuff, anchoring the film through even the most inconsistently campy and over-the-top melodramatic stretches, making it more watchable than it perhaps has any right to be.
*** / *****
Another year, another Weinstein Company release to sneak in just in time for Oscar season, here represented by the true life story of a boy from India who becomes lost, and grows up to his adulthood in Australia. The story of Saroo certainly sounds like an emotional story, and you can see a great effort has gone into the emotional side of the film, but at the end of the day, I found those emotional peaks to feel largely unearned. Separated into two parts, the earlier sections of young Saroo - while compelling - feel like pieces of much shorter flashback sections padded out to get the film to two hours, and the adulthood sections feel greatly rushed at the same time. It also falls into some very easy and cliched trappings to milk more sympathy, like adult Saroo jarringly going from passive yet pleasant, to standoffish and bitter the moment he takes to his long journey of locating his original home, made possible by the awkward product placement of Google Earth. Dev Patel shows capable dramatic chops in these sections, and Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara lend sweet support as the important women in his life, but I just couldn't be endeared by Lion nearly as much as I wanted to. But hey, I'm sure the Oscar voters will love it.
*** / *****
Coming off of his surprisingly intense and fast-paced disaster film Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg now turns to the streets of 2013 Boston in Patriots Day, based around the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings. This entire film goes right back to my point raised with Deepwater Horizon, in that Berg is very skilled at crafting visceral intensity and powerful emotional breakdowns in the moment - and this movie has some truly effective moments of nail-biting suspense, but when it comes to crafting his script and fleshing his characters out, that's where his films falter. It's nice to see Berg not going too far into blind jingoism or any overt political statements (mostly), instead just letting the real-life figures going through their case be the central focus, but the screenplay is spread so thin, and the pieces so disparate, not only does Berg fail to differentiate characters beyond what actor is playing them, but he sidelines many so often that one can easily forget they're even in the film, with many of them only given several 30 second clips before it's time to play out their real-life exploits, and then they disappear from the rest of the film. It makes you feel bad for the fantastic cast that Berg has assembled to play these people - including John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and a criminally underutilized J.K. Simmons, all of whom are clearly giving it their best effort, but the material they've been handed begs for more capable hands to fit the pieces together.
*** / *****