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A few films have opened of late with the deadlier of the species front and center.
The one with the most hullabaloo (that’s 1960’s speak for buzz) is The Girl on the Train, based on a best seller by Paula Hawkins that falls into the subgenre of girl novels (as in Gone…, …in the Dark, and …with the Dragon Tattoo).
In this story, an alcoholic takes the same train to and from New York every day. She is especially obsessed with two houses she passes each time, one where her ex-husband lives with his new wife and child (and the alcoholic used to live), and one with a couple she’s created a fantasy world about in which they live a fairy tale existence. When the one from the fairy tale home turns up missing (which is sort of oxymoronic), she tries to figure out what happened, even though there’s a possibility she is the cause of it since she often has drinking black outs and can’t remember everything she did.
Though the story revolves around a group of women and their attempt to take control of their lives, with sisterhood coming firmly in first place, the attitude of the film towards women feels a bit retro with the same old tired tropes: woman are emotionally fragile beings who can easily be manipulated by men because, well, that’s just the way women are, poor creatures, as well as their lives being defined by motherhood (who can’t get pregnant, who can, and who is).
We’ve come a long way baby from I am woman, hear me roar.
Still, it must be admitted that aside from the 1950’s portrayal of feminism, The Girl on the Train is actually quite diverting. It’s your basic who done it, but in spite of the obviousness as to who the villain is (note to filmmakers, if you obscure a character’s face, but don’t obscure others, it kind of gives it all away), you do want to know how it’s all going to turn put. Even though you know what’s going on, there’s just enough here so that you want to be there when the central character catches on.
And it’s all quite satisfactorily done, with a nice non-linear plot that is rather clever (Erin Cressida Wilson did the solid adaptation, but I don’t know if the structure is hers or the books), with a fine varnish in all the technical areas, including the direction by Tate Taylor.
With Emily Blunt as the alcoholic; Haley Bennett as the one who disappears; and Rebecca Ferguson as the new wife. Justin Theroux, Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez play the men in their lives. Only Blunt really rises above the material.
Also with Allison Janney as a police detective and Laura Prepon as Blunt’s sister with terrible taste in eyebrows.
And Lisa Kudrow, one of our finest and criminally underused actresses, in an important role as the empathetic wife of the ex-husband’s boss.
Writer/director Elite Zexer’s movie Sand Storm is also a story about women being manipulated by men, not so much emotionally, but mainly because the law is not on their side and there is little they can do about it. Here, in a Bedouin village in southern Israel, a mother and daughter fight for their dignity and even freedom when the head of their household takes on a second wife.
Neither woman takes the situation lying down. The wife shows her displeasure until she is in danger of banishment and the daughter tries to marry against her family’s wishes and outside the tribe. But there is only so much one can do when the law and society is stacked against you.
The movie is a very solid example of independent filmmaking and Zexer acquits himself well on his first feature. It’s not quite as riveting as one might like. It doesn’t exactly grab you as much as you might wish. But it’s certainly an intriguing look into another culture and way of life.
With Reba Blal as the mother Jailila and Lamas Amar in her screen debut as the daughter. Both give solid, empathetic performances.
Irish Writer/director Andrea Arnold first broke into the movie world with two exciting pieces of filmmaking: Red Road, a thriller about a CCTV operator who sees a man she hoped she’d never see again, and Fish Tank, a coming of age story about a teen trying to figure out her place in the world.
Now she’s come to America with another coming of age story about a young woman who gets involved with a group of people her age going city to city selling fake magazine subscriptions.
And at first there’s something quite fascinating about it all. Arnold is not just captivated by this drifting group of grifters and how they relate and create their own tribal rules and relationships, she’s spellbound by them. She’s also enthralled by the world and especially the nature all around them. She’ll cut very purposefully to catch an insect living its life or the empty panoramas of the areas they pass through.
The screenplay is often highly improvised by this group made up of primarily non-professionals and that does give it an intriguing reality at times. But after a while, the characters and their actions tend to wear out their welcome. It’s obvious that Arnold finds these hustlers far more riveting than I did, so she just keeps the whole thing going with a few too many false endings. Arnold is a bit more interested in her subject matter than the length would dramatically allow.
With Shia LaBeouf, who I think is never going to give a good performance but is excellent, as usual, as the Artful Dodger who entices our central character into leaving home. Sasha Lane in her screen début is the title Oliver-like character. And Riley Keough is the Fagin leader of the group.
Why is it surprising that the best of the bunch is a low budget horror film with subtitles made in another country?
There is a sub-genre of horror films of women forced to raise their children on their own resulting in movies in which the specter of single motherhood brings on inevitable evil of some sort. Who can forget the wicked basketful of kisses Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, or the possessed, pea soup regurgitating Regan in the Exorcist, or more recently little Samuel in The Babadook?
Let this be a lesson to independent women everywhere.
The most recent example of this leit motif comes courtesy of Iran (though filmed in Jordan) and is titled Under the Shadow. It’s after the revolution and a young Iranian woman living with her husband and daughter in Tehran wants to return to her medical studies, but since she chose the wrong side to identify with in protesting the government, she is informed that she will never be allowed back into medical school.
The Iran/Iraq war of the 1980’s is now at its height. The husband is conscripted and mother and daughter are left alone, partially because the woman’s anger at her situation and her pride won’t bring her to go live with her in-laws. But mother and daughter soon start experiencing unexplainable events when a young boy, sent to live with relatives downstairs from the mother and daughter, claims to have brought some Djinn with him.
Under the Shadow, a first feature by writer/director Babak Anvari, is a clever, slow burn of a horror film that builds to some fun jump and go boo moments, as well as more terrifying and lengthier set pieces. The screenplay is better than the directing. Anvari delivers a very solid product and he does some neat special effects on a budget, but it’s the story and characters that more impress.
With Narjes Rashid excellent as the mother and first timer Avon Manshadi impressive as the daughter.