Railway Man, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway enthusiast, meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nurse, during a train ride from Southampton to Glasgow. Though she is curious about him, clearly very intelligent and good-hearted, Eric appears to be more interested in his timetable than he is about her. His goal is to go around the country to collect railway memorabilia. The two strangers will come to get married eventually, but Patti is unaware of Eric’s experiences in Kanchanaburi—a town in Thailand where British soldiers were tortured, beaten, and abused by the Japanese Imperial Army’s military police during World War II.
“The Railway Man,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is quite small in scope and almost devoid of emotional hyperbole by choice which gives it a slight edge against similar movies that are based on real experiences during wartime. But the picture is not skillfully helmed in that the setup and conclusion are too simplistic and abrupt. Such qualities are not appropriate in a story like this because trauma is all about details—specifics that we may or may not want to look into or think about for too long but we are fascinated by them nonetheless. Generalizations prevent the picture from offering something truly special.
To make the past more interesting than the present is an appropriate move. Because the film’s core is defined by what has happened to Eric in the 1940s, it is only right that we are jolted into paying close attention once the present folds into the grim past. Young Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine beautifully. I was impressed because I believed that, despite the different eras, younger Eric and older Eric is one person. It helps that Irvine has chosen to adopt some of Firth’s signature mannerisms—attributes that the latter seems unable to shed in every role, no matter how good he is. Though he is less experienced than Firth, that makes Irvine not only aware but very smart because he ends up using his co-star’s quirks to his advantage.
Kidman and Firth do share a good level of chemistry, especially when their characters first meet on the train, but a lot of their scenes come off repetitive. Though Kidman does a solid job portraying a woman who is deeply concerned about her husband’s psychological state and well-being, she is not given very much to do other than to look sad. To me, her expressions essentially range from seeing her puppy being stolen and there is nothing she can do about it to seeing her puppy getting kicked in the gut. Kidman has always been that performer who can pull off a silent sadness but still being very beautiful. It is always nice to watch an actor performing on the inside rather than relying on behavior to create a semblance of believability.
It is disappointing that the film does not spend enough time in showing Eric’s relationship with his comrades. Because of this, the young British soldiers around him are rather interchangeable. When a name is mentioned, I found myself having no idea which person is being referred to so I relied on a particular character reacting and missing, for a second or two, the deeper details of the drama. Distractions weaken the power of the film significantly because the tone and pacing are understated to such an extent that any interruption in the delicate balance comes off very noticeable and off-putting.
Based on the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, “The Railway Man” is not that impressive from a storytelling standpoint even though the story it wishes to tell is worth hearing. Many people tend to find it difficult to draw the line between the two which is understandable but never excusable.
★ / ★★★★
The failure of “Stonewall,” written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich, lies in the fact that it never gathers the dramatic momentum required to show the audience why the Stonewall riots is arguably the most important event that triggered the gay liberation movement in the U.S. It is curious because the film has essentially two chances to build a cathartic climax using the lead protagonist as the conduit of a revolution.
Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) is an all-American teenager from Indiana who runs away to New York City a few months prior to his first year in Columbia University. A series of flashbacks reveal that his reason for leaving home is homophobia from his peers and friends at school, even from his own family. During Danny’s first day in the big city, he is befriended by a colorful street hustler named Ray (Jonny Beauchamp). But NYC is no safe haven. It turns out that homophobia in the city is magnified, sometimes violent.
There are many scenes that ought to have been rewritten because the dialogue comes across corny, forced, and downright silly. Irvine, a performer who is proficient when it comes to delivering subtle emotions and building layers to his characters the longer the camera rests on his face, looks awkward, a fish out of water, barely able to make sense of what his character wishes to communicate or accomplish. The script’s overall disconnect is so palpable, during the key Stonewall sequences I found myself either laughing out loud or burying my face in my hands out of shame and disbelief.
The picture hopes to make a tribute to the unsung heroes of the Stonewall riots, but none of them are particularly engaging or interesting. Danny interacts with various LGBTQ street kids, older gay males who wish to make a change through a more peaceful means, and policemen with varying motivations, but these scenes are not engrossing, merely decorations to service the plot. It would have been an interesting approach if the lead character had been muted at times, serving as an accessory, when the figures with whom we are supposed to pay attention to are front and center. Instead, just about everybody is so dull, they end up blending into one another.
A few flashbacks command a whiff of resonance but they are evanescent. There is a level of genuine yearning in the moments between Danny and his secret lover from school (Karl Glusman), but it is clear that what they have—whatever it is—will lead only to pain and heartbreak. Thus, I was somewhat moved by Joe and Danny’s reunion toward in the end—one in chains while the other is free. These two souls might have spent their lives together in another place and time. But not in this story.
“Stonewall” paints a rather bland picture when it should have been full of color, personality, and, perhaps most importantly, rage. Halfway through the film I considered how filmmakers like John Cameron Mitchell or Bernardo Bertolucci might have taken the material to more daring, complex, vibrant, and emotional avenues.
Beyond the Reach (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
While out hunting in the Mojave Desert, Madec (Michael Douglas), a corporate shark in the process of closing down a multimillion-dollar deal, shoots a man accidentally. Ben (Jeremy Irvine), Madec’s hunting guide, insists that they return the corpse to town as soon as possible. However, his client has another idea: Shoot the dead man—this time with Ben’s rifle—to make the death look like a murder. After all, one cannot shoot a man twice accidentally. Although offered a great life in exchange for his silence, Ben opts to do the right thing—which gets him in very big trouble with the man who has everything except a conscience.
Minimalist down to its marrow, director Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s “Beyond the Reach” may be unbelievable at times but it is without a doubt entertaining, suspenseful, and thrilling. It could have been boring—after all, it is about a person waiting for another to die under the desert sun—but it knows exactly when and how to change gears in order to make us care about what is about to happen. The film is not for everyone because it requires a bit of patience and a whole lot of appreciation for the little things.
The protagonist is smart, resourceful, and charismatic. But so is the villain—and with a dash of crazy. This makes them equal and it is quite compelling to watch them move the chess pieces across the desert-dry yellow board. Furthermore, the two characters are interesting because they have opposite personalities. More interesting is how the screenplay allow them to dance from the moment the fatal bullet hits the unsuspecting man from a distance.
Irvine plays Ben as quiet, mysterious, maybe a bit sad for having been left behind—first by his family and then recently by his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence). And yet there is an indomitable fighter inside him—Irvine’s signature and the reason why, in my opinion, he is one of the best young performers currently working today. On the other hand, Douglas plays Madec as supremely confident, with a powerful presence despite his age, and someone who oozes privilege. Madec is the kind of antagonist who plays classical music and drinks cocktail while watching someone suffer under the scorching sun through his binoculars. It is interesting to see the two duking it out in one of the harshest places on the planet.
I enjoyed how the camera is unafraid to show the repercussions of being out in the sun for too long. It begins with a simple sunburn and as the picture goes on, blisters begin to appear, the soles of one’s feet start to tear off, sweat and grime makes Ben more animalistic—internally and externally—desperate for food, water, and safety. The protagonist knows when to take advantage of a situation but is constantly prevented from getting the upper-hand. This pattern is very necessary to support the material’s understated message: The rich tends to always be a step ahead of those who have less simply because they have means.
Based on the novel “Deathwatch” by Robb White and screenplay by Stephen Susco, “Beyond the Reach” could have been a home run if it were not for its final five minutes. The last shot, I think, should have left the viewer wondering instead of giving out the answer once the screen fades to black. The story is a morality play after all. Nevertheless, I admired the picture for its willingness to experiment.
Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, The (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Following the bombings in 1941 London, Headmistress Hogg (Helen McCrory) and Ms. Parkins (Phoebe Fox) take their eight remaining schoolchildren to the country to keep them safe. During their first night in the Eel Marsh House, quite a drive to the nearest populated area, Ms. Parkins suspects that they are not living there alone. She claims she has seen a woman in the cellar although they never get a chance to speak. Meanwhile, one of the children, recently orphaned Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), captures the attention of a particular presence inside a room that is supposed to be locked.
“The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death,” based on the screenplay by Jon Croker and directed by Tom Harper, is both an enjoyable and a slightly disappointing horror picture. While it does not have very many scares that truly get under the skin and inside the mind, its images are so alluring at times that it is like peering into an old, worn down painting. As a visual experience, I admired it. As a horror film, it is engaging enough but it offers nothing particularly special.
Would-be love stories within this genre are usually of a big annoyance to me because many of them tend to be syrupy, forced, the actors devoid of chemistry. Here, an exception can be found because of two reasons. First, the romance is not central to the plot so when it comes around it is most welcome. Second, Ms. Perkins and the pilot she meets on the train, Harry (Jeremy Irvine), are highly attractive together. Fox and Irvine play their characters with genuine sweetness and empathy, not wooden caricatures of two characters who just so happen to be attracted to one another in a horror movie.
Visually, scenes that take place indoors and outdoors are equally beautiful. The house is so worn down and dark inside that one can believe no one has set foot there in years. It is the opposite of scary movies that look and feel like they are shot in a studio. Here, one is inspired to explore through the dusty bookshelves, piles of rubbles, holes on the floor. It is a creepy place, to be sure, but it is also inviting. We get the impression that if we did get a chance to look through the house more carefully, we would get a pretty good idea about who used to live there and how they lived.
The perimeter of the Eel Marsh House inspires one to either start cleaning and pulling out the weeds or playing tag and hide-and-seek. The cemetery looks appropriately haunted. while the marsh that surrounds feels cold and unfriendly. Cinematographer George Steel establishes the place to command a presence.
The scares are sometimes weak, many of them relying on things jumping suddenly in front of the camera, accompanied by loud music. I preferred it when the camera dares to sit still while the character is standing on the foreground, the shot not at all trying too hard to get us to pay attention on the background… until something begins to move.
A surprising element comes in the form of the paranormal entity named in the title. Mainly, the story is not about her. Rather, she functions more as a catalyst when it comes to our protagonist being forced to deal with and move on from something that happened to her when she was younger.
War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.