MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington On Movies: Inferno, The Girl On The Train

Inferno (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ron Howard, 2016.

Inferno, the third in Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ series of Dan Brown-derived high-end action movies, aspires to classy trash. At least it tries — mashing references to the works of the great classical Italian poet Dante Alighieri (“The Divine Comedy”) with the not-so-great works of the financially astute airport bestsellermeister Brown (The Da Vinci Code), amid imagery that suggests a nightmare attraction on the National Geographic Channel.

Despite generally unfavorable reviews, it’s an often good-looking picture (shot by cinematographer Salvatore Totino in the streets and museums of Venice, Florence, Budapest and Istanbul), and it has an admirable cast — topped by Hanks at his more good-guyish and vulnerable, backed by such ace international actors as fetching Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), intense Ben Foster (Hell Or High Water), immensely likable Omar Sy (The Intouchables), savvy Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) and suave Irrfan Khan (Life Of Pi).

The problem is… the script.
The movie is not badly done, though it’s faster and camera-bobblier than necessary. It’s as frenetically paced and in-your-face handheld visually as the likable director Howard might get without drinking himself into a stupor. Indeed, as Hanks and Jones zip through all those spectacular cityscapes, often on foot, their director often seems to be mimicking Paul Greengrass (of the Bourne franchise) at his most frenetic and hardly handheld.

Once the movie kicks off — with Foster as mad bio-engineer Bertrand Zobrist plunging to his death from a church tower, and Hanks as the renowned symbotologist and puzzle-solver Robert Langdon waking up an amnesiac in a Florence hospital bed, with the felicitous Doctor Sienna Brooks (Jones) at his side — it hits a Ninth Circle-of-hell-for-leather pace that rarely lets up.

With awe-inspiring architecture looming all around them, and the carabinieri of several continents hot on their heels, Hanks’ Langdon and Jones’s Dr. Brooks are off to the races, pursued at first by the trigger-happy Vayentha (Ana Ularu), who shoots up their hospital, and later, by several posses representing various world health organizations and international cops, That includes Sy as Christoph Bouchard, Knudsen as Elizabeth Sinskey and Khan as Harry Sims, all a step or nine behind our hero and heroine (maybe), while they try to crack clues embedded in Dante’s original “Inferno” and in hellish or bleak paintings by Botticelli and Vasari.

Why?  I don’t want to suggest too much, or rile the feathers of Spoiler Alert, but apparently the world is once again in danger of ending, or at least of partially ending. It seems that before he took to his Vertigo-ish flight, and fell to his death, the mad Zobrist planted a bomb somewhere, one that somehow will kill several billion or so of the world population, which is Zobrist’s drastic solution to world over-crowding.  But as long as Langdon and Brooks (or somebody) keep running, and solving puzzles, and traveling from Florence to Venice, to Istanbul, we’ve got a fighting chance. At least, so it seems,

Movies about the approaching apocalypse, or the end of the world, or the slaughter of billions (which is the threat here) have become so common these days, it sometimes feels as if the entire cinema world, or much of it, is overly obsessed with mass annihilation. But, as here, and as also in the Bourne and Neeson shows, personal destruction or salvation is also on the agenda, oozing fears that not even a certified mensch like Hanks can allay.

After playing staunch common-man heroes in Captain Phillips and Sully” Hanks plays an egghead in the throes of angst and madness, and, because we like him, we’re probably willing to cut him some slack. Hanks is as anguished as he’s been since Philadelphia — and his tormented mug radiates near psychotic fear so gushingly it becomes almost painful to watch, Likewise, Ms. Jones, who looks a little like the young Jane Fonda in a cutie-pie mode, seems, as she races along with the frantic cryptologist, almost provocatively cool.

Irrfan Khan, however, legitimately steals the movie (hotly pursued by Knudsen and Sy). The Indian superstar plays head-of-World-Health Harry with a tongue-in-cheek urbanity that softens the plot’s pretensions. At his best, Khan suggests the kind of smoothie skill Cary Grant could call to arms in a sprightly comic thriller like North By Northwest or Charade.

Ron Howard has taken heat for this movie, not entirely deserved. (Not entirely not-deserved, either.) It’s not such a hot movie, maybe, and critics and reviewers have been mostly, understandably, unimpressed.  But the problem with the film is the script: what Dan Brown gave them to start out with and what screenwriter David Koepp (veteran of the Spider-Man and Mission : Impossible series) was able to add to it. The movie should have been an entertaining puzzle; instead it’s more of an exploding art lecture, with Hanks and Company as speed demon lecturers.
But at least Inferno assumes, and tries to play to, a somewhat literate audience, while employing some top-notch technicians and writers, including Hanks and Howard. It might even send a few potential readers to the great original work (Dante’s, not Brown’s)  — which is more than you can say of, say, some Liam Neeson scenic action show slambangers, like the Taken trilogy. Meanwhile, if you want to see a really good movie with “inferno” in its title,  try Werner Herzog’s Into The Inferno. That’s hot stuff.

The Girl On The Train (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S., Tate Taylor, 2016
The Girl On The Train is a chic romantic crime thriller in Gone Girl mode — but not as engrossing or gripping, nor as packed with interesting characters and wicked plot twists. Mainstream audiences should like it, but most of them probably won’t love it (as they did with the book) or become obsessed with it, the way they might with, say, Hitchcock‘s rail-riding masterpiece, The Girl On The Train. Unlike the Gilliam Flynn-penned bestseller The Girl On The Train tends to resemble, or the David Fincher-directed suspenser that was fashioned from Flynn’s massively popular book, this outing tends to be more ordinary, less involving, less icily compelling.

Writer Paula Hawkins’ almost equally massive bestseller is about a woman whose life falls apart, then becomes a hard-drinking, train-riding voyeur, spying on what she imagines to be the perfect lives lived by the two couples she regularly watches from her commuter train windows. That main character, Rachel Watson (played by the eye-catchingly beautiful Britisher Emily Blunt), has lost her husband Tom (played by the disturbing Justin Theroux) to a pretty little blonde, Anna (played by Swedish stunner Rebecca Ferguson), and Rachel spies on this new couple with self-flagellating gloomy obsessives.

And Rachel, besides drinking herself silly, also spies on another couple, just a few houses down from Tom and Anna, two others whom she also imagines leading the lives of golden joy: macho-man Scott Hipwell (Welshman Luke Evans) and another pretty little blonde, Megan (Haley Bennett). Also involved in this peeping tom’s delight of a tale is Megan’s sexy shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by Venezuelan Édgar Ramírez) — and Rachel’s perhaps too-tolerant friend Kathy (Laura Prepon), who’s putting her pal up and forgives all her rotten behavior. Soon Rachel has plunged into what might be a nightmare of infidelity and possible murder.

Gone Girl was an incredibly clever thriller with an incredibly tricky plot. The Girl On The Train is not too clever, not too tricky.  Director Tate Taylor (who made the humanistic Southern family drama The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) have changed the background from London (in the book), to New York and the Westchester suburbs, and maybe they’ve lost something in the switch.

Emily Blunt is a camera-stealer, but her character has been written (at first) as such a pain-in-the-ass, that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her.  The surprise ending isn’t very surprising.  Only Danny Elfman’s Bernard Herrmanneque score (justly praised by the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy), achieves excellence in the style department. And only Allison Janney, in a fine sardonic “Law and Order-ish” turn  (she’d be a good lady sidekick for the late Jerry Orbach’s Lenny Brisco) has crafted much of an engaging character.

The screenplay is just about what you’d expect and Taylor’s direction doesn’t rise above the ordinary either. The Girl On The Train may have been a great read on the airplane (or on the train), but the movie made me want to watch something else, out the window. Unfortunately, I was in a theater at the time.

 

 

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