The Commuter


What I love about train travel is that it’s so relaxing.

(2018) Action (Lionsgate) Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Andy Nyman, Clara Lago, Roland Moller, Florence Pugh, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ella-Rae Smith, Nila Aalia, Colin McFarlane, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Adam Nagaitis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Andy Lucas, Zaak Conway, Ben Caplan, Letitia Wright. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

 

A word to the wise: if you see Liam Neeson getting aboard any sort of conveyance – a plane, a train, a boat, a bus – get off immediately. There’s bound to be mayhem.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is a decent guy. He gets up every morning at 6am rain or shine at his home in Tarrytown, NY, makes sure his son Danny (Chapman) is up and getting ready for school, is driven to the train station by his loving wife Karen (McGovern), chit-chats with the regulars aboard the train and then gets off at Grand Central Station to head off and sell life insurance. His routine varies very little day after day. From all outward signs this is a happy, loving and prosperous family. In reality they’re pretty much two out of three; Danny is getting ready to attend Syracuse University in the fall and that’s a sizable chunk of change and the MacCauley family is just scraping by as it is.

The bad day starts when MacCauley is unexpectedly let go from his position. At 60 years of age, the job prospects for the ex-NYPD cop are pretty grim to say the least. He heads back home on the train, wondering how he’ll break the news to Karen. Wondering how he’ll get the mortgage paid. Wondering how he’ll send his son to college.

His wonderings are interrupted by a beautiful woman as wonderings often are. She sits down across from him and introduces herself as Joanna (Farmiga) and she has quite a proposition for Michael. All he has to do is find someone on the train who doesn’t belong there – someone known only as Prynne – and put an electronic device in his or her bag. That’s it. Do it and Michael will get $100,000 tax-free at a time where he desperately needs it.

The problem is Michael is a decent guy and an ex-cop to boot and the ex-cop smells a rat. Soon he gets shanghaied into the game because if he doesn’t play along his family will be murdered. He has no way of knowing how many eyes and ears Joanna has on the train, who he can trust or even the first idea of how to find Prynne. Time is running out and if he doesn’t find Prynne or find a way to stop Joanna, the people he loves are going to die.

Neeson has pretty much spent the latter part of his career playing nice guys who definitely don’t finish last in action films. He is beginning to look his age here – I think that’s a deliberate choice by the actor and director Collet-Serra to make Michael more vulnerable and less of an unstoppable Rambo-kind of guy. Michael doesn’t have a particular set of skills so much as an absolutely iron will and devotion to his family.

While the action sequences range from the preposterous to the well-staged (and to be fair they tend to be more often the latter than the former), the CGI of the train itself is absolutely horrible. They would have been better off filming a Lionel model train set than the images that they got which in no way look realistic. Seriously though the production crew would have been much better off using practical effects but I suppose the budget could only tolerate bargain basement CGI.

As action movies go it’s pretty much suited for a January release with all that implies. As most veteran moviegoers will tell you, most movies released in the first month of the year are generally not much in the quality department; high expectations should generally be avoided. Taking that into account, The Commuter isn’t half bad. It’s not half good either.

REASONS TO GO: The opening sequence is cleverly done. Some of the action sequences are pretty nifty too.
REASONS TO STAY: The CGI is truly horrendous; they would have been better off with practical effects. Neeson is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth for these kinds of roles.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action film-type violence (some of it intense) as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Collet-Serra has directed Neeson in an action film within the last seven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Non-Stop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Darkest Hour

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The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal

The Bank Job (2008)


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2008) True Crime Drama (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, David Suchet, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson, Richard Lintern, Peter de Jersey, Keeley Hawes, Hattie Morahan, Craig Fairbrass, Gerard Moran, Colin Salmon, Georgia Taylor, Peter Bowles, Alastair Petrie, Julian Lewis Jones, Andrew Brooke, Sharon Maughan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

We’re all out to simply survive in a world that isn’t always conducive to survival. We occasionally take risks, hoping to better ourselves but sometimes those risks can be devastating simply because we don’t always know the whole story behind them.

Terry Leather (Statham) is a small-time crook who has been trying his damnedest to lead a life on the straight and narrow, but he just can’t get a break. He is in debt to the sort of people who send out big guys with small intellects and crowbars to make their collections at his used car dealership. Eddie (Jibson), one of his long-time mates and employees, is getting married and most of his close friends who have lived life on the dodgy side – Dave (Mays) and Kevin (Moore) – are there. So is his wife Wendy (Hawes) with whom Terry is deeply in love, and it’s for her he’s trying to tread the path of the righteous.

Enter Martine Love (Burrows), a former flame of Kevin’s and, as we find out later, of Terry’s as well, with an offer that sounds too good to be true. There’s a little neighborhood bank that is getting its security system upgrade, but during the upgrade apparently the vault alarm has been getting tripped by tremors caused by the nearby underground, so until things get squared away the alarm has been turned off. The safety deposit boxes are completely vulnerable, a little-known fact that she’d found out from her boyfriend, ostensibly the contractor doing the security upgrade. Naturally, she thought of her old pal Terry to do the job which could be the big score he and his circle have been dreaming about all their lives.

However, things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Love’s strings are being pulled by an ambitious MI-5 agent (Lintern) who is out to get some potentially catastrophic photos from one of the safety deposit boxes in the bank, this one owned by Michael X (de Jersey), a would-be Black Power revolutionary who is in fact a drug dealer and a criminal who is blackmailing the government with those photos. There is also a pornographer (Suchet) whose ledger of payoffs to crooked cops have not only the straight-and-narrow police looking for the thieves, but also every corrupt cop in London as well. Terry is entering waters infested by sharks in a leaky boat, and doesn’t know it. The action here is all the more incredible because it is based on actual events.

Ever since I saw Statham in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Italian Job I thought he was destined to be a big star. At this point in his career, he was more of a B-level star, making mainly European action films although a couple of American films like Crank were on his resume as well. He remains to this day one of the most sought-after action stars in the business but this movie gave us notice that he could be much more.

Most of the rest of the cast are for the most part not well known to Americans, although Burrows has starred in Boston Legal and Deep Blue Sea and Suchet has been seen as Hercule Poirot in the PBS series. I did love the characterizations here; there is guilelessness to most of the blokes in the gang that is charming. When contrasted with the sophistication of those in the government and in the underground. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

Director Donaldson keeps the pace moving along; the nearly two hours of the movie went by very quickly for me. He doesn’t resort to using the fashionable hand-held camera or slo-mo action sequences which seem to dominate action movies these days, but prefers to allow the characters and their actions to tell the story, a very refreshing touch if you ask me.

Statham plays Terry as a devoted family man and far from a criminal mastermind, but street-smart, clever and tough enough to make it all work. As you watch events unfold, there is a certain inevitability that things are going to get very bad for the gang of thieves and that creates a good kind of tension as they spiral into an unavoidable morass that is not of their own making but are the unwitting catalysts for.

The villains here are absolutely hateful and are clearly not messing about; during an interrogation scene, there isn’t a lot of chit-chat or cliché, just a brutality that you would expect from desperate men. The story is compelling and keeps our interest throughout, and while the lines are clearly drawn, the motivations for everyone concerned are equally as clear, which makes this movie work as a rich tapestry. There is enough comedy here to give the movie a kind of light touch, but Donaldson never lets it get away from the action-driven tone. He understands what side of his bread is buttered.

Although the movie is set in the early 1970s, the filmmakers don’t really set the period as well as other movies have, so at times you’re almost fooled into thinking the movie is set in a modern time frame. Also, the coda is a little bit unfulfilling; you want to know what became of some of these characters you’ve been rooting for, as well as perhaps wanting to know more about the actual robbery itself but to be fair, much of the details of the actual crime have been suppressed by British authorities and while the filmmakers claim to have information detailing why that is (which is revealed here), their sources have never been revealed and as far as the truth goes this may merely be clever marketing on the part of the producers.

This is a well-made heist movie that moves at a comfortably quick pace without being so frenetic it makes you dizzy. The twists and turns are nicely done and Statham does a terrific job. You may wind up comparing it to The Italian Job or the Oceans movies, but I think you might rule favorably for this movie as opposed to the others I’ve mentioned.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham stakes his place as a big star. A real sense of impending tragedy. Nicely paced, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t set period as well as it might have. Ending is a bit unfulfilling.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a great deal of nudity, sexual innuendo and a gruesome and disturbing torture scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: If you look carefully, you can catch a cameo by Mick Jagger as a bank employee.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the actual 1971 Baker Street heist.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.8M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Lamb

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

World War Z


Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

(2013) Action (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido, David Andrews, Vicky Araico. Directed by Marc Forster

When in the midst of a global pandemic, the sheer magnitude and scope of the carnage can be overwhelming. You can’t wrap your head around it. Instead, everything boils down to the basics – protecting yourself, protecting your family.

Gerry Lane (Pitt) used to work for the United Nations as an investigator into human rights abuses. He was put in harm’s way frequently, going to some of the worst cesspools of humanity that you can imagine. Tired of being away from his family and knowing his marriage wouldn’t survive much more of him being away and in jeopardy, he retires and goes home to Philadelphia to be the dad to his daughters Constance (Jerins) and Rachel (Hargrove), not to mention husband to his wife Karin (Enos).

But all of that turns upside-down after being caught in a traffic jam in which seemingly normal humans turn into super-rabid flesh-eating ghouls, zombies for lack of a better term. He manages to steer them to safety in the apartment of a Hispanic family whose son Tomas (Guido) shows a bond with Gerry’s daughters. Gerry gets a call from his old U.N. boss Thierry Umutoni (Mokoena) who offers to airlift Gerry and his family (which now includes Tomas) to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Gerry is in no position to turn it down.

But there’s no such thing as a free ride and Gerry is expected to earn his keep. Umutoni wants Gerry to find the source of the plague so that it might be cured. Gerry doesn’t want to leave his family but the U.N. Military Commander (Dale) essentially blackmails Gerry into it so off he goes with gung-ho U.N. research virologist Dr. Fassbach (Gabel) to find out how to stop this plague which will wipe out civilization in a matter of days if it isn’t stopped.

So begins the roller coaster ride as Gerry and his team go from place to place in a desperate race against time to find the cause of the plague and somehow cure it before civilization collapses entirely, and that collapse is coming almost as fast as the terrifyingly speedy zombies who seem to have the upper hand.

This isn’t a typical zombie movie in which entrails and blood form the main fascination. While there is some leg munching, we rarely see the zombies in close-up except in the last third of the film when Lane is in a World Health Organization research facility in Wales and has a close encounter with a tooth-clicking zombie that is as terrifying as the opening Philadelphia sequence is. If only the middle third was as good as the opening and closing sequences.

There is a lot of carnage but most of it is off-screen. People do get killed but we rarely see it precisely, making it a definite PG-13 kind of movie. There will be those who miss the explicit gore that comes with a zombie movie but I didn’t think it necessary myself here.

Those who loved the Max Brooks book this was based on will miss a lot more than gore. The movie follows the book only in the barest of chalk outlines. While some of the characters from the book appear here, it is often in different contexts. The tone and themes of the book are essentially gone, along with the whole conceit that this is an archival document of a war that had already ended.

Pitt is one of the more appealing actors in Hollywood and he uses that here to make Gerry a character with a bit of a one-track mind – getting back to his family. Da Queen loved that the U.N. Observer was so…observant. Watching him connect the dots was fun, although not as fun as watching the zombies crawl up a stone wall like ants. While the digital zombies lacked character (the way that you get zombie character in such things as The Walking Dead) it is certainly fun watching them swarm. It emphasizes the inhuman portion of them.

This is basically Pitt’s show. He is onscreen nearly every moment and the focus of all our attention. Few of the other characters are developed at all, if any and for the most part even Pitt’s Gerry is kind of one-note. Still, the suspense of walking in dangerous areas with zombies about is impressive and I found myself on the edge of my proverbial seat for much of the movie. Think of it as extra icing on the zombie cake.

REASONS TO GO: I really liked the Brad Pitt character and his performance. Zombies like ants; great visuals!

REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the book will be very disappointed. A little all over the place plot-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of zombie violence, some disturbing images and some intense sequences of suspense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Fox’s role was originally much larger and was to be set up to be the human villain for the expected sequel. However after multiple re-writes the role was slimmed down to just five lines of dialogue.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100; the film got surprisingly decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Darkest Hour

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White House Down

Skyfall


Skyfall

As classic Bond as it gets.

(2012) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace, Rory Kinnear, Nicolas Woodeson, Bill Buckhurst, Elize du Toit, Tonia Sotiropoulou. Directed by Sam Mendes

 

James Bond is not just a classic; it’s a brand name for many of us. When we attend a Bond movie, we have certain expectations – incredible, jaw-dropping stunts, a charismatic villain, gorgeous women for Bond to seduce and exotic locations.

Within those expectations there are also others; gadgets of some sort or another, nifty cars, a haughty M, a title sequence with beautiful  women writhing about apparently naked, martinis shaken not stirred and so on and so forth. Mess with them and you are likely to have the purists come to your door with pitchforks and torches.

The filmmakers have no need to fear a mob after the latest Bond flick. As the film begins, a hard drive is stolen containing the names of every MI6 agent undercover in terrorist organizations. Bond (Craig) chases the perpetrator, a smooth hitman named Patrice (Rapace) over the rooftops of Istanbul and on the top of a moving train, followed by an inexperienced field agent named Eve (Harris) and monitored by M (Dench) and her chief-of-staff Tanner (Kinnear). It soon becomes apparent that Eve can no longer continue to chase the train and she gets herself to a vantage point where she can get  clear shot at the combatants but as the train approaches, she doesn’t have a clear shot. M orders her to take it anyway and Bond falls down and goes boom, off of a speeding train over a bridge and into a river.

Of course he survived. He’s James Bond. You could drop the Empire State Building on his head and he’d pick himself up, dust himself off, let loose a choice witticism and head for the nearest bar for a martini (shaken, not stirred). However, in his absence MI6 has come under siege. A bomb is planted in their headquarters. M is now answerable to a new Minister of Defense, Gareth Mallory (Fiennes) who is gently urging her to retire. The ever-prickly M refuses. She needs to find out who is behind this before she can go.

Bond is much the worse for wear when he returns. The gunshot wounds have played havoc with his shoulder, making aiming a gun a bit more problematic. He has become dependent on alcohol and has unresolved issues of rage aimed at M for not trusting him to finish off Patrice himself. Even though he’s clearly not ready to go back in the field she sends him there anyway and he follows Patrice back to his employer, a former MI6 agent named Silva (Bardem) with a grudge against M that goes beyond fury and reason. He is a computer whiz who was able to hack the MI6 mainframe and in doing so, set up a plan that ends with the destruction of MI6 and the death of M. But with James Bond on the job, England can rest easy. Can’t she?

This is simply put one of the best Bond movies ever; when Craig debuted in Casino Royale there was a sense that he was going to do great things in the franchise. After a misstep in the poorly conceived Quantum of Solace this is a gigantic leap forward. Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty clearly knows his Bond. The pacing here isn’t breakneck but it’s fast enough to keep us breathless but not so fast that we can’t enjoy the ride.

There are nods here to the Bond movies of yesterday with old friends making their reappearances including Q (Whishaw) and other people and things who I will leave nameless so as to not spoil the surprise of their appearances which in every case were met with spontaneous “Ahhhhhh” sounds from the audience.  

Craig is perhaps the most battered Bond in history; he gets shot more than once and is riddled with scars physical and psychological. Craig plays Bond with the cool of Sean Connery and the physicality of Jason Statham. The movie goes into Bond’s backstory more than any other has before it (the climactic fight takes place in Bond’s childhood home) in which much that is past is made to be left there, leaving the film’s final scenes to pave the way for the franchise’s future.

Dench is a revelation here; while Bond has never been what you would call an actor’s franchise Dench shines as M in a way Bernard Lee never would have been allowed to and turns the character into a force of nature. Makes you wish Dench would be given the vacant slot at the CIA.

Bardem, an amazing villain in No Country For Old Men, shows that he might very well be the best screen villain since Anthony Hopkins. He is scary and psychotic with a particular axe to grind; he’s not after world domination but merely to rid himself of his demons so that he may live the life he chooses, a life uniquely suited to him. It’s a believable villain which is made the more layered with his apparent bisexual impulses and a pretty strong knowledge of psychological warfare. Silva is brilliant, physically capable and remorseless; he makes a fitting adversary for Bond, one in which we’re not always certain Bond can triumph over.

This is definitely a must-see movie this holiday season. It has the epic scope that marks many of the best Bond films but a lot of the human elements that make it a great film period. Even if you aren’t fond of the Bond franchise you may well find something to love here and if you are, you will undoubtedly find that the movie treats the 50 years of the franchise with respect even as it reinvents it for the next 50 years, a neat trick that requires remarkable skill to pull off. Reason enough to celebrate.

REASONS TO GO: Destined to take its place as a Bond classic. Shows proper reverence but modernizes the series at the same time.

REASONS TO STAY: A few logical lapses and a bit too much product placement gets distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Like all Bond movies, there’s plenty of violence, sex and smoking. There are also a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skyfall is the first Daniel Craig-era Bond film to use a title that didn’t come from Ian Fleming. Currently there are only four titles left from Ian Fleming-written James Bond stories that have not been used for the films; The Property of a Lady, The Hildebrand Rarity, Risico and 007 in New York City

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100. The reviews agree that this is one of the best Bonds ever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye

KOMODO DRAGON LOVERS: .A pair of these gigantic lizards can be seen in a pit at the Golden Dragon Casino during a fight scene.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Rise of the Guardians

Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It