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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Wakefield


Bryan Cranston’s glamour shot.

(2016) Drama (IFC) Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Monica Lawson, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno, Isaac Leyva, Fredrick Keeve, Bill Timoney, Alexander Zale, Hal Dion, Eliza Coleman, Derek Weston, Angela Taylor-Jones, Tommy Otis, Cameron Simmons, Scott St. Blaze, Carinna Rossignoli. Directed by Robin Swicord

 

Haven’t we all at one time or another wanted to be observers in our own lives, to see how those we are closest to react if we were to disappear from their lives? Frank Capra made in some ways the ultimate version of that fantasy with It’s a Wonderful Life but while the message was uplifting and positive, some suspect that the reality would be much darker.

Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a successful New York litigator. He has a big house out in the suburbs, a beautiful wife Diane (Garner) and two great kids Emily (Bennett-Warner) and Ellen (Lawson). But that’s just the veneer. Scratch the surface a bit and you come to discover that his marriage to Diane is crumbling. They use jealousy as a means of keeping the home fires burning; she flirts with someone, they argue and then they have great sex – until the great sex part begins to stop. The kids are unenthusiastic about being around him on those few occasions when he’s actually around.

One night he returns home from his commute to find a power outage. At his front door is a raccoon sniffing around the garbage where his wife has thrown out his dinner, tired of waiting for him to come home. He chases the raccoon into the garage where it bounds up to the loft above the garage. He scares it back out again but discovers that a round window above the garage gives him a perfect view of the inside of his house. Fascinated, he plays voyeur for a bit until he falls asleep.

When he wakes up with a start, he sees his wife sending the kids off to school and then toddling off to work as if nothing happened. Incensed, he decides to play out the string a little longer. He raids the house for food and moves into the garage loft. Soon she goes from cavalier to genuinely worried. The police are called.

Weeks go by and Walter begins to experience a kind of liberating freedom. He no longer has any responsibilities, no need to conform to what’s expected of him. When a memorial service is held at the house for the missing Walter, he is bemused that one of the lawyers at his firm is trying to put the moves on Diane. He begins to reminisce about his life with her, how they met – and how he stole her away from his best friend Dirk Morrison (O’Mara) by blatantly lying. All’s fair, right?

But as weeks turn into months and the weather grows cold, he begins to experience something unexpected – loneliness. Being a voyeur has its limits and there’s no doubt that the liberation he’s experienced has lost its luster. To make matters worse, Diane has reconnected with her old flame Dirk who has taken Walter’s place at the Thanksgiving table. Walter realizes that the things he took for granted are the things that made his life worth living but is it too late for him to re-enter his life and live once again?

There is a dark almost Russian feeling to the movie that reminded me of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s an almost absurd element to the drama – does anybody really think that it wouldn’t be noticed that a wild-eyed bearded man was living in the loft above their garage? – and I found that rather pleasing.

Bryan Cranston has since breaking out in Breaking Bad become one of America’s most reliable actors. Yes, he’s done a few forgettable movies but he’s generally always memorable in them (with a few exceptions). This is all him – much of the movie is Walter’s voice-over narration – and he’s in virtually every frame of the film. It’s quite a burden to shoulder but Cranston carries it like it’s a bag full of Styrofoam. He’s very likely to get nominated for an Oscar this year – probably not for this one but for the much buzzed about Last Flag Flying – and you can see why in this film why he’s a threat every year to make the Oscar shortlist.

Garner and O’Mara are mostly glimpsed from a distance. This is all Walter’s point of view so often we don’t hear what either one is saying. They largely use body language to get across what their character is feeling. I have to award kudos to Swicord for sticking to her guns and to Garner and O’Mara for going along with her plan. It couldn’t be easy for either actor to sign up for a film where they had so little dialogue but both are an integral part of the movie’s story nonetheless.

Howard isn’t a very likable character to say the least. Most of the time in his narration he is full of nasty little asides about various people in his life. Some of his zingers are dang funny but you realize that there is a kind of nastiness to him that he might just get off on demeaning others. One quickly comes to the realization that the problem in Howard’s marriage…is Howard. The man himself takes much longer to come to that conclusion than the audience does.

This is an interesting character study but the movie isn’t really an essential one. With a performance as mesmerizing as Cranston’s is here one has to recommend it on that basis alone but frankly this won’t be one of the more stellar indie films this year in terms of quality. It’s solid though and definitely worth seeing if you can manage it but if you can’t it’s not a great loss either. Still, the central theme of going out of ourselves to get to truly know ourselves is well-handled and there is quality here. Definitely keep an eye out for it and check it out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: This is Cranston’s show and he makes the most of it. There’s a Dostoyevsky-like vibe to the film. It’s an interesting character study.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the mean-spirited side. It’s interesting but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name that appeared in the January 14, 2008 issue of The New Yorker which was in turn based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name published in 1835.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Dad
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Alien: Covenant

People Places Things


A meaningful look shared.

A meaningful look shared.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (The Film Arcade) Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Derrick Arthur, Celia Au, Paul Castro Jr., Jason DarkChocolate Dyer, Catherine Cain, Charles Cain, Brandon O’Neill, Alexa Magioncalda, Gavin Haag, Jordan Edmondson, Kiowa Smothergill. Directed by Jim Strouse

Sometimes life deals us a bum hand out of left field. We’re just thinking we’ve got things figured out and Blammo!, we discover we haven’t had a clue all along.

Will Henry (Clement) is a successful graphic artist who is deliriously in love with his twin daughters (played by the real life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) who are throwing a party in honor of their fifth birthday. He goes off into the house looking for his wife Charlie (Allynne) for some party business or another. He finds her all right; in their bedroom having sex with sad sack Gary (Chernus). Will is of course upset, but Charlie turns things around and makes herself out to be the aggrieved party. She wants a divorce and custody of the kids.

A year later Will is still suffering from depression over the whole sordid affair. He has begun teaching graphic arts at a New York-area college, having moved to Astoria in Queens which is a long train ride into the City. He sees his girls on weekends and leads a fairly lonely existence. At this point, Charlie announces she is marrying Gary – because she is pregnant with his kid. She also wants to take an improv class, so she needs someone to watch the kids and as Gary is too busy doing his monologues off-off-off-Broadway, Will is the next best choice. Will likes this idea very much; he needs to be around his kids more often than just the occasional weekend.

In the meantime, Kat (Williams), one of the students in his class, takes a romantic interest in him – not for herself but for her 45-year-old mom Diane (Hall), a lit professor at Columbia. Against all odds, they hit it off, despite Diane’s disdain for the graphic novel format in general. The two begin dating.

Then things start to go sideways for Charlie. She’s getting cold feet, and she explains to Will that she doesn’t want to make the same mistake as she did the first time – which leads Will to believe that she regards their marriage as a mistake. But she still has strong feelings for Will and he for her – so where does that leave Diane? Or Will, for that matter?

Strouse has a bit of a checkered resume, with movies that are close but no cigar on it (like Grace is Gone) but here he finally makes the checkered flag. While the story does not exactly break new ground in the busted relationships genre, it is told well and given much life thanks to some strongly written character and some fine performances.

Chief among them is Clement, who is quickly developing into one of the strongest comic actors in the world. His dry, deadpan delivery is hysterical all by itself but where Clement excels as he did in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. One of his strongest traits is that he can take an everyday guy, put him in an everyday situation and find something funny to mine out of it. He’s not the guy who makes us laugh hysterically; he’s the guy that makes us quietly chuckle to ourselves because we can find so much common ground.

Williams is a comedy star on the rise, and although her role here is fairly brief, she makes it entirely memorable. Williams is as hip a performer as there is and she looks as good on the big screen as she does on the small; only bigger, if you catch my drift. It wouldn’t surprise me if she becomes as big a star as I believe Clement is going to be, which is one of considerable size if you ask me.

]There is kind of a mopey hipster vibe here that I found myself not liking so much at first. It took me awhile to decide that I like the movie, but it is worth the effort to stay with it. Yeah, it’s got that New York indie ‘tude that I sometimes find stupefying but there is heart at the center of the movie and most of it belongs to Clement who continues to impress after the earlier this year What We Do in the Shadows.

Again, not entertainment that is going to rock your world or change your views on life. Quietly though, it gets under your skin and stays there, maybe the perfect indie romantic comedy in that regard. And we all know how vapid indie romantic comedies can be. This one is anything but that; it is surely smart, quietly funny and undeniably well-written. Those sorts of films tend to be few and far between while the mercury is still hitting the high notes during the last dregs of summer.

REASONS TO GO: Clement’s dry delivery is intoxicating. Some nice New York images.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster douche in places, particularly early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, some sexual references and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Williams is a regular correspondent on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart era and continuing into the Trevor Noah era.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mateo

The Double (2013)


Jesse Eisenberg can't stand to look.

Jesse Eisenberg can’t stand to look.

(2013) Thriller (Magnolia) Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Cathy Moriarty, Chris O’Dowd, Gemma Chan, Paddy Considine, James Fox, Rade Serbedzija, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Christopher Morris, Tony Rohr, Susan Blommaert, Phyllis Somerville, J Mascis, Natalia Warner, Joanna Finata. Directed by Richard Ayoade

Florida Film Festival 2014

When we look into the mirror, we generally have a good idea at what we’re looking at. What if the face staring back at us, however, wasn’t necessarily our own?

Simon James (Eisenberg) is a cubicle drone for one of those big conglomerates whose purpose really isn’t necessarily apparent. It is run by a mythic figure known only as the Colonel (Fox) who rarely makes appearances but is deeply appreciated and loved by his workers. Simon’s immediate boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Shawn) can barely remember Simon’s name. In fact, he can’t.

In fact, nobody can. When Simon comes into work one day on the train, his briefcase carrying his ID and pretty much his entire life gets stuck in the doors of the train and is whisked away. The security guard at the front gate doesn’t recognize Simon and isn’t disposed to letting him in at first. Only Harris (Taylor) seems to have any idea that Simon actually works for.

Worse still, Simon pines away for Hannah (Wasikowska) who works the gigantic room-sized copier machine for the company. Too shy to actually ask her out, she is kind enough to him but again doesn’t seem to know that he is anything other than an occasional nuisance, asking for a single copy of a document when, as Hannah’s co-worker points out, the copy department is meant to make thousands of copies of large documents.

However, even this somewhat desperate life is threatened when a new employee arrives: James Simon is his name and he looks like an exact doppelganger of Simon. James is everything Simon is not – cool, confident, instantly memorable, manipulative and without conscience. A mirror image, if you will; reflecting the same person but in reverse. Simon is the only one who notices that James looks exactly like him.

James begins romancing Melanie (Paige), the boss’s daughter whom Simon had been attempting to train (although she is remarkably uninterested in learning anything). While James attempts to help Simon capture the woman of his dreams, it is James that Hannah falls for. It is also James who gets recognized for Simon’s accomplishment. Simon isn’t just fading into obscurity; his life is being usurped.

This played the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and was my favorite film to come out of it. It is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the conceit of which wasn’t especially new even in Dostoevsky’s day. Still, it works as a modern parable of how our personality is more or less a reflection of how others see it – and when others don’t, we begin to fade into oblivion.

Ayoade, a British comedian who has appeared in such films as The Watch also directed Submarine, much of whose cast appears here in various roles and cameos. Like this film, his directing debut also had the subtext of the disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. Here he adopts a kind of retro-futuristic look that resembles the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil set in a kind of postwar Soviet environment with recognizable modern technology in large, boxy and hideously inconvenient to use incarnations; personal computers have tiny screens on large grey shells that take up the entire wall of a cubicle, for example. Everything is grimy and dingy, like nobody has bothered to dust for decades. Even the diner that Simon patronizes looks distinctly unappealing, and you just know that any food served by the frowzy waitress Kiki (Moriarty) is going to be tasteless, bland and will probably give you the runs.

Eisenberg is one of those actors who can be dreadfully annoying with his nervous tics and stammering, the love child between Woody Allen and Hugh Grant, but when given the right kind of role, can hammer it out of the park. He seems to excel when given characters who aren’t entirely likable; the less likable, the better – Michael Cera has much the same issue in his career. This is one of Eisenberg’s best performances to date, one in which he plays both the nebbish and the morally bankrupt hipster. Both are personas that he has done before.

The movie is darkly funny with a weird sense of humor that once in awhile comes at you from oblique angles and causes you to laugh not just because the situation is funny but because you didn’t expect it even for a moment. In fact, you are never quite sure where the movie is going, but are content and even eager to let it get you there. That’s the kind of movie that most stimulates me not only as a critic but as a moviegoer.

This isn’t likely to get a good deal of exposure. It’s certainly not a movie that’s for everyone. It is very bleak in places which you would expect from a film based on something written by a Russian writer. However, that bleakness is offset by the cheerfully warped humor and Eisenberg’s dual performance. Mainstream audiences will probably want to give this a pass but if you love movies as much as I do, it is one that you should put on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful set design and atmosphere. Eisenberg at his neurotic best.  Weird sense of humor.

REASONS TO STAY: A little twitchy in places. Not for everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  Enough foul language to garner an “R” rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there are several other films with the same title, this is the first to be based on the Dostoevsky short story that bears its name (the Stanley Kubrick film The Partner is also loosely based on the novella).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Winter in the Blood

Source Code


Source Code

The sparks between Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal are nothing compared to the flames behind them.

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Cas Anvar, Russell Peters, Brent Skagford, Craig Thomas, Gordon Masten, Scott Bakula (voice), Frederick de Grandpre. Directed by Duncan Jones

If you knew you only had eight minutes to live, what would you do with them? Would you make every second count? What if you had to re-live them over and over and over again?

Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train. There is a beautiful woman, whose name he later finds out is Caroline (Monaghan), sitting across from him, making small talk. All very simple. All very ordinary.

Except Captain Stevens shouldn’t be there. The last memory he has is of flying helicopter sorties in Afghanistan. He doesn’t know how he got there or why this beautiful woman keeps calling him “Sean.” He doesn’t understand why when he looks in the bathroom mirror, he sees another face – the face of Sean Fentress (de Grandpre), the teacher he’s supposed to be. He’s disoriented and doesn’t understand what’s happening. Then the train blows up.

He finds himself in what appears to be a flight simulator leaking hydraulic fluid, being paged by a woman in a military uniform who he later finds out is named Goodwin (Farmiga), trying to find out from Captain Stevens who blew up the train. Captain Stevens has no idea. Finally someone in charge, Dr. Rutledge (Wright) lets him know; he’s in Source Code, an experimental technology that allows him to be projected into a human host during the last eight minutes of their life and be able to relive it. There’s an explanation as to why eight minutes and why him, but it would only make your brain hurt.

The reason Captain Stevens is being sent back over and over again is that this train bombing is the precursor to a much larger, much more deadly terrorist attack. Time is running out and Captain Stevens must get past his own deepening feelings for Caroline and his desire to save the people on the train who are already dead to find out who the bomber is so millions of lives can be saved.

This is the intriguing premise to Source Code, the latest science fiction opus from director Duncan Jones, the auteur behind Moon. Like that film, it is best that only the barest plot points be revealed as to not spoil the twists and turns that the movie takes you through. Unlike many time travel pictures of late, this one isn’t strictly about time travel since nobody actually travels so much as inhabits. Still, there are plenty of paradoxes involving alternate dimensions.

Like most time travel movies, there are lots of big old plot holes that kind of make you think “oh no that doesn’t work.” For example, every time Captain Stevens goes back into the memories of Sean Fentress, the situation changes. He is able to see people, places and things Fentress didn’t actually see. If he’s inhabiting someone else’s consciousness, wouldn’t he be limited to experiencing what his host experienced? That issue is never addressed, but then again, logical people like myself may not be the best audience for this movie.

Then again, I thought this was extraordinarily well-plotted and well-written, once you just sit back and let your suspension of disbelief take over. The characters are realistic and human rather than being iconic heroic sorts who save the day while admiring their reflections in the mirror. Nope; Captain Stevens has baggage and even though he is a heroic sort, he is far from blindly obedient.

Gyllenhaal has developed into one of the better actors working today. With his sister Maggie, they make the best sibling actors since the Cusacks. While Gyllenhaal’s line delivery tends to be laconic, he makes up for it for his facial emotions, which give him much more animation than other actors who use their voice nearly exclusively to let us see how they’re feeling. He also has great chemistry with Monaghan, which is at the center of the movie.

Monaghan is undeniably beautiful; she also is a pretty decent actress in her own right. She plays Caroline with a mixture of warmth and incredulity. She plays along although she doesn’t always understand what’s going on and Monaghan manages to give the character a sense of continuity from encounter to encounter. Her lines may vary slightly but her emotions don’t.

While there are some spectacular explosions and action sequences, by and large this isn’t a big budget spectacular sci-fi epic. This is an examination of a man trying to figure out what is real, what can be changed, who he is and where he fits in. That’s some pretty intense kind of questions to answer and of course they are to the extent that Colter Stevens wants them to be. However, it is the very questioning nature of Stevens that makes the movie more worthwhile than most of the other stuff that’s out there.

Some may find this a bit too cerebral for their tastes but quite frankly, there is an audience of people who love smart sci-fi who aren’t being serviced by Hollywood too often in favor of the big budget Tranformers and their clones. I’m all for space opera and big epic science fiction action movies, but there’s room for these kinds of films as well and this one is done particularly well. Jones, who once by the name as Zowie Bowie (he is David’s son), has a knack for these sorts of movies and it appears, from the rumors of what movies he’s considering for his next project, that there are more of them to come from him and to my mind, they couldn’t be more welcome!

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise that doesn’t fall prey to the same problems most time travel films fall to. Nice performances (and real chemistry between) Gyllenhaal and Monaghan.

REASONS TO STAY: Seeing the same eight minute-period over and over again can get tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty disturbing images of things and people blowing up or having been blown up. There is a little bit of bad language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Topher Grace was considered for the part of Captain Colter Stevens.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a big screen affair.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Death at a Funeral (2010)