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

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell are not impressed with the dailies.

(2012) Dark Comedy (Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Derek Luke, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Mark Moses, Bob Stephenson, Martin Sheen, Melinda Dillon, Tonita Castro, Jim O’Heir. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

 

What would you do if you knew that you were going to die? Not just you, but everyone and everything? All that we have made, all that we have done – all gone. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you want to be with when the end comes?

That’s the question that confronts Dodge Peterson (Carell). Actually, it confronts everybody. An asteroid named Mathilda (and how sad that the instrument of our destruction is called Mathilda) is on its way on a collision course with Earth. Attempts to divert the 80-mile wide rock have failed miserably and in 21 days, it will crash into our world, killing all living things and, in all likelihood, a few dead things as well.

His wife, upon hearing the news, makes a run for it with someone she actually loves as opposed to her husband whom she has been cheating on for quite awhile anyway. Dodge, an insurance salesman, makes a few desultory attempts to go to work but as it becomes clear that society will be soon breaking down completely, he gives up on that.

His maid (Castro) comes in as always, preferring to keep herself occupied and gently reminds Dodge to pick up some window cleaner. Returning home from the store through the park, he notices some young people embracing. Despondent, he ingests the entire bottle of cleaning product and lies down.

He wakes up the next morning, feeling a bit ill but having the cleanest esophagus in town. He also has a dog whose leash is tied up to his ankle with a note reading only “Sorry” on Dodge’s chest. He takes the dog home. He also runs into Penny (Knightley), a neighbor who has lived in the same complex for three months but whom he hasn’t gotten to know although she is well aware of his wife’s indiscretions – and those of her boyfriend as well which is how Dodge comes to learn of his wife’s infidelity.

Angry, he throws out all of her stuff and in the process finds a box of his mementos including some pictures. As he takes a trip down memory lane while taking sips from a bottle of prescription cough syrup that his wife left behind, he notices Penny sitting on his balcony, crying. He invites her in after agreeing not to rape her; in exchange, she promises not to steal anything. She is distraught not just because the world is ending but because she broke up with the loser boyfriend (Brody) that she left England for and now will never see her family again because all air travel has stopped (and cell phones and land lines are useless since nobody is sticking around to keep those systems running).

It also turns out that Penny has been getting some of his mail mistakenly and has just now remembered to give it to him. Among the letters is one from his first love Olivia, who he’d broken up with long ago and who had gone on to marry someone else. But, the letter says, she’s divorced now and is looking to reconnect with the true love of her life – Dodge.

He realizes that he needs to go find her because this might – okay, will be – his last chance at true love. However, there is rioting going on, increasing in violence and as it becomes apparent the apartment complex will be overrun, Dodge finds Penny and begs her to drive him to his home town where he can find Olivia (his own car got taken out by a suicide jumper). He promises in return that he knows a guy with a plane who can fly her to England.

On that note, they set off. On the way they run into a variety of people, including a trucker (Petersen) who doesn’t want to wait for the asteroid to incinerate him and an ex of Penny’s named Speck (Luke) who is planning on riding out the asteroid in an underground bunker with a six month supply of potato chips and who is eager to have Penny stay as breeding stock. What Penny and Dodge find on their journey to be with the ones they love is not what they expect.

From the initial sound of it you might think this is a movie about death but it’s not. It’s a movie about life. It’s a movie about how precious life is and a reminder that we are all under a death sentence – we just don’t have the date marked down on our calendars just yet.

Carell plays the subdued, somewhat wallflower-ish guy better than anybody; he’s done it well in such movies as Crazy, Stupid, Love and Dan in Real Life. This is his best performance to date. Dodge is a man who hasn’t lived life; life has just happened to him, and he feels a certain sense that he’s missing something. He comes to live for the first time in those final days, and not just because he shows up at parties that become orgies, or stopping in restaurants where everybody is determined to party the rest of their lives away. For the first time, he is doing something instead of being done to and it empowers him in ways you might not imagine.

Knightley is an Oscar nominee who has proved in other movies that she’s not just a pretty face. She is continuing to grow as an actress. Penny is a free-spirited sort who has made a mess of her romantic life, putting her in a position that she is far from the places and people she loves when it is too late to get back to them. Penny is a bit kooky, but Knightley subdues that aspect of her personality, making her more of a person who marches to her own beat rather than someone who has to wear her quirkiness on her sleeve, which is a refreshing change given how many offbeat indie heroines I’ve seen lately.

The underlying theme here is that life is meant to be lived and none of us know how much time we really have. There’s no sense in living a life of regret because there will come a time when it is time to pay the piper and when we justify our lives to whatever higher power you believe in, it is the regret we must justify with the least amount of ammunition to do it with. I found this movie uplifting, despite the subject matter. When we left our screening, Da Queen and I overheard a teenage girl complaining to her boyfriend that the movie was too depressing. Perhaps she lacks the life experience to see past the end of the world aspect – it is in the title after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise – but there is a rich subtext going on here that is very much worth exploring. The worst aspect of this movie is that I think the studio made a mistake in when they released this. Despite the apocalyptic element of the movie, it really doesn’t fit in as a summer film. It might have been better served as a fall or holiday release. I think people are more in tune with this kind of movie at that time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Gives much pause for thought. Strangely uplifting even though the subject is a bit depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: Inconsistent. Lacks a sense of social anarchy that would surely occur.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of drug use, a little bit of violence and quite a bit of foul language, some of it sexual.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife of Dodge Peterson is played by Steve Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy. Presumably, she isn’t cheating on him in real life either.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are pretty polarized.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile
VINYL LOVERS: Penny has an extensive collection of vinyl records from the 60s, 70s and 80s as well as a pretty sweet audio set-up.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Thin Ice


Thin Ice

Greg Kinnear and Billy Crudup wonder why they couldn't find a movie that is set in Aruba.

(2011) Thriller (ATO) Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Jennifer M. Edwards, Peter Thoemke, Bob Balaban, James Detmar, Michelle Hutchison, Peter Moore, Michael Paul Levin, Michelle Arthur, Alan Johnson, Chris Carlson. Directed by Jill Sprecher

 

There is nothing warmer than the human heart. There is also nothing colder – even the Wisconsin winter pales in comparison. Greed and desperation can make of even the kindest of hearts one made stone and frozen, allowing nothing in and nothing to leave.

Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and sells insurance. On the surface an amiable, trustworthy fellow, he is a predator in reality, preying on the fears of people to sell them policies that for the most part they don’t need and can’t afford. However, business is bad these days; Mickey needs the appearance of success and so drives an expensive car and wears nice suits. However, his bills are piling up and he is deep in debt. His wife (Thompson) has thrown him out – which he frankly deserves – and his secretary (Edwards) is getting fed up as well.

Mickey meets even more amiable Bob Egan (Harbour) at an insurance conference and in order to keep the earnest young man from his biggest competitor hires him on as an agent, even though he hasn’t been licensed by the state of Wisconsin just yet. That’s okay – the policies can be turned in under Mickey’s name and Mickey will pay him once the company pays Mickey his share. Right.

Bob brings Gorvy Hauer (Arkin) to Mickey’s attention and Mickey is at first not interested – the old man is in the beginning states of dementia and doesn’t have much money to his name. What he does have is a rare violin, one worth $25,000 according to the appraiser (Balaban) but Gorvy thinks it is a toy for him to play with his dog.

Mickey can’t resist – he needs the money desperately and the old man won’t miss the money. However, there is a fly in the ointment – Randy (Crudup), who is installing the alarm system that Bob is advising Gorvy to put in, gets wind of what Mickey’s up to. When meddling neighbor Frank (Thoemke) discovers something fishy going on, Randy panics and suddenly Mickey is in the middle of a real mess.

This is the kind of suspense movie worthy of the Coen Brothers; just a little bit offbeat, lots of twists and turns but always with a nice gotcha at the end. However, this is also not quite in that league and it’s really hard to pin it on the director. As I mention below in the Trivial Pursuits section, distributors ATO got together with some of the producers and ordered that the film be re-cut which Sprecher refused to do. The movie was then re-cut using outtakes, the voice-over narration was removed and various subplots and characters were cut from the film. Sprecher has sent letters to prominent film critics (including Roger Ebert) to let them know the situation and to divorce herself from the movie. She is unable to comment further for legal reasons; however it must be said that she doesn’t consider Thin Ice to be her own work.

That makes it kind of difficult to assign credit and blame as the case may be. My gumption is to credit Sprecher for most of the things that work and blame the producers for those that didn’t. Strictly speaking that may not be fair but it is human nature to take the side of the person who did the work and had the vision against those whose only goal was to make money rather than necessarily make the best movie possible. How do I know that the producers weren’t trying to make a better movie?

Simple. The film was screened in its original director cut version at Sundance and received raves. Since its limited release in this edited version, the reviews have been lukewarm. However, I must say that if that’s the case, the original cut must have been special indeed because I really like this movie a lot.

Kinnear excels at these sorts of roles, the ordinary Joe with a bit of an edge to him. Mickey is a congenital liar who’s always looking for the angle that benefits him most. Ostensibly he is in love with his wife but for the most part treats her like a possession or a status symbol – you never get the sense he needs to be with her so much as wants to.

Crudup plays the volatile Randy nicely, giving him the right edge of kicked puppy to go with the volcanic temper. Randy puts Mickey off-balance and the audience as well. Arkin has some tender moments having to do with his dog that are heart-rending. No matter how good or bad the material, Arkin always finds a way to elevate it.

It’s no surprise given the history of the movie that the pacing is irregular. Sometimes the movie goes at a snail’s pace and other times it races along willy-nilly. This has a jarring effect on the audience; I would have liked to see something a bit smoother.

There are plenty of Hitchcockian twists here and the final one is of the sort that makes you want to see the movie a second time knowing what you know about what really happened. Some of the twists aren’t too hard to figure out but others do take you unawares. That’s always a lovely surprise in movies of this sort.

I have to wonder what might have happened had we been allowed to see this the way the original director intended us to. Would it have been a better film? Did the producers make the right call? I doubt we’ll ever know – when it makes it to home video it is unlikely the original directors cut will ever see the light of day, given the contentious relationship with the filmmakers and the distributor. I find it somewhat ironic that the initials of the distribution company, ATO, stands for “Artists Take Over.” Certainly that’s not what happened in this case.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty twists and turns. Kinnear knows this role as well as anybody. Arkin and Crudup also do stellar work.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems choppy and rushed in places.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of bad language, a bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After rave reviews at its 2011 Sundance appearance, the distributor demanded massive re-cuts and a title change (from The Convincer); the director has since disassociated herself from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo

ICE FISHING LOVERS: There’s a sequence early on in which Randy discusses the sport with Mickey, ending up with Randy attempting to drill a hole in the ice – unsuccessfully.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Mirror, Mirror