The Commuter shoulda stayed home (a review)

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Liam Neeson is a special actor with a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, few of those skills are on display in The Commuter, his latest outing.

A thriller with few thrills, The Commuter tells us the story of a really unusual day in the life of insurance salesman Michael (Neeson) who meets a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) during his commute home one evening. She presents him with an opportunity to make $100K if he takes on one little assignment, identifying someone who seems out of place.

Despite being an ex-cop and an intelligent person, Michael takes on the task, which quickly spirals out of control (else we have no movie) and the body count ratchets up. For most of the movie, we then watch an agitated Michael run, walk, crawl, slide and sidle up and down the commuter train, examining and re-examining the same passengers.

To tell you any more would be to present spoilers, but truthfully, this movie really can’t have any because the plot is largely telegraphed.

If you’ve seen Taken, you’ve seen this movie…and Taken was much better.

Forget driving a truck, you could drive a whole network of Amtrak trains through the plot holes in this story, which begins implausibly, becomes ridiculous and then gets downright silly. Had a dragon or demonic nun suddenly appeared, they would not have been out of place in this film.

I add demonic nun, by the way, because it seems there is a clause in Vera Farmiga’s contract that stipulates she must only appear in movies with her The Conjuring series co-star Patrick Wilson. I think it has something to do with the two actors having the dynamic range of granite countertops.

Commuter conjuring cast

At several points in the movie, Neeson’s Michael makes reference to his advancing age (he is 60 years old here), and all I kept thinking was “yes, and you should know better”. Despite no outward sign of an exercise regimen—“It’s either walk up and down the aisle or take up yoga.”—this character has the fighting skills of a Navy Seal half his age rather than what might be expected from a decade-long retired NYPD officer.

More broadly, if we ignore the general stupidity of the plot, this movie is a wonderful example of why it is so difficult to effectively tell a self-contained story; a story that takes place within a confined space over a defined period of time. Effectively, after the first few laps through the train, we’ve run out of new things to try.

I’ve tried talking to people. I’ve tried punching people. Now what? More of same, I guess, for the next 45 minutes.

In writing parlance, this is called “running in place” or “repeating beats”; a repetition of actions until complete boredom or a novel insight sets in. Without ham-fistedly introducing “screenwriter ex machina”, what is the poor protagonist to do?

We accept this challenge more easily in a film like Taken if only because the writer gives us new locations and different implementations of kicking ass. We get visual variety even if the actual action is effectively the same.

Confine characters to a single set, however, and that visual variety is eliminated. The plot repetition becomes more glaringly obvious.

There is a reason that most confined space films are shorts. It is truly challenging to reveal anything novel after more than 20 minutes.

If you’re heading out to the movies and this is your best option, stay on the train…and don’t talk to strangers.

Commuter Farmiga-Neeson

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

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I would not have blinked had one of the characters in Thor: Ragnarok suddenly broken into song, bellowing “Kill the wabbit!”, because this movie was a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon devoid only of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

And I enjoyed it, exactly for that.

Unlike previous Thor outings that tried to delve into the frat boy-cum-reluctant prince (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor) and then dueling brothers (add in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), this third treatise tossed aside any pretense at character development and plot, replacing it with 2+ hours of slapstick and one-liners designed to tickle the 12-year-old boy in all of us, regardless of gender.

By design, this movie was stupid and silly and wocka-wocka, and in that, it worked on all cylinders.

At best, the plot was a series of expositional “what you need to know now” moments that extended the sibling rivalry to include a supremely ambitious sister (Cate Blanchett aka Hela, God of Death) who felt slighted by Dad (Anthony Hopkin’s aging Odin).

Interwoven with this story was a side-plot that attempted to quantify whose dick was bigger: Thor’s or Hulk’s. Not surprisingly, the biggest dick actually belonged to alcoholic side-kick and fallen warrior Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson).

Despite the carnage—LOTS of people get brutally wiped out, so not sure if this is kiddie fare—the movie was downright fluffy and vapid, and your memory of it will likely evaporate by the time you get home. That said, the process of watching the film is fun, and one or two elements come to light (NO SPOILERS) that you know will feature in an upcoming Avengers saga.

And while we wait for that film, I suggest you YouTube What’s Opera, Doc?

IT happens (review)

IT-2017-PennywiseI have never read a Stephen King story and did not see the previous incarnation of the movie, so I saw IT: Chapter One with almost as open a mind as anyone can have. That said, I do not like horror in general and am easily startled, so I saw the film with some trepidation.

Fortunately, I did not need to worry as IT was a horror in genre only and had zero moments that startled. Rather, IT was a coming-of-age story better described as graphic young adult (YA) with all the attendant overwrought melodrama.

Without giving much away, the story revolves around the disappearance of a number of kids in small town Anywhere, U.S.A. With a growing group of friends, the brother of one of the missing kids look for clues to the disappearances, only to be haunted by a malevolent clown called Pennywise.

Although the evil clown is the titular IT, the movie is more about the bond that forms between the kids and the slow realization that they are stronger as a group than on their own.

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The demon-battling Loser’s Club make this more YA than horror

For me, this is where the movie could have been so much better, because the bigger evils in town were the day-to-day horrors these kids faced, forces as malevolent as Pennywise but insanely more powerful for all their normalcy. If anything, the clown was simply a metaphor.

To their credit, the child actors brought depth to the otherwise trope preteen outsiders—the skinny kid, the chubby kid, the African-American kid, the loner girl, the bespectacled smart-ass nerd, the Jewy kid and the whiner—and their connections felt real. It also helped that they had some really funny lines to take the piss out of each other.

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Clown horror weakened by everyday malevolence of kids’ lives

But this is where the film was more YA than horror. Rather than probe deeply into issues of bullying, sexual predation, grief management or drug-doping kids into docility, the film instead tapped into its inner Goonies, almost completely removing the horror.

A decently constructed film, performed well, the thing you need to fear the least is turning out the lights when you go to bed.

IT is just not that into you.

Valerian – Movie of 1000 disappointments

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I am told that Luc Besson is a great filmmaker, with credits like The Fifth Element, Leon, La Femme Nikita. Unfortunately, the only Besson movie I had seen to date was Lucy (my review), and so I was a bit reluctant heading out to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on a graphic novel, the movie tells the story of two young military operatives—Valerian and Laureline—sent on a mission to recover an eternal replicator (too hard to explain), but who get embroiled in an ever-shifting landscape of political and military intrigue that may involve an extinct alien race.

Woven throughout this action-adventure-mystery-thriller is a hormone-riddled romance between the leads that is so execrable that Harlequin and most YA publishers would turn it away.

I walked into this movie expecting almost nothing in terms of story; Lucy lessons learned. And that is precisely what I got.

The story is pretty easy to follow, but gives you little reason to follow it.

The action sequences aren’t particularly thrilling, and the dialogue is cliché if not outright ham-fisted. That said, I am sure the scripts were printed on very nice paper…maybe with watermarks and all that.

But whereas I had few expectations of the story, I held out some hope of being dazzled by visuals of alien worlds.

To its credit, the movie started that way, presenting us with the alien paradise of Mül, a pastel portrait straight out of a 70s acid trip.

Mul

Once we leave the wonder-world though—primarily to the space station/ark known as Alpha—the sets quickly degenerate to things we’ve seen a million times in other films.

Each of the visuals is as two-dimensional as the screen onto which they are projected, offering zero depth to the two-dimensional characters that flit across the screen like dying fish. The irony of seeing this movie in 3D is not lost on me.

So, no story and no stunning visuals, but the actors, am I right? Wrong.

I cannot put the blame completely on the actors, but they certainly earned some of it, as pretty much no one was able to imbue the wooden script with any emotion or pathos.

Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne‘s Laureline had zero chemistry, and so every attempt at love-making or wit fell flat. And if anything, Valerian comes across as a petulant child with multiple personality disorder.

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One of these is a sedative. The other is a plant.

No sooner does he completely thwart the military hierarchy with his own brand of pseudo-macho anarchy and independence than he delivers a grandiloquent lecture to Laureline about being a soldier who follows a code.

One of my friends suggested that Valerian should have been a film series to allow for better world building and character development. I can’t say that he’s wrong.

That said, if you asked me to watch even ten minutes more of this movie, I’d laugh in your face.

 

Manifestly faulty Manifesto

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I had my reservations before purchasing a ticket for Manifesto, a film that seeks to manifest the great thinkers and philosophers of the modern age through the mouths of 13 archetypal characters. I mean, how can you go wrong with a 90-minute Learning Annex lecture?

Honestly, the selling point for me was Cate Blanchett playing all 13 roles.

As we waited for the film to begin, the Nashville Film Festival host (emcee?) gushed about his chills on seeing the film at Sundance. My first clue that I had bitten off more than I could chew.

He then laid his bet that Cate was a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. Put your money down now and plan that dream vacation.

Then the lights went down, the film illuminated the screen, and 13 Shakespearean soliloquys rolled out. Except, these thinkers were not Shakespeare and even Shakespeare put his soliloquys within the context of a narrative; something completely lacking here.

There was so little context for any of these scenes that I have no idea, no memory of any of the speeches less than 24 hours later.

Although the Great Cate did manage to inhabit her many and varied characters—vapid news host, drunk punk rocker, deranged homeless man, etc.—dissolved in my brain as quickly as she spoke the words.

Many Cates

There was humour. We laughed at the odd comment—mostly non-sequiturs—and tittered like children when the gentile sacred mouth of Ms. Blanchett uttered words like “shit” and “fuck”, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than a philosophy major could name 10 of the 13 thinkers reflected.

This was less Art Film than Performance Art, and ironically, it may have suffered from the transformations by Blanchett, whose visual distraction allowed my ear to remain confused. Perhaps with a lesser performer, the words would have had a fighting chance.

Was Blanchett’s transformation enough for that Oscar nod? Unlikely, as the complete lack of over-arching narrative will keep it off most Academy lists.

This is truly a festival film, where manifestos and pointlessness not only thrive but are lauded for their unintelligibility by audiences afraid to not “get it.”

[How’s that for inverse snobbery?]

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In some ways, Manifesto is reminiscent of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was also a series of pointed commentaries on modern society, all performed by the same artist.

Where Tomlin went right was in presenting each commentary within a powerful story of a nuanced character with a unique perspective. Manifesto, sadly, chose a verbal sledgehammer over story, eliminating any opportunity for nuance no matter how well Blanchett performed the characters.

A damned shame, really, as she lived up to her billing. If only Academy voters could see it through all the rest.

Free Fire still too expensive

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It seems I am cursed to see the lesser works of great film artists. Such was the case last night as my friends and I discussed Ben Wheatley’s latest release.

My friends spent much of the evening telling me how much I should have seen High Rise and Kill List. Sadly, we saw Free Fire, a 90-minute exploration of how many bullets the human body can take…seriously, that is the movie.

In 1976 or so, IRA terrorists arrive at a derelict warehouse to buy guns, but things suddenly go wrong and a shootout ensues. The End.

Lots of shooting. Lots of bleeding. Lots of “witty” banter. For 90 minutes.

This is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly if all we saw was the Mexican stand-off.

It is every Quentin Tarantino film without the Shakespearean nuance for which Tarantino is known (*sarcasm*).

It is Bugs and Daffy arguing over whether it is rabbit season or duck season.

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And like a young child’s game of Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians—or whatever other culturally and socially incentive games the kids get up to these days—no one really suffers for the ballistic barrage that enters their bodies. This might as well have been paint ball.

I am told Ben Wheatley (writer and director here) is a very creative artist, whose earlier works bordered on the metaphysical. Free Fire didn’t manage physics, let alone metaphysics.

The entire film was one beat repeated over and over and over again, much like this review.

Running out of shooters or bullets? Let’s simply insert a couple of new shooters. Wow, that was so much fun, let’s do it again.

The movie had a really good cast, including the likes of Brie Larson (The Room), Sharlto Copley (District Nine), Armie Hammer (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Cillian Murphy (you know; the guy that was in that movie).

And there were a few funny one-liners (whatever they made, nobody wants to buy it anymore).

But let me save you $13 and simply suggest you watch the trailer 37 times.

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The only stars of the movie

Miss Sloane misses mark – review

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I am a sucker for politics and intrigue, shows like The West Wing and House of Cards (British & American versions) forming a regular staple of my creative diet. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I lined up to see Miss Sloane (trailer), an inside look at the cut-throat world of DC lobbyists, whom many consider the parasitic infection that Washington just cannot (and will not) shake.

Sadly, Jonathan Perera (writer of Miss Sloane) is no Aaron Sorkin or Beau Willimon. In his defence, however, it is likely that neither were Sorkin and Willimon on their first produced screenplays.

The movie follows the string-pulling machinations of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), an ice-water-in-her-veins win-at-all-costs lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Washington. This woman has no scruples and is willing to get behind anything that earns a paycheque and raises her status inside the Beltway. Anything, it seems, except for the gun lobby.

And when she is presented with an opportunity to make guns more appealing to women in the hopes of killing gun control legislation coming to the floor, she instead jumps ship to a boutique firm (read “poor”), run by Rudolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong), and takes up the opposing cause.

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More could have been made of Strong’s moral angst over hiring nuclear weapon Chastain

Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it steamrolls over everyone in its path, and the story becomes a ballet between Sloane’s new firm and her old one, led by a very angry George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and his lead hitman Pat Conners (Michael Stuhlbarg). Until recently, Conners was Sloane’s partner in larceny. The rest of the movie is simply watching puppeteers pull strings.

Thus, this movie is a character study of people without character; a morality play completely lacking in morals.

As such, it is incredibly dark and even with its climax and moment of supposed triumph, you leave the theatre positively suicidal at the prospect that this story even starts to approximate reality.

In one way, it is fascinating to watch completely manipulative characters toss around human lives and feelings as though pieces in a game of Risk or Stratego. I think it strikes at our voyeur nature, tying in with the modern fascination in so-called reality television and amounting to little more than emotion porn. This movie could easily have been titled 50 Shades of Sloane.

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The strings may be invisible, but the puppet dances

At the same time, with no shred of humanity in these characters, it is difficult if not impossible to invest in the main combatants. At best, we mourn the cannon fodder that litters the field of combat. It is like watching a movie about the invasion of Normandy and really only being able to appreciate the kid who is killed as he steps off the landing craft.

And this is precisely where Perera’s developing skills let him down and his contrast with the current political masters is at its most notable.

Despite the sheer malevolence of Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, there is a vulnerability that helps us understand their razor-clad shells. Go further back to the true master of political intrigue—William Shakespeare—and you see the frailties of the otherwise horrific Macbeth and his Lady. Or perhaps my favourite: Iago from Othello.

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Underwood, Macbeth and Iago: Human frailty lies behind the face of a monster

Despite the play’s title, Iago is the true hero of Othello. It is his story that unfolds as he manipulates all those around him, working their weaknesses and frailties against them, truly uncaring of the destructive impact his actions are likely to have on even his own future. And yet, for all the venom and disturbing glee with which Shakespeare imbues his malevolent beast, the Bard is also sure to insert short references to why Iago is so morally misshapen.

To his credit, Perera refused to go in the opposite direction and give us some long-winded sob story of a slight or wound from Sloane’s past to explain her motivations, and in fact, makes it a point, several times, to complain about just such an approach.

But in the absence of any contextualization for the character, even the climax itself comes across as academic exposition rather than revelation. At best, the climax has audacity rather than soul.

There is no moment to cheer the outcome of the story because the outcome is as soul-less as the morass that preceded it.

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That which cannot be controlled must be destroyed

As though sensing this, the final scenes of the movie felt like a bit of a negation of what came before, attempting to soften the edge of Sloane and the story itself. I really wish the movie had ended with the climax.

Given these character challenges, the stellar cast performed well despite being largely wasted.

Chastain does ice well, her face and mannerisms giving away little. Mark Strong was mostly missing in action, through no fault of the actor. His character simply had little to offer. And Stuhlbarg is quickly making a name for himself as malevolent toady, and for that very reason, really needs to find another role to utilize other aspects of his obvious talent.

Miss Sloane was a great idea that suffered in the execution, and I am perhaps being a bit unfair to put the onus on Perera. Director John Madden—best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—would have had some influence on how this story played out, and given the pre-diabetic sweetness of his other movies, this story was a surprising choice.

As an academic exercise, I would love to see what Sorkin or Willimon would do with this concept. Each would create very different movies, I think.

In the meantime, I will be interested in seeing where Perera goes next.

See also:

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’ (Lindsay Bahr, Metronews)

Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player (Nigel Smith, The Guardian)

Richard Crouse (video, CTV News)