The Commuter shoulda stayed home (a review)

Commuter poster

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

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.

 

Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Inferno(t) – a review

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In a follow-up to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Tom Hanks returns as famed symbologist Robert Langdon, the only man capable of solving the great riddles of today with clues left by our medieval artists and thinkers. In this case, it is the location of bioengineered microbes designed by mad billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster)—think Elon Musk with microscopes instead of rocket ships—to eradicate 95% of the world’s population.

And as the adventure starts, it appears that Langdon may be involved more directly in this mystery than even he thought possible. Along the way, he battles officials from the World Health Organization (WHO), zealous followers of the billionaire and the crafty dealings of a security firm.

As a fan of the previous two movies and puzzle-focused stories in general, I was looking forward to this latest installment. Hanks was back. Ron Howard was back as director. And Dan Brown, the novelist on whose books the movies are based, never tells a boring story.

Unfortunately, this latest venture simply does not live up to the mysteries developed in its predecessors. Simply put, the puzzle is missing and the action is merely serviceable.

To watch the trailer for this movie is to assume that the riddle of this story is wrapped up in Dante’s Divine Comedy, source of our Western vision of Hell. And, for about two minutes, it is.

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Dante couldn’t have predicted this new level of Hell

But unlike the earlier movies where clue was found buried in clue, each one linking together in an almost mystical way and tapping into the deep-seated paranoia of conspiracy freaks like me, here it was merely a token gesture. Dante’s masterpiece and the elements that followed it felt completely contrived, mere window decoration for the modern mystery that wasn’t much of a mystery.

And even the characters surrounding Langdon were largely throw-away, none showing the intricate twists and turns that kept you guessing throughout the earlier movies. In almost all cases, the functions of the characters were obvious from the outset (to explain more would be to serve spoilers).

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Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones spend a lot of time sight-seeing

And I think screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission:Impossible, War of the Worlds, Angels & Demons) suspected as much as he littered the screen with small red herrings that suggested insights to the characters but never amounted to anything afterward.

One character, in fact, who appears vital from the story perspective effectively disappears from the story completely, factoring in no way into the ending of the story despite being involved in the precipitating events.

In the absence of medieval puzzles and ambiguously motivated characters, we are left with a barely passable action film that trots its merry way across the Mediterranean to the pretty unspectacular climax. Even the summary denouement is uninteresting and a bit saccharine.

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Entire screenplay written on back of Dante’s head

This is not a terrible movie, but I’m not sure I would even recommend it as an entry point to the Dan Brown pantheon, instead recommending you stick solely to the other two.

For me, Inferno never really got beyond a cold ember.

See also:

Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon in Inferno (Associated Press)

Say hello to the 10th circle of Hell (The Guardian)

A devil of a time making sense (Wall Street Journal)

Jack Reacher? Yes, he did

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Never has a movie been more aptly subtitled than the newest Tom Cruise action thriller Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. I really wish he hadn’t.

In the tradition of Jason Bourne and Taken, this is yet another dip into the former military man living life off the grid, but ceaselessly being drawn back in to save the world or a daughter; and in the case of this film, both.

There are two basic plots in this movie. First, Tom Cruise rescues and then helps Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Low Expectations) find out who killed soldiers under her command, ultimately uncovering what looks like an arms-dealing conspiracy with its fingers in the U.S. military.

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Back to TV for Smulders after this stinker

Complicating matters, however, is the idea that Cruise may have a daughter, played by Danika Yarosh in what appears to be her first major role. And in keeping with the schtick of man who is invulnerable because he has no ties, Cruise reaches out to his erstwhile daughter only to have the bad guys see this and take advantage.

Now, whenever watching a movie billed as Action-Thriller, you forgive a lot. If everyone did the right thing, this would be neither active, nor thrilling. But in this movie, the two supposedly smartest people in the room—Cruise’s Jack Reacher and Yarosh’s street-wise Samantha—behave incredibly stupidly, routinely telling the world “Hey, we’re over here!”

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Maybe Yarosh can act…not given a chance in this movie.

But again, this is all about the action, right?

Well, it would be if the action were more than a mere nod to those better films involving Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Rob Roy (okay, maybe the better Liam Neeson parallel is Taken). Instead, the action is sparse, predictable and formulaic. Cruise may be known for doing his own stunts, but he was at little risk of being injured on this set.

Okay, but it has thrills, right? Twists and turns that constantly kept you guessing?

The only thing that kept me guessing in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back was what time it was and how close we were to the end of the movie. From almost the opening moments, you knew exactly who the bad guys were and how they were connected to each other.

This was a film that was totally devoid of reveals and reversals. It played out exactly as you thought it would, and in some cases, the dialogue was so telegraphed that the climactic (if only in where it occurs in the movie) scene bored you because you knew exactly how it was going to play out.

How bad could it possibly have been?

With about 10 minutes left to play, the theatre in which I watched the movie brought the houselights up. It was as though they wanted to protect everyone who worked on this movie from being outed by keeping us from seeing the credits clearly.

As my friend Danny and I discussed the movie (video to come), we agreed that this was a wink or two away from becoming a very fun satire of action-thriller movies. Sadly, those ocular gestures never arrived and the movie remained a sad reflection on the genre.

It’s movies like this that will send Cobie Smulders back to television and sadly, may stunt the career of Danika Yarosh. That it won’t crush Tom Cruise’s career is a sign that he probably is Lestat.

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See also:

Movie Review – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Danny F. Santos)

Sentimentality and Spinal Injuries (Richard Crouse)

Jack Reacher is a family guy thug in Never Go Back (Toronto Star)

Jason Bourne should have stayed home (review)

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Super-assassin Jason Bourne is trying to figure out who he really is. In doing so, he falls into a web of deceit and potentially world-crippling black ops, including the one that gave birth to him. People try to neutralize him…silly people.

Cars race through crowded streets. Shots are fired from every direction. People die just as they start to provide answers. More shots are fired. Bourne gets answers but no real resolution or peace.

If you expected any more from a Jason Bourne movie, then you will be seriously disappointed with the latest installment of the series based the lead character of the novels by Robert Ludlum. In fact, if you want more from a Jason Bourne story, read the novels by Robert Ludlum because they are insanely better than any of the movies.

[Some SPOILERS hereafter]

In the latest installment of the series, Matt Damon’s titular character is brought out of hiding by his former nemesis-turned-ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has hacked into the CIA server and stolen the complete dossiers of the agency’s Black Ops. She wants to turn the information over to a Julian Assange kind of character, but asks for Bourne’s help, enticing him with information about his father’s involvement in his creation as super-killer (think X-Files Fox Mulder).

After a momentary “I’m getting too old for this shit” and some personal sacrifice on the end of a bullet, Bourne is alone again and we are off to the races.

Bourne cast

The CIA Director (Tommy Lee Jones) wants him dead, relying on another super-assassin The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to get the job done, while IT-savvy CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) sees an opportunity to advance her career and maybe replace her boss by bringing Bourne in. Oh, and in the background, there is something about the CIA having access to the personal information of everyone on the planet via the Internet and a Sergey Brin-like character.

Unless this is your first Jason Bourne movie, you know how this all plays out…and if it is your first Jason Bourne film, why should I spoil it for you?

If you are looking for 123 minutes in which to simply check your brain at the door, then this is an entertaining way to do that. Stuff blows up, people fight, lots of car chases. But nothing really happens that hasn’t happened in the previous movies. Much like a roller coaster, the ride can be exhilarating at moments, but once the ride stops, so does the exhilaration.

And that was my problem with the movie…the thrill is quite literally gone for me. Jason Bourne has become his own cliché, and the writers and directors of this series are simply repeating moments from the other incarnations.

Where they had an opportunity to do something truly interesting with this story—the moments we spend exploring Bourne’s relationship with and confusion about his father—the writer-director Paul Greengrass and writer Christopher Rouse give us the barest taste and scurry back to blowing shit up. Rather than offer any sense of discovery and revelation, they simply have a former agency hack fill in the background under threat of death.

Is toady ex machina a thing?

In the earlier incarnations of this series, I never knew what to expect. In this incarnation, I knew exactly what to expect and it was delivered each and every time with a pretty pink ribbon. Or was that faded red tape?

I’m going back to the books. At least Robert Ludlum knew how to write.

As for shit blowing up, back-stabbing political conspiracy, and disquieting Internet voyeurism, 123 minutes of Jason Bourne just can’t compete with 20 minutes of CNN.

Bourne books

The Man from UNCLE – see it while you can (a review)

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As a literal child of the 60s, I am barely old enough to remember the television series The Man from UNCLE, yet another show centred on Cold-War America’s fascination with the spy world. While Bond, Flint and Helm were doing their thing in theatres, The Men were joined by the likes of The Saint, I Spy, The Persuaders and Get Smart.

Unfortunately, whereas I can quote lines from Get Smart (don’t judge me) and have fond memories of The Saint, things are a little foggier when it comes to The Man from UNCLE. Thus, when I took in the newly released movie, my mind was open.

Essentially, an origin story for the UNCLE organization—United Network Command for Law and Enforcement—the movie introduces us to the two men on which the series hinged, American spy Napoleon Solo and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin, and how they are forced to work as a team despite their complete distrust both of each other and of their own governments.

I won’t go into great detail about the plot as it really doesn’t matter—much as the plot of a typical Bond flick doesn’t matter. The only reason for the central plot conflict is to force these two guys together and watch them play “whose dick is bigger.” Really. I mean it.

Over a two hour span, I think there was maybe 30 minutes of actual story. The rest of the time was spent in a great variety of chase scenes, some of which were quite funny, or watching Solo (Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) argue over fashion, spy gadgets and how badly the Soviet needs to get laid.

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

All of the friends who saw this movie with me had issues with this. The story wasn’t particularly engrossing and they felt like director Guy Ritchie had simply provided a light dessert; enjoyable in the moment, but offering little satisfaction.

To some extent, I agree with them. I am a fan of Ritchie’s earlier efforts with the Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law). Here, the stories were quite rich and complicated, as one would hope with a Sherlock Holmes tale. Using this barometer, The Man from UNCLE definitely failed.

But to some extent, I think my friends missed the point (but then, I would). I don’t think Ritchie was going so much for a story that you might find in the most recent Bond films, filled with character complexities and inner conflicts, longer story arcs, generous back story.

Rather, I think Ritchie was going for the vibe and energy of that earlier generation of spy films, which were more a vehicle for the star than anything and featured much shallower stories. To me, this film was more about Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, and if only for the humoured banter, Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Ritchie is trying to capture a time and place, or perhaps more specifically, a style. And if we have learned anything about Guy Ritchie, in a battle between style and substance, he will always go with style. In some ways, I see him more as a painter than a director, as his primary goal seems to be a luxurious visual. Dialogue is simply a necessary evil for him.

Although, this is not to say that the dialogue was a burden here. The chemistry between Cavill and Hammer is palpable, much as it was between Downey Jr. and Law. And the addition of Alicia Vikander’s character Gaby simply enriches that dance.

Alicia Vikander's Gaby complicates life for the boys

Alicia Vikander’s Gaby complicates life for the boys

She is a very capable actor and this role is perhaps the complete opposite of her performance in Ex Machina (my review). Although, you may end up questioning which role was more manipulative.

Unfortunately, Ritchie may have overestimated the power of his painter’s brush in this film if my friends and the 2/3-filled Friday night opener was any indication of how this movie is being received. This film was obviously set up to be a franchise, but as we have seen in the past, that decision doesn’t rest with the studios as much as with the audience (aka box office).

I’m hoping the movie does financially better than it looked. I’d like to see more of these movies. May have to live with reruns of the original series, instead.

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Other reviews of The Man from UNCLE:

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. about more than just the cool clothes: review – Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Danny F Santos