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The Commuter (Review 2)

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Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neil

Released: 19th January 2018 (UK)

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

For ten years, at six a.m, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) — an ex-cop turned insurance salesman, wakes up next to his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern). He shaves, has breakfast, talks about schoolwork with his son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman), has a lift from his wife to the train station, and gets on the Metro-North Hudson Valley Line to commute to his work in New York City.

In an effective and poignant opening-credits sequence, using a series of jump cuts, director Jaume Collet-Serra outlines the MacCauley family’s morning ritual – Michael and his son talk about Syracuse, then they discuss ‘Lord of the Flies’ – at his station drop-off, Michael and his wife laugh, next time they argue, another time they apologise. By showing the repetition, we see Michael’s daily family life, but also the variety of feelings and situations to be found during the morning routine. This lays the emotional groundwork for the decisions and conflicts which then assuage him during one, unique day.

This morning at his insurance firm begins like any other, but then he is called into the boss’ office and, at the age of sixty, Michael is told that he is being ‘let go’.

Left blinking in the street outside his building, Michael is shell-shocked. He can’t bring himself to tell his wife that he is now jobless when she calls with queries about their son’s college tuition payments – instead he nurses a beer at a nearby Irish bar with his former NYPD partner Alex (Patrick Wilson) and has a brief exchange with a newly-promoted cop colleague (Sam Neill).

To crown an already terrible day, his phone is pickpocketed in the crush at the station. On the train home he regards all the regular commuters he sees there and ponders on how he is going to break the terrible news to his family.

An attractive woman (Vera Farmiga) takes the seat opposite him. She strikes up a seemingly innocent conversation and then suggests a hypothetical situation, which quickly becomes compelling and peremptory – what would he do if, with minimal information, Michael had to locate a particular passenger on the commuter train before it arrives at its final stop, and plant a tracking device. No questions allowed as to why, or what the outcome may be. For this task, Michael will get $25,000 up-front and another $75,000 upon completion of the mission—enough to offset the economic havoc wrought by the loss of his job.

The Commuter then proceeds ‘Non-Stop’ inside the speeding train (much in the vein of Collet-Serra and Neeson’s 2014 collaboration). Again, this film presents a moral dilemma which results in a race-against-time, and it is set predominantly aboard a mass-transit vehicle.

Neeson’s gaunt, handsomely-weathered hero convincingly conveys his moral quandary and  economic desperation, as again he must agonise over a covert task which may mean life-or-death. Likewise, he finds himself amid a variety of unsuspecting and suspicious characters. This time they comprise punky, pink-haired student (Florence Pugh) bickering with her boyfriend; friendly everyman Walt (Jonathan Banks); arrogant city broker (Shazad Latif) constantly connected to his phone (a cheer went up from the audience when his stint with Goldman Sachs is discovered, and Michael gives him the finger); nervy nurse (Clara Lago); bored commuter games-addict (Andy Nyman); school-girl Sofia (Ella-Rae Smith) and the regular train guards (Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis).

Director Collet-Serra is skilled in making race-against-the-clock action films which have an objective which must be fulfilled by a protagonist prompted by desperation, and he has learned a few tricks from Hitchcock. The arrangement between Michael and Farmiga’s mysterious blonde has the faint whiff of ‘Strangers on a Train’, and there’s a hint of ‘North by Northwest’ as Neeson’s character is an ordinary man who becomes embroiled in a conspiracy and struggles to ‘do the right thing’ and so regain control of his life.

It’s interesting to see how The Commuter finds various ways to use the claustrophobic confines of a suburban commuter train to create tension and stage it’s close-range fistfights between the  carriages. As in Non-Stop, the camera (cinematography here by Paul Cameron) sweeps the interior of the train from car to car with little regard for walls, floors or doors. However, even in the sedentary scenes, such as with two men sitting at a bar, the camera appears to wobble restlessly over their forms and faces, as if filmed on a boat at sea, (which can at times induce mild motion sickness in the viewer).

The screenplay (credited to Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle) is entertaining and engaging, if at times rather convoluted in its logistics. It is an intriguing premise that perhaps the filmmakers don’t fully exploit. However, director Jaume Collet-Serra stylistic flair and thematic integrity elevate the film above its thriller plot.

The Commuter is worth seeing for Neeson’s dogged and craggy screen presence. His voice retains that trademark husky, Irish-tinged, mellow timbre and (for a 65-year-old) he manages some impressively choreographed and brutal action sequences. Like a rugged, flinty cliff-face, Neeson can take a hell of a battering and still look grimly picturesque.

Editor-in-Chief of Movie Marker. Likes: Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino Dislikes: The film 'Open Water' I mean, what was that all about?

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Beautiful Boy ★★★★

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Released: 18th January 2019

Directed By: Felix Van Groeningen

Starring: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

It was his tender infatuation with Armie Hammer’s sun-kissed research assistant, in the exquisite Italy-set romance Call Me By Your Name, which allowed Timothee Chalamet to emphatically march into many a cinema goer’s heart. Now he seems determined to shatter them in this affecting portrait of a young man torn apart by crystal meth addiction, based on the best-selling memoirs written by David and Nic Sheff.

Fusing the separate father and son perspectives into a singular vision. Felix Van Groenigen’s Beautiful Boy plays out like a slideshow of a photo album, leaping between various stages of Nic’s (Timothee Chalamet) upbringing in San Francisco, with the emotional pulse of the film quickening as his troubles deepen.

Applying significant strain on his relationship with his dad David (Steve Carell), who goes to remarkable lengths to garner a thorough understanding of this drug epidemic and how it tortures one’s self in both body and mind, whilst his son struggles to articulate his emotions. It only ripples throughout the family unit, slowly severing the ties with stepmother Karen (Maura Tierney) and Nic’s LA-based birth mom Vicki (Amy Ryan). Encompassing them all is a real air of desperation, as they look to salvage their home life and drag their eldest back from the brink.

Arguably intentional to mirror the often disorientating state of Nic. The narrative structure adopted by Van Groenigen allows heady highs of intimacy and unflinching honesty, making continuous leaps within the time frame. Yet it does hamper the film’s early attempts to build emotional momentum, surprisingly leaving you distant as you look to engage in this family’s plight. The musical choices seem intent to compliment this approach too and whilst some are inspired in their beauty, there is the occasional song that creates a sense of intrusion.

A theme that is prominent throughout Beautiful Boy is the perception of control, established by Nic’s growing discontent towards David and Van Groenigen utilises this visually in its confined and open-aired spaces. One fine example being through an intense cafe exchange, as Nic laments the great expectations placed on him, with both figures captured at a lower angle to emphasise their descent into hopelessness. What becomes clear and almost tangible is Nic and David are both addicts in their own way, unable to break respective habits and methods in order to move forward.

The great comedian who for me has become superior in far more dramatic works. Steve Carell is quietly impressive as David, remaining remarkably centred as he’s driven down a road he never envisaged for his son. With such a sharp focus on the father/son dynamic, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are somewhat sidelined, but both provide moments of potent poignancy when called upon. Of course, the film truly belongs to a stunning Timothee Chalamet who is fearless in representing the true horror and heartbreak of such a debilitating condition.

Brimming with sensitivity in its handling of an admittedly brutal subject matter. Beautiful Boy is painstakingly brilliant in its sincerity and authenticity.

To quote the trailer. When Carell and Chalamet share the screen. It’s… everything.

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Movie Reviews

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★

Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp.

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Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman

Released: 12th October 2018 (UK)

Bad Times at the El Royale has seemingly fallen foul of the particularly hectic October release schedule in the U.K. As Venom and A Star is Born dominate the box-office and with the London Film Festival in full swing, El Royale has not received the recognition it deserves.

Boasting an impressive cast, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers whose stories intertwine at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. As each person’s agenda for being at the El Royale is revealed, tensions inevitably rises and the characters collide.

From the get-go, El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp. Director Drew Goddard, no stranger to managing madness following his debut A Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an immersive, intricately linked murder-mystery that feels like a grindhouse version of Cluedo. The violence is garish but necessary, the dialogue is short and snappy and the characters are most importantly, interesting. The hardest part of any film with so many moving parts, is making the audience actually bond with those involved. Goddard, who also wrote the screenplay, has nailed this – giving enough back-story for each, whilst holding enough back to keep us learning more.

Between Jeff Bridge’s bad-ass priest, Dakota Johnson’s kill-happy hippy and Chris Hemsworth’s dancing cult-leader, the wider cast have somehow managed to create a credible on-screen dynamic, despite the stark character contrasts. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful singer Darlene is the obvious standout and her interactions with Bridge’s Father Flynn provide some of the most film’s most satisfying scenes. Lewis Pullman’s unassuming concierge Miles is another strong performance deserving of a mention.

The film swaggers along accompanied by its killer soundtrack, which plays a crucial part in the films tonal change from chapter to chapter. It’s dark and violent, yet at times it’s engaging and even emotional. The sharp edits that mash-up the timeline don’t over-complicate the plot, but accentuate the frenzied feeling that Goddard is creating as we head towards the plot’s crescendo.

As expected there are some areas where a film with so much going on inevitably suffers. Jon Hamm’s Seymour is arguably the biggest victim of this, with his character perhaps not utilised as much as it could have been. The film also feels a little too fleshed out in parts, lingering on some of the less necessary aspects and leaving one or two plotlines unexplored as a result.

Bad Times at the El Royale really does feel like a Tarantino movie and that’s no mean feat, Goddard has taken his own style and applied tried and tested techniques to create a compelling, genuinely exciting movie and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

 

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