Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Andy Nyman, Clara Lago, Dean-Charles Chapman, Elizabeth McGovern, Ella-Rae Smith,Florence Pugh, Jonathan Banks, Killian Scott, Liam Neeson, Patrick Wilson, Roland Møller, Sam Neill, Shazad Latif, Vera Farmiga
Released: January 19th, 2018
In their fourth film together, director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have seemingly set the bar too high with their previous three efforts that include Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night to make this as enjoyable as it probably is. You may also be familiar with Collet-Serra’s style via last summer’s sleeper hit The Shallows, but while the expert B-movie director and his late-in-life action star may have proved to be a collaborative dream team in the past when it came to crafting guilty pleasures the excitement within the relationship seems to have worn off a bit with their latest, The Commuter. It’s funny because everything one could hope for from a Collet-Serra/Neeson collaboration is here in terms of the plotting, tension, and action spectacle, but while it is evident from the opening title sequence that Collet-Serra is going for something a little more nuanced than a movie like The Commuter might actually deserve the film ultimately falters in this ambition as it ends up feeling rather hastily put together via a rookie screenwriting duo (Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi) that was then seemingly revised by Non-Stop screenwriter Ryan Engle. This makes sense given The Commuter is more or less Non-Stop on a train, but no matter how little or how much effort was initially put in by Willinger and Blasi and/or how much of an overhaul Engle ended up doing the biggest problems with The Commuter still boil down to the screenplay and its slight excuse of a story. One can feel Collet-Serra attempting to infuse this thing with style and nuance as well as Neeson giving everything he seemingly has left in his aging body that might inspire him to continue the fight. The veteran actor is frazzled though, and that mentality is kind of present from the get-go. At this point we know the routine and we understand the stakes-The Commuter needed to do something to break the monotony as Run All Night did exceptionally well as compared to this, but instead this latest in the long line of varied actioners that compose Neeson’s career resurgence as an action star is a middle of the road effort; something that looks the part and acts the part, but doesn’t feel authentic in its portrayal of what it’s actually supposed to be.
So yeah, in The Commuter Liam Neeson is an insurance salesman who commutes to work every day and through the course of the day we find out that not only has the poor guy, named Michael MacCauley, been let go, but also that he is a former cop who worked alongside Patrick Wilson’s Alex Murphy for some time before retiring for reasons that don’t seem to ever be made clear. This may or may not have something to do with the stock market crash of 2008 when MacCauley and his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), lost all of their savings, retirement, etc. making it difficult for them at the moment as their only son is getting ready to go away to college. This is all weighing on MacCauley’s shoulders as he boards the train to head home. As such events might go, MacCauley is then approached by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who offers the vulnerable MacCauley a proposition he is unable to refuse. Joanna sets it up by phrasing it as an able task for an ex-cop that requires Neeson’s character to track down a certain passenger of which all he knows are the person’s name, their stop, and that they are carrying a bag. If MacCauley accepts he can have the $25,000 that has been stashed in one of the compartment restrooms and if he completes the task successfully he will gain an additional $75,000. Not a bad deal considering all he has to do is identify a person and given his current circumstances. Naturally, things are a bit more insidious than Joanna initially lets on as Farmiga’s character gives no reason for her visit, no idea as to her intent, or who she works for beyond her profession that entails reading different people and their personalities. This would hint at an interesting road for the film to take; Neeson’s character getting to know different riders on the train so as to use deductive reasoning to narrow down the suspects and figure out who he is supposed to be escorting to whoever Joanna works for, but from the get-go MacCauly is more anxious than he is thoughtful leading to a series of over-aggressive, unplanned, and easily regretful mistakes that MacCauley doesn’t seem to give a second thought to. This all quickly devolves into Neeson using his former cop skills to do some detective work that feels so sporadic there is no meaning or connective tissue to which the plot then seemingly realizes it has to answer these odd, but convenient in terms of intrigue questions in order to iron out the third act and so rather than a bonkers race against time The Commuter becomes an exposition dump that doesn’t mesh with the director and star’s prior efforts.
You might be thinking that if my qualms are around the weakness in plot and that plot’s execution that I’m missing the point of these annual Neeson actioner’s, but I assure you that is most definitely not the problem as I’ve often embraced these excursions for exactly the reasons of them being able to execute a rather thin or weightless plot in a manner that is exceedingly engaging and ultimately smarter than one might initially give them credit for. I was naturally hoping to do the same with The Commuter, but this one isn’t enough fun to excuse what might be the most blatant in terms of lazy storytelling. Again, this is largely from a perspective of a guy who thought Run All Night was the best of the Neeson/Collet-Serra collaborations and was therefore looking forward to what this next film might entail as that previous picture broke away from the polished and perfected glean of both Unknown and Non-Stop while still squarely fitting into a genre. Run All Night was dirty and grimy and while recognizable as a certain kind of film, it didn’t necessarily adhere to any one set of expectations. To be fair, The Commuter doesn’t necessarily adhere to any kind of expectation considering it exists within the same B-movie genre as those aforementioned films, but it doesn’t fulfill any of them either. There are some attempts by the script to be about something more just as there are obvious strides taken by Collet-Serra to make what was on the page stand out, but while the premise is intriguing enough and the direction precise in working with what it has to work with the final product simply isn’t as thrilling, interesting, or fun as it should be. This isn’t even a case of expecting the film to be one thing and it failing to meet those expectations by being something entirely different, but rather it is a film that attempts to be both a rehash of what we’ve seen these collaborators attempt before by enlisting a different tone and a set of more vague plot devices that doesn’t end up working in any entertaining fashion. Maybe that’s a little too harsh as, before you find out what the deal is with Neeson having to track down this particular individual in order to save his floundering financial life there is some intrigue and it’s always fun to watch as Neeson’s domineering presence integrates itself with others and how his special brand of justice goes about achieving his objective-even if the screenwriters set-up one way of deriving such information and then completely abandon it in the face of Liam Neeson: action hero!
If this is disappointing news to you, trust that it was disappointing to this reviewer as well. The Commuter is a film that pitches Neeson as this ex-cop turned insurance salesman that is a generally good husband and an invested father (he reads the books his son has been assigned in school so they can work through essays and book reports together) and so we get this very middle class sense. This idea that the film is really wanting to hit home the everyman quality of MacCauley that is evidenced even further by the first extended piece of dialogue Neeson spouts in the film. There is a sense that Neeson is simply trying to make it paycheck to paycheck while putting enough away to save for his son’s college tuition and catch-up on the retirement he and his wife may no longer be able to enjoy as blissfully as they expected. This stands to reason as, once MacCauley boards the train and the movie introduces us to the fellow passengers-both in the ones MacCauley knows from his time commuting and those he is unfamiliar with-there is very much this spirit in the themes of the movie that tell the audience it’s a corrupt world and that there is no room in this world for the little guy to get a piece of the pie. This mentality even that, despite being a soldier for a good cause that a lot of the time more soldiers end up casualties than they do heroes who prevail for the cause they were intially fighting for. It’s a pessimistic view to have, but not completely wrong or as easily dismissed as most would like to believe it to be. The best line in the film references an old Irish saying that goes, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at who he gives it to.” It’s a solid jab and it works in the context of what the movie essentially becomes in that of a rallying cry for good people to do the right thing instead of fall to the greed or corruption of a system that only seems to reward those who are out only for themselves. This is all well and good, but for a movie that begins as a mystery based around one man’s ability or inability to assess those around him and not simply judge these books by their covers that becomes an off the wall action/thriller where the action is spastic and the thrills minimal The Commuter is a movie that time and time again doesn’t manage to deliver on its own promises or follow through on its (not so big, but honorable) ideas. Wilson and Farmiga are both criminally underused here with the obvious joke that this isn’t actually a tie-in to The Conjuring universe no doubt already being told many times, but still disappointing it doesn’t pull a Split-like mid-credits reveal as that might have made this underwhelming crime drama more satisfying. At least the movie credits its own circumstances to be as outrageous as they indeed are hinting that maybe next time Neeson and Collet-Serra will be ready to truly go off the rails in the best way possible.
The Little Stranger ★★★★
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.
Released: 21st September 2018
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.
Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.
From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.
The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain. This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.
Released: 19th October 2018
Directed By: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Marcello Fonte
Reviewed By: Rhys Handley
Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.
But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.
When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.
Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.
To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.
In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.
Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.
Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.
An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.
Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.
No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.
Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience
Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.
Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.
Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.
There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.
Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.
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