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.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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