Film Review: The Commuter (dir by Jaume Collet-Sera)


It’s January, which means that it’s time for another silly action movie starring Liam Neeson.  Ever since Taken was first released way back in 2008, Liam has been a regular fixture during the first few months of each new year, either killing terrorists or killing gangsters.  Regardless of the film, he’s always a world-weary guy who loves his family and who has a unique set of skills.  The specific skills may change from film to film but they all pretty much have to do with killing people.

For instance, in the latest Liam Neeson action film, The Commuter, Liam plays Michael MacCauley.  Michael may currently sell life insurance but he used to be a detective with the NYPD.  Judging by some of the things that Michael does over the course of this film, being a detective in New York City apparently requires you to have a set of skills that one would normally associate with James Bond or Jason Bourne.  However, Michael left all of that behind.  Sure, he might still get together with his former partner (Patrick Wilson) for a beer and he still complains about his former captain (Sam Neill).  But Michael’s in the insurance game now.  As he explains it, he’s nearly 60, he’s got a teenage son getting ready for college, and he has two mortgages to pay off.  Michael and his family still haven’t recovered from the recession.  Don’t get him started on Goldman Sachs…

It sure is a good thing that Michael has that good job!

Except, of course, he doesn’t.  One day, Michael arrives at the office, is given a rather weak severance package, and is told that his services will no longer be needed.  Wondering how he’s going to tell his wife and son that their lives are pretty much over, Michael wanders around New York, gets a little drunk, and then eventually boards the train that will take him back home.

Michael is a regular on the train.  As is quickly made clear, he knows all of the other regular commuters, like grizzled old Walt (Jonathan Banks) and neurotic Tony (Andy Nyman).  He’s also still enough of a cop that he notices people who are riding the train for the first time.  For instance, there’s Joanna (Vera Farmiga).  Joanna sits down in front of him and strikes up a conversation.  She asks him what he would do if she told him that there was a bag full of money in one of the air conditioning vents but that, if he takes the money, he’s agreeing to do something for her.  When Joanna gets off at the next stop, Michael checks the vent.  The money’s there and now, so is the task.  Michael has to find and identify one passenger on the train.  If he doesn’t, his family dies…

Even by the standards of a Liam Neeson action film, The Commuter is a deeply silly movie.  However, that very silliness is the key to the film’s appeal.  After getting off to a strong start with a witty montage of Michael repeatedly waking up and leaving for work day-after-day, The Commuter settles down and it seems as if it’s going to be a typical Liam Neeson action film.  However, as the film progresses, things get just more and more bizarre.  Suddenly, Michael is getting into brutal fist fights in empty train cars.  No one in the movie ever seems to care that, every time they see Michael, he’s a little bit more beaten up than he was the last time.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, trains are careening out of control, people are getting shoved in front of buses, and men with snakes tattooed on their neck are giving Michael the side eye.  At one point, Michael nearly gets crushed underneath the train and then has to run and leap to get back on.  You find yourself wondering how a 60 year-old insurance salesman is managing to do all of this.  (The answer, of course, is that he’s Liam Neeson and Liam Neeson can do anything…)

A little over an hour into the film, The Commuter hits an operatic level of silliness, one that will probably never be equaled by any other movie that Liam Neeson ever makes.  If you stop too long to think about any of it, the movie will fall apart.  To be honest, very little of what Michael does make sense but the conspiracy that’s taking advantage of him makes even less sense.  The bad guys are either incredibly stupid or incredibly brilliant, depending on what the story requires from scene to scene.

But no matter!  This is the fourth film that director Jaume Collet-Sera has made with Liam Neeson.  None of their collaborations make much sense but all of them are entertaining as long as you’re willing to sit back, relax, and don’t overthink the logic of what you’re watching.  Much as he did with The Shallows, Collet-Sera makes good use of the film’s limited setting and Neeson is his usual grizzled but charismatic self.  The Commuter is about as silly as can be but it’s an undeniably entertaining thrill ride.

 

Film Review: Shaun The Sheep (dir by Richard Starzak and Mark Burton)


Shaun_the_Sheep_MoviePosterIf you want to see a film that will truly make you happy and actually give you a reason to feel optimistic about the future of civilization, then you simply must see Shaun The Sheep, the new stop-motion animated film from Aardman Animations, the same people behind Wallace and Gromit.

The film tells the story of Shaun, a sheep who lives on Mossy Bottom Farm.  Though Shaun and the other sheep have a good relationship with both the farmer and the farmer’s dog, Bitzer, Shaun still finds himself growing bored with the monotonous routine of life on the farm.  He wants to take a day off and go down to the Big City.  (It’s even identified as being the “Big City” on a nearby road sign.)  Shaun comes up with a plan.  He and his fellow sheep trick the farmer into watching as they jump over a fence.  The farmer falls asleep.  They put the farmer in a trailer, the inside of which they’ve disguised to look like the farmer’s bedroom.  The farmer will sleep through the day and, by the time he awakens, Shaun will have returned from the Big City.

And it’s actually a pretty good plan but we all know what they say about the best laid plans of sheep and men.  The trailer ends up rolling away, eventually reaching the city.  Once the farmer wakes up, he gets a blow to head that causes him to develop amnesia.  However, despite not knowing who he is, the farmer has enough vague memories of shearing the sheep that he quickly finds work as a hair stylist.  Working under the name “Mr. X,” the farmer is soon a minor celebrity himself.

Discovering what the sheep have done, Bitzer goes to the city to search for the farmer.  When he doesn’t return, Shaun and the other sheep come to realize how much they actually did like life with the farmer.  They go to the city themselves, searching for both the farmer and Bitzer.  However, once they arrive, they find themselves being stalked by A. Trumper, a fanatical animal control worker.

(Shaun the Sheep is a remarkably good-natured film, with almost every human and animal being kind at heart.  Trumper is the only exception.)

Can Shaun protect the other sheep from Trumper?  Can they track down Bitzer and the farmer?  Will the farmer ever remember the simple joys of country life or will he live the rest of his life as Mr. X, hair stylist to the stars?  You’ll have to watch Shaun the Sheep to find out!

And you really should watch it!  Shaun the Sheep is one of the most delightful films that I’ve seen in a long time.  It’s the perfect movie for kids but, at the same time, it’s smart enough that adults will be able to enjoy it as well.  Yes, a huge part of the film’s appeal is that Shaun is just so cute!  But, at the same time, this cheerful animated film also manages to work in homages to everything from The Great Escape to Silence of the Lambs.  My personal favorite of the film’s many in-jokes was a nod to The Night of the Hunter and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you here.  Why?  Because I want you to see this movie and I want you to have the same joy of discover that I did!

This is a movie that will make you laugh and yes, it will make you cry.  Most of all, Shaun the Sheep is a delightful film!  See it!

Trailer: Kick-Ass 2 (Extended Red Band)


KickAss2

This past week saw the largest collection of nerd, geek and comic book fandom gathered in one magical place. The place in question is San Diego and the event is called San Diego Comic-Con or simply just uttered in awed whispers as Comic-Con. It is a place that many outsiders have shunned as a place that has no place in good, normal society yet they continue to arrive in larger numbers to ply their products to those they shun. Even this blog has it’s shamers and ignorant individuals who spew insults yet they too continue to visit because deep in their subconscious they know, like those who ridicule Comic-Con and those who attend them with a passion, that they’re the ones out of step with whats not accepted in society.

What does this mean when it comes to the latest trailer for Kick-Ass 2 that just came out of Comic-Con?

Absolutely nothing other than the trailer and the film itself is just another weird meeting of the two cultures. It’s a film that celebrates the ridiculousness and absurdity of the comic book culture, yet it’s one that’s funded by the very same people who insulted the scene just a decade ago.

The first film was a revelation and helped introduced the world to one Chloe Grace Moretz, but it also showed that comic books and films made from them didn’t have to be PG or even PG-13. There was a place for ultra-violence in our comic book films. It also helped bring the name of Matthew Vaughn into the forefront of comic book fandom. While he’s not directing this sequel (he elected to go with X-Men: First Class and we’re all the better for it), he did help in bringing it to life and hand-picked his successor in Jeff Wadlow.

While Kick-Ass 2 is not getting the same sort of buzz from Comic-Con the original film did it is still one film I’m quite interested in seeing just to find out what has happened to our young superheroes and vigilante crime fighters since the last film. Plus, it’s main villain likes to call himself “Motherfucker”.

Trailer: Kick-Ass 2 (Red Band)


KickAss2

2010’s Kick-Ass was one of those films that you either loved or hated. It was a film adapted from the Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. comic book of the same name that also had a similar reputation of having extreme opposites in regards to how people perceived it.

I, for one, loved the film despite just being “meh” when it came to the comic. Where the film by Matthew Vaughn was a darkly comic deconstruction of the superhero story the comic book that gave birth to it was just an exercise in shocking the readers without working for it. Yet, despite that the film was a hit with both the fans of the comic book and those who didn’t even know it was a comic book. That popularity allowed the film to make enough profit that a sequel was greenlit even before a second volume of the comic book was even started by Millar and Romita, Jr.

Kick-Ass 2 sees the return of both Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass with Red Mist now calling himself The Motherfucker and the film’s main antagonist. The sequel sees Matthew Vaughn return as producer with Jeff Wadlow stepping in as director.

Kick-Ass 2 is set for an August 16, 2013 North American release date with the film premiering earlier on July 19, 2013 in the UK.

Quickie Review: Black Death (dir. by Christopher Smith)


British filmmaker Christopher Smith has been flying under the radar of most of the film-going public. He’s already a filmmaker with five films to his credit of varying quality, but each showing his growth as a director with each successive release. In 2010, Christopher Smith released his sixth film in the UK with some film festival showings in the US soon thereafter. Black Death continues Smith’s work in the horror genre with this latest film a historical horror piece which tries to take a look at the subject matter of the Black Death of medieval Europe in a realistic, gritty light.

The film is set during in 1348 plague-ravaged England where a Osmund, a young monk, has a crisis of faith as he agonizes over his celibate vows to God and his love for Avrill, a young woman in town who also has feelings for Osmund. Avrill gives Osmund a week to find the answer to his dilemma and will wait for him at the marshes in that alloted time. Osmund finds his answer as templar knight Ulric (played by Sean Bean) and a group of his soldiers arrive at the monastery on a mission to find a village said to be untouched by the plague and one which might be providing a safe haven for a necromancer who has brought the dead back to life. Osmund seizes on this chance to leave the monastery and lead Ulric and his men through the marshes and to this village.

During their travel the group loses a couple men to bandit attacks and to the plague itself. They also come across a band of villagers about to burn a young woman for witchcraft. At first, Ulric seems to take pity and show compassion to this young woman, but instead kills her himself for the crime she is accused of. Ulric reminds Osmund and his men that they have no time for such distractions as they a much more important task ahead of them. A task which soon brings them to the very village which seem to be free from the plague many attribute to God punishing the sinners and other’s as the Devil tormenting the faithful.

It’s this ambiguous theme of how the Black Death was seen by villagers, soldiers and faithful which becomes an overriding theme in the film. Smith, using Dario Poloni’s screenplay, goes about exploring how those in power on both sides of the question — of whether God or the Devil was responsible for the plague — hold such a major influence on the minds of the uneducated populace. Ulric, Osmund and the group do find their necromancer, but it’s not all what they’ve expected and, for Osmund, this mission becomes a tragic one which tests his faith in God, his church and all that he’d been taught (indoctrinated some would call it) to believe. Osmund becomes the spiritual battleground from which Ulric and the necromancer fight over his eternal soul and the effect this has on the young monk turns out a surprising fashion which brings to mind Michael Reeves own historical piece and one of the greatest horror films of all-time in Witchfinder General.

Christopher Smith’s direction continues to improve and shows in Black Death as he’s able to make not just the subject of this horrific era in Europe’s medieval past, but at the same time use a deft hand to explore themes of faith, spirituality, role of religion as control and how fundamentalism doesn’t just affect those with religious conviction but also those who follow the secular path. It helps that Smith had a capable ensemble cast led by Sean Bean’s usual strong performance. Eddie Redmayne as Osmund seemed to be a one-note cipher through the first-half of the film, but once he arrives in the village his character begins to open up in complex ways that we’re never sure if he’ll fall on the side of the angels or the demons even right up to the end and even then it’s left ambiguous.

Black Death marks the latest in Christopher Smith’s tour of the horror genre and it’s many varying subjects to hone his growing craft as a filmmaker. The film ended up being entertaining despite having such an oppressive atmosphere and tone to not just the story, but to the very setting. There’s enough blood and gore spilled (using practical effects and not a sign of CGI to be seen) during scenes of fighting and torture to satisfy gorehounds who might come across the film. It also should work the mind of those also looking not just for the grue but also something to stimulate the mind. It’ll be interesting to see what Christopher Smith has next to follow-up this well-done and executed historical horror film.

Black Death: Trailer


There’s a film called Black Death that came out sometime around 2010 that seems to have fallen below the radar of most everyone. It’s a British historical horror film from upcoming genre filmmaker Christopher Smith. The film stars Sean Bean in the role of a knight during the Black Death era of Europe.

From what I’ve seen of the trailer and read about the film it seems to be a horror film that looks at the Black Death era of history with a slightly supernatural bent to it. Even the trailer gives gives the film a certain Wicker Man vibe to it. Holy warriors of the Christian faith coming into a village untouched by the Black Death. A village whose inhabitants might be dabbling with powers from a much older and earthy religion to keep the village safe. It definitely sounds like this film might have been influenced by that classic horror film starring Edward Woodward.

I like the look of the film as seen through the trailer. It almost looks black and white with splashes of vibrant colors here and there. Black Death hasn’t been announced as having a North American theatrical release date so this film looks like it will be a blu-ray release for me to finally see it.