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: Ghostbusters (dir by Paul Feig)


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If you need any further proof that 2016 is a screwed-up year, just consider the fact that Ghostbusters, an entertaining but ultimately rather mild-mannered and innocuous summer action/comedy, has become the center of one of the biggest controversies of the year.

It all started, of course, when the reboot was first announced.  Fanboys reacted with outrage, offended that Hollywood would even consider remaking a film that was apparently one of the defining moments of their childhood.  Then, it was announced that Ghostbusters would feature an all-female cast and it would be directed by Paul Feig, the director of Bridesmaids.  The howls of outrage grew even louder.  Then that infamous trailer was released and even I felt that trailer sucked.  I wasn not alone because the trailer quickly became one of the most disliked videos in the history of YouTube.  Reading the comments underneath that trailer was literally like finding yourself trapped in a production of Marat/Sade.

Suddenly, in the eyes of very vocal group of internet trolls, the reboot of Ghostbusters went from being simply another dubious idea to being a crime against humanity.  And the trolls were so obnoxious that they managed to turn this big-budget, studio-backed production into an underdog.  Here was a movie directed by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors and starring some of Hollywood’s hottest stars and suddenly, it had become David in a biblical showdown with the Goliaths of internet.

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And then it happened.  Earlier last week, Ghostbusters was finally screened for critics.  The first reviews started to come in and they were surprisingly positive.  In fact, they were so positive that I found myself distrusting them.  I found myself wondering if critics were reacting to the film or if they were simply trying to prove that they were better than the trolls who leave obscene comments on YouTube.

Which was true, I wondered.  Was Ghostbusters the worst film ever made or was it the greatest?  Or was it perhaps just possible that Ghostbusters would turn out to be a typical summer film?

With all the controversy, it’s tempting to overpraise a film like Ghostbusters.  Battle lines have been drawn and sometimes, I feel as if I’m being told that failing to declare Ghostbusters to be the greatest and most important comedy of all time is the equivalent of letting the trolls win.

Well, that’s not true.  Ghostbusters is not the greatest or the most important comedy of all time but you know what?  Ghostbusters is good.  Ghostbusters is entertaining.  Especially during the first half, it’s full of laugh out loud moments.  At times, Ghostbusters is everything that you could hope for.

No, it’s not a perfect film.  Paul Feig is a great comedy director but, in this film at least, his direction of the big action sequences often feels uninspired (especially when compared to his previous work on Spy).  The final fourth of the film gets bogged down in CGI and the film goes from being a clever comedy to being just another summer spectacle.  Even the one-liners, which flowed so naturally at the start of the film, feel forced during the final half of the film.  Ghostbusters is good but it never quite becomes great.

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Here’s what did work: the cast.  As he previously proved with Bridesmaids, Paul Feig is a director who is uniquely skilled at creating and showcasing a strong comedic ensemble.  Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, who is denied tenure at Columbia when it is discovered that a book she wrote on the paranormal has been republished and is being sold, on Amazon, by her former best friend, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy).  When Erin goes to confront Abby, she not only meets Abby’s newest colleague, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) but she also gets dragged into investigating an actual case of paranormal activity..  Soon, Erin, Abby, and Holtzmann are investigating hauntings and capturing ghosts, all with the secret approval of the Mayor of New York (Andy Garcia).  Of course, for PR reasons, the mayor’s office has to continually disavow the Ghostbusters and occasionally have them arrested.  Working alongside the three scientists are Patty (Leslie Jones), who apparently knows the history of every building in New York, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their adorably stupid receptionist.

As written, both Patty and Kevin are fairly thin characters.  Kevin’s the handsome dumb guy.  Patty is streetwise and sassy.  But both Hemsworth and Jones give such enthusiastic and sincere performances that they transcend the stereotypical nature of their roles.  At times, Kevin runs the risk of becoming too cartoonish for even a Ghostbusters film.  But if you can’t laugh at Chris Hemsworth explaining that he took the lenses out of his glasses because they were always getting dirty, what can you laugh at?

Erin is an interesting character and Kristen Wiig deserves a lot of credit for her performance.  Erin is actually given a fairly affecting backstory, centering around how she was haunted by the ghost of the old woman who used to live next door to her.  Erin is a former believer, someone who, in order to succeed in the “real” world, gave up her beliefs and conformed to the expectations of society.  When she actually meets a ghost, it’s more than just a confirmation of the supernatural.  It’s a chance for Erin to finally embrace who she truly is and what she truly cares about.  When she and the other ghostbusters chase after evil spirits, Erin is not just doing a job.  Instead, she’s finally found somewhere where she belongs.  She no longer has to pretend to be someone that she isn’t.  Wiig plays the role with just the right touch of neurotic wonder.  She grounds the entire film.

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But the true star of the film is Kate McKinnon.  Whether she’s cheerfully smiling as a ghost vomits all over her colleagues or cheerfully explaining how easily their equipment could kill them all, Holtzmann is the greatest character in the film and McKinnon gives the best performance.  If Wiig grounds the film, McKinnon provides it with a truly demented soul.

The first half of the movie, which focuses on the relationships between the characters and features snappy and endlessly quotable dialogue, is wonderful and I was thrilled while watching it, convinced that the entire movie would be as good as the first hour.  However, the second half of the film gets bogged down in a rather predictable plot and the final action sequences could have just as easily been lifted from Pixels or one of The Avengers movies.  The surviving cast of the original Ghostbusters all show up in cameos that are, at best, inoffensive and, at worst, groan-worthy.  The end result is rather uneven.  If the film had maintained the momentum of that first hour, it would be a classic.  But that second half transforms it into just another entertaining but not quite memorable summer action film.

That said, Paul Feig is an excellent comedy director and let’s hope that he never gets so self-important that he ends up turning into Jay Roach.  Hopefully, if there is a sequel, Feig will return to direct it and Kate McKinnon will have an even bigger role.

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