PHANTOM THREAD (2017) – Meticulous Period Piece Romance Tells Unusual Love Story

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PHANTOM THREAD (2017) puts an exclamation point on the idea that you have to work hard to make a relationship last.

Make that two exclamation points.

In 1950s London, dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the top of the food chain for dressmakers.  He designs dresses for the most important people in England, from the wealthy to celebrities to royalty. They all come to the House of Woodcock for quality dresses. Reynolds is firmly set in his ways, loves his routine, and avoids all distractions in order to remain completely focused on his work.

He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who sees to it that his routine is not disturbed any way. He is also a confirmed bachelor, and we witness early on a scene over breakfast, where his current young girlfriend laments that she no longer has his attention.  He admits that she is right, and Cyril promptly dismisses the young woman to live somewhere else.  Thus is the daily life of Reynolds and Cyril.

But when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and brings her home, things are different. Alma is a strong-willed woman who, when inevitably asked by Cyril to leave, refuses. Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work, and she’s not ready to leave him. And when she realizes the main problem with Reynolds is that he doesn’t need her, she takes it upon herself to remedy that situation.  She takes a drastic action, with the intention of seeing to it that when all is said and done, Reynolds will indeed need her, and she will be there for him.

And it works. But for how long?

PHANTOM THREAD is one strange love story. It takes several twists and turns where you’re simply not sure where the story is going to go, how certain characters are going to react, and in doing so it’ll make you uncomfortable as you are going along for the ride. But by the time it is over and you see how it ultimately turns out, you kinda nod your head and acknowledge “I kinda liked how that all turned out.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson sets the tone early on with meticulous scenes of Reynolds at work. The dressmaker is so focused on his craft watching him work is akin to watching an artist painting a portrait or a master chef in the kitchen. The attention to detail is second to none.

The entire film looks great, from the sets to the costumes, Anderson brings 1950s London to life.

But the strongest part of PHANTOM THREAD are the performances.

Daniel Day Lewis is masterful as Reynolds Woodcock. He brings this eccentric character to life, and better yet despite Reynolds being a complicated person, Lewis makes him someone who the audience understands.  You pretty much know throughout what Reynolds is thinking and feeling.

And while I also enjoyed Vicky Krieps as Alma, her take on the character is less clear, and this may be a fault of the writing more than Krieps’ acting,  because as Alma, she’s fantastic.  Alma is this quiet unassuming young woman who Reynolds meets waiting tables at a restaurant, and when she comes home with him, she seems to absolutely love him.  She’s also very strong-willed in her own quiet way, and as such, she is not intimated by Reynold’s eccentricities or Cyril’s cold orders.  She more than holds her own.

But what’s less clear is when things go south, and Alma decides it’s time for action, is she still in love with Reynolds, or is she fed up with him?  Now, the movie eventually makes this crystal clear, but for a time, her intentions are murky, and that’s because unlike Reynolds who the audience knows very well, Alma is less understood until later in the movie.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as the icy cold Cyril, and in Manville’s hands she’s more than simply a one note cold-hearted enabler of her brother.  She’s a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and goals. In fact, one of the better sequences of the film comes when she admits to Reynolds that she’s “rather fond of Alma” and shortly thereafter shifts loyalties much to the surprise of her brother.

Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville have received Oscar nominations, Lewis for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Manville for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.  Both are deserving.

Paul Thomas Anderson has also been nominated for Best Director, and the film itself is up for Best Picture.

That being said,  I can’t say I really enjoyed PHANTOM THREAD all that much.  I loved the costumes, the cinematography, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ exquisite performance as Reynolds Woodcock. But the love story didn’t exactly work for me.

For a long time, close to two-thirds of this movie, while I knew where Reynolds was coming from, I was far less clear about Alma’s motives and intentions. Did she really love Reynolds? What would she do when he pushed her away like all his other girlfriends? These questions are not answered until late in the film, and when they are answered, the film is better for it, but as a result of this ambiguity the movie is rather uneven.

It’s also a rather bizarre love story.  If you have to go to the lengths which Alma does to get your lover to pay attention to you, is it really worth it? In this case, the answer seems to be yes, but it seems so far removed from reality that admittedly I had trouble completely buying into this plot point.

Also, for a love story, it’s not really that emotional of a movie.  In fact, it does a far better job of getting you to think than getting you to feel.  It’s the thinking person’s love story. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s the best formula for a movie romance.

At the end of the day, PHANTOM THREAD is a meticulously crafted period piece romance that also happens to be a very unusual love story. It leans heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance as Reynolds Woodcock, much more so than on Vicky Krieps’ Alma, the result being an uneven tale that gets better when it finally decides to let its audience into the minds of both its lead characters.

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BLACK PANTHER (2018) – Superior Film Much More Than Just A Superhero Movie

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Every once in a while, the superhero film reinvents itself.  It happened twice in 2008, with THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and IRON MAN (2008). It happened again with THE AVENGERS (2012).

And now it has happened once more with BLACK PANTHER (2018).

BLACK PANTHER is the latest superhero movie to come from Marvel, a comic book company that has been churning out top quality superhero films regularly since IRON MAN in 2008.  They show no signs of slowing down.  And while all their movies do follow a similar formula— wise-cracking superheroes who like to bicker and often fight with each other, high production values, A-list actors, superior writing, and a fun sense of humor— they have tweaked things on occasion. THE AVENGERS brought the “family” of superheroes to the forefront, where the conflicts were more about hero vs. hero than hero vs. villain.

Now comes BLACK PANTHER, a deeper, more resonating tale that reaches further into the social, political, and racial issues of our time than any superhero film before it.  As such, it’s that rare film that supersedes its superhero costuming and succeeds on a level usually reserved for thought-provoking Oscar nominated dramas.

BLACK PANTHER tells the story of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is destined to become king of the African kingdom of Wakanda after his father, the king, was killed in events chronicled in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). Wakanda is a special kingdom.  The people there have in their possession an element which gives them incredible technological and healing powers, powers they hide from world so as not to become involved in global conflicts. It’s also what gives the sitting king of Wakanda the power to become Black Panther, the warrior who protects his people.

One of T’Challa’s first challenges as king is to hunt down the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a man who has a long history of inflicting pain on Wakanda.  This chase reconnects T’Challa with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who is also after Klaue.  When Klaue escapes, one of T’Challa’s best friends W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) laments that he had hoped that T’Challa would be different from his father, but like his father, T’Challa has failed to reign in an enemy of the nation.

Things grow more complicated for T’Challa when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda with bombshell revelations and a challenge for the new king, both of which threaten to change everything about Wakanda and its status in the world.

I absolutely loved BLACK PANTHER.  It has all the things that have made the Marvel superhero movies successful and then some.

For starters, once more it boasts a phenomenal cast. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in GET ON UP (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in MARSHALL (2017), is perfect here as T’Challa/Black Panther.  He strikes the right balance between strength, honor, heroism, and vulnerability.  He makes T’Challa the perfect leader, yet when he is challenged for his crown, the notion that he will win that challenge is anything but a done deal.

Michael B. Jordan knocks it out of the park as Erik Killmonger, the young boy abandoned by the Wakandans to grow up in the slums of Oakland, CA who had to fight every day of his life to get back to his native country.  Killmonger is one of the villains in this movie, to be sure, but so much of what he says makes perfect sense, and his view of the world is much closer to reality than T’Challa’s.  It’s a fascinating role and Jordan, the star of CREED (2015), is more than up to the task.  I haven’t felt this much empathy for a screen villain in a very long time.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o [12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)] is very good as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend who he spends most of the movie trying to get back together with.  Nakia is T’Challa’s rock, and she’s with him every step of the way in this adventure.

As good as Nyong’o is here, I enjoyed two of the other female performers even more. Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD (2012-2018), is mesmerizing here as the warrior Okoye. And Letitia Wright is just as good as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, who not only gives her king brother a hard time throughout, but is also the keeper of all the technological secrets and advancements of Wakanda.  In short, she gets to play “Q” to T’Challa’s “James Bond.”

Martin Freeman is amiable as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is formidable as the villainous heavy Ulysses Klaue.

The cast also includes Daniel Kaluuya from GET OUT (2017) as W’Kabi and Forest Whitaker as Zuri.  As I said at the outset, BLACK PANTHER, like the Marvel superhero films which preceded it, has an A-list cast.

I found the entire movie to be pretty much mesmerizing.  Director Ryan Coogler, who also directed CREED (2015), drew me in at the outset with a combination of strong storytelling, cinematic scenes, and a Wakandan mythology that is prevalent throughout the movie.

BLACK PANTHER is loaded with memorable scenes, from the exciting to the poignant.  T’Challa’s first encounter with Klau followed by the ensuing car chase is as an exciting sequence as you’ll find.  It’s as good or better as anything done in the James Bond films.  The challenge bout between T’Challa and Killmonger is absolutely thrilling and exceedingly emotional, and the all-out climatic battle at the end of the movie is a rousing way to close out the film.

Scenes between T’Challa and his father, and Killmonger and his father are moving and sad and touch upon philosophies of life and of race.

It’s an outstanding script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. The thoughts on race alone and the plight of the black man in the world are themes that make this one above and beyond a normal superhero tale.  You can almost see the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. inside T’Chala and Malcolm X inside Killmonger as they spar on the right way to save black lives in the world.

The film also doesn’t shy away from the political, addressing current issues as well. T’Challa’s statement to the United Nations  that we must “build bridges, not barriers,” is a clear reference to a certain wall that a certain leader wants to build.

When Killmonger finds himself on the throne, questions arise as to the responsibilities of fellow leaders and the citizenry when faced with an irresponsible king with no experience.

The script goes even farther than current events, examining in general the difficulties of being a world leader, as when T’Challa’s father tells his son, “You’re a good man.  And it’s not easy for a good man to be king.”

BLACK PANTHER is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tale for our time, a look at the responsibilities of those who possesses great power, of what happens when someone without experience gains that power and uses it for a personal and oftentimes reckless agenda, and it’s an examination of the responsibilities of race relations, of just what it means to rebel against oppressors, to achieve equality in the world without becoming that which you’re trying to overcome.  It’s as deep and as resonating a superhero film as I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also a Marvel superhero film, which means that at the end of the day, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

I loved BLACK PANTHER. It’s not only one of the best superhero movies to come out in a long time, but it’s also a powerful movie in its own right, as it deals astonishingly well with issues of race relations and responsibilities of those in power.

It’s a masterfully told story of our time.

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INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018) Drags Once Popular Horror Franchise Further into Obscurity

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The spirit world where all the dark and nasty things happen in the INSIDIOUS movies is called “the Further,” making it the perfect name for how this series has trended, further into obscurity.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018) is the fourth INSIDIOUS movie and the second straight film in the series to be an underwhelming shadow of its original namesake.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is also the second straight prequel in the series, providing additional back story for Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the demon hunting character in the original movie, who incidentally died at the end of that film.  Hence, the need for prequels, I guess, although Elise Rainier was never my favorite part of the original INSIDIOUS (2010), which is half the reason why the prequels don’t work all that well. Elise Rainier just isn’t that interesting a character. On the other hand, Lin Shaye who plays Rainier is very good in the role, and her performances in these films is one of the reasons none of the films have been flat-out awful.

This one begins with Elise’s childhood, as we see her and her younger brother living in a modest 1950s home with their parents.  Her father Gerald Rainier (Josh Stewart) is a sadistic bastard who deals with Elise’s “gift” of seeing spirits by punishing her, specifically by beating her and locking her in the basement.

The action jumps ahead to 2010, the year in which the events from the first movie occurred, and after the events depicted in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 (2015).  Elise receives a phone call from a man seeking help with strange goings-on inside his house, but when he reveals that he lives in the house she grew up in, where her father beat her, she declines his offer. She has too many scars to return there.

But of course, since this is a horror movie, she changes her mind, and with her two sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), two characters who have appeared in the entire series and are there to provide comic relief, heads off to New Mexico to wage war with the demons still haunting her house.  And while there, she learns more about what really was going on inside her house when she was a young girl.

The weakest part of INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is its story, which is a yawnfest.  The strongest part is the acting, especially the performances by Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, and Angus Sampson, who all reprise their familiar roles and as such come off like three likable characters from a TV series you enjoy, but this time they’re stuck in a particularly mediocre episode.

The uninspiring story was written by Leigh Whannell, who also plays Specs in the film. Whannell wrote all four INSIDIOUS movies as well as the first three SAW movies.  He also starred in the SAW movies as well.

Whannell’s scripts for the first two INSIDIOUS movies were very good, while the latter two were simply meh.  INSIDIOUS is one of my favorite horror movies of the last ten years, and even that first film had its flaws, but I saw it in a packed theater, and the screams from the audience were so loud, it was the most fun I had watching a horror movie with an audience in years.

The sequel, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013) wasn’t half bad, and the story it told, since it was a direct sequel to the first movie, made sense and had some interesting tie-ins with the first one.  It wasn’t as good, but it wasn’t that bad either.  Of course, probably the biggest reason for the success of these two movies was that they were directed by James Wan.

Leigh Whannell actually wrote and directed INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, the first prequel in the series, and this film, probably the weakest in the series, really didn’t resonate at all. Here, in INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. it’s Adam Robitel sitting in the director’s chair. While the film is professionally crafted, in that there aren’t any awkward or amateurish scenes, there’s also nary a scare to be found.  The creepiest part of this one is not the demons but Josh Stewart’s performance as Elise’s sadistic father Gerald.

Compared to the original INSIDIOUS, which was chock full of scares, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is a snoozefest.  Other than the cruel workings of Gerald Rainer, the only scares in this one are of the jump scare variety, and there simply aren’t many of those.

The story also doesn’t help.  While it’s fairly interesting to learn more about Elise Rainer, it’s hardly enough material to base an entire movie on.  And the present haunting, the one that brings Elise back to her house in the first place, is largely forgettable.  The story is simply an excuse to get Elise Rainer and her sidekicks Specs and Tucker back on-screen together again.

And the “last key” in the title is a reference to several things in the story, none of which are all that interesting.

As much as I’m not really a fan of the Elise Rainer character, I do enjoy Lin Shaye’s performances in these films.  She adds class and respectability to these stories, and she keeps these films from sinking to lower depths.

I was also never the biggest fan of Specs and Tucker and thought their humor in the first INSIDIOUS movie was out-of-place, but they’ve grown on me.  I enjoyed both Leigh Whannell’s and Angus Sampson’s performances here.  I even laughed at their recurring bad joke in the film, when they introduce themselves, pointing to Elise and saying, “She’s psychic. We’re sidekicks.”

As I said, Josh Stewart is creepy as Gerald Rainier in a small role.  Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke play Elise’s nieces Imogen and Melissa, both of whom seem primed to take over the demon hunting duties should there be more INSIDOUS movies, and since they are both young and beautiful, they attract the attention of both Specs and Tucker.

And Bruce Davison plays Elise’s estranged brother Christian, who wants nothing to do with her because when she left home, she left him alone with their cruel father.  Davison has enjoyed a long and varied career, including a prominent bit as Senator Kelly in the first two X-MEN movies, but I always remember him for his starring role in the original WILLARD (1971), a film that was one of the first horror movies I ever saw at the movies, at the wee young age of seven.  Like Lin Shave, Davison adds respectability to the story.

The Lipstick-Face Demon (Joseph Bishara), whose signature red face makes him look like Darth Maul’s long-lost cousin, was one of my favorite parts of the original movie.  He’s seen in the trailer for INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, but you won’t see him much in the movie.  That’s because he shows up for about half a second.  Had someone written a back story about this guy, now that might have made for a worthwhile sequel.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is not an awful horror movie.  It’s just not a very good one, nor is it all that necessary. Do I really care that much about these characters to learn more back story about them?  Not really.

I for one wouldn’t be disappointed if THE LAST KEY was also the last INSIDIOUS movie.

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THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018) – Clint Eastwood’s Decision To Cast Real Life Heroes Ultimately Fails

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There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), based on the true story of how three Americans thwarted a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris, the iconic director made the curious decision to cast the three men who performed this act of heroism to play themselves in the movie.  And it was a decision that certainly caught my curiosity, as this unusual casting idea was the main reason I wanted to see this one.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the final ten minutes of the movie, where we witness the intense fight aboard the train, the lack of acting experience from the three leads really hurts as they simply can’t carry the story, even with its brief 94 minutes running time.

We meet the three principal characters right away- Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, and they tell us they have been best friends since middle school and that to understand their story they have to tell it from the beginning.  And so the story jumps back in time to show us how they met in middle school, and then it continues through their adult lives, leading all the way up to their fateful decision to take a road trip together through Europe, a trip that eventually led them to being on that train that day.

As you can see, the bulk of the movie is back story, and so to ask these three men to play themselves is asking a lot.  They never really seem comfortable with the whole thing until the climactic reenactment of the terrorist attack.

It’s a funny thing to say because after all, they’re playing themselves.  Who would know better what they thought and felt than them?  But that’s where things get interesting. See, this is a movie, an art form, and as such that’s why you need professional actors who make it their living to be able to convince an audience exactly what their characters are thinking and feeling.  Halfway through this movie, it dawned on me that these three guys were rather boring. Don’t get me wrong.  I liked these guys a lot, but I didn’t buy a ticket just to see three friends chat and re-enact their life stories.  I bought a ticket to a movie, which is not real life, and as such, has to work through the artists who make them to come off as more true than real life.  That’s not the case here.  These three gentleman, as likable as they are, simply don’t possess the charisma to carry a movie or to make it a convincing 94 minutes.

And there is more that is wrong with THE 15:17 TO PARIS.  The script by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Jeffrey E. Stern is incredibly dull.  There’s just not much to this story of how these guys became friends.

That being said, the three boys who played Spencer, Alex, and Anthony when they were in middle school, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, and Paul-Mikel Williams were very good, and I really enjoyed watching them.  Their scenes worked.  Although the school they attended was horrible. If the boys’ school was as bad as it’s depicted in this movie, it’s one of the worst schools going.

Judy Greer plays Spencer’s mom Joyce, and she too is very good in the role of the single mom who struggles to raise her son on her own.

But the film never becomes truly watchable until its final reel.  The climactic scuffle on board the train is by far the best part of the movie.  Eastwood does a terrific job here, and it’s also the one sequence where the three real-life characters seem to come to life.

Is it enough to save the movie?  Not really.

It would have been a far more suspenseful film had it been all about the train ride and the subsequent attack, but that is clearly not Eastwood’s purpose here. His purpose, which is highly commendable even if the film doesn’t really work, is to honor and celebrate the heroism of these three men. I think it would have worked better had this been shot as a documentary, where the story could have been told through interviews and anecdotes rather than flat reenactments.

I also appreciated Eastwood’s decision to pretty much exclude the terrorist from this movie.  It’s clear that Eastwood is saying that this is not the terrorist’s story.  It’s the story of the three Americans.  As such, we barely see him until the end, and his face hardly at all.

On the other hand, the main theme here of one’s inevitable fate didn’t really work for me. The three friends constantly talk about the feeling that they were born for a singular purpose, which of course turns out to be their successful thwarting of a terrorist attack. But the screenplay hammers this point home nonstop, and the result is nothing more than stating the obvious.

Clint Eastwood made an intriguing decision to cast the real life heroes in his movie, THE 15:17 TO PARIS, but it’s a decision that ultimately doesn’t work, as these three young men simply can’t carry the movie on their backs.  The best part is the final ten minutes, which chronicles the actual terrorist attack, but what comes before this exciting finale is tedious and mundane.

You might want to skip THE 15:17 TO PARIS and take the next train instead.

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THE COMMUTER (2018) – Liam Neeson Action Formula Wearing Thin

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Vera Farmiga and Liam Neesson in THE COMMUTER (2018)

Like many of you, I’ve been a big fan of the Liam Neeson action movies, going all the way back to TAKEN (2008).

It’s been a fun ride, but these films are starting to wear out their welcome.  The trailers for THE COMMUTER didn’t look so hot, and the initial reviews were pretty bad, but being a Liam Neeson fan, I still wanted to check it out.

Yup, the formula is definitely wearing thin, but that being said, I still enjoyed THE COMMUTER, even though I pretty much didn’t believe any of it.

In terms of storytelling, THE COMMUTER gets off to a strong start as former cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) abruptly loses his job, as he is fired without warning, which leaves him a mess since he’s 60 years old with two mortgages and a son who’s about to go off to college. This plot point resonates because any family these days with kids getting ready for college knows firsthand how insanely expensive it is, and how unfortunately where a person can go to college often has less to do with ability than with finances.

Michael rides the train every day into and out of New York City, and on this particular day, on his way home, he meets a strange woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him she’s a behaviorist who studies human behavior.  They strike up a conversation and she throws a hypothetical situation his way: would he be willing to do something without knowing its consequences if he were paid $100,000. Of course, on this particular day, without a job, Michael is intrigued, but he’s hardly interested, until Joanna intimates that she’s not kiddng and tells him $25,000 is hidden in the bathroom, and the rest is his after he finishes the job, which is to locate one passenger and place a tracking device in the passenger’s bag.

After Joanna departs the train, Michael’s curiosity gets the better of him and he checks out the bathroom, where he finds $25,000 in cash.  He decides to pocket the money and get off the train, but before he does another stranger warns him that he’s being watched and if he doesn’t do the job, they will kill his wife and son. Flabbergasted, Michael resists at first but he quickly learns that the powers that be are watching his every move and they will kill without hesitation if he doesn’t do what they want, which of course, begs the question: if they’re so all knowing and all powerful, why do they need Michael’s help in the first place? If they can kill at will without detection, why can’t they find one guy on a train?  You’d think they’d easily be able to do this themselves.

Anyway, Michael finds he needs to use all of his former police detective skills to locate the unknown person, all the while trying both to learn why this person is being targeted and how he can outsmart Joanna and her cohorts.

As action thrillers go, THE COMMUTER is pretty gimmicky.  With the exception of the initial plot point where Michael loses his job, I don’t think I believed any of it.  The idea that these people would go to such lengths to get rid of one person, and by such lengths I mean killing multiple people, coercing a former cop Michael to do a nearly impossible job, and eventually working to derail an entire train, is very hard to swallow.  One contracted hit man could have easily done the job without any fanfare.

Still, Liam Neeson is fun to watch, and I for one definitely enjoyed watching him.  He still makes for a likable hero who’s easy to root for, and Neeson remains a strong enough actor to carry a movie like this.  However, that being said, he’s certainly getting up there in years, and so it’s getting a bit more difficult to believe that he’s as physically unstoppable as his character is supposed to be here.

The film also boasts a veteran supporting cast, although no one really has a whole lot to do, other than Neeson.  I’m also a huge Vera Farmiga fan, and she’s excellent in her brief screen time, but sadly, it is brief.  And while she’s sort of the main villain, she’s never on screen enough to make much of an impact, which is too bad, because if she were, this would have been a much better movie.

Patrick Wilson plays Michael’s former police partner Alex Murphy, and Jonathan Banks, Mike on both BREAKING BAD (2009-2012) and its prequel BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2018), plays Michael’s friend and fellow train commuter Walt.  And both Sam Neill and Elizabeth McGovern have thankless roles, Neil as police Captain Hawthorne and McGovern as Michael’s wife Karen.

THE COMMUTER was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed the Liam Neeson films UNKNOWN (2011), NON-STOP (2014), and RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), all of which are better movies than THE COMMUTER.  The film does open with a creative commuter montage that sets the tone that this is going to be a slickly made thriller, and it is, as there are some vicious fights on the train and an exciting train derailment climax that unfortunately doesn’t look all that real.  In fact, the special effects of the crash look rather cartoonish.

Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle all wrote the screenplay which can be summed up with one word: contrived.  As I said, little in this movie was believable, and the main plot point of Michael being coerced to find an unknown person or else his family will be killed plays exactly like the plot point of a bad movie rather than something that would really happen in real life.  The dialogue is okay, with Neeson getting all the good lines, but even those aren’t really all that memorable.

If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you’ll probably find THE COMMUTER fairly entertaining.  I did. But other than Neeson, and Vera Farmiga’s brief screen time, there isn’t much else to like about THE COMMUTER.  It’s really not that great a movie, and it’s certainly not a credible thriller.

Like its main character, Michael MacCauley, THE COMMUTER is a bit worn and weary, but while Michael has enough left in the tank to fight back, the same can’t be said for the movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice

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The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters

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I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.

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