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Posts Tagged ‘Jaume Collet-Serra’

It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-related at all – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.

Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.

Liam Neeson even makes running to catch the train look macho.

Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.

Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…

Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.

Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.

He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.

And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.

It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.

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From Blake Lively’s Spanish for Surfers (forthcoming):

La recepción del teléfono es excelente en esta playa. – The telephone reception is excellent on this beach.

¡Que hermoso día! Sin duda, nada lo hará posiblemente puede salir mal. – What a lovely day! Surely nothing can possibly go wrong.

Espera, ¿qué es que en el mar preocuparse cerca de mí? – Wait, what is that in the sea worryingly close to me?

Me gustaría saber la palabra española para “shark”. – I wish I knew the Spanish word for shark.

¡Ay! – Ouch!

Por casualidad, yo soy un estudiante de medicina y por lo tanto no es completamente irracional para mí para aplicar puntos de sutura improvisados a mi herida por mordedura sangrienta. – Fortuitously, I am a medical student and so it is not completely unreasonable for me to apply improvised stitches to my gory bite wound.

Al menos las gaviotas son amables. – At least the seagulls are friendly.

(And so on.)

As I think I have mentioned, as a general rule I tend to stay clear of modern comedies and horror movies, mainly because neither of them really do it for me consistently. Still, the pickings are so slim at the moment that sometimes you have to waive a principle, and so I found myself going along to see Blake Lively in Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows – though, just to be on the safe side, I ensured things would not be too hairy by going in the company of a colonel from the Special Forces of a major Gulf nation. He had nachos.

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Blake Lively is one of those actresses who doesn’t appear to feel the need to be popping up in films all over the place, but who is generally worth watching when she does (I say this mainly based on my experience of watching her in The Age of Adaline, if we’re honest). In The Shallows, she plays Nancy, a surf-loving medical student who as the film starts is on her way to a secluded Mexican beach to indulge her favourite pastime. The audience’s suspicions are perhaps piqued when her guide, despite repeated questions, refuses to tell her the name of the beach, which is mostly likely The Bloody Beach of Toothy Death.

That said, the Bloody Beach of Toothy Death is very pleasant when she arrives on it and for a while the film looks like a commercial for shampoo and sunscreen, with some of the usual whistles and bells modern films tend to use to depict thoroughly-well-connected modern people sending texts and having video-phone calls. In the end, though, Lively hops on her board and heads off into the surf.
All is well at first, but then she happens upon the half-eaten carcass of a whale, and the large and bad-tempered shark responsible. The shark decides it would rather not eat the other half of the whale, on the grounds that Lively is a more appetising prospect (hmm, well), and has a go at eating her instead. Cue scenes of Lively being dragged underwater in a cloud of her own blood and the Colonel dropping his nachos everywhere.

Well, anyway, Lively manages to evade the hungry shark and clambers onto a worryingly small rock just above the level of the water, where she is alone except for a friendly seagull. Her predicament is an original one: she is only a couple of hundred metres from the beach (close enough to see her own bag on the sand), in fairly shallow water, but she has no chance of making it all the way to the breakers without getting chomped. What’s a girl to do?

The Shallows is one of those movies which is, let’s be honest about it, highly derivative to the point of arguably being some sort of exploitation fodder (there is rather a lot of Lively looking very photogenic in her bikini, even while theoretically suffering from the early stages of gangrene). Even based on the capsule description I just presented, you can probably start off the list yourself: most obviously Jaws, then moving on to include Open Water, any number of blonde-in-peril horror films, and even arguably touching on the likes of Gravity. The thing is that it blends together influences from so many different sources so seamlessly that it doesn’t just feel like it’s cashing in on any one of them in particular. It has its own sort of identity, even if it’s not an especially distinctive one.

The presence of Lively, as opposed to a generic scream queen in training, does lift the film a bit as she gives a very good performance, pretty much carrying most of the film single-handed – for much of the running time her only co-stars are a seagull and the shark, neither of whom can emote as well as her – and doing a fine job of it. Part of me wonders if the decision to go more mainstream with this film may not actually hurt its chances – it’s rather less of a horror film than I expected and more of a thriller, with commensurately lower levels of gore and grue.

Still, the scene with the improvised sutures was enough to set the Colonel chortling to himself and proferring nachos in my direction, and there is surely enough grisliness to satisfy anyone who isn’t a pathological gorehound. The film works hard to keep up a good pace and a sense of plausibility, even if this means it’s quite a long time before the shark turns up – lots of scenes filling in Lively’s not-exactly-essential backstory and family situation ensue – and the film itself having a comparatively bite-sized 86-minute running time. In the end, though, it works quite well – only in the very closing stages do things start to get even remotely silly. (I’m still not completely convinced about the manner in which the plot is ultimately resolved.)

The film works best when it’s about Lively and the shark, anyway. You can see what they’re trying to do by incorporating Lively’s various personal issues into the storyline – as mentioned, they’re trying to do what Gravity did, where Sandy Bullock’s physical predicament was kind of a metaphor for her emotional situation, something which worked so perfectly it elevated the film to an even higher level. Unfortunately, Lively’s personal problems aren’t so well defined, and being stuck on rock or a buoy being chased by a shark isn’t a natural realisation of them, metaphorically. As a result, they just make the film feel a bit over-egged and even a touch pretentious (given this is basically a girl-in-swimsuit-has-fight-with-hungry-fish movie).

Nevertheless, both the Colonel and I emerged feeling we had not wasted 86 minutes of our lives (plus about 20 minutes of trailers and commercials) and that this was basically a pretty good film. It’s probably not horrific enough for some people, and perhaps a bit too horrific for others, but for everyone else in between it is a very decent thriller, inventively directed, solidly written, and with an impressively capable central performance. You’re never really in doubt about what’s going to happen next, but the film plays with your expectations inventively enough to make it a fun watch for most of its duration.

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It’s common for me to become aware of an actor’s name and talent, only for it to turn out that I’ve actually been watching them for years in films but they never quite registered with me. Not so in the case of Liam Neeson: I distinctly remember the first time I watched the 1984 movie The Bounty, which would have been in the late summer of 1985, and came out of it saying ‘that big Irish guy has really got charisma’ (or words to that effect). This wasn’t his first film, of course – since then I’ve caught up with his earlier performances in Excalibur and Krull from earlier in the 80s.

Neeson’s career, at first glance, looks not-atypical as that of a certain kind of actor – a few minor parts in high-profile genre movies, then a shift into more mainstream, quality fare, and finally some big lead roles. Let us not forget the critical acclaim and recognition Neeson received for Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Kinsey. Of course, the fact that I think it necessary to mention this is of course because there has been a bit of a shadow over the big man’s career of late. I’m not even referring to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I usually steer clear of commenting in too much detail on the personal lives of… well, anyone, but in Liam Neeson’s case I think it is pertinent to his career. Neeson suffered a family bereavement a few years ago and has said in interviews that, since then, working constantly has been a coping mechanism. I am not unsympathetic to Neeson’s situation, but I can’t help thinking that this may have had a bit of a negative impact when it comes to quality control. Never mind his turn as Hannibal in the A Team movie, in 2012 Neeson got two Golden Raspberry nominations in the same year (for Wrath of the Titans and Battleship).

And yet he has had an odd sort of rebirth as an action hero, mainly because of the influence of Luc Besson and the Taken movies. He’s in this mode in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop, which is a film unlikely to do much to revive his reputation – but neither will it do it much damage, I suspect.

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Neeson plays Bill Marks, who basically seems rather like all the other action heroes he has given us in recent years. Perhaps on this occasion Neeson is giving us rather more baleful old sod than usual, and it’s difficult not to read too much into Neeson’s portrayal of the character: Marks is a man clearly going through trying personal times, and almost seems to be in the throes of some kind of breakdown. We first meet him in an overcast airport car park, where he is idly stirring whiskey into his coffee, but soon enough he is getting onto his plane.

For, yes, this is another of those airliner-in-peril action thrillers, and the film gets on with introducing the various passengers and flight crew with an admirable lack of messing about. Neeson shows us that beneath the baleful old sod exterior there beats the heart of a softy, by helping a nervous little girl who loses her cuddly toy, while also on board are various ethnically diverse yuppies, blue-collar guys, potential love interests, and so on. With the plane in flight (the airline in question is the rather implausible-sounding British Aqualantica, which tells us that none of the real companies wanted to get involved), things get going properly as Neeson (a cop turned federal air marshal) receives a text from a mysterious source informing him that until $150 million is transferred to a particular bank account, one person on the plane will be murdered every twenty minutes. Looks like Neeson picked the wrong week to stop being a paranoid gun-toting alcoholic!

Without giving too much away, Non-Stop does end up being a little bit bonkers, and I’m not sure the plot is entirely hole-free, but the echoes of Airplane! are not too intrusive. The script does a good job of keeping everything trotting along for most of the film’s duration, and is actually quite inventive – Neeson finds himself implicated in the various crimes occurring on the plane, and thus has to resolve the situation without the assistance of his colleagues on the ground.

One interesting possibility that the film dangles briefly in front of us is that Neeson’s colleagues may actually be in the right, and that everything we’re seeing is just some sort of paranoid delusion being experienced by someone having a booze-fuelled breakdown. For a while it does look like the only person actually causing chaos on the flight is Neeson himself, and the various shots from his point-of-view have a slightly disjointed, queasy quality that definitely implies all is not well.

In the end, though – and I suppose this may constitute a spoiler – everything is pretty much what it seems to be. There really is a terrorist, and of course he isn’t after the money as such, he just wants to make a slightly contrived socio-political point about modern American society. We’re quite a long way post-9/11 for people to still be making as explicitly post-9/11 movies as this one, if you ask me, but this is just a fig-leaf for the action thriller stuff so it didn’t really grate with me too much. It’s also quite liable to date, I suspect, simply because of the plot’s reliance on smartphones and suchlike: Neeson spends a lot of his time barking at the flight crew to switch the plane’s wi fi on and off, for various reasons.

Hey ho. Neeson isn’t quite phoning it in, that famous charisma of his remains undiminished, and it’s perhaps his presence that has led to the appearance in the film of Julianne Moore, a rather classier actress than this sort of script honestly deserves. Also present and doing decent work are people like Scoot McNairy and Michelle Dockery (who I understand is a soap opera actress doing her best to break into films).

Non-Stop is a film which you’ve probably seen before under a different title – the ingredients and serving have all been jiggled around a bit to make them look new, but the actual recipe is one which has been doing the rounds for many years now. It’s still quite a good recipe and Neeson carries the movie reasonably well – this isn’t going to win any awards, and I hope Liam Neeson can find himself a quality project to appear in soon, but as implausible action movies go I’ve seen much worse.

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