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Posts Tagged ‘Vera Farmiga’

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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‘A cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express.’
 
Oh, good grief. It’s enough to make you swear off CNN (the source of that particular critical gem) for life. Okay, folks, in the wake of all this ‘It’s Bourne meets Inception’ and Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day’ nonsense, that was the final straw. Henceforth if you ever catch me describing a film in such a lazy, mechanical and – honestly – inaccurate way, shout at me, because I’ve had enough.
 
Normally I try and steer clear of other peoples’ opinions when choosing what to see in my weekly trip to the cinema – I mean, if you have any ambition to write film reviews with something like integrity (don’t start) you have to leave your preconceptions and prejudices at the door (not that I’m actually aware of anyone who’s completely successful at this).
 
Here’s the deal. I was put off going to see Duncan Jones’ Source Code by the trailer, which doesn’t do the film any favours. I thought it came across looking like another high-concept middle-budget Phil Dick pastiche, with hefty dollops of stuff derived from other bits of TV and movie SF. And I’ve seen enough of those, ta. This week I was going to see… er… a certain other movie, which had the virtues of at least looking original, and being directed by someone whose previous movies I’ve all really enjoyed (well, I didn’t bother seeing the one about the owls, but…). However. The certain other movie has received unanimously toxic reviews, while everyone’s raving about Source Code. It was time for a change of plan.  

 

In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US serviceman who wakes up to find himself on a train in Illinois. But on the train Stevens is not Stevens: his wallet is that of a man named Fentress, and on looking in the mirror he sees a face he doesn’t recognise. It’s as if he’s been teleported into another man’s life without anyone noticing, not even Fentress’s closest friend on the train, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Before he can even make sense of all this, a bomb blows the train apart and kills them both –

– and Stevens finds himself suspended in a dark, but oddly familiar space. A woman in military uniform (Vera Farmiga), under the command of a spiky boffin (Jeffrey Wright), is giving orders to him via a computer screen. Suddenly he find himself waking up on the train again, the events leading up to the bombing replaying inexorably…

And the film continues from there, filling in information about both the train bombing and Stevens’ own predicament as it goes (the latter turns out to be at least as grim as the former). One really shouldn’t say too much about the plot, for fear of spoiling the journey into understanding which is at the heart of this film.

As a piece of proper SF, Source Code’s credentials are dubious at best: as the main scientist on display, Wright’s character is clearly an expert in bafflegab and gobbledegook. The reason it’s called Source Code at all is an aesthetic one – in the context of the story it’s a punchy, slightly mysterious name for a ludicrous piece of pseudo-scientific invention. Retro-Cognitive Psycho-Projectron would probably be a more logical and honest title, but the studio wouldn’t allow them to put that on a poster.

However, as a thriller with a big fantastical high-concept at its heart, Source Code is exemplary. Jones’ control of time and space is excellent: it’s not until after the film that you realise most of the story occurs in only three or four locations, none of them particularly sizeable, and the repeated visits to the train in the minutes before the blast never actually seem repetitive. Were he still around, I think Hitchcock would have relished the challenge of operating within such strictures: and I think he would approve of Jones’ work here.

There are inevitably shades of Groundhog Day here, but only very faint ones. I was put rather more in mind of Jonathan Heap’s 1990 short film 12:01PM (the makers of this film decided not to sue the makers of the more famous movie for plagiarism, so I’m certainly not going to say Groundhog Day ripped it off), in which a man finds himself trapped in a short-period time-loop with no means of escape, and the tone is much harder and darker. Source Code has something of the same quality of an endlessly recurring nightmare, particularly in its middle section.

On the other hand, there are numerous clues in Source Code – some of them obvious, some quite deeply buried – which indicate that the makers consider themselves mainly in debt to the late-80s-early-90s-liberal-angst-a-thon TV series Quantum Leap, although this story is much darker than anything that show ever made.

Source Code’s sources are basically immaterial, anyway, as this film manages to transcend them and become something quite new and original. Comparisons with the likes of Inception strike me as overgenerous – this film isn’t quite so technically dazzling, and it’s not intended to be a puzzle or particularly ambiguous in its ending, and any debates on that subject will almost certainly be the result of people not properly paying attention to the climax.
 
In the end, I’m very happy to have seen Source Code, although it didn’t quite live up to the expectations all those glowing testimonials had given. Had I gone to see it cold, I expect I might be even more impressed than I am. As it is, I think it’s a brilliant exercise in storytelling, well-played and actually quite moving throughout. And I suspect it’s at least twice as smart as most of the films that’ll be released to cinemas this year. Recommended. 

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