Thursday, January 18, 2018

Movie Review: The Commuter

The Commuter ** / *****
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. 
Starring: Liam Neeson (Michael MacCauley), Vera Farmiga (Joanna), Patrick Wilson (Alex Murphy), Jonathan Banks (Walt), Sam Neill (Captain Hawthorne), Elizabeth McGovern (Karen MacCauley),  Killian Scott (Dylan), Shazad Latif (Vince), Andy Nyman (Tony), Clara Lago (Eva), Roland Møller (Jackson), Florence Pugh (Gwen), Dean-Charles Chapman (Danny MacCauley), Ella-Rae Smith (Sofia).

The Commuter is the latest entry in the Liam Neeson punches people genre – a genre that hasn’t really produced any good movies, but have basically been decent time wasters. He is teamed up with director Jaume Collet-Serra for the fourth time, but although I know I have seen the previous three – Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night – I also couldn’t give you a detailed breakdown of anything that happens in any of them (I don’t even remember the premise of Unknown if I’m being completely honest). So, walking into The Commuter, I really didn’t expect all that much – I was basically going because I commute every day on the train myself, so I kind of wanted to see how they made by every day life into an action movie. The film is a somewhat entertaining time waster for the first 70-80 minutes or so, but really does fly off the rails (literally) in the last act. It’s also got a somewhat downbeat, depressing tone to it, which it makes it harder for it to operate as a guilty pleasure than any movie involving Liam Neeson punching people on a train should be.
In the film, Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a one-time cop, who gave that up to sell insurance – presumably because it was a safer and more lucrative job that being a cop was after his savings were wiped out in the 2008 Financial Crisis. Things finally seem to be close to be back on track again – his son is about to go to college, his marriage is basically okay, and while they aren’t rich, they are getting by. And then, one day, he gets fired – and his severance package isn’t even a payout, but rather an insurance policy (which, to an insurance company, is probably cheaper to get). He doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for anything, he doesn’t know how he’s going to tell his wife he’s out of a job – and someone just stole his cell phone. He’s trying to piece this altogether as he gets on his regular commuter train, from New York to somewhere outside the city – when an attractive woman (Vera Farmiga) sits down across from him. She tells him that if he can find someone on this train – someone who doesn’t belong – and places a tracking chip on their bag, he will get $100K. To prove she’s serious, she tells him to go to the bathroom, and find $25K hidden there. He does, and by doing so, essentially agrees to the terms of the deal. All he knows is that the person goes by the name of Prynne, and is getting off at Cold Springs – the last stop on the train.
The films opening scenes are filled with information we are sure will be relevant later – a news story about a city planner who recently killed himself, a train car with malfunctioning A/C, recognizable actors (Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill) in apparently meaningless roles, etc. And, of course, those all do become relevant along the commute – as Michael is able to piece together more and more of the story, and realizes just how in over his head he has gotten.
The film starts with an intriguing premise – and its best scene is the one between Neeson and Farmiga. It’s basically a premise like out of Richard Matheson’s The Box – do something, and you’ll get money, and someone you don’t know will get hurt. But the film really isn’t interested in that moral question – rather it just wants to get Neeson unravelling the mystery, and punching people. Like Non-Stop, it places him in an enclosed space – and sets him up to be the fall guy should something go wrong.
I enjoyed much of the movie, on its very limited level. Neeson is good at this type of film – he should be, he’s done enough of them – and its kind of fun to see him unravel the mystery, and get an applause moment by giving someone who works at Goldman Sachs the finger (the film knows it audience is basically working class white people, who whether they Trump or Sanders, hates Goldman Sachs). The film though feels the need to go from implausible and fun, to downright ridiculous in its last act – somehow even more so AFTER Neeson decouples a car from the train.
These movies are designed to be cheap, disposable counter programming in the cold winter months – something for adults to go to once they’ve seen the Oscar contenders, or for those who don’t give a crap about those Oscar contenders. You probably already know if you’ll like the movie or not, based on your feelings on the Liam Neeson punches people genre. There are no surprises here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Movie Review: Paddington 2

Paddington 2 **** / *****
Directed by: Paul King.
Written by: Paul King and Simon Farnaby based on Paddington Bear created by Michael Bond.
Starring: Ben Whishaw (Paddington), Sally Hawkins (Mary Brown), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Brown), Julie Walters (Mrs. Bird), Hugh Grant (Phoenix Buchanan), Brendan Gleeson (Knuckles McGinty), Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo), Imelda Staunton (Aunt Lucy), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Gruber), Tom Conti (Judge Gerald Biggleswade), Peter Capaldi (Mr. Curry), Richard Ayoade (Forensic Investigator), Noah Taylor (Phibs), Dame Eileen Atkins (Madame Kozlova).
In terms of family movies, nothing in recent years came as much as a pleasant surprise as 2014’s Paddington – an endlessly sweet, charming and funny film about the famous bear, from darkest Peru, who comes to London and finds a family and happiness. That film remains one of the best of its kind in recent years – and its sequel, Paddington 2, beats it in every conceivable way. Paddington 2 may just be the film we need right now – with its endless optimism, and the title character mantra “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be alright”. The film itself isn’t overtly political, and yet it becomes impossible to watch it, and not see it as a rejection of Brexit and Donald Trump. The film is a reminder that not everything in this world is dark and horrible – as much as it sometimes seems like it is.
In the film, Paddington is determined to get the perfect birthday present for his Aunt Lucy – because it’s not every day a bear turns 100 after all – and when he sees a one of a kind pop-up book in an antique store, he knows he has found the perfect gift. It costs a lot of money though – so Paddington sets about trying to make it. His plan is foiled though because he tells Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a once famous actor, about the book – and he wants it for himself, for nefarious purposes. Through a series of events too complicated to mention, Paddington ends up arrested, and thrown into prison for stealing the book – but Paddington being Paddington, he quickly makes friends with all the inmates, as the Brown family sets about trying to prove his innocence.
There are few films I have ever seen that are as sweet as Paddington 2. The film is pure goofy fun pretty much from beginning to end. Director Paul King really outdoes his work from the previous film here. Much of the film’s visual look feels like a nod to Wes Anderson – the love of miniatures and pop-up books, the design of the prison (and the prison uniforms) – but there’s lot of other influences filtered in here as well – from Chaplin’s Modern Times to Keaton’s The General, and a whole lot else. Hugh Grant gives perhaps the best performance of his career as Phoenix – he’s in full Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets mode here, and he is an utter delight from beginning to end. Ben Whishaw, who often plays creepy characters, turned out to be the most utterly perfect choice to play Paddington imaginable.
The film is, simply put, a joy to behold from beginning to end. It’s not often I rave this much about a movie about a talking bear, and still think I’ve undersold it – but that very well may be the case here. The first highlight of the 2018 movie year is clearly this film, which I loved unashamedly.

Movie Review: A Polka King

The Polka King *** / *****
Directed by: Maya Forbes.
Written by: Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky.
Starring: Jack Black (Jan Lewan), Jenny Slate (Marla Lewan), Jason Schwartzman (Mickey Pizzazz), Jacki Weaver (Barb), Vanessa Bayer (Binki Bear), J. B. Smoove (Ron Edwards), Robert Capron (David Lewan).
The story The Polka King tells won’t be surprising to anyone who has seen as many episodes of American Greed as I have (whether they did one on this story or not, I don’t know – but its right up their ally). A seemingly nice guy starts taking donations from elderly people he knows, promising high interest returns on their money. Then, of course, he has to start taking in more and more money from more and more investors in order to keep the scheme going. It’s a classic Ponzi scheme, and those all come crashing down eventually, because they must. A few things make the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Jan Lewan different – first, he was a Polish immigrant, second he seems like a legitimately nice guy, third he didn’t spend money on a lavish lifestyle for himself, and fourth, he was a well-known figure in Pennsylvania because of his Polka music. He really wanted the American dream – he just couldn’t get it the legal way.
The movie detailing his story is more than a little bit of a tonal free-for-all, and seems to be lacking in some very basic details about what Lewan did, and how (the biggest may well how he really did get his tour group to meet the Pope). It is buoyed by a number of energetic performances however, that keep the film from ever getting boring. Front and center is Jack Black as Jan Lewan himself – a big goofy smile plastered on his face, as he fronts his Polka band, and basically while he does everything else in his life. He is a devoted husband to Marla (Jenny Slate), who loves him, and has delusions of grandeur to match him, and father to their son David. Everyone it seems like Jan, except his mother-in-law Barb (Jacki Weaver) – going even more over-the-top than anyone else in the film (which is saying something) – who doesn’t trust him for a minute. Even the government agent who shuts down Lewan’s initial scheme (JB Smoove), likes the guy – and basically forgets about for years, after Jan convinces him he shut down his illegal investing business. Jan has that effect on people – you really be a criminal.
The film is directed by Maya Forbes, who struggles a little bit with the tone of the film, which is more often than not as big and broad as Black’s Jan Lewan himself. Mostly, that works, but the film takes some darker twists as it moves along – as it must – and Forbes struggles to find the right notes there. The last act of the movie is a mess in many ways – not least because it doesn’t feel like anyone is all that concerned with the details of what Lewan did.
Still, the film is mostly an interesting watch for the performances alone. Black is capable of doing this type of character in his sleep – Lewan fits in nicely alongside a performance like the one he gave in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (his career best work) – but he goes all in, as does Slate, especially as she tries to become a beauty queen, and Weaver. Jason Schwartzman is a nice counterbalancing performance – everyone else goes big, so he goes small – even as he explains how he wants to change his name to Mickey Pizzazz.
The Polka King does succeed in telling an odd story that you probably wouldn’t believe if someone made it up. It’s weird and strange, and while I don’t think it’s altogether successful, it’s an entertaining attempt at making a Polka version of The Wolf of Wall Street – and you probably aren’t getting that anywhere else.

Movie Review: Human Flow

Human Flow *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ai Weiwei.
Written by: Chin-Chin Yap &Tim Finch & Boris Cheshirkov. 
Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow is a globetrotting documentary that goes from one war ravished place to another documenting the flow of refugees as they flee violence, persecution and natural disasters looking to find a better life elsewhere – and how, everywhere they go, they find more and more barriers to their travels. Ai Weiwei has, for a long time, been one of China’s most famous and outspoken artists and human rights activists – he has gotten himself in trouble many times, but he’s going to keep on doing what he does – which is, sometimes quite literally, giving the middle finger to the powers that be. Human Flow is done in the same spirit, although the tone is a touch more civil than I thought it may be coming from Ai Weiwei.
In the film, Ai goes from place to place interviewing the people who lives have been turned upside down by the crisis – and are no running for their lives, alongside their family. He treats everyone he meets with the upmost respect, and while he does get details of their stories, he doesn’t linger on them. He also talks to experts on the crisis, and just how bad it has gotten – and has a host of statistics, news stories and quotes littered throughout the movie – some going across the bottom of the screen like a news ticker. He doesn’t spend much time at all with those who are against the refugees – those who have built, or want to build, walls and fences to keep them out. The film alternates between two types of scenes and imagery – much of the on the ground footage seems to have been shot by Ai himself with hand held cameras or an iPhone for example, in which he captures the individual stories. There are also a lot of overhead shots – presumably from drones – which capture the whole wide scope of the migrations that are going on. The reasoning is clear – he is trying to capture both the epic and the intimate about this crisis, putting any number of human faces on the crisis, but not wanting the forest to get lost because of the trees.
This approach has its positives and its negatives. On one hand the decision to pretty much go everywhere on the planet where people are being displaced makes the sheer, epic scale of the crisis felt – it’s not one or two issues that we can solve, and make it go away, it doesn’t really allow for any in depth reporting on any of it. This is, I think, by design – as Ai is basically showing us people from all backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities, etc. being displaced – which should make it clear that it isn’t a simple, easy fix. At the same time though, it does make the whole thing seem so large that there is no way to solve it all, and as the numbers scroll across the screen, you may well be floored. Still, I can imagine someone like Donald Trump or his supporters (Trump is never named in the film, but it’s still what Ai feels about him) thinking that the crisis is too large from them to handle, and perhaps closing the border is the only way to go. After all, how could America deal with an influx of people this large?
What Ai is going for in Human Flow though should provide at least part of that answer – he is appealing to our shared humanity, and counting on the goodness of people to find a way solve the problem. It isn’t going to go away – and no wall can prevent it. So, what are we going to do?

Movie Review: A Gray State

A Gray State *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Erik Nelson.
I have never been much into conspiracy theories, which is perhaps why I had not heard of David Crowley, or the movie he was going to make – Gray State – which documented a time in the not too distant future when the government was going to crack down on its citizens, and kill or enslave them. Crowley became a big hit in the Libertarian and conspiracy theory circles – he supported Ron Paul for President, and was a fan of Alex Jones. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Crowley may have been affected by PTSD or some other mental disorder because of his time on the battlefield – its impossible to say really – but we do know that when he was Stop-Lossed (the military term for when they refuse to let you leave the military, even after your time is supposed to be up – he started to grow more paranoid and distrustful of the government. When he finally did get out, he embraced conspiracy theories, and set about making a trailer for his purposed movie. The plan was to film the trailer, get funded on Kickstarter in order to be able to write the movie (which he did) and then go to Hollywood, script in hand, to get $30 million to make his would be masterpiece. He got a hell of a lot closer than most would have to making that happen.
That all came to an end in January 2015 when Crowley, his wife Komel and their daughter Rainya were found shot to death in their homes. After a year of investigating, the police closed the case – determining that David killed his family, then too his own life. Others in the conspiracy theory world are still not convinced – seeing yet another government conspiracy.
A Gray State, a documentary by Erik Nelson, examines the life of David Crowley, and his work, and ultimately his death. After he gives a few minutes, early in the documentary, to a few of the voices who are convinced this is all a government ruse, he examines Crowley life in the military, his work in trying to get his movie off the ground, and finally his unravelling mental state in the months leading up to his death. Those conspiracy theorists at the beginning of the movie probably won’t like the rest of it – it comes together as one sad, tragic portrait of a man who eventually will kill his daughter, wife and then himself. As someone says to Nelson late in the film “You’re not missing anything but the why – and you’ll never get that”. And he’s right.
Nelson’s documentary really does give a fascinating portrait of Nelson, who even as he became more and more convinced of various conspiracy theories, remaining outwardly nice and charming. There were warning signs early in his relationship with Komel sure – like the fact that David refused to discuss having more kids, despite how young they both were – but that didn’t mean much. To those who saw them, they seemed like a perfect young couple, very much in love and happy. She supported the family, as he followed his dream of making his movie.
And then things just started to go wrong, and no one quite knows why. Friends and family agree that they first noticed something at Rainya’s birthday party in August when the couple would barely acknowledge each other. Komel became increasingly isolated from friends, families and co-workers – who either couldn’t talk to her at all, or else felt like something in her changed. All we really have from this period is David’s bizarre journal, and some videos, where it becomes clear that something strange is happening with both David and Komel – neither of whom seem in their right mind.
What happened on Christmas – which is when David killed his family – will never be known. What flipped that final switch that made him go off the way he did is something that can never be known. This documentary makes the compelling case however that it was no conspiracy – just the sad case of someone who goes off the deep end. One could argue that Nelson could have explored Crowley’s beliefs – and circle of influences more deeply (it is a very white group of people and there are some racist undertones that go unstated), and he certainly should have found a different way to end the movie (the final moments, about Crowley’s dog are bizarre) – but overall, A Gray State is a fascinating and sad portrait for our fake news obsessed times.

Movie Review: My Little Pony: The Movie

My Little Pony: The Movie ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jayson Thiessen.
Written by: Meghan McCarthy and Rita Hsiao and Michael Vogel and Joe Ballarini based on the television series created by Lauren Faust.
Starring: Uzo Aduba (Queen Novo), Ashleigh Ball (Applejack / Rainbow Dash), Adam Bengis (Code Red), Emily Blunt (Tempest Shadow / Fizzlepop Berrytwist), Kristin Chenoweth (Princess Skystar), Michelle Creber (Applebloom), Taye Diggs (Capper), Brian Dobson (Verko), Andrea Libman (Fluttershy / Pinkie Pie), Max Martini (Boyle), Britt McKillip (Princess Cadance), Peter New (Big Mac), Mark Oliver (First Mate Mullet), Nicole Oliver (Princess Celestia / Lix Spittle), Michael Peña (Grubber), Zoe Saldana (Captain Celaeno), Liev Schreiber (The Storm King), Sia (Songbird Serenade), Tabitha St. Germain (Rarity / Princess Luna / Granny Smith / Muffins), Tara Strong (Princess Twilight Sparkle), Cathy Weseluck (Spike the Dragon).
When you become a parent, you end up watching a whole lot of movies and TV shows you never otherwise would – My Little Pony is certainly on that list. It’s been around since I was a kid, sure, but somewhere in the last 30 years, so one determined that it didn’t need to be so stereotypically girlly and frilly – that that the show could use some action and humor to go along with its sappy messages of friendship and kindness. The show has been big for years, and although I avoided the feature film version when it came out this fall (my wife got saddled with that duty) – my girls (especially my three year old) loved it so much, that I recently watched it on DVD.
First let me say this – unless you have kids, or are a Brony – there really is no reason for you to watch this film. This isn’t a Pixar film, or even a Dreamworks, film that tries to appeal to adults and kids at the same time – this is candy colored pablum aimed straight at the child’s brain, with only a joke or two for the audiences in the crowd. You are missing nothing by skipping this movie.
But I will say this for it – it’s better than it has to be. That doesn’t mean it’s good by any means – but the film is basically brand extension – it wants to add new characters to the series (and the toy line), created a new movie for parents to buy, or watch endlessly on Netflix eventually – and stopping off in theaters along the way is a good way to give it more visibility. The film could be a lot worse than it is, and still make money.
The film is typical kids movie stuff – an evil Unicorn (voiced by Emily Blunt) comes down and freezes almost all the ponies – except for Princess Twilight Sparkle, and her 5 best friends (6, including a small dragon), who then have to go on a journey to find a way to stop that Unicorn, and the Storm King, who she works for. Along the way, they make friends, sing songs and learn lessons. The film ends with an action movie climax – which is a little disappointing, because normally the ponies come up with smarted ways to solve their problems, but in this case, I guess not.
The film is overly sweet and sappy – and so colorful it will give you a headache. To me, this gets annoying, quickly – but to a three year old like my daughter, she loved every single moment. That’s a little sad of course – but she has plenty of time to realize there are better movies than My Little Pony out there. Until then, she’s more than happy with this one – which I assume we’ll watch approximately 100 times – and she’ll love every time.

Timing of My Year End Reports

Timing of Year End Report
If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know my Year End Report really goes a little overboard – basically, a listing of the top 30(ish) films of the years, lists of the best docs, animated films, debuts, horror, and each of the four acting categories, along with ensemble cast, my would-be Oscar Ballot, and the most disappointing and worst films of the year.
I am pretty much done this. I was hoping to be able to catch up with Thelma and BPM (Beats Per Minute) this week, so they could be included if warranted – but although iTunes listed them as available today, that’s only to buy, not rent – so while I’ll see both films, it’s unlikely it will happen before my list. I also want to see Jane for the doc list – and that is available next week, so as long as it’s for rental, I’ll see it before. I may get a chance this week to see Michael Haneke’s Happy End before the list as well – the reviews have not been great, but given my feelings for Haneke, I feel I should see it if possible before I post my list.
So next week will be the week. Monday will have the films, Tuesday the acting cateogories, Wednesday Animated, Docs (maybe), Horror and debuts, Thursday, the Oscar ballot and most Disappointing and Worst (and maybe docs – it depends on Jane).
I know it’s later than most, but I like to make sure I see everything possible before I post. My own survey of Film Critics Top Ten Lists (now at 580 – I stop at 650) indiciates I’ve seen 48 of the top 50 (missing the aforementioned B.P.M. and Frederick Weisman’s Ex Libris – whose films I never see, unless I catch them at TIFF. I’ve also see 84 of the top 100 – missing, alongside BPM and Ex Libris – On the Beach at Night Alone (hasn’t opened here yet), Zama (will be a 2018 film in North America), Western (ditto), Thelma, The Death of Louis XIV (not available), The Other Side of Hope (a late year release I missed), Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (came and went very quickly), Loveless (a 2018 film here), A Fantastis Woman (same), By the Time It Gets Dark (hadn’t heard of this one before, and unavailable), the aforementioned Happy End and Jane, Hostiles (opening this week – perhaps I can see it, perhaps not) and Bollywood’s Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which I could watch, but I’d also need to see the first film, and don’t think I’ll have the 6 hours it would require to watch both.
Anyway, for those who care, check back in starting next Monday!