The Commuter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
For a good while of Jaume Collet-Serra’s action-thriller “The Commuter,” we get the impression it is going to take us somewhere exciting despite the standard template of an ordinary person suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. But once it reaches the halfway point and some of its secrets are revealed, it proves to be yet another uninspired suspense picture in which the protagonist must prove his innocence during a hostage situation. And prior to the expected standoff, plenty of repetition is to be endured.
Liam Neeson plays life insurance salesman Michael MacCauley who is approached by a stranger on a train (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition and a $100,000 on the line. In order to walk away with this money, all he must do is determine which person on the train does not belong, put a tracker onto his or her bag, and walk away. Neeson plays the beleaguered sixty-year-old ex-cop with convincing enthusiasm, but the screenplay by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle fail to provide personal details about the character amidst the action and plot twists.
As a result, Michael becomes a wooden protagonist. The material hammers us over the head with the fact that he loves his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), but what about his sense of humor, how he is like at his best (or worst), does he have any specific plans after retirement? There is nearly nothing worth knowing about him. Even action-thrillers are not immune from having to contain effective personal drama and seemingly superfluous details in order for the audience to invest into its characters. Collet-Serra has gotten away with this barebones approach, particularly in the wonderful shark picture “The Shallows,” but given that the content of the film touches upon real-world problems like family finances and personal satisfaction regarding one’s career, the overall strategy must change as well.
Some of the fight scenes are downright off-putting. While the picture makes good use of the limited space inside the train, hand-to-hand fights are executed poorly. A particular eyesore is the fight between Michael and one of the commuters he suspects. The fight scene is so exaggerated to the point where it feels like the scene is taken right off movies containing cartoonish violence. It just does not work here because the material has established a more humble tone and atmosphere, as close as possible to reality. In addition, look closely and notice that these fights appear to unfold in an unnatural speed.
As I sat through the film, I got the impression that “The Commuter” might have been a stronger work had it embraced a more cerebral tone, making room to excavate personal motivations; to establish a paranoid mood so no one, not even the protagonist, can be trusted; and to provide more details about each suspect. Instead, we are given a project designed to entertain the lowest dangling fruit.
The Shallows (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Shark flick “The Shallows,” written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is saddled with an eye-rolling backstory involving a medical student named Nancy (Blake Lively) who is considering to drop out of medical school due to her mother having recently died from cancer. Despite this limitation, it remains a solid creature feature because the filmmakers understand how to build tension and release it at the right moments.
The audience is provided a clear mental map of the situation. The shore is about two hundred yards from the rock that Nancy uses as refuge after an initial heart-pounding shark attack. There is a floating whale carcass about thirty yards away from the rock. There is also a nearby buoy. We learn when high and low tides begin and end. Nancy has the acuity to take note how fast the hunter swims from one location to the next. The more information given to us, the stronger our engagement with the picture. Along with Nancy, we try to figure out the best possible solution, like trying to solve a complex math problem.
The film starts out like a summer music video: energetic, colorful, our heroine’s sun-kissed beach-ready body front and center. Slow motion is employed just in case we do not already get the point. We appreciate the beauty of the warm sand, the alluring embrace of the ocean, and how tropical trees sway just so along the breeze. It is appropriate, even fitting, given the sudden shift in tone waiting about twenty minutes in. As real in life, terror strikes when least expected. It adds horror to the entire experience.
Lively is a surprise to me because in just about every scene she proves she is a true performer. Prior to this film, I thought she was pretty but certainly more of a television actress than someone who belongs in feature films. I was very happy to have been proven wrong. Even happier to learn that she can spearhead a movie—a horror movie, no less, which requires a specific skill set to hold together.
Take note of the moments when her character’s body is harmed in some way. Lively has a way of limiting her character’s movements in the forthcoming scenes to the point where it becomes almost claustrophobic to watch Nancy. Every sudden movement looks painful, each ounce of energy sacrificed in order to outsmart a fearsome predator. Lesser actors might have simply relied on their physical attributes to get by. Here, Lively makes the choice to actively and consistently engage with the character and so we relate with the protagonist every step of the way. She even finds a convincing way to relate with a co-star… that just so happens to be a bird.
Horror films usually have a difficult time delivering an ending that feels exactly right for the story being told. The reason is because the writers feel the need to console the viewers more than once that the character will be all right. “The Shallows” is no exception. It should have had one less scene because the penultimate scene’s final line communicated everything that needed to be expressed.
★★ / ★★★★
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a federal air marshal who was a cop for twenty-five years but recently discharged, gets a text from one of the passengers despite a supposedly secure network. The text suggests that Bill ought to start his timer because someone will die every twenty minutes unless a hundred fifty million dollars is transferred into an account. The plane has plenty of suspects, from the woman who makes a last-minute change of seats (Julianne Moore), a hot-tempered cop (Corey Stoll), to the air marshall himself.
It is somewhat of a feat that “Non-Stop,” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is able to juggle the constantly changing plot. There is a lot going on but it never comes across messy or nonsensical. Because it moves quickly and smoothly, its limitations consistently fade into the background as we wonder about the true identity of the killer.
The picture excels during the silent moments. Scenes that consists only of our protagonist looking very worried yet determined while text messages are shown on screen create a foreboding atmosphere. There is something about the contrast between the silent, sleeping passengers and the increasing level of threat coming from a smart phone. Neeson does a commendable job in communicating an escalating level of danger. We feel his character always thinking but at the same time he is very human. We are allowed to catch him in small moments where even he is not certain whether a course of action will prove fruitful.
Though it has amusing moments, the dialogue in the final third is somewhat of a drag. I suppose it is necessary that the villain must reveal his or her endgame but delivering a speech in the middle of chaos comes across a bit cartoonish, as if we were watching a bad superhero flick. The revelation ought to have been executed in a more subtle way by avoiding forced speeches altogether.
The identity of the perpetrator is not easy to figure out. I guessed incorrectly. I noticed I was always on my toes, always changing who I thought had a good enough motive to try to pull off an act of terrorism. The movie benefits greatly from the casting. There are a number of familiar faces here—but not too familiar to be distracting—who can pull off being antagonists or at least worthy of being suspected.
Based on the screenplay by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, and Ryan Engle, “Non-Stop” is somewhat of a misnomer—which is a good thing. Director Collet-Serra knows when it is worth slowing the pace a bit and when it is time to go on overdrive. That way, the picture is never a bore to sit through; there is always a question hanging on the back of our minds. If only the final third were written in a more understated way, it might have reached a level above conventionality.
Case 39 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger) was a kind-hearted social worker who juggled thirty-eight cases of children who might be victims of child abuse. A co-worker (Adrian Lester) handed her case number thirty-nine, in which a child named Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) claimed that she overheard her parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) actually planning to send her to hell while they were in the basement. There was something about Lilith that Emily couldn’t help but empathize with so she took it upon herself to take custody of the child. Unbeknownst to her, Lilith might be the devil incarnate and soon Emily’s friends (Ian McShane and Bradley Cooper) started to die in what looked like suicides. Unfortunately, Lilith didn’t come with a return policy. “Case 39” had been delayed release for quite some time and for good reasons. With far superior movies like Richard Donner and John Moore’s “The Omen” and, more recently, Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” this film downright failed to offer something new or exciting. While there were some spine-tingling scenes such as when Lilith’s parents decided to kill their child by putting her inside an oven, they were balanced by frighteningly uninspired scenes plagued with visual effects, particularly the swarm of hornets. Zellweger did the best she could with her role despite a weak writing. I think one of the picture’s missteps was in revealing the true nature of the child too early on. Moreover, I found myself waiting for our protagonist to evolve in a meaningful way because the ingredients were certainly there. There was a dark undertone about her past relationship with her deceased mother, her inability to take care of others other than her pet fish, and the almost obsessive manner in which she attempted to tackle her work. When the hallucinations started to appear, there was a lack of tension because we knew all too well the source of her suffering. The material would have been on another level if it had successfully found a way to balance the supernatural and Emily’s every day struggle to take away children from physically and emotionally abusive homes. That way, our protagonist would have been challenged in two fronts as we attempted to discern between the fantastic and a mental breakdown. But that wasn’t the case. “Case 39” lacked dimension and depth with far too few rewards between the important revelations aided by increasingly tired booming soundtrack designed to tell us when we should be scared. Written by Ray Wright and directed by Christian Alvart, “Case 39” lacked a sense of immediacy so it lagged half of its running time. Without Zellweger’s sense of timing of when and how to react, it probably would have been unwatchable.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrived in Berlin to attend an important gathering for scientists. Just when the two reached their hotel, Martin realized that they had forgotten a suitcase at the airport. Incidentally, the suitcase contained important documents like Martin’s passport. On the way to retrieve the suitcase, an accident caused Martin and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) to plunge in the chilly Berlin river. Four days later, our protagonist woke up with some memory problems. When he got back to the hotel, his wife no longer recognized him and there was another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) in his place. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Unknown” was an effective thriller during the first and last twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Martin’s journey from Point A to Point Z was hindered by the film’s failure to give its audiences small rewards in order to keep us fully interested. It spent too much time showing Martin looking lost and sad, like an unwanted puppy, as he tried to contact people in his life to no avail. There were small bursts of energy when Martin saw Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German Secret Police. For a price, the mysterious man was willing to help Martin. There was also Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a friend with whom Martin had been trying to contact since he woke up from a coma. He believed that Rodney would be willing to testify that he was the real Martin Harris. Ganz and Langella shared one scene but their interaction was memorable because it was complex, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding. The scene of interest, which lasted about five minutes, had a specific type of subtlety that the film lacked. The visit was more thrilling than a half of the movie’s obligatory car chases. What I enjoyed most about the film was it made me paranoid. Whether Martin was walking in a relatively well-lit tunnel or whether he was sitting in a crowded airport lounge, my eyes couldn’t help but shift to figures in the background. Martin thought he was being followed and I shared his vigilance. Who could he trust when he couldn’t even trust his own memory? “Unknown” had a maze right in the middle and the characters were lost in it. There should have been a balance between the growing conspiracy and character development. There were some awkward glances that hinted at a romance between Martin and his cab driver. It didn’t work because our getting to know the characters was secondary. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, I had a sneaky feeling that the majority of the complexity from the original material was lost because the filmmakers tried to make room for action sequences that weren’t always necessary. The premise and the revelation regarding Martin’s identity were fascinating but it needed a stronger middle portion. It was like reading an essay with a well-written introduction and conclusion but unfocused supporting paragraphs. One can’t help but feel disappointed because it didn’t quite live up to its potential.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.