Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.
The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?
Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.
Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.
Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.
The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Horror is one genre where sequels rarely if ever satisfy. Usually the repetition is mind numbing and what was once scary has been eradicated. The true signs of great horror is the dread of what’s coming next, and to this end James Wan has shown tremendous skill at playing an audience and their fears. The Conjuring 2 isn’t quite the thrilling success that its predecessor was but it still upholds the best parts of what made the first movie frightening. We follow the Warrens once more, the husband and wife paranormal investigators, and this time to England where a malevolent spirit is haunting a family. One of the few miscues is delaying the meeting of the Warrens with the beleaguered family to almost an hour, pushing the running time to a needlessly overblown 133 minutes. The movie seems to be stretching out the ghost set pieces. Fortunately, Wan knows exactly how to build tension and let it simmer. The demon nun imagery is effectively unsettling, and there’s a brilliant sequence where Mrs. Warren (Vera Farmiga) has to slowly pull a light cord, all while the portrait of the demon nun hangs visibly in the dark. It’s a small scene that explains in full the clever construction of the whole. It sets up the parameters, develops them, and then lets the audience dread what it knows is coming. These are not cheap scares or lame jump scares but genuinely earned terror within a carefully constructed atmosphere. It might not be as good as the first one but The Conjuring 2 is still plenty good, which by default makes it possibly one of the greatest horror sequels of all time. Let’s hope the demon nun spinoff goes better than Anabelle.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.
Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.
Director James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.
It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.
Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.
I need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.
While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.
If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The basis for the movie Young Adult sounds like writer Diablo Cody settling a few sore scores. You’d think winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2007’s Juno would have sufficed. Reteaming with her Juno director, fellow Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), the duo takes aim at the bitchy, stuck-up, popular girl that seemed to rule the school. Young Adult is much more than a vicarious act of vengeance on mean high school adversaries. It’s a revealing, awkward yet compelling dark comedy about the perils and pitfalls of arrested development.
Life hasn’t turned out exactly the way Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) would have thought. The former high school queen bee has left her small town for life in Minneapolis. She’s the ghostwriter for a successful series of young adult books, a series that is coming to an end. She’s divorced form her husband, facing financial ruin, and living alone with her tiny Pomeranian, Dolce, her only friend. Mavis decides to forgo writing the last book in the cancelled series and instead return to her hometown the triumphant mini-celebrity she knows herself to be. She’s determined to find her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and win him back. The fact that Buddy is married and has a newborn baby is no real impediment to Mavis’s crazy plan (“Hey, I’ve got baggage too,” she reasons). Once home, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) in a bar. Matt and Mavis went to high school together, though she has long forgotten the likes of him. Matt’s claim to fame was that a bunch of jocks in high school savagely beat him thinking he was gay. Matt sees right through Mavis and the two of them become an unlikely pair as Mavis plots and schemes her way to victory.
Young Adult is one of the most enjoyable squirmiest times you can have at the theater. Much of its humor, and it is very funny, is built around the pained awkwardness of Mavis’ self-involved, self-destructive mission. My friend was nervously fidgeting in his seat the entire time (he may have just had to go to the bathroom). The sense of dread is palatable; we’re watching a slow-moving car crash, waiting for the inevitable to hit. Every scene carries the apprehension of, “What is she going to say/do next? Is this it?” And yet Cody’s sharp, pointed writing makes the film compulsively watchable. We dislike Mavis, an irredeemable character who doesn’t even try to be likeable, and yet by the film’s conclusion most audience members will likely feel more pity for Mavis than outright hatred. I’ve had some friends ask me if Young Adult was anything like Bad Teacher, another movie about an abrasive, selfish, unlikeable bad apple. This movie is different. This movie is actually good. Mavis is not some wacky cartoon character, and Reitman has kept his reaction shots to a minimum, abstaining from having to remind us via public reaction how inappropriate Mavis can be. Unlike Bad Teacher, this grown-up meanie feels all too real, and her actions come across as believably threatening. This woman could do some serious damage on her way to massage her damaged ego. The movie never condones her actions, though Reitman and Cody make a point of piling on against Mavis. This woman is an ugly wreck, and Cody’s writing and Theron’s gutsy performance speaks volumes. Cody’s writing isn’t the hyper-literate, stylized dialogue we’re accustomed to from Juno. The dialogue and characters are eerily recognizable, miles away from the cuteness of Juno’s sunny, optimistic fairy tale inhabitants. Young Adult is a more nuanced, droll, mature work that deserves as much recognition as Juno and cements Cody, in my mind, as one of the most thrilling writers today (I can almost forgive her for Jennifer’s Body. Almost).
Along with all the bleak comedy, Young Adult lands a surprising number of poignant dramatic blows. Cody has crafted an exacting character study on a severe case of arrested development. Many of us can relate to knowing that one gal in high school, the pretty, popular one who had everything in life handed to her. In Young Adult, Cody shows the devastating consequences of a lifetime of entitlement and zero introspection. Mavis secretly knows that she’s past her prime, that all the people she left in her Podunk town have moved on to richer lives while she’s stayed in the same holding pattern her whole life. Some part of her has never left high school. She’s an emotionally stunted woman trying to live out the fantasy of one of her undervalued books (her misreading of the end of The Graduate into a love-conquers-all message is rather telling). Mavis’ life is hardly the stuff of Champaign wishes and caviar dreams, but to the people of her hometown, life in the “Mini-apple” is the Big Time. There’s a fabulous scene where Mavis goes into a bookstore and sees her series on a clearance stack. The bookstore employee tells her they don’t sell and will be most likely sent back to the publisher. Mavis takes out her pen and autographs one, informing this minimum-wage peon that she is the fabled author of the series. She’s expecting fawning admiration. The employee flatly tells her, “If you sign them, we can’t send them back to the publisher.” In her disgust, she tries to sign as many as she can as an act of defiance. Later in the movie, Cody sheds light on Mavis’ family life, offering intriguing clues for how this woman became so broken. Her parents just seem to shrug off Mavis’ admission of alcoholism, like they’re used to their daughter acting out, even if she might really be crying out for help. She’s a fascinating character to watch crash and burn.
What gives the film its most potent sense of heart (Grinch-sized though it may be) is the unlikely yet compelling relationship between Mavis and Matt. Unlike Mavis’ perceived slings and arrows, Matt has suffered real trauma from high school. His bones were shattered from that brutal beat down and he’s left to limp with a crutch. He hasn’t been able to mentally leave high school behind completely himself, but then again he has a constant reminder. Mavis is strangely her most open with Matt, possibly because she doesn’t view him as a threat or a credible alternative (the joys of high school revisited – the pretty gal ignoring the existence of the lower classes). He’s portrayed as the film’s voice of reason, voicing concern over Mavis’ kamikaze narcissism. Together they form what could charitably be described as a friendship. She seeks him out to talk at odd hours of the night and he’s straightforward with her. He thinks her plan is nuts, but he’s also secretly enjoying his unexpected friendship with the queen bee of high school, albeit twenty years later. “Guys like me are made to love girls like you,” he confides to Mavis. Oswalt has shown some dramatic skills in the underappreciated sports fanatic flick, Big Fan. With this movie, Oswalt gives an achingly felt performance, the most empathetic character in the whole movie and a joy to watch onscreen in a high-profile role that fits him like a glove.
But the true star of the film is Theron, who gives a fully formed and entrancing performance as someone who is as ugly on the inside as she is beautiful on the outside. Her character could have easily slipped into being an unsympathetic monster; someone the audience wants punished (like Cameron Diaz’ character in Bad Teacher). But the actress finds her own twisted, tricky way to center the character. Every detestable glance, every pained inhalation, every rigorous attempt at seduction, it feels like the character coming alive before our eyes. Theron has dissolved into the abhorrent mess that is Mavis Gary. She’s convinced that Buddy could never be happy with such a mundane life in a mundane town (“There’s a restaurant that’s a Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC in one building” she says incredulously). Her perspective is so deluded that you start to see the manufactured world Mavis has so cautiously built around herself as a defense from reality. She watches wall-to-wall reality TV, the perfect metaphor of our times concerning the idolization of idiocy and self-absorption. She may not be likeable but she’s definitely compelling, and Theron is so good as that-girl-from-high-school all grown up, that she might even win over some slight sympathy by the film’s end. At one point, the inner fear of Mavis reveals itself, and she expresses her confusion about the attainability of happiness. Why can others find happiness with so little, and she cannot find it with everything that she has?
Young Adult is a dark comedy of squirm-inducing, uncomfortable bleakness and a drama of surprising poignancy and depth. It’s the good kind of uncomfortable, the kind where you can’t look away or leave the vicinity of your seat. Theron and Oswalt are fantastic. Cody’s gift with words, teamed up with Reitman’s gift with actors, makes a beautiful combination even when the end product is charting the misery or a miserable person. The measured tone is kept from start ot finish, meaning even when the movie appears on the precipice of life-lessons and Mavis might turn her life around, it pulls back. There will be no hugs and gained wisdom with this movie, a crackling comedy that’s also one of the best pictures of the year. Take that, popular girls who never gave me the time of day.
Nate’s Grade: A
Insidious is like a fresh coat of paint on the old haunted house movie. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Wannell, the team that birthed the grisly Saw franchise, are working in a completely different realm of horror, tying together familiar genre elements (creaky doors, séances, possession, demons with a lipstick fetish?) into one seriously effective spine-tingler. This PG-13 frightfest is well paced and methodically constructed, giving you pause whenever a character ventures offscreen. It finds a way to make old fears scary again. Wan and Wannell find ways to get under your skin. The final act lacks the precision of the rest of the movie, settling on too many explanations and a jumble of action, but the movie works. There are plenty of memorable, deeply creepy images afoot, the score of shrieking violins is a great addition to the ambiance, and the characters seem, given the outlandish scenario, fairly realistic and relatable. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson make a rather sweet married couple. Insidious is something of an old school horror film, using clever tricks and avoiding obvious clichés while building a genuine atmosphere of trepidation. The movie got me to yell at my TV, which is an achievement in itself for a horror flick. I lost my sense of place and reverted back to a participant, spooked at what may be lurking in the dark. Not too bad for PG-13.
Nate’s Grade: B+