Movie Review ~ The Commuter


The Facts
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Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Is it as good as the first?  That’s the question you really came here for, right?  Any sequel to the 2013 fright delight The Conjuring had an uphill battle from the get go and everyone onboard The Conjuring 2 knows it.  Instead of fast-tracking the sequel for the very next year, director James Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes took their time in crafting their follow-up based again on the casefiles of paranormal pariahs The Warrens.  While it doesn’t quite creep its way past the original it rests comfortably in the spooky shadow of its predecessor.

Like the original, the pre-credit sequence of The Conjuring 2 finds the audience in the middle of one of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s famous cases.  This one is going to mighty familiar to fans of a certain series of films involving a haunted house in upstate New York…and it’s a clever way to sneak another franchise in without simply rehashing its oft-told tale. It’s during a séance that Lorriane sees a vision that will haunt her (and us) for the next 130 minutes as the Warrens travel to London where another family needs their help.

The structure of the film is entirely familiar as its nearly the same set-up as the first: Normal family experiences strange happenings that they ignore for a while until they need assistance from the Warren ghostbusting squad.  Hey, if it ain’t broke or boring, why fix it.

The family in fear this time around is a working class single mother and her four children barely getting by. Their council house is spacious but grimy with water-stained walls, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster. Don’t forget the creepy basement half flooded with rainwater that of course is the setting for one of Wan’s deviously scary sequences.  With the haunting mostly centered around a pre-teen girl (Madison Wolfe, Trumbo, displaying an iron-will resolve and ghostly eyes), the media soon seizes the sensational new story of the family, which catches the eye of the church who give their old pals the Warrens a call.

Even more than the first one, The Conjuring 2 stresses the religious angle of the Warrens assistance.  Employed by the church to investigate/debunk possessions and hauntings, the Warrens are God-fearing people that believe their talents are meant to be in service to the church. They’re not Bible beating snake charmers but they do take their roles very seriously…and so do the actors portraying them.

I still find Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) a bit on the bland side but he’s fleshed out a bit more this time around, mostly because he’s part of a terrifying vision Lorraine is trying to decipher before it’s too late.  Vera Farmiga (The Judge) is again the star of the show here, displaying the deepest of sincerity even when she’s speaking some of the hokier lines that populate the final third of the film.

Most horror films, especially sequels, don’t take much time in re-establishing returning characters, let alone any new ones but Wan and the Hayes brothers indulge a bit too much in the over-development of the people at play. How else to explain an extended sequence where Ed strums a guitar and has an Elvis sing-along with the family they’re helping while Lorraine looks on moon-faced and starry eyed?  It’s a strange sequence that doesn’t add much to the thrust of the picture but gives Broadway-vet Wilson a chance to show off his singing skills.  Still, I’ll always take fully realized characters fighting evil instead of fratboy airheads that get sliced and diced alongside their bimbo babe girlfriends.

What do a freaky as hell nun, a crusty old geezer, a storybook ghoul, and an overstuffed leather chair have in common?  They’re all tools that Wan uses quite effectively to scare the ever lovin’ daylights out of audiences and for the most part he succeeds.  Once again with interesting camera angles helping to keep viewers off balance, Wan brings on the gooseflesh early and keeps those bumps raised for much of the film. The big scares come during scenes that already have you on the edge of your seat and I saw quite a few heads bopping up over seats when Wan hit with the big whammy’s.  The scares don’t come cheap, though, and it builds to an effective climax which manages to send you off into the night shuddering.

The Warrens have huge casefiles and I can see more films coming from Wan/Wilson/Farmiga. I’m for sure onboard for more if all involved stick with it and keep true to the root scares that feel so good. With a  sequel to the spin-off Annabelle arriving next year, they have some time to think things through but on the next outing I hope things can be tightened up a bit.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring 2

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Synopsis: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Release Date:  June 10, 2016

Thoughts: A follow-up to his supreme 2013 fright fest, director James Wan (Furious 7) returns with stars Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) and Vera Farmiga (The Judge) as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.  With a filing cabinet full of The Warrens cases on which to base the sequel (including a stop in at that famous house in Amityville), it’s nice to see Wan and company go international in search of spookier scares. Though this first look is billed as a “teaser”, it runs around two and a half minutes and manages to pack in some dandy macabre morsels. The first film scared the pants off of me but I’m crossing my fingers that Wan’s sequel doesn’t suffer the same fate as the lackluster spin-off Annabelle and Insidious: Chapter 2, the disappointing continuation of Wan’s breakout hit Insidious.

Movie Review ~ The Judge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shephard, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Director: David Dobkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I can imagine the script for The Judge came together by accident.  Perhaps a pair of screenwriters were both walking around a local coffee shop with two scripts, one was about a big city lawyer defending his estranged father on a murder charge and the other was about a hot-shot attorney who retreats home after discovering his wife was cheating on him.  Maybe the two writers stumbled into one another, sending their loose-leafed scripts up in the air in a flurry of white paper and when they picked themselves up they couldn’t discern what pages belonged to which script so they decided to just combine them and sell the unified work as The Judge.

I mean, that’s one theory right?  And it’s a lot more acceptable than knowing full well and good that The Judge was no accident, made with purpose. No amount of revisionist history can save this film from being one of the worst motion pictures in my recent memory, squandering the talents of its able-bodied cast for 141 of the most ghastly minutes you’ll spend in a theater this year.

Reminding me a lot of the equally awkward This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge miraculously ups the unpleasantness factor by offering not one moment that feels genuine; at least This Is Where I Leave You had a few redeeming qualities about it …and was forty minutes shorter.

Seeing early trailers, I thought The Judge held some promise considering the pairing of two Roberts in a courtroom drama.  Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3) seemed like the perfect actor to be matched with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Paper) and sparks were expected to fly.  I’m not sure any combination of actors could have risen above the tone-deaf script that veers schizophrenically from comedy to drama, never succeeding in either arena.

Returning to his all-American hometown after his mother’s unexpected death, legal eagle Hank (Downey Jr., looking disturbingly skeletal…where’s the full faced lad from Less than Zero?) clashes with his father (Duvall), a respected town judge.  As he reconnects with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and an old flame (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring, totally wasted though she’s miscast in the first place), he’s drawn deeper into the unresolved past with his dad after the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and put on trail by a vengeful prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a Colonel Sanders wig and flashing his receding gum line every chance he gets).

Now I’m not going to deny that there’s a good idea somewhere in the plot and perhaps if director David Dobkin wasn’t so interested in wringing the ever loving emotional life out of every single scene then The Judge may have fared better overall, serving as a minor distraction for Downey Jr. between his Marvel superhero commitments.

Nearing the end of this folly, I turned to my companion and exclaimed “There are so many emotions in this movie!” and it’s the God’s honest truth.  No emotional well is left undrained by Dobkin and co. as they move us through self-serving scene after self-serving scene.  I began to wonder if the entire movie wasn’t some elaborate prank where every acting clip shown on the Oscars wasn’t recreated in one film. There are courtroom confessions, tender moments bizarrely played out in front of masses of people, tough good-byes, difficult hellos, old wounds reopened, and healing apologies delivered as one single tear rolls down a cheek.  It’s all simply too much.

It’s an ugly film too. When the backdrops aren’t horribly digitally inserted the film takes place in houses, bars, and courtrooms that have “natural” light coming through the windows by way of 1000 watt search lights, suggesting cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln) has shot the movie like a Christopher Nolan directed episode of Judge Judy.

Culminating in a borderline offensive finale that wears its manipulation as a badge of honor, I can’t recommend enough steering clear of this mish-mash of a missed opportunity.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Judge

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Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’ve seen the poster and the trailer for The Judge several times now, I still fight with telling myself that it’s not the latest adaptation of a John Grisham thriller…not that the preview doesn’t suggest something similar to Grisham’s sweaty courtroom dramas that were all the rage in the mid-90s. With a nicely meaty role, star Robert Downey Jr. (The Avengers) ,may have found a nice antidote to the Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes track he’s been on for the last few years. Paired with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), I’m looking forward to seeing the two generationally different actors work alongside one another.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It’s fun to be scared, isn’t it?  I know many people that would disagree with that statement but I’ve always found a base thrill in any amount of fright that I can find be it at the hands of a ghoul in a haunted house, a towering rollercoaster that looks more than a tad bit rickety, and in a dark movie theater watching the latest horror flick designed to scare the pants off of you. 

Even after hearing early positive buzz on The Conjuring and liking what I’d seen/read up until it was released, I was still wary that my expectations were raised too high to get out of the film the kind of entertainment I was looking for.  That all changed frame one as the Warner Brothers logo appeared along with Joseph Bishara’s ominous music and I just knew…this is going to be one scary flick.  And it was.  And I loved it.

The Conjuring represents a full feast of fright after sparse offerings in theaters over the last year.  For my money, it’s the scariest movie released in theaters in some time and the scares it provides are well earned and long-lasting.  Moments of good old fashioned dread exist in the movie that are genuine and cleverly constructed for maximum impact.  Not merely content to scare you once, director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) applies the pressure and maintains it for long stretches of time, creating several truly harrowing sequences.

Based on the true story of Perron family from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring opens with a dandy of an intro to the kind of work that Ed (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) do.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this opening but will say that it plays a nice twist on the kind of opening that Scream introduced so well and that has been oft-copied ever since. 

It’s 1971 and Carolyn (Lili Taylor, Being Flynn) and Roger (Ron Livingston, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) Perron have moved their five daughters (including Joey King from White House Down and Oz, The Great and Powerful) to a large farmhouse nestled in the boondocks of New England.   Though the actual events took place over 10 years, for cinematic purposes the timeline is several weeks…compressing years worth of occurrences is something the movie pretty much had to do.   It’s not long before the family gets to know their house a bit better; finding a boarded up cellar filled with cobwebs and antique toys that provide a few cursory scares. 

Mysterious bruising, the unexplained nightly stopping of all clocks at 3:07am, and other spooky bumps in the night don’t signal much of a warning until all hell breaks loose one night in the first of many masterfully filmed passages of piled on horror. 

Though we’ve already met the Warrens and seen their suburban home life (including a locked room full of creepy items from their various cases), they finally step center stage when Carolyn begs them for help.  When the Warrens arrive and start looking into the house and its dark past, they discover a history of horrifying events that shed some light on the present happenings.  The deeper they dig, the more danger they unearth not only for the family but themselves as well.

Even the best made horror film is largely at the mercy of the actors that are involved and Wan has assembled a crack mix of interesting actors to take on these roles.  Wilson may be a tad milquetoast in the role but he never overplays it, wisely playing second banana to Farmiga.  Ah yes, Farmiga.  Aside from the treasure trove of terror, the chief pleasure of The Conjuring is Farmiga’s multi-dimensional and fully committed take on the role of a clairvoyant who sees/feels more than we could ever imagine.  This is a smart actress who keeps us interested in the movie even if, like most horror films centered on a mystery, the more we know about the “why” behind the terror the less we are scared of it. 

Just a slight step below Farmiga is Taylor, one of the best actresses of her generation that continues to take on a range of roles in mainstream and indie films.  Largely absent from the horror genre since the turkey remake of The Haunting back in 1999, Taylor is perfectly cast as a normal wife and mother that’s pitched into a nightmare she can’t wake from.  Farmiga and Taylor are a dynamic duo, bravely enduring the wringer that Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes put them through.

The Conjuring has no nudity, no explicit language, and a modest modicum of blood so it landed an R from the MPAA due to its “sequences of disturbing violence and terror”.  There’s something revelatory about a movie earning that restriction based solely because it’s too scary – and earn it it does.  This hopefully will be a perennial classic that finds its way on the shelf next to films like Halloween, The Changeling, and Poltergeist.  If your spine needs a good tingling, The Conjuring is just the medicine the doctor ordered.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts:  I don’t normally post a second trailer for a movie so close to the time that I posted the first trailer, but this new preview for July’s The Conjuring rustles up more than a few scary moments that I wanted to share.  Though we’ve had many horror films that were “based on a true story”, the premise of The Conjuring intrigues me as its inspired by the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren who were famous for their involvement in more than a few high profile haunting inquiries (they were consulted on the famous Amityville Horror case).  I always get nervous when a film shows so many key moments and hope that some scares are put on reserve for paying audience members.  I like the cast assembled here and it’s old-school style should play a part in creating an atmosphere rich with potential.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring

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Synopsis: A family encounters spirits living among them in their New England farmhouse.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: It’s so easy to put a shine on a dull coin so I always take movie posters and previews with a grain of salt.  Even a trailer for the worst movie can be edited to look like an Oscar contender while true award-worthy material can be hidden by a so-so preview.  Even knowing this, I have to say that the recently released poster and trailer for the summer scare-a-thon The Conjuring gives me high hopes.  It’s directed by James Wan who was behind the camera for Saw, the strangely underrated Dead Silence, and Insidious…even if those films weren’t quite your cup of tea I’d argue that they had more style/cinematic flair than many of the films in its genre.  Another bonus is the cast – Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga are two of the more interesting actresses in Hollywood so when you add Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson to the mix you have a quirky quartet that might just work.

Though the trailer may seem to give away a nifty scare for free I’ll be waiting patiently until July to see what thrills this team can conjure up for us.