Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2017 Top 10 and Short Takes on The Commuter

                          Doubling Down on Death

                          Comments and Review by Ken Burke

 For those of you who read my last posting (February 8, 2018) you know I was limited then to only one review due to lack of interest in what’s currently available (except for films already covered) along with other logistical considerations, so all I did was finally catch up with The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017) which was just barely worth the effort.  This week the additional logistics were considerably more (along with lack of anything I cared much about in my travel zone), so I’ve turned back to make brief remarks on something I saw almost a month ago (The Commuter) plus admitting anything else from 2017—especially Mudbound (Dee Rees), seemingly only available on Netflix streaming at this point, so I’ll pass until later—just isn’t going to come my way anytime soon, therefore I'll finally offer my Top 10 Cinema Releases of 2017 (based on all those I’ve seen).

1.  Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman; review in our October 26, 2017 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 84% positive reviews, Metacritic 62% average score])

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)


2.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh; review in our December 7, 
          2017 posting [RT 93%, MC 88%])
3.  Lucky (John Carroll Lynch; review in our October 19, 2017 posting [RT 98%, MC 79%])
4.  The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro; review in our January 4, 2018 posting [RT 92%, MC 
          87%])
5.  The Post (Steven Spielberg; review in our January 18, 2018 posting [RT 88%, MC 83%])
6.  Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig; review in our November 23, 2017 posting [RT 99%, MC 94%])
7.  Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan; review in our July 27, 2017 posting [RT 92%, MC 94%])
8.  I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie; review in our January 18, 2018 posting [RT 90%, MC 77%])
9.  The Big Sick (Michael Showalter; review in our July 13, 2017 posting [RT 98%, MC 86%])
10.  A Ghost Story (David Lowery; review in our July 27, 2017 posting [RT 91%, MC 84%])

 My other considerations included, among others of note, Get Out (Jordan Peele; review in our May 11, 2017 posting), Darkest Hour (Joe Wright; review in our December 14, 2017 posting), Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson; review in our January 25, 2018 posting), The Florida Project  (Sean Baker; review in our October 26, 2017 posting) and Columbus (Kogonada; review in our August 16, 2017 posting)—at least for my tastesalthough it’s always a matter of a discussion, argument, or rationalization-exchange for anyone to attempt to “prove” they’ve got better insights on subjective matters of aesthetics than anyone else, so I’ll just say the 10 above are the ones still sticking with me the most actively (using death as a recurring theme in all of them, either as a driving force [#’s 1, 2, 7], an ultimate reality [3, 10 {both of them least likely on other lists}], a horrid fear [9] or the desire on the part of the antagonists for their opponents to suffer something close to that harshness [4, 5, 8] or the feeling that even being alive in Sacramento is like walking death [6]), although there are many others which also have redeeming qualities, evidenced by the fact that of the 95 releases from 2017 I’ve reviewed during last year and this one, 36 of them got my 4 star-rating (normally the highest I go, saving the top numbers for truly unique accomplishments) while 2 rated those valued 4½ stars (#’s 2, 3 above) while … Vincent (#1) got my extremely rare 5 stars.  Certainly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has different opinions as their 9 Best Picture nominees include only my #’s 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, although they did nominate Loving Vincent for Best Animated Feature (technically correct as each frame was shot singularly from a separate oil painting made to resemble the style of Vincent van Gogh, with the kinetic energy created from the small frame-to-frame-differences making it look considerably different from the likely winner, Coco [Lee Unkrich; review in our  November 29, 2017 posting])other of their nominees are in my Related Links section far below (I’ll post some predictions just before the March 4, 2018 Oscar ceremony).

This double image serves a double purpose: To present a different "starry, starry night" 
and to preview the rest of this posting with a van Gogh self-portrait that 
reminds me a bit of Liam Neeson, starring in The Commuter.
 Of course, I don’t always synchronize very well with the Academy, as for the last 6 years I’ve been doing these blog reviews we’ve only agreed 3 times on my #1 and their Best Picture (12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting], Birdman or (The Unexpected Value of Ignorance) [Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2014; review in our November 6, 2014 posting], Spotlight [Tom McCarthy, 2015; review in our November 19, 2015 posting]), while my initial 2 top choices (Melancholia [Lars von Trier, 2011; review in our December 12, 2011 posting—the first review we ever did, which in retrospect is probably worth 4½ stars {the film that is, not necessarily the review}, but I didn’t want to start out being too generous], The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting]) didn’t even make their Best Picture nominees, but variety, especially concerning aesthetic debates, is always the spice of life.  As for my only actual review this week, read on if you like below, although The Commuter certainly won’t be on anyone’s list of awards considerations next year, despite its fine functionality as a thrill ride (I hadn’t even planned to write about it until I ran dry for this posting).  But before boarding that train, I’ll put in a Musical Metaphor (my standard device to round off a review, but from the perspective of the aural arts) in tribute to Loving Vincent: what else could it be but Don McLean’s “Vincent” (from his 1971 American Pie album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wrNFDxCRzU, which I used in the original review so here I’ll offer a different video version (McLean performing), again for all-hallowed-variety, our salvation from bland homogeneity (but it still contains a lyrical-closure that speaks to anyone who wonders why I’d pick Loving Vincent over the more-obvious-front-runners for 2017’s Best Picture: “They would not listen, they’re not listening still Perhaps they never will”).
                   
SHORT TAKES (more or less)
                 
                         The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra)

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): A just-fired 60-year-old family man (also an ex-cop, known for excellent detective skills) with big debts suddenly gets a strange offer to locate an unknown traveler in a short time on a commuter train in return for a big payday; however, once he accepts the initial offer by pocketing the $25,000 hidden in a restroom on the train (although you later get the sense he’d have had no choice but to comply with finding the mysterious stranger, no matter whether he’d taken the bait money or not), the circumstances get tense, the actions get violent, plot twists aplenty are thrown in to keep the audience (along with the hero) constantly off balance, with the entire enterprise functioning quite well as an afternoon-matinee-diversion, but if you’re interested you’d better move fast because it’s been out for a month already and in a few more days Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) will likely be playing on all the screens in the known world.

Here's the trailer:



If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

 With no disrespect intended to Liam Neeson (a marvelous actor), honestly the main reason my marvelous wife, Nina, and I even saw The Commuter is we had plans to meets some friends for dinner on a Thursday night a month ago but going from our Bay Area (CA) suburb to their Bay Area suburb takes about an hour when traffic is light, not in the middle of (inappropriately-named) rush hour, so we headed from Hayward out to Pleasant Hill in the early afternoon to kill some time at a movie.  However, based on what was available, what we’d already seen, show times, etc., we ended up half-heartedly choosing Neeson’s latest action-adventure-flick (3 Takens [about foiling kidnappers] since the first one in 2008 [Pierre Morel]—plus sequels by Olivier Megaton [2012, 2014] along with Non-Stop [Collet-Serra, 2014], which takes place in a most-confining-environment, a jet airliner in flight, where there’s little consideration of jumping off the moving vehicle to escape, as in The Commuter).  Critical response was weak (RT 58%, MC 56%), although the previous opening-weekend-domestic (U.S.-Canada)-income was impressive at $15.8 million (although still limp compared to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle [Jake Kasdan, 2017] at $35.2 million that week after having already been out for a month [its worldwide total’s now at about $883.4 million, The Commuter’s now at $92.6 million globally]), so had the schedules been different we might have been rockin’ with The Rock, but for us it was time to board The Commuter train.  The trip, overall, was effectively tension-filled and entertaining, with constant complications that keep piling up the same way the train does at the end, but you also know throughout that no matter how desperate the situation seems to be our hero is destined to triumph because—after all—if he doesn’t, then why would anyone want to depart from a thrill ride like this one in a bummed-out state of mind?*

*If you’d rather just add this summary video (5:25) to my written wrap-up rather than see Liam's movie for yourself, please note it also contains plenty of plot spoilers (and some inaccuracies—the video analyst refers to Farmiga‘s character as “Lorraine” rather than “Joanna“; Mike doesn’t forget his phone, it’s stolen from him as he rushes for his train; the person he’s looking for on the train is named “Prynne,” not “Prinn,” based on Hester Prynne in Nathanial Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), which Sofia is reading when Mike finally figures out she’s the one he’s been looking for⇐—but otherwise it’s a useful take on The Commuter, noting notable plot problems).

 The basic plot line has Neeson as Mike MacCauley, a former NYC cop, now working in life insurance (nice thematically-based-pun) with a wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), a son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman)—about to attend college—and 2 mortgages needed to support their suburban expenses as he rides a commuter train every day to work in the city until the fateful day when he’s laid off.  After some drinks with former colleague Detective Lt. “Murph” Murphy (Patrick Wilson), Mike’s headed home, noting the regulars on the route, surprised by newcomer Joanna (Vera Farmiga, great in a small role) who offers him $100,000 to put a GPS tracker on someone named “Prynne,” a person unknown to both of them; however, he only has a limited number of stops in which to accomplish this task, is made aware he’s being watched, tries to pass a message to a friend who’s soon getting off then sees the guy pushed in front of a bus to verify Mike must act alone and succeed or harm will come to his family (he’s constantly being updated by Joanna on a phone he’s borrowed).  From there it really gets intense: ⇒Mike thinks he’s found “Prynne” after fighting with him but later realizes that guy’s an FBI agent who’s now dead, hidden in a compartment under a floorboard; police enter the train at a stop with Mike aware his weird actions make him a suspect for questioning so he also slips into the hidden space; then he has to escape downward from it when the train starts up again, runs to jump back on, soon faces one of Joanna’s thugs whom he kills (See how this all ties into my initial “death” theme?) by pushing him out of a window.  Eventually, Mike determines a young woman, Sofia (Ella-Rae Smith), is “Prynne,” on her way to a witness-protection-meeting with federal agents because she secretly saw her boyfriend being killed by Joanna’s agents plus she’s got Enrique’s hard-drive full of incriminating evidence.⇐

 Somehow, Joanna has eyes and control abilities everywhere (maybe she’s kidnapped Mike’s wife and son, maybe not; she definitely makes a lot of phone contact with Mike, yet it's hard to know if she's truthful or just ruthless—it's doubtful Mike would not have been killed after "Prynne" was identified on the train) so when he refuses to kill Sofia suddenly the engineer’s dead with the train now on a high-speed-collision-course.  Mike manages to get the end car loose from the rest of the train so the huddled passengers in it avoid sudden disaster, then Murph comes in a negotiator (cops assume Mike’s a killer holding the others as hostages) as we find he’s part of Joanna’s mob, there to kill “Prynne,” but the passengers confuse him with a tactic straight out of Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960).  He and Mike fight, snipers outside accidently kill Murph, all problems are resolved, followed by Mike getting his police job back allowing him to track Joanna to Chicago where he arrests her.⇐  If you watch the video noted above (ignoring its few minor mistakes—except it’s clear the guy who made it didn’t catch anything about The Scarlet Letter) or see the movie itself you’ll easily find there are notable plot holes, but if you play along with the assumption Mike’s been recruited to find “Prynne” in a short time because he’s such an insightful detective (even though Joanna’s organization seems to know just about everything else about this situation, even as it unfolds) you can enjoy the intensifying action as it speeds along, then wash it from your memory as you head out for dinner (ours was delicious that night); if you need more substance for your movie dollars, though, I’d encourage you to carefully consider my 2017 Top 10 list just above.*

*You might even find Loving Vincent somewhere; it's been playing at Berkeley's (CA) Shattuck Cinemas for about 5 months (a place with great cinematic tastes, enhanced by a marvelous bar).

 As for The Commuter’s Musical Metaphor, given I didn’t really have all that much to say about the movie I’ll indulge you with 3 aural interludes because none is a perfect fit but together they speak to Mike’s crisis reasonably well.  We’ll start with “The Wreck of the Old 97,” as sung by Johnny Cash (from his 1957 Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar album at https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=FHKxk719AMc, complete with the lyrics and footage of old steam trains rolling through the countryside, other footage reflecting the lyrics) in that the final burden put on Mike by Joanna and her accomplices was intended to be a brutal train wreck, killing all left on board at that point, just like the victims in the song died as they were “going down a grade making 90 miles an hour [… with the engineer] Scaled to death by the steam.”*  But, to enhance your sense of Mike’s dilemmas (should you make a calculated choice not to seek out this movie, preferring to just absorb my brilliant ruminations on it) you should also give a listen to the Grateful Dead’s "Casey Jones" (from the 1970 Workingman’s Dead album, with lyrics below the video screen if you like, maybe more interesting than looking at the same Dead graphic for 4½ min. [I picked this video over live performances given the audio’s notably better with this one]), because while Mike wasn’t “Drivin’ that train” he probably felt he was “High on cocaine” as his head, heart, and body continually raced through the various challenges he faced, constantly aware of “Trouble ahead Trouble behind [… from his] Lady in [more purple than red, so even though he knew she was warning him to] Watch your speed [at times he might've felt he’d] be better off dead.” (Again, well connected to my theme.)

*The added imagery, along with Cash’s distinctive voice, make this a useful choice in conjuring up allusions to the high-speed-trauma found in The Commuter, but for some great instrumentation of this song, I’ll also recommend this version by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs from their 1963 Hard Travelin’ (The Ballad of Jed Clampett) album.  Further, I still have memories of someone singing this song with some excellent yodeling thrown in from back in the late 1960s in Austin, TX, but I can’t find any version like that to show you; maybe someone out there reading this might know whom I’m vaguely remembering—possibly Allen Damron, in that I saw him quite a bit at the 11th Door, the Chequered Flag (where I actually did an open mike set once, with my friend/roommate/musical partner, Jerry Graham), the Kerrville Folk Festival, and other venues around the area, but maybe not.  (By the way, the tune’s based on an actual crash in 1902 of a Southern Railway train, the Fast Mail—with a reputation for always being on time—trying to catch up from being behind schedule, went too fast, careened off the side of a bridge into a ravine near Danville, VA killing 11, injuring 7 more, a tragic event celebrated musically since the 1920s with various folks claiming authorship.)

Amy Dold and Nina Gail Dold
 Yet, let’s end on a lighter note than all of the death events or intimations in my Top 10 of 2017, The Commuter, and these smashing tales of railroad destruction by turning instead to a political/social commentary ditty from 1949, written by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes, “M.T.A.”  The most famous version is by the Kingston Trio (from their 1959 At Large album), telling the story of another commuter, Charlie, caught unaware of a fare increase on the Boston subway system, who didn’t have the necessary “One more nickel [so he] couldn’t get off of that train!”  Unlike our bruised-but-surviving Mike, Charlie “never returned and his fate is still unlearned,” although I'm not sure why, if his wife “Every day at quarter past two [could hand] Charlie a sandwich As the train comes rumbling through,” she couldn’t put a nickel in with it to prevent her husband from being “the man who never returned” (unless she’s got something else more interesting going on at home after she makes the sandwiches).  So, with that closure which takes us back to “Wreck of the Old 97” (“Oh, now all you ladies you’d better take a warning, From this time and learn. Never speak hard words to your true-lovin’ husband.  He may leave you and never return.”) I’ll close this shorter-than-usual-posting (What’s that I hear? Is it wild applause?), only to return to you soon with more substantial reviews, after celebrating Valentine’s Day with my aforementioned wonderful wife, Nina, who’s now got a new grandniece named after her (with our thanks to the newborn’s Mom, Amy Dold, for the honor).
              
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
                 
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2017’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, March 4, 2018 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2017 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2017 along with the Oscar nominees for 2017 films.

Here’s more information about The Commuter:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyhHco9r2iM (3:51 video to give you a taste of the actual production process of making this movie, plus a short historical note at the end)



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
                 
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Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 29,281; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (Hello, France and Russia!):

2 comments:

  1. For Best Picture, I would suggest Get Out, 13 Billboards, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, and Loving Vincent, perhaps in that order. Get Out may have been the most interesting to me; and while I liked Loving Vincent, I wonder if they took shortcuts with their computerized Rotoscope. Meanwhile Vincent's screenwriting was only average in my mind. No doubt it should get Best Animated Feature. Darkest Hour and Dunkirk would be a great double feature as both were well done and each completes the other. New category: Worst Continuing Sequel - Star Wars:The Last Jedi wins by a landslide.

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  2. Hi rj, Alway good to hear from you. At least we share agreement on inclusion (if not order) on 3 of our top 5 (with another of yours, Lady Bird as my #6) so at least we're headed somewhat in the same direction, but only time will tell if those silly voters at the Academy find much agreement with us (totally agree on what a great double feature Darkest Hour and Dunkirk would be). But don't be so mean to those Star Wars; they're having enough troubles with all the funerals they have to attend. Ken

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