“The Commuter”: Liam Neeson forced to become elderly superman in a stereotyped train wreck thriller

The Commuter” (2018), directed Catelonian Jaume Collet-Serra (story by Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi), is a slick B-movie thriller that lets an aging Liam Neeson, as former cop now turned insurance executive Michael MacCauley, play almost comics-style superhero in a sabotaged and runaway train scenario we’ve seen played out many times.

I’ve summarized a lot of them in a review of “The Last Passenger” (think “Unstoppable”, “Runaway Train”, “Silver Streak”, “Source Code”) and even Hitchcock’s 1951 classic “Strangers on a Train”.  And there is always “Murder on the Orient Express”.  And think of other thrillers like “Transsiberian”, or even “Snowpiercer”.

The film opens with some scenes of family routines at a family home in the far northern suburbs above Westchester County on successive August mornings. MacCauley has a teen son whom he must put thru college and the family has two mortgages on its house, legacy of the 2008 financial crash.

Then Mike has a really bad day in the City, and as the film progresses we suspect someone has done a masterful job of setting him up. He gets laid off from his job, and consoled about his severance. In a bar, he meets his former police colleague, Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson). He boards the commuter train on the Metro North home, and then the coincidences really pile up.

Quickly a mysterious Hitchcock-character woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits down next to him and aggressively starts a conversation, asking what kind of person he is.  She offers him $100,000 if he can find a particular witness on the train, but warns him that he is making a deal with Mephistopheles. He can signal acceptance by finding the first $25,000 in a train restroom.

He does so, and soon is warned by a street urchin that he is being watched.  And soon the bodies start piling up and clues mounting of some kind of Mafia conspiracy. But why did they go so far to just target him, and, of course, his family?  Even his firing is part of the setup, and there seems to have been some sort of problem when he was a cop, and it wasn’t racial profiling.

The film builds up to the inevitable train wreck, but not until after some under-carriage heroics (and I thought about “The Great Locomotive Chase” even).  Patrick Wilson’s character does some of the hostage negotiation.   For me personally, without my own family, this is potentially a grave issue if I ver get caught up in something like this (reference).

I don’t recall that the Metro-North makes so many stops in Manhattan or Bronx. I last used it in 2014 (picture above).

The film is a 2018 release, not part of the Oscar rush.

Legacy reviews of “The Last Passenger“; “Strangers on a Train“.

Name: “The Commuter”
Director, writer:  Jaume Collet-Serra
Released:  2018
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/13, fair crowd
Length:  104
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Studio Canal
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, January 13, 2018 at 11 PM EST)

“All the Money in the World”: existential moral problem somewhat diluted by expanded thriller format

All the Money in the World” is sold by Sony Pictures as a thriller, but, coming from Ridley Scott and based on a book by John Pearson, the film also provides a setting for a serious moral dilemma, a kind of “Trolley Problem”.

The film, with a lot of dated flashbacks surrounding, chronicles the kidnapping of the 16 year old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) into a van from the streets in Rome in July 1973, and then the grandfather’s refusal to pay ransom. (“Nothing.”)  It’s not too much of a spoiler to give the Wikipedia narrative of the life of the younger Getty, whose life was severely compromised by the event and led to his death at 54.

So I get the senior Getty’s point: if he gives in, then the other fourteen grandchildren are targets.  You don’t negotiate with terrorists. But in a moral sense, you deny the idea that there are victims at all.  The “victim” personally pays for the sins of the perpetrator for all time (unless saved by Grace).   It’s spiritual extortion. That’s why bullied people often commit suicide.

The movie does tell the story of the Getty family, most of all the mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). She had renounced any fortune to keep her kids after a divorce, and has none when John III is kidnapped. (“I’m not a Getty; I just married one.”) The kidnappers presume that the senior Getty’s deep pockets will cover everything and threaten to send the son back in pieces (like the 1983 horror film “Pieces”).  They turn out to be petty low-level Mafia figures (no surprise) but are thought to be political Communist terrorists during the film. (The parallel to the Patty Hearst case, as in Jeffrey Toobin’s book (Nov. 9, 2016, reviewed by me the day after Trump’s election) seem striking.)  When Gail “hires” private detective Fletcher Chase (“Marky” Mark Wahlberg, whose early adulthood was tough enough) to find Paul and manipulate the “terrorists” into an eventual deal, Feltcher notes the plethora of false claims from other “kidnappers” purporting to have the boy, which is another reason you don’t pay.

Christopher Plummer (no relation to Charlie) is Scrooge-like enough as the senior Getty. But I would have liked to see Kevin Spacey in the role. It took a fantastic amount of work to reshoot all his scenes in three weeks.

The film makes good use of the events of the time, especially senior Getty’s reaction to the Arab Oil Embargo (and contrived “energy crisis”) after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. While it led to gas lines and odd-even rationing in the US, Getty saw an eventual price crash as inevitable after the political crisis was resolved.  But that did not happen.  Gasoline returned to normal in April 1974 but the price stayed “up”, with gasoline about twice its former price.  The film does show briefly how Getty got rich in 1948 by exploring Saudi Arabia, about the time Israel was founded.  As I recall, for years Getty gas stations sold premium gas only (in New Jersey, at least, when I started working as a young adult in 1970 with a job at RCA in Princeton, and traveled and drove a lot.)

There is one false escape sequence, which Getty III is clever enough to pull off by starting a grass fire outside with a cigarette; he gets caught again by corrupt police. Then when he finally does escape with the payoff set up by Chase with considerable manipulation, he winds up banging on doors hoping for radical hospitality from strangers before one final twist seems to save him.

Before his death, the elder Getty, clutching an art work before a fireplace, gives a monologue on how rich people become targets while presented with too many choices.

There is a curious conversation at the end of the film when Gail gets to be the trustee of the estate and gets her kids back. Gail learns (as I have recently in my own situation) that a lot of times trusts don’t allow you to spend your money or even give it away to charity.  You have to make charities into “investments”.  But I guess Bill Gates is pretty good at that.

John Paul Getty III’s son Balthazar Getty is a musician and also an actor in largely independent film and TV.  It’s ironic that Getty III had a fascination with Charles Manson (“Helter Skelter”), according to Wikipedia.

Calabria scene (where Getty was taken by kidnappers), wiki.

I’ll add to the “moral enigma” I mentioned above:  I’m 74 now, and in 2014 I wrote a blog post saying my own life can never be bargained for.

Name: “All the Money in the World”
Director, writer:  Ridley Scott, John Pearson
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, Christmas Day afternoon, near sellout
Length: 135
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Tri-Star
Link:  official 

(Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2017, at 10:30 AM EST)

“Deadline – U.S.A.” — 1952 classic tale about courage in journalism

The 1952 classic film “Deadline – U.S.A.”, directed by Richard Brooks, seems timely now, given the issue of journalistic integrity as challenged by the new administration of Donald Trump.

Humphrey Bogart plays Ed Hutcheson, the managing editor of a newspaper called “New York Day”, said to resemble the “New York Sun” which had folded in 1950.  One day Hutcheson is told that the newspaper’s owner, Margaret Garrison (Ethyl Barrymore) wants to sell the paper, apparently to a competitor who would put it out of business.

About the same time Hutcheson learns of a gangland murder, with connections that suggest that the real motive for the sale is to cover up an organized crime conspiracy.  Hutcheson pursues the story, and is even pressured not to publish by advertisers.  The script mentions ideas like “ignorance of facts”, libel, and makes an indirect reference to “the right to be forgotten.”  There are a couple of interesting courtroom scenes.  Finally, the mother of one of the victims provides and important clue, a diary. As the movie closes, Hutcheson publishes even as he is threatened.

The screenplay is terse and follows the pattern of maintaining urgency.

The music score by Cyril J. Mockridge and Sol Kaplan reminds me of the music of Arthur Bliss.

Name:  “Deadline – U.S.A.
Director, writer:  Richard Brooks
Released:  1952
Format:  1.37:1  (Black and white)
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD  2017/2/28
Length:  87
Rating:  PG-13 probably
Companies:  20th Century Fox, Kino Lorber
Link:  n.a.

(Posted: Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at 8:15 AM)

“The Accountant” : This autistic figurehead for the mob has amazing charisma and personal integrity


Name: The Accountant
Director, writer:  Gavin O’Connor
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, 2016/10/20, evening, good crowd
Length 128
Rating PG-13
Companies: Warner Brothers
Link: official 


The Accountant” (2016), by Gavin O’Connor and written by Bill Dubuque, makes its central character, a 40-year-old man who outgrew his autism with the help of a very determined military father, into a rather charismatic figure.

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) seems to have a lot of integrity, and loyalty to people he loves.  He speaks directly and simply.  He has this narrow focus on what he does.  So he is a genius at doing math in his head (a savant) and a dangerous sharpshooter (“I shoot”).  He lives simply in a house in suburban Chicago and eats according to rituals.  He does a bizarre fitness routine involving rolling a dough bar on his now nearly hairless legs.

The only trouble is how he has made his living: as an accountant for the mob.  Only someone like Christian can grasp the bizarre mechanics of offshore accounts and money laundering. Oh, he got caught once and managed to build friendships in Leavenworth, and then escape, and then set up his own shell companies.

He remains the good guy, protecting his mob-connected younger brother, and building a cautious relationship with a fellow aspie, Dana (Anna Kendrick) whom he meets at a supposedly legitimate robotics company whose books he has been hired to uncook.

Add to the books the childless, single robotics CEO Lamar Black (John Lithgow), and the Treasury agent, resurrected from retirement, to find him (JK Simmons) and his protégé (Cynthia Addai-Robinson).

I don’t think the film really does that much for people with autism, though. It’s popcorn stuff.

(Posted: Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 at 10:15 AM EDT)