Reel Opinions


Friday, October 28, 2016

Inferno

Ron Howard's Inferno is a movie that loves to play with its audience, and for a while, I had fun playing along with it.  But as the mysteries, double crosses, secrets and random flashbacks continued to pile up relentlessly, I got restless.  And when the movie finally got around to giving me answers, I had a hard time mustering much excitement.  This is the kind of movie that wants to keep us in the dark as long as possible, because it knows it's setting us up for a disappointment.

This is the third "Robert Langdon Mystery" film, following 2006's The Da Vinci Code and 2009's Angels & Demons.  I was not a fan of either of those movies, and while this one still isn't very good, I must admit that it's probably the best of the three.  It feels a bit livelier and moves a bit faster.  It's also well-acted, and has some lovely exotic locations.  But just like the earlier entries, the mystery at the center of the film is a lot of build up to very little.  These movies always feature Robert Langdon (once again played by Tom Hanks) racing against the clock to solve some kind of crime or murder that is connected to ancient societies or pieces of art.  They also always have its hero being able to solve centuries-old riddles and puzzles in a matter of seconds just by glancing at them.  Just like before, there are a lot of narrow escapes for our hero, as well as a lot of dialogue dealing with the end of the world.  One thing this movie does add is a ludicrous climax that has not only been drastically changed from the original novel by Dan Brown, but also seems like it would be right at home in a James Bond thriller.

I will say this for the movie, it has one heck of an opening half.  Inferno opens with Robert waking up in a hospital room in Florence with a head wound, and no memory of how he got it, as well as few memories of what happened to him during the last 48 hours.  There is a physician in the room with him, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who informs him that his amnesia is likely temporary and was caused by his head being grazed by a bullet.  Robert has no time to rest, however, as a female assassin posing as a police officer enters the hospital and starts gunning for him.  He is forced to flee with Sienna, and as they try to stay ahead of various terrorists and law enforcement officials, Robert must try to put the pieces of his recent forgotten past together.

The mystery concerns a painting of Dante's Inferno, which has been altered to include elements not found in the original work.  There seems to be a lot of people after it for one reason or another, and nobody can be trusted.  What it all boils down to is an insane billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who believed that the human population was growing out of control, and needed to be thinned out with the aid of a deadly virus that would wipe out half the world.  Bertrand recently has killed himself, but his ideals live on with his followers, and apparently there is a bomb hidden somewhere that could unleash his deadly virus, and that altered painting in Robert's possession is the key to tracking it down.  Robert must now follow the clues to the bomb before someone sets it off, but he is constantly left wondering who he can trust.

The first half of Inferno is fragmented and disjointed, trying to recreate Langdon's current state of mind as he struggles to remember anything about the past couple days, and how he wound up where he is.  And while the filmmakers do rely a bit too heavily on out of place flashbacks and visions, this is the part of the film that intrigued me the most, as I found myself genuinely wanting to know what was going to happen next.  As the mystery deepens, and Robert finds himself seeking out the clues (which usually lead to more clues rather than answers), I still found myself engaged, as the film manages to throw in some strong action sequences to keep things interesting during this half.  It's only during the last 40 minutes or so that the movie starts to feel a bit dragged out.  This is where we start to get the answers, and not only are they disappointing, but it all ends in a climax that is as silly as it is anticlimactic.

Through it all, the cast does what it can.  This is obviously not Hanks' finest acting performance, but he does hold his own throughout the film.  Sure, he's mostly required to spout off exposition dialogue as he uncovers each answer, but the fact that he remains likable while doing it is a testament to his talent.  As his main sidekick, Felicity Jones is basically required to run behind him for a majority of the film, unfortunately.  When she does get some character development eventually, it never gets to be as developed as it could have been.  Although, this may also play in part to the breathless pacing of the film itself.  None of the actors outside of Hanks get to make a big impression, and Hanks only stands out because he's in nearly every scene.  You can tell that everyone is giving their all, but the screenplay by David Koepp is too busy racing to the finish line in order to let the characters and the actors play them breathe.

I must credit Inferno for at least holding my attention for most of the film, even if the payoff wasn't quite worth the wait.  This is one of those movies where once you know the truth about what's going on, you realize you were better off not knowing, and kind of wish you could go back to the way you were before the answers came to light.  Not only was the movie working better, but I was having more fun with it.

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Keeping Up with the Joneses is another one of those movies where ordinary people find themselves dragged into the world of spies and espionage.  The spies this time around are Tim and Natalie Jones, played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot.  They're an attractive and beautiful pair posing as a suburban married couple who have just moved next door to the ordinary people, Jeff and Karen Gaffney, played by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher.  Tim and Natalie lead exciting lives, while Jeff and Karen are boring, and do things like throw barbecues and design bathrooms for homes.  Once you have the grasp of this idea, you understand a good 80% of the movie.

Jeff and Karen are your regular couple stuck in a rut.  Their kids are off at summer camp, and they can't think of anything to spice up their married life.  Their life is their kids, as well as their jobs - Jeff's an H.R. guy at a tech company, while Karen designs homes. Then Tim and Natalie move in next door, and Karen becomes instantly suspicious of them.  They're too pretty, too talented, and too learned in the world to be living in the suburbs, she thinks.  Tim claims to be a travel writer, has had adventures in all corners of the world, and eats and knows about exotic foods.  Natalie claims to be a food blogger, and is involved with a children's charity.  She can also throw lawn darts with deadly precision, which she demonstrates during a party game.  In reality, they're spies for the U.S. government.  They've come to investigate Jeff's company, where someone is supposedly selling hi-tech microchips to an arms dealer.  Naturally, Jeff and Karen will get involved in the investigation, and be forced to take part in car chases and shootouts with their new neighbors.

The talented cast sail their way through scenes that they could probably do in their sleep.  Galifianakis and Fisher are the nice, but boring couple who have settled into their comfortable lives, and have their world turned upside down.  They're sweetly goofy, smile a lot, and end up screaming most of the time when they get in over their heads.  Hamm and Gadot are sleek, beautiful and professional.  They're sexy, stylish and wear designer clothes to local backyard gatherings.  The differences in these two couples provide the set up for the entire second half of the film, when the Gaffneys and the Joneses are forced to work together in order to stay alive.  Will they become genuine friends despite their differences?  I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is very minor.  It's an idea that might have worked in a half hour TV sitcom, but stretched out to over 100 minutes, it feels kind of overkill.  There's only so much you can do with this concept and these people, and the filmmakers often seem to be grasping at straws.  Even the screenplay seems content to play it safe beginning to end.  It's like one of those scripts you might read in a screenplay class.  It follows a rigid formula, never strays from the course, and never once attempts to throw in an interesting angle.  This approach not only kills the storytelling, but also the humor.  It's afraid to truly cut loose, and so the movie has the feel of an overly safe corporate product that probably sounded good at a pitch meeting, because it was simple to explain.

The film is directed by Greg Mottola, who has done strong work, such as Superbad and Adventureland.  Those were movies that were actually about something, as well as about the people who inhabited their stories.  This time, he's made a studio film that's drained of all life and purpose.  It was made because it had a simple concept.  The stars did it because they were available, and the money was right.  You get the sense that nothing would be any different if the movie was never made.  It exists only to steal some time away from paying customers, and to keep its actors away from more deserving projects.  Nobody needs that, just like nobody needs to watch this movie.

If you really want to experience watching this film, my recommendation is to go onto Youtube, and look up the theatrical trailer.  Now imagine it stretched out to 105 minutes.  You know how some trailers give away the whole movie?  Well, sometimes there's just not a whole lot to give away in the first place.

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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

As I was watching the new Jack Reacher movie, I started to feel a strange disconnect from the film.  It wasn't thrilling me in any real way, even though it had all the standard chases, shootouts and reckless car driving that one expects in an action film.  It felt curiously muted, not confident like a thriller should be.  I couldn't put my finger on it, but then I think I stumbled upon the answer when I looked up who directed the film.

The director is Edward Zwick, and no, he's not a bad one.  He's done some films I've admired, such as 1986's About Last Night and Glory.  He's even worked with Tom Cruise before on The Last Samurai.  The thing is, he's not a fast-paced action director.  He specializes in emotion and character-driven films.  Put him at the helm of an action thriller, such as Never Go Back, and you get one that is mundane.  To be honest, I don't think there were many people gunning for a sequel to the 2012 film that featured Tom Cruise as the titular Reacher, an ex-Army Major who now serves mostly as a crime-solving drifter.  I remember enjoying the movie when I saw it back then, but I've honestly forgotten most of it.  That happens a lot when you see as many movies as I do.  For the sequel, I have a hunch there will be even less that I remember over time, because there's just so little to recommend.

This is as formulaic as an action film can get.  It does have some interesting ideas to it, particularly the notion that Reacher finds out he may or may not have a teenage daughter due to a past romantic fling.  The girl is Samantha (Danika Yarosh), and she's sarcastic and constantly seems to be getting on Jack's last nerve for most of the movie.  Their relationship throughout the film seems to hint at comic relief, but it never builds to any genuine laughs or emotion.  It's just another cog in the machine-like plot of the film.  Not even the action sequences manage to raise much excitement, as Zwick films them with so little energy and grace.  And then there's the strangest aspect about the film - The last hour or so is set in New Orleans, but given how bland the city comes across, it may as well have been filmed in a little backwater in Oklahoma.  If you film on location in a city like New Orleans, and you can't get any interesting shots, not even during a Halloween street parade that serves as the climax, you're not doing your job right.

Cruise is back as Jack Reacher, and this time he's trying to solve a mystery concerning pretty young female Army Major, Turner (Cobie Smulders), who took over his job after he left the military service.  When he arrives at the base to meet her for the first time, he finds out that she's been charged with espionage and is in prison.  Naturally, Reacher doesn't buy this, breaks her out of her cell, and the two set about proving her innocence.  Our two heroes, along with the teenage Samantha, must constantly stay ahead of contract killers who are out to prevent them from finding the truth behind some mysterious murders of military soldiers in Afghanistan.  The bad guys are led by Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), who creates an imposing presence as he tracks Reacher and the others down, but doesn't have much of a character to play, continuing the disappointing recent trend of uninteresting villains in recent action thrillers.

There's little sense of mystery in Never Go Back, and the action sequences never exactly thrill.  What does work is the relationship between Jack and Turner.  They get some good private scenes together, particularly an argument they have about who should go investigate a lead.  He wants her to stay behind.  She calls him out on being a sexist, since she basically has the same job he used to have when he was in the Army, and should be more than capable.  It's a good scene, and maybe if the film had centered on their relationship, it would explain Zwick's presence behind the camera, as he is experienced with these kind of emotional moments.  However, this aims to be an action film, and it falls short in just about every regard.  Yes, Cruise is doing his best here, but there is just no energy to the fights, nor to the mystery that is supposed to be driving the plot.  Aside from a couple performances, the movie largely feels phoned in.

All in all, the movie is perfectly watchable, but it's just not very fun.  Nothing impresses, and there's no action set piece or sequence that has us silently pumping our fist and saying, "Yes!", as it plays out.  Were it not for the connection to the earlier movie, I highly doubt anyone would give it a second thought.  This is one of those movies that seems destined to be forgotten after its opening weekend.

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Ouija: Origin of Evil

2014's Ouija was a watered down horror film that seemed to be tailor made to be shown at slumber parties of 13-year-old girls.  It possessed no thrills, no originality, and no suspense whatsoever.  And yet, the film somehow managed to be a massive hit, grossing just over $100 million worldwide.  With that kind of box office, you can expect that a franchise is not far behind, and so it is, as Ouija: Origin of Evil serves as a prequel to the original.  What's not expected is the huge boost of quality over the first film.  This movie is atmospheric, well acted, and holds some genuine thrills - Everything the first movie lacked.  Quite honestly, not only did I not expect this follow up to be this good, but it's quite possibly the largest increase of quality from one movie to another that I've seen in a very long time.

Credit for this obviously goes for the film's director, co-writer and editor, Mike Flanagan (Oculus), a rising horror filmmaker who not only shows tremendous talent on a regular basis, but who with this film proves that he can pretty much turn an entire franchise around with a single movie.  He shows a wonderful sense of atmosphere, as well as an ability to create a certain time and place within his storytelling.  He sets the film in 1965, and not only does he throw in some wonderful period details, he even adds a few clever filmmaking touches that hearken back to the time.  For example, the film opens with the old Universal Studio logo from the era, which kind of gets you in the mood of the film right off the bat.  But even more impressive, he digitally adds the "black dot" that used to appear in the upper corner of the screen in old film.  This was used as a signal for the projectionist up in the booth to change the reels of the film back in the day.  Even though the film is shot on digital equipment, that little "dot" appears.  The first time I saw it, I thought my eyes were tricking me.  But, when it appeared again later on, I smiled.  This is a director who not only knows how to invoke the feel of the era, but also understands the films of the time.

This being a prequel, there is a loose connection to the first movie, though you fortunately don't have to seek it out in order to enjoy this.  The one serves as the backstory to one of the characters in the 2014 film, Lina Zander, played in the original by Lin Shaye.  In 1967, she's a teenage girl (played here by Annalise Basso) who lives with her widowed mother, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), and younger sister Doris (Lulu Wilson).  Alice makes her living as a phony fortune teller and psychic, her house rigged with various special effects in order to fool paying customers into believing that she can talk to the dead.  Even her two daughters frequently get in the act, working the effects from behind the scenes.  Alice is essentially conning people out of their money, but she doesn't see it that way.  She's giving people "comfort", telling them what they want to hear about departed loved ones, and giving them closure.

During this first half, Flanagan does a wonderful job of not only setting the mood, but also creating a genuine bond within the family, and creating characters that we care about.  The three lead actresses are not only giving strong performances here, but the script gives the characters room to breathe and grow before the scares start up.  We also learn about their individual problems, or hopes.  Alice is having a hard time keeping the house paid up after her husband passed away.  Youngest daughter Doris is bullied at school because of her belief in the supernatural.  Meanwhile, Lina is your typical teen, sneaking out of the house late at night to be with her friends, particularly the cute high school senior boy, Mikey (Patrick Mack).  Origin of Evil has a deliberate pace leading up to the moment when Alice is at a store shopping for some new props for her business, when she comes upon a Ouija board and decides to bring it home.

We learn early on that there are three rules to using a Ouija board: Don't play alone, don't play in a graveyard, and always say "goodbye" to whatever spirit it is you're talking to when the game is over.  This being a thriller, all three rules will be violated in due time.  Little Doris is the first to play alone, and quickly discovers that she has actual psychic abilities, as she can not only see the various spirits that apparently haunt the home, but that she can use the board to communicate with spirits just by using her mind.  When Alice discovers this, she immediately incorporates the young girl in her act, going so far as to take her out of school for a few days so she can use her on the job.  Alice is thrilled about her daughter's gift, but Lina is not so happy about her little sister's sudden ability to talk to the other side.  She consults a local priest (Henry Thomas, who will forever be known for playing Elliott, the little boy from E.T.), who learns some troubling truths about the history of the house that the family is currently living in, and that Doris might be in danger from the spirits she's speaking to, as many of them are not so friendly and are actually using her.

Where Ouija: Origin of Evil goes from there is fairly predictable and standard for the genre.  The last 20 minutes or so are more or less an explosion at the special effects factory, mixed with "creepy little girl" cliches.  But before the third act, this has been a highly suspenseful and surprisingly effective supernatural thriller and drama.  It creates likable and sympathetic characters, and never short changes them with uninspired personalities.  The performances are equally wonderful and down to earth, allowing you to not only care about these people, but actually be concerned for them when their lives are in danger near the end.  Flanagan is not making a thrill ride movie, nor is he making a horror movie for the preteen crowd, despite the film's PG-13 rating.  His pacing is slow and smoldering, but there's always a level of tension involved.  As little Doris goes deeper into the world of the paranormal and starts actually being manipulated by the spirits around her, the movie creates a genuinely creepy tone that mostly avoids jump scares, and just focuses on slowly unsettling the audience.

I honestly was not expecting any of this.  The original Ouija was as uninspired as any recent thriller has ever been.  In my review of that film, I wrote that it was " a glum, deadly serious and deadly dull horror movie that won't elicit an audience response, except from the most easily excitable or startled teenagers.  It takes forever to get to the point, and when it finally does, it's not worth the wait".  It's amazing how much of a turnaround this prequel is.  It not only builds on that film's backstory, but it actually fleshes it out and makes it more interesting than it appeared before.  I think what we have here is a rare instance of a movie that the studio knew wasn't very good, but still went on to be a hit.  However, rather than just farming the next installment out to anyone looking for work, the studio was actually interested in making the follow up genuinely good, and got some strong talent behind it, who not only understood the material better than the filmmakers from the first, but also knew how to fix its problems.  If every mainstream horror franchise followed this example, I figure audiences would be a lot happier.

Most of the time you can walk into a movie, and know exactly what to expect.  This is one of those rare times that a movie completely surprises you.  Of the many sequels we've had so far in 2016, who would have thought that Ouija of all things would end up being one that works?  I actually now have hope for the franchise, given Mike Flanagan is willing to return.  

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Max Steel

Max Steel is based on a toy line and an animated series that I am not familiar with in the slightest.  Therefore, you will not find out from this review whether or not this movie is faithful to the source material.  If that's what you've come here for, I apologize.  Rather, the purpose of this review is prevent you from seeing it, as the movie is bad.  Very, very bad.

I have a hunch that the distributor, Open Road Films, already knows this.  They're quietly pushing this movie out with as little advertising and hype as possible, going so far as to not even hold any screenings for professional critics.  That alone should tell you enough.  But, in case you're still curious, here's some more info.  This movie is downright incoherent, with a plot that makes little sense, and characters that wish they were two dimensional.  It looks like it was expensive to make, but the filmmakers didn't bother to create any original images or ideas.  The hero of the movie wears a battle suit that resembles Iron Man, if Tony Stark happened to be a huge Power Rangers fan, and based his design of his suit on the show.  The villain wears a battle suit that looks like a reject from Tron.  The hero's sidekick is a little robot that looks like a failed design for a creature from a Star Wars movie.  The plot of the movie borrows heavily from 2002's Spider-Man film.  You get the idea.  Now that I think about it, is there anything in this movie that isn't borrowed from something else?

The plot: Our hero is Max McGrath (Ben Winchell), an average everyday teen.  And by "average", I mean he is so dull and uninteresting that he makes Peter Parker before he got the radioactive spider bite seem like Mr. Personality.  He's spent the past few years moving around to different towns and schools with his widowed mother, played by Maria Bello, an actress much too talented to be cashing a paycheck in this.  Now Max's mom has moved them back to the hometown they originally lived in, and where Max's father (played in flashbacks by Mike Doyle) was a scientist who died in a mysterious lab accident that involved an explosion and a tornado. (You figure it out.) Max wants to know about his father, and the experiment he was working on, but mom refuses to tell him.  She says it's because he's too young to know the truth, but I think it's just screenwriter Christopher Yost's way of jerking the audience around until we just don't care anymore.

As soon as Max returns to his hometown, strange things start happening to him.  A bizarre liquid energy force starts forming from his hands, which gives him the power to blow up random objects around him.  We get far too many scenes of this happening, and Max wondering what's going on, with no real explanation.  All we know is that it puts a damper on his efforts to impress the local girl he has a crush on, Sofia (Ana Villafane).   Soon, he meets up with a little floating robot named Steel (voice by Josh Brener), who has escaped from a local science lab to protect Max, and teach him how to use his new powers that have suddenly started growing within him.  Not only that, but Max and Steel can merge together somehow to form a masked superhero named Max Steel, which sounds less like a superhero, and more like the name of a porn star the more I say it.  Max Steel has the ability to run very fast, has super strength, and can shoot beams of energy.  Strange thing is he seldom if ever uses these powers during the course of the movie.  He learns he can do these things, then never does them again.

For a movie based on an action figure, the plot in Max Steel is unnecessarily vague and more confusing than it has any right to be.  Yes, we do eventually get some answers, but it's not until the final 15 minutes or so.  We spend most of the running time asking why we're supposed to care about this Max kid, who shows no personality whatsoever, and even less idea as to why this stuff is happening to him.  As soon as he arrives in his hometown, he gets superpowers.  Then, some armed men in black cars start following him everywhere he goes, seemingly wanting to kill him.  Then, he starts getting attacked by massive tornadoes, which are really evil aliens.  Then it turns out that his father's old friend who used to work at the lab with him (played by Andy Garcia, another actor too good to be cashing a paycheck here) knows more than he lets on.  Then, when the movie is practically over, we finally get to see Max in his superhero form so he can fight the villain, whose identity is kept a secret for most of the plot, but anyone in the audience who is half awake will be able to figure out their identity as soon as they walk on the screen.  It finally all ends with a big set up for sequels to come, which in this movie's case can be considered hopeless optimism.  

All of this is dropped in our laps by a cast who seem to know they're in a doomed project.  They're dull, sometimes downbeat, and often come across like they can barely suppress the doubts they have about the movie they're stuck in.  The one performance that does seem to be trying is from Josh Brener, as he at least gets to display a sense of humor and sarcasm.  Unfortunately, the lines he's been given are not funny, so his efforts are rendered mute.  It doesn't take long for the audience's interest to wane, and even less time after that for us to realize that there's no point to any of this.  It's a soulless franchise built around a toy that lacks the nostalgic power of Transformers or G.I. Joe.  This is the first product to come from the Mattel Toy Company's newly formed film studio, and you have to wonder why they chose this of all things.

Again, I hold no knowledge of the toys or cartoons that came before, so I really have no idea if Max Steel the movie is an accurate depiction, or if something got lost during its trip to the screen.  The only thing I know for sure is that this is easily the worst superhero movie I've seen since Green Lantern.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

The Accountant

The Accountant is being advertised as an action thriller, and I guess that's accurate enough.  But with just a tiny push in the other direction, it could have been considered a comedy.  Filled with improbable plot twists, this is as goofy an action film as we've had in 2016.  And yet, there are moments that the movie seems to realize this, and has fun with itself.  This is not a wholly successful film, but I would be lying if I didn't say I kind of admired it for how off the wall it is.

Picture this.  Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a straight-faced and heavily guarded autistic math genius who spends half his time crunching numbers for major corporations and shady criminals, and the other half as a merciless assassin skilled with sharpshooting skills and deadly martial arts training.  Think Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, if he suddenly somehow morphed into a gun-toting vigilante, and you won't be too far off.  Director Gavin O'Connor (Jane Got a Gun) does his best to juggle the labyrinth plot, numerous twists and multiple characters that the screenplay provided by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) throws at him, but at times it seems to be a bit much.  We have random flashbacks to Christian's childhood, where his father teaches him the deadly arts of fighting so that he can stand up to bullies, mixed with scenes where Christian is picking off hired killers with precise head shots, mixed with scenes that Affleck shares with Anna Kendrick that kind of resemble a romantic comedy of sorts.

If it sounds strange, you don't know the half of it.  And at times, The Accountant can be strange in kind of an intriguing way.  You certainly can't accuse the movie of being yet another cookie cutter formula film.  But, you can say it is very uneven, and yet another disappointment for the fall movie season.  Certain elements just don't gel here.  Take Kendrick, who plays a young woman who becomes fascinated by Affleck's character, gets drawn into his world, and finds herself a target in the criminal underworld.  It's a good performance, bright and kind of funny, but it feels out of place with the rest of the movie, which is usually very serious.  There is also a disconnect in Affleck's performance.  When he's living his day to day life, and portraying a highly functional autistic man, he can be quite good.  But seeing him trying to pull off this kind of performance when the bullets are flying and he's karate chopping bad guys in the neck just comes across as goofy.  It's a hurdle that the movie simply cannot simply cross.

Christian passes himself off as a small Illinois town accountant, helping local families get tax breaks and whatnot.  On the side, however, he cooks the books for criminal organizations.  Some federal agents (portrayed by J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on his trail, and so are some hired thugs who start showing up after Christian takes a job looking for some lost money and some books that don't add up in a robotic prosthetic company headed by John Lithgow.  It seems that Christian has uncovered some information he wasn't supposed to while going over the company's numbers, and now people are being sent out to kill him, as well as Kendrick's character, who is a fellow accountant that works at the company.  Christian is the sort of person who always has an escape plan and keeps a low profile, but for some reason, he's drawn to Kendrick, and makes it his personal mission to keep her safe.  The British female voice who gives Christian his orders over the phone urges him to move on to another location and start over, but he won't budge until the girl is safe, and all the bad guys after them are dead.

So, Affleck goes into killing machine mode, all the while trying to act as distant and emotionally detached as he can.  And then...Well, I can't really say what happens next without delving into spoiler territory.  All I can say is that there are some third act plot revelations that are so out there, it actually had certain members of the audience laughing at the screening I attended.  The Accountant does hold an interesting idea, and you can see how it could work, but it would require a steady hand, and this movie doesn't have one.  It resorts to camp and over the top violence instead of actually exploring the ideas it raises.  It generates laughs (sometimes intentional, sometimes not) when it's supposed to be creating tension, and the movie just gets harder to swallow as it goes on.  But, I have to admit, the more I think back on the film, I do have a certain admiration for it.  I admire that the filmmakers even attempted an idea such as this.  Sure, it doesn't really work, but darn it, they tried.  And the movie is never boring.  

It is, however, a movie that only works in bits and pieces, not as a whole.  There are individual dramatic moments I enjoyed, and even a couple action scenes that are done well.  But nothing fits together.  In one of the film's early scenes, we see Christian as a child frustrated because he can't finish a jigsaw puzzle, because one of the pieces is missing.  This movie feels kind of like that.  It's incomplete, kind of jumbled, and a lot of pieces are missing that could link what works together.  I will give you this guarantee, though - You've never seen a movie like The Accountant before.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

Ever since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, Nate Parker's (who stars, wrote and directed the film) The Birth of a Nation seemed to be riding a wave of hype.  Part of the reason was the film's plot, concerning the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Va.  Not only was it a mostly forgotten piece of history, but it arrived right in the middle of the controversy surrounding the Oscars about nominating performers and filmmakers of color that was going on at the time.  There was also the title, which he intentionally named after D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic which is often seen as a masterclass of early filmmaking, but is equally derided for its blatant racism.  It was a bold move, but it seemed to pay off, as it brought the film national attention, leading to what many believed would be countless awards and acclaim for the budding director.

But then, little by little, that attention turned away from the film and to the past of Nate Parker himself.  In recent months, he has been forced to address the fact that he and fellow writer Jean McGianni Celestin (who shares a "Story by" credit with Parker on the film) were accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate back in 1999, when he was a student at Penn State University.  Parker was acquitted of the charges, while Celestin saw his charges eventually overturned.  But the incident never really went away, and the woman they were accused of assaulting tragically took her life in 2012.  Parker's attempt to talk about the incident in interviews has not helped matters, as he often came across as cold and defiant, refusing to apologize to the victim's family in a national interview.  This has led to a boycott of the film, which indeed seems to be in full swing, as the film opened much lower at the box office last weekend than it was expected to, and is already being deemed a flop for the studio, who paid $17.5 million to purchase the film back at Sundance.  What was once seen as a guaranteed prestige film and a way to send Nate Parker to the top of the Hollywood A-List has slowly imploded, and now seems destined to be yet another disappointment for what has largely been a quiet Fall season for Hollywood right now.

So, after all that, what about the film?  What will people see if they do choose to look past all the controversy?  They will see see a movie that has moments of tremendous power, but also long stretches where it struggles to reach the heights that it should.  Part of this can be blamed on Parker's inexperience behind the camera.  This is an ambitious movie, but it also comes up short in a lot of ways, namely in terms of character development.  It's an engaging but uneven film that needed a steadier hand at the script level in order to make the film what it truly could have and should have been.  It's also forced to exist in the shadow of the far superior 12 Years a Slave from a couple years ago.  That was a movie that had me almost shaking with anger due to its power when it was over.  This film, as I said, has its moments of power, but they are way too few and far between.

The Birth of a Nation begins with Nat Turner as a young boy living on the Turner Plantation.  Growing up, he befriends the owner's son, Sam, and occasionally steals books from the house in order to teach himself to read.  Sam's mother (Penelope Ann Miller) catches him, but rather than punish him, she chooses to bring him inside the Plantation house to teach him the Bible.  In time, Nat gets the opportunity to preach sermons to family and friends of the Turner family, which brings him fame as he grows into a young man (now played by Parker).  As an adult, Sam (now played by Armie Hammer) hires out Nat to preach at other Plantations, using his sermons to defend slavery and prevent the slaves from uprising.  This forces Nat to witness the cruelty that some of his fellow slaves have to endure.  In the film's most unforgettable sequence, we watch along with Nat as a chained up slave who refuses to eat has his teeth knocked out and bloodied with a blunt instrument, and then has a funnel stuck in his mouth to force him to eat.

We witness Nat's anger grow during his many encounters and experiences outside of his own Plantation, and it comes to a head when his trusting wife (Aja Naomi King) is gang raped.  It all builds up to Nat leading a violent rebellion that lasted 48 hours as he and a group of fellow slaves banded together, and murdered many white property owners and their families.  Parker's use of rape to drive the narrative that leads to rebellion does lend the film an eerie quality to just about anyone who knows the backstory behind the filmmaker, and it's hard to kind of get over.  But what's even harder to escape is the notion that the film is largely portrayed as an exploitation revenge picture.  Rather than truly explore Nat's mindset about what he is witnessing and the struggle to remain loyal to Sam,who he once saw as his friend from childhood, the movie seems more interested in staging elaborate and violent sequences of revenge and carnage.  It gives the film an uneasy tone.  It wants to be about something, but it also wants to unleash anger and exploit violence.  Rather than truly get us into the mind of Nat, it essentially uses him as a passive cipher who explodes into Braveheart-style rebellion during the last half.

Parker's portrayal of Nat Turner is uncomplicated.  He is essentially a quiet figure for most of the film whom we learn little about.  His relationship with his wife is seldom if ever explored, and we never truly learn about what he is thinking.  The movie wants to lionize him and make him a martyr, but it falls short, due to the fact we know little about him.  For the most part, he is giving us a fairly standard docudrama here, one that lacks the emotional power of the previously mentioned 12 Years a Slave.  But then, every once in a while, the movie will reach upon a powerful image, such as the scenes depicting the outcome of his uprising, and the fates of the surviving slaves that participated in it.  There is a lack of a consistent tone here.  The movie also can't help but dive into some heavy handed symbolism from time to time, such as when Turner sees an angel descending toward him while a heavenly choir blasts on the soundtrack.  It's somewhat hokey, and turns what should be a powerful moment into an overpowered and overblown one.  For every scene that does work as intended, there are just as many that either seem oddly dramatically inert, or just plain overwrought.

Maybe The Birth of a Nation had too high of expectations forced upon it at the festival circuit.  Maybe it was never supposed to have such high hopes placed upon it.  All I know is that while the film can be effective, it is far too often mundane for this kind of story.  It's an important story to be sure, and one that deserves to be told.  You just wish it was told better.

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Saturday, October 08, 2016

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is watchable, but would be better if it practiced what it preached.  It talks about the values of individuality and creativity, while the script follows lockstep with just about every tween cliche that you see on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel TV sitcoms.  At the same time, the movie seems a bit overstuffed, combining elements of a tween comedy, animation, and even family drama concerning the hero's past.  There are some clever lines here, but the whole thing is too uneven to work.

Based on a series of Young Adult books co-authored by mystery crime writer, James Patterson, the film follows a young and imaginative protagonist named Rafe (Griffin Gluck), who prefers doodling far off alien worlds in his sketchbook than his current reality.  His single mom (Lauren Graham) seems like a smart woman, but she somehow doesn't realize that her new boyfriend (Rob Riggle) is a materialistic bozo.  He's also just been transferred to a new school after being kicked out of the last two he attended (for reasons the movie keeps to itself), and said school is run by the strict Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), who sees Rafe's creative drawings as a sign of trouble, and proceeds to not only confiscate his sketchbook, but destroy it.  Rafe and his best friend/sidekick (Thomas Barbusca) decide that the best way to fight back against Dwight's rules is to break into school every night, and create massive art projects that go against every guideline in the Principal's book.

The movie expects us to go with a lot of things that are hard to swallow.  Things like, how does Rafe's mom not realize that her new boyfriend is a jerk until the last 10 minutes of the movie, when he plainly displays his ways and intentions in front of her throughout the film?  And why is there absolutely no security whatsoever at the school, allowing Rafe and his buddy to sneak in every night, and fill entire rooms with post-it notes, switch the school bell to a fart sound, and mess with the sprinkler system?  I know, I know, it's a movie for kids.  And if the movie gave me more to think about, I wouldn't mind so much.  But aside from the occasional clever line (at one point, Rafe's friend tells him, "If I've learned anything from playing Call of Duty, other than how to swear in 30 different languages..."), it doesn't seem like much thought went into this.

The filmmakers throw in some animated sequences representing Rafe's overactive imagination, which are fun, but are ultimately unnecessary.  There's also a rather odd plot twist that occurs late in the film that tries to add a level of sentimentality and tragedy to the young hero's past that would have been more effective it it didn't feel like a desperate attempt to wring tears out of the audience.  It's out of place, and comes out of nowhere.  And why introduce this dramatic subplot if you're just going to wrap it up with a funny little cartoon sequence that will likely confuse younger viewers?  I guess this is director Steve Carr's (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) way of adding heart to the story, but he mishandles it.  Everything else about this movie, from the performances to the writing, is strictly by the book.  Nothing is terrible, but it feels bland and overly safe.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life belongs on television, where it will likely be played endlessly on the tween-centered networks for years to come.  It's the kind of movie that feels like an afterthought for everyone involved.  Even the young actors at the center of the film seem to know they deserve better.  They do, and so does the audience. 

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