The Accountant (2016)


Ben Affleck sets his sights on those who criticized his casting as Batman.

Ben Affleck sets his sights on those who criticized his casting as Batman.

(2016) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, Jean Smart, Andy Umberger, Alison Wright, Jason Davis, Robert C. Treveiler, Mary Kraft, Seth Lee, Jake Presley, Izzy French, Ron Prather, Susan Williams, Gary Basaraba, Fernando Chien, Alex Collins, Sheila Maddox. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

 

Most people have an idea of autism that is decidedly out of step with reality. The truth is that there all sorts of different types of autism and all sorts of different types of autistics. Some are low functioning, unable to take care of themselves and who are requiring of supervision. These are generally the types of autism that we tend to picture when we think about autism at all. Others are high functioning, some to the point where you wouldn’t know they were autistic if they didn’t tell you. The myth about autism that is most pervasive and most untrue is that autism goes hand in hand with mental retardation. Some autistics can be brilliant. Some can even be deadly.

Christian Wolff (Affleck) was born with a gift – a genius at problem solving. He’s a math whiz and able to ferret out patterns you and I could never see. He is also autistic, unable to interact well socially although he’d like to. He has rigid habits that govern his life; his breakfast is the same, every day, arranged on the plate in the very same way. He has his silverware in a drawer, arranged exactly the way he wants them – with no extraneous flatware to clog up his drawers. He likes things simple in his life.

Perhaps that’s because his job is so complex. You see, he’s an accountant and not just for anyone; he uncooks the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, ranging from drug kingpins to assassins to terrorists to warlords. This has attracted the attention of the Treasury Department and it’s lead agent, Ray King (Simmons) who is getting ready to retire but who has been chasing the accountant for years. He wants to get him as a crowning achievement to his career so he enlists agent Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) who is even more brilliant than he.

In the meantime, Wolff has been brought in by a biomedical robotics firm called Living Robotics to investigate some irregularities in their accounting, irregularities unearthed by a junior accountant – the chirpy Dana Cummings (Kendrick). CEO Lamar Black (Lithgow) wants these irregularities cleared up before he takes the company public. Wolff begins his investigation and turns up something – something that puts he and Dana in mortal danger, as a killer named Braxton (Bernthal) shows up to clean house at Living Robotics.

I like the concept here a lot; a high-functioning autistic action hero and Affleck is the perfect choice to play him. Affleck can play closed-off as well as anybody in the business and he shows that skill here. Christian is socially awkward and a little bit wary of social interactions. When Dana starts flirting with him, he’s attracted but he doesn’t know how to react. The scenes between the two are some of the best in the film. The other supporting roles are solid here as well, although Lithgow may have left a few too many tooth marks on the scenery for comfort.

One of the issues I have with the film is that I don’t think O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque were quite sure whether they wanted to make a thriller or an action film. Perhaps they wanted to make a hybrid of both but the pendulum kept swinging in one direction or the other and it ended up being unsatisfying in that regard. Worse yet, there are several plot twists, including one regarding the Braxton character which may as well have neon arrows pointing to them and blinking graphics screaming “HERE! PLOT TWIST! YOU’LL NEVER GET THIS ONE!!!!!” and of course anyone with a reasonable amount of experience at the movies should figure it out early on.

I like Affleck a lot as an actor; always have, even when his career was in a slump. Heck, I even liked him in Gigli which is saying something. He does elevate this somewhat, as does Kendrick and to a lesser extent, Addai-Robinson and Tambor (whose scenes are all too brief as Wolff’s mentor). It’s enough for me to give this flawed film a mild recommendation. It’s not a movie to write home about but neither is it one to troll Internet forums over. It’s a solidly made bit of entertaining fluff that will keep you occupied and be promptly forgotten. That may be enough in a lot of ways, especially in these stressful times, but it could have been a whole lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is terrific here and his chemistry with Kendrick is authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Most of the plot twists are telegraphed and the movie falls apart towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as regular occurrences of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Plainfield, Illinois (just outside of Chicago) it was shot in Atlanta where the production company got much better tax incentives than Illinois offered.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Transporter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Keeping Up with the Joneses

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The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Total Recall (2012)


 

Total Recall

Colin Farrell is no saint, despite the halo.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho, Will Yun Lee, Dylan Scott Smith, Mishael Morgan, Lisa Chandler, Natalie Lisinska, James McGowan. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

It is part of being human to be unsatisfied with the lives we’ve been given. Never mind that we make the choices that determine the course of that life – too often we sit and wonder why our lives aren’t more exciting and daydreaming what we would do if we were Heidi Klum or James Bond.

Doug Quaid (Farrell) builds robotic cops on an assembly line on a late 21st century Earth. Chemical warfare has rendered almost all of it uninhabitable except for the area around Great Britain and most of Australia. Workers live in the Australian section, known as The Colony and travel by a futuristic super-elevator through the center of the earth called the Fall to their jobs in the elite United Federation of Britain, which is ruled over by Vilos Cohaagen (Cranston), the autocratic chancellor. He is happily married to Lori (Beckinsale), a nurse. He and his friend Harry (Woodbine) often go out drinking together. And yet Quaid feels like something’s missing.

In a world where a resistance, led by the enigmatic and reclusive Matthias (Nighy) tries to end the oppression of the UFB in the Colony, Quaid longs for adventure and intrigue. He sees an ad for a company called Rekall which creates artificial memories for any sort of life; from being rich and famous, a chick (or stud) magnet, a secret agent. The latter appeals to Quaid so he decides to avail himself of their services.

Only almost as soon as the needle goes in, the cops come bursting in the door guns blazing. Quaid is the only one left alive and it looks like he’s going to be arrested but suddenly Quaid takes down the officers one by one and is left with not a scratch on him and a stunned expression on his face. When he goes back home to tell Lori about it, she reacts like any wife would if their husband did something without telling them; she tries to kill him (the difference between Lori and Da Queen is that Da Queen would have succeeded).

Confused and frightened, he goes on the run and discovers that he was somehow involved with the resistance, that his name is not Doug Quaid but Carl Hauser and that all of his memories are false, implanted there by the UFB along with Lori who is a crack agent of theirs. They are after something in his head; so is the resistance, who sends Melina (Biel) to rescue him.

They are on the run trying to make it to Matthias and the resistance. Can they get there before Cohaagen carries out his terrifying plan to invade the Colony and murder millions?

Many will recall with affection the 1990 version of this movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin as Quaid/Hauser, Lori and Melina respectively, directed by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven. While the early version was set on Mars (mostly), this one is set entirely on Mother Earth and both are loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (referred to in dialogue by the receptionist at Rekall during the movie as a kind of lovely little tribute). While this one is a little closer to the source material, it still isn’t quite what you’d call too faithful to the original.

One of the problems with the original is Schwarzenegger. Not that he’s terrible – his natural charisma carried the movie in a lot of ways – but that he’s too believable as Hauser. The movie works better with Farrell because you can believe him as Quaid much more easily than you could believe Schwarzenegger and you also believe him less as Hauser than you can believe Schwarzenegger – but you can nevertheless believe him. You get more of a sense of his confusion and doubt as to what’s real and what isn’t, his initial frustration and boredom and his later rage.

Beckinsale makes an excellent Lori; loving and cuddly but vicious and ruthlessly efficient at her job as  UFB undercover agent. She’s a fine actress who unfortunately (or fortunately if you want to look at it that way) has been cast in a lot of action roles because of her success in Underworld and it’s sequels. She does get a little bit of a chance to shine as an actress here, enough so that I find myself wishing she had more dramatic roles offered to her because she is so good.

Biel and Farrell have decent chemistry together and she makes a pretty fair action heroine herself. The special effects are pretty spectacular but it’s the action sequences that make this movie worth seeing. From the opening fight in the Rekall office to the climax on the roof of the Fall terminus, this is as well-choreographed as any Asian martial arts masterpiece.

As late summer blockbusters go, Total Recall fits the bill nicely. Judging on the early box office returns and simply that this is a bit darker-toned than the original, this probably won’t be the hit that the original was. However, in many ways it’s a superior movie although quite frankly despite the fact that they are basically related at the end of the day comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Or maybe, closer to the point, like comparing oranges and tangerines.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences. Well thought-out and spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: Less of a light tone than the original. No Ah-nuld.

FAMILY VALUES: The action scenes are fairly intense and violent; there’s not a lot of gore but there is some. There’s brief nudity, some sexuality and of course foul language. Those who are prone to dizziness should note that there are lots of scenes of things spinning and dropping so you may want to be aware of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fight scene at Rekall was done in one continuous shot; Farrell did his own stunt work for it and it took 22 takes before it was done correctly.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

BLADE RUNNER LOVERS: The set design, look and filming style for scenes set in The Colony are very reminiscent of the Ridley Scott classic.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bleeding House

The American


The American

George Clooney takes aim at those exit poll guys.

(Focus) George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, Filippo Timi, Anna Foglietta, Irina Bjorklund, Giorgio Gobbi, Samuli Vauramo, Raffaele Serao, Sandro Dori, Antonio Rampino, Lars Hjelm, Silvana Bosi, Guido Palliggiano. Directed by Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn made his start as a still photographer, and he is quite frankly responsible for many wonderful album covers, mostly from European bands. He graduated into making music videos (mostly for Depeche Mode) before doing a full-fledged concert video (also for Depeche Mode) until making his feature film debut in 2008 for Control (which was about Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis, not Depeche Mode). Corbijn has a very recognizable style; what would he make of a spy thriller?

Well, the fact of the matter is that The American isn’t so much a spy thriller as it is a character study, and it certainly isn’t a Bourne-like action movie as it was marketed over here. That may have contributed to the truly horrendous word-of-mouth it got from people who saw it (it got a D- rating from the service that gauges audience reactions to movies they’ve just seen, an unusually low score). That may have frightened some people away from seeing it. That’s a shame because this is a pretty good movie.

Jack (Clooney) is canoodling in Sweden with a comely brunette before he is ambushed by armed hunters while taking a walk in the snow. It turns out that Jack not only carries a gun but he knows how to use it. The scene is shocking in its violence and we are treated to the sight of a stone cold killer, literally speaking.

Jack escapes Sweden and makes his way to Rome, where his handler Pavel (Leysen) advises him to get out of Rome and to a small town where nobody would think to look for him. Jack takes a Fiat into the mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy but he doesn’t like the vibe of the town that Pavel sends him to – too many nosy people. He instead makes his way for another charming little mountain village where he hopes to lay low and not attract any attention. “And above all,” Pavel warns him, “Don’t make any friends. You used to know that.”

So Jack – who is calling himself Edward here – takes the guise of a travel photographer and makes friends with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Bonacelli). So much for listening to good advice, it seems. In any case, Pavel gives him an assignment – to assemble a rifle with particular qualities for a contact named Mathilde (Reuten) who looks like she just stepped off of a Vespa in Fellini’s Rome – and maybe she did.

So Jack – or is it Edward? Or some other name entirely? – enlists the help of the good padre’s cousin Fabio (Timi), who runs a garage in the middle of nowhere which beggars the question; who on earth is going to drive a car that isn’t working right all the way out there? Anyway, Fabio gives Jack the run of the place, so Jack takes some tools and materials in order to make a noise suppresser for the rifle (a silencer wouldn’t work for the kind of range Mathilde is looking for). The weapon is obviously the weapon of an assassin, but Jack asks no questions so Mathilde tells him no lies.

Jack begins to utilize the services of Clara (Placido), a local prostitute. Quite improbably, the two of them begin to fall for each other – you can tell Clara has feelings for him because she stops charging him for sex. Now Jack is tired of running, tired of being chased, tired of dodging taciturn men with guns who mean to do him murder. He wants out, but this is the kind of business that is very hard to leave once you get in.  

There is actually very little action except at the very beginning and the very end, and some moments in between (such as when Jack is playing a cat and mouse game with a Swedish assassin out to make him pay for his antics in Sweden). Corbijn’s training as a still photographer serves him very well; every shot is meticulously set up and looks like it could be easily hanging in a European gallery. Corbijn forces you to look at what he wants you to see. For example, the opening credits run over a continuous shot of Clooney driving through a long tunnel; yellow mile markers flash by the vehicle in the artificial light of the tunnel. At the very end is a bright white light; will Clooney arrive at that destination? In a sense, this is emblematic of what the movie is all about – an escape from darkness into light for a soul that has dwelled in the darkness for far too long.

This is not your father’s George Clooney, or even Danny Ocean’s George Clooney. Jack/Edward is a very hard man; most of the time his face is rigid, his mouth set in a thin hard line of disapproval. There is no twinkle in this character’s eyes, only steel. This is not a role we’re used to seeing from Clooney.

Those who are offended by the nude female body should take into account that this is a very European movie in a lot of ways; the nudity doesn’t bother European audiences, nor does explicit sex. We even get a gratuitous shot of Clooney’s derriere as well, just to balance things out for the ladies.

There is very little dialogue in the movie and what dialogue there is comes out in terse, brusque staccato, like someone ordering a cappuccino at the local coffee house. There is also a good deal of existential philosophizing about the nature of souls, good and evil, particularly in dialogue between Father Benedetto and Jack. Most American audiences won’t have the patience for it, but there are at least some insights to be found if you choose to look for them.

Part of the problem with the movie is one of the strengths I mentioned earlier. Still photographers have a tendency to make their scenes very static, and so Corbijn does. There may be movement in the frame, but the camera itself does not. That contributes to an overall feeling of languor that can be off-putting at times, even though you tell yourself “Hey, this is about a guy cooling his heels in rural Italy; how exciting is it going to get?” The answer? Not much.

Still, this is as finely crafted a film as I’ve seen this year and I can appreciate it as a work of art if not a crisply told story. Clooney may not be the next Eastwood (and Leysen not the next Terrance Stamp, whom he resembles facially – if Stamp and Scott Glenn had a love child together, that is) but he does the brooding bit very well. Much of the movie is tight on Clooney’s face, and the world-weary demeanor is what draws you to him. Some have complained that Clooney doesn’t reveal much of the inner Jack/Edward but a man like that would have learned early on that revealing your emotions is tantamount to death itself, for it can be used against you in that line of work. This is a very different movie than we’re used to seeing, and for that alone I can commend it highly.

REASONS TO GO: The crafting of each shot, the composition of every frame is simply amazing. There’s a good deal of depth in the script.

REASONS TO STAY: This is not an action movie even though it was marketed as such; if you’re looking for a new Bourne, stay away. Clooney does the brooding, silent killer pretty well, but this isn’t one of his more compelling performances.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some explicit sex and nudity, some fairly violent and disturbing images and enough swearing in more than one language to make this very much for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clooney’s character prefers using a Walther PPK just like a certain British secret agent of our acquaintance.

HOME OR THEATER: I will admit some of the vistas worked very well on the big screen but by and large you can get away with seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell