Review: The Accountant

Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Written by: Bill Dubuque
Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow
Released: November 3, 2016
Grade: B-

The Accountant
I confess to being a little more interested than the average moviegoer when it comes to The Accountant.  It’s what I do as a day job as film criticism doesn’t quite pay the bills.  The film opens with the traditional view of what accountants do.  Christian Wolff (Affleck) operates out of a small, gloomy office and is helping an elderly couple with their annual tax return.  They’re worried about a hefty tax bill but Wolff is bending the rules and strongly suggesting they throw in a few creative deductions.

Don’t fret.  This isn’t a two hour movie about capital gains tax and negative gearing.  Writer Bill Dubuque (The Judge) puts forward an intriguing scenario.  We know there are horrible people in the world who are involved in terrorism, bribery, trafficking and espionage.  Who maintains their financial records though?  It makes sense that even bad guys need a Chartered Accountant to keep tabs on their money.

That’s where Christian Wolff makes most of his fees – by helping out large criminal families and organisations.  He maintains the lowest profile possible but Wolff’s actions have finally caught the attention of Raymond King (Simmons), the Financial Crimes Director for the Treasury Department.  He has assigned one of his senior analysts (Addai-Robinson) the difficult task of locating Wolff and compiling enough evidence to put him behind bars.

Adding another layer to the narrative is the fact that Wolff suffers from severe autism.  We are shown footage of him as a child where he hates bright lights and hates being touched by others.  He completes a complicated jigsaw puzzle but then becomes distressed when one piece is missing from the box.  This helps us understand the Wolff we see today.  He expresses no emotions, he struggles with human interaction, and he cannot stop once he’s started a particular task.

To borrow the words from the Home Shopping Network – “but wait, there’s more!”  The Accountant seems to have more storylines than an entire series of Game of Thrones.  Wolff is engaged by a person on the phone with a muffled voice (subplot #1) to perform a forensic accounting assignment for a large robotics company (subplot #2) where he meets a young accountant (Kendrick) looking to know more about him (subplot #3) while being pursued by hired goons (subplot #4) and haunted by memories of his father (subplot #5).

I like being challenged as a filmgoer but there’s too much going on here.  The finale includes a lengthy monologue from J.K. Simmons that is only necessary because of the many plot gaps needing to be filled.  Without giving away some of the key plot twists, there are parts to the story that lack credibility and a scene in a well-armed house towards the end is a good example.

The film’s most positive quality is its exploration of autism.  It’s a condition we don’t see often on the big screen – especially in a big budget action-thriller.  For those not familiar, it will provide insight into those dealing with the lifelong development condition and the effect on those around them.  For those already familiar, it provides confirmation that those diagnosed with autism can contribute to society in the same way as everyone else.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), The Accountant bites off more than it can chew but at least it’s adding a bit of excitement to the accounting profession!


Review: Doctor Strange

Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Released: October 27, 2016
Grade: B+

Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is the fourth and final Marvel comic book movie of 2016.  It follows on the back of Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men Apocalypse and sets up a few storylines that will be relevant in movies to come.  Another 9 Marvel flicks are slated for release over the next 3 years.  If you’re suffering from superhero burnout, you might need to attend a couple of foreign language film festivals to freshen up.

It’s apparent that Doctor Strange isn’t your standard superhero.  This is best articulated during a scene where a comparison is made with The Avengers.  They tend to fight with their fists and other man-made weapons they’ve created.  In the case of Doctor Strange, he fights with his mind.  He can harness powers within that allow him to teleport to other locations and create strong force fields.  He can also alter the path of time.  They add up to cool group of party tricks.

The purpose of these powers doesn’t become relevant until the film’s final act.  The first half is all about character development and backstory.  We learn that Dr Stephen Strange is one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons.  That success has brought out some of his not-so-great qualities.  He wastes money on frivolous desires (such as expensive cars) and he treats many of his hospital colleagues with disrespect.  This includes Christine Palmer (McAdams), a fellow surgeon that he expects to be at his beck and call.

Strange’s life is forever alerted when badly injured in a car accident.  His hands are rendered useless and his days as a neurosurgeon are over.  It’s a massive adjustment for self-reliant Strange who is accustomed to being in control and having power.  He now must rely on the support of others as part of his long rehabilitation program.

His efforts to regain his independence lead him to a secluded house in Nepal that is home to the Ancient One (Swinton), a mystic who sounds crazy but is actually quite knowledgeable.  She speaks of spells, sorcery and other worlds that exist but are kept hidden from the eyes of most humans.  Her motives aren’t 100% clear but she agrees to help Strange and it’s not long before he’s doing things he never dreamed possible.

This is an interesting origin story but Doctor Strange is more likely to be remembered for its impressive visual effects.  Director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil) has borrowed a page from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and created a dream-like world where buildings move, streets fold over, and the laws of gravity are thrown out the window.  It sets the stage for unorthodox fight sequences.

The script successfully straddles a number of genres.  The action scenes are creative, the drama is easy to follow (except for a few complex character names), and there are a few well-timed laughs to add a necessary dose of comedy.  Cumberbatch portrays Strange as the reluctant hero who offers a few quizzical, sarcastic comments but quickly realises his value in saving the world.

Tilda Swinton has fun with a typical Tilda Swinton performance.  The same can’t be said for Rachel McAdams who is woefully underutilised as Strange’s quasi love interest.  I can only hope she’s given more to work with in future instalments.

Providing a finale that doesn’t rely on explosions and drawn-out punch ups, Doctor Strange earns points for being a little different.


Review: Cafe Society

Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Poser
Released: October 20, 2016
Grade: C+

Cafe Society
He may have turned 80 years of age last December but Woody Allen keeps making films and he keeps doing things he own way.  He’s also one of his harshest critics.  Allen refuses to watch his own films once complete and believes that there’s only a handful of them that are actually any good.  He doesn’t read reviews, he hates having to do publicity and he seldom goes to the cinema.

Café Society begins in the same manner as other Allen films.  The opening credits are shown in simple white writing against a black background, the actors’ names are listed in alphabetical order, and a crackly 1930s-type tune plays in the background.  These credits culminate with the words “written and directed by Woody Allen” and then it’s time for the movie to begin.  It’s a routine that he’s used so often that it ought to be trademarked.

Allen’s latest outing was inspired by his own as a teenager.  He would be fascinated by the powerful talent agents in Hollywood and their influence within the film industry.  Set in the 1930s, Café Society is structured around three characters.  Phil (Carell) is the fast-talking talent agent who oozes success.  He has a beautiful mansion, a deep wallet, and appears to know everyone in industry.

Arriving at the door of his office one day is Bobby (Eisenberg), his nephew who was moved from New York to California in search of work and other opportunities.  Phil doesn’t have much time for Bobby and so he creates a small, pointless job requiring him to makes deliveries across town.  He proclaims that he doesn’t want to “overemphasize the nepotism.”

This is ultimately a love story and the person who comes between them is Vonnie (Stewart).  She acts as Phil’s secretary and the two have been having an affair for a year.  Vonnie has a few doubts about their future but it’s hard to get inside her head.  Is she worried because Phil has been making empty promises about leaving his wife?  Or is it that she’s not truly love with Phil and has been seduced only by his wealth and power?  These concerns push her into the arms of the naive Bobby and a complicated love triangle ensues.

I’m a long-time fan of Woody Allen (and always will be) but this is well below his best work.  It’s a choppy story in that there are several subplots that detract from the main show.  One involves Bobby’s brother back in New York who has become a gangster/murderer.  The relevance of these detours is revealed in the film’s later stages but they don’t add up to as much as you might hope.

Allen has clearly enjoyed recreating 1930s and throws in numerous references to real life people at the time (largely actors and filmmakers).  This technique worked successfully for him in Midnight in Paris but this time around, feels like more of an unnecessary name-dropping exercise.  Of the cast, Jesse Eisenberg does his best to mimic Woody Allen traditional on-screen persona (evidenced by a scene with a prostitute) but it’s Kristen Stewart who impresses most as the likeable starlet torn between two suitors.

Lacking the sharp, witty dialogue synonymous with other Allen films, Café Society is forgettable.


Review: Hell or High Water

Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey
Released: October 27, 2016
Grade: A-

Hell or High Water
Having made roughly $30m, Hell or High Water is one of the highest grossing independent films in the United States this year.  A clear point of attraction is the quality cast.  If you’ve got a total production budget of $12m, you’re doing well if you can get the faces of Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster on the poster.  Names aren’t everything though.  Audiences have also been lured by the strong word of mouth and having now seen the film, it’s easy to see why.

Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe), Hell or High Water begins with a robbery.  Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster), two middle aged brothers from West Texas, steal a small sum of money from two banks.  These heists are well planned.  They’ve picked quieter banks with easy getaway routes.  They wear gloves and ski masks to help conceal their identity.  They only take small bank notes ($20 and under) as they are much harder to trace.

These guys aren’t driven by greed.  They’re not looking to steal millions of dollars and then move to a beachside mansion in Cuba.  Toby is after revenge and redemption.  His mother recently passed away and title of the family ranch was transferred to him.  Unfortunately, it’s subject to a reverse mortgage and the bank will be seizing ownership if the outstanding debt is not repaid within a few days.  It’s no coincidence that he’s stealing from the same predatory banks who had been harassing his mother up until her death.

Toby doesn’t want the property for himself.  Having failed to pay child support to his ex-wife and two sons for several years, Toby sees this as a way of making things right.  He intends to set up a trust whereby his children get ownership of the ranch to ensure they won’t grow up poor like he did.  Tanner, fresh out of a lengthy stint in prison, has been promised nothing from the transaction but is keen to help is brother out of a sense of loyalty.

The film offers a second perspective which is given equal weighting.  Marcus (Bridges) is a soon-to-be-retiring Texas Ranger charged with the investigation of the robberies.  He is assisted by his partner, Alberto (Birmingham), and their playful, comedic banter provides a nice break from the film’s otherwise dark tone.  They get the sense that the perpetrators have other banks in mind and need to predict their next move.

This is a damn good film and your feelings about the characters will oscillate throughout.  Toby and Tanner are committing crimes but they’re doing so out of a sense of desperation.  It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for their plight.  They’re far from perfect though.  Tanner makes several errors of judgement (such as early scene where he hits a bank manager with the butt of his gun) that threatens their plans and “nice guy” personas.

With a thick, muffled Texas accent, Jeff Brides (Crazy Heart) delivers the film’s standout performance.  His character is a little reminiscent of the one played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men.  He has a relaxed, laid-back attitude on the outside but a shrewd, calculator demeanour on the inside.  His experience in these situations is invaluable.

Sheridan’s screenplay deserves praise for not always succumbing to convention.  There are a few “red herrings” that are more about developing the characters rather than furthering the storyline.  This is typified in a scene where Marcus and Alberto are waiting for something to happen outside a dingy café.

The string-heavy music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Lawless, Far From Men) will stick with you as the credits start to roll.  So too will the finale which ends on a poignant note.


Review: Inferno

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: David Koepp
Starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen
Released: October 13, 2016
Grade: C+

To its credit, Inferno has a villain with a thought provoking motive.  It refreshingly goes against the mould of standard action films where bad guys concoct bizarre plans to go in search of wealth and power.  That’s not the case here as evidenced by the very opening scene.  Bertrand Zobrist (Foster) jumps off the top of the church and commits suicide.  He certainly wasn’t going to wait around and be killed by the hero (as is tradition).  He was happy to do that himself.

There was a method to his madness.  Zobrist was an eccentric billionaire who was worried about the rapid rate at which the world’s population was increasing.  We see a video of him speaking at a seminar where he mentions that it took the world 100,000 years to reach a population of 1 billion and yet we’ve grown to almost 8 times that size in the space of two centuries.  If that trend continues, it’s only a matter of time before the planet becomes overpopulated and there won’t be enough resources for us all to survive.

He refers to some of history’s great plagues.  While many would see them as a dark chapter in our history, Zobrist takes a contrasting view.  They helped reduce the population and kept it from rising at an unsustainable rate.  It’s why he’s spent two years developing a virus to create a plague that will trump all others.  He believes that we need to kill half of the planet now or run the risk of us all dying in the near future.

Inferno marks the third adaptation of a Dan Brown novel.  The 2006 release of The Da Vinci Code was followed by Angels & Demons three years later.  Tom Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, one of the world’s leading professors of religious iconology and symbology.  He doesn’t have a look of a traditional action hero (he’s actually a bit of a nerd) but there’s seemingly no mystery he can’t put together.  He’s not too bad at bullet dodging either.

He has reluctant found himself caught up in the search for the virus so he can prevent it from being released.  This time around though, he doesn’t have the clearest of heads.  It’s Monday evening and he wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence with a splitting headache and a bleeding scalp.  He doesn’t know how he got there.  The last memory he had was being back home in Boston on the Saturday.  Dr Sienna Brooks (Jones) diagnoses him with acute amnesia and believes his recent memories will soon return.

There’s not a lot of time though.  A policewoman turns up at the hospital and tries to kill Langdon.  She’s not the only person on his tail.  Three separate groups of people are trying to locate him for reasons that won’t become clear until the film’s second act.  Langdon isn’t sure who he can trust and the audience will find themselves in the same position.

It’s never easy translating book to screen but this is a few notches below the earlier two movies.  There’s an unnecessarily long introduction where director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) uses a mix of blurred images and dream-like sequences to take us inside Langdon’s head.  It’s all a bit too messy and repetitive and you’ll be anxious for the action to get started.

Langdon isn't doing much this time around.  There are a couple of puzzles to solve but the more prevalent scenes involve him running from the authorities Jason Bourne style.  Drawing from Dan Brown’s novel, screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) tries to spice things up with a few twists but again, the characters appear to be relying more on good luck as opposed to good planning.

Brown’s books have captivated readers but I’m not convinced this film adaptation will do the same.


Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Directed by: Edward Zwick
Written by: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Patrick Heusinger, Danika Yarosh
Released: October 20, 2016
Grade: B-

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
You don’t find Jack Reacher.  He finds you.  Those that have read the Lee Child novels or seen the 2012 film will know that’s the essence of this character.  He’s a former high flier in the U.S. military who quit several years ago because he “woke up one morning and uniform didn’t fit.”  He now lives in the shadows with no fixed address and no identification.  He pops up when the time is right to help put bad guys behind bars and dish out his own brand of justice.

Child has written more than 20 books about the fictitious Jack Reacher.  After the moderate success of the earlier movie, the writing team picked out Child’s 18th novel in the series to bring to the big screen.  This time around, Reacher is helping Major Susan Turner (Smulders) who has been charged with treason – a crime she didn’t commit.  As you can imagine, they need to ascertain why she has been framed and who’s behind it.

I was a fan of Christopher McQuarrie’s original film from 2012 as it was a little different from your standard action fare.  At the time, I wrote that Cruise had created a protagonist that was “full of personality” with a “sharp sense of humour”.  McQuarrie also gave a film as sense of style with a great opening sequence and some well-selected camera angles.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back doesn’t feel quite as exciting.  Perhaps it’s the inevitable letdown that comes with most sequels or perhaps it’s just not as good.  There’s a different director at the helm this time around.  Ed Zwick had previously worked with Tom Cruise on The Last Samurai (2003) and was clearly keen to do so again.

The script isn’t as compelling this time around.  You’ve got some stereotypical, Eastern European type villains who are up to no good and are prepared to kill all and sundry.  In trying to show Reacher’s softer side, a subplot is introduced where he learns he may be the father of a teenager girl.  He can kill several armed men but family bonding is not his strong suit.

Let me caveat my disappointment by saying this is still worth a look.  It comes with a few snazzy one-liners such as an early scene where Reacher confronts someone and smugly proclaims that “I’m the guy you didn’t count on.”  Cruise does his best to create a character that is fun, strong and determined.  It’ll be interesting to see if this franchise has the legs for another instalment.