Monday, January 30, 2017

This week's DVD releases


Elle ***½

Perhaps only Paul Verhoeven would open a film mid-rape — the violent attack observed by an unimpressed green-eyed cat — and then follow up with a scene where Michèle, the rape victim, face puffy from the beating, picks up a phone and orders takeout, asking questions about the "holiday roll." She's not blasé about what happened. She's freaked out. She stuffs the dress she was wearing in the trash. She takes a bath, blood from her genital area staining the bubbles above. She does not call the police. Instead, she orders food. It's hard to picture this woman shedding a tear. Ever. The opening sequence of Elle is just the start of the demented and exhilarating experience that is this movie. Elle is a high-wire act without a net.

Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, adapted for the screen by David Birke (and then translated into French by Harold Manning),Elle is a maniacal and confident hybrid of various genres. It's a rape-revenge-ensemble-comedy-thriller-stalker mashup, if you can even picture that. But the film (with a couple of sick and twisted adjustments) is mostly reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and 40s, starring the shoulder-pad boss-bitches of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dominant dames like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, whose characters were put through wringers involving snake-in-the-grass boyfriends/husbands, ungrateful children, career treachery. You can picture Stanwyck stuffing her dress in the trash, lighting a cigarette and then ordering takeout after being raped in the middle of her living room. You can't imagine any of those women, or Isabelle Huppert, who plays Michèle, going to a support group or therapy. They'll gut it out on their own.

The film is crowded with characters. Michèle has a lot going on: a slacker son (Jonas Bloquet) who has an abusive pregnant girlfriend, an ex-husband (Charles Berling) now dating a young yoga teacher, a bored sex fling with a married man, an elderly Botox-ed mother (Judith Magre) carrying on an affair with a gigolo, a pressing project at work (she co-owns a video game company), a handsome married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom she stares at longingly from across the street, and a complex backstory not revealed until far into the film. This woman has too much to DO to fall apart after the rape. But then she starts getting creepy texts from the unknown rapist: he knows where she is, what she's wearing. It could be anyone. Every man she knows is a suspect. She buys pepper spray (and, on impulse, a small axe) to protect herself. She says at one point, "Nut jobs I can handle. My specialty." You believe her. Maybe somewhere she always expected something like this, that horror would reach out its tentacles to find her again.

Verhoeven unbalances the existing tension of the "whodunit" aspect of Elle by giving us some pretty obvious clues early on who probably did it. Verhoeven does not "bury the lede" because he's interested in things other than the plot cranking itself out to a "satisfying" conclusion. He’s interested in the psychology and behavior of this particular woman. His camera follows her everywhere, like a stalker, like a lover. As in life, whether we want to admit it or not, those lines are often blurred. Every interaction, not just sexual and political, contains small jostles for power, position, dominance. Who's the "top"? Who's the "bottom" in any given moment? There are competing objectives in every conversation, each side maneuvering to get what they want. Jostling for power comes in many different forms, playing out in romantic relationship, office dynamics, even in a conversation with a group of friends where you have something to say and everyone is too busy talking to give you "the floor." Elle is a dissertation on power dynamics.

Verhoeven's approach is, unsurprisingly, extremely provocative. Michèle is a woman in her early 50s, and her sexuality surges around inside her, seeking expression. It leads her into some pretty dark stuff. In real life, sex doesn't progress in a checklist of approved behaviors happening in the proper order. Sometimes people are drawn to danger, to risk. Rape fantasies are so common as to be mundane. The current view is that consent in sex is a cut-and-dry thing. Either you consent, or you don't. There is no doubt that the rape in Elle is horrifying. Verhoeven does not eroticize it. The rapist wipes the blood from Michele's vagina off of his hip bone as he gets up off of her. But later in the film, when Michèle does consent to sex, enthusiastically, watch how her lover is unnerved by a woman who wants it, who doesn't have to be talked into it. He's almost turned off by her sexual urgency. And that, ultimately, is the most cutting observation in Elle, and Verhoeven's aim is accurate and deadly. Men not knowing what to do with a woman who wants sex and knows how she wants it, men needing to be the "top," always, threatened by a woman taking the "top" role (not in sexual positions, but in attitude) … well. These issues have been with us from the beginning of time, and won't be solved overnight. But Elle is one of the smartest films about consent I've ever seen.

Huppert does not make even an unconscious bid for our sympathy. She never has, throughout her lengthy career and it is one of the things that distinguishes her from other actresses. Even very talented actresses want to make sure that we "understand" why the character does what she does. Huppert doesn't care. She's completely beyond those concerns. It's why she's so thrilling to watch and why she is in such rare company (Anna Magnani, Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford — it's a short list). There's always some element of mystery left intact in Huppert's work. Huppert can be frighteningly blank (The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie), she can be human and flawed (Amour, and the upcoming Things to Come). In Elle she gets to be funny, and it's such a joy to watch! It's effortless for her. She's funny in her line-readings ("Bimbos with big tits never worried me, but the girl who's read The Second Sex will chew you up …"), in her gestures and expressions. You cannot take your eyes off of her. Neither can Verhoeven. In a Q&A following the public screening at the New York Film Festival, Verhoeven reportedly described Huppert (also in attendance) as "unique in the world." She is.

Watching Elle feels like climbing Everest without an oxygen tank. The air is dizzyingly clear up there. And dangerous, too.


Queen of Katwe ***
Director Mira Nair reportedly introduced her thoroughly crowd-pleasing Queen of Katwe at the Toronto International Film Festival by quoting the slogan of a film school she had founded in Uganda, where she lives: "If we don’t tell our own stories, no one will." That sense of ownership and authorship permeates Queen of Katwe, elevating it above your average feel-good biopic and allowing its message to feel not only inspirational but genuine. The story of Phiona Mutesi is a fascinating one on its own, but what could have just been an extended 30 For 30 feels lived-in, compassionate and truthful. It helps greatly to have not only Nair’s clear love for her country guiding every decision but also the amazing depth of David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o to ground it from most of its sentimental clichés. Some of the dialogue in the final act feels a little false and manipulative, but those scenes stand out because it’s been so believable up to that point.

The nuanced, subtle newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, a young lady who lives in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She has almost no possessions, can’t read and sells maize in the street to try to scrape together change for her family, which includes two brothers, a sister, and her headstrong mother Harriet (Nyong’o). Phiona and her oldest brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) cross paths with a local sports ministry head named Robert Katende (Oyelowo). Recognizing that the slum kids he’s working with aren’t going to compete at football, he decides to teach them something he mastered at a young age, the art of chess. It’s a game that equalizes issues of class, education and income. It can be played by anyone in the world, and Katende soon realizes that this young girl from Katwe has a special gift, especially when she starts beating him.

It’s to be expected that the education segments of Queen of Katwe include a number of nods to how the game reflects Phiona’s life, but the execution doesn't feel heavy-handed. Nair is confident enough in her characters and the story she’s telling to avoid the pitfalls of repetitive lessons. So we get the idea that Phiona likes the act of "Queening" because a pawn makes it all the way across the board, against all odds, and becomes a Queen. We don’t hear it 15 times like we would in a lesser film. When Katende explains the idea of finding a "safe space" whenever your opponent is on the offensive, it’s easy to translate that to Phiona’s real life but the movie doesn’t hammer it in. This subtle touch is undermined a bit in the final act as issues of Phiona’s success and class conflicts start to tear the family apart in a way that feels manipulative and melodramatic, but Nair recovers by the end.

Two of the reasons she manages to get the film back from the edge of treacle are right there in Oyelowo and Nyong’o. The Selma star is as charismatic as ever, capturing the kindness of a man who saw a potential escape for a young lady and did whatever he could to make it happen. Oyelowo’s work here is subtle but so consistent. He never looks like he’s working the message of the film more than the character he’s playing. Opposite him, Nyong’o is phenomenal. She has an incredible ability to convey backstory. We believe Harriet isn’t merely a sounding board for our heroine or an emotional plot device. She feels real because of the intense passion that Nyong’o brings to her. And it’s in the subtle things, like a glance that conveys fear about her family’s future or the different tone she takes with each of her children. One also shouldn’t miss how good Nalwanga is here, giving a fluid and physical performance.

Of course, much of the credit should go back to Nair and her technical team, who capture the streets of Uganda in a way we haven’t really seen before, certainly not in a Disney film (Nair has joked that it was the first Disney film set in Africa that doesn’t have a single animal in it). From the way Nair and her designer use costumes to convey economic status to how the great cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) fluidly captures a corner of the world that makes it feel specific, Queen of Katwe is a team effort. With the combined efforts of Nalwanga, Nair, Nyong’o, Oyelowo, Bobbitt and many more, Queen of Katwe makes it clear that we can’t successfully tell "our stories" alone. To make them resonate, we need people this talented working together for a common goal. It seems unlikely that Phiona Mutesi ever imagined her life would one day be the subject of a Disney film. But she certainly learned that life is full of surprises. When it comes to movie surprises, Queen of Katwe is a truly pleasant one.


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back *½
If there had been any doubt, the tepid Jack Reacher: Never Go Back firmly establishes the adaptations of Lee Child's books about a wrong-righting former military police commander as Tom Cruise's B-unit action film series at Paramount, compared with his ongoing luxury-brand Mission: Impossible franchise.

By-the-numbers plotting, seen-it-all-before action moves, banal locations and a largely anonymous cast alongside the star give this a low-rent feel.

Based on the 18th of Child's 20 Reacher best-sellers, the film serves up nothing that hasn't been seen in countless action films before, and it's striking how little effort appears to have been made to give it any distinction: The villains are military guys gone rogue, the female lead is basically fighting the same fight Rosalind Russell did to be recognized for her equal worth among men in His Girl Friday more than 75 years ago, the hand-to-hand combat won't make anyone's highlight reel and even the star looks a bit pale and out of training compared with the shape he invariably gets himself into for the far more elaborate and fun Mission outings.

The film also marks quite a step down, in both ambition and accomplishment, from Cruise and director Edward Zwick's previous collaboration on The Last Samurai 16 years ago. It's even a notable drop-off from the first Reacher feature, which brandished some decent mystery-thriller elements, a very good and realistic car chase, Rosamund Pike in the female lead, juicy supporting turns by Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog and fine Caleb Deschanel cinematography.

This one, by contrast, has little to write home about. For a guy who's been out of the military for a while, Reacher (no one calls him Jack) still can't manage to stay away from soldiers and their institutions. Unfortunately, most of them are up to no good, as he finds out when he pops into Washington to check out the woman who now has his old job, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Unfortunately, their potential date will have to wait, as she's just been arrested for espionage, although this gives him an excuse to prove how slick he is by rescuing her from the high-tech prison where she's held.

This puts him at odds with a Blackwater-like security firm that seems to be running the show and is both willing and anxious to rub out anyone who's on to its big-time weapons and drug dealing. Narratively, the film is almost entirely nuts and bolts, with Reacher and Susan literally on the run most of the time from a coolly efficient assassin (Patrick Heusinger) simply called The Hunter who, in one-on-one combat, can give Reacher a pretty hard time.

The one real twist in the strictly mechanical script by Richard Wenk (the very recent The Magnificent Seven), Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (the latter two now a very long way from Thirtysomething days) is the presence of a teenager, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), who may or may not be Reacher's daughter from a relationship 16 years earlier. Left largely to her own devices by her mother, Samantha (unlike the novel) ends up accompanying the pair to New Orleans, where the trio scenically arrive just as the Halloween parade is about to swing into action.

We just see snippets of the locals celebrating as only these locals can, however, as Reacher and The Hunter have it out on the rooftops of the French Quarter while the revelers party on obliviously below. As ever, Reacher is most into hand-to-hand combat, as is The Hunter, resulting in some pretty intense bone-crushing snaps, jabs and well-placed slugs. But there's nothing that hasn't been seen innumerable times before, and in neither style nor substance do Zwick and his writers bring anything new to the genre table here.

The one element that puts a smidgen of snap in the proceedings is something resembling a rivalry between Reacher and Susan in which the latter introduces the gender issue. Unfortunately, neither the screenwriters nor the actors know quite where they want to take this little skirmish of the sexes (not very far, obviously), nor do they have the flair to handle it in a witty fashion, which leaves the matter just sitting out there on a limb.

For an actor who usually seems all-in no matter what he's doing, Cruise comes off as somewhat less engaged than usual here, just going through the motions compared to, certainly, his last Mission: Impossible outing. Committed most noticeably to the physical side of her performance, Smulders can't or won't offer up the humor that might have struck some sparks with her co-star, while Yarosh, sidelined through much of the New Orleans interlude, doesn't have much real to work with as the fraught would-be daughter.

Undistinguished visually, this marks a return to the old days, when sequels were almost always markedly inferior to originals that spawned them.


This week’s other new releases:
MastermindsSometime it’s an absurdist comedy. Sometimes it’s a dark comedy. Sometimes it’s out-and-out killing-people drama (almost, but not quite). It’s often funny, but it never quite hangs together as a coherent movie.
Boo! A Madea Halloween * At 103 minutes, this film has way too much dead weight. Scenes are repeated over and over, and some of the acting would not cut it in a school play. But in the rare moments when Tyler Perry’s movie is firing on all cylinders, it displays a cleverness that hints at, with more time and a few more iterations of the script, this might have been a good movie.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A reasonable plea

 
This man is dangerous, Olbermann argues, not strictly because he lies to the American people, but because he lies to himself.

Monday, January 23, 2017

This week's DVD releases


The Handmaiden ***½
Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden is deliciously perverse, delightfully twisty, and unapologetically erotic. Delivered with a dash of black humor and a fair amount of bare flesh, Park (using Sarah Walters’ novel Fingersmith as a template) delves into Hitchcockian territory and delivers a story that would have had the Master of Suspense roaring his approval. Unfettered by concerns about an MPAA rating, Park doesn’t hold back when it comes to the sex scenes. The Handmaiden may not be high art but it’s tremendous entertainment. For those who enjoy this kind of material, there’s nothing better out there and one can make a compelling argument that this is the best work of Park’s career (yes, even better than Oldboy, although certainly not weirder).

The Handmaiden is divided into three parts. The first two are mirror images of one another, presenting the same story from different perspectives. The third unites the first two and drives the narrative forward to its conclusion. Although Park isn’t the first director to employ this approach, the device works exceptionally well in this case since the viewer will not have the same interpretation of the scenario after Part 2 that he or she has after Part 1.

The movie focuses on Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a lonely Japanese heiress living in 1930s Japan-controlled Korea. A con man who goes by the name of "Count" Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) has designs on her fortune and, to that end, he employs a Korean pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) to pose as Hideko’s handmaiden. Sook-Hee’s mission: convince Hideko to reject her current suitor (and uncle), the sadistic Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho), and instead marry Fujiwara. However, during the course of her assignment, Sook-Hee develops feelings for Hideko, which she believes are mutual, and becomes jealous when Fujiwara attempts to take possession of his "prize."

The Handmaiden is loosely adapted from Welsh writer Sarah Walters’ 2002 novel, Fingersmith, with the location and time period shifted. Although the underlying premise and structure resemble those of the novel, Park adds numerous flourishes to the production and one of the film’s most notable twists is new to the screenplay. Additionally, the character of Uncle Kouzuki is filtered through Park’s worldview. Kouzuki is as twisted a monster as has appeared in any of Park’s productions, and that’s saying something.

Many of Park’s films, regardless of how violent and degrading the content might seem, have an underlying current of dark humor and The Handmaiden is no different. There are some very funny moments, including one literal instance of gallows humor. The lesbian sex scenes, hot and explicit as they may be, are important to italicize the deepening relationship between the two main characters. The central sex scene is presented twice (once in Part 1 and once in Part 2) with key differences that are crucial to understanding the importance of this moment to both characters and the overall narrative.

The casting couldn’t be better. Korean A-list actress Min-hee Kim presents Lady Hideko as a multi-layered character who is far more than the timid, high-bred heiress she initially seems to be. Tae-Ri Kim makes Sook-Hee spunky and energetic but imbues her with the unfortunate anchor of a conscience. Jung-woo Ha’s Count Fujiwara oozes charisma and shallowness. And Jin-woong Cho creates the most diabolical of human monsters.

I don’t think I’ve ever compared Park to Hitchcock. His previous efforts (including Oldboy, the "Vengeance Duology", and his only English-language movie, Stoker) are closer in tone and intent to Tarantino or Burton. There’s a lot about The Handmaiden that fits with his oeuvre but this is a more ambitious and, in many ways, compelling endeavor. Its twists and turns are better plotted and its weirdness seems in keeping with the story rather than a garish appendage. The Handmaiden is one of the best neo-Hitchcockian mystery/thrillers to have emerged from any country in any language during the last few years, if not longer.


The Light Between Oceans **½
Great drama requires trust. The director has to trust his actors to convey the complexity of the human experience without smothering their performances in manipulative filmmaking devices. He also has to trust the viewer to bring their own interpretations and emotions to the story, meeting the characters halfway along the spectrum of the human experience. Derek Cianfrance can’t find this trust in The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel. It's a film with greatness within that’s been lost due to varying degrees of distrust; ridiculously tight close-ups in soft focus feel like they’re pushing you to cry instead of allowing emotion to come organically. Narrative beats and themes are hit repeatedly, just to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to feel something. Buried beneath this melodrama — but shining through nearly enough to justify a look — one can see the film that could have been, as anchored by great performances and emotional truth. It’s just lost in the fog.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, giving a very measured, confident performance) is a World War I veteran battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before his condition really had a name. In some of the film’s best scenes, we learn that Tom has been burdened by the randomness of life and death. Why did he live but his fellow soldiers die? One almost gets the sense that Tom doesn’t think he "deserves" to have made it home, and that he’s going to spend the rest of his life in solitude, refusing to take the creature comforts that other young men lost forever when they went to war.

To that end, Tom signs up to take a job that not many would want, manning an extremely remote lighthouse in Australia, at a spot in which one can see two oceans from its top. The last lighthouse keeper was fired when he told someone that he allowed his wife to signal a passing ship. The break in protocol was a small problem — the fact that his wife had been dead a few years was a much bigger one. And yet this not-at-all-coveted job changes Tom’s life when he meets the daughter of his new boss, a headstrong and beautiful young lady named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). Before long, Isabel and Tom are married, planning to start a family on Janus Island. Isabel gets pregnant, but loses the baby in a heartbreaking scene in which Tom is in the lighthouse and she can’t get to him. She gets pregnant again. Tragedy strikes again.

While Isabel and Tom are mourning the loss of their second child, a miracle happens. A rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead body and a baby. No one on the mainland knows that Isabel lost the second baby. They could just take this new child as their own and no one would know any differently. At first, the plan seems to work perfectly as Isabel, Tom, and their new daughter Lucy find happiness, but a visit to the mainland forces an encounter between Tom and a mysterious woman (Rachel Weisz) that changes everything.

Derek Cianfrance has undeniable skill with actors, drawing masterful performances out of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine and his large ensemble in the highly underrated The Place Beyond the Pines. That skill is evident here mostly in Fassbender’s largely internal turn. His take on Tom is often stoic, haunted by the ghosts of World War I in a way that makes him quiet, sometimes uncertain. Vikander often goes in the other direction, offering the more extreme emotions that Tom keeps hidden, but she’s rarely given the room to breathe life into the performance. And I mean that almost literally. Cianfrance and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw put us right in her face in extreme close-up, thinking that this will help force a viewer’s response. It’s distracting more than effective, as is the soft focus and overcooked score by Alexandre Desplat. When Arkapaw and Cianfrance let their characters breathe, or even when they admire the gorgeous landscape, the film feels more effective and less manipulative.

Ultimately, it comes back to trust. Don’t force us to feel, trust that we will do so. This is a film that I kept wanting to emotionally connect with and give myself over to the human power of its tragedy, but it kept pushing me away. With the undeniable, unwavering skill of the trio of actors at the film's center, we would have followed them through this heartbreaking tale without the signposts that tell us what to feel along the way.


Inferno *½
One of the biggest mysteries about the Robert Langdon movies is why they don’t work. Dan Brown has a large, built-in fan base. There’s no lack of talent in the productions. The director is Oscar winner Ron Howard (who was near the zenith of his career when he made The Da Vinci Code) and the lead actor is household name Tom Hanks. Yet these movies have never succeeded. The Da Vinci Code was adequate but forgettable. Angels & Demons was godawful. Inferno is somewhere in between — watchable but by no means worth the effort to make a special effort to rent or stream it.

Inferno starts with the hero, symbologist Langdon (Hanks), awakening in a Florence hospital with a head wound. He has no memory of how he got it. The attending physician, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), informs him that he was grazed by a bullet and the short-term amnesia he is suffering will pass. Soon, however, an assassin (Ana Ularu) has invaded the hospital and is gunning for Langdon. He and Sienna escape using staircases and a back door and, as the symbologist recovers both his memories and his powers of deduction, he begins a quest to determine who is trying to kill him, and why. It is connected to a lethal virus that the late nutcase billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) intended to spread. Following Zobrist’s death, the virus remains "out there", waiting to be activated by an unknown disciple. Meanwhile, a consortium hired to assist Zobrist has become disturbed by his activities. After watching a video elucidating The Plan, the consortium’s Provost (Irrfan Khan) decides to join forces with the World Health Organization to stop the madness. But there are traitors aplenty, making Langdon’s task all the more difficult and dangerous.

The movie can be neatly divided into three sections. In the first, lasting about 30 minutes, we have no idea what’s going on as director Howard attempts to replicate Langdon’s fragmented state of mind. The movie feels disjointed and there are repeated apocalyptic visions inspired by Dante. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good way to provide viewers with a gateway into a motion picture world (especially those unfamiliar with the character from his previous outings). The first act is confusing and Langdon’s infirmity distances him from us.

The second section, which comprises the film’s middle hour, has Langdon, supported by his attractive doctor-turned-assistant, in investigative mode as he hopscotches across Italy. To the extent that Inferno works, it’s because of this segment. Langdon’s dogged pursuit of clues (which generally lead to other clues rather than a solution) is engaging and there are a couple of action sequences inserted to keep things from becoming too exposition-heavy. Unfortunately, the screenplay suffers from compression issues — too many pages being condensed into too little running time. The pacing is poor and plot holes result from cuts to the material.

The third section is an anticlimactic disaster. Not only does it not follow the book (which had a smarter, albeit less cinematic, resolution) but it devolves into generic James Bond-inspired action. Langdon is no 007 and the logistics of the finale make little or no sense. The same can be said of the motivations and actions of some of the characters. To the extent that Inferno‘s first 3/4 can be called "entertaining", the climax is a letdown of catastrophic proportions.

The acting is a tick above adequate. Hanks, as was the case the other two times he played this character, is collecting a paycheck. Jones isn’t given much of an opportunity to do more than walk in his shadow. (Attempts to give her a backstory — scenes that don’t happen until well past the halfway point — are perfunctory.) Foster has little screen time. (We can be thankful for this because he moved on to make the superlative Hell or High Water.) The best work is turned in by the nearly mute Ana Ularu (whose fierce expression speaks volumes) and Khan, whose character is intriguing enough to deserve more screen time.

The problem with adapting a narrative as complex as the one spun by Brown in Inferno is that it requires considerable massaging to pummel it into screen-ready shape. In this case, most of the choices made by Howard and script writer David Koepp seem to be the wrong ones. They diminish the story’s intelligence and plausibility, transforming it into a cut-rate Bond/Sherlock Holmes hybrid … and that probably sounds more interesting than it is. Inferno is a disappointment — perhaps not to the degree that Angels & Demons was but enough to sadden fans of Brown’s books and confuse and distance those who haven’t been exposed to the author’s prose.


Other New Releases This Week
The Monster **½ In the end, this film does more by way of thrilling tension and heartfelt admissions than it does through any scares, but that doesn’t make it a bad horror film. Director Bryan Bertino reveals a gushy soft side, only to tear out his heart and hoist it for all to see.
The Vessel **½ A modest but not maudlin parable of hope about mustering the strength to vigorously plunge again into life’s uncertainties after a devastating loss.
I’m Not Ashamed * Many Christians yearning for faith-based entertainment will be moved by this film. But more picky viewers will admit that even taken solely as an exploration of the trials of being a Christian teen, it’s awfully weak tea as a movie, instantly disposable if not for the tragic backdrop.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage * This is a World War II "epic" that’s overscaled yet underimagined. It’s a tale of survival that never provides the viewer with a basic entry point into how and why we should care.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Friday, January 20, 2017

My final 2017 Oscar nominations predictions

The Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday morning so I figured this would be as good a time as any to look into my cracked crystal ball to forecast the results (listed alphabetically):

Picture
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Lion
Manchester By the Sea
Moonlight

Director
Damen Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
(Possible: Denzel Washington, Fences)

Actress
Amy Adams, Arrival
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
(Possible: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins; Ruth Negga, Loving)

Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion

Adapted Screenplay
Arrival
Fences
Lion
Moonlight
Nocturnal Animals
(Possible: Hidden Figures)

Original Screenplay
Hell or High Water
Jackie
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester By the Sea

Cinematography
Arrival
Jackie
La La Land
Moonlight
Silence

Costume Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land
Silence

Film Editing
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
Jackie
La La Land
Moonlight
(Possible: Manchester By the Sea, Silence)

Make-Up and Hairstyling
Deadpool
Florence Foster Jenkins
Star Trek Beyond

Production Design
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Jackie
The Jungle Book
La La Land
Silence
(Possible: Arrival)

Score
Jackie
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Song
"Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," La La Land
"Can't Stop the Feeling," Trolls
"City of Stars," La La Land
"How Far I'll Go," Moana
"Runnin'," Hidden Figures
(Possible: "Try Everything," Zootopia)

Sound Editing
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Silence
(Possible: The Jungle Book)

Sound Mixing
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Silence
(Possible: The Jungle Book)

Visual Effects
Arrival
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Animated Feature
Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
The Red Turtle
Zootopia

Documentary Feature
Cameraperson
The Eagle Huntress
I Am Not Your Negro
O.J.: Made in America
13th

Foreign Language Film
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
My Life As a Zucchini
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

Animated Short
The Head Vanishes
Inner Workings
Pearl
Piper
Sous Tes Doights

Documentary Short
Extremis
Joe's Violin
The Mute's House
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Live Action Short
Nocturne in Black
The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy
Sing Mindenki
Timecode
The Way of Tea

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The 25 Best Films of 2016

The Oscar Nominations will be announced in a week so with that in mind I thought it was time to list my selections for the best films of last year:

1. Moonlight

2. Manchester By the Sea
3. La La Land
4. Paterson
5. Elle
6. Hell or High Water
7. Krisha
8. Love & Friendship
9. Little Men
10. The Handmaiden
11. Weiner
12. Kubo and the Two Strings
13. Everybody Wants Some
14. De Palma
15. The Witch
16. Don’t Think Twice
17. The Lobster
18. Embrace of the Serpent
19. 20th Century Women
20. Silence
21. Arrival
22. Certain Women
23. Moana
24. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
25. A War

Monday, January 16, 2017

This week's DVD releases


The Girl on the Train *½

Paula Hawkins is on record as disliking comparisons of her sensationally successful 2015 best-seller The Girl on the Train to the previous "girl" crime fiction smash, Gone Girl. There's no doubt that Tate Taylor, the director of the film version of Hawkins' novel, will also object to having his work held up next to David Fincher's cinematic take on Gone Girl, as the juxtaposition will certainly not be to his benefit.

A morose, grim and intensely one-dimensional thriller about an alcoholic's struggle to make sense of a close-to-home murder as well as her own mind, this major release from Universal can count on a panting public to rent or steam this when it first becomes available tomorrow. But this train may hit a yellow commercial light sooner than expected down the line.

Distinguished only by a quite extraordinary musical score by Danny Elfman, working in an entirely uncharacteristic mode, and some adventurous camerawork from Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the film is very faithful to the book both structurally and in dramatic incident. The changes lie elsewhere: The setting has been shifted from greater London to the New York City suburbs, the milieu is much more upscale than in the book and the title character in the film is both more physically attractive and less ironic than on the page.

As the cinema is arguably the artistic medium most conducive to conveying sustained voyeurism, this particular story held a great deal of potential. The first mistake of cast-off ex-wife Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is to continue to live in immediate proximity to her ex, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux), and his beautiful new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), especially now that they have a baby, something a jealous Rachel was unable to produce.

While drowning her sorrows with the bottle and having long since lost her job due to drunkenness, Rachel spies on and harasses Tom and Anna with persistent phone calls, unwanted visits and, unbeknownst to them, prying looks as Rachel passes by their house twice a day on the Metro North commuter line on her way to idle days in the city.

Along this river route also lies the house shared by ultra-macho Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) and his gorgeous young mate Megan (Haley Bennett), who not only bears an acute resemblance to Anna but, at the outset, works as the nanny for Anna's child. Rachel likes to spy on her, too, and one day her prying eyes hit pay dirt when she spots Megan on an upstairs deck kissing a man who is decidedly not her husband.

In fact, it is the local ladies' favorite shrink, dreamy-looking Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), a problematic character in that, a) he has some professional ethics issues he ought to sort out, b) he just sort of disappears from the narrative at a certain point and c) his name suggests Middle Eastern descent (explicitly so in the book) but the role is performed with a light Spanish accent. Once it was decided to cast Ramirez, an excellent actor, why not just change the character's name instead of inviting perplexity?

The sometimes formidable screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has retained Hawkins' storytelling architecture, which involves shuffling three female first-person points of view as well as hopscotching among past and present time frames. Still, the central voice belongs to Rachel, who spends a good deal of her time trying to remember the details of an awful drunken night when something very bad happened.

The problem, however, is that Rachel just can't stay off the sauce. Taylor and his cinematographer move the camera around in any number of disorienting, unsteady, focus-changing ways to communicate the protagonist's instability. But the bottom line is that what we're looking at much of the time is a woman with bleary eyes, blotchy complexion and a demeanor of sour discontent who nonetheless remains movie-star pretty. In the book, Rachel says of herself, "I am no longer desirable, I'm off-putting in some way. It's not just that I've put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it's as if people can see the damage written all over me … ." Try as the actress might, all of Blunt's grimaces, slurred words and unbalanced walking don't really convince that she is Rachel; it feels like an act.

But the real problem is that she's a drag, as is virtually everyone else who populates this dire tale of serial misbehavior among would-be-but-not-really friends. The puzzle of how the various personal and narrative pieces will eventually fit together exerts a smidgen of interest, but the characters are so dour and lacking dimension as to invite no curiosity about them. The two main men, Tom and Scott, are humorless, ornery, sexually presumptuous and incapable of saying an interesting word about anything. The women aren't much better: The sullen Megan resembles a beautiful zombie, Anna can think or speak of little other than her baby and Rachel only with great difficulty emerges from her booze-soaked cocoon. Taylor's first feature was called Pretty Ugly People; that could equally serve as the title for this one.

All of this wouldn't matter quite so much if the central mystery had been more compelling. But the ever-present possibility of trick endings to the side, it isn't too difficult to come up with the most rational supposition as to who the baddie is, and the revelation, when it comes, isn't the least bit gasp-inducing. The other suspense rates as little more than curiosity, as to whether or not Rachel will ever pull herself together and pour the hooch down the drain instead of down her throat.

A few nice character performances lurk around the edges, including those by Allison Janney as an approachable cop; Laura Prepon, given too little screen time as Rachel's indulgent landlady; and especially Lisa Kudrow, who brings exceptional verve to a nothing role.

The lone creative element to command coercive interest here is Elfman's score, which employs sonic currents of tonal irregularities, pulsations and mood instigators rather than melodies, typical tension tropes or any of his trademark gambits from the Tim Burton collaborations. He almost makes the film seem good from time to time.


Keeping Up with the Joneses *
Greg Mottola has made some fine contributions to big-screen comedy — including sweet-and-salty teen flicks Adventureland and Superbad — but his new film, Keeping Up With the Joneses, is decidedly not one of them.

Stale as week-old bread and every bit as bland, the movie saddles a strong cast with a groaningly ineffectual script (courtesy of Michael LeSieur, who wrote 2006’s You, Me and Dupree) and wastes the director’s gift for bringing lived-in charm and feeling to broad comic premises. It’s been obvious for a while now, but bears repeating: At a time when we’re spoiled with satisfyingly funny small-screen options, laugh-challenged fare like Keeping Up With the Joneses just doesn’t cut it. Why shell out anything for this junk if you can tune into the latest season of Black-ish, check out new gems like HBO’s Insecure, FX’s Better Things and Amazon’s Fleabag, or just google Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on SNL? Even by standards of low-IQ escapism, the film falls short. At least Masterminds, another recent goof-fest headlined by Keeping Up With the Joneses star Zach Galifianakis, gave the actor an epically awful pageboy hairdo to divert our attention from its disappointments.

Mottola’s movie wasn’t without potential. There's an appealing quaintness to its story of a married couple who become convinced their glamorous neighbors are spies. Unlike most studio comedies these days, Keeping Up With the Joneses isn’t brashly vulgar, nor does it try, aside from a lame Caitlyn Jenner joke, to be zeitgeisty. The problem is that it doesn’t really try at all. Imagine Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery plus I Love You, Man, multiplied by Mr. & Mrs. Smith, divided by TV series The Americans. Minus all the wit, spark and deftness.

Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Galifianakis and Isla Fisher) enjoy a life of comfortable if numbing suburban averageness in the Atlanta area. He’s a straight-arrow HR manager who cheerfully submits employees to asinine trust games and conflict resolution exercises. She’s a perky interior decorator suffering from a lack of inspiration. With their kids at camp for the summer, Jeff and Karen vow to spend some quality time together, but empty-nest syndrome starts to take hold.

That’s when distraction, and possibly danger, arrives in the genetically blessed forms of Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot), who move into the house next door. Tim, a travel writer, speaks multiple languages and has a head of hair made for shampoo commercials. His wife Natalie is a social media editor and food blogger with runway-ready legs and cheekbones for days. Jeff and Tim begin a tentative bromance — dorky Jeff seems flattered that the suave, casually macho Tim even acknowledges his existence — but Karen decides that "there’s something off" about the Joneses. When she finds Tim snooping around upstairs during a barbecue hosted by the Gaffneys, she sets out to do some snooping of her own.

Thuddingly obvious hijinks ensue as Karen, "incognito" in a hat and sunglasses, follows Natalie around town — an operation that concludes with the two women facing off in a lingerie store dressing room. (The movie’s use of lesbian "tension" to titillate and amuse, culminating in an especially depressing girl-on-girl kiss, feels dated and desperate.)

Mottola and LeSieur fumble the big set pieces, including a sequence that finds the Gaffneys breaking into the Jones residence to look for clues; the rhythm is off, the jokes don’t land, the gags are sluggish and unimaginative. You know things are dire when one of the most amusing bits consists of Jeff accidentally smashing Karen’s head into a wall. Even scenes that have a flicker of comic invention — as when, toward the end of the film, the Joneses start bickering at a diner, the sexy, unflappable twosome momentarily unraveled by the same neuroses that haunt normal couples — peter out before they get good.

Galifianakis, in what might be described as the Will Ferrell role, has a few giggle-worthy lines (sitting down at an underground Chinese eatery, he marvels, "Look at all these little ethnic condiments!"). But it's safe to say the actor is better at playing creepy man-children than regular squares. He and the always likeable Fisher pull faces and do pratfalls, throwing their considerable skill and timing at material that, apart from a throwaway touch or two (there's a good quip about crooked British teeth), is essentially irredeemable.

Hamm offers up a breezy variation on his tormented Mad Men protagonist Don Draper, and he's a pleasure — the only one who doesn't seem to be trying too hard. Gadot looks fittingly stunning and bad-ass, though on the basis of her work here, comedy may not be her strong suit.

The sparse supporting cast includes Veep's terrific Matt Walsh, an inadvertent reminder of how much more fun we could be having watching something else.


This Week’s Other New Releases
Zero Days *** Because the movie’s subjects who are best positioned to provide new information are also the least likely to talk, much of the movie is devoted to rehashing previously published reports, which director Alex Gibney does with both cogency and style.
Ouija: Origin of Evil **½ The movie takes a while to get going, and the demonic possession plot pretty much runs on rails. And yet there’s plenty to admire here: strong performances (E.T. legend Henry Thomas is a welcome sight as a kindly priest), top-notch jump-scares, and some unexpected lovely, almost Far From Heaven-ish autumnal photography.
The Whole TruthPlays like an especially claustrophobic courtroom procedural, drably photographed and generically framed.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Monday, January 9, 2017

This Week's DVD Releases


The Birth of a Nation **½

Audaciously appropriating the title of the first blockbuster in Hollywood history a century later to turn its racial agenda upside down, director-writer-lead Nate Parker at last brings the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to the screen in a potent if also somewhat pokey manner that will nonetheless hit home with many viewers. A labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders. It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that generated a great deal of media attention and controversy — more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons; creatively, it’s a far cry better than Stanley Kramer, but it’s no Son of Saul either.

Parker refused acting jobs for the time it took to get this project launched, itself a good story. But the real story is Turner’s, a film of which has cried out to be made for decades and once almost was, by Norman Jewison, as an adaptation of William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning but subsequently disparaged 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Recognized as unusually bright at an early age, Nat Turner was taught to read and eventually groomed as a preacher for his fellow slaves in Southampton, Virginia. Even though he had to pick cotton, he didn’t have it as bad as many of his color did, but eventual exposure to the deepest horrors of the "peculiar institution" roused him to action, as did his unusual religious visions and revised interpretations of biblical passages.

In Parker’s script, the story for which he wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin, young Nat Turner (Parker) is largely shielded from the worst depredations by a master roughly his own age, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who’s trying to keep his father’s plantation going through difficult financial times. Nat can even exercise a degree of influence over Samuel, as when he suggests that Samuel buy the attractive teenage slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King) so he, Nat, can marry her. Outsiders sometimes fault Samuel for his relatively light hand, and Nat helps protect his fellow slaves from the worst of the worst.

With careful but arguably undue deliberation, the film offers a succession of vivid (if just briefly gory) set-piece depictions of white-on-black brutality, beginning with the dental torture of a slave on a nearby plantation who’s gone on a hunger strike. Cherry is attacked for no reason and, for his part, Nat is struck for merely preaching to slaves whose owners are more sadistically inclined than his own.

When Nat is discovered to have baptized a white man, it’s simply too much for the local bigots, who have him whipped something fierce. Slowly but decisively, Nat’s personal scales of justice begin to tilt the other way; a man who once dueled another over conflicting interpretations in the Gospel, Nat now takes the edict "smite the oppressor" to heart, using it as grounds to mount a slave insurrection that he intends will spread and deliver his people from tyranny.

The screenplay builds up to this moment with care and even a degree of preciousness. On top of that, the direction has its moments of eloquence and a handful of memorable images, particularly one near the end, a backward tracking shot revealing numerous bodies hanging from trees in a glade. All the same, the deliberate and unvaried sense of pacing becomes monotonous, just as turbulent dramatic undercurrents and a sense of building narrative momentum are increasingly missed.

By the same token, the staging of Nat Turner’s climactic nocturnal raid on white households, during which between 55 and 65 people were killed, mostly with axes and knives, could have been made more sweeping and affecting. Partly, perhaps, it might have been a matter of budget and shooting time, but a master action director could have made this into an amazing sustained sequence that ideally would have swept the viewer up in the horror of it all while provoking profoundly complex reactions due to its underpinnings.

As it is, Parker conveys the basics of what happened but without the more profound sense of what this incident represented morally, politically and historically. He also severely telescopes Turner’s final weeks on Earth, a period that could have been developed into an exceedingly dramatic chapter of its own.

Still, the film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance to not at all be considered a missed opportunity. Far more of the essentials made it into the film than not; its makers’ dedication and minute attention are constantly felt, and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that.

As he must, Parker dominates the proceedings as Turner in a carefully judged and non-showy performance. He well suggests the man’s early prudence and tact in judging what he can effect and get away with and what he can’t, and also illuminates the man’s emotional and pastoral concern for others. His transformation into a man of action is perhaps less convincingly dramatized, even if his motives are clear.

Beginning with Hammer as a man who here and there suggests that, under different circumstances, he might not necessarily have felt compelled to enforce the prejudices and practices he inherited, the supporting cast is solid, albeit without the array of stellar supporting turns that graced 12 Years a Slave.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis’ shooting on Georgia locations is astutely judged and particularly notable in the night shooting. Henry Jackman’s score is unusually varied and draws upon multiple musical traditions and references to fine effect.


Deepwater Horizon **½
On the night of April 20, 2010, more than 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon suffered a series of explosions. On board was a crew of 126, of whom 11 died. Two days later, the rig sank, and more than two hundred million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill has lodged in the popular imagination as the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, and the legal consequences, too, were unprecedented. British Petroleum, to whom the rig was leased, has paid $61.6 billion in fines, cleanup costs, and compensation. So, if you’re making a film of this tumultuous saga, what kind of tale should you tell?

At the start, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon feels like a courtroom drama. With the screen still black, we hear a clip from the testimony of a witness, promising "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." A likely story. The rest of the movie is no more concerned with litigation than it is with ecological fallout, unless you count a cameo appearance by a distressed pelican. Instead, what Berg has done — as he did in The Kingdom (2007), which sprang from attacks on Western compounds in Saudi Arabia, and Lone Survivor (2013), based on a Special Forces operation in Afghanistan — is to take a complex and unwieldy episode and strip it down to its essential moving parts. So efficient has he become at this that the Bergian brand can now be relied on to make doomed or devastated events resound like triumphs. He is the ideal filmmaker, you could argue, for a nation that continues to smart from the wounds of unpopular wars.

None of this can be accomplished without a hero, preferably one who verges on the herculean. Mark Wahlberg, who played the title character in Lone Survivor, returns in the more peaceable part of Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the rig. We see him, before his departure for a three-week shift, hanging out with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen), who helpfully declaims a school essay on what her father does for a living. By rights, these scenes should be as corny as hell, and yet they do the trick, as do Mike’s exchanges, later on, with his co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and his boss, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), because the actors feel not just grounded but bedded down in their roles. Russell, in particular, seems so weathered and toughened by time as to be indestructible. When the explosion hits, Mr. Jimmy, as the crew calls him, is in the shower; though naked and half-blinded by the blast, he plucks a jagged shard from his foot, tugs on his overalls and boots, and gets to work.

The screenwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, have designed the dialogue both to instruct and to overwhelm. Technical terms abound, lending a rich and glutinous texture to the talk. Mud means not mud but drilling fluid. We hear of kill lines, blowout preventers, negative pressure tests, and something called the bladder effect, which I would rather not know about. The highlight comes when the phrase "confidence in the integrity of our cement job" issues from the lips of John Malkovich. He plays a senior honcho from BP on the rig. Malkovich is the only actor, I would say, who juts out from the surface of the film — as riveting as ever, yet savoring his villainy just a little too much.

True to the ever-disturbing laws of disaster movies, we wait hungrily for the Deepwater Horizon to blow. When that happens, the conflagration is so extreme that one can’t quite tell whether Berg is still pursuing a logical narrative or switching to barely controlled chaos. This is where Wahlberg comes into his own. We follow Mike’s exploits as if we were clinging to a guardrail, watching in awe as he rescues Mr. Jimmy, strives to engage the emergency generator, and climbs to a perilous height, the better to leap for his life, with the ocean blazing below. In short, Peter Berg has done it again. You finish this film shaken with excitement, but with a touch of shame, too, at being so easily thrilled.


The Accountant **
"How can you make a financial intrigue thriller more exciting than average?" You can almost hear screenwriter Bill Dubuque ask that question and then crack his knuckles during the opening minutes of The Accountant. Said opening minutes, directed with customary nose-to-the-grindstone conviction by Gavin O’Connor, feature a strange scene of an urban mob massacre, tinged in sepia and boasting a lot of faux-celluloid graininess, to imply "period grit." Then there is another scene, set in 1989, at a home for neurologically impaired kids, run by a kindly doctor who explains to a cranky dad and a less cranky mom why their "different" son might have a better chance at adjusting to life in the world if he spends a summer at the institute. Said kid, watched over by his brother, puts together a jigsaw puzzle not only scarily quick, but also in a VERY novel way.

The next scene takes us to the present day, where a strip mall accountant named Christian Wolff (the allusion is to the German philosopher and mathematician, not the contemporary avant-garde musician and composer, and you can only imagine how let down I am by that), an affectless fellow played by Ben Affleck (who, frankly, is trying a little too hard to be flat — the strain shows), dazzles a couple of his clients with tax code wizardry anyone who’s ever filed under "self-employed" will recognize as pretty basic. And then we are whisked to the Department of The Treasury, where avuncular bigwig Ray (J.K. Simmons) delivers some exposition on a mystery man — the fellow played by Affleck, as we already know. "He’s their accountant, an accountant, ‘the’ accountant," Simmons says, sounding like he’s setting up an episode of The Blacklist. The junior officer he’s telling all this to, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, is intrigued. And soon she’s annoyed, as Simmons dredges some stuff up from her past to effectively blackmail her into tracking "the accountant" down for him.

There’s quite a bit of stuff going on here, and for a good while The Accountant percolates on its multiplicity of plot threads even as it keeps adding to them. As it happens, the "accountant" that the Treasury agents are looking for is up to quite a bit more than providing tax relief for rural dwellers. He uncooks the books for a slew of deadly bad guys. Deadly bad guys who are, an observant viewer will note, subsequently busted by the Treasury Department. Despite his proximity to some of the most dangerous criminals in the known universe, this man of dozens of aliases stays alive. How? Part of the answer is provided by the recurring flashbacks, in which Wolff’s father (Robert C. Treveiler) provides young Christian with his more militaristic cure, which later manifests itself in sharpshooting and martial arts skills. I admit that it is a novel idea to take a Rain Man-type character and also make him into a Lethal Killing Machine, but it’s also in kind of bad taste, something the movie tries to ameliorate by depicting autism with sympathy and some progressive accuracy. Despite the fact that he has oodles of cash and precious art at his disposal, the accountant’s life is a welter of pain, much of it in the form of self-punishment. The viewer is left to wonder why he plays the dangerous games he does.

At that point, the nice British-accented woman who seems to be the only person he can truly trust, and with whom he communicates only by phone, tells him that it’s time for him to take on a "legit" big client, and plops him in the lap of a high-tech prosthetic firm headed by John Lithgow. Turns out that Dana, one of that firm’s accountants, played by Anna Kendrick — doing, as she did in Up in the Air, fine work in a Non-Romantic-Romantic-Interest role — has discovered a discrepancy. Christian uncooks it, as they say … and then very nasty assassins are dispatched to kill both Christian and Dana.

Here the action heats up. Christian kills a guy who looks a bit like Vice mascot and rapper Action Bronson, in a scene that is far and away my favorite in the movie. A very effective hitman/financial-malfeasance-avenging-angel played by Jon Bernthal shows up. The plot, as they say, thickens.

And then it goes south. It goes very far south, with two plot reveals that are among the most ludicrous that I’ve experienced in quite some time. The worse of the two twists is made genuinely hilarious by the cutaways to Lithgow watching things unfold on his home security cam monitors and looking in disbelief — echoing the likely expressions of the viewer. In any event, it certainly DOES succeed in being more "exciting," say, than 1981's Rollover. But excitement isn’t always positive.

Other New Releases This Week:
Under the Shadow ***½ A rare genre film of emotional and political complexity, one that’s well acted and directed, even if the psychological horror is front and center.
Closet Monster ***½ Canadian writer-director Stephen Dunn’s first feature treads no new ground in basic outline. But the risk taking confidence with which he weaves his sardonic magical-realist elements, not to mention his unpredictable yet assure approaches to style and tone, makes this an auspicious debut.
Kevin Hart: What Now? **½ At times throughout this concert film, Hart’s brash honesty about himself can feel liberating.
Max Steel ½* May promise a change of pace from all the Marvel and DC adaptations, but it’s subpar to both those shared universes on every level, telling an origin story that brings little new to the table and a cast that deserves far better.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal