The Accountant (2016)

2017 #73
Gavin O’Connor | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Accountant

In this action-thriller from the director of the overrated Warrior, Ben Affleck stars as Chris Wolff, an autistic accountant who excels at auditing complex financial records. No, wait! I did say action-thriller, because Chris’ clients are mostly criminal organisations, and he uses the martial arts training his father instilled as a child to double up as a hitman. See, it’s exciting really.

When Chris is called to audit a robotics company (run by John Lithgow) who have found irregularities in their books (why this criminal accountant is called to work for a legit company I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was explained in the film), he unexpectedly bonds with Dana (Anna Kendrick), the company accountant who spotted the problem. After his audit unearths evidence of embezzlement, both Chris and Dana find themselves the target of bad people (led by Jon Bernthal) who want to keep the company’s secrets. Meanwhile, a couple of FBI agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on the trail of the mysterious criminal known primarily as “the Accountant”…

Maths!

The Accountant has lots of moving bits and pieces — I’ve not even alluded to all of them in that summary — but to call it a complicated film would be either too generous or a disservice, depending on your point of view. There’s a clarity to it all that keeps it easy to follow but suitably engaging, even as it plays out multiple storylines in a couple of time periods (there are flashbacks aplenty to Chris’ childhood training). And if you’re thinking, “finally a film that makes accounting exciting!”, I’m sorry to disappoint you but Chris’ maths skills are really just a MacGuffin to get the ball rolling. What it does deliver is a decent thriller plot, with a couple of twists to keep things lively. It’s also a pretty satisfying narrative — I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie that so thoroughly tied up everything into nice neat little bows. I suppose that’s at least kind of appropriate given the hero’s condition.

The action element is mainly reserved for the second half, when Chris has to deal with the people out to get him. This isn’t one for adrenaline junkies — it’s not a nonstop fight-fest like, say, a Bourne movie — but there’s a suitably violent climax nonetheless.

Shooting!

In some respects The Accountant shouldn’t be a good movie. It treats autism as a superpower, which is both inaccurate and turning into a cliché; but it doesn’t do it so egregiously that it feels entirely tacky. The whole side story with the FBI also feels kind of clunky, though at least eventually goes somewhere — whether that somewhere is relevant and clever, or pointless and daft for the sake of a twist, is up to your own judgement. Same goes for the other major final-act reveal.

Yet, for all that, it’s kind of fun. Not in the obvious jokey way that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but in the way that it provides decent characters, decent thrills, decent action, and a thorough set of conclusions that put pins in everything, including things you didn’t even think needed tying up. There may be points in the middle when you come close to rolling your eyes and almost wanting to give up on it, but by the end it’s all pretty satisfying.

4 out of 5

The Accountant is available on Sky Cinema from today.

End of Watch (2012)

2015 #111
David Ayer | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

I don’t think anyone paid writer-turned-writer/director David Ayer much heed when he was one of a pack of people penning historically-inaccurate submarine thriller U-571, inadvertent franchise-launcher The Fast and the Furious, or TV-adaptation actioner S.W.A.T.; nor when he first turned his hand to directing with L.A. crime thrillers Harsh Times and Street Kings. He did have the claim-to-fame of having penned Training Day, though. But then there was this: a found-footage cop thriller starring a shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, which found its way onto a variety of best-of-year lists back in 2012. At the same time, however, it has more than a few detractors. So which is it?

The film follows a pair of South Central beat cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) who accidentally get caught up in some kind of cartel drug war. That overarching element is so subtly fed in that many a viewer seems to have missed it entirely, instead just seeing the film as a series of episodic vignettes about the life of cops. That’s usually then levelled at the film as a criticism, but I think I’d like it more if that’s all it was. The huge scale of the villainy our leads unwittingly find themselves facing means they encounter increasingly grand crimes, at odds with the “everyday policing” feel of the documentary-esque camerawork and tone. It ultimately leads to an overblown and unrealistic climax that would feel more at home in a Die Hard sequel than a found-footage cop thriller.

Ah, found footage. Some despise it. I’m not sure anyone loves it. I don’t mind it, so long as it’s used appropriately. Here, the found footage aspect is abandoned literally as soon as it’s introduced, rendering it absolutely pointless. If Ayer had just shot the film handheld and up-close, it would wash as a stylistic choice; because he attempts a diegetic explanation for why it’s shot this way, but then breaks the rules of that explanation instantly (and continues to do so, with increasing frequency), it turns a valid stylistic choice into an irritating, ill-thought-out distraction. Plus: you want to be innovative and shoot an L.A. cop movie on digital video? Too late! Michael Mann already got there… in 2006.

Ayer at least sees fit to include a rather cool soundtrack. It’s location-appropriate, so not my kind of music generally, but it works… with the possible exception of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think, which for some British viewers is most familiar as the theme music to the Paralympics and topical comedy series The Last Leg. On the other hand, bonus points for including a snippet of Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone, thereby bringing to mind The Americans season two finale and its incredible use there. (Not enough people watch The Americans. If you don’t watch The Americans, you should watch The Americans.)

Also on the bright side, there are several excellent performances. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Peña just driving around chatting are infinitely more enjoyable than the somewhat clichéd, under-explored crimes they have to deal with. As the cops’ romantic partners, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are very good when they’re allowed to be, but are too briefly on screen. That’s because the home-life side of things is just a subplot, but I think the film would’ve been more enjoyable if it had been 100 minutes just hanging around with the two officers and their families, all the crime palaver be damned.

Although there are things to commend End of Watch — in particular the performances, and even a couple of tense sequences when the filming style actually pays off — I can’t get on board with it being a best-of-year-type movie. Even if it could’ve been more — and, in spite of that varied CV, isn’t the best thing Ayer’s done (I very much liked his next movie, Brad Pitt WW2 tank movie Fury) — this isn’t a bad effort.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Twilight (2008)

2015 #145
Catherine Hardwicke | 122 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not a big one for Halloween, but I’ve acknowledged the horrific holiday on a couple of occasions now. For 2015, I decided to review one of the most notorious supernatural films of recent times. A movie so horrific, it sent critics cowering behind their sofas. A film so evil, it’s perverted the minds of children — and some adults — the world over. A movie so renowned, it strikes fear into the hearts of even hardened movie lovers.

I speak, of course, of Twilight.

(That was more surprising when it was in a generically-titled post as an introduction to a whole week of reviews for the entire saga, but then it turned out I had better things to watch in October than four more Twilight films, so you’re only getting this one for now.)

For thems that don’t know, Twilight is the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenager who moves to live with her father in the small town of Forks, Washington (apparently it’s actually a city, but the film would have you think it’s almost a village). Attending the local high school, she’s intrigued by the introverted Cullen siblings, in particular Edward (Robert Pattinson). To cut a long ramble short, it turns out they’re vampires, but friendly vegetarian vampires. Bella instantly falls in love with Edward in all of three seconds, because he’s kinda dangerous but pretty and sparkles in sunlight (we shall come back to this), though his lust for her brings out his blood-drinking side. Just to make things complicated, there are some other vampires visiting the area who have fewer qualms about drinking human blood…

Twilight is adapted from a young adult novel by Stephenie “one too many Es in her name” Meyer that no one had heard of (bar its legion of bloodthirsty fans) before someone thought it would make a good movie. It would probably have been better if things had stayed that way. There are many reasons for that, but let’s take them in the order they must’ve occurred. First: the story, which is also the worst part. Edward is an odd, creepy stalker — turning up in Bella’s bedroom and staring at her while she sleeps, that kind of thing — who she then finds out is a century-old man (bit of an age gap) and, literally, a predator… but she instantly unconditionally loves him. What the merry fuck? She’s given no reason to even like the guy, and plenty of reasons to run away scared of him, but no, she falls in love. What message is this sending to young girls? That the guy who follows you around everywhere just staring at you and then confesses he’s having trouble controlling his impulse to murder you (yes, he says that) is the perfect soulmate? Not to mention that he’s 100-and-something years old and dating a 17-year-old. He shouldn’t be pre-teen girls’ idol, he should be Hugh Hefner’s!

All of the characters are this poorly drawn. Their motivations, actions, and reactions often make little sense. The number of times one of them does something because Plot are incalculable. That’s without even mentioning Bella’s almost total inability to do anything for herself, except use Google to find some tiny second-hand bookshop in a rarely-visited town to buy a book about something she wants to research, rather than, say, use Google to read up a bit first. Then she gets the book, looks at one illustration and its caption, and it’s back on Google to find out more. Nice work, Bella.

All of this is Meyer’s fault, faithfully translated to the screen by adapter Melissa Rosenberg. This is a woman with quality TV form: she was a lead writer on Dexter back in its first four seasons, when it was really, really good; now she’s showrunner on the forthcoming Marvel/Netflix series Jessica Jones, which has promising trailers and a well-reviewed first episode, in particular its treatment of female characters. Yet she also wrote this. Even if you allow for her being hamstrung by the novel in story terms, the dialogue is appalling, in every respect. Characters bluntly state their own and each other’s emotions at each other. We’re always being told stuff instead of shown it. Scenes heavy with exposition are shot with frenetic camerawork and underscored with driving music as if that somehow makes it filmic and exciting.

Ah, the acting and direction! Nearly every performance is poor. Pattinson and Stewart spend the entire film appearing uncomfortable and puzzled — by themselves, with each other, with everyone else. Her only other emotion is “moody loner”; he at least manages a smile, maybe twice. Some of it is unbelievably cheesy, like an ’80s genre B-movie by a music video director. That kind of thing can work, a) when it’s from the period, or b) when it’s done knowingly. Twilight is neither. The Pacific Northwest location is inherently atmospheric, which is handy because Catherine Hardwicke’s direction does nothing to conjure up any such feeling itself.

And then we have vampires who sparkle. Sparkly vampires. Sparkly. Vampires. Just… why?! The whole traditional mythology of vampires is played fast and loose with, which is fine, that’s what many vampire flicks do; and there are even some borderline-neat subversions… but golly, that sparkliness is silly.

Some of these points are definitely just niggles, but the film is so laden with them that it all becomes ripe to cause either laughter or frustration. Better the former than the latter, which is why the Honest Trailer is so entertaining. See for yourself:

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually hate Twilight as much as I thought I might. Occasionally there are shots or moments that work, maybe even the odd whole scene. Bella’s dad is pretty good, both their relationship and Billy Burke’s performance. I quite liked some of the aggressively-blue cinematography, but then I do like the colour blue. There’s almost a nice element of melancholic “leaving a fun ordinary life behind for this fantastic but dangerous new one”, but I think that might be limited to literally one shot-reverse-shot of Bella seeing her friends leaving a café.

So it’s not a good film, but it’s not a “worst film ever made”-level disaster either. I mean, it’s not so bad that I can’t even bear the thought of watching the sequels. Actually, they kind of intrigue me, because (spoiler warning!) it hasn’t even got to the Jacob/werewolves stuff yet, and that whole Team Edward / Team Jacob aspect seemed to be such a big thing. And I want to see what Michael Sheen has to do with anything. And I kinda wanna see if Breaking Dawn is as batshit crazy as the plot description I once read made it sound. And maybe there’ll be more of Anna Kendrick’s cleavage, because wow, who knew that was there? (Look, it’s a movie about a creepy stalker romance between a 100-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl — a little light ogling of someone around my own age pales in comparison.)

So that’s Twilight for you: poorly plotted, poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, teaching poor life lessons to its target age group, and yet still somehow so compelling that I’m prepared to sit through another eight-ish hours of the stuff. Never has the phrase “your mileage may vary” been so apt.*

2 out of 5

* Unless someone used it in reference to the Fast & Furious films.

The Voices (2014)

2015 #96
Marjane Satrapi | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

The VoicesJerry (Ryan Reynolds) is a nice guy living in the small town of Milton, working in shipping at Milton Fixtures and Fawcetts, where he fancies the English girl in accounts, Fiona (Gemma Arterton), and doesn’t notice how much another girl in accounts, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), likes him. He also talks to his dog, Bosco, and cat, Mr Whiskers, and they talk back. That’s why his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) encourages him to take his medication, but he doesn’t. When he accidentally murders Fiona (as you do), it’s Mr Whiskers that encourages him to cover up the crime.

The Voices isn’t your usual kind of film — obviously. In the special features, everyone’s very keen to talk about how it exists outside of genre, and they’re right. From some of the premise (his pets talk!) and marketing, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just a comedy. It is a comedy, but a very black one. A very, very black one. A total-absence-of-light black one. The laughs do not come thick and fast, though there are some, and there’s a left-of-centre worldview that is comedy-quirky — if you tried to play this entirely straight, it wouldn’t work.

However, it is also something of a psychological crime thriller. Jerry is clearly a very messed up individual, and so we’re always wondering what he will do next, “Oops.”what happened in his past to make him this way (flashbacks and hints are scattered, leading to an eventual reveal), and how will it all end for him? We’re conflicted here, because he’s a nice guy who we like, but he’s also a murderer, in horrific fashion, and so surely justice is due. Screenwriter Michael R. Perry and director Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) tread a fine line here: they do want us to like Jerry, but are certainly aware that can be an uphill struggle given what he’s done.

They’re aided in no small part by Ryan Reynolds’ first-class performance. Reynolds has coasted along in minor, generic, average-to-below-average action-thrillers (Smokin’ Aces, Safe House), rom-coms (Just Friends, The Proposal), and, mainly, comic book movies (Blade: Trinity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, R.I.P.D.), but a couple of more recent performances seem to have shown his range. Firstly, Buried (which I’ve still not seen), where he carries the film trapped alone in a box, and now this. And last weekend’s Comic-Con trailer for Deadpool, which looks like it might be awesome. Here, he essays a multitude of characters: working on the theory that the voices are all in Jerry’s head, Reynolds voices Bosco, Mr Whiskers, and a couple of other animals to boot. This isn’t just an affectation: he gives different performances as each, offering a kinda-dim but good-hearted Southern gent as Bosco the dog, and an evil bloodthirsty Scot as Mr Whiskers the cat. The dog is good and the cat is evil? Sounds about right. That’s not to undersell his main performance, in person as Jerry, a socially awkward guy who really does want to do the right thing, but can’t help being led astray.

Threesome?Able support comes in the form of three women in Jerry’s life. Gemma Arterton has a ball, first as a bit of a bitch, then as a ludicrously-chipper super-English talking head. Anna Kendrick, meanwhile, is sweet and likeable, and while we may be on Jerry’ side when he accidentally slides his knife into Fiona, we’re keen for him not to make the same mistake with Lisa. Whether he does or not is where the real battle for his sanity lies. The third is Jacki Weaver’s psychiatrist, who is central to the climax but also has the least to do of all three, really. Never mind.

Satrapi delivers a film of mixed tones, which clearly doesn’t work for every viewer, but I thought handled the shifting styles well. There’s a kind of kooky comedy to it all, but also horror movie-level disgust at points, and the complex psychology underpinning Jerry’s actions. I thought all three were mixed well, though I can see why it’s not to everyone’s taste to have such apparently-disparate genres co-existing; certainly, the darkness of the humour will be beyond some. DP Maxime Alexandre nails the visuals for all this, though. Off his drugs and in his delusions, Jerry’s world is perfect and sunny, but the cleverness here is that it isn’t beyond the realms of reality, it’s just a bright, sunny, polished, happy reality. When he takes his meds, the dark, grey, grim, hoardersome, blood-soaked, shit-stained reality of his life comes in — and his two best friends look really miserable and stop talking to him. No wonder he’s tempted to the dark side. Alexandre has form in horror movies (The Hills Have Eyes, The Crazies, Silent Hill: Revelation), so no wonder he can do the latter, but the majority of the film is on the shiny side, and he’s got that down pat too.

Murder in mindThe Voices is the kind of film you say is “not for everyone”, which are often the best kind if they are for you. For me, it wasn’t quite funny enough — I’d’ve liked more of the dog and cat, who get the lion’s share of the best material. I also felt that Jerry’s backstory, the reasons for why he is how he is and does what he does, weren’t explored quite enough. The Blu-ray’s deleted scenes hint at more of this, particularly with an alternate climax, which was perhaps cut because there was too little material specifically building up to it. Rather than losing that ending, it would’ve been better to keep it and find more scenes that contributed to it.

And talking of the ending, I haven’t even mentioned the finale! The more out of the blue it comes the better, I think, so I shall say no more. As a capper on everything, though, it’s darn near perfect.

The Voices is not an unqualified success, then, but it’s one of the more unusual films I’ve seen in a while, with a good few appreciable qualities, and I enjoy that. Recommended with caution.

4 out of 5