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.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

2015 #185
Alan Taylor | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Terminator GenisysI liked Terminator Salvation. There, I said it. (I also said it in my review, so, y’know, not news.) Not many other people agreed, however, meaning plans for a new wave of Terminator films in its wake were abandoned. Fast-forward a few years, past a load of complex and dull rights wranglings, and we reach this: one of the biggest critical flops of 2015. It also flopped with audiences in the US, taking under $90 million, but fared better internationally, to the tune of $350 million — making it the franchise’s second highest grossing film, in fact. Nonetheless, perception has hewed closer to the critics’ take. Is that vitriol deserved?

The story begins in the future war against the machines, where an army of humans led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) storm a Skynet facility and find a time machine that has recently sent a Terminator back to 1984 to assassinate Connor’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), before she’s given birth to John. Reese volunteers to go back and save her. Now, this is where the film leans on being the series’ fifth — we’re expecting him to land in the first film. And at first he does… until a T-1000 (the one that turns into metal from T2) turns up, and Sarah rocks up to save Reese — accompanied by an aged T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who arrived decades ago and has been protecting and training Sarah ever since.

At this point, some people will already be predisposed to hate the film. Why mess with a classic, etc. I can see where they’re coming from; at the same time, it’s an interesting idea. Time travel is a key part of the Terminator series, and John grows up with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back to 1984 to save his mother — but what if Skynet knew that too? That would change what both John and the computer did, surely? What are the ramifications of that? (And even if you’re not interested, the original Terminator is still there — they’re not re-editing it or removing it from circulation or something — so if you don’t want it affected, that’s fine.)

Come with me if you want to meet some dragonsNow, a good idea doesn’t guarantee a good execution, and here is where we begin to encounter Genisys’ problems. Time travel is a tricksy thing to engage with in fiction, and is highly prone to creating plot holes — something blockbusters regularly struggle with anyway. Genisys has at least one glaring one. Then there’s the general level of quality — the screenplay, acting, effects, and so on. In this regard, I suspect the reason so many people reacted so badly to it is that it follows, and riffs off of, two of the greatest sci-fi/action movies ever made. In and of itself, Genisys is no worse than any of the other half-dozen-or-so middle-of-the-road $150-million-plus-budgeted blockbusters we’re routinely served every year now. If you instead compare it to its iconic forebears, however, it comes up much shorter.

I think one of the major problems is the direction. Marvel hired Alan Taylor for Thor 2 because of the perception that he knew how to handle fantasy thanks to Game of Thrones. That and because, as a TV director, he would’ve been cheap, and Marvel like their directors cheap (and consequently controllable). Clearly the success of Thor 2, such as it was, was parlayed into this big directing gig. I’m just not sure Taylor has the chops for it. The fight scenes are muddled, riddled with close-ups and too many cuts. Not a unique problem these days, of course, but after, what, a decade of that style being criticised, you’d think they’d’ve finally wised up. Nowadays it looks cheap. Most of the direction looks cheap. This is an expensive movie, with lots of practical stunt work, but it never looks it; and those stunts were mostly done on green screens or with the aid of wires here and there, so they’ve ended up CGI’d too. And the CGI looks surprisingly cheap. The Terminator films used to be right at the cutting edge of effects; now it’s just any old blockbuster.

Ex-TerminatorAnd yet the man who was responsible for those remarkable pictures, James Cameron, was impressed by it. He’s interviewed among the film’s special features, where he explains, “can I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it? No. I just know that I enjoyed the film, you know. But I strongly suspect that… you’re gonna love this movie.” Well, he was way wrong there! You almost feel a bit sorry for everyone in those special features, actually. They’re all so confident that Genisys is a great, well-made movie that everyone’s going to love, and they have big plans for a trilogy which they keep talking up. I would love to see their reactions after the reviews and box office figures came in…

So, Terminator Genisys is not a good movie… but I don’t really think it’s a bad one, either. It just sort of is. The action palaver is passable, the plot at times interesting, the developments and twists on the series’ history… well, your mileage will vary. It didn’t help anyone that they were in the trailer, but I’m not sure people would’ve reacted any better if it hadn’t been spoiled. Still, it shouldn’t’ve been spoiled. Stupid marketing people.

Could Terminator Genisys be a lot better? Definitely. Could it be worse? Definitely. I didn’t mind it.

3 out of 5

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

Whiplash (2014)

2015 #84
Damien Chazelle | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue
2015 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay.



WhiplashMr Fantastic dates Supergirl and is taught the drums by J. Jonah Jameson in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning music drama.

In reality, the story concerns Andrew (Miles Teller of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot), a drumming student at a prestigious music college where everyone wants to be in the ensemble run by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy). When Andrew makes it in, he soon discovers what a hard taskmaster Fletcher is; some would say abusive. Is Andrew prepared to give up everything, including his burgeoning relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist of the forthcoming Supergirl series), to impress? How far will he go to be the best?

Chazelle’s screenplay is admirable in its psychological complexity here, particularly as it’s contained in a straightforward-seeming master/pupil, abuser/abusee drama that also functions as a surface-level dramatic thriller. The extra levels come from these exact characters and their exact relationship. Fletcher is striving for true excellence, which means he has to push his students… but is he pushing them too far? Andrew wants to be truly excellent, which means a certain amount of dedication… but is he investing too much? Is the relationship that grows between them mutually beneficial, or mutually destructive… or only destructive to Andrew? Whiplash may look like a drama about a music student, but the twists and turns grip more like a thriller, while the questions it raises are not given easy answers. The ending in particular is deliberately ambiguous, and different people have certainly made different assumptions about its intended meaning.

Not a happy chappySimmons’ Oscar is well earnt as the unpredictable Fletcher. If you’ve seen clips and trailers you might imagine it’s a fairly one-note turn, the Angry Teacher who possibly reveals a Heart Of Gold either just in time for the third act or at the very end. But no, there’s more to it than that, and Simmons negotiates every facet and nuance with the expertise of an experienced character actor. Commendations to both Chazelle and Simmons for wrong-footing me on what was actually going on with him more than once.

If the rest of the cast exist in his shadow, it’s because everyone’s giving appropriately restrained performances. Teller actually offers a very strong turn as the lead, who we are of course invited to like and identify with at the start, but who goes so far that it distances the viewer. This is a tricky feat to pull off — many a film has faced accusations of failure because our relationship with the hero was severed when they did something the viewer disapproved of. Andrew isn’t the hero, though; not exactly. He’s the main character, certainly, and we are following his journey and the battle for his future — his soul, if you want to be poetic about it — but that doesn’t mean we like everywhere he goes, or will approve of his eventual destination.

Really, the film is about Andrew and Fletcher. If there’s one serious criticism that could be levelled at the film, it’s that the Nicole subplot is slightly underdeveloped. Personally, I'd choose Melissa Benoist over J.K. Simmons any dayThat thread could do with a boost in the middle, to give their relationship a little more weight when we reach the decisions Andrew must make about it later on. (Personally, I’d choose Melissa Benoist over J.K. Simmons any day, but I don’t think that’s the point…) The same could be said of Andrew’s relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), though that’s actually given more screen time and is consequently more impactful.

These are mere niggles, though, in a film that appears quite simple but actually contains quite a lot of power. It’s certainly more thrilling than you might expect from a character drama about someone learning to play drums, as well as more psychologically complex, and definitely more thought-provoking. There are no easy answers here, just real life; but, unlike most films you’d say that about, Whiplash thoroughly entertains.

5 out of 5

The aforementioned Fantastic Four is in cinemas from Thursday.

Juno (2007)

2010 #25
Jason Reitman | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

Juno followed in the footsteps of films like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine to be the token Little Indie That Could among 2008’s Best Picture nominees. It was also the highest-grossing film on the list, no doubt thanks to America’s abundant Christians thinking it was all about an anti-abortion message. I’m sure these conflicting facts (the indie-ness and top-grosser, not the Christian thing) say more about the Oscars’ nominating form in the past decade than they do about Juno.

Fortunately, there’s enough to Juno to allow it stand up for itself. The most discussed aspect is Diablo Cody’s screenplay, with its idiosyncratic slang-laden dialogue and accusations that every character speaks the same. The first is true, the latter is rubbish, and one has to wonder if whoever thinks it watched beyond the first ten minutes. Most of the film’s teenage characters speak similarly… in that they use the same bits of slang, have similar speech patterns, employ a similar sense of humour — you know, like groups of teenagers tend to. Their related adults speak broadly similarly, but also differently; the higher-class couple Juno chooses to adopt her baby to speak differently again — but none are pathetically “I am trying to sound different”-different like you can find in weak writing. It’s just natural. I struggle to see how anyone can honestly say that all the characters “speak the same” in a way that isn’t true to life. Perhaps Cody has generously made Juno and her fellow teens wittier and quicker than the real-life majority, but this is a scripted drama and that’s what happens to your hero characters.

Cody’s dialogue, and what the cast do with it, are the film’s standout aspects. It’s quite a wordy screenplay, so it’s good that it’s a joy to listen to. The realistic overuse of slang by some characters occasionally greats, but the plentiful laugh-out-loud beats more than make up for it. The “I wish I’d say that” quality in some of Juno’s responses to familiar situations quickly make her an identifiable, memorable and loveable character, expertly played by Ellen Page — lead roles like this and Hard Candy show she’s one to watch, and add another mark against X-Men 3 for wasting her talents on such an insignificant (in the film) part.

Every supporting part is equally pitch-perfect: J.K. Simmons’ endlessly supportive father; Allison Janney’s stepmom, granted a gift of a rant at an ultrasound operator; Jennifer Garner’s earnest, desperate wannabe-mother; Olivia Thirlby’s teacher-loving best friend. Jason Bateman redeems himself in my eyes from his not-Marc-Warren turn in State of Play, while my pre-judgement of Michael Cera (Superbad? Year One? They sound dreadful) is half erased by being good as an appropriate-but-still-niggling character (Mr MacGuff and Leah summarise it best: “I didn’t think he had it in him.” “I know, right?”)

The film’s success in America is slightly baffling, which is why I merrily attribute it to Juno considering an abortion and then turning away. There’s underage sex, swearing, numerous displays of teen independence, divorce, love of rock music and horror films… All that’s missing from a Middle American Mom’s worst nightmare is drugs (there’s no violence either, but we know them there yankees love a bit of that). The whole thing worries the boundaries of its 12 certificate, I’m sure (being a recent film, the BBFC explain/justify), not that such things affect its quality as a film.

The backlash against Cody’s screenplay had me all prepared to find Juno a samey, wannabe-cool and lacking experience, but it isn’t. It’s consistently funny, occasionally moving, and only infrequently irritating (usually when it comes across as stereotypically indie). As the comedy-indie entry in the Academy’s 2008 choices, its worthy of its predecessors, and I consider that praise indeed.

4 out of 5