The Accountant Review: Crystal math


Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writer: Bill Dubuque

Stars: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal

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Release date: November 3rd, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 128 minutes


3/5

Best part: Affleck’s subdued performance.

Worst part: The third-act plot-twists.

The Accountant is the latest in the never-ending line of middle-budget action flicks. It – Like John Wick, Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher – lives in bigger-budget movies(superhero flicks, space-operas etc.)’s shadows. At best, they deliver cheerful call-backs to 1980s/90s action-thrillers. At worst, they seem cheap and desperate. This year’s Bourne and Reacher franchise extenders resemble the latter.

The Accountant, unlike Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is still a good movie. The marketing and movie itself revel in A-lister/talented filmmaker Ben Affleck’s renaissance. This is his second action-hero/intelligent savant role for 2016 after Bruce Wayne/Batman. Of course, despite the flaws, this is Citizen Kane next to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It follows highly functioning autistic and small-town accountant Christian Wolff (Affleck). Head of strip-mall firm ZZZ Accounting, he lives a secluded existence in suburban Illinois by day. By night, he un-cooks the books for assassins, drug cartels, money launderers etc. His latest mission may be his most puzzling. Living Robotics’ accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) finds irregularities in the company’s finances. Wolff monitors executives Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), Rita (Jean Smart), and Ed (Andy Umberger).

The Accountant is the busiest and most complex of 2016’s action-thrillers. The central plot-thread is difficult to crack or even explain. Bill Dubuque(The Judge)’s screenplay throws together lists of names, dates and figures associated with said fictional company. In the second act, as the whodunit mystery unfolds, the scripts opts for confusing jargon over clear explanations. More so, the financial-decoding is never cinematically appealing. Even Dubuque loses interest, adding multiple plot-strands and characters around it. On top of said industrial espionage, the script includes a buddy-cop sub-plot led by Treasury Department director of financial crimes Raymond King(J. K. Simmons). His story-line – blackmailing analyst Marybeth (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into tracking down Wolff – leads nowhere. Meanwhile, an assassin (Jon Bernthal) is hired to dispose of Wolff. The eight-movies-at-once feel hinders an otherwise engaging premise.

The Accountant, although not succumbing to blockbuster fatigue, still feels dated and formulaic. Along with said meandering subplots, director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Jane Got A Gun) wrestles with flashbacks to Wolff’s childhood and dealings with jailed accountant/fixer Francis Silverberg (Jeffrey Tambor). By the third act, O’Connor struggles to pull everything and everyone together. Plot-holes emerge as the set-pieces and revelations kick in. However, like with Warrior, O’Connor’s rustic, gritty aesthetic pays off. His peculiar camera angles and movements provide nuance, while the action sequences are fearsome. Thanks to Affleck’s committed performance, the autism spectrum disorder angle never feels forced. The character’s professional and personal lives are well fleshed out. The movie’s stacked cast give unique turns in generic roles. Bernthal, deliciously over the top here, is the breakout star.

The Accountant, like many of 2016’s blockbusters, delivers maximum potential and mixed execution. O’Connor and his cast enthusiastically grapple with the material. However, 128 minutes is simply too long for this story.

Verdict: A diverting action-drama.

Doctor Strange Review: Cosmic craziness


Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton

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Release date: October 27th, 2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA 

Running time: 115 minutes


3½/5

Best part: The energetic performances.

Worst part: Another weak MCU villain.

Unquestionably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an unstoppable machine. Disney won big after purchasing the comic book/movie juggernaut. Since the series’ humble beginnings, with 2008’s Iron Man, Disney and co. have delivered mini-franchises, spin-offs and origin stories without quit.

Doctor Strange is the latest B/C-list character – following Iron Man, Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy etc. – to receive a breakout blockbuster. The opportunity gives Marvel characters new time in the spotlight. The franchise’s latest adventure delivers yet another major superhero origin. We meet egotistical neurosurgeon Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) conducting a miracle procedure. The award-winning, super-rich professional places reputation ahead of connection. On his way to a presentation, Strange is mangled in a horrific car accident. Nerve damage prevents Dr. Strange from continuing his life’s work. He heads to Nepal, convinced the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and secret compound Kamar-Taj, can cure him. Whilst working alongside side-mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange meets dark-magic-afflicted former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

After 14 installments, the MCU formula is more pronounced than ever. Almost all of them feature a cocky hero brought down by a tragic experience, re-building themselves with money and powers, encountering a plucky love interest, finding the villain/s responsible and destroying the world-ending/blue-beam-in-the-sky threat. Doctor Strange follows said template to the letter. In fact, this one cherry picks specific elements from each movie. Like Iron Man, the first third develops our lead character as being super smart and even more unlikable. He can do anything: pick and choose intricate surgeries, bound around with a boisterous smile, list every song and its history etc. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil), along with fellow writer C. Robert Cargill, expertly depict his rise and fall via heart-wrenching, somber montage.

Doctor Strange‘s multitude of realms and abilities is overwhelming. Derrickson and co. continually transition between origin story tropes, training montages and exposition. They revel in trippy dream sequences and flashbacks. However, the astral plane/mirror dimension sequences are jaw-dropping. As Strange delves deeper, Derrickson provides more time-and-space-bending set-pieces. The prologue provides a kick-ass introduction to MCU’s cosmic ether. The Ancient One and Kaecilius fragment London streets. From MC Esher city sequences to impressive production design, the movie truly reaches for the stars. Its A-list cast give nuanced performances in out-there roles. Cumberbatch is a welcome addition, down-playing every note with verve. Swinton and Ejiofor are charming in valuable roles. However, Mikkelsen is the latest white, middle-aged character-actor portraying a forgettable MCU villain.

Doctor Strange is a hyperkinetic and enjoyable MCU extender. Derrickson wrangles a starry cast, falls into line and fits Jon Favreau’s breezy tone. It provides enough nuances to stand out from the pack. However, this franchise might just have peaked with Captain America: Civil War.

Verdict: Another enjoyable MCU instalment.

 

Keeping Up with the Joneses Review: Bad Neighbours


Director: Greg Mottola

Writer: Michael LeSieur

Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot

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Release date: October 20th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 105 minutes


2/5

Best part: The starry cast.

Worst part: The bland comedy.

Comedy is one of modern entertainment’s most subjective genres. One man’s trash is another’s treasure; what some may perceive as humor may deter or anger others. 2016 has seen big-budget messes like Bad Neighbours 2, the Ghostbusters reboot, Zoolander 2 and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates come and go without impact. Keeping Up with the Joneses, sadly, continues this laughless downward spiral.

Before I attack Keeping Up with the Joneses mercilessly, I will say the premise is wholly compelling. The movie follows suburban married couple/loving parents Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis and Isla FIsher). Sending the kids to summer camp, the pair are stuck in a rut. Jeff lives for his meaningless HR department position at a local, government-affiliated company. However, Karen becomes restless and bored at home. Her freelance interior decorator role fails to satisfy her itch for excitement. Soon after, attractive couple Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) move in next door. Of course, they aren’t who they seem.

Keeping Up with the Joneses, like so many Hollywood comedies, collects elements from several, much-better movies. Similar action-comedies (Mr and Mrs Smith) aptly balance the humour and set-pieces. Overall, there is an army of better movies out there. Writer Michael LeSieur does not even attempt to reinvent the wheel. The story, such as it is, is as bland and banal as expected. Indeed, everyone involved seems not to care about it. It is a shock to the system when the plot kicks into gear. Thanks to laughable exposition and plotting, the director and actors seem to switch off at seemingly important moments. Despite the premise, the spy-work is never shown on-screen. Tim and Natalie’s mission is lost in favour of cheap set-pieces and bad dialogue/gags.

Keeping Up with the Joneses, in true Adam Sandler fashion, is condescending and sweet to its audience. The first half mocks suburban lifestyle, painting the men like cretins and women like nagging shrews. Unable to commit, the movie’s half-assed turn makes everyone and everything cheesier. The comedy is shockingly hit and miss. Director Greg Mottola forgets what made his earlier flicks (Superbad, Adventureland) so engaging. Here, his comic timing drags down the performers. The jokes feature excessive awkward pauses rather than punch-lines. The cast do their best with woeful, unimaginative material. Galifianakis, a hit-and-miss talent himself, is fine in his small-town-hero role. Meanwhile, Hamm is a force of charisma and likeability. Fisher’s screechiness ruins yet another role. Sadly, Gadot is yet to master anything beyond kicks and punches.

Keeping Up with the Joneses doesn’t deserve a one-word review, let alone all the words written by the world’s bloggers/reviewers. Like most 2016 movies, this lazy action-comedy evaporates from memory before leaving the theatre.

Verdict: Hit-and-miss spy-comedy.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back Review: Punch drunk


Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz (screenplay), Lee Child (novel)

Stars: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh
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Release date: October 20th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 118 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Cruise’s charisma.

Worst part: The daughter subplot.

A-list megastar Tom Cruise has had a career most actors could only dream of. He has led some of the 20th and 21st century’s most compelling films, delivered multiple killer one-liners and lifted forgettable material. The man puts 110% into every role and production. However, his off-screen antics -Scientology, failed marriages etc. – have made him a polarising figure.

Since his last marriage’s decline, he has turned his attention to the silver screen. Almost every year since, he has delivered one critically and commercially viable actioner after another. 2013’s Jack Reacher, based on Lee Child’s seminal book series, delivered whip-smart dialogue and gritty drama. Sadly, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is merely a serviceable action-adventure. It begins with our titular character (Cruise) on the lam. Shifting between assignments, he finds solace in his and Major Susan Turner(Cobie Smulders)’s phone calls. He heads to Washington DC to take her on a date. However, Turner is arrested for espionage after botched military dealings in Afghanistan. Predictably so, he takes the case to uncover the truth.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back has little to do with the original. The events of that film are not even thought about here. Instead, like Child’s books, this is a pure standalone adventure. Sequel and blockbuster fatigue set in like rot. From the get-go, the story delivers limited stakes or tension. The opening scene defines Reacher: a superhuman with nothing to fear or even be mildly miffed about. The screenplay provides broad, simplistic characters and plot points. Reacher switches clunkily between personalities. As the plot kicks in, and more baddies show up, he becomes more powerful and stoic. On the other hand, after meeting his potential daughter (Samantha (Danika Yarosh)), he turns into a wise-cracking buddy-cop archetype. The mystery plot-line is infinitely less interesting, defined only by rushed flashbacks and exposition.

Director Edward Zwick once excelled with action sequences and tight story-telling. Many of his works – from crime-thrillers (The Siege, Blood Diamond) to historical-epics (Glory, The Last Samurai) – are compelling. The original set the bar for deftly handled fist-fights and shoot-outs. However, despite having worked with Cruise before, Zwick brings nothing new to the table here. The sequel’s set-pieces are few and far between. Worse still, it commits to quick-cut, shaky-cam hand-to-hand combat. The movie’s biggest flaws rest on the villain’s ultra-white shoulders. The movie delivers an even-blander Jai Courtney clone (The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger)) and nondescript military/government figures. Thankfully, Cruise and Smulders elevate said woeful material. Their back-and-forth sparring is suitable. Meanwhile, Yarosh is stuck with an idiotic, unlikable character.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, like most of 2016’s blockbusters, is forgettable but not terrible. Cruise’s raw intensity turns a tough-guy cliché into a fun lead badass. However, Zwick and co. drop the ball. The movie’s bland action, story and characters make for another disappointing sequel.

Verdict: A serviceable action-thriller.

The Magnificent Seven Review: Good Ol’ Gunslingers


Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio

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Release date: September 29th, 2016

Distributors: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 133 minutes


3½/5

Best part: The starry cast.

Worst part: Sarsgaard’s wacky villain.

The buddy/team-up flick typically goes one of two ways – disgustingly enjoyable for embarrassingly terrible. The better ones give audiences a grand ol’ time. 2016 has delivered several inconsequential team-up flicks (TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Suicide Squad, Now You See Me 2). The latest Magnificent Seven remake breaks that string of flops and never looks back.

The Magnificent Seven is as cool, calm and collected as everyone in front of and behind the camera. The John Sturges-directed/Yul Brynner-starring 1960 original is, of course, a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune classic Seven Samurai. The story centres on law-enforcement helper/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington). Vengeance-seeker Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) tasks Chisolm with destroying her husband(Matt Bomer)’s killer, mining giant Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Chisolm recruits six badasses – gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Mexican Outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) – to save Rose Creek from Bogue’s evil regime.

This badasses-banding-together premise is as tried and true as Hollywood itself. Seven Samurai‘s legacy influenced westerns, actioners and A Bug’s Life. Also, 1950s westerns pitted good-goodies (whitehats) and bad-baddies (blackhats) against one another. Similarly, this remake is smart in its simplicity. The aforementioned premise takes over the first half. Given 133 minutes, screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective seasons 1 and 2) and Richard Wenk linger on Chisolm’s audition process. The introductions, on their own, aren’t particularly interesting. Horne’s opening scene is a highlight, showcasing a rare glimpse of old-era violence. The script provides vague glimpses at their backstories (Chisolm and Robicheaux’s, in particular). However, it explores the ensemble more than any particular member. The drama and comedy rely on blissful character interactions. Steadily, our titular crew assists the town and take on the snivelling bad guys. If it aint broke, I guess.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) takes the Washington-actioner reigns from the late Tony Scott. Fuqua’s slick style and pulsating action hit with brute force. Of course, our leads dodge bullets and hit their targets every time. However, its pacing, practical effects, and score amp up the thrills. The climax delivers an extended miasma of bullet holes and explosions. Like his other popcorn-chomping distractions (Olympus Has Fallen, The Shooter), it delivers slight twists on convention. Most importantly, it’s an advertisement for multiculturalism and gender equality. Overcoming limited dialogue, the Asian, American-indian, and Mexican characters give their African-American and caucasian counterparts a run for their money. Bennett delivers a scintillating, eye-opening introduction to wider audiences.

This newer, fresher Magnificent Seven is cinematic macaroni and cheese – clichéd but insatiably enjoyable. Despite the flaws (broad characters, twists etc. galore!), the cast and crew are worth the admission cost. Thankfully, I had as much fun watching it as they had making it. Sadly, the epilogue does not work!

Verdict: A cool western-throwback.

Blood Father Review: Mad Mel’s Mission


Director: Jean-Francois Richet

Writer: Peter Craig, Andrea Berloff

Stars: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, William H. Macy, Diego Luna

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Release date: August 31st, 2016

Distributor: SND Films

Country: France, USA

Running time: 88 minutes


3½/5

Best part: Gibson’s committed performance.

Worst part: The gangbanger villains.

2016 marks big, bad actor/director Mel Gibson’s shiny return to the big screen. Is it ok to accept the artist despite the controversies? Should we forgive and forget despite serious – and possibly unresolved – social problems? Whatever the case, Gibson is back with action-thriller Blood Father and directorial effort Hacksaw Ridge.

Blood Father kicks off with American war veteran and ex-hardened criminal turned convict John Link (Gibson) in a mediocre existence. Thanks to his parole officer’s orders, he is unable to drink, do drugs, or leave the state. Stuck in a dead-end tattoo business, housed in his caravan home, he longs to find his missing daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty). Lydia’s life goes from bad to worse. Influenced by her drug-running boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna), she joins his assault on tenants occupying cartel-owned homes. After an accidental shooting, she runs off and meets up with Link. The cartel’s baddest are hot on their trail.

Obviously, Blood Father lacks the big-budget prowess of Gibson’s 1980s/90s hey day. The veteran performer can do ‘dark and gritty’ this in his sleep. Director Jean-Francois Richet (Public Enemy #1, the Assault on Precinct 13 remake) boils everything down to essential elements. This little known director tackles one of Hollywood’s best (watch Braveheart and Apocalypto for confirmation) and gets his way. His style provides Gibson some meat to chew on. The drama builds slowly throughout the first half. As Link and Lydia steadily come together, the story delves into their broken lives. Richet and co. revel in Link’s dour existence. As Link and Lydia team up, the man-on the-run thread lightens the tone. That slight elevation from depressing to gritty builds the excitement.

Make to mistake, this is comfort food cinema. The ‘heroes are bad, villains are worse’ plot works well here. While the violence raises the stakes. Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff’s script provides fun surprises and an off-beat sense of humor. Their witty one-liners and lean sarcasm balance the jarring tonal shifts. The opening scene is a highlight; laughing at America’s lackadaisical gun laws. Link’s friend Kirby (William H. Macy), on the surface, is an nice-guy/target archetype. However, the writers and Macy make us care. His nasty gags and protective nature are worthwhile attributes for an otherwise throwaway supporting character. Gibson is the stand out performer – proving he still has the charisma and ferocity to pull off meaningful roles. Moriarty, however, is somewhat bland.

Blood Father recalls Gibson’s action-movie good ol’ days. Discussing the icon’s past, present and future, it is much deeper than most may give it credit for. At the very least, it is worth at least one Saturday afternoon viewing on Netflix.

Verdict: A fun, lazy-afternoon watch.

Ben-Hur Review: Sword and Sorrow


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writers: Keith Clarke, John Ridley

Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2/5

Best part: The chariot race.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

Hollywood has latched onto organised-religion crowds for greater box-office returns. Movies including God’s Not Dead, although strange to most, appeal to a large segment of the population. Tinseltown’s most talented are also getting on board, with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings also aiming for that market. 2016’s Ben-Hur remake may single-handedly destroy this trend.

Actually, this is not the first ever Ben-Hur remake. The William Wyler-directed 1959 version is the quintessential version. The huge budget, Charlton Heston’s vigour, chariot race and epic scope helped it score 11 Academy Awards and become an instant classic. Surprisingly, there were multiple Ben-Hurs in the early 20th Century. This version never strays from convention. Here, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) grow up together in Jerusalem’s higher class. Messala, despite his affections for Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), feels alienated by matriarch Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and the family’s faith. After his enlistment and time in the Roman Army, he returns to warn Ben-Hur of oncoming threats. From there, the two butt heads and become fearsome foes.

The 1959 hit influenced Gladiator and sword-and-sandal epic in between. This Ben-Hur begs the question – Why now? No matter what the studio, cast, creatives etc. created, nothing would have eclipsed the 1959 version’s quality, exhaustive length, touching religious commentary and revolutionary tricks. Writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (the latter behind 12 Years a Slave) deliver irritating and alienating dialogue. The first half relies on religious discussion between the characters, grinding the pace to a screeching halt. Non-religious folks will despise the movie’s feckless stance on faith and history. Sadly, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not fit for the material. Lacking Ridley Scott’s deft touch, the schlock filmmaker appears bored by everything besides the action, special effects etc.

Ben-Hur follows the long line of laughable, anachronistic and feeble-minded modern historical/mythical epics. The movie never diverts from the standard revenge-drama narrative. It’s predictability is almost cowardly – the good guys are sweet and vanilla, the love interest – Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) – is whispy, the bad guys snivel and twist moustaches, Morgan Freeman plays the wise cracking mystical-magical black man etc. Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up to deliver bumper-sticker lines. This version may be remembered for its South American-looking depiction of the famous carpenter. Bekmambetov, halfway through, appears to wake up. The slave-ship sequence, training montages and almighty chariot race are particularly inventive. The grand sound design and fun action beats reduce the tedium.

Ben-Hur, like most of 2016’s blockbusters, is unnecessary, generic and borderline offensive. This useless remake squanders a fantastic cast, capable director and momentous resources. Attention Hollywood: Not everything should be remade!

Verdict: Pointless and unnecessary.