The Accountant

There’s a good film in here somewhere. As it stands now, it’s a good-looking, generally well-acted, occasionally very confusing jumble. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, probably best known for Miracle, The Accountant is the story of an autistic accountant with ninja skills who makes a lot of money for very bad people, and is frighteningly good at forensic accounting. (That’s about as much as anyone should know before seeing it.) It’s also a film about human connection, brothers, questionable parenting, the autism spectrum, cutting edge computer technology, and the odd combination of greed and altruism. It ultimately doesn’t work (almost tempted to say it doesn’t add up, but I won’t go there….), and the parts definitely don’t come together for a completely satisfying whole. But it has its pleasures.

Chief among them is Anna Kendrick, playing a role that could have gone off in any number of wrong directions, but who provides the film’s only connection with the world that the rest of us live in. She’s real, funny, and cute in a way that never leaves the film behind. I wondered how her presence would work in a dramatic action film with edge. Turns out very well indeed.

Jean Smart is also in the film, which got me curious as to how this underrated actress would fare. Turns out not well indeed. Not that she isn’t good; she’s just barely in the film at all.

Of course, most of the attention has been toward the talented director/OK actor Ben Affleck. Affleck’s persona is kind of dully intelligent, with “dull” taking on both major meanings. He’s a strong physical presence, which works well with the action scenes. And he knows how (generally) to create a technical performance of a character with limited and learned social skills and a deeply hidden inner life. In this case, we don’t really get a hint of the inner life, which is characteristic of this actor’s performances. It’s a necessarily minimalistic performance, so the occasional moves into humor are both a blessed relief and at the same time a bit unbelievable. In recent years, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) have shown us how to combine a brilliant technical performance with a lockdown on the character underneath the external learned traits. Here, Affleck (about to be upstaged in the acting department by his brother) shows us the difficulties of doing that.

Also a mixed blessing is Jon Bernthal. He swirls around his character in the first part of the film, when he has to be a strange combination of threatening and reasonable. Later, when his character is thinking and acting more straightforwardly, he is the scary menace we all know and love. Acclaimed and talented actor John Lithgow has a minor and eventually irritating role as a forceful leader who ends up repeatedly asking, “What’s going on?” or “What’s happening now?” as a kind of audience stand-in that robs him of his authority and the viewer of his sanity.

J.K. Simmons gets another opportunity to show us his range (see Whiplash) with a character we’re not sure at first that we can trust (everyone is double- and triple-crossing everyone else, and deceiving everyone in sight, so we’re often not sure of anyone’s trustworthiness). The film eventually leans more on him, his past and his current situation more than we think, and Simmons’ innate connection to his audience helps hold the second half of the film together.

The various strands of the film’s layered narrative are ultimately explained toward the end, though often awkwardly and in a rushed manner. While providing some answers to the confusion we’re thrown into for far too long, the revelations come too quickly, too clumsily and too late. But there is nothing else out there like this, combining accounting with autism, money laundering and deception on every level. As a work of art, it fails. As entertainment, its decent acting and narrative convolutions may work for those who love numbers and violence in equal measure.

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After J. Edgar and Jersey Boys, I had thought that Clint Eastwood was, to be blunt, getting too old and was losing his touch. Then came American Sniper, which had the force and energy of a 30-year-old behind it. Now comes Sully. It’s not in the same league as American Sniper, but instead is a Grand Entertainment in the old “movie-movie” tradition. It tells a clear (and well known) story well. There is nothing groundbreaking, little that’s excellent, but all of it is solid.

It’s the story of the Miracle on the Hudson that captivated America several years ago. Most of the challenges of presenting a story we think we know have been answered, and answered well. The film’s greatest strength is probably in the casting of its two leads—Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) and Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Of course Hanks is still Mr. All-American, and tends to represent that here more than act, in spite of a good performance. It’s not that he didn’t find a character to play. It’s just that that character wasn’t as nailed as say, Captain Phillips in the film of the same name (nor was Hanks’ acting as good). And it’s just that it’s impossible not to see our current national embodiment of rectitude and patriotism and see instead a man who was essentially shy in nature and didn’t want the attention.

Getting less screen time but granting strong support is the underrated Eckhart, who helps round out both action and character throughout. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, but there is no screen time shared, and Linney does her usual edgy, naturalistic thing. But she just doesn’t present either the warmth or sympathy of the other American actress who combines those two attributes, Julianne Moore. It’s necessary in terms of the narrative to show Mrs. Sully, I suppose, or the audience would be distracted wondering about Sully’s home life. But it doesn’t add anything to either our understanding or our hearts.

The script is generally strong, but also has one big flaw, and then falls apart at the end. The film structures itself like The Social Network and The Usual Suspects, with a set of proceedings intercut with action. It works for a film where the action, a mere 208 seconds, is quick and exciting but has a known ending. The film breaks it down into pieces, and includes two landings, both of which contribute and are exciting in their own right. A number of minor, side stories are told (spoiler alert), including one where a transportation professional assumed that a water landing meant a horrible crash, and later finds out that everyone made it through. There are other stories, too, and they add layers to the narrative and help round out the experience for us emotionally.

Unfortunately, there are two downsides to the script. One is that the investigations that follow this kind of airplane failure are normal, with questions needing to be asked. It’s obvious that this is where the filmmakers wanted to place the central conflict, as the flight’s ending wasn’t in question. But some good guys come off as the bad guys, and in spite of the film’s weak protests (along with Sully’s) that these folks have to ask these questions, the conflict comes off as a bit artificial. Also (spoiler alert again), the question regarding the second engine gets answered in a rather deus ex machina matter right at the end, and the film goes Disney on us when it most needed to get real.

But the greatest strength is the story. Like the recent The Finest Hours, there is a great story here. Unlike that film, this one gets it right. It’s sad that the great story behind The Finest Hours will probably never get the cinematic treatment it deserves because a big-budget second-rate film was made of it. Fortunately for Sullenberger, Skiles and everyone else onboard Flight 1549, Sully is worth a viewing, and perhaps more than one.

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Hell or High Water

What do you get when you combine No Country for Old Men, the newer True Grit, The Last Picture Show, Bonnie and Clyde, Lone Star and High Sierra? It may well be something like Hell or High Water, a film getting nowhere near the attention it deserves. The plot has something to do with two brothers, one of whom cared for their recently deceased mom and one who was able to avoid that responsibility by being in prison.

But the plot is just what all the talk and action hangs on. There are bank robberies, close working friendships both connected and repelled by racist remarks said with something like love, a look at the depressed plains and economies of Texas, strong anti-bank sentiments that sound like they came from pre-Code, Depression-era films, deep brotherly love, and a father’s somewhat misguided sense of parental care.

The script is the high point of the film. Lean and mean, it implies rather than tells, revealing in layers rather than in the first few minutes. It respects the viewer, and demands some work on the viewer’s part, and for that is a delightful rarity. It’s also very funny, though not in the way most comedies are; the laughs are in our responses to the one-liners and back-and-forth discussions. Nothing is played for laughs, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of humor to be enjoyed.

The cinematography is sometimes gritty and real, and sometimes a little too self-consciously beautiful, like the recent True Grit. But that older film had a fable-like quality that Hell or High Water seems to eschew, and the contrast between the two styles can be disconcerting at times.

The acting helps hold things together. Chris Pine, who has proven his action hero and musical chops, must have loved being offered this role, one that is aimed at producers and directors more than the public. It’s a decided change of pace for him. It’s an internal performance except when it’s not, and the actor holds back when necessary instead of grabbing the emotional moments for all they’re worth. Matching him is Ben Foster, well known for his patented brand of crazy. The apparent Richard Widmark of our generation, Foster does crazy from the inside instead of the outside, yet can charm a snake when necessary.

On the other side of the law is another great pair. The stronger half of the pair is Jeff Bridges, doing a little-more-understandable Rooster Cogburn vocally (will someone please give him another kind of role–please?). Of course he’s good, and his character may supply the grist for many an analytical paper on the push-pull relationship he has with his Mexican/Native American partner, played by Gil Birmingham, who is touchingly believable if he’s speaking or silently reacting to Bridges’ character.

The film feels both hot and cool. The desolate countryside and country roads feel sweaty and uncomfortable, yet the sensibility of the film is somewhere between yesterday’s Westerns and today’s indie films. There is also a “does it belong or not?” coda to the film’s main activities, one that reminded this viewer of the final speech and theme of unstoppable evil that came at the end of No Country for Old Men. The film is clearly aiming at a deeper meaning about many an issue (fatherhood, responsibility, lack thereof, etc.) that the film has touched on. Whether that scene overstates or lifts the film may be decided upon over time. I’m undecided—but not about the worth of the film.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Before I begin the analysis, it’s time for a full disclosure. No, I don’t know anyone associated with the film, and I have no vested financial interest in it. But I look at films like this differently from most other folks. To begin with, I’m a musician. I sing, play the piano, work with other vocalists, direct a choir, accompany our local college choir, am part of a small musical theatre troupe, occasionally musically direct and often perform musically with my wife, who has a glorious soprano voice. I’ve also studied musicals most of my life, and am currently writing a book on some musicals, focusing in part on the vocals. So I can’t see this film from a distance. The reality of singing and accompanying is too much a part of my life.

That aside, this film is in part a traditional “well-made” film that just happens to successfully balance elements that could have sent the film careening in one direction or another. Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich, entitled, clueless society woman with a great interest in music and very little sense of pitch. People say she had a terrible voice. That’s not quite true. Her voice was OK, but it was buried under a near complete inability to hit more than two notes at a time on the correct pitch. The fact that she was some kind of coloratura soprano made this all the more painful to listen to, as she felt more comfortable “singing” in the upper reaches of her high soprano range, where the musical massacres were all the more dramatic.

To present this kind of personality in any realistic sense involves the derision and criticism her voice invited. But most filmmakers won’t construct a film on such a weak foundation. So we have a variety of viewpoints, at one moment hilariously appalled, then spitefully critical, then sympathetic and then, campily supportive. The film doesn’t quite synthesize these attitudes, but manages to present them all as legitimate, perhaps even legitimate at the same moment. There may not be a recent film that has its main characters (except Jenkins, of course) convey such a variety of thoughts and reactions at the same time as this one: joy, confusion, bewilderment, offensiveness, and self-service all flit across the faces of the other characters, depending on what Florence is doing.

The script contributes to the mixed yet basically respectful perspectives we have on the lead character. Early in the film, we track with the surprised and horror-struck pianist (Simon Helberg), who has a classic “can’t hold it in any longer” scene that we’ll likely see replayed many times over in the coming years. But just as we dismiss Florence as an addled old lady with too much money and too little self-awareness, we get more of her backstory, and our sympathies are engaged. The more we learn, the more we understand. Yet truthfully, the film doesn’t quite satisfactorily explain how her (spoiler alert) “husband” really feels about her. He is her ardent supporter, yet with his own set of conflicting thoughts and emotions about her talents, especially as he is hearing her “sing”. He seems to support her in her illusions, and works hard to protect her from the realities of her weaknesses. But other than cold-hearted greed and/or at least financial dependency, which seems to have been an integral part of their relationship, the film shies away from going anywhere near there, leading to something of a question mark in understanding their relationship dynamics.

The other question the film doesn’t seem to pin down to this viewer’s satisfaction is why and how she came to be such a phenomenon. There is a little “You go, girl” thrown in at the end from a minor character. But that attitude doesn’t seem to be part and parcel of her listening audience. We’re certain made aware of her wealth, but the apparent sycophancy of the members of her many music groups and circles is only vaguely suggested, leaving us wondering how intelligent (and in most cases, musically intelligent) people could let this charade continue for so long. The film’s tag line, “You don’t have to be good to be great” suggests something the film doesn’t quite deliver.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Philomena) may have been the perfect choice for combining hard reality with soft edges, and he does that again here. In other hands, this film could have been cruel, or an indictment of the upper classes of New York combined with a “Look, the emperor has no clothes” kind of attitude. But he makes sure that in spite of her lacks (and shunting aside what must have been a rather controlling and imperious attitude) and cluelessness, we care for her, and nearly adopt the protective attitude of her “husband.” (See the documentary on her from 2008 to understand the quotes.)

Working with that vision are three actors giving some of the best characterizations of the year. Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield gives a surprisingly shaded and deep performance (see, walking a tightrope between genuine loving care and complete indulgence. Helberg as Cosmé McMoon (yes, that’s a real name) may have the most difficult male role in that we are meant to relate to him and to track with his shock and his own developing desires for a career. His scene of accompanying his first voice lesson with Florence is full of complicated emotional reactions while being uproariously funny at the same time. He is the one person keeping the film grounded in some kind of relatable reality, and he does it well.

Of course the film belongs to Meryl Streep, who proves once again the vast scope of her acting talents. I’ve never been a big fan of her singing voice, but here her musicality is used to its fullest extent. Only a real singer, or at least an actor with a good understanding of singing, could pull off the vocal challenges of playing Florence Foster Jenkins. It takes someone good to sing this badly. That in itself is one of the greatest technical challenges of her career, right up there with her various languages in Sophie’s Choice. Yet more than that, this role calls for Streep to turn her most common artistic criticism on its head. She has been rightly described as being a bit too technically oriented, and not warm and relatable enough in her characterizations. She can be a bit too cool and distant at times. Here, though, she is the opposite, and gives Florence a warmth and sympathy she may not have had in real life. Streep is the warmest presence in the film (words I thought I’d never write), and helps us care greatly for her character even as we scratch our heads in amazement and confusion about the reactions and motivations of those around her. She’ll of course receive another record Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. Conquering the vocal challenges is difficult enough (and I’m not sure how many other actresses could do it); helping us see why people laugh at her, and then getting us to care so much for her is as difficult as the off-key singing.

Finally, however, this is a very funny film, the funniest I’ve seen in ages. Being a singer and an accompanist puts me in the position of enjoying some of the humor more deeply than others, perhaps. But the film itself is light and deft enough to be enjoyed by everyone. Balancing its many strands of appreciation, horror, humor and sympathy is some kind of triumph. Happily for most viewers, however, the sheer enjoyment of the experience makes us forget all the hard work and artistic success behind the scenes, and presents the wonder that was FFJ.

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Jason Bourne

In terms of a summer action film, this is an enjoyable repeat. It’s got director Paul Greengrass’s patented non-stop camera technique, and it features America’s most likeable heroes, the cinematic Bourne and the real-life Matt Damon. It’s a pleasurable and gratifying recipe, one that’s both fun and ultimately forgettable.

With director Greengrass back at the help with Damon after the regrettable Tony Gilroy/Jeremy Renner attempt at a reboot in 2012 (they could have asked me about that and saved millions….), this one coulda/shoulda been the one to wrap things up. Instead, it pretty much treads water, awaiting the next entry, even if the splashing around is satisfying.

(Spoilers ahead.) Damon is solid as ever, and while a little heavier and older, has clearly spent enough hours in the gym to convince us of his abilities to fight and live. Unfortunately, the storyline is the same as ever; he’s being pursued, and his life in on the line approximately every 17 minutes. If the story had ended in some revelation that ultimately made a difference, or if things had come to a conclusion, the meandering might have taken on a deeper meaning. Instead, the whole thing ends up feeling like the “next installment” in the series that will go on until the character dies, ages out, or finds a way to disappear and be happy at the same time.

Julie Stiles as Nicky reappears, and we hope for some information that brings real light and/or romance. She brings some information, but it’s not the breakthrough we as viewers have been looking for, and then she dies. We are sorry to see her go, but since the relationship between Nicky and Bourne has never gotten that deep or interesting, the regret at her passing is minimal.

More interesting is the ever-changing presence of Vincent Cassel, that French embodiment of intensity and anger, as someone who appears to be a hireling but we discover has a close and personal vested interest in destroying Bourne. It adds the kind of twist that makes the old Western The Searchers so fascinating. In that film, the question goes from “Will they find her?” to “What is going to happen to her if they do?” Cassel, playing “The Asset,” adds that extra layer that helps bring the film to life.

Probably hired for international appeal is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina). A talented actress with a long and successful career ahead of her, she is miscast here. She is a soft-spoken talent who plays her characters internally and deeply. Her Heather Lee is strong, forthright and direct, even edgy. Vikander is anything but as an actress; even her soft voice is difficult to understand at times. Her talent allows her to make the character her own, but it’s not a good match.

Greengrass’s style, so fresh and new with the earlier Bourne films, United 93 and Captain Phillips, needs a rest–literally. I found myself hoping for a moment of respite, a time to catch a breath, a moment to ponder. Even Jason Bourne gets the occasional moment to think and sleep. It’s a relentless style of filmmaking, and one that needs shaking up.

The fight scenes are not quite the set pieces we’ve come to expect. They seem shorter and less exciting. Oscar-winning editor Christopher Rouse either seems to have either less to work with, or is deliberately leaning down the fight scenes. In the earlier Bourne films, they were moments that helped break the intensity of the camera style with their rhythms and energy (if we didn’t get quiet moments, at least we got some relief in the form of artful and powerful fighting). The film misses those explosions of energy.

On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones plays an intense, anger-under-the-collar, overly focused character. And…?

The series is branching out by going into side stories. This one contains government-business relationships, technology issues, privacy concerns and more inter-departmental intrigue within the government. That’s one way of enriching a franchise entry. Another perhaps more satisfying one would be to dig deeper into the human issues of identity, family betrayal and even of growing up and continued self-discovery.

With the talents at work that we find in front of and behind the camera, Jason Bourne can’t help but be a fun ride. Any future entry, however, needs to deal with the repercussions of what is brought to light in this film, and would do well to grant us some reflection and yes, some meaningful resolution.

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding II

The original My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a monstrous hit in 2002. It had a fresh take on an everyday story, and was funny, a little edgy and safe. It was lovingly infused with the experiences and perspectives of Greek comic Nia Vardalos, who wrote the screenplay and starred in it.

What made that film enjoyable, if not groundbreaking in any way, was its consistent loving and slightly horrified viewpoint on her Greek family, which was too tightknit, completely inappropriate at times, very supportive, and occasionally silly (e.g., Windex). But it was all of a piece, as viewers experienced her life one real-life experience at a time in a narrative arc that was comfortable and nonthreatening. As a classic comedy, it ended in a marriage, and like Moonstruck, the film brought all the fun ethnic craziness to a peak at the end.

The sequel takes place a couple of decades later, and is an unfunny mess. (Spoilers follow.) The necessary “wedding” is based on an absurdity, and the repercussions of the action that leads to that wedding are predictable and unbelievable at the same time. The film ends up as a series of gags around the various personalities; we discover nothing new or deeper, a series of unfunny jokes skimming off the surfaces of familiar people and scenarios rather than a fresh take on those folks and the circumstances around them.

The one triumph of the film is a producing one. They seemed to have managed to get the entire cast together for the sequel. Unfortunately, none of those involved can be happy about the final result. The screenplay is a missed opportunity, and the direction is hackneyed. Vardalos is still a warm and welcome screen presence, but even her character has been pushed into a helicopter parent mode that doesn’t make sense and isn’t properly supported.

There is a nod to today in the introduction of a character as gay. Nothing in the first film indicated that to be true, but both the character’s current situation and way that the film handles it should provide great study how to shoehorn an unwarranted sociological issue into a script while still essentially avoiding its ramifications. In fact, how the film addresses the issue is the funniest part of the film. To be truthful, there is one funny gag that works, and it involves what some of the women do when a photo is being taken. Otherwise, the gags fall flat.

If you enjoyed the first film, keep your recollections of it. If you want to revisit the characters, see the first film again and keep your precious memories safe.

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The Legend of Tarzan

Nearly 100 years ago, the first (silent) Tarzan film opened—Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln. Since then, the grand story has been reworked for several generations, the most famous series of films coming in the early-to-mid ‘30s, with the definitive Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller.

1984’s awkwardly titled Tarzan: The Legend of Greystoke, Lord of the Apes, brought a lean and mean Tarzan in the person of French actor Christopher Lambert, more time spent at the family mansion of Greystoke, and a fascinating first film performance from model Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day), whose Southern accent was so troublesome that her dialogue was stripped and replaced by an (then) unknown New York actress named Glenn Close.

The combination of political correctness and genuine sensitivity has conspired to challenge the newer Tarzan films to be relevant while being exciting. So now we have the newest Tarzan offering, The Legend of Tarzan. As a rollicking adventure film, it can be enjoyed on that level. But with the casting of brooding actor Alexander Skarsgard, I had high hopes that this would be a smarter, deeper film. Then the first few minutes give us two quick clichés—fine actor Christophe Waltz (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) as the too cool, sharp villain, and the fine actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Blood Diamond, In America) as an important tribal African chief—and my eyes glazed over just a bit.

The film works hard to place the legend into something of an edgy historical context involved the king of Belgium, the colonial raping of the Congo, and the larger issue of slavery. It never quite gels, and never quite informs the central plot with anything but an awkward push into the narrative. It was exciting at first to find John Clayton (Tarzan/Skarsgard) at home in England in his grand manor with beautiful wife Jane (Margot Robbie, who appears to be able to do anything in terms of acting). But we find him restless, eager to escape the jungle of English society and get back to his African home.

He’s obviously got to get to Africa, which the film manages to do rather quickly after that bumpy beginning. Once there, however, the film is all over the place. There is a plot, of course, but the film ends up (spoiler alert) as another damsel-in-distress film, even while paying some lip service to secondary, minor issues such as national bankruptcy, colonial pillaging, inter-tribal warfare, and the slave market. To be sure, Robbie is hardly the typical weak damsel, but she still has to be rescued by the big guy.

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who simultaneously injects the film with a shoe-horned black presence that is supposed to be meaningful in some way, gives the film its biggest kick, and is wildly, wildly anachronistic in dialogue and tone. I lost track of how many modern quips he made that were, say, 120 years out of their time. While Skarsgard can capture the timeframe of 1890 with ease, and Robbie and Waltz are generic enough in their performances not to stick out, Jackson and his modern presence turn this film into something else–funny and wonderful on some level, but strange at the same time. It’s akin to having Bill Murray show up in a Jane Austen film.

Warning: If you’re as sick of CGI as many others are at the moment, skip this one. Phony ships on phony water, phony jungles, phony apes (so many phony apes!) and phony ostriches in phony races. There are some stunning real vistas, but far too much of the action is captured in that vague, dusky look that is modern CGI.

Skarsgard is a longer, leaner Tarzan than we normally expect, and his moodiness brings a fresh touch. But there’s too much introspection, too much moodiness. His passions are more hidden than they need to be. His connection with Jane, too, is underplayed, and a few of their scenes look cut down from another, more romantic film.

Lastly, there is a daring use of flashback that is praiseworthy in its lack of explanation; we just have to realize, that, oh, here is a flashback that explains…something. It’s a bold move, but doesn’t quite come off as the film keeps going back to his past in the jungle. Perhaps they are trying to cover too much territory and all the jumps back in time don’t quite come together as a whole. Or perhaps, the flashbacks simply pose another rhythm problem for a film already struggling in that department.

Being the newest iteration of the Tarzan myth, the film can be dumb fun. All the boxes are ticked—romance, comeuppance, some significant historical drama (but not too much), and some anachronistic comedy. Set your expectometer down, and you may well have a good time.

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