REVIEW: “The Accountant”

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A title like “The Accountant” doesn’t exactly scream action and thrills. Instead it triggers thoughts of financial statements and tax analysis. Not exactly riveting cinema, right? But who says you can’t have a movie with just as many ledgers and spreadsheets as guns and bullets? Okay perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but you get what I mean. The idea is pretty outlandish.

Despite sounding preposterous “The Accountant” is a solid bit of entertainment. It’s a heavily plotted thriller featuring mobsters, hitmen, corporate CEOs, Treasury agents, and of course number crunchers. As it peels back layer upon layer of its story (much of it through flashbacks), it makes a strong effort to cover every base in order to maintain even the smallest level of plausibility. At the same time it’s pretty honest about what it wants to be. It just wants to be a little too much.

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Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a forensic accountant working out of a strip-mall in Plainfield, Illinois. Christian has high-functioning autism which is detailed through a series of childhood flashbacks. It inhibits his social skills and causes him distress if he is unable to carry out a task to its end. But it also contributes to his accelerated comprehension of mathematics and deduction. The film has a surprisingly warm and respectful touch in its handling of autism and its effects.

Here’s where things take a twist. As an accountant Christian does more than just help farm families with their tax returns. He also traces insider financial fraud for some of the world’s biggest criminal organizations. This attracts the attention of Ray King (J.K. Simmons) of the Treasury Department who blackmails a young Treasury agent (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping locate and identify the man known only as “The Accountant”.

Christian is given his assignments by a mysterious Siri-like voice over the phone. He’s sent to audit Living Robotics after the company’s accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) discovers discrepancies with their financial numbers. Christian must maneuver through the relationships of the company’s CEO (John Lithgow), his sister and associate (Jean Smart), and his best friend and company CFO (Andy Umberger). Christian’s discoveries thrusts him and Dana into a web of corporate corruption with violent reverberations. And with his life in jeopardy, Christian reveals yet another layer to his character – a much more lethal layer.

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Director Gavin O’Conner’s previous two films couldn’t be more different – the surprisingly great MMA family drama “Warrior” and the not so good Natalie Portman western “Jane Got A Gun”. With “The Accountant” he has a lot to juggle, more than in his previous two films combined. For the most part he keeps the many moving parts and duel storylines in sync. At the same time we get a few too many conveniences that we are supposed to buy into. It also relies too heavily on the flashbacks, most likely a result of simply having too much story to tell.

By the film’s end you almost get the sense that they are teasing a franchise. Several pieces are put in place that invite a sequel. “The Accountant” does plenty right – a good cast with good performances; bursts of intense well-shot action (occasionally laced with bits of dry humor); a dense but thoughtful story. Give me more of that and I will come back for another movie. But here’s a thought, maybe not so thickly plotted next time. More isn’t always better.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “After Hitler”

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Countless high quality documentaries have been made about World War 2, Adolph Hitler, the Holocaust, etc. Their importance can’t be understated especially as we grow further away from that period of time. Over the years documentarians have challenged viewers with their insightful explorations from an assortment of angles. Jonathan Martin’s “World War II in Color” is a superbly exhaustive series. Claude Lazmann’s “Shoah” and Marcel Ophüls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” are seminal works on the Jewish Holocaust. I could go on.

“After Hitler” puts its unique focus on a scarred post-war Europe delving into the war’s emotional, economic, societal, and political after-effects. Co-writer and director David Korn Brzoza covers a lot of ground starting in late 1945 and moving to the end of the decade. An incredible collection of colorized video footage from across the continent paints the picture of a weary, ravaged but optimistic people.

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But their optimism is quickly squashed as many countries face painful and often violent new realities. Brzoza and narrator Vincent Lindon present an array of truths concerning the new landscape of Europe – dark and disturbing pictures that have often gone forgotten. And exploration isn’t reserved for the countries Hitler’s Naziism terrorized. A big chunk of the documentary highlights Germany and the disaster left there by Hitler’s reign.

“After Hitler” hits its audiences with some brutal facts: the astonishing number of war orphans, a death toll of nearly 40 million European men, women, and children, disturbing ethnic post-war retaliations. This just scratches the surface of what Brzoza reveals. Deeper revelations from the Nuremberg trials, mass displacement, starvation – the scars of World War 2 are visualized in bone-shaking reality.

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There is also the political side which the film pays close attention to particularly in the second half. Starting with Churchill’s prediction and early warnings of Stalin’s rise. From there we see the rise of Communism, the birth of the single-party state, and eventually the solidification of the Iron Curtain. Brzoza shows that not only did Hitler’s devastating aggression dramatically change the landscape of Europe, but it opened the door for a new threat that would define the landscape for years to come.

There is one sobering quote from the film regarding post-war Europe that has stuck with me – “It’s as if before the page can be turned it must be stained with violence.” Brzoza does a superb job of realizing that. “After Hitler” does indeed cover a lot of ground and for the most part does so sufficiently. There were subjects that I wish the film sat down and explored more thoroughly, but for such a comprehensive undertaking it does a fine job. The ending is a bit abrupt, but it puts all the pieces together and smartly connects one violent decade to the ominous next one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The African Doctor” (2016)

doctor-posterKamini Zantoko (known simply as Kamini) is a French rapper of Congolese decent who became an internet sensation with his music videos depicting life in rural France. His first single was 2006’s “Marly-Gomont”, a song about growing up in a small Picard village of the same name. The humor-filled rap was actually based on Kamini’s life experience. As a young boy his father moved him and his family to Marly-Gomont to become the town’s doctor.

The influence of Kamini’s experience extends beyond rap tunes and music videos. It also drove him to co-write the script for the 2016 comedy-drama “The African Doctor”. It tells the story of Kamini’s father Seyolo Zantoko (portrayed by Marc Zingo) who is the only African graduate from his French medical school. Seyolo turns down a lucrative job in his home country and accepts one in the small all-white village of Marly-Gomont. But Seyolo and the desperate town mayor who hired him underestimate the backlash from the townsfolk who can’t shake their own ingrained prejudices.

Director  Julien Rambaldi (who also co-wrote the script with Kamini) examines this social quagmire through two intriguing narrative threads. The first is the most obvious – the plight of a black family trying to integrate into a narrow-minded, all-white community. Seyolo’s plan is to simply endure the initial discomforts and win over the villagers. But the fears and prejudices he and his family face are significant and at times overwhelming.

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The other thread centers around Seyolo’s bull-headed vision for his family. In his mind his desire for French nationality and better education for his kids can only be accomplished through the Marly-Gomont job. It’s an interesting position that subtly speaks to the lack of opportunity available at that time. But it also creates a wall between this genuinely loving father and his family. His insensitivity towards the pressures and persecution they are enduring threatens to tear them apart.

Seyolo’s wife Anne (wonderfully played by Aïssa Maïga) is smothering in loneliness and dreams of moving to Paris or Brussels. With her family in Africa and no friends in the village, her patience is paper-thin. His daughter Sivi (Médina Diarra) is a soccer prodigy but prohibited from playing on her school’s team first because she’s a girl and second because her father feels soccer is a waste of time. Young Kamini (Bayron Lebli) is a smart well-behaved boy who is forced to face racism for the first time at his new school. Yet Seyolo is impervious to their struggles.

 

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Considering all of that it’s hard to envision this as anything other than a heavy, troubling social drama. Actually it’s a very funny film that often puts a humorous spin on the absurdity of the ignorance on display. The village has its assortment of oddballs that add some good laughs while feeding the central conflict. Some may find this to be too lighthearted of an approach considering the topic, but I never lost sight of the seriousness amid the comedy. And I trust Kamini’s first-hand experiences enough not to view this as a sugar-coating.

“The African Doctor” is a quirky movie with a good sense of humor, a better message and a lot of heart. The balance of comedy and biting social drama is well-managed though it may not impress those looking for a more serious, aggressive take to the subject matter. But I would argue there is a lot of meaning packed into this film and the approach it chooses to take suits it just fine.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Man Called Ove”

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While not exactly a genre in itself, movies about grumpy old men were once pretty common and came in all forms. Think about this variety for a second – Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol”, Clint Eastwood’s “Grand Torino”, the Pixar gem “Up”, and of course the two “Grumpy Old Men” movies. This is just a handful of examples yet none of these films are quite like the Swedish dramedy “A Man Called Ove”.

Rolf Lassgård stars and plays the title character Ove. He’s a crusty old curmudgeon who runs his neighborhood association with an iron fist even though he was deposed as its president a few years earlier. His zero-tolerance policies puts him at odds with some residents while others laugh him off as Ove being Ove. Things get even worse after he is squeezed into early retirement by his young supervisors.

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The cantankerous Ove meets his match when a young family moves in across the street. Things get off to a rocky start with Ove letting them have it for every little infraction. But the young mother Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) is impervious to Ove’s belligerence. In fact, she kind of gets a kick out of it. What follows is an unexpected friendship with potential life-changing effects for Parvaneh but especially Ove.

This odd relationship helps to crack open the Ove character and reveal the reasons for his misery. He slowly makes more sense to us. The frequent visits to his wife’s grave and a series of flashbacks paint a picture of a man stricken by heartbreak, sorrow, and loneliness. But don’t let that fool you. This is a black comedy at its core. There are some really good laughs some from unexpected places. Writer-director Hannes Holm juggles the wacky range of emotions and the periodic time hops fairly seamlessly which is no small task.

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Lassgård deserves a lot of credit as well. His stone-faced persona is helped by some really good makeup (for which it earned an Oscar nomination) but is mostly carried by the actor’s charisma. There’s also Lassgård’s snarling snark which is so finely in sync with Holm’s wickedly funny dialogue. And when he’s asked to tone down the crabbiness (ever so slightly) the actor pulls it off without coming across as manipulative.

“A Man Called Ove” was a huge hit in its native Sweden becoming the third highest-grossing domestic movie in the nation’s history. It’s easy to see why. Despite his prickly nature the film’s protagonist is easy to enjoy and eventually sympathize with. That’s mainly due to the surprising amount of tenderness packed into the story and a fabulous lead performance. And now two well-deserved Oscar nominations are icing on this surprise hit’s cake.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Assassin’s Creed”

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I just knew they existed even before the first screenings of “Assassin’s Creed” – the haughty dismissive jabs at yet another ‘video game movie’. Nevermind that video games have evolved from simple pixels and sprites into vast interactive experiences often times anchored by deep, thoughtful stories. Forget that video games have surpassed both Hollywood and the music industry in the entertainment market. Many people simply won’t treat video games or their movie adaptations seriously, so in that regard “Assassin’s Creed” was already behind the proverbial eight ball.

But there is another unavoidable truth. Filmmakers aren’t doing much to quell these attitudes. In fact, video games have a history of spawning some truly terrible film adaptations. Look no further than “Super Mario Bros.”, “Street Fighter”, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” just to name a few. But isn’t “Assassin’s Creed” different? I mean it stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling. With that amount of talent it can’t be as bad as many are saying, right? The short answer – no it isn’t, but it’s complicated.

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The immensely popular Assassin’s Creed video game franchise from developer Ubisoft is ripe with big screen potential. This film clearly intends to be a launching point for a film series. The games have never been restricted to certain characters which enables to movie to create entirely new ones and tell a new story within the same universe. Fassbender latched on early in the process not only starring but also co-producing.

The story takes place during two time periods – 2016 and 15th century Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. An age-old war between the Knights Templar and the Assassins has bled over into modern day driving the mysterious Abstergo Foundation to create the Animus. The machine allows Abstergo to connect people with their descendants in order to glean information from the past. The foundation is ran by Alan Rikkin (Irons) but the Animus creator Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) oversees the project. Both father and daughter have very different ideas for its use.

Enter Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who wakes up to find himself in an Abstergo facility. Lynch is the descendent of a 15th century Assassin named Aguilar de Nerha who may hold the key to locating a powerful relic called the Apple of Eden. Sophia sees the relic as a tool for global peace while others at Abstergo have much more nefarious intentions.

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Let’s get this out of the way. “Assassin’s Creed” isn’t the wretched, soulless dreck its Rotten Tomatoes score would have you believe. In fact, a solid two-thirds of its running time is a ton of fun especially for those familiar with the franchise. The film nicely juggles Creed’s signature crazy mix of action, historical drama, and science fiction while tossing out several nods to fans. But you don’t need to be an aficionado to understand what’s going on, at least until the last act. At that point things get a bit muddled and messy as the film tries to tie up its many layers of plot.

Director Justin Kurzel (who had previously worked with Fassbender and Cotillard in “Macbeth”) offers several interesting touches as he works in two very different time periods and locations. The 15th century sequences are exhilarating particularly one street chase that may be my favorite action sequence of the year. Kurzel and regular cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shoot the scenes with gusto and great detail. When it moves back to modern day it leaves the dusty, dirty shades of brown for cold, dreary blues and greys. This is where most of the story plays out.

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But now I get back to that third act. Overall I disagree with the criticisms calling the plot convoluted and overblown, at least for the majority of the film. But as it wraps things up it does get a little confusing. The story moves into full franchise setup mode, putting characters and tensions in places that clearly points to follow-up movies. There are some good elements to the finale, but some messiness as well. Even the action takes a step down in last 15 minutes.

Still, I had fun with “Assassin’s Creed” particularly with its wildly unique (and admittedly wacky) story. It also doesn’t hurt to have this level of acting talent in front of the camera. It does fall victim to some of the usual franchise-building frustrations, but at the same time it sets itself up for limitless possibilities. Where does it go next – the Civil War, the French Revolution, the Cold War? I don’t know. First it will depend on the box office and so far that hasn’t looked too promising.

VERDICT 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Arrival”

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The cryptic and ambiguous ad campaign for Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” made the movie impossible to define. Some things are obvious. “Arrival ” is clearly science fiction and it looks to be playing around in the ‘alien invasion’ sub-genre. Past that it’s hard to tell what this movie is. There isn’t a glimpse of alien warfare or mass destruction. Actually there is no big action highlight to speak of. Since Hollywood has influenced our leanings towards that type of movie, I’m certain some people will leave “Arrival” having expected something far different than what they were given.

Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker as difficult to pin down as his new movie. But there is one thing we can learn from his small but impressive filmography. Villeneuve loves tension and his ability to ratchet it up through a wild assortment of means is showcased in each of his movies. “Arrival” is a much different project but it doesn’t take long to recognize that common thread of tension.

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The film is based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” which played with linguistics and communication inside of an alien encounter. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer stick close to that idea. Their adaptation isn’t about flying saucers, alien abductions, or the CGI devastation of Earth’s metropolises. It’s much more cerebral and metaphysical. I guess you could say this is the thinking man’s alien abduction movie.

Amy Adams plays Louise, a language professor who, along with everyone else on the planet, is shocked when twelve mysterious spacecraft land at different points around the globe. After one ship lands in Montana, Louise is approached by Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead a team sent in to communicate with the aliens. She is to work alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find the answer to the biggest question – what is their purpose here?

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To answer that question Louise and Ian must first learn the alien’s highly advanced language which comes in the form of symbols resembling inkblots or coffee mug stains. For Louise it’s imperative that her superiors be patient, but as world governments begin to cave to paranoia it could be us who ushers in a global catastrophe.

There is another reoccurring layer to the story that feeds into the overall mystery. From the opening shot we get flashbacks to a tragedy from Louise’s past. The more she learns of the alien language the more vivid her flashbacks become. In addition to developing suspense, these sequences provide a human pulse to the film mainly because of Adams’ measured performance. She is sophisticated enough as an actress to remain genuine and understated which keeps her character emotionally grounded.

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Villeneuve’s storytelling is both patient and methodical which is sure to frustrate some and blow the minds of others. Yet while deliberate, the aforementioned tension never fully leaves even in the quieter scenes. That’s in big part thanks to an ever-present sense of dread and an eerie ominous mood which is clearly a focal point. Villeneuve has shown himself to be a stylish, visual filmmaker and he combined his flair for tantalizing imagery with cinematographer Bradford Young’s love for deep shadows and natural lighting. Also adding to the mood is the ethereal, off-kilter score from Villeneuve favorite Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s both beautiful and foreboding – some of the best use of movie music this year. Plus there is the use of Max Richter’s exquisitely haunting “On the Nature of Daylight” which is such a perfect fit.

The film’s final act becomes a real mindbender as we start fitting together all of the pieces including some things we didn’t even know were pieces. This too is sure to split audiences between those who go for its mental gymnastics and those who see it as too much. Me, I loved it from the start. I appreciated the intelligent science fiction, but also how the film steps beyond genre. It turned out to be far more intimate and thought-provoking than I ever expected. And all of that on top of the superb visuals, art direction, and score. “Arrival” is an absolute gem from Denis Villeneuve and hopefully a precursor to his next movie, 2017’s Blade Runner sequel.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M