REVIEW: The Accountant

11 02 2017

In big-budget cinema these days, I’m looking to get a lot of bang for my buck. So are most Americans, many of whom are far more inclined than I am to browse for a better option on Netflix. Whatever Gavin O’Connor does in “The Accountant” gives me plenty of bang, but the noise comes from lots of big bullets being fired indiscriminately from a sniper rifle.

The film, written by Bill Dubuque, smashes several movies into one. There’s the Jason Bourne-like super assassin narrative, which is the one you sell during sports games. Then there’s the bit about an autistic wunderkind, Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff, uneasily assimilating into corporate America, which can be emphasized to select audiences to give the film an appearance of thematic heft. And don’t forget an awkward platonic romance subplot between said autistic man and his fumbling co-worker, Anna Kendrick’s Dana Cummings, for … wait, who exactly cares about this aspect?

All of these aspects compete for airtime in “The Accountant” with the latest Greengrass ripoff winning out most often. Whatever extra intrigue that Wolff’s condition might add to the film gets nullified by Affleck’s weak acting, which treats autism like an affect that turns on and off when convenient. The connective tissue of this closet killer to a larger scheme of financial malaise is weak, too, spoiling any chance for a sideshow to serve as pleasant diversion.

In fact, the only thing that O’Connor does manage to do well is advertise. “The Accountant” might represent the most elaborate promo for a Ford F-150 I’ve ever seen. If any clips of these scenes of Wolff driving were posted on social media, I should hope they were tagged with #ad or #sponsoredcontent. C2stars





REVIEW: Live by Night

11 01 2017

A few years ago, some lawmakers courted controversy by hyping themselves up for a debt ceiling showdown with a scene from Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” In the clip shown, a character flatly states, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” When asked for comment, Affleck was easily able to brush it off as willful misreading; no one could accuse his film of making a pure glorification of criminal enterprise.

Yet if someone were to do a hype session with a scene from Affleck’s latest film “Live by Night” – using what scene, I have no idea – the same dodging maneuver would not be so easy. This Florida-set, Prohibition-era gangster tale feels like less of a movie and more of a fantasy realized with tens of millions of Warner Bros. dollars. Though a novel by Dennis Lehane may form its backbone, make no mistake that the only shape the film takes is the splattered vomit of its directors influences all over the screen.

One could invent an “Affleck Homage” Bingo game to liven up the experience of watching the jumbled mess. One scene might be a clear nod to Gordon Willis’ photography in “The Godfather” with heavy shadows and amber/sepia lighting. Another, a Steadicam journey through a hotel’s back corridors similar to the notorious “GoodFellas” tracking shot. But all the hat tips are masking Affleck’s true fascination in “Live by Night” – himself.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of a gratuitous shirtless shot that led to chuckles both in “The Town” and “Argo.” Affleck’s insistence on slow pushes of the camera in on his stoic face signal an obsession with the undeveloped interior life of deal-making gangster Joe Coughlin. The world around him, which involves a show of force by the KKK, proves far more interesting. Yet Affleck would rather dwell in a tormented state of displaced Boston accents, ethnic conflicts and a scenario where what we now consider to be “white people” could be victims of persecution and discrimination.

At least it’s not all bad – he pretty much gives Chris Messina, playing Coughlin’s portly henchman Dion Bartolo, free range to unleash the full range of his charm and humor. It doesn’t exactly work within the rest of “Live by Night,” but given that so little else works in the film … maybe the film should have been just all Chris Messina. C2stars





REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

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REVIEW: To the Wonder

8 02 2015

To the Wonder” is probably the most Malickian (is that the right word – or would it be Malicky?) film that Terrence Malick has directed to date.  And that is not necessarily a good thing.

Like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, Malick’s stylistic hallmarks have transcended merely serving their story.  They are a recognizable brand.  Malick is so avant-garde and experimental, however, that his brand lacks a lot of commercial appeal.  (Though plenty of young filmmakers shamelessly try to imitate him.)

“To the Wonder” plays like a guide to make a Malick movie, rote and rather passionless.  It boils down what makes him distinct as a director into a series of clichés.  The film documents scenes from a love triangle (as portrayed by Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams) as well as a few from a Catholic priest (Javier Bardem) that crosses their path at some point.  As usual with Malick, the engine moving everything forward is the philosophical and existential musings spewed by multiple narrators rather than a traditional “plot.”

Having voiceover from more than one person is not a problem, but “To the Wonder” stumbles by not firmly deciding on a main character or protagonist.  The film does not just feel unfocused; it feels remarkably undisciplined.  By not providing an entry point to the proceedings, Malick leaves his audience in a position on the outside looking in.

Granted, simply observing the film could be worse since “To the Wonder” is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer behind iconoclastic films ranging from “The Tree of Life” to “Gravity” and “Birdman.”  While Lubezki hardly breaks boundaries or explores bold new territory here, even watching him on autopilot proves fascinating.  His technical proficiency combined with Malick’s eye for the beauty of nature makes for quite the dynamic duo.  They could even make a Sonic drive-in look magical – and in “To the Wonder,” they do just that.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Gone Girl

17 11 2014

The gender politic has never been so fun or fierce to observe as it manifests in “Gone Girl,” David Fincher’s wickedly delectable adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel.  His eye for detail and intuition for the dark impulses that drive human behavior is a fitting, if not immediately obvious, match for her understanding of the roles available for men and women to assume or subvert in society today.

Together, they perform quite an incisive autopsy of the modern marriage which is every bit as confrontational as it is challenging.  The devilish duo might only be topped ingenuity by Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), the crazy couple they breathe into cinematic existence.  In their own distinct ways, they will lie, manipulate, and forge as necessary to get what they want out of the other.

Games that couples play have traditionally been a rich territory to mine for drama, but perhaps only “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has dared to look this deep into the dark heart of nuptial discontent.  With their marriage plainly turned acrid, Nick finds himself at the center of suspicion when his wife mysteriously and rather suspiciously disappears.  The fact that Amy’s parents turned her life into inspiration for a best-selling children’s book series brings in a mob of overeager television personalities – led by a not-so-thinly veiled Nancy Grace surrogate (Missy Pyle) – going for his jugular.  It’s a trial by media, held in a writer’s room rather than a jury’s deliberation room.

Fincher does slightly overplay his hand in the first act of the film, all too clearly elucidating the unspoken implications and bringing to the forefront Flynn’s undertones of regional differences between Nick’s midwest community and Amy’s elite northeast upbringing.  Through Patrick Fugit’s assisting police officer on the case, whose face Fincher often cuts to after a plot development, the intended feelings for the audience get telegraphed a little too obviously.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Predictions, Part 4 (Directing)

8 01 2013

TWO MORE DAYS!  I’m slowly starting to lose my mind … or at least become so consumed with thinking about the Oscar nominations that I can think of little else.

See my predictions for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See my predictions for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

See my predictions for Best Actor and Best Actress.

Best Director

  1. Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln
  2. Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty
  3. Ben Affleck, “Argo
  4. Tom Hooper, “Les Misérables
  5. David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook

Kathryn Bigelow ZDTIn case you caught on, yes, I did intentionally structure my prediction breakdown so that I would get to publish post-Directors Guild nominations.  If you didn’t catch those this morning, they were Ben Affleck for “Argo,” Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Tom Hooper for “Les Misérables,” Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” and Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln.”

It’s worth noting, though, that the DGA has perfectly matched the Academy’s nominees only twice since 2000.

Having said that, Spielberg, Affleck, and Bigelow are in.  I don’t think anyone will debate that.  Even as “Zero Dark Thirty” seems to have knocked aback with the fatuous claims of torture endorsement, Bigelow remains firmly in place.  Heck, I think any of these three could win.  Who knows, maybe we could even have … a split year!

Spielberg won Best Director in 1998 for “Saving Private Ryan” even though “Shakespeare in Love” won Best Picture.  Could a similar surprise be in store this year?

Bigelow’s direction has earned her tremendous accolades again.  She’s been the critical choice pick of the year, often times winning even when “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t take Best Picture.  Will she take the prize again for her follow-up to “The Hurt Locker” just three years after winning her first Oscar?

Argo Best Director

And if “Argo” surges and looks poised to win Best Picture, Ben Affleck will likely win Best Director.  I don’t think he would benefit from a split.

Beyond the three of them, it gets dicier.  If you assume there are seven “safe” Best Picture nominees, you have four men competing for two spots: Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook,” Tom Hooper for “Les Misérables,” and Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained.”  That’s an impressive group that contains two winners and two nominees.

Some people seem to think “Les Misérables” is weak because the critics have defined people’s perceptions of the movie’s standing in the race.  This is “The King’s Speech” on steroids.  That movie beat the critical favorite, “The Social Network,” with no trouble at all.  And it didn’t need the critics groups at all; it only took one Best Picture prize.  Colin Firth was keeping the movie in discussion and taking most of the accolades, just as Anne Hathaway is doing now.

Hooper beat out David Fincher, who almost undeniably did more impressive work in “The Social Network,” in a year that perhaps more than ever screamed for a Picture-Director split.  If he can win for “The King’s Speech,” I don’t see how he doesn’t get nominated for “Les Misérables.”

Life of PiWhile many would say Ang Lee was just below the “big three,” I would say Hooper is far more secure.  I think the movie will play well with Academy voters, and I still think it could win Best Picture.  It will likely win three, if not four Golden Globes.  It could also win the ensemble award at SAG.  And if “Les Misérables” made them feel anywhere near as much as “The King’s Speech,” they know who pulled the strings of their tear ducts.  A nomination feels pretty secure to me.

“Life of Pi” support is fading.  Though I still think it will power through and get a Best Picture nomination, Fox seems to have dropped the ball on keeping the momentum going.  Lee did get nominations from HFPA and BFCA, albeit in a field of six for the latter.  And the DGA nod certainly helps.

But for all this talk of Lee getting a nomination for “Life of Pi” simply because it is incredibly ambitious or challenging do little to persuade me.  I know this is a totally different case, but that didn’t help Christopher Nolan for “Inception” in a tight year (the directing branch of the Academy loathes Nolan but likes Lee for some bizarre reason).  While he’s now in my good graces because of “Les Misérables,” artistic merit often takes a backseat to feel-good stories as shown by Hooper’s triumph in 2010 over Fincher and Aronofsky.

I can’t help but wonder if Lee will get the cold shoulder like David Fincher did last year for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  That film was getting love from the guilds left and right but was largely shunned by the Academy, including high-profile snubs in Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  Is “Life of Pi” that technical marvel that guilds will admire but Academy members won’t quite appreciate as much?

LincolnHowever, the Academy directing branch, comprised of only about 300-400 members, is notoriously snooty, arty, high-minded, or whatever adjective you want to use.  So maybe that will benefit Ang Lee.  But often times, it’s a boon to someone they respect but has received little recognition leading up to the nominations   With their out of the blue selections, they often provide some of the biggest surprises on nomination morning.

The ultimate case was in 2001 when they nominated David Lynch for “Mulholland Drive,” a movie that received no other nominations.  But more recent and reasonable examples are Terrence Malick for “The Tree of Life,” Paul Greengrass for “United 93,” and Mike Leigh for “Vera Drake.”  I think the most likely person to snab this kind of nomination would be Paul Thomas Anderson for “The Master.”  As much as I’d love to see that happen, I doubt it will.

They also like to nominate directors with vision working in foreign languages.  In the past decade, we’ve seen Best Director nominees Julian Schnabel for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Fernando Meirelles for “City of God,” and Pedro Almodóvar for “Talk to Her.”  For that reason, we can’t count out Michael Haneke popping up for “Amour.”  It’s certainly had the critical plaudits to be a non-shocking surprise.

David O

Maybe they really respect and admire the vision of Tarantino in “Django Unchained.”  They’ve been fans twice before, providing him nominations for 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” and 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds.”  Both of those, however, were preceded by DGA nominations.  The Weinstein Company has been floating the excuse that his passing over is due to DVD screeners not going out to DGA members.

But I think it’s telling that the Academy will stay away.  His only major nomination so far has been from the Golden Globes, and it’s clear they were high on “Django Unchained.”  I think it has proven to be much more of an audience success than a critical or guild one, though it has supporters amongst those groups.  The “Inglourious Basterds” nod was looking good from the beginning; this time around has not been so fortuitous for Tarantino.

I don’t feel that PTA or Haneke are nearly as revered as Malick and thus have the power to displace a sure-fire Best Picture nominee.  With all my reservations about Tarantino and Lee, I’m left to predict David O. Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook.”  Though overlooked by the DGA and the HFPA, he was a Critics Choice nominee and (perhaps more importantly) a nominee for Best Director for “The Fighter” in 2010.

Academy voters are creatures of habit.  If something works for them once, it often works again.  Why do you think so-called “Oscar bait” was born?  Once the studios figured out their tastes, they play right into their wheelhouse time after time.  “Silver Linings Playbook” is very similar to “The Fighter” in terms of tone and emotional payoff.  The only real difference this year is that he has directed a comedy as opposed to a drama.  (Although there is little funnier than Charlene beating up Micky’s white-trash sisters.)

So it looks like I’ll be predicting a more conservative, sure-fire Best Picture nominees slate here.  I know it’s at odds with the whole notion that the season is one of the most unpredictable ever.  But I’ve watched for the signs (to quote “Silver Linings Playbook”) and don’t get the sense that anything radically wacky is going to happen in Best Director.





Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Pre-Season Predictions, Part 1

27 11 2012

Best Picture

  1. Les Miserables
  2. Lincoln
  3. Argo
  4. Silver Linings Playbook
  5. Zero Dark Thirty
  6. The Master
  7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8. Life of Pi
  9. Moonrise Kingdom
  10. Amour

To quote “Les Miserables” itself, the time is now, the day is here.  Tom Hooper’s film has finally been revealed to critics and awards voters – and all reports indicate they are eating it up.  Shrewdly opening on Christmas Day, it will be an audience favorite undoubtedly as it opens wallets and tear ducts across the nation (and world).

It has its own merits, but this is the kind of movie that the Oscars eat up and nominate for EVERYTHING.  If we must call it so, let’s call it what it is: Oscar bait.  The nomination count should easily extend into double digits; the question before us now appears just how many nods it will rack up.

Tying the record of 14 is feasible, and even scoring 15 or 16 doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable at the moment.  With the exception of Best Original Score, pretty much every technical category is in play for “Les Miserables.”  And with weak years in the Supporting fields, it could easily score multiple nods in one or both.

But take a look at the record.  Both movies with 14 nominations won Best Picture.  5 out of the 9 films nominated for 13 Oscars won Best Picture, and 9 of the 15 films nominated for 12 Oscars won Best Picture.  I don’t think there’s any denying it though – “Les Miserables” will be the most nominated film of 2012.  And that will make it very tough to beat.

Of the other likely nominees, only “Lincoln” really stands a chance of getting 10 or more (perhaps “The Master” if it comes back roaring).  Everything seems to be going right for it at the moment.  The box office is great, the reviews are great, the press is great, and the timing could not be more perfect.  Spielberg struck a gold mine here.

This isn’t “Munich” and it isn’t “War Horse” where the Academy just defaulted to rewarding a Spielberg film with a Best Picture nomination out of an almost Pavlovian habit.  It’s got the support and the public conversation going for it in way not unlike “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan.”  We can talk all we want about how timely “Argo” was, but it did not nearly enter the drinking water in a way that this film is.

More importantly, it is currently setting up an important dialectic should it be the main opponent for “Les Miserables:” the head and the heart.  “Les Miserables” is a movie of passion, one that makes you feel and weep.  Though I’d argue that it’s also quite brainy, “Lincoln” is the smarter movie in the more traditional, Oscar sense.  It boasts a thoughtful, well-wrought script by Tony Kushner and a rather controlled direction by Spielberg.

When this battle waged in 2010, Tom Hooper and “The King’s Speech” emerged victorious over David Fincher and “The Social Network.”  Since that was only two years ago, voters surely remember.  Will they fall face-first into another weepy, sentimental film from the same guy – or think twice and reward a living master.  These are the questions that keep me tossing and turning at night!

The past weekend also brought us “Zero Dark Thirty,” whose ambition and scope seem to make it a likely nominee at this point given the weak year and its impressive pedigree.  Reteaming director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, both winners for “The Hurt Locker,” seems to be a recipe for success and recognition.  But its length and apparently rigid procedural aspects should hold the passionate voters at bay and make a Best Picture nomination the win for the film.

We’re arriving at a point where the race is becoming more or less set in terms of nominees.  We know “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook” are almost assuredly going to make the cut.  However, unless they regain some steam from the precursor season, they probably won’t pose much of a serious threat for the win.

A lot of pundits have clumped “Life of Pi” with the two aforementioned movies.  While I don’t doubt the preponderance of critical and industry support for Ang Lee’s ambitious 3D film, the film seems to lack true and vocal champions.  Maybe the box office will continue to improve and the audience will override the lack of passion I’m sensing from the people who really matter in the Oscar season.  I’m placing it at the bottom of my list of predicted nominees for now, holding out for some reinforcement from the establishment.

And while a lot of people give the Academy flak for being too commercial and predictable, there are still plenty among their ranks who want film to be artistic and innovative.  These people got “The Tree of Life” a Best Picture nomination in 2011, and I suspect they’ll turn out in force for “The Master” this year.

Unless it just gets absolutely shafted the entire season, I’ll continue to predict Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious film until the nominations are revealed.  (They could go for “Amour,” as many are predicting, but I don’t buy it.  Too austere and too foreign.)

That gritty, spunky Sundance/festivals quotient (“Winter’s Bone,” “Precious“) is due to be filled again after taking a one-year hiatus.  I think the critics will bring “Beasts of the Southern Wild” back into consciousness and contention in a big way, doing their bit of good in 2012.  It has to cope with ineligibility for guild awards, but Benh Zeitlin’s film has the power to get in – it just has to be remembered.  (“Moonrise Kingdom” could also score a nomination, perhaps at the expense of “Beasts,” if it regains some heat in the early days of the season.)

For all those wondering where “Django Unchained” falls on my list, I refer you to this tweet by Kris Tapley: “Two weeks ago Django was three hours and 12 minutes long. They’ve experimented with it since, re-ordering scenes, etc. Down to the wire.” Yeah, it’s bound to disappoint.

Best Director

  1. Tom Hooper, “Les Miserables”
  2. Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”
  3. Ben Affleck, “Argo”
  4. David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”
  5. Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master”

Picture and Director nearly always go together, so it seems illogical for me to predict anyone other than Tom Hooper out front.  If Spielberg, Affleck, or (fingers crossed) Anderson start generating serious heat, I’ll reconsider.  But I’ve learned better than to opt for a split.

But I’ve learned better than to opt for a split. The Academy also doesn’t seem bothered by picking novices over experienced directors well-regarded throughout the industry.  They like what they like, and whoever delivers them the best movie is going to win Best Director.  Truffaut would be smiling if he were still with us because his auteur theory is etched in stone in AMPAS mentality.

2012 is going to be a year where voters are asked to deliberate if someone deserves to go down in history with a third victory.  We know they love Spielberg since he already has two trophies, and 5% of the Academy thought “War Horse” was the best movie of 2011 since it was nominated for Best Picture.

But does he deserve to join the ranks of William Wyler and Frank Capra as the third director to win three Oscars? His films are totally in their wheelhouse, so it could happen.  His next movie is “Robopocalypse,” so Academy voters may feel they are running out of chances to crown him King of Hollywood once again.  The “Lincoln” PR has been absurd in feting Spielberg, from the cover of Time to an address at Gettysburg.  He’s definitely formidable to win again.

I still wouldn’t count out Ben Affleck to win, especially if “Argo” holds on and starts winning big.  But if it’s “Les Miserables” and not Hooper, I think the Academy votes Spielberg over Affleck.

I doubted David O. Russell’s ability to muscle into the Best Director category in 2010.  Won’t be making that mistake in 2012.  Clearly his abrasiveness has not phased Oscar voters, and if “Silver Linings Playbook” is a big hit with them, he’s a shoo-in nominee.  Think “Juno” scoring a nod for Jason Reitman.

And I hold that the contingent that got Terrence Malick a nomination last year will give Paul Thomas Anderson a second Best Director nomination.  Because believe it or not, there are some people in the Academy who care about supporting the advancement of film.  It’s not as sizable as the contingent that cried at “The King’s Speech,” but it’s big enough to make this happen.