Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Accountant, The Birth of a Nation, Queen of Katwe, Denial Reviews

The Accountant
Dir. Gavin O'Connor
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On paper, the ensemble brought together for The Accountant sounds amazing: Ben Affleck in his first post-Batman role, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, and directed by Warrior and Miracle's Gavin O'Connor.

On paper, the story for The Accountant sounds like a complete unmitigated disaster-in-waiting. Christian Wolff (Affleck) is a mathematics savant on the autism spectrum who makes his living as a freelance accountant for dangerous criminals. As a Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) is hot on his trail, Wolff takes on a state-of-the-arts robotic company, run by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), as a legitimate client, but uncovers a discrepancy that involves millions of dollars. Using his genius, as well as military-level defense skills his father taught him (including martial arts and shooting targets a mile away), Wolff uncovers the truth while on the run and the bodies starting piling high.

I have no idea how O'Connor got that pedigree of talent for such a b-grade, somewhat exploitative action flick, but I found The Accountant to be a singularly entertaining, bizarre Bourne-meets-Rain Man shoot-em-up that despite a wonky (and possibly offensive) depiction of autism and a labyrinthine plot that makes little sense, I had a lot of fun with.

While the film decidedly attempts to have a dark, "thriller" tone, it still has many intentionally funny moments, typically involving Affleck's emotionless performance, in a very similar manner to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. Anna Kendrick plays the in-house accountant for the robotics company who teams up with Wolff, and they definitely have an Eddie Furlong-Terminator thing going on (I love the non-joke where Wolff explains his appreciation for a picture of dogs playing poker by remarking, "That's funny because it's incongruous.") However, while O'Connor isn't afraid to use comedy, I'd still have to file The Accountant under the "so-bad-it's-good" folder because there are many unintentionally funny moments as well - the best of which involves Wolff's hidden super-ability to always be photographed with his back to the camera. Dozens and dozens of undercover photos - all with his back turned, he's that good. 

The action scenes are simple, brutal, and effective. Like Jason Bourne, Wolff will make use of the objects around him (like his belt) to take dudes out, and I loved that he didn't fall into the typical action movie cliche of waiting for the bad guy to spout a cool line before killing them. Right away, boom, he shoots them in the head with dead-on precision without a second thought. The fact that he's autistic in the film though, and not just your average, everyday hitman, isn't without concerns. It's a little iffy that the movie seems to posit that all kids with autism need to attain their "true" potential is the proper training or equipment. Also - it infers that autistic people are prone to become cold-blooded, violent sociopaths. I don't doubt that everyone behind the scenes had only the best of intentions going in, and Affleck's portrayal is ultimately heroic, but I could see this movie causing a stir.

A Beautiful Mind meets Batman, The Accountant tows the line between fun action thriller and bad taste, but for me that's a line that's totally watchable.

Rating: B

The Birth of a Nation
Dir. Nate Parker
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The Birth of a Nation was one of the biggest hits of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. In the wake of the "Oscars So White" controversy, this period drama about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner won the audience award and Grand Jury prize, and became the single-highest sale at Sundance ever, having been sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million (and even crazier is the filmmakers turned down a $20 million offer from Netflix). Clearly the studios thought this had "Oscar" written all over it, but just as their mouths were beginning to salivate, controversy surrounding director/star Nate Parker's resurfaced 1999 rape allegation cast a shadow over the film, leading this once-Oscar hopeful towards a paltry $13.3 million intake at the box office. So after all this hype and controversy, I was very curious about this film. Unfortunately, I found Birth of a Nation to be a pretty uninspired retread of themes found in other "slave" movies that glosses over its most historically interesting plot threads.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) grows up a slave on a Virginian plantation, but is taught to read as a child so he can study and preach the Bible. When his Master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), feels a potential slave uprising in the air, he brings Nat along with him on a cross-country tour to preach his fellow slaves into subordination. As Nat witnesses the injustices happening to his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer stand by and just preach - leading to his historic rebellion on August 21, 1831.

This movie doesn't really do much to stand out from previous slave narratives - it sort of just goes through the motions, re-using similar "slave" imagery we've seen before in uninspired ways. The most interesting aspect of Turner is his dual relationship to the Bible - on the one hand he uses it as inspiration to free his people, but he uses the same book to sermonize other slaves and quell their inclinations for an uprising. But the nature of this duality is barely explored, and Nate Parker doesn't have the emotional gravitas of a Chiwetel Ejiofor to make his reflective moments shine.

It's interesting to see other critics compare this film to 12 Years a Slave, which I found to be a much more effective piece of filmmaking. 12 Years a Slave pulls no punches - like what Spielberg's Schindler's List does for the Holocaust - it doesn't shy away from showing the true horrors of slavery. It's artfully and "beautifully" crafted; the filmmaking puts you right in the perspective of Solomon Northup. Birth of a Nation doesn't match 12 Years in almost any department - the filmmaking definitely feels more amateur (Parker's directorial debut), the budget feels smaller, and the overall blue-hued tone is simply uninteresting to look at. Birth of a Nation had the potential to do something that 12 Years couldn't, however - in 12 Years, a white man ultimately is responsible for freeing Solomon, but here there is a black uprising that takes matters into their own hands. Like the Twisted Sister song, they just weren't going to take it anymore. But the actual rebellion in the film is disappointingly glossed over, and the complexities of the situation (the slaves killed women and children in addition to the slaveowners) are neglected to turn everyone into superheroes.

The Birth of a Nation could have been something more special, as it couldn't have been released at a more poignant time. Its parallels to today's world are alarming, and Nat Turner's incredible story, while I'm sure the historical documentation on it is limited, deserves a better treatment than this. The most powerful thing in this whole movie is its ending text. It relates how the whites attempted to destroy all records of the rebellion from ever happening. The fact that this movie exists should make a powerful counterpoint to that - that Nat Turner's rebellion will never die. I just wish the rest of the movie lived up to that final text.

Rating: C+

Queen of Katwe
Dir. Mira Nair
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I suck at chess. I joined my high school chess club back in the day and everybody beat me - and being the biggest loser in the chess club isn't exactly ego-boosting. On the opposite side of the chess-playing spectrum from me is 10-year old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a slum-girl from Uganda whose world changes when she's introduced to chess by an educated missionary, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who opens a sort of "chess program" to help kids learn. Phiona is immediately hooked on the game, and becomes one of the top players in the country, opening doors to a brighter future away from her poverty-stricken village. It's kind of like Slumdog Millionaire only instead of fate dictating the character's destiny, it's pure skill and determination.

Queen of Katwe is a typically saccharine, "Disney-fied" inspirational sports story that doesn't have a controversial bone in its body, but it's a solid one at that. The performances are great (even if, admittedly, I found their heavy accents impenetrable at times) and finally Lupita N'yongo has a meaty role to play that isn't a motion-captured creature (i.e. Jungle Book and The Force Awakens) as Phiona's single-parent mother. The chess matches are intense even if you don't know squat about the game, and it's impossible not to root for these kids, who basically live in glorified sheds. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, when the group of slum kids go to a private college for a competition, Oyelowo's character helps calm down his overwhelmed chess children by using a metaphor of a dog and a cat: The dog runs after the cat to get a meal, but grows tired and decides to find food somewhere else. The dog was running for a meal...the cat was running for its life. A lot more than another "win" is riding on that next checkmate for these cats.

Although Queen of Katwe follows the sports movie formula to a T, little character beats from the likes of its cast help elevate it to a watchable, if unremarkable, authentic family drama.

Rating: B-

Dir. Mick Jackson
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Denial at its best is a powerful reminder of how slippery our conception of "history" can be - and the importance of preserving it so xenophobic ass-hats don't use it in their favor. This court-room drama follows the true story of university professor Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who was sued for libel in 1996 by WWII historian/Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). The ensuing court room battle essentially leaves Lipstadt and her team of lawyers fighting to prove the Holocaust happened. Because the Nazis were thorough in their erasure of their war crimes, the literal and existential questions raised about historical facts is brought into play in this unromantic, well-acted matter-of-fact drama.

While I overall liked the film (even if its verdict was extremely obvious even if you don't know the story), I was a little disappointed in how little of a role Rachel Weisz's character had in the actual case. Since it's based on a true story, there's only so much dramatic license the writers/director can take with the script, but I did find it a little uncomfortable that Weisz's character ultimately wins the case not by fighting back or giving a voice to the oppressed people - but by shutting up and letting the team of old white lawyers talk. While I believe Tom Wilkinson when he said she needed to do that to win the case, it comes off dramatically unsatisfying.

Rating: B-

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