Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Accountant" drags along like a long tax report



In a year when he played a poor man's version of Batman (especially if compared to Christian Bale's version of The Dark Knight), Ben Affleck returns once more in 2016 playing an autistic math genius whose skills lie in managing infinite number of equations for very rich corporations.  Oh, did I mention that he also moonlights as some sort of a super commando-hitman who is an expert at hand-to-hand combat and also firing with incredible accuracy at small targets a mile away?  The movie badly wants to be a drama where its hero shoots most of his adversaries in the face at point blank range, but it sadly never takes the time to explore the souls of any of its characters, including Anna Kendrick's Danna Cummings, perhaps the only one capable of any real emotion.  Even the great J.K. Simmons is misused here; the scene where he has to gratuitously shed tears feels inauthentic and it should be in a better movie that earns its audience's empathy, rather than demand it.  The final act, in which Affleck's character reunites with his long lost, estranged brother, is laughable and ludicrous in its ability to sink the story arc even deeper into the mud.  A thriller this incompetent deserved a better script, director and an actor capable of showing even a flicker of emotion.  In other words, it should've been scratched altogether.
C- 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Intense "Always Shine" is gripping examination of actresses' friendship



Successful female artists are a competitive bunch, and I suppose nowhere is this more true than in the world of acting.  As played by Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, Anna and Beth are as different in their general demeanor as they are in their distinctive performing talents.  While Beth is the successfully graceful, quiet actress, Anna is a naturally raw talent, full of passion and energy, but still ultimately less successful than her more timid friend.  When two of them venture out into the mountains for a getaway hiking weekend, old wounds are re-opened, as their vastly opposite places in the competitive world of Hollywood television and film eventually lead to an argument which turns out to have grave consequences.  Director Sophia Takal, working from a script by Lawrence Michael Levine (who also appears in the movie) infuses elements of All About Eve with Ingmar Bergman's Persona to create a chilling, unsettling atmosphere that has some ambiguous twists and turns.   I only wish the final act wasn't so David Lynch-ian in its perplexity and vagueness.  Still, Davis is a real star in the making, and I can't wait to see how far she takes her unique talents in Tinseltown's (slightly more straightforward) future narratives.
B

"Southside with you" glides its subtle love story (almost) in real time



Few movies in recent memory have stretched their entire running time to a date between the two main characters.  In Southside With You, we are privy to the first date between our current president Barrack Obama and his future wife, Michele Robinson (her maiden name at the time).  The actors playing the future power couple, Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, are as charming as they are attractive, and their chemistry slowly grows in front of our very eyes, despite of Michele insisting that "this is not a date".  The use of Chicago locations are hardly utilized (probably due to the movie's low budget), and the screenplay by writer/director Richard Tanne foreshadows young Barrack's speechmaking talents appropriately during a vital scene in a local church.  Still, the absence of any real plot or a conflict keeps the film hovering around the made-for-TV-Hallmark-movie mode, and its aura, regardless of how charismatic it may have been, simply doesn't stay with the viewer once the final shot fades to black.
B-

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Beasts" is worthy successor to Harry Potter's world of magic and extravagant wonder



J.K. Rowling's follow up to her world famous Harry Potter series is finally here, and when it comes to grandiose spectacle of sheer awe and magic, it does not disappoint.  As a newly arrived visitor to New York City, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) soon finds his magical suitcase accidentally in the hands of a pastry chef, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), at which point the enchanted creatures that reside in it accidentally slip out and create havoc all over the streets of Big Apple. The Magical Congress of the United States of America, or MACUSA for short, is the Men in Black-esque secret agency that keeps all other-wordly creatures out of the public's eyes and minds: they even wipe out the memories of any civilian witness who should inadvertently see anything they shouldn't.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is clearly a high-profile blockbuster where the production design, special effects and pure imagination of its creators come together to create a fitting, exciting antecedent to Rowling's little wizard and the Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry.  Particularly charming is the subtle love story between Kowalski and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a free spirited enchantress who can read people's minds.  The last shot, featuring the two of them at a bakery, is as sweet and wondrous as glances between two people get.
B+ 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Steinfeld owns the cynicism and the angst in "Edge of Seventeen"



The teenage girl in The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), is like a modern day cynical philosopher from the days of old: she questions everything, criticizes everyone and assumes she's been given an unfair hand at the card game of life.  When her brother (Blake Jenner) begins dating her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson), her already fragile world comes tumbling down and leaving her feeling abandoned and lonelier than ever before.  Her teacher (Woody Harrelson) is the rare adult in her life who has no choice but to listen to her daily whining, mostly against his will.  The Edge of Seventeen is advertised as a comedy, but I found it to be more of a dramatic, thoughtful examination of a young life suffering from much pain and self-doubt.  Whatever your impression of its tone, one thing is for sure: Steinfeld is a talent of the highest order, and a future superstar.
B

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Kinetic, bloodthirsty zombies invade South Korea in "Train to Busan"



Ever since Danny Boyle's 2003 low budget zombie DV film, 28 Days Later, the undead have been getting quicker and more kinetic with each new movie in this particular genre (remember how fast they were in Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead?).  South Korean new film, Train to Busan, is a zombie horror import on par with 28 Weeks Later and World War Z that is as much about the end-of-times as it is about a family's efforts to reunite after a period of estrangement.  A polished fund manager must take his daughter from Seoul to Busan to see the little girl's mother, and their journey on a cross-country speed train will put them at odds not only with bloodthirsty zombies, but also against other passengers of cold hearted and selfish nature - in other words, people so rotten they're worse than the undead they're attempting to get away from.  Train to Busan does not quite reinvent the zombie genre, but it contains just enough suspense and virtuoso action sequences to keep one's heart rate high for nearly two hours.  In today's mediocre horror movie culture, that is no easy feat.
A-

"Equity" gives insight on the cutthroat world of high finance trading



Resembling a female version of Wall Street's Gordon Gecko in both attitude and ideology, Equity's protagonist, Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn), spews her lines like a a tough-as-nails lion whose starved stomach has been waiting for a meal longer than usual.  She leads an existence where being a woman in a (predominantly) man's world of high finance is not only a frailty, but a reason for other carnivores to take advantage of her any time she lets her guard down.  Equity certainly is heavy on plenty of Wall Street and insider trading jargon, and its screenplay can perhaps be accused of having one-too-many plot lines involving corruption, betrayal and potential of being interrogated and even arrested by a tigress-in-a-suit US attorney general (Alysia Reiner), but what the movie does achieve is an undeniable sense of tension and suspense without having any of its characters physically harmed or bloodied in the slightest.  Meera Menon's film is a subtle and clever thriller of and for today's digital corporate age, a pulse pounding drama where talking to the wrong person about a classified corporate deal carries the same burdensome consequence as taking one's life.
B