Movie Shorts – October, 2016

INFERNO ***

Well, I guess you can’t rush an author to write more books just to support his mega-million dollar movie franchise, or to write movie-worthy books at all, for that matter.  In the case of Author Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books (about a mild-mannered symbologist who’s called in to solve puzzles involving international artwork, etc. that usually have something to do with diabolical ne’r-do-wells plotting the end of the world), after The DaVinci Code became an international movie sensation in 2007, followed up quickly by its prequel Angels & Demons in 2009, his next book, The Lost Symbol, also published in 2009, hit bookstores with an unexpected thud, got mixed reviews, and was deemed un-movie-worthy by Sony, producers of the first two.  It wasn’t until Brown published a fourth Langdon book, Inferno, in 2013, that Sony decided to wake up the dormant franchise.  And then, of course, there’s the arduous, time-consuming process of actually making the movie.

And so now, finally, seven years after Angels & Demons, we have Inferno in theaters.  Too bad it took so long.  Though still an international hit overseas due to its artsy flavor, internationally-known cast, and vast number of exotic foreign locations, it’s become a big dud here in North America.  Apparently, America’s short attention span has already put this franchise out to pasture, and it doesn’t help that Tom Hanks, who plays Langdon, has now entered his 60s.

Irregardless, this is still a fine film, and perhaps even eerily timely.  Langdon  this time wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memory of what he’s been doing for the past few days.  A young doctor (Felicity Jones) treats him in the emergency room and ends up saving him from assassins before we’re ten minutes into the film.  The two then go on the run, painstakingly piecing together a plot that Langdon unwittingly was complicit in along the way.  It seems that a mad scientist named Zobrist has created a virus which will unleash a deadly plague upon the world that will “cleanse” it–of a huge percentage of its people–so that the Earth might be spared the ravages of overpopulation and humanity, ironically, will be saved…or at least what’s left of it.  The location of where the virus will be unleashed is cleverly hidden, and Italian artist Boticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno, along with other priceless pieces of art, hold the key to finding it.  This is important since Zobrist himself has committed suicide to prevent his secret from being revealed, and now both Langdon and the World Health Organization need to find it before Zobrist’s disciples do and unleash it on the world.

I personally love watching the non-stop intellectual sparring that’s thrown in with the action sequences, as well as the to-die-for settings at some of Eurasia’s most awe-inspiring locales.  Here, the adventure’s climax takes place in an underground grotto during a classical music concert within the iconic Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul.  Though Hanks is definitely showing his age, he’s still perfect for the Langdon role, and Jones is a worthy compatriot.  A host of international stars provide able support.

It may be a bit late to its own party, but Inferno in the end is a fine piece of Ron Howard filmmaking and holds up well with the other two films in the franchise.  A really fine piece of adult-orientated entertainment.

 

JACK REACHER – NEVER GO BACK ***

Hollywood has been doing a lot of head-scratching about Tom Cruise’s decision to put himself into what amounts to a B-level action genre franchise when he’s still doing Mission Impossible films and is unquestionably still near the top of anyone’s A-list when it comes to action stars with box-office draw.  When the first film, titled simply Jack Reacher (2012), about an ex-military policeman who’s now a drifter, came out, it was surprisingly well-reviewed, and so has led to this second installment based on the Lee Childs best-selling thrillers.  And the results, while nothing that’s going to somehow catapult Reacher into a blockbuster franchise, is a passable action film with enough kick-assing and snide one-liners to delight the pure action fans while also throwing in a touching soft side to put it on a higher plane for those of us who can appreciate that.

The plot is basically action-film simple; Reacher comes to the aid of an old friend (played gamely by spunky Cobie Smulders), still in the military, who’s been accused of crimes she didn’t commit, and in the process uncovers information that could clear his own sullied name–if he can just get it to the right people before he and his companion are killed.  Standard action stuff.  But throw in another bit of revelation from Reacher’s past in the person of a teenage runaway (Danika Yarosh), and everything goes up to another level.

Both Cruise and Smulders have a great time kicking the butts of bad guys and/or chasing after them or running away from them.  Some of those chases end up looking like “Battle of the Sexes” footraces where the 54 year-old Cruise, famously athletic and still doer of most of his own stunts, holds his own quite nicely with the twenty years younger Smulders, who’s obviously a very gifted athlete herself.  But the real revelation here is 18 year-old Danika Yarosh (TV’s Heroes Reborn), who’s character Samantha is not only endearing, but delightfully resourceful in a tight spot as well.  A real scene-stealer, this girl shows uncommon range for one so young, and we’ll be hoping to see a lot more of her in coming years.

I’ve got my own ideas about why Tom Cruise is lending A-list status to B-level material; maybe he knows that, in spite of himself, he just doesn’t have very many more M:I films left in his body; maybe he’s tired of doing big studio films and wants more control over what he does (the first credit at the opening of the Reacher films reads “A Tom Cruise Production”); maybe he’s a big fan of Lee Childs’ books.  Only he can say for sure, but I’ll tell you one thing; as an action fan, it’s just too cool to see a star of his stature in a straight-up action genre pic–and obviously loving every minute of it.

 

THE ACCOUNTANT ***1/2

I’m not sure how much Screenwriter Will Dubuque knows about autism, especially as it affects people in their adult life, but he’s certainly spun an interesting yarn from the various possibilities and scenarios that one might imagine in this new action/thriller from Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck stars as Christopher Wolff, an autistic adult accountant whose mind-bending gift for memorization and mathematical manipulation makes his ZZZ Accounting practice the go-to place for everyone from nice old farmers who are needing a few extra tax breaks to smarmy business men and lethal crooks who need a “master chef” to cook their crooked books.  You might worry that an adult savant like Wolff might be nefariously taken advantage of by such types, but fortunately (at least in the story’s logic), Wolff wasn’t raised in an institution, but by his hard-nosed military father who made sure that both Chris and his little brother Braxton got the best self-defense and lethal offense training a non-Navy SEAL could get.  Wolff may look like just another mild-mannered, numbers-obsessed nerd, but mess with him, or someone he cares about, and he becomes a cold, calculating killing machine with an arsenal of weapons that range from his bare hands all the way up his 50-caliber sniper rifle.

Both gifts come in handy when Chris is hired by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), the CEO of a robot technology firm, to go through its books and reconcile some suspicious discrepancies dredged up quite accidentally by Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), a lower-level bookkeeper for the company who “got into something she wasn’t supposed to.”  Apparently Black is not aware of how thorough Chris can be (he digests, memorizes, and analyzes 15 years of the company’s financial records in one night), and when Black comes in the next morning and finds his own vast money-laundering scheme diagnosed and exposed in red marker all over a conference room’s window and summarized on its white board, he fires Chris and hires a group of assassins to get rid of his partner and Dana before things get worse and they’re testifying before some judge.

Through all this, Dana’s become intrigued with Chris, striking up a sweetly distant “relationship” with him.  As frightening as this is emotionally for Chris, he dares to reveal small tidbits of himself to her, but the real scares come when he, in order to protect Dana, takes her to his secluded Airstream trailer inside a self-storage facility.  There is where he keeps the various tools of his trade; fake passports, foreign cash, and an arsenal of weapons more diverse than any SWAT team’s armory.  As he gears up, she freaks out, to which he calmly responds “We should go now.”  With no other choice, Dana complies; a wise decision, as her apartment soon comes under siege and Chris turns into a slightly more human version of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Universal Soldier,” picking off baddies with devastating efficiency in a deliciously drawn-out climax that features as many fascinating reveals as it does crowd-pleasing, kick-ass action.

Affleck and Kendrick have a sweet chemistry together that’s defined by their characters being opposites who are utterly fascinated by each other.  Even their heights reflect their complete dichotomy; she’s 5’2, he’s 6’4.  And yet they’re drawn irresistibly together in a uniquely romantic way that’s curious because it’s so platonic.  It all causes you to really fall hard for these two, and want, want, want for them to survive and thrive.  Great support is also provided by Jon Bernthal as all-grown-up little bro Braxton (who’s also discovered an interesting adult occupation), J.K. Simmons as a nearly-retired Treasury Department agent, and Cynthia Addia-Robinson as his under-the-gun protege.  The subplot that involves these three intertwines nicely with the “A” story, and leads to a lot of those “fascinating reveals” in the film’s climactic scenes.  You may find yourself with a little Sixth Sense deja vu as you’re leaving the theater, wishing you could go back and watch the film again, this time a little closer.

To be sure, there’s a number of plot holes here and there that I suppose could needle you a bit, and there’s a bit at the end where, in light of what we’ve just seen, we wonder just what the writer is really trying to say about autism in our society.  Be these as they are, they’re really nothing more than insignificant nigglings when it comes to the overall entertainment value of this wonderfully written and performed story.  This is action/thriller entertainment at its best, with some fascinating intellectual tidbits thrown in for those of us who like a bit more; a real winner!

 

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN ***1/2

This sounds like a Tim Burton movie,” mused Ella Purnell, budding Hollywood star, as she read.  She was referring to the script based on a book by Ransom Riggs called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a popular middle-grade/young adult novel.  Little did she know at the time that she’d be a star in the new film based on that book, and that yes, Burton would be her director.  I personally have not read the book, but if there was ever a movie which is classically a “Tim Burton movie,” it’s this one, filled with all the quirky oddness, light-hearted creepiness, and pseudo-horror that have been Burton hallmarks ever since Beetlejuice, his directorial debut back in 1988.  Sadly, there’s no Danny Elfman musical score this time (that in itself an oddity), but composers Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson prove to be worthy substitutes.

The film follows the adventures of teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield), who lives in Florida where his divorced and distant parents prefer to send him to a psychiatrist (Allison Janney) rather than personally help him deal with the rejections he’s felt throughout life because of his social awkwardness.  His sole consoler has been his grandfather (Terrance Stamp), but now, even he has taken an alarming turn towards dementia, raving about going to an island where a group of strange children live and protecting them from monsters.  But one night, when his grandfather is mysteriously attacked and killed, Jake determines to go to the island, off the coast of Wales in the UK, and fulfill the man’s dying wish for him.

And so off he goes, his estranged father (Chris O’Dowd) in tow, and finds, ironically, exactly what his “demented” grandfather said he would; an old Victorian house filled with children who have various oddities that make the powers of modern-day superheroes look boringly normal.  Taking care of the children is the equally peculiar Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who makes sure that it always stays the same day in 1943 and loops time back to the day’s beginning just before a bomb dropped from a Nazi warplane that would destroy the house and everyone in it.  She also tells Jake that he too has a “peculiarity,” one that could save the children from their nemeses, horrific creatures called Hollowgasts, which are invisible and live off the eyes of others–the phrase “eye-popping” has never had such an “eww”-inducing connotation.  As the head Hollowgast makes his presence known in the form of a shape-shifting madman (Samuel L. Jackson) and moves in with his minions to devour the family,  Jake is faced with near-impossible choices, made even more so by the disarming kindness of the children, the possibility of seeing his grandfather alive again, and his budding relationship with Purnell’s character Emma, a beautiful young girl who’s lighter than air and thus has to wear lead boots or be tethered to something in order to not float away.  A climax of Burtonesque proportions does not disappoint, and leads to a suitably sweet, yet typically odd ending.

Realizing that not everyone is a fan of Burton’s peculiar brand of mind-bending entertainment, I still think there’s plenty to like here, particularly for families.  The story’s sheer originality is like a breath of fresh air, and its sincerity and lack of cynicism are refreshing.  Performances are uniformly fine, and it’s a pleasure to see such a nice mix of tried-and-true talent (Green, Jackson, Stamp, O’Dowd, Rupert Everett, all perfectly cast) alongside budding stars Butterfield, Purnell, and a bevy of up-and-coming child-actors as Miss Peregrine’s charges.  It’s great that Hollywood is once again finding value in telling stories that have young people in starring roles and are made for families to enjoy together.  For these reasons, even those who aren’t fans of Burton’s “peculiar” style can find lots to enjoy.

And, if you are a fan, prepare yourself for the film version of a feast!  This is Tim Burton doing a Tim Burton-style film to near-perfection!

 

DEEPWATER HORIZON ***

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor) get together again for another action piece, this time in a “based on true events” extravaganza about the worst oil catastrophe in US history.

Presented using the same blue-print as classic disaster films from the 70s (most specifically, The Towering Inferno), we first get to know some of the key characters in their everyday lives, then they all come together on a large helicopter that wings them out from their Texas base to the Deepwater Horizon, a giant ocean-going oil exploration and drilling rig anchored 40 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.  Among those making the trip with Wahlberg’s character Mike Williams are several executives from British Petroleum, the multi-national energy corporation who has rented the Horizon to explore for oil and then drill a miles-deep well to extract it once discovered.  Led by a smarmy, Cajun-sounding know-it-all named Vidrine (John Malkovich), the company isn’t happy with the slow progress of the operation, despite the concerns of the rig’s skipper, Jim “Mista Jimmie” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and foreman Williams, who are concerned about excess pressure that shouldn’t be there and an inspection of the well’s concrete base that was never completed.  The battle lines between the “Big Bad Wolf” corporation, whose sole concern is profit, vs the wizened “everyman” veterans whose primary purpose is to do things right so no one gets hurt, could not be more clearly drawn.

Further following the blue-print, the battle plays out in lots of heated exchanges featuring withering streams of technical jargon and tense preliminary rumbles that foreshadow the impending doom.  The worst, of course, then happens (literally a “towering inferno”), and heroes and villains alike struggle with the fury of the fire and each other as the event is brought to its breath-taking climax and sobering end.

As disaster films go, I found this to be a pretty good one.  The heroes are heroic, the bad guys are bad, and the body count isn’t too heavy.  The staging of the actual event is awesomely filmed and horrific in its detail.  One wonders how so many survived.  Wahlberg, Russell, and Malkovich are perfectly cast and hit all the right notes in their performances.  It’s too bad that fine actresses like Kate Hudson and Gina Rodriguez are largely wasted playing characters created more for Wahlberg’s character to either rescue or come home to, but then again, I guess that’s one of the standards of the classic disaster film as well.  And the sobering reminder during the ending credits that this all really happened gives an added gravitas to what we’ve just seen, putting it a cut above other recent disaster flicks like San Andreas.

A stunning re-creation of one of the most tragic and damaging disasters of our time, this is a film well worth your time and money to see.