Playing Catch-Up: The Accountant, Carnage Park, The Choice, The Legend of Tarzan


Continuing my look back at the films of 2016, here are four mini-reviews of some films that really didn’t make enough of an impression to demand a full review.

The Accountant (dir by Gavin O’Connor)

2016 was a mixed year for Ben Affleck.  Batman v. Superman may have been a box office success but it was also such a critical disaster that it may have done more harm to Affleck’s legacy than good.  If nothing else, Affleck will spend the rest of his life being subjected to jokes about Martha.  While Ben’s younger brother has become an Oscar front runner as a result of his performance in Manchester By The Sea, Ben’s latest Oscar effort, Live By Night, has been released to critical scorn and audience indifference.

At the same time, Ben Affleck also gave perhaps his best performance ever in The Accountant.  Affleck plays an autistic accountant who exclusively works for criminals and who has been raised to be an expert in all forms of self-defense.  The film’s plot is overly complicated and director Gavin O’Connor struggles to maintain a consistent tone but Affleck gives a really great performance and Anna Kendrick reminds audiences that she’s capable of more than just starring in the Pitch Perfect franchise.

Carnage Park (dir by Mickey Keating)

I really wanted to like Carnage Park, because it was specifically advertised as being an homage to the grindhouse films of the 1970s and y’all know how much I love those!  Ashley Bell plays a woman who gets kidnapped twice, once by two bank robbers and then by a psycho named Wyatt (Pat Healy).  Healy chases Bell through the desert, hunting her Most Dangerous Game-style.  There are some intense scenes and both Bell and Healy are well-cast but, ultimately, it’s just kind of blah.

The Choice (dir by Ross Katz)

The Choice was last year’s Nicholas Sparks adaptation.  It came out, as all Nichols Sparks adaptations do, just in time for Valentine’s Day and it got reviews that were so negative that a lot of people will never admit that they actually saw it.  Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer play two people who meet, fall in love, and marry in North Carolina.  But then Palmer is in a car accident, ends up in a coma, and Walker has to decide whether or not to turn off the life support.

As I said, The Choice got terrible reviews and it’s certainly not subtle movie but it’s actually better than a lot of films adapted from the work of Nicholas Sparks.  Walker and Palmer are a likable couple and, at the very least, The Choice deserves some credit for having the courage not to embrace the currently trendy cause of euthanasia.  That alone makes The Choice better than Me Before You.

The Legend of Tarzan (dir by David Yates)

Alexander Skarsgard looks good without his shirt on and Samuel L. Jackson is always a fun to watch and that’s really all that matters as far as The Legend of Tarzan is concerned.  It’s an enjoyable enough adventure film but you won’t remember much about it afterward.  Christoph Waltz is a good actor but he’s played so many villains that it’s hard to get excited over it anymore.

Film Review: Hacksaw Ridge (dir by Mel Gibson)


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To be honest, Hacksaw Ridge is probably not the type of film that I would usually watch.  I’m not a huge fan of war movies and the trailer really didn’t inspire much enthusiasm within me.  However, ever since the film was released last Friday, it’s been the subject of some Oscar buzz and … well, you know me and the Oscars.  There’s no easier way to get me to take a chance on a movie than to tell me that it might be nominated for an Oscar.  I’m a completist, after all.  If they’re going to nominate 8 to 10 movies for best picture, you better believe I’m going to make sure that I’ve seen all of them.

So, after voting yesterday, I saw Hacksaw Ridge and all I can say is, “Wow!”  Hacksaw Ridge left me with tears in my eyes and feeling totally exhausted.  This is one of those films that kind of sneaks up on you.  I spent the first half of the film thinking to myself, “Okay, this is good and all but I still don’t see what the big deal is.”  And then suddenly, that second half started and soon, I was totally struggling to catch my breath.

I’ll just say this right now: Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most powerful anti-war films that I’ve ever seen.  It’s also an incredibly violent film, one that will leave non-veterans amazed at the number of ways that soldiers can be shot, stabbed, blown up, and set on fire.  But, despite all the visceral action that plays out across the screen, Hacksaw Ridge never glorifies combat.  It never glamorizes the destructive power of war.  We may be happy when we see a certain soldier somehow manage to survive but we never find ourselves cheering.  Instead, often times, we worry what awaits that soldier after the war.  The combat in Hacksaw Ridge is so brutal and so terrifying that you find yourself wondering not only how anyone could survive but also how anyone could ever go on with “normal” life after seeing the horrors of war.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served, as a combat medic, in the U.S. Army during World War II.  As a Seventh Day Adventist, Doss both refused to carry a rife and refused to train on the Sabbath.  Despite all the efforts of both his sergeant and his captain to convince Doss to leave the service, Doss stayed in the Army, served in combat despite refusing to carry a rifle, and became the first C.O. to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  In the film, Doss is played by Andrew Garfield, who is one of those extremely talented actors who has been miscast in several films.  Fortunately, he’s perfect for Hacksaw Ridge.  Though his rural accent occasionally slips, Garfield is convincing as both a relatively naive farmboy and a man of such strong convictions that he’s willing to risk being court martialed to uphold them.  If Hacksaw Ridge is about Doss proving himself to his fellow soldiers, it’s also a film about Andrew Garfield, who is still perhaps best known for being awkwardly cast as Spiderman, proving himself as a unique and interesting actor.

Garfield pretty much dominates the film but a few of the supporting performers do manage to make an impression.  Vince Vaughn is surprisingly effective as the tough and no-nonsense sergeant and Teresa Palmer is sympathetic as Doss’s wife.  Hugo Weaving plays Doss’s alcoholic father, a man who is still haunted by what he saw during the first world war and he does a great job.

I know that some people are going to be hesitant about Hacksaw Ridge because it was directed by Mel Gibson but you know what?   You may not expect Mel Gibson to direct one of the most searing anti-war films of the past decade but that’s exactly what he managed to do.  It’s an important film, one that reminds us that war is neither fun nor an adventure.  It’s a film that shows what our combat veterans had to deal with (and when we countless men lost their legs as the result of a Japanese rocket, it’s hard not to make the connection to the countless vets who have lost limbs in the Middle East) and, in its way, chastises a society that would abandon them after the war is over.  If Doss, working on his own, was willing to put his life at risk to save 75 wounded soldiers, how can we, as a society, justify not taking care of our wounded veterans?   Hacksaw Ridge is a film that works both as a tribute to our veterans and a reminder that the costs of war are all too real.

It’s a good and important film.  I recommend the Hell out of it.

Film Review: Cut Bank (dir by Matt Shakman)


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The image at the top of this post is taken from the film Cut Bank and features Teresa Palmer and Liam Hemsworth.  It’s a striking picture, isn’t it?  If there’s anything positive that can be said about Cut Bank, it’s that it’s a visually striking film.  Some of the film’s images compare favorably with the work of the Coen Brothers in  No Country For Old Men and Fargo.

(Perhaps not surprisingly, the film’s director, Matt Shakman, previously directed two episodes of the Fargo tv series.)

Of course, it’s not just the film’s visual style that will remind you of the Coens.  The plot is full of Coen DNA as well and that’s a bit of a problem.  The thing that sets the Coen Brothers apart from other directors is that only they seem to understand how to best pull off their unique brand of ironic quirkiness.  It’s difficult to think of any other director who could have done A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, or any other Coen film.  It’s telling that whenever other directors have attempted to film a Coen Brothers script — whether it was Angelina Jolie with Unbroken or Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies — the resulting film has almost always been overwhelmingly earnest.  (If you try, you can imagine a Coen-directed version of Bridge of Spies, one with Josh Brolin in the Tom Hanks role, Steve Buscemi as Rudolph Abel, and maybe Bruce Campbell as a CIA agent.)  The Coen style is one that has inspired many a director but ultimately, it seems to be something that only the Coens themselves are truly capable of pulling off.

(Though Ridley Scott came close with the underrated The Counselor…)

Plotwise, Cut Bank has everything that you would normally expect to find in a Coen Brothers film.  For instance, it takes place in Cut Bank, Montana and, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, a good deal of time is devoted to detailing the oddness of life in the middle of nowhere.  Also, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, the entire film revolves around an overly complicated crime gone wrong.

Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) has spent his entire life in the Montana town of Cut Bank and is looking for a way to get enough money to move out to California with his beauty pageant-obsessed girlfriend, Cassandra (Teresa Palmer).  Dwayne learns that the U.S. Postal Service will pay a reward to anyone who provides information about the death of a postal worker.  One day, while filming one of Cassandra’s pageant audition videos, Dwayne accidentally films both the shooting of mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) and the theft of his mail truck.

Wow, what luck!

Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) throws up as soon as he hears about the murder.  After all, he’s never had to investigate one before.  Town weirdo Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg) is upset that the stolen mail truck contained a parcel that he was waiting for.  Meanwhile, Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton), who happens to be both Cassandra’s father and Dwayne’s boss, seems to be suspicious about how Dwayne just happened to be in the field at the same time that Georgie was getting killed…

Dwayne’s efforts to collect his reward are stymied by the fact that postal inspector Joe Barrett (Oliver Platt) doesn’t want to hand over any money until Georgie’s body has been found.  Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to find Georgie’s body because Georgie is still alive!  That’s right — Georgie’s been working with Dwayne the whole time…

Meanwhile, it turns out that Derby is not someone you want to mess with.  In fact, he’s just as efficient a killing machine as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men.  And Derby is determined to retrieve his parcel…

Cut Bank got an extremely limited release in April of this year and it didn’t get much attention.  To a certain extent, I can understand why.  It’s a film that has its moments but ultimately, it’s never as good as you want it to be.  The best thing about the film is that it features a lot of eccentric actors doing their thing.  Any film that allows Bruce Dern to interact with Michael Stuhlbarg deserves some credit.  Unfortunately, Dwayne and Cassandra are not particularly interesting characters and Hemsworth and Palmer give rather one-dimensional performances.  Since you don’t care about them, you don’t really care if Dwayne’s scheme is going to work out.  William H. Macy may have been a despicable loser in Fargo but you could still understand what led to him coming up with his phony plan and you felt a strange mix of sympathy and revulsion as everything spiraled out of his control.  The same can be said of Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men.  Dwayne, however, just comes across like someone who came up with a needlessly complicated plan for no good reason.

In 2013, the script for Cut Bank was included as a part of the Black List, an annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  What’s odd is that, for all the hype that goes along with being listed, Black List scripts rarely seem to work as actual films.  Oh sure, there’s been a few exceptions.  American Hustle was on the Black List, for instance.  But a typical Black List film usually turns out to be something more along the lines of The Beaver or Broken City.  Watching Cut Bank, I could see why the script generated excitement.  The story is full of twists and all of the characters are odd enough that I’m sure readers had a lot of fun imagining which beloved character actor could fill each role.  Unfortunately — as so often happens with Black List films — the direction does not live up to the writing.  Yes, the plot is twisty and there’s a lot of odd moments but the film never escapes the long shadow of the films that influenced it.

Trailer: Kill Me Three Times (Red Band)


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Once in awhile we come across a little film that we would never have bothered to even check out if not for the reach of the interwebs.

One such film is the Australian black comedy thriller Kill Me Three Times which had a screening at 2014’s Toronto International Film Festival. It stars Simon Pegg (channeling his inner Sean Connery mustache by way of Zardoz), Teresa Palmer and Callan Mulvey.

From the red band trailer it looks to be quite the violent little black comedy that Simon Pegg seems to be quite adept at. Interesting to note that this film will probably introduce the rest of the world to a third Hemsworth brother (they must clone them Down Under or something).

Film Review: Love and Honor (dir by Danny Mooney)


Love and Honor tells a simple but effective story.

Taking place in 1969 and opening with footage of the launch of Apollo 11, Love and Honor tells the story of two soldiers, Wright (Liam Hemsworth) and Joyner (Austin Stowell).  Wright and Joyner are serving in Viet Nam together and, even as the war grows more and more unpopular in the U.S., both of them remain true believers.

Shortly before they’re scheduled to take a week of R&R in Hong Kong, Joyner receives a break-up letter from his girlfriend, Jane (Aimee Teargarden).  Joyner decided to use his R&R time to fly back to the U.S. and ask Jane to marry him.  As Joyner explains it, as long as he returns to his unit at the end of the week, he won’t be charged with going AWOL.  Wright impulsively decides to accompany him.

What happens next shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever seen a film set in the 60s.  Wright and Joyner returns to the U.S. and discover that Jane has fallen in with a bunch of activists — led by the smug Peter (Chris Lowell) — who spend all of their time organizing rallies and publishing an underground newspaper.  While Joyner pursues Jane, Wright falls in love with Candace (Teresa Palmer).  In order to impress Candace, Wright claims that he and Joyner are actually deserters as opposed to just being two soldiers on R&R.  While Wright’s lie impresses Jane’s new friends, it also proves to be a lot of trouble once Peter starts to get jealous.

Love and Honor, which came and went without much notice last March, is a surprisingly sweet and likable film.  Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer have a lot of chemistry and Austin Stowell is so likable as Joyner that it’s easy to overlook the fact that his character’s story arc doesn’t really make much sense.  Finally, Chris Lowell is properly hissable as the film’s self-righteous villain.

I imagine that some politically minded viewers might be a bit annoyed with the fact that all of the film’s political activists are portrayed as being shallow, flaky, and hypocritical.  (Then again, some would argue that this was the most realistic part of the entire film…)   Love and Honor uses the politics of the 60s as a plot device but it never explores any of those issues in any sort of depth.  But, to be honest, who cares?  Sometimes, a romance is just a romance and we, as viewers, are all the better for it.

Horror Film Review: Warm Bodies (dir by Jonathan Levine)


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I did not see Warm Bodies when it was first released back in February.  I was certainly aware of the film, having been bombarded with the trailer since December of 2012. and I assumed that I would see the film but, for whatever reason, I simply could not work up the enthusiasm necessary to actually see it.

Perhaps it was because the concept — a zombie love story — simply seemed too cutesy and, as much as I love zombie movies, they’re not exactly what I want to watch on Valentine’s Day.  The fact that the movie was being called a “zombie twilight” didn’t help.  (Don’t get me wrong.  The Twilight films are a very guilty pleasure of mine but that still doesn’t make the comparison a selling point.)

As a result, as much as I thought I would end up seeing Warm Bodies in the theaters, I never got around to it.  Instead, I waited until Warm Bodies premiered on Cinemax earlier this month to watch it and you know what?

I was surprised to discover how much I loved it.

Warm Bodies takes place after the zombie apocalypse has decimated America.  The undead wander through the ruins of society while the few remaining humans have barricaded themselves in a heavily guarded enclave.  Leading them is Col. Grigio (John Malkovich) who continually tells his citizens that the only way to survive is to kill every zombie that they see.  As Grigio explains it, the zombies may look human but they have no humanity left.

This would probably come as news to R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie whose day consists of wandering around an airport, looking for people to eat, and occasionally acknowledging his friend M (Rob Corddry) with a grunt.  R spends most of his time thinking about how bored he is with being a zombie and wondering who he once was.  That’s one reason why R enjoys eating brains because, by doing so, R gets to enjoy the memories of his victims and, for just a brief few moments, he can know what it’s like to be human.

Things change for R when he and a group of zombies come across humans that are searching the city for medical supplies.  R spots one of the humans, Julie (Teresa Palmer), and finds himself immediately drawn towards her.  However, R is also shot in the chest by Julie’s boyfriend, Perry (played by Dave Franco, the younger brother of my beloved James Franco).  R responds by attack Perry and eating his brain, which causes R to experience all of Perry’s memories of Julie.  Now in love with Julie, R saves her from the other zombies and takes her back to the airplane where he makes his home.

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As Julie and R bond, R finds himself slowly becoming more and more human.  Yes, that’s right — the cure to the zombie apocalypse is love.  Now, that may sound predictable or simplistic and I guess it is.  But you know what?  I’m a romantic and I loved it!  It helped that both Palmer and Hoult have a really likable chemistry.  Even before R’s heart starts to beat again, they make a really adorable couple.

Unfortunately, the more R tries to act human, the more the other zombies want to eat him.  This is especially true of the Boneys, zombies who have decayed to the point of just being skeletons and who prey on anything that happens to have the slightest trace of a heartbeat.  Meanwhile, Julie’s father — Col. Grigio — remains firmly convinced that the only cure for zombification is a bullet in the head.

Though there are moments of horror in Warm Bodies (mostly involving the Boneys, who are genuinely scary), the film is mostly concerned with telling an audience-friendly love story.  As I watched the film, I occasionally found myself wishing that the movie has been directed by someone like James Gunn, who would have brought a bit more of a satiric bite to the film.

And yet, despite being occasionally frustrated by how (literally) bloodless the film was, I loved Warm Bodies.

What can I say?  It’s an incredibly sweet and romantic movie and, as much as its fashionable to be cynical, who can resist a good love story?  If anything truly elevates Warm Bodies above being just another supernatural romance, it’s the performance of Nicholas Hoult.  Even when he’s just stumbling around with a blank face and uttering meaningless groans, Hoult makes R into a likable flesh eater.  As sweet as the idea of love bringing life to the dead may be, it’s Hoult’s intelligent performance that makes both the idea and the romance feel real.

And that’s why I loved Warm Bodies.

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Film Review: Take Me Home Tonight (dir. by Michael Dowse)


I missed the 80s retro-themed comedy Take Me Home Tonight when it was released to theater earlier this year.  It was one of those films that I meant to see but then it ended up spending such a short time in theaters that I just never got the chance.  A few days ago, via OnDemand, I finally got a chance to see Take Me Home Tonight in the comfort of my own bedroom.

Plotwise, Take Me Home Tonight feels like a cinematic Frankenstein monster, stitched together from elements from all those old school 80s comedies.  Therefore, it’s appropriate that the film itself is set in 1988.  Matt (Topher Grace) is a recent graduate from M.I.T. who is spending his post-graduate life working at Suncoast Video.  One day, while at work, he happens to run into Tori (Teresa Palmer), his high school crush.  When Tori asks Matt what he’s doing with his life post-high school, Matt quickly replies that he’s working at Goldman Sachs.  Tori then invites Matt to attend a weekend party being held by Kyle Masterson (Chris Pratt), a vaguely insane frat boy type who also happens to be the boyfriend of Matt’s twin sister, Wendy (Anna Faris).  In typical 80s comedy fashion, this leads to Matt and his friend Barry (Dan Folger) stealing a car, coming across a secret stash of cocaine, destroying a suburban neighborhood with a big metal ball, and eventually coming to several heart-warming (but not too heart-warming) conclusions about what they want out of life and what the future holds.

For a film like this to work, you have to care about the characters enough to be willing to stick with them even though they spend the majority of the film acting like complete morons.  Fortunately, the film is very well-cast with nice supporting turns from Folger, Faris, and Michael Biehn (who plays Matt’s father and who gets a great scene where he “arrests” his own son).  Folger is especially good, bringing a hilarious intensity to a familiar role.  From the minute that little baggie of cocaine first shows up on-screen, you know that Folger’s going to end up with a white powder all over his face.  What you don’t expect is just how hilarious a committed comic performer can make even the most familiar of comedic developments.  Dan Folger rubs cocaine on his teeth as if the world depended upon it. 

However, the film really belongs to Topher Grace (who not only stars in but also co-produced and co-wrote the film).  Now, I have to admit that when I was much younger, I used to love That 70s Show and I had the biggest crush on Topher Grace.  (I had an even bigger crush on Danny Masterson but that’s another story.)   As this film was apparently put together by many of the same people who were involved with That 70s Show, it’s not surprising that Take Me Home Tonight almost feels like it could be a sequel to that show.  Much as he did in That 70s Show, Grace provides the anchor here, keeping the film grounded (at times just barely) in reality.  It seems like whenever I see Topher Grace in the movies, he’s always playing some sort of psycho.  So, it was nice to see him back to doing what he does best, playing the sympathetic everyman who spends every day walking the fine line between cool and awkward. 

When Take Me Home Tonight was released in theaters earlier this year, it was greeted with mediocre reviews and poor box office.  But you know what?  It’s really not that bad of a film.  Yes, the plot is predictable and the jokes are more warmly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny.  However, this film is predictable in much the same way a funny but oft-told joke is predictable.  Take Me Home Tonight is a case where familiarity breeds not contempt but comfort.  It’s a type of comfort that’s probably better suited for being watched on a television while multi-tasking as opposed to being seen on the big screen with no other distractions.  Seriously, if Take Me Home Tonight was a weekly sitcom, it would probably end up getting nominated for all sorts of Emmys.