Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie Dewitt
Directed by: Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”)
Written by: Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”)
Taking his love for jazz music, director/writer Chazelle breathes new life into the old Hollywood musical genre much like 2011’s The Artist did for silent cinema. At the center of this charmer are an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a frustrated jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling), both of whom would like to find more success in their respected creative fields. Together, Stone and Gosling light up every scene they share and director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Damien Chazelle give the duo such a vibrant atmosphere to play on. We’re not talking Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-level dance sequences, but the overall appeal is delightful. Driven by an exhilarating score and a handful of magical moments, “La La Land” is an adorable, choreographed-to-a-fault work of art.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
Directed by: Denzel Washington (“The Great Debadters”)
Written by: August Wilson (debut)
Reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) and Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”) star as a married couple living in 1950s Pittsburgh struggling to come to terms with the imperfect life they have created for themselves and their family. Directed by Washington, his first film behind the camera since 2007’s “The Great Debaters,” and adapted to the screen by the original playwright, the production has no qualms about presenting the narrative to viewers as if they were watching a stage performance. Still, Washington and Davis, especially, give incredible performances, which is reason enough to forgive the film’s cinematic shortcomings.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge
Directed by: Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond”)
Written by: Richard Wenk (“The Magnificent Seven”), Edward Zwick (“Love & Other Drugs”), Marshall Herskovitz (“Love & Other Drugs”)
In the movie landscape of constant sequels, it may not always make narrative sense to come back for more, but there’s almost always a monetary reason to do it. Original films (or films made to be tentpole franchises) perform so well at the box office that going back and making more of those films is, at worse, less of a financial risk and at best, studios practically printing their own money. It’s why there was a collective shrug and head scratch when it was announced that Paramount was going back for another installment of the Tom Cruise vehicle “Jack Reacher.” The reception for the first film was mixed, and it only grossed $80 million in North America, which is pretty modest for a film marketed as a potential blockbuster. Yet here we are, with an unwanted sequel in hand: the ironically titled “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.”
As Jack Reacher (Cruise) returns back to his military base to visit a friend and colleague, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), he discovers that she has been arrested and charged with espionage. Suspecting something has ran afoul, Reacher works to break Turner out of prison and along the way, discovers a girl who just may be his biological daughter. From there, Turner, Reacher and his possible daughter fight to stay hidden and take down their enemies while keeping each other safe.
A better title of this film would have been “Jack Reacher: Military Dad” as the main narrative through-line is the idea of Reacher coping with possibly being a father. There are, of course, generic scenes of him being a hardass and acting like he doesn’t care about things. Or when he and Cobie Smulders’ character have super on-the-nose “parental” fights. It’s just such a lazy, ho-hum story that is sandwiched in between a lazy, ho-hum action film. There is some somewhat surprising brutality, but beyond that, nothing on screen feels meaningful and Cruise doesn’t seem particularly interested.
The last act of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” contain some of the most contrived, Hollywood-fake, lazy moments I’ve seen in any film this year. The only appropriate word to describe the way events plan out is “insulting.” Ever heard of the concept of “Chekov’s gun?” The idea that nothing is shown on screen unless it will play out somehow? This is basically Chekov’s everything. Every twist, turn and plot point can be seen from 400 miles away. Being unpredictable would be one thing, but it happens in such a hokey way that it is deprived of any emotion. It’s a truly awful sequence of events.
A look at Tom Cruise’s most recent film output shows that he is still mainly focused on being an action star. The problem is, the market desire for perennial kick ass action-star driving vehicles seems to be dwindling with the saturation of comic book films. It’s also a reality that Cruise is a man in his early to mid 50’s continuing to pursue his career as an action hero. There’s no question he’s got acting chops and a magnetic personality on screen. He can certainly keep making “Mission Impossible”’s 13 and 14 until he gets physically unable to hang off of jets and scale large buildings, but if the staleness if “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is any indication, it may be time for Cruise to re-consider the direction of his career.
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso
Directed by: Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”)
Written by: Mike Flanagan (“Hush”) and Josh Howard (“Before I Wake”)
I firmly don’t believe in the paranormal, and think it’s patently ridiculous that any mass-market product made by a toy company could possibly channel the undead. That’s why I’ve never been scared of an ouija board—it has a barcode on it, and the new ones even need batteries. What does a spirit need with batteries anyway?
Still, the brand has value and Hasbro, the toy giant behind such cinematic masterpieces as “Transformers” and “Battleship,” holds the licensing rights and someone at the company though “sure, why the hell not?” when it came to adapting the parlor game into a movie.
Just before Halloween in 2014 we got “Ouija” and it was awful. Two years later, we’re treated to the prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and, in spite of the previous effort and the fact it’s based on a board game that pretends to be a tool of dark magic, it’s actually not too bad.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, a widow named Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) conducts séances in her home, setting up the illusion of supernatural powers with the help of her two daughters, Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Sharp-eyed fans who loved (or even remember) the first film may recognize the names of the sisters from the backstory recounted in the present day, but don’t worry, you don’t need any prior knowledge of that piece of shit movie.
Anyway, after Paulina sneaks out of the house to hang out with friends and play with an Ouija board, the sisters suggest to Alice that one of the games might spice up the readings for clients. When Doris tries to use the board alone to contact her late father, a dark spirit inhabits her, allowing her to command the board with her mind and seemingly talk to the dead—which Alice immediately uses to her advantage to gain new business. But when frightening things start happening, Paulina reaches out to her Catholic school principal Father Tom (Henry Thomas!) for help in taking down the evil that’s haunting her family.
The ‘60s setting and low-rent con artist racket that Alice runs with her girls add immediate flavor to a premise that is, ultimately, just another haunted house story with an Ouija board in the mix to make good on the licensing. Still, it’s a story fairly well told, even if some of Alice’s choices, like the one to exploit her daughter’s obviously chilling new ability, never really make sense and the climax moves forward with little regard for anything other than getting to the point where the backstory in the first movie (which, again, who the hell remembers that?) lines up with what has happened on the screen. Maybe this new-found quality will be further explored in a Magic 8-ball spin off in a few years. Outlook not so good.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”)
Written by: Bill Dubuque (“The Judge”)
Ben Affleck has had an unusual career. Lauded for his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting,” Affleck had a few solid, if not unspectacular roles in films before turning in a series of duds that bottomed out with the back-to-back combo of “Daredevil” and “Gigli.” After taking his licks, and essentially becoming a Hollywood punchline, Affleck made a bold career move: He started directing films. He began with the fantastic “Gone Baby Gone” and eventually won another Oscar as producer for “Argo.” Re-invigorated by his work behind the camera, Affleck started improving in front of it as well. While it may not be the best film he’s been in, “The Accountant” may just be one of the best performances Affleck has given in his career.
As an accountant for some of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the world, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) does not shy away from danger. As Wolff is brought in to take a look at the books for a robotics company, he and accounting associate Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) notice some peculiarities. As Wolff uncovers more, he finds himself in the midst of danger and must use his unique skillset to keep him and Dana safe.
A good chunk of “The Accountant” is devoted to an exploration of Christian’s autism, and the film deserves a lot of credit for getting that right. Affleck nails the idiosyncrasies of autism, with elements of both brilliance and social struggles. It’s Affleck’s most well-rounded performance in a while, and perhaps best, he is surprisingly funny in the films lighter moments.
While Affleck’s performance is magnetic, the B and C plotlines of the film (essentially any goings on not involving Affleck) feel so oddly pieced together. Even with their eventual resolution, so much of “The Accountant” lacks structure and feel out of place. What results is a complete waste of acting talent and screen time. Back-to-back Emmy winner in Jeffrey Tambor is essentially given five minutes of backstory context, Simmons is there for pure exposition and Kendrick is there for a lazy romantic plot that not only goes nowhere, but is abandoned for a solid half hour.
But beyond being just a waste of talent, “The Accountant” has a ton of parts that are outright confusing and don’t really add up. The focus is to keep the story moving along, but at some point it is difficult for the audience to continue to care. Somewhere along the later part of the film, Simmons’ character delivers what seems like an excruciatingly long exposition dump that starts to make the picture a little bit more clear. What follows is a series of shrug-worthy twists, ho-hum reveals, and even more clunky exposition. It nearly derails the entire film and is only saved by some well-executed violence.
If you are willing to forgive “The Accountant” for its faults, there is plenty of great acting, intense shootouts, and surprising laughs to sustain its runtime. It’s a really solid Affleck performance and is actually quite gripping in moments. Held up to scrutiny, however, “The Accountant” is unnecessarily complicated, convoluted and lacks a satisfying payoff.