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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Kendrick’

The actor, writer, director and much else Chris Morris surely landed himself a place on the worth-keeping-an-eye-on list of any sensible person many, many years ago, following his work on On the Hour, The Day Today, Brass Eye, Jam, and much else – this is before we even get to his 2009 movie Four Lions, a film which takes some of the most dubious subject matter imaginable and still manages to be thoughtful, touching, and above all very funny. Suffice to say that expectations were high for his new film, The Day Shall Come. It should not come as a great surprise that the new film has been written, directed, and co-produced by Morris himself; he’s that sort of perfectionist – nor should it really be a shock that much of the film was apparently made in secret in the Dominican Republic, given that Morris was briefly something of a hate-figure for the British tabloid press.

Not on the poster but still the biggest performer in the film (in terms of profile if not actual stature) is Anna Kendrick, who plays FBI agent Kendra Glack. Based out of Miami, Glack is predominantly concerned with a peculiar string of operations where the FBI, for reasons of publicity and political expediency, engages in what is obviously entrapment of a string of nobodies, encouraging them to commit terror-related offenses so they can then swoop in and heroically arrest them at the last minute. No-one on the team seems minded to question the deeply compromised nature of their activities.

Next up on the task force’s list of targets is Moses Al Shabazz (Marchant Davis), who may be a cult leader, might be a preacher, is definitely a psychiatric patient who’s stopped taking his meds, but certainly isn’t any kind of threat to the fabric of society (no matter how fondly he thinks of himself as one). Moses lives in a commune/mission/farm in the middle of the Miami projects, practising a bizarre syncretic religion venerating an amalgamation of Jesus, Allah, ‘Black Santa’ and General Toussaint L’Ouverture. At first he seems a hapless, delusional figure, but one of the points the film makes (if perhaps not strongly enough) is that he has, in a small way, been a force for social good, persuading a number of young men to give up their gang lifestyle and guns and join his ‘movement’; he is also clearly a loving husband and father.

Still, farming in inner-city Miami is not exactly booming and the commune is forced to live off discarded food scavenged from local fast food restaurants, while there is also the issue of paying the rent on the mission building. And thus Moses falls into the orbit of the FBI and its network of collaborators and informants. Completely against his principles and the wishes of his wife (Danielle Brooks), Moses finds himself urged to engage in all kinds of dubious dealings – accepting guns from fictitious IS-supporting sheikhs, acting as middle-man in sales of nuclear material, and so on, in exchange for rent money for his home. But can he actually go through with it? And if he does, are the authorities competent enough to actually arrest their man?

You can definitely see the similarities between The Day Shall Come and Four Lions – Moses and his followers are the same kind of hapless fantasists as the earlier film’s wannabe jihadist martyrs – but I regret to say that it seems to me that the new film falls considerably short of the same standards. To be honest, it’s the first thing I can remember Morris being responsible for which is actually sub-par, in the sense that you can kind of see what it’s trying to do, but it’s also very clear that it’s just not succeeding.

You can see the film comes from a serious place, wanting to explore and expose the absurd workings of the American justice system, and doubtless also touch on issues of race and prejudice in modern America. But the thing is the film is also obviously attempting to function as a genuine comedy as well. There’s nothing wrong with doing comedy about serious issues, especially if you’re a satirist (which is probably one of the things Morris has on his passport), but with any kind of comedy the bottom line is that you have to be funny. That’s the entry fee, the sine qua non of the form. The Day Shall Come is just not consistently funny enough to work on those terms. There are certainly some amusing moments, and you can make out the kind of absurdist, Kafkaesque satire it probably wants to be – but, and these are words I never really expected to be typing, Morris seems to be trying a bit too hard to court a mainstream audience, including various sight-gags and other obvious bits of business, presumably to compensate for the fact that much of the plot is relatively complex and serious. It’s okay to be funny about serious issues; many great films have been the result. But far too often The Day Shall Come is just self-consciously silly, and the resulting tonal mismatch really does the film no favours at all.

It’s also a problem that the film never quite takes off as a piece of cinema, either – obviously, there is a developing storyline which builds up to a proper climax, but this always feels rather more like a string of comedy sketches of varying quality. For a film about such American issues, it always feels curiously British in sensibility, regardless of the fact the only British performer prominent in it is Kayvan Novak. It also feels like a film which is concerned with issues which would have felt much more urgent ten or fifteen years ago – if you want to do satire about the US government now, well, good luck in finding a way to be more depressingly absurd than reality: the inner workings of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security really feel like quite small potatoes.

Still, Morris clearly feels quite passionate about this, even if it’s hard to share his commitment to it. I’m struggling to find very positive things to say, obviously, but the film does manage to hold together as a narrative and you can glimpse the clever, absurd film he was looking to create. I should also say that Anna Kendrick is obviously working immensely hard to lift the material she has been given. Passion and hard work can only take you so far, though. It’s a little difficult to work out what exactly has gone wrong with The Day Shall Come, beyond the fact that it’s just not funny or clever enough, but go wrong it certainly has.

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Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (I am going to stick with the American English spelling, even though it does make my teeth itch somewhat) is not a film I would necessarily have chosen to watch, even during the bacchanal of cinema-going which I am currently enjoying after an enforced one month drought. There’s no particular reason for that, but – and I do have to remind even friends of this sometimes – I don’t go to see absolutely everything, even when I’m at a loose end. Then again, there I was: all proper work done and dusted by noon, having agreed to go and see another movie with a friend in the early evening, and with a fairly sizeable space in my schedule until then. To be perfectly honest my first choice of movie-to-fill-the-gap would probably have been Mile 22, but it had finished the previous day (lots of big new movies starting today), and Feig’s film seemed like the best option.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a cheery, upbeat, perky, fluffy, home-oriented single mother whose life revolves around recipes, her son, and her vlog (which heavily features recipes and parenting tips). She is quite terrifyingly wholesome, upbeat and proactive, but is there something missing from her own lifestyle? Just what does she secretly aspire to? Well, the barest suggestion of an answer comes when she meets Emily (Blake Lively), another mum from her son’s school. Emily appears to be everything that Stephanie is not: elegant, sophisticated, a bit of a hedonistic rebel. The two women become unlikely friends, despite some occasional signs of odd behaviour on Emily’s part.

Then one day Emily asks Stephanie for a favour (Hah! Take that, American English!) – will she collect her son from school? Stephanie happily obliges, but then Emily fails to get in touch, and vanishes, apparently without a trace. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) doesn’t have a clue where she’s gone, and nor do her employers, and so the police are called. Soon everyone is beginning to fear the worst, and Stephanie and Sean find themselves drawn closer together in their shared grief. But is everything quite as it seems…?

It’s always a slightly curious thing when you find someone apparently trying to get out of their comfort zone and do something genuinely new and different, and from a certain angle this is what Paul Feig appears to be doing with this film. Feig, as you may or may not be aware, is best known as the director and occasional writer of comedy films, most frequently starring Melissa McCarthy: he’s the guy who did Bridesmaids, and also Spy and the All-Female Ghostbusters remake. So for him to be directing what looks on paper to be like a fairly mainstream thriller is a bit of a departure. Then again, the film stars Anna Kendrick, who is also not really known as a dramatic actress – okay, she’s done things like The Accountant, but even then I distinctly remember being somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this sort of thriller would feature someone who’s essentially a musical-comedy performer. (Blake Lively, on the other hand, isn’t primarily known for comedy. But then she seems to limit her film appearances rather strictly, so her profile in general is a bit more limited than I might have expected, and she hasn’t really been typed in the same way.)

My feeling is that comedy is much more difficult than straight drama, and so all things being equal I’d much rather watch a drama made by comedians than a comedy film made by drama specialists. The question is whether this film really is a drama made by comedians. Well, several key creative people on it are best known for comedy, as previously discussed, so that part is not really in doubt. But is it really a drama?

Well – I suppose it is, because lots of serious and often quite dark stuff goes on (Kendrick’s character has a particularly off-kilter element to her backstory), crimes are committed, unpleasant secrets come to light, and so on. The weird thing is that all the time you are laughing – not in a sustained, from-the-belly way, but nearly every scene contains a little bit of business or a snappy line or a reaction from Kendrick or so on. It may be that this is genuinely a comedy thriller, but if so then it is one of the blackest possible shade.

Then again, the fact that this is such a peculiarly and unexpectedly funny film works very much in its favour, because it works very well to give it its own distinctive identity. This is something that it definitely needs, because otherwise this tale of apparently-affluent couples with corrosive money troubles, mysterious disappearances in suburbia, Machiavellian scheming behind a domestic facade, and so on, would owe just a bit too much of an obvious debt to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and its movie adaptation.

There really did seem to me to be quite a lot of similarities between Gone Girl and A Simple Favor, but the fact that A Simple Favor doesn’t come across as being quite so thorough-goingly misanthropic, and actually contains some pretty good jokes, made me warm to it much more than its precursor. There are also signs of the film-makers being willing to admit just how implausible the story of their film is, which is always welcome (there is a joke at one point about a character writing a novel, which is apparently dismissed by other people because of its ‘far-fetched plot’).

I don’t actually mind watching movies with absurdly contrived storylines, as long as you don’t also try to tell me that this is actually a serious and mature story about deep unpleasant truths in contemporary society. Feig’s film doesn’t try to pull any of that – it’s more or less up-front about the fact that it’s a disposable piece of entertainment. This doesn’t mean that it’s a poorly made film, by any means – the performances are strong, the direction good, and the script hangs together pretty well (there are occasional slow patches). It is a little bit strange that such a dark film should also feel so upbeat and lightweight, but this is hardly a fatal flaw. Tonally odd and very derivative, but also rather entertaining.

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‘Looking forward to Fantastic Beasts?’ asked the minion at the sweetshop: clearly, the personality-nullification programme which all Odeon employees are required to undergo had not been fully effective in this case. I was taken by surprise, anyway: there was nothing to suggest I might be of that persuasion in my appearance, demeanour, or choice of ticket on this particular occasion (well, I mean, I’ve recently grown a beard, but it’s hardly the badger-swallowing, Dumbledore┬ákind). It may well have been the case that the minion was just being friendly, in which case I suppose I should go back and apologise for giving him a detailed critique of my expectations of the movie, focusing on the fact that a) I could barely understand a word in the trailer I saw (and it’s not just my old ears, I wasn’t the only one) and b) the whole enterprise appears to have been forthrightly Americanised now it exists in a film-only form (patience, readers, I shall give you the full details when the movie actually emerges and I’ve seen it). I expect he was only expecting a ‘You bet!’ or ‘Not really’ rather than three minutes of closely argued whining and bibble-bobble, but I was taken by surprise and this is just how my brain seems wired to operate in its default mode.

I wouldn’t usually trouble you with this sort of thing, but it does seem at least tangentially relevant to Gavin O’Connor’s new movie The Accountant. We’re at that time of year when the films are neither tentpole blockbusters nor gong-bait, they’re just reasonably sized films gunning for people who fancy going out to see a film but aren’t especially troubled by what it is. There’s a sense in which The Accountant looks like the kind of thriller you usually see at this time of year, but it’s really something slightly more quirky and unusual.

the-accountant

Let me just explain the premise of the movie to you: Ben Affleck plays a nameless individual who has Movie Autism, which is responsible for him having incredible accountancy skills. Not immediately promising stuff for a thriller, you might think, but on top of this, Ben’s tough-lovin’ father has also had him trained to be an extremely highly skilled martial artist and sharpshooter. As the movie opens, Ben is spending his time practicing shooting things from a very long way away, auditing the books for incredibly dangerous gangsters and terrorists, and helping his neighbours with their tax returns. (Hey, don’t laugh: being totally ruthless, having no idea about how to function in civilised society, and being highly expert at fiddling the US tax system appears to qualify you for at least one very prominent job in America today, at least according to the news broadcasts I’ve caught this last week.)

I repeat: this is just the premise of the movie. If you think that sounds a bit weird, the plot itself is utterly gonzo (not to mention somewhat complicated), incorporating a senior treasury official (J.K. Simmons) and an agent he’s blackmailing into finding Ben (the agent is played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a troubled robotics tycoon (John Lithgow) and one of his employees (Anna Kendrick), and a rather more extrovert assassin on a collision course with Ben (Jon Bernthal, who seems to be experiencing something of a career sweet spot at present).

In a way it kind of reminds me of the Thai movie Chocolate (directed by Prachya Pinkaew), in which another character with Movie Autism – in this case a teenage girl – becomes an ace martial artist and batters the living daylights out of half the gangsters in Bangkok, although The Accountant works much harder to seem to be a sober and serious drama for grown-ups: its success in delaying the moment when you actually shout out loud ‘Oh come on, this is all utterly absurd!’ may be the film’s single greatest achievement.

The film initially does a little dance when it comes to specifying just what’s going on with the title character, the physician involved saying he’s not really into categorising people, but eventually Ben owns up to having a form of high-functioning autism. Hmmm. It’s still basically Movie Autism, which means that all the impairing stuff is offset by effectively having cool special faculties. It seems to me we’re currently stuck with only two approaches when it comes to dealing with autistic-spectrum-related disorders in films – this one, where being on the spectrum is presented as being almost like a superpower, or the more subdued gong-bait one, which tends to be terribly po-faced and worthy. I don’t think either is particularly useful, to be honest, but then I suppose it’s difficult to communicate the reality of being on the spectrum, which can have some benefits (being spectacularly good at Pointless) but also fairly significant lifestyle issues (inability to sustain close or long-term relationships, tendency to play 2048 for sixteen hours at a stretch, general social awkwardness, and so on). At least The Accountant has a stab at addressing some of these issues, at least in passing, and it is genuinely quite a fun film.

Long-term readers may recall that in the past I have devoted many, many, many words to making jokes about Ben Affleck’s supposedly robotic style of acting, but there’s nothing on display here to derail his career renaissance (although – well, is it totally beyond the realms of good taste to suggest that when playing someone with Movie Autism, acting slightly robotic may actually be the way to go?). The strength of The Accountant isn’t really in the plot, anyway, but in the way it presents a group of really interesting characters and lets some talented actors really do their stuff with them: Affleck is engaging, Simmons is good too, so is Bernthal, so is Lithgow… So is Anna Kendrick, too, even though this is not the kind of film you would normally expect to find her in. (However… the thing about cinema is that it usually makes everyone look tall. Even Tom Cruise looks like a strapping athlete on the big screen. So I don’t really know what to make of the fact that Anna Kendrick still looks incredibly tiny next to Ben Affleck in this film. In real life she must only be about three feet tall.)

That said, the action is well-mounted and the story stays coherent, pretty much, at least up to the beginning of the third act, at which point there’s a bizarre expo-dump and any semblence of reality is cheerily bade a fond adieu. The film becomes much less about Ben’s mad accountancy skills and much more about him repeatedly shooting people in the head with high-powered firearms. Characters and subplots basically get switched off in favour of a climax which… well, let’s just say the film’s absurdity quotient does not noticeably reduce.

Well, anyway. The Accountant may be a very odd and possibly slightly suspect film, but it’s a fun and engaging one throughout. It’s honestly not that great a thriller, but all the tangential weirdness makes it very distinctive and it is driven along by some strong performances and a smart script. Worth a look.

 

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