Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘J.K. Simmons’

We’re in the middle of one of those funny, slightly unpredictable times of year, when you’re as likely to come across a tiny oddball sleeper release as something which has been produced and marketed as an aspiring blockbuster. As I say, it’s a product of the time of year: it’s too late for full-blown blockbuster season, but similarly too early for the genuine awards contenders to start making their appearance. So you do tend to get a lot of mid-budgeted genre movies of different kinds, and doing the rounds at the moment is the new Jo Nesbo (final O with a line through it) movie. Long-term readers (may God have mercy on you) may recall I was rather impressed by a couple of Nesbo adaptations which came out about five years ago, Headhunters and Jackpot. Those were both foreign language movies given a subtitled release over here, but the new movie is Anglophone. Directed by Tomas Alfredsen, it’s a grisly, hard-edged crime thriller, definitely not for children or the squeamish, entitled The Snowman.

(Hmmm. Something not quite right here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Never mind, it’ll come to me.)

Oh well. Things get underway with a prologue of unremitting grimness, set in the wilds of Norway, setting the tone for the rest of the movie rather economically. Brightening this up a little is an English-language cameo from Sofia Helin, most famous outside of Scandinavia for her role as the detective with ASD from the TV show The Bridge: sadly, she is not in the rest of the movie.

We are then introduced to top Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who is – all together now – brilliant at his job but lousy at holding his personal life together. As the movie opens he is forever waking up in the park after a heavy night on the booze, which is not something to be done lightly in Oslo in the winter. ‘I need a case, I need to work!’ cries Harry when taken to task by his do-everything-by-the-book superior. ‘I can’t help it if the murder rate is so low,’ snaps his boss. Luckily, plenty of murders are just about to happen, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, someone is going about kidnapping and then murdering women in a quite horrific fashion, and leaving snowmen as his calling card. (It’s never made completely clear whether the snowman-building happens before or after all the dismemberment takes place; it strikes me as a rather cumbersome M.O. for a modern serial killer, but what do I know about these things.) Harry isn’t initially assigned to what’s at first believed to be a routine missing persons case, but he is friends with the officer who is (Rebecca Ferguson), and together they figure out what’s going on. But can they locate the killer before yet more women (yes, it is mostly women) meet a sticky end?

(Oh, hang on. I’ve figured it out.)

(That’s more like it.)

As I said, I was properly impressed and entertained by both the previous Nesbo (O with a line through it) movies that I saw, primarily by the cleverness of the plotting and the black humour running through both stories. Then again, it does seem that our Scandi cousins have a knack for this sort of thing – I’m not a big fan of the label ‘Scandi noir’ (or ‘Nordic noir’), but detective shows from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have become something of a fixture on at least one UK TV network, and it seems to me that The Snowman is trying to tell the same kind of story in the same kind of way.

All the elements are there, I suppose – troubled family backgrounds, people keeping secrets from their loved ones, corruption in high places, gore – but the actual story just isn’t quite up to scratch. The Magic Wand of Improbable Coincidence gets waved over the plot fairly frequently, to say nothing of the way that the story digresses away from the serial killer plot and gets mixed up in shady goings on involving a prominent businessman (J.K. Simmons) and a bid for the ‘World Winter Sports Cup’ (I guess the Winter Olympics people took one look at the script and said ‘No way are you using our name in this!’).

The story gets lost in other ways too: there’s a bit of a cold case element to the plot (the killer has been at it for ages), and the film chooses to incorporate this by having a few flashbacks. I’m not sure these were strictly necessary, but even if they were, I think it was probably a mistake to centre them around a character played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer is not, to put it delicately, ageing gracefully, nor has his acting range improved – the fact that I’d got the impression from somewhere or other that he had actually died is neither here nor there. His appearance is, in short, rather a distraction.

Also problematic is the way that the film-makers don’t really seem to be content with making a good solid detective thriller – every now and then a scene comes along suggesting this movie wants to be a serious drama about the personal lives of Harry and those people around him. Well, Fassbender and his fellow actors are capable enough, but again the result is a film which lacks focus and often feels laborious on a thematic level – it’s clear from very early on that it’s largely about what it means to be a good (or bad) parent, but the script keeps grinding on about this, rather unsubtly.

I’m not sure there is a way to subtly depict various people having their heads literally blown off or body parts removed with power tools (the killer has a special gadget just for this purpose, I wonder if you can get one on Amazon), but if there is, The Snowman does not hit upon it. I would say this is a very strong 15, certificate-wise: there’s some proper gore and grue in the course of the movie. Personally, I am mostly desensitised to this sort of thing, but I am aware a lot of people aren’t – and there are horror-movie levels of splatter at times during The Snowman.

This is really a case of a movie which has all the right ingredients – good cast, interesting premise, strong set of genre conventions – but which fumbles putting them together. It’s watchable, but the story is too often unclear, and arguably not really strong enough to justify the various excesses of the film’s violence.

Then again, I suppose we should talk about the whole emphasis of a film like The Snowman. The treatment of women, especially attractive young actresses, is a talking point as I write, with an industry culture that seems to accept their exploitation and objectification increasingly coming under scrutiny. There is not, to my knowledge, any suggestion that the makers of The Snowman have been accused of any wrongdoing or suspect behaviour. But even so, this is a movie in which male-on-female violence is both graphic and endemic. Every major female character is a victim at some point or other; the only significant nudity in the film is that of a young, female actor, and it’s gratuitous. Which would be worse, I wonder, to be a serial abuser of women who makes films that are classy and morally unimpeachable, or a decent human being who nevertheless makes films which shows women primarily as sexual objects to be used and abused? It’s an artificial distinction, I know, but it seems to me that if you got rid of every grasping studio executive, along with all the others who exploit their position of power, you would still be left with a lot of misogynistic exploitation in the actual movies themselves. If the movies seem to have a problem with their treatment of women, it’s arguably because the fact we still buy tickets sends the message that this is what we really want.

Read Full Post »

‘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.

 

Read Full Post »

For the third time in recent months, a film reaches theatres that sounds like it should be based on a Marvel comic book – but, like Fury and Nightcrawler before it, Whiplash is a much more serious, if rather less lucrative proposition. Damien Chazelle’s film is a serious and thoughtful meditation on a number of important themes, but also a superbly gripping drama.

whiplash

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a music student at the best school in the US: he is determined to become a top-flight jazz drummer and is intent on getting into the conservatory’s jazz big band. However, doing so requires his meeting the incredibly high standards of the teacher serving as its conductor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser – much nicer than in his days working for Weyland-Yutani) advises his son to keep his options open, and Andrew indeed carries on with all the things normal lives include – most notably beginning a relationship with a nice young girl he meets at the cinema (Melissa Benoist – who, interestingly enough given the unstoppable march of comic-book entertainment, has apparently just been cast as Supergirl). But then he scrapes into Fletcher’s band, and he realises his hard work has just started.

Fletcher is, essentially, a monster, or so it initially seems. He has no truck with the usual niceties like politeness or concern for others’ feelings, but instead is utterly relentless, even vicious, in pursuit of getting the results he demands. Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse are all in his repertoire. Occasionally it seems as though the mask has slipped, revealing it is just a rather unorthodox methodology adopted by a passionate, sincere teacher and musician – but every time this happens, it is followed by another outrage verging on the psychopathic.

And yet Andrew’s drumming is improving as a result, even if his obsessive pursuit of excellence is making him a less pleasant person too. And this is what the film is really about – is it excusable to be a horrible human being if it means you’re a more effective teacher as a result? And is it better to be someone great, or someone good?

A couple of years ago I saw a movie called Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, the extraordinary tale of a man who spent six decades attempting to make the perfect confection of rice and raw fish. Whiplash addresses the same kind of issues, not least the sheer demands of reaching the top of any profession. The film doesn’t skimp on showing us the literal blood, sweat, and tears Andrew has to put in, along with hours of practice. How does someone motivate himself to this kind of effort? The film suggests the baser emotions also have their part to play.

Indeed, one of Chazelle’s braver decisions is to make this more than just the tale of a boy with big ambitions who ends up with a nasty teacher. Andrew himself is a less than entirely sympathetic character at times, as he puts his career ahead of the feelings of others, while Fletcher is not quite the complete ogre he appears to be. And the film is carefully ambiguous about Fletcher: is he simply a megalomaniac who gets off on humiliating his students, or is he fulfilling his remit and pushing them beyond what they expect of themselves? We are never quite given an answer to this.

What is certain is that J.K. Simmons gives an astonishing, mesmerising, terrifying performance: after a while, whenever the band begins rehearsing, you start to cringe back in your seat in anticipation of his latest detonation. Yet he’s not a complete caricature, being equally convincing in the character’s quieter, softer moments. Simmons’ achievement is to create Fletcher as a wholly believeable human being, without your ever being entirely certain what’s making him tick.

Everyone else in the film is orbiting around Simmons, to some extent: he stands for an ideal, which Andrew aspires to, and which the others could potentially divert him from – not that they’re not very good in these roles. Teller, looking not unlike a young John Cusack, is particularly strong in what must have been a demanding role. The climax of the film, a final battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher, is one of the most thrilling sequences I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time, and both actors are equally important to making it work.

As a teacher myself, I do find myself now pondering the deeper issues raised by the film. Colleagues and I do occasionally discuss the ‘Teacher Mask’ – the persona you adopt with students – and this is a topic which the film is obviously relevant to. But it’s also about questions of motivation, and when one is justified in using the stick rather than the carrot – is it still bullying if the other person has effectively given you permission to bully them? The film, needless to say, offers no quick or easy answers.

A couple of little contrivances spoil the script, perhaps, but this is still one of the outstanding films of the year – sharply written, smartly directed, and brilliantly acted. I shall be very surprised if it doesn’t win some serious awards, especially for J.K. Simmons’ performances. This is a very, very good film.

 

Read Full Post »