RATS

— by Jeff Schultz

Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary has not one, not two, but four drop-jaw sequences, any one of which would drive you back to watch again and again, if you could stand it. While parts might come off a little science lecture-y, it’s a fascinating lecture nonetheless, and it bolsters the sequences that make you gasp — in disgust, in delight and/or in awe. I am giving nothing away by telling you what these sequences are; truly, you have to see them to believe them: the necropsies at Tulane of post-Katrina rats infected by still-living parasites; the journey of captured Cambodian field rats being prepared, cooked and eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant; the 20-some English terriers that tear rats apart after flushing them out at an infested farm; and —here’s where the awe comes in — the Indian temple where rats are not only revered, a community of faithful lives, eats and (in what is maybe the most memorable image in the film) drinks alongside them.

DESIERTO

— by Jeff Schultz

In our soon-to-be post-Trumpian land, illegal immigration may simmer down to a merely warm-button issue, especially since the faltering world economy appears to have stemmed the tide of those crossing the border from Mexico. But Trump’s supporters are legion, and American nativists were demonizing foreigners long before Donald launched his ugly campaign. So while this movie is essentially a thriller, its bogeyman villain — fueled by a hatred so pure, he even turns it on himself — reflects the phobic loathing that has brought us to our current sorry state. DESIERTO is basically one long chase that starts out with some 15 migrants trying to enter America, who quickly become pursued by one single-minded psycho (TV veteran Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with a high-powered rifle and a vicious dog. One by one, the migrants are picked off, until we’re left with only Gael Garcia Bernal and Alondra Hidalgo. The film, directed by Jonás Cuarón (son of GRAVITY’s Alfonso), is tight, even gripping, but also relentless and bleak, with little catharsis. “Tracker” the dog (who really should have gotten a credit) gets what’s coming to him, and it’s satisfying enough to let out a cheer. But Morgan’s end is kind of a fizzle, even though it makes perfect sense. I did, however, appreciate the very qualified ray of hope with which it all wraps up.

SHIN GODZILLA (GODZILLA RESURGENCE)

— by Jeff Schultz

A smashing surprise, an astonishing accomplishment. It’s a monster movie, yes, from a great monster movie tradition, but so much more. In fact, Gojiro himself, while still great “fun” to watch as he rampages through Tokyo, is basically the vessel here into which is poured a fascinating, brainy meditation on patriotism, bureaucracy, Japan’s relations with the U.S. and the world, and its response to internal catastrophe — as much the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as the nuclear end to World War II. For that reason, some may come away disappointed that there wasn’t more creature and less talk. But the seriousness and self-examination are integral to the plot, making this one of the most adult horror movies ever made. As for the effects, they are notches above a man in a rubber suit, but far below the millions spent on the more blockbuster Godzilla iterations (i.e. the 2014 and 1998 American mostly-duds). And yet, there’s a delight in watching what they came up with (especially Gojiro’s first appearances, before he morphs into something even bigger) — silly and effective at the same time, in a way that the more “lifelike” big bucks versions didn’t quite reach. The action begins immediately and is made continually urgent by the restless camera and a few powerful silences. And even with the distraction of subtitles, the actors register, especially the young hero, the Japanese-American Senator’s daughter and the Prime Minister. Do go see this!

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL

—by Jeff Schultz

A well-done sequel that is much better than the original. While it becomes incoherent once the explanation for all the bad stuff that’s happening is laid out, getting to that point is creepy fun, thanks to strong performances by a cast of lesser-knowns — and Henry Thomas! E.T.’s Elliott plays a troubled, possibly less-than-committed priest in the mold of Hal Holbrook in THE FOG and Jason Miller in THE EXORCIST. (Also, re EXORCIST: there’s a fun nod that starts with some Tubular Bells-y music, over which we see a clear allusion to the poster shot of Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, briefcase in hand, outside the Linda Blair house.) Lulu Wilson as the possessed daughter is the youngest actress I can remember delivering an extended, one-shot monologue — certainly the youngest one to nail it: she describes to a teenage boy with deadpan dead-seriousness what it’s like to be strangled, and it rocks. Rounding out the cast, solid support as well from the mother and older daughter (Elizabeth Reaser and Annalise Basso). This is actually a prequel, taking place in the same house as the first one, but 50 years earlier. Stay until the credits end: there’s a clever cameo button that further ties the two OUIJAs together.

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

— by Jeff Schultz

To me, Zach Galafianakis is one of the two funniest people alive (the other being Charlie Day). When I saw the trailer for this comedy, I couldn’t wait for it to come out. Then I watched it. What a letdown! While the second half is an improvement, getting there involves sitting through a wan setup with lame gags that aren’t even served up properly, leaving the audience confused about whether they’re meant to laugh. Poor Zach is all but neutered in an Everyman role that keeps him far too buttoned-up. As his wife, Isla Fisher fares a little better, but the blandness-of-suburbia and quick-before-the-kids-come-home married sex jokes aren’t just tired, they’re sleep-inducing, and the ordinary-people-caught-up-in-nefarious-international-spy-plot has been told so many times that if the screenplay could talk it would be hoarse. There is, however, a saving grace: Jon Hamm, who has previously (on “SNL” and in BRIDESMAIDS) shown what a funny guy he can be and is easily the best thing going here.

MASCOTS

— by Jeff Schultz

Why is everyone dumping on this movie? The consensus critique seems to be that it’s “like all the other” Christopher Guest mockumentaries. To which I say, Bring It On ! Guest’s patented comic approach, augmented by his stellar repertory company of actors, doesn’t need alteration; the formula still works. One scene alone — involving Fred Willard (in much the same mode as his “Buck Laughlin” in BEST IN SHOW) and a Little Person — had me screaming with laughter; it’s as good as anything in any of the other films. Fred is joined by Guest regulars Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, and Bob Balaban in this fictional award show competition among sports team mascots — with the happy addition of Zach Woods (who at some point in his career has to play House Speaker Paul Ryan) and Chris O’Dowd. It all goes down so easily, I wanted it to keep going and was startled and disappointed when the credits appeared after a too-short 89 minutes. Again, this is a minority opinion, but for me, Christopher Guest can keep making these movies until the cows come home, and I’ll be happy.

THE ACCOUNTANT

by Alan Yudman

Going into THE ACCOUNTANT I expected something slightly different than what I got. I thought it was going to be a decent action thriller with Ben Affleck playing up his Batman action hero status and showing off his mad skills. What I did not expect was an attempt to thoughtfully examine the issue of Autism.

Affleck is Christian Wolff. He is an accounting savant. He can see numbers in a very “Beautiful Mind” sort of way. That has earned him lots of jobs with lots of shady people from the mafia to drug cartels to terrorists. He launders their money and keeps them rich. In return he gets paid in money and gifts. He runs this international scheme from an innocuous storefront is a Chicago suburb. Cynthia Addai-Robinson (from ARROW) is an analyst with the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit. She is blackmailed by her boss (the always fabulous JK Simmons) into helping track down Wolff.

In the meantime The Accountant takes a job from a seemingly legit business that makes prosthetic limbs among other things. In house accountant Anna Kendrick has found a mistake in their books and Wolff comes in to find out what happened.

A third storyline involves Jon Bernthal (The Punisher in DAREDEVIL) who works for some shadowy group of mercenaries. Then there are the flash backs to Wolff’s youth where we learn how severely autistic he is and how he acquired his ability to kick major ass.

I know, I know. It sounds like a mess that would be impossible to follow. It isn’t. Director Gavin O’Connor and Writer Bill Dubuque have found a way to keep us interested in everything that is going on without the audience felling overwhelmed. The only time I got a bit lost was when Wolff tried to explain some of the financial shenanigans he was uncovering. I got the broad strokes which was enough for me. It is more an exercise in giving credibility to Wolff’s expertise than actually explaining anything.

The legit business is anything but, with John Lithgow and his friend falsely inflating the value of the company before a stock offering. That is what Kendrick uncovers and it puts both her life and the life of Wolff at risk. Thankfully we only get one “but he’s only an accountant” line as Wolff starts putting away bad guys with extreme violence and considered abandon.

Affleck does very good work here. He has to play everything very quietly. Not much smiling or emotional range because that would feel false given his role as a high functioning autistic adult. Even when he is wreaking havoc on his enemies he does so with a calm, almost detached passivity. It is very disquieting. Kendrick is good but her quirky charm comes off odd in a way I cannot put my finger on. She is underused, but I’m not sure how her character could have done more in the context of the film.

THE ACCOUNTANT is far from a perfect movie. There are a couple of nifty twists, one that I saw coming and one that was a surprise. i don’t know enough about Autism to tell whether this is an accurate portrayal of how people live with it. But it is honest and doesn’t seem to exploit it. On balance, this was an interesting film and one I think is worth your time.

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

by Alan Yudman

The legendary tale of Seven Samurai who were recruited to protect a town from a ruthless evil doer has been told on film twice before. Akira Kurosawa’s classic version which featured actual Samurai. Then the 1960 John Sturges version, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Now Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington have teamed up to remake the reimagined western. It is mostly successful, but no nearly as good as the 1960 version.

In this one, a mining baron named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) has taken over a town, offered a mere pittance for the land of the famers and ranchers who live there and basically killed anyone who decided to oppose him (sorry for the brief appearance Matt Bomer). So a widow (Haley Bennett) of one of the unfortunate meets up with Washington’s “Chisolm” and strikes a bargain, everything the town has if he will run Bogue outta town. Chisolm starts recruiting his men and winds up with 7 going against a small army. I will say, it is quite the diverse cast of characters. Chisolm is of course black. There is also an Indian (Martin Sensmeier), a Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and an Asian (Byung-hun Lee). Apparently the most progressive vigilantes in the old west. The remaining 3 are a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt), a mountain man/bounty hunter (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a former Confederate soldier (Ethan Hawke).

If you have seen the 1960 version, it follows the broad strokes of the plot pretty faithfully. They win, they get beat, then prevail. That’s not a spoiler. Nothing is a spoiler. This is not groundbreaking (other than the casting) in any way. Matter of fact it is a fairly wrote Western. The gun play is well shot and well thought out. The screenplay is ok, some of the dialogue eye rolling. Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk are the writers. Wenk is an action movie veteran (The Equalizer and The Expendables most recently). Pizzolatto is the creator and writer behind True Detective. Maybe the first season of that HBO show was the anomaly and this is really who he is. There are parts that are so slow they are snooze inducing. Most of the payoff lines belong to Pratt who is playing some version of his Peter Quill character from Guardians of the Galaxy. Not a stretch, but he does it so well it’s hard not to like him. Washington is fine. Well, better than fine. He is so effortless and solid it is easy to forget how skilled he actually is.

Oh and one more minor creative quibble. Fuqua does use the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme, but not until the end. I spent part of the movie wishing I’d heard it sooner.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a perfectly fine film. But maybe putting it in a modern setting would have been a better idea. The diversity of the casting would have made a lot more sense if it was set in an inner city. It is far from Magnificent, not nearly as good as the 1960 classic but worth a rental.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

— by Jeff Schultz

Dreary and unlikeable, with a complicated set-up that, along with its ping-ponging back and forth through time, is difficult to initially follow, this murder mystery left me pretty cold. Emily Blunt has a thankless role as a not-so-hot alcoholic mess who has to work her way through a blur of booze and blackouts to a solution that isn’t too hard to see coming. We have Alison Janney, in a smallish role as one of the detectives, to thank for bringing a little life into the proceedings — as does, in an even smaller role, an almost unrecognizable Laura Prepon, her hair and eyebrows dyed black. It seems longer than it is, like a train ride you’ve taken many times before with not much new to see.