As a movie title, The Accountant conjures up images of office paper, photocopiers, spreadsheets and responsible haircuts. Luckily the movie poster went for something less sensible: Ben Affleck kitted out like he was going to audit an "entrepreneur" in the slums of Rio. The stark contrast creates a series of nagging questions and presents much more promise than a Wednesday in the life of Ben Affleck as a self-employed accountant. The Accountant echoes the equally irritating movie title, The Informant!, which starred his old buddy, Matt Damon. Thankfully it's not some leftfield sequel, but rather a film that seems to be aiming for a blend of The Professional and A Beautiful Mind.
We track the story of Christian Wolff, a mathematics genius and highly skilled marksman, who gets caught up in the affairs of a robotics company after auditing their books. The concept has weight and The Accountant has style, but the story is convoluted, the storytelling is muddled and the execution is off-balance. The action thriller is trying to do too much and feels scattershot, diminishing the power of some otherwise great moments. It's the sort of movie that could become a treasure trove for spoof film-makers with scenes that border on the ridiculous and a story that keeps getting more and more ludicrous.
Affleck plays a man with autism and while convincing as an elite soldier, the odd smirk throws us. It's a committed performance, probably in the build up to or shortly after playing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, based on his physique. Despite the odd bemused look, it's a captivating oddball performance that helps string the film together.
"I don't fanny about."
It's as if director Gavin O'Connor is trying to adapt a 'string theory' board. The action thriller moves excitedly from one crazy pin to another, struggling to find its balance but eager to please with its daredevil exploits. We're given snippets from Wolff's childhood, recalling his tough upbringing, throwing in evidence of a mysterious and bloody massacre as we try to piece his story together, much like the FBI investigation in the backdrop. The filmmakers have married Wolff's two worlds together like movies colliding, throw in a third film from the FBI's point-of-view and even position The Accountant as an autism awareness film.
This choppy and swirling mix of amusing drama, thrilling suspense, autism infotainment and pensive detective work keeps you mildly entertained as you try to connect the dots. While it brims with confidence, this film just doesn't have the skeleton to hold it all together. It's great to see Anna Kendrick, John Lithgow and J.K. Simmons throwing their abilities into the mix, but despite the quality of the cast, it never reaches cruising speed. Kendrick recalls her role in the equally imbalanced Mr. Right, we try to forget 3rd Rock from the Sun while Simmons makes you want to see him play a film noir detective. The ultraviolent action and rising body count heightens the suspense and will appease action junkies, but the dramatic element of The Accountant is incredulous and hesitant.
The Accountant has some terrific moments and keeps you watching through its twists-and-turns, but this is a bendy, bloody and rocky road that gets by with a bit of flair and the best of intentions. If you switch off completely, you'll have a good time watching Affleck do his thing, otherwise this film may make you want to stick to watching films Affleck directs.
Roberto Duran and Ray Arcel are boxing legends, who each deserved their own respective biopics. Duran, a Panamanian professional boxer, is widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all-time and American boxing trainer, Arcel, trained 20 world champion boxers. Hands of Stone, the nickname Duran earned for his devastating punching power, tries to encompass their uneasy relationship and both of their stories. While ambitious, this is probably where writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz went wrong, trying to bundle two larger-than-life characters and their stories into one film.
Robert De Niro is a luminary of the sports genre, having starred in the black-and-white Scorsese classic, Raging Bull and more recently, Grudge Match. Instead of casting someone like his Grudge Match co-star Alan Arkin as Ray Arcel, the film-makers have given the big name star the duty, which he does with his usual vigour. While it's punted as a co-lead role, it was probably intended to be a supporting role to Edgar Ramirez as the cantankerous, Roberto Duran. There's some good sparring between the actors as Arcel tries to rope Duran's ego in, but you just feel they could've done more to foster the tension.
The cast is bolstered by the presence of Ana der Armas, Ruben Blades, John Turturro, Ellen Barkin and Usher Raymond, who plays Duran's main rival, Sugar Ray Leonard. The exquisite Ana der Armas lights up the screen taking on a role similar to that of Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street. Ruben Blades is the unscrupulous manager, who parades like a drug kingpin. John Turturro brings the mafia's influence while Barkin keeps De Niro honest at home in the complete antithesis of his role as Jake LaMotta.
"They came here to see a fight, now please... let me punch you!"
Having a fine cast and captivating performances gives Jakubowicz hooks to hang his story on. Unfortunately, it seems like the scope is too broad as he attempts to check as many boxes as possible whilst keeping within the confines of the sports genre. We get a view of Duran's upbringing as a poor Panamanian kid during a turbulent political time, his tempestuous relationship with Felicidad, his escalating egomania, his lack of education and some of his big boxing match ups. This is punctuated by a behind-the-scenes on Arcel's journey, his troubles with the mafia and the nature of the sport through its transition to television.
Hands of Stone should have been two biopics, but tries to coast on its 2-for-1 deal by keeping you off-balance with its frenetic pace and dynamic visuals. It's as if Jakubowicz is trying to relay Duran's very nature through the tone, delivering a fierce, exciting, hedonistic and unpredictable film. The colours, panache and vigour with which its presented keeps you locked into the action, even if the drama's a little formulaic and undercooked. The boxing matches are one of Hands of Stone's highlights, delivering raw, visceral boxing sights and sounds like never before. You feel every punch and jolt vicariously thanks to some sharp cinematography, editing and foley work.
The amazing true story may be diluted by the glut of similar pugilist dramas out there, but the excesses of fame and fortune make this biopic fascinating and drunk with power. Hands of Stone swaggers around like it owns the screen but never really gives you a reason to care for Duran, whose self-destructive tendencies make it difficult to identify with his arrogant, rags-to-riches brawler. The by-the-numbers script doesn't give us anything fresh to chew on, making this one more about style than substance. It's entertaining and has enough power to follow-through but you should probably only consider watching it if you enjoyed films like Southpaw and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Queen of Katwe is a coming-of-age Disney drama about Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, who is made aware of a world of opportunity after displaying a remarkable talent for the game of chess. It's based on an ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, which has been adapted for film by William Wheeler. It's a colourful movie, accentuating Uganda's rich spectrum of colour even further through architecture, fashion and decoration. While a relatively impoverished nation, the people are exuberant and forcibly entrepreneurial, giving the culture a wonderful vitality. Perhaps these parallels with India are what inspired the choice for Mira Nair to direct.
At first it's disappointing to think that an inherently African film was awarded to an "outsider". There are many up-and-coming talents from the continent, like Philippe Lacôte (Run), who could do wonders with this kind of film. However, you can understand why Disney would want a more bankable and seasoned director to helm the project and to Nair's credit, the parallels with India make her a great choice. If Danny Boyle can be charged with directing the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, then why shouldn't Mira Nair get a chance to wow audiences with Queen of Katwe.
Both Slumdog Millionaire and Queen of Katwe have their similarities. Instead of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, we're dealing with the age-old game of chess and instead of embracing the charms, poverty and kaleidoscope of India, we're dealing with a similar scenario in Uganda. Queen of Katwe isn't specifically striving for 'authentic' or 'gritty' like Four Corners did for Cape Town, but does enmesh these factors into the storytelling, by lacing social issues into Phonia's struggle. The visual tapestry makes it seem like an adaptation of a Coke advert, imbuing a similar upbeat spirit and trying to dilute the "African" dream and Coca-Cola imperialism into a rags-to-riches underdog tale.
"Who cares what Kasparov said, you're a Katwe fighter!"
In this climate of financial insecurity and renewed focus on gender equality, Queen of Katwe serves as a timely and empowering drama. The true story that inspired this dramatisation, gives this film more clout despite its tendency towards Disney formula. This underlying kernel of truth is further cultivated by sincere and stirring performances from David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. Both actors bring their international class to the production and make a wonderful support for young Madina Nalwanga, whose open-faced acting is convincing, honest and refreshingly present.
Queen of Katwe is delightfully funny and touching with the chess club kids charming their way into our hearts with fish-out-of-water comedy and their flippant yet endearing attitudes. This helps create a light-heartedness to the film and instead of bemoaning poverty and pointing the finger, it demonstrates the power of encouragement in building self-esteem and confidence. It may not have a fully-fledged education to fall back on, but Phiona's natural abilities and drive are inspiring and the activation of these by her tireless mentor is heartwarming.
There are many cliches to this resilient underdog tale, but Queen of Katwe shines in spite of its Disneyfication. We live through the quality of the performances, the vibrant other-worldliness of the backdrop, the sincerity of the humour, the nuances of the direction, the naive spirit of the journey and the feel-good beauty of this wonderful true story. It may be familiar, but it bursts with goodness and will have you finger-flicking like Phiona in no time.
Most people may associate Chocolat with the quaint Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp romance drama released at the turn of the 21st-century about a chocolate shop in a small French village. However, the original "Chocolat" became famous for clowning in Paris at the turn of the 20th-century. Rafael "Chocolat" Padilla became the first black circus artist in France and Chocolat chronicles his rise and fall.
Together with George Footit, the pairing revolutionised the art form by concocting a double act featuring the sophisticated white clown and foolish auguste clown. This duo was a box office sensation and helped reinvigorate clown acts and circus attendance figures. The story of Chocolat tries to amuse through an upbeat character study, leveraging his awkward place in Parisian society and candidly exploring societal prejudices and injustices of the time.
Casting the charismatic Intouchable star Omar Sy seemed like an inspired choice, however the role while reliant on personality, seems more suited to an actor of David Oyelowo's abilities. Sy is amusing and convincing when it comes to Chocolat's charisma and physical performance art, making a wonderful contrast to his clown counterpart Footit. However, he falls a bit flat when it comes to soaking up the magnitude of the drama. He's outclassed by Thierree, a hardened French version of Johnny Depp and in real-life a distant relation to Chaplin, playing the complex and melancholic Footit.
"Are you not entertained?"
Their intricate relationship has the most dramatic tension, making you wonder why the film-makers didn't give it more focus to begin with. While promising, the production doesn't power home the fundamental prejudices concerning Chocolat. We're dealing with a fish-out-of-water drama and while it acknowledges inherent racism and double standards in the entertainment business, it doesn't go deep enough to truly grapple with them. Despite Sy's presence, it's not funny enough to be a flat-out comedy and doesn't dig deep enough to excavate the power of injustice, leaving you entertained, amused, informed but relatively unmoved.
Chocolat is a fascinating comedy drama and true story that had great film potential, but the script seems a bit tame and satisfied with scraping the surface. They could've gone with a Life is Beautiful angle by sweeping the darkness under the rug with comedy or taken to the shadows in search of more soul power. By walking this tightrope and struggling to siphon enough depth from Sy's comical performance, we fall back on the aesthetics. In this respect, it's a wonder - treating us to first-class production design and the exquisite wardrobe, steeping Chocolat in the life-and-times of Parisian circuses at the turn of the 20th-century.