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Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: The Accountant

Convoluted But Compelling

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 14th, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, 
J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, 
Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, 
John Lithgow  

Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck) is "supernatural" at crunching numbers and even more adept at crunching skulls. Companies bring him in to look over the books – he is, after all, "The Accountant" – but he's willing to get his hands dirty with more than just ink if necessary.

He's also on the autism spectrum. This aspect of his character instantly elevates the film and makes it endlessly fascinating. I have no idea how accurate Ben Affleck's portrayal is – I'm no expert on autism – but it seems like a great performance to me. He dials down his natural charisma and charm without ever appearing robotic or losing his humanity.

I'm surprised there hasn't been more of an "uproar" about the movie and this character from various "rights" groups. Portraying someone with autism as an efficient killing machine has to be controversial to someone, right? But I think the film earns goodwill and a free pass because the main character's autism isn't ever just a one-note gimmick. You see his quirks (parking a certain way every time – diagonally, a compulsion to finish everything he starts, his lack of sarcasm), his strengths (numbers, efficiency, shooting), and the drastic steps he takes to function in the world as a person with autism (a long routine involving loud music and bright lights – a sensory overload nightmare). It also helps that his past history is explored and explained in great detail.

Chris's father (Robert C. Treveiler) realizes his son is "different" and forces him and his little brother (played as kids by Seth Lee and Jake Presley) to learn military-grade fighting techniques so they can eventually face the unforgiving world and defend themselves and each other if they have to. Again, whether this is plausible, I wouldn't know. Probably not, but it works for this particular story.

After a stint in the military, Chris ends up in prison, where he is mentored by an older inmate (Jeffrey Tambor), who furthers his training in a different way – by teaching him social cues and other basic human nuances.

Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is the head of the Treasury Department's Crime Enforcement Division. He recruits Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and strong-arms her taking a job as his assistant by revealing that he knows about her past criminal record. That information is supposed to be sealed, she points out with outrage, but King obviously has his ways. He needs her help, her tells her, in locating The Accountant.

Meanwhile, a robotics firm run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow) hires Chris to inspect their finances. While there, he meets a pretty young co-worker, Dana (Anna Kendrick), who takes a liking to him despite his unorthodox demeanor.

Brax (Jon Bernthal) is a dangerous hitman with an intense dislike for fraudulent corporate activity. Through various twists and turns, he soon finds himself pitted against Chris.

All of these different characters and situations eventually come together in a frenzied finale.

"The Accountant" is a great blend of action, drama, and even some very well-timed black humor that had the entire theater chuckling almost inappropriately. Good luck trying to explain the finer details of the story to anyone afterward, though. The plot can be convoluted and the film feels overlong, but it's also undeniably compelling to watch. That's primarily because of Ben Affleck. An "accountant" with autism is undoubtedly one of the most original and interesting characters I've come across in a very long time.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Denial

The Shocking True Story of the Court Case That Put the Holocaust on Trial

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 21, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: Mick Jackson
Writers: David Hare (screenplay), 
Deborah Lipstadt (book)
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, 
Andrew Scott, Tom Wilkinson

Attention, Academy: Give Rachel Weisz the Oscar! The London-born actress's startling transformation into a tough-talking teacher from Queens, New York, is nothing short of extraordinary.

I'll be honest: It's a pet peeve of mine whenever a performer attempts an accent that isn't their own. Let's face it: it doesn't always work – at least not 100% effectively. Oftentimes, you can almost see the gears grinding in their head as they concentrate on adjusting their vocal chords while simultaneously remembering and reciting their dialogue. Every word out of their mouth usually feels strained and unnatural. That's not the case here. If I had never seen Weisz before, I would swear she was born and raised in New York. She's that good in "Denial."

In 1996, historian and writer Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) was sued for libel by Third Reich sentimentalist David Irving (Timothy Spall) because she characterized his beliefs as "Holocaust denial." His actual views: the Holocaust never took place. His argument: that "denier" has become a defamatory term with negative connotations – similar to "racist" and other such words.

The trial was lengthy and cost millions of pounds. Yes, pounds. Apparently, America isn't the only country that gets itself tied up in frivolous litigation.

But there is one very important difference to note: The American judicial system of "innocent until proven guilty" does not apply in England. Instead, it is up to the accused party to prove his or her innocence. In this case, that meant Deborah – and the Holocaust, by extension – was put on trial, even though the lawsuit was filed against her.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But it actually happened.

Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) agrees to take the case. He was previously Princess Diana's lawyer, which means Deborah's defense is being handled by an elite legal team. The stakes are too high for anything less, and the ramifications of a loss would be devastating.

In another difference from the American judicial system, it isn't Julius himself who will argue the case in court. Instead, that important duty is given to a different lawyer entirely, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson, who delivers yet another solid, reliable performance in a career filled with them).

Within the first few seconds of hearing David Irving speak out against the Holocaust, Silver Screen Sister shouted at the screen: "I'm already offended on behalf of all Jewish people."

That offense turned to grief as Deborah and Richard travel to Auschwitz on a "research mission." In a stunning scene, what at first seems like air in the sky ends up being a faded montage of concentration camp prisoners descending the stairs of Auschwitz to their impending doom.

Watching the intricacies of the English legal process unfold is fascinating. In a big American trial, you would expect Deborah to passionately take the stand, and for Holocaust survivors to do the same. Neither happens in "Denial" – for very good reasons I'll leave you to discover.

This film does a great job of creating suspense for what is otherwise a forgone conclusion.

Is a court of law the right place to decide the legitimacy of the Holocaust? That's the question I raised during the movie and one the people involved in the case struggled with as well. There are no easy answers, but what cannot be debated is just how important – crucial – it is to discuss a historical event of this magnitude. Perhaps the formality of a courtroom setting is as good a venue as any.