Mike at the Movies

The Girl on the Train (R) *****

I give this a top rating because it’s an excellent and unusual thriller based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, but with reservations because it is extremely difficult to follow. Almost everybody in the large cast lies to fit their own purposes, but the worst liar appears to be Rachel (Emily Blunt) who is also a serious alcoholic—as in falling down drunk.

We learn this as she progresses into her own alcoholic fog and memories of life with Tom (Justin Theroux), her ex, now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with whom he was having an affair while married to Rachel. Rachel watches their marriage develop in bits and pieces she gleans from her daily trips past their house (her former home) that they share with their baby. Rachel is childless after endless efforts to become pregnant with Tom. Megan (Haley Bennett) is Tom and Anna’s nanny.

One day, while passing her old house, Rachel sees Megan kissing a man who is not her husband, Scott (Luke Evans), on her porch. Somewhat bitterly, Rachel tells Scott what she has seen. Scott is angry, Rachel continues to be drunk, and the result is a total mess.

Megan, we should point out, likes to play around, even making passes at her psychiatrist, Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez).

Allison Janney as Detective Riley, is the police officer in charge, and she immediately suspects Rachel when Megan turns up missing, later dead. The problem is that Rachel cannot remember what she saw the night of Megan’s murder, though she senses something terrible happened. When she tries to explain to Detective Riley what happened that night she cannot keep her stories straight and looks headed for a long jail sentence.

But there are future surprises ahead, such as an unsuspected pregnancy, flashbacks that indicate Rachel is even more unstable than we were led to believe, and other twists and turns that keep the suspense going to the very end. The tight plotting is not helped by the fact that Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson are both striking blondes who could be related and if Rachel cannot tell them apart, why should we?

Everybody in the cast seems capable of murder, even Lisa Kudrow as Martha, wife of Tom’s former boss, who says Tom was fired not because of misbehavior on the part of Rachel at a dinner party as Tom told her, but “because he couldn’t keep his pants zipped.”

Blunt is fantastic as the confused, abandoned Rachel—we discover eventually the reasons for both confusion and abandonment. The supporting cast is very strong; Bennett especially is the tempting seductress she wants to be. Perhaps most importantly, the plotting is fairly understandable—remarkable for something as confusing as the Paula Hawkins novel. Remember that much of the action is filtered through a fog of alcohol and depression. Hawkins’ plot also unfolds, even in the novel, like an onion, a layer at a time. There is a surprise “twist” at the end that was so unexpected that it drew sardonic laughter from the crowd that watched the film with me. Judging by the small audience sample with me, this is going to prove to be a women’s picture, but men should certainly not avoid it. It is an unusual and tightly wound thriller for all audiences except kids.

The Accountant (R) ****

A very complex plot involves Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff, an autistic accountant with incredible mathematical skills. He is also a crack shot, especially with a high-powered rifle (his favorite is a Barrett M82A1M), an ex-con and a stoic art collector with a specialty in Jackson Pollock. Anna Kendrick plays an accountant with normal powers who charms the anti-social Wolff as they work together. J.K. Simmons plays FBI agent King, Cynthia Addai-Robinson is rookie agent Marybeth Medina and Jon Bernthal is Wolff’s brother, Brax.

The plot is almost excruciatingly complex until the final reels where the film simply becomes a long chase-and-eliminate thriller with lots of blood and gore. The FBI spends most of the film trying to figure out who the mysterious accountant is, while he and Kendrick go about trying to save her from the bad guys—a gang headed up by a familiar figure. The last reel of the film is taking a lot of heat for being preposterous and it is, but I won’t wreck it for you here. Suffice to say that too many knots get tied up for logic or believability and there is too much expertise for one guy against a well-armed gang with TV monitors on the battlefield.

Kendrick is bewitching though surprisingly tiny alongside the burly Affleck. The action will stimulate gun lovers and the plot turns may escape most of them so it won’t wreck the film for them. A nice information package on the autism spectrum is wrapped into the finale, which may have been more helpful at the start of the film, explaining Wolff’s strange behavior and tics. The little ones have no business at this film so send them off for “Middle School” or “Max Steel” instead.

The Birth of the Nation (R) ****

Two moments in this long film jarred me so much that I downgraded it from the expected top rating. One is when Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who has been beaten almost to death by a gang of slave-catchers, reunites with her husband, Nat, and strokes his face with perfectly manicured nails, complete with lacquer! This is followed by Nat’s execution accompanied by a glowing light and an angel! Totally inappropriate for such a serious movie.

Generally, the picture supports the history of Turner, a slave who educated himself and became a preacher because that was the only book his white owner would allow him to read. Eventually, he reads the other side of the Bible, the part that talks about vengeance and the verdict of God for evil acts and quickly goes the other way. He is helped along his spiritual journey by a vicious whipping for baptizing a white man, but he was headed toward rebellion before the whipping.

One of the strange and unexplained transformations in the film is that of Samuel Turner, Nat’s owner, who moves from sympathetic sponsor of Nat, even using him for extra income by renting him out as a pacifying preacher to surrounding farmers, to the man who whips him after hitting him with a rifle stock. He drinks more and more, but whether that triggers his change of attitude or not is not made clear and it should have been.

The hypocrisy of Nat preaching peace and obeying one’s master is laid on a bit thick, but it is the central conflict of Turner’s career as a preacher. His turn is marked by a question to him from one of the surly whites who enjoyed his whipping: “Learned your lesson, boy?” To which Nat replies, with total irony: “Oh, yessir. I learned!” Shortly afterward, the short-lived rebellion (48 hours) begins with axe murders of white owners and their families in the area, something that had been predicted by many of the farmers. The rebellion ends when the militia moves in with many rifles and a cannon. The aftermath is accompanied by Bessie Smith’s heart-rending classic, “Strange Fruit” as both men and women are shown hanging from trees. Turner himself was one of the last hung and his body was flayed of its skin and flesh made into soap in a vain attempt to keep him from martyrdom. That didn’t work, but “The Turner Diaries” by William Pierce served as the novel that represented the neo-Nazi movement for years, while “The Confessions of Nat Turner” from 1967 seems to be a more relevant work, though a novel. Was Turner a madman or a hero? This film won’t settle the question but it is certain to raise it in many quarters. I found it overly dramatic and incomplete in focusing on such a mixed character. And there were those lacquered nails …

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG) **

If your kids have not yet caught on to the fact that middle school is a place for clichés as they grow older and that EVERY middle schooler suffers the same angst and psychic trauma, this is the movie for them. For adults, it is another example of movies produced for kids who believe that all adults must be first mistrusted and then ridiculed.

Rafe Katchadorian (Griffin Gluck) (helps if you have a strange name so the bullies have something to nail you with right away) enters a new middle school, having been expelled from every other school he’s entered because he insists on reproducing his experiences in cartoons. Principal Dwight (Andy Daly) is the perfect foil since he says things like “I’m all for art but it doesn’t belong in school.” He eventually rules out all extracurricular activities in punishment for a campaign called “Rules Aren’t for Everyone,” led by Rafe.

Rafe’s ally is his brother, Leo, played by Thomas Barbusca, an actor who drives me mad with his attitude and wise guy line delivery. It turns out that Leo is Rafe’s late brother whom he misses very much. But Rafe falls in love, continues his campaign to eliminate rules, befriends the one decent teacher who has the worst class in school for grades, and makes it to the end. Alexa Nickenson is Georgia, Rafe’s little sister and very cute and effective, and Lauren Graham does her usual thing of sympathy on the verge of tears.

The clichés mount up, the idiotic plot moves to an expected conclusion and you end up right where you were before you started: glad your middle school years are long gone. For kids only—parents, you’ve been there and done that.

Max Steel (PG-13) **

I feel sorry for kids today who get movies like this marketed to them because they are based on known action figures, in this case Mattel’s series of Max Steel toys. With an extremely complicated plot involving time shifts, perspective shifts and character shifts, bad acting and special effects that do nothing but confuse, this is a disaster of a movie. There is a lot of gobbledygook about energy and “ultra links” and even more about the identity and purpose of Max McGrath’s (Ben Winchell) father, Jim (Mike Doyle).

The plot galumphs its way to a sort of conclusion, though one hopes that the hint of a sequel is an empty threat. The only good thing about the film is Ana Villafañe (Sophia Martinez) who is a very attractive film newcomer. But even she is not worth the price of admission to this horrible mélange of effects. Skip it.

Kevin Hart: What Now? (R) *

I do not like Kevin Hart and this film places him even further back in a list of “movie stars” I would just as soon never see again. All his quirks—foul language, unfunny domestic situations, self-put-downs, bad timing and hysterical over-acting and over-emoting are here in spades. Even the presence of a beauteous Halle Berry as herself can’t save Hart from destroying himself.

There is no punctuation in Hart’s act, most of which provides the content for the film after a far-fetched and unfunny premise starring Berry, Don Cheadle and Ed Helms. Hart just races from unfunny premise to unfunny premise with no linkage, no pauses, no timing other than “pedal-to-the-metal” and a run of filthy material that, as well as being unfunny, is in horrible taste as well. An extended piece on male sex toys is the unfunniest bit of all but also takes up a major part of the film.

Hart brags to the Lincoln Financial Stadium crowd in Philadelphia, “I am in the record books.” He surely is—with one of the most awful shows ever recorded. A close look at many in the audience, show a lot of empty stares and checking of cellular phones for something—anything—better than what they are witnessing. It was easy for those audience members to find some material. This film is a total waste of time.