Hart of the matter
The striking thing about Kevin Hart: What Now? is how much funnier his stand-up comedy is compared to the majority of his screen roles, which generally fall into the category of high-concept, low-yield buddy movies (Central Intelligence, Ride Along 1 and 2, Get Hard, et al).
Indeed, the concert itself generates far more laughs than a James Bond-type opening prior to his live performance at Lincoln Financial Field in his (and my) hometown, Philadelphia, capping off a 151-city tour that became the highest-grossing stand-up tour ever.
When Hart takes the stage and lets loose, he’s less a joke-teller than a storyteller, and his humor stems from his comic image – that of a cocksure macho man quickly brought down by his own neuroses and insecurities. He’s self-deprecating but also endearing, and in his stream-of-consciousness take on parenthood, relationships, celebrity status, social media and sex – not necessarily in that order — he scores some big laughs.
Under the competent if uninspired direction of Leslie Small, who has directed Hart in previous stand-up specials, there are the requisite, mostly random shots of the crowds laughing or waving to the cameras, although a quick glimpse of one frowning audience member almost brings the house down. Like a lot of stand-up concert films, What Now? is hit-and-miss, but there’s no denying the energy Hart brings to his routine, with his physical prowess coming to the fore – and sometimes the rescue.
The James Bond stuff, helmed by Tim Story of Hart’s Ride Along films – sees Hart identified as “Agent 0054,” and although it sometimes replicates the look and feel of the Bond films (especially during the opening-credit sequence) – it isn’t as funny as the best of the concert, despite the presence of Don Cheadle, Ed Helms, and former Bond girl Halle Berry.
As the concert lasts around 70 minutes, these bookends therefore qualify as filler, a mere and unnecessary excuse to pad the running time to feature length.
Affleck in action
In The Accountant, Ben Affleck plays the title character, one Christian Wolff (not his real name). Christian suffers from a rare form of autism yet is highly functional. Not only is he a brilliant mathematics savant – hence his vocation – but he’s also a one-man killing machine.
Without the autism element, The Accountant is a thoroughly routine shoot’-em-up, competently if unmemorably executed by director Gavin O’Connor. The action scenes are reasonably well-staged, and although Bill Dubuque’s screenplay is leavened with gallows humor, it’s also needlessly complicated.
As the film approaches its drawn-out climax, replete with a few twists (the biggest of which is also the most predictable), the plot doesn’t so much unravel as thicken. Complexity is one thing, confusion is another.
That Wolff’s clientele includes some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, Treasury Department head Ray King (JK Simmons) coerces rookie agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to launch a covert investigation into his dealings, at just the time that Wolff has tackled his latest task, to audit the books of a high-tech robotics firm in Chicago. Needless to say, the job’s a lot more difficult than it initially appears.
An appealing, if somewhat underused, cast includes Anna Kendrick, enjoying a rare foray into action, the always-welcome John Lithgow, Jean Smart, Jeffrey Tambor and Jon Bernthal, the latter as the sort of sneering, black-clad hit-man with an endless number of similarly black-clad henchmen who blithely go to their just (and bloody) rewards at his order.
As for Affleck, he incorporates the requisite amount of tics and quirks to his characterization, and he’s not unsympathetic. Yet for Wolff’s uncontested skills at math and mayhem, he’s an implacable and sullen hero. In a lot of ways, he’s just going through the motions – as dictated by a tangled storyline that requires him to do little more.
A Tarheel thriller
Originally titled Swimming in a Lake of Fire, writer/director Les Butchart’s Lake of Fire is an ambitious attempt at a contemporary Southern Gothic. Steeped in atmosphere but hampered by a severe tendency toward overlength, it’s laudable that Butchart tries to give his (many) characters depth and dimension, but too often it comes at the distraction – and detraction – of the overall film’s momentum.
Ariel Burke, in a noteworthy feature debut, plays the pivotal role of Lucy Speckle. She’s spent the last year behind bars after killing the man she claims raped her, and now she’s back home – viewed by some with compassion and others with derision. Her repeated attempts to put the past behind and start her life over her prove impossible, with the specter of Old Testament-type retribution looming large.
Where Lake of Fire does succeed is in its convincing depiction of small-town Southern atmosphere, replete with eccentric characters who have problems of their own. There’s Lester (Chris Best, in his feature debut), a moody stranger in a cowboy hat whose true identity will be no surprise to anyone paying even a modicum of attention.
There’s Lucy’s father Ray (Billy Ingram), a booze-soaked evangelist who, upon his release from a chain gang – for burning the body of Lucy’s victim – is bent on establishing a ministry. That’s all well and good, if overly reminiscent of Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997), but it’s a subplot that serves to further pad an already overstuffed, 130-minute running time.
Joel Everett’s score is a plus, as is the evocative cinematography by Philip Dann (who also plays a supporting role). Lake of Fire earns points for trying hard, even if it comes up short at the end.
− Lake of Fire will be screened 7 pm Friday at the Community Theater of Greensboro, 520 S. Elm St., Greensboro. Tickets are $6 (at the door) and $7.50 (on-line). For advance tickets or more information, call 336.333.7470 or visit https://ctgso.org/.
Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2016, Mark Burger