THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

watch the trailer:

 

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SPOTLIGHT (2015)

November 12, 2015

spotlight Greetings again from the darkness. Faith. A word that easily could have been the title of this gripping and heart-wrenching film. Faith can be defined as trust and belief. Faith can also be defined as religion and ideology. Few things are more devastating than broken faith … the core of this “based on actual events” story of The Boston Globe’s exposure of rampant child molestation by dozens of Catholic priests, and the systematic cover-up by “The Church”.

It’s challenging to name a movie that is as well-made as this one, while also being as difficult to watch. We know the story … we even know how it snow-balled globally … but the raw emotions of disgust and sheer anger permeate much of our being as we watch it unfold on screen. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) and it’s worthy of favorable comparison to other investigative newspaper films like The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007), and even the granddaddy of them all … All The President’s Men (1976).

The opening scene takes place in a 1976 Boston police station. A priest has been accused of molesting a child. Within a couple of minutes we witness the empty promises, the intimidation, and the cover up. So much is conveyed in this brief opener, not the least of which comes courtesy of the ambivalence of the veteran cop as he shrugs it off as ‘just another day’ in front of an idealistic rookie cop. This is accompanied by Howard Shore’s spot-on score, with the best parts featuring only a piano and bass.

Flash forward to 2001 as we meet the investigative journalist team called “Spotlight”. It’s led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They report to Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery), whose father was the editor of The Washington Post during the Woodward/Bernstein/Watergate era. New to The Globe is managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Unlike the others, Mr. Baron is neither a Boston local nor a Catholic. In fact, we catch him reading Dan Shaughnessy’s book “The Curse of the Bambino”, just so he can get a better feel for the community and its people.

What is most fascinating about the movie is that it focuses on the investigative aspects – just how diligent the reporters were in putting the story together – and how fluid the process was … the story led them, not vice versa. There was no media agenda to “get” the church. Instead, the reporters experienced natural shock as each piece of the puzzle was discovered. One of their key sources was a priest-turned-psychologist (voiced by Richard Jenkins) who helped them put scope to the numbers. Another was Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the leader of a victim’s group, who had tried before to provide documentation to the press. Saviano is the perfect example of how someone so passionate about a cause can be viewed with such skepticism … right up to the point when they are proven correct. Three attorneys add perspective to the cover-up. Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) made a career of settling cases (and silencing victims) for the church. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is the polar opposite – he fights vigorously to get the victims heard, while Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) is caught in the middle – settling cases for the church and struggling with his conscience. Other interesting characters include Paul Guilfoyle as Pete Conley, a smooth-talking power-broker for the church, and Len Cariou as Cardinal Law – the man at the top who eventually apologized and was rewarded with a high-ranking position at The Vatican.

The film is so well crafted and acted that it features more than a few “best scenes”. Sacha has a brief encounter with a former priest on his front door stoop. The priest freely admits to molesting kids and his rationalization will certainly deliver chills to most any viewer. Since this is Boston, it makes perfect sense for the reporters to be so distracted by the story, that it supersedes the Red Sox game they are attending at Fenway Park. Being that the investigation lasted well into 2001, it’s quite informative to watch a news agency shift directions for the September 11 tragedy, and along with the nation, put all else on hold. Finally, there is a point in the movie where we as viewers have just about had our fill of extreme emotions – we either need to hit something or throw up – and reporter Rezendes comes through with exactly what is needed: an emotional outburst and release of exasperation rivaling anything previously seen on screen. It’s a wonderful moment for Ruffalo as an actor, and a peak moment for viewers.

The story hit the front page of The Boston Globe in January 2002. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its superlative investigative journalism. The report vindicated so many who had been taken advantage of, and exposed the colossal arrogance of the church. The innocence of a child vs the power of God. The story broke the faith that so many once held, and started a global (as evidenced by the closing credits) reckoning and awakening that was desperately needed. The film offers a line of dialogue, “It takes a village to raise a kid … or abuse one.” In other words, it took the often silent actions of so many to allow this despicably evil horror to continue. In a tribute to the newspaper profession, it took a small group of dedicated reporters to pull back a curtain that should never again be shut. Let’s have faith in that.

watch the trailer:

 


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer:

 


ROBOCOP (2014)

February 14, 2014

robocop Greetings again from the darkness. The expected cringes and groans never fully surfaced as the modernized re-boot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic unfolded on the screen. Sure, I wish Peter Weller made even a cameo appearance, and yes, I missed the charm, humor and satire that has allowed the original to remain relevant; but, director Jose Padilha reimagines the story, sticks to PG-13 action, and incorporates the video game look favored by today’s filmgoers.  The result is an adequate action movie with a Dr Frankenstein twist, a dash of questionable technological morality, topped with the always evil corporate conglomerate.

The opening sequence takes place in Tehran and is extremely well done, setting the stage for incisive commentary on today’s foreign policies and drone usage. Unfortunately, THAT movie never materializes, but we do get the over-the-top conservative news host … played colorfully by Samuel L Jackson, who does manage to work in his iconic catchphrase (yes even a PG-13 movie is allowed one MF). His holographic studio reminds of Minority Report, and has the futuristic look required to distract us from any real message.

Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing“) adequately fills the part man/ part robot role (good guy and good cop Alex Murphy), but the script really lets him down when it comes to his wife (Abbie Cornish) and kid, his crime-fighting instincts, and the overlapping criminal elements – some poorly cast generic arms dealer and the ultimate villain known as mega corporation OmniCorp run by the great Michael Keaton. The movie’s best scenes involve the interaction between Keaton and the always terrific Gary Oldman, playing a conflicted doctor/robotics genius with a conscience (most of the time).

The supporting cast is stellar and features a nasty Jackie-Earle Haley, a properly proper Jennifer Ehle, a relatively straight-laced Jay Baruchel, a two-faced police captain played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Murphy’s partner Michael K Williams, and Oldman’s loyal assistant played by Aimee Garcia (“Dexter“). The biggest missed opportunities involve the cop partnership with Mr. Williams … such an integral part of the first movie (Nancy Allen), but here it seems most of this story was inexplicably left on the editing floor.  The story, the viewers and Mr. Williams deserved much better.

A bit too much shakycam in the first shootout left me disappointed, as did most of the action sequences. However, the effects for the robotic suit and Murphy’s “body” are fantastic.  Especially effective is the scene with Murphy first becomes aware of what remains of him and how much is robotic suit.  This is very much a tale of moralistic choices, and it could have been interesting to see Murphy go a bit deeper in his existential questioning of Man or Machine. Mostly, I was simply relieved it wasn’t terrible and didn’t tarnish the legacy.

**NOTE: the city of Detroit is the base, but the movie never really touches on the problems within the actual city.  In fact, very little crime solving is shown – but we do have the stats relayed to us.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wonder what Iron Man would be like with an evil billionaire calling the shots rather than a  brilliant billionaire wearing the suit OR you never miss the rare (these days) chance to see Michael Keaton on screen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are perfectly content to allow the 1987 film version to maintain its spot as THE Robocop movie.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INmtQXUXez8


THE OTHER GUYS (2010)

August 8, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much of Will Ferrell’s box office success has occurred thanks to his collaborations with writer/director Adam McKay. This includes Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and Anchorman. McKay’s long history at Saturday Night Live is often on display in his movies, but never more than during The Other Guys. While there was some effort put towards a story, the film often has the feel of individual skits.

The first skit revolves around two supercops played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Of course, the kicker is that they really aren’t great cops, but masters of Public Relations. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are partners and the titular ‘other guys’. We get minimal background on each but quickly understand that Ferrell’s cop comes from accounting and is obsessed with regulations and safety. Wahlberg was a former rising star until an unfortunate accident involving Derek Jeter snuffed out his promotions.

Obviously, there needs to be a super case that these two solve and it involves a corporate financing scheme with Steve Coogan. The story itself is really unimportant (luckily) and the humor is derived from individual moments between Ferrell and Wahlberg, that same duo and Eva Mendes, or scenes with Michael Keaton.  As a baseball fan, I got a chuckle out of Keaton’s character name – Capt. Gene Mauch.

There are a couple of running gags that work (hot girls are always hitting on Ferrell, Wahlberg’s dancing, Keaton and TLC), and the best visual gag is an extended freeze frame montage set in a pub. It is pure comic genius. On the downside, I was really baffled as to the over-the-top approach taken by Mark Wahlberg. His anger and bitterness were so exaggerated that it has to be considered a spoof of his role in The Departed. However, if you try to view the film as a spoof, it just doesn’t work (outside of Samuel L Jackson).

Overall, this one has the laughs you would expect but is certainly not at the class of Anchorman. Comedy remains one of the most difficult film genres, and McKay remains one of our best hopes.


TOY STORY 3 (2010)

June 21, 2010

  Greetings again from the darkness. Has there ever been a bad Pixar movie? Nope. And as many really good movies they have created, there are now two truly great ones: Toy Story and Toy Story 3. The first one (released 15 years ago) transformed the way animation is made and set the standard for kids’ movies that parents can also enjoy. This third installment takes animated story telling to the next level.

Of course all the great voices are back: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Sarge (R Lee Ermey). Imagine assembling that cast and then adding two fabulous new characters: Lotsa Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Ken (Michael Keaton); expanding Jodi Benson’s Barbi to a key role, and re-vamping Slinky-dog with Blake Clark taking over for his deceased friend, the fabulous Jim Varney. This is major star power and an over-abundance of talent!

Then again, we have all seen stellar casts fall flat without a worthy script. Fear not as Pixar legend John Lasseter (Exec Producer here) has passed the reins again to director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc.). This story is brilliant and engaging. I challenge anyone from age 5 to 95 to avoid being drawn in to the themes of separation, friendship, loyalty, and power.

There are some laugh outloud moments along with the usual wise cracks from Buzz and Potato head. This time we are also treated to some darker moments with Lotsa, a power-hungry stuffed bear, and his band of misfits that include a giant baby doll and Chuckles, the creepiest clown this side of Poltergeist, and especially the frightening/funny monkey working security.

Some Pixar touches include the voice of Andy is provided by the grown up voice actor who did Andy in the first, a couple of glimpses of the evil kid Sid (first Toy Story) who has grown up to be a garbage man (same shirt) and the re-use of Randy Newman’s classic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Too many other “little” moments to mention, but this is pure film genius and should not be missed.