Tag Archives: biopic

“The Founder” portrays capitalism as the enemy

Perhaps no company in history is more vilified than McDonald’s. The master of cheap and convenient, an emblem of obesity and profitability, most would be surprised to learn that the story of the company is not a rosy rags-to-riches family-owned venture, but a tale of ruthless capitalism from the get-go. “The Founder” illustrates that story and its figurehead, Ray Kroc, the man who made an empire. Perhaps an evil empire.

Written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” tells the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a hustler salesman who stumbles upon a new type of restaurant run by two brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). They have designed a new, fast system of food service, where people walk up to the counter instead of wait for food to be brought to them in their car and an assembly-line crew prepares food with a smaller menu to increase efficiency. Intrigued by the idea and its potential, Kroc finagles a deal to become their head of franchising and begins to spread McDonalds throughout the country. As the race to get big ensues, Kroc comes to realize that it is the brothers who are in his way more than anything else, setting up a conflict that will leave only one of them with control of the company.

Michael Keaton is a very interesting, inviting actor and that plays to his advantage in the role of Kroc. Even though he appears crazy, you can’t help but be intrigued by him. Meanwhile, the McDonald brothers are rather pedestrian and boring. You feel for them, but kind of find them uninteresting, our sympathies transitioning to Kroc instead before the ending which reverses our emotions. In other words, perfect casting and writing by extension.

The conflict however could have been emphasized even more. For most of the film, Kroc and the McDonalds are in different states, talking on the phone. There’s little direct confrontation until the end, where the story really comes into focus.

And for Kroc, the choice to betray the McDonalds brothers is not really a choice: he’ll do whatever it takes to make the most money.  He’s lacking that great moral dilemma that would make his choice interesting and give weight to the story.

What is interesting is seeing the lure of power and money and how it brings a man to betray others. It’s a story of the downfall of capitalism, how a system that values money above morals destroys relationships. It’s a very classic story that feels fitting in the modern age.

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“At Eternity’s Gate” may feel like eternity for some

Director Julian Schnabel specializes in slow-moving, intensely focused dramas. His newest film “At Eternity’s Gate” is no exception, his camera focused on Van Gogh’s face and his corresponding paintings and madness. He seems to be literally talking to us. For some, the direct contact brings the questions and moral of the story into sharp focus. For others, it’s a droll exercise.

Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh in the last few years of his life. Never recognized for his artwork, he is constantly rejected by the masses and the artistic world, his only friends fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and brother, Theo (Rupert Friend). As he wanders through France looking for canvases to paint, his depression and anxiety drive him into psychotic episodes. He realizes that his painting is the only thing that gives him joy and solitude from his madness.

No one really knows what Van Gogh suffered from, but today he would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression of some sort. Schnabel is really able to put the audience in that mental headspace through his camera work. Through erratic handheld shots of Van Gogh’s feet to long takes of environment landscapes, the viewer sees the mania, depression and joy of his life.

The film however feels repetitive to a degree with the continuous swing back and forth of Van Gogh’s emotions. In part, this is by design as Van Gogh’s topy-turvy life is balanced in the extreme. But, for the viewer, it can feel a bit been-there, done-that after awhile.

Willem Dafoe does great work as Van Gogh, but at the same time, he is miscast. Van Gogh was a 37-year-old Dutch man. Dafoe is a 63-year-old American. It’s hard to bridge that difference in a convincing way.

People in Van Gogh’s life continually ask him why he paints, especially when so many of them find his work repulsive. He can only answer that he paints because he must. It is the only thing that gives him peace, and he wants people to see the world the way he does, hopefully something that lasts long after he is gone.

The film does a great job of bringing that ideology to life if the viewer is able to give the film enough berth to impress upon them.

‘Hidden Figures’ a fine if predictable film

Directed by Theodore Melfi and based off a true story, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American NASA engineers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Jenson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who help coordinate John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) space orbit.

The cast is great and the direction is steady and sturdy. It is great to see Hollywood tackle not just the concept of strong women, but also the concept of smart women. The well-written script bursts with clever quips and strong characters.

The problem is that the film is primarily focused on message over story. The struggle of the women against a white chauvinist world prevents the film from being anything other than a simple morality tale: Racism bad, perseverance good. It’s not very deep and doesn’t really offer anything other than surface level viewing, not really sticking with the viewer nor offering new thought-provoking ideas about class, sexism or racism.

So while “Hidden Figures” wears it’s heart on its sleeve and is a solid work, it really is just a retread of a very similar theme we’ve heard before. It doesn’t really offer anything other than an anecdote, but its message is timeless.

‘Selma’ a stirring film

Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” could easily have been another standard biopic, an awards-based driven film that uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy for its own Oscar potential. Thankfully, the filmmakers have wisely kept such chest pounding to a minimum as the story focuses on only a brief section of Dr. King’s life, the period of time in Selma, Alabama where blacks were voting rights drew national headlines. Much like Lincoln” two years earlier, seeing a great man act in a single event helps reveal his past, his message and the hope he instills for the future.

David Oyelowo gives a terrific performance as Dr. King, carefully blending oratory, humility and fear together in a searing portrait that gives the audience a bit of the man behind the legend. Carmen Ejogo stars as Coretta Scott King in a much too brief role, the dynamic between them really the anchor of the film, the struggle between love for the cause and love of the family. As the drama in the state begins to accelerate and pressure is put on government officials such as Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the rights of minorities as well as the general safety of everyone involved, the film ramps up the drama and tension to great effect, providing a parallel to our own times with recent events such as Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of police brutality. Whether intentional or not, these parallels give the film an urgent feeling of a need for righteousness.

While the overall film is very strong and the central message both timeless and current, there are some elements of the film that are a bit manipulative. Several protesters are designed as overly sympathetic, meant to pull on heartstrings. This feels manufactured and more rounded characters, with real flaws, would have produced just as strong an emotional reaction. The film also categorizes people as either racist or not, and various levels of gray between the two would have added more balance. And the presence of Oprah, while certainly a strong performance, pulls the viewer out of the story onscreen, same as the abundance of star-laden roles in “12 Years a Slave” pulled the viewer out of that story. For films about the importance of the everyday person and how groups of dedicated anonymous citizens can positively influence the world, it is usually stronger to focus on actual unknown actors rather than stars.

Some may find issue with how President Johnson is portrayed and whether or not his hesitation with the voting rights issue was true. While this is certainly a valid point, without opposition from the White House, the film would not be as strong and the message of needing to promote the general welfare despite politics would not carry across. What matters most of all is that President Johnson did sign the Voting Rights Act and his legacy is secure enough (or tarnished depending on your point of view) to not be influenced by a single film.

The violence and a call to action in “Selma” feel real. The film’s greatest achievement is its ability to not only recollect the past, but also tie in the message of equality to the present and give the audience a view of a still unfinished journey in this country. Whether that journey will ever be completed remains to be seen, but as long as movies like “Selma” continue to remind us of the roads we have crossed and have yet to cross, the call to action will not die.