Tag Archives: film review

“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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“Downsizing” belittles the important details

When you get a high concept idea for a story, you need to work through the writing process and see where the story will take you and develop deeper themes. For example, the high concept of “The Matrix” is ‘what if we were living in a video game reality’, but the story is really about breaking free of boundaries and developing inner confidence. In “Jaws”, the concept is ‘what if a shark attacked a small coastal town’, but the film is about the protagonist overcoming his fear of the water. In “Downsizing”, the high concept of people being shrunk to reduce waste and improve economic well-being is a great and strange idea. The deeper themes are not.

Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and directed by Payne, “Downsizing” is the story of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He convinces his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), to go through the recently announced downsizing program to increase their wealth and hopefully their happiness. When Audrey backs out at the last moment, Paul finds himself abandoned as a five-inch tall man in a community living in dollhouses. A clash with his new neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) leads him on a strange road to downsizing creator Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) and Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).

The first 40 minutes of the film are a slow buildup to the first reveal, but once Paul is on his own,  the film takes off and sputters at the same time. Like the point above, the film should be about something else other than just people shrinking. And it is. But “Downsizing” investigates themes of overpopulation, extinction, social class, finding happiness, finding love, finding purpose … It’s all just too much and not enough at the same time, the characters being lost in the shuffle of themes and plot. It feels as though Payne and Taylor had so many different ideas of where to take the story that they just threw as many concepts as they could at the script and just hoped one would stick.

And when the characters are giving breathing space to influence the direction of the story, there’s just not a lot to them. They’re more stereotypes than actual people, especially Ngoc Lan Tran, an annoying cliche of Asian mannerisms that is unacceptable in today’s world.

All in all, “Downsizing” is a great concept, but one bogged down by too many themes and not enough characters. In the hands of someone else like Charlie Kauffman or John Waters (someone more avant garde), the theming could have worked towards much greater and stranger effect, but Payne and Taylor are not the right filmmakers for this sort of concept.

“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.

“The Favourite” Feels Fitting

Do we really need another period piece about the English monarchy? Haven’t we seen enough of them already? Well, yes. But “The Favourite” is not a stuffy portrait about royalty. It’s a semi-dramatic satire of power and control all too pertinent in today’s world, one that delights in interesting characters and sublime plot.

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is frail and reliant on “friend” Lady Sara (Rachel Weisz) to run the country. When Lady Sara’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, she offers her a job in the castle, but Abigail has her sights set on regaining her economic status and works to gain the queen’s favor at Sara’s expense. A war towards becoming the queen’s favorite ensues.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the film is an allegory on the nature of power and how those who seek it doom themselves because of the lengths they go.

The men are seen more as frivolous dolls to the machinations of the women around them, the film a testament on feminine strength and ambition. For Sara and Abigail, their quest for power runs through Anne’s favor and they use love, healing, connection and friendship to gain that favor. In the end, they have nothing because of their greed, a very elemental, classical theme.

The rich are pompous and petty and the poor are morose and misused. It mirrors a current climate of wage disparity and also highlights Abigail’s fears of being a commoner. When not being wealthy is so abysmal, doing everything in your power to become important seems logical.

As for Queen Anne, the constant pandering to her childish whims is indicative of fascist leanings, our leaders blind to self-serving idolatry, fake worship leading to personal disaster. As in “King Lear” when the king asks “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”, ego portends ruin.

More than just classical themes however, the film does a great job of building character and inner conflicts. If Abigail gets everything she wants, is she happy? Does Queen Anne know she is being manipulated and using it to her advantage? Does Lady Sara actually care for Queen Anne or does she just use her for her own agenda? Like any good film, these questions are only posed and never answered, and often does so is painfully hilarious ways.

“The Favourite” is a very good film, one of the best of the year, and it seems built to last.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” criminally overstuffed

While the first “Fantastic Beasts” film set up the world of Newt Scamander, “The Crimes of Grindelwald” delves into the deeper plot of the new tale J.K. Rowling is telling in her Wizarding World. It’s a double-edged sword however as “Grindelwald” is certainly more dramatic than its lighthearted predecessor, but there is so much going on that it muddles the emotional impact of its narrative.

The film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to not get involved in the burgeoning conflict between Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). His friends Queenie (Alison Sudol), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and love interest Tina (Katherine Waterston) are back as well as newcomes like his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), and old flame, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). Grindelwald moves to create an army of followers in Paris, leading Newt into danger.

The casting in all of the Potter films has always been great and that streak continues with “Grindelwald.” Jude Law glides into the role of Dumbledore with a twinkle in his eye that ties him to Michael Gambon and Richard Harris. And Johnny Depp refrains from being a caricature of himself and becomes an enticing, malicious dark wizard. In contrast with Voldemort who basically looks and sounds evil, Depp as Grindelwald is a charismatic leader with legitimate grievances that make sense. How such monsters gain power is an interesting parallel to the world of the past and present.

The world is still brilliant and magical. Wands, spells, beasts, riddles. A circus in Paris, the Lestrange cemetery, Nicholas Flamel’s house and, of course, Hogwarts. It’s always a treat to be back in the Wizarding World.

The problem is that “Grindelwald” is so cluttered. There are so many characters and so much going on that the whole plot feels muddled. You have Grindelwald gathering followers and tracking Creedence, Dumbledore fighting with the Ministry and battling his inner demons, Jacob and Queenie working on their relationship, Creedence trying to find his mother with Nagini, Leta Lestrange confronting her feelings and her past, Theseus Scamander trying to control his brother and Tina trying to find Creedence and prove herself as an Auror. Whew.

Oh, yeah, and there’s Newt Scamander, the supposed protagonist of this saga. He’s often on the sidelines however, much like poor Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit” trilogy. Your central character needs to drive the action. To tie him into the plot, it would make sense for him to be in direct conflict with Grindelwald. Perhaps Grindelwald is searching for a creature in Newt’s case that would aid him in his war, and Newt is on the run. He’s hiding in Paris, and we are introduced to the magical world in France. He becomes involved in a sideplot that shows how the wizarding governments are failing the magical community, illustrating the power of Grindelwald’s argument. As it is, Newt is just kind of there, leaving us wanting.

The story feels most like a Potter film at the climax, a dramatic moment of choice that tests the characters and elevates an otherwise disjointed film. Perhaps that’s portending to a more involving story soon to come, with a motivated Newt working to stop Grindelwald. After kind of sleep walking through two films, it’s what the series truly needs.


“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a character study of a rotten individual

What are the lengths of your forgiveness? What if the person who betrayed you knew that what they were doing was wrong and did it anyway? What if they’re not even sorry? These are some of the questions “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” asks as it weaves a character study of an ornery curmudgeon who hurts everyone around her.

Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and directed by Marielle Heller, the film tells the story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down on her luck writer. She can’t get an advance from her publisher, her biographies aren’t making money anymore and it’s difficult for her to connect with anyone because she prefers cats to people. She befriends the witty, charismatic Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a fellow writer and an irresponsible drunk. As Lee’s situation worsens, she discovers the burgeoning world of collectible autographs, working with Jack to forge signatures and turning to a life of crime to just pay her bills.

Lee abuses everyone in her life throughout the course of the story. Jack, her publisher, her old partner, a potential new partner, bookstore owners… Everyone but her cat. She can’t stand other people’s feelings and inadequacies and doesn’t trust them. She also can’t open herself up and create lasting connections. It’s a testament to McCarthy that we feel sympathy for such an unlikable character. This is quite a different McCarthy than we’re used to: belligerent, hot-tempered, mean, closed off. She demonstrates a strong dramatic range in addition to her comedic talents.

Could we forgive her? The film lets us glimpse into Lee’s life to help us answer that question for ourselves, a benefit those in the film are not afforded. Knowing her situation, the pains she takes to avoid commitment and how often people betray her, can we forgive Lee for breaking the law, losing the trust of her friends and being an overall pain in the ass? Maybe.

It is a very well-acted film, specifically from McCarthy and Grant, two performances that make you care for them them, pity them and despise them all at the same time. The first act drags on a bit long with the same repetitive beats over and over, but it also serves to really let us into Lee’s life and shows her predicament. The middle and last act are slightly uneven as there are moments where the film really picks up and gets exciting and then moments of long pauses and introversion. But overall, it’s an interesting character study of a temperamental, antisocial woman who nevertheless deserves our empathy.

Hollywood has a bad case of Marvelitis

There was a time when hype was built up for a great movie experience. All cinephiles can remember that excitement for the motion picture event of the year. There was Jaws in 1975. There was Jurassic Park in 1993. There was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999. The was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001. There was Avatar in 2009.

The world was given glimmers of the promise of truly breathtaking filmmaking leading up to the release of each of these films. People rushed to the cinemas to see something that became more than a movie, it was a global phenomenon, something that changed the way we think about film culturally. Where has that gone?

For studios, it’s no longer about one film anymore. It’s about franchises. Why put all of your eggs into one basket when you can have multiple baskets? And it has drained the creativity and ingenuity out of the Hollywood marketplace.

The tentpole film is dead for the moment. It can always come back. It probably will at some point. But one film is no longer enough for studios right now. It’s the franchise that rules.

The term is called Marvelitis. It started with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characters of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor were each given their own separate films before joining up in a mash-up Avengers film (2012). Then the list of characters expanded and more individual films were made before they all joined up again in a second Avengers film (2015). And more characters will be given their own films and more team-ups will come together, an ever expanding universe. And not only have the films become successful, but there is now a need to see all the films in order to stay up in the continuity of the overall story, and the more entries into the MCU, the more opportunities for merchandising. Ever going. On and on.

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And studios are now copying Marvel’s success. The Justice League, the Transformers, the Ghostbusters, the Men in Black, 21 Jump Street, Star Wars. As long as a studio has a hot franchise (or in some cases even not so hot), it can create its own series of films and hook viewers into a continuum storyline in order to suck as much profit as it can out of a franchise’s bone marrow.

The problem then is that nothing of much substance happens in the films. When drastic things happen in the plot, the story is closer to its end. In order to stretch out the story as much as possible, dramatic things have to be delayed, which leads to far less interesting stories. The results are watered down films where not a lot happens.

And the effect on the audience is a dilution of substance. We are not as emotionally engaged anymore because we know certain characters are “safe.” Captain America is not going to die because he is signed on for three more films. And even when characters die, they often come back, further diminishing the effect of death in film. The dramatic stakes are immediately lessened based on the cinematic universe approach.

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Audiences will tire of this approach eventually. There are already box office signals that the ruse of milking profit and franchises for all their worth is fading. It will take a few years still, but it will happen. Will the movie event of the year film come back at that point? Perhaps. A true emotive film experience is not built up over a series of watered down movies, but over true emotional change in the life circumstances of characters, full of love and loss and hope and desire. The movie events of year’s past had those qualities in spades in addition to advances in technology and breathtaking thrills. They can’t be back soon enough.