I’m not sure what the filmmakers want us to think of “The Founder”—the semi-autobiographical story of Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDonald’s into a global — a global what — a global monster? a global giant? a global force? Well maybe all of that and more for both good and evil. “The Founder” has a lot of appeal thanks to the performance of Michael Keaton. He hits just the right note of ambition, nerves, and hypocrisy. The movie begins with the often told story of Kroc selling malted milk machines and driving all the way to California to investigate a new restaurant that uses them. He discovers the original McDonald’s run by brothers played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. They’ve changed their drive in into a walk up assembly line hamburger place where the order comes out and into a paper bag within seconds. Keaton as Kroc recognizes a great idea and sells the brothers on letting him franchise their operation. At first things go well, but then the arguing starts and pretty soon the lawyers get involved and when the dust settles Ray Kroc winds up the winner and the two little guys look like George Bailey ready to jump off the bridge. There’s no bail out in this story. In truth and in the movie the original McDonald’s goes out of business when Kroc opens one of his slick new Golden Arches across the street. “The Founder” seems content to let us view Kroc’s life warts and all. Keaton as Kroc belts down bourbon, dumps his wife, puts the moves on anther guy’s wife, runs the guys with the original idea out of business, and winds up fat and happy in Beverly Hills. “The founder” sticks to the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s. I’d like to know what the filmmakers think of the effect of McDonald’s on our world today. 2 1/2 Stars PG 13. Does it deliver what it promises? Biography of a super salesman. Is it entertaining? Story of a not very nice guy. Is it worth the price of admission? Well it’s interesting even if it’s not exactly uplifting.
Director M. Night Shyamalan caused a stir with his spellbinding “The Sixth Sense.” Unfortunately he’s been trying to regain the mojo from that film ever since. In his new movie “Split” Shyamalan stoops to torture porn. James McAvoy sinks his acting chops into a severely disturbed who displays twenty-four different male and female personalities. One of the more aggressive of his characters kidnaps three teenage girls from a shopping mall parking lot. Soon the girls must deal with the shifting characters while trying to figure out a way to escape. We learn more of Split’s story from visits to psychiatrist Betty Buckley, who specializes in treating multiple personalities. Pretty soon all goes wrong except for young Anya Taylor-Joy who has problems of her own which turn to her advantage. Shyamalan is best known for his surprising twists and “Split” offers a few, but nothing as earth-shaking as “the Sixth Sense.” There’s an unseemly air to this story, so much that I couldn’t wait to get outside and breathe in something fresh. Zero “PG-13” (How did that happen?) Does it deliver what it promises? Torture porn. Is it entertaining? Dreadful. Is it worth the price of admission? Long, predictable, and empty.
A teen age boy comes of age and so does his mother in the charming mess of a movie “20th Century Women.” I say “mess” with a smile because the story details a convoluted household of mostly women encouraged by Annette Benning to mentor her son. The time is 1979 and the vibe is freewheeling post hippie. Benning presides over a household full of characters, including Greta Gerwig, a free-spirited photographer/artist; Billy Crudup, a jack of all trades do it yourself home construction fan, mechanic, and pottery artist; and Elle Fanning, a struggling promiscuous 17-year-old who sleeps with but refuses to have sex with the center of the story, a confused 16-year-old played by Lucas Jade Zumann. I liked “20th Century Women” because it struck me as an updated family comedy along the lines of “You Can’t Take it With You.” The story captures the awkwardness of parents trying to understand their children and vice versa. The movie looks back with the benefit of hindsight. Occasionally Annette Benning’s character gets a little annoying, as do all of the characters with their immaturity on display. I think “20th Century Women” might have improved with a little additional editing. Fifteen less minutes could have left us begging for more. But even now, it stays with me, hitting a nerve in my own family memories. The performances are lovely, but among this great cast Annette Benning stands out. She captures the joy and pain and warts and all of parenthood. 3 Stars Rated “R” for brief nudity and content. Does it deliver what it promises? Coming of age story in the late 70’s. Is it entertaining? Touching and funny. Is it worth the price of admission? A little much and yet award worthy.
Mark Wahlberg and writer/director Peter Berg have a good thing going. They team up for films based on reality and generally come through with something inspiring to say about men and women called to perform extraordinary tasks. In “Patriot’s Day” Wahlberg plays a Boston police Sargent assigned to watch over the crowds at the finish line of the annual marathon. The year is 2013, and the Tsarnaev brothers have stuffed homemade bombs into their backpacks which ignite with terrifying deadly force. “Patriot’s Day” gets especially impressive as it mixes recreated new footage with actual video of the bombing and aftermath. The story celebrates the first responders, the emergency room staffs, and the police work that begins the search for the bombers. The story unfolds through the eyes of Wahlberg’s Sergeant. Kevin Bacon makes a strong appearance as an FBI investigator as does John Goodman as Boston’s police Commissioner and J.K. Simmons as a suburban police officer caught in a shocking shoot out on a sleepy street. This story could have gone wrong at several junctures. But it avoids flag waving or profiling instead choosing to end with a message of hope. I came away with an increased appreciation of law enforcement, detective work, the medical profession, and the people of Boston. 3 1/2 Stars “R” Does it deliver what it promises? Reality action movie. Is it entertaining? Well done, well-balanced, and impressive in its use of news video. Is it worth the price of admission? Strong, hopeful, uplifting.
I really wanted to love “Live by Night” — Ben Affleck’s 1920’s gangster flick. I love the hats, the clothese, the cars, and the barrels of rum getting shipped various places as stories spin out about crooks selling illegal alcohol. But I couldn’t bring myself to love “Live by Night” because of its complicated overstuffed never-ending plot. The story begins in Boston with Affleck as a small time crook romancing his boss’ girl played by an almost unrecognizable Sienna Miller. A rival gangster recruits Affleck to take over his rum business in Florida when Affleck comes out of prison with a grudge against the mobster who busted his chops and killed his mistress. The story jumps to Tampa, and sunny scenes of straw hats and linen suits and tommy gun action. Zoe Saldana appears as Affleck’s new love, a Cuban rum queen. More subplots involve Sheriff Chris Cooper, his wayward daughter Elle Fanning, the KKK and a “Scarface” style shoot out. But there’s more, and more, and soon “Live by Night” threatens to never end. The result is long on style but irritating, almost more of an idea of a movie than the real thing. 1 star “R”. Does it deliver what it promises? Overstuffed gangster story. Is it entertaining? Long and meandering. Is it worth the price of admission? A disappointment.
Gosh I love Jim Jarmusch’s new movie “Paterson.” Adam Driver, who seems to soar in everything he makes, stars as Paterson, a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver/blue-collar poet. He lives a quiet ordered life with the woman he loves played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Their scenes waking up together with her long abundant hair spread out over the pillows and sheets projects love and caring. Driver begins his day walking to the bus depot, viewing his beloved rusting home town through his bus windows, and cocking his ears for bits of conversation between his passengers. Every day he takes lunch at a park overlooking a beautiful waterfall. He returns home for a sometimes slightly too creative meal. After dinner he walks his growling bulldog Marvin to the local bar, where bartender with the appropriate name “Doc”—played by the delightful character actor Barry Shabaka Henley — discusses the world as Paterson drinks the one beer he allows himself. At home, his wife paints and creates and fills their world with patterns. Paterson remains quiet but encouraging spending his leisure writing love poems which float across the screen in small neat handwriting. The film credits the poetry to Ron Padgett. I found the combination of Padgett’s words and the quiet life of the bus driver moving. Paterson admires the poetry of William Carlos Williams, whose work also figures prominently in this story. I never expected to fall for a movie about poetry, but “Paterson” makes deep statements on art, creativity, and the inner life of a quiet man. 4 stars R. Does it deliver what it promises? A delightful tale about creativity. Is it entertaining? Quietly and slyly pulls you in and never let’s go. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s best.
A twelve-year-old boy must cope with his mother’s slow death and the uncertainty of his future. He tells his troubles to a giant yew tree who appears outside his bedroom window. The tree answers with parables of his own. Young Lewis MacDongall is fine as the kid. Felicity Jones looks wan as the dying mother. Lian Neeson voices the beautifully animated tree. Sigourney Weaver rounds out the cast as a stern grandmother who most likely will take over the young man’s care. This story is dark, mysterious and certainly too serious for young children. The parables sometimes feel more confusing than necessary. The performances are fine, but the movie has a slow overly sentimental pace. 2 stars PG-13. Does it deliver what it promises? Story of a kid who has to grow up. Is it entertaining? Sometimes frightening and often dark. Is it worth the price of admission? Not sure the filmmakers knew who they wanted to make this for.
I saw a lot of good movies this year — here’s ten to remember plus a few more. Cheers! And Happy New Year.
- La La Land – Revives the classic musical with a contemporary twist. Every scene is breathtaking. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally soar in the year’s best movie.
- Manchester by the Sea – Casey Affleck delivers the performance of the year as a man scarred by his past having to confront it after the death of his brother. Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams give award worthy performances.
- Moonlight – Profound story of childhood and adolescence shutting down a young man’s emotions, and his effort to get in touch with them.
- Hell or High Water – Contemporary Western with sly deep comments on our rigged society. Chris Pine and Ben Foster rob the banks that hold the reverse mortgage on their ranch, the better to pay off the bank with its own money. Jeff Bridges investigates. Bridges is about as good as an actor gets.
- Jackie – Natalie Portman creates Jackie Kennedy in the days after the assassination of President John Kennedy. She creates the Kennedy myth and heals the nation in the process.
- Loving – Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton recreate the mixed race Southern Virginia couple whose marriage goes to the Supreme Court. Ruth Negga is an actress to watch.
- O.J. Made in America – Ezra Edelman created a documentary for the ages, giving context to the O.J. Simpson story and tragedy.
- Sully – Tom Hanks stakes his claim as America’s actor, recreating the calm leadership of Captain Chesley Sullenberger who saved a jet full of lives by landing his crippled aircraft on the Hudson.
- Patterson – Adam Driver plays a poetry writing bus driver in Patterson, New Jersey. The little touches in his life make for a deep experience.
- A bigger Splash – Tilda Swinton plays a rock star receiving an unwelcome visit by former lover Ralph Fiennes. Dakota Johnson ignites dangerous vibes. Hitchcock couldn’t have come up with a better ending.
- —– Also good in 2016 Weiner, Hail! Caesar, Lion, Don’t Think Twice, The Handmaiden.
“Lion” hit me like a ton of bricks. I expected a run of the mill sentimental story about a kid who gets lost and finds his way home. Instead “Lion” makes a profound statement about homeland and how it influences our being. The story is true, based on a memoir by Saroo Brierley about his hard scrabble life in India. He and his brother go daily to beg for food and scrounge for pennies lost under the seats of railroad cars. One night, Saroo, age five, climbs onto an out of service train and goes to sleep. The train starts moving and transports the little boy a thousand miles away from his village, whose name the child can’t remember. Thrown onto the streets of Kolkata, the kid has enough smarts to avoid a few close shaves with danger and winds up protected by social services. A couple in Australia adopt Saroo. He grows up comfortably, but living with the mystery of where he comes from and who he really is. “Lion” features a marvelous performance by young Sunny Pawar as the five-year old Saroo. The kid captures the agony of the loss. Dev Patel takes over as the grown up Saroo, living with the ache of the mystery of his identity. Using google earth — and I know this sounds like product placement but it’s vital to this story — Patel traces his roots and ultimately finds his mother. Besides Pawar as young Saroo and Patel and the grown up Saroo, Nicole Kidman has a nice role as his adoptive mother who also takes on responsibility for a second son badly scarred by his childhood. Rooney Mara plays his girlfriend but isn’t given much of a role. However, I can’t imagine many who can shrug off the powerful conclusion of “Lion.” The true life updates over the credits are equally powerful. There’s no place like home, that place we hold deep inside and “Lion” captures that feeling perfectly. 4 stars PG-13. Does it deliver what it promises? Powerful true story with great acting. Is it entertaining? Fascinating. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s best.
“Hidden Figures” brings the marvelous story of three black women who used their mind in the service of an America not quite ready to grant them equality. Taraje P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a young math prodigy who joins the space program at NASA’s Hampton, Virginia facility in 1961. Johnson was a “human computer” whose mind worked faster than the machines available at that time. Ultimately she figured the equations needed to send Astronaut John Glenn into space and more importantly bring him back alive. Henson is one of three women profiled in this story. The excellent Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae portray Henson’s friends and fellow workers. Spencer figures out the new computer system and Monae makes her way into an engineering program. All three women succeed despite the discrimination of the time. Kevin Costner as Taraje’s boss strikes a blow for equality when he ends the practice of separate bathroom facilities for blacks and whites, saving the women the time-consuming journey from their lab to the facilities located at an inconvenient distance. The women’s stories get updated at the conclusion, a satisfying end to this chapter of their lives. “Hidden Figures” relies on much of the music and culture of the early 60’s to establish the time. The filmmakers wrestle with the difficult task of visualizing the work of a math genius. Sometimes I wanted a little more story and a little less atmosphere, because Katherine Johnson’s genius needs very little polishing. “Hidden Figures” arrives in the year of John Glenn’s passing, making the story even more relevant. 3 stars PG. Does it deliver what it promises? Uplifting true story. Is it entertaining? Well told. Is it worth the price of admission? Well worth watching.