REVIEW: The Founder

7 07 2017

There’s an emerging type of film perniciously stinking up theaters every winter. Let’s call it “Weinstein-core.” (But don’t, just indulge it for the sake of the review.)

This type of movie was developed at Miramax but perfected at The Weinstein Company. It’s a film with the prestige of high-caliber awards contenders but the cynical, commercial calculations of a Marvel project. It’s provocative and edgy, but only to a point; go too far, and they might be off-putting for an audience. These are made not solely for the sake of telling a story but with the consideration of and desire for an ancillary prize baked into creation.

Sometimes these are actually decent, and it clouds our ability to see “Weinstein-core” films for what they are. “The Founder” is perhaps the best viewpoint into their mechanics, in part because it’s a smattering of good and bad moments. But chiefly, it’s a paradigmatic case because the motives are so transparent.

“Increase supply, demand will follow,” repeats Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc at the start of the film. It’s his elevator pitch straight out of an economic textbook, yet the real purpose is to signal something to the audience: this an important movie about important things. It’s the story of the founding of McDonald’s, but it’s really about bigger concepts that we should put in quotes. It’s about “business.” It’s about “negotiation.”

Kroc is the perfect subject for a “Weinstein-core” film because, like this sub-genre, he’s never short on platitudes to disguise and sell a completely self-promotional idea. The smooth talk ingratiates him with the McDonald brothers as they seek to expand their finely tuned and mechanized burger restaurant. Eventually, however, the duo’s obsession with quality control butts heads with Kroc’s vision for aggressive economic expansion through real estate acquisition.

“The Founder” manages to squeeze some interesting drama out of that tension in the first half, but it really sags in a second half that consists almost entirely as a series of contentious phone conversations. These are written with little imagination and shot with even less. It’s a reminder of how much David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin could make this kind of material sing in “The Social Network,” a film that exists in the province of artists. “The Founder” is pure commercial product, a cinematic Big Mac – a standardized and unsatisfying meal, even if it might quell your stomach’s hungry grumblings for a short time. C+

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REVIEW: Hot Pursuit

25 09 2015

The easy insult to hurl at “Hot Pursuit” is that of a hot mess – because you know how us writers love wordplay, especially in movie titles that seem to invite clever barbs.  But in this case, such a label fails to describe what really goes wrong.

A hot mess implies there is something interesting or oddly compelling in its failure.  Anne Fletcher’s film could not be farther from that.  Within minutes, it becomes obvious that everyone involved just wants to play it safe.  And that makes for one wickedly boring 87 minute pursuit of mediocrity.

“Hot Pursuit” pits the formidable talents of Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara against each other but fails to realize either of their potential.  Vergara, as often seems to be the case, gets reduced to her looks and her naturally thick accent.  She plays Daniella Riva, the widow of a drug lord, who agrees to testify in a case against a kingpin.  But when her police transport goes haywire, she gets stuck with Witherspoon’s straight-laced cop Rose Cooper.

To get a frame of reference on Rose, imagine Tracy Flick levels of Type A behavior without all the self-confidence and a thick, put-on fake Texan accent.  (As a native Southern belle, Witherspoon could have just used her regular vocal cadence and no one would have batted an eyelid.)  I can see how maybe the star’s entourage thought “Hot Pursuit” might make for an interesting career move since Rose is a veritable man repeller.  For Witherspoon, who so often plays heroines forced to choose between two men, perhaps this character marks her attempt at subverting her own image?

She should just stick to “Wild,” though, as “Hot Pursuit” offers her nothing but a tired, predictable premise and one-note jokes.  The comedic pairing with Vergara yields disappointingly little heat.  For a fraction of the price tag, they could have just gone on talk shows together and gotten more laughs.  C2stars





REVIEW: Camp X-Ray

10 12 2014

Camp X-RayWriter/director Peter Sattler tackles some big topics in “Camp X-Ray,” and I certainly admire his streak of ambition.  A drama set at the high-stakes location of Guantanamo Bay certainly should not settle for anything ordinary, after all.

He explores the effects of callings inmates “detainees” rather than “prisoners,” a system that seems designed to entrench hostilities between captors and captives.  The film also looks at the other major force at the prison, the guards who oversee it, through the eyes of Kristen Stewart’s Cole.  “Camp X-Ray” shows the distinction between being a “soldier” and being a “female soldier,” an unduly additional burden that Cole must shoulder.

Yet Sattler never really puts these issues in service of the plot, which hardly feels strong enough to sustain a two-hour feature.  “Camp X-Ray” feels neither expressly political nor earnestly personal; as a result, it just comes off as rather nondescript.

Sattler does a commendable thing in defining Cole away from her job, where she must check her emotions at the door.  What exactly she is doing in Guantanamo provides an interesting existential dilemma for Stewart to play.  Thankfully, it cannot all boil down to something hopelessly anti-feminist as she expressly states that she is not in the military to hunt down a husband.

For all the scenes of Cole outside the barbed wire, though, “Camp X-Ray” explores her character the most when she converses with a particularly intelligent and loquacious detainee, Ali, played by Payman Maadi (the superb leading man from “A Separation“).  These exchanges are the center of the film, and while they may not significantly advance events or provide dramatic escalation, the cross-cultural chats feel worthwhile just … because.  C+2stars