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+





REVIEW: Wilson

27 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Somehow, despite it being my most anticipated film of Sundance, I wound up at the second screening of Craig Johnson’s “Wilson” while virtually everyone else I knew got tickets to the premiere. More than one person cautioned me that Woody Harrelson’s eponymous character, based on graphic artist Daniel Clowes’ creation, was so intensely dyspeptic that he was basically unlikable.

Now, to be clear, I often love unlikable characters. And when I sat down to watch the film, I did not find Wilson difficult to watch or enjoy. In fact, his particular brand of thorniness was quite a welcome contemporary spin on the garden-variety curmudgeon. In typical Harrelson fashion, the character is a foul-mouthed prankster determined never to take a moment too seriously or treat a person with full respect. But Wilson is something different. As he repels nearly everyone with whom he makes contact, he also tries to cure them of the modern malaise of isolation. Whether in the form of phones, technology or a hermetic bubble of their own choosing, Wilson violates arbitrary decorum to highlight the absurdity of our perpetual estrangement.

I read Clowes’ graphic novel over a year ago anticipating a 2016 Sundance bow for “Wilson” (full disclosure: I am well acquainted with the film’s director), and my faint recollection of the text relies on a simple joke structure where Wilson reacts with predictable atrophy at whatever situation thrown at him. Clowes’ script for the film, which included some input by Johnson, takes the character in a much more interesting direction. It’s similarly episodic, though the narrative quest of reuniting with his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern) to track down his previously assumed aborted daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) does provide “Wilson” with some structure.

The differentiating factor is that Wilson himself feels much freer and open as a character, which in turn makes his exploits far more interesting to observe. In Harrelson’s hands, he’s more than just a human incarnation of Oscar the Grouch. Wilson has some inner joy, some of which simply manifests itself in caustic comments that make others uncomfortable. Johnson and Clowes create a world in which everyone else is far too comfortable, perhaps even complacent, that they need Wilson to shake them out of their stillness. Watching the disruption proves quite entertaining. B+





REVIEW: Certain Women

5 11 2016

certain-womenKelly Reichardt’s richly detailed cinematic canvases have changed little in composition in her two decades of filmmaking. The world in which that art gets displayed has grown increasingly fast-paced and task-oriented. Each successive Pacific Northwestern-set film with its unhurried pace and character (as opposed to action) driven story feels slightly more rebellious than the last.

An well-known dictum from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” often gets deployed when describing the kinds of people on screen in Reichardt’s latest film, “Certain Women.” As the great American wordsmith put it, “The mass of [wo]men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Each of the four primary characters in the film’s three segments appears calm and relatively nonplussed by their circumstances. But beneath the stillness, a river of malcontent flows.

We do not spend but a brief episode with each of them, though their silent struggles are wholly realized. “Certain Women” lingers in the dead space between two questions Stanislavsky says all actors must answer for their characters – “What do I want?” and “What do I do to get what I want?” Reichardt never plays a story with as vague an objective as happiness or contentment, either. Laura Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer working with an obstinate and entitled male client, wants relief and understanding her trying scenario. Michelle Williams’ Gina Lewis, the yoga pants-clad mother and wife, wants the kind of satisfaction that can only come from swindling an elderly man into selling them sandstone at a cheap price.

In the most devastating portion of the triptych, the shy farmhand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) desperate for connection makes feeble attempts to befriend a community college adjunct professor, Kristen Stewart’s Beth Travis. For whatever reason, Beth has decided to take on an eight-hour roundtrip commute to teach a class which brings her no obvious intrinsic value or monetary gain. They share many a dinner but precious little of themselves.

While moving at a speed that many would compare to molasses, Jamie and Beth seem like they could use the kind of diuretic that “Certain Women” provides. By focusing on the small gestures, the simple systems governing our livelihoods, and the moments between moments, Reichardt creates a space to simply stop and live. Once you locate the rhythm of the film and arrive on its wavelength, the atmosphere of striving slowly amidst disappointment becomes gloriously overwhelming.  B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 8, 2016)

8 09 2016

year-of-the-dogAs someone who lives with two canine companions, I can certainly sympathize with Molly Shannon’s Peggy in “Year of the Dog.” Relationships with humans are tough. How dare they do this, but they actually want something in return from us. They make demands of our time and thought. Dogs like Peggy’s beloved Pencil simply live to please us, offering love and affection no matter our mood or deeds that day.

But, as every child in a film about a dog knows, we almost always outlive our dogs. Peggy faces this lesson sooner than expected when Pencil gets into some toxic chemicals and cannot be saved by a veteran. What comes next for someone who puts all her eggs into the basket of her beloved animal makes for quite a melancholy comedy from writer/director Mike White.

Rather than using her period of mourning to deepen or enrich her relationship with neighbors, coworkers or family members, Peggy entrenches herself even further into animal advocacy and obsession. She becomes a vegan, brings home abused shelter dogs by the carful to save them from euthanasia and even “adopts” farm animals in lieu of holiday gifts. It’s decidedly odd turn of events, yet Molly Shannon resists playing her character as some kind of lunatic. The performance resembles a quieter, more mellow version of her notorious “Saturday Night Live” characters – all of their insecurities without all the theatricality to mask the wounds.

“Year of the Dog” is my choice for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not only because of Shannon’s raw performance but also because of where Mike White takes it. While he shows compassion for everyone, White is not afraid to steer the film into dark and bittersweet territory. He is unafraid to suggest that Peggy might not need the human connections we expect her to develop over the course of the film. She might just need the certainty of her own convictions and the courage to follow the path she thinks will bring her the happiness she seeks.





REVIEW: 99 Homes

22 01 2015

Telluride Film Festival

In 2002, President George W. Bush declared, “Here in America, if you own a home, you’re realizing the American Dream.”  Six years later, that unbridled spirit of homeownership at all costs led to a bubble of subprime mortgages bursting and contributing to the tanking of the nation’s economy.  This time of panic and crisis brought about pain for many hard-working Americans, and it also provides the foundation for writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism, “99 Homes.”

Over five years years ago, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham arrived on screens to inform blue-collar workers they were out of a job in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”  A similar task falls to Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, the protagonist of “99 Homes,” who enforces evictions in working-class Florida neighborhoods.  Bingham, however, could stay detached from the plight of the newly unemployed; Dennis can receive no such comfort.  Before becoming the man doing the evicting, he and his family were the evicted.

99 Homes

In order to provide for his son Connor and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), Dennis turns to the very person responsible for putting them in dire economic straits: the vile, e-cigarette smoking realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).  While everyone suffers, his business booms, and Dennis is willing to sell his soul to his persecutor if it means putting food on the table.  Sure, he shares in some of the profits.  But, at the end of the day, Dennis heads back to the same kind of cheap motel to which he banishes countless other families.

Through Dennis, Bahrani brilliantly illustrates the sociological concept of false consciousness.  He buys into Carver’s policies and slowly deludes himself into believing he is of a higher class standing.  Carver, an unabashed believer that America only bails out winners like himself, takes the spoils and leaves workers like Dennis with the scraps.  Advancing out of their precarious position is merely an illusion.

Garfield

If this sounds pessimistic, Bahrani earns the right with his intellectual depth.  “99 Homes” also wisely focuses on characters whose very livelihoods are in jeopardy because of the financial crisis.  Most films that have tried to grapple with the effects of the recession – “The Company Men,” “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” “Blue Jasmine” – only dare to assume the perspective of the upper-class descending to the middle-class.  Dennis and his family are not worrying about losing the Porsche or selling off the jewelry.  If they descend any lower, it is outright poverty and destitution.

Stemming from this standpoint, the stakes feel appropriately extreme enough both to feel deeply and contemplate thoroughly.  Bahrani often scores the film with tense, thriller-like music, and it works exceptionally well.  If the lives hanging in the balance and the severity of the moral compromises being made do not merit an increasing heart rate, nothing does.

99 Homes

If the film feels exaggerated and over the top, the financial crisis was an absolute nightmare for many families that felt borderline apocalyptic, so grandiosity is justifiable.  If it feels like a preachy morality play, at least Bahrani has his heart and mind in the right place.  He understands that the home is a symbol of heritage, inheritance, legacy, and personal pride.

Yet “99 Homes” communicates something more important.  The home itself is not the American Dream.  It is the well-being of the people inside of the home.  A-3halfstars





REVIEW: Wild

26 11 2014

WildTelluride Film Festival

On the page, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is nothing particularly noteworthy.  While she tells her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with raw honesty, the book is often little more than a hybrid of “Eat Pray Love” and “Into the Wild” that insists on its own importance.  The grueling odyssey is enlightening into the evolution of her psyche, though it usually achieves such an effect by excessive elucidation.

On the big screen, however, “Wild” is an altogether different beast.  In fact, it is better.  The book fell into the hands of a caring filmmaking team that sees the cinema in Strayed’s tale.  The collaboration of star Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editor/director Jean-Marc Vallée yields a wholly gratifying film experience because each uses their own set of talents to draw out the soul of the book.

Hornby is among the rare breed of writers who can balance the role of humorist and humanist.  Whether in his own novels or adapting someone else’s words for the screen, as he did in 2009 with “An Education,” Hornby’s stories percolate with snappy wit and superb characterization.  Here, almost all of that skill goes into the development of Cheryl, whose 1,100 mile solo hike virtually makes for a one-woman show.

The dearth of conversational opportunities hardly proves daunting for Hornby, who ensures the film flows effortlessly and entertainingly.  There is the obvious and occasional recourse to flashback to break up the monotony of her trek, sure, yet these glimpses from the past do not drive the narrative.  In fact, these scenes are among the least effective in “Wild” because they are never quite clear as to why Cheryl decides to take off on this foolish quest in the first place.  The past provides the background for the character, just not necessarily the journey.

Read the rest of this entry »





Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 2

30 08 2014

9:15 A.M.  Good morning from Telluride!  Looks like today is going to be an action-packed day of moviegoing and talking with filmmakers.  I had to be up for a discussion at the ripe hour of 7:15 A.M. today, which was just as much fun as a barrel of monkeys!

This morning’s festivities kick off with a screening of Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” which won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year.  While you wait for my reaction, perhaps you’d like to see some of my pictures that I’ve been taking?!

12:15 P.M.: I’m at a panel right now that includes…

Mike Leigh
Wim Wenders
Werner Herzog
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Francis Ford Coppola
Ethan Hawke
Walter Murch

HOLY CRAP.

Also, “Mr. Turner” was quite good, too.

3:27 P.M.: So, where to begin on the past three hours. Getting to be in conversation with Francis Ford Coppola for an hour was insane. Hearing from the insanely normal and approachable Xavier Dolan was neat, too. Although it’s pretty hard to top getting to meet Leonard Maltin, whose movie guides were always on my bookshelf growing up. I told him how much those meant to me, and he was clearly very humbled to hear those words. Then we got to talk about film criticism for a few minutes … simply incredible.

3:45 P.M.: Not going to lie, I’m not the most excited for our next selection, some 40 year old German film called “Baal.” I should go in with more of an open mind, but knowing that I’m in here and “Foxcatcher” is out there…

9:45 P.M.: So “Baal” was awful and basically a waste of my time, as predicted. Then essentially none of my student group got into “The Imitation Game,” despite the fact that we were supposedly guaranteed seats more or less. Guess I’ll have to catch this flick that’s being hotly tipped for Oscars on Monday … add it to the list with “Foxcatcher.”

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

So now I’m in line for Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon that premiered to acclaim in Venice this week. Of course, there was a free outdoor screening of “Foxcatcher” that just had to overlap with this screening by 15 minutes. But no, I guess I’ll just have to keep hanging…

P.S. – Celebrity sightings today include Laura Linney (just chilling solo outside a theater) as well as Steve Carell and Channing Tatum outside the “Foxcatcher” screening.

10:28 P.M.: Laura Dern spotted at “99 Homes.”

1:13 A.M.:  Back in bed still reflecting on and reeling from “99 Homes.”  Not that I don’t want to immediately post a review (because I could probably cobble my thoughts together now), but I desperately need some sleep and have a rare chance to get two full cycles.  Good evening (though it’s doubtful anyone is reading this live)!