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: The Hero

24 06 2017

“I know we were hoping to get good news from this biopsy,” begins the doctor of Sam Elliott’s Lee Hayden. “Unfortunately, I don’t have good news.” The scene happens so early in Brett Haley’s “The Hero” that I held out hope this kind of dialogue was not indicative of the rest of the movie and the doctor just had terrible bedside manner.

I was wrong.

“The Hero” is a stale rehash of cliches surrounding estranged fathers, aging Hollywood actors and ailing elderly people coming to terms with illness. Most of the film entails Lee avoiding the disclosure of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis so he can continue chugging away on film sets and toking his marijuana to feel the slightest hint of contentment. He’s moving slightly closer to a younger romantic interest (Laura Prepon’s Charlotte Dylan) and rapidly farther from his daughter (Krysten Ritter’s Lucy).

The one interesting bit of the movie comes when Lee sees his stock rise after a viral lifetime achievement award acceptance speech that’s sincere, thoughtful … and also the result of a Molly trip. It puts the wind back behind his sails for a brief moment, landing him an audition for one of the hottest parts in town. As he prepares, the part inspires at outpouring of feeling and emotion that he hasn’t tapped into in years since he started phoning it in.

What a shocker, life can lead to inspired art, and art can lead to an inspired life! While Elliott chewing on something more than an archetype with his distinctive drawl is a pleasure, it’s a shame that he gets such banal material to work with for his moment in the spotlight. (Haley did such a great job crafting a unique and charming story for the AARP crowd in “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” but he does not recreate that magic here.) Elliott has more to give than welling up with tears by the ocean and spouting bland platitudes of regret. Hopefully someone else lets him. C





REVIEW: A Walk in the Woods

5 02 2016

In this media-saturated age, most of us go out of our way to avoid watching commercials. So it says something that during “A Walk in the Woods,” I found myself wishing I was watching a commercial. Specifically the Nick Offerman REI one slyly embedded into the film as “plot” but is merely product placement.

Otherwise, the film is as rough and unpleasant a slog as I imagine walking the Appalachian Trail would be. “A Walk in the Woods” repurposes “Wild” for the AARP crowd, giving the aging Baby Boomers played by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte a chance to hit the trails for one big mettle-proving hurrah. Redford’s Bill Bryson is a travel writer yet to explore his home country, while Nolte’s Stephen Katz is the one acquaintance he could snag to tag along.

Neither the estranged quasi-friends nor the difficulty of nature angle prove exciting in the film. In fact, their toughest battle with nature is so blatantly shot against a green-screen that it throws the authenticity of the entire film into question. It’s all predictable banter, predictable challenges and predictable outcomes. If people criticize actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino for taking bad comedy roles to pay the bills in their twilight years, “A Walk in the Woods” demonstrates that they ought to include Redford and Nolte when casting stones. C2stars





REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

27 06 2015

Me and EarlOn its face, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” amounts to a fairly simple calculation.  Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel for the screen, takes the YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” and makes teen cancer more palatable by injecting a healthy dosage of hyper-mature, cinematically literate narration comparable to “Easy A.”

If someone asked me to quickly describe this movie, I would probably use some combination of the two movies listed above – and it would be a positive recommendation.  But, like any good movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is far more than just its sales pitch or just the sum of its influences.

For starters, the film features a vividly realized protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines.  I am still a little uneasy by the egocentric nature of the tale, especially given his interactions with Olivia Cooke’s Rachel Kushner, a classmate undergoing grueling treatment for leukemia.  But the more I reflect on the movie, the more I come to assume this was intended.  After all, “Me” does come first in the title.

Greg reminds me a lot of myself in high school, and I suspect anyone like me who takes the time to write out their thoughts about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably have some line to the same effect in their review.  He’s a droll, quick-witted teenage cinephile who would rather create and consume fabricated narratives than blaze one of his own.  Greg fashions himself as nothing more than a loser trying to quietly suffer beneath the cliques that dominate the high school hallways, though his detailed taxonomy of every social group demonstrates that he believes himself above them as well.

At first, I wondered why I had such a hard time connecting with Greg.  If he reminds me so much of myself, why should I not embrace this character with whom I so often nod in painful recognition?  Then, I made an important realization – maybe people like Greg (and, by extension, myself) are not the easiest to love.  Especially towards the end of the film, where I slowly stopped identifying with him, Greg begins drowning himself in a toxic combination of self-loathing and self-awareness.

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REVIEW: Ernest & Celestine

16 06 2014

Ernest and CelestineIn the effort to engage in the larger cultural conversation about “important” films, I realize that it must seem like I can only appreciate a movie if it tackles topics of great thematic heft or breaks some sort of cinematic mold.  But truth be told, I love a movies like “Ernest & Celestine” just as much because it possesses a remarkable sort of magic.  It has the power to return me to a childlike sense of spectatorship, allowing me a pleasant regression to a simpler state of mind.

The film’s story is nothing particularly extraordinary, but it charms from the get-go.  The indomitably curious mouse Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) wants to know what could really be so bad about the big, scary bears of whom all mice are warned to fear.  This very nearly ends her life when she goes above ground and winds up in the clutches of the hapless bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker).  Celestine doesn’t just convince him not to eat her; she makes him a friend.

Sadly, no one else is willing to accept their unconventional relationship.  It’s unnatural and scary to both species, unwilling to budge from their present ideologies.  And yet, the bear and the mouse persevere, teaching very important lessons about acceptance and affection.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”  That’s a lesson “Ernest & Celestine” radiates with clarity as well as warmth, and I hope children from 3 to 93 everywhere take it to heart.  A- / 3halfstars





REVIEW: In A World

23 08 2013

In a world where the movies began to buckle under the weight of copious cliches, one movie dared to be different.  It was not a romantic comedy yet still had romance.  It was not a drama but managed to tackle serious issues convincingly.

While I might have made Lake Bell’s “In a World” sound like some kind of panacea, it’s really just a nice, simple movie that does a lot of things very right.  As a feature debut for Bell (who I only knew from her supporting turns in “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached“), the film is certainly promising for many great things to come.  She makes no major missteps in her finely-tuned comedy, but it is rather safe and risk-free.

Bell also wrote the film’s script, which contains a smart and well-observed feminist critique.  In a summer where “The Heat” was the only major studio release with a female protagonist, “In a World” opens up a fascinating dialogue about sexism and male hegemony in the art of voice-overs.  While much of the film is industry-specific, Bell gives us plenty of food for thought about women in any workplace.  She even manages the current impasse for many women between symbolic affirmative action and equal judgment with finesse.

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REVIEW: Smashed

11 08 2013

Finding comedy in alcoholism and recovery, two notoriously heavy subjects that hit close to home for many audiences, is no easy task.  “Smashed” is hardly a gut-buster or a laugh riot, although a little humor does help some of its rougher and rawer moments.  It’s no “Rachel Getting Married” (nor the lesser-known “Sherrybaby“), that’s for sure, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its smaller triumphs.

Director James Ponsoldt, newly heralded as an emerging director (and being entrusted to helm an upcoming Hillary Clinton biopic and an adaptation of the musical “Pippin”), steers the film rather uneasily.  As a result, the film has some abrupt and rather jarring tonal swings.  I’m not quite sure if he intended “Smashed” to leave a comedic or a dramatic impression, but it really winds up leaving very little impression at all.  Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is good, yet it never goes the full mile like Anne Hathaway or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the aforementioned dramas.

If it sounds like I’m being vague on details, that’s because I remember very few of them.  “Smashed” is a film I didn’t dislike, but it failed to win me over or secure a spot in my memory.  Regardless, it’s an interesting and, at 81 minutes, brief bauble of a film that isn’t entirely a waste of your time.  At the very least, you’ll enjoy seeing a union of some of TV’s best talents: Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” Nick Offerman of “Parks & Recreation,” and Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace.”

Oh, and there’s Octavia Spencer (Oscar-winner for “The Help“) as an AA sponsor.  She never disappoints.  2halfstars