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 Conjuring

28 09 2014

Mass-produced horror series like “Saw,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “Final Destination” (with “Insidious” rapidly approaching supersaturation) tend to give the genre a bad name.  It’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, a horror film like “The Exorcist” could get a Best Picture nomination.

I certainly do not mean to draw a parallel that implies “The Conjuring” is equal in stature to William Friedkin’s aforementioned terrifying masterwork, nor am I saying that James Wan’s film was robbed of Oscar glory at last year’s ceremony.  I merely aim to point out that when done well, horror films can really be exemplary pieces of filmmaking.

Wan expertly utilizes filmic tools like sound design and cinematography to cast quite the spell with “The Conjuring.”  He’s interested in more than the quick “gotcha” of a jump-out scene.  The scares those generate, after all, generally tend to dissipate within seconds.  Wan’s filmmaking lingers with its eeriness, leading you to wonder when all the tension floating around will materialize into a nightmare.

His mission is also aided by a more than passable script, based on a true incident from the call of duty of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Though hauntings, possessions, and exorcisms are old hat to most by now, “The Conjuring” never seems plagued by triteness.  If anything, the well-plotted and developed screenplay hampers Wan’s filmmaking through its sheer length and scope.

In the time between the film’s big scares, some of the tautness of the terror has a chance to loosen.  Taking ten to fifteen minutes out of the final edit might have made this one of the all-time greats.  Still, “The Conjuring” delivers where it needs to – and delivers big when the frights arrive.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Young Adult

15 03 2012

You’ll have to pardon my French throughout this review, but there’s no other way to put it.  “Young Adult” is Diablo Cody’s courtroom drama-style comedy that puts the bitch on trial, both the Hollywood archetype and a very peculiar bitch of her own creation.  It’s really a genius work that serves as a genre deconstruction as well as a story of narcissism and self-loathing in the Facebook age that can stand up on its own two feet.  Then factor in the irresistible pathos of Jason Reitman, a director who tells the most authentic emotional narratives of anyone working in Hollywood today, and you’ve got one of the best movies of 2011.

In anyone else’s hands, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary would be a totally unsympathetic, curmudgeonly home-wrecker.  Her vile acts of shameless selfishness draw first our shock, then our ire.  Every minute longer she lingers on the screen, we hate her all the more.  She’s toxic, knows it, and does nothing to change it.

But dare I say it, I actually related to Mavis – way more than I should have, in fact.  While we can’t deny her agency for all her awful deeds, Cody refuses to let her be totally written off as someone mean-spirited down to her core.  Her story takes Mavis back to the root of her problems, her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota.  We get to see the society that spawns the psychotic ex-prom queen, forcing us to wonder how much of her fate is due to society and circumstance.

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REVIEW: Insidious

13 10 2011

The only kind of horror that has any sort of power over me is ambiental terror, such as “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and for a modern example, “Paranormal Activity.”  Any hooligan can orchestrate something to jump out of an obscure spot as an eerie violin slowly vamps to a forte; it takes skill and artistry to craft a lingering sense of foreboding doom.  While “Insidious” would like to join this club, it really falls short of the mark on some basic levels.

It’s clearly aiming for “Exorcist”-level scares with the whole demonic child plot device.  Dalton Lambert winds up in a coma after a freak accident, throwing his grief-stricken parents (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) into distress and panic.  When all sorts of strange and paranormal activities start to occur, they quickly blame the house.  But according to the advice of a spectral expert, the fault is not in their house but in Josh and Renai’s baby.  (Yes, I did just work in references to all three of the movies I mentioned in the opening paragraph.  I had to find some way to make this lackluster movie have some sort of memorable review.)

It won’t take me long to quickly sum up the major flaws of “Insidious” – the exposition is too prolonged and uneventful, the atmosphere is never well established, and the story takes multiple turns towards the ridiculous and absurd towards its finale.  It gets so bizarre that I think Tom Cruise and his Scientologist buddies would even call it far-fetched.  But at least it excels at doing what many sub-par horror movies have to settle for achieving: entertainment.  C+ / 





REVIEW: Morning Glory

11 11 2010

Morning Glory” centers around the fictional morning talk show Daybreak, which is in fourth place in the ratings behind The Today Show, Good Morning America, and “whatever CBS has in the morning.”  In the realm of movies centered around talk shows, this Rachel McAdams vehicle falls among the ranks of Good Morning America in that spectrum.  It has heart and makes for some undeniable fun, but the familiarity of the story and premise make it difficult for the movie to have the resounding emotional impact it so greatly desires.

It’s less a story about the newsroom as it is about the woman running it, Becky Fuller (McAdams), a career girl who is so focused on her job that she bumbles through every other aspect of her life.  It’s just as easy to be inspired by her drive to return Daybreak to glory as it is to be off-put by McAdams’ phoned-in performance.  She is so overly kinetic and frantic that it feels awkward.  I’m a huge fan of her work, so I was surprised to find myself reacting so aversely to her charms.

Without McAdams in full force, the rest of the movie has to pick up the slack, and, for the most part, it does.  What the script lacks in originality it makes up for in humor, through both great lines and on-air moments that recall some of the most YouTube-worthy news anchors of our time (I’m talking to you, Grape Lady).  The diva aspect is totally nailed as well, particularly shining through Diane Keaton’s prima donna anchor Colleen Peck.  We rarely get to see the aging actress anymore, and she spins every line into gold.

It’s particularly great to see her quarreling with Harrison Ford’s Mike Pomeroy, an aging Dan Rather-type anchor with no time for anything but what he deems “serious” news.  Ford plays him as a sort of gruff Walt Kowalski from “Gran Torino” with the intimidating deep voice and booming temper, which sometimes borders on excessive.  Yet Ford is far from bad, still managing to find ways to make his interpretation work.  He delivers the emotional climax of the movie, which the script bungles, and saves it from being a total disaster, quite a feat in itself.

There’s a lot to enjoy about “Morning Glory,” and while that doesn’t include great thematic depth, this isn’t the kind of movie that requires it to be successful.  It’s a great ball of fun, warm and fluffy, that will hold up very well on repeat Sunday afternoon viewings on TBS.  And as far as unoriginal movies go, this is about as good as they get.  B





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 6, 2010)

6 08 2010

I’ve thought of three great comparisons for “Hard Candy,” the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie, for those who need a refresher on the acronym), and I just had to include them in my post. I think they make a great lead. Imagine me clearing my throat, and then I say to you…

“Hard Candy” is “Misery” for the digital age. It’s Michael Haeneke’s “Funny Games,” pedophile edition!  And it’s “Paranormal Activity” without the ghosts!

I’m sure I probably have you more confused than anything right now, so allow me to explain.

The first scene, an internet chat, sets up our assumptions about the two characters.  Hayley (Ellen Page) is a 14-year-old girl who allows herself to be wooed by Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a much older photographer, presumably a pedophile from the way they speak to each other. When they arrange to meet for the first time at a coffee shop, we have roles assigned for them in our heads: Jeff the hunter and Hayley the victim.

But the movie quickly shows us that we have these roles mixed up once they return to his house.  As if in one of those crazy games where the deer shoot the rednecks, Hayley tortures Jeff in his own dwelling, punishing him for crimes that she isn’t certain he has committed.  But as the server of preemptive justice, she has little care for following the rules, and her innocence fades quickly as her games become more cruel and sadistic with each passing minute.

This isn’t a movie for the faint at heart and certainly not for those who want to think of Ellen Page as a good-hearted, spunky teenager.  Director David Slade makes a gripping movie by making all the events compellingly realistic, choosing to craft a very eerie natural tension by relying on the actors to really communicate the emotions.  In an era where the average movie changes shots every two seconds, Slade opts for several haunting long shots.  There’s a particular one of Patrick Wilson that last several minutes which will surely sear into your memory forever.





REVIEW: The A-Team

14 06 2010

I think part of the reasons that few people listen to film critics anymore is because they seem to review every movie expecting it to be “Citizen Kane.”  Such ridiculously lofty expectations have put the trade on the verge of extinction as a profession.  It’s important to have high expectations of a movie as a reviewer and moviegoer, yet at the same time, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

For a movie like “The A-Team,” the most we can expect is some well thought-out action sequences, a decent plot that has the ability to engage, and potentially some character development.  For pure entertainment, it’s fairly successful.  For much else, you’re might be out of luck.

“The A-Team” is no “Citizen Kane” of action movies, but it’s a very different kind of action movie that is a nice change of pace in the nearly homogenous summer market.  The action focuses on the plan, not just indiscriminate shooting and killing.  Many of the sequences weave in the team of elite operations carrying out the plan with them formulating it.  It’s a very cool way to execute the action, and the filmmakers nailed the only thing that was essential for them to get right.

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