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The Founder

January 20, 2017
The Founder

Michael Keaton has been on a hot streak in this latest phase of his career. While The Founder might not be up there with back-to-back Oscar winners Birdman and Spotlight, it’s certainly a strong choice to present a hit-piece on McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc in the same admiringly gauzy biopic style that director John Lee Hancock applied to Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side.

For all the bronze bas-relief plaques I used to see back when I went to restaurants like McDonald’s, Kroc’s “founding” of the chain was mostly his own self-mythologizing. The actual chain was started by — not surprisingly — Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) in San Bernadino, California. The two of them worked out the “Speedee system” that arranged an assembly-line kitchen devoted to hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, and soft drinks, all in a space that would fit within one side of a tennis court. Inside the singles lines.

At the same time in 1954, Kroc was a traveling salesman using a supply-side model to hawk a five-spindled milkshake blender to midwestern drive-ins that didn’t seem to care about getting the order right, let alone fast. But who cares when your clientele is mostly bored juvenile delinquents making out in their cars? It was the latest of Kroc’s get-rich-eventually schemes, and it wasn’t going well. But then he gets an order from a place out in — wait for it — San Bernadino, asking for six of them. Who could want to make thirty milkshakes at a time when he was having trouble convincing anyone they might want to make five? When he calls to verify the order, Mac answers, too busy to really listen, and says six might have been a mistake; better make it eight.

So Kroc heads out to meet the McDonald brothers and hears their story. Obviously there’s only one thing to do: franchise the operation. Except they already tried that, and it didn’t work. Dick can enforce exacting quality control at his own store, but it goes to hell when someone else is in charge. But Kroc is insistent; they draw up a contract giving the McDonalds the final say in any and all changes, and Kroc is off to the races.

Except for all the glamor of opening restaurant after restaurant he’s still only just scraping by on his share of the revenue. And in the meantime he’s alienating his wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and flirting with the Joan (Linda Cardinelli), the wife of a St. Paul franchisee (Patrick Wilson). Joan comes up with the idea to cut costs by using powdered milkshakes, but Kroc can’t make the change without the McDonalds’ approval.

Keaton knows just how to play this pretender to the McDonald throne. He has to be just the sort of striving, eager, go-getter that Kroc wants to appear to be, but he also has to let the conniver show through that lies inside that sort of person as well. And Offerman and Lynch offer the perfect foils. Offerman’s no-nonsense shop teacher persona adapts nicely to Dick’s systems engineer role, while Lynch is a big teddy bear who always wants to see the good in people, even if they don’t exactly merit that sort of grace.

The Founder upends the usual Great Man story of American innovation. At no point does Kroc come up with an idea on his own. The McDonalds created the assembly-line system that allowed fast-food to work. They even had the idea to franchise, and correctly saw that it was incompatible with their desire for quality. The cost-saving measures he couldn’t use came from other people, and when he finally hits on the secret that actually makes McDonald’s run, right up to the present day, it’s someone else’s idea as well.

The only thing that Ray Kroc can be rightly said to have brought to his table was the persistence in hanging on to the McDonald’s franchise idea long enough to run into someone who could actually make it work. And even that he stole from someone else and tried to pass off as his own.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Split

January 20, 2017
Split

Let’s get the obvious out of the way right up front: I’m of two minds about Split. Ha ha, easy joke, I know, but there’s some truth to it as well. I’m not really a fan of most of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, and though I thought The Visit was an improvement, something still didn’t sit right with me. So I come into his latest offering with some skepticism, but also a cautiously open mind. And I have to say, this is probably the best movie that Shyamalan has delivered in years. Anchored by two solid performances, this is mostly a solid thriller brought down by an ending that peters out without much of a satisfying resolution.

It starts with a kidnapping. Two popular girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the weird loner from their art class are chloroformed by a man (James McAvoy) who steps into their car and drives it away from a mall parking lot in King of Prussia. They wake up in a room with three cots, an adjoining bathroom, and a locked door to an antechamber.

We soon learn that the man is Kevin, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, or “DID”. The alternate personality who kidnapped the girls is Dennis, a fastidious man who fits the now-familiar psychopath trope. Miss Patricia is aligned with him, but when she shows up she tells the girls that she will not allow Dennis to harm them, since they’re meant for a greater purpose. Young Hedwig is nine, and seems to have some sort of power among the alters, but he’s easily manipulated, which offers the girls their first openings towards escape.

Kevin’s therapist, Karen (Betty Buckley), holds the belief that DID patients are not only psychological states, but that the different alters can actually affect the body’s chemistry and physiology. For example, one of Kevin’s alters, Jade, has diabetes, while the rest do not. And this opens the possibility of new insights into the connection between mind and body. Tapping into this power could unlock superhuman abilities. And that’s just what Dennis and Patricia believe they can do, bringing out “The Beast” in Kevin.

The biggest thing setting Split apart from the rest of Shyamalan’s movies is that he finally stops trying to work the twist. Or rather, to the extent that there is a surprise near the end, it’s not the sort of thing that tries to completely recontextualize everything we saw before. Things are pretty much as they seem, but Shyamalan still constructs scenes as if there’s a twist coming, leading his audience to grasp at the straws of what’s “really going on”. Which, to be honest, feels like kind of a cheat, feinting towards something that will never come.

On the other side, Casey has repeated flashbacks to her childhood, learning to hunt with her father and Uncle John (Brad William Henke). There’s an ominous air surrounding her, making it clear that she’s not as innocent as the two other girls who have never known real suffering. Echoing von Trier’s Melancholia, she’s the one who can keep her head in a tragedy, precisely because she’s the one who seems unable to function “normally” under normal circumstances.

Unfortunately, these two storylines never really intersect in any satisfying way. We see where Casey learned the skills she needs to survive, and we see what comes of Dennis and Patricia’s horrifying plans, but other than that they have almost nothing to do with each other. The intersection seems coincidental and inconsequential, which is a let-down from a director whose twisty plots, as dumb as they could be, were always at least pretty tight. McAvoy may get all the scenery to chew, and Taylor-Joy may continue her winning streak of performances in genre fare, but it’s not enough to make Split any more than a light snack.

Worth It: no, but only just.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Julieta

January 13, 2017
Julieta

By now, fans of Almodóvar know what to expect from one of his films: the passion, the sexuality, the closely observed female characters, the shocking twists. But the biggest surprise in Julieta may be how unsurprising it is. Loosely based on a trio of short stories from Alice Munro’s collection Runaway, this is one of Almodóvar’s tamer films. Sure, it’s still a sexy Spanish soap opera of a story, but there’s nothing that compares to the wild turns in his most recent I’m So Excited or The Skin I Live In.

Instead, we get a portrait of a woman who has led quite the tumultuous life. A middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) is about to move with her boyfriend from Madrid to Portugal when she bumps into a childhood friend of her estranged daughter, Antía (Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés, at different ages). Beatriz had herself just run into Antía, living now in Switzerland.

The shock has an immediate effect on Julieta, bringing up memories she’d long tried to move beyond. Upon hearing the news, she cancels her prospective life with her boyfriend, and instead moves back into an apartment in the last building where she’d lived with Antía, in the hopes that her daughter might contact her at that address. While she waits — for all she knows, forever — she begins to write to her daughter, telling her the story of her life that she was never able to communicate before they lost contact.

A younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), on her way to a new job as a teacher, meets a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on a train. A tragic accident delays their trip, and the two make love that night on the train. But Xoan can’t leave it as a one-night stand; using the school as the only address he knows for her, he writes to Julieta and invites her to visit him in his seaside village. When she arrives, his housekeeper (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) tells her that she must leave; his wife has just died after a long illness, and he is with another confidante, Ava (Inma Cuesta). But Julieta remains at the house, and when Xoan returns they rekindle their relationship.

But Xoan’s dalliances with Ava continue, which leads to fights with Julieta, who is especially hurt by the echoes of her own father’s infidelities. After one row, while Antía is off at summer camp, Xoan takes his boat out into a squall, and is lost. The loss comes as a shock, and starts the descent that leads to the breakdown of her relationship with Antía. But she’d built her life back up after the two losses, only for the meeting with Beatriz to tear it all down again.

Almodóvar departs from Munro’s award-winning prose, but the result is no less beautifully layered. Scene after scene, and shot after shot pile rhyme on top of rhyme. Images repeat themselves, but rarely so heavy-handed that he seems to be making a point of it. The past and the future echo each other, transposing patterns and repeating them. And the thread that binds it together is this one beautifully tragic character, split between two actresses who work so well together you can barely notice the seams.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Monster Trucks

January 13, 2017
Monster Trucks

Some fall night, in the late 2020s, the incoming freshmen at colleges around the country are going to get nostalgic. They’re going to bond, sharing stories of their even-younger youths. High school hijinks, embarrassing anecdotes, pop-culture memories. Someone, over a decade from now, will bring up a movie they watched at a sleepover in elementary or maybe middle school, and a wave of recognition will hit the other students. That movie will be Monster Trucks.

This is not, by any stretch, to say that I think it’s a good movie. It is, however, a movie that is very good at being what it’s trying to be: a kid-oriented adventure that would be right at home in the late ’80s or early ’90s. High-schooler Tripp (Lucas Till) finds a weird, oil-guzzling creature — quickly dubbed “Creech” — in the junkyard where he works until he can get out of his North Dakota town. His parents are divorced; his father (Frank Whaley) absent and his mother (Amy Ryan) nearly so. Tripp spends more time on screen butting heads with his mom’s new boyfriend, Sheriff Rick (Barry Pepper).

Rick naturally aligns himself with the oil company that drilled into the underground lake where Creech was living. They want to get him — I say “him” because the creatures are helpfully color-coded blue and pink — back before someone notices and stops the drilling operation on environmental grounds. The big boss (Rob Lowe) is almost cartoonishly bad in a way only Lowe could pull off so affably. He’d twirl a mustache if he had one, while he plans to dump two captured creatures out of sight and poison the lake to kill off any others so he can get at his “ocean of oil”. And of course he has people doing his dirty work for him: a scientist (Thomas Lennon) for the white-collar stuff, and a special-ops type (Holt McCallany) for the messier business.

So it’s down to Tripp, his friend Meredith (Jane Levy) — the “love interest” in that chaste elementary- and middle-school way — and his boss (Danny Glover) to save the creatures. And Creech, of course, who they find can climb up into the empty hood of the pickup Tripp is rebuilding and use his tentacles to spin the axles, turning it into a literal — wait for it — monster truck.

And that’s really the point: a creature-buddy romp like Mac and Me or Little Monsters, designed to appeal to little boys and to challenge them as little as possible. That last point is what separates it from last year’s infinitely more thoughtful Pete’s Dragon, to which it bears an otherwise striking resemblance. Which is not to suggest any wrongdoing on screenwriter Derek Connolly’s part; the shooting on Monster Trucks wrapped in 2014. But it’s fascinating to see how the same bones can be fleshed out into two so radically different movies.

There’s nothing really wrong with a movie like this other than its narrow target audience, and there’s nothing all that interesting to anyone outside it. The characters are all stock tropes; easier for kids to understand but uninteresting to everyone else. The story is coherent enough, but runs straight from point A to point B. The only bumps and twists to be seen are in the landscape that Tripp and Creech bound over. Parents who take their kids will be bored to tears, but for a good chunk of the kids it’ll be the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. And once it hits the home video market and the parents don’t have to spend nearly as much time and money, it stands a real chance to become the sleepover hit of 2020.

Worth It: only for kids.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Live By Night

January 13, 2017
Live By Night

January does not seem to be the month to release your stylishly violent gangland mini-epic. It didn’t work for Gangster Squad in 2013, and it’s not looking much better for Live By Night. While not as ridiculously self-serious, Ben Affleck’s latest turn as a director can never quite get off the ground.

In front of the camera, he plays Joe Coughlin, the Boston-Irish son of an even more Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), who takes up crime as a form of entrepreneurship after returning from World War I. But he’s not a gangster, understand; he’s just a stick-up man and bank robber who means to stay independent of the gangland empires of both the Irish Albert White (Robert Glenister) and the Italian Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). And yet he takes up with White’s mistress, Emma (Sienna Miller). When a job goes sideways and White finds out about them, Joe goes to prison and Emma’s car goes into the river. Upon his release, Joe strikes a deal with Pescatore to head up his operations in Tampa, where White has moved his business.

The web of allegiances in Tampa can be the most interesting part of the movie, but also the most difficult to follow, and they take up lots of screen time just setting up, leaving little time to exploit them for a story. Joe and his partner, Dion (Chris Messina) strike a deal to produce and distribute rum with the local Cuban powerbroker, Esteban Suarez (Miguel J. Pimentel), and Joe takes up with his sister, Graciella (Zoe Saldana). They make nice with the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), but have a little more trouble with his brother-in-law (Chris Sullivan). Ku Klux Klan members tend to look down on Blacks, Catholics, and miscegenation, so Joe and Graciella hit the trifecta with him.

Oh, and then there’s this whole other angle to the plot about the sheriff’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), who has left for a Hollywood screen test and gotten herself into trouble out west. She returns safely thanks to Joe’s connections and turns anti-vice revival preacher a la Aimee Semple McPherson, much to his chagrin as he’s trying to set up a casino for Pescatore. And yet he can’t bring himself to do what his boss would obviously want and nip this problem in the bud.

Something about this relationship never quite rings true. We can understand it a bit in terms of Joe’s central conflict: can he be cruel enough to wield power? Which is itself a watered-down version of Michael Corleone’s conflict from The Godfather. But in terms of any actual interaction between Joe and Loretta, it’s hard to see what makes her any different to him than anyone else. The same goes for his two paramours, for that matter. Their relationships are almost totally unexamined, and exist more to soften Joe’s character rather than offer any real insight into it.

Between all this, there are some decent action scenes, which is great if that’s all you’re looking for in a gang movie. If you want substance, Live By Night makes a few motions in that direction but never comes up with anything much.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Patriots Day

January 13, 2017
Patriots Day

Even if the attack hadn’t happened in Boston, it’s hard to imagine Mark Wahlberg not leaping on board for Peter Berg’s latest ode to American masculinity and pain. Patriots Day is the driver at the scene of a horrific accident who not only rubbernecks, but stops and asks the police if they’ll bring the bodies over to get a closer look.

I used the phrase “mere accuracy” recently in my review of Jackie, and it applies just as well here. Like Larraín there, Berg seems to regard the literal truth of his material to be sufficient to justify his production and presentation. But while Larraín merely produced a pretty shell of a biopic, Berg trades in literal flesh and blood to make his profits.

And Wahlberg is on hand to bask in the adulation Berg affords his leads, even if this time they have to make up a police officer out of whole cloth to place at each stage of the bombing and its investigation. Sure, they’ve also got real-Boston figures like BPD Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Mayor Thomas Menino (Vincent Curatola), and Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), but they’re mostly the infrastructure Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) needs to save the day. He’s there at the finish line when the bombs go off; he runs circles around the FBI (embodied in Kevin Bacon); he even chases the suspects out to Watertown, where he teams up with a local police (J. K. Simmons) to win a grenade fight, and then actually finds the last guy hiding in a boat.

As for the Tsarnaevs, I hardly mean to suggest that they are to be in any way lauded, but the movie’s version of Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) are played as such cartoonish bumblers you halfway expect a laugh track to show up in their scenes. Tamerlan’s American wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), is here a deluded dupe. And that, by the way, is the extent of the Muslim characters on display. There were evidently no Muslim police officers in Boston, or citizens affected by the bombing, to hear Berg tell it. Even the interrogator brought in to get information out of Russell (Khandi Alexander) is revealed to be a fraud. “How ungrateful,” Berg asks, “that they don’t cooperate when we do them the common courtesy of treating their beliefs like a Halloween costume?”

But of course Berg isn’t in this to provide a balanced view or nuanced insights. I don’t even think he’s in it to push an agenda of bigotry and division. He just recognizes that white folks who value traditional expressions of masculinity above others form a market niche that isn’t being as efficiently exploited by Hollywood as it could be, and he’s in it to make a buck. If he has to throw the public image of Muslims under the bus to get the God-and-guns crowd to the box office, it’s no skin off his nose. If you happened to be one of the less-photogenic others maimed or killed in the incidents he turns into Profiles in Mark Wahlberg’s Courage, well the grinder needs meat from somewhere. As long as the money keeps flowing in, there’s no reason in the world strong enough to inspire Berg towards a moment of reflection.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

A Monster Calls

January 6, 2017
A Monster Calls

It’s a shame that the wide release of A Monster Calls was held until after the new year, when most schools are back from winter break. While it’s stronger stuff than elementary school kids are likely ready for, this is a movie aimed at younger teens that actually respects them for their abilities to handle ambiguity and nuance, just as the novel by screenwriter Patrick Ness did.

On the surface, it functions as a relatively straightforward use of fantasy to get at feelings that are difficult to grapple with directly. Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is around thirteen years old — no longer a child, but not yet a man — when his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), gets sick. His father (Tony Kebbell) is estranged from them, living in Los Angeles.

And then, one night, comes the monster. The ancient yew (voiced by Liam Neeson) from the graveyard near Conor’s house lifts itself from the ground and walks over to his window. It tells him that it will relate three stories, and then Conor must tell it the fourth one, his own.

But the stories that it tells — two of them gorgeously animated — are not the ones we expect. They start out as usual, for fairy tales, but somewhere along the way the neat morals go awry. The young woman who married the king is a witch, but she didn’t cause his illness, and the prince who charges against her is hardly a noble avenger. The old man is nasty and greedy, but also can save many lives with his herbalist’s skills. People are complicated, and cannot be sorted into easy “good” and “bad” labels.

Which, to be honest, is more emotional maturity than about 95% of movies out there aimed at any age. The whole culture is aimed as reinforcing an attitude of “my tribe is good; your tribe is bad” and then lining everything else up along that axis. We start to believe that it really is easy to judge moral worth, in others and in ourselves. A single sin casts someone out as an Enemy of the Cause.

A Monster Calls lives in the in-between spaces. Conor is stuck between childhood and adulthood. His mother is suspended between life and death. The characters in the stories are somewhere between good and evil. Director J.A. Bayona shoots scene after scene through doorways and windows, caught between one place and another. The film refuses to resolve anything neatly.

It is, instead, that most valuable thing to a young person stuck in-between: a grownup who will take you seriously, look you in the eye, and tell you the truth. And the truth is that sometimes things are complicated, and there are no easy answers. The truth is that people are complicated, and there are no simple good-or-bad judgements. The truth is that life is complicated, and you’re complicated, and it’s okay if you don’t understand it all right away because nobody understands is, and we’re all pretty much trying to do the best we can.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.