The Founder: Power not Principles

The Founder will leave a bad taste in your mouth – and it has nothing to do with the fast-food giant McDonald’s.   Forget the greasy French fries (actually, I love the fries), the jumbo sugary drinks, or the rest of the high cholesterol menu – the food is not the problem – the Founder is the problem:  Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton).  Keaton plays Kroc brilliantly, beginning as the Illinois down-trodden milkshake mixer salesman driving around in a beat up blue Plymouth and ending as the celebrated Beverly Hills entrepreneur off to have dinner with California Governor Reagan.  The movie tells the story of Kroc’s gradual theft of all that we have come to know as the McDonald’s empire.

In San Bernadino, California, in the early 1950’s brothers Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) devised the first fast-food restaurant – introducing the 30-second hamburger dressed with pickle, onion, ketchup and mustard, the bag lunch, and the window order.  When Kroc saw the operation, he saw franchise potential and gradually disenfranchised the brothers.  He also disenfranchised one of his franchisees Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson) of his wife Joan (Linda Cardellini).  This was quite an accomplishment when you see the real photos and film clips of Kroc – a portly, egocentric, aging man who escaped to Beverly Hills without ever escaping the roots and hunger of his mid-west origins.

In the beginning we really like Ray Kroc.  And we sympathize with his long-suffering and beautiful wife Ethel (Laura Dern) who has to plead with Ray to take her out to dinner at the club a mere two times a month.  Ray is a hustler – a man always looking for the next big thing – a salesman who is perpetually on the road.  He is a hard worker – he lives on perseverance.

As Ray seizes power from the brothers, he always manages to find just the right kind of jackals to do his bidding, though to give him credit he initially pulls a burger flipper from the ranks to be his right hand.  But imagine – he even steals the brothers’ birth-right – the use of their own name on their own burger joint.  The brothers gradually realize they’ve lost everything they’ve worked for to a man who understands business, not integrity.  Think on that.

The acting throughout is excellent.  Keaton is positively exhausting as we watch him hustle his way to the top of the fast-food empire, morphing over time from a man who is just out to make a deal to a man who is just a monster.  The rest of the cast is spot on.  The McDonald brothers are so realistically portrayed, they seem to be people we know – or maybe wish we knew.  Laura Dern is positively regal as Keaton’s wife – and we wonder what on earth she is doing with this loser – her patience is so annoying.  Of course, she gets dumped in the end – Kroc, ultimately, was not a man to reward loyalty.

It is a movie well worth watching.  It gives us insight into the kind of all-encompassing ambition that feeds on itself, leaving the host bereft of morality and any redeeming character.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Cash does not buy class.  A good point to ponder.

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Patriots Day is Boston Strong

Patriots Day is a “must see” film, not just because it is very well-crafted (which it is) but because it tells the story of the spirit of the city of Boston following the horrific Marathon bombings.  The story probes the lives of the victims of the bombings while it pieces together the painstaking actions and coordination of the police, the FBI, the first responders, and hospital personnel.  But the final statement is a tribute to the citizens who stood beside those heroes and aided in the final capture of the 19-year old Muslim radical – before he was able to fulfill his plan to carry out an attack on New York.  Like so many stories based on true events, there is a certain wonder when a film is able to bring to life those events we are all familiar with and make them new.

The cast is excellent.  With the exception of Mark Wahlberg who plays police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, the cast is chock full of great character actors, all of whom bring a sense of realism as they play out the roles of real-life people – Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) and nurse Carol Saunders (Michelle Monaghan).

We all think we know this highly publicized the story because many of us watched it unfold on television.  But the film story is much more visceral and engaging.  The special appearances at the end of the film of the actual people whose lives were portrayed in film called for applause from the theater audience – a rarity in a community where everyone seems to want to be the first driving out of the parking lot.

I am reminded of the recent Wahlberg movie Deep Water Horizon – only as an example of what this movie is not – a Hollywood rehash of a regional tragedy.  Patriots Day is so much more – it’s about a whole city – remember “Boston Strong?”  See it.  You will not regret it.

Hidden Figures: Out in the Open at Last

Hidden Figures

There are so many ways to identify with this heart-warming film.  If you’re a woman, it’s easy to identify with the struggle of these three amazing NASA employees.  If you’re a person of color, the challenges of the 1960’s, particularly in the South, have to ring true even today – maybe more so – since it’s obvious the color wars are not behind us.  If you’re a white male, well, you just won the presidential election, so this film should not feel like a direct threat.  On the other hand, if you are a NASA employee, assuming the facts presented are true, you should be proud that your organization was one of the first to break the color barrier in the South – not the least of which was the demise of segregated bathrooms.

The action begins with the three female stars (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) trying to restart their 1957 Chevy  – the year is 1961 – the year John F. Kennedy ascended to the US Presidency – so there is an abiding feeling of hope.  But this is Virginia with its segregated schools, bathrooms, drinking fountains, libraries (who knew?) and various other segregated areas.  Blacks were still riding in the backs of buses.  So when the three women are challenged by a white male police officer, it is a scary moment.  The fact that these three remarkable women are employees of NASA during the great American space race against Russia, bodes well for them, so high was public sentiment that we should beat the “Rooskies” at their own game.  However, these women, along with many other black women, are human computers working in a segregated and sexist work environment.  Katherine Gogle Johnson (Henson), the brilliant African-American mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and later the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, is singled out for her mathematical genius, and this film is mostly centered on her.  I identified strongly with the plight of Katherine once she was promoted to the Space Task Group which was responsible for launching John Glenn into space.  She was forced to endure the humiliation of dashing to the “colored” restroom half a mile from her new location.  To further the humiliation, her male coworkers presented her with a “colored” coffee pot.  It was Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, who offered the only humanity in that room when he sledge-hammered the “colored” restroom sign and desegregated the coffee pot.  The supporting cast is convincing: Kirsten Dunst plays an arrogant and grudging staff leader, and Jim Parsons plays a snarky, racist colleague, whose looks and actions of disdain characterize the age.  Dorothy (Spencer) and Mary (Monáe) also face discrimination. Dorothy, who is in charge of several dozen human computers, is repeatedly denied promotion to supervisor and is treated with condescension by her immediate boss Dunst.  Mary works in a more enlightened environment but is forced to take drastic measures to achieve her graduate engineering degree.  Both are finally recognized for their great tenacity and remarkable abilities.

A woman friend queried whether contemporary African-American school girls are taught the stories of these three remarkable women who never gave up their dreams in an environment which was even more limiting than today’s.  I hope they learn of them.  And I also hope that these women are still recognized as pioneers by NASA and its employees.  Jeff, my son, what do you say?

Fences knocks the Ball out of the Park

Fences is both provocative and exhausting.  Try spending two hours with someone who sucks the oxygen from the room.  Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, a man who toils on the back of a Pittsburgh garbage truck.  He is hardworking, funny, blustery and tragic.  Escaping from his southern childhood and a brutish father, Troy makes his way north at the age of 14.  While he is illiterate, he speaks with eloquent braggadocio and emotional poetry – a forte of playwright August Wilson.  Troy’s life lands him in jail and finds him a spot with the Negro Baseball League where he is reportedly a star.  But even though Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for major league baseball in the 1940’s, it is too late for Troy.  And this is the cross he bears and, sadly, forces all to bear with him.

Through some happy miracle, he woos and marries Rose (Viola Davis) – a gentle foil to the rigidity of her husband.  Their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is a talented high school football player who, we are told, is being recruited by a college to play football.  But Troy has other plans for Cory.  Troy refuses to see past his own disappointing history which colors the life of the entire family.   We at once identify with Troy and his circumstances – who hasn’t been plagued by broken dreams?  And we admire his steadfast sense of duty to his family.  But as this selfish and hardened picture of the man emerges, I became angry with him.  He betrays his wife and family and ends up annihilating friends and family.  He is finally a lonely man who has driven away all who could have given him support.  In the closing scenes we are expected to come to an understanding of the real man and excuse his foibles – or at least come to terms with them.  Speaking for myself, having spent some time living with a bully, the behavior is hard to excuse.  Mercy is called for.

This is a powerful movie and reportedly does not stray from the Broadway play – which starred both Washington and Davis in the 2010 Broadway revival.  But I suspect that on screen Washington is even bigger than he must have appeared in the theater.  In some ways, it might have been easier to distance myself if a row of seats and a curtain had separated us.  The movie is phenomenal with strong performances by the entire cast.  I see no way this will be overlooked when the Oscars roll around.

La La Oscar Land

Well, this is not at all what I expected. It is a lot better and a lot different. You can call this a Hollywood musical but it’s more than that. Unlike most musicals you get a much fuller development of the main characters – you know them and you like them – for the most part. The stage is too distant – too impersonal. Emma Stone is vulnerable, and hypocritical at the same time. She chastises Brian Gossling when he pursues a dream unlike the one she proscribed for him. On the other hand, when he encourages her to follow her dream, it tolls the death knell for their relationship. The music is engaging and sweet. The characters are real. The choreo is novel – though I can’t help but recall West Side Story in the opening number- set on an LA freeway at a typical stand-still. There is a tenderness in this film and a kind of longing for the old musicals where it all turns out well in the end. But this longing ends in tears and a remembrance of all those lost loves – either persons or dreams. The dancing is passable – not rigorous – and the singing is simple and pure – not the stuff of Broadway musicals. But to my mind better. You’ll like this for its simplicity and honesty. It is Oscar material.

 

 

Manchester: Art Film Revisited

Manchester by the Sea.jpg

Manchester by the Sea reminds me of those old art films I used to force myself to sit through in the 1960’s.  But everything old is new again.   This is a beautiful film with incredibly fine acting, but it is agonizingly long.  It takes 3/4 of the film to get to the source of Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) problem.  And how would you like to spend 2 hours and 17 minutes with a seriously depressed guy?  When I got out of the theater I was in need of a very stiff drink and at least an hour of psychotherapy.  The film is grindingly slow – with a few chuckles you can count on the finger of one hand.  Lee Chandler, who slogs out an existence as a maintenance man in an apartment complex in Boston, is forced to return to the scene of all his ills when his big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies leaving a 16 year old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Lee’s care.  Patrick is the bright spot of the movie because he can’t get a handle on all that has happened and is happening to him – and resorts to attending to his raging hormones.  He is a natural.  I have to applaud Affleck who almost never cracks a smile and can’t even carry on a normal conversation.  So unless Affleck is actually a seriously depressed guy, his acting is convincing.  The movie rolls along in the present with flashbacks into the past as the family story unfolds.  Both brothers are abandoned by their spouses.  There are some painfully teary moments – especially when Lee meets his former wife (Michelle Williams) on the streets of Manchester.  Of course, the musical score plays into the melancolia with a boys chorus singing in the background, stringed instruments, etc.  It’s a set up – so be prepared to cry.  I fully understand what the director was trying to achieve in this film – telling the story of a man caught in the most debilitating tragedy imaginable – and forcing him to try to function in the real world.  Well, it just sucks – not so much the movie – but the story line.

Rogue One: This Ship has Sailed

If you are a Star Wars fan you will either hate me or thank me – probably hate me.  But this edition of the Star Wars saga is a big yawn.  The movie gets its title from the call letters of the imperial cargo ship stolen by a motley group of rebels out to steal the plans of the Death Star.  Felicity Jones is a bright spot in a really boring script – she plays Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an engineer who is drafted by the imperialists apparently to fine-hone the Death Star.  In fact, the cast is excellent: a renegade imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), a hard-boiled resistance type (Diego Luna) (Jyn’s love interest), a blind monk (Donnie Yen) (I loved him), a bearded nut-job (Wen Jiang), a dorky droid, and an extremist militant with 2 artificial legs and a breathing problem (Forest Whitaker)  – all the fine elements are here – even the arch-type villain (Ben Mendelsohn) is delightfully hateful fortified by his enormous ego (remind you of anyone?).  The problem is the script. There are few edge-of-the-seat scenes.  But there are a lot of fires, explosions, death rays, all the trapping of what should have been a scary excusion into the galaxies.  Cities fall, whole planets implode.  Alas, for me it was still a crashing bore.  Sorry, Star Wars fans.  I saw this in 3D – and that was a mistake.  It really doesn’t heighten the experience and there were few scenes where meteorites or other foreign objects flying from the screen caused me to duck.  2D is enough, I think.  Better yet, watch it when it comes out on Netflix.  This is not Academy material. Okay, maybe someone will like the special effects.  But this will not get a nod from the Academy for original film script  (Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy) or masterful directing (Gareth Edwards).  It is a shameful waste of star talent.  By the way, I love series films – like the DC comics movies – always a fresh set of characters and a fresh script.  And did you know Disney asked the critics not to reveal the plot and “spoil” the ending for anyone?  No worry – the movie spoiled all by itself.