Month: November, 2016

The Founder

tf_620x310It’s that time of the year where the heavily Oscar baited biopics tend to be released. So, it was with anticipation that I headed into the theatre to see the genre’s first cab off the rank.

Initially excited over reports that the Coen brothers were interested in directing The Founder, I was met with mild disappointment upon hearing that John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), with his rather bland track record, had prevailed. Written by Robert D Siegel (The Wrestler), The Founder is based on the true story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, and scopes the genesis of the well-known fast food giant.

The film’s title sardonically sums up its central thesis which explores to what extent Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was indeed the founder of McDonald’s. The story is bookended by Ray’s mantra on “persistence”, whereby he casts aside arguably more noble traits as mere folly in the face of good old fashioned persistence and determination; “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common that unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Blinded by his tunnel visioned notion of persistence, Ray bulldozes his way towards success, casting aside the mild mannered Mac and Dick McDonald who first caught Ray’s eye with their original fast and efficient burger joint. Ray’s neglected wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), gets similar treatment and soon Ray, having collected a savvy bunch of advisers on the way, builds the fast food giant that we all know and have a love/hate relationship with.

On first impressions The Founder plays out a lot like David Fincher’s The Social Network, although its commentary on success and what people will do to obtain it, strikes with far less venom. Instead, it coasts along at a tame pace and the film occasionally risks stalling if not for the energetic performance by Michael Keaton who skilfully walks the tightrope of moral ignorance and myopic determination. Notable also is the cinematography which captures the era well without resorting to gimmickry. Ultimately, The Founder feels like an interesting yet somewhat uninspiring story, told through an entertaining yet somewhat conventional lens … like a tasty meal with little nutritional value.

Rating: 3 out of 5

You can see the published review here

Nocturnal Animals

naAt this years Venice Film Festival American director and fashion designer Tom Ford said of cinema— “You need to think about it. Things can be entertaining, but if you leave the theater and it doesn’t stay with you, doesn’t haunt you, doesn’t challenge you, then it’s not successful, for me. So I hope to make films that make one think.” Despite the recent buzz about Amy Adams, I found myself more excited to see her latest film, Nocturnal Animals, because I wanted to be “haunted” by Ford’s latest foray into cinema.

Ford (A Single Man) not only directed but also wrote the screenplay which is based on the 1993 novel, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright. Ostensibly Nocturnal Animals is a tale of revenge. Susan (Amy Adams) is struggling to find life fulfilment between her failing marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) and her vacuous role as an art dealer. While Hutton is away on a business trip she receives a manuscript from her estranged ex-husband of almost twenty years, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and begins to read it. The book tells the story of a family on holiday in west Texas who are run off the road by a gang of red-necks, leading to further harrowing consequences. As Susan reads the unpublished book it appears increasingly clear to her that the story is an allegory of her relationship with Edward. Her past comes back to haunt her as she starts to question her own life, her current marriage, and her cynical reasons for leaving Edward.

The film plays out using a story-within-story structure comprising of three strands — current day Susan, the story from the manuscript, and flashbacks to her early relationship with Edward. While this structure is nothing new to cinema, Ford does a masterful job of balancing the three storylines transitioning between them with depth and ferocity and often allowing them to bleed into one another. True to Ford’s craft as a designer, his attention to detail is crystal clear and nothing is placed by accident. Every little moment suggests meaning, right down to the vengeful paper cut Susan sustains while opening up Edward’s manuscript for the first time. This cinematic perfection is a delight to watch. Ironically, perfection is perhaps its only fault, leaving the film ever so slightly devoid of warmth. Although I think this is Ford’s intention … as the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold.

Rating: 5 stars

The Accountant

tardp_620x310Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrik, and J.K. Simmons, The Accountant is a bit Rain Man, a bit A Beautiful Mind, a hint of X-Men, and a whole heap James Bond … if Bond had autism (actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if ol’ Jimmy was on the spectrum). So, what’s not to like?

Well, I’ll begin with the plot which is bloated, full of holes, and quite ludicrous. I’m sure the script by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) was written in red ink. Let me break it down for you a little; Christian Wolff (Affleck) has high functioning autism. He gets taught from a young age some sort of martial art in Indonesia, grows up and becomes an accountant. Why? Because he is good with numbers, of course – he’s got autism remember, and if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that autistic people have to be good with numbers. But it transpires that he’s actually cooking the books for some bad guys and the government are after him. Hang on, so he’s a baddie then? Not really, he conveniently slots into a grey area. As his dad puts it, he is “different” – neither good or bad, a robot, if you like. Meanwhile, he becomes a lethal killing machine, mechanically accurate with a gun – he has to be mechanically accurate … he’s got autism, remember. He proceeds to go on a rampage and kill said baddies, you know the drill (I’ll stop short of the two big plot twists, but they’re fairly well telegraphed).

As you might have picked up through my tone, the film’s treatment of autism, although fairly accurate symptomatically, is a little on-the-nose. As Wolff explains, he has trouble understanding others’ perspectives, and does not understand irony. The irony here is that The Accountant uses a formulaic approach to expound embracing the different. It pumps out every cliche about autism we’ve ever come across in previous films and re-issues them under the banner of “being different”.

Perhaps I’m being a little too critical of a film that’s just trying to entertain. There are some genuinely good moments, and it looks very pretty. Affleck does a commendable job, as do his supporting cast, although plot complications render their talent under-utilised. However, the problem is the premise is just too hard to swallow, and unfortunately this is what the film tries to make you do.

Perhaps The Accountant can cook your books, if safe formulaic entertainment is your bag. I tried to like it, but I just couldn’t get the ledger to balance.

Star rating: 2.5/5

See the published review here.

Next week I review Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

I, Daniel Blake

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Many of us have experienced the stranglehold of bureaucratic red tape. It’s an unfortunate but arguably necessary part of the society we live in. I, Daniel Blake gives us a portrayal of such struggles with Britain’s social welfare system and, as such, is fiercely critical of it. Directed by Ken Loach (The Angel’s Share, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and written by Paul Laverty who has penned many of Loach’s recent films, I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is no surprise then, that this is a masterclass of film-making told by a master of British social-realism. Set among the milieu of Geordie accents in working class Newcastle, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) works as a carpenter who has to stop work when he suffers a heart attack. Enter the British social welfare setup – a labyrinthine and hostile system that acts as the film’s pseudo antagonist. Caught in a bureaucratic loophole, Daniel and his new found friend, Londoner and solo mother Katie (Hayley Squires), struggle with the realities of poverty in a so-called wealthy nation. The irony of a simple story set against the backdrop of a complex welfare system is highlighted with superb performances by Johns and Squires, which are all the more moving for their restraint.

Loach’s ability to capture the exact beat and tone of everyday British life without drawing attention to his method of film-making is remarkable. He lets his camera operate with very little flair, often observing his subjects through a lens that quietly and seamlessly lets them struggle their way through a contemporary landscape. This is the way social-realist cinema should be shot and it is great to see Loach stubbornly stick to this formula. Over his long career he has resisted the alluring appeal of Hollywood, and thank goodness, as I can’t envisage a Hollywood rendition of impoverished Britain … nor would I want to.

I, Daniel Blake is at times very belligerent towards its cause, but gracefully holds its subjects in a compassionate light using equal parts of humour and despair. The result is an intensely moving film that highlights a genuine concern with the British social welfare system. Moreover, its relevance to New Zealand viewers should not go unnoticed, as Blake’s concerns are already a reality in our own backyard. As such, I, Daniel Blake operates as a parable for the less fortunate but should remind many of us that we are only a turn from similar circumstances.

Star rating: 5/5

See published review here.