Film review – The Founder (John Lee Hancock, 2017)

John Lee Hancock is busily carving out a name for himself as the creator of sanitised versions of the most successful business men in the history of humanity, treading perhaps where no director would dare through a labyrinth of red tape.

In 2013 it was Saving Mr Banks, Hancock’s portrayal of an important segment of Walt Disney’s life as he helped convince P.L. Travers to release the rights to Mary Poppins and shaped the now-classic motion picture. This time around he’s tackling the origins of one of the biggest global brands of the modern world: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s hasn’t had a successful time thus far being portrayed on screen. Outside the overbearing product placement that everybody hates (even though they often pay for significant portions of films), if you ask anyone whether or not they’ve seen a film about McDonald’s, they will more than likely start talking about one of two films: McLibel or Super Size Me. Both are excellent as films and even better in showing the company in an extremely negative light.

Or you may remember this film…

 

The Founder isn’t quite as negative towards the iconic brand as the recent memorable efforts, going a long way to provide a balanced view of the origins of the story. It may be sanitised but it is at least reasonably based on facts (to our best knowledge).

Michael Keaton plays Ray Croc, a driven but unsuccessful salesman who happens upon the first McDonald’s restaurant whilst trying to sell milkshake making machines. This restaurant is owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and they soon go into partnership to franchise the company and start growing it across the rest of USA.

The biopic serves two purposes for the company. Firstly, it portrays the McDonald brothers’ story as being as wholesome and family-friendly as any of the McDonald’s adverts that are create today. This was a family company that didn’t want to be taken over by the global powers, resisting all the way and almost unbelievably against making any profit. Looking at it cynically, it serves as an advert that champions the company’s family values.

Secondly, it portrays the man who turned it into a global power as self-driven, full of business acumen but at his most basic a self-centred, cold and heartless money grabber. We aren’t supposed to like him, though I can’t help but think that the characterisation will be a template for those wishing to succeed in business. I hope not – it would be a poorly-chosen idol.

The overall result is that we don’t feel encouraged to like our central character and it feels like the side of a story that aligns with the global branding message rather than one we can truly enjoy. 

The problem is that Keaton is far too charismatic to not be liked and the Lynch/Offerman duo are sabotaging the success of the company at every turn. This makes the emotional journey slightly skewed as we try to take sides and don’t really know where to land.

Some will champion its subtlety but I don’t see it like that. I see it as a great actor shining through an advertising campaign disguised as a film.

Given the state of the political landscape right now, I don’t think it’s the film the world needs.

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Film review – Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2016)

There are obvious paths to go down to tell a story about victims of child abuse. This film eschews the story of the individuals who have suffered the abuse, instead concentrating on the journalistic team that fought hard to uncovered the abuse. It deliberately attempts to portray just how difficult it was to reveal the truth about something when nobody wants to listen and everybody involved is trying to cover up what has happened. It is an effective but devastating success.

The title of the film is taken from an investigative journalistic unit that tackles stories it deems of necessary interest to the readers of The Boston Globe. In 2002 it published an exposé on Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area, offering evidence of not only child molestation and rape, but also of the systemic cover-up of the evidence by the church. The truths they found were horrific in both nature and magnitude.

Whilst the movie is truly an ensemble piece, there are three wonderfully nuanced performances that help make this film so effective.

The first comes from Stanley Tucci as the attorney Mitchell Garabedian. Tucci is a really special actor and he’s in fine form here. Garabedian has represented innumerable victims of the abuse and each time has been unable to affect change, with critical documents being suppressed by the church. Reminiscent of his role in Margin Call as Eric Dale, he is a man with knowledge of the wider secret dying for those around him to find out what’s truly going on.

A smaller but memorable turn comes from Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Based on a real person going by the same name, he makes the most of his limited screen time when he provides a harrowing monologue the first time he meets the Spotlight team. A frustrated picture of a man that likely represents the emotions felt by each and every survivor.

The finest performance, however, is from Michael Keaton as the Chief Editor of Spotlight, Walter “Bobby” Robinson. Throughout the story Bobby is a man wrestling with his conscience. He knows that to make the story as effective as possible he needs to wait for all the facts to be in place and make a thorough, damning article that cannot be ignored. However, doing this means sitting on the information whilst the abuse continues in the city. Late in the picture when he finds out he was actually tipped off about the scandal twenty years previously, he must conclude that he is finally bringing justice to the city despite potentially having the power to prevent generations of systemic abuse. Keaton nails it, reminding us all once again how great it is to have him back on the big screen in a role of substance.

I’m surprised Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have been selected for an Oscar nomination ahead of those they share the screen with. Fine actors though they are, it must have been a tough call to select two from a long list of solid performances. Ruffalo seemed to be holding back slightly, though that was perhaps a deliberate choice I didn’t pick up on fully.

It is rare that a whole audience is left in absolute silence at the end of a screening, but even on a busy Saturday afternoon there didn’t seem to be anyone that felt anything other than stunned. The reason for this was a devastating list of all the locations they have uncovered scandals in since the publishing of the initial article in 2002, firstly in the USA, then globally.

For this reason the film is now serving the same purpose as the original article: to shine a spotlight on a diabolical scandal that should have been eradicated decades ago. It is possibly the most important film you will see this year.

Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

Wow. I just left the cinema after watching Birdman and I was blown away. It’s easy to see why it has been so heavily rewarded in both the Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations, and I would be surprised if the Academy Awards doesn’t follow suit.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor who has enjoyed massive cinematic success some twenty years prior portraying superhero Birdman. In a bid to reignite his waning career on a more critically reputable path, he is directing himself in the lead role of his own rewrite of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Also starring in it are Broadway newcomer Lesley (Naomi Watts), Riggan’s romantic-interest Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and late replacement actor and seat-filler Mike Shiner (Edward Norton in excellent form). Also in the mix is daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is now working as Riggan’s P.A., and Zach Galifianakis as Brandon Vander Hey, Riggan’s lawyer.

It’s a film that’s hard to pigeonhole and I’m not sure I really want to. I’d hate to call it a comedy, only for someone to read this article and feel hard done by by the lack of belly laughs. Then again, it’s hardly a superhero film and you’d be bitterly underwhelmed should you think this is what you’ll be getting.

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One thing that will strike you when you watch it is the use of long single-shot scenes. Actually, the film is essentially edited to look like a complete one-shot, though there are some subtle cuts where scenes have been interlinked. Whilst this technique is something I favour (for a great example of this you should take a look at the excellent opening sequence of Orson Welles masterpiece “Touch of Evil”), it can also be used as a means to show off by a director. I’m a big fan of theatre, so since this film deals with the run up to the opening night of a play, on a basic level I can make a connection with the desire to not have a cut between scenes as they run into each other. That’s clearly not what the director is doing here though. For me, in fact, the purpose of these long takes is to build up the relentlessness of the pressure Riggan is under as portions of his life blur into one another and his less-than-clear thoughts are muddied by his unwanted past as a Hollywood superhero and furthermore by an unexpected pregnancy. It’s a really effective method of storytelling and they completely nail it.

I find the casting of Keaton in this role as a masterstroke of genius too. Whilst he was one of the first big-screen superheroes, his subsequent roles have never looked like troubling the box office as much as his turn in Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989. Only Christopher Reeve had been part of a bigger superhero success when he took on the role of Superman, and Keaton’s career trajectory ended up mirroring somewhat Reeve’s problematic career post-Kent. There have been a smattering of successes (Jackie Brown, Toy Story 3 and The Other Guys), but with this in mind I don’t think Birdman’s likeness to the 1989 Dark Knight is a coincidence. This all makes Keaton’s portrayal of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown (or worse) all the more effective, as he struggles to find relevance amongst his peers. It is ironic that this film is doing exactly that for Keaton.

The real-life-to-character comparisons don’t stop with Keaton. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner is a character whose talent is only marred by his reputation for being difficult to work with. It’s almost as if the Norton and the screenwriting team of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo are having a bit of a chuckle at our expense. Norton recently had another reflective statement when interviewed by NPR about his experience when pulling out of the Avengers series of films, which ironically was the reason he was able to schedule in this film (along with both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Clearly the fear for him was that his life would be consumed by a cycle of filming and promoting, when he could instead be part of several films that are both critically successful and reputable. The feeling I got when watching Shiner develop as a character was they had written him as the person everyone thinks Norton is, rather than what he is really like. With both Norton and Keaton both seemingly playing characters criticising the downsides of the superhero film franchises they were involved with, I wonder how Emma Stone, and more so her boyfriend Andrew Garfield, feel about the underlying commentary.

I’m going to single out Zach Galifianakis’s performance as a highlight. People know him very well for his character Alan Garner in the Hangover trilogy, which he effectively reprised in Due Date and The Campaign, and I was a little sceptical of his casting here. Harking back to Keaton, this is Galifianakis shedding his skin as proving he can take of a serious role with great aplomb if given the chance. A great choice for him at this stage in his career.

Of course, this multilayered overthinking of all the characters is all well and good, but the film has to be good to justify it. Otherwise you end up with something like David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, which I will go on record as saying is one of the worst films of all time. Fortunately it’s completely not the case with Birdman.There are some brilliant moments of hilarity in here, some surprising and well-handled special effects and a few intensely emotional back-and-forths from actors giving their everything to their art.

This is the first truly great film I’ve seen this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Birman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is out now at cinemas across the UK.