Sunday, January 29, 2017

20th Century Women

          A semi-autobiographical comedy/drama by writer/director, Mike Mills, the film takes place in Santa Barbara California in 1979 and is basically about Mr. Mills (here called Jamie) and his unconventional mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening. It is an intimate portrait of an unusual nuclear family.

         15 year old Jamie lives with his divorced mother and two renters , William, played by Billy Crudup, a single Bohemian man earning his rent by renovating the house and Abbie, a 24 year old very complicated woman. Jamie's life is also heavily influenced by Julie, a 17 year old neighbor that frequently sneaks in to literally sleep over. Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig and Julie, played by Elle Fanning are both charged by Dorothea to help teach Jamie about life and love.

           Ms. Bening bares herself physically to play Dorothea and chain smokes her way through the film. It is a brave performance by a wonderful actress. Jamie is played by Lucas Jade Zumann, who has a fine career ahead of him should he continue to act. While all the acting is well done, the story drifts in and out of moments that ultimately add up to nothing. There are pearls of wisdom by various characters, heartbreak and love affecting everyone but it's all told in a dull flat tone that I found rather boring. Mr. Mills actually speeds up many scenes as if he too, realizes he needs to move things a long. I did enjoy the soundtrack though, very much.

          I suppose there are those who will find the story charming (it is, in a dull way) and enjoy it very much. Perhaps if Mr. Mills had given his script over to another director who could be more objective, it would have made for a much better film but alas, that was not to be. 

The Founder

Based on a true story, this biographical drama is the story of Ray Kroc and how he "stole" the fast food giant, "McDonald's" out from under the McDonald brothers. It is a very engaging story and a great object lesson in business scruples. Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc and moves through the film like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.

The film starts in 1954 when Kroc is selling Malted Milk mixers to drive in diners. When he discovers that one of his clients has ordered 6 mixers (highly unusual), he drives to San Bernadino, California and meets brothers "Mac" and Dick McDonald, played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. Kroc soon realizes that their new method of preparing and selling hamburgers has huge potential and he integrates himself into their lives in a partnership to franchise.

The film also co-stars Laura Dern as Kroc's first wife Ethel, doing the best she can in an unflattering role, B. J. Novak as Harry Sonneborn, a financial consultant that brings Kroc to his tipping point, Patrick Wilson as an investor and Linda Cardellini as his wife Joan, who ends up playing a much larger part in Kroc's life. Director John Lee Hancock gets the look and feel of the late '50's just right and like McDonald's itself, after a slow start, he moves the story along briskly and economically.

It soon becomes clear that Kroc is a ruthless business man and when his "tipping point" arrives, he eventually finds a way to make the business his own. Today, McDonald's is a multi-billion dollar global industry. How it got that way is a fascinating story and the terrific casting, Mr. Keaton and Mr. Offerman especially, make it very entertaining.

In the end, it's a cautionary tale of business where nice guys do finish last.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Toni Erdmann

Reviewed by many as a riotously funny German comedy, I found this new foreign film to be tenderly amusing but far from riotous.  While the film skewers sexual politics in a geo-political  business world, it also explores a unique father/daughter relationship in an amusing and unusually loving way.

 Wilfried is an older divorced music teacher fond of practical jokes and silly disguises. When his elderly dog dies, he drops in unexpectedly on his uptight, no nonsense, daughter Ines who is a business executive for an oil consulting firm in Romania.  Looking to reconnect with Ines, Wilfried takes on a alter ego , "Toni Erdmann" and upends her buttoned up life.

Peter Simonischek plays Wilfried as a sly fox of a father who realizes his daughter's unhappiness and takes things to the extreme to make her see life differently. Sandra Huller is Ines and she is wonderful as we watch her personality shift ever so slowly under her father's annoying but loving influence.

The humor of the film can be interpreted in different ways, from odd to slapstick with a few truly strange scenes thrown in for good measure.  Written and directed by Maren Ade, loosely based on her own father, the film takes it's time (almost three hours) to tell it's story.  The film is in German with some English and Romanian and the emotions stirred at it's core will stay with you for some time.

Monday, January 02, 2017


Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence play two hibernating passengers out of five thousand, traveling on a one hundred and twenty year voyage in space to a new colonized planet. For reasons I won't reveal, they both end up awake ninety years too soon and must learn to cope with life aboard the massive spaceship on their own.

Michael Sheen plays an android bartender named Arthur, Laurence Fishburne has a small cameo and Andy Garcia has what must be the shortest cameo in history. Otherwise the film rests completely with Mr. Pratt and Ms. Lawrence, both attractive and personal actors who try valiantly to hold the film together for two hours.  

The premise is intriguing  and the early parts of the film are interesting and hold your attention however, things begin to get tedious and more ludicrous as the film goes on.
There is a reveal that pumps some life into the story and one big action sequence to create a little excitement  (the outcome really strains credibility though) and the ending could have been far more interesting if it had gone in a different direction.

The special effects are very good (including Ms. Lawrence's make up which is always perfect) but the script ends up painting itself into a corner and the film ultimately has too much going against it to recover from a strong start that ends up a letdown. Unless of course, you want to watch a melodramatic, love story, space opera with less and less plausibility as it plays out.