Monday, 28 November 2016

The Founder

(M) ★★★★

Director: John Lee Hancock.

Cast: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Linda Cardellini.

Set in a time when going to a McDonald's restaurant was a thing to be celebrated.

AFTER the incredible double of Birdman and Spotlight – both of which won the best film Oscar – directors must have been tripping over themselves to cast Michael Keaton.

Not only is he potentially a lucky charm for big awards at the moment, but he's in career best form. Not to be dismissive of his previous best roles (Beetlejuice, Batman), but Birdman’s Riggan Thomson and Spotlight’s Walter "Robby" Robinson were new PBs.

While it's unlikely The Founder will give Keaton a spot in three best film Oscar winners in a row, it's another top turn from an actor at the top of his game, with his Ray Kroc right up there with Riggan and Robby.

Kroc was the man who took McDonald’s to the world and The Founder details his rise from “52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake machine salesman” to president of the biggest fast food empire on the planet. It also shines a light on the original McDonald brothers Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch), and how Kroc snuck their own restaurant out from under their noses.

For the most part, The Founder is fascinating stuff, driven by the personality clash between the cautious McDonald brothers and the gung-ho Kroc. Keaton’s performance as Kroc is tasty, but there’s also a delicious script at work that balances the main character’s flaws with an underdog determination that keeps Kroc likeable for the audience well beyond when he should be. This is one of the best aspects of the film – the way it has us barracking for Kroc before pulling the rug out from under us and portraying him as an utterly heartless money-man, corrupted by his own dream.

Keaton is ably supported by Offerman and Lynch, two vastly under-rated actors. The former underplays things nicely in a refreshingly straight role and the latter delivers another strong, unshowy performance. The rest of the cast is solid and flits in and out well, but this is Keaton’s film and he carries it with ease.

The biggest downside is some slower sections in the second act that feel like you’re watching a McDonald’s franchisee induction video. It’s all necessary background, demonstrating how revolutionary McDonald’s was in a time of drive-in diners and rollerskating waitresses, but it drags the tempo down to the careful and precise level of the McDonald brothers, not the flashy, fast-talking swagger of Kroc.

Like Keaton, director Hancock is on a good run – this follows the successful Saving Mr Banks and Oscar-nominated The Blind Side, and is his best film yet. The look of the film is authentic and Hancock ensures it’s Keaton’s show, neatly tricking the audience into liking Kroc for longer than we should.

The Founder is as much about the American dream of becoming filthy rich as it is about the history of McDonald’s. It’s what it says about the former – that you have to trample on some good people to get to the top – that makes it really interesting. But even if you have no interest in how McDonald’s went from one little walk-up restaurant in San Bernadino to something that feeds one per cent of the world’s population every day, there’s at least another great Keaton performance here to tide you over.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

(M) ★★★

Director: David Yates.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo.

"Gotta catch 'em all!" said Newt Scamander (probably).

THERE must be a saying in Hollywood to the effect of “No franchise is ever finished”.

Warner Bros, having made close to $8 billion at the box office from the eight Harry Potter films, had this adage in mind when it came knocking on JK Rowling’s door looking for another excuse to return to the Potterverse.

Because $8 billion is never enough, Warner Bros suggested Rowling turn her spin-off textbook about magical animals (originally released as a Comic Relief charity fundraiser) into a new film, to which Rowling agreed (and it’s now rumoured to be the first film in a five film series).

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is set 70 years before Potter’s adventures, and follows magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne) as he arrives in New York with a suitcase overflowing with enchanted creatures.

A couple of these mystical animals escape, which puts Scamander in the sights of MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) and in particular a recently demoted witch named Porpentina Goldstein (Waterston).

But MACUSA has bigger problems – a dark force is terrorising New York and rumours abound that the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose.

The Potterverse is a marvellous cinematic universe to return to and the franchise is in good hands with Rowling on script duties and Yates, a veteran of the final four Potter films, back in the director’s chair. They’ve acquired a solid cast, led by the Oscar-winning Redmayne.

Comparisons are unavoidable and Fantastic Beasts falls down in that category. Its adventures feel twee in the shadow of the Voldermort vs Potter duel that spanned eight films and embroiled so many excellent characters in a run of increasingly impressive movies. But all things being equal, Fantastic Beasts is a stronger start than Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, which remains easily the runt of the Rowling litter.

On its own Fantastic Beasts is enjoyable, solid entertainment, but is sadly lacking in some key areas. It’s missing a focused villain, with much of the film spent without anything resembling a definite Big Bad, leaving the drama slightly directionless. Instead of having a key antagonist to channel the story, we get diverted by Scamander’s pursuits of his missing magical animals.

Unfortunately the fantastic beasts are the least fantastic part of the film. Lengthy tracts where Scamander and his non-maj (AKA muggle) companion Jacob Kowalski (a pleasantly amusing Fogler) hunt down the missing creatures or hang out with them in Scamander’s menagerie are the most pedestrian sections of the story because there are more interesting things going on in the subplots. When people are dying and dark forces are afoot, it’s hard to get excited about a man’s collection of stick insects, gryphons, and giant dung beetles.

These FX-heavy sequences are also disappointing visually, but outside the green-screen fakeness of Scamander’s zoo (and the CG blizzard of the big finale), the film looks great. The production design of the 1920s helps give the movie a style of its own, while still managing to have the appearance of a Potter film.

Where the movie really succeeds is in its casting. Redmayne is particularly good as the socially inept Scamander, giving him a neat mix of naivety and cleverness. Farrell is also top-notch as the dubious MACUSA director Percival Graves, Waterston makes Porpentina well-rounded and intriguing, while Fogler and Sudol bring some much-needed humour. Miller and Morton are disturbingly good as a couple of anti-magic protesters, and the bit players like Jon Voight and Ron Perlman add plenty of gravitas to small roles. There’s also a surprise cameo at the end for those of you who haven’t had it spoilt yet.

That cameo points to big, exciting things to come and, like the rest of the film, gives the impression that this is just a warm-up – a dip of the toe back into the pool to see if the Potter fans are keen for another swim.

Whatever may come next though, this is a satisfying-enough spin-off and a welcome return to the wizarding world.

Thursday, 10 November 2016


(M) 4.5 out of 5

Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner talk to some strange visitors in Arrival.

HOW many times has the Earth been visited/invaded by aliens?

The answer is “so many we’ve lost count”, and for that reason alone you could be forgiven for switching off at the thought of another cinematic close encounter.

But don’t. Because if you do, you’ll miss not only one of the best films of the year but also one of the best sci-fi films of the decade so far.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story Of Your Life, Arrival explores the ... uh ... arrival of 12 interstellar spaceships (referred to as “shells”) at 12 seemingly random locations around the world.

At the Montana landing, linguist Louise Banks (Adams) and mathematician/physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) are called in to help answer some massive questions, in particular “why are they here?” and “what do they want?”.

Able to enter the shell for short bursts every 18 hours, Banks and Donnelly start to piece together the aliens’ language while the rest of the world nervously teeters on the brink of war.

Alien visitations can go any number of ways in the movies, but Arrival is a spiritual successor to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. These otherworldly events are entirely viewed from the perspective of Banks, who develops a Richard Dreyfuss-like connection with the extra-terrestrials as she attempts to crack their language, allowing the film to have a deeply personal feel amid the decidedly global ramifications of 12 spaceships landing across the planet. This approach eschews large-scale spectacle for a more considered and cerebral tack, but keeps an eye on both the macro and micro storytelling at all times.

It’s Banks’ story that makes this so much more than your average alien invasion film. Adams gives yet another top-shelf performance as the linguist struggling to comprehend an insane puzzle and decode it before the entire world (and she) goes mad.

There are some big ideas at play here. Remember all that crap at the end of Interstellar where the film dove through a blackhole and tried to get clever but failed horribly? This does something similar but actually pulls it off and then some (and without the $200 million budget).

The only downside is it’s slow. Not just languidly paced, but occasionally drawn out – the two hours feels like two-and-a-half. It’s methodical in its approach, as Villeneuve always is (see also Prisoners, Incendies and Sicario) but the film will ride a fine line between tension and frustration for those with short attention spans.

But it’s worth it for a final act that will leave you thinking and weighing up the philosophical implications of what seems to be a tiny facet of the film yet proves to be a mind-blowing centrepoint. There are so many fascinating things about Arrival that will keep you turning it over in your head and the more you think about it, the more impressed you’ll be.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Accountant

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Gavin O’Connor.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow.

DC were already having regrets about their spin-off film Batman Does His Tax.

BEN Affleck has been on a roll in recent years.

He directed an Oscar-winning film (Argo), worked with auteur directors Terrence Malick and David Fincher, was perfect in Gone Girl, and was a great Batman and the best thing about Batman V Superman.

Flush with success, he’s now cherry-picking roles in between directing gigs and suiting up as the Dark Knight.

Case in point is the part of Christian Wolff in The Accountant, which on paper is a knockout – the autistic bookkeeper who’s secretly a cold-blooded killer.

Unfortunately that paper is stapled into a cumbersome script overladen with superfluous subplots and ungainly twists, resulting in an overlong mismatch of ideas surrounding a cool character.

The plot, which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, sees Wolff hired by prosthetics guru Lamar Blackburn (Lithgow) to find the millions of dollars that have been leaking from his company.

For some reason, this puts him in the crosshairs of some cold-blooded killers. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department is closing in on Wolff for his role in “uncooking the books” for a number of nefarious drug cabals and warlords.

The idea of an accountant with high functioning autism who is also a lethal weapon and who jets into international hotspots to do some highly illegal number-crunching for drug lords and terrorists is a tantalising set-up for a film. Sadly, this is not that film. In The Accountant, we see the fallout from Wolff’s career of doing such things, but none of the actual things. While there is still plenty of number-crunching and lethal-weaponing, it’s as a result of a far less interesting plot that’s riddled with as many holes as the foot soldiers Wolff guns down in the climax.

Bill Dubuque’s script is full by good ideas but the result is messy. An entire subplot with Simmons and Addai-Robinson as Treasury Department officers is supposed to be enriching but is ultimately superfluous – all it does is highlight the film’s inability to commit to making Wolff a man with a grey moral code.

Affleck is fine in what is an interesting role, although how much you enjoy the film will hinge on how credible you find the character. Kendrick is shoehorned in as a love interest of sorts, but seems to have wandered in from another movie with her typical “adorkableness” undimmed. She’s almost comic relief, which is much needed but so fleeting that it just leaves Kendrick seeming out of place.

And then there are the twists, which are tricky beasts to wrangle. The Accountant is a good example of this – a couple of plot maneuvres at the film’s end are dead on arrival, but a very minor one right before the credits is a neat touch.

For Affleck fans, this is worthwhile, but beyond that, it's only a sporadically intriguing investment of your time.

Unlike its lead character, The Accountant can’t get all its numbers in a row or balance its books properly.