Tag Archives | 2016 movies

Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Neither as light nor as outrageous as it looks or might have been, the New Zealand-based Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which I watched on Apple TV over the weekend, thoroughly entertains. Recommended by writer and director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, this small film is the perfect pick-me-up. The movie’s directed by actor and Wellington, New Zealander Taika Waititi and based upon the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump.

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The setting is an older couple’s farm in New Zealand on the edge of the bush country. Seasoned Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has certain ideas about fostering a child, but the tough old farmer’s getting on and wants to get down to business, so she takes in an obese, troubled boy named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). She’s a no-nonsense guardian and caregiver, which the criminally inclined and intelligent child figures out and takes kindly to, so Ricky stays put without much fuss. For the first time in his life, he feels wanted, nourished and loved.

The story’s told with a literary flair, which suits the material neatly, because a sudden change in circumstances puts Ricky in barely plausible cahoots with Bella’s husband Hector (the always excellent Sam Neill, who is superb in these types of roles), an illiterate curmudgeon. Both husband and wife have a crusty old dog and know how to hunt with their bare hands, which shocks the portly pre-teen into a sudden alertness that both feeds the movie’s winking charm and gently, pleasantly plays against stereotypes.

As husband and foster child team against a power-lusting child welfare bureaucrat on their tails, with half the island’s police pursuing them across bush country, Ricky and Hector become fugitives by default and good humor ensues. The kid’s physicality and a quietly assimilationist subtext combine with stunning nature photography and storybook structuring to make Hunt for the Wilderpeople an enjoyably warm, man-boy adventure tale. To say more would spoil its charm, twists and innocence. But there’s enough wit and knowing brightness without sugaring the fairy tale sensibility too much to dramatize its theme that the wild and damaged soul can be tamed and soothed with knowledge, poetry and self-healing choices. Happily, color, cheerfulness and danger abounds.

‘Hidden Figures’ on Home Video

The movie almost everyone loves, last year’s popular Hidden Fgures, debuts on home video today.

When I saw it last year, I enjoyed it so much that I thought maybe I may have missed something; that it might have been too polished for me to notice any shortcomings. So I asked for a second screening, which is something I rarely do and only in an extreme effort to be objective. I liked it better on a second viewing, even as I became more aware of its flaws, such as some overacting.

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Why is this Oscar-nominated movie so universally well liked by audiences? I think it’s because, like any serious, goal-driven project, Hidden Figures keeps perspective and keeps its topic rooted in reality. So, while the story of three individuals of ability, who happen to be Negro women at a time when blacks and women were prejudged and unjustly treated, takes injustice seriously, the movie co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) also takes its higher aim seriously: to depict the achievement of excellence. The women’s accomplishments were not overdramatized; they were properly depicted as an important and integral part of a whole which led to an act of outstanding, and uniquely, inextricably American, progress.

The struggle was portrayed with realism, not sugarcoated or diminished. But so, too, the byproduct of the ladies’ productiveness was depicted and Melfi and company did so without minimizing the achievements of the NASA (actually, pre-NASA) engineers, scientists and astronauts. Too often, movies about overcoming adversity and injustice oversimplify facts, drop context and present a false dichotomy, lacking in depth and nuance. Hidden Figures, whatever its limitations, dramatizes the hard work of real progress, social and scientific, the simplicity of being appreciated for one’s ability and the power of unifying to achieve a grand and noble goal.

This is a rare and desperately needed depiction, and, sometimes, these points are obscured or lost in press tours, but that’s what makes this upbeat, uplifting movie appealing—it shows everyone that being one’s best is the perfect defense of every persecuted individual, especially the persecuted person of ability. I’ve added my exclusive interview with the film’s director, Ted Melfi, to the archive. Read the interview, read my review of Hidden Figures and buy the movie.


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Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures

Oscars So Blank

For years now, I’ve maintained that the Academy Awards are overdone, overplayed and overestimated as a commercial or cultural barometer. Last night, host Jimmy Kimmel summed up the fading luster in a single line after the show’s worst display of ineptitude in Oscar’s history. After the wrong winner was announced, Kimmel jokingly blamed the host of another TV awards telecast—known for announcing the wrong winner at a beauty pageant—as the Oscars ended in confusion, not exactly celebration. Despite gracious statements and commentary by various filmmakers and TV hosts, the fiasco capped the Oscars’ increasing irrelevance, which represents the growing American cultural disunity. First-time host Kimmel’s comment comparing the once grand and glamorous Academy Awards to a beauty pageant striving to retain an audience miniaturized an already minimized Academy Awards.

The bigger they’ve become in coverage—with a red carpet that’s wider than ever—the smaller the Oscars became. The culture is saturated with awards and chatter about awards and, while movies that get nominated and win Oscars see a spike in box office receipts, the Oscars barely have relevance to most people’s daily lives, even in the most superficial sense. This is unfortunate, as far as I’m concerned, because movies are getting deeper, more interesting and better in some respects and people need both glamorous, larger-than-life escapism and thought-provoking films more than ever, especially as the middle class is decimated and vanishes. Dropping candy and other tricks, such as duping tourists and taking so-called selfies, only underscores the smallness of the ceremonies.

The real cause of the Oscars blankout is its creeping egalitarianism. Audiences used to tune into masters of ceremonies Bob Hope, Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal in Santa Monica, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Hollywood to see movie stars with elegance and ability at their best in a night of galas and celebration of the world’s finest movies. The Academy Awards were an unabashed toast to the best in motion pictures. But they were predicated on the idea that there could, in fact, be a best picture. Today’s Academy Awards are led by a president who instituted a discriminatory new system to impose a certain type of pre-ordained “diversity”, an idea based on multiculturalism, a notion that all cultures are equal. This egalitarian ideal sets the standard as the color of one’s skin, or sex or sexual orientation, as against the quality of the movie, performance or direction. So, no one should be surprised that the Cheryl Boone Isaacs “diversity” campaign against old and white Academy members has sparked an annual accounting of nominees and winners primarily on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation.

This is not to say that irrational discrimination against blacks, women and gays does not exist in Hollywood. These are loaded, complicated and difficult problems to address. They are not solved by contests between works of art or manipulations of membership based on age, race, sex, sexuality or other factors. They are solved, as the inspiring Hidden Figures and the thoughtful and Oscar-ignored Sully, Loving and Snowden dramatize, through activism, discourse, challenging the status quo and, above all, as each of those movies demonstrates, by being one’s best.

By replacing the Oscars as a selection by members of the best works in movies with the most diverse works in movies, the Isaacs-era Academy and its orthodoxy make the Academy Awards less enjoyable. It’s not just that heavy-handed speeches by millionaires to the masses amid perpetual insider jokes and self-centered congratulations wear thin at a time of post-2008 discord, economic hardship and disunity over complex, confusing flashpoints such as unisex toilets, denunciations of police and whether health care is a right and everyone should be forced by the government to “buy” health insurance at rates and terms dictated by the state. For a moviegoing public beleaguered by nonstop Islamic terrorist attacks—in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, California, Massachusetts—and a radically restructured government now controlling the people with mass, indiscriminate surveillance and mandatory health plans and travel restrictions, the fixation on race and sex during the Oscars telecast—whether scrutiny on those grounds is warranted or not—takes some of the fun out of the Academy Awards. This fatigue, in turn, may lead to vulgar Oscar shows fixated on women’s breasts and other displays of political incorrectness.

So, I think it’s a cycle that spirals downward; the worse the culture, the more churchy the Oscars become and the reverse is true, too. Fatigue sets in for everyone and, I suspect, what almost everyone loves about the Oscars—the glamor and grandeur in toasting the best in movies—slowly, sadly whimpers to an end. Though last night’s show featured outstanding moments, including an eloquent and passionate argument for art by Oscar winner Viola Davis (Fences) and Sara Bareilles’ flawless and moving rendition of “Both Sides Now” in memoriam for those who’ve died, the Oscar fiasco exemplifies the cycle and fatigue. Whichever movie you wanted to win—the romantic, realistic homage to making your life a work of art La La Land or the bleak, stylized warning that life grants one brief moment under Moonlight—announcing the wrong Best Picture winner (Moonlight is the winner, according to the Academy) brought the cycle, fatigue and self-congrats to an abrupt and muddled conclusion. Through no fault of Moonlight‘s or La La Lands or presenters Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway, last night’s awards show ended in apology, confusion and comparison to a beauty contest. That the Academy left the question of whose picture is best to its presenter, host and false and true winners to figure out is an example of what happens when being the best—and getting who’s best right—matters less than which favored collective gets more power in reaching that outcome.

Movie Review: The Founder

An interesting if unsatisfying character drama contains an original if unfulfilled theme in The Founder with Michael Keaton (Birdman) as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

What makes Kroc the founder, a debatable assertion by this account, is the movie’s focus. What leaves the meaning unclear is the way director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) dodges and hedges. This is utimately why The Founder, which could have been a powerhouse 2016 movie, peters out. Yet what a promising start, with sunny skies and nothing but an ambitiously idealistic adult driven to make money—and a movie about an ‘overnight’ success who’s over the age of 50 (like Col. Sanders or Judi Dench) is long overdue. This is the blank canvas of The Founder, sketching an open market in which demand for fast, simple and delicious food meets the grit of a seasoned salesman from suburban Chicago. The insights in the first two-thirds of the film—about the exhaustive work of thinking about, finding, studying, funding and cultivating a good idea with steely, feisty enthusiasm—are penetrating. The Founder in these stretches is a near-complete depiction of the money-making man in action, from enduring the vacancy and sameness of a carhop joint in Chesterfield, Missouri, to tapping the vitality and excitement of an enterprise out West.

The film’s regionalism and realism are its finest attributes.

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As with La La Land, Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel, powered by Keaton’s performance, let this business-themed movie capture the Southern California (and, broadly, Western) ethos of self-made Americanism matched by Midwestern work ethic. You’ll never think of San Bernardino, a poor area of metropolitan LA recently known for an Islamic terrorist attack by jihadists known to the FBI, the same way again. Depending on which competing version you believe in this back and forth dramatization of a business partnership gone bad, the story of McDonald’s and its rise to fast food success is at once sobering and invigorating. Saddled with a wife (Laura Dern, pointed as always) whose support is tepid, important and strictly secondhand, Keaton’s Kroc contemplates and extrapolates the McDonald brothers’ trial and error tale of tennis court choreography, which took them from New Hampshire through Columbia Pictures, the crash of 1929 and the San Gabriel Valley to a perfect process. The brothers see the San Bernardino hamburger stand as the end of the road.

Through the burgeoning positive thinking self-improvement movement stressing persistence and endless shots of Canadian Club whisky, milkshake machine vendor Kroc sees dollar signs in McDonald’s. Kroc pushes and pushes the homespun brothers McDonald all the way to Des Plaines, Illinois (incidentally, where I first tasted and occasionally ate at Kroc’s first McDonald’s). Kroc investigates, shapes and defines a business partnership they can’t refuse. When the contract goes to signatures, like the hustler in this week’s other take on capitalism, Gold, no one but Kroc thinks the fast food process can be properly balanced and scaled. And it’s important to note that they have legitimate gripes, concerns and grievances. Later, one person does see potential with equal vigor (Linda Cardellini as Joan) but Kroc’s own country club wife in Arlington Heights asks: “When’s enough going to be enough?”

Rather than respond with religious verses, slogans and bromides about charity and humility, Kroc thinks, pauses and replies: “Probably never.” Up go the golden arches and wide go Kroc’s tired, hardworking eyes when he sets his sights upon his sacred temple for the first time, looking upward through a windshield in the movie’s best scene—it is his vision by any honest account of what that means—and, with symbols such as covered wagons and Kroc drawing spiritual strength from Kazan’s On the Waterfront, big business McDonald’s is finally born. How it’s done, how it’s earned, how it’s built on whisky and ruthlessness, from Kroc’s cheerful “Let’s get to work, boys” to inclusive recruitment of blacks, Jews and women, is inspiring. The brothers may denounce what they call Kroc’s “crass commercialism”, and The Founder goes limp on Kroc’s character, portraying him as dishonest in spite of contradictions. Whatever his flaws, if name and title can be earned, and they can, Ray Kroc deserves the movie’s title. To a certain extent, The Founder, thanks to Michael Keaton, driving the movie with a spot-on portrayal of an unpretentiously self-made man, shows the businessman who made McDonald’s. Decide for yourself whether Kroc stole, seized or started this amazing enterprise, which revolutionized the business of food, up from scratch.

Movie Review: Gold (2016)

“We were a real business.” This line begins Gold starring Matthew McConaughey in an absorbing movie about getting what you want, preferably in gold. It’s an inviting opener that echoes that Stacy Keach-narrated cable show about cutthroat businessmen doing anything for a dollar (in fact, Keach (Truth) is in this movie, too). But it’s best to take this film (and that cable show) with a lot of doubt because, while the business depicted in Gold is rooted in something that’s real, the business was in Canada.

Where the incredible enterprise, known here as Washoe Mining, was located is distinctive to the plot of Gold. McConaughey’s speculator downs cigarettes with his Seagram’s and Pabst Blue Ribbon but he does it all in a quest to please and achieve the status of his dad (Craig T. Nelson), a larger than life businessman in Reno, Nevada, where the streets aren’t paved in gold but they’re named after McConaughey’s pap. As he did in similar roles in Mud and Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey grasps, captures and expresses his spiraling character’s tension and nerve to find, mine and scheme to get rich. In fast cuts and rarely without McConaughey’s boozy sweat, paunch and crooked teeth in sight, Gold asks ‘where are we going?’ broadly brushing any hint of ‘why?’ when it comes to the ways and means of making money.

Except for his loyal, live-in barmaid (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a fellow speculator (perfectly cast Edgar Ramirez) in South Asia, nobody really thinks that McConaughey’s con man has the goods until they find out he’s struck it rich, after all, and this makes everyone suspect and puts McConaughey’s tobacco-stained, Iron Maiden t-shirt clad slob, who goes from dancin’ in a jungle to dancin’ in a bar, under a kind of halo. As the rollicking ride by credit card financing racks up miles on his Cadillac, tempting or taunting him with a golddigger, the feds, a tiger, malaria and a military takeover, for a few wild scenes it seems like the con man with a heart of gold might wind up, and deserve to end up, on top of the world. With a con man in the White House, a new take on the case of D.B. Cooper and fast-talking hustlers everywhere you go, this forewarning tale of due diligence delivers more of a nifty trick than the clever wink at giving believers what they might have coming, and it’s easy to pick Gold apart, but, like a seedier variation on The Sting (1973), it’s fun to watch the final play, even if what’s “inspired by true events” is ultimately overplayed.