Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Founder (2016)

Michael Keaton accepts the praise as Founder of the McDonalds Business Empire

Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Richard McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (Maurice McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith), B.J. Novak (Harry J. Sonneborn), Laura Dern (Ethel Kroc), Justin Randell Brooke (Fred Turner), Kate Kneeland (June Martino), Patrick Wilson (Rollie Smith)

McDonalds. The Golden Arches are ubiquitous, not just in America but across the whole world. But how did this happen? How did a small business – just one stand in a small town in America – suddenly become a global monolith? 

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a luckless travelling salesman, selling supplies to drive-in diners. In California he encounters a diner the likes of which he has never seen before: a walk-up restaurant serving high quality food in disposable packaging, instantly. The business is McDonalds, run by brothers Dick (Nick Offernan) and Maurice (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc instantly recognises the potential of the business, and strikes a deal to franchise the formula across America, although the McDonald brothers will maintain control over all changes. Kroc, however, has the drive and ambition the McDonald brothers lack – and he slowly begins to stretch and expand the deal, taking on more and more power. Eventually he will become “The Founder” of the business that bears his original partners’ names.

What’s interesting about The Founder is that it has a certain element of wanting to have its cake and eat it. It’s simultaneously a semi-celebration of American entrepreneurship and a condemnation of big business crushing the little guy. This sounds like it should make for a confusing film but actually it kinda works. It fits the complex world of major business successes – someone like Kroc had the skills and the ruthlessness to actually make McDonalds into a global super-company in a way the McDonald brothers never did. At the same time, Kroc is clearly incapable of creating anything himself (even most of his business-building ideas come from other people) and the McDonald brothers have the real “American” entrepreneurial invention to create something new.

So the film becomes an engaging story of how businesses grow and develop, which largely manages to remove Hollywood sentiment from the equation. Kroc isn’t exactly a hero – he’s selfish, ruthless and places himself first constantly – but he’s not exactly a villain either. He’s a downtrodden striver, who has too continually push to be accepted by those who look down on him. He has a sense of loyalty and love for his brand – even while he begins to shut the McDonald brothers out of their own business. Similarly the McDonald brothers have a homespun honesty to them, but they are also naïve and unrealistic in their demands and desires for the business. 

The film relies a lot for its success on Keaton’s slightly tragic desperation in the lead role, his yearning to improve and better himself. The first half of the movie shows his charm but also demonstrates his business acumen, his genius in recognising that what the McDonald brothers have invented could work on a huge scale. He’s hard-working and initially luckless, and the snobbish knock-backs he receives from banks and investors when peddling an idea get us on his side – after all we know it’ll be worth billions. It’s a Capraesque spin: he’s the little guy bucking against the system who becomes the very monolithic monsterous system himself. We can’t even be certain where we see the flip.

What becomes clear is that Kroc himself is somehow empty, somehow slightly devoid of depth, a man able to move smoothly from concept to concept with no lingering sense of guilt. He discards the McDonald brothers (after copyrighting their name) with as much calmness as he drops his wife (Laura Dern, in a thankless part as The Loyal Wife). Despite this though, the film never brings itself to condemn Kroc. It's a little in love with the chutzpah of Kroc’s success and his persistent positivism, while seeing those he has had to drop on the way as tragic victims of the monolithic American business success Kroc has created.

We are invited to have similar sympathetic feelings about the hapless McDonald brothers: innocents in a world of business, able to create something that can change the world but hopelessly incapable of translating it into the type of scale that it could achieve. The film doesn’t forget that the McDonald brothers are the victims here, and Offerman and Lynch are both superb as two brothers with a deep personal bond and a love for their business and each other. But it also partly follows Kroc’s line – these two do not have the vision and ambition to take their idea to the next level. They are innovators but they are small-scale ones. The film daringly doesn’t just take their side as the little guys crushed by the system; it also allows itself to consider if they to a certain extent failed themselves. They never learn either, accepting Kroc’s handshake agreement for future royalties at the end of the film, an agreement we are all too aware even when it is happening will probably never be met.

The film has a certain love for the Americana of McDonalds and fast food joints, and it’s both an advert for the triumph of the business (the customers are all uniformly happy, and the ordinary employees in Kroc’s empire are all wonderfully warm) and a sad testament to the small businessman being swept aside by the big company. It’s quite a feat for the film to manage both at the same time and remain coherent. It’s both an advert for and attack on McDonalds, but it holds both these ideas simultaneously at the same time really well. Well worth a watch.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Ant-Man (2015)

Paul Rudd springs into action as Ant-Man

Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stall (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Michael Peña (Luis), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Judy Greer (Maggie), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), John Slattery (Howard Stark)

Back into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, as yet another comic book hero comes to the big screen. Is there going to be anyone who has appeared in a Marvel comic at any point who isn’t going to find their way into a live action film at some point? It’s looking unlikely! 

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was formerly Ant-Man, a super-hero who can shrink himself to the size of an ant, with superhuman strength. In the present, he has been forced out of his own company by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). When newly released thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), desperate to provide for his daughter, steals Pym’s Ant-Man suit, Pym identifies him as the man who he can train up to take his place as Ant-Man and help to protect the shrinking technology from being misused by Cross. 

Ant-Man was a project developed for many years by Edgar Wright, dynamic director of the Cornetto Trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But our old friend Creative Differences reared its head, and studio and director went their separate ways. Which is a real shame as you can’t shake the feeling a director with genuine invention and imagination might have been able to craft something truly original out of this, rather than the essentially solid piece of craftwork it is. 

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Ant-Man. It’s just a rather average, forgettable film with moments of interest. It’s a jolly, inoffensive little caper, which goes through the motions of the origins story of a hero without offering anything that different from what we’ve seen dozens of times before now. It’s all very professionally done, and even witty in places, but it’s nothing special.

This is particularly a shame since there are genuine moments of originality. A battle between Lang and Cross, both shrunken, takes place in a child’s train set, with the film cutting between the different scales of events for some effective comic impact (so we see the train crash with seismic impact on small scale, then see the same event at normal scale where it seems laughably minor). Similarly, Michael Peña’s character tells a series of anecdotal stories in voiceover in a laid back, hipster patter, with his words and phrasing exactly lip-synched by the people in the story. It’s a neat little piece of cinematic invention. 

The heist structure of the film is good fun, and the pseudo-science of shrinking is entertainingly (and consistently) explained. Even our hero’s ability to control ants doesn’t seem too silly (which is really saying something). 

It’s just all pretty much what you would expect. Corey Stoll’s villain in particular seems a slightly contrived after-thought, an antagonist whose existence serves as a contrast to Lang and Pym rather than a character who seems to be organically developed. Their final confrontation is amusingly done – but it’s a familiar Marvel trope now: a hero and villain with the same powers facing off. We’ve seen it done many times since the first Iron Man film.

Saying that, Paul Rudd is a decent and engaging lead (even though he seems to be effectively playing himself) and he makes Lang into a character it’s easy to root for (even if we’ve seen the sort of “Dad wants to prove himself” narrative many, many times before). Michael Douglas could do his mentor role standing on his head, but brings the role a nice lightness of touch. Evangeline Lilly brings a nice mix of resentful and caring to a tricky role as Pym’s overlooked daughter.

The problem you always have is that everything in the film feels a little bit too straight-forward and easy. It’s not a bad thing that this is a film that simply sets out to entertain, but somehow, enjoyable as it is, you want something a little bit more rather than the rather safe concoction that we have here. It’s fun while it lasts but then it disappears from your mind almost completely once it’s finished. Is that a good thing? Well it makes good escapism. But plenty of these films have managed to be more than just something to enjoyably pass the time. Which is all Ant-Man really is.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead are three ordinary soldiers trying to get home in Christopher Nolan's epic Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter Dawson), Jack Lowden (Collins), Harry Styles (Alex), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George Mills), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Mark Rylance (Mr Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier)

“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.” -          Winston Churchill

The evacuation of Dunkirk is a very British triumph. Beaten and encircled by the Germans, British forces were stranded in a small pocket around Dunkirk. The country looked certain to lose almost 400,000 men to death or imprisonment – the core of its professional army. The fact that almost 340,000 soldiers were evacuated was more than a triumph: it was almost a miracle. Christopher Nolan’s epic new film brings the triumph and adversity of this campaign to the big screen.

The action unfolds over a week around the evacuation of Dunkirk. On the beach Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) are desperate to escape the chaos on the beach, where the evacuation is being managed from the one standing pier by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). On the sea, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Tom (Peter Dawson) head to Dunkirk in their small pleasure boat to help with the evacuation, picking up a traumatised soldier on the way (Cillian Murphy). In the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) fly a one-hour mission over Dunkirk to provide air support to the stranded soldiers.

As a director, Nolan’s calling cards are playing with narrative forms and timelines, while allowing personal stories play out on extremely grand canvases. Dunkirk feels like a summation of some kind of his career: its multi-layered timelines are gracefully and intelligently threaded together, and while the canvas is enormous, the human stories don’t get lost. The human interest running through the film is particularly impressive, as there is so little dialogue. It’s pretty close to “experience cinema” – it throws the audience into an immersive explosion of events, giving as much of an impression as it’s possible to give of the claustrophobia, tension and terror of being trapped on that beach.

The film-making is impeccable in creating this overbearing feeling. Hans Zimmer’s score thunders over the film, bearing down with a constant pressure and making excellent use of metronome ticking to keep hammering home the time pressure. Nolan brilliantly inverts scale in his filming to create a sense of claustrophobia – we constantly see sweeping shots of but the scale of our surroundings only forces home the seeming impossibility of what the British are trying to do. Individual soldiers seem tiny – how can one man possibly have a chance of escaping? It’s a brilliant mixture of sound and imagery to make the large seem small, the epic seem entrapping. 

What Nolan does really well in this grand scale is to create a series of “ordinary soldier” characters. Despite the fact that we learn virtually nothing about them, these characters feel human and desperate. Again, they are such small, ordinary Everyman cogs in the giant machine of the army, that they become hugely relatable. It’s a hugely neat trick by Nolan, another brilliant inversion – just as he turns epic to claustrophobic, he turns ciphers into characters.

Recognising the need for balance between the overbearing impact of the Dunkirk beach sequences, the film allows a mix of story-telling and character types in its other two plotlines. So Mark Rylance’s boat captain voices much of the film’s humanitarianism, in a sequence that plays like a chamber piece – four people discussing duty and the impact of war in a confined space. Meanwhile Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot carries more of the traditional “war film” man-on-a-mission dynamics, engaging in a series of dog fights in the sky. Interweaving these stories offers not only relief to the audience, but also narrative contrast.

The interwoven storylines are also brilliantly done since they all take place in very different timespans. The plot at “the Mole” takes place over a week, “the sea” in one day, and “the sky” in one hour. Each of these timelines interlocks and unfolds in the film simultaneously, and characters move at points from one timeline to another. 

Okay, writing it down, it sounds impossibly confusing and difficult to follow right? Who could keep track of all that? But the film is so brilliantly assembled that it always make perfect sense. Nolan uses several key markers – a boat, the fate of certain characters – to constantly allow us to see where we are in the story’s timeline. So we understand when we have moved from one timeline to another when we see a ship still on the beach that we’ve seen sinking elsewhere. This also increases the tension – we know at points what will happen before the characters do, because we’ve already seen the after-effects. Again, put it into words it sounds wanky and difficult to follow, but it really isn’t – and the film is put together with such confidence that it never feels the need to show off its narrative gymnastics. Nolan is confident enough to be clever without drawing our attention to it – a very difficult trick to pull off.

All this forceful story telling never prevents the story from also being at many points immensely moving and stirring. The arrival of the boats at Dunkirk is a genuine “lump in the throat” moment. The simple decency of Rylance’s boat captain gives a low-key impression of a very British sort of heroism, of quietly doing one’s duty while valuing every life and wearing your own grief lightly. 

The film’s more action-based sequences are equally stirring and moving, because Nolan brilliantly establishes character with only a few brief notes. It’s made clear early on that Hardy’s pilot has only a limited fuel supply: every second he stays above Dunkirk protecting the men and ships below, he reduces his chances of getting home. It’s another sort of heroic self-sacrifice, and in a film that generally doesn’t shy away from showing the deadly consequences of war, Nolan is happy to give us some more traditional, fist-pumping heroics. 

Nolan gets the maximum emotion from the more dialogue-heavy parts by hiring some terrific actors: Rylance, as mentioned is superb, and Cillian Murphy is very good as a shell shocked captain. Kenneth Branagh is perfect for conveying the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of the naval commander in charge of the evacuation. And elsewhere, Whitehead, Bernard and Styles all invest their ordinary Tommies with a great deal of emotion and empathy.

Dunkirk is a marvel of cinematic technique and accomplishment, which brings enough moral and emotional force to the drama to keep you engaged in the plights of its characters. You can marvel at the film making tour-de-force of its executions, but you never feel disengaged from it. It’s a marvellous film.