“The Founder”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The story of the real McDonald’s brothers and how door-to-door salesman Ray Kroc creatively swindled them out of their rightful share of the McDonald’s franchise fortune is the focus of “The Founder,” a fascinating true tale about the building of an American fast food empire. What starts off as a retro-looking commercial celebrating McDonald’s later takes a darker turn with the realization that Ray Croc (Michael Keaton), while a savvy businessman, wasn’t a very nice person. In fact, he was a first class jerk.

Kroc was a nasty yet shrewd hustler, a man with a “me first” business sense that helped him steal and build a worldwide brand. It’s not that Kroc was particularly smart, but he was a savvy, cutthroat, persistent opportunist who paid attention to those around him and had no qualms about stepping on the little guy if it could work in his best interest. He’s the man you love to hate, but can you really blame him for recognizing an easy opportunity and seizing on it?  If nothing else, this film serves as a warning of what not to do when you’re making business deals. Kroc cheated the McDonald’s brothers (enjoyable performances from both Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) out of their “handshake deal” to give them 1% of all sales (in what would amount to $100 million per year). As tasty as those crispy fries are, knowing the background story leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

And that’s where this movie really fails — in its contradictions. At first it’s a love fest for the fast food restaurant but then morphs into something different: “Yay, McDonald’s!” turns to “Boo, McDonald’s!” At first it left me craving a burger but by the end, it made me feel like boycotting the restaurant forever. It’s not exactly a comedy but it’s not exactly a drama either.

The McDonald’s franchise story is interesting and one that is extremely important to the history of American business, but the movie overall comes across as far too bland and pedestrian. As is a problem with most biopics, the actors are laser focused on getting the mannerisms of their real-life counterparts so perfect that they become trapped within their roles, becoming a restrained impersonator rather than a gusty performer. Keaton sleepwalks through the role to the point where it feels like he’s doing a cheap imitation of Croc rather than something new and interesting.

While I didn’t love the film, it’s well crafted, well photographed, and well written in a clear, concise and straightforward way. But with such a compelling story, I just wish it had been so much more.

“Rings”

MATT: 2 STARS


MATT SAYS:

It’s been more than ten years since we’ve seen Samara (Bonnie Morgan), the creepy girl that will kill anyone who watches the videotape that she inhabits. We’ve moved into the world of YouTube and social media, when a video can be copied and shared worldwide in a matter of moments. What kind of destruction would Samara cause if she was unleashed in the modern world of instant shares?

An interesting and timely question, to be sure. Unfortunately, it’s barely even touched upon in “Rings,” the newest sequel to a movie no one really cared very much about in the first place.

“Rings” finds us on a college campus in Washington, where charismatic professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) happens upon a copy of the Samara video and uses it to inspire a legion of student-followers to academically explore the nature of life after death. Holt (Alex Roe) is a new student who has been swept up in the Samara study and, as a result, is marked for death. He unwittingly drags in his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz), who watches the video and herself becomes targeted by Samara. But strangely, Julia’s version of the Samara video is different from everyone else’s, and Julia becomes obsessed with unlocking the reason why. She and Holt take a road trip to the small town where Samara lived and died in an attempt to lift the curse and break the cycle.

There’s an interesting story in “Rings,” but before we get there we have to sit through a full hour of poorly-acted melodrama. Sure, we see a couple of effects-driven sequences where Samara kills her victims, but nothing worth watching actually happens until Julia and Holt arrive in Samara’s home town. There, the couple meets mysterious blind man Burke (Vincent D’Onofrio) and several other townspeople who clearly want to keep Samara’s memory in the past and have something to hide. That’s where the meat of the movie lies, when we learn more about Samara’s tragic past and what drives her spirit.

When you have to suffer through a full hour of movie before it starts to actually get compelling it’s a failure in my book. But still, it’s not a complete disaster.


Louisa was unavailable for review.

“John Wick: Chapter 2”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS MATT: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If you’re looking for a super bloody bloodbath of bullet riddled violence, “John Wick: Chapter 2” isn’t going to disappoint. This testosterone-fueled, slightly reheated sequel to 2014’s grossly underrated revenge thriller “John Wick” is repetitive, noisy and lacks more than just the most basic of plots — but it’s still a winner as far as action films go.

Keanu Reeves is back as the title character, a legendary hit man who is once again forced out of retirement by a fellow member of an underground assassins’ guild. He’s bound by a blood oath to murder the mark but when he finishes the task, he finds himself with a price on his own head and a legion of professional killers vying to collect the bounty.

This is when we start to get assaulted with a nonstop rampage of violence and action, as Wick fights and shoots and kickboxes and stabs his way through baddie after baddie (including the welcome addition of Common as a tough and worthy adversary). Wick fights them on a train. He fights them on the streets of New York. He fights them on the rooftops of Rome. He fights them in the bathroom, at the office, in the middle of the park.

Luckily, director Chad Stahelski has a great eye for visually orchestrating action set pieces with breathtaking agility, keeping them reliably tight and interesting. What a pleasure to see confidently directed action scenes where you can actually tell what’s going on! Stahelski takes his time and lets the camera casually follow every bloodstained blow, every punch to the throat, every knife to the groin, and every pencil through the brain. It’s a beautiful slow dance of brutality.

The cinematography (by DP Dan Laustsen) is once again slick and glossy with a gorgeous opening car and motorcycle chase that features some stunning, applause-worthy stunt driving. The film is bright and polished with vivid pops of color. It looks damn amazing.

This sequel isn’t destined to be a classic, but it sure is satisfying on so many levels.

MATT SAYS:

“John Wick” was one of my favorite movies of 2014. A balls-to-the-wall revenge pic, it is easily one of the best action movies of the last 10 years, second only to both of the “Raid” movies and “Max Max: Fury Road.” “John Wick” was a breath of fresh air in American action cinema because it avoided the lazy man’s approach to modern action films, which involves fast-cutting sequences that make it difficult for the audience to tell what is happening, where.

But it wasn’t the action sequences alone that made “John Wick” a cut above; it was the story: a simple tale of revenge by John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a man of singular purpose and will killing all of the bad guys that wronged him. Sure, there were some interesting subplots (the most compelling one involving the Hotel Continental, a place catering to career criminals with its own code and sense of justice), but they didn’t get in the way of good, clean storytelling.

The problem with “John Wick: Chapter 2” is that it did get in its own way. Instead of telling a simple story involving characters with motives that are easy to understand, the sequel chose to up the plot complexity by a factor of ten. “JW2” delves deeply into the world of organized crime and its internal politics and rules. Instead of teasing interesting settings and places with a bare outline of detail, “JW2” has to explain everything. As a result, in the midst of the action we’re taught about criminal high councils and their internal politics; a shadowy underworld where homeless people are actually ruthless killers who rule the streets; a marker system where debts are owed and must be paid, with severe consequences for those who refuse to make good on them; and way too much detail about the aforementioned Hotel Continental. These details distract from the narrative and prevent the movie from reaching the level of greatness enjoyed by its predecessor.

Don’t get me wrong, however: I still liked it. True to the first film, the movie avoided fast-cutting. While some of the action sequences were a little too long and drawn out, they were still better than 98% modern Hollywood action fare. “JW2” introduced a compelling new adversary for Wick in the form of Cassian (Common), an assassin with skills and background to rival his own. And for all of the needless narrative, there were some highly inventive sequences that either showed me things I’ve never seen before (Cassian and Wick trying to kill one another in a crowded subway station), or improved upon classic ones (like a new take on a fight in a hall of mirrors). These scenes alone were well worth the price of admission, as was the opportunity to revisit some of the great characters we saw in the first film.

Did it leave me wanting more? Hell yes. But was it also a little disappointing? Also yes. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.

DVD Roundup: March

Want to know which movies we recommend and which movies you should skip? Check out our newest feature, the DVD Roundup. Each month we’ll be posting a handy review recap of movies that will be released for home viewing. Simply click on the film’s title to read our original reviews and to see the star rating for each movie. Movies that we split on will have the star ratings averaged to find the appropriate category. All films below have scheduled DVD release dates from March 1 – March 31, 2017.

Highly Recommended

Worthy Rentals

 You Can Do Better

Skip It

Save

“Collide”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I want to slap the person who decided Felicity Jones should be a movie star. She is, without question, one of the most annoying and overrated actors working today. And once again she is miscast as a bleached-blonde American love interest in “Collide,” a movie that I guarantee you’ve never heard of and one that you could watch and not remember having seen a month later. It’s not wholly awful, it’s far from unwatchable, but it’s completely forgettable.

This amounts to little more than a low rent action movie with a repetitive, unoriginal plot. You’ll get plenty of deja vu that you’ve seen this movie before — and you’ve most definitely seen a better version of the same film before. It’s a classic heist story with zero originality or spunk. Casey (Nicholas Hoult) gets involved with some very bad people after he robs a truck belonging to a drug trafficker and mob boss (Anthony Hopkins). When his girlfriend Juliette (Jones) is threatened and in danger, he calls on his former drug smuggling boss (Ben Kingsley) for help protecting her. Yawn.

The film is an obvious wannabe homage to the classic movie “True Romance,” with more than a few borrowed ideas and lines. It comes across as a cheap imitator at times (Jones wears a blonde Alabama -style wig, there are certain scenes framed in the exact same style, and there’s even some similar dialogue). This movie serves as a pertinent reminder to never copy a true cinematic original (or risk the fallout of an unfavorable comparison).

As a car enthusiast, I wanted to enjoy many of the car chase scenes but because of the way the action pieces were choppily edited, I couldn’t tell what the heck was going on. When you have gorgeous, sleek cars speed racing through the German Autobahn with fantastic and skilled stunt driving, slow the camera down so I can enjoy and appreciate the action. This is just one of the many failures of this poorly directed film.

Another major distraction is the bizarre, head-scratching, cartoonish performance from Kinglsey and the unusually hammy turn from Hopkins (both not exactly miscast as two unlikely rival gangsters, but both over the top in their portrayals). Jones displays the worst American accent you have ever heard in your life (but it’s important to the plot that her character is American and not British). Hoult is as bland as ever, and their whirlwind romance so unbelievable that you’ll question the main character’s motivation in the first place.

The first 30 minutes of “Collide” are so bad, with the director (Eran Creevy) trying so desperately to make an “artsy” style film, that it’s painful to sit through (I actually contemplated walking out). I’m glad I decided to stay because while the film isn’t memorable, it’s not really that terrible. It is, however, a textbook example of a junk movie that studios choose to dump into theaters to fill the dead zone of February.

“The Great Wall”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I know you won’t believe it, but “The Great Wall” is actually quite enjoyable. Most people, including me, really wanted to hate on this movie — but I simply can’t because it’s really, really good looking (and a whole lot of fun). I’ve seen thousands of movies over the years and it’s amazing when one can surprise, entertain and excite me like this one did, especially when I went in with zero expectations. This is a visually stunning period fantasy / action film done right, and it’s directed in the most spectacular fashion by Yimou Zhang.

Matt Damon is horribly miscast as a European mercenary in China who finds himself at the center of a defensive battle to protect the Great Wall from a vicious army of mythological dragon-like creatures. The film is not particularly well written but the action is crazy inventive and creative, and I appreciate that the story is quickly paced and gets right to the point. There’s not too much backstory at all, and the spectacular battle sequences start quickly and swiftly.

The sheer scale of the pageantry on display here is an impressive, dazzling spectacle, from the truly first-class special effects to the exciting, action-packed staging of the gorgeously executed battle scenes. The inventive action scenes manage to remain loyal (and make total sense) to the historical time period in which the film is based. The imaginative costumes are strikingly beautiful and the drum-heavy native original score is terrifically memorable. The film is rumored to have had an astronomically high three-figure budget, and it shows.

This movie is a ton of fun and I can’t believe I am saying this, but make sure you shell out the extra bucks to see it in 3D. It’s more than worth it for the thrills from watching flaming arrows and fanged killer lizards practically leaping off the screen and into your lap.

I dreaded having to review this film, but I loved it.

“Rock Dog”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Rock Dog” is an animated film that’s perfect for older kids (ages 8 – 12), especially those who are musically inclined or play an instrument. While this sweet natured movie isn’t going to change the world or even be remembered years later, it is better than it should be on all accounts.

The film is set high in the snowy mountains of Tibet, where Mastiff pup Bodi (Luke Wilson) lives with his father Khampa (J.K. Simmons). The dogs are responsible for protecting the sheep residents of the village from a pack of big, bad wolves. When Bodi develops a love for guitar playing, he dreams of going to the big city to pursue his music. Once Bodi gets to the city, he crosses paths with famous reclusive British rock star Angus Scattergood (a really, really funny voice performance by Eddie Izzard). You can probably guess what eventually happens with the story because it’s as predictable as they come, and while the film suffers greatly from its stupid ending, the rest of the movie is pretty enjoyable.

Bodi’s wide-eyed, youthful optimism creates a fantastic yin-and-yang quality by playing off of Angus’s grizzled cynicism, and I enjoyed their time together onscreen. At the film’s center is a great “follow your dreams” message about living your life in a way that makes you happy because it’s the only one you’ve got. There’s a catchy original song but it’s surprising that a movie about a guitar playing, rocking dog doesn’t feature a lot of actual rock music.

I expected this movie to be lazily packed with pop culture references (like the terrible “Lego Batman Movie”) but it’s not, and I applaud the filmmakers for refusing to use that as a crutch. There’s just enough tongue-in-cheek humor to make it engaging for adults too, despite its mostly uninspired story. The whole project reminds me of a strange mash-up of “Zootopia,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” It’s a different kind of adventure, yet it features the most basic of plots.

While the voice talent is nothing more than competent, the mediocre animation is good enough and the funny characters are likeable enough that it’s not a total loss.

If We Picked the Oscars

Oscar statuettes

If we were Academy voters, here’s a peek at what our 2017 ballots would look like (based on what was nominated). This isn’t what we think will win (so don’t base your Oscar pool picks on this list) but it’s what we personally would vote for in each nominated category. Enjoy the Oscars!

BEST PICTURE

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Louisa
    Isabelle Huppert, Elle

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

BEST DIRECTOR

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

BEST FILM EDITING

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

BEST MUSIC: ORIGINAL SCORE

BEST MUSIC: ORIGINAL SONG

  • Louisa
    “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
    Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
  • Matt
    “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana
    Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Louisa
    David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land
  • Matt
    Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena, Passengers

BEST SOUND EDITING

BEST SOUND MIXING

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Louisa
    Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould, Doctor Strange
  • Matt
    Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould, Doctor Strange

“Forushande (The Salesman)”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If you’re seeking a feel-good movie, this isn’t it.

In “Forushande (The Salesman),” writer / director Asghar Farhadi has created a dreary, depressing, and at times brilliant dissection of suffering, revenge, morality and mortality. Farhadi delicately and cleverly plays with gender conventions by setting this film in his home country of Iran while using a stage production of “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s classic play about the American Dream, in an orchestrated unison.

At the heart of the story is schoolteacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), two part-time actors who have a love for the craft and spend their free time performing in a theater troupe. By acting in this fantasy world, they are each given the ability to become a new person by hiding behind the mask that’s created by costumes and makeup. When Rana carelessly leaves her front door ajar (in anticipation of her husband coming right up) after a rehearsal, little does she know that her life is about to change. When she mindlessly hops in the shower to wash her hair, a stranger (Babak Karimi) seizes the opportunity to enter the apartment and attacks her in the bathroom.

Much of the film is spent dealing with the aftermath of the attack. Rana either cannot or does not want to recall many details about what happened, and all that’s left behind is the assailant’s truck, a few bloody footprints, and a whole lot of emotional anguish. Her relationship with Emad gradually becomes poisoned by the mystery, and that evolves into mental torture for both of them: she is debilitated by shame, he is infatuated with vengeance.

These are richly developed (and incredibly well acted) characters who are trapped in the ideals of their gender roles within the Iranian culture. There’s a clear societal mandate as to how men and women are expected to behave, even if they feel conflicted about it inside.

Rana solely blames herself for the incident and doesn’t want to face the public scorn and humiliation that reporting the attack to the police or her neighbors would bring. She refuses to speak about the incident out of fear of disgracing her husband, yet he wants to take matters into his own hands in an attempt to get justice on the perpetrator. Her insistence on keeping quiet is the cruelest torment for both of them, and their crumbling marriage is set against the backdrop of the stage production and its rigid acts. There’s a fantastic scene where Rana cries out to Emad for help after breaking down on stage in the middle of a performance. It’s a crushing display of sorrow and suffering, a moment so distressing and painful that you can feel her agony and taste her tears.

Eventually the person responsible is found and confronted, and this is when the film really hits its stride. Envelopes are pushed, albeit gently, and morals are tested. The mystery reveals an unlikely assailant (there are several clues to keep you guessing along the way, at times making it unclear if Rana is making it all up), and the story touches on an individual’s resistance or ease at stepping over the line and into the gray area when it comes to personal integrity and ethical behavior.

Farhadi frames the action in cramped, confined, and crumbling spaces, which elevates the tension tenfold and makes every movement, glare and spoken word feel more devastating than the next. He creates such an intimate portrait that at times you’ll feel like you need to look away because it’s too emotionally painful to watch. He’s also a little heavy handed with the symbolism, like when the couple’s apartment literally starts to fall apart around them (an early shot of Emad staring out of a window that slowly begins to crack is the visual equivalent of a smack on the head). The ending rings a bit false and the closing shot is a little clichéd, as the characters spend the entire film being forced to hide behind and suppress their true thoughts. But when you are so skilled at writing and storytelling (and your actors are so phenomenally understated), even a simple idea reaches a certain level of gravitas.

This isn’t a thrilling, bloody revenge tale (if that’s what you’re after, go see “John Wick: Chapter 2”), but rather a film that’s filled with quiet intensity and hushed fury that’s fueled by heartache and the roles we are forced to play in life.

“The Space Between Us”

LOUISA: 1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Firmly securing a slot on the list of movies that completely waste a compelling, original premise, “The Space Between Us” amounts to nothing more than a tween angst soap opera whose gaping plot holes consume itself like a massive black hole. The thought-provoking idea of a child born during a space mission, raised on Mars, and finally lands the chance to travel to Earth is unconditionally squandered in this forgettable film. It’s a sci-fi movie without any sci-fi, a road trip movie that’s stuck in neutral, and a romance that is far from romantic. It’s also an all around failure.

Weird astro-boy Gardner (Asa Butterfield) has spent his entire life on a space colony on the red planet. He fills his days chatting online with sassy teen Earthling girl Tulsa (Britt Robertson) but he struggles to keep his true life story a top secret mystery. When the head honchos finally decide to bring Gardner to Earth, it turns out the young man’s body can’t acclimate to gravity and he begins to die. It’s an imaginative idea that’s poorly written and directed, and it sadly devolves into a wishy-washy chase movie as the pair try to outrun “the adults” from NASA (Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino). The committed, strong performance from Oldman is at least a welcome surprise here.

There are plenty of predictable platitudes about living the best life you can, loving hard and following your dreams, but the characters and the love story are so sanitized that it flounders on every possible level. This it not a realistic teen love story that’s been done so much better in other young adult films (see “The Fault in Our Stars”). The movie lacks the self confidence to be honest with its characters and its storyline, flat out refusing to push its characters too far into the uncomfortable, slightly dark zone. This would have been a far better movie if everything wasn’t so sanitized and squeaky clean.

The ridiculous and optimistic conclusion is preceded by a steady, antiseptic diet of indifference. It’s hard to care about these characters when they are such one-note shells of real people. The Martian boy is bland and his equally dull romantic interest feels far too forced and fake. Case in point: she’s a foster kid who wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle! What a rebel! He’s a wide-eyed fish out of water who jumps when he first encounters rain and is startled by a horse. How wacky!

This is a very interesting, very ambitious premise that is ruined with rampant cornball, cheesy dialogue and sitcom-like situations. In short, it’s a disappointing waste of what could’ve been an engaging story.