‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is One of 2012’s Best Movies

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster

I always wonder about people who have been diagnosed with a psychological problem like bipolar disorder. Some of them have a tremendous zest and passion for life which makes me begin to wonder if it’s even fair to say they are sick. Everyone else gets so beaten up and run down by life to where it robs the smiles off their faces, and yet people like Pat Solitano, Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” seem so inspired by everything around them. Despite Pat’s problem, I came out of this movie desperately wanting to feel the way he feels as it seems like such a waste to become so infinitely numb to everything and anything in life.

Of course, Pat’s boundless zest for life has come at a huge price for him. “Silver Linings Playbook,” which comes to us from writer and director David O. Russell, starts off with Pat being released from a mental institution after being locked there for eight months. It turns out Pat was a former school teacher who went off the deep end one day upon coming home and finding his wife Nikki in the shower with another man. Pat did not take this well to put it mildly, and he went ballistic on the guy in a way no one will ever quickly forget.

Now that Pat’s been released, he is forced to move back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) as he has lost his home and job, and his wife has since moved away and filed a restraining order against him. Pat is determined to move his life forward in a positive direction and win Nikki back, but he is still troubled by the discovery he made all those months ago. It also doesn’t help that a certain Stevie Wonder song, the same one played at Pat’s and Nikki’s wedding, was playing on the stereo when Pat found his wife at home but not alone. The song acts as a terrible trigger for him, and you feel his excruciating pain whenever it starts playing near him.

Cooper is best known for his work in “The Hangover” movies, but this role really shows the kind of actor he is truly capable of being. Cooper makes you sympathize with Pat’s sincere intentions to be a better person even when he flies off the handle for unexpected reasons. Just watch him go ballistic after he finishes reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” From start to finish, Cooper is a dynamo as Pat, and you relish in the joy he gets from playing this character.

Cooper is also well matched with Jennifer Lawrence who provides a passionate and fiery turn as Tiffany. Now a widow after her husband passed away, Tiffany speaks her mind bluntly and without apology, and it is clear she is still coping with a devastating loss. Lawrence blew us away with her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” and her talent as an actress has never been in doubt since. She more than rises to the challenge presented to her in “Silver Linings Playbook” in creating a character who on the surface is not exactly pleasant, and yet she still lets us see the wounded humanity which Tiffany’s tough exterior cannot hide.

The film also features a number of terrific supporting performances as well. Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in a long time as Pat’s father who is as hopeful for his son’s recovery as he is for the Philadelphia Eagles to win every single football game they play. Jacki Weaver, best known for her Oscar nominated performance in “Animal Kingdom,” also lends strong support as Pat’s mom. There are also some inspired turns from John Ortiz as Ronnie and Anupam Kher as Dr. Patel, and even Julia Stiles shows up as Tiffany’s sister Veronica.

But one supporting performance which really stands out in “Silver Linings Playbook” is Chris Tucker’s as Danny, Pat’s friend who leaves the mental institution only to find he’s not really allowed to just yet. Not only is this the first movie Tucker’s done in a long time without “Rush Hour” in the title, but he also dials down his manic comic energy to give a surprisingly naturalistic performance. Tucker is a lot of fun to watch here, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast without ever upstaging anybody.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick, and it is the perfect fit for David O. Russell. His films, whether it’s “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter” or even “Three Kings,” deal with complicated characters who are trying to salvage what is left of their souls so they can move on to better things. This one is no different as Pat and Tiffany need each other to get past the traumas which have come to define their lives in the present. Russell presents their story in a way which never feels the least bit formulaic, and he never ever takes the easy way out with these characters.

What I’ve come to love about Russell’s movies is how they feel alive in a way most don’t. With “Silver Linings Playbook,” you are watching lives unfold in front of you, and it is directed to where you experience what’s happening instead of just watching it. Regardless of the problems these characters face here, there is something strangely positive and fulfilling in seeing them overcome all which is holding them back. It is also exhilarating to watch characters so filled with passion and a love for life, and this film is full of them. This is really one of the most entertaining and enjoyable movies I saw back in 2012.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Fruitvale Station’ Puts a Human Face on a Tragic Shooting

Fruitvale Station movie poster

It’s a strange and cruel irony “Fruitvale Station” opened in theaters the same week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. Like Martin, Oscar Grant was a young African American male whose life was cut short under needlessly tragic circumstances. On the night of January 31, 2008, Oscar was traveling home with his girlfriend and their friends on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when a fight broke out on the train which he gets caught up in. When the train arrives at the station of the movie’s title, Oscar was pulled off it by BART police officers, and one of them, either accidentally or intentionally (depending on who you ask) shot him. He died the following day, and his death brought about protests and a call for justice.

The cases of Martin and Grant appear to illustrate that, despite strides we have made in race relations, it’s still not safe to be a young black man in America. Now “Fruitvale Station” is not a movie out to offer a solution to this continuing problem, but it does put a human face on it. After watching it, Grant will no longer seem like a mere statistic to anyone.

The movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life as he goes about his business while trying to survive in an unforgiving world. He still lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in a rundown part of the Bay Area, and this is despite the fact Sophina knows he cheated on her. But regardless his wayward ways, Oscar is clearly dedicated to taking care of them both and in doing what he can to give them a better life.

“Fruitvale Station” is the first feature film for director Ryan Coogler, and he made it because he wanted people to get to know Oscar as a human being instead of just another name in a newspaper. Having seen the film, I can honestly say he succeeded in doing so. Not once does Coogler try to sanctify Oscar or water him down for an easier movie going experience. Coogler presents Oscar warts and all, and while he is far from perfect, we come to respect him for what he’s trying to do with his life on this fateful day.

We see Oscar trying to get his supermarket job back even though his boss isn’t about to rehire him, and it’s the first time we see Oscar’s hair trigger temper come to life. His mission now and throughout this fateful day is to provide for his family. Of course, this may lead to him selling drugs to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the same thing which landed him in prison. While his desire to lead a good life is strong, the lure of the criminal life and the money it can generate for him keeps percolating below the surface.

Michael B. Jordan made a name for himself on television shows like “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” and he also appeared in the surprise hit movie “Chronicle.” His performance in “Fruitvale Station” is nothing short of sensational, and it made him one of the great breakout stars of 2013. It’s exhilarating to watch him as he takes Oscar from the joys of being a father to his frightening lows when he begs his mother not to leave him all alone. It’s a shame Jordan didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but then again 2013 was a year overflowing with great performances, many of which were bound to be left out.

Octavia Spencer gives another one of her great performances in this movie as well. As Wanda, she gives us a mother who tries to be strong for her wayward son, but who struggles with the reality she may need to keep her distance from him for his own good. This is not the typical clichéd mother character who goes through the usual motions of the parental ups and downs, but one who has stood up against the tides life has thrown at her and whose love for her son you never doubt for a second.

“Fruitvale Station” starts off with footage of the actual incident where Oscar was shot, but it cuts to black before we can see if the shooting was intentional or accidental. This gives the movie a certain tension as we know how things will end, but even as we get to that moment, there’s a still a part of us which wants this situation to have a different outcome. Even though the end of the movie is never in doubt, we desperately want him to survive the night and get home safe.

The other thing I really liked about this movie is how it showed us a part of the Bay Area many of us don’t get to see. I grew up in Northern California, and while much of it is not crime ridden, there are parts of it I dare not venture into. Like the brilliant documentary “Hoop Dreams,” it sheds a light on how African-Americans live and subsequently breaks a lot of the preconceptions many of us have about them.

There have been several other tragic incidents following what happened to Oscar Grant such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s always depressing to see how history keeps repeating itself despite our best attempts to learn from it. What makes “Fruitvale Station” so remarkable is it’s not out to give us glib answers on how to end the violence, but it instead puts a human face on a man who didn’t deserve to die. We hear about these stories in the news far too often, and they are usually shown to us with an unnecessary amount of bias. Both Coogler and Jordan have done a great service as they force us to see Oscar Grant as a person with strengths and flaws, and this makes “Fruitvale Station” one of the very best movies of 2013.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Diary of the Dead’ Has Romero Taking Aim at the Internet Generation

Diary of the Dead movie poster

I had an English teacher who once said, “We have all been mediatized. This is a generation that has been robbed of its innocence.” This has stayed with me since because nothing could be truer. She said this back in 1994, back when we had yet to fully discover the internet, and we were not yet addicted to Facebook, You Tube or our cell phones. She remarked of when she watched a trailer for “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.” It looked like a very innocent movie, and yet there were teenagers in front of her who said, “This looks so lame!” As a result, she felt they were robbed of any chance of enjoying this movie as they were more interested in watching something which was its polar opposite. When you combine the loss of innocence to the ever-growing world of technology, it is apparent there is no going back to the way things were. We are now more “mediatized” than ever, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live without the internet or cell phones.

This is the main sticking point of George Romero’s zombie flick, “Diary of The Dead,” as he takes aim at a generation so sucked into You Tube and of watching things not just from a distance, but an emotional distance as well. We have become so enamored of watching disasters and car crashes from afar to where it appears we have been robbed of our ability to actually help others. As a result, Romero’s vision of humanity is especially bleak as he wonders if it is even worth saving.

The movie starts off as a film within a film as we watch a horror movie turned documentary called “The Death of Death.” The horror film itself is not going well as everything is behind schedule and the crew and actors are restless. All of a sudden, they hear on the news of the dead coming back to life, and everything changes forever. Some head home, and others head to the college to rescue their girlfriends. From then on, it’s a race for survival as the world is soon overrun by zombies, or so the internet and television tells them. What are they gonna believe?

“Diary of The Dead” could be seen as being released too late as “Cloverfield” had arrived in theaters just before. Both films are shot in a handheld style, but whereas “Cloverfield” used the technique as a gimmick, “Diary of The Dead” uses it as a commentary on our fascination with watching the worst life has to offer. Many people went crazy and beyond nauseous with the camerawork in “Cloverfield,” but those same people will be relieved to see Romero and his Director of Photography Adam Swica have reined it in to where it shouldn’t alienate the audience.

The film crew on “The Death of Death” is made up of different characters. There’s the director, Jason (Joshua Close), who believes if it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened at all. There’s his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who gets increasingly annoyed at his filming everybody, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who always looks like he is prepared to beat Jason to death, and there’s the drunken film professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who looks upon everything with a bemused detachment. What Romero succeeds in doing as a writer is giving us characters who aren’t simply types. If they come across as clichéd, he and the actors subvert those clichés as each character becomes increasingly unpredictable in their actions.

Romero also gives us strong characters who are females and minorities. He started doing this years ago with “Night of The Living Dead,” and he continues this tradition here. The female character who is the strongest in “Diary” is Debra as she is driven to get back to her family and is not about to get sucked into watching everything through a camera lens. Michelle Morgan gives this movie its best performance, and she also narrates the film within the film which gives you a pretty good idea of what happens to her character in the end (or does it?).

While the crew ventures home in an old and stuffy Winnebago, they run into all sorts of people who are quickly learning how to survive in a world being overrun by zombies. They run into a squad of African Americans who have taken over a small town and refuse to leave. This is because, for once, they have power over something they have never power over before, and you could see it as a revenge for all they have been put through over the years. There is also a deaf Amish man who provides some of the funniest moments as he blows up zombies with dynamite before introducing himself to the frenzied group of film students.

What makes these “Dead” movies so relevant even after four decades is they are really social commentary movies designed as zombie movies. Romero looks at how society is enslaved by its own wants, needs, beliefs and prejudices in. “Night of the Living Dead” dealt with civil rights and gave us a black man as the chief protagonist, something you didn’t see in movies back then. His ultimate destiny at the film’s climax said much about the times when the movie was released. “Dawn of The Dead” dealt with our quest for materialism, wealth, and of having everything we could possibly want, and it looked at how it leaves us feeling as empty and dead as the zombies who look to tear their way into the mall for fresh human flesh. “Day of The Dead” dealt with the paranoia and crazed determination of the military and its inherent sexism. Then you had “Land of The Dead” where Romero went after the wealthiest people of all and how selfishly involved they are in their own interests, and it served as a huge criticism of Reganomics which gave us the great lie of how this great wealth and riches could be yours even though this would never be the case.

Now with “Diary,” Romero looks at our addiction to watching the unthinkable instead of doing anything to stop it. You have to look at all of Romero’s “Dead” movies in context to see they are really a long chronicle about the decline of western civilization. It all started with civil rights and the reaction to it, and it’s been downhill ever since. To call this latest film bleak is a severe understatement. Romero doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the human race, and the last scene questions whether humans are really worth saving.

If you’re wondering about the blood and gore, there is a good deal of it in “Diary” even though it is not on the same level as “Dawn” or “Day.” Still, there are some good kills throughout, and the characters make good use of a scythe as well as a bow and arrow. Romero, after all these years, doesn’t skimp on the gory stuff. However, it still takes these characters way too long to figure out the best way to defeat a zombie, which is to shoot it in the head.

The other interesting thing about “Diary” is the way the characters and their reality are drawn out. Whereas in “Cloverfield” where there was a chance for safety and victory against what was attacking New York, there is no real hope for anyone in here. Whether or not they make it home, they quickly realize this is a conflict which will never cease. It will just get worse and worse until there is nothing left. “Diary” forces you to think about what you would do if you were in this situation, and this makes the movie all the more terrifying.

One big difference in this specific “Dead” film is, unlike the others, there is no military presence. None of the characters have a clear idea of whether or not there is even a military left. They are left to fend for themselves in a world which has gone dead on them, and their only link to the world is technology and the internet. But with everyone voicing their opinions through videos and blogs, who is to be believed when they’re so many different opinions circling all over? All you have left is chaos and anarchy, and every man and woman for themselves. The characters in this movie are smart enough to recognize this, and this makes the events for them all the more suffocating.

I liked “Diary of The Dead” a lot, and it shows Romero is still a strong force in the realm of independent filmmaking. While the first three “Dead” movies are pretty much untouchable at this point, I would put this one ahead of “Land of The Dead” which I thought was good but may have been encumbered by too much studio interference from Universal Pictures. While Universal gave Romero the money he had been begging for years to get, he’s back to his indie roots this time around and seems a lot more comfortable as a result. The movie’s pace does slow in its last half which had me a bit restless, and some moments last longer than they should have, but these are minor complaints at best.

Regardless of how bleak Romero’s worldview continues to get in each “Dead” movie, there is something to be said for his efforts to spend decades raising money to make them. There was a big lull between “Day” and “Land,” and this shows his endless determination to see his vision reach the screen one way or another. And here he is 40 years later, making a new zombie movie for generations old and new. There may be room for another one Romero zombie yet, and there is hope to be had even if our world continues falling apart. I wouldn’t mind seeing him do one more, but I hope it comes out before the apocalypse hits us.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Big Eyes’ Marks a Return to Form for Tim Burton

Big Eyes movie poster

Tim Burton’s unique talents as a filmmaker have floundered in recent years with his abysmal remakes of “Planet of the Apes” and “Alice in Wonderland” which was lacking in wonder. But with “Big Eyes,” he gives us his best and most human movie in a long time as he examines the life of American artist Margaret Keane whose paintings of children with oversized, doe-like eyes became very popular in the 1950’s. It reunites Burton with his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who have provided us with some of the most unique biopics in recent memory like “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on The Moon.” Yes, it is based on a true story, but for once it helps to know this as the movie is a tale which proves there are things much stranger than fiction.

“Big Eyes” starts with a narrator saying the 1950’s was a good time if you were a man. This certainly seems to be the case with Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) as she is in the process of leaving her husband and drive herself and her daughter Jane out to San Francisco to start all over again. This decade had women relegated to the role of housewife, and they could do very little else as feminism had yet to become a movement. Margaret has trouble finding work until she gets a job at a furniture company painting baby cribs. At the same time, she is quite the painter who paints pictures of children, most of which resemble her daughter, that stand out because of the big eyes she gives her subjects.

While at an art sale, Margaret meets Walter (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter who quickly becomes enamored of her and her paintings, and he quickly begins to encourage her not to sell herself short. They soon fall for one another and get married, and they become determined to sell their art to the masses. When their attempts to get their work hung up at art houses fails, Walter resorts to renting the walls at The Hungry I club owned by Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito). It is there the paintings begin to gain notice, but patrons are far more interested in Margaret’s work than they are in Walter’s. In the process, Walter starts to take credit for his wife’s paintings, and this is where things take a rather interesting turn.

Margaret is repulsed at first by the idea of Walter taking credit for her work, but she finds herself giving in to him as he promises to give her everything she ever wanted in life like a big house to live in. But as the popularity of the paintings grows, a rift forms between them as Margaret ends up residing in the background while Walter takes center stage at various talk shows and public engagements. Soon, Margaret goes from being timid to becoming a very determined person as she aims to reclaim the art she created.

What happened between Margaret and Walter Keane became the story of one of the most epic art frauds in history, and I have to admit I was not aware of this piece of history before I saw “Big Eyes.” If this story were presented to me as fiction, I’m fairly certain I would not have bought it as this story would have been far too bizarre to be the least bit believable. But these events did happen, and Burton’s strong affection for Margaret’s work is definitely on display here.

I’m so glad Alexander and Karaszewski are still getting away with making these renegade biopics about individuals who might otherwise not get cinematic treatment. The fact they brought this particular story to the big screen is extraordinary as it involves an act of plagiarism which didn’t take place in Hollywood. It sounds like a typical good guy/bad guy story, but the way the story develops shows this to not be the case.

Adams is her usually remarkable self as she takes Margaret Keane from the depths of isolation and bitterness to the heights of confidence and self-assertion. She also presents Margaret to us with flaws and all to where we respect her deeply even if some say she put herself in the position of having her work stolen. The 1950’s may have not been the best time for women, but the victory Margaret achieved opened doors for them to where they would never ever be held back by the role society expected them to play.

Waltz won his two Oscars for good reasons as he portrayed his characters in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” with such relish. His performance in “Big Eyes” proves to be equally wonderful as he makes Walter into such a charismatic figure to where it’s no wonder Margaret falls under his spell. While his character is essentially the bad guy of this piece, Waltz does give Walter some empathy as his actions result from a rather unconscious need for approval in a world which has deemed him a fair artist at best. While we can’t condone his actions, we can certainly understand where his motivations come from.

For Burton, “Big Eyes” is a return to the low budget roots he started out in. While it may not feel like the typical Burton movie along the lines of “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” or even “Batman,” it’s certainly his most heartfelt movie in a long time. He recreates the San Francisco many of us know from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and he shows us how Walter succeeded in commercializing art to where it became available at all the local supermarkets. But at the heart of it all, “Big Eyes” fits in with the kind of stories Burton loves to tell; of outsiders who are seen as far too different to succeed in popular culture.

“Big Eyes” falters a little towards the end as Walter starts to come across as less complex and more of a one-dimensional bad guy the audience understandably wants to see go down. Part of me wanted to see Burton delve a little deeper into his psychology as making him the typical bad guy in this movie seemed much too easy. Still, it makes for a very entertaining courtroom scene where both he and Margaret fight for the right to Margaret’s work like never before.

It’s heartening to see Burton give us such a heartfelt motion picture like “Big Eyes” as his last few movies kept taking away from his distinct talent as a director. Even with a lower budget than what he is used to working with, he still gives us a wondrous if roughened up look at an artist caught up in a real-life situation which threatens to rob her of the work she created. Here’s hoping we see more movies like this from Burton in the near future.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Performances Make ‘3 Generations’ Worth a Look

3 Generations movie poster

I prefer to review movies for what they are as opposed to what I wanted them to be, but with “3 Generations,” this proves to be a bit of a challenge. For the most part, I think it is a sweet and thoughtful movie about transgender issues. But yes, it could have dug deeper into an issue many struggle with in life as this one touches on the family dynamics at play when one member decides to transition to another gender. For many, this is a volatile issue with many psychological scars being inflicted on those who do not deserve to be misunderstood, but director Gaby Dellal and her co-writer Nikole Beckwith at times take this story in a comical direction to where it borders on becoming a sitcom. Still, I can’t help but like this movie for what it is as deals with its subject matter in a sympathetic way and features three terrific performances which alone make it worth the price of admission.

Elle Fanning stars as Ramona who is now going by the name Ray because she sees herself as “a boy with tits.” Ray sees herself (excuse me, himself) as a boy trapped in a girl’s body, and he is determined to undergo gender reassignment to correct this. The main obstacle, however, is getting the consent of her parents to go through with it. His mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), is willing to sign off on the procedure even though her anxiety and concerns over Ray’s decision make her smoke close to a full pack of cigarettes a day. His father, Craig (Tate Donovan), has been out of the picture for so long that Maggie would rather everyone believe he is dead. As for Ray’s grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), she wonders why he can’t simply be a lesbian like her.

At the center of “3 Generations” is Fanning who gives an excellent and heartwarming performance as Ray, and she fully invests in her character’s commitment to changing his identity into something far more acceptable to himself. Watching her is also a strong reminder of how teenagers are brilliant at seeing straight through their parents’ hypocrisy and bullshit to where they threaten to be more mature than those raising them. Whereas the other characters around him face an intense level of worry and anxiety, Ray knows exactly what he wants and shows zero doubt over what he feels he needs to do, and it represents the bravery I wish I had as a teenager.

You can never go wrong with Watts in anything she appears in, and she inhabits Maggie as your average mother; always wanting the best for her child while constantly worrying about the future. Maggie is almost convinced Ray will come to her one day with a beard on his face saying he made a mistake, but she is also the one closest to him willing to grant his wish to become a boy. Watts makes Maggie’s suffering all the more relatable as she reminds us all of how life is all about suffering, but through it all, we can find a happiness which a lot of times feels out of reach.

Sarandon is a wonderful presence here as Dolly who lives with her lover Frances (Linda Elmond), Maggie and Ray all under the same roof in a big apartment in New York’s West Village. This Oscar-winning actress is always great at playing the veteran mother who has seen it all and approaches her daughter’s problems like the pro she is. At the same time, her scenes tend to get overwhelmed by sitcom-like humor which threatens to take away from this movie more often than not. Still, Sarandon won me over as she always does, and the moments with Elmond remind us of the constant struggles couples go through. And by this, I mean any couple.

“3 Generations” works best when it focuses on Ray and his struggle become the boy he was always meant to be. We see him working out trying to build muscle, and he is determined to switch schools in order to get a fresh start in life once his transition is complete. At times, it focuses a little too much on the adults in this situation, and this is even though their concerns deserve our attention as well. While humor does come in handy in stories like these as they can become painfully too real, the filmmakers go a little overboard especially in a scene where Watts and Sarandon try different ways to treat Ray’s black eye.

Yes, this is a flawed movie that should have been better, but I still found myself liking “3 Generations” quite a bit as the performances are strong, and it has some surprises up its sleeve as it heads towards the finish line where we are reminded of how parents are never, ever perfect human beings. It all leads up to a final scene between a mother and her child which brought a real smile to my face as the constant struggles we face in life can lead to moments of true happiness.

Perhaps the transgender community deserves a strong movie than “3 Generations,” or maybe there are several out there we haven’t bothered to watch yet. All the same, I enjoyed this movie for what it was, and for me, that was enough. Still, it is a little hard to believe a family like this can afford such a big apartment in New York. You know the rents out there are ridiculously expensive, right?

* * * out of * * * *

“3 Generations” was originally given an R rating, but The Weinstein Company managed to succeed in getting the MPAA to give it a PG-13 which makes a lot more sense. This movie is certainly appropriate for teenagers, and this subject matter really shouldn’t be off limits to them. Then again, the MPAA has made many mistakes throughout the years, and it is unlikely this will be their last.

St. Vincent

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Leave it to “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Murray to play the ultimate sad sack loser whom you manage to find some empathy for. Other great actors have played this kind of role to great effect like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, and Billy Bob Thornton, but I am convinced after watching the movie “St. Vincent” that no one does it better than Murray. Even if the character he plays appears to be an irredeemable jerk, Murray still makes you see there is at least one redemptive quality in this infinitely cynical soul.

Murray plays the Vincent of the movie’s title, but he doesn’t look anything like a saint when we first meet him. We see him getting liquored up frequently and betting on the horses, and he clearly he has more luck getting drunk than he does at gambling. Then he comes to discover he is beyond flat broke (there is such a thing) as he borrowed money against his house to an alarming degree, and a local bookie named Zucko (Terrence Howard) informs him he has a serious debt to pay.

We watch Vincent dance all by himself to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” and we can’t help but wonder if he cares if anyone loves him in the slightest. In case you haven’t noticed, Vincent is not the nicest person to be around.

As his troubled times ramble on, Vincent suddenly discovers he has some new neighbors which include the recently divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). They don’t get off to a good start as their moving van accidentally hits a tree and damages Vincent’s fence and his “antique” car. Vincent doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in giving them a warm welcome as he is in getting reimbursed for the damage done, but when Maggie finds herself forced to work long hours, she has no choice but to let Vincent babysit Oliver while she’s away.

Vincent’s idea of taking care of Oliver includes going to the racetrack where his luck with the horses changes dramatically, and he teaches Oliver to defend himself which comes in handy when he has to get back at the school bully. Now these are not the kind of things you teach a child, but it helps break the ice between them to where they come to enjoy each other’s company.

Murray does not need to win an Oscar to show us all what a great actor he is because we have known this for years now. His performances in “Rushmore,” “Lost in Translation” and “Groundhog Day” show just how far his range stretches, and he does wonders with a character we would be quick to hate in real life. Even when “St. Vincent” becomes a little too sentimental for its own good, Murray never fakes an emotion and we feel for him regardless of how he treats others. The sad look in his eyes speaks volumes and tells us what we need to know about Vincent without him having to spell it out for everyone.

It’s also nice to see Melissa McCarthy in a good movie for a change. Ever since her brilliant supporting turn in “Bridesmaids,” she has been stuck doing solid work in bad movies like “Identity Thief” and “Tammy,” but here she is served by a good script and a role which allows her to take a more serious turn. She’s wonderful here as Maggie, a single mom who’s doing the best she can under difficult circumstances, and she scores some funny moments as well, especially when it comes to a certain plant.

Seeing Chris O’Dowd play Catholic school teacher Brother Geraghty is amusingly ironic as we last saw him as a very anti-Catholic character in “Calvary,” and he is wonderful to watch here. As for Terrence Howard, he has this brilliant ability to take stock characters like the angry bookie and make them seem not the least bit cliché, and his performance as Zucko is yet another example of that. And then there’s Naomi Watts who knocks it out of the park as pregnant Russian stripper Daka, and she gets the accent down perfectly.

But seriously, the performance I was most impressed with in “St. Vincent” was Jaeden Lieberher’s as Oliver as he gives us the perfect example of a child who can see right through adult hypocrisy. It’s such a genuine and unforced performance to where Lieberher inhabits Oliver more than plays him, and he makes this young man come across as smarter and far more mature than the adults around him.

“St. Vincent” was written and directed by Theodore Melfi, and he travels through the familiar “Scent of a Woman” territory to where you have a good idea of where this movie is heading. As I said earlier, it does get a little too sentimental at times, but Melfi throws some interesting twists into the mix I didn’t see coming. I also like how Oliver fights off the school bully and then becomes really good friends with him. It’s not often in movies that you see something like that happen.

When it comes down to it, “St. Vincent” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is very well made and features some truly memorable performances. Will Murray get an Oscar nomination for his work here? Probably not, but that’s because he gives a subtle performance the Academy never appreciates enough. Regardless, he continues to turn in one great performance after another, and his work in this movie is just the latest example.

* * * out of * * * *

Michael Keaton, Laura Dern and John Carroll Lynch Talk About ‘The Founder’

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The Founder” recently had its press conference in Los Angeles, California, and it took place the week before President Barack Obama is set to leave the White House and Donald Trump will move in. While no one brought up their political views during this press conference, the movie felt more timely than perhaps its filmmakers intended as it illustrates the birth of unrestrained capitalism. Considering we have a die-hard capitalist set to be the next President of the United States, it’s hard not think about the corporate world and corporations as we watch Michael Keaton play Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois who discovered a different kind of restaurant run by Maurice and Richard McDonald and eventually turned it into a billion-dollar franchise. But in the process, Ray convinces just about everyone around him that he was the one who founded McDonald’s, and he eventually steals the brothers’ business right out from under them.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” deals with a number of different subjects like capitalism (sustainable and unrestrained), business, greed, the corporate world, etc. The movie also makes you wonder if it is even remotely possible to run a corporation without losing your heart and soul in the process. But most of all, it makes you see how everyone doesn’t see the American Dream in the same way.

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Laura Dern also stars in the movie as Ray’s wife, Ethel, and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the elements in the story which were hiding just beneath the surface. Also, she talked about seeing the movie with her daughter and how they reacted to a key scene involving the McDonald brothers.

Laura Dern: The piece that interested me, which was probably the piece I knew about Ray Kroc or McDonald’s, was this question of the introduction of the filler. I was fascinated that the film pointed it out, but also this question of how did it turn from real food to how we can make a fast buck and potentially poison people. What is that? And the subversive question which interested me the most was this question of, can capitalism hold compassion, and what is that story? And so, that moved me so much when John (Lee Hancock) first spoke to me about it, and hearing all these amazing people were involved. I would just love to add because I thought it was so incredible, I got to see the film last night with my daughter who is just turning 12, and to hear from her perspective, because I like to think it’s politically subversive and a commentary on this question of empathy versus corporations and can there be a place for both; I was talking about my favorite shot which just brings me to tears of these two gentlemen with their arms around each other watching the McDonald’s section of their sign be removed. I was talking about it, and when we go in the car my daughter said, “Mom, you know when those brothers were holding each other at the end?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “That’s how I felt after (President Barack Obama’s) farewell address. We just don’t know what’s next.” And that was the film to me, and I just loved for a 12-year-old the details of the story, the point was she got what I think you all intended, and I was really moved by that.

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John Carroll Lynch (above on the right) co-stars as the hard-working Maurice McDonald who is excited to see his brother’s restaurant become an even bigger success than it already is. He excitedly spoke about what he knew about Ray Kroc, but more importantly, he described how Ray’s level of thinking has become the typical kind of thinking for everyone in this day and age.

John Carroll Lynch: I knew Ray Kroc in kind of the way that Michael (Keaton) was talking about. I thought of him as the founder even though I knew there were the brothers before him. I also knew that he had owned the (San Diego) Padres, and I also knew that after his death particularly that his wife gave away massive amounts of money, and I would hear her name on National Public Radio all the time. So, that was my personal relationship with it, but knowing the story a little bit and seeing the things that are absolutely bedrock, admirable American traits of entrepreneurship, of persistence, of salesmanship, of a sense of seeing something and how far it can go, of vision, all of those things are incredibly attractive. And what I love about the way the movie unfolds was how there’s a moment when he could tell the truth about the origin of the company, and you might not feel so badly about what happens if he could just give somebody else credit. If he could just be humble enough to go, there were these two brothers who had this amazing idea, and I figured out a way how to make it on every street in America with this other guy’s help. He could have said any of those things, but every moment he has any opportunity to tell the truth, he can’t do it because he needs to be the guy. There’s also a moment in the story where you watch him kind of digest the lie over time, and it becomes the truth to him. That is very indicative of where we are right now which is what we are told is in some ways, to many of us, more important than the actual truth, and we just want to believe the easy part of what’s said and not the hard parts, and I include myself in that. I don’t want to have to deal with the hard parts. I don’t want to have to deal with the fact that people are destroyed or land is destroyed. I really, really like Egg McMuffins (everybody laughs), and that’s where my dilemma is.

Now whatever you may think about McDonald’s before and after you see “The Founder,” their breakfast menu is simply delicious. Even if eating there threatens my cholesterol levels, I have to have a Sausage McMuffin with Egg or an Egg White Delight every once in a while.

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Then there was Keaton who talked at length about how the meaning of the American Dream has changed drastically over time into something which is largely unrealistic. The more he talked about it, the more one had to wonder if it even exists in its most simple form anymore. With wages failing to catch with cost of living increases, you have to wonder if it is even within one’s reach these days.

Michael Keaton: I did some press early on in Europe. I heard it there and I heard it from a few journalists from outside the U.S. yesterday, and this morning on the phone they bring it up. It’s interesting because the U.S. journalists don’t bring this up, and that is the issue of the American Dream. This is fascinating to me unless I missed something. We can go on and on about consumerism, waste, greed, etc., etc. Their perception of what the American Dream is, and let me be a little more specific, not to miss the issue with such a generalization, when they talk about the American Dream, they do it in relation to billions and mansions, and they kind of make the assumption of an extravagant lifestyle of private jets, owning islands and everything. That’s fascinating to me because my concept of the American Dream, unless I missed something here, in its simplest form, is work hard enough and there will be a job available and you can buy a house, and you can buy a car to get you back and forth from work so where you can afford that house, and have couple of kids who can attend a good school, you get a good vacation maybe, and maybe a second car. Unless I missed something, that ain’t a bad thing. I think that’s what it was. That’s not what the perception is. It’s this other thing. I want to say it is an ugly thing. I have no problem with billionaires, especially billionaires like Bill Gates who do the things they do or my friend Yvon Chouinard who I keep referring to. Pick one. There are a bunch of them out there. But there’s this other perception out there. Am I nuts? That’s not what the idea was.

Now while these discussions might have taken away from talking about the making of “The Founder,” they stayed with me long after the press conference had ended. The movie is largely about capitalism and of how it can be exercised in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and it’s hard not to think about our dysfunctional relationship with the corporate world in the new millennium. Whatever way you want to look at it, “The Founder” is a compelling cinematic experience which chronicles the rise of a franchise we are all very familiar with and which plays a significant part in our lives whether we want it to or not.

“The Founder” opens in theaters this Friday, January 20th. Be sure to check it out!

Poster and photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

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Check out the video, courtesy of Movie Maniacs, to view the entire press conference.

The Founder

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Watching Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who acquired McDonald’s and turned it into a billion-dollar franchise in “The Founder,” reminded me of his role as Hunt Stevenson in “Gung Ho.” Granted, there’s a number of fast-talking characters from Keaton’s long resume which could have come to mind, but “Gung Ho” proved to be one of my favorite Ron Howard films. Like Hunt, Ray is eager to convince everyone around him he knows what’s best for everyone, but while Hunt’s efforts are altruistic, Ray’s speak more to the kind of capitalism which is very unrestrained. Either way, you know you have the right actor portraying someone eager to get things his own way or no way at all.

“The Founder” is, yes, “based on a true story,” but we don’t even need to be told this because it is far too easy to invent a character like Ray Kroc these days. The movie opens up in the 1950’s when Ray, a salesman from Illinois, is trying to sell milkshake mixers to drive-in diners and failing to do so. While his face is filled with confidence, his mind is being subjected to countless scores of rejections as failure haunts him at every corner. As we watch Ray alone in his motel room, listening to a self-esteem record where a narrator talks about the importance of confidence, we see him desperate to outrun failure as he is now in his 50’s, a time where most men hang it up and enter retirement (back in that decade anyway).

Then one day, Ray comes across a little hamburger stand out in San Bernardino, California called McDonald’s. Immediately, he is stunned and amazed by the speedy system its owners have come up with which produces high quality food in a very short period of time. Upon taking the brothers who own the restaurant, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), out to dinner, he soon offers to turn their restaurant into a bona fide franchise. From there, we know it’s going to be an interesting ride, albeit one filled with countless speed bumps and strong disagreements.

Now it would have been far too easy for the filmmakers to vilify Ray Kroc as he essentially stole the McDonald brothers’ business right out from under them, but director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel have more on their minds than reducing this man to a mere villain. From the start, we see the desperation on Ray’s face as he is at the age where most men retire, but he still sees the potential of success waiting for him regardless of how many road blocks get put up in his path. His fear of failure becomes the driving force behind his business decisions, and while it eventually reveals him to be ruthless in his quest for dominance, we can certainly understand where the drive comes from.

The role of Ray was made for Keaton, and it’s impossible to think of another actor who could have played this businessman as effectively as the “Birdman” actor does here. It fits perfectly into his talents as a fast talker and as someone who can convince you he is on your side even when the character he plays is not. As portrayed here, Ray is a complex character whose motivations are controlled by desperation and fear of failure, and Keaton nails every complexity perfectly to where we are completely sucked into Ray’s realm of business dealing even as Ray begins to take credit for things he did not create.

I also admired the portrayal of the McDonald brothers as they are shown to be decent Americans who struggled with failure themselves until they found success with their little hamburger stand. It should be noted that the brothers were never uninterested in turning McDonald’s into a franchise (early attempts to do so did not work out for them), but were instead interested in a form of capitalism which allowed them firm control over the quality of food and service at each restaurant to where they could make a healthy profit and live comfortably without trying to overrun their competition.

It also helps that “The Founder” has two terrific actors portraying Mac and Dick McDonald in John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. Lynch, in particular, has one incredible scene which involves him going into a five-page monologue where he vividly describes how the first McDonald’s restaurant came into existence. It’s an exhilarating moment to watch as the creation of this now globally dominant fast food chain reminds us of the greatness of America as it is a country where just about anyone can succeed in business if they try really hard enough and are persistent as well.

Laura Dern also shows up as Ray’s long-suffering wife, Ethel. Now this could have been a thankless role as we mostly see Ethel staying back at home while Ray is on the road trying to make a sale, but Dern makes the most of it as she shows how Ethel represents the kind of life anyone else would be satisfied with. Dern never portrays Ethel as a constant whiner, but instead as a sympathetic person who struggles to support and understand her husband, a man whose appetites extend far beyond the dining room table and evenings out at local social events.

There’s also strong support on hand from actors like Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, Ric Reitz, Justin Randell Brooke and Wilbur Fitzgerald who play characters that come to inform Ray’s business interests, interests which soon evolve into infinitely greedy ones. Another great stand out is Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith, the woman who would eventually become Ray’s second wife. Cardellini is fantastic as she sees in Ray a strong ambition which she wants to help advance, and she proves to have a strong chemistry with Keaton right from the first moment he spots her playing the piano.

Most of Hancock’s movies, “The Blind Side,” “The Rookie,” “The Alamo” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” have dealt with true-life stories, and like those movies, “The Founder” conveys these stories in a way which feels remarkably down to earth. No one involved in this motion picture gets overwhelmed by the iconography of McDonald’s or the people involved in its making and its dominance, and it makes for a deeply involving cinematic experience. Hancock gets all the period details down perfectly to where we are believably transported back to a time where it seemed unthinkable to eat any meal without the use of silverware.

In some ways, I wished “The Founder” had dug even deeper into its subject matter to where the McDonald brothers were included more in the story, but it is still a compelling motion picture which makes the term “based on a true story” feel like it means something for a change. I also love how it is a movie which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. It deals with many things like the American dream, business, greed and the cost of success to a fascinating degree. But looking back, it is primarily about capitalism and of how it can be both good and bad. And considering how capitalism has become such an unrestrained thing to the detriment of many, it makes this movie all the timelier as it shows where capitalism in its most dominant form was born, and Gordon Gekko isn’t even in it.

“The Founder” ends with footage of the real Ray Kroc as he explains how McDonald’s came into being, but in his own way. Many things can be said about Ray as the final image of him in front of a McDonald’s restaurant leaves us in silence as he clearly claimed something which wasn’t even his to begin with. Then again, would it have become such an enormous enterprise without him? It’s hard to say otherwise.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to read what Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, and John Carroll Lynch have to say about “The Founder.”

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