The Founder (After the Campaign Movie Review)

When I reviewed the marketing of The Founder earlier this year I wasn’t all that impressed with the scope of the campaign. It sold a fairly standard biopic about someone many people may not know a lot about but certainly had been impacted by. The main draw, and the focal point of the campaign, was star Michael Keaton, still in the midst of a post-Birdman career resurgence.

In the movie Keaton plays Ray Kroc, who we first meet when he’s a struggling salesman hawking milkshake machines to drive-ins in the years following World War II. It’s the latest, we find, in a series of products and schemes he’s engaged in to make a buck and be something more in his life. He happens across a growing burger stand in California called McDonald’s, owned and operated by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc falls in love with the efficiency of their operation. While Dick and Mac are reluctant, Kroc convinces them to partner with him to franchise their concept across the country. Thus is born the McDonald’s empire we know today, though many of Kroc’s tactics are less than exemplary, particularly when it comes to his relationship with the founding brothers.

The campaign didn’t promise anything too innovative in terms of story or filmmaking. What it did promise was the story behind the institution that’s now part of the daily lives of most all Americans as well as people worldwide. Even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s with any regularity, it’s part of the landscape of the country, seen in every town and city regardless of size and promising a hot, reliably consistent meal as you’re traveling down most interstate highways.

That’s what it more or less delivers. The movie isn’t going to blow you away with the visuals and the biopic format doesn’t allow for much in the way of flexibility, instead keeping the story moving along certain lines that promise to hit particular milestones and amp up the drama to keep the audience engaged.

So it’s good that the marketing’s core message was not just about airing Kroc’s dirty laundry but about selling Keaton’s performance. He’s just as dynamic and entrancing an actor as he was in Gung Ho, Beetlejuice and other movies that let him use his entire body to comedic effect. Now he’s more subdued but no less electric. Even in a montage showing him recruiting franchisees at VFW halls and PTA meetings, he crackles with energy that fills the screen. Just as I thought after seeing him in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Keaton makes the most of every scene not by chewing scenery as some actors do, but by confining the energy of those bigger performances within his own body, like a balloon you’re watching being stretched to its limits.

If you’re curious as to how McDonald’s grew to be McDonald’s, The Founder presents a good insight into the beginnings of a massive corporation that, as the ending states, now feeds 1% of the world’s population daily. That story may not be completely engaging all the time, but Keaton brings his A-game to his performance as Kroc, providing the biggest reason to see the movie.

Okja (After the Campaign Movie Review)

Netflix’s campaign for Okja, from director Bong Joon Ho, was pretty substantial when compared to some of the other efforts from the streaming company and nascent distributor. There were two trailers, a handful of posters and a decent press push that included a controversial screening at Cannes. All of that was to support a prestige movie the company hoped would raise its profile among filmmakers as well as attract new subscribers.

The movie’s story follows Mija, a young girl growing up on a farm in the remote mountains of South Korea. For the last 10 years that life has included caring for a super-pig named Okja, a massive but gentle beast with whom Mija spends most of her time. When the multinational conglomerate Mirando Corporation takes Okja, Mija sets out to rescue her pet, along the way encountering a group of peace-loving animal liberators, an over-the-top wildlife program host, and other colorful characters. Some want to help, some not. The only thing that matters to Mija is finding Okja.

The marketing was a bit inconsistent in tone, with trailers selling it as if it were akin to Pete’s Dragon or something, a tender story of a child’s love for an unusual pet. Sure there was a bit of tension and some exciting chase scenes on display, but those were tempered by healthy doses of whimsy. The posters, on the other hand, along with some notable in-world promotions, presented the movie more as the tale of corporate greed, a cautionary tale of the dangers of the industrial food system.

It’s surprising to find, then, that the movie itself is all of that. It’s both a touching story of a girl and her super-pig and an indictment of the companies that control our food supply and who are concerned only with public image and profits generation. So it’s not that the movie was ever sold poorly or inaccurately, it’s that with so much going on tonally it’s hard to convey all of that in the limited space Netflix provided. Add another poster and another trailer and you have more room to dive deeper into the different aspects of the movie and sell all that to the audience.

Here I’d like to turn the spotlight to Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Johnny Wilcox, a self-aggrandizing host of nature specials and who now works for Mirando. Gyllenhaal gives a performance that’s so over-the-top and captivating I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it in quite some time. Every scene is so BIG as he flails his arms, squeaks his voice and flop sweats to dominate the frame as much as possible. By contrast, Tilda Swinton’s performance as Lucy Mirando (and her twin sister Nancy), which is at times outlandishly cartoonish, is downright restrained and subdued.

If I were to take issue with one aspect of the campaign, it’s that it misrepresents a premise that’s at the core of the story, specifically Okja’s past. It’s not a huge problem, but the marketing gives an impression of the creature’s history and the circumstances under which he’s taken from Mija by the Mirando Corporation that’s not accurate to the story. That winds up being important because the ending of the film is as gut-wrenching and disturbing as any documentary you could watch about slaughterhouses and industrial beef farms.

Okja isn’t an easy film to watch and may not be as consistently great at Ho’s previous Snowpiercer but is still recommended. Just make sure the dinner you’ve enjoyed before or will be eating later is just a salad.

Dunkirk (After the Campaign Movie Review)

When I was reviewing the marketing campaign for Dunkirk, the latest movie from director Christopher Nolan, I was intrigued by how Warner Bros. had made two decisions in selling it to audiences: First, Nolan and his name recognition was front and center, building on the popularity of his previous films including The Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar and more. Second, the studio went all-in on the historical angle, with VR experiences, interactive websites and other efforts that let people explore the true events of what’s depicted in the movie.

dunkirk pic 2

The story takes three perspectives on that story. There’s the events on the beach, where we follow a British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he tries one way after another to get on a ship that’s heading home. There’s the events on the water, as we follow Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) one of the citizen sailors conscripted by the British Navy to take their small civilian ships across the English Channel to rescue the soldiers. Finally, there’s the events in the air, as pilots of the RAF including Farrier (Tom Hardy) target the German fighters and bombers who are taking out British warships coming in and out of Dunkirk.

Aside from the emphasis on Nolan as a brand name and the goal of educating the audience, the Dunkirk campaign *looked* like a Christopher Nolan movie. The trailers and posters sold a movie that featured incredible, stark visuals with clean lines and a color palette filled with dark blues and grays. If you watch the Dark Knight movies – especially the last two – as well as Interstellar, The Prestige and Inception, you’ll see that Nolan loves a cool color selection. Visually, then, this fit in with and reinforced in the minds of the audience the kind of movie they could expect from the director.

The final movie delivers on that promise. The story moves along with the cool efficiency we’ve come to expect from Nolan, who knows how to frame a shot in a way that’s both unemotional and packed with tension. His direction to the actors was essential here since, unlike most movies, there’s very little dialogue to move the story along.

There are about three instances, all involving either Rylance’s weekend sailor out to rescue the troops or the Navy’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), where they actually convey important expositional details. They’re the only ones who really talk about what’s going on in a way that sets things up for the audience. Everything else just…happens…and we need to follow along. Looking back at the trailers, that should have been more clear to me. There’s very little dialogue in what’s shown, instead focusing on the visuals. So the campaign pretty accurately sold a movie that’s not exactly silent but isn’t packed with characters walking the audience through the story via conversations.

What was less clear in the campaign is the slightly disjointed nature of the way Nolan tells the story. Each one of the three perspectives – Air, Land and Sea – happens during a different length of time, so things move along at different paces depending on what we’re seeing. Eventually you get used to that and understand what story we’ve jumped back to, but that’s again because of a stylistic choice Nolan made, giving each one of the three a different visual tone. That becomes a shorthand that lets the audience know what they’re now watching.

In the press campaign, Whitehead was called out as the breakthrough star of the movie. And he’s great as a soldier who will do whatever’s necessary to get to the front of the line and get home. He’s the emotional core of the story, the one whose fate the audience is most asked to become invested in, and handles that well. You have to stand up and applaud the performances of old pros Rylance and Branagh, though. These two veterans know just how to play their characters and are always a pleasure to watch. Rylance plays the “It’s our duty, so that’s what we’re doing” part, embodying the stiff upper lip the British are known for, the mindset that got them through the war. Branagh covers similar ground as he does whatever he can or needs to do to help the troops whose fate he shares. With Nolan working with certain actors time and again (Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and more), I’d be fine with these two joining his troupe.

That Dunkirk delivers almost exactly the experience its campaign promised audiences is likely a big reason it repeated as the number one movie at the box office this past weekend. There’s very little, just the shifting story perspectives, that wasn’t clearly conveyed in the marketing, showing that when it comes to directors like Christopher Nolan, a simple and honest message is the best tactic.

Slanted Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is out to reinvigorate the war movie genre with his latest cinematic outing, Dunkirk.

Anyone who has seen any Christopher Nolan film knows that he is never a straightforward director, and Dunkirk is no exception. While it is certainly more grounded in reality than something like Interstellar (since it is based on the true events that happened at Dunkirk in the second World War), that doesn’t mean that the film is less masterful. On the contrary, Dunkirk is truly a one of a kind film, and it stands out against other films in Christopher Nolan’s filmography just because of one thing: the action.

Similar to Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, which came out a few weeks ago, Dunkirk does not rely on dialogue to drive the story forward.  But while Planet of the Apes used emotional beats in the story to drive the plot, Dunkirk instead relies heavily on the action. Whereas other movies in the “war” genre are more traditional movies, using mostly dialogue to propel the story, Dunkirk smartly uses the battles and tragedies on screen to tell its story. What really sets Dunkirk apart from other war movies is that it uses slower pacing and minimal dialogue to capture the feeling of a true war. Without much dialogue, things often feel out of control and chaotic onscreen, and there is a true sense of unpredictability that Nolan captures extremely well.

What also makes Dunkirk so unique is the way that the story is structured. Dunkirk does not tell the story of just one man or one group of men during the Battle of Dunkirk; it tells three separate stories of multiple different people during the events before and after the battle instead. This makes the film feel more real, adding to the unpredictability of the story. In this sense it is almost like 2001: A Space Odyssey: No one specific character advances the story, and the story is not so much a coherent plot as it is a series of events leading to one big climax. This only enhances the movie and makes Dunkirk feel extremely fresh, something that audiences seem to be yearning for nowadays.

Dunkirk is in theaters now and is rated PG-13.

Slanted Rating:

9/10- See it in theaters NOW. 

Me Before You (After the Campaign Movie Review)

I’ll start off this review of Me Before You by admitting to something: I wasn’t prepared for how good the movie would be. Based on the marketing I reviewed last year I thought it would be a fairly by-the-numbers emotional tear-jerker that wouldn’t surprise me at all. My conclusion was that Warner Bros. knew the audience they were going after would just want a good cry and everything would act in service to that goal.

The story is focused around Lou (Emilia Clarke), a bright spirit in a small English town who sees the best in every person and every situation. After she’s let go from the shop she works at she takes a job acting as an emotional companion of sorts to Will Traynor, successful young businessman from a wealthy family who years ago was injured in an accident and is now a paraplegic. Her job is not take care of him medically but to try and lift his spirits. It takes a while but her formidable spirit eventually breaks through his depression and the two form not just a friendship but also a romantic connection. There are multiple complications that up the emotional factors, but it’s Lou’s presence that helps Will feel a bit like his old self again.

The campaign focused largely a couple scenes from the movie: A wedding and a concert the two attend. Both feature the budding couple in their finest tux and dresses, respectively. The intent was to present the story as a fairytale of sorts, where the lowly towns girl becomes something glamorous as she falls in love with the rich good-looking guy.

The movie itself is much more than that, though. Sure, there’s a big chunk of it that fills into that category, but it completely overlooks just how charming and essential Clarke’s performance as Lou is to the story. This doesn’t work nearly as well if she’s not as luminescent as Lou, putting megawatts of energy into every turn and step the character takes. The story succeeds or fails depending on how much you empathize with Lou and want her to succeed and Clarke’s performance can’t help but get you rooting for her.

Still, she never fully gives into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Sure, she waxes nostalgic about an old pair of black-and-yellow striped tights she once had and dresses in the most colorful, unique way she can. What Clarke does differently than some who do fall into the MPDG trap is that she makes that wardrobe a more full part of the character, not its defining aspect. It’s only because Clarke seems to know where Lou’s heart is that we care as much as we do.

Me Before You is streaming on Amazon Prime now and is recommended if you need a nice, funny, romantic way to spend a couple hours.

War For The Planet Of The Apes (After the Campaign Review)

First, an admission: When I wrote my marketing recap for War For The Planet Of The Apes I had not only not seen that movie (obviously since it wasn’t out yet) but Rise and Dawn, the previous two entries in this series, as well. I’ve since corrected that omission and was able to see War in the context of the entire story.

The story, as Nolan alluded to in his review, has the apes reluctantly facing the final confrontation with the soldiers representing the dwindling human population. The ALZ-113 virus inadvertently unleaded in Rise has wiped out 90% of humanity and the army lead by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is mad as hell about that. Caesar (Andy Serkis) sets out to confront him and end the battle once and for all and save the super-intelligent apes who just want to live peacefully. Things aren’t so simple, of course, and the finale isn’t what anyone involved expects.

When I recapped the marketing for the movie last week I felt the primary message was the all-out war that erupts between the two parties. I, to quote Obi-Wan, was wrong.

Nolan already talked about how emotionally heavy the story was, but I need to reiterate that point since it largely took me by surprise. Having just watched Rise and Dawn nearly back-to-back and within days of eventually watching War, I thought I was ready for how things would be brought to their conclusion. I could see the character arcs that had been established and was braced for them to reach their endpoint.

While I can’t say I was surprised by how things ended up and where the characters, particularly Caesar since we’d been following him since Rise, I was no less moved. All of the characters tugged on my heartstrings more than a little. I was emotionally invested in the fate of Caesar’s trusted advisors Maurice and Rocket. I was moved by the plight of Nova, the young mute girl the apes discover on their travels and begin to protect. Most of all, I felt the weight of Caesar’s burden of leadership, with the entire ape community counting on his judgement to guide them toward the future.

That last point is 100% because of the performance of Serkis. While the actor’s true face is never seen, it’s his performance that conveys all of Caesar’s worries and cares. We see what the ape leader is thinking and what factors he’s weighing because they come through in the performance, making their way from Serkis’ face through the camera, digital animators and others. It’s actually astounding what’s accomplished here and it will be a shame when Serkis is once again overlooked when it comes time for awards season.

Director Matt Reeves also deserves a fair amount of the credit. While the marketing may have focused on the explosions and gun battles that ensue between the human and ape armies, it’s the smaller moments that carry the bulk of the storytelling forward. Reeves handles both deftly, bringing an approach that’s both solidly workmanlike and unexpectedly artistic to a franchise finale. That’s even more so than he already did in Dawn, which carried the burden of being the middle of the story but which was no less satisfying in and of itself.

Much like Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman, Reeves has found a way to bring emotional artistry to what could have easily been yet another bloated blockbuster just there to keep the money rolling in. Between his directorial skills and Serkis’ incredible performance as the core of the story, War For The Planet Of The Apes is more well-crafted than a summer popcorn flick has any right to be. While the marketing that sold it may have been a little action heavy, don’t let that dissuade you from a movie that satisfies on many levels.

Slanted Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves) is the third installment in the current Planet of the Apes series, and is without a doubt the one of the best Planet of the Apes movies to date.

What War for the Planet of the Apes does very well is propelling the story forward while using very minimal dialogue. With a few minor exceptions, the only main characters that actually speak are Caesar (played by the amazing Andy Serkis), the Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson), and Bad Ape (played by Steve Zahn). The movie feels interesting to watch because the viewer doesn’t spend so much time focusing on dialogue, they are mostly watching the action and excitement on screen. That said, what sets this Apes movie apart from all the other films in the series is not the action; it’s the heart.

While other Apes movies mostly rely on the action happening on screen, what War does is examine the emotions behind the actions on screen. When the actual war begins in the third act of the film, you feel the strong emotions behind Caesar’s actions and his motives. You feel almost empathy for the Colonel, and despite him being the “big bad” of the movie, you strongly feel the emotional reasoning behind his actions. There are many emotional scenes involving Nova, the little girl the Apes find early in the story, and Reeves does a fantastic job of using the camera to enhance the emotions captured on screen. Reeves obviously knows how to work the camera to produce interesting, beautiful looking shots that capture what’s happening in a way that is superior to other filmmakers.

What War for the Planet of the Apes truly excels at is playing high on the audience’s emotions, and using those emotions coupled with minimal dialogue to propel the story forward.

War for the Planet of the Apes is in theaters now and is rated PG-13.

Slanted Rating:

9/10- See it in theaters NOW!

Moana (After the Campaign Review)

When I reviewed the marketing of Moana back in November of last year, I focused a lot on the way brand name stars like Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Rock were positioned as big selling points for the audience. That was a heavy focus of Disney’s campaign at the time, along with nods to the story of Moana’s journey to embrace her destiny and save her island.

That storyline, though, forms the crux of the movie. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), is the daughter of the chief of a small Polynesian island. Despite her parents’ insistence that the island is enough for everyone, she yearns to explore the vast sea. When a threat to everyone’s peaceful life emerges she strikes out to enlist the help of the demi-god Maui (The Rock) to help restore balance to nature. The two have to go through various trials and dangers to do so but ultimately find what she’s looking for and it all works out.

While the campaign sold a fun and funny movie about the odd pairing of the inexperienced but headstrong Moana and the cocky Maui, there’s so much more to it than that.

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Baby Driver (After the Campaign Review)

Baby Driver is a remarkable cinematic achievement, mostly because of audacious originality. While it’s certainly derived in part from other movies and stories (everything is based on or at least inspired by what’s come before), it feels like a breath of fresh air at the theater. Even with above-average superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver is a much-needed dose of pure adrenaline-fueled inspiration.

The story, as Nolan laid out before, is pretty simple: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who’s being coerced to act as a getaway driver in the heists engineered by criminal planner Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby’s debt to Doc is almost paid and he’s looking forward to being out of the world of bank robberies and other violence. The light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter when he meets Debora (Lily James) and the two dream of running off together. But things get complicated when Doc won’t loosen his grip and the job Baby was hoping would be his last goes sideways, resulting in problems and unexpected outcomes for everyone.

The word that’s been circling my head ever since walking out of the theater has been “intentional.” Writer/director Edgar Wright doesn’t do anything halfway, something that’s been true in most all his movies to date. He knows exactly the shot he wants, knows exactly how he wants it framed, knows what information he wants to convey with the framing and composition and so on. Every move he makes is intentional, meant to accomplish as much as a single frame of film (or its digital equivalent) can.

Nowhere is that better on display than during a tense shootout involving Baby and the criminals he’s paired with. Without spoiling too much for those who haven’t yet seen it, the sequence – which can’t last more than three or four minutes – is remarkable for the coordination in filming, music timing, editing and other elements. It’s simply unlike any other scene, action or otherwise, that’s been filmed in recent years. Everyone refers to Quentin Tarantino as a stylized filmmaker, but this is next level to an extent Tarantino hasn’t yet hit and may not even be capable of.

All of that originality of voice, tone and style was on display in the trailers and other marketing elements. As I said when looking at the campaign, the emphasis was on the music that powered Baby’s driving skills and that was clearly a focus of the story. He carries around a half-dozen iPods with different music selections on them, makes his own mixes including conversations he secretly records and always has music in his head, either literally or figuratively. It’s the rare case of an extensive mixtape-like approach to the soundtrack isn’t just about selling albums but is essential to the story. That’s clear not only in the above-mentioned shootout but even in smaller scenes like one where Baby fumbles with the radio of a car he’s just stolen until he finds the perfect music.

If anything, the trailers played down the style Wright has imbued the movie with. It’s *more* than what was sold. So if you haven’t seen it yet, be ready to be bombarded by the talents of one of the most original thinkers Hollywood has working right now. I wouldn’t be mad if the reports of a sequel turn out to be true, though I enjoy Wright when he’s farming fresh ground, not revisiting previous material.

Manchester By the Sea (After the Campaign Review)

When I reviewed the campaign for Manchester By The Sea last year the movie was already well heralded thanks to rapturous praise coming out of Sundance and other screenings. It was a hit at that festival and was quickly snapped up by Amazon Studios, who made it one of its centerpiece releases, going on to win multiple awards both as a whole and specifically for star Casey Affleck’s performance.

In the movie Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston who’s called back to the small town of Manchester By The Sea after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), mostly to be the guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s only son. With Patrick’s mother out of the picture because of substance abuse and mental health issues, Lee is the best choice but he bucks against that role. Mostly that’s because his history in the town, involving a tragedy involving his own family and a contentious divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) have branded him somewhat of a pariah in the town. Lee wants to bring Patrick back with him to Boston, but Patrick understandably wants to stay near his friends and the rest of his life.

When the movie immediately ended my reaction was similar to my impression of the marketing, which is that there’s a lot of emotion on display here. It may not always be the most obvious or overt or even relatable, but I felt the conflict between the characters and sympathized to some extent with the predicament they all found themselves in.

That feeling did not last long, though. The more I rolled the movie around in my head and thought about the characters and their motivations, the more problems I had with the whole package.

Sure, Lee is apparently unwanted in Manchester, which makes deciding to move there to care for Patrick difficult. That’s understandable. But there’s no effort made by Lee to find any third alternative between “Boston, but Patrick is miserable” and “Manchester, but Lee can’t hide his shame.” There’s got to be a middle ground between those extremes but in an effort to make the painful emotions as amped-up as possible, the story never explores it. It’s all or nothing. I get that binary choices result in increased tension, but this takes it to a level that makes suspension of disbelief tenuous.

Despite my issues with it, it’s not as if the story was misrepresented in the campaign. It clearly and accurately showed the position Lee is in, though it of course doesn’t reveal what it is that makes Manchester a non-viable option for him personally. If there’s any issue I have with the campaign as whole it’s that it slightly over-emphasized the relationship between Lee and his ex-wife Randi. That was the primary message of the one-sheet and was the subject of a clip released before release that spoiled one of the key emotional moments of the story. While that relationship is certainly important, it’s most often subtext to other events, not something that’s regularly front-and-center.