Just in Time for Oscar: Neglected Founder, a Late Arrival, Serious Moonlight, Not Quite Fantastic…and Why I’m Not Completely Gaga over La La (Warning: Spoilers in La La Land)
There are a few films I was either a little late in viewing or didn’t get around to reviewing, so in no particular order, here are some not-so-random thoughts on some current Oscar hopefuls.
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, with a superb screenplay by Robert Siegel, is one of the better pictures I’ve seen this year, but received nary a nomination. It’s a shame since it also contains Michael Keaton’s best recent performance (and maybe best of career) as Ray Kroc, the fast-talking salesman who convinced the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch—both terrific) they should take their innovative, successful fast food restaurant and go the franchise route, with Kroc at the helm. What begins as a hopeful take on the American dream soon curdles into a tale of compromise and betrayal, as Kroc’s dreams of expansion and financial gain clash with the brothers’ desire to maintain standards and preserve the purity of their own accomplishment. Keaton is entirely all-too-believable as Kroc, whether he’s exhorting the McDonald brothers into following his dream, fighting with unsympathetic creditors, or telling his lawyer he would rather die than give up one share of stock. That statement will have a devastating payoff, as The Founder proves to be an all-too-timely cautionary tale of the underbelly of progress in a mechanized era—and the cost when you’re in business with a man in love with his own version of the facts.
Arrival has Amy Adams as one of the world’s foremost linguists and she’s got a job to do, namely meet with some extraterrestrials that have landed on Earth and decipher their language so that she can ascertain why they’ve landed. Jeremy Renner is also onboard as a physicist, along with Forrest Whitaker representing the military and Michael Stuhlgarg as a none-too-sympathetic government agent. The movie has received plenty of praise and some Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. To its credit, the movie sustains an aura of mystery, both in terms of the aliens and their intent, as well as the meaning in the persistent dreams Adams’ haunted character is experiencing. The payoff is both satisfying and bittersweet, but the film drags a bit before it arrives at the somewhat unexpected denouement.
Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is a movie that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. It works as a character study as it explores the effects of race, environment, conformity, abuse, bullying, and sexual confusion within the three-part drama of a young African-American boy and his agonizing journey into an insecure, conflicted manhood. The lead character, the bullied, withdrawn Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Saunders, and Trevante Rhodes, all superb) comes under the tutelage (initially) of a compassionate drug dealer and his girlfriend (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Mokae, both excellent). He is also simultaneously withstanding the horrors inflicted by a manipulative, abusive, drug-addicted mother (a frightening Naomie Harris), while coming to terms with his complicated feelings for childhood companion Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland). All of this is accomplished with rare sensitivity and delicacy, with each section marked by a defining moment that casts a shadow over the next part. As with other noteworthy films this year, the movie’s resolution can best be described as bitterstweet, a little tentative, but not entirely without hope.
Captain Fantastic has received a lot of praise for Viggo Mortensen’s performance (he’s nominated for Best Actor) as a non-conformist survivalist (is there any other kind) who’s been raising his kids to be rather proficient in reading and text analysis, as well as big game (or little game) hunting but severely lacking in social skills. Their way of life comes into question after their hospitalized mother dies and Fantastic Viggo must confront anguished father-in-law Frank Langella, who wants to raise his grandchildren in a comfortable home and see that they get the chance to go to college and make their way in the world. The thing is, I sympathized with Papa Langella, not just because of his precise, masterful performance, but because one sees first hand some of the damage Fantastic Viggo has inflicted on his charges. The movie ends on a quiet note that suggests some changes have been made, but by then, it’s Langella that has won me over—which I don’t think was the point.
LaLa Land – The main problem I have with La La Land has to do with Emma Stone’s child. If I may backtrack, Stone and Gosling are ambitious, young, very much in love, united by their ambitions. After a tearful breakup precipitated by Gosling’s missing Stone’s one-woman play (which she wrote as a vehicle for her), Stone goes back to the family home in Nevada—and wouldn’t you know it, there was a casting agent who wants Stone for an audition—cue Goslings journeying to the Stone home and convincing her to make one more try at the brass ring. Of course, she nails the audition and snags the lead in a movie to be filmed in Paris. They share a tender parting, in which Stone says, “You know, I’ll always love you.” Then…five years pass, and we see Stone in California–with her husband and child. Which makes this viewer think, that “love you forever” was a fairly empty utterance, considering the time it would take to court, wed, and later have a child—while maintaining a successful career. As a hopeful musical fan, I was willing to live with (and even enjoy) the fairly good score and passable dances adequately handled by untrained voices and tentative dancers—all echoes of superior fare that was accomplished with regularity during Hollywood’s Golden Age. However in the last fifteen minutes, much of the good will evaporated. At the poignant end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, when the star-crossed lovers meet unexpectedly, you understand the unfortunate choices that got them there, and you ache for them. Here in La La land, you’re looking at the events from the outside—you know they must have broken up, and you sense Gosling’s pain, but there’s no window into Stone’s soul—and the fact she didn’t know he had a club—in this modern era–don’t get me started. In any case, while there is much to like, especially early on, the last section just leaves me cold.