It IS Super Bowl week, so perhaps a couple of lame sports
analogies are appropriate. I mean,
for movie buffs, this time of year is the film equivalent of the football season:
the Golden Globes and the SAG awards are the playoffs; and the Oscars are the
Super Bowl, right? And so, quickly
switching sports (I told you it would be lame), I offer you the unicorn of
baseball: a triple play!
As noted in my review of ‘Hidden Figures’, the best films at
the moment are all historical fiction: ‘Based on real events’. We have three excellent examples in
theaters – each with some flaws.
‘The Founder’, ‘Jackie’ and ‘Lion’ give you two people you probably know
very well, and one you probably never knew existed. But each offers a glimpse
into culture and history – and reveals a few things you probably didn’t
know. For that reason alone, each
deserves your attention.
Let’s start with one of the most dominant cultural icons in
the world: McDonalds. John Lee
Hancock’s film about the ‘creation’ of a company that feeds one-percent of the
world’s population EVERY DAY is a fascinating commentary on many facets of the American
dream, from post-war growth to crony capitalism to economic imperialism. And all of this came from the
never-say-never mind of one man: Ray Kroc. Michael Keaton gives one of his best performances in years –
and I include ‘Birdman’ in that evaluation – making the very unlikeable Kroc a
human example of American post-war exceptionalism. Starting as a struggling salesman with a dream and a pile of
Dale Carnegiesque motivational records (this was the 50s, remember), Kroc is a
man who refuses to give up. As the
records he plays in his cheap motel room every night intone: ‘Perseverance is
the greatest gift”. And he
perseveres, selling milkshake machines to drive-ins. Then one day, he meets Dick and Mac McDonald, who have
reinvented – no, who have INVENTED -- the concept of ‘fast food’ at the their
drive-in in San Bernardino, CA.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But if “history is written by the victors”, ‘The Founder’ is
revisionist history – or perhaps the truth. Kroc was a visionary, and his idea of franchising the
McDonald’s brothers’ concept was revolutionary – and perfect for its
moment. But he was also a
predator, taking what he wanted – including another man’s wife – and giving
nothing in return. Keaton is the
embodiment of this archetype and his portrayal of Kroc’s need for more, his
boundless ego and his willingness to lie and cheat to get what he wants is
fascinating to watch. You
simultaneously cringe and cheer – and then question your own motivations. That is good acting and good filmmaking.
‘The Founder’ is made even better by its supporting
cast. Nick Offerman and John
Carroll Lynch are terrific as the McDonald brothers, whose dream falls victim
to Kroc’s relentless onslaught.
Another victim is Laura Dern as Kroc’s long-suffering first wife Ethel –
who endured all of the pain and got none of the reward. And Linda Cardellini, as the woman Kroc
steals from one of his business partners, is perfect as a woman willing to
betray her husband and her life for a shot at the brass ring. Each of these characters is ideal to
the time. If you were a fan of
‘Mad Men’, you will love ‘The Founder’.
Let me quickly offer a few comments on ‘Jackie’ and ‘Lion’,
particularly since both figure prominently in the Oscar races. Once again, we have films ‘based on
real events’, and particularly in the case of ‘Jackie’, Chilean filmmaker puts
his own unique spin on the story of the iconic First Lady. I love the work of Lorain – when his
film ‘Neruda’ is released in the next few months, watch out. But to take on such a dominant figure
in American history, and to make the portrayal less than flattering is a
challenge. Lorain and Natalie
Portman as Jackie Kennedy do this brilliantly. Again, I go back to Churchill, that history is written by
the victors. Jackie Kennedy was
the consummate victor in a war of images and pageantry that redefined the
rather lackluster political career of her husband into a shining beacon of
progress and greatness. Portman is
outstanding in the role, portraying the brittle widow alongside the steely
schemer. She does no favors for
Jackie as icon; but she delivers a tour-de-force in providing ‘alternate facts’
-- the perfect actress for Lorain’s specialty.
Finally, there is ‘Lion’. If ‘The Founder’ and ‘Jackie’ are historical fiction as fact
checking, ‘Lion’ is historical fiction as feel good, real life triumph over
adversity. The story of a young
boy from the slums of remote India who becomes separated from his family,
orphaned and adopted by a middle-class Australian family and raised in relative
comfort, ‘Lion’ is effectively two stories. The first is of the young boy, Saroo, lost and unable to
communicate, tragically taken from his family, loving and caring regardless of
their conditions. As the young Saroo,
the real star of this film is Sunny Pawar. If ever there was an appropriate name for an actor, this is
it. Sunny is a bright, hopeful
child, even as he is stripped of family, home and culture. He grabs your heart and squeezes as he
is tossed on the waves of fate; and you cheer when he finds love and care in
The second film is of Saroo as a now-grown young man. He has clearly thrived under the care of his adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. But he is haunted by the loss of his family, and determined to find his way back to them. The film becomes a bit too much of a techno-thriller at this point, since Saroo discovers Google Earth and uses it to search for the few landmarks that are seared into his memory. But Dev Patel is very good at portraying the push/pull of emotions represented in leaving the family that raised him to find the family that created him. Nicole Kidman is outstanding as Saroo’s adoptive mother, struggling with her own feelings of loss and pride. ‘Lion’ is definitely worth the time, and I have already telegraphed the ending (take your tissues).
So there you go. Lots of alternatives to the Super Bowl if you need them! Next week I will offer Part One of my annual Oscar preview.