It’s Larry David’s dream come true: This weekend’s two biggest movies star bald men: XXX: The Return of Xander Cage‘s Vin Diesel and Split‘s James McAvoy. No such luck for The Founder‘s Michael Keaton, who sadly receded from the top 10.
The shaven-head stars aren’t the only things XXX and Split have in common: Both also boast “surprise” encore cameos of characters from earlier films: Darius Stone (Ice Cube), who stepped in for Cage in the Diesel-free 2005 sequel XXX: State of the Union, and SPOILER ALERT! Mr. Glass (Bruce Willis) from Split auteur M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 cult-favorite superhero movie Unbreakable.
But here’s where the movies start to diverge: The lean and mean $9 million-budgeted Split is a hit, expected to draw $35 million over its first three days, while the overblown XXX will be lucky to scrape up $20 million against its $85 million price tag.
I didn’t see the first two XXXs, yet I had no problem following the plot, such as it is. The presumed-dead Cage gets back into action after his mentor, NSA agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons, is apparently killed by a terrorist . That’s a shame, since Samuel L. Jackson (Willis’ Unbreakable co-star—the connections continue!) plays Gibbons, and he gives by far the most fun performance in the movie. And if you really believe Gibbons is dead, you’re dumber than F. Scott Frazier, the presumably pseudonymous screenwriter who penned with this lame-brained script.
Diesel tries so hard to be cool, he’s ice-cold (not to be confused with Ice Cube, who is genuinely cool). The rest of the rainbow-coalition cast, clearly put together to appeal to the international audience who will need to redeem this dud at the box office, includes Rogue One scene-stealer Donnie Yen, Orange is the New Black‘s androgynous Ruby Rose, her fellow Aussie Toni Collette, Bollywood model Deepika Padukone, Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu, Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, British UFC brute Michael Bisping, and ex-NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez (whose cinematic charisma rivals Stone Cold’s Brian Bosworth’s). Oh, and The Vampire Diaries‘ drop-dead gorgeous Nina Dobrev plays a computer nerd—we know that because she wears glasses.
That shows you the level of subtlety to XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Split isn’t exactly nuanced, either, but McAvoy does deliver a twisted tour de force as a man with 23 different personalities, including a 9-year-old boy and an animalistic creature known only as “the Beast.” He kidnaps a trio of nubile teenage girls and holds them captive as he toggles among his personae and eventually reveals his nefarious plans.
The movie demonizes mental illness and borders on torture porn at times as it lingers over the images of its three damsels in distress in varying stages of undress. Still, Anya Taylor-Joy, the enchanting star of last year’s horror sleeper The Witch, manages to turn her victim into a real flesh-and-blood character, even with her own distasteful “twist” (there are more, as that has long been Shyamalan’s shock-in-trade). And Eight is Enough‘s Betty Buckley contributes her usual solid work as McAvoy’s shrink.
But it’s the bald dudes (including Willis and Jackson) who rule both movies. We live in a deeply divided nation, but we seem to have finally conquered baldism. There may be hope for George Costanza yet.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that the Weinstein Co. — savvy marketers that they are — delayed the release date of The Founder from last August until Inauguration Day. The biopic of McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc seems like the perfect film for the Trump Era. That’s not a qualitative judgment: The movie itself, although strangely slow for a story about fast food, ultimately gains momentum after it initially founders, and it features a career-best performance from Michael Keaton (and that’s really saying something) as Kroc and a tasty supporting cast including Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the McDonald’s brothers, owners of the original restaurant that Kroc turned into a worldwide franchise.
What’s most striking about The Founder (and its sharp script by The Wrestler‘s Robert Siegel) is how many ways Kroc’s rise to wealth and power parallels our new President’s. Let me count them.
- The Founder is the story of a ruthless businessman who becomes a billionaire by being a bully and gobbling up real estate. Once Kroc, a struggling milkshake-machine salesman who’s gone bust with a number of get-rich-quick schemes, infiltrates the McDonalds’ business, he proceeds to intimidate them into getting his way, even though he has a contract giving them approval over any changes to the company. Once he’s rich and powerful enough, he threatens the small-time San Bernadino, Calif. restaurateurs to sue him for breaking their contract, promising to bury them in legal fees they can’t afford. And after they eventually capitulate and sell him the business, he promises them (on a handshake!) to give them 1 percent of the profits in perpetuity but never delivers. A tycoon who stiffs the little guys? McDonald’s dictator sounds a lot like the Donald.
- Kroc wraps himself in the American flag just as tightly as McDonald’s employees wrap their burgers in disposable paper. When he’s trying to convince the McDonalds to give him his way, he tells them to “Do it for America. Do it for your country.” Later he delivers a monologue about how much he loves the name McDonald’s because he knows it would sell more burgers than a place named Kroc’s (although that might sell a lot of shoes): “It sounds like… America.” It also sounds like, “Make America Great Again.”
- He makes sweeping promises, then delivers an inferior product that’s not good for you. Although Kroc sets out to serve healthy food at a fair price, once he realizes how little profit he’s making, he cuts corners by cutting the milk out of McDonald’s milkshakes. By using powdered water and no actual milk, he can make a killing. A milkshake with no milk = Obamacare with no care? And they both could kill you.
- He trades “up” for a younger, hotter wife. Kroc’s long-suffering yet supportive spouse (a thankless role well-played by Laura Dern) gets cast aside for a hot blonde, Joan (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of his franchisees (Patrick Wilson). She seduces him with the fake-milkshake idea, and director John Lee Hancock misses a golden opportunity to set the scene to the tune of “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard,” as anachronistic as that may be. Do I even need to draw the parallels to Marla Maples and Melania? One can only hope that Melania in the not-too-distant future takes a cue from Joan and donates a huge portion of her late husband’s fortune to charity—and millions to NPR.
- Kroc personifies fast food. He eventually dubs himself the company’s “founder,” even though he essentially stole it from the titular brothers. and he ultimately builds an empire that feeds 1% of the world’s population daily. That includes Trump, who has admitted to a love of fast food (hence his less-than-svelte figure). Finally, is it a coincidence Ronald McDonald is the company’s mascot and Trump is a clown? I think not. So if you’re fed up with the guy who keeps trying to force-feed us Whoppers—sorry, wrong fast-food joint!—you deserve a break from the news today, so get up and get away to The Founder.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about “the movie America needs right now, ” i.e. in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. I’ve used the phrase myself, in my review of La La Land, sensing that an escapist musical fantasy could unite our deeply divided country (and so far, the box office and awards shows seem to be bearing me out). I’ve also seen the description aptly applied to Lion, Loving and Moonlight, worthy tales of tolerance and cross-cultural connection that could help heal moviegoers’ souls.
But there’s one film that’s been labeled with this appellation and doesn’t deserve it: Patriots Day. Not that this docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is terrible. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) skillfully stages action sequences, and the cast—led by Mark Wahlberg as a Boston cop—does what they can with an unfocused script (credited to five writers) that brings nothing new to the story.
Yet the characters are doled out only one dimension each. Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders (or “Tawmy Sawnders,” as most of the actors pronounce it in their painfully corny Masshole accents) hurts his knee kicking down a door, so he spends the rest of the movie limping. But it’s really the film that limps along, running 133 minutes and feeling like it takes place in real time over the 90+ hours it depicts. J.K. Simmons, as the police chief of a neighboring town, smokes incessantly, leading to one of several jarring laugh lines (“I’ve gotta quit smoking,” he quips after chasing down one of the terrorists). Michelle Monaghan, as Saunders’ wife, worries, and John Goodman, as the Boston police commissioner… well, he just seems like John Goodman with a bad Boston brogue.
Every Beantown cliché under the sun gets trotted out: Simmons runs on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee; one local victim (the bland Christopher O’Shea) tries to teach his out-of-town girlfriend (Manhattan‘s Rachel Brosnahan, utterly wasted) the proper way to pronounce “Red Sawx”; everyone says “Jesus Fucking Christ” a lot.
The good guys, including Kevin Bacon as a straight-arrow FBI agent, are just as cardboard as the bad guys, the Tsarnaev brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), whose cloudy motivation seems to be mainly that they’re Muslim. One interesting character, a Muslim interrogator arrestingly played by Khandi Alexander, briefly appears and just as quickly departs.
The film ends with a mini-documentary, in which the real people portrayed by the actors tell their stories in their own words. There’s more genuine emotion and insight in those few minutes than in the rest of the brutally overlong Patriots Day. This isn’t the movie America needs right now; it’s a movie that didn’t need to be made at all.
The brilliant Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales once wrote of a short-lived show, “The Gangster Chronicles is so DOA, it makes doornails look frisky.” (I know, because as a 14-year-old, I clipped out his review, underlined that sentence, and kept it in a box under my bed, dreaming that someday I, too, would turn a phrase that beautifully.) Well, Live By Night makes The Gangster Chronicles look like The Godfather.
It must’ve looked great on paper: Ben Affleck, fresh off the Oscar-winning success of Argo, directs his own adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just as he did with his hugely promising debut as a filmmaker, Gone Baby Gone (starring his brother Casey, who’s having a much better year, winning every award under the sun for Manchester by the Sea, than Ben is having with Batman v. Superman and this dud). The story starts in Boston, Ben’s old Good Will Hunting turf as well as the setting for Gone Baby Gone and its solid followup The Town. Affleck remains a gifted visual stylist; working with cinematographer Robert Richardson, he stages a bank robbery/car chase and shootout that crackle with electricity. But they’re stand-alone sequences, and soon as they’re over, the story comes to a screeching halt.
So where did it all go wrong? Where to begin? Where movies always begin, with the script. The story of a World War I vet, Joe Dougherty (Affleck), who returns to Beantown and goes against the wishes of his honest-cop father (Brendan Gleeson) to live a life of crime, is quite simply full of beans. Affleck attempts to capture Lehane’s hard-boiled dialogue, but the result is soft-headed. One character is described as “dumb as a grape.” Live By Night is as dumb as a bunch of them. A similar story of Prohibition Era gangsters was told in an infinitely better fashion on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Live By Night should’ve been prohibited.
Gleeson gives the film’s only credible performance, and—SPOILER ALERT—he dies, off-screen, within the first half-hour. The rest of the cast seem to be competing in a bad-acting-off. Chris Messina channels Chico Marx as Joe’s goombah sidekick. The usually great Chris Cooper seems to be parodying his own performance in American Beauty as a corrupt yet self-righteous Tampa sheriff. Two shockingly nondescript actors, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone, are cast in the pivotal roles of warring mob dons, one Irish and one Italian, who fight for what’s left of Joe’s soul. An even more anonymous performer, Matthew Maher (who also appeared in The Town), portrays a Klansman with an apparent hare-lip, and he unintentionally conjures the memory of Elmer Fudd. You half-expect him to say, “Be vewwwy quiet. We’re hunting minorities!”
The women’s roles in the film are as insultingly written as they are poorly executed. Sienna Miller fatally overplays the femme fatale; she’s a moll who double-crosses Joe and sets him up to be killed by the Irish kingpin, yet we’re supposed to believe Joe’s so in love with her that he instantly forgives her, even though we see no traces of genuine affection between them. Zoe Saldana is saddled with the good-wife role; she’s a Black Cuban rum-runner who becomes Joe’s spouse when he relocates to Florida to try and open a casino, and the minute they get together, she becomes a paragon of virtue (once again, we never understand why these two are attracted to each other or what they have in common—we’re just supposed to take Affleck’s word for it that they’re deeply in love). The real doozy, however, is Elle Fanning in a part that is literally both a Madonna and a whore. She’s Cooper’s daughter, who heads to Hollywood seeking stardom and ends up doing porn and heroin. Then she returns home and is whipped by her dad in a scene so twisted it plays like daddy-daughter porn, if there is such a thing (and I’m afraid to find out but there must be). So she becomes an evangelist, showing off her track marks as if they were stigmata, and singlehandedly shuts down Joe’s plans for a gambling empire with her supposedly rabble-rousing tent-revival speeches. Problem is, Fanning is so low-energy (pardon my Trumpism), she barely seems able to keep her eyes open, muchless whip a flock of parishioners into a holy-rolling frenzy.
But the winner of the bad-acting-off, by a mile, is Affleck himself. He barely seems able to keep a straight face when he’s delivering ridiculous lines like, “I have no beef with you, but I don’t truck with gangsters.” Just behind his eyes, you can see a little boy’s glee that he’s getting to do a gangster movie like the ones he grew up watching. Can you imagine Al Pacino in The Godfather or Ray Liotta in GoodFellas delivering such transparently awful work? No, because Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese wouldn’t allow it. But Affleck’s his own director — and his own worst enemy.
There’s a scene in the film when Joe gets kicked so hard in the groin, he instantly vomits. That’s how I felt watching Live by Night. “I’d like to think there’s a God, and He’s kind,” Fanning’s Bible-thumper tells Joe. “Wouldn’t that be swell?” Sure it would, but if there is a God, why would He or She allow such a mortal sin against cinema?
Tonight’s the night in the City of Stars: the Golden Globe Awards! Here are my predictions and preferences in the major categories (with highlighted links to my longer reviews).
Should win: Hell or High Water
Will win: Manchester by the Sea
If there’s a dark horse, it’s Lion, which may appeal more to the Hollywood Foreign Press with its international focus than the very American Manchester by the Sea.
Should win: La La Land
Will win: La La Land
The lighter-than-air musical will waltz away with the Globe since it doesn’t compete with weightier entries like Manchester and Moonlight. Winning the Best Picture Oscar will be a heavier lift, where Hidden Figures is coming up fast on the outside.
Best Director — Motion Picture
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Tom Ford
Will win: Mel Gibson
The Globes are all about manufacturing great TV moments, and giving the award to Gibson — and forgiving him for his many public and private trespasses — is a shiny opportunity the Foreign Press won’t be able to resist.
Should win: Amy Adams
Will win: Natalie Portman
I found Jackie to be ghoulishly awful, but Globes voters will probably eat up Portman’s hammy accent and the chance to see her up on stage pregnant and accepting another award, just like she did for Black Swan a few years ago.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences
Should win: Denzel Washington
Will win: Casey Affleck
The conventional wisdom is it’s Affleck the younger’s year (despite the sexual harassment stories that have bubbled under the surface in recent weeks). No question he was great in Manchester, but Washington is downright magnificent in Fences.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Jonah Hill, War Dogs
Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool
Should win: Ryan Gosling
Will win: Ryan Gosling
Gosling’s charming turn dances circles around his competitors, but he may not be able to keep up with more serious competition from Affleck at the Oscars.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Lily Collins, Rules Don’t Apply
Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Should win: Emma Stone
Will win: Annette Bening
This is a two-woman contest, and it’s a toss-up. If La La Land sweeps the night, Stone could get caught up in the whirlwind, but Bening is a longtime Globes fave (having been nominated eight times and won twice).
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Simon Helberg, Florence Foster Jenkins
Dev Patel, Lion
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals
Should win: Jeff Bridges
Will win: Mahershala Ali
This is a strong category — although I would’ve nominated Nocturnal Animals‘ Michael Shannon over Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But Ali’s got the big mo for Moonlight, and his winning work in Hidden Figures will put him over the top.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Should win: Viola Davis
Will win: Viola Davis
Forget about it. This is as close to a lock as the Globes ever gets. Never mind Davis should be competing in the Best Actress category. She destroys in Fences.
Best Screenplay — Motion Picture
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Should win: Taylor Sheridan
Will win: Kenneth Lonergan
It’s a tight contest between Chazelle, Jenkins and Lonergan, but Manchester is nothing if not a writer’s movie and the playwright Lonergan will take the final bow.
Best Original Score — Motion Picture
Nicholas Britell, Moonlight
Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival
Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, Lion
Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, and Hans Zimmer, Hidden Figures
Should win: La La Land
Will win: La La Land
Three little words: La. La. Land.
Hidden Figures isn’t just one of the year’s best movies, it’s also got one of the year’s best titles. It works on two levels—as a math reference, but also as acknowledgement that the heroic African-American female math geniuses who contributed to NASA winning the Space Race in the ’60s have remained hidden from history… until now.
But I’ve got an even better title for this wonderfully human film: 20th Century Women. Too bad that moniker was already taken by an inferior movie, set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Calif. and starring Annette Bening as a single mother trying to raise her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) with the help of two female friends (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning). The cast is spot-on: Bening has earned heaps of praise, as well as a Golden Globe nod and major Oscar buzz, but Zumann doesn’t hit a false note either. Gerwig didn’t annoy me for the first time ever with her precious quirkiness. Fanning did annoy me, but that was the point of her mopey character, so she did her job well.
Writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) devises a seductive visual style, but his script comes up short in its depiction of Bening’s character. Early on, we’re told she wanted to be a military pilot but wasn’t allowed due to her gender, and Mills circles back to that point in the end, but by then you’ve forgotten all about it. In between are interesting individual scenes (although way too much punk-rock dancing), yet as hard as Bening works to depict her character as a flesh-and-blood human being, she remains a frustrating mystery. Zumann’s character even says so in a voiceover. Yes, human lives are messy and self-contradictory. But the job of a filmmaker is to cut through that and bring out a character’s essence, and on that point, Mills fails.
Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi (who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, author of Mean Girls 2… wait, there was a Mean Girls 2?) brings the same lovely, naturalistic touch to this story as he did to the seriously underrated 2014 Bill Murray-Melissa McCarthy dramedy St. Vincent. All of the characters are fully three-dimensional, whether it’s Octavia Spencer as a computer whiz; Taraji P. Henson as a math savant; or Janelle Monae as an aspiring engineer.
They’re stymied in pursuit of their dreams due to the double whammy of prejudice against their gender and their race, and theirs is truly the story of 20th Century women. It turns out even the sky had a glass ceiling. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels, these women similarly matched their male coworkers, many of whom were backwards heels.
Still, Melfi loves his characters, and even the would-be villains—Jim Parsons as a haughty sexist (slyly playing against his lovable-nerd Big Bang Theory image) and Kirsten Dunst as Spencer’s casually racist boss—show signs of growth, minuscule as they may be. And Kevin Costner gives his best performance since… well, ever… as Henson’s hard-nosed, gum-chomping, tough-but-fair supervisor. Oh, and Mahershala Ali, reteaming with Moonlight‘s Monae, stirs up fiery chemistry with Henson as a military man who falls in love with her and her three adorable daughters.
As for the three female leads, I’d give ’em all Oscars, in a tie with Fences‘ Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress. A movie like this is why the Screen Actors Guild invented the Best Ensemble award. Bening may win Best Actress for 20th Century Women (unless, God forbid, Natalie Portman takes home a second Oscar for her ghastly Jackie), and it’s a shame these other four women are all grouped in a supporting category. I guess that’s just another glass ceiling that needs to be shattered by 21st Century African-American women.
The makers of Passengers are lucky that I posted my list of the year’s 10 worst movies before I subjected myself to their atrocity in an act of New Year’s desperation: There were no other films playing near me that I hadn’t seen and weren’t cartoons, Assassin’s Creed or Why Him? But why me? Why couldn’t have an assassin spared me of this torture?
Full disclosure: I thought Passengers looked terrible from its trailer alone. What I didn’t know (major spoilers ahead… but can you really spoil something this rotten?) is that the trailer is horribly misleading: The actual movie is even worse. First of all, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t even wake up for the first 30 minutes. That leaves Chris Pratt wandering around a spaceship, having awakened 90 years too early, with only a robotic bartender played by Michael Sheen — who seems more human than Pratt, by the way — for company. I don’t think Pratt even had to act in the scenes when he’s weightless; the guy’s got no natural gravity, no gravitas. For the first half hour, Passengers plays like 2016: A Space Idiocy.
Then J. Law finally wakes up… or I should say, Pratt wakes her up. He’s been stalking her for a year as she lies comatose in suspended animation and falls so deeply in love with her that he has to rouse her, thus ensuring she’ll die before reaching the vaunted planet Homestead 2, a kind of do-over for Earth. (I wish they’d done a do-over for Jon Spaihts’ script.) But Pratt doesn’t tell J. Law he woke her up, and she falls in love with him… until the robo-barkeep spills the beans. It’s never really explained why a robot would be on duty when no customers are expected to turn up for another nine decades, but that’s the least of this story’s problems.
J. Law gets pissed, understandably, for Pratt having essentially “murdered” her, but along comes Laurence Fishburne as a kind of “Magical Negro,” as Spike Lee dubbed characters like The Green Mile‘s Michael Clarke Duncan and The Legend of Bagger Vance‘s Will Smith whose sole function is to help white people realize their dreams. Fishburne’s captain suddenly wakes up, gets sick and dies… but not before convincing these two crazy kids they can’t live without each other.
So J. Law forgives Pratt and decides not to go back to sleep because she wants to spend the rest of her life with him… alone on a spaceship. We’re supposed to see them like Jack and Rose on the Titanic, star-crossed lovers on a doomed ship, but Passengers plays more like a pro-Stockholm Syndrome propaganda film. The woman exists only as a subordinate to the man, to satisfy his desires — no matter she’s a gifted writer who’ll never live to see her greatest story read by anyone other than him.
Even an Oscar winner like J. Law can’t make this story believable. She’s mainly used as a prop, often stripping down to a swimsuit (although Pratt gets the obligatory butt shots) and ending up in a soaked tank top. Is this a movie or a wet t-shirt contest?
Passengers was poorly directed by Morten Tyldum, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for The Imitation Game. That seems apt, since this feels like an imitation of better films like Gravity and The Martian. (Hell, even Interstellar was less ludicrous.) The special effects and music appear to have been lifted from Battlestar Galactica — the 1970s version. The script once languished on “Black List,” the annual rundown of allegedly great screenplays that haven’t been filmed. This one should’ve stayed on the Black List. Or in a black hole.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But in the theater where I saw Passengers, everyone could hear me scream with scornful laughter at one of the most inept films I’ve endured in this or any other year.