Mike at the Movies

Gold (R) ****

Matthew McConaughey as hungry Kenny Wells gives a magnificent performance in this second example of American greed and corruption this cycle. The first was “The Founder” about the McDonald’s corporation.

In this film we see the price of greed played out more slowly as Wells, salesman-by-story, tries to find gold and strikes it with Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez). Acosta is in Indonesia, prospecting for other minerals but doesn’t mind when he strikes gold: An assay shows this is worth 1/8 ounce per ton, enough to make millionaires of himself and Wells.

The Washoe Mining Company is created and starts harvesting a predicted 10 million ounces of gold out of tough land. The stock hits on Wall Street, Wells and Acosta begin living the Good Life, and Kay Wells (Bryce Dallas Howard) wisely warns, “None of this is real” as Kenny takes up with a sexy, blonde PR person from a New York firm. That firm soon moves in on shares of the profits, promises the moon for the partners and soon a partner from Newport Holdings offers Kenny $300 million for his holdings. Kenny would have to sell the naming rights for his company, and he refuses.

The Indonesian military under Suharto (this is the late 80s), with the assistance of board member Gerald Ford, takes over the mine and it is discovered that somebody (probably Acosta) has salted the assay samples and the mine is worth nothing. All this happens at a rapid pace, yet the foretelling of Wells’ problems starts early in the film with his drinking and carousing.

Like “The Founder,” also a film about the price of greed though with more damage to the psyche than the bank account of Ray Kroc, the force of capitalism leads both Wells and Kroc to make up history, trample over their associates and in general suspend all decency in a quest for money. It is sad that in “Gold” the aim of Wells is tipped so early: We have a long time to see it coming, while Kroc’s greed works more slowly with equal results on those caught on the downside of the whirlwind of greed that drives Kroc to steal the franchise. Both films are excellent; this one is a bit harder to follow with the international complications. Neither portrays American capitalism in a flattering light.

Jackie (R) ****

This biopic has a strictly limited scope to the time immediately before and after the assassination of JFK in 1963. Natalie Portman as the title character carries the film with a stoicism and inner fire that illuminate the agony Mrs. Kennedy endured. We who lived through it and witnessed it will have many moments of shuddering memory as the events flow through us once again: the shots, the speeding motorcade, the swearing in of LBJ on the plane, the antagonism of the Kennedys and the Johnson camps and, underneath it all, the realization that JFK’s most telling legacy, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, will all but destroy the Democratic Party in the South.

It is one of the great moments in American history—great for its impact, not for its goodness. Those who went through the Trump inauguration recently but were not alive or aware in 1963 may now have a sense of what the agony was like that horrible weekend and months to follow. The depths of feeling then were tinged with grief and the loss of Camelot. Today’s grief has been more about the injustice of a president not elected by a majority but by a technicality. The depths of the agony are, however, similar.

Portman does a fine job of impersonation, limited as she is by facts that most Americans are familiar with. Other characters are well-represented and mirrored, especially Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. Though it is rated “R,” the film should be seen by your teenage children if for no other than historical reasons. It is still difficult to watch.

The Founder (PG-13) ****

McDonald’s has always maintained its reputation as the ultra-American chain, and it turns out that was by the design of its foremost driver, Ray Kroc. Kroc (Michael Keaton) was NOT the founder of McDonald’s—that distinction belongs to two brothers from California, Dick and Mac (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who founded the chain in one small restaurant in 1954. Kroc saw the place, the lines outside it, marveled at the speed of service (30 seconds to get a full order of burger, fries and a soft drink), loved the taste of the burgers and decided selling shake-making machines was beneath him. He saw McDonald’s as “the new American Church” and the Golden Arches as symbols of it.

My second teaching job was in Des Plaines, Illinois, and the most famous landmark around was a McDonald’s about three blocks away on Lee Street. We were always told it was “the first McDonald’s” and Kroc regarded it as #1 and even called it that, though the chain actually began in San Bernadino.

Kroc’s main problem, anticipated by the brothers, was quality control as he franchised the concept. Kroc himself assured control by visiting stores and making necessary changes and by hiring people he met in his restaurants, at dinner and anywhere else he met hungry, responsible family men. In the meantime, he always had a flask of booze close to his heart and, while not clearly an alcoholic by then, was awash most of the time. His problems were later clarified by the founding of the Kroc Foundation and its emphasis on treatment of alcoholism. His wife, Joan, longtime supporter of NPR and charities of all sorts (she gave away most of her fortune before her death in 2003), is portrayed as the more human of the two and is credited with introducing the cost-saving powdered shakes to McDonald’s that dominated the menu for years before shifting back to milk.

A lot of McDonald’s secrets are exposed in the film, though knowing them won’t likely deter many people from stopping in for a quick meal. The turning point for the franchises is reached when accountant Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) tells Kroc that he’s actually in the real estate business, advises him on an entirely new business plan focused on buying the land for McDonald’s stores and making his profit that way.

Actually, the deal Kroc wrote with the brothers was dreadfully one-sided and probably needed some re-writing, but Kroc’s natural rapacious attitude enlarged the effect, forcing out the brothers and making himself into a multi-millionaire. In the process, Kroc the revisionist re-writes the history of the company, forming “The McDonald’s Corporation,” not telling anyone that it is in fact a real estate company, calling himself The Founder and placing the origins of the company in Illinois. He justifies his revisionism by telling those who will listen, “Business is war.” It certainly takes its toll on the brothers who remain hapless and helpless in San Bernadino, even losing their original store and its name to the corporation.

Keaton’s Kroc is chilling in his coldness, both in regard to the brothers as well as second wife Joan, whom he steals from one of his managers, leaving first wife Ethel (Laura Dern) stranded and alone at 64 when she died. The movie will create reverberations of Trumpism at many moments, and it is fascinating to trace the techniques Trump has used to create his vast wealth and the corporate greed that he speaks to and parallel them with Kroc’s amoral grasping. Kroc speaks of the American Dream and defines it by his behavior. Capitalist Social Darwinists will applaud the film while the rest of us may wonder if it’s really necessary to treat other humans like this. Either way, you’ll need something to eat just to get the taste of the film out of your mouth. I dare you to see the film and not think of a Big Mac and fries!

A Dog’s Purpose (PG) **

Boy, I wanted to like this movie! I take no blame for not liking it, however, as it is one of the most conscientiously manipulative films I’ve seen in years. Lass Hallstrom, the director, keeps piling on the clichés, one after another, and the acting is wooden even by dog standards.

Briefly, the format is a dog lives, after asking the most banal of cliché questions: “What’s the meaning of life?” and does not learn the answer. He then conveniently dies, leaving the potential answer to four other dogs, all voiced by Josh Gad in a “Golly, gee whiz” style of speech that is as cloying as the banal situations the dogs are put into. Boy falls in love with girl: “She smells like biscuits,” dog swallows valuable coin, eventually does what comes naturally, but also passes gas to get the chuckle from the young audience. Boy’s football teammate sets fire to his house, dog helps mom and son escape but boy loses full football scholarship to Michigan State with a broken ankle. This also causes boy to fall out with Biscuit Girl, then dog dies agonizingly while changing his breed, gender and name to a female German Shepherd who is killed saving a girl from raving rapids as a police dog. (The scene that got everybody upset on Facebook.) There is more and more and eventually a return home to an adult Boy he started with and the same girl (transformed into Peggy Lipton) for the expected happy ending.

By this time, I was so disgusted with the manipulation and attempts to draw tears from the audience that I wanted them to leave the dog and elope. No such luck. To save your sanity, drop the kids off and take yourselves to something better like “The Founder” or even “Gold.” This movie was made for Facebook dog lovers. It’s more effective there.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (R) **

Almost two hours of WWE-style martial arts fights and armed conflicts accompanied by very loud sound effects and a musical score that seemed computer-generated, this is thankfully the last entry in the series that made Milla Jovovich an action star. Humanity has a last stand against the Undead and assorted villains, and they’re on the clock. There is only a certain time to get the anti-virus that will allow humanity to survive the zombies. Of course, when the virus is applied that means that Alice/Alicia (Jovovich) will be killed too since she has the fatal T virus, but don’t send flowers too soon. This is, after all, only the sixth appearance of Jovovich in the same role and there MUST be more ways to destroy zombies and Cerberus dogs and villains, but the producers of this one went through an extensive catalog before calling it a wrap.

Producers also just about used up the suspense/action techniques that are over-used in today’s films: fast pans, quick cuts, shaky lighting, hand-held cameras, intense close-ups that show agony and little else and, of course, those zombies. There is nobody to care for here: Jovovich is loyal only to the clock, there is a traitor in her clot of goodies, any one of them might be a zombie, the bad guys are Bad Guys and the format for the fights is the same: like the WWE, the good guy gets the stuffing beat out of him/her, is just about done in and miraculously recovers to get the final count.

Go to this if you have to see the ending (pretty prosaic) or if you like murky special effects or you’ve had a nap and loud noises won’t bother you. Or go play the video game upon which the series was based. You may be able to control that more and turn down the volume.

Split (PG-13) **

An overlong fright movie that features a virtuoso turn by James McAvoy as nine different characters (of the 24 available to him), this could have been fascinating with more concentration on the character of the three girls involved rather than one of them, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). The other two, Haley Lu Richardson as Claire and Jessica Sula as Marcia, are used as cannon fodder for some of McAvoy’s more vicious characters.

Taylor-Joy is the only one of the three girls to have a backstory, and it involves her uncle in a bad way. The other main character, Betty Buckley as shrink Dr. Fletcher, does well to last as long as she does, but her end is inevitable, as it should be messing with so many characters she doesn’t understand.

Rather than keep us dizzy with the character changes, Shyamalan stretches it out and the action gets predictable and boring. One of the personalities has a certain perverse charm: Hedwig, who is 9, confesses he/she has red and blue socks. Scenes with Casey’s father and uncle, deer-hunting together, predictably introduce the uncle’s sexual hang up and its denouement is predictable and ugly. Another predictable element is the Boss of the Horde of personalities, “The Beast.” His appearance is so frequently predicted that his eventual incarnation at last is less than a surprise. Shyamalan has done good work in this genre. This is not one of his better efforts and without McAvoy’s performance, he’s pretty much got nothing.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (PG-13) *

The production company responsible for this lackluster film is from Shanghai and much of the financing is Asian. This should be no surprise as American filmmakers aim for the Asian market, but seldom do they pander as heavily as this film does.

Vin Diesel is the ostensible star as Xander Cage, but most of the seeming hundreds of martial arts scenes are more heavily influenced by Asian actors and women. Women have surely captured the attention of martial arts producers, and Deepika Padukone leads this film. Ruby Rose and Nina Dobrev function as well, and Toni Collette, usually a fine Australian actress with some chops, is wasted in a villain’s role.

The goal of this version of “Capture the Flag” is the “Pandora’s Box” master program for, what else, world dominance. The lines are stupid if not merely inane, Ice Cube returns from earlier xXx films and a Bruce Willis brief cameo keeps one awake to the end. The rest is entirely snooze-worthy. Xander Cage was supposed to be dead. What, other than a paycheck, caused him to come back?

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