Film reviews round-up: The Founder, The Great Wall, John Wick: Chapter 2, Hidden Figures

The ruthless backstory of the rise of McDonald's, Matt Damon's bizarre China-set fantasy film, John Wick's deadly return and an Oscar-nominated drama

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 15 February 2017 12:14 GMT

The Founder (12A)


Dir: John Lee Hancock, 115 mins, starring: Michael Keaton, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, BJ Novak

The Founder, the story of the founding of McDonald’s, is a cautionary tale in which the ultimate betrayal arrives in the unlikely form of powdered milkshake. It is a surprisingly nuanced and barbed look at the American Dream and its flip side.

Michael Keaton gives another barnstorming performance here, as crazed and desperate in its way as his Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman. He plays the real-life character Ray Kroc, a travelling salesman with very big ambitions. Director John Lee Hancock introduces him with a huge close-up of Kroc giving his sales spiel for a milkshake machine straight to camera.

There’s something demented about his delivery. “Increase the supply, demand will follow, you increase the supply and demand will follow,” he repeats, as if it’s a sacred mantra. When the camera finally pulls back, we see that he is giving the pitch to some cafe owner who isn’t remotely interested.

Everything about Kroc is contradictory. He pitches as if every sale is a matter of life and death, but he is moderately affluent already anyway and seems to have a decent enough life in prosperous Eisenhower-era America. He’s a regular guy and yet he is always on the make. We feel a little sorry for him as he is rejected again and again and has to fit his huge, unsold milkshake machine back in the boot of his car.

Hollywood doesn’t tend to make many films about small business. That’s why Kroc’s business partners (and eventual stooges), Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his brother Dick (Nick Offerman) make such appealing characters. They’re the Californian restaurateurs who set up the original McDonald’s Diner. They run it along ingenious Ford factory lines.

This is fast food and yet the McDonald brothers, in their own Mr. Magoo-like way, are complete idealists. They have extraordinarily high levels of quality control and no interest whatsoever in turning their diner into a franchise business – until Kroc stumbles into their lives.

In future years, you could easily imagine The Founder being used as a case study in business courses. This is a story about how a small family business became a huge global empire – but lost its soul (and any vestiges of quality control) in the process. By the end of the film, the idea that there might actually be milk in the milkshakes seems like a distant dream.

The Founder - Trailer

Ray Kroc is both a genial American everyman and a vaguely Satanic figure. There’s a wonderful scene early on when he visits the McDonald’s Diner for the first time and reacts as if he has arrived in fast food paradise. Every burger has “two pickles, a pinch of onion and a precise shot of ketchup and mustard.” It is fresh, delicious and gets from grill to counter in a matter of seconds. Kids, their parents, blue collar workers and business folk alike revel in eating there.

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This is a place where “decent, wholesome people come together” with “shared values protected by the American flag.” Kroc himself is enraptured by the brothers’ vision, even as he sets about corrupting it. He takes the brothers’ folksy, all-American business and bastardises it.

Movies about big American successes (which is what McDonald’s is, whatever you think about the Big Mac) tend to be upbeat, celebratory narratives. The Founder is one of the few that considers the compromises, the bad faith, the advertising and real estate trickery that enabled the company to grow. What makes the film so intriguing, and probably explains why no voters have bitten on it for major awards nominations, is its open-ended quality.

You can watch it and admire Keaton’s Kroc for his perseverance in the face of humiliation and setbacks. He’s the Willy Loman-like salesman who actually made a life-changing deal. At the same time, if there’s a villain here, someone who’s single-handedly responsible for turning America into a fast food nation as he sets out to make a quick buck for himself, Kroc is the one. As the brothers themselves note of their new business partner, “a hothead like that, you don’t know what he is capable of.”

The Great Wall (12A)


Dir: Zhang Yimou, 103 mins, starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Numan Acar

Hollywood wants access to China and China wants access to Hollywood. That, in a nutshell, is why The Great Wall was made. The production company behind it, Legendary, which also produced Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, is now Chinese owned. The film itself is an unholy hybrid – a medieval, Game of Thrones-like fantasy which never knows whether it wants to look east or west.

Matt Damon acquits himself well enough as the rugged mercenary who, together with his friend (Pedro Pascal) ventures to the Great Wall, hoping to get hold of “black powder” (an early version of gun powder) and to make himself rich and powerful in the process. He’s apprehended but then joins forces with his Chinese captors as they try to repel hordes of marauding “tao tei” monsters – Fungus the Bogeyman-like green creatures with ferocious destructive powers.

The Great Wall - Official Trailer 2

This may be a goofy action movie but Zhang Yimou is still an elegant visual stylist. In amid the carnage and shots of the squelching green flesh of the monsters, there are some wondrous sequences of blue-clad Chinese warrior women diving off the Great Wall with ropes attached to them and performing astonishing feats of acrobatics. Most of the film is in English. The Chinese warrior general heroine (Jing Tian) speaks the language well having been taught it (and Latin) by another mercenary brigand (Willem Dafoe) captured behind the Wall many years before.

As old-fashioned matinee entertainment in the vein of Ray Harryhausen B-movies, the film just about passes muster. The filmmakers throw in lots of fights, lots of chase sequences, plenty of explosions and the green creatures with their scales, teeth and armour-like skin, look genuinely creepy. Damon and Pascal have a nicely sardonic comic rapport and Dafoe enjoys himself as a pantomime villain type.

There’s no hiding, though, just how creaky the plotting and dialogue often are. Given that it had a huge budget as well as the combined expertise of Hollywood and China behind it, The Great Wall is a surprisingly primitive and clunky affair.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)


Dir: Chad Stahelski, 122 mins, starring: Keanu Reeves, Bridget Moynahan, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Peter Stormare, Peter Serafinowicz

John Wick: Chapter 2 is even more stylised than John Wick. Keanu Reeves is back as the assassin, still very upset over the death of his dog in the last film (and seemingly slightly less so over the death of his girlfriend). It’s a new movie and so he has a new dog. The plotting is so far-fetched that you think it must be at least half tongue in cheek – although the actors play their roles in deadly earnest. Visually, the film is very slick indeed and has the production values of one of those upmarket vodka ads.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen shoots the fight sequences – which last basically the entire length of the movie – as if they were very destructive and violent pieces of ballet. The sound editing is exaggerated to the most extreme degree. Every time someone is punched or throttled or knocked off a motorbike by a swinging car door, the crunches, gasps and thwacks are amplified.

The film has a strangely ritualistic feel, as if it is a piece of performance art as much as it is an action movie. Director Chad Stahelski is a stuntman and seems far more comfortable with bodies hurtling through the air than he does with scenes in which characters actually stop to talk to each other.

John Wick - Trailer

Reeves is certainly put through the wringer. In the course of the first few minutes, he is shot, stabbed, run over and generally left in the same state of disrepair as his beloved Mustang – and yet he always comes back for more. In his laconic approach to extreme violence, he can’t help but evoke memories of Clint Eastwood in old spaghetti westerns.

“I am not that guy anymore,” John Wick says without a great deal of conviction at the prospect of having to go back to his hitman ways. “You’re always that guy,” he is promptly told. He is “death’s very emissary” and he has no choice but to return to the fray when ambitious Italian crime lord Santino demands that he assassinate Santino’s sister. Cue scenes of mayhem in Rome. Bizarrely, all the bloodiest scenes seem to take place in public spaces, at rock concerts or in art galleries, railway stations or on busy streets.

One fundamental problem is that John Wick is well-nigh indestructible. That means the element of threat simply isn’t there. It is obvious that he is never going to be killed. In amid the mayhem, one or two of the actors register strongly enough. Ian McShane is again good value as the very dapper and imperturbable manager of the “Continental,” the New York private members’ club/hotel, a sort of Soho House for assassins and gangsters.

The very colourful supporting cast includes Peter Stormare, Franco Nero and Laurence Fishburne. At least, they all seem to relish the cartoonish absurdity of the project.

Hidden Figures (PG)


Dir: Theodore Melfi, 127 mins, starring: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons

Hidden Figures is a lousy title for what is an entertaining and uplifting film. This is a yarn about the unsung contributions of three brilliant black female mathematicians working for NASA to win the “space race” of the early 1960s. In their own way, these women were every bit as much pioneers as the astronauts whose expeditions they facilitated.

They had to overcome embedded racism and sexism even to be allowed to work at mission headquarters in Langley – and then, once there, they had to fight even harder to be taken seriously and not just left to do glorified secretarial work.

The jaunty tone of the movie is established in an opening scene in which these three mathematical musketeers Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) are stuck on a country road when their car breaks down. A white cop stops, seemingly with every intention of arresting them but is so charmed by them and so caught up in their patriotic fervour to help America win the space race that he forgets his own racism and gives them a police escort to work instead.

This is a movie with a lot of bathroom breaks. Katherine, in particular, spends much of the film running from high command to the "coloured" toilets, the only ones she is allowed to use, that are fully half a mile away.

Hidden Figures is set during the middle of the Civil Rights era, at a time of huge social and political upheaval. Rather than deal with the bigger injustices faced by African-Americans in the country as a whole, the filmmakers concentrate on the everyday prejudice the three women encounter in their workplace. They're not allowed to use the same bathrooms or even the same coffee pots as their white colleagues.

Hidden Figures - Trailer

Katherine has a genius for mathematical puzzles. Director Theodore Melfi makes the scenes of her at the blackboard, solving intricate equations against the clock, every bit as rousing as those of astronaut John Glenn being shot forth into space.

The three women all endure their share of petty humiliation. Mary gets her high heels stuck in the grating when she enters the chamber in which the latest model of the spaceship is being tested – and is very nearly blown to smithereens. Dorothy is passed over for promotion, made to work as the de facto supervisor of the other African-American women but without the pay or status that her job should warrant.

Kevin Costner is in patrician form as Al Harrison, the gum-chewing head boffin in charge of the Space Task Group. He is so obsessed with getting Americans into space that he doesn't have time for the petty racism of the other scientists. If Katherine's mathematical genius can help the team, he is ready to knock down walls to help her. Kirsten Dunst plays a cold and supercilious white supervisor who treats the black women with contempt and doesn't even seem to realise she is doing so.

The cheery tone makes it pretty evident just where matters are heading. Whatever reversals the three women endure, we know from the start that they will always bounce back. Dramatic tension is therefore in only limited supply. Even so, this is an immensely likeable film and one that draws overdue attention to a story that has been neglected for far too long.

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