Friday, June 16, 2017


Spellbound (1945) [UR] ****

A film review by Jeremy Heilman for on June 3, 2002.

The first time that Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) and Dr. Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck) embrace in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller Spellbound, an image of a hallway filled with opening doors is superimposed on the screen. It’s a bit obvious that from this point the picture will be giving us more of the same, as Peterson attempts to cure her ailing amnesiac lover. Her attempts to unlock his repressed memories with affection and undying trust probably violate every rule in the psychoanalyst’s handbook, but the film tells us that, women make the best psychoanalysts, until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients. Dr. Peterson is both doctor and cure to her patient and it’s somewhat charming to see her initially icy demeanor melt away as she gets the human experience that her colleagues tell her she lacks. Still, her seeming inability to turn off her constant stream of analysis has to leave the audience questioning whether romance with her would be something that you would even want.

Spellbound’s antiquated presentation of the psychoanalysis that fuels its plot is pleasingly outmoded, in the sense that it allows us to watch numerous expository scenes that explain the radical methods used by psychiatrists, prompting much unintentional humor (these scenes are presumably there since in 1945 psychoanalysis wasn’t a universally accepted science). Every person’s neurosis is a puzzle that can be easily unlocked, and the doctors in this film resemble something far closer to private eyes, looking through their patients’ dreams with a magnifying glass for clues. Whenever two or more of these psychiatrists are together, an insurmountable think tank seems to form, and the truth is always weeded out immediately. As each sickness is dispatched with ease, the cure to what ails the patient always seems easily obtainable. Perhaps that sense of assuredness is why the film is loaded with unprofessional, but witty, repartee that makes light of the conditions of the patients.

To examine Spellbound’s use of therapy while making concessions for its age is much more gratifying, however. The visual manifestations of Dr. Edwardes’ guilt complex are an excellent example of the show, don’t tell style of filmmaking, and make the film feel more cinematically alive than a film with a script this talky might suggest. The key dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, is visually exciting, even if the plot requires it to be far too logical for its own good. That the lovely Ms. Bergman is the one spewing the majority of the psychobabble makes its inclusion far more acceptable. She is quite good here and completely anchors the movie. Gregory Peck is a bit too spacey to make much of an impact, even when he’s not deep in a trance. As most of Hitchcock’s films do, Spellbound exudes class. Watching Dr. Peterson as she finally learns to trust her heart instead of her head sounds utterly schematic, but this top-notch production redeems the majority of the clichés. [Heilman’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, film-noir, mystery, romance, thriller

Gaslight (1944) [NR] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Ingrid Bergman won her first Oscar for portraying Paula Alquist, the vulnerable, insecure heroine of George Cukor's diabolical, atmospheric thriller, Gaslight. Bergman, essaying a much different character from three of her best-known earlier roles (Anita Hoffman in 1939’s Intermezzo: A Love Story, Ilsa Lund in 1942's Casablanca and Maria in 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls), is alluring and convincing as a woman held captive by her own fears.

The first half-hour of Gaslight is deceptively romantic. We are introduced to Paula, a young English singer living and studying in Italy circa 1885. Recently, however, her attention has not been on her craft, and her wily mentor remarks that he believes that she's in love. When Paula confirms his suspicions, and indicates that she may marry the gentleman in question, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), she is released from her studies. Less than a week later, she and Gregory are on their honeymoon.

At this point, Gaslight turns ominous. Gregory wants to live in England, so he and Paula move into a house that she inherited from her late aunt Alice Alquist, a well-known singer who had been murdered a decade earlier. Once there, Gregory's attentiveness acquires a sinister edge. He convinces Paula that she's having delusions, and, as a result, isn't well enough to see visitors. He hires a forthright young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury in her feature debut), who holds her mistress in contempt. And he disappears every night on clandestine business of his own.

A local Scotland Yard officer, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), takes an interest in Paula's predicament, but Gregory and Nancy conspire to keep them from meeting. The more familiar Brian becomes with the situation, however, the more convinced he is that Paula's current circumstances are somehow related to her aunt's murder and a cache of missing jewels.

By the convoluted standards of many of today's ultra-slick thrillers, Gaslight may be seen as slow-moving and obvious. But no film like Basic Instinct can match this picture's intricate psychology. Paula's self-doubt builds slowly as her husband meticulously orchestrates her spiral into insanity. Since she's completely in his thrall, she never senses that he represents a threat. And, because Paula is isolated from everyone except Gregory, Nancy, and Elizabeth, the maid (Barbara Everest), she has no point of reference against which to gauge her mental stability.

Beautifully filmed in a gloomy, atmospheric black-and-white, Gaslight exhibits all the classic visual elements of '40s film noir. The attention to detail is more obvious than in many modern films. The benighted streets of London are cloaked with fog, and the large, lonely house where most of the action transpires is filled with shadows and strange noises. The paranoid, claustrophobic world of Paula's confinement is effectively conveyed. Even though we, as viewers, know that her insanity is contrived, we can feel the walls of the trap closing in as the situation grows progressively more hopeless.

In addition to Bergman's fine performance as the harried Paula, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury do excellent work. In less than two hours, Boyer's Gregory goes from a suave, debonair gentleman to a cunning, fiendish villain. The success of this transformation is an eloquent testament to Boyer's range. Meanwhile, Lansbury imbues Nancy with an impertinence that makes her Gregory's perfect, albeit unwitting, accomplice.

In many ways, Gaslight is as much a character study as a thriller. And, although tame by today's standards (and even by those of Hitchcock's Psycho), Gaslight is chilling enough to engross even a jaded modern audience. Yes, there are aspects of the story that bear close scrutiny, but this is the kind of effectively-crafted, well-acted motion picture that rises above its faults to earn its classic appellation. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: crime, drama, film-noir, mystery, thriller

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) [UR] ***+

Based on a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, itself based on Ernest Hemingway’s best-selling novel by the same name, and produced and directed by Sam WoodFor Whom the Bell Tolls is set in 1937 Spain, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The film is an above-average adventure, war drama featuring a romance between Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) an idealistic American expatriate and demolitions expert, and Maria (Ingrid Bergman) a Spanish girl.

The Spanish Civil War was fought between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic, left-leaning and relatively urban Second Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, an aristocratic conservative group led by General Francisco Franco. The civil war is usually portrayed as a struggle between a leftist revolution (democracy) and a rightist counter-revolution (fascism), and can be viewed as a test of weaponry used later in World War II. The leftist, loyalist Republican forces received weapons and support from the Communist Soviet Union and leftist populist Mexico, while the rightist, fascist Nationalist forces received weapons and soldiers from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Other countries, such as the U.K. and France were neutral. Ultimately, the rightist, fascist Nationalists won, and Franco then ruled Spain for 36 years, from April 1939 until his death in November 1975.

Gary Cooper’s character, Robert Jordan, is working for the leftist Republicans, and his assignment is to blow up a mountain bridge in northern Spain to prevent Franco’s rightist Nationalists from being resupplied with troops and tanks from Germany and Italy. Jordan is led into the mountains by a guide (Vladimir Sokoloff) where he joins a small group of hardened guerilla fighters led by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff). Pablo does not want to blow up the bridge, and so Jordan is not sure he can trust him. Katina Paxinou plays Pilar a rough, yet wise, woman who stands up to Pablo, aligns herself with Jordan, and encourages his relationship with Maria (Bergman), a Spanish girl who had watched the Nationalists kill all the Republicans in her village, including her mother and father, and then endured having her head shaved and being raped by them.

For Whom the Bell Tolls may have been great cinema in 1943, but it has not aged well. At nearly three hours it’s overlong, and there is little chemistry between Cooper and Bergman, although it’s not for Bergman’s lack of trying. In fact, if you’re a fan of Ingrid Bergman, you will appreciate For Whom the Bell Tolls as her first Technicolor film. Born in 1915, she was 28 when this film was released, at the height of her beauty. Because she’d had her head shaved and been raped, as part of the backstory, her hair was short and curly, and when For Whom the Bell Tolls was released, it started a fad – women had to have their hair cut like Bergman’s. However even though Hemingway handpicked Cooper and Bergman for their roles, many critics felt Bergman was poorly cast; young Spanish women do not usually look like blonde Swedish film stars.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was nominated for nine (9) Oscars in the 1944 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress. The only win was Paxinou for Best Supporting Actress.

Labels: adventure, drama, history, romance, tragedy, war

Casablanca (1942) [PG] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

It's probably no stretch to say that Casablanca, arguably America's best-loved movie, has had more words written about it than any other motion picture. Over the years since its January, 1943 release, the legends and rumors surrounding the making of the film have generated almost as much attention as the finished product. Some of the best-known and most often repeated anecdotes include producer Hal B. Wallis' near-casting of Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan as Rick and Ilsa, the existence of two scripts for the last day of shooting (one version had the ending as filmed; the other, unproduced version kept Rick and Ilsa together), and the reported backstage tension between several of the principal actors.

Ultimately, however, while it's fascinating to examine and dissect all that went into the making of Casablanca, the greatest pleasure anyone can derive from this movie comes through simply watching it. Aside from some basic knowledge of recent world history, little background is needed to appreciate the strength and power of the film. Casablanca accomplishes that which only a truly great film can: enveloping the viewer in the story, forging an unbreakable link with the characters, and only letting go with the end credits.

Unlike many films that later became classics, Casablanca was popular in its day, although a cadre of officials at Warner Brothers were convinced that it would be a box-office failure. The movie earned 8 Academy Award nominations, leading to three Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture). The picture went on to have a long, healthy life in re-releases, television, and eventually video. It contains a slew of recognizable lines (Here's looking at you, kidOf all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mineRound up the usual suspectsLouis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendshipWe'll always have ParisThe problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world). Ironically, however, the best-known bit of dialogue from CasablancaPlay it again, Sam, isn't even in the movie. Like Captain Kirk's Beam me up, Scotty, it's an apocryphal line. The closest the movie gets is either Play it or Play 'As Time Goes By.'

The first time I saw Casablanca, I remember remarking how modern it seemed. While many movies from the '30s and '40s appear horribly dated when viewed today, Casablanca stands up markedly well. The themes of valor, sacrifice, and heroism still ring true. The dialogue has lost none of its wit or cleverness. The atmosphere (enhanced by the sterling black-and-white cinematography), that of encroaching gloom, is as palpable as ever. And the characters are still as perfectly-acted and three-dimensional as they were seventy-five years ago (in 2017).

Just about everyone knows the story, which takes place about a year after the Germans invaded France. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), wander into Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. The two are on the run from the Nazis, and have come to the American-owned nightspot to lie low. But the German-controlled local government, headed by French Police Prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), is on the move, and Laszlo has to act quickly to get the letters of transit he came for, then escape. Little does Ilsa know that the cafe is run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the one true love of her life. When the two see each other, sparks fly, and memories of an enchanted time in Paris come flooding back.

Bogart and Bergman. When anyone mentions Casablanca, these are the two names that come to mind. The actors are both so perfectly cast, and create such a palpable level of romantic tension, that it's impossible to envision anyone else in their parts (and inconceivable to consider that they possibly weren't the producer's first choices). Bogart is at his best here as the tough cynic who hides a broken heart beneath a fractured layer of sarcasm. Ilsa's arrival in Casablanca rips open the fissures in Rick's shield, revealing a complex personality that demands Bogart's full range of acting. As Ilsa, Bergman lights up the screen. What man in the audience wouldn't give up everything to run away with her.

Less known is Paul Henreid, a romantic lead who was on loan to Warner Brothers for this project. Most viewers know Henreid as the other guy in the romantic triangle, and, while his performance isn't on the same level as that of his better-known co-stars, Henreid nevertheless does a respectable job. Casablanca features some other well-known faces. Conrad Veidt plays the German Major Heinrich Strasser on Laszlo's trail, Peter Lorre is Ugarte, the man who steals the letters of transit, and Sydney Greenstreet is Signor Ferrari, the city's black market overlord. But the best performance in the film belongs to Claude Rains (Police Captain Renault), who is magnificent. Bogart and Bergman are great, but Rains is better. This is the top role in an impressive career, and it's a shame that the actor didn't win the Best Supporting Oscar for which he was deservedly nominated. Rains is a standout in nearly his every scene, but, like the consummate professional, he constantly cedes the spotlight to the higher-profile star.

Another curious thing about Casablanca is that hardly anyone ever talks about the director. It isn't as if Michael Curtiz is a journeyman hack who got lucky here. From the '20s to the '50s, Curtiz was one of the hardest working directors in Hollywood, helming over 100 films including White ChristmasMildred Pierce, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. (Before that, he made nearly 50 movies in Europe, where he began his career in 1912.) Curtiz was a well-respected film maker and his work on Casablanca was first rate, but, for some reason, few non-cineastes associate his name with this picture.

It's not much of a stretch to say that Hollywood doesn't make movies like this anymore, because the bittersweet ending has gone the way of black-and-white cinematography. If Casablanca was made in today's climate, Rick and Ilsa would escape on the plane after avoiding a hail of gunfire (Rick would probably be doing the two-fisted gun thing that John Woo loves). There would be no beautiful friendship between Louis and Rick. Who knows what would have happened to Victor Laszlo, but he wouldn't have gotten the girl. One of the things that makes Casablanca unique is that it stays true to itself without giving in to commonly held perceptions of crowd-pleasing tactics. And because of this, not despite it, Casablanca has become known as one of the greatest movies ever made. Maybe the modern generation of screenwriters should consider this before they tack on the obligatory happily ever after ending.

From time-to-time, someone tries to remake the film, but even the best re-tread has been less than a pale shadow of the original. The most recent serious attempt was Havana, Sydney Pollack's ill-advised misfire (incidentally, the word serious rules out Barb Wire). Despite a good cast (Robert Redford, Lena Olin, and Raul Julia) and a change in venue, this is clearly an updated Casablanca, and Casablanca isn't Casablanca without Bogart and Bergman. So, although just about everyone involved with this legendary motion picture has departed this life, the film itself has withstood the test of three-quarters of a century to rise, like cream, to the top. One can only imagine that, in another fifty years, its position in the hierarchy of all-time greats will be even higher. [Berardinelli’s rating: **** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, romance, thriller, war, WWII

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) [NR] ***

A film review by Tyler Foster for on Oct. 7, 2009.

The 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is 30 minutes of a great movie, followed by an hour of disappointment and capped by 20 minutes of pure agony and a slightly-less-painful end. I really enjoyed Spencer Tracy's Dr. Jekyll, who's all charm and a light sense of humor. I also liked the rough-edged charm of Ingrid Bergman as a popular barmaid named Ivy, who practically falls all over herself trying to romance Dr. Jekyll. Unfortunately, Tracy also portrays Mr. Hyde, a horrible miscalculation of makeup, wigs and performance that kills the movie's momentum. By most accounts, the 1931 version with Frederic March is better because the actor gives a more terrifying performance as Hyde; it's too bad the films couldn't magically be merged, given how likable Tracy's Dr. Jekyll is.

Tracy's transformation also ruins Bergman's character, who changes wildly from a fighter to a helpless victim, sometimes within the same scene, not to mention the fact that it's just depressing to watch her spirit break whenever Hyde appears. I appreciated the occasional directorial or cinematographic flourish (like Hyde bounding across a room to grab Ivy and the subsequent shot of her backing away) and some of the foggy street scenes, but I was bored to death having to watch the laborious fade-in transformation of Jekyll to Hyde, which actually insists upon happening twice within five minutes at the very end. Still, the worst crime the film commits is that middle hour; the movie refuses to let the viewer give up, allowing just enough hope that the film might right itself at any minute.

Labels: horror, sci-fi



Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) [UR] ****

While I’ve always appreciated Casablanca (1942), I was not a huge fan of Ingrid Bergman until recently and, admittedly, did not fully appreciate her incredible talent. Then, after reading her autobiography, My Story, and watching a number of her films, I’ve begun to realize how amazing she was.

Intermezzo (1939) is the remake of her 1936 Swedish-language film by the same name. Produced by David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind, 1939) this is Bergman’s English-speaking film debut and she's wonderful in it. Even at the age of 24, there's something about her that's mesmerizing. The fact that she manages to make this melodrama watchable is a tribute to her range and depth as an actress, and, honestly, she's the only reason to sit through this romantic drama. She's radiant, intelligent and funny, and she makes you believe that Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind, 1939) is charismatic, sexy and interesting, something that’s not easily done. Yes, his character is a world-famous violinist, and she’s admired his talent from a distance, but still, the fact that a gorgeous young woman with her abilities would actually fall in love with someone like him is pretty hard to believe. That’s is not to say that Leslie Howard is unattractive or untalented; he's just lacks the sex appeal of a Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant or Gregory Peck, all 1940s co-stars of Bergman.

There's not much to the story of Intermezzo. Leslie Howard plays Holger Brandt, a famous violinist with a wife Margit (Edna Best) and family who stay at home while he tours the world. Upon his most recent return, his 6-year-old daughter (Ann Marie, played by Ann Todd) introduces Holger to her piano teacher, Anita Hoffman, played by Bergman. He’s oblivious to her until she plays at his daughter's birthday party, and her talent and beauty take him by surprise. He falls for her completely after they accidently meet at a symphony concert.

After some champagne and a long walk, it's obvious there's more between them then mere friendship. They soon begin a secret love affair, and when Holger invites Anita to be his accompanist on his upcoming tour, Margit begins to suspect something. Anita doesn't want to give up her studies, but her heart won't allow her to say no. They try to keep their affair quiet, but when she resigns as Ann Marie’s piano teacher and attempts to leave town, Margit knows all too well why. Holger separates from Margit and the two leave on tour together, despite leaving the wreckage of his family behind. Their European tour is a great success, and after it ends in Switzerland, they remain there on holiday.

However, Holger is torn by his feelings for his wife and family, particularly his daughter, and by his passion for Anita. She is his mid-life crisis, and every man should be so lucky. Eventually, it’s apparent to both of them that their stolen love can't last forever. Their happiness cannot be built on the unhappiness of others, and Holger’s past and Anita’s future cannot be joined forever.

Intermezzo is not an Oscar-winning movie, but it's not terrible either. It's typical of the films of its day, and the thing that makes it watchable today is Bergman's performance; the film drags whenever she's not onscreen. Her character goes through the full range of romantic/dramatic emotions, and she’s perfect every time. No one does joyfully exuberant or tortured by guilt better than Ingrid Bergman.

The violin and piano music is something of a minor character in the film and gives it additional dimension and class. If you’re interested in romantic dramas from the Golden Age of Hollywood and you’d like to see the film that launched Ingrid Bergman’s film career, watch Intermezzo (1939).

Labels: drama, music, romance



Intermezzo (1936) [UR] ****

Ingrid Bergman is a genuine Hollywood icon, and one of the top-ranked actresses of all time, thanks to her starring roles in Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Anastasia (1956) and Autumn Sonata (1978). However, not as much attention is paid to her pre-Hollywood career. Ingrid Bergman began her stage and screen career in Sweden, and Intermezzo is one of her most accomplished films from her home country. It gives many of us our first chance to see a screen legend developing her craft in the earliest stages of her career.

Though Bergman had already appeared in six features, including one uncredited role, one could argue that the 1936 version of Intermezzo was really what got her career started. Directed by Gustaf Molander, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gösta StevensIntermezzo was the movie that brought Bergman to the attention of famed Hollywood producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind, 1939). Selznick brought her to Hollywood and cast her in the 1939 English-language remake of Intermezzo, with Gone with the Wind star Leslie Howard. Intermezzo became her breakout role.

In the movie, Bergman plays Anita Hoffman, a promising young pianist who ignores better advice and pairs up with concert violinist Holger Brandt (Gösta Ekman), joining the married man as both his musical accompanist and his lover. Brandt sacrifices his home life, leaving behind his wife and two children, to take Anita on a European tour with him; Anita also gives up the tutelage of Brandt's former partner (Hugo Björne). The two are relatively happy, but they practically live in exile, with Anita in a subordinate role as Brandt's accompanist, rather than blossoming into her own as an artist. When Anita is awarded the 1936 Jenny Lind scholarship to study piano in Paris, the two lovers must ask themselves what is really important: their love for each other, or their love of music. Brandt must also face what he's already left behind. As he puts it, they are stuck with the irony that his past and her future can never be joined together.

For a movie about two passionate artists locked in a scandalous affair, Intermezzo is relatively restrained. Though solidly written, it’s rather melodramatic, and drifts toward its foregone conclusion, communicating the sense that their fates are driving Anita and Holger. Thankfully, it's a film that is very well performed, especially by Bergman. While some critics have faulted Ekman for overacting his role, Bergman is absolutely radiant, elevating the quality and tone of the film whenever she is on screen. The two actors strike a fine balance, with Ekman's needy ego fitting in perfectly with Bergman's desire to please. The actress displays a sweet innocence at the start of the movie that is vastly different than some of her later, better-known roles. Intermezzo is also a pretty film to look at, with elaborate sets and a gorgeous wardrobe, presumably reflecting the style of 1930s Sweden.

If you watch the 1936 Intermezzo and then the 1939 version, you’ll appreciate that the screenplay for the later film was slightly rewritten to give Ingrid Bergman a larger role.

Labels: drama, music, romance

Bergman, who was born on August 29, 1915, was twenty-one when she filmed the Swedish-language Intermezzo, in 1936. Less than a year later, on July 10, 1937 she married her first husband, dentist Petter Lindstrom,  and two years later she filmed the English-language remake of Intermezzo in Hollywood.

Ingrid and Petter Lindstrom in June, 1937, just before their wedding. 

A series of screen-captures from Intermezzo (1936):


Jackie (2016) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on December 17, 2016.

Feature film biographies like Jackie inhabit difficult terrain. They are servants to two masters: the historical record and the needs of artistry. From time-to-time, a great one like Patton or Lincoln comes along but most are run-of-the-mill affairs that stay too close to documentary or venture too far into melodrama, with made-up characters and conflicts. I wish I could say that Jackie is one of the few exceptions but it isn’t. The title character never emerges from the iconic shell she inhabits to become a fully fleshed-out individual and the filmmakers are perhaps too reverential to make her seem real. Like Camelot, she’s a mythic figure and Jackie doesn’t do enough to humanize her.

The chronologically tortured narrative uses a framing device to allow the story to jump around in time. Loosely based on an actual interview of the newly-widowed Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman) by Life journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup), the movie’s present occurs approximately one week after November 22, 1963 but never stays in that time period for long. The result is a straightforward re-telling of key events from Jackie’s time as First Lady (with particular attention being paid to the televised White House tour she gave on February 14, 1962) and the hours and days immediately following the assassination. Jackie jumps through time frequently, occasionally with flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Her husband’s assassination, depicted in a graphic and disturbing sequence, is a memory she experiences during a conversation with a priest (played by John Hurt) which in turn is a flashback during her interview with White.

Much of the film is devoted to recreations of iconic photographic images (such as LBJ taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One) with actors who, for the most part, bear little or no resemblance to the historical figures they’re playing. Although intended as a character study, Jackie never emerges as a three-dimensional individual. She’s an icon pulled from the pages of a history book not a fully realized personality. This deficiency dogs the movie; we never develop the empathy necessary to become immersed in the proceedings. We are constantly aware that we’re watching a movie (the framing device contributes to this) rather than being pulled into the story.

For some viewers, part of the allure associated with Jackie relates to seeing history re-created but budgetary limitations force some odd choices (using selected archival footage that feels at odds with the newly shot material). As for Natalie Portman’s ballyhooed portrayal (almost certain to garner an Oscar nomination based primarily on word-of-mouth), it’s more mimicry than acting and she bears a closer resemblance to a young Parker Posey than to Jackie Kennedy. I never believed her as the title character any more than I accepted Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. They’re great actors reduced to pretending to be famous people and the lack of even a cursory physical resemblance undermines the illusion.

If there’s a positive about the film, at least it doesn’t try to give an overview of the former first lady’s entire life and some of the behind-the-scenes details about what she went through during the week after the assassination are interesting. Jackie will certainly be of interest to those who lionize the Kennedys and rhapsodize about their short three-year span in the White House. It’s filled with small, intriguing historical details and it’s good at reminding us what an extraordinary woman Jackie Kennedy was. However, its inability to do more than recreate and mimic an era and a person limits its effectiveness. Jackie is more of a curiosity than a good film and, like Camelot, its impact is fleeting and nebulous. [Berardinelli’s rating: **½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, history, tragedy

The Founder (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on January 19, 2017.

The Founder, which chronicles the takeover and elevation of McDonald’s by Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), works both as a character study and an examination of how ambition, even when harnessed for the greater good, can result in innocent men with simple dreams being ground underfoot. It’s a case of the age-old struggle of commercialism against idealism that provides us with a prism through which we can look at McDonald’s both as it is today and as it was during the 1950s when it was just beginning.

Ray is a fascinating individual - a study in contrasts. Is he an amoral, driven man who will stop at nothing to build his fortune and extinguish anyone who gets in his way? Is he a workaholic who champions the working man and genuinely cares about the product he is selling? The Founder refuses to lionize or demonize the man, showing all facets of his personality - the laudable, the mundane and the detestable. Ray was a self-made man who came into his fortune through a combination of good luck, hard work, and persistence. He was a force of nature who didn’t let anyone or anything stop him - not the bill collectors, the snobs at the country club, or the two naïve brothers who entered into a partnership to franchise their innovative restaurant.

Today, no one thinks of McDonald’s as offering good food. It’s not even especially fast - just ask anyone who has waited for 15 minutes at the drive-through to get their lunch. But, as bad as it may be for the digestive system, it’s tasty and fills a certain craving. That’s not how McDonald’s got started. In the beginning, it was viewed as a restaurant and its creators cared about the quality of the hamburgers, fries, and shakes they were selling. Their goal was to offer their customers a tasty meal at a cheap price with less than 30 seconds to wait between ordering and pickup. It was a concept that revolutionized the food industry and whose reverberations are still being felt more than 60 years later.

Ray encounters the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), in 1954 when they order eight milkshake-making machines from his foundering company. Fascinated by their need for his product, he drives to California to meet them. After Ray samples McDonald’s food (and proclaims the hamburger to be the best he has ever tasted), the brothers give him a tour of their facility and explain their philosophy. Ray is hooked and pushes for them to take him on as a partner so he can franchise their restaurants all across the country. They are reluctant, but Ray is a persuasive man and he eventually convinces them to sign a contract that, despite giving him unfavorable terms, allows him to get started on a path that will eventually lead to his buying out the McDonalds and establishing himself at the top of a major multinational corporation.

The Founder, written by Turbo scribe Robert Siegel, is canny enough to introduce Ray as a relatable sort of guy. Played with exhausting earnestness by the likable Michael Keaton, he seems to fit into the mold of the downtrodden salesman who, through hard work and dogged persistence, overcomes every obstacle life throws at him.  To an extent, that’s what The Founder is about, but there’s a dark side to Ray. He tosses aside his wife Ethyl [played by Laura Dern], turns against his partners (eventually bilking them out of hundreds of millions of dollars), and steals the spouse [Joan Smith, played by Linda Cardellini] of one of his investors [Rollie Smith, played by Patrick Wilson]. Ray is pure testosterone and ambition.

This is something of a change-of-pace for director John Lee Hancock, whose previous films, Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side, weren’t characterized by moral ambiguity. Hancock proves more than capable of working in The Founder’s gray areas, although he is immeasurably aided by Keaton’s bravura performance which, although not as nuanced as his character in Birdman nor as sharp as his persona in Spotlight, is the single most compelling reason to see The Founder.

Although the development (some might argue that degeneration might be a more accurate term) of Ray is The Founder’s centerpiece, I was equally fascinated by seeing the nascent beginnings of what has become synonymous with soulless fast food. The McDonald’s of the 1950s was a very different kind of place than what it is today. We see what the restaurant’s creators were striving for and what the place might have been in other circumstances. Ray was more about growing the business than nurturing it. He made a lot of people (including himself) a ton of money but the grand aspirations surrounding the early McDonald’s were lost long before Ronald McDonald was born.

The Founder was originally viewed by The Weinstein Company as a possible 2017 Oscar contender but their meek publicity surrounding the release indicates they had a change of heart along the way. One could argue that Keaton’s performance is worthy of recognition but the movie itself, although smart and engaging, falls short of the greatness one hopes for from Best Picture candidates. Nevertheless, The Founder represents two hours well-spent, especially for anyone with a fascination for complex characters or an interest in the shenanigans that transformed an unpretentious local restaurant into a global force. You probably won’t ever again think of McDonald’s in quite the same way. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: The Founder is relevant mainly because McDonald’s epitomizes the uncontrolled experiment in nutrition that has characterized America’s fast food industry for the last half-century, and has resulted in the worst epidemic in diabetes and obesity in the world, thanks to feedlot-raised, antibiotic-fed beef, salty French-fried potatoes and an abundance of high-fructose corn syrup. For more on this subject, view Fast Food Nation (2006), King Corn (2007) or Food, Inc. (2008).

Labels: biography, drama, history