THE FOUNDER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Written by: Robert D. Siegel

Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Laura Dern & Patrick Wilson

You might be saying: “Really? A biopic about the guy who made McDonald’s? That doesn’t sound too exciting. What’s next? A biopic about Burger King, Carl’s Jr., KFC, or Wendy’s? ” Oh, ye of little faith dear reader, because it turns out that THE FOUNDER is a deliberately ironic title. Before it was globally clogging arteries, McDonald’s was actually a small little restaurant in California. This fast food joint originally had nothing to do with the main character of this biopic. THE FOUNDER lays out the sleazy success story of Ray Kroc, a man who is often mistakenly credited as McDonald’s creator. It’s a wholly compelling ride through a “rat eat rat” world of business, a look at fast food’s revolutionary effect, and a character study of a total scumbag.

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling, over-the-hill salesman. When a special sales order catches his interest, Ray finds himself in San Bernardino and eats at unconventional restaurant McDonald’s. This business’s revolutionary techniques capture Ray’s interest and he eagerly proposes to franchise the company with the McDonalds brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch). As time goes on and the burger business is booming, Ray finds himself struggling with the terms of his contract. Soon enough, Ray employs some rather shady means of trying to screw the brothers out of their own business. We get to witness Ray’s back-stabbing moves, snide comments, and borderline illegal strategies. This is all very interesting, entertaining, and mostly (about 90%) true.

Michael Keaton has been a winning streak of performances lately. After portraying a desperate artist in BIRDMAN and a motivated journalist in SPOTLIGHT, Keaton plays Ray Kroc as an all-out asshole. What’s interesting is how Keaton slowly eases the viewer into Ray’s mental state and ambitious nature. We start this film feeling for him and sympathizing with his plight. As the money flows in and his greed grows, Ray’s morals are tossed by the wayside and he becomes a pretty much irredeemable character. Keaton makes this salesman-turned-“founder” so compelling that you likely won’t notice the shift in Ray’s attitude until you’re too far gone in the story. Kroc was a fascinating real-life character and Keaton plays him to perfection.

Though their importance and screen time range, the supporting cast does an excellent job with the material as well. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are great as the McDonalds brothers. Lynch is able to portray a softer and more vulnerable side that I haven’t seen from him before, while Offerman is great as the more strict and defensive brother of the two. Their sibling chemistry is believable and the pair provide two sympathetic antagonists in Kroc’s high-rising path. Patrick Wilson and B.J. Novak are solid as two of Kroc’s business partners. Meanwhile, Laura Dern plays Kroc’s neglected wife and receives some of Keaton’s more emotionally abusive moments.

The look of THE FOUNDER is great because it nicely captures the 1950s time period. The script slightly glamorizes Kroc’s rise to power, even at the cost of trampling on plenty of people beneath him. What’s even more impressive is how this film really shows small details in the fast food revolution. The McDonalds brothers were geniuses with their intricate serving system and strived to maintain a strong code of ethics in their kitchens. In Ray Kroc’s hands, those ethics flew right out the door. It’s fascinating to think about how many fast food restaurants today wouldn’t exist without the brothers’ brilliance and Ray’s immoral sense of constant persistence.

THE FOUNDER is sure to linger the minds of those who watch it. This film works as three things: a drama about the fast food revolution, a dark look into the back-stabbing business world, and a character study of a rather unsavory scumbag. However, the script occasionally bites off more than it can chew. There are a few events that are mentioned in passing and then rushed by for the sake of time. While two hours is probably the ideal length of time for this biopic, there are a couple of spots that seem to move a tad too quickly. These hiccups in pacing don’t detract from the film’s many positives though. This is essentially the fast food version of THERE WILL BE BLOOD. THE FOUNDER might as well have been titled THERE WILL BE BURGERS. If that sounds up your alley, THE FOUNDER will probably satisfy your appetite for a compelling biopic!

Grade: A-

THE CONJURING 2 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror and Horror Violence

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Directed by: James Wan

Written by: James Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes & David Leslie Johnson

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley & Benjamin Haigh

Whether it’s through a gory serial killer thriller or a supernatural spookfest, James Wan knows how to scare people. That being said, I wasn’t a massive fan of 2013’s THE CONJURING. I found it to be a good horror flick that built up solid chills for its first two-thirds and then fell apart due to a cheesy final act. After taking a break from horror to make FURIOUS 7, James Wan has returned to craft another CONJURING film. This time around, he’s tackling one of the most infamous hauntings in recorded history. Even though there are suspicious reasons to believe most of its “true story” is an utter hoax (shocking, I know), THE CONJURING 2 is one hell of a scary good time!

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London 1977: the Hodgson family is a low-income, single-parent household, consisting of a stressed out mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. Financial troubles become the least of the family’s worries when strange events begin occurring in their home. Objects are thrown, children teleport, beds levitate, a foreboding figure keeps appearing throughout the house, and unseen physical assaults seemingly target 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe). Desperate for help, the Hodgsons receive a lifeline in the form of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Though Lorraine is reluctant to take on this dangerous poltergeist case, due to frequent nightmares of a presence from their notorious Amityville investigation, the Warrens soon find themselves facing a supernatural threat unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before.

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THE CONJURING 2 shows that it’s not messing around from its opening scene, in which James Wan demonstrates that he can make anything scary. In this case, “anything” means the rather lame Amityville haunting. Amityville’s “true” story has been brought to film a few times already, through a 1979 lackluster horror flick, its many sequels, a flashy 2005 remake of that original film, and so-so documentary MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (which had turned into an all-out character study by the end). In a mere ten minutes, Wan accomplishes what none of those films were ever able to do. He actually makes the Amityville haunting (which is widely regarded to be a scam) into something genuinely scary.

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The frights don’t stop there though, because the rest of CONJURING 2 relies on classy horror elements from films like THE EXORCIST and POLTERGEIST. Wan wears his influences on his sleeves and makes this sequel all the better for it. I jumped many times during CONJURING 2. The film doesn’t rely on cheap scares either, as it combines a lot of quiet suspense with nightmare fuel imagery. CONJURING 2 understands that a shadowy silhouette or a briefly glimpsed reflection in a television screen can be just as frightening as a gangly apparition or a gory hallucination. Wan is a master of misdirection and delivers a number of scenes that rival his spooky brilliance of INSIDIOUS. A disturbing character called “The Crooked Man” freaked me out beyond all reason and one specific moment nearly jolted me out of my seat.

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That’s not to say that CONJURING 2 is without faults, because occasional scenes go overboard and become slightly cheesy. Besides the scary-as-hell Crooked Man (who is made all the scarier for not being a CGI creation and is actually played by an extremely skinny contortionist), there’s also a demonic-looking nun and a ghostly old man. This nun and old man both receive some stellar scares as well, the former having a fantastic nightmare sequence and the latter being at his creepiest when he’s left out of focus. However, they both can be a little too in-your-face during certain points. This is especially true of the nun. It’s been said that if you show the monster too much, it becomes less scary. While there have been exceptions to this cinematic rule, it definitely fits this pale-faced demonic nun who seems slightly less frightening every passing minute we see her. The same goes for close-ups of the old man ghost. The Crooked Man remains terrifying because we only get small bits and pieces of his nightmare-inducing figure.

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CONJURING 2 brings substance to go with its scares, because the characters are actually compelling this time around. In 2013’s THE CONJURING, I didn’t care about the bland psychic Warrens and was occasionally pulled out of the mood during the slower scenes. In CONJURING 2, the script actually gives them a personal conflict and sets up strong plot points in advance. Both of these allow for the paranormal investigator pair to become somewhat more relatable and three-dimensional. The Hodgson family members are also fleshed out, with second-oldest daughter Janet and mother Peggy being the main protagonists.

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Even though it runs at over two hours, THE CONJURING 2 feels perfectly paced. Two plotlines start off separately in the first third. The Warrens begin battling (literal) personal demons and the Hodgson family goes through the expected haunted house motions. I worried that these two different storylines wouldn’t fully fit together, but they matched up perfectly and complimented each other in ways that I didn’t expect. It also helps that the characters are worth caring about, the scares are actually scary, and the film sends the viewer out on an appropriately unnerving note with pieces from the actual case (recorded audio, real photographs) woven into the closing credits. By the time this film was over, a still shot of a chair became a shiver-inducing image. There’s something special to be said in that. THE CONJURING 2 is a rare horror sequel that easily surpasses its predecessor in storytelling, characters, and (most importantly) scares!

Grade: B+

BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: S. Craig Zahler

Written by: S. Craig Zahler

Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig & Geno Segers

Two genres that don’t often go together are Horror and Westerns. Combinations of the two very different genres have only been attempted a handful of times to my knowledge (THE BURROWERS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and TREMORS). BONE TOMAHAWK just happens to be the latest effort that tries to blend these two distinct genres into one creative story. While it definitely leans more onto the Western side before diving straight into Horror country for the final third, I can easily fathom that this film will please fans of both cinematic genres. Blending a slow brooding pace of a John Wayne flick with some graphic cannibal horror, BONE TOMAHAWK is an unexpectedly great film that came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass.

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Bright Hope is a peaceful, out-of-the-way town that never encounters any serious problems. Tonight is different as a strange drifter has just rolled into town and caught the eye of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell sporting a magnificent bit of facial hair). One brief confrontation later and the drifter is behind bars at the local jail with only a law man and a nurse to keep him company. This drifter’s arrival was the mere beginning of something far more sinister and the jail turns up empty in the morning. Hunt suspects that Indians might have something to do with the three disappearances and soon learns that there’s something in the wilderness that even Indians are afraid of. Taking their lives into their own hands, Sheriff Hunt brings along Arthur O’Dwyer (the missing nurse’s husband), Chicory (an old-fashioned deputy), and John Brooder (a trigger-happy bigot) on a rescue mission into some very dangerous territory.

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For a movie that’s essentially been sold as Kurt Russell fighting cannibals in the Old West, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated. I mean, sure that one sentence pitch sounds fun in and of itself, but this movie treats itself as a dark and brooding ride. Everyone is playing this ridiculous-sounding material with a believable straight face. This approach works far better than it probably should have. First-time director S. Craig Zahler (who also penned the decent ASYLUM BLACKOUT) uses a confident hand behind the camera to bring his vision to life. This feels like a slow-burn Western that just happens to have a long showdown with vicious man-eating cannibals in the final act.

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This self-serious approach can also be seen in the performances of a remarkable cast of big-name actors. Kurt Russell (who’s also starring in certain other Western that arrives later this year) is very much in his element. He’s having a blast as Sheriff Hunt and gives the performance his all, which brings to life a likable bad-ass with a heart of gold. Patrick Wilson is especially good and plays the wounded husband (he has a broken leg all throughout the film) as a determined man on a mission. Richard Jenkins brings a strong screen presence as the kindly old deputy. Meanwhile, Matthew Fox really shines as the despicable Brooder (who has an interesting motivation of his own). David Arquette and Sid Haig also make brief, memorable appearances.

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When it does get into the horror section of its story, BONE TOMAHAWK also gets extremely graphic in the violence department. Seeing as the plot involves cannibals, I was expecting gore. I just wasn’t expecting this film to have a scene that rivaled the best moment of THE GREEN INFERNO in its sheer viciousness. Even when we get severed body parts and guts spilling out onto the screen, the movie never goes into cheesy or over-the-top territory. Instead, the brutality only adds to the dark atmosphere that the movie was playing with from the very beginning.

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Though the running time might be a little too long and there’s a noticeable leap of logic made in the final moments, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated it being. The premise may sound ludicrous on paper, but the way it’s executed with an exciting new director/writer behind the camera, a rock solid cast acting their hearts out, and exciting bursts of violence transform the silly material into a seriously great time. It’s a shame that BONE TOMAHAWK didn’t hit theaters, because there are scenes that would get great audience reactions (I found myself cheering while watching it at home). If you’re craving something out-of-the-ordinary for this final week of this Halloween season (or any time really) and don’t want to make a trip to the multiplex, BONE TOMAHAWK should satisfy your craving. This is one of the best horror movies of 2015!

Grade: A-

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Terror and Violence, and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey & Steve Coulter

Warning! The review contains SPOILERS for INSIDIOUS. If you have not seen INSIDIOUS yet, do yourself a favor: go buy it, turn out the lights, crank up the sound, and prepare to witness one of the scariest horror movies of the new millennium. If you have seen INSIDIOUS, then feel free to read on!

In 2010, a little movie called INSIDIOUS premiered at TIFF and made huge waves in the critical world. In 2011, the film was put into wide release and grossed almost 100 million. This was particularly impressive when you consider that INSIDIOUS was budgeted just over 1 million. Hollywood took the money as a sign that a sequel was necessary and two years later, we have INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. One thing that should be praised to the heavens about this sequel is that it isn’t necessarily the same thing over again. Wan and Whannell actually try to take the newly born franchise into a different direction and it works with mixed results.

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After a flashback sequence set in the 1980’s involving a young Josh (father from the first film) and a séance gone awry, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 picks right back up where the first film left off. The Lambert family just got their son back from the ghostly netherworld known as The Further, but the murder of Elise (the elderly psychic) has the family shaken up. While the police investigate their home, the Lamberts stay at Josh’s mother’s home. Turns out that the supernatural forces that began terrorizing the family aren’t done with them quite yet. Renai (Josh’s wife) begins seeing ghostly apparitions around the home and Josh isn’t acting like his usual self. For those who have seen the original film, you may already have a good idea why Josh is being so weird, but let me assure you that you don’t have the full picture. Things go from bad to worse, grim grinning ghosts come out to do more than just socialize, and some seriously freaky scenarios occur!

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To re-examine the first INSIDIOUS reveals that the ghosts were plentiful and there was the constant threat of a demonic presence throughout. By the time the third act had broken out, Josh had ventured into The Further to find his son, while all hell was breaking loose in the Lambert household. The last-minute revelation that Josh had brought back the evil spirit of an old woman, who had haunted him as a child, wound up being one of the scariest twist-endings in quite some time. So we pretty much have a good idea who’s responsible for Elise’s demise, but CHAPTER 2 does a great job of ramping up the tension in spite of that.

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This sequel is actually more focused on two spirits in particular. The creepy old woman inhabiting Josh’s body and another freaky apparition who’s appearing constantly around the house. In this sense, it’s more confined in that we don’t see many other spirits and it’s more of a straightforward possession story with a dash of haunted house thrown in. The script is still smart and has some neat twists thrown in. There are some genuine scares throughout and the atmosphere is thick with dread. CHAPTER 2 is spooky fun while it lasts, but it’s not without some major faults.

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There is some really awful dubbing in the opening flashbacks of Lin Shaye’s voice coming out of a much younger actress and it takes the viewer out of what could have been a much creepier scene. The logic behind this decision doesn’t make much sense. Our voices evolve as we grow older. It would have made just as much sense to dub an adult Patrick Wilson over the actor portraying him as a child. Then there are some of the scares that don’t work too well. Some of the typical gotcha moments that have no place in an INSIDIOUS movie. The first film made you jump because there were real scary things to the scares. In this sequel, there are shocks that feel so predictable that they’re dusty. Finally, the conclusion seems a bit half-hearted. There was massive build up to the finale and nothing much came from it. The final seconds feel phoned in as if begging for a CHAPTER 3, which I wouldn’t really welcome after seeing 2.

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The best scares do come from a new character introduced in this sequel. Elise’s former assistant, who communicates with the dead by rolling lettered dice and spelling out the words that come in those letters. This provides some really intense moments, particularly in a confrontation between him and a possessed Josh. Credit where credit is due, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 doesn’t merely retread old ground and continues the story in an interesting way. I just wish that some of the ideas turned out better on film than they probably did in script form. This is said to be Wan’s last horror movie. After viewing this and the overrated critically acclaimed THE CONJURING, I think the man needs to get away from horror, at least for a little while.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is entertaining and spooky fun, but that’s about all it winds up being. I expected more, but this is okay. Take that for what you will.

Grade: B-

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