When hamburgers met with capitalism
* The Founder (12A, 115mins), 4 Stars
* Hidden Figures (PG, 122mins), 4 Stars
* John Wick: Chapter 2 (16, 122mins), 3 Stars
* Fences (12A, 139mins), 3 Stars
Laissez-faire capitalism is exposed in all its ugly glory in The Founder, John Hancock's warts'n'all biopic of Ray Kroc, the man widely credited with inventing the McDonalds fast food franchise. That claim, it emerges, is problematic, as we discover how Kroc effectively stole a brilliant business model from under the noses of a pair of restaurateurs. Michael Keaton is Kroc, who when we first meet him is flogging milkshake makers across 1950s America.
Ray is 52 and a bit of a failure: he listens to self-help records but has started to wonder if his personal ship will ever come in when he gets a bulk order of milkshake makers from a Californian restaurant called McDonalds. When he heads west to investigate, he meets Dick and Mac McDonald, sibling entrepreneurs who've brilliantly re-imagined their burger bar by establishing a sleekly efficient kitchen system that ensures every meal is ready in minutes. Ray instantly sees the potential for a franchise, and while the brothers aren't so sure, they've no idea who they're dealing with.
Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are the brothers and Laura Dern plays Kroc's long-suffering wife, but it goes without saying that this is Keaton's show. He's riveting as a character we start out rooting for, and end up hating.
A latecomer to the Oscar buzz, Hidden Figures is an old-fashioned film, the kind of broad, mass appeal drama Hollywood was so good at making back in the 1980s. It's based on real events, and tells the forgotten stories of three black women who forged careers for themselves at NASA during the space race. Taraji P Henson is Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who works at NASA. It's 1961, computers are in their earliest stages and Katherine and her colleagues do the maths essential to the successful launch of space rockets. But this is Virginia, and even at NASA, blacks are segregated. When Katherine's flair for numbers is noticed by NASA director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), she's promoted to the Space Task Group, where she must overcome contempt and prejudice in order to prove her worth.
Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae play friends facing similar challenges, and the ensemble acting is terrific.
John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn't have much of a story, but boy are its action scenes compelling. In John Wick, Keanu Reeves' soulful hit man emerged from retirement to put manners on a Russian hoodlum that killed his dog. In this one he's muttering darkly about retiring again when an Italian crime boss calls in a debt. Sighing heavily, Wick goes back to work, and when he flies to Rome it's not long before the Eternal City is strewn with mangled victims. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a purist's action film, which turns hand-to-hand combat scenes into a kind of gory ballet.
Less a film, more a play with camera pointed it at it, Fences is based on a stage work by the bard of Pittsburgh, August Wilson, and set in a black quarter of that city in the early 1950s. Denzel Washington directs and stars, playing Troy Maxson, a former baseball player who works as a bin man but acts like he's the king of the world. He enchants and infuriates his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis) with tall tales of his playing days and battles with death during a youthful illness, and holds forth on his back porch to his friends and two sons.
Things take a turn for the complicated when he takes up with another woman. Though perfectly watchable, Fences is stagey and full of big speeches. But Washington and Davis deliver those lines so wonderfully that the film's failings are easily overlooked.