THE FOUNDER – DULL BIOPIC OF THE BUSINESS VULTURE RAY KROC IN A WASTE OF KEATON’S TALENTS

SHORT TAKE:

Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton's efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc's lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.

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LONG TAKE:

If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I'm not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.

The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald's a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.

McDonald's was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackie here – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their's was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950's. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.

SPOILERS

The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think "small" but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don't know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray's personal motto is "Persistence" and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.

This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor's sly brother as guilty pleasures.  But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.

The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc's eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.

Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair's breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate's wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are  out – check. Movie over – check.

Don't get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there's one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy's Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable "hamburger joint" his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura "Jurassic Park"  Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight's Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.

This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – "If my competitor was drowning I'd stick a hose in his mouth." So "business is business" is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can't help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.

In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: "If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions." Kroc stole his partners' business, his friend's wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don't care. We don't know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character.  It's an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.

So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I'd much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR – THE STORY OF FRED ROGERS AND HIS NEIGHBORHOOD

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely, delightful and moving documentary covering the life of both Fred Rogers and his Neighborhood.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Absolutely everyone. No really – unequivocally, no holds barred, universally, unabashedly, and without even the smallest reservation – EVERYONE!!!!

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LONG TAKE:

When I was a kid, I had a brother and sister who were 9 and 10 years older, respectively, than I. Come to think of it, they STILL are 9 and 10 years older. Also, my Dad and I were buddies. I’d go to the hardware store with him, and I would hang around and “help” him with construction projects around our house. He was 40 when I was born. My point is that when we turned on the TV it was “Fractured Fairy Tales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle, Star Trek, Hogan’s Heroes, Abbot and Costello, The Great Escape, Wagon Train and The Magnificent Seven. The quiet and gentle wisdom of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and his cardigan sweaters was just not on my radar. So later, when I had kids, while I respected the show, and thought he was doing something nice for kids, I just wasn’t that interested.

So I was surprised by my own emotional reaction to Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I realized then that Fred Rogers had seeped, ever so slowly, into my consciousness with his gentle, joyful manner over the last 50 years. He was simply a kind and decent man who both advocated as a motto of his show and lived by the personal  ethic: “I like you just the way you are.” Fred Rogers spent his life wisely, as the personification of Jesus' answer to the question which preambled the parable of The Good Samaritan: "Who is my neighbor?" There is no doubt in my mind that the name of his show was intended as an incarnation of that answer – that, to Mr. Rogers, everyone was his neighbor. And Fred Rogers' personal Inspired ministry was to bring God's Love to all people in a very practical, first hand way – by demonstration.

St. Francis famously advocated to: “Preach always, sometimes even with words.” Fred Rogers, through his actions, showed himself to be an avid disciple. Though the subject of Fred Rogers’ specific spiritual beliefs came up sparingly in the documentary, aside from the fact of his ordination as a minister, his adherence to the foundational Christian belief that all men are brothers, beloved of and equal in God’s eyes, comes out boldly and profoundly in everything Fred Rogers did, or said.

The documentary dips into the very deep well of video on which he appears. Not just the copies of almost 1,000 shows, but his personal appearances on interview programs, at schools, and even before Congress! There is no lack of documentation of Fred Rogers’ progress from his early philosophical musings before a piano on teaching children about serious issues, probably filmed by his wife, in 1962, all the way through the blooper video clips from his very last show in 2001 and his PSA in 2002 on 9/11.

The documentary interviews his wife, his sons, John and Jim, his co-workers, friends, associates, and other interviewers. They come from many walks of life, and life styles. But all people were equal in Fred Rogers’ eyes. Rogers maintained a tight ship, monitoring every aspect of the show, and required understandably scrupulous behavior, watching over the reputation of the show with care and affection for everyone involved in the production. Mr. Rogers, for example, forbade one actor from frequenting a particular bar and Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin) from appearing in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, Rogers’ fatherly supervision of his cast and crew did not discourage a certain level of good-natured juvenile behavior amongst those Mrs. Rogers remembered he called his “playmates”, such as practical jokes on set or a poster made from a tasteless but amusing photo clandestinely left on Rogers’ camera by a mischievous member of the crew.

SPOILERS

Back in the 1960's, there were topics, it was understood, that children’s programming just would not explore. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’s stock in trade was the places where angels would fear to tread. He tackled issues head on that many adults avoided: death, divorce, lost children, serious illness, and disabilities. He had guest stars, wrote books, made appearances, did interviews, and performed puppet plays intended to translate these complex topics in ways which children could understand, talk about, and express their confusions and concerns.

The cast and crew were close and the show was very personal to everyone involved. Daniel the Tiger, the avatar most close to Fred Roger's heart and personality, according to those who knew him best, often spoke of insecurity and self doubt. King Friday XIII and his Queen dealt frequently with parental concerns. Everyone on the cast was known by a real name. Lady Aberlin's name was Betty Aberlin, Officer Clemmons was, in real life, the powerhouse singer, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, and the name Mr. McFeely, though played by David Newell, was Fred Rogers' middle name.

In the ‘60's, when black people were forced out of public pools, Fred Rogers pointedly invited Francois Clemmons, a black man portraying Mr. Rogers’ local police officer, to come join him on a hot day as he soaked his feet in a child’s plastic pool and to share his towel. Fred Rogers went out of his way to rinse Officer Clemmons' feet with his hose and offer him his towel. There is no mistaking the reference to Jesus' washing of his disciples feet nor of the point Mr. Rogers made. I couldn’t help but laugh as Mr. Rogers looked up at the camera from contemplating their cooling feet. There was an expression I'd never seen on the face of this usually sweet, impeturbable man –  just a glimpse of his righteousness anger at the injustices which inspired this demonstration, as though, for a moment, he was staring down anyone who would dare question his actions. I hoped those at the time, he was silently addressing, had seen and squirmed in shame. Mr. Roger and Mr. Clemmons re-enacted the event some years later.

When Bobby Kennedy was murdered, Fred Rogers’ show had Lady Aberlin and Daniel the Tiger discuss what the word “assassination” meant. When the Challenger blew up in front of millions of kids, Fred Rogers was there to confront the topic with his beloved puppets in ways small children could understand. When the horrific attack on our country was made by Islamic terrorists on 9/11, Fred Rogers came out of retirement, ill with only months left before he would pass away, to offer comfort to 33 years of children who had grown up watching him.

Mr. Rogers was the personification of kindness and the exemplification of Jesus’ instruction to his apostles as he sent them to preach, to be: “…wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Rogers  loved and put at ease everyone he met, but was uncompromising in his beliefs and could talk anybody into anything he believed was right.

Rogers’ powers of persuasion were legendary. Mr. Clemmons, during the documentary, explained that just portraying a police officer as a black man at the time was initially out of his comfort zone, because he had grown up afraid of police. But Clemmons put on the uniform and gave good example, portraying this character for decades. Mr. Rogers could reason anyone into doing the right thing, including convincing an extremely prejudiced and skeptical Congressman Pastore out of the 20 MILLION dollars needed in 1969 to keep a fledgling Public Broadcast System afloat, by simply being reasonable. See the Youtube of Rogers' appearance before the subcommittee here.

Mr. Rogers recognized what a force for good the power of the television medium could be and how its worth was being wasted on frivolous, violent and brainless assaults on children’s senses. His mind set was to minister to children of all ages by taking their feelings and thoughts seriously, and help them cope with the normal struggles of life. He featured everyone from the profoundly physically challenged Jeffrey Erlanger to a young Wynton Marsalis to the famous Julia Child to Koko the Gorilla. Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, not only appeared several times on the show, but was a friend, was interviewed for the documentary, and is credited by the director, Morgan Neville, as being the inspiration for the documentary. While interviewing Mr. Ma for a different project, Mr. Neville asked Mr. Ma how he dealt with fame. Ma's response surprised him – that he learned it from Mr. Rogers who, it turned out, assured Mr. Ma that fame was not an inherently bad thing, and mentored him on the appropriate ways to use this gift.

Like Colonel Pickering, who treated even a flower girl like Elisa Doolittle as though she were a lady, Mr. Rogers treated everyone alike, to be valued as a child of God. His love for every man was carried out in his prison ministry, and his outreach to adults, Old Friends, New Friends which aired during the hiatus of his Neighborhood during 1967-8.

He was a missionary of fraternal love to mankind and The Good Samaritan to the world. I am so glad his ministry lives on in his shows, in the memories of his friends, family, co-workers and those children, now adults, who watched him and were positively influenced.  The picture of humility, his wife remembered how on his death bed he wondered if he would be accepted into Jesus' sheepfold. Known world wide, recognized and admired by celebrities, all he thought of himself was God's unworthy servant.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of his show’s debut, not only will a commemorative U.S. postage stamp featuring Fred Rogers be released, but work has begun on a biopic of the legendary minister, starring Tom Hanks, planned for release in 2019.

Jesus said the second half of the greatest law is to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rogers was an ordained minister, so it was obviously not a coincidence that in the world of his “Neighborhood,Fred Rogers' declared, by word and action, daily, that he liked his fellow man, with a Christian love, just the way they were. St. Francis should be proud.