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.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – FLAWED BUT FUN VARIATION ON THE SAME LOVED THEME

SHORT TAKE:

Repeat of all the tropes from previous movies to create what is now a formulaic Jurassic Park movie – BUT I still loved it.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to see the original Jurassic Park movie. Same scare level, no sex or nudity and very little profanity. These movies are a hoot and this one is just as much fun as the others, though nothing really very new under the sun. Just a variation on the same theme.

LONG TAKE:

I love the Jurassic Park franchise. Even the ugly stepchildren JP Lost World and JP III. I know they are derivative. I agree the first was the best – character driven as opposed to the far more special effects driven sequels. I understand they have become formulaic to the point where you can accurately and safely predict the characters who will and will not survive, and the general outline of the story. But I don’t really care. People who ride roller coasters are pretty familiar with how they work, know what to expect and are not especially surprised by the effects of free falls but they still ride them.

These movies are not Shakespeare, or Chekov, or even Woody Allen. They are "what if" stories about what would happen if you threw people and dinosaurs together. And they are a lot of fun.

Two of my favorite all time cinematic scenes are from the franchise. (click pic) One is the scene where Alan Grant, renowned paleontologist, reacts to his first encounter with a live dinosaur – a brachiosaurus. He is so overwhelmed he turns to Ellie, points and can barely get out the words – "It’s…. it’s a dinosaur," and then has to sit down on the ground. Makes me smile every time.

(click pic) Another of my favorite scenes is seeing Owen racing through the jungle on his motorcycle, hunting alongside raptors. After being oriented to how terrifying these critters are, through all the previous movies, all the way back to the first movie, to see a human as part of their pack gives me goose pimples.

The premise of JP Numero V is that the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar are facing extinction – again – because their island is about to be destroyed by an active volcano. Some think nature should reclaim these anachronistic Frankenstein monsters. Others believe we have a stewardship duty to save them despite the inherent extreme danger of the attempt. Another faction is in play with more mercenary motivations.

The actors re-create the characters we have enjoyed in previous movies.

Jeff Goldblum reprises his wisecracking, snarky and insightful Ian Malcolm, in a small cameo, offering his opinions to a Congressional committee on what should be done now that these creatures are facing an(other) extinction level event on their island. The movie cuts back and forth between his testimony and the adventures with Claire and Owen on Isla Nublar.

Chris Pratt returns as Owen, the dinosaur whisperer who is reluctantly pulled in to the rescue mission in order to help Blue, the raptor he raised.

Bryce Dallas Howard appears again as Claire, former executive assistant to the CEO who owned the destroyed park. She now runs an organization attempting to save the dinosaurs and whose primary job in this movie is to scream, escape from dinosaurs and be rescued by Owen.

The ubiquitous James Cromwell creates the character of Benjamin Lockwood, a heretofore unknown partner of the Jurassic concept’s inventor John Hammond (formerly played by the late Sir Richard Attenborough and appears only as a painting). The backstory is that for a previously undisclosed reason, which will become important to a subplot, they had a falling out.

Geraldine Chaplin – the oldest of eight children who Charlie Chaplin had with his wife Oona – appears in a small part as Lockwood’s trusted housekeeper.

Others fill out smaller bits seemingly just to fluff up the roster: Justice Smith as Franklin, the geeky tech guy who seems to have been hired for having a girlier scream than Howard and vaguely imitates Jake Johnson’s character Lowery from Jurassic World I. Daniella Pineda plays Zia, a tough talking self styled paleo-veterinarian (though she has never actually met a dinosaur up close). Ted Levine is the obligate bad guy, unnecessarily cruel to the dinos and callously dismissive of human life, much like Vincent D’Onfrio’s Hoskins from JW. Rafe Spall plays Eli, Cromwell’s assistant who is reminiscent of the lawyer Gennero (Martin Ferrero) from JP I. There’s the absolutely required kid (Isabella Sermon), of course who is cute then in danger. And so on.

Special mention must be made of BD Wong. He pops up once again as the "evil" scientist Wu, who is the embodiment of everything that alarmed Ian Malcolm when he admonished Hammond in the first JP movie that: (click pic) "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should." It is interesting to note that Wong and Goldblum were the representatives of the dipolar opposite views in the original JP and are the only major recurring members from the original cast. And I give the filmmakers kudos for going out of their way to make this conceptual point obvious by the small but significant presence of these two characters.

The special effects are remarkable, recreating not only multiple dinosaurs but a volcanic eruption, and chases across a variety of terrain from forest to rooftops.

It is a satisfying thrill ride of a movie, make no mistake.

BUT….

SPOILERS FOR JURASSIC FRANCHISE MOVIES, GENERATIONS, SERENITY AND  LAST JEDI

All this being said I still have some issues with the movie.

The de rigeur between-movies "break" in the romantic relationship of the leads is particularly silly. It is literally explained as having occurred because Owen wouldn’t let Ellie drive his van. Huh? In JP III the break up of Alan and Ellie is heartbreaking and gracefully presented. Alan is shown playing with Ellie’s child. You assume it is his until Ellie’s husband shows up. Then you realize not only that they are not a couple any more, but guess at why – that Alan never wanted to settle down and start a family.

Lava is, at one point, everywhere. Claire and Franklin (Justice Smith) would probably have cooked just being that close to it in an enclosed space as they were. Minutes later they are fleeing from a pyroclastic flow which moves at 50 mph and is full of toxic deadly fumes. An old dilapidated gyrosphere wouldn’t have gone that fast and Owen, even running downhill, couldn’t have come close.

In another scene, an experienced hunter, Ken, (Ted Levine) goes into the cage of THE most dangerous dinosaur ever created for a souvenir tooth. It's an insult to JP I's Muldoon who was taken by a pack of raptors while trying to save other people's lives. It was pretty transparent Ken's death in JW: FK was only to set up the escape of the Indoraptor.

 There was really no reason to try to murder Owen or Claire. They were brought along because of their unique insight into the creatures then discarded as soon as one was found. This didn’t make a lot of sense. They try to commit murder of experts who can help them in order to cover up the theft of animals who have been left to die anyway. Huh?

The most galling problem I have is with the demise of one of the creatures. The very first live dinosaur we see EVER in the franchise is an brachiosaurus. Yes, it is pretend and CGI and no dinosaurs were harmed in the making of the movie because all the dinosaurs are actually….extinct! But because of its emotional impact of awed amazement in the iconic moment of the first JP movie when we first saw what a living breathing dinosaur might look like today, there is a vested connection which audiences over 25 years and five movie have earned. But when Owen and Claire are fleeing the erupting island we watch a brachiosaurus – maybe supposed to be the very one we saw in the first movie – die a prolonged agonizing death. There is a drawn out, extremely painful scene where Owen and Claire watch the creature as it moans at the end of the dock, abandoned, without help, is enveloped by the toxic smoke, becomes a silhouette in the light from the lava and is destroyed. Like the death of Captain Kirk in Generations, the disappearance of Luke at the end of The Last Jedi, or Wash’s demise in the movie Serenity, it felt like a deliberate sign off from the parent franchise. Whether it will signal a new successful batch of movies is another question.

As I pointed out, it is really just an audio-visual emotional roller coaster ride so I shouldn’t expect subtlety.

 Overall I enjoyed JW: FK and do hope this is not the last of their progeny. But I also hope care is take in the future with those characters – human and otherwise – of which we have become so fond.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – IT’S…STAR WARS. WHAT MORE COULD YOU WANT???

 

Have you ever gone into your parents’ attic, rummaged around and found an old favorite toy – a Teddy bear, a plastic sword, a doll house or an old board game? Suddenly you are flooded with the warm fuzzy nostalgia of childhood and the uncomplicated excitement of an anticipated adventure with like minded companions.

In a slightly different scenario, but one which will tie in to the previous analogy, have you ever been to a foreign country which had a McDonald’s? Amidst all of the unfamiliar occasionally unidentifiable store front names, the Golden Arches stands out like a beacon. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go – if there is a McDonald’s, even with a variety of specials particular to the indigenous population, you will still be able to get the same Big Mac in Lesieux, France that you could get in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin or Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Sitting in a dark theater as the simple words “A long ago time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appeared on the screen in deliberate graphic print quality circa 1977 followed by the signature trumpet Star Wars fanfare I couldn’t help but laugh in delight. Now 58, when Star Wars first came out I was 18 years old. As I have repeated in my own cautionary refrain many times to my children – the only reason an 18 year old is now considered a legal adult is because of the Vietnam War. In short, when Star Wars premiered I was still a child.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, arrived on the screen 40 years 6 months and 20 days after the premiere of Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope much to the confusion of many inasmuch as there was no Episode 1, 2 or 3 for many years to come) but who’s counting, right?

During that time we have watched Luke and Leia   be born, grow up, and grow old. Many of us have grown up and grown older right along with them.

How does this all tie in? Simply.   Star Wars doesn’t change. Despite the moderate improvements in special effects the world of Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and Darth Vader, Emperor Pallapatine and the Cantina on Tatooine is the same now as it was when we were all much much younger. A few of the trimmings might be tweaked but it’s still the same Star Wars I came to love fresh out of high school.

Like the dusty rediscovered Teddy Bear or the Big Mac purchased in Tokyo, the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi are familiar territory to those of us who have tread these paths for 40 plus years of 7 movies, dozens of Halloween Vader masks, uncountable action figures, Youtube analyses, spoofs, comic books, Yoda backpacks, Millenium Falcon bed sheets, fanzines, shipping theories and both canon and non-canon books. This is not strictly speaking a negative thing. Nor is it a criticism, any more than someone who is fond of vanilla ice cream might note that there is a gallon or two of Blue Belle in the freezer.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi breaks very little new ground, does not further the conflict between the dark and light sides of the Force much, or do more than mildly massage the dynamics of the characters we have come to know and love. Even those coming later to the party like Rey (Daisy “Murder on the Orient Express” Ridley), Finn (John Boyega reprising his role from The Force Awakens) and Poe (Oscar Isaac – the only really good thing in Suburbicon) fall into step with their predecessors – Luke, Leia and Han.

MAJOR SPOILER FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

The entire gang is here minus the significantly notable (and I continue the debate with my kids as to whether or no it was entirely unnecessary) exception of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Mark Hamill is the aging Luke Skywalker, Anthony Daniels is C3PO, Frank Oz voices Yoda, and Peter Mayhew continues as Chewbacca. Princess Leia, too, has a major role to play, even though, ironically, the actress who played her, Carrie Fisher, has in fact, actually passed away. (Hail the bizarre technology of CGI which enhanced Ms. Fisher’s last screen moments into a fully fleshed out part.)

The premise of Last Jedi is that Rey, the street urchin who discovered her powerful Force sensitivity in the previous Force Awakens, tries to get an extremely reluctant, jaded and worn out Luke to rejoin the fight against the Empire. At the same time the last remnants of the rebel forces attempt to escape the pursuing clutches of the Imperial Fleet directed by Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) and lead by General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), in a caricature of evil Nazi-like officer. Hux seems to have, through a kind of Peter Principle, risen through the ranks to the limits of his capabilities, probably because of the attrition resulting from the execution of previous failed commanders. This is a source of mild amusement to the audience.

Which brings us to the one singular added refreshing ingredient to this familiar but very welcome recipe – the sense of humor which has been incorporated into the characters. There has always been an element of comedy – mostly the droids banter and the snarky comments from Han. But for the most part the other characters were straight men. Now, with a certain seasoning, they have allowed characters like Luke to include a few one liners and humorous moments. guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-1366x768-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-6474It seems that Guardians of the Galaxy has set the Gold Standard of humor, converting the likes of the Thor franchise from an almost medieval melodramatic fraternal conflict to a sibling rivalry which occasionally plants tongue firmly in cheek and wisely no longer takes itself too seriously, throwing in moments which might otherwise be considered bloopers. Star Wars has reaped the benefits of this informant as well, levitating the mood in much needed relief from its darker more sinister moments.

All in all Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows there’s plenty of steam left in this railroad or should I say fluff in this Teddy bear.

In short Star Wars: The Last Jedi is………Star Wars. And I wouldn’t want them to change a thing.