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.

EARLY MAN – LAUGH AS WALLACE AND GROMIT MEETS EVERY SPORTS MOVIE CLICHE KNOWN TO MAN

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable, funny, family friendly, typical sports outing about an underdog cavemen team playing soccer against a more sophisticated "Bronze Age" team to win their valley back, all brought to us by Nick Park and friends, the creators of SHAUN THE SHEEP!!!

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

If you like Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep or Chicken Run or The Wrong Trousers or…. oh EVERYBODY!!!

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LONG TAKE:

What do the fantasy franchises: Harry Potter, The Avengers, Game of Thrones and……. Wallace and Gromit have in common? Wallace and Gromit????!!!!

The answer is: Early Man.

Early Man is an adorable plasticine animation feature length movie brought  to you by the same instigators, led by Nick Park, who created The Wrong Trousers, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the story is spun about the lives of a group of Cavemen who were forced into the lone habitable spot by a meteor which devastated the rest of the known Earth. Their valley is lush and green, where all about them is the Badlands: with dangerous mutant animals, harsh rocky ground, and volcanos. The Badlands looks a bit like I'd imagine the Wembley Stadium parking lot after an EFL Championship game. But there are a couple of silver linings. Not only did the meteor strike carve out at least this one fertile area but the meteor, itself, also gave them the template for history's first football. By that, for those of you reading in America, I mean soccer. But the Brits call it football, so there it is.

Fast forward a couple "eras" and Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne – Newt Scamander from the "Harry Potter" world of Fantastic Beasts) and the tribe of which he is a member, happily lives on fruits, nuts and the odd rabbit (which said presented rabbit is about as catchable as Bugs Bunny so, in effect, they are de facto vegetarians). But Dug is ambitious – he wants to hunt mammoths………!

But that's not what the story is about. Their idyll is interrupted when Lord Nooth (voiced by The Avengers' Tom Hiddleson) sporting an impenetrable guise of Italian accent, comes upon the scene with equipment made of the bronze which he has mined from his nearby kingdom.

Dug challenges them to a game of soccer/football to win their valley back. Completely outmatched, Dug's group has no equipment, no training, no experience and doesn't even know the rules, but his chutzpah gets the attention of a local girl, Goona (voiced by Game of Thrones' Maizie Williams) from the Bronze kingdom who coaches Dug's tribe in exchange for a spot on the team. Nick Par, the creator, even lends a hand — or voice — for the emotive and communicative grunts and snorts of Dug's intelligent pig, Hognob.

The story is a pretty formulaic case of underdog team goes up against much better players with nothing but a good cause, lots of heart, and a ringer. We've seen the like in everything from The Karate Kid (karate) to Facing the Giants (American football) to Bad News Bears (baseball) to Mystery Alaska (hockey) and Balls of Fury (ping pong), and it works — every — time because, as Patton put it so well – "Americans love a winner" and everyone loves the underdog because in them we all  find inspiration. But this time it's played for laughs, parodying the sport, the genre, diva professional players, sports announcers, a "win one for the Gipper" moment, a hen pecked husband, you name it.

It's a clean, gentle, lovable movie that kids will enjoy for the claymation/plasticine animation and adults will appreciate for the pokes at the cliches. While there is a good deal of spoofing and teasing, there's not a mean spot in Nick Park's entire imaginative brain.

The cast list is like an old home week of favorite kids' characters, especially from the Harry Potter franchise. So when you take your kids you can happily point out that Eddie Redmayne is both Dug andNewt Scamander.  Timothy Spall, who voiced Chief Bobnar also moonlighted as Peter Pettigrew. Mark Williams, who does the voice for Barry, was also Mr. Weasley.

Miriam Margolyes, who voices Queen Oofeefa was also Professor Sprout. And Tom Hiddleson is Lord Nooth andLoki! I'll let you figure out how to explain Maisie Williams' stint in Game of Thrones. But, if it helps, she was also in a handful of Dr. Whos.

Early Man is available on Amazon now. So go watch this cute movie that will be delightful to kids, footballers, adults, fans of Wallace and Gromit, Harry Potter afficianados, pig farmers, rabbits, cavemen ………………

MY FAVORITE 2017 MOVIES

I thought I would start the new year with a review of the previous. It's always a good idea to know where you have been before you set forward into new territory.

To that end I have chosen what I thought were the top dozen movies of 2017. Do keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list and there are some movies I suspect would have made the list had I had the opportunity to see them. Among those I happily expect to be wonderful but I have not yet seen include: Darkest Hour and Loving Vincent. They will just have to be evaluated in subsequent blogs.

NUMBER ONE BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR BAR NONE:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Kenneth Branagh's absolutely brilliant and stunningly beautiful rendition of Agatha Christie's most famous and popular book – about a group of strangers stranded on a snowbound train with an unsolved murder. Not only is this the best example of its genre, I think it is the perfect movie.

NUMBER TWO:

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Musical based on the spirit if not the specific details of the life of PT Barnum – hailed as the father of the modern circus. Con man, philanthropist, businessman, devoted family man, flawed human – the movie uses this amazing historical figure to explore the question of what is it that makes life worthwhile.

NUMBER THREE:

WONDER WOMAN

DC FINALLY hits a major home run with the most unlikely of B list comic book supers. Gal Gadot  IS Wonder Woman. Exciting, moving, funny, inspiring, spectacular special effects – set during World War I this movie exemplifies the virtues of courage, self-sacrifice, and altruism all tied up like a Christmas present with the beautiful wrappings of a superhero adventure. This is what a superhero movie should look like.

NUMBER FOUR:

MARSHALL

 Chadwick Boseman plays a young Thurgood Marshall. While this significant historical figure will grow up to be the first black Supreme Court Justice, we meet Marshall early in his career – defending a black man against charges of raping his white female employer. Marshall is saddled with an unlikely partner – a Jewish attorney, Josh Gad, who wants nothing to do with the notoriety this case will bring. Both discover that nothing and no one is as simple as it seems. Boseman and Gad have such good chemistry I'd look forward to watching them together again in anything. And the case plays out like the best of anything Perry Mason ever tried.

NUMBER FIVE:

WONDER

  You can't tell a book by its cover. Wonder is a story inspired by the troubling encounter the author had between her child and a severely facially disfigured child. Wonder explores the world from the point of view of a similarly genetically challenged child – Auggie – played by Jacob Trembley, his sister Via, his best friend Will and Via's best friend Miranda. The brilliance of this movie is that we discover that everyone is guilty of misjudgement – including the title character and ourselves, the audience. Featuring the performances of Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Mandy Patinkin as warm and caring parents and school principal, Wonder is a delightful movie for all ages.

The rest of the movies I can not faithfully place in any one order. It would depend on what mood you are in and in which genre it fits.

GLASS CASTLE

Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson) reminisces about growing up in her dysfunctional family headed by her brilliant, creative, and devoted but tragically alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson). Glass Castle is a coming to understanding that even a parent with egregious flaws can bequeath the irreplaceable parental blessings that come with unconditional love and support.

THOR: RAGNAROK

Chris Hemworth and Tom Hiddleston return as the conflicted brothers Thor and Loki in this installment of the Thor franchise. Cate Blanchett appears as Hela, the goddess of death who has escaped exile to take over Asgard. The title reveals the conflict as Ragnarok is the name of the Viking Armaggedon – the end of the world. Sounds like heavy going, but the writers chose to include a comic element which lifted the mood considerably. While admittedly a point of debate, personally I loved the new injection of a lighter tone and Guardians of the Galaxy-style humor in the previously Shakespearean melodrama that used to define the Thor stories.

PIXAR CARS 3

  Hands down the best of the trilogy. Cars 3 retains its child-like animated heart but stepped up its game considerably to give Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) a character arc and plot worthy of a live action movie with humans. Well done Pixar!

DUNKIRK

An intense, moving and inspirational account of the "little ships" captained by everyday sailors, ordinary fishermen and weekend boaters, who, facing great peril, came across the English Channel to rescue British and French soldiers surrounded by Germans, straffed by the Luftwaffe and stranded on Dunkirk beach. Starring an ensemble including Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy this is as important, and at times as difficult, to watch as Saving Private Ryan.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

 Oddball sequel to the original Lego movie, this is at once a homage and parody to every Batman movie and TV show ever made. Not without, frankly, dumb moments and slightly incomprehensible plot holes and cameos, you must remember this is all really just supposed to be in the mind of a child playing with his toys. Featuring vocal talents including: Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum and Hector Elizondo, it's a hoot. Just turn your brain off and enjoy The Lego Batman Movie with popcorn, Raisonettes and a sense of humor.

SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING

Toby McGuire was too angst-y. Andrew Garfield, while a terrific actor in his own right, was simply miscast as the webswinger – much like Eric Stoltz, a fine performer, just wasn't right as Back to the Future's Marty McFly and had to be replaced. Tom Holland, however embodies Spiderman more, I think, than the original comic book creation – bringing a refreshing wide-eyed child-like naivete to the character expressing an adorably delightful hero worship for his fellow Avengers. And Holland, the actor, still manages to hold his own against the absolutely brilliant veteran Michael Keaton who portrays the mysterious multi faceted villain.

THE STAR

Last but most assuredly not least is the wonderful animated version of the Biblical retelling of the Annunciation and Nativity – only told from the animals' points of view. Primary is miniature mill donkey Bo who longs to be part of the Royal procession but is "stuck" with the family of this poor carpenter…..an irony everyone over 8 will understand. This delightful story is told with Biblical accuracy, appropriate deference towards the gentle heart who is the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a lighthearted but respectful appreciation for the beleaguered Joseph who fears he is in over his head but who stalwartly steps up to the plate to protect his wife and the Son of God she carries.  Alone, the tale of a donkey who aspires to a position for which he is obviously unfit  would be cute. Woven about around the Biblically accurate betrothal, marriage and journey to Bethlehem of Mary, Joseph and the unborn Christ child it becomes an unusual and welcome new look at the story of the Holy Family from a fresh point of view. Religious meditation often advises we contemplate a Biblical event from a new perspective. I would venture to say that, although a child's animated movie, The Star rises, because of the material and the respect with which it is treated, to a kind of meditation on this most important event in the history of mankind. The Star, itself, shines as a beautiful example of what childrens' stories can be – appealing to children but substance for the adults who bring them as well.

MAY YOU HAVE A BLESSED 2018! SEE YOU AT THE MOVIES!

THOR: RAGNAROK – EXACTLY WHAT IT SHOULD BE

The wise and ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself" which was said to hang in the forecourt at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi can apply to many things, even to movies. Movies of a particular genre are best when they adhere to the rules of their own known Universe. A romance should have long gazes and lovers who overcome obstacles. Horror movies should have jump scares. Disaster flicks should feature near misses and heroic self sacrifice. And movies based on comic books should bear the irreverent broad strokes of plot and illustration from which they originate.

Suffice it to say that Thor: Ragnarok understands its pedigree and is abundantly familiar with its own inner workings.

The premise, obvious from the title, is another in the line of adventures featuring Thor, Son of Odin and god of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth). Here he seeks to prevent the foretold, Ragnarok, the fiery destruction of Asgard, his home world.

SPOILER FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Thor’s goal is complicated by Loki (Tom Hiddleson) who is hiding in the guise of Odin.

SPOILER FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE THOR: RAGNAROK TRAILERS

Thor is also hindered in his quest by Hela, the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) and by The Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum) who conscripts him into a gladiatorial competition against Hulk (Mark Ruiffalo).

This is a movie which THANKFULLY does NOT take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the tale is full of creatures and fighting,    narrow escapes and changing alliances, spaceships, and the most unexpected cameos in the strangest places and characters which are WAAAAY over the top.

Jeff Goldblum’s Grand Master appears often as a hundred story hologram to his city which is imagined as the world’s biggest gameshow.

Hiddleson brings back Loki, the favorite Avenger Universe character one loves to hate in all of his snarky, clever, quipping, never-quite-absolutely-sure-what-he’s-going-to-do-next, ever so fun unpredictability. And every once in a while you get the feeling he is the only sensible adult in a room of idealistic children.

Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as Odin – first, in a comic turn, as Loki pretending to be Odin, then as the real Odin bringing to bear all of Hopkins’ Odin’s gentle dignity as a king and father.

Cate Blanchett’s Hela sports long dark hair which, when she brushes it back with her hands become enormous imposing deer antlers – a look, (much like Jason Isaacs’ ridiculously tall beaver hat adorning his Colonel Tavington in The Patriot), which only the likes of a great actor such as herself could sell as frightening.

As a side note, it is interesting to consider that Blanchett also played Galadriel, another extremely powerful supernatural being – the Queen Mother of the elves in Lord of the Rings who, when offered the Ring by Frodo gave a terrifying vision to Frodo should she accept:

"In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!"

But who then musters heroic self restraint and refuses ownership of the treacherous Ring.

"I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel. "

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeell just imagine if Galadriel had hungrily embraced the proffered ornament, eagerly put it on her finger, crushed Lord Sauron between her greedy fingers then you would get an idea of Hela – the flip side of Galadriel.

  And Blanchett has a Hela-va (think about it) good time munching on this role. She chews scenery, mows down soldiers, blows up castles and mews theatrically about being so very unappreciated in magnificent anti-hero finery. Hela is a worthy counterpoint to Thor’s beautifully strutting, splendidly self-aware position as the hero of the story.

But the story is not nearly as Wagernian as you might think, as characters, in very human fashion – make mistakes, trip, run into walls and annoy each other.

The screenwriters manage to run right up to that line in the sand between parody and affectionate homage and occasionally even plant one foot on either side. But they keep the ebb and flow between the comedy and genuine tragedy balanced as skillfully as a sword juggler at a PT Barnum circus.

Thor: Ragnarok is exactly what it should be: a live action comic book, brought to a gloriously larger than life by its director Taiha Waititi a New Zealand born child of both Maori and Jewish heritage, who also plays a wry rock monster gladiator named Korg.

Thor: Ragnarok is a perfect example of its kind. Like a two hour Disney ride it leaves you awash in eye-popping breath taking images, gentle humor which makes otherwise grandiose heroes familiar, and a plot which will carry you along like the Kali Rapids River Ride at Disneyworld. Thor: Ragnarok is, at turns, funny, heart-wrenching, heroic, endearing and ridiculous in only the way a comic book hero can come alive.

So grab your popcorn, turn your brain off and let Thor: Ragnarok take you on one of the most entertaining rides of the year. Had they been part of the same mythology, Thor: Ragnarok would have made Apollo proud.