The Founder


Ray Kroc worshiping at the Golden Arches.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella, Randall Taylor, Lacey King, Jeremy Madden, Rebecca Ray, Adam Rosenberg, Jacinte Blankenship. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Most of us are more than familiar with McDonald’s. It is Main Street, America on a global scale; on a typical day the fast food chain will feed something like 8% of the world’s population. They are convenient and in a fast-paced world where meals can be afterthoughts, a necessity. But how did they get to be that way?

Salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) is having a spectacular lack of success selling his five spindle milkshake mixer to diners and drive-ins in the Midwest. When he gets an order for five of the machines from a burger joint in San Bernadino, California, he is gratified – gratified but amazed. The operation he visits is staggering; lines snake through the parking lot. Counter service only, he makes his order for a cheeseburger, fries and a coke and gets it delivered to the window in less than a minute. Dumbfounded, he sits down to eat his meal – and it’s actually pretty darn good. The restaurant, named McDonald’s for the McDonald brothers who own it, looks promising as visions of a franchise operation begin to dance in his head.

At first the brothers – Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) aren’t too interested. They’d tried something like it before and ended up with franchise owners adding their own flair – fried chicken, barbecue, straying from the formula of keeping the menu simple and the quality high. Kroc thought he could make that happen by being a hands-on boss. As it turned out, that didn’t quite work out the way he expected.

At home, his wife Ethel (Dern) lives a life of loneliness and boredom, living for those precious times when they go to dinner at the local club. He uses those occasions to snare investors and Ethel tries to help in her own way. Soon though Ray’s dreams are fast outstripping those of his partners as well as those of his wife. The wife (Cardellini) of a potential investor (Wilson) catches his eye. As for the McDonald brothers, they are content with having a quality restaurant and what Ray is looking to build is more than they intended to take on and their reluctance to change or to compromise quality becomes a major frustration for Ray. He becomes aware that the biggest hurdle in making McDonald’s a household name are the McDonald brothers themselves.

I’m not too sure what the executives at the McDonald’s corporation think of this movie; they are in a very real sense the descendants of Ray Kroc and they owe their position to his vision and his drive to achieve it. I think they appreciate the free advertising but Ray doesn’t come off terribly well here in many ways although he did do a lot of the less savory things that are depicted here, including taking credit for some of the aspects of the image that the McDonald brothers introduced (like the golden arches) and effectively excising the brothers from the history of the company (he labeled an Illinois franchise McDonald’s #1 when in fact it was the ninth store to open). Keaton imbues Ray with a surfeit of charm without ignoring the man’s more vicious traits; he also gives Ray enough energy and charisma that when he does some pretty bad things, one still roots for him. Maybe there’s something in that secret sauce that compels us to but I think that Keaton’s performance has a lot to do with it too.

The film only covers a short period in the history of the fast food Goliath and doesn’t really get into the globalization of the brand or examine the effect of their product on the obesity epidemic in this country which has disappointed some critics but not this one. There are plenty of things one can get into concerning the pros and cons of McDonald’s from their catchy advertisements, their shrewd marketing to children with the play areas and Ronald McDonald and their recent move to adding more nutritional selections on their menu and offering a wider variety of food in general. I think the movie accomplished what it set out to do and examine how McDonald’s went from being a small roadside burger joint in California to the global giant it is today and that’s plenty of story for one movie.

There’s plenty of dramatic conflict that goes on but this simply isn’t going to appeal to those who are easily bored. Although there might be a niche group interest for those who are interested in how corporate entrepreneurs achieved their success, I’m not sure if America (or anywhere else) is waiting for movies about Col. Sanders, Sam Walton (founder of Wal*Mart) or Bill Gates. I did find Keaton’s performance fascinating and that kept enough of my interest to give this a mild recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Keaton delivers a solid performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit boring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the McDonald’s restaurants depicted in the film were built from scratch in parking lots and vacant lots because producers couldn’t find suitable locations that matched the look of the film that they were aiming for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Network
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)

Saving Mr. Banks


The happiest place on Earth.

The happiest place on Earth.

(2013) True Life Drama (Disney) Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Lily Bigham, Melanie Paxson, Andy McPhee, Rachel Griffiths, Ronan Vibert, Jerry Hauck, Laura Waddell, Fuschia Sumner, David Ross Patterson, Michelle Arthur. Directed by John Lee Hancock

There are few adults or children who aren’t at least aware of the Disney classic Mary Poppins and most of those bear at least some sort of love for the film. In the review of the film, I mentioned that there are no others that take me back to my childhood like that one and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. It is therefore somewhat unsettling to note that the movie nearly didn’t get made – and if author P.L. Travers who created the character had her way, it would have been a very different movie indeed.

Walt Disney (Hanks) had always been enchanted by the tale of the flying nanny and made a promise to his daughters that he would make a movie of it someday. However, getting it done was a whole other matter entirely. P.L. Travers (Thompson), the prickly author of the Mary Poppins books, was unwilling to part with her creation to Hollywood which she considered a vulgar and schmaltzy place. Her prim and proper Poppins would doubtlessly be turned into a mindless dolt or worse still, a cartoon. Travers, you see, hated cartoons.

Finally nearly broke, she at last reluctantly consented to travel to Hollywood to sign away the rights to Poppins and the Banks family which she thought of as her own family. However, she insisted on script approval and Disney in a nearly-unheard of move for him granted it. He gave the chilly Brit over to writer Don DaGradi (Whitford) and composers Richard (Schwartzman) and Robert (Novak) Sherman.

Things go rapidly downhill from there. Travers is uneasy with the idea of making Poppins a musical – “Mary Poppins doesn’t sing” she sniffs – and absolutely hates the idea of casting Dick van Dyke as ert the Chimney Sweep. She’s very uncomfortable with the Americanization of her characters and the songs – well, she hates those too.

In fact there’s very little American that she doesn’t hate from the architecture to the smell of Los Angeles which she describes to her Disney-supplied driver Ralph (Giamatti) as “sweat and exhaust” but what he describes as jasmine which pretty much sums up the difference between the characters. She hates the pastries and treats that the long-suffering production assistant Biddy (Bigham) supplies and she barges in on Disney which drives his assistant Tommie (Baker) batty.

And nothing they do makes her happy, not even a trip to Disneyland with Walt himself. Walt is at wit’s end, particularly when she announces that the color red has been banned from the film. “You’re trying to test me, aren’t you,” he murmurs quite perceptively. “You’re trying to see how far I’m willing to go.” She holds the unsigned rights over his head like a Sword of Damocles. It isn’t until she retreats back to England, furious that Walt is planning on animating the chalk drawing sequence, that he figures out what is motivating her and why she is so reluctant for the movie to proceed.

There are clues throughout, almost all of them in flashback sequences in which an 8-year-old Travers, nicknamed Ginty (Buckley) adores her banker dad (Farrell) in rural Australia in the early 20th century but watches alcohol and disappointment slowly wear him away. It is there we see the genesis of Mary Poppins and the reason that P.L. Travers is a far different woman than Helen “Ginty” Goff was meant to be.

It’s something of a miracle that this movie got made at all. Although the script was independently commissioned, what other studio other than Disney would buy it? And Disney had a tight rope to walk on the film; if Walt comes off as a saint, it smacks of self-aggrandizement but if he comes off flawed they might see their brand eroded. I think that in the end that Walt comes off here as a genuinely good man but one who was a sharp businessman and who could be equally as cold and calculating as he was warm and compassionate. Near the end of the film, Tommie asks him why Mrs. Travers was left off the invitation list for the premier of Poppins and Walt says in a somewhat cold voice that there would be interviews and press to be done and he had to protect the film. Travers had to literally ask for permission to come and she never forgave him for that, among other things.

In fact the movie seems to imply that a certain understanding and mutual affection existed between Disney and Travers and that simply wasn’t the case. She found him overbearing and thought him deceitful and refused to work with him ever again. In fact when Broadway musical producer Cameron Mackintosh approached her to do a stage version of Poppins, she outright refused but later relented with the stipulation that nobody who worked on the film be connected in any way with the musical. After Travers’ death in 1996, Mackintosh later approached Disney and got input from them.

Thompson’s name has come up in Oscar discussions and for good reason; this is one of the finest performances of a stellar career on her part. Travers is a disagreeable, cantankerous sort who insists that every script meeting be audio taped and finds reason after reason why things can’t be done. However when she allows people in, the vulnerable child emerges and we see her regrets and her pain. I certainly wouldn’t object to her getting nominated for Oscar gold and I wouldn’t be surprised either.

I read that some retired Disney sorts who actually worked on the film who saw Saving Mr. Banks were brought to tears because the details were so on-target. Certainly this was a labor of love and like most labors was a difficult and often painful one. Hancock actually plays one of the actual audio tapes of one of the initial script sessions over the end credits so you get a real idea of how the real Mrs. Travers was (the same session is recreated in the film) and if anything, they softened her image from reality somewhat.

Disney, like most men who accomplish the sort of success that he did in life, is either sanctified or demonized depending on the nature of the person making the opinion. The real Walt Disney lay somewhere in between the two extremes. I think that this is as close a glimpse as we’re likely to get at the real Walt and while I tend to think that this is a fictionalized account of the real events surrounding the making of Mary Poppins, it is nonetheless entertaining and engrossing and one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the themes may be a bit too intense for children. There are also some unpleasant images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanks, who plays Walt Disney, is in fact a distant cousin of the studio chief.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Blood Creek

The Blind Side


The Blind Side

Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock air out their dirty laundry.

(Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Kim Dickens, Adriane Lenox, Catherine Dyer, Andy Stahl, Tom Nowicki, Libby Whitmore, Brian Hollan, Ray McKinnon. Directed by John Lee Hancock

Accidents happen. There are no accidents. Accidentally on purpose. Is anything really random chance, or is there a destiny for all of us?

Michael Oher (Aaron) has very little going for him other than he’s big and athletic. He can barely read and write his own name, his mother is a crack addict and his father is God knows where. The father of a friend of his works as a janitor at an exclusive private school in Memphis and gets the idea to bring the two of them before the football coach to see if he can get them into Wingate one way or another. Salivating at the chance to get the raw talent onto his team, the coach (McKinnon), almost salivating, convinces the school’s trustees to admit the disadvantaged boy.

However his presence on his friend’s couch has put a strain on them, so Michael is left to his own devices. He moves from place to place, silent and sad, a big sorrowful man-child without any hope or any joy. He doesn’t fit in at his new school, and his old neighborhood is becoming increasingly dangerous.

One cold night he is walking on the side of the road, trying to get into the school gym before it is locked so that he can have a warm place to sit for awhile when by chance the Tuohy family drives by. Its matriarch, Leigh Anne (Bullock) orders her husband Sean (McGraw) to stop the car and in her typically abrupt and no-nonsense manner interrogates the boy. Do you have a place to go? Don’t you dare lie to me! Oher admits he has nowhere to sleep and on the spur of the moment, Leigh Anne decides to bring the boy home and put him up for the night.

Her children SJ (Head) and Collins (Collins) range from enthusiastic (SJ) to not so much (Collins) about the new houseguest as one night stretches into several and then into weeks and at last, months. Leigh Anne drives Michael to his old home to pick up some clothes but they find that his mother has been evicted and nobody knows where she is. Instead, Leigh Anne drives Michael to the nearest Big and Tall store where Michael shows signs of life when offered a rugby shirt in his size.

As the days go by, Oher begins to respond to his academic environment although he is unable to learn in the traditional way. Instead, he picks up on what is told to him verbally. Leigh Ann hires a tutor (Bates) to help him get his grades up and soon he gets his average to the point where he can try out for the football team. The coach’s joy turns to disappointment when Oher turns out to be far too soft and unskilled to be much of a force. It is only when Leigh Anne, to whom Michael has become very attatched to, gives him a pep talk that Michael begins to show what he’s capable of and that is becoming an All-American offensive tackle. However, when he makes a choice for his future, the motivations of his family are called into question and the relationship between Michael and his new family becomes imperiled.

Director Hancock is something of a true sports movie expert, with The Rookie to his credit and again he pulls out all the stops with this one. His best move was casting Bullock in the lead role and she nails the role of Leigh Anne who could intimidate Kimbo Slice if she had half a mind to. She’s tough as nails, suffers no fools but is fiercely loyal to her family with a soft spot for underdogs. There are a surprising number of women like her in the South and if the region has any greatness at all to it, it’s because of them.

McGraw, whose easygoing charm translates nicely to the screen, is solid as the dad, a role he has begun to be attractive to casting agents in. While Head is a bit over-the-top in places as SJ the spirited son, he at least has a great smile and a good sense of comic timing for an actor his age. In fact, all of the actors who play the Tuohy family do a good job of creating a believable onscreen family.

If there’s a problem with The Blind Side it has to do with the script. True sports stories have tended to follow a very similar format in recent movies; an underdog gets inspired in the pursuit of a goal and that inspiration leads to overachievement. When the goal is in reach, something happens to jeopardize the achievement of the goal but in the end the team/individual pulls it together at the last minute to triumph over adversity.

Some of the adversity that is shown here feels scripted and not terribly authentic. Just because a movie says it’s based on a true story does it mean that everything in it is true. Something tells me that some incidents were embellished to create dramatic tension and normally I don’t have a problem with that, but in this case it didn’t feel organic. I think it’s possible that we’ve overdosed on the genre since it felt like I’ve seen it all before and in fact I have.

And that’s not to denigrate Michael Oher or his story in any way. I think it could have been handled a bit differently and written better is all I’m saying. Still in all despite my quibbling this is still a solid movie that I can recommend without hesitation. It gets you in all the right places and makes for a fine cathartic afternoon. Still, the best reason to see this is to watch Bullock at her very best.

REASONS TO GO: Bullock does some of the best work of her career. The family dynamic is believable even if S.J. is too cute to be believed.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit formula and some of the elements feel scripted instead of true-to-life. Aaron as Oher gives us little insight into his character.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and some minor violence but otherwise okay for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are cameos from several Southeastern college football colleges playing themselves, including Phil Fullmer, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Tommy Tuberville.

HOME OR THEATER: This can easily fit on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Terminator Salvation