“The Founder” movie review

thefounderOutstanding biopic that typifies what the American dream actually looks like–but that’s the scary part. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Ray Kroc, the (self-proclaimed) “founder” of McDonald’s, is positively brilliant! Comparing his look and performance to the real Ray Kroc seen before the credits roll, there is no doubt that director John Lee Hancock (known for The Rookie and The Blind Side) made the right choice. The Founder takes us on a journey from Southern California to Illinois and beyond as we follow the course of events that radically revolutionized an entire industry and gave birth to one of the most recognized brands in the world as well as the very concept of modern franchising. What Henry Ford did for American motorcars, Kroc did for American “speeedee” service food. Ray Kroc realized the American dream by stopping at nothing until he built his empire, even if it meant stealing from a business and breaking up a marriage–all within the confines of the law. We’ve all heard about “the American dream;” well, The Founder depicts what it takes for that dream to come true. If you’re willing to be a cut-throat bully with few if any inhibitions, then you can build an empire and claim to be the founder of another’s company or even run a country.

This biopic drama tells the story of how Ray Kroc (Keaton), a 55 year-old milkshake machine salesman from Illinois, met Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald in San Bernardino, CA during a sales transaction that would start something big. Who would’ve guessed that a man who was the definitive door-to-door salesman would see great potential in a small-town burger joint. Recognizing the great potential for a successful franchise, Kroc entered into a business proposition that would change the quick service food industry forever and essentially perfect the business practice of franchising. Over a relatively short amount of time, Kroc maneuvered himself into a position of power and dominance over the brothers, and eventually took the very company they founded away and never looked back. Kroc stopped at nothing when appropriating the intellectual property of the McDonald brothers to build a vast empire that would find its way into thousands of towns and become just an American an icon as the flag, churches, or the eagle.

Although the film is presently foundering in box offices, it is definitely worth a watch because of depicting the story of one man’s American dream that would essentially steal the laurels from baseball and apple pie to become a larger than life symbol of America recognized throughout the world. It’s unfortunate that this film is not garnering more attention because the writing, directing, and acting are absolutely brilliant. Full of irony and ambiguity, The Founder could have easily been called or at least subtitled Birth of a Salesman. While watching the movie, I could not help but compare the plot of this film with the iconic play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Both tell stories of salesman but the end result is vastly different. Both Willy Loman and Ray Kroc were dedicated to their respective craft of salesmanship; however, Kroc took the practice of sales and pitches to the next level–in fact he created his own game in which only he could win. Where else have we seen a bully play by his own rules and build an empire into a brand in and of itself? I’ll allow you to draw that conclusion. Further irony can be seen in Ray Kroc’s surname. His sheer cunning, predatory ways of conducting business can easily be likened to the crocodile itself. Despite receiving credit for inventing the fast food assembly line, much like Ford did for American car manufacturers, the “speedee” service was invented by Dick and Mac McDonald of San Bernardino. Thankfully, the brothers are receiving the credit that they deserve–albeit posthumously.

It’s difficult not to root for the villain in this film. Even though you tell yourself that he was a monster and a complete leach to the McDonald brothers, his first wife, and other friends, you may still find yourself in his corner because of McDonald’s being the American icon that it is. The cognitive dissonance that many will experience during diegesis of this film is fascinating in and of itself. Early on, you will find yourself rooting for Ray Kroc because he comes off as an underdog. He is able to provide decently for him and his wife, but it is evident that his business is in the process of collapsing. Even after striking the proverbial deal with the McDonald brothers, you may still root for him because the brothers make it difficult for Kroc to actually engage in successful franchising. The tide begins to subtly shift when the chain begins to take off. When the brothers deny Kroc a request to renegotiate the terms of the contract in order to boost capital and revenue, Kroc hires a new business partner who provides the knowhow to shift the focus from running a burger chain to being a real estate mogul. That shift from only burgers to real estate is what truly built McDonald’s Corporation into the giant that it is today. Interestingly, when confronted by the brothers on a break in the contract, Kroc points out that they could take him to court and probably win, but by the time he would drag them through hearing after hearing, and trial after trial, the brothers would be completely bankrupt. Much like the milkshake substitute that boosted revenue and mitigated refrigeration costs, but contained no milk, a handshake deal with Kroc is just as fake.

The set designs and costumes in The Founder are impressive and so incredibly well executed that audiences will be transported from 2017 to 1950s America. From the cars to the architecture to the print advertising and marketing, this movie boasts an authenticity that is on par with larger budget period films. The supporting players in the film are equally captivating too. Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are absolutely perfect as the McDonald brothers, and I cannot think of two better actors to bring these “hidden figures” of fast foot history to life. It’s unfortunate that Laura Dern is underutilized as Ethel, Kroc’s first wife, because she is a dynamic actress capable of adding significantly to a film. Although not featured on screen a lot, Patrick Wilson plays Rollie Smith, an early investor, but his acting excellence is still showcased well. Finally, Linda Gardellini is captivating as the future Mrs. Ray Kroc–problem is, that she is married to Rollie Smith at the time they meet. It’s her suggestion to switch from real ice cream and milk to instant milkshake powder that sets the final dominos in motion to topple the McDonald brothers. In continued irony, the story of McDonald’s contains people who are excited about fake food product. But those were the times the characters lived in. The chemistry between the characters helps to reinforce the authenticity of this biographical motion picture.

Ray and Joan Kroc are well known philanthropists–in their later years. In fact, Joan Kroc left most of her vast fortune to many charities. The most well-known recipient of the inheritance is NPR. Even today, if you listen to the programming, you will hear the Estate of Joan Kroc mentioned as a supporter of the public radio organization. Whether you appreciate NPR or not, one cannot help but think that all the philanthropy of the Kroc (namely Joan) is a result of easing the conscience since the Kroc fortune can be likened to blood money. It’s entirely plausible that much like Marion Crane figuratively cleanses her spirit in the infamous Psycho shower after having stolen the money from her employer, Joan may have very well given her fortune away in an effort to ease her conscience and do good with the figuratively ill-gotten money.

Such an incredibly fascinating movie! If you enjoy historical dramas about American icons, then you will definitely enjoy The Founder. It may prompt you to grab a McDonald’s burger and fries after the movie or perhaps never go there again after learning the company’s history. Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that the story of McDonald’s is incredibly interesting and IS the product of persistence and business ingenuity. If there is anything inspirational to take away from this film, it is the power of that persistence and looking for potential in the most unlikely of places.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

The Art of “Batman Returns” (1992): a retrospective movie review

BatmanReturnsBy far, still the sexiest Batman movie! With the reviews from fans and critics alike regarding this weekend’s release of the highly anticipated Suicide Squad ranging anywhere from horrible to moderately enjoyable, I decided to rewatch and review the Batman movie that is still considered by many, and yours truly, to be the most Batman out of all of them. Released in 1992, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns boasts a star-studded cast complete with the German expressionistic filmmaking style and gothic production design often associated with this iconic superhero franchise. The brilliance of Batman Returns can be witnessed in recognizing that Tim Burton provided audiences with an art house film masquerading around as a superhero Hollywood blockbuster. From the architecture to the costumes and cinematography, this Batman movie has more in common with art than a movie. Not that movies lack artistic appeal, quite the contrary–after all cinema is the art of visual storytelling; but there is a certain artistic charm that surrounds Batman Returns uncommon in other superhero movies. In other words, the focus was more on the art of a Batman story than the plot. Many comic book enthusiasts also regard this installment (as well as its predecessor) as very close to the comics in plot and visual design. Furthermore, hands down, the most memorable element of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and with good reason. Incredibly sexy, seductive, slightly psycho, playful, and conniving. Juxtaposed against Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin, Michael Keaton’s timeless Bruce Wayne/Batman, throw in the self-centered and ruthless Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, and you have a brilliant cast bringing to life iconic characters under the direction of a then-visionary director before he became a parody of himself.

Beneath the streets of Gotham City lies a world of water, waste, and The Penguin. Abandoned by his wealthy parents, Oswald Cobblepot is raised by the Penguins of the former Gotham City Zoo. He grows to resent the world above and the blue bloods of society that cast aside those who they deem as undesirable. High above the sewers, Selina Kyle is nervously tending to her boss’ every need. Not the most meticulous secretary–oh sorry, assistant–she has failed her ruthless boss Max Shreck for the last time, and gets shoved out a window to be nursed back to life by cats. Both abandoned and left to die, but return to life with revenge and warped justice on the mind. During the annual tree lighting ceremony, The Penguin and his henchmen thwart the celebratory atmosphere with gunfire, looting, chaos, and violence. Valiantly defending the good citizens of Gotham, Batman fights off the havoc that The Penguin with which The Penguin is enveloping the city. However, all the public knows is the good, kindhearted Penguin with a love of public service? Although initially setting out to kill Batman, in an ironic twist of fate, sparks begin to fly between Batman and Catwoman AND Bruce and Selina. Revenge, love, violence, and trademark gadgets. This Batman movie has it all.

Even the most dedicated Batman fans will admit that this film certainly has cinematic problems. But why are the flaws in this movie somehow forgiven but the flaws in Batman v Superman or this weekend’s Suicide Squad held against them respectively? Rewatching this Batman movie reveals that it is likely held is such high regard by superhero movie buffs and fans of the comics alike due to of the A-list talent and the artistic or stylistic approach to this story. Because the focus of the film is definitely on the art versus the plot, narrative flaws can easily be overlooked as the experience of this film rests upon the feel and look of everything more so than the plot in and of itself. It is rare for a superhero film to also be so incredibly artistic. And that is why this particular Batman movie stands unique amongst all the others that have been produced over the decades. The passion for visual design is seen in every shot, every costume, and in the sexiness of the interpersonal relationships between the characters. Just like with interpretive art, various interpretations of tone, feel, message, and impression can be found throughout Batman Returns. Regarding the tone of the film, it repeatedly switches from a campy melodrama to tragic love story to action/adventure. In many ways, this film is representative or even self-reflexive of cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s. Paralleling the film’s repeated switches of tone and pace, the characters also change personalities, demeanors, and motives. Moreover, control over situations constantly changes hands throughout the movie. Whether as the audience or a bystander in the movie, it is difficult, at times, to discern the villain from the hero. The magic of this Batman movie is that it bridges the boundaries of so many different interpretations of the Batman universe over the years into a film that embodies the art of filmmaking.

Not a direct follow up to the successful 1989 Batman, this installment is often celebrated as the most Batman of the Batman movies; it’s the one that somehow manages to reflect more about the hero and his world than any other on-screen representation he’d enjoyed before or since. It’s a celebration of the Dark Knight that succeeds, in large part, by its refusal to go too dark, but remains off-kilter and uncomfortable, just enough, all the way through. Likewise, the villains are psychotic, larger than life, and legendary. From the tragic character of The Penguin thrown into the river in a warped Moses fashion on Christmas to the beaten down mousy secretary turned bondage clad 1990s feminist Catwoman, Batman Returns is a quintessential Tim Burton film before he just went way too bizarre in recent years. Both The Penguin and Catwoman can be seen as two different mirrors for our caped crusader. Penguin represents a child of wealth who was abandoned by his parents (not unlike our Bruce Wayne) and Catwoman represents the sensual side of Batman that we seldom get to see but we know it’s there because he is human. The combination of characters, settings, and behaviors makes this film a fun, erotic, and entertaining Batman movie. The stratified emotions, experiences, and interpretations provides audiences with a dynamic story that plays out beautifully on screen. In fact, the film is so entertaining to watch that you will likely forget that the pacing, plot, and structure of the film lacks critical value.

If you are leery about spending money to watch Suicide Squad this weekend, I suggest rewatching–or for some of you watching for the first time–Tim Burton’s artistic masterpiece Batman Returns. If for no other reason, you will enjoy the brilliantly sexy Catwoman, tragic monstrous Penguin, and the definitive Batman/Bruce Wayne as played by Michael Keaton. Such fantastic actors and characters!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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