Movie Review: The Founder

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Ray Kroc, the main character in The Founder, did not found anything, despite his claims to the contrary made on his business card and elsewhere. He took a small, already existing chain founded by the McDonald brothers and took it national, then international, becoming filthy rich in the process.

Ray Kroc took advantage of Richard and Maurice McDonald and essentially ripped them off for billions of dollars.

While The Founder is not a thriller, I see it as a sort of slow-motion heist movie, albeit without any guns. It’s very well-made and Michael Keaton gives a compelling perfomance as Ray Kroc, but I was totally appalled at Kroc’s behaviour. Wouldn’t, couldn’t call him a hero. Not a nice man at all. And that old tradition of sealing a deal with a handshake, “my word is my bond,” etc., etc? Forget it. Not an honourable man, either. He also stole another man’s wife, though I guess she went willingly. He was often petty too, but I’ll leave those for viewers to discover for themselves.

At the beginning of the film, Kroc is selling mixers that make several milkshakes at a time. Selling one is hard enough, so when a place in California orders several, his curiosity leads him on a trip to San Bernadino (via the legendary Route 66) to see what kind of business is selling so many milkshakes. The McDonald brothers, called Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) in the film, are doing a roaring business at their hamburger-shakes-and fries stand.

Right after Kroc orders a burger, it is placed in front of him in a paper bag. Amazing! Where to eat it? Anywhere. In your car, on a bench, in the park. Plates, cutlery? None of that. . .Eat it with your hands, just as many people around him are doing, with ecstatic expressions on their faces.

John Carroll Lynch, left, as Mac McDonald, and Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald, in the film The Founder. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)
John Carroll Lynch, left, as Mac McDonald, and Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald, in the film The Founder. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

We’re meant to understand that this was a revolutionary thing at the time. The brothers are quite happy to show Kroc how their employees can work so quickly and efficiently, and reveal how much time they spent refining their methods and fine-tuning the layout of the kitchen. (All their employees were men, if I recall correctly.)

Kroc is very impressed and has visions of McDonald’s restaurants all over the U.S. He shouts “Franchise, franchise, franchise!” to the brothers. They say they’ve already tried that, but bad behaviour by franchisees makes them reluctant to continue expanding.

However, I did read on the Internet that expansion had just paused temporarily, because the person handling franchising for them had fallen ill. They just needed a new employee to continue the work. Kroc becomes that employee.

Dick, Mac and Kroc get along relatively well in person, but things start falling apart when they have to communicate via phone calls and letters. The brothers find Kroc too demanding and too impatient; Kroc is exasperated by their caution and slow decision making. The relationship becomes more and more strained. The brothers realize too late that they “let the fox into the henhouse.” Something has to give.

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, left, and Laura Dern as his first wife, Ethel. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)
Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, left, and Laura Dern as his first wife, Ethel. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

Laura Dern has the thankless role of Kroc’s first wife, Ethel. She doesn’t get much screen time (just as Ethel probably didn’t get much alimony, either). Mostly she looks sad or worried, and why not? Her husband spends most of his time on the road and his previous schemes did not pan out. Kroc’s remarks to her indicate that he sees her as an unsupportive nag, but there’s no evidence of that at all.

The Founder does not even mention Wife No. 2 (Jane Dobbins Green,1963–1968), and the romancing of wife No. 3 (Joan Mansfield, from 1969 until 1984, when Kroc died) mostly takes place offscreen. Their future together is telegraphed by Kroc’s smitten look when he first sees her, seated at the piano in her husband’s fancy restaurant. To make things clearer still, they sing a duet together, while seated at that piano. They sound quite good, too. The song is “Pennies From Heaven.” Prophetic in another way. (Google tells me that lounge pianist was one of Kroc’s many former jobs.)

Linda Cardellini plays Joan, the woman who becomes Ray Kroc's third wife. Here, she's offering him a choice between vanilla or chocolate powdered milkshakes, with their stabilizers, emulsifiers. etc. "Delicious!" she says, claiming that they taste just the same as milkshakes made from ice cream and fresh milk.
Linda Cardellini plays Joan, the woman who becomes Ray Kroc’s third wife. Here, she’s offering him a choice between vanilla or chocolate powdered milkshakes, with their stabilizers, emulsifiers. etc. “Delicious!” she says, claiming that they taste just the same as milkshakes made from ice cream and fresh milk.

On more than one occasion, Kroc talks about McDonald’s as a special place for U.S. families to gather; he expresses a wish that every town have one, and compares McDonalds to worthy institutions like churches and courthouses. (“McDonald’s can be the new American church!”) I wasn’t sure if that was just hype for the McDonald brothers and his potential investors, if it reflected his true beliefs, or if the scriptwriter Robert D. Siegel was pulling our collective legs.

We alll bring our own view and prejudices to the cinema, so a closing scene, showing Kroc practicing a speech honouring Ronald Reagan, was just another nail in the coffin. Apparently, he also made illegal donations to Richard Nixon, presumably to influence legislation on wage and price controls. On a less serious note, when asked to choose between a chocolate or vanilla ersatz milkshake, he takes the vanilla! So boring.

Ray Kroc died a very rich man. Some viewers might admire him and think he was so clever to outfox the McDonald brothers. I wonder if he had a clear conscience? His third wife gave a lot of that money away, so perhaps she didn’t have one. Could have been a tax dodge, too, of course.

I have no idea why, but Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 hit Spirit in the Sky plays during the closing credits of The Founder. It sounded great coming through the cinema’s sound system, and I enjoyed hearing it, but how is it connected to Ray Kroc’s story? If there is such a place as heaven, I would not expect to find Kroc in it.

The Founder: directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Robert D. Siegel; with Michael Keaton; Laura Dern; Nick Offerman; John Carroll Lynch; Linda Cardellini; Patrick Wilson; B. J. Novak.

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RIDM 2015: My suggestions for Sunday, Nov. 22, the last day of this year’s festival

A scene from the Mexican documentary Llevate mis amores (All of Me), one of many films being shown at RIDM, Montreal's documentary film festival.
A scene from the Mexican documentary Llevate mis amores (All of Me), one of many films being shown at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival.

Before I go to bed tonight, I hope to write proper reviews of these films that I’m suggesting to you, but for now, I’ll just write a short description to get something online as soon as possible.

Click on the underlined name of a film to be taken to the synopsis on the RIDM web site.

Oncle Bernard – L’anti-Leçon d’économie
Words of wisdom from the late economist Bernard Maris. He was one of the people killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this year.
Oncle Bernard – L’anti-leçon d’économie, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 7 p.m., Excentris (Salle Cassavetes)

The next two films are on at the same time. What a shame, and what a quandary, because I think they’re both wonderful. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest Llévate mis amores (All of Me), directed by Arturo González Villaseñor, as a first choice because there is no guarantee that it will come back to Montreal again, though I truly hope that it does. This is a film about people in Mexico, mostly women, who do a lot to help others, even though they have very little themselves. Every day they prepare food and water for migrants who are making their way north to the U.S. by train. RIDM says it is “A wonderful human adventure,” but that’s really an understatement. It’s inspiring! Seriously.

This film was sold out on Saturday, so if you want to see it, consider buying your tickets online to avoid disappointment. I almost missed it myself.  I thought that Saturday’s screening was the second, and last one. I am so glad that it isn’t, so that I can suggest it to you. Director Arturo González Villaseñor will be at the screening to answer questions after the film.

Llévate mis amores (All of Me), Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 9:15 p.m., Excentris (Salle Cassavetes)
Another film that starts at 9:15 p.m. is Le Bouton de nacre (El botón de nácar in Spanish, The Pearl Button in English), directed by Patricio Guzmán. It’s quite wonderful too, but given Guzman’s fame, it is more likely to return to Montreal screens. (Guzmán directed Nostalgia For The Light, one of my very favourite documentaries, along with Salvador Allende, The Pinochet Case, The Battle of Chile, and others.)

Le Bouton de nacre is about water, the universe, Chile’s native peoples and the disappeared of the Pinochet years. It is full of beautiful images and sounds and also contains tales of incredible horror. Some of those tales are quite recent, while others are much older.
Le Bouton de nacre, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 9:15 p.m., Cinéma du Parc 2

I have seen the three films above, and recommend them wholeheartedly.

In Police Academie (Cop Class) director Mélissa Beaudet follows “three very different cadets during their final year of training.” It sounds interesting, and it has received good reviews, but it starts at 9 p.m., which puts it in conflict with Llévate mis amores (All of Me) and Le Bouton de nacre (El botón de nácar). Police Academie will be shown at Excentris starting on Nov. 27, and it will be on TV (ICI RDI) on Jan. 16, 2016.
Police Academie (Cop Class), Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, 9 p.m., Cinéma Du Parc 1
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information.

Cinema Politica presents This Changes Everything on Monday, Oct. 5, and Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis will be there

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING1

Montrealers can see the important documentary film about climate change, This Changes Everything, at 7 p.m., on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at Concordia University (1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., Room H-110) thanks to the organization Cinema Politica. Writer Naomi Klein and director Avi Lewis will be there. Suggested donation is $10 – $20. That’s probably all the information many of you will need. For others, I hope the review below will make you want to see it.

It’s all about the story – the story that we’ve been told, the story that we tell ourselves, the story that we believe. That story might be so firmly engrained in us that we never even think about it, or question it.

And that story is, that the Earth is a machine, and that mankind can and should manipulate its levers. The unfortunate results of that thinking can be seen all around us.

Changing the story is the first step toward changing our lives, our future and the life of this planet that we all depend upon.

After some opening shots of hurricanes, parched earth, polar bears and crumbling, tumbling ice bergs, This Changes Everything takes us to the ugly and monstrous tars sands of Fort McMurray, “the largest industrial project on Earth.” Would the citizens of any large city like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal accept such a huge and destructive project if it were in their own backyard? Somehow I doubt it. But the tar sands are far away and the local population is small. Later in the film, such a place is called a “sacrifice zone.”

One worker claims: “If not for the oil sands, there’d be nothing to come here for.” Then the camera shows us some stunning scenery – a majestic river flowing through a pine forest.It might be difficult for the average person to get up there, but many people would enjoy seeing it, or just knowing that such a place exists.

When we’re told that $150 to $200 billion would be invested there over the next decade, I couldn’t help but wonder what could be accomplished if that kind of money was spent on sustainable development instead.

The abuse of the English language and the twisted metaphors used by some of the people in this film – you have to hear them to believe them. I predict gasps, laughter, boos and hisses at various points during the screening of This Changes Everything.

One guy has the nerve to frame the tar sands project this way: “We’re cleaning up one of the largest oil spills on earth.” There are claims that the area will be brought back to its original state 20 years from now. Tailing ponds will be cleaned and, “you’ll be able to drink the water.” I’d really like to believe that, but I just can’t.

Meanwhile, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation has filed a court case to stop any further exploration, since the oil sands are under their traditional land and the present project has already done so much damage to their lives.

I won’t describe the whole film in detail, but I will say that it visits activists in Montana, New York state, India, Greece, China and Germany. People are standing up, complaining, saying “No!” to rampant development, demanding their rights and a new way of doing things.

While Klein does not present Germany as a perfect place, she produces some impressive statistics (30 per cent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewables, emissions are down, employment is up, etc.) Could Canada do the same? Especially if we can elect a new government in a few weeks?

Speaking of our country, as a Canadian, I’m embarrassed and distressed to see a Canadian mining company throwing its weight around in Greece, eager to get its corporate mitts on the gold there. My apologies to you, people of Halkidiki. And shame on you, mayor of Halkidiki, who dismissed the intimidation and arrests of protestors when he said: “the police don’t knock on doors without a reason; they don’t knock on yours or mine.”

This woman in Halkidiki, Greece, opposes a Canadian gold mine in her area.
This woman in Halkidiki, Greece, opposes a Canadian gold mine in her area.

This Changes Everything, the film, is a companion piece to Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. They were created at the same time, the film is not based on the book.

I think it’s quite wise that the subhead, “Capitalism vs. the Climate” is not attached to the film – why alienate some of your potential audience right off the bat? As far as I can recall, the word “market,” as a synonym for capitalism, is not heard until 27 minutes into the film, and capitalism itself is not mentioned until 45 minutes in, when Greek activist Mary Christianou identifies it as the core problem. She’s initially reluctant to even say so on camera, because: “I don’t know if it helps the struggle.”

In reviewing the book, some writers suggest that “neo-liberalism” is more to blame for many of our present ills than capitalism alone. Abandoning the belief that all the resources of the Earth, the metals, the coal, the gas and the oil must be extracted, and that the Earth itself is just a machine that we can be trusted to run, seem like easier first steps on the path to change.

This screen grab from the documentary film This Changes Everything shows India buried under "Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plants."
This screen grab from the documentary film This Changes Everything shows India buried under “Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plants.”

This Changes Everything will be shown on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, 7 p.m., at
1455 de Maisonneuve West, Room H110, Concordia University, Montreal, QC.
Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis will be there for a Q&A session after the film.

There’s a Facebook page for the screening of This Changes Everything.

Visit thischangeseverything.org to learn more about the book, the film, and what you can do.