Tuesday’s Reviews – The Founder (2017)

America, biopic, fast food, films, Laura Dern, McDonald's, Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, reviews

I’ve always liked Michael Keaton. I think I’d be bold enough to say that he’s my favourite Batman (sorry Adam West) and who can’t love him in Beetlejuice? I mean the guy’s had some misses, everybody has, but there’s nothing I really hate. Well, expect the super depressing and dark Jack Frost, which I’ve already moaned about in my list of worst ever Christmas films. I think I’d watch Keaton in nearly anything so I was already excited about the idea of The Founder. Now I can’t say I know much about the history of McDonald’s or that I was ever really planning on watching a film about it. However, as soon as I saw the trailer for this film I was desperate to see it. Obviously, knowing me as well as you do, it should be clear that I never got round to seeing it. I’ve hardly seen any of the films I was intending to see this year. In fact I’ve barely done anything that I was intending to do this year. I shouldn’t have any expectations for myself because I inevitably get distracted by real life and feel useless. I’ve always said that if I ever win the lottery (the
chances of that being incredibly remote given that I never buy a fucking ticket) that I’d still have to work otherwise I’d go crazy. Honestly though, I could easily just stay at home and watch films and read all day every day. I don’t even think I need human contact. It’s all so overrated and I have a lot of catching up to do. Starting now with this film.

I wasn’t really sure what to think about The Founder after I finished watching it and, if I’m honest, I don’t really think that it knew either. I don’t know whether it’s just because Michael Keaton makes him so much easier to like but Ray Kroc, the founder of the title, isn’t necessarily portrayed as the ruthless businessman that he maybe should be. It helps that we initially see Kroc as a wide-eyed salesman who has seen more doors in his face than he has sales. He has the drive and passion to succeed but he just hasn’t found that one idea that stands out from the crowd. Until he is placed into the path of the McDonald brothers in California. It is this chance meeting that gives Kroc the revolutionary idea that brought him to life.

Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) are two unassuming brothers who were the pioneers of the fast-food industry. The brothers saw a gap in the market and, after perfecting their operation, opened a restaurant that provided its customers with a burger, fries and a coke in a matter of minutes. After hearing their tale and touring the kitchen, Kroc can see the potential of the brother’s scheme. He convinces them to franchise and gets to work opening restaurants all over the country. Eventually, Kroc realises that he wants more than his contract with the brothers can provide him. He starts buying the land for the new franchises as a way to get more money. This leads to a complete fracturing of his partnership with the brothers, which ends with Kroc owning the everything.

The problem with the story is that it doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to admire or admonish Kroc. It understands that everything he did to make McDonald’s the global phenomenon it is to this day was genius and changed the American society forever. But it also appreciates that the way the businessman treated the McDonald brothers was unfair. It’s not as it The Founder goes out of it’s way ti impartially lead you to your own conclusion but feels more like the writers just couldn’t be bothered to decide how they felt. Keaton’s portrayal of the title character certainly helps to make him seem less detestable: the actor has an inherent charm that kind of filters through and makes things confusing. However, he is also adept at highlighting the slimy and ruthless side to Kroc’s personality. He is a man who will get what he wants no matter the cost. Yet his sheer persistence is surely a positive attribute that should be celebrated? You see it’s confusing.

But that’s not to say that I didn’t like this film. It potters along quite nicely and gives a good idea of what went in to the early years of the McDonald’s empire. Keaton’s performance as well as Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch all help to bring something to their characters and make the film totally watchable. I defy anyone to watch this and not come out of it loving the brotherly bond between Dick and Mac. The scenes where they recount their tale are some of the best scenes in the film. There is a sense of nostalgia within this tale that adds to the charm but the overall story is something that is more than relevant today. It speaks of a long forgotten time in American history but, in an age of Donald Trump, shows that, when it comes to money, it isn’t the good guys who always win the day.

If I had one major criticism, it’s the way in which The Founder handles Kroc’s personal life. He starts the film married to Ethel (Laura Dern) who waits at home whilst her husband tours the country. She has to put up with his schemes and the risk he makes to their fiances without causing too much of a fuss. It’s a waste of time role for someone like Dern and Ethel makes little impact on the story. Which is fine because as soon as Ray meets Joan (Linda Cardellini) he drops her pretty quickly. Although, we don’t see much of his life with Joan besides a bit of seductive milkshake making. The romance plot just feels as though it was tacked on to the story without any real idea of how it would work together. It doesn’t add much to the narrative and, to make any real impact, needed to be more fleshed out. Still, it certainly doesn’t make the film any worse… just a bit messier.

The Founder wasn’t created in the hope of making more money for McDonald’s nor was it made to try and dissuade viewers from visiting the fast food chain. It is a simple biopic about a man who majorly influenced the business world. It’s not exactly hard-hitting but there is enough included to get a picture of who Ray Kroc really was. It’s almost impossible not to see connections between him and the man currently residing in the White House. Maybe this film works because the timing is so pertinent but I enjoyed this film. Seeing Kroc’s image of himself as the self-made man play out against his actual ruthless approach is wonderful but, if I’m brutally honest, a bit weak. If only the punches had landed that little bit harder.

Tuesday’s Reviews: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

audiobook, books, fucking sad, fucking weird, Nick Offerman, original, reviews

When I was preparing my ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2017′ list, I kept seeing loads of people eagerly awaiting the release of George Saunders’ first novel. I didn’t add the book to my list, though, because I wasn’t sure I’d be interested. I enjoy history but I don’t know a great deal about the intricacies of American history. Only the bits that have been directly tied up with British history really. I mean I know the basics but I can’t tell you a great deal about Abraham Lincoln apart from, you know, the Civil War and slavery thing. So a novel that delved into an untold story of his private life really didn’t seem as though it was for me. Until I discovered the audiobook, anyway. I was interested as soon as I read the name Nick Offerman but it just kept getting better. I mean pretty much everyone is in this bloody audiobook. It’s amazing. So I used one of my credits to buy the thing and I’m really glad I did. I’ve still never seen a copy of the actual book so this will review be entirely based on the audiobook. However, I’d encourage anyone to get it for sheer entertainment value. If you’ve read the book or not.
On the surface, Lincoln in the Bardo sounds like an incredibly simple and narrow narrative idea. It takes place over the course of one night: precisely the night of the 22nd of February 1862. Only 2 days earlier, Willie Lincoln, the 11 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, had died of typhoid fever and is now interred in a crypt in the Georgetown cemetery. With his wife having taken to her bed in grief, Lincoln makes a final visit to his beloved son’s final resting place. It comes from a tale that was printed in newspapers at the time, that Lincoln would occasionally sneak away from the White House in order to hold the body of his dead son. Saunders was intrigued by the idea and has spent years researching in order to tell the tale. All so simple but sad so far, right? Well, Saunders has found a way to take this story of grief and present it in an innovative way.

You see, the mysterious Bardo of the title is a Tibetan words that roughly translates to “transitional state” and is a term used to describe the state of existence between life and rebirth. It refers to the Buddhist idea that before someone is reborn on Earth their consciousness will experience many things that will prepare them for what’s to come. Within the confines of the George Saunders’ novel, the Bardo is the state that Willie Lincoln found himself in 2 days after his death. It is a kind of purgatory where souls must wait until they accept their fate and are ready to move on. Within the realm between life and death we meet a whole cast of characters who are waiting for their chance to tell their story. Lincoln in the Bardo is less of a traditional novel than it is a play. The narrative is set out as a mix between dialogue and snippets of contextual information, which is why I think listening to the audiobook may be a superior experience.

You see, as we wait in the Bardo we are introduced to a great deal of characters who we spend a different amount of time with. All are firm believers that their fate is temporary and that, within time, their bodies will heal and they will go about with their lives. We are led through the environment by three main figures: a middle-aged printer who died just before he was able to consummate his marriage to his much younger wife; a young gay man who had second thoughts just after he slit his wrists following an argument with his lover; and an elderly priest who, alone, understands where he is. As the story moves on we meet many more players in the tale including a husband and wife, a woman who can’t let go of her daughters, and an old Scrooge-type who is constantly worrying about his various properties. Hearing the stories of their lives and death forms a large part of the book and I suspect this proves to be a lot less confusing and immersive when they all, literally, have their own voices.

The spirits within the Bardo may not have any idea of what they really are but they all come together to aid young Willie. As they are all keen to point out, no child should be made to suffer the trials that await him there but the young lad is keen to remain in case his father needs him. The wandering souls unite to help the boy move on and find peace. They must show him that Lincoln would not want to imagine his son suffering unnecessarily. They do this, primarily, by attempting to ‘speak’ to the man himself and, as a result, experience his grief first-hand. It is not just a grief for the death of his much-loved son but for the many young men who have been killed in the on-going Civil War. There is a reason why Saunders’ has chosen Lincoln to head the tale when you could have easily pulled on the heartstrings with any old father figure.

The polyphonic narrative of Lincoln in the Bardo is interspersed with snippets of historical sources, both real and fake, that provide context to the time. We hear things on a political front, a social level and within the personal confines of the White House itself. Altogether, they build a portrait of the mind of man who was trying to hold his country together whilst living through his own personal tragedy. This is a novel not just about grief but about duty. How a person must balance their public and private selves; how someone must decide between their will or their duties. Lincoln has many decisions to make. He must decide whether to keep visiting his son’s body or let him go. He must decide how to keep fighting a war that is going to cause the deaths of so many more sons. When Willie was ill, the President was forced to keep up his public duties despite being worried for the boy.

This is an incredibly sentimental novel anyway but these added depths make it an even stronger one. It champions hope and resolve even in the face of uncertainty and pain. It is an idea that is becoming more relevant as the days go on. He may have come up with this idea way before anyone could have comprehended Trump being in the White House but this novel really comes to encapsulate the damage that has been caused on the American spirit. It is a fantastic book. Although, I’m not sure I’d necessarily have thought so if I hadn’t heard it as a performance. There was something about listening to the spirits and the snippets of historical references out-loud that made them stronger. It manages to undercut a lot of the increased sentimentality that starts to seep out with an emphasis on the comedic elements. This may be Saunders’ first novel but it demands to be treated as a play. If you’ve been struggling with this then get yourself to Audible.