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Posts Tagged ‘John Lee Hancock’

Your career progression used to be fairly straightforward as a Hollywood movie star, up until relatively recently anyway. You started off doing small films, maybe genre pieces, and gradually worked your way up until your name was over the title and you were suddenly a serious performer to be reckoned with, doing major films for mainstream audiences. Things are a bit different these days, of course, because (as I have noted in the past) the main career benefit an actor receives for winning an acting Oscar these days is to almost instantly be offered a leading role in a knockabout special effects movie. Recent beneficiaries of this include Felicity Jones (recently seen in a Dan Brown adaptation and a stellar conflict franchise installment) and Brie Larson (soon to be seen in the new King Kong film and also playing Captain Marvel for, um, Marvel Studios).

Even older performers can benefit from this effect, with occasionally surreal consequences: Michael Keaton, for instance, has been an actor in demand since he made Birdman (a film which itself might appear to be satirising the current trend for serious actors to appear in superhero movies), but someone somewhere is surely having a laugh – Keaton’s big film this year is set to be Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which he plays the Vulture, a character who is basically a… well, work it out for yourselves. Still, at least the fellow seems to be making the most of his current popularity, for he was not half bad in Spotlight last year, nor is his performance in John Lee Hancock’s The Founder anything less than impressive.

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Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a struggling fifty-something salesman in the US. The year is 1954, and Kroc is somewhat sick of the low quality of the restaurants he constantly encounters in his line of work. Then he encounters the curious case of a small family-run restaurant in San Bernardino, California, which offers superb service and fantastic food in a family-friendly environment. Kroc instantly sees the potential for this business model to be duplicated across the country – across the world, even – and makes his pitch to the owners. They are a pair of brothers, and their names are Maurice and Richard McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). But the brothers are dubious, not to mention the banks and nearly everyone else who hears of Kroc’s scheme – a chain of burger restaurants all called McDonald’s? What are the chances of that happening?

Hancock’s last movie was Saving Mr Banks, which was a classy piece of work somewhat compromised by the fact it was clearly in part a brazen advertisement for the Disney Corporation, and my first thought upon hearing about The Founder was that something similar might be in the works here – monster corporations with $37 billion in assets are not usually in the habit of letting people make unflattering movies about them, after all. Like many people I am instinctively suspicious of McDonald’s, mainly because of the relentless attempts to brand the chain as innately wholesome and fun (not that this stopped me eating there at least once a week when I lived in Japan). The last thing the world needs, I would argue, is a two-hour-long commercial for McDonald’s – this movie was made on a $7 million budget, which second-for-second may possibly be less than some actual McDonald’s commercials.

Nevertheless, one thing the film makes clear is the sheer impact that McDonald’s has had on the way we lead our lives today, even if Thomas Friedman’s theory of McDonald’s-based international relations (the idea that no two countries with a branch of McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other) has turned to be not strictly true. McDonald’s may not be important in the way that philosophy or music or literature is important, but it is at least significant and worthy of attention.

And, as it turns out, the film isn’t about McDonalds as an entity as much as it is about Ray Kroc as an individual. Quite how relevant the story of a ruthless property developer who rises to astonishing power and wealth relatively late in life is to the world today, I leave to you to decide, but Keaton is never less than magnetic in the role – which is just as well, as this is by no means a hagiography. The title of the film itself is ironic – Kroc styles himself as the founder of McDonald’s, but is of course nothing of the sort – and while Kroc is initially a relatively sympathetic underdog, as the story progresses he becomes a considerably more ambiguous figure. The conclusion of the film deals with some breathtakingly ruthless maneuvers carried out by Kroc against some sympathetic characters, by which point it is clear his success has brought out some hidden streak of monstrousness in his character.

Given this is the case, there’s no question of the film being nothing more than an advert for a fast food chain, even if at one point a parallel is specifically drawn between branches of McDonald’s and churches. This kind of ambiguity persists throughout the film – is Kroc an American hero or villain? Is his corporation a success story to be emulated, or just another example of capitalism gone berserk? – which in the same way can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it’s a quirky indie comedy-drama or a major mainstream release.

Nevertheless, The Founder is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining film that sheds some light on things that it never occurred to me that I didn’t know. The narrative is fascinating, but the story is really given life and energy by the performances – primarily Keaton, of course, but he’s given tremendous support by Nick Offerman, and also Laura Dern as his long-suffering wife. But this is a film with few obvious weaknesses, even if some may be put off by the subject matter. Some may find its refusal to take sides simply annoying, while to others they may be key to its appeal – but for me, this is a fascinating story, told superbly. This is a very good movie.

 

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If you were of a sour, baleful, Daily Mail-ish disposition, you might well find something very disagreeable in the current trend towards films which are essentially historical accounts not of the lives of great people, nor of the details of significant events, but simply of the making of other films. And I suppose you might have a point – at the very least it smacks of creative conservatism, if not an outright dearth of ideas. Already this year we have had Hitchcock, which was essentially behind-the-scenes on Psycho, while making a solid pitch for the quality-Christmas-non-Elf-fixated box office is John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, which is deeply concerned with the genesis of the movie version of Mary Poppins.

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Emma Thompson plays Mrs P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories. The main plot of the movie is set in the early 60s, by which point she has been fending off expressions of interest in the film rights to her work for decades. Now, however, bankruptcy looms, and rather than lose her home she is obliged to depart for California, to work on a script for a film with the creative guys at Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney himself is played by Tom Hanks. Disney is genial, avuncular, folksy and charming – Mrs Travers is prickly, particular, formal and demanding (she thinks Disney’s life’s work is vulgar and frivolous). Both of them are used to getting their own way, and so a titanic, if fairly good-mannered, clash of wills is in prospect.

Intercut with all this is another narrative concerning Mrs Travers’ own childhood in Australia five decades earlier. This focuses on her complex relationship with her father (played by Colin Farrell), an affectionate man, but also a somewhat irresponsible alcoholic. Inevitably it is this storyline which illuminates and to some extent explains the character of the adult Mrs Travers, though the manner in which this is handled is variable. Sometimes the film is quite subtle, at other points it is not – a scene with Mrs Travers objecting to Mr Banks (the father in the Poppins film) wearing a moustache is closely followed by one where we see Farrell explaining to his daughter why it is so important that he shaves.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches you can take to Saving Mr. Banks, and your choice here will largely dictate your response to the film. Either it is a touching biographical excavation of an often-overlooked literary figure, or a ghastly piece of self-regarding publicity for the Disney corporation.

Accusations that this film is basically a two-hour-plus promo for the Blu-ray of Mary Poppins, and indeed Disney enterprises in general, are not entirely without substance: the 1964 film informs the 2013 one to a considerable extent, to the point where excerpts from it are shown during the climax. Your enjoyment of most of the 1960s material will depend somewhat on your fondness for Mary Poppins – though I have to say that I’m indifferent to it at best, and still found these scenes to be enjoyable and frequently very funny indeed.

(I should say that I did emerge from this film with a heightened respect for the majesty of the Sherman brothers’ songs from Mary Poppins, which are regularly deployed throughout. The soundtrack listing even appears to promise a scene where Colin Farrell comes on and performs Chim-Chim-Cheree, which I was rather looking forward to as (potentially) this year’s Pierce-Brosnan-versus-ABBA moment, but unfortunately it never quite materialises.)

The makers of this film claim the Disney corporation made no stipulations regarding the depiction of the man who’s essentially their patron deity, which I find slightly hard to believe, and it’s still the case that while Mrs Travers comes across as often brittle, demanding, chilly, and contrary, Walt Disney is presented as unfailingly wise, kindly, decent and insightful. (Whatever one makes of the characterisations, one instinctively doubts the historical accuracy of any major Hollywood production these days as a matter of course.)

Even the most sceptical viewer would, I think, concede that this is a very polished and charming production, with considerable credit due to the writers and cast. Watching Thompson and Hanks spar is a real pleasure – Thompson gets perhaps the slightly better part, but you can see Hanks is revelling in the opportunity to play such an iconic figure when it comes to both Americana and global pop culture generally. Paul Giamatti plays Mrs Travers’ chauffeur, and Brad Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak play Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers: all of them get the tone of their performances pretty much exactly right. Colin Farrell gets the big role in the Australian sequences, but I was rather impressed by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Travers’ mother.

I can’t help thinking that, based on what we’re shown here, the real Mrs Travers would have been mortified to the point of horror by the thought of her life story being repurposed as the basis for a heart-warming comedy drama, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily grounds for dismissing Saving Mr. Banks. I liked it a lot, and indeed I think it’s a film you would have to make a real effort to actively dislike – but, much as the central story of how the parent-child relationship can influence a person throughout their life is sensitively and impressively handled, one can’t shake the impression that this particular version of it is only being told due to its proximity to a much-loved, much-garlanded, out-now-on-various-formats movie classic. This is a good film, but the charge that on some level it’s basically just the Disney company patting itself on the back in public for two hours is going to be a hard one to dodge.

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