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Movie Review: The Founder

An interesting if unsatisfying character drama contains an original if unfulfilled theme in The Founder with Michael Keaton (Birdman) as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

What makes Kroc the founder, a debatable assertion by this account, is the movie’s focus. What leaves the meaning unclear is the way director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) dodges and hedges. This is utimately why The Founder, which could have been a powerhouse 2016 movie, peters out. Yet what a promising start, with sunny skies and nothing but an ambitiously idealistic adult driven to make money—and a movie about an ‘overnight’ success who’s over the age of 50 (like Col. Sanders or Judi Dench) is long overdue. This is the blank canvas of The Founder, sketching an open market in which demand for fast, simple and delicious food meets the grit of a seasoned salesman from suburban Chicago. The insights in the first two-thirds of the film—about the exhaustive work of thinking about, finding, studying, funding and cultivating a good idea with steely, feisty enthusiasm—are penetrating. The Founder in these stretches is a near-complete depiction of the money-making man in action, from enduring the vacancy and sameness of a carhop joint in Chesterfield, Missouri, to tapping the vitality and excitement of an enterprise out West.

The film’s regionalism and realism are its finest attributes.

As with La La Land, Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel, powered by Keaton’s performance, let this business-themed movie capture the Southern California (and, broadly, Western) ethos of self-made Americanism matched by Midwestern work ethic. You’ll never think of San Bernardino, a poor area of metropolitan LA recently known for an Islamic terrorist attack by jihadists known to the FBI, the same way again. Depending on which competing version you believe in this back and forth dramatization of a business partnership gone bad, the story of McDonald’s and its rise to fast food success is at once sobering and invigorating. Saddled with a wife (Laura Dern, pointed as always) whose support is tepid, important and strictly secondhand, Keaton’s Kroc contemplates and extrapolates the McDonald brothers’ trial and error tale of tennis court choreography, which took them from New Hampshire through Columbia Pictures, the crash of 1929 and the San Gabriel Valley to a perfect process. The brothers see the San Bernardino hamburger stand as the end of the road.

Through the burgeoning positive thinking self-improvement movement stressing persistence and endless shots of Canadian Club whisky, milkshake machine vendor Kroc sees dollar signs in McDonald’s. Kroc pushes and pushes the homespun brothers McDonald all the way to Des Plaines, Illinois (incidentally, where I first tasted and occasionally ate at Kroc’s first McDonald’s). Kroc investigates, shapes and defines a business partnership they can’t refuse. When the contract goes to signatures, like the hustler in this week’s other take on capitalism, Gold, no one but Kroc thinks the fast food process can be properly balanced and scaled. And it’s important to note that they have legitimate gripes, concerns and grievances. Later, one person does see potential with equal vigor (Linda Cardellini as Joan) but Kroc’s own country club wife in Arlington Heights asks: “When’s enough going to be enough?”

Rather than respond with religious verses, slogans and bromides about charity and humility, Kroc thinks, pauses and replies: “Probably never.” Up go the golden arches and wide go Kroc’s tired, hardworking eyes when he sets his sights upon his sacred temple for the first time, looking upward through a windshield in the movie’s best scene—it is his vision by any honest account of what that means—and, with symbols such as covered wagons and Kroc drawing spiritual strength from Kazan’s On the Waterfront, big business McDonald’s is finally born. How it’s done, how it’s earned, how it’s built on whisky and ruthlessness, from Kroc’s cheerful “Let’s get to work, boys” to inclusive recruitment of blacks, Jews and women, is inspiring. The brothers may denounce what they call Kroc’s “crass commercialism”, and The Founder goes limp on Kroc’s character, portraying him as dishonest in spite of contradictions. Whatever his flaws, if name and title can be earned, and they can, Ray Kroc deserves the movie’s title. To a certain extent, The Founder, thanks to Michael Keaton, driving the movie with a spot-on portrayal of an unpretentiously self-made man, shows the businessman who made McDonald’s. Decide for yourself whether Kroc stole, seized or started this amazing enterprise, which revolutionized the business of food, up from scratch.

Movie Review: Gold (2016)

“We were a real business.” This line begins Gold starring Matthew McConaughey in an absorbing movie about getting what you want, preferably in gold. It’s an inviting opener that echoes that Stacy Keach-narrated cable show about cutthroat businessmen doing anything for a dollar (in fact, Keach (Truth) is in this movie, too). But it’s best to take this film (and that cable show) with a lot of doubt because, while the business depicted in Gold is rooted in something that’s real, the business was in Canada.

Where the incredible enterprise, known here as Washoe Mining, was located is distinctive to the plot of Gold. McConaughey’s speculator downs cigarettes with his Seagram’s and Pabst Blue Ribbon but he does it all in a quest to please and achieve the status of his dad (Craig T. Nelson), a larger than life businessman in Reno, Nevada, where the streets aren’t paved in gold but they’re named after McConaughey’s pap. As he did in similar roles in Mud and Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey grasps, captures and expresses his spiraling character’s tension and nerve to find, mine and scheme to get rich. In fast cuts and rarely without McConaughey’s boozy sweat, paunch and crooked teeth in sight, Gold asks ‘where are we going?’ broadly brushing any hint of ‘why?’ when it comes to the ways and means of making money.

Except for his loyal, live-in barmaid (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a fellow speculator (perfectly cast Edgar Ramirez) in South Asia, nobody really thinks that McConaughey’s con man has the goods until they find out he’s struck it rich, after all, and this makes everyone suspect and puts McConaughey’s tobacco-stained, Iron Maiden t-shirt clad slob, who goes from dancin’ in a jungle to dancin’ in a bar, under a kind of halo. As the rollicking ride by credit card financing racks up miles on his Cadillac, tempting or taunting him with a golddigger, the feds, a tiger, malaria and a military takeover, for a few wild scenes it seems like the con man with a heart of gold might wind up, and deserve to end up, on top of the world. With a con man in the White House, a new take on the case of D.B. Cooper and fast-talking hustlers everywhere you go, this forewarning tale of due diligence delivers more of a nifty trick than the clever wink at giving believers what they might have coming, and it’s easy to pick Gold apart, but, like a seedier variation on The Sting (1973), it’s fun to watch the final play, even if what’s “inspired by true events” is ultimately overplayed.

Register for My Media and Writing Courses

Lessons for 10 Mondays and Tuesdays start next month in LA. All-new courses in writing and media include tutorials, exercises and extensive feedback. Classes are held on campus at Burbank Adult School.

Seating is limited and classes are filling up, so, if you’re located in Los Angeles and you’re interested, register soon (I’ve added registration links in this post). Last week, I gave a series of social media workshops which I’d developed with the district’s adult ed director, Emilio Urioste, for adult educational faculty and it was extremely helpful in pinpointing the challenges of providing a meaningful education to adults on so-called soft skills.

"Making Sense of Social Media" 8/22/2016 | Burbank Public Library

Media workshop | Burbank Public Library

Teaching LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter through a combination of data gathering, instruction and demonstration by screenshots helps me understand how today’s adults abuse, misuse and use social media. I’ve been offering guidance, including social media management for businesses and talent, in this new and rapidly changing media since 2012.

A class last summer, pictured here, helped me to identify certain problems people face, such as fear and fatigue of technology, introversion, low self-esteem and self-awareness and a tendency to minimize the impact and dumbing down of the onslaught of technology and media advancement upon on one’s own habits, work and life. My course on social media acts to remedy these deficits.

According to Larry, one of my recent students, who offered to recommend my work on LinkedIn:

Scott Holleran’s All About Social Media focuses on far more than the specific (and often spectacularly annoying) technical details of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more; rather, it focuses on how each individual can (and, in this day and age, must) tailor his/her use of digital media based on specific needs, goals, preferences and temperament. He stresses that one must first look inward before contributing to, and thereby shaping, their byte-sized slices of cyberspace.”

Register now

The All About Social Media course, which starts on February 27, is relatively small (these classes are intimate), allowing me to give individual attention with emphasis on how to improve what you produce or want to produce. Students listen, read, write, discuss and explore. Toward the end of the course, there’s an assignment to cash in on the whole course, which tests one’s ability to integrate one’s thoughts and goals with social communication and provides something of a springboard to capitalize, monetize and maximize social media using the new knowledge. Register for All About Social Media.

My all-new Writing Boot Camp also entails introspection. Through slide show presentations, with a relaxed, informal approach to question and answer, and rigorous discourse, reading aloud and writing exercises, writing is divided into steps, from what I call the pre-writing phase to post-completion of the first draft. Writing Boot Camp includes spot and assigned writing. Topics include identifying one’s habits, using resources and achieving the proper immersion in writing as an art and as a science.

Lee

The 10-week series is based on what I’ve learned during my career. So the course is grounded in my professional writing and I try to add to the classroom experience whenever possible. For instance, last semester’s Writing Boot Camp included a visit from a guest speaker, children’s author Lee Wardlaw, a Santa Barbara, Calif., writer who spoke about writing, editing and publishing.

Register now

Who enrolls in Writing Boot Camp?

Professional actors, comedians, poets, screenwriters, authors and anyone seeking to achieve clarity in writing. My students work as entertainment industry executives, songwriters, police officers, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs. Some attend for general education and practice. Others seek to refuel through an encouraging immersion in the art and business of storytelling. Writing Boot Camp starts on February 28.

Both courses are held at the Henry Mingay campus near Bob Hope Airport. If unable to attend, I may be able to help by appointment, video or telephone. Contact me for details.


Registration Links

All About Social Media

Writing Boot Camp

Winter Writing

A movie about exceptionalism overcoming racism at an agency of the government, an effort to restore a building and a forthcoming book about accounting for an entire arts genre give me fuel this winter.

Top U.S. film

America’s top movie at the box office is Hidden Figures, which centers upon three individuals of ability in the Jim Crow-era South, when racist laws infected even an aeronautics U.S. agency charged with launching an American into outer space. It’s a wonderful film, really, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s written and directed by the same individual who wrote and directed 2014’s St. Vincent, which is also very good. His name is Theodore Melfi and he recently talked with me about writing and directing the talented cast, which includes Empire‘s Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, his thoughts on racism, storytelling and what he’d do differently and having his movie screened at the White House. Read my exclusive interview with Melfi about the nation’s number one motion picture here.

Eagle Rock Clubhouse by Neutra

Speaking of exclusive interviews, I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing architect Dion Neutra at his home and office designed by his father, the late modern architect Richard Neutra, whose legacy I explore in an article about a campaign to restore one of Neutra’s signature buildings (read the story on LATimes.com here). I’ve been covering this effort by an architect and a realtor who say they want to restore the Los Angeles clubhouse to its original splendor, and finally met and interviewed them at Neutra’s building for a detailed restoration tour. The building, a parks and recreational center in northeast Los Angeles, opened in the 1950s with a stage that plays to both interior and exterior audiences, a kitchen with a window for selling concessions, an athletic court, reflecting pool and sloping landscapes—all in glass, brick and Neutra’s favored metal, steel—with a director’s office overlooking gymnastics, trails, pine trees, playgrounds, tennis courts and with retractable walls to let the air and spectators or audiences inside. The two gents are in talks with Dion Neutra as I write this.

New book this March

A forthcoming book features new and interesting data about the words and works by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand among other literary greats. It’s titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017) and the author covers detailed statistical analyses of these and other writers in a solid narrative. Among the newly mined data are authors’ ‘favorite’ words, how sexes write differently—Rand rates as “masculine”—and use of adverbs, exclamation points and novels’ opening lines. Mine is the book’s first non-trade review. Read my article here.

The newest Writing Boot Camp starts up next month (seats are still left in the 10-week course, so register here), moving to Tuesday nights, the day after my all-new course on social media (register here). These courses evolved from career camp workshops I was asked to teach several years ago. I subsequently taught a series of nine media and production workshops for Mood U, online, economic development, expo and public library presentations and developed the writing and media classes into full courses a few years ago for adult education in LA. They’re works in progress yet past students give positive and constructive feedback, so I’ve created Facebook groups for past students. Stand by for details and more on the upcoming courses.

Meanwhile, thank you for your readership, support and trade. I read every piece of correspondence, though I’m sometimes slow to respond, sent through the site and social media. This year, I plan to remake my website and I am working on other projects, from stories in manuscripts and screenplays to my cultural fellowship, new partnerships and a new media enterprise. For now, I want you to read, share and gain value from these articles about inspecting works of art and making, or mining, something good.

The Year 2016

As 2016 ends, some say it’s been a terrible year. I think it’s too soon to judge. On one hand, Donald Trump was elected president and, as I first wrote here 15 months ago, and here after Trump became president-elect, I think Trump’s a new low in U.S. government and I have every reason to believe that his election is extremely bad for the country based on individual rights. I agree with Objectivist scholar Onkar Ghate that Trump’s victory is a step toward dictatorship (though Ghate would have made a better case had he also addressed why his center for advancing Objectivism failed to stop it).

On the other hand, as Dr. Ghate writes, this is an age of industry, progress and opportunity. Despite the dismal regression of rights under Obama’s presidency, the individual remains essentially free to use technology to create, express, trade, distribute and profit. There are serious and severe restrictions on this freedom and they are getting worse, with the prospect of all-out assault on rights looming, but I think it’s likely that there could be partial rollbacks on these restrictions, too. The freedom of speech is under attack, but the individual remains free to think and speak for himself.

La La Land, my choice for 2016’s best movie.

This shows in today’s culture. Movies such as La La Land, Hidden Figures, Sully, Snowden, Sing Street and Loving, among others—browse through my reviews for thoughts on this year’s movies, many of which excel—are bold, provocative and outstanding. This year, however, the culture’s burrowing celebrity worship entered the realm of government, which is extremely dangerous. I think this is getting worse and insidiously, too, as people follow what’s trending at the expense of what matters.

Social media amplifies and, as it does, people tend to seek approval (“likes”) through under and overreactions. Unfortunately, this means they may overestimate someone pegged to a hugely popular trend, such as the dry and likable Carrie Fisher of the Star Wars series, who recently died, and underappreciate the individual of outstanding ability—exhibiting singularly exceptional, enduring and wide-ranging achievements—who has no link to a popular trend, such as Bowie, Ali or Wilder (Prince, Patty Duke, Dr. Heimlich, Ron Glass and George Michael also come to mind).

Social media may also invite emotionalism in moral judgment, by my observation. I see evidence of this in condemnation conferred upon the individual for the smallest action, i.e., removing a post, or the most simple statement, as when I pointed out to actress Jessica Chastain on Twitter that convicted sex criminal Brock Turner had, in fact, been convicted under state law of sexual assault, not rape, as she had implied in a Tweet. I was vilified by Chastain’s followers for naming her false assertion while she refused to respond. I had been made aware of this crucial distinction by an informative article in the Washington Post. Judging by the “Twitter storm”, Chastain and followers were not interested in knowing facts.

Tim Cook, my pick for 2016’s Individual of the Year

So, as I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere, I think it’s getting to be harder to stand alone, express a viewpoint that dissents from the herd, even if the herd is confined in a certain type of corral, and become informed, knowledgeable and able to exercise free speech.

That said, I have no hesitation to choose as 2016’s best individual one who, in terms of my philosophy, does all of the above exceptionally well: Apple CEO Tim Cook. He’s a native Southerner, white, male and gay and he’s famous in 2016 for making money, being a wealthy businessman and defeating the government over surveillance statism. He was opposed, condemned and denounced on those grounds by 2016’s dominant politicians—Trump, Sanders and Obama—so he’s all in against the status quo.

It’s easy to underestimate what Tim Cook did this year. Many (if not most) did. He not only runs a multi-billion dollar company that serves the world with exemplary innovation which liberates millions of people. Cook also responded to an Islamic terrorist attack in Southern California by formulating an intelligent response when his company’s products were implicated in the assault, assembling a team to deal with the crisis and standing alone—under intense media scrutiny—to oppose the Obama administration’s unprecedented assault on Apple’s rights.

That Cook won, defeating government control—the United States later dropped the case against Apple and contradicted its own argument, claiming that the government had hacked into Apple’s machine—is both proud accomplishment and inspiring example (like Edward Snowden a few years ago) and evidence in defense of 2016. Whatever history’s verdict, and keeping its lessons and what looms in mind, Tim Cook is a heroic counterpoint to today’s mindlessness. Cook’s principled stand against the state is cause enough to be grateful for this individual of the year and another reason to greet midnight with a cheerful “Happy New Year!”