Thursday, April 27, 2017

Nosh 62: 'The Founder,' 'The Zookeeper's Wife'

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Founder and The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Founder
America works hard, but hustles harder (when “we” elected hustle hog Donald Trump, that truth became history). In 1954 Ray Kroc was road-hustling milkshake mixers to diners and drive-ins, listening to Dale Carnegie inspiration records and, in his flat Midwestern voice, spieling fortune cookies (“increase supply, demand follows!”). Then he got a large order from distant San Bernardino, where the McDonald brothers (large, cheerful Mac and fussy control freak Dick) had opened a burger joint with clean, fast service and cheap, well-made food: 35 cents for a hamburger, fries and milkshake. Families welcomed McDonald’s into their California way of life, but it took a hustling salesman to turn it into an American icon.

According to The Founder, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) has his Moses moment in San Berdoo, then his go-for-it smile becomes a golden arch over the nation (Dick designed the original, emblematic arches). Ray begins selling franchises, while the brothers keep quality control but never (on film) find a good lawyer. Ray pigs out on ambition, a real Super-sized Me, and a smart advisor prompts another epiphany: the real dough is not in wholesome burgers (two pickles each!) but control of the real estate below the outlets. Ray answers the old question “What profit a man if he should sell a billion burgers but lose his soul?” with “Great! Let’s sell another billion!” He suckers the brothers into finally selling out, and their very name is now his to brand on the world, even right near Red Square and the Vatican.

The movie greatly benefits from John Carroll Lynch as jolly Mac and Nick Offerman as original visionary Dick. Laura Dern is poorly used as Kroc’s first wife, homebody Ethel, but Linda Cardellini hustle-bustles as the sexy third wife, Joan, who rose to epic philanthropy. Above all, with a cold eye and fetching smile, Keaton gets his yummiest role since Birdman, sucking up the golden grease of success. If there is a dead rat of betrayal deep down in the fry oil, it doesn’t much bother Ray.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) have made a rather airbrushed movie, glowing with zippy nostalgia. The picture got hustled from the spotlight when the releasing company chose to open concurrently another film about a hustler, the inferior Gold. But The Founder, neatly boxed, is the real deal. If not the whole story, it’s a tasty one.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
The preview trailer leads with darling shots of Antonina Zabinski on a bike, followed by her prancing pal, a juvenile giraffe. The Zookeeper’s Wife gives us adorable animals right away, but then the date and place: Warsaw, Poland, summer of 1939. So we know it won’t go well for giraffes. Nor for Polish Jews, soon rammed into a hellish ghetto by the Nazis. It is only blocks away from the zoo run by lovely Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her brave, stolid husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh).

What we’re not prepared for is seeing zoo critters shot for meat or sport by the Germans, the more exotic ones trucked away for “experiments.” Nor for Antonina, a sort of Polish Joan of Ark (Chastain’s accent is Slavic in a Casablanca way), comforting a Jewish girl just raped by soldiers, by offering as therapy pet her own beloved bunny. Nor for the weirdly staged scene of Antonina being virtually groped in public by a Nazi officer (Daniel Bruhl), while two huge buffalo mate behind them. Bruhl goes quickly from zoo lover to S.S. eugenics nut, hoping to revive an ancient breed of bison. He finally admits that “the war has turned” in January, 1945, as the Red Army encircles Warsaw (well, those buffalo were distracting).

The Zabinskis were real, not Disney. They lost most of their animals but savingly hid around 300 Jews, and deserve all the honors that came to them. But when director Niki Caro resorts to stock clichés while blithely equating ghetto Jews and zoo creatures, as if combining Shoah and We Bought a Zoo, we experience the squirm of unintended kitsch (even Mel Brooks steered clear of the Holocaust). As the raped girl, Shira Haas has a haunted face of “old” youth, capturing more of the nightmare than the entire rest of the cast.

SALAD (A List)
Twenty Ace Performances as Hustlers, Spielers, Biz-Dreamers:
Edward Arnold as Barney Glasgow (Come and Get It, 1936), Alec Guinness as Fagin (Oliver Twist, 1948), Orson Welles as Harry Lime (The Third Man, 1948), Vincent Price as James Reavis (The Baron of Arizona, 1950), Broderick Crawford as Augusto (Il Bidone, 1955), Eli Wallach as Sylvia Vaccaro (Baby Doll, 1955), Yul Brynner as Sergei (Anastasia, 1955), Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco (Sweet Smell of Success, 1957), Paul Newman as Ben Quick (The Long Hot Summer, 1958), Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes (A Face in the Crowd, 1958), Burt Lancaster as Elmer (Elmer Gantry, 1960), Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock (The Producers, 1968), Bruce Dern as Jason Staebler (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972), Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974), Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker (Tucker: The Man and His Dream, 1988), John Turturro as Mac Vitelli (Mac, 1992), Richard Gere as Clifford Irving (The Hoax, 2006), Don Cheadle as Petey Greene (Talk to Me, 2007), Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013) and Jennifer Lawrence as Joy (Joy, 2015).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Despite considerable progress on it, Citizen Welles chose to abandon Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as his first RKO project (1940). And yet, it “influenced the subject of Citizen Kane, its setting and its form … swampy and fetid, Kane’s estate might be the malarial outpost over which Kurtz presides (in Conrad’s novel). Leland tells Kane, as if he were Kurtz, to sail away to a desert island and lord it over the monkeys.” (Quote from Peter Conrad’s book Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Funny Face stretches its taffy plot across a gossamer frame of fantasy, and strikes modern taste as an ‘old’ musical of the color-vamp era. But for fans in 1957 it was less garish, less studio-rigged, less Broadway “bound” (both senses) than most big shows. They may be riveting, but we see the rivets in heavy efforts like Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the panting for Art in the famous Gene Kelly ballet sequences.” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, yours from Amazon, Nook or Kindle).

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

On a barge, Audrey Hepburn is joined by furry friends while making Funny Face (Paramount Pictures 1957; director Stanley Donen, cinematographer Ray June).

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