Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stubs - The Founder

The Founder (2016) Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Screenplay by Robert D. Siegel. Produced by: Don Handfield, Karen Lunder, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Ryder. Run Time: 115 minutes. U.S. Color Biography, Drama

If you’re looking for another reason not to eat at McDonald’s then look no further than The Founder, the story of how Ray Kroc, played here by Michael Keaton, basically stole the McDonald’s restaurant and franchise away from the two brothers who founded the original restaurant in San Bernardino, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald.

The original McDonald's opened by the Brothers in 1948.

In 1954, Kroc, a schemer for most of his adult life and then a traveling salesman hawking Prince Castle brand milkshake multi-mixers, is finding it difficult to find buyers for his wares. That is until his assistant, June Martino (Kate Kneeland), informs him that they received an order for six of his machines. Curious about the order, he calls the McDonald’s restaurant to confirm. When he speaks to Dick, the brother ups the order to eight.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) can't believe anyone was interested in buying six of his multi-mixers.

Wondering about the demand for his product, Kroc drives out to San Bernardino and observes the restaurant in action and is surprised when his order is accurate and ready in 30 seconds. Mac offers to show Ray the restaurant and he is impressed by the efficiency of the operation.

Kroc can't believe his order is ready in 30 seconds.

He takes the two brothers out to dinner and hears their story. It seems the Speedee process was developed mostly by Dick as the two brothers tried to maximize profits and reduce costs. Having been in the drive-in business before, they are well aware, as is Kroc, of the expense and shortfalls of that type of restaurant: wrong orders that take too much time and cost too much to make.

Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald.

When Kroc returns home to suburban Chicago, he tells his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) what he’d found.  She’s heard this sort of story before, as Ray has been involved in several get-rich-quick schemes and can’t-miss ventures. But Ray is undeterred by her lack of excitement. He believes that persistence is the key to success and goes back to the brothers to pitch his idea of franchising the restaurant. The brothers seem disinterested, having been down this path before with little success, blaming the problems with keeping the quality up to their standards.  But he persists and the brothers allow him to lead their franchising efforts, with Kroc receiving 1.9% and the brothers to receive .5% of the franchisee’s profits.

Kroc opens his own McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois and uses it to solicit wealthy investors from the golf club he and his wife belong to. But he finds that they do not abide by the guidelines that led to the failure of the first franchises. Upset with them, he quits the club without telling his wife and starts to solicit middle-class franchisees. This is a successful formula and expansion happens fast, too fast for the original McDonalds, but they can’t control Kroc, who goes so far as to designate his store as #1.

Ray is a big hit when he gets to Minnesota.

When the franchise reaches Minneapolis, Ray is introduced to successful restauranteur Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson), who is an admirer of his. But Ray is an admirer of Rollie’s wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), with whom he openly flirts with. Rollie does open a franchise which Joan runs and to which Ray pays close attention.

Ray tracks the expansion of his empire.

Despite the success of franchising, Ray is running short of cash based on the low percent he gets per his contract with the brothers. They refuse to renegotiate as well, which drives Ray to try to secure an extension on the mortgage payment, since he put up his house as collateral, without telling Ethel. Though the bank turns him down, his plight is overheard by Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), a vice president of finances at Tastee Freeze and an admirer of Kroc’s success. He recommends that Kroc get into real estate, buying the sites for future franchises, then leasing the land to the franchisees as part of the deal. This will give Ray a constant source of income. He would found the Franchise Realty Corporation later changed to McDonald’s, in order to execute Sonneborn’s plan. (McDonald’s would end up being one of the largest landowners in the world.)

Of course, the brothers don’t like this, but Ray stands up to them, telling them that while they control how the restaurants are run, their influence stops at the door.

Still, there is the issue of the cost of operation, much of which is tied up in refrigerating the ice cream that goes into the shakes. Enter Joan, who has found a solution, an instant milkshake that only requires water. The brothers push back, but eventually, Ray decides to go through with it anyway, deciding that he’s tired of dealing with them.

Joan (Linda Cardellini), who already has Ray's attention, comes up with a money-saving plan.

First, Ray decides to divorce Ethel, something that he announces without fanfare at dinner one night. While he’s willing to give her alimony, the house, the car and the insurance, he’s not willing to give her any shares in his McDonald’s Corporation.

Ray tells his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) that he wants a divorce.

Ray’s next legal battle is with the brothers. Push has come to shove over the powdered milkshakes. Mac, who is diabetic, collapses and is sent to the hospital. His recovery isn’t helped when Ray shows up with a blank check. But the brothers don’t accept just yet. His lawyers negotiate a $2.7 million buyout. The brothers want to keep their own restaurant and a 10% share of profits in perpetuity, but Ray refuses to put it in the contract, telling them that his lenders wouldn’t go for it. He asks them to take his handshake on the deal, which they do.

The McDonald brothers don't know what hit them.

Afterward, when Dick asks Ray about why he didn’t just take the SpeeDee method they had shown him and started his own restaurant with that, he tells him that what he wanted was the name. To Ray, McDonald's is American. But when Dick tells him he didn’t get the name, Ray asks him are you sure? Turns out the naming rights went with the deal. While they got to keep their store, they had to change their name. Eventually, The Big M, as they called their restaurant, was put out of business by a McDonald’s Kroc opened across the street. (Oh, and to make things worse, as we learn in the epilogue, the brothers were never able to prove the handshake and therefore lost out on what would amount to $100 million a year.)

The film ends with Kroc prepping himself to meet, the then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, presenting himself as the founder of the great food empire. His new wife, Joan, tells him that the car is downstairs.

As with almost any biographic film, not everything happened exactly as portrayed in the movie. For example, while Ray did divorce Ethel, there was another wife before he married Joan, Jane Dobbins, who is nowhere to be found in this picture. Another example of omission is that Ray had to pay for the McDonald’s name before he could open his first store. Apparently, the brothers had sold the name to the Frejlack Ice Cream Company for $5,000. It cost Kroc $25,000 to buy it back.

Michael Keaton shows himself once again to be a very fine actor, playing a rather evil man as a regular guy just trying to make good. He is joined in the cast by Nick Offerman, the voice of Axe Cop, and John Carroll Lynch, who play the innovative, but conservative, McDonald brothers whose whole world is turned upside down by the huckster from Illinois. They prove hapless to stop him. Their own openness gets turned against them. Before they know it they’re left holding the paper bag.

It’s odd to see Laura Dern playing such a middle-aged cipher as Ethel. She plays the character as a sort of clone to Pat Nixon and sets up the difference between her and Joan, who screams vivaciousness by comparison.

The rest of the supporting cast is good as well, with B.J. Novak being perhaps the most dynamic of them. Justin Randell Brooke plays Fred Turner, a hamburger cooker (grill operator) who caught Ray’s attention early on and stayed with the company and rose through the ranks to eventually replace Kroc as Chairman and CEO in 1977. He is shown to be mostly in the background and while he speaks a few lines of dialogue, they aren’t really memorable and his role is sort of undefined in the movie.

Kate Kneeland plays Ray’s secretary/bookkeeper, a role that doesn’t change much during the film, though we’re told she would eventually own part of the McDonald's Corporation. While I’m sure Kneeland is a fine actress, the women’s roles in this film are mostly background characters as business, in the early 50s , was still a male dominated arena.

The film, mostly shot in Georgia as a stand-in for California and the Midwest, is very involving and while it got fairly good reviews upon release, did not do well at the box-office during its theatrical run, earning less than it cost to make, $25 million. But new films don’t die and this will be around in various forms for years to come and if you have a chance to see it, you will be drawn in.

Ray Kroc liked to pretend he was the Founder of McDonald's.

If you really hate McDonald’s, and there are more than a few of you out there, then The Founder will just give you one more reason to stay away. Kroc stole the company, name and golden arches (Dick’s idea) out from under the true founders of the company. While I’m not a habitual eater there myself, I might also stay away, if it weren’t for those Shamrock shakes in March. I’m willing to overlook Kroc’s misdeeds for one of those.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stubs - King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933) Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Produced by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Screenplay by James Creelman, Ruth Rose. Run Time: 104 minutes (with overture). U.S.A. Black and White. Action. Adventure.

Almost as big as King Kong is the story of its creator, Merian C. Cooper. He is one of those larger than life characters that we don’t seem to have many of these days. Once a member of the Georgia National Guard so he could help down Pancho Villa, Cooper would go on to fly in World War I and even survived his plane getting shot from the sky in 1918. He would later volunteer as a part of the KoĹ›ciuszko Squadron, which supported the Polish Army in their fight against Soviets between 1919 and 1921, even spending 9 months as a prisoner of war before he managed to escape.

Returning back to the states in 1921, Cooper, through his job at the New York Times, made the acquaintance of Ernest Schoedsack on a sea voyage to the Ethiopian Empire, where he met prince regent, Ras Tefari, later known as Emperor Haile Selassie I. He would later work with Schoedsack on the film Grass (1925), which was picked up by Paramount Pictures. A documentary, Grass follows a branch of the Bakhtiari tribe of Lurs in Iran as they and their herds make their seasonal journey to better pastures.

The film got the attention of Jesse Lasky, who commissioned the two to make Chang (1927), another documentary, this one about a poor farmer in Northeastern Thailand and his daily struggle for survival, which Famous Players-Lasky, a division of Paramount Pictures, released. Cooper and Schoedsack also co-directed, with Lothar Mendes, The Four Feathers (1929), which starred Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, and Clive Brook and was produced by David O. Selznick.

But flying never quite left Cooper, because, in 1926, he helped form Pan American Airways with John Hambleton. During his time on the board, Pan Am, as the company was called, established the first regular Trans-Atlantic service. But you can take the boy out of Hollywood, but not Hollywood out of the boy and Cooper’s interest returned to filmmaking. While still on the board at Pan Am, he started to develop the screenplay for what would become King Kong.

After reading The Dragon Lizards of Komodo (New York, 1927), a nonfiction book written by his friend, W. Douglas Burden, in which Burden describes his exploration of the East Indian island of Komodo and his study of the rare dragon lizards that inhabit the island.

In a letter to Burden written in 1964, Cooper states: “Then one day, after one of my conversations with you, I thought to myself, why not film my Gorilla ... I also had very firmly in mind to giantize both the Gorilla and your Dragons to make them really huge. However, I always believed in personalizing and focusing attention on one main character and from the very beginning I intended to make it the Gigantic Gorilla, no matter what else I surrounded him with... I had already established him in my mind on a prehistoric island with prehistoric monsters, and I now thought of having him destroyed by the most sophisticated thing I could think of in civilization... My very original concept was to place him on the top of the Empire State Building and have him killed by airplanes... I thought that by mattes and double printing and the new technique called rear projection it could be done... I personally conceived and initiated development of the photographic process afterward called 'miniature projection'...I ... went ahead and wrote a number of outlines of King Kong in the years 1929-30.”

In 1931, while Schoedsack was in Sumatra filming a picture called Rango, David O. Selznick became the production head at the financially desperate RKO.

Meanwhile, Cooper tried to buy out MGM’s financial interest in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, hoping to make two films at the same time in Africa, Tarzan, and King Kong, but Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, wouldn’t play along.

Cooper then went to Hollywood in the fall of 1931 to discuss the possibility of making his gorilla picture. But he was turned down by everyone, though Selznick did hire Cooper to help reign in the production of Creation, a stop-action motion picture that had been in production for over a year.  While Cooper shut down that production, he thought Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-action techniques, first developed for First National’s The Lost World (1925), would be perfect for his “giant gorilla” idea, allowing the film to be made without costly shooting in Africa.

He made a proposal to Selznick to shoot a couple of scenes with the gorilla “to see how lifelike and terrible a character it can be made.” Selznick agreed but still had to push hard to get the studio’s New York executives to finance the one-reel test. With the go-ahead, Cooper assigned modelmaker Marcel Delgado to build a miniature, “almost human” ape figure. It took Delgado some a couple of tries, but he managed to make an 18-inch model which satisfied Cooper. The scene in the test featured Kong tossing terrified sailors off a log to their deaths, and Kong fighting an allosaurus. The scene was capped by the doomed men being eaten by giant crab spiders. (The scene was later edited from the film after a preview in San Bernardino because Cooper thought it slowed down the pace of the film.)

An attempt was made to try and make the setting for the film be as “realistic” as possible. After investigating scientific records and consultations with Paleontologists it was decided that the most likely location was an island off the Malay Peninsula, so backgrounds were painted with that in mind.

Production of the test reel began in January 1932. During its shooting, Selznick brought English mystery writer Edgar Wallace in to write a draft of the screenplay based on Cooper’s treatment. Unfortunately, Wallace would come down with pneumonia on February 10, 1932. While Cooper would reject the idea that Wallace contributed much to the story, some argue that his draft, written between January 1 and 5, 1932, details many aspects of the story that ended up in the film.

After Wallace’s death, other writers were brought in to work on the screenplay. One of those rumored to be have worked on it was Dudley Nichols, who would later write the screenplay for Stagecoach (1939) as well as other John Ford films. But that is only a rumor as no records indicate Nichols as involved. Another writer, Leon Gordon, is credited with being the treatment writer, but there is no evidence he contributed anything to the film.

James Creelman wrote two drafts of the screenplay but quit over differences with Cooper, who in turn hired Ruth Rose, Ernest Schoedsack's wife, to complete the screenplay. While not a novice writer, this was her screenplay debut. She simplified the story and eliminated some scenes Creelman had written, such as Kong’s trip to New York. Cooper instructed her to put her husband and himself in the story, so it said that the character of Jack was modeled on her husband and Denham was based on Cooper. Cooper also wanted to take their time introducing Kong, being sure to explain everything before Kong appears so there is no need afterward.

While the cast seems synonymous with the film, they were not the first choices of the producers. Fay Wray, who had worked previously with the filmmakers, was far from the first choice. Cooper first thought of Jean Harlow for the Ann Darrow part and had also asked Dorothy Jordan, his wife-to-be, but was turned down by both women. Joel McCrea was the first actor approached about the role of Jack Driscoll, but Cabot was chosen because it was thought he would be a better fit for the rigors of the role.

During production, Cooper concentrated more on technical scenes, including the later New York, jungle, and ship scenes, while Schoedsack directed the remaining sequences, including the village scenes and some of the New York footage. The scene depicting the sacrificial ceremony, which involved hundreds of extras, three camera crews, a flotilla of costume and makeup personnel and sixty-five electricians, was shot by Schoedsack in one night. Live action sequences were shot beginning in June 1932 in three and four week stretches with weeks off in between. In some cases, filming went on non-stop. Fay Wray, in her autobiography, recounts that she spent twenty-two straight hours on her test reel scene. The animation crew, in order to achieve a constant look to any scene, would work continuously as well. The film was in production for eight months, concluding in February 1933.

With a long production schedule, then as now, costs were of concern. After a successful test reel, RKO gave Cooper a $500,000 budget, but that would rise to $672,000 before all was said and done. Selznick is even quoted as saying that he squeezed monies from other RKO productions to finish the picture. They even used sets from one film, The Most Dangerous Game (1933), which Schoedsack was shooting during the day with Armstrong and Wray. Sets from Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings were repurposed to serve for the village sequences. Those sets would later be burned as part of the burning-of-Atlanta scene in Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939).

One way the studio hoped to save money was to have studio composer Max Steiner re-use music from other productions. But Cooper insisted that Steiner write an original score, offering to pay him out of his own pocket. Steiner’s score took 8 weeks to compose and recording required a large 46-piece orchestra. The cost ended up being $50,000. Parts of his score would also find their way into other films including The Son of Kong (1933) and White Heat (1949) among others.

The film opened on March 7, 1933, in New York. The Los Angeles premiere got caught up in the politics and finances of the day. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became President that year, he called for a Bank Holiday, which caused a week delay in the LA opening as well as a drop in the price of tickets to the premiere from $5.50 to $3.30.

Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is sitting on a boat in New York harbor. He is leaving the next day to start production on a new wildlife film in some faraway place that not even Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) of the Venture knows where they’re going. Because he’s being so mysterious about the film, he is having trouble finding an actress to play the lead in his film. Having a woman in one of his jungle films is not his idea, but he needs a love interest to sell tickets.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) saves Ann Darrow (Fay Wray)
from being arrested for stealing an apple from a newsstand. 

When agents let him down, Denham goes out into the streets to look for a possible actress. His search proves futile, that is until he happens upon a penniless woman, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who is caught stealing an apple for her dinner at a news stand. Ann is hungry enough to listen to Denham’s pitch over dinner and just desperate enough for work to accept his offer of leaving the next morning on a long sea voyage.

First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is not happy about
a woman onboard the ship, but still falls in love with Ann.

During the voyage, First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), a bit of misogynist about women onboard a man’s ship, falls in love with Ann.

Denham does some camera test with Ann...
Who practices her reactions to something big on deck.

Besides some camera tests and coaching Ann on screaming in horror, Denham is mum on his plans for the ship’s final destination. Finally, after weeks of secrecy, Denham tells Englehorn and Driscoll that they’re headed for Skull Island, which can only be found on a map in his possession. Denham is after a mysterious creature he’s heard stories about that lives there: Kong.

Denham tries to capture a native ritual on film.

When the ship finally anchors offshore, they see a native village. A landing party goes ashore, they see that a high wall separates the village from the jungle. They witness as native men dressed in gorilla skins dance and a young native woman is being prepared as a sacrifice, of the “bride of Kong.” When Englehorn, who understands the native’s language, attempts to make friends so that the camera-wielding Denham can shoot the scene, the native chief (Noble Johnson) stops the ceremony. Seeing the blonde Ann, the chief states cryptically that she would make a good bride for “Kong.” The chief offers to make a trade for the “golden woman.” Denham has no interest in trading Ann and orders his group back to the boat.

When he sees Ann, the native chief (Noble Johnson) wants to make a trade for the "golden woman."

But that night, a band of natives sneak aboard the Venture and kidnap Ann. When the crew discovers she’s gone, they go ashore in time to see her tied to an altar as the offering for Kong. At the sound of a gong, a large gorilla-like ape of enormous proportions emerges and carries her off into the jungle.

Kong emerges from the jungle when he hears a gong and carries Ann away.

The men open the gates and take chase, following broken branches Kong leaves in his wake. They find that Kong is not the only large prehistoric creature on the island. A horny-tailed stegosaurus charges at them, but they manage to kill it with their guns and gas bombs.

Ann is helpless in Kong's large hand.

The group constructs a raft and sets out across the swamp after Kong, but a Brontosaurus capsizes them and they lose their supplies and several men. The survivors make it to shore and flee through the jungle, but soon encounter Kong, who tries to stop them from following him across a ravine by shaking them off a fallen tree the men are using as a bridge. Only Driscoll and Denham, who are on opposite sides of the ravine, survive.

Kong shakes the log that the men have used as a bridge, sending most to their deaths.

Meanwhile, Ann, whom Kong has left in the nook of a tree, is threatened by a tyrannosaurus. Hearing her screams, Kong comes to her rescue and kills the dinosaur.

Kong battles a tyrannosaurus that threatens Ann.

While Denham goes back to the village to get more men and ammunition, Driscoll continues to follow after Kong and Ann. In Kong’s lair, a mountain cave, Ann is once again about to be attacked, this time it’s a snake-like Elasmosaurus and once again, Kong comes to the rescue, wrestling the snake and ultimately killing it.

The prehistoric encounters don’t stop there. When Jack accidentally makes noise, Kong goes to investigate, leaving Ann unprotected. A Pteranodon swoops in and tries to fly away with Ann, which means Kong has to kill it. Distracted, Kong doesn’t notice Driscoll, who reaches Ann and they climb down a vine dangling from the ledge of a cliff. Kong notices and starts to pull them up. To thwart him, they let go of the vine and fall unharmed into the water below.

Kong rampages through the native village.

Driscoll and Ann run through the jungle back to the native village where Denham, Captain Englehorn and the rest of the crew are waiting. Kong follows them, breaking the gate, and rampages through the village. Out on the shore, Denham, who is determined to bring Kong back with him, knocks the big ape unconscious with his gas bombs. Seeing Kong unconscious, Denham gets the idea that he could make a fortune and decides to carry Kong on an enormous raft back to New York.

Back in New York, Kong is put on display as The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Back in New York, Kong, who is chained and shackled, is to be presented at a Broadway theater as "Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World." Denham has Ann and Jack, who are now a couple, brought up on stage with him. He then invites a group of press photographers to take their photo. But Kong thinks the flashes are actually an attack and thrashes about, breaking loose from his chains. The audience, filled with terror, flees out of the theater. Ann is taken away to her hotel room on a high floor.

Kong climbs the side of the Empire State Building with Ann in his hands.

Kong climbs up the side of the building and reaches in through the window and snatches her. Carrying her in his hand, Kong rampages through the city, wrecking a crowded elevated train before climbing up the Empire State Building, then the tallest in the world, like he was back in the jungle.

Once on top, Kong faces biplanes sent up to shoot him down.

Denham urges city officials to call in planes with machine guns to shoot it down. When he reaches the top of the building, Kong is attacked by four military airplanes. Setting Ann down, Kong battles the planes, managing to down one of them in the process. But outmanned and outgunned, Kong finally is wounded by a plane flown by Cooper with Schoedsack as the gunner. Kong lets go of the building, falling to his death and into the street below.

Pilot (Merian C. Cooper) and gunner (Ernest B. Schoedsack) shoot Kong down.

Ann and Jack are reunited when Denham pushes through the crowd surrounding Kong's body When a policeman remarks that the planes got him, Denham tells him, "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

Kong lies dead on the streets of New York City, while Denham looks on.

Advertising for King Kong was elaborate and costly. RKO even went so far as to buy thirty minutes of air time from the National Broadcasting Company and, on 10 Feb 1933, broadcast a thirty-minute radio “teaser” for the film. The special featured a specially written script and sound effects. In their Feb 1933 issue, Mystery magazine even ran a serialized version of the story, which they advertised as “the last and the greatest creation of Edgar Wallace.”

Despite the Great Depression, the film opened and was an enormous success, earning $2.8 million at the box-office. It would be released in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952 and 1956. The film would be so successful that a sequel was rushed into production and released the same year: The Son of Kong (1933). The creative team of Cooper, Schoedsack, Rose and Armstrong would return to big apes with Mighty Joe Young (1949).

As with any successful original story, King Kong would be remade more than once. Not counting Japanese films that used the character and an American/Japanese anime series “The King Kong Show,” American studios can’t seem to get their fill.

Paramount Pictures released King Kong (1976), made by Dino De Laurentiis, starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange. There was even a sequel to that film, King Kong Lives (1986). Peter Jackson, fresh off the success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, used his newly found clout to make his own version at Universal, King Kong (2005), starring Jack Black, Naomi Watts, and Adrien Brody. Not to be outdone, Warner Bros. released Kong: Skull Island (2017), a reboot of the story, starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and, of course, John Goodman. The studio has plans to make yet another sequel to this film, Godzilla vs. Kong, slated for 2020.

Even though the special effects are low-tech by today’s standards, the achievement is still somewhat remarkable. It was good enough to convince and terrify its original audience and to be seen over and over again throughout the years.

The acting, on the other hand, is not as good as the special effects. Robert Armstrong will never win any awards for his acting chops, though he does have 183 acting credits to his name, spanning from The Main Event (1927) to For Those Who Think Young (1964). He’s likeable enough as Denham, though he does not take away from the main character, a stop-action animated ape.

Likewise, Bruce Cabot was not going to steal focus away from Kong either. An actor in the vein of John Wayne, Cabot would go on to become one of “Wayne’s Regulars” appearing alongside him in such films as Angel and the Badman (1947).

Perhaps the most memorable cast member is Fay Wray, who had been making films since the short Gasoline Love (1923) and would continue acting until Gideon’s Trumpet (1980). Fay is cute as Ann Darrow and has more presence as any live actor in the film. But again, she is no match for the King, in this case, Kong.

Fay Wray in her memorable turn as Ann Darrow in King Kong.

The original Kong has sadly not aged well. He is not as scary to modern audiences as I’m sure he was in 1933. Some of that has to do with the progression of filmmaking since. Computer animation has replaced stop-action animation as the primary form of special effects, making him look sort of homey by comparison with modern monsters. While I am not a dinosaur expert, I would imagine that many of the concepts that seemed relevant about them back in the 1930s have been altered or disproven by now. But if you’re trying to watch this for its scientific accuracy, then you shouldn’t watch it.

At the time King Kong was released, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression and audiences were eager to spend an hour and a half not thinking about it. Ann Darrow is truly one of them and is plucked up and taken on the adventure of her life. By following her, audiences were able to escape high unemployment and poverty for a while. This is the power of the movies, to transport us away to some place we’ve never thought to go and let us leave the worries of daily life in the lobby.

Watching a classic film is not always about escapism. There is a historic quality about some films that beg for them to be watched. The original King Kong is one of those films. A bigger than life story from a bigger than life man, Merian C. Cooper’s film has aged, but it is still a film worth watching. While not suitable for really small children, it is a film most of the family can and should enjoy. Word of caution, though, if you’re planning to eat dinner while you watch, be aware that there is an overture before the film starts and you might find yourself through with dinner before the movie actually gets going.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Your Name.

After its original release in Japan, Your Name., written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, proved itself a cultural phenomenon, breaking Japanese box office records and becoming the highest grossing anime film of all time. It released to critical and audience acclaim in its home country, which led to a US release by Funimation, both in English dubbed and subtitled formats, starting with a limited theatrical run. The success of the film intrigued me to where I watched it in the nearest location screening the dubbed version (I’m aware some locations only screened the subbed version). After my viewing, I can honestly say that the acclaim for Your Name. is well-deserved.

Mitsuha Miyamizu (Stephanie Sheh), a girl who lives in the country, and Taki Tachibana (Michael Sinterniklaas), a boy who lives in Tokyo, begin to have strange dreams about each other’s lives. These dreams are frequent enough that they eventually realize they are repeatedly swapping bodies, and lives, with each other. As the body swapping continues, they begin to leave more of an impact on each other’s lives while the true nature of their situation slowly comes together.

Though the story has elements seen in other films, including The Lake House and Freaky Friday, Your Name. manages to use these elements in an effective way. As the plot gradually ramps up, it’s easy to root for the main characters and want them to find each other and finally get together. The story manages to combine humor, drama and romance in an emotionally engaging and poignant combination, while also presenting its supernatural elements within a world that is itself presented as surprisingly realistic.

The realism of the film’s world is captured in simply phenomenal animation. Every single detail, down to the body language of the characters and appearance of anything from buildings to smoke, feels about as real as you can possibly get with traditional animation. This helps draw the viewer into the world and helps certain actions come off more realistically. What also helps is the expert use of lighting and a bright, life-like color palette.

In addition, the English voice acting is excellent in carrying the dialogue and allowing the viewer to become emotionally invested in the characters. Notably, the movie features a rather minimal use of music, as well as the occasional moment of complete silence, which increases the impact when music is an element in a scene and allows the original music by Radwimps to stand out, such as during a montage or the animated opening sequence.

Put simply, Your Name. is a must-see. While some plot elements have been seen in other movies, this film manages to combine them in an emotionally engaging way. The realistic setting is also an effective backdrop for the more supernatural elements, aided by some of the best traditional animation to date. With an anime film like this, it’s a shame that not a whole lot of people seem to be interested (if my screening was anything to go by). If you have the chance to see it during its theatrical run, do it as soon as you can. If you can’t, watch it on the inevitable home video release.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Stubs – Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love (1998) Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench. Directed by John Madden. Screenplay by Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Produced by David Parfitt, Donna Gigliotti, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marc Norman. Run Time: 123 minutes. UK and US. Color. Romantic Comedy, Drama

Shakespeare’s plays have been used as source material for dozens of movies. But the Bard himself is also the subject of several films. Since there is very little actually known about the man himself, much is pure fiction. The idea of Shakespeare falling in love with an actress dates back to Alexandre Duval's "Shakespeare amoureux ou la Piece a l'Etude" (1804), in which Shakespeare falls in love with an actress who is playing Richard III. There is also a 1941 novel by Caryl Brahams and S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon, in which Shakespeare falls in love and finds inspiration for later plays.

Marc Norman independently developed his idea in the late 1980’s, when he pitched the idea to director Edward Zwick. Zwick, however, didn’t like Norman’s screenplay and hired Tom Stoppard, a playwright, best known for his own Shakespeare-inspired play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to improve it. A film version of the screenplay almost went into production in 1991 at Universal with Zwick as director and Julia Roberts set to play Viola. Even though sets were constructed, the part of Shakespeare had not been cast. Roberts insisted on having Daniel Day-Lewis play the part and when she couldn’t convince him to play it, she walked six weeks before production was to start.

Universal put the project into turnaround and that was the end of it for several years. Eventually though, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax would take up the production. But Zwick was replaced with John Madden, who had previously directed three films, Ethan Frome (1993), Golden Gate (1994) and Mrs. Brown (1997). The final film was the result of considerable reworking after test screenings. The ending was re-shot several times until Stoppard came up with a suitable conclusion.

When the film opens, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a sometime actor sometime playwright.

The story opens in 1593, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is sometime actor sometime playwright working for Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), the owner of The Rose Theatre in London. Shakespeare is supposed to be working on a new play, a comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. But he’s not writing, suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. Henslowe is in need of the play and a hit at his theatre because he owes money to Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson).

Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) owns The Rose Theatre in London and for
whom Shakespeare is supposedly writing a play for when the movie opens.

Fennyman decides to cut himself in on the production, figuring if it’s a hit, he’ll get back his money with the take. When Henslowe asks about the actors’ share of the profits, Fennyman, in Hollywood accounting traditions, informs him there is never a profit.

Henslowe needs a successful play since he's in debt to Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson).

Even though Shakespeare has only started writing the play, Henslowe has already begun auditioning actors. Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) and his fellow troupe of actors show up and are given parts. Alleyn, who is presented as having charisma to spare, is not given the Romeo part. Rather Shakespeare gives him the role of Mercutio, the one suggested earlier by Marlowe.

Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) is an actor being auditioned for a play Shakespeare has only begun to write.

In that day and age, all parts on stage were played by men. The role of Juliet is to be played by a young man whose voice has not yet changed, etc. But that doesn’t prevent Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who loves plays, from disguising herself and auditioning under the pseudonym Thomas Kent.

Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) pretends to be Thomas Kent so she can audition for a play.

When Thomas suddenly leaves in a hurry, William follows Thomas back to her house. He leaves a note with Viola’s nurse (Imelda Staunton), asking Thomas to begin rehearsals at the Rose. Later that night, he slips into the house with the minstrels who are playing that night at the ball. Viola’s parents are arranging for her marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), an impoverished aristocrat with a plantation in the Virginia colony.

Viola's parents want her to marry Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), an impoverished aristocrat.

When Shakespeare sees Viola, he is love struck, but Wessex will have none of it and forcibly ejects Shakespeare, who tells him his name is Christopher Marlowe, from the ball. After that, Shakespeare uses Kent as a go-between, until Shakespeare discovers her true identity. After that, they begin a secret, but passionate affair. Having found his muse, Shakespeare begins writing. He gets a little help from his rival playwright, Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), who helps him transform the play into Romeo and Juliet, even suggesting part of the plot and the name of one of the characters.

Shakespeare unwittingly falls in love with Viola, whom he knows as Thomas Kent.

But there are issues that seem to doom Shakespeare’s relationship with Viola. To begin with, Shakespeare reveals that he’s married to Anne Hathaway, who is back at Stratford-Upon-Avon with their children. While that might seem like a roadblock, it doesn’t compare with the fact that Viola is pledged to marry Wessex.

The affair between Shakespeare and Viola ends his writer’s block. Inspired by his muse, the play seems to flow out of him onto paper. Gone is Ethel, the pirates’ daughter, enter fair Juliet. And no longer a comedy, the play is transformed into the tragedy we know today. The lovers even act out some of the scenes that will find their way into the finished play, especially the post-wedding night of passion.

One way to break through writer's block.

Soon afterward, Marlowe is murdered while at a pub. Shakespeare figures Wessex had him killed and blames himself for having used his name. Wessex, upon hearing of Marlowe’s murder, thinks his rival for Viola’s heart is dead. Viola has only heard that a playwright has been killed and fears the worst. When she learns Shakespeare is still very much alive, she pledges her love for him.

Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) is a rival playwright to Shakespeare.

When Viola is taken to Queen Elizabeth I’s (Judi Dench) court in Greenwich to get her approval for the wedding, Shakespeare goes along disguised as her female cousin. The Queen is presented as a bigger fan of the theatre than Viola. Her love of plays may be the reason theatres were allowed to stay open during her reign,

Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) must approve Viola's marriage to Wessex.

While at the court, Shakespeare, dressed as the nurse, wages Wessex £50 that a play can capture the true nature of love. £50 happens to be the same amount Shakespeare needs to buy a share in Lord Chamberlain's Men, a troupe in which Shakespeare occasionally acts. The Queen, hearing the wager, declares that she will be the judge of the matter.

A woman actor was not only untraditional, it was against the law. When Shakespeare is spied kissing Viola, while she’s still dressed as Thomas, by an actor left out of the production, Edmund Tilney (Simon Callow), the Master of the Revels shuts the production down. The Master of the Revels was a  position within the Royal household, that, at the time, was responsible for overseeing royal festivities and for stage censorship.

With Viola’s true identity exposed, the play is now without a lead actor or a stage to perform it on. Shakespeare takes up the role of Romeo and Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes), the owner of the Curtain theatre, gives them a venue. The play is to premiere on the day of Viola’s wedding to Wessex and she can’t stay away and she runs away to the Curtain to watch. When the boy actor set to play Juliet cannot perform, Viola steps in.

Viola steps in when the boy to play Juliet cannot perform and Shakepeare plays Romeo.

The play is a great success, with the audience captivated by the performance, even though it turns out to be a tragedy at the end. But Viola’s presence on stage leads to Tilney’s return to arrest everyone involved. But the Queen is in attendance and pretends that Viola is her alter ego Kent and prevents Tilney from executing his orders.

But the Queen is also up front about Viola’s marriage to Wessex, which she is powerless to end. She orders Kent to fetch Viola, who is set to sail to the Virginia colony with her new husband, who has followed her to the Curtain. Seeing Wessex, she orders him to pay the £50 to Shakespeare as Romeo and Juliet proves a play can depict true love.

Even though Viola and Shakespeare have to say goodbye, he vows to immortalize her. The next play he writes, at least per the movie, is Twelfth Night and he imagines Viola as a castaway on a voyage to a strange land. In that play, one of the protagonists is named Viola and she is disguised as a boy.

The film received a positive reception when it was released and made $289 million at the box office against a budget of $25 million, making it a solid hit. The film was also well represented during awards season, winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Dench and Best Picture for the movie itself. The film also won three BAFTAs including Best Film and Supporting Actress (Dench); a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival; a DGA for John Madden; Golden Globes, SAG awards, and Writers Guild Awards. One of those rare films that combines commercial and critical success.

Obviously, the film itself is a work of fiction. As any fan of Shakespeare or any reader of our review will know, the Bard did not originate the story of Romeo and Juliet himself but rather adapted one that had been around for over a hundred years. But it is clear the intention of the filmmakers was not to tell a real story but to have fun with the lack of knowledge about the Shakespearean legend. The story is presented believably, though in its own universe which is full of historical inaccuracies.

This is a very good film, from the inventiveness of the screenplay to the acting to the costume designs, which naturally won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, the way period films do.

Being a film that mostly takes place in London, there are almost as many British actors as in a Harry Potter film and all of them are very good. Joseph Fiennes, the young brother of Ralph, shows that good acting talent can be hereditary. He plays the Bard as a struggling playwright who is on the verge of failure before meeting his muse and becoming the legend we think we know today. He brings a real humanity and sense of humor, not to mention athleticism, to a role that has the potential for being quite stuffy.

Dame Judi Dench infuses Queen Elizabeth I with a personality one doubts many during her reign actually saw. Geoffrey Rush is actually an Australian, but he plays British subjects so often and so well that it’s hard to remember he’s from a different island nation. His Kings Speech co-star, Colin Firth, is also good as the self-absorbed loser, Lord Wessex. The list goes on and on, including Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton, who are all good and believable in roles large and small.

Ben Affleck seems to be an odd choice to play Ned Alleyn. In retrospect, one doubts they ran out of British actors and had to draft an American to fill the part. But at the time, Affleck was in high demand, his previous film having been the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting (1997), in which he not only acted but won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. In that context, he seems to be the perfect choice for Alleyn, who is presented as an actor on the top of his game, who gets a little bit of a comeuppance, when he isn’t cast as the lead in the new play. Affleck’s career has been a series of peaks and valleys since.

The star of the film, however, is another American actress, Gwyneth Paltrow. This is the pre-Goop, pre-self-absorbed Paltrow that we know today. She is good in the dual roles of Viola and Kent and I don’t have any argument with her winning the Academy Award, though I have not done an extensive look at her competition.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars in Shakespeare in Love.

After having watched several of Shakespeare’s plays made into films, I really enjoyed watching this film again. It is very delightful to reimagine a life and writing process so few know anything about. Given the unknown qualities of Shakespeare’s life, it is easy to have his character say or do anything the filmmakers wanted. There is gratefully nothing too embarrassing or outlandish Shakespeare is required to do. You can only imagine in lesser hands the crudeness that could be applied to his life.

While there is no real insight into the creative process, Shakespeare In Love is a fun period piece, an unlikely romantic comedy involving the world’s most famous writer. With the exception of some nudity, I would recommend this to anyone who is just learning about the Bard or had to endure studying one of his many plays in school and wants to see the mythical writer humanized in a fun way.