Galaxy Quest: affectionate homage and spoof maintains the values of altruism, quest for knowledge and defending the underdog

Dean Parisot, “Galaxy Quest” (1999)

Conceived as a homage to and spoof of the famous science fiction TV series “Star Trek” and of the obsessive fan following it collected, this comedy movie has gained cult status in its own right and won the affection of “Star Trek” fans themselves thanks to a clever plot that packs in most of the cliches and eccentricities of the television show and spoofs a great many movie stereotypes with wit and warmth. The ensemble cast rises to the challenge and most actors, minor as well as major, are outstanding in their roles, narrow though some of these are. Above all, the values that inform the original “Star Trek” series as conceived by its creator Gene Roddenberry are even more on display than in the TV series: sympathy for the underdog and the downtrodden, altruism and bravery in the face of severe danger, and different groups working together to bring about peace and an end to violence and terror.

The film begins and ends with the actors of a former TV sci-fi show “Galaxy Quest” attending a fan convention dedicated to the show even though more than a decade has passed since the series was axed. At the beginning the actors are so closely identified with the series by their fans and others that since the show’s axing, they have all had problems getting other acting work and they have become embittered. Except for Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) who has come to identify with his GQ character Commander Peter Taggart (a spoof of William Shatner’s James Kirk character on “Star Trek”) and who acts accordingly: as a sometimes zoned-out fat-head twat. The ex-cast quarrel among themselves and come to blows, nearly ruining their appearance at the fan convention.

However their fortunes change when a group of aliens, who have received radio transmissions of the old GQ episodes and believe them to be actual historical events, arrive on Earth and implore the cast to help save their race and planet from annihilation by their enemies. The actors have little choice but to go along with the illusion: this involves driving the GQ spaceship that the aliens have faithfully recreated from what they have seen from the episodes, retrieving a beryllium rock from a desert planet to replace one damaged in the ship’s power drive during an enemy attack, and thwarting the plans of the evil Sarris (Robin Sachs) to conquer the universe.

What is powerful in this film is the way the out-of-work actors rediscover the wonder of the show they all worked on, grow into their old roles and discover their own depths and potential they had not known before. Nesmith really does find he makes a good leader and a brave one as well. The actors playing the GQ cast all give their best with spot-on timing and make these characters their own. Sigourney Weaver sends up her Ellen Ripley character from the “Alien” films by playing ditzy blonde sex bomb Tawny Madison and Alan Rickman, playing a Shakespearean actor who is best remembered by most people for playing an alien advisor on GQ (a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock character on “Star Trek”) with all the frustrations, disillusionment and hang-ups that go with actors in that situation, conveys his character’s mixed feelings and growth into the role of Dr Lazarus beautifully. Daryl Mitchell (playing a former child pilot), Tony Shalhoub (as the stoned engineer) and Sam Rockwell (as an extra who believes he’ll always be killed off) steal the show whenever they appear. For many viewers though, Tim Allen may well steal the spotlight in impersonating William Shat … er, playing the role of Nesmith playing Taggart in what may well be the defining role of his career: at once playing a comic actor, and a hero as well.

The film moves at a very brisk pace with the laughs coming thick and fast. The funniest moments of the film come when Nesmith calls on a teenage GQ fan on Earth to help him and Madison navigate the labyrinth duct systems on the GQ ship so they can reach the power core and stop the ship from self-destructing; the kid successfully directs them through his PC, even guiding them through a treacherous passage where the ship’s pistons could pound them into schnitzels! An enjoyable sub-plot that takes place during the search for the new beryllium core is notable for its cute Teletubby aliens who turn out to have a savage brutal nature.

You don’t have to know “Star Trek” to enjoy the film and its many gags, and to appreciate the ultimate gag of a group of aliens sophisticated enough to build spaceships that travel light years from one end of the universe to the other yet are unable to tell the difference between reality and pretence. The difference can be a fine one as the GQ cast members really do become a genuine spaceship crew by the end of the film. Knowing the difference certainly does not help Sarris either. This probably says something quite profound, maybe even creepy and troubling, about the nature of fandom and how fiction and reality bleed into one another and become confused to the point where fiction dominates, with perhaps dire consequences in post-truth world.

Queen of the Desert: a boring and flat movie that mocks a remarkable woman and the people and region she came to love

Werner Herzog, “Queen of the Desert” (2013)

Renowned German film director Werner Herzog, maker of classics like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” could have done something just as eerie and awe-inspiring with the subject of the life of early 20th-century British adventurer-archaeologist-explorer-spy Gertrude Bell, who travelled across the Middle East several times over a period of 12 years before 1914 documenting and publishing her observations and photographs of life in the cities there and among the Bedouin and Druze peoples in the region. Bell would later become a policy advisor to the British government in dealing with the tribal peoples of Arabia and in obtaining the loyalty of those peoples’ leaders, and would play a significant role in the creation of Iraq and its early political institutions, and in the country’s administration. Here is enough meaty and challenging material for a director such as Herzog, whose films reveal a fascination with the motivations of singular individuals, and what inspires them to great achievements and equally noble failures.

Instead what Herzog delivers is a very boring and flat two-hour snoozefest of Hollywood-style banalities in which Bell’s life is shaped by two romantic relationships and two meetings with Thomas E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). Between these episodes her travels to the Levant and Arabia and the bonds that develop between her and the peoples there are treated very superficially. Viewers learn very little about how the young Gertrude Bell refused to follow the expected path of early marriage and motherhood or what motivates her to leave the comforts and safety of Western civilisation and travel among little-known peoples in the Middle East. We do not learn how women travellers of her time might have been regarded by the peoples she visited, whether they treated her differently from European male travellers because of her sex or her personality or because she demanded nothing more than their hospitality. The most Herzog offers about Bell’s determination and motivation is a small scene in which she tells a British military officer that she admires the “freedom” and “dignity” that the Bedouin supposedly possess. What does Bell mean by saying that?

The acting by Nicole Kidman (miscast as Bell) and the cast surrounding her is competent enough but there is no chemistry between her and her lovers (played by James Franco and Damien Lewis). Ultimately though the nebulous nature of the project, the lack of a definite theme behind it, the flat script and its emphasis on technical details like nice cinematography, the fashions of the day and Kidman’s looks over Bell’s contacts with one set of exotic people after another, and what they might mean for the future of the Middle East, defeat the actors.

What I find most annoying is that when the plot comes close to an incident in Bell’s personal life or a significant political event that she participates in, it immediately ducks away to something irrelevant. The film reduces Bell and her life to a series of romantic encounters (and very lazily sketched ones at that) that may or may not be based on her actual life to satisfy a narrow agenda which views women as incomplete or not quite human unless they’re attached to a man.

Spring: character study on renewal through love and connections, and beating back monsters

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Spring” (2014)

A rather long and thin character study romance that’s equal parts comedy, drama and gore-blimey slimy body horror makes up this low-budget flick “Spring” whose title ends up overburdened with many layers of meaning by the time the final credits start rolling. A young Californian, Evan (Louis Taylor Pucci), has just lost his mum from cancer and follows that crisis with another when he loses his dead-end job as a restaurant cook after a fight with a customer. All at sea with no other family and no idea what to do, he accepts an invitation from friends to go travelling with them and he lands in southern Italy. He takes up a job (an illegal one, it turns out) with a farmer and strikes up a friendship with local 20-year-old girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). This friendship quickly develops into a romance, or so he thinks … it’s just that Louise behaves a bit oddly, standing him up at the most inopportune times, due to a terrible secret she carries …

The intention for this film is for it to draw its strength from the character study of the two lovebirds and the deep and complex relationship they develop. There certainly is chemistry between the two young actors who play Evan and Louise. Unfortunately much of the dialogue isn’t very convincing, especially in the drawn-out denouement where Louise explains the nature of her protean shape-shifting condition and how she needs to renew her human shape every 20 years to remain the 2,000-year-old alien-human hybrid entity she is. Parts of the action seem a bit forced at times – just how does Evan figure out in a split second that Louise needs her syringe in one horrific scene? – and the film never explains satisfactorily how in 2,000 years no-one has noticed that Louise has always looked much the same without ever ageing, or that animals and humans occasionally turn up dead in the streets, in the fields or out at sea bearing the most hideous mutilations. Come to think of it, even Louise doesn’t appear to have learned a great deal in 2,000 years on how to manage her condition; one would have thought that in all that time, she would have acquired specialised knowledge of herbs, medicines and recipes to keep her Lovecraftian love-handles at bay and everyone else from guessing the nature of her curse.

Parts of the film could have been tightened up for pace and dialogue and the running time could have been cut to about 100 minutes without too much of the plot or its message being affected. On a superficial level, the message of renewal through love and finding connections comes through clearly; on a deeper level there is an exploration of what it means to be human and mortal, and to know immortality through means other than the purely physical. Just as Evan learns to live again by making new connections and falling in love, so Louise has to learn what true immortality really means and the sacrifice she must make to achieve that. The film achieves closure when both cross into their own existential and metaphysical springs.

Filmed in southern Italy, the movie has many beautiful rural and maritime settings, and the cinematography, using filters that render outlines a bit blurry (as though to emulate the blurriness of the tragic heroine’s real looks, which viewers never see in their entirety), creates mood and feeling very effectively. One does start to care for the lovebirds and their potentially doomed romance and the climax is a satisfying and graceful close to the themes raised in the film.

Night of the Living Dead: cult horror classic is a character study and commentary on American society

George A Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Made on a minuscule budget, George A Romero’s famous horror film is proof that a large pot of money isn’t necessary to create a great film that still resonates with new generations of viewers nearly 50 years (as of this time of writing) later. “Night …” is essentially a character study whose plot is driven by the behaviours and motivations of the various people thrown together in a farmhouse due to an unusual emergency. A brother-sister pair visit their deceased father in a rural cemetery and are later set upon by a mysterious ghoul. The brother is killed and the sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), flees for her life and makes her way to the farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her in and from this moment on, Barbara spends the rest of the film suffering from post-traumatic shock. Ben barricades the farmhouse from attacks by ghouls, at least until he discovers that a family has been sheltering in the building’s cellar. Much of the rest of the film revolves around the conflict between Ben and the family patriarch Harry Cooper (Ken Hardman) which explodes into a fight for the one rifle the besieged humans have among them when the ghouls launch a mass attack on the farmhouse.

While the plot writes itself – there is not much a group of humans in a farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating monsters can do apart from trying to prevent ingress and arguing about the best way to do this – the interest in the film stems from Romero’s casting choices and the many ways in which the film up-ends conventional Hollywood stereotypes about plot and character. Hiring a black actor to play the more sane and compassionate Ben endows the film with a social justice theme: in emergency situations, people must rely on one another for help and safety regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The humans in the farmhouse become a metaphor for Western rationality and enlightenment surrounded and threatened by ignorance, bigotry and hatreds from white America’s dark past of its relations with black and native Americans. Harry Cooper, a white man, behaves selfishly and indirectly causes his own death. The radio that the humans depend on gives them information about how the ghouls came to be: news that the ghouls are dead people reanimated by radioactive fall-out from a fallen satellite rams home a warning about how nuclear warfare and related technologies can have dire consequences for the survival of humankind.

Ben and Harry’s argument is significant in defying audience expectations about aspects of the plot: Ben argues for safety on the building’s top level and Harry wants everyone down in the basement cellar; as it turns out, when the zombies invade the farmhouse, Ben takes refuge in the cellar! Another way in which the film defies conventional story-telling is that when US authorities finally arrive at the farmhouse to rescue any survivors, they end up killing the sole survivor of the mass zombie attack as well as the zombies themselves. This downbeat ending underlines the film’s message that in the end, death overtakes us all and what matters is how we have lived our lives before then.

The film’s minimal style and the cast’s naturalistic acting – and Barbara’s trauma – ensure that it remains fresh even after half a century since it was made. The many innovations and breaks with conventional story-telling introduced by “Night …”, along with its raw natural style and underlying message about humans, endowed with intelligence and reason but unable to work together to solve common problems because of social and cultural barriers, not only spawned an entire new genre of zombie movies but cements its status as a classic American film.

The Truman Show: comedy drama satire encapsulating the search for authenticity for self and community under conditions of control and manipulation

Peter Weir, “The Truman Show” (1998)

Once in a while Hollywood releases a film that encapsulates philosophical ideas about the purpose of life and the human desire for freedom and autonomy under conditions of control and manipulation. That the film was made as a comedy drama featuring a bizarre science fiction plot in which ideals about American family life and culture are satirised in a virtual reality framework is an added bonus and such a film, if made well, has the potential to become a classic. Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” nearly hits all the right notes in this respect. The film’s presentation is spotless and its titular main character, played by Jim Carrey, is endearing – but the film is not perfect and is probably a bit too low-key for its mainstream audience.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) lives on Seahaven Island, a bright seaside community where he was brought up. He sells insurance and is married to Meryl (Laura Linney), a nurse. Unbeknownst to Truman, his whole life has been lived in a continuous TV reality show “The Truman Show” masterminded by director Christof (Ed Harris). The film’s plot basically demonstrates how Truman comes to realise that his whole life has been on display to global TV audiences through incidents such as a spotlight falling out of the sky, point rain falling on him and an out-of-town police officer he does not know calling him by his first name. Truman’s efforts to find out the truth of his life and discover the lie he has led make for very funny comedy. At the heart of his odyssey lies his attraction to and love for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) played by an actress who tried to warn Truman that he was being exploited but ended up being thrown off the show. Eventually after many mishaps and incidents that involve Truman overcoming his fear of water, and a sailing ordeal during which he nearly drowns in storms sent by Christof’s technical crew, Truman discovers that he has indeed been living in a bubble and finally meets Christof who tries to persuade him to return to Seahaven Island.

Carrey plays Truman very well as cartoon character and as someone struggling to find the truth about his existence and the community in which he has grown up. Probably the major fault with Carrey’s portrayal is that he does not display much emotion but the narrow range of emotions that do appear agrees with the nature of the character that he plays: Truman is basically a fake character and Seahaven Island represents an artificial and unrealistic ideal. The confrontation with Christof is restrained and short, and while audiences might have expected much Sturm und Angst, the breakthrough is that Truman wrestles control of his character and destiny away from Christof. Truman finally becomes a real person with a real future ahead of him; it may be messy and uncertain, and he will most certainly find that truth and reality are even more elusive in a world living through simulated reality, but his journey now becomes his own to make.

The plot tends to be repetitive with Truman going from one scrape to another as he tries to discover the truth but the direction is tight and brisk. Truman’s jump from being aquaphobic to confidently piloting a boat out in the middle of Seahaven Island harbour is rather forced but it does break with the previous monotony of the script. Perhaps the film could have been a bit longer with a slower pace and more opportunity for character development and depth in Christof and minor characters.

The themes that “The Truman Show” raises about manipulating and controlling people for profit, and about manipulating a social ideal and recent American social and cultural history to shape audience desires in the service of profit are highly provocative. Add to this mix a classic narrative about an individual’s search for meaning and purpose to his life and self-discovery in an original plot, and the continuing relevance of the film to audiences even today can be clearly seen.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: an individual’s search for wholeness and authenticity delivered in a flat musical adaptation

John Cameron Mitchell, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

A feisty little number showcasing John Cameron Mitchell as a director, actor, scriptwriter and singer, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name in which Mitchell also starred. The film follows the quest of Hansel (Mitchell) growing up in East Berlin in the 1960s – 70s: a product of a dysfunctional family, he finds refuge in Western rock music. Dissatisfied with his life, he seeks escape with an American soldier who suggests that he (Hansel) change his sex from male to female and marry him (the soldier). Taking his mother’s name (Hedwig), Hansel does what the soldier suggests – although the sex change operation is botched – and marries the fellow who then takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. At the same time, Hedwig sees on the TV news that the Berlin Wall has fallen so all her sacrifice has been for nought. Nevertheless, Hedwig picks herself up by forming a band, writing and performing songs, and babysitting for US army families. She meets and befriends Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), teaching him all she knows about rock music and helping him with personal problems. They write and record songs together, and eventually fall in love. When Speck discovers that Hedwig is transgender, he flees with the songs they have written together and establishes his own career as teen pop idol Tommy Gnosis. In this, he becomes wildly successful and Hedwig launches a copyright lawsuit against him. She tries to raise money for the lawsuit by forming a new band The Angry Inch, composed of eastern European migrants including her “husband” Yitzhak (played by actress Miriam Shor), and touring franchises of a seafood restaurant chain and various other small venues.

Hedwig’s history is told in various ways including song, animation and traditional live action plot narrative mixed together. Most of the plot is told in flashbacks that follow a chronological sequence and this sequence is sometimes interrupted by some incident relevant to the plot in the present day. Throughout this narrative of rise and fall, defeat and rise again, followed by betrayal and another defeat, is threaded a journey in which Hedwig searches for wholeness, renewal and authenticity, indicated by her constant reference via the song “The Origin of Love” to a story in Plato’s “Symposium” in which humans were originally two people stuck together and forcibly separated by the gods, and the purpose of life is for humans to rediscover their lost halves.

While Mitchell excels in his multi-tasking as director and actor, and portrays Hedwig in all her bitchiness and questing, the songs in themselves are not all that interesting – performed in various conventional pop / rock styles, they are clearly aimed at the general public – and would be flat without Mitchell’s flamboyant presence; and the plot itself builds up to a weak and inconclusive climax. Does Hedwig win her lawsuit? We don’t really know, though later she gains much public sympathy after an incident with Speck later in the film. The final scenes in which Hedwig appears to reconcile with Speck could be pure fantasy – indeed, everything that happens after Hedwig’s encounter with Speck in his luxury limousine could be fantasy.

Apart from Mitchell himself, the cast is rather mediocre, and without the songs and Mitchell’s stage performances, the film tends to be flat. There isn’t much to recommend the music and I’m not surprised that most of what is memorable about the film is Mitchell’s acting and his character Hedwig in all her primping and glam finery.

Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

The Founder: a fictional character study calling into question the American Dream and how it enables control and exploitation

John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” (2016)

How do you make an engrossing film about a character who is essentially unlikeable, a predator who steals others’ ideas and innovations and rewrites history to claim those innovations as his own, an anti-hero / near-villain who rides roughshod over friends, business associates and loved ones alike in pursuit of his own selfish interests and greed – and who lives happily ever after, sleeping well at nights? In “The Founder”, director Hancock has found inspiration in the rise and rise of Ray Kroc who joined the McDonald’s hamburger and fast food business, owned and operated by Dick and Mac McDonald, in 1954 and set it on the path to becoming the world’s largest fast food corporation: he (Hancock) contrasts Kroc’s astonishing ascent to fame and glory against the McDonald brothers’ determined but ultimately doomed attempts to protect the company’s reputation for delivering quality fast food and prompt service. In juxtaposing the stories of Kroc and the McDonald brothers as the men collide and their paths shoot off in opposed directions, Hancock finds plenty to say about the so-called American Dream and calls into question the exploitation of American cultural values, what it means to be American and the issue of control, whether it be over a business franchise or the land it sits upon, or over one’s relationships, in a society dominated by capitalist values and ideology.

When first we meet Kroc (Michael Keaton), he is rehearsing a speech he is about to make before an audience that includes the then President Ronald Reagan, a fellow Illinois boy-made-good like himself. From there the film jumps back some 30 years to 1954 when Kroc is a travelling salesman trying to hawk milkshake mixers to various fast food joints in the US Midwest and finding no takers. He takes a call from his secretary back in Arlington who informs him that a hamburger place in San Bernardino, California, has placed an order for 6, then 8, mixers. Intrigued, Kroc drives all the way to San Bernardino where he sees queues of customers waiting patiently to order hamburgers at the McDonald brothers’ stand. He makes his acquaintance with Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) who tell him of their experiences trying to crack Hollywood back in the 1920s, having to operate a hot dog stand during the Depression years and finally being able to own and run their hamburger fast food restaurant in their own unique way, utilising scientific management methods in designing their kitchen and streamlining work processes, custom-making their kitchen equipment, concentrating on a small and standardised menu and motivating their employees to deliver food and service at a consistent and high level. Kroc proposes that he and they join forces and franchise the business. The brothers demur and explain that they have tried franchising before but were unable to maintain control over the menu and standards. Kroc mulls over their objections and finally convinces Dick and Mac to work together with him by proposing that McDonald’s could become an essential institution in American life, in much the same way that Christian religion and belief in American democracy have become.

From that moment on, Kroc’s rise to become one of America’s richest and most successful businessmen, thanks to doggedness on his part, dominates the film – though he comes across plenty of obstacles in his path. The initial wave of success proves to be too much and quickly Kroc finds his finances and assets over-stretched to the point where he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) are in danger of losing their house. His bank manager won’t budge an inch, Dick and Mac refuse to cut corners on their formula and remind Kroc of the complex contract that he agreed to sign. Enter Harry Sonneborn (B J Novak), an ambitious financial consultant, who goes over Kroc’s books and points out that Kroc needs to own the land on which McDonald’s franchises operate by creating a separate real estate company. Kroc realises that Sonneborn’s proposal will enable him to wrestle control of the McDonald’s concept from Dick and Mac and readily accepts it. As McDonald’s becomes more and more Kroc’s baby and he bends and reshapes its core concept to his will, the brothers are edged out more and more, their business relationship with Kroc becomes acrimonious and eventually Mac’s health fails and he is hospitalised. Kroc eventually buys out the brothers who tragically lose all royalty rights and are forced to give up the McDonald’s name.

Concomitant with Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s name and concept, his marriage to Ethel, who provides moral support and Kroc’s conscience (passive though it is), fails and ends in divorce. Ethel ends up an even more pathetic victim than the McDonald brothers: she ends up with the house but none of the wealth that should be hers. I guess in the end she never gets to go to Spain for a holiday.

The acting is solid throughout and Michael Keaton dominates every scene as the man who sells his soul and morality (I’m assuming he ever had any in the first place) for money, money and more money. He strikes the right balance in making Kroc a sympathetic character driven to succeed in spite of no talent, no education and no connections, yet slimy and lacking in insight. Laura Dern makes the most of a role in which she has very little to do except ask her husband why he couldn’t just live the rest of his life together with her in comfortable retirement, playing golf with the country club buddies and travelling the world together. The film does a splendid job contrasting Kroc’s slick hollowness against the McDonald brothers’ heartfelt passion and love for their San Bernardino baby and their desire and failure to protect it against its exploitation by a predatory hustler.

The film does not make much of the capitalist ideology that informs and supports Kroc’s ambitions or of the debt-based financial system that forces Kroc on his near-insane quest to grow the McDonald’s business and drives him and Ethel close to bankruptcy. So much of modern corporations’ need to grow and earn higher revenues and profits, at the cost of quality control and ethical considerations for their customers and the environments (physical, cultural, economic, political) in which they live, is driven by the need to pay back corporate debts to banks and to take out new loans if they are to meet their financial obligations and continue trading. Viewers need some knowledge of how monetary systems work to pick up this aspect of the film. The scene in which Kroc first meets Sonneborn is a major turning point in the film’s narrative: Kroc begins to understand that owning the land on which the hamburgers are made is the key to breaking the hold the McDonald brothers have over him.

What is significant about “The Founder” is its timing: it comes at a time when Americans and others around the world are seriously questioning aspects of the capitalist economic system and the ideologies and assumptions that support it and legitimise the often sociopathic behaviours that are attracted to it; and when the McDonald’s corporation itself and its core concept of  industrialised food preparation and production have become battered and are in need of renewal or replacement. At the end of the film, when we return to Kroc finishing off his rehearsal, he appears to stagger through a doorway, as if on his way to the afterlife. (In real life, Kroc died in 1984 so the film ends at a point where he would not have had much longer to live.)

The Shining: a histrionic epic horror film saved by its themes of control and alien manipulation

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

In most directors’ hands, a Stephen King horror novel of a family disintegrating under the impact of the husband / father’s alcoholism wouldn’t have been more than a small-scale pedestrian flick destined for weekday daytime TV. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” becomes an epic tale of how a small family is trapped by unseen and vaguely conscious forces that have shaped human history and led to suffering, tragedy and genocide. The film is noteworthy for its widespread use of Steadicam tracking shots, an eerie musical soundtrack, its creepy hotel setting and the performances of Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd as father and son set against each other due to external alien powers.

Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), seeking somewhere peaceful and isolated for his writing project, accepts a temporary position as an off-season caretaker for the upscale Hotel Overlook in a remote part of Colorado. At his interview, Torrance is told that the hotel is built on a Native American burial site and that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, developed cabin fever and killed his family. While Torrance is being interviewed, back home in Boulder, his son Danny (Lloyd) has a premonition about the hotel in which rivers of blood swamp the hotel floors and he falls into a trance. Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes the boy to a doctor and mentions that he has an imaginary friend called Tony.

Torrance gets the job and soon moves the family into its new quarters at the hotel. They meet the head chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who takes Danny aside and tells him that they are both telepathic. Halloran warns Danny that the hotel harbours many memories, not all of which are good, and that the boy must not enter Room 237.

Time passes, with Jack’s writing going nowhere while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds which include a giant maze that Danny becomes expert at traversing. Jack becomes frustrated and angry over his writer’s block and his relationship with Wendy disintegrates. Danny continues to have terrifying visions of ghosts and blood but is drawn to Room 237 and enters the room where he is attacked by an apparently dead woman. He escapes with bruises on his neck which his mother blames on Jack. Jack investigates Room 237 where he also sees the apparition.

While Wendy and Danny continue exploring the hotel, Jack retreats to the Gold Room where he meets a bartender and a butler who reveals himself as Delbert Grady, the hotel’s former caretaker, among a party of phantom wealthy revellers. Delbert Grady tells Jack that his son is telepathically contacting Halloran (who is on his way to the hotel from Miami to find out what is going on) and that he, Jack, must “correct” Wendy and Danny. The stage is thus set for a conflict between two mysterious forces using humans as their unwilling pawns.

While “The Shining” may not be a great Kubrick classic, it has much in common with other films of his, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and several of his war films. Jack is a typical Kubrick man whose sense of masculinity is weak and superficial, based as it is on dominating and subjugating weaker people like Danny and the submissive Wendy. The ghosts in the film recognise Jack as a weak man reliant on alcohol to prop up his masculinity and they seize on his weakness to compel him to murder. Significantly he kills Halloran, a representative of a traditional victim group (Afro-Americans) in US society. One wonders whether the rivers of blood that terrify Danny in his visions might actually represent the blood of Native Americans butchered and thrown into mass graves – and might not Hotel Overlook be sited on such a grave? – by the US Army as it drove indigenous people into reservations so their lands could be seized by the Federal government.

The acting ranges from overwrought (Duvall) to bravura (Nicholson) and almost understated (Lloyd). While Duvall has to make the best of a role of a passive child-like woman, and Nicholson refines his almost typecast persona of a man going mad, Lloyd probably delivers the best performance in a role where he has to play an imaginary friend with its own voice speaking to Danny Torrance. Significantly the main adult characters in the film regress almost to an infantile state while Danny Torrance adopts adult qualities to save himself, if not his mother. The boy’s talent, the “shining”, is not of very much help to him and Wendy, and only his knowledge of the maze and his persistence save his life. Perhaps this is Kubrick’s way of demonstrating that humans can be more than what they come into the world endowed with, and that perhaps we can overcome our aspects of our past with knowledge and reason.

Thanks to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, the film has a distinct look (as all Kubrick’s films do) and manages even in its most surreal and gory parts to be elegant and beautiful. This refined look doesn’t always work though as in the scene where Jack enters Room 237 and meets a naked young woman who seems more robotic than ghostly. The hotel interiors take on a palatial aspect thanks to the unusual camera angles and the scale on which the settings have been created, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them.

Special mention should be made of the music soundtrack, featuring dissonant pieces from Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wendy Carlos, which becomes a character in itself (albeit a rather overbearing and screechy one) along with the hotel. The music could have been quieter in parts and allow for more space than it does to heighten the tension and dread.

Parts of the film can be very histrionic, and Duvall’s character especially is of a screaming-damsel-in-distress stereotype that does her talents a disservice, but it does display an exceptional power. The underlying themes of control, a crisis in Western masculinity, humanity being in the grip of possibly malign forces shaping its evolution and destiny, and a child embodying hope and positive transformation are the film’s saving grace.

Portrait of a major 20th-century literary icon and his impact on Western culture in “William Burroughs: Man Within”

Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)

An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.

The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.

The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.

Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.

The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.