Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: Burnt


Not since Julia Child dominated PBS with her french cooking series in the 70's and 80's has cooking been so en vogue. Thanks to the over saturation of cable network channels, there's no shortage of cooking-themed television on the air.  Celebrity chefs from Gordon Ramsay to Mario Batali to Bobby Flay .  It should come as no surprise that Ramsay himself is one of the chief consultants for John Wells' chef-centric Burnt, an interesting yet flawed behind-the-scenes look into the finest kitchens in the world.

Burnt stars Bradley Cooper as Adam Jones (no, not THAT Adam Jones, nor THIS one), a two-star Michelin chef who went off the deep-end with substance abuse and is now sober and ready to make a comeback in London. His career goal is to get his third Michelin star and he ends up convincing Tony, a renowned maitre d' who is looking to pump life into his father's investment, to hire him as head chef in a newly renovated restaurant.

Cooper enlists the help of a team of cooks and kitchen experts led by the fiery understudy Helene played by the lovely Sienna Miller.  We see Jones' culinary squad go through highs and lows in responding to the high demand that Jones has in his kitchen.  Cooper does his best Ramsay impression by hurling both full plates of food and F-bombs at his co-workers.  Towards the middle of the film, Jones ends up competing with a rival chef played way over-the-top by The Americans' Matthew Rhys.  The dramatic highlights occur when the kitchen is trying to plate a pristine meal to impress the Michelin food critics who arrive at restaurants around the wold unannounced but with certain "tells" (ordering a half-bottle of wine and leaving a fork on the floor to test the wait staff).

This film ends up providing a solid behind-the-curtain look at the fine-culinary industry.  We see quick-cut scenes of food and detailed chef preparation techniques.  Cooper once again proves his versatility and can play basically any role nowadays.  Miller was competent as the supporting love-interest / eager sous chef.  You can tell she and Cooper have developed a quality chemistry on-screen after appearing in consecutive movies together (American Sniper).  Rush's supremely talented Daniel Bruhl plays the role of Tony and is humorous and engaging at times.  The biggest problem with this movie lies in the overall story.  It really dragged at times and was completely railroaded by the totally unnecessary  introduction of a group of thugs trying to get drug money back from Jones.  The movie score was a little too new age and over the top as well.  We also got some random strange-casting appearances from Uma Thurman as a food critic (she's on screen for basically 3 minutes) and Emma Thompson as Jones' counselor (I feel that an actress of her caliber is too good for this film and her presence was a little distracting).

The overall acting ends up carrying the sub-standard plot and I did like the Michelin-critic angle as well. Despite some consistent flaws, this is an easy movie to watch and you can't help but marvel at the intensity and commitment that Bradley Cooper brings to his work.  A passable 3 out of 5 JRs for Burnt.  Not quite as good as Jon Favreau's Chef but a little bit better than an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Reviews: Room & Bridge of Spies


Room is a small Canadian film staring two relatively unknown actors in which half of the film takes place in a single small room within a garden shed.  It is unique, introspective, thought provoking, harrowing, depressing and a total immersive experience for the audience. Dealing with the horror and weight of abduction and the plight of single-mother parenting totally on her own, it is simply the best movie of 2015 so far and a vehicle to stardom and recognition for it's two young stars.

Emma Donoghue, an Irish-Canadian writer, wrote the novel Room in 2010, telling the story of Joy Newsome (played brilliantly by Brie Larson) who ends up being abducted as a 17 year old and kept prisoner for 7 years in a compact room in the backyard of a maniac in Ohio.  During her time held captive, she gives birth to a child named Jack who spends his first 5 years of his life completely confined to the small space.  The book was written from the perspective of Jack (Canadian actor Jacob Tremblay), but in director Lenny Abrahamson's film adaptation, we are observing the events as a witness, sometimes in the head of Jack, sometimes from Joy's perspective suffering along with them as they attempt to survive in a seemingly helpless situation.

It's not a spoiler to reveal that Joy and Jack do eventually escape the room.  This happens midway through the film and is referenced in the trailer. The film sort of plays out in three acts.  The frustrating isolation of the room, the escape from captivity and reuniting with family, and finally the reacclimation to everyday life which ends up being the most fascinating aspect of the movie.  We have two characters who spent 5 years together in isolation and must now interact with the rest of the world around them.  They relish their newfound freedom but naturally have problems with everyday tasks and communication (especially Jack who has known of no other than his Mom and her kidnapper "Old Nick"). and the experience of being free and living life completely different than the past 7 years.

Seeing these types of stories (like the Ariel Castro kidnapping in Cleveland a few years ago) I feel so much rage at the kidnapper involved.  The role of Old Nick, played by, is a thankless one and Sean Bridgers does a good job of being creepy, awkward and sinister at the same time.  Of course Nick thinks he's the hero in this situation when in reality he is just a demented monster who needs to be locked up (or better yet) put to death.  Seeing Joy and Jack in the room and what they went through you become totally invested in their well being outside the room in the third act.  When they struggle with their issues and communication to their family (including solid turns by William H. Macy and Joan Allen) you feel for them because you were there trapped with them in such a confined space.

The real power and soul of this movie lies with Larson and Tremblay.  Larson is a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination and painfully emotes the struggles she has to deal with in caring for her child while thwarting off the threat of Old Nick.  When she slowly loses it in readjusting to her family life outside the room, we understand all the emotional baggage she's carrying.  Physically and emotionally it will be hard for Larson to exceed what will probably be her career defining performance.  This movie just doesn't work without a competent believable child actor and Tremblay knocks it out of the park.  Asking any actor, let alone an 8-year-old boy (he plays three years younger in the movie) to convey the wonder and discovery of seeing the real world for the first time at age 5 is a task of the highest order.  Somehow, Tremblay nails that sense of amazement in experiencing everything he read about and only saw on TV.  For all his life the only window in the room was a small skylight in the roof.  It's a product of the writing of Donoghue and the genuine portrayal from Tremblay that makes this film so interesting to watch.  If I'm a member of the Academy, I'm not only nominating Tremblay right now for Best Supporting Actor,  I'm giving him the damn award (which would make him the youngest Oscar winner ever).  I don't know if the Academy is ready to nominate an 8 year old but I really hope they do so.

It's a testament to the acting and pacing of this film that I felt glued to my seat throughout and despite seeing it on Sunday night at 9:30 PM, I never felt like I was on the verge of dozing off.  This film pulls you in at the beginning and never lets go.  Yes, it's an awful depressing story that has somewhat of a hopeful ending, but I don't let that affect my judgment of the filmmaking as a whole.  This movie needs to be seen.  Larson and Tremblay need to be honored for their work in making this tragedy so human to witness.  At this point in the movie season, Room is the film to beat for Best Picture in my opinion.  We still have a long way to go but I definitely think at least Brie Larson should be looking at renting her Oscar dress and better start preparing her speech as well.  5 JRs for Room, a completely engrossing story about the love between mother and child against all odds.





I wanted to add another small review of Bridge Of Spies which I saw last week, Steven Spielberg's latest film about the Cold War spy game between the USA, Germany and Russia during the 1950's and 60's. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan an attorney that becomes involved with defending a suspected Russian spy Rudolph Abel (played with a joyously minimal amount of enthusiasm by Mark Rylance).  In the process of representing Abel, Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin and help negotiate the trade of Abel for two Americans held captive by Russia and Germany (one of which is a captured American Spy).

The middle of this film is slow at times but once the spy trade intrigue picks up in the final third, it's classic Spielberg/Hanks magic.  Spielberg is a total pro at using inventive camera angles and managing the pace of the tension that builds before the prisoner exchange.  And here we have Hanks, now a total Hollywood living legend.  He plays the unassuming hero role to a "T" and we really are watching this generation's Jimmy Stewart at work.  When Hanks and Spielberg get together, it's a must-see in my book and this film does not disappoint.

Clever and entertaining throughout, this is one of the better films of the year and earns a 4.5 out of 5 JR rating.