BURNT (2015)

October 30, 2015

burnt Greetings again from the darkness. This one is not just for all you foodies out there – though there is plenty to digest for those who fancy themselves as some hoity-toity chef to the rich and famous. Don’t go in expecting a “How to Cook” seminar. Instead, simmer down and prep yourself for a serving of massive ego topped with arrogance and a side of narcissism. Blend those ingredients into one character, and this chef somehow remains likable … when played by Bradley Cooper.

Enough with the cooking terms, but let’s heap more praise on Mr. Cooper. When first we meet his character Adam Jones, he is readying himself to bounce back after self-destructing his career as a two-star Michelin chef in Paris. He simply walks out the door of the Louisiana diner where he has been serving his self-imposed penance … shelling 1 million raw oysters, each one recorded in his pocket notebook. This provides our first glimpse into the obsessive-compulsive personality of Adam, and helps explain how he has managed to kick his drug, alcohol, and women addictions. Feeling refreshed and on a mission to garner that rarified third Michelin star, Adam begins assembling his team in London and encouraging his old co-worker Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) to entrust him with his restaurant.

We can’t actually taste the magnificent food that’s served on screen, but the colors and textures are a kaleidoscope to our eyes. The movie is beautiful to look at. The restaurant dining rooms are showplaces, the kitchens are pristine, and the customers are mostly dressed like runway models. On top of that, Bradley Cooper and Alicia Vikander (in a small role) are two of the grand champions in the gene pool sweepstakes. All of that beauty is balanced out by the quest for perfection and lack of interpersonal skills displayed by Chef Adam. It’s not until his star pupil Helene (Sienna Miller) shows him another way, does Adam even start to resemble a human being.

Drug dealers, old flames, a therapist (Emma Thompson), an arch rival (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), an unrequited one-way love, a deceased mentor, a ridiculously cute kid (Lexi Benbow-Hart, sporting hair that would make Julia Roberts envious), and a wronged co-worker (Omar Sy) combine to add plenty of action. Even the quick cut shots in the kitchen manage to make grilling onions and carving a fish interesting.

Never digging too deep, director John Wells (August: Osage County) delivers an entertaining movie with wide appeal, and a message of teamwork and family. The story is from Michael Kalesniko and the script from Steven Knight (who also wrote last year’s Michelin star-centered The Hundred-Foot Journey). The dialogue is sharp enough to deliver some laughs, though the element of danger doesn’t really work, and a couple of times it teeters on gooey melodrama. It doesn’t reach the level of Mostly Martha (2002), and is a tick behind last year’s Chef (Jon Favreau), but it may offer the most creative lesson yet in how best to serve a dish of revenge. It’s a tasty enough treat for those in the mood for an entertaining movie and an endless stream of pretty things to look at.

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SAMBA (France, 2015)

July 30, 2015

samba Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano delivered one of the best movies of 2012 with The Intouchables, and reunite to adapt a novel from Delphine Coulin. It’s another “odd couple” story, this time focusing on Samba (Omar Sy) and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The familiar blend of drama and comedy is present, and the French immigration process takes a few shots.

Omar Sy exploded on the scene in The Intouchables and again proves what a tremendous screen presence he has. However this time his turn is mostly dramatic, while the bulk of the comedy arrives courtesy of his friend Wilson (played by Tahar Rahim from A Prophet). Ten years ago, Samba immigrated to France from Senegal, and has been sending money home ever since. A police incident leaves Samba in danger of being deported, and he receives help from Alice, an inexperienced immigration worker who is dealing with her own issues … she’s a hard core corporate burn out (hide your cell phone fellas!).

Given the subject matter, the film is much funnier and pleasant to watch than one might expect. The actors listed above, along with Izia Higelin as another immigration worker, are all wonderful and interesting to watch as their characters struggle through the hand they’ve been dealt. Samba and Wilson steal moments of joy while living in constant fear of being discovered, while Alice is borderline depressive and insomniac. She and Samba spend much of the movie in clumsy flirtations while their stressful situations swirl around. It’s awkward to watch, but we do find ourselves hoping things work out for each of them.

A very promising opening sequence contrasts the attendees of a high-dollar wedding with the working class of those in the kitchen- of which Samba is one. Unfortunately, this contrast is mostly hinted at for the rest of the film, except for one terrific “back and forth/ him and her” segment. The best guess is that there is an outstanding dramatic story hidden by the overuse of comedy. While the laughs are legitimate and appreciated, the film leaves us feeling a bit empty, given the lack of information and insight we take away in regards to French immigration.

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JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

June 21, 2015

jurassic world Greetings again from the darkness. I’m guessing that most anyone who enjoys movies and is at least 30 years old, has vivid recollections of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park from1993 (based on the Michael Crichton novel). The iconic theme from John Williams, that initial awe-inspiring look at the dinosaurs grazing in the valley, the reminder that “objects are closer than they appear” in side mirrors, and the late Sir Richard Attenborough stating that he “spared no expense” in creating the park … all merged to became part of an incredibly moving and huge new movie theatre experience.  This latest (and fourth in the franchise) offers us “big”, but very little “new”, and unfortunately nothing very “moving” in its presentation.

Set two decades after the tragic and messy park trial run of that original movie, we find Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help) managing the financially-challenged theme park owned by Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi). Chris Pratt is training Velociraptors, while BD Wong is cooking up hybrid and genetically modified monsters such as Indominus Rex – designed to excite the audiences who have become bored with an old-fashioned T-Rex.

Even though this is technically a sequel, there are numerous similarities to the original film, and a fun parlor game consists of spotting all the homage’s and tributes sprinkled throughout. Two of my favorites are the “Winston’s” shop in the park, and the ViewMaster shot early on. These two are tips of the cap to Stan Winston and Ray Harryhausen … two giants in the world of special effects.

In what has become the Hollywood “go to” for evil-doers, the secret plan to militarize the dinosaurs is being carried out by Vincent D’Onofrio. Of course, this clashes with Pratt’s ideal life for “his” trainees. The mandatory kids-in-peril are played by Ty Simpkins (Insidious) and Nick Robinson. Much has been made of the absurdity of Ms. Howard’s numerous scenes of sprinting in high heels, and I found her overall demeanor to be every bit as exaggerated and unbelievable as her actions in heels. Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl) and Omar Sy (so wonderful in The Intouchables) were the most “real” characters, though neither was given much to do.

Much of what is written here is “in comparison” to the original. While this may not be fair, it is inescapable when dealing with such a respected and iconic film. Youngsters unfamiliar with the original film, are likely to find this one exciting – even terrifying at times – and that’s an important distinction to make. The Mosasaurus alone is worth the price of admission … and good for a few nightmares!  And who among us wouldn’t pay up for a Baby Triceratops ride in the Petting Zoo?

For the Jurassic Park stalwarts, the inconsistent (sometimes great, sometimes fake-looking) CGI will be as tough to overlook as Ms. Howard’s cartoon character. And yes, composer Michael Giacchino is new to the Jurassic series, and he is wise enough to work in the terrific and familiar John Williams theme in more than one scene.  However, none of the downsides will keep the true fans away, and there is an entire generation of kids who should have the chance to marvel at lifelike dinosaurs on the big screen courtesy of director Colin Trevorrow (previously known for his work on the indie gem Safety Not Guaranteed).

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THE INTOUCHABLES (France, 2011)

June 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes acting elevates material to a level far beyond what a film might have otherwise deserved. Such is the case with this based-on-a-true-story effort from co-writers and co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Despite the elements of truth, the core material here is a sentimental tale that seems quite familiar. Francois Cluzet (from the excellent thriller Tell No One) as Philippe and Omar Sy as Driss turn it into an extremely entertaining story with characters we quickly connect with.

Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic widower who is interviewing candidates for a caregiver. Driss is a recently released from jail street hustler who is just trying to qualify for state benefits by going on the required interviews. Philippe is struck by Driss’ direct approach and energy level, and chooses Driss over the room full of more qualified types.

The rest of the movie is really a buddy flick where the polar opposites bring much to the other. Philippe slyly gets Driss to use his sharp mind a bit more effectively, and Driss taps into Philippe’s hidden lust for life. Though the supporting cast is strong, the film’s best scenes are those featuring Philippe and Driss.

This is a film from France and much as been made of the filmmakers’ decision to change the caregiver from the real life Arab to a more cinema-friendly Black man. The Earth, Wind & Fire dance may be a bit too much, but I choose to believe the casting of Omar Sy was the deciding factor, not his race. He lights up the screen and draws us right into his world and his choices – some of which are better than others.

The film shares much with The Sea Inside, Scent of a Woman, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this one has much more humor and bonding than any of those. It doesn’t shy away from the melodramatic moments and isn’t above trying to generate tears in viewers. There will be a U.S. re-make of this one, but the two lead actors here (especially Mr. Sy) make this one worth seeing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thought all buddy movies were over-the-top laugh fests or cop flicks OR you appreciate the small scope of French films (that’s a compliment)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a subtitled French film featuring a rich guy in a wheelchair trusting a street thug to drive his Maserati seems a bit far-fetched

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