Burnt

The world’s obsession with food and the people who cook creatively has led to the third film in 18 months about a chef seeking acclaim and/or redemption. After last year’s Chef and The Hundred Foot Journey, here comes Burnt.

Liked the 2014 films, Burnt is filled with “food porn,” beautiful images of food that will make you hungry. The story is standard fare about overcoming life challenges, learning to trust others, etc.

Most people, when they hit bottom and then get a new chance, come back humbled and grateful. Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is not most people.

After a flameout in Paris, the acclaimed chef returns to Europe clean and sober, yes, but still arrogant. He chastises a rookie cook for being humble and even coaches the kid to get an attitude and say, “F.U.” to his cooking rivals.

He manages to line up a restaurant in London and even puts his name on it, Adam Jones at The Langham. He is a talented tyrant who demands perfection. “If it’s not perfect, throw it out” is his guidance.

Complicating his comeback attempt is a debt Jones owes. A pair of thugs hovering in the wings promise serious damage if Jones doesn’t pay off what he owes for all the drugs he consumed in Paris.

Opening night is a disaster. Slowly, things get better. Is it because of Jones’ intimidation of his kitchen staff or despite it?

After the thugs administer the inevitable beating, Jones bravely heads back to the kitchen. Michelin reps are spotted in the dining room. Their food is so bad it gets sent back. Jones has a breakdown.

Helene (Sienna Miller) is a kitchen staffer who provides Jones’ romantic interest. Their chemistry simmers but rarely reaches the boiling point. (Could it be because of her awful haircut?) Emma Thompson plays a London doctor who Jones visits for drug testing. She dispenses motherly advice along with good cheer. Alicia Vikander is a face from Jones’ Paris past who appears at an opportune moment.

Those of us who love dining at great restaurants rarely go behind the scenes into the kitchens except via TV cooking shows. In Burnt, we get to see Adam Jones in his sparkling clean, beautifully equipped kitchen with plenty of staff to make sure his dishes are perfect. As industry personnel know, when a kitchen is humming smoothly, it’s a beautiful thing.

Burnt challenges audiences to root for Bradley Cooper’s character, whose charm is somewhat muted by his raging ego. If you can embrace Adam Jones and his comeback attempt, you’re more likely to enjoy Burnt.

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Our Brand Is Crisis

Despite its awful title, Our Brand Is Crisis has a few things going for it—mainly, its two stars.

Sandra Bullock is Jane Bodine, a political consultant who is lured to work for losing presidential candidate Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) in Bolivia. Billy Bob Thornton is her rival consultant, Pat Candy, working with the front-running candidate Riviera (Louis Arcella). The consultants have a history between them, going back to a long ago mayoral election in the U.S.

Working with a team from the U.S. (Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan), Bodine decides that Castillo’s message to voters will focus on all the urgent crises the Bolivia faces. She works to make him appear less arrogant, more a “man of the people.”

(The film’s title comes from a 2005 documentary of the same name, which told the story of a real-life Bolivian election consulted by James Carville. Thornton, with a shaved head in OBIC, closely resembles Carville. The screenplay for this new film, by Peter Straughan, was inspired by the decade-ago doc.)

Candy flirts with Bodine but she resists all advances. The sexual tension that might have made the story more interesting is one-sided. Along with verbal jousting between the two, there are dirty tricks that are marginally amusing. A race between two campaign busses down a narrow jungle road provides thrills and a memorable moment of silliness.

Our Brand Is Crisis is a film with a decent setup but a lackluster payoff. The mix of drama and light comedy could’ve been dialed a bit more to the funny side. Also, a couple of elements on the serious side rang completely inauthentic.

To director David Gordon Green (who directed stoner films Pineapple Express and Your Highness), I say, “Nice try. Do better next time.”

Room

Room is the kind of film some will not find appealing. The subject matter is rough. But superlative acting and a hopeful outlook are good reasons to see and appreciate Room, a movie that will certainly garner multiple award nominations.

Joy (Brie Larson) is a prisoner in a shed she calls Room. It’s in a backyard behind a home in a normal American urban neighborhood. She was captured when she was 17. Larson offers one of the bravest performances seen in some time. Extreme close-ups of her unmade-up face reveal the raw sadness of her situation. Yet, because of her son, she maintains a glimmer of optimism.

Her son is Jack (Jacob Tremblay), fathered by the man holding her captive, a man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Jack is a bright 5-year-old with a great spirit. His knowledge of the outside world is limited to what his mother tells him and what he sees on a TV with bad reception. This child will touch your emotions.

Their existence is dispiriting. A toilet, a bathtub, a sink, a toaster oven, a space heater, a bed, a lamp or two and… that’s about it. A skylight above lets in a bit of daylight.

Jack pretends to be asleep in the wardrobe when Old Nick visits for his assignations with his captive.

Joy cooks up a bold plan to get the two of them out of Room. With Jack’s help, it works.

The grim circumstance of life in Room is unimaginable. But director Lenny Abrahamson, working from Emily Donoghue’s script, makes the minimal living space real. Life after the escape from Room is challenging to all in different ways.

The adjustment to the outside world is especially difficult for Joy. Her divorced parents Bob (William H. Macy) and Nancy (Joan Allen) are initially supportive, but dad can’t abide the situation. Mom and her boyfriend Leo (Tom McCamus) work to get Joy and Jack back on track.

Larson’s talent was revealed in 2013’s acclaimed but generally unseen Short Term 12. She was Amy Schumer’s sister in this summer’s Trainwreck. Her work in Room has already stirred up Oscar talk. And it’s not out of the question that the 8-year-old Tremblay could be up for awards season glory.

Room may be too grim for some moviegoers to check out, but it’s likely to reinforce faith in the human spirit for all who see it. To maintain hope in the face of such a terrible situation is moving and inspiring.

Truth

Truth is one version of the truth. The story comes via CBS producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) who was fired in 2004 for her role in a Sixty Minutes report that the network later admitted was inaccurate. The incident also took down longtime CBS anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford).

The film has a message for all journalists: Even if you have a great story, even if the story is true, you must do a good job of confirming your facts.

Did George W. Bush skip out on his Air National Guard duties in the early 70s? Mapes had information that he did. In Truth, she and her team (including Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid and Elisabeth Moss) work to find people who will go on the record about Bush’s alleged malfeasance.

When retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett (a sickly looking Stacy Keach) produces memos from back-in-the-day and another military man confirms their validity in a phone call, Mapes and Rather decide the story is ready for air.

In short order there are accusations that the memos are not legit. First, it is right wing bloggers who challenge them. Later, ABC News expresses doubts that they are authentic.

The CBS eye blinks at the rancor and Dan Rather issues an on-air apology for having aired the story. After a CBS internal investigation, Mapes is canned and Rather is allowed to resign.

Cate Blanchett’s Mapes is a conflicted woman. She wants to defend her team’s story, despite the holes in the reporting. Yet she also wants to keep her job. She is passionate when chasing the story and angry when the story implodes. Redford delivers a robust performance and captures Rather’s TV charisma. (After his lackluster work in A Walk In The Woods, it is nice to see Redford back on his game.)

But there is a major deceit in Truth. It is implied that Mapes and Rather had no political motive in airing the story. If you believe that they were not looking to knock the incumbent down a notch just two months before the 2004 election, I can get you a great deal on the Poplar Street Bridge.

The cozy relationship between CBS parent Viacom and government gets called out in an impassioned speech by Grace’s character. It is not news that the feds have regulated the airwaves since the beginning of commercial broadcasting. The speech purports to shed light but comes off as sour grapes from a person about to be escorted from the building.

Truth is a well-made bit of storytelling and an entertaining chronicle of how NOT to do journalism. Any good reporter knows that a film that names itself Truth must be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. The fact that the production company for Truth is Mythology Entertainment (true) is only appropriate.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is like a stage play. The movie is filled with speeches delivered with more passion in the film than one would imagine they might have been in real life. Those speeches are also likely more eloquent than were their real-life antecedents.

The script is by Aaron Sorkin whose screenwriting includes The Social Network, Moneyball and A Few Good Men. Sorkin loosely adapted his screenplay from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, published shortly after the death of the Apple giant.

The film is brilliantly directed by Danny Boyle. He includes cinematic elements—split-second flashbacks are particularly effective—but gives his actors plenty of room to shine.

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is a man with a narrow focus: his products and their introductions to the world. He has difficulty with personal relationships. He is an egotistical perfectionist who is concerned about design as well as function of his products. He also is obsessed with his own public image and his legacy.

The story is told in three acts, each preceding a product launch: in 1984, the MacIntosh; in the late 80s, the NeXT “black cube” computer; in the late 90s, the iMac.

Jobs interacts throughout the film with Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple’s marketing chief. She is the one person who is rarely intimidated by Jobs and, of necessity, is able to abide his casual disregard for other humans.

Jobs’ Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) has cashed in his chips but hovers on the perimeter, seeking acknowledgement from Jobs for the Apple II computer. Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) who Jobs recruited for the position has a respectful but sometimes tempestuous relationship with Steve.

Three young women portray Jobs’ daughter Lisa, most notably Perla Haney-Jardine as the oldest version, at age 19. The evolving storyline involving his daughter makes Jobs seem like less of a selfish jerk.

Steve Jobs is not a bio-pic. The 2013 film Jobs, starring Aaron Kutcher in the title role, came closer to being a life story but it stopped at 2001. Click HERE to read my review of that earlier film. A documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine was released last month and is available on demand from iTunes and Amazon.

The actors, screenwriter and director of the new film create a close-up view of the man, his vision, his drive and his many flaws. The music of Daniel Pemberton adds to the tension and gives the scenes momentum. It’s an interesting and entertaining way to look at this intriguing visionary.

Rock The Kasbah

Goofy Bill Murray. It’s an act America has laughed at since his SNL days and Rock The Kasbah delivers a heaping helping. This amusing movie has a feel-good redemption factor, but the reason to see Rock The Kasbah is Murray being Murray.

Richie Lanz (Murray) is a small time L.A. talent agent who may or may not have been somebody at one time. His office is in a motel in Van Nuys. In the opening scene he signs to rep a singer of questionable talent after she agrees to pay him $1,200 upfront.

When his act Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) is booked as an opening act on a U.S.O. tour of bases in Afghanistan, Richie flies with her to Kabul. After Ronnie bails and takes his money, Richie pals around with two Americans (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) who are selling weapons on the down low.

At a club in a sketchy part of town, Lanz meets a gorgeous hooker (Kate Hudson) who develops affection for Richie.

When Lanz escorts a weapons delivery to a remote village he hears a young woman (Leem Lubany) singing in a cave and finagles a way to bring her to Kabul to sing on Afghan Star, an American Idol copy. This does not sit well with her father (Fahim Fazli), a man with a menacing glare, but Lanz attempts to smooth over the angst.

Yes, Rock the Kasbah has a convoluted plot that goes in multiple directions. The pace of RTK bogs down a bit around its midway point before powering up to a big finish.

Rock the Kasbah has a cool soundtrack, but does not include Rock The Casbah by The Clash! There are a couple of versions of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home, plus Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door and Zooey’s version of Meredith Brooks’ Bitch. Murray entertains native Afghans with a goofy rendition of Smoke on the Water.

Bruce Willis appears as a mercenary who’s looking for something big to happen that will fuel sales of the book he intends to write.

Rock The Kasbah is not as strong a movie as last year’s Murray starrer St. Vincent. That movie had heart. And a cute kid.

But if you enjoy Bill Murray as his charming goofiest, Rock The Kasbah satisfies.

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak, the new film from director Guillermo del Toro, covers multiple genres. It’s a period piece romance with gorgeous costumes. It’s also a suspenseful horror film with an assortment of creepy ghosts and cringe-worthy gore.

And what an amazing setting! Most of the movie’s action takes place in a huge mansion in rural England. Allerdale Hall is old and damaged. Snow falls into the house through the huge hole in the roof. Secrets and ghosts abound in this enormous home.

Central character Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer who is haunted by ghosts, living in Buffalo a century ago. A mysterious British stranger, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), calls on Edith’s businessman father (Jim Beaver) to obtain financing for his clay-mining machine. Thomas’s travelling partner is his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

Edith’s dad refuses to invest in the Thomas’s device. Thomas waltzes with Edith at a society event and Edith begins to fall for him. Dad, smelling a rat, pays Thomas and his sister to leave town. This would clear the way for Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) to pursue longtime acquaintance Edith.

As the Sharpe siblings prepare to leave Buffalo, Edith’s dad is killed in a grisly murder. Edith halts the Sharpe’s exodus and soon marries Tom and joins him and sis at Allerdale Hall. That’s when the weird stuff really gets going.

Who are the ghosts? What is the history of Allerdale Hall? Why can’t Edith have a house key? What’s in that tea being served to Edith? What’s the real story behind Thomas and Lucille? What’s going on in the basement? What’s in those tubes in the closet? Who or what is Enola? What’s the cause of those red spots in the snow outside?

Mia Wasikowska as the smitten but confused bride Edith plays it both ways. The ghosts that haunt her life cause her to proceed cautiously but the strange things she sees and hears in the house stimulate her curiosity. She has to investigate.

Hiddleston with his face that’s shaped like a caricature and Wasikowska with her pale countenance are perfectly cast. As Lucille, Chastain’s character is a wild card, one who is not to be trusted.

As the mystery unfolds and secrets are revealed, Crimson Peak turns out to be a movie that cannot be described simply. Guillermo del Toro combines the genres to bring a film full of memorable visuals, memorable characters and general creepiness. Perfect for the Halloween season!

Bridge of Spies

With the pedigree Bridge of Spies possesses, it’s no surprise that this is solid filmmaking. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by the Coen brothers (with Matt Charman). Starring Tom Hanks.

Filled with memorable scenes depicting the times and specific events of the Cold War era, Bridge of Spies is an “inspired by true events” tale of the competition and distrust between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

James Donovan (Hanks) is an attorney in New York chosen in 1957 by his boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) who is charged by the U.S. with espionage. Watters and Donovan presume he’s guilty, but agree to provide competent counsel. When the verdict is conviction, Donovan privately lobbies the judge against a death sentence for Abel, suggesting that the spy may be of greater value to U.S. interests if he is kept alive.

A few years later, after U.S. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austen Stowell) is shot down over the U.S.S.R. and taken prisoner, the U.S. offers to swap Abel for Powers. Donovan is chosen to make the deal.

In East Berlin, shortly after the wall has been erected, Donovan overplays his hand, leading to the story’s tense climax on the real-life Glienicke Bridge.

The events and people in the story are real. The details of the story may be subject to what David Letterman referred to as “writer’s embellishment,” which frequently happens in retellings of history.

The late 50s/early 60s time period is recalled in Bridge of Spies with vintage cars, men wearing hats, lots of smoking, women only in supportive work positions and school kids being taught to duck and cover.

Tom Hanks helps cement his reputation as a bastion of American honesty and fairness, as well as a respected hero. Hanks has been compared to Jimmy Stewart, who generally played good guys who represented American values to moviegoers. Hanks’ Bridge of Spies role is meatier than a typical Stewart role.

Bridge of Spies clocks in around 2:20 but the story never drags. Even the delays in negotiating the prisoner swap only add to the narrative. Yes, Spielberg has made flashier movies, but Bridge of Spies is excellent, entertaining storytelling.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

National Lampoon—the magazine and its spinoffs—helped set America’s comedy agenda for the latter part of the 20th century.

In Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon, the main players in the saga—the ones who are still alive—share insight into what made it a big deal in the 70s and beyond. Director Douglas Tirola and his crew have assembled a stylish, quick-moving documentary that is far more than just a stroll down memory lane.

Co-founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard shopped their idea around to magazine publishers in New York but got no takers until Marty Simmons stepped up to deliver investment money. Kenney and Beard included a provision in the deal that their 25% interest would be bought out in five years. This provision made both men rich at an early age.

The magazine had early troubles. An inconsistent graphic style and a lack of quality advertisers threatened its success. A new graphic designer and an important ad buy from José Cuervo led to increases in subscribers and revenue.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon details outside projects beyond the magazine: the National Lampoon Radio Dinner comedy album, the stage parody of Woodstock called Lemmings, the National Lampoon Radio Hour and the Animal House and Vacation movies. Interestingly, it is revealed that NBC called to ask if they wanted to participate in the TV show that became Saturday Night Live, but Lampoon passed. (Many of its alumni became part of the SNL cast and crew.)

DSBD features sound bites from magazine staffers as well as persons involved in the Lampoon story, along with those who were influenced by the work: P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Chevy Chase, Judd Apatow, John Landis, Tim Matheson, Kevin Bacon and others. Along with these comments Tirola presents a huge sampling of Lampoon content, such as the classic cover featuring the man who led a massacre in Vietnam, U.S. Army Lt. William Calley, as Mad’s Alfred E. Newman with the caption “What, Me Lai?”

DSBD offers tribute to those who fall into the Dead category including Michael O’Donoghue, John Hughes, John Belushi and, especially, Doug Kenney.

I was a National Lampoon subscriber for much of the 70s and am familiar with how outrageous the magazine was. The underlying truth of this shameless material was… it was hilarious! I enjoyed a nostalgic rush revisiting Foto Funnies, Son O’ God comics, the John Lennon parody on Radio Dinner, among other bits.

Henry Beard refers to an “attic” of postwar American culture and says, “we basically looted it.” Lampoon’s success came from ripping holes in popular culture and in the sacred counterculture. Dead Stoned Brilliant Dead chronicles an era of humor whose influence is still strong. Baby Boomers may be the prime audience for the film, but Gen-Xers and Millenials will enjoy seeing what brought us all to where we are today.

The Martian

Is there such a thing as too much comic relief? Yes, and The Martian is plagued by it.

The Martian has a heck of a story. A NASA mission to Mars chooses to begin its journey home to Earth hurriedly as a giant storm stirs on the red planet. One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is blown away by the high winds and left for dead as the others blast off for home.

But, wait! Watney’s not quite dead. He heads back into the Mars mission habitat the next day and evaluates his chances of surviving until the next NASA Mars mission occurs. He constructs an indoor potato farm to provide an ongoing food source and makes other accommodations to stay alive.

Meanwhile, the NASA crew in Houston (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and others) eulogizes Watney but soon realizes that he is still alive. Watney manages to communicate, crudely at first, with the crew back on Earth.

As the other members of the departed Mars crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara) hurdle through space on the long journey home, they learn that Watney is alive and that he does not blame them for abandoning him.

Will Watney stay alive? Will NASA rescue him? Will NASA send him food and supplies? Will NASA move up the next scheduled MARS mission? How will Mark Watney’s story end? The tension builds. But each time it begins to crescendo, here comes the comic relief.

The funny stuff IS amusing. But it lightens the mood a bit too much, in my opinion. (This was an issue with 2013’s Gravity where George Clooney’s jokey character seemed more like the real-life Clooney than a believable astronaut. In 2000’s Cast Away, a similarly stranded Tom Hanks had some lighter moments—notably with a volleyball—but the underlying peril level was maintained throughout his ordeal.)

The Martian looks great, particularly in 3D. It is directed by one of our best directors, Ridley Scott. Matt Damon, as usual, is solid in the title role. The script is by Drew Goddard from the popular novel by Andy Weir. (That’s the one that started in 2011 with the author sharing one chapter at a time online, followed by a Kindle version, followed by publication in hardcover last year.)

The Martian comes close to being a home run, but doesn’t quite clear the fence. It’s a solid three-bagger, however, and that is not a bad thing. (Baseball is on our minds these days here in St. Louis.)