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.

A Walk In The Woods

 

Ever since I read Edward Garvey’s 1972 book about his Appalachian Trail thru-hike several decades ago, I’ve fantasized about hiking the AT. But a thru-hike, from Georgia to Maine, requires a huge chunk of time away from work and family.

Last year’s Wild, which chronicled Cheryl Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, provided vicarious thrills, but that tale was more about a woman’s self-discovery than about her actual hike.

The new film A Walk In The Woods satisfies outdoor adventure desires on many levels, but disappoints on others. Based on the book by humorist/memoirist Bill Bryson, the story walks a fine line (pun intended) between serious quest and chucklefest.

Sadly, the main flaw of A Walk In The Woods is the casting of Robert Redford in the lead role as Bryson. Not because he’s too old for the role (though he probably is), but because he seems to be phoning in his performance. Did he only do the movie to placate his fellow producers?

Happily, the casting of Nick Nolte as Bryson’s long ago acquaintance from Des Moines, Stephen Katz, is a masterful choice. Nolte plays an unkempt recovering alcoholic whose life hasn’t worked out as nicely as Bryson’s. Emma Thompson appears as Mrs. Bryson, playing the role she often plays—a not particularly likable, very British woman.

Bryson’s idea for the expedition, as depicted in the movie, seems like a sudden random urge. (Whereas you or I might give such an undertaking a bit more consideration.)

After a trip to REI for gear (where Nick Offerman makes a so-quick-if-you-blink-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a clerk), this odd couple shoves off from the AT’s start point in Georgia. Episodes along the way include encounters with annoying solo hiker Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a pair of fierce looking bears, a surprise snowstorm and a flirty off-trail motel operator (Mary Steenburgen).

After each episode, Katz tells Bryson, “You’ve got to put that in the book.” Bryson keeps saying he’s not going to write a book about the hike. (Of course, he did.)

Director Ken Kwapis (a man with a deep movie and TV resumé) has crafted a film that’s beautiful to look at and generally enjoyable. I would’ve liked to see more of their story, but 1:44 is long enough for most folks. The film is rated R for language, but is not particularly offensive.

A Walk In The Woods is expected to generate increased hiker traffic on the AT, just as Wild has done for the PCT. My personal desire to hike the full Appalachian Trail will have to wait until my next lifetime, but I’ll be thinking of Bryson and Katz the next time I ascend the bluff at Castlewood Park or traipse through the meadow at Queeny Park.

Saving Mr. Banks

How could Saving Mr. Banks be anything but a home run? The story of a beloved movie musical, featuring a beloved actor portraying a beloved entertainment icon would appear to be a slam dunk, no? Oh, and most of the movie is set in a place that almost all Americans of a certain age have visited or fantasized about visiting.

Sorry to report that Saving Mr. Banks is not a good as one might have expected. The making of Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, set at Disneyland is a tedious story that could have benefited from a more streamlined script. The movie brings some big fun but also is overloaded with the dour disposition of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Walt’s best efforts to charm Travers into letting him make Mary Poppins into a Disney movie are met with strong opposition.

A movie that initially promises light-hearted fun adds in an overly long backstory that reveals why Travers is the way she is. Not that the fun stuff isn’t fun—much of it is. The songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) provide many of the film’s highlights. Travers seems to be slowly warming to the efforts of everybody on the Disney team, including her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti), only to bolt back to London without agreeing to sell the rights to her beloved book Mary Poppins.

The back story, featuring Colin Farrell as her alcoholic father, is set in century-ago Australia. The flashbacks show us the real life inspiration for Mary Poppins, amid circumstances that are definitely not light-hearted.

Eventually, Disney travels to London in a final effort to close the deal. In the climax of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney tries to relate to Travers on a more personal basis. It’s a touching scene and audience tears will be shed.

We know going in, of course, that the film Mary Poppins was made. It was made the way Walt and his team wanted it made. Saving Mr. Banks serves as an excellent promotional tool for the 50th anniversary of Mary Poppins. SMB adds to the legend of Walt Disney and is likely to increase awareness of Walt among younger generations. (There’s plenty of longtime love for the man among boomers.)

Saving Mr. Banks will likely earn Emma Thompson a best actress nomination. She’s great in a mostly unsympathetic role. And, because the industry loves movies about movies, don’t be surprised to see SMB get a best picture nod. Just don’t go to your theater expecting movie magic. It’s a solid film, but it could’ve been much better.

Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures has many positives including charming lead actors and some big names in the supporting cast. But the story is not that good and the outrageous special effects are over the top (not in a good way).

Set in Gatlin, South Carolina, a fictional small town, the movie touches on witchcraft, curses and strange religious practices. A bit of local Civil War lore and trees laden with Spanish moss add to the southern flavor of the film.

The new kid in town, Lena Duchannes, plots to avert the curse which will change her on her rapidly approaching 16th birthday. She’s played by Alice Englert. Alden Erichreich plays Ethan Waite, a high school kid with an engaging smile and tons of charisma. He, of courses, falls hard for Lena.

The cast includes Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis. While their talents are considerable and appreciated, their casting seems odd for a movie that aspires to grab some love from the Twilight crowd, now that that franchise is (supposedly) exhausted. Emmy Rossum, however, as Lena’s older sister is a perfect addition to the company of players.

Beautiful Creatures is an okay teen love story, perfectly timed for a Valentine’s weekend release. And, it’s worth repeating: these two central characters have good chemistry and onscreen charm.

But the paranormal/witchcraft elements in Beautiful Creatures are not as compelling as those seen in other such movies. See this creature feature? Eh, maybe wait for the DVD or the cable run.

 

 

 

 

 

Brave

The story in the newest Pixar movie, “Brave,” is, in some ways, like those in the old Disney fairy tale movies. In one major way, though, “Brave” is very different from the Disney of days gone by: the movie’s central character is a girl. And she’s not some helpless princess. She’s a girl who knows what she wants.

What she wants is to go against the traditions of her kingdom which dictate who she’ll marry. This girl, Merida, a Scottish redhead, has spunk. She is a character whose actions will be embraced by young girls (and maybe even some boys) around the world.

But does this movie break new ground? Most of the Pixar movies have given us imaginative characters like talking cars, talking toys, talking dogs, lovable monsters, etc. “Brave” has characters that could’ve starred in a Disney animated movie 50 years ago. No, it does not break new ground—with the exception of Merida’s feistiness.

Most of the characters have strong Scottish accents but, happily, they all can be clearly understood—with one notable comical exception. The voice cast includes Kelly Macdonald (as Merida), Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane and, of course, John Ratzenberger.

If you go to see “Brave,” you’ll want to stay until the house lights come up. First, to see the list of babies born to crew members during the film’s production—well over 60 for this one—which is traditionally included in the end credits of each Pixar movie. And second, for the brief but funny scene that ties up one of the movie’s loose ends.

Until last year’s overstuffed and tedious “Cars 2,” each Pixar release was a “must see.” Sadly, while “Brave” captures the magic of a bygone Disney era, it is not a step forward for Pixar. It’s a good animated movie but not a “must see.”