REVIEW: Burnt

14 11 2015

BurntBradley Cooper is among the most interesting American actors working today, so it’s a shame that he chose such an uninteresting project like “Burnt” at perhaps the apex of his stardom. For the man who was a crucial part in powering the first non-tentpole film to the top of the yearly box office since 1998, such a conventional tale told with little panache cannot help but disappoint.

That’s not to say that “Burnt” is empty of any merit or entertainment, though. In fact, it plays at around the same register as “Aloha,” Cooper’s unfairly savaged starring vehicle from earlier in 2015. John Wells’ film and Steven Knight’s script produce modest results from a modest effort, where Cameron Crowe went all out only to wind up with a mixed bag of failures and successes. Either way, the fact that Bradley Cooper can emerge from these two movies untarnished by their narrative struggles further attests to his place in the pantheon of his generation’s finest actors.

Perhaps someone could psychoanalyze Bradley Cooper to determine what keeps bringing him back to these stories of redemption. In 2005, he starred in an ill-fated TV comedy called “Kitchen Confidential” as a star chef seeking a comeback after personal issues put his career in jeopardy. In 2012, he changed the way most audiences in “Silver Linings Playbook” as Pat Solitano, a bipolar man seeking to put his life back together after a meltdown gets him institutionalized.

Four Oscar nominations later, in 2015, Cooper still seems to feel some need to prove himself through the character of Adam Jones in “Burnt,” a chef seeking a coveted third Michelin star in London after drug and alcohol abuse wrecked his last restaurant. (Sound familiar?) Jones is loud, brash and kind of a nightmare to handle. But he swaggers about with such authority that a crack team of cooks with global roots lines up to endure his abuse and work with him.

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REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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SAVE YOURSELF from “The Company Men”

24 03 2012

It must be tough to make a movie about unemployment after “Up in the Air.”  After Jason Reitman’s film so ingeniously brought employees who had actually been downsized in front of the camera to tell their stories, it felt to me like there was no other way to ever achieve the same candid honesty.  I can imagine writer/director John Wells, who had to premiere his film “The Company Men” at Sundance only a month after Reitman’s hit theaters, probably muttered a few expletives under his breath when he realized he had to compete with it.

Yes, it does portray in pretty clear detail the effects of the 2008 financial collapse on the hard-working employee, but did it really pick the right protagonist?  Granted I really don’t care for Ben Affleck unless he’s behind the camera, yet his Bobby Walker is suffering a crisis of luxury, not one of necessity.  Is that the story of the recession?  Tears shed over selling the Porsche and spousal fights over the country club membership.  You would think that having to move back in with his parents temporarily was equivalent to moving below the poverty line.

When it’s not indulging us with the sob stories of siblings sharing beds (when the children who were really affected by the recession were sleeping on the floor), it’s giving us another indictment of post-too big to fail corporate America a la “Margin Call” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  We get it, Hollywood, you think the corporate world is full of sleazes like Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) who will actually say he works for the shareholders and not for the good of his employees.  The man can’t even muster up any sympathy when one of his longest-tenured staffers commits the most clichéd act of desperation in film!

Depression is a sentiment a movie needs to earn to be justified, and “The Company Men” ultimately just wallows in self-pity rather than putting its stark depiction of a catastrophic time in American history to good use.  When a protagonist seriously considers underemployment as a long-term alternative, then I start to question a film’s social compass.  Yes, psychological satisfaction is important from your vocation … but does it balance with the intrinsic disappointment from not realizing your own sense of worth and potential?  Such a decline in our guiding philosophy might be one of the sadder aspects of the recession.