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: Pawn Sacrifice

21 09 2015

Pawn SacrificeThe tortured, abrasive genius has gotten a lot of play recently – the 2014 Toronto Film Festival alone saw the premiere of “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” all of which played with these tropes to some degree.  The final of the three is the last to see release because it is the most conventional of the bunch and thus the most boring.

Picture “A Beautiful Mind” sans any beauty and you’ll arrive at Edward Zwick’s biopic on Bobby Fischer.  So, in other words, just “A Mind.”  Tobey Maguire stars as Fischer, a chess whiz who also happens to harbor serious mental health issues that convince him the Jewish people are conspiring to bring him down.  (Never mind that Fischer himself was Jewish.)

After some obligatory introductory scenes that set up Fischer as a prodigy from his youth, the majority of the film concerns his 1972 match against Soviet heavyweight Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber).  Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight want you to believe that this is the thinking man’s version of the 1980 Miracle on Ice – “World War III on a chessboard,” as one observer calls it.  Yet for something supposedly so important, “Pawn Sacrifice” feels like it has remarkably low stakes and tension.

Part of that comes from investing so much energy in Fischer’s supposed mental deterioration, which Maguire plays like a histrionic marionette.  We can see the strings, so nothing can really surprise us about the turns Fischer takes.  Any more exposition would have made the film intolerable, but it might have been necessary to contextualize his genius.  Without that, the whole film feels played at the intensity of an emotional meltdown in “Spider-Man.”

But a lot of the film’s dullness is due to Zwick’s direction, which is so tasteful that it forgets to entertain or engage.  It’s hard to believe “Pawn Sacrifice” comes from the same man who directed great historical films like 1989’s “Glory” and 2006’s “Blood Diamond.”  This film just feels remarkably drained of any intensity, something it desperately needed in order to make a convincing case that the man and the event depicted are worthy of our time and attention.  C / 2stars


11 08 2014

LockeLondon Film Festival, 2013

There’s no denying that a one-man show is a tough feat to pull off, so all props to Tom Hardy for holding the screen so effortlessly in “Locke.”  It takes true presence to power a film with no one else to play off physically, and Hardy keeps us strapped in for the real-time ride with him.

From no more than phone conversations, Hardy constructs a character who is far more than his surface roles of vital construction contractor and family man.  His Locke is a decent man who made a mistake and is trying to face the consequences while still keeping his world in orbit.  But he quickly finds out that maintaining balance will be a much loftier task than he initially expects.

We’re locked in the car with Locke (couldn’t resist the pun) as he drives from Birmingham towards a reckoning in London, alternating conversations with his boss, his wife, and another figure of great importance whose precise role I shall not spoil.  Unlike a similarly claustrophobic “127 Hours,” there are no cutaways, no flashbacks: it’s just this moment, and we’re trapped in it.

Director Steven Knight keeps the voyage visually interesting, finding just about every possible shot and angle of Hardy and the highway.  There’s something vaguely hypnotic about the way he captures the peculiar lighting of the road at night, and it imbues the film with an aesthetic calm that clashes interestingly with the big turmoil Locke is facing.

Yet I couldn’t escape this sinking feeling that “Locke,” for all the novelty of its packaging, was really just a rehash of very familiar dramatic stakes.  The issues and problems Locke wrestles with behind the wheel of his car feel like they’ve been played out before, and frequently.  No matter how you slice it, a banality is a banality.

Hardy and Knight do their best to freshen up the stale material, and they provide a smooth, slick experience.  But they don’t elevate “Locke” above the level where its narrative runs on anything more than gimmickry.  B2halfstars