Burnt


A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brûhl, Emma Thompson, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Henry Goodman, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Uma Thurman, Lexi Benbow-Hart, Alicia Vikander, Lily James, Sarah Greene, Bo Bene, Elisa Lasowski, Julian Firth, Martin Trenaman, Esther Adams. Directed by John Wells

The pursuit of excellence often becomes an obsession with perfection. It can often be a journey that becomes a nightmare of excess, fueled by drugs, sex and ego and lead one down to oblivion. Coming back from that can be nearly impossible.

But that’s the task before Adam Jones (Cooper). Once a two-star Michelin chef in Paris, this American enfant terrible of the French culinary world was a bad boy living the fast life, driven to get that final third Michelin star but so lost in both his own ambition, a relationship with his mentor’s daughter (Vikander) and an escalating drug habit that a spectacular meltdown lost him everything.

Two years of sobriety later, having worked shucking a million oysters in New Orleans, he’s ready to resume his tilt and decides that opening up a restaurant at a prestigious London hotel would be the ticket. It so happens that Tony (Brûhl), the son of an old friend and perhaps the best maître’d in Europe has such a restaurant that could use an infusion of the buzz that comes from having a celebrity chef. Tony is reluctant, given Adam’s volatile temperament but eventually gives in.

Adam sets to putting together a “dream team” for this restaurant, bringing in a Michel (Sy), a sous chef he wronged in Paris but who has since forgiven him and Helene (Miller) who is a raw talent that Adam thinks can become great. She comes with a precocious daughter Lily (Benbow-Hart) who is as tough as any food critic when it comes to her meals.

Adam turns out to be a martinet in the kitchen, screaming in the faces of his staff and so obsessed with perfection that he forces Helene to apologize to a fish because of a minor mistake in cooking it. Eventually though he manages to get his act together and soon his kitchen is humming along like a well-oiled machine. However, there are complications; he owes a large debt to drug dealers that he won’t let Tony pay for him and they are getting increasingly insistent on getting their money. He also is falling in love with Helene, who is developing strong feelings for him as well.

But things come to a head when the Michelin inspectors come and Adam faces an unexpected turn of events, sending him spiraling back down a road that he has sworn he wouldn’t take again. Can even the great Adam Jones fix a meal gone this bad?

Cooper, who at one point in his life aspired to being a chef himself, makes an excellent Adam Jones. Cooper is one of Hollywood’s most likable actors but he has to play a very unlikable character in the uber-driven Adam. His kitchen tantrums and occasionally manipulative tactics can sometimes leave a sour taste in one’s mouth but Adam isn’t a bad person per se, and we do get to see the humanity of the man peeking through at unexpected moments.

The rest of the cast is solid as you’d expect of a cast with this kind of international caliber. Miller, who worked with Cooper on American Sniper, retains the chemistry the two enjoyed on that film here. Thompson, who has a small role as Adam’s therapist, shines as she always does and Rhys also has a meaty role as a rival chef. I particularly liked Sy, however; the big French actor has never turned in a subpar performance that I can recall and even though he seems to be on a supporting role treadmill at the moment, I foresee some big things in his future.

The problem I have with Burnt is that the predictability of the story. Other than one major twist, there’s pretty much a Screenwriting 101 feel to the plot. There’s even the precocious kid that exists for no other reason than because precocious kids always show up in movies like this. Not that Benbow-Hart isn’t anything but good in her role, it’s just that the character is extraneous. Does Helene really need to be a single mom? No, she just needs to be single. Her motherhood adds nothing to the emotional resonance of the film.

There’s plenty of food porn and I will say that if you’re hungry going in chances are you’re going to have a craving for some good food and it isn’t a stretch to say that you’ll probably leave the theater (or your couch if you are reading this after it makes it to home video) hungry and not for fast food either; for a sit down meal in a place that has tablecloths and waiters and most importantly, delicious food. We can all use a good meal from time to time. As a movie, I would place this more as casual dining more than fine dining, but it does strike a chord nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper and Miller have real chemistry. Plenty of food porn. Nicely paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable story. Too-cute kid syndrome. Too many unnecessary subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper patterned his in-kitchen demeanor on that of Gordon Ramsey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingdom of Shadows

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Toast


Helena Bonham Carter's Mad Men audition didn't go as planned.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Mad Men audition didn’t go as planned.

(2010) Biographical Drama (W2 Media) Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty, Colin Prockter, Frasier Huckle, Kia Pegg, Rielly Newbold, Roger Walker, Rob Jarvis, Amy Marston, Selina Cadell, Louise Mardenborough, Corinne Wicks, Marion Bailey, Tracey Wilkinson, Claire Higgins. Directed by S.J. Clarkson

There is an old saying that says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Personally, I don’t buy it; the way to a man’s heart is through a place lower in the anatomy, if you get my drift. Still, if you can keep a man well-fed, you have a decent shot at keeping a man once you’ve got him.

For young Nigel Slater (Kennedy), life in the late 50s/early 60s in England is blissful although flavorless. His Dad (Stott) is a factory manager with a grumpy temperament; his mom (Hamilton) sweet as can be although she has one flaw – she can’t cook to save her life. Everything she makes is boiled in a can (a pre-microwave era of making prepared foods) and when the contents of those cans came out overcooked, it would be toast for supper, something Nigel actually looked forward to.

As it turned out, his mum had another flaw – severe asthma and eventually it would take her life. Although Nigel misses her terribly, life continues on pretty much as before with dad being not much better at cooking than his late wife was.

Into their lives comes housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Bonham-Carter) who is in fact a brilliant cook – she seduces the Slaters with heavenly meringues and savory roasts. But the now-teenage Nigel (Highmore) has taken an interest in cooking himself and is jealous of the attention his father is paying Mrs. Potter – and yes, there IS a Mr. Potter. Eventually the Slaters pull up stakes and move out to the country, Mrs. Potter in tow and Nigel competes with Mrs. Potter for Mr. Slater, with Mrs. Potter having the upper hand. Nigel has also discovered his sexuality – and he is very much interested in boys, although he is too shy to approach any. What will his dad make of that?

This was originally made for British television and was a monster hit in the ratings there. Why they chose to release it in the U.S. is something of a mystery; Slater, a well-known food critic in Great Britain, is virtually unknown here across the pond.

That doesn’t mean that this isn’t worth watching. Even if you don’t know who Nigel would become, his story is still interesting and bittersweet. It’s also nice to see Britain in the ’60s, in some ways the apex of modern British culture (some might argue that the 80s were and I wouldn’t disagree) and the filmmakers capture the period beautifully here, even more so than Mad Men.

Bonham-Carter is an underrated actress who often appears in supporting roles in big movies yet almost always steals attention in a good way – see her Harry Potter appearances or Big Fish if you disagree. While I get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they make of the Mrs. Potter character, whether she’s an adulterous manipulative homewrecker or a woman trying her best to please a family that’s been through hell. Nigel is much more clear; he thinks she’s the former and loathes the woman although we can’t always see why. In many ways, we begin to root against the main character which is rather odd because Bonham-Carter isn’t the focus; Nigel is and the more he hates Mrs. Potter, the more we see him as a spoiled officious twit.

The movie is a bit overbearing in places and makes a lot of its points with a sledge hammer when a Q-tip would have done. I could have used some subtitles in places as some of the rural accents were a bit difficult to decipher.

There was some entertainment to be had here and there are some funny moments but by and large I found that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have the courage of their convictions. The real Mrs. Potter’s daughters (Nigel’s stepsisters) have excoriated the movie (and Slater’s autobiography which inspired it) for the portrayal both of Mr. Slater and Mrs. Potter (her name was even changed for the movie) and while they have a bit of an ulterior motive, just the way these portrayals are made in the film tell me that they are a bit skewed by Nigel’s own prejudices in the matter which is only to be expected. We all see things through our own lens of self-interest.

WHY RENT THIS: Bonham-Carter is always fascinating onscreen. Captures period nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t use Bonham-Carter’s character well. A bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, period smoking and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chef at the Savoy Hotel who appears in the final scene is the real Nigel Slater.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (unavailable), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Get Hard

Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant