Burnt (2015)

A friend enjoys food-related films, so what can I say, I went along to see Burnt despite its almost uniformly terrible reviews. Therefore my first observation is that the end product is nowhere near as bad as those suggest. Of course it’s still essentially that — Hollywood product, albeit set in London and ticking off a lot of the tourist views of that city — but it coasts by on the charisma of its lead actors, all of whose work I enjoyed even if they’re hardly stretching themselves. If it’s a “comedy”-drama, then the comedy is in the broad strokes; I wouldn’t call it laugh-out-loud funny or anything. It’s more of a character study of one borderline-unstable man trying to find himself by learning to work with and trust other people. The film’s greatest weakness then is undoubtedly in the screenplay. The characters are stock and overly familiar (Gordon Ramsay is an executive producer, and Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones isn’t far from his own carefully-constructed and endlessly-repeated media stereotype of the highly-strung rebellious bad-boy chef). The exposition, too, is wretchedly clunky, with characters like Omar Sy’s sous-chef Michel expected to recount their past dealings with Adam when meeting him, so as to catch us all up (oh sure, Adam’s drink/drug-fuelled youth is called on as a reason why this is necessary, but it’s a thin veneer). There’s lots of tedious to-do about Michelin stars, which as someone who used to care about such things when eating out is boring enough (I’m so done with tasting menus by the by), but will surely be of less than no interest to the rest of us (Jon Favreau’s Chef dealt with street food last year, which may not have been any less predictable a script, but it was at least a more likeable milieu). Worst of all is Adam’s hackneyed character arc, plotted out with plodding predictability, as he learns to work with others, repair his relationships, learn to temper his controlling behaviour, blah blah blah. But it all looks very nice, the actors have an easy charm, and I quite like workplace dramas even if every plot point here is punctuated by food p0rn.

Burnt film posterCREDITS
Director John Wells; Writer Steven Knight (based on a story by Michael Kalesniko); Cinematographer Adriano Goldman; Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 7 November 2015.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.

I mentioned the writing above, but I don’t mean to criticise it. The real joy of the film — as with most of Marvel’s films — is in the character interactions, and these are all done well enough that I was left wanting less of the action-adventure and more of the hanging out. A standout is Rocket the genetically-modified raccoon-like creature (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a ball of maniacal energy imbued with a carnivalesque sense of dangerous fun and a touchy ego. In fact, when stacked alongside his character, a kind-hearted mutant tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the heavily-tattooed and scarified warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), it’s the humanoids who have the tough acting job here. Pratt plays to his strengths so well honed in The Lego Movie, while Zoë Saldana’s Gamora gets a lot of glowering done under her green makeup, but they have to work hard not to be relegated to sideshow attractions.

The tone of the film is largely comedic, so when the bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) is introduced, his vengeful pantomime (which is played and filmed totally straight, all threatening low-angle shots of his blue face lurking in shadows against the starry night sky) quickly descends into bathos. There’s so much of this kind of thing — Karen Gillan’s Nebula is another blue-skinned vengeful opponent, one amongst many — that it becomes a little wearing. Indeed, every so often the film requires an injection of fun, so has Starlord popping up at some inappropriate moment to boogie along to another 70s rock classic (you can certainly tell when the director was born, and in its persistent musical referencing of the era, it particularly calls to mind American Hustle).

It’s not perfect by any means: there are some very weird and apparently pointless moments of nastiness (such as Benicio del Toro’s ‘Collector’ and his subjugation of women) that aren’t even effaced by the presence of a female screenwriter — a rare enough occurrence on this kind of project. There’s also a post-credits sequence that briefly threatens the return of one of the more unloved characters in the Marvel back catalogue. Most aggravating is the reliance on what is now becoming the most inflexible of plot points for this Studio’s universe — the protracted destruction of a major city by bombardment from the air (not a real city, this time, but a sort of alien composite of many you’ll be familiar with). However, despite all this — which makes the running time seem longer than it mercifully is — Guardians of the Galaxy is on the whole a rather enjoyable comedic adventure romp.

Guardians of the Galaxy film posterCREDITS
Director James Gunn; Writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman (based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning); Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Chris Pratt, Zoë Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014.

American Hustle (2013)

We’ve not really had much of the year, so it’s a bit of unwarranted hyperbole (or backhanded sarcasm) to start proclaiming this the best film so far this year, but I did enjoy it a fair bit. I might even go so far as to say that if I’d seen it last year, I’d have included it somewhere in my ‘best of’ list. It’s a story about storytellers, and it lets them get on with telling their respective stories with fairly little practical interest in the plot details (they’re there of course — it’s even loosely based on real events — but they’re hardly emphasised). It’s more of a series of character studies interconnected by music-focused setpieces — in fact, so foregrounded is the contemporary pop music that the film strongly brings to mind the cinema of Martin Scorsese (and his later imitators, like Paul Thomas Anderson), helped along by the cameo appearance of one of his key collaborators of the 1970s. As a pastiche of period style and set design it’s very accomplished, and as an entertainment it’s certainly enjoyable; I’m not convinced it’s very much deeper than that, but there are worse people in whose company to spend a couple of hours at the movies.

I say it’s without deeper meaning but that’s not strictly true, since in a sense it deals with that most evergreen of US cinematic themes, the pursuit of the ‘American dream’. Each of the characters is scrabbling desperately after a slice of something better, and while the intentions of most — both crooks and cops — are self-interested, there are also characters like the mayor, Carmine (Jeremy Renner), who are acting out of some sense of obligation to a greater social good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The key players here are Christian Bale’s shlubby Irving and his partner-in-crime Sydney (the talented Amy Adams), whose strictly small-time swindles are rather forcibly taken to a bigger and more dangerous stage by the intervention of FBI agent Richie (curly-haired Bradley Cooper). Irving is content in his shady little corner of the New Jersey underworld, and Sydney is trying to escape her south-western upbringing by affecting the title of Lady Edith and a generic English accent which is only good enough to convince the local marks of her apparently upstanding intentions. It’s Richie and his boss’s boss who are the ones motivated by their own professional gain to try to net Mafia and the government (first the local mayor and then Washington figures) in the scam operation.

But that’s all just a framework on which to hang these multiple tales, interwoven like a Tarantino or Anderson narrative with a propulsive 70s pop-hit-laden score, and overlaid with personal testimonies from the key figures, presenting almost Rashomon-like their own takes on what’s going on. It’s all cannily edited together, and as I’ve mentioned already, shot and made with a fastidious (almost overbearing) attentiveness to glossy contemporary detail, but this is primarily a performer’s film, and you can see why people continue to want to work with director David O. Russell. Even smaller characters get to tell their stories, and there’s an increasingly hilarious running gag involving Richie’s boss Stoddard (Louis C.K.) who’s trying to impart some advice to his younger charge.

Of the core cast, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the most talented young actors around and even with credits as excellent as The Hunger Games and her breakout in Winter’s Bone, and even with a relatively small role here, she still manages to stand out in every scene she’s in by sheer force of character. But then again, Russell and Eric Singer (who wrote the original screenplay) have put together a collection of larger-than-life characters — or maybe caricatures, as after all they are indeed quite a bit more showy than anyone in real life — and all the actors get a chance to twirl in front of the cameras. If Lawrence gets the histrionic part, then Amy Adams has a far more shaded character, which she just hits perfectly, while Christian Bale stands out primarily in the extent to which he’s underplaying Irving, an underplaying which oddly makes the character even more compelling than he has any right to be.

All of this adds up to a film that feels loose, like a shaggy-dog story that seems rather easily led away down winding digressive paths, but is in fact really quite tightly structured. It probably does seem unfocused to those who are looking at it as a rendering of the historical Abscam events from which it draws its inspiration, but as a film that’s ultimately about performance — there’s even a literal stage at one point — and about people’s capacity for telling (and believing) stories, this is as carefully put together as they come.

American Hustle film posterCREDITS
Director David O. Russell; Writers Eric Warren Singer and Russell; Cinematographer Linus Sandgren; Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 5 January 2014.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Derek Cianfrance | Writers Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 140 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 25 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Focus Features

I get the feeling that this is a film that’s a bit in love with itself, though I do tend to get that feeling whenever a running time greatly exceeds two hours. Thankfully, the extra investment of time is largely borne out by what’s on screen, with a few caveats that made me feel if anything that maybe a bit of extra time was needed. Maybe it should have been a mini-series. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of three distinct acts, the first two separated by a fairly short period of a year or two, the third taking place 15 years later. The central characters are Luke (played by Ryan Gosling) and Avery (played by Bradley Cooper), as well as their respective sons. Riding as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival show, Luke learns early on that he has a son with Romina (played by Eva Mendes), but when he tries to do what he thinks is the decent thing she resists his advances (she has already moved on), and he gets sucked into criminality. Avery enters the story later as a cop who gets mixed up in their relationship, and 15 years later their sons have to deal with the fallout. That’s really as much as I can say without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s essentially a ‘sins of the fathers’ scenario with added layers of class angst and existential yearning.

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