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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Rush (2013)

Director Ron Howard has enjoyed a lot of mainstream success for his feature films over the past few decades, while screenwriter Peter Morgan has done plenty of good character work dealing with primarily British subjects. They collaborated a few years back on Frost/Nixon (2006), about the English broadcaster’s interviews with the disgraced American President, but this new film sees them dealing with a far more populist and entertaining subject, Formula 1 motor racing. And it is indeed very entertaining.

Morgan’s last foray into sports was The Damned United (2009), though its focus on an historical aspect within English football probably made it of marginal interest to the rest of the world. I’m given to understand that Formula 1 is not exactly a big draw in North America either, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have to know much about it to enjoy the film. I say that because I am largely ignorant of any of its details, aside from the fact that a bunch of low-slung very fast cars race around a track about 80 times. And while I’d heard the name of Austrian driver Niki Lauda, I didn’t know anything about him nor had I heard at all of the English driver James Hunt (the other protagonist of Rush) or of the two drivers’ rivalry.

It’s that rivalry which is at the heart of this film, particularly as it affected the race during the 1976 championship season in which Lauda was critically injured. Chris Hemsworth is energetic as the playboy James Hunt, rarely to be seen without a beer in his hand or dragging on a cigarette, and with a devil-may-care attitude to racing and to life. His rival is Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl as a mousy and unpleasant young man with a passion for tinkering with his cars. Neither of them — as seems to be the rule with Formula 1 drivers — are particularly nice people, being primarily addicted to the thrill of driving, but are given a bit of depth by the observant writing and Hemsworth and Brühl’s acting skills.

For all that I greatly enjoyed Rush, I haven’t really got a lot of knowledgeable things to say about it, I confess. Howard’s direction is polished as ever, attentive to his actors’ expressive faces, and to the grounding role played by the other drivers, their engineering teams, the money men who bankroll them all (for it is undeniably a very male-oriented sport), and by the women in their lives, particularly Lauda’s wife Marlene (a serene Alexandra Maria Lara). There’s some rather graphic medical detail — it is a dangerous sport after all — and the way the 1976 season unfolds is grippingly essayed.

For all that it’s a sports film or a film about high-speed cars, Rush is above all a well-tooled Hollywood-style blockbuster, with a finely-honed and effectively-conveyed sense of unfolding drama. It all zips by at a fair pace, and if I don’t find myself challenged exactly, it’s never egregiously offensive or boring. A fine rendition of a corner of recent sporting history that doesn’t get so much of an outing on the big screen, and I’d happily sit through it again.

Rush film posterCREDITS
Director Ron Howard; Writer Peter Morgan; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 15 September 2013.