Monday, November 23, 2015

“The Danish Girl”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “The Danish Girl” starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. 


When an acclaimed artist suddenly realizes he must live his life as a woman, what impact will this have on his marriage?


In Copenhagen’s society of 1926, artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) was considered a renowned painter of landscapes.  Unfortunately, his wife Gerda (Vikander), also a painter, has gone virtually unrecognized for her portraits.  One day, when she’s trying to finish a painting of a woman, the model fails to show up.  As a result, she asks her husband if he would stand-in so she can complete her painting.  He consents, but when she asks him to wear some of the clothes her model wore when she originally posed, this awakens something in him and he starts dressing as a woman with increasing frequency. 

At first, Gerda is amused by this and together, they engage in a playful game; having shopped for clothes that would fit her husband, she dresses him and they go in public to see how many people they can fool.  Gerda introduces her companion as Lily, Einar’s cousin, who is visiting.  Their plan works a little too well as some men start flirting with “Lily”, who’s so flattered by the attention “she” encourages the romantic interests, disturbing Gerda immensely.  Nevertheless, Gerda is suddenly inspired and starts to paint portraits of “Lily” which are held in such high regard that galleries compete to show her work, which is soon on display in Paris. 

But as Gerda has found her muse, she’s lost her husband.  Einar comes to the conclusion that he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body and seeks assistance from physicians; unfortunately, they all come to the same conclusion:  he’s insane and should be institutionalized.  Ultimately, they find a surgeon from Dresden who believes he can assist:  he offers to perform an as-yet untested sex-change operation on Einar.  Because there is little medical experience with this, it’s risky and must be done in stages:  first, removal of Einar’s male genitalia – later, he’ll construct female genitalia so Einar can complete the physical transformation to Lily.  Considering the danger, will Einar undergo the surgery and if he does, will he survive? 


“The Danish Girl” is a true story based in part on Lily’s memoirs as well as the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff.  Despite Redmayne’s convincing portrayal of a woman (uncomfortably so, at times), this feels like something of a creepshow.  There is a redeeming quality about the movie with respect to the close relationship Einar maintained with Gerda as the transition to Lily progressed.  However, this is not enough to emotionally draw in viewers to the story; while Einar/Lily and Gerda have a fascinating tale, it’s a bit slow-moving at times, causing “The Danish Girl” to give the impression it’s much longer than its two hours.

Where “The Danish Girl” gets more absorbing is when it touches on Gerda’s reaction to her husband’s metamorphosis.  It briefly alludes to her sense of loneliness and how physical intimacy has become absent in her life by suggesting a possible romantic entanglement with an old friend of Einar’s.  The movie would have been substantially more intriguing if it had told the story through Gerda’s eyes, especially since she was the artist whose work flourished to the detriment of her marriage.  “The Danish Girl” seems to start out being their story, then his story, then her story.  Ultimately, it feels like the story of no one in particular. 

Undeniably, there is a great degree of timeliness in this movie, given that transgender members of our society have recently gained increasing visibility and awareness.  The qualities that go into the making of a good film are often mysterious at best; why certain things that should theoretically work don’t work in practice is nothing short of confounding.  Therein lie the problems with “The Danish Girl”; on the surface, it appears to be doing everything right but the puzzle that is constructed at the end is nowhere near as compelling as each of its individual pieces.   

The Danish Girl (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, November 21, 2015

New Blog Feature: Blog Talk Radio Player


If you like sitting around talking movies, then you might enjoy, “Sitting Around Talking Movies”, a weekly round-up of newly-released films hosted by New York City critic Neil Rosen.  The podcast “Sitting Around Talking Movies” is hosted by the Web site Blog Talk Radio.  Recently, a player for Blog Talk Radio has been added to The Virtual Nihilist blog which will stream the most recent episodes of “Sitting Around Talking Movies” while you’re visiting my blog. 

Interested in trying it out?  It’s simple!  Just scroll all the way down to the very bottom of any page on The Virtual Nihilist blog and you’ll see the new Blog Talk Radio player in the center of the screen (it’s so big, it’s hard to miss).  Locate a recent episode of “Sitting Around Talking Movies” that you wish to hear and click the Play button.  That’s all there is – of course, you can stop or pause it at any time should you feel the need to do so. 

Please remember to try out this new feature and if the mood strikes you, feel free to enter a comment about the player, the podcast or any of the movies you hear reviewed on the podcast or have read about on this blog.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

“Mustang”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new drama “Mustang” from Turkey.


When a group of sisters are wrongly punished by their family, can they escape this oppressive treatment before their lives are ruined?


At the end of another school semester, Lale (Günes Sensoy) and her four older sisters are anxiously anticipating their summer vacation – but it is a bittersweet time as well.  Lale has formed a special bond with her teacher Dilek (Bahar Kerimoglu), who’s moving to Istanbul once school is finished.  Nevertheless, Lale and her sisters will look forward to spending the summer living with their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) – the only family they know since their parents died a decade ago. 

Before returning to their house, however, the girls decide to celebrate the onset of summer by visiting a nearby beach with from boys from the school.  While there, they engage in some rather carefree frolicking before bidding them good-bye until school resumes in the fall.  Once home, the young women are stunned to learn they are in trouble for the playful time with the boys and are told that with the neighbors gossiping about them, they have thoroughly scandalized the family.  As a result, they’ll be punished; the sisters are essentially imprisoned in their own house and their only education from now on will be Home Economics so they’ll be ready for their career as a housewife. 

And thus it starts.  They try to marry off Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), the oldest of the girls, but she demands to be paired with a young man with whom she has already established a relationship.  With that plan foiled, the family then arranges a marriage for the next eldest, Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), who’s so distraught she gets drunk at her wedding.  Next is middle-sister Ece (Elit Iscan), who decides to take matters into her own hands to end her suffering.  Seeing that Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Lale’s only remaining older sister, will be forced to marry soon, Lale realizes they must escape to Istanbul.  But will the two sisters make it out safely or will Uncle Erol thwart their plans?


Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who also co-wrote the screenplay, tells a compelling, spellbinding tale with equal amounts of compassion, dignity and respect; its sophistication belies the fact that this is her first feature film – hopefully, she has many more stories like this to tell throughout the rest of her career.  This is more than merely a feminist film, it is a humanist film – it just so happens that this is an account of girls.  Similar accounts of religious oppression could just as well be told about anyone.  Don’t be mistaken – this in no way trivializes the plight of women in socially repressed cultures, a topic that “Mustang” insists on staring right in the eye. 

It is shrewdly subversive that the filmmakers chose to have Lale, the youngest of the sisters, as their savior and protagonist.  Ultimately, she is the one who conceives, plans and executes their attempted escape.  This all makes so much sense.  As the youngest daughter, she sat by in abject horror watching the unpleasant fate her older sisters met, so this motivated her to get out.  Also, being the youngest of the girls, she had the most to lose and the least to look forward to, so she saw that escape was not an option but a necessity. 

There’s much to admire in “Mustang” – directing choices, writing, cinematography and acting.  The five young women who play the sisters are largely non-professionals.  Yet they were able to successfully convince they possessed that unique bond only sisters could have.  Regarding the cinematography, the fact that this was shot near a beach helps considerably to paint a picture of Turkey that is desirable and exotic, despite whatever problems they may have.  Also, the script smartly has payoffs to things that are setup early on in the film.  To sum it up:  See. This.  Movie.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the director and the five young women who played the sisters.  The director said she decided to title the movie “Mustang” because she wanted a simple, one-word title that would express a type of animal which could not be tamed, just as these sisters would fight the subjugation of their family.  Gamze Ergüven claimed that although her film got a wide release in Turkey, the reception was rather mixed:  people either passionately loved it or passionately hated it – there was no middle ground.  Much of the problem came because the topic is controversial; to this day, even the Turkish government wants to micromanage women to the point of telling them how many children they should have and insisting they not laugh in public. 

Mustang (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

“The 33”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “The 33”, starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche.


When Chilean miners are trapped underground, can they be saved before there’s a fatality?


In Chile, men with limited skills have few options when it comes to employment; for many, the only choice is the dangerous job of working in a mine. Nevertheless, to support themselves and their families, men risk their health and life to earn a living. Despite supervisor Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) expressing grave concerns to his management about the safety of the San Jose Mine, he and his crew are being forced to work in this potentially hazardous environment. Needing extra money, Mario Sepúlveda (Banderas) joins Lucho’s team on what was originally scheduled to be his day off.

Once at work, the worst case scenario occurs: seriously destabilized from years of digging, the mine collapses, trapping all 33 members of the crew inside; all means of egress have been blocked. When word gets out about the accident, family and friends of the trapped miners arrive at the site, including one man’s wife and mistress, as well as María Segovia (Binoche), the estranged sister of miner Dario (Juan Pablo Raba). Chile’s president becomes involved when this becomes a nationwide story, so he sends Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) to investigate and oversee the rescue attempts.

Discovering the mining company remains less than incented to rescue their trapped men, Golborne has the government call on all available resources; they bring in Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), the best mining engineer in the nation, to excavate in the hope of reaching the miners’ refuge. Overcoming various obstacles, he finally reaches them after they’ve run out of food. By now, the story of the trapped miners has gone global and various countries worldwide contribute resources to assist in the rescue. But after the miners have been trapped for two months, can any rescue attempt be successful?


So many Chileans and all of them speak perfect English! Perhaps these are some Hispanics that Donald Trump might not object to having in our country. Seriously, “The 33” has the feel of a made-for-television movie, so it’s a wonder it’s getting a theatrical release; part of that made-for-TV feel is the corny screenplay which contains some of the most witless dialog imaginable. Equally unhelpful is some rather blatant scenery chewing by Banderas (a difficult accomplishment from inside a mine, one might imagine), who acts as de facto leader, coordinating distribution of their severely rationed food supply.

“The 33” tries to juggle multiple stories so it doesn’t become static by focusing solely on the miners themselves. There are scenes with the families, the politicians and the rescue crew, among others. Where the problem is encountered is when Golborne appears to be developing something of a romantic relationship with María; presumably, the filmmakers developed this contrivance because they felt they needed a romance injected somewhere in the story to keep certain segments of the audience interested. Unfortunately, it comes across as being so hopelessly artificial that it calls the credibility of the film into question.

Regarding the opening statement about everyone in “The 33” speaking English, it is something of a curiosity and can take you out of the movie rather early on. Perhaps the decision was made to do this because the primary market for this film is supposed to be America; possibly, the thought of requiring people to read subtitles would alienate a mainstream audience. Too bad. The problem with doing this is that it certainly creates a substantial absence of authenticity to the motion picture, especially when you have cast members who clearly speak the native language. The addition of known actors (i.e.., Byrne and Binoche) for whom Spanish is obviously not their native language may have played a significant role in this decision as well.

The 33 (2015) on IMDb

Monday, November 09, 2015

“Entertainment”– Movie Review



On the closing night of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series this past Spring, I saw the drama “Entertainment”, directed by Rick Alverson.


While a stand-up comedian tours the southwest, he desperately tries to restore the relationship with his daughter – but will his life fall apart before he has the opportunity to do so?


Whether bars, nightclubs or prisons, Neil (Gregg Turkington) plays them all as he tours extensively throughout the Mojave Desert. Leading a lonely life on the road, he desperately tries to connect with the one person that still matters to him: his estranged daughter. Calling her each night after his set, Neil only gets her voicemail because of the time difference; despite leaving detailed messages, however, she never calls back. Disengaged from most everyone else in the world, Neil chooses to meet with a cousin, John (John C. Reilly), who lives in the area. Being a businessman, John doesn’t quite get Neil’s routine, which is really not intended for mainstream audiences in the first place.

Accompanying Neil on the tour is a teenager (Tye Sheridan) trying to break into show business as a pantomime. As his opening act, the young man tries to engage with the comedian, who remains distant; their relationship stays professional, never personal, but always cordial. One of their few times of extended interaction is when a heckler attacks the comedian after his show; the teen helps Neil locate his now-broken eyeglasses and takes him back to the motel room which they’ll share. Now playing the worst dumps which pay little (if at all), it seems Neil’s career as a comedian is just about over.

Finally, some small ray of hope comes when the comedian is offered a job in Hollywood; he accepts a gig playing a party at a Hollywood mansion to be attended by many influential show business people. Neil leaves telephone messages to his daughter that he’ll impress some of the big shot guests and wind up getting bigger and better bookings. But when the big day finally arrives, all is not well; seeing those in attendance, the comedian suddenly has a panic attack and experiences a bit of a meltdown. But will he be able to recover in time to make his performance the success he originally envisioned?


Although many of the comedy bits by Gregg Turkington (AKA Neil Hamburger) are hilariously funny (albeit in the sickest and most disturbing way imaginable), it’s not enough to save “Entertainment” from being a creepfest. An exploration into the surreal with an obnoxious protagonist for whom it is difficult (if not impossible) to root, the audience is left on a wild ride of visual non-sequiturs that seem to have no purpose other than to confound the audience, rather than to lay out an intelligible story. Clearly, it is irony for this motion picture to be titled, “Entertainment”; a more accurate title might be “Torture”.

While scenes shot in the Mojave Desert are visually arresting, they certainly don’t make “Entertainment” worth seeing. Turkington portrays his character in an almost catatonic state, suggesting he’s either permanently medicated or recently lobotomized (maybe both). Given the episodic nature of the movie, he interacts with many characters who may or may not be more interesting than he is, but they are almost certainly more animated – arguably, there may be still photographs that are more lively. His constant state of stupefaction gets on your nerves in short order.

Following the screening was an interview with director Rick Alverson.  During Alverson’s question and answer session, he took a hard-to-explain movie and somehow made it even more incomprehensible (if that’s even possible). Mumbling, using incomplete sentences that trailed off with endless ellipses, he came off about as inarticulate as his film; he did appear to like inserting the word “trope” occasionally, perhaps in an effort to present the illusion that he knew what he was doing. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent members of the audience from at least trying to inquire about the film in the plaintive hope of getting some semblance of an answer that made sense.

Entertainment (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, November 05, 2015

“Spotlight”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Spotlight”, starring Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo. 


When a team of Boston Globe investigative reporters research a scandalous story about the Catholic church, will the church find a way to have them silenced before the story can be published? 


When Marty Baron (Schreiber) takes over as the new Editor of the venerable Boston Globe newspaper in 2001, he casts a careful eye at the paper’s resources with thoughts of cutbacks.  Researching the publication once he steps into his new role, Baron comes across an old story that looks as though it got unnecessarily buried years ago:  Boston priests were believed to have molested local children and the Catholic church seemed to be doing everything it could to cover it up.  Learning that The Globe has a small group of investigative reporters known as The Spotlight Team, he assigns them the task of following up on those allegations. 

Eager to prove his team’s worth to his new boss, Robby (Keaton), the Spotlight manager, immediately has Spotlight drop everything to focus on what appears to be a potential scandal; one of the reporters leading the way is Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), who doesn’t mind doing whatever’s necessary to nail whoever is guilty.  Along the way, Spotlight naturally runs into various obstacles:  some victims are hesitant to talk, a number of the accused priests refuse to admit guilt and the Archdiocese of Boston tries to shut down the investigation altogether. 

Gradually, and through the persistence of Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), some of the victims see the Globe is sincere about revisiting this crime, so they acquiesce and reveal their tale.  Rezendes is even able to convince a lawyer (Stanley Tucci) who represented past victims to get his former clients to agree to an interview with the reporter.  Soon, the church sees that the Globe’s Spotlight team is relentless in its tenacity.  But when the events of September 11th occur causing Spotlight to be distracted by this major news story, will this prove to be the divine intervention the church needed to prevent the scandal from being reported or will Spotlight return to their investigation once the interest about the terrorist attacks die down? 


The reviewers of Rotten Tomatoes have overwhelmingly endorsed “Spotlight” and it’s understandable:  the movie lionizes the so-called “ink-stained wretches” who work in the newspaper industry and most of those critics also work in that same business.  Since they are indirectly made to appear heroic, why wouldn’t they give the film positive reviews?  But there is one thing that blows that entire reasoning to smithereens:  “Spotlight” is quite worthy of much of the praise.  It’s a fast-paced motion picture that gives the impression that you’re feeling the same sense of urgency the reporters did. 

“Spotlight” features a sensational cast with expert – and often understated – performances.  One exception might be Ruffalo, who’s a bit over the top at times, with some scenes that feel a bit clichéd.  If you’re able to overlook that, “Spotlight” can be quite a treat.  Inevitably, there’ll be comparisons between this and “All The President’s Men”:  both feature protagonists that are newspaper reporters and both focus on researching and reporting a major scandal.  That’s unfortunate because where “Spotlight” differs is the point in time in which it is set:  with the the Internet essentially destroying the newspaper industry, it provides proof that good journalism will always be relevant.   

Like many other movies recently released, “Spotlight” suffers from the unfortunate fact that it is based on true events and – again, like “All The President’s Men” – can face some challenges when it comes to maintaining a degree of suspense when audience members may already know full well the outcome.  Looking past that, “Spotlight” is about much more than that – it is a morality tale:  not just about the morality (or lack thereof) of the Catholic church, but the morality and ethics of the newspaper industry. 

Spotlight (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

“Trumbo”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Trumbo”, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren


When a successful Hollywood screenwriter suffers a professional setback after suspicions of Communism abound, can he recover his career without losing his family?


During The Great Depression of the 1930’s – and as a result of the spread of Fascism that soon followed – many Americans wound up becoming members of The Communist Party.  When The United States partnered with Russia during World War II, this encouraged even more citizens to become Communists during the 1940’s.  However, within just a couple of years after the war’s end,  the U.S. government felt threatened by the spread of Communism, believing that the country would fall to the Communists if more and more people joined the party. 

Congress formed The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which investigated people suspected of being Communist sympathizers.  Among those targeted were members of the motion picture industry as movies were believed to be a tool that could easily influence a vast number of people.  One of those targeted was Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), a noted screenwriter and admitted Communist; upon being subpoenaed to appear before HUAC, he refused to answer questions and was held in contempt, resulting in him being sentenced to prison for a couple of years.   

When Trumbo is finally released, he finds his career in tatters; politically conservative forces in Hollywood led by influential newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) have pressured major movie studios to avoid hiring suspected Communists – known as The Hollywood 10 – which included Trumbo.  In order to support his wife (Diane Lane) and children, Trumbo took low-paying jobs to write scripts for a B-movie production company under an alias.  But when his secret is out, will Trumbo lose his only means of income or can he somehow overcome the fears about his political leanings? 


Fans of actor Bryan Cranston are understandably euphoric about any of his performances, whether it’s as Walter White in television’s “Breaking Bad”, his role as President Johnson on Broadway in “LBJ”, or even in a comic turn with his impersonation of Howard Stern’s media producer JD Harmeyer.  Playing real-life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, however, will not be remembered as one of his best, as he presents the writer as more of a caricature than a fully-formed human being.  Cranston crosses the line between acting and over-acting with uncomfortable ease.

Neither Cranston nor any of the other members of this stellar cast are particularly helped by the movie’s screenplay, which is so trite it borders on cheesy with some rather cringe-worthy moments, including:  a frustrated writer ripping his paper out of the typewriter carriage and crumpling it before tossing it in the air; a verbal dunning notice from his lawyer on the steps of the courthouse immediately after emerging from the courtroom; Trumbo’s attempt at explaining Communism to his daughter.  Also worthy of a major eye roll or two are the impersonations of John Wayne, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas. 

Trumbo of course was a real person just as The Red Scare that he survived was a regrettable moment in the history of this country.  By contrast, the 1975 movie “The Front”, which starred Woody Allen, was something of a filmic roman à clef about that era’s McCarthyism that would be a considerably better recommendation if you really wanted to watch a movie about that period.  During the end credits of “Trumbo”, we see photographs and video clips of the eponymously-titled film’s protagonist and it suddenly occurs that maybe a documentary about him would’ve served his memory much better. 

Trumbo (2015) on IMDb

Monday, October 26, 2015

“Our Brand Is Crisis”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new political comedy-drama, “Our Brand Is Crisis” starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.


When a woman is hired as a political consultant in a Bolivian presidential campaign, will she be able to both defeat an old competitor and prevent a nationwide revolution?


There’s good reason noted political strategist Jane Bodine (Bullock) earned the nickname “Calamity Jane” – she has a genuine knack for introducing a modicum of chaos wherever she goes.  One such incident from a while back resulted in the unintended death of an innocent person, which caused Jane’s self-imposed exile from the business.  When a management team running the campaign for a Bolivian presidential candidate implores her to return, Jane reluctantly agrees, only to learn that Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), the candidate in question, is trailing in the polls by 30 points. 

Castillo, currently a Senator, was once the nation’s president – but this is working against him more than it is working for him; his term became controversial when he privatized many businesses, causing protests and riots after citizens feared his actions would result in a loss of their control.  Once Jane begins working for Castillo, she learns her longtime foe, Pat Candy (Thornton), has been hired in a similar capacity to assist Rivera, Castillo’s opponent.  Eventually, this leads to Jane becoming motivated to exact revenge on Candy for all of the dirty tricks he’s pulled in the past.

Despite getting off to something of a rocky start, Jane finally sees an opportunity to market her candidate in a way that will make him more palatable to the voting public.  Castillo starts inching his way up in the polls while certain unscrupulous tactics by Jane simultaneously winds up with other candidates slipping in their rankings.  By the time the elections roll around, Castillo just barely ekes out a victory in a plurality win.  Shortly thereafter, word leaks out that even before he can take office, Castillo is already reneging on one of his most important campaign promises.  When the citizens threaten to revolt, will Jane cut her losses and run or can she somehow find a way to right a wrong she inadvertently caused?   


“Our Brand Is Crisis” was originally inspired by a documentary of the same name about a decade earlier.  Perhaps it would be better if you saw the documentary rather than this fictionalized version.  Aspiring to be a comedy-drama, “Our Brand Is Crisis” winds up being effective as neither – it’s not funny enough to be considered a comedy nor can it be taken seriously enough to be considered a drama.  This is one of those stories where the audience is expected to root for the heroine because she is seeking redemption by the end of the movie; the reason why we are ultimately unable to root for her redemption is that we don’t see her suffer enough for it to be deserved. 

Often, screenplays are judged by whether or not the protagonist has an arc – that is to say, do they undergo a substantial change by the end of the movie?  In “Our Brand Is Crisis”, there is such an arc for Jane, but the question becomes how plausible is that transformation?  After Jane spends a considerable amount of the film behaving just as badly as Candy, it is only in the last few minutes that she appears to regret her actions; as she states to a disillusioned Castillo supporter following the election, “the means justify the end” – there is no point where she clearly renounces either her deeds or her profession (except for a brief interview which bookends the bulk of motion picture).

The movie tries to look skeptically at the political process, making the point that no matter which country, the game is crooked and that public service is far from a noble profession.  While it may effectively make this point, it also doesn’t speak well about America, showing how we have a need to insinuate ourselves into the political process of other nations, even though we have no business doing so.  Although the intention behind “Our Brand Is Crisis” may have been to say that one person can effect change, it seems the main message is not to bother voting.   

Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“Burnt”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City premiere of the new comedy-drama “Burnt” starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.


When a highly-regarded chef loses his job through drug abuse, he tries to regain his standing with a new restaurant – but will his bad behavior resurface before he’ll have a chance to recover his former glory?



There was a time when Chef Adam Jones (Cooper) had it all.  Considered one of the world’s best, he earned two Michelin stars at a Paris restaurant.  Unfortunately, he was doomed by his own successes as well as his own excesses; with his ego inflated, Jones suddenly felt he could do no wrong and wound up throwing his career away when he pursued a path of drug usage.  Finally emerging at the end of that dark period, Jones believed he needed to punish himself for all of the horror he inflicted on friends and co-workers, so he spent a three year period of self-exile from working as a chef. 

After serving his penance, Jones travels to London to look up Tony (Daniel Brühl), who ran the restaurant in Paris where Jones gained his notoriety.  Still harboring some bad feelings towards Jones, Tony is understandably displeased when his former star chef shows up to let him know he’s ready for a comeback – which he announces will be at Tony’s restaurant!  Although Tony suspects Jones still has something left, he insists that in order to work in his kitchen, Jones must undergo regular monitoring by a doctor (Emma Thompson) to ensure he’s staying clean. 

Now on his way back, Jones finds he must assemble a talented team of cooks to work behind him; to do so, he must recruit people from varied and unlikely sources:  one person is poached from another restaurant, one is bailed out of jail and another has to be coaxed after his own restaurant was sabotaged by Jones.  Among those is a gifted saucier named Helene (Miller), a single mother who immediately locks horns with Jones in the kitchen.  Once it seems Jones finally has it all together, will he be able to earn his third Michelin star or will he ultimately do himself in by returning to his old ways?


For food porn enthusiasts, be advised if you intend on seeing “Burnt”, it’s best to wear your raincoat – the best part of the movie is the adulatory way in which the food is photographed.  If you don’t feel hungry by the final frame, then clearly, you haven’t been paying attention.  Sad to say the look of the food – from the ingredients, to cooking to plating – is just about the only part of the film that’s praiseworthy.  The rest is rather drab and ordinary with some extremely predictable scenes that only serve to inflict further damage on a movie with an anti-climactic conclusion.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast must be commended for having been trained on cooking; this apparently can be attributed to Gordon Ramsay, who taught the actors in preparation for their roles – he also got an Executive Producer credit for his efforts.  The film does not use cutaways when the cooks are chopping, stirring or plating food – it is clearly the actors themselves that are performing these tasks quite admirably.  While the character of Jones seems based on Ramsay for his notorious temper in the kitchen, the story seems closer to Anthony Bourdain in “Kitchen Confidential”. 

“Burnt” will likely not be remembered as one of Cooper’s best films or most memorable performances; he seems desperately trying to make the character appear more interesting than he really comes across as being in the motion picture.  Assessing how realistic the restaurant portions of the movie are may be better left to people who have experience in that profession; as for the remainder of “Burnt”, precious little bears much in the way of verisimilitude.  Cooper’s charming demeanor and blue eyes only take him so far in “Burnt”. 


Monday, October 19, 2015

“Rock The Kasbah”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City premiere of the new comedy, “Rock The Kasbah”, starring Bill Murray and directed by Barry Levinson.


When a sleazy talent agent is stranded in Afghanistan, he discovers a young woman who could become a successful singer – but since public performances by women are culturally forbidden, will he risk his own life as well as that of his new discovery?



As a talent agent, there have been better days for Richie Lanz (Murray).  With his career highlights in the distant past, Lanz is forced to resort to unscrupulous methods to make a living out of his cramped Van Nuys, California office.  He’s not only conned himself into thinking there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s also managed to con his only employee (Zooey Deschanel), a receptionist who aspires to become a singer-songwriter.  When Lanz is talked into bringing his singing receptionist on a USO tour in Afghanistan to entertain the troops, things turn sour quickly when she abandons him in a fleabag Kabul hotel, stealing his money, his plane tickets home and his passport. 

After the American Embassy informs Lanz he’ll have to wait weeks until they can get him home, he decides to take the road less travelled and accept an offer from a couple of racketeers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) to deliver munitions to a tribe trying to fend off rebels who wish to overtake their village.  Once there, Lanz meets Salima (Leem Lubany), a teenage girl with true singing talent; hearing her voice, he’s convinced he’s just found his next big act.  Sneaking Salima out of her village, Lanz pays a Kabul prostitute (Kate Hudson) to board her while arranging for her to appear on a national television show, “Afghan Star” – that country’s version of the talent contest “American Idol”.

Salima’s appearance is a big hit and she’s very popular with the viewers – except her father has now been embarrassed as such performances by a female are viewed unfavorably in their culture.  After Salima’s father spirited her back to their village, she is now in danger of being disqualified by the talent show because of her absence.  With outraged villagers looking to kill both Salima and her father – not to mention Lanz – can Lanz somehow manage to not only save their lives but also get Salima back on the show for a final performance that may help her win the contest?


Sadly, it is difficult to recall seeing the great Bill Murray work so hard for so few laughs as he does in “Rock The Kasbah”.  For something that attempts to fob itself off as a comedy, laughs in “Rock The Kasbah” are indeed few and far between.  Most of the responsibility for eliciting comic moments seem to be left up to Murray, who valiantly tries to stir up lighthearted scenes despite material that isn’t particularly willing to meet him half way.  The screenplay was written by Mitch Glazer, who has a rather impressive track record when it comes to comedy writing, so the lack of jokes is a puzzle. 

“Rock The Kasbah” pushes the limit in length, at least for a comedy – it comes in at one and three-quarter hours which is pretty much the upper limit for that genre (although they tend to fare better at an hour and a half).  The reason for this is that the script is rather plot-heavy, which is a sure-fire comedy killer; comedies should have a rather thin, simple plot, which is present for no other reason that to provide opportunities for jokes.  Instead, the story for “Rock The Kasbah” gets very involved, overcomplicating matters unnecessarily.  Also, there’s a rather serious scene late in the film that takes you out of the comedic mindset altogether. 

The germ of the idea for this movie is apparently based on real-life events – a courageous young woman who actually did sing and dance on “Afghan Star”.  Since this seems to be the inspiration for the film, it might’ve been better if the filmmakers tried to pull it off as a straight drama instead of injecting comic elements that seemed out of place.  Prior to the screening, Murray helped introduce the motion picture along with Levinson, Glazer, Hudson, Deschanel and Bruce Willis (who has a small part as a mercenary).  Murray mentioned everyone had to shoot the movie under tough conditions in a rugged terrain (it was shot in Morocco).