Lukewarm 'Burnt' Reduced By Cooper's Unappetizing Chef

Directed by: John Wells; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: C

Consuming and enjoying food is one of the few universal commonalities among the human population, but once you get any deeper than that -- flavors, textures, nutrition -- everyone's tastes can veer in many different directions. Burnt, the new drama from ER and August: Osage County director John Wells, concerns itself only with the upper-upper echelon of culinary flavor profiles, centered on a renowned chef whose egotism leads him to care less about people actually enjoying their food and more about the world basking in the greatness of his skill. It's a significant hurdle to cross in a story about the artistry of sustenance while the camerawork zooms in on dainty mushrooms, sparse greens, and colorful globs of who-knows-what, where the details of this food being cooked are markedly less important than the self-importance of their creator. Another pompous, edgy character from Bradley Cooper blends with mostly predictable career resurrection theatrics here, serving up palatable dramatic confections without enough substance to make them satisfying.

Through some customary narration, Cooper's voice directs our attention to chef Adam Jones, whose prominence in his name-making Parisian restaurant came crashing down due to his drug and alcohol abuse. After fleeing the country and living out a self-mandated suspension for several years, largely out of guilt for the damage he caused to both the restaurant and to his coworkers, Jones travels to London to restore his name by dropping in on old contacts and informing them of his mission: to earn a third Michelin Star in their dining guide at a new restaurant, a rare feat. After getting back in touch with coworkers -- notably Tony (Daniel Bruhl), the host at his French restaurant and now the manager of his family's hotel -- and hunting down new, relatively cheap talent across the city of London, Jones' plan to formulate a new upscale eatery begins to take shape. His overly strict demands for perfection from his staff and his general coldness to people run the risk of ruining his second chance, though, necessary as they may be.

Jones receives the label of being an "arrogant prick" early on in Burnt, to which someone familiar with the rock-star chef retorts: "Yeah, he's a chef". That's essentially the scope of what's conveyed about the forgiven narcissistic nature of this antiheroic protagonist, whose condescension and hostility come across as an amplified version of someone like Gordon Ramsay from Hell's Kitchen: vulgar, abusive, and needlessly destructive in his kitchen, like a military drill instructor going too far. It'd be one thing if those were the attributes on the surface of a chef with a true passion for cuisine, but Jones rarely displays any admiration for the craft itself, seeming like he's only interested in obtaining the prestige afforded to him by his perfection -- even though he really couldn't get to where he's at today without some of that love. Intentional or not, Jones' story suffers as a character drama because of his unpleasant demeanor, generating displays of rage without the depth that'd give meaning to the dishes he prepares.

It doesn't help that Burnt heavily relies on the acclaim already earned by Adam Jones during his self-destructive pursuits in France, making it seem like they weren't all that destructive to his career in the first place. From wooing past critics (a Brit-accented cameo from Uma Thurman) to obtaining the crucial funding for his new restaurant (with the stipulation that he passes blood tests and sees a therapist, warmly played by Emma Thompson), the lack of actual resistance that Jones encounters while getting himself reestablished in London sends a frustrating message about his pursuits and approach to the industry. In a word, he's empowered -- overpowered -- to a point that nearly makes him into the magical deity he thinks himself to be, able to seduce lesbians and force prospective employees to admit that they'd actually pay money just to work for him. Considering the roguishly insufferable and charmless manner that Bradley Cooper competently embodies as Adam Jones, this persuasion rings false.

Ah, but that's all part of what's to be expected out of Burnt: this emphasis on a hardened and unyielding persona that'll eventually soften under the warmth of enlightenment about the importance of community instead of personal prestige. Amid beautifully-photographed shots of fine cuisine dropped in between curt nods and yells of "Yes, chef!" among the staff, director Wells underscores the pressure and rigors of that trajectory toward perfecting their kitchen, while being evasive about how, exactly, Jones' experiences there shape him into a different individual than the plate-tossing whirling dervish we grow to know. The moments when Burnt actually does strike genuine emotional chords -- a scene involving an unexpected request for a birthday cake, for instance -- rely on calculated Hollywood sentiment that doesn't extend naturally from the chef's established demeanor, especially when it comes to the barbed quasi-romantic interactions with a dedicated single-mother cook, Helene (an acute and likable Sienna Miller), and how she absorbs the lessons he has to offer.

The meltdowns, the escalations in tension, and the progression of time towards the restaurant's crucial Michelin evaluation rarely stray from the formula, and Burnt lacks the conviction to experiment even when it almost shakes things up surrounding expectations of what's to come. By that point, it's difficult to choose whether to root for Adam Jones to reap the rewards of his determination or suffer the consequence of his negative karma and belligerence, largely because it's uncertain whether he'd appreciate anything other than that extra star to his name. His staff, his boss, and the people who rely on him -- including his culinary nemesis, Reece (Matthew Rhys) -- are what present a strong-enough argument for the restaurant itself to succeed, adding the necessary emotional component to the culmination of his efforts. Pulling for the chef to come out on top, to celebrate the fruit of his labors from such a young age and his dedication to staying clean while fully getting his career back on track, would've made for a far more nourishing final course, though.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

Dormer Hikes Through Unscary Atmosphere of 'The Forest'

Directed by: Jason Zada; Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: C-

It almost seems as if many upcoming actresses these days must undergo a rite of passage along their way to true distinction: headlining a subpar horror or thriller that generates few scares and, shortly thereafter, fades into obscurity. Emily Blunt got entangled with lycanthropes in The Wolfman; Jennifer Lawrence intrudes upon the demons of a family's past in House at the End of the Street; Anne Hathaway searched for disappearing survivors of an airplane in Passengers. Now, the talented and charismatic Natalie Dormer has tucked some dodgy suspense under her belt with The Forest, a mixture of supernatural enigmas and psychological confusion with the melancholy subject matter involving Japan's historically significant "suicide forest". Even with the dense, misty woods of the location's atmosphere and a dedicated leading lady determinedly stumbling through it, this drama-horror hybrid overextends its subdued tension for the sake of a heroine whose lack of depth obscures the film's bleak mind-games.

An American woman, Sara (Natalie Dormer), receives a phone call from the authorities notifying her that her twin sister, Jess, has been presumed dead since she entered and never returned from Japan's Aokigahara Forest, a restricted area near Mount Fuji where people frequently go to commit suicide. Her intuition about the safety of her sister, however, suggests otherwise: that Jess is still alive and could, possibly, need her help. Against the wishes of her fiancee, Rob (Eoin Macken), Sara flies to Japan by herself and gets settled into a hotel near the forest, where her sister stayed. Efforts to find someone to go with her into The Forest are unsuccessful, until she runs into Aiden (Taylor Kinney), an experienced journalist who agrees -- along with a trail guide -- to go with Sara into the woods. With warnings from locals circulating in her head about the haunted and dangerous nature of the forest, she defiantly embarks on her journey to locate her sister, only to discover that those warnings had some credibility.

The Forest boasts more than enough elements that could elevate its atmosphere without any trouble: claustrophobic angles accentuating Sara's fish-outta-water place in a foreign country; the superstitions and metaphysics of Japanese culture; and the hazy expanses of the sprawling forests themselves. Despite the controversy over using the Aokigahara for a low-brow production like a horror flick, its storied history does add a real-world downhearted tempo to the search for a troubled twin sister within the area, complimented by the mental effects one could endure -- or think they're enduring -- while traversing such a bleak place. Director Jason Zada transforms the forest into an eerie psychological battleground reminiscent of Silent Hill or The Blair Witch Project, using the despondence of people choosing to die in this place to give it a contemplative edge. These things emerge through lumbering exposition and rigid minor performances, but the film still builds curiosity over what'll appear behind the trees and in the corners of people's minds once they enter the forbidden area.

Thing is, Natalie Dormer's primary character, Sara, doesn't offer a particularly remarkable or deep headspace to explore, a dutiful sister whose personality relies on the interesting attributes of other people for hers to appear interesting, even with the tragedy of her past. That might've been allowable had The Forest continued down the path of standard jump-scares, but the script restrains its horror inclinations in service of paranormal drama, attempting to respect the Aokigahara's lineage -- well, as much as they can with dead bodies and visible specters -- and the uncanny bond between twin sisters that tells them whether one's in trouble or not. In fact, Sara's sister could've been a more engaging heroine, a darker girl who digs poetry and relocates to a foreign country for a therapeutic change in surroundings. Sara lacks that personality, no ambitions or interests beyond bailing her sister out of difficult situations, which casts a shadow over the limited dramatic potency. Being a stranger in a strange land under duress becomes her only compelling trait, and that naturally limits the idiosyncratic allure that brought Natalie Dormer's bodice-wearing characters to life.

By walking softly along the border between traditional horror and mystical drama, the search for Sara's sister within the historic forest disrupts one's patience with its protracted dullness, extended by a lack of tension and cumbersome attempts at sentiment by Aiden's inquisitive prompts and forthright flirtations. Smooth camerawork follows their hike throughout the forest -- filmed in Serbia as a substitute for the off-limits area -- while anticipating the next dead body or pitched tent of a potential suicide victim, accompanied by obligatory explanations and concerns for what Sara's seeing in the forbidden lands. The Forest does pick up a bit of energy when the line between what's really happening in the Aokigahara blurs with the tricks being played on Sara's mind, driven by dream sequences and ghostly apparitions that confer with the warnings expressed to her before she embarked on her journey. Those effects are mild, though, and would've been far more intriguing had Dormer been reacting to them in the skin of a more complex individual.

Despite how The Forest diminishes its tension by virtually announcing the arrival of its few scare tactics -- overlong gaps of silence, suggestive angles, Dormer's widened eyes -- there's still enough paranormal intrigue here driving toward Sara's discovery of her twin sister's fate and the psychological torment she endures along the way. Sadly, those curiosities also become the film's undoing when the boundary separating reality and psychosis completely disappears, where the rules behind how Sara interacts with the Aokigahara's deceptions undercut the real drama surrounding her search, including who she can and cannot trust in her surroundings. Granted, everyone did warn us that bad things happen to the people who enter, but the murky and uncontrollable powers of the area force an ominous supernatural ending onto the search that lacks both weight and overall purpose. Without the scares to fill that dramatic void, all that's left surrounding the spirited talent of Natalie Dormer is a shrug-worthy, tepid stroll of a ghost story, one that'll get buried and fade from memory soon enough.

Film review also appeared over at [Click Here]

De Niro, Hathaway Stand Out in Airy Work Dram-Com 'Intern'

Directed by: Nancy Meyers; Runtime: 121 minutes
Grade: B-

Several years ago, writer/director Nancy Meyers fell into a niche by depicting the emotional complications of the lives of highly successful people: an advertising exec magically gets in touch with his feminine side; a movie-trailer editor swaps her mansion for a quaint English cottage to forget about her unfaithful boyfriend; a divorced couple, a wealthy attorney and ritzy bakery owner, reignite a love affair that's interrupted by a charming architect. Prosperity affords these people plenty of freedom to dedicate their attention to more appealing dramatic pursuits, turning the films' attention to lofty ideas about gender awareness, middle-aged perception, and emotional cleansing through a change in surroundings. Meyers' latest, The Intern, again puts her characters in positions of relative comfort -- a meteoric dot-com exec; a retired corporate VP who needs a break from his routine of vacations, tai-chi, and New York shopping -- yet she explores their well-off places in life in pursuit of relevant, albeit saccharine drama that focuses on dedication to one's work and incorporating old-school savvy into new-school commerce.

After many years of retirement spent traveling the world, taking courses, and maintaining a daily routine reminiscent of his working life, widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) starts to feel the itch to do something else with his time. Spotting a flyer about a senior-aged internship with a local e-commerce startup, he decides to apply for the position and, with a little persuasiveness, nails the interviews. He discovers on his first day of work at About the Fit, a modern clothing operation built from the ground up by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), that he's got a lot of ground to cover if he's going to catch up with modern business. Ostin runs a casual but energetic ship that keeps her at the office until late at night, proving to be a demanding position that pulls her away from her family, her daughter and stay-at-home husband, Matt (Anders Holm). Picking up on her issues, Ben finds ways of staying observant and helping the company -- and Jules personally -- wherever he can, often to the discomfort of the control-hungry businesswoman.

Nancy Meyers makes her intentions clear from the get-go, shining a light on Ben's enchantingly outdated behavior around the contemporary office while Jules cycles around conducting similar duties that he once conducted in his old job. A bubbly soundtrack carries the cooperative employees across the office's airy and sunny space, captured in bright and energetic cinematography assuring us that About the Fit will remain that kind of impossibly buoyant working environment found only in feel-good movies, both a feature and a flaw in The Intern. Lacking aggressive attitudes -- even Jules, despite employee chatter, is rather mellow -- or significant glitches that can't be fixed with a few clicks of the mouse or unearthed papers, the fluidity of these operations redirects the film's attention toward more personal and dramatically relevant matters: the boss' passion for the company, her waning work-life balance, and how Ben's equipped to help her out. That safe and composed tempo of the New York office, despite plenty of appealing performances that includes Rene Russo as the in-house massage therapist, feels more like a romanticized recruitment video for the fictional company than a robust space for developing characters, though.

Instead, The Intern centers on the delightful upward rapport between Ben, a fish-outta-water, and Jules, a capable businesswoman submerged by her responsibilities, and how the seasoned veteran takes the plunge and assists in keeping her afloat. Robert De Niro remains perfectly charming as the conservative intern, enriching his character's disconnect from the digital age -- his bewildered responses to video file extensions and creating a Facebook account are adorably droll -- with tranquil, sagely know-how spreading throughout the office that could feasibly turn the company around overnight if desired by writer/director Meyers (his off-the-cuff analysis of a shipping cost problem sorta does that on a smaller scale). Anne Hathaway lends admirable smoothness to Jules, creating a chic and sympathetic entrepreneur whose time away from her family can be felt in each exhausted bedtime conversation with her husband. She's also stubborn about accepting help with her affairs, naturally, and that's where the chemistry between the two actors fits in: De Niro's optimistic accommodation as Ben makes the gradual breaking-down of Hathaway's cordially guarded barrier pleasant to watch unfold.

Where Nancy Meyers ultimately wants to go with her ideas gets complicated as Jules flips between complementing the devotion of her stay-at-home husband and calling for men to be "cool" like Mr. Whittaker: classic, dapper go-getters who wear suits and carry handkerchiefs. Light on growing conflict and even lighter on laughs, The Intern leans on the integrity of these mixed musings to push it to the end of its cheerful endeavors, while elaborating on Jules' need for upper-management help and how her family can stick together amid transitions in her business. Weightier developments late in the story run the risk of unraveling what Meyers works to accomplish with her progressive depiction of the family, but they're not weighty enough to overcome the heartening influence of our focal seventy-year-old intern, of course. With crowd-pleasing zest, The Intern makes certain to empower its focal characters while expressing what it does about dedicated working women and the value of senior citizens in the workforce.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]