Friday, February 5, 2016


It seems that the lessons of history are lost on the young these days. More attention is paid to causes in history as opposed to the events that happened. When you talk about the cold war they’re taught that it ended under Reagan but little about what it was or things that happened, with the exception perhaps the Bay of Pigs situation. Ask any kid who Gary Francis Powers was and chances are they won’t know. Ask about the U-2 spy plane and they’re likely to think it’s a cover band. So it’s nice to see the story as well as what happened around it told in BRIDGE OF SPIES.

Rather than focus directly on Powers the movie instead tells the tale from the perspective of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the lawyer who was fundamental in securing Power’s release. An insurance attorney, Donovan is recruited to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a man accused of being a Russian spy at the height of the cold war. While we know that he is guilty, Donovan takes the task assigned seriously without questioning if he is or not.

But what Donovan truly faces is a kangaroo court. No one wants this to play out honestly, especially those in charge of the proceedings. Guilt has been determined before the trial even begins and Donovan slowly comes to that understanding as requests are denied and comments are made in chambers by the judge leaving no doubt what will follow. Not only that, Donovan and his family come under attack for his taking the case, the public unaware that he was requested to do so as opposed to taking the case willingly.

With a guilty verdict in all that is left is sentencing. The crowd calls for the death penalty. Donovan reasons with the judge suggesting that we too are spying on the Russians and should one of our spies fall into their hands it might be worthwhile to have one of theirs on hand that we could offer in trade for the safe return of ours. While the case is lost, Donovan does have this at least as solace.

When he returns to work things are different. His attempt to actually be the lawyer he thought he was supposed to have altered the attitude of co-workers. But all that is left behind when the call for his services is sent out once more.

A co-existing story has unfolded as the trial was taking place, that of Gary Francis Powers and the crash of his U-2 spy plane. Pilots have been ordered to blow up their planes and if need be kill themselves rather than be taken prisoner. Circumstance have left Powers unable to do either and he is being interrogated by the Russians concerning his plane and the plans of the U.S.

These two storylines converge when Donovan is asked to help, while not actually being a representative of the government, in setting up a trade with the Russians, Abel for Powers. Shortly before this has gone on, an American student was also arrested in the now Communist controlled East Germany days after the Berlin Wall has been erected. Donovan agrees to help and although his handlers continue to tell him to forget the student he tries to set up the trade for both Americans.

The movie unravels at a slow pace but then so do the days and weeks of a trial and the maneuvering to get a deal done in the second half of the film. Slow here is not a bad thing but instead allows the story to be told. Anyone expecting guns blazing and explosions galore will be disappointed. This is the real world and how governments actually behave most of the time. It is a fascinating tale that is handled well by director Steven Spielberg. Hanks does his usual amazing job of portraying a character who is challenged by his own morals as he walks his way through a world that seems to have none.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that young people will have no clue who Powers was. In watching this film they may be drawn to his story as well as an in depth look at what the cold war actually was. While there is little doubt that artistic license was probably used in the portrayal of this tale the fundamentals are there and something can be learned from the film while being entertained as well. While it is extremely well made it is the story that counts and this one offers that in spades. The fact that it’s been nominated for best picture at this year’s Oscars is proof of that.

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A movie about a failed chef trying to reclaim his status titled BURNT would make you think the title was referring to his cooking abilities. The fact is it’s isn’t and in this new movie starring Bradley Cooper you discover someone more than a simple cooking film. You find a film about a man trying to reclaim his life.

Cooper stars as Adam Jones, once hailed as the upcoming best and brightest chef in France. Trained by a master and on his way up, Jones crashed and burned on his own due to overindulgences in everything from alcohol to drugs to women. An overnight failure he has since given himself a penance of shucking 1 million oysters in a tiny restaurant in New Orleans. After that last oyster he heads for London.

In London Jones arrives at the hotel and restaurant managed by ex-friend Tony (Daniel Bruhl). It was Tony’s father’s restaurant that Jones brought to the ground with his antics. He informs Tony that he’s cleaned up his act and is there to take over Tony’s new restaurant. Tony brushes him off by Jones works his way into the position and then sets about assembling his staff.

In a homage to films like THE SEVEN SAMURAI and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN the film next shows Jones putting that team together. He starts with word from a friend about a fantastic woman working in his own location named Helene (Sienna Miller). She has no plans to work for Jones but he makes that happen as well giving her no option. He recruits an old friend who was one of those burned in France, Michel, trying to make amends for past sins. He brings in a young chef wanna be working a food cart named David. As the team comes together it becomes Jones business to make it all work.

Jones also goes to another old friend’s to inform him of what is coming. Reece (Matthew Rhys) is a fellow chef and a competitor with Jones. Now successful with his own restaurant and trying new methods he has already achieved that which Jones is seeking, a three star rating in Michelin. We’re not talking tires here (even though that’s who puts out the guide) but the Michelin rating system for fine foods around the world. They secretly attend various restaurants and based on those visits rate them from 1 to 3 stars, 3 being the ultimate the holy grail of ratings. Jones had reached a 2 star rating. All that is left is that elusive 3.

The movie might seem to simply be about a jerk of a chef (much like Gordon Ramsay is portrayed on TV) who just wants to win a rating. In truth it’s about more than the rating. It is indeed about that chef but more importantly about his trying to reclaim his soul, his inspiration after having tarnished not just his career but after having ruined his own life and the lives of those around him. Jones isn’t quite sure how he can make up for his past failures other than to do what he does best which is cook and create. It’s not just about him attempting to do so but discovering if he can find that spark once again, if he can remove all that damage within himself and that he caused, to achieve a normal life.

The best performances in movies are those that don’t intrude, those where you don’t recognize the actor in the role. Instead they seem to actually be the character they are portraying. In the case of Bradley Cooper it would be so easy to push him aside thinking he was just another handsome actor getting more acclaim for his looks than his abilities. There are roles he’s had where that has come into play even. But here he takes on the role of Adam Jones and breathes life into it. He makes you feel for a man who self-destructed and then tries to redeem himself not just in his own eyes but in the eyes of those who matter most to him. At the same time he isn’t even aware of how much those around him mean which adds yet another layer to the character as portrayed by Cooper. He does a fantastic job.

While praise may seem heaped on Cooper here the fact is that without a strong supporting cast his performance would be wasted. All of the cast members here turn in outstanding performances that truly do support the main character while allowing their own characters to shine. Director John Wells (who also made the amazing THE COMPANY MEN) gives his subject, his actors and his creative staff room to breathe and in doing so brings out the best in them here.

In a world where we are bombarded with cooking shows that range from how to fry a burger to visiting the most exclusive, expensive and creative restaurants in the world most of us think we have all the answers when it comes to what goes on. But we rarely get a behind the scenes look at that world. We get the end product but not the journey to get there. BURNT gives us a glimpse of that world and the creators behind it. Not as in depth as a documentary but a glance in the form of entertainment. And entertained is what you will be while watching this film.
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As a form of entertainment special effects movies seem to have taken over, sometimes to the delight of movie lovers and while at other times to their dismay. It seems that the more Hollywood relies on the computer generated image (CGI) the less outstanding it becomes; it’s accepted and expected rather than something spectacular to view. What makes a movie outstanding in cases like this is the story. Does it involve the viewer, does it engage the viewer and does it make sense? On rare occasions it happens (consider the STAR WARS movies). In some it doesn’t (consider most SyFy Channel movies). But for the most part it falls somewhere in between. Such is the case with THE LAST WITCH HUNTER.

The film opens in the past when the last great battles were taking place between humans and witches. The Witch Queen has retreated to her den and a group of sword wielding humans have tracked her down with the intent of finishing her and her kind. A battle ensues and Kaulder (Vin Diesel) is left facing the witch, sword in hand, a combination of iron and fire required to kill her with a blow to her heart. He strikes but she does the same to him, making him immortal while she withers away to dust.

Fast forward to the future where witches still exists. Apparently killing the Witch Queen did not do them all in. Now Kaulder works for a secretive organization with ties to the Catholic Church that tracks down witches and uses of witchcraft to prevent them from killing humans. It ranges from small things like misguided teens attempting witchcraft to full blown killers on the street.

Helping the witch hunter is the Dolan, currently at their 37th incarnation played by Michael Caine. The Dolan has helped Kaulder through the decades, informing him of outbreaks and incidents as well as providing him with the tools needed to accomplish his tasks. Dolan the 37th is about to retire now and Kaulder presents him with a gift. His replacement, Dolan the 38th (Elijah Wood) arrives and is introduced. As he and Kaulder become acquainted, his predecessor is killed before Kaulder can return to save him.

Investigating his friend’s death, Kaulder finds a clue from him to look into his first death. To remember he visits a spell worker, sort of an allocated witch, named Chloe (Rose Leslie). While under a memory spell he’s cuffed and left to die in an inferno as the real witch behind the events that have happened escapes. Of course so does Kaulder. Tracking down this witch and finding out who is really responsible becomes the goal of Kaulder with the help of his new Dolan and Chloe. But can he find the answers before time runs out for him as well as humanity?

The story here is actually a good one when you look at it. A bad guy is presented early on along with a hero to prevent that evil from succeeding. The conspiracy of a secretive organization there to protect the world falls in line with many movies today as does a secondary group there to counter them. But while it’s a good story it seems more commonplace than I thought it would be. Perhaps that’s because I’m a jaded movie goer who sees more than most. For me while I thought the story was good it felt too familiar in some ways.

Diesel does a great job as Kaulder. Physically Diesel has always been the musclebound hero in more than one film. But here he allows his character to smile on occasion and to talk and think deeper than most are used to. The ability to play characters like this has always been there and in truth most have had that combination of brains and brawn. But it’s his physical appearance that most fans notice, much like they did with Sylvester Stallone, another underrated actor remembered more for his physicality than his abilities. Hopefully that will change.

In the end the film was entertaining but so fueled by CGI events that it fell into that mid-range category of effects driven films. Sure it was fun but with so many movies coming out like this the odds are that it gets lost in the mix. Not much about it makes it stand out above the rest. A good time can be had watching the movie but repeated viewings aren’t likely for most with the exception of Vin Diesel fans. It’s a fun movie but not outstanding. And in a world populated by CGI creations something more needs added to the mix to make it memorable.

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