Serenity

Release: Friday, January 25, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Steven Knight

This won’t be an exact science, but I don’t plan to see a movie worse than Serenity the rest of this year. Someone deliver me from the temptation to go on an excessive rant here.

From the writer/director of the brilliantly ergonomic thriller Locke (2014) comes Serenity, a vehicle built for the swaggering, whisky-drankin’ Matthew McConaughey but one that ends up taking almost all the wind out of his sails. This is a really bad movie, a tale of two disparate yet equally dissatisfying halves — the first lulling the audience into a false sense of SERENITY before the second damn well confounds with some seriously clumsy and surprisingly amateurish attempts at high concept fantasy (think The Truman Show relocated to a sun-kissed island). If you’ve never heard of this movie before, it isn’t your fault. Aviron, the film’s distributor, had such little faith in it they decided to go ahead and cancel pretty much all publicity for the picture, a move that angered stars McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, who felt they had been misled in the marketing tactics. Good for them for standing behind their work, but bad for them . . . because of the work they’re standing behind.

The movie takes place on a tropical isle called Plymouth, where Baker Dill (a haggard-looking McConaughey) ekes out an existence as a commercial tuna fisherman who takes his wealthy but obnoxious clientele out to sea for a little hookin’. Onshore he tends to his daily routine with all the enthusiasm of a dead fish, hitting the bars for whisky and the bed with Diane Lane for extra cash, because gas is expensive. And we need gas to take tourists out. (Oh, and she has a lost cat running around that she implores Baker to find — spot the icky symbolism boys and girls!) What keeps Baker goin’ — other than the sweaty sex — is his endless obsession with catching the massive tuna he’s been, I guess, haunted by for years. The crusade to catch has become so epic he’s branded the thing Justice. (And again with the symbolism!)

The first half is a character-building slog through Moby Dick-ian cliché, with Baker’s single-minded pursuit getting in the way of good customer relations — he threatens with a knife during a dispute over who gets to reel Justice in, only for it to escape again. Word gets out around Plymouth very easily and some of the other locals believe Baker’s lost his nerve, as well as his mind. There are threats of calling in a doctor to evaluate him. Baker just believes it is bad luck, which he attributes to his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who has struggled to get over the death of his wife.

Things become a bit more lively when, out of the black of the night, comes Anne Hathaway’s sultry Karen. She’s Baker’s ex-wife, though she keeps referring to him as John. She has a proposal for “John” that will benefit both of them. Having remarried when he went off to war, she now wants desperately to be rid of the violently abusive jagoff Frank (a pretty cringe-y Jason Clarke) has turned out to be and tells Baker-John she will pay him $10 million in cash if he takes him out on his boat and throws him overboard for the sharks.

That sets up a fairly compelling moral dilemma in practice but one that seems dopey in writing — does he pursue the big fish or help his wife? The biggest impetus for choosing Option 2 is Baker’s obligation to save his child from enduring an embittered life, irrevocably altered by a broken home. It won’t be the multitude of scars Karen has endured through those years that compels him but rather an opportunity to do right by his son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Through what appear to be flashbacks we see Patrick confined to his bedroom and locked into a video game that he recodes, trying to escape the misery of his home life. We come to appreciate how close the father and son bond once was, but it turns out they have an even deeper connection, more along the lines of telepathy.

Act Two. Oh goodness, here we go, into the Bermuda Triangle. I am all for ambitious, high-concept, twisty-turvy plots. When they convincingly pull the rug out from under us we get things like The Matrix and Shutter Island. But when the twist isn’t executed well or the entire concept is fundamentally screwy we wind up with the confusing mess that is Serenity, an increasingly heavy-handed allegory involving fate versus free will, decency versus immorality — elements that are initially introduced via obvious Biblical references (the Serenity Prayer is all but spelled out in dialogue) before a thoroughly strange meeting with a suited gentleman (Jeremy Strong) one evening further shakes things up. As it turns out Baker may not be as in control of his life — if it is even a life he leads — as it initially appears, and there are “rules” of a vaguely defined “game” he may have to break if he is to succeed in his endeavor.

I could go into further detail regarding what that game is but what is the point? Those details make even less sense in writing than they do in the film. Let’s leave it at this: the McConaissance is officially over. A few more movies like this and I feel like it’s back to square one again. Serenity is so undercooked and haphazardly constructed it is as if a child wrote it, maybe that kid from Florida is behind it all. Count your blessings if you do not understand that reference.

All aboard the S.S. WTF!

Recommendation: Serenity uses a sexy cast as bait to lure unsuspecting audiences into a plot that becomes infuriatingly nebulous to the point of being unintentionally funny. But this isn’t the kind of so-bad-it’s-good film that can be tossed back with some beers. This is the kind of nonsensical, pretentious claptrap that kills careers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Burnt

Burnt movie poster

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight; Michael Kalesniko

Directed by: John Wells

Brad Cooper is a dish best served cold in this kitchen drama, starring him as a lunatic chef in what seems to be the pinnacle of culinary kick-assery in downtown London. There’s not much fat on these bones but Cooper and some of the other actors — Daniel Brühl is becoming reliable — aren’t exactly gristle. There’s not a very good story around them but these are some pretty great performances.

To use another cute food metaphor, Cooper’s Adam Jones is far from a savory personality. He’s a former drug addict and possessor of virtually every vice one could be accused of having. He barks orders and berates his fellow chefs when things go wrong; he owes a great amount of money to some strangers; he’s generally an intense and unpleasant person to be around. He’s almost superheroic in his distrust of others.

One day Adam decides to get clean and go take over an old friend’s son (Brühl)’s kitchen and cook, you know, the really good stuff. Because that’s how it happens; you can sometimes cook yourself back to sanity. His goal is to achieve a three-star Michelin rating, by all accounts an arbitrary bestowing of honor to all those who don’t spend most of their lives making food. Jones has been a two-star chef for sometime, but to achieve one more would be to become a Kitchen God. You achieve immortality. You become Gordon Ramsey.

Burnt is co-written by a man named Steven Knight, a name that’s likely unfamiliar to those who have yet to experience his brilliantly minimalist Tom Hardy-driven (literally) drama Locke from yesteryear. Minimalism plays a hand once again here, only it’s not to the benefit of the production. Characters, including Cooper’s prima donna, are uniformly underwritten and after a few brief visits to Emma Thompson’s psychiatrist and a few brief flirtations with Sienna Miller’s Helene it becomes clear Burnt is very much a movie of the present, and could care less about fully investing in Jones’ past or his life away from the kitchen.

It’s odd that Knight couldn’t produce a more palatable dish out of Michael Kalesniko’s story. I ponder this not because these characters feel unbelievable or that the food doesn’t look appealing. Neither case is the issue here; in fact the decision to place actors in an environment where all props are not props at all but are instead the genuine articles, contributes to credibility. And Cooper has shown in times past he’s comfortable playing the not-so-nice guy. Rather my concern is over consistency. Knight was onto something with his 2014 psychological drama but now it seems he’s settled back into more crowd-pleasing confectionaries.

Burnt can only justify itself as a cinematic release on the virtue of its star wattage. In every other way this is a package made for television. It would sit beautifully alongside popular shows like Hell’s KitchenKitchen Nightmares or even Chopped. Not to downplay the power of TV drama. Watching good-looking people slave over even-better-looking cuisine and listening to Daniel Brühl romanticize his relationship with one of Europe’s most overblown egotists wouldn’t be the worst way to spend time around the box in the living room.

Yet with a cast this good — one that includes Omar Sy as an ‘old friend’ of Adam’s from his days in Paris, Alicia Vikander as a former flame, and Uma Thurman as an infamously difficult-to-please food critic — it’s more than a little disappointing this run-of-the-mill tale of redemption is as expendable as the next late night McDonald’s run a night shift worker is all but forced into making for the sake of convenience.

Brad Cooper is pissed off all the time in 'Burnt'

Recommendation: Star power is the name of the game here. Fans of Brad Cooper probably will have a hard time resisting this one and he’s definitely great in the lead. But Burnt seems a cheap cash-in on the recent trend of celebrity chef dramas on TV which I, personally, have great difficulty in finding the appeal. I can’t say this movie is a waste of time but it’s a waste of a lot of great talent.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I don’t want my resturant to be a place where people sit and eat. I want people to sit at that table and be sick with longing.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.rottentomatoes.com

Locke

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

What’s harder to reconcile — the uncertainty and doubt associated with what the future may or may not hold for you, or acknowledging the truth of what’s happened in your past?

If you don’t find yourself moved by this kind of prying, existential question, a question that you can almost feel digging fingernails into your psyche as this simple narrative unfolds, there’s probably not a great deal something like Steven Knight’s brilliantly conservative Locke can offer you.

For anyone who does find themselves so moved, the film offers even less in the way of comfort. Emotionally hard-hitting and complex, this is a film that mirrors reality so well it’s actually more impressive that any of this is scripted. Presented as something of a road trip adventure infused with a touch of film noir, Locke is entirely caught up in the here-and-now, realizing what’s most important should be the thing that’s made most readily available to the viewer, and has little time or interest in distracting with other subplots or storylines. Indeed, what we get is Hardy’s face, a hands-free cell phone and a beautiful BMW (finally, product placement that isn’t obnoxious) as the key ingredients responsible for doling out the drama.

Tom Hardy plays an esteemed construction foreman who is seen at the film’s open leaving a work site for the evening, knocking wet concrete from his boots before getting into his car and driving away. For the remainder of the film this is where both he and the audience shall be confined — a gauntlet on wheels that comes to spawn a multitude of situations and conversations, all of which are not only believable, but also inconceivable. As the drive continues, Locke’s situation perpetually worsens and in ways that are entirely too convincing, with each successive phone call devolving into another nightmarish battle.

That the film is primarily set in the driver’s seat of a four-door sedan should be enough to make for a compelling indie film reel, but that’s not where the film excels the most. Though this intimacy certainly helps elevate the film, it’s the work that Hardy turns in that separates Locke from other limited-setting movies, and by several mile markers at that.

Hardy is a one-man show, an artist so in the moment time almost seems to come to a stand-still. He imbues his character with the perfect sampling of each human emotion that invariably would surface during a car ride of this magnitude, or during any number of stressful — granted, less intricate and bizarre — situations for that matter. Sure, driving may be the only activity the man takes part in here, but the circumstances surrounding what he’s doing have a kind of gravity that will put a lump in your throat.

Locke is, in a word, defiant, and the more that’s left unsaid about it, the better. Suffice it to say, though, expect a story which refuses to bend to convention, as Ivan refuses to lose sight of his ultimate goal. We, the ever curious — bordering on frustrated — third-party simply must sit perched on the edge of our seats, nervous, as we anticipate each precious little detail as they come spilling forward, either from Hardy’s mouth or from the speakers on the dashboard. The genius in this film is that frustration mounts but it never overwhelms, and that frustration is not the end game. It’s only part of the experience. And there are so many different parts.

An existential drama disguised as a road trip movie, Locke is quite simply one of the most inventive and riveting films you will see this, or any other year. There won’t be many things quite like it.

locke-reflection

5-0Recommendation: An exemplary indie film that is sure to satisfy the art house crowd and Tom Hardy fans in equal measure. See it for a much more nuanced Hardy performance — it’s really quite something comparing this role to his Bane, or something like Charles Bronson. But see it for far more fundamental reasons also: if you appreciate deeply human stories, Locke is one you cannot afford to miss.

Rated: R

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Gareth, with all due respect: f**k Chicago.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com