RIORI Vol 3, Installment 38: John Wells’ “Burnt” (2015)


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The Crew…

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Sam Keeley and Riccardo Scamarcio, with Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson.


The Story…

“God gives us the nuts, but He does not crack them.”

That was Kafka, and we knowing as much as we can from his writings, such existential thinking requires a bit of time to digest.

Speaking of digestion, disgraced chef Adam Jones has been trying to turn his life around—both personally and professionally—and get back into the swing of things. He’s relocated to London, trying to reignite the fire that torched him so back in the early days of his profession.

Also, and not so quietly, pursuing a third Michelin star as well as validation as a productive, upright member of proper culinary society.

In other words, Adam wants respect. Within and without.


The Rant…

A millennium ago here at RIORI I regaled y’all with my misadventures as a cook with the Chef installment. An aeon ago here at RIORI I spewed to you folks about my struggles with bipolar disorder with the Silver Linings Playbook installment.

Now we meet our quandary. Strap in.

Due to the fact (or maybe in spite of it) that Burnt tackled issues close to home it was still a natural fit under The Standard’s demands. Also, it’s been some time since we reviewed what The Standard is all about. So let’s, shall we?

What? Again? What for? Well, one you didn’t read the homepage, which means you are either lazy or disinterested as to how this blog gets slapped together. Maybe both. I would be too.

Second, recalling my rant on The Physician installment, folks are fuzzy on the logic of why these movies. I get a fair share of recommendations here, and only a few make the cut. The Standard may be a little flexible here and there, but a its core, RIORI is a PSA/angry screed about how Hollywood’s been fleecing us since the turn of the century. Its pretty ironclad overall. So can the movie biz’ practices, shamelessly and obviously, and spitting on our collective movie-going audience minds in the process. The fluff that’s aimed at in my very opinionated crosshairs is the acid test for what Tinsel Town gets away with and/or hides from us. Ipso facto, what movie fans care most about—thought provoking entertainment. It’s that cheated feeling I’m taking a stand against, like an angry shepherd cursing his unruly flock.

If you ain’t hip to that, go elsewhere. Flock off already.

*groans from the balcony*

Shut it. That was the best pun you ever heard. At least here.

So to put it plainly, The Standard was established based on a simple tenet: dissect perceived mediocrity in modern movies. Yer welcome.

*cheers from the nosebleed seats. “Freebird!”*

Where was I? Oh yeah, the movie gunk. But first I gotta get my bitch on.

Never fear. I’m not gonna go on and on with some long, winding bio in the food biz like I did with the Chef installment. Again, yer welcome. Still, I’d be remiss to not say a few things about the world of cheffing and its preconceived notions by the hoi polloi, which to some degree Burnt addresses, if not encourages. So I’ll take you on some long, winding tirade about how the food biz works and how the public believes it works, amplified by the camera lens. Don’t fret none. It’ll only sting a little. Later we may have to break out the branding iron, if needs be.

This may come as a bit of a shock, but I have a certain disdain for the concept of a “celebrity chef.” Back in the day, any great chef worth his salt—and it was almost certainly always a he—earned his rep through word of mouth and an impeccable menu, as well as a certain “reputation.” You know what I mean. The arrogant stereotype that launched a thousand signature Rachael Ray spice racks down ol’ Target way. Folks like Careme, Escoffier and Pliny The Elder got their esteem via reputation alone, either through praise or infamy. Often both. No cameras then. No endorsements. No makeup artists. Just skills and craftsmanship and a legacy to hold them up. Them’s were frontier days.

In the not so recent past (at least before basic cable), going into the restaurant biz was an option slightly better than a conscript in the army, prison inmate or high school gym teacher. No glory then, not like today where white bread America is enraptured with mad food skillz and prettiness and effete snobbery of self-described “foodies.” Folks, let me tell you: drizzling black truffle oil on everything does not a gourmet dish make, no matter how crisp those French fries are. Or a Red Baron pizza, for that matter. Snooty foodie guests get all moist over the lobster risotto, unaware that the dish is merely a thrown bone to keep ’em quiet. Sometimes it even works, provided they didn’t catch the latest installment of The Chew and what Michael Symon kept giggling about.

No. Not too long back, cooks were regarded as chattel, lowly laborers in hot dungeons, fueled by beer, crank and the burning need to make rent at the YMCA. Oh yeah, a desire to make good food in there somewhere. It wasn’t all shiny shiny, endless pantry, the barbarians of Gourmet shaking down the gates to understand how the chef succeeded in foraging for morels in October. Again, no. Back then, no one really cared, so long as the food kept coming and didn’t taste like week-old snot. Thank God for ketchup. The general public didn’t want to know how the sausage was made, literally and figuratively.

A lot has changed since those Stone Age-y days (not that much. The beer thing is sovereign). Today, pro chefs are revered for their craft and creativity. Restaurant cooks now have a sort of rock star cachet (a phrase I loathe). Most are either formally educated at Johnson & Wales, the CIA, under the tutelage of a knowledgeable chef or simply spending years in the bellies of multiple beasts, plugging away from dishwasher to sous. Sometimes beyond; look at Thomas Keller. We are skilled craftsmen and women, hell bent on improving your lives with food, fun and a psychotic enough drive to make a rabbit torchon or proscuttio foam (shout out to Robinson there, the maniac) for your dining pleasure. And ultimately ours.

Some things have not changed. Professional cooking is still a lonely trade, in so those who do it understand all too well that the people outside the circle just. Won’t. Get. It. We labor in very close proximity to others in unpleasant climes that would result in a harassment suit in a proper corporate environment. Potential physical danger at your fingertips, often on purpose. Lots of sweat, lots of pressure, lots of angst and lots of the f-bomb used for every part of speech. Rewards for this toil? Internal. The occaisional complement only makes us skittish and ever more determined to the next time to perhaps, blue moon-like get another (hopefully in the form of a clean plate). Meantime in the not so far back of our heads we constantly ask ourselves, “What can be done better?”

Sigh.

Like many of the problems of our culture, blame TV on this sea change in the public’s view of chefs. It could’ve came from any cook’s cult of personality (mine was Jeff Smith, AKA “The Frugal Gourmet”), but I’m gonna say that the praise or said blame could be laid at the feet of Emeril Lagasse for bringing the wonders of cooking into your average suburban kitchen. You know, a house with little more than a sticky microwave and way too many cans of Campbell’s at the ready. Oh, and Kraft mac and cheese. Can’t forget the Kraft now. All ya gotta do is cheeze me. Call Sandra Lee.

Before Emiril’s cries of “bam!” penetrated the hive mind of Middle America in the 90s, chefs toiled in steerage and earned obscurity. Most wanted it that way; it’s easier to practice a rather psycho craft without prying eyes and scorn gettin’ all up in your grille. The job is tough and has little of the glamour the media dumps on the likes of Bobby Flay and others of his ilk. You know, the former pro chefs who are now well-groomed, have writers and nary a day-old beard growth to be found (this includes Anne Burrell). Sure, the chef does get rightful attention at their eateries, for the good and the gross, but what’s behind the curtain would never sell in Columbus. I’m telling you, if you ever got a look over the pass at some two-star joint at how we labored, spoke and behaved—all in the name of speed and flavor, mind you—you’d turn around in search of a chemical shower usually reserved for biohazard contamination. Please try the veal.

Kidding. It’s not that bad. It’s only on weekends we have to bust out the manacles on the ankles. Moving on.

Emeril brought a personality to a chef. Mainstream media-flavored. A cult of personality to be sure, thanks to the camera or in spite of it. But think about it, he was funny, animated, knowledgeable and coined a bloody catchphrase, before God. Even ol’ Jeff Smith was lacking there. So bam! as star was born. A celebrity chef, and it’s been the trickle-down theory ever since. For good and for ill. Very ill. Hospice level, actually.

The other end of the spectrum—the inevitable, tired shark-jump—are the myriad Gordon Ramsey travesties that are pure, car crash entertainment. Say what you will, but at least Emeril’s programming (barring that embarassing sitcom) was about cooking. All Ramsey does it let loose with his frustrated ex-footballer lost glory and hams it up. Ramsey’s antics on his plethora of non-cooking shows only demands the question, “Why would anyone want to get into this business?” It’s all a real shame. The guy’s talented, taught by the esteemed British chef Marco White, the only guy who ever retired his Michelin stars. You watch Kitchen Nightmares (the US version) and you’d never get the impression that this petulant, raging assh*le commanded such loyalty back in his actual cheffing days that when he quit a kitchen he crew followed suit, raging asshat boss be damned.

That kind of story isn’t sexy enough for TV. Screaming blue language is.

Don’t misunderstand me. Such behavior is par for the course in a professional restaurant kitchen. The exploits recounted in chef-cum-travel host Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential are painfully spot on, cocaine and all (I’m not saying I harbor a blow habit. I’m a drunk. I only avoid police at key moments). But for all the hullabaloo from ignorant, moneyed ‘Murica tossing bouquets and feigning culinary knowledge akin to that sketchy guy at the used record store, clutching his first pressing of Neu!’s self-titled debut like the Dead Sea Scrolls with a sneer, the job’s decidedly not some fashion show runway with knives. Pro cooking is a basal, ugly business. It’s only redeemed by the throughput from of many sweaty hours. Years. It is never about hand-picked anything and impeccable crystal. It’s what you don’t see beyond those pickled ramps you’ve been lusting over, which only a day ago you understood as things the drunken wheelchair-bound used to get up to the library.

The celeb chef ideal is a myth. It’s a fabrication based on a broadcasted image. It’s seldom if ever about what’s on the plate. It’s TV. Get that through your hipster heads. And shave off that f*ckin’ beard already.

That being said, it comes as no shock that my friends in the field had to check out Burnt, if only to gleefully point out technical errors and/or see if Cooper “got it right.” I sometimes start the rants without seeing the movie proper, like here. Why? Distillation of bile when a film might tackle a subject that may be near and dear. Gets the juices a-flowing’ ya dig? Don’t sweat none about the actual review. It’s lurking around here somewhere.

Speaking of the actual film this week, I think it proper to point out that our lead Cooper had a little experience behind this role back in his salt mine years. In the early aughts, Cooper starred in a short-lived TV show loosely based on/inspired by the escapades in the aforementioned Bourdain exposé Kitchen Confidential. For less than a year, Cooper portrayed chef Jack Bourdain (clever) trying to hold a white tablecloth joint together with his rabble of criminals and miscreants as crew. The venerable character actor Frank “Skeletor” Langella played the beleaguered owner of the place, which lent a degree of gravitas to this left-wing farce, but mostly it was unknown and therefore malleable actors that filled in the blanks. Such a clean slate must’ve allowed Cooper some room to work out the kinks his comedic acting style. The show limped along for a single season, then vanished without a trace. Three years later Anthony’s tales on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations took flight and eventually scored Emmys. I find all that funny. Just thought I’d say something. Whatever. Back to the PopSecret with you.

Due to the waffling reviews, lame takeaway and ribbing from my peers I took Burnt under my wing. Truth be told it was mostly out of curiosity. Not necessarily professional curiosity. I admit that was there. More so I was curious to see if what Cooper might have learned back in 2005 got translated here (in an identical role BTW, complete with checkered past and a struggle against addiction) with any élan, more confident thanks to an Oscar nom under his belt. And sans any potential insulting performance my fellow countrymen would cackle at. Here’s hoping.

Service!…


Time takes time, as it’s been said.

Disgraced chef Adam Jones (Cooper) has been marking off his time in oysters. Shuck by shuck.

He’s been in a self-imposed exile away from running a kitchen, trying to get his sh*t together after drink and drugs ruined his career years ago. He’s found the time is right to make amends. Not so much to others he’s wronged in the past, but for the debacle of his Parisian restaurant—thereby insulting his mentor—through hubris and excessive…everything.

Jones is in London, looking for his comeback (and the ever elusive third Michelin star). He shakes down Tony (Brühl), the stuffy maitre’d of the exclusive Langham Hotel to give him the gig to turn around its restaurant. Tony is all too knowledgeable of Adam’s recklessness, and balks at first. Still, Adam is the man with the skills, and a third-tier eatery would do wonders for the Langham’s cachet.

Everybody deserves a second chance. So Adam goes about wrangling in talented cooks to make his dream of revenge come true. Helene (Miller) is a brittle, single mom whose got a lot more to gain and lose by teaming up with Adam. Michel (Sy) was Adam’s former sous when the merde went down in Paris, and might still be harboring something. Grillardin extraordinare Max (Scamarico) is on board for his wonders over the fire, as soon as he gets out of jail. And FNG David (Keeley) is a commis far from hopeless, as soon as he realizes it.

Even with his dream crew, it’s not really about Adam creating his dream restaurant here. It’s not really even about righting wrongs with old friends as well as professional integrity. It’s not even about that elusive third star.

Adam conquering the Langham is about apples. And oysters. And time served…


While Chef was an R-rated family film disguised as a character study, Burnt is nothing but a character study. Chef was friendly while Burnt is prickly. Chef  was uplifting while Burnt is downbeat. Chef had a hopefulness about it, with a likable star at its helm. With Burnt, we have murkiness and a decidedly unlikeable lead.

Dare I say it? Yep, I do. We’re talking apples to oranges here. Stop screaming.

The image if the “celebrity chef” hangs over Burnt like a pall. Not totally bad, though; there’s enough decent acting to keep the air light and puffy. The sh*t you witness on the Food Network is akin to watching an ep of Maury, that kind of emoting. That’s mostly absent with Burnt. Mostly. This is a Hollywood concoction, so certain concessions must be made. But still there are quite a few shades of that demon cult of personality I warned about creeping at the edges of Burnt. Only by way of canny direction and calculated acting does the film arrive as more than the sum of its knobby-kneed parts.

Like I said, character study. Boy, do we have a holy host here. That ubiquitous notion of celebrity chef nips at every corner of Burnt. It’s almost cliched, if not to the toilers on the sea but to every enraptured soul that takes Rachael Ray way too seriously (admit it, you’d tap that). It gets blurry, what the story is behind these characters. It is a tale of redemption, yes, and with the supporting cast, we have many facets of Adam’s wounded past made flesh. They’re like mirrors reflecting all the f*ckery Adam committed in his callow, druggy days and now he has to face them. Face himself.

Here’s where the drama comes in. Cooper may be the star, but it’s the folks in the wings that make Burnt work. Otherwise, this would indeed be Silver Linings Cookbook, yearning and fragile. Pert, almost shrewish Helene keeps Jones in check; keeps his time on task. It’s understood that Jones is very insecure and emotionally raw. His only validation for living is his work. His work is under par (to others). His fragile ego is shattered. Then he lashes out at others because they’re easier marks than himself. Not so with Helene. She’s not in this biz for ego—not like Adam—but for a clinical love or food and family, something he lacks. Her directness and no posturing, no bullsh*t attitude tempers, if not challenges Adam’s bluster. It’s agreed in this work that arrogance is important, but should be allayed by the bottom line. In sum, Cooper and Miller have an uneasy chemistry. Tit for tat. It’s almost not there. Almost, mind you. This push and pull makes for some good tension. It’s the best part of a comedy-drama: when both fronts won’t yield. And both come out smiling.

Cooper’s Adam is an arrogant doosh, to be sure. I guess balancing off him is why I enjoyed the supporting cast better than our star. Miller and the rest are a lot like a Classical Greek chorus, either emoting or telling the audience what’s happening. You gotta be sharp for it, though. Sy’s Michel was a fine example. All along the line, you get whiffs that he’s got a bone to pick with Adam, but you never truly see his motives coming. He’s calculating, but rather removed at the same time. It’s not until The Big Reveal that we get his message and purpose. Ooooo (that wasn’t a spoiler. It really wasn’t. Really. Back off).

Keeley’s David and Scarmarcio’s Max were yin and yang. David’s the newb, wobbly but eager. Max is tough, embittered to what the biz dishes out. There were some nice moments between the two, but not direct interaction. Whenever Adam fails to get his jones (ha!) on, and takes down his crew with hubris and ridicule, David and Max mirror the fallout. David gets abashed, and Max hangs his head in silent disgust, seeing this happening one too many times and now emotionally removed from the skewering David gets treated to. It’s a dynamic I’ve seen in kitchens before; big bro, li’l bro. BTW, the ranting, bully chef figure is so passé. Thank TV and Ramsey for that. That sh*t does not a productive kitchen make. There ya go.

My fave character in this mess is Brühl’s Tony. Mister uptight, what-the-f*ck-have-I-gotten-into, beleaguered maitre’d. He’s the hub upon which the spokes spin. Reality check. Apart from Helene, Tony’s the man with the plan: keeping Adam on target. All this sh*t with the Langham and getting a third star and mending Adam’s troublesome conscious means nothing. It’s the bottom line. Cooking is a business, not just some palate to cleanse. There are stakes here beyond perfect saffron and not scorching the bechamel. Tony passively reminds Adam that there is a world out there, beyond the kitchen. Maybe he should check it out, really check it out sometime. That and his accent is great, and mish-mash of Eurotrash and an ingenue. He’s very natural.

Now that’s out of the way, we’ll get to what Bourdain calls “the nasty bits.”

Technical sh*t, and I ain’t talking editing (which was indeed fine, if only for the first act). Got a handful of gripes here, and it’s not from my experiences with sweat and tired feet. No. Again it’s with the demon specter of the Food Network peppering the story with “sweetening.” Overall, there are nuggets of truth within the kitchen at The Langham, but delivered with the usual Hollywood sell. It’s a convincing sell, mind you, but I could really have done without the whole “bad boy” image Jones had. The leather jacket? The shades? The bloody motorcycle? Total TV. Also, one needn’t explain away a chef’s turbulent background/upbringing. I mean, my mentor was raised by a mother who was gay; take that under your belt. He was bipolar as well. Did you need to know that? No. Did it have any real bearing on his career? Probably not (the dope maybe). Did we need to be reminded frame after frame of Adam’s misdeeds? Of course not. We got it. He’s haunted. One mention is enough. Anything more delves into after school special territory/cautionary tale. Let the audience add their own spice, already.

In addition to that, there are lots of pretensions here to “illustrate” the sturm and drang of cooking. Excessive plate throwing is the stuff of Hollywood. Sure, it happens. Like once in a Sasquatch sighting happens. It did happen to me once, but by accident. Here, have a seat. I nearly got an ear torn off by an errant hotel pan. Again, it was an accident. I was literarily walking through the door to clock in for service when this angular, metal non-boomerang caromed off the mop sink basin and crashed at my feet. Only after I ducked with drunken cat-like speed. My chef was horrified at what he had done, scared. He could have sent my teeth flying. I learned that he was pissed at a certain piece of troublesome equipment and took out his ire by hurling the irksome pan across the kitchen. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Still scary, though.

The antics the flustered Jones engaged in was hyped up, but probably for the sake of keeping the audience awake. And say what you won’t, Jones manifested the worst and best parts of my mentor perfectly, warts and…warts. His skulking around the kitchen, making sure everything’s on point and on the level. The endless, stern questioning of his crew ensuring the former. The stress. That much was genuine. But that sh*t only sells so much to the average, attention starved, lasagane-loving audience. We gotta throw hotel pans to keep folks engaged. Shameful, at least for trying to convey a fine dining kitchen as “authentic” against the reality.

Here is where I shall share with you the true make-up of film. What Hollywood is all about in execution, not necessarily practice. Burnt is an ideal acid test. You wanna know what filmmaking is all about? Do ya? Huh, do ya?

Wake up.

Hollywood is reality plus 20%. Dig it.

The best movies feel real. They aren’t real, they’re stories. But the stories are supposed to trick us into believing that this, this is reality. This is how it is. Doubt me? Then explain all the Star Wars acolytes out there. And no, sorry to burst any bubbles, you can’t buy the Millenium Falcon on eBay. At least not “life-size” and in Lego form. Sorry.

Many writers claim that to make a story work, the characters must be likable. Bzzzt. Wrong. Is Jones cuddly? Characters have to be interesting. Is Jones interesting? Yes. Likable? Nuh-uh. By following that line, a film offers up a “normal” chef role and there’ll be yawns aplenty. You gotta exceed real reality. You gotta throw hotel pans. Daily. Hourly. With a lot of cussing. It’s made Ramsey’s post-football/post-chef career. It’s interesting. You need that 20% overage to sell the ticket.

So Burnt sold it. Director Wells knew what he had to do. Then everything went pear-shaped in the third act. He exceeded 20%. He brought in too many soap opera touches. Hollywood crept in. The final act bore little to the tale laid out in the first two. Everything collapsed. What began as a curious tale of redemption descended into utter bathos. The epic fail that almost destroys our hero. The (forced) romantic interest. Deus ex machina saving the day. The sunny conclusion that was almost imperceptible a few frames back. All Cooper had to do was shave and we’d be in Oz. Christ, that sh*t pisses me off. Hollywood needs to be reminded more often that hey! It doesn’t have to work out every time! Or at least not make it so f*cking obvious and slick like so many downed egg creams.

I think Wells hornswoggled us. A bitter comedy-drama about an embittered chef worked well on paper. And for the most part, that script worked. Then we took a wrong turn entered Forrest Gump territory, and the center failed to hold. What a bummer.

My mom loves Bradley Cooper, even more than me. I lent her and my dad the disc for their viewing pleasure. According to the party line, moms got up halfway through the screening and went to bed. She said Burnt wasn’t holding her attention. What? With Cooper starring? With his eternal day-old growth? The hell?

Reality plus 20%. The third act killed it all. For me too. Mostly. Too bad.

In the final analysis, Burnt was good overall. It’s a shame that I found Chef more enjoyable, and probably for the wrong reasons. I expected Burnt to be a more mature version of Chef, especially since we had seasoned Jack Bourdain along for the ride. It was, until Tinsel Town needed to relieve itself, scamming Middle America in the process.

I’m kind of an idealist. Really. Quick snickering. In so I hope that with certain “docudrama” type movies the curtain will be pulled back and an unknowing public might have the scales fall from their fishy eyes. Films like Grizzly Man, Longtime Companion and The Decline Of Western Civilization considered. See how the sausage is made for certain. Burnt had that capacity, but copped out. I guess, for better or worse, to make a marketable film you gotta go for the soft sell. Too bad here.

All right, good night. Don’t forget to tip your server, and please stop dipping that f*cking sushi in that goddam mixture of soy sauce and fake wasabi swill you stirred together to get your virgin sushi eater date to think you know sumpin.

AND QUIT RUBBING THE CHOPSTICKS TOGETHER! THAT’S RUDE!

Check please.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A tepid rent it. It didn’t suck. That much is good. The acting was a delight. Two-thirds of it was quite entertaining, even if you’re not a chef (or a Food Network disciple). But you ever watch a good movie only to have it all undone by a lousy ending? I’ll say it: it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

C’mon, gimme at least that one.


Stray Observations…

  • You figure out what belies Tony’s true dislike of Adam? Right. Unrequited love. It’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
  • “You have a spare bedroom?”
  • What was up with that silly Terminator pose?
  • “I’m not much for groups.” Portent.
  • I dug the soundtrack.
  • “I haven’t been myself since the 90s.” Been there, done that. Look at this tribal tat on my leg.
  • “Where is he?” “Outside. Throwing up.”
  • hate heat lamps. They are a necessary evil.
  • “Not to me; to the f*cking fish.”
  • Um, sous vide baths were around in 2010. Jones must’ve been really high.
  • Turbot for the kid. It’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
  • “Should I be writing this stuff down? ‘Cause I don’t have a crayon.”
  • Band-Aid?!?
  • You’re not as pretty as you once were.”
  • That scene with Helene being late? Plausible, minus the raise.
  • “Thirty seconds, no more.” For the dish or the deal?
  • The kiss. It’s kinda heart—ow!
  • “Perfection doesn’t exist, but we still keep looking for it.” That one’s mine.
  • Once more, count up all the cooking-related metaphors I used in this installment and you win a pony! Okay, if not that then I’ll quit punching you in the face.

Next Installment…

We absorb the ups and downs of establishing The Social Network, namely FaceBook. Read about it on FaceBook! Be sure to like it! Or else!


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 29: Henrik Genz’ “Good People” (2014)


42822_GOOD PEOPLE_VOD


The Players…

James Franco, Kate Hudson, Sam Spruell, Omar Sy and Tom Wilkinson.


The Story…

In spite of being down and out in London, Tom and Anna keep trying to make ends meet all the while holding on to a dream of financial freedom. It’s the same old tale. One needs money to spend money to earn money.

By accident they discover their boarder came into some money. A lot of money. A big sack of a lot of hidden money. Too bad for him he’s dead.

Or is it? As Tom and Anna look into each other’s eyes, with all their financial woes nipping at their heels, almost psychically they ask each other: Too bad he’s dead?

The gangsters who got played don’t want  like to take time out. And dead or alive, that missing cash is gonna find it’s proper way home. Most likely behind the muzzle of a shooter aimed straight at Tom and Anna’s heads.


The Rant…

You’ve done this. I’ve done this. It pisses us off so that any adjectives would be useless in this occasion.

*checks scrotum. sighs in relief*

But not that. You’re welcome. So here it comes:

“The book was so much better than the movie!”

Gah. I hate that. Don’t you? And you’ve probably exclaimed such sh*t yourself. God knows I have. We ain’t perfect.

Before I go any further down the rabbit hole, let me riddle you this: you ever found yourself get into an interest, hobby and/or fetish by accident? You know, like Pokemon cards, the films of Lars von Trier or even an unnatural obsession with Ben & Jerry’s Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler ice cream (sure as rain I did)? Just happened to stumble onto them, and got hooked.

Well this little pre-intro is for you. Sit back a spell and let me tell you a tale. Not to worry, it’s not gonna be like my sloppy, gonzo Reign Of Fire installment I did last month. Truth be told, I’m still embarrassed about that one. But anyway and onwards, here’s my entry drug story.

I don’t watch much TV. Very little in fact. The term “binge watching” is both confusing and anathema to me. When I was a kid, too much television would render your brain into Reddi-Wip. Nowadays TV binging is an app. I don’t get it. I stay away from the screen not because the medium is redolent with crap—and 90% of it is—and I’m not ignoring the remaining 10% that is definitely not crap (e.g.: The Walking Dead, Hell On Wheels, Longmire, Homeland and others of that ilk), even though most of them on premium cable. I just…don’t watch TV. My screen’s nothing more than a platform to watch movies or play Nintendo nowadays. But there was I time I often curled up with the remote.

I had to settle with basic cable years ago. Couldn’t afford an HBO/Starz/Showtime/Spice Channel package, so I hunkered down with the History, Discovery and Travel Channels. It was kinda in that order actually. Got my history fix about the world (till Axe Men took over), got my weird science view of the world (till MythBusters became the “what can we blow up this week?” show) and got to virtually travel the world (till Bourdain threw up his arms and followed his wallet. CNN must pay better).

For all my muted ire, the Travel Channel served my vicarious needs best. Sh*t, I couldn’t gallivant off to Morrocco, Paris and/or China at the drop of a hat. But I could go there on TV, even via a distilled version. Better than scouring ancient editions of Nat Geo and wondering why why why? Simply put, an hour of No Reservations, Bizarre Foods, Off Limits, Made In America or Hidden City gave me a nice, simple time wasting away from my boring, sorry existence in my little ville. TV is escapism, right? Better choose your escape right, especially if you only has basic cable. I played the cards I got dealt. No serious complaints here, for real.

I sense a disturbance in The Force. No wait. That’s just gas. But I do sense a question:

Hidden City?”

It was a short-lived series. Barely two seasons. Its premise began with having our host trot around to  major American metros as well as milder fields of grain. Our avatar collected the poop on three significant crime stories that were illustrative of the selected city’s historical periods, or a backwater scandal that precious few had ever heard of. A gold star from me with my diligent, suburban, white guy denial to the producers who thunk up that sh*t. And I caught Hidden City in my 30s. No one really graduates high school.

So how’d I get hip to this unfairly truncated series? One, by accident. A combination of late night/after work channel surfing. Second, the surfing landed on the Travel Channel having a program almost over covering the whacked-out murder case of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Or course I have the LP, and read the Savage book twice over, so my interest was piqued. Our host was sweating the former lead singer of a cultish punk NY band I enjoyed for years, “Handsome Dick” Manitoba of the late, lamented Dictators. At the time of the airing, Manitoba had since hung up his microphone and upgraded himself into a nightclub owner. His place catered to the old guard and curious alike about how the Lower East Side sounded back in the day. The guy vocally assaulted the host in a timber I knew well and had no qualms about giving his angle of the the Sid and Nancy deaths.

Oh yeah. The host? Sorry to leave him out. Name was Marcus Sakey. Co-producer of the show as well as an esteemed shortlist writer of crime fiction. Stuff like Good People. Good book.

He was the guy who let me know it was okay to sport my triple lobe piercings again (thereby warding off middle age a bit longer than necessary). That is was okay to lay the Pynchon down and indulge in some ribald tales of shiftless motherf*ckers coming down hard of unsuspecting—but still sympathetic—innocents. To slum really, and turn off the English major for a week or so and just chew on a satisfying book.

So I’ve read all of Sakey’s books, even me not being a real crime fiction fan, and I’ve dug ’em all. Listen, and not to be pointed, but when you’ve read too many cookbooks, Stephen King and Raymond Carver fiction as if have (not a brag. I think those claims barely register as even approaching a boast, really) as well as my very fair share of Marvel titles, an enema like Sakey’s work can really do a stressed-out brain good. To drive it home, when I read Sakey’s stuff in bed, the wife would caw after well too late, “Honey, turn off the light.”

That’s a good read. Needless to say I recommend Sakey to anyone who wants “a good read.” Hell, even I turned my taciturn, urban historical, McCollugh-lovin’ dad into reading Sakey’s debut The Blade Itself. Soon after the man finished the novel (in a record three days), he asked me plainly, “He write anything else?” I loaned him my copy of At The City’s Edge. And Good People. And the other books, all of which the man got rather bulimic over. Mission accomplished.

But in all honesty, Sakey’s most recent efforts—his mild take on S/F—Brilliance and A Better World read like a standard X-Men crossover series, but both were still fun. Isn’t that really what entertainment is all about? Regardless of media, so long as you find your parking space—or the right time to abuse TV—so long as you don’t drop your keys en route to the car. So long as you find said keys en route to your car. Or so long as you have a car to drive home, did you have yourself a time before?

You should “forget” the movie as soon as you leave the cineplex. You should “lay the book down” as soon as you’ve finished it. You should ignore the people who made the matter mind. You should…

Wait. ‘Sup? Good People? Sure, I read it. It got made into a movie, right? Kewl. Sakey doing the narration or somthin?

Sakey. The writer.

What do ya mean “who”?

Ask Handsome Dick Manitoba, you f*cks!

“Talk, talk, talk, keeps getting in the way…”


We all know living expenses in America can get so heavy it may crush you. Well, for Tom and Anna Wright (Franco and Hudson) the notion of relocating to London from their beloved Chicago has proven to be more of a syphon than a fiscal haven.

Tom’s a journeyman landscape artist. Anna’s a part-time schoolmam. Between them both might be thruppence to rub together. No luck there, especially when the eviction notice gets served. Here is where everything should and shall go down the tubes. Tom’s latest restoration job’s run out of funding. Anna’s meager hours can’t pay the bills. The only steady income comes from their basement boarder, Ben, who’s been quiet for weeks.

Literally weeks. What’s been going on down there? And why is that damned TV so loud?

Tom and Anna unravel that riddle. Ben’s dead, drug overdose. But he was kind enough to leave behind a sack of £44,000 as a parting gift. Good thing, too, since they’re about to lose everything. This money is just the ticket to eradicate all their debts. Continue Tom’s current restoration project. Get the fertility aid Anna’s been wanting. Hell, pay back some kindness to Anna’s sister in the form of a new washer. Wipe everything clear.

Save the thugs from a crime ring who really want that swag back. As well as the dope Ben stole on his final murderous job. Tom and Anna got gold in their eyes, and the head of a drug empire, the mysterious  “Khan” (Sy) has retribution in his. He wants it all back, and doesn’t care if the innocent Wrights are nothing more than casualties.

It’s been said that money is the root of all evil. That’s an error. It goes that the love of money is the root. Too bad for Tom and Anna they have to understand this little axiom a shade too late…


So, yeah. “The book was so much better than the movie!”

There have been exceptions. We’ve had numerous Shakespearean plays adapted for the screen with maybe more flair than what The Globe offered (check out the 80s BBC version of Taming Of The Shrew starring John Cleese as Petruchio. Hilarious). Die Hard was terrifically better than the source novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Rod Thorpe. And the stage drama Everybody Comes To Rick’s melded quite well with the scenarists assigned to Casablana‘s production. Hell, if we can weld a 15 line poem into an epic like Gunga Din then there’s hope for all.

More often in Movieland things go wrong along such curves. Not unlike for our wayward Tom and Anna in Good People, hundreds of folks in Hollywood negotiating million dollar deals lose sight of the endgame. I’m talking about actual profit by way of replay value and enduring art, but the final product’s throughput lacks something. We’ll warp the source material just enough to accommodate a story easier to digest and not endangers potential ticket sales. We’ll let the director follow his vision, no matter how hairbrained it is. We’ll cram the actors into discomfort to ensure they’re characters are palatable, safe. And if the film proper was spawned from a pre-existing text, it tends to be de rigeur to f*ck with said source just enough to fit under the cookie cutter.

Despite my snobbery of adherence to the source text, I do occasionally appreciate, even like, some spin given in tweaking the story ever so slightly to make it fit on screen. However the hard part about watching a movie based on a book you’ve already read said book is that you can’t help but see/be on the lookout for discrepancies in the plot. Hell, that kind of thing ruined The Ten Commandments for me.

Seriously, perceptions get scrambled for us poor reader/viewers. It might be more cringeworthy to witness this in action for dorks like me, but it’s an absolute ripoff to casual audiences. Even if you never read Good People, you would eventually suspect that the film version is half-baked. Everything in Good People the film feels stiff. Unlike my valentine the book, which was simple, fluid and punchy in the best way. What I’m getting at is this shouldn’t’ve been so hard to make page translate to screen here. Where the book was straightforward in plot, tone and characterization, the film version plays like a warmed-over Guy Ritchie flick minus the winking, all-important humor. And the misfit characters. The cast of Good People are just misfit.

Even the opening: dry. I wasn’t digging the opening scene right off. Set up like a stock crime caper, sprinkled with just enough violence to get your attention. The almighty hook. Didn’t work on me. Things didn’t really improve from then on. Not surprisingly I’ve got a laundry list of how this movie let me down. Indulge me, won’t you?

*pats head*

Gracias. The biggest crime here within a crime caper is People‘s lack of honest tension (at least by when timecode 37.00 rolled about, thereabouts. I was patient, and if I was watching the timer a problem was slinking up). The flick was going way too slow. We’re supposed to have a desperate thriller here. Instead we got steady paces. People was creeping predictability. There’s a big difference between being predictable and straightforward. When a director tries to be edgy on purpose—and don’t lie, you can tell the difference between watching Taxi Driver against, say, Superman Returns—you can smell it like a fart in car. People suffered greatly in that department. It played like Law & Order: London, even down to the lighting, all grey and muted (what’s up with that trick? Sure, it worked in Se7en, but how?). People’s biggest crime was playing by-the-numbers. Rote. A straight-to-video kind of feel. Not a good time-waster.

Based against my already-read-the-book prejudice, it’d be hard for the casual People watcher to fail to ignore the dry film’s other faults. C’mon. You’ve seen enough crime thrillers to recognize multiple turds in the punchbowl. For one, we got a lot of stilted dialogue. There’s too much telling, not enough implying. With a crime story, we shouldn’t—can’t—have our cast declaring all their intentions and emotions. We gotta have intrigue, mystery, fear and the all important tension. You have the leads broadcast f*cking everything, well flush. Let’s take a ride on the tedium train. Choo-choo. Derailment.

Also, quite foreign-sounding director name is a portent for not getting America genre films. Racist? Perhaps. I’d rather call it “lost in translation,” kind of like arguing with a customer care rep stationed in the Indian subcontinent. Nuances and axioms get run through the rock tumbler. Just sayin’.

People wasn’t a total shambles. though. Like with any bitter there’s a residue of sweet. Kind of like the relief that comes after passing a kidney stone. There were some bright spots in acting here, almost as a rebellion against the dross. Franco was as smarmy/likable as ever. Granted his charm cracks through his bland Tom only in drips and drabs, but it’s reassuring that he’s still in there somewhere. I’m for any kind of anchor in the otherwise talented cast to moor onto. I mean, we had Tom Wilkinson before God and our lifeline was the New Goblin. I thought I’d never say this—nor anyone else in the solar system—but may the heavens bless James Franco for slightly redeeming this staid movie. Pineapple Express was pretty okay, too.

Hey. What’s key to all good crime capers? Interesting villains. Admittedly, People‘s bad guys are derivative in their motives and portrayals. But they are not wholly uninteresting. And played pretty well, too. Although it took a while to warm me up, Spruell (despite his middle-aged Opie looks) eventually morphed into a rather scary character. His Jack stole Sy’s head baddie Khan’s thunder who was little too rough-edged to be a convincing, smooth operator drug king pin. Jack being calm throughout all his nefarious deeds does a decent bad guy make. Since People was shot in London (instead of the book’s hometown of Chicago, where it was probably too costly to shoot People, BTW), I came to wonder if Spruell was an in-demand actor in Britain. One can only hope.

Hudson was pretty and wooden. Moving on.

Well, at least the third act had juice, despite getting all McGuyver as resolution (which was also oddly predictable. Franco should’ve sported a mullet all along). If only the first hour-ten had the spark of the final 20 minutes then this movie would’ve been worthwhile. Okay, the big confrontation smelled of watered down Die Hard, but at least it had motion, unlike the rest of People. You gotta respect the Kafkaesque rule of having the gun on the shelf in the first act going ka-blam in the third. I have to respect and admit that’s classic. At least director Genz didn’t watch every film in the Ritchie canon.

So here we are, a Sakey fanboy feeling scammed and a possibly frustrated audience tossing popcorn buckets at the screen. Like I mentioned, you needn’t have read Good People to feel ripped off by watching this movie. In a way this review is a shifty method of denouncing cable TV. Damn you, Sakey, gently lulling me into fandom with a few eps of Hidden City. Then again if you’re a Franco-phile (I will not apologize for that one), blame his charming ass. If you’re a Kate Hudson fan, I can’t help you; there is no such thing as a Kate Hudson fan. Despite the reliable star power, the simple yet botched plot and eventually satisfying conclusion, People was a serious letdown overall. I recommend y’all to read Sakey’s books instead, if only as a can of Glade to the film.

Oh yeah. One last thing.

Dick Manitoba’s band, the Dictators? They cut a track called “Sleepin’ With The TV On.” It mentioned the Thin Man films, which is worthwhile watching.

Good People wasn’t. And Sid was innocent.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, doy. Serious letdown here, for Sakey fans and crime thriller fans alike. How the f*uck do you botch such a simple, if not well-worn premise? I blame EarthLink tech support outta Mumbai. That chick really tried to scam me.


Stray Observations…

  • “Tonight…someone’s gonna get pregnant.” Smooth.
  • Cute with the “All Gamblers…” sign hovering over the windfall.
  • Franco’s got a winning smile. Admit it.
  • That’s dirty pool! Sorry, couldn’t resist.
  • “Promise me you won’t kill us.” “…No.” Like that’s ever worked anyway.
  • I kinda dug the soundtrack. I did suit the (attempted) mood of the film.
  • “Guns are for pussies.” Tell that to John McClane.
  • “Honey! I’m home!” Roll eyes.
  • “Are you alright?”

 

Next Installment…

A decent woman would regard golddigging as despicable and could be an act of Intolerable Cruelty to the poor man with the wallet. But if she could actually get her mitts on the pursestrings, well, um…Better call George Clooney. Works every time. Right?