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SPECTRE

It’s back to the future for 007 in “Spectre,” in which the new supporting cast provided for Daniel Craig’s James Bond in “Skyfall” is matched by the return of ancient enemies. The mixture of the old and the new will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Ian Fleming’s unflappable master spy, who are likely to wax nostalgic over the reminiscences to past adventures while savoring the film’s cutting-edge action-movie credentials. Less starry-eyed devotees of the long-running franchise might not be quite so enthusiastic, finding the result an episodic chain of high-octane set-pieces that gets increasingly winded as it drags on.

The picture begins well, with an elaborate tracking shot wending through the streets of Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations as Bond tracks Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), an Italian terrorist, to a conspiratorial meeting and literally brings down the house—or rather building. A foot chase follows, ending in a fight with Sciarra aboard a helicopter swooping dangerously above the vast crowd in the square below. This multi-part prologue is exceptionally well done, starting the picture on a high note that it doesn’t, unhappily, maintain.

Upon his return to MI5 headquarters in London, Bond is dressed down by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) for going rogue at a time when the entire 00 program is being threatened by new national security chief Max Denbigh, codenamed C (David Andrews), who considers it a dangerous dinosaur and wants to replace it with an international consortium of intelligence agencies sharing their product. He sends Bond off on vacation, which our hero uses to pursue an unsanctioned inquiry that will lead him, bit by bit, to the very organization he did battle with back when he was played by Sean Connery—Spectre, still seeking world domination but now under the headship of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a supposedly dead fellow with whom, as it turns out, Bond has something of a sad history. (To be precise, Bond’s been battling Spectre for some time without knowing it; only now is its involvement revealed.)

The route to the inevitable final showdown (showdowns, really—the movie often doubles up on its various elements, concluding with yet another helicopter stunt-show to bookend things) travels through familiar territory. Bond gets involved with not one but two women (three if you count the Mexican beauty briefly played by Stephanie Sigman in the prologue)—the beautiful Lucia (Monica Bellucci), Sciarra’s widow, whom he briefly beds, and far more seriously Madeleine White (Lea Seydoux), the real Bond girl in this installment, who becomes the agent’s sidekick for much of the picture’s later pursuit of Oberhauser. She’s actually the daughter of a disaffected Spectre bigwig (Jesper Christensen, from Craig’s earlier adventures), who informs the agent that she’s the key to the location of Oberhauser’s lair. Naturally Bond must rescue her from the clutches of the villain’s chief henchman Hinx (former WWE bruiser Dave Bautista, who proves a far less interesting version of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob) in a prolonged chase featuring SUVs and a plane, and there will also be a lengthy hand-to-hand fight involving the three aboard a train as well. Earlier Bond and Hinx had engaged in the sort of protracted car chase that’s practically obligatory in any action movie nowadays.

The predictable culmination of all the plot turns, of course, is the confrontation between Bond and Oberhauser, complete with a torture sequence as inevitable as Franz’s revelation of his new identity. It was apparently the belief of director Sam Mendes, who along with his craft crew—including cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, editor Lee Smith and production designer Dennis Gassner—has handled things up to that point in an efficient if mostly uninspired fashion, that Waltz would enliven this last section of the picture (two sections, really—yet another duplication, one in Africa and another in London) with his idiosyncratic delivery. Unfortunately, the Austrian actor doesn’t manage to make Oberhauser very distinctive. His prim, cutting persona is amusing enough at first, but the film drags his act on too long, and Waltz certainly isn’t helped by the revelation of the rationale behind Oberhauser’s animus against Bond—a bit of babble that wouldn’t pass muster in an introductory college psych course.

It can’t be denied that as pure product “Spectre” has been expertly manufactured: the action sequences are all carefully crafted (if often overlong—at 148 minutes, it exceeds the superior “Skyfall” by five), and except for the music (a banal score by Thomas Newman and an anemic credits song by Sam Smith) the behind-the-camera contributions are all superb. Among the supporting cast, Fiennes and Ben Whishaw, as the new Q, who’s much more involved in the narrative than usual, come off nicely, and Naomie Harris’ new Moneypenny is fine as well, though she gets less opportunity to shine. Seydoux is certainly pretty, though not one of the more memorable females in Bond history, and the damsel-of-distress turn the plot takes at the close does her no favors. And while Christensen, as Madeleine’s father, makes a strong impression in his single scene, Scott comes across as a drably single-note little schnook.

And then, of course, there’s Craig. He’s made no secret of his disinclination to continue playing Bond, even though he’s contractually committed to one more installment, and it’s easy to understand why. Except for the purely physical aspects, the role isn’t a demanding one, and any decent actor—as Craig is—would quickly tire of a part that requires not much more than smooth surface intensity and the ability to deliver a slight smile and the occasional witty quip. Craig pulls the act off as well as anybody has, but doing so repeatedly must get boring after awhile.

In the end comparisons aren’t helpful to “Spectre”—not just the comparison to “Skyfall,” one of the best Bonds, but to other series that have followed the Bond formula. Consider the most recent “Mission Impossible” film, for instance. That franchise is basically an American variant of the Fleming prototype, and “Rogue Nation” in effect foreshadowed this picture’s narrative arc pretty closely.

And the truth is that, even if you don’t think that Tom Cruise is Craig’s equal, it was the better movie.

BURNT

The proliferation of food shows on television nowadays—an unhealthy trend in itself—has understandably piqued the interest of filmmakers; this latest vehicle for Bradley Cooper is proof of that. Unfortunately, “Burnt” also proves that celebrity chefs shouldn’t be taken too seriously. “Chef” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” were no great shakes, but at least they treated the phenomenon with the dismissive, tongue-in-cheek attitude it deserves. By contrast this film, directed in a pedestrian fashion by John Wells from a script by Steven Knight, seems to want us to become emotionally invested in it. That’s a bad mistake.

Actually, the movie isn’t so much about the preparation of haute cuisine—though that’s the background against which the story is set, with an unconscionable number of montages showing dishes being made and served—as it’s a formulaic redemption tale of a talented guy who’s screwed up and is now trying to recover. Cooper plays Adam Jones, an American who once flew high among the master chefs in Paris but destroyed his career with booze, drugs and womanizing, burning his bridges with virtually all his colleagues, including his now-deceased mentor Jean-Luc and his daughter (Alicia Vikander), who was his partner in excess. After completing a self-imposed penance by shucking literally one million oysters in a New Orleans dive—without ever losing count, which shows what a perfectionist he is!—he’s off to London, where he aims to earn his third Michelin star and justify his life.

Adam is clean and sober, but as quickly becomes clear, he’s the same dictatorial, sharp-tongued guy he always was, ready to explode if his absolutist kitchen standards aren’t met. Still that doesn’t stop old friends he betrayed from rallying around his attempt. There include Tony (Bruhl), a master maitre ’d now running the mediocre restaurant in his ill father’s hotel; Michel (Omar Sy), former sous chef whose attempt to start a place of his own Adam sabotaged; and Max (Riccardo Scarmarcio), an assistant who is ever so conveniently just getting out of jail. London also happens to be where Adam’s greatest rival, Reece (Matthew Rhys) has set up shop, and our antihero makes a point of visiting his popular establishment to rile him up, just to get the juices flowing, as it were.

Tony hands over his restaurant to Adam—with whom he’s long been in love, we’ll learn—but with some conditions, requiring his unreliable friend to have regular sessions (and drug tests) with his own therapist (Emma Thompson). And Adam even persuades a renowned food critic (Uma Thurman) to drop by for a dinner to boost the place’s opening vibe. But even with Michel and Max on board in the kitchen and some new blood added to the mix—a young, talented fellow (Sam Keeley) and Helene (Sienna Miller), whom another old friend of Adam’s virtually forces to join his staff despite her misgivings—the less-than-inspiring cuisine Adam initially serves up proves a disappointment. It’s only after he and Helene spruce up the menu with innovative touches that the place really takes off, and it’s only a matter of time before their culinary collaboration will lead to something more personal; one can see the inevitable coming to pass when Adam is induced to make a birthday cake for Helene’s darling little daughter Lily (Lexi Benbow-Hart).

It’s the humanizing of Jones reflected in that act that provides the dramatic arc of “Burnt.” And that could be an entirely satisfactory story if it weren’t hammered home with such unrelenting contrivance. Except for one twist that supposedly destroys Adam’s chance at that third Michelin star—but doesn’t, as it happens, because of a ridiculous coincidence—everything that happens in Knight’s script is almost absurdly easy, in a sentimental sitcom way. The last half-hour amounts to a succession of simple solutions to Adam’s problems that come across like boxes on a list being summarily checked off. Tony’s infatuation with him? A couple of clever lines and a kiss handle that. A big debt Adam owes to some mysterious French dealers? A deus (or dea) ex machine takes care of that. The Michelin star? He gets what amounts to a do-over. And the self-destructive manner that puts everybody off? The love of a good woman is all that’s needed to solve that! All of which doesn’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t remain the genius with pots and pans that he always was. Even his greatest rival admits that he’s better than anyone else; in fact, they need him around to encourage them to do better.

It’s precisely these sorts of lazy solutions to the character defects that the script has burdened Jones with that turn “Burnt” into a soggy, ultimately unpalatable experience. The fault doesn’t lie with Cooper, who flings himself into the role with abandon and delivers Knight’s more inventively acerbic lines with relish. Ultimately, however, Jones seems more a caricature of the “hell’s kitchen” sort of chef than the real thing. Meanwhile the rest of the able cast are stuck with parts that are just personalized therapeutic instruments for his recovery. None of them come off particularly well, but among them Bruhl certainly gets the short stick. It’s positively painful to see him pining away after Jones with a yearning gaze and pinched lips.

Of course, one can well appreciate cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s work, not only in using to the full the London locations and the often exquisite restaurant interiors fashioned by production designer David Gropman, the art directing team headed by Karen Gropman, John Frankish and Joe Howard, and set decorator Tina Jones, but in shooting the close-ups of the many succulent dishes that editor Nick Moore has assembled in that parade of montages. In the end, though, “Burnt” is a cinematic dish that’s much like Jones’ cooking before Helene gives it an innovative nudge: overly familiar and curiously bland.