Burnt (M) National release Paranormal Actvity: The Ghost Dimension (M) National release
One of the qualities of art, on the page or the screen, is the ability to engage people with something in which they have little or no interest. The Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell has made a career of this. Closer to home, Sydney author Jane Gleeson-White won awards for her absorbing 2011 book Double Entry, a history of ... accountancy. Simon Curtis’s recent film Woman in Gold made a single instance of Nazi art theft engrossing in a way that, for this viewer at least, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men did not. It’s all about the intelligence and the power of the storytelling, and connecting us with the people who are living the story in question.
Which brings me to Burnt, a drama centred on a world in which I have little interest, that of celebrity chefs, high-end restaurants and haute cuisine. Yet John Wells’s film did hold my attention for the most part, helped by a meaty cast and a crisp script by the talented Steven Knight (writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, writer-director of the remarkable Tom Hardy one-hander Locke and creator of TV’s Peaky Blinders).
At first glance Burnt would appear to be plucked from the pages of Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 bestseller Kitchen Confidential, and as it happens star Bradley Cooper had the lead in a short-lived 2005 Fox television series based on that book. But perhaps it’s fairer to say this film takes inspiration from the general misbehaviour of bad-boy chefs (and bad-girl ones, lest we forget Martha Stewart, or M. Diddy to use her prison nickname).
Here Cooper is Adam Jones, an American chef who had it all — two Michelin stars, the top job at the landmark Paris restaurant where he started out washing dishes as a teenager — but lost it due to a Bourdainian addiction to booze and drugs. Hence the double meaning of the title (though it was originally called Chef, until Jon Favreau’s film of that name last year.)
We first meet Adam as he comes to the end of a self-imposed purgatory in New Orleans. He shucks his one-millionth oyster (literally; he’s been keeping a tally in a little book), throws off his apron, walks out the door and heads to London and the road to redemption. There, admirers who remember his salad days compare him with the Rolling Stones and with Yoda from Star Wars. More succinct is the observation that “the bastard could cook gravel’’.
That last remark is made by Adam’s old Paris chum Tony (an excellent Daniel Bruhl), now maitre d’ at a swish but struggling London eatery, who is persuaded to give the now-sober Adam another chance. Adam hires a couple more of the old Paris gang, including sous chef Michel (the magnetic Omar Sy) and a young female chef, Helene (Sienna Miller, Cooper’s American Sniper co-star). His aim is to produce “culinary orgasms” and win a third Michelin star, something his great rival Reece (a scenestealing Matthew Rhys, from TV’s The Americans) already has.
What follows is fairly predictable but attractive enough to watch, with a couple of standout scenes, such as when Adam has a tantrum after a bad opening night, or when Adam and Reece share an unexpectedly human moment over an omelette. Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson pop up in smallish roles that add interest (though Jamie Dornan, still credited on some movie websites, was cut from the final film). There are some keen ideas briefly explored, such as the possibility that we are stronger with other people than without them, but ultimately this is not a deep film. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is the sixth and, we are told, final instalment in the found-footage supernatural horror franchise created by Israeli-American filmmaker Oren Peli. The first film, in 2009, (the only one directed by Peli, though he’s been a producer on all the others) was made for $US15,000 and earned almost $US200 million at the box office. No wonder we have had five more.
This time around the family who find themselves literally battling their demons are video game designer Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw) and their six-year-old daughter Leila (Ivy George). Also on hand are two house guests: Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill) and the attractive Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who helps out with Leila. When Ryan finds an old video camera. apparently left behind by the former occupants, who disappeared mysteriously, things start to go bump in the night. It seems the camera can see ghosts, and so can Leila. The ghosts, later identified as demons by a priest, want Leila, and it’s all connected to a man named Toby and prior strange goings-on in the house, which will be familiar to fans of the series.
Debut director Gregory Plotkin, who edited the previous films, relies on loud noises and sudden movements for the scare factor, with the ghosts/demons rather nebulous for most of the time. The tension does build, however, and the ending is genuinely creepy.