Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chef: Half-Baked though Well-Intentioned.

Movie Review: Chef

Director: Jon Favreau

Reviewed: 18 March 2015

jamesintexas rating--**

Jon Favreau's latest film Chef seems very personal to him, though the dramatic arc of the film suffers from an inertia and lack of stakes. The ending is tacked on, the world is quite simplistic, and the characters never wade too deep into the real world (or emotions).  The food looks nice though.

Favreau plays the wonderfully named Carl Casper, an LA chef who was once a rising star in the industry but has now chosen to play it safe with his menus at a successful local restaurant. When a war of words with a noted food critic escalates into an internet melee (and an ultimatum with restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), Carl has to step back, examine his life choices, consider his neglectful relationship with his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony), and struggle to take guidance from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). At the one hour mark, Chef evolves into a road movie as Carl takes a step backwards in time during a trip to Miami, reminding himself of the food that he used to love and used to make.

At least, I think.  The film is so murky, so muddled in its depiction of Carl that I never knew what was driving him. He had reached a demonstrable level of success in Los Angeles, but he hungered for creativity and control over his menu? But, then the choice of a food truck is a tricky one because a chef would be very limited in what he or she could make in such a confined space. But, maybe the ability to switch the menu is the most important thing, as Favreau frequently shows Carl chalking up the board on the outside of the truck. And, his friendly relationship with his ex-wife never hints at what drove them apart (his work?) but also never allows Inez to be a fully formed character. Sofia Vergara could have been asked to do much more.

The film is shot well with glowing close-ups of shimmering and sizzling food (has grilled cheese ever looked this good onscreen?), but Chef just struggles to coalesce into a fully formed story. Carl's son is an expert on Twitter, so he rallies the crowd to come and support the food truck. Carl's best friend Martin (John Leguizamo) displays an unnerving amount of loyalty to his boss and a lack of care about the world he leaves behind. The chefs never worry about (or mention) the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients during their cross country sojourn, as well as money is never really an issue. The lack of any sort of financial awareness (Inez backs him, sends him to her ex-husband in Miami played by a daffy Robert Downey Jr.) makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a lark. Carl's epiphany of being a better, more present dad supersedes (or coincides) with the new food truck business, and it is a business where he can teach his son hands-on, including him in his life's work where before he did not. The ending builds to a few jarring developments that were not foregrounded, so as a result, feel tacked on or inauthentic. Favreau has assembled a great cast to work with; I just wished Dustin Hoffman, Bobbi Cannavale, Scarlett Johanssen, and Oliver Platt were in the movie more.

What to say?  Is Chef a commentary from Favreau on his earlier success as a filmmaker with independent darling Swingers and his journey from there to big-budget noisemakers like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens?  The development of antagonism between chef and critic seems to mirror director and film critic at times, though in both cases, an artist knows when he or she is taking a risk.  Playing it safe is different than making the attempt.

Chef feels like a swing and a miss to me, but at least Favreau is swinging, and if he returns to his love of storytelling and character, his next foray may connect. I like that Favreau is considering the implications of his life's work as well as the risk of complacency.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Shadows Brightened My Day: The Best Comedy of 2015 so far

Movie Review: What We Do in the Shadows

Director: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

Reviewed: 13 March 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

This movie is so damn funny.  I had no expectations and next to no knowledge about What We Do in the Shadows when I walked into the theater, and the experience of this faux-documentary of a gang of four ridiculous New Zealand vampires all sharing a house is just winning on nearly every level. Despite its low-budget and limited resources, directors, writers, and stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi manage to poke holes in the bigger budget vampire films, skewer pop culture, inundate the film with bizarre paintings and drawings, as well as have some genuinely cool special effects played for laughs more than gasps. It is a small film with many wonderful moments of hilarity.

The film rambles and meanders its way through the house with interviews with the marvelously deluded and vain Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the skittery and polite Viago (Waititi), the vainglorious and perverted Vladislav (Clement), and a genuine spooky Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham). The film bounces from character to character, highlighting the vampire who won't do the dishes, the benefits of levitation when trying to vacuum or dust those hard to reach spots, and the needs for familiars and constant victims. But then it chronicles the disadvantages, like being unable to enter a club unless you are invited in or near violent run-ins with werewolves (Rhys Darby is a delight in his scenes here).

The film's low-key, low-rent nature is part of its charm, and though every sequence does not fully work, the film overall is wonderful. I grew a bit tired of the handheld camera running through the house (flashing back to some of the nausea or dizziness from viewing The Blair Witch Project), but in general, the interviews and vampires walking about town is shot simply. There's a character named Stu who is indescribably wonderful and essential in the most unconventional way, and I just think the film made me want to see more of this world, to spend more time with these characters.

Roger Ebert said, "No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough."  This is a good, funny movie, and I wanted more. A good sign, I think.  Highly recommended.