Chef (2014)

I’ve lived in London for just over ten years now, and if you’ve known me over that time, you’ll know I’ve put on a bit of weight. I’m pretty sure it’s not from lack of exercise, though having a job (and a hobby!) that involves sitting down all day probably doesn’t help. No, I suspect it’s because I like food, and anyone who also likes food (especially if they live in a large metropolitan area) can scarcely have failed to notice the rise of food trucks over the last decade as a delivery mechanism for more than just ice cream and hot dogs. You can get just about anything from trucks these days. In some American cities (like their spiritual heartland in the Pacific Northwest), they are often to be found rotating around a set of fixed locations (‘pods’, if you will) and turning up at all kinds of outdoor, beer or food festivals. Indeed, the concept of ‘street food’ has really taken off, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. So this new film starring and directed by my compatriot in girthfulness, Jon Favreau, can at the very least be said to be on-trend.

In it we see Favreau as Chef Carl Casper at a staid suburban restaurant, where he doesn’t feel creatively stretched, despite having a great team (Bobby Cannavale as his sous chef, backed by John Leguizamo, and Scarlett Johansson on front of house duty). Things come to a head over the visit of and subsequent nasty review by a food blogger (Oliver Platt, touching on another trend), so Chef Casper heads off and, via a sub-plot involving Robert Downey Jr being appropriately RDJ-ish, gets himself a food truck. In truth, a lot of the drama feels a little forced, conflict added just to move the film along and add a bit of spice (as it were), especially the relationship between Chef Casper and his ex-wife and son. It’s like Favreau, having baited the foodie trend, felt the need to shoehorn in a touching story about father-son bonding.

This could all have fallen apart so very easily, but somehow Favreau manages to make it very charming, sweet but not too much so, with a soufflé-light touch. Key to this is that the film really likes all its characters. There’s conflict, sure, and big life changes, but this is a comedy in the classic sense and it wants the best for everyone (even the food blogger gets his redemption). The actors are all enjoyable to watch, especially John Leguizamo, while Sofía Vergara manages to make even her blowsy ex-wife character a likeable one. If some of the father-son moments are rather too saccharine for my taste, if they don’t raise my hackles like they would elsewhere, then perhaps I’m just a sucker for the setting after all. It’s not a film to watch when hungry, and thinking about it now, I could quite happily go for one of those cubanos Cuban sandwiches at which the food truck specialises. In fact, I was a bit disappointed that a truck hadn’t been parked up outside the cinema when I came out, and I imagine you will be too, unless your local cinema is really on its game.

Chef film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jon Favreau; Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau; Starring Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, EmJay Anthony, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 28 June 2014.

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Three New Releases: Under the Skin, The Double and Twenty Feet from Stardom (all 2013)

I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.

Continue reading “Three New Releases: Under the Skin, The Double and Twenty Feet from Stardom (all 2013)”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.

The television connection I allude to is certainly not by chance. Many of the franchise’s more memorable character actors found initial fame on the small screen (with, in many cases, these shows’ iconic characters referenced in the Marvel characters they play), while the directors of this outing are familiar to me from their work on the early, foundational, seasons of the cult television show Community, itself wrapped up in meta-commentary and fandom. I’m not saying Captain America is not at some level a straightforward superhero action film, but there are few films I’ve seen that work harder at making connections across multiple levels of meaning, gradually but insistently building up a web of dense allusive textures. By the end the film, it is weighed down with so much referentiality that the physical fact of enormous flying battleships crushing swathes of a city are almost inconsequentially forgettable.

Partly, of course, that’s because it’s not really a film about these battleships, which function more as the classic ‘MacGuffin’ device of being the thing that the characters care about within the plot. The now familiar trope of crushing metropolitan destruction (Washington DC where formerly it was New York) becomes less of a focus in this film’s denouement, because the untouchable superheroic inevitability has been displaced by some fallible, emotionally-compromised men locked in combat. For the audience, as for the filmmakers, the title is probably the key to the film, and it’s done rather slyly. This is because Captain America is not The Winter Soldier as the colon implies. Or rather, these may be two separate characters, but that colon links them together — perhaps as two sides of the same person, at the very least in a relationship, a combative one, but tender at some level too.

To get to that point, though, involves a lot of plot, and a lot of dashing hither and yon. The very Winter Soldier character, for all his importance in the end, gets barely any on-screen time — though largely one suspects that’s because the filmmakers are trying to hide the big ‘reveal’ of his identity (which isn’t much of a surprise once it comes, really). Instead, then, we get more of Samuel L. Jackson’s militaristically-inclined Nick Fury character, apparently neutralised by Robert Redford’s conniving demagogue Alexander Pierce, while Chris Evans’ clean-cut American hero pulls together his crack team of Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam (Anthony Mackie), a fellow military running buddy he meets cute at the start. Via the Fury and Pierce characters, we end up getting quite a bit of detail about the politics of this world and about the unstable hierarchy of the SHIELD organisation (with its own Nazi-throwback black ops unit tying in the World War II-era setting of much of the first Captain America film).

Yet for all the feeling that the filmmakers have for the characters — with cute gags like Steve/Captain America keeping a notebook of the cultural touchstones he needs to catch up with while he’s been out of circulation (it’s apparently a slightly different list in each country the film’s been released), or the fond exchanges between Natasha and Steve as she tries to set him up on a date — there’s still the nagging sense that some of their ideas are based too much on generic clichés. For example, there’s the one where Steve is staking his life on unlocking brainwashed memories within the Winter Soldier, and launches himself into this task not so much with a strategy as with a blind faith in the effectiveness of the familiar generic trope to succeed (a variation on ‘search your feelings, you know them to be true’). The filmmakers also seem to lack a sure touch in choreographing the action sequences, most of which pass by in a frenzied incoherent blur. It’s times like these when you wish they’d had as much faith in the power of the camera (with images a bit calmer and more steadied) as they do in one or two sequences where the soundtrack takes on the work, cutting out in moments of emotional crisis, or taking over as when Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” leads a montage sequence.

I suppose my point may ultimately be that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not really made for me, but that’s no failing of the film’s by any means. It follows through on the superheroic derring-do sufficiently well that one’s desires on this front are sated, and puts enough characters into play that those who follow the minutiae of the Marvel universe will find plenty to enjoy. But while there are hints towards these characters’ shadowy back stories, by the end of the film, there’s really very little extra that we know about Natasha or Nick or most of the others. As befits its title, it’s Captain America and the Winter Soldier whose stories matter the most here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier film posterCREDITS
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby); Cinematographer Trent Opaloch; Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 2 April 2014.

Don Jon (2013)

There are a lot of serious issues to confront when dealing with modern Western society, and the way that women are pervasively sexualised in advertising and on the internet is certainly one of them, so it’s to director/writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s credit that he tries to tackle this thorny issue in Don Jon. Unfortunately it flirts rather too much with being an earnest social problem film and as such is let down by overreaching in its final third, but these are flaws that point to Gordon-Levitt’s good intentions and I can only hope that with future films his writing will gain greater subtlety of expression.

As it is, the title character of ‘Don’ Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt), a young Italian-American man who is addicted to internet p0rnography, is put across rather programmatically. Perhaps befitting the character’s Catholic upbringing, his life is dominated by rituals — the film itself uses repeated shots to good effect, a sort of Groundhog Day-like tracking of changes via small deviations to the repetition. Jon is shown to be obsessed with his body image, with cleanliness in his home, and with keeping up his social obligations both to his family and to the Church. The self-regard he has for his own body is accompanied by a corrosively nasty attitude towards women he meets in the club, the primary place of bonding with his (male) friends, where each woman they see is rated and their bodies judged mercilessly. The point is, of course, that this attitude derives from the way women are depicted in the media, and not just p0rnography: we see Jon (and his father) paying particular attention to a heavily suggestive TV ad at his family’s dinner table, and lurid magazine covers (even ones aimed at women) show up in a supermarket aisle.

Aside from Jon’s (perhaps purposely) thin character, filled with rage and narcissism, one of the film’s chief problems for me is the treatment of his family, an hysterically overacted caricature of Italian-American family life, lacking only any implication of mafia connections. Jon’s father and mother (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) get in regular screaming matches, quietening down only for their Sunday church visit, while Jon’s sister is glued to her smartphone and doesn’t say a word for the entire film, before at length revealing herself to be rather sensitive to his (and the film’s) issues. Still, Scarlett Johansson typically does very well with her similarly underwritten part as Barbara, a potential girlfriend for Jon (he having until this point sociopathically avoided any kind of relationship commitments in favour of one-night stands and, obviously, the lure of internet p0rnography). She brings a hard edge to her stereotypical Jersey girl, and the film makes a lot of play comparing her own untenable ideas about romance (as illustrated by a hilarious parody of a romcom starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway) with Jon’s equally skewed fantasies derived from p0rn.

It’s in the last third, when Julianne Moore enters the plot as an older woman taking the same evening business course as Jon, where credibility is particularly stretched. She has experienced some trauma in her home life and is thereby able to find an emotional bond with the younger man, which she turns into a healing process for his noxious attitudes. In the film this is largely expressed through his slightly altered hairstyle and more relaxed demeanour, suggesting a neat progression into responsible adulthood for his character where the emotionally-frayed and societally-pervasive subject matter doesn’t admit of any such easy conclusions.

I certainly didn’t hate this film by any means, even if its characters pushed the bounds of stereotype. The filmmaking, for a start, is laconically unflashy with its repeated motifs and shots, and moves along at a fair clip. Meanwhile, the actors have a good time with their thinly-sketched characters. Gordon-Levitt has shown brilliant sensitivity in many of his acting roles (for example, in Inception, Looper and Mysterious Skin, amongst many others), and still at a relatively young age. If this is a calling card for his behind-the-scenes skills, then it’s a promising start, and suggests better things to come.

Don Jon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Cinematographer Thomas Kloss; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 17 November 2013.

Marvel’s The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble, 2012)

There have in recent years been a lot of comic book-based superhero action films, most of them ‘reboots’ of older film series, but with a few new characters brought into the filmic fold. With this film, called Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK, four of the Marvel superhero film series were brought together, along with a few extra characters who hadn’t had their own films, in a blockbuster which was much trailered and anticipated (indeed, many of the most recent individual films had included a post-credits teaser for just this collaboration) and surely all-but-guaranteed to do well at the box office. The surprise, then, is that it’s quite a jolly enterprise, even if, as expected, it’s far too long.

All these superhero films run a range of styles from the dour (take a bow, Man of Steel) to the, well, comic book, but it’s fair to say that Joss Whedon has done what he knows best from his previous TV work, which is to say self-knowing media-literate jokiness. It’s an angle that probably works best for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man character, who has now had three of his own films, and who stands out in this ensemble piece too, if only by virtue of being most in tune with Whedon’s script.

That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t honoured, with Captain America (Chris Evans) retaining his mien of humourless patriotism and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) his petulant anger, though Hulk impresses in his dual persona thanks to new recruit Mark Ruffalo as harassed scientist Bruce Banner (the Hulk films never did well at the box office, which may account for Edward Norton’s absence). Added to the mix is a rather superfluous Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson returning from Iron Man 2 (2010) as the persuasive Black Widow, neither of them superheroes exactly (at least, not ones with superpowers).

Perhaps I’m not the best person to review superhero movies, which in the past decade or so have taken on a lot of the characteristics of the action movie. I do like a good action film, but the bigger and louder and more pummelling the action setpieces — and there are plenty of these in Marvel’s The Avengers — the more the film needs to be grounded in real human characters you can care about and identify with, and that’s always been a problem for me with superhero movies. Whedon does his best to humanise these characters, and there are lots of nice quiet scenes — by far the best in the film — when they are around each other, sharing jokes, and making fun of some of the absurdities of the genre. And yet, it’s never quite enough to make me care for those long stretches when yet another major American city is being destroyed by monsters sent from an alternate plane of existence by a shadowy evil overlord.

It’s a good film, though, and for those who count themselves fans of the superhero genre, there’s a lot to enjoy in it, not least just the simple fact of having all these disparate characters interacting with one another. This, after all, is at the heart of the movie (as the British title recognises) and Whedon’s script shows great affection for all of them. But at times, as the film ticks on into its third hour, I do find myself getting a bit misty-eyed for the olden days of the superhero film, when villainous plans could be foiled with rather less sound and fury.


© Walt Disney Studios

FILM REVIEW
Director Joss Whedon | Writers Zak Penn and Joss Whedon | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 29 April 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, London, Thursday 27 June 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good