Monthly Archives: May 2014

“Chef,” Reviewed: Savory and Sweet.


The real-life parallels between the narrative of Chef and its writer-director-star Jon Favreau are hard to miss. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a celebrity chef who loses his cool, and then his job and reputation, after a savage review sends him into a viral YouTube-ready tirade. I haven’t heard of that exact thing happening to Favreau, but after the stinging reviews of Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he had a few accidentally recorded rants in his digital closet.

Favreau started working in the early ’90s with some forgettable acting roles before writing his own ticket to success, literally, with the screenplay to Swingers (1996), the definitive lounge-lizard comedy that made Vince Vaughn a star and forced us to take its creator seriously. He stayed indie with Made (2001) before rolling into mainstream fare: First Elf, then Zathura, then Iron Man and the Marvel movies. It’s a blueprint for a successful career, but it’s also not hard to see how a small-scale project might seem refreshing.

Thus, Chef, in which Carl regroups after his meltdown and returns to his roots: At the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), he heads back to his hometown of Miami and launches a food truck business selling Cuban sandwiches and … well, basically whatever he wants to cook. There are two themes in Favreau’s film, with the first all about the importance of a creator being free to create without interference. As that critic (Oliver Platt) makes clear, Carl’s decade of L.A. success has come at the cost of his artistry; under the thumb of a blustery restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman), he’s been making the same lobster risotto and molten lava cake for too long. He needs to do his own thing again – even if that thing is selling Panini and beignets out of the back of a truck.

The second theme is family – specifically, the eroding relationship between Carl and his preteen son Percy (played in a smart, anti-precocious turn by EmJay Anthony). Percy isn’t unhappy at home with his mom, but he deeply craves Dad Time, and is credibly crestfallen whenever Carl (frequently) lets him down. When Carl gets the food truck up and running, Percy joins him for the long ride from Miami to Los Angeles – with stops in New Orleans and Austin along the way – and the steadily increasing success of their business tracks with the improving father-son relationship. Percy uses the Internet to help prime each upcoming destination for the truck’s arrival; he’s a marketing guru and an amateur kitchen apprentice, but he’s really just thrilled to be with his dad.

You can’t have a movie called Chef without some serious cooking scenes, and Favreau the director attacks these sequences with both the attention of a cinematic artist and the zeal of a big guy who likes to eat. I was struck by an early scene in which Carl has been sent home from Hoffman’s restaurant, and spends the night cooking for therapy: A gastronomic orgasm slowly builds on his stainless-steel prep table. But there’s equal discipline and affection in a simple scene of him making a grilled cheese sandwich for Percy, and later, of father and son sampling a slow-roasted brisket in Texas. Chef will leave you hungry for a good meal afterwards – and for whatever its behind-the-camera creator decides to put on his menu next.

“Million Dollar Arm,” Reviewed: Formula Won.


I came into Million Dollar Arm with a fair amount of prejudice: It’s packaged like just another crowd-pleasing trifle from the Disney machine – in this case, combining our national pastime with a slumming leading man and three bright-eyed young men from India who want a chance at the American Dream. It was a low-priority film, I figured; no surprises there. I was wrong.

Based on a true story, MDA concerns J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a struggling sports agent looking for a meal ticket. He comes up with an idea of going to India to scout for undiscovered baseball talent amid the millions of cricket players blanketing the subcontinent. He’s less concerned with whether his specific recruits will make the grade, than with the press reaction to his project. Publicity is currency.

After a not-quite-breezy India interlude (propelled by A.R. Rahman’s infectious score), J.B. returns home with two potential players, Dinesh and Rinku (Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma) and Amit (Pitobash), a baseball-besotted translator. The film is refreshingly even-handed in its parallel depictions of J.B.’s culture shock in India and the boys’ reactions to America, where their host lives impossibly in a giant house without any family except for the comely med student (Lake Bell) who rents his backyard bungalow. J.B. eats Power Bars for breakfast and doesn’t even pray; their first English language lesson is to learn the phrase “let’s hustle.”

Subtlety takes a long walk off a short pier in Million Dollar Arm, with the predictable beats (the boys get drunk! They ruin a big deal for J.B.! They take too long to learn baseball!) each arriving with machinelike efficiency. But there’s a humanity at work here that’s more than the plot-by-numbers deserves. All the performers have come to play, from the Indians’ dignified earnestness to Hamm’s practiced blend of bravado and insecurity. And Bell is a bonus: As the accidental ambassador between J.B. and his young charges, she does a lot more with her thankless part than might have been required in a lesser film.

In the end, J.B. stands by his men and learns a little something about life, yada yada yada … and yet the tears wiped away by the final reel are earned, not extracted through crass sentimentality. As I watched Million Dollar Arm I couldn’t figure out how this Disney product was affecting me so deeply, but when the credits rolled I figured it out: the film is directed by Craig Gillespie, whose Lars and the Real Girl (2007) is a quiet masterpiece of small moments; and written by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote Disney’s Up and who might just be the most talented actor-director (The Visitor, The Station Agent) working today. Had I known of their involvement ahead of time I might have known what to expect; instead, I enjoyed one of the most pleasant surprises of the year – a formula film that is much more than the sum of its parts.

“Neighbors,” Reviewed: The Parents, Trapped.


It would be wrong to pretend the new film Neighbors isn’t exactly what it appears to be: A raunchy comedy of ill manners that celebrates the frat-boy lifestyle even while wagging its finger at that party-all-the-time behavior. But it would also be unfair not to point out that the film is also something more than that.

As the film opens we meet Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne), a young married couple still marveling at the adult lives that seemingly sprang up around them while they slept. They have a baby! And a house! And obligations! How did all this happen? If they’re happy and appropriately responsible, they also know they’re playing roles that they haven’t fully grown into.

All that is upended with the arrival of a college fraternity that buys the vacant house next door in their quiet suburban neighborhood. The ludicrously handsome frat president, Teddy (Zac Efron), represents everything they don’t want their baby daughter exposed to. And yet, even as Teddy’s all-night parties keep Mac and Kelly awake and contemplating a noise complaint, those sex-drug-and-loud-music soirees are also a temptation, and a siren call to their not-quite-forgotten youth.

The text of Neighbors is a comedy of escalating revenge: Mac floods the frat’s basement. Kelly tries to break up the group by inspiring Teddy’s girlfriend’s to cheat on him with another member. Teddy’s brothers, meanwhile, steal the airbags out of Mac’s sensible Subaru. They hold a fund-raiser on their front lawn, selling items that are decidedly not lemonade and cookies. They seduce their other neighbors with acts of charity. And the parties get louder, and louder….

That’s all funny stuff on its own terms, but the film’s secret weapon is its subtext. Rogen and Byrne, both skilled comic actors, neatly suggest the plight of people who can appreciate the rewards of adulthood while still pining slightly for their heady past days of irresponsibility. And next door, Efron plays Teddy as a moody little creep plagued by a sneaking suspicion that nothing good is waiting for him after college. To him, Mac and Kelly aren’t the enemy – graduation is.

In director Nicholas Stoller’s best work to date – writing The Five-Year Engagement, directing Forgetting Sarah Marshall – he’s found ways to spelunk the cavernous insecurities of full-grown adults, mining their fears and emerging from the darkness with nuggets of comic gold. This film joins that list, and is in many ways the strongest example of that form.

And yet, it’s still a movie that features a house with a two-story bong. When the characters get really hungry after smoking all that illegal weed, the film lets them have their cake and eat it too.

“Godzilla,” Reviewed: A Serious Tease.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one (and you probably haven’t, because it’s probably a dumb idea), but in some ways the new Godzilla movie works best as a spiritual sequel to last year’s Man of Steel. If you saw Zack Snyder’s take on Superman, you’ll recall his story was less a conventional look at the indestructible Kryptonian superhero, and more a consideration of how such a being could single-handedly redefine life on Earth. Snyder’s Superman wasn’t a good guy as much as a force of nature that we could be grateful was on our side, despite the massive property damages and body count racked up by the final reel.

The most jarring part of that perspective was that Superman’s otherness – the unavoidable way in which he is just plain different from us – remained wrapped up in an appealing package of cape, costume and perfectly styled hair. In Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, that’s been “fixed”: There’s simply no way to regard a 350-foot radioactive lizard as anything other than That Which Is Not Us. Edwards puts the God in Godzilla, positioning the beastie as something we can’t stop (or even control) and shouldn’t even try. Some things are just bigger than humanity, the film seems to say; when those things appear, we should settle for hoping they’ll do more good than harm.

I’m no Godzilla scholar, but I understand this interpretation hearkens back to the creature’s earliest days; the film legend was born in Japan, of course, as a cultural response to that country’s understandable nuclear paranoia following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus it follows that Edwards would start his film in Japan, circa 1999, as a visiting husband-and-wife team of nuclear scientists (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are caught up in an unexplainable underground disaster. Cut to 15 years later, and the action shifts to their now-grown son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosives expert who regards his aging dad as a conspiracy-fearing crackpot.

But Ford’s pop isn’t crazy. Soon more signs of devastating subterranean activity are discovered, and a team of scientists team up with the military to go after … Godzilla? Well, that would be telling. Suffice to say that if the Earth’s radiation-laden core can sustain one giant monster, it can feed two or three. (Or more?)

If you find that gentle tease annoying, you’ll hate Edwards’ Godzilla. A whole hour goes by before the title character is allowed to take up the full screen – and even then he’s gone in an eyeblink, as the film cuts away to Ford’s family watching the commotion on TV. (Maybe they should have called it “Waiting for Godzilla.”) The filmmakers have adopted a less-is-more philosophy, choosing to keep the drama at our level: More CGI funds are expended on scenes of onlookers reacting to monster-caused devastation than on scenes involving any actual monsters. The goal in this is to keep the tension on a human scale, and it works, but at the cost of downplaying the hot monster action. All the foreplay in the first two acts should by rights lead to something earth-shattering in the final reel – but it’s ultimately not worth the wait. (I didn’t watch the film in IMAX or 3D, but if you have to pay extra to see table-stakes Godzilla spectacle, your blockbuster has a problem.)

The cast is packed with highly qualified actors: Look for David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, each bringing as much of their A-game as the B-movie script will allow. In the hands of, say, Jurassic Park-era Spielberg, we’d get to know these characters just well enough to feel invested in their survival. But no one’s given enough to work with, and without a compelling creature or engaging humans, what’s left? Carnage? We can see that by watching the news.

Ultimately, it’s hard to call Godzilla a failure when everyone involved seems to have made such an obviously sincere effort to take this remake seriously. (The last American production, from 1998, was laughable in all the wrong ways.) Edwards and crew approach their honored cinematic property with something akin to reverence, and that should never be discouraged. But maybe next time – and leapin’ lizards, you can bet there’ll be a next time – they’ll also approach it with something akin to fun.