Monday, January 26, 2015

I rented, I watched, I review: CHEF; MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN; WE ARE THE BEST!


You don't have to be a serious film fan to know Jon Favreau's filmography. The man directed "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2." He wrote and acted in "Swingers." He's also behind films such as "Elf" and "Cowboys & Angels." His background is indie film, but throughout the past half-decade, he's mostly been immersed in the big-budget blockbuster. If you notice, though, he was not the man behind "Iron Man 3." Why is that? Why did he step down from making that movie? Why would he follow-up a big blockbuster like "Cowboys & Angels" with a movie like "Chef"? Did he completely lose his mojo after "Cowboys & Angels" and now "Chef" is his way of getting that mojo back?

If you're interested in having any of these questions answered, then guess what? This is the movie for you! "Chef" is a very, very thinly-veiled metaphor for Jon Favreau's struggles with the studio system and his critics. How thinly-veiled? Well, Favreau actually stars in the film as Chef Carl Casper. Chef Carl is tired of serving the same old stuff and wants to put some art into his food, but the owner of the restaurant only cares about money and forces Carl to do things his way instead. Does that sound familiar?

Fed up with his job, Carl quits his job at the restaurant. With the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), they both take a flight to Miami with their son Percy, basically so that Carl can get his groove back. In Miami, he reintroduces himself to the local food there that originally inspired him to become a chef. While there, he decides to open up a food truck that serves Cuban-influenced cuisine and enlists the help of Percy as well as his former sous chef (John Leguizamo) to tour the southern half of the United States, serving food along the way, until they finally make it back to LA.

There are so many things about "Chef" that are so damn improbable, it's hard to keep track. Apparently, a heated exchange between Chef Carl and a top food critic in Los Angeles becomes so popular on the internet that it goes viral and Carl gets a lot of followers on Twitter as a result. Thanks to the followers, people are lining up in droves to eat his Cuban sandwiches because apparently this heated exchange has made Carl popular in far-away cities such as New Orleans and Austin, Texas.

Many movies nowadays treat social networking and the internet pretty awkwardly, and luckily "Chef" doesn't get too bogged down in that. Still, the idea that this random chef in Los Angeles would become this popular is just silly. You have to suspend your disbelief for the second half of the movie because it is just pure fantasy.

And yet, Leguizamo is fun. Emjay Anthony, who plays Percy, actually has great chemistry with Jon Favreau. Sofia Vergara isn't annoying as usual. Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, and Oliver Platt are all fun to watch. Despite the second half being totally implausible, it's actually where the movie saves itself from being a complete disaster. The first half of the movie is just way too self-referential and embarrassingly meta, once they finally break out the food truck half-way through, it's like a breath of fresh air. Seriously, everything before the food truck scenes should have lasted maybe 15 minutes.

It's weird though, right? Because, the second half of the movie is basically about Jon Favreau deciding to write and direct an independent movie so he could go back to his roots. The second half of "Chef" is about Jon Favreau making "Chef." Luckily, that last hour of the film is light and enjoyable, or else this whole movie could've turned out to be the most self-indulgent bullshit ever made. But yes, this is a nice little movie and I had a good time watching most of it. And hey, maybe Favreau will now stick to independent films since he has much more fun making them... no wait, he's currently directing "The Jungle Book," a big-budget Walt Disney film... nevermind.

Grade: C+

We Are the Best!

Bobo, Klara, Hedvig are three adolescent girls growing up in Stockholm, Sweden in 1982. All three have their various issues with their parents, school, classmates, and even themselves. Bobo and Klara get made fun of in school because they have short hair. Nobody even talks to Hedvig at lunch. Yet, these three girls manage to bond together through their love of music. The punk scene in Sweden might be in decline, but Klara and Bobo are so insistent that it's not dead, that they have decided to form a punk rock band of their own, despite not knowing how to play instruments. Watching lonely, sad Hedvig play guitar on stage during a talent show, they realize her talents would make the band complete.

But once they get together, it's not really about becoming a successful band or anything. Their punk rock band is really a means for Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig to channel their feelings and pent-up frustration. Klara is very conscious and weary about what's happening in the world around her, Bobo looks at herself in the mirror and doesn't think she's pretty, Hedvig's mother is a devout Christian and seems to have her daughter on a leash.

I love how three-dimensional these young girls are. I love how it sorta digs into the gender politics that goes into rock music. The trio thinks of themselves as a just a band, not a "girl band." They just want to rock out, but nobody seems to want to listen.

Director Lukas Moodysson crafts the film in a way that feels personal and intimate, as if we're eavesdropping into their conversations. It's almost as if we're not supposed to be in the room with them when they're hanging out together, but we're there anyway. When it's just the three of them, they show a side of themselves that they don't show to their classmates or parents. "We Are the Best!" is about how difficult it is to grow up as a teenager, especially for a girl. Especially if that girl isn't deemed pretty by society's standards. It manages to deal with all these issues while being a really enjoyable, often funny, little romp. While it may be a bit slight overall, I really did get a kick out of this movie.

Grade: B

Here's the good news about "Men, Women & Children": director Jason Reitman has officially bottomed out. So, he can only go up from here, right?

I hope so. For the most part, I'm a big fan of Reitman's first four films ("Thank You For Smoking", "Juno", "Up in the Air", "Young Adult"), but he has fallen off in a huge way with his last two efforts with "MW&C" being the biggest offender of them all.

"Men, Women & Children" is a hyperlink story about high school students and their parents, all of whom are addicted to the internet. Reitman takes the odd approach of letting this film play out as a 100% dead serious drama and it's a shockingly misguided and wrongheaded move on his part. The characters are lifeless, the drama itself is laughably melodramatic, and the film's linked by shots of the Voyager from outer space, coupled with the oh-so-unnecessary narration of Emma Thompson that's supposed to tell how insignificant we're all are in the grand scheme of things and how we lose real, human connections by getting so sucked into these laptops and handheld devices.

This movie is just a series of bad notes. These characters make so many idiotic leaps of logic that you'll want to punch the screen several times. Jason Reitman takes this overall approach of "the concerned parent" and the whole thing just feels like a giant pandering mess.

With his first four films, it was his lead characters who were the sardonic know-it-alls. With "Men, Women & Children," it's Reitman who's the know-it-all and he treats the audience as if we're a bunch of assholes. The movie's adapted from a novel by the same name so maybe it's not his fault, but he injects very little personality into each member of this ensemble cast. These characters, especially the teenagers, barely talk or act like normal human beings. They all make series of bad decisions because... the internet is bad. The movie's so simplistic in its approach and the plotting is so terrible that you'd think you were watching a lousy Lifetime movie.

Such a shame considering this wonderful, eclectic cast. Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, JK Simmons, Dennis Haysbert, Kaitlyn Dever. It's really a great cast that does their best given the material, unfortunately they've all been wasted.  I was very much in shock by how bad this turned to be, I didn't know Jason Reitman had this in him. I worry about what the future holds for this once-promising filmmaker. I'm not even mad about this movie, I'm just bummed.

Grade: F

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