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Out in Theaters: CHEF

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I regret to say that my mom was never a great cook, even good cook would be a stretch. And while my stepmom whipped up a mean scallop pasta dish every once in a while, the fabled variety of “home cooked” meals on that front were pretty few and far between. No wonder that I found such affection in the arms of my girlfriend’s parents back in my formative years. Those stay-at-home moms sure knew how to plate up an amuse bouche that would amuse my bouche (if you know what I mean.) And in those meals, I found magic, and a love for food that has expanded my waist-size by an unmentionable amount (I blame you too beer.)

A good home cooked meal is like nothing else. No fancily plated, truffle-shaven, Emerill Lagasse “BAM!” chow can really touch a good meal cooked with (oh god, I’m gonna say it) love. And even though Jon Favreau has a tendency to indulge in Food Network levels of food porn, he cooks up this good-natured story with an abundance of love. On the surface, Chef is a movie about food, family, and forgiveness but the undertones of artist’s passion are equally raging.

Favreau’s passion is movies. He spent his formative years in the warm embrace of indie comedies as a writer/producer/director, crafting such cult classics as Swingers in the bosom of Hollywood’s furtive underbelly (where the meat is fattiest and most flavorful). Quickly earning himself a name around 90027’s water coolers, Favreau become a hip name and he was handed increasingly larger projects (including Elf and that movie no one saw, Zathura.) The one consistency through his admittedly checkered career was his unchecked fervor for the movies.

His passion even extended to the first Iron Man movie (still regarded as one of Marvel’s greatest hits) but there was a dimness to Favreau’s beady eyes after the studio-domineered, ultimately lumpy Iron Man 2 and the unfairly reviled Cowboys & Aliens. Chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, his creative tank had made its last round in the 100 million dollar tentpole ring. And all for the best.

In Chef, Favreau plays Carl Casper, a chef stifled by his boss’s gluttonous need for consistency. Once regarded as a revelation to the world of trend-hungry foodies, Casper’s settled into the “high-stress” epoch of LA living, complete with gaudy farmer’s markets, high-rise villas (and armies of maids) and the 21st century equivalent of the invisible hand: social-media-mania.

When Oliver Platt, as Anton Ego-type food blogger Ramsey Michel, announces he’ll be reviewing Casper’s restaurant, Casper dreams up a whole new menu to wow his would-be critic. Enter old white man in a suit and tie, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), waving his dollar bills around and demanding that nothing changes (EVER!!!) Riva even tugs at Casper’s ego, mustering up memories of adoring patrons and telling him to stick to “his greatest hits.”

Dumping the buckets of fresh food nuggets he’d scooped up at the farmer’s market (with his shaggy-haired, iPhone-poking kid in tow), Casper plays the hits and the esteemed critic all but gags. In his review, he blasts Casper for his uninspiring cuisine, calling him a fallen star, a comfortable hack, a five-star lackey. Then he sneaks in a jab alluding to Casper being fat. Low blow. Casper takes the review with all the grace of Mel Gibson getting pulled over and proceeds to sully his name via the magical powers of social media. Ignorant to the fine working of Twitter, he lands himself in hot water like a lobster in a Maine July (mmm lobster.)

With his reputation in tatters, Casper takes to the food truck business, abandoning the high brow pretense of Zagat-rated dining for the salty allure of grilling up badass sandies.

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A fresh coat of paint and four wheels later, El Jefe’s- a namesake taken from the tats on Casper’s knucks (not shown, his apparent jailhouse stay) – is Casper’s artistic expression reborn. There may not be anything inherently artful about a mean Cubano but he unloads passion into that pork sandwich like a man with 20-years of blue balls.

His faithful line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) joins his quest as does his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony), making way for some great comic dynamics and tactful “let me show you, son” dramatics. What follows is a surprisingly funny and heartfelt journey through the bowels of homeland America as Favreau’s Casper earns back his good name.

In a way then, Chef is autobiographical. It’s Favreau’s comeback, his gravestone dance, his rightfully derelict musings on his own Hollywood arc, all spelled out in tasty, food-based metaphors. What could be more delicious?

The five-star restaurant forcing him to replicate old menus until it’s tasteless and tired is the recklessly antiquated studio system, the taco truck the creativity-stoking warmth of independent film. In this reading, Chef is sneakily subversive. It’s about the extinction of dinosaurs, about bull-headed industries beckoning their own collapse. It’s a big ol’ middle finger to the studio system.

Sure, Sofia Vergara is impractically hot to play the pudgy Favreau’s ex-wife and lil’ Emjay Anthony may be a scrubbed-out, impossibly dimpled, angelic stereotype of “perfect white son” but it works. It works well. Between serving up a healthy dose of  masturbatory chow as centerpiece, Favreau crafts an indelibly personal story. Armed with a bitchin’ chef’s knife and an apron for a plate of armor, his pot shots at “the man” are clean and clear but the familial saga will leave you strangely fulfilled. This is feel good dramedy for adults, a rarely served platter of real heft, spiced up with zesty gags that will leave nothing short of a good taste in your mouth.

Hoffman’s suit of a boss likens Casper to a Rolling Stones show; “Imagine if you paid for a ticket and they didn’t play Satisfation?” Well, Favreau’s film slyly retorts, had Mick Jagger kept playing Satisfaction, the Stones would have never released Sticky Fingers. Chef is Favreau’s soulful Sticky Fingers.

B+

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30 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 (30-21)

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With 2013 now in the rear mirror, it’s time to look forward into the new year and start placing our bets on what’s going to turn out best. As always, there’s a slate of big blockbusters on their way but I only have little interest in a bulk of these. For this reason, you won’t find the likes of Hunger Games, The Hobbit, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and the overpopulated The Amazing Spiderman 2 on this list. Rather, this is a collection of films that I feel could surprise me, entertain me, amaze me and really stick with me throughout the year.

Here is my most anticipated movies of 2014.

30. How to Train Your Dragon 2

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Let me just start by saying I absolutely loved How to Train Your Dragon. Between the inimitable animation and heart-rending tale of unexpected friendship (and did I mention dragons galore?), it was probably the biggest surprise of 2010 (a year overflowing with out of the park animated films). While HTTYD has become a certifiable pop franchise, with a television show, plans for a second sequel and three short films already under its belt, I’m hoping that this second installment is able to capture the magic and heart of the film but fear that it will suffer the blow of sequelitis.

Releases wide in 3D on June 13.

29. Jupiter Ascending

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After almost falling off the radar with the one-two punch of the Matrix sequels and the DOA Speed Racer, the Wachowskis returned to cinema in a big, bold way with last year’s Cloud Atlas, a film equal parts compelling, confusing, and, all around, courageous. Their latest, Jupiter Ascending, aside from sharing a strange, ethereal name shares the ambition found in Atlas and could potentially rise above being a B-grade sci-fi actioner. Aided by hot ticket items Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis, let’s hope that this reminds us of the stuff that put the Wachowskis on the map.

Set to debut July 18.

28. Chef

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You never know quite what’s in store when Jon Favreau steps behind the camera but no one can deny that the man knows how to harness fun. Though critics widely panned Cowboys & Aliens, I sided with it, calling it for the fun, tongue-in-cheek genre mash-up a title like Cowboys & Aliens suggested. And though I had some severe issues with Iron Man 2, we gotta give Favreau credit for putting Iron Man and the MMU on the map. But that’s neither here or there as Chef is a large departure from Favreau’s big blockbuster fare of late and is more in tune with his sardonic comedies the likes of Swingers. Starring Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr, as a chef who is fired and turns to working at a food truck, the cast is loaded with his trusty Avengers sidekick, Scarlett Jonahsson, alongside Modern Family‘s Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, and naturally, Favreau. If things looks go down as they should, this looks to have all the ingredients for critical and financial success.

Expected to release May 9.

27. Dumb and Dumber To

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It’s been 20 years since Harry and Lloyd rode a Vespa to Aspen singing Mockingbird and causing heart palpitations. This time, rather than recast the roles with two nobody actors, the original cast is back. Even better is the fact that in the time since their last outing, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels have gone on to lead really respectable dramatic careers. Seeing them return to their roots after a decade of serious stuff will hopefully make it all that much more sweet. While we all collectively try to forget about Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met (oh god I just can’t) let’s hope that they go and do something that totally redeems themselves.

Set for a November 18 release date.

26. Only Lovers Left Alive

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Jim Jarmusch is pretty much the Elvis of indie film (just look at his hair), and it doesn’t hurt that his latest benefits from a killer duo in Tom Hiddelston and Tilda Swinton, so the fact that the man is now dabbling in vampires is enough to get my curiosity piqued. Add to that the fact that buzz out of Cannes and Toronto was nothing but glowing and Only Lovers Left Alive earns its place as the one vampire movie of 2014 that I won’t dread seeing. If all goes well with my flights (*fingers crossed*) this should be the first film I see at Sundance so a mere ten days away for me at this point. The rest of you will have to wait until April 11 or later.

Will play at Sundance and then open in limit theaters on April 11.

25. Wish I Was Here

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Aside from having going down in history for having one of the best soundtracks ever, Garden State was widely loved by critics and audiences for its salty take on the transitory twenties. It was the kind of indie rom-com with heart and purpose that seems to escape so many filmmakers. So it’s no wonder that Zach Braff‘s sophomoric film (and it’s been ten years) lands on my list. The fact that Braff funded the film through his notorious Kickstarter campaign also means no studio interference so this is the untarnished piece bolstered by full creative control. Wish I Was Here follows Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor, father and husband, who at 35 is still trying to find his identity; a purpose for his life. Sound anything like Braff’s Andrew Largeman? I thought so. I guess we’ll see how close this one hems to being a thematic sequel to Braff’s celebrated debut.

Will premiere at Sundance. Wide release TBA.

24. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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I’m already kind of kicking myself for including this one but my lingering affection for Robert Rodriguez‘s first adapation of Frank Miller‘s crunchy graphic novel has twisted my arm. I can’t help but feel like this will be a throwaway follow up but the fact that Rodriguez and Miller have been working on this for ten years gives me a shimmer of hope that this will be the return to form the hit-or-miss filmmaker needs. Add to that the fact that Joseph Gordon Levvitt, Jeremy Piven, Eva Green, and Josh Brolin have joined a cast that already includes Sin veterans Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendez, and Rosario Dawson and I’m left assuming that they must have at least a solid story under their belt. Here’s hoping.

A late summer release means more Sin City for August 22.

23. Locke

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Locke debuted last year at the Venice Film Fest to near unanimous support and is yet another on this list that I’ll be catching at Sundance. Featuring the always triumphant Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson), Steven Knight‘s film is said to channel the minimalism utilized in the surprisingly fantastic Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. The film takes place entirely inside the car Hardy’s Ivan Locke drives while he takes a number of calls in a race-against-time scenario.

Another film featured at Sundance 2014, Locke will open April 25 in select theaters.

22. Edge of Tomorrow

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Tom Cruise is dangerously close to the “he can do no wrong” page in my book so just anything with the grinny 5’7″ action hero has me turning my head. Add to that a cool sci-fi concept that mashed mech suits with a Groundhog Day playground and I’m very much listening. Although I prefered the over-the-top original title, All You Need Is Kill, to the watered down product that is Edge of Tomorrow, this could be the type of blockbuster needed to jump start our faith in blockbusters. While director Doug Liman has a bit of a spotted past (Bourne Identity = good, Jumper = no so much), everything from this so far looks pretty impressive.

With a June 6 release date, you better believe this’ll be your IMAX screening of the week.

21. Godzilla

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After Roland Emmerich‘s failed 1999 Godzilla flick, it’s almost ridiculous to imagine that I would be anticipating the next stage of the lizard monster big screen return but here it is anyways. At first, the cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe had my interested piqued but it was really the uncharacteristically artistic approach seen in the posters and the excellent first teaser trailer that has me debuting this potential blockbuster so highly on this list. Back in his heyday, the iconic citystomper used to stand for something. His iconography is as engrained as Darth Vader or Sauron. I’m willing to bet that this Godzilla is going to put the Japanese monster back on the map in a big way.

A big blockbuster date with a May 16 tentpole release.

Tomorrow the list continues with my 20-11 picks