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Out in Theaters: ‘THE INFILTRATOR’

Since departing Breaking Bad, the great Bryan Cranston has been in need of a pole position worthy of his might. He’s cropped up in various big budget blockbusters, slumming it for some of those Heisenberg stacks of green. He even earned himself an Oscar nomination in last year’s somewhat-well-received Trumbo. Impressive though the performance was, the film itself was not much more than a by-the-numbers biopic told without much style or aplomb. Which brings us to The Infiltrator, another half-decent true life story led by Cranston that, while in-and-of-itself is no great wonder of filmmaking, gives the charismatic performer a role to sink his pearly whites into. Read More

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Out in Theaters: AMERICAN ULTRA

Everybody knows that smoking weed can make you paranoid. And anybody who’s spent much time in Cannabis Culture probably knows that guy, who spends too much time getting high, drawing weird comics and spouting weird theories. But what if those weird, paranoid theories turned out to be true? This is the premise around which Nima Nourizadeh‘s unlikely new stoner/action/comedy/romance American Ultra is built, and ultimately succeeds. Read More

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Out in Theaters: JOHN WICK

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Shoot first and ask questions later is the mantra of Keanu Reeves‘ latest starring vehicle, a film that rotates around the question of “Who is John Wick?” and eventually “What is he capable of?” Going in blind to its main plot details will likely result in a better experience as the first act coyly plays with the idea of slowly unveiling who exactly this John Wick character is. First time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski clearly had a lot of fun with the eventual reveal of the character and his past and, especially if you skip the trailers, you most likely will too.

Having just lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan), John (Reeves) is a vortex funnel of emotion. Conversations with him are as brusque as they are chilly. Telephone calls with John consist of grunts, one word utterances and silences. Condolences are met with the emotional sensitivity of a grandfather clock. You insert a coin and watch it disappear. The only sign of life comes when an unbelievably adorable Beagle puppy is dropped at his doorstep with a note from his now deceased wife. The puppy, she envisions, is John’s invitation to move on and find life anew. Even with the pup sliding around his hardwood floors, John’s still remarkably dead-faced, but might just be starting to soften. When a pair of Russian gangsters tries to intimidate him into selling them his classic car, we see a whole new side of John. He’s sassy in a delectably murderous kind of way. And he speaks Russian. And he’s no one’s bitch.

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When the trio of gangsters, lead by mob boss son Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), reappear under cover of darkness to smash up his home, kill his puppy (“the horror…the horror…”) and steal his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, John winds up on the receiving end of a kicking session the likes of Riverdance. Bruised and bloody, he stares the death of hope right in its bloody, puppy visage. Even in this hazy, intentionally vague introduction to the stable of characters, we sense something violently carnal to John Wick just as we can smell the privileged cowardice steaming from Allen’s Iosef. Thinking themselves victorious, the thiefs slink off into the night. What the trio of goons hadn’t planned on was Wick retaliating, a miscalculation that becomes their blood-soaked fate.

Trying to replace VIN numbers and nab new tags, Iosef is clued into exactly who he’s messed with with a hard punch in the face. Even criminal mechanic Aurielo (John Leguizamo) won’t touch the stolen vehicle and in a move of unchecked candor, whops the little mafiosa in the schnoz for picking on the wrong guy. Iosef spouts, “My dad’s gonna do this,” and, “My dad’s gonna do that,” but even Aurielo’s smart enough to know that his top dog pops will understand his punchy reaction. When daddy Vigo (Michael Nyqvist) puts in the perfunctory check up call, all Aurielo needs to say to justify his physical gesture is to drop the news. “Your boy killed John Wick’s dog.” All Vigo can muster is an understanding, “Oh.” Cue all out war.

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Once the wick is lit (pun, unfortunately, intended), the candle of vengeance burns for the entirety of the film. Action beats rage from one vantage point to another, making way for some well-timed comic beats and introducing us to a slew of characters who either share John’s former profession and or are played solely for dark colored comedy. One such example is Lance Reddick (Lost) who plays a polite, indistinctly African concierge who welcomes a recovering John with open arms. His concierge recommendation – doctors, bourbon and a telling dinner – represent the brand of deadpan comic relief John Wick offers, with much of its comic beats resting on Reddick’s narrow shoulders. The balance between balls-to-the-wall action and black comedy is often spot on and when Wick isn’t unloading clips on clips into the faces of bad guys, it simmers down to a tasty stew of remorseless, lethal laughs; a trigger-happy comedy of errors.

When John is squeezing the trigger though, the film is an absolute firecracker. Formerly working as stunt coordinators, Leitch and Stahelski have a preternatural sense of how to frame the action and move it along like a ballet. Capturing a sense of articulate entropy, they are painterly in their splooshes of blood and whirlwind of bullets. Everything is choreographed to the T and even Keanu’s wooden acting disappears when he’s a playing a one-man army, single-handedly leaving behind a body count that piles up higher than any other action flick this year. When he’s meant to emote though, yes, Keanu does still resemble Balsa wood. Thankfully, John Wick knows its strength and its weaknesses and there is very little room left for actual reflection, a fact that is both a gift and a curse to the production as a whole.

John Wick eventually admits that it is in fact just the straight-forward actioner you’ve hoped it would transcend – with an ending you could forecast from 30 minutes in – but the sheer amount of adrenaline, relentless violence and smooth gunman skills help significantly to make up for its lack of an actual soul. This being the case, John Wick is a movie that dudes – be they of the male or action junkie femme variety – will have a lot of fun with but won’t find much else to talk about aside from its ceaseless  violence and well-timed dark comedy.

B-

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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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