Chef ***

chef

This is the kind of film that should come with a warning: not just “eat beforehand” but “writer-director vanity project alert”. If you’ve never fancied Jon Favreau films, this one isn’t setting out to change your mind either. Chef is easily consumable though, and Favreau does have another competitor to contend with in each scene – the food.

It’s the same-old ‘road journey’ metaphor at play, learning from one’s mistakes when it comes to those that matter around us, while not losing that individuality and spirit that makes the character (hopefully) appealing. Writer-director Favreau also stars as notorious celebrity chef Carl Casper who loses his job at Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant following the consequences of a bad review by food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt).

Struggling to see his estranged kid, Percy (Emjay Anthony), at the best of times, Carl is at a loss as to what to do, even though he knows he’s got some great signature dishes to share and bundles of talent. A meeting with his ex-wife’s (Sofia Vergara) ex beau, businessman Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) starts a catalyst of life/career-changing events with former sous-chef and good friend Martin (John Leguizamo) and his son in tow as they take the US by storm in a food truck.

The film’s plot is mapped out from the start –- it’s just a matter of watching the car crash of events leading to the moment of revelation. There is nothing new in this respect. However, the journey taken is by all means still an entertaining one, and Favreau’s big personality certainly suits that of his character. But just when things get a little predictable, out comes the food prep/cooking to keep you truly distracted, so it’s hard to tell whether the feel-good factor is a genuine investment in the film, or you’re being wooed by the culinary delights and balmy heat of the kitchen/food truck. It’s basically food porn with morals stirred in, and it’s as though Favreau has made a film about his passions with no apologies, folks.

There are some nice performances from the ensemble cast, with Leguizamo playing to type – that of the dependable pal, while Platt oozes amused malevolence as the critic. It seems Vergara and Downey Jr. (and Scarlett Johansson btw who plays a sexy maître d’) are just around to look ‘good’ while Hoffman brings an A-list name to his A-list restaurant. All offer solid but forgettable turns in this. Again, the ‘kid’ in the film gets even greater screen exposure than past gigs: meet Emjay Anthony as the ever understandable son, doing what kids do which is control the world via social media like some super villain deciding our fate. Those not in the know about the power of social media will learn a thing or two here, so there’s some interesting marketing ideas to be had.

All in all, it’s hard to knock a film that offers up a little bit of life-lesson-learning, emotional drama, and loads of mouth-watering food – unless the thought of sitting through over two hours of Favreau turns your stomach. On the whole, Chef is a funny, poignant crowd-pleaser that won’t leave a bad taste in the mouth and will fill you up nicely.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Straw Dogs ***

The British 1971 original by Sam Peckinpah both appalled and enthralled an unsuspecting audience, like an unwanted mirror held up to reflect some of the most primitive and raw human nature ever captured on screen when the chips are down. There was a distinct difference between the act of rape as one of empowerment, as opposed to sexual. Flash forward 40 years and set in the Deep South of the USA, the main characters are all the same – even the film’s poster image, with writer-director Rod Lurie’s 2011 version merely updating the setting and fashions but sticking close to the original script.

David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth), a Hollywood screenwriter and his actress wife, return to her small hometown in the Deep South to prepare the family home for sale after her father’s death. Once there, tensions build in their marriage and old conflicts re-emerge with the locals, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), leading to a violent confrontation.

The ‘town verses country’ contradiction has always been fertile ground for such horror movies, even spurning the remake of another all-time classic shocker last year, I Spit On Your Grave that also involves deeply disturbing rape scenes. However, in the latest Straw Dogs, there is just one graphic scene and it’s edited to minimise any upset. This may spare some people’s sensitivities, but it seems to work against its favour and blunt any impact. By almost diluting what unfolds, Lurie does not give us enough information to gauge our disgust – even if he sticks to the ‘she’s-asking-for-it’ misogyny of the original film, with Amy undressing at the window as a symbol of her sexual confidence as the men work on the barn roof.

The other spoiler for many True Blood fans is the striking presence and rough handling by Swede actor Skarsgård as Amy’s redneck former beau Charlie. After the confrontational vampire scenes in the TV series, our ‘fear’ of Skarsgård as Charlie’s stalking and subsequent abuse of Amy is somewhat diffused in this: When we should be appalled by the act, there is a disturbing titillation at play that excites rather than sickens, even with Amy’s first uttering of the word “no” that should suffice. It could be argued that this is the quandary the film poses – rape after all usually happens between two people who know each other, but it does nothing to shame us, or appease the tireless work of some victims’ charities. The fact is Skarsgård taps into his alluring trademark calm and restrained persona – with a few gratuitous torso shots to boot, making us throw all caution to the wind. Is this smart casting by Lurie to really test our resolve, or miscasting, as Lurie’s Charlie does not quite fit the fiend he should be?

In fact, the most shocking act of aggression in the 2011 film is that carried out by James Woods’ character Tom Heddon – known as ‘Coach’ in this that allows us to appreciate American’s obsession with success and football prowess, and capture the impression of those has-beens cast aside, such as Charlie and his boys, who are still in awe of him. Woods as Heddon is the same character trying to get at the Niles boy in the new film, but he is more unpredictable and threatening than his British counterpart, Peter Vaughan, was back in 1971, and often steals the scenes with all involved.

Marsden and Bosworth have the same believable chemistry as Hoffman and George did in the original, with both adding that contemporary arrogance and resolute independence that present-day audiences can relate to – down to the question of the purpose of religion. Marsden stands out in a more serious, adult role this time than his usual family-friendly affair. But his childishness suits David’s carefree spirit in this, making it one of his best performances to date.

As close to the original as Lurie’s well-made remake is, there remains a sizeable question mark over why Straw Dogs was revisited at all. Purely to make the 1971 film’s ideas accessible to a 2011 audience seems a flimsy excuse, and it merely perpetuates a dangerously caviller and sexist attitude in contemporary cinema. Perhaps it’s up to the maturity of the audience watching to decide, but that is both the solution and the risk of such a controversial subject matter.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Barney’s Version – 4*

Thankfully, Paul Giamatti won Best Actor Golden Globe for Barney’s Version, considering the shameful overlook at the Oscar nominations. ‘Best Achievement in Makeup’ nod for Adrien Morot perhaps, but Giamatti is pure dramedy gold as impulsive, self-depreciating and sarcastic love saboteur, Barney Panofsky. This film touches all the right notes and offers some highly animated and memorable performances. It is a character-driven and guaranteed side-tickler of a tale, punctuated with poignant moments of reflection along the way.

Barney is a man who marries the wrong woman, twice. His third wife is the love of his life – the meeting of which will make you howl with delight. But he still denies himself any happiness and in turn, destroys his chances of domestic bliss. After the mysterious disappearance of his best friend Boogie, for which he is the prime murder suspect, he decides to tell his version of events, after a cop-turned-writer publishes a novel trying to finger him for the crime years before. Justice takes a different turn in the end, when Barney answers to his maker, earlier than expected.

Based on controversial Canadian writer Mordecai Richler’s book of the same name, Barney’s Version is classic tale of redemption, verging on self-destruction – when viewed from the protagonist’s perspective. Everybody loves a tragic fool; especially one who cannot see when going is good. Giamatti plays the brow-beaten, serial monogamist Barney to subtle but dynamic perfection, reflecting off the array of stellar supporting talent that includes a delightful turn by Dustin Hoffman as his un-PC, ex-cop father, Izzy, who is like a hormonal teen run wild, and Minnie Driver, the motor-mouthed, second ‘Mrs P’, his demanding ‘Jewish Princess’. It is a contemporary comedy of errors, all imagined by the one person, that will make you laugh out loud and well up, too.

The serious note begins as Barney starts acting strangely and being forgetful, leading to a sensitive and moving portrayal of senile dementia. In turn, we begin to understand and appreciate Barney’s more shocking and terrifying turns, as well as his warped sense of being. It becomes a tearjerker as his long-suffering wife, Miriam (Rosamund Pike), tries unsuccessfully to reach out before it is too late, but not before Barney has you revelling in his exuberant existence and erratic ways. The deadpan and downplayed reactions that Giamatti delivers with aplomb counterbalance the theatrics of those around him, until Barney erupts at points to show his is still very much alive and kicking against an invisible resistance of his own creation.

The only unconvincing part of the whole affair is the rather strange casting of Brit Mark Addy as the hound-dog cop/author and Barney’s nemesis, Detective O’Hearne that seems a little odd, and creates the weakest casting link in the chain.

Nevertheless, Giamatti is on true form here, as with his lead performances in Duplicity and Cold Souls. That said Barney is more accessible a character than before, and less quirky, which will hopefully expose the Giamatti magic and self-ridicule to a wider audience. Barney’s Version is a good-spirited hoot-a-minute and warms you like a good tonic on a cold day.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Meet The Parents: Little Fockers – 3*

In-laws or ‘out-laws’, whatever you want to call them, are what make the silly season so interesting – and quite often volatile. So, releasing yet another in the Meet The Parents series seems like ideal pre-Christmas viewing, before spending enforced time with your own. We can all relate to the tight-lipped niceties and time-bomb tension, hence, Little Fockers, the third film in this 10-year saga, should tick all the boxes, right?

Well, to a certain extent, yes, but like an annoying relative who insists on repeating the same old, tired joke that dried up along with last year’s turkey, Little Fockers still (desperately) goes for laughs with its naughty-sounding surname gag. This time it’s taken to new Mafioso-heights with the promise of downtrodden son-in-law Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) becoming the ‘Godfocker’ (groan) of controlling patriarch Jack Byrnes’ (Robert De Niro) empire in his demise.

That’s really the plot, the whole plot, and nothing but the plot, give or take a few sub-plots and odd peppering of supporting actors – like a greasy-haired and tattooed Harvey Keitel as a brash foreman for starters (pray, why?). The attractive poster mix of A-Listers that includes De Niro, Owen Wilson, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo and Jessica Alba never really comes to the boil, and the child puke jokes and early penile discoveries feel as awkward as the actors having to dish them out for the hard-of-seeing.

The real stars of the second film, Hoffman and Streisand, are virtually frittered away, here, making sporadic appearances in this film, and coming in at the last minute to almost ‘save the day’ at the twins’ party. You could have forgiven their lacklustre usage, had the film-makers dared to be different with a promising role-reversal element to Focker and Byrnes at the start, with Focker getting a little power-crazed with his own young family, after getting the call from Byrnes that should change his family dynamic for life.

Sadly, director Paul Weitz and co. revert to two-dimensionality again, with new addition Alba being the worst culprit as incredibly perky and annoyingly enthusiastic drug rep Andi Garcia (another cringeworthy pun that has to be spelt out), but really not letting us get past the fact that it’s just near-naked Alba looking stunning again and showing off her trim figure. Well, at least that’s a thumbs-up for the boys, whilst the girls can all curse at reaching for that last mince pie.

That said, the reason for Little Fockers’ guaranteed interest at the box office is, like Christmas, we may tire of some of its elements, but it’s hard not to get into the spirit of it, in all its panto glory. This time of year is all about pulp-style films with frustratingly amicable characters like Alba as Garcia and Stiller as Focker. We love to watch a fool, especially a fool with flaws; it’s as much of a draw as picking at the leftover turkey. It still brings a smile to the face and a few chuckles, and we know it’s wrong to continue contributing financially to it – especially with the unashamedly obvious hint of a fourth film at the end – but we just can’t help ourselves.

Therefore, Little Fockers offers nothing new, just a bunch of nostalgic old/rehashed that, if being completely honest, isn’t really offensive pre-Christmas viewing, and it may get you through out-law nightmares with a secret smile on the big day.

3/5 stars

By L G-K