Chef (2014)

RB score:  9/10 chef-picture-3 “Chef” is a movie that captivates the audience so easily with sight and sound, that you forget you can’t actually taste, touch or smell the food that the Chef is cooking. He had me at the beginning when he first got out of his car in the crisp white chef uniform for work. And he’ll have you too for the sounds of chopping cilantro and for the storyline that unfolds and which takes us on location in Miami along with the characters in the story.

Played by Jon Favreu, who also produced, directed and wrote the movie, Chef Carl is a master at his craft but experiences more challenges with his personal life. Once a week he picks up his 10 year old son from his ex wife Inez, played with her usual charismatic flair by Sofia Vergara. Vergara is always fun onscreen as she has that rare comic ability that transcends timing; she doesn’t have to act funny to convey humour. She just thinks funny and sends it forth at will with effortless charm. As exes, Carl and Inez are friends but Carl is so preoccupied with his job that the time with his son has been compromised as a result, and we soon get to know the reason why he doesn’t have more work/life balance: Dustin Hoffman as Ravi.

Dustin Hoffman

Not for the first time it occurs to me that Hollywood screenwriters better understand how to manage people than corporate America does. Earlier that day, Carl, upon spotting one of his assistants, Tony (played by Bobby Cannavale) sleeping in his car in the parking lot, instead of disciplining him or criticizing, merely asks “Are you OK? Are you sober?” therefore underscoring a basic tenet of management: There’s never any such thing as the perfect workforce. People have warts. Good leaders figure out how to get the best out of people. Tony is awake in an instant, and with affable charm, tells his leader “I’m cool” and heads in to work. chef john leguizamo jon favreau bobby cannavale roy choi Watching Carl’s kitchen humming with activity, the audience witnesses his leadership ability at the forefront with culinary arts being secondary. The atmosphere in the kitchen is electric; everyone knows they will be tested and have to put on a show that night.

Then Ravi stops by to throw a damper on the high morale.   Hoffman’s acting chops allow him to adapt to the nuances of any role and here he portrays a boss who freely exercises the power that comes with owning everything. Ravi strides into the workspace and undermines Carl in front of his staff.  Everyone is excused and the Chef correctly points out that it’s his staff and that his cooking will be on trial with the impending arrival of the food critic. Everything has been planned for the big night with meticulous care. Ravi reminds the chef that he is the owner who pays the bills and that he will call the shots. Unconvinced that a lone critic should have more significance than loyal customers, Ravi gives Carl a directive to play it safe. Stick to the tried and true. Not even one new offering will be on the menu that night. “Play your hits!” Then, a "28-day dry-aged ribeye from Harvey Guss in Los Angeles . It's fully coated with salt and pepper an hour-and-a-half before. Searing it. Letting it rest. Serving it with charred cauliflower, roasted potatoes, lemon, garlic, and really good oil." In the role of chef, Carl treats us to vivid visuals that demonstrate his commitment to every aspect of his art, represented in all of the colors of the palette, beautiful ingredients gathered at the farmers’ market and tested in late night sessions with Molly, the hostess (played by Scarlett Johansson) that are all about getting creative with the ingredients. (This is all about the joy of cooking, not… anything else).

On the big night, the food critic Ransey (Oliver Platt) who had been looking forward to exactly this type of culinary adventure, is sorely disappointed at being served the same dishes as the previous year, and writes a scathing review, lambasting Carl for not showcasing his signature creativity. Later, Carl’s right hand man Martin (the excellent John Leguizamo) and Tony see Carl in the back room and independently advise the chef not to worry about Twitter comments. Carl doesn’t have any idea what they’re talking about, and both Martin and Tony change the subject hastily.

Since his loyal employees won’t educate him about social media, the chef enlists the aid of his son, who is not only happy to be able to help his dad with something… he makes some profound little-kid statements that make his dad realize that it’s not all about being the once a week “fun dad” that he has been, and that relationships are built on real world happenings. However, the professional road gets rockier. Carl fails to grasp fully how Twitter works and in response to Ramsey’s tweets, sends him a reply that is retweeted and viral by next morning.

The resultant showdown between Carl, Ramsey and Ravi ends up with Carl quitting for good. It’s the scenario that many dream of, walking out on the unreasonable and irrational authority figure that trashes your dreams and any chance of success. For his part, Ravi fails to understand what Ramsey was looking for from the chef, and tries to curry favor by bringing out a bottle of expensive wine. But Ramsey notices that Carl isn’t there and Ravi never even gets close to understanding that he can’t fix the situation with money. Ravi puts Tony on the spot and tells him to take over the kitchen. The others set their sadness and outrage aside as they continue to work, heads down. That their leader was clueless about social media did not diminish their respect for him because when people care about a leader these things don’t matter.

Now unemployed, Carl is unexpectedly given a new lease on life by Inez and her first husband, Marvin, played to eccentric perfection by former Brat Pack actor Robert Downey, Jr. Inez has business in Miami and would like Carl to go with her and their son, so she can see her musician Dad and Carl can spend time with his son. She is also anxious for Carl to go see Marvin. Downey’s Marvin is a combination of generous and jerk, and the generous part of him gives Carl a broken down fixer-upper food truck. Carl is now his own boss, he’s got his son helping him work on the food truck and upon hearing the news, Carl’s former employee Martin appears in Miami to become a partner. When Carl tells Martin, “You’re hired. It pays nothing!” their senseof possibility is infectious.

 

Here the movie changes course from defeat to the promise of what can be accomplished. As Carl, his son and his new partner drive the truck from Miami to Los Angeles, we get to go along for yet another movie road trip that breaks some new ground, even though some unavoidable movie clichés are present. The 2 adults drive in shifts, there are no fancy hotel stays and the guys are starting to make money at every stop as the crowds line up at the mere sight of the truck. chef jon favreau john leguizamo Good food sustains us and gives life, but good movies give life to all of our senses.  Rather than continue and give spoilers, I’d like to encourage any of the handful of people reading to get this movie and prepare for a thoroughly enjoyable time.   Realism was never compromised with the food preparation as Favreau enlisted the help of real life food truck guru Roy Choi.

 

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I now know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life!

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Two “Chick Flicks”

Julie and Julia (2009)

Still of Amy Adams in Julie & Julia (2009)

RB score: 9/10.

A superb vehicle highlighting the accomplishments of 3 women:  Julia Child, Julie Powell and Nora Ephron.  Sadly, we’ve lost both Ephron and  Child, but this movie functions as a fittingly emotional tribute to both – without ever being manipulative.  Well constructed and well acted by its powerhouse cast, seeming to underscore the delicious reality that true talent and heartfelt gifts don’t ever need to resort to gimmicks… and based on true events that started with a blog and became a published work.  There’s a reason the critics went wild over the performances in this movie.   Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci  convey characters who have died but are totally alive, neatly capturing the paradox that people dream of – the chance for our passions to transcend our lives on earth.  It’s exceptionally well done in this movie.  And it is really Streep’s show as Julia Child.

Still of Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia (2009)

Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, a stressed call-center employee who adds dimension to her life with a blog she started and which becomes an all-consuming hobby.   To her readers she pledges to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s bestseller, The Art of French Cooking.   She lives with her husband and their cat in a small New York apartment above a pizza place.

Still of Amy Adams and Chris Messina in Julie & Julia (2009)

As the movie unfolds, we get delicious detail as to how the real Julia Child, sweet, earthy, loving and real, achieves her life goals while living life on her terms, (really:  who does that?  You go woman!)  while Julie, buoyed by the connection of their first names, is inspired to embark on her own life quest.  Julia Child, of course, was essentially a happy housewife who eventually became very successful with the publication of her renowned cookbook and which led to her legendary TV series, but the movie is about the life that was lived before any of that materialized.   Both women enjoyed relationships with some variation of the perfect supportive man for a partner,  which if nothing else can serve as a reminder that this can in fact exist in real life.

“Julie and Julia”  is a visual and verbal feast that inspires a lot of adverbs and adjectives, reminding me of an English prof who used to strike them from my writing.  Dear Professor:  Sometimes the best moments in life, and the most intense feelings, can only be captured in bad writing.  Whatever words best capture such moments, are for that purpose, the best writing.

I’ve seen this movie twice now and will look forward to the third and subsequent viewings because there is just too much artistry, too much life to absorb the first couple of times.

9/10 only because the Julie Powell character came off as needlessly shrill at times and they could have avoided that.  Hence the one point deduction.   In Julie and Julia, women were allowed to enjoy food and sex, thanks to what Ephron gave us on the big screen.   In 2014, we’re back to Madonna/Whore for the second of our two Chick Flick reviews….

The Other Woman (2014)

Kate Upton, Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann in 20th Century Fox's The Other Woman (2014)

RB score:  7/10 and only because whatever its shortcomings, the movie is not boring.   Otherwise we would be into much lower numbers.

“The Other Woman” walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but as far as typical chick flick fare it’s a mixed bag.  I’m a sap for the genre and still found myself in kind of an “OH PLEASE” state of mind at various points in the movie.  Scantily clad women running along the beach and wrestling… brings up a question about why movies marketed to women contain so much cheesecake.  All of Kate Upton’s relevant parts are bouncing freely up and down as she jogs down the beach.  None of those parts do anything for me.

As for the well-paced and busy plot, it contains nothing original as our protagonist, played by Cameron Diaz, discovers that her boyfriend is not only married, he’s got more than one mistress.  The wife, (Leslie Mann) mistress (Kate Upton) and protagonist form an odd bond to get revenge and since this is also a thin plot, there is much dependence on cinematography and talent for physical comedy among the leads, especially  Diaz who expertly carries the entire production.  Leslie Mann vies with Diaz for being queen on physical comedy, Kate Upton is the cheesecake queen but Diaz is the one who combines all the elements as she does for pretty much any movie she appears in which probably has a lot to do with why she remains an A list star.

Leslie Mann, Cameron Diaz and Kate Upton in 20th Century Fox's The Other Woman (2014)

There’s some good supporting performances including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the swine of a husband, Taylor Kinney as the wife’s brother who clicks with Diaz, and Don Johnson as Diaz’s father who seems to have found himself a new acting niche as the eccentric and geriatric, yet still youthful and hip Dad.   Mostly however this movie relies on lots and lots of cheesecake, which I assume is contrived to sell tickets to husbands and boyfriends  who might be induced to see this movie.  Nicki Minaj provides additional character as Diaz’ office assistant in her acting debut.

It’s possible the numerical score here is overly generous but as noted, at least the movie is not boring.  The revenge motif is fun, and RB always gives bonus points for endings that tie everything together, even though this has nothing to do with reality.  That’s precisely why I love endings like this. But I can’t kid myself into believing this is a great movie.  While it’s not a waste of $1.20 at Redbox, I can’t imagine paying theatre prices for a Thighmaster ad.