Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Chef (2014) ****

R, 114 min.
Director/Writer: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sophia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris, Russell Peters, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’

I’m not the only person I know that will pick this movie as one of my favorites of the year, although it seems to have been largely forgotten by critics, who were all about it when it was released theatrically. This is often the case with movies released earlier in the year. It’s interesting that the awards season doesn’t seem to have forgotten “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, but this one seems to have disappeared from everyone’s memory. That could be because it doesn’t distinguish itself with flashy cinematography, quirky characterization and dialogue, or “important” issues. However, it is the lack of most of those aspects that makes this movie so special.

“Chef” isn’t a movie with a statement to make. It is simply about a man searching to do what he loves the way he loves to do it and to do it with his son. To say that isn’t important is incorrect, but it is how many see it. There’s so much irony in that situation, because that is exactly why Jon Favreau’s chef must go on the journey he embarks on here, he must discover what is truly important in his life. It’s his kid and his freedom to cook food the way he wants to.

As the film opens, Carl Casper (Favreau) is a respected chef in Los Angeles, mostly because of a review he received years ago from an influential food blogger. In his current work situation, he’s the head chef of a conservative restaurant. He butts heads with his boss (Dustin Hoffman) about the menu. When Carl learns his critic will be visiting the restaurant, he eventually concedes to the owner’s wishes and sticks with the printed menu. The review is quite insulting and in a fit of an older person diving into the world of social media, Carl ends up challenging the critic on Twitter to come back for a special menu. The owner forbids it and fires Carl when he won’t concede again. This is the rock bottom Carl needed to discover what he really wants out of life.

His ex-wife has always felt Carl would never be happy working for someone else and suggests he get a food truck. His son always wants to spend time with his dad, as he lives with his mom. Carl always put his son off for work reasons. Now, he has the opportunity to explore both culinary freedom and include his son in his life by having the kid help him fix up the truck and work the grill.

Yes, this sounds like fairly standard stuff and it is, but is approached with tenderness and passion. This is obviously a passion project for Favreau. Not only does he give full attention to developing his characters, but he incorporates three other elements to this feature that sells it in the fullest fashion and transforms it from standard to exceptional. First, there’s the use of the social media platform of Twitter. Social media is really just starting to be explored by Hollywood for its influence. Here, Twitter is used as the catalyst of all the events of the film. Favreau wisely visualizes the use of this social media platform on screen by allowing the audience to see the Tweets as they’re created. When a Tweet is created a balloon shows up on screen next to the device that is being used to create it, and when the character clicks “send” it flies off into the world like a bird. This is a brilliant visualization of this act of posting our thoughts to the public at large.

Just as important is Favreau’s treatment of the process of cooking, which he approaches as a true art form. Whenever Carl is feeling overwhelmed, he cooks; and every time he cooks the movie stops everything to observe the entire process. This movie loves food as much as Carl does. All of these sequences are lovingly shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau as if they were the most important scenes of his photography career. This movie could do more to inspire people to cook than any show found on the Food Network.

Finally, each of these cooking montages is punctuated by incredible music, most of it Cuban. It is the food of Cuba that provides Carl with his highest joy of cooking; the music is picked to match it. There are also several music sequences, including a classic Cuban jazz ensemble, a crooning skeleton puppet, and a live blues performance at an impromptu sales stop in Austin, Texas. It’s obvious that Favreau finds a great deal of power and passion in music. His selection raises the emotional level of the picture and adds to it lust for life.

It’s that phrase “lust for life” that really seems to embody this film for me. It’s about finding the simple pleasures of life and those are the things in which we really discover our passion for life. This is a very positive movie in a world that has been concentrating on a good deal of hatred over the past year. I would recommend it to just about anybody. It does have some pretty harsh language, but it’s a good movie for teens as well. Do what makes you happy. Be with your family. These are important issues.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) ***

PG-13, 186 min. (extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel “The Hobbit”)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Scott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare, Anthony Sher

For all of the excitement I had over the first “Hobbit” movie, the second one left me wanting more, and not in the way the second film in a trilogy should. Really, leaving them wanting more is exactly the purpose of a second in a planned trilogy; however, I felt I hadn’t gotten enough out of what was there. Not only did the film suffer from the new phenomenon of conveying an incomplete story, which is afflicting more and more movies these days as Hollywood has discovered a new way to milk book adaptations for money by splitting a single book into multiple movies, but what was there didn’t seem to carry the weight that all of the other Tolkien films have.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Hannibal, season 2 (2014) ****

TV-14, 13 45-min. episodes
Creator: Bryan Fuller

Directors: Tim Hunter, Peter Medak, David Semel, Michael Rymer, Vincenzo Natali, David Slade

Writers: Bryan Fuller, Thomas Harris (characters from novel “Red Dragon”), Steve Lightfoot, Jeff Vlaming, Jason Grote, Scott Nimerfro, Ayanna A. Floyd, Andy Black, Kai Yu Wu, Chris Brancato

Starring: Hugh Dancy, Mad Mikkelsen, Lawrence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettienne Park, Scott Thompson, Aaron Abrams, Raúl Esparza

Guest starring: Gillian Anderson, Cynthia Nixon, Jonathan Tucker, Martin Donovan, Patrick Garrow, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Maria Del Mar, Shawn Doyle, Eddie Izzard, Gina Torres, Kacey Rohl, Amanda Plummer, Anna Chlumsky, Ted Ludzik, Katharine Isabelle, Jeremy Davies, Chris Diamantopoulis, Mark O’Brien, Michael Pitt, Daniel Kash

There was a point about halfway through the second season when I though this series had finally run itself off the rails. It has always skirted on the precipice of going too far off the deep dark end. I’m sure there are some who feel that it started that way. However, the writing has always been incredible on this series. It is about the best written American television show out there. So how was it possible that things could go so wrong with the writing starting with S2E9 “Siizakana”?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Fountainhead (1949) **

NR, 114 min.
Director: King Vidor
Writer: Ayn Rand (also novel)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Kent Smith, Robert Douglas, Henry Hull, Ray Collins

I suppose I can see how at one point in time the philosophies of Ayn Rand might’ve held appeal to some, but at this point, her narrow minded ideals seem like a pretty tough sell to me. Back when King Vidor made her novel “The Fountainhead” into a film, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal as her idealized leads, maybe her ramblings didn’t sound quite so elitist, although I would guess she wouldn’t have a problem with that term. That’s what is hardest to swallow from her for me, the way she sees “the people” as something lesser than her characters.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Holiday Thoughts ‘14—Happy Christmas (2014) ***

R, 82 min.
Director/Writer: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Linskey, Joe Swanberg, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Jude Swanberg

Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” is not going to be the next holiday classic. In fact, I’m guessing it’s the type of movie people don’t really want to see for the holidays, which might explain its summer theatrical release date. And yet, it has come out on home video formats just in time to remind us of the things we don’t necessarily appreciate as much as we should during the holidays—our relatives.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) ****

PG-13, 182 min (extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel “The Hobbit”)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Scott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Jeffrey Thomas, Lee Pace, Manu Bennett

It seems “The Hobbit” trilogy hasn’t been as well received as “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s flown in a little lower under the radar and fueled less passion than Jackson’s first Middle Earth trilogy. Much of the dismay about it seems focused on the fact that it was one book that he’s making into three very long movies, instead of three slightly longer movies out of three books. I really don’t see the extension of the story as a negative, as long as what they come up with is good. Roger Ebert always said, no good movie is ever too long; no bad movie is ever short enough.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—River’s Edge (1986) ****

R, 99 min.
Director: Tim Hunter
Writer: Neal Jimenez
Starring: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua Miller, Dennis Hopper, Roxana Zal, Josh Richman, Philip Brock, Tom Bower, Constance Forslund, Leo Rossi, Jim Metzler

Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” was such a staple of my teenage years that I was almost afraid to revisit it and possibly find that it was not as good as I had remembered. I’ve been trying to see it again for several years, I even considered purchasing it on a whim, something I gave up doing when my children started sucking up all my money. I found it on one of my streaming services and the mood seemed right, so…