Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi


Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The face of the world's greatest sushi chef.

(2011) Documentary (Magnolia) Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Hachiro Mizutani, Joel Robuchon. Directed by David Gelb

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that I adore sushi. I love the subtle taste of the fish blending in with the texture of the rice, the little surprising kick of wasabi and the salty tang of soy sauce. I’m not talking about the rolls that Americans tend to prefer (although I love those too) but of the more traditional Japanese form of fish and rice alone.

Jiro Ono owns Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is located in the bowels of a Tokyo subway station. It has ten seats and only ten. All he serves there is sushi. Jiro has been making sushi since he ran away from home at age 9. He’s 85 now and has been making sushi for 70 years. You’d think that in that amount of time he’d be pretty good at it.

Pretty good doesn’t even begin to describe what Jiro does, however and the good folks at the Michelin Guide agree. They’ve awarded Jiro and his restaurant three stars, the highest rating that the guide offers and Sukiyabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant to possess that rating. The citizens of Tokyo are fully aware of how good his sushi is; reservations are mandatory as you might guess and there’s a one-month wait to get in.

Jiro is one of those sorts who lives to work. He is passionate about sushi; he even has dreams about it, dreams he has written down and then turned into reality at his restaurant. He pursues perfection with single-minded determination that is at once both admirable and unsettling. He doesn’t seem to have any life outside of his restaurant; he works every day all day except for government holidays and even takes those off begrudgingly. His work ethic is admirable but you can’t help but wonder, is’t there something more to life than this?

Not for Jiro and he seems happy in his life. He has two sons; the eldest, Yoshikazu works with Jiro in the restaurant and is being seemingly groomed to take over the restaurant when Jiro retires but Yoshikazu is 60 himself. The youngest, Takashi, owns his own restaurant in one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It’s a mirror image of Jiro’s (literally; Jiro is left-handed and Takashi right-handed and so they have their set-ups reversed from one another). Both men labor under the shadow of their father and neither seems to mind.

We are shown the methods of making sushi, accompanying Yoshikazu to Tokyo’s main fish market, to the instruction of the apprentices to the selection of the rice (Jiro gets a special kind that the rice vendor sells only to him because Jiro’s the only person who knows how to cook it properly). This isn’t, despite the title, a movie about sushi at all, although once you see the flavorful tidbits displayed lovingly in their dishes you might get a hankering for some.

What this is about is the pursuit of excellence and its cost. Jiro is a driven man, determined to be a national treasure in Japan and one of the most influential sushi purveyors of all time. Restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, talking about Jiro’s eldest son, says wistfully that when a man’s father is as influential and as important as Jiro is, even if he’s just as good as his father was he’ll never be able to measure up. He has to be twice as good in order to escape comparisons.

In fact, Yamamoto suggests, it was actually Yoshikazu who made and served the sushi to the Michelin representative. One never gets a sense from either of Jiro’s progeny that they have the same kind of drive their father possesses. Jiro may dream of sushi but his sons might have different dreams, even though they did both choose to join their father in the sushi business.

You see, it’s really difficult to tell because there’s no context here. We don’t see Jiro at home, only at the restaurant. When he is interviewed, it is about his career and about the business of making sushi. If Jiro collects stamps, loves baseball or enjoys cross-stitching as a hobby, we would never know because we only get to see this one aspect of him. I don’t know if this is all there is to the man but I kind of doubt it.

This is mostly a mostly fascinating and occasionally frustrating movie that hits most of the right notes. I would have liked a little bit more about Jiro (he does go to a class reunion in his native village and visits the grave of his father, who abandoned him when he was a young boy) but at the end of the day, he will be remembered for his sushi and that is mostly what we see here – his driving force and his one true love.

REASONS TO GO: A study of the relentless pursuit of excellence. Interesting father-son dynamic and a lovely peek into Japanese culture – and cuisine.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s no context here.

FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes showing the fish being sold in the fish market that might be traumatic for some tots who might love their goldfish but otherwise this is absolutely fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Meals at Jiro’s sushi restaurant start at 30,000 Yen or about $370 U.S. dollars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are exceptional.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

SEAFOOD LOVERS: The film shows a number of the different types of seafood that Jiro uses in his restaurant, from massive tuna to tiger prawns to haddock – both as fresh catches in the fish market and as finished product in his restaurant.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:God Bless America

The Great New Wonderful


The Great New Wonderful

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco share a tense lunch.

(First Independent) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Naseerudin Shah, Stephen Colbert, Sharat Saxena, Tom McCarthy, Billy Donner. Directed by Danny Leiner

New York City is without a doubt one of the greatest cities in the world. It throbs with the vitality of its citizens, and as the song says, never sleeps. One day in 2001 would change the meaning of what it is to be a New Yorker forever.

A year after that day, the citizens of New York are getting on with their lives for the most part. Sandie (Gaffigan) is talking to a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist (Shalhoub) about anger issues which Sandie doesn’t think he has. With each session, Sandie becomes more and more frustrated and his anger seems to be more directed at the doctor than culled from some internal reservoir.

David (McCarthy) and Allison (Greer) are the young parents of Beelzebub, otherwise known as Charlie (Donner). Their young son has been acting out and these actions have grown exponentially worse as time has gone by. They are beginning to realize that he is becoming beyond their ability to control and as a result, their marriage is suffering. The headmaster (Colbert) of the exclusive private school they have sent him to is expelling him for his behavior and they have no idea what to do with their child.

Emme (Gyllenhaal) is an up-and-coming pastry chef in New York’s cutthroat bakery market and looks to unseat Safarah Polsky (Falco) as the reigning queen of the scene. Her ambition is driving her to use means both fair and foul to reach her goals, and she is unknowing or uncaring of the toll it takes on those who work with her, live with her or purchase her products.

Judy (Dukakis) lives with her husband across the East River in Brighton Beach in the borough of Brooklyn. Each night she fixes him dinner, then after eating makes collages while he smokes out on the balcony. Her re-connection with an old friend will open new doors and awaken new feelings of sensuality in her.

Two Indian-born New York resident security guards – Avi (Shah) and Satish (Saxena) have been given the assignment of watching over a dignitary from their native land while he is in New York to make a speech at the United Nations. Avi is carefree, joyful and humorous; his buddy Satish is dour, grumpy and prone to outbursts of rage. It’s hard to believe these two are neighbors, let alone friends.

All five of these stories carry little in common other than that they are set in New York a year to the month of the World Trade Center attack, and that all ten of the main characters share an elevator near the end of the movie. It is up to us to thread these stories together and quite frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch.

What one notices most is the emotional disconnect prevalent in almost all of the stories. The characters have latched onto some sort of idea or emotion and are holding onto it with a death grip, to the exclusion of all else. The self-absorption needed for this kind of focus is staggering, and yet those familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or The New Yorker magazine will not find it particularly far-fetched.

There is a routine also in each one of the main character’s lives and that routine is either a source of comfort or a fiendish trap. Breaking out of that routine seems to be, at least I’m guessing here, what the filmmakers suggest is the key to finding happiness, solace, call it whatever you want.

This is a very impressive cast for a micro-budget indie drama and they live up to their reputations for the most part. The vignette with the least-known actors in it (at least to those not familiar with Indian cinema), the one regarding Avi and Satish, was my own personal favorite as I found Avi to be the least hung-up of the main characters here.

I admit to having a certain fascination with everyday life in the Big Apple. I fully realize I don’t have the equipment to live there myself – it takes a certain kind of person to handle the pace and the feeling of being alone in a crowd that goes hand-in-hand with the NYC lifestyle. Still, I admire those who have what it takes and certainly New York offers perhaps the most attractive and varied choices for those who live there. I’m not sure if The Great Big Wonderful offers me any further insight into the psyche of New York, nor how it was affected by 9-11, but it does offer a nice visit to that town; I’m just not sure I would want to live there.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid cast gives solid performances. Some of the vignettes are interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the vignettes hold my attention. The linking thread is tenuous at best; this is certainly much more of a New York story than anything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly significant amount of salty language in the movie as well as a small amount of sexuality. Much more suitable for a mature audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Leiner is best known for comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 12