Sunday, July 20, 2014

AMC Sunday: Halt and Catch Fire

What’s a network to do when the great shows go?

     AMC (formerly American Movie Classics, though they mainly showed the second-rate) took off in 2007 with Mad Men.  It was their highly successful attempt to become a buzzed about cable network in the manner of FX and follow the premium cable networks HBO and Showtime, which had pioneered the magic formula a decade earlier.  The “open sesame” is an original series that few actually watch, but critics, bloggers, and loyal fans can’t stop talking about such as Oz, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, Six Feet Under, The Shield, Queer as Folk, etc.

Megan and Don at Howard Johnson
     Unlike those programs, Mad Men was a period piece and it seemed literary.  I always thought it was as if a John Cheever novel had been turned into television and, as it’s progressed chronologically, it feels like a John Updike novel.  From the first episode, I was arrested by the attention to period detail and how professional culture was tied so closely to the history of the 1960s.  The writing, acting, directing and, most tellingly, the art direction pretty much outclassed any other drama since The Sopranos had gone off the air.  

Cranston and Paul of Breaking Bad
     AMC followed up within four months with Breaking Bad, which became a contemporary cultural milestone.  I appreciate its artistic excellence and admire its acting, but I gave up after three episodes because I have blinders on about anything to do with drugs.  Others hate sex, violence, profanity in popular culture; I hate drugs.  Two and a half years later saw the premiere of The Walking Dead, a huge hit for AMC, though its viewing numbers wouldn’t have kept it on the air for more than six weeks when there were only the major networks.  Part of its initial popularity was because it was based on a great graphic novel series.  Viewing numbers have increased because it’s horror, which has grown in cultural significance since Stephen King pushed it centrally into the mainstream in the late 1970s.

     Breaking Bad ended and Mad Men ends next year, though I think it might have been stronger to end it a year ago.  AMC hopes for a replacement on Sunday nights, first with Turn, a Revolutionary War spy drama that didn’t grab me, and now with Halt and Catch Fire, which premiered the beginning of June.  It’s not based on an earlier work and it’s a period drama about the work/family spheres of its characters.  At this point, it’s a mixed bag, which makes it very different from those other three earlier shows, which electrified audiences and caught fire immediately.

McNairy and Pace of Halt and Catch Fire
     Set in Dallas in 1983 at the dawn of the personal computer revolution, it stars Lee Pace, who has proven his broad range in Soldier’s Girl (2003) and Pushing Daisies (2007 – 2009) as Joe MacMillan.  He worked at IBM, but disappeared for a year before hitting an armadillo with his early ‘80s Porsche while on his way to bulldoze his way into Cardiff Electric.  He proposes a more powerful and lighter carry-able computer.  Unlike Don Draper, Joe MacMillan isn’t so much mysterious as alternately obstreperous and then obstinate.  It’s not Pace’s fault; he does everything he can with the character.  

Mackenzie Davis
     The primary supporting actors – Scoot McNairy as the decent, dull Sancho to Pace’s Quixote, Kerry Bishé as McNairy’s onscreen wife who works at Texas Instruments and has to mask her brilliance behind household duties, Mackenzie Davis as the wild child programmer, and Toby Huss as the pragmatic head of Cardiff, who might be that proverbial armadillo – are uniformly excellent, but the characters are two-dimensional.  Davis seems like a computer geek’s or middle-aged straight man’s fantasy and I don’t remember any college female sporting that hairstyle in 1983.  Jean Smart, one of the wittiest performers to ever grace the medium (I still remember the first time I saw her, which was a guest shot on The Facts of Life where she injected more real emotion into ten minutes than anyone ever did the rest of the eight seasons), showed up as a guest star and lent an edge and aura that heightened the writing, but I doubt her character will return and that’s a major shame.

     The two major problems are the era and the profession.  Yes, it looks like the early 1980s, but the clothing, hairstyles, interior design, automobiles, and lighting of that time were pretty unattractive and certainly not anything anyone would seriously revive in the fashion world.  Planning ad campaigns and organizing an illegal drug business are inherently more intriguing dramatically than building a computer and writing lots of code.  It’s not as if many – if any – could understand the code anyway since it usually gets wiped out at least once an episode.  The animal imagery (armadillo in the first five minutes, a struggling to survive bird in the third episode) engaged with greater thematic relevance than almost anything else so far.

     Postscript:  The later episode further developed the characters played by McNairy, Bishé, and Davis, especially the relationship between the women.  This direction will only strengthen the relevance of this show.  Jamie Pachino, a Chicago playwright and colleague of mine from college, who serves as the Executive Story Editor is already building greater interest into the plot.  Her work is cut out for her, but this show has potential.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Maleficent

An alternate take on a classic fairy tale 
would be unimaginable without Angelina Jolie

     We haven’t visited the cinema lately, mainly because we’re in superhero – i.e. fascist bullshit season for the simple-minded – and have been catching up on more intriguing movies we’ve been DVRing.  However, we saw Maleficent and it was a good live action revisionist version of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Gregory Maguire pioneered this practice with his brilliant novel Wicked (1995), the other side of the Wizard of Oz story.

     In both cases, the original story is a patriarchal narrative masking a castration complex by blaming a heinous female.  In the revisions, those females act as saviors for other educated species (Wicked) or for other spiritual beings and the ecological environment (Maleficent).  Would these works be possible in our current culture without the impact of the Women’s Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s?



     Robert Stromberg has been the Art Director for Alice (2010) and the execrable Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) so he’s comfortable in his debut directing another fantasy.  However, I almost wish it had been made in black and white and I feel similarly about some of those other fairy tale based movies because it’s easier to cover the special effects, rather than working in a color palette that ends up looking murky or muddy.  Yes, I know the superhero movies use blue/green screens and they sometimes look faked as well and for what obscene amounts of money?  Millions and millions, though this is also an expensive movie.

Angelina Jolie
     Where Maleficent works is Angelina Jolie’s fully committed performance and sepulchral, sculpted beauty.  Sam Riley gives an off-beat rhythm and line to the humanized raven that Maleficent saves.  I wondered why Aurora didn’t end up with him instead of the Prince, who was a little cookie cutter bland.  I guess classism doesn’t get erased in revisionist narratives.  Sharlto Copley looks haggard and evil as King Stefan, whose antipathy towards Maleficent comes from his selling out for ambition, when he had actually loved her.  Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, and Juno Temple form a hilarious troika whether as tiny fairies or as actual humans.  The children who play Stefan and Maleficent as children match up well with their adult counterparts and look grubbily real, rather than Disney cute.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Arnold’s Bar & Grill

A Cincinnati institution 
that keeps a-going and deserves attention

The Courtyard at Arnold's
     Katy and Denny just moved to a spacious, beautiful apartment downtown so we decided on Arnold’s for dinner a couple of weeks ago.  They’d visited earlier in the spring and said that the menu was inventive.  We hadn’t been in a while.  The last time was when a colleague said, breathing in the air of the courtyard, “This smells like Boston.”  We took that as a compliment.

Arnolds' Bar
     Arnold’s is a landmark because at over 150 years of age, it’s the oldest tavern in Cincinnati.  Though currently changing the menu because of a chef change, we didn’t notice any difference in quality.  That’s a testament to Ronda Breeden’s vision as the proprietor. 

Mulligatawny Soup and Salad


Soups are very strong, though they rotate daily.  Katy chose the House Salad and had the Mulligatawny soup and it was sweet and spicy, redolent of its complex origins as a British invention utilizing Indian ingredients.  The fruitiness of the apple and raisins complemented the curry. 




Mint Pea Soup

Neil ordered the Mint Pea soup, which we liked more than the version at Kitchen 452.  These were up there with Via Vite’s soups, which are among the best in the region.  There were also vegan options.

Blueberry Chicken
     Denny ordered the House Tossed Salad with a side of pasta and really liked it.  Neil followed Katy’s suggestion of the Blueberry Chicken, which he had with a side of caramelized sweet potatoes that were delicious.  The chicken was tender and very tasty, but the cream based sauce was a little gray colored.  If it had been an oil-based sauce, it might have retained the hue of the berry. 

Chicken and Waffles
I had the Chicken with Waffles and it was excellent. The maple syrup on the waffle undercut the heat of the Buffalo sauce.  The French fries were as good as McDonald’s and that’s saying something!  We thought the pricing was fair and the service was friendly and very competent.  I wish the band that night could have turned down the decibels a bit because I felt that many diners were there to visit and hear a band, rather than having to raise their voices at an impromptu blues rock concert.

Berry Cobbler



     We decided to stop by Arnold’s later for dessert.  Though they recovered quickly and professionally, the staff seemed a little confused that we were just there for drinks and dessert at 10:30 p.m.  Katy selected the Madison’s gelato, while Neil and I shared the Berry Cobbler.  Actually, the Cobbler was more like hot compote with a biscuit on top.  It sounds different, but it was delicious.

arnoldsbarandgrill.com
Arnold's Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tammy

Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious, 
but the script can’t deliver on expectations

      Yes, Melissa McCarthy emerged as a unique force of nature in the movies three years ago as a smart, foul-mouthed, gifted physical comic actress.  The previews for Tammy actually worked because they made us want to see it.  We went with Martha and Kaylee.  Bryce had heard it wasn’t that funny and John thought McCarthy would do her same tough, chip on her shoulder, revealed as a softie character.  Neither was wrong, but the movie was more complicated than I expected and it opens and closes possibilities for McCarthy.

Sarandon and McCarthy on the Road
     Tammy is two movies:  a sweet, sentimental comedy where Tammy and her Grandmother, an alcoholic that Susan Sarandon plays expertly, find the courage to re-make their lives, and a raucous series of skits and bits that demonstrate the decline and fall of Tammy.  The broader comedy is very funny, though much of it has been revealed in previews and on talk shows.  There’s less cursing than in last year’s The Heat, but McCarthy is so good that she could actually perform most of these scenes silently and probably garner greater laughs.  

     Tammy’s back-story doesn’t make complete sense because her parents (Allison Janney and Dan Ackroyd) seem sensible and loving.  This disproves the adage ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ but it never has been true for everyone.  Tammy complains about her life and wants out of her hometown.  She gets fired from her fast food job and walks out on her cheating husband.  This happens in the first ten minutes so I’m not revealing too much of the plot.  

McCarthy and Real Life
Husband, Falcone
     At first, Tammy seems like she must be from a very poor background, but then we find out she’s actually lower middle class.  McCarthy and her husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone box themselves in with a negative caricature and then have a difficult time trying to develop her into a fuller, more compelling character. Susan Sarandon provides a pro’s attitude, but her character is almost as negative as Tammy’s.  I wish they’d either gone more daring into Thelma & Louise (1991) territory or that Sarah Baker (wonderful earlier in the spring as Vanessa on Louie) had taken to the road with McCarthy.  She has a different rhythm, which would have been intriguing.

     The biggest problem is that the script is weak.  Whenever a character has to say something like “if you work hard in America, you can have a huge ass house too” (because real estate porn has been our national obsession since the advent of the McMansion, circa 1990), I want to point out the hard work that many custodians, servers, and cashiers put into their job – and sometimes more than one – yet barely make ends meet.  Yes, I know the real point is that Tammy is a whiner who’s made dumb decisions and needs to turn her life around.  I expect more from McCarthy.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Obvious Child

Let’s hear it for the Girls

     Writer-director Gillian Robespierre, producer Elisabeth Holm, and star Jenny Slate have collaborated on a romantic comedy-drama that’s probably the best one since The Kids Are All Right (2010).  I’ll state now that there is an early first trimester abortion performed as part of the plot.  There’s also one in Peyton Place (1958), but I’ve never read a critic refer to it.  Unlike Knocked Up (2007), where it was considered, the main character in Obvious Child goes through with it in a way that actually displays her maturity and brings her closer to her mother.  I’m wondering if the female creative sensibility can handle this subject matter with greater equanimity than a male one, specifically Judd Apatow.

Slate and Lacy's Chance Meeting
     All of that being said, Obvious Child updates a number of romantic comedy tropes by focusing on the talent and creativity of Donna Stern, the stand up comedian female protagonist, making her unapologetically playful, intelligent, and simultaneously driven and despairing.  Slate captures all of that and suggests what she’ll be like as an artist and woman in the future in an incandescent performance.  Donna’s able to sustain serious friendships with her female roommate and her gay best friend, also a comic as well as her diametrically opposite parents.  And, though unconventionally attractive, she’s the one pursued by the cute MBA graduate.  It’s almost as if Alvy Singer reversed genders with Annie Hall.

Polly Draper and Jenny Slate
     Polly Draper and Richard Kind match up almost perfectly emotionally and physically as Jenny Slate’s parents.  It’s good to see Draper years after thirtysomething and hear that distinctive throaty rasp, but with a unique intonation and accent in this part as a distinguished professor.  Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman both display idiosyncratic warmth as the friends.  Liedman tells a very funny joke that I wasn’t expecting when he first introduces Slate.  David Cross makes both his scenes count as an older comic, who’s both more successful and more uncertain than the younger comedians.

Jake Lacy
     Any movie of this type succeeds or fails on the chemistry of the main couple and that’s where the writing, directing, and acting of Obvious Child take off.  Slate and Jake Lacy as her potential swain radiate a giddiness in their first night together and develop a humor together that is completely different in rhythm and timbre from her stand up work.  Lacy plays a nice guy, who actually wants to stick around.  He’s sincere and funny in a self deprecating way.  Obvious Child is a winner.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tom Perrotta: The Leftovers

Perrotta’s books have transferred well to film, but will this?


     Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (2011) tells of a small town three years after 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes in what some believe was the Rapture.  Though it explores a number of residents in that town during the span of a year, the primary focus is on the Garvey family.  Kevin, the father, retires early and becomes the mayor.  Laurie, the mother, is so obsessed with the loss of her best friend’s daughter that she ends up joining the Guilty Remnant, which turns out to be a sinister cult.  Their children, Tom and Jill, follow very different paths through the novel.

     I don’t want to say much more than that because I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone.  HBO, however, is adapting it to a new series starring Justin Theroux as Kevin, though he’s now the police chief, and there are sci-fi sequences and that cult will be far more creepy and violent (I’m guessing) than in the book.  The success of True Detective (2013) has effected what sounds like a major tonal shift in this work.  This could be to the detriment of Perrotta, who proves once again that he is an intelligent satirist of the American middle-class.  He also happens to be compassionate, which might be the reason that his books are liked, rather than acting as lightning rods.  He avoids the trenchancy of Martin Amis, but there isn’t the Jonathan Franzen buzz around his work either.  It’s a shame because he’s engaging, consistent, and interesting.

Matthew Broderick in Election
     Earlier Perrotta books such as Election (1998), which was published because Alexander Payne had optioned the manuscript to adapt as a movie, and Little Children (2004), were very successful on the screen.  Election featured Matthew Broderick’s best and bravest screen performance as well as an edgy Reese Witherspoon before she decided to become sweet and famous.  It was also an allegory for the apathy and star power surrounding American politics.  Todd Field elicited excellent work from Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, and Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children.  The subtext of the book and movie asked who were the children – the kids or their Gen X parents.  

Tom Perrotta
     Full disclosure:  I picked up The Leftovers from a Barnes & Noble sale table a year ago and thought about reading it, but kept putting it off until I saw the print promotions for the HBO show.  Once I started it, I was pulled along in a couple of days, which is very fast for me.  I hope the HBO adaptation picks up readers for Perrotta, but not at the cost of changing his vision of the American contemporary small town and suburban middle-class.

Monday, June 23, 2014

So Retro They’re Current

Echosmith, The Temples, Hamilton Leithauser

     Some of the recent bands sound like chestnuts of yesteryear, whether or not on purpose.  There’s pleasure in rehearing the sound of a favorite period or musical group in a new artist, though it begs the question of whether that artist can make the sound its own and whether they can maintain a long-term career in the mainstream.

Echosmith Siblings
      Echosmith is probably the least like an earlier sound in its instrumentation.  Formed by the Sierta siblings (Jamie, Sydney, Noah, and Graham) when were just out of the womb, Neil first heard them on WNKU being expounded as a band we’d be talking about four months from now.  We saw them on one of Palladia channel’s new band specials and they pretty much left the other bands in the aural dust.  They wrote all their songs with their engineer Jeffery David on their album Talking Dreams, released last fall.

Sydney Sierta of Echosmith
     Front woman Sydney – she’s maybe sixteen? – possesses the focused, competent demeanor of Tina Weymouth.  She sings, plays keyboards, noodles around on other instruments, and never breaks a sweat.  Brothers Jamie on lead guitar and Noah on bass also switch off onto other instruments and, though it’s obvious their talent is prodigious, they are disarmingly matter-of-fact.  Youngest brother Graham (should he be out this late, I wondered.  Did he finish his Honors Algebra II homework?) sets the beat like a pro twice his age.  

     Echosmith played the Vans Warped Tour last year (who knew it would still be going) and will do so again this year.  They’re worth seeing and hearing because their pop/rock songs are all about being young, being together, and finding the courage to take off to parts unknown either geographically or emotionally.  They recall some wonderful pop-rock/new wave groups from the early 1980s like Quarterflash or The Human League, though they jangle like The Bangles.  Here’s hoping they succeed at being around a few years from now.



     Ben told me about the Temples when we were talking about top albums of the year so far.  He said they had a Beatles sound.  Noel Gallagher, songwriter and one of the wild siblings, of Oasis has publicly chastised Britain’s Radio One for not playing the Temples more.

    Ben was right about the band as new – they were only formed in late 2012 and just released Sun Structures this past winter – and their sound.  I’d venture to go more specific and say they sound like a doppelganger for The Beatles at the time they recorded Magical Mystery Tour (1967).


The Temples
     Lead singer James Bagshaw, who produced and wrote most of the songs, feels like he’s channeling John Lennon around the era of Rubber Soul (1965).  Actually, he could be his musical spiritual heir, more so than even his actual son Julian on Valotte (1984) because that production is of the 1980s.  The production of Sun Structures could have leapt out of England in 1967.  It’s not just like The Beatles; it’s also like The Kinks.  The cover and interior art look like something that Pink Floyd – before Syd Barrett’s drug induced schizophrenia – or The Rolling Stones – before Brian Jones drowned – would either have used or discarded as second best.  The songs are cool, but can they keep it going and if they do, are they much different from Sha-Na-Na in the late 1970s?  Are they nostalgic or “invented nostalgia”?  The ‘60s British bands were overcoming storm waves to venture into uncharted waters, though they relied on their anchors of the Blues, R & B, Skiffle, and the Music Hall if things got too out of hand with Psychodelic Pop or Progressive Rock.  As I’ve indicated, some members couldn’t make it.  When does a groove become a rut?



     While I looked through the stacks at Shake It Records a couple of weeks ago, Neil listened to some of the new albums and happened upon Hamilton Leithauser’s Black Hours (2014).  We hadn’t encountered Leithauser before, though he’s been the lead singer for The Walkmen for over a decade. 
They broke up last year and he released Black Hours earlier this month.  

     His songs are about the search for love and despair over its possible outcomes.  The album is more of a song cycle – thematically a little like Beck’s Sea Change (2002) – that traces a trajectory of desire, heart-break, apathy, envy, and a final coming to terms with himself.  That new realization is more complex than it initially appears because Leithauser addresses both genders on this album and it’s not clear if they are friends, confidantes, or intimates.  

Hamilton Leithauser
     The Walkmen and Leithauser’s earlier band The Recoys preferred a vintage sound and were compared to The Troggs.  Going solo, Leithauser goes back to an almost pre-Mersey/California surf sound with something that could have come out of the twilight of the supper clubs of the 1950s and early 1960s.  Thankfully, he doesn’t ape Sinatra and The Rat Pack (he must have figured out that Michael Bublé has a lock on that – if only Justin Timberlake had understood that last year), but instead goes for a Del Shannon/Gene Pitney vibe.  His voice has a rasp that speaks greater volumes about experience and the production feels like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, rather than a lot of the smoother digitized sound of today.  The cover shot has a cool, B&W 1964 feel.  He could have just finished a set at The Hammersmith Odeon or The Peppermint Lounge.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Private Lives at CSC

Excellent direction, good acting, a dreary set, 
and an opening night audience from Hades

     D. Lynn Meyers’ strongly directed and skillfully acted production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives opened last night at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.  Coward can be difficult to pull off because his works seem simply charming.  Actors that play the lines for laughs will be left in the dust because Coward didn’t write funny.  Oliver Goldsmith and Neil Simon wrote funny, but Coward is funny in the situations he sets up and the pauses and reactions between the lines.  It’s inconceivable that Harold Pinter could have developed his style without Coward’s influence.  

Victor, Amanda, Elyot and Sibyl Together Onstage*
     This production benefits from a director and cast that understand where the laughs actually exist, though all the actors were able to play some of the lines for laughs as well – a welcome addition.  Meyers goes for teasing out the darker aspects of the script, which is the love/hate relationship of a couple with a history together.  Simultaneously, there is a Coward ‘style.’  It depends on a loose insouciance that can turn dangerous.  After all, Coward sets up the physical violence of the central relationship from the beginning.  

     Elyot is newly married to Sibyl and Amanda is newly married to Victor, but Elyot and Amanda are star-crossed or hell-bound, depending on their patience and mood. 
Elyot and Amanda*
Coward writes about manners in most of his work and, in this one, those characters with the worst manners (Elyot and Amanda) are the most fascinating.  One of the problems with the production is that Brent Vimtrup (Victor) and Sara Clark (Sibyl) deliver the style and the more annoying aspects of their
Sara Clark as Sibyl*
characters with, respectively, nimble physical agility and spectacular wit.  Clark walks on to a stage and you just know she’ll be funny quickly.  Kelly Mengelkoch captures Amanda’s fickleness and moodiness subtly.  However, she couldn’t keep her hand out of her hair and what seemed initially a psychological gesture descended into a nervous tic.  Jeremy Dubin (Elyot), an excellent technical actor, doesn’t possess the mercurial charm to pull off this character; he seems tense and tough from the first so we’re just waiting until he gets into it physically with Amanda.  This may have been due to the godawful first night audience, but more about that later.

     Andrew Hungerford’s sets look like material remnants that might drop and fall in the first act, though they’re supposed to be Deauville hotel exterior walls and the rear scrim doesn’t stretch far enough in the second and third act Paris apartment set so the off-stage black curtains read from each side of the backdrop (although it appears fine in the possibly retouched production photos).  Community and high school theatres are able to cover properly so I don’t understand why CSC doesn’t, especially in its 20th season and when it charges regional professional prices.  I longed for Brian c. Mehring (Ensemble’s resident designer) to do a quick make over especially of the color palette.  In fact, I know a semi-retired professional who could build beautiful sets on a short budget if he were asked. 

     Lighting was minimal and mostly backlit because of the awkwardness of the space.  I wish CSC would rethink that and take it seriously, though they’ve been in this location for fifteen years or so without much change beyond replacing the seats.  Madeline Greenwalt’s costumes were well done.

     The audience was one of the rudest I’ve ever encountered.  There was one middle-aged couple that kept up a running commentary (most of which had little to do with what was happening onstage), then kissed a lot, spilled wine all over the floor, and ignored the sharp looks and shushing they received from various other audience members.  The managing director sat behind them and didn’t seem to react at all – I guess she’s used to it.  The couple left after the second act, though we’d moved after the first act.  We then encountered another middle-aged couple where the husband kept bopping around almost constantly (maybe he had St. Vitus’s Dance) and his wife gave him a neck and back rub because, I assume, she was happy for a night out.  There were two empty seats beside him and I assumed she might give him a full body massage, but no such luck.  

     Most of the rest of the audience had drunk so much free liquor before the show that they seemed half slugged.  CSC needs to rethink that generosity.  Semi-closeted alcoholism is the dirty secret of middle-class Midwesterners and it’s pathetic.  Some of them – most likely subscribers – had that glazed, polite look of people attempting to appreciate, but not enjoying, ‘culture.’  The actors deserved more and they did receive a standing ovation, but that’s de rigeur nowadays in Cincinnati, and the audience was probably feeling guilty anyway.

*Photos by Rich Sofranko

Private Lives runs through June 29, 2014

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chef

Jon Favreau’s delightful family film

     Jon Favreau’s Chef (and it is his movie because he wrote, directed, and stars) will, I hope, be a sleeper hit.  It’s a sweet, family focused work with a salty tongue.  It’s playing at The Esquire, but with a cast including Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., it feels like it could compete with the tent pole blockbusters.  Favreau has written or directed and acted in both biggies like Iron Man and the smaller, wilder art house chestnuts like Swingers.  He doesn’t have a big name, but all of his movies are worthwhile in some way and Chef is the best movie I’ve seen that was released this year so far. 

     He must have been relieved that the only special effects he’d have to deal with in Chef were how to make cooking look
The Food Truck
interesting.  He deals with that spectacularly in various settings – loft apartment, high-end restaurant, and food truck.

Leguizamo, Anthony, and Favreau
His loose, easy-going approach with actors results in a complex ensemble.  Leguizamo and Cannavale feel like they’ve known Favreau and each other for years, though I haven’t seen them together before.  Downey has a long association with Favreau and he delivers a giddily weird cameo that had me thinking that the character was a generous sociopath.  Vergara relaxes her accent and increases her warmth, thereby becoming the heir apparent to Sophia Loren, rather than the updated Charo she seems on TV.

Sofia, or is it Sophia?
Johansson









Johansson finally justifies why so many middle-aged and old straight male directors are sort of obsessed with her.  Favreau does not act like that.  Instead, he treats her as a colleague, albeit an attractive one, and she responds in a startling scene where her no-bull attitude nails Favreau’s character.

Father and Son at the Farmer's Market
     EmJay Anthony plays Percy, the ten-year old son trying to connect with his Chef father Carl (Favreau).  Anthony gives an understated, unfussy performance, but speaks volumes whenever he looks at his father.  He’s never precocious or cute, though his ability to tweet becomes a running gag that turns into a subplot.  This deserves to be seen and heard – the Latin flavored soundtrack keeps the pace percolating and matches the editing and rhythm of the cooking scenes.

     By the way, if the Miami food whets the appetite, it’s available not too far away at Louisville’s excellent Havana Rumba.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Locke

Tom Hardy in a car and it’s fascinating

     Locke takes place in real time (85 minutes) and shows a hot guy in a cool BMW driving really fast from the midlands to London, while making a ton of phone calls.  Fortunately, he uses hands-free technology (it’s a pricey BMW, after all) and because British motorways (the equivalent of our interstate highways) utilize extraordinary, almost constant lighting on the M6, the main and only seen character can check some important files as well.  

Tom Hardy On an 85 Minute Car Ride
     I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because much of the initial suspense of the movie comes from trying to understand why Ivan Locke, played with intense naturalism by Tom Hardy, insists upon making this journey.  Director Steven Knight makes it feel like a thriller, reflecting the tone of his previous scripts for the excellent Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Eastern Promises (2007).  Locke takes place at night like Knight’s earlier Hummingbird (2013), which Neil and I haven’t seen.  However, Knight sets this movie almost completely inside a car.  What sounds limiting actually engenders a tour de force.  

Stunning Cinematography from Haris Zambarloulos
     Besides Knight’s almost steely control of tone, projected in Locke’s character, the music by Dickon Hinchliffe ratchets up the tension, and Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography gorgeously captures the dark night of a soul and how he and the camera operators pulled it off defies imagination.  The car really moves at 80 mph, while surrounded by other cars on the M6 and the M1 going into London.  There are some digital visual effects for reflections of Locke, but they’re minor.  Filmed in six nights, the process blows me away.  The final shot pulls away to show a long shot of that motorway and it makes the viewer consider all the other stories going on in all of the other vehicles that can only be distinguished by their headlights.

     Hardy has co-starred in bigger budget movies like Warrior (2011) and This Means War (2012), neither of which we saw.  However, he’s made his reputation for us in ensemble prestige fare like Inception (2010), which he stopped in its tracks and left Leonardo DiCaprio looking a little dull in comparison, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), where he held his own with Colin Firth and Gary Oldman – no easy feat.  He possesses the electric gravitas of a young Connery or Finney in this part and hopefully it will distinguish him from other actors of his generation.