Chef is an enjoyable movie about a fairly ordinary theme, the middle-aged man trying to come to terms with his life, while reconnecting with his son.
Chef is definitely a Jon Favreau production ... he wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it. Making the main character be a chef allows for a slightly different setting for the standard tale. Favreau is not a chef, but he put a lot of work into learning the business, and he’s pretty convincing as he performs the job. His passion for cooking is clear and contagious. He has enough prestige among actors that he was able to get an impressive cast for a relatively low-budget film: Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Canavale, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris. Vergara, especially, is used well ... she tones down her usual overly cartoonish stereotype, and is much the better for it. John Leguizamo adds joy, and young Emjay Anthony as the son makes a good team with Favreau.
You've got a nice cast of actors who seem to be having a good time, you've got lots of yummy food, you’ve got a fine soundtrack. I can see why recommended Chef to me.
But there is something puzzling going on here. Favreau’s chef, Carl Casper, is well-known in the world of fine cuisine, but his imagination is frustrated by the rut he finds himself in. He seeks a new beginning by opening a food truck, and it’s a big success, not only with the public, but with the Chef Carl, who is very happy and who connects with his son. The comparison between the chef and Favreau is obvious. He started doing improv, worked his way into acting in indie films, wrote and starred in the indie success Swingers, and began is directing career with Made, which had a budget of $5 million. Somewhere along the line he made a big jump: handed Iron Man and given a $140 million budget, he helmed a huge box office success that was also popular with critics. Iron Man 2 had an even bigger budget, and was even more popular at the box office. As a director, Favreau was like the title character in Chef at the beginning of the movie.
Chef Casper finds himself by returning to his culinary roots, just as Chef is Favreau returning to the basics. But the “happy” ending of Chef comes when Casper is able to turn his food truck business into a high-end restaurant. He has more freedom than he did in his earlier restaurant job, but the point remains: he finds himself in the food truck, but the result is a return to the big time.
So, is Favreau saying that a movie like Chef is closer to Favreau’s true heart of filmmaking? Or is it just a refueling before he returns to big-budget blockbusters?
There’s room for both kinds of films, of course, but the message of Chef is muddled. It’s a nice movie, with individual scenes that hit home. But it is best taken for its surface sheen, not for anything deeper.
Carlos was made as a TV mini-series running in three parts. It has been shown rarely as a complete movie, but the more standard presentation, as far as I can tell, is to show the three parts separately on TV. There are also edited "movie versions" than run two-and-a-half to three hours. I watched the entire series of three, which makes it a mini-series, but if you watch it, you'll see why I think it's a movie. It has the look of a movie, with its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Carlos plays like the long-form serial television series that have become the standard for quality TV today, taking advantage of the extended running time to offer depth that wouldn't be possible in a shorter film. But the way the story unfolds reminds me more of a movie like De Palma's Scarface than it does a series like The Wire.
In fact, Scarface makes an interesting comparison with Carlos. Both are epic-length stories of the rise and fall of a narcissist on the wrong side of the law. One thing that would seem to make Carlos different is that its titular character isn't a mere gangster, but is rather a political terrorist. But politics takes a backseat throughout the film ... it's not as different from Scarface as you might imagine.
The scope of the movie is impressive. In covering the career of Carlos, Assayas takes us from 1973 through 1994, and crisscrosses nations and continents: London, Paris, Vienna, the Netherlands, Yemen, Germany, Algeria, Libya, Budapest, East Berlin, Syria, Sudan. Yes, at times it's a bit confusing, but the overall feel of the life of an international terrorist is clear.
Édgar Ramírez plays Carlos as a charismatic man who we can see would easily impress others. He's ultimately not very good at his job ... his most famous escapade, a takeover of an OPEC conference, mostly results in flying from airport to airport with hostages, never accomplishing any goals, until finally they take money in return for releasing the hostages. Nonetheless, the OPEC sequence is a masterwork in the world of action/thriller cinema. Assayas is more successful with his representation of the OPEC events than Carlos was in trying to pull off the caper.
The film does well in showing the grungy glamour of the lifestyle of Carlos, as well as his gradual fade from importance. The third chapter, which deals with the decline, is necessarily less exciting than what came before, but it does provide some closure on the story.
What is missing is a sense of the politics that drove Carlos and his associates. People toss off standard catch phrases about the revolutionary struggle, but the film rarely goes deeper than those phrases. Assayas is more interested in the character of Carlos, and he is very successful, but the ultimate lesson to be taken from the film is that the politics never really mattered, that Carlos' self-involvement was the key to the story. I don't need Assayas to provide an explanation for terrorist acts, but even with the decades-spanning nature of the movie, the individual acts almost seem to lack context. They work as scenes in an action thriller, but you wouldn't watch Carlos to learn about revolutionary thought.
Nonetheless, Carlos is a triumph of epic film making, riveting for most of its long running time, with a terrific performance from Édgar Ramírez.
- University of California, BerkeleyEnglish
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