Chef: A new addition to my list of favourite films

I love making lists. The toughest lists to make are Top 10 lists of movies/ books/ songs, etc. Even worse is to publish it and invite the wrath of the public. I wouldn’t want to be a film critic having to publish my Top 10 at the end of each year. Nevertheless, I attempted an even tougher task a little over a year ago – to create an all-time favorite movie list. I completed the task eventually and posted it on IMDB in Jan 2013 as “All time favourite post-war movies”. It started off as a Top 10 list, but I ended up with 35 movie titles, which soon got expanded to 40. It was a varied list, starting chronologically with Casablanca in 1942 and ending with Avatar in 2009; mostly Hollywood stuff with some Japanese films thrown in, plus an Indian, French and Danish film. Since then, I have revisited it every now and then and felt mortified that some other ‘just-remembered favorite’ has been left out. In this manner, I had added 7 more movies to the list on my computer, but haven’t yet updated the original IMDB list. I guess I am waiting for it to hit 50. I think I am coming to terms with the possibility that without sufficient mental restraint, this list could expand to a Top 100. Then, I will have to go back to square one and create a Top 10 within my Top 100!

I didn’t pick my films based on great acting or awards won. I just listed movies that I would enjoy watching again and again, for whatever reason. Many of the films are comedy-dramas and include some that could be classified as ‘guilty pleasures’ like My Cousin Vinny and Notting Hill. A guilty pleasure is defined as “something, such as a film, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.” This particular dictionary definition offered “I love 70’s disco” as an illustration…definitely something I love, but I’m offended that it is classified as a guilty pleasure…that was just 70’s zeitgeist man!

Anyway, last Saturday, I watched a film that over the past 3 days seems to have established a case in my heart and mind for becoming entry #48. This film is Jon Favreau’s Chef, the story of a top chef Carl Casper (played by Favreau himself) who throws away a high-profile but stressful restaurant job to start his own lowbrow food truck business and re-discover both his passion for work and strengthen his fraying family ties. The attractive and talented cast includes Sofia Vergara as Favreau’s ex-wife, Robert Downey Jr. as his ex-wife’s ex-husband, Scarlett Johansson as the maître d’ at the restaurant, Dustin Hoffman as the stubborn commercially minded restaurant owner Riva, Oliver Platt as the much-feared food blogger Ramsey Michel, John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale his kitchen team and 10 year-old Emjay Anthony plays the key role of Casper’s son Percy.

What I really enjoyed about the movie (and perhaps a reason why ‘highbrow’ critics like Variety’s Joe Leydon and NYT’s Stephen Holden have only given it qualified praise) is that it is a straight-forward, old-fashioned, feel good movie. There is no evil corporation or backstabbing friend. There are no accidents or incidents to drive a wedge into the rapidly improving father-son relationship. So refreshing, in today’s world where all art is expected to have some sort of edginess to it, where a photo-realistic portrait or landscape, a catchy happy pop tune or a feel-good movie is criticized as being bland and predictable.

I am usually not a fan of movies that use songs extensively in their soundtracks – my view is that this is a lazy way to provide musical support to the storytelling (yes, yes, I enjoyed all the songs played in Guardians of the Galaxy too, but that was a plot point, no?). Nevertheless I have to say, the songs used in this film are pretty good and there are 2-3 scenes involving some amazing live performances – one featuring legendary Cuban-born singer Jose ‘Perico’ Hernandez (he plays Sofia Vergara’s father) and the other featuring Texan blues-rock guitarist-singer Gary Clark Jr. Get hold of the soundtrack album just to listen to their performances of Le Quimbumba and When My Train Pulls In respectively.

The film has a few in-jokes and nods to Favreau’s own profession. There are frequent questions from his friends/ family if he is “really happy” (referencing his bit role as Tony Stark’s driver Happy Hogan in the Iron Man films). And when he gets savaged by Oliver Platt’s food critic, he confronts him with a heartfelt rant about how much effort he has put into his work and how easy it is for a critic to just dismiss that and criticize him. It’s a sentiment he repeats in a subsequent meeting with this character at the end of the movie and it seemed to be a fairly transparent message to all the film critics out there…although to be fair to the critics, Favreau’s directorial work has generally been well received, with the exception of only Cowboys & Aliens and Iron Man 2.

After directing The Avengers, Joss Whedon ‘de-stressed’ before getting into pre-production on Avengers 2 by directing a quickie adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (shot mostly in his own home). It seems to me like Chef is Jon Favreau’s ‘de-stress’ picture after 8 years of directing big-budget special effects movies – Elf (2003), Zathura (2005), Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011). Favreau returns to the big stuff directing The Jungle Book for Disney, featuring the voices of Scarlett Johansson as Kaa and Sir Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, due for release Oct 2015. He has to rush the movie out because Warner Bros. is working on a rival project called Jungle Book: Origins with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Shere Khan, Christian Bale as Bagheera and Cate Blanchett as Kaa. No wonder he needed to make a feel-good de-stress movie about himself (not to mention the joy of sharing screen time with Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson!).


Federer’s chances at the US Open? I’m not as optimistic as the experts are…

Everyone’s talking about Roger Federer being the co-favorite (along with Novak Djokovic) for the upcoming US Open, on the back of his win in Cincinnati and having reached 4 finals in a row. No doubt, I am one of his biggest fans and nothing would give me greater joy than to see him add a 6th title in New York. However, I do feel that tennis observers’ analyses are a bit superficial in anointing him as the man to beat in New York.

As Federer has shown in recent times, it’s one thing to reach a final and and another thing to win the tournament against someone who is invariably younger and more motivated. Let’s face it, lots of lower ranked players just play out of their skin these days when presented the prospect of adding Federer’s scalp to their resume. How else to explain how Fed could have lost to Lleyton Hewitt, J W Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka in finals this year, when these players have otherwise had a fairly uneventful year (not counting Wawrinka’s early season success at the AO against an injured Nadal).

On top of that, one has to consider the effects of a 2 week, best-of-five tournament on a 33-year-old body. In Wimbledon, Federer benefited from the middle Sunday off, but in New York, he will have to deal with that highly compressed 2nd weekend, which would require him to win two best-of-five matches back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday to lift the trophy.

The statistics show that Federer’s 5th set performances haven’t been particularly impressive over his career. There are those two 5-set matches “he should have won, but lost” early in his career to Marat Safin (AO semi-finals 2005) and David Nalbandian (Masters Cup Finals 2005). More recently, he has succumbed in the 5th set to Nadal (Wimbledon 2008 and AO 2009), to Del Potro (US Open 2009), to Djokovic 2 years in a row in the US Open semi-finals (2010 and 2011, after saving match points) and to Tsonga (Wimbledon 2011).

Given his 5 year run of US Open titles from 2004-08, it is interesting that the next 5 years have seen progressively declining performances from him; the finals loss to Delpo in 2009, the two consecutive semi-final losses to Djokovic in 2010-11, then a quarter-final loss to Berdych in 2012 and last year, the unbelievable 3 set loss to Tommy Robredo in the 4th round. In three of these years, Federer had won the Cincinnati Masters coming into the US Open (2009-10 and 2012) and had been similarly hyped up as a potential USO winner by the tennis press. So, I’m not really sure that winning in Cincinnati this year is a strong enough reason to consider him a favorite again.

More likely, it is the absence of Nadal and the relatively poor ‘post-marital’ form of Djokovic that has given tennis pundits cause for optimism. No doubt, Nadal’s absence will have a huge positive psychological effect on Federer, who seems to play better just knowing that the Spaniard is not in the draw. But Djokovic is another matter altogether and much like Wimbledon, he will come in eager to prove a point.

While I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for Federer, I will be equally interested in watching out for the young guns. Dimitrov and Raonic seem to have at least one Slam as part of their destiny. There’s also a whole bunch of teenagers and early 20’s players who could cause early round upsets – Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Jack Sock, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Jiri Vezely and Dominic Thiem…although I haven’t checked if all these guys are through to the main draw.

Any which way, it should be an interesting fortnight in New York!

Eric Brown’s Helix a worthy addition to the list of artificial sci-fi worlds

Eric Brown’s engaging and enjoyable 2007 sci-fi adventure Helix hooked me sufficiently that I have immediately started on the sequel Helix Wars (2012). The key features of the book – an uncomplicated writing style, likeable characters and a vast and complex artificial structure – recall the works of luminaries like Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama).  R.J. Burgess, who reviewed this novel on the site Strange Horizons refers to the novel as ‘SF-lite bundled up in an interesting idea’; a very apt description indeed.

The story begins in the year 2095; the Earth is dying from the effects of global warming and wars. In a last ditch attempt to create a new beginning for humanity, the European Space Organization outfits a starship with 3000 colonists and sends it out on a 1000-year one-way trip to a habitable planet in a distant star system. The passengers are put into cryo-sleep, with the multinational flight and maintenance crew (3 women and 2 men) scheduled to be revived first on arrival; one of them, a middle-aged Australian pilot named Joe Hendry is one of the lead characters in the story. The starship arrives at its destination as scheduled, but then things start to go horribly wrong. There is a crash, some deaths and the discovery that they have landed not on a planet, but a vast artificial structure which they christen The Helix, due to its spiral shape.

The story details the crew’s struggle for survival and the outcome of their ‘first contact’ with the myriad aliens living on the Helix. Eric Brown’s aliens are not particularly exotic; they seem to behave and emote in a very human-like way, while in form they are anthropomorphized versions of Earth creatures like lemurs, lizards and insects. I enjoyed the book precisely because it is ‘SF-lite’; focusing more on the characters and the story, rather than trying to explain the physics of the Helix or trying to be super-realistic with its exobiology.

With the Helix structure consisting of thousands of different worlds, Eric Brown has a potential franchise on his hands, much as Niven and Clarke did with the Ringworld and Rama series respectively. The sequel Helix Wars is set 200 years after the events of Helix and future books can easily flit back and forth through time and across the different sections of the Helix.

Mr. Brown is a prolific author, churning out a book a year (sometimes two in the same year) in sci-fi and mystery/ crime genres. He has just published his latest work, a steampunk novel set in British India in 1925 titled Jani and the Greater Game, which I’m looking forward to reading as well.