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!).