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Friday, 25 July 2014


Chef is a film about the two Fs - Fatherhood and Food.

Eighteen years ago Jon Favreau wrote and directed - along with his buddy Vince Vaughan - his breakout film Swingers. In his latest movie, which he also writes, directs and stars in, he is almost unrecognisable. He is twice the size, for one thing, now with a beard, tattoos, glasses, a receding hairline.

His voice, though, is still distinctive, that almost-whine, the New York vowels still evident even after decades in LA.

He is also surrounded by one of the best casts in a film this year. Scarlett Johannson, Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr, all show up at one time or another, yet it is certainly Favreau's film from start to finish.

He plays the chef of the title, who becomes disillusioned with his job and who realises that he is stuck in a rut. He ends up walking out of his restaurant after a food critic trashes him in an online review.

Favreau's character, Carl, ends up in Miami, with his son and ex-wife, and the chef gets back to basics, opening up a food truck and going back to his Miami Cuban food roots.

Naturally, food has a central role in the movie. The film luxuriates in the joy of food, it is easy to see where Favreaus' extra pounds have come from, he is obviously fond of his nosh, and it shows. Every dish is lovingly prepared and filmed, the camera lingers on the tasty flesh of meat as if it were human bodies writhing in pleasure, pure food-porn. It is impossible to come out after the film and not feel massively hungry.

The fatherhood theme is explored through Favreau's character, Carl Casper who, with his new food truck, manages to reconnect with his ten year old son who he had neglected after his divorce.

It is this son, Perry, who documents the chef's new project, and drums up business for the food truck using social media. In fact, it is really a film of its time, central to the plot are blogs, videos taken on cell phones and posted on-line, twitter wars, Facebook pages and Vine videos.

The relationship between father and son is one of the strongest parts of the story. The film manages to avoid an overdose of sentiment, yet the developing relationship between Carl and Perry, quickly becomes central.

It is Carl's relationships - with his son, with his best friend, played by John Leguizamo, and even with his ex wife - that make this film warm and funny and really impossible to dislike. It is a feel-good film for the decade, a real pleasure.

Similar to Chef in many ways, is Irish director John Carney's new film, Begin Again.

Mark Ruffalo plays washed up music producer, Dan, who - like Favreau's character in Chef - is unfulfilled by his job, divorced, and with a child, this time a teenage daughter, who he has lost touch with.

And like Chef, it is about a new project that takes him back to his roots, and which awakens in him the passion he once felt for his profession. For Dan, his
passion is music.

This new project is Greta, played by Keira Knightley, a singer-songwriter who he discovers in an open mike night. They decide to make an album, though they use the open spaces of the city, New York, as their studio, recording in alleys, on roof-tops, on the street.

And also like Favreau's film, Dan reconnects with his daughter, Violet, though this new venture. She plays guitar on some tracks, father and daughter join together like they have never done before.

Begin Again is a feel-good movie, the tone is light, the music scenes are joyous and celebratory, nothing dark lasts for too long. There is some pain, Greta gets cheated on by her boyfriend, Dan has a drinking problem, but there is never any sense that anything bad is really going to happen.

Keira Knightley really sings on Greta's tracks, which have a certain charm, but which are essentially forgettable. A little like the film itself, likeable but light, pleasing but insubstantial.

Cold in July is a different kettle of fish entirely. It too has a great cast, with Michael C Hall (Dexter), Sam Shepherd and Don Johnson in the central roles.

The film suffers from not really knowing what it is. There are elements of thriller, of horror, of suspense, and also a revenge plot towards the end, as well as family drama and social commentary.

The action takes place in 1989. Michael C Hall plays Richard, who hears noises one night in his family home, and discovers a burglar in his living room. Richard shoots him dead.

This one act, which turns out to have been an accident - Richard's finger slipped on the trigger - itself sets in motion another series of events that are connected to the mob, corrupt policemen and the murders of young vulnerable women.

The film is unpredictable, this is a strong point of the plot, it sets out red herrings and does not conform to expectations. The tension hardly relents from the first scene, Richard is in almost constant danger of one kind or another from beginning to end.

Yet it is also a little too slow paced, you never feel like you are really inside the story, it never feels like the film has really got going. It is at times intriguing, but in the end it resorts to the conventional, and is lacking a heart and could do with more depth.

Monday, 21 July 2014


Anna Karenina is actually two stories in one.

The first is about the eponymous heroine - the tragic heroine - Anna, who is married to the staid, solid Alexei Karenin. Anna doesn't really realise how small and unfulfilling her life is until she meets Count Vronsky, a dashing officer in the army.

There is a parallel narrative, one that involves Constantine Levin, an aristocrat who lives on his country estate.

Levin is an intense, serious man who lives in the country and dislikes the life of the city. He falls in love with Kitty, who is Anna's sister-in-law, is rejected at first by her, as she is in love with Vronsky. Eventually, Kitty accepts Levin, and they find a way to make their marriage work, despite their differences, and Levin's taciturn nature.

And yet there is so much more in this novel of practically a thousand pages. In fact, there is too much. There are pages worth of descriptions of grouse hunts, or grass cutting, and other parts that deal with the local politics of the 1870s Russia.

Much of it is hard to be interested in from the perspective of the twenty first century. The novel takes too many detours, contains too many digressions, is overweight and sprawling.

In many ways it has almost more historical value than literary. The reader learns a great deal about the lives of the Russian aristocracy, their obsession with all things French - they even speak French among themselves so their servants can't understand - and their lives of idleness and decadence.

Yet, when it comes down to it, it is Anna's story that gives the novel its value. In ways it is almost a feminist novel, we see that when Anna finally leaves her husband for Vronsky, he, Vronsky, is hardly effected by the scandal, but it is Anna who suffers, who is rejected by society, who is prevented from seeing her son.

Anna and Vronsky get what they wanted, and yet learn that this does not necessarily make them happy. Again, it is Anna who feels the brunt of society's disapproval, and it is she who falls into a deep depression, and it is her ending that is especially tragic.

In the other narrative, Levin is a vehicle for many of Tolstoy's own ruminations and doubts, his own questions about his estate and how it should be managed, and for his own philosophical questions, about goodness and God and love. Again, these can get a little repetitive, and Levin's intensity and seriousness make him a character that is hard to love.

All in all this is a flawed book. It is rich and detailed and fascinating in parts, but drags all too often, and could have done with a good editor.

The 2012 film of the novel, is a strange version. The screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, a playwright, and this is apparent quite quickly.

The urban scenes that are set in St Petersburg and in Moscow contain action that looks like it is taking place on a stage. In many scenes the actors simply walk off stage, through a door and into another set. There is little attempt at realism, it is at times dream-like, at others very mannered and artificial.

For example, in a central scene at the racecourse, Vronsky is taking part in a horse race, watched by the accumulated Moscow aristocracy. Yet the horses are shown to be racing on a stage, and the race-goers are all sitting in a theatre, watching the race and reacting to it as if it were a play.

On the other hand, the scenes that take place in Levin's country estate are much more realistic, there is no playing around with the setting. There is a sense that the film is heightening Tolstoy's own country bias, and commenting on the unnaturalness of aristocratic city life, in contrast with the pure, real existence of the country.

To its credit, the film looks wonderful. The sets, the costumes, the landscapes, are all epic and luscious and grand, in keeping with the lives of the Russian aristocracy.

Many scenes are composed like a paintings, the colours are rich and deep, the stark white of the winter snow contrasting with the darkness of the buildings, and the shapes of the people. The various social gatherings are carefully constructed and choreographed, with all of the luxury of the time.

Yet after reading the novel, the actors chosen to portray the characters don't really fit. Keira Knightley is too slight and slim to portray Anna, who is described as full-figured and imposing. Vronsky too is a much more impressive figure in the novel than Aaron Taylor-Johnson, better known for starring in Kick Ass.

Least convincing of all is Domhnall Gleason as Levin, another character who is described as solid, well-built and stocky. Gleason is exactly the opposite, skinny and slim and not at all physically impressive.

The playing around with the urban scenes is alienating, and makes it difficult to engage with characters than inhabit such a strange, artificial world. The visual pleasures of the film almost make up for this flaw, but not quite. Though at least we don't have to hear about the intricacies of nineteenth century Russian politics!