Jon Favreau’s low budget “Chef” is an unassuming, refreshingly real labor of love that hits all the right notes, both in its storytelling and its food porn. Starring Favreau as well, the film tells the mid-level rise and hard fall of a Los Angeles chef after a scathing food review sends his self esteem spiraling out of control. He loses his job and has to start over, both professionally and personally as he deals with an ex-wife (Sofia Vergera) and young son (Emjay Anthony). There are just enough starlet cameos (Dustin Hoffman…. Robert Downey Jr) and wish fulfillment girlfriends (Scarlet Johannson) to remind us that Favreau is still an A-list director, but “Chef” hooked me from the get-go. It feels honest and authentic, not only in its kitchen bantering between Favreau and co-stars John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, but in its sprightly outlook on family and the tenuous bonds that often draw us back and forth from one another. Plus, it features one helluva great sequence in Austin that highlights both Franklin Barbeque and HomeSlice Pizza. This is a completely warm surprise and one of the year’s best films.
The German Doctor
Lucia Puenzo’s “The German Doctor” tackles a theme that’s always intrigued me…. That being the underground funneling of high Nazi commanders out of Germany after the end of World War 2 to foreign countries like Greece and Argentina. The library in my house is full of these tales. How was the Vatican involved? Detailed descriptions of Israeli and American forces whose sole purpose was to hunt down and exterminate (not capture) these men. And Hollywood has continually mined these exploits for fascinating films such as “The Odessa File” and especially the ludicrously framed “Boys From Brazil”. So, how is it that Puenzo’s take on this subject- fashioning a fictional tale around the real life hide and seek of dreaded Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele- comes off so safe and ineffectual? Part of the red flag was raised for me in the beginning as the film introduces us twelve year old Lilith (Florencia Bado) meeting the doctor (Alex Brendemuhl) and sensing a kinship with him. In perfect generic art-house instruction, the atrocities are refracted through the prism of a young girl whose voice over talks about the events after they’ve already happened, creating a safe point of view for the audience. The rest of the film deals with the doctor’s assimilation into Lilith and her family’s renovated mountain hotel. It’s only through the suspicions of a photographer in town that the doctor’s real plans are uncovered. “The German Doctor” plods along, at one moment trying to disturb through the doctor’s pointed curiosity towards Lilith and the next tracing metaphors through the introduction of Lilith’s father and his mechanical doll collection. The ideas of human cloning, experimentation and twisted bio genetic experiments Mengele was known for add little complexity to a story that flutters out well before its supposed thriller-like resolution.
The themes of Catholic guilt, familial violence and moody Northeastern settings that have dotted the James Gray cinematic landscape for years now gets cross pollinated with 1920’s New York in “The Immigrant”. Marion Cotillard is splendid as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who’s immediately separated from her sickly sister at Ellis Island, then manipulated into a life of showmanship and prostitution by small time burlesque owner Joaquin Phoenix (in his fourth collaboration with filmmaker Gray). Glimpses of happiness appear when Phoenix’s cousin, magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner), enters the picture and Cotillard is pulled between her obligations for financial status and the potential for a normal life. “The Immigrant” succeeds in developing the three characters with depth and feeling. They are all flawed but acutely drawn people. Even the small roles of Ewa’s aunt and uncle, who make an uncompromising decision, resonate with honesty and moral ambiguity. Filmmaker Gray, so strong with each new passing effort, has crafted an intimate epic that not only gives Cotillard one astounding monologue in a confessional booth, but an ending that both devastates and uplifts its corresponding couple.