Thursday, 26 June 2014

Chef Review

Jon Favreau is the epitome of the hit and miss director. For every Iron Man, there’s an Iron Man 2. For every Elf, there’s a Cowboys and Aliens. He’s a cracking writer, director and actor that’s exploding with talent and imagination but sometimes they land and sometimes they don’t. This brings Chef, which is being regarded as his pet project. After a decade of big budget, heavy-on-special-effects, blockbusters and fantasy fair, it is as charming as they come. Favreau delivers a wonderfully funny film about father and son bonding, talent and passion that has heart in abundance.

Favreau directs and stars as Carl Casper, a celebrated chef at a swanky Los Angeles restaurant, whose creativity and integrity is compromised by the restaurant's controlling owner. After a video of him losing his temper at a food critic goes viral he becomes not only unemployed, but unemployable. With his reputation in shreds, he decides to get back in touch with his roots by opening a food truck and taking it – along with line cook and son - on the road, rediscovering his passion along the way.

The use of technology is the most I've seen in any contemporary movie, and though a lesser director might have thought to temper it down a little, Favreau actually ups the tempo with it, completely embracing it. Much like Frank, it uses Twitter very cleverly – and is basically a love letter to the positivity and social media, which is refreshing to watch. 

There's commentary on social media in the form of both mockery and flattery, at once teasing the technology and touting its effectiveness. Older, disinterested Carl can't quite comprehend the details of Twitter, while his young boy doesn't understand the emotional complexities of divorce. The food critic's name is too obviously a reference to Gordon Ramsey, whose show Kitchen Nightmares famously introduced the world to an unavoidably comparable Twitter meltdown and self-imposed character assassination in the Amy's Baking Company episode. And the conclusion feels like a live-action take on Ratatouille. 

The extreme lack of cinematic friction results in the plot languishing in easy going meandering; creating a pleasant, breezy, feel-good flick that has no poignancy or pathos. The father and son aspect, although a tad cliché at times, works very well. Favreau and young actor, Emjay Anthony, have great chemistry and it’s surprisingly heartfelt between them. It’s believable – and Anthony outshines Favreau in pretty much every scene they’re in together. He’s definitely one to watch. The film excels in finding the right beat and tempo; it shines brighter than ever before. This can be attributed in part to the charming cast and the witty script; which is a terrific treat on its own terms.

The cast manages to make it work, and this is what the film relies so heavily on that it is a godsend that
Favreau doesn't let it go stale. There are problems, of course. The sudden disappearance of Scarlett Johansson from the narrative is another mystery that remains unsolved. In the opening portion of the film, Johansson's Molly works as a hostess at the restaurant and there is clearly a mutual attraction between her and Carl. In fact, a scene in which Molly lounges seductively while Carl prepares a meal is sexier than most love scenes, yet once Carl leaves for Miami, Molly is neither seen nor heard from again. A cynic might suggest that Johansson's inclusion, along with a somewhat strange cameo from Robert Downey Jnr as another of Inez's ex-husbands, is simply Favreau calling upon his Iron Man co-stars in an attempt to secure maximum leverage for his film with multiplex audiences. And sometimes it is hindered by its abidance to cliché’s is frustrating too. The ending in particular, was very annoying. 

There's a whiff of the self-indulgent to Favreau's passion project, which winds up clocking in at just under two hours long. But it proves easy to forgive Favreau his indulgences when the resulting film is, for the most part, so sunny and full of good will. Ultimately, Chef serves up its plot - simultaneously sweet and tart - with a generous helping of memorable characters and gentle comedy. It's a great reminder of what Favreau can do with perfectly ordinary people, trying to figure out how to get by in their perfectly ordinary world.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Bring Back OUR Film Studies

When I was choosing my options for college I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. I didn't know what field, and I didn't even know if I was good enough to do it, but that's what I wanted to do. I had chosen two subjects at that time: Media Studies and English Language. Hey, what better subjects to choose then those two in this day and age of journalism? However, I was stuck for a third choice. I didn't want anything too academic because I had never really thrived in academia, but I wanted something that would look good on my CV. In the end, I went out on a whim and decided to shoot for Film Studies, a course that I didn't really know much about, but I had always liked films and I had always liked giving my opinions. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Recently, it was announced that Film Studies was going to be cut from the A-Level syllabus, and, frankly, that doesn't sit well with me. For the life of me I can't work out what makes Film Studies different to any other subject, especially 'academic' subjects like English Language. The concept is exactly the same. You have to analyse something and write about it in depth with intelligence and structure to achieve marks. In the case of Film Studies it's films and in the case of English it's a text of some sort or a novel. Cutting Film Studies is exactly the same as cutting a subject like English, but that would never happen because it's a 'pure' subject. Well, maybe the people deciding (who have never sat in a Film Studies class may I add), should see what potential it has as a subject and how far it can take you in life.

I've found that Film Studies has actually helped me achieve in English Language. It taught me more about essay writing than English Language ever did and it gave me an opportunity to hone my writing skills on a subject that I have a deep passion about. It was Film Studies that made me discover my love for films. Films of all languages, directors and cultures; black and white and colour. I got to study films like La Haine and City of God, to mainstream American cinema such as Fargo and Chinatown.

It's perceived as an 'easy' subject, but that can't be any further than the truth. Yes, anyone can watch a film, but can anyone truly understand, analyse and argue a film? If that were the case would the original Godzilla not be banned for being propaganda? What about Battleship Potempkin or the films of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel? Film making isn't just an entertainment tool, it's the way to tell stories that need to be told. It's one of the most important tools in politics and if people aren't being taught how to make that kind of film or realise that kind of film then it is very disappointing, indeed.

It helped me see film for what it really was, an art. How is it any different to an 'arty' subject like Fine Art or Photography? The real answer is that it's not. If it were not for Film Studies I wouldn't be pushing to get into the film journalism industry. I'm now going onto university to study Film Studies and am writing for various film websites. This is because I was surrounded by people passionate about film and people I could have an intelligent discussion with for two years. Students that had different opinions to me, students that were just as intelligent and creative as you'd find in any other class at college. If anything, this is going to have a negative effect on the industry.

And it's not just the theoretical side of it that will be missed, it's the practical side too. I was given the chance to write screenplays and have feedback given to me from screenwriters. Where else are people going to find that for free? We were given the opportunity to use equipment that is far beyond the budgets of students. Without the experience of crafting a screenplay, or making a film, who's to say that this won't have a negative effect on the industry? Maybe they'll be less people striving to make it because they don't know how to, or because they haven't had enough experience.

Film Studies teaches kids to critically analyse imagery, editing and cinematography just like a child would analyse metaphors, similes and alliteration in a novel. And at a time when there's more imagery, more media, than ever before, the thing that'll equip kids to understand is gone. To take away our film studies, it to dismiss it as an art, an industry and as a legitimate profession to be apart of it – and that's just not right.

And all because the people on their high horses don't understand it. It's a darn shame. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Frank Review

Just by seeing a picture of Frank, you can see that it has all the makings of a cult classic. I mean look at that head, it's destined to be metaphorically big as well as physically big. However, it's not as good as one would think. It’s a little too quirky for its own good. The potential is there for it to be one of the most imaginative, thoughtful and amusing pieces of film for a long time, but there's some fairly big hindrances that stop it from being great.
In a small quiet English seaside town Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) tries to pursue his passion for writing songs in between working at his humdrum day job. Even given his undoubted enthusiasm for trying to be creative Jon struggles to actually write anything even vaguely resembling a half decent couple of lyrics. On Twitter he likes to tweet his songwriting status or more the lack of it along with updates on what he is eating for lunch. But when a band comes to town and their keyboard player goes off the rails he sees opportunity knocking to join the band for an actual gig. Shortly after he finds himself travelling with the band to Ireland to record an album which ends up taking him on a pretty epic journey.

Jon's new band members are a weird, odd bunch of characters which include the slightly crazed and volatile Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Don (Scoot McNairy) an ex-keyboard player of the band who now operates as a kind of manager, and then there's Frank the band's enigmatic front man played by Fassbender and who insists on wearing an over-sized fake head at all times.

Frank is confused about what it wants to be. Does it want to be a comedy? Or does it want to be a quirky
drama that explores dark themes? It tries to do both, and both of them are watered down. Honestly, it's not as funny as it could be, which is baffling because it has Michael Fassbender with a F
rank Sidebottom head on for the entire film. I'd say that 66% of the movie it wants to be a comedy and sometimes it hits comedy gold, but the other 33% of the time it wants to be a drama about mental illness. There's massive tonal problems. The final act feels like it doesn't belong to the same film as the first two acts. It's like eating a ham and jam sandwich, they work on their own but together the taste is less than satisfactory – and this is the majority of Frank. Also, for a film about music, the music isn't great. There's one song that hits you, but apart from that the rest are massively forgettable.

It's frustrating because there's some excellent stuff in there. There's some great themes of creativity, or lack of, which is really interesting. Specifically, it gets us wondering about the tangled connections between creativity and madness, and how to recognise genuine mental illness in artists – especially when eccentricity is encouraged and cultivated in circles that equate weirdness with artistic brilliance. It never seems to occur to Jon that Frank isn’t interested in being heard by a wider audience, he just enjoys the creative process.

There's a lot to like and there's a lot to dislike. The cast are wonderful. Fassbender proves he c
an be great even without facial expressions, but to me Domhnall Gleeson proves that he's turning into leading man material. He plays Jon with such exuberance and enthusiasm as well as innocence and anger, it really is a wonderful performance. As a satire on the music industry and the difference between mainstream and indie music I think it works.

But as I said, there's too many tonal and rhythmic issues to make this compulsory viewing. It could definitely grow on multiple viewings but first impressions fail to meet such high expectations. It's certainly going to be a Marmite film, but I think it's a film you should see. You have to make your mind up on it.