Also in Theaters — 5/16/2014 — Chef / God’s Pocket / The Double

by Chad Liffmann on May 16, 2014

Film Review: Chef

Review by Gordon Elgart

This is one food truck you don't want to miss.

This is one food truck you don’t want to miss.

Jon Favreau writes, directs and stars in Chef, which is clearly a passion project about the passions of others. HIs main character, Chef Carl Casper, is a genius chef who’s been working for ten years in the restaurant of a man who does not appreciate genius chefs. One big night, a reviewer is coming to the restaurant to see what Chef Carl is making these days, and writes a scathing review which starts the events of the movie in motion. Chef Carl needs to put his life back together while balancing the relationship he has with his son, a child of his divorce.

In theory, none of this should work, but it does work, and works wonderfully.  The characters feel so real, and the dialog for the most part rings true.  The relationships seem like ones people would actually have, and even the weird leaps of movie logic that happen are easily forgiven, except for the very last one, which makes no sense outside of a need to please the audience a bit too much, and isn’t earned.

The food stuff in this movie is remarkable. The shopping, cooking and eating scenes are so well done, you’ll want to devour this food, and buy the tie-in cookbook when it comes out. Do not see this movie before dinner, for you will not survive to the end without sneaking out into the lobby to make restaurant reservations. This is the best filmed food since Big Night, with the possible exception of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so let’s say it’s the best fictional food film in years.

(Chef opens in limited Bay Area theaters today)

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Film Review: God’s Pocket

Review by Carrie Kahn

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Mickey and Eddie Marsan's Jack share a drink.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Mickey and Eddie Marsan’s Jack share a drink.

Mad Men’s John Slattery’s first foray into motion picture directing is a tonally off, mediocre black comedy in the vein of Fargo. It’s a shame the picture, based on a Pete Dexter novel, is such a disappointment, since it also happens to contain one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances.

Hoffman is cast as Mickey, a role similar to William H. Macy’s Fargo character Jerry Lundegaard. Both men are struggling sad-sacks, who, with honorable intentions, make some shady decisions, and then have one misfortune after another befall them. Here, Mickey supplements his income in the fictional working-class town of God’s Pocket, PA, with small-time thefts and gambling, but he is fundamentally a decent guy who desperately loves his wife Jeannie (Slattery’s Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks), and tolerates his strung-out, hateful step-son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones). Much of the story involves Mickey’s attempts to arrange Leon’s funeral after Leon unexpectedly passes away, leaving Jeannie distraught.

The irony is that Leon, when we see him in a few brief scenes – including one in which he tries to be intimidating in front of a mirror, à la Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver – is portrayed as an unrepentant racist, violent, drug-addled, mean-spirited loser. We never get any impression that Mickey is at all torn-up by his step-son’s loss; Mickey’s actions instead stem solely from wanting to appease Jeannie. So we’re not sure what to make of Jeannie’s consuming grief – did she see a side of Leon nobody else did? Is that contrast supposed to be funny? Because it’s not.

The problem with the film, then, is that the comedy doesn’t come through; Slattery can’t seem to decide if he’s filming Fargo or something more brutal, like last year’s gritty Pennsylvania picture Out of the Furnace. The result is an odd creation, in which exceedingly gory, violent episodes are set against surreal, weirdly comic scenes, such as Richard Jenkins’s alcoholic local reporter Richard trying to woo Hendricks’s Jeannie in a meadow.

The talent pool in the film is remarkable, and watching Hoffman craft yet another morally confused, yet decent-hearted character, is to lament the performances he will never give in better films. Slattery seems in over his head here, wasting his terrific actors in a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and that, ultimately, may only be of interest to hardcore Hoffman fans.

(God’s Pocket opens today at Landmark’s Clay Theater and Shattuck Cinemas.)

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Film Review: The Double

Review by Chad Liffmann

No, this is not a commercial for Doublemint gum.

No, this is not a commercial for Doublemint gum.

The Double, the second feature film directed by The IT Crowd’Richard Ayoade, adapts the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel of the same name into a story about a lonely and milquetoast corporate clerk, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), who’s sad world takes a horrific spin when an exact physical copy is hired, named James Simon (also Eisenberg), who gradually begins taking over Simon’s life.  Things come easy for James because he displays all the likable characteristics that Simon does not — confidence, wit, and most importantly, charm.  

Ayoade sets the film in a dark, dystopian workplace that is drenched in shadows and uncannily bleak.  The Double‘s production design is very reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and even the film’s surrealist tone and kooky cast of characters echo those of Brazil.  The dark setting helps frame Simon’s spiral into madness, since everything gets worse and worse for him, including dismissal from his dying mother, disregard from his clueless boss, and a cold shoulder from his love interest, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).

Although The Double is an intriguing, though somewhat demented, tale about self-worth, the depth of the film’s moral lessons don’t run too deep.  The Double is not lacking in substance, but the memorable parts of the film are ignited by their style.  It’s hard to shake the image of the dreary openness of the courtyard outside Simon’s apartment, or the rickety stubbornness of the workplace elevator.  And The Double, as dark as it is, is not without its humorous moments. Wallace Shawn, Sally Hawkins, Chris O’Dowd (also an IT Crowd alum), and other primarily British thespians make appearances to add some laughs. The actors are all on their A game, especially Eisenberg, who showcases his talents with noteworthy performances as, basically, two sides of the same coin – the timid Simon and the duplicitous James.

Watching The Double can be a haunting experience that’s hard to describe.  If you consider yourself to be a ‘cog’ within the grinder of corporate America, you may feel that this film is firing a warning shot across your brow.  But, at least it’s an superbly crafted warning shot.

(The Double opens today at Opera Plaza Cinemas and Shattuck Cinemas.)

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