Catching Up – Chef & Maleficent

This week I caught up with Chef and Maleficent, two of this year’s more notable hits. The former is one of the most successful low-key films of 2014, featuring an array of stars (Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson) in supporting turns that surround writer/director Jon Favreau’s leading role as a once highly regarded chef who finds his passion once more via food-truck and family. The latter is a full-on Disney picture, with a big-time performance at the center (Angelina Jolie), bombastic visuals and lots and lots of money thrown on screen.

Chef is the superior film by miles. It is a pleasant, somewhat unassuming picture that takes its time narratively and emotionally. Favreau sheds the baggage of big-budget cinema (Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens) for the intimate, portraying the titular character Carl Casper. Favreau does a fine job in all aspects of setting up who this man is from the onset; massive in ego, socially smooth and uncaring to those closest to him. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to hang out with on Saturday night for hours, but would never want to depend on for an airport pickup, let alone for parental guidance. That last element is a big angle for Chef, with Carl debating with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) about his role as a father to Percy (Emjay Anthony). Carl thinks of himself as a quality dad, in part because it’s not something he spends much time pondering.

After a series of petulant arguments with his boss (Dustin Hoffman) and an influential food critic (Oliver Platt), Carl finds himself without employment. There are options via various connections that lead Carl to spending several weeks with Percy as he preps a possible new career as a food-truck vendor.

Favreau is quite casual about getting to each beat of the plot. While the major turns aren’t particularly light-in-touch, everything that leads to them is deftly done. We aren’t in the food-truck, father and son bonding thirty minutes into the thing. Chef allows for Carl to make mistakes, slowly learn from them and even sometimes make them again. The quieter scenes of Carl teaching Percy how to make a particular sandwich or the merits of the strange versus the norm in terms of what people like are given space to breathe.

It’s especially engaging to see how Favreau, whose been on the in and outs of Hollywood it-lists for nearly two decades, views art versus commerce. The movie definitely leans on the art side of the debate, doing so without strictly demeaning the commerce. A wonderful interaction between Favreau and Hoffman’s characters happens in the first act. Hoffman’s restaurant owner admits that stuff like scallops might be safe, but that people buy them because they enjoy them; a surprising and welcome balance to a verbal tussle

Speaking of art versus commerce, the Sleeping Beauty reimagining Maleficent arrived this past summer to middling critical response and a mountain of money. Of course, a movie’s financial success says little of an audience’s joy of the picture, a fact also known as the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen principle. I’d love to say my fellow film enthusiasts were wrong and that Jolie’s hit film was a worthwhile blockbuster. I am not that big of a liar though.

Maleficent is a strange bore from beginning to end, only spiking here and again when Jolie’s not-so-villainous villain gets a few diva barbs to hurl. It’s all rather bland, with a lethargic score by James Newton Howard, muddy visuals from cinematographer Dean Semler and some ghastly fairies that rework a trio of talented actresses (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) into insipid, grotesquely huge-headed gnats. Director Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut stems from a career as a major effects artist, odd since that element of the film is underwhelming, with an array of been-there-beasties emerging like thrown-out  sketches from The Hobbit.

Jolie is terrific here, making the disconnect all the more frustrating. When she cattily mocks Aurora, the girl she cursed earlier in the film, there’s a devilish glee that comes across. Jolie sells the evil, the conflicted in between and the good; the script poorly gives reason for the transition from any of these to the next.

Chef isn’t perfect with these transitions either, fumbling them a bit in the last act, not quite ruining the movie but ending an otherwise delectable bite with a sour note.

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