Rarely is predictability paired with delightfulness and complete viewing pleasure. Chef, a film directed and written by Jon Favreau, is one that achieves engaging you and having you enjoy every mile of the route, even when you are more than familiar with the destination. It is Jon Favreau’s return to indie filmmaking as in his Swingers and Made days.
The story revolves around Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) who is on the verge of culinary greatness if an innovative menu he intends to debut at his LA restaurant is reviewed favorably by unforgiving food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) who has already doled out a brutal review of a previous menu his controlling boss, Riva (Dustin Hoffman) has forced him to serve. Nothing comes out as planned, and a challenge he presents the food critic goes terribly wrong on Twitter. Carl loses his cool, essentially ending his career. But there is an ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara), that comes to the rescue with a trip to Miami and a food truck offered by her first husband (Robert Downy Jr.) Carl accepts the challenge, later embarking on a cross-country venture---with a dance-to-it Latino music soundtrack--- where bonds are cemented. There’s a supportive restaurant hostess (Scarlett Johansson) who you have to do a double take to recognize under the bangs and tattoos. There is Tony (Bobby Cannavale) who represents the loving, but looking out for himself, kitchen staffer. Then there is Carl’s sous chef (John Leguizamo), a friend we all want, loyal to a fault, funny and endearing, that ditches everything to aid Carl. Throughout there is Carl’s relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) who brings the honesty and freshness of a preteen to his character, as well as knowledge of social media that turns out crucial in the eventual resolution of the story.
Chef is visually stunning, not with beautiful leading ladies, but in the Food Network close-ups. It is hard to resist trying to jump into the screen and grab a piece of the lechón that will go into the Cuban sandwich that the food truck specializes in. Roy Choi, a Korean American chef who gained notoriety and a “Food Truck King” reputation was consultant on the film and manages to make Jon Favreau into a credible chef. Don’t leave before the credits are over when you get a behind the scene look on a lesson on making grilled cheese that will change how you look at this American staple forever. And don’t go hungry, for Chef will increase your desire to just head to the nearest eatery and gobble everything in site. I doubt, however, anything will live up to what is presented on screen.
But Chef is much more than a foodie flick. It is as comforting as the comfort food it dishes out. It is lightly spiced with familial bonds---by passion in what you do, by the emotional struggles of a divorced father, by a relationship with an ex, by loyalty and friendship and more. It doesn’t delve profoundly into any of the characters but you will be touched and care for them nonetheless. You will savor the meal and feel grateful to have been invited to the table.
By Lidia Pires
A bloodied head with a boot pressing it firmly to the bed of a truck is side to side with feet that are equally bloodied and inert. The only movement is the motion of the pick up truck as it speedily advances on a bumpy road. The image is on long enough for you to figure out that there are two separate bodies and to wonder if either may still be alive. It pans away for a bit to establish the dirt road it travels on. But if there is any doubt that we are to see a great deal more of violence, it is dissipated as the truck stops and men dressed as policías pick up one of the bodies and take it on a bridge where they proceed to hang it. It makes you gasp, as will many other scenes in Heli.
As well as being among one of the submissions for the Best Foreign Film category for the 86th Academy Awards in 2014, Heli garnered its Spanish director Amat Escalante (who grew up in Mexico), a Best Director Award in the 2013 Cannes Festival and rightfully so. It has a hypnotic feel to it. It is stark, grim, unflinching, raw, and mesmerizing. The scenes are long and deadpan, almost devoid of emotion. You don’t want to be a voyeur but can’t look away. The images grab you, prying your eyes open and giving you no choice but to stare on.
Heli is named after Heli, a factory worker who lives in rural Mexico with his young wife and infant son, along with his father and his 12-year old sister, Estela. Estela falls in love with Beto, a 17-year old military trainee who, presented with the opportunity, steals cocaine---to finance their wedding and escape from town---and hides it, with Estela’s approval, in a water tank at her house. Heli finds it and destroys it thus spiraling his household into more violence. Heli’s father is murdered and he and Estela captured by the drug cartel or those connected with them. He escapes death and the rest of the movie deals with the emotional consequences of his search for his sister.
Heli has scenes that are hard to erase from the brain. One torture scene has one of the torturers offering what looks like a cricket bat to one of three kids present, so that he can participate in it rather than being just an onlooker. One refuses while the other, in a very matter-of-fact, takes it on. A question raised of “What did they do?” is answered by a nonchalant “Who knows?” The scene started by the three kids barely looking away from their video game as the ones to be tortured were forced into the living room. In juxtaposition, it presents a few scenes with almost laughable moments, one being when Beto demonstrates to Estela his weight lifting abilities by picking her up and using her as weight, and one where in half frame a cowboy is lying in bed with Mexican pointy boots. But one hardly chuckles for we are still trying to recuperate our breath from other scenes.
Though Heli provides you with what may be a diaphanous ray of hope it is hard to like but also hard to forget providing you with no plausible solutions to the existing corruption and violence in Mexico.
By Lidia Pires