If you’re looking for a rip-roaring thriller or some cutting edge social commentary, you won’t find it in Chef. There’s not much sex and violence either. What you will find, however, is a funny, good-hearted film about making lemonade out of life’s lemons that will fill a couple of hours quite pleasantly.
As well as taking the lead role, Jon Favreau wrote and directed Chef, taking a bit of time out from directing Hollywood blockbusters to return to the sort of low-budget indies that he made his name with – Swingers is still one of my all-time favourites. He’s been able to call in a few favours this time so the cast list is a bit more starry, but the themes of loyalty and friendship and the general air of likeability remain.
Carl Casper is head chef at a successful restaurant owned by a man who values familiarity over risk-taking (Dustin Hoffman). After a bad review from a well-known food critic goes viral (everything is viral in Chef), he walks out, and thanks to the ex-husband (Robert Downey Jnr) of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) finds himself the proud owner of a slightly worse-for-wear food truck which he takes on the road with ex-colleague Martin (John Leguizamo) and his somewhat estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony). That’s about it, plot-wise – I have to admit I was waiting for the characters to be in some sort of peril, but at the risk of being slightly spoilerish, there’s no peril here. Not for anyone. In some hands that would make for a dull old film, but Favreau gives us strong enough characters and ladles everything with such a big dollop of warmth and humour, that it’s actually quite a relief. Sometimes it’s enough just to see good things happen to nice people.
There are of course innumerable shots of amazing food. For me, a vegetarian on a 5:2 diet fast day, it probably wasn’t the wisest film to choose: Chef is peppered (and salted) with long languorous shots of sizzling Cubanos and the most delicious looking grilled cheese sandwich ever. My local cinema has wisely put Cubanos on the menu, I bet they are doing a roaring trade.
It’s a world away from the clever schtick of Swingers of course, but there’s a lot to enjoy here if you’re in the mood for something warm and tender. On a sandwich. With yuca fries on the side. God I’m hungry.
Genuinely still not entirely sure what to make of Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s third film – it has divided audiences at festival screenings and it’s easy to see why. It’s science fiction (admittedly not my favourite genre) but not as we know it – free from the over the top CGI effects that seem to take the place of plot and character these days. Not that there isn’t a bit of that going on, of course. But it’s much less showy.
Glazer has made what I think it most easily described as a 70s science fiction film for the next generation, it reminded me of Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who crossed with the opening credits from Tales of the Unexpected, complete with dancing bare lady. Look, if you don’t believe me. It’s fascinating and never less than watchable but if I’m honest, left me a bit unmoved (at the same time as being a bit enthralled, I told you I didn’t know what to make of it).
Shot in some of the less salubrious areas of Glasgow, Under the Skin follows a woman as she travels round in a van picking up men. This isn’t just any woman however, it’s an alien being from an undisclosed planet played by Scarlett Johansson in a very bad wig. We don’t learn anything about her, all we know is that her mission in Glasgow is to find men to send back home for a purpose which is also never really explained. She’s followed round by a leather-clad motorcyclist, presumably another alien, who mops up when she makes a mistake, or foolishly develops a bit of human conscience.
The scenes where Johansson picks up her victims are subtly done – along with much of the film, they’re shot using hidden cameras so most of the people we see in clubs, shopping malls and on the streets of Govan aren’t actors. Most of the men had no idea that the lady chatting them up from a big old van was indeed a Hollywood starlet – so these scenes give the film a really naturalistic feel. What happens to the blank faced men she picks up is slightly less natural mind you, and strangely mesmerising, accompanied by a superbly emotive and chilling 70s sc-ifi style score.
There’s little dialogue, and we don’t learn much about Johannson’s character, except that somewhere under the skin, she has the same longing to be accepted that we all have. It says a lot for the power of Glazer’s direction, and Johansson’s perfectly understated performance, that we care at all about what happens to her. But as I said before, am not sure that I did care all that much – slick and clever as it is, emotionally there’s a big black hole.
Ultimately, it’s a film that will leave you puzzled but one that will stay with you – and one that I suspect will continue to divide opinion, as it has mine.