Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood

Writer and director Quentin Tarantino is widely recognized as one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation. He’s created multiple classics, and has had a huge impact on not only filmmaking, but also western culture as a whole. Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are arguably just as influential, both starring in some of the biggest films of the past few decades. Three giants of the industry. And yet I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted that Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood would be the film that would result from their collaboration. The ninth and penultimate film by Tarantino, it’s an odd, meandering story about two men moving from one phase of life to another. And it was not what I was expecting. Which is the point. I think.

DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, once famous for an old Western TV show, now performing small roles as the villain in others. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s long-time stunt double, although now he’s basically a glorified personal assistant. Once Upon A Time follows the two fading stars as they navigate their changing lives for a brief period in 1969. The film has an odd structure and lacks any real strong plot to tie it all together. We just drift from one event to another, intercut with flashbacks and clips from Rick’s old movies and TV shows – often to great comedic effect. Technically, Once Upon A Time is excellent. The music is fantastic – as it always is with Tarantino – and the production design is sublime, with all the costumes, props, and sets looking suitably sixties. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who’s filmed all of Tarantino’s movies since Kill Bill, does a great job of capturing the Hollywood of the time, bathed in dusty golden light during the day, and neon at night.

Meanwhile, DiCaprio shines. In his hands, Rick is ego driven, pathetic and self-absorbed, yet still somehow sympathetic. There’s something undeniably human about him. He’s a man whose star is fading – and he’s not handling it with grace. DiCaprio also gets to play with one of my favourite acting tricks; playing a character while that character is acting. In a scene where Dalton is struggling on set, DiCaprio pulls it off with aplomb.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast don’t shine quite as much. Pitt is fine as the aloof and mysterious Cliff. The performance is so understated that it’s almost not there. Similarly, Margot Robbie is her gorgeous, radiant self as Sharon Tate… and very little else. But to be fair, she’s not given a lot to work with. The smaller roles are filled with decent performances, aside from Zoe Bell in a cringey appearance, and Mike Moh as a bizarre alternate universe version of Bruce Lee. Although, both those roles appear most prominently in the memory of Cliff Booth, so perhaps it’s an intentional effect, meant to be indicative of the old ‘unreliable narrator’ trope. I think.

Which is the thing with the entire film. I can’t pin it down. It’s mercurial. It’s a strange film that does strange things. From the flashbacks and scenes and other films intercut into the story, to the sudden introduction of a narrator part way through. It’s constantly messing with expectations, with scenes rarely paying off in the way you expect. Which I think is the point. When we first meet Rick, he seems pretty sure of the inevitable descent of his career, but it’s not quite that simple. Once Upon A Time is constantly setting things up, only to twist the pay off. The secondary plot of the film follows Rick’s neighbours, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate. Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman, who reprises the role in David Fincher’s Mindhunter) also makes an appearance, and his presence is often looming over the film. If you’re familiar with the real-world history of Polanski, Tate, and Manson, then you know where the film is heading. Or do you? Whether familiar or not, you’ll struggle to predict the climax.

Tarantino used to be my hands-down favourite filmmaker. Back when I had one of those. I’ve since cooled on him and have actually started to tire of his style. His obsession with pop culture and the way it is such an all-encompassing aspect of his films has grown tiresome for me. It often feels like he’s making films for an extremely niche audience; himself. However, with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, he’s made one of his most intriguing and perplexing films. It’s still chock full of pop culture references, but it’s somehow less jarring. Perhaps because it’s such a strangely understated film, while still being kind of wild and unpredictable. I don’t even know if I like it. I left the cinema feeling disappointed, but I can’t stop thinking about it. And the more I think about it, the more I warm to it.

This has happened to me before. Many times. No Country for Old Men. Zodiac. Doubt. All films that left me feeling odd after watching them, but have since become some of my favourite films, and the perfect example of why one viewing of a film simply isn’t enough. Other times, however, such as with Inherent Vice, multiple viewings don’t clear the fog, and my opinion remains unchanged. So I’ll need another viewing – or two – of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood before I can give a better verdict. For now, it’s a strange and perplexing film about how things rarely work out the way you think they will. It’s a film about nostalgia, expectations, and transitions... I think.

Midsommar

The second feature film from writer/director Ari Aster, Midsommar has been getting a lot of buzz as one of the best horror films of the past few years – and I think such praise is well deserved. If you like horror, and especially if you’re looking for something different and unique, I advise you stop reading right now and see it when you can. As always, I recommend going in as blind as possible. If you still need convincing, read on.

Midsommar is a folk horror, and has a style and tone that is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. I often want to like horror – I love dark themes and mystical, supernatural scary shit, but so many are hampered by the unfortunate clichés and tropes of the genre; low budgets, subpar performances, and annoying character decisions (“The killer’s out there! Let’s split up!”). Fortunately, Midsommar manages to avoid most of these pitfalls and is instead refreshingly new, while still being intensely unsettling and genuinely frightening.

Florence Pugh plays our heroine Dani – and she’s excellent. The film starts with her experiencing some real-world horror that, in a way, dwarfs everything else in the film. The kind of nightmarish experience that would shatter your entire world. The reveal of this is slow, deliberate, and incredibly effective. To try to cope with the trauma of this event, Dani is reluctantly invited to join her slightly goofy, bumbling boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a trip to Sweden to attend a small festival in the cosy rural commune where their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) grew up. Joining them are Josh (William Jackson Harper), a university student working on a thesis about ancient rituals and traditions, and Mark (Will Pouter), a randy young man only interested in the bevy of blonde Swedes that are bound to be there.

Soon enough, we’re in the sun-drenched Sweden summer as Pelle leads the characters to the remote communal village. They arrive to beautiful rolling hills, fields full of flowers and many smiling, friendly faces. It’s all impossibly idyllic. They’re also very quickly given doses of psychedelic mushrooms. Dani initially resists – someone in the throws of grief in a strange new land is probably not the best candidate for a mushroom trip, but she acquiesces to avoid conflict in the group. As the drugs take hold, Midsommar delivers the most convincing portrayal of psychedelic experience that I’ve seen in cinema. CGI is used sparingly to warp and distort images – almost imperceptibly at times. The edges of frames expand and shrink like the image itself is breathing. Characters’ faces shift and swirl, but in a way that you can never quite pin down. There’s a lot of “Wait… were those eyes a weird size or did I just imagine it?” Already, Midsommar is messing with your perception.

Then come the rituals. Our group of plucky psychedelic adventurers are decidedly in the dark about what’s going to happen at this festival, and while all the members of the commune are full of smiles and love, things get very dark, very quickly. And I mean that thematically, not literally, because Midsommar is set in the middle of a Swedish summer, when daylight hours last for most of the day, and nearly every scene is bathed in a warm, golden light. This is possibly the visually brightest horror film I’ve ever seen. For a genre which so often relies on darkness to evoke its atmosphere, the constant bright visuals are a great point of difference and felt genuinely refreshing.

Also refreshing is the lack of a central villain. Or any villain at all really. The enemy in Midsommar is not some psychopath, or evil creature, but instead the long-held traditions and arcane rituals of a secluded commune of well-meaning individuals. In many ways I find that more terrifying, and real, than any individual threat so typical of the genre. We join the characters in being lulled into a false sense of safety and security. Despite an overall air of unease, things never get to a point where the characters feel in genuine danger, so their relative inaction is entirely believable, before they reach a point where nothing can be done.

Helping us along on the journey are a strong core of performances from the leads, and the supporting characters in the village for that matter, although the village acts more as a chorus rather than having any stand out member. While Florence Pugh is, as previously mentioned, a particular stand out, the entire cast carry themselves well. The only complaint I have, if you could even call it that, is that Jack Reynor’s Christian carries a certain Chris Pratt-ness, charming, and very funny, but unfortunately eliciting laughs during some of the creepiest climactic moments when comedy was probably not what the director intended. Although my subjective interpretation could be entirely wrong and simply a result of discomfort relieved through laughter.

Midsommar is a film full of mythic, mystic rituals and symbols, in a world that feels genuinely real and believable. Deeply unsettling, it tapped into a deeper part of my subconscious in a way that I think only truly great horror can. If you’re a horror fan, I can’t recommend Midsommar enough. It’s a very, very good example of psychological horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares and gore to create its intensely unnerving mood. However, even if you’re not a particular fan of the genre, but appreciate good filmmaking, and are interested in something darker and more provocative than the usual film festival fare, then I’d strongly suggest giving Midsommar a watch.

Mope - NZIFF

I’m in a bit of predicament. I loved Mope. I think. However, I can’t just straight up recommend it, because Mope is NOT a film for everyone. It is batshit insane. If I just tell everyone I know to go see it without telling them what it’s about and what kind of film it is, I’m liable to lose friendships. But I also think that if you are going to see it, it’s best to go in blind, knowing as little as possible.

So, what do I do?

Mope is about Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry), two absolute bottom of the barrel, lowest budget possible, fetish porn actors (a.k.a. “mopes”). The film opens on a group of a dozen or more men in a small room, wearing only underwear, bathed in red light. Most of the men have their hands down their pants, rubbing themselves, and it soon becomes clear that they’re there to film a bukkake scene. If you don’t know what that means, perhaps this film is not for you. Or maybe it is? I don’t know. Google at your own risk. If you do know what ‘bukkake’ means, you know what kind of film you’re in for. This is where the film starts - and it only gets crazier from there. It’s raw, filthy, at times hilarious, at times horrific. A film full of sex, sweat, and insanity.

Oh, and it’s a true story.

If you like your films to have the darkest of black comedy, filmed in bold, stylized ways, feature strange characters and situations, and you’re ok with a film taking you to a legitimately disturbing place, then stop reading and go see Mope. It’s a wild ride and going in as blind as possible will make that ride all the wilder. If you’d like to know more before you decide if you want to take the ride, read on.

Mope is Lucas Heyne’s directorial debut and he spent over five years working on the movie, including two years of researching not only the true events the film is based on, but the wider world of mopes. He visited many porn sets and met a lot of people who knew the real Steve and Tom, many of whom appear in the movie as versions of themselves. Heyne got a wealth of material from Steve’s father, including thousands of emails between the two of them. All this research was put in to the film. Sometimes literally. A lot of the dialogue in the film is lifted directly from Heyne’s research.

The filmmaking itself is rough and raw. Mope manages to feel like what you would expect a low rent fetish porn set would feel like. Grimy. Sticky. Gross. The cinematography, production design, sound, it all adds to the filthy feeling that permeates the film. You can almost smell it. And Heyne does not shy away from any of it. His camera is right there, watching everything in a handheld style that sometimes feels almost documentary like, at other times like some insane fever dream using vivid, bold colours.

The one thing that Heyne does leave out is full frontal male nudity. At first, I found this a bit conspicuous. For a film about porn, and so brutally honest in so many ways, it was a strange omission. But after some thought I realised that showing full frontal male nudity in a film about porn would quickly raise some problems, excuse the pun. Not only physical, but obvious ethical questions abound. After all, at what point does this film about porn, just become porn itself? And what actors are going to want to be in this film?

Heyne gets around this problem by filming a lot of the sex scenes in very uncomfortable close ups. There is a very intense sex scene towards the end of the film that is told entirely in close ups and it’s among the most devastating scenes I’ve seen in a while.

The film is centered around Stewart-Jarret and Sry’s performances, with Brian Husky third on the bill as sleazy head of the ‘studio’, Eric, but to be honest trying to appraise the performances in this film is tricky. They’re all good… I think. The film, and the performances, start out as this bizarre, black comedy, outrageously in your face. But then it transitions in to something far darker and more disturbing, and I was so consumed with thoughts of “What the fuck?!” that it was hard to judge whether the performances were “good” or not. I think they were. Tonya Cornelisse definitely deserves praise. She has a small role, but it’s basically the largest female role in the film. She’s outstanding.

I honestly still don’t quite know how I feel about Mope. I know it caused a reaction in me. A strong one. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. But is it a good film? Is it a brutally honest and confronting profile of a seedy part of society? A look in to the mindset of the seriously mentally ill and the fine line between dreams and delusions? Or is it just exploitative shock cinema? I think the director had honest intentions; you don’t just put five years of your life in to a piece of sensationalist shock cinema. But intention doesn’t really matter as much as what you actually end up making.

It was just so insane that I don’t know what to make of it.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Making Waves -lighter KEY-2000-2000-1125-1125-crop-fill.jpg

When you’re watching a film, how often do you think about the sound design? Unless you’re intimately involved in film production, I’d be willing to wager it’s basically never. Have you ever really thought about how they made the dinosaur sounds in Jurassic Park? I mean, obviously, we all know they didn’t go out and just record dinosaur noises, but I’d never once thought about it. I just thought, “Yup, that’s what a T-Rex sounds like.” But of course, someone had to create that sound from scratch. What about R2D2’s “voice”? Have you ever once considered it could be anything other than what it is? I know I hadn’t. Sound is so integral to film, and yet if it does its job properly, it’s barely consciously noticed.

This is where Midge Costin comes in. Her directorial debut after working for over 20 years as, you guessed it, a sound editor, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound  is a love letter to the people responsible for the sounds of all the films you love. For the most part it’s an informative, entertaining, and well-made film, although it occasionally veers in to hero worship. But to be honest, considering the contributions made to film history by some of the people featured and their relative anonymity, maybe a bit of hero worship wouldn’t go amiss.

Essentially split in to two halves, the first gives audiences a tour through cinematic sound history. From the first moments sound entered cinema, through to stereo sound, to the full six-speaker set up we use today, we follow the technological advancements made and how they affected films and the audiences who watched them. In the second, we’re walked through all the various aspects of modern sound design. From on-set recording, to digital sound editing, foley artistry, and the creation of sound effects and musical scores. Interspersed throughout are interviews with some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, with smaller sections of the film devoted to three giants of the industry, collectively responsible for some of the most iconic movies of the past half century; Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom. Walter Murch was responsible for the sound design of Apocalypse Now, which was the very first film to use the six-speaker set up that is now the industry standard. Ben Burtt was the sound designer on all the Star Wars films, inventing the unmistakable light saber sound. And R2D2. And Wookies. He also worked on Indiana Jones, ET, and more. Gary Rydstrom was the sound designer for Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan, which Making Waves goes in to great detail as to how he and Steven Spielberg created the sound for the absolutely iconic opening battle scene.

The only real misstep in Making Waves are a few small segments toward the end of the film that are tonally off and out of place. One segment with female sound designers talking about sexist opinions they’ve faced comes out of and ultimately goes nowhere, and another about how much sound designers love their job, but often work too hard. There’s nothing wrong with either segment per se, they just felt out of place and unnecessary. Ultimately it’s a very small complaint, and neither sequence really distracts from the films strengths.

I like to think of myself as a well-educated film fan, and yet before watching Making Waves I’d only heard of one of the three legends mentioned earlier (Walter Murch, for those interested). And even if that was all I managed to glean from the film, it’d make a more than worthwhile watch. Luckily there was plenty more to enjoy. Making Waves shines a light on a very important aspect of film-making that seldom gets the love it so richly deserves.

One Child Nation - NZIFF

I was not ready for this.

Sitting down in the cosy Academy cinema on a Friday afternoon to watch One Child Nation, a documentary about China’s infamous one-child policy, the woman next to me struck up a conversation. I admitted that I had considered not attending the film, because it didn’t particularly grab my attention. However, I realised I’d always heard about China’s one-child policy, but knew essentially nothing about it. I told her that my level of knowledge was simply that the policy exists and that it had some unfortunate consequences. Turns out saying it had “some unfortunate consequences” is possibly the biggest understatement to ever escape my lips. If a documentary intends to educate, One Child Nation taught me that China’s one-child policy was akin to a self-inflicted holocaust – and I do not use those words lightly.

Directed by Chinese-born, US-based Nanfu Wang, and Jialing Zhang, it is Wang who is most prominently a part of the film, acting as narrator and interviewer. She spent the first 27 years of her life in China, but relocated to the states as an adult. She recently had her first child, which got her thinking about the one-child policy and how it affected those around her. She begins by asking here parents, who named her Nanfu before she was born, about it. Nanfu translates to “Man” or “Pillar”, meaning her parents were desperately hoping for a son to build the family around. Sons are far more valuable than daughters, who will inevitably just get married off to another family. When she was born a girl, they decided to name her Nanfu anyway, hoping she would develop to be strong, like a man. It’s the first example we get of the pervasive way the one-child policy has shaped the culture and the minds of the people of China, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.

We spend the first part of the film getting a general introduction to the policy. In 1979, China was facing a population crisis and experts were predicting the complete collapse of the country. Something had to be done. The one-child policy was that something. It was in operation for 30 years, finally coming to a stop in 2015. It was hailed by the Chinese government as a wild success and the reason for the country’s current prosperity.

So far, nothing too outrageous.

Then One Child Nation quickly starts to deliver some eyebrow raising facts, followed by literally jaw dropping and stomach-churning interviews. Stories of abortions and sterilizations – voluntary and otherwise. We meet an old village chief who talks about how some women would try to run, so they had to chase them down and “force” the sterilizations on them. He felt that was too much, so he didn’t get involved. He just watched. Then we meet the 84-year-old midwife. She has no idea how many babies she delivered through her career. But she is keenly aware of the number of sterilizations and abortions. Between 50,000–60,000. Sometimes 20 a day. Many at eight or nine months. Sometimes she would induce the birth, then kill the child. Another woman almost proudly claims that the policy prevented over 300 million births.

But the horror doesn’t stop there. More numbers come at you. More horrific stories. Nanfu Wang learns about her aunts and uncles having to abandon babies. Her younger brother (some rural families could have two children, if they were at least five years apart) has since learned that if he had been born a girl, he would’ve been left in a basket on the street.

This film brings to mind two things. First, the infamous Milgram Shock Experiments, which demonstrated humanity’s ability to commit horrific acts if the blame could be placed in the hands of an authority figure. Second, the horrific documentary The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, which features interviews with the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66. The men in that film proudly describe their acts of horrific violence. In One Child Nation, however, no one seems proud of what they’ve done, but nearly all of them say the same thing; “It was the policy. I had no choice.” All except the 84-year-old midwife, who “retired” from abortions 27 years ago and now devotes herself to helping infertile couples conceive. She has rooms of mementos sent to her from thankful parents, but no illusions about what she has done. Yes, it was the policy, but it was still her that killed all those babies. Her honesty is disturbing, yet refreshing, for lack of a better word.

The rest of the people featured in interviews, however, are the victims of decades of constant and unerring propaganda, so pervasive that I’m sure it’s effectively inescapable. There are billboards and slogans painted everywhere. The government organized touring operas and dances promoting it. They created children’s songs. To most of the citizens there, they simply believed that is was necessary, as horrific as it may have been. I got the impression that this attitude is as much a result of the self-preservation instinct as it is the propaganda. It’s psychologically much easier to deflect the blame on the policy, rather than truly face what you’ve done. One Child Nation is one of the most powerful and shocking films I’ve ever seen, and continues the documentary tradition that truth is often much stranger, and more horrific, than fiction.

La Belle Époque - NZIFF

Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, La Belle Époque is soaked in the bitter sweetness of nostalgia. The joy of reliving fond memories, and the pain of knowing that those times are gone. Witty and clever, Bedos’ script delivers regular laughs while simultaneously drip feeding you information at the perfect time. Antoine (Guillaume Canet) runs a company that uses elaborate theatrical methods to recreate any period in history. Clients hire them so they can attend elaborate dinner parties, drink with Hemingway, or get the chance to finally say what they’d always wanted to dead relatives. Antoine and co build sets, make costumes, hire actors, rehearse the scenarios, recreating everything as faithfully as possible, and then insert you in to it. It all runs like an intricate theatre piece, with Antoine directing the whole thing live from behind the scenes.

Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is an aging cartoonist lost in a world he no longer recognizes. The digital revolution has left him feeling disconnected. He doesn’t understand any of it and doesn’t want to. He feels like all these gadgets are getting in the way of his life. His wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant), however, thinks that the digital world is not the problem. The problem is Victor. So, during an argument, she kicks him out.

After Victor’s life is turned upside down, he is offered a gift. Antoine happens to be an old childhood friend of Victor’s son, and Antoine says that Victor had a huge influence on him as a young man and wants to repay him. When Antoine offers Victor one free day in any era he likes, Victor accepts and decides to revisit a night from his own life, in May 1974. Bedos has a lot of fun with those historical recreations, treating the productions incredibly realistically, and it’s often hilarious watching Antoine having to deal with underperforming extras, last minute cast changes, the limitations of the set, and more.

The core of the film follows two relationships; the disintegrating marriage between Victor and Marianne, and the tumultuous love between perfectionist director, Antoine, and his leading lady to the historical recreations, Margot (Doria Tillier). Auteuil and Ardant deliver masterful performances, hilarious while remaining understated and seemingly effortless. Much like the film itself, they have a very light touch, but there is a lot of complexity under the surface, and in the climactic moments deliver one of the more perfectly performed scenes I’ve seen in years.

Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography is excellent, cold and precise in the modern age, then bathing everything in a warm, hazy glow during our trips back to the seventies. Production designer Stéphane Rozenbaum and costume designer Emmanuelle Youchnovski work in tandem with Bolduc, crafting an alienating modern world, but recreating the seventies in a way that made me feel nostalgic, despite never actually living through that period.

Utterly charming and fascinating, La Belle Époque is definitely a crowd pleaser, eliciting many laughs from the audience. But it’s also an emotionally and intellectually complex film, with an inventive and fun premise and script. Full of joyful nostalgia, there was a smile across my face for most of the film, only fading because of the more dramatic moments. I may have been smiling during that climactic scene, but it was with tears in my eyes. An immensely enjoyable way to kick off the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival, I left the theatre feeling more alive than when I entered. In a way, I can’t think of higher praise.

Chef & The Chef Show

John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Jon Favreau.

John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Jon Favreau.

Chef, written, directed, produced, and starring Jon Favreau is a good film. It’s not a great film, but it is a good one. It’s very simple, certainly not a film concerned with fancy techniques or genre changing innovation, but it’s charming in its own way. However, its purpose becomes much clearer once you’ve watched it’s companion piece, The Chef Show, a small documentary series made by Favreau and his friend/tutor/chef Roy Choi.

Favreau first gained attention as an actor and screenwriter in the 1990s, but has become more recently known for his work on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicking the whole thing off with his directorial work on the first Iron Man and subsequently working in various capacities on many of the biggest films in the franchise. All of this work has no doubt bought Favreau the freedom to pursue the projects that he really wants to, and Chef definitely falls into that category. It’s not quite a passion project for Favreau, but it’s not quite a vanity project either. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle - a “Because-I-Can Project”. Wish-fulfilment and a film of fantasy.

In a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert, Alfred Hitchcock said that “a story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting,” and that certainly feels like the case with Chef. The plot really is pretty basic and paint-by-numbers. A chef at a high-end restaurant in LA becomes burnt out and disenchanted with the creatively stifling, restrained nature of the restaurant scene and decides to go out on his own, starting up a food truck. There’s an autobiographical slant to all of this. Favreau has said that he felt similarly after working on so many big budget blockbusters for Marvel, wanting to scale down and make something more akin to an indie film. He also just wanted to be a chef for a while.

Favreau trained at a culinary school, and even worked briefly as a line cook as research and preparation for the film. Roy Choi, a chef who established his own food truck company, Kogi Korean BBQ, was brought on as a consultant and eventually upgraded to the role of producer. Choi was responsible for keeping the film “real” when it came to the food, and oversaw the preparation and cooking of all the food seen on screen.

The rest of the cast are all clearly having a great time, with many being Favreau’s friends in real life. And that’s certainly the vibe you get while watching. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale are great as a comic duo of cooks working under Favreau’s Carl Casper. But it’s the father/son dynamic that is the core and heart of the film, and both Favreau and Emjay Anthony, in a commendable performance, create a convincing and affecting relationship.

Emjay Anthony & Jon Favreau.

Emjay Anthony & Jon Favreau.

Cameo’s from Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr are a lot of fun, and Oliver Platt does a great job of being a pompous food critic. Sofia Vergara is her usual enticing, voluptuous self as Favreau’s ex-wife, which is one of the main sticking points for me, and the only clear case of vanity in the project; the fact that Favreau’s characters romantic interests are two of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols, while Favreau is certainly not. It’s not a film breaking decision, but it is jarring to see, as neither coupling feels genuine. The film seems to strive for a sense of reality, but those two key romantic relationships couldn’t be more Hollywood if they tried.

While Chef doesn’t do anything truly new or take any big risks, it doesn’t make too many missteps either. It’s generally well-balanced and fun, with moments of affecting emotion sprinkled through, although the end was unfortunately a bit too sweet for me. But much like a food truck, it’s aims to be a simple crowd pleaser and, in that regard, it succeeds.

The true success of Chef, however, is the spawning of The Chef Show, a documentary-style Netflix spin-off. Produced again by Favreau and Choi, it’s another example of the former just wanting to play chef again, but with even less pretence of anything else. He doesn’t bother writing a film in which to couch his desires. He just gets Choi, a camera, some ingredients and some guests, and gets cooking.

Favreaus says as much in the first episode. When Chef finished filming, he could no longer follow Choi around and continue learning how to cook, describing the end of the experience as akin to a breakup. And so, with no real plan on what he was actually doing, Favreau organised The Chef Show and started filming. It’s a rambling, paired back show, and it’s utterly endearing. It’s fascinating to watch Favreau and Choi shamble around, finding out what the show is as they make it. They start off with celebrity guests (Gwyneth Paltrow and comedian Bill Burr), but it quickly becomes clear that it’s not that kind of show. Or is it? Favreau and Choi don’t know. They just want to cook some food.

Roy Choi & Jon Favreau.

Roy Choi & Jon Favreau.

And in that regard, it’s refreshingly irreverent when it comes to the food too. Although perfectly well shot, there are no food-porn cinematography of perfectly plated meals as in the much celebrated Chef’s Table, another Netflix staple. On the flipside, however, there’s no reality TV melodrama that you find in those competitive cooking reality shows. The Chef Show is alternatively very simple and down to earth. Favreau and Choi cook, and then eat it immediately. This is not food as fashion or art. This is food as food. This show, more than any other cooking show, really feels like an authentic glimpse at what a being a chef is actually like. More often than not, it’s about the preparation, the process of cooking. The passion.

And it’s that passion that is most endearing about The Chef Show. Favreau is somewhat of a giant in the film world. He’s played a major role in the most dominating film franchise of a generation. Which makes it all the more fascinating, and quite inspiring, to watch him so eagerly take on the role of student in another field. The dynamic between Favreau and Choi is delightful to watch, with Favreau, like a nervous child, showing his work to Choi, eagerly awaiting his approval or criticisms. His desire to learn is infectious. There’s even something approaching rivalry in some episodes as Favreau starts to cook Choi’s recipes even better than Choi does. Although this often seems to be because Choi, with the confidence of an artist, is constantly tinkering and changing his recipes, searching for something new, while Favreau has been diligently following every word of Choi’s recipes to the letter, not realising a recipe that’s only six months old is now old news to Choi. Even to the point that Choi doesn’t seem to recognize some of his own recipes.

Chef is comfort food and film fantasy. A well-made, but ultimately unsurprising piece of by-the-book filmmaking. But as much as Favreau wanted to shed some of the Hollywood trappings, he can’t avoid cinematic clichés entirely. It strictly follows the recipe for a crowd pleaser, so it pleases, but it doesn’t surprise. Perfectly fine for an enjoyable evening, but I doubt I’ll go back to it.

The Chef Show feels much more like reality. It’s about two friends, bonding together over a love of food. Sometimes a bit messy, and not everything goes to plan, but that’s what makes it interesting and surprising. Truly unpretentious and honest, it’s quickly become a favourite of mine. I really, really hope they make a second season, and if not, I’ll just go back and watch the first season again.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is an under-appreciated comedy gem that is finally developing the cult classic status it deserves. I’ve been a fan of the film since its release in 2007, but I was inspired to watch it again recently after reading this long-form compilation interview with the film’s creators.

Directed by Jake Kasdan, produced by comedy juggernaut Judd Apatow, and co-written by both, Walk Hard is a musical biopic parody starring John C Reilly as Dewey Cox, musical superstar. Despite parodying the massively successful films Ray and Walk The Line, which were released a few years prior, Walk Hard was a box office flop on release, grossing $20 million on a $35 million budget. There were many reasons for this, partly because it was swallowed up and forgotten in the wake of all the other massive Apatow products of the mid 00’s (Anchorman, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc). However, as time goes by, Walk Hard may prove to be the Apatow project that is remembered most fondly.

Although it shares a lot of the trademarks of an Apatow comedy (including many of the actors commonly seen in his films), Walk Hard sets itself apart with its almost absurd level of attention to detail. Everything in the film is pitch perfect. Musical Director Michael Andrews led a group of musicians and song writers, including John C Reilly, and together they wrote dozens of original songs, spanning a huge array of genres, from sickly sweet 50’s pop songs and Dylan-esque surrealism to 70s era protest folk and punk, and everything in between. 

Reilly was not only involved in the writing of the songs, he performed them too, playing guitar and singing each and every one, and with a versatile singing voice this film really is a showcase for his talents. Not only does he succeed in the musical parts, he also gives a subtly great performance as Dewey Cox. He’s hilarious, but always truthful. Just like the rest of the film, Reilly somehow rides a line that is both earnest and satirical at the same time. If Dewey Cox was a real person, Reilly would be lauded for his ‘method’ approach to playing him. They even took Dewey Cox on a real, seven-city tour to promote the film, Dewey Cox and The Hard Walkers: Cox Across America. It’s a level of dedication that comes through in the film and Reilly’s performance is the pillar that the rest of the film is built upon.

Helping to ground Reilly in the reality of the world was Production Designer Jefferson Sage and Costume Designer Debra McGuire, who both do incredible work. Everything is period specific. No matter which decade the film happens to be flying through in any given scene, the costumes, hairstyles, furniture, it all feels right. As Reilly notes, the film “doesn’t look like a comedy. It looks like a biopic.”

So, in a way, this film takes itself very seriously, but at the same time, it definitely does not. Walk Hard immediately sets its tone when it opens backstage at a venue, as we follow a stagehand desperately searching for the star. “Mr Cox? Mr Cox? Guys, I need Cox!” Yup. A dick joke. Straight out of the gate. It’s all supremely silly. But then Walk Hard quickly shows us just how self-aware it is. The stagehand finally finds his Cox, silhouetted, leaning against a wall, deep in thought. Before the stagehand can get to Cox, he is stopped by a band member, “You’re going to have to give him a moment, son… Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” Cue dramatic music and a flashback to 1946.

From there, the film is a rapid-fire assault on all the clichés that populate musical biopics. From the complications of one actor playing a role that spans a lifetime (Reilly, despite quite clearly being a middle-aged man, first appears when Cox is meant to be 14 years old), lines of dialogue inspiring song lyrics, absurd levels of tragedy following the star through his life, constantly escalating drug use, this film has it all. This attention to detail is both the film’s strength, and its main weakness. While there are plenty of stand-alone moments of humour, much of the comedy revolves around the clichés and tropes of the biopic genre, and if you’re not familiar with them, a lot of the jokes could fly right by you. This a film that requires a certain amount of cinematic literacy to truly enjoy. Even the lighting is hilarious, if you know what to look for. Everything is turned up to 11.

Reading the interview, it becomes very clear that Walk Hard was truly a passion project. Everyone involved gave it everything they had and truly believed they’d created something special. Which is what made its commercial failure such a tragedy. Reilly says that he felt “personally responsible for all the money they didn’t make back”, and it took him a “couple of years to dig out of the sadness of that.” Which is partly why I’m writing a review for a twelve year old film; sometimes fate determines that something truly great is missed and subsequently forgotten. Walk Hard is one of those great things and I really believe that if more people had seen it, it’d be remembered as the classic it quite clearly is.

Dog's Best Friend

There is something fascinating about watching someone do what they were seemingly born to do. Tiger Woods was born to swing a golf club. Jimi Hendrix was destined to wrap his fingers around a guitar. Jacob Leezak is a man who was born to be with dogs.

Jacob rehabilitates dogs at the Canine Behaviour Expert Dog Psychology Centre, just outside of Sydney. The Centre is a canine paradise, sitting on acres of fields, filled with long grass and ponds for the dogs to play in. Before coming to Jacob, some of these “problem dogs” have been left to die at shelters, while others have simply become too much for their owners to control. Some of the dogs live at the centre permanently, some stay temporarily. He specialises in pit bulls, but there are all sorts of breeds in his pack. And that’s how he refers to his dogs; “My pack.”

In order to get to know Jacob and his pack, Director Eryn Wilson went and stayed with them for days on end, including one stretch where he spent four nights sleeping on a couch with a pit bull. Wilson manages to convey that sense of closeness in the film. He makes you feel like a member of Jacob’s pack by often placing the camera in amongst the various dogs, jostling for position, vying for Jacob’s attention. It’s from here we get to see Jacob work his magic. He always exudes a sense of calm authority, but even as he literally whispers to his dogs, he tells us that he hates the term “dog whisperer”. He’s not here to control or manipulate the dogs. He’s here to help them heal.

And Jacob knows a thing or two about healing. Much like their dogs, Jacob and his wife Jennah have had to deal with the damaging effects of society themselves. Jacob is a former soldier who served in multiple war zones for the Australian military, while Jennah has lived a life of abuse and hardship from a very young age. Jacob and Jennah’s personal traumas undoubtedly feed into their dedication to healing the damaged members of their pack.

As a dog owner myself, I learnt a lot about my dogs just from watching this film. Realising all the mistakes I’d been making over the years. However, there’s more to glean from the film than just dog care strategies. This simple but subtle film made me think about not only how we treat our canine companions, but how we treat each other. How we deal with the “problem dogs” in our society, often resorting to simple, easy punishment instead of tackling the harder process of healing and compassion.

I think we could all learn a lot from Jacob and his pack.

Click here to rent Dog’s Best Friend for $15.99 and watch online.