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2014, 110 minutes

Written and Directed by John Favreau

Starring John Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vegara and Dustin Hoffman

This is a very funny film that takes a strong position on our culture of criticism and social networking without ever feeling contrived or distancing the audience. This is also perhaps the subtlest meta-film ever made, and I would not be surprised if Favreau was not entirely aware of how much of his own career parallels what we see in Chef.

Anyone familiar with the work of John Favreau will know that the first major role of his career was as the lead actor in Swingers, which is perhaps better known for Vince Vaughn’s scene stealing turn. However, the creative voice behind Swingers was Favreau and his ability to write well rounded and likeable, if flawed, characters. Over the last decade Favreau has become known for directing studio tent pole films such as Iron-Man and Cowboys & Aliens, while these films are not bad films, the creative voice present in Swingers was absent. In many ways those films did feel heartless, they were entertaining but they were lacking in Favreau’s distinct personality.

This is why Chef feels semi-autobiographical but not obviously so. The story is a simple underdog story of a man cut off from his ability to create and to define himself in the world. This is a common and universal story that we often see in sports films, and stories about struggling musicians and artists. In this film the struggling artist is a chef, Carl Casper (John Favreau) once known as being edgy, and making creative and enticing dishes. In the beginning of the film he is under the thumb of his restaurant manager/owner (Dustin Hoffman) and at the mercy of a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) he deeply wants to impress and yet, loathes. Unfortunately Carl cannot make the food he wants to make, and has to acquiesce to the menu his manager wants. This results in a negative review that goes viral.  Carl does not understand Twitter and attempts to send Ramsey a private tweet that Carl does not realise is public until he has thousands of followers.

Chef, therefore feels as if Favreau has found a way to communicate his thoughts and opinions on film critics, studio bosses and trying to maintain his art into this story. Just as Carl loses his highly sought position and resorts to running a food van that he initially perceived as a source of shame, this allowed Carl control and independence in which he could create what he wanted.

For an audience who may only know Favreau for studio films Chef may seem like a step down. This film will not be a box office smash, nor will it get academy award recognition despite an excellent screenplay. However, this feels like one of the most honest and refreshing films to come out of America from an A-list director in a very long time.

A good example of how genuine this film feels is in the scene where Carl tells Ramsey the review hurt. Those moments feel like an open and honest letter to critics in general, who all too often mistake being snarky for criticism. There was pathos in his speech, yet it was also very funny in a way that the audience laughs with the characters and not at them.

A good deal of the humour emerges out of Carl learning social networking. While some films take a negative position on social networking, and attempt to shame the audience while film marketing is dependent on social networking, Chef is an honest portrayal of how Twitter and Facebook integrate into daily life, and are not necessarily a bad thing to have. It is social networking that reinvigorated Carl and tapped him back into his creativity.

Chef is an insightful comedy that hits all the right notes in its message about social networking, critics, the need to create, and the need for basic human connections. Favreau has managed to do this without being contrived, and with enough confidence to speak to his audience without yelling at them or dumbing his film down.  Highly recommended.



John Rambo – Martyr or Monster?

First Blood (1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy and David Caruso

Based on a novel by David Morell

first-blood-1982-brian-dennehy-sylvester-stallone-pic-3First Blood was in many ways the film that made Sylvester Stallone a movie star. Before being cast as John Rambo his only hit films had been the first two Rocky films. Films such as F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley were critical and commercial failures that are rarely mentioned even among his most hardcore fans. First Blood was the film that pushed him through to stardom. While this was great for Stallone it was also unfortunate that the film First Blood and the character of John Rambo got caught up in the franchise machinery of Hollywood. While the other Rambo films are entertaining in their own right First Blood has a depth that is rarely mentioned amongst film scholars. These depths are not obvious on a first viewing and have only just become apparent to me now in 2013. The two points I want to address are the Frankenstein themes and the Jesus themes that run through this film.

first-blood-1982-brian-dennehy-sylvester-stallone-pic-2    First, there are the parallels between Rambo and Teasle (Brian Dennehy) with the Jesus and Pontius Pilate dynamics. Teasle does not necessarily hate John Rambo, he has a duty to keep the peace and part of keeping the peace is in keeping out those that threaten the existence of the quiet community that Teasle needs to maintain. Rambo to Teasle is not really a person he is a representation of the anarchy of war and stands as an open wound of Americana that has yet to heal at the time when First Blood takes place. Rambo is a mirror of the American soul and demonstrates an element of humanity that most would rather not look at. Whereas Pontius Pilate did not necessarily hate Jesus or even want to crucify him it was something he saw as being his duty and this is part of what makes him such a fascinating and tragic character. There are also images that connect this theme such as stripping Rambo down in the cell, the flashbacks of being tortured and tied up to a device not unlike the image of a crucifix. Then there is the resurrection in the final act where Rambo is presumed dead after being sent into the mine that the towns people blew up with a grenade launcher.

Trautman_3The usage of the local hunters forming a pack and Rambo almost killing the child is a subtly reference to Frankenstein. Where Rambo had a relationship to Teasle that was not unlike Pontius Pilate and Jesus, Rambo’s relationship to Col. Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) character is not unlike that of Dr Frankenstein and his monster. This is the man who claimed to have made Rambo.

Therefore, Rambo is essentially a creation of the American military and barely registers as a human being. Rambo is a thing to certain degree. He is an assembled creature of military training and engineering. What remains are Rambo’s base instincts for survival. This is something he shares in common with Frankenstein’s monster. This is most evident where he encounters the boy with the hunting rifle. Rambo comes close to killing the kid before his humanity returns ever so slightly. It follows from this scene to the hunters forming a mob paralleling the Frankenstein chase into the windmill.

On one side we have a Pontius Pilate character and on the other we have a Dr Frankenstein character. ‘How can Rambo be both a Martyr while also being a monster?’ you may ask. My answer is: Rambo represents the nothingness of the world that people feel the need to fill in and mirror with their own anxieties and ego’s. Teasle needed a threat to protect his town against and Richard Crenna needed to create a monster to protect his country that eventually turns against his country when under the threat of the man wanting to protect his town. Whereas the Frankenstein Monster was created with the best intentions and purpose, once that purpose was met the monster is left to the world without a purpose. Because the monster looks like a threat he becomes a threat. Rambo was that monster but he was also a sacrifice for the purposes of maintaining peace in the world but this peace was just a veiled illusion and Rambo will become whatever those that shape him need him to be.

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