When a filmmaker goes from doing a number of gigantic commercialfilms to a decidedly smaller work, the obvious and rather clichéd temptation is to call that work "a more personal project," but in the case of Jon Favreau's Chef, that label could not fit more perfectly. After all, before setting the template for what has now become the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster empire with 2008's Iron Man, the veteran actor initially made a name for himself as a writer and/or director with scrappy independent films such as Swingers and Made, so an independent dramedy would technically be more "him." But even bearing that fact in mind, this film does also fit that "personal project" category in its most generally used sense, for it is a change of pace from not only his big studio adventures but also those brasher earlier comedies: quieter, sweeter, gentler, and more understated. But that tone befits this no-frills story of hotshot chef Carl Casper (Favreau), who must rebuild his life and regain his mojo after suffering a high-profile professional breakdown; redemption and rejuvenation potentially comes by way of starting a back-to-basics food truck business and a road trip with his oft-neglected young son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
If this sounds a bit formula feel good, it is, but much like how he turned a lovelorn-sadsack-learns-to-live-and-love-anew scenario into something fresh and exciting in Swingers nearly 20 (!) years ago, Chef is all about the all-around personality--and a distinct and appealing one indeed manifests in Favreau's writing and direction as well as, more importantly, the performances and chemistry. If there isn't much in the way of the insta-quotable comic dialogue that Favreau has come up with in the past, the laughs occur in a less in-your-face, more organic way while still maintaining some quirky edge; case in point, Carl's pivotal meltdown is both genuinely sad and cringe-worthy-embarrassing in a darkly hilarious way. Where Favreau and the film's personality excel most is in being, at the risk of sounding corny, truly likable--not at all a small ingredient in an intimate, intimately scaled story that sinks or swims on the viewer's investment in Carl. Indeed, one becomes involved in his fate and that of his circle of family and friends, including Percy, Carl's ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara, given a rare opportunity to tackle a more subdued role and nailing it), and his best friend/line cook Martin (John Leguizamo). Vibrant supporting turns from actors such as Oliver Platt (as the food critic who initially sets Carl off on his freefall), Dustin Hoffman (as Carl's boss), and Favreau's fellow Marvel stable members Scarlett Johansson (as a restaurant co-worker) and Robert Downey Jr. (as Inez's other ex-husband), as well as some clever audiovisual flourishes (I doubt anyone will ever come up with a more appropriate and creative cinematic depiction of the act of tweeting on Twitter than what Favreau uses here), make for a spicy garnish, but the mellow main course of Carl's introspective and touching journey to fulfillment is a satisfying meal all on its own.
Flex Is Kings
Deirdre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols's documentary centers on the East Brooklyn-born style of hip-hop dancing known as flexing, and it does, in its broadest strokes, follow the traditional trajectory of dance movies both fiction and non-fiction, building to a big competition at the climax. While there is a fair bit of footage featuring the limb-twisting, controlled abandon, and unique artistry of the physical movement, Schoo and Nichols don't delve too deeply at all into the origins of the dance form--perhaps the film's one major shortcoming--that also doesn't seem to be their true point, which is not necessarily to be so much about "flex" than the lives of "kings" who practice it. A number of dancers appear throughout the brisk 80-minute run time, but the primary focus lies squarely on two, Flizzo and Jay Donn, whose shared passion for flexing but wildly contrasting paths in life offer Schoo and Nichols and angle that cuts deeper than the dance flick norm. Through Flizzo, a fan favorite showman and respected figure in the neighborhood, we see how performing serves as a positive and necessary release as he goes through the everyday struggles of making ends meet and dealing with domestic dramas--a stark contrast to the brashly confident performer and competitor he is in dance battles. Meanwhile, Jay quietly takes his raw skill to a more traditional and, for lack of a better term, mainstream "respectable" venue of an experimental theatrical production of Pinocchio, showing how such genuine street-reared talents can be honed and channeled toward varied and unexpected pursuits. Glimpses of the preparations for the annual flexing competition Battlefest are also rather revealing, not only in the difficulties of putting on such an event but the still lingering prejudices held against an urban/hip-hop function, regardless of the benefits and general positivity it creates for the people of the community. That's the general feeling that the film leaves--positivity: positivity in giving an all too often ignored and oppressed community a commanding voice; positivity in individual expression that thus opens many new and rich opportunities for themselves; positivity in creating a uniquely powerful and beautiful art form that can be appreciated and savored by the global community at large.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return (PG)
There are certain movie ideas that seem like no-brainer sure things on the surface but with a second thought should come a snap to the senses that it's one of the most foolish ideas imaginable. Ranking near the top of that list should be an animated musical follow-up to the legendary live action film version of The Wizard of Oz. Yes, Victor Fleming's 1939 film is truly a timeless classic, one beloved by young and old and wins new hordes of fans with every generation, thus ensuring a perpetual built-in audience. But with the weight of such a following comes the weight of expectation: to live up to the classic film's enduring song score; to live up to the still-effective magic of that 75-year-old piece--and, in terms of general modern movie standards, to live up to the ever-rapidly advancing state of the art in 3D feature animation. To their credit, directors Will Finn and Daniel St. Pierre make a most earnest go at such a task, working from the novel Dorothy of Oz, written by Roger S. Baum, great-grandson of original Oz creator L. Frank Baum; and enlisting an all-star voice cast featuring Dan Aykroyd as the Tin Man, Jim Belushi as the no-longer-cowardly Lion, Kelsey Grammer as the Scarecrow, and Glee actress/chanteuse Lea Michele as Dorothy, who is swept back up to the magical land and reunites with her old friends and makes some new ones when the Wicked Witch's jester brother (Martin Short) threatens to destroy Oz. Perhaps this played out in a compelling fashion on Baum's pages, but here the execution doesn't ever rise above being pleasantly perfunctory. Michele, as well as Megan Hilty (as a princess made of china) and Hugh Dancy (as a marshmallow-made soldier), lend their pitch-perfect pipes to original tunes (by a number of different songwriters including Bryan Adams) that are nice but forgettable. The same noble but ultimately for naught effort marks the other aspects of the film: Short reliably hams it up, but his character never becomes a terribly fun villain; the romance between the Hilty and Dancy characters is sweet but feels tacked-on; and while the artists and animators are able to get some up-close textures looking right (the china; the marshmallow), the overall look of the film isn't impressive much less distinctive, with the 3D being a non-issue. Brand association may yet make this film find some success in the home market as something to tide over the tykes, but being an effective virtual babysitter isn't the same as being a satisfying entertainment.
Moms' Night Out (PG)
As odd as it sounds, given how innocuous it appears from the very title on down, Moms' Night Out is destined to provoke wildly polarized reactions. On one end, this featherweight comedy comes from the makers of Christian-themed films such as the faith-focused hits Fireproof and Courageous; with that association comes a sizable and devoted fan following ready to not only flock to the film but vocally sing its praises to the rafters by virtue of the values, religious or otherwise, it may endorse or blatantly espouse. But then those very same qualities also elicit a most virulent opposite reaction from others and make the film an easy target for snarky cynicism, further compounded by the fact that its core characters are stay at home moms. My own reaction, however, falls somewhere squarely in the middle, much like how directors Jon and Andrew Erwin play these possibly contentious aspects. To their and writer Andrea Nasfell's credit, the talk of faith is unusually restrained and rather organically incorporated into the proceedings. One of the three moms is, after all, a pastor's wife (Patricia Heaton), so it makes sense that not only she would be more faith-leaning in speech but that other characters, such as her two other overworked housewife pals (Sarah Drew and Andrea Logan White), would turn to her for advice on spiritual issues. I also don't find the fact that the main characters are housewives to be regressive or anti-feminist, for being a stay at home mom is a choice many women make today, and a completely valid one at that; and frankly, it's a demographic that, while not uncommon to see on the small screen, is not typically represented on the big screen.
That said, the idea of small screen versus big screen is ultimately what does in the film. As three have their simple Saturday ladies' night quickly spiral out of control, the chaos that does ensue is not without its amusements, for the Erwin Brothers are blessed with a gifted and game cast at their disposal. The core group of mothers, which as the night wears on comes to include Abbie Cobb as Drew's single mom sister-in-law, have a strong collective chemistry, but there are a couple of standouts. Heaton, proven pro that she is, reliably runs with the bulk of the physical comedy; and another series television veteran, Drew, proves to be a very appealing find in her first feature lead, from her warmth with the other ladies to her natural ease with screen hubby Sean Astin. Unfortunately, the cast is consistently better than the material, which is less outrageously hilarious than it is predictably silly, if harmlessly so I admire and respect the Erwin Brothers' aim to make a zany comedy (which is indeed what this film is, with any preaching being decidedly secondary and not at all overbearing to the point of distraction) that can be comfortably watched by the entire family, from the very old to the very young. But with the aim to be clean comes the danger of being bland, and despite the spunky efforts of the performers, Moms' Night Out is indeed pleasantly safe but to the point of the lack of inspiration leaving no impression, like a small screen sitcom that intermittently holds attention and immediately fades from memory once it's done.
"Family vs. frat." That tag line more or less sums up the entirety of Nicholas Stoller's latest lowbrow comedy, for when a rowdy college fraternity moves into the empty house next door to a married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) with a newborn, a noise complaint to police quickly escalates into all out war. If Stoller and writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien don't exactly take this premise in unexpected, much less innovative, directions of comedy, at least they do deliver effective comedy, with a more than sufficient amount of raunchy, yes-they-really-did-go-there laughs to compensate for whatever lack of originality and a very loose story structure and rhythm. Similarly, Rogen and Zac Efron (who has settled into a comfortable post-HighSchoolMusical niche sending up his pretty boy persona) as the head of the frat don't stretch themselves, but they reliably hit the required targets with gusto. More revelatory is the fearlessly energetic Byrne, who after solid, scene-stealing supporting turns in films such as Bridesmaids, Get Him to the Greek, and this, is ready to have a breakout comic starring vehicle to call her own.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)
In theory, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man appeared to be a wildly premature franchise reboot more motivated by business than necessity or even demand--that is, even more than the Hollywood norm. But director Marc Webb and most especially his talented cast defied the odds to not only deliver a solid addition to the Spider-canon, but a promising and even exciting start to a new phase of films. It seems, however, that the film's financial success and fan acceptance made Webb and Sony Pictures made a bit too excited. This comes through in how The Amazing Spider-Man 2's release comes less than two years since the previous film, and, more problematically, how it displays a seemingly, inexplicably urgent need to cram in every last random idea the filmmakers came up with without any regard to make them connect, much less flow, as a narrative whole. The no less than four individuals receiving some sort of screenplay and/or story credit (big franchise regulars Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, along with Jeff Pinkner and James Vanderbilt) is surely but a fraction of the writers who actually worked on what passes for this film's script, which plays like a number of separate, disparate drafts spliced together with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. First (and still best), there's the ongoing, ever-complicated romance between the young man behind the Spider-Man mask, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone); then there's anguished tale of Peter's old childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), whose physical and mental collapse leads to a (widely spoiled, by even the marketing) dramatic change; then there is, to quote the film's overseas subtitle, the "rise of Electro," with meek, Spidey-loving Oscorp employee Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) suffering a freak accident and becoming an electrically powered supervillain; then there are the lingering mysteries regarding Peter's father Richard (Campbell Scott), playing like deleted scenes from the first film shoehorned back in (remember the "untold story" angle teased from that film's early trailers and posters that was abruptly, inexplicably abandoned and then nowhere to be found in the final cut?); then there are hamfisted set-ups of other adversaries for not only future sequels but planned spinoffs.
This is all a hell of a lot for any film, much less what is intended as a blockbuster popcorn entertainer, to try to juggle effectively. And trying to cram so much also means rushing too much, with Webb and the writers failing to allow any of the stories and characters to properly develop in an organic and therefore convincing manner. The execution of Max's extreme turn from Spidey-love to Spidey-hate is the most glaring example; it's certainly not an unworkable arc, but for him to shift from sycophantic adulation to scorched-earth, wildly destructive hate within the space of a single six- or seven-minute sequence is (bad wordplay intended) shocking in the worst way. But beyond the rushed and disparate plot elements, there are also even more jarring tonal disconnects. Max's pre-Electro geekiness is played for broad silliness, complete with exaggerated "comic" music scoring; and later, in one truly baffling section, Electro-fied Max is held by a cartoonishly accented mad doctor who is all Batman & Robin-level campy, vampy excess. Never mind that touches such as those don't at all feel of a piece with something as sober and dark as the Harry thread; they also distract from and thus undermine the parts that the film generally does get right--specifically, Peter and Gwen's ongoing love story. Of the new elements introduced in this film, the Harry story, while still a hurried victim of the overall cram/rush mish-mash of the writing, is the most functional, largely because it's somewhat more character-rooted like the continuing romance, whereas Electro, Peter's father, and various others who pop up register less as characters than plot points--or, worse, props, as is the case of one notable nemesis whose pre-release hype is in inverse proportion to his throwaway waste of a treatment (which, honestly, really merits no mention by name--that's how inconsequential he proves to be) here.
That sense of waste extends to the actors, whose valiant efforts aren't to be faulted as they are literally and figuratively pulled in so many directions by thinly developed material. The first film's ace in the hole, the Garfield-Stone chemistry, remains as sparkling as ever; and Garfield's rapport with Sally Field's Aunt May is similarly untouched. However, Field is largely wasted, underscored by how effortlessly yet powerfully knocks out her one big showcase scene. (There is also what proves to be a bizarre moment where an oddly emphasized plot point with May literally has zero payoff later.) By design, Foxx and DeHaan have the showiest roles, but they are at the mercy of Webb and the writing staff's odd whims. Foxx is a proven hand at both comedy and drama, but try though he does, he can't smooth out the whiplash-speed of his character's changes in tone and temperament. In the grander scheme, DeHaan's arc suffers even more from rush-caused surface treatment, not doing justice to either his performance or the seminal storyline it ultimately echoes from the original comics.
But more than not doing justice to one of the most popular and enduring characters from the printed page or any medium, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 squanders the rich potential that the first series installment displayed. There is still time for Webb (who is already signed for a third Spidey swing) and the next set of writers to correct the course, but with the studio seemingly more interested in mini-Marvel-esque universe building than basic storytelling--as evidenced by this film's tacked-on-feeling coda, which blunts whatever impact the climax is able to muster--I'll be bracing myself for another underwhelming, rather than amazing, Spider-Man.
Walk of Shame (R)
Elizabeth Banks is one of those reliable actors who is always so good in roles large and small, comedic or dramatic, that it's easy to take her gifts for granted. Walk of Shame, surprisingly only now her first solo lead vehicle, demands for you to sit up and take notice, for she takes full advantage of the showcase, displaying her fearlessness as a comedienne--and looking as stunning as ever in a body-hugging canary yellow dress--as a newscaster whose quick getaway from a drunken one-night stand proves to be easier said than done. So ensues one long night, morning, and afternoon full of comic mishaps and hijinks as Banks tries to make it to a career-critical day at work. While Banks gamely dives into every scenario she's thrown into, as is too often the case in "wild night out" comedies, the episodic structure of Steven Brill's film makes for uneven viewing as some bits work better (a detour into a crack house is an early highlight) than others. Still, it confirms Banks is one fierce talent more than able to carry a film all on her own, and here's hoping the next starring vehicle makes for a much smoother and consistent ride.