Jon Favreau’s career has been a patchwork of styles, colors and textures, some Marvelous, some best forgotten. “I’ve always wanted to call the shots because I would rather fail than not have a chance to figure it out on my own. I’m a very lazy person … I have to be really engaged, then I go straight from lazy to obsessive,” the actor-writer-director has said of himself.
Favreau’s 2014 sleeper hit Chef about a gutsy gourmet chef, Carl Casper (Favreau), whose experiments in the kitchen are repeatedly flanked by a Brentwood restaurant owner’s (Dustin Hoffman) bottom line, is a testament to that obsession. The gastro bug bit Favreau hard and has yet to let go. To prepare, he sought guidance from L.A.’s baddest street food maestro Roy Choi, dove into the bustling food truck scene and even enrolled in a French culinary school. His commitment to the craft grew until Chef became as much his story as Carl’s, instilling unwavering authenticity and heart into the film (and adding Favreau to the list of great method actors).
Chef was more than a summer indie, it was a movement. With pure intention and delicious execution, it champions harmony between community, creativity, and Old Testament capitalism and sustains its feel-good vibrations without giving way to saccharine, even in Big Easy utopia. Its theme of bucking the system and escaping the corporate stronghold to nurture artistic passion is palpable but never preachy, and after factoring amazing cast performances and chemistry, a celebratory jazz-infused soundtrack and writing with the naked resolve of Favreau’s Swingers, Chef is his directorial opus.
Fifty percent of Favreau’s 2011 summer mash-up is aliens, but 100 percent is alienating. Flying high from two Iron Man installments, team Favreau tried to repeat their success by adapting Scott Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel, combining genre pillars sci-fi and western for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
But Cowboys and Aliens severely misfired. Too many cooks (eight writers are credited) resulted in an under-thought and overworked story hodgepodge, and the dedication to doing right by the genres manifested in an unrelenting seriousness in tone, a major factor in the undoing of a title like “Cowboys and Aliens.” Though a technical spectacle, veteran superhero cinematographer Matthew Libatique polished on a shine inappropriate for the rugged West — maybe to distract from or apologize for lack of narrative cohesion or depth — and the action sequences lacking suspense really just amount to an FX gallery. Despite the efforts of a willing and able cast — Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, original space cowboy Harrison Ford — it wasn’t nearly enough to salvage such a splintered vision. It’s a total bust. — Melissa Weller
It’s not necessarily his most ambitious film, and it’s certainly not his cleanest; for those qualities, his 1981 epic Reds still holds pride of place. But Bulworth, warts and all, is infused with a pulse of outrage that remains as invigorating as ever. In fact, its messiness may well be an unexpected virtue rather than a drawback; Beatty, angry at the myriad hypocrisies in the American political system, has a lot he wants to get off his chest and doesn’t care how incoherent it all comes off. The “old white politician rapping” premise is more than a gimmick: It’s his own way of sincerely engaging with difficult societal realities, and he’s not afraid to look foolish doing it.
Dick Tracy (1990) is, at the very least, too visually striking to completely dismiss, so the palm for Beatty’s worst effort behind the camera falls to Heaven Can Wait, which he co-directed with Buck Henry (who also plays the heavenly Escort who gets Beatty into this purgatorial mess in the first place). This isn’t a remake of the 1943 Ernst Lubitsch comedy, but a variation on the 1941 fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, except now with an extra dose of Beatty’s vanity getting in the way. Its last act offers mild thematic interest in the way it argues for the existence of fate and destiny; mostly, though, Pauline Kael’s slam of this mildly amusing trifle as “image-conscious celebrity moviemaking” is right-on. — Kenji Fujishima
It must have seemed like little more than a cute high-concept gimmick at the time: a misanthropic TV weatherman finds himself trapped in an endless loop in which he is doomed to repeat the same day over and over. And yet, even now, it’s still amazing how, in Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis mines this premise not just for laughs, but for a human wisdom that verges on the genuinely profound. There’s nothing saccharine about Phil’s gradual transformation from the misanthropic bastard before this cursed Feb. 2 to a more-selfless human being; certainly, Bill Murray’s above-it-all deadpan has rarely been put to such subversive and strangely inspiring uses.
From the heights of thoughtful comedy in Groundhog Day to the depths of agonizing crudity in the amazingly misbegotten Year One. It’s as if Ramis walked right off a Stone Age cliff in this Biblical buddy “comedy,” figuring its premise of two horny cavemen (Jack Black and Michael Cera) wandering through a series of familiar Genesis bible tales (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, etc.) was all the justification he needed to indulge in a numbing series of lowest-common-denominator bathroom humor and sex jokes. It seems that, at least in this case, the only Neanderthals weren’t in front of the camera, but behind it as well. — Kenji Fujishima
It would be tempting to demarcate Kenneth Branagh’s filmography by pitting his legendary Shakespeare passion projects (Henry V, Hamlet) against his studio-backed tent poles of late (Thor, Cinderella). But if there’s any evidence of a uniting motif in his work, it’s that Branagh has retained faithfulness to the source texts of his adaptations while making the results emphatically his own, not tomes transposed humorlessly onto the screen.
While uneasy-crowned kings and vengeful Danish princes remain the subjects of Branagh’s most-respected – and arguably higher stakes – forays into Shakespeare, it’s Much Ado that truly straddles the line between his forthright reverence for the Bard’s text and also incorporating a looseness and verve that reflect the director’s trademark wit. The comedy, likely Shakespeare’s sexiest, is replete with mistaken identities, love triangles, and near-tragic misunderstandings, all ridiculous on paper, yet made all the more plausible by the film’s reading of its adult characters as horny, stubborn adolescents flooded with hormones and therefore unable (or unwilling) to act rationally. Branagh (also in front of the camera as Benedick), then-wife Emma Thompson (as Beatrice) & co. find new ways of taking seemingly expositional lines and delivering them with new facets of disdain, exasperation, and befuddlement for their scene partners. If the film ever threatens to veer into variety hour-like shtick (particularly in regards to its leads), Branagh always remembers to cut back to the ensemble’s reaction shots during key scenes (they shriek with laughter, eye one another suspiciously, and respond so generously to their peers). It’s worth noting the film’s refreshing choice to pair Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as siblings of royal blood, but not feel the need to belabor how and why this is the case.
While Branagh has never delivered an outright misfire, his work on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was certainly not met with the same reception that greeted Bram Stoker’s Dracula two years earlier (both distributed by Columbia TriStar). It may seem churlish to make mention of that picture as a reference point (even if its director is given a producer’s credit here on Frankenstein). Yet Coppola’s array of clever choices – the kabuki-inspired makeup and costuming, the baroque color palette, the effects rendered via puppetry and camera tricks – underline how much Branagh struggles with the endowing his operatic film with any memorable visual highlights, much less scares. And although Henry V and Thor feature combat sequences choreographed with confidence, the creature’s violence in Frankenstein is rendered so murkily that at times, it’s incomprehensible. The mishandling of the Elizabeth character is downright egregious, resulting in a laughable climactic showdown between the scientist and his eponymous experiment, not to mention thousands of confused high school sophomores wondering when (and why) a zombified corpse bride abruptly appears in the book they’re trying to avoid reading for lit class. — Yaseen Ali
Though he’s played many a goofball throughout his comedic career, actor Ben Stiller has always had his eye on the sense of artifice perpetuated by popular media. However, instead of making documentaries about the subject, Stiller has explored a product-driven, image-obsessed society through crafting reflective comedies for a mainstream audience.
In his debut Reality Bites (1994), Stiller stated the thesis of his authorship, that of dissecting the manner in which media creates false identities of human beings. In that Generation-X romantic comedy, Stiller cast himself as an executive for an MTV-like channel, who produces a documentary series by a young filmmaker (played by Winona Ryder), but only chops up the material in the process, losing its genuine nature.
Two years later, Stiller followed up that film’s success with a dark comedy about the images of television, The Cable Guy. In that Jim Carrey-starring vehicle, TV is presented as a harmful addiction, while presenting in overdrive the deliriousness that comes with not distancing ourselves from the fantasy of media.
The lunacy of modern media was better expressed through parody in Stiller’s Zoolander, the 2001 film about a world of fashion that found had him taking a VH1 character to the big screen, and reaching the top of his filmography. Zoolander is a sharp treatise on obsessions of vanity, for both models and their audiences, as perpetuated here by the fashion industry.
Stiller brilliantly applied his meta interests to the world of filmmaking with 2008’s Tropic Thunder, which captured him playing a struggling movie star with a thoroughly superficial understanding of the world. The narrative’s hook is one that’s perfectly within Stiller’s authorial wheelhouse – a group of actors filming a Vietnam war epic are dropped into dangerous territory, believing that the violence they soon face is part of a verité film set.
In 2013, Stiller’s authorship collapsed with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a straight-faced, sappy adventure that repeated none of his previous magic, featuring goofy product placement (Papa John’s) and cultural irrelevancy (Life Magazine as a dying art), all in a very on-the-nose fashion, that made his sharper Gen-X origins seem like eons ago. However, true to his origins as an entertainer most of all, Stiller is back to work on giving viewers the images that they want – a Zoolander sequel is set for 2016. — Nick Allen