Posts Tagged ‘Jon Favreau’

On the face of it, I’ve set myself a fool’s errand here : to review Avengers : Endgame on its own merits, completely divorced from its cultural context and all which came before it, may not even be possible. But once we get a few particulars out of the way, that’s precisely what I intend to do, those particulars being : This. Is. The. Biggest. Thing. Ever.

We’re talking the cinematic equivalent of your wedding day or the birth of your first kid — or so the Disney/Marvel marketing machine would have you believe, not that they’re necessarily wrong, depending on your own circumstances. The so-called “MCU” came into being when I was in my 30s, but I can only imagine what this must mean to people who literally grew up on this stuff. Ten years of big-budget spectacle after big-budget spectacle, all leading up to this — the spectacle.

And, on that level, not to give too much away too quickly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver. This movie is as big a production as anything Cecil B. DeMille could have dreamed of, plus a whole lot more. The scale is simply staggering. It starts — and ends — in surprisingly quiet, dare I say intimate, fashion, but in between it really is everything and the kitchen sink.That can be good, that can be bad, that can be some of each — and, on balance, the brothers manage to make the most of what amounts to a raft of corporate and circumstantial mandates. There’s no need to donwnplay the scope of their achievement, no matter how badly I despise the media conglomerate behind it all. They had a job to do, and they did it exceedingly well.

Long-time readers here will no doubt be surprised to read those words, given my long-standing antipathy toward most of the Marvel flicks, but once they started coming up with villains that posed a worthy challenge for their heroes — a process that took the better part of nine years — it seems as if a corner was turned. The stamp of auteurship afforded Ryan Coogler with Black Panther is nowhere to be found here, it’s true, but this also isn’t the by-the-numbers extended television episode that so many other MCU flicks have been. It’s probably fair to say it inhabits a middle ground — a “house style” production that nevertheless uses the strictures imposed upon it to its advantage. That takes some doing.

But, again, its own merits only is the rule of the day here. I do, however, need to preface that by saying I was not very enamored of this film’s predecessor, Avengers : Infinity War. After the aforementioned Black Panther I felt it was a massive step back, a reversion to the norm, a dour reinforcement of the status quo. So I was not expecting to like its “back half” very much at all.

Cue some genuine surprises : a central role for Karen Gillan’s perpetually under-utilized Nebula. Several unexpected “ultimate fates” for Josh Brolin’s cosmic baddie, Thanos. A turn toward the nearly likable for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton taking on the “conscience of the team” role usually occupied by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. A time-travel plotline that re-visits a number of key events in “MCU” history without once feeling like a nostalgic “greatest hits” reel or, even worse, a victory lap. And a sense of consequence hanging over every scene that nevertheless avoids becoming a Sword of fucking Damocles.

I’m gonna take a minute, at this point, to single out screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a praise — they had a lot to stuff into this particular stocking, both in terms of the “B” they had to get to from “A,” but also in regards to figuring out how to give a hell of a lot pf people something to do. Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Angela Basset, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Natalie Portman all draw a shorter end of the stick than the rest of the cast, but damn — in addition to the already-name-dropped Evans, Downey, Brolin, Gillan, and Renner, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lilly, Chris Hemsworth, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Rene Russo, Chris Pratt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danai Gurira, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper all have important shit to do in this story. That’s pretty remarkable any way you slice it, and the logistics of the whole thing — well, I can scarcely being to imagine. Our intrepid authorial duo must have been keeping Excedrin in business for a good while there.

As for the stuff everyone really wants to know about, well, I’m going to keep things “spoiler-free” given the movie literally just opened at the time of this writing, but any long-time comics reader can tell you — death is never permanent, especially death on as large a scale was we were left with in the last flick. And it’s not even the folks who did die that necessarily have the most to worry about — it’s the ones who didn’t, because they’re the ones who’ll be called upon to pay whatever price is required to bring everyone else back. Which means that, yes, certain “character arcs” do come to an end here — and these are all pitch-perfect, whether tragic in nature or (here’s a glimmer of hope for those who haven’t seen it yet and may be rooting for a favorite or two) otherwise. Every hero gets a hero’s ending at the end of their hero’s journey and — forget it, that’s enough of the word “hero” in one sentence.

Production design, cinematography, costumes, locations — all are scaled to fit here, which is to say big, but the surprising amount of personality that finds its way through to the surface is what I think is this film’s most noteworthy feature. Against all odds, you’ll find yourself invested in these proceedings, even if you’re as far away from being a Marvel fan as yours truly. I didn’t go into the theater actively looking to find things to pick on when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, but I didn’t think they’d be too hard to find. To my more than pleasant surprise, apart from a handful of stupid plot holes, nothing to add to the negative side of the ledger leaped out. Believe me when I say — I’m still trying to figure out how the hell that happened.

As to whether or not this is the “end” of something, as its title suggests — I’ve gotta say that, on the whole, it doesn’t feel like it is. More like the culmination of a whole lot of “somethings,” in preparation for the next act. The Marvel blockbuster machine shows no signs of slowing down — and for the first time probably ever I actually find myself interested to see what it has in store for us next.

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Who’da thunk it — apparently all it takes to get the “Marvel Zombie” crowd to like Spider-Man flicks again is to bring ’em under the banner of the MCU. Or is it?

To be sure, director Jon Watts’ Spider-Man : Homecoming theoretically should give the fans that were pissed off about Sony still holding the cinematic rights to their favorite web-slinger everything they want : it’s fairly light-hearted, reasonably fun, well-cast, and directed in the sort of unimaginative, risk-averse “house style” first laid down by talentless hack Jon Favreau (who’s on hand here as Peter Parker’s Stark Industries “handler,” Happy Hogan) in Iron Man and since followed to a proverbial “T” by all Marvel movie product. Sure, plenty of liberties are taken with Spidey’s origin story — no mention of Uncle Ben, no talk of great power going hand-in-hand with great responsibility, Tony Stark (the by-now-perpetually-annoying Robert Downey Jr.) is shoved into the proceedings for, let’s be honest, superfluous at best reasons — but hey, them’s the breaks when you’re trying to shoehorn Marvel’s most famous character into their interconnected universe this late in the game. And besides, none of those changes seem seem to really bother the die-hards, because at this point it’s all about brand loyalty for them more than it is a franchise staying true to its roots.

A funny thing happened on the way to this flick taking in its inevitable billion dollars at the worldwide box office, though : a not-inconsiderable percentage of the very troglodytes Marvel Studios and Sony hoped to win back with their new co-production deal turned on the so-called “House Of Ideas” in a big way.

The reasons for this are as simple as they are simple-minded, and so pathetic I don’t wish to go into them in great detail — suffice to say a quick Google search for “SJW Marvel” will turn up any number of mouth-foaming rants, either of the written, spoken, or streaming variety, featuring emotionally and intellectually stunted middle-aged white guys bitching about the fact that their once-favorite entertainment conglomerate has become “too political,” “too liberal,” “too preachy,” “too PC,” etc. Yes, apparently the company that has for decades produced — and continues to produce — mind-numbingly stupid comics and films featuring reactionary bloodthirsty vigilantes such as The Punisher, Wolverine, Bullseye, Foolkiller, etc. just isn’t right-wing enough for the “Make Marvel Great Again” crowd.

Then again, making Marvel “great” isn’t what they’re concerned about in the least — the post-Kirby Marvel comics they grew up reading and now speak of in reverent whispers were anything but. In fact, by and large, they sucked. But, Captain America sidekick The Falcon aside, they were essentially all-white stories, and these days, with characters like a Muslim-American Ms. Marvel, a female Thor, an equally female Wolverine, a black and female Iron “Man,” etc. running around, things are getting a bit too diverse for the “Trump troll” segment of fandom.

So what’s any of this got to do with Spider-Man : Homecoming, you ask? I mean, didn’t we already establish that no one’s really complaining about the “updated” take on the character? Hell, aren’t some of these 40-year-old virgins downright thrilled about Aunt May being a good three decades years younger than she’s ever been and played by Marisa Tomei?

Well, yeah, they are — and they generally seem to be in agreement that the new tech-savvy version of the villainous Vulture, as portrayed by Michael Keaton (who’s punching way below his weight class in a second-fiddle role) is an A+ baddie and that Tom Holland hits the nail on the head in his infectiously likable turn as Peter Parker/Spidey (although for my money Pete should always be a little bit of a self-absorbed, self-pitying jerk, and Andrew Garfield got that part of the character exactly right) — what they don’t like is that he’s got a crush on a black girl (Laura Harrier’s Liz) and that another black girl (Zendaya’s Michelle/ M.J.) has a crush on him. They seem far less than thrilled that Pete’s best buddy, Ned (played by Jacob Batalon) and arch-rival Flash (Tony Revolori) are “insufficiently” Caucasian, as well, but that’s nowhere near as large and affront to these knuckle-dragging cretins than even largely- unrequited interracial romance is. Kinda makes you wonder if they’ve got got some issues they don’t wanna deal with, doesn’t it?

In point of fact, these supposed ” old-school purists” (or maybe that should just be racial purists) — who, again, voice little to no objection to any of the other, much more significant, alterations made to the franchise they claim to revere — have even taking to calling this film “SJW Spider-Man,” even though, in the chickenshit tradition of the MCU, nothing like an even remotely political statement is made by anyone in the movie at any point. Hell, in the overall scheme of things Mary Jane’s name being changed is probably a “bigger deal” than her race being changed given that Peter Parker lives and goes to school, as is customary for the character, in Queens, and there just plain is no such thing as an all-white, or even a majority-white, high school in Queens anymore. If you don’t like that fact, then don’t venture outside of Kentucky, or Alabama, or wherever the hell you’re broadcasting your racist YouTube screeds from, but don’t blame either Sony or Marvel (a phrase you’ll never hear me say again, I promise) for providing an entirely realistic 21st-century supporting cast for their newest star-in-the-making.

And while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge that Liz’s race goes some way toward helping the more-clever-than-these-things-usually-are script keep its massive third-act plot twist a secret. I’ll say no more for fear of offending the “spoiler police,” but for those of you who’ve seen this flick already, well — you know what I’m talking about. It’s a genuinely surprising twist that I sure as hell didn’t see coming, and neither did you.

Add in the aforementioned very-good-too-terrific acting, solid CGI work, some flawlessly-timed laughs (many coming our way courtesy of Chris Evans), and numerous well-shot-and-choreographed action scenes, and what you’ve got here — and I risk my “Marvel-hater” reputation by saying this, I know, but — is an enjoyable, if flawed, summertime popcorn flick. Sure, quality veteran performers like Tyne Daly and Bokeem Woodbine are utterly wasted in go-nowhere roles, and sure, there’s nothing happening here that breaks the MCU mold, and sure, the rank hypocrisy of those who praise this film to high heavens after bad-mouthing, and in some cases even boycotting, the frankly superior The Amazing Spider-Man (I’m only talking about the first one, mind you) is annoying as all get-out, but hey, who are we kidding? These things are what they are. And for what it is, Spider-Man : Homecoming isn’t too shabby at all.

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Let’s be honest about something right off the bat : this whole “foodie” thing? It’s gone just too damn far.

I appreciate the fact that there’s a tremendous level of artistry and creativity involved in crafting a fine meal, absolutely, and that those who can do so possess a set of skills that often takes years to develop. And I’m also aware of the fact that many chefs are promoting a “farm to table” philosophy that eschews mass-manufactured “frankenfoods” in favor of providing their customers with fresh, healthy, locally-grown produce and the like. Good for them. But at the end of the day these guys  aren’t fucking rock stars, they’re cooks,  and eating out isn’t the grandest experience in the universe — nor should it be. Our relationship with food is entirely out of whack. If you pick up the free local “arts and entertainment” newspaper in your town — here in Minneapolis it’s City Pages, but pretty much every metro area of 75,000 people or more is cursed with one — you could, of course, be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing more important than your local culinary “scene,” but in truth it’s pretty damn tough for the average family of four (or more) to be able to afford to eat out at any of the places these rags spend countless pages gushing over even once a year, so by dint of sheer economic necessity the simple fact is that the “foodie” crowd in any given American city or suburb is much smaller than the people who have nothing else and/or better to do with their time would care to believe. In other words — this shit just ain’t all that important to everyday working people.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cold, hard, economic reality, let me mention two other things that the culinary establishment and its largely-unpaid sycophants would prefer not to mention : the overwhelming majority of the restaurants they’re talking about in any given review, blog post, or what have you will go out of business in less than a year, leaving a good number of “local celebrity” chefs, as well as their entire front -of-house and kitchen staffs (you know, the folks who do all the real work) scrambling to find employment in an industry that’s never going to be stable ; and most restaurant work doesn’t offer health insurance or 401 (k) pensions or anything of the sort, so good luck growing old in the food biz. I sincerely hope that all the “fresh, edgy” flavor-of-the-month chefs out there enjoy their 15 minutes of semi-fame whenever they happen, because most of them are going to end up with nothing (except for maybe a pile of debt if they’ve financed any of their business ventures out of their own wallets) when the ride is over, and those critics and bloggers who once sang their praises? There will always be some “new, exciting” place popping up to command their attention, while all those guys (and, to some extent, gals, but let’s be honest — the restaurant business, particularly in the kitchen, is still by and large a testosterone-dominated work environment) they used to talk about? They’re so yesterday’s news. Your long-term options as a chef are pretty narrow : either land a show on the Food Network (good luck with that), or find something else to do by the time you’re 45 or 50 — a point at which, by the  way, you’ll still be paying off your student loan debt from Cordon Bleu or whatever other ridiculously overpriced for-profit cooking school you attended.

On the one hand, this is kinda tragic on a purely human scale — the absolute implosion of the “food truck craze,” for instance, has probably had devastating consequences on a lot of families; but on the other hand, part of me thinks that the whole “foodie” thing can’t die out soon enough because there’s seriously something flat-out sick and wrong about the fact that  we even  have the nerve to critique our meals for being “over-seasoned” or “less adventurous than we were hoping for” or whatever nit-picky little things the food critics focus in on. But more on that in just a minute.

Since I’m on the subject of  critics — shit, don’t even get me started. That local freebie fishwrap I mentioned a couple paragraphs back? I have it on reasonably good authority that they pay their food “journalist” 40 bucks per review and don’t even reimburse their meal expenses anymore, which means that whoever is dumb enough to be writing restaurant reviews for them at this point (most seem to last about six months, tops, at the job) is actually coming out behind on the whole deal, given that you’ve gotta visit any given establishment 3 or 4 times in order to be in a position to have sampled enough dishes to critique the joynt. At least the food bloggers out there — who, rest assured, I will be savaging in the very next paragraph — that are doing the same thing most likely have other jobs, and are just whiling away at this shit in their spare time, because it fits their warped definition of “fun.”

Hmmmmm — that sounds kinda familiar, come to think of it. In fact, if somebody wants to point a finger at me and call me hypocrite at this stage because “they’re just like you, only you talk movies and they talk food” they’d sorta have a point, but there’s a key distinction that needs to be made : a bad review from me ain’t gonna put Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox out of business. The simple truth is that I just don’t fucking matter that much, but if one of these pretentious armchair culinary “experts” gives a new start-up eating establishment a negative write-up, it can have devastating consequences. It’s really no wonder so many of  these people have almost hilariously inflated opinions of themselves, because their opinions actually are sort of important. A local restaurant blog that gets the same sort of traffic my movie and comics blog gets — say, somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five hundred “hits” per day — can actually have an impact, even if it’s author is a fucking accountant who couldn’t find his ass with two hands the minute he got into a kitchen. These days, it’s true, everyone’s a critic — whether it be of movies, books, plays, comics, restaurants, you name it — but I operate by a very simple rule of thumb, and I know other movie bloggers who do the same thing : anything the “big guys,” or even modestly-distributed indies,  do is fair game, but when it comes to small, self-financed, shoestring-budget filmmakers — the kind of people who invest all their hopes and dreams and life savings into a project — I’ll tread a bit more carefully. I’m not suggesting that I muzzle my opinions, much less deliberately write a good review for a bad movie. No way. I may not be getting paid for this, but my conscience isn’t for sale at any price. Here’s how I (and others that I know of) operate : if you send me a “screener” of your low-budget, no-distribution-deal-to-speak-of,  independent feature and I like it, I’ll say so. If I don’t, chances are that I probably won’t even review it — unless it’s so obviously  and utterly without merit that somebody needs to tell you to find a new line of work. I’ve received numerous movies from numerous independent filmmakers over my 4 or 5 years of doing this, and I try to offer constructive criticism to them privately if I didn’t care for their efforts, provided their film meets the “absolutely starting from nothing” criteria I’ve just outlined. But I’m not gonna trash ’em in public for something they have so much sheer hope riding on. I just don’t have it in me.

Does that make me fundamentally dishonest? I have no idea. But almost anybody with an HD camcorder thinks they can be a director these days, and I have no desire to rip their dreams to shreds unless they absolutely have it coming. I’d rather have some kid right out of college who sent me his shot-on-the-weekends homemade horror flick think I’m an asshole for not reviewing his movie that he gave me a free copy of than to have him think I’m an asshole for tearing it apart in a review that’s going to sit on the internet forever. Likewise, a small, locally-owned, start-up restaurant usually has more than enough to worry about in terms of just keeping the lights on and making sure the paychecks they cut that week clear the bank — and now they have to sweat some douchebag lawyer or real estate agent publicly trashing their place on their food blog or in a yelp! review? Please.

Wait, though! I’m not quite done alienating every single person that’s ever written a restaurant review online. I have one more thought to leave any and/or all of you with before I clumsily segue into our actual business at hand here — next time you, Mr. or Ms. wanna-be restaurant critic, look in the mirror, please consider the following : a good half of the world is starving as we speak. They’d run a mile through sweltering desert heat just for a  handful of dried beans and a cup of water. And you have the nerve to critique food based on its “presentation” or “originality” or “flavor profile” or “balance”? I think a good, solid “fuck you” from the entire continent or three full of people who wonder where their next meal is even going to come from, never mind what the hell it looks like, is in order at this point, don’t you? And make no mistake, the two circumstances are inextricably linked — they are going hungry because we have too damn much.

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How, then, to make the “foodie” trend even more nauseating, over-exposed, and frankly out of control than it already is? Why, make a movie about it, of course — all of which brings us (finally!) to 2014’s Chef,  which just landed in the instant streaming queue on Netflix (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD), and which purports to bring  Hollywood wunderkind Jon Favreau back to his “indie roots” or somesuch. Now, we all know that when it comes to pretentious, self-absorbed asshole-ism, that even  the “foodie” community still has a long way to go before it catches up to Tinseltown (although it’s rapidly doings its best to narrow the gap) — but this, we’re told, is a “personal” effort, and represents Favreau’s attempt to “back away” from blockbusters like Iron Man and “get back in touch with his inner storyteller,” or words to that effect.

Bullshit. If Cowboys Vs. Aliens hadn’t flopped so spectacularly, he’d still be churning out big-budget garbage — instead of, ya know, more modestly-budgeted garbage like this. In any fair and just universe, this yarn about a chef (Favreau) who finds himself “creatively stifled” by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) and quits to start up a food truck, then drives it all the way across country to bond with his son (Emjay Anthony) and sidekick/single employee (John Leguizamo), and accidentally learns along the way that said son’s mom (Sofia Vergara), with whom he’s had a rocky relationship in the past, is actually the love of his life, would immediately be dismissed as Lifetime Movie of the Week garbage. Throw in the fact that the asshole food critic (Oliver Platt) who helped precipitate his “getting back in touch with why he loved cooking in the first place”ends up bankrolling him to open his dream restaurant at the end (after Mr. Critic sells his blog for $10 million or something — a plot “twist” that should make even those unpaid “foodies” I was just foaming at the mouth about scoff at it for its utter ridiculousness,  unless they’re so breathtakingly narcissistic that they think shit like that really can happen to them) and, ya know what? The whole thing would probably seem so cliched that even Lifetime would take a pass on it after all.

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Guess what, though?  Even with all that naked heartstring-tugging (gosh, why is the kid shooting one-second video clips with his phone once a day? Why, so chef daddy can sit down and watch them all,  spliced together,  at the end, of course) and glaringly obvious forced parallels between his character’s “arc” and his own “journey as a filmmaker,”  Favreau still isn’t finished offending our sensibilities in his duties as writer and director, because he’s thrown in a healthy dose of racism and sexism, to boot! On the sexist front,  Scarlett Johansson is utterly wasted (and speaking of wasted, Robery Downey Jr. pops up just long enough for you to say “hey, look! It’s Robert Downey Jr.!”) in a role that relegates her to being a piece of fuckmeat to occupy Favreau’s time until he gets back together with Vergara, while Vergara herself is saddled with playing the same “sexy Latin lady with a sassy attitude” that every single director seems to assume assume  is all the more she can handle; and on the racist front, we’ve got Leguizamo as the loyal (he quit along with his “master” while a turncoat — played by Bobby Cannavale — stayed behind at the restaurant) Hispanic sidekick who’s just so happy to be working for his boss that he’s more than willing to let him take the credit — and the cash — for a Cuban sandwich food truck  (the very same  truck that “revitalizes” the boss-man’s career, family, love life, and fortunes) that is, for all intents and purposes, his idea. Yup, everyone knows their place in this flick, alright.

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Seriously, friends (assuming I have any left) — Chef is, if anything, even worse than the brief synopsis I’ve just provided you with would lead you to conclude. It’s two hours of the most focus-group-tested litany of tropes slapped together in such a way as to give off a vibe of faux-“indie credibility” that it in no way actually earns. It’s the kind of film that thinks it’s being “edgy” when it peppers its soundtrack with reggae and a capella versions of worn-out R&B standards. It’s a desperate — and frankly pathetic — attempt by a guy who’s afraid that he may have worn out his welcome at the big studios  to reassert that he’s still “relevant” after all, and only succeeds in demonstrating that he probably never was. It’s a movie about gourmet food, sure, but all Favreau is really serving audiences here is a big ole’ shit sandwich.