“The Chef”

“The Chef” is a foodie’s comedy /slice of life piece that delights! Whether it is the passion of creating butter-slathered grilled cheeses & Cubanos or sizzled sauces that draws one in, this film centers on parenting and work, and how our children are often excluded when they need not be.

Emjay Anthony is adorable as a kid that anyone would wish to call his/her own. A softer Sofia Vergara is lovely as the insightful nurturer,and Robert Downey Jr. is more than memorable as the phobia ridden ex with ADHD. Dustin Hoffman adds another character to his repertoire, and Scarlett Johansson does her thing as sexy confidant. One wonders how Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed and starred in “The Chef” could get so many”sous-chefs” for his film. No one upstaged another. As gustatory critic, Oliver Platt, was a natural. Comedic actors Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo added a special zest to a beautiful cast.

“The Chef” is so freshly current with its social media, with its “lay your hits” marketing philosophy, with its undocumented workers, that the audience immediately connects, or at least recognizes the lay of the land.

The music is so engaging that several patrons danced out of their seats and down the aisle as they left the theatre. Tito Puente comes to mind. And “Mr. Bone Tangle” & the street artist highlighted our chef’s past laments. This film will cause me to research Mr. Favreau,who must love & respect women and is not afraid to show his softer side.

“A Marriage Story”

Noah Baumbach’s divorce movie is a noble contender for “Best Picture”. Painful and funny, the script begins with Nicole ( Scarlet Johansson) and Charlie ( Adam Driver ) listing all the things they love about each other. The listing is not on Valentine’s Day, but required by their divorce mediator. The film is very much of a love story in the course of a divorce that really did not have to happen. There was no third person to obfuscate nor any major event to traumatize values. There was love in every scene. Though often, it was just in Charlie’s and Nicole’s eyes. They did not have to divorce, thus the tragedy.

We learn through flashback that Nicole and Charlie work together professionally. Charlie has the upper-hand as director. Nicole feels he is holding her screen career back. It is Nicole’s divorce attorney who listens to Nicole and articulates and guides her in the dissolution of her marriage. Laura Dern is scathing as the raw-talking guide, who will get the split done. Dern plays a shrewd escalator in what becomes a battle for the custody of Nicole and Charlie’s young son. The New York verses L.A. commute becomes paramount. Charles states that they are a New York family: Nicole runs to her California roots and regresses to a surly teen in her mother’s house.

To give Nicole her due, the scene with her mother melting over her son-in-law is off putting, and Charlie has his narcissistic side. But Nicole never really talks about what she wants or feels is lacking. Johansson’s tearful monologue on her attorney’s couch needed a real counselor to draw out why she allowed Charlie to hold back her career and decided to call it quits without giving her husband a chance to change. Her self-love and the possibilities for her career supersede real partner intervention. Her intent is set. Driver’s Charlie plays more sympathetic. His striving to keep his son in his life is admirable and heart-wrenching.

Ray Liotta uses his shark eyes and his own shrewdness to stand against Dern in legal battle. Competition between lawyers and competition between theatrical and film careers seem to draw out the worst in everyone.

The acting on all counts is terrific. We are lost in the characters , and Driver’s and Johansson’s star power never breaks our focus. I wanted to hand them both Rollo May’s “Love and Will” ( 1969). It is possible to participate in the ” meaning-matrix” of another without surrendering your own. Anyone who has experienced divorce will wince more than once, yet ” A Marriage Story” somehow finds caustic humor in this domestic tragedy of a heart- breaking variety.

“ Pain And Glory”

Creative artists get to be self-indulgent. And why not!? To be honest with the tender moments of one’s past and to be saddened by memorable regret is easily relatable. In “Pain and Glory”, Pedro Almodovar shares his psyche, his love of red and yellow, and his alter ego, the movie director Salvador Mallo ( Antonio Banderas). Banderas has never been better. We see him submerged in a pool with his arms out-stretched from his sides. In an almost yoga meditation, he invites us to observe his heart surgery scar and his past. Banderas becomes another as only a grand actor can.

We watch him wince in pain when he is not floating in water or with drugs that sooth. Banderas has a face that can deliver great depth of feeling. He uses the crinkled eye, the up-turned lip, and the deadened stare to deliver a life circle of emotions. A mother he may have disappointed, a lover, who disappointed him, and passages that bring the “ pain and glory” to our existence.

Flashbacks abound. His mother, Jacinta, ( Penelope Cruz) is held in high esteem. With her women friends, she sings and scubs linens at the river. Idyllic, sun-drenched -squares-of-white mesh with playfulness and ivory-floating bars of soap. Castanets and music and women’s camaraderie evoke Bizet’s “Carmen”.

Themes of kindness and loyalty hold deep in the screenplay. These qualities bind a fulfilling relationship. Old age symptoms of sciatica, depression, tinnitus, and stiff joints mix with old gossip. Drug use and addiction are interspersed with cartoon like flow charts of Mallo’s ailments. Time weaves in and out with childhood and younger self flashbacks. Asier Flores plays Salva as a child. He is lovely except for the scene where he is directed to fall in ecstasy after seeing a grown workman taking a sponge bath in his kitchen. The fever of homoeroticism looked more like a stubble on the stone floor. Asier seemed way too young for any sexual awakening, sorry.

In the present time, Salvador Mallo is forced to give a retrospective of an earlier film. He must track down his old leading man, Alexandro ( Asier Etxeandia ) . They have fought and loved before. Here, they reunite and use heroin as their crutch. Another former lover, Frederico ( Leonardo Sbaraglia ) comes to Madrid. As Mallo’s housekeeper states: ” Everything here is strange.” This may not be a film for everyone, but Banderas is marvelous as the aging artist in self-reflection.

Humor, longing , and respect for a meaningful existence make an aging man content and in many ways in awe of both the pain and the glory of being a creative creature on earth.

“Little Women” ( 2019)

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women” has a disparaging title for 21st century women. Granted the absent Marsh father, a Civil War chaplain, calls his four young daughters “little women” instead of “girls”; but, director Greta Gerwig does all she can to show us mature women. I miss not seeing children huddled around their mother, Marmee, yet Gerwig has given filmgoers something more: a quartet of passionate, rational women with discernment and heart to be loved again.

The film begins with Tracy Letts’ feet on his New York publisher’s desk and a fat cigar in his mouth. He orders Jo Marsh (Saoirse Ronan) to sit before he tells her that he will accept her manuscript with alterations. He espouses that “morals don’t sell”. Letts has a gleam in his eye as he pontificates on spicing her story up and making certain that her heroine either marries or dies. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “ The Vindication Of Women” (1798) comes to mind eighty years earlier. Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig reminds women that we had not come much further in 1865.

“Little Women” (2019) jumps back and forth in time and in place. The screen tells us it is seven years earlier and we are in Concord, Massachusetts. Here we are reintroduced to the four Marsh girls and their mother, Marmee ( Laura Dern). Meg, the eldest is the most conventional. Emma Watson does little to draw out her character. Saoirse Ronan is stunning as Jo, as is Florence Pugh as the youngest, Amy. Pugh’s Amy is, in fact, is my favorite. Her deep voice and psychological insight made her wiser than her years. Timothee C. did not seem her match. Amy, also, held her own in the scenes with Meryl Streep ( Auntie Marsh). Amy comes to life not as a selfish and jealous baby sister of Jo, but as an brutally honest and insightful woman. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) looked too healthy for death, but the swelling music of composer and conductor Alexandre Desplat helps. The windy beach scene with Jo is grand. Beth tells her sister that she is not afraid of death. For Beth, death is like the tide going out very slowly.

The cinematography and score are lush. The film’s start slow. Too many long scenes packed with kite-flying, ice-skating, play-acting, piano playing, and painting. I noticed lots of fake-joy on female faces in Christmas scenes. And Jo’s shoulder-thrusting walk got on my nerves. The book binding and gold-gilt embossing of Jo’s first book is more evocative and one of my favorite scenes. Chris Cooper’s Mr. Lawrence stood out in the few male roles, as did Tracy Letts. Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie was too foppish for me. All in all,Greta Gerwig’s production has received more positive press than the final production warrants. A nice walk down memory lane.

“A Hidden Life”

A George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) quote underscores the meaning of Terrence Malick’s best film to date, “A Hidden Life”. In “Middlemarch: A Study Of Provincial Life” ( 1872 ), Eliot writes “ …the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts….is half owing to the number who live faithfully in hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.” The true events of a conscientious objector, an Austrian farmer who is conscripted into Hitler’s army, plays out for almost three hours on screen. It is a spiritual experience that has me reevaluating Director Malick. ( I almost walked out on his “Tree of Life” 2011 pomposity . ) Eleven years later, this time Malick has a story to tell of obscurity and truth.

“A Hidden Life” is philosophical in tone. There is not much dialogue, and when there is , it is through letters being read. We see some real images of WWII Austria, newsreel footage of Hitler parades, but most of the film is in the small mountain village of upper Austria. The frames are replete with gentle swaying grass, meadows, and all absence of concrete. In domesticity, it could be 1600 rather than 1938. We are given to miss the simple valley life of white clouds resting on mountains, brooks babbling, and church steeples peeling. The film is worth seeing for its beauty and sound track. But there is an important story to be told.

Before France’s 1940 surrender, Austrian men when conscripted were made to recite an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Our protagonist, Franz Jagestatter ( August Diehl) silently refuses. His wife, Fanni ( Valarie Pachner) supports his stance. The St. Radegund rural community whispers non-support while potato planting, and we see the coming storm as Franz’s family is ostracized from communal work and festivities. The village women tell Fanni that her husband’s non-compliance is an ” act of madness”. Even the village priest counsels Franz to comply for the consequences of remaining silent are too severe. ” God does not care what you say. He knows what is in your heart.”

Glorious visuals of fast flowing streams and streaming clouds shepherd in reprisals for our pacifist. ” You can not put your home, your village in jeopardy. They will hang you.” ” You are worse than them, because you are a traitor to us.” Franz’s mother blames his wife for supporting his refusal to contribute or to accept the family allowance from the state. The mayor, his sister, and others admonish his pride.

Franz seeks further Church guidance from the bishop, whom he thanks for seeing him. ” Your excellency, ”If God gives us free will and our leaders are evil what do we do?”

The answer comes too easily. ” Duty to the fatherland. Let every man be subject to the power that is placed over him.” The church bells are melted down for bullets. Living in fear is for the clergy, too. The cardinal rationalizes that Franz may be a spy. Priests are sent to concentration camps, also. “ God does not want us to bring suffering on ourselves.”

Malick has composed a very metaphysical and religious film. Using natural light only, we see Franz in his cell. We see Stations of the Cross, and an artist refurbishing the village church. Of his refurbishing, he states: “ I allow those who sit in the pews to dream. I create admirers. Many ignore the truth. I paint the comfortable Christ with a halo on his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” Here, we don’t need to intuit Christ’s call to action.

When asked by the prison commandant what purpose his defiance serves, Franz stands firm. He is asked if he hears voices. He is told that the anti-Christ is clever. The devil uses man’s virtues to mislead him. We see a frame of a water spout dripping doubts. The film is technically perfect, with the depth of a man’s conscious in full view. Franz says that his bound hands are better than if my will were bound.He is free in the way that counts.

Cinematographer Jörg Widmer is the master of diffused light, awe-gasping frames, and Vermeer-like focus. I have not seen a more artistic eye. In capturing nature, the human face , and interior scenes, his camera will stop your heart.

The musical score is by James Newton Howard. He features the violin. A forty piece string section is as romantic as it gets. Franz Jägerstätter is executed at 36 in 1943. His wife and three daughters survive knowing that Franz was beatified by the Catholic Church as a martyr. No matter what your beliefs, Malick’s film is truly heavenly. One of my favorites of 2019.

“Parasite”

South Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho has created a class satire thriller that is as fresh as the struggle is long. Much praised at the 2020 SAG ( Screen Actors Awards) , Joon-ho’s
” Parasite” is only the second time a foreign language film has been nominated for ” Best Picture”. In 1997, ” Life Is Beautiful” , an Italian film, won.

” Parasite” first introduces us to a down and out family living in a basement apartment. They rely on fumigation from the street cleaners and wi-fi access from stray business signals. The scenes where they hold their phones up and down in a cramped space to get a signal are funny. A toilet crouch by the daughter ( Park So-dam) wins the connection. The family earns a semi-livelihood from folding pizza boxes. When a friend of teenager Ki-woo, Min, asks him to take over his English tutoring job in a wealthy enclave, the rich and the poor meet. Min gives Ki-woo his grandfather’s “suseok”, or ornamental rock , as a symbol of unity with the cosmos and of Confucian good luck.

Ki-Woo ( Choi Woo-sik ) and his family’s crowded and chaotic lives soon experience the peaceful calm and serene environment of wealthy architect, Park Dong-ik ( Lee Sun-kyun ) and his gullible wife Yeon-kyo ( Jo Yeo-jeong ). By a series of crazy maneuvers, the entire Kim family become service members for the Parks. They literally move in as domestic, chauffeur, and art therapist. Street fumes and stink bugs become things of the past for this family of wily con-artists.

The screenplay gets wilder and weirder as the Kim family infiltrates like leeches. With operatic music, ketchup is applied to the housekeeper’s Kleenex, and her allergies to peach fuzz all work to “confirm” TB. She is quietly dismissed and supplanted by Kim’s mom, Chung-sook ( Jane Hye-jin ).

None of Kim’s family pretends to know each other, and Kim has changed his name to Kevin. Anything Western is seen as a status symbol, presumably because of the cost. One of the funniest reoccurring scenes has Kim’s sister referring to herself as ” Jessica from Illinois”. In her new job as art therapist, she has the lingo down.

Da Song ( Jung Hyun-jun ) , the Parks’ young son, is an American Indian fanatic. True to form, he is indulged with tee pees and arrows and all matter of Native American art. He is perfect as the six-year-old, who knows how to “pretend” to all expectations! His sister, Da-hye ( Jung Ji-so) meanwhile develops a crush on tutor Kevin.

This is just the intro. The plot gets more original as a second sub-basement is found housing the original housekeeper’s husband, who is in even more financial straits than the Kim family. The Parks are so insulated by their wealth that they literally don’t know that someone lives below them. The Kims now have to wrestle their way out of layers of subterfuge.

How did society’s view of respectability get intertwined with the pursuit of money?
There are lots of questions under this skillfully crafted film. Out-sourcing all the work of living plays better to criticism than any crass materialism here. The Seoul pampered going camping is as funny as the symbiotic relationship of the underclass that helps itself to the liquor cabinet. When the river rock, or suseok, becomes a weapon, the nihilism of a darker world turns this movie into slasher fair. The camera moves like a weapon in rampage. Has Confucianism been contaminated by parasites of the global variety? Does money really “iron out the creases in life” as the crass mother of the Kims states? This class satire raises lots of questions.

“The Irishman”

Praying that we see ourselves as God sees us has all the weighty guilt of a confession in “The Irishman”. ” The Irishman” is director Martin Scorsese’s best film to date~ “The Godfather” included. For Robert De Niro, it is a tour de force. De Niro controls the screen. His pain is palpable, and he makes us care about the morally passive Frank Sheehan, the man who quite possibly murdered his friend Jimmy Hoffa. Frank can’t own up to regret. He states facts rather than partaking in free will choices. A few hints are given as to why this may be. Sheeran’s World War II soldiering with its 411 days of combat and his “just following orders experiences” are equated to the relative ease in which he carries out Mob hits. Frank Sheeran is used to just doing what he is told. He fought under General Patton in Italy.

Frank is the Irishman. And he is a Philadelphian, who just seems to have drifted into Italian crime with the Bufalino family. Starting out as a food truck driver in the 1940’s carting beef carcasses to restaurants, he soon befriends the heavies: ” I can deliver you steak, the best.” We see him develop into a loyal enforcer, who sees more than a few threads in how the Mob has woven itself into American events. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Jimmy Hoffa’s rise as the head of the Teamsters. The film’s scope is subtilely large, almost epic, in how organized crime makes it mark. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is close to perfection. Based on Charles Brandt’s book, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the action and Sheeran’s late attempt at contemplation balance our feelings of horror and judgement.

Likewise, the structure of this cinematic wonder is perfection. We first see De Niro, our bodyguard and hit man, in a fancy, Catholic facility for the aged. The score belts out ” In The Still Of The Night”. It is a grand opening for reflection. The camera pans the holy statues, the card games, the wheel chairs. De Niro’s monologue begins..” When I was young, just a working stiff..I started “painting houses myself”, a euphemism for wiping people out. He sets up his tawdry tale of actions with a kind of pilgrimage to a Detroit wedding ~ the wedding of his attorney’s daughter. The same lawyer is Wm. E. Bufalino ( Ray Romano) who saved him from a slew of crimes. In fact, thirteen grand jury investigations were held with no indictments.

Cool, episodic flashbacks are interspersed during the trip-ticked car ride. The pace is sublime. The period details wonderful. Who doesn’t remember the Howard Johnson orange and light blue interiors and the ice cream flavors on the wall?! Who doesn’t remember Lum’s hot dogs steamed in beer? The white walls of a shiny, black Hudson glide by ; guns are tossed nonchalantly into a river; Frank takes his family bowling , and they play miniature golf. ” Remember, You Belong To Me” is in the background. A fleet of taxis are exploded.

Robbie Robertson comprised the score. The chosen lyrics match the period and the existential place of the main characters. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is rife with unique character traits and intense opinions. We learn that Hoffa loved ice cream,and that he never drank. He believed in dressing for the occasion and hated when anyone was late for an appointment. Hoffa’s ” You can’t trust millionaires kids.” refers to Robert Kennedy’s inquest of the mob going to the Teamsters for money and using pension funds to get it. Pacino gives a larger than life performance. His ” I ‘m going to jail because of you!” is a line delivered in lieu of a dozen jack hammers. There are some amazing Pacino scenes where an ice cream parlor’s tv screen announces the death of JFK. He is both respectful and certain that the Teamster’s half- mast flag will be returned to the top of its flagpole. Al Pacino’s Hoffa knows how ” to put on a show!”

There is humor interspersed with all the darkness. Hoffa bemoaning that all the Italians are named ‘Tony” is only one example. Prison bocce ball played in wheel chairs, another. There is a back-seat, fish-smell scene that will become a classic in every film school. The bread and grape juice Communion with Russell Bufalino and Frank’s selecting of his own casket after the salesman asks, ” If he sees anything that he likes” are perfection in symbol and resignation. Scorsese has a masterpiece here; and Joe Pesci, Frank’s godfather, has yet to be mentioned! Pesci is a powerhouse of silence. The antithesis of Pacino’s Hoffa, who never stops talking. Pesci is the perfect foil. He is like the devil when he utters to Frank, ” How strong I made you.”

See Martin Scorsese’s film on the big screen with an audience around you. De Niro has left the door open for both daughter Peggy and for you.