• “Chef” is a delicious start to SXSW Film

    The funny, heartwarming, food-obsessed “Chef” is a perfect choice to open SXSW. Jon Favreau, who has spent a better part of the last decade focused on bigger films like “Iron Man” and “Cowboys and Aliens”, writes, directs, and stars in the small indie comedy about the love of food and creation.

    Favreau plays Carl Casper, a renowned Chef with a turbulent personal life who has grown dissatisfied with his position as head chef in a posh L.A. restaurant. Casper is divorced, his son is estranged, and the only solace he can find in life is through his love of preparing food. However, after five years of falling back on the same delicious but safe menu and dealing with constant interference from his overbearing boss (Dustin Hoffman), a volatile encounter with a smug food critic (Oliver Platt) leads Casper to quit his job and open up a food truck in his home town of Miami.

    The film balances Casper’s rediscovery of his culinary passion with his attempt to reconnect with his son (newcomer Emjay Anthony). When the Miami venture becomes a cross country trip to promote the new business, Casper tries to impart his love of cooking to his son. The father-son dynamic is the emotional heart of the movie, and largely works because of the strong chemistry between Favreau and the young actor.

    Favreau has compiled an impressive cast for his passion project. Sofia Vergara plays Casper’s ex-wife, who still sparks a romantic interest. John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale provide additional comic relief as Casper’s outspoken assistant chefs, and Scarlet Johansson has a small role as the hostess at Casper’s restaurant. Favreau himself proves that his talents go beyond directing blockbusters or having small parts in movies like “I Love You Man.” Favreau doesn’t shy away from showing Casper’s shortcomings as a friend, husband, and father, and the chef’s talents in the kitchen are never presented as a substitute for his personal faults. Casper is brash, has a short temper, and often antisocial. Cooking is his escape, and the movie effectively portrays a man who has followed his dream to such an extreme that he has lost sight of any worthwhile things in his life.

    The real star of the film is the food. “Chef” is full of gorgeous culinary shots, including a sequence at Austin’s own Franklin’s BBQ. With “Chef”, Favreau captures the messy, often hectic and unsure process of creating a beautiful meal that clearly mirrors the uncertainty of life and relationships. “Chef” is slated for a release in May of this year. Just don’t see it on an empty stomach.

  • Day 1 of SXSW film: "Premature," "Take Care" and "Honeymoon"

    The cast and crew of "Premature" answers audience questions after the film's world premiere on the first day of South By Southwest.
    The cast and crew of "Premature" answers audience questions after the film's world premiere on the first day of South By Southwest.

    As part of last night’s kick-off to the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, a full house at the Alamo Ritz cackled through the world premiere of “Premature,” a hilarious yet scatterbrained mash-up of John Hughes and Harold Ramis. The film stars John Karna as Rob, a high school senior living the sort of meaningful, eventful day that only happens in movies: he’s got an important college admissions interview, a long-standing tradition to uphold with his best friend Gaby (Katie Findlay) and unexpected advances from queen bee Angela (Carlson Young). In keeping with the film’s title, his encounter with Angela is a bit shorter than expected, but as soon as Rob reaches orgasm, he finds himself back at the beginning of the day, doomed to live it out all over again.

    By basing its “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop in the inadequacies of its protagonist, “Premature” puts an innovative twist on the concept. While the film gets points for creativity, its structure is a bit lopsided, taking far too long for Rob to wise up to what’s going on and not having nearly enough fun with the implications of its own premise.

    Even when it can’t fully figure out what it wants to do narratively, it’s undeniably hilarious, slinging jokes at the audience with admirable persistence. Every plot issue or false note is glazed over with a great joke, and every performer in the film is absolutely game, tearing into the material they’re handed. Stars John Karna and Katie Findlay give charming turns and build strong chemistry with each other, while side players like Carlson Young, Craig Roberts and Adam Riegler make every moment they’re onscreen for count. Arguably the film’s biggest name, Alan Tudyk, seems a bit hammy in his first appearance as the college interviewer devastated by his wife’s death, but by the end of the film, he’s achieved an affable, quiet desperation.

    In the post-film Q&A, director and co-writer Dan Beers cited John Hughes’ films as a huge influence on “Premature,” and the late, great teen film guru’s DNA is felt throughout the shamelessly raunchy coming-of-age flick. But “Premature” brings enough creativity and wit to the table to make its own favorable impression.

    The other two films I saw yesterday have a surprising amount in common, despite their massive genre differences. Both “Take Care,” a romantic comedy, and “Honeymoon,” a horror film, take place mostly in a single locale with two romantically intertwined characters. But their execution and quality couldn’t be more different.

    “Take Care” stars Leslie Bibb as Frannie, a woman who’s laid low after a car accident shatters her leg and arm. As she slowly realizes her friends and family are mostly uninterested in helping her, she resorts to calling on Devin (“The Newsroom”’s Thomas Sadowski), the ex-boyfriend who dumped her after she helped him through a bout of cancer. After some serious guilt tripping, Frannie convinces Devin to take care of her, and all of the romantic complications you might expect do, indeed, ensue.

    Frannie is confined to her apartment for most of the film, and “Take Care” makes effective use of its main setting, never feeling repetitive or confined. This is mostly thanks to Leslie Bibb, who gives an enormously charming, funny performance. Bibb’s got an admirable commitment to physical comedy that’s required for a role like this one, and she makes every small indignation equally funny and sympathetic. Sadowski is a serviceable, occasionally charismatic romantic lead, but Betty Gilpin steals every scene the two share, playing Devin’s new girlfriend as a bug-eyed ball of crazy that might be off-putting if she wasn’t so consistently entertaining.

    While it’s obvious where “Take Care” is going from the minute Frannie brings Devin back into her life, writer/director Liz Tuccillo ably stretches the romantic comedy tropes to fit the narrative’s unusual circumstances, finding some fresh authenticity in them as she goes. “Take Care” becomes a bit perfunctory in its final minutes, almost as if it remembered it’s a romantic comedy, but as a whole, it’s a warm, funny film well worth checking out.

    But every first day is practically required to have a dud in there somewhere, and “Honeymoon” happily fits the bill. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway star as newlyweds Bea and Paul, who abscond to a cabin in the woods for their titular vacation and are somehow surprised when spooky happenings abound.

    The film’s first half hour or so is deceptively promising, laying the groundwork for Paul and Bea’s relationship and showcasing the natural, enthralling chemistry between the film’s leads. Leslie in particular does solid work throughout, striking an important balance between lovably warm and repulsively icy. Unfortunately, the film completely loses grasp on her character once the genre wheels start turning, robbing a previously engaging character study of one of its key figures.

    To spoil the nature of “Honeymoon”’s supernatural occurrences would be to make the film sound much more interesting than it is. Once one of the characters undergoes a radical shift, the meandering screenplay becomes a shapeless genre exercise that never becomes particularly frightening or suspenseful. While there are decent ideas in there somewhere, their execution is roundly repetitive and uninspired. A lot of discussion of fertility pays off exactly how you might expect from a film like this: with a glorious but unoriginal grossout moment that’s been done better elsewhere.

    “Honeymoon” is a deeply pointless film, content to languish in repetitive scenes of characters asking each other what’s going on and performing acts of staggering stupidity, and commits the biggest sin a horror film can: it simply isn’t scary.

     

    “Take Care” screens on Saturday, March 8, at 4:30 at the Alamo Village and on Tuesday, March 11, at 9:30 at the Violet Crown.

    “Premature” screens on Saturday, March 8, at 9:30 at the Alamo Village, on Tuesday, March 11, at 4:45 at the Alamo Ritz, and on Saturday, March 15, at 4:00 at the Alamo Ritz.

    And for you masochists out there, “Honeymoon” screens again at midnight on Tuesday, March 11, at the Stateside Theater and at midnight on Thursday, March 13, at the Alamo Ritz.