Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chef (2014) / Begin Again (2014)

Are these indie films just buying into a formula?

Last weekend I saw two movies. Both were critically acclaimed independent films. Both celebrated the awakening of the senses. Both were undeniably enjoyable and worth repeat viewings. But I noticed something else:

Both were exactly the same. 

(Mild spoilers follow.)

A cinematic celebration of food, Chef tells the story of Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau—who also wrote and directed the film), a once-brilliant chef who falls out of grace with his admirers, has an emotional breakdown, and tanks his career in a social media debacle. With the help of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a generous benefactor (Robert Downey Jr., in a hilarious supporting role), Carl opens a food truck and rekindles his love for good food. And as he drives cross-country, he reconnects with his estranged son.

An ode to good music, Begin Again (directed by John Carney of Once fame) tells the story of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a once-brilliant music producer who falls out of grace with his business partner, has an emotional meltdown, and tanks his career and future prospects. Through the help of his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and a generous benefactor (Cee Lo Green), Dan is able to rekindle his love of music by helping recently heartbroken Gretta (Keira Knightley) record an album in the midst of New York City. Oh, yeah...and he repairs his relationship with his estranged daughter.

As I watched these films back to back, I couldn’t help but become frustrated at how truly identical the stories were, even down to the most minute subplots. But while the cinematic tropes rehashed by both these films are common and formulaic, these stories transcend their own predictability to become something truly special. Each of these films feature moments that excite and awaken the senses. An early scene in Chef features Carl making a grilled-cheese sandwich for his son. I was tantalized with the precision by which he buttered the bread, placed the cheese, heated the griddle, and watched attentively as the cheesy delight slowly melted and the bread browned on both sides. It’s a scene that enlivens the tastebuds and demonstrates the true love that the director has for its cinematic plat du jour.

In Begin Again, Gretta sits on a stage in a crowded bar, strumming a guitar and singing one of her new compositions. The patrons in the bar are unimpressed, and, sensing this, Gretta lapses into an ever more soulless performance. But then the scene shifts, replaying from the perspective of a clearly inebriated Dan. He doesn’t hear the solitary guitar or melancholy voice; rather, in his ears, the guitar is joined by invisible musicians in the arrangement: the piano riffing, the high-hats clanging, and the stringed instruments crooning—a mediocre song becoming great in the mind of the rapt listener.

Music is the focus of Begin Again and the soundtrack does not disappoint. Adam Levine (lead singer of Maroon 5) does a reasonable job in his first acting role and his chart-topping vocal ability is a major addition to the song set—“Lost Stars” and “Step You Can’t Take Back” being the standout hits. Similarly, Chef does its job in making its audience ravenous. Dish after dish was filmed with such beauty that my mouth watered the entire time. While the good outweighs the bad, both films aren’t without their demerits. Of biggest issue is the lack of originality: there were no plot twists or character developments that couldn’t be called from a mile away. Apart from that, the only things keeping these films from being friendly to all audiences were the frequent profanities and occasional innuendos. However, these detractions only slightly sour an otherwise perfect movie-going experience.

I remember when an “indie” movie guaranteed originality, unknown names, quirky characters, original plotlines, and a general departure from Hollywood formula. But as independent films become more mainstream, so do the plotlines, actors, characters, and formula. These two movies, watched back to back, painfully illustrate this paradigm shift. Upon close reflection, you may realize that the food is occasionally too salty and processed and that the song is a little too overproduced and familiar. But the predictability (and foul language) aside, both these films will leave you with a sweet taste in your mouth and a song in your heart.

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