No Reservations


Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

(2007) Romance (Warner Brothers) Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Jenny Wade, Bob Balaban, Brian F. O’Byrne, Lily Rabe, Eric Silver, Arija Bareikis, John McMartin, Celia Weston, Zoe Kravitz, Matthew Rauch, Dearbhla Molloy, Stephanie Berry, Matt Servitto, Fulvio Cecere, Ako, Monica Trombetta  Directed by Scott Hicks

Films For Foodies

The great chefs are control freaks; they set high standards and expect all those who work for them to meet them. Some of them are laid-back about it, others are martinets who can rage, scream and bully their way to get what they want.

Kate Armstrong (Zeta-Jones) is among the latter sorts. The celebrity head chef at 22 Bleecker Street, one of New York’s trendiest and most outstanding restaurants, her prickly demeanor is tolerated by Paula (Clarkson), the owner, because Kate’s creations regularly win awards, coverage in foodie magazines and attract the hoi polloi to her restaurant. Kate’s personal life, what little she has of one, is strictly ordered as well, just the way she likes things in her restaurant.

Life has a way of bringing mess into the lives of even those who are meticulous about their circumstances; when her sister (Wade) dies suddenly, her niece Zoe (Breslin) is orphaned and Kate is named guardian to the little girl. Zoe is understandably distraught about her situation and acts out towards Kate who is thrust into a situation she is woefully unprepared for and never wanted in the first place.

Secondly, Paula has hired a new sous chef behind Kate’s back, which is irritating enough to the head chef, but that sous chef happens to be Nick Palmer (Eckhart), as boisterous and full of life as all get out. He loves to belt out opera in the kitchen and has a much more chaotic approach to cuisine. The two couldn’t be more oil and water. Naturally, they fall for each other.

In fact, just about everything about this movie is predictable, from the romance to the relationship between Kate and Zoe. We’ve seen both of those situations before; the can’t stand you/can’t live without you kind of love that grows via painful separations that force both parties to realize that they are better off together, and the sudden presence of a child in a driven career woman’s life that forces her to learn how to love and how to live. That’s a lot of cliches to pack in to a single movie, but they’re  all here.

Fortunately, the film is in the hands of the capable director Scott Hicks who has helmed some pretty sophisticated and acclaimed films (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedar). He also has some capable actors to work with. Balaban, who plays Kate’s shrink, has some of the best comic moments, listening to Kate’s remarks while sampling her sauces with a look of heavenly bliss on his face; some foodies just can’t hide their passion. Also Clarkson plays Paula with a delicate hand, never getting too hard or too soft. She is the ultimate Goldilocks here.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Zeta-Jones. I couldn’t tell you why; some of her performances can be a little bit hard-edged but when she allows herself to be a little vulnerable, she can act with the best of them. This is one of her finer performances, taking a character who is driven and obsessive and rather than making her bitchy, ends up making her worthy of admiration. That’s a tricky feat that even the great Meryl Streep had trouble with but Zeta-Jones pulls it off nicely here.

Hicks must really love food himself, or at least cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh must because the shots of the food being prepared and the presentation of said food is lovingly depicted and captured. You’ll never look at a plate of spaghetti the same way again after viewing this.

While I found Breslin’s performance to be a bit shrill, even she had moments that hooked me in, reminding me that she was one of the pre-eminent child actresses of all time, and continues to be a marvelous actress today as an adult. There is an oddball subplot concerning one of Kate’s neighbors, Sean, who babysits Zoe and appears to have a thing for Kate but nothing is done with it; the filmmakers could have easily had an offscreen neighbor do the child minding but for some reason chose to go this way. Methinks more of Sean was left on the cutting room floor than in the film.

This is based on a German film, Mostly Martha which I haven’t seen, although I understand it is much loved by many who have seen it and those who have seen both films typically state emphatically that the German version is much superior. I can’t speak to that, but if that film is better than this, then maybe I should make a point of finding it.. Despite the cliches and the flaws, the movie has a lot of heart and a lot of passion. It works as a dinner and a movie option, but also as a romantic evening option. Imagine that; a film that multitasks.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice work by Clarkson and Balaban.  Lovely food porn. Zeta-Jones takes a bitchy role and gives it some vulnerability.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chock full of cliches. Sean subplot goes nowhere..
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: First feature film appearance by Kravitz.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An episode of the Food Network’s Unwrapped centered around the film is included. Some of the Blu-Ray editions (those carrying the BD-Live feature) also includes an episode of Emeril Live on which Eckhart and Zeta-Jones both guested, with some of the food they are depicted cooking in the film made by Emeril Lagasse on the show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $92.6M on a $28M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

Everybody’s Fine


Everybody's Fine

Are you looking at me?

(Miramax) Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Lucian Maisel, Damian Young, James Frain, Katherine Moenning, Brendan Sexton III, James Murtaugh, Austin Lysy. Directed by Kirk Jones

Family dynamics can be a very complicated thing. Often, the relationship between the parents and the children is channeled through the mom. When that’s the case, what happens to that relationship when the mom passes away?

In the case of Frank Goode (De Niro), the relationship deteriorates. Frank was responsible for putting the protective coating on telephone cable, millions of miles of it. He’s retired now, with a nice house and bad lungs from years of inhaling toxic chemicals. He is also mourning the loss of his wife some eight months prior.

Growing up, he always pushed his kids to be achievers and he is proud that they have done just that. Amy (Beckinsale) owns a successful advertising agency and has a great marriage and a son of her own. Rosie (Barrymore) is a dancer in a successful Las Vegas show. Robert (Rockwell) is the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Then there’s David (Lysy), the youngest whom Frank pushed the hardest. David is an artist living in New York City.

He’s invited them all over to the house for the weekend. It is an ambition of his to have all of his children eating a meal at the same table. He goes to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for a memorable steak dinner; he even buys a new state-of-the-art barbecue grill just for the occasion. Then, one by one, they call and cancel.

Frank decides to visit them all, one by one and see what is going on. His doctor advises against it and forbids him to fly – the pressurized environment could cause problems for his lungs. So, he takes the train and the bus. With him he brings his medication and an envelope for each of his kids. When he gets to New York, to his surprise David isn’t at home. He slips David’s envelope under the door and heads west.

He will find that his ideas about his children has been mistaken and that in fact far from being fine, they have been hiding things from him and in some cases outright lying to him. The secrets of his children at last come out, as does the contents of those mysterious envelopes he has been giving to his adult kids.

This is based on the 1990 Italian movie Stanno Tutti Bene. I haven’t seen that one so I can’t really compare the two, but on its own I can say that director Jones has assembled an impressive cast. What can you say about De Niro that hasn’t already been said? Even when he is at his worst, he is still always an interesting presence. Heck, I’d go see one of the Twilight movies if De Niro was in it.

Rockwell is no De Niro but he is still a superb actor who seems to get better with each role. Here he is much more in a supporting role but he plays Robert note-perfectly. Barrymore is truly America’s sweetheart if Julia Roberts is not (and certainly Barrymore is heir to that throne if she is). Beckinsale, after years of being considered more of a genre star for the Underworld series has proven herself a capable actress in movies like Snow Angel and this one.

There are some unexpected twists to the movie – the contents of the envelopes, for one. One of the problems however, is that the overall structure is a bit cliché – you know the kids aren’t telling him everything. You know that Frank isn’t telling his kids everything. You know there is going to be a great emotional upheaval. You know that everything happens for a reason and that the filmmakers take great pains to make sure that what appears to be throwaway bits of business or characters will turn out to be significant in the end. And quite frankly, the metaphor of the telephone lines for inter-familial communications is shoved down our throats overly much, and doesn’t work quite as well in a cellular phone world. It worked quite well the first couple of times but after that it was more of “Okay we get it we get it!” type of thing.  For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend you don’t read the last paragraph – it may alter your enjoyment of the film.

One of the things that I found to work well for me is that the movie is being promoted as a heart-warming holiday film and it truly is not. The more cathartic moments worked for me because I wasn’t expecting them quite frankly. So in that sense, that’s the great strength of the movie. That and another opportunity to watch one of the greatest film actors in history work his craft.

REASONS TO GO: Hey, it’s De Niro – he’s always interesting, even at his worst. The supporting cast is superb. The storyline goes to some unexpected destinations.

REASONS TO STAY: It gets a bit maudlin in places. While there are some interesting twists and turns, there are also some stretches that are cliché-ridden.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some strong language and some of the subject matter is not for the young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell played Barrymore’s lover in Charlies Angels and Beckinsale’s ex-husband in Snow Angels.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate film and perfectly good on a small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover