Off the Menu


Romance always tastes better with a little extra heat.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Vision) Dania Ramirez, Santino Fontana, Maria Conchita Alonso, Makenzie Moss, Andrew Carter, Kenzo Lee, Ian Reed Kesler, Kristen Dalton, Virginia Montero, Mario Revolori, Ariana Ortiz, Paul Whetstone, Catherine Urbanek, Tracy Weisert, Richard Daniel Williams, Mike G. Mercedinio Cisneros Jr., Jessica Fontana, Jen Lilley. Directed by Jay Silverman

 

Some movies come along from time to time that go directly to home video. For most of them, there’s a very good reason for that. However, once in a great while, a movie comes to the direct-to-video market that leaves you scratching your head why it didn’t get more love and a theatrical release.

Joel (Fontana) is the heir to a fast-food fortune as the scion of the founder of the Tortilla Hut franchise. He’s the prototypical spoiled rich kid, more interested in training for the Iron Man Triathlon than he is in learning the family business. His sister Stacey (Dalton) is the de facto CEO of the firm and things aren’t looking as rosy as they might. Tortilla Hut has always gone the “bigger is better” route without taking much notice of quality. Tastes are changing, however, and Stacey knows that in order to keep its market share Tortilla Hut will have to change with the times. What Stacey wants is authenticity so she sends her brother to the American Southwest to sample some dishes to see if they can be adapted to the Fast Food format.

Joel really doesn’t want to be there; he just broke up with his fiancée Lauren (Lilley) and he doesn’t even like Mexican food. While driving through a tiny village in New Mexico his car gets towed due to an expired license. He’ll have to get the car out of impound in order to do that but the local District Attorney is out of town on a fishing trip.

After running afoul of a foodie tour operator, the unscrupulous Kevin (Carter) he also gets off on the wrong foot with the only restaurant owner in town – the single mom Javiera (Ramirez). Her food turns out to be divine – when he finally samples it – and he gets the approval of her hard-working mom (Alonso) and especially her daughter (Moss), a precocious child who never seems to be in school (at least the filmmakers make that a running joke). But in addition to a delectable green chile sauce, Javiera is also making eyes at Joel and he at her. Love may be on the menu – if Joel doesn’t do what he usually does and mess it all up.

The movie starts out on a very cliché note and continues in general with a lot of the more obnoxious tropes of the genre. It ends up being pretty predictable from a plot standpoint but you wanna know what? I actually got drawn in by the movie’s warmth and charm, and the genuine chemistry between the leads. I could have used less of the precocious child in the mix but that’s just my curmudgeon side acting out.

Ramirez and Fontana are excellent leads for this. They’re both very likable, even when Joel is acting like a self-centered douche. Yes, there is a sensual cooking sequence but it actually comes off as more authentic than steamy. These are two people genuinely trying to learn to like each other; Javiera has been burned before and is wary of any sort of relationship while Joel has never learned to put someone else’s needs above his own. They each end up helping the other one grow and there’s a lot to be said for that.

I liked this movie a lot more when it was over than I did at the beginning. I didn’t expect to enjoy the film as much as I did but here you are. I was especially happy to see Alonso onscreen again; she was one of my favorite actresses of the 90s, full of vivaciousness and sparkling like a diamond piñata in every role she played. She hasn’t lost her touch.

I can understand your hesitancy at taking a chance on a romantic comedy that has gotten little notice but sometimes the movies that fly under the radar are the ones that make the most impact. I truly enjoyed the movie more and more as it went along and if you can make it through until Joel arrives in New Mexico you might just have your heart touched as mine was. For those who don’t have plans for the upcoming Valentine’s Day, don’t want to go out and pay exorbitantly jacked-up prices at local restaurants or just want a nice romantic evening any other day of the year, I’ve got an idea for you. Off the Menu is actually the perfect aperitif for a romantic evening at home or a stay at home date. Order up some good Mexican food from the best Mexican restaurant in your neck of the woods, bring it home and enjoy it while watching this with the one you love. Share a good bottle of wine, too. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

REASONS TO GO: The film’s charm wins you over eventually. It is lovely to see Maria Conchita Alonso again.
REASONS TO STAY: It takes awhile for the film to get going. There are a few too many rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mario Revolori Is the twin brother of Tony Revolori who starred in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Insidious: The Last Key

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The Other Woman (2014)


Leslie Mann knows how to binge.

Leslie Mann knows how to binge.

(2014) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Don Johnson, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, Kenneth Maharaj, Alyshia Ochse, Victor Cruz, Madison McKinley, David Thornton, Olivia Culpo, John “B.J.” Bryant, Chelsea Turnbo, Brooke Stacy Mills, Raushanah Simmons, Cheryl Horne, Nancy De Mayo. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Infidelity is one of the most notorious deal-killers in any marriage. For many, it is the most unpardonable of marital crimes ranking just below physical abuse. While it isn’t the most common cause of divorce, it is right up there. Different people react to infidelity in different ways . Some are forgive and forgive sorts. For others, it’s not about getting mad so much as getting even.

Carly Whitten (Diaz) may well just have it all. Beautiful, smart, successful, she’s a lawyer at a high-power New York corporate law firm. She has a gorgeous apartment. Most importantly, she has a male model-handsome Mark King (Coster-Waldau), her new boyfriend who dotes on her and gives her the most amazing sex ever. He’s willing to meet her irascible dad (Johnson) and as she tells her self-centered assistant Lydia (Minaj), she’s cleared all her other guy friends off the bench. He may well be the One.

Then when he has to break his date to meet her dad because of some plumbing catastrophe at his Connecticut home, Carly is pissed off. Taking her dad’s advice to go and see him in Connecticut, she dresses up like a hooker plumber. The woman who answers the door however, is not Mark’s housekeeper; she’s his wife Kate (Mann).

Hurt and humiliated that she didn’t pick up on the clues that her shining knight was already taken, Carly wants nothing at all to do with Mark. In a strange twist however, Kate befriends Carly. Kate has been isolated and marginalized. She literally has nobody to talk to; all her friends are Mark’s friends she wails, and “they’ll blab!” Carly is at first repulsed but grows strangely drawn to the fragile and clingy Kate. Eventually they become friends, although never without the occasional brawl.

They soon discover that Mark has been a very bad boy. Not only is he cheating on them with Amber (Upton), a beautiful but none-too-bright model sort but he’s been skimming money from his firm. He’s also put Kate in the position to take the fall if he’s ever discovered. The three women decide to team p to teach Mark a lesson he’ll never forget and when you put brains (Carly the lawyer), bitch (Kate the wife) and boobs (Amber the…hey, my eyes are up here!) together, there isn’t a man alive who can withstand the combination.

On the plus side, I’m pleased to see a movie in which the female leads are formidable, strong and confident for the most part. On the negative side, there is a lot of stereotyping going on here; the strong women are vindictive and bitchy, the man a serial cheater and liar. The ladies feed poor Mark enough laxative to make him crap his pants, lace his protein shake with female hormones so intensely that he starts growing man boobs and put hair removal cream into his shampoo until he begins losing hair. It’s almost enough to make one feel sorry for the guy who definitely doesn’t deserve any sympathy.

In fact, the pants pooping incident is only one of two major fecal gags in the film. Now, I like a good poop joke as much as the next person but I think considering the subject matter it’s a bit disrespectful to the ladies who are doing their best to make this an adult comedy. Stuff like that doesn’t really go along with the theme of smart women taking their revenge against a douchebag who deserves it.

Diaz has become one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, equally at home in heartrending dramas (My Sister’s Keeper, Gangs of New York) or in comedies both dark and light (Bad Teacher, There’s Something About Mary). Here she plays smart, sexy and a little bit hard-edged but then Diaz has never been the softest, most feminine actress out there. She often uses her attractiveness as a weapon, a means of saying “See this? You can’t have it!” in a very subtle way. I’ve never warmed to her as much as admired her and her work here leads me to believe that she’s only going to get better as she moves into a new phase of life and career.

It’s not a revelation but Leslie Mann steals the movie for my money. Long known more for being a supporting player and Judd Apatow’s wife, she’s always shown a great deal of talent in the too-brief glimpses we get of her onscreen. Here she finally shows that she is absolutely capable of being one of the top comic actresses in Hollywood, adept at both physical humor and delivering zingers. She also shows a very appealing vulnerability as she allows Carly (and the audience) to see just how deep the wounds cut.

Unfortunately, the humor is a bit uneven. The movie is bipolar when it comes to comedy – when they get it right, they nail it but when they miss it’s crickets bad. And while I complain about some of the really venal things the women do, I have to admit I did laugh so in that regard mission accomplished. I did feel bad about laughing though and still I have to point out that I think the world is ready for a movie in which female leads don’t have to resort to scatological jokes and ultra-bitchiness to prove they’re strong.

REASONS TO GO: Leslie Mann is a consummate performer. Some very funny moments. Strong female leads, a refreshing change.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets a little muddled. Perpetuates stereotypes. Not all the comedy succeeds. Too much poop humor.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references and some foul language, along with mature thematic content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film to be released internationally by 21st Century Fox, one of two companies formed by the split of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The new company continues to own 20th Century Fox film studios and the Fox Network, among other assets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The First Wives Club

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Final Member

The Lone Ranger (2013)


Armie Hammer isn't quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

Armie Hammer isn’t quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

(2013) Western (Disney) Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Wilson, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Leon Rippy, Stephen Root, Rance Howard, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Mason Elston Cook, Harry Treadaway, James Frain, Joaquin Cosio, Damon Herriman, Freda Foh Shen. Directed by Gore Verbinski

John Reid, the Lone Ranger, has been an iconic American character in nearly every medium that a character can come to life in, be it comic strips, radio, television or the movies. However as Westerns fell out of favor, so too did the masked Texas Ranger who rode his white horse Silver like the wind, accompanied by his faithful Native American sidekick Tonto.

Now Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp who together made the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the most profitable in Disney history (at least until another couple of Marvel movies and the next Star Wars trilogy fatten their coffers) are back with a reboot of the great American hero. Is the 21st century ready for him?

Reid (Hammer) is an Eastern-educated lawyer returning home to his native Colby, Texas as the county’s new Assistant District Attorney. There he will meet his brother Dan (Dale), a well-respected Texas Ranger who has always overshadowed young John. Dan even got the girl that John wanted, Rebecca (Wilson).

However also on the train west is notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (Fichtner) who eats human flesh and has a pretty sadistic streak in him – and is on his way to a hanging (his own) – and a Comanche known as Tonto (Depp) who has a dead crow on his head and perhaps a few loose neurons rattling around between his ears. Of course, you just know that Cavendish is going to be broken out of jail or in this case, train. You also know that Reid and Tonto are going to be at odds and not think too terribly high of each other.

Faster than you can say plot complication, John joins his brother Dan on a posse to collect Cavendish so he can be properly hung Texas-style (methinks Rick Perry might be a descendant) and faster than you can say “I saw that coming” the Rangers are massacred by the outlaws and Butch chows down on Dan. John is left for dead.

Tonto wanders upon the scene and buries the dead, including John who, it turns out, isn’t quite dead yet. Tonto identifies him as a spirit walker, one who has come back from the Other Side…and a white spirit horse that John eventually names Silver agrees with him. Silver is probably the smartest character in the movie, possibly in ANY movie. Okay, I made that last part up.

Anyway John has his mad on and he wants to get his hands on Cavendish in the worst way and as it turns out, Tonto has plenty of reason to want to stomp a mudhole in Cavendish as well. However as it turns out Cavendish is working for someone, someone quite powerful who has interest in the Transcontinental Railroad making its way to Utah to be completed. Someone who will change the course of the United States in his greed and lust for power.

This is definitely a much more modern retelling of the tale of the Lone Ranger. While there are elements that tie this film to the illustrious past of the character – the soul-stirring swell of the ”William Tell Overture,” Tonto’s laconic nickname for his partner kemosabe and the silver bullet, this isn’t retro in the least. One element I really like about it is that the story is told by Tonto to a young boy in San Francisco in 1933, some 60 years after the events took place (which if Tonto is Depp’s age in the movie in 1868 makes him a centenarian). This makes it clear from the get-go that this really isn’t John Reid’s story as much as it is Tonto’s and I like the change of viewpoint very much.

The Natives aren’t treated like cannon fodder as they were in most Westerns of the era but are given a surprising amount of respect and deference, although Depp’s Tonto can be Looney Tunes from time to time. That’s a nice touch.

Depp is of course the star and like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies takes center stage not because of his bravery or heroism but more because of his quirkiness, albeit a different kind of quirky. Think of it as the difference between using peyote and getting rip-roaring drunk on grog. But even the best quirkiness can get a little grating after awhile.

Hammer is an able heroic sort in a gee-whiz kind of way and while on the surface seems well-suited for this sort of role, I don’t think that at the end of the day he’s memorable enough in it. Don’t get me wrong – he does as good a job as you can ask for but his character is made to be an imbecile at times and Hammer is much too intelligent a guy to believe as an idiot for even a second.

There are some fine supporting turns by Carter as a one-legged prostitute and Wilkinson as a railroad baron but they are largely wasted in a movie that is too long in a big way. So much of the middle third is unnecessary and slow that by the time the movie’s climactic scenes roll around you might be checking your watch which is a shame because the action sequences that begin and end the film are spectacular indeed and are worth the price of admission alone.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie and also a few bad ones. Trimming the movie down to a more manageable two hours might have been more advisable but for whatever reason there is a trend this summer for longer running time which might well thrill consumers who are getting more bang for their buck but has to disappoint exhibitors who have fewer screenings to bring customers into their theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Even Depp’s missteps are entertaining. Some pretty nifty action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. A little silly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are plenty of Western action sequences, some of them intense and some suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first version in any medium that the actor playing Tonto gets top billing over the actor playing the Ranger.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; it’s pretty obvious the critics hated it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rango

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Divide

The Heat


Some pictures say a thousand words; this one just says "say WHAT?!?"

Some pictures say a thousand words; this one just says “say WHAT?!?”

(2013) Buddy Cop Comedy (20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Jane Curtin, Spoken Reasons, Dan Bakkedahl, Taran Killam, Michael McDonald, Tom Wilson, Peter Weireter, Erica Derrickson, Kaitlin Olson, Joey McIntyre, Michael Tucci, Bill Burr, Nathan Corddry, Jessica Chaffin, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

It is 2013 in Hollywood and after decades of inspired (and uninspired) Odd Couple buddy cop pairings, America gets its first all-woman cop buddy duo. I would think that just for being a trailblazer The Heat should get props, and it does particularly since they cast the two roles perfectly.

Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is an ambitious but uptight FBI agent. She’s very successful at closing cases but her people skills are a bit lacking. She’s smarter than most of the men around her and she knows it but what’s worse she likes to show it off. She’s eager for a promotion that she’s probably richly earned but her boss (Bichir) isn’t so sure; he instead sends her from New York to Boston to take down a mysterious drug lord who is pushing his way into the city.

Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) is a rude, crude and lewd Boston cop who intimidates her colleagues with her foul mouth, her nasty attitude and her hair-trigger temper. When she’s not abusing her boss (Wilson) – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Biff Tannen – she’s having one night stands with clingy men and bickering with her family. She’s so tough she arrested her brother Jason (Rapaport) and sent him to prison, from which he’s just emerging.

The two are more or less after the same guy. At first, of course, they are competing but when ordered to work together these lone wolves find out that there is some benefits from working in a pack. However they’re up against a very male-oriented culture which doesn’t take them seriously and to make matters worse, Mullins family is at risk from a sadistic killer (McDonald).

Melissa McCarthy broke out as a big star in a supporting role in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and it’s no accident that he’s behind the camera for the role that may make her a superstar. This is the perfect part for McCarthy – foul-mouthed, physical with a tender side that really makes better use of her talents than this year’s earlier hit Identity Thief did. Some of her zingers were the kind that made you laugh so hard that you missed dialogue that came out after it.

She is paired perfectly with Bullock who has played tough cops before but here she allows a little prissiness to set in. She’s so lonely that her cat isn’t even hers – it’s her neighbor’s who is vexed that the cat visits “the weird lady next door.” Bullock is one of the best at playing socially awkward but extremely competent women – remember her boss from Hell in The Proposal? – and nobody does book-smart-but-people-dumb like Bullock. The chemistry between her an McCarthy is on the level of Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy and Mel Gibson/Danny Glover in the annals of cop buddies.

Although the film is groundbreaking, it’s a shame they couldn’t give the two leading ladies a groundbreaking script to work with. Despite the terrific performances of Bullock and McCarthy (and of the cast in general), the plot is such that it feels like it was written in a Screenwriting 101 class. If you’re going to have two women leading a cop buddy movie, play to the strengths of women in general instead of just having them referring to their lady parts in a series of crude jokes. Cagney and Lacey and Rizzolli and Isles were both able to do this successfully on television; while I get those shows are both more procedurals than this one, I don’t think they needed to give the women ugly male characteristics to make this funny, unless of course they’re trying to make the point that the two sexes are more alike than unalike which I can appreciate.y

In any case, this is superior summer entertainment that has that element of familiarity that Hollywood thinks American movie audiences yearn for. It bodes well for the future of McCarthy to take the throne as America’s reigning film comedienne superstar with her two big hits this year. She is clearly the reason to go see this movie and clearly looks to be as funny if not funnier than some of her highest-paid male colleagues right now.

REASONS TO GO: Bullock plays surprisingly well against type and for her part this is right in McCarthy’s wheelhouse.

REASONS TO STAY: Beyond the novelty factor of two women in the lead roles, the movie doesn’t really add much to the buddy cop genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A buttload of bad language. Some of the content is on the crude side, and there’s a bit of violence to top it all off.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally set for a late spring release, but the studio, encouraged by early reception to the film, decided to move it into the summer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100; the reviews are pretty much split but leaning towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Lone Ranger (2013)

The Gravedancers


Dental hygiene isn't always the key to a happy life.

Dental hygiene isn’t always the key to a happy life.

(2006) Horror (Lionsgate/After Dark) Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Claire Kramer, Marcus Thomas, Tcheky Karyo, Meaghan Perry, Martha Holland, Oakley Stevenson, Samantha Twyford MacIvor, Jack Mulcahy, Jim McKeny, Geneva E. Avarett-Short, Bob McHone, Tina Murphy. Directed by Mike Mendez

We all do some pretty dumb things when we’re drunk. We say the wrong things to the wrong people, we pick fights, we sleep with people we shouldn’t have – there are very few of us who don’t have some sordid tale of something we did while we were drunk that we later came to regret. I’m pretty certain, however, that nobody has a tale quite like this one.

Harris McKay (Purcell) is back in his hometown for a funeral. His college buddy Chad bit the big one in a car accident and so there’s a reunion of sorts between friends Sid Vance (Thomas) and sultry Kira Hayden (Maran) with whom Harris had a fling with back in the day. The problem is Harris is married now and his wife Allison (Kramer) doesn’t get along well with Kira.

Allison heads back to the hotel room and leaves the three musketeers to get rip-roarin’ drunk. They make their way to a cemetery (as drunks often do) and find a mysterious black envelope with a poem written on a note inside it. Sid reads the poem which indicates that they should celebrate life by dancing on the graves of the dead, which they proceed to do in short order, which Sid punctuates by urinating on a headstone while Kira and Harris make out a little.

They all go back to their lives but something’s wrong. Harris and Allison hear mysterious sounds, and see odd things in the corner of their eye. Over the next few days these happenings get more frequent and more menacing. Sid tells of small fires cropping up at various times and places. Allison thinks it’s Kira trying to get back together with Harris. Harris and Allison go to confront Kira only to find her house a mess and Kira badly hurt, covered with bruises and bite marks and having been sexually assaulted.

They come to the realization that something is happening beyond their understanding or ability to contain, so they do what I’m sure thee and me would do next – they contact a paranormal investigator in the form of Vincent Cochet (Karyo) and his lovely assistant Frances Culpepper (Perry). They determine that the trio set off a curse with their actions and got three vengeful ghosts after them – a child arsonist, an axe murderer and a serial rapist and murderer. Not three haunts I’d want after me for sure.

Worse yet, they have until the next full moon before the wraiths kill the lot of ’em. The only way out of it appears to be to disinter the bodies and re-bury them, thus breaking the curse (don’t ask me how). Trouble is, one of the group has their own hidden agenda and is willing to risk the lives of the whole group to achieve it.

Mendez, the auteur of this finer-than-average horror flick, previously directed The Convent which was another mighty fine horror film. Here you have a movie that’s not blazing new trails, taking bits of Poltergeist here and bits of The Haunting of Hill House there. That’s ok – Mendez puts it all together in a nice appetizing whole, much like making a terrific casserole out of leftovers. That can be as good as gourmet sometimes.

The cast is mostly not well known although Purcell and Karyo have been around. Karyo provides a certain amount of comic relief and Purcell, who has done well in ensemble roles and shows signs of being a pretty good leading man, is palatable here. In fact, most of the acting is pretty solid, a bit better than you’d find in the average horror film.

The special effects are for the most part pretty cool until they get a bit over-the-top in the final reel. In fact, the whole ending is a bit…much. The director on the commentary mentioned they wanted the last part of the movie to be like the big drop on a roller coaster – you’re never sure when it’s coming or how it’s going to hit you but when it arrives it’s still fun. I can agree with that in theory but here they just get ludicrous on you which is a bit sad. A little more imagination with the final real might have made this a bit better. As it is, it’s a much better than average genre film you might have overlooked as it came out in a group of seven other films of differing quality. Scare film fans should check this out; unless you are thoroughly jaded, you won’t be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Balls-out scary in places. Decent performances and effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not too many surprises. Ending is a little much.

FAMILY VALUES: The imagery here is graphic and horrifying. There’s plenty of supernatural violence and some sexuality (a rape is implied) as well as a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was released as part of the first After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For film festival in major markets in 2006.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Parental Guidance

Flight


Flight

It rains on the just and the unjust equally.

(2012) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly,  Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, Charlie E. Schmidt, Peter Gerety, Boni Yanagisawa, Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, Rhoda Griffis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

We take flying for granted. You are far more likely to be killed in a car wreck than you are in the friendly skies. We trust our pilots to be sharp and skilled, highly trained to handle any situation and get us to our destination in one piece.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is such a pilot. He is cool calm and in command on the outside, his aviator shades and uniform inspiring confidence. He is piloting a short flight from Orlando to Atlanta. The weather is frightful; a severe storm making the take-off anything but routine. But that’s not the worst of it; mid-flight, the plane goes inexplicably into a nosedive and nothing the crew can do can pull them out. Whitaker pulls off an incredible maneuver involving lying the plane upside down and manages to set down in a field. There is loss of life (four passengers and two crew die in the incident) but compared to what might have happened the landing was nothing short of miraculous.

Whip wakes up in the hospital barely remembering what happened. He’s being hailed as a hero and the press is in a frenzy, eager to get an interview with him. His good friend Charlie Anderson (Greenwood), a fellow pilot and head of the pilot’s union, flies to Atlanta to navigate him through the NTSB and other procedures that occur after a crash with fatalities.

Then everything falls apart. It turns out that the blood drawn from him routinely after the crash showed that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system. Which, in fact, he did – the night before the crash he had partied all night with a sexy stewardess (Velazquez) who had somewhat conveniently been one of the fatalities. They’d drank like fish, snorted coke and had lots of sex. In fact, Whip had even mixed himself a little cocktail of orange juice and vodka during the fatal flight.

In fact Whip has quite a problem; he could face jail time and lawsuits. A lawyer is hired for him by the union, the whip-smart (couldn’t resist the pun) Hugh Lang (Cheadle) who is charged with getting Whip off the hook because should he be found liable, so would the airline that hired him which would effectively put it out of business and put a good many pilots in the unemployment line, which the union decidedly doesn’t want.

But Whip’s biggest problem is his own demons. He can’t seem to stop drinking, although he tells everyone around him he can quit on his own, no problem. He resents even the thought of being called an alcoholic and yet his binges seem to come at the worst possible times as if he himself is crashing far worse than the jet he had previously piloted.

His estranged wife (Beauvais) and son (Martin) want nothing to do with him, but all isn’t hopeless – he has taken up with the recovering addict Nicole (Reilly) who seems to be serious about her recovery. Maybe this hook-up which was a result of his own kindness might turn out to be his salvation. With an NTSB hearing which will determine his future approaching, Whip is most assuredly his own worst enemy.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, this isn’t a movie about a plane crash although the crash sequence, which lasts twelve minutes at the beginning of the movie, is flat-out amazing and horrifying at once – so much so that if you’re planning to travel by air anytime soon, you may want to hold off on seeing this until after you’ve fulfilled your travel plans.

What this really is about is addiction and as harrowing as the plane crash sequence is, the rest of the movie following Whip’s fall from grace is far more so. It really isn’t very easy to watch as Whip gulps down liquor as if it were Kool-Aid and he continues to deny that there is a problem.

Very few actors could pull this part off properly – we need to be repelled by Whip’s actions even as we are compelled by his compassion. Washington is so likable and charismatic that we root for him throughout even though his character’s self-destructive streak is so profound that deep down we know he’s going to let us down. I imagine it’s much the same living with an alcoholic in real life.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar as one. Reilly, an Irish accent, is pixie-like and has an odd vulnerability that is laced with gravitas. Cheadle, one of my favorite actors, comes through again as a competent professional who is nevertheless out of his depth with Whip and the frustration becomes very apparent soon. Goodman, as a party animal who is Whip’s supplier, is marvelous and Tunie as a stewardess is amazing.

But it is Denzel who steals the show and simply put, this is one of the best performances of his storied career. He has to be considered an early front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar race, and I almost guarantee that he’ll nab a nomination early next year. It would be a major miscarriage of justice if he did not.

There are plenty of movies that show the horrors of alcoholism but few have captured it this well. This might be a good primer for those who suspect someone they care about is an alcoholic, but for those who already know someone they love is this might be a little too close to home. Just fair warning.

REASONS TO GO: Nothing like what you think it’s going to be. Oscar-caliber performance from Denzel.

REASONS TO STAY: Those expecting an action film might be put off by the drama. May be too close to home for those who are alcoholics or have someone in the family who is.

FAMILY VALUES:  The depiction of alcohol and drug abuse is pretty graphic; so too is the crash scene that opens the film. There is also plenty of bad language, a good deal of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the second R-rated film Zemeckis has directed (the first was Used Cars in 1980.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100. The reviews are solidly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Days of Wine and Roses

AIRPLANE LOVERS: A very realistic look inside the cockpit of a jetliner, and you get a real sense of what it’s like to fly a commercial airplane.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mission to Mars

Trucker


Trucker

Michelle Monaghan discovers the joys of motherhood.

(Monterey Media) Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, Jimmy Bennett, Bryce Johnson, Brandon Hanson, Maya McLaughlin. Directed by James Mottern

For everything in life there is a cost. Even freedom to do what you like doesn’t come without a price. That price can be more than you might be willing to bear, but it’s nearly always too late by the time you figure that out.

For Diane Ford (Monaghan), she has lived by her own rules her entire life. As a big rig driver, she competes as a woman in what is very much a man’s world. She has to be twice as tough as any man to survive and she knows it; what’s more, she’s okay with it. She drinks to excess, uses caffeine and cigarettes far too much and sleeps around.

One of the few guys she won’t sleep with is her neighbor Runner (Fillion), who is married. The two are best friends and drinking buddies and Runner has surely got a thing for Diane. Most men do, as a matter of fact, but she wants or needs no man. She had a kid eleven years earlier during the one tryst that lasted more than a night, but that relationship couldn’t stand up to the call of the open road.

One afternoon there’s a knock on the door of her small southern California home. It’s Jenny (Adams), the girlfriend of Len (Bratt) who was the man she had her son with. It turns out that Len is very ill, colon cancer. Jenny is no longer able to care for his son – Diane’s son – and care for Len. She needs Diane to care for Peter (Bennett) – that’s her son’s name – for a short while.

Diane takes to this like a cat takes to platform diving. It would be bad enough to take on a roommate after years of taking care of herself, but a kid? The thing is, Peter is a pretty sharp tack. He understands that his mom really doesn’t want anything to do with him, and he can see pretty clearly just how messed up the situation is, but rather than whine about it he just deals with it. It’s a pretty mature performance, and also very nice to see a kid who’s not precocious in a sickly sweet way.

Diane is forced to take Peter along with her on the road, something which crimps her style more than she’d like but as it turns out, the company is kind of a welcome thing in a twisted way. The two are like a couple of caged bantam roosters warily circling one another. Bonding is certainly not going to be very easy. Is it even possible?

First-time director Mottern should be applauded for delivering a slice-of-life type of movie that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to show the warts. The characters aren’t heroic; these are real people just trying to make their way through day by day, just like the rest of us. They aren’t especially brave, nor smart nor particularly talented; they just do what they do.

Monaghan is impressive here, giving the kind of performance that can only come from deep down inside of a very talented actress. Although she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for her work, she surely could have been – and maybe should have been. Unfortunately, this was distributed by a small company rather than one of the major studio affiliates; I’m pretty sure the performance didn’t get the kind of publicizing that other actresses got.

Bennett is also worthy of mention; most twelve-year-old actors come off as stiff and mannered; you see it all the time on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or ABC Family. Bennett instead is natural and raw; he doesn’t hold anything back. It’s one of the better juvenile performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

Fillion, Bratt and Adams deliver solid backing performances in roles that have more depth to them than most supporting roles, and the three of them known what to do with characters who have some meat on their bones.

There are times that the movie gets overly raw; some of the emotions that come to the surface are painful, even. However, there is a sexual assault that occurs nearly two thirds of the movie that just left me going “huh?” with a bit of a slack jaw. It didn’t really need to be in there, other than to highlight the vulnerability of a single woman and that’s kind of a given.

Short of that one misstep, this is solid work elevated by a scintillating performance by Monaghan. I have never had an ambition to drive a rig, but I do understand the siren song of the open road. I also understand the pain of living exactly the way you want to. Sometimes it’s getting what we want that causes us the most pain.

WHY RENT THIS: Michelle Monaghan gives the performance of her career. Her supporting cast gets kudos for fleshing out roles that for the most part are layered and deep. A great example of a “slice of life” film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie can be a little too raw in places. The sexual assault scene comes out like it’s almost part of a completely different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of swearing (hey, it’s about truckers) and some sexuality, including a scene depicting a sexual assault. There’s also significant amounts of drinking and a little drug use, some of it involving minors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monaghan learned to drive a big rig for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Education of Charlie Banks