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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English as a Second Language


English as a Second Language

Maria Conchita Alonso chainsmokes and lectures her daughter.

(Inferno Filmworks) Kuno Becker, Danielle Camastra, John Michael Higgins, Maria Conchita Alonso, Efrain Figueroa, Harold Gould, Sal Lopez, Treva Etienne. Directed by Youssef Delara

America can be a really hard place to live, particularly for Latin American immigrants. While they can survive on a day-to-day basis without learning to speak English, in order to succeed and thrive here they must speak it fluently, or at least enough to get by.

Bolivar de la Cruz (Becker) has come to the United States illegally, crossing the border in order to make enough money to feed his family back home. He arrives starry-eyed, expecting the wealth and riches of America to fall at his feet. Instead, he encounters suspicion, prejudice and indifference in his quest to find work.

Lola Sara (Camastra) is the child of legal immigrants to the United States, living with one foot in each world. Her parents (Figueroa and Alonso) want the best for her and push her to attain a law degree, which would mean a comfortable life for herself and her family. She is less sure of what she wants and rebels in whichever way she can, partying with her friends and sleeping with men she picks up in the discos.

The worlds of these two people collide briefly when the car Bolivar is riding in is involved in an accident late one night with the car Lola is driving. Lola is clearly impaired and while Bolivar is eager to stay and make sure the young woman is all right, the others in the car, worried that they will be caught and returned to Mexico, flee the scene. Lola winds up being arrested for driving under the influence and is ordered to do community service.

Bolivar is having a terrible time finding work. He goes day after day to a local hardware store where people come to hire illegal aliens and while many of the people waiting there are hired, Bolivar is not. He meets Pepe (Lopez), who tells him that the secret to finding work is learning English. He tells him about free English as a second language classes at the local community college.

As it turns out, Lola’s community service assignment is at that very class, serving as a teacher’s aide. Bolivar is pleased to see that she is all right although she barely remembers him. Still, he feels drawn to her and asks if she can tutor him which she turns down.

Bolivar learns enough English to get hired as a day laborer at the house of a club owner (Higgins) who has difficulty keeping his hands to himself. He offers Bolivar a job dancing at his club but Bolivar, disturbed at his advances, refuses. Eventually, broke and with nowhere to stay, he relents and begins dancing as a male stripper at the club, making more cash than he ever could have imagined. This leads to work in the “back rooms” as a club, giving private dances away to middle-aged women which is a euphemism for male prostitution.

Lola becomes one of his clients one night, which leads to further interaction between the two. She has gotten pregnant from one of her one-night stands and needs to go get an abortion, but doesn’t want to go alone – and there’s nobody else to take her. Desperate, she turns to the gold-hearted Bolivar who takes her for her abortion. Even though he is married, there is some attraction between the two which leads her mother to mistake him for the father of the baby when she accidentally finds out about her daughter’s pregnancy.

In the meantime, Lola has found that she has a flair for teaching and that she rather enjoys it. Bolivar is making money but his life is falling apart. Can these two worlds truly co-exist?

This is a movie that got little notice other than some awards in smaller film festivals, mainly those catering to Latin cinema. Despite the presence of rising star Becker and studio interest, it was deemed unmarketable and wound up going quickly to video and cable television. That’s a shame because this is a solid, well-acted movie that gives insight into the Latin immigrant experience that we rarely get to see in the movies, certainly not as authentically as we see it here.

Alonso, who had some high-profile roles in the 80s and 90s, is still an attractive woman playing a matronly role unusual for the former beauty queen. She handles the role admirably and is one of the best things about the movie as the bitter, chain-smoking mom. Her relationship with her daughter is strained, and some of their confrontational scenes ring oh so true. Higgins also does some fine work in a fairly negative role.

Becker, the Mexican soap star who has found mainstream stardom in the Goal movies, fares less well. Playing the naïve Bolivar, his character goes from sunny to embittered during the course of the movie, finding little about America to love. Although he clearly has the physique for the role, he seemed lost at times, and I got the clear impression that he was unsure of his own abilities to carry the role. There are plenty of fine Mexican and Latin actors who might have done better in the role, but Becker certainly has star power in the Latin community.

Director Delara has a fine eye for color and composition, which serves the movie well. It is an excellent-looking film that captures the flair and atmosphere of the Latino community in Los Angeles, from the discos to the taquerias to the workplaces and finally to the homes. It is a compelling work that would have benefited from better casting in the lead, but still in all worth seeing as a different viewpoint on the immigrant experience. Considering the Bush Administration’s efforts to demonize the Latin immigrant community (particularly those who arrived illegally), it is a timely message to humanize what is often painted with a prejudiced brush.

WHY RENT THIS: A compelling look at the Latin experience in the United States. Fine supporting performances from Alonso and Higgins

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat sudsy at times. Becker seems lost in his role.

FAMILY VALUES: While the movie is rated “R” and there are scenes depicting violence, sexuality and drug use, this really is quite suitable for older and more mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Delara also worked as a visual effects coordinator on several Star Trek movies and television shows.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: King of California