Johnny English Strikes Again


Johnny English is virtually real.

(2018) Spy Comedy (Focus)  Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy, Adam James, David Mumeni, Miranda Hennessy, Samantha Russell, Michael Gambon, Edward Fox, Charles Dance, Roger Barclay, Amit Shah, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Matthew Beard, Jack Fox, Noah Spiers, Alfie Kennedy, Jasmine Brightmore, Adam Greaves-Neal, Kendra Mei.  Directed by David Kerr

I don’t have a problem with silly movies. I’m all for silliness, and few actors do silly as well as Rowan Atkinson. But did anybody think this character, created for a series of British bank adverts, would last three films?

The suave superspy Johnny English (Atkinson) is happily retired as an instructor at a snooty boarding school, teaching his charges spycraft and military techniques when he is summoned back into service. It seems that a hacker has “outed” all of Britain’s spies, and is playing havoc with the traffic signals and banking system. The testy Prime Minister (Thompson) is getting ready to host the G-12 summit and she doesn’t want Great Britain humiliated. English, an analogue man in a digital world, seems to be the perfect choice to crack the case.

With the aid of a beautiful Russian spy (former Bond girl Kurylenko) and a trusty sidekick (Miller), English chases after Silicon Valley tycoon Jason Volta (Lacy) in a vintage Aston-Martin but does he still have the stuff to save England once again?

If you liked Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn you will probably like this as well – it’s more in the same vein, although the fart jokes of the latter have given way to Atkinson dropping his drawers with dreary repetition. I suppose that’s a step up.

Atkinson remains a gifted physical comedian but the character doesn’t differ much from faux spies we’ve seen in other spoofs. He has Clouseau-like misplaced arrogance, Maxwell Smart-like dignity and Austin Powers-like indominable resilience. There are tons of Bond references here but let’s face it, Bond did his own self-parody years ago and much better than this franchise.

Fans of Rowan Atkinson will dig this but probably not many else and even they may grouse that he was much better in Blackadder which he was. Then again, the writing in that series was so much better than the lowbrow tripe we get here. Perhaps this would have been better titled Johnny English Wears Out His Welcome.

REASONS TO SEE: Rowan Atkinson is unconsciously funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too been-there done-that for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence and rude humor, brief nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thompson’s husband Greg Wise has a small role as Agent One.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Lone Star Deception

All is True


Will Shakespeare and his wife Anne share a tender moment.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Eleanor de Rohan, Gerard Horan, Lydia Wilson, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Rouse, Harry Lister Smith, Hadley Fraser, Sam Ellis, Kate Tydman, Phil Dunster, Doug Colling, Freya Durkan, Flora Easton, Matt Jessup, Sabi Perez, Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer who ever lived but even given that remarkably little is known about his personal life. What is known for sure is that in 1613, following a performance of Henry VIII in which a prop cannon misfired, setting fire to the Globe Theater and burning it to the ground, William Shakespeare left London for good and returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon, never to write again. It is also known this was 17 years after his only son Hamnet (Ellis) died tragically at the age of eleven.

=Kenneth Branagh is widely known to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, having brought the Bard to the screen in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Hamlet. For someone who so clearly loves the work of Shakespeare, it musts be tantalizing to say the least to speculate about his life. Why did he stop writing in 1613? What was his life like in Stratford after his retirement?

Branagh plays the Bard which must have been both daunting and deliciously illicit (sort of like doing an impression of a favorite teacher) pottering about the garden of his Stratford home where he means to create a memorial garden for his son. The return home has brought him no peace; he continues to mourn for a son he never really knew (Shakespeare spent most of his time in London and rarely visited home) 17 years after the fact. His sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dench), many years his senior (actually merely eight years in reality) has relegated him to the second-best bed in the house, refusing to sleep with a husband who is more a stranger than a spouse. His older daughter Susannah (Wilson) is married to a rigid Puritan physician (Fraser).

His younger daughter Judith (Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, shows nothing but contempt for her father and wishes fervently he had stayed in London. Raised by her mother, she seems as strong-willed and as iron-tongued as Anne. Shakespeare is haunted by the ghost of Hamnet and by his own failings as a father and a husband while coping with the fame that refuses to leave him alone.

The story is largely fiction although the salient facts are there; Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613, the death of his son, the loss of the Globe Theater in a catastrophic fire. The rest is invention by Branagh and writer Ben Elton. Serious Shakespearean scholars will probably raise an eyebrow or two at the creative licenses taken here but for most of us, it’s all good.

In many ways Branagh was born to play Shakespeare and he captures the wit and humanity that the writer displayed in his work. Surely this is the Shakespeare we all imagined he’d be: distracted, unable to cope with the tragedies in his life, largely lost without the outlet of writing. Branagh also makes his Will Shakespeare a product of his times; a bit misogynistic – unable to grasp the concept that the true inheritor of his talents might have been Judith, the distaff twin of Hamnet upon whom he place all his hopes of having a successor – and prone to being a bit self-absorbed. Branagh humanizes the Bard and makes him relatable.

Dench, as always, rises to the occasion, making Anne Hathaway Shakespeare a reflection of herself and the kind of wife you’d figure Shakespeare would have. She holds her own with Branagh – or rather, he with her – and the two are electric whenever appearing as a couple onscreen. Some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie are the two sparring with one another.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes this a very pretty film to watch, from the recreations of Elizabethan England to the lovely bucolic English countryside which continues today to be a charming film locale. Nicholson relies on backlighting to create spectacular images of Shakespeare in Country. It’s a beautiful looking film which is never a bad thing.

There is a melancholic atmosphere here which is at times laid on a bit too thickly; Shakespeare is certainly in mourning for his son but for also the Globe and in many ways, for himself. The humor isn’t especially over-the-top and has a gentle touch (for the most part) although at times the acid tongue of Anne Hathaway gibes rise to some really potent zingers. While the dialogue can get a bit overindulgent at times (and there are an awful lot of Shakespearean references that are going to go over the average audience member’s head) there is nonetheless a charm here that made this one of my favorite films at the recent Florida Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at it’s upcoming Enzian run.

REASONS TO SEE: Branagh and Dench deliver wonderful performances. The cinematography is stunning. The humor is nice and gentle. The story is oddly affecting.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is a bit dense in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are adult, some sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Ben Elton was also one of the main writers on the Blackadder series, which frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shakespeare in Love
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Ode to Joy

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Expendables 3


Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Ronda Rousey, Kelsey Grammer, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi, Ivan Kostadinov, Slavi Slavov, Natalie Burn, Sarai Givaty. Directed by Patrick Hughes

Back in 2010, action fans eagerly awaited the debut of The Expendables which united action heroes from days gone by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Bruce Willis and of more recent vintage Li and Statham. The novelty factor alone made the movie a big hit but a single soliloquy by Mickey Rourke made the movie more memorable than the average action film.

Then came The Expendables 2 which added Jean-Claude van Damme and Chuck Norris (as well as more recent action star Liam Hemsworth) which was still entertaining in its own way but the novelty was beginning to wear off. Would the pattern continue?

Yeah, it does. While this is the most star-studded of the series, it is also the least fulfilling. I use that term advisedly – The Expendables 3 has a massive dose of testosterone that will grow hair on the chest of a Disney princess, and is surprisingly entertaining but not necessarily in a good way. You can sit back and watch this and take it for what it is, but if what it is doesn’t thrill you so much, you’re in for a long evening.

The team – leader Barney Ross (Stallone), right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham), surly Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), just as surly Toll Road (Couture) and abs-tastic Hale Caesar (Crews) board a prison train carrying a single prisoner – former Expendable Dr. Death (Snipes). As usual, lots of people get shot and stuff blows up but Team Ex wins out in the end.

But it turns out that the prison break was kind of a side trip on the way to something else. They’ve to head out and intercept a shipment of bombs from an arms dealer, who turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson) who just happened to co-found the Expendables before turning rogue and going out on his own. That job turns out to be something of a cluster frump and gets one of the team shot and in critical condition. Shaken up, Barney decides to retire the team and find a new one.

He needs one because their CIA contact Drummer (Ford) wants Stonebanks picked up alive and taken to the Hague to answer for his crimes. That’s easier said than done however and while Barney’s new team – including tech wizard Thorn (Powell), chatterbox Spanish killing machine Galgo (Banderas), team muscle Mars (Ortiz), beautiful but deadly Luna (Rousey) and anti-authoritarian potential team leader Smilee (Lutz) has more of a modern edge to them, they don’t do any better than the first team and things go sideways in a hurry. It will take the old team to rescue the new team and a final mano a mano brawl between Stonebanks and Barney to settle this once and for all.

Da Queen, being a pragmatic sort (and a bit of a masochist) decided to count up the ludicrous scenes in the movie when something that simply was too much of a stretch of the imagination to ignore; the end figure was in double digits. I can take a certain suspension of disbelief; after all, I used to love those ’80s action epics as much as the next guy. However, there comes a point where you’re inner brain starts to say “come on, you can’t be serious” to your testicles (or the female approximation of same) and the action fix begins to clash with your inner need for some sort of logic. How much you like the movie will depend on how bad you need an action fix.

Stallone, clean-shaven for the first time in the trilogy, looks every bit an AARP member at this point. There are several close-ups on his trademark sneer and as his righteous anger leeks out from his upper lip and into his eyeballs, you can tell he’s going to go all Rambo on somebody’s ass. Statham, not so nearly long in the tooth, merely looks uncomfortable most of the way through – perhaps that’s because he was involved in a near-fatal truck crash when the brakes on the truck he was driving in the movie failed and he was forced to abandon truck before it crashed into the sea.

I will say that the much-maligned Gibson fares the best here, channeling his Martin Riggs from back in the day and if Riggs were a villain in the Lethal Weapon series this is how he’d have turned out. He’s actually pretty fun to watch although I imagine that those who still haven’t gotten over his anti-Semitic drunken rant to the cops will be less sanguine about his performance. Snipes, recently released from prison, reminds us why he was such a great action star in the first place. I thought at one time he had the potential to be as big as Will Smith, although a series of bad roles and poor life choices derailed that. It still might happen though – he could use his performance here as an audition tape for any action movie in the offing and get serious consideration. He also has the best line in the movie; when asked by Toll Road what he was in prison for. I won’t tell you what he responds because the surprise is half the fun.

There is some CGI here and they must have done it on somebody’s Commodore VIC-20 because it is absolutely miserable, some of the worst I’ve ever seen. For example, for the scene near the movie’s end where he is hanging from a winch cable on a helicopter as the chopper pulls away from the camera, I’d much rather have stopped the scene with him dangling underneath it asking his snarky teammates to winch him up now right at that point instead of seeing a clearly CGI silhouette of the copter with the distant semi-humanoid figure and cable being sucked into the helicopter like a strand of spaghetti. I don’t like my action reality messed with.

This is a series whose novelty has run its course and needs to survive simply on the success of its action sequences and the quirkiness of its characters. For one thing, too many characters get virtually no screen time (Li shows up near the end and gets three or four lines and no fighting sequences which is a complete waste of his talents) and while the cast members are pretty able individually, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

REASONS TO GO: Definite testosterone overload.

REASONS TO STAY: Super predictable and super brainless. Some of the worst CGI ever. Novelty has worn off.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh yes, all sorts of violence with guns, blades, you name it – mayhem deluxe. There’s also a fair amount of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Expendables film not to be rated R.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Code Name: The Cleaner

Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)


In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

(1994) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ya-Lei Kuei, Chi-Der Hong, Gin-Ming Hsu, Huei-Yi Lin, Shih-Jay Lin, Chin-Cheng Lu, Cho-Gin Nei, Yu-Chien Tang, Chung Ting, Cheng-Fen Tso, Man-Sheng Tu, Chuen Wang, Shui Wang, Hwa Tu, Michael Taylor. Directed by Ang Lee

Films For Foodies

One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese. Done well (which is sadly rare where I live) it is flavorful, fresh and filling. Cuisine is in many ways a reflection of the philosophy of life of the originating culture. China is simple on the surface but very complex the further you delve into it. The same can be said about families, not just in China but in all cultures.

Chu (Lung) is an old school chef, once one of the most honored in Taipei. He is semi-retired now, living with his three adult unmarried daughters. His wife passed away some years back and he is lonely even in a house full of girls. They have modern sensibilities which puzzle him. There was a time when a father’s word was absolute but those days are gone.

Jia-Jen (Yang) is his eldest. Nine years previously, her heart was broken by a suitor who abandoned her. She eventually converted to Christianity with all the fervor of a convert which has caused some friction in the household. She works as a school nurse and has given up on love – until a volleyball coach (Hsu) begins to pay attention to her.

Jia-Chien (Wu) works for an airline as an executive and is fiercely independent, guarding that independence like a mama bear with a cub. She had once wanted nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps but in Chinese society women were not chefs – only at home did they ever cook. She sometimes meets up with Raymond (Chan), an old lover with privileges.

Jia-Ning (Y-W. Wang), the youngest, works at a fast-food joint and begins a relationship with Guo Lun (Chen) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jia-Ning’s fickle friend whose flightiness is beginning to wear on Guo Lun.

 

On Sundays, Chu prepares an extraordinary meal for all three of his daughters. At table, they share news of each other’s lives and sometimes drop announcements on the family of varying degrees of earth-shattering capability. Chu is being courted by Mrs. Liang (Kuei), the widowed mother of single mom Jin-Rong (Chang) who is almost like a fourth daughter. Mrs. Liang is always accompanied by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke which brings out the Dragon Lady stereotypes but makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the fragrant clouds of steam that rise from Chu’s gastronomic creations.

There are elements of farce here, as well as soap opera qualities. Each daughter represents a different daughterly virtue in Chinese culture, and each one has her own secret. Chu is not especially pleased with retirement; it doesn’t take much convincing to send him scurrying to his old restaurant to assist Uncle Wen (Wang), an old family friend – and yet he seems to take much more satisfaction from the meals he prepares for his girls, even though they don’t seem to appreciate it much.

Lee spends a great deal of time focusing on the food and its preparation – the entire first scene is essentially a how-to on how Chu prepares one of his epic Sunday dinners. You will be craving Chinese food by the time the first scene is over; you’ll be needing it like a junkie needs heroin by the time the movie is complete. Food is important in Chinese culture and Lee gives it the kind of reverence and due that the French accord a great meal.

 

I like Lung’s performance very much; he sometimes comes off as clueless but one gets the sense that he knows a lot more than what those around him give him credit for (and in the movie’s climax he proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt). His relationships with his daughters, Wen and Madame Liang are separate, different but all pursued with kindness and tenderness. This is a man who loves to feed people not just physically but in the soul as well.

His daughters are a different bunch, all of whom are stereotypes in a sense but still accorded personalities of their own. Like me, you are likely to form opinions of them based on your own particular point of view informed by your own experiences in life. I won’t judge here; the performances are all solid and you will love them or hate them as individuals but you will have an opinion. These are not the meek, submissive Asian women of a different age – even Jia-Jen who seems the meekest of the three has a core of iron.

Some will find the lives of the daughters a bit soap opera-esque and that may be a turn-off for those sorts. I can understand that; it’s a fair criticism. For my part, I didn’t really mind. When looked at as a cohesive whole, the entanglements of their lives are as dense and complex as the entanglements of our own. If we’re lucky.

Like any Chinese feast, this is meant to be savored slowly and enjoyed for a lifetime. I haven’t seen Lee’s preceding film The Wedding Banquet but it is said to be superior. One of these days I’ll have to check it out. In the meantime, I highly recommend this delectable morsel. If you love Chinese cooking, Chinese cinema, or family dramas – or any combination thereof – this is a meal that was meant just for you.

WHY RENT THIS: A lovely entwining of family and food. Funny in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit hard to follow sometimes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bad language and adult situations as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening sequence, depicting the detailed preparation of a Sunday lunch, took more than a week to film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with director Lee and his long-time producer partner James Schamus newly recorded for the DVD version which arrived in 2002.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tortilla Soup

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

The Lunchbox (Dabba)


Irrfan Khan reads his fan mail.

Irrfan Khan reads his fan mail.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Lillete Dubey, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar (voice), Yashvi Puneet Nagar, Denzil Smith, Shruti Bapna, Nasir Khan, Lokesh Raj, Sadashiv Knodaji Pokarkar, Aarti Rathod, Krishna Bai, Raj Rishi More, Santosh Kumar Chauraslya, Swapnil Sinha, Baaburao Sankpal. Directed by Ritesh Batra

There is something about human nature that demands connection. We need to have it almost as much as we need to eat and drink. Without it, we wither away like a flower that receives no water. That connection must be genuine, too – it is far too easy to be alone in a crowd.

Ila (Kaur) diligently prepares lunch for her husband Rajeev (Vaid). She gets advice on how to make her meal more delicious from her Auntie (Achrekar) who lives upstairs and helpfully sends spices down in a basket through the kitchen window, a kind of makeshift dumbwaiter. Every afternoon, a dabbawallah picks up her lunch, compactly stored in aluminum containers stacked in a canvas bag, and delivers it to her husband’s office. In Mumbai, millions of these lunches are delivered each day from homes and restaurants. Researchers from Harvard University once observed and analyzed their system and discovered that only one in a million deliveries ever went to the wrong address.

My savvy readers can guess where this is going. Ila’s lunch is mis-delivered to the office of Saajan Fernandes, a government bureaucrat who is getting ready to retire. He’s kind of a prickly sort and has been since his wife passed away. Shaikh (Siddiqui), a young go-getter, has been tapped to replace him and is eager to be trained in the job. Shaikh is a bit of a butt-kisser and this irritates Saajan terribly, so he finds ways of avoiding his overeager replacement.

The lunch he receives from Ila is delicious – much more so than the bland and lifeless crap he normally gets from the local restaurant. Saajan devours the entire contents of the lunchbox and sends it back empty to Ila who is pleased. Rajeev almost never eats all of the lunch she sends him, returning part or sometimes all of it. Thinking she has pleased her husband, she makes herself look as pretty as she can (which is dang beautiful indeed) and waits for him to come home.

To her dismay, when he returns home it’s the same thing – a cold distance between him and his desultory response to her questions about the meal make it clear he hadn’t eaten a morsel of it. Puzzled, she sends her next lunchbox out with a note hidden in the naan bread. Saajan finds the note and is intrigued, responding back. Soon the two are corresponding back and forth, their anonymity allowing them to be more confessional than they would normally be. These two lonely people – Saajan alone without company, Ila in a loveless marriage – form an unexpected bond.

In fact, loneliness is a theme in the movie. All three of the main characters – while Shaikh is preparing to get married, he is an orphan who has no family at all – are lonely in some way. It is the communication between Saajan and Ila that transforms the three of them. We can see the anonymous messages left with the naan as a kind of metaphor for modern social media, how we as a society have become more dependent on anonymous faceless communication with people we don’t know on Facebook and services like it, sharing intimate things about our lives with people we’ve never been in the same continent with. It is a fascinating phenomenon when you think about it and speaks to our own need for communication and connection more eloquently than anything I could possibly write.

Khan is one of India’s most respected and beloved actors, having made something of a splash here in this country as well, albeit mainly in supporting roles. Here you get to see him at his best; his eyes communicate his misery and loneliness even though he demonstrates great compassion through all his grumpy exterior. It really is an amazing performance and were he a western actor, this movie would undoubtedly have been released in the fall for Oscar consideration. Still, perhaps someone will take notice and we will get to see more of this wonderful actor.

Kaur has been nominated for acting awards for her performance here which stands up even with Khan at his best, which is saying something. Not only is she a spectacular beauty, she manages to convey the stress of her situation through tired eyes. She manages to be a loving mother to her daughter and a loving daughter to her mother (Dubey) even as Ila’s father (N. Khan) is dying of lung cancer. It’s an affecting performance.

Granted the plot is essentially light and fluffy, but then remember this is the country of Bollywood and light and fluffy entertainment is really their hallmark, but there is depth here that likewise reminds us that this is also the country that produced Satyajit Ray. While this isn’t quite to the standards of that master’s work, it does serve to remind us that like Indian cuisine, Indian cinema can have unexpected moments that make us re-evaluate our opinions of what it is we’re consuming. This is truly a film worth seeking out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: Sexy but not overtly so. Kaur is absolutely gorgeous and both she and Khan provide moving performances. The food looks really yummy!

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat lightweight. The ending was ambiguous which may be unsatisfying for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The tone and material may be a bit too adult for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Irrfan Khan, one of India’s most respected actors, is best-known in the U.S. for his appearances in The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time, Next Year

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Oculus

Fast & Furious 6


Vin Diesel is heartbroken to discover that Michelle Rodriguez looks better in a wifebeater than he does.

Vin Diesel is heartbroken to discover that Michelle Rodriguez looks better in a wifebeater than he does.

(2013) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Paul Walker, Luke Evans, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Gina Carano, Elsa Pataky, Clara Paget, Joe Taslim, Kim Kold, Samuel M. Stewart, Shea Whigham, Benjamin Davies, Matthew Stirling, David Ajala, There Lindhardt, Magda Rodriguez. Directed by Justin Lin   

I’m not much of a car person. I seriously couldn’t tell a carburetor from an alternator. When I go car shopping, I look for dependable. I drive a Honda for god’s sakes.

Which would probably make the characters in this film franchise squirm in horror. Any one of them could rebuild an engine of a Ferrari with parts from a Camry with their eyes closed and half asleep. And can they drive? Hoo lawd! These gals and fellers could put a 12-wheeler through a doggie door in a steel house at 90mph. And this series has thrived on people who think that kind of thing’s cool.

In the sixth installment of the series, the members of the crew are living large internationally after their big score in Rio. However, things never stay quiet for long for these guys. Hobbs (Johnson) shows up at Dom’s (Diesel) door, not particularly welcome. Even less welcome is Hobbs’ request that Dom’s crew reassemble to nab an international bad guy who is out to assemble a super-weapon out of component parts. After all, as Dom is happy to point out, they’re all retired from the game.

But Hobbs has a wild card to play – a photo of Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez), Dom’s girlfriend who apparently was murdered in Fast & Furious. Nope. Like at least one other character in the series, she shows up from the dead (albeit with no memory) but as one of the crew of said Eurobaddie, Owen Shaw (Evans). This is all the incentive Dom needs. Family is family, after all so he puts out some calls.

Those phone calls find Brian (Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Brewster) as new parents, Roman (Gibson) and Tej (Bridges) living the high life in Spain, Han (Kang) and Giselle (Gadot) living together in Hong Kong. They agree to help Dom bring Letty back, but Dom wants more – pardons for everyone so that they can go home again.

While Mia and Dom’s new squeeze Elena (Pataky) stay home to guard the baby, Hobbs and his new flunky Riley (Carano) join up with the crew in London to see if they can catch the guy who has eluded Hobbs for years. But the stakes are sky-high, Shaw’s team is as skilled as Dom’s only more vicious and Letty can’t remember Dom at all – in fact the first time they meet face to face she shoots him. This isn’t like any other job; they will be betrayed from within and more than one member of Dom’s team won’t come back from this.

Now, I want you to understand something up front – this isn’t reality at all. There are car stunts that defy gravity, plot points that defy logic and human bodies getting beat up so bad that they defy death. Da Queen and I were consistently making the “jumping the shark” signal to each other (an inverted V on one hand with two fingers on the other making a parabolic arc over the first) throughout the movie. And you know what? It didn’t matter. As ludicrous as this movie often is, it doesn’t matter – the entertainment quotient is so sky high that you ignore these lapses and just enjoy the ballet of man, machine and road.

Vinnie D and the Rock are both fairy limited at this point in their careers in terms of acting ability. That isn’t a knock or a criticism, they both I think understand what their comfort zone is and tend to stay well within it. While that may make for some fairly one-dimensional performances (and occasionally have) they are both also highly charismatic so their own personalities tend to inflect themselves on their characters. It so happens I like hanging out with these guys (or would if I knew them personally) so that isn’t a bad thing at all.

There’s a lot of posturing, a lot of attitude and some great stunts and car chases. While there is a nod to the underground racing roots of the series, the franchise is way beyond that now which is a very smart move – I think the car racing thing got old after the first one and they’ve really allowed themselves to appeal to more than a niche audience, which explains that their highest box office numbers have come with the last two films.

There is a cut scene at the end that you should hang out for – it explains one of the most notorious continuity lapses in the series and introduces a surprise new character in one of the great twists you’re ever going to see in a cut scene (up there with the reveal of Thanos).

This is great summer entertainment and has helped make a solid opening to the 2013 summer blockbuster season. There is definitely a Fast & Furious 7 in the works (already scheduled as of this date to open on July 11, 2014) which the cut scene sets up. As much as a non-car person that I am (as delineated above) and as much as I was disinterested in the series for the first four movies, the last two have made me a fan and I can’t wait for the next one.

REASONS TO GO: Varies the formula from the first two movies nicely while sticking to the things that made the first movie great. More Jeong is never a bad thing.

REASONS TO STAY: Scattershot much more than the first two films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence and automotive mayhem, some swearing and a bit of sexuality..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Rodriguez didn’t have a driver’s license when the series first started and only obtained one after filming began on the first film in the franchise.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; critics surprisingly have gotten behind this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job (2003)

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frances Ha