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

Columbus (2017)


Art and architecture don’t always mix necessarily.

(2017) Drama (Superlative) John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Rosalyn R. Ross, Erin Allegretti, Jim Dougherty, Lindsey Shope, Shani Salyers Stiles, William Willet, Reen Vogel, Wynn Reichert, Alphaeus Green Jr., Caitlin Ewald. Directed by Kogonada

 

There are times in our lives when we are in a place that we don’t want to be; we are there because we are obligated to be there. Upon reflection however it generally turns out that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be. Realizing it at the time is pretty much always another matter.

Jin (Cho) finds himself in Columbus, Indiana. Not because he has any great desire to be there but because his father, a scholar on architecture, was to deliver a lecture there but collapsed and went into a coma. Jin and his father have barely spoken for a long time but Jin is the only blood relative his father has, so he goes at the behest of his dad’s protégé Eleanor (Posey) whom not uncoincidentally he had a crush on as a teen.

Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. She’s whip-smart and has a passion for architecture, so living in Columbus is a great thing for her – the town is known for its striking modernist architecture designed by some of the greatest architects in history – I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and John Carl Warnecke among them – and while volunteering at the local library also gives tours of the city’s landmarks. She has had offers to go to college (she just graduated high school) but has quietly turned them down, preferring to stay at home and take care of her recovering drug addict mother (Forbes) who is in a fragile emotional state and probably wouldn’t be able to care for herself without Casey.

Jin and Casey meet and one would think initially that they wouldn’t hit it off much; Jin doesn’t care much for architecture, a field which essentially took his workaholic father away from him and Casey is nuts about it but hit it off they do. At first Casey seems content to give her tour guide opinions of the buildings that catch Jin’s eye but as Jin gently digs she begins to open up to him. Pretty sure, he’s opening up to her right back.

That’s really all the plot there is to this movie. Normally I don’t mind a movie that is all middle without a beginning or an end; I love movies that grasp the ebb and flow of life. That’s not really the case here. First time director Kogonada has a brilliant visual sense and a real eye for shot composition, but utilizes it to excess here. I do appreciate his use of water and rain as a motif and his use of geometric shapes amid natural environments but after awhile one becomes dulled to the images. We are made aware at nearly every moment that each scene is an artificial setting, not an organic function of the scene. For example, there’s a scene in a hotel room where Jin and Eleanor are talking about his feelings for her growing up; the entire scene is shot viewing the reflection of two mirrors which act almost as television screens. Don’t get me wrong – It’s a clever shot – but in a highly charged emotional scene we don’t get to see the emotions of the actors. This is the very epitome of a director’s creativity undermining his own film.

And that really is one of the major faults of the film – we never get connected to the characters because we’re constantly aware of the director behind them. He frames them in corridors in which, we can’t fail to notice, the columns on one side are square and on the other side round. We see oblique shots in which forced perspective puts two characters sitting on the steps close together but we also notice that the dialogue is done with one character’s back to the other the entire time. That’s not a natural conversation; people tend to want to turn and face their partner when they are conversing.

One of the other fundamental flaws is that we never really care about any of the characters. Kogonada seems to keep them at arm’s length and even though they are talking about some fairly in depth background, it is all couched in self-absorbed and pretentious terms and after awhile we begin to tune out.

Maybe if the dialogue were scintillating enough I might forgive the film a bit more but it’s comparable to a couple of self-absorbed college students who are a lot less insightful than they think they are having a conversation about something esoteric without really understanding the subject completely. I get that Casey is a college-age character who fits that description (as is the Rory Culkin character whom I’ll get to in a moment) but there are also older characters who have more maturity at least but they still sound like 19-year-olds. Not that there’s anything wrong with 19-year-olds nor is it impossible for a college student to show insight but it is also possible for college students to be arrogant and condescending as well, and one feels talked down to throughout.

There is also a lot of material here that is unnecessary, brief throwaway moments that add nothing to the story or to your understanding of the characters – Casey has a conversation with her mother about not having eggs and needing to go to the grocery store to get some, for example. A good storyteller will use that as a springboard to get Casey to the grocery store so that something germane could occur but she never goes to the store nor is the egg shortage anything more than throwaway conversation – and the movie is full of these sorts of moments. I mentioned Rory Culkin’s character a moment ago and you might notice that he doesn’t appear in the plot synopsis. That’s because he doesn’t need to. His character is completely unnecessary and were his scenes to end up on the cutting room floor it wouldn’t affect the movie in any significant way. Much of this movie appears to be about how much our lives are consumed with things that don’t matter in the long run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is completely devoid of merit – although Da Queen might argue that point. Afterwards she told me she would rather have sucked her own eyeballs out with a straw than watch this movie again. I can understand that – the movie commits the cardinal sin of being boring, although those who love shot composition will look at this movie and be fascinated, but a movie is more than a series of shots or at least it should be. A movie needs momentum, a sense of movement from one place or tone to another and this movie has all the inertia of Mount Rushmore. Columbus requires a great deal of patience to appreciate and these days that’s in very short supply. It’s a movie that I would actually encourage viewers to text and talk during which is completely anathema to the movie experience I expect but then again this isn’t a movie that maybe a traditional environment isn’t suitable for.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the shots here are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a movie that is self-absorbed and pretentious. None of the characters are worth caring about. There’s too much extraneous business and too many unnecessary characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vice-President Mike Pence grew up in Columbus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Literally, Right Before Aaron

Paper Towns


Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

Cara Delevingne wait to see if the coast is clear.

(2015) Drama (20th Century Fox) Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono, Josiah Cerio, Hannah Allgood, Meg Crosbie, Griffin Freeman, Caitlin Carver, RJ Shearer, Susan Macke Miller, Tom Hillmann, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Jay Duplass, Kendall McIntyre, Emma O’Laughlin, Yossie Mulyadi. Directed by Jake Schreier

Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. Some of us learn early on and either go through a life of self-hatred or one of self-satisfaction, or at least self-acceptance. For others, we search and search, grabbing at maddening clues that seem to lead us somewhere but ultimately lead us back to ourselves. For some of us, the search is what makes us who we are.

Quentin (Wolff) is a senior in high school. He is one of those guys who everyone knows but nobody particularly cares one way or the other about him other than his two best friends, Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams). Quentin has his whole life planned out; he’s been accepted at Duke, intends to go to their prestigious medical school, become a doctor of oncology and meet someone special and have lots of babies and have a great life. The end.

Except he’s already met someone special, as far as he’s concerned. Her name is Margo Roth-Spiegelman (Delevingne) and she lives right across the street. She’s lived there ever since they were children and Quentin has had a crush on her from the first day he saw her. They couldn’t be more opposites; Quentin has a plan, tends to play things safe and wants his life on the straight and narrow. She, on the other hand, is adventurous, loves a good mystery and isn’t afraid to live her life outside the box.

That’s why they inevitably drift apart during high school. Oddly, she becomes part of the in crowd, the girlfriend of Jase (Freeman), a jock who has been cheating on her with her best friend Becca (Carver). Disillusioned, she shows up at Quentin’s window one night, needing a getaway driver. That’s because she wants to get revenge on those who betrayed her as well as those who knew about the betrayal and didn’t tell her, which would include her other best friend Lacey (Sage) and Lacey’s boyfriend (and Jase’s best friend) Chuck (Shearer).

The vengeance is complicated and bittersweet. Quentin is at first a reluctant participant, not wanting to get caught and have his carefully laid plans ruined, but as the night goes on he finds himself feeling alive like he never has before. He feels that old connection with Margo and it seems as if that feeling is reciprocated as she wonders in a sort of melancholy way how things might have turned out if she hadn’t abandoned him for the in crowd and stayed with him.

The next day, Margo doesn’t show up for school. Nor the next and the next. The police become involved but Margo’s mom (Miller) throws up her hands in disgust. This isn’t the first time Margo has run away from home and she’ll come back when she gets bored or runs out of money. She declines to file a missing persons report, earning her a parent of the year award from an incredulous Quentin.

He resolves to find her himself and of course his trusted friends are all in. Ben, in particular wants the opportunity to hang out with Lacey, who it turns out didn’t know what Jase was up to and is as concerned as to her whereabouts as Quentin is.

Margo has always been wont to leaving clues and this is no exception. Bribing her little sister Ruthie (Crosbie) to let her examine Margo’s room, Quentin discovers a volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which seems to indicate her state of mine. He also finds a scrap of paper with an address of what turns out to be an abandoned tourist memorabilia shop in a dicey part of town, which will lead him and his friends on the adventure of a lifetime.

This is based on the young adult book of the same name by John Green (who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars) which should have given it a built-in audience but the early box office returns have been less spectacular than the other film. Not bad, but not spectacular. The movie will make a tidy profit, but not nine figures like the first film did.

Part of the issue with the movie is that the leads are really not easy. Quentin is as white bread as they come, a little bit boring even. His obsession with Margo flies in the face of his carefully prepared life, and of logic – admittedly however teen hormones trump logic every time. Margo on the other hand is as self-centered a lead as you’ll see in the movies. Everything she does is about her and about her needs, and as it turns out, nobody really notices except for the astute Ben who tells Lacey “She doesn’t deserve a friend like you” and he’s right. She’s the sort that an adult can see right through, from the pretentious use of capital letters and her aphorisms which sound a lot wiser than they are. If Quentin is the average high school student, Margo is the high school student that doesn’t exist except in the mind of John Green. Which of course means she probably does.

The writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have an ear for dialogue, even more so than Diablo Cody and Kevin Smith who both write excellent dialogue but in a more clever vein. These kids talk the way kids really speak and that genuineness is part of the movie’s highlights. For me – and I admit this is strictly my own viewpoint – I found it refreshing that this movie, set in my home town of Orlando, portrays Orlando as a city where people actually live, even though Margo despises it so. She probably never hung out at the Enzian Theater. She’d have had a different opinion.

I would go so far as to say that this captures the bittersweet elements of one’s senior year in high school. It is a time of transition without those who are living it knowing it. Only towards the last weeks we realize that we are hanging out at the burger place for the last time, eating pancakes at our best friend’s house for the last time, going to science lab for the last time. Suddenly we realize we are being pushed out into adulthood and as eager as we are to grow up, a part of us is kicking and screaming.

The best part of the movie is the relationship between Quentin, Radar and Ben which is surprising since the movie is ostensibly about Quentin and Margo, but the bonds between the three boys becoming men are so genuine and so real; to their credit, the filmmakers realize that (and I think Green probably does as well) and at the end of the day, when Quentin is given a choice, he chooses to return home to his friends, even though after the summer they’ll all go their separate ways. It is a bittersweet ending, but the right one.

I have always thought that people latch onto a movie because they see a little bit of themselves in the characters, but I no longer believe that is true. I think we latch onto a movie because we see ourselves the way we want to be in the characters, and surprisingly, the character I saw myself wanting to be the most was Radar, whose loyalty to his girlfriend Angela (Sinclair) is sweet and admirable in many ways; I wish I had that kind of commitment when I was his age. I like to think I would have. In any case, while this movie isn’t going to set teen hearts aflutter, it might appeal to jaded adults like myself more than you might expect. Who would have thought that.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the bittersweet senior year nicely. The bonds between the guys are genuine.
REASONS TO STAY: A mite too pretentious for its own good. Margo is a little too self-centered to identify with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, teen drinking and partying, partial nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ansel Elgort makes a cameo as a gas station convenience store clerk.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Crude

Welcome to Me


Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

(2014) Comedy (Alchemy) Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Thomas Mann, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Kulap Vilaysack, Mitch Silpa, Anelia Dyoulgerova, Joe Roland, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace, Rose Abdoo, Hannah Chodos, Sabra Williams, Charlotte Rabbe, Shanna Strong. Directed by Shira Piven

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all like to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery. Buy a new house, a new car, a new boat; pay off all our debts, take a fabulous vacation, maybe give some back to the community or to charity. I’m fairly sure most of us would not have buying ourselves our own talk show on the radar.

Alice Klieg (Wiig) ha s just won the California lottery. Up until now she’s led a kind of a drab existence although that’s largely drug-induced. Not the fun kind even – the prescription kind. She has a borderline personality disorder and needs meds to stabilize her moods which have a tendency to get savage without warning. She mostly keeps to herself and watches VHS videotapes of Oprah shows, which she has largely memorized.

So she says goodbye to her pills, much to the objections of her therapist (Robbins), puts herself on a diet low on glucose, high on protein and low on carbohydrates which she pronounces “carbohydrants.” With not a lot to do in Palm Desert (her home), she moves into a hotel room at the local Native American casino and finds herself fascinated by a product that she sees on a local shopping network that seems to fit into her dietary needs. She and her best friend Gina (Cardellini) get tickets to a studio audience for an infomercial huckstering the product and feeling empowered by her recent success, manages to get some camera face time. Flush with the success of that, she informs the station owner Rich (Marsden) that she has an idea for a talk show that she’s willing to pay for, starring herself with the subject of…herself.

While the acerbic director Dawn (Cusack) thinks that this is a monumentally bad idea, Rich is desperate for money to save the station, much to his brother Gabe’s (Bentley) chagrin. He was the face of the product that attracted Alice’s attention and now is attracting Alice’s attention for a whole other reason.

Alice, who has never had any sort of filter and blurts out whatever comes into her head (and reads prepared statements when she wants to get something across) has begun sleeping around with whoever catches her fancy. On the show she makes her grand entrance in a swan boat-like vehicle (she has a thing for swans, which decorate her house) and mostly talks about her diet, and re-enacts incidents from her life that bother her to this day, like someone stealing from her make-up bag on a ski trip, or a former friend who told others in high school that Alice had some mental issues. When provoked, Alice throws things or goes into screaming rages.

As the show continues to run and gets a kind of viral success, Alice begins to spin out of control. She is able to afford to buy what she wants which continues to feed into her disease. Her self-absorption becomes almost maniacal and even the loyal Gina is horrified and can’t cope with the new Alice. She is re-inventing herself, but is it into a person she truly wants to be?

Wiig’s post-SNL career has been largely of characters like this, although Alice is a bit of an extreme. She excels at characters who are just a bit off-beat, who march to their own drummer and who aren’t just ordinary folks. She has also been choosing of late indie films that allow her to really display her best work, roles that are really in her wheelhouse. In many ways, this is her best performance on the big screen, even more so than her work in the blockbuster hit Bridesmaids which essentially set her up as a star leading actress. Even as Alice becomes more unlikable, she remains sympathetic for the most part as we know she doesn’t really control her own actions.

This is one of two films I’ve seen at this year’s Florida Film Festival that has at their center a person with emotional/mental issues that make the conscious decision to stop taking their medication. It is played to much more comedic effect here and less to the chilling effect it is in Gabriel which might make those who are advocates for those who have issues to take pause; however, it should be said I didn’t get a sense that either Wiig or the filmmakers were making fun of Alice but showing the side of her that might provoke an audience to laugh. Certainly I went in thinking that I was going to be cringing more than laughing and ended up doing more of the latter than the former.

The movie starts out strong and kinda peters out near the end. A strong supporting cast, particularly Cusack who has become for my money one of the strongest character actresses working today, helps keep the movie interesting throughout, although some of the characters are a bit cliche. At times it feels like the writers had stretched out the movie to make it feature length.

Still in all, this is solidly entertaining. There’s some subtle – okay, not so subtle – commentary on our obsession with fame and of our consumerist, self-involved society which is quite welcome but for the most part shooting fish in a barrel. What it isn’t is an issue movie on mental health. Wiig remains an acquired taste for some, mainly because the roles she tends to go for are pretty quirky (and none more than this one) but when she’s on as she is here, she’s as good as any comic actress out there. For those who want to avoid the crowds at the big summer movies, this makes for a nice alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Wiig gives a stellar performance. Much funnier than I expected. Great supporting performances, particularly from Cusack.
REASONS TO STAY: Falls apart near the end. A couple of cliche characters in the mix. Some of the material feels a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, some graphic nudity, a fair amount of foul language and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shira Piven is actor Jeremy Piven’s older sister; the actress who plays Alice’s mother in the film is actually Shira and Jeremy Piven’s mom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Me Three Times