No Reservations


Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

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

Films For Foodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ant-Man


Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Abby Ryder Fortson, David Dastmaichian, T.I, Hayley Atwell, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Martin Donovan, Garrett Morris, Gregg Turkington, Rod Hallett, Joe Chrest, Hayley Lovitt. Directed by Peyton Reed

Good things come in small packages. It’s a truism that was likely created by short people. Still, it can be true even for superheroes.

Scott Lang (Rudd) is not a thief. He’s a burglar. But not your ordinary burglar. He’s a man with a Masters in Electrical Engineering and plenty of skills with a computer. He saw that a software company had been ripping off its customers, so he decided just to return the funds they had been overcharging to their customers. Kind of a modern day Robin Hood.

But even though his good buddy Luis (Pena) puts him up, Scott is finding it hard to make it in the outside world. Even a job at Baskin-Robbins doesn’t pan out when they find out he’s an ex-con. Baskin-Robbins always finds out. Anyway, his ex-wife (Greer) doesn’t want him anywhere near their cute daughter Cassie (Fortson) and her new husband Paxton (Cannavale), a cop, is going to make sure he stays away.

Hank Pym (Douglas) is a brilliant inventor who came up with a particle that compresses molecules, enabling the wearer of the suit he invented to utilize them to shrink to the size of an insect. He left SHIELD after a disagreement with Howard Stark (Slattery) and more to the point, Mitchell Carson (Donovan) led him to resign.

He entered the private sector and took on a protégé named Darren Cross (Stoll). After the death of his wife, Janet van Dyne (Lovitt) led to an estrangement with his daughter Hope (Lilly) to the point where she now uses her mother’s maiden name as her own, he had largely left the company. He only came back in because Cross was on the verge of discovering the secret to his particles – and planned to use a weaponized version of the suit to sell to the highest bidder. He needs someone to steal the suit and erase all the data from the system pertaining to it. But who could pull it off?

Of course it’s Scott Lang. And he and Hope (who, finding out about Cross’ plans has teamed up with her father) have a very short time to train Scott in using the suit properly, to fight effectively in it and use all the properties (like controlling ants) to become a hero in his own right. But will it be enough to beat the villainous Yellowjacket – the alter ego of Cross?

One of the things I have admired most about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the movies are not interchangeable. Each of them has their own style and Ant-Man continues that tradition. This is much more light in tone than the previous entries in the Marvel Universe, more like Guardians of the Galaxy than Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latter of which immediately preceded it in the Marvel timeline.

And maybe the MCU needed it; I think that other than the staunchest of Marvel fans were feeling a touch of burn-out after Age of Ultron. For whatever reason the powers-that-be at Disney decided that this would come out a mere two and a half months after the preceding movie which is a poor tactical decision and will likely cost this movie millions of box office dollars. Perhaps they just wanted a longer gap between the movie that ends Marvel’s Phase II (which this one does) and the one that begins Phase III (which Captain America: Civil War will on May 6, 2016). Still, with the Avengers still in a lot of theaters, it doesn’t make sense to release this one. I guess they’re getting ready to ratcheting up the film production to three a year rather than two which Marvel is planning on doing in 2017.

In any case, I suspect that the relatively low box office numbers (which would still be the envy of plenty of summer films) is largely due to the short turnaround. It may also be due to fan dissatisfaction over the change in director (see below) as fan favorite Edgar Wright left (or was forced out as many conspiracy-minded fanboys have opined) and Peyton Reed came aboard. I can’t say that Reed was a crackerjack replacement, but he does tend to keep things very simple in terms of framing shots and blocking action, but he also realizes this is necessarily effects-driven and allows the digital wizards to do their thing and do it they do.

The effects are for the most part well-executed, although the 2001-style sequence near the end of the movie as Scott enters the Microverse is a bit psychedelic, some might even say Dali-esque. The movie works best when they are in the world with ants as big as SUVs and where Thomas the Tank Engine becomes a runaway locomotive.

Rudd has always been a personable actor with a flair for the sarcastic and his winning personality is at full throttle here. He has bulked up his musculature to superheroic proportions and despite the fact that he is playing a convict (albeit a philanthropic one) the audience roots for him from beginning to end. There were those who might have rolled their eyes when he was cast but again, it turns out to be perfect casting as Marvel seems extremely adept at matching their superheroes with the right actors to play them.

I’ve always been a big Michael Douglas fan and for me, he is the best reason to go see this. Hank Pym is undeniably the best character he’s gotten in ages and this is his best performance in years. This is the Michael Douglas we remember from such films as Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction. He owns the screen every time he’s on it.

In the supporting realm, Evangeline Lilly is somewhat enigmatic in her pageboy haircut that reminded me of silent movie star Louise Brooks; ever since her breakout performance in Lost she hasn’t really gotten a part that takes advantage of her skills until now. Hopefully she’ll get plenty of good parts off of her performance here. Also Pena shows remarkable comic ability here; he has tended to play second banana roles for the most part – lots of cops on his filmography – but he steals the show here.

The light-hearted tone may be disappointing to fans who prefer their superheroes dark and undoubtedly we’ll get plenty of that in the next several Marvel films starting with Fantastic Four next month. Still, this is fine summer entertainment, better than the majority of the blockbusters that have appeared this summer to date and that’s saying something. This won’t stand up with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it won’t disappoint either. Marvel keeps on rolling and I for one continue to look forward to each new Marvel movie with anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: A little more light-hearted than most superhero films. Douglas gives his best performance in years.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too light for hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES: Superhero-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally developed by Edgar Wright who had brought the film to casting; however he dropped out at the 11th hour due to creative differences with Disney who had bought Marvel Studios in the intervening years; Reed stepped in, retaining the cast Wright had chosen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredible Shrinking Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shrink


The party's over...

The party’s over…

(2009) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Griffin Dunne, Robin Williams, Pell James, Robert Loggia, Keke Palmer, Gore Vidal, Dallas Roberts, Mark Webber, Jesse Plemmons, Laura Ramsey, Ashley Greene, Joel Gretsch, Mina Olivera. Directed by Jonas Pate

We look to our mental health professionals to help us see us through our problems, help us overcome our addictions and in general feel better about ourselves and our lives. Like any physician, they are also human beings, subject to issues and pain of their own.

Dr. Henry Carter (Spacey) is a bestselling author and psychiatrist to the stars. He has a gorgeous home in the hills, a clientele that reads like the “A” list and the respect of his peers. But that home is an empty one – his wife committed suicide in it. He can’t bring himself to go in his bedroom any more. He numbs himself out on alcohol and pot. In fact it can be said that Dr. Henry Carter is a stoner of epic proportions.

That’s not to say he isn’t functioning. He still manages to see patients and doles out advice that at least sounds good. His patients include a hard-charging talent manager (Roberts) who gives no quarter in business and has no regard for anyone, a fading comic actor (Williams) who is a raging alcoholic but refuses to acknowledge his problem – he attends his sessions to be treated for a sex addiction that he does acknowledge. There’s also an actress (Burrows) whose career is handled by the talent manager that is slowly spinning into oblivion as he believes her age is an obstacle. She is married to a philandering rock star (Gretsch).

Into this mix comes Jemma (Palmer), a teen whose mother recently committed suicide. She is seemingly losing interest in everything except the movies; Dr. Carter’s father (Loggia) – also a well-respected shrink – urged him to take her on as a pro bono case. At the same time, Dr. Carter’s “step-godbrother” Jeremy (Webber), a struggling screenwriter, becomes friendly with Jemma and realizes her story is the one he was born to tell.

Yes, this is one of those ensemble pieces where all the stories of all these different people are entwined. It’s just not done as well as those other movies like Babel or Crash. The writers rely far too much on coincidence. It’s lazy storytelling and it happens way often here.

Fortunately the movie has some strong performances to fall back on. Nobody in the business does cynical as well as Spacey does and he delivers once again here, despite material that really could have easily been rendered into a 2D caricature. To the actor’s credit, he gives the character nuances and layers that give him a fully realized personality that allows us to really get involved in his story.

He is well-supported, particularly by the manic Williams who has had problems with alcohol in his career and clearly channels those awful years in is performance; Palmer is sweet and cute and adorable and is a breath of fresh air in the movie and James who plays Roberts’ personal assistant who is the love interest for Jeremy.

The opening shot, a panoramic take of the City of Angels from behind the Hollywood sign, shows a great deal of promise but then it falls into cliché-ridden seen-it-all-before-ness that not only doesn’t add any real insight to addiction or life in L.A. but doesn’t really add anything to the genre either. The only thing it really has going for it is Spacey and you can certainly see him in plenty of much better films.

WHY RENT THIS: Spacey is always interesting. Supporting cast is first-rate.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit formulaic. Some lazy writing – too many coincidences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of alcohol and drug abuse in the film, and a whole lot of bad language. There’s some sexual content as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video for the Jackson Browne song “Here” from the film’s soundtrack.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $303,431 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Gangster Squad