Toast


Helena Bonham Carter's Mad Men audition didn't go as planned.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Mad Men audition didn’t go as planned.

(2010) Biographical Drama (W2 Media) Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty, Colin Prockter, Frasier Huckle, Kia Pegg, Rielly Newbold, Roger Walker, Rob Jarvis, Amy Marston, Selina Cadell, Louise Mardenborough, Corinne Wicks, Marion Bailey, Tracey Wilkinson, Claire Higgins. Directed by S.J. Clarkson

There is an old saying that says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Personally, I don’t buy it; the way to a man’s heart is through a place lower in the anatomy, if you get my drift. Still, if you can keep a man well-fed, you have a decent shot at keeping a man once you’ve got him.

For young Nigel Slater (Kennedy), life in the late 50s/early 60s in England is blissful although flavorless. His Dad (Stott) is a factory manager with a grumpy temperament; his mom (Hamilton) sweet as can be although she has one flaw – she can’t cook to save her life. Everything she makes is boiled in a can (a pre-microwave era of making prepared foods) and when the contents of those cans came out overcooked, it would be toast for supper, something Nigel actually looked forward to.

As it turned out, his mum had another flaw – severe asthma and eventually it would take her life. Although Nigel misses her terribly, life continues on pretty much as before with dad being not much better at cooking than his late wife was.

Into their lives comes housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Bonham-Carter) who is in fact a brilliant cook – she seduces the Slaters with heavenly meringues and savory roasts. But the now-teenage Nigel (Highmore) has taken an interest in cooking himself and is jealous of the attention his father is paying Mrs. Potter – and yes, there IS a Mr. Potter. Eventually the Slaters pull up stakes and move out to the country, Mrs. Potter in tow and Nigel competes with Mrs. Potter for Mr. Slater, with Mrs. Potter having the upper hand. Nigel has also discovered his sexuality – and he is very much interested in boys, although he is too shy to approach any. What will his dad make of that?

This was originally made for British television and was a monster hit in the ratings there. Why they chose to release it in the U.S. is something of a mystery; Slater, a well-known food critic in Great Britain, is virtually unknown here across the pond.

That doesn’t mean that this isn’t worth watching. Even if you don’t know who Nigel would become, his story is still interesting and bittersweet. It’s also nice to see Britain in the ’60s, in some ways the apex of modern British culture (some might argue that the 80s were and I wouldn’t disagree) and the filmmakers capture the period beautifully here, even more so than Mad Men.

Bonham-Carter is an underrated actress who often appears in supporting roles in big movies yet almost always steals attention in a good way – see her Harry Potter appearances or Big Fish if you disagree. While I get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they make of the Mrs. Potter character, whether she’s an adulterous manipulative homewrecker or a woman trying her best to please a family that’s been through hell. Nigel is much more clear; he thinks she’s the former and loathes the woman although we can’t always see why. In many ways, we begin to root against the main character which is rather odd because Bonham-Carter isn’t the focus; Nigel is and the more he hates Mrs. Potter, the more we see him as a spoiled officious twit.

The movie is a bit overbearing in places and makes a lot of its points with a sledge hammer when a Q-tip would have done. I could have used some subtitles in places as some of the rural accents were a bit difficult to decipher.

There was some entertainment to be had here and there are some funny moments but by and large I found that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have the courage of their convictions. The real Mrs. Potter’s daughters (Nigel’s stepsisters) have excoriated the movie (and Slater’s autobiography which inspired it) for the portrayal both of Mr. Slater and Mrs. Potter (her name was even changed for the movie) and while they have a bit of an ulterior motive, just the way these portrayals are made in the film tell me that they are a bit skewed by Nigel’s own prejudices in the matter which is only to be expected. We all see things through our own lens of self-interest.

WHY RENT THIS: Bonham-Carter is always fascinating onscreen. Captures period nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t use Bonham-Carter’s character well. A bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, period smoking and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chef at the Savoy Hotel who appears in the final scene is the real Nigel Slater.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (unavailable), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Get Hard

The Dilemma


The Dilemma

Jennifer Connelly is happy she isn't getting blamed for this mess.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah, Amy Morton, Chelcie Ross, Eduardo N. Martinez, Rance Howard, Clint Howard, Guy van Swearingen, Troy West. Directed by Ron Howard

The last place anyone wants to be in is in the middle of a friend’s marital issues, particularly if their friend is unaware of those issues. These things can not only affect your relationship with your friend, but your other relationships as well.

Ronnie Valentine (Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (James) are partners in a small Chicago engine design firm – Valentine is the sizzle and Brannen is the steak – but more than that, they’ve been best friends since college. Nick is married to Geneva (Ryder), who was friends with both of them back in the old school days. Their business and personal relationship works pretty well; Brannen is the engineer, the brilliant designer that is their chief asset. Valentine is the glib salesman, the man who makes the business run. In the way of old friends, they are comfortable with each other, knowing at all times how the other is going to react.

Ronnie, who has never really found the right girl, may have finally found one in Beth (Connelly). She is patient having put up with a gambling problem that Ronnie apparently has kicked over the past two years. However, he has balked at actually committing up to now. Nick and Geneva urge Ronnie to pop the question – a girl like Beth, gorgeous, sexy and smart (not to mention a top chef) – won’t wait around forever.

Ronnie and Nick are down to the bone on their business; they need a big deal or they’ll both go under, having mortgaged everything to keep the company afloat. However, help looks like it’s on the horizon – a meeting with a Chrysler VP (Ross) about a fuel-efficient motor with the sound and power of a V8 muscle car motor gets a tentative go-ahead…provided they can make it work. They are left to the tender mercies of a maverick executive (Latifah) who tries very hard to be one of the boys.

There’s plenty of pressure on Nick as the engineer and he has the ulcers to show for it. However, his little talk with Ronnie has prompted him to propose to Beth – and he has gone to the local arboretum to find the perfect spot to propose. While there, Ronnie spies Geneva with a strapping, tattooed young man – Zip (Tatum). They seem awfully cozy…and then when they begin passionately kissing, Ronnie is so startled he falls into a patch of highly toxic plants, causing his face to break out in itchy hives and for him to have “challenging” urination.

Ronnie wrestles with how to tell his friend about what he saw, but after practicing on his sister (Morton) who then gets the impression he was talking about her husband (Van Swearingen) he then confronts Geneva with what he knows. However, not only does she refuse to tell her husband about what’s going on, she threatens to spill the beans on a secret the two of them have been keeping since before she met Nick. Ronnie then resolves to inform Nick one way or another without telling him directly – and merriment (theoretically) ensues.

This is a movie with a terrific pedigree – an Oscar-winning director, two of the funniest comic actors in the business and two of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood. It has all the ingredients for a very successful comedy. It just isn’t very funny.

The filmmakers rely mostly on gags that put poor Vince Vaughn through the wringer, from having him getting beaten up (numerous times) to falling into poisonous plants to having him get bitched out by Geneva. I’m all for pratfalls and physical comedy, but if that’s all you got, well even the Keystone Kops had subtlety sometimes.

I’ve always liked James and Vaughn and they have enough genuine charisma and chemistry to carry things through to a certain extent – it’s just that they don’t have anything funny to do. That can be deadly if you’re making a comedy.

Now it can be argued that Howard never intended to make a comedy and an argument can be made that this is actually a relationship drama. If that’s the case, why establish expectations for a comedy by casting Vaughn and James…and then market it as a romantic comedy? You simply set up a movie for failure that way.

That aside, there are some interesting insights on relationship dynamics, particularly when it comes to honesty within a relationship. It isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering or even mildly so, but at least it tries to shed some light on the subject and I give the movie points for that.

Still, much of the movie falls flat and the attempts of humor don’t work. I just felt that the movie didn’t connect with me and I more or less passed time rather than enjoying it. That’s not really a recommendation for a movie at all.

REASONS TO GO: Connelly and Ryder are both very pleasing to the eye. Some insight into moral dilemmas.

REASONS TO STAY: The really funny parts are few and far between and mostly seen on the trailer. Vaughn’s character is so wishy-washy you end up wishing he’d just blurt it out and get it over with.

FAMILY VALUES: The entire plot has to do with sex and infidelity, although it’s never addressed in an overt manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While practicing for the “Shoot the Puck” scene at the United Center, Kevin James actually shot the puck into the net. While he didn’t win a trip to the NHL All-Star game, the extras all cheered “Chelsea Dagger” in his honor.  

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Legion