romantic comedy

Dog Days (2018)

It’s much better to enjoy a film you thought you’d trash than to trash one you thought you’d enjoy, and so it is with Dog Days. Taking a cue from those schlocky holiday ensemble films from Garry Marshall, the movie features a diverse set of Angelenos who experience growth and setbacks in their personal and professional lives thanks to help from their pooches. It’s sentimental, predictable, and surprisingly fun and touching. I guess the maxim holds that dogs do make everything better.

Not all the stories are created equal; some are stronger than others here. Vanessa Hudgens and Jon Bass have the sweetest and most relatable storyline. She plays Tara, a barista with big dreams of, well, not being a barista while he plays Garrett, a guy with average looks but a very generous heart. I only comment on his appearance because dreamy vet Dr. Mike (Michael Cassidy) has an office across the street, and Tara and every pet-owning woman in Los Angeles seem to have eyes on this guy. When Garrett’s dog shelter is in sudden need of a new home, Tara finds purpose by helping him to organize a fundraiser, an event that in turn brings the rest of the dog-loving characters together.

She crosses paths with Dax (Adam Pally), another tenant in her building. A musician who subsists on a diet of Del Taco and disappointment, he has to care for his sister’s giant dog when she gives birth to twins. He might get kicked out of his pet-free apartment as a result, but the trade off is fair because she pays for his life. At the opposite end of the respectability scale is Walter (Ron Cephas Jones), a retired UCLA professor and widower. He befriends upstart pizza boy Tyler (Finn Wolfhard) when his wife’s beloved dog, Mabel, goes missing.

Meanwhile, Tyler’s teacher, Kurt (Rod Corddry), and his wife, Grace (Eva Longoria), are struggling as new parents to adopted daughter, Amelia (Elizabeth Caro). I’m not keen on the way the couple try to earn Amelia’s trust. Rather than seeing a child who is going through real trauma, they think entertaining her with song and dance numbers will help her open up. They get the most heartwarming conclusion though, proving that I’ll forgive a lot of things if cute kids and dogs are involved.

Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) and Jimmy (Tone Bell) also have a satisfying story but one in need of a rewrite. She is an uptight TV personality and he is her new cohost brought in to add some spontaneity to their morning show. Dobrev and Bell are sizzling together and I’m a fan of the couple, but it’s an erratic relationship. They’re either throwing daggers or doing double dates with their dogs, and it’s never clear how things have progressed from one point to the next.

Nevertheless, the movie is a tidy little production with everyone in the cast pulling his or her weight. It satisfies those looking for light romance and comedy, and dogs. The pups aren’t the stars but facilitators for their human, and their selfless, loyal natures rub off. This is one where predictability is a reasonable price to pay for the emotional dividends. There’s the added bonus of Jasmine Cephas Jones, Hamilton’s OG Peggy/Maria, whose voice would be the soundtrack of every movie if my wishes came true.

“Made of Gold” by Jasmine Cephas Jones:

“Sweet Love” by Jasmine Cephas Jones:

Released: 2018
Prod: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe
Dir: Ken Marino
Writer: Elissa Matsueda, Erica Oyama
Cast: Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Adam Pally, Eva Longoria, Rob Corddry, Tone Bell, Jon Bass, Michael Cassidy, Thomas Lennon, Tig Notaro, Finn Wolfhard, Ron Cephas Jones, Jasmine Cephas Jones
Time: 113 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Off the Menu (2018)

Off the Menu comes pretty close to being a Hallmark film without actually being one. It follows the same predictable storyline and includes all the familiar character types – a guy with no direction falls for a single mother and chef with skills to die for – and even features Hallmark regular Jen Lilley. Lilley is in a supporting role, however, because a big difference between this and the movies she’s usually in is that Off the Menu stars people of color, lots of them. And I don’t mean in throwaway parts like the best friend or the boss or the woman who runs the cute patisserie on the corner. I mean a Latinx family anchors the story, characters speak Spanish like it’s no big deal, and the leading lady isn’t white. It’s not a great film, but if we’re putting this in the Hallmark/Lifetime/UPTV sphere of influence, and I am, I will take this over Love at the Summer Festival (not a real film, yet) or whatever dippy romance is on TV.

That said, this movie is nearly undone by its cookie cutter plot, saved only by its very appealing actors. I decided long ago that I’d watch Santino Fontana in anything, so this is me on duty. The actor brings loads of charm to his character, Joel, an Irish American heir to a Tex-Mex food chain who hates Mexican food and really anything with flavor. He shows up to work, does nothing, and collects a salary, but you can’t say he’s lazy. He’s training for a triathlon and he graduated law school; he just hasn’t figured out a way to apply these skills to anything useful in life. Things change when his girlfriend (Lilley) dumps him and his sister and boss, Stacey (Kristen Dalton), shuttles him off to New Mexico to collect new and “authentic” recipes to add to the Tortilla Hut menu.

Joel makes his way south from California and ends up in Villanueva, a pit stop in the middle of the desert. There’s a church, a local crafts shop, and Javiera’s little restaurant, the town’s raison d’être. Javiera (Dania Ramirez), aided by her mother, Cordelia (Maria Conchita Alonso), cooks up a delicious storm, and visitors throughout the state arrive by busload for a taste of her secret green chile menu. Her dodgy boyfriend, Kevin (Andrew Carter), organizes a New Mexico culinary tour and is responsible for some of those guests, but she’s definitely the talent between the two of them.

No one is in the mood to try new things and certainly not a new relationship, but Joel and Javiera bond after he gets drunk at the town festival and spies her secret chile patch. At least I think this is what happens because I can’t quite see past the many holes in the story to figure out how their relationship develops. It doesn’t build up through little moments but lurches from point to point. Before we know it, they’re sharing sexy cooking time and dancing on kitchen towels to mash tomatoes or something.

The finer points of this romance are lost, but the mood is there. Unlike Frozen’s dastardly Prince Hans, the character Fontana is most known for, Joel is easy to forgive. The actor doesn’t erase all of his character’s selfishness, but he allows for his better parts to overcome his less desirable qualities. I also enjoyed Ramirez, who contributes a lot of warmth to film. Javiera conforms too much to stereotype though and lacks an individual touch. She may be a proud, fiercely talented chef as well as a doting single mother, but I kept hoping for a little something unexpected to peek through Ramirez’s performance, and it never came. I suppose a little something does come by way of Javiera’s daughter, Sophia (Makenzie Moss), a silly, lovable whip of a girl.

With any luck, Hallmark will catch on and make a movie more like this one. I don’t object to the dopiness of it all, but I’m not eager for another story about two white kids romancing one another at the hometown apple festival or falling in love despite competing donut shops. We’ve seen enough Main Streets in the Pacific Northwest and New England, and I need the vibrant colors on display here, whether it’s in the form of an electric “Vatican guest room” or mouthwatering chile split.

Released: 2018
Prod: Bethany Cerrona, William Newman
Dir: Jay Silverman
Writer: Jennifer Goldson
Cast: Santino Fontana, Dania Ramirez, Mackenzie Moss, Maria Conchita Alonso, Andrew Carter, Kristen Dalton, Ian Reed Kesler, Kenzo Lee, Jen Lilley
Time: 96 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Little Italy (2018)

It’s hard to believe that Little Italy is an actual film made in 2018 when all the stereotypes it employs suggests it was made at least three decades earlier. But I checked and then checked again, and it was indeed released eighteen whole years into the twenty-first century. Now I’m writing about this embarrassing romance featuring two young Italian-Canadian lovers and a pizza contest.

Which is what you would think when you see Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen, right? Right? In roles they were born to play, the two actors dive head first into this story about childhood friends caught in their parents’ pizza feud. Alexa and Leo both grew up in Toronto’s Little Italy and watched as their fathers went from best friends to best enemies after an unexplained dust-up at the annual street fair. The incident caused dads Sal (Adam Ferrara) and Vince (Gary Basaraba) to part ways and establish their own pizzerias. Now with Alexa newly returned from abroad, the families’ love-hate relationship is about to head into its third generation.

Having studied and worked as a chef in London, Alexa is not thrilled to be back in town. She dislikes her neighborhood’s parochial ways and is fed up with Sal and Vince’s pettiness, though she works for a demanding celebrity chef (Jane Seymour) so not sure what she’s complaining about there. Luckily, Leo helps smooth out her transition, and the two pick up their friendship where they last left off. At least this is how things start off. Then a pretty flight attendant shows up at Leo’s doorstep and he won’t shake off his aimless friend, Luigi (Andrew Phung), or his soccer habit. Their fathers exacerbate things when they enter the two into a neighborhood pizza contest as a point of pride. Alexa starts to rethink her feelings towards Leo and this whole damn Little Italy pizza business.

Roberts and Christensen make a cute pair, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them reteam for another romcom. They have the familiarity of two best friends and lovers, and that makes it a little easier to forgive their characters when the writing isn’t up to scratch, which is most of the time. Alexa and Leo slip into a comfortable relationship, and their simultaneous ease and awkwardness with one another at this new point in their lives is acutely felt. Their fights, however, don’t make a lot of sense and are seemingly injected into key moments because that’s what the plot necessitates.

Rather than leaning into a strong story, the movie instead relies on cheap, tired jokes, and there’s a lot to choose from. The portrayal of Jogi (Vas Saranga), an Indian worker at one of the pizzerias, is the most offensive. I like the nod to the changing nature of ethnic enclaves – Jessie (Amrit Kaur), also Indian, works next door and Luigi is a gay Chinese bar owner – but FFS, Jogi gets on the table, dances with an old white lady, and cracks on about Aladdin taking her on a magic carpet ride. I, an 80s kid, am still recovering from exactly this type of scene. Then there’s the hokey depiction of Italian Canadians. Of course they sling around accents like they’ve stepped off the set of Jersey Shore, and of course they pepper their insults with choice Italian phrases and exaggerated hand gestures, and yes, grandma (Andrea Martin) and grandpa (Danny Aiello) are getting it on the confessional. Okay, I don’t know if that last point is a stereotype or just a sad cliché. That couple is probably the sweetest and purest thing in this movie, but I am going elsewhere for my octogenarian romance.

Released: 2018
Prod: Vinay Virmani, Ajay Virmani, Pauline Dhillon
Dir: Donald Petrie
Writer: Steve Galluccio, Vinay Virmani
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Emma Roberts, Danny Aiello, Andrea Martin, Adam Ferrara, Gary Basaraba, Alyssa Milano, Linda Kash, Vas Saranga, Amrit Kaur, Jane Seymour, Andrew Phung
Time: 102 min
Lang: English
Country: Canada
Reviewed: 2019