Spinning Plates
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: Unrated by the MPAA, suitable for all audiences. In English and subtitled Spanish.
Theater: Lagoon.


Even if “Top Chef” cooking shows are on your DVR ignore list, Joseph Levy’s touching documentary “Spinning Plates” is worth your while. Levy, himself a creator of reality TV restaurant shows, pre­sents three wildly diverse restaurants and the personalities behind them. Atop the food chain there’s Alinea, Chicago’s temple of “molecular gastronomy” whose world-renowned chef Grant Achatz combines advanced techniques and science lab equipment to turn out odd delicacies like edible balloons and desserts served with a crown of flaming maple leaves. Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa, has served its community for 150 years, and the newest generation of the family pounds out fried chicken and raspberry pies with dedication and not a little love. Finally there’s Tucson’s La Cocina de Gabby, where Francisco and Gabby Martinez see a modest cafe offering Mexican home cooking as a way to bootstrap their way into financial security.

While the dramatic conflicts in the film are set up in a rather rote manner (meet the personalities, fret over their setbacks, sigh at the resolution), the human stories here are undeniably moving. The overachieving, too-cool-for-school Achatz commands admiration, but not until we delve into his poignant back story and his experience of a life-changing crisis does he elicit our full empathy. The Breitbachs’ bustling restaurant-cum-community-center experiences a staggering stroke of bad luck, followed by an even more astonishing turn of fate. The financial tribulations facing the Martinez clan are exasperating precisely because they’re so commonplace. This is a movie about the food of life — dreams, family, health and work — as much as Michelin ratings and breakfast burritos.


Great Expectations
⋆⋆ out of four star
Rated: PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images.
Theater: Edina.


With its prestigious literary roots and casting coups (Ralph Fiennes as scary Magwitch! Helena Bonham Carter as dotty/evil Miss Havisham!), the anticipation for “Great Expectations” was, well, great. The film itself feels like it’s only halfway there, a dress rehearsal for a better version. Directed with the best of intentions by Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”), it’s a respectful, restrained adaptation of the riotously inventive Charles Dickens, whose grab-bag novels teem with wild characters and mad events yoked together by force.

Newell gives us a tepid rundown of the ups and downs and ups of Pip, a rustic blacksmith’s boy elevated to London gentility through a mysterious endowment. Sometimes Newell’s images are fresh. The graveyard where Pip fatefully encounters the escaped convict Magwitch is not a dim horror set but a sunny country churchyard. The fine apartment Pip occupies in his snooty big-city adulthood is painted a garish shade of lavender that sums up the empty frivolity of upper-class life in the capital.

Pip is a reactive character, maneuvered through life like a marionette by multiple guardians, some malign, others well-intentioned. Played as an adult by Jeremy Irvine (“The War Horse”), he’s a wishy-washy, anemic fellow, especially compared with some of the electric supporting players. Bonham Carter is sardonic and more than a little demented as the mad spinster Miss Havisham, reviving a character usually played as a stock hag. Robbie Coltrane gives the scheming lawyer Jaggers a shifty intelligence and a soothing Orson Welles speaking voice, the better to sedate his victims. Olly Alexander has such fun as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket, a kindhearted twit, he seems to be holding his laughter inside.

The crucial central roles go wanting. Fiennes, as Magwitch, adopts a Cockney growl and observes Pip with intense, searching eyes, but doesn’t create a character. As Miss Havisham’s ice-cold adoptive daughter Estella, Holliday Granger is defeated by an ambivalent, emotionally inconsistent character that must be as baffling to actresses as she is to readers. Her plastic beauty is emblematic of a handsomely composed but hollow film desperately in need of flamboyant circus energy.


The Best Man Holiday
⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for language, sexual content and brief nudity.


Pure drivel. A charismatic cast grapples with sledgehammer sentimentality and hackneyed story lines in this belated sequel to 1999's "The Best Man." The upscale African-American twentysomethings of writer/director Malcolm D. Lee's original reassemble for a Christmas reunion, more mature but still prone to getting tangled in plot contrivances. Harper (Taye Diggs), a novelist whose early success has petered out, is advised by his publisher to write a biography of his frenemy Lance, a football superstar on the cusp of retirement. Private school headmaster Julian (Harold Perrineau) has lost a key donor because of a YouTube video of his wife back in her days as an exotic dancer. Quentin (Terrence Howard), a put-down artist and player, fires zingers from the sidelines. And the ladies of the group (Monica Calhoun, Regina Hall, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long and Melissa De Sousa) go about the usual relationship comedy/drama business of catty sniping, commiserating over illness, beaming over pregnancy and negotiating lovers' quarrels.

The crisis- and resolution-packed last half-hour plays like a Soap Opera Network highlights reel.