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TODAY

Tuesday, December 12

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Airbags

Hey everyone. As I mentioned last week, I'm in the midst of two long-distance trips (I'm actually writing this at O'Hare) and co-hosting the Flashback Weekend horror convention in Rosemont (which never fails to rock my world and reminds me annually why I've loved horror films since I was far too young to be watching them). As a result of all the activity, I've missed a few key screenings of films opening in the last two weeks. But the one I most regret missing is the critics screening of The Simpsons Movie. It feels like I've been waiting most of my adult life for this film, and while I'm more than happy to contribute to its box office bottom line, I really wish I'd had the opportunity to preview it for you.

Probably the question I get more than any other from readers is "Why don't you review movies you don't see early?" The plain and simple reason is that I don't have time; I barely have time to review the current week's releases. If you send me an e-mail at steve@steveatthemovies.com about any film I don't review, I'll be happy to give you my 50-words-or-less capsule review. It's the least I can do.

Also, I missed Vitus, opening today at the Music Box Theatre, and the latest Lindsey Lohan flick I Know Who Killed Me (which wasn't screening for critics anyway; I know, I'm shocked too).

No Reservations

Last week, I moaned and groaned about missing so many movies this week, including (I thought) this chefs-in-love, romantic-comedy from Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars, Hearts In Atlantis). But lucky me, there was actually a screening of it I could go to so I didn't have to miss it. My fortune never seems to run out. In all fairness, there are worse rom-coms out there than this slick redo of the far superior and more subversive 2001 Italian film Mostly Martha, and stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart did a sufficient job of entertaining me as top-notch chefs who land in the same restaurant. But both leads (as well as Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin, playing Zeta-Jones' niece) are trying way too hard to sell what is essentially a lightweight puff piece masquerading as a sort of broken family drama.

Zeta-Jones plays Kate, who runs a tight kitchen at a high-end bistro run by Paula (the always reliable Patricia Clarkson, who is less reliable here in this shrewish role). As a result of the dedication to her job, she works late nights, gets up before the sun (the only way to get the best fish at the docks), and has no personal life to speak of. Even the sweet advances of her downstairs neighbor (played by Bug's Brian F. O'Byrne) are rebuffed for the simple reasons that she's always tired and can't add the complications of dating a person in her building to the rest of her life. The one bright spot in her life seems to be her out-of-town sister, who is driving into town to visit her with her daughter Zoe (Breslin). But on the way, the sister is in a fatal car accident leaving Zoe in the care of her apparently only living relative, Kate, the woman most ill-equipped to have parenthood dropped in her lap this way.

While Kate is attempting to sort out a way to balance a career and this unexpected motherhood, Paula hires new sous-chef Nick (Eckhart), who is every woman's dream. He cooks incredible meals, has good taste in music, is outgoing and lovable, is great with kids, has a floppy blond mop-top hair cut, and he looks exactly like Aaron Eckhart. Jesus, I'd date him!

He's mesmerized by the icy Kate, who thinks he's after her job and bats down every friendly gesture with any spatula within her reach. When you enter into a film like No Reservations, you know how it's going to end, which doesn't necessarily or automatically make it a bad movie. Sometimes, witty dialog and great performances can go a long way, and this film has a pinch or two of both, but not nearly enough to keep an audience riveted. For one thing, there are too many unnecessary and time-consuming subplots. The downstairs neighbor gets way too much screentime for someone who doesn't have a shot at Kate. He gets reduced to the role of babysitter by the end of the film, and his clearly sincere feelings for Kate are just left hanging with zero resolution. Also, Kate's sessions with her therapist (Bob Balaban) are useless, and are clearly used in place of some sort of narration. Since the script isn't smart enough to convey Kate's feelings about some very heavy events in her life, we instead get her jabbering to her therapist, while she's essentially looking right at the camera. A storyline involving a pregnant woman in Kate's kitchen also is truly annoying.

But my biggest problem with No Reservations is that it actually substitutes — on more than one occasion — music montages of Kate and Nick (and sometimes Zoe) hanging out together for actual conversations. I wanted to hear Nick's seduction technique. I wanted to know what these two supposedly intelligent adults had to say to each other. I was desperate to see how Nick wins over the still shell-shocked Zoe and gets her to come out of her shell and begin to get over the death of her mother. These should have critical moments in this story and they're completely and embarrassingly glossed over by Hicks. I have a feeling these scenes actually exist on a cutting room floor somewhere, but time restrictions probably forced these changes. It sure feels that way, and that's a shame because if scenes like those actually existed, my enjoyment of the film probably would have been more certain.

On top of the decidedly underwritten nature of the film, No Reservations has quite a few main characters I'm not even sure I like that much. First Kate leaves Zoe at home alone when she goes to the restaurant; then she starts bringing her to the restaurant where she becomes the establishment's working mascot; then she leaves her with crappy babysitters. The filmmakers don't exactly make a good case for her becoming Kate's new mommy. Restaurant owner Paula pulls a few underhanded shots while Kate is out caring for Zoe. And Breslin's portrayal of Zoe is so maudlin and disaffected that I never really figured out why I was supposed to care about where or if she landed.

No Reservations isn't patently stupid or filled with allegedly smart people constantly doing dumb things. Lord knows the romantic-comedy genre has seen plenty of those in recent months. Instead, it suffers from not being able to decide whether we're supposed to take it seriously or not. Peppy music montages don't belong in a serious film about loss and the tough battle to find happiness when a person in so deeply in pain. I'm a relentless fan of Eckhart's work, and I do believe Zeta-Jones can be a substantial acting force when the material is right (you need only look at Traffic to see that is true). But this film is ultimately a colossal waste of both their skills and time.

My Best Friend

Ruthless art and antiques dealer Francois (Daniel Auteuil) bets his coworker Catherine (Julie Gayet) that he can produce someone he can prove is his best friend. Sounds simple, but Francois has lived his life and run his business by only being friends with those who can help him make more money, acquire desired antiques, and get any advantage in the business world. His acquaintances are convinced that when he dies, no one will show up to the funeral. He takes the bet despite the fact that he has no close friends, and immediately sets out to contact all the people he's known since he was a child to find one who will be his best friend for the sake of this bet. In the process, he makes a startling discovery: everybody thinks he's a miserable asshole.

My Best Friend comes from the mind of master French filmmaker Patrice Leconte (The Hairdresser's Husband, Ridicule, The Girl on the Bridge), and it's a humorous and sometimes poignant profile of a man who decides to change his life and priorities... or at least consider a few changes... or maybe not. In some ways Francois is like Scrooge, but Francois isn't nearly as unpleasant a man. He's just someone without scruples and sees no value in relationships that don't further his business ends. He meets a personable, trivia-obsessed cab driver named Bruno (Dany Boon), who Francois hires to take him around Paris in search of his old friends willing to at least pretend to be his best buddy. Not surprisingly, Francois begins to take lessons from Bruno on how to be interactive and open with people, when all he's used to doing is buying people expensive gifts to gain their friendship.

It's not exactly a shocker that Francois is won over by Bruno's guidance and unexpected kindness, and the two become close friends. In fact, they become best friends, which you may think is a natural point for Leconte to end his film, but you'd be wrong. There's an entire, totally unexpected third act in My Best Friend that takes place after the pair stop being friends and Bruno gets to make use of his vast brain-full of trivial knowledge. And it's this utterly bizarre and hilarious conclusion that made it easier for me to make the shift from liking to loving this intimate and clever work.

Director Laconte creates a believable landscape onto which he introduces this partnership of one man who seems incapable of unconditional love and friendship, and another who has a few secrets and skeletons of his own that make him more susceptible to getting crushed by broken promises and deceitful friends than one might suspect. The two men share a fascinating and flawed dynamic that is well worth watching and dissecting, and Auteuil and Boon are terrifically cast as these two desperate guys in need of each other to become better men. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

L'Iceberg

In one of the oddest and most weirdly entertaining films in a while, this feature from Belgium (which I first saw in March as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival) opens with Fiona (Dominique Abel), a restaurant manager, accidentally getting locked in the establishment's walk-in freezer. After nearly dying in the grip of sub-zero temperatures, she does escapes, but the experience imprints her brain with a cold obsession, and Fiona leaves her life and family behind to seek passage to an iceberg in the small sailboat of a deaf-mute fisherman.

If the story wasn't kooky enough, this nearly wordless spectacle is absolutely hilarious as this group of actors (three of whom — Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy — are also listed as L'Iceberg's directors, which leads me to believe they may be some sort of comedy troop) perform some stellar physical comedy on their way to the Arctic wonderland. Fiona's husband tracks her down, and when he sees his wife and the fisherman together, he assumes there's a torrid love affair in progress and does everything in his power to make it stop.

L'Iceberg is a tasty combination of sweet, weird and dark, but for me that only heightened the impact of this endearing comedy, which I think U.S. audiences will get a big kick out of. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Multimedia.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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