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Saturday, September 01, 2007

NO RESERVATIONS starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart

Poster of No Reservations, directed by Scott Hicks, starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Aaron Eckhart

If, prior to my trip to Chile (still being chronicled in my ongoing series of very poetic blog posts), you tell me that the film I would see during my last day in the country is NO RESERVATIONS, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin, I would have laughed. Hard.

Why would I watch a Hollywood rom-com? When I could've gone for something that would never be shown in Malaysia? Like a Latin American movie?

Well, that's because the (mostly) Spanish-language Latin American films shown in the multiplexes in Santiago do NOT have English subtitles. Not only that, but numerous Hollywood films have been dubbed to Spanish as well, notably those that I wanted to see.

Shocked by these revelations, I asked the nice ticket-selling lady whether there were ANY Hollywood movie in theaters that is in English. She marked a couple of films, one was Transformers, one was Die Hard 4, and the last one was No Reservations, since I have already seen the other two films, I had no choice but to see No Reservations.

Most incredibly, there were only two people in the cinema, me, and one other guy sitting two rows behind me. It was kinda... sad.

But anyway, back to the film.

Here's the synopsis borrowed from IMDB:

Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the master chef at the trendy 22 Bleecker Street Restaurant in Manhattan. She runs her kitchen at a rapid pace as she coordinates the making and preparing of all the fantastic meals and personally displays the food to perfection on every dish. She intimidates everyone around her, so her boss sends her to therapy. Kate hates to leave the kitchen when a customer wants to compliment her on one of her special dishes, but she is ready to leave the kitchen in a second when a customer insults her cooking.

Kates sister is killed in a car accident and her nine-year old daughter Zoe (Abigail Breslin) moves in with Kate. With all of Kates problems, the boss hires a new chef to join the staff. Nick (Aaron Eckhart) is a rising star in his own right and could be the head chef of another restaurant, but he wants to work under Kate. Kate begins to feel threatened by Nick, because he has a different style of running the kitchen. Nick loves to listen to opera when he cooks and to make the staff laugh. With all that is going on in Kates life, falling for a man is the last thing she was looking for. There is some kind of chemistry between Kate and Nick that can only go one way. Yet life will hit her in the head when Kates boss offers Nick the head chef job.

This film is a remake of the 2001 German film, MOSTLY MARTHA, and contrary to what promotional campaigns had wanted the public to think with its poster and trailer, this film is NOT a romantic comedy.

Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin in No Reservations

Yes, there are mindnumbingly familiar elements you usually see in romantic comedies, like the typical 'guy and gal hate each other at first but ended up falling in love', 'one of the protagonists threatens to leave, the other realizes his or her true love for the other and decides to make a dramatic romantic gesture to rescue this romance' and of course, 'the little kid in the film is what brings the two adults together' plot devices, but the romance and comedy in the film are fairly minimal and subdued.

It's more a (relatively) lighthearted drama about self-discovery, of a child bonding with a surrogate mother figure, and surrogate mother figure, initially an ice queen, learning how to connect with others emotionally. The romantic subplot felt forced, but maybe it's more profitable for the marketers to make a rom-com-style movie poster of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, than a seemingly boring heartwarming 'mother daughter' type poster of CZJ and Abigail Breslin.

The film is very predictable, OF COURSE ice queen Kate and nice Zoe would unexpectedly learn from each other, OF COURSE when Kate couldn't deal with Zoe, carefree Nick would be the one to win the little girl's heart, OF COURSE Zoe would be the one who bring Kate and Nick together, that's what little kids do in films like this. What truly surprised me was much of a downer this film is at the beginning, when tragedy struck, and Zoe loses her mother. Well-acted, dark in tone, I was rather engaged.

Films like that will always be predictable in plot, it's always just a matter of execution. NO RESERVATIONS is directed by Scott Hicks, who was nominated in the 1996 Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay for the film SHINE (1996), which Geoffrey Rush got a Best Actor award for. He's definitely NOT a hack. He would go on to direct SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (1999), a film I rather liked as well, and HEARTS OF ATLANTIS (2001), which I didn't watch, but have a DVD lying around somewhere. As for Catherine Zeta-Jones, well, she did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Chicago. To me, the greatest strength of this film is the fact that it is so well-acted, not just Catherine Zeta-Jones, but also Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin, that I seriously hope she won't grow up and become a Lindsay Lohan.

The fact is, I was drawn into the story between Kate learning to bond with Zoe, the chemistry was there, and I managed to care about the characters enough to see how things will work out between them. Several moments between them in the film are genuinely affecting to me.

What turned out to be the weakest link of the film, to my surprise, is actually the romantic subplot between Kate and Nick (Aaron Eckhart), in which the realism of the film established in the Kate-Zoe storyline degenerates into typical romantic comedy territory, things become too cute, too predictable, too artificial, too scripted. There is nothing wrong with Aaron Eckhart's acting, Nick is a very likable, but inconsistent, character, but when the film sudden shifts focus to Kate and Nick's romance, in which Zoe conveniently has a hand in bringing them together, I cannot help but feel a little disappointed. The plot development reminds me a little of the Hong Kong film, LOST IN TIME, starring Cecilia Cheung and Lau Ching Wan, but much inferior and too 'Hollywood'.

This is where numerous montages are used, cute and heartwarming to some, contrived and icky even to one as sentimental as I. Maybe for me, it's just a waste to see some opportunities lost, and the potential of the film actually being squandered.

I've probably never really seen how a kitchen in a high-class restaurant worked until I saw this film (I would later 'learn more' in RATATOILLE') I liked the character-driven moments, the film has really strong performances, and I like it because I've never seen Catherine Zeta-Jones in a role like this before, but once the plot comes into play, film doesn't seem to work that well, becoming incongruent, a family story suddenly becoming a romance, then a story of self-discovery, all these can be mixed together effectively, but alas, that didn't happen in this film.

(Film won't be shown in Malaysia until the 11th of October)