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Tuesday, 28 August 2007

No Reservations

It’s a set-up more sugary than a bag of Hollywood donuts: uptight, no-nonsense chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) runs her Manhattan restaurant’s kitchen with an iron fist until her sister dies in an off-camera car crash and makes Kate the guardian of her adorable nine year-old Zoe (Abigail Breslin). When juggling child care and culinary duties proves a handful for Kate, her boss hires her a new assistant, the handsome and carefree Nick (Aaron Eckhart). He’s Kate’s opposite in every way, and if you can’t see where this is heading you just might need glasses.

Before you start groaning, rest assured that Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine) fights a constant battle against the sappy sentiment that runs through this film’s script like thick treacle. More often than not he succeeds. Kate thankfully doesn't become a magic mommy overnight, and for the most part Zoe remains a little girl grieving for her dead mother. Having a cast way better than the lines they’re required to say also improves things greatly, and all three main cast members bring a lot more to their characters than they strictly require. Don’t see this on an empty stomach: the food alone earns it an extra half-star.

Anthony Morris

The Home Song Stories

Bad mothers make intriguing characters, and Shanghai nightclub-singer Rose (Joan Chen) is certainly no saint. She drags her two children from Hong Kong, to Melbourne, to Sydney and then back to Melbourne again, shacking up with a sequence of unsuitable ‘uncles’. She’s glamorous, vain and mentally unstable. Yet for her 11 year-old son Tom (Joel Lok) and his older sister Mai (Irene Chen) she’s never quite monstrous enough to hate. It’s hard not to admire her as she strides through ugly 1970s suburbia in her jewel-coloured cheong-sams, cooking up spicy fare and collecting lovers half her age.

Written and directed by Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) and based on his own reminiscences about ‘the year that changed my life’, this film could have been depressing and deeply disturbing. Yet for the most part, the tone is gently humorous. Sumptuous unhurried cinematography by Nigel Bluck could almost be referencing In The Mood for Love, and a score by Antony Partos recreates a retro ‘little China’ atmosphere. Occasionally the film veers close to self-indulgence – particularly in the closing scenes, but a light touch and a collection of superb performances make it a memorable and entertaining variation on the migration story.

Rochelle Siemienowicz


The world has lost faith in traditional movie musicals. Somehow it’s no longer acceptable for characters to burst into song and dance – unless they’re parodying Hollywood’s heyday or they’re the cute creations of an animators’ studio. Yet this little Irish film, shot on a shoestring and featuring non-professional actors, manages to be a moving musical love story that’s wholly believable and totally unpretentious.

A young man (known only as ‘the guy’) stands on Dublin’s busy street corners, playing his guitar and singing. The sounds he makes are almost painful – heartfelt but unpolished, strident with desperation. As he’s busking into the chaos, he’s approached by a poor young Czech woman (‘the girl’) selling roses – and in one scene, copies of The Big Issue. She’s a new immigrant, struggling to support her mother and baby daughter, but she has a secret talent. When the pair wander into a music store, she sits down at the piano and begins to play. Guy and girl begin to pick out a tune together, their two voices, and two instruments combining into a tentative but hauntingly beautiful harmony. And so, in the coming weeks, they talk, sing, and write some songs together, with their story climaxing in an intense and cathartic weekend at a borrowed recording studio.

The film’s authentic feel is augmented by the fact that its two lead actors are accomplished musicians who’ve previously collaborated. The guy is Glen Hansard, lead singer of the acclaimed and popular Irish rock band The Frames. The girl is Czech singer and pianist Marketa Irglova. Just seventeen years old at the time of shooting, she’d already recorded ‘The Swell Season’ an album of duets with Hansard. With her strong accent, her big-nosed natural beauty and her brave innocence, Irglova makes this film sing – both literally and metaphorically.

Directed by John Carney (On the Edge) – an ex-Frames’ bass player – Once is shot in realistic almost-documentary style. The music takes centre stage, comprising at least two thirds of the film’s time, yet it’s never too much. You want more of these sweet heart-tingling songs with their memory-imprinting minor-chord refrains and their simple poetic lyrics that never strain too much in their intent to underline the plot’s wispy narrative thread. Once is quite simply one of the best films you’ll see about the creative collaborative process.

Rochelle Siemienowicz