Friday, December 3, 2010

Film Round-Up for December 2010

In this edition of The Film Round-Up: a historical drama, a very unsual (but good) Xmas movie, a "Daily Show" correspondent breaks out, and a candidate for the worst film of the year.

How bad was "Hemingway's Garden of Eden"? At least two folks walked out of my screening, one of whom was sitting next to me. As she excused herself by saying, "I'm sorry but I can't take any more of this."

As always these reviews were previously published in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (Dir: Jalmari Helander). Starring: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa, Peeter Jakobi. In the snowy wilds of northern Finland, a mysterious archeological dig has unearthed the real Santa Claus. But it's far from a happy occasion. Santa is literally a gigantic monster and his "helpers"—naked, bearded, and psychotic—are far from friendly. With the dig's organizers clueless (and doomed), only a young boy and his adult, rifle-bearing neighbors can prevent this white Christmas from turning blood red. Bizarre, smart, and totally original holiday fare gets a huge boost from the winsome heroism of Onni Tommila as the scared boy who quickly becomes a leader of men. Writer/director Helander shows a deft touch in shifting from dark comedy to adventure to goofiness. He never revels in the idea's cleverness—based on his award-winning shorts—and keeps the proceedings punchy and tidy. Note: Though it's technically a Christmas movie, parents should probably take the little ones to see something more benign. [NR] ***

"Hemingway's Garden of Eden" (Dir: John Irvin). Starring: Mena Suvari, Jack Huston, Caterina Murino, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Modine. Dreadful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's final unfinished novel features Suvari and Huston as young, attractive newlyweds touring Europe in 1927. David is a talented, working-class writer. Catherine is a rich beauty who hungers for control and can't stop getting haircuts. Their volatile relationship threatens to explode when they meet an exotic, alluring heiress (Murino), who Catherine develops an unhealthy affection for. If your idea of compelling drama is watching attractive, affluent people with fake problems have circular conversations for 100 minutes then you're in for a treat. None of the characters are relatable or remotely resemble human beings (making it impossible to identify with anyone), the plot drags on and on as if the filmmakers are looking for answers, and Suvari's wooden performance proves why her days as a leading lady ended in 2001. Irvin and screenwriter James Scott Linville add so many class issues and power plays and intrigue to sex that the film becomes a well-mannered snoozefest of Merchant-Ivory proportions. In "Garden of Eden", the characters drink to the point that it becomes an affectation. For moviegoers unlucky enough to endure this mess, they may want to adapt that behavior as a survival tactic. [NR] *

"Today's Special" (Dir: David Kaplan). Starring: Aasif Mandvi, Naseeruddin Shah, Jess Weixler, Harish Patel, Madhur Jaffrey. Samir (Mandvi, a correspondent for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") quits his job at a posh NYC restaurant after being passed over for a promotion. Told that his cooking is cold, the chef hopes studying in Paris will be his culinary salvation. Those plans are delayed when his cantankerous, forever-disappointed father (Patel) suffers a heart attack, forcing Samir to take over the family's struggling, shabby Indian restaurant. With the skills of a vagabond spirit/cooking whiz (Shah) and the charms of his fetching former co-worker (Weixler), an inconvenience turns into a salvation. Pleasant, comfortable comedy reminiscent of "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Big Night" has no edge and lots of heart, making it a nice rarity in today's sarcasm-drenched, nice-is-dumb age. Mandvi and the undervalued Weixler make a cute couple, but Shah (an Indian film legend) steals the show as Samir's happy-go-lucky mentor in life and food. Mandvi co-wrote the screenplay, which was inspired by his one-person play, "Sakina's Restaurant". [NR] ***

"Outside the Law" (Dir: Rachid Bouchareb). Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila. Drama, which spans from 1925 to 1960, centers on three Algerian brothers who follow different paths (idealistic prisoner, criminal/hustler, solider) before reuniting as adults in France. Two (Zem, Bouajila) become significant players in the underground Algerian independence movement only to get so immersed in principles or bloodshed that they lose themselves. Meanwhile, the final brother (Debbouze), a flashy nightclub owner and boxing manager, is continually at odds with his siblings but can't help protecting them. Solid in just about every department, but considering the patriotism, bitter feelings, and family dynamics involved, it's distracting how muted and restrained the movie is. "Outside the Law" has all the traits of a rollicking, riveting historical epic, but writer/director Bouchareb ("Little Senegal", "Days of Glory") waits too long to take action. French title is "Hors-la-loi." [NR] **

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