Thursday, September 30, 2010

'The Social Network' Review

I haven't stopped thinking about "The Social Network" since I saw it last Thursday. This is going to sound foolish and hyperbolic no matter which way I say it, but unless you're Armond White, this staggeringly sharp, zeitgeist-grabbing master stroke is going to be among your favorite movies of the year.

My rave review of "The Social Network" is now online at CLICK HERE. And expect more commentary to come on this most inspiring of films.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Catfish' Review

"Catfish" thinks it's ultra-important, and it's highly interesting, to be sure, but methinks this guess-if-it's-real DIY doc is going to slip swiftly from memory as that other, hugely superior Facebook film begins to occupy the thoughts and conversations of critics and audiences alike.

But that's not to say "Catfish" isn't worth seeing and discussing, too. Read my review of the film, now online at CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Talk of 'The Town'

I feel compelled to write a bit more about "The Town," which I in no way expected to walk out of with such smiley satisfaction. "Did you like it?" a fellow critic asked me, to which I usually offer at least some degree of half-heartedness. Here, it was full-on enthusiasm. My admiration for this film spreads well beyond the film itself and into the reality of what it means for its maker. I will admit that I was perhaps less critical of the craft because I was so suprised at how good it was for who it was made by, and I may well have picked more nits if it were the work of a seasoned pro. But how I feel about what a triumph this is for Ben Affleck directedly affected my experience, and I can safely say few theatrical experiences this year have been as enjoyable.

That's something I don't think should be discounted, as so many films are, at minimum, dusted with disappoint, choking up the entertainment value. There's never a point where "The Town" disappoints, never a point where it bores. The pacing is one crucial element I didn't heavily touch upon in my review, but it deserves acknowledgement. And while my mention of a lack of a compromise may seem contradictory when discussing a film with so conventional a narrative, there's no denying the uncompromising nature of the movie's tone and style, which are both of a grit and verve that so many other Hollywood flicks would have simply glossed over. That final showdown with Jeremy Renner? Gripping and ugly -- it brings you back to films with balls, which in this genre are scarce despite copious promo material advertising the contrary.

I know this all sounds defensive, and perhaps I'm defending myself against myself. So much of me felt that awarding 5 stars to a movie like "The Town" was simply preposterous, especially when the few other films who've drawn that honor from me this year have had titles like "Winter's Bone" and "I Am Love." "The Town" -- a generic crime thriller born of Hollywood that from the outset looks terrible, is made by a seemingly slumping superstar, and really has nothing of luster apart from its intriguing cast. It's not really my cup of anything. Or so I thought. Turns out it's a shocking, galvanizing reward and one of my favorite movie stories of the year (that is, the story outside of the movie). Calm down, self: this bitch is impressive, and it deserves those bloody stars in its own right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

'Resident Evil: Afterlife' Review

In the words of Agent Smith, "Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why?"

Catch my review of the awfully unnecessary fourth installment in the sadly undead "Resident Evil" franchise over at CLICK HERE.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

'The American' Review

So, given the box office totals, the new Clooney "thriller" was a successful bait-and-switch, drawing crowds of mainstream moviegoers into a film as slow as honey. Many of those folks were no doubt ready to claw their eyes out; I, of course, thought the whole thing was pretty superb.

My full review of "The American" (which, apologies, reiterates some of that bait-and-switch chatter) is now online at CLICK HERE. Keep poking around for a brief word on "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," a film that's as overstuffed as "The American" is super slim.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

One copy...

...what on Earth are my twins going to do with that?

While searching for stills from the new thriller "Devil," I came across my favorite silver-haired glare-giver, and couldn't resist a little postage. For unlike Ms. Priestley's brats, I like to share.

For a great collection of Miranda's finest, tastiest lines (there are oh so many), check out this recent post from Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience: Miranda Priestley Forever. (Be sure to read the comments, too, as the blog's readers had much to contribute.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

'American' Splendor

I'm loving the delicious reviews George Clooney's decidedly un-American drama "The American" is generating. It's a polarizer, this one -- uneventful, yet memorable; boring, yet beautiful.

Three of my favorite critics offer three significantly different takes on the film, one praising it up and down, one landing just north of the middle, and one tearing it to pieces. They are great reads all.

(And, oh, do I love that poster)

Roger Ebert writes the most glowing review out there, focusing on the film's head-turning nuances ("Mr. Butterfly," you say?) and crafting some of his loveliest sentences in months.

Assuming what seems to be the popular position, A.O. Scott can't quite commit to loving the movie, and offers perfectly balanced reasons why you shouldn't miss it and why you'll be perfectly forgiven if you do (and he, like Ebert, admires the film's impeccable craft).

And Kyle Smith -- for my money the funniest critic working today -- skewers the film like a world-class roaster. Even if your take is the polar opposite of his, Smith's observations are always hyper-informed and fall-on-the-floor hilarious. My favorite bits from this new piece involve Lady Gaga, Lite-Brite and someone named Jorg Clooné.

My review of "The American" will be posted next week.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Haute Cuisine with Fatih Akin

The Turkish-German filmmaker has made a career out of producing healthy alternatives to mainstream junk. Bringing food to the forefront, his new, easy-to-digest comedy Soul Kitchen is no exception.

By R. Kurt Osenlund

Fatih Akin

THERE'S A GREAT LINE in Soul Kitchen, a new German comedy and the latest from Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, that speaks volumes beyond its context. It’s uttered with damning authority by Shayn (Birol Ünel), a curmudgeonly, elitist gourmet chef whose need for a job brings him to the Hamburg restaurant of the film’s title — a greasy spoon owned by Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), the equally desperate protagonist.

“People don’t know what’s good,” Shayn growls to Zinos. “They stuff their bellies full of shit.”

Shit, that is, like the schnitzel, pizza, hamburgers and french fries Zinos regularly served to his fat and happy customers before Shayn showed up. Shit, like more than half of the titles served up in movie theaters these days. Akin — who’s been known for his outspoken political views and has explored such sober topics as his Turkish heritage in his 2004 breakthrough Head-On and his sprawling 2007 drama The Edge of Heaven — attempts lighter fare with Soul Kitchen, but he’s sure to offer his commentary on the way contemporary audiences gobble up media, and how films with actual nutritional value (like his) are increasingly scarce.

“More and more art house theaters are closing,” the 36-year-old writer/director/producer says while visiting Philadelphia last month to promote Soul Kitchen. “They don’t have any audience anymore. And it’s a shame, it’s a pity—the fewer art house cinemas you have, the more multiplexes you get. Some art house films are being shown in multiplexes, but it’s tough — you have the first weekend, and if you don’t have your audience by then, you’re out. In the past, these films were given time — people could discover them, talk about them. We don’t have that anymore. People don’t know what’s good; they just fill their bellies in.”

The struggle of the art houses, and Hollywood’s growing aversion to making risky, enriching movies, only increase the value of work from artists like Akin, whose films are lived-in and alive in ways the average Tinseltown junk food only pretends to be. Head-On, a wild relationship drama that deservedly won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival of its year, is one of those bracing oddities that’s passionately, perfectly, itself. The death-themed, interconnected tale The Edge of Heaven didn’t impress this writer quite like its predecessor did, but it seemed true to its maker, showed his ambition, and more than earned the enthusiastic acclaim it received from most critics.

Adam Bousdoukos and Birol Ünel in Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen, a zestful, sometimes farcical, departure from Akin’s other films, hits you with a liveliness straight out of the gate, and it appeals to your sense of humor, your sense of smell, your sense of taste. It’s the type of hilarious comedy in which a sympathetic straight man sits
in the eye of a tornado of antics and capital-C characters, set in a believable world that sees beef and beer collide with balsamic reductions. With its yummy close-ups of delicious dishes being prepared, and Chef Shayn’s condemnation of “uncultured peasants” and “culinary racists,” you’d think Akin was trying to have his bite of the foodie-movie craze, hoping his film would entice the audiences of I Am Love, Eat Pray Love and that other Julia movie from last year. But, in truth, Soul Kitchen was in the works well before it became fashionable to put cuisine on the screen.

As Akin tells it, the making of Soul Kitchen dates back to the fall of 2003, when post-production for Head-On was just wrapping. Drained of money after having to sign on as producer of Head-On (“It was the only way I could do the film I wanted to do,” he says), the then-fledgling filmmaker had the “naive idea” to make an inexpensive film to pay the rent. He’d write something very quickly, produce it very quickly, shoot it on video, improvise the dialogue and work with friends. He’d contact Bousdoukos, a collaborator and restaurant owner who knew the world of Soul Kitchen (and would ultimately become co-writer and leading man). They’d film at Bousdoukos’s restaurant.

“We thought, ‘this will save us,’” Akin says, referring to the three founders of indie production company Corazón International: Akin, Klaus Maeck and Akin’s dear friend, Andreas Thiel. “That was how it started.”

But, soon, Head-On became a sensation, nabbing the Golden Bear, two European Film Awards, a smattering of additional accolades and an outpouring of adoration from critics and international audiences. The pressure to craft a worthy follow-up was mounting, and Akin, “confused” and “inexperienced,” began to doubt his get-rent-quick scheme of Soul Kitchen and shelved it. He kept working on the script in his downtime, rewriting it repeatedly, but in the foreground he poured himself into projects like The Edge of Heaven and Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, a documentary about contemporary Turkish music and culture. Then, amidst the creative output, came tragedy. Thiel, Akin’s pal and partner, passed away, leaving the grief-stricken director “emotionally exhausted” and unwilling to make another potent, serious drama. The perfect time, it seemed, to revisit Soul Kitchen.

“Andreas always wanted me to do Soul Kitchen,” Akin says. “He’d say, ‘Don’t care what other people think! Don’t be the slave of your success, man! You have to liberate yourself and do what you want!’ That was the last lesson he taught me, and I’m very thankful he did. And I’m very thankful that I made the film. It was what I needed — I needed a comedy.”

And it turns out comedy is something for which Akin has quite a talent. The farce — and occasional fantasy — that Soul Kitchen veers into is, shall we say, a bit much (in one scene, an aphrodisiac-laced dish sends the whole restaurant into an orgiastic frenzy), but oftentimes the humor feels easy and effortless, which of course means a lot of effort went into it. Citing the great Billy Wilder as a major influence, Akin says his latest film is also his most choreographed, with many scenes having averaged 20 to 30 takes, as opposed to his usual three or four. The increased discipline came from his desire to control the timing.

“With Head-On or The Edge of Heaven, they have their own timing,” Akin says. “There’s a stream, and the only intelligent thing I can do as a director is follow that. Here, it was not like that. Here, I had to create the rhythm.”

All of Akin’s films have a very strong sense of rhythm, especially Soul Kitchen. One would assume the director — a slightly stocky, sincere-looking gentleman whose kind eyes are topped by black, bushy caterpillar brows — is a good dancer. The editing of his pictures has the continuous pump and flow of a pulse, and the music, carefully selected and utterly indispensable each time out, has become an auteur’s hallmark, and is enough to keep you plenty busy on iTunes. Soul Kitchen boasts the sounds of Kool & The Gang, Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield, Louis Armstrong and The Isley Brothers, to name a few. Akin says he and his team wanted to find the sound of Hamburg, a city that saw the rise of beat music in the 1960s, and has a long-standing identification with Afro-American culture.

The cast of Soul Kitchen

“The material was asking for a certain sound,” Akin says. “Hamburg is very much, in my opinion, a soul town. We collected the tracks in 15 months, and changed them around as the script progressed. Music is an emotional counter of a film. And when you have the chronological order of the tracks already, you have an emotional map of your film before you shoot it.”

Though the movie inspires a lot of foot tapping (its soundtrack sales are steadily climbing in Europe), with Soul Kitchen, it always comes back to food. And it’s hard not to point out that Akin, with his avoidance of junk and his consideration of choice ingredients and presentation, is something of a fine restaurateur himself. Feeding the analogy, he says Soul Kitchen is his film about filmmaking. He explains a chef is like a director, customers are like viewers, dishes are like films (gobbled up quickly) and the stressed, string-pulling restaurant owner is like a producer. He remembers a question he asked Bousdoukos on set, while shooting one of the many scenes in which Zinos scrambles to keep his passion project afloat.

“I was asking him about his performance and I said, ‘What were you doing there?’” Akin recalls. “And he said, ‘I was imitating you. Couldn’t you tell?’”

This article was previously published in the September 2010 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

'Scream' Again

It's a little insane that I haven't uttered a peep about "Scream 4" yet. My obsession with these films -- well, at least, the first one -- was borderline unhealthy. My excitement for the fourth installment can't be overstressed. It's not that I'm expecting anything superb (I'm in fact expecting rubbish), it's just that for so long I thought all the "Scream 4" talk was simply rumors and hearsay. Now that it's actually happening, I have that little-kid feeling inside -- like when "Batman Returns" was released.

In case you didn't know, "Scream 4" brings back stars Neve Campbell, David Arquette and his wife, Courtney "Cougar" Cox; director Wes Craven; and writer Kevin Williamson. According to Dimension Films (whose Bob Weinstein is said to have initiated the reboot), the fourth installment is set to be the start of a new trilogy, catered to the changing state of horror in the new decade (hence the tagline, "New Decade. New Rules.").

The supporting cast, which seems to grow every few weeks, already includes Emma Roberts (as Sidney Prescott's cousin), Hayden Panettiere (as Roberts' character's BFF), Rory Culkin (as the new Randy-type geek), Adam Brody (as a cop -- with a lot of one-liners, no doubt), Marley Shelton (as another cop), Anthony Anderson (as the token black guy, I suspect) and Mary McDonnell (probably as somebody's mom). On Aug. 25, it was announced that Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin will also appear in the film.

The twisted thrill of these movies -- and, certainly, of hearing about the casting -- is guessing which pretty players will get iced and which will do the icing. My guesses: Anna Paquin bites it in the opening, a la Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett Smith; Hayden Panettiere gets cut to ribbons; Anthony Anderson martyrs himself; Rory Culkin hangs on for another installment; and Adam Brody and Marley Shelton are a sick husband-and-wife team who get their jollies offing people and posing as the case-crackers. Hey, that actually sounds pretty plausible! (I swear I haven't read the script.)

'127 Hours' Trailer

The arrival of the "127 Hours" teaser is old news, but I had to post it. I wasn't expecting this dreary-sounding flick to have so much kinetic energy, but I should have known better when considering a Danny Boyle movie.

It's always refreshing to see a filmmaker who wields the medium with stimulating, individualistic zeal, especially with the odor of the disposable, detestable "Going the Distance" still clinging. I've watched this trailer about five times now, for the sun-orange earth, the turquoise-blue splash at the camera, and the tempting-on-its-own score by "Slumdog Millionaire" composer A.R. Rahman. If it's half as good as this clip, "127 Hours" will be quite the worthwhile two.

'Going the Distance' Review

Hey, Worst Movie of the Year! If you've not yet revealed yourself, meet your competition:

Look closer, Barrymore. The text says: "Not LMAO in your new POS movie."

Read my full review of "Going the Distance," now online at CLICK HERE.