PICKS OF THE WEEK
Soul Kitchen (B)
U.S.; Fatih Akin, 2009, Ifc
Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen is as nervy, fast-moving and hard-edged as Head On or The Edge of Heaven, but its mood and motive are much sunnier, bubblier. It's a comedy, a bawdy and delicious one, about a Greek-German restaurant owner-manager trying to make a go of a hip little eatery called Soul Kitchen -- ensconced in a large space in an industrial area of Hamburg, full of comfort food and jumping with pop music. The Kitchen, which booms out the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," plus Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Ruth Brown and other soul classics over the speakers, and draws much of its patronage from a nearby art school, is a smoking little place. Its menu (pizza, burgers, fries) is easy and toothsome, and its staff is congenial. But its problems are also seemingly endless.
For much of the movie we simply watch the Kitchen's owner-hero, Zinos Kazantzakis (played by real life restaurateur and longtime Akin buddy Adam Bousdoukos), run around trying to solve them -- to untangle his troubled love life, the keep his staff happy, and to keep out of the hands of predatory creditors, a relentless taxwoman and malicious, greedy business sharks. Zinos' romantic turmoil mostly revolves around smart journalist heiress-beauty Nadine (Pheline Roggan) who has a job (and maybe a new boyfriend) in China. His personnel quandaries stem from his new temperamental chef, Shayn Weiss (Birol Unel), who likes to throw knives when his culinary gifts are doubted, and from his ex-con brother Ilias (Moritz Blibtreu), who likes to gamble and has a crush on one of the waitresses. Zinos' most troublesome tax collector, and most persistent predatory business shark (Wotan Wilke Mohring as Thomas Neumann) are often at his door, and, at least once, in each other's arms. And we haven't even mentioned his slipped disc.
Bousdoukos may be a film acting amateur. But his years of pulling customers in for his food have given him a shaggy presence and charisma that helps keep all these whirligig plots in motion. Blibtreu, as brother Moritz -- a well-meaning but reckless guy -- serves up a marvelous supporting performance. And so does Unel as Weiss, a chef willing to pull a knife on a customer, rather than blasphemously heat up his precious bowl of gazpacho. The rest of the cast, all good, pungently illustrate the whole melting-pot pizazz of life in the city when you're (relatively) young, active, and alive to lots of options. And ready for snacks of all kinds. In German, with English subtitles.
The Black Pirate (A-)
U.S.: Albert Parker, 1926, Kino, Blu-ray
Douglas Fairbanks was the original movie swashbuckler, and still, in many ways, the best. Errol Flynn was a little too much of a real-life jerk to be totally convincing as a pure-hearted, dashing adventurer. No one after those too had quite their dash, their flair -- or their lavish Hollywood backdrops to play against.
But we still have Fairbanks (at least on celluloid). And more moviegoers these days should get to know him: his signature 'stache, his laughing eyes, his wide smile, his exuberant ways, his flips, his jumps, the way he slashed a sword at a cutthroat's breast. The Black Pirate, his first Technicolor film, and a beauty, is one of his best shows, neglected maybe because we know so little of the director, Albert Parker.
But Fairbanks himself was one of the writers, one of the producers, maybe half the director. It's his personality that catches us. Let this movie reintroduce you to one of the great movie stars, and then show you the reasons why the world loved him. With Donald Crisp and Billie Dove. Silent, with intertitles and two music scores: the original 1926 Mortimer Wilson score conducted by the estimable Robert Israel, and a Lee Erwin organ score. (Extras: The complete talkie version of The Black Pirate, narrated by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; commentary by Rudy Behlmer; 47 minutes of outtakes, with some Behlmer commentary; photo gallery.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (A)
U.S.: various directors, 1968-72, Criterion
This is the true-life tale of two young TV and moviemaking guys, radical-minded but well-connected: Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Bob, who had quite a temper, was the nephew of Ernst Lubitsch's screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson. Bert, who looked like a Jewish prince, was the son of Columbia president Abraham Schneider.
The two made a lot of money with a silly but wildly popular little rock 'n' roll TV show they dreamed up called The Monkees, for their production company, Raybert -- which eventually became BBS (for Bert, Bob, and their third partner, theatrical/promotional whiz Steve Blauner). A little company attached to the then-faltering colossus of Columbia Pictures, BBS was designed to make little "art" movies for about a million or so.
They knew some other talented young guys -- and gals -- who'd been knocking around, but hadn't quite made it: people like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Karen Black, Carol Eastman, Bruce Dern, Henry Jaglom, Peter Bogdanovich -- and they started making movies with them. Those movies, some of them at any rate, made a lot of money and won Oscars, and got them noticed, got them tickets to the dance (the deals and the parties). And they made more movies. Not that many, though. Seven films in this box set, not all official BBS shows -- Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive, He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, The King of Marvin Gardens.
So you get the story here, in the box set's documentaries and featurettes -- some vintage, some new -- and in the Criterion booklet, with six very sympathetic articles by six very sympathetic critics. And you get it in the movies. Mostly in the movies.
You may not have seen these pictures for years, for decades. But you'll be surprised at how they've all held up, even improved. (Extras: commentaries by Bob and Toby Rafelson, Hopper, Fonda, Bogdanovich, Jaglom, Shepherd, Quaid, Leachman and the Monkees; intrviews with Nicholson, Hopper, Fonda, Rafelson, Blauner, Burstyn, Dern, Kovacs, David Thomson and Douglas Brinkley; documentaries; trailers; booklet with essays By Chuck Stephens, Matt Zoller Seitz, Kent Jones, Mark Le Fanu, Graham Fuller, J. Hobernman.)
U.S.: Bob Rafelson, 1968
Director Bob Rafelson and his producing partner Bert Schneider were the men behind The Monkees, a weekly TV rock 'n' roll comedy musical show obviously inspired by the Beatles and Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night -- and starring the Monkees, a hand-picked mini-Beatle group composed of drummer/singer Mickey Dolenz and singers/guitarists Davey Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith. The Monkees were a pickup group Rafelson and Schneider assembled from auditions, but their pop record career took off anyway (fueled by huge hits like "I'm a Believer" and "Last Train to Clarksville"). They were known somewhat scornfully among the snobbier rock crowds as "The Pre-Fab Four."
After a couple of years, the Monkees were tired of the whole TV magilla, and Rafelson wanted to make a movie. So he enlisted the help of the Pre-Fab Four, of his actor/screenwriter pal Jack Nicholson (who still calls him "Curly") -- and that assembled a totally perverse back-up cast that included Timothy Carey, Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, Ray Nitschke, Carol Doda and Victor Mature's hair, and that's how Head came to be. (The title means what you think it does -- although Rafelson has confessed that they intended to advertise their next movie with the tagline "The new movie from the guys who gave you Head!) Since Head was a colossal, if somewhat undeserved flop, the point was moot. (Jack and Curly's next movie, in any case, was Five Easy Pieces.)
Easy Rider (A-)
U.S.; Dennis Hopper, 1969
In 1969, Easy Rider -- a low-budget revolutionary biker flick in which writer-producer Peter Fonda and writer-director Dennis Hopper play Wyatt (a.k.a. Captain America) and Billy, two shaggy, pot-blowing bikers, riding cross-country to New Orleans, the Mardi Gras and an evil destiny, after a big cocaine score -- exploded onto America's movie scene and culture like few low-budget movies ever have. It won the Camera d'Or (for best first film) at Cannes, grossed a ton, and became a landmark film in the '60s-'70s U.S. movie New Wave.
It still plays like a guitar jam house afire, with blazing Laszlo Kovacs cinematography, a trend-setting rock soundtrack (keyed by Steppenwolf's furious "Born to Be Wild" and The Band's epochal "The Weight") that fundamentally changed the way movies have been scored ever since, and an iconic cast headed by Fonda, Hopper, and the nonpareil Jack Nicholson as happily drunken lawyer George Hanson. (It's a performance, some friends say, that, booze aside, is closest to Nicholson's real personality). The cocaine buyer in the opening scene, by the way, is Phil Spector.
Dennis Hopper, who was a truly great interview subject (either drunk or sober), once told me that there are longer cuts of Easy Rider that he prefers -- one of four and one of about eight hours -- and which, he claimed, really gave you the feeling of riding cross-country.
Five Easy Pieces (A)
U.S.: Bob Rafelson, 1970
One of the great '70s movies -- with Nicholson as Bobby Eroica Dupea, who has fled his isolated Oregon classical musician family for a life as a wildcatter and hell-raiser on the Bakersfield oil fields, with a country & western-loving waitress girlfriend name Rayette (Karen Black's shining hour). Bobby, a secret whiz at Mozart and Chopin, now has to return home -- Rayette wheedles herself along too -- to say goodbye to his dying father. (That "goodbye" is an emotional wipeout, for Nicholson and for us.) The rest of the troubled household consists of Bobby's hero-worshiping sister Lois Smith, injured brother Ralph Waite and a sexy ladyfriend (Susan Anspach), who likes his (piano) style.
The script, with heavy Rafelson influence, is the finest work of Carole Eastman, a.k.a. Adrien Joyce. And the film's mix in Bobby of blue-collar and bourgeois, of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" and Mozart's classical piano music is consciously artistic and genuinely radical in intent. This movie, which often plays like a film in the vein of Bergman (Bergman loved it), hit critics like a thunderbolt in 1970. If Easy Rider established the young producers commercially, Five East Pieces made them critically.
Drive, He Said (B)
U.S.: Jack Nicholson, 1970
Tell it like it is, babe. Jack Nicholson wanted to direct, and BBS obliged. The result, this adaptation by director/producer/writer Nicholson of co-screenwriter Jeremy Larner's realistic novel of college basketball, sex and anti-war radicalism, is one of the few films I can think of that really brings that time and my campus (UW-Madison), and the whole faux-revolutionary feel of things, right back to me. It's grim. Sexy too.
The college-age actors here are William Tepper as long-haired hoops phenom Hector and Michael Margotta (kind of a little Jack) as his radical roommate Gabriel. For the older folk, Nicholson put his buddies in. Bruce Dern gives the movie's best performance as the hyperbolic Coach Bullion, Karen Black is Hector's married lover Olive, Bob Towne is Olive's wimpy academic hubby Richard, Henry Jaglom is Conrad. Real-life basketball star Mike Warren is Hector's team comrade Easly.
But there's something wrong with Drive, He Said, some reason why it didn't fully connect with audiences at the time, why it still doesn't fully connect with me. Hell, I'm just not sure what it is. Maybe it's the times that were wrong. And they still spook me and attract me at the same time. I left something back there. Yeah, that could be it. Tell it like it is, babe.
A Safe Place (A-)
U.S.: Henry Jaglom, 1971
Henry Jaglom likes to make up movies, as he goes along, with his actors, and in his debut feature A Safe Place he had the best leads he ever had for one of his movies for his whole career. The transcendently gorgeous Tuesday Weld is the outwardly ebullient and girlish, inwardly tormented Manhattan beauty Susan (or Noah). Jack Nicholson (the Man) is her smiling, supremely self-confident old love, Mitch. And Orson Welles (the greatest of them all) is a pious-looking old magician who hangs around in the park, making little rainbows. (Welles with a little rainbow became the signature image of Jaglom's later longtime producing company, Rainbow.)
'70s audiences found this movie self-indulgent, and it is. But why shouldn't it be? If you have actors this wonderful (and other good ones like Philip Proctor and Gwen Welles), why not indulge them and yourself as well? BBS was definitely the place to do it. And you can't say Jaglom was a phony; he still makes the same kind of movies, with the same methods. His heart on his sleeve and his hat on his brow, he's still a full-blown movie romantic -- the song we keep hearing in Safe Place is Charles Trenet's "La Mer" ("Beyond the Sea" for Bobby Darin) -- and this is his most romantic movie.
The Last Picture Show (A)
U.S.; Peter Bogdanovich, 1971, Columbia/Sony
Peter Bogdanovich's great movie about memory, youth, loss, romance and sex is also a poetic tribute to the movies and the ways we interact with them. The Last Picture Show -- adapted by Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry from McMurtry's excellent novel about high school friends in a changing '50s small-town Texas world, is, of course, regarded as a modern classic -- and it shines through once again here. The movie is beautifully designed and structured and executed, beautifully shot (by Robert Surtees) in classical black-and-white. It really looks and feels like the '50s. Smells of them, even.
Hank Williams is on the jukeboxes and radios, Howard Hawks' 1948 John Wayne cattle-drive western Red River is in Sam the Lion's movie house. The movie's influences are obvious: Hawks, Ford, Welles, even Hitchcock and Preminger -- and Bogdanovich honors his masters while applying their techniques to something really different: a side of the '50s you never really saw in Red River, in The Quiet Man, in Mr. Arkadin or The Wrong Man or Anatomy of a Murder: a more honest, even shockingly candid look at sexuality. The great breakthrough cast includes Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Eileen Brennan and Oscar winners Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.
Bogdanovich sometimes seems somewhat haunted by this movie, by its incredible critical reception and maybe by the widespread notion that he may never make a better one. Well, maybe he won't -- just as Orson Welles never really topped Citizen Kane. But that doesn't matter, shouldn't matter. Any filmmaker would be honored to have either a Citizen Kane or a Last Picture Show in their resume.
The King of Marvin Gardens (A)
U.S.; Bob Rafelson, 1972
Jack Nicholson plays one role that he probably never wanted to be typecast in: an introverted, sexually repressed writer/radio talk show host named David Staebler, who seems to make up his own autobiography as he goes along. Bruce Dern plays his older brother Jason, a would-be slick, glad-handing artist and promoter, who never stops grinning, never stops selling, holed up in a boardwalk hotel in Atlantic City, where he's got a deal going down. He says.
And Ellen Burstyn is a sexy lady with a warm and welcoming manner and beauty queen smile named Sally, who travels around with Jason and with her pretty, fragile stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) and a ton of makeup, and is about to see everybody (including herself) at their worst.
Surprisingly, here, in a film relatively few have seen or know, are three of the greatest performances in the whole history of the American cinema, three quintessential '70s acting knockout rounds by three actors who are always good, often terrific -- Nicholson, Dern, Burstyn -- but rarely better than they are here. Nicholson plays against his seeming strength: He's a shy guy who nearly fades into the background, deep into himself, dominated by his colorful fake of a brother. Dern plays to his strengths: He takes over the screen, rides over everybody, sweeps us up in his waves of energy and chutzpah, even though we all know this guy is full of bullshit.
As for Ellen Bustryn, playing her looker's last twilight act, as this Tennessee Williams-style damaged-goods lady -- well, she just takes your heart and tears it up into little crumbs and scatters them like her makeup and mascara and lip gloss tossed to the wind and fire on the desolate New Jersey shoreline beach. If you don't feel a twinge or a tear at this, buddy, you're stone. You're stone.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The American (B)
U.S.; Anton Corbijn, 2010, Universal
What I like about George Clooney is the easy-going "good guy" way he plays the Hollywood game. I like his politics, his philanthropy, his unpretentious smarts, his good-natured jock style, his taste in movie scripts, his daring as a director, his wry grin, his sense of fun and his sense of seriousness.
And I like the fact that he's a stunning-looking guy who can effortlessly get all the things available to stunning-looking guys -- the ladies, the jobs, the laughs and whatever else -- but that he doesn't rub our noses in it, or act like he's always on the make, or pump himself up with vanity and vacuous self-regard. I like that he makes fun of himself, and even makes fun of the American obsession with stunning-looking guys and gorgeous women and using your looks to get ahead. The American, Clooney's latest movie, is a good example of Clooney's work ethic and ambition, his Paul Newmanesque good-guy persona. It's an eye-popping, laconic, dramatically perverse mix of art film and classy romantic thriller that deliberately tramples on the current norms and box-office formulas. Instead, it summons up memories of esoteric European suspense dramas like Melville's Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and Antonioni's The Passenger, rather than the more obvious models you'd expect, like Bourne and Bond.
It's a good film, beautifully visualized, a little self-indulgent maybe, and a little spare of script. Clooney's star role is as an assassin/gunsmith variously known as Jack, Edward and Butterfly, dodging bullets on a working idyll in the lush Abruzzi mountain country of Italy, and involved with several knockout ladies, a philosophical priest and an impatient employer (some or all of whom may mean him harm). It's an uncharacteristic minimalist job, fraught with tension and less heavy on the usual Clooney trumps of charm and personality.
The American is about a perfectionist in murder whose world is coming apart and who (unwisely, perhaps) seems to fall in love. So the film begins with a botched attack and a startling rub-out and it stays tense and opaque, keeps mixing sex and menace the rest of the way.
The movie's source is the novel A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth, which is apparently less opaque, and less spare of story. And screenwriter Rowan Joffe gives it the Harold Pinter strip-the-dialogue-to the- bone treatment. People say little and conceal their meanings and feelings, if not their private parts.
A lot happens in The American, and it happens very stylishly, thanks to cinematographer Martin Ruhe, designer Mark Digby, and director Anton Corbijn. Corbijn is the Dutch filmmaker and music video maker who made Control, that very stylish black-and-white bio-drama on front man/suicide Ian Curtis and Joy Division, and here he fills the screen with beauty and dread, the way Polanski and Hitchcock do or did, but somewhat less bitingly and with far less lacerating suspense.
The American sometimes seems like a film festival disguised as a picturesque neo-noir thriller. But it's a neo-noir that also plays as if it would rather be a psychological drama about alienation and personal collapse, and that keeps avoiding the violent paydays we seem to expect of our supposed "thrillers."
Want to see a beautifully-shot thriller, with beautiful people in beautiful surroundings? Here it is -- despite a script that could be better and smarter, and too much fancy bleakness, and dialogue that could be sharper and wittier, and no car-chases in sight. It's no Syriana. It's no Michael Clayton. And it's certainly no Samourai. But it looks like a nice working holiday for our pal George. He deserves one.
And Soon the Darkness (D)
U.S.; Marcos Efron, 2010, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Back in 1970, director Robert Fuest and producer-writer Brian Clemens (two smart veterans of TV's cult show The Avengers) made a stylish little British sleeper-thriller called And Soon the Darkness -- about pretty British girls bicycling through France, a disappearance, and possible abduction and/or murder. The star was Pamela Franklin (Maggie Smith's student in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and the movie had a nice pace, good looks and some effective pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense.
This remake, retooled for sexy American bicyclists zipping through Argentina, and directed and co-written by Marcos Efron, looks good too: Gabriel Beristain is the cinematographer, and Amber Heard and Odette Yustman are the bike gals, with Yustman the lady who vanishes. But, as you might expect from this kind of contemporary terror-cheesecake remix (Efron wastes little time getting Heard and Yustman into a pickup bar and then into bikinis), the treatment is creepier and more sordid than it was in 1970, a now classic-looking era when lots of people thought movie sex was going too far.
The real reason for the low rating here is the script: the shockingly inept dialogue and witless plotting that have replaced the competent workmanship of Fuest and Clemens' film. The sole motivation for most of the action in the new Darkness is outrageous stupidity and chronic carelessness on the part of everyone: victim, villains and innocent bystanders alike. And, in my experience, nobody in the world talks like the people in this movie except the characters in very bad screenplays. (Next time, please hire a writer.) Luckily, Beristain does light and shoot some macabre sets -- and capture some nice scenery, the heroines included. In English and Spanish, no subtitles.