Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 1 – Cooking in the Soul Kitchen and an Opening Night Extra

SIFF held its opening night in Benaroya Hall (for the first time) with a typically SIFF opening night film: The Extra Man, with Paul Dano as twentysomething literature teacher Louis Ives, a shy young man mired in sexual confusion, a fantasy life born of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and the eccentrics in his Manhattan apartment building, notably his roommate. Kevin Kline is the life of this rather precious coming of age film as Henry Harrison, a former playwright and full time “extra man” (an escort to the wealthy society widows who like a man on their arm for social events) who rents out a room in his walkup to make ends meet.

Directors and co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames) fail to capture the lively personalities that made their fiction debut, American Splendor, so splendid. Dano is less a man out of time than simply removed from the life around him (his thin, tentative smile and shrinking violet body language presents repression without suggesting the yearnings beneath it) and the film’s evocation of his inner life plays like bad community theater rather than a richly detailed fantasy of an idealized existence. But then there’s Kline, whose theatrical, judgmental Harrison is a genuine eccentric with a full life behind the flourishes and “a strange power over people,” in Louis’ own words. “It’s my constant disapproval,” explains Harrison, tossed off by Kline as an aside to the matter at hand. “Many people find it paternal.” John C. Reilly has less to work with offers a warmly vulnerable man under glaring eyes and a wild-man beard. This is just the kind of film that SIFF regulars have come to expect from opening night: mainstream moviemaking with indie colors and oddball edges just quirky enough not to offend.

Soul Kitchen (dir: Fatih Akin, Germany)

The confrontational approach and volatile race relations of Fatih Akin’s previous films are given a pass for a much more communal portrait of various eccentrics and individuals who find a place in a small community restaurant that redefines itself as a hub of music and food and young, hip patrons. It’s the most audience-pleasing film he’s made to date yet still very much in the Akin spirit of the multicultural identity of modern Germany. Full of humor, camaraderie, trust, redemption, music, food and, of course, community, it’s as lively and fun a film as you’ll find at the festival. Adam Bousdoukos stars as Zinos Kazantsakis, the Greek-German owner, manager and cook (if such a word really applies to his approach to food service) of a neighborhood restaurant that does little more than reheat frozen supermarket items to a working-class clientele who like their comfort food bland, greasy and predictable. Moritz Bleibtreu is his convict brother who veers back into his life on a work-release program and, despite his best efforts, gets involved in the struggling enterprise between his more legally dubious antics.

The script checks off plenty of clichés of comic chaos, shady shenanigans and romantic complications but the music and color and delicious personalities are the film. Bousdoukos (who co-wrote the script) enters the film as an amiable slob with a vague attachment to a business that has become a matter of routine, but even as he makes plans to join his journalist girlfriend in China, where she has jumped as a choice opportunity, the transformation of his business from a glorified cafeteria with sleepy clientele to a social of young patrons, energetic music and magnificent cuisine (courtesy of a mad-dog chef with a tendency to end conversations with a well-thrown knife) stirs a new passion in him. It’s not just a matter of ownership, it’s a sense of stewardship, of creation, of his own contribution to the creative revolution happening inside his restaurant. One might not expect such a warmth (not to mention sense of humor) from the director of Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, but there it is: Germany’s melting pot culture as a communal ideal.

(Friday, May 21, 7pm at Uptown; Sunday, May 23, 1pm at Uptown)