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Catching up to 'Soul Kitchen' and 'Valhalla Rising'

September 16, 2009 |  4:52 pm

ValhallaRisingStory On Wednesday I finally caught up with two of the films I entered the Toronto International Film Festival most eager to see, and I am pleased to report that neither let me down. First up was "Soul Kitchen," the latest film from the German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin. Where such previous films as "Head-On" and "The Edge of Heaven" have been bracing dramas of cross-cultural contemporary immigrant's life, this time out Akin has created a romping comedy about a Greek man living in Hamburg struggling to keep his humble little restaurant open despite his gambler brother, his certifiable chef, nosy inspectors, fickle customers and scheming developers.

Showing in the early afternoon as a press and industry screening, it was immediately surprising to hear the amount of laughter coming from the audience. After countless dour films portraying a world of pain and suffering, it was a relief to get swept up in a film that had an amiable, good-time vibe to it. Which is not to say the film was sloppy or shaggy-dog lazy either, because Akin has crafted sharp characters and smart plotting to move his story along. With a soundtrack of vintage soul and contemporary techno that sounds like a mix from one friend to another, Akin's "Soul Kitchen" shows him to be not only one of the current world cinema scene's most energized and exciting filmmakers but also one who possesses a versatility of style. Though it can often seem they are mutually exclusive, sometimes films can be smart and fun at the same time.

"Valhalla Rising" continues the winning streak of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who's previous film "Bronson" will be opening next month in the U.S. "Valhalla" is a visually stunning, thematically rich and out-there tale of Vikings searching for the Holy Land only to mistakenly discover the New World instead. Actor Mads Mikkelsen (known for his turn as the villain in the recent "Casino Royale") plays an unbeatable warrior known as One-Eye, who remains mute but lets his ax and knife do the talking.

The film builds from some of the same expressive stylistic flourishes as "Bronson" but to a totally different effect. Where "Bronson" creates a swirling phantasmagoria that puts you right inside its main character's mind, "Valhalla Rising" does everything it can to keep the viewer at a distance. It is nevertheless hypnotic, pulling the viewer into its world of mud and violence while shutting out completely whatever is happening in One-Eye's mind. Brutal and bracing, "Valhalla Rising" transforms into a cracked and crazy meditation on war and religion, nation building and the raw savagery that often lies just beneath society's surface. And there's blood, brains and guts too.

— Mark Olsen

Photo: "Valhalla Rising"
Credit: Toronto International Film Festival