El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (Gereon Wetzel). Chances are, if you're watching El Bulli: Cooking in Progress at a film festival, you probably have an idea of what type of restaurant El Bulli is and why you should know about it, but for the uninitiated, the film offers little help beyond noting that the restaurant annually closes for six months to perform culinary research and lab experimentation. The rest—the restaurant's unique usage of food technology, its experience-oriented philosophy, its 30-plus course menu—is kind of gathered as the documentary's events progress. That's much more interesting than a series of explanatory title cards, but it's still not enough to strongly convey the true El Bulli experience, which is a shame, since the restaurant's head chef, Ferran Adrià (a bulldog of a leader), emphasizes that good-tasting food is not his primary focus, but rather creating unique eating adventures. Avant-garde restaurants, he explains, must be about the new and the magical, otherwise they've failed, which makes it all the more puzzling that this film would focus so much on the experimental process of El Bulli while never showing the customer's final magical experience (patron reactions are so suspiciously absent that I can't help but assume it was a shooting limitation).
This experimental process, often void of context in the film, doesn't engross quite like I thought it would. The chefs conduct tests as you would expect, cooking one particular food in any number of ways, meticulously recording the results, with final judgment on their level of success coming from the imposing Adrià. The place is indeed a lab, so the wholly scientific approach is expected, but despite the occasional serendipitous culinary discovery, I'd hoped it would be a little less dry and a little more fascinating. The experiments and their results finally find life as we start to learn the personalities of the head chefs, making an unsuccessful test more disappointing when we can sense the insecurity of the chef under Adrià's critical watch, leading to trepidation in future experiments. Late in the film, even Oriol, the longest tenured of Adrià's head chefs and his staunch general in El Bulli's kitchen, shows flashes of uncertainty, pacing as his boss sits down to experience and judge the season's final menu.
These moments prevent Cooking in Progress from feeling too technical and disengaged, but we're not allowed these insights early or often enough to create a strong emotional connection with the film. The advanced and unorthodox cooking techniques and philosophies of the chefs at El Bulli serve as the film's hook, but it needs more than scientific process to keep us hanging on.
Insidious (James Wan). Much like Drag Me to Hell, Insidious uses its bold, loud title card as a letter of intent to gleefully provide shameless scares and plunge us into a paranormal and spiritual underworld impervious to our real-world logics. Some fans of director James Wan's first Saw film point to this same unabashed self-aware joy as a defense for the 2004 gore flick, myself included. But while Sam Raimi backed up his title card claims (and really, his entire opening sequence) with energy and flair, Wan's new film of ghosts and demons vying to possess a boy's body fails to support his intentions with much more than an underwhelming mess of noise and supernatural mundanity.
Even from its first scenes it's clear that Insidious desperately needs to hit the editing treadmill; it's far too flabby of a film, dragging on during its downtime, often losing its wind between scares. Tightening this baby up would work small wonders for it, but its larger flaws are much more fundamental, and unfortunately much more typical to today's horror films.
We're all sick of watching movies that consider abrupt clangs and the sounds of two-year-olds smashing piano keys to be the pinnacle of fright. Not that you can't have fun with those techniques; it's that when the audience is emotionally detached from characters who can't seem to muster up a remotely relatable reaction to the extraordinary events around them, "gotcha!" scares fade quickly, leaving nothing for the viewer to fear when he goes to bed that night.
Wan's unwillingness to focus on or develop a real villain doesn't help the film's cause, either. When the true nature of the paranormal events is finally revealed, it helps explain some of the director's reasoning behind the annoyingly random array of ghosts haunting the family; of course, it doesn't fix the fact that the film's purported top baddie doesn't even have the decency to be interesting. Even more frustrating, Wan actually gives us a quick indication that he could've been. The devilish creature's lair is a laughably generic shade of Demon Red, but we do get a brief peek into his workshop as he sharpens his metallic nails, a cheery record playing in the background while puppets, dolls, and masks adorn the walls. It's a flash of personality and humor absent from the rest of the film, the kind of fun promised by that opening title card and a reminder of the director that reveled in the image of Jigsaw's tricycle-riding puppet.
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress played March 12 and Insidious played March 11 at this year's SWSW.