Movie Review ~ The Menu

The Facts:

Synopsis: Young couple Margot and Tyler travel to a remote island to eat at Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, who has prepared a lavish molecular gastronomy menu where food is treated as conceptual art, but his approach to cuisine has some shocking surprises for the wealthy guests.
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, John Leguizamo, Reed Birney, Paul Adelstein
Director: Mark Mylod
Rated: R
Running Length: (9.5/10)
ReviewGood from the first bite. If I were the type of reviewer quoted in film ads, that would be the line I hope they ran attributed to me with the wicked new thriller, The Menu. And that’s the best way to start reviewing what will likely be one of my favorite films I’ve seen in 2022. I’m naturally attracted to movies with a black heart, but screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy have cooked up something unnaturally dark for a pre-Thanksgiving theatrical dining experience. It might not be to everyone’s palette, but it’s hard to consider anyone walking out of a seating feeling they hadn’t been well-served by all involved.

It starts with the opening credits, inviting you to “experience” The Menu, and then director Mark Mylod drops you right into the pot of chilly water he hasn’t started to warm up yet (but soon will bring to a blistering boil). This is when we meet our dining companions as they journey from an unnamed mainland (the film was shot in Savannah) and make their way to an exclusive restaurant on a private island. The restaurant is Hawthorne, and it’s presided over by mysterious but renowned celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel), who charges $1,250 per person for the evening. 

A brief tour of the island by Elsa (Hong Chau, Downsizing), Julian’s front-of-house manager, shows the guests the food they’ll be eating and the living quarters of the staff working on the island. Everyone works as a cohesive unit in service to Slowik to put out the best food – nothing less will do. This is how he can demand that high price and why an invitation to dine is highly coveted in foodie, celebrity, and influencer circles. Among those dining tonight is a food critic (Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs), a trio of obnoxious financial upstarts, a blowhard actor (John Leguizamo, Encanto) and his long-suffering assistant), and a stalwart married couple (Reed Birney, Mass, & Judith Light, tick, tick… BOOM!) who appear to be regulars.

An unexpected guest wasn’t on the original list, surprising both Elsa and Julian. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, Last Night in Soho) accompanies Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), but they are expecting another woman in her place. A break-up left one seat open, and rather than miss out on a dinner he’s looked forward to, the bullish millennial thought he could bring anyone he wanted instead. Margot isn’t just anyone, though. She hasn’t earned her seat like the others attending and doesn’t play into Julian’s overall plan for the night. Because he does have a plan, and as each course arrives, it gives a clearer picture that each patron has been carefully selected as an ingredient to a final dish no one could have predicted.

To say more about The Menu would show how the proverbial sausage is made, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that fun. Mylod and the screenwriters use their 106 minutes wisely, nudging your nerves tighter and tenser each time a new dish is announced with Slowik’s sharp clap to call everyone’s attention. This is a rare meal that gets tastier the more you find out what’s going into the pot, and yet you still can’t quite figure out what the end game is until it arrives. Through it all, there’s bountiful amounts of acerbic humor directed at everything from bad movies to infidelity. 

Each table features its own mini murders row of talent. You can imagine the restaurant serving as the jumping-off place (or ending up?) for an anthology series featuring these actors, and I’d be curious to see what they were doing 24 hours before they hopped on the boat to the island. Taylor-Joy is a rising star for a reason, and she proves it again here by easily sliding into an established leading lady mode. She’s comfortable going eye-to-eye with Fiennes, who should honestly be attempting an Oscar campaign for his work here. Best of all is Chau as your traditionally snobby front-of-house worker but taken to a far more sinister place – each scene she’s in and each line she coolly hisses out is pure gold.

I’ll be making multiple return visits to The Menu; I’m confident of that and can easily recommend it to anyone that likes a little show with their dinner. Please don’t go into it hungry, though, because you’ll wind up competing with a growling stomach by the time the film is half over. There are some gorgeous shots of the dishes Fiennes and his team whip up, and you may be tempted to reach out and try to touch them they are so tasty looking.  Be warned, there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Movie Review ~ Downsizing

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie that doesn’t have ideas to share.  It’s becoming more and more common to describe big budget action films or insipid comedies as brainless and for me that would just be the worst if I were a filmmaker.  I’m impressed with films that clearly have a point of view and, even if the movie itself isn’t all that special, at least they can go down saying they gave it some semblance of a good shot.

Such is the case with Downsizing, the new film from talented director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) who has co-written an interesting satire that doesn’t have far to go but takes a long time getting there.  It’s not lacking in good performances, dedicated direction, or superior production design but what’s it’s really missing out on is a consistent playfulness that highlight its most memorable sequences.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, Promised Land) is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks in the not too distant future.  Living with his wife (Kristin Wiig, The Martian) in their modest home they make ends meet but aren’t really going anywhere either of them have much vested interest in. They are, like so many of us, just coasting through life and waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Attending a reunion, they reconnect with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis, We’re the Millers) and his wife who have undergone a drastic medical procedure introduced as a way to reduce the global overpopulation and pollution concerns.

Through a process known as Downsizing, humans are being shrunk to five inches and living in communities around the world that are tailor-made to their new sizes.  In places like Leisureland, your life savings that once wouldn’t have covered more than a nice trip to Europe can now buy you a mansion, allowing you to live the life of luxury while eliminating the continued build-up of environmental effluence.  This irreversible process has been slow to catch on globally but those that go through it speak of its life changing benefits.

Energized by the possibility of a better life “going small”, the Safranek’s commit to becoming shrinky dinks and that’s when two things happen.  The first thing that takes place is a shift in the Safranek’s relationship neither of them saw coming, the second is that the movie almost instantly becomes less interesting.  That’s troubling because at this stage in the film we’re only about 1/3 of the way through and so it begins a slow march to the finish line…a very slow march.

It’s not all bad news, though, because there are some bright spots that pop up here and there.  Though he has a penchant for playing the same role over and over again, here two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is having a ball not playing the villian.  As Dusan, a playboy neighbor that befriends Paul, he feels at home with Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s dialogue…proving he doesn’t need a Tarantino script or lip-smacking guile to turn in a memorable performance.

Even with heavy hitters Damon and Waltz present and accounted for, the film belongs to break-out star Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was put in prison for her political activism and downsized against her will.  A Waltz’s house-cleaner, Tran is no-nonsense and to the point, something that captivates Paul.  Finding himself in her debt, a relationship forms between the two that is both surprising and surprisingly sincere.  This connection carries the movie through the final act when Paul, Dusan, and Tran travel to the original downsized colony in advance of an announcement that will change all their lives forever.

There’s good stuff in nearly every frame of the movie and while I enjoyed the film for the most part during my initial viewing, the more I sit and dissect what it’s saying the less enamored of it I become.  Up for debate is the political correctness present in Chau’s portrayal of Tran but while some have called foul I’ve heard the actress talk about her approach and she stands behind her work.  As far as I’m concerned, if she’s OK with it, the discussion is finished.  More of a pain point for me is that the movie just isn’t as interesting as it wants us to believe it is.

The middle sections sags and drags and it’s thanks to Chau’s spirited performance that the movie recovers at all.  Payne isn’t afraid to shine a light on behavior or situations he finds eccentric, I just wish he had found a few more noteworthy turns to take on the odd-ball road trip he sets into motion.  Clocking in well over two hours, Downsizing should have reduced its running time along with its main characters.