Spoiler-Free Review: “The Menu” starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, & Nicholas Hoult

Painstakingly Prepared. Brilliantly Executed. -A tagline for the movie

A young couple travels to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises. -Synopsis

Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes- who always does a great job) is at the top of his field; the multi-course meals at his restaurant (located on a small private) island cost $1,500. Elsa (Hong Chau) is the manager (AKA right hand) of the chef. Chau is a Vietnamese-American actress who just received an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress for The Whale (2022); she is having success after age 40 (quite rare in Hollywood). A young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), are two of the guests; Tyler is V excited, being a foodie/fan of Chef Slowik. John Leguizamo plays a character called George Díaz, simply credited as “Movie Star.” Leguizamo based his character on former action star, Steven Seagal, whom he called a “horrible human” due to a V bad experience while working w/ him on Executive Decision (1996). The references to Diaz playing a cook in one of his movies may be a nod to Under Siege (1992), where Seagal played a cook- LOL! George is accompanied by his young assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero). A well-known food critic, Lillian (Janet McTeer), and her editor, Ted (Paul Edelstein), are among the guests; she’d written V positively re: this restaurant. Three jovial 30-ish Wall Street bros (played by Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr) want to spend their money and have a new experience. A tense/posh older couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), round out the group of 12 diners.

Tyler [eating some oysters]: You have to try the mouthfeel of the mignonette.

Margot: Please don’t say mouthfeel.

This movie (which I saw recently on HBO Max) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 10, 2022. It was released November 18 in the US in 3,211 theaters (the widest release in Searchlight’s history). The director, Mark Mylod, has mainly worked in TV (Succession). One of the screenwriters, Will Tracy, came up w/ the idea of the story while on his honeymoon in Bergen, Norway, when he took a boat to a fancy restaurant on a private island. Tracy realized that diners were stuck (trapped) on the island until the meal was done!

Elsa: Here, we are family. We harvest. We ferment. We slaughter. We marinate. We liquify. We spherify. We gel.

Margot: [to Tyler] They gel?

Elsa: We gel!

There are many references to restaurant Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark), starting from the location, idea, concept, and ending w/ the menu itself. Several of the beach shots were filmed at Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island (Georgia). The food layouts were prepared by the famed French chef, Dominique Crenn, the ONLY female chef in the US to attain 3 Michelin stars for her restaurant, Atelier Crenn (San Fran). At one point, Chef Slowik insults Richard by calling him “donkey,” a reference to (famous/abusive) chef Gordon Ramsay. The kitchen team were trained to actually create the dishes, broken down station by station, as one would see in a real restaurant.

Chef Slowik [introducing the dessert course]: The s’more. The most offensive assault on the human palate ever contrived.

This is a social satire that makes fun of the uber-wealthy, esp. pretentious foodies and the celeb chefs who cater to their needs. I heard that Triangle of Sadness (2022) deals w/ similar themes. The look is sleek/ultra-modern and cold. It’s moody, atmospheric, and (often) tense. However, some of the occurrences are preposterous! The characters act like those in a horror movie in one scene, then turn goofy in the next one. This movie has been called “silly” by critics/viewers; I think it’s a waste of talent and under-cooked (pardon the pun). I was impressed esp. by Fiennes and Taylor-Joy (who have good chemistry), though some others were under-developed.

[1] This is a movie that plays on something everyone has come across in their lives: obsession. The movie starts out as a seemingly eerie thriller/suspense type movie with weird and unique quirks, but slowly devolves into something much more wild and very obviously takes it too far.

[2] I think I understood what The Menu was trying to convey with its deeper meaning, but I still came up disappointed. Anya Taylor-Joy and the rest of the cast gave great performances, but there was little that really brought the movie together.

[3] The entire cast gives great performances with Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy truly being the standouts as they playoff each other very well. Each character purposely reflected a personality type that, if you ever worked in service, you would encounter and come to know very well.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Top Gun” (1986) starring Tom Cruise & Kelly McGillis

Up there with the best of the best. -A tagline for the movie

Y’all know the story of this iconic/’80s action movie, its young (soon to be famous) cast, and maybe even a few lines. This was my 1st time watching. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise- in a star-making role), whose father was also in the Navy, and his closest pal, Goose (Anthony Edwards), get into the best flying school (AKA “Top Gun”). While Maverick is a flirtatious bachelor prone to risk-taking, Goose is a cautious/devoted family man (w/ a wife and toddler son). After filming ended, Edwards and Meg Ryan (his onscreen wife- Carole) started dating IRL. The tension btwn Maverick and his classmate, Iceman (Val Kilmer), is NOT just acting; Cruise and Kilmer didn’t get along, so avoided each other on set and didn’t socialize. When the students are being briefed by Charlie (Kelly McGillis) in the hangar, Maverick says that he gave “the bird” to a MiG. Charlie asks how he saw the MiG up close, and he explains it was by flying inverted. Iceman coughs “bullshit” (ad-libbed by Kilmer); the reactions of the other actors are genuine.

(The Navy Blue Angels) take Tom up there, and they do five Gs. They do barrel rolls, they do everything. He’s heaving in the plane. He gets on the tarmac, runs to a pay phone… and he said, “I’m in. I’m doing the movie. I love it. This is great.” -Jerry Bruckheimer (a producer) on convincing Cruise to sign on to the film (after his initial reluctance)

All in all, the movie was both a blast and an education. -Val Kilmer (who initially didn’t want to act in the movie)

The action and music make this movie V entertaining, I have to admit! Yeah, I was moving my feet to the soundtrack. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer produced some blockbusters over their long partnership; I’m a big fan of Crimson Tide. It’s also fun to see the young/cute actors; a few became movie stars, while others went on to good careers in TV. Though the romance w/ McGillis is lackluster (zero chemistry), I liked the friendship btwn Cruise and Edwards (best known for ER) and the father-son dynamic btwn Cruise and Tom Skerritt (Viper- the lead instructor). Of course, I teared up a BIT when Goose died (though I knew it was coming)!

The real stars are the pilots themselves. Top Gun is dedicated to Art Scholl, a stunt pilot (aged 54), who was killed when his camera plane failed to recover from a flat spin and plunged into the Pacific Ocean. Maverick’s stunt flying was done by Scott D. Altman, who eventually become an astronaut- wow! Charlie’s “older man” date at the officer’s club is the real-life “Viper,” Pete Pettigrew, a retired Navy pilot/Top Gun instructor, who shot down a MiG during the Vietnam War. Pettigrew served as the technical consultant on the film. Charlie is based on Christine Fox, a civilian flight instructor the producers met on a visit to Miramar while doing research to prep for the film. Fox eventually rose through the ranks at the Pentagon, retiring in May 2014 as Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, the highest post ever held by a woman at the DoD. You can stream this movie on Amazon (Paramount+) or Netflix.

Spoiler-Free Review: “Normal People” (2020) starring Daisy Edgar-Jones & Paul Mescal

The series follows Marianne and Connell, from different backgrounds, but the same small town in Ireland, as they weave in and out of each other’s romantic lives. -Synopsis

Marianne (British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Irish actor Paul Mescal) are classmates at a secondary school (high school) in County Sligo on Ireland’s Southern coast. Among her peers at HS, Marianne is regarded as an oddball/loner; she has an abrasive personality and says she cares nothing for social standing. Despite her academic achievements, her family life is unhappy b/c of her dismissive/solicitor (lawyer) mother, Denise, and resentful/older bro, Alan. Marianne’s father is deceased. Connell is a high-achiever also, but popular w/ athletic skills/laid-back attitude. (FYI: The sport they play at school is Gaelic football, a combo of rugby and soccer.) He lives in a humble (yet happy) home w/ his single mother, Lorraine, who works for Denise as a cleaner of their (fancy/spacious) house. There is no father in the picture; it’s obvious that Lorraine had Connell when she was a teen. The focus is Marianne and Connell’s romantic relationship over their last year of HS through college (undergraduate) years.

Normal People is based on the bestselling book by a millennial/Irish author, Sally Rooney, who co-wrote the first 6 eps (out of 12 total eps at less than 30 mins each). The show became hugely popular worldwide (esp. w/ young adults) when it was released in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch it now on Hulu. I saw it a few weeks ago, after some of my Twitter gal pals praised it; I’ve been skeptical of shows re: teens/college kids in the past. Wow, was I (pleasantly) surprised; the writing and acting are terrific! Silence is also used effectively at key moments. As I’ve written before, there is nothing like a love story, BUT only when it is done well (NOT cliched or simplistic). I kept thinking- why can’t we (Americans) have smart/sensitive entertainment like this w/ teens/young ppl!?

I hadn’t seen the lead actors before; they had great chemistry together. Mescal (now garnering acclaim for the indie movie Aftersun) will play the lead in the sequel to Gladiator; director Ridley Scott will be filming it after he wraps up Napolean. Connell is (traditionally) masculine, yet also has a sensitive/vulnerable side. Edgar-Jones was the lead in Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), based on a bestselling novel by Delia Owens. Marianne can be tough, mysterious (as in hard to know), yet also quite vulnerable. Check this show out ASAP- you won’t regret it!

[1] Brilliant, heartbreaking viewing experience. Give yourself over to this wonderful story and be ready for a genuine rollercoaster. 

[2] What I liked is that I felt both Marianne and Connell were well-rounded characters that didn’t fall into stereotypes. […]
That it pierced the heart of this wretched old soul speaks volumes to the quality of the series.

[3] These young new faces are truly engaging and they are beautiful to boot. As characters, there are emotions beneath that are really worthwhile to explore. They become more and more fully formed people and that’s the brilliance of this limited series. These are great characters performed by compelling new faces.

[4] It felt almost like reading a book where you envision the characters so vividly, you can almost touch them. The chemistry the two leads have, their acting, the cinematography, are all so well blended together, so seamless, it’s palpable. A melancholy trip worth taking, if only to remind the ones past teenage years how vulnerable and all-engulfing a young love is.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Lady Macbeth” (2016) starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, & Naomi Ackie

Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. -Synopsis

In the north of England, a young woman named Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into marriage (along w/ some land) to a middle-aged man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton- a character/theater actor). Sadly, there is no love or even common kindness involved here; this marriage was arranged by Boris Lester (Christopher Fairbank), Alexander’s domineering father. Katherine is prevented from leaving the house. Boris scolds her for not giving Alexander a son, but her husband doesn’t even touch her! One day, both men have to leave the estate for separate business matters, leaving Katherine alone with the housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie- also in an early role). Finally, Katherine is free to explore the area to alleviate her boredom!

This indie film (streaming on MUBI) is based on the Russian book Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov. I learned that iFeatures is a collab btwn the BBC and the BFI; every year, they produce 3 feature films for £350,000 as a stepping stone for 1st time directors. Lady Macbeth (directed by William Oldroyd) was chosen out of over 300 applicants- wow! It was filmed over 24 days on location at Lambton Castle, County Durham and Northumberland, UK. Shaheen Baig was the casting director on Florence Pugh’s 1st film, The Falling (2014); when the script came her way, she suggested Pugh (then just 19 y.o) to Oldroyd.

I loved the fact she was naked all the time. At that point in my life, I had been made to feel sh*t about what I looked like and that film was perfect. There was no room for me to feel insecure. -Florence Pugh, in an interview (ES Magazine)

This is a V dark tale; the first 35 mins. are quite slow and NOT much happens (w/ little dialogue); the next 45 mins. is an unbridled (and often) violent trip! There is almost no music to be heard. The setting is oppressive, the tone is foreboding, and there are bursts of violence (which will be quite jarring esp. to sensitive viewers). Unlike most period dramas you may be familiar w/, this film uses colorblind casting. Ackie is a Black woman from the UK w/ Caribbean roots, Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian- the horse groomer) is of British/Armenian heritage from the US, and Golda Rosheuvel (most recently Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton) is a British biracial woman. The acting is quite effective, esp. from Pugh (mature beyond her years); I wanted to see more of Ackie’s character (as she does a fine job also). Ackie (only early 30s) went on to work on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. She plays the lead in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

[1] The film seems to be a pre-feminism manifesto for women’s rights. […]

The interesting thing is how Katherine evolves from victim to culprit. She seems to have learned from her husband how to use and misuse power. The lack of social conscience of which she at first is a victim, becomes a driving force for her own behaviour.

[2] Lady Macbeth features a mesmerising and beguiling performance from Florence Pugh. It is far away from these slushy chocolate box romantic period dramas. Katherine is steel edged and deadly.

[3] Several archetypal themes arise in this somber, artfully-photographed drama. For instance, one that emphasizes the wages of sin is prominent; another about the subjugated rising against the oppressor; and another about the danger of socially imprisoning smart women in a paternalistic society. A leitmotif also surfaces about the dangers of debilitating class distinctions, which are never a good thing in the long haul.

Ari Wegner’s cinematography is portrait-like if considering only the recurring shot of Katherine sitting on her Victorian couch in a consuming dress that seems to deteriorate with each similar shot. Underneath the dress is the corset, so long a symbol of the era’s tight hold on women.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Love in the Time of Pandemic: “Perfect Sense” (2011) starring Ewan McGregor & Eva Green

Without love, there is nothing. -A tagline for the movie

A mysterious epidemic appears across the world where people suddenly lose one of their senses. At first, it’s the loss of smell, which comes after a destructive temper tantrum. Epidemiologist Susan (Eva Green- who is French) and chef Michael (Ewan McGregor) begin a romantic relationship; her apt is opposite from the restaurant where he works. Soon, the loss of other senses plagues more… and more people; the civil authorities try to maintain order. Is love possible in such a time/situation?

Susan: [narratingthe 1st lines] There was darkness. There is light. There are men and women. There’s food. There are restaurants. Disease. There’s work. Traffic. The days as we know them, the world as we imagine the world.

This indie film reteams director David Mackenzie w/ his Young Adam (2003) star/fellow Scotsman- McGregor. The screenplay was written by a Danish man- Kim Fupz Aakeson; originally this story was set in Denmark. Connie Nielson (also Danish) plays Susan’s bestie- Jenny. To research her role, Green spent several days hanging out in labs in Glasgow w/ biologists and epidemiologists. Susan’s older co-worker Stephen is played by Stephen Dillane (British); he is best known for Game of Thrones. Michael’s boss/the restaurant owner is played by Denis Lawson (McGregor’s uncle); this was their 1st time working together. They both appeared in the Star Wars franchise; Lawson played Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy; McGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel trilogy and recent Disney+ series. Ewen Bremner (James- the sous chef) and McGregor were both in the two Trainspotting films; I need to watch those sometime. Alistair McKenzie (from Monarch of the Glen) plays Susan’s virologist co-worker; I recall watching the early seasons of that TV show on PBS.

Susan: Aren’t you going to ask why I haven’t been to work?

Stephen: Well, you’ve been sick.

Susan: Not sick, just unhappy.

Stephen: It’s the same thing.

Susan: Unhappy, on account of a man.

Are y’all fed up w/ the pandemic/COVID-19? Then, this is NOT the film for you, as it delves into similar events/themes! Yup, there are restaurant closings, face masks (KN95), and MANY people facing mental/physical breakdowns. Unlike Contagion, this story is told on a small scale w/ a personal feel. I’m a fan of McGregor (and NOT just for his looks); he usually makes acting look effortless. He brings an easy charm and lightness to Michael, though there is tragedy in his past. Susan is a serious scientist who also has a difficult past. Recently, I’ve seen Green in The Dreamers (her early role; directed by Bertolucci) and Clone/Womb (an indie co-starring Matt Smith). She brings to mind the reserved/elegant leading ladies of a past time, BUT w/ a modern twist. They have V good/easy romantic chemistry. A fun fact: The shaving cream tasted in the bath is actually made of white chocolate, as is the bar of soap bitten into- LOL! Mackenzie went on to direct Hell or High Water; check that film out if you haven’t yet.

[1] This is the “thinking man’s” end of the world type flick.

[2] I found this film quite enlightening, the performances intense, the music appropriate and, last but not least, the photography/ filming magnificent. 

[3] Mackenzie films Glasgow in glory and decay, making wonderful use of water and reflected light, as he did in Young Adam. The hard jar of the camera on a bicycle sans steady-cam is a brave choice, but it draws your attention to visual sense and foreshadows the losses about to fall.

This is a moving film, a thought-provoking one, about love, connection, and all the things we take for granted.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews