‘The Menu’ Serves Up Quite a Devious Dish

To me, “The Menu” is what Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” would be had it been set in a restaurant. While not as insanely crazy as “Midsommar,” this film is an insidiously clever black comedy which follows a group of people as they travel to a remote island (is there any other kind in a movie like this?) where an exclusive restaurant named Hawthorn, which is run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, is located. But while the chef has prepared quite the cuisine for his selected guests, some sinister intentions are eventually unveiled for all to see which turns a special occasion into an inescapable nightmare. It all made me wonder if the screenplay was written by individuals who had been waiting tables for too long and been stiffed on tips one too many times. Or maybe it was conceived by a talented chef who was sick of people eating food and not tasting it. Or perhaps it was written by someone eager to illustrate the ultimate wet dream of Gordon Ramsay. Seriously, I can’t wait to hear what Gordon or even the Swedish Chef have to say about this.

“The Menu” starts with us being introduced to the guests who have been carefully invited to this especially special restaurant. Among them are a trio of drunk tech workers who have plenty of money to burn, an older couple who have visited Hawthorn several times previously, a celebrated restaurant critic and her devoted magazine editor, and a middle-age Hollywood movie star whose relationship with his assistant, who is by his side on this trip, is not entirely professional. From the outset, it looks like we have the typical cast of characters here, but this will be challenged as the filmmakers are quick to play with our expectations.

Also onboard is Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult), a super-obsessed foodie who aspires to learn everything he can about cooking from Slowik. With him is his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose love of food doesn’t come even close to his, and he is quick to admonish her for smoking as it will ruin her palette. When it comes to an exclusive restaurant like this, you want to spend more time tasting than eating, and this is echoed by Slowik once his guests are seated at their tables.

As everyone is led on a tour through the island by Slowik’s trusted right-hand person, Elsa (Hong Chau), they are told the ingredients for tonight’s meals come from the island and the nearby ocean. But once we get to see the employees’ sleeping quarters, which look similar to the beds those cult members slept on in “Midsommar,” this our first hint that things are going to go haywire as his fellow cooks act in a very unified way, and this made even clearer when Slowik claps his hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Yes, that’s all he needs to do to bring his fellow cooks in line, and they are ever so quick to do so in the process.

Slowik tells everyone that the mission of this evening is not to eat, but to instead taste and savor the food given to them. But as the evening goes on, we see he is not out to congratulate his guests as he is to belittle them. This becomes apparent when he makes a deliberate mockery out of “Taco Tuesday” and presents his guests with tortillas which are as tasty as they are far too revealing. From there, the party becomes very dark and oppressive in a way only the Hawthorne employees could see coming.

Revealing more about “The Menu” might take away from your enjoyment, and I refuse to rob you of its many surprises. What I can tell you is that it is a lot like those movies which really gain my affection; it’s like an onion which invites you to peel back its many layers. And once you get past the final layer, you will find yourself wanting to watching this film again as putting all the pieces together will be irresistible. Moreover, this film held my attention from start to finish as I constantly wondered what direction the story would take next as we are taking from one food course to the next with little in the way of hesitation.

At its heart. Director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy look to satirize the cruel divisions between the haves and have nots and of a society that never seems to have time for the finer things in life. Granted, I came out of “The Menu” thinking the satire could have been even deeper and sharper, but its is sharp enough to make for a gleefully twisted motion picture, and I am always looking for a good black comedy.

I was also struck by how good the actors are as they could have played their roles ever so broadly, but instead find nuances to where their characters are not mere cliches. Both Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein make renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom and her magazine editor Ted into more than caricatures as their surface appearances can only hide the hideous takedowns they have written and published on restaurants past for so long. Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr at first give us the kind of tech gurus who think they have it made to where money can seemingly buy everything, and each actor makes the ego-crushing their characters endure all the more brutal.

Nicholas Hoult quickly turns Tyler into a believably devoted foodie to where the reveal of his cooking style made me feel strangely sorry for him. And I can always count on John Leguizamo to give me a great time as he gives us the kind of washed-up actor here which he has had the misfortune of working with in real life, and Aimee Carrero has some choice moments as his long-time assistant Felicity who learns there is actually a downside to not having student loans to par off.

But there are some performances I really want to single out here, and among them is Ralph Fiennes’s. As celebrity chef Julian Slowik, I expected the actor who was the first to ever utter the word “fuck” in a James Bond movie (“No Time to Die” to be exact) to turn this character into some demented madman. But while Julian does have some demented plans for this evening, Fiennes makes him at times empathetic as he shows an emotional pain searing through which we can see in his eyes. This is especially apparent in his scenes Anna Taylor-Joy as her character of Margot is the one who was not actually invited to this particular dining experience, and this results in exhibiting some kind of hope that this dinner might have a positive outcome.

As for Taylor-Joy, best known for a Netflix miniseries I should have watched already, “The Queen’s Gambit,” she has the unique challenge of being the audience surrogate as, like her, we are desperately looking for a way out of this hellish situation which does not look to have a happy ending. She makes Margot an especially strong character even as fear threatens to engulf her every second. Watching her here, it’s no wonder she was picked to star in the upcoming “Furiosa” prequel.

I also really admired Hong Chau’s enigmatic performance as Chef Slowik’s right hand person, Elsa. From the screenplay, only so much is revealed about Elsa, and yet Chau turned into one of the most riveting characters to be found in “The Menu.” Watching Chau here makes me wonder what kind of backstory she created for Elsa as she dares you to see if you have the guts to peel back her many layers to reveal who she really is underneath her orderly appearance.

I really do hope audiences get to check out “The Menu” and that it doesn’t get lost in the midst of all the blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls which are about to invade multiplexes everywhere. Movies like these tend to get smothered too quickly as they have to deal with the latest superhero adventure, sequel or potential franchise installment. What’s wrong with enjoying movies which are standalone ones anyway?

Also, I cannot wait to recommend it to people like my dad and brother, both of whom love to cook. There’s no doubt they will be tickled to death by this one, and they will come out of it thankful that they are not running their own restaurants, something which is the furthest from their minds.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Vice’ Examines The Most Powerful Vice President of Them All

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“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

“I would rather be feared because fear lasts longer than love.”

-from “A Bronx Tale”

There is a key scene in Adam McKay’s “Vice” which serves as a reminder of how Dick Cheney was the most powerful Vice-President who ever lived. It takes place on September 11, 2001, and Cheney and the key members of George W. Bush’s administration are gathered together in room, but Bush himself is away from the White House. During a conversation with a military general, Cheney orders any suspicious aircraft to be shot down. Another person quickly raises an objection, but Cheney simply raises his hand ever so slightly to silence her. He doesn’t have to yell at or ask her to be quiet; just a simple movement was all that was needed to remind everyone in the room who was the one with all the power. Cheney instilled fear in everyone, even George W.

Christian Bale goes to great lengths in transforming his body into the characters he portrays, and his performance as Cheney will definitely go down as one of his memorable to say the least. There were times where I kept waiting for Bale to raise his voice a little higher as the monotone he was speaking at threatened to be more grating than the voice he gave Batman. But again, Cheney never has to speak up to get his point across. It reminded me of what Henry Hill said about Paulie Cicero in “Goodfellas:”

“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

Bale put on 45 pounds for to play Cheney, and he gets the former Vice-President’s mannerisms down perfectly to where you completely forget it is an English actor playing this American politician and one-time CEO of Haliburton. It is such a mesmerizing portrait as he makes us see how slowly but surely Cheney got seduced into the realm of power hungry politicians whether it was serving under his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) or being manipulated by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). But even better is the way Bale, as Cheney, subtly worms his way into becoming George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) VP to where he has more control over certain areas of government than Bush, as he is portrayed here, would care to have.

The fact we have any kind of biopic on Dick Cheney is astonishing as he and Lynne remain very secretive about their lives to where McKay employs a disclaimer at the film’s beginning which is as wickedly clever as the one Steven Soderbergh gave “The Informant.” This disclaimer ends with McKay saying he and his fellow collaborators “did our fucking best,” and I guess that’s all we can ask for.

It’s no surprise the director and co-writer of “The Big Short” has chosen an unorthodox approach to making this biopic as it shifts back and forth in time to Cheney’s college days where he spent more time getting drunk than studying or playing football. McKay also has Jesse Plemons playing Kurt, an everyman narrator who says he has a close connection to Cheney, a connection which will eventually be made clear. Throughout, we are shown images from real life which, if they haven’t already, should forever be burned into your conscious memory. Among them is former President Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention where he vows to “make America great again.” From here on out, this is a phrase which should forever live in infamy.

One of “Vice’s” most inspired moments comes when McKay begins the end credits midway through the film. What’s especially hilarious about this is how it reflects the conclusion many of us would have preferred Cheney’s to have had in American politics; the kind where he never would have become Vice President. But those familiar with American politics and the Bush Administration cannot and should not expect a happy ending here. Cheney left a lot of damage in his wake, and his political power still remains constant even though he no longer holds public office.

Indeed, Dick Cheney is a tough nut to crack as “Vice” can only get so far under his skin to where you wonder if this man has anything resembling a soul to explore. As the film goes on, he is shown increasingly to be a heartless individual, both figuratively and literally speaking (he did have a heart transplant), and he comes across as such a cold human being to where his muted reactions to the multiple heart attacks shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise. The fact he even noticed he was having them is more surprising.

Where McKay really succeeds is in showing those closest in Cheney’s inner circle, among which is his wife Lynne. Amy Adams gets the opportunity to play a Lady Macbeth-like character much like the one she played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and she is fantastic from start to finish. Adams makes Lynne into the key motivator for Dick’s ascent into American politics to where she fearlessly campaigns for her husband while he is laid up in the hospital. Lynne recognized she lived in a time where she could not do all the things she wanted because of her gender, and she finds immense satisfaction through her husband’s rise to power. Adams is brilliant in portraying Lynne’s fascination with the political world and in showing her quick concerns when anything threatens Dick’s standing in Washington D.C.

Another great performance comes from Steve Carell as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Carell makes Rumsfeld into a gleefully cynical politician whose values have long since been corrupted by the quest for power. Just watch when Cheney asks him what they are supposed to be believe in. The gut-busting laugh Rumsfeld gives off speaks volumes as it illustrates exactly where his interests lie, and it is not with working class Americans.

As for Sam Rockwell, his portrayal of George W. Bush feels pitch perfect as he portrays a man whom even Cheney can see is more interested in pleasing his father when it comes to running for President. After watching Will Ferrell’s classic impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of him in Oliver Stone’s “W,” it seemed all too difficult for any other actor to offer a unique interpretation of this unfortunate White House resident. Then again, Rockwell proves once again what a brilliant actor he is as he captures George W.’s mannerisms while humanizing this man in a way I did not expect or was ever in a hurry to see.

I was very much entertained by “Vice,” but I did come out of it feeling like it could have dug deeper into Dick Cheney’s life. Also, the nonlinear storytelling format is at times jarring as we are thrust from one moment in history to another with little warning. Then again, in retrospect, I wonder what more could have been said about Cheney as he seems to be this malignant vessel of a human being who is never has the look of someone who could ever be fully satisfied by anything. The only positive thing I saw of him was his acceptance of his daughter Mary’s (played by Alison Pill) sexuality when she comes out as a lesbian. If only Cheney had treated all Americans like they were Mary, things would have been much different than they ended up being. Of course, when his other daughter Liz runs for public office…

One of the last moments of “Vice” has Bale breaking the fourth wall as Cheney where he looks directly into the camera and tells all those listening he is apologizing for who he is or anything he has done. I’m fairly certain Cheney has not made any statement like this on camera in real life, but the speech Bale gives as him rings frighteningly true. Considering how complicit the former Vice-President was in war crimes which included torture and sending American troops into a war based on false evidence, he has a lot to apologize for, let alone answer to. But let’s face it, he’s never going to apologize. Ever. “Vice” has as many funny moments as it does haunting ones, and this speech is especially haunting because, let’s face it, he will die before he ever considers apologizing. Heck, he almost did.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Adam McKay on the American Economy, Ayn Rand, and ‘The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas’

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“The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” is one of 20 short films which make up “We the Economy,” a series that uses innovative story techniques to give us a better understanding of the U.S. economy. This particular short film was directed by Adam McKay, best known for directing the “Anchorman” movies, “The Big Short” and for co-founding the comedy website “Funny or Die,” and it’s an animated short film and a thinly veiled parody of all those “My Little Pony” cartoons children are still crazy about watching. It takes place in a magical land filled with long-lashed, multi-colored Alpacas who love lollipops, rainbows, and friendship, and they have just graduated from school and are looking to get well-paying jobs in the business world. But once they are made aware of the sharp divide in wealth distribution which mirrors America’s, the growing evidence of inequality gap makes them turn against one another with hilarious results.

A press day for “We the Economy” was held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and McKay was one of the directors who attended it. “The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” is not only the funniest short film in this series but also one the most informative. McKay said the inspiration for it came in part from his kids watching “My Little Pony” cartoons all the time, but another one came from an unexpected source.

“There was actually a documentary about the richest building in New York City on Park Avenue, and it was made by Alex Gibney and it was called ‘Park Avenue (Money, Power and the American Dream),’” McKay said. “He describes how the children of the super billionaires would always come through the lobby and be so friendly with the doorman, and the doorman would go, ‘How was your soccer game?’ And then the doorman described how one day when they were like 11 or 12, the light just went off. It was like someone had told them you were different and they no longer connected with the doorman. The guy was talking how sad that is, and so I think just vaguely that was in my mind that when you’re a kid, these differences don’t mean anything. And then when they become real, all of a sudden you’ll notice all the alpacas start fighting with each other and they’re no longer friends. So yeah, I think we’ll give Alex Gibney credit for that.”

Making this short film also proved to be very educational for McKay as it made him fully aware of just how bad income equality is in the United States.

“I was shocked,” McKay said. “I came in knowing that the U.S. had a problem with income inequality, but I didn’t know just how bad it was and that our upward mobility was so stagnant and that it’s actually not that great in the U.S. I was shocked about the numbers about the middle class. Our middle class has almost completely evaporated. I knew we were bad, but then when I worked with Adam Davidson and looked at the actual numbers… Damon actually contacted us and was like, ‘I think there was a mistake made when you said 50% of the wealth went to the top .1%.’ We’re like, ‘No, that’s not a mistake.’ And I had the same reaction he did which was like, that’s gotta be a typo.”

“I didn’t know that we are by every definition of the word in the U.S. an oligarchy. I had no idea that that was the case,” McKay continued. “A strict definition of oligarchy, that is the U.S. more so than Russia or China than any country you can think of. It’s a little depressing but at the same time a good opportunity to let people know about these numbers.”

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One of the images which really stood out in my mind was when the Alpacas are shown a portrait of a company CEO who is shown holding a copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” For the record, I have not read any of Rand’s books, but her name has been coming up a lot even though she died back in 1982. There were three movies based on her book “Atlas Shrugged,” the first which was a critical and commercial flop, and yet the filmmakers still made a pair of sequels to it. John Oliver even did a segment about her on “Last Week Tonight” as he wondered why she was still considered relevant. I had to ask McKay why this book was so prominently featured in the portrait, and he helped school me in what Rand was really about.

“She was a refugee of Communist Russia, so she had been given the hard boots,” McKay said. “I think she was a fun partier supposedly so she hung out with the billionaires and was like fuck everyone else, let’s have a good time. She had seen the overreaction of the Communist Revolution so she was an extremist in the other way, and then you have these guys with dynastic wealth who have inherited millions of dollars who kind of feel shitty about it. And then here’s a woman telling you, let’s go have a big sex party and you shouldn’t feel shitty about having your money. She’s perfect for the Koch Brothers and it’s like she’s their bible because, otherwise, they’re going to have to give away a lot of their money, and they don’t want to do that.”

“Ever since I’ve been in college, I’ve always been having arguments with the Ayn Rand devotees,” McKay continued. “My point on Ayn Rand is she’s always been a bad writer. John Milius is a big right-winger, but the guy can write (remember Robert Shaw’s famous U.S.S. Indianapolis speech from “Jaws?”). You can be a right winger or whatever you want to be, just don’t be a shitty writer.”

“It’s funny because she becomes more important the more you get income inequality in our country, and the more billionaires you get the more her name comes back into the public,” McKay said. “In the 50’s and 60’s, she was fringe. The interview with Mike Wallace with her was like she was a cuckoo bird, and it is only now that our country’s kind of a little bit broken that suddenly she’s back in the mainstream.”

“We the Economy” is now up and running, and it has proven to be a clever and innovative way to teach us more about the U.S. economy. Be sure to check the website, and you can view “The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” below.

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