REVIEW: “The Menu” (2022)

2022 has been quite the year for “eat the rich” satire. We’ve seen the wealthy and privileged skewered in straightforward takedowns such as Ruben Östlund’s terrific “Triangle of Sadness”. They’ve also been torched in playful genre romps like Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion”. The latest to do it just might be my favorite. “The Menu” never hides what it sets out to do. Yet of this recent batch of movies, it might be the craftiest in its execution. It throws a little bit of everything in the pot and let’s it simmer. Altogether it makes for one wickedly satisfying meal.

Mark Mylod directs this mouthwatering black comedy horror-thriller that exists in a culinary world where language like “ruining palettes”, “flavor profiles”, and “mouthfeel” (???) roll off the tongues of foodies like common speech. The deliciously pulpy story (penned by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy) defies a simple description. It has so much on its mind and takes some pretty wild swings. But it would be a disservice to share them, because this truly is a movie where the least you know better.

The vast majority of the story takes place within the stylish contours of Hawthorne, a renowned restaurant for the rich and famous cozily located on its own private island. It’s where twelve customers per night can enjoy an over four-hour lavish dining experience for $1,250 a head. There they’ll partake in a meal painstakingly planned by Chef Julian Slowik (a devilishly fun Ralph Fiennes).

Over the course of the evening, guests will be able to watch Chef Slowik and his team of cooks meticulously prepare each high-concept dish in an open kitchen adjacent to their dining area. Once ready, Chef Slowik announces each course with a thunderous clap followed by a self-gratifying monologue about its inspiration. For him food is like a religion, and the restaurant is his temple. But on this particular evening he has something different in mind. He’s offering his specially selected group of diners an “exclusive experience”.

Among those holding reservations is a young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). He’s an insufferable gastronome wannabe; she our representative – seeing things the way we see them; saying the things we’re thinking. You get the impression that Tyler probably maxed out his credit card to get their reservations. He’s no trust fund baby. He just wants people to think he is. And his facade of upper-class status and gastronomical savvy is paper-thin to the point where even Margot begins poking fun at him.

Tyler and Margot are joined by a collection of deeply flawed one-percenters. There’s the popular (and pompous) food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her fawning editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), a semi-washed up movie star Damien Garcia (John Leguizamo) and his younger assistant/side dish Felicity (Amiee Carrero), three smug silver-spoon investors (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr), and a wealthy older couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who seem utterly miserable together.

After a short boat ride to the island, the group of hungry strangers are greeted by Hawthorne’s maî·tre d, Elsa (Hong Chau) who gives them a brief tour before escorting them to their tables. They’re then introduced to Chef Slowik who kicks off their night of upper-class indulgence. Or so they thought. With each new course things get a little weirder and progressively darker. But it’s just theater…stagecraft, right? Right? “It’s all part of the menu”, Chef Slowik repeatedly insists. But is it?

As things get crazier and more twisted, you can sense Mylod and company having a field day running Hawthorne’s fresh batch of guests through the wringer. As for us, it’s a blast trying to figure out where the film is going next. It’s just wacky enough to be unpredictable, and even when we get a feel for what Mylod is going for, there are enough surprise turns to keep us guessing. The film also keeps us laughing with these hilarious dashes of black comedy that seem to land at the most unexpected times. It’s a key ingredient that adds flavor to an already seasoned and savory feast.

The sterling ensemble cast is just a crucial. It starts with the fiendishly good Ralph Fiennes whose dry, solemn presence can either be bone-chilling or disarmingly funny. He shrewdly sells us a disturbingly complex character whose genius is only outdone by his smugness. Yet there’s a darker layer to Chef Slowik which Fiennes teases yet keeps snugly hidden until just the right time. It’s a remarkably measured performance and the one that keeps the film from tipping over into full-blown camp.

There’s just so much to love about “The Menu”: its sparkling cast, its gonzo premise, its gripping storytelling, and Mark Mylod’s pinpoint direction (and that’s just for starters). And even if it doesn’t perfectly stick its landing (something I’m still a bit unsure about), the film’s almost giddy, full-throttled takedown of culinary culture and the uber-wealthy is otherwise so well conceived and executed. I’m still thinking about it a week after seeing it, and I’m already hungry to see it again. “The Menu” is now showing in theaters.

Final Food Pun Count: 14

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Medieval” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Petr Jákl writes and directs “Medieval”, a new historical action-drama billed as the most expensive Czech Republic film ever made. In it, Ben Foster plays Jan Žižka, a Hussite general and Czech national hero who is considered one of the greatest military leaders and tacticians of his day. “Medieval” tells Žižka’s story prior to his time as a renowned leader of a peasant revolt against a coalition of corrupt Catholic crusaders during the Bohemian Wars of the early 15th century.

“Medieval” sits us down in a historically and dramatically rich time period. It might help to at least have a passing knowledge of the period’s background, because outside of some very brief opening narration, the movie doesn’t do much past some surface level setup. Just knowing a little bit of the history adds a layer of context that helps the movie and more specifically the characters.

Image Courtesy of The Avenue

Jákl opens his film in 1402 with Europe already plunged into chaos. It’s a time of war, plague, and famine as powerful men with their lusts for sovereignty lead a land ruled by lawlessness and oppression. It’s believed that only the coronation of a new Holy Roman Emperor can restore the rule of law. But the Catholic Church is bitterly divided into two factions, each under the leadership of a rival pope. And both sides are determined to have their say on who is chosen as the next emperor.

It’s in this political and hierarchical powder keg that we meet Jan Žižka, who Foster plays as the proverbial stoic man of few words. Jan and his band of loyal mercenaries do an assortment of odd (and aggressively violent) jobs for well-paying dignitaries including the entirely fictional Lord Boresh (Michael Caine). But Jan soon finds himself caught in a chess match between two feuding monarchs, the Bohemian King Wenceslaus IV (Karl Roden) and his ambitious half-brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode).

Things heat up when Lord Boresh, a Wenceslaus loyalist, approaches Jan and his men about kidnapping Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe). She’s the fiancé of a powerful and devious nobleman, Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger) who’s in cahoots with Sigismund. Against his better judgement, Jan agrees. But the act sets off a bloody chain of events with consequences he never anticipated. And while Sigismund’s brute-for-hire Torak (Roland Møller) savagely combs the countryside in search of Jan, he gives the naive Lady Katherine a first-hand look at her future husband’s cruelty.

Aside from its healthy buffet of political posturing, double-dealing, and betrayal, the movie offers a steady diet of medieval hack-and-slash violence. Much of the film’s hefty budget can been seen in the combat which is often fierce and quite brutal. And even more money is visible in the locations, costumes, and production design which vividly recreates this harsh and relentless period.

Image Courtesy of The Avenue

Yet while the movie looks great, feels authentic, and is punctuated by some intense well-shot action, it feels like there’s something missing. Even with its compelling setting and story arc, “Medieval” never quite kicks into a higher gear. It’s not bad by any stretch, it simply lacks distinction. It’s as if it’s missing that one ingredient that would set it apart from the countless other action period pieces of its kind. So you could say its glaringly generic title is fitting.

Part of the problem may be the film’s stone-faced protagonist. I get stoicism and how it’s meant to play in a story like this one. But it’s hard to mine any feeling out of Foster’s character. He’s haunted by dreams of a past trauma, and he’s troubled by the consequences his actions have on others. But it’s hard to find any other emotions in Foster’s performance. It really stands out in the later scenes with Jan and Katherine. We’re supposed to believe a relationship sparks, but there’s hardly any warmth between them. Still, amid the beards, blood, and grime is a solid blend of history and genre. Toss in some good underlying themes of faith, heroism, and sacrifice, and you have a movie that may be garden-variety, but its entertaining nonetheless. “Medieval” is in theaters now.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Man From Toronto” (2022)

With practically no fanfare whatsoever, Netflix’s “The Man From Toronto” dropped on the streaming platform with a thud. And it’s pretty obvious why. This action-driven buddy-comedy from director Patrick Hughes (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”) is so strictly beholden to countless other movies that came before it. It has its moments, but not enough of them to make up for the overwhelming feeling that we’ve seen all of this before.

“The Man From Toronto” puts together the mismatched couple of Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson in a movie that’s never as funny as it tries to be or as thrilling as it wants to be. It features Hart doing his usual little-man routine and Harrelson doing variations of several characters he has played in the past. As usual, Hart is skittish, shrill, and utterly reliant on a straight man for his act to work. Harrelson is a decent foil despite never being as menacing or funny as the movie needs. He looks like Christopher Lloyd‘s Judge Doom from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” – decked in black with a round brimmed hat and dark glasses.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Hart plays Teddy Jackson, a failed inventor (sort of) and wannabe fitness instructor. He’s a guy who always has big (and often dumb) ideas but never pays attention to the details. So it’s no surprise that they inevitably fail. Yet despite his constant blunders and languid career, Teddy still has the love and support of his incredibly tolerant wife Lori (a good but woefully underused Jasmine Matthews). For her birthday, Teddy whisks her away to the resort town of Onancock, Virginia. But wouldn’t you know it, his slapdash antics makes a mess of things.

Harrelson plays a ruthless interrogator/hitman simply known as “The Man From Toronto”. He’s part of a network of assassins, each named after the different cities around the world where they’re based. He gets his jobs from a mysterious voice on his phone called The Handler (Ellen Barkin). After successfully collecting a healthy payday in Utah, TMFT gets a call from The Handler who offers him a $2 million job. It’s a two-phase extraction that (wouldn’t you know it) begins in Onancock, Virginia.

After arriving in Onancock, Terry drops Lori off at a day spa and heads to their rental cabin to meet with the owner. But, he goofs up and ends up in the wrong cabin where he is mistaken for The Man From Toronto. Meanwhile, the actual TMFT watches from a distance. From there, the FBI gets involved and force Teddy to carry on his ruse while an exiled Venezuelan Colonel (Alejandro de Hoyos) and his equally sinister wife Daniela (Lela Loren) plot to assassinate Venezuela’s president. Oh, and there’s an exploding cake.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

If that sounds like a jumbled up mess, it’s because it kinda is. Co-writers Robbie Fox and Chris Bremner toss in and spin together too many story angles, most of which are fairly conventional on their own. We also get several amusing yet overall inconsequential side-characters. For example, singer and telenovela star Jencarlos Canela plays a debonair FBI agent tasked with watching over Lori while Teddy is at work for the government. Pierson Fodé gets in a few good licks playing The Man From Miami. Even Kaley Cuoco shows up later with her signature zany energy. But her character isn’t given an inkling of a backstory and is handcuffed by some really bad writing.

Ultimately it all falls on Hart and Harrelson who make for an quirky pairing. As Teddy and TMFT rollick along in full buddy-movie mode, the two actors give it their all. They deliver the occasional comical moment and we get a couple of good action scenes (there’s one hilariously kinetic and proudly over-the-top fight sequence near the end that almost saves the movie). Interestingly, Jason Statham was originally tagged to play the titular character, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have brought to the film. But in his defense, Harrelson isn’t the issue here. It’s the movie’s beat-by-beat familiarity and lack of punch. I suppose it’s passable entertainment. Just don’t expect too much. “The Man From Toronto” is streaming now on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Me Time” (2022)

(CHECK OUT MY FULL REVIEW in this week’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Written and directed by John Hamburg, “Me Time” is the latest film spawned from Kevin Hart’s megadeal with streaming giant Netflix. The try-hard comedy sees Hart teaming up with Mark Wahlberg and Regina Hall for what could have been a decent weekend diversion. Instead, “Me Time” loses itself in a haze of flat jokes, predictable story beats, and one particularly cringe-worthy music number.

The bummer of it is “Me Time” starts with promise. Minus a woefully bad (and mercifully short) prologue, the first 15 minutes or so is spent introducing a really good family dynamic. But once the buddy comedy stuff takes over, the movie takes a noticeable dip. Hamburg tries to compensate in the final act, but the ending is so schmaltzy and artificial that it only compounds the film’s numerous problems rather than alleviate them.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Hart plays Sonny Fisher, a proficient stay-at-home dad who takes care of the house and the kids while his wife, Maya (the always good Hall) builds her career as an architect. Sonny is absorbed in his duties, especially when it comes to his aspiring comedian son Dash (Che Tafari) and his precocious daughter Ava (Amentii Sledge). He’s always present at their school, volunteering for various functions. He’s the president of the PTA, and he even has his own kindergarten blog.

While Sonny never has any time away from their kids, the hardworking Maya desperately needs some quality time with them. So they agree to let Maya take the kiddos to her parents house for spring break while Sonny enjoys some much-needed me-time. And what better way to spend some time away than with his childhood friend, Huck (Wahlberg), an annoyingly spontaneous manchild who always lives in the moment. And Huck has been dogging Sonny to come to his 44th birthday bash.

The movie sours once Sonny joins Huck and his faceless band of partiers for an elaborate five-day outdoor shindig in Death Valley. What we get is a conveyor of ludicrous scenarios, often laced with embarrassingly bad slapstick, a wide range of lazy toilet humor, and on the rarest occasion an instance of ever so slight amusement. There’s also a wedged-in angle with Maya’s flirty New Age boss Armando (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and an even lesser developed one involving a lone shark named Stan (Jimmy O. Yang).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The performances range from good, to routine, to pretty bad. Hart starts well, but as the story devolves into mush, he falls right into his normal schtick. Wahlberg’s performance is pretty bad although it’s hard to put it all on him. He actually captures the character the filmmakers want him to be. Unfortunately for him, Huck is a shallow insufferable goof and there’s not much Wahlberg can do to make the character (or the material) appealing. Hall is the one who gives the movie glimmers of credibility. She’s such a good actress, and she does the best she can with what she’s given.

I admit, the prospect of “Me Time” being good wasn’t high. But a guy can hope, can’t he? To be honest I have a growing frustration towards movies like this – comedies that are so beholden to formula that nearly everything they do feels old hat. They’re all so canned and processed, but I guess they make money. Why else would we continue to get so many of them? “Me Time” is streaming now on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Mack & Rita” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Diane Keaton has had a wonderful 52-year career and she has shown no sign of slowing down. Granted, the movies from this current stage of her career haven’t been great. But I love that she’s still working and doing what she enjoys. And that brings us to her new film in theaters this weekend, “Mack & Rita”. I would love to talk about how the movie serves as a fresh reminder of Keaton’s terrific comedic chops. But unfortunately I can’t because “Mack & Rita” turns out to be a well-intentioned but surprisingly bland and flavorless comedy. And while it’s nice to see Keaton on screen, this won’t be listed among the movies she’ll be remembered for.

Directed by Katie Aselton and co-written by Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh, “Mack & Rita” never feels like its own thing. Instead it comes across as a collection of ideas plucked from other movies that are snapped together and given a title. There’s really nothing original about the story and there’s not a single surprise. In fact, you’ll have the entire plot mapped out within the first 15 minutes. It’s a shame because the movie sports a talented cast. But without good material, they’re left out to dry.

Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Following the lead of other ‘stuck-in-the-wrong-body’ movies like “13 Going on 30” and “Big”, this story centers on 30-year-old Mack (Elizabeth Lail), an Instagram influencer and aspiring writer. Mack was raised by her beloved grandmother who was always outgoing and very comfortable in her own wonderfully eccentric skin. Max wanted to be just like her, but as she got older she suppressed her own individuality in order to fit in. You could say it worked. She got invited to all the parties and made some popular new friends. But she did it without being true to her “inner old lady”.

Professionally, Mack feels stuck in neutral. She’s published her first novel and is excited to start writing again. But rather than helping her secure an advance for a new book, all she gets from her not-so-encouraging agent (Patti Harrison) are menial jobs taking photos at publicity events and posting them on social media. Socially, she would rather spend her time home alone with her dog, working on her book and dodging her overly chatty and clearly smitten neighbor Jack (Dustin Milligan). But even now she’s still living up to the expectations of others.

While on a bachelorette getaway in Palm Springs for her bride-to-be best friend Carla (Taylour Paige), Mack happens upon the tent of a self-proclaimed spiritual guru named Luca (Simon Rex) who specializes in past-life regression therapy. He places her in a contraption called a regression pod (which is nothing more than a glorified tanning bed) and begins their session. Once the pod sputters to a stop, Luca is gone and Mack steps out in the body of her 70-year-old self (played by Keaton). High-jinks and self-discovery ensues.

From there the story veers into more conventional territory. We get the expected shock and panic as Mack tries to grasp her wacky new circumstances. But when she begins posing as her own fictitious Aunt Rita, Mack discovers the carefree spirit her grandmother embodied. Her new zest for life takes her from hanging out with Carla’s mom (Loretta Devine) and the ladies from her women’s wine club to becoming a social media sensation known as the “Glammy Granny” (yep, you read that right).

Now before coming down too hard on “Mack & Rita”, it should be said it’s a very self-aware movie. It’s knowingly silly and unapologetically lighthearted. There’s nothing wrong with that. Also, it has a handful of good moments, particularly in the few times where it slows down and lets its characters breathe. And who can argue with its message of accepting yourself and staying true to who you are?

Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

But that doesn’t make the unfunny and uninspired stuff go away. When it comes to the comedy and the storytelling, the movie is loaded with misfires. There’s the cringe-worthy slapstick, one awkwardly bad drug trip scene, and several scenarios that are too absurd to swallow. You also have a weirdly out-of-tune romantic angle with Rita and Jack. And then there’s the finish which spells out the themes in detail just in case you missed them.

Combine all of that with the already mentioned predictability and complete lack of originality, and we’re left with a movie that really does nothing for anyone involved. Especially for someone with the cinematic stature of Diane Keaton. “Mack & Rita” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

For a long time Leslie Manville has shown why she’s not only one of our best actresses working today, but also one of our most diverse. Case in point: just in the last few years she’s played a mad scientist, a pixie-fairy, a bristly manager of an esteemed fashion house, a woman struggling with breast cancer, and a venomous backwoods matriarch. Now, thanks to her new film “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”, you can add a sweet and spritely cleaning lady determined to get her very own Christian Dior evening gown.

Based on the 1958 novel “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” by Paul Gallico, this adorable big screen adaptation of (almost) the same name is just the kind of light and lively escape I tend to gravitate towards from time to time. If Manville wasn’t reason enough, the film also stars the magnificent Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs (one of my personal favorites), and the seasoned Lambert Wilson. Directed by Anthony Fabian, the film is the fourth adaptation of Gallico’s popular work.

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a period crowdpleaser full of playful energy and feel-good vibes. It’s about dreaming big but not at the expense of true happiness. It’s about believing in who you are and being true to yourself. It’s about the power of selflessness and generosity. It’s about moving on from heartbreaking loss. That may sound like a lot, but it’s all keenly woven together in the titular character’s story.

In 1957 London, Ada Harris (Manville) cleans houses for several well-to-do clients. Among them are a businessman with an uncomfortable taste for MUCH younger women, a high-maintenance diva, and a wealthy self-important Madame. Away from work, she enjoys hanging out with her best friend and fellow housekeeper, Vi (Ellen Thomas) and Archie (Isaacs), a good-natured bookie who clearly has an eye for her. But inside, Ada’s heart is aching. She’s still quietly holding out hope that the love of her life, her husband Eddie, is returning home from the war. Deep down she knows he isn’t. She just isn’t ready to face the reality.

While cleaning the haughty Madame’s bedroom, Ada catches a glimpse of an elegant 500-quid Christian Dior gown. She’s instantly enchanted by the lavender frock and filled with big dreams of travelling to Paris to buy a couture Dior dress of her very own. At first it seems like pie in the sky. But driven by her intense desire along with the sudden urge for a much-needed adventure, Ada decides to go for it. She works tirelessly to save up her money and soon has enough to set off for the City of Lights.

The culture clash comedy elements kick in when Ada arrives in Paris and unintentionally crashes the House of Dior on the very day the designer is set to reveal his 10th Anniversary Collection. Needless to say she stands out from the normal clientele that includes countesses, baronesses, and even Princess Margaret. And just as she’s about to be escorted out by the House’s crabby directress Madame Colbert (Huppert), Ada finds a sympathetic ally in the Marquis of Chassagne (Wilson), a suave and sympathetic gentleman who insists she watch the fashion show as his guest.

I won’t give away the details, but soon Ada begins to win the hearts of the fashion house with her inherent kindness and sensitivity. She shows motherly compassion to a Hepburn-esque young model named Natasha (Alba Baptista). She helps the generous Monsieur André (Lucas Bravo) to find his confidence. She even leaves an impression on the renowned Christian Dior himself (Philippe Bertin). And while there’s an inescapable predictability to stories like these, it’s hard even for us not to be charmed by Mrs. Harris and her light-hearted yarn.

Visually, there’s nothing particularly profound about the look of the film. Yet I found myself drawn to DP Felix Wiedemann’s cinematography. From the old-fashioned vibes he brings to some of the more playful scenes, to his sumptuous gaze when pulling us into the exquisite world of haute couture. And it’s all bathed in the swooning sounds of Rael Jones’ original score. Again, nothing especially original, but perfectly form-fitting for a story like this.

There are a few passing nods to social issues such as class struggles and labor strikes. But they’re very much passing nods. The movie has no real interest in going down those paths. Instead, it keeps things light and trusts Manville to win our hearts. And she does. Neither she or the movie reinvents the wheel or challenge us on some deep intellectual or existential level. But that’s fine. Not every movie or performance needs to. Sometimes all you want is some whimsical feel-good comfort food. And sometimes all you need is an actress like Manville to give it some special flavor.

VERDICT – 4 STARS