THE MENU (2022) – Thought-Provoking Social Satire Won’t Spoil Your Appetite

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So, what’s on the menu?

Exquisite food from one of the world’s top chefs, tension, plenty of tension, a little violence, a little horror, and to top it all off, satire. Lots of satire.

THE MENU (2022) is an odd movie, as many satires are, but at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s thought-provoking. It’s the type of movie that will have you thinking, and that’s a good thing.

THE MENU opens like an episode of the old TV show FANTASY ISLAND (1977-1984) where a group of strangers are about to travel to a remote island, but rather than taking a plane (“da plane! da plane!”) they take a boat, and rather than meeting Mr. Roarke and Tatoo, they meet one of the greatest chefs in the world, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s their host. They have all paid exorbitant amounts of money to be treated to a private dinner by one of the world’s most renowned chefs.

The characters we meet first are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who is so enamored with the Chef that he practically has an orgasm every time he talks about him, and Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes the central character and the person who the audience most identifies with, because as we soon learn, she wasn’t supposed to be there, as Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him, and so she was a last minute second choice.

All the guests are wealthy, and all of them have their reasons for coming to this dinner, but with the exception of Tyler, none of them are really there purely for Chef’s food. Things start out well enough, as if it’s going to be an evening of fine food and performance dining, but then in what once more feels like an episode of FANTASY ISLAND, things begin to grow weird and unsettling. Tortillas are served with personal images on them, and so secrets are suddenly revealed. And later when one guest has a finger chopped off, and a cook shoots himself in the head as part of a dish, the guests realize they may not get off the island alive.

That being said, THE MENU is not a straight thriller or horror movie. While those elements are there, the main focus of this movie is undoubtedly satire, and there are various levels to it.

There’s the social status satire. These folks are all there because they have tons of money and can afford to be there, but Chef makes it clear that they’re not really there for his food. He talks about the art of food preparation and consumption, and tells them not to eat, but to taste. His passion for the symbiotic relationship between food and nature reaches almost religious proportions. And it’s also clear that he is insulted that they are there only because they can afford to be, and his passion for cooking is totally lost on them. At one point, he reminds a guest that he has been to multiple dinners on the island, and he asks the man to name at least one dish he’s eaten while there, and the man can’t even do that.

But the sharp screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy doesn’t stop there. There’s a food critic on the guest list, a washed-up actor, and three arrogant moneymakers who work for the company which sponsors these dinners, and so they feel entitled to threaten the Chef when he doesn’t please them. Each of these characters have back stories, all of which add to the social commentary.

As such, one of the film’s most significant moments comes when Tyler becomes increasingly frustrated by Margot’s complaints about what is going on, and he snaps his fingers at her before becoming flat out rude and insulting, prompting her to get up and leave. It’s a moment where we see his complete lack of acknowledgement of Margot as a person, and that the only reason he is there is because of his blind passion for the Chef, something that the Chef later shows him to be a waste of his time. It’s a moment in the movie that speaks to the way men sometimes treat women, and while that theme is not the main one of the film, it works all the same.

When Chef speaks to Margot privately, he laments that she wasn’t supposed to be there, and he needs to know her story for the dinner to work, because he needs to know who she is. Is she a server, and thus belongs in the kitchen, or is she like the other guests, a taker, and belongs out with the guests in the dining room?

In another biting moment, Chef reveals that he told Tyler ahead of time that everyone was going to die that night, and yet not only did Tyler still agree to come, he also still invited Margot, knowing that she too would die. And when Chef asks Tyler why he invited Margot, Tyler answers that guests were not allowed to come solo. They had to have a guest. Which speaks to the shallowness of our society and the total disregard people have to their fellow humans.

Similarly, the Chef mocks his guests later in the movie, telling them that if they really wanted to escape, why didn’t they make a stronger effort to do so? Would it really have been that difficult to overpower him and the other chefs? He asks them to think about that, and the audience does as well. Why didn’t these people try harder to escape? Is it because they are all too lethargic and passive? Because they wanted to remain to get what they paid for? Or did they on some level enjoy what was going on? Or perhaps they all believed it was just an act, and a safe answer would be revealed in the end?

Again, it’s a thought-provoking script, and it will have you thinking.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a terrific actress who continues to deliver in her movies, often giving the best performance in the film. She’s best known for her work in the Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020) and in the horror movie THE WITCH (2015). But we just saw her deliver back-to-back excellent performances in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021) and AMSTERDAM (2022). She’s at it again here in THE MENU. Margot is the most dynamic and interesting character in the movie, and the more we learn about her, the more we like her. Anya Taylor-Joy brings this character to life, creating a fiery yet sympathetic person who we feel comfortable rooting for.

Ralph Fiennes is perfect as Chef, a culinary version of Mr. Roarke. While he has his own agenda, his own final masterpiece, he also sheds light on the make-up of each and every one of his guests. It’s yet another masterful performance by Fiennes, and while he doesn’t exactly make Chef a sympathetic character, he does make him understandable. We get where he’s coming from, and why he is doing the things he does. While he has countless movie credits, this performance follows upon the heels of two other equally impressive ones, in THE DIG (2021) and THE FORGIVEN (2021).

The supporting cast is terrific.

Janet McTeer is cold and biting as food critic Lillian, and Paul Adelstein is agreeable as her yes-man magazine sponsor Ted. John Leguizamo is the washed-up actor who is looking to make a comeback. He’s also the butt of one of the better jokes in the film, when Chef pretty much tells him he’s there to die because Chef hated his last movie, which was a complete waste of his time, and he doesn’t like wasting time.

And Hong Chau nearly steals the show as the tight-lipped yet brutally honest right-hand person to Chef, Elsa, in effect playing Tatoo to Ralph Fiennes’ Mr. Roarke.

Director Mark Mylod keeps things tight, and the pacing here is brisk, and the suspense builds. I was unsettled throughout, and really didn’t know where this one was going. The photography is brilliant, the island locales beautiful, with my favorite part being the connection shown throughout the movie between people and the ocean. The dining area and kitchen also share special significance, as at times it feels like a fortress in a James Bond movie, only much smaller.

Not everything works. Like most satires, the humor is there, but often you have to work hard to find it, and much of the laughter is of the under your breath variety. And while the plot of this movie is built around food and food preparation, don’t expect the kind of movie, a la CHEF (2014) and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) where all the mouthwatering meals cooked in the film make you want to buy a second popcorn and then go out to dinner afterwards, because as this one goes on, the food becomes less appetizing, and in general there’s less of it, rather than more.

While things grow dark, the film never becomes an all-out horror movie or gross fest. For the most part, I liked this, but it could have gone further in the disturbing department, because there were moments where I felt things didn’t go far enough.

Speaking of horror movies, with a little imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine this one being made in the 1970s with Vincent Price playing Chef. Now that would have been a black comedy/horror movie to be sure!

But overall, I really liked THE MENU. It makes its points about what money has done to our society, and it presents its satire like a five-course meal, spreading out over the evening in a movie that will have you on the edge of laughter and of your seat from beginning to end.

Waiter? I’ll take mine to go, thank you very much!

I give it three and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE FORGIVEN (2022) – Compelling Drama Features Superior Acting and Script

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These days, when so many movies are shamelessly superficial, and emphasize action and CGI effects over story and characterizations, THE FORGIVEN (2022), a new drama now playing in theaters and available to rent on Prime Video, is like a breath of fresh air, even if that air blows from the arid hot Moroccan desert.

THE FORGIVEN opens with married couple David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain) driving through the dark roads of Morocco on their way to one of David’s friend’s wedding. Lost, arguing with his wife, and heavily inebriated, David fails to see a young man in the road ahead of them, and he hits him and runs him over.

At the party in a ridiculously rich mansion in the middle of the desert, David’s friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his soon to be husband Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones) entertain their guests and wonder why David and Jo are late. When they find out, they are none too happy, as they realize this will complicate their wedding. Even though they don’t trust the authorities, Richard makes the decision to call the police and report the accident and that they have a body on the premises, since David and Jo brought the body back with them from the desert road.

The police arrive, don’t ask for any bribes, and explain the body will have to remain until the boy’s family comes to claim it, which happens soon after, as the boy’s father Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater) arrives and after seeing his son’s body, asks to meet David. The expectation is that Abdellah will demand money, but instead he requests that David return with him to pay his respects and bury his son’s body. David initially balks at the idea, fearing that Abdellah could be an ISIS terrorist, but he eventually changes his mind and agrees to go.

The remainder of the movie follows David as he journeys with Abdellah to bury his son and begins to learn about Abdellah’s Muslim culture and traditions, juxtaposed with scenes of the insanely lavish and ongoing wedding party with Richard and Dally and all their guests, including an American named Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) who grows close to Jo, as we learn that she is not happy being married to David, and this time away from him makes her ripe for a tryst with an interested young American.

THE FORGIVEN is a thoroughly captivating, intense movie that I really enjoyed from start to finish. It gets off to a riveting start with the car accident in the opening moments of the film, and it never looks back. Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, THE FORGIVEN is both shot and written with great care and attention to detail, especially to its characters. The story is full of all kinds of different characters, and they all make their mark and are all written and acted to near perfection. McDonagh’s work here reminded me of the early work of Peter Weir, specifically THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982) and WITNESS (1985).

The screenplay, unlike so many screenplays these days, really hammers out its characters and brings them all to life. Earlier this week I saw THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new Netflix actioner starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. It has performed so well financially that Netflix has already announced a sequel. Yet, I found this movie terribly boring, as other than the action sequences, it had nothing to offer, with dull characterizations and a sterile plot. Yet, it’s making lots of money and is getting a sequel, which explains why movies like this continue to be made, while movies like THE FORGIVEN, which is superior in every way, will struggle to be recognized.

Which is too bad because it tells an intriguing story and features a whole host of fleshed out characters who could have walked off the pages of a modern-day F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Ralph Fiennes is excellent as David, the alcoholic husband who snubs his nose at those beneath him, who is full of confidence and is not afraid to stir the pot, and who at the outset is about as sympathetic and likable as a scorpion. When he hits and kills the boy, he shows no remorse, other than a shrug and a “these things happen” attitude. But if there’s one character who journeys to self-awareness in the film, it’s David, as his time with Abdellah opens his eyes, not from bonding with the father, but from a combination of fear— it’s uncertain if the boy’s father will kill him for revenge— and a closeness to the deceased boy’s spirit. Add this to the long list of superb performances by Ralph Fiennes, following upon the heels of his equally engrossing acting in THE DIG (2021).

Jessica Chastain plays David’s wife Jo as a woman who is unfulfilled and unhappy with her marriage, and ironically, just as she invites the young American into her life at the party, unknown to her, David undergoes a transformation of character. Like Fiennes, Chastain is a superior actor, and she is every bit as good here in THE FORGIVEN, as is the rest of the cast.

Matt Smith, who we just saw in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021), is memorable as Richard, the man who knows how to throw a wedding party. Smith, of course, is most famous for playing Doctor Who a few years back.

Caleb Landry-Jones makes for a lively young groom who is not above insulting his guests. It’s another in a long line of strong performances by Landry-Jones, who we’ve seen in such films as GET OUT (2017), THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), and THE OUTPOST (2019). The cast is really a strength here.

Likewise, Ismael Kanater is menacing and effective as the deceased boy’s grieving, probing, and uncertain father. While he brings David back with him as part of a tradition, he’s also trying to learn as much as he can about the man who killed his son and how it all happened. Kanater possesses the steely eyes of a Lee Van Cleef or Robert Shaw.

Said Taghmaoui is also very good as Anouar, the interpreter who accompanies David and Abdellah, and who actually becomes friends with David. Mourad Zaoui is superb as Hamid, Richard’s patient and dedicated head servant. And Christopher Abbott is amiable as Tom Day, the American who is attracted to Jo and makes no secret about it.

There are more characters as well, all of them equally as fleshed out and interesting.

The screenplay by John Michael McDonagh is really a strength of this movie.

In addition to the wealth of characters, there’s a captivating plot, and a theme worth exploring, of the wealthy and decadent Westerners who seem to have no further desire in life than to have fun, get high, and have sex, juxtaposed with the poor and traditional Muslims who simply want to survive. The contrast is unsettling.

It’s never said outright in the movie, but the plot drives home the reasons why Muslims in Morocco or elsewhere would hate Westerners. And the character who starts off as the most unlikeable of the lot, David, is the one who makes the journey of self-awareness learning just how shallow and uncaring he once was before finally embracing responsibility for the taking of another human being’s life.

THE FORGIVEN is a superior movie, a film that knows how to create characters and tell a story, and the story it has to tell, and the characters in it are both worthy of your time, even if the wealthy Westerners often represent the worst humanity has to offer.

That’s kinda the point.

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