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.

—END—

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.

—END—

NO TIME TO DIE (2021) – It’s No Time to Miss Daniel Craig’s Last Bond Movie

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I finally caught up with NO TIME TO DIE (2021), the fifth and final Daniel Craig James Bond film.

Released in November theatrically, it then made its way to OnDemand/streaming services for a rental price of $19.99, and now you can rent it for a more welcoming price of $5.99. Anyway, one of the drawbacks of seeing a film a while after its initial release is word of mouth is out there and so you hear an awful lot, and what I was hearing about NO TIME TO DIE was how good a movie it was. So, there were some expectations here.

Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m happy to say that the word of mouth was accurate. NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. I loved it. It’s the perfect send-off for Daniel Craig’s take on the character.

NO TIME TO DIE opens with a scene right out of a horror movie, with a young girl and her mom being terrorized by a man with a mask. The action jumps ahead to events following the last movie, as we find James Bond (Daniel Craig) and the new love of his life Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) enjoying a new life together, having survived the ending of SPECTRE (2016).

Now, the Daniel Craig Bond films tell an ongoing narrative, and the movies have all been connected in terms of plot, which is something that the previous James Bond movies really did not do. I’ve always like this, as it added some freshness to the series. However, SPECTRE is my least favorite Craig Bond movie, and so I can’t say I was excited to be sitting down to watch more of the story between Bond and Madeleine.

Anyway, as you might imagine, their new life is short-lived, as the bad guys show up to put a stop to it. Worse yet, Bond suspects Madeleine of leading the bad guys to them, decides he doesn’t trust her anymore, and puts her on a train telling her she will never see him again. Then it’s time for the opening credits. Yup, nearly thirty minutes pass before we even get to those opening credits. Sometimes these James Bond movies just need an editor! Although truth be told, in spite of the overlong prologue sequence and a total running time of two hours and forty-three minutes, NO TIME TO DIE is paced rather well, has a decent story to tell, and for me passed by quickly and didn’t feel at all like it was nearly three hours.

Back to those opening credits. NO TIME TO DIE has a theme song sung by Billie Eilish, a song that hasn’t really been shown much love. But I like it, and the lyrics definitely tie into the events shown in the movie’s pre-credit sequence.

As for the rest of the plot, it all does come together and makes sense (even the bizarre opening bit with the masked killer!), bringing closure to events from all the previous movies. Even though Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is in prison, he and his SPECTRE henchmen are still trying to kill Bond, but a new bad guy is in town, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek)…. the name sounds like Lucifer Satan with a lisp….who hates Blofeld even more than Bond does. Safin has developed an incredibly dangerous biological weapon which uses people’s DNA, and he uses it to wipe out SPECTRE, but since he can also use it to wipe out anyone he wants with ease, he’s caught the attention of MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes) is personally interested because MI6 was secretly working with this biological formula, but Safin stole it from them and weaponized it. So, M sends the new 007, a female agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), and Bond himself once he returns to active service, to find and stop Safin.

Which makes for strange bedfellows. As Bond tells Blofeld, if Blofeld gives him the information he needs, he will actually have to use it to save Blofeld’s life, to which of course Blofeld shrugs him off. Madeleine is also brought back into the story because she has ties to both Blofeld and Safin, and so once more Bond has to deal with his feelings for her.

At the end of day, all of these story elements work, making for a story that remains strong throughout the movie. And there are more plot points which I have not mentioned here. Overall, it is an excellent screenplay by a bunch of people: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Where does NO TIME TO DIE rank with the other Craig Bond movies? The best remains the first, CASINO ROYALE (2006). Most folks love the third film SKYFALL (2012), but for me the first two thirds of this movie are exceptional, but the third act drops off dramatically and just doesn’t work for me. I actually prefer the second film in the series QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) over SKYFALL. The weakest of the serious was the previous installment, SPECTRE (2015) with writing and a story that didn’t make much sense.

The other reason the previous two Bond films didn’t work for me was due largely in part to Daniel Craig’s lackluster performance as Bond in both those movies. In both those films, SKYFALL and SPECTRE, it seemed as if he had mailed it in. Gone were his sharp cold killer instincts from the first two movies. In their place was indifference. He seemed bored with the role.

Here in NO TIME TO DIE, Daniel Craig is back at the top of his game, turning in his best performance as Bond since CASINO ROYALE. It also helps that the character is placed in some new situations, and Craig is more than up to the task of taking Bond in new directions. As such, getting back to ranking, I would rank NO TIME TO DIE as the second best of the Craig Bond films, coming in right behind CASINO ROYALE.

And a large part of this is Daniel Craig’s performance. He’s an older Bond here, he’s in love, he’s bitter over what he believes is a betrayal of love, and later when he takes on the villain it’s with a deep sense of understanding of the world. In short, James Bond has learned a lot over the years, and he uses this knowledge to take down a lesser experienced villain.

I enjoyed Lea Seydoux more as Madeleine this time around than I did when she played the character in SPECTRE. Again, the writing here helps. She’s in a much more interesting and compelling storyline. In SPECTRE, she just seemed too young for Bond. But here, due largely to her performance and the writing, that thought didn’t cross my mind at all.

Lashana Lynch caught some well-deserved buzz for playing Nomi, the first female 007. She’s really good here.

I’m a big fan of Ana de Armas, and she has a small role as another agent, Paloma. She’s excellent, and the brief action sequence she gets to share with Bond is one of the best in the movie. I really wish she had been in this one more.

Rami Malek is fine as main villain Safin, although he’s not in the movie a whole lot, and so he’s not really a game changer. But when he is onscreen, he’s very good. As is Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, reprising the role from SPECTRE, although he’s in the film less than Malek.

I really enjoy Ralph Fiennes as M, and he’s every bit as good here as he always is. Jeffrey Wright returns for the third time as CIA agent and Bond buddy Felix Leiter, and like Bond in this one, gets a dramatic memorable send-off.

And Naomie Harris is back as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw is back as Q. It was also good to see Rory Kinnear back as Tanner.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga does a nice job with this one, and there are plenty of exciting action sequences, as you would expect to find in a James Bond movie. Car chases, thrilling fight scenes, assaults on buildings, and a very intense conclusion all contribute to A+ action sequences from start to finish.

The music also utilized the main theme from the George Lazenby James Bond movie ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). The most memorable part of that movie, other than of course it was the first Bond film not to star Sean Connery as Bond, was that James Bond gets married, and his wife is shot dead by Blofeld in the film’s final reel. Every time that theme played here in NO TIME TO DIE, it served as deadly foreshadowing that the love story here with Bond and Madeleine was doomed to a tragic ending, and while the ending here differs greatly from the one in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, the foreshadowing is real.

And strangely for a James Bond movie, it was the love story here between Bond and Madeleine that works the best and really drives this movie along. It gives Bond motivations above and beyond what audiences are used to and shows a side of the character we rarely get to see. And it’s also realistically told from both characters’ perspectives.

NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. The action sequences are second to none, and even better, the story works on a much deeper level than most Bond films, its main love story is really good, and Daniel Craig delivers one of his best Bond performances ever.

In short, it’s no time to miss NO TIME TO DIE.

—END—

Best Movies of 2021

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Here’s a look at my TOP 10 LIST of BEST MOVIES from 2021.

As I did last year, I’d like to put an asterisk next to this list due to the pandemic. One of the drawbacks of not seeing movies at the theater, is that we don’t all get to see the same movies, as lots of smaller, obscure releases don’t always make it to the various streaming services. So, as much as I enjoyed watching movies once again this year on Netflix, Prime Video, HBO Max, and Disney +, to name a few, I didn’t get to see many of the movies that didn’t make it to these streaming services.

Hence, I know there are a lot of films from 2021 that I did not see, that I would have seen had I been able to go to the movie theaters like I used to before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

So, with that being said, here are my TOP 10 movies… all watched at home on streaming services…. from 2021:

10. THE TOMORROW WAR

One of the things I miss most watching movies at home, is that movie theater feeling. THE TOMORROW WAR, a science fiction action movie from Amazon Prime starring Chris Pratt, was one of the few movies I saw this year that by itself captured that movie theater feeling. This action-packed tale of humans travelling into the future to help battle invading aliens didn’t always make sense, but it was a fun ride, so much so that I could almost smell the buttery popcorn wafting through the air!

9. FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666

My take on this Netflix horror trilogy was completely opposite most folks, who found the third installment to be the weakest. For me, it was the best, mostly because the trilogy’s wraparound story about a witch’s curse I thought was pretty lame until this final installment where we find out its origins, and the writers flipped the story on its head, giving new insight into what really cursed the town. I really liked this revelation. The entire trilogy is uneven at best, but it finishes strong, so much so that it’s the only horror movie from 2021 to make it into my Top 10 List.

8. NO SUDDEN MOVE

Atmospheric crime thriller by director Steven Soderbergh, starring Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, and Brendan Fraser, makes for a compelling flick.

7. MOXIE (2021)

I really enjoyed this comedy drama directed by Amy Poehler about an awkward teen played by Hadley Robinson who draws inspiration from her mom’s activist past to take on sexism at her high school. Very satisfying, strong screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu, well-directed by Poehler, who also plays the mom.

6. THE UNFORGIVABLE

Sandra Bullock delivers a transformative performance in this Netflix drama about a woman, played by Bullock, who after serving a twenty-year prison sentence for shooting a sheriff, tries to reunite with her younger sister who has lived with a foster family the past two decades and has no memory of her older sister, while fending off threats from both those who hate her in general because of her crime, and from the adult sons of the man she killed. Dark, depressing stuff, but fiercely acted by Bullock.

5. GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE

One of my favorite action movies of the year. I loved this movie! It’s basically nothing more than female assassins kick ass, but the action is all so stylized and expertly choreographed. It contains some of the best action sequences I saw all year. Wonderfully directed by Navot Papushado, who charges this one with energy and pizzazz.

4. THE DIG

Wonderful period piece from Netflix, this one is much better than it sounds. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes co-star in this tale of the historic archeological dig in the English countryside at Sutton Hoo at the outset of World War II. Awe-inspiring, awesome movie.

And now, drum roll please, for my TOP 3 MOVIES from 2021:

3. THE COURIER

Another period piece, THE COURIER was actually filmed in 2020 but wasn’t released until 2021. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a British salesman who because of his dealings in the Soviet Union becomes an unlikely spy for Britain just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another topnotch performance by Cumberbatch, who seems to be able to play these dramatic biographical roles in his sleep.

2. THE SUICIDE SQUAD

Hands down, both my favorite action movie and superhero film of the year. Hailing from the DC Universe (sorry, Marvel, they bested you this year!) this “sequel” to 2016’s SUICIDE SQUAD is far superior to the first film. While Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn, it’s Idris Elba as Bloodsport and John Cena as Peacemaker who steal the show. The real star however is writer/director James Gunn, who works the same magic he wielded with Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, creating an energetic, innovative, and nonstop laugh-out-loud actioner that never quits. This tale of supervillains turned superheroes is a must see for all superhero movie fans, although it is rated R for some pretty intense violence and language. A helluva fun ride.

And now, drum roll please: my Number One movie from 2021:

1. DON’T LOOK UP

Adam McKay’s sharp satire is so on-point that it is far more disturbing than funny. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as scientists who discover a large meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out all life when it strikes in six months, but the President, played by Meryl Streep, won’t have any of it and plays fast and loose with their science, while the media simply isn’t interested in a negative story. Try as they might, they simply can’t get their message out. Eventually, when the meteor becomes visible to the naked eye, the president’s political party and followers adopt the ideology that those who want people to look up are doing so for political reasons, and their rallying cry becomes, “don’t look up!” A sad commentary on where we are as a nation in 2021 after suffering from four years of a presidential administration that also played fast and loose with the facts during a world crisis.

So, there you have it. My top 10 movies from 2021.

Coming soon, my Worst 10 Movie List from 2021.

Until then, as always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE DIG (2021) – Exceptional Movie Unearths More Than Just Historic Archeological Find

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I dug THE DIG (2021).

Yes, THE DIG, a new Netflix movie, is a wonderful film. It tells the surprisingly moving story of the excavation in 1939 in Sutton Hoo, England, which unearthed a burial ship from Anglo Saxon times. It features two fabulous performances by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, beautiful direction by Simon Stone, and an above average screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the novel The Dig by John Preston, both of which are based on a true story.

It’s 1939, and England is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires amateur excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig on her property as rumors have swirled that historic burial grounds lay underneath, and as Edith says, she just has a “feeling” about what is there. Brown is only an “amateur” because he’s not formally educated or trained in the field, but he’s been excavating since he was a child, and so his instincts and true experience are unparalleled, and Edith recognizes this. He has the reputation of being difficult to work with, but this comes more from idiosyncrasies rather than from stubborness.

Edith herself is unwell, as she is slowly dying, and she worries for her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), as the boy’s father has already passed away. Robert is an imaginative young boy who believes the ancient explorers were a lot like the space explorers he reads about in science fiction magazines, and he takes a liking to Basil Brown and is only too happy to be allowed to help the excavator with the dig.

Eventually, Basil unearths an amazing find, the remains of an Anglo Saxon ship, which would have been painstakingly moved from the sea to the land to provide a burial for someone of extreme importance. It’s a magnificent find, one that brings the British Museum to Edith’s doorstep, with orders that from here on out, they are taking charge.

Director Simon Stone has made a thoroughly satisfying period piece. The photography of the English countryside is as elegant as it is pastoral. You can almost smell the greenery. The film also nails the look of the period, 1939 England on the brink of war.

The first half of the movie is almost magical, bordering on fantasy, even as the story is rooted in reality. There’s a mystical quality to the screenplay as Basil Brown expounds on the marvels of the past, which he says speaks to them. There is a reverence here that resonates throughout the movie. Young Robert is an eager listener to Brown’s ideas, and we the audience are right there with the boy. It’s storytelling at its best.

The second half of the movie pivots somewhat, as the British Museum becomes involved, and we are introduced to more characters, including Peggy Piggot (Lily James) who’s there to help her husband with the dig, but it is through this experience that she learns some truths about herself and her marriage. The second half of the movie isn’t quite as effective as the first, but it’s still a first-rate screenplay by Moira Buffini.

The two leads here are outstanding.

Ralph Fiennes, who has delivered many fine perfomances over the years going all the way back to THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), and who is currently playing M in the new James Bond movies, is outstanding here as Basil Brown. It’s clearly one of his best film performances, and instantly one of my favorites. He makes Brown a three-dimensional character who in spite of his reptutation for being difficult is sincere, empathetic, and a genuinely caring person.

Carey Mulligan is equally as good as Edith Pretty. It’s a challenging role, as Edith grows sicker throughout the story, and Mulligan is up to the challenge of capturing her ever increasing sickness. In spite of her illness, she is a strong-willed woman who does her best to give Basil credit for the dig, even though the museum would prefer the name of an amateur not be mentioned at all.

I have been enjoying Mulligan’s work for some time now, as she has made memorable impressions in such films as DRIVE (2011), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and MUDBOUND (2017). She is also currently starring in the thriller PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020).

The other testament to Mulligan’s and Fiennes’ acting is the two actors share tremendous chemistry… their scenes together resonate and drive this film forward… even though they are not connected romantically, which is usually the way it is onscreen for characters who share this kind of chemistry. They are both fantastic.

Young Archie Barnes is noteworthy as Edith’s son Robert, as his energetic performance really captures the spirit of the movie.

Lily James is also very good as Peggy, although she doesn’t show up in the film until its second half, but she makes Peggy a sympathetic character, even if she’s not integral to the film’s main plot. I like James a lot and have enjoyed her work in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017), DARKEST HOUR (2017), and REBECCA (2020).

One of the themes in THE DIG, in addition to the connection between explorers of the past and explorers of the future, is that life is fleeting, and you have to go for things in the here and now. However, we all fail at times, and we have to live with our failures and move on, and when ultimately our time is done, we do live on as what we do now for others lives on with them, which allows the past to continue to speak to the present and the future.

There’s a lot going on in THE DIG, as it has a very layered screenplay by Moira Buffini.

And one of the film’s best scenes, which speaks to its theme of the meeting of explorers, Robert takes his ailing mother on a “voyage” on a ship through time. They camp out in the remains of the unearthed ship under the starry night sky and Robert speaks of his explorations through time and space and how his mother will be there with him because time is different in space, and from where she is she will know all that he has done.

Deep, almost magical storytelling, and yet there’s not a drop of fantasy to be found. Instead, it’s wrapped in a story that is as deeply rooted in reality as you can get.

THE DIG is an exceptional movie that unearths more than just an amazing archeological find. It digs up some astounding truths about who we are, what we are doing here, and where we are going.

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