I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The Menu pre-release. The trailers more or less made it look like a mainstream horror movie, albeit one with a tinge of a post-Get Out social commentary. But I’m not sure “horror movie” is really the right term for this. It’s not really trying to scare its audience or even really be much in the way of tense suspense. I’d maybe call it more of a satire, but it’s also not really trying to be laugh out loud funny, though perhaps senses of humor vary. And despite the difficulties in classifying it, this is hardly some kind of mold busting experimental work, on the contrary, it’s pretty straightforwardly understandable. The film revolves around a dinner service at an extremely high end restaurant located on an island that the customers are ferried to, but this is no ordinary dinner, rather it’s a trap that the chef (played by Ralph Fiennes) has set in order to lure in and get revenge on his enemies over the course of a night. So, it’s kind of like a riff on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” but without any pretense of being a mystery as the responsible party is apparent from the start.
Of course, all of this is rooted in a sort of extreme exaggeration of “foodie” culture, in ways that seem pretty authentic from where I sit but I’m quite the outsider to all of this. I’ve never eaten at a restaurant anywhere near as fancy as the one in the movie and for that matter rarely go to overly nice restaurants at all so any recognition I have of all this stuff is basically third hand. In addition to not loving food enough to be enticed by some of the food things that go on here I also kind of don’t really care enough to be angered by a number of the things this movie is raging against and very few of the things that the evil central chef is angry about really strike me as offenses worthy of violent retribution. And if looked at more as a statement about capitalism writ large I still find the message here pretty muddled. The rich customers here are dicks, but the chef raging against them strikes me as plainly a bigger dick so this could just as easily be seen as a vilification of anti-capitalism as capitalism. So, as a social satire I find this muddled but I did enjoy myself just the same. Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy are both very strong here as is much of the rest of the cast and the production design of the restaurant is quite effective. The movie kept me interested the whole time, though I must say it maybe shows its hand pretty early and has trouble escalating the tension in its second half and doesn’t really deliver on any stunning revelation at the end. As a neat little genre exercise you can do worse but the film itself never really elevated past that for me.
*** out of Five
Empire of Light(12/8/2022)
I will say, I went into Empire of Light not expecting much. The phrase “Oscar bait” gets overused a lot but this certainly seemed to fit the bill and it’s been damned with faint praise by pretty much anyone who’s seen it since it debuted at Telluride. The film is about the goings on at a beautiful old movie theater in coastal England during the early 1980s. At its best that could give us a sort of British Cinema Paradiso and at worst it could lead to an overwrought rhapsody for “the magic of the cinema” that basically plays like a feature length version of Nicole Kidman’s “We Make Movies Better” AMC ad. The actual movie lies somewhere between those two things. Director Sam Mendes has a palpable nostalgia for this era which can be contagious and intoxicating but he also feels compelled to acknowledge that this was in fact a very bad era for people who weren’t white men, which isn’t an inherently bad instinct but it means the movie tries to take on themes of racism, sexual harassment, and mental health that it really cannot sustain and sort of feels like a social realist square peg trying to be inserted into a gooey nostalgic round hole.
At the film’s center is a middle aged theater manager played by Olivia Colman who suffers form mental illness and is also having a not very consensual affair with the theater’s owner, played by Colin Firth, and finds solace in another theater employee in his early twenties played by Michael Ward. The film frankly doesn’t sell this relationship very well. The fact that she is in just as much of a power imbalance with him as she is with her boss is an irony that’s not very well explored and even without that issue the movie just does not really make it terribly clear what he sees in this older and seemingly not very well adjusted woman. Frankly, if the genders were reversed this would feel like somewhat creepy wish fulfilment for some old sad sack writer. It also doesn’t help that Sam Mendes does not seem to have the slightest clue how to write this black character and makes him into a rather awkward “model minority” rather than a three dimensional character and its interest in exploring the racism of the Thatcher era feels slight compared to something like “Small Axe” or even Blinded by the Light. Having said all that, the film is not without its charms. The film also has some really slick cinematography by Roger Deakins, a good score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it’s generally pretty well acted by its cast as well and all of this generally makes the film a perfectly watchable experience but there isn’t really a lot of substance beneath the surface despite pretentions of import.
**1/2 out of Five
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio(12/9/2022)
I must say, for whatever reason animation really hasn’t been doing it for me this year. Not even when it comes from otherwise strong voices in the medium like Pixar (Turning Red), Cartoon Saloon (My Father’s Dragon), or Henry Selick (Wendell & Wild). Not sure if that’s just a “me” problem or if it really has just been a weak year on that front, or maybe a combination of the two. For a while the film that looks like the best bet to break this streak has been Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, a stop motion adaptation of Pinocchio, but while I did indeed admire a lot about the film I’m not sure even it got me truly excited, possibly because I’ve never had much use for Pinocchio as a story in any of its forms. Del Toro’s adaptation has most of the usual elements like a talking cricket, a blue fairy, and a whale sequence at the end but he moves the action of Carlo Collodi’s late 19th Century story and places the action in Italy during the fascist period and puts less of an emphasis on the title character becoming a flesh and blood human and more on questions of his mortality or lack thereof.
That’s not a bad idea for where to take this at all and it also fits within many of the director’s usual theme. In fact he’s made a plausible case that this finishes a trilogy started by The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (much to the chagrin of Criterion, who have been pretending that Cronos has anything to do with those other movies for some reason), but I must say I didn’t like this nearly as much as those other films. Part of that is that I’m not sure I was entirely sold on the movie’s visual style. On a technical level the stop motion animation is solid, but not quite as detailed and articulated as what Laika has been doing recently. From a design perspective I think it’s more of a mixed bag. There are certainly some creatures and sets in this that are straight out of Del Toro’s imagination and are quite cool looking, but Del Toro has been so effective in the past of bringing similar designs to life in his live action films that I maybe expected him to be even more next level when unmoored from even the limitations of modern visual effects here and I’m not sure that really happened. I would also say that the design for Pinocchio himself never quite worked for me. This is actually one of the least human designs for the character we’ve ever gotten, making him look less like a puppet that would actually be put on a stage and more like a misshapen wood creation that Geppetto threw together in a moment of grief induced drunkenness. The resulting puppet looks a little odd to me, especially as he starts becoming a war asset they’re trying to exploit late in the film.
Oddly enough the movie is actually a full blown musical, but I’m not sure that was a smart move, firstly because the songs themselves are kind of mid and secondly because the movie sort of doesn’t commits to this and just quits bursting into song around the halfway point. I also thought the side characters like the cricket and the film’s villain were kind of questionable and also that the film’s voice cast including the kid they got to voice Pinocchio wasn’t top notch. In general the movie starts well and ends well but sags a bit in the middle, but I don’t want to come off too negative about it. Truth be told this is probably the best version of this story to date unless you want to count Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It certainly blows Robert Zemeckis’ live action remake of the Disney version out of the water and for that matter it’s a clear improvement over the original Disney version, at least outside of that movie’s animation innovations, and let’s not even speak of Roberto Benigni’s misguided disaster of an adaptation. But fairy tales are generally not my thing and this is still basically a fairy tale and while it’s a darker version of one than you’re going to get out of Disney it’s still nothing close to the cool fusion of wonder and grit that Del Toro achieved with Pan’s Labyrinth.
*** out of Five
The Eternal Daughter(12/11/2022)
In recent memory there aren’t many examples of a larger disconnect between me and critics more broadly than there was with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II. Granted these are relatively small movies so it’s not like this disconnect was to widely discussed, but the people who did like them were absolutely rapturous about them and I just didn’t get it. I mean, I think I understood intellectually exactly what the movies were doing but I didn’t exactly understand why I should care. But believe me, I tried, I even made a point of seeing Part II in theaters so I could watch it with perfect focus but it all never really clicked. But there was at least something there, they weren’t movies I wanted to completely dismiss and with that in mind I did want to give Joanna Hogg another shot, this time outside of the “franchise” that made her “famous.” Her new film The Eternal Daughter shares a similar deliberate slowness and tone to it, but it’s also noticeably more psychological and overtly weird than its predecessors. If those movies were like memories, this is more like a chronical of someone while they’re in the process of remembering and are getting lost in those not always happy thoughts.
The film is set in a hotel somewhere in the English countryside that feels rather dark and sparsely populated when the film’s protagonist arrives. This protagonist, played by Tilda Swinton appears to be something of an alter ego for the director and has planned to spend a week at this hotel with her aging mother (also played by Swinton) in hopes of bonding with her a bit more than before while also getting some material for a screenplay she’s working on that will in part be based on her mother and her relationship to her. The mother, on the other hand, thinks the daughter is a bit of a “fussbucket” and tends to deflect a lot of this plan, preferring to just relax through the vacation. Something seems “off” about this whole setup. Obviously the fact that Swinton is doing a double role is part of this, and the timeline being laid out in the film doesn’t seem to entirely line up with the dates we’re being given from the mother’s life. Additionally, this whole hotel seems oddly creepy. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a horror movie, because it absolutely isn’t and the film would disappoint anyone coming to it expecting to be scared, but the mood at this hotel does make it seem like a place that literal ghosts might exist in. The film is leading up to a reveal, one that isn’t terribly hard to guess, but it doesn’t really feel like a true “rug pull” twist ending despite technically being one.
In this sense the movie could almost be a good double bill partner with another A24 distributed British movie with a female director focusing on a parent-child relationship over the course of a vacation: Aftersun. And I say that both for better or worse, because another thing the two films share is that they could feel a bit like movies where nothing really happens for much of their runtime leading up to an emotional revelation that reframes much of what came before. And patience with that will vary in both cases. I think the details of the vacation in Aftersun has more to offer in terms of nostalgic detail and has characters that I generally found more relatable. But I’d say The Eternal Daughter does a better job of foreshadowing where it’s going and builds more in the way of offbeat tension through the mood of the hotel. I don’t think either of these movies are quite my cup of tea, but I will say that I think I got more out of this one than I did out of either The Souvenir films, possibly just because I found the feel of the location more interesting and found its psychological trickery to be a bit more interesting overall. That said this is all relative and I would only recommend the film to a very certain kind of person and warn them a lot that this is not going to be a movie that’s what you’d call “conventionally entertaining.”
*** out of Five
I’m not usually one to root for Netflix given that they seem hell bent on destroying movie theaters among other potentially malignant effects they have on cinema culture, but still I do feel kind of sorry for them this year. They put a lot of big investments in certain auteurs to deliver award season triumphs for them and basically all the horses they bet on seemed to trip before even leaving the gates with both critics and audiences. Blonde seemingly enraged more people than it entertained, Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) was declared “pretentious” and dismissed right from its festival premiere, and even Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio hasn’t really lit the world on fire. Damn near the only thing that seems to be working out for them is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which being a sequel filled with stars is almost certainly the least ambitious of the projects I named. On some level I should be happy that these filmmakers somehow conned the deep pocketed streamer into funding their weird-ass visions, but the truth is that if Netflix doesn’t get rewarded for these investments even with award season soft power they’re going to stop making investments like this at all, which is kind of dire since they’re some of the only ones left funding these things. And perhaps the least lucrative of all these investments is the one they saved for last: Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise,” which reportedly cost $80 million to make and will likely annoy and befuddle the majority of their customers who stumble upon it.
I actually did read the Don DeLillo book this is based on about ten years ago when I was exploring some of the canonical 20th Century novelists like Phillip Roth and John Updike and I must say I didn’t really “get it” at the time and revisiting the subject matter via this film (which is pretty faithful in both tone and text) I’m not much more impressed. That novel is a highly postmodernist and is meant to be a social satire about various broad cultural trends in the mid-eighties more so than a straightforward story or character study. It follows a college professor who’s the head of the Hitler Studies department at a fictional university who has a strained relationship with his wife and the plot so much as it exists looks at the fallout (literal and otherwise) of what happens to the family after a nearby chemical spill leads to a “toxic airborne event that forces them to evacuate their home rather abruptly and the aftermath of this. The film maintains the 1980s setting of the original and that novel has aged… interestingly. Certain ideas in it, like the supermarket as a symbol of everything wrong with modern consumerism, feel dated and passé. Meanwhile other aspects of the novel like the frenzied and misinformation fueled response to a big emergency in the second act, feels like they could at least theoretically take on a new life in a modern post-Covid context but I’m not sure Baumbach really had the time to make that connection fully.
Honestly I’m not sure Baumbach was the best fit for this material to begin with. Upper class ennui and academic pretentions have certainly been themes in his work before, but he usually handles this through lightly comic but ultimately pretty naturalistic film styling. By contrast this movie is heightened to the nth degree. Basically no one hear speaks or acts like normal real world people, rather, pretty much everything that happens here is meant to make some satirical point. The main character is comically stubborn and inept in the real world while engaging in an inherently ridiculous field of study and much of his wife’s arc is based around an absurd literalization of the intellectual and spiritual decay of the intellectual classs, a situation that frankly looks like quite the first world problem from where I sit. The movie (and novel) kind of wants to make a point about every issue under the sun and ends up not making many of them very well and as a simple movie-going experience the whole thing is just rather alienating and disconnected from reality more than it’s plugged into it. These kinds of outlandish and over-ambitious statements about “everything” do work sometimes when you get someone like Charlie Kaufman making something like Synecdoche, New York, but more often you end up with something like White Noise where you have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea.
** out of Five
Emancipation is probably a movie that’s forever going to be known as the first Will Smith film to be released after the publicity hit he took in the wake of “the slap,” which maybe speaks to the fact that it’s not really a movie that’s good enough to transcend that situation despite certainly being a movie that aspires to be. The film is set during the civil war and follows a slave named Peter who is requisitioned by the confederate army to help build a base five miles away from the plantation he had been stuck in, separating him from his family. There he mounts an escape and must move across five miles of swamp while being pursued by a brutal slave hunter played by Ben Foster. From there the film feels almost more like an adventure movie than it does a more somber slavery drama like 12 Years a Slave, in fact it rather strongly resembles Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto more than anything. The morality of making such a wilderness survival film out of what is a pretty sensitive historical subject matter is… kind of dubious, and on some level I think director Antoine Fuqua knows this because he and cinematographer Robert Richardson saturate the colors in the film down almost to the point of being black and white. That’s an interesting decision but one that ultimately feels kind of gimmicky and frankly it’s not fooling anyone into making this feel more serious than it really is at its core. Fuqua has always primarily been someone who makes action movies and is usually at his best when he’s elevating B-movie hokum, and here he probably would have been better off just letting the carnage here look good on screen instead of trying to fool us into thinking this was a prestige project.
**1/2 out of Five
Though it isn’t quite the nexus of discussion that Babylon and Amsterdam were, the box office failures of Strange World are perhaps among the most ominous for the future of cinema out of any of this year’s “bombs.” This is in large part because there’s basically nothing wrong with the movie and its failure basically suggests that no big budget animated movie that doesn’t star a Minion is ever going to be viable in theaters again. That isn’t to say that the movie is great exactly, but it’s a solid adventure movie with a lot of neat visuals. The film looks at three generations of a family as they meet in a “Journey to the Center of the Earth”-esque pulpy adventure into the core of the film’s fantasy world. The world building both on the world’s surface and in the core look really cool and while the characters and their conflict is a bit stock, they work well enough. It’s also possibly the most progressive movie Disney has ever made in terms of representation and has a simplistic but strongly stated environmental message, and with Disney having gotten zero credit or profit from this decision it may well lead to them being a lot more cautious and conservative about such themes, which is unfortunate. I do worry I’m over-defending this thing a little because of its box office woes, but there was clearly some love put into this particularly in the animation and it kind of feels weird that this is the one that was fully and unambiguously rejected by audiences. But for what it is I think this is pretty solid Disney, so, I guess this is the Treasure Planet of the 2020s.
***1/2 out of Five