Friday, November 18, 2022

Film Reviews: “The Menu” Is Tasty; “The Inspection” Makes an Impressive Debut for Director Elegance Bratton; “Causeway” Is a Superb Actor’s Showcase

The Menu (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: The Menu 
In Cinemas 

Just in the time for Thanksgiving, director Mark Mylod (of many “Succession” episodes) has fashioned a satire of both pretentious foodies and self-centered two percenters as a small boatful of rich diners arrive at Hawthorne, a small island that doubles as a restaurant locale for a $1,250 meal with the famous Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Along with the usual wealthy suspects, like a movie star (John Leguizamo), a renowned food critic (Janet McTeer) and a trio of financial douches (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr and Rob Yang), are Tyler (Nichols Hoult), who loves cooking shows and worships Chef Slowik, and his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who doesn’t seem to be half impressed with the evening festivities as the other guests. Greeted by Slowik’s first-in-command (played by, mwah - a chef’s kiss, Hong Chau) at the pier, the guests get a tour of the self-sustaining island before starting their meal with Slowik, who narrates each deconstructed course with crazy metaphors. As the meals progress, even these guests cannot help but realize there’s something creepy to Slowik’s increasingly menacing stories and dishes (wait till you hear why there’s a garnish of a small scissor stabbed into each of their roast chickens), especially when the blood, which was not on the menu, starts flowing. The script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy does a better job satirizing the haute cuisine culture with all the buzzwords and anachronistic ingredients than it is does taking down the only people who can afford an evening like this. Taylor-Joy and Fiennes have a nice antagonistic relationship that grounds the movie as it starts its descent into the plot’s madness. There’s also a moment that seems to indicate a Hunger Games twist that ultimately has no consequence. But I was never bored, and I had fun trying to figure out how the heck all of this would resolve itself. This may not be as satisfying as a well-balanced meal, but it is a fine, tasty amuse bouche. 

The Inspection (c) A24

Film: The Inspection 
In Cinemas 

In one of the first scenes of “The Inspection,” writer-director Elegance Bratton’s impressive and unflinching debut feature, young Ellis (Jeremy Pope) is knocking on the door of his mother’s New Jersey apartment, even though we had just seen him in a homeless shelter. When the door opens, chain still hooked, we see the peering, steely eyes of Inez (Gabrielle Union) and know why he’s homeless, even before we see all the religious paraphernalia reverentially scattered throughout her home. He tells her he needs his birth certificate in order to join the Marines, and she laughs at the nonsense of this idea. But as it is for many queer kids thrown out of their homes by their parents, the military may actually be lesser of the two intolerant options. The tension in that scene is unbearable and sad, and it’s only the first fifteen minutes of the film. Of course, life is also a living hell in the Marines for Ellis, and while Bratton does a good job navigating the basic training trope, the rest of the movie doesn’t feel as fresh and honest as the apartment scene. Ellis doesn’t give up his sexual identity willingly (that moment is brutal) and finds very few allies, although one of his drill sergeants, Rosales (Raúl Castillo), does give him tips to survive. But, with the tyrannical Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) in charge of the new recruits, the film’s relentless tone is sometimes hard to stomach. Loosely based on his own life story, Bratton doesn’t add much to what we have already seen in movies like “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Full Metal Jacket,” although I don’t doubt the honesty of his storytelling. Jeremy Pope, a Tony-nominated actor, is wonderful here as he makes us sympathize with Ellis without covering up his character flaws. But it’s Union you’ll remember. She is ferocious and unwavering in her beliefs. Elegance Bratton is certainly a filmmaker to look out for. 

Causeway (c) Apple TV+

Film: Causeway 
In Cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+ 

After anchoring (“The Hunger Games”) and supporting (“X-Men”) many franchises, Jennifer Lawrence has decided to go back to her roots when she did indie films like “Winter’s Bone” with her latest, “Causeway.” Directed by New York theater director Lila Neugebauer, the film is a character study of Lynsey (Lawrence), a soldier wounded in Afghanistan, and after a stint with Sharon (the wonderful Jayne Houdyshell), who helps her to do the basic functions of normal life, like driving and brushing her teeth, she moves back in with her distant mother (Linda Emond) in New Orleans. After taking a job cleaning pools, she strikes a friendship with car mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry), who is also dealing with a physical injury from a car accident as well as psychological scars. Their relationship makes up the bulk of the movie, and it’s a pleasure to watch the two wounded souls cautiously open up and begin to trust each other. The movie does take an unfortunate misstep in the third act to create more tension that frankly feels a bit unearned, but it does rebound nicely after that. Besides that moment, not much happens in the film, action wise. Thankfully, Neugebauer utilizes her theater skills for the dialogue-heavy script to create drama between the lines. And with her intensive knowledge of the New York acting pool, most of the smaller roles are filled with talented theater actors like Stephen McKinley Henderson, Fred Weller and, especially, a late appearance by Russell Harvard that is as heartbreaking as it is surprising. But it’s Lawrence and Henry who command your attention. Lawrence is very still in most of her scenes, and you see the panic in her eyes when things go askew. And Henry, who has been so good in movies like “Eternals” and “Bullet Train,” really gets to explore James’ complex backstory, while also being sympathetic to Lynsey. It’s hard for actors to be noticed by award bodies at the end of the year for such reticent characters, but these are definitely two of the best performances of 2022.

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