Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu

THE MENU

Ingenious, unsettling, and oftentimes riotously funny, director Mark Mylod's The Menu has been prepared exactly the way I most enjoy my satire: blackened to a crisp. While its thematic and presentational inspirations are unhidden and encompass everything from Hell's Kitchen to Midsommar to Fantasy Island, what this savage comedy chiefly reminded me of was Don't Look Up, last year's end-of-days spoof that ended on the bleakest of all possible notes. Mylod's film isn't quite as nihilistic, but it, too, is an unrepentantly vicious take-down of deserving targets – give or take your feelings on those who don't have student loans to pay off – and also a stronger, more sustained piece of work than Adam McKay's encroaching-comet saga. I ate this thing up with a spoon. Advance apologies for the volume of gastronomic puns that will no doubt be forthcoming.

Located on a private island in undisclosed waters, the setting for The Menu's tasty blend of horror and humor is Hawthorne, a beyond-chic restaurant that sources all of its ingredients locally and serves, at $1,250 per guest, a bill of fare composed of what Phoebe Buffay once termed “tiny portions of pretentious food.” Hawthorne is under the militant control of Julian Slowik, a revered celebrity chef so quietly intimidating that he's inevitably played by Ralph Fiennes … even though, in a hilarious touch, this evidently British figure reveals that he was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa. Slowik has a team of roughly two dozen sous-chefs and security men working under him – all of whom live in barracks-style quarters within walking distance of Hawthorne – as well as the officious maitre d' Elsa (Hong Chau), who maintains order in the dining room and greets each evening's dozen patrons as they arrive via boat. On the evening of The Menu, it's a manifest worthy of Agatha Christie.

Our audience surrogate, the only visitor whose presence was not anticipated by the Hawthorne brigade, is Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose sardonic, down-to-earth demeanor is a sharp contrast to that of her apparently new boyfriend Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a pompous foodie prone to fanboy gushing over Slowik's talents. Also on the guest list are a noted restaurant critic (Janet McTeer) and her longtime editor (Paul Adelstein); a married pair of frequent returning customers (Reed Birney and Judith Light); a fading Hollywood star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant/girlfriend (Aimee Carrero); a trio of high-tech executives and investors (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang); and a mysteriously silent senior (Rebecca Koon). After Elsa leads a tour of the grounds and explains the Hawthorne rules that will inevitably be broken (don't photograph the dishes; don't enter the head chef's private cottage), the group is finally seated and Slowik himself – entering with a thunderous hand clap and his staff's rallying cry of “Yes, chef!!!” – greets his patrons. He comes off as deferential, humble, a little scary, and very, very good at his job. He thanks Hawthorne's guests for being there. His speech moves Tyler to tears. And then it's time to eat. Or maybe not.

Although Fiennes' kinetic caginess, to say nothing of The Menu's trailer, hints that larger subjects will eventually be skewered, it's easy, at first, to think that the only thing on the minds of Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy is a decimation of current haute cuisine pretension. Margot rolls her eyes, as we all do, at the courses that start with microscopic amuse-bouche and a bread plate sans bread, and at no point does Tyler – a first-timer at Hawthorne – look anything but foolish when expounding on Slowik's culinary genius and the “story” he ultimately tells with his meals. Yet before the movie is even halfway over, with incriminating photos of the patrons craftily seared onto pancakes, it's clear that the diners (excepting Margot) haven't been admitted to Hawthorne so much as shepherded, with the night's menu designed specifically, insidiously, for them. But why? And why is Slowik so put off by Margot's arrival? And will anyone be allowed to leave full, if they're allowed to leave at all?

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu

I wish I could adequately detail just how much fun all of this is. Yet it turns out that while the trailers seemed to give too much away, they barely scratch the surface of what Mylod, Reiss, and Tracy have in store. Before the film opened this past weekend, a friend presumed that cannibalism was going to be involved, and others I spoke with thought the plotting would entail a familiar Game of some kind, be it of the Most Dangerous, Hunger, or Squid variety. None of these guesses prove to be true – or, at least, not entirely true. Julian Slowik is no Hannibal Lecter, but he does share with the good bad doctor a fanatical distaste for rudeness and gaucheness, as well as a potentially homicidal need to make necessary amends. And although a number of Hawthorne's guests do, at one point, go on the run, there's no outright competition between them; as Slowik says to Margot during one of their furtively intense tête-à-têtes, there's only “us” and “them,” and the “us”es obviously have the upper hand. The thrill and considerable comic charge of The Menu consequently comes from unpeeling its figurative onion, discovering how and why the obscenely privileged, entitled, vacuous dinner guests are to receive their just desserts, and wondering whether Margot deserves to be fed or has earned the right to assist with the feeding.

While satire doesn't have to be realistic to be effective (or to garner big laughs), there are a number of character choices, especially near the climax, that don't feel organic so much as mandated, and despite the script's overall wit, a few narrative turns – as when Margot, à la every traditional detective yarn ever, stumbles onto a batch of newspaper clippings that finally put events into focus – are distractingly clichéd. The ending, too, feels a little pat, and as satisfying as it can be to be right, I wasn't overjoyed at having successfully predicted the movie's final shot 10 minutes before the end credits rolled. Yet these are niggling complaints in the face of the massive, nasty delight served up by The Menu.

Between the razor-sharp dialogue, delirious plot twists, and sensational contributions of Mylod's supporting cast – with Chau's hysterically clipped comedic brusqueness nearly stealing the show – the film boasts a rock-solid foundation for Fiennes' and Taylor-Joy's expansive star turns, and wow do they deliver. Fiennes expertly adds layers of acute self-loathing into a portrayal that blends his twinned gifts for subtle malevolence and deadpan farce, while Taylor-Joy is as supremely controlled and charismatic as she was in The Queen's Gambit, with the added benefit of her also being (at least in the early scenes) enormously funny. As for Mylod, a Game of Thrones veteran who has directed a number of particularly outstanding episodes of HBO's Succession, he keeps the continually shifting tones nicely in balance and pulls off an unexpected feat near the very end, when, after an hour-and-a-half of the undigestible, he finally gives us the mouth-watering image of something a sane human being might actually want to consume. The Menu is a total blast. I'm already craving a second helping.

Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan in She Said

SHE SAID

At some point, hopefully soon, I would imagine that those who cover box-office tallies for a living are going to tire of writing about how badly this or that specialty drama geared toward adults underperformed in wide release during the post-COVID era. (Of course, we aren't post-COVID, but you know what I mean.) “Bombs” was the term a Variety headline employed to describe this past weekend's $2.2-million opening for director Maria Schrader's investigative procedural She Said, and technically speaking, given that the film was distributed by major studio Universal Pictures and debuted on 2,022 screens nationwide, I suppose the word is appropriate. It's the disingenuous air of shock surrounding this sort of coverage that I object to. Can you believe that only $2.2-million worth of ticket buyers paid to see a sober, measured #MeToo drama about journalists planning an exposé on an alleged serial sex offender? Or that only $4.9-million worth have ponied up dough for a 160-minute drama about a symphony conductor who is also a serial sex offender? Or that, to date, only $8.5-million worth have wanted to sit through the painful aftermath of Emmett Till's lynching? Rather than wringing our hands at the lack of butts in seats, how about we be grateful, in our current “I want superheroes or nothing!” landscape, that these movies are being made – and seen – at all?

I certainly left She Said feeling grateful – not only to Universal for taking a huge risk on a project that was literally about how much Hollywood can suck, but to Schrader and her team for turning potentially dry and discomforting material into an engaging, sometimes even arresting experience. And I'm not merely talking about Harvey Weinstein's arrest. With Rebecca Lenkiewicz's incisive script based on the nonfiction by New York Times journalists and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (played respectively, and respectfully, by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan), the film details their many months of persistent legwork, interviews, dead ends, and lucky breaks that led to dozens of charges of sexual assault against Miramax mogul Weinstein. For those of us who fervently followed the story in the wake of the Times' article and similar coverage by The New Yorker's Ronan Farrow, Schrader's level-headed offering is a fascinating account of dogged professionalism and moral outrage that reveals why it took so tragically long for Weinstein's horrific misconduct and criminality to come to public attention. For the few who may enter She Said with little to no knowledge of its real-life basis, it may be a deeply disturbing eye-opener that explains why you haven't been seeing the formerly ubiquitous Ashley Judd as frequently as you perhaps wanted to.

Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher, and Patricia Clarkson in She Said

Judd, to her incalculable credit, portrays herself in the movie, and while I applaud her bravery in both telling her tale and agreeing to re-enact the telling of her tale, I wish her few appearances weren't quite so congratulatory – though they're hardly self-congratulatory – and also wish Nicholas Britell's unusually strident score weren't quite so determined to tell us how to feel. Thankfully, Schrader doesn't indulge in histrionics or overt melodrama, but the director's mostly clear-eyed approach does occasionally veer into sentiment, which doesn't jibe with her otherwise admirable nuts-and-bolts approach. Schrader's movie is kind of like Spotlight with a few more hugs and way more tears, and even though that Best Picture winner sits near the top of my favorite cinematic entertainments of all time, that's not the compliment it may seem.

Still, as a devotee of affecting dramas in general and investigative-journalist dramas in particular, it would be hard for me to more avidly recommend She Said regardless of it “bombing” at the box office. Kazan, with her lovely, naturalistic expressiveness, and Mulligan, with her deft, scratchy authenticity, are marvelous guides through a labyrinthine maze, and as in all topnotch works of this type ranging from A(ll the President's Men) to Z(odiac), loads of reliable, inventive character actors are allowed room to shine, among them Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Peter Friedman, Zach Grenier, a heartbreaking Jennifer Ehle, and, for one crackerjack bit of truth-telling, the great Samantha Morton. Running a never-dull 129 minutes, Schrader's cinematic exposé doesn't progress with the speed of an avalanche. Yet it winds up exuding an avalanche's power and, in the “sacred cows” it annihilates, having much the same destructive effect. She Said will likely be gone from the area before too long. That doesn't mean it's the last we'll be hearing of it.

Florence Pugh in The Wonder

THE WONDER

With the exception of Don't Worry Darling, a PR nightmare that is in no way a significant blight on the performer's accomplishments, I don't think that any high-profile 26-year-old can presently boast a more consistent track record of quality than Florence Pugh. Happily, that streak of success continues with director Sebastián Lelio's The Wonder, a sneakily involving period piece (newly streaming on Netflix) in which its star plays a nurse assigned to investigate a seemingly impossible happenstance. In a tiny Irish hamlet in 1862, Pugh's British health provider Elizabeth Wright is summoned, for reasons she can't understand, to assess the practices and behavior of Anna O'Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy), an 11-year-old who has reportedly survived four months and counting with no food. Most of the townsfolk consider it a sign of divine providence. Elizabeth, led more by science than faith, isn't convinced. And what results is a slowly simmering psychological drama in which, like Elizabeth, we don't fully know whether Anna's condition is a miracle, a hoax, or a complete unknowable due to our lead's nightly practice of falling into a troubled, opium-induced sleep.

To my non-opium-riddled eyes, not everything here works. Lelio's movie is based on a 2010 novel by Emma Donaghue (who shares a co-screenwriting credit with the director and Alice Birth), and like 2015's Room, which Donaghue also adapted from one of her own books, it offers a beguiling, uncomfortable premise before succumbing to bland conventionality. The arrival of Elizabeth's fellow pragmatist and inevitable love interest William Byrne (Tom Burke) is distractingly convenient, as is the awkwardly shallow battle of wills between the visiting nurse and the township's resident voices of reason, two of whom are enacted by the severely underused Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds. Yet the novelty of the premise – your desire to, as Elizabeth needs to, figure out just what the hell is going on – keeps you sticking with the film, as does Cassidy's faraway melancholy and Lelio's evocative visual sense and astutely incorporated grace notes. (The film takes place roughly a year after Ireland's population-annihilating Great Famine, and whenever Elizabeth sits down for a meal, she doesn't simply eat her meals – she wolfs them down, as if not knowing when her next sustenance might land.) Yet the best reason to catch The Wonder is the wonder of the husky-voiced, wildly empathetic Pugh, who dives furiously into her role's confusion and torment, and whose mere casting makes the film's biggest plot hole make a weird kind of sense. Why would this tiny Irish burg recruit an unknown from England to solve their mystery? Well, if that candidate was Florence Pugh, whom else would you recruit?

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in Spirited

SPIRITED

Everyone knows Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I know it; you know it; I'm reasonably certain newborn babies know it. Could there possibly be any new way to inventively revive this over-baked chestnut? As proven by the Apple TV+ release Spirited, directed and co-written by Sean Anders, there apparently is. You can make it a startlingly incoherent musical comedy in which Will Ferrell is cast as both the Ghost of Christmas Present and Ebeneezer Scrooge, albeit in competing narratives; you can cast Ryan Reynolds as a modernized Ebeneezer Scrooge and, effectively, all three of Scrooge's ghostly visitations; you can throw in halfhearted attempts at updating the material through cyber-bullying, teen suicide, and a reference to the pandemic; and, for The Greatest Showman fans, you can toss in numbers by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – the Oscar, Grammy, and Tony winners who were once revered for Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land and who now deserve to be credited as the paycheck-cashing hacks responsible for the songs in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. Do I really need to continue in order to express how much I hated this freakin' thing?

Just in case the answer is “yes,” or “maybe,” or even “no,” allow me to restate: I ha-a-a-a-ated this freakin' thing. I hated the complete absence of laughs, and legitimate emotion, and holiday sentiment that didn't feel grossly manufactured and offensively cynical. I hated the utter lack of comedic or brotherly rapport between its leads who can't sing but, when they're lucky, are occasionally close to on-pitch: Ferrell, who has momentarily returned to his past habit of pretending his co-stars aren't there, and Reynolds, who is beginning to appear incapable of sharing screen chemistry with anyone. (More and more, the most fitting title on Reynolds' résumé is looking like 2010's Buried, in which the smarmy star spent 90 minutes alone in a coffin with only his cell phone as company.) I hated the depressing waste of Octavia Spencer's charm, and Chloe Arnold's randomly exuberant choreography, and the mere, if blessedly brief, participation of Rose Byrne and Dame Judi Dench. And I really hate that this stocking full of reindeer poop, just like last November's Ryan Reynolds debacle Red Notice, is currently enjoying an engagement at Davenport's cineplex while also eminently ignorable on a streaming service, when any number of other options – another week for TÁR, a blank screen presented at two-hour intervals – would be better uses of the auditorium. Kids deserve better than this. So do adults. So does Dickens. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge requests that a local urchin procure the biggest turkey he can find. It may have taken 179 years, but I think the kid finally found it.

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