This month’s movie and TV reviews of The Menu, Tar, Spirited.
When you’ve got a title like The Menu, then a reviewer might think it behooves him or her to label said film as a tasty confection or a flavorless concoction—but I’m not going to do that. I will say it is among the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year, in part because of the concept, and in part, because of the execution—which benefits from some really fine performances. As directed by Mark Rylod, from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, the premise is simple but tantalizing: there is this exclusive “island restaurant” which serves some “interesting” fare to those with a spare $1250 for the experience. Chef Ralph Fiennes presides over his restaurant (and staff) like a martinet, albeit one with time for tales about the courses he serves. Among his wealthy guests are Reed Birney and Judith Light as returning customers, John Leguziamo’s past his prime actor, Nicholas Hoult as a snobbish sycophant for whom Fiennes can do no wrong (which is not even put to the test when the assemblage is served a “bread course without bread”) and Anya Taylor-Joy as his replacement date. However, the revelation that she wasn’t Hoult’s original date is what helps propel the plot, since Fiennes’ master chef has a plan and all the visitors have been carefully selected—except for Ms. Taylor-Joy.
The fun in sampling The Menu (sorry), is that the set-up is both funny and dark and does leave you with the question of where this is all heading. And everyone seems to be fair game for some satirical darts, from the pretentious, preening and demanding guests to the supercilious nature of the head chef, to his cowering staff–to the dishes themselves, which seem to possess an overabundance of thought but not much in the way of value—nutritional or otherwise. At a certain point, things become a little clearer and then crystal clear, but still the film maintains interest, thanks to a few plot twists and the running battle of wits between Fiennes’ obsessed, tyrannical, and frustrated chef and Anya Taylor-Joy as the date who didn’t really want to be there—and is herself looking for an escape route. Hoult, Birney, Light, Hong Chau (as the chef’s right-hand woman), and Janet McTeer (as a food critic who was instrumental in Fiennes’ rise to renown) also turn in fine work, making The Menu one well worth tasting (oh, stop it already).
I wanted to like Tar more than I did, partly because of its intriguing premise (one in which a woman in power is brought down after engaging in similar behavior that has brought down corresponding male figures) and because of my fondness for Cate Blanchett’s work–not to mention it marks Todd Field’s return to filmmaking after a lengthy absence. But perhaps it is a film to respect more than to like: Blanchett is Lyida Tar, a world-famous composer/conductor preparing for her live recording of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. She is a perfectionist about her work, not afraid to engage in verbal dustups to get what she wants. The first half presents Tar as sitting on top of the world—but with several subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints that this world is about to topple. The lengthy interview (with NPR’s Adam Gopnik) serves as a nicely played intro into her world and her accomplishments and challenges. And then we see her imperiously presiding over a master class in which she takes on a male student whose views about music and artists clash with her own. (Tar has urged the students to consider the music more than gender identity.) We then see her interactions with both male figures, both mentors and colleagues (nicely portrayed by Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, and Mark Strong). And while one can see the glimpses of her undoing with these men, it is primarily the women that help precipitate he downfall: Noelle Merlant as tar’s beleaguered assistant, Nina Hoss as Tar’s spouse and orchestra member, Sophie Kauer’s Olga, a young Russian cellist who has some talent that Tar admires—and perhaps a little something else. And then there’s Sylvia Flote’s Krista, who had been a member of Tar’s fellowship program, and who we see has been involved with Tar in a much more intimate manner—which leads to a number of self-destructive and desperate e-mails on both their parts.
And then, in the second half, everything falls apart—first slowly, then rapidly, as discarded colleagues come back to haunt her, old emails form a tightening noose, and the class confrontation (which has been filmed and edited, to no one’s surprise—except perhaps for Tar) becomes a viral “sensation.” It becomes a difficult film to watch, first because most of the viewers will know where it’s heading—and will be incredulous that tar can’t see what we’re seeing. And there’s also the matter of recidivism—in the worst possible way, as we see tar repeat the traits and actions that have gotten her to this precarious place. It is to Blanchett’s credit that you keep watching her, as she does give shadings and dimension (particularly in her scenes with Sharon’s adopted daughter, whom she desires to protect.) yet by the end, one wonders what is the point—is it to show that women can behave as badly as men? Is it to show the difficulties of burying the past in our increasingly digital age? It will probably be nominated for a bunch of Oscars—but I don’t feel the need to see it again.
On the other hand, Spirited, an inspired musical riff on A Christmas Carol, is such a fun, and in its own way, unpretentious film that I’d gladly look at again (and again) when the spirit moves me. Will Ferrell (funny and likable) is the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose job it is to help find a candidate for redemption and put him through the “three ghost” wringer. It’s a pretty well-run organization in the afterlife, lorded over by Patrick Page’s Jacob Marley. Their first pick falls by the wayside when Ferrell spies Ryan Reynolds’ Clint, a business tycoon whose reach is worldwide—though not as nasty as their first choice, Ferrell considers the “ripples” when he chooses Clint. Only…Clint knows the score (and he knows A Christmas Carol) which leads to some one-upmanship, a few surprising revelations and some nicely judged plot turns. And there is also Octavia Spencer as Clint’s loyal employee, who may have some chemistry with Ferrell (whom she’s not supposed to see, but that’s another story).
If one isn’t feeling a little Grinch-y, one can knock Spirited (several musical numbers do run a little long, alas), but there is so much to enjoy here. Ferrell, Reynolds, Spencer have chemistry together, the little twists and turns are engaging (if not necessarily surprising), and the musical numbers do have an infectious energy about them (and an amusing self-awareness as to their placement and necessity), even if the voices aren’t the most trained in the musical canon. To top it off, Spirited does have some useful things to say about the consequences of words and actions, and how change can sometimes be better (and more realistically) accomplished a little at a time. So, give Spirited a chance—it’s streaming on Apple TV and I think you’ll enjoy it.