Studios often use this time of year to dump movies that they do not think will perform well at the box office, but the rise of streaming and simultaneous releases has provided an opportunity for quality films to perform well in January. The Menu, in theaters and boosted by HBO Max, offers one such example.
In The Menu, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) take a ferry to a secluded island, home to a chic restaurant run by renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). With other diners (including Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Reed Birney, and Judith Light), they look forward to a spectacular meal following an abstract, conceptual menu. This elite group, however, is in for the most terrifying dining experience of their lives.
A horror satire, The Menu delivers a good enough scary story, but without the comedy, the film would just have a mediocre take on the horror and food trend.
The comedy sends the movie over the top, poking fun at the worst offenders of snobbish restaurant culture. From egotistical critics who think they are more sophisticated than everyone else to the foodies who practically worship celebrity chefs, The Menu aims not just at toxic restaurant culture, but also at privilege which allows people access but not necessarily appreciation. The attention to detail in the production design draws out the humor in the violent, suspenseful situation. The restaurant has the stark, sleek look of haute cuisine, but the details of the plating and descriptions provided for each course add a hilarious commentary.
As Chef Slowik, Ralph Fiennes gives a sinister performance, his eerily calm demeanor barely cracking, except in a faint smile in a climactic scene. His depiction of disdain and detachment permeates the tense story, but when sincerity peeks through, the character becomes more complicated than he first seems, adding to the humor. Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult’s dialogue roots the movie in a central tension between good food and trendy food. The role is hardly a stretch for Taylor-Joy, who has made a career as the wide-eyed lead in horror movies, but her somewhat snarky disbelief stands in for the audience and provides a good foil to her date’s also wide-eyed, but blind admiration of Chef Slowik. Nicholas Hoult plays Tyler’s obliviousness to perfection.
It is hard to explain why I loved The Menu so much without spoiling the twists, but it is such a fun watch, with a biting sense of humor and a memorable ending.
The Menu was written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy and directed by Mark Mylod. It runs 107 minutes and is rated R.
In The Pale Blue Eye, adapted from the book by Louis Bayard, retired police officer Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) investigates a pair of suspicious deaths at West Point with the help of Cadet Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), who turns out to be a better detective than he counted on.
Set in the winter of 1830, The Pale Blue Eye develops more atmosphere than it does a good plot. The cinematography creates a cold and dreary scene befitting any story involving Poe, and the performances mostly disguise that the screenplay falters throughout. I love a good murder mystery and found the twists at the end of this story fairly blasé. Even still, the journey was worthwhile.
Harry Melling as Poe has much to do with any success the movie enjoys. His face is perfect for the role, but he also brings a gloomy sweetness to the character that, for those who know Poe’s biography, can verge on foreboding without ever going too far. For sure, Melling’s Poe has his odd moments, but he comes across as a quirky romantic, especially opposite Christian Bale, whose morose face betrays a darker past than Poe would have experienced yet. Robert Duvall plays a supporting role, as does Gillian Anderson in a surprisingly weak performance for her. For a cold January night, The Pale Blue Eye is serviceable, but aside from Melling’s performance, it is a forgettable feature.
The Pale Blue Eye was written and directed by Scott Cooper. It runs 128 minutes and is rated R.
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