Tuesday, December 6, 2022

“The Menu,” Featuring Dishes Best Served Cold

After the lights came up, I went out and ate a cheeseburger, savoring every last bite. Those who’ve seen The Menu will, I’m sure, understand the implications. Let’s just say that The Menu is about fine dining, taken to a degree that’s absurd, even grotesque. It’s a film that will not be to everyone’s taste, but connoisseurs will find it strange, funny, and horrible. Which is why, on a recent evening, the prime screening at my local multiplex was completely sold out. In an era when many film lovers would rather stay home and watch Netflix, The Menu fills the bill for highly original entertainment.

 We all love to eat, and some of us love to cook. Which is why many filmmakers have produced works that focus on the cooking and eating of a meal. One of the earliest I remember is the poignant Babette’s Feast (1987), in which a 19th century French refugee thanks the Danish villagers who’ve taken her in by way of a spectacular dinner. It took me a while to discover the Japanese Tampopo (1985)  which approaches the preparation and consumption of food in an affectionate but absurdist light. Director Ang Lee, early in his career, made a 1994 Taiwanese film, Eat Drink Man Woman, in which a veteran chef and his three daughters play out the challenges of their daily lives by way of their weekly Sunday meals Food-making substitutes for love in Mexico’s 1992 Like Water for Chocolate, based on an acclaimed novel. There are many more examples, but I’ll stop with Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996), about the emotion that goes into the opening of a family-owned restaurant.

 In most of these movies, the cooking and serving of food becomes a way of showing love. Which makes The Menu a film with a difference. If revenge is a dish best served cold, the chill here is palpable, but there’s some flaming emotion as well. Not that this is obvious from the get-go, when a group of 12 beautiful people board a launch that will take them to a tiny island for the meal of a lifetime. Their host is fabled chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who introduces each exquisite dish in loving detail, but also rules his open kitchen like a drill sergeant. Some of the offerings are perversely humorous, like the bread plate that consists solely of tiny dabs of oils and sauces, with no bread in sight. Other courses . . .  well, it wouldn’t be fair to say.

 Part of what animates The Menu, aside from a desire to tell a helluva good story, is a disdain for the absurdities of today’s fine dining scene, in which small numbers of diners pay exorbitant sums to feast on the rare and the exotic. Some of the targets of the film’s very dark jokes are snobbish restaurant critics, roistering investment bros, burned-out Hollywood celebrities (John Leguizamo at his slimiest), elitist big-spenders, and foodies who live for moments of gustatory bliss. Chef Slowik clearly resents all those who have elevated his culinary reputation by luring him away from simple food, lovingly cooked. In the role, Ralph Fiennes is a marvel as both genius and madman, capable of both utter coldness and surprising warmth. His opposite number is the restaurant’s one unexpected guest, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Her unusual saucer-eyed beauty seems to make her well-suited to parts in eerie projects like The Witch, Last Night in Soho, and TV’s The Queen’s Gambit. In The Menu she plays a gal who’s more than she seems, and her role here is, well, a whopper.

 

 

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Saturday, December 3, 2022

No Weeping for the Return of “Willow”

 Disney+ is kicking off the holiday season with Willow, a new series, based on an old movie. Back in 1988 (which I’m tempted to refer to as “olden times”), George Lucas persuaded a new young director named Ron Howard to  make a fantasy film with a little person at its core. Lucas had, while directing Return of the Jedi, been impressed by tiny WarwickDavis, a three-foot-four-inch bundle of energy who played Wicket the Ewok, among other roles. It was Lucas’s idea to star someone like Davis in a period adventure saga.

 But since Lucas was a shy man who lacked an easy rapport with actors, he  had gradually moved into the producer’s role. Howard at that time was still fairly new to movie-making on a grand scale: his Splash(1984) and Cocoon (195) had been mainstream hits, but Willow’s $50 million budget and sizable special effects demands gave him pause. Still, he was eager to work with the tech wizards at Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Moreover, he reasoned that his five-year-old daughter Bryce and his toddler twins (not to mention the little boy on the way) would soon be the perfect age to appreciate big-screen fantasy.

 Despite Lucas’s enthusiasm, Warwick Davis was not a shoo-in for the leading role of Willow Ufgood, who is forced by circumstance to journey far from his home among the Nelwyns, a race of little people under four feet tall. A farmer who dreams of becoming a magician, Willow suddenly finds himself entrusted with a full-sized (or “Dakini”) baby. This baby is none other than Elora Danan, whose survival spells doom for the evil Dakini queen, Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). In the course of his travels to return the infant princess to her rightful home, Willow encounters all manner of unlikely creatures: vicious deathdogs, frightening trolls, beautiful fairies, a sorceress trapped in the body of a rodent, and pugnacious brownies nine inches high who make the three-foot four-inch Willow seem like a giant. There are battles and breathless escapes aplenty before Willow uses his budding magic skills, along with his native wit, to defeat Bavmorda and restore the forces of good.

 When I spoke to Warwick Davis for my Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, he told me he was somewhat daunted by the demands of the title role. Despite all his experience on Star Wars films, here he would be without a mask and a creature suit, and the range of his emotions within the film would be huge. Howard too was worried about Davis’s suitability, because he was a mere seventeen years old. Not only did the part of Willow call for him to interact with a baby, but his character was supposed to be a loving husband and the father of two young children. Once he won the role, Davis, who had never before lifted a baby, was put through an informal training course on how to care for an infant, diaper-changing and all. Howard also arranged lessons in diction, horsemanship., and sleight-of-hand.

 Happily, Disney’s new series returns Davis to the title role. Now a 52-year-old with a long filmography to his credit, he occupies a world in which baby Elora Danan has become a grown woman and a queen, but still relies on Willow’s talents to help her fight off evil.. Long ago I wrote that the original film “is an uneasy blend of life-or-death adventure, heartfelt sentiment, golly-gee wizardry, and comic riffs.” Still, it found many young fans on video, and the well-regarded new series should bring in more.

 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Man Wanted -- "The Postman Always Rings Twice "

 James M. Cain can be viewed as God’s gift to American film noir. His fictional works The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941) were all adapted into major studio hits, and  he had his hand in many other Hollywood projects, like the classic Out of the Past. I admit I have not read Cain’s fiction (though I’m awaiting a library volume to help make up the gap in my pop culture education). So I’ll have to judge Cain by the films made from his prose.

 Women in Cain’s world are very beautiful, very smart, and very powerful.  As Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford shows the tough-minded business savvy of a single mom who rises on the social ladder by founding a chain of popular restaurants. In Double Indemnity (1944), Barbara Stanwyck is the classic femme fatale, romancing Fred MacMurray as a convenient way to get rid of her wealthy but unwanted husband. (Billy Wilder, who both directed and collaborated on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, felt that this was his very best film, and treasured the fact that Cain praised his adaptation.) The Postman Always Rings Twice, filmed in 1946, also contains a wow of a female role. Once again, murder is afoot, but the twists and turns of this story keep the audience guessing.

 In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck makes one of the all-time great movie entrances, gliding down the staircase of a high-class home. The blonde pageboy hair-do, the scanty clothing, the sexy anklet . . . all spell trouble with a capital T. Tay Garnett’s film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice gives us another version of that same entrance. This time it’s Lana Turner at the foot of the stairs leading from the living quarters down into her husband’s luncheonette. She’s clad all in pristine white: white turban, white shorts, white midriff-baring top. No  wonder the handsome drifter played by John Garfield looks gobsmacked. When he hands her the dropped lipstick tube that’s rolled across the floor and ended up at his feet, we know what’s coming . . . or we think we do.

 What makes Postman so fascinating is that the characters keep changing their minds about what they really want. As Cora, Turner first makes it her business to rebuff her husband’s new hire, harshly telling him to leave town. Her main goal, she insists, is fixing up the lunchroom, and Frank’s salary will only deprive her and husband Nick of needed income. But the amiable Nick, who loves his liquor and trusts his wife, insists that Frank stay on. (Nick, at midpoint, lovingly serenades Cora with a 1931 tune that captures his naïve view of the situation: “I’ve got a woman crazy ‘bout me--she’s funny that way.”) 

 Of course the inevitable comes to pass. There’s an elaborate plot by the lovers to rid themselves  of Nick, but a meddling cat changes everything. From that point forward, nothing ever works out as planned.  Even when Nick is finally gone for good, some clever legal shenanigans have Cora and Frank at one another’s throat. The ending is bleak for all concerned, though in a strange way connected with the story’s unusual title, Frank comes to feel at peace with the fact that he’s only getting what he deserves.

 I noted, at the outset, that the sign that lures Frank into the luncheonette reads Man Wanted. In both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, this come-hither call should be construed as a warning. The sirens are singing, and there’s danger ahead.


 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Robert Clary: A REAL Hogan’s Hero

Last week Robert Clary died at the ripe old age of 96. As we celebrate a holiday dedicated to thankfulness and brimming with nostalgia for times gone by, it seems appropriate to salute this pixie-ish Parisian who was so much more than his acting career.

 I was first aware of Robert Clary because of his role on an improbable hit sitcom (1965-1971) called Hogan’s Heroes, which was one of my father’s favorites. The series, which seemed to tickle those who had served in the U.S. military during World War II, was set in a POW camp behind the German lines. Bob Crane, as the American Colonel Hogan, led a ragtag group of international prisoners (a Brit, a Frenchman, a Black American, a hillbilly) who took delight in sabotaging the German war effort. It was a bit like Billy Wilder’s great Stalag 17 (1953), but in a much more light-hearted vein, with no one coming anywhere close to dying. On a weekly basis, the “heroes” pit themselves against the fuss-budget  German camp commander, Col. Klink, and his doofus sidekick, Sgt. Schultz, and hilarity ensues.

 Personally, I always found the success of Hogan’s Heroes disturbing. Knowing something about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis upon Jews and others, I was not ready to laugh at them as essentially harmless dummkopfs. (Others, I know, have felt the same way about Mel Brooks’ treatment of Hitler enthusiasts in The Producers. Brooks makes a good case, though, in describing his comic skewering of Nazis as a form of victory over oppressors who’ve gone down in flames.) 

 Years after Hogan’s Heroes went off the air, I was surprised to learn that Clary—the series’ feisty, beret-wearing LeBeau—was in fact Jewish. Moreover, he had first-hand knowledge of Nazi atrocities during World War II. Clary, then known as Robert Max Widerman, was born in Paris to an emigré couple from Poland, the youngest of 14 children. When he was 16, the family was forced by the Nazis from their cramped but picturesque apartment and herded into cattle cars, bound for death camps. Though his parents were quickly murdered in Auschwitz and most of his siblings also perished, Clary used his musical comedy talents to gain favor and improved rations. On April 11, 1945 he was one of those liberated by General George S. Patton’s Third Army from Buchenwald. Eventually his theatrical skills brought him to the Broadway stage (via the New Faces of 1952 review) and then to television.

 Clary was not the only Jewish member of the Hogan’s Heroes cast. Ironically, the series’ two main Nazis were played by Jews who had fled Europe when the Nazis came to power. Werner Klemperer, who won two Emmys for playing Col. Klink, was the son of world-famous orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. The family left Berlin for Los Angeles, one step ahead ot the Nazis, when Werner was 13. John Banner, who hilariously played the obtuse Sgt. Schultz, was a Viennese Jew who left Nazi-occupied Austria for the U.S. in 1938. I’ve never run across their comments about the comic bad-guy roles they played to perfection. Clary never spoke of his background either, until in 1980 he recognized that—in the face of Holocaust denial by many—he had a moral obligation to speak out. Working through L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, he became a frequent speaker at high schools and colleges. In 1985 there was the release of a documentary Robert Clary, 85714: the title reflected the number tattooed by the Nazis on his arm.

 Despite his past, Clary was never one to look back in anger. All hail!