I’m Not Entirely Sure What to Say About ‘The Whale,’ But I’ll Do My Best

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Profanity Borne of Anger and Frustration

Release Date: December 9, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: Charlie (Brendan Fraser) spends all of his days sitting on his couch, teaching an online English class and ordering delivery. Hardly anyone ever sees him, including his students, as he keeps his laptop camera disabled. He tells them it’s broken, but really, he just doesn’t want to have to deal with their reactions to the fact that he weighs 600 pounds. This may just be the last week of his life, as he’s enduring congestive heart failure and refusing to go to a hospital. So instead he’s looked after by his no-nonsense friend Liz (Hong Chau), who’s also a nurse. They’re occasionally interrupted by door-to-door missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who becomes obsessed with counseling Charlie through what he believes is the impending apocalypse. And in the meantime, Charlie also does his damnedest to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, the disaffected and manipulative Ellie (Sadie Sink).

What Made an Impression?: I’m really not quite sure how to react to The Whale. And I’m not even talking about the controversy that tends to always surround fat suit prosthetics. As far as I can tell, the physical demands of playing someone this big actually demand an actor who’s fit and hardy. So if you are going to make a movie with a character who weighs as much as Charlie, the only way to do it is with someone who doesn’t weigh anywhere near as much as he does. This is all to say: I certainly get the criticism around this sort of casting, but I also understand why it was made the way it was made.

But that doesn’t mean I understand everything about this movie. It’s based on a play by the film’s screenwriter, Samuel D. Hunter, and that theatrical pedigree is present every which way. The action is limited to one location, and the emotion is delivered all the way to Pluto. That overwrought style can be fine, you just have to convince the audience to buy into it. And on that point of whether or not I’m convinced? I’m confounded.

Charlie is a supremely frustrating character. He likes to see the good in everybody, especially Ellie, who he insists is just wonderful, despite pretty much all evidence to the contrary. Part of that is just what a long-absent dad would typically say when trying to reconnect to his kid. But at a certain point, you think he ought to admit that she’s not exactly what we call friendly. To anybody. At all. He does value honesty above just about everything else, though, even when it’s brutal. But to that point, we viewers might want him to confront the brutality in his own life, particularly the loss of a boyfriend that led to his reclusiveness and disordered eating. Fraser undoubtedly gives it all, as he wrings just about every note he can out of what he’s asked to do. But while I recognized the ambition, I was also left ultimately responding, “Well, gee… Hmm.”

The Whale is Recommended If You Like: Distorted optimism

Grade: 3 out of 5 Moby Dicks

Plenty to Chow Down On in ‘The Menu’

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You show me your Menu, I’ll show you mine (CREDIT: Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, John Leguizamo, Reed Birney, Paul Adelstein, Aimee Carrero, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Rob Yang

Director: Mark Mylod

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Deadly Threats That Demand to Be Taken Seriously

Release Date: November 18, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: Would you pay upwards of $1000 for a seat at the most exclusive molecular gastronomy restaurant in the world? I certainly wouldn’t! Although maybe I would think about it if somebody else were paying for me, though I might still look askance at the whole affair. In that way I’m very much like Margot, Anya Taylor-Joy’s character in The Menu, as she finds herself whisked along by her pompous foodie boyfriend Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to a remote island dedicated to the culinary craftsmanship of Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). He’s assembled an exacting series of courses and a very particular lineup of guests for the evening. This is his last hurrah, and that’s very bad news for his customers, if you catch my drift…

What Made an Impression?: I gotta be honest: I thought this movie was going to be about cannibals. And that very much made me want to go see it! But there are in fact zero cannibals in The Menu, at least not literally. Nevertheless, I still had a good time. So that should tell you something. When a film simultaneously fully defies and satisfies expectations, you know we’re in business. Director Mark Mylod delivers the fun and games by meticulously altering reality just so. You might find yourself screaming, “There’s no way this could possibly happen!” Yet in the same breath, you’ll gladly concede, “But I’m grateful for this fantastical catharsis.”

A big reason for that is because Taylor-Joy is so preternaturally easy to root for. The brand of seared-black satirical humor on display here requires characters who obviously deserve their comeuppance. Most of the cast fits that bill with aplomb, but Margot on the other hand is an unassuming interloper. It’s nice to have a peep of light piercing through the darkness. Otherwise, you’d have to wallow in the stink of the wisecrackers, which can be entertaining, but also somewhat exhausting. With a surrogate like Margot, however, you can safely smile as everything burns.

The Menu is Recommended If You Like: Eating the rich

Grade: 4 out of 5 Courses

This Is a Movie Review: Miniaturization is Only the Start of ‘Downsizing’s’ Quest to Save the Human Species

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe

Director: Alexander Payne

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Scientific Full-Frontal Nudity

Release Date: December 22, 2017

How do you live in such a way that ensures both the health of the planet and yourself? That’s really what Downsizing is asking. Its light sci-fi innovation about shrinking people is just a quirky way to get in there and explore this big conundrum. No single piece of entertainment is going to answer that question to everyone’s satisfaction, but Downsizing at least knows how to grab our attention, and Alexander Payne’s take is interesting enough in getting us to where he wants to go.

Fair warning, if it is not clear already, that Downsizing is not exactly the movie advertised in its trailer. Its whimsical tale of the land of the miniatures is present, but it is ultimately just an entry point to smuggle a thornier story into. After all, there is only so far you can go with the visual humor of size differential juxtaposition. There are a few bits wringing laughs out of giant (i.e., regular-sized) crackers or Jason Sudeikis sitting on a cutting board and drinking from a tiny wine glass, but those moments are there to just add quick bursts of establishing color. In fact, most of the shots in the miniature world do not feature any contrast to the normal-sized surroundings.

The miniaturization process has been invented to reduce the strain that humans have been putting on the environment, which makes clear sense: if you’re only 5 or 6 inches, you consume many fewer resources than if you’re 5 or 6 feet. And from a personal standpoint, it’s a no-brainer as well, as the exchange rate is tremendous, multiplying the real spending value of your money by about a hundredfold. So Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), bored by his office job and feeling glum at home, signs right up. But his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) pulls out of the procedure at the last minute, portending that everything may not be as rosy as promised.

Downsizing is primarily interested in digging into the questions raised by this near future world. The practical and scientific matters (like, do babies born to downsized adults grow up to be similarly small adults?) are not explained too thoroughly, but those matters are not ignored; you kind of have to roll with the film a bit and accept that those things have already been settled. Instead, the focus is on the knottier philosophical questions and the unexpected implications of downsizing. Why has this scientific breakthrough happened while people with chronic diseases still suffer? Should downsized people have the same rights as the natively-sized? Will governments use involuntary downsizing to tamp down undesirable segments of their populations?

The answer to that last question turns out to be a resounding yes, and we see its fallout in the form of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, giving the most forcefully charming performance of the year), a Vietnamese dissident who has been downsized against her will and then smuggled into America in a TV box. As we and Paul are introduced to her life, Downsizing makes it clear that it believes that humans are wired to always separate themselves into separate classes, no matter what utopian urges drive us. As she and Paul become entwined, the underlying, most burning question of this film becomes clear: is it better to specifically attempt to save the entire species, or to focus on being a good person in your own particular space? The resolution that Payne offers is a little pat, but not dishonest. Miniaturized or not, utopian or practical, whatever your station in life, no matter how weird things get, you have to give yourself the room to be a good person.

Downsizing is Recommended If You Like: Being John Malkovich, Captain Fantastic, Robot & Frank

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Utopias