The Whale is emotionally manipulative in its presentation of a shut-in who has become morbidly obese, an effective tearjerker but less profound than Aronofky’s previous work. Charlie is presented sympathetically, using impressive prosthetics and shot predominantly in soft light that delivers an often beautiful appearance despite the comparative squalor in which he lives. Swelling music makes every movement feel like a heroic effort though the camera seems largely impassive even as Charlie gorges himself inside the single-location set that reveals The Whale’s roots as a stage play. It has been heralded as a return for Brendan Fraser but, although his sensitive portrayal of Charlie — augmented by audience knowledge of Fraser’s fallout with Hollywood — may be the lead, the straightforward blend of kindess, shame and regret is less interesting than the supporting characters who surround him. Hong Chau is particularly compelling as Charlie’s friend and nurse, tied to him by a tragedy but frustrated at his refusal to get help and left hollow by the knowledge of his likely demise. The script bears a clear grudge with religion though it is less well-developed aside from a distinction between saving someone and preaching salvation (“I don’t think I believe anyone can save anybody”). Repeated references to Moby Dick cast Charlie as both Ahab and the whale, chasing his own destruction. Sadie Sink’s most high profile performance following Stranger Things is impressive as Charlie’s estranged daughter, seeming at first mercurial and capricious until we perceive pain and purpose, her defiance competing with curiosity about her father. Yet, a late in life attempt at redemption and reconcilliation with a daughter is something Aronofsky presented with greater subtlety in The Wrestler.
Mark Mylod’s gastronomic satirical thriller skewers the “foodie” world with relish, pairing a deconstruction of the participants with a zesty assault on how it serves to drain the joy of food that should sit at its heart. A handful of diners have been invited to an exclusive tasting menu at Chef Slowik’s remote island restaurant. The wild card, and audience perspective, is Margot — a last minute substitution by Tyler when dumped by his girlfriend. Anya Taylor-Joy’s expressiveness is perfect for Margot’s utter disdain for the theatrics taken so seriously by the guests — she is the only one to realise they are being insulted, and confident enough to refuse to play Slowik’s game. Meanwhile the verisimilitude of the meticulously constructed food and minimalist decor creates a distorted space within which it feels the film could frequently veer in any direction. The Menu presents the world as split into servers and consumers, though it satirises both sides of the divide: Slowik’s self-obsession is no better than the diners’, albeit more purposeful, holding his staff in cult-like sway. The film’s cruelty, however, is reserved predominantly for the wealthy, its wider critique being the blight of capitalism and its widening inequality. The food critics engaged in competitive intellectual snobbery may also make a certain type of film critic squirm uncomfortably. At its best The Menu is deliciously unexpected and, although it runs a little too long in reaching “an ending that ties everything together conceptually”, the final course is a satisfying conclusion to a most unpredictable meal.
“He never struck me as the kind of guy who’d go get small. Wow!”
Alexander Payne’s social satire takes a fascinating concept — shrinking part of the human population to reduce environmental impact — but fails to explore it in any real depth as he prefers to follow his usual brand of mid-life crisis tale against that tantalising backdrop. There is a biting cynicism toward a brand of faux-environmentalism in which people only engage when it offers other benefits to their lifestyle or economic situation. In “downsized” communities, minimal wealth earned outside translates to luxury living which is the real draw for most residents. Though peppered with interesting ideas, Downsizing‘s ultimate message seems to be that we ought to care for the people around us now rather than engaging in high-minded attempts to save the species. For that to be the only real take-away feels like a wasted opportunity.