Film Review of the Week


Armageddon Time (15)

Review: Childhood and adolescence frequently leave the deepest scars – largely invisible to the eye but reminders nonetheless of traumas and triumph that shaped our awkward, messy transitions to adulthood. Filmmakers mine these turbulent formative years as source material for (semi)autobiographical coming-of-age stories that capture the human condition in its full glory. Thanks to artistic self-reflection, we can witness the death of a parent in a Swedish provincial town at the turn of the 20th century (Fanny And Alexander by Ingmar Bergman), heroism and self-sacrifice in 1940s France under German occupation (Au Revoir Les Enfants by Louis Malle), fracturing friendships after high school graduation in 1960s California (American Graffiti by George Lucas), or skinhead culture in 1980s Nottingham (This Is England by Shane Meadows).

In Armageddon Time, writer-director James Gray rifles through his childhood in 1980s Queens, New York, to explore complex family and racial dynamics against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s bid to wrest the keys to the White House from incumbent president Jimmy Carter. Pointed references to the education of Donald Trump at Kew-Forest private school – the future president is absent from Gray’s picture but his father Fred (John Diehl) and sister Maryanne (Jessica Chastain) lecture students – underlines the rhetoric of Reagan’s campaign that would prove a divisive but winning formula for the Republican Party 36 years later.

Anchored by an engaging central performance from 14-year-old rising star Banks Repeta as Gray’s on-screen alter ego, this snapshot of middle-class angst and the loss of childhood innocence feels overly familiar and allows its piercing lens to mist up with nostalgia. Jewish-American 11-year-old Paul Graff (Repeta) attends Public School 173 in 1980 New York where sixth grade dreams of Nasa and space rockets are a distraction from the teachings of ill-tempered Mr Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk).

Consequently, Paul becomes a target for humiliation in class alongside African-American student Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who is repeating the year. The boys become friends but prejudices repeatedly test their bond and Paul’s parents Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway) elect to send him to Kew-Forest instead, where older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) is making his mark. The threat of change sends Paul into an emotional tail-spin but his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) has the right words to console and soothe.

Armageddon Time stylishly evokes an era of bigotry and abuse, pulling few punches (or cracks of a leather belt) when it comes to depicting Irving’s heavy-handed approach to disciplining his boys. Repeta catalyses winning on-screen partnerships with Webb and Hopkins, the latter retaining a British accent thanks to his character’s Liverpudlian roots. Pacing is pedestrian but Gray unearths moments of beauty in the mundane that emphasise the universality of this boy’s life.

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Confess, Fletch (15)

Review: Over 30 years have passed since Chevy Chase memorably portrayed Irwin Fletcher, lead character in Gregory Mcdonald’s award-winning mystery novels, in the rip-snorting comedy Fletch and its sequel Fletch Lives. The franchise is indeed alive and well thanks to Jon Hamm, who elegantly slips into the loafers of the eponymous investigative reporter in a fizzing crime caper adapted from the second book in the series by director Greg Mottola and Zev Borow. Opening with the dapper Mad Men star zooming around Rome on a cherry red Vespa, Confess, Fletch doesn’t cram as many gags into 95 minutes as its slapstick-heavy predecessors but Mottola’s picture lands the zinging one-liners and a central whodunnit has plentiful twists to keep audiences sleuthing until the satisfying reveal.

An appealing goofy Hamm exercises his comic chops with panache but frequently cedes the spotlight to co-stars, including Kyle MacLachlan gyrating manically to the metronomic beat of electronic dance music and Annie Mumolo preparing an unsanitary chicken dinner as her pet pooch Mignon urinates on the kitchen floor. Dialogue is peppered with bon mots (an embittered ex-wife describes her divorce as “a harmonious disuniting”) and Mottola maintains a brisk, breezy pace that doesn’t pause long enough to seriously scrutinise the plot or Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden’s outlandish cod-European accent.

Freelance journalist Fletch (Hamm) arrives in Boston from Rome at the behest of his recent bedfellow Angela de Grassi (Lorenza Izzo). Her father has been kidnapped by three thugs with guns and the ransom is the family’s stolen Picasso painting worth around 20 million dollars, which is reportedly in the possession of germophobic art dealer Ronald Horan (MacLachlan). Unfortunately, Fletch’s base of operations in Boston, a rented townhouse belonging to Owen Tasserly (John Behlmann), contains a murdered woman. Prime suspect Fletch assures investigating officers Sergeant Monroe (Roy Wood Jr) and rookie detective Griz (Ayden Mayeri) he is above suspicion – “Writing for in-flight magazines is as unsavoury as it gets” – but they tail him as Fletch gathers evidence to unmask the killer.

Haphazard enquiries lead to Owen’s ex-wife Tatiana (Lucy Punch), pothead neighbour Eve (Mumolo) and Fletch’s foul-mouthed former boss, Frank Jaffe (John Slattery), who is now editor of the Boston Sentinel. “If you did murder that girl, do the right thing… and give me the exclusive,” growls Frank. Meanwhile, Fletch turns on the roguish charm to curry favour with Angela’s half-Brazilian half-Italian half-French stepmother, the Countess (Harden).

Confess, Fletch is a gently effervescent tonic that skips between the murder and ransom plots with the same carefree attitude as its leading man. Hamm exudes an old-fashioned playfulness reminiscent of Cary Grant that is difficult to resist and the script gifts him a full arsenal of bone-dry wisecracks. I freely confess, I thoroughly enjoyed Mottola’s film.

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The Menu (15)

Review: The lofty pretentions of modern cuisine, which might reinvent the humble chip as a triple-cooked golden baton of Maris Piper dusted with nine-times roasted Korean bamboo salt, are gleefully skewered in a treacle-black satire concocted by screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. Morally corrupt and repugnant characters choke on just desserts, garnished with stomach-churning horror, as director Mark Mylod assembles a mouth-watering ensemble including Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult for a feast of lip-smacking cruelty. The price of entry to the banquet of barbarity is four figures per head, promoting one shocked patron to snort: “What are we eating, a Rolex?”

No, the flavour profile of The Menu is salty and sour, served with bloodthirsty theatrical flourishes that confirm it won’t just be organic, grass-fed livestock slaughtered as the centrepiece of one meticulously tweezered course. The opening hour, before Fiennes’ epicurean ringmaster raises a silver-plated cloche and reveals the film’s twisted intentions, are the most delectable, gliding between conversations of unsuspecting diners as a regimented team of chefs makes pithy social commentary with a provocative bread plate. Reiss and Tracy’s script is deliciously acidic in ambiguous early exchanges, feeding our curiosity to the brink of gluttony. Once the filmmakers disclose the recipe of their ghoulish main course, incredulity begins to bubble over until the only ingredient left in the larder is a chunk of full-blown absurdity.

Superstar chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes) is a rock star of molecular gastronomy. Up to 12 patrons per sitting each pay $1,250 for an immersive, theatrical experience at his exclusive island restaurant Hawthorne, which is accessed via private ferry. The immaculately presented menu is savoured at a leisurely four hours and 25 minutes – overseen by clinical hostess Elsa (Hong Chau) – using fresh, seasonal fare including succulent scallops caught close to the shore and a dizzying array of reductions, foams, purees and emulsions.

Tonight’s patrons include waspish food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein), married couple Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), egotistical film star Mr Diaz (John Leguizamo) and his personal assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), a trio of unapologetically capitalist bros (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, Mark St Cyr), and effusive foodie Tyler (Hoult) and his last-minute date Margot (Taylor-Joy). Following an artful amuse bouche, Slowik tenderises his customers’ preconceptions and the heady aroma of violence hangs in the air.

Bookmarked by prosaic descriptions of each course, The Menu leaves an appealingly bitter taste in the mouth as Mylod marinades fatally flawed characters in guilt and dishonesty. Fiennes’ cool, crisp delivery is beguiling, convincing us to swallow some of the script’s outlandish components in direct opposition to the logic of Taylor-Joy’s straight-talking interloper. Take it all with a pinch of that Korean bamboo salt.

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