A still from "The Grab" (2022)
Nearly a decade after her devastating SeaWorld documentary “Blackfish,” about the captivity of killer whales, writer-director Gabriela Cowperthwaite outdoes herself with an eye-opening investigation into global food insecurity. More so than “Blackfish,” “The Grab” is much trickier to digest and dives deeper in its subject matter. Multiple documentaries could be made from the sheer volume of information presented. To crystalize focus, Cowperthwaite echoes a statement uttered decades ago by Alfred Henry Lewis – “there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” The world is essentially nine meals away from chaos. Food is not only a human right that people will fight to protect, it also wields power that governments exploit. At the core of the documentary’s narrative is how countries grab food and water resources for themselves, leaving arable pieces of land (and the people that populate them) in the dust. Damning facts are gathered, but at what point is the line drawn to present findings to an audience? Cowperthwaite passes the threshold and gives emotional urgency to an alarming ongoing crisis. While messages become swamped in non-linear storytelling, the power of “The Grab” as a thrilling investigative documentary is unmistakable.
“The Grab” initially follows a project spearheaded by investigate journalist Nathan Halverson of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). After a multi-billion dollar Chinese takeover of an American company (Smithfield Foods) to control their pork supply, Nate’s questioning of the acquisition of pigs leads him to discover the Chinese government was behind the deal. Nate then falls down a rabbit hole of re-emerging patterns in other countries. A Saudi Arabian company buys massive land in the Arizona desert; Arizona residents are left with severe water shortage. The morally compromised founder of Blackwater (“the ugliest face of American power”) grabs land in Africa; residents in Zambia are forced out of their homes. An American cowboy is recruited to Russia to work at a farm; he’s in an environment that was once far too cold for green crops and cattle. These unearthed revelations speak to dots connected by various threads, from stealing another country’s resources to profiting off the ramifications of climate change. It’s not long before Nate finds himself at a crossroads of how best to proceed with a sea of information rising like dangerous waves, about to come crashing to shore.
Nate contacts fellow journalists Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman, so that the three can work together in bringing truths to life in a way that demands action. When they reach the trove, the “eureka” of the investigation, the documentary reaches its climax. Thousands of emails and documents leaked to Nate reveal Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s involvement in the raiding of African land for its food supply. Rather than focus solely on the leak, Cowperthwaite charges toward all the new threads that multiply from this revelation. She frames Prince’s emails as a playbook to show how people actually go about food inequity and raid resources that aren’t theirs. Cowperthwaite takes on such vast material that “The Grab” feels never-ending in its global interconnectedness. Like a Russian doll, a new layer is waiting to be unearthed.
Numerous floating heads speak to how far the subject reaches, from the war in Ukraine, and silent donations from royals, to the draining of American pensions for land investments. Cowperthwaite does a fine job exploring how a single inquiry can spark a trove of information at a journalist’s fingertips. By jumping so frequently from one subject to the next, she starts losing focus on how to share all these threads in a coherent way. She introduces some interesting techniques – the occasional use of visual tools makes it easier to see the connections mapped out. As well, a simulation with government officials recreates what conversations could happen if two countries go to war over food and water supply. These underused techniques are a welcome change to how information is presented.
Cowperthwaite finds an engaging subject in Nathan Halverson, whose persistence maintains urgency. His collaborative efforts with Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman raise the curtain on what’s been happening in the shadows of food inequity. The documentary is paced like a thriller. Each new reveal of information elicits suspense and keeps you on edge, wondering how many more layers there are to the story. From an enormous subject, Cowperthwaite manages to narrow down key figures and their involvement in the grab. This shines a much-needed light on who is responsible, and what kinds of patterns have emerged from various countries’ dwindling resources.
Where “The Grab” succeeds the most is not only considering the political and national urgency of food insecurity, but the human urgency as well. Parts of the documentary shows you the heartless way human beings are treated. Caught in the middle of the scramble to control food are people on the ground whose resources for their livelihood are stolen. People who lack the power and control to make decisions about their own lives are hit hardest. In the face of injustice, it’s heartwarming to see the documentary identify good-hearted individuals – such as Zambian human rights lawyer Brigadier “Brig” Siachitema – fighting for the people. Cowperthwaite’s storytelling has a global reach that grabs you from the start, and maintains palpable urgency throughout a sea of information. “The Grab” may be challenging to grasp at times, but when the stakes are alarmingly high, the passion to tell as much story as possible is understandable.
Mélanie Bray, Keris Hope Hill, Alex Trahan, and Constance Bernard in "ROSIE" (2022)
Among a festival populated by big names and high profile titles, Canadian films feel more and more like hidden gems. Watching a film made so close to home, especially one as vibrant and energetic as Gail Maurice’s “ROSIE,” is a heartwarming sensation. In her feature debut, the Métis writer-director tells a bilingual story of chosen families set in 1980s Montreal. Home is defined not by places, but by people. People such as Frédèrique (Mélanie Bray), a Francophone street-smart artist on the cusp of being evicted, who finds beauty in trash and turns it into hard-to-sell paintings. When met with a young Indigenous girl named Rosie (Keris Hope Hill), the daughter of Frédèrique’s deceased sister, Frédèrique (known more commonly as Fred) reluctantly becomes the girl’s guardian. With support from friends Flo (Constant Bernard) and Mo (Alex Trahan), the group steers through the responsibilities of being present for Rosie. There’s no rulebook on how best to go about this, a sentiment the film reflects vividly. “ROSIE” is at its best during moments of spontaneity, when the story feels fluid and unpredictable. But the majority of characters are overwritten and stilted, creating a challenge to connect with the film’s openheartedness beyond a surface level. While consisting of resonating themes and a quirky energy with colorful 80s influence, Maurice’s sweet slice-of-life plays it safe as a standard coming-of-age drama/comedy.
Adapted from Maurice’s 2018 short film of the same name, “ROSIE” balances focus between the perspectives of Fred and Rosie as their lives intersect on the fringes of Montreal. Fred is initially against the idea of taking care of Rosie – without a stable foundation to provide for herself, let alone a child, the child services agent assigned to the case is met with fervent reluctance. But when the agent explains that Rosie would otherwise be placed back into foster care, this sparks Fred’s interest in protecting Rosie from a broken system. Through conversations between Fred and social services, the film makes resonating reference to experiences of The Sixties Scoop – a period in which Canadian policies permitted Indigenous children to be “scooped” from their homes, placed into foster care, and adopted by white families. Fred’s impassioned dialogue – talking of children being ripped from their parents and placed into empty homes with empty souls – strongly conveys the character’s motivation. Fred is still a picture of conflict – a scene of her leaving Rosie at a park with a stranger is a striking example of her reluctance. But over the course of the film, Rosie’s influence on Fred’s life blossoms, opening up the possibility of togetherness as a family unit.
“ROSIE” is framed around the titular character’s impact on the lives of others, which is both joyous and bittersweet in equal measure. Keris Hope Hill’s performance as Rosie brings an adorable, vibrant energy to the film. Her character also acts as a reminder of the many children whose identities were lost during the Sixties Scoop period and beyond. Identity and alienation are prominent themes in the film that are strongly expressed through the characters. An English-speaking Rosie adapting in a French-speaking community, and meeting a Cree man (Brandon Oakes) with whom she forms a bond, further shows how the filmmaker expresses the power of identity through this character. Rosie’s connection with the Cree man in particular stands out, showing her regain her Indigenous identity piece by piece. Telling the story with a child’s perspective in mind gives the film a sense of wonder, innocence, and openness. Maurice’s screenplay brings an unfiltered approach to the characters and story, without strong judgment. But in the attempted balance between Rosie’s perspective and Fred’s, there is a missed opportunity in getting to know more about the titular character herself, beyond how she is viewed in relation to other people in the film.
While “ROSIE” is a mostly sweet experience to take in, the screenplay often plays it safe with the storytelling. Given the subject matter and themes at play, not digging deeper leaves a lot to be desired. Maurice relies heavily on surface-level character traits to provide backstories. As a consequence, the film explores characters from a distance. The actors bring enough presence to make up for gaps, though some of the performances feel stilted in moments of heightened drama. Among the adult cast, Mélanie Bray shines brightest as Fred. She brings a rebellious spark to this character and makes Fred’s predicament feel utterly believable. Bray’s lived-in work reaches impressive moments in the scenes of Fred engaging with social services. Constance Bernard and Alex Trahan give fine performances, but both are let down by writing that half-engages in their backstories without delving much into who these characters are.
While the character development is lacking, “ROSIE” does a sweet job in creating a community-driven energy throughout that warms your heart. The colorful cinematography and 1980s setting make you feel part of this world, as though you’re walking along the streets with the characters and being welcomed into their chosen family. It is not hard to miss Maurice’s love and affection for telling this story, bringing a fresh perspective to the screen. Themes of family and rebellion, identity and resilience, are handled superficially at times. Despite a surface-level approach, this film has a big heart and remains to be a delight to watch.
Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Menu" (2022)
“Yes, Chef” are reverberating words in the culinary world. The phrase is a form of reassurance between a kitchen team and their leader, to ensure every single staff is on the same page of meal execution up until the moment a dish is served. Perfect execution takes precision. The process is painstaking, at times even frightful as stress levels soar in pressure cooker environments. The pressure for a meal to become more than “just food” haunts Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in Mark Mylod’s wickedly entertaining thriller “The Menu.” At the esteemed Chef’s restaurant Hawthorne, a sleek and mysterious-looking structure located on a remote island, the heat is on to craft a culinary experience that will shock and awe for one special evening. As a group of wealthy guests arrive for the lavish meal, among them young couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), you get a first taste of intrigue about who has a dinner invite and why. Slowik’s right-hand woman Elsa (Hong Chau) greets each guest with meticulous composure and an amusing bluntness. As she gives them a tour of the premises, anticipation gnaws for what the staff at Hawthorne have cooked up for the soon-to-be recipients of a meal truly like no other. “The Menu” is not just an appetizer, it’s a wholly satisfying meal you’ll want to savor every twisted last bite of.
Mark Mylod turns the phrase “Yes, Chef!” into a frenzied chant. It echoes with an obligation to fulfill Slowik’s obsessive desire for conceptual fine dining. The menu is more than the food. Hawthorne stands to give guests an unforgettable meal not to “eat” but to savor, relish, digest, with pleasure. That is the principle Slowik swears by. He not only executes experiential meal concepts for each course, but takes into consideration the people he and his staff are serving. He knows each and every one of the guests invited to this fancy dinner. All except for one, whose presence puts a wrench in an otherwise carefully planned full-course meal. The most astonishing ingredient of Mylod’s storytelling is how the film visually feels like a lavish menu come to life. Each course gets a vivid title card, complete with delicious food close-ups and frequently amusing menu item descriptions that play on developing plot points in the story. The technical precision, from lavish cinematography and production design, to exquisite art direction and set decoration, would be up to par with Slowik’s finely tuned expectations of perfection if he had a say.
Like any truly good and memorable dish, taste is just one element. The emotions mixed into the preparation of a dish play a strong role in how any given person experiences it. How much is enough to truly satisfy your guests in the food service industry? What will it take to reach the glow of fulfilling everyone’s taste buds? “The Menu” is a heightened play on ultimate satisfaction with the kitchen on the receiving end. By turning customer satisfaction on its head, screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy push the idea of a fine dining experience to horror-fueled extremes. Chef Slowik’s deranged approach to culinary arts keeps the story fresh and unpredictable. The concept is fully realized and alive, swirling in a fun balance of thrills and chills. With a consistent tone that leans into dark comedy, the laughs come and go in equal measure.
The film also satisfies with one of the year’s best ensembles, featuring Ralph Fiennes in the most entertaining role of the bunch. His commanding screen presence is an ideal fit for Chef Slowik’s uncompromising and intense nature. In keeping with the film’s dark humor, Fiennes’ comedic abilities shine bright through the character’s scorching one-liners, which singlehandedly cut through the nonsense of his wealthy customers’ problems. Anya Taylor-Joy can now add “The Menu” to her repertoire of horror-fueled storytelling with another compelling performance. She too has a commanding presence that gives her character a mysterious edge. Taylor-Joy and Fiennes together are a match made in culinary hell. Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, and Janet McTeer shine among a stacked supporting cast, but the biggest standout here is Hong Chau. From the moment Chau appears on screen as Elsa, she captivates your attention. You want to follow this character, study her every move and concealed expression in the hopes of raising the curtain on Hawthorne. Her deadpan delivery is a pleasure to watch.
“The Menu” is made with a love for satisfying storytelling. Impassioned direction, a tremendous cast, and great technical prowess are the garnish sprinkled over layered themes at the core. One of the more fascinating layers is the underlying sense of community among kitchen staff, whether current or former. That Chef Slowik is able to recognize people who have worked in the service industry having never met them previously, is a welcome nod to kinship. There is a mutual understanding in knowing what the inside of a pressure cooker environment looks and feels like when the expectation is to satisfy everyone. The film plays on that kinship in the final act, where the dynamics shift particularly between two central characters on a gratifying level. Much of “The Menu” explores gratification, whether from the perspective of appreciation or obsession. Slowik’s guiding principles of eating food – savor, relish, digest – are easy to follow in a film that gives you plenty of bite to do just that. Bon appétit.
A still from "Butcher's Crossing" (2022)
Between truffle hunting with a foraging pig in Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig” and buffalo hunting in Gabe Polsky’s “Butcher’s Crossing,” Nicolas Cage is building onto his repertoire of stories about human greed at the expense of an animal. Giving a compelling performance with a hint of feverish madness, his latest role in Polsky’s brutal environmental Western has him play notes of obsession in the 1870s Colorado wild. His character, Miller, is a hunter hell bent on the slaughter of as many buffalo as humanly possible. His insane ambition attracts bright eyed Harvard dropout Will Andrews (played by Fred Hechinger), eager to join the hunt after leaving city life behind in pursuit of a new experience. Will is the “outsider” of this Western story. He enters into frame with a fire in his eyes, not hungry for anything in particular except what he hasn’t yet seen. Miller holds the key to a new world, and the meeting of these two characters is what sets “Butcher’s Crossing” on its bleak course. The journey is slow-moving, and doesn’t arrive to a place of fully fleshed characters by its conclusion. The performances do just enough to tug the story along, Cage in particular a solemn and fierce presence. Polsky reaches some fine peaks with a thematically resonating view, but ultimately “Butcher’s Crossing” takes a far too simplistic approach to the psychologically layered source material.
Adapted from John Williams’ 1960 novel of the same name, “Butcher’s Crossing” is framed around the protagonist Will, a preacher’s son from immense wealth who decides to finance Miller’s hunt out of sheer naiveté. Much to the annoyance of an entrepreneur in town (played with gusto by Paul Raci, a treat to see in a new film following “Sound of Metal”), Will gives Miller the golden ticket of a lifetime: a fully funded hunter expedition. Along with a mountain man and a buffalo skinner (played by Xander Berkeley and Jeremy Robb), the group sets off on a nightmarish trail. Co-written by Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy, the screenplay finds strength in juxtaposing the protagonist with Miller, because the character of Will in this film is far too much of a void to carry the story alone. Through no real fault of Hechinger, doing his best at portraying the character’s shift from naiveté to insight, he is at the hands of a screenplay that feels unfinished. For a film about a protagonist in search of who he is, it really is a wonder who this character is, as very little time is spent getting to know him in the first place. In retrospect, the narrative themes touched upon are far more interesting to think about than the key players in this story.
Capitalism consumes Will and Miller; one through economic contribution, and the other through obsessive ambition no matter the cost. The writing builds on that strength by exploring a growing distance between the two characters through their evident relationships to nature. Intended to be a three-week buffalo hunt, the expedition becomes a rough ride through changing seasons. The longer Miller is surrounded by earth’s elements, the deeper into madness he falls. Whereas the time Will spends surrounded by nature, whether taking in the sights of a forest or staring a buffalo in the eye out of reverence, crystalizes a newly found insight into what he cares about. While still very much a mystery who Will is on this journey, witnessing the destruction of a species first-hand reveals who he isn’t. In the face of all the horror mankind is capable of, particularly the heartless superiority shown over animals, nature holds breathtaking power in its untouched serenity.
Considering the lost time getting to know the characters, it is a challenge to find an unwavering connection to “Butcher’s Crossing” when the film so intently centers its action around the men’s shared experience in the wild. Polsky draws out the journey with flickers of characters’ fever dreams, suggesting a madness brewing but not paying enough attention to the power of a good buildup. What does help craft suspense is a thunderous score by Leo Birenberg, evoking the feeling of a dangerous sweeping epic when it kicks in. The performances help bridge a connection as well, namely Cage who embodies his role as the intimidating Miller. While not in the top tier of his most recent one-two punch, “Pig” and “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” the actor’s unique presence works its magic in the West. His magnetism plays a key role in luring Hechinger’s character down a path of destructive consumption and the toxic fight for survival. The supporting cast turn in fine work, even though most of the characters feel surface level. The same sentiment can be extended to the film itself, a merely fine accomplishment that fails to dig deeper beneath intriguing themes.