Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 29, 2020 6:50 am 
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A tasty meltdown, slowly savored

"Nose to Tail Is a fascinating portrait of toxic masculinity," notes Now Toronto. Writing of the film, now newly available online in the US, Stephen Farber in his Hollywood Reporter review supplies that "One of the hottest fantasy jobs for millennials is to become a high-end chef, and a number of movies have expressed that fantasy, with actors like Jon Favreau (Chef), Bradley Cooper (Burnt) and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart (No Reservations) portraying temperamental cooks." This Canadian version features Aaron Abrams (Hannibal, Blindspot) as Daniel, the chef of a fancy Toronto restaurant in trouble, and Salvatore Antonio as Steven, his beleaguered sommelier. Both received awards or nominations for their thespian efforts. The film additionally highlights Lara Jean Chorostecki (also of Hannibal) as Chloe, Daniel's uncomfortable maître d' and sometime bedmate, who stands up to his sexual harassment and general boorishness, but remains loyal to the restaurant. Good people play lesser roles in a movie whose unique strength is that that it maintains one powerful note of disfunction continually to the end.

Daniel, the chef, is in arrears in every area. Back debts are numerous. Suppliers and landlord (Robert B. Kennedy) alike are not taking promises anymore and want cash up front pronto. Tonight Mark (Ennis Esmer), a special VIP customer, is coming, an old classmate now a wealthy financier who if he's pleased, may invest significant money and pull the restaurant out of the hole. But much is going wrong today, bad news Daniel only makes worse by his extreme abrasiveness. Daniel's French ex-wife (Carolina Bartczak) comes by and tells him she's going back to live in Paris with their young son to be with family. Early in the day he self-destructively kicks out his talented and charismatic second in command, Keith (Brandon McKnight), whom he's trained for years, when he's angry to discover from a food blogger (Lauren Collins) that Keith is moving to a new job as chef of another restaurant and will be paid a lavish salary by a wealthy corporation. Daniel is forced reluctantly to follow Chloe's advice and replace Keith with the next in line, Angela (Genevieve Kang), whose disciplined but obsequious constant "Yes, Chefs" annoy him. (But what doesn't?)

A high pressure restaurant kitchen is a place that pushes easily into extremes - of exhaustion, tension, indulgence. Daniel is quaffing coffee, smoking, drinking, and popping pills from when he first wakes up - and most dangerously, indulging in that most dangerous and intoxicating stimulant, rage. He is, moment to moment, clearly an asshole. But maybe he is very good at what he does. Maybe he'd have to be to get away even for a minute with behaving this way. And somehow - this is the beauty of this high-pitched but carefully modulated film - he pushes the edge from minute to minute without the walls crashing down on him. There a teasing pleasure in watching this balancing act constantly performed.

Tensions go up a notch an hour into this eighty-minute film as dinnertime approaches and the restaurant goes into action. Daniel releases his menu, with its rigorous simplicity and mystery, and Chloe writes it large on a blackboard. In his severe personal instructions to the servers, Daniel strictly forbids them to embellish its minimal details with any further explanations for inquisitive diners. These customers come in, the restaurant is soon full, and dinner begins.

But what a shock that amid all the bad news, not only is Mark seated upstairs with his party in a private room, but prominently downstairs ordering the full seven-course dégustation menu, is the infamous food blogger who has infuriated Daniel by reporting bad things about him. Daniel goes over for some intense verbal sparring with this young lady. For hours a big gourmet food truck has been parked across the street with a line of customers, symbolizing younger generations of foodies, different ways of enjoying fine cuisine, and there are voices, echoed by Beth (the food blogger) , that say Daniel has been passed by and no longer has "buzz." He ferociously rebukes her for using this word. But when she compares him to the dinosaurs, he, for once, is left speechless. Beth is a tough cookie. Her resilience again defers meltdown. But what next?

This film works in part because the harsh flavors of the combative dialogue are mellowed out and pulled together by the butter sauce of a surprising, yet successful, warm, energetic musical score, which calms us down with a firm hand. Abrams, as Daniel, who stirs his simmering temper tantrums with a steady hand, is consistently believable, steering a delicate but fim line between desperation and mad courage. The meltdown is kept at bay. The annoying blogger, who's quoted other chefs saying he's lost his "buzz," and who shows up that over-packed night, seems a kind of snobbish upstart and devotee of faux trendiness who adds to Daniel's credibility and our faith in him. We ordinary diners don't buy trendiness as the desideratum in good food.

What's further unique here is that this is a rigorously unsympathetic protagonist without any redeeming features - except the single one - that he doesn't deserve to go down in flames. Moreover, somehow the whole setting and situation, though heightened theatrically with every disaster focused into a single day, seems authentic. The kitchen staff action, the food preparation glimpsed, feel and look like those of a top restaurant. If it's one whose chef is terrifying and dangerous, that's hardly unusual. Readers of Kitchen Confidential will even find this a slightly sanitized environment - except for tension so thick, it makes you want to throw up. Aaron Abrams' performance is bracing without ever seeming strained. There are intense, distinctive flavors, but nothing over-seasoned or overcooked - until everything goes stale.

Bon appetit!

Nose to Tail, 82 mins., debuted at the Whistler Film Festival (British Columbia) Nov. 30, 2018, then Feb. 2, 2019 at Santa Barbara (reviewed there in Hollywood Reporter by Stephen Farber) and played in 11 mostly food film festivals in late 2019, winning a number of nominations and awards, with subsequent Canadian theatrical and internet releases Feb. 14 and Apr. 28 2020, respectively. It is scheduled for US internet release July. 29, 2020. At 1091 Pictures.

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