Tina: Remembering The Acid Queen

Over Christmas last year, Tina Turner’s last ever concert was on TV. I sat there watching, mesmerised. Recorded in 2009, there was Tina Turner running up and down the stage, in high heels. There was a finale where she stood on this moving arm platform that hovered over the crowd, which Tina ran up and down, in high heels. Aside from running around the stage like a 30 year old in her prime, in high heels, there was that voice.

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Raw, energetic and powerful, it was Tina Turner as great as she ever was. She was on stage and performed music from her entire career. Going back to those early Ike & Tina days to her more recent Queen of Rock ‘n Roll years. When it comes to live performances, Tina’s final gig in 2009 was one of the greatest I’d ever seen. The fact that Tina was 69 and just shy of her 70th birthday, made that concert even more amazing. She was bounding about the stage and belting out her songs with the voice and energy that someone a third of her age would struggle to maintain.

This morning, I woke up to the sad news that Tina Turner had passed away, aged 83.

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I can’t be 100% of the first time I ever heard Tina sing. I think it could’ve been River Deep – Mountain High. A truly fantastic song with that wonderful orchestra. String, wind and percussion instruments all building and delivering a powerful tune, only to be blown away by Tina’s stunning vocals. I was raised by my Mother with classic soul and proper R ‘n B music as a cornerstone of my childhood. Nan and Grandad would often come over for Sunday dinner and on Sunday mornings, that was when Mom would get me and my brothers cleaning the house. While we vacuumed and dusted, Mom would play her old records. The sounds of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner would engulf our ears.

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Tina was a major part of the soundtrack of my childhood and it wasn’t until I grew older when I learned how much she had struggled in her life. Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, young Anna loved to sing. In 1957, she met Ike Turner and eventually became the lead singer in his band, Kings of Rhythm and they had some early, but mild, success. By the early 1960s Anna Mae Bullock became known as Tina after Ike decided to give her a new name and the Kings of Rhythm became the backing group for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. In 1962, Ike and Tina married. Through the 60s and 70s, they became quite a draw as they performed live gigs and appeared on numerous TV shows. Tina’s raspy and raw singing voice was unlike anything else at the time and she soon became the star and main draw of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

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In July of 1976, Ike & Tina were lined up to perform a gig at the Dallas Statler Hilton Hotel. While in a chauffeur-driven car and en route to the hotel, Ike severely beat Tina (one of a great many beatings that she had suffered over the years) during an argument between the couple. After checking into the hotel and after Ike had fallen asleep, Tina walked out. She made her way across a busy multi-lane freeway and checked into the Ramada Inn hotel, with nothing more than 36 cents to her name. Still bloodied and bruised from the beating that Ike had just given her, the manager of the hotel agreed to help and hide Tina away, in case Ike came looking.

By the end of July 1976, just a few weeks after Tina walked, she filed for divorce, which was finalised in 1978. During the court case of that divorce, Tina retained the songwriting royalties for songs that she had written and she got to keep a few assets such as cars and jewellery. The main thing that she wanted and fought so hard to keep during the divorce, over money, royalties and assets, was her stage name. She may have been born Anna Mae Bullock (though her real, real name was actually Martha Nell Bullock), but she was known as Tina Turner. Ike gave her that name, it was his idea to call her Tina in those early days, because it rhymed with Sheena and Ike was a fan of the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle comics. When they married, Tina took on his surname too. Tina Turner (the name) was all Ike’s doing, but the talent was all hers. In fact, Ike even trademarked the Tina Turner name, just in case she ever left the band and so he could just replace her with another singer and call her Tina Turner, if needed. Still, Tina got what she fought so hard for, her name.

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What followed was a bit of a struggle. Now without Ike and as a solo artist, Tina began to forge her solo career… but it wasn’t easy. She may have had the name, but she no longer had Ike. And despite all of his (pretty huge) faults, Ike was still a respected and very well-known musician. In the late 70s, Tina Turner soon found herself in debt due to lawsuits regarding cancelled Ike & Tina concerts. Both Ike and Tina began to struggle as the money dried up. Ike, who had a bit of a drug use problem at the time, just kept falling deeper and deeper into debt. Tina? She hit the road and toured, released new music and just kept working to pay her way out of debt. She was working, but her solo album sales were not exactly stellar and her tours were small gigs and cabaret shows.

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Tina Turner was not only trying to pay off her debts, she was also supporting her and Ike’s children, because Ike wasn’t. At the time, her music was seen as passé, outdated. Her third solo album, Rough, from 1978 was a mix of blues and disco, with just a touch of rock. It also featured a cover of Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back, Tina began to experiment with rock ‘n roll music, but still with just a bit of disco to seem relevant.

Rock music was something that Tina wanted to explore and in 1981, she was the support act for Rolling Stones’ American Tour. Still, her music wasn’t exactly setting the charts alight and she was becoming known as a ‘nostalgia act’, a celebration of a bygone era of music that was dying fast as she went from a headlining act in the 70s to a support act and cabaret singer in the early 80s. Nobody had any interest in producing Tina’s music, she was middle-aged by 1980, 44 years old in 1983 and very much seen as a has-been within the industry.

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After a lot of arguing with music producers, disappointments and a cover version of  Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, Tina Turner released the album Private Dancer in 1983. The Queen of Rock ‘n Roll was born. An album with a very distinct change in style. A few 80s power ballads and the song that would help make her one of the best-selling and most popular musical artists of the decade, What’s Love Got to Do with It, her first no.1 song. Interestingly, this was a cover version as the original had been recorded by Bucks Fizz and Tina Turner hated it. She didn’t even want to record it herself.

The Private Dancer album proved her critics wrong, there was still life in this middle-aged, black woman who came from a musical background that was dead at the time. Tina recreated herself and became a global superstar. A far cry from the Ike & Tina days. Her live concerts were extraordinary, her music is timeless and the world is now a bit darker, a bit less sassy and a lot less Tina Turner.

Tina Turner was almost 70 years old here in 2009 and she was still paying tribute to her roots, still making an audience of several thousand eat out of her hand and still putting musical artists a third of her age to shame.

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Long live the Acid Queen.

The Bloody-Crazy (And Bloody & Crazy) Story Of Roar

I love learning about behind-the-scenes of how films are made, I’m a real sponge when it comes to ‘making of’ stories. I want to know who came up with that line or who created that character. Whose idea was it to make the film in the first place and what inspired them. All of that kind of guff. When it comes to behind-the-scenes stories of filmmaking, I don’t think anything comes close to the making of Roar.

Released in 1981, Roar tells the story of a naturalist called Hank living on a nature preserve in Tanzania, Africa. On said preserve are several big cats, lions, tigers and such. Those big cats get a little rough when a committee arrives to review Hank’s grant to keep his nature preserve going. When Hank’s family arrive, the big cats soon become a very dangerous problem.

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Basically, Roar is about a load of wild and very dangerous animals going, well… wild and becoming very dangerous. It is a film that could be seen as being made to jump on the coattails of the likes of Jaws, a good old-fashioned ‘when wild animals attack’ kind of thing. Still, even though this film was released after the success of Jaws, the idea for Roar came about before both the film or the novel of Jaws even existed. Oh man, what a story this is too.

The concept for Roar was the brainchild of married Hollywood couple, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren. Tippi was shooting Satan’s Harvest in Mozambique in 1969 and during a break in filming, she was taken on a tour of the area. While on the tour, Tippi saw an abandoned house in the Gorongosa National Park, which had been overrun by several big cats. As Tippi Hedren said when talking to Parade magazine in 2015:

“It was an amazing thing to see. The lions were sitting in the windows, they were going in and out of the doors, they were sitting on the verandas, they were on the top of the Portuguese house and they were in the front of the house. It was such a unique thing to see and we thought, for a movie, let us use the great cats as our stars.”

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Tippi was told how the lions were becoming endangered due to poachers. After the tour had finished, she talked to her husband, Noel Marshall about the possibility of making one or more films where big cats would be the star. Noel was an agent, movie producer and one-time screenwriter actor and director. May as well mention this bit here. The one and only time that Noel was a screenwriter actor and director was on this film, Roar.

Anyway, the idea to make a big cat film was shared with Noel’s sons, Joel, John, and Jerry Marshall and Tippi’s daughter Melanie Griffith (yes, that Melanie Griffith), Tippi’s child from her previous marriage to Peter Griffith. Everyone thought it was a great idea and wanted to be a part of the film themselves. With the family onboard, the research into how just to make a film with wild big cats began.

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Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren visited several lion and tiger handlers, they toured various wild animal preserves and asked a lot of questions while making many, many notes. The idea was to shoot the film in Africa but Noel was told that would be next to impossible because tame big cats were very rare there. So, they would have to shoot most of the film in the United States as it had many more tamed and trained animals to work with. Though several establishing shots were filmed in Kenya.

With some research under their belts, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren began developing the film in early 1970 with an estimated shooting schedule of six months and a $3 million budget. During the spring of 1970, Noel wrote the first draft of the script, which was simply called Lions. Another draft saw the title changed to Lions, Lions and More Lions (I think he added some more lions). While the film was going to be a drama about anti-poaching and feature a serious message regarding the preservation of wildlife in Africa, just as Tippi wanted, it would have a few comedic elements too. Some of the script was written to follow a very strict direction for the big cats, there were still elements of the script left open for the animals to be more ‘natural’ and do their own thing. Even the opening of the film states the following:

“Since the choice was made to use untrained animals and since for the most part they chose to do as they wished, it’s only fair they share the writing and directing credits.”

Yup, the animals were given a writing and directing credit on the film. Now, that bit up there does say that the animals were ‘untrained’, that’s not strictly true. Under the very sensible suggestion of one of the animal trainers, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren obtained several young cubs and even some older cats that they had gathered from zoos and circuses, and they raised them at their home in Sherman Oaks, California for a few years. This was done so that the cats would grow up and be used to being around humans and the humans around them. They may not have been ‘trained’ to perform, but they were still raised to be used to working with humans. However, having the animals brought about the first major issue with the making of Roar.

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See, the script originally called for the use of around 40 to 50 big cats and having that many animals around your house could prove to be a bit of a problem. There was another issue, keeping big cats as (basically) pets was illegal, even for major Hollywood stars. In 1972, authorities learned that Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren had been keeping the animals and they were ordered to remove the big cats from their home. How many of the cats they had at their home at the time is not known, but it was said to be a couple of dozen at least. Anyway, Noel and Tippi purchased some land in Soledad Canyon, California and had a specially designed house built for the big cats. It was a specially reinforced multi-storey structure inspired by African architecture. That specially designed and built house eventually grew.

The entire area was transformed from a piece of open land, to a closed and fenced-off 2,000 square foot home for the animals. There was a man-made lake, African plants and foliage, a mini-film studio, an editing suite, an animal hospital, a huge freezer to hold all the meat to feed the big cats and more. It was essentially its own big cat preserve complete with a full staff. The whole thing was built using non-union workers as Noel and Tippi couldn’t afford union workers and were worried that they may have been breaking rules, so wanted to avoid any possible legalities. Bearing in mind that this was still pre-production and the estimated budget of the film was $3 million.

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Long story short and the whole thing grew to become the Shambala Preserve, an actual animal sanctuary. Then in 1983, Tippi Hedren founded The Roar Foundation to keep it funded. Yup, it is still in operation today. But, I am getting way ahead of myself now, back to the making of Roar. Building that home for the big cats made the budget for the film swell. It grew from a $3 million budget to around $17 million, that’s over $70 million today. Plus, the initial six months planned for the film became several years. I mean, they did have to raise numerous big cats from cubs to adults, pay a full staff to care for the animals and the day-to-day running of the Shambala Preserve and so on.

Because the animals had changed from the original idea of just having lions, to now having various big cats, the script was rewritten. Noel Marshall even got an elephant from the Okanagan Game Preserve. As the script was adapted to fit in a wider variety of animals, the title of the film became Roar. By 1976, Noel and Tippi had amassed (deep breath)  71 lions, 26 tigers, 10 cougars, 9 black panthers, 4 leopards, 2 jaguars, and 1 tigon (tiger-lion hybrid). (Another deep breath) 7 flamingos, 6 black swans, 4 Canadian geese, 4 cranes, 2 peacocks, 2 elephants and 1 marabou stork. All of the animals were housed and cared for at their specially built Shambala Preserve. They picked up a few more big cats (why not?) and ended up with around 150 in total. That’s 150 big cats, not 150 animals.

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Still, to get to this point, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren had to sacrifice a hell of a lot. They sold their homes and any land they owned. Noel’s production company went bankrupt. They sold personal possessions and so on. Any and everything was sold off just so they could keep the animals alive and cared for and keep making the film. Speaking to The Montreal Gazette in 1977, Noel Marshall said:

“You get into anything slowly. We have been on this project now for 5 years. Everything we own, everything we have achieved, is tied up in it. Today we’re 55% complete. We’re at a point where we just have to do it.”

Now, initial filming began in October of 1976 and was planned to last just six months. However, due to the African trees and plants turning brown and losing their leaves, filming could not begin again until the next year. Even then, they could only film a handful of months at a time and when the plants were fully bloomed. Then there were other production issues, of which I will cover soon. So, that six months of filming became spread out over several months and over several years. Including pick-up shots after the main shooting, Roar took a total of 5 years to film. However, from the original idea, writing and re-writing the script, building and maintaining the Shambala Preserve, amassing the animals, raising and caring for the big cats and other animals, editing the film and so on. Roar took 11 years to make it to the screen.

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Now, Roar proudly claims that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. That’s not strictly true. 14 lions and tigers did die as a result of contracting airborne illnesses though. Not really anything to do with the filming per se, it was just one of those things. There’s another story that I’ll mention later of animal deaths. Still, while the film claims that no animals were harmed during filming (a lie), around 70 cast & crew were. Now we get into the real meat of the making of Roar, the many, many, many bloody accidents and injuries.

Even before filming started, John Marshall (Noel’s son) was the first to be attacked. A lion clamped down on his head and didn’t let go for around 25 minutes. John needed 56 stitches and returned to work on the film soon after. It has been said that 48 people were injured in the first 2 years of filming and at least 70 were injured by the time filming had been finished. However, In an interview with the XFINITY movie blog in 2015, John said about the number of injuries that:

“Tippi disputes the number. I believe that number is inaccurate, I believe it’s over 100.”

Now, I’m not going to cover all 70 (or over 100) injuries, but I will offer up some ‘highlights’… if you can call them that. Just as an aside, many of the animal attacks that did occur were filmed and used in the final cut of Roar. No humans died making the film, but very few make-up effects were needed because a lot of the blood in the film was real blood from real maulings and attacks.

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Noel Marshall, playing the Hank character, took a great deal of big cat attacks. He had his hand bitten and doctors initially thought that Noel may have to have his hand amputated due to the damage. He suffered multiple punctures to his legs through numerous bites. Another attack left Noel with chest and face wounds. Eventually, he was diagnosed with blood poisoning, hospitalised and even contracted gangrene. It took several years for Noel Marshall to fully recover from his many, many injuries. And yet, like everyone else on the film, whenever he was injured and after some medical attention, he’d just keep on going as the cameras rolled.

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Tippi Hedren had her head bitten by a lioness when doing a promo shoot, not even while working on the film itself. The teeth of the lioness were said to have scrapped along Tippi’s skull. After a hospital visit, several stitches and a tetanus shot, Tippi was back on the film. Later, an elephant called Tembo, fractured Tippi’s ankle by picking her up with its trunk. That injury caused Tippi to have an inflammation of the vein (phlebitis) and later contracted gangrene. That same elephant bucked its trainer off its back, the trainer hit a tree and broke her shoulder. Tippi Hedren had several more injuries including being bitten on her chest by a cougar and having her arm clawed by a leopard.

Melanie Griffith (who originally dropped out of filming but later changed her mind) received one of the worst injuries of the entire production. She was severely mauled by a lioness and sustained many serious injuries. Her face needed around 50 stitches and at one point, it was thought that Melanie could lose an eye. After some facial reconstructive surgery (and lots of recovery time), she returned to the film.

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Cinematographer Jan de Bont was scalped by a lioness while filming, by the same lioness who attacked Tippi Hedren during the promo shoot. A hospital visit and 220 stitches later, Jan came back to finish the film. Jan de Bont was in a hole dug into the ground and he was operating a camera to get a shot of the family running away from some attacking lions. The shot was to be filmed so that the humans and lions would run over Jan’s head as he was hiding and filming in the hole in the ground. John Marshall remembered the incident when talking to thedailybeast.com in 2017:

“Jan’s [injury] happened very quickly – and he deserved it. We’d had a specially made football helmet that we’d cut out so he could operate [the camera]. And he goes, ‘I don’t need any fucking helmet!’ All the lionesses came and jumped over him, and he’s an amazing cinematographer and doesn’t want to miss a shot, so when he has an empty frame he pans over to catch the family in the boat. Well, the lioness that jumped over him went, what was that? She bit at ‘it’ [De Bont’s head] – thus, the 200 stitches. Literally, his scalp was hanging in front [of his face] and we just threw it back to get him to the hospital.”

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Assistant director Doron Kauper had one of the lions bite his throat open and also left him with scalp, chest and leg injuries. The attack was first reported as being ‘near fatal’, but Doron Kauper was later reported as being conscious and stable after surgery. There were dozens and dozens of other big cat attacks, way too many to cover here. You could always check out the Tippi Hedren co-written book Cats of Shambala for many more details on the making of Roar.

The attacks got to a point where a lot of the crew walked off, worried about their own safety. Apparently, the turnover for crew members on the film was very high for the 5 years that it took to shoot it.

Still, one of the worst incidents to happen on the film didn’t even come from an animal attack. In order to create the man-made lake that was on the Shambala Preserve where the film was shot, workers dammed off the nearby Aliso Creek. In February of 1978, there was a massive rainstorm which caused damage to the dam, which eventually burst. The whole property was hit by a 10-foot flood and caused mass destruction.

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Parts of the completed film were destroyed, though the negative had already been sent to be edited. There was extensive damage to the specially built house. Several of the crew had to be saved from the flood. The water also destroyed cages and fences holding the animals. As a result, some of the panicked big cats escaped and had to be killed by the sheriff and local law enforcement. Three lions were shot dead, including the lead lion called Robbie, who was replaced with another lion for the rest of the shoot. So yeah, some animals were definitely harmed in the making of Roar. Maybe not by the filming directly, but most definitely due to the film being made.

The flood caused around $4 million in damage (still in 1970s money here). It took a year for the area to become usable again (one of the reasons this took 5 years to film). Filming equipment had to be replaced, the house/set was rebuilt, around 700 African trees and plants had to be replaced and more. All of which took around 8 months of work and a lot of money, ballooning the film’s budget. If there was ever a sign that this film should never have been made, this was it. However, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren had poured everything that they had into the project. They had to finish the film and see it released just so they could hope to make their money back, maybe a bit of profit too.

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Eventually, the film was completed and set for a mass release. However, there was another major setback. Roar was not released in North America, the film’s biggest market. Why Roar was not released seems to vary depending on who is asked. According to Tippi Hedren, the studio that was set to release the film wanted the ‘lion’s share’ of the profits. Something that Noel Marshall and Tippi refused to agree to as they wanted the money to go to helping the Shambala Preserve and care for all the animals. I would also assume that they wanted a good chunk of the profits too as they had spent $17 million (closer to $40 million today) making the film. There has also been stories that the reason that the film was not released in the US was due to the fact that Noel Marshall hired non-union workers.

So yeah, Roar was not even released in the US. It did see get into cinemas internationally though. Countries such as the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy, Japan and Australia did see the film released in cinemas, where it made a whopping $2 million, against a $17 million budget.

Roar was a gargantuan flop and in 1982, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren eventually separated and divorced, the pressure (and danger) of making the film and its haemorrhaging of money was one of the main reasons.

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It all worked out well for the animals though as (previously mentioned), Tippi Hedren founded the non-profit The Roar Foundation and the Shambala Preserve grew and grew. As of writing, Tippi is still very much alive, now aged 93 and is still an animal rights activist. Noel Marshall died in 2010 aged 79. Sadly, Noel never did see Roar released in the United States… because it eventually was. In 2015, Drafthouse Films purchased the rights to Roar and gave it a limited theatrical run in April 2015…

Tippi Hedren was asked to make comment of the film’s eventual American release, which she refused. It has been said that she refused to talk about the film due to how Drafthouse Films chose to promote it, with a bit of a ‘funny’ slant. See the trailer above. The lines of: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 members of the cast and crew were”, the way the actors (Tippi’s then-husband and daughter) are shown in the trailer or the false claim that Robbie the lion was unharmed, when he was shot dead due to the flood, etc. Apparently, Tippi felt Drafthouse Films were not taking the film seriously and using sensationalism to promote it. So, she refused to talk.

Roar is an absolutely crazy film and honestly, there’s a great deal I’ve not covered just to keep this article at a reasonable length. Read Tippi Hedren’s book Cats of Shambala for more details. There were so many more animal attacks and incidents that I’ve not mentioned. It really is amazing that no humans were killed. The animal attacks in the film are 100% real and whereas ‘normal’ films would use stunt doubles, specially trained animals and make-up effects to portray something like a lion attacking a human, Roar did none of that.

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The film showed real animals actually attacking Noel Marshall, Tippi Hedren and their children. There were no stunt doubles or protective clothing. Fake blood was not used as that was their real blood in the film. Roar is about as close to a real ‘snuff film’ that you will probably ever see. The story behind its making is absolutely bloody insane. Roar is one of the most distributing horror films made… and it’s not even a horror film. It was meant to be a family drama with a heartfelt message about animal activism.

Tom Cruise once broke his ankle doing his own stunts on Mission Impossible, did he? Ahhhhh, didums. Melanie Griffith had her face ripped open by a lioness and her family fought off around 150 big cats, while suffering and surviving multiple maulings, and still came back to finish the film. Tom Cruise is a pussy.

Movie Review: Tetris

I remember hearing a while back that a Tetris film was being made. I had visions of a The Emoji Movie thing, with the famed Tetris blocks being anthropomorphised and given ‘personalities’… really crap personalities. Voiced by second-rate celebrities and the film being a kid’s thing with loads of merchandise to sell that nobody wants.

What we got was something very, very different… thankfully.

I was already well-versed in the history of how Tetris came to be, I did a very abridged version for one of my books. The truth is that, the story behind Tetris is, quite honestly, really bloody fascinating and a far better basis for a film than a The Emoji Movie idea.

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Tetris (the movie) tells the story of the continual battle to secure the rights to publish Tetris (the game). Yup, it does sound rather bland but trust me, the story of how Tetris (the game) was published is far from bland. We follow Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a Dutch-born, raised in America and living in Japan, game designer and founder of Bullet-Proof Software, as he goes to hell and back to find the creator of Tetris and try to get a contract signed so that he can get exclusive publishing rights to the game. Set in 1988 and mainly in the Soviet Union. If you know anything about recent history and the whole dissolution of the Soviet Union, then you’ll know just how ‘cut off’ from the rest of the world that country was back then.

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Along the way, Henk has to deal with KGB agents, blackmailing billionaire tycoons and more. Multiple people all want in on this Tetris game and are willing to do almost anything to stop Henk Rogers from signing on the dotted line.

Tetris (the movie) is really well presented and intercut with 8-bit animations (though if I can be nit-picky for a second, they do feel more 16-bit) and audio that introduces characters and scenes. Robert Stein (Toby Jones) is one of the main obstacles that Rogers needs to get around. For those not in the know, Stein was the man who first ‘discovered’ Tetris while in Eastern Europe and struck up a deal with the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). But that deal was not quite what it seemed and when media magnate, Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) gets involved, things get very messy. That’s before we get into the Soviet Union government and everything else.

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In several ways, Tetris is the video game movie equivalent of Rocky IV. You’ve got your Cold War backdrop, USA vs Russia and all that. Just swap boxing for gaming and boxing gloves for a NES pad. There are a few clichés, some changes from the real story to make things more dramatic and such. But overall, Tetris is a very entertaining film. Most of the ‘action’ revolves around meetings, boardrooms, pieces of paper and a lot of business negotiations. There’s a touch of melodrama with Henk Rogers’ family life, an over-the-top car chase (that didn’t happen in the real story) in the last third of the film and several other exaggerations.

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Still, this is a film that does tell the rather interesting story of how Tetris (the game) became a worldwide phenomenon and all from such humble beginnings. Some great performances throughout, an awesome ’80s soundtrack and a snappy script make this 2-hour film fly by. This is certainly a far better film than the original idea for a Tetris film would’ve been.

I’d love to see more films and TV shows show the real stories behind how games were made. So much better than the kiddie films we keep getting based on video games. It’s a damn shame that the Masters of Doom TV show didn’t work out as that could’ve been amazing. If another one of these true stories of video games is ever made, may I suggest the making of Superman 64? Trust me, it’s a fantastic tale.

Movie Review (And Analysis): The Menu

I was feeling a little bored the other day and was looking for something to watch. Preferably something a bit light-hearted and amusing. There I was, just randomly scrolling through Disney+ and saw the thumbnail for The Menu. Now, before I do get into this, The Menu is definitely a film that you are better off going into as blind as possible. I had managed to avoid any and everything about this film, I hadn’t even seen a trailer. I’d even suggest not reading reviews, especially spoilery ones.

This review that I’m going to do here will be crammed with spoilers. However, I’m not getting into that just yet as I want to give you a rough idea of what the film is about before I really get into it. So, this is safe to read here and I will be offering a pre-warning before I do get to the spoilers. Look, I’d even suggest that you don’t click on the trailer that I am linking to right now.

Anyway, back to my build-up. I was just looking through Disney+ and saw the thumbnail for this film. I used to be a chef for over 25 years. I’m glad that I left the trade behind me as it was slowly killing me, but I still find myself drawn to shows and movies about it. So, feeling bored, I thought I’d watch a film about cooking and remind myself of the job that I learned to hate. As I said, I had no idea what the film was about and I didn’t even read the little synopsis that you get on Disney+ before pressing play, I just pressed play.

My first assumption of The Menu was that it was perhaps going to be a fictionalised drama of a Gordon Ramsay-type chef. World-famous, top-class food and a tale of a young boy growing to become a major player in the food business. In some ways, The Menu kind of is about that but it is also about something completely different. It’s okay, still no spoilers yet. I’m just going to do a brief synopsis of the flick before I do really delve into this (literally) course by course.

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So, The Menu tells the story of Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) an absolute master of his craft and chef known for creating some of the world’s greatest food and pushing the whole dining experience. He doesn’t just make food, he crafts theatre. Slowik has a very exclusive, very expensive restaurant called Hawthorn. The restaurant is on its very own private island and the only way to get to the restaurant is by boat and by very select invitation. Hawthorn is an exclusive restaurant for the rich and famous that only 1% of the 1% get to experience. After creating his latest menu, Chef Slowik invites a very select clientele to try his new creations. And that’s the basic, non-spoilery plot.

After I had finished watching The Menu, I was pretty much undecided. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to bother reviewing it. I didn’t dislike the film but I didn’t really enjoy it either. I was just very unsure. The film surprised me in a great many ways, but I could not honestly say that I outright liked it. Then, I just sat on my opinion for a few days and realised that the film just would not get out of my head as I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It must’ve had some kind of an impression on me, I just wasn’t sure what that impression was. I needed to re-watch it and form a better opinion. So I did. After the second watch and knowing the plot, I found myself spotting things that I had missed the first time around. After the credits rolled for the second time, I really appreciated what the film was, what it did and how well made it was. I really, really liked The Menu on subsequent viewings. It was far and away from what I was expecting and it really did hit me with some big surprises. That’s my spoiler-free review.

THE MENU SCREEN 2

And now, I do need to get into the SPOILER part of my review. From this point on, I will be giving away massive plot points and story details. If you have not yet seen the film and do want to be surprised, stop reading now. SPOILERS ahead as my lengthy course-by-course look at The Menu begins… [CLAP] now.


The film opens up with us being introduced to Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tyler is a dedicated foodie who has been lucky enough to get an invite from Chef Slowik to try out his new menu. He’s the kind of person who uses the word ‘mouth-feel’ as a descriptive. A bit of a prick, but he seems to know his stuff when it comes to gourmet food. The other invitees are famed food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein). Wealthy regulars to the restaurant, Richard (Reed Birney) and his wife Anne (Judith Light). Second-rate and struggling movie actor George (John Leguizamo) and his PA Felicity (Aimee Carrero). Then there is the trio of business partners Soren (Arturo Castro), Dave (Mark St. Cyr) and Bryce (Rob Yang).

When arriving at the island, the rather curt and direct maître d’hôtel, Elsa (Hong Chau) makes note that Margot was not originally invited. Tyler had someone else as his +1 but that didn’t work out, so he invited Margot instead. Following a short tour of the island, Elsa leads the guests to Hawthorn where they are sat at their designated tables and served the first course. Hawthorn has an open-plan kitchen and the guests are invited to watch the chefs work, but they are told to not take pictures of the food. This is when Tyler decides to talk to the sous-chef and throw a few ‘chefy words’ around to show off that the knows what he is talking about.

AMUSE BOUCHE

THE MENU SCREEN 3

The first course impresses everyone, everyone except Margot. She struggles to see what all the fuss is about. Tiny portions of poncy ingredients, severed to look like a piece of art on a plate and not food. This is where you get to know the other characters a little as snippets of their stories and personalities are drip feed to you. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Elsa tells Chef Slowik that Margot is not an original invitee.

AMUSE BOUCHE:
Compressed and pickled cucumber melon, milk snow, charred lace.

THE ISLAND

Chef Slowik introduces himself to his guests before this course is served. The pretension is laid on thick as he tells his guest not to eat, but to taste, savour and relish the food. Tyler embarrasses himself a tad by talking as Slowik is describing his food and feels bad about it too. But, he sneaks a few naughty photos of the dish anyway, showing disrespect to the rules.

THE ISLAND:
Raw diver scallop, pickled local seaweeds and algae.

BREADLESS BREAD PLATE

After giving a speech on bread and its history, Slowik introduces the next course, a breadless bread plate. Several flavoured ‘dips’ that you may have otherwise eaten with bread… but here without bread. Trust me, the pomp and pretentiousness have only just begun. The trio of business partners, Soren, Dave and Bryce ask Elsa for some bread to enjoy with their emulsion drips on the plate. Only to be met with a direct and plain ‘no’. The trio play the ‘do you know who we are’ card and say that they work with (for) a Mr Verrick, a massive business magnate with a lot of sway. Still, Elsa tells them ‘no’. It’s about here when something just feels ‘off’ about this film.

THE MENU SCREEN 4

Over at Tyler and Margot’s table, she’s still not ‘getting’ the food and has not eaten a thing. Tyler makes a fool of himself (again) by reaching over to grab Margot’s plate, knocking off and smashing a wine glass on the floor. Chef Slowik comes over and questions Margot on why she has not yet tried any of his food. She says that there is no ‘food’ to try. She seems the be the only one who sees through all the bullshit of the menu. This annoys Tyler and he claims that Margot is making him look like a fool (when he’s actually doing a perfectly good job of that himself). Slowik leaves the couple to argue as he turns his attention to an old woman, sitting alone drinking wine in the corner of the restaurant.

BREADLESS BREAD PLATE:
No bread, savoury accompaniments.

MEMORY

At Richard and his wife Anne’s table, Anne thinks that she recognises Margot from somewhere, but can’t quite place her. Two-bit and washed-up actor George and his PA Felicity are having a bit of a disagreement over the fact that Felicity wants to move on to bigger and better things. She doesn’t want to be stuck as a PA for an ageing actor who can’t find any decent roles, doesn’t care anymore and she feels that her career isn’t going anywhere.

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This course is a deconstructed high-end taco made with very special tortillas. As Chef Slowik explains, the tortillas have been branded using a laser, to give each one a unique print on them, specific to each guest. Slowik says the reason this one is called ‘Memory’ is because he used to have tacos on Tuesday, (Taco Tuesday). This is when he tells his guests that the old woman drinking wine on her own is his mother. Slowik then goes on the tell a story from his past about his abusive father and how he stabbed him in the thigh. Perhaps a rather strange anecdote to bring up during a $1,200+ per-head exclusive, multi-course dinner, but hey-ho. Slowik’s mother continues the get drunk on wine, on her own. Some of the guests question the point of Chef Slowik’s abusive father story, and it is quickly brushed off as ‘theatrics’ and part of the dining experience.

The meal is served and the guests notice the individually, laser-printed images on their tortillas. Food critic Lillian has pictures of several restaurants on hers, restaurants that she helped close down via her reviews. Married, elderly couple and regulars to the restaurant, Richard and Anne have various pictures of their life. Including one of Richard with another woman. Tyler has pictures of him taking pictures of the food that were taken just a few minutes earlier. Proof that he has broken one of Chef Slowik’s cardinal rules… and that these chefs work really damn fast. This, to coin a phrase, is where the plot thickens, as there seems to be an ulterior motive for these guests being invited. This is about much more than just tasting a new menu.

THE MENU SCREEN 6

If you need further suggestion that something sinister is going on. George has a poster for one of his big movie flops (Calling Doctor Sunshine) on his tortillas, a swift reminder that his a bit of a flake and phoney. Though George laughs it off as a personal joke between friends, saying that he and Slowik are buddies. The trio of business guys tortillas? Well, they have documents of proof that they have been embezzling money for Mr Verrick the business magnate. Calling Elsa over the explain what the tortillas are, she does just that in her own unique way. The trio (suspecting that some kind of blackmail is going on) claim that they will have the place closed down in the morning, flexing their ‘do you know who we are’ card once more. This does not phase Elsa one bit. The trio realise that they are safe though because if Chef Slowik tries to turn them in for embezzlement, he would be turning Mr Verrick in and well, Mr Verrick is the one who actually owns the island and the restaurant that Slowik runs. Ergo, if Mr Verrick goes down, so does Slowik.

Margot goes to the toilet, still not having eaten anything, where she is confronted by Slowik. Noting that he knows that she has not yet eaten anything, Slowik questions why. He also reveals that he knows that Margot was not an original invitee and questions just who she is and tells her that she shouldn’t be here.

MEMORY:
House-smoked Bresse chicken thigh al pastor, tortillas made with heirloom masa, green salsa cubes.

THE MESS

Chef Slowik introduces his sous-chef, Jeremy Louden (Adam Aalderks) as the creator of this next course. Bringing him out to the restaurant in full view of all the guests. Slowik goes on the tell his guests that Jeremy is a good chef… just not great and that he will never be as great as Slowik is. After a bit of, what seems like ‘berating with love’ from Slowik, Jeremy pulls out a gun, places it in his mouth and blows the back of his head out. Yup, a chef just committed suicide in full view of these very exclusive guests. Who are (mostly and rightfully) shocked. If the previous course did not clue you in that something strange was going on, then this course most definitely does.

THE MENU SCREEN 7

After the initial shock of seeing someone blow the back of their head out, Chef Slowik tells them that it is part of the ‘show’ and the guest begin to question if it is just more ‘theatrics’. The guests continue with their meal, except for Margot. Richard tells Anne that he has had enough and that they are leaving. Only, the staff won’t allow that and cut one of his fingers off… this is no ‘theatrics’ and this film about a menu is definitely taking a very bizarre and bloody twist. The realisation that this is real begins to set in and the other guests panic. Chef Slowik and his crew are quite insane.

Margot decides to go and confront Slowik in his kitchen. He reveals that everyone is going to die tonight. Everyone including himself and his crew. He also says that he needs to know what side Margot is on, the pompous guests or the (let’s be honest) psychotic chefs. She still has to die, it just depends on which side she chooses to die on and gives her just 15 minutes to decide who she will side with.

THE MESS:
Pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef jus, bone marrow. R.I.P. Jeremy Louden.

PALATE CLEANSER

George talks to the embezzling trio and suggests that they storm the kitchen and overpower Chef Slowik and his staff. Even though they are vastly outnumbered. Hey, it worked in one of his films. A little slice of evidence that perhaps George is not exactly in touch with the real world. George also reveals that he and Slowik aren’t friends at all, just bullshit from a desperate actor seeking attention and trying to stay relevant. While serving the palate cleanser of tea, Slowik asks his guests if they have any questions. The obvious one being ‘what the fuck is going on?’. Tyler asks if he can taste bergamot in the tea, seemingly oblivious to the violence and death that is going on around him and another excuse for him to show off his extensive food knowledge.

THE MENU SCREEN 8

Finally, someone asks ‘what the fuck is going on?’ and Slowik reveals his reasons for inviting the guests and why they all have to die. Food critic Lillian has to die because she ruined multiple livelihoods with her negative reviews that closed so many restaurants and her editor Ted, allowed it to happen. Regulars Richard and his wife Anne have to die because, even though they have been to the restaurant multiple times and have eaten Chef Slowik’s food, they have no idea what they’ve eaten and can not name a single dish that Slowik has ever cooked for them. They don’t care about the food, just the prestige of being invited to eat and such an exclusive restaurant. A massive insult to Slowik and his staff.

Slowik even admits that he is part of the problem for allowing the restaurant to be used by such shallow people as a means to further their own social status. That is when one of the business trio says that it is not his restaurant. The truth is that their boss, Mr Verrick owns the island and restaurant. Slowik admits that Mr Verrick ‘owns’ him, but only until very recently. Slowik reveals that he and his team have kidnapped Mr Verrick and then drowns him in the water around the island in full view of his guests.

THE MENU SCREEN 9

Time is up for Margot and Slowik asks to see her in his office so she can decide whose side she dies on. Slowik sees right through Margot and knows that she is not who she claims to be. He has noticed that she has been looking at Richard and that she knows who he is. Margot tells Slowik that she is actually an escort called Erin and that she has ‘serviced’ Richard in the past. Back in the restaurant, Slowik takes everyone outside.

PALATE CLEANSER:
Wild bergamot and clover tea.

MAN’S FOLLY

Now outside, Chef Slowik introduces another of his sous-chefs, Katherine (Christina Brucato) the creator of this course. Katherine reveals that Slowik has sexually harassed her multiple times in the past. He allows Katherine to get some payback and she stabs him in the thigh. Slowik then gives the men the chance to escape by giving them a 45-second head start before his staff comes after them. Katherine invites the women back inside to eat the next dish, while the men do their best to escape. Taking this as an opportunity to try and soften up one of the staff, the women praise Katherine for her food and she cries. Katherine soon snaps back into chef mode and tells the women that killing everyone was actually her idea as the finale for the menu. Margot tells everyone that she really is Erin.

THE MENU SCREEN 10

Meanwhile, all of the men make an attempt to escape… except for Tyler. He hangs around the outside of the restaurant until he is ‘caught’ and brought back. None of them do manage to escape and all are eventually rounded up and marched back to Hawthorn, Chef Slowik and their inevitable deaths. Felicity tells George that she has been stealing money from him, already making this struggling to find work as an actor even worse. George already knew that she was stealing money from him and she knew that he knew too.

MAN’S FOLLY:
Dungeness crab, fermented yoghurt whey, dried sea lettuce, umeboshi, kelp.

PASSARD EGG

As Lillian’s editor, Ted is the last of the men to be caught, he’s given a bonus dish to ‘enjoy’.

PASSARD EGG:
Egg, crème fraîche, and maple (a special bite for the last guest to be caught).

TYLER’S BULLSHIT

Chef Slowik can’t continue with his carefully planned menu until he sorts out a bit of an issue. He decides to test just how much Tyler knows about food and allows him to cook in his kitchen. Complete carte blanche to create whatever he wants. But first, Slowik wants to know why he invited Erin when she was not part of the original plan. It turns out that Tyler was made fully aware of Slowik’s plan to kill everyone because Slowik told him and swore him to secrecy. Tyler was still happy to come and eat the world’s greatest food, knowing that he would be killed at the end of the night. That is how much of a dedicated foodie he is, he was willing to die as long as he got to eat Chef Slowik’s food.

THE MENU SCREEN 12

Originally, Tyler was going to bring his girlfriend but they broke up before the big night and aware that Slowik does not offer single-seatings, he hired Mergot/Erin’s escort services knowing that she would die. Obviously, Erin does not take that bit of information well and tries to beat the shit out of Tyler, but is restrained by Slowik’s staff. This is when Chef Slowik invites Tyler to prove his foodie chops by letting him cook in his kitchen. Tyler makes a complete mess of it as Slowik embarrasses Tyler in front of his staff and guests and shows that the so-called foodie actually knows very little about food. Tyler is a complete fake and has signed Margot/Erin’s death warrant too. Not a nice fella at all.

After trying the inedible food, Slowik leans over and whispers into Tyler’s ear. Tyler leaves the kitchen and heads to the back of house, removing his tie as he goes. Chef Slowik, during a break in the perfect plan of his menu, asks to talk to Erin in the back of house. Slowik tells Erin that he needs a barrel for his finale, that it needs to be collected and that Elsa forgot to get it. So, he asks Erin to get the barrel from the smokehouse, outside of the restaurant and elsewhere on the island. Slowik showing that he trusts and thinks of Erin as one of his own and not one of the pompous, shallow guests. As Erin leaves to get the barrel, she discovers Tyler’s body after he has hung himself with his own tie.

THE MENU SCREEN 11

In the restaurant, before Chef Slowik can introduce the next course, he is interrupted by George. George wants to know why he has to die. Slowik tells George that he saw his movie, Calling Doctor Sunshine and that he didn’t like it. Not only that but he saw the film on his only day off in several months and how it ruined his day. Slowik says that George has to die because he is an artist who has lost his drive and passion for what he does, he’s a washed-up actor who does not care about the quality of the film he makes as long as he gets paid.

While getting the barrel, Erin explores outside of the restaurant and she finds Chef Slowik’s living quarters. Before she can snoop around, Elsa appears and attacks her, out of jealousy of Slowik favouring Erin and making her one of them. In the fight, Erin accidentally stabs Elsa in the neck and kills her. While looking around Slowik’s abode, Erin finds photos of his illustrious career, going back years. One photo shows a teenage Slowik working in a low-rent burger joint flipping burgers. It’s also the only photo where Slowik is smiling. Erin also finds a short-wave radio and calls for help. After a while, Erin returns to the restaurant with the barrel.

THE MENU SCREEN 13

Chef Slowik further explains why he is doing all of this. Why everyone, including himself, has to die. He says that he is a monster, a whore and that what he is doing is an act of purification. everyone at the restaurant (except for Erin) is guilty of something and they need to pay for their sins. Just then, a coastguard boat arrives and Slowik knows that Erin has betrayed his trust and called in help via his radio. The restaurant and guests are quickly cleaned up so as to not arouse the suspicion of the coastguard and make out that everything is fine. The coastguard recognises George as he is a fan of his films and asks for an autograph. George takes this opportunity to write ‘help us’ to clue the coastguard in that something is very wrong. Believing that they are now safe, that is when it is revealed that the coastguard is actually one of Chef Slowik’s line chefs. Slowik tells Erin that she can’t be trusted and is one of ‘them’ and will die as one of ‘them’, a taker.

TYLER’S BULLSHIT:
Undercooked lamb, inedible shallot-leek butter sauce; utter lack of cohesion.

SUPPLEMENTAL COURSE: A CHEESEBURGER

Before the final course can be served, Erin tells Slowik that she doesn’t like his food. She says that he has taken the joy out of eating and that his food tastes like it was made without love. She says that Chef Slowik has failed to serve worthy food and that even worse, she is still hungry. She asks for a cheeseburger, nothing fancy or pretentious, no ‘deconstructed avant-bullshit’.  Just a cheeseburger. Chef Slowik grants her wish and makes her the best cheeseburger that she will ever eat, for just $9.95. A bit of a step down from the $1,200+ per head that he is used to charging for his food. As he cooks the burger, Slowik smiles, he’s enjoying cooking for the first time in years. He’s taken back to when he was a teenager flipping burgers at a burger joint, one of the last times he was truly happy.

THE MENU SCREEN 14

Very satisfied with his food, he personally serves it to Erin. She takes a bite and enjoys his food for the first time. Erin then says that she can’t eat the whole thing right now and asks for it ‘to go’. Chef Slowik boxes up her food and allows her to leave. Her reward for reminding Slowik that he once loved making food, even a simple cheeseburger. Everyone else though? They’re still going to die.

SUPPLEMENTAL COURSE: A CHEESEBURGER:
Just a well-made cheeseburger.

S’MORE

The final course. A callback to simple childhood days, the s’more. Slowik tells his guests that they represent the ruin of his art, his passion for cooking and his life in some way. Graham crackers are spread around the restaurant, along with several dozen litres of flammable alcohol. The guests are adorned with shawls made of marshmallows and chocolate hats. The s’more, ‘the most offensive assault on the human palate ever contrived’ Chef Slowi says. To complete his version of the s’more, Slowik grabs a red hot coal from his chargrill, walks into the middle of the restaurant and drops it onto all that flammable alcohol. Everyone in the restaurant burns to death (including Slowik’s very drunk mother). The chefs in the kitchen turn the gas on and combined with the barrel that Slowik asked Erin to get for him, the whole place explodes killing everyone.

THE MENU SCREEN 15

S’MORE:
Marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker, customers, staff, restaurant.

Erin has found a boat and makes her escape. She stops and watches the restaurant burn while enjoying her cheeseburger and wiping her mouth with a copy of Chef Slowik’s menu. End credits.


My Take On This

Okay then, so the first thing I need to address with this film is that (in case you’ve not yet worked it out) it is not a fictionalised drama of a Gordon Ramsay-type chef as I thought I might be. This is an out-and-out horror film. Not only that it’s a horror film about food that manages to side-step the most overused food-horror film trope of serving dead bodies to customers. There’s no cheeky Sweeny Todd-inspired angle here. The food is all ‘proper’ food that one would most probably find at an exclusive, top-notch and very expensive restaurant (and a cheeseburger). I honestly have to give The Menu credit for doing something very different with a tired, old format.

As I said, this isn’t a fictionalised drama of a Gordon Ramsay-type chef. It is more of a ‘imagine if Jim Jones was a top, world-famous chef’ film. Chef Slowik is a straight-up cult leader hellbent on killing… well everyone and even his own brigade of chefs and waiting staff are in on it. The Hawthorn restaurant and the island that it is on is basically Jonestown. Now, while this is most definitely a horror film, it’s a horror film with a great sense of humour. It is very, very black humour but still humour nonetheless. This was something that I overlooked when I watched The Menu for the first time.

THE MENU SCREEN 16

Watching this film for the second time had me noticing things I didn’t the first time. There are some great little details, such as in the opening. Tyler berates Margot for smoking and tells her that it ruins tastebuds and that she won’t be able to taste the food. Then later in the film, we see the food critic, Lillian smoking. A suggestion that her tastebuds are screwed, that all those bad reviews she wrote and closed restaurants with were not because the food was bad, but because she can’t taste anything properly. There are allusions to the seven deadly sins and more.

In our world, what Chef Slowik does is bat-shit insane. In the world of the film though, it makes a lot of sense and yeah, his guests did deserve to die. They are pompous pricks who have, in some way, destroyed Slowik’s life and career. Or they have contributed to the downfall of the people connected to them.

There’s a sub-genre of horror film that has become popular in recent years, elevated horror. For those not in the know, elevated horror are films that are less about dumb teenagers being killed by someone in a mask and wielding a large knife. They are horror films that don’t rely on cheap jump scares or throw buckets of blood at the screen. An elevated horror film is one that focuses on style, character psychology and other deeper or artistic themes. Basically, they are seen as horror films for those with an IQ. A bit on the pretentious side.

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Now, The Menu is most definitely an elevated horror flick. However, it’s also aware of what it is and has fun with it. You know how the original Scream exposed the slasher film genre and pointed a satirical finger at it? Well, The Menu does the same for the elevated horror genre but in a very different way. This is a film that highlights pomp and pretention, to then destroy it. All of the guests who die in the film have that ‘holier than thou’ attitude. They think they are above ‘normal’ people and use Chef Slowik, his food and his restaurant to further their own egos and social status. They are shallow, pretentious and selfish. ‘Takers’ as Slowik calls them. All of them are like this… except Margot/Erin.

That’s why she survived. She’s not ‘one of them’ and sees through all the pomp and ceremony. She didn’t eat the food because it wasn’t ‘food’. The cheeseburger saved her life because, just for a few minutes, she took Chef Slowik back to his roots. Before the fame, before the renown, before the pressure of outdoing himself each and every time to appease his peers. Slowik appreciated that, he saw that she wasn’t a ‘taker’ and gave him (even if only for a while) a bit of his humanity back. Elevated horror eh? Deeper than you think.

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However, I also think that the cheeseburger represented something more. Just going back to the whole elevated horror label. Again, they can be a bit ‘la-di-da’ and many people who watch them love to dump on ‘lesser’ horror films. I’ve read recent reviews for some elevated horror flicks that praise the depth and meaning of them, while choosing to call out the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th as examples of poor and shallow horror films. Opinions are opinions and all that, but do reviewers really need to make themselves feel superior by belittling ‘leaser’ films to help praise another? I saw The Menu as a dig as those kinds of reviewers. The film is calling out pretension and does so by having its death-sentenced characters be the ‘do you know who I am’ types. The Menu may satirise the elevated horror genre but it does it in a respectful way, like Scream before it with the slasher genre. Also, I felt that the guests invited to the restaurant were basically representative of snobbish film reviewers who can’t help themselves by making out that the classics are shit because they are not ‘intelligent’ enough.

As for that cheeseburger? Well, there’s room in the world for Michelin-star food and all the pretension that comes with it. But, you know what? There’s nothing wrong with a good, well-made cheeseburger. Have all the snooty elevated horror that you want. There’s still a place for the Freddy Kruegers and Jason Voorhees of the world. Enjoy your deep, psychological character examinations and ‘arty’ blood in a film. You can still get a major kick out of Lionel in Brandead slaughtering zombies with a lawnmower and spraying gallons of claret all over the screen.

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Oh, and Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik and Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot/Erin were awesome. Brilliant performances and wonderful chemistry between them. I definitely recommend The Menu for a watch, maybe even more than one so you can pick up on some of the more subtle background details.

50 Years of The Way Of The Dragon

Originally released back in December of 1972 (hey, this can be my Christmas article for this year as I don’t have time to do a proper one), Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon in the US) was the best film he made. Now, this isn’t my favourite film of Lee’s, that would be Fist of Fury. I’d even say that the iconic Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s most popular and most famous film too. However, I would happily argue that The Way of the Dragon was his best film.

Bruce Lee always wanted to tell stories that were deeper than your average kung-fu flick at the time. His opus would’ve been The Game of Death, which was to delve into the teachings of martial arts and Lee’s own philosophies. Alas, as you know, Bruce Lee died before he could finish work on that film and his vision died with him. The closest we would ever get to a deeper Bruce Lee film was The Way of the Dragon. For this picture, Lee didn’t just star in it. He wrote, produced and even directed the film, this gave him full creative control over the project. The end result was a film that had some great fight scenes and served as a showcase for Asian culture to the rest of the world.

Okay, sure, the plot of The Way of the Dragon isn’t exactly stellar. If anything, the plot is the weakest part of the film. Clichéd, trite and crammed with Italian caricatures and stereotypes (an Italian character actually exclaims ‘Mamma Mia!’ at one point). Basically, Bruce Lee travels from China to Italy to help protect his uncle’s friend’s restaurant from an evil mob boss who wants to take over the property by force. However, under that paper-thin story is a film with layers that many people miss. By the time 1972 came around and when The Way of the Dragon was released, Bruce Lee was a big star in China. A far cry from just a few years earlier when he was a struggling bit-part player in American TV shows. Lee changed Asian cinema forever and his influence is still felt today.

THE WAY OF THE DRAGON PSOTER

With this film, Lee got to show off his comedy chops, it wasn’t all about kicking bad guys in the face. See the opening of the film with Lee’s character, Tang Lung arriving in Rome. When Lung goes to the restaurant to get some food, he can’t speak or read Italian. So he just randomly points at the menu and ends up ordering loads of bowls of soup. It’s the type of gag that you might find in a Charlie Chaplin flick, but given a Bruce Lee twist. Unfortunately, if you watch the English dub of the film, the joke is lost as both Lee’s character and the server are speaking in English, meaning that the miscommunication gag does not work as originally, he is speaking in Cantonese and she in Italian. There’s a lot of this ‘fish out of water’ humour in the film and all of it is lost with the English dubbing. Always watch these films with the original dialogue, trust me.

One of Bruce Lee’s aims with this film was to show an Asian audience a bit of European culture. Bearing in mind that when The Way of the Dragon was being filmed, Lee was not an international superstar, yet. Enter the Dragon had not been released, or even filmed in 1972 and Bruce Lee was still very much only known in China. Asian films back then were only ever made in Asia and for an Asian audience. And so, the audience had never really seen much of the world outside of their own front door. Hence the film’s Italian setting and this is why there are a lot of establishing shots (a few too many), shots of the streets of Rome, plazas, statues, the famous Colosseum and more. These were used to help show off Rome to the audience back in China, who would never have seen anything like that before. Nora Miao’s Chen Ching-hua character taking Bruce Lee’s Tang Lung on a tour to see the sights was done more so for the Asian audience so they could see Rome, more so than for any kind of character or story point.

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Lee even managed to inject some of his own philosophies into the film and especially the Tang Lung character that he plays. Lung is humble, honest, loyal and above all else, tough. He only uses his skills if absolutely necessary. If anything, this was the closest that Bruce Lee got to playing himself on screen. Lee had become a bit ‘dismayed’ by how his last two films were made. Produced by the legendary studio Golden Harvest, Lee was never allowed to be as creative as he wanted to be. The studio picked the writers, directors and actors. As great as The Big Boss and Fist of Fury (my favourite) were, they weren’t really Bruce Lee films. They were just films with Bruce Lee in them. For The Way of the Dragon, Lee teamed up with (also legendary) film producer  Raymond Chow and founded Concord Production Inc. together.

Now a co-founder of his own film production company, Bruce Lee would be the creative driving force and Raymond Chow would be the head of the admin. Long story short and after Lee’s death, Linda Lee sold her husband’s shares in the company to Chow and Concord Production went bust by 1976. The studio only had two completed films too, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon (co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.). Okay, so Concord also owned the original, unfinished footage from The Game of Death and produced a documentary called Bruce Lee: the Man and the Legend following his death. And I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here. The point is that Bruce Lee had full creative control with The Way of the Dragon, something that he didn’t have with his previous films.

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As a director, Lee’s first film is far from perfect. There are scenes where characters literally line up to deliver their dialogue (you can even see them look at the floor for their marks) and it feels a bit over-practised and more than a tad ‘stage play-ish’. Very unnatural. But, Lee does use some great camerawork and includes some very interesting shots and angles. Taking a few ideas that he picked up while working in America and blending them with more traditional Asian filming techniques. The Way of the Dragon was a real coming together of cultures and styles.

The Way of the Dragon was a low-budget flick too. Remember, this was the first film for a new production studio. Both Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow had to put up their own money to found Concord Production Inc. and pay for this film themselves. Originally, Lee wanted to set the film in the United States, but the budget wasn’t there to cover the cost and Italy was cheaper. That low-budget does show a few times throughout the film. Another reason that there are plenty of establishing and lingering shots of Italy and Italian fountains, etc (other than to show an Asian audience some European culture) was due to those budget constraints. A lot of the time, Lee didn’t have filming permits or permission to film on location. So, he would often linger on a statue (as an example) just to get as much on film as possible before anyone came asking for a filming permit. He had to use what he could and as much of it as possible, for free.

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As previously mentioned, Bruce Lee chose to use a bit of comedy for the film. The scene where Tang Lung inadvertently picks up a (I’m not sure if she was or not) prostitute. They go back to her place and she disappears for a few moments, while we get a brief sample of Tang Lung’s kung-fu skills. The (maybe?) prostitute reappears and is now (almost) butt-naked. Lee’s comic timing here is wonderful as he makes a swift exit out of embarrassment. This more light-hearted tone is vastly different to the mostly humourless The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. The comedy also sets up Lee’s character well and lets you know that he is a likeable guy under the fact that he could kick your bum-cheeks with ease.

Also, to help give the film a wider appeal, Lee hired several non-Asian martial artists. Bob Wall (later to appear in Enter the Dragon) was one such casting choice. Then, of course, there was the casting of the living legend that is Carlos Ray ‘Chuck’ Norris. Norris was (at the time) multiple All-American Karate Champion and very much respected within the martial arts world. He and Lee first met at a karate competition while Lee was in America working on The Green Hornet in the late 60s. They struck up a friendship, worked out and trained together. When Bruce Lee became a co-owner of a film production studio and began working on The Way of the Dragon, he knew that he wanted his friend Chuck Norris as the big bad guy for the film’s climactic fight. Also, having such a well-known and respected American martial artist in his film, Bruce Lee knew that would help gain some international praise and help sell the film outside of China.

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There was another angle to using American fighters in this film. It gave Brue Lee an opportunity to express one of his many philosophies:

“Using no way as a way, having no limitation as limitation.”

Having the bigger and more brute-like, heavier fighters go up against the smaller but sleeker, more fluid fighting style of Lee was a way for him to show that there were no limits. No matter how small you are, you can overcome even the biggest opponents Or, to use Lee’s much better and more poetic example of this:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

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Let’s get into the action now and look at how Bruce Lee shot the fights themselves. Again, using a mix of classic Asian and American filming styles, Lee created something very unique for the time. A double nunchaku fight is all well and good. But you need good choreography and a keen eye for what makes a great shot to make it look impressive on film. With his previous flicks, Lee couldn’t even do his own fight choreography. It was Han Ying Chieh who did the fight choreography on The Big Boss and Fists of Fury. Though Lee did get to make ‘suggestions’ with Fists of Fury and did influence several of the scenes. But with The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee was in full control.

You can really tell too as there is a real step up in quality when it comes to the action here. This may have been Bruce Lee’s first (and only completed) film as a director. But, when you look at the fight scenes from his previous films and compare it to The Way of the Dragon, there’s a real feeling that Lee wanted to push what made a good action scene. Take a look at the climatic fight at the Colosseum. Now, while establishing shots of the Colosseum were genuine the interior was not. You don’t need to be an expert to tell that the end fight took place on a set and not in the actual Colosseum itself. A rather poor-looking set, if I am being honest. Again, this goes back to the fact that the film was low-budget and that they didn’t have filming permits. It was cheaper (and safer) to shoot the scene in a controlled set than pay to film a lengthy action scene in the Colosseum itself.

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Now, some The Way of the Dragon fans would probably point out to me that there are some brief shots inside the Colosseum itself. Yup, there are. But, they were filmed illegally. Bruce Lee and his crew had to sneak cameras in, pretending to be tourists and they shot what little they could without being caught. When you watch the film these days, with a good HD transfer, you can really tell the set and matte-painted backgrounds from the real Colosseum footage.

Anyway, the fight itself. It has been suggested that Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris had a ‘real’ fight. Real as in that they actually hit each other but it was still choreographed, not that they had a falling out and decided to punch each other in the face. The two were good friends and trained together in the 60s, so there must’ve been a lot of trust between the two. Some of the hits do look like they connect (several, not so much), it is possible that some of the final fight was really a vigorous sparring session with some camerawork and editing to make it look more real than it was. Or, it could’ve been a real fight, of course. Chuck Norris has been asked about the fight and he said that:

“I enjoyed working with Bruce Lee in the film. It was a lot of fun, the fight scene is considered the classic martial arts fight scene of all time. So, it’s nice to be involved in a fight scene that everyone loves.”

Honestly, nobody knows if they did really fight and the only person who can answer that (Norris) never fully answers the question when asked. He just says it was great to work on it. I kind of like that though, it’s a nice little movie mythology.

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The big fight took up almost a quarter of the shooting script because Bruce Lee put so much detail into the choreography. It has been said that the climatic fight took around a collective 45 hours to shoot too, as Lee wanted it to be as perfect as it could be and did multiple takes until he was 100% satisfied. That’s a lot of punching and kicking each other in the face… if they did fight for real. Arguably, it is the best Bruce Lee fight on film and lasts over 10 minutes of screen time. All of that work that he put in really does pay off.

One of the things that I adore about the final fight is how they don’t just face each other and get into it right away. There’s a slow build-up, from Bruce Lee running around the Colosseum, looking for Chuck Norris. To, when they finally meet, face-to-face, then there’s the disrobing and warming up as these two giants, or gladiators of martial arts, ready themselves for battle. It’s a fantastic build up of tension that Bruce Lee uses here. At the time, with most Asian kung-fu flicks, the good guy just goes in fists flying and takes the bad guy out. Even Lee’s previous, films were guilty of this. Here, we the viewer are teased, tormented and made to wait for the big showdown. Before a single blow is landed, you know that you are in for something special because Lee builds the excitement and anticipation.

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This climatic fight is where Bruce Lee’s direction is at its finest. He may have been a bit stiff with some of the dialogue scenes earlier in the film and directed his actors as if they were in a stage play. But here with this fight, the martial arts master showed us how to shoot a great fight scene. There are a few times when Lee’s direction does slip back into typical Asian kung-fu fare. The snap-zoom, where the camera suddenly zooms in on an actor’s face, is a staple of Asian cinema at the time and Bruce Lee does use it quite a bit too. But then he also does things that were unheard of at the time.

There’s a decent portion of the fight that is shown in full slow-motion and with a good medium-distance camera, keeping both men in frame, so we can see these two titans actually fight. If you think about modern cinema now, that is never really used. Most of the time with fights these days, it’s all fast, frantic and close-up camera work. This is done to hide any possible imperfections and (usually) the fact that the actors are not fighters. Throw in a load of jump cuts and you have pretty much any modern-day fight scene. Here though, Lee wanted you to see everything, to see him and Chuck Norris display actual martial arts skills and in slo-mo too. Lee had confidence in both himself and Norris to deliver a fight that looked like a fight.

There’s also a great touch in this fight where Lee’s Tang Lung character is seemingly losing. Or, at least, struggling to win. This is because he starts the fight using a fixed martial art, Chinese boxing. After realising that this style is not working against the man-mountain that is Colt (Norris), he switches to a more fluid style of fighting. He starts bouncing around on his toes and becomes more ‘Bruce Lee-like’ and then, the fight begins to change. This (again) was Lee using his philosophy of adapting, using no way as way… being water, my friend. It even gets to the point where Colt tries to adapt to a more ‘relaxed’ form of martial arts, you see him bounce around on his toes a bit too as he tries to match his opponent. Of course, it does him no good because, well, he’s not Bruce Lee, is he?

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In the end, Colt’s face is blooded, his bones get broken and yet, he still tries to fight. That is when Tang Lung realises that this fight isn’t going to end in a knockout, this was to be a fight to the death. He even does a little shake of the head, a warning to Colt to not do this… yet he does. Left with no choice, Tang Lung breaks Colt’s neck. The camera zooms in on his face and there’s a look of disbelief and regret. A great bit of subtle acting from Bruce Lee that says a lot without a word of dialogue. Still, it’s a very fitting end that a fight to the death was held in the historic Colosseum (or a set of it). This fight really was very brutal for the time. It also felt realistic in terms of kung-fu cinema of the 1970s. Yeah, it’s a bit hokey now, a tad silly in places. But for 1972 this fight was truly ground-breaking and remains one of the best fight scenes caught on film.

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Now, 50 years later as I write this article and reflecting on The Way of the Dragon, only now does the massive loss of talent that was Bruce Lee hit me. This film was far from perfect but it does showcase that the man could write and direct a film, outside of the punching and kicking that he was famed for. As I said at the start of this, Fist of Fury is my favourite Bruce Lee picture and Enter the Dragon is, by far, his most popular. But The Way of the Dragon was his best. The melding of American and Asian film-making, the use of humour and Lee’s foresight to use the sights of Rome and respected martial artists to be his opponents was a stroke of genius. Then, let’s not forget his subtle use of his philosophies.

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It’s a damn shame that he died when he did, that we will never get to see Bruce Lee’s vision for The Game of Death as he wanted it to be. His opus that would’ve delved even deeper into his own philosophies and love for marital arts. I think that Lee would’ve gone on to have had a great filmmaking career if he had lived. Just imagine all of those 80s and 90s action films written and directed by Bruce Lee and starring Brandon Lee that we will never get to see. We will just have to take solace in his only completed film as a director, The Way of the Dragon. Bruce Lee’s flawed masterpiece.


Well, that is almost it from me for this year. I have one more article I’ll be publishing between Christmas and New Year, my now annual Indie Game Round Up 2022. But until then, I hope you have a good Christmas