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‘The Menu’ filmmakers share ingredients of dining thriller

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LOS ANGELES — A group of 11 diners gather one evening on a private island in the Pacific Northwest for a once-in-a-lifetime meal from a renowned chef in the new thriller “ The Menu.”

At $1,200 a head, it promises to be a singular experience, but no one, not the movie star, the tech bros, the foodie fanboy, the food critic, the wealthy regulars, nor the wild card date, is ready for just how intense, and dangerous, things will get as the meal unfolds under the direction of Ralph Fiennes brilliant and tortured Chef Slowik.

The film comes from the minds of Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, both alums of The Onion and HBO’s “Succession.” The idea to satirize the cultish fine dining world came after an experience Tracy had at a fancy restaurant on a private island in Norway. They sent their script to director Mark Mylod, who directed the big excruciating dinner party episode in season two of “Succession,” and they all hit the ground running to create one of the year’s most exciting and unexpected films — funny, twisted and even a little heartbreaking. It opens in theaters nationwide Friday.

To create a dynamic dining room experience, Mylod took a page from Robert Altman’s playbook in which all of the characters would be on set all the time, acting and conversing even when the script was technically focused on someone else.

“I needed everybody to be in character all the time and improvising way beyond what we’d written on the page,” Mylod said. “So I recruited this incredibly intelligent and smart and bold cast. No two takes were the same. It was all an exploration.”

The ensemble includes Hong Chau, as the severe and stylish front of house Elsa, Nicholas Hoult as the foodie who has saved up for this night, Anya Taylor-Joy as his skeptical date, John Leguizamo as a movie star, Janet McTeer as a food critic and Reed Birney and Judith Light as regular patrons.

“If you put 12, 15, 20 actors in a room, that could be a recipe for disaster with egos and everything bouncing off and people wanting to do their best,” Hoult said. “But Mark set a great tone in the rehearsal period.”

With a roaming camera always looming, they had to be on a lot, but there were also opportunities to just watch and admire other’s performances. During scenes where Fiennes is holding court in front of the diners, Chau said they often had to stop short of clapping for him. It felt like they’d just been treated to a private performance.

“He has a way of looking straight into your soul. And it’s this fun thing for me because Tyler, the character I’m playing is meant to be kind of brainwashed by Chef Slowik and adoring of him,” Hoult said. “So I all the feelings that I would have as someone who’s in awe of what Ralph does and has done, I got to just kind of be a fanboy on set and use that.”

Mylod, who considers his palate “limited,” knew his behind-the-scenes collaborators would be as key as those in front of the camera in creating this deceptively complex world, including getting “Mulholland Drive” cinematographer Peter Deming who could find the tension in the frame. “Chef’s Table” creator David Gelb helped stage some “food porn” shots. And Dominique Crenn, the chef and owner of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, came aboard to advise on all aspects of the environment, from the food to the way certain characters might behave in a restaurant.

“I was a little nervous around (Dominque) and I didn’t speak to her that much,” Chau said. “But she kind of like, sidled up next to me one day and said, ‘I love what you’re doing. What you’re doing is like, spot on. I love how clean and sharp and elegant you are, and I want you to come and work for me.’”

Chau was a major architect of her character, who was a bit limited on the page and inspired by all the “funky people” she’d seen around Portland, Oregon, while filming “Showing Up” there. Elsa was originally supposed to look very plain, very beige and basically blend into the scenery.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a bummer. That’s a real, real bummer,’” Chau said. “I was stubborn and kind of dug my heels in and just explained the biography that I kind of came up with for her.”

The film’s costume designer Amy Westcott, who is married to Mylod, loved Chau’s vision and helped develop her striking outfit, which felt Victorian and statement-y but also clean and professional.

“They completely ambushed me, and I’m really glad they did,” Mylod said. “They were both completely right.”

Some who have seen “The Menu” have latched on to the class dynamics of the restaurant employees and its obscenely wealthy patrons and made “eat the rich” comparisons to films like the Oscar-winning “ Parasite ” and this year’s Cannes-winning “ Triangle of Sadness.” Mylod thinks that’s a bit reductive, though.

“A direct ‘let’s skewer the rich’ is low-hanging fruit, I think,” he said. “I tend to approach things more from a character point of view rather than necessarily sociologically as a whole. Those diners, most of them are appalling characters and deeply flawed characters, but it’s their flaws that I find really interesting because how did they get there? How do their egos de-nature their more vulnerable innocent self to get to that point? And what does it take to strip that away? That’s the journey that chef’s work is trying to take them on that evening.”


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Vatican Swiss Guard slayings back in spotlight with new book

ROME — The mother of a Swiss Guard member accused of committing one of the most sensational crimes in recent Vatican history – fatally shooting his commander and the senior officer’s wife before killing himself — is turning to the United Nations and Pope Francis in hopes of getting some closure nearly a quarter-century after the slayings.

Muguette Baudat was on hand Tuesday as her lawyer, Laura Sgro, a veteran defense attorney in Vatican criminal trials, detailed her efforts to pry information out of the Vatican and access the court file into the May 4, 1998 slayings that are recounted in Sgro’s new book, “Blood in the Vatican.”

“I’ve been waiting for more than 24 years, so I don’t expect anything,” Baudat said at a book launch event. But she added: “The book is very important.”

Within hours of the slayings, the Vatican spokesman announced that Baudat’s 23-year-old son, Cedric Tornay, a noncommissioned Swiss Guard officer, had killed Col. Alois Estermann and Estermann’s Venezuelan-born wife, Gladys Meza Romero, with his service revolver and then turned the gun on himself. The spokesman said a buildup of resentment over a reprimand by Estermann and the denial of a decoration, combined with a ″peculiar″ psychology, led to Tornay’s violent acts.

Nine months later, in February 1999, the Vatican released a 10-page summary of its internal investigation that confirmed its initial assessment. It concluded that Tornay was solely responsible for the murder-suicide but added that his marijuana use and a brain cyst the size of a pigeon’s egg could have impaired his reasoning.

Baudat spent two decades campaigning for more information and hired Sgro in 2019, asking for the Vatican investigation to be reopened. She said her request was not spurred by a belief that the Vatican was responsible, but rather to end the secrecy with which it has always handled the case.

Last year, the Vatican secretary of state intervened personally in the case and asked the Vatican tribunal to pay “particular attention” to Baudat’s request. Sgro was granted access to the court file.

In the book, Sgro details what she found in the file, as well as the conditions imposed on her by the Vatican prosecutor for viewing it: She wasn’t allowed to make copies but could only view the documentation in the tribunal, with two gendarmes standing behind her back monitoring her at all times. She was allowed to take some notes but not too many since she was explicitly barred from copying the text. She had to submit her notes to the prosecutors’ office after each viewing session, which took place over the course of a year.

And what she discovered in reading the court file, she said Tuesday, “confirmed all the doubts that the mother had about an investigation conducted in an absolutely superficial way.”

Sgro noted that at least 20 people were allowed access to the crime scene in the moments after the slayings, including chaplains, monsignors and the Vatican spokesman, none of whom wore protective gear. No fingerprints or blood samples were taken, and no DNA tests performed.

A handwriting analysis of a letter, purportedly from Tornay to his mother and foreshadowing the killings, was done on a photocopy, not the original document. The corpses were moved around the Estermann apartment, as was furniture, according to 38 photographs taken by a Vatican newspaper photographer that were in the court file. Autopsies were performed not in a hospital morgue but in the crypt of a chapel inside the Vatican walls.

“After one hour, Cedric was given up as the guilty one and the investigation was built around this, and this is absolutely the most alarming thing,” Sgro said.

The lawyer alleged that the conditions in which she was forced to work to view the file, as well as the mother’s long fight to find information about her son, constituted human rights violations that should be taken up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There was no indication Tuesday whether the U.N. might take up her case, since such complaints must show a consistent pattern of “gross violations” of human rights, such as the policy of apartheid in South Africa.

Sgro said she had little other recourse since the Holy See is not a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore not a party to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where such appeals would normally be heard. The Holy See enjoys observer status at the U.N. and has received criticism from U.N. human rights experts over the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Sgro said she sent a copy of “Blood in the Vatican” to Pope Francis and he responded with a personal letter. His response, she said, gave her hope that the Vatican might be ready to acknowledge that its original investigation was flawed and that Tornay’s legacy might somehow be rehabilitated even if he is confirmed as the killer.

“It’s a small drop after 24 years of silence,” Sgro said. “Let us hope this drop becomes a glass of water, then a lake.”

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Clarence Gilyard, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Matlock’ actor, dies at 66

Clarence Gilyard Jr., a popular supporting actor whose credits include the blockbuster films “Die Hard” and “Top Gun” and the hit television series “Matlock” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has died at age 66

NEW YORK — Clarence Gilyard Jr., a popular supporting actor whose credits include the blockbuster films “Die Hard” and “Top Gun” and the hit television series “Matlock” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has died at age 66.

His death was announced this week by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught stage and screen acting. Additional details were not immediately available Tuesday.

“Professor Gilyard was a beacon of light and strength for everyone around him at UNLV,” the school’s film chair, Heather Addison, said in a statement. “Whenever we asked him how he was, he would cheerfully declare that he was ‘Blessed!’ But we are truly the ones who were blessed to be his colleagues and students for so many years.”

Gilyard was a Moses Lake, Washington, native. He had a prolific career as an actor, starting in the 1980s with appearances in “Diff’rent Strokes,” ”The Facts of Life” and other shows. He then appeared in two of the biggest movies of the decade: “Top Gun,” in which he played Sundown, a radar intercept officer, and “Die Hard,” when he was featured as a villainous computer maven whose one liners included “You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality.”

In the 1990s, he was on the side of law enforcement in “Matlock,” playing opposite Andy Griffith, and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” which starred Chuck Norris. His other credits include “The Karate Kid: Part II,” a stage production of “Driving Miss Daisy” and an appearance alongside “Die Hard” star Bruce Willis in a commercial for DieHard batteries.

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Review: Slice into the holiday spirit with ‘Violent Night’

The holiday season is upon us and how better to celebrate than watching Santa slip several pool balls into a Christmas stocking, swing them in the air menacingly and see him cave in someone’s face?

Such is “Violent Night,” a film that clearly no one wanted but somehow nicely acts as a chaser to all the sticky sentimentality this time of year. It is billed as an “alt-Christmas action-comedy” and it may be a litmus test of who is your real tribe: If you think watching Santa try to strangle a guy with Christmas lights is funny, this is the film for you.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola, “Violent Night” has taken the season’s naughty or nice dichotomy deeply to heart, offering pounds of gore and wounds that spurt mini-fountains of blood along with tooth-aching sweetness about believing in Santa and the true meaning of Christmas.

It’s easy to initially dismiss it as an “SNL” digital short that got high on its own tinsel but there is a sort of perverse glee to seeing Santa suck on the tip of a candy cane until it is a sharp shard and then plunge it into a bad guy’s neck. Isn’t it time for Kris Kringle as a sociopath?

Few people can balance all these demands as Santa except David Harbour, who specializing in gruff-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside teddy bears. This time, his beard soaked in blood, he must save an ultra-rich family from a murderous group of home invaders with automatic weapons and military training.

On his side: “Christmas magic,” which he reveals multiple times he does not understand and which allows the screenwriters — Pat Casey and Josh Miller — a yuletide-sized logical loophole. They’ve even given Santa an origin story as a centuries-old Viking raider with a fondness for crushing skulls with a hammer. He’d be on the naughty list, naturally.

We initially meet Santa in the present day at an English pub. It’s Christmas Eve and he’s hammered. There are other men dressed as Santas this night, but they’re just pretenders, like “Bad Santa.” He’s the real thing.

Tonight, Santa is worn-out and fed-up. The children these days just demand more and more presents — just grubby consumers. He even calls them junkies. “I forgot why I started doing it in the first place,” he says. “Maybe this is my last year.”

During his rounds, he happens to linger too long at the Lightstone family compound in Connecticut. A ruthless gang has just stormed inside hoping to relieve the family of $300 million and trapping Santa with just his magic bag of presents and a pent-up desire to hurt people.

John Leguizamo, so often the comedy relief in films, here is as heavy as it gets, an anti-Christmas madman who tortures with a nutcracker and gets some of the best over-the-top lines like “Christmas dies tonight” and “Time to kill Santa.” The film soon moves into “Die Hard” territory as terrorists play cat-and-mouse with a good guy inside the building.

Santa connects with one of the hostages — a little girl (Leah Brady, sparkling like an ornament) — who still believes in Santa. “You are more than the presents you bring,” she tells him. And so he proves that Christmas is indeed alive by systematically murdering every single bad guy and girl with a sledgehammer, aided by his new friend’s “Home Alone” boobytrapping skills and all to a soundtrack of Christmas songs by Burl Ives, Bryan Adams and Slade.

This is not a Norman Rockwell vision of Santa, of course. He has a torso full of tattoos and sutures his own wounds with Christmas tree ornament hooks. He vomits, impales baddies in spiky Christmas decorations and uses the sharp parts of a pair of ice skates with surgical precision. Few films have earned their R rating better. All that’s missing is you as long as you think it’s time to add a little blood to Christmas?

“Violent Night,” a Universal Pictures release that opens nationwide in theaters Friday, is rated R for “strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references.” Running time: 112 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.




Mark Kennedy is at

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