Dark Sky Films // 2009 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // January 4th, 2011
"This about my review?"
I was really looking forward to Bitter Feast. Based on the description at Amazon.com, it sounded like a fun film, a wry exploitation of one of my newfound adult fears: Being forced to cook for my life, sort of like the ultimate Top Chef challenge. (This gets added to my held-over childhood fears of things like jelly fish, clowns, and scarecrows.) The product description from Amazon, which is basically the same as the box copy, goes like this:
Peter Grey (James LeGros, Ally McBeal), an overly zealous television chef, kidnaps J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard, Humpday), an influential and notoriously snarky food blogger, after a particularly nasty review deals the final blow to Grey's already plummeting career. Sequestered deep in the woods of Hudson Valley, Grey keeps Franks chained up in a basement, presenting him with a series of deceptively simple food challenges -- from preparing a perfect egg over easy, to grilling a steak precisely medium rare -- punishing him sadistically for anything less than total perfection. A tense thrill-ride served up with wicked wit and culinary flare, Bitter Feast is an exploration of the creative impulse gone tragically and ferociously wrong.
While the notion of a snarky Internet reviewer is a little alien to me, the idea of a loony, egotistical chef forcing an arrogant writer to atone for bad press through a cook-off certainly caught my interest -- imagine Rachael Ray holed up in a cabin with a skillet, some creme fraiche, and Michelle Malkin.
Maybe my expectations were a little too high. Instead of a clever Chef Race 2000, Bitter Harvest skews more into the realm of torturesploitation, a low-sodium Saw with aromas of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and brutality overwhelming the promised "wicked wit and culinary flare."
J.T. Franks certainly is an influential blogger: Not only does his nasty commentary help get Peter Grey's cable-TV cooking show canceled, but a withering review sinks Grey's new restaurant. Grey actually gets fired from his own kitchen, something I'm not quite sure I understand, but...OK, it's necessary for the film.
This set-up is also the film's first big misstep. Are we still living in a time when a single critic, particularly a blogger, can make or break a career? Aren't there so many information sources out there that a lone critical voice is exactly that? Plus, as the old saying goes, even bad press is better than no press at all, isn't it? The scene in which Grey shows up at his restaurant to find it empty because of Franks' review seems like something from a much older movie. If online criticism were really that influential, wouldn't everyone here at DVD Verdict be receiving muffin baskets and prayer cards from the production houses? The idea of Frank's blog as the conduit of destruction for a presumably talented chef's career just seems like a lazy plot device to get us to the heart of the film: the bloody comeuppance of the critic by the crazed culinartist.
But before we get there, we must learn a bit about the writer. What do we learn? Well, he's a nasty, unhappy guy, not unlike Grey, but unlike Grey he's got a wife with whom he's not connecting, a condo in the city, and he recently lost a child to cancer. This last bit of information is there, I suppose, to explain away his general sullenness and disaffection, but it also adds an unnecessarily somber note to the proceedings. While watching the take down of an arrogant critic can be fun -- as Vincent Price proved in Theater of Blood -- watching a grieving man suffer is just discomfiting.
Anyway, sooner than later we end up at Grey's desolate rural hideaway, where Franks is kept chained in the basement and forced by the persnickety Grey to do tasks like cooking a perfect egg or grilling a perfect steak. But instead of this becoming a battle of wits and wills between a guy who does things and a guy who criticizes things, writer/director Joe Maggio (Paper Covers Rock) trods the well-worn path of torture porn. Each "test" runs the same:
* Grey reads one of Franks' reviews criticizing a particular dish.
* Grey then orders Franks to replicate the dish properly.
* Failure to attempt this means Franks doesn't get to eat.
* Failure to properly replicate means Franks will get a beating.
* Franks fails; beating ensues.
Thus, we get an increasingly bruised and bloodied Franks and a Grey who pretty much stays on an even keel of crazy. Intruding a bit on Grey's fun -- and ours -- is the fact that the depressed Franks doesn't have much of a will to survive. He also doesn't have much of a personality, alternately slumping between "kill-me-now" mode and letting loose streams of fairly typical invectives ("F*** You! F*** You!") that don't really make for witty repartee.
Just for a diversion, we also get a private investigator (Larry Fessenden, Wendy and Lucy) who presciently ascertains that Grey is behind Franks' disappearance, and a late-game twist is so standard and drawn out that you see it coming long before it happens.
It's all the usual vengeance and torturesploitation business. While there's potential for satirizing celebrity chefs, bloggers, and the power (or lack thereof) of the media, Maggio just goes for the usual gore and brutality. We've seen this film before; Bitter Feast brings nothing new to the table.
Le Gros should be having a lot more fun as the whacked-out chef, but he plays Grey with an unwelcome restraint. Leonard has come a long way since his debut in the overrated The Blair Witch Project, but his character's such a downer that we really don't care all that much whether or not he makes it.
Dark Sky offers up a good release, with a solid picture and audio. Supplement-wise, we get a commentary with Maggio, Fessenden (who also produced), two other producers and the sound designer; an interview with real celeb chef Mario Batali, who has a small role in the film (not as himself); a "making of" featurette; a stills gallery; a deleted scene; and an alternate ending that is just a misguided extension of the ending that's already there.
Bitter Feast should have been a better film, but it just falls too easily into current horror genre conventions to be really memorable. It's not bad, as far as these things go, just typical.
Guilty -- and stale.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted/Alternate Scenes
* Image Gallery
* Official Site