DVD Review: Bitter Feast
Writer-director Joe Maggio's Bitter Feast feels like a movie divided in two... or maybe even into thirds. The film involves high-strung famed chef Peter Graves (James Le Gros, Point Break, Zodiac) devising bloody and ironic revenge against troubled New York restaurant critic JT Franks (Joshua Leonard, The Blair With Project, Humpday) in a secluded upstate hideaway. On the one hand it uses the broad strokes of horror classics like Theater of Blood, mixing in elements of Saw-like "torture with a purpose," with some broad thoughts on the critic/creator relationship. Unfortunately, the final result doesn't push any of these concepts far enough, with a final result that's muddled in spite of signs of excellence and cleverness throughout.
Le Gros' Peter Graves is tightly-wound to the point of being a little crazy before actually going full-tilt crazy. Although he's the head chef of a prominent restaurant and has his own TV show, he seems to be thwarted by crushing mediocrity. He's told viewers don't care about sustainable cuisine, or some of the finer points of food preparation, he's saddled with a wisecracking co-host prone to terribly unfunny on-set pranks, and his ratings are starting to slide. The final straw comes with a scathing review from vicious restaurant critic JT Franks, who has apparently not met an entree he didn't hate. Franks is going through a personal crisis of his own, a spiraling depression keeping him from connecting with his wife or complete that novel he's been working on. Franks' evisceration of Graves' restaurant puts the two troubled men on a collision course, resulting in kidnapping, torture, and forced cooking in a dingy basement.
First, Maggio should be commended on not falling into the trap that Shymalan laid for himself with Lady In the Water, attempting to insulate himself from criticism by more or less making the critic the villain. One of the threads in the plot is actually Graves' obsession with the idea of creators and destroyers, but as it's played here, it never comes off as the writer speaking to the audience. Instead, it's clear that this is a character who places so much of himself in his work that there's nothing left. I think that's actually an interesting direction to go with the character, and Le Gros should likewise be commended for nailing the role which requires staying just this side of sane in public, but it's clear the other characters around him can never be too sure.
But the cracks start to show once the particulars of his revenge are put into place. It's not really clear what he's trying to get from Franks, who doesn't really have much in the way of an arc throughout. To this last point, it's clear that this experience was supposed to affect Franks somehow, but the ending makes this point moot. I won't say it invalidates what came before, but it does make it hard to care about everything that happened to the character previously. It also doesn't help that the script has Graves repeating the same "tests" on Franks, putting him through the same challenge about three times, with only small variation and no real arc or idea other than, "critics should maybe watch what they write."
Again, it's really disappointing, given that the script constantly has peeks of cleverness about it, particularly with regards to making someone who just lobs words out onto the internet to at least respect the work of others. I won't go into some of the other dead-end threads in the plot (a competent, then hapless detective, the subplot about Franks' dead child), but Bitter Feast is a promising work that could have benefited from more focus and refinement of the central premise.
Audio and Video
For all my gripes, I actually liked the look of the movie for the most part. Cinematography was handled by Michael McDonough, and there are a decent number of exterior scenes that benefit from strong camera work. There's a nice, clean division between the grit of the city and the serenity of the house in the woods where the bulk of the film takes place that actually comes across quite well in the DVD presentation.
There's nothing here to give your sound system a workout--it mostly dialog scenes which come across clearly via the 5.1 mix. Well, that's not entirely accurate, given some of the ambient noise during the forest scenes which actually came across well in giving those scenes a sense of just how... overwhelming the woods can be. Special notice should be given to sound designer Graham Reznick here.
There's a raft of special features here for people interested in the making of the movie:
- Commentary by Joe Maggio and producers Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Brent Kunkle, and sound designer Graham Reznick.
- Making of doc
- Joe Maggio interview Mario Batali (who has a bit part in the movie)
- Deleted scene and alternate ending
- Feature portraits