CIFF 2010: 'Bitter Feast' (Joe Maggio, 2010)

Bitter Feast warns potential viewers what they may encounter right in the title. Yes, it's a horror movie about food culture. Unfortunately, it's not much of a feast, but it will leave something of a bitter taste.

Bitter Feast

Director: Joe Maggio
Cast: James LeGros, Joshua Leonard
MPAA Rating: TBD
Studio: Dark Sky Films, Glass Eye Pix
Year: 2009
UK Release Date: TBD
US Release Date: 2010-10-08 (CIFF)

Bloggers and torture porn: when these two entities first leaped into the zeitgeist, there's a good chance every full-time film critic felt at least a smidgen of repulsion. Enter Bitter Feast, a movie where the two entities intersect. Chances are, some people -- film critics or otherwise -- will walk away from the picture with a bad taste in their mouths.

It's not because the film is graphic in any way. Some of Bitter Feast's most startling imagery comes from close-ups of food, expertly prepared by the movie's celebrity chef, Peter Gray (James LeGros). Such delectable scenes left me hungry, for both a three-course meal and a stronger film.

Ambition is what drives, and kills, Bitter Feast. It's clear that writer-director Joe Maggio knows his way around a good horror movie. Yet, knowing what makes a good horror movie and being able to execute a good horror movie are, unfortunately, two entirely different things.

Sure, there's more symbolism, character development and quasi-realism than the average horror film. Which might be what makes Bitter Feast so frustrating. At times, it's all a little too much: Maggio beats his symbols of "producers" and "destroyers" into viewers' skulls from the first sequence onward; his characters needs and desires are spelled out in dramatically over-the-top dialogue; and the detail given to the "realism" of the torture scenes are a bit, well, boring. Other times, there's never quite enough -- not enough to explain just why everything happens the way it does in Bitter Feast.

Things are a bit off from the get go, when Gray is fired from his job as head chef at Feast thanks to a scathing review by food blogger J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard, the film's bright spot). Gray is, understandably, miffed:

"He creates nothing," Gray says to his boss, Gordon (Mario Batali).

"He creates public opinion, ergo, he creates everything," Gordon responds.

"Gordon, he's a fucking food blogger."

"You just don't get it. It's a fucking disaster."

Again, Maggio really wants people to know this film is about his concept of "producers" and "destroyers." And somehow, because of an early departure from his job at a restaurant, a failing TV cooking show and a traumatic childhood event, Gray is driven to madness. He decides to kidnap Franks and thematically torture him. The themes? Franks' anger-filled food reviews.

It's easy to get the sense that Maggio tried to push the barriers of horror with Bitter Feast. In some ways he did, bringing an unrelated subject into significantly darker territory. Yet, Bitter Feast is hampered by numerous pitfalls: there's the cliché private detective, William Coley (Larry Fessenden); the overuse of food-related metaphors tends to make the whole film seem more like a pun than a frightening narrative; and then there's the large sense that, despite Maggio's best intentions, these characters are still the bare-bones essence of horror film archetypes. The end of the movie isn't as unpredictable as it is a drag to get to.

Still, it's a valiant effort by Maggio. Sure, not all the pieces fit together, or fit will, but there's something there. Perhaps Bitter Feast may give the realm of "torture porn" a good name: after all, the characters aren't fighting off an evil genius with a hard on for labyrinths, or a mysterious network of rich people looking to get their kicks by killing American teens on vacation.

So, yes, there's a sense of realism that Maggio has brought to a form of horror that, one would think, prides itself on being involved in reality. Yet, if I want to see real tension between chefs and food bloggers, I'd rather watch a short documentary called Everyone's a Critic. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I'm friends with those who made Everyone's a Critic: yet that doesn't diminish the fact that I got a better grasp on the realistic tension and pain of the food world observed in the 13-minute doc. than I could throughout all of Maggio's concocted world of Bitter Feast.

Which, in the end might be the real horror to befall Bitter Feast: it's got enough ambition behind it to feed an army, but barely enough substance to keep itself going.


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