The Sharknado franchise should be enough to dislodge the “Golden Age of Television” hoax, but the new theatrical film Into the Storm disproves it definitively. Natural catastrophe is shown in F/X enormity and felt in its personal specifics as only cinema can. Into the Storm catches two groups of storm chasers and an Oklahoma high school graduation ceremony in the whirl of several spontaneous tornados. Action is everything here (how families relate, how professionals work together); whereas in the abominations Sharknado and Sharknado 2: The Second One everything is junk. Incessant camp silliness lowers the intelligence and sensitivity of those who watch it. Such forced trash is symptomatic of how television regularly trivializes the art potential people once valued in movies (remember 1996’s exciting Twister?).
Into the Storm derives from the Final Destination series — a franchise that lifted Grand Guignol entertainment to a level of philosophical sensations about mortality. Director Steven Quale (Final Destination 5) provides the same kinetic ingenuity; an airport sequence turns nightmare to dream; a drainpipe hideout does the reverse. Spectacle this showy and vivid separates film from television, and Quale knows it. In this premise, cameras are everywhere, points-of-view are constantly contrasted, provoking questions about the meaning of omniscience. Beyond Cloverfield, Blair Witch, and other found-footage trash that has, along with Reality-TV, destroyed our sense of recorded logic, there’s a point: Everyone’s got a camera, but having a camera does not provide agency.
Like ’50s shlockmeister William Castle prefacing his films The Tingler and 13 Ghosts with personal introductions, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, co-producers of The Hundred-Foot Journey, both directly address their audience. Following Castle’s style, these moguls confront us with combined cornball sincerity and shameless salesmanship. The Big O promises a film about “What we all love — food.” And that Amblin’ Man sheepishly concurs “a food metaphor.”
Is success Spielberg and Oprah’s soul food? The film’s one metaphor is its title describing the avenue-breadth separating Hassan’s family Indian restaurant owned by his Old World Papa (Om Puri) and a haute cuisine restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren in Streep mode). When Hassan’s family leaves political turmoil in India (“There was some kind of election”) and relocate in a French village, their cultural heritage and business venture creates Mom-and-Pop store competition that reveals a gulf between Eastern and European tradition. Hassan crosses that divide through talent, ambition, and what Mme. Mallory pronounces as “arrogance!” That cross-over is the film’s (and Spielberg and Winfrey’s) true subject.
Behind the internationalism of fusion cooking (Hassan combines skills taught by his late mother with Mme. Mallory’s classical recipes) is a career-and-civics lesson. The film recognizes ethnic and class differences as impediments to crossing over. Plot twists of Hassan falling in love with Marguerite (Charlotte LeBon), a gamine sous-chef, and Mme. Mallory and Papa falling in “like” slow up the ultimate story of Hassan’s rise to fame. He becomes the most acclaimed chef in Paris — thus the world — but then regrets the heritage he abandoned, symbolized by cooking sea urchins: “They taste of life” his mother advised.
But Hassan’s mother also warned “To cook, you must kill” and it is gradually apparent that The Hundred Foot Journey disguises the showbiz ruthlessness that Spielberg and Winfrey surely know yet never confess behind the colors and plating of food porn.
The porn Oprah describes as “what we all love” gets produced through the film’s sketch of political conflict, where racism and class snobbery turn into a game of sentimentality. At first Mme. Mallory promotes prejudice (dismissing Indian food as “éthnique”). The local politician cautions: “These people are different and folks in town say the worst things about them. Be careful that you are not seen as being in sympathy with them.” Her well-bred racism quickly disappears as she encourages tolerance and an expanded menu. Her speech indicting the racism implicit in “La Marseillaise” is as disingenuous as Hassan flirting with Marguerite then exploiting their friendship. (Screenwriter Steven Knight, whose superb William Wilberforce bio-pic Amazing Grace aced the abolitionist movement and its spirituality to the shame of Spielberg’s Lincoln, shames himself here.) Contemporary Europe’s multiculturalism is used to explicate a notion of compassionate capitalism — capitalism automatically rewarded by fame.
Mme. Mallory promises Hassan’s father, “I can offer him a stepping stone to the world,” an enticement beyond liberté, égalité, fraternité. Fame is not a combination of those virtues, and it isn’t necessarily a reward for brotherhood à la the film’s Obama-era pretense — particularly not when the means to fame are usurpation, appropriation, exploitation. Spielberg and Winfrey may approve those terms as implicit in their own hundred-foot journeys, but it’s the film’s cosmopolitan pretense that’s offensive.
Clare Denis did all this better in 35 Shots of Rum, but here director Lasse Hallstrom repeats his atrocious Chocolat, still wielding sledgehammer sensitivity. Hassan defends his anti-traditional nouvelle cuisine innovations “Because 200 years is long enough,” yet he returns to classical, “heartwarming” tradition. Spielberg and Oprah’s treacly and tendentious meal is a crock.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.