The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal

Apocalypse Child


The Aquaman audition went very well.

The Aquaman audition went very well.

(2015) Drama (Arkeofilms) Sid Lucero, Ana Abad-Santos, Gwen Zamora, Archie Alemania, RK Bagatsing, Annicka Dolonius. Directed by Mario Cornejo

NYAFF

Some of the choices we make in life are based on the hand we’re dealt with before we’re even born. Then again, it’s pretty easy to blame stuff that’s not in our control, when a choice implies that our decisions are well within our control; we just choose not to be accountable for our own actions.

Ford (Lucero) is a surfing teacher in Baler in the Philippines. He was once a surfing champion, but after choking in a championship event he just kinda hangs out, living on past glories and what might have beens. His perky girlfriend Fiona (Dolonius) has some talent in that area as well, and she seems content to lead the life of a surfer; all about the party and the beach.

Ford is thus named because his mother (Abad-Santos) is positive that his father was none other than Francis Ford Coppola, who was filming Apocalypse Now in the area at the time. In fact, local legend has it that young women in the area gave birth to a lot of babies nine months after the cast and crew of the film left; these were called “Apocalypse Children.”

When Rich (Bagatsing), an old surfing buddy and friend who has recently been elected as the local congressman returns to town, Ford is forced to confront the transgressions of his path, his own lack of inertia, and the trajectory his life has taken. Ford doesn’t handle it very well; he starts to develop a relationship with Rich’s girlfriend Serena (Zamora) which threatens not only his existing relationship but basically his standing with everyone he knows, including his mother.

The theme here is that most of the characters are running away and avoiding the consequences of their actions (or inaction). Whether it’s the mom’s refusal to escape from her past which has long since left her behind, Rich’s dwelling on things that Ford has done, Ford avoiding commitment and responsibility whenever he can, everyone seems to be coping with life by not living it – or rather, living a semblance of it that mostly consists of the parts that involve partying, getting wasted and getting laid. All lovely pursuits and certainly young people of that age group are going to have a certain fixation on those things, but it feels like they are using it like a narcotic, to block out all the unpleasant things that they have been doing to each other.

The cinematography has a curiously washed out look, as if it were filmed through a fish tank – although to be fair that might have been the screen I was watching it on. The dialogue is a mix of English and Tagalog/Filipino and the subtitles were so small as to be virtually unreadable, often flashing by before I could see what they said. After awhile, I gave up, so the film suffers in the review because of it – make the subtitles just a smidgen bigger.

Cornejo clearly has an affection and respect for American indie films, and this one carries many of the cliches of that idiom. Montages set to mournful indie folk, complicated romantic relationships, hipsters (or the Filipino version thereof) gathering at parties and acting insufferably…the whole gamut is here. Fans of indie cinema may well look at this as an homage but it feels a bit like a knock-off as well.

I just never connected to the movie. I felt myself losing interest the longer the film went on. The movie is supposed to follow the characters’ growth and to be fair there was some, but it didn’t feel like it was earned. Any growth that any of the characters had seems more because the writers deemed that they did rather than in an organic, believable way through learning from their mistakes. Ford, in particular, seems hell-bent on destroying everything he has yet at the end of the film his reconciliation seems to come out of the blue and for no apparent reason. I know I’d have decked him a lot more often than he got punched out in this movie.

I will admit that the lifestyle doesn’t appeal much to me and the negative review here might be as much a product of my own prejudices as it is any filmmaking sins on the part of the filmmakers. There are some lovely scenes (but again that washed out quality, like everything is filmed on a cloudy day…on a defective camera whose lens aperture is nearly shut) and Zamora is the kind of beauty that will make your heart stand still. Otherwise though this is one festival film you might choose to avoid.

REASONS TO GO: Gwen Zamora is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Makes its points over and over again until the audience screams. Too much like a soap opera. Washed out cinematography and too-small subtitles.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of profanity, drug use, nudity and graphic sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Surfing was popularized in the Philippines when Francis Ford Coppola filmed the infamous surfing scene of Apocalypse Now on Baler beach in the Philippines and locals became more obsessed watching the surfing experts and instructors ride the waves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Wednesday
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Priests

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon tries to explain that the Sarah Silverman music video was a joke.

(2011) Science Fiction (Universal) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Anthony Ruvivar, Lauren Hodges, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by George Nolfi

There are a couple of schools of thought about how the universe works – one in which things are pre-determined, planned in advance and that we are helpless to escape our destiny. The other says things are random chance and our own free will determines our choices.

David Norris (Damon) is an ambitious politician who was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. He’s running for Senate and has a big lead in the polls until a photo from his college days sinks him. He is in a hotel bathroom, running over his concession speech when he meets Elise Sellas (Blunt) who was hiding from hotel security in a stall when he walked in. They meet, flirt, kiss…and Norris is inspired to deliver a speech that makes him an immediate frontrunner for the next election.

David goes to work for his friend and former campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Kelly), a venture capitalist. David is on his way to work when he meets, quite by chance, Elise on a bus. A man in an old-fashioned suit wearing a fedora who we later found out is named Harry Mitchell (Mackie), chases the bus, trying desperately to spill coffee on the former Congressman. He is unsuccessful and David not only gets Elise’s phone number, he gets to work on time.

There he finds things a little strange. Nobody is moving…the people are frozen in position. Strangely dressed men are holding up strange instruments to Charlie’s forehead. David takes off in a dead run to try and escape but he’s captured. He is brought to a large warehouse-like space where another man – dressed similarly to Harry in a grey suit and a fedora – named Richardson (Slattery) tells him that he’s seen behind a curtain he wasn’t supposed to know existed.

You see, life is supposed to go according to plan – a specific plan – and they’re the guys who make sure it does. David and Elise were not supposed to meet again, as it turns out – they’re not meant to be together. Richardson burns the number Elise gave him and sends him on his way with a warning never to tell anybody about the Adjustment Bureau – or else he’ll be lobotomized.

Thus begins a cat and mouse game between David and the Adjustment Bureau. David trying to get back together again with Elise…the Bureau trying to keep them apart. Eventually, a higher-up named Thompson (Stamp) is drawn into the case but how can David find the love of his life when men who can alter reality itself are arrayed against him?

George Nolfi is directing for the first time; he’s better known as a writer for such movies as Oceans 12. He shows a surprisingly deft hand at the helm – he’s got a solid future in directing if he continues to direct.

He also scripted, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose works have been turned into such films as Minority Report, Total Recall and Blade Runner. Movies based on Dick’s work have varied in execution; this one, I’m happy to say, is one of the better ones. It brings up an age-old argument in a sci-fi setting and while Dick was firmly on the free will side of the discussion (as is Nolfi), he does make a credible argument for the other side as well.

Damon is one of the more appealing A-list actors; he has become a terrific everyman in the vein of Jimmy Stewart, and he continues to improve with every performance. This is another one, and he is certainly solid again, dependable and likable. He also has good chemistry with Blunt; while her character is a little bit bland, she does an admirable job filling it. Their back and forth reminds me a bit of the romantic comedies of the 50s.

There aren’t a lot of special effects; mostly the effects are optical, particularly in sequences involving doorways that transport the bureau men from one place to places far away. There’s a chase sequence involving David and the Bureau men late in the film that’s dazzling but also dizzying…it’s a little disorienting even as David goes by a variety of New York landmarks, including Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. It’s on the breathtaking side.

Mackie is emerging as a tremendous actor. An Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker, he is very solid here as a Bureau man with a conscience. Slattery, who is one of those “you’ve seen his face but don’t know his name” kind of guys, also does real well as the bureaucrat (pun intended). Terence Stamp is, well, Terence Stamp.

While the movie is being marketed in Bourne-like fashion (Universal has worked with Damon on those films) this really isn’t. It’s a bit of a pastiche – part romantic comedy, part morality play, part sci-fi action thriller. It’s unusual and while not innovative, it fits the bill for a springtime action movie that probably would have drowned in the summer with all the more spectacular blockbusters. Still, it’s a solid and surprisingly thoughtful movie that even has a few religious overtones – you draw your own conclusions as to who the chairman is. This is the kind of movie that has good juju – it’s entertaining and smart. You can’t ask for more than that.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting concept nicely accomplished. Damon is becoming a 21st century Jimmy Stewart.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot ideas are a little hard to follow and the final chase scene is disorienting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a little bit of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the short story which the movie is based on, the lead character is an insurance salesman rather than a politician.  

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the overhead city shots benefit from the big screen, most of the rest of the movie works on the small screen just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: What Goes Up