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

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

CSA: The Confederate States of America


CSA: The Confederate States of America

Heroic soldiers of the Confederate Army raise the Stars & Bars over Mt. Suribachi.

(IFC) Charles Frank, Rupert Pate, Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson, Harvey A. Williams, Arlo Kasper, Robert Sokol. Directed by Kevin Willmott

There are watershed moments in history that are so significant, we are often prompted to ask “what if” those moments didn’t go the way they actually did.

The fall of the Confederacy is one such moment. Writers like Harry Turtledove have speculated on what the world would look like if the South had won the Civil War. Here, director Willmott gives us a look in a highly original method. Inspired by Ken Burns’ influential PBS documentary “The Civil War,” he posits a British documentary on the history of America that goes counter to what the Confederate government has taught its people and asks questions that the government doesn’t want the American people to consider.

In this version of history, Judah Benjamin (an actual historical figure) convinces England and France to come to the aid of the South, supplying troops to help Robert E. Lee overwhelm the Union army at Gettysburg. As a result, the Confederacy wins the war and conquers Washington DC. Abraham Lincoln (Kasper) attempts to flee north to Canada, aided by Harriet Tubman. They are caught, Tubman summarily executed and Lincoln sent to a military prison where he languishes for two years before being pardoned and exiled to Canada, where he lives in bitterness until his death in 1905.

The film is narrated by Frank in a dry manner that nails what you would hear in actual British documentaries. Much of the information is communicated by a pair of historians from opposite sides of the coin; Confederate historian and apologist Sherman Hoyle (Pate) and Patricia Johnson (Johnson), a Canadian historian descended from American slaves who fled to the Great White North. There is also John Fauntroy V (Peterson), a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party descended from one of the founders of the Confederacy and whose family has achieved Kennedy-like status in this alternate universe.

A further conceit is that the documentary is being transmitted on broadcast television for the first time, and there are commercials interspersed for products, many of which I won’t repeat here because they are so offensive. However, many of them are actual products from American history and those that aren’t, like a website for online slave auctions, might well have been.

Director Willmott is an academic, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and displays an academic’s perspective, which leads to an overly dry sensibility at times. Still, he also has a deft hand at satire and when the movie is at its best, it is genuinely funny and thought-provoking. However, the movie can be scattershot; when the movie isn’t working, it can be awfully uncomfortable. This may well be on purpose or to help us examine our own attitudes towards racism. In any case, no less a personage than Spike Lee has put his stamp on the film, whose name is attached to the film as a “Spike Lee presents” type of thing.

This isn’t for everyone; the production values here aren’t exceptional and the acting can be a mixed bag. Still if you look at the big picture, the movie has plenty to offer and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a movie that makes you consider your own values somewhat.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some genuinely cutting satire here and when the movie works, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: When the movie isn’t working well, the viewer feels more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Younger sorts may not understand that this is a satire and not an actual documentary. There is a good deal of racist invective (necessarily, given the subject matter) that may be disturbing to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The faux D.W. Griffith movie The Capture of Dishonest Abe includes footage from actual D.W. Griffith movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Flags of Our Fathers