Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Max Greenfield
DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton
GENRE: Drama

He did a lot of shitty things, but he had his moments. If I had to pick one quote from the movie to sum up Woody Harrelson's character in The Glass Castle, it would be that one. Harrelson takes on the persona of Rex Walls, who was either the most free-spirited drunk, or the drunkest free spirit you'd ever be likely to meet.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton takes on a whopper of a challenge in putting together the screen adaptation of Jeanette Walls' best-selling memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family with a capital "D."

The film opens in 1989, where we meet the adult Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson), a successful gossip columnist for New York Magazine. Her story is told in flashbacks that jump around a lot and can be confusing, but what film have I ever seen that employs this technique wasn't confusing?  You've gotta be up to the challenge if you're going to be a reviewer, because few films are strictly linear anymore. (You don't play this game in short pants, even though most of the attendees in the theater were wearing them!)

Ms.Walls may be the shining example of survival and triumph in overcoming, along with her three siblings, one of the crappiest childhoods anyone would never ask for. Rex Walls, her dad, could never hold down a job and subjected his family to a nomadic lifestyle in poverty-stricken conditions, as he was usually staying one step ahead of the law. He was a raging alcoholic who would go on benders and leave his family neglected and without food for days at a time. His wife, Rose Marie (NaomiWatts), a self absorbed hippie-flippy type who fancied herself as a talented painter, was his enabler. Where the "he had his moments" part came in was that Rex Walls tried to instill in his children an extraordinary sense of independence and self-reliance. In other words, he gave them what they needed to survive HIM. As you will see in the end, it took.

In one sense, I see The Glass Castle as a series of scenes, taut and dramatic, many of which are nothing short of brilliant--each trying to outdo the other on the wow factor scale. The best of them is when dad challenges the adult Jeanette's fiancee (Max Greenfield) to an arm wrestling match. The players are all in on this one--in sports terminology you would say they left it all on the field. The scene transcends into something truly primal. It's worth the price of admission.

Woody Harrrelson, who in real life is a really good guy with a good heart, has nonetheless never shied away from playing some really scary, even sinister types. In acting your alter-ego gets to take over, and Harrelson has taken good advantage of those opportunities. Naomi Watts may be the most versatile of the actresses we see all the time in seemingly everything. They are buoyed by a fine cast of young thespians, most notably Ella Anderson as the young Jeanette.

The Glass Castle is a tad over two hours long, but don't vault out of your seat the moment the closing credits begin to roll, because you get to meet the real Rex Walls and family. Fascinating. That most of his kids still had a soft spot in their hearts for the guy after his passing is a testament to something.

Stockholm Syndrome is my guess.

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

I know it's early yet, and there are bound to be some great performances coming out of Hollywood this year, but my money's on Woody to win an Oscar. It's a real challenge to play such an unlikable character -- and make him sympathetic. Despite Rex Walls' obvious flaws as a father, his spirit is sometimes infectious. Until it isn't anymore.

Harrelson's acting credits began as a likable drunk on the hit TV series "Cheers" and has certainly progressed dramatically since then. I thought it was a wise choice on the director's part to give Woody a toupee to wear. Not only did it make him more closely resemble the real Rex Walls, it made me forget him as a bald psychopathic murderer in the 1994 classic Natural Born Killers.

The Glass Castle was, for me, a gasp-a-minute film. The twists and unexpected turns kept me on the edge of my seat, eyes riveted on the screen. For a family to live in such squalor and actually survive is impressive. More impressive still is the fact that Jeanette Walls, even as a child (played brilliantly by Ella Anderson), was able not only to escape but to become successful. And I loved the irony that she was the closest child to her broken down dad.

The sets, the costumes, the score (subtle as it was) were all authentic as hell. And I have to really struggle to come up with a negative about this impactful film. But here is my miniscule criticism. As the end credits rolled and we were given cameos of the real cast of characters, I felt it went on too long and interrupted what I wanted to be left with after viewing the movie. A few still photographs would've been just as effective. That being said, run don't walk to the nearest theater where this cinematic gem is being shown....


Grade: A +

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

DUNKIRK (2017)






Rated: PG-13

STARS: Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
GENRE: Action/Drama


Imagine one long scene--an action/battle scene--that runs for nearly two hours nonstop. That's Dunkirk. So if you're expecting a little romance or character development to give you a break to catch your breath...forget it! Dunkirk hits the ground running and never lets up, and for edge-of-your-seat adrenaline junkies, that's a good thing.

A mini history lesson. The Miracle of Dunkirk--as it would come to be called--refers to the evacuation of allied soldiers hemmed in by the Nazis on the beaches of Dunkirk, France in the spring of 1940. Over a period of eight days, more than three hundred thousand troops were rescued by a fleet of over 800 civilian boats and merchant ships of all shapes and sizes. They raced to the rescue as the German Luftwaffe bore down on the trapped men. The Royal Air Force engaged the German fighter planes and bombers, contributing to the success of the operation.

What characterization that exists in Dunkirk follows three main threads: A British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who in the beginning helps a comrade bury a body in the sand. We follow their resourceful fight for survival; a teenage deck hand (Barry Keoghan) who clambers aboard a boat piloted by an older man and his son as they head into harm's way, selflessly hoping to make himself useful; and an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) whose dizzying aerial dogfights with the enemy are perhaps the most riveting sequences in the film. We're right in the cockpit with him, and the emoting is accomplished primarily through facial expression.

RANT ALERT: Dunkirk is loud. I said, DUNKIRK IS LOUD!!!  (Results may vary in your area.) The CRASH-BOOM-BAM of Hans Zimmer's overbearing soundtrack never lets up. That together with bombs going KABOOM and artillery fire going RAT-A-TAT-TAT and torpedoes going...

You get my drift.

It's a literal assault on the senses. (Oh my virgin ears! as we used to say in high school). I suggest earplugs--seriously--especially if you see it in IMAX, and you should, to get the full effect. (Why should I be the only one to suffer?)  In my case, the problem could have been mitigated by theater management who didn't have their heads up their you-know-what. They could have made some adjustments to the decibel levels that are already way too high to begin with for just regular films. But I can now see that most moviegoers of a certain age are already half deaf from being in the front row at concerts by Led Zeppelin and The Who. And the teenagers in the theater are unfazed by anything. So nobody walked out. But after the film I overheard one lady say that somebody should complain to the management. I can see it now. She's standing there trying to tell them about this decibel issue, and they are going,  WHAT? WHAT???

Anyway, as far as battle scene recreations go, Dunkirk is top drawer. Bombs away!

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

To quote tennis legend John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious, Tim!" (I added the last word.) The sound levels in the theater I saw Dunkirk in were manageable. And that's about the ONLY positive thing I can say about this meandering, tedious film. The first fifteen minutes could have easily been cut and nothing of consequence would have happened. We know that thousands of British troops were trapped on the beaches waiting for a miracle because we are told this in a typed message on screen. Not once, not twice, but three damn times. (At first, when this happened, I thought there'd been some technical difficulties, i.e. that the studio had sent a faulty CD.)

Okay. So it's a war movie with the makings of a brilliant plot thanks to history. Only problem? Too many threads and not enough cohesion.Dunkirk was peppered with famous actors with cameo parts, a sure sign for me that a movie is in deep doo-doo. Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance — who at least has a decent part. But like war itself, the cuts are messy, the message muddled, the battles bloody and untidy. Still, I say, "Where's JohnWayne when you need him?" Without anyone to root for—except history—I got bored. I only cared about Rylance's character Mr. Dawson and his tension-filled trawler. The blame for this, I place squarely on Christopler Nolan, who both directed and wrote the script.    

To quote IMDB's bio of Mister Nolan, it reads: "Best known for his cerebral, often nonlinear storytelling...." I couldn't have said it better myself. And after the movie let out, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read: "Go to hell cuz I'm going to Texas!" I figured the guy would certainly have something to say about the movie so I asked him. In typical Texan fashion, he had just three words: "I was bored."

But if you want to see some breathtaking, belly-wrenching spitfires in action, get thee to the nearest screening of Dunkirk. If you're lucky, the deafening noise will make up for all the movie's flaws....

Grade: D






Thursday, July 6, 2017

THE HERO (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon,  Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman
DIRECTOR: Brett Haley
GENRE: Drama

If it weren't for Sam Elliott's voice--the most distinctive in all of showbiz--he wouldn't be who he is today. The same can be said of many of us who have traded upon our dulcet tones to eke out a livelihood. In the opening shot of The Hero, that's exactly what Elliott--as faded western movie star Lee Hayden--is doing. Laying down voice-overs--in his languid cowboy drawl--for "Lone Star Barbecue Sauce...the perfect pardner for yur chicken."

Lee's glory days are behind him. But he's a survivor. In this instance, survivor of a shopworn plot about a man trying to make amends for being AWOL from the lives of his loved ones for far too long. And with a recent cancer diagnosis throwing him for a loop, he will learn what it means to be a literal survivor. 

So it would seem that a May-December romance is the last thing he would need right now. Lee sits around smoking a lot of weed with his buddy-slash- drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). At Jeremy's place Lee meets the comely Charlotte (Laura Prepon) who is dropping by to score some shit (that's stoner talk, for the uninitiated!)  Charlotte is mid-thirties, just a tad older than Lee's daughter, but lucky for him (he's 71) she digs older guys. And he's a celebrity, so no one is going to look askance at the two of them together, as that's the norm in Hollywood anyway.

There is great chemistry and emotion--often conveyed only by the eyes--between Elliott and Prepon, whom you may recognize from That '70s Show and Orange Is The New Black (and though she started out as a blonde, she is more intriguing here with the darker hair).

The most electric scene in The Hero comes when Charlotte--who does stand-up in the mold of Sarah Silverman--goes onstage with a raunchy tell-all bit about herself and her new beau, with Lee in the audience, stunned and appalled.  He hails from an era when folks--especially women--had a bit more class. And there, my friends, is the gap you have to bridge in any modern day romance of this sort. 

Katharine Ross, who was BIG at one time, is in the film, and she has billing in the opening credits, but if you blink you'll miss her. She plays Lee's ex-wife, but has what I would call even less than a cameo--appearing in two very brief scenes, and you won't recognize her as the sweet-faced obsession of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Or from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (It's probably the glasses.) Ross is Sam Elliott's real life spouse, and that accounts for why she is even in this movie. But she is wasted here. Though she may have figured she was just helping him out a little, and no longer feels drawn to the spotlight. 

Krysten Ritter, as Lee's estranged daughter who is so mistrustful of him now that she's like a puppy you have to coax out of hiding, may have you scratching your head as to where you've seen her before. She's been in a surprising number of films, and various sitcoms such as Gilmore Girls (I wasn't going to admit that I used to watch that sometimes). She's a good fit for this role, though her looks are too perfect, especially when you look at "Lee"...then you really have to scratch your head! 

Aside from needing to trim his trademark moustache (don't you hate it when the hairs are starting to curl down over the guy's lips?), Sam Elliott's noteworthy--and possibly Oscar worthy--portrayal carries the day in The Hero.

 He's a man who has to become the hero of his own life...and that's something to which we can all aspire.

Grade:  B + 

POSTSCRIPT: As I was leaving the theater, a couple walking in front of me were holding hands. She was forty-ish, and he had clearly put seventy in his rear-view mirror. He could have been her father, but that wasn't my sense of it. I started thinking that The Hero might trigger a rash of younger women looking for that daddy figure in their lives to come out of the closet. 

If it does...bring it on!



JILL'S TAKE

(Dream on, Timmy. Dream on!) Although I'd been told that the audiences in Tucson were flocking to see this flick, the theater I went to in La Jolla was nearly empty. So be it. Some men are sexy no matter how wrinkled they get. Sam Elliott is one of those men. (Along with Clint Eastwood and Christopher Plummer.) But The Hero isn't just about senior sex appeal, or estranged father/daughter relationships, or May-December romances. It's about a subject many of us will unfortunately have to face: The Big "C.'' And whether, after reaching a certain age, seeking treatment is the best option. (The old 'quality of life' conundrum.)

On a personal level, I've seen what chemo can do to a loved one and, believe me, it ain't pretty. I won't give away the choice Sam Elliott's character makes but I will say that most cancer patients don't run into the likes of Laura Prepon after learning they have a 7% chance of recovery.... 

Aside from the shock value of the comedy club scene that Tim has already described, my favorite was when Lee was put on hold, trying to make an appointment to see his oncologist -- while Grieg's "Anitras' Dance" from Peer Gynt played endlessly over the phone. How many times have you had to wait endlessly, trying to make a doctor's appointment? (If I had my way, I'd have Chopin's "Funeral March" playing in the background!)

Despite the sometimes confusing and disruptive flashbacks, The Hero is definitely worth seeing—and talking about afterwards.

Grade: B+
  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)






Rated: R

STARS: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Landecker, David Warshofsky
DIRECTOR: Miguel Arteta
GENRE: Dark Comedy/Drama


We live in a politically polarized nation (I'm talking about America--if you are outside the U.S., I don't know at this point whether to congratulate you or send my condolences). So it was inevitable that a film such as Beatriz At Dinner would come along--prompting us to titter at ourselves in grin-and-bear-it fashion, while simultaneously providing plenty of food for thought.

Salma Hayek is riveting as Mexican immigrant Beatriz--a massage therapist/ holistic healer with a deep empathy and love for all critters great and small. Her car breaks down during a professional visit to her client/friend Cathy (Connie Britton), and she becomes an unscheduled guest at the dinner party being thrown that evening for an ensemble of perfectly shallow upscale southern Californians--headed by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a sociopathic land developer and big game hunter.

Things start out with polite interaction between Beatriz and the other guests, though they reveal their vacuity with comments like "I love Cancun" while Beatriz is relating a story about her early life in Mexico.

The fireworks begin when Strutt passes around a digital image of himself posing beside a dead rhino that he has gunned down somewhere in Africa. Beatriz sees red and fires off a verbal barrage--throwing his phone at his head to emphasize her point. Her righteous indignation seemed to win over the audience in the theater. But then director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White felt the need to portray her as someone becoming rapidly unhinged from that point forward (out of character from everything she stands for), as if to say we don't want to take sides between the Trump and the Bernie factions, so let's give each something to roll their eyes about.

And while Lithgow's villainous Doug Strutt grabs center stage the way he grabs up land for shady development deals, it is Connie Britton as Cathy who gives the most layered performance as the "friend" who has nothing but praise and admiration for Beatriz in the beginning, then shifts ever so subtly as things go along to reveal herself, in the end, as being just as shallow and ruthless as the people she hangs out with.

As we approach the Fourth Of July, I recommend you see Beatriz At Dinner. The incendiary battle of ideologies embodied by Hayek and Lithgow's characters is worth the price of admission--though the ending will leave you up in the air (a pun) as to what really happened and what it means, as well as a feeling of being somewhat underfed by the mere 77 minutes of running time.

Grade :  B

JILL'S TAKE

Beatriz At Dinner is not a film for the faint-hearted. It will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth no matter which side of the political seesaw you are teetering on. Salma Hayak's performance is as authentic as they get. But to sound like the superficial ladies at that dinner party, I might also point out that Salma's 'put on a few' since her Oscar-nominated performance in Frida. ("That Mexican food will do it to you every time," those ladies might whisper, cattily.) 


What I thought was very well scripted was how blissfully unaware the guests were of their own prejudices and bigotry. It reminded me of my dad when I chose to marry a Jew. His classic response? "Why, some of my best friends are Jewish!" When I tried to point out that his statement was making "them" different than "us," he replied: "But they are different! They give more money to public institutions, they respect education more!" I shrugged my shoulders and prayed that he wouldn't greet his new son-in-law with that some-of-my-best-friends line. (Which he did within five minutes.) I felt that this movie depicted that kind of insular ignorance extremely well. 


Acting kudos go out to John Lithgow. Big time. Having recently seem him portray Winston Churchill in the Netflix series "The Crown," I found it remarkable how such a tall actor could play such a short, squat man in his final years as England's prime minister. And do it so convincingly.


But the film took a turn for the worse towards the end. And what really pissed me off was the happily-ever-after images at the end. I haven't given anything away here but if you see Beatriz At Dinner, you will know immediately what I'm referring to. You don't do sad and then tack on happy. Life just doesn't work that way.


Grade: C +






Friday, June 16, 2017

NORMAN: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg
DIRECTOR: Joseph Cedar
GENRE: Drama

Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don't. You won't get that until the end of the movie. One that is well worth sitting through to groan at my little pun!

So here we have Richard Gere. I never thought I'd see the day when he would totally dampen down his sex-appeal to play a character as quirky as this one. Gere is Norman Oppenheimer--a New York City flim-flam man. A schemer. A dreamer. A name dropper. Always working some angle that's going to hopefully put him into the black. But he's not very good at it. The epitome of those who live lives of quiet desperation, and he wears that look like it's painted on him from start to near finish of Norman:The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.

And while Norman has some visually delightful and imaginative cinematography, Gere's character is as drab as anyone could ever look. He wears the same overcoat and "old guys' cap"--you know, the one that's supposed to look sporty but only old dudes wear them--throughout the entire film! Wardrobe expenditure for Mr. Gere: next to zilch.


Where Norman's rise begins is when he gloms onto Micha Eshel  (Lior Askenazi), a visiting Israeli politician. He buys the man a pair of shoes at a swanky boutique and nearly faints dead when he sees the price tag.  It turns into the best investment of  his life when Eshel becomes the Israeli prime minister.  For a while, Norm is living his dream of schmoozing with the movers and shakers. But where there are politicians there will be scandal, and our man finds himself smack dab in the middle of it, headed for a fall (hey, they tell you that in the title, so no spoiler there).


His years as a major heartthrob may be a thing of the past, but Gere is adapting nicely and establishing himself as a fine character actor. And there are noteworthy performances from Steve Buscemi--as a RABBI no less; and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist; Nymphomaniac) who uncharacteristically keeps her duds on the whole time while delivering a sensitive portrayal as Norman's chance encounter on a train. And Lior Ashkenazi's character, whether he's up or he's down, is muy sympatico throughout. 

The thing I pondered as I left the theater is whether our protagonist changed even a whit in the end. Because Norman has only one gear (pardon the pun), but it's fascinating to watch him roll through the stops signs as he goes for broke at every turn, desperately trying to stay in the race. 

Grade:   B +


JILL'S TAKE

The best thing about this loser of a movie are the puns it created in Tim's review. I kept thinking "This has got to get better!" But it didn't. Not by a long shot. It's never easy to sit through a film where the main character is so desperately needy and sychophantic. And I, for one, prefer Richard Gere as an aging sex symbol to a smarmy weasel like Norman Oppenheimer. I have to give the director Joseph Cedar credit, though, for enlisting the talents of so many fine actors. Steve Buscemi was already mentioned but there were cameos by the likes of Michael Sheen, Hank Azaria and Harris Yulin. But that's the ONLY thing I'll give Cedar credit for.

I still don't know what half the movie was about – and couldn't care less. I found the score intrusive when it interrupted those endless conversations Norman insisted on having with people who avoided him like The Plague. There were so many loose ends in the script that it felt like a shag rug gone rogue.

But I try to find something positive in every review I write, so here goes: I applaud the acting of Lior Ashkenazi. Very believable. (And it probably doesn't hurt that he's an Israeli playing an Israeli politican!) Interesting last name:Ashkenazi Jews are people who are descended from the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe. Around 80% of the Jewish people around the world are Ashkenazim, including most American Jews.

Regardless of what you believe, "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" is – like its subtitle – painfully long-winded and uninviting. 

Grade: D -

Monday, May 29, 2017

THE LOVERS (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts,  Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen
DIRECTOR: Azazel Jacobs
GENRE: Comedy-Drama

How many times can you lie to your spouse and get away with it? Indefinitely, apparently (or nearly the length of an entire movie), when both partners are doing it in the casually absent-minded way of those who've settled into the  comfortable but dispassionate rut that all long-term relationships seem to be subject to at one point or another.  The Lovers, then, could have aptly been titled The LiarsThe Lovers is a good title, though,  because it implies the irony of the situation.  

Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are a mid-life couple who are cheating on each other. Michael's muse is Lucy (Melora Walters), a children's ballet teacher. Mary's new squeeze is Robert (Aidan Gillen), a younger, aspiring writer. Both Mary and Michael are under pressure from their lovers to end their spousal relationship. The tension builds, often in subtle comic fashion, as neither of them are quite up to the task of following through. But their college student son and his girlfriend will be coming home for a visit, and each of them plans to drop the bombshell on the other right after the kids leave. Then a funny thing happens. Out of the blue, Michael and Mary start getting randy with one another again. It's that everything-old-is-new-again thing, brought about by that everything-new-gets-old-again thing. OMG--now they're cheating on their lovers with each other! There's your story complication, and we are half grinning, half cringing for the remainder. 

Things are not this breezy all the way through. Michael and Mary's son (Tyler Ross) acts more like a five year-old throwing a temper tantrum than a young man who's been on his own in the world for a little while. His behavior stands as a ringing indictment of his upbringing, something else that his parents will ultimately have to reflect upon. It all comes to a head in the powerful climactic scene. Here's where Debra Winger, one of the best in the business, gets to shine.

Winger, at age 62 in real life, is still eminently doable, in my book. So it's not at all implausible that she, as Mary, would draw the attention of a younger man. Lucy and Robert are also attractive people. The oddball in this foursome is Michael. He is the epitome of nondescript, and borders on what Marlon Brando might refer to as a "big tub o' guts" (beaucoup points for you if you can name the Brando flick that comes from!) Why either Mary or Lucy would have been drawn to him in the first place is unclear. Was this an error in casting (Tracy Letts)? I thought so at first. Then I realized that when I am out and about, I see what appear to be mismatched couples all the time. Only THEY know what the attraction is, but if they are happy, more power to 'em.

The Lovers shows us the fickle frailty of the human heart, and why it's constantly tripping us up. It's saying things we already know to be true, but are too bound by convention to admit to one another... or to ourselves.

Grade A 

JILL'S TAKE

Well we agree on Debra Winger, who I've been in awe of ever since An Officer And A Gentleman (1982). Aside from her overall sex appeal, I'm drawn to her Suzanne Pleshette voice. Deep. Throaty. (Pardon the pun!) But Hollywood has ruined me as far as watching old people have sex. Namely tubby Tracy Letts -- whose credits include writing the script for August: Osage County(2013). It's realistic, I'll admit. But so uncomfortable to witness.

Scriptwriter/director Azazel Jacobs must have figured this out, too. As he gave Lett's character a backstory that made him attractive in his earlier days as an aspiring jazz pianist. (They say women will turn a blind eye to a guy's physical imperfections as long as he plays a musical instrument.) But there's a scene towards the end of this movie that made me cringe even more when the fat, unfaithful spouse starts nostalgically playing a song on the piano (which he hasn't touched in years) and sings. Oh god. It made me miss seeing the oldsters screwing! 

But at least I had no trouble getting the message of this film. The tagline for The Lovers should have read 'the grass in always greener...'

Grade:  C+

Thursday, May 18, 2017

THE DINNER (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, Chloe Sevigny
DIRECTOR: Oren Moverman
GENRE: Drama

You think your kids are monsters? Well, where do you think that comes from? Here's a hint: look close to home...look pretty close to home.

Two couples meet at a pretentious "fine dining" restaurant (always remember that fine dining is a code phrase for pretentious and overpriced).  Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) is a congressman who's running for governor.  Paul (Steve Coogan) is the politician's younger brother, a history teacher who's becoming increasingly deranged as he battles mental illness. His mother was a whack job and the strain has been passed on. Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall are Claire and Katelyn--Paul and Stan's spouses respectively.

Stan wants to discuss some weighty issues, but he never gets to them because his assistant (Adepero Oduye) keeps butting in with "I'm sorry, but you really better take this call." Is it any wonder why their sense of self-importance gets blown way out of proportion?  

Eventually it is revealed that the two couple's 16 year-old sons have perpetrated a heinous crime upon a homeless woman sleeping inside an ATM kiosk. Just for the sheer glee of it. But the identities of the perpetrators have not been discovered by the authorities, and there's a chance they won't be. So now we have the existential dilemma among the four adults. Turn the boys in and hope for mercy from the courts...or cover it up and hope it goes away? They are scrunched between a rock and a hard place as the possible effects of this unforseen detour of fate upon Stan's political future loom large. In the process of what follows, each of the parents tip their hand as to what kind of people they really are. And it isn't pretty.

Paul is the most interesting character here, as his tenuous hold on keeping it together slowly slips away--leading to a desperate and misguided act near the end.  For the most part, Steve Coogan is believable in the role.  If Paul is the most interesting, then Claire is the scariest of the bunch. She starts off as something of a sympathetic figure--she's dealing with cancer--but if there is such a thing as "spontaneous" mental illness, the transformation takes place before our eyes in her frenzied and illogical defense of her son as she tries to make black white and vice-versa. It has to be difficult to play such a burgeoning psychopath without veering off into soap opera territory, and unfortunately she steps over that line. But Linney has been a fine actress for a very long time, and I won't mark her down much for that. Rebecca Hall holds her own as the disgruntled congressman's wife who puts them all on notice that she's only going to take so much shit. And Gere, with this performance, ought to run for something. What makes The Dinner special is that the only character in the movie with any integrity is the POLITICIAN! (Yes, I'm tempted to re-label the genre of this film as fantasy.)

I should say something about the ending without giving it away. As the closing credits rolled abruptly onto the screen, a patron a few rows down from me shouted, "THAT SUCKS!" That was my knee-jerk reaction as well. Now, having had some time to let it marinate, I'm sure there was a method to the madness (pardon the pun) of director Oren Moverman concluding the drama the way he did.  I just haven't figured out what it is yet. 

I'm giving The Dinner a higher grade than some others might, on the strength of a very good cast and at least it wasn't boring. 

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE
I loved the ending! And that's not like me—having made the point in previous reviews that I prefer things spelled out. But unlike the idiot who sat near Tim, I felt the up-in-the-air ending was exactly like what happens with real family impasses: they never get totally resolved. And I felt that the fancy restaurant setting, complete with a cadre of waiters serving each course, was almost a separate character in and of itself. (The only sane one of the bunch!)
I can't say enough about Steve Coogan, whose American accent was spot on. I remember seeing him in Philomena with Judy Dench (for which he also cowrote the screenplay) and being super impressed. And his character was so believably rational one minute and mad as a hatter the next. No wonder it rubbed off on his wife. And probably their son. 
By the third paragraph in these shared opinions, I usually write about some cinematic flaw. But with The Dinner, I can't find one. The score was minimal -- as I felt it should have been. The flashbacks were totally followable (is that even a word?).   My only criticism might be how small a part Chloe Sevigny had as Barbara Lohman, Richard Gere's first wife. (As sane as she seems, one wonders why she ever married him?) You won't leave the theater smiling. But you won't leave it unthinkingly, either!


Grade: B+