The Dinner–Food for Thought

The Dinner movie


This darkly suspenseful tale of two privileged families is based upon the Dutch author Herman Koch’s bestselling 2013 novel.  The families struggle to make the most consequential decision of their lives, all over the course of  dinner at an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. Upper class privilege and sibling rivalry are at the heart of The Dinner, a psychologically astute family saga. 

A middle-aged high school history teacher, Paul (Steven Coogan), and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) reluctantly have dinner with Paul’s elder brother, Stan (Richard Gere), a prominent politician running for governor, and his second wife Babette (Rebecca Hall).

We slowly become aware that a savage and heinous family trauma has occurred.  As silver globes are pretentiously lifted to reveal dinner courses, a family secret will soon be revealed.  The setting underscores the absurdities of deeply unhappy, entitled lives, hiding underneath the shimmering surface beauty of elegance.  Appearances are deceiving.  Paul despises the pretentiousness of the restaurant, as much as  he does his brother’s success. Neither brother wants to be at this dinner.

Reminiscent of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” or Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie”, The Dinner ominously guides the viewer to witness the desperate tenacity a parent will resort to in order to secure their child’s future or the dissolution of a marriage, sometimes both.  Is no act too reprehensible? What if collateral damage is unavoidable?

The Dinner just ends, as if in mid-sentence. I personally loved this. Some reviewers and audience members absolutely hated this. Questions of morality and justice remain unanswered.  Viewer beware:  There really is  no one to root for or like.  But the four characters are equally riveting and their moral dilemmas persuasive.


And this is what makes The Dinner so compelling.  It is a dissection of family obligation and where it ends.  As Stan, the gubernatorial candidate responds, “family is always political.” 

It will not be for the viewer who seeks the cozy, the redemptive or the uplifting. If you are such a viewer, do not see this dark, noir, nihilistic film.  The specter of no moral compass is hinted at throughout. 

This is a different review because of  The Dinner’s not insignificant flaws. The Dinner does not become a spellbinder until way into the second half of the film.  The first languorous forty-five minutes are almost too painful to watch, except for essential snippets of the family’s history.

As difficult a task as this may sound, persevere even though the irrelevance of most of the first half of this movie may wear you out.  When The Dinner does finally reach its climax, the movie crackles, incendiary and explosive. All four actors give extraordinary, unsettling, and unforgettable performances. More cohesion and restraint in editing would have made The Dinner truly exceptional.

Note: Available on Netflix streaming.

Dawn Wall–They Persisted (The Only Wall to Consider?)

Dawn Wall documentary

Dawn Wall was last year’s SXSW Audience Award documentary winner. Free climber Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, attempt to scale the unscalable 3000 ft. Dawn Wall, a vertical granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Dawn Wall  is much more than a documentary about climbing, however.  There is the horrific incident in Krzygistan, the years of gaining experience climbing the other faces of El Capitan, and the friendship with two female climbing partners, both of whom he had married. After an accident, Caldwell resolved not to stop his free climbing but persevered, often blurring the boundary between commitment and obsession.

All can appreciate Dawn Wall,  even if you don’t have a clue about climbing. This is an engrossing documentary that is, first and foremost, about the friendship between Caldwell and Jorgeson. Kevin Jorgeson was inexperienced as a free climber but expert at “bouldering”, a type of free climbing at 50-100 feet.  Together the two climbers   spend more than six years meticulously mapping and practicing their route. Their resilience and courage are beyond astonishing as the two climbers make history.

Dawn Wall is about the indefatigable human spirit, and the ability to overcome and accomplish the impossible. The power of friendship and supportive brotherly love in the face of adversity is beautifully crafted. While Caldwell’s obsessive nature is apparent in almost every frame of this movie, he avoids narcissism in the turning point of their climb.

This is where Dawn Wall transfixes the viewer. I felt like I was literally hanging on the side of the mountain with both climbers as they slept in a portaledger tent suspended in mid-air and laughed about what they ate and how they adapted to toilet needs as they climbed for weeks.  This isn’t really a sports film. 

The magic is in this amazing journey between kindred spirits. The fact that there are two humans in a partnership without jealousy or competitive pettiness outstrips other movies about supra-human feats and endurance such as “Man on a Wire” and “Free Solo”.  The need for human companionship and sharing in the victory makes Dawn Wall more compelling.  Adversity and setbacks drive their  personal challenges but  their friendship triumphs over all.   Dawn Wall is full of heart and soul, for everyone who has experienced hard climbs, slipping and losing our grip, and then pushing through.  Highly recommended!

Note: This YouTube behind-the-scenes clip is an added bonus for appreciating the heroic efforts the film crew undertook as well!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — The Golden Rule

There’s a lot to like about producer/director Morgan Neville’s moving,  2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Neville (who also created 20 Feet from Stardom – see my August 19, 2018 review) interviews just about everyone who knew Fred Rogers– his wife and two sons, his longtime cast and crew on the pioneering PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood  (1968 to 2001).  Some baby-boomers, their children and their grandchildren grew up on the soothing words of Mister Rogers:

   So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day/Since we’re together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be  mine?/Won’t you be my neighbor?”

        Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was pokey enough to be cringe-worthy for adults who wondered how their children could be spellbound by a nondescript, unassuming man in a cardigan, who changed his shoes while singing the same opening song for almost forty years.

Fred Rogers, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the mid-60’s, soon realized that television could be revolutionary and that children’s lives would be impacted by this new medium.  Why not offer a show that deals with a child’s feelings–anger, fear, self-esteem, grief–to prepare them for their new world?  Mister Rogers proved to be a master at eliciting children’s  feelings, and recommending  trusting grownups to listen.    Daniel Striped Tiger–Mister Rogers’ alter ego in a furry puppet form– tackled the everyday emotional needs of pre-schoolers with respect, honesty, and thoughtfulness rarely seen on television then or now.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  Without preaching but with integrity and visual connection, Mister Rogers would show by example.  Soaking his feet in a kiddie pool with his friend, the African American policeman, Officer Clemmons,  demonstrated community in a time of segregated swimming pools.

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes first meeting Fred Rogers, he recalls that Rogers put his face three inches from Ma’s while gently smiling at him.  “He scared the hell out of me,” says Ma.  Rogers did the same thing when he first met the gorilla Koko, who then held his hand and signed that she loved him.

Under Mr. Rogers’ seemingly bland exterior was a true radical.   Here was a white middle-aged man inviting everyone to live in his neighborhood, regardless of color.  And his cast reflected diversity not yet seen on most shows today.

Almost hagiographical in scope, Neville does reveal one of Fred Rogers’ blind spots.  The actor who played Officer Clemmons had been to a gay bar.   Rogers soon informed him that if there were any future visits to gay bars, he would be terminated out of fear of losing corporate sponsors. The inclusion and fostering of community revealed in the context of its time was  still not universally accepting. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? elevates this classic children’s show and its star to a standard we need to remind ourselves of and recommit to.  The unspoken question is:  What would Fred Rogers think of a culture congealed into a state of outrage, vulgarity and intolerance?  How would we build a neighborhood and live together in an era of proposed wall-building?

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood   was a realistic lens on how a child must make sense of an emotionally complex and sometimes irrational world. 

 It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows. It’s oxygen: It’s vital, and needs to be nurtured.

When you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? you don’t see a Republican or a Democrat.  Mister Rogers speaks to the fundamental ways we should all speak to each other.

Note: Available on PBS.com and Netflix DVD.

Bordertown, Season 2–Borderline Thriller

This long-awaited Finnish noir thriller’s second season continues to feature the quirky and sullen detective Kari  Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) and his partner, Lena Jaakola (Anu Sinisalo),    as they obsessively pursue a series of grizzly murders similar to the first season of 2016 (see my July 23, 2017 review of Season 1) .  The format of Bordertown Season 2 is similar to the first season, namely  five criminal cases, each two episodes in length.

This dark and moody crime series swept Finland’s top TV awards in its first season, winning Best Drama, Best Actor and Best Actress and was the most-watched series in Finland’s television history.

The two crimes which are the most gripping–“The Rite of Spring” and “Bloodmaid”– are both  bloody and dramatic with  themes of infanticide and pedophilia (“The Rite of Spring”) and predatory stalking (“Bloodmaid”). We burrow into the wormhole of the criminal mind and its darkest, most sickening secrets and lies.

Season 2 is a mere shadow of the first season with a lesser quality of writing and  egregious plot holes. The lead detective, Kari Sorjonen, is reduced to a caricature of his earlier self. Often distracting, odd, and gratuitously annoying, Sorjonen now possesses a layer of over-the-top facial and body tics. Poking at his head, presumably to demonstrate to the viewer that he is a brilliant criminal analyst, and even stepping on documents to somehow inspire his investigative skills, this portrayal of Sorjonen is fraught with cliche and formula.

I will wait until Season 3 to see if Bordertown continues to cover the ground I loved in the first season, namely a complicated emotional family life that propels Sorjonen to solve crimes in order to keep his family and community safe.  This season did not move the needle forward with sufficient speed, sagging sometimes painfully, when tighter structure of each crime would have made Session 2  taut and mesmerizing.

Note: Available on Netflix streaming