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.

“Ozark” (Season 2): “Dexter” Meets “Breaking Bad”

 

 

Ozark Season 2

Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman), his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), teenage daughter Charlotte and son Jacob continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago. The introduction of Helen Pierce ( the stunning Janet McTeer) as the attorney for the drug cartel ratchets up the ruthless and cunning subplots that made Season 1 of “Ozark” (see September 20, 2017 review) so addictive to watch.

The Byrdes are finally settling in to the Ozarks, compartmentalizing their illegal activities which they excel at with their determination to instill family values in their children which they fail at.

Dangers are everywhere–within their family, obviously from the cartel, but also from an Ozark family “cursed” to a life of crime–the Langmores– and from another Ozark family–the Snells– who are heavily involved with both local politics and maintaining their own hold on distributing illegal drugs from their “poppy” farm.

Ironically, Ruth Langmore (talented newcomer Julia Garner), yearns for a way out of the “curse” blocking her attempts to find the family and values she wants.

All three deformed families conjure up writhing snakes in a pit in which survival is ugly, bloody, and momentary advantage is the key stratagem.

The Byrdes find that every transaction involves betrayal, violence, and passive witnessing of atrocity. In the process, each member of the family gives up a piece of themselves until there is not much remaining of themselves to give up.

Marty’s mantra is that we all make our own choices and are responsible for how our lives turn out. But “Ozark” demonstrates–like “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter”–that circumstances can limit our options, until we become so flawed that we feel cornered and trapped with no options.

In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content?

This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.

Note:  Ozark is a Netflix Original series.

Ozark–A Stark, Dark Thriller

Ozark Netflix original series

This Netflix Original series (released July 21 of this year) was created by screenwriter Bill Dubuque (known for The Accountant, see my review). Ozark is so good it approaches the standard set by “Breaking Bad”.

The series showcases Chicago financial planner Marty Byrde (a sensational Jason Bateman from “Arrested Development”) and his wife Wendy (the impeccable Laura Linney of “Masterpiece Theater”)  a homemaker turned real estate agent. The couple relocate with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

What ensues in ten episodes is a taut thriller with plot twists which are neither slow nor predictable. Ozark is populated with some seriously heinous flawed characters: think Walter White. But then again “flawed characters” are just more interesting, as long as we can understand their motivations. There is no message of hope–at least not so far. and the only reality we witness is of extremely wounded personalities.

The scenes from the Byrde marriage recall the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney have a conjugal dance that leaves the viewer cringing at each blow and confrontation.

Although the acting and dialog are brillant, Ozark may fall outside of some viewers comfort zones. While you would not want to be friends with ANY of the main characters, a few scenes may be “over the top” for some.

One criticism I do have of “Ozark” is that the minor characters who live in the Lake of the Ozarks are playing to type–or maybe stereotype–of rednecks–uneducated and desperate– who can’t think of any other life choices besides crime. There are a brother-sister pair attempting to escape their circumstances but tremendous fear and family loyalty prevent them from exiting their miserable situation. Mexicans are also stereotyped as either in drug cartels or “cleaning toilets”. Those aspects of Ozark I find offensive, and wish screenwriters would work a little harder at making their point rather than perpetrating stereotypes. The narrative is otherwise superb.

“Ozark carefully guides the audience through the story, sometimes to excess. (For example, one episode unnecessarily is devoted almost entirely to backstory.)  However, Ozark is far from predictable. Bateman’s disarming and deceptively complex performance contributes greatly to his character’s evolution. He’s not sympathetic, and he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. He is desperate to protect his family as well as to survive. He is smart, employing any ruthless means at his disposal.

Please hurry with the release of the next season!

Note: [Not a spoiler alert) The finale is an editing anomaly in comparison to the preceding episodes. I thought it was a bit sloppy and melodramatic, detracting from the overall craft of screenwriting throughout this notable series.

 

“Mr. Holmes”—Not the Sherlock We All Know

 

Mr._Holmes_poster

“Mr. Holmes” is an imaginary and revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year old dispirited and retired detective, featuring the incomparable Ian McKellen in the title role. This 2015 British-American film , based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, takes place in Sussex two years after the end of the Second World War. This interpretation, among the many Sherlock Holmes we have seen, focuses on the lonely and contemplative man struggling to remember his last case, not the analytical mind associated with the world’s most famous fictional detective.

Holmes, in the first stages of dementia, retires to his remote country home in a Sussex village with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (the superb Laura Linney) and young son, Roger (played by the astonishing newcomer, Milo Parker, who is a standout in every scene with McKellen). The young boy and his dour mother are the only human contacts Holmes now has. Holmes’ memory isn’t what it used to be.

Soon we see that Holmes has forgotten much of his last case’s details as he tries to become accustomed to retirement. Holmes only remembers fragments of the case: a confrontation with a worried husband, a secret with his beautiful but unstable wife, and a puzzling side story about the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and a Japanese family. Having returned from a journey to Japan where, in search of a rare plant for dementia, Holmes has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare and seems visibly shaken. The little boy Roger gradually becomes his closest confidante and assistant in recollecting what happened to the woman in his final detective assignment.

What I loved about this film? It captures the nuances of aging, of losing the identity most treasured but now diminishing as dementia sets in. The pace, unfortunately, can be painfully slow , even for BBC. Multiple flashbacks do not help either, leaving the viewer to guess why these scenes are important, but often frustrating with plot holes (especially the Japanese subplot).

Although “Mr. Holmes” is not fast-paced and not to all tastes, it is a niche movie for those who like character-driven stories as the main plot. The layering effect of the years and lives and incidents in the story require close attention. “Mr. Holmes” is an introspective journey—into the rabbit hole of the mysteries of life and love, before it is too late to remember.

“The Big C”– Memento Mori or “Remember You Shall Die”

Big C 2The last stages in the cycle of life and death have finally attracted film and movie producers. I am talking about the formerly taboo twin topics of aging and death.  Perhaps as we baby boomers and our children, the “echo boomers”, see that the inevitability of death needs to be part of our cultural conscience, movies that sympathetically but unflinchingly portray aging and death have been increasingly gaining mainstream audiences and awards.  To name a few:  “Departures”, “Away From Her”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”  “Hope Springs”, “Quartet”, “Amour” as well as books such as “The Year of Magical Thinking”.  Is this is a societal flashpoint which marks a cultural change only beginning to take place? The subjects of aging, the changing of the landscape of relationships and friendships, the glibness of those who are trying to offer comfort have never been portrayed in such starkness.

And now the award-winning Showtime television series, “The Big C”,–“C” is for cancer– just finished its four-part special finale to close its four-season run.  The story is Cathy’s (the remarkable Laura Linney):  a middle-aged high school teacher with terminal cancer who wants to be happier with her husband (the subtle actor Oliver Platt),  more involved with her  teenage-son (newcomer  Gabriel   Basso,  a mentor to her college-aged friend (Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame,) and a moral support to her brother (the unforgettable John Benjamin Hickey).   She wants to enjoy her last days with those around her –with a powerful energy to embrace what life she has left. The first three seasons celebrate the joy of fulfilling one’s bucket list and preparing for death with acceptance and positive control over how one chooses to die.

Fearless in its honesty about cancer, people who have to deal with a loved one’s cancer, and the broader topics of death and dying, the final four episodes of “The Big C” are riveting. The viewer cannot look away–even if the uncomfortable connections between life and death seem unbearable. “The Big C” portrays the balancing of living and dying, since death is the most uncertain certainty we know. Cathy decides to die alone: for her a death with integrity and with respect for her family.

Cancer is perhaps the most frightening medical diagnosis one can receive.  It is also, metaphorically, a mutiny of one’s self in which the death of the body is an attack on itself.  Life is savagely unfair at times, and Cathy faces this with triumph, dignity, and uncommon grace.  The horror is not minimized, although I could quibble about the ending not being as bold as it could have been. Nonetheless her journey in the face of death assumes mythic significance.  Dissertations could be written on the beauty with which this unforgettable program deals with the ineffable.