“The Dinner”

This operatic film structured on a dinner from aperitif through digestif will take you on a morality ride close to Dante’s Inferno. Terrifically acted, scripted and choreographed from the 2009 Dutch novel, ” The Dinner” by Herman Koch, was first translated in English in 2012. The film, directed by Oren Moverman, centers on psychopathic teens, and it ignites all 311 pages of Koch’s psychological thriller cum satire.

The film begins with a cracking sound, like a glass slowly splintering. Images of plated food, cemetery graves, more plated food, and delinquent teenaged boys in a pool hall set up an outline of sorts. We see Steve Coogan looking down from a second story porch, and he becomes an Oscar contender with his portrayal of a mentally disturbed former history teacher with a tons of emotional baggage.

While the upscale restaurant server overly explains the “crayfish dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions and chanterelles”, Paul looks at the small portions and chides ” drizzle of famine”.

At first, we are inclined to identify with Coogan’s Paul Lohman. His brother Stan is a charmer, a Senaor, who portrays himself as a man of the people~ only better! He is Paul’s older, more successful brother, and a hard act to follow. Paul’s bitter resentment and ascerbic tongue soon becomes more than gentle mockery. This is not a healthy man.

Paul’s brother Stan has parlayed a table at a restaurant with a six to eight month waiting list. It is here that the two with their current wives are to hash out what to do about their 16-year-old sons and the horrifying act they have committed. There is a manhunt for the evil-doers, but the cousins remain unidentified. Who knows what, and who does what becomes the film’s central focus.

Director and writer Oren Moverman’s words are as caustically modern and brutal as any put to screen.  The themes of delusion and self-interest hold a warning here. Inchoate prejudice and class priviledge rise to the surface. Mental health and family negotiations are sub-themes. This is a film which may be better than the book in guiding the viewer to disgust and outrage. Ironically, the privileged Senator Lohman, played remarkably by Richard Gere may be the only moral person in the bunch.

Marketed with the come-on, “How far would you go to protect your child?” “The Dinner” delves into the terrain of deviant children and their aftermath. Told in flashback and with unreliable narration, this doesn’t feel like an American film. Artful frames of mind-crazed visuals are both starkly colored and sometimes muted and triple-focused. If you haven’t read the book, you will have to work here. Listen carefully to the well-paced script, and beware of the crazy step-moms. Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall will chill your blood as much as their callous killer stepsons do. I found “The Dinner” an art film with deplorable characters creating a cinematic tension that is not to be missed.

When the words, ” the system will fail them, we won’t” , and ” you are making someone else’s tragedy ours” are spoken, we feel like we understand what is wrong with the world. The final scene with the family members all in cell phone chorus throws ” The Dinner” into a farce for the twenty-first century.

“The Promise”

The thirty-eight year old Guatemalan-American actor, Oscar Isaac, can not do much wrong in this reviewer’s eyes. The camera loves him, too. But the one scene in “The Promise” that will stay with every viewer is the tear rolling down the cheek of that dark-eyed and heavily browed face of his. His face can master any emotion, and staring in the first American film to be  made about the 1915 Armenian genocide gives that face full play.

Filmed like the 1960’s epic ” Dr. Zivago”, he is our Omar Sharif, but with more conscience and a sweeter, cerebral passion. As Mikael Boghosian, a Turkish-Armenian apothecary, Isaac ‘s emotive eyes glint with medical ambition. He promises to marry a sweet village girl for a dowery of 400 gold coins. He will then have the funds to travel to Constantinople and study at The Imperical. His fiancée, Maral ( Angela Sarafyan ) and he will come to love each other.

Once we find Mikael in Constantinople at his uncle’s villa and see his visceral response to the worldly Algerian, Ana ( Charlotte Le Bon ), who teaches his young cousins dance and Parisian songs, we are ready for another love triangle, commensurate with the one in ” The Ottoman’s Lieutenant” ( reviewed here March 14, 2017 ). This Turkish funded film does not address the genocide of the Armenians, while ” The Promise” angerly asserts the inhumanity of Talaat Pasha, the Turkish minister. The grand visier of the Ottoman Empire is a war criminal in this film.

The cinematography of Javier Aquirresrobe with its unique manipulation of light from the close-ups of an emerald green money pouch to the reeds near a stream will enthrall. Narrow paths, donkey rides, and beautiful vistas are a respite from the scenes of carnage. His balanced eye and romantic flare serve ” The Promise” well. His overhead shots are amazingly beautiful.

One of the most harrowing scenes is Mikael’s escape on the roof of train cars carrying Armenian villagers to be exterminated. The Holocaust analogy is clearly made.

Director Terry George does equally well with a rather poor script. The dialogue oft seems out of era, for example, Ana’s ” I need to sort things out with Chris. ” Or Maral ‘s father’s ” After the wedding, you will head for the hills…” Likewise, Christian Bales seems a tad out of place as the American journalist. He does well with adventuresome and abrasive, but not so well with wooden dialogue like, ” I wish to go with the orphans to record this for prosperity.”

Secondary actors make a strong presence in ” The Promise”. Aaron Neil is a villainous Pasha; Marwan Kenzari, a friend for all ages. Shohreh Aghdashloo is moving and almost biblical as Mikael’s mother, Marta. Firelight confessions, vengeful thoughts, true friendship and shared loves all converge.

The beautiful score by Gabriel Yared merges with actual 1915 photos to pummel the viewers with epic emphasis. “There are no words”, only echoes.

Viewers will not forget Oscar Isaac’s horrendous grief scenes. Nor will they forget the lies. ” There is no war here. Merely, a reassignment to a safer region.” Even, the vizier’s blatant grab at his victim’s insurance money ring of modern evils. “The Promise” is a belated toast to Armenian survival at a little over two hours.

“Their Finest”

Pacifist war movies are quite the thing this year, and I am glad.  ” Land of Mines” ( reviewed here April 6, 2017  ) and “Frantz” ( reviewed below) are two examples.  ” The Ottoman Lieutenant” ( Reviewed March 14th, 2017) and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” ( reviewed April 12th, 2017) are two more. Dutch, German, French, and now British films mark the way for wartime reflection after the fact. “Their Finest” is not a very memorable title, but the re-visiting of wartime film making is: inspire a nation with a story.

What could be better than 700 boats rescuing 338,000 men ?! Dunkirk with an artistic hook.

Making a film to counter the brutal and dispiriting reality of war must be up-lifting and authentic so goes our storyline. A Welsh lassie named Catrin Cole (Gemma  Arterton) is just the girl to get it done. She is hired by the British Ministry of Information to aid Tom Buckley ( Sam Clafin) . Catrin is to include a convincing female viewpoint and uplift a nation. “Putting fire in their bellies” morphs into putting love in our stars’ hearts, but a sparing romance is only one part of our story thread.

Independent women, acting, writing- the humanities all support the cause of making a war movie during war. These are bullet makers of the metaphorical kind, who will inspire a nation. Catrin has problems of her own as she supports her artist/lover ( Ernest) and handles his second-bread-winner status and the tension this causes. Her mantra of ” I earn” still roils some men today. One of my favorite lines comes from their interchange after Ernest is found in bed with another woman. As Catrin speedily removes herself from their garret, Ernst jumps from the bed and follows her. He asks for understanding and then says, ” maybe I shouldn’t have painted you walking away”. Catrin coolly answers, ” maybe, you shouldn’t have painted me so small.”

Amid air-raid practice films, watching the brainstorming of three screen writers is half the fun. Tom, played so well by Clafin, is a cartoon scriptwriter, brutal and rather dispiriting. Catrin is hired to write ” slop”, the name given for female dialogue! One movie storyboard reads: boat, beach, twins. The next idea is changed to hero, dog, and safely home. Dunkirk and the civilian boats that come to the trapped soldiers’ rescue will be the setting and the action. Tie the film-making during wartime to romance, and we have a film that is tragi-comic.

Criticisms from the bureaucracy over the script are humorous. To portray engine failure may cast doubt on the expertise if the British. Catrin is grand at incorporating small, authentic details like a Frenchman attempting to kiss one of the woman boat rescuers. Feminism is underscored with the crisp lesbian secretary telling Catrin that ” a lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes.”

What could be funnier than an aging, narcissistic actor parlaying a leading role?!  Bill Nighy ,as Ambrose Hilliard, commands the screen the same way he demands to drop his ” corpse role”, a star dead before act three. His ” mirror practice” is hysterical as is his mentoring the toothy American actor. Yet, it is our aging thespian who seems to understand the power of the dramatic arts. He instructs the deflated and grieving Catrin with, ” We have these opportunities because men are lost”.

Jeremy Irons plays the minister, who wants an American in the film, even though there are no Americans at Dunkirk. One of the reasons for this inclusion is because over ninety million Americans view a film once a week compared to thirty million Brits. Americans are the brunt of many jokes. ” No barbells for the American” being one. ” Can the American’s teeth be real?! “Just pretend you are Errol Flynn. He can do anything.”

One of the most striking effects of “Their Finest” is the British ethos of ” staying calm and carrying on”. The film’s cinematography, the frames tinted in browns and blues, reinforce a shared sacrifice and the reality of bombs exploding everything into ash. When Tom turns up the music so he can drown the bombs out, we see this spirit, too.

Danish director Lone Sherfig has our emotions roller coasting  throughout the film. She shows women taking charge on and off camera. The London Blitz and Dunkirk are revisited in a unique way both highlighting the arts and the ladies. Beautifully acted and enjoyable fare.

 

“Frantz”

Cinematographer Pascal Marti gives us cobblestoned markets, highly romantic lake scenes, and 1918 postwar strivings that are uplifting and haunting. A cemetery, a parlor, and a bar are reoccurring sites that are exquisitely filmed in gradations of gray. If the images and the story are lovely, this period piece is even more elevated by the acting of Paula Beer. Director Francois Ozon has centered his film on her, the German female protagonist, rather than the French soldier, Adrian ( Pierre Niney) , who attempts to gain solace as he claims to have been close school friends with her dead fiancé, Frantz Hoffmeister.

The source material for “Frantz” is the play, ” The Man I Killed”, by Maurice Rostand ( 1891-1968 ). In 1932, director Ernst  Lubitsch adapted  the story in his film ” Broken Lullaby”, starring Lionel Barrymore. Eighty years later, writer -director Francois Ozon collaborates with writer Philippe Piazzo using the same Rostand tale. Ozon films an anti-war themed romance that shows that forgiveness is more important as a virtue than nationalism.

We are in the small German town of Quedlinburg in the cradle of the German Reich. In the Bode River Valley, with the Harz Mountains to the South, Quedlinburg is one of the best preserved medieval and Renaissance towns in Europe. Marti makes good use of his lens in capturing the ancient facades of Abbey and stonework. Black and white with alternating color frames are used. Some flashbacks are in color, but I saw no pattern kept. Stark black and white and muted tints fade and bleed into each other, like the psychological scars of war.

Beer, only twenty-two, is stunning as the would-have-been bride, Anna.  She lives with her would-have-been in-laws as they all grieve their fallen soldier. A year has passed, and Anna is in resigned peace, more then emotional turmoil. She visits Frantz’s grave daily and leaves fresh flowers. She strides down cobblestoned streets with the clomp of a soldier herself.

Ozon, who has done erotic thrillers like ” The Swimming Pool” ( 2005) with Charlotte Rampling, takes a tender, Truffaut-like stubbornness to the screen here. Anna reminds me of his ” Adele H”, ready to sacrifice all for her man~ even one that may not be worthy of her. Edouard Manet’s painting ” Le Suicide”, will have a different reason to be included in ” Frantz”.

Anna has quit her studies and lost her will, yet she is self-possessed enough to use a sharp tongue toward Mr.Kreutz, an intrepid suitor. When Adrian regales her and Frantz’s parents with “stories from Paris”, he brings some comfort. In his hotel room mirror, he sees himself as Frantz.

Anna takes Adrian to the river bank where Frantz proposed. In a sensual scene Adrian stripes to his underwear and swims. Anna sees the scars of a wound on his stomach, and hears him say that his only wound is Frantz. Anna reads Adrian Frantz’s last letter to her, and the two silently reflect on the dead Frantz.  At this point in the film, I thought that Adrian may have been gay. As she reads her fiancé’ s description of a ” sea of corpses”, Adrian abruptly says he must go.

Later, Adrian reads poetry from Verlaine and plays the violin in sweet, high tones only to collapse in the Hoffmeister parlor. He leaves town, and Anna leaves to find him.

All of this mystery is superimposed on the guilt war brings: to the survivors, to the enemy , and to the fathers that urged their sons to serve the fatherland.

In France, older fathers sing “La Marseillaise” and with surface nationalism hiding deep  prejudice. Peace is not easily  made: War is not easily over. In juxtaposition, the German father has told his household that ” Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.” When Herr Hoffmeister gives Frantz’s violin to Adrian, he says it is like giving his son’s heart to his friend. We find out that this is not the case.

Wind blows throughout the film, and the lies fall like leaves. One of the most beautiful scenes is again auditory. The letters from Frantz are read with both the Frenchmen’s  and the German’s voices merging. Humanity is humanity.

Anna does a Virginia Woolf, but is saved by Mr. Kreutz. Frantz’s parents respond by putting her to bed and saying, ” you helped us survive, now we must help you.” Anna goes to confession, and takes good advice from a priest, who does not believe that truth conquers all. Forgiveness is beset with ” return to sender” missives. A savvy French mother, a fragile artist son, and a fiancée named Fanny, and the proverbial train station scene keep us guessing until the end. And love makes us want to live. Enjoy this retro film, it has much to say that should not be lost.

“Raw”

An original French, coming-of-age, horror film! Even with vampire motifs and the ultimate cliche ” blame the mother” ending,  this thirty-three-year-old  director and screenwriter has pulled something off. Julia Ducournau directs and writes a short ninety-eight minute psycho-drama that will keep you interested even if you are not a  horror genre fan.

Justine ( Garance Marillier) is sixteen and will be joining her sister, Alexia, ( Ella Rumpf)  to study large-animal, veterinarian medicine. Like their parents before them, they get caught up in the hazing culture of the school. But this is not laid out chronologically.

We begin with a startling scene. A tree-lined roadway with a small figure walking towards us. We see a car coming the opposite way. The figure is gone, but then suddenly and purposely, it jumps into the car’s path. The car swerves and hits a tree dead on. The figure gets up from the lane and opens the car door. What is this? Not at all what we expected. Thus begins the most bizarrely original film I have seen in a long time.

Horror films spend lots of time setting up normalcy. Buying into the “this-could-be-me” frame of mind is important to the experience. And what could be more traditional than parents delivering their daughter to college? We have the family dog, the bare feet resting on the car dash, the dad’s kiss and the teasing “brainiac” nomenclature.

On the road trip, three family members stop at a cafe to have lunch. They are vegetarians (sort of). The mother makes a scene of support when a piece of frankfurter is buried under her daughter’s mashed potatoes causing her to gag and spit the onerous particle onto her plate. The cafeteria ladler is subjected to a long lecture beginning with, ” What if she were allergic?”

Actors Joana Preiss and Laurent Lucas are perfect as the parents nonchalantly dropping their youngest in their alma mater’s  parking lot with her red suitcase, the color of blood. Her sister, an upperclassman, will meet her and get her situated. What we have is a relaxed right of passage.

From here on out,  nothing is relaxed. Justine is roused from her first dorm  sleep by loud shouts, masked intruders, and a ski pole as tribal spear, thrust menacingly. Seventy-five to one-hundred newbies are herded onto elevators and stairways in their undies. Braless and  shirtless, they are made to crawl on all fours. Justine meets Adrien ( Rabah Nait Oufella) as she is kicked forward. Lights flash in a disco-club atmosphere, and the girls are ordered to “slut it up”. A few comply. Justine finds her sister who is totally wasted, and we wonder why this ” Lord of the Flies”  initiation is so prevalent in otherwise tony schools.

Still in thongs and undershirt, Justine is led by flashlight to the specimen lab. Alexia shows her things dangling in fluid. From pranks like mattresses being thrown on the lawn to gory slime thrown down on unsuspecting white lab coats, initiation week progresses. Our imaginations are stirred when we see horses hoisted into the air in medieval like contraptions, and Alexia with her arm up to her bicep inside a cow. Chants akin to ” the elders are the great ones” are replete with the ultimate challenge  of swallowing a raw rabbit kidney.

All that follows with her used to-be-veggie sis, sets us up for savvy college putdowns that play on many levels. ” Did wolves raise you?” and “Who talks about fucking monkeys? ” are examples. Humor and horror intertwine.

One of the best scenes involves itching. In an excruciating under the sheets sequence, we see Justine hive covered and dreaming of horses on treadmills. All because she missed one question on her paper and pencil test and was poisoned by bunny parts. Teenaged angst and the wish to not stand out in the crowd presage forced diaper wearing and being set-up for stealing a meat patty by her roommate.

The ultimate build-up for crazy shocking involves sister Alex attempting to give a Brazilian wax to Justine. The camera work is amazingly fresh and when Justine lustily snaps at a raw chicken breast and later vomits hair balls from her pica problem, we don’t know whether to laugh or scream. If the viewer is surprised by Justine and Alexia’s enjoyment of flesh, the next scenes are grossly shocking. Cannibalism reigns in this family and strangers in hospital wards seem to know this. One old man removes his dentures and chomps his gums while his eyes glint at Justine. Little does he understand that this is not the worst she has seen.

Bulimia, sexual exploration, food fights and scatological games are all thrown in. Bodies painted yellow and bodies painted blue writhe to mix green on the color wheel. A lip is bitten off and a tooth swallowed. Sisterly betrayal, a roommate’s murder, and a mother directing her daughter ” to eat her veggies” leads us to an even more shocking surprise. When Dad tells Justine that she will find a solution, we know he has adjusted to the bad~the very bad. Family dynamics are documented as honestly in this film as in Arthur Miller’s ” Death of a Salesman”. Sorry Indy only kept it on the screen for two days.

“Personal Shopper”

French director Olivier Assayas directs Kristen Stewart in yet another film. Their link first being “Clouds of Silas Maria” ( reviewed May 2, 2015 ). Here, too, life is short, personal, and mysterious. And, here too, Kristen Stewart is a personal assistant. And, here too, the cell phone plays a central role. Stewart is no longer Valentine, but Maureen; and she still likes to imagine herself  in her famous boss’ clothing.

Stewart is in frame the entire picture. She plays haunty, fragile, and competent well. Her mannerisms can be similarly seen as she is being interviewed on Jimmy Fallon this week.  The same intense, jittery, leg and sweeping hand motions elicit fear, shame and grief. She is always on the verge of something.

The title does not do justice to this spirit seeking drama. We begin in the Parisian fall, in a sparsely furnished villa with padlocks,  grilled French doors, small terraces, and smokey light. Atmospherically , we have a ghost story with moaning noises and creaky floors. We follow Maureen through almost every room as she whispers her dead twin’s name. ” Louis, are you here?”  Waverings of light play on the plastered walls. This is where the viewer will either buy into the spirit world or not.

Stewart in leather and helmet motorcycles to haute couture shops and Cartier’s. Her  busy, but bauble-loving boss, Kira, provides her with blank checks and admonitions not to try on her purchases. We shop with her as she easily picks out   Five-hundred dollar belts and two- thousand dollar purses. Kira ends up murdered, and we are back again to Maureen studying abstract art, mediums, and early spiritualists. We learn that Maureen has the same heart malformation that killed her twin brother. Vibes and Morse code-like rappings continue, and we have a second night at the villa with faucets turning themselves on full blast.

Another ghost portal produces vomiting ectoplasmic images. Maureen crouches in fear and leaves the villa peacefully to relatives. The most innovative spectral sightings may be the cell messages delivered to our ear-bud plugged luxury buyer. Thumbed texts fly like Caspar: “RU real?” “I want you, and I will have you!” “I suggest a game.” “I find Fear interesting.” ” No desire if it is no forbidden.” Can the undead use social media? Ummm.

We meet Louis’ wife, and learn that ninety-five days since his demise that she has a serious lover. Coffee and tea mugs move through the air. There is a shoot out at Crowne Plaza in London and Maureen ends up in Marrakesh . Whether you have ever felt presences or not, toying with the idea in Oman is psychically exotic. Maureen’s doctor has told her to avoid intense physical effort and extreme emotions. Could the light at the end be Maureen’s own unquiet soul ?

 

 

 

“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Emotionally satisfying and beautifully acted, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” brings an idealized story of the Zabinski family to the big screen. Jessica Chastain does some of her best work as the pretty Polish animal lover, who along with her husband’s resistance fighting and know-how is able to save some 300 lives just blocks from the Warsaw ghetto.

Based on the Diane Ackerman book published in 2007,  the film keeps the same title; and, New Zealand director Niki Caro ( Whale Rider 2007 ) brings the same passion to the screen. Jan Zabinski ( Johan Heldenbergh )and his wife Antonina  ( Chastain) must keep the Nazis at bay by acting normally. They socialize at parties with zoo directors from  German cities. They raise their young son and decide to shelter a few close Jewish friends in their home-like villa. Jan realizes that the best way to hide Polish Jews  is right under Nazis noses. He devises a plan to raise pigs outside of the zoo’s enclosures, which have now been taken over by the Germans as an armory.  Later, he uses a truck to gather vegetable peelings from town kitchens, and slyly covers as many Nazi victims  as he can with the porcine fodder.

The German zoologist at the Berlin zoo ( Daniel Bruhl ) is a high-ranking Nazi. He is smitten with Antonina. When the Polish zoo is bombed, he offers to take some of the best Polish zoo specimens to Berlin. Eerily he states his intentions, ” I want to rescue the best of your breed.”  The sexual tension  between Chastain and Bruhl almost throws the movie into melodrama. As Lutz Heck, Bruhl’s lust for Antonina is pivotal to the tension and to his ultimate decision on the fate of Antonina’s son. I found the bison mating scene symbolically over the top. Screenwriter Angela Workman is herself the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants. Her dialogue, like when Antonina tells Lutz , ” You disgust me.” often seems trite. Antonina’ s husband’s jealousy is equally forceful and blunt. ” Put your shoes on. You are not a child.” The film works best with the interplay of restraint and withheld verbal emotion. The character’s faces tell all.

Given the horrific facts about the German occupation of Poland, the film’s  ending seems a tad implausible. The low flying planes, the no-transit train station, the protecting of valuable collections, and the harboring of friends are details worthy of remembrance. This is a quiet story of a valiant family trying to do the right thing. It succeeds here. I especially like the all-knowing zoo manager, Jerzyk ( Michael McElhatton ) . He is both protector and observer of the family and its mission. Extremely loyal and aware of Lutz’s motivations, Jerzyk lies in  telling Lutz that the Zambinskis  have  left on a holiday. He then watches as the  Reich’s zoologist turned Nazi commander shoots a majestic  bald eagle and then commands that it be stuffed.

Chastain is at her best with the young rape victim Urszula ( Shira Haas). In trying to bond with the girl and gain her trust, she empathizes with her own backstory . Her father was shot in St. Petersburg and the remainder of her family ran. ” It is a hard life in hiding. You can never know who to trust.” Again, the dialogue is a tad stilted. ” Antonina continues with the trailer line, ” You look at animals’ eyes and you know what is in their hearts.” A bunny is then given to the girl and this breaks her out of her catatonic stare. The animals and their suffering mirrors  the collapse of natural order. War disrupts and discards. The Zabinskis do their best to right what they can.

This film reminds us that “Hitler is kaput” is the signage that spoke wishful volumes. ” The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a paragraph in one Holocaust chapter. This is all it claims to be. Don’t pass it over or you will miss a chance to see an ordinary family do soul touching things.