“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.

“Genius”

” A stone, a leaf, an unfound door” haunted me when I first read Thomas Wolfe’s ” Look  Homeword, Angel”. The prose, or poetry, was transfixing. Its editor Maxwell Perkins was not in my thoughts at the time.

I will be reading the 1978 National Book Award Winner, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg purely because I loved the film based on it!  Contrary to most of the British and American film critics, I was mesmerized by the  hazy color pallet, the stark profiles against gauzy light, the rain drenched and smoke filtered cinematography.  The way Colin Firth  ( Max Perkins) opened the doors to every room in his house was masterful, just like the man himself.

His daughters were lovely and Laura Linney, as his wife Louise, was just as full of wisdom as her husband. They were part of The Great Generation. Self-doubt and self-sacrifice did not keep them from becoming the sounding boards for values and virtues. Screenwriter John Logan makes this clear when he has Max in not- too -prim- fashion tell Tom Wolfe ( Jude Law), his surrogate son , that sleeping with “working girls” counts ( as wrong).

Perkins works from the premise that the work is Wolfe’s and that his job as editor is to bring good books to the readers.  We believe this even as we watch Max skillfully manipulate Tom into changing his book’s  title.   Max nudges , never demands: “Scott changed his title:  Give it a think.”

I loved seeing the red copy-editing and marginalia. This was his ( Perkins’) work.  As old -fashioned  as red pencils are , I know that work and there is joy and drudgery in it. This film showed its importance.

One of my favorite scenes was when editor and writer were on the commuter train out of Grand Central Station. Wolfe is telling Max “until I met you, I never had a friend.” He compares himself to Caliban- “monstrous and deformed, alien, hurt and stunned into poetry.” Max continues Caliban ‘s story by quoting his own memorized Shakespeare. We have soul mates in their love of words.

Jude Law does manic well, and his southern draw is praise worthy. In the first half of the film, we are as enthralled with the Wolfe ‘s genius as Perkins is. Wolfe is a life force of tumbling, expressive feeling. Almost, the polar opposite of the staid, reflective Perkins. Both, however, are work obsessed, and the women in their lives suffer and bemoan the hours spent without them. Unlike, Louise Perkins, whose frustration comes from the fear that Max  is missing out on his daughters’ lives;Nicole Kidman’s Mrs. Ailine Bernstein is less sympathetic. Bernstein has left her husband and children to become Wolfe’s mistress and muse. She is manipulative and feels that her sacrifice of dignity must be rewarded by Thomas’ devotion. Kidman has never been a favorite of mine and this portrayal does not change my feelings for her talent.

When she tells Max that Tom ” liberates you, and when he leaves you, you will never feel so,alive again”, she delivers her lines spitefully. When she says , ” I’ve been edited” , she delivers without humor or irony. ” After him there is a great hush”, could have been the best line of the film, but it came across as only pathetic- devoid of any other meaning.

Other than letting Ms. Kidman do her thing, Director Michael Grandage orchestrates this literary drama with verve and discipline. The setting of New York City in 1929 is all black umbrellas, bread lines, fire escapes, cigarette butts and black wing tips. Charles Scribners and Sons’ library-like offices and rows of typists all get the viewer ready for the ” all aboard” call. Once Law enters Max’s office the talk never stops. Wolfe’s exuberance  is heady and flamboyant. He whisks us away with his talent. He is emotionally “out there” .  Only later, do we see him as self-indulgent and superior, cruelly calling Louise’s playwrighting, an anemic literary form. He is grandiose in his own estimation of himself.

Max reads as he walks, reads as he rides, reads as he derides Tom’s  four-page paragraphs. Two years it takes to whittle 5,000 pages. I especially liked the oral give and take as Max and Tom wrestle with compromise as they prepare his second novel. Max tells Tom that he doesn’t need the lightening bolt. He doesn’t need the rhetorical. If a boy falls in love for the first time does he go to sea life to describe it ?Perkins doesn’t think so. Tom should cut the Wordsworth and get to the point. Tom says he hates to see words go. Max says Wolfe loves the images. If Max were Tolstoy’s editor there would only be War and not the Peace, he rejoins. It is a great scene.

Perkins reassures Tom that cavemen told stories so that no one would be scared of the dark. Stories are not frivolous ; they illuminate our lives. Later, he cajoles Tom for not knowing how to ache for others. Maxwell Perkins is the real star of  this script. As the editor of Hemingway , played beautifully by Dominic West, and of F.Scott Fitzerald, played rather dourly by Guy Pearce, Max Perkins showed he had a gift for making and keeping friends, but as he told his daughter Nancy, “some people just go away.” Well, Maxwell Perkins and his tears  will stay with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Mr. Holmes”

Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. ~ Joseph Wood Krutch

Don’t miss director Bill Condon’s film “Mr. Holmes”. I was entranced with some of the best acting I have seen. The seventy-six -year- old Ian McKellen is so masterful that he brings tears to the viewers’ eyes in his show of joy, of fear and of grief. This performance just can not be missed on the big screen. McKellen’s silences, his stares, his impatience and his show of regret are astounding.  Playing a ninety-three- year-old man,who is  still filled with the wonderment of learning about the world and how to live in it, touches our souls.

The film based on a novel I have not read, (Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of The Mind”) shows Holmes losing his belief in the absolute power of pure logic. At his most indulgent, Oliver Wendell Holmes (  a real person and true American  Brahmin and contemporary of Longfellow) once stated that “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind over-tasked”. Here  Arthur Conan Doyle’s character,Sherlock Holmes, rather cruelly learns that intuition and feeling reference things that logic alone can miss.

The subsequent suicide of a young woman thirty years ago had precipitated the end of Holmes’ career. Now,dealing with major memory loss (that his physician has asked him to document with dots in a journal), Holmes is sadly obedient. Conundrums now posed are bedeviled with lapses of short-term memory as simple as the name of his housekeeper’s son.

Roger is the ten-year-old son played by Milo Parker. His character is exceedingly gifted and in awe of our detective’s methodology and rational carriage. It is lovely to see Holmes correct this bright boy’s put-down of his mother’s language and reading acumen. We have the feeling that the younger Holmes was as saucy. Parker,too,is an amazing actor with his wide eyes and constant questions and sassy,quick comebacks. McKellen excels in showing his delight and approval all the while reminding us of what the grade school detective must have been like. Now,boy and man swim together in the sea. Enjoy the clear language of Holmes’ : “Come along or we will lose the day.” Whether working in his apiary or watching the film, “Lady Grey” where an actor stars as the detective, Holmes states that ” Logic is rare. I dwell on circumstance.” When Roger asks Mr.Holmes what will happen to his bees if he dies, our detective says, “I can’t solve everything!”

Age and the passage of time is a motif in all three storylines: the case that caused Holmes to retire,the widowed housekeeper’s work to provide for her son,and the misplaced revenge of a Japanese national. Flashbacks to Japan include Hiroshima-scared faces and ground devastation. Holmes brings back prickly ash,a supposed remedy for senility. Asked by the young Roger of the herb’s side effects, Holmes responds with “hope”. “Forgetfulness the cure.” When Mrs.Munro  (Laura Linney) asks what to do with it,Holmes snarkily says,”cook with it to enhance your specialities.” McKellin’s earlier groans and subtle question of ,”Is that for dinner?” are right-on delightful in their old age commonness.

Laura Linney is herself masterful. Her protectiveness,tenderness and anger will stay with you. “Spite” and “malice” are words her son uses. She marvels, “Where did you get words like that?” Still she has her mother’s lesson, “Lesson, there then. Don’t say everything you think.” You will knowing smile at the film’s and her last line: “The workers do the work.”Mrs. Munro is  not talking about the bees!

Besides incredible acting all around and multiple story lines,we learn factoids of bee husbandry, the glass harmonica, and how the dead are not so far away when they are remembered with love and with well-placed  stones. We learn that Watson saved Holmes by “bringing him back from the brink” and writing a fictional tale where Holmes was the hero. Early on we learn that there are many misconceptions about Holmes, wearing a hat and smoking a pipe are two. The wrong house address is another. One truth abides Holmes tells his young friend,”When you are a detective and a man visits you, it is usually about his wife.”

On Monday afternoon,at one thirty on July twentieth,2015, there were sixty people in the theater,all over sixty. All were drawn to the screen as soon as McKellen’s steam train left Cuckmere Haven Station. You will be drawn,too, as you learn about “Welsh pony” boys,invisible stories,Catholic “sins of desire”,cowardice cloaked in sacrifice and the fact that logic alone can not explain human nature.