Category Archives: 2010s

They’re Watching (2016)

*. They’re Watching is a fairly typical found-footage movie, about the crew of a home improvement show who fly off to Moldova to film the renos a young couple have made to their fixer-upper. I’d like to confess here that I didn’t even know that Moldova was a country. I thought it was part of Romania. There’s no telling what you’ll learn from watching trash movies.
*. The main hook here is that this is supposed to be a comedy, or horror-comedy. And it does have a lighthearted air to it. But it’s not very funny, or even an effective satire, and the fact is we’ve been down this road too many times before. Not just for being another shaky-cam movie but for the asshole Americans (and one Canadian, when it’s convenient) abroad experiencing a round of tourist terror.
*. Just as an aside, I find I’m getting a little tired of movies that simply aren’t very good claiming to be comedies. Or ironic in some way. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to be, but if they’re not funny then this seems to make things even worse. I watched this movie around the same time I watched Tragedy Girls, another supposed comedy-horror that wasn’t funny at all. Perhaps I’m just too old to get it. But I suspect there really isn’t that much to get.
*. In any event, I came away unimpressed. Here are my main complaints.
*. Whatever you think of the found-footage genre, they’re supposed to play by the rules, however awkward this makes the proceedings. The main rule being that everything we see is presumed to be stitched together out of film actually shot by the characters in the drama. That isn’t the case here, as there are scenes that don’t seem to have anybody behind the camera. I thought on a couple of occasions that the witch might be doing some filming, but that doesn’t make sense either.
*. Not that the character of the witch makes a lot of sense anyway. Has she possessed Becky, or has she always been Becky? If Goran hadn’t cheated on her, would she still have gone into full berserker mode? Is she getting revenge on the rest of the crew? For what? I didn’t understand any of this. Or why she needed a director to film her violence. I guess it may fit in with the story of Taliban atrocities, but those dots aren’t easy to connect.
*. You’ll note I didn’t give any spoiler alert for what I just said about Becky being the witch. Apparently this is considered to be a twist. But I don’t see how it could be. Surely we know from the first time we see her renovated house and she starts talking about the basement that she isn’t on the level.
*. If we assume the movie is a comedy, why does it waste so much time building up Greg’s Afghanistan story? Even if it weren’t a comedy why would they bother with all that? It doesn’t relate to anything, and is never used (except to get him a quickie pity-fuck from Sarah).
*. I’m not a fan of the cliché of characters running through dark woods with flashlights. But are we to assume in this film that Becky, and none of the crew, have flashlights? Night vision on their cameras is all they’ve got?
*. The special effects at the end are pretty bad, and all the shaky camera work, damaged film, and scrambled editing doesn’t help. I’m sure they were going for silly, but I’m not sure they even achieved that. It just struck me as being a mess.
*. The idea of making Alex the sole survivor was interesting. Unfortunately, it’s already partly given away in the film’s opening, which gives us a scene from the end of the movie. I’m not sure that was a smart move, or necessary.
*. I don’t have very much positive to say about this one. If you’re a fan of the genre you may find it enjoyable, or at least a diversion. Beyond that, the impression I was left with was that they just weren’t trying very hard.


A Bigger Splash (2015)

*. You know you’re getting old when . . . you find yourself shaking your head at the strange mating behaviour of a group of characters who are getting horny at a vacation villa on an Italian island, and then realize that the leads are both only in their late fifties.
*. There’s a point I’m getting at with this. A Bigger Splash is ostensibly an “adult” film, which means that (1) it’s not based on a comic book or video game, and (2) it’s a drama about people in “relationships” (sorry for the quotation marks, but you know what I mean).
*. But A Bigger Splash really isn’t that kind of an adult movie. This is because the quartet of holidayers have no connection to reality. They are headed by Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star of a previous generation who is now enjoying a celebrity afterlife. The others are Marianne’s boy toy Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), an ex-lover named Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and Harry’s daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

*. Celebrities, and by extension their entourages, don’t live in our world. As A Bigger Splash illustrates they live without responsibilities or consequences. If the restaurant is full and they don’t have a reservation there is no problem, a table is immediately vacated for them. If it isn’t a big enough umbrella, somebody else is getting wet. If there’s a concert in town it doesn’t matter because the whole town will show up instead to see them perform (shitty) karaoke. And if they accidentally kill someone . . . well, you get the picture.
*. Aside from the celebrity angle this remake of the French film La Piscine (1969) does curiously little to modernize the original. It’s a timeless tale of jealous passions. So timeless that as soon as things get started (literally foreshadowed by an ominous shadow passing over Marianne and Paul in the form of Harry’s plane), we know how this will play out. Surely they do as well? After all, aside from poor Penelope they are adults. Aren’t they?

*. I think the tragedy here is that they’re not. All except for Penelope, who is 17 years old and, at the end, I think relieved to get away from Marianne and her freaky, wounded lovers.
*. At least that’s one reading of what’s going on. It’s a movie that’s both exact and reticent. Paul and Penelope remain ciphers to me. I think they may only be fuel for Harry and Marianne, representing a youthfulness that the older couple feed on. They are also both junior members of the entourage, and perhaps there’s something significant that they both get slapped by their elders as a way of trying to put them in their place.
*. A lot of other movies seem to be floating in the background. Night Moves, for example, with Dakota Johnson reprising her mom’s role in that film as the seductive (or aspiring to be seductive) nymph. Or Harry and Paul going full Women in Love in the pool. Another, stronger precursor is Sexy Beast, with Fiennes in the Ben Kingsley role: a force of chaos, a blast from the past that the wealthy expats or vacationers just want to go away so that they can get on with soaking up the sun and having lazy sex.
*. Reading the responses to the film that I’ve seen there seem to be a number of questions that bother people. Here are a few.
*. (1) Is Penelope really Harry’s daughter? I don’t see any reason to question this but many people do. It seems it would be a subject he’d address ahead of his protestations that he’s not fucking her, but I don’t recall him ever doing so.

*. (2) Do Paul and Penelope fuck? I suppose the short answer here is that it doesn’t matter as much as the impression Marianne and Harry are under that they have. Personally, I have a hard time seeing it. They don’t seem that much into each other. But then Paul is such a himbo anyway I’m not sure he’s into anyone as much as himself, seeing sex as just a bit of servicing.
*. (3) What exactly is Marianne accusing Penelope of at the end? OK, this is more a question that just bothers me. But I mean they all know at this point that Paul killed her father, so that would seem to make Paul and Marianne a bit on the wrong foot. Marianne, however, seems to think the kid has performed an act of lèse-majesté against celebrity. Which, I guess, she has. She’s not a Paul.
*. So the police suspect some wrongdoing because the sand was disturbed at the bottom of the pool? Huh? It didn’t look to me as though there was any sand at the bottom of the pool. Even if it were disturbed, what would someone be able to tell from that? Could they tell when it was disturbed? By what, or by whom, or by how many people? This seems really flimsy to me.

*. The cast received near universal praise. I’m not so sure. Fiennes is a fireball, but those roles are, I think, less difficult than people imagine. It’s not hard acting crazy and stealing all the attention. Did I believe in Harry? I certainly didn’t believe that Marianne was a rock star, and I really like Tilda Swinton. Paul is a blank and Penelope is left underwritten — perhaps by design, and perhaps because nobody understood her.
*. Director Luca Guadagnino was turning into a very hot property around this time. He has what I think is a fresh vision and way of imagining old stories, but his weaknesses are also evident: a random sense of pacing, for example, and the presence of poorly digested gobbets of politics. Flaws that were only going to be magnified in his remake of Suspiria.
*. I do think A Bigger Splash is a good movie, but I can’t shake the feeling that it is so, at least in part, accidentally. Despite making me feel old, I could only identify with Penelope at the end and her escape from all that her parents (i.e., characters of my generation) represent. In so far as I can identify with Harry and Marianne, and it’s hard, I’d like to apologize. But, in my generation’s defence, I’d want to add that we’re better than what came before us.

Barbie Blues (2011)

*. It’s the basic porn set-up. A hot girl (Mika) lounges by the pool in a bikini. She sees a dead bird floating in the water. For some reason she feels inadequate to the task of scooping it out with the skimmer so she calls on her new neighbour to come help.
*. The neighbour (Gershon) isn’t the classic pool boy. He’s older, overweight, wears glasses, is bald. But he gets the bird out of the pool and Mika proceeds to flirt with him. She tosses him in the pool. She asks him to inspect her pedicure. She gets him to rub lotion on her back. Just looking at the script you’d know where this was going. Are Mika and Gershon familiar with the script as well? How could they not be? They grew up with the Internet.
*. We can feel the tension rising. From the looks Gershon gives Mika we know she’s playing with fire. The industry definition of a happy ending is inevitable. This upsets Mika, naturally, but she seems to get over it quickly. After all, things might have been worse.
*. I don’t think there’s a whole lot going on here aside from the obvious question of how we apportion blame. This is a slippery point. There is a sexual assault and we don’t want to say Mika was asking for it. We are made to wonder, however, just what it was she was thinking. The signals being sent in such a situation are notoriously hard to interpret, but she’s clearly being provocative in a way that goes beyond merely being friendly. The escalation is on her. Is she without any responsibility for what happens?
*. Looking at things from Gershon’s point of view, is this a case of an assault being more about dominance than sex? That is, to the extent the two can be separated. Note that he doesn’t call Mika a slut or a whore. He calls her a spoiled brat.
*. It’s not obvious how we should judge Mika and Gershon, but then being obvious would kill a short film like this. The dead falcon suggests something destructive in the natural order of things, the chlorinated pool as a form of honey trap. Mika’s going back to just doing what she was doing before this all got started might mean what? Resignation? Indifference? What does the title refer to? The signals are hard to read.

The Meg (2018)

*. 1989 was the big year for underwater thrillers, with the release of DeepStar Six, The Abyss, and Leviathan. In hindsight that year really stands out because there aren’t many such movies. This is mainly because they are much more expensive to make than horror movies set in a cabin in the woods. In the wake of its huge success it was easy to forget that even Jaws had gone disastrously over budget.
*. CGI, however, made it safe to go back in the water. Even if you didn’t have any money, you could conjure up a cheap ocean monster and go for the cheese. This was the approach taken in a number of low-budget Syfy horror films with titles like Sharknado and Dinoshark vs. Crocosaurus. I actually don’t know if those are real titles. But they’re probably close.
*. The Meg basically takes the Dinoshark idea of having a prehistoric giant shark brought back to life. A megalodon, to be exact, hence the title of the movie. This ancient monster then proceeds to cause all kinds of destruction. The main difference between The Meg and Dinoshark is that Dinoshark coast around $2 million to make and The Meg $150 million.
*. So The Meg is bigger in every way than a Syfy cheeseburger. But it needed to be even cheesier. Or have more violence (instead of going for a PG-13 rating). Or more something.
*. It is certainly stupid. Nearly every five minutes I was shaking my head at some utter impossibility in the plot. But this wasn’t a fun kind of stupid. Also, there are no great action sequences. I’m inclined to say that the trailer is just as entertaining as the movie, and a lot shorter.
*. The story is unnecessarily complicated with stuff nobody cares about. Why spend so much time introducing the character of Jonas’s ex-wife Lori when she has no function? Instead there’s some romance hinted at between Jason Staham and Li Bingbing that goes nowhere. The film was a Chinese-American co-production and their awkwardness together made me feel like there may have been too many cooks in the kitchen.
*. I’m not even sure the giant shark looks that much better than his cable cousins. He seemed kind of fat to me. Which is weird because I don’t know what a predator that size would be eating in the abyss.
*. There’s no point dwelling on points like this though. Bottom line: this is a big stupid summer movie that should have been a lot more fun than it is. And yet, talk of a sequel immediately began. Or a crossover perhaps? The Meg vs. Crocoshark? How bad could that be?

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

*. It was worth a shot. I didn’t really care for The Equalizer, but then I didn’t like John Wick and I thought John Wick: Chapter 2 was a lot of fun. And since Robert McCall is John Wick in almost all but name, why not?
*. Well, it didn’t work out. The Equalizer 2 isn’t just garbage, it’s one of the dullest action movies I’ve seen in years.
*. Here’s the set-up: Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is the semi-retired black-ops specialist who is now a Lyft driver in Boston but who also goes around helping people in need. Sort of like a one-man A-Team. He helps a woman whose thuggish husband has kidnapped her daughter. He helps a girl who has been drugged and raped by a bunch of spoiled bros at a party. He helps an old Jewish man (camp survivor, naturally) who wants to reunite with his long-lost sister. He helps a troubled black teen who is in danger of being sucked into the gangster life. McCall is the embodiment of perfect justice: someone you can count on to be there to make things right.
*. That’s not much of a movie, however. We need more. And so his former boss Susan, who still works for the Agency, drops in to tell McCall that she’s the only friend he’s got. We sit back and say, “Marked for death.”
*. Susan is murdered and McCall now has to avenge her murder. That’s the plot. Here are a couple of things, just off the top, that are wrong with it. (1) McCall finds out about Susan’s death 45 minutes into the movie. That’s when things get started! Please. (2) We never really find out why Susan gets killed or who is behind it. There are a bunch of killers in the Agency who have gone over to the dark side and it may be that Susan was going to blow their cover in some way, but it’s never explained exactly what it is they’re up to or who they work for. They’re just introduced into the plot to kill Susan so that Robert can then kill them.
*. You would think given how slow the movie develops that there’d be a little more in the way of plot going on, but it really is that simple. Take the scene where McCall confronts his old friend Dave, who works for the Agency but who is now the leader of the bad guys (a “twist” we see coming as soon as this character is introduced). We’ve heard all of this before, about these specialists who have been trained to kill but then disposed of when America no longer had any enemies (I’m not sure when exactly that was). Dave, and people like him, go from being an asset to an afterthought. Like I say, we’ve heard all of this many, many times before, but never at such length. The scene between McCall and Dave plays out for what feels like forever, and it doesn’t provide any essential information. We never find out anything about Dave and his operation. He’s just an asset who has gone rogue and who is now doing rogue things.
*. What follows are action sequences which are nothing special. Definitely sub-John Wick. The final battle also doesn’t make much sense. The team of specialists go into a deserted town where they proceed to show no grasp of basic tactics whatsoever. Dave, as the leader, climbs up a tower where he is of no use at all seeing anything as there is a hurricane blowing and this is, you know, a town, and most of the time people are in or behind buildings. As his team gets picked off one by one they keep screaming “Eyes! I need eyes!” But what assistance can Dave provide them? He doesn’t have x-ray vision.
*. By the way, you know you’re in trouble when you have to add a hurricane to the mix to make the final shootout come to life. Because otherwise this would just be a very slow and uninteresting version of the end of High Plains Drifter. This way it’s a slow and uninteresting version of High Plains Drifter with wind and rain and crashing waves.
*. Guess what? McCall kills all the bad guys and the black kid goes off to art school and the old Jewish guy is reunited with his sister. This crap drags on for two full hours. I can’t be sure if they were even trying to make a good movie, or if they just wanted to make a movie they could stick the franchise label on. Either way, let’s hope it ends here.

The Equalizer (2014)

*. I’ve talked before about how a successful movie is usually a genre effort that gives the audience exactly what it expects, with just a bit of a twist.
*. Without the twist, what you get is The Equalizer.
*. The premise was taken from a TV show that ran in the 1980s starring Edward Woodward as a one-man A-Team. It’s a show that I must have seen (I watched a lot of TV at the time) but which I have absolutely no memory of. More proximately, however, the model was clearly Taken: a star vehicle meant to rebrand a middle-aged actor as an action hero. It’s a sub-category of a genre that has its own label now: geri-action. In Liam Neeson’s case it worked, at least for a while. With Denzel Washington (originally it was going to be Russell Crowe) the jury is still out, though he was very good in The Book of Eli and The Equalizer did well enough for a sequel to be duly ordered up.
*. In Taken Neeson played a retired CIA black-ops agent who had a particular set of skills that came in handy when his wife and child were threatened. In The Equalizer Denzel Washington plays a retired CIA black-ops agent with a particular set of skills . . . you get the picture. His wife and child are missing in action but he stands as a surrogate father figure over most of his working-class Boston neighbourhood, defending the poor and the weak from various bad guys. In this case that mainly means the Russian mob. They’re so bad they’re not even American. Where are the boyos from The Boondock Saints when you need them?
*. Though the Saints aren’t in much need here. Robert McCall (if that is his real name) is up to not only taking on the Russian mob, but indeed all of Russia itself. He’s a superhero who doesn’t feel the need to use a gun, preferring (and it is a deliberate choice) to dispatch bad guys with lethal ninja skills performed at Matrix-style speed, or with whatever goods and appliances he can grab off the shelf of the local Home Mart hardware store he works at. He’s also mastered the essential art of every Hollywood action hero of being able to walk cool in slow motion. David Edelstein: “when was the last time you saw a lone hero stride toward the climactic killing ground in slow motion? Yesterday? An hour ago?”
*. Don’t be thinking this is just another brainless, soulless action film though. It has a message. You can become anything you want to be in this world if you just believe in yourself, work hard, and stay in school. Reading books is recommended too. It’s all about self-improvement.
*. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the young prostitute rescued from the clutches of the mob. What a clichéd role. I’ve heard that real prostitutes actually resent people thinking of them in this way. Blame Hollywood. I mean, wasn’t Taxi Driver sticking this whole convention on its head forty years ago?
*. At least Marton Csokas as the Chief Bad Guy looks like he had some fun getting dressed up and covered in tats for the role. It’s a worthless part, again nothing more than a walking cliché, but you get the sense he’s feeling it.
*. Isn’t carbon monoxide poisoning a gentle form of torture? Especially if the torturee thinks he’s going to be killed anyway. Being gassed might seem a pleasant exit option. But then the whole scene here where this is played out is pretty silly.
*. As noted, the setting is Boston. We know this because one of the homes has a Boston Red Sox flag in it and there are lots of aerial shots of various landmarks, especially that fancy new bridge (officially, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2003). But aside from that, this doesn’t feel at all like it is set anywhere in particular. I think they were just trying to give a bit of local flavour to the generic material.
*. How the hell did they let such a plain story drag on for 2 hours and 12 minutes? There is literally nothing here. Reuniting Washington with Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, audiences had every reason to expect something more. They sure didn’t get it. And yet they seemed content. So I guess they got what they paid for.

The Ceiling (2017)

*. There’s nothing wrong with using the word Kafkaesque to describe a world of urban, bureaucratic nightmare, but for me Kafka’s spirit has always signified something broader than this. The Ceiling, a short film out of Finland, seems to me to be one example.
*. A man’s wife has just left him. He now lives alone in a cottage, doing what his friend refers to as an “ungodly amount of reading.” Which may simply mean that he’s still reading books in 2017. As he gets up from his chair one day he notices that the ceiling has lowered quite a bit, causing him to bump his head.
*. It’s an absurd situation for which there is no explanation and which brings into question all our assumptions about how the world works. Is Olavi (the man) somehow responsible? Is he going crazy? He shows signs of paranoia. Or is it only paranoid to think so? If so, it may be catching, as his friend Tuomas, who comes to visit, seems at the end to have been infected with . . . something.
*. Like one of Kafka’s parables there is no simple allegorical reading of what such a story is about. Sure, without his wife Olavi’s life is about to get a lot smaller and less comfortable. We get it. But then the ceiling rises again, and Tuomas seems to be having problems.
*. Then there’s Tuomas’s little girl Pipsa. She’s so cute it hurts but I wonder if she’s also meant to have something demonic about her. She has the knowing smile of an imp.
*. As in “The Metamorphosis” the meaning seems to me to lie in the coda, as Tuomas has to call his wife to remind him where he lives. Yes, we are once again experiencing the sheer horror of men without women. On their own they are helpless worms, their nudity after a sauna only underlining their frightened vulnerability. Even Pipsa has more composure and confidence. Who is worse off, Olavi with his elevator of a ceiling (not a glass ceiling, but a real one)? Or Tuomas with his lost helplessness? At least at one point Olavi thinks he may be able to adjust to his new circumstances, make a go of it. We can’t feel so sure about Tuomas’s state of dependency.

Glass (2019)

*. First off, I’ll give M. Night Shyamalan full credit for marching to the beat of his own drum. Glass is a personal and intelligent reflection on comic book culture that doesn’t go for easy points. It’s knowing, but not arch or ironic. Many people described it as Shyamalan’s love letter to superhero comics and I think that’s fair enough.
*. It’s also timely, being released at the moment of peak Marvel: just after Avengers: Infinity War and just before Avengers: Endgame. Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson, who seems miscast to me) specializes in people who believe they are superheroes, a form of delusion of grandeur that is approaching an epidemic. Instead of the Three Christs of Ypsilanti we have a trio of comic book heroes and villains introduced in the previous two instalments of the trilogy: Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Overseer (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable and the Beast (James McAvoy) from Split.
*. So as I say, it’s timely. And the story has an interesting hook (insert spoiler alert here), with Dr. Staple being the villainous mastermind trying to demystify our world. Which is, in fact, a comic book world. The three heroes are basically figures from our collective unconscious, archetypes who are made real through our faith or belief in them.
*. Such a plot involves an interesting twist, where the forces of law and order seeking to protect us are the bad guys, while the villains turn out to be representative of a Romantic dark side or unrestrained id. How odd is it that Elijah Price is a mass murderer and Kevin Crumb a serial killer but both are redeemed at the end and presented as heroes? Sure they’re both “broken” characters because of their background, but so are many if not most bad people. Is the point that without their villainy there could be no good guys like David Dunn? Or is it that their crimes aren’t real in some sense? I thought this was rather fuzzy.
*. You could imagine a good movie being made out of such a premise. I’m not sure Glass is that movie though. For starters, and on the most basic level, it’s dull. Aside from the initial battle between the Overseer and the Beast I don’t think anything at all happens in the first hour.
*. I’ve nothing against talky pictures, but the talk here only advances the plot very slowly and the point being made isn’t in need of such development. Nor did I feel that I was getting to know any of the main characters better, or that they were being given any more depth than they had in the previous films. If anything, Mr. Glass and David Dunn seem less interesting than they were in Unbreakable. (I have to enter the caveat here that something like an hour of Glass was cut from the final print. From the deleted scenes included with the DVD, however, I doubt my opinion would change even if I’d seen a three-hour version.)
*. One of the big questions coming into Glass was whether Willis would at least pretend to be awake for his role, and I think the answer is “sort of.” This is an actor who seems to have found his comfort zone. Or else he’s lost interest. Maybe both.
*. If the leads are dealt with in a cursory manner this is even more the case with their attendant supporting figures, who have little function to play aside from doing some basic research into comic books, which allows the finale here to take on a bit of a Scream quality (“This is the part of the story when this happens,” etc.)
*. I’m assuming the organization wanted the trio to escape, because just having a single orderly on duty for such a large facility was kind of hard to figure otherwise.
*. Audiences were said to be confused by the ending. I think it more likely they were disappointed. It’s not complicatd, but it is anticlimactic. Hell, the Overseer is drowned in a puddle. It’s hard to beat that for a depressing finale. But I guess that was the point, undercutting the superheroic mythos and making it real at the same time. The story clearly couldn’t end there, however, so there’s an even more disappointing coda suggesting some kind of viral superhero awakening. I couldn’t buy into this at all, and indeed had trouble understanding exactly what Shyamalan was suggesting. That we are all superheroes if we only believe in ourselves enough? A nice thought, but it seems hardly worth taking us a trilogy of films to get to.
*. It’s well made, if by that you mean it’s polished and looks nice. But while Shyamalan conceived of Glass as being at least in part a thriller, suspense seems not to have been the intention. Instead there’s just the feeling of things proceeding slowly toward a downbeat resolution. Yes, it’s a refreshing mix of genre filmmaking with the cinema of personal expression. It’s just that Shyamalan doesn’t have much that’s new to say. His thoughts on genre remain generic. What he was after was a “tonal fresh break” with the comic book genre but what does that end up meaning except that Glass moves slower than a Marvel movie and relies less on special effects?
*. Despite being too long for the modest bit of ground it covers I liked Glass most of the time. It’s just that I didn’t like it as much as Unbreakable and perhaps not even as much as Split. After three of these movies I can’t say I feel like I came out ahead.

The Dinner (2017)

*. In my notes on the Italian version of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner I mused about how Italian it was in its understanding and presentation of the family dynamics. I wasn’t sure about this, but I thought there was something going on there. In this American Dinner I think national identity is also in play.
*. I say this despite the fact that two of the four leads (Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall) are British, and it was originally supposed to be directed by Cate Blanchett, who hails from Australia. In the event, Blanchett backed out, and screenwriter Oren Moverman took over.
*. What makes it specifically American? Its insistence on dragging in so much American history, for one thing. Paul is a history teacher with a fixation on the battle of Gettsyburg. No, I don’t know what that has to do with anything but the movie spends a lot of time on it.
*. I also think Paul’s mental health issues are characteristic of America’s therapy culture, and help to make this a more American version of Koch’s story. If only all these mixed-up people could get on the right meds and stay on them . . .
*. There was nothing I liked about this movie. It is boring and unfocused. The dinner itself has no significance or role to play. I didn’t buy Richard Gere and Steve Coogan being brothers for a minute. I didn’t understand how such a tight little story got lost in so many flashbacks and digressions. Dramatically there is no sense of rising action or of a tightening noose. I agree with this appraisal by Kristen Yoonsoon Kim in Village Voice: “The dinner itself is constantly disrupted by long-winded flashbacks — often in cheesy soft focus — that seem intended to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Instead, they drift too far from the drama, undercutting it. The beauty of a single-location thriller is how the tension escalates in containment, but Moverman fails to seize that built-in advantage. Instead of dropping hints about what kind of monsters his characters might be, and then working toward a dramatic revelation, he works anticlimactically.”
*. I didn’t like any of the characters, and had to wonder at times who I wanted to see less of. Steve Coogan’s Paul won out, and unfortunately his is the central role. And finally I didn’t like the abrupt ending, aside from the fact that it brought the curtain down on such a dull experience.
*. The point of the novel — which has to do with the limits of parental responsibility — is largely dropped, with the adults more worried about themselves and Moverman more interested in chasing after some other theme. Such as how our most passionately held convictions may be ones we don’t believe in. That may have been an interesting point to make in another movie but as with all the mental health stuff it just leads us astray in this one. In fact, it leads nowhere.

The Dinner (2014)

*. The Dinner is the second of three (so far) film versions of Herman Koch’s 2009 novel of the same name (in Dutch, Het diner). Each has had its own national flavour. There was a Dutch version in 2013, this Italian film, and an American production in 2017.
*. What sets this Dinner (I nostri ragazzi) apart is the greater liberties it takes with its source. The parents, for example, have different professions: a pediatric surgeon and a criminal defence lawyer instead of a teacher and a politician. Also, their kids are now a boy and a girl instead of two boys, which makes a difference. But perhaps most significant for the way the story plays out, there is no dinner. Or at least, we never see anyone eating dinner. The couples go to a restaurant twice but a main course never arrives.
*. I say this is significant because the conceit behind the book (and, mostly, the other film versions) is that the whole story takes place over a single dinner. It has the effect of compressing the drama into real time, and works well on the page. On screen? Well, while “stagey” I think such an approach gives the cast, the director, and the script a chance to shine. The other movies try to at least stick to the spirit of the book, but this Dinner opts to spread things out, to the point where the dinners become irrelevant. Nothing important happens at either, at least until the very end.

*. I began by not liking what was going on. The two brothers’ professional lives intersect with a killing in the opening scene that leaves the killer being defended by Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and one of his victims being treated by Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio). This seemed to me at first to be a distraction, but as things progressed I saw it as relating directly to the way each brother would respond to their own moral dilemma. Paolo will ultimately come down on the side of trying to save his son, while Massimo will want to see justice done.
*. One change I did not agree with was making one of the kids a girl. The relationship between Benedetta and Michele left me baffled. What was a hot chick like her doing hanging around with such a loser cousin anyway? There seemed to be something creepy being hinted at, but I just couldn’t figure it out.
*. I was impressed that they didn’t try to make Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) sympathetic at all. To the point of not even trying to cover up his acne scars. Let’s face it, this is a guy we don’t like at all. And one thing that does work with his pairing with his beautiful cousin is that it underlines how morally ugly they both are.
*. The adult leads all struck me as very good. A special nod goes out to Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Clara, the mother of Michele. The way she falls in the kitchen was a fantastic touch. I don’t think she slips, I think she just can’t stand up after realizing what Michele has done.

*. I wonder if there can be any greater dramatic moment than when a parent realizes that their child is, in fact, a complete piece of shit. That’s something an actor can really sink their teeth into. And I like how we get to see Clara withdrawing from reality to her own bubble as things start to go downhill. This is the best part of the film and I wish there were more of it.
*. The ending is too abrupt, as the ending of the American version would be as well (in a different way). But then this is a difficult piece to end, as there’s no chance for any closure.
*. An alternative title in the U.S. was Our Boys. This brought to mind Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys, the true story of how a town closed ranks around the jocks who raped a handicapped girl in a New Jersey town. So though it’s a Dutch novel I think the story resonates with an American audience. It made me wonder though how much of this version is inflected with an Italian sense of family. And the answer is, I don’t know.
*. As I say, I started off not liking The Dinner but it gradually won me over and by the end I was quite enjoying it. I didn’t like the way it winds up, but until that point there was a lot about it I thought very well done, especially in terms of the acting. And it’s certainly a much better film than the American version that would come out a couple of years later. It does, however, still leave me thinking that something is missing. There’s a reticence about it, a reluctance to put its finger on the scales of moral judgment. Understandable, but I kept looking for something a bit more pink and raw.