“I think the fact that he spelled his name with two “r”s was a warning that he would be complicated” (Kevin Nealon)
I knew little of Garry Shandling before watching Judd Apatow’s documentary, a four + hour tribute that reveals itself as an exploration of what drives us to do more than just (the Shakespearian) be. I hadn’t heard of “It’s the Garry Shandling Show”, nor his parodic work on “The Larry Sanders Show”, nor was I at all aware of his influence on a whole generation of comedians, including Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld or Apatow himself. All I really had was the lukewarm “What Planet Are You From”, a rather unsuccessful collaboration between Shandling and Mike Nichols.
While a master at his art, that is ultimately not what makes The Zen Diaries absolutely watch-worthy. This isn’t just bits of stand-up patched together. Apatow somehow created a delicately intimate portrait of a man he admired immensely, a feeling that oozes throughout, a sprawling piece of work that could have done with more structure, but ultimately replicates the complexities of its subject. Of almost any person that you never really got to know. Shandling is the proverbial onion, layers upon layers of self, uncovered with a deft touch, that captures his brilliance, his passion, his eccentricities, his…desperately human imperfections.
I’m not sure I’ve ever liked the idea of listening to people who describe their search for inner peace, who make so much room for this search in their lives. To everyone his own, of course, because in some sense, I guess this blog is my very own straggling experience of it. But in The Zen Diaries, the title really delivers, you get a portrait of someone as if reading their most intimate thoughts. Just a guy trying to put some order into his life, someone who literally learned how to be funny, for whom it didn’t all come easily. There’s a lot of work that goes into making something seem easy, but there will always be Rafael Nadals to Roger Federers, people who just make you believe that there is more than one path to excellence.
Apatow’s movie, while as imperfect as its subject, achieves what it set out to do and even goes beyond that, showing the making and breaking of one of the most influential people in American comedy. At the same time, it feels like it could be almost anyone you know. A rare and timely example of becoming (or trying to become), as opposed to simply cultivating. 9/10
Incompleteness is an important theme to Ana Lungu’s feature, a ‘story’ about three friends cohabiting with one another, featuring a selection of scenes from their lives. The ever so slight narrative circles around Iris, who is dealing with the sudden death of her boyfriend and looking to fill the void.
The boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred by the fact that the actors play themselves as characters. This generates a certain ‘meta’ feeling, particularly when it is actually discussed within the movie, but abstractly. A lot of the script plays as improvised, with unpolished dialogue and awkward silence abounding.
Unfortunately, this loose approach didn’t work too well for me. The air of detachment surrounding Iris, the lead and also co-writer of the movie, sets her character somewhere in the distance, too far to be touched and emoted with. As a result, the movie failed to pull me in, playing as an almost random sequence of events with neutral people talking as people often do, boasting an aimless sense of philosophical enrichment. It might capture the particular joys and tribulations of actors, featuring nods and references to the likes of Mike Leigh and Daphne du Maurier, but what it succeeds at is framing them as people, in all their/our mundane glory.
The beautiful cinematography partly makes up for the lack of thrills or the incisiveness of its introspections. It is, however, not enough to make for a recommendation.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s most recent work is a ‘documentary-essay’ about – well, the human condition. The director likes to focus on the question of how one can be truly free within rules and norms, but that was not the strong point that made me appreciate this work. Instead, I was fascinated by how well ‘Infinite Football’ captures the manner in which life shapes the ideas we hold and how, with the passing of time, we have the tendency to create our own narratives almost regardless of whether those ideas align or not.
We follow Laurentiu Ginghina, a 50-something administrative clerk whose story starts when he was in his teens and had his fibula broken while playing football. He describes it later not as an act of malice or an error of judgment on the part of the players or himself, but rather a failure of the rules that govern the sport. It is the rules that facilitate, even require, this kind of physicality. A mere year after Laurentiu recovers from his broken fibula, which doesn’t even heal correctly, his weakened shinbone crumbles on a wintery day in a red December, leaving the man to limp six kilometers all the way home.
So what’s up with this adversity? It’s what sets the man on a more existential path, emboldening him to search for purpose. The purpose of his life – a rather mundane one, in spite of the odd experience abroad – was to improve football. His ideas to improve the game start out with a few radical changes, like turning the pitch into an octagonal shape, removing the offside rule and subdividing the two teams by restricting their movement between specific lines. As his ideas percolate and fail to find acceptance, they are tweaked and adapted, to the point of becoming more impractical or even redundant, in what is to be Football 2.0. Or if that doesn’t work, Football 2.1, or 2.9 or…infinite football.
But Porumboiu’s film isn’t really about football. “The ball is free, but we are not” is our protagonist’s mantra, who simply fails to bridge the distance between theory and practice in a strained effort to matter. Doesn’t almost everyone have his one idea they never managed to bring to fruition? That’s what makes the movie truly relatable, especially in that Porumboiu treats Mr. Ginghina with interest and attention. Perhaps this is the best that we can all do, being gentle with each other and our ideas, starting with a certain age where everything tends to become more immutable. The meta-analysis of our being free within norms and rules is a perfunctory one, which works to some degree, but never enthralls by gathering a weight of relevance.
I’m definitely a fan of these Herzog-ian documentaries wherein some boundary-blurring occurs between the real and the surreal. Porumboiu, by inserting himself into the movie, encouraged this experience. It might be too close to the fringes of the absurd for some, but I think it’s a philosophically fueled movie that trims it’s audience based on compassion. And whether they think Messi is better than Ronaldo. 8/10
Nobody can accuse Dascalescu’s documentary of being without flair. I still recall, almost a decade ago, emerging from a forest road into Zlatna, a mining community some 200 km apart from Petrila: the picture – perfect image of desolation was shocking. So to the extent that ‘Planeta Petrila’ celebrates the birth of some form of (artistic) life from such wreckage, it is a great success. However, it feels detached from the wider community of the town and in not taking an inquisitive stance on the viability of life in former coal mining ‘colonies’, it shies away from the bigger social and environmental questions.
Ion Barbu, ex-miner, or rather ex-mining topographer, current artist/activist/do-it-all is a veritable one man show. His distinctively spirited visual designs and Banksy-esque witticisms are plastered around Petrila, contrasting the dying pulsations of the coal mining industry. Alongside him – or rather, in a parallel universe – Catalin Cenusa leads one of the last mining teams to work the deep shafts of Petrila. The contrast between the two is stark and Dascalescu recognizes this, but never broaches the issue: Barbu is looking for Petrila’s continuity beyond mining, while Cenusa is intent on working the coal for as long as possible. The latter’s fight is a solitary one, with just one hundred people left of more than four thousand still earning their livelihoods from the Petrila mining exploitation.
The pressure to close the mines comes from the European Union, or rather the funds contracted by the government from the EU to ‘green out’ the area. It’s somehow funny that in a documentary about mining, where the effect of mine closures are part of the focal point, I don’t recall hearing the words ‘environmental impact’ or ‘global warming’ even once. If they were mentioned, it was more incidental. Instead there are clear indications as to what Dascalescu feels is the uninterested involvement of local and national authorities in the whole matter. Authorities are accused to have bypassed required consultations with communities of places like Petrila, in a desire to ensure European financing and, presumably, monetize some obscure vested interests in the greening and demolition process. The bigger issue though is not so much what the community wants to do, because the movie provides no sense of who the community is; it simply stays close to Barbu and to the involvement of out-of-town NGOs in preserving a cultural art space in some of the mine’s historic buildings.
I have no idea what the artistic value of Barbu’s work is, but it’s soulful stuff. Planeta Petrila provides a melancholic frame for the bitingly ironic and rightfully frustrated artist, ramping his desire for cultural renewal to overdrive. Barbu’s bubbling personality and sharp sense of humour lighten up the gray realities of the town. From colourfulgraffitis to underground theater festivals, it’s all happening in Petrila for the first time in…perhaps ever. The strong attachment to the heritage of the place, its silent suffering and the inherent sadness when it is all about to end come into focus in the best moments of Dascalescu’s movie. The footage from inside the mine shafts, where Cenusa (translation: “ashes”) and his crew really shuffle off their mortal coils, strengthened by the satisfaction of their work and some self-deprecating humour, are a testament to the importance of purpose and of being good at your craft, albeit a tragically outdated one.
In all this, the documentary could have done with more focus, because it feels disjointed in its two protagonists and in its desire to establish itself as activist cinema. My main gripe with Planeta Petrila is that it propagates that against which it preaches: the imposition of foreign interests on socially impaired communities. The fact that Dascalescu does not portray a balanced view of events, with next to no input from political and administrative figureheads, is not an issue; a documentary need not be a factual debate. But a lot of the time it feels like the activism caught on camera is a cause in itself, a self high-five, if you will. Planeta Petrila never successfully makes the case it implicitly supports at the outset, as articulated by Barbu: art can be Petrila’s redemption. It looks more like art can and is Barbu’s redemption, whose stubborn persistence, supported by NGOs, ensures the creation of a cultural space to keep the once socially-defining mining heritage of the community alive. In terms of how the people of Petrila will go on, other than desert the place, there are no answers, because the question is not being asked. The community seems voiceless, with Barbu, whose son travels the world on a motorbike, too cosmopolitan a figure, and Cenusa too far in the background and too intent on ensuring his livelihood.
Perhaps my skepticism is getting the better of me here, but that’s what I would have wanted to see more of, to elevate the movie beyond an expression of art for art’s sake. For what it’s worth, Planeta Petrila is distinctive and paints in beautiful colours against the gray backdrop that is (was) the mining industrial complex. It’s the kind of place I would like to emerge into when next traveling the forests around Zlatna.
To be honest, this isn’t really about weeks #19 and #20. The only movies seen in that petty time frame were Alien Covenant (which, as a true fan, I even revisited last week) and a rewatch of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Then again, given that Eternal Sunshine is one of my favourites, I guess it does matter. Anyway, I managed to get back into some groove during the last few days, so there’s something to talk about.
Movie of the Weeks
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Alien: Covenant (2017): People imagining this would be fundamentally different or better than Prometheus just because it’s got ‘Alien’ in the title need to wake up to reality. Thing is, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Covenant being about as inspired as the prequel it sequels. Sure, Prometheus wasn’t a masterpiece and that crew, like almost any space crew in a Hollywood blockbuster, seemed dilettantish; but it took the Alien universe in a new direction, albeit one that’s hard to dig deep into without appearing superficial – the ‘why are we here’ direction. Covenant doubles down on this, which is why I deem it slightly inferior to Prometheus. There just isn’t any elegant way to avoid being pretentious when tackling high-brow stuff in a B-movie frame. Moreover, it goes for a twist ending that it doesn’t even bother to mask properly and then tries to use for shock value, while also being uneven in tone at times. Beyond this however, I enjoyed Covenant, the visuals, the creatures, even some of the crew, and it amounts to a competent addition to the Alien-verse. 7/10
Some other day
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): God, is Eternal Sunshine a truly great movie or what? In Charlie Kaufman’s peak creative half-decade, when he wrote Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2003) and even the not-quite-as-great-but-still-decent Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), it felt impossible to pick a favourite between BJM, A and ESotSM. I guess it still does, because the three are movies are so different in style, thanks to the equally distinctive directors to have helmed them, that they stand on their own beautifully. What I love about Eternal Sunshine is its hopeless romanticism, the idea that falling out of love is not something you can engineer, as well as the equivalent thought that you would be willing to love someone even if you were certain it would fail. And, let’s be honest, that’s what we all do anyway. 9/10
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017): There was something so cool and breezy about the first LEGO movie that it was hard not to like. This spin-off works in the same spirit, but suffers for being more of the same and lightheartedly predictable. It’s basically a movie getting together most of the Batman do-gooders and evil-doers and then trying so hard to be ironic and self-deprecating, that it inevitably feels overdone. For whatever reason, I guess I took it all too seriously, probably because my bat-senses kicked in, but all-in-all I thought it was a run-of-the-mill affair. 6/10
Patriots Day (2016): If you’re into real-life re-enactments of modern day tragedies, Patriots Day is right up your alley. The movie about the Boston marathon bombings offers some perspective, by featuring both protagonists and villains, but it doesn’t dig very deep. Truth be told, if you’ve seen one Peter Berg – Mark Wahlberg movie, you’ve sort of seen them all; I personally preferred Deepwater Horzion (2016) and even Lone Survivor (2013) to this one, because I’m not all too big on the rather streamlined American cinematic dialogue about terror attacks, which inevitably revolves around inner strength in the face of absurd injustice and a dollop of patriotism. There’s nothing wrong with either, I have no idea how one could and/or should react to this kind of violence, but its filmic thematization is at best strong dramatically and superficial politically/socially/philosophically. 6/10
Colossal (2017): This weird-ass movie by Nacho Vigalondo takes Anne Hathaway and places her in the skin of a thirty-ish woman forced into rethinking her party-going lifestyle. In doing so, she goes back home where she encounters her childhood friend, played by Jason Sudeikis. What unfolds between the two looks like the latter pining on the former, but then metamorphosizes into something completely different, when it turns out that Hathaway’s character has the ability to conjure a monster in Seoul if she walks across the local playground in the early morning. The twist of the movie is quite beautiful, even poetic, and I admire Vigalondo (of whom I had previously only seen Los cronocrímenes (2007)) for offering a deeply troubled negative character. Towards the end, Colossal flourishes into something of rich interpretative potentiality, even if it feels like it cuts some corners to make it happen. If you’re into quirky, well worth its time. 7/10
Mindhorn (2017): I’m quite big on spoofs and parodies, whether I understand them or not. So naturally a British production would attract my attention – hey, I even liked Johnny English (2003)! Mindhorn presents a washed up actor, Richard Thorncroft, whose claim to fame came after starring as the character named Mindhorn in a successful TV series, eons ago. Back in present day, his services are required when a serial killer demands to speak to the brilliant detective character. There’s nothing inherently original or spectacular about the movie, just that its execution is excellent, which counts a lot when your subject matter is fairly rehashed. I’m certain there are some obscure references which I’ve missed, but even so, Mindhorn proved to be quite the enjoyable ride. 7/10
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008): I’ve had Anvil on my to-watch list for longer than I can remember. Well, no longer than nine years, I suppose. The documentary about Canadian heavy metal band Anvil, which influenced the likes of Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica (or so Wikipedia claims, I have no clout in the heavy metal world), is quite the rollercoaster feel-good story to replace one of those True Detective episodes you’ve been putting off for a few months now. With their hey-day far behind them, the band still enjoy concerting, but it feels like the world has forgotten them. The movie is carried by Steve “Lips” Kudlow’s energy and boundless optimism, as well as his relationship with band co-founder and best friend Rob Reiner, who is his polar opposite. It’s quite the tale about persistence, finding what makes you happy, the intricacies of doing that when your happiness is contingent on the well-being of others, and friendship. Highly recommended. 8/10
You know, people walk up to me on the street and ask: Tributary, why do you love the sappy, the immature, the stories of teenage wonderment? Is it because you missed out on them and are somehow trying to experience everything vicariously?
Yes, it probably is.
The epitome of my journey of missed adventures is Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Directed by Edgar Wright, *insert manly heart emoticons here*, it’s the only comic book adaptation I’ve ever been smitten with. In short, it tells of how Scott has to defeat seven evil exes of his to-be girlfriend in order to win her for himself. While not in the synopsis, but just as relevant, the movie also has Scott surpass his own insecurities and fears in a battle with himself – really, the ultimate battle.
If ever one needed to use this word, one would describe SPvtW with it: quirky. Add to that the dose of self-consciousness and self-irony the movie is imbued with and you’ve got some strong points of reference. Even so, what sets Scott Pilgrim apart is its ability to express all this through both dialogue and visuals, with a spot-on soundtrack to patch anything that requires patching. A lot of that has to do with Wright’s zippy editing and its use to create a very particular kind of visual/narrative humour – because stories about the love struggle are a dime a dozen. Equally, though, it’s important to me that Scott Pilgrim feels so real, because he’s not an all around nice guy just desperately waiting for the (literal) girl of his dreams.
When things come together, they come together all around and the cast assembled for SPvtW is perhaps surprisingly high-calibre. The standout is Kieran Culkin, playing Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, who brings a lot of cynicism to Scott’s aloofness. One of my favourite lines comes about when Wallace ‘comforts’ Scott over the perspective of coming in second best:
And one could argue that is objectively true, even if all the exes are caricatures of what our own psyche makes us think those who came before us must have been like. There’s a lot of interplay between the literal and the figurative, which really defines what dating and relationships come down to. Ultimately, there’s also a question of fit and choice between people – to which extent you can and have to consider lovers as homogeneous beings, rather than composites. The conclusion to the movie lends itself to different outcomes, which were actually filmed and included as alternate endings. It’s just that our investment throughout goes into one character, making it a simple choice in the end.
Wright is fantastic in that his style is easily identifiable, yet not overbearing. Whether you spend time with Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), The Worlds’ End (2013) (a.k.a. The Cornetto Trilogy), with Scott Pilgrim or with the ever-delightful series that sort of started it all, Spaced (1999), you’ll feel his presence. That in itself is not so surprising, but the consistent freshness of everything he’s done so far truly impresses me. Just watch them all!
I love Scott because he’s so contrary and silly and that’s what I hope to grow up to be some day.
Netzer’s follow-up to the excellent Child’s Pose (2013) shares some elements with its precursor, but takes a different angle to the emotional roots and psychological ties of family life. A complex and layered film, it is framed in the present, but plays with the chronology of events to suit its thematic anchors: how relationships shape their protagonists and create inherent tension, abiding by no morality punch-card. While pertinent and polished in its construction, I found it hard to stay connected emotionally, especially as the characters evolve elliptically and the change in their dynamic feels abrupt.
Our couple is Toma and Ana, two lovers who meet during university and, more than anything, fall into a relationship. They are both cultured individuals and complete each other well, as Ana suffers from anxiety attacks and Toma is seemingly always there to support her. The movie proceeds to take us through the usual familial meet and greets, which prove traumatic and lay the groundworks for all the ensuing/existing psychological trauma. Those scenes have a sense of caricature about them, with ‘traditional’ values of partner screening proving funny and harrowing at the same time. But they prove to be just pieces of an ambitious human puzzle, which ends up taking us down an exploratory route devoid of superfluous emotion.
As an aside, some people in the cinema were taken aback by the explicitness of a sex scene, which I would rather deem justified, due to the Freudian aspects of Netzer’s approach – and a meaningful character-building moment.
The attention to detail in fleshing out Ana and Toma provides the characters with a lot of depth. They are, as one would say, profoundly human in their imperfections and the manner in which this comes to the surface as their relationship evolves feels very true. The movie puts psychoanalysis at its core, turning it into an indirect plot device, which sometimes looks like a black box. More important though is how Ana and Toma react to change, in particular to Ana’s gradual self-empowerment (thanks to a mixture of religion and psychoanalysis), which fundamentally alters Toma’s role as ‘the saviour’. It all becomes a matter of identity, of shaping and losing it, as defined by relationship roles, rather than intrinsic traits. Quite interestingly, the first scene finds the protagonists discussing Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil – the subjugation of morality to Christian dogma and the idea that good and evil are not quite opposites. By the end of the film, the overwhelming sense of some moral misappropriation between Ana and Toma can and, perhaps, should be seen through this lens, with no clear distinctions at hand for who is in the right and who might have been wronged.
While all this is intense and fascinating stuff, the chronological structure creates a bridge I couldn’t cross. On the one hand, the technical execution of the to and fro was handled well – it’s impressive how different degrees of a receding hairline can create a sense of time. Although some nuances are lost, that ends up challenging the viewer and keeping him engaged. On the other hand, because of gaps in time, Ana is difficult to grasp. She becomes a completely different person, which goes so far as her accent changing, and due to the elliptical nature of the story, she also feels emotionally like a third character in the relationship. Whereas Toma is more consistent throughout, Ana is fractured, making her feel foreign and inauthentic.
This is part of the reason why the second half of the film lost some momentum. Upon its conclusion, which tries a little twist and then goes one mile too far by trying to explain it, I wasn’t engaged any more. It’s a shame, because there is so much pain and sacrifice in Ana, Mon Amour that it really makes love feel like penance and weaves an exquisite psychological pattern to justify the claim. For the exploration it undertakes in what drives the two lead characters, both so well portrayed by Postelnicu and Cavallioti, it is commendable.
Brazilian director Joao Moreira Salles wrote and directed this documentary (English Title: In the Intense Now) wrapped around the years 1966-1968 and the intense revolutionary spirit that engulfed certain parts of the world: France, foremost, but also Czechoslovakia, China and Brazil. Although the movie is inherently political, it rises above politics to express the fleetingness of self-actualization, the kind moments of such a spiritual coming together catalyzes. Although a tad long and sometimes too explicitly ponderous, Salles’s work provides a unique frame to a very particular moment in time which is exceptionally relevant in the present day climate, all around the world.
The starting point for this project, composed predominantly of amateur archival footage, was Salles stumbling across film recordings his mother had shot during her visit to China in 1966. It was the first year of the Cultural Revolution, but what’s really striking is the almost transformative effect the experience had on his mother. Providing a somewhat pedantic observational narrative, brimming with suppositions about what certain scenes mean, or what protagonists recorded on video might be thinking and feeling, the director spends most of the movie in Paris, where he lived for a while around the same period. Then, in May 1968, protests broke out among students in France, against the class-driven hierarchization of society and sexual conservatism. The dispute between students, on the one side, and university administration and the government on the other, escalated quickly, as worker unions joined the protests. All of a sudden, France was paralyzed. And liberated, at the same time, as Salles observes.
The events of those months are about more than social discord though. Salles nuances the idealism which spread like brushfire, manifesting itself in certain leading characters of the otherwise leaderless ‘revolution’, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit – a student at the University of Nanterre, where the protests were ignited before reaching the Sorbonne and Paris. The shift in communication dynamics, from a stifling top-down approach rooted in centuries of class division, stood out in interviews of the time. Yet, more than anything else, the protests also developed a renewed sense of belonging and generated an artistic flurry of dissent, Banksy-esque almost, including:
It’s hard not to feel something. And then, the movement slowly withered – in the approximate words of Jean-Paul Sartre, who personally interviewed Cohn-Bendit: Spring belongs to the students, but Summer belongs to the holidays. Moreso, the commercial potential became obvious and even Cohn-Bendit, exiled for a short while in Germany, ended up writing a memoir of the events for a quick buck and a publishing deal. The Revolution that never was, lead with spontaneity and not with political manifestos and lists of demands, then faded, resulting in minimal, percentage-sized improvements to worker wages. The divide persisted as well, even between the protesters, as the worker class and the student class never found the equal footing.In the wake of it, desolation set in for the idealists, even though the landscape for social and political movements had changed forever. Salles contrasts martyrdom across Paris, Prague (the Soviet occupation, after the Spring protests) and Rio (march against the military dictatorship), focusing on the familial textures as well as the wider social impact of these deaths, questioning whether they represent persistent hope or the effigy thereof.
What really hits hard is the sense that for many involved, especially among the students, those days of 1968 were the highlights of their lives, the purest form of ébouillant existence, living ‘in the intense now’. There’s a joy of camaraderie, of a mutual and subliminal understanding which stem from the joint struggle. One wonders whether the depth of those weeks of protests, of standstill, is something that can still be today, with the rhythm of life and the exhibitionist nature of social media. Although subverting the status quo should be easier, just by looking at the recent (and ongoing) protests in my home country, Romania, I’m left more with vague hope, than conviction. I don’t dare draw further parallels, because these are not trifles; they are intricate manifestations of a shared design of what life should be, in spite of apparent similarities.
Salles stumbled across the perfect time frame per chance. His work on No Intenso Agora started in 2012, before the world went aflame – in his native Brazil, in Europe, in the United States. The choice of spanning over four different manifestations of revolt is overbearing and tentative at times, but one can sense an inner core holding them together. Perhaps what bothered me, if anything in particular, was some of the narration, coming across as professorial. Once purpose was established, more natural expression and feeling coming directly from the images could have enhanced their impact and their significance, not unlike something as eccentric as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).
Other than that though, this was the best movie I had the chance of watching at the Berlinale. It’s a strange mix of analytical-poetic-social justice, that ultimately leaves a lingering sense of how fleeting and unique some of the most important moments of our lives can be. There is no recipe to it, but Salles clearly indicates that a tempestuously exhibited shared belief, with the deep tributaries of 1968, can change our perception of purpose and existence. I’m not sure I completely agree, but the thesis is compelling and No Intenso Agora is good at expressing it.
Oren Moverman’s latest movie is quite the challenge. It has difficult characters, discomforting dialogue, an intricate construction and spreads over two hours. Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. Thankfully, not an unbearable mess.
Although Richard Gere (Stan) headlines, it’s Steve Coogan (Paul), playing his brother, who appears to lead at the beginning. In an unexpected American accent, he narrates with misanthropic cynicism, as preparations for a dinner event are underway. The narration stops at some point and comes back randomly throughout the movie – just one of several small incoherences that make everything feel unusual. Stan and Paul’s relationship is strained, at best, while their wives Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney) act as mediators. Some dark matter seems to have brought them together at an elitist restaurant boasting culinary lushness; a matter which unfolds at a slow pace, interlaced with Stan fighting to pass a bill in congress, Paul’s Gettysburg obsessions, their children’s suspect affairs, past personal traumas, all across several courses of an impressive sounding meal.
For a movie that desires to tackle the lofty theme of social divide, it starts out feeling very personal. As it progresses, it distances itself from Paul to focus on thr bigger picture and gravitate around Stan. It’s a difficult move to pull off, as some sense of alienation occurs in the viewer, who has to accept the deep flaws surfacing in the ‘object of attachment’. I felt a bit stranded, which culminated in a subpar ending.
But it wasn’t a complete shipwreck, as Stan, alongside Kathey and Claire, managed to wrestle my attention. Indeed, wrestle is the right word, in what turns out to be a less than peaceful digestif. The whole preachiness of the last thirty minutes or so is borderline crass, yet engaging, in a visceral kind of way. It’s a decent payout after ninety minutes of fluctuating intensity.
Do the themes and motives really blend though? It’s hard to find a ‘red string’ to carry you through, as Paul’s Hobbesian worldview overlaps with discussions of mental illness, political maneuvering and familial discord. You get pushed into finding personal interpretations to allegorical content, which is fun and rewarding, yet the movie proves heavy-handed in framing its moral questions and imperatives. Next to its schizophrenic identity dilemma, this just works against itself in the final scenes.
I really liked the intensity, the grotesque and obscene affluence entailed by the dinner scenes, even some of the almost derivative monologues. The interpretative freedom made some of the drearier moments worthwhile, but more cohesion and restraint would have transformed The Dinner into something quite special all around. In spite of the backlash it’s being served, Oren Moverman’s film is a worthwhile exploration into how messy holding yourself consistent socially and philosophically can be.