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Hullabaloo


Saturday, May 06, 2017

 
Saturday Night at the Movies


Original sin: The Student (**½), Buster’s Mal Heart (***), The Dinner (*½)

By Dennis Hartley





In my 2008 review of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, I wrote:
“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself.
Funnily enough, this is the conundrum at the heart of Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov’s somber drama The Student. In this particular narrative, you could say that “fundamentalist belief” is a high schooler named Venya (Pyoter Skvorstov), and “logic” is his biology teacher (Lidiya Tkacheva). In fact, nearly every character in this stagey piece walks around with “I am a metaphor!” tattooed on their forehead; I was not surprised when credits revealed it was adapted from a play (by Marius von Mayenburg).

Venya is a brooding fellow who skulks about the halls, avoiding eye contact with any of his fellow students. He appears taciturn as well; that is, until he refuses to participate in co-ed swimming for P.E., citing it goes against his religion. His mother (Yuliya Aug) is called in for a conference, and it’s clear that she has become exasperated with her son’s obstinate behavior as of late; fueled by a sudden literalist fanaticism for Christian dogma.

The school’s deeply religious principal is happy to accommodate Venya’s request for a deferral. This emboldens the young man to become ever more vocal and disruptive, to the particular chagrin of his free-spirited biology teacher, who finds herself more and more on the defensive as Venya repeatedly hijacks her normally democratic class discussions.

Venya’s non-stop preachiness and self-righteous scolding is off-putting to classmates, with the exception of shy and soft-spoken Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Grigoriy is an outsider himself; mostly due to feeling self-conscious about a pronounced limp, which makes him a frequent target for bullying. Venya makes an attempt to “heal” Grigoriy, which fails. Undeterred, Grigoriy offers to become his “first disciple”. Grigoriy’s devotion is not necessarily motivated by spirituality, leading to fateful misinterpretations.

I was reminded of John Huston’s 1979 comedy-drama Wise Blood and Peter Medak’s 1972 satire The Ruling Class; although it lacks the black humor of the former and irony of the latter. What it does have is intensity; perhaps a bit too much, as it threatens at times to collapse under the weighty mantle of its protagonist’s martyr complex. Still…its central message rings clear and true: a blind devotion to fundamentalism rarely ends well.





My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thusly:
Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing. 
Nick: What’s that? 
Murray: People going to work.
Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but...

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidge of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.





In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:
In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).
Oven Moverman’s new drama The Dinner edges closest to the “dinner party gone awry” meme, with a generous dollop of “you only hurt the ones you love” tossed in for giggles.

Actually, there are very few (intentional) giggles in this histrionic disappointment from a director who has done better work and a tragically wasted cast (so much for burying my lede). Set in an upscale restaurant and using a framing device that divides the narratives into chapters (of a sort), delineated by the many courses of the meal, Moverman’s story (adapted from the novel by Herman Koch) centers on a (wait for it) dysfunctional family.

In this corner, we have Richard Gere (in full, insufferably over-confident alpha mode) as a Congressman in the midst of a run for governor, and his lovely wife (Rebecca Hall). And in this corner, we have the Congressman’s agoraphobic, insufferably neurotic academic brother (Steve Coogan) and his lovely wife (Laura Linney). The brothers have not been on speaking terms for most of their adult lives, but an odious crime committed by their teenaged sons (and posted on YouTube by a third party) has necessitated a truce. The boys’ identities are concealed by the fuzzy video, but the couples are struggling with how to best handle it all. As the evening progresses, the familial bloodletting commences.

It’s an intriguing setup, but something went terribly wrong with this film, which I found deadly dull and thoroughly unpleasant to sit through. The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the casting; these are all wonderful actors. That said, Steve Coogan in particular makes some truly awful choices in his performance. It pains me to say this, as he is one of my favorite comedic actors; and perhaps that’s the problem…he is trying too hard. He has successfully tackled dramatic roles in the past, but it may take time to live this one down.

It’s a major letdown from Moverman, who has directed and/or written some exemplary films in the past. In fact, his film The Messenger (my review) made my top 10 of 2009, his film Rampart (my review) made my top 10 films of 2011, and a film he scripted, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (my review) made my top 10 of 2013. Oh well. I guess even some of the best 4-star restaurants serve up the odd plate of overcooked ham. C’est la vie.


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--Dennis Hartley