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(Left to right) Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall

“THE DINNER”  My rating: C+ 

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Few things are quite as frustrating as watching great actors knock themselves out on material that’s not nearly as good as they are.

“The Dinner,” based on Herman Koch’s best-selling novel (it’s already been dramatized in Dutch and Italian versions), certainly has its moments, most of them provided in killer perfs by Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca  Hall and especially Laura Linney.

But the film, set mostly in a restaurant so pretentious that the unctuous maitre’d announces each dish’s ingredients practically down to the molecular level, is itself off-puttingly  pretentious. Plus, the characters’ attitudes and behavior are so sleazy that you really can’t find anyone to root for.

In the first scene Paul Loman (Coogan), a former history teacher now working (abortively) on a book about the Civil War, and his wife Claire (Linney) are preparing for a family dinner at a posh eatery.

Paul isn’t keen on the gathering.  It’s the idea of his brother Stan (Gere), a U.S. Congressman now running for governor of their home state, and it’s obvious that the siblings don’t get along. Paul takes a fierce anti-establishment attitude, oozing sneering comments about his politician brother. The awesomely patient Claire somehow gets him into his clothes and out the door.

Once at the restaurant civility rapidly evaporates.  Paul is in a bitchy mood and it’s up to the wives, Claire and Katelyn (Hall), to smooth over the rough patches.

Why has Stan called this conclave?  Well, there’s a family crisis, though writer/director Owen Moverman (“Rampart,” “The Messenger”) takes his sweet time in giving us the details, relying heavily on convoluted flashbacks that almost send the narrative spinning out of control.

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Adrian Titian,  Maria Dragus

“GRADUATION”  My rating: B

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

America doesn’t have a filmmaker comparable to Romania’s Cristian Mungiu.  For more than a decade now Mungiu has served as his country’s cinematic conscience, exploring  in film after film Romania’s troubled past and infuriating present.

His biggest international hit has been  2007’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.” Set in the bad old days of the communist Ceausescu regime it follows a  college student as she tries to arrange an illegal abortion for her  roommate. That film offered a portrait of a society in which ordinary individuals routinely break the law simply to ensure their day-to-day survival.

Mungiu’s latest, “Graduation,” is set in the post-Ceausescu present. But cheating as a way of life remains entrenched in Romanian culture.

Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is a physician in a provincial Romanian city. He’s a fat, middled-aged man who prides himself on never taking bribes from desperate patients seeking preferential treatment — although he may not exactly be a moral giant, since he’s having an affair with a young single mother (Malina Manovici) who was once his patient.

His daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguş) is about to graduate from high school. She’s been accepted by Cambridge University in England, much to the delight of Romeo and his phlegmatic wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). The couple fled Romania in the bad old days and returned only after the fall of Ceausescu, anticipating a brave new world of opportunity and promise.

Things didn’t work out that way.  The country may no longer be under the thumb of a half-mad strong man, but the stifling bureaucracy makes any kind of real progress problematic.  If Eliza is to have any future, Romeo believes, she must get out of Romania.

Just one problem…Eliza can go to England only if she  geat high scores on a battery of state-mandated examinations required of all new graduates (they’re kind of like the SATs on steroids).

On the eve of the test Eliza is seriously shaken after an assault by a would-be rapist. Fearing his traumatized daughter may not be at her best for the exams, Romeo looks for an edge.

A sympathetic  acquaintance on the police force suggests that Romeo talk to a vice-mayor in need of a kidney transplant. Romeo can pull strings to move the politician up on the transplant list in exchange for Eliza being allowed to cheat on the exam.

It’s the Romanian way of doing things.

 

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David Lynch

“DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE” My rating: B

90 minutes | NO MPAA rating

You’d expect that a documentary about David Lynch would concentrate on his substantial body of film work: “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive,” “The Elephant Man”…even the disastrous “Dune.”

Heck, even Lynch’s failures are interesting.

But co-directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm go in an entirely different direction.

Rather than concentrate on the films, “David Lynch: The Art Life” centers on Lynch’s work in the visual arts…and not on his technique or subject matter but rather on his ideas about art in general.

Then result is both a sort of biography of the artist as a young man (lots of photos and films of Lynch’s youth and college years), lots of stories from his formative years.  We see examples of his current visual works that directly reflect those youthful moments of excitement and trauma (mostly trauma, if the prevailing darkness of his vision is any indication.)

Big chunks of the film show Lynch, now in his early ’70s, working in  his home studio.  His output is simultaneously childish, sophisticated and disturbing. He works with his hands, smearing paint with his fingers (often accompanied by his 2-year-old daughter).

His images are ragged, blurry, dreamlike.

The man seems compelled to create at every opportunity. (“Keep painting. Keep painting. See if you catch something.”)

We get Lynch’s memories of a happy childhood (“I never heard my parents argue, ever”), his discovery of art as an outlet, his early dabbling in experimental films.

It’s a stream-of-consciousness trip through David Lynch’s brain.

Those who want a discussion of how he makes art and what it means will be disappointed.

Those willing to think about art  as a life choice will find the film a treasure trove.

| Robert W. Butler

Gemma Atherton, Bill Nighy

“THEIR FINEST” My rating: B-

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

What is it with filmmakers making movies about making movies?

“Their Finest,” the latest from Danish director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), takes that admittedly amusing self-absorption and pumps it up with World War II-era nostalgia and nascent female empowerment.

In Blitz-ravaged London, copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) lands the gig of a lifetime.  She’s hired by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to write a feature film — one that is both “authentic and optimistic” — that will embody Britain’s can-do spirit in the face of Hitler’s juggernaut.

The film is intended as pan-Atlantic propaganda that will show war-wary American audiences that Britain is more than supercilious aristocrats, that it’s a nation of everyday men and women fighting heroically for survival.

Catrin finds her subject in the real-life experiences of two spinster sisters who stole their drunken uncle’s boat and became part of the mass evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in France.

Though she already has a significant other (Jack Huston, playing an unsuccessful painter of glum cityscapes), Catrin finds intellectual stimulation (and other sorts as well) in her new writing partner, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). He’s one of those seen-everything cynics who nevertheless knows exactly how to manipulate an audience (“Film is real life with the boring stuff cut out”).

Together they figure out how to cajole a fading matinee idol  (Bill Nighy, playing the sort of jaded egomaniac he does so well) into taking the seemingly inconsequential role of the drunken uncle. Somewhat more perplexing is how they are to satisfy the Ministry by creating a character for a non-acting American  (Jake Lacy) who has been flying missions for the R.A.F.

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Left to right: Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley

“FREE FIRE”  My rating: C+

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A dozen tough guys stewing in their own testosterone. A van packed with illegal weapons.  A briefcase full of cash. A closed environment from which there is no easy escape.

What could go wrong?

A streamlined 90 minutes of pumped-up bullet blasting (literally) and wienie waving (metaphorically), “Free Fire” is the latest from Brit action auteur Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”), but its origins are pure Quentin Tarantino, with special nods to “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hateful Eight.”

In an abandoned umbrella factory in Boston an arms deal is taking place.

Chris (Cillian Murphy) has crossed the pond to buy automatic weapons for the IRA (the time is the mid-‘70s, judging by the dreadful fashions, hairstyles and absence of cell phones).

He’s backed by the grimly efficient hitman Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), Frank’s screwup brother-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley), and Stevo’s worthless running buddy, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).

Selling the weapons is Rhodesian gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a world-class sleazebag whose smarmy mouth keeps writing checks his fists cannot cash.  Good thing his seemingly civilized partner Martin (Babou Ceesay) is there to keep Vernon in check.

Vernon has his own goon squad on hand:  The mountainously hairy Jimmy (Mark Monero) and the wizened Gordon (Noah Taylor).

Supervising the transaction are the two middlemen who set up the deal.  Ord (Armie Hammer) is a superslick dude in a turtleneck and blazer who oozes post-modern irony; Justine (Brie Larson) is a cool beauty sharp enough to verbally emasculate chauvinists like Vernon but willing to use her seductive skills to get what she wants. Continue Reading »

Oscar Isaacs (left)

“THE PROMISE” My rating: C+ 

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sometimes the story behind a movie is more interesting than the movie itself.

So it is with “The Promise,” a pet project of the late Kirk Kerkorian (one one of the architects of modern Las Vegas and past owner of the M-G-M Studio), who devoted years and a chunk of his fortune to create a film about the Armenian genocide of 1915-’20.

Never heard of the Armenian genocide?  Join the club.  Giving ill-educated audiences a glimpse of this swept-under-the-rug apocalypse is “The Promise’s” very reason for being. (Kerkorian was the son of Armenian emigres to the U.S.)

Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians — members of a Christian minority within the Ottoman Empire — were systematically murdered during World War I.

To this day the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that the slaughter — many see it as a sort of dry run for Hitler’s “final solution” — even  took place.

In fact, a well-financed disinformation campaign currently is underway to  dismiss the history presented in “The Promise.”  After several  preview screenings  earlier this year, the film’s IMDb page was flooded with more than 86,000 user reviews, with nearly two thirds of them negative. Apparently 86,000 persons showed up for a handful of preview screenings…not!

Clearly, “The Promise” is punching buttons.  But how is it as a movie?

Just  O.K.  This David Lean-ish effort (penned by Robin Swicord, an Oscar nominee for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) offers a three-way romance set against the sweep of churning world events (see “Dr. Zhivago”). It’s been directed by Terry George, who a few years back gave us the equally earnest “Hotel Rwanda” about tribal genocide in Africa. Production values are generally good, and in some instances outstanding.

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Charlie Hunnam

“THE LOST CITY OF Z” My rating: B

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There are really two movies at work in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z.”

One unfolds in the well-appointed parlors, bucolic fields and imposing halls of turn-of-the-last-century England.

The other plays out in a world of daunting jungles,  piranha-infested rivers and unpredictable Amazonian cannibals.

Holding those two realities together is the real-life figure of Percy Faucett, an Englishman who embodied his era’s spirit of discovery, scientific exploration and a seemingly superhuman need to experience physical challenges and personal perils.

“The Lost City of Z” (the Z is pronounced “zed,” Brit-style) is the most expansive, grandest vision of writer/director Gray’s career (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “The Immigrant”), achieving at times the sweep of a David Lean epic.

And as is the case with Lean, it sometimes seems that the epic overpowers the human elements.

We first meet Faucett (Charlie Hunnam, about 180 degrees away from his biker Hamlet in cable’s “The Sons of Anarchy”) as a struggling young military officer whose prospects are limited, in the words of one aristocratic snob, because he has been “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”

Faucett gets a shot at fame and glory when he’s asked by the Royal Geographic Society to travel to the Amazon to prevent a war.  Seems the Bolivians and the Brazilians cannot agree on an official border between their two nations; Faucett is to survey the impenetrable jungle and set a boundary that will ensure the peace.

Accompanied by his equally adventurous assistant, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson in full beard mode), the two not only accomplish their mission but stumble across tantalizing evidence that somewhere deep in the wilderness are the ruins of a centuries-old city, a metropolis that would have been bigger and more sophisticated than anything in Europe at that time.

Returning to Britain a national hero, Faucett touts his belief in the lost city, leading to accusations that he has fallen for an “El Dorado”-type myth. That attitude is as much racist as it is scientific…Faucett’s belief that the Amazon Indians once had a world-class civilization doesn’t go down well with imperialists who embrace the white man’s duty to raise and/or exploit the world’s great unwashed. Continue Reading »