Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story

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Project Almanac


Now let's see Criss Angel do THAT!!!

Now let’s see Criss Angel do THAT!!!

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount/Insurge) Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker, Gary Weeks, Macsen Lintz, Gary Grubbs, Michelle DeFraites, Curry Stone, Jamila Thompson, Katie Garfield, Hillary Harley, Courtney Bowers, Patrick Johnson, Joshua Brady, Danielle Rizzo, Onira Tares. Directed by Dean Israelite

Most scientists with any sort of background in physics will tell you that time travel is not possible, but the concept has certainly excited the imagination of cinemaphiles the world over, as well as filmmakers. It does make for some interesting “what if” discussions, no doubt about it.

Teenager David Raskin (Weston) is in his senior year in high school and has a brilliant scientific mind. He yearns to matriculate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but has some stiff competition and even if he’s selected to go, will need a good deal of financial help to get there. He sends the selection committee a video of a new gadget that allows him to control drones remotely without the need of a joystick but through sensors in a glove he wears. This gets him accepted to the prestigious university; unfortunately, it doesn’t get him the scholarship money that is crucial to him actually attending.

With his mother (Landecker) willing to sell the house to raise the funds for his schooling, David feels obligated to try and get scholarship money with some other project, but it needs to be fast. He goes through the papers of his late father (Weeks) in order to find something that he might be able to work off of but nothing jumps out at him. What he does find is a camcorder which recorded scenes from his seventh birthday party, which sadly was the day his father died in a car crash.

He and his sister Christina (Gardner) – who incessantly video records everything – see on the tape something they don’t expect to – the reflection of the 17-year-old David at his party ten years earlier. This should be impossible, but clearly David has traveled in time, or is about to. Grammar can take a beating in a time travel movie, particularly where tenses are concerned.

As it turns out, his daddy was working on a time travel device for the military when he died and was close to getting it to work. David decides to build this just to see if it works. As you can guess, it does. This leads to David and his nerdy science class friends Quinn Goldberg (Lerner) and Adam Le (Evangelista) hanging out and getting involved in the construction of the device. Eventually popular girl Jessie Pierce (Black-D’Elia) discovers what they’re up to and joins the Scooby Gang. As it turns out, David has always had a huge crush on Jessie but has never had the gumption to talk to her. Now, she’s talking to him.

At first they start doing things that you would expect teenagers to do; going back in time so that Quinn can ace a chemistry test he needs to pass in order to graduate. Of course, it takes more than a few attempts before he gets it right (one of the more amusing ideas in the film). They also use the winning Lotto numbers to get rich; except they write the numbers down wrong so instead of getting a huge jackpot to set them up for life, they win not quite two million bucks to split among the five of them.

It’s all fun and games until David decides to break the rules that the group agreed upon. It seems like a harmless change at first but like the Butterfly Effect, it has enormous consequences and the teens begin to notice that each time they come back from a time travel trip, something horrible is happening in the world. And then horrible things begin to happen to them.

This is a movie that is very aware of other time travel movies, ranging from Back to the Future to the Bill and Ted movies to more recent films like Looper. Israelite, who has written a number of genre films, takes the director chair out for a spin and doesn’t do too bad a job, particularly in the very difficult time travel genre which tends to get confusing and overly involved.

Israelite, who also wrote this, doesn’t go into too many specifics of how it works (other than it takes an enormous amount of power). He does allow us to see the actual transition which involves a lot of magnetism, a vortex and bodies and debris being thrown about like rag dolls. Time travel is, in Israelite’s imagination, painful.

The young mostly unknown cast neither distinguishes themselves nor disgraces themselves. They play teens adequately, which means us grown-ups will be banging our heads in frustration as what are supposed to be super intelligent kids do incredibly dumb and dangerous things, but you have to remember – teens. To a teen, dealing with those emotions that are so incredibly intense and painful at that age take precedence over things like safety and sanity.

This is a found footage film, although it has a soundtrack and uses some camera tricks like slow motion, but it is still here in all of its shaky cam splendor. Those who are sensitive to such things – as I am – should be warned that the visuals can be fairly vertigo-inducing and I was very thankful that the screening I attended was less than a five minute drive from my home. Also, I think the whole subgenre of found footage has been overdone and needs to be given a rest for awhile as it seems to be more gimmicky than anything else these days. But that’s just me.

Still this is stylishly done and should appeal to your inner high school senior. Given its history of having been delayed a year (see below) and then dropped into the doldrums of late January most of us didn’t really expect much out of this, but quite frankly considering the limitations it turns out to be a pretty good diversion for this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty visuals. Well-paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable teen idiocy. Found footage has kind of had its day.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some light sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be released in February 2014 under the title Welcome to Yesterday but was re-titled and re-branded with MTV Films helping with marketing, and the release was delayed nearly a full year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Turner

All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa