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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Lipstick Under My Burkha


lipstick-under-my-burkha(2016) Dramedy (M-Appeal) Shshank Arora, Plabita Borthakur, Sonal Jha, Aahana Kumra, Vikrant Massey, Ratna Pathak, Korkona Sen Sharma, Jagat Singh, Sushant Singh, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava

miami-film-festival-2017

India is a modern democracy but in many ways they are still catching up. Women are certainly starting to demand freedoms and consideration they’d never dream of asking for even a decade ago. Indian women have always been considered to only aspire to happy homemaking. That’s not quite true anymore.

Four women leading separate lives in the rural city of Bhopal (yes, the same Bhopal where Union Carbide’s gas leak killed so many – it is referenced only briefly that the husband of one of the characters died in that tragedy) are all looking to break out of the molds they’ve been placed into. First there’s Usha (Pathak), known to everyone as Auntie; she’s a canny businesswoman who’s been a widow for most of her adult life. She spends most of her time with the children but she has a secret obsession nobody knows about; erotic romance novels, in particular one called Lipstick Dreams.

Leela (Kumra) is a beautician who is unwillingly engaged to an earnest but essentially colorless guy in an arranged marriage. She has a thing for her Muslim photographer whom she is having sex with at nearly every opportunity and wants to run away with him to the big city where they can start on their own fresh. Then there’s Shirin (Sharma) who is a married mother of three whose husband travels a lot for work. When he’s at home, the sex is almost painful for her and he seems to be utterly incapable of pleasing her or caring to. She has managed to build a sales career without his knowledge because she knows if he knew about it he would forbid it but there’s a promotion on the horizon and there would be no way to hide it from him then. Finally, there’s Rehana (Borthakur), the teenage daughter of strict Muslims who attends college, changing from her Burkha into Western clothes on her way to school and back into the Burkha on her way home where she works in the family business – ironically sewing Burkhas. However she wants to be a more typical teenage girl, hanging out in discos, flirting with boys and doing all the things forbidden her by her conservative parents. And of course, they find out all about it.

Usha gets involved with a swimming instructor who brings out her inner sensuality and she does something unthinkable for a woman her age – heck, for any Indian woman, while Leela is caught between the lover she wants and the wealthy young man who wants her. Shirin makes a discovery about her husband that could change everything and when Rehana gets arrested at a demonstration, the wheels get rolling on an arranged marriage for her. Will these women ever be free to lead the life they want?

Feminism is very nascent in India but it is slowly beginning to take hold. This isn’t the first feminist film to come out of the Sub-Continent, but it just might be the most potent. Shaking up societal norms is part of cinema’s function and this film fulfills that in about every way possible. Some in India have objected at the eroticism displayed in the film. While by American standards it’s fairly tame, it is surprising to see something from India that is this forthright about sex.

I’m not trying to condescend Indian society – certainly our own culture has plenty of problems, particularly now. It is somehow comforting to see Indian women – artists and ordinary women – rising up and demanding fair treatment. It reminds me a little bit of the years that NOW was a political force. I hope that this kind of movie is just a taste of things to come.

REASONS TO GO: A gutsy examination of the role of women in modern Indian society. There is a frank scene of female sexual desire in a 55 year old actress which some may find shocking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit more erotic than some might be used to from Indian cinema.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly frank sexual content and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: India’s Film Censor Board refused to certify the film, citing scenes of sexuality and female empowerment, sparking outrage throughout India.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Wolves

A Violent Prosecutor (Geomsawejeon)


They're talking about him again.

They’re talking about him again.

(2016) Crime (Showbox) Jeong-min Hwang, Dong-won Kang, Jin-mo Joo, Byeong-ok Kim, Eung-soo Kim, Hong-pa Kim, Won-hae Kim, Sung-min Lee, Ji-hwan Park, Sung-woong Park, So-yul Shin. Directed by Il-Hyeong Lee

NYAFF

We live in an era of corruption and graft. Of course, every era to date has had such qualities to it. When justice is twisted upon itself, all that is left is vengeance.

Byun Jae-wook (Hwang) is a prosecutor, and not just an adequate one. He has an extensive knowledge of the law that stems from his intense love of the law. He will do whatever it takes to put criminals behind bars where they belong, which sometimes leads him to some questionable interrogation tactics in which he literally beats confessions out of suspects.

At an environmentalist protest of a planned development at an important bird sanctuary in Korea, a group of outsider thugs come in and initiate a confrontation with the police. One of their number is arrested after assaulting a police officer and is taken to Byun for questioning. The suspect dies mysteriously while in custody and Byun is charged with murder. Byun claims that the suspect was an asthmatic and that his inhaler had malfunctioned; however, there are no records of the suspect having asthma. Byun’s boss, Kang Yeong-sik (E-s. Kim) who has political aspirations, advises Byun to plead self-defense. However, that strategy fails miserably despite Kang’s reassurances and Byun realizes, belatedly, that he’s been framed.

In prison, he is at first a target for regular beatings – he had personally put away many of the prison’s residents. However, his knowledge of law helps a couple of guards and they make sure that Byun is untouchable and he becomes a gang unto himself. When con-man Han Chi-won (Kang) is imprisoned, Byun sees an opportunity. He befriends the narcisstic young man and prevails upon him to do Byun a favor if Byun can get him released early. Thus begins a deadly game in which Byun and Kang are the players and Han is caught in between. Byun will stop at nothing to prove his innocence, but can he truly trust the amoral Han?

One of the things that is most delightful about this movie is the various influences on it. It’s a prison movie that has a lot of similarities to The Shawshank Redemption as well as a number of 90s-era action B-movies starring the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. There are also elements of such classics as The Sting as well as the retro-hip score and look of the Oceans trilogy.

Lee deftly weaves together all these disparate elements and we end up with a taut crime thriller with heavy comedic overtones. The movie is fast and fun for the most part, and Han – a leading teen idol in Korea who gets the teen girl crowd over there sighing expressively – provides some occasionally over-the-top but surprisingly solid comic relief.

More to the point is Hwang, a craggy actor who is one of Korea’s very best. In many ways the equivalent to Robert De Niro, he has done a lot of gangster films in the past including New World (2013) which is justly considered by some to be the Godfather of Korea. Byun is a complex character, one who has had issues with violence in his past but has come to regret some of his actions, now that he has effectively seen how the other half lives. Hwang commands the screen like a boss whenever he’s on and quite frankly from this point over I’ll go out of my way to see anything he’s in.

The movie runs a bit over two hours and for the most part, you don’t notice that it’s a bit long for this kind of film. Those who have trouble staying in one place for two hours might have some issues with it, but film buffs are going to feel like scarcely any time has passed. This might well be the find of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It doesn’t have American distribution yet, but hopefully it’s huge success in Korea will lead to at least some sort of distribution deal here. I hope so; it deserves to be seen by a lot of people.

REASONS TO GO: Hwang and Kang make an effective team. The film combines a number of different genres to make a satisfying stew.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made $22 million on its opening weekend and is currently 16th on the all-time Korean box office chart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Six

Tomorrow We Disappear


Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

(2014) Documentary (Old Friend) Puran Bhatt, Maya Pawar, Rahman Shah, Dilip Bhatt, Krishnan the Juggler. Directed by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber

Florida Film Festival 2015

The slums of India tend to be among the worst in the world; poverty in India is as abject as perhaps anywhere else on the face of the planet. Children play on exposed electrical cords, the smell from fly-infested canals filled with standing algae growth and from excrement and filth in the streets can be horrific.

The Kathputli Colony in New Delhi is at first glance much like any other slum until you take a closer look. The inhabitants are mainly folk artists, street magicians and contortionists, all carrying on Indian street arts that are quickly disappearing. They have lived here for generations, passing down their art to their children and making a meager living performing in the streets of Delhi.

A developer has purchased the land that the slum sits on from the Indian government and proposes to build a multi-use skyscraper with high end apartments, a shopping mall, restaurants and entertainment. It will be New Delhi’s first skyscraper, something the entire city can be proud of.

However, to the residents of Kathputli, it is troubling. Part of the deal that the government of India made with the developer is that those being displaced by the project must have proper housing built. A temporary relocation camp has been constructed to house the residents while their final homes are being built.

Three residents of the colony take differing viewpoints about their displacement. Puran Bhatt is India’s premiere puppeteer, having toured the globe promoting the distinctly Indian version of this art and having won a National Award presented to him by India’s president no less. He is the most famous person living in Kathputli, and he is very troubled by what he sees as a direct threat to the colony, the traditions that live there and the unity of its residents. He fears that this will signal the end of these valuable and culturally defining art forms that are already becoming scarce on the Indian cultural landscape.

Rahman Shah is a street magician who is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Corrupt police officers expect bribes in order for him to perform and often the amount they ask for is more than he takes in during a performance. His sons worship him as young sons will worship their fathers, eager to follow in his footsteps and yet he is still pessimistic about the future of his art. He feels that it is being pushed out of the way by corruption and indifference and will eventually disappear from view entirely.

Maya Pawar is an acrobat who sees the change as something positive, an opportunity for the colony and its people to grow and flourish. She is concerned that the desperate poverty of the colony actually inhibits the creativity of those who live there, and better living conditions will allow them to devote more time to their arts. She doesn’t feel the same connection to her art that Puran and Rahman do; she’d be just as happy teaching school as she is performing acrobatic feats.

The residents band together for protest marches and while the developer tries to assuage their concerns, when they tour the temporary relocation camp it feels like their worst fears have come true; the dark and ugly flats, hastily built with shoddy workmanship, are not places to live so much as they are places to die and what was promised to be a transitional place to live for a year or two looks to be their homes for much longer than that and given the corruption that often exists in these matters may certainly end up as permanent dwellings if the developer reneges on his promises.

The first part of the documentary is actually quite powerful as we get to meet the colorful people of Kathputli and see the pride they take in their home and their art. As poor as their lives are, they decorate their little corner of the world with bright colors, electric light from rickety jury-rigged wiring, and a sense of humor that they maintain even in the worst pressures being brought to bear on them. There is a sense of change overwhelming the people of the Colony and most aren’t quite sure how to react or what to do. It is heartbreaking in some ways and in others an interesting study of a traditional lifestyle being decimated by the needs of modern life. Whether modernization is a good thing for the inhabitants of Kathputli is certainly open for debate.

The trouble is that in the second part of the documentary, things fall apart a little bit. We get a lot of shouting matches between colonists and developers, and amongst the Kathputli residents themselves. The sense of unity that the residents had is disintegrating which might account for the more chaotic feel of the second half. It feels though in some ways that the story has lost its momentum and we’re just watching things deteriorate which is an unsettling feeling for the viewer; it might well be what the filmmakers were going for in order to give the audience a sense of what the people of Kathputli are going through, but it left me feeling like the movie just lost its momentum.

The story is ongoing and the people of Kathputli continue to fight relocation; late last year police raided the colony, beating colonists in an attempt to intimidate the hold-outs to move into the relocation camp (these events took place after filming of the documentary had been completed and aren’t referred to by the filmmakers). The story remains in a bit of flux, which often real life stories tend to be. This isn’t something that will be settled quickly which you get a sense of from watching the film, although you don’t really see beyond the developer’s promises just how much the government is arrayed against the colonists. I would have liked to have gotten a better sense of that.

The first part of the movie does tend to trump the second; the people are so extraordinary, so indelible that you won’t soon forget them. Whether or not you agree with their stance regarding the relocation of the colony (and I tend to be skeptical that the developer and the government will keep their promises), i think you will agree that should these artists and their art disappear from view it will be a terrible blow for India and their cultural heritage.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Residents of slum are interesting people you want to get to know better.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during the second half. We get very little sense of the forces arrayed against them or the corruption surrounding them.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild bad words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hamara Shahar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Proud Citizen