Happy Times (2019)


Dinner parties can be SOOO stressful…

(2019) Horror (Artsploitation) Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Guy Adler, Ido Mohr, Daniel Lavid, Shani Atlas, Sophia Santi, Mike Burstyn, Kevin Thomas, Rigo Obezo.  Directed by Michael Mayer

 

What could be more civilized than a gathering of friends and family for a dinner party? Breaking bread with those we care about is one of the nicer parts of being human, something many of us have been missing during the pandemic. However, one look at this dinner party and we might want to embrace social distancing to a much more restrictive degree.

Boorish businessman Yossi (Mohr) and his elegant trophy wife Sigal (Chamami) are Israeli ex-pats living in Southern California. They host a post-Sabbath dinner at their McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, sending the kids away with a heartfelt “Good riddance!” (now, there’s my kind of mom) giving the adults room to party.

Attending the party is Yossi’s business partner, contractor Ilan (Adler) and his girlfriend Noya (Atlas), business executive Avner (Pdut) and his wife Hila (Bahr) who gave up a law career to start a family, and cousin Maor (Lavid) who came stag. Aspiring  actor Michael (Aloni) – Sigal’s beloved cousin who is essentially maligned by the rest of the group – arrives  last with his African-American girlfriend Aliyah (Celma).

Soon, long-simmering resentments begin to leak to the surface and despite Sigal’s best efforts to keep everything sociable, the addition of  black sheep Michael who seems hell-bent on irritating absolutely everybody brings things to a boiling point. Buttons are pushed. Punches are thrown. People are knocked out. Dick pics are taken. Panties are stolen. Accusations are hurled. Bullets fly. Cops arrive. Cops leave. Things get much, much worse.

There is a ghoulish pleasure in watching a dinner party of snobby, shallow rich people turn into a Tarantino climax and you can almost feel Mayer’s glee at staging it. None of the characters onscreen (with the possible exceptions of Aliyah and the rabbi (Burstyn) who shows up in the third act) have any redeeming qualities at all. None of the relationships here seem to be healthy in any way, shape or form except for maybe Sigal and Michael in which there seems to be at least some genuine affection.

There’s a lot of dark humor here, with writers Guy Ayal and Mayer injecting commentary on the shallow nature of Hollywood elites as well as the macho posturing of Israeli men. Even Israeli women don’t go unscathed as the Israeli women here are largely pretty nasty pieces of work with plenty of repressed fury.

There is plenty of blood and carnage, although the murders aren’t particularly inventive. Then again, most of them are crimes of opportunity and passion. Someone gets pushed to the breaking point and grabs whatever is at hand, be it a heavy blunt object or an antique crossbow. Someone even gets stuffed into a kiln.

The mostly-Israeli actors are extremely strong here, with Chamami and Aloni getting the lions share of the moments to remember. However, Pdut has his own share of moments as the businessman hiding PTSD from his time in the compulsory Israeli military service. The movie, though, falls in between niches; it’s not really the kind of horror film that is going to invite raves in the horror film community, and it is a little bit too genre for the arthouse crowd. It also forces the audience to sit through about 45 minutes of a dinner party of unpleasant people before getting to the good stuff, which may try the patience of many. Still, the last half of the movie does move at a pretty good clip, so those who like their mayhem with a side of Jewish gestalt will get their money’s worth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Skewers both shallow Hollywood culture and macho Israeli ethos. A stellar dark comedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a very long time to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, gore and mayhem, plenty of profanity, some sexual situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Host
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bliss

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus