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

Enough Said


Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, Tracey Fairaway, Michaela Watkins, Phillip Brock, Chris Smith, Jessica St. Clair, Lennie Loftin, Tavi Gevinson, Nick Williams, Ivy Strohmaier, Alina Adams, Amy Landecker, Natasha Sky Lipson, Eve Hewson, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

The way Hollywood tells it, the only people who fall in love are young and beautiful. They have the issues of young people, the problems that are part and parcel with just starting out in your life. I guess that actually makes some sense; after all when you’re young you’re supposed to be falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean that the middle aged and the elderly don’t fall in love as well. Into the former category belongs Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) who is an L.A. masseuse who is a divorced mother of one. She lugs her massage table up flights of stairs and dreads the day her daughter Ellen (Fairaway) leaves for college, all the way to New York. Her nest is looking empty indeed.

At a party she meets Albert (Gandolfini), also a single dad who is going through much the same thing she is. At first, he’s not the kind of guy she’d be attracted to normally. He is, as Gilbert Iglesias might put it, a bit fluffy. Still, he has a sweet personality and a good sense of humor. She agrees to go out on a date with him and it goes surprisingly well. Pretty soon they’re doing more than just going out.

At the same party Eva met Marianne (Keener), a poet who she contracted as a client initially. Marianne is in the same boat in many ways as Eva is; a college-age daughter getting ready to leave for the Parsons School of Design. Marianne, like Eva, is divorced but in Marianne’s case she doesn’t have very many pleasant things to say about her ex. He’s a slob, not very good at sex on those occasions Marianne would give in to his whining and give him some. He’s contentious, petulant and neurotic. It doesn’t take too long before Eva figures out that Marianne’s ex is her current beau. However, this is a golden opportunity to find out more about this guy from someone who knows everything there is to know about him so she keeps quiet about her new relationships to both Albert and Marianne. That’s never a good idea.

Holofcener has directed some pretty cool films up to now including Please Give, Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. She has a good sense of making her characters realistic and grounded. Sure Eva can be a little bit flighty and sure, Marianne is a bit of a bitch and absolutely Albert is a lazy disorganized slob (by his own admission) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting characters and more importantly – they aren’t defined by their personality quirks as so many other indie characters are. It’s nice to see so well-rounded personalities in a movie.

Louis-Dreyfus, familiar to most from her stint as Elaine on the legendary Seinfeld show, is still a beauty although it is tempered by her age now. Like many women on just either side of 50, there is a fragility to her body that she hasn’t taken the best care of over the years. She also is quick to smile and quick to frown – she doesn’t have the energy to hide her feelings.

Gandolfini in his last leading role (he played supporting roles in two more films that will see release in the coming months) reaffirms what a treasure he was as an actor. He is the center of the film in many ways – the victim of Eva’s mistrust and untruthfulness and it is he whose heart gets broken. While Albert’s weight excess is a central point of the film (he is relentless chided about it by both Marianne and Eva) for me it’s not THE central point.

There are a couple of subplots that seemed unnecessary – the movie really is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Albert and Eva. I also have to say it is one of those movie that Gene Siskel used to pull his hair over – those conflicts that could be easily resolved by a line of dialogue (“I think your ex is one of my friends”). Then again, I think it’s only human nature to want to find out as much as you can about the person you’re falling for so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that someone in that situation would see the situation as a golden opportunity rather than as a disaster in the making.

These are damaged human beings. They’ve given the heart to someone only to find it wasn’t the right someone. They’re both lonely and afraid and that’s pretty much how all of us go into relationships. I am fortunate in that I haven’t been divorced but I can imagine how much harder it would be to find love once you’ve been burned by it already.

REASONS TO GO: Gandolfini gives you the warm fuzzies. Really good cast allowed to be really good.  Well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: One of those situations that could easily be resolved with a sentence or two. Strays dangerously close to formula.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations, a bit of bad language, partial nudity and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toby Huss, who plays Eva’s ex, also played a man who dated Elaine (also played by Louis-Dreyfus) on the Seinfeld show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Year of the Dog

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Extra Man

In My Sleep


Sometimes, the water isn't fine.

Sometimes, the water isn’t fine.

(2010) Thriller (Morning Star) Philip Winchester, Lacey Chabert, Abigail Spencer, Tim Draxl, Kim Overton, Michael Badalucco, Beth Grant, Tony Hale, Amy Aquino, Kevin Kilner, Aidan Mitchell, Alexandra Paul, Kirsten Vangsness, Allan Wasserman, Patrick Labyorteaux, Bellamy Young, Shanna Collins, Marcelle Larice, Kathryn Fiore. Directed by Allen Wolf

Sleep is a time for rest, for letting our bodies and minds recharge. But sleep is a mysterious state which we really don’t understand. Where does our mind go? What is it capable of? And how does our dream state relate to our waking state?

Marcus (Winchester) has a pretty good life. He’s handsome, the ladies love him (and he loves them too, one night at a time) and he works as a masseuse. His best friend Justin (Draxl) and Justin’s wife Ann (Overton) hang out in some pretty sweet digs, and his neighbor Becky (Chabert) is very interesting to him.

Marcus also has parasomnia, a form of sleepwalking in which he does things he can’t remember doing the next day. One morning he wakes up with blood on his hands and a bloody knife on the floor at his side. He finds out that one of his closest friends has been stabbed to death. Of course, the signs point to Marcus who can’t remember a thing about the night in question. Now he has to get to the bottom of the incident to find out what happened – to clear his name, or find out once and for all if he’s guilty.

The premise is fairly standard, although the sleepwalking aspect is something new. However we’ve seen the amnesia angle before, the “did I do it or didn’t I” question hanging over the proceedings. In that sense, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Winchester, who’s best known as Frank Stanton in the cult TV show Fringe is required to carry the movie and unfortunately, he doesn’t do it on this occasion. While he’s terribly good looking and is shirtless at every opportunity possible (and a few that aren’t) his character is pretty bland and forgettable. He’s kind of a generic thriller hero.

There’s a whole lot of eye candy in this film – not of the special effects kind but the beautiful people kind. For those who prefer female forms, there are a lot of women in the movie in various states of undress. Can’t complain about that – unless said states of undress are gratuitous and unnecessary, which they mostly are.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on and by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have figured it out (to be fair, there aren’t a lot of suspects to choose from). Quite frankly, by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have long since stopped caring.

Chabert has never been a favorite actress of mine but she more than holds her own here, leading me to think I should revise my opinion of her. Hopefully she’ll continue delivering performances like this and hopefully in better movies than this one. Sadly, this is a movie that had some potential but at the end of the day, simply doesn’t have much to recommend it, unless you don’t mind checking out all the beautiful people and their bodies that decorate the film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice premise. Chabert does a fine job. Winchester is awfully handsome.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks suspense. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: In addition to some fairly strong sexual content, there’s also some violence and foul language and some gruesome bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to help finance the movie, Wolf created Morning Star Games, a board game company that created award winning games that are still being produced today (one of them, “You’re Pulling My Leg” appears in the film).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel. On the Blu-Ray edition there’s also a music video and a gag nightmare..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90,093 on a $3M production budget; obviously this film was unprofitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trance

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Despicable Me 2