REVIEW: Beatriz at Dinner

16 06 2017

The 2016 election was not just a political event. More than any one before it in the United States, the election was also a cultural event. Across Europe and other democracies, it’s long been considered normal to bring up politics in conversation. In America, however, politics rarely made their way into average dialogue. As a teacher once told me, the only safe topics of conversation with a stranger on an airplane were sports and the weather.

But now the spillover is unavoidable. We must talk about them. We can avoid it no longer. In Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” we get cinema’s first big movie about how those conversations will look – faux pas and all. (I specify “cinema” because television, with its shorter production schedule, struck while the iron was significantly hotter.)

The movie runs just 83 minutes but manages to cover a lot of ground as it leads up to the rupture of its titular character, Salma Hayek’s massage therapist and apparent “miracle worker.” After providing services for a long-standing client, Connie Britton’s well-meaning Cathy, Beatriz’s car breaks down in the driveway. Cathy, rather than shooing her off to wait with the help, invites her to dine with the family as her husband celebrates a big deal with business partners.

Well-intentioned though the offer from Cathy is, the wincing that ensues shows just how hollow her notion of cross-class communication stands at our current moment. John Lithgow’s unapologetic capitalist boor Doug Strutt makes the obvious cinematic mistake of mistaking Beatriz for a server and asks for another drink. (Of course, this has to happen.) But more than just casual racist biases emerge over the course of the evening. We see the pain of microaggressions against Beatriz as they roll casually off their tongues and jab into her dignity, many of which come courtesy of the younger married couple who we’d believe should “know better.” We observe the different feeling rules they maintain, both in terms of personal greetings as well as in the larger sense of who deserves sympathy and consideration.

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REVIEW: The Dinner

3 05 2017

I’ve racked my brain for days. Still, I cannot find a scenario in which the same person who masterfully threaded the seven-character Bob Dylan opus “I’m Not There” could also write something as clunky as “The Dinner.” Pardon this casual dismissal, but just … woooof.

Oren Moverman’s film is a cheap knockoff of “Carnage” – both Yasmina Reza’s play and Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation – as it gathers wealthy individuals to gnaw at each other over the sins of their children. That film wasn’t even anything to write home about, but it at least found a claustrophobic consistency and stuck to it. Moverman hacks away at any building tension between the two couples by frequently cutting away with flashbacks and expository scenes.

Even when Moverman does center the action on the open loathing between a successful politician (Richard Gere) and his cynical brother (Steve Coogan), “The Dinner” falls flat. They don’t sound like people. They talk like characters. Every bloviating pontification reeks of unrealistic grandiloquence. I don’t buy that this manner of speaking is some kind of class marker, either. Moverman just cannot find the humanity in the people he puts on screen.

When evaluating films, director David Fincher says he operates on the following logic: “First I’m looking for the technical. Then the believable. Then the connection.” Moverman’s film never makes it past the first criterion. C-





REVIEW: Love & Friendship

28 05 2016

Love & FriendshipPeriod pieces, particularly ones set in Victorian-era England, are a well-documented displeasure of mine. Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” however, represents one such film that did not entirely rub me the wrong way. And for once in my fraught relationship with costume films, the pleasure derived scarcely at all from historicizing present issues.

Rather, the joys of watching “Love & Friendship” come from Stillman vividly placing his characters on spectrums which we still recognize. The throughline of acerbic verbal barbs from Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan to vicious celebrity subtweets seems quite prevalent, as does her constant scheming and manipulation follow logically to someone like a Regina George. The characters of Jane Austen, the author from whose novella the film derives, are not some kind of mummified specimens. Stillman finds them quite alive and relevant.

The majority of the action (of which there is copious amounts for a film lasting only 90 minutes) centers around the recently widowed Lady Susan as she plays virtually everyone in sight off of each other. The purpose, of course, is to maintain her own status and perpetuate it by finding a suitable match for her daughter. Many are aware that she is up to something, though few fully realize the extent to which she plays catty games in high society realms.

It can be a little taxing to keep up with the entire cast of characters, especially given that Stillman introduces them briskly with cut-aways to them standing motionless with a brief description of their role. Eventually, we can figure out who’s who, just as we can translate some of the old English vernacular. The work is mostly worth the hassle, although I find it somewhat ironic that such effort is required to access the pleasures of “Love & Friendship” which are mostly rather simple – the cutting remark, the wry observation, the genius social maneuver. B-2stars