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: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

27 06 2015

Me and EarlOn its face, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” amounts to a fairly simple calculation.  Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel for the screen, takes the YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” and makes teen cancer more palatable by injecting a healthy dosage of hyper-mature, cinematically literate narration comparable to “Easy A.”

If someone asked me to quickly describe this movie, I would probably use some combination of the two movies listed above – and it would be a positive recommendation.  But, like any good movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is far more than just its sales pitch or just the sum of its influences.

For starters, the film features a vividly realized protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines.  I am still a little uneasy by the egocentric nature of the tale, especially given his interactions with Olivia Cooke’s Rachel Kushner, a classmate undergoing grueling treatment for leukemia.  But the more I reflect on the movie, the more I come to assume this was intended.  After all, “Me” does come first in the title.

Greg reminds me a lot of myself in high school, and I suspect anyone like me who takes the time to write out their thoughts about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably have some line to the same effect in their review.  He’s a droll, quick-witted teenage cinephile who would rather create and consume fabricated narratives than blaze one of his own.  Greg fashions himself as nothing more than a loser trying to quietly suffer beneath the cliques that dominate the high school hallways, though his detailed taxonomy of every social group demonstrates that he believes himself above them as well.

At first, I wondered why I had such a hard time connecting with Greg.  If he reminds me so much of myself, why should I not embrace this character with whom I so often nod in painful recognition?  Then, I made an important realization – maybe people like Greg (and, by extension, myself) are not the easiest to love.  Especially towards the end of the film, where I slowly stopped identifying with him, Greg begins drowning himself in a toxic combination of self-loathing and self-awareness.

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REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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