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: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

19 12 2012

The mumblecore movement is slowly gaining more notoriety as some of its key figures such as Greta Gerwig and the Duplass brothers (specifically Mark) are getting some traction as mainstream personalities.  They don’t seem to be bringing the genre that made them along for the ride, though.  Movies like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” are a reminder that even with popular actors like Jason Segel and Ed Helms, this style of comedy is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it hits its stride.

But if anyone is going to make that happen, it’s still going to be the Duplass brothers.  Though their latest film is a definite step down from the slyly clever “Cyrus,” it still brings quite a bit of good humor and heart to the table.  Some of the peculiar directions that “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” takes feel rather forced, particularly the storyline of Susan Sarandon’s matriarch Sharon and her secret admirer.

The Duplass brothers might be taking a few too many hints from films like “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” movies so quirky that they feel set in a different universe despite having their feet firmly planted in reality.  Indeed, the protagonist Jeff, Jason Segel’s great stoner-philosopher (that plays like a mellowed-out version of his Sidney Fife from “I Love You Man”) feels like a little bit too much of a constructed character and not authentic in the slightest.  Ed Helms’ ultra-nebbish Pat is slightly better, but he’s so high-strung that it negates most of his ties to a grounded reality.

These outlandish characters make “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” funnier than “Cyrus” – there’s one scene in particular that had me in stitches – but at the cost of what makes mumblecore … well, mumblecore.  It’s disassociated from the humdrum reality that creates the humor (or lack of it) to create an artificial universe for its characters where the absurd is far more plausible.

As a result, it feels like a disingenuous entry into the subgenre.  That is, if you would even call it a subgenre flick since it straddles the line between mainstream and mumblecore comedy, never fully committing to either one.  B2halfstars