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: Miss Sloane

9 12 2016

“Lobbying is about foresight,” observes Jessica Chastain’s high-powered Washington lobbyist Liz Sloane at the outset of “Miss Sloane.” It’s a statement she delivers in direct address to the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. Such a revelation recalls a magician movie like “The Prestige” or “Now You See Me” more than a garden-variety political thriller.

Indeed, the intrigue in “Miss Sloane” plays like an inside-the-Beltway tale of congressional arm-twisting, fundraising wizardry and reality manipulation through the media. We’re very well aware of the fact that the movie is working one step ahead of us, that another shoe is always ready to drop in the next scene. For those willing to accept that each conclusion will be overturned by a future development, the film plays like a snappy tale of intrigue.

While the heightened political gamesmanship can lead the film to some hammy acting and some soapbox script moments, “Miss Sloane” is a remarkably grounded film about the cost of principles in the sludge of the system. Chastain’s Sloane is a remarkable figure – a pro-business conservative with a George W. Bush photo on her mantle who, for a complex web of reasons, decides to take on a challenging job lobbying for common-sense gun safety measures. With a Blackberry as her third hand, she chips away at the Senate deadlock on the issue until she very nearly fractures it.

Chastain is one of the industry’s most vocal feminist activists, now working behind the scenes to put the stories about women she wants to see into the culture. “Miss Sloane” is probably her most successful work to date in this regard (perhaps excepting “Zero Dark Thirty“). The film portrays an environment controlled by crusty old white men and the effect it has on limiting the roles available to women and tailoring the expectations they set for themselves. There’s no need to declare “FEMINIST” in bold letters, much less #ImWithHer. The understanding of gender is baked into every scene of Jonathan Perera’s script.

That extends to Sloane’s final speech, a contemporary Capra monologue that coats American idealism in the appropriate cynicism of the moment. Gone are the innocent outsiders of old affecting change by holding onto their flyover-state romanticism. Instead, the film suggests, we might need someone entrenched in the slime of the Hill to bring about the will of the people. In which case, the fits of Sorkin-esque shine in “Miss Sloane” make perfect sense. B+3stars

REVIEW: The Homesman

29 11 2014

The HomesmanHistorically speaking, the Western has not been the most hospitable type of movie to the female gender. This philosophical statement from the genre’s patron saint, John Wayne, pretty much says it all: “I stick to simple themes. Love. Hate. No nuances. I stay away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes. Couches are good for one thing.”

Writer/director Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” provides an interesting rejoinder to that legacy of rugged masculinity through its protagonist, Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy.  She is a gritty, hard-working single farmer in the Nebraska Territory who still maintains a sense of empathy and caring.  So, in other words, she balances traits that are socially gendered for both sexes.

She also initiates her own destiny rather than waiting around for someone else to save her, boldly proposing marriage to other landowners in order to consolidate property.  Unsurprisingly, in the 19th century just as today, men greet such a woman with suspicion.  And their favorite word to describe Cuddy?  Bossy, the very word for girls that outspoken feminist Sheryl Sandberg wants to ban.

Cuddy’s resolve certainly stands out not only for the film’s phylum but also within the movie itself, as women are otherwise made victims of rape or cruelly objectified by men.  This message is undeniably worthwhile, yet little else about “The Homesman” is.   The film is a meandering mess that no amount of advocacy can fully redeem.

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REVIEW: Love is Strange

13 06 2014

Love is StrangeLos Angeles Film Festival

A film that puts a big conceptual catch-all phrase in its title, such as “love” or “American,” should certainly be prepared to make a grand statement.  Ira Sach’s “Love is Strange” certainly has the ambition, providing three generations of characters whose problems play out on the screen.

From what I saw, though, the strangeness and conflict within the film did not come from love.  It arises, rather, from the complexities of the real estate market and overbearing taxes.  Or, as I like to call them, fates worse than death.

That’s not to dismiss the two lead performances at the center of the film by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow.  Respectively portraying George and Ben, life partners who finally get to legally tie the knot around the same time they qualify for the senior citizens’ discount at the movies, their bond of affection feels tender and sincere.  The kind of deep mutual understanding that couples strive for years to achieve is recreated effortlessly by these two great actors.

“Love is Strange” is at its best when it focuses on the two of them trying to navigate living apart after losing a cherished apartment they shared together for decades.  While they attempt to find a new place, George stays with some boisterous neighbors and Ben shacks up with some extended family navigating tenuous times of their own.  Lithgow is the film’s revelation (if he can be called that at the age of 68), portraying senility without a histrionic hint of burgeoning Alzheimer’s.

To the film’s detriment, Sachs expands his film and tries to encompass more experiences than it can comfortably portray in a 90-minute runtime.  The parenting tussle between Ben’s surrogate son Ted and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and the vague growing pains of their teenage son Joey feel like distractions from the film’s emotional core, George and Ben.  Had “Love is Strange” stayed a little more intensely fixated on them, the micro-level relationship might have satisfied the title’s promise of illuminating something bigger in the macro-level experience of love.

But Sachs insists on lingering and wandering through the lives of an ensemble, disrupting the intimacy of a two-handed love story.  Even though he is unable to satisfactorily accommodate them all into the narrative, “Love is Strange” still retains the feel of the piano sonatas that score the film.  There’s a gentility about the film, though that placidity seems to come at the cost of a more fulfilling emotional resonance.  B-2stars

REVIEW: This Is 40

31 12 2012

Judd Apatow is quite a curious entertainer, and I’m fascinated by the trajectory he’s taken to put his stamp on comedy.  Lately, he’s been using his tremendous power to advance women’s voices in comedy through Lena Dunham‘s HBO series “Girls” and Kristen Wiig’s “Bridesmaids,” quite a noble thing to do.

Yet otherwise as a producer, he makes comedies largely by the status quo, albeit with a slightly Apatowian (is that the proper term?) spin of vulgarity opening up on a big heart.  Some are hits, and others are flops.  Some work; others, absolute disasters.

However, as a director, he’s on the cutting edge.  2009’s “Funny People” and his fourth feature film, “This is 40,” are bold experiments in genre.  In these two movies, Apatow is probing the boundaries of comedy and attempting to make sense of the murky gray area that is dramedy.

These two movies are flawed but noble ventures into the great unknown.  Both films attempt to find the kind of tender human drama that defines the works of Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman, two directors who make serious works with touches of levity.  Apatow strives to find that same pathos without losing his films’ firm rooting in comedy, and though he doesn’t find it in “This is 40,” I’m willing to sit and watch him decipher it out.  Because once he finds that balance, a true masterpiece will be the inevitable result.

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REVIEW: Leap Year

28 08 2010

Why does anyone still bother to see romantic comedies? Look at the poster for “Leap Year” and guess how it ends; the genre has become so formulaic that my previous statement can’t even be branded a spoiler. So why is it that they are still made, and why is it that anyone still wants to see them?

Simply put, it’s because actresses like Amy Adams take roles in romantic comedies that the audiences come in droves.  So you really need me to go into the plot?  Or the production values?  If you truly want to see this movie, it’s almost a guarantee what you really want to see is Amy Adams.

So do you want me to waste both my time and yours by reviewing “Leap Year?”  In a sentence, it’s a stale rehash of all the romantic comedy cliches we’ve come to love and hate.  But the movie isn’t a total waste of time because of all the charm Amy Adams breathes into it.  As Anna, the girl so desperate to get married that she’s willing to travel in dismal conditions to propose to her boyfriend, she manages to turn someone with traits we would generally despise into a character we can actually like.  That’s no small feat.

She doesn’t really get to be funny or sexy, two things you can be very little of in a movie that’s rated PG.  But that girl-next-door sensibility and smile as wide as a mountain range are present, and they somehow make the corny plot more digestible.

If you decide to watch “Leap Year,” you won’t get anything you can’t get from any other romantic comedy.  You’ll wind up feeling about as warm as you do looking at the poster, watching the trailer, or reading a plot synopsis.  But you will get a big portion of jubilant Amy Adams, and that’s enough to make 100 minutes of banalities feel a little less dusty.  B- /