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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 15, 2017)

15 06 2017

We all know the stereotype: the quirky indie movie character who’s got some social anxieties and manages to perturb the calm facades of more well-adjusted peers. It’s a stock character by this point. But back at the turn of the millennium, it was probably quite novel – and maybe even a little radical. (I wasn’t watching indie films then, so I do have to guess.)

So I can only imagine what it would be like to watch “Chuck and Buck” when it premiered in 2000. Even for a first viewing in 2017, it still resides in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. In a pre-“Brokeback Mountain” era, director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White dove head into an unrequited homoerotic love story of an awkward man (White’s Chuck) and the childhood friend (Chris Weitz’s Buck) who outgrew him.

That might count as a bit of a spoiler because the nature of their relationship comes as a slow reveal. Their nature of their past relationship begins in barely perceptible undertones but gradually begins to come to light. When Chuck is planning for the funeral of his mother, who he cared for well into adulthood, he calls Buck out of the blue to attend. It seems like a reasonable action for someone reeling through tragedy at the time, and Buck (along with his girlfriend) are decent enough to come and comfort him.

But then the film continues. Chuck decides to pack up and head to Hollywood, where Buck lives and works. After awkward hangouts don’t result in the rekindling of their friendship to adolescent levels, Chuck strikes out with a strange act of attention-grabbing desperation. He stages a play at a community theater that’s a very clear allegory of he and Buck’s relationship and the resulting feelings stemming from their estrangement.

Many a moment in the film is utterly cringe-inducing as Chuck runs amok of so many social niceties and norms considered necessary for social interactions. Yet they are also tinged with the sadness, loss and confusion of a gay man stuck in a society and a self that could not accept such a thing. Where other filmmakers might try to dull his edges, Arteta and White do no such ting in “Chuck and Buck.” The film is all the more remarkable for it.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 8, 2016)

8 09 2016

year-of-the-dogAs someone who lives with two canine companions, I can certainly sympathize with Molly Shannon’s Peggy in “Year of the Dog.” Relationships with humans are tough. How dare they do this, but they actually want something in return from us. They make demands of our time and thought. Dogs like Peggy’s beloved Pencil simply live to please us, offering love and affection no matter our mood or deeds that day.

But, as every child in a film about a dog knows, we almost always outlive our dogs. Peggy faces this lesson sooner than expected when Pencil gets into some toxic chemicals and cannot be saved by a veteran. What comes next for someone who puts all her eggs into the basket of her beloved animal makes for quite a melancholy comedy from writer/director Mike White.

Rather than using her period of mourning to deepen or enrich her relationship with neighbors, coworkers or family members, Peggy entrenches herself even further into animal advocacy and obsession. She becomes a vegan, brings home abused shelter dogs by the carful to save them from euthanasia and even “adopts” farm animals in lieu of holiday gifts. It’s decidedly odd turn of events, yet Molly Shannon resists playing her character as some kind of lunatic. The performance resembles a quieter, more mellow version of her notorious “Saturday Night Live” characters – all of their insecurities without all the theatricality to mask the wounds.

“Year of the Dog” is my choice for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not only because of Shannon’s raw performance but also because of where Mike White takes it. While he shows compassion for everyone, White is not afraid to steer the film into dark and bittersweet territory. He is unafraid to suggest that Peggy might not need the human connections we expect her to develop over the course of the film. She might just need the certainty of her own convictions and the courage to follow the path she thinks will bring her the happiness she seeks.





REVIEW: The D Train

18 08 2015

The D Train posterThe D Train,” while technically and functionally a comedy, might be one of the more depressing movies ever made about high school.  Like Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s seething 2011 film “Young Adult,” the film takes place several decades after the diplomas get handed out.  Yet, all things considered, time stays relatively frozen.

For this rather cynical writer/director duo, Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, high school locks people into the parts they must play for the rest of their lives.  At 38, Jack Black’s Dan Landsman has not amassed any more esteem from his peers, who routinely ostracize him from their plans … after an alumni telethon of all things!

Determined to rewrite the script of his life, Dan hatches a half-brained plan to bring back a mildly famous alumni for his class’ twentieth reunion.  Yes, for them, the appearance of James Marsden’s Oliver Lawless (apparently not a stage name) in a Banana Boat commercial constitutes fame.  Dan even goes out to visit him in Los Angeles to formally recruit his appearance…

…and then a funny thing happened on the way to the reunion: the coarsely cool Oliver entices the happily wedded Dan into an evening of sexual intercourse. Everything up to this point felt like a compact cinematic narrative in its own right, fully satisfying and surprising.  Afterwards, though, “The D Train” really falls off the rails.

Jack Black layered queer undertones into his performance in “Bernie,” but he flops when playing it overtly. After his night with Oliver, he becomes single-sighted and uncomfortably unhinged. It becomes actually painful to watch how far his idiocy will extend to gain the favor of his new crush. Some of this awkwardness stems from the script, which treats homosexuality like some kind of pathology that takes over one’s system through exchanging fluids.

Marsden, on the other hand, delights in a role that does not exploit his dashing looks to turn him into a dreamboat. Oliver’s attractiveness, if anything, made him complacent to treat others like dirt.  Such a disposition does not fly in a place like Hollywood, although it still passes amongst high schoolers past and present.  B- / 2stars