Playing Catch-Up: Beatriz at Dinner (dir by Miguel Arteta)

Beatriz at Dinner is very much a film of the moment, which is a polite way of saying that it’s not very good but it does accurately reflect the way that a lot of people are feeling right now.  I imagine that’s the main reason why it’s received a good deal of critical acclaim.  It was even cited, by the National Board of Review, as one of the top ten independent films of the year.  By 2019, I doubt anyone will even remember that this film exists.

Salma Hayek plays the title character.  Beatriz is a massage therapist in Los Angeles.  She’s not having a good day.  Not only has her neighbor killed one of her goats but, while she’s at the house of one of her wealthy clients, her car suddenly won’t start.  Beatriz says that she can call a friend to come pick her up but that he won’t be able to show up until after he gets off work.  Beatriz’s client, Kathy (Connie Britton), invites Beatriz to stay for dinner.

Kathy is a familiar type.  She’s the rich, privileged white woman who probably brags about how nice she is to her maid.  Kathy’s husband (David Warshofsky) may not want Beatriz to stay but Kathy feels that they owe a debt to Beatriz because Beatriz helped their daughter recover after she was treated for cancer.  Kathy not only insists that Beatriz stay for dinner but she also asks Beatriz to not only stay the night but also to sing everyone a song after they’ve eaten.  As Kathy’s rich friends start to arrive for dinner, Kathy treats Beatriz like a prop, blithely unaware of how awkward Beatriz feels around her guests.

The main dinner guest is an arrogantly vulgar businessman named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).  Doug is best known for building hotels, forcing poor people off of their land, and constantly bragging about how rich and famous he is.  He is even working on a memoir.  (In perhaps Beatriz at Dinner‘s only show of restraint, the film does not make him a reality show host.)  The first time that Doug sees Beatriz, he assumes that she must be a maid and asks her to get him a drink.  When Beatriz later launches into a monologue about her childhood in Mexico and how she first came to the United States, Doug interrupts to boorishly ask if she came legally.  Whenever anyone admonishes Doug for being rude, he merely laughs it off and says that he doesn’t mean to be offensive.  He’s just telling it like it is.

Hmmmm … I wonder who Doug is supposed to be a stand-in for?

Anyway, this all sounds promising enough but Beatriz at Dinner doesn’t really do much with this material.  Just as with his previous overrated film, Cedar Rapids, director Miguel Arteta fails to generate any sort of narrative momentum.  Basically, the entire film is Doug saying something offensive and Beatriz glaring at him.  We keep waiting for Beatriz to blow up but when she finally does start to talk back to Doug, it’s anti-climatic.  The dialogue suddenly starts to feel forced and unnatural.  Doug goes from being a disturbingly credible vulgarian to just being another comic book villain and, as a result, Beatriz’s speech feels almost as empty as an angry thread of tweets.  When Beatriz does take more concrete action towards Doug, the film ruins it all with an obvious twist that is nowhere close to being as profound as the filmmakers seem to think it is.  If Beatriz at Dinner was truly as revolutionary as it seems to think it is, that twist wouldn’t be there.

(Buñuel and Godard, who are both obvious influences on Beatriz at Dinner, would dismiss the twist as bourgeois bullshit.)

In the lead role, Salma Hayek is good but not great.  There’s really not much depth to Beatriz as a character.  She functions more as a symbol than as a human being.  (In many ways, the filmmakers treats Beatriz much in the same way that Kathy treats Beatriz, as a prop.)  John Lithgow steals the entire movie, giving the only performance that actually shows a hint of real and dangerous charisma.  As hateful a person as Doug may be, he is truthful about one thing.  He is the only character in the movie who always says exactly what is on his mind.  Lithgow plays Doug as not just a vulgarian but also as someone who is proud of being vulgar and who specifically goes out of his way to see how offensive he can be.  At times, Lithgow is the only member of the cast actually bringing any life to this stifling bore of a film.  Unfortunately, Lithgow is so good that he overpowers the rest of the cast.  When Beatriz rebukes him, Hayek delivers her lines with a heartfelt fury that briefly threatens to rescue the movie from Doug but all Lithgow has to do is smirk and just like that, he’s taken the movie back from her.

For a lot of people, the appeal of Beatriz at Dinner is that Doug is obviously meant to be Trump and Beatriz says everything that they wish they could say.  They see Beatriz’s frustration and anger and they immediately recognize it as being their frustration and anger.  That’s a perfectly legitimate and understandable reaction but that doesn’t necessarily make Beatriz at Dinner a good film.  It just makes it a film of the moment.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Captain Phillips (dir by Paul Greengrass)


Here’s an interesting and often overlooked fact:

It has been 17 years since Tom Hanks was last nominated for Best Actor.

When I discovered this fact, I was shocked because Tom Hanks is one of those actors who has a reputation for always getting nominated.  We tend to think of him as almost being a male Meryl Streep, an actor who will be nominated simply for showing up.  But, actually, the Academy last nominated Tom Hanks, for his performance in Cast Away, in the year 2000.

Hanks has given plenty of strong performances since then and he’s continued to appear in acclaimed and Oscar-nominated films.  And you would think, considering his apparent popularity in Hollywood, Tom Hanks would have been nominated for everything from Charlie Wilson’s War to Bridge of Spies.  But no.

Personally, I think Hanks should have been nominated this year for Sully.  But you know what Hanks performance truly deserved some Oscar recognition?

Captain Phillips.

Playing the title role in this 2013 Best Picture nominee, Hanks gave perhaps the best performance of his career.  That he was snubbed by the Academy is not only shocking but it’s actually a bit unforgivable.  Perhaps Hanks was so good that the Academy took him for granted.  Perhaps they thought that since both Hanks and Richard Phillips are decent, down-to-Earth guys, that Hanks was just playing himself.  For whatever reason, Tom Hanks deserved, at the very least, a nomination.

Captain Phillips was based on a true story.  This is another docudrama from director Paul Greengrass, filmed in his signature (and potentially nausea-inducing) handheld style.  (Actually, if any aspiring director wants to understand how to effectively use the handheld style, Greengrass is the filmmaker to study.)  In 2009, a four Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage.  Captain Phillips was eventually rescued by a group of Navy SEALS.  Three of the pirates were killed while their leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), was captured and is currently serving a 33 year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

This was a huge news story in 2009 with the rescue being described as being the first major foreign policy victory for the new presidential administration.  When Phillips was rescued, people took to the streets and the “USA!  USA!” chant was heard.  “That’s right,” the media and the government and the chanters seemed to be exclaiming in unison, “America’s back!  We were abused and it’s never going to happen again!”

A lot of that jubilation was because, at the time, the term “Somali pirates” conjured up visions of cinematic villains who would be more at home in Mad Max: Fury Road than in the real world.  The reality of the situation, of course, was that the “pirates,” whose deaths were celebrated as some sort of political victory for the government, were actually poverty-stricken Somali teenagers, the majority of which worked for warlords who remained (and still remain) safely hidden away.

One of the more interesting things about Captain Phillips is that it devotes almost as much time to the Somali pirates as it does to Phillips and his crew.  Rather than presenting them as a nameless and personalityless threat, the film allows Muse and his men to emerge as individuals.  Much as Phillips spends the movie trying to keep both himself and his crew safe, Muse spends much of the movie trying to keep an increasingly out-of-control situation stable.  Both Phillips and Muse are in over their heads.  Barkhad Abdi gives a smart and intimidating performance as Muse.  The film never makes the mistake of excusing the actions of Muse or the other pirates but, at the same time, it does provide a more nuanced view of them than one would normally expect.

But really, this film totally belongs to Tom Hanks.  Captain Phillips works because of Tom Hanks.  It earned its best picture nomination on the strength of Hanks’s performance.  As an actor, Hanks could have easily coasted on the good will that the audience would have already had for him but instead, he fully commits himself to playing not Tom Hanks but instead Captain Richard Phillips.  The film’s final scene — in which Phillips goes into a state of shock and can’t stop talking — is a masterclass in great acting.  How the Academy ignored it, I will never understand.

Captain Phillips was nominated for best picture of 2013.  However, it lost to 12 Years a Slave.


Playing Catch-Up With 6 Quickie Reviews: The Big Game, The Connection, Graduation Day, McFarland USA, Taken 3, and War Room

Here are 6 more reviews of 6 other films that I watched this year.  Why six?  Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why.

The Big Game (dir by Jalmari Helander)

In The Big Game, Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States and you would think that fact alone would make this film an instant classic.  Unfortunately, this film never really takes advantage of the inherent coolness of Samuel L. Jackson playing the leader of the free world.  When Air Force One is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness of Finland, President Jackson has to rely on a young hunter (Onni Tommila) from a group of CIA agents disguised as terrorists.  Tommila does a pretty good job and the scenery looks great but at no point does Samuel L. Jackson says, “Check out this executive action, motherfucker,” and that’s a huge missed opportunity.  As for the rest of the film, it takes itself a bit too seriously and if you can’t figure out the big twist from the minute the movie starts, you obviously haven’t seen enough movies.

The Connection (dir by Cedric Jiminez)

Taking place over the 1970s, the French crime thriller tells the largely true story of the efforts of a French judge (played by Jean Dujardin) to take down a ruthless gangster (Gilles Lellouche) who is the head of one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.  The Connection run for a bit too long but, ultimately, it’s a stylish thriller that does a very good job of creating a world where literally no one can be trusted.  Dujardin, best known here in the States for his Oscar-winning role in The Artist, does a great job playing an honest man who is nearly driven to the point of insanity by the corruption all around him.

Graduation Day (dir by Chris Stokes)

Hey, it’s another found footage horror film!  Bleh!  Now, I should admit that this horror film — which is NOT a remake of that classic 1980s slasher — does have a fairly clever twist towards the end, that goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the inconsistencies that, up until that point, had pretty much dominated the film.  But, even with that in mind and admitting that Unfriended and Devil’s Due worked wonders with the concept, it’s still hard to feel any enthusiasm about yet another found footage horror film.

McFarland USA (dir by Niki Caro)

McFarland USA is an extremely predictable but likable movie.  Kevin Costner plays a former football coach who, while teaching at a mostly Latino high school, organizes a cross country team that goes on to win the state championship.  It’s based on a true story and, at the end of the film, all of the real people appear alongside the actors who played them.  There’s nothing about this film that will surprise you but it’s still fairly well-done.  Even Kevin Costner, who usually gets on my last nerve, gives a good performance.

Taken 3 (dir by Olivier Megaton)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back and he’s killing even more people!  Fortunately, they’re all bad people but you really do have to wonder what type of dreams Bryan has whenever he goes to sleep.  In Taken 3, Bryan’s wife (Famke Janssen) has been murdered and Bryan has been framed.  He has to solve the case and kill the bad guys while staying one step ahead of the police (represented by a bored-looking Forest Whitaker).  Neeson does all of his usual Taken stuff — the intense phone conversation, the steely glare, and all the rest — but at this point, it has literally been parodied to death.  If you’re into watching Liam Neeson kill ugly people, Taken 3 will provide you with adequate entertainment but, for the most part, it’s but a shadow of the first Taken.

War Room (dir by Alex Kendrick)

I saw the War Room in Oklahoma.  It was being shown as part of a double feature with The Martian, of all things!  Anyway, this film is about an upper middle class family that hits rock bottom but they’re saved by the power of prayer!  Lots and lots of prayer!  Seriously, this film almost qualifies as “prayer porn.”  Anyway, the film was badly acted, badly written, incredibly heavy-handed, and ran on way too long but, on the plus side, it did eventually end.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #109: There Will Be Blood (dir by Paul Thomas Anderson)

There_Will_Be_Blood_PosterYou know how there are some films that you really want to love and that you know that, given your taste in cinema, you probably should love but yet you somehow just cannot bring yourself to actually love?

To a certain extent, that’s the way I feel about the 2007 best picture nominee There Will Be Blood.  It’s a film that I greatly respect, as I tend to respect all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies.  He’s one of the best director working today and also one of the most consistently interesting.  (He’s also probably the only contemporary filmmaker who would actually base a two and half hour epic on the first 150 pages of a forgotten novel by Upton Sinclair.)  And I think that There Will Be Blood is a well-made and well-directed film.  I also think it’s well-acted, though I do think Daniel Day-Lewis goes a bit too far over-the-top at the film’s conclusion.   (If anything, Paul Dano is the one who actually deserved to win an Oscar for his work in this film.)  There Will Be Blood is an original work of cinematic art.  I’m thankful that it was made and that Anderson stayed true to his vision.

But, with all that in mind, it’s never been a film that I’ve been able to love.  Unlike Anderson’s earlier Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood holds the audience at a distance.  We remains outsiders looking in.  As a result, the film engages intellectually but not emotionally.  It’s a film that earns respect without necessarily winning the audience’s love.

Speaking of respect, that’s something that you have to give to both Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson.  From the start of the film, Daniel Plainview (played by Day-Lewis) is a cruel and self-centered bastard and that characterization remains consistent throughout.  Briefly, it does seem that Plainview might truly care about his deaf, adopted son but, by the end of the film, Plainview has even proven that to be wishful thinking on our part.  (The only other character to whom Plainview is consistently pleasant is a young girl named Mary but Day-Lewis plays those scenes with such a corrupt twinkle in his eye that the subtext becomes increasingly creepy.)  Give Anderson and Day-Lewis credit.  They commit to portraying Daniel Plainview as being an almost Satanic character and, at no point, does either one of them waver in that commitment.  As we watch Plainview ruthlessly buy up all the land and drill all the oil that he can find, we wait for him to have some moment of redemption.  It took guts for neither Anderson nor Day-Lewis to allow him one.

Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday, an evangelical preacher who stands in the way of Plainview’s efforts to buy up all the land around the Sunday family farm.  The film presents Eli and Plainview as being two sides of the same coin.  Plainview hides his moral emptiness behind his money.  Eli hides behind his religion.  The two characters hate each other because they alone truly recognize what they truly are.  Dano, who also plays Eli’s brother, gives a mesmerizing performance, one that unfortunately has been overshadowed by Day-Lewis’s work.

It all ends, as all things must, with violent death in a bowling alley.  I know that a lot of my fellow cineastes think that the bowling scene is the highlight of the film but, to be honest, this was the point where the film lost me.  To me, this was the scene where Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance crossed the line from being flamboyant to shrill.  The end just did not work for me.

However, two things that did definitely work for me: Johnny Greenwood’s wonderfully ominous and atmospheric score and Robert Elswit’s amazing cinematography, which made the film’s landscape appear both beautiful and threatening at the same time.  The mix of Greenwood’s music with Elswit’s cinematography created some truly haunting moments.

In the end, There Will Be Blood is a lot like Daniel Plainview.  It is powerful, memorable, unpredictable, flamboyant, overbearing, and at times a little frightening.  And, again much like Daniel Plainview, it’s a film that’s easy to respect and difficult to love.

Film Review: Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir by Nikole Beckwith)

MV5BMTYwODA2NzA0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk0Mzg4MzE@._V1_SY317_CR47,0,214,317_AL_I think I’m going to start writing Stockholm, Pennsylvania fanfic.  It’s not that I’m a fan of this particular movie.  It’s just that, after watching it last night, I’m convinced that I could probably write a better version of the same story.  At the very least, I could come up with a better ending.

(And who knows?  Pennsylvania is technically close enough to Canada that I could do a Degrassi/Stockholm crossover.)

Stockholm, Pennsylvania premiered on Lifetime last night and, as a result, it will always be known as being a Lifetime movie.  However, unlike such excellent films as Babysitter’s Black Book and Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal, Stockholm was not originally made for television.  Instead, it was meant to be the feature film directorial debut of playwright Nikole Beckwith.  Earlier this year, it played at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received some memorably mixed reviews and the film’s star, Saoirse Ronan, received more attention for her work in Brooklyn.  And while Brooklyn was picked up by Fox Searchlight and declared an early Oscar contender, Stockholm, Pennsylvania was ultimately purchased by the Lifetime network.

Unfortunately, Stockholm, Pennsylvania is not the type of film that is served well by premiering on television.  For the first 45 minutes or so, it’s a low-key film that moves at its own deliberate and moody pace.  The film doesn’t have the right rhythm to remain compelling when combined with frequent commercial interruptions.  And make no mistake about it — the interruptions were frequent!  The 99 minute film was padded out with enough commercials so that, on television, it ran for 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Or, as I put it on twitter when I discovered that the movie wasn’t as close to being finished as I had originally assumed:

The film opens with kidnapping victim Leanne (Saoirse Ronan) being returned to her parents after spending 17 years living in the basement of Ben McKay (Jason Isaac).  As we see in flashbacks, Ben kept Leanne isolated from the rest of the world and raised her as his own daughter.  Ben also renamed her Leia but, at the same time, he apparently never let her watch any movies.  (“He said I was named after a princess,” Leia cluelessly says at one point.)  Ben also taught Leia to regularly pray to the Universe (“Dear Universe…”) and … well, that’s all we really learn about Leia’s relationship with Ben.  And while I love cinematic ambiguity, the ambiguity of Stockholm, Pennsylvania just feels lazy.

Having been rescued (under circumstances that are left ambiguous because this is a lazy fucking movie), Leia is reunited with her parents, Marcy (Cynthia Nixon) and Glen (David Warshofsky).  Leia doesn’t remember either of them and resists all of Marcy’s awkward attempts to force any sort of emotional relationship.

And, for the first half of the film, it’s actually fairly interesting.  Nixon gives a good performance and Ronan proves again that she’s one of the best actresses working today.  The film is moody and properly creepy and I was really interested in seeing what would happen…

And then, out of nowhere, an entirely different movie started.  Suddenly, Marcy’s character completely and totally changed.  Nixon stopped giving a good performance and instead became shrill and one-note.  Ronan continued to give a good performance but the entire film crashed and burned around her.  It all led up to quite possibly one of the worst endings that I have ever seen.  It was seriously one of those endings that made me want to throw my high heels at the TV.

Seriously, it was terrible.  In fact, it was so terrible that it didn’t matter that the first 45 minutes of the movie were not neccesarily bad.  It did not matter that Saoirse Ronan was giving a great performance.  It did not matter … well, nothing mattered.

Once I saw that ending, all I could think of was that I had just wasted two hours and 30 minutes on a film that was apparently made by someone who studied both Martha Marcy May Marlene  and We Need To Talk About Kevin without ever understanding what made those two films worth studying in the first place.

Saoirse Ronan saved the film from being a complete disaster.  It truly says something about her talent that she can give a good performance even when appearing in something like Stockholm, Pennsylvania (or Lost River for that matter).  She’s like Meryl Streep without the condescending attitude.

I’m looking forward to seeing Saoirse Ronan’s work in Brooklyn.  But Stockholm, Pennsylvania is best forgotten.