The Films of 2020: Horse Girl (dir by Jeff Baena)

Horse Girl tells the story of a lost woman named Sarah (played, in a bravely committed performance, by Alison Brie).

Sarah is an introvert who works in a craft store, where she can tell the customers exactly the right type of paint to buy and where she’s watched over by her friendly co-worker, Joan (Molly Shannon).  During the day, she occasionally visits the grave of her mother, who committed suicide.  Sometimes, she might have a conversation with her wealthy stepfather (Paul Reiser).  She enjoys going out to the stables and watching a horse named Willow.  When she was a little girl, she rode Willow and she still thinks of him as being her horse.  The owners of the stable, however, are never particularly enthused to see Sarah hanging around.  In one scene, Sarah attempts to give advice to the girl who was just riding Willow, despite the fact that the girl obviously has no idea who Sarah is.  Despite her good intentions, Sarah tends to be so awkward in her attempts to socialize that she just leaves people feeling uncomfortable.

When she’s not at work or at the stables or trying to fit in with the other students at her zumba class, Sarah lives in an apartment with her roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan).  While Nikki has a boyfriend, Sarah spends most of her nights in her living room, watching a cheesy sci-fi adventure show called Purgatory.  She knows every detail about the show and is always shocked when no one else is as interested in it as she is.

In short, Sarah is a misft but she’s a familiar misfit.  We all probably know someone like Sarah.  At the very least, we all follow someone on twitter who is like Sarah, someone who always seems to be trying to make a connection but who can never quite get comfortable enough to just relax and be herself.

Strange things start to happen to Sarah.  She hears voices in the apartment.  She has dreams in which she’s lying on the floor of what appears to be a spaceship.  Sarah starts to sleepwalk and is soon waking up to find herself in random locations.  When she sees a picture of her grandmother, she wonders if it’s possible that she’s a clone.  Strange scratches start to appear on the walls of her apartment.  Did Sarah put them there or are they result of something coming after her?

Horse Girl is a surprisingly effective film, one that keeps you guessing as to whether or not what we’re seeing is really happening or if it’s all just occurring in Sarah’s head.  Horse Girl was produced by Duplass Brothers Productions and it really does feel like a mumblecore version of Repulsion, with Alison Brie stepping into Catherine Deneuve’s role of the repressed young woman who finds herself a prisoner of her own fears.  Whereas Repulsion featured arms growing out of the walls, Horse Girl features alien abductions and clones.

It’s a film that is sometimes heart-breaking and occasionally darkly funny.  As much as we care and worry about Sarah, the people around her are interesting as well.  The world that Horse Girl creates feels very real and very familiar and even the actors in the smallest roles create an indelible impression.  This is one of those rare movies where it actually seems like the characters in the film all have a life even when they’re not in a scene.  Every performance and every character feels real and authentic.  I particularly liked the performance of Molly Shannon, who brings a very natural and sincere kindness to the role of Sarah’s co-worker.  Playing Sarah’s father and Sarah’s gently humorous doctor, Paul Reiser and David Paymer shine in small roles.

That said, the film works best as a showcase for Alison Brie, who is both sympathetic and, eventually, more than a little frightening in the role of Sarah.  Brie gives such an emotionally vulnerable performance as Sarah that there are times when you really wish that you could step into the film yourself and assure her that everything’s going to be okay.  It’s also a rather brave performance, one that wins our sympathy while also showing why the increasingly manic Sarah might be too much for some people to take.

I have to admit that I wasn’t necessarily expecting much when I started watching a film called Horse Girl but it turned out to be one of my favorite films of 2020 so far.

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.

Film Review: Cyrus (dir. by Mark and Jay Duplass)

Last Tuesday night, as we watched the end credits of Cyrus rolling across the screen at the Plano Angelika, a very dear and close friend of mine leaned over and whispered in my ear, “That was a really odd fucking movie.” 

(Actually, it was two weeks ago.  Sorry, I started this review a while ago and only recently returned to finish it.)

And he’s right.  Though the film is worth seeing (though I’d honestly suggest waiting until it comes out on DVD unless you’re just the world’s biggest John C. Reilly or Jonah Hill fan), Cyrus really is an odd fucking movie.

Cyrus is the latest film from Jay and Mark Duplass, the two brothers responsible for 2008’s Baghead, one of the unacknowledged great films of the last decade.  In Cyrus , John C. Reilly plays a character named — appropriately enough — John.  John is a likable loser, a less musical version of the character Reilly played in Chicago.  When the movie opens, John is depressed over the fact that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is getting married again.  At Jamie’s suggestion, he goes to a party where he proceeds to have too much to drink, flirts awkwardly with every woman he sees, and somehow manages to charm Molly (Marisa Tomei).  Molly is soon sleeping over at John’s house but every morning, John wakes up to discover that she’s either already left or is in the process of sneaking out.  John asks her if she’s married.  Molly replies that she’s not but is still vague about why she never stays the entire night.  Finally, one morning, John follows Molly after she leaves.  He sits out in front of her house and, after she’s left for work, John proceeds to creep around outside the house. 

And, of course, its while he’s doing all of this creepy stalker stuff that he first meets Cyrus (played, of course, by Jonah Hill).  Cyrus is Molly’s 22 year-old son and from the minute he first appears, its obvious that there’s something off about him.  He’s far too friendly and speaks in the oddly stilted cadence of someone who is obviously making an effort to act “normal.”  He  spends all of his time composing New Agey synthesizer music in an elaborate home recording studio.   Of course, the main sign that there’s something odd about Cyrus is that he’s played by Jonah Hill.

However, the main thing that distinguishes Cyrus is just how close he is to his mother.  From the first moment that we see him and Molly interact (he’s playing his music and Molly enters the house and immediately starts dancing to it), its obvious that Cyrus is Oedipus, Norman Bates, and Yanni all wrapped up into one package.  And, obviously, he views John as being competition…

Cyrus is an uneven film, one that starts out strong but — once the title character is actually introduced — suddenly seems to get hit by an identity crisis.  Is it a realistic portrait of sad, lonely people trying to find love in uncertain times or is it an Apatowish mix of stoner sentiment and over-the-top comedy?  Is Cyrus meant to be the emotionally wounded, painfully insecure outsider that he appears to be the movie’s more contemplative moments or is he just a sociopathic comedic device that Reilly has to overcome in order to pursue his relationship with Tomei?  That’s the question that is at the heart of Cyrus and discovering the answer is the film’s entire excuse for existing.  Unfortunately, the Duplass Brothers don’t seem to know the answer themselves and as a result, the entire film feels directionless and we’re left with too many unanswered questions.

For instance, where is Cyrus’s father?  It’s mentioned by both Cyrus and Molly that the father is no longer in their lives but why?  Though its never explicitly stated, its obvious that both Cyrus and Molly have suffered abuse in the past, probably at his hands.  However, the issue itself is never directly confronted and its hard to believe that John wouldn’t have asked about it at some point.  For that matter, beyond her role as Cyrus’s mother and John’s girlfriend, Molly isn’t given any back story whatsoever.  Considering the fact that the entire movie is about how Cyrus and John feel towards her, it’s interesting that she’s never given a scene where she really gets to explain how she truly feels towards either of them.  A good deal of the film’s attitude towards Molly can be seen in the fact that, while a major plot point hinges on her being at her job as opposed to at home, we never find out just what exactly it is that she does for a living.

That’s unfortunate because, in many ways, Cyrus shows a good deal of promise and psychological insight.  One of the subtle pleasures of the film is seeing how all of the various relationships (John and Molly, John and Cyrus, Molly and John, John and his ex-wife, Cyrus and Molly) actually run parallel with each other.  When Molly first flirts with John, John replies, “Are you hitting on me?  I’m Shrek.”  And it seems like he’s got a point until you see Cyrus and Molly together.  It’s at that point that you realize that John probably once looked just like Cyrus and that Cyrus is eventually going to grow up to be John.  It’s hard not to wonder if Cyrus’s father looked like John or if Molly is attracted to John because he reminds her of her son.  On the other hand, much as Cyrus is totally dependent on Molly, John is similarly dependent on his ex-wife (who, as played by Catherine Keener, looks strikingly similar to Marisa Tomei).  In a nice touch, his ex-wife’s new husband seems to have the same opinion of John that John has of Cyrus.

The Duplass Brothers also get a quartet of excellent performances from the film’s leads.  This is all the more exceptional considering that three of them are playing characters that are either underwritten (Tomei and Keener) or else totally inconsistent (Hill).  The film really belongs to John C. Reilly who is such a sympathetic, likable presence as John that he convinces the audience to forgive a lot of the film’s unevenness.  His best moments are to be found in the film’s opening party scene where he essentially acts like a total drunk jackass yet you still feel oddly sorry for him.  He’s just such a nice guy.

As previously stated, Cyrus is an odd film, an uneasy mix of independent and mainstream sensibilities.  Watching it, I found myself wondering if the Duplass Brothers were really sure what type of movie they wanted to make, if they wanted to emulate the cold, detached dry wit of the Coen Brothers or if they were indulging in a little Judd Apatow-style schmaltz.  Both styles attempt to co-exist in Cyrus and the end result is a movie that seems to be struggling to establish its own identity.  Still, Cyrus is worth seeing if just for the performances.  As flawed as the film is, it confirms what Baghead indicated, that the Duplass Brothers as intriguing filmmakers to watch out for in the future.