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.

Playing Catch-Up: Sausage Party (dir by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan)


Sausage Party opens with a scene that could have come straight for a heart-warming Pixar film.  It’s morning and, in a gigantic grocery store called Shopwell’s, all of the grocery items are excited about the start of a new day.  The hot dogs are singing.  The buns are harmonizing.  The produce is bragging about how fresh they are.  Everyone is hoping that this will be the day that they are selected to leave the aisles of Shopwell’s and that they’ll be taken to the Great Beyond.  At Shopwell’s, shoppers are viewed as being Gods and being selected by a God means…

…well, no one is quite sure what it means but everyone’s sure that it has to be something good.  Surely, the Great Beyond couldn’t be something terrible, right?  At least, that’s what everyone assumes until a previously purchased jar of Honey Mustard returns to the store and tells a hot dog named Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen, who also co-wrote the film) that the Great Beyond is a lie.  The Great Beyond is not a paradise.  Instead, it’s something terrible.  Before Honey Mustard can be persuaded to give more details, it leaps off the shelf, choosing suicide over being restocked.

What could it all mean?  Well, there’s not too much time to worry about that because, even as Honey Mustard is committing suicide, a customer is selecting both Frank and Frank’s girlfriend, a bun named Brenda (Kristin Wiig).  They’re going to the Great Beyond together!  Yay!  Except…

…calamity!  A shopping cart collision leads to both Frank and Brenda being thrown to the floor.  While their friends are taken to the Great Beyond, Frank and Brenda are left to wander the store.  It turns out that Shopwell’s really comes alive after the lights go down and the doors are locked.  All of the grocery items leave their shelves and have one big party.  Frank seeks answers about the Great Beyond from a bottle of liquor named Firewater (Bill Hader).  Firewater has all the answers but you need to be stoned to truly understand.  This is a Seth Rogen movie, after all.  Meanwhile…

…Frank’s friends, the ones who survived the earlier cart collision, are discovering that the Great Beyond is not what they thought it was…

I apologize for all the ellipses but Sausage Party is the kind of movie that warrants them.  This is a rambling, occasionally uneven, and often hilariously funny little movie.  (I know that there were allegations that the film’s animators were treated horribly.  That’s sad to hear, not least because they did a truly wonderful job.)  Sausage Party was perhaps the ultimate stoner film of 2016, a comedy with a deeply philosophical bent that plays out with a logic that feels both random and calculated at the same time.

(If you’ve ever had the three-in-the-morning conversation about “What if our entire universe is just a speck of dust in a bigger universe?”, you’ll immediately understand what Sausage Party is trying to say.)

It’s also an amazingly profane little movie but again, that’s a huge reason why it works.  Yes, a lot of the humor is juvenile and hit-and-miss.  (I cringed whenever the film’s nominal villain, a douche voiced by Nick Kroll, showed up.)  But for every joke that misses, there’s a joke that works perfectly.  Interestingly, for all the silliness that’s inherent in the idea of making a film about talking grocery items, there’s a strain a very real melancholy running through Sausage Party.  Sausage Party may be a dumb comedy but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot on its mind.

Since it’s a Seth Rogen film, the cast is full of familiar voices.  Yes, James Franco can be heard.  So can Paul Rudd, Danny McBride, Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson.  They all sound great, bringing vibrant life to the film’s collection of consumables and condiments.

Sausage Party.  After watching it, it’s possible you’ll never eat another hot dog.

Insomnia File No. 7: Fair Game (dir by Andrew Sipes)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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On Tuesday night, if you were suffering from insomnia at midnight, you could have turned over to HBO Signature (commonly listed as HBOSIG) and watched Fair Game, a remarkably mindless action film from 1995.

Originally, my plan was to start this review of Fair Game by telling you, in quite a bit of detail, just how sick I am of the Russian Mafia.  Seriously, Russian mobsters have become the default villain for lazy crime films everywhere.  And, quite frankly, I’m getting bored with them.  I’m bored with how the head Russian mobster is always described as being “former KGB” and is always found sitting in the back room of restaurant, wearing an overcoat and smoking filterless cigarettes.  I am bored with how his main henchman is always some big guy with a crew cut and that guy always has a thin sidekick who wears his hair in a pony tail and has a bad mustache.  I’m sick of the overexaggerated accents of American and British accents trying to sound Russian and the way they’re always listening to EDM while driving.  It’s all so predictable and tedious.

But then I considered that Fair Game was made 20 years ago.  Even if the villains are Russian mobsters and even if they are some of the least interesting Russian mobsters in cinema history, it’s totally possible that, when Fair Game, was made, there was still some sort of novelty about the Russian Mafia.

However, even if we give Fair Game a pass on using the cliché of the Russian mob, the villains still weren’t particularly interesting.  Kazak (Steven Berkoff) is … well, the film isn’t really that clear on what Kazak’s big plan is but he has a lot of henchmen and they certainly do end up killing a lot of people.  Kazak runs his operations off of a yacht that belongs to a Cuban criminal named Emilio (Miguel Sandoval).  Emilio is in the process of getting divorced and attorney Kate McQuean (model Cindy Crawford, who made her film debut here and has never played a leading role since) is determined to repossess his boat.  So, Kazak decides that the perfect solution would be to murder Kate…

Which makes absolutely no sense.  Kazak doesn’t want anyone to discover his operation so he decides to blow up a good portion of Miami, all in pursuit of one person.  Wouldn’t it make more sense for Kazak to just blow up the boat and buy a new one?

Anyway, as the film opens, Kate is out jogging when suddenly someone driving by in a car opens fire on her.  She ends up getting grazed in the arm, not that it seems to bother her.  She wears a bandage for a few scenes but it soon vanishes.  Kate is all business so, even after getting shot, she still goes into the office and starts to make plans to repossess that yacht.  Personally, if anyone ever shot at me, I would probably be so freaked out that I would never leave the house again.

Now, you may be thinking that Kate was shot because of Kazak but actually, it turns out that the shooting was just a random thing that happened.  Apparently, the shooter was trying to shoot someone else and Kate just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  So, we never find out who actually shot Kate and that really bothered me, as that seems to be kind of a huge plot point to bring up and then refuse to resolve.

Anyway, Kate meets a detective named Max Kirkpatrick (William Baldwin) and, soon, they’re on the run from Kazak’s assassins.  The majority of the film is made up of Max and Kate running from one location to another.  One thing that really bothered me was that literally everyone that Max and Kate talked to ended up getting killed just a few minutes later.  At one point, Kate flirts with a computer service expert to get him to help them out.  The scene is played for laughs but then, five minutes later, that same innocent technician guy is being brutally tortured by a bunch of Russians and, though we don’t see it happen, it’s safe to assume that he was eventually murdered by them.  And no point do Max or Kate appear to feel any guilt or concern about the number of innocent people who are killed just for associating with them.

Anyway, Fair Game is a completely mindless film that has a rather nasty streak of sadism to it.  (I imagine, when this film was released, it probably set a record for close-ups of people getting shot and stabbed in the crotch.)  William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford both have perfect bodies and give totally wooden performances, which leads to them having a dimly-lit sex scene that is both physically hot and emotionally cold at the same time.

(I have no idea what entropy at absolute zero means but it sounds like a pretty good description of the chemistry between Cindy Crawford and William Baldwin in Fair Game.)

One good note: Salma Hayek has a small role as Max’s ex-girlfriend.  Whenever she shows up in the movie, she starts screaming at everyone.  I don’t blame her.

Fair Game

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #95: 54 (dir by Mark Christopher)


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“A guy named Steve Rubell had a dream: To throw the best damned party the world had ever seen and to make it last forever. He built a world where fantasy was put up as reality and where an 80-year-old disco queen could dance till dawn. Where models mingled with mechanics, plumbers danced with princes. It was a place where all labels were left behind. A place where there were no rules.”

— Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe) in 54 (1998)

So, did you actually read that quote at the beginning of the review?  I don’t blame if you didn’t because not only is it ludicrous overwritten but it just goes on and on.  It’s one of those quotes that you read in a script and you think to yourself, “They better get absolutely the best actor in the world to deliver these lines,” and then you realize Ryan Phillippe has been cast in the role.

Except, of course, I doubt that any of those lines were found in the original script for 54.  54 is one of those films where, as you watch it, you can literally imagine the chaos that must have been going on during the editing process.  Subplots are raised and then dropped and the mysteriously pop up again.  Characters change both their personalities and their motives in between scenes.  Huge dramatic moment happen almost at random but don’t seem to actually have anything to do with anything else happening in the film.

In short, 54 is a mess but it’s a mess that’s held together by incredibly clunky narration.  Shane O’Shea, who spent the waning days of the 1970s working at Studio 54, narrates the film.  And, despite the fact that Shane is presented as being kinda dumb (think of Saturday Night Fever‘s Tony Manero, without the sexy dance moves), his narration is extremely verbose and reflective. It’s almost as if the narration was written at the last-minute by someone desperately trying to save a collapsing film.

I watched 54 on cable because I saw that it was about the 70s and I figured it would feature a lot of outrageous costumes, danceable music, and cocaine-fueled melodrama.  And it turns out that I was right about the cocaine-fueled melodrama but still, 54 is no Boogie Nights.  It’s not even Bright Lights, Big City.

54 does have an interesting cast, which makes it all the more unfortunate that nobody really gets to do anything interesting.  Poor Ryan Phillippe looks totally lost and, in the film’s worst scene, he actually has to stand in the middle of a dance floor and, after the death of elderly Disco Dottie (that’s the character’s name!), yell at all the decadent club goers.  Breckin Meyer is cute as Phillippe’s co-worker and Salma Hayek gets to sing.  Neve Campbell plays a soap opera actress who Phillippe has a crush on and…oh, who cares?  Seriously, writing about this film is almost as annoying as watching it.

Mike Myers — yes, that Mike Myers — plays the owner of the club, Steve Rubell.  The role means that Myers gets to snort cocaine, hit on Breckin Meyer, and vomit on the silk sheets of his bed.  I think that Myers gives a good performance but I’m not really sure.  It could have just been the shock of seeing Mike Myers snorting cocaine, hitting on Breckin Meyer, and vomiting on the silk sheets of his bed.

If you want to enjoy some 70s decadence, avoid 54 and rewatch either Boogie Nights or American Hustle.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


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I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.

 

Back to School #52: The Faculty (dir by Robert Rodriguez)


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Have you ever wanted to see Jon Stewart get stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle?

If you answered yes, then 1998’s The Faculty might be the film for you!

The Faculty takes a look at what happens when a new alien species happens to turn up outside of a painfully normal high school in Ohio.  By painfully normal, I mean that Herrington High School is just as messed up as you would expect a suburban high school to be.  The teachers are all underpaid and resentful of their principal (Bebe Neuwrith).  Prof. Furlong (Jon Stewart) is the overqualified science teacher who will perhaps be a little too excited about the chance to examine a new alien species.  Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) is the emotionally shut off coach of the school’s losing football team.  Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie) is the drama teacher who struggles to promote creativity in a school that’s more interested in blind conformity.  Miss Burke (Famke Janssen) is the teacher who cares too much.  And, finally, there’s Nurse Harper (Salma Hayek), who looks a lot like Salma Hayek.

And, as typical as the teachers may be, the students are even more so.  We get to know a few and they all neatly fit into the expected stereotypes.  Casey (Elijah Wood) is the nerdy outcast who is regularly picked on by … well, by everyone.  Deliliah (Jordana Brewster) is the status-obsessed head cheerleader who has just broken up with her boyfriend, Stan (Shawn Hatosy), because he quit the football team.  Zeke (Josh Hartnett) is the school rebel, the kid who is repeating his senior year and who sells synthetic drugs out of the trunk of his car.  Stokes (Clea DuVall) is an intentional outcast who pretends to be a lesbian and has a crush on Stan.  And finally, there’s Marybeth (Laura Harris), a new transfer student who speaks with a Southern accent.

These students would seem to have nothing in common but they’re going to have to work together because the entire faculty of Herrington High has been taken over by aliens!  Fortunately, the aliens are vulnerable to Zeke’s drugs, which is something that is learned after Jon Stewart takes a hypodermic to the eye…

When one looks over the top Texas filmmakers (director like Terrence Malick, Richard Linklater, Mike Judge, and David Gorden Green), Robert Rodriguez often comes across as being both the most likable and the least interesting.  Like his frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez fills his movies with references and homages to other films but, unlike Tarantino, there rarely seems to be much going on behind all of those references.  However, Rodriguez’s referential style works well in The Faculty because, along with acting as an homage to both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Faculty also manages to tap into a universal truth.

Teachers are weird!

Or, at least, they seem weird when you’re a student.  Now that I’m out of high school, I can look back and see that my teachers were actually pretty normal.  They were people who did their jobs and, as much as I like to think that I was everyone’s all-time favorite, I’m sure that there have been other brilliant, asthmatic, redheaded, aspiring ballerinas who have sat in their class.  My teachers spent a lot of time talking about things that I may not have been interested in but that wasn’t because they were obsessed with talking to me about algebra or chemistry or anything like that.  They were just doing their job, just like everyone else does.

But, seriously, when you’re a student, it’s easy to believe that your teachers have been possessed by an alien life form.

Probably the best thing about The Faculty is the fact that the aliens cause the teachers to act in ways that are the exact opposite of their usual personalities.  For most of the teachers, this means that they turn into homicidal lunatics.  But, in the case of Coach Willis, this actually leads to him not only becoming a happy, well-adjusted human being but it also turns him into a good coach.  Suddenly, Willis is getting emotional about the games, his team loves him, and he even gets a win!

Go Coach Willis!

As for the film itself, it’s not bad at all.

Lisa’s rating: 7 out of 10.