BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)

June 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie industry frequently sources societal worries, concerns, issues and hot topics. It’s been less than 6 months, but here come the anti-Trump movies. Of course some will have clever disguises for their message, while others will slap us across the face. This re-teaming of The Good Girl director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White actually uses both approaches.

Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a masseuse and holistic healer, who comes awfully close to being an angel on earth … unless she’s guzzled a bit too much white wine at your dinner party. Beatriz fights southern California traffic in her clunky VW as she rushes from her gig at the cancer center to Cathy’s (Connie Britton) Orange County cliffside mansion. See, Cathy is hosting a dinner party for her husband’s (David Warshofsky) business associates and she simply must have her massage prior to such a stressful event – after all, she did plan the menu. When Beatriz’s car stalls in Cathy’s driveway, she is invited to stay for the dinner party.

Things get awkward once the actual guests arrive. Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) are the young, entitled types so enticed by the fancy house and global traveling lifestyles on which they are on the brink. It should be noted that Mr. Duplass cleans up nicely and Ms. Sevigny spends much of the movie smiling – a look for which she’s not normally associated. The real squirming occurs once Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his shallow third wife Jenna (Amy Landecker, “Transparent”) arrive.

Beatriz and Strutt are polar opposites with contrasting lifestyles and character. She is a mystical presence with a deep connection to Mother Earth and all living beings. He is the Trump-like figure – charismatic, manipulating and laser-focused on the brass ring. She coddles her pet goat in her bedroom to protect it from a crazy neighbor, while he ignores the rare birds nesting on the valuable land he wants scraped for his newest development.

It’s by no means a superhero movie, but Beatriz is presented as a Mexican-born working class (minimal make-up, functional clothing and shoes) Wonder Woman, while Strutt is the ultra villain out to destroy the planet, one rhinoceros at a time. She views him as “The Source” of Earth’s pain, while he tries to laugh her off as a novelty act. It’s Cathy and her husband who are most taken aback by the direct words of Beatriz, as they have considered her a “family friend” since she helped their daughter through a health scare. How dare she spoil their dinner party!

There is a beautiful aerial shot of the Orange County mega-mansions, but most of the uncomfortable moments are derived through the ongoing duel of angelic Beatriz vs. the poisonous topics of politics and profit. There is no subtlety in the message, but having two talented actors go head to head, does make it more palatable.

watch the trailer:

 

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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

October 13, 2013

capt phillips1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Paul Greengrass seems to thrive on finding the line for unbearable tension and hectic, claustrophobic action. He gained fame for helming The Bourne Supremacy and The Borne Ultimatum, but this one has more in common with his excellent United 93. Somehow he keeps us gripping the armrests despite knowing full well how the story ends. That is a talented filmmaker.

What adds to the stressed-filled fun here is that the world’s greatest everyman, Tom Hanks, meets his match with fire-eyed Somalian pirate Muse, played by first time actor Barkhad Abdi. The scenes pitting these two against each capt phillips2other are fascinating studies and the perfect example of vastly different worlds colliding. Hanks plays Captain Phillips, who is charged with guiding the cargo ship Maersk Alabama through the pirate filled waters. Phillips is not the warmest of guys, but seems to be a competent captain with respect from the crew.

Most of us remember watching on TV in 2009 as the 5 day sequence ended thanks to yet another perfectly executed Navy SEALs rescue mission. Greengrass does a terrific job of reenacting this moment. The other two moments that are sure to leave an impression both involve Mr. Hanks. The initial scene on the bridge as the pirates assume control of the ship … when Muse tells Phillips that he is now the captain, we see a flash of surrender in Phillips’ face. A stunning scene for both Hanks and Abdi (and congrats to Abdi for going toe to toe with the acting legend). The other scene worthy of discussion occurs after the rescue as Captain Phillips is escorted to sick bay to be checked out. His “in shock” actions are startling and very brave for an actor. Some may argue that Hanks took it too far, but I would encourage you to imagine yourself in that lifeboat and determine just how courageous you would be. Abdi also has a scene where he first discovers capt phillips3this is an American ship. He reacts as if he has won the lottery.  Since he is now serving time in a US prison, he has probably figured out that American roads are not paved with gold.

It was interesting to see how Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) provide the contrast of the pressure the warlords put on the poverty stricken Somalian citizens and the high-tech, global view of the shipping company and crew.  This same contrast is apparent in the pirates vs. Phillips intrigue.  The film also begins with a peek at Phillips’ personal life and marriage (wife played by Catherine Keener).  We see the signs of a long-term relationship between people who communicate by talking around an issue (their kid and Phillips’ risky job).

Some scandal surrounds this story as there is a lawsuit against Maersk and Phillips brought by members of the crew. The contention being that Phillips knowingly steered the ship too close to the pirate waters in order to save time and money. Phillips went on to write a best selling book recounting the ordeal and he also returned to his job as ship captain. Hanks was the perfect choice to play Phillips as the story is more about a regular guy being thrust into an extraordinary situation. Phillips is no superhero … he doesn’t disarm four pirates. Instead, he uses guts and a will to live …  characteristics we all hope we would exhibit should we ever find ourselves in such a traumatic situation.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy tension-packed, based on a true story movies with expert acting

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer light-hearted Tom Hanks (Big, Larry Crowne) to heavy-drama Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzU3UJuV80w

 


NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

June 4, 2013

now you see1 Greetings again from the darkness. Come on … who wouldn’t get excited about a movie that mixes magic with the heist genre, and fills the cast with stars old and new? Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) is clearly engaged with the material, and maybe his vision of “just one more twist” is what keeps it from reaching the next level.

Magic is inherently a very difficult subject for movies. Why? Because with magic, human nature is such that we are always trying to “catch” the sleight of hand. With movies, we have come to accept the fact that any special effect is possible. We rarely ask “how”. That kind of takes away the mystique, eh? Maybe the best magic movie to date is The Prestige, but even that movie was made stronger by the story of its characters … something this latest lacks.

now you see2 Heist movies, on the other hand, have historically produced some of the most fun and thrilling times on screen. Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job are just two examples of clever, almost light-hearted heist films that are also thrillers.  Everyone loves a clever caper … so long as we aren’t on the wrong end. What doesn’t work in either genre, and especially when they are blended, is a story that defies logic. We don’t mind being tricked. In fact, it’s kind of fun getting to the end and realizing you are part of the “gotcha”. What we don’t like is being cheated.

This premise is terrific. An unknown benefactor secretly assembles The Four Horsemen – a hand-picked (by a hoodie dude) group consisting of Jessie Eisenberg, the smug super-illusionist; Woody Harrelson, the wise-cracking mentalist; tart escape artist now you see4(think Houdini with piranha) Isla Fisher; and street-hustler pickpocket (Artful Dodger type) Dave Franco. The group is bank rolled by industrial tycoon Michael Caine, and is soon enough headlining a giant Las Vegas extravaganza. Their first trick is to rob a French bank vault by transporting an audience member, video streaming the job, and showering the audience with the stolen cash. They do this under the watchful eye of magic naysayer Morgan Freeman, a huckster who earns a buck exposing the tricks of magicians.

Soon enough, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent, so stunning as the theatre owner in Inglourious Basterds) are working together trying to stop the next job, which Morgan Freeman has warned them is really a set-now you see3up for a huge finale. The movie has some really fun moments, but with all of Morgan Freeman’s warnings that we (and Ruffalo) are always a step behind, we can’t help but think ahead … and there is only one super twist that makes all of this click.

In fact, I would argue that there are too many twists here. The basic story was enough and the movie would have benefited from us getting to better know the main characters. Instead, they are merely chess pieces who spout one-liners in order. In particular, the characters of Woody Harrelson and Melanie Laurent could have gone much deeper. But that clashes with what the filmmakers were after … big, fast, wild, glitzy, cute, clever, and twisty. Just don’t be tricked into thinking. Turn off your brain and take in the wild, twisty ride … even if it does defy logic, and remember … “it’s all part of the show”.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a wild cinematic ride without thinking too much OR you’ve always wanted to see Common play air-violin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy solving the movie mysteries before the solutions are revealed OR in these tough economic times, you are looking for real bank heist tips (sorry to disappoint)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzJNYYkkhzc


THE MASTER (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Critics seem to love it, while movie goers seem to be left grasping for meaning. This is director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sixth film, and could be either his best or worst, depending on your tastes. What is clear, however, is that all the hoopla over this being an expose’ of Scientology was for nothing. In fact, the cult/religion in the film plays second fiddle to a mentally unstable drifter who you will find no real interest in following (yet unable to take your eyes off).

On the plus side, there are three terrific performances in the film. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a frightening, off beat character named Freddie Quell. Freddie suffers from PTSD after WWII and is some kind of freaky genius when it comes to moonshine and hooch. We see him utilize missile fuel, paint thinner, photographic chemicals, coconuts and Lysol. Never accept a drink from Freddie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pure charisma and power as Lancaster Dodd, the character supposedly modeled on L Ron Hubbard, the writer and (some would say) con man who developed Scientology through his Dianetics theories. Hoffman is fascinating to watch and totally believable as a guy who draws in the suckers. His staunchest follower is his ice queen wife played with quiet intensity by Amy Adams. This is quite a different role for her and she really delivers the goods.

 Joaquin Phoenix deserves a few words. His physicality here approaches deformity and his sexual perversion is clear early on thanks to a beach scene. Phoenix looks emaciated, and somehow inverts his shoulders and wears a constant grimace that would make Michael Shannon proud. Much of his performance reminded me of a young Marlon Brando … high praise indeed. Many of director Anderson’s films deal with the surrogate father/son relationship, and Phoenix is at his best when desperately seeking acceptance from his would-be father figure, Lancaster Dodd.

 Though Scientology is never mentioned, the “processing” demonstrated certainly fits right in with the early methods. Still, the weakness of the movie stems from the story. Following Freddie leaves a gaping hole in substance. There’s just not much to this broken man. On the other hand, we constantly want to know more about The Master, Lancaster Dodd.

Technically, it’s a stunning and beautiful movie with moments of cinematic greatness. From an entertainment perspective, some might find the second half downright boring and uninteresting. If not for the Oscar worthy performances and the stellar camera work and interesting camera angles, even more people probably would have walked out during the film. Jonny Greenwood is back (There Will Be Blood) with Anderson, and again delivers the perfect accompaniment. With some script work, this could have been a truly great film. Instead, we get just-missed greatness from a true auteur.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see 3 Oscar worthy performances OR unusual filmmaking and story telling is worth a couple hours of your time … especially when presented by an auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: oddball characters and expert technical filmmaking are not enough to maintain your interest

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ1O1vb9AUU


THE FUTURE

August 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to her 2005 debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know, I became a fan of Miranda July. Unfortunately that means reading a few of her short stories and waiting six years for her second (and equally independent) film. There is no rushing a creative genius, and there is certainly no obvious goal for capitalistic gains. With her second film, it appears she will somehow generate even fewer viewers, despite being a festival favorite.

The movie is bookended by the narration of Paw-Paw, an injured cat waiting to be adopted by Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). In the cat’s voice we hear the hope of a new life – one that includes love and security. Things aren’t quite the same from the perspective of our two heroes.

 Sophie and Hamish are in many ways a typical couple. They sometimes speak their own language and when things are going good, they believe they can conquer all. However, hitting a bump means much doubt and and an avalanche of self-defeatist attitudes. The latest bump is the belief that adopting this cat will suck the freedom right out of their daily lives … in fact, they discuss the fact that because of their age (35), life and dreams are basically over. So, with 30 days til adoption, they seek to live life to the fullest. You know, before it’s all over.

 They both quit the jobs that have evidently been the burden keeping them from greater purpose. Jason works from home as an IT Help Desk agent and Sophie is the world’s absolute worst dance instructor for kids. Jason tries to find meaning by selling trees to save the environment. Sophie decides to make youtube videos – 30 Dances in 30 Days, but with mounting pressure, ends up under the bed covers before even one video is complete.

These two remind me of 8 year olds with advanced vocabularies. Somehow they think society or the universe owes them something and just by dreaming big, their lives will be complete. They each believe they have special powers: Sophie can move things with her mind (not really) and Jason can stop time (not sure). We see Jason fall under the spell of the most interesting character in the film – an octogenarian played by Joe Putterlik. We see Sophie fall into bed with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a 50ish single dad living in the suburbs.

 So here is some of what the film offers us: a slacker couple in a rundown apartment, same couple overwhelmed by the burden of adopting a cat, a crawling security blanket (t-shirt) that stalks its owner, a narrating cat, an empty affair with a mis-matched couple, an old man philosopher and his dirty-talk greeting cards, a discussion with the moon (yes, the moon), a young girl (wonderful Isabella Acres) who buries herself in the backyard with the approval of her dad, and (twice) the terrific Peggy Lee song “Where or When”.

Ms. July is married to filmmaker Mike Mills, who is responsible for this year’s terrific Beginners.  She is a fabulous observer of life and people and personalities. She seems to understand doubts and dreams, and carries an interest in what time lapse really means for us. Her manner of making these points and sharing her insight is quite off-beat from what we typically see in movies. I believe that makes it most important that she continue to produce her works. Unlike what I will say about her character in this film, The Future looks awfully bright for Miranda July.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Miranda July OR you just want to tell your friends that you have seen a movie where the narrator is a re-habbing cat named Paw-Paw.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you rolled your eyes even once while reading the next to last paragraph in my review

watch the trailer: