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.

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SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ (2016)

June 23, 2016

septembers of shiraz Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1979 in Tehran, and the Shah of Iran has recently been overthrown in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini and the shift to fundamentalist Islam. Director Wayne Blair informs us that the Hanna Weg script from Dalia Sofer’s bestselling novel is “based on true events”. As soon as we realize the story is about a wealthy Jewish family, we are prepared for the sure to be unpleasantness.

Adrien Brody plays Isaac, a self-made man whose jewelry business has profited through his dealings with the previous regime. His wife Farnez is played by Salma Hayek, and their beautiful home is the setting for the going-away party for their son who is headed to the United States to continue his education, leaving behind his parents and younger sister.

Ignoring his own warnings that things are getting bad, Isaac is soon arrested by the Revolutionary Guard. As Farnez tries to see him, while also keeping things together at home, Isaac is being interrogated and later tortured as he is held captive.

As in many revolutions, it comes down to rich versus poor, and those who had power versus those who now wield the big stick. Isaac and Farnez are presented as good people who have helped others … including their housekeeper played by the always interesting Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog). Her loyalties begin to waver even as her son joins forces with the Guards. Why should she clean toilets while Farnez lives the high life? The scenes with Ms. Hayek and Ms. Aghdashloo are the film’s best, but even those aren’t strong enough given the material.

The film tries to maintain a neutral stance on religion and politics, though it’s clear where the sympathies fall. The ending dedication to “all victims of persecution” gives some idea of the lack of focus here. The over-acting from Adrian Brody does distract some from the manner in which the story ends. The lesson seems to be that one is never free when focused on material things, and yet revolutions always seem to be about the power that comes with money … rather than the issues initially proclaimed. In book form, this is a terrific and personal story about the impact of the revolution. Unfortunately, on the screen, it comes across as all too familiar and lacking in danger and suspense … none of which lessens the true hardships faced by this family.

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TALE OF TALES (Italy, 2016)

April 20, 2016

tale of tales Greetings again from the darkness. Fairy tales have long been a fruitful source for movie material. Some, like Disney productions, land gently on the family/children end of the scale; while others like the Brothers Grimm material are much darker and adult in nature. And now, along comes director Matteo Garrone and his blending of three stories loosely based on the 17th century tales published by Giambattista Basile … and “black comedy” falls short as a description.

Mr. Garrone is best known for his chilling look at an Italian crime family in the award winning Gomorrah (2008), so a trilogy of demented monarchial fantasies may seem a bit outside his comfort zone … but grab ahold of your crown jewels and be ready for just about anything.

A very strong opening leads us into the first story about a King (John C Reilly) and Queen (Salma Hayek) who are by no one’s definition, the perfect couple. The Queen’s inability to have children leads her to strike a deal with a Faustian seer who promises a baby to the royal couple. The only catch is that the King must kill a sea monster, and the Queen must eat its heart after it’s properly prepared by a virgin. Yep, it’s pretty dark and pretty odd. Of course, as with all actions, there are consequences (albino twins of different mothers) … some of which are not so wonderful.

The second story involves a lecherous King (Vincent Cassel) who falls in love with a local woman based solely on her singing voice. Much deceit follows and the actions of two sisters (played by 3 actresses – Hayley Carmichael, Stacy Martin, Shirley Henderson) and some supernatural aging products lead to a twisty story of romance that can’t possibly end well for anyone involved.

The third of our 3-headed story is the strangest of all, as a King (Toby Jones) nurtures a pet flea until it grows to behemoth size. Yes, a pet flea would be considered unusual, but eclipsing even that in uniqueness is the King’s willingness to offer the hand of his daughter (Bebe Cave) in marriage to a frightening ogre who lives a solitary life in the mountains.

These three stories are interwoven so that we are bounced from one to another with little warning … which seems only fitting given the material. Knowing the theme of the three stories does not prepare one for the details – neither the comedy, nor the dramatic turns. All actors approach the material with deadpan seriousness which adds to the feeling of a Grimm Brothers and Monty Python mash-up.

Alexandre Desplat provides the perfect score for this oddity, though the audience may be limited to those who can appreciate grotesque sequences assembled with the darkest of comedy. The moral to these stories may be difficult to quantify; however, it’s a reminder that actions beget consequences no matter the time period.

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KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET (2015)

August 19, 2015

prophet Greetings again from the darkness. An animated, artistic, philosophical parable based on a 1923 book from a Lebanese poet … it’s as if the filmmakers went out of their way to make sure most everyone would be turned off by some aspect. Instead, director Roger Allers delivers a beautiful and thoughtful representation of nine of the 26 stories from Kahlil Gibran’s influential best-seller.

The story revolves around Mustafa, an artist and poet who was exiled seven years earlier when his words were deemed harmful to the local regime. Mustafa is informed that he will be granted his freedom to return home, and as he is escorted through town, Mustafa periodically delivers his insightful and inspiring words to the people of the land. These make up the 9 segments (Freedom, Children, Marriage, Work, Love, etc) within the movie, and each of these segments is the unique work of a different renowned artist/director. The artistic style and presentation varies between each segment, and some employ the use of music (Damien Rice, Glen Hansard).

As Mustafa recites the words of Gibran, the individual segments unfold with the artistry of each director. These blend well with the overall story which also features Mustafa’s housekeeper and her young daughter (who initially doesn’t speak). The voice acting is top notch thanks to Liam Neeson (Mustafa), Salma Hayek (the housekeeper), Quvenzhane Wallis (Almitra), John Krasinski (a lovesick guard), Alfred Molina (Sergeant), and Frank Langella (regime leader). Mr. Neeson is especially effective as the soothing voice of Gibran’s words.

This was evidently a pet project of Salma Hayek, who also is Producer of the film. She wisely enlisted director Roger Allers, who has ties to Disney and the hugely popular The Lion King. The film is Disney-esque in its approach, but is certainly not aimed at kids. It’s really a blend of the segmented structure of Fantasia, the adult-themed style of Watership Down, and the philosophical meanderings of Gandhi.

Gibran writes that “all work is noble”, and the work of these filmmakers certainly is. As with any poetry or philosophy, one must be receptive to the message and willing to be inspired. If not, it’s merely “love and flowers”.

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EVERLY (2014)

March 8, 2015

Everly Greetings again from the darkness. If only drive-in theaters were still the weekend hang-out of choice for teenage boys, this latest from director Joe Lynch would be the perfect second feature after some horror or slasher designed to generate oohs and ahhs through gross-outs (elevators and grenades are not a good mix).

After beginning with its most unsettling scene – gang abuse of a female (fortunately via black screen and sound effects) – the rest of the film plays just like an ultra-violent, hyper-speed video game. The two main distinctions here are that all of the action takes place inside a loft apartment, and the lead character is played by Salma Hayek. Having appeared in Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn, Ms. Hayek is no stranger to wild action sequences, but here she carries every carnage-filled scene … all while slinking around in a silk slip or her favorite yoga pants.

Gun, knives, swords, grenades, chemicals and various other implements of destruction are brandished by Hayek, masked killers, greedy hookers, a SWAT team, and Hayek’s ex-pimp/kidnapper. We even get a character called “The Sadist” (Togo Igawa) in one of the most straight-forward character names in movie history. There is even an attack dog named Bonzai that is well-trained in everything except the difference between a ball and a grenade. And therein lies the saving grace here … the movie has some absurd humor that prevents the ultimate tone of dread by such films as Saw. The humor isn’t so much clever as it is outrageous … and it helps offset the gruesome and blood-filled body count (at least 20 in the first 20 minutes!).

Director Joe Lynch is more comfortable with horror films than action films, but it’s clear he has a love with B-movies, and he is fortunate enough to have Salma Hayek front and center. The only way to watch this is with your brain shifted to neutral. The level of ridiculous is off the scale and includes too many “that makes no sense” moments to recap here. On top of all that, the action occurs around Christmas, and use of six traditional Christmas songs adds to the twisted humor that will probably keep you tuned in, despite your knowing better.

**NOTE: For those in the Dallas area, this will be playing at the Texas Theatre

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