Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Notes from October 9, 2017: Beatriz at Dinner might not literally be the “first great film of the Trump era,” as the poster states – doesn’t that honor belong to Get Out? – but Miguel Arteta’s film certainly is a beautifully made, sharply incisive dramedy observing the many divisions in American society. We follow an eventuful day in the life our protagonist, Beatriz (a brilliant Salma Hayek), who works as a holistic healer at a cancer treatment center and also as a masseuse to an upper-crust clientele in southern California. Late one afternoon, Beatriz drives from Santa Monica to Newport Beach for a massage appointment with a rich housewife, Kathy (Connie Britton). The two women seem to have a personal bond: Kathy’s daughter, Tara, was stricken with cancer as a teenager and Beatriz’s care and friendship helped Tara on the road to recovery. When Beatriz finds that her old car won’t start and that she can’t leave Kathy’s house just yet, Kathy invites her friend to stay for a dinner party that she and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are throwing for some of his colleagues and their wives. This is the point at which the story’s wheels really begin to turn.
As the guests arrive at the house, Beatriz struggles to fit in with conversation topics that concern only the rich, white social circle. Despite engaging in chitchat that she enjoys, it is clear that the other visitors – including Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), Alex (Jay Duplass) and Jeana (Amy Landecker) – consider her a bizarre anomaly encroaching on their comfortable territory. As the dinner progresses, Beatriz finds herself locked in a war of words with Grant’s boss, Doug Strutt (the incomparable John Lithgow), a Trumplike tycoon who flaunts both his wealth and his contempt for anyone of a lower social class (or perhaps a darker skin tone) than him. Beatriz tries to enlighten her companions with her memories of growing up in a Mexican village that was destroyed by an American construction company that never followed through on its building plans, but the only feedback she receives is disinterest.
Beatriz at Dinner’s mood changes as our heroine becomes increasingly aware that Kathy and Grant’s home is a hostile environment. The film shifts from comedy to drama as Beatriz’s confrontations with her adversaries become ever more emotionally charged. It’s too bad that Mike White’s script loses its satirical edge, but this is necessary to show Beatriz’s evolution over the course of this tense and upsetting night. Many viewers have argued that the film’s ending is a letdown, that it suggests – in a “bigger picture” sense – that acquiescing is the ultimate solution when one is faced with a bully or an outright villain. But if you consider Beatriz’s own story, just focusing how much she longs to return to a past that no longer exists (as evidenced in the themes of the song she performs for the dinner guests), the conclusion of her arc makes sense.
It’s amazing to realize how rare it is to see Salma Hayek in a performance like the one she gives in Beatriz at Dinner. The successes and failures of her career have always seemed to be predicated on how much makeup her characters wear and/or how tight and revealing their clothes are; occasionally she gets an opportunity, like in Frida and in Beatriz at Dinner, to show her power as an actress. In Beatriz, she wears no makeup; her hair is tied in a straightforward ponytail; her outfit is a utilitarian work ensemble. Without all of the usual distracting accoutrements, we can concentrate on the simple, striking impact of Hayek’s face, which radiates so much grace and strength in every frame. Even if you think you disagree with the political messages of Beatriz at Dinner, please see it for its extraordinary spotlight on Salma Hayek, as well as the poetic cinematography of Wyatt Garfield.
Brawl in Cell Block 99. Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Notes from October 25, 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal action thriller that is definitely not for all appetites, but if you can tolerate the extreme levels of violence – the film is unrated, but the MPAA would have slapped it with an NC-17 warning – you will be rewarded with some of the most memorable acting, writing, cinematography and fight sequences of any film that has been released this year.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a former boxer who loses his job at the local auto shop in the film’s first scene. He is a physically intimidating protagonist; besides being a 6′ 5″ man whose bald head is adorned with a cross tattoo, Bradley rips his wife Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) car apart with his bare hands after he comes home early and discovers that she has been having an affair for the past three months. The only way that the couple can salvage their fractured marriage is for Bradley to return to his former career as a drug runner. This decision seems dangerous for both Bradley and Lauren, who are both recovering addicts, but when the film cuts to “eighteen months later,” the pair are living happily in a bigger, fancier house and expecting their first child.
As we know from the film’s title, however, this paradise will not last. Bradley and some new business partners he doesn’t trust are involved in a police ambush, which results in him shooting his comrades to prevent them from injuring the police. Despite the good intentions behind Bradley’s actions, he is found guilty of the murders and is sentenced to seven years in prison. While in jail, Bradley is visited by a mysterious, German-accented man (Udo Kier, the incomparable king of genre cinema), who shows Bradley photo evidence that Lauren is being held hostage and the only way Bradley can save her is to kill a certain inmate in Cell Block 99 of the Red Leaf detention center, a maximum-security facility for all the most depraved criminals.
Moments after the conversation with the “Placid Man” (as Kier’s character is called in the end credits), Bradley sets himself up by attacking several corrections officers. Branded a severe threat to his fellow prisoners and staff, Bradley is immediately transported to Red Leaf, where he meets sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, literally twirling his mustache in malicious delight). A few more skirmishes finally bring Bradley down to the fabled Cell Block 99, where the most psychotic convicts reside. This odyssey, which by now has reached mythical proportions, culminates in a series of supremely gory conflicts between Bradley and some unexpected opponents, some images of which I may never be able to remember without feeling ill. This viciousness is necessary, however, since Bradley is a man on a mission and if he doesn’t complete the Placid Man’s assignment, his wife and unborn daughter will pay the price.
So what makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 so worthy of your time? First, there’s Vince Vaughn’s performance. He anchors the film not only as a physical presence but with solid acting and a sharp wit (my favorite: in an early scene he refers to a young woman’s tight and short blue jumpsuit as “zesty”); humorous dialogue provides much-needed emotional ballast during the film’s relentlessly grim bloodbaths. (Also, for the record: Vince Vaughn has not magically transformed into an excellent actor with Brawl. His dramatic talent has been evident for years, as people have known since his indie days in the 90s and – my personal favorite – in the bar scene from Into the Wild.) Don Johnson and Udo Kier give that extra-special “character actor” touch to roles that are vaguely defined by a general sense of evildoing, and I also enjoyed seeing another veteran of film and television, Willie C. Carpenter, as “Lefty,” the friendly lifer who tries to help Bradley assimilate to prison conditions on his first day there. Finally, as the icing on the cake, there are the aesthetics of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like the 70s exploitation films that clearly influenced writer-director S. Craig Zahler, Brawl features a soundtrack of soul/Motown songs, including brand-new tracks by some bona fide legends, the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Visually, the film benefits from cinematographer Benji Bakshi‘s eye for framing and contrasting light/shadow.
If you’re willing to give Brawl in Cell Block 99 a try, more power to you. Some may say that it is a film made in bad taste, but then again aren’t most delicious indulgences unhealthy at their core?
Ingrid Goes West. Directed by Matt Spicer. Notes from September 23, 2017: Ingrid Goes West is one of the surprise gems of the year, a satire about social media mania that asks us to consider the limits any of us would go to just to feel loved and important. Matt Spicer’s film skewers the millennial generation’s habit of creating Instagram celebrities who boast of carefully curated lives, but we also see a thought-provoking exploration of the lengths some people will go to in order to stave off loneliness.
When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), she’s busy pepper-spraying a bride at a wedding party. Ingrid’s anger at not being invited to the event is irrational; she only vaguely knew the other woman through Instagram, but in Ingrid’s mind, they were good pals. After Ingrid’s stay in a mental health treatment center, we quickly realize two crucial details about her: she spent a number of years as her mother’s caretaker (I think the film implied that Mrs. Thorburn died not long before Ingrid met her Instagram “friend”) and she easily develops intense attachments to other people. As Ingrid resettles into her empty house and tries to find a new purpose in life, she discovers a magazine article about an up-and-coming Instagram “influencer,” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and before we know it, Ingrid is grabbing her $60,000 inheritance from her mom’s will, moving out to Venice Beach, California and trying to figure out how to meet her current obsession.
After renting a house that’s owned by a young screenwriter, Dan (an exceptionally charming O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Ingrid dyes her hair the same color as Taylor’s (blonde), changes her wardrobe to dress more like her new hero, reads the novels that Taylor mentions loving on Instagram and visits the same eateries and shops that Taylor frequents. An accidental run-in with Taylor at a bookstore is almost disastrous – it would have been, had Taylor deigned to pay attention to such a klutzy commoner – but Ingrid quickly devises a new plan for actually meeting Taylor. One break-in and dog theft later, Ingrid is formally brought into the Sloane house, genially returning “lost” pup Rothko and ingratiating herself into the world of Taylor and her artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell).
Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, shopping, partying and spending time at a Joshua Tree retreat. Reluctantly, Ingrid also gets closer to Dan, who sees something more like the “real” her than the version of Ingrid that she pretends to be for Taylor and Ezra, but at the same time, a visit from Taylor’s irritating brother, Nicky (a scene-stealing Billy Magnussen), threatens to undermine Ingrid’s new way of life. Throughout the story there is tension as to whether Ingrid’s feelings for Taylor border on psychotic, and whether circumstances might result in a violent outburst; the third act of the film certainly ups the ante and takes our protagonist in several disturbing directions.
The entire cast of Ingrid Goes West does excellent work, but Aubrey Plaza in particular shines in a performance that shows her emotional range, which up to now has not always been reflected in her choice of roles. (She made me cry in the last few minutes of the film, which not every actor can do.) Ingrid is not always likeable, but she is achingly human in every complicated moment. We may not understand or agree with Ingrid’s intentions – she probably doesn’t fully comprehend them either; moreover, the film is ambiguous as to whether she is romantically inclined toward Taylor – but Ingrid’s need for human connection in a world that used to shut her out for being “herself” is a desire that we can all recognize. Ingrid Goes West illustrates how easy it is for people to hide behind façades that they believe are preferable to their natural selves; the absurdity of the situations is sometimes hilarious, but just like real life, sometimes the pain of maintaining that meticulously designed existence is heartbreaking.
Lucky. Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Notes from October 17, 2017: Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton capped his career with one last transcendent performance in Lucky, an introspective dramedy that honors its ninety-year-old protagonist with a heartfelt showcase. Lucky (Stanton) is a World War II veteran who lives a bare-bones existence in a small Southwest town, a place where the vistas are not unlike those seen in an earlier masterpiece starring Stanton, Paris, Texas (1984). Over the course of a few days in Lucky’s life, we see him interact with friends and foes alike, including rakishly dressed senior citizen Howard (David Lynch – no relation to Lucky’s director), life insurance salesman Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston), married barflies Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), diner owner Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), Dr. Christian Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr., in a role reminding me a lot of when he played a physician on “Portlandia”), fellow WWII vet Fred (Tom Skerritt), waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) and bodega clerk Bibi (Bertila Damas).
The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja was obviously tailor-made for Harry Dean Stanton, whose character often mentions his recollections of growing up in Kentucky, clearly autobiographical tidbits from Stanton’s own upbringing; Lucky’s atheism and his other philosophical musings were probably inspired by Stanton’s beliefs as well. The story moves slowly, perhaps too slowly for some viewers, but for anyone who knows and appreciates Stanton and the many wonderful characters that populate the cast, Lucky is a gem. The film’s beautiful performances – including a bravura monologue by David Lynch’s character about his abiding love for his pet tortoise, and a scene set in a diner in which Stanton and Tom Skerritt compares WWII stories, a poignant moment reminiscent of a similar scene in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story – and the cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt create a compelling portrait of a one-of-a-kind man. Thanks for the memories, Harry Dean – there was no one else like you.
Unforgettable. Directed by Denise Di Novi. Notes from September 19, 2017: Unforgettable has the plot and acting of a histrionic Lifetime TV movie, but it gives Katherine Heigl an unexpectedly satisfying role that stretches her acting muscles far beyond the scope of her usual rom-com performances. Heigl plays Tessa Connover, the psychotic ex-wife of David Connover (Geoff Stults), a businessman who is about to marry our protagonist, Web designer/editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson). David has convinced Julia to leave New York and move in with him in his California house, which also means getting to know David and Tessa’s young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Naturally, David has no idea how angry Tessa is over their divorce or what lengths she will go to ensure that Julia leaves the Connover family alone permanently.
Conventional melodrama fuels the character developments and plot twists in Unforgettable, hurtling the story toward certain inevitable conclusions. David is an exceedingly boring character, straight out of the Lifetime handbook for cardboard-cutout boyfriends. As is the case for heroines in many of that network’s soapy thrillers, Julia is trying to rebuild her life after having been in an abusive relationship, hiding this history from David because she wants to appear “strong” and forget the fact that she was once a victim. It is also no surprise that David and Julia have been fooled by Tessa’s pristine façade; underneath the flawless makeup, tightly tied-back ponytails and crisp white dresses, Tessa is a deeply manipulative person who targets Julia in such a way that David begins to think that Julia is crazy for disliking (then being terrified of) Tessa. Still, the film takes pains to illuminate the source of Tessa’s pathology: her mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd), drilled both the drive for perfection and the fear of failure into her daughter. As cruel as Tessa is, she is pitiable since we understand that she has been victimized too.
I wouldn’t hold my breath for Unforgettable to receive any honors come awards season, but Katherine Heigl should be commended for stepping outside of her comfort zone. I think she may have played a somewhat similar role in the dark comedy Home Sweet Hell (2015) – a film I haven’t seen but am now interested in – but Unforgettable should earn Heigl some new fans and, with any luck, more complex characters to play. I’m also curious to see what Denise Di Novi directs next; Unforgettable is her first feature, but she has been a producer since the early 1980s, helping make such modern classics as Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Little Women and A Walk to Remember.