Sunday, July 9, 2017

Movie: Beatriz at Dinner

Beatriz at Dinner:  an entertaining movie that speaks to the present social, economic and lifestyle divisions within American society.  Beatriz (Salma Hayek), who was born in Mexico, is a massage therapist.  In the opening scene, she is dreaming about rowing a boat through a mangrove swamp where she encounters a white goat on the shore.  In the next scene, Beatriz is caring for her animals, including a goat, before going to work.  Although she treats most of her clients at a medical center, Beatriz also does house visits.  One of her house clients is Kathy (Connie Britton), a very wealthy woman with an elaborate home in Orange County, California.  During the massage session, we learn that Beatriz and Kathy became close while Beatriz was providing massage therapy to Kathy’s daughter to help the daughter regain her strength following cancer treatments.  We also learn that Beatriz’s neighbor killed one of her goats simply because it was making too much noise.  Upon leaving, Beatriz learns that her car won’t start and she needs to wait for a friend to pick her up.  Kathy invites Beatriz to join her for a dinner party at the residence.  The guests are Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), Grant’s boss Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), Doug’s third wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny).  Alex scored a major political lobbying victory, which will produce a substantial income for Doug’s company.  The dinner is in celebration of Alex’s success.  This 83 minute film becomes truly interesting when Doug, a Trump-like entrepreneur, and Beatriz start interacting.  Doug is a multi-millionaire with a history of legal entanglements and is often in the news.  Lithgow’s performance is excellent, and part of the reason this film works is because Lithgow’s character is presented as a complex person with a humorous side.  The first hour has some very funny scenes, especially when Doug and Beatriz are involved.  Miguel Arteta is the film’s director and Mike White wrote the screenplay.  None of the main characters are stereotypes and the dialogue has a very entertaining edge to it.  The downside of the film is that once the issues of class, wealth and life style are laid out via the dinner dialogue, it seems that Arteta and White are at a loss as to what to do with the characters and how to finish the story.  As is my policy, I will not reveal the ending.  I would categorize the ending as “artsy” but it left me feeling very unsatisfied.  There are no special effects in this film, just excellent acting.  This is a film to see at home to take advantage of the ability to rewind and re-watch the interactions between Doug and Beatriz, two people with very different backgrounds.  Except for the inadequate and unsatisfying conclusion, Beatriz at Dinner has a significant level of positive energy and is worthwhile seeing. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Movie: My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel: a gothic drama based upon the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name.  The story  takes place in the 1830’s primarily on a estate in Cornwall.  The principal male character is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), who was orphaned as a child and raised by his older cousin, Ambrose Ashley (also played by Claflin).  A key to the unfolding story is that Philip is raised without the significant presence of any women.  Following a brief foray into the characters’ background, we meet Philip as a man in his early 20’s.  We learn that he is entitled to receive his inheritance on his 25th birthday.  Due to health concerns, guardian/cousin Ambrose is residing in sunny Italy.   Through Ambrose’s letters to Philip, we are introduced to Rachel (Rachel Weisz), whom Ambrose has met in Italy, and learn that Ambrose and Rachel have married.  After the marriage occurs Ambrose’s correspondence with regards to Rachel turns dark.  Ambrose summons Philip to Italy, however, by the time Philip arrives, Ambrose is dead.  The Italian lawyer advises Philip that Rachel has left the villa and given the lawyer instructions to liquidate the Italian assets.  Philip, in anger, returns to Cornwall.  Then Rachel arrives.  The film hints that Rachel is a “Black Widow” but, as the tale unfolds, ambiguity takes center stage.  Almost upon first sight, Philip’s anger towards Rachel melts as he falls in love with her.  Rachel’s feelings are far more complex.  There are other people at Cornwall – house and field servants - but they are clearly secondary characters.  The cinematography is outstanding and brought to mind another British period drama, Barry Lyndon.  The directorial talent of Robert Michell, Weisz’s excellent performance and the spectacular camera shots make this 106 minute film worth seeing.  The degree to which you enjoy the film will depend, I think, on your reaction to Philip.  Personally, I could not relate to him.  He is an upper class man-child of 1830’s England whose world and lifestyle is totally foreign to  present day sensibilities.   While I understand that Philip is smitten by Rachel, it is hard to empathize with his behavior.  I note that my comments are shared in the context of Weisz dominating every scene in which she appears.  It is admittedly a bit early in the year, but Weisz’s performance is definitely Oscar worthy.  In fact, both Weisz and the film’s cinematographer are deserving of nominations.  This version of My Cousin Rachel is a remake of the 1952 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton who, I understand, played Philip with a touch of madness.  I’ve not seen the 1952 film, but seeing a deeper, more complex version of Philip would have elevated this film’s rating to four stars. 


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Movie: Megan Leavey

Megan Leavey:  not your typical soldier flick.  This one is for dog lovers.  The film is based upon the actual experiences of a Marine corporal who was deployed to Iraq with a bomb sniffing dog named Rex.  At the beginning of the film, we meet Megan (Kate Mara) and get a glimpse of what her life was like prior to joining the Marines.  She is living with her mother (Edie Falco, who is probably quite unhappy with her one dimensional portrait) and stepfather (Will Patton, whose scenes are brief).  Once the film makes its point that pre-Marines Megan was adrift and having problems connecting with people, the story moves forward to boot camp.  Because Megan continues to mess up, she is assigned to kennel cleaning duty.  When we first meet Rex, he is an aggressive German Shepherd.   Rex is assigned to Megan after he disables his handler.  The storyline then progresses to Iraq.  The war scenes are well done and the film remains on track as to standard war storytelling.  If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, this film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, offers a similar perspective on a very dangerous job.  However, the focus of this movie is on the developing relationship between Rex and Megan and their work together seeking out improvised explosive devices (IED).  It tracks Megan’s efforts to have Rex retired and transferred to her care following an incident in which Rex saves Megan’s life but Rex is also injured.   While Megan gets to retire, Rex is shipped to Afghanistan with a new handler.  It is the second half of this 116 minute movie that makes it worth your time to see this film.   Kate Mara is excellent throughout the film and is particularly believable in her pursuit of saving Rex.  Woven into the storyline is Megan’s relationship with a fellow dog handler (Ramon Rodriguez).  At the film’s conclusion there are snapshots of the real Megan and Rex.  An interesting side note is that in 2011, Rex’s first handler , Marine Corps Sgt. Mike Dowling, wrote Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog.  Throughout the film, the primary focus remains on Megan and Rex as one of the first female led canine IED seeking teams in Iraq.  This is a well done tear jerker with a true story happy ending.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Movie: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman:  the DC Comics character is brought successfully to the big screen.  For a movie based on a comic book character to succeed, the person portraying the super hero must be believable.  In far too many of the recent comic based films, that has simply not been the case.  Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, the Wonder Woman, is the exception.  The success of the Wonder Woman character, coupled with the directing skills of Patty Jenkins, results in an enjoyable 141 minute movie.  Notwithstanding these positive comments, the film’s opening scenes are weak; you become leery that the same tired format used by most of the recent DC/Marvel-based character movies will be repeated.  The opening includes scenes of Diana as a child, then moves to her training as a warrior while simultaneously telling the Amazon Greek mythology storyline.  Allan Heinberg’s story becomes more interesting upon the crash landing of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) near Themyscira, the Amazons’ island home, and Diana showing up to save him.  This opening sequences could have shortened.  By the time the real action begins it is 1917 when Diana and Steve depart Themyscira to fight the Germans in WW I.   From this point forward, the film is interesting and entertaining.  The Germans seem to be derived from some campy propaganda film about “The Enemy”.  However, due to a good supporting cast and a healthy helping of “suspension of reality”, the film keeps you entwined.  Ewen Bremner as a singing Scottish sharpshooter, Said Taghmaoui as a fixer and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American trader are all wonderful.  These three characters play off superbly against each other and with Steve and Diana.  There are some light comedic moments reminiscent of 1930’s film making where jokes are made about Wonder Woman’s clothing and there having been no men in Diana’s life prior to meeting Steve.  Most importantly, the action scenes work because they remain focused on the individual characters.  The Wonder Woman character is refreshing and a pleasant contrast to the male comedic characters.  She is an optimistic person with a positive viewpoint despite the horrors of war and mankind’s bad behavior.  In Gal Gadot, we are seeing a super star.  In this current political atmosphere, this film’s outlook is refreshing.  The movie offers an enjoyable escapism and that is a definite positive.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Movie: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant:  Successful sequels are the exception.  Typically, when a studio pops out a sequel, it is attempting to cash in on prior success but usually ends up tarnishing the brand.  This is the sixth time the creatures from Alien have appeared, excluding the two wasted films that combined the Alien and Predator franchises.  The original 1979 Alien was Ridley Scott’s creation.  I still remember being shocked when the creature appeared.  I don’t recall having jumped in my seat at a movie theatre before or since.  The three Alien films that followed the original were not directed by Scott and lacked that unique edge.  In 2012, Scott released Prometheus, a prequel.  If you watched Prometheus and enjoyed it, you’ll find Alien: Covenant to be a worthy successor.  However, if you did not like the original Alien, then stay away from this movie.  Ridley Scott recreates that intense edge from his original film.  This is due in part to a strong performance by the film’s female lead, Katherine Waterston.  No one is going to duplicate Sigourney Weaver’s performance in the original Alien, but Waterston, as Dany Branson, is excellent.  Most of the commentary on this film has focused on Michael Fassbender’s dual-role performance as the humanesque robots, David and Walter.  While Fassbender’s performance is superb, the film would be a failure without Waterson.  During the opening scenes of this 122 minute movie, we learn that Dany is married to Covenant’s airship captain, Jake Branson (James Franco).  Covenant is on a journey to a remote planet.  Jake is killed off very early in the film during an unexpected neutrino storm burst that damages the ship.  Following the storm, Covenant picks up a radio transmission from an unknown planet in the vicinity.  The new captain, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  At this point, we meet David from Prometheus and are reintroduced to the aliens.  Unfortunately, to move the storyline forward, most of the film’s characters do stupid things, which is particularly true of the Captain Oram character.  The film makes a point of presenting Oram as a man of faith when, in actuality, faith clearly has nothing to do with his decisions.  Also, Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride), chief pilot of the Covenant, is not an endearing character.   Spock would be extremely disappointed with the decisions made by both Faris and Oram.    A number of the crew are married couples and this dynamic is intended to provide a rationale for some of the decision-making.  However, in reality, the crew would not have achieved their positions if their decisions had been so closely bound to their emotions.   The editing could have been tighter, and some of the characters could have been endowed with a bit more intelligence.  Despite my criticisms,  if Fassbender and Waterston are cast in a seventh film in this franchise and if the film is directed by Scott, I will buy a ticket.   Having been hooked in 1979,  I will sign up for another ride. For those of us intrigued by Scott’s original creation,  Alien: Covenant is a worthy successor.  Ridley Scott has kept me interested.


Steven Guttman

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Movie: The Dinner

The Dinner:  a family drama.  Despite its title, this is not a film for foodies nor is it a kin to My Dinner with Andre.  This movie is for mental health professionals who are jonesing for a challenge.  Two brothers, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), a former history teacher, and Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a congressman now running for governor, meet for dinner at an elite restaurant.  The brothers are accompanied by their wives; Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s young second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).  The performances by all four actors are excellent.  The premise of the film is that through the vehicle of the five course formal dinner, various elements of the family are revealed.  An incident has occurred and Stan has interrupted his campaign to meet with his brother and sister-in-law.  It is clear upon our introduction to Paul that he has issues, as noted by his running internal dialogue.  As the courses are served, someone is always getting up and walking away.  Each course is described by the presenters and, although each course sounds elaborate and expensive, most due not sound appetizing.  But the problem is not the food or the overly elegant and affected service.  Colored in part by my personal biases, I believe the problem rests with the film’s director and screenwriter, Oren Moverman.  Those of you who are longtime readers know I am not a fan of flashbacks.  In this particular film, the characters are discussing various family incidents and suddenly we are launched into a flashback.  This tactic is used far too frequently.   By the time you reach the halfway mark of this 120 minute movie, you start to question the point of this seemingly disjointed film and wonder where it is this going; the storyline feels to be aimlessly rambling.  Up to this point, the information has been sufficient to establish that this story has to do with three teenage boys who are connected to the two families.  Then you are smacked with the horrendous deed that two of the teenagers have committed.  The rest of the film deals with how the parents handle what their children have done.  Spoiler alert:  only Stan, the politician, takes the high ground.  A further Spoiler Alert:  because the film addresses a significant moral question, I will be discussing the deed involving two of the boysWhat do you do when your child commits a heinous crime, in this case firebombing a homeless person, and the police do not know the identity of the perpetrator?  Do you protect your child or do you report the truth?  Presumably, by making the crime so hideous, the viewer must also make a choice.  The film’s ending is ambiguous, including the action taken by Paul as to Stan’s second son, an adopted African-American teenager who did not participate in the crime but who did post the incident on-line.  Personally, I don’t know how one can truly hide such action.  It is clear that Paul’s son has psychological issues and, in light of the family’s history of mental issues, the decision should not be difficult.  Other questions are how is it possible for the mothers be so oblivious as to what’s going on with their children, and why?  This film presents a serious subject without any comic relief, with the possible exception of the restaurant’s absurd pretentiousness.  As noted, the acting throughout is excellent.  This film, based upon the 2009 novel by Dutch writer Herman Koch,  deserved a better script.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Movie: Their Finest

Their Finest:  a movie within a movie.  The year is 1940 and the place is Britain’s Ministry of Information following the British military disaster at Dunkirk.  The basic storyline of this 117-minute movie:  Britain’s propaganda office needs to create an uplifting film to boost the morale of the British people and, as it turns out, to also encourage the United States to join Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany.  The screenplay by Gaby Chiappe is based on Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half.  The film is directed by Lone Scherfig.  The story opens with Catrin Cole (Gemma Artenton) being summoned for an interview at the Ministry of Information.  She assumes the position is secretarial but, as she learns, her assignment is to write “the slop”,  a reference to women’s dialogue, for a Ministry sponsored war propaganda film.  Their Finest pointedly emphasizes the extent of sexism that was present in 1940’s work environments and personal relationships.  In fact, the role of Phyl (Rachael Stirling) appears to have been created specifically to offer a feminist viewpoint.  After being hired and following a run-in with actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin is assigned to research a news story about twin sisters who supposedly successfully sailed their father’s boat to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation.  It turns out that the twins’ real story was not as presented in the newspaper, nevertheless, Catrin chooses to run with the newspaper’s version of the story and the film making beings.   As the tale unfolds, a love story, which was not obvious from the introduction of the primary characters, develops.  The English cast, including Jeremy Irons, Helen McCrory and Richard Grant, is excellent.  To amplify the film’s appeal to Americans, the Jeremy Irons character orders that a handsome American war hero pilot character be added to the film’s story.  The pilot is played by Jake Lacey, who is excellent in his role as a person having no acting ability.   Bill Nighy offers a star performance as Ambrose Hilliard, an elderly actor who has never grown beyond seeing himself as the young detective who starred in pre-WW II films.  The combination of an excellent script and actors giving superb performances make for a most enjoyable film.  There is more comedy, primarily through Nighy, and tenderness than you would have expected based on the film’s opening scenes.  The Artenton character, Catrin Cole, grows on you as do her co-workers.  Their Finest is an intelligent and fun film.