The Last Days of Disco (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent Hampshire College graduates who work in the same publishing house in Manhattan. At night, they often go to an exclusive disco club with hopes of meeting bachelors who might provide them romance. Although Alice and Charlotte are constantly around one another, one might argue they are not exactly good friends. You see, when men enter the equation, the foundation of their tenuous relationship is almost always stretched and bent near the breaking point. And yet somehow they think they need each other so their fights do not last for long.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman, the great contrast that “The Last Days of Disco” offers is between the vibrant music that is disco—so full of energy, life, and rhythm—and the young New Yorkers who are very intelligent but whose lives have flatlined. Although one can claim that the characters, or the archetypes they represent, are being satirized, one might also argue that the writer-director loves his subjects on some level because there is always a level of complexity to each of them. They are never treated solely as punchlines of a joke or a situation gone bad.
It does not mean any of them have to be likable. In fact, there is only one I found myself being able to sympathize with. The central characters, Charlotte and Alice, are snobs on different levels even if their personalities are almost polar opposites. Sevigny does a good job in making a quiet girl seductive. I enjoyed the scenes where Sevigny allows Alice to slink across the room to get a man’s attention, accompanied by her sultry bedroom eyes, but at the same time it is almost like the character is trying too hard in order to hide the fact that she is not very confident. Beckinsale, on the other hand, plays an aggressive character. Charlotte is the more confident half. She represents that girl who is so popular but the more one spends time with her, one wonders if she really has any true friends.
Most fascinating is the character named Josh (Matt Keeslar) whom Des (Chris Eigeman) often labels as a loon for having had a mental breakdown when the two were in college. Their relationship is interesting because just about every time Des says something even remotely derogatory, whether it be a name or an implication that Josh does not deserve to have the jobs he often gets, there is an undercurrent of envy. One of the most hysterical lines in the film is Des claiming that perhaps the reason why he is so happy is because he is not envious of anyone. It is a funny scene because we know better: We have grown to know him better than himself.
The romance between Josh and Alice is downplayed—but I was not entirely convinced such is the most appropriate avenue. Arguably, they are the two characters who are the best fit for one another. Perhaps a bit of genuine sweetness to penetrate the otherwise sour and sardonic tone might have made the movie feel more alive. But then the film is less about romance and more about how a certain era is romanticized.
“The Last Days of Disco” entertains through dry humor and private thoughts often being expressed in one’s attempt to become the center of attention. I did not like most of the characters, but I found myself always anticipating what they might say next. The group discussion about the underlying meanings embedded in the film “Lady and the Tramp” is most hypnotic. They talk about big ideas but they remain sitting on the couch, just waiting for time to pass.
Lean on Pete (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although the plot involves a fifteen-year-old boy deciding to rescue the titular racehorse from being put down because it is no longer deemed profitable by its owner (Steve Buscemi), it is not what the movie is about. It is about a young person without an anchor, without a home, and little hope for the future. The horse, I think, is a metaphor for his willingness to fight and take his life toward a direction that makes sense—even if the road required to get there may not make a whole lot of sense to us. I found it achingly beautiful, poetic, and moving.
“Lean on Pete” is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin—and it shows. Notice that nearly every single adult Charley (Charlie Plummer—perfect for the role) knows or comes across has been chewed up and spit out by life, from his own father (Travis Fimmel) who pays more attention to wooing women than ensuring the well-being of his son, a female jockey (Chloë Sevigny) who has had her share of broken bones but cannot seem to care deeply about the horses she rides, to the pair of young soldiers (Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain) who just returned from the Middle East. A humanist writer-director, Andrew Haigh underscores the loneliness and sadness that these characters attempt to cover up. So even when someone makes a cruel decision, we do not hate them for it. It can be interpreted that their actions are based upon what life has taught them.
And then we look at Charley—quiet, hardworking, smart, and not yet hardened by life despite the near poverty of his household. We suspect what might be in store for him, the challenges he will face once he takes the horse in the truck and drives to nowhere. Particularly impressive is how the second half rests on Plummer’s shoulders and there is not a moment that rings false. It is interesting how the writer-director keeps sentimentality at bay, often choosing to highlight the boy’s inner fire, his ability to push through even when he must sacrifice a bit of his innocence just so he can take one more step toward his destination, than the tough circumstances that plague his journey. Lesser filmmakers may likely have opted for tear-jerker moments.
I read somewhere that the movie is not for children—which surprised and frustrated me. I cannot disagree more; it is exactly the kind of movie, I think, that children will connect with, especially because they will have questions. But the questions, I think, will not be about plot points but why certain things are happening, why there is death, why children are neglected or abandoned by their parents. These are tough questions. I believe that those who think that the movie is not for kids are people who are not ready to face and answer the challenging questions for someone else. We often underestimate what children can process.
“Lean on Pete” is a story of a boy who does not have a home. He looks to the people around him: his father, a horse trainer, a jockey; to the gentle animal considered to be old and useless; to the strangers capable of both kindness and inhumanity. They offer no home. He even looks inside himself and finds nothing still. And so he forges on, looking to the past to see if remnants of comfort remain. As the minutes trickle away, we look at Charley, desperately hoping he’ll be all right somehow even if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for.
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some will walk away from this picture wondering what it is all about. One might say it is about the rich versus the poor, the powerful against those without much power. Another might argue it is about how a person of color is treated in an environment where she is the minority. Yet a third person may claim it is about a selfless person suddenly finding herself face-to-face with the embodiment of greed. Like many films worth watching, “Beatriz at Dinner,” written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, is open to interpretation and yet it remains highly watchable because it is making a statement about the human condition. We relate to what’s unfolding on screen.
Salma Hayek plays the titular character, an alternative healer in just about every aspect of her life. It is easy or convenient to label Beatriz as weird or unconventional because she seems to function on a plane slightly higher than everyone else. Despite this, Hayek ensures that the character feels grounded, honest, and real. We almost wish to protect her. This is critical because the people she is invited by (Connie Britton, David Warshofsky) and those she meets at the dinner party (John Lithgow, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass) are shallow, corrupt, and fake. It is a classic clashing of opposite beings, ideals.
I believe the picture is about microaggressions. Intense feelings are ignited inside the pit of the viewers’ stomachs as her fellow guests act as if she were less than. They don’t say that she doesn’t belong but they treat her exactly what they think of her. It is in the looks given, the words used to make a point, the manner by which the body language communicates disinterest when the brown person gets the spotlight as she explains what is on her mind. Even the caterer, also white, dares to interrupt Beatriz, fully aware that she is also one of the guests, when she is recalling a highly personal memory involving an animal she must kill.
Clocking in at about eighty minutes, the film is efficient in ensuring that we are on our toes when it comes to detecting micro-inequities. Notice that although the setting is quite palatial, when a group is on a circle, a wide angle shot is almost never utilized. It shows that although they occupy the same room, appearing to be talking about one thing, they are not on the same page. They fake being on the same page; they have become so accustomed to it that it is business as usual. Beatriz functions as our conduit. At times we almost feel her laughing to herself at the sheer ridiculousness of her company.
Although relatable on so many levels, especially if the viewer is a minority or a part of the working class, “Beatriz at Dinner” is not for everybody. Its sudden solemn turn toward the end might be considered to be hyperbolic if taken literally. But if taken from a satirical point of view, the statement it makes is smart and funny. It makes us wonder how much better our world would be if people capable of deep thoughts and feelings, coupled with the ability to take action or lead by example, were actually in charge.
Barry Munday (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson), despite his pudgy frame, was a womanizer. He exuded confidence which charmed some but repulsed others. When an underaged girl (Mae Whitman) lured Barry in a movie theater, her father, with a trumpet in hand, walked in on them and hit Barry in the groin. Doctors at the hospital informed him that there was nothing they could do to save his testicles so the boys were going to have to be removed. A couple of days later, to Barry’s surprise, he found out that he had impregnated a woman named Ginger (Judy Greer), the ugly duckling of a well-to-do family (Malcom McDowell, Cybill Shepherd). Based on a novel by Frank Turner Hollon, “Barry Munday” was amusing only half of the time because the director, Chris D’Arienzo, ended his scenes just when the punchline was delivered. For instance, when Barry met Ginger for the “first” time (he couldn’t remember their sexual encounter), the two shared awkwardness, which was mildly funny, but they were left with only references of the night in question. Ginger pointed at the area where they had done the deed and the specific song that played in the background but there was not one memorable joke that incited laughter. I felt as though the film could have played upon Barry’s vanity when he met Ginger. He obviously thought she was ugly so why not overtly play upon the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like she was good enough for him? Yes, the main character would have come off as mean-spirited but it would only highlight the journey he had chosen for himself. The filmmakers’ decision to not take on certain risks lowered the movie’s level of comedy and it missed potential character arcs. I enjoyed Chloë Sevigny as as Ginger’s sister, the favorite of the family. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her sexual needs. What I expected to see was her character being used to create a divide between Barry and Ginger. After all, there was a jealousy between the sisters. But I was glad it didn’t take that route. I believed Barry’s change toward becoming a better man because his evolution was mostly two steps forward and one step back. It took some time for him to decide to take real responsibility. However, what I didn’t find as effective was Barry suddenly wanting to know about his father who left before he was born. It offered an explanation involving why Barry turned out to be a womanizer when it didn’t need to. Most men just can’t help but want the idea of being with other women. And that’s okay. Anyone who had taken a psychology course could surmise what the film was trying to say. It implied that his father’s absenceled to his desperate assertion, through being with a lot of women, that he was a man. It was unnecessary because I felt as though Barry’s journey was already complete. He may still not be the kind of guy one would take home to meet the parents, but he was likable enough. We knew he eventually meant well.