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.
American Ultra (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Neither achingly funny enough to pass as a comedy nor as thrilling enough to take on a convincing guise of an action film, “American Ultra,” written by Max Landis and directed by Nima Nourizadeh, is all-around confused, constantly gasping for air with the hope of keeping the audience’s attention for one more minute. What results is a barely watchable gamble; show this movie on cable television, its scenes constantly interrupted by commercials, and it would be a small miracle if viewers decide to stick with it till the end. There is not enough intrigue in the screenplay to make it a compelling experience.
It is a shame because the plot involves a stoner named Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), who just so happens to be a sleeper agent for the CIA, activated one day by a lady (Connie Britton) simply by uttering a few strange lines. Mike, as it turns out, is no ordinary stoner living in a small town: He is a member of a four-hundred-million-dollar Ultra Program—people with a history of serial misdemeanors who were given a choice to become “assets,” or assassins, for the government. Soon, Mike is hunted by fellow assets from a different program—the Tough Guy project.
Although supposedly a stoner comedy, the characters are not shown being stoned very often. Instead, we see some long-term effects of smoking weed—slower mental faculties, some issues with quickly accessing memories, the manner in which thoughts are put into words. There are not enough images here that, if one were to watch the film after smoking a joint or two, would impress or stand out. In fact, the picture is for the most part visually unexciting.
This lack of excitement includes the action sequences. Perhaps most marginally tolerable, because there is an impression of glee about it, involves Mike having to put down assets in a grocery store using only objects that happen to be around him. This happens late in the film. The rest of the action scenes, however, are straightforward and boring: buildings explode and bullets hit bodies but notice there is an absence of significant consequences. Most of the time, people who get hurt or die are those with whom we are not invested in emotionally.
Even the relationship between Mike and his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) offers no excitement. Although Eisenberg and Stewart share an awkwardly endearing chemistry, their characters are not written deeply or thoughtfully enough that we feel as though we are discovering something new or interesting about them during their exchanges. There is no defined perspective. These are supposed to be young people who have ordinary jobs with ordinary dreams—until their worlds are turned inside out. Clearly, dramatic gravity is missing from the screenplay.
Fusing and mixing genres are especially difficult to pull off and “American Ultra” serves as testament to this fact. Although it is not unambitious, for this kind of film to work and work well, the writing must be so on point that surprises not only come in the form of plot twists—which just happen to have occasional shootouts—but also in terms of what we come to know or realize about its characters the more we spend time with them.