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.
Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)
★ / ★★★★
If you wish to watch a hodgepodge of scenes that are supposed to be funny but are actually not for anybody with more than ten functional brain cells then go ahead and watch “Pitch Perfect 3,” inarguably the lowest point of a series that began with great promise since the first film had something genuine to say about being a university student and the road toward one’s more immediate life goals. This installment, however, is a trial to sit through as nearly each passing second barrages the audience with overly produced and commercialized music. And when it isn’t, it forces us to swallow one cheesy exchange right after another about the importance of “sisterhood” and “family” without actually delivering the required substance behind and underneath these ideas. Given that the film is partly aimed toward teenagers, I worry it will cause permanent brain damage. It offers a numbing, cringe-worthy experience.
The Bellas are nearing their thirties but they are stuck with jobs they are either deeply unhappy with or are not passionate about in the least. While this element has the potential to grow into a strong statement about our generation, it is always played for laughs. Had the screenplay by Kay Cannon and Mike White been more intelligent or ambitious or connected to the generation it attempts to laugh at, it would have dared to touch upon the reality numerous millennials face in today’s job market and economy—while still having fun with or poking fun of the characters because, let’s face it, not at all of them are as motivated to work for what they hope to achieve. Instead, one gets the impression that the material is looking down on non-ideal jobs that the characters are a part of. I found it gross due to its lack of sympathy, especially because part of the target audience is millennials.
The way the music is mixed and executed is an irritation to the eardrums. We know that performers in musicals are lip-synching, but the best of the genre work in such a way that they create a most convincing illusion that actors are actually singing on the spot. There is a simplicity and humility to it. Here, however, since the music is produced in a manner that nearly every element is amplified to such an extreme, certainly bombastic, it drowns the performance. Thus, not even a thin veil of believability can be felt on screen. We might as well be watching actors singing badly in a music studio and the process of their recorded voices being manipulated. Come to think of it, a behind-the-scenes look might have been a better movie.
The story takes place all over Europe and yet we never get a chance to appreciate each locale. For instance, there is a sameness to the look of Italy, Spain, and France—amazing because these are beautiful countries with rich histories. If it weren’t for the dialogue that overtly says where the characters are, I would have guessed they were staying in one country throughout the film. There is no flavor, no allure, not even a hint of culture outside of awful stereotypes. Clearly, it is not a musical-comedy for smart, cultured people who are living in the twenty-first century.
Plenty of deadly dull subplots are thrown at the wall. Particularly painful is Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) being stalked by her father (John Lithgrow) across the continent. Here is a woman who clearly has abandonment issues and yet the film is so afraid to get serious once in a while and reach toward the audience. “Pitch Perfect 3,” directed by Trish Sie, gets nearly moving part wrong. I had a feeling she has no understanding whatsoever of why the original appealed to so many people, including myself. This project is a betrayal.
★ / ★★★★
Ren (Kevin Bacon) and his mother move to a small town to start their life anew. It is far from a promising reboot, however, when Ren finds out that rock n’ roll and dancing are banned because of a car wreck that killed high school kids five years ago. The main proponent of this ban is Reverend Moore (John Lithgow), whose only son has died in the crash. He believes that by shutting out “devil music,” it will be unable to “confuse people’s minds and bodies.” With the help of his friends and classmates, Ren hopes to overturn the ordinance in a small but respected town meeting.
It is easy and reasonable to laugh at the dopiness of the premise of “Footloose,” but I chose to buy into it right away, no questions asked, to be able to assess what it is it hopes to aim toward. It wishes to be an entertaining, crowd-pleasing picture that feature songs we can tap our toes to and well-choreographed dance scenes, but even on that level it fails to deliver.
While the songs selected are catchy, they do little to serve coherence to the plot involving the young people’s struggle to get their parents to listen, put their differences aside, and consider the practical over the emotional. While quite upbeat and fun to listen to, the title song by Kenny Loggins often pops up during the most inappropriate moments when a question requires our attention so that we can get that much more into examining the perceived moral decay of the town. Also, it is unfortunate that many of the songs are cut short in order to make room for badly written dialogue. I know it is supposed to be ironic that the high school students are the ones with an open mind while the adults with life experiences have a narrow point of view, but must the teens provide the answers to the questions they have just asked? I suppose I can take comfort that John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” is almost played all the way.
Ren’s romantic interest, Ariel (Lori Singer), who happens to be the reverend’s daughter, is very unlikable, a harpy, toward the beginning. Instead of being nice to the new kid in town, she asserts her place in the high school social strata by acting cold toward him. So when she later asks Ren, “Why don’t you like me?” I wished to interrupt the scene and, to put it lightly, tell her why she has to ask a stupid question. The screenplay by Dean Pitchford does not give the character a proper transition from a queen B to a gal who we want to get to know and be friends with. If the writer feels lazy at the time and does not feel like giving the main girl a deserved arc, why not simply make her popular and nice right from the beginning?
The best scenes that hold good drama are not between the young couple. Surprisingly, the conversations between Reverend Moore and his wife, Vi (Dianne Wiest), are most magnetic. I loved the scene when she summons the courage to tell him that, essentially, he is wrong to have imposed his spiritual beliefs on the town especially when the citizens should have been given the opportunity to grieve in their own way. I liked that Wiest plays her character almost mousy, her words spoken so softly that I am forced to almost lean in and read her lips. Not one scene between Ren and Ariel is able to match this important conversation between husband and wife. Instead, when the young couple are alone, sappy music can be heard which reflects the material’s lack of confidence in the writing as well as the chemistry between the performers.
Directed by Herbert Ross, “Footloose” has some pockets of charm mainly due to its supporting actors. Sarah Jessica Parker, as Ariel’s perky friend, lights up the screen each time she is in front of the camera. Chris Penn, as Ren’s towering but lovable friend who does not know how to dance, deserves to have more screen time. Though it certainly has potential to be a light entertainment with good intentions, most of the elements do not align properly so it consistently trips over itself.
Blow Out (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
In introductory Neurology courses, we were taught that our brain filters out most of the information our senses absorb. That is why, for example, when we’re in the middle of a big city during rush hour, most of the sounds tend to blend together. The only sounds our brain process, at least in a conscious level, are the ones we will ourselves to pay attention to or a sound that is really loud to the point where our brain translates it as something threatening. Our relationship with sound was tackled in a smart and mature way in “Blow Out,” written and directed by Brian De Palma, about a soundman named Jack Terry (John Travolta), who recorded an assassination of a potential presidential nominee as the car skidded off the road and plunged into the icy river. Jack managed to rescue Sally (Nancy Allen), but the police wanted to cover up the fact that the political figure, married and with kids, had a female escort. Rumors about the politician drinking and driving spread like wildfire but Jack wanted to reveal the truth. The film wore its influences on its sleeve. The more serious side, the spying scenes, reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” On the other hand, the more comedic side was in the form of a slasher flick à la John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as we saw the murders from the killer’s perspective. The funniest running joke involved the filmmakers’ inability to correctly dub the scream of an actress who was about to get stabbed in the shower. The B-movie director and his associates were stuck in a Goldilocks and the Three Bears conundrum. The women hired tend to have screams that were either too deep or too shrill. Both sounded ridiculous and laughable without, but especially with, the shower scene image. Even though it didn’t have anything to do with the big picture, I was glad that De Palma didn’t remove those scenes. It showed me that he was confident with his work. The comedic scenes were solid tension-breakers and they never wore out their welcome. The film was almost obsessive with its images. Only in the last thirty minutes did we see the assassin’s face (John Lithgow) straight-on. And when we did, his dark intentions and strange fixations filled every frame. He moved like an animal; he knew about timing–when to hold back and when to go for the jugular. But the assassin’s meticulous nature was somewhat familiar. We saw it in Jack as he rewinded his tapes over and over again to find the most minute details of the crime. We learned about his past and his redemption arc came in the form of Sally, a girl who never watched the news because it was too depressing. He loved her but I loved that I wasn’t sure if she loved him back. I knew the film did a wonderful job because it made me want to know more. The ending was powerful but far from heavy-handed. When it comes to exposing the truth, sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.