Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Rated: R

STARS: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Landecker, David Warshofsky
DIRECTOR: Miguel Arteta
GENRE: Dark Comedy/Drama

We live in a politically polarized nation (I'm talking about America--if you are outside the U.S., I don't know at this point whether to congratulate you or send my condolences). So it was inevitable that a film such as Beatriz At Dinner would come along--prompting us to titter at ourselves in grin-and-bear-it fashion, while simultaneously providing plenty of food for thought.

Salma Hayek is riveting as Mexican immigrant Beatriz--a massage therapist/ holistic healer with a deep empathy and love for all critters great and small. Her car breaks down during a professional visit to her client/friend Cathy (Connie Britton), and she becomes an unscheduled guest at the dinner party being thrown that evening for an ensemble of perfectly shallow upscale southern Californians--headed by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a sociopathic land developer and big game hunter.

Things start out with polite interaction between Beatriz and the other guests, though they reveal their vacuity with comments like "I love Cancun" while Beatriz is relating a story about her early life in Mexico.

The fireworks begin when Strutt passes around a digital image of himself posing beside a dead rhino that he has gunned down somewhere in Africa. Beatriz sees red and fires off a verbal barrage--throwing his phone at his head to emphasize her point. Her righteous indignation seemed to win over the audience in the theater. But then director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White felt the need to portray her as someone becoming rapidly unhinged from that point forward (out of character from everything she stands for), as if to say we don't want to take sides between the Trump and the Bernie factions, so let's give each something to roll their eyes about.

And while Lithgow's villainous Doug Strutt grabs center stage the way he grabs up land for shady development deals, it is Connie Britton as Cathy who gives the most layered performance as the "friend" who has nothing but praise and admiration for Beatriz in the beginning, then shifts ever so subtly as things go along to reveal herself, in the end, as being just as shallow and ruthless as the people she hangs out with.

As we approach the Fourth Of July, I recommend you see Beatriz At Dinner. The incendiary battle of ideologies embodied by Hayek and Lithgow's characters is worth the price of admission--though the ending will leave you up in the air (a pun) as to what really happened and what it means, as well as a feeling of being somewhat underfed by the mere 77 minutes of running time.

Grade :  B


Beatriz At Dinner is not a film for the faint-hearted. It will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth no matter which side of the political seesaw you are teetering on. Salma Hayak's performance is as authentic as they get. But to sound like the superficial ladies at that dinner party, I might also point out that Salma's 'put on a few' since her Oscar-nominated performance in Frida. ("That Mexican food will do it to you every time," those ladies might whisper, cattily.) 

What I thought was very well scripted was how blissfully unaware the guests were of their own prejudices and bigotry. It reminded me of my dad when I chose to marry a Jew. His classic response? "Why, some of my best friends are Jewish!" When I tried to point out that his statement was making "them" different than "us," he replied: "But they are different! They give more money to public institutions, they respect education more!" I shrugged my shoulders and prayed that he wouldn't greet his new son-in-law with that some-of-my-best-friends line. (Which he did within five minutes.) I felt that this movie depicted that kind of insular ignorance extremely well. 

Acting kudos go out to John Lithgow. Big time. Having recently seem him portray Winston Churchill in the Netflix series "The Crown," I found it remarkable how such a tall actor could play such a short, squat man in his final years as England's prime minister. And do it so convincingly.

But the film took a turn for the worse towards the end. And what really pissed me off was the happily-ever-after images at the end. I haven't given anything away here but if you see Beatriz At Dinner, you will know immediately what I'm referring to. You don't do sad and then tack on happy. Life just doesn't work that way.

Grade: C +

Friday, June 16, 2017

NORMAN: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017)

Rated:  R

STARS: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg
DIRECTOR: Joseph Cedar
GENRE: Drama

Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don't. You won't get that until the end of the movie. One that is well worth sitting through to groan at my little pun!

So here we have Richard Gere. I never thought I'd see the day when he would totally dampen down his sex-appeal to play a character as quirky as this one. Gere is Norman Oppenheimer--a New York City flim-flam man. A schemer. A dreamer. A name dropper. Always working some angle that's going to hopefully put him into the black. But he's not very good at it. The epitome of those who live lives of quiet desperation, and he wears that look like it's painted on him from start to near finish of Norman:The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.

And while Norman has some visually delightful and imaginative cinematography, Gere's character is as drab as anyone could ever look. He wears the same overcoat and "old guys' cap"--you know, the one that's supposed to look sporty but only old dudes wear them--throughout the entire film! Wardrobe expenditure for Mr. Gere: next to zilch.

Where Norman's rise begins is when he gloms onto Micha Eshel  (Lior Askenazi), a visiting Israeli politician. He buys the man a pair of shoes at a swanky boutique and nearly faints dead when he sees the price tag.  It turns into the best investment of  his life when Eshel becomes the Israeli prime minister.  For a while, Norm is living his dream of schmoozing with the movers and shakers. But where there are politicians there will be scandal, and our man finds himself smack dab in the middle of it, headed for a fall (hey, they tell you that in the title, so no spoiler there).

His years as a major heartthrob may be a thing of the past, but Gere is adapting nicely and establishing himself as a fine character actor. And there are noteworthy performances from Steve Buscemi--as a RABBI no less; and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist; Nymphomaniac) who uncharacteristically keeps her duds on the whole time while delivering a sensitive portrayal as Norman's chance encounter on a train. And Lior Ashkenazi's character, whether he's up or he's down, is muy sympatico throughout. 

The thing I pondered as I left the theater is whether our protagonist changed even a whit in the end. Because Norman has only one gear (pardon the pun), but it's fascinating to watch him roll through the stops signs as he goes for broke at every turn, desperately trying to stay in the race. 

Grade:   B +


The best thing about this loser of a movie are the puns it created in Tim's review. I kept thinking "This has got to get better!" But it didn't. Not by a long shot. It's never easy to sit through a film where the main character is so desperately needy and sychophantic. And I, for one, prefer Richard Gere as an aging sex symbol to a smarmy weasel like Norman Oppenheimer. I have to give the director Joseph Cedar credit, though, for enlisting the talents of so many fine actors. Steve Buscemi was already mentioned but there were cameos by the likes of Michael Sheen, Hank Azaria and Harris Yulin. But that's the ONLY thing I'll give Cedar credit for.

I still don't know what half the movie was about – and couldn't care less. I found the score intrusive when it interrupted those endless conversations Norman insisted on having with people who avoided him like The Plague. There were so many loose ends in the script that it felt like a shag rug gone rogue.

But I try to find something positive in every review I write, so here goes: I applaud the acting of Lior Ashkenazi. Very believable. (And it probably doesn't hurt that he's an Israeli playing an Israeli politican!) Interesting last name:Ashkenazi Jews are people who are descended from the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe. Around 80% of the Jewish people around the world are Ashkenazim, including most American Jews.

Regardless of what you believe, "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" is – like its subtitle – painfully long-winded and uninviting. 

Grade: D -