Wednesday, June 28, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER: A Meager, Meaningless Meal

Now playing at an arthouse or multiplex that shows a few art films near you:


(Dir. Miguel Arteta, 2016)

I left the theater after this film in a state of bewilderment. For it has such a promising premise involving a working class member of the 99% confronting one of the most corrupt bigwig one percenters at a dinner party, but it doesn't know at all what to do with this narrative, and in the end it just gives up in way that seems designed to rub people wrong, and make them shake their heads.

A stoic Selma Hayak plays Beatriz, a masseuse who finds herself stranded at one of her rich client’s (Connie Britton) house, a McMansion in a gated community because her car won’t start after their session. Britton’s Kathy, an aging trophy wife, invites Beatriz to stay for dinner, despite her husband’s (David Warshofsky) objections.

Beatriz meets the snooty other guests including Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny as Warshofsky’s business partner and wife, who are celebrating a big real estate deal with John Lithgow as a wicked Trump-like tycoon, who initially mistakes Beatriz for the help. Beatriz says she recognizes Lithgow’s character, whose name is Doug Strutt (he’s the only one in the film who has a last name) from somewhere, so she keeps trying to place him.

The tension escalates at dinner with Beatriz getting more and more offended at all of the glib, self-congratulatory chit-chat that Strutt and his fawning sycophants are continuously spouting while condescending to her. It comes to a head when Strutt shows off a cellphone picture of a rhinoceros he shot and killed on a hunting expedition in Africa. Beatriz throws his phone at Strutt and calls him “sick!”

There is some juicy material here but screenwriter Mike White’s dialogue just skates across the icy surface of possibilities. I kept preparing myself to enjoyably cringe during several edgy scenes, but kept being let down at how the film doesn’t dig deep into these people’s opposing philosophies. 
All of these characters, even Beatriz, are caricatures so there’s no real meat to the matter. No stirring arguments are presented, no revelations are exposed, nothing really interesting happens. 

And the ending is baffling. No spoilers but it caps off an unpleasant experience in a dreary manner that I bet most people will find to be extremely unsatisfying. BEATRIZ AT DINNER is a wasted opportunity to say something profound about class distinctions, race relations, and human nature. It promises dinner but all it can gather is a meager, meaningless meal.

More later...

Friday, June 09, 2017

The Dark Universe Franchise Kicks Off With THE MUMMY, Which Isn't Even Matinee Worthy

Now playing at a multiplex near everybody:

THE MUMMY (Dir. Alex Kurtzman, 2017)

Until recently, I was unaware that there is a new cinematic franchise in the works involving rebooting the Universal Monsters. A massive interlocking series featuring movies starring Dracula, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon is planned under the name “Dark Universe,” as in, ‘look out, Marvel! Dark Universe is coming to overshadow you big-time!’

Not so fast, DU, as your inaugural release, THE MUMMY is a dud on arrival. Without a single scare, it fails at horror; without any genuine thrills or excitement, it fails at suspense; without any charm or depth, it fails at romance and drama; and with very few laughs, it fails at comedy too. There’s no genre it succeeds in! Even its visual imagery, which looks washed out and flat (and I saw it in 3D), is dreary, with no oomph.

I kept wishing that Tom Cruise had just made another MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie instead, as just about everything he does in this film – death defying airplane acrobatics, outrunning sand storms, dodging gunfire through chaotic chase sequences – he’s done so much better in that series.

So this film, which is so not connected to the Brendan Fraser MUMMY franchise (R.I.P. 1999-2008), concerns an Egyptian goddess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, giving it her all but still not very scary) cursing Cruise as a brash graverobber, who along with his army buddy Jake Johnson, just happened to come across her tomb in modern day Iraq. After his wise-cracking role in JURASSIC WORLD and now this, maybe Johnson’s forte will be to be the comic relief on the sidelines in big ass fantasy action movies.

The cast is rounded out by Annabelle Wallis as an exposition-spouting archeologist, and possible love interest for Cruise, and, more importantly, a low key Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, who my friend Fonvielle of Filmvielle told me will be like the Nick Fury character in the Marvel movies – the connective tissue between all the projected entries.

Thing is, Marvel built their cinematic universe bit by bit, movie by movie, before branding itself so blatantly. Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury appeared for the first time in an after credits scene (something that Marvel might as well trademark) to hint at a future framework involving the Avengers, etc, but THE MUMMY begins with a “Dark Universe” title that hasn’t been earned. They’re trying too hard to make an all-new Universal Monsters series immediately happen, but it’s way too soon for it to really be “a thing” yet.

Especially as I predict that WONDER WOMAN, in its second week of release, is going to kick its ass. Hell, the much buzzed about horror indie IT COMES AT NIGHT might even trounce it. I bet that one has legitimate scares in it too.

So, in conclusion – Dark Universe, keep your pants on! You’re getting way ahead of yourself says this lowly blogger. And Cruise – make another MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, EDGE OF TOMORROW, or even a JACK REACHER movie instead of getting aboard this silly franchise wannabe. Even the TOP GUN sequel that he’s talked about recently is a more appealing prospect than another entry in this convoluted mess of monster movies that Universal is cooking up (or re-heating).

THE MUMMY isn’t even worth the price of a matinee or the admission for a second run screening. Wait for it to come to Redbox or Netflix, then skip it there too.

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Friday, June 02, 2017

WONDER WOMAN Does The Iconic Superheroine Justice

Now playing at multiplexes everywhere:

WONDER WOMAN (Dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)

It’s no secret that the implementation of the DC Extended Universe hasn’t been a critical success so far. The first three entries – MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and SUICIDE SQUAD – have been chaotic fiascos with cluttered storylines, mishandled mythology, and poorly drawn characters that it was near impossible to care about.

But there was the glimmer of light that was the introduction of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in B V S, and that gave hope that her solo movie, opening today, would be the first actually good movie of the DCEU.

Well, that hope has been satisfied as WONDER WOMAN is a wonderful (sorry, couldn’t resist) crowd pleaser that breathes new life into the franchise. A radiant Gadot owns the screen as the iconic superhero, bringing kick-ass charisma, fearless finesse, and a knowing wit to her role. She’s joined by Chris Pine, trading his Starfleet Captain attire for a U.S. Army Air Force Captain uniform, as Steve Trevor, who crashes his plane near the island of Themyscira, the land of the Amazons, while being chased by German soldiers.

Before this, we see little Diana (as played at different ages by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) training with her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright, who’s having a great week with this and season five of House of Cards dropping on Netflix), in secret as her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) disapproves.

Fully grown and ready to rumble, Diana rescues Steve from drowning, fights the attacking Germans, then travels with Steve to find Ares the Greek god of War, who she thinks is responsible for World War I.

Diana and Steve travel to London, where he gives the film’s McGuffin – a notebook which he stole from German chemist Dr. Maru aka Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), which has chemical formulas for gasses powerful enough to destroy gas masks – to Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) of the Imperial War Cabinet.

After getting outfitted in proper period dress with the help of Steve’s secretary (the British Office’s Lucy Davis making the comic most of her limited screentime) the duo travel to the frontline with a ragtag crew, including Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, that reminded me of the scrappy rebel team that was assembled for the heist in ROGUE ONE.

Diana believes that the sinister General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is Ares so she aims to kill him, but she doesn’t realize that this is one of those movies that has a secret bad guy in it to provide a third act twist.

With her 
shield, bullet-proof bracelets, and lasso of truth (not to mention her “God Killer” sword), Wonder Woman fights her way through gunfire, explosions, and all the spectacle that you’d come to expect from a summer blockbuster, but with an energy and gusto that stands up to some of Marvel’s best action sequences. The dark, gritty textures of the film’s look (courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen), also give the proceedings gravitas that compares favorably with their comic book movie competitors.

One of my only complaints is that at two hours and 20 minutes is a bit too long. A few scenes drag and couldve been cut down with no loss of narrative, but as it is an origin story, I bet the filmmakers thought its epic length was justified.

But Gadot and Pine’s palpable chemistry, which has an element of screwball in their between action set-piece banter, keeps the film's formula flowing for the most part. 

Its great that WONDER WOMAN was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, partly because it would just feel wrong if it wasn’t, but really because judging by her filmography (MONSTER, episodes of Arrested Development, The Killing) she’s much more talented than Zach Snyder, who’s to blame for two of the aforementioned epic fails of the DCEU, but to be fair, Snyder did co-contribute to this films story. 

Wonder Woman will return in the next DC entry, JUSTICE LEAGUE, due out later this year, but since Snyder is helming that, my expectations are very low. I’m betting that Jenkins does the iconic superheroine a lot better 
justice here.

More later...