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Dinner With Beatriz

What’s there to like?

To be honest, Dinner With Beatriz started a little slow for me. I wasn’t quite hooked in. Salma Hayek is more off-putting than appealing as a frumpy holistic healer. But then Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny (what a pair!) show up as a striving, hopeful, 1%-wannabe couple, and I knew I would enjoy this thing.

The story, centrally, is about a fish out of water. Wealthy people are having a dinner party to celebrate a business deal that will make them all a lot of money. Hayek’s Beatriz, comparatively much poorer, ends up attending the party because she gave a massage to the hostess earlier in the day and her car wouldn’t start.

And while a primary way Beatriz is different from her dinner mates is social class, there are other differences too. She’s got a soft spot for the weak and oppressed, be they animals or people. She doesn’t seem to have very good manners. She grew up in Mexico. And all those factors come into play in making the party less successful than hoped.

I haven’t even mentioned John Lithgow and Connie Britton yet, but they’re central and wonderful. Mike White’s screenplay brings nice complexity in showing how strong convictions don’t always make you right.

What’s not to like?

Well, the screenplay’s complexity can also be a little confusing towards the end. I left not quite being able to figure out what the movie was trying to convey. That’s partly a good thing–I like leaving with something to think about–but sometimes it’s a little much.

Also. There’s an ending that’s extra confusing.  I had so many lingering questions. Just too many, really. Seemed out of character. And I guess I’ll leave it at that.

The Verdict

A fish out of water, culture clash movie that shows everyone sharing the blame for a crappy evening–even the supposedly moral ones.

Fine

[cross posted at loganbeaux.com]

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

What’s there to like?

Well we have a fifth(!) installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The first trio was surprisingly enjoyable. And the fourth, lagging behind by a few years, pulled together a nice victory lap. Johnny Depp did his thing, and Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane brought enough pizzazz to make it fun.

And now we have a fifth, subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales. So how is it? Continue Reading

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The Wizard of Lies

What’s there to like?

Biopics have a hard row to hoe, at least as far as I’m concerned. There are the facts of the story to deal with, characters to develop, and only a couple hours to do it in. The Wizard of Lies largely manages to rise above a lot of that and deliver some nice touches.

The best decision they made was to focus on Bernie Madoff’s personal and family life through the ordeal. Obviously the scandal had tragic reverberations that affected lots of innocent people, but the family effects were where the drama was. Continue Reading

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

What’s there to like?

Puzzlingly, I find myself having not seen very many Guy Ritchie movies. In fact, The Man from U.N.C.L.E just might be the only one. From the buzz (and counterbuzz) surrounding King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, I was worried I might not take to it.

I’m happy to say, I got it. I got Ritchie’s point of view. He certainly swung for the fences on this one. Some may consider it a strikeout, but for my money, he connected. The big-swing point of view mainly comes down to two things, in my view.

Continue Reading

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The Circle


What’s there to like?

I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Dave Eggers is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and I loved this novel. I’ve also liked Eggers adaptations in the past, like A Hologram For the King.

And, in fact, there were some things that benefited quite a bit from the movie medium. For example, the creep of conformity. Being able to look around and see everyone else buying into something and how easy it is to slide right in.

I’m also enjoying Emma Watson’s expanding repertoire and range–Hermione who?–even if at times I could hear her really working hard on that American accent.

And there were some wonderful moments, such as when Mae (Watson) is confronted by concerned Circlers about why on Earth she wouldn’t be socializing and sharing more. So many choices! They’re optional, of course (but why aren’t you doing anything?). And it’s all just for fun (but seriously, do it)!

What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, while it’s fun to see a favorite novel adapted, there’s a lot that didn’t quite gel here. For one, the tone. In the book, the vision and scope of the Circle’s ideas were inspiring and intoxicating for the most part, with only tiny worries presenting themselves little by little. In the movie, everything is creepy as hell pretty much from the beginning. There just wasn’t enough time to build the premise properly, perhaps?

And Tom Hanks, for being maybe the most charming man in history, is awfully . . . not very charming here. And he’s playing a guy who supposedly runs on charm. I’m not saying Hanks half-assed this role, but I’m not saying he didn’t, either.

Overall, there are just too many ideas packed in here for most of them to be dealt with adequately. The movie failed to capture what it set out to. And it’s too bad.

The Verdict

It’s nice to see a movie aim big, tackling timely and relevant issues and well written fiction. But it’s even nicer when a movie connects with its aim. And The Circle didn’t.

Fine

[Cross-posted at loganbeaux.com.]

 

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Manchester By the Sea

What’s to like?

It can throw you off, as a critic, when a movie’s themes hit close to home. Will everyone be affected this way, or is it just me, I ask? Casey Affleck, playing Lee in Manchester by the Sea, has to travel from the big city back to the smaller community where he grew up when life gets crazy. But as specifically parallel as that experience is to my life, it’s also universal–even archetypal–in its relatability. So let’s go ahead and chalk that one up in the plus column. Same with Lee’s small but meaningful growth from a person looking out only for number one to a person who realizes he’s happier if he considers what someone else wants. Hell, come to think of it, at this rate I guess we’ll call this an age-old tale. Continue Reading

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Miss Sloane

What’s there to like?

Jessica Chastain, plain and simple. For my money, she just might be the best out there in terms of actresses in their prime, and she brings it here. Power, vulnerability, intelligence–she radiates it all as she plays a fancy DC lobbyist on a gun control case.

So much of Miss Sloane is complex and deserving of a mixed assessment. For me, though, the rest of this review nets out to be below the “liked” line.

What’s not to like?

As much as I loved watching Chastain, well, you know how it’s sometimes hard to separate the parts of a movie for awards, like, say, directing vs. screenplay? Did that movie live or die during casting? Or, in this case, did I love that character because of the actor or the writer? To me, Miss Sloane is a great example of a mediocre screenplay being knocked out of the park by a great performance.

Sloane was so cryptic, yet compelling. Was every flash of emotion on her face simply a ruse she was projecting? I can’t say. What’s her real deal–is she just a mercenary, up for the highest bidder, or the most passionate person on Earth about something she cares about? I’ve seen the whole movie and I still have no idea. And I have mixed feelings about the not-knowing. So the way I’m reconciling this in my mind is to attribute the good parts to Chastain, and pin the blame on writer Jonathan Perera, for the bad parts, fair or not.

There’s of course the fact that the movie takes a definite political stance on a relevant issue. Always dangerous, and I might be more sensitive than most to politics in movies–even when I agree with a position I usually hate the case laid out for it. Sure, the issue was watered down to be as benign as possible, but it will still be somewhat polarizing.

And let’s talk about the plot a bit. There were lots of twists. I mean: LOTS OF TWISTS. The details of which, of course, being the kind of thing I try to avoid mentioning in a review. But I can report that there were too many. I eventually just checked out in terms of emotional investment because it felt like nothing mattered. Anything potentially relevant would be subsumed into the master plan as a diversionary tactic, or at least nullified by the next random-seeming left-turn. And still, by the end, there was a nice, tidy bow placed on everything. It’s like, oh, this all seemed messy and crazy, but it was under control the whole time. The movie’s deception wasn’t that we couldn’t see what happen next; it was that we were chumps for worrying about anything at all.

I think it wants to think about wrestle with the old question of whether the ends justify the means. But Miss Sloane turns out to be a fairly moralistic tale: people on one team end up getting what they fight for, with ultimately little sacrifice or consequence.

The Verdict

Jessica Chastain props up, but can’t ultimately elevate, this political movie whose misdirections turn out to be too clever by half and that offers nihilism in place of balance.

Fine

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Arrival

What’s there to like?

Arrival is a good ol’ fashioned thought-experiment style sci-fi story. One of those that begins by asking what if? and playing things out. In this case, the what-if is about aliens visiting the Earth–with all the confusion, uncertainty, and fear that would entail–and humanity’s struggle to communicate with them. Always nice to have some thought provoked.

For those of us who love language, this is a wet dream. Who knew a linguist could save the world? Don’t you dare tell me my liberal arts degree won’t come in handy!

The performances are good: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker all breathe life into their characters and represent their sometimes conflicting, sometimes converging interests. Adams and Renner–Louise and Ian–have solid chemistry. Renner in particular I found riveting–he subtly surprised me with some of this choices, showing some range compared to his other work.

Director Denis Villaneuve and writer Eric Heisserer construct a nice story, with a twinge of horror-like tension, and an earned payoff that’s set up nicely.

What’s not to like?

Two things, mainly. Although I’ll tip my cap to the buildup to the plot’s reveal, there’s a mystical component to how things play out. I’m not opposed to that kind of payoff in principle, but it’s a delicate needle to thread, and this one doesn’t satisfy my need for coherence, even if I’m trying to be generous to forces we don’t understand.

The other thing is that Ian, though played ably by Renner, is an inconsistent and contradictory character. His stated purpose–representing the scientific approach to learning about the aliens–is minimized or tossed aside for the most part. He didn’t need to be a scientist at all to play his part–just had to be a nice, reasonably smart dude supporting Louise’s greatness. What’s that– you’re trying to tell me it’s just a gender role reversal and normally the woman is defined by being the helpmate? Yeah, I won’t say you’re wrong. Still, I’m marking it down as a con rather than a pro or even a neutral.

The Verdict

Arrival is an enjoyable sci-fi movie, well-executed and widely accessible. It’ll get you thinking, and keep you entertained with taut story and solid acting. Hell, some may even like the twist more than I did. It’s certainly a thumbs up from me.

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