By Noah Gittell

The dinner party movie has been a staple of cinema for half a century, starting perhaps with Luis Bunuel’s cutting critique of the aristocracy, 1962’s “The Exterminating Angel.” As a genre, it’s preferred by directors with a bone to pick with the upper class, and why not? It is an exclusively elitist social function but with a democratic twist: Around a dinner table with strangers and friends, each person takes up the same large fraction of the common space. Some might see it as an opportunity.

In recent years, with screenwriters having a difficult time bankrolling any film that doesn’t feature a superhero, the genre has become popular due to its low budget and easy shooting schedule. “Beatriz at Dinner” has both goals in mind. It uses its modest budget to stage a simple but powerful confrontation between two classes, two ideals, and two magnificent actors.

For the creators of this comically tense film, the dinner party is an opportunity for economic and spiritual justice. The film pits Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a healer and homeopath who is recovering from her own childhood traumas, against the impeccably named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a narcissistic, entitled real estate magnate who would not normally be caught dead in the same room as Beatriz, unless perhaps she were wearing a maid’s uniform.

Their meeting takes place at the home of Grant (David Warshofsky) and Cathy (Connie Britton), whose daughter survived cancer with Beatriz’s help and who have benefited from their association with Strutt. After massaging Cathy, Beatriz is set to leave, but her car breaks down, and Cathy encourages her to stay for dinner. She’s not a member of the family, but Cathy likes to treat her like one, and that blurry demarcation becomes painfully clear over the course of their evening.

Screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta hit some notes that will be familiar to fans of their first collaboration, “Chuck and Buck,” a dark indie about an emotionally stunted young man who intrudes on the perfect life of his childhood friend. Their natural feel for class issues was also evidenced in their second collaboration, “The Good Girl,” which starred Jennifer Aniston as a Wal-Mart employee. The early scenes in which the guests arrive expose the facade Cathy has created; she and her friends show an interest in Beatriz, but only as it relates to their life. When they learn Beatriz is a homeopath, they each launch into monologues about their own issues with health and diet, and Beatriz is left to smile, nod, and be generally horrified by their narcissism.

Soon, she meets a narcissist she cannot brush off so easily. Although the film was written two years ago, Strutt is unmistakably a Trump avatar. He is a real estate developer with no regard for the little people. He refuses to pay workers a living wage. He pollutes the environment. He kills endangered species. It’s this last bit that sets Beatriz off. An animal lover grieving a lost pet, seeing a photo of Strutt next to a murdered rhinocerous sets up a confrontation that promises deep satisfaction for any viewer who has ever felt the desperate frustration of going up against an immovable political foe.

While the film’s critique of the ruling class is sharp and focused, the script smartly doesn’t turn Beatriz into a savior. She has little social grace. At dinner, she speaks at length about her upbringing in Mexico, well past the point of appropriateness. She drinks too much, which is surely a cause of her eventual outburst. Strutt symbolizes all that has oppressed Beatriz, but the film also critiques her fixation on him. Hayek’s characterization of Beatriz walks a razor-thin line between heroic and unhinged, which helps fill out a story that could be a bit too allegorical to be truly compelling.

It’s a brilliant set-up, but the story is admittedly a little thin. The screenplay could have given Doug more depth to balance the scales a bit, but if that’s your chief complaint, then “Beatriz at Dinner” was simply not made for you.

At its most satisfying, film can offer catharsis, but at its best, it offers exploration. If we ever found ourselves face-to-face with the personification of evil, what would we do about it? “Beatriz at Dinner” toys with every possibility, letting viewers explore these feelings within themselves.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

By Noah Gittell

“A Quiet Passion” is a chilly, detached affair, just as Emily Dickinson would have preferred it. The first biopic of Dickinson, one of the greatest American artists, is not particularly interested in her playfully haunting poetry. We get snippets of it here and there, but this isn’t one of those films in which the subject’s wretched personal life is redeemed by artistic success. Dickinson was only redeemed in death, an intense form of suffering that Cynthia Nixon (currently co-starring in “The Little Foxes” at the Manhattan Theatre Club) evokes with emotional specificity. Tortured by her feelings, her face remains composed in the guise of immortality, but her eyes burn with earthly suffering. It’s a masterful performance in a masterful film.

Terence Davies, who both directed and wrote the script, has found in Dickinson a perfect vehicle for his own creative affinities, chief among them is the struggle with death. In “The Deep Blue Sea” and last year’s magnificent “Sunset Song,” he demonstrated with raw emotion the impact of war. “A Quiet Passion” touches on this subject, as well. Dickinson’s brother wishes to fight in the Civil War, but his father forbids it. Nonetheless, Davies stops the action to visit the most blood-soaked battlefields, complete with onscreen text informing the viewer of how many lost their lives there.

To some, this may feel like an unnecessary sidebar. After all, what does the Battle of Gettysburg have to do with Emily Dickinson’s suffering? In truth everything. The film paints Dickinson as an acutely sensitive person who feels beset on all sides by evidence of her mortality. As a teenager, she leaves Mount Holyoke Seminary and College having neither embraced nor rejected its fire-and-brimstone teachings. For her, the specter of death is ever-present. After visiting an elderly relative, she bids her adieu while holding back tears, despite no evidence of her impending demise.

After one of the most arresting and unique passage-of-time sequences in recent films, Dickinson emerges as an adult, now fearful of a different kind of loss. She makes friends with Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a local single woman who has dedicated herself to the art of repartee. In every exchange, she is ready with a barb or quip, which makes the first half of “A Quiet Passion,” in which she dominates the frame, delightful in its clever dialogue. Buffam, Emily, and Emily’s sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) revel in their relative youth, gossiping together and speculating about their future husbands.

Of course Dickinson is destined not to have one. When Buffam finally marries, it’s a chilling moment for Dickinson, who sees any loss as a metaphor for the larger one awaiting us all. When her parents become ill and die, she isolates herself for good. She hides in her room, speaking to visitors who must shout to be heard from the bottom of her stairs. Her affinity for a clever turn-of-phrase, so evident in her poetry, is expressed in bitter judgment and envy of her peers and family members. In a sense, “A Quiet Passion” is a deconstruction of the Victorian romance drama that trades on quick wit and flirtatious dialogue. The film demonstrates that a mastery of language can bring about small pleasures, but it cannot redeem life’s loneliness.

Dickinson may see herself as a victim, but Davies refuses to depict her that way. She lashes out in cruelty at those who don’t meet her ethical standards, and, in these moments, it is difficult to enjoy her company. Then we see how deeply slighted she feels at the slightest bit of indifference, how her sense of pride both keeps her upright and pushes away those who could truly support her. This complex characterization would be impossible without an actor of Nixon’s emotional courage. Most actors prefer to be likeable, or they play characters that are so cartoonishly unlikeable that we live vicariously through them as if in a fantasy. Both are attractive propositions.

As opposed to the fawning portrayals that many biopics rely on, Nixon gives a richly textured and human performance. She shows every shade in Dickinson’s palette, her screaming reds and her cool, distant blues. In doing so, she creates real sympathy and understanding. It’s a moving tribute to an artist who steadfastly refused to ignore life’s unbearable realities.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

A Great Performance Can’t Redeem “Churchill”

By Noah Gittell

In troubling times, we crave stories of brave leaders and courageous politicians. Perhaps that’s why there are two films about Winston Churchill this year, the upcoming “Darkest Hour,” and Oscar hopeful starring Gary Oldman and directed by Joe Wright, and the less-prestigious “Churchill,” in theaters now.

Unfortunately, the leadership depicted in “Churchill” never feels real enough to be compelling or inspiring. The film starts strong but quickly devolves into hagiography, with obvious metaphors and scene-chewing performances that feel more appropriate for the stage than the subtle confines of the screen (especially when you consider the film’s limited release, meaning most will see it on their TV, laptop, or tablet).

Its most insightful depiction of England’s famous prime minister comes in its opening scenes. Churchill (Brian Cox) awakens from a drunken slumber, gets dressed, and begins rehearsing a speech in front of a mirror. He labors over a word choice. Should he refer to the “trials” of England’s brave troops or their “tribulations”? He then travels to a private meeting with General Eisenhower (a badly miscast John Slattery) and King George VI (James Purefoy) to discuss Operation Overlord, or what history called the D-Day landing. He strenuously opposes the operation, asking his King to consider the “trials and tribulations” his troops have gone through. Turns out all that preparation was for an audience of one.

Churchill’s pleas go unheeded, and the operation is set to commence in four days. Director Jonathan Teplitzsky frames his story as a countdown, frequently reminding the audience of the time limits, while Churchill scrambles to stop what he perceives as a risky strategy. Apparently, there is much debate over the accuracy of this film’s depiction. To the public, Churchill was a staunch supporter of the D-Day operation, and historians have already taken issues with Teplitzky’s version of the story. 

It’s a good thing that the film isn’t particularly interested in its politics. Instead, it’s a story of aging and obsolescence. Despite his great intelligence, political prowess, and military experience, Churchill finds himself beset on all sides by doubters and critics. Eisenhower treats him like a relic, and even his wife (Miranda Richardson) undermines him. Churchill responds by raging against the dying of the light. He decides that he and the King will physically lead the men into battle, but the King, in a scene sporting bizarrely romantic overtones, refuses. “The anxiety of the coming days would be greatly increased,” he tells him in a soft, soulful voice, “if there were even the slightest chance of losing you.”

The one thing the film gets right is the thing it absolutely must: Cox is perfect as Churchill. The veteran British actor finds the universal humanity in the legendary figure, depicting Churchill simply as a man grappling with the anxieties of old age. In his most wounded moments, Cox shows the dignity and grace in his pain. When enraged, we see the pain his anger is masking. It’s a performance that deserves a better film, or perhaps a one-man show. I could see Cox commanding our attention on his own for two hours, much like Philip Baker Hall did as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s brilliant “Secret Honor”.
But the film around Cox is just not up to snuff. As the main antagonist, Slattery can’t hide his natural smarminess, or rather he has nothing to replace it with. Richardson acquits herself well in the underwritten role of the put-upon wife of the self-involved politician, but she has sadly little to do but support her man, both the character and the actor.

It’s a disappointing but not expected entry in Teplitzky’s filmography. The director of “The Railway Man” certainly has a niche: films that look and sound like prestige pictures but don’t have the story or narrative competence to measure up. In the end, the film is as much a constraint on Churchill and his legacy as his real-world antagonists were. “You’re the most powerful man in the world,” King George tells him at one point,” and you’re not allowed to do anything at all.” Maybe in a better film he would have been.

My Rating: Skip it altogether

By Noah Gittell

Do you find it funny when an elderly person engages in petty theft? When they do drugs? When they have enthusiastic, energetic sex? If so, you’ll love “Going in Style,” a minimally amusing remake of the 1979 cult favorite, starring George Burns, about a trio of elderly friends who rob a bank. The new version adds a surface layer of topicality to its clichéd narrative skeleton. The friends, played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, have lost their pensions due to corporate maneuvering. They are America’s forgotten working-class, but the film doesn’t take their plight seriously. “A society has a responsibility to take care of its elderly,” says one character, but the film doesn’t mean it. It’s more interested in laughing at the idea that older people can be just as irresponsible as teen-agers.

Still, the reason films like “Going in Style” – and there are many others in the old-folks-behaving-badly canon – remain watchable is because they routinely cast Hollywood’s best and most experienced actors. Michael Caine hasn’t anchored a big Hollywood film since “Secondhand Lions” in 2003, and he does a remarkable job here as Joe, a grandfather and widower who comes up with the idea of robbing a bank after surviving a similar heist. After he and his friends calculate the severity of their financial future without a pension to rely on, he convinces them that a robbery is their only chance forward – and if they fail, well, at least they’ll get free room and board for the rest of their lives.

As Joe, Caine uses his full arsenal of acting styles, playing the kindly grandfather, loyal friend, and, in a few key moments, even the Cockney lowlife he first became famous for in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He’s certainly most believable as a criminal, while Freeman turns in another lazy performance as Willie, Joe’s best friend. It’s not quite clear why Freeman ever turned to comedy in the first place, as he has no particular talent for it or comedic persona to display. Perhaps it’s because the only role Hollywood has to offer for senior citizens these days. To wit, Arkin turns out a similar performance to his work in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Stand-Up Guys.” Unlike Freeman, however, the power of his deadpan personality makes him fun to watch even when offering a less-than-unique performance.

Beyond the significant star power on display, there is little to recommend, as the film proceeds along achingly predictable lines. After Joe survives a bank robbery in the first scene, the seed is planted, but it takes a series of misfortunes for him to convince his friends to join him in planning their own caper. First, their pension fund gets dissolved after a corporate merger. Then, Joe’s mortgage rate skyrockets after his “teaser rate” expires.

Finally, Willie receives a dire medical prognosis, and the two of them convince Albert (Arkin) to join them. Following a clichéd training sequence that involves a trial run at a local supermarket, a visit with a local drug dealer in which the characters end up with the “munchies,” and a mercifully brief trip to the shooting range, they’re off to the bank to make their illicit withdrawal. The heist and its tense aftermath are directed with sharp playfulness by Zach Braff, who, after a pair of bizarre indie films (“Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here”) may have a future making mediocre studio comedies.

In the end, we can complain about the film’s unoriginality, its lazy cliches about the elderly, and perhaps even its lack of a reason to exist at all, but the difficult truth is that “Going in Style” basically achieves what it sets out to. It doesn’t aspire to change the world or tell us anything new about the plight of the elderly. It picks a few pieces of low-hanging fruit and asks us all to share in a satisfying, warmly familiar meal. It won’t satisfy you for long, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Who knows how much time any of us really have left?

My Rating: Put it on your Queue

Richard Gere Shines as a Shadowy Fixer in “Norman”

By Noah Gittell

Last month, the Hollywood Reporter ran a profile on actor Richard Gere explaining why the star doesn’t appear in any big Hollywood movies these days. Turns out it is the closest thing we have seen to a modern-day blacklist. The studios are as reliant as ever on box office from China, whose censorship boards refuse to approve films starring the actor who once drew so much attention to their occupation of Tibet. For those too young to remember, Gere was an outspoken critic of China in the 1990s. He became a Buddhist, railed against China in an off-script Academy Awards speech, and even made a film, 1997’s “Red Corner”, that exposed the country’s crimes against journalists.

For fans of independent film, however, the ban is a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t want to see an actor of Gere’s caliber wasted as a Marvel villain or aging Jedi, anyway. I’d much rather see him in 2014’s “Time out of Mind,” in which he played a New York homeless man, or the just-released “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” Gere gives a remarkably complex performance in a film that is a little too ambitious for its own good. “Norman” isn’t great, but it’s bad in interesting ways, and Gere’s grounded performance of a visibly eccentric character keeps the film watchable.

With his ears pushed out and hair brushed down, Gere transforms himself into what we in the Jewish community call a nebbish. But he’s a nebbish with chutzpah. He spends his days trying to put together vaguely defined deals that rely on him charming high-powered businessmen and politicians into deals that only work if a variety of other players also buy in. Norman finagles his way into the lives of very important people – like the deputy prime minister of Israel – and makes promises he cannot keep, hoping that he can keep all his balls in the air through sheer confidence alone.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. There is a heartbreaking scene in which he gets kicked out of a private party at a hedge fund manager’s home. The usually garrulous Norman goes silent at the humiliation, retreating into himself in a way the Gere of yesteryear would never have done. But when he meets and charms an Israeli government official (Lior Ashkenazi) in Manhattan, it appears that his scattershot approach to business may pay off. Three years later, that official has become the Prime Minister of Israel, and Norman worms his way back into his life, hoping to parlay his connections into raising money to save his local synagogue and perhaps get a little something for his troubles. Still, it’s never about the money for Norman. He harbors an innate desire to be accepted by high society and finally be the man of his word that he always claims to be.

It’s a perfect role for the actor who has, in recent years, specialized in playing smooth-talking con artists trying to hold it together as the walls close in. As a man peddling a fake biography of Howard Hughes in “The Hoax” and a tragedy-afflicted Wall Street trader in “Arbitrage”, Gere effortlessly exudes the pathos of men whose charm only gets them so far. With Norman, he digs deeper to uncover the deep insecurity hiding behind his often-sleazy persona. Director Joseph Cedar films Gere – and everyone else – in uncomfortably tight close-ups, and often edges him into the frame, like an outside intruding on someone else’s story. It creates a tantalizing dynamic in which we are charmed by Norman in spite of our discomfort, much like the supporting characters in the film.

For the first hour, in which we slowly piece together the contradictions of the character’s existence, “Norman” is riveting. Yet I’m not sure I can recall a film that went further off the rails in the second half. At its midway point, the Prime Minister delivers a monologue about his personal belief in compromise and his commitment to create peace in the Middle East. It feels wildly out of place and hints at the thematic turmoil that defines the film’s second half.

How to explain this dramatic shift? One reason could be that “Norman” was made by an Israeli director with money from the Israel Film Fund. Politics aside, it’s clear that there was pressure on the filmmaker – either from within or without – to make “Norman” about more than just a man. This misguided attempt at polemic results in a viewing experience that perfectly mirrors the contours of its character: watching “Norman”, you will experience a moderate rise and a tragic fall.

My Rating: <Put it on Your Queue>

By Noah Gittell

In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans flocked to spaghetti westerns like “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Compared to their predecessors in the genre, they were far more violent, with an amorality reflected in the the darkness of their times. Their audience was a generation that grew up cynical following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and the spaghetti western reflected their disillusionment. It was hard to see any hope for the future in their dark and dusty onscreen worlds, which made every tiny scrap of humanity displayed on screen stand out.

“Logan”, the new and perhaps final Wolverine movie starring Hugh Jackman, is a superhero flick that thinks it’s a western. The obvious reference point here is “Shane.” There is a violent sequence at a family farm that recalls the great 1953 western, and, for those who don’t get subtlety, there’s one scene in which the characters literally watch “Shane” on a hotel room television. But I thought more about spaghetti westerns when I was watching “Logan,” a film whose superhero is more of an anti-hero, and whose setting reflects our own troubled times.

Wolverine has always been a reluctant superhero, but he’s never had a less grandiose job than he does at the start of “Logan.” When we catch up to him, he’s working as a chauffeur, toting around drunken groups of young men and women for a few bucks. He uses that cash to take care of his old mentor Professor X (an affecting Patrick Stewart), who is suffering from dementia. Caring for an older loved one is always difficult, but tending to the world’s most powerful brain as it starts to deteriorate presents some unique challenges. The professor is prone to seizures, which have a literally paralyzing effect on those around him. Logan spends his free time retrieving the old man’s medication, and making sure that X’s albino nurse (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant tracker for the government, keeps him alive.

This isn’t “Tuesdays with Morrie,” however, and it wouldn’t be much of a western if trouble didn’t come a-calling. A young, silent girl from Mexico shows up on Logan’s doorstep, and when a cadre of bad guys dressed in black and sporting enormous guns come to retrieve her, we learn that she has more in common with Logan than her bad attitude. From there, “Logan” morphs into a road movie, as Logan and Xavier try to get this dangerous young girl to a sanctuary in Canada.

Now, we’ve seen gritty superhero movies before (“The Dark Knight”) and we’ve seen violent ones (“Deadpool”), but rarely have we seen one this violent and this gritty, while simultaneously feeling like the most authentic depiction yet of a well-tread superhero character. In previous films, Wolverine’s animalistic nature only shows up for a few fleeting moments. Here, finally, is a film that embodies and embraces his brutal, tortured spirit, and it will surely be the stuff of dreams for longtime fans of the character.

That’s not to say it’s an easy watch, or always an engaging one. Seeing so many people die onscreen – and in such gruesome ways – has a desensitizing effect, which might be okay if the film didn’t also want us to care deeply about its characters. This is a trend in recent films. Movies like “John Wick” and its recent sequel rack up huge body counts but have a sentimental core. Some people seem to be okay with it. Watching “Logan,” I found myself shutting down fairly early on after seeing so much blood spilt.

Then again, maybe that’s appropriate. The character of Wolverine was originally conceived in the late 1970s, and was widely seen as part of a trend of anti-heroes that followed the Vietnam Era. In troubling times, anti-heroes speak to our political disillusionment, and “Logan” doesn’t shy away from political subtext. The notion of a Mexican girl crossing America to find sanctuary in Canada feels politically pointed, as does a weird subplot about genetically-modified food (related to the farm scene). With such threats polarizing the nation and partisan tension at seemingly all-time highs, many Americans may in fact feel torn between a violent rampage against their enemies and staying home to hang out with their family. Maybe the problem wasn’t that filmmakers kept getting Wolverine wrong. Maybe his time just had not yet come.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

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