Salma Hayek Beatriz at Dinner Movie

* * (out of five)

I found Beatriz At Dinner excruciating to sit through, even at a very slender 82 minutes. I’m extremely sensitive to social awkwardness, and this film is stuffed with it. Cringe comedy, I can do; unlike some people, I have no problem bingeing on two or three consecutive episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or the British version of The Office. But when actors are deftly playing painfully awkward social moments with realism, and not for laughs, I find it hard to bear.

In this case, the social milieu is that of the impeccably tasteful Californian gated-community coastal rich. Kathy (Connie Britton) is the perfectly poised, seemingly well-attuned wife of Grant (David Warshofsky), who is less likeable. They’re having two of his associates (and their partners) to dinner, to celebrate some sort of zoning or legal issue that will pave the way for ground being broken on a real estate project that will all make them all richer (and, to varying degrees, they are all already very rich). One of those associates is wildly richer than the others; he is a billionaire, Trump-rich, even Murdoch-rich. And he suffers from billionaire syndrome; he is so sheltered, so surrounded by sycophants, that he can pass around a triumphantly smiling photo of himself, in Africa, with a rifle and a large dead rhino that he has killed, and not worry about hearing anything but congratulations. He is, by most of the world’s reckoning, disgusting, and he is played with sickening charm (I’m sure guys like this are usually charming; they can afford to be) by John Lithgow, who is perfect casting for many reasons not least of which is his Trump-like height; he towers above all, as a benevolent bully should.

The odd one out at the table is Beatriz (Salma Hayek); she’s a “healer”, combining massage and many other holistic methods, particularly for cancer patients. She helped during Kathy and Grant’s daughter’s cancer (which has since gone into remission), and now occasionally comes by to give Kathy a massage. This afternoon, her car breaks down at their house, and she’s invited to stay for dinner, where she disrupts things aplenty.

Beatriz is a tricky character; she is annoyingly socially clumsy (talk about not being able to read a room!) but the heavy-handed script by Mike White forces her on us as nothing other than a paragon of virtue; she’s so noble, she may as well be a Saint or an Angel. Hayek’s odd performance doesn’t help matters; at times she makes Beatriz appear “simple” – also, perhaps, a fault of the script, especially if that is not the intention.

The milieu is impeccably depicted with superb telling observations – the maître d for the evening, played by John Early, is dressed in smart casual business rather than waiter attire, which rings very true as some cool thing at wealthy business dinner parties in California – and shot scrumptiously, the Californian haze creating the most perfect ocean-view dusk one could imagine. Indeed, the direction, by Miguel Arteta, does the best it possibly can with the script, but the script is an on-the-nose, ultimately annoying clanger, and if anyone can claim the ending as satisfying I’d love to hear their reasoning.

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* * * * (out of five)

Raoul Peck, a Haitian-born director who works primarily in France, doesn’t reinvent the documentary wheel with I Am Not Your Negro, but it’s very, very fresh, and if you’re at all interested in race relations – anywhere in the world – it’s absolutely worth seeing, if not a must-see.

Peck takes the American writer James Baldwin’s letter to his agent about, and first thirty pages from, Remember This House, his unfinished manuscript from 1979, gives an edited version to Samuel L. Jackson to record, and accompanies the resulting audio with images and archival footage of Baldwin, the civil rights movement across the United States, and whatever else he might fancy, to create a singularly original work, part portrait of Baldwin, part history of the racial struggle, part essay, part manifesto.

Indeed, perhaps most manifesto. Baldwin was angry; his words are furious, incredibly precise, beautifully powerful, and seething. Footage of the man himself includes his take-downs of various establishment pontificators that amply demonstrate his huge reserves of intellect, reason and compassion. What a man, he was, what a man!

Jackson’s reading of the material is brilliant. It’s not an impersonation, and it’s not “firebrand” Jackson, either; whatever it is, it works.

This is probably the doco of the year. Highly recommended.

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***

That’s Not Me, an extremely modest Australian film, is worth catching if you like to spot talent early. Its co-writer and lead actor, Alice Foulcher, is very, very funny, performing her own often wickedly witty lines with aplomb. It’s a delightful feature debut.

The film, shot over years, on weekends, in spurts, on the smell of an oily rag, is about a Melbourne actress, Polly (Foulcher), whose twin sister, Amy (also Foulcher) is experiencing a heady “moment”, transitioning, on the basis of a US Cable casting and a celebrity romance, from unknown to a face on many billboards. Polly’s response is not particularly likeable – there is envy, bitterness, and a whole lot of self-pity – but it’s real.

The script by Foulcher and director Gregory Erdstein is often laugh-out-loud funny and also has a lot to say about sibling rivalry, artistic self-delusion and the absurd acceleration and de-centralisation of “fame”. Unfortunately the production is not up to the same standard, and Foulcher is more often than not sharing the screen with actors far, far less competent than herself. But there’s a lot of heart and soul, along with serious blood, sweat and tears, in this ambitious effort, and, despite its clear budgetary limitations, it is very fresh. At the very least, you’ll have seen Foulcher at the moment her talent presented itself to the world, and it’s very big talent indeed.

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**

Contrary to the fine work of the Trailer Cutting Department at Warner Bros., It is not a scary movie. What It is, is a young-teens-on-bikes small-town-USA ‘80s-set adventure yarn, like Netflix’s Stranger Things, with which It shares much in common. Stranger Things, as an intellectual exercise, imagines a Stephen King-like story as directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on a Stephen King novel and is directed in the style of Steven Spielberg. Stranger Things is also better.

This is seriously against It’s interests, because Stranger Things got to us first, while It languished in extended Development Hell, and now – the true irony – It feels like a rip-off of Stranger Things! Oh well – Stranger Things have happened.

So is It worth seeing? Perhaps if you’re a young teen, like the protagonists of the story, it will give you a rollicking couple of hours. And if you’re an adult, it may scratch that god-darn Goonies itch, or even a Gremlins gremlin. But it’s unfortunately been so late in coming, it feels redundant and sub-par. It’s not as engaging as Stand By Me, ET, the aforementioned Stranger Things, or even Super 8 (2011), the film It is perhaps the closest kissing cousin to. That film was J.J. Abrams’ obvious homage to Spielberg; here, from young Argentine director Andy Muschietti (Mama), it’s less homage, more pure obvious influence. Abrams was lovingly aping a style; as far as we know, this is Muschietti’s style. Every frame of the film aches to remind you of another, much better, one.

King’s books and stories – there are a lot of them – have their ups and downs; there are classics and there are lesser works. As a general rule, though, he writes brilliantly effective scenes rather than perfectly constructed entire narratives, and It suffers from this aspect of his craft. It’s got a boatload of creepy moments and this filmed version, being quite faithful, is incredibly episodic, coming off as a series of set-pieces that hang together very loosely. “It” is a demon that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, every twenty-seven years. At its best – that is, its most memorable for readers and viewers – “It” appears as Pennywise, a creepy clown. But this film, embracing CGI in a way that the TV mini-series of 1990 could not, wastes its trump card. We barely get any Pennywise as, well, Pennywise, but instead an awful lot of Pennywise-as-special effect, “shapeshifting”, being churned through the digital funhouse mirror. And, well… obvious digital effects just aren’t scary.

Like Stranger Things, the best performance and most interesting character is the lone girl in the gang of guys. Here it’s Beverly, played very, very effectively by Sophia Lillis, who has only been acting a couple of years but carries the movie. She is almost spookily evocative of a young teen Amy Adams, which may be very deliberate, as the final credits for the film reveal that this is It, Chapter One, and we have another movie, with the kids all grown up, to come. Whether they can convince Adams to be in that movie by flattering her with the casting of this young doppelgänger is doubtful in the extreme, but Lillis is excellent on her own merits.

One note for the pervs: the infamous scene from the novel depicting the shenanigans the gang gets up to as their final youthful act together has, for every possible reason, not been filmed and distributed here. For that, we’ll have to wait for Larry Clark’s take, which would have been far more interesting, I have little doubt, than this lacklustre romp.

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**** (out of five)

Darren Aronofsky’s phantasmagoric fantasia on art, fame, success, religion, politics and the cult of celebrity erupts relentlessly and furiously. It is the angriest, most dynamic film I’ve seen this year, and probably the best film hailing from the US (although it seems to have been shot in Quebec).

A fable or parable rather than a story centred in anything close to realism, utilising horror elements including an honest-to-goodness haunted house, mother! – the lower-case “m” and the exclamation mark are specific – is a wild and mesmerising ride, and should leave most engaged viewers with plenty to chew on. It is full of ideas.

Jennifer Lawrence plays “mother”, married to “Him”, played by Javier Bardem in a role that is perfectly suited to his bulky, über-masculine and tremendously charismatic middle age. They live in his gorgeous old Victorian house in the middle of the woods; she is restoring it after it was decimated in a fire; he – a celebrated poet (!) – is trying to break a serious case of writer’s block. They have no children, and seem happy despite a certain frostiness and a rather blatant discrepancy in their power dynamic. Then, one day, completely out of the blue, a “man” (Ed Harris) knocks on the front door, and their lives start turning to shit.

Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique, shooting on handheld Super 16 Millimetre, have made a massive and sustained choice, which is to shoot about 85% of the film – that’s my conservative estimate – directly in front of Lawrence’s face or directly behind her head, gluing us to her and her point of view. It is effective, to be sure, but also frustrating, as her head looms so large, mostly in the centre of the frame, that it becomes irritating – you want to push it out of the way. I even wondered if the device was giving me a minor headache, combined, as it is, with a single, pretty dark location (the interiors of the old, gloomy, wooden house), a camera that literally never stops moving, and the grain of the 16mm film. This choice, and this effect, certainly were to the detriment of my enjoyment.

As for everything else, though – it’s pretty wonderful. This is delirious, obsessive auteurism at its most enabled: you’ve got budget, the world’s “biggest female star”, and the seeming complete lack of any control outside of the creator’s whims. It is a direct portal into the author’s soul – and at this level, some may be disturbed in a way that has nothing to do with any of the film’s creepy imagery or performances. The fact is that in the real world, Lawrence and Aronofsky are now in a relationship. There are twenty-two years between them, which aligns pretty well with the age gap between Lawrence and Bardem. And Aronofsky has a ten year old son from a previous relationship. All this taken together may make mother! a deeply personal movie, and the more personal it is to Aronofsky’s life and interior beliefs, the more disturbing it is. Indeed, if one was to take a particular reading of the film – and one which is certainly there to be read – one could only conclude that Aronofsky was a monster of vanity, ego and self-obsession.

I’m not sure it’s that. Knowing some of the things that have happened to Lawrence – such as naked photos of her being published without her permission – I think the director’s main target here is modern, obsessive fandom and its relationship to modern, idiotic notions of celebrity. He takes this, ties it to Jesus, throws in Cain and Abel and a bunch of other biblical stuff (he directed Noah, don’t forget, and Bardem’s character is specifically called “Him” with a capital “H”) and sprinkles our current, insane moment in political history on top. Essentially, the film is a furious attack on the world we’ve created for ourselves, and asks a pretty simple question: Why in hell would anyone want to bring a child into that?

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Black comedies about spouse-murder have always been popular; a TV series I’ve enjoyed very much recently has been Black Widows, now in its second season, depicting three friends – a Norwegian, a Dane and a Swede, like the set-up to a bar joke – who murder their husbands. But Small Town Killers, about two colleagues in a crooked building business in the isolated Danish town of Nibe who hire a Russian hitman to kill their wives, misses on every level. It’s rather terrible.

The script hits incredibly familiar beats while stinking of a misogyny that feels not so much a comment on the conservatism of small-town life as it does anachronistic. Indeed, with its gags about the drunkenness of Russians, the primness of Brits and the monotonous sexual routine of marriage, it feels like a script pulled from the ‘90s drawer. Cutting-edge it ain’t, despite the bold green poster.

I should have listened to the warning bells that poster gave me – it’s the kind of poster that is trying to trick you into thinking you’re gonna get something darkly hip in the vein of Tarantino while serving third-time reheats – Things To Do In Nibe When You’re Dead. Instead, I listened to the side of my brain telling me that all Danish cinema is interesting. It isn’t. Like every country, it produces duds, and Small Town Killers is resolutely one of them.

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Not much to see here

* (out of five)

Unlike last year’s fresh and visually gratifying The Shallows, this year’s shark indie takes place 47 Metres Down, and is very much the worse for it. Since our protagonists, young sisters-in-Mexico-but-now-in-trouble Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore), are trapped in a shark cage 47 Metres Down, the atmosphere is underwater-gloomy, the sisters’ faces are obscured by their diving masks, and the dialogue – transmitted in the story’s reality through a radio system in those masks – is distorted, often unclear and has to fight against the unrelenting sound of bubbles – a problem most movies don’t face.

On paper, the elements for suspense – sharks, rapidly depleting oxygen, a cage, risk of the bends – are all there, but on screen they add up to a whole lot of visual blah. The Shallows and most of Jaws took place in sunny daylight, and Open Water (2003) spent time and script setting up its characters with depth and sincerity. The set-up to 47 Metres Down – a measly eight minutes or so – is a joke, cheesy, clumsily directed and acted, and lacking in any meaningful engagement – while the rest is dark and obscure in the literal sense. You just can’t really see or hear it, and that doesn’t make for a good film in anyone’s book.

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Most of the movie looks like THIS? Yep.