In Theaters

Some say that, fundamentally, we’re all connected, even if we don’t realize it. In an age and in a society in which seemingly inherent division and separation are taken for the norm, we may not be aware of our interrelatedness, perhaps even denying it when others point it out to us. But, if we’re ever to resolve this misguided sense of disconnectedness, we need to be reminded – perhaps even cajoled – about our innate linkage. Examples of such reminders surface in highly pointed ways in the new, dark, sociopolitical satire, “Beatriz at Dinner” (web site, trailer).

Healer and massage therapist Beatriz (Salma Hayek) gives her all to her patients. She freely offers up her ample compassion to others, spontaneously hugging everyone she meets, be they clients, strangers or the pets she so lovingly adores. But, when it comes to the fulfillment of her own needs, she willingly defers to whatever others have to offer, gratefully expressing her thanks for their offerings.

Healer and massage therapist Beatriz (Salma Hayek) feels somewhat out of place when invited to an upscale dinner party by one of her clients in the new dark satire, “Beatriz at Dinner.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Beatriz appreciates whatever blessings come her way. Having emigrated to California after growing up under harsh conditions in Mexico, she’s thankful for her current life, which accounts for the boundless generosity she dispenses. She’s highly adept at bestowing her therapeutic gifts, which she believes is essential for healing a planet much in need of it, one whose disconnected residents must overcome their sense of isolation and realize that we’re all part of a larger, integrated whole. That’s difficult, however, when others don’t share that view, as Beatriz is about to discover when she’s unexpectedly extended an invitation to attend an upscale social event.

While on a house call to massage one of her regulars, wealthy Newport Beach socialite Kathy (Connie Britton), Beatriz experiences car trouble, effectively stranding her at her client’s estate. Beatriz is flustered, but Kathy comes to her aid, offering her dinner and even a place to stay for the night if needed. Dinner, however, is more than just a casual meal; it’s a high-brow, elegant dinner party thrown by Kathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), to celebrate the closing of a lucrative business deal. Grant is concerned that, because of class differences, Beatriz will be out of her element. But Kathy insists that Beatriz be allowed to attend given everything that she has done for her and her family, including caring for their teenage daughter when she successfully battled cancer.

After the guests arrive, however, Grant’s apprehensions would seem to be borne out. Those in attendance include high-powered hotel developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his trophy wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Grant’s attorney, Alex (Jay Duplass), and his ambitious wife, Shannon (Chloë Sevigny). And, of course, there’s Beatriz, who’s often ignored or mistaken as one of the help by all of the other guests. Ever the gracious hostess, Kathy does her best to make sure Beatriz feels included in the conversation. But, given her vastly different background and sensibilities, the unexpected dinner guest quickly feels out of place, despite her valiant efforts at inclusion.

High-powered hotel developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) brags about his success and many dubious accomplishments in the new sociopolitical satire, “Beatriz at Dinner.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

As dinner progresses, the event slowly turns into a battle of wits between the haves and have-nots. For example, in crassly boasting about his accomplishments and the drastic measures necessary to bring them into being, Doug manages to offend Beatriz at every turn, especially when she suspects that he may have been responsible for some of her own past hardships. She does her level best to express her views about the need to take a holistic approach to life and community, but she’s summarily rebuffed before she’s able to fully explain her viewpoint. With the ante perpetually amped, tensions continually rise, eventually making the event anything but a party.

The dinner thus becomes a microcosm of the current state of our culture, with implications that have impact socially, politically and economically. It aptly reflects the animosity that exists at the opposite ends of these spectra, providing us with a clear reflection of where we’re at, one that’s sure to make many of us uncomfortable. It also raises ideas about how to respond to these circumstances: Do we give in to violence and revenge? Or do we pursue alternative paths, courses aimed at promoting healing and helping to bring about a much-needed sense of reconnection? In doing so, the film shines a bright light on our power of choice, how we might consider employing it and what it means for all of us based on the options we select.

To celebrate the closing of a lucrative business deal, high-powered hotel developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow, right) shares the moment with his trophy wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker, second from right), along with his business partner, Grant (David Warshofsky, left), and his wife, Kathy (Connie Britton, second from left), in “Beatriz at Dinner.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

At times brilliant, at times frustrating, this dark comedy-drama gives viewers much to ponder both practically and metaphysically, a rare fusion for a film these days. It also manages to maintain a fair amount of suspense at an event that would seem an unlikely setting for such a narrative quality. (Who would have thought that a dinner party would give us so much to think about?)

Hayek gives one of the year’s best lead actress performances thus far, more than adequately backed by a superb ensemble of supporting players, especially Lithgow. Admittedly, it’s a little disappointing that the film draws upon a plot device that’s been used before to wrap things up, even if it’s employed in a way not seen before. But, this disappointment aside, “Beatriz at Dinner” gives us much to think about at a critical juncture in our country’s – and our reality’s – history.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Healer and massage therapist Beatriz (Salma Hayek, second from right) feels somewhat out of place at an upscale dinner party hosted by one of her clients, Kathy (Connie Britton, left), along with her well-to-do guests Shannon (Chloë Sevigny, second from left) and Jeana (Amy Landecker, right), in the new dark satire, “Beatriz at Dinner.” Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.


Overcoming Limitations by Following Our Impulses

When life seemingly sidelines us due to various limitations – be they personal, physical, economic or otherwise – we may easily become discouraged, reconciling ourselves to our circumstances. But need we be saddled with such conditions? Can we lead a meaningful existence in spite of those hindrances? Might we be able to successfully draw upon impulses that lead us to believe to the contrary? Such is the experience of a challenged young woman who manages to build a creative and fulfilling life for herself in the thoughtful new biopic, “Maudie” (web site, trailer).

Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) (1903-1970) faced a number of challenges in her life. For instance, as a child, she was severely afflicted by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that prevented her from engaging in a lot of everyday activities, even into adulthood. In fact, given her physical state, Maud was faced with having to move in with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) after the death of her parents and the sale of the family home by her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett). But, in light of the considerable restrictions placed on her by her aunt, Maud vowed to follow her impulses and make her own way, not an easy feat in the small town of Digby, Nova Scotia during the 1930s.

Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins, right) takes a job as a live-in housekeeper for a demanding, inscrutable boss, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke, left), in “Maudie.” Photo by Duncan Deyoung, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Before long, Maud took a job as a live-in housekeeper for a local fish peddler, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), whose disheveled, remote, one-room house in nearby Marshalltown was sorely in need of attention. Maud did her best to spruce up the place, though that task proved difficult, given her physical state and the fact that Everett seldom outlined his expectations. Maud’s tight-lipped, frequently grumpy, often-inscrutable employer gave her little to go on and even became abusive when she didn’t live up to what he wanted. But Maud would only take such treatment for so long; despite the potential consequences, she eventually issued an ultimatum, threatening to leave if things didn’t change.

Realizing that he stood to lose a lot, Everett backed off, especially once he could see everything that Maud was attempting to do. That included brightening up the home by adorning it with her painting, a skill taught to her years earlier by her mother. Her collection of brightly colored images brought the dingy structure to life. She also began creating holiday cards that Everett sold to those who bought his fish. In no time, Maud developed quite a following, especially when she was commissioned to begin painting larger pieces.

Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins, right) and new husband, Everett (Ethan Hawke, left), begin life together in the touching new biopic, “Maudie.” Photo by Duncan Deyoung, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

As time passed, Everett began appreciating Maud as someone other than just his housekeeper. Though still largely emotionally distant, he managed to work up the nerve to ask her to marry him. And, given her growing artistic reputation, he soon took over doing most of the housework, leaving her free to paint. Maud subsequently received much attention in the Canadian media, including the CBC, which featured her works in a 1965 broadcast of the documentary TV series Telescope. Her paintings also became favorites of such notables as Richard Nixon. Not bad for someone whose prospects were at one time seen as quite limited.

“Maudie” is a charming, albeit somewhat overlong and occasionally uneven biopic about an artist whose life story has become somewhat lost to obscurity over time. The film features what are arguably the finest performances ever turned in by Hawkins and Hawke, as well as beautiful cinematography, fine period piece production values and ample examples of the artist’s work. Admittedly, some sequences are a little drawn out, while others are underdeveloped and in need of more back story, shortcomings that keep a good film from being a great one. However, given the inspiring nature of this story, it’s well worth a look for those who seek to overcome their limitations and to realize what it means to attain the kind of success that they thought was beyond reach.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

“Cape Islander Cove,” by Maud Lewis. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all rights reserved.

“Snowball,” by Maud Lewis. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all rights reserved.

“Chickadees,” by Maud Lewis. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all rights reserved.

“Sunday Ride,” by Maud Lewis. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all rights reserved.


The Best of Movies with Meaning – “The Family Fang”

Our parents always have our best interests at heart, right? Are you sure? What if they have agendas riddled with unusual, self-serving plans and schemes? What kind of impact would such undertakings have on impressionable young minds? Would the effects be detrimental or beneficial (or possibly both)? Questions like these are at the core of the offbeat comedy-drama-mystery, “The Family Fang” (web site, trailer), available on DVD, Blu-ray disk and video on demand.

Annie and Baxter Fang (Nicole Kidman, Justin Bateman), the adult children of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang (Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett), have issues with their parents. They haven’t seen their folks in years, and they’re not in any hurry for a reunion. But, when Baxter is injured in a freak accident, the entire family is unexpectedly reunited for the first time in ages.

So why are Annie and Baxter at odds with their parents? When the brother and sister were kids (Jack McCarthy, Mackenzie Brooke Smith), they were frequently cast as players in their parents’ (Jason Butler Harner, Kathryn Hahn) highly unconventional performance art pieces. Caleb and Camille’s outlandish projects usually involved shocking incidents that were caught on videotape and released to an often-aghast public. They believed their thought-provoking performances pushed the limits of art and stimulated public discussion, especially when their creations placed their kids in questionable, compromising circumstances, such as a phony bank holdup or an impromptu Central Park concert where Annie and Baxter crooned a macabre little ditty, titled Kill All Parents.

Caleb and Camille were thrilled by their children’s contributions. In fact, they soon came to realize that the kids were what made their projects work. And, while it seemed they truly adored Annie and Baxter, there was some genuine doubt amongst spectators – and eventually the kids themselves – whether Caleb and Camille regarded them as family members or as extras in their productions. This became especially apparent when Annie and Baxter were teens (Taylor Rose, Kyle Donnery), when they were part of a project in which they themselves were played for fools, an incident that prompted the schism between children and parents.

As adults, Annie has struggled to build an acting career, while Baxter has tried his hand at being a novelist, but neither sibling has lived up to the success each had hoped for, failings that Caleb  doesn’t hesitate to point out during their unexpected reunion. Caleb tries to bully the kids into believing that their mainstream artistic efforts are exercises in mediocrity, that they were at their best when they were involved in the performance art projects. In fact, Caleb and Camille try to convince Annie and Baxter to join them for one last artistic undertaking, one that they claim will mark the pinnacle of their careers.

Needless to say, Annie and Baxter refuse, prompting an argument between them and their parents. Caleb and Camille decide to go away for a few days to cool off, but, while away, their car is found abandoned and covered in blood. Police authorities (Grainger Hines, Frank Harts) are worried, given that this discovery has occurred in an area where similar incidents have taken place. The kids, meanwhile, pay little heed to these cautions, believing that this is just their parents’ latest stunt. The question is, though, how can they prove it?

What ensues is a bizarre comedy-drama-mystery to find out what really happened to Caleb and Camille. It’s an undertaking that also brings Annie and Baxter face to face with themselves, their relationship with their parents and what they want to do with their futures. They must at last come to terms with their past and what it did to them, for better or worse. The answers are sure to surprise them, not to mention captivate viewers.

“The Family Fang” is a wickedly funny, somewhat ghoulish offering that’s fresh in virtually every regard. With an excellent cast, an engaging narrative that continually keeps viewers guessing and a deliciously twisted sense of humor, this underrated offering pushes a lot of buttons about what we should expect out of art and our parents. This release certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but, for those who enjoy cinema that pushes the envelope, this one is definitely for you.

A full review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.