A most salient portrait of evil

Beatriz at DinnerWhen Miguel Arteta and Mike White started filming Beatriz at Dinner last August, I doubt they could have predicted how salient the film would be when it was released ten months later. The biting, mostly comic commentary on class, race and manners is particularly unsettling because Trump won, because what may have been written as satire a year ago is naked reality now. It’s a tragicomedy, but in our country’s current predicament, its more tragic, making the film’s bleak ending creepily logical. Arteta and White are known for their awkwardly brilliant collaborations Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl (among other things), and Beatriz, while not achieving the levels of those two films, is another affecting, often very funny cringe-fest.

Salma Hayek is Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant healer who specializes in various forms of massage and mysticisms. After working on her very rich longtime client Cathy (Connie Britton) in Newport Beach, her car won’t start, and Cathy asks her to stay for dinner. Cathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are hosting billionaire Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and a younger couple Shannon and Alex (Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass). Beatriz is wildly out of place, not just because she’s working class and a recent immigrant, but rather because she’s not a toxic capitalist, like the hosts and their friends. Strutt is Trump crossed with Rupert Murdoch, a real estate mogul who thinks that because he owns valuable things he is a more valuable person than anyone else. He delights in hunting endangered wild game, tells his wife she’s “well-compensated,” and thinks it’s appropriate to interrogate the one non-white person at the dinner over her method of immigration. (It was legal, by the way.)

Beatriz has a few too many glasses of wine and does not behave as the rich folk think poor Mexicans should: she slyly snarks back at Strutt’s rude questions, interrupts her hosts inane conversation with her own substantial stories, and, worst, tells people that their behavior is immoral. Most of the humor comes from the appallingly petty cocktail chatter uttered by Shannon, Alex and Jeana, but it seems that before Trump’s election Strutt’s amoral arrogance would have also seemed satirical and funny. Now it feels simply evil. As White has done throughout his career, he takes conversations and monologues much further than most writers would dare, and Strutt’s monologues, expertly delivered by the great Lithgow, are chilling, both believable and discomfiting. Beatriz’s reactions evolve, unnervingly, from witty to wanton.

Arteta’s grainy, naturalistic shots work well for the Newport estate where most of the film takes place, exposing both the blemishes of the seemingly sanitized wealth and its enviable beauty. His ensemble is perfectly cast and they all do great work. Duplass and Sevigny are hilariously dreadful, both clearly delighting in saying White’s more scathing lines. Britton, playing the only sympathetic rich person, achieves the balance of cluelessness and kindness with seeming ease (an ease we’ve come to expect from her in any role). Hayek’s performance is one of her best; calm and wise, sad and pointed. But Lithgow’s performance is truly great in its representation of truly banal, utterly unsurprising evil.

Beatriz at Dinner
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Written by Mike White
Starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow and Connie Britton
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

The art and irony of The Salesman

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The SalesmanOutside of cinephiles who have seen his Oscar-winning A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is not well known among Americans. But his name was thrust into the news over the last few weeks because of President Trump’s executive order banning travel of most anyone, but particularly Muslims, from seven majority Muslim countries. (The list does not include any majority Muslim country where Trump and his family have business dealings. Of course.) Because of the ban, Farhadi, who is from Iran, cannot travel to the United States for the Academy Awards, where his newest film The Salesman is up for Best Foreign Language Film; even if the stay of that order allows his visit, Farhadi is boycotting in protest.

There is a great deal of irony in preventing the director of The Salesman from attending the Oscars. By setting a suspenseful revenge drama among the cast of a Farsi-language production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Farhadi entwines Iranian and American emotional and moral experience. That such a tale comes from Iran, described as part of the Axis of Evil by George W. Bush and repeatedly threatened with destruction by Trump, is situationally ironic in that it is the opposite of what many people expect from our supposed enemy. It’s dramatically ironic in that Trump seems to have no clue whatsoever that Farhadi exists, that our most human complexities are universal or that both Iranians and Muslims are humans. (There are also the weird similarities between Miller’s Willy Loman and Donald Trump, both delusion narcissists, but since Trump doesn’t read, watch anything by Fox News or have the capacity for self-reflection, it’s unlikely he could have made that connection.)

However, even if Farhadi is not attending the Oscars, The Salesman is in theaters across the country. (Trump will probably be unable to ban films made by Muslims, women or scientists, but no one should think he’s not going to try.) Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher and actor who is playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman; his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is playing Linda, Willy’s wife. After their apartment building becomes physically unstable and is evacuated, they move into an apartment owned by one of their fellow actors. The owner neglects to tell them that the previous tenant was a prostitute, and shortly after Emad and Rana have set up house, one of her former clients attacks Rana while she is taking a shower and Emad is out buying groceries. At first Emad thinks she had just fallen, and then the neighbors who took her to the hospital tell him she was attacked. It’s implied but never clear that she was raped, and Rana is too ashamed and traumatized to fully explain everything to Emad. All of this weighs on Emad as he seeks out the perpetrator and tries to keep calm while he is portraying Willy Loman each night.

The film is ingenious in its pacing and its use of Arthur Miller. The tension is slowly increased through misdirection, ambiguities and a smart lack of a score that would indicate what emotion we’re supposed to feel or expect. I had no idea what was about to happen at any point in the film, particularly in the last act when Emad seems to have found Rana’s attacker. In an American film, the revenge would be brutal (see: Prisoners, Kill Bill, Enough), but Farhadi flips the genre on its back and makes the emotions, but not the action, violent.

Taraneh Alidoosti in The SalesmanDeath of Salesman seems to have no clear connection to the film’s plot until the last 20 minutes. Then, Miller’s commentary on obligation, illusion, sacrifice and failure are reimagined through Emad and Rana’s acting out of their moral duties as well as an American play. If there is any justice, publicity over Farhadi’s absence from the Academy Awards will lead American audiences to experience his art and his insight into America’s greatest drama.

The Salesman (original title: Forushande)
Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti and Babak Karimi
Rated PG-13
In Farsi with subtitles

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

A civil rights movie that perfectly balances history, humor and sentimentality

Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

I learned most of my Space Race history from The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s excellent epic about the test pilots and first astronauts who propelled us into space. The movie is classic American hagiography, in which a bunch of brave white men risk life and limb for the glory of the flag. It’s mostly accurate, though in adapting Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, liberties are taken. But even Wolfe’s book, a massive bestseller and over 400 pages long, doesn’t mention the dramatic and important role that Katherine G. Johnson, in particular, had in the success of John Glenn’s historical orbit around the Earth.

Johnson not only made many of the key calculations involved in Glenn’s unprecedented flight (with one done in very dramatic fashion), but she did it as a woman, a black woman and a black woman in 1963. It’s possible Wolfe didn’t know about Johnson. But Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote Hidden Figures, the book about black women involved in the early space program, has pointed out that Johnson’s role is clearly in the raw records at NASA; it just didn’t make it into either version of The Right Stuff. With the delightful, crowd-pleasing film version of Shetterly’s book, it will be impossible for her to remain hidden in the record.

In the film, Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson, a childhood math prodigy who works in the “colored computer” department at NASA. She carpools with two of her coworkers, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. Before everyone owned plastic computers made by IBM or Apple, a “computer” referred to people who did the math. In the early days of NASA, there was a pool of black computers and a pool of white computers. It shouldn’t be surprising that in the early 1960s, the colored computers had limited opportunities for advancement and suffered numerous indignities because of their race and gender.

Katherine is shown to be the meekest and nerdiest of the group, if also the smartest; when Dorothy is asked who of the computers that she supervised (in practice, if not by the title “supervisor”) could handle the math for launch trajectories, she immediately points to Katherine. Dorothy is older, ambitious and constantly fighting for recognition. She’s a little snarky under her breath, but Mary is snarky in full voice. Beautiful and, of course, brilliant, Mary throws out one wise quip after another, but thankfully her smart talk doesn’t get her in too much trouble. Eventually, when she uses her wit carefully, she gets her heart’s desire.

The three women struggle and face set-backs, but except for one brief moment on a blurry black-and-white TV screen, the kind of trouble we’re used to seeing in films like Selma or 12 Years a Slave is wholly absent from Hidden Figures. Numerous injustices and moments of discrimination are shown, but it is the petty humiliation of black women being forced to use separate bathrooms that ends up standing in for the totality of structural racism. This is a PG film after all, and that’s fine: This is a movie about civil rights that you can take your eight-year-old to, and that’s a fantastic thing.

Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures

These kids and their parents are lucky, too. Director Theodor Melfi perfectly balances history, humor and sentimentality. Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all wonderful, seamlessly moving from light comedy to deep-and-meaningful drama. This is the bailiwick of both Spencer, who won an Oscar for The Help, and Henson, who was Oscar nominated for The Curious Case of BenjaminButton and has become a star in the high-camp soap opera Empire. Monáe is an R&B star who has only two acting credits (Hidden Figures and Moonlight), but she more than holds her own against her much more experienced co-stars, stealing every scene. Monáe, like Mary, refused to stay hidden.

Hidden Figures

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe

Rated PG

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

His truth is marching on

Today is Martin Luther King’s birthday. He would have been 86. Today is also the day the Academy Award nominations were announced. Selma, the brilliant film about King and the Selma marches of 1965, was nominated for Best Picture, but its director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were not, and those are as egregious snubs as any in many years. Here’s my review, which can also be found at San Diego LGBT Weekly:

Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Carmen Ejogo
At your local multiplex

Selma, the film about Martin Luther King and the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, is an extraordinary film: wrenching, inspiring, and impeccably made. As a depiction of one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Movement, it is also more socially and politically relevant to our contemporary world than any feature film released this year. Its connection to the recent protests against racist police brutality is the reason that Selma is essential viewing and also the reason why so many people who normally wouldn’t give a second thought to historical accuracy in movies have wrapped themselves into the controversy about the film and its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1965, Martin Luther King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years prior he had made the “I have a dream” speech at the Great March on Washington, which helped propel the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But blacks in the South still faced numerous barriers to voting, from being forced to pass absurd tests to requiring a current voter to vouch for them, particularly difficult if there were no black voters around. In 1965, King wanted Johnson to use his rather great political power to pass a comprehensive voters’ rights bill. But Johnson wanted to focus on his War on Poverty that year. This disagreement is inarguably fact, but the fictionalized depictions of King and Johnson’s actual arguments have riled a bunch of white people who can’t bear to imagine Johnson was a cynical politician. (Note: It is inarguable fact that Johnson was a cynical politician. That’s one of the reasons he got so much done.)

The events in Selma, a town with a majority of black residents, only 2% of whom could vote, helped force the Voting Rights Act into existence. Selma is about how that happened, how King’s presence in Selma brought the media, which in turn showed how the Alabama state troopers viciously beat peaceful black protesters who were trying to raise awareness about their disenfranchisement, which in turn brought more protesters and more support, from both Johnson and the American people, for a voting rights bill.

Selma has two main plots. One is focused on the political machinations of the march, both among King (David Oyelowo), Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and intransigent Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and among the civil rights activists from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been organizing in Selma before King arrived. These are fascinating, both because of how they humanize and complicate iconic historical figures but also because they depict pragmatic, sometime even crass, strategizing around events that popular history have made to seem purely about the forces of good versus evil. For example, one of the reasons King and his associates wanted to march in Selma was because they knew that its sheriff would brutalize the protesters, thus garnering sympathy from the nation.

Selma’s other plot focuses on the emotional toll of the civil rights movement. Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), King’s wife, is frustrated by his constant absence, the danger they are in, and how close to the truth the rumors of his infidelity are. King himself wonders if he can ever succeed and whether he will survive. And in smaller, perfectly crafted subplots, the people of Selma struggle – in particular Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and Jimmie Lee Johnson (Keith Stanfield) – for dignity and for their lives. And in the epic sequence focused on Bloody Sunday, the day when Alabama troopers savagely attacked the marchers, director Ava DuVernay brings to life one of the most horrific moments of the 1960s with such skill I was left in tears for the rest of the film and for sometime after.

DuVernay’s work on Selma is tremendous, and it announces a major American filmmaker. Her recreations of well documented events are flawless, but so are her quieter, mostly fictionalized, scenes, such as those between King and Coretta or between Cooper and Selma’s voter registrar. The performances she pulled from her cast, in particular Ejogo, Winfrey, Stanfield, and Oyelowo, are roundly wonderful. What the amazing Oyelowo does as King is to make a legendary and iconic hero into a man – a great, flawed, human man.