Monday, July 24, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW/Beatriz At Dinner
When White Colonials Defeated The Original California

Salma Hayek as the title character in "Beatriz At Dinner", a tense satire directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White.
  Roadside Attractions

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, July 24, 2017

Note: "Beatriz At Dinner" opened in the U.S. and Canada last month but is still playing in a number of theaters around the U.S. and Canada.

The white colonial takeover of California, owned by Mexicans, was completed in a year - with some but not inordinate violence, in 1847.  That destructive invasion and takeover linger on an inestimable scale in "Beatriz At Dinner", Miguel Arteta's fiercely percolating comedy-drama satire about Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a Mexican-born holistic medicine massage therapist and healer in Southern California, who stays for dinner at the mansion home of one of her wealthy clients, Cathy (Connie Britton) following a motor breakdown.

The opulence and ornateness of the rich and Mr. Arteta's decoration of them juxtaposed with the humble, even dowdy Beatriz makes "Beatriz At Dinner" uncomfortable viewing.  The vast devotion of canvas to indulgence is bookended and peppered by snippets of Beatriz's life and feels like suffocation, a choking a character must escape to exhale.  You don't need alcohol provided at dinner by dutiful waiters to Beatriz and the rude, racist and disgusting elitists on parade.  The history of the battle of California is enough.  It is all the tension this film requires.  These condescending individuals are merely crude descendants of invaders, without guns.

When business magnate Doug Strutt (a cheeky, acerbic John Lithgow) asks Beatriz at the dinner party if she came to the U.S. illegally there's no hesitation in her response.  The discomfort level grows commensurate with the hosts' hostility toward and impatience with Beatriz.  As the film's conscience Beatriz has been backdoored to the dinner table the way Sidney Poitier was 50 years earlier in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?" but she's anything but a polite guest.  "Beatriz At Dinner" is a regression of the faux-tidy Black-white relations of Stanley Kramer's 1967 classic -- or a more honest edition of them, with the (presumably?) conservative and obnoxiously vapid wealthy hosts and work colleagues aligning with the assaultive fake-smiling rural white liberal racists of "Get Out".  The sole difference is the platitudes and pretense are absent here.

Like Chris of Jordan Peele's smash hit horror-thriller, Beatriz identifies with animals and their status as an endangered species.  She knows about losing an animal.  Amidst soulless male capitalists and the trophy wives they abuse, Beatriz yearns for nature and peace but the house she's trapped in miles from Altadena, California, is a prison of colonialist inmates, not conniving mind-snatchers.  The mile-high gates of the California estate of Cathy's nasty husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are like imperious prison bars, a sheltering from the rest of the world they've taken flight from. 

So alien are these wealthy Californians from the masses that they are well out of touch with themselves.  Cathy speaks of Beatriz as if she is invisible.  She speaks of Beatriz only in selfish terms - in ways that benefit Cathy.  Patronizingly calling Beatriz her "friend", Cathy waxes on about Beatriz as if she is a pet or an appendage, not a person.  Neither she nor her cohorts ever listen to or take Beatriz seriously.  "I kind of feel like I don't even know you," Cathy admits.  "You don't", Beatriz counters.  (Cathy never tried to know her.)

The socio-economic clashes in "Beatriz At Dinner" are a cleaner version of the middle class border battles of 2014 in Murrieta, California and Escondido, California.  Those protesters of immigrants didn't have the pot to urinate in that Doug Strutt and co do.

Far from protests, Beatriz broods and humors her hosts, who would rather she left their house and returned to Mexico.  Mexico, however, is never far away from Beatriz, nor are her political roots.  None of these slimy characters holds any claim to a golden chalice.  All of them are selfish.  Beatriz at least, stands for something and is richer in heart though morally self-righteous.  The white rich who isolate Beatriz have no center of gravity, titilated by the most vulgar and immoral things.  Their ignorance and indulgence in simplistic and self-satisfying pleasures belittles their own existence. 

Doug Strutt is less a Trumpian than he is one of the Republican billionaire Koch Brothers, whom Mr. Lithgow resembles in stature, fashion sense and demeanor (watch a CBS TV interview with Charles Koch to see this.)  Strutt is the lazy capitalist who owns and controls by metaphorically burning the villages people live in to get property and resources.  The world is Strutt's playground, and if he can bleed it of its green to make green of his own so be it.  Doug Strutt is far too smart to be Donald Trump because unlike the latter he knows how the levers of power work - and hasn't had a bankruptcy.  Strutt strategizes and lobbies but doesn't let his ego take over.

"Beatriz At Dinner" is a quiet, tense, riveting slow-burn served like a main course whose indigestion is a painful chronicle.  As Beatriz Ms. Hayek is compelling and powerful.  Such is her penetrating gaze that it is unsettling.  The camera lingers on her haunting face in close-up, and it is a scary image.  Ms. Hayek's expressions chilled me because I was sure I knew what Beatriz was thinking and what she would and should do. 

The containment Ms. Hayek possesses is the film's strongest weapon.  The longer Beatriz simmers the stronger the film is.  The film's editing is sharp and rhythmic, bouncing from reaction to statement of each individual on camera at the dinner table, which may as well be a cultural, historical battlefield.  Beatriz's understandably risible state is only tempered by her telephone calls to Nolito, her husband or boyfriend (is he alive or dead?  I'd say dead.)  We never see him.  The California and Mexico that Beatriz (who believes in fate and reincarnation) knew is not returning.

Mr. Arteta is faced with two choices to resolve "Beatriz At Dinner" and neither seems right or works.  I'd have chosen another way and gone deeper, more morally ambiguous and ambitious than Mr. Arteta does.  Uncharacteristically he and Mr. White take an all-too easy and conventional way out, one that makes little sense for the film or its participants.

Granted, "Beatriz At Dinner" had my heart racing and had me tensed-up and gasping for the very air Beatriz yearns to breathe.  But the film felt like it was banging itself against a brick wall in the race to reach an urgent conclusion.  It's a Bonfire Of The Vanities that, unlike an activist who sets himself ablaze to make a political point, never quite burns beyond its stereotypes and artifice.

Also with: Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, John Early, Soledad St. Hilaire.

"Beatriz At Dinner" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language and a scene of violence.  The film's running time is one hour and 22 minutes.

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