I’m behind in my movie viewing because I’ve been traveling in Spain, and I can report that if Mr. Trump intends to make America great again, he better get busy. Every public space I found myself in–airports, railroad stations, subways, highways, city streets and parks–was newer, cleaner, quieter, and more efficient than its equivalent here. The high-speed train left and arrived exactly on time. When is the last time that happened on Amtrak? The airport in Barcelona was beautifully serene; even London’s Heathrow felt and looked a lot better than Newark or JFK, despite super-tight security. Spain is a relatively poor country with a high unemployment rate, but the Spaniards I saw looked better dressed and healthier than many Americans.
On to trouble at home. “Beatriz at Dinner,” starring a de-glamorized Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, is an interesting, though somewhat uneven film about unrestrained capitalism and ecological destruction. Hayek plays Beatriz, an immigrant from Mexico who works as a therapeutic masseuse and is the sort of person who believes her pet goats sense her feelings. Through her healthcare work, she has made a connection with a wealthy woman, Kathy, sympathetically played by Connie Britton. Beatriz helped Kathy’s daughter when she had cancer, and she continues to drive up to Kathy’s fabulous house to give her massages. After a treatment to relax Kathy before an important dinner party, Beatriz’s old car breaks down and she cannot get home. Kathy insists that she stay for the party, which is celebrating a real estate development deal Kathy’s husband has concluded. The guest of honor Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) is the sort of developer much in the news these days. He first assumes that Beatriz is part of the household staff and then asks her if she’s illegal. Beatriz tries to be polite, but she’s not the retiring type. And something about Strutt make her feel that they’ve met before.
Mike White wrote the script, and his vegan/Buddhist/animal rights philosophies animate the story. The creator of “Freaks and Geeks,” “Chuck and Buck” and HBO’s “Enlightened,” White certainly has a sense of humor and there is a mordant comedic sensibility at work in “Beatriz at Dinner,” particularly at the beginning. Lithgow has so much fun playing the boorish Strutt that he should have foregone a salary. The tone of the film turns darker, though, and that may be unsettling for some viewers expecting the comedy to continue. I found the themes simplistic–capitalism bad, nature good–but the performances are excellent and director Miguel Arteta has gathered a terrific cast, including Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, and Amy Landecker. The movie is basically a back pat for the enlightened liberal elite, and if you feel yourself one of those, you’ll love it.
A Deep Dive Into French Film
Bertrand Tavernier’s award-winning documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” is a really long (over three hours), really detailed exploration of the history of French filmmaking, and particularly of the films that Tavernier saw and loved as a boy, adolescent, and young man. Born in 1941, Tavernier started going to the movies as a kid in Lyon, and he reveals that his early moviegoing was conflated in his mind with the liberation of France. He loved American gangster movies, the actor Jean Gabin, and French action hero Eddie Constantine. As a young man, he worked with Jean Pierre Melville, a director associated with the French resistance.
I love French movies too, but this documentary is for the serious cineaste and budding filmmaker rather than the enthusiastic amateur. Once it’s available on DVD or streaming, you can watch parts and take notes, or at least get up periodically and go to the kitchen. Sitting in a theater for the length of the film is a challenge, particularly if you’re not as enamored of Jean Gabin as Tavernier is. He spends more than a half hour analyzing the actor’s face and persona throughout his long career, talking over numerous film clips. The documentary is subtitled, of course, so that’s a lot of reading as well as a lot of Gabin.
In addition to a filmmaking career that has spanned five decades, with films including “The Clockmaker,” “ ‘Round Midnight,” “Coup de Torchon,” and “A Sunday in the Country,” Tavernier worked as a film critic for influential French magazines “Positif” and “Cahiers du Cinéma”; he is also the author of “American Friends” and the encyclopedic “50 Years of American Cinema.” His knowledge of film is indeed encyclopedic and your enjoyment of this documentary will depend on how deeply you share that passion.
Welcome to Cuba
Another documentary opening at the end of the week tells the story of a career criminal who hijacked a plane leaving the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1984 and redirected it to Cuba. (That was a thing back then.) Ishmael Muslim Ali, originally LaBeet, was convicted, along with several other men, of murdering eight people on a luxury golf course in the Virgin Islands. Ali staunchly maintained his innocence and attempted to have his conviction overturned while he was imprisoned on the mainland. Returning to the Virgin Islands for an appeal, he took the opportunity to hijack the plane rather than go back to prison. After landing in Cuba, he served several years for hijacking, but married and had a family when he got out.
In “The Skyjacker’s Tale,” Canadian filmmaker Jamie Kastner interviews Ali at length as well as the daughter of the famous radical lawyer William Kunstler, who defended Ali. Kunstler’s defense was based on the contention that the men’s confessions had been coerced under torture. That seems plausible according to information revealed in the film, but Kastner’s approach to Ali is ambiguous. The film opens with a scene of a dapper Ali herding several very young Cuban women into a car. The way they are all dressed makes it seem as if he’s their pimp. An odd choice if the director is building sympathy for Ali. Ali comes across as an intelligent, manipulative man who keeps his feelings under control. Although he says that his daughter is worried that he’ll be sent back to the U.S. as a result of the improvement in relations between America and Cuba, he’s not concerned. Seeing that Trump is dialing the opening back, Ali is probably right.
And Now to TV
Has anyone been watching “Fargo” on FX? It’s been a great season for the quirky detective show, with Carrie Coon as the requisite policewoman trying to solve a case in snowy Minnesota. This one involves two brothers (both played by Ewan McGregor) and the policewoman’s stepfather, all of whom share the same name. This darkly comic anthology series puts great stock in a fabulous villain and it has a doozy in V.M. Varga, the head of a shadowy criminal corporation. The terrific actor David Thewlis is mesmerizingly creepy as the bulimic and unctuous Varga. (He’s just as good as the god of war in “Wonder Woman,” which I saw and enjoyed over the weekend.) Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Nikki, one of the brothers’ girlfriends and a tough, savvy foe to Varga. She’s quickly becoming one of my favorite young actresses. The score of mostly classical selections is unique, and episode 8 has a fantastic sequence relating to Reb Nachman of Bratslav. Amazing!
Reb Nachman doesn’t have much to do with “Fauda,” the hyper-intense Israeli espionage series, which is streaming on Netflix. Set primarily in the West Bank, the series follows the attempts of retired military intelligence officer Doron to capture a Hamas leader, Abu Ahmad, a man Doron believed he had killed. To do that, Doron and his former unit infiltrate the wedding of Abu Ahmad’s brother Bashir, but Abu Ahmad manages to escape, although wounded.
If you felt that “Homeland” was anxiety producing to watch, it’s a walk in the park compared to “Fauda.” I was scared to see what happened next. While it’s an expertly made thriller, “Fauda” is surprisingly neutral in its approach to the Israelis and Palestinians. They are portrayed as almost the same–in looks, in temperament, in psychological needs. The underlying theme here is that these two groups are interchangeable, and the same story could be told from either perspective. A second season is on the way.