It’s Time to Watch ‘Horse Girl’

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CREDIT: Katrina Marcinowski/Netflix

With so many movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I decided to finally watch and review some straight-to-streaming flicks I haven’t had a chance to get around to yet. And in the spirit of things being not-so-normal, these reviews will maybe be a little more, uh, shall we say, offbeat, than usual.

First up on the docket is Horse Girl, a seemingly quirky indie comedy, but actually no, it’s a psychological study of emergent mental illness, but with some trappings of low-budg sci-fi. We can use the catchall term “drama.” It stars and is co-written by Alison Brie. The other person handling scripting duties is Jeff Baena, who also sat in the directing chair. I know and love Jeff from The Little Hours, in which he previously directed Alison. It played at Sundance in January 2020 and landed on Netflix on February 7, 2020. Thanks to Alison’s presence, I knew I was going to definitely watch it eventually, as I’ve been a superfan of hers since her days on Community (which I’m legally obligated to acknowledge is my favorite show of all time whenever I mention it).

Alison plays Sarah, an introverted lass who works at an arts and crafts store and enjoys horses. Also, her stepdad is played by Paul Reiser! (That’s got to be a good sign, right?) Things seem to be going okay for her, especially when she strikes up a potential new romantic relationship on her birthday. But then, as she begins to experience lost time and unexplained visions, it appears that the mental struggles that run in her family are finally making themselves at home in her brain. Or is she actually a clone who is also dealing with flippin’ alien abductions, jeez?

If you’re forcing me to say one or the other, Sarah probably actually is indeed experiencing mental illness. But Horse Girl makes me think: isn’t the idea of alien abduction intoxicating? What if it could be the basis of a religion? You could believe in them, though not literally, just have faith in them in some sort of way. That’s just a kernel of an idea, we’ll see if it becomes anything more. Anyway, Alison is terrific, but y’all knew that already! (Dint ya?)

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Oath’ Offers a Caustic Vision of Thanksgiving in an America Built on Loyalty Above All Else

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CREDIT: Topic Studios/Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass

Director: Ike Barinholtz

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for the Profanity of Thanksgiving and Surprisingly Potentially Lethal Violence

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

I do not pledge allegiance to The Oath. Nor do I pledge anti-allegiance to it. That lack of fiery passion might be antithetical to a movie that is all about getting everyone riled up, but I need to be honest about how I really feel. And besides, I believe that The Oath ultimately advocates taking a breath and having more measured reactions to potentially explosive situations.

Is the America of The Oath the America that writer-director Ike Barinholtz is worried his country is turning into? He stars as Chris, alongside Tiffany Haddish as his wife Kai, with the two of them united in their disgust at The President’s Oath, an act that requests that Americans declare their allegiance to the president. Barinholtz and Haddish are both known for playing unpredictable balls of energy, but they both tone it down quite a bit here. Perhaps it is best to think of Chris and Kai as what the typical Barinholtz and Haddish characters would become if they settled down in the suburbs and had a young daughter. They are still plenty wound-up, though, Barinholtz especially, as Chris is a news junkie who despairs at every story that pops up on his screens. I suspect that Barinholtz is not quite so constantly on edge in his personal life and that he allows himself the catharsis of freaking out in his work. (If my presumption is wrong, then I sympathize with his friends and families.)

The fallout of the Oath on Chris and Kai and their extended family plays out on Thanksgiving, that hallowed day of controversial conversations between loved ones breaking down along predictably political lines. The Oath ups the ante by throwing government officials, firearms, and general creeping paranoia into the mix. Barinholtz is clearly influenced by a current administration that values loyalty above ethics, but he keeps his warning timeless by avoiding giving a name to anyone in charge. This breakdown in trust in society could happen any time, The Oath argues, and maybe wacky black comedies are the best thing we have to make sense of that.

The Oath is Recommended If You Like: Black comedy stage plays about squabbling families, Grounded political dystopias

Grade: 3 out of 5 Breaking News Alerts

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Beatriz at Dinner,’ Salma Hayek Ain’t Taking No Guff From Racist John Lithgow

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, John Early

Director: Miguel Arteta

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Verbal Knifeplay

Release Date: June 9, 2017 (Limited)

What would you do if you have had a chance encounter with the person who represents all that you oppose? I imagine that many people would feel quite strongly when responding to this question but also that it would produce a number of disparate, potentially conflicting answers. Beatriz at Dinner, the latest collaboration from the Chuck & Buck team of writer Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), fundamentally understands this tension, with conviction in its ideals and uncertainty about how to live by them.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a goat-owning masseuse/healer who makes a house call to her wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). When her car breaks down, she finds herself stuck at Cathy and her husband’s Grant’s (David Warshofsky) fancy dinner party. Cathy is happy to have Beatriz there, as she considers her family ever since she helped her daughter through cancer treatment. But Beatriz is culturally light years away from client’s friends and colleagues. Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are right in their cluelessly arrogant upper class wheelhouses. (Sample dialogue: “I love psychic stuff.”) And then there is real estate mogul Doug Strutt, brought to gloriously, hideously racist life by John Lithgow.

Comparisons between Strutt and a certain current world leader are inevitable, among perhaps both his detractors and his supporters. But it is worth noting that Lithgow’s performance is as far as can be from crudity, in terms of style if not so much substance. His default presence makes him a natural at playing oddly trustworthy authority figures. He has a hint of eccentricity – not so much that he ought to be dismissed, but just enough that he is allowed to get away with it. That reputation is ripe for subversion, as in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error, where his eccentricity verges on bumbling idiocy, or here, where it is a cover for plain evil.

While Lithgow’s performance is impressive in the most expected ways, Hayek’s is fascinating for how surprisingly, and occasionally even bafflingly, Beatriz behaves. But there are not really any logical inconsistencies here, as there is no blueprint for how to act in this situation. Beatriz believes that she recognizes Strutt as the developer who destroyed her Mexican community, and so she viciously chews him in front of the whole party. In this game of chess, she may have sacrificed her queen too early, but perhaps it is all part of her strategy. She bobs and weaves, offering up apologies, or feigning them, or mixing legitimate apologies in with lip service. In the meantime, she gathers up evidence to potentially prove Strutt’s misdeeds. But to what end? This is a man who boasts of skirting, or even running roughshod over, the law.

Responding to this moral vacuum requires counterintuitive behavior, which inspires a career-best performance from Hayek but puts the film on shaky narrative ground. The story ultimately becomes just as untethered as Beatriz, and accordingly it cannot really figure out how to conclude. Should it go in for the kill and ramp up the intensity, or should it settle for the moral victory? It offers up both versions, which is a little frustrating, but the straightforward viciousness is fun while it lasts.

Beatriz at Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Enlightened, Evil John Lithgow, Clapping Back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Aperitifs for Destruction