The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939). Considered one of unassailable greats of all cinema (or at least a foundational classic that demonstrated the way the spirited form could be applied to weighty social subjects), Jean Renoir’s farcical examination of the cross-crossing trysts of the French upper class remains dishearteningly relevant nearly eighty years past its original release. Renoir captures the illicit tomfoolery of the various characters with a cheeky with and a grandly effective sense of comic timing. His bleak sense of humor reaches its apotheosis in the closing moments, when a cold-hearted punchline lands with the brute effectiveness of the storied films of the nineteen-seventies, when wry cynicism was most valued. There are dandy performances all around, include one by Renoir as Octave, who oscillates between loyalty and an especially genially brand of lechery.
Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta, 2017). Longtime collaborators Miguel Arteta and Mike White reteam for this drama that drops an unlikely visitor into the midst of dinner party otherwise populated by people whose wealth and privilege have made them callous, even as they occasionally feign sympathy for the less fortunate. Although there are others on hand, the film largely plays as a one-on-one debate between a blowhard developer (John Lithgow) and a physical therapist (Salma Hayek) who’s namechecked in the title. Even as White’s screenplay has a tendency to get a little too pat in its political debate, he has the good sense to keep the verbal combatants at least somewhat balanced. Off-putting as the industrialist might be, the woman representing the working classes can be tedious in her serene certainty, a quality enhanced by Hayek’s strong performance. There’s a sense that Arteta is laboring to prolong a thin premise, and the stretching finally snaps in the last act, when its clear no one has a compelling way to end the thing. The film’s true highlight is the performance of Connie Britton, bringing insight to the role of the woman hosting the party, commanding her world with surface kindness.
Miss Sloane (John Madden, 2016). I saw this film retrospectively referred to as Jessica Chastain’s warm-up for her leading turn in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, which was naturally going to require a facility for delivering buckshot blasts of jargon-laden dialogue. As usual, Chastain is a striking, strident presence, even when the film’s attempt to dress up a potboiler frame with serious social justice trappings proves faulty. Chastain is the title character, a shark-like Washington lobbyist who joins up with a small firm to lead a quixotic fight to get a piece of gun control legislation passed. Her new cohorts’ collective pained bafflement at her roughshod tactics sometimes rings false, but it’s enjoyable to watch Chastain smash through those scenes with an authority reminiscent of her turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Similarly, approaching the machinations of ugly Washington lawmaking — and the associated molding of public opinion — with the convoluted creativity of a heist picture is a fun notion, but director John Madden can’t quite loosen up. He gives the film a too somber of a spirit.