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Sunday, August 18, 2013

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER 8/18/13



I am old enough to have lived through the events depicted in director Lee Daniels’ ambitious and often beautifully structured new film LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, which vividly brought me back to a passionate and tumultuous period in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. While watching the screen in a crowded theater, I was conscious of the vulnerability I felt, like a laceration where only a pinprick of injustice was needed to make the wound open up and ooze anew. But this movie is more than a documentary of “moments in history” it is about the weaving and interlacing of the personal and the political, and how they bounce and bang into one another; about change and turmoil and how they impact not only a nation but a family – based on the true story of Cecil Gaines who became the White House butler serving eight Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.

We meet young Cecil Gaines in 1927 working with his parents in the cotton fields when a violent life-altering act changes the course of his existence. Shortly thereafter, Cecil leaves home and meets a generous father figure who tutors him in the art of “service”, and Cecil is masterly at this job - maintaining the critical distinction between one’s inner and outer demeanor. He is so skilled at this position that he is asked to join the White House staff as one of their butlers. Able to be “invisible” is a central aspect of this profession – to be discreet and not comment or remark on what is seen and heard in the “halls of power.” Yet THE BUTLER cautiously implies that Gaines’ presence might have had some influence on crucial determinations that certain President’s took on civil rights legislation. Forest Whitaker is a superb actor depicting Cecil Gaines, not only via the spoken word, but the way he moves his body, the subtle changes in his gait, and the slump of his shoulders as he travels through the vicissitudes of time.

There is an Upstairs/Downstairs aspect to this movie and the film often cuts from Cecil’s rigid, restrained daily routines at The White House to his more natural and relaxed own household supervised by Gloria – a strong performance by Oprah Winfrey who willingly foregoes any “glamour” to reveal a warm, sympathetic mother, and a wife who early on feels neglected by her husband, but is transformed by the incidence of public and personal circumstances – some tragic and others comically tender. There is some fine acting by a supporting cast consisting of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House butlers, and the always imposing soft-voiced Terrence Howard as a neer-do-well neighbor. On the other hand, the casting of the various Presidents was disappointing – most were shown as transparent, simplistic caricatures, their obvious physical attributes were exaggerated and their more essential natures were ignored.


Lee Daniels juxtaposes the changing strategies of The Civil Rights Movement from the early Freedom Rides to the Black Panther Party, via the vehicle of Cecil’s elder son (David Oyelowo,) representing the generational father/son conflict over the revolutionary methods a black man/woman must take in a society that is filled with race hatred and oppression. Interspersing actual newsreels and TV footage of critical moments in America’s historical narrative – ie: the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King added authenticity to THE BUTLER - the kind of authenticity that is piercing and brought back subjective flashbacks to where I had been at those pivotal mileposts.


 Lee Daniels gives us a raw, desperate, and excruciatingly brutal view of what the participants in the fight for equal rights endured. They are the heroes/heroines whose struggles are memorialized in this movie; as a counterpoint we are shown the striving of one individual to support his family, and at the same time be a witness to history – albeit a silent one. Developing a second skin of “concealment” is lamentably still a tactic necessitated by racism in our contemporary society.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

BLUE JASMINE 8/11/13

Predictable, obvious, conventional, trite, and stereotypical are words that came to mind as I seethed, mumbling in my seat, watching a film that was “acclaimed” by many critics. Unfortunately this was another Woody Allen writing and directorial disappointment and that makes me angry. I really wanted Allen to embrace me with sensitivity and conviction; to make me laugh and cry, to create characters that were distinctive and demonstrated individuality like he did in the 1999 film SWEET AND LOWDOWN.  Instead BLUE JASMINE, which ostensibly speaks about class divide, pretension, financial immorality, and the fickleness of relationships, focuses on a woman named Jasmine played by Cate Blanchett who is in the midst of having a nervous breakdown moves in with her “lower-class” sister in San Francisco.

Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine, who had been married to a very wealthy, Bernie Madoff-type businessman Hal (a smooth and slick Alec Baldwin,) living a life as the beautiful Park Avenue socialite wife entertaining, doing charity work, and filling her time with Yoga and Pilates is vapidly inconsistent. We are subject to constant flashbacks of her former luxurious life then, contrasted with her penniless life “now,” – before and after the collapse of her seemingly “idyllic high-style” marriage. We are made privy very earlier in the movie, to Jasmine’s histrionic and melodramatic fall from grace. Her excessive drinking, her devouring pills with an avariciously bumbling urgency, all dramatic gestures that imply desperation were repeated over and over again - a view of psychic disintegration that was hackneyed and tired – a picture of nervous collapse pigeonholed into burlesque.


Personally I did not give a damn about any of the characters...except Jasmine’s sweet, good-natured sister Ginger – a natural and beautiful performance by Sally Hawkins who picks “working class” guys as her partners – her taste in men being the opposite of her arrogant condescending sister. Many of the reviewers of BLUE JASMINE spoke about a Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire subtext to this film – I think that interpretation is superficial, and another indication of Woody Allen’s trivialization of the “rank and file” laborer. Just because Bobby Cannavale (who is an actor I loved in THE STATION MASTER) wears cutoff tee-shirts, is muscled up with slicked back hair and has a temper, does not make him Stanley Kowalski; or a fragile Cate Blanchett descending into her interior world of the past, make her Blanche Du Bois. Instead I saw Woody Allen propagating a boilerplate view of class through dialects and visuals that were imitative and unimaginative.


Relationships between siblings, heedless gratification of desire, and the cynical view of the battle of the sexes are always prevalent in Woody Allen’s films. I hope I get to see one soon which is genuine, fresh and authentic. I thought BLUE JASMINE might fulfill those criteria– I was dispiritedly mistaken.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

2 GUNS 8/7/13

I am a fan of both Mark Wahlberg, (ever since I fell for him in BOOGIE NIGHTS,) and Denzel Washington who I LOVED in TRAINING DAY  (for which he won an Oscar,) so of course I had to see 2 GUNS. These two charismatic stars clicked as love/hate conflicted buddies, augmented by the fast-paced repartee between them which was comedic and entertaining. 2 GUNS directed by Baltasar Korm├íkur, with its overly complicated silly plot, involving plenty of crooked DEA, CIA and Naval Intelligence officers, etc. is salvageable because of the chemistry between Stig (Wahlberg) and Bobby (Washington.) On second thought EVERYONE in this film was corrupt – all those who are delegated by law to be our angels/defenders from the crooked, double-dealing “bad guys” are themselves covetous, mercenary and tainted. The message of 2 GUNS focuses on America’s law enforcement system, a contaminated structure populated by officers who are rotten, shady reprobates. Wearing a badge, the symbol of accountability and protection of the rights of individuals, is a mirage.

This film has not much more going for it. The narrative is weak, most of the action takes place in Mexico involving drug lords, missing money, and the grisly consequences of deceiving the chief “honcho” – a welcome Edward James Olmos giving a fine performance as Papi Greco a predictably conventional drug trafficker. Of course this motion picture had its obligatory car chases that I abhor and find unbelievably tedious, but these speeding, clattering scenes had the accompanying spice of the actors' dialogue filled with prosaic bickering, bringing a flicker of humor to the jolting impacts.


The confidence exuded by Wahlberg and Washington is infectious, though we are always aware of their Machismo attitude lurking around in the background and often in the foreground of the film. There is only one woman in the movie - the beautiful Paula Patton, but she has a lightweight role as the mandatory pillow talk girlfriend -  the requisite “eye candy.” Nevertheless I love to observe the way a good actor moves/dances/slides along in a scene. What he/she does with leg/arm/feet and hand gestures can be comparable to a beautifully choreographed dance. Denzel Washington has that ability and another real master of the art of using one's body as an acting vehicle is the actress Jennifer Jason- Leigh. Perhaps one day they will be in a film together as sidekicks, confidants or intimate peers. I’ll go to that one!

Friday, August 2, 2013

PAUL MCCARTHY, WS 8/1/13 - AN ART INSTALLATION AT PARK AVENUE ARMORY NYC

Paid my money and went into the Park Avenue Armory on 67th St., an elegant historic brick exterior filling an entire block to see Paul McCarthy’s exhibition WS (White Snow); the reverse initials for Disney’s classic film Snow White based on the original fairy tale written by The Brothers Grimm. The atmosphere of this vast space includes trees and a “magic” forest exuding a deceptive charm giving us an early clue to the upside down, insane/crazy, chaotic nature of this vast installation which comments and revels in the underbelly of the human psyche with the “id” totally unleashed; Dionysian orgies of yore gone mad without restraint. White Snow is innocence willingly corrupted, delightedly carousing in the  debauchery.


As if to emphasize the need to control man’s hidden scabrous temperament, there were more guards - about 20 of them – than actual onlookers (when I was there) overseeing the various “stage sets” - rooms/ tableaus depicting 3-D scenes from the 4 channel 7 hour video which is projected at both ends of the huge space.  I sat through about 2 hours of the video and actually would have stayed longer, but my friend and I had to finally leave to go back home.  I was alternately intrigued, bored, excited, humored, and surprisingly fascinated by McCarthy’s seemingly adolescent wallowing in scatology and pornography, but kept feeling that there was  “something else” going on here. I found myself intellectually aroused by the roots of this sometimes disgusting, sometimes tedious, and sometimes brilliant satirical work with roots going back to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, as well as the cinematic work of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Holland Cotter in his NY Times review compared the “Yahoos” from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the dwarfs in this presentation.

There is a personal element to this video with the psychological merging of Walt Disney and Paul McCarthy who acts the part of Walt, a boorish, fleshy participant and director of the wildly provocative proceedings, complete with mustache and toupee, and is called Walt/Paul. The production stage designs of the house and rooms are based on McCarthy’s own Mormon childhood home in Utah – that fact alone would keep psychiatrists busy for years.

 Yes I do recommend this ambitious exhibition that I anticipated really disliking. It ends August 4th, but it is not for the faint of heart and those who are disgusted by wads of blood, excrement, and lots of humping and dumping, all played out against the innocence of a much beloved childhood tale.