Nov 29, 2013

The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler is like a Western Union telegram of the history of the civil rights movement and it has the same powerful bluntness. A lot of it is obvious and strained, but emotionally, it works.
It's worth comparing it to Steve McQueen's Twelve Years A Slave in that Daniels embraces artificiality in the retelling and feels no compunction in making everything as movie-like as possible; using big stars, milking the string section, and applying a thick layer of melodrama. This is great material for schoolkids (and their minders) everywhere to learn the lessons of injustice, the evils of racism, and the heroic fight for civil rights. It's Civil Rights Lite.
Paradoxically, none of the disturbing questions that arose while I watched 12 Years a Slave came up here. True, slavery is an atrocity which presents its own unique representation issues, but obviously the topics of the two films are intimately related. In The Butler, it is understood from second three that if Mariah Carey plays a poor cotton picker, we're in for the full Hollywood biopic treatment. Daniels applies very broad strokes to show the important milestones of the history of civil rights through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, a real life butler for four American presidents. Steve McQueen's approach is far more methodical and tries to detach from personal melodrama. It is a particularly painstaking reenactment of slavery. The Butler is more like the "Hall of Presidents" Disneyland ride.
There were a couple of times where I saw more than one mobile device light up to check the time; The Butler is long but not boring. Daniels is a clumsy director, but he can elicit fantastic performances from actors, and in this movie, has assembled an amazing cast, headed by the great Forest Whitaker. He is spectacular as Cecil Gaines, a humble man, a man who loved to serve, and seemed to have harbored no resentment for the terrible fate of his family and his own servitude. I cried rivers of tears throughout the movie and I suspect that it was Whitaker's portrayal of a dignified servant that moved me immensely. There is a lovely scene where he is making coffee at the White House as if it were the first and only cup of coffee ever to be served, where he embodies the selflessness, the essence of service. I don't think it is easy for an actor, much less for a modern American, to understand the mentality of servitude; but everything Whitaker does, from serving coffee, to offering cookies to visiting schoolchildren, to reading a story to young Caroline Kennedy, screams quiet, determined authenticity. He manages to be gracious and unerringly helpful without altogether losing his dignity. Whitaker destroys in this performance all those terrible, yet enduring stereotypes of endearing black servants (all the way to the execrable The Help) that have plagued Hollywood movies for years. He should be nominated for an Oscar.
The rest of the black cast is fantastic. Cuba Gooding Jr. (why isn't this man in more movies?), Colman Domingo, Terrence Howard and Elijah Kelley are great. It's fun to see Lenny Kravitz as a butler. David Oyelowo, as Gaines' son, ashamed of his father's servility, is also very good.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil's unruly wife, and she has great moments but she seems unfocussed. Adriane Lenox and Yaya Alafia are also splendid. And then we have the presidents. The parade of Hollywood stars under make up (great job overall), is lots of fun. Robin Williams as Eisenhower is the least impressive, because he is mawkish. John Cusack, although a good actor, is too cute for Richard Nixon, but he tries to deliver the slime. James Marsden is perfectly decent as JFK, but the one that steals the show, and I could not recognize him until quite a bit into his role, is Liev Schreiber as a salty Lyndon Johnson. He's got the best role in the house and he rocks it. Alan Rickman does a far more dignified Reagan than I remember him. The famous faces add to the enjoyment of the spectacle, instead of distracting. Daniels has a knack for playing fun meta jokes with casting. It is delicious to see Oprah Winfrey, the richest woman in the world, visit the White House for the first time as a plain and starry eyed housewife (she is excellent in this scene; the best one in the movie). Jane Fonda, in a delicious irony, plays none other than Nancy Reagan like the iron lady she was. She has about two minutes of screen time and she is fierce. John Cusack (in real life, a liberal pinko commie) plays Richard Nixon.
The Butler is so evidently a schmaltzy pastiche, that it could not be tolerable if lesser actors were in it. Certainly, Whitaker's performance deserves a much better movie. But here's the conundrum: 12 Years A Slave is, in terms of craft and vision, a much superior movie, a punishing ordeal that outrages intellectually, but does not really connect emotionally; The Butler, in contrast, is clumsy, obvious, at times ridiculous, but it shamelessly goes straight for the heart, and tugs real hard.

Nov 22, 2013


Philomena is the real story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who became pregnant when she was very young, was forced to have the baby by nuns in a convent, who then gave the baby up for adoption without her consent (and worse). The movie is based on journalist Martin Sixsmith's book, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith.
There is another, extremely harrowing movie about the evil nuns of Ireland called The Magdalene Sisters, by Peter Mullan, which few people saw, and which is a catalog of faith-sanctioned atrocities, all based in reality. That one, you watch at the peril of sinking into a despair from which there is no rescue. In Philomena, which is clearly intended to reach a mass audience, you'll laugh and you'll cry.
Unlike The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena is not an exposé. It is an uneasy mix of feel-good holiday fare with a very dark backbone. It is a salad of genres: a based on a true story road movie, an odd couple/buddy comedy/weepie, starring an elderly, goodhearted Irish woman (Judi Dench, aka God), and an ornery, cynical, sophisticated writer (Steve Coogan), who helps her search for her lost son.
The comedy is zippy and adroitly performed by God (never once pandering for laughs) and Coogan, who are total pros. The story has some surprising twists, and a heartwarming message about love and tolerance (the opposite of what the nuns practice).
I'm not sure that the film succeeds at reconciling the buddy comedy with the horror of Philomena's story; it tries to please and outrage the audience at the same time. Frears does a solid job; and so it is that Philomena is highly enjoyable, and quite moving, yet obvious and awkward, in spurts.
Now, back to God. Dench can effortlessly play frumpy, regular women just as well as she can play any and all Shakespearean female characters (and all the males, if she so desired), fearsome queens of England and the mother of James Bond.
With her, you never see the homework. If she cares about accents, costumes, make up or other outward tools of character creation, it's hard to tell, because everything seems to come from deep inside. She has the most spectacular vocal delivery, a precise and expressive instrument. Listen to her sibilant, malevolent voiceover narration in Notes on A Scandal (my favorite Dench film performance of all time). Words seem to have invented for her to say them.  I bet that if any movie needed to have a female God character, she'd be the first they'd call.
In this movie, she plays against type (she tends to do alpha females), with waves of quiet, powerful human emotion. Philomena is a complicated character. Determined to find her son, unsophisticated but smart, almost annoyingly forgiving. You can feel her ancient heartbreak the minute she appears on the screen. Yet she harbors no feelings of revenge (those are left for Sixsmith, who seethes at the cruelty). She is not a crusader, but her inexhaustible desire for closure has heroic stature. She shows no self-pity as the character nor self-indulgence as the actor, just enormous grace and dignity.  In this, she seems to be more truthful and authentic than her own movie.

Nov 19, 2013

Captain Phillips

There are two fabulous scenes in this movie by Paul Greengrass. When the four skinny Somali pirates, armed to the teeth in a small skiff, come on board the enormous Maersk Alabama cargo ship, and there is nothing that Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) can do about it; and the last five minutes of the film, for which Hanks may very well collect an Oscar nomination for best actor this year.
Greengrass unleashes chaos and urgency with balletic energy, helped by the jerky, yet amazingly precise camerawork of the great Barry Ackroyd. He stages the action in a "you are there" style, and while choppy, the action is always clear, which is no mean feat. After two hours of relentless quick cuts, however, it gets a bit tiresome.
Even with the tension and the mayhem, something at the center of the movie feels weak. Perhaps Captain Phillips is not such an interesting character. If, as some of the actual Alabama crew members have recently complained, the real captain was more reckless and less heroic, this could have provided a more interesting tete a tete between him and his kidnappers; an extra layer of complexity. This captain never lets the sailors' coffee break go over their allotted 15 minutes; that's as mean as he gets. Hanks, although a solid actor (with an unfortunate New England accent, alas), is incapable of not being nice. And this is a little boring. Wouldn't it be great to see him as a villain for a change? Or at least a morally ambiguous character? Billy Ray's screenplay broadly telegraphs the issues.
Muse, the main Somali pirate, an Oscar worthy performance by first time actor Barkhad Abdi, is much more interesting than him. He is more likable than Phillips, with his sly braggadocio, puffed up by the strength conferred to him by firepower. Muse is smart, reckless and desperate for money. He has done it successfully before and he thinks he can swagger himself out of the situation with a combination of reassurance and grandstanding, and guns leading the way. He even tries to use the same patronizing tone with Phillips that the American uses with him. He is counterintuitively adorable.
Now, as every kindergartner in America now knows, had the Alabama carried weapons, the four Somali punks would be reduced to dust in a hail of bullets. But apparently, international shipping routes are not red states, and the Alabama wasn't packing heat at sea. Hence the disproportionate, absurdly surreal advantage that four skeletal, raggedy Somalis had against at least two dozen burly, yet unarmed, first world sailors on a humongous ship.
What also makes Greengrass a good action director is that he is very good with actors. He has a fine eye for casting authentic looking people, and they are all well directed. The actors who play the US Navy personnel are extremely believable in their roles, with their flat affect and naturalness when spewing complicated jargon. Greengrass gets right the arrogant, colloquial tone of Americans in charge. From Phillips to any American character who speaks to the kidnappers, the tone is one of casual, patronizing, incredulous superiority, and it is pitch perfect.
Who are the pirates? Extortionists. As Muse reassures Captain Phillips in a line that elicits laughter, there is no need to fear; they are not Al Qaeda. That is, they are not a bunch of irrational haters. According to Muse, this is simply about money. But it is also about powerlessness and what schemes the powerless come up with to try to level the playing field. Muse explains that big ships from rich countries fish and deplete Somali waters, so all he is doing is collecting taxes. At one point, he says he loves America, like many who envy and resent it that are also mesmerized by all it promises. He's a businessman! But he is no Robin Hood. He's just a hood that works for an overlord who exploits him. This is how we can sympathize with him but not with his methods. We may feel sorry for his desperate poverty and his naiveté, but we are not cheering for piracy and extortion, no matter how lopsided the fight.
American might comes bearing down in full force, in this case, not to establish justice, but to retrieve its citizens and possessions in harm's way, reinforcing the abysmal power imbalance between the haves and the have nots. It is almost funny to see the orange lifeboat where the captain is trapped with the kidnappers, which looks like something out of Finding Nemo, at war and "negotiation" with the all mighty American armament.
Compared to other movies about Americans at conflict with the world, the villains here are presented in a more human scale, and so is the hero. In the end, he survives the ordeal, but he is utterly bereft of the self-possession with which he commanded that ship in the beginning. Tom Hanks, who in the eyes of Hollywood is the ideal American, like Jimmy Stewart was in the 1940's, is left rattled, shocked and almost unable to find himself. The world has changed. We may have the might; but little beleaguered countries have the impotence and the rage, which, as they have been showing us for years now, are not a joke and are not easily trampled. They can still make us tremble.

Nov 15, 2013

Blue Is The Warmest Color

It is fitting that for the first time in history, the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year was awarded to director Abdellatif Kechiche in conjunction with the two actresses of this film, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. In fact, I think the women deserve the award more than him. He gets a prize for casting them in the first place, for unleashing the miracle that is Exarchopoulos into the world, and certainly for eliciting incredible performances from both. He is hobbled, however, by a blunt, inelegant touch, and lack of discipline. With a three hour running time, I was not bored until the last half hour. Somehow, even with repetitive scenes, and an unsubtle overuse of handheld close ups, the coming of age story of Adele (Exarchopoulos) and her amour fou for Emma (Seydoux) rivets our attention. It is a story of young love, confusion and loss, and if it is moving, it is because the actresses, in their transparent emotional nakedness, make it so.
The physical nakedness, alas, is not as effective as Kechiche hoped for. The now notorious, literal and lengthy lesbian sex scenes have a dulling effect on the intimacy he aims to achieve. They feel heavy, staged, and awkward. Kechiche uses a cinema verité camera approach at all times in order to get as close to the characters' emotions as possible, but when it comes to their time in bed, the filming resembles the pedestrian hack work of porn. He clearly wants to achieve results and instead of letting the actresses explore the lovemaking naturally, which would have been much sexier, he is compelled to orchestrate and choreograph, using clumsy editing. What little imagination he has fails him, and he is unable to offer anything new, creative or even mildly interesting in the quest for rendering effective erotic scenes in film (a rarity). These scenes feel as if a plutonium bomb was dropped in a field of flowers.
Kechiche has never heard of "less is more", and his more is unfortunately, less.
I approached this film with trepidation, since I detested his last film, Black Venus, which I found indulgent, pretentious and exploitative of the main actress.
La Vie D'Adele (the original title in French) is the best he has done so far, but he sabotages his own power by being overpowering. He has no confidence in subtlety.
Exarchopoulos is a charismatic force of nature, and the only living being I could think of that is close to her animal magnificence was Brigitte Bardot at the height of her powers. Exarchopoulos also happens to be a wonderful actress, and you cannot take your eyes off her (nor does the camera). She is strong, vulnerable, transparent, lost, a marvel to behold. She is also the sexiest being to hit the big screen in a long time, so there is no need to capture her in private, either having a wet dream or taking a shower, by moving as if she were a Playboy centerfold. Her disheveled, natural self is all we need. A scene where she dances salsa with a guy is somehow sexier than all the writhing and heavy breathing and acrobatic tableaux that comprise the lengthy, distracting sex scenes with her female lover. A fraction of those borderline ridiculous scenes would have been enough for the audience to understand the pull of the chemistry between the two women. It's a pity, because the movie has moments of great visceral power, like a harrowing schoolyard argument between Adele and her inquisitorial friends, but it squanders them with too many obvious scenes of close ups of people slurping spaghetti. They are meant to signal Adele's big, sensual appetites: we get it. No need to hit us over the head repeatedly with a bowl of pasta. Opportunities to deepen our identification of Adele are lost in Kechiche's quest for getting under his characters' skins. He establishes very adeptly her confusion about her sexuality and her inner conflict with the expectations of her family and friends, and then forgets all about it. We don't need the weepy martyrdom of a gay coming of age, but it would have been revealing to see more of the parents as Adele comes into her own as an adult. Did she ever come out of the closet? How did they react?
Then there are needless scenes where Kechiche goes for the literal. It is not enough for Adele to claim she misses her lover, she needs to put Emma's hand into her mouth in the middle of a café. She needs to guide Emma's hand to her crotch. I didn't buy it. Sadly, all the pain one recognizes in Adele's devastating loss of love is blunted and diminished by Kechiche's inability to restrain himself.

The Great Beauty

A cinematic tour de force, this meandering tone poem to Rome and Italy by Paolo Sorrentino, like his movie Il Divo, resists categorization. Very reminiscent of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, it centers in the character of Jep Gambardella, played by Sorrentino's frequent collaborator, the great Toni Servilio. Jep is a jaded, cynical, well to do journalist, and elegant dresser (he wears the most astonishing bespoke clothes) who lives it up until late every night and gives us a tour of the haute demimonde of present Rome.
The movie starts at dawn, with a flock of nuns among the crumbling ruins. A Japanese tourist suffers cardiac arrest, while an angelical choir sings in a bell tower. Then Sorrentino cuts to an astonishing sequence at a party which has such verve, energy and authenticity, it sucks you in completely. This is one sweaty, vulgar, ostentatious affair, decadent as all Roman parties seem to be in Italian movies. It is here that Jep makes his first appearance. It's his 65th birthday, and there he is, surrounded by crumbling aristocrats, newfangled social climbers, media clowns, etc. Like a vampire, he lives by night, and though he is alive with curiosity, he seems permanently exhausted and disenchanted with L'Italia.
There is a plot in this movie, and a lot of humor, but Sorrentino's style is closer to that of a lush, well-funded music video. That he managed to deconstruct the political life of Giulio Andreotti in the excellent Il Divo with this kinetic style is a testament to his chutzpah and his enormous talent. He is a startlingly original filmmaker; a Terrence Malick on steroids.
Sorrentino takes his sweet time introducing us to Jep's laid back lifestyle in a series of breathtaking set pieces, enhanced by an equally breathtaking soundtrack that  brilliantly combines the tackiest party music (stuff that only Eurotrash could love), with choral music and a lovely score. The sound design and the editing are masterful. So don't be fooled by the apparent looseness of the story. Sorrentino is a gifted artist. Even though he resists the encumbrances of mechanical plot points and tight structures, the movie is coherently mapped out. It's a magnificent ride into the dilapidated heart of Rome.
At some point, Jep takes a prostitute (the daughter of an old friend, as it turns out) on a private tour of the most secluded Roman palazzos, and in a cavernous one, they wander into a bunch of old principessas playing cards. It was in that sequence full of Roman busts and centuries old art collecting dust, that I was struck by the realization that Rome was born decadent. It is as decadent now as it was during Mussolini, the 19th century and all the way back to Nero and Caligula. It is the city with the longest decline in history.
Sorrentino takes fun stabs against a sybarite Cardinal from the Vatican who loves talking about food but has no patience for heartfelt personal confessions, and teases us with the appearance of a purported ancient saint bound by a vow of poverty, who stays at the tony Hassler hotel and complains of discomfort, since she is used to sleeping on the floor. There are also crooked entrepreneurs, aristocrats you can rent for the night, and wealthy, smug communist party members. Sorrentino's witty, at turns loving and exasperated ode to Rome does not go down expected paths, and always comes up with surprises. It seems that nothing in Rome is what it seems.
The saint turns out to be legit, even though she has a creepy minder that behaves more like a rock star business manager. In his many wanderings, Jep visits a Dantesque plastic surgeon's office where people go to get Botox injections as if they were eating the host at communion. The holy surgeon happens to also give spiritual advice; even nuns come to see him.
The Great Beauty is a film about an aging city, an aging Roman and a crumbling society but it is full of life and love for Rome and the crazy mess that is Italy.  It is an experience to behold, hence it is worth watching it on a big screen with a great sound system. Let The Great Beauty wash over you in all its vulgar, lively, amusing, enervating, tragic, decadent glory.

Nov 8, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

When actors play showy roles that entail extreme physical changes, it is easy to confuse their physical transformations with acting. They lose or gain 40 pounds, and it is an enormous sacrifice, but that does not automatically deserve them nominations and prizes. A full fledged character has to shine through the physicality. Losing 40 pounds and starving to death probably helps actors embody physical and mental pain, but the great ones bring to the table more than that. They bring the truth.
In the case of Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, his extraordinary performance is as impressive as his extreme gauntness. AIDS brings about a vicious physical devastation, and it is right from McConaughey to honor the tragedy of AIDS by looking the part. No amount of make up can convey the deathly mien of this disease. McConaughey looks dangerously ill. But the life force he summons to play this racist, homophobic Texan man is heroic.
Ron Woodruff was a card carrying straight sex addict, electrician and petty hustler who found out he had contracted HIV at the beginning of the epidemic in 1985. That McConaughey is a shoo in for an Oscar and every other award in existence is a given. But look at his reaction when he is told the news in a hospital. Watch the shadow of utter terror in his eyes as he realizes how he got the infection.
He is magnificent, as he has been in every movie he's been in lately. His Ron Woodruff is a schemer, a charmer, the possessor of an outsize personality and no fear, who, out of total self-interest at first, decides to seek treatment for himself, since the FDA is taking forever to approve safer drugs. He also gets a bitter taste of his own medicine as he becomes a pariah because of his illness, at the time exclusively associated in the minds of people, with gay men.
At first he is out to save himself, but then, like a good hustler, he realizes the business potential of supplying non approved drugs to the many desperate, infected citizens of Dallas. A true American hero, in the capitalist sense of the word "American", he devises a system that will give patients the drugs they need to survive (which he finds in other countries) through a brilliant membership scheme. Then he has no choice but to deal with the "faggots" he so despises. And then he learns compassion. You can see the transformation from a hoodlum to a responsible businessman, let alone from a hater, to someone who cares.
The movie is not great. The cuts are annoying, it is not visually inspiring (which is fitting to the ugliness of the disease), the pacing is cumbersome, and every time McConaughey is not on screen, the movie seems to drag. He infuses the movie with such truth and energy, which such presence, and he is such a charmer that you root for him even when he is at his worst. He has always been extremely confident with body language (he reminds me of Christopher Walken: elegant, feline), and he has impeccable timing in his delivery, both in comedic and serious moments. Being from Texas, he doesn't have to fake the accent, and it is a delight to listen to that natural Texan drawl.
Jared Leto is also deeply affecting and sensational as Rayon, a very skinny trannie Ron meets while at the hospital. He should be nominated for best supporting actor. Both of them have moments of humor and wit, and moments that break your heart. Director Jean-Marc Vallee got absolute beauty and honesty in these two performances. At times, the rest of the film threatens to slide into movie of the week territory, but McConaughey's and Leto's fierceness, and Vallee's unsentimental approach to the subject elevate Dallas Buyers Club into the most realistic movie dealing with the subject of AIDS that I have seen.