REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

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Maps to the Stars
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Bruce Wagner
Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack and Evan Bird

Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg’s latest nightmare, is an emotionally violent, incestuous drama staged in the Hollywood Hills.  Like Paul Schrader’s recent The Canyons, this film’s Los Angeles has a radioactive glow; its bleached-out skies make it impossible to see where the sun is during the day, and neon colors pop during the few night scenes.  Its characters are an equally disturbed group of frigid psychopaths and tortured narcissists.  Some are both.

For how often the movie is dominated by daylight, many of the characters look (and behave) like vampires trapped in the sun, or ants being fried by a magnifying glass.  One of them, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), even has visible burn marks on her neck and the left side of her face.  Her brother, troubled teen star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), is the only noticeably tan one, and he’s also the most well-adjusted to the movie’s world of tormented excess.

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REVIEW: The Butler

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The Butler
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia

There seems to be a much bigger movie lurking behind this version of The Butler (I refuse to type out Lee Daniels’ The Butler every time so deal with it).  With so many celebrity cameos as presidents and first ladies, it must have been a hell of a thing to cut into something that Harvey Weinstein would release.  Robin Williams gets maybe five minutes of screen time as Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jane Fonda has only one major scene for her much-hyped turn as Nancy Reagan.

And yet, for all the wishing and hoping that there was more, what’s here is powerful enough on its own.  The Butler is the story of the mid-twentieth century that the movies (and Mad Men) never really have the balls to tackle.  It is that of the ideological and generational feud between black domestic workers and their Freedom Riding children.  Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have created a sporadic epic that, despite its flaws, packs quite the punch.

Their movie is not just the story of any black family, though. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a servant of presidents and, as his wife (Oprah Winfrey) likes to brag, sworn to secrecy about what he hears.   His life is based on Eugene Allen, a butler during eight administrations in the White House.  Cecil provides a middle-class living for his family, which also includes sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (played as a child by Isaac White and as an adult by Elijah Kelley).

Louis grows up to be heavily involved in the civil rights movement when he goes to college in Tennessee.  The lunch counter sit-in he takes part in with other activists is the movie’s most grueling, effective sequence.  Daniels places the camera at the center of the impossibly brave young men and women as they are shoved, degraded and eventually arrested.  He brings the movement to vivid life through Louis’ character, and Oyelowo is terrific in the role.  Louis’ fraught relationship with Cecil provides the movie with its theme, and Daniels certainly doesn’t waste any of the movie’s 132 minutes.

In fact, I would almost have preferred The Butler as a miniseries or, at the least, as a three- or four-hour movie.  While everything here makes perfect sense, it’s amazing how much emotion Daniels is able to draw out of the movie when it zips through most of its history like a fifth grader trying to rush his homework.  The famous names that dot the marquee (except Whitaker and Whinfrey) seem like marketing pawns, though Alan Rickman is enjoyably out of place as Ronald Reagan.

THE BUTLER

The Butler is most rushed in the beginning, when Cecil is a young boy working on a plantation where, in the span of two minutes, he hears his mother being raped and sees his father murdered by the same man.  The punch of this sequence comes when it becomes clear he can just leave, he’s not a slave.  Daniels orchestrates this scene with no sense of place, it could have happened a hundred years ago or fifty.  This suggests that institutional racism is its own form of slavery, something that the rest of the movie echoes.

From that plantation, Cecil makes his way into servitude, which is the occupation he builds his working life around.  As he says several times in the movie, he has one face for his family and friends, and another while serving white people.  Though the racial policies of each president changes, Cecil still serves them the same.  There is no triumphant comeuppance to Richard Nixon when says he wants to “gut” black power groups.

Whitaker is very good at channeling the conflicting pulls inside Cecil.  As angry as he gets when Louis shames him for his job, he always seems to absorb it as if it’s true.  Winfrey, who is certainly the biggest celebrity draw to the movie, is also quite good as his wife.  This story shows us that they’ve built a life together, one that exists outside the movement even though it intersects with it unavoidably.  While Louis becomes deeply rooted in the civil rights movement, their other son fights in Vietnam.  All the while, Cecil must “appear invisible” to the commander-in-chief who oversees it all.

Because of its attempt at a total illustration of African American experience in this era and not just the struggles, The Butler becomes a blatant confrontation against every white-washed movie about racism, most importantly 2011’s The Help. As self-serious as the movie may sound, it is often fairly light on its feet (Liev Schreiber’s Lyndon B. Johnson rants while taking a shit).  This is, after all, the same director who brought us the wonderfully trashy detective story The Paperboy last year.  In both movies Daniels brings a playful, cinematic sense of the sixties while also honestly illustrating the not-so-invisible racial dividers embedded in this country’s DNA.  That this movie actually has a chance of reaching a mainstream audience, though, makes it all the more thrilling.

Grade: B-

CANNES REVIEW: The Paperboy

The Paperboy
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Lee Daniels & Peter Dexter (screenplay), Peter Dexter (novel)
Starring: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack

The morning screening of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy was greeted with loud boos as well as sincere applause at Cannes, embracing the inevitable debate that will likely follow it when it washes up in the U.S.  It is a highly stylized look at 1960s Florida that transports the fashion and the social constraints without laying it on too thick.

Daniels’ directs the hell out of the movie, deconstructing the typical murder thriller plot into something that deliberately denies the audience a satisfactory conclusion.  There are scenes that wildly break the tone and stick out like a sore thumb, like a decidedly awkward, sort-of sexual early encounter between Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte and her imprisoned flame Hillary (John Cusack) during their visitation in front of his lawyers.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich

For fans of the work of Charlie Kaufman, a predisposition to a realm of absurdity is often acquired after watching one of his screenplays unfold.  Approach any of his works with the intention that you will be taken somewhere new, and that that place will be filled with wonder, terror, and more honesty than reality could ever contain.

In Being John Malkovich, Kaufman has crafted his magnum opus.  Inside the expansive confines of his world lie countless punchlines, absurdities and insights, most of which deal with the nature of identity.  This is a world filled only with people who go for what they want, because those who don’t don’t matter.  It’s extremes like these that guide the often childish characters through the narrative and ultimately to a conclusion that offers no simple answers.

It begins with a puppeteer named Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) realizing his dream is impossible in his own body.  He decides to apply this childish pastime onto something in the corporate world.  He gets hired as a file clerk (because of his fast fingers) on the 7 1/2 floor of a gigantic office building.  While working there, he falls immediately in love with Maxine (Catherine Keener), an attractive, manipulative, and greedy woman who leads him on, and then ultimately cuts him loose.  This is until he discovers the portal.

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