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"Lee Daniels' The Butler" Serves Up a History Lesson

Not since Joseph interpreted a dream of Pharaoh's shaqah has a butler been mythologized like the hero of Lee Daniels' The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who worked for eight presidents from 1957 to 1986, takes his cue from the the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen. Yet this epic drama has its own master to serve, and both Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong pledge allegiance to educating viewers about history rather than to dramatizing one man's bio.

At a recent press conference, Daniels stressed that it's not so much "a movie" as "a movement." The subservient tradition that Cecil embodies can be summed up by what he's told on day one at Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) White House: "You see nothing. You hear nothing. You only serve." What better vehicle than a butler to escort you through the Civil Rights era, Vietnam and beyond -- and teach you to speak out for justice?

A scene from Cecil's boyhood goes some way toward explaining why he'd court safety and stability at any price. In 1926 he taunted his father (David Banner) to stand up to the white master (Alex Pettyfer) who raped his mother (Moriah Carey) by the field where they were picking cotton. His father was shot dead before Cecil's eyes.

But for that Dixieland deed, the black eight year old (Michael Rainey Jr.) would not have been brought into the plantation manse by the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) to be schooled as a domestic and set on his path. Daniels aims squarely at the guts as he lays out lesson two: history loves irony, and it's the very intimacy of master-servant relations that can prod racial understanding and the delicate art of human transformation.

Fast-forward to a scene set in Memphis of 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) observes that the role of the black butler has been instrumental in "defying racial stereotypes." King dignifies Cecil's principled devotion with his impromptu sermon, "In many ways (domestic servants) are subversive without even knowing it." The target of his wisdom is Cecil's teen son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose rebellion against his father's servility leads him to become a Black Panther and supplies the emotional core of the film.

Another source of flint comes from Cecil's spouse, Gloria. Oprah Winfrey plays her with raw attunement to the careerless wife's own ordeal of subjugation. As Winfrey told the assembled press, "I am the daughter of a maid. And my grandmother was a maid. And her mother was a maid. And her mother was a slave. So the domestic worker in the speech that Dr. King gives to my son in the movie -- I feel validated by their courage; I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way." Winfrey also paid tribute to the "Freedom Riders and freedom fighters, who because of evolution and growth and change decided we're not going to do that anymore," concluding that "both wars were necessary for their time."

Recreating the anti-segregation campaigns that student activists mounted down South in the 60s gave Daniels and his cast some battle fright of their own. As the filmmaker recounted, "We were shooting that bus scene where... black men were hung from that bridge... And I yell, 'Action!' And I'm in the bus with these actors, these kids. And from nowhere come the Nazis and the KKK and the cursing and the spitting and the shaking of the bus. And I yell, 'Cut!' And they can't hear me. And they continue on. And David (Oyelowo) and Yaya (DaCosta, who plays Louis's girlfriend) and we were looking at each other like, 'What the hell?' For that millisecond I understood what it was like to be them -- not just the black kids that were there, but the white kids that were there who were willing to risk their lives for freedom. They were heroes."

From Monsters Ball and The Woodsman to Shadowboxer and Precious, little in Daniels' filmmography prepares you for The Butler besides his invitation to ponder unsavory situations from the perspective of individuals who are caught up in them.  

Liev Schreiber, who plays Lyndon B. Johnson, mused, "That's how we really come to understand history personally: (through) our own relationship to political change and how these things evolve in our lives." He continued, "Being so close to the center of the political universe in the White House, this man had this unique perspective on what should be a very political universe, and what we find out is that it's actually a very intimate and a personal one."

"Blue Jasmine" Blossoms with Cate Blanchett

The first utterances you hear in Woody Allen's new picture, Blue Jasmine, come from a manic First Class passenger who blabs on and on about herself. That passenger is title character Jasmine, whose marriage to Madoff avatar Hal (Alec Baldwin) is now as finished as her 1% coffers, and who's going nowhere fast.

She's also played by Cate Blanchett, which helps explain why we not only put up with her snobbish affectations, we can't get enough. Jasmine only becomes more riveting as she descends on her sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) shabby San Francisco apartment, where she hopes against hope to ascend back to the lifestyle she led as a Manhattan socialite.

A pitch-perfect blend of comedy and drama, Blue Jasmine is essential viewing for Allen fans. But Shoah historians may also be intrigued. To what extent was Jasmine complicit in Hal's luxury-affording crimes? How much responsibility did she bear for ruining Ginger and brother-in-law Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) financially when she brought them into Hal's schemes? Is turning a blind eye -- or denial -- the same as not knowing? 

At a recent press conference, Blanchett compared her character that royal bungler from Greek tragedy, Oedipus. "(He) Cate Blanchett Photo by Brad Balfourmarries his mother, for Godssake!," razzed the 44-year-old Oscar winner. "But it's a tragedy, because he does it unwittingly." To the contrary, she noted, Jasmine is "the unwitting agent of her own downfall in some way."

Flashing back to Jasmine's genteel past and forward to her swampy present, the drama evokes no less a fragile soul than Blanche Dubois. Allen drew from A Streetcar Named Desire down to the Gallic posings of "Jasmine"-cum Blanche, a moniker she'd upgraded from "Jeanette." Having played Tennessee Williams' poupée of self-delusion (to stout acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), Blanchett wondered aloud, "Is Blanche a compulsive liar, or is the world just set out to stamp out the poetry in her soul?" She mused that there might be "something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which [Blanche] finds herself," astutely shifting the probe to the culture that breeds such fantasists. Allen's update vests Ginger with fantasies of her own that prevent her from registering her sister's more inconvenient shortcomings. "Everyone has issues and everyone is deluding themselves to some degree."  

Enacting Jasmine, "warts and all," gave Blanchett a lot to drink in. "She's on a cocktail of various different things. Is she on Xanax? When has she not had a drink? But in the end it's the internal cocktail that was really interesting to play. She's so riddled with guilt and rage and fear." 

A more productive strain of fear fueled the shoot itself. Blanchett spoke twinklingly about Allen's genius, though she conceded that the god of timing and mood could also be a harsh god. "The audience has already left the theater" vied with "That was awful" as the director's less fondly remembered remarks.   

With Blue Jasmine, the 77-year-old auteur dispells any frets about his acuity that To Rome with Love may have touched off, and offers a fable for our time that's as philosophical as Crimes & Misdemeanors, as white-knuckle-inducing as Match Point and as compulsively watchable as (Oscar-winning) Midnight in Paris.


Top 10 Films of 2012

2012 was an enigmatic year for film. There were an unusual amount of really good films but few great ones. In any case, I present my --purely subjective-- top ten list of 2012 films...but first, the runners up.

It was exceedingly difficult to make a list of just ten but it would kind of feel like cheating if I'd stretch the list to a greater number. All of the following films were truly excellent but just couldn't secure that top spot.

Runner-ups (in no particular order):

  • Argo
  • The Avengers
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • Chronicle
  • Cloud Atlas
  • Flight
  • The Grey
  • Magic Mike
  • Seven Psychopaths
  • Skyfall
  • Wreck it Ralph

Onward to the 10 finalists:

10. Bullhead
Even though this Belgian drama was technically released in 2011, it hit the USA in early 2012 and it packed such an unforgettable punch that it's imprint lingered for the entire year. It's very rare when a film's conclusion both legitimizes the entire process and ups the emotional stake to heart-breaking levels but Bullhead is that rare film. Chartering the nature of violence and the inescapable shadow of childhood, Bullhead explores the dire notion that we do not control our destiny- it is irrevocably pieced together from our experiences. Though it is often hard to watch, it is eerily sincere in its frankness.

9. Lincoln
A stirring and smart courtroom drama elevated by strong performances across the board. It's hard to think of anyone this year who put in a better leading performance than Daniel Day Lewis an the eponymous 16th president and Lincoln scores major points just for that. Although we can debate the accuracy of this biopic, Lewis plays Lincoln as a gentle hearted idealist struggling to change the ethos of his time. The film is all about political positioning and pandering that draws a close comparison to the bipartisan politics of 2012. Tommy Lee Jones plays his typical grumpster self but in this case he absolutely kills it.

8. Prometheus
Ridley Scott revolutionized both the sci-fi and horror genres with his 1979 flick Alien and after 33 years returned to make a quasi-prequel to his cult hit. The result: Prometheus. A surprisingly quiet and talky feature about the roots of human existence, Prometheus walks a fine of being too heady and out there while occasionally stirring in goopy scares. Though some may question the true ambition behind this film, the eye popping effects, the simply beautiful visual canvas and a first-rate android performance from Michael Fassbender make this one of the years finest.

7. Moonrise Kingdom
Meticulously crafted and unapolegetically blunt, Moonrise Kingdom puts the oddness and neurosis of director Wes Anderson into the hands of pubsecent children. Featuring a host of nods to classic films from Sergio Leone to Shawshank Redemption to Lord of the Flies, it dutifully illuminates the strangeness of youth experimenting with love. Moonrise may be more awkward and less earnest than Anderson's other films but the healthy dollops of whimsy, beautiful framing and star supporting cast make it better than most other films of the year.

6. The Dark Knight Rises
Although excessively lengthy and sorely missing the Joker, The Dark Knight Rises is a perfect conclusion to one of the best trilogies of all time. It's unrelentingly dark and surely not for kids but it continues the exploration of the Jungian hero's journey in the post 9/11 era. And say what you will about Bane, but he is the first legitimate threat to the throne in terms of his brutish psychique. This is a true epic whose sprawling length and exhaustive story closes out the Bruce Wayne account in grandiose manner. While others may herald Nolan's other Dark Knight crusade as his finest, this closing chapter is nonetheless cathartic.

5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
An exercise in knowing how to make the little things matter, Perks is a touching film that's earnest and understated on all fronts. It didn't hurt that this one came out of nowhere and manages to yet managed to stick with us throughout the year. Although the story of struggling through school and finding your place has been done before, its hasn't been done with some genuine honesty. Going forth, this is the guidebook for investing an audience in a relatively minor story.

4. Looper
An imaginative sci-fi thriller chock full of hauntingly memorable moments. This is a study in the dark and imaginative that doesn't suffocate the audience by pandering to their needs . The character motivations are admirably strong and it all takes place in a really fleshed out and lived in future world more similar to the grime of Children of Men than the sleekness of 2001: Space Odyssey. It's undeniably refreshing to see a film that so aptly balances cerebral ideas and good old fashion shoot-em-up sensibility.

3. End of Watch
It would be a vast understatement to refer to this film as the best of the "buddy cop" films. Instead let's call it what it is: a powerfully acted, genuinely funny, heartbreakingly emotional piece of film with pitch perfect chemistry between the two leads. While the whole found footage format may be growing tiresome for some, it's used effectively and poignantly here resulting in our being witness to a realism that escapes most film. Our earned emotional investment in the drama that unravels is a testament to the comradery between the two seasoned leads with Michael Pena in particular giving the most under-appreciated performance of the year.

2 . Silver Linings Playbook
David O'Russell proves once more that he is a true master of character drama as this is pure magic that cuts to the heart of the human condition. It's brutally blunt, funny, insightful and real. It tenderly deals with mental illness without a thick coat of gloss and the performances are all top notch. Jennifer Lawrence is truly magnetic, Bradley Cooper is showing a new and promising side and De Niro has finally stopped calling it in and delivers a real emotional punch. Although society labels Silver Lining Playbook's subjects as "crazy", we could all learn a lesson about honest and open communication from them.

1 . Django Unchained
Django Unchained represents all that's great about cinema-it's daring, smart and challenging without being pretentious and groveling. This splatterfest symphony has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film- flashy superimposed text, snappy dialogue, terse banter, larger than life characters and an emotional revenge narrative- but it uses the backdrop of the slave-ridden south to expose the nastiness of our nations past. The sad truth- this is pulp fact, not fiction. While it's not for the faint of heart- be prepared for torrents of blood and no short measure of the "n-word"- Django Unchained is that rare masterpiece that will have you laughing out loud one moment and in jaw-dangling horror the next.

For my full review click here.


So in recap:

10. Bullhead

9. Lincoln

8. Prometheus

7. Moonrise Kingdom

6. The Dark Knight Rises

5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

4. Looper

3. End of Watch

2. Silver Linings Playbook

1. Django Unchained

So What Exactly Do The Grammy Awards Award?


Everyone -- from indie rockers to jazz legends to pop giants -- wants a Grammy Award. They also seem to have their own (usually self-serving) idea of what exactly the Grammy awards should be rewarding.

When The Recording Academy announced the 2012 Grammy Award nominees on December 5th (the ceremony airs February 10th on CBS at 8PM EST), Edward Droste of the highly acclaimed indie band Grizzly Bear was disappointed that their lauded 2012 effort Shields had not been recognized. He blamed the awards’ commercial bias. 

This is a popular opinion -- that a Grammy is an award for doing your part to keep the music industry financially viable by selling tons of albums.

Droste took to twitter to air his complaint:

@edwarddroste: So the Grammies (sic) are literally based off sales and nothing else?#bummerzone

Elsewhere in cyberspace, the manager of mega-seller (and also non-nominated) Justin Bieber seemed to confirm Droste’s worst fears, voicing this grievance:

@scooterbraun: the hardest thing to do is to transition, keep the train moving. The kid delivered. Huge successful album, sold out tour, and won people over…”

Braun’s position: Bieber did exactly what the Grammys demand. He made a ton of money. 

So if the Grammys neither reward artistic achievement nor financial success, what do they recognize? 

This year’s nominations for best album were all big-selling, relatively critically acclaimed records. The list makes it pretty clear that this year you needed a bit of both to be considered. 

  • El Camino – Black Keys
  • Some Nights – Fun
  • Babel – Mumford & Sons
  • Channel Orange – Frank Ocean
  • Blunderbuss – Jack White

The Black Keys are a lightweight blues band that pays homage to classic rock signatures while stacking up alt rock hits. 

Fun is a genre-bending pop band that references Queen and Elton John (and, oh yeah, they had two number one hits from their most recent record.) 

Mumford & Sons has championed the roots-music revival (with their own sonic twists) beloved by many critics, as well as selling over 600,000 copies of their sophomore release in one week earlier this year. 

frank-ocean-channel-orange-e1341897653302Frank Ocean, a post-Drake croon-rapper, knows how to write music that sells (he’s written songs for Justin Bieber, ironically) and edgy stuff that critics eat up (He’s part of indie hip-hop collective and critic darlings Odd Future.) 

Jack White fronted the White Stripes -- the biggest selling, critically hailed edgy-esque blues band of the 2000s. His new record, a quirky mix of blues, soul, and modern rock was a hit with the critics but lacked a big single. Still, it debuted at number one because of his existing fan base.

The winners of the prize over the last decade or so have included Adele, Taylor Swift, Norah Jones, OutKast, Ray Charles (thanks in part duets with mega stars like Norah Jones and James Taylor), Arcade Fire, Dixie Chicks, and Robert Plant with Alison Krause. All of them made their mark with critics as well as consumers. 

Were there "better" records (according to critics) than this year’s nominees or previous winners? Yes, of course.

Were there bigger sellers? Yes (with the exception of Adele, Taylor Swift, and possibly Mumford and Sons depending on how the year finishes out). But for the most part these records hit that Grammy Award sweet spot -- somewhere in the middle.

It seems like the Grammys are acknowledging artists who’ve successfully taken this middle road, making music just unchallenging enough to appeal to casual listeners and engaging enough to stand up to critical scrutiny. fun-some-nights

There’s nothing wrong with that. But why do the Grammys -- seemingly America’s most prestigious music honor -- reward this particular compromise between artistic ambition and mainstream appeal?

Most people are not professional musicians. They don’t have the room in their lives -- or even the desire -- to endlessly reflect on the deeper musical and thematic meaning of a single album or even an musician’s career. 

But even people with nothing at stake in music other than enjoyment -- given the opportunity -- like to go casually deep. This is true across all art and entertainment platforms. 

Snarky smart and well-reviewed indie-flick Juno was a box office smash ($166 million on a budget of $7.5 million) while a brainless and panned big-budget action picture Battleship was a total flop ($65 million on a budget of $209 million). 

Likewise, last year’s universally acclaimed sports documentary (by far the most popular kind of documentary) Undefeated made $166,000. 

The lesson: People like to think… but just a little. 

The 2013 Grammy nominees all present engaging but relatively non-taxing experiences. They don’t pander to audiences’ surface desires (like Bieber) or hurl them down the rabbit hole (Grizzly Bear). 

It’s easy to look down on musicians who take the middle road. In a sense, the extremes of Grizzly Bear and Justin Bieber seem more pure, more committed. 

But music that finds a middle way between hard-core self-expression and raw greed has an important place in our culture. Maybe it’s the most appropriate music to celebrate at a public ceremony like the Grammy Awards.

It’s like a Grammy is an award for being a good friend (the current nominees) as opposed to a life partner (Grizzly Bear) or a one-night stand (Justin Bieber). 

Most people don’t need to find life-partners in music. They look for that in their chosen pursuits. Those of us who are that committed to music have plenty of ways (the internet) to find albums that connect with us on a deeply personal level. 

And we’re certainly not going discover those kinds of albums on a short list of records that thousands of people kind of like a lot. That shit is PERSONAL.

On the other hand, the radio is filled with musical one-night stands that we find ourselves borderline (or downright) ashamed of next month. 

Do we really need a glitzy event celebrating them? Let’s be real. No one wants that. It would be embarrassing.

But friends -- especially good ones -- deserve to be appreciated and it feels good to do so in a public setting. They’re the ones that will talk to you about your problems but also show you a good time. They didn’t sign on to be your shrink, and they’re (probably) not going to sleep with you, but they’re always there. You don’t regret them next year but you wouldn’t die of sorrow if your lives diverged. Because 10 years from now you can call them up and they’re still your friend. 

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon offers a rebuttal that’s worth considering. 

In consoling his fellow indie rocker Droste, he writes:

@blobtower: this is why i hate the grammies. because it allows you to question what you’ve done. don’t question what you’ve done Ed.”2012-02-13T050843Z 01 LOA522 RTRIDSP 3 GRAMMYS

Music is about connecting people -- artist with listeners, artists with artists, listeners with listeners. Creating an exclusionary hierarchy by announcing (from a position of dubious authority) which music is better at that work is divisive and destructive. It sounds, looks and feels suspiciously like something non-artists would do to boost sales of their product.

And of course that is in fact what it’s about. We all know that everything anyone does for broadcast on a major network is largely about the money. My goofy metaphor about friendship starts to feel a little off when you consider that the Grammys are basically about two things: winning (ego) and money (power). 

Leave it to human beings to turn something as pure as celebrating our love for artistic and emotional transcendence into a contest over cash. 

But contests are fun! People love contests. And a lot them also love the music nominated this year. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

Vernon ambivalently accepted two Grammys last year. Speaking to the New York Times, he said that “98 percent of the people in that room, their art is compromised.”

No doubt some of the musicians he’s talking about have made a bargain with the devil. They’ve sold their artistic souls for sales. But for others, the compromise may be a little less horrifying. They’ve given up the right to plumb the darkest corners of their souls in order to reach more people in a more casual, often more enjoyable way. 

Sounds like making a friend to me. Is there something wrong with that?

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