Monday, August 19, 2013

The Butler (Lee Daniels); Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler); Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

The butler didn't do it

Lee Daniel's The Butler (director's name included reportedly for copyright reasons) really should read: Lee Daniel's Forrest Gump. We get a similarly hapless, helpless hero bouncing his passive way through recent American history, though Daniels does refrain from digitally inserting his protagonist in every famous archival footage in recent memory--at least we're spared that travesty. 

I'm guessing though what Daniel's really striving for with this story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the White House butler who served seven presidents (based loosely--very loosely--on the story of Eugene Allen), would be popular audience response to Gump's feel-good version of history (we experience in swift succeeding order institutional oppression; physical, mental suffering; decades of bad prosthetic age makeup; and ultimately and eventually vindication, triumph) combined with the kind of respectful accolade granted to filmmaker James Ivory and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro for their film Remains of the Day, about yet another butler (Anthony Hopkins) serving in the cusp of history. Not an easy task, though--Ivory directs with an aesthetic severity that sucks all the pathos out of the material; you actually find yourself gasping for air in the film's hermetically sealed screen space (my favorite of Ivory's works, possibly) while Hopkin's unceasingly smiling butler stand invisible and invincible in one corner. 

Daniels doesn't suffer any severity, except perhaps the ADHD kind: his movie makes Robert Zemeckis' picaresque romp through the decades look positively Japanese with subtlety and restraint. There isn't a dramatic confrontation or emotional breakdown or historic occasion he can't shove in your face and up your nose with his ten-ton touch; this is coercive emotional porn of the worst sort, shameless propaganda shrieked out from the rooftops on the remote chance that perhaps you didn't get the message. I found myself hiding behind the seat before me, trying to avoid the sheer obviousness of it all (case in point: the picture's final death is telegraphed at least minutes before it actually occurs, causing me to exclaim: "Can't believe he's going to do it--oh, he did it!").

A shame, because there are some honestly powerful moments to be found here. Daniels builds some surprisingly potent comic-horrific contrapuntal rhythms from the sequence where Gaines' rebellious son (David Oyelowo) insists on keeping his chair at a whites-only lunch counter while Gaines seats honored guests at the White House dining room; later Daniels intercuts between Gaines listening to Nixon talking about undermining the Black Panthers and Gaines' son listening to the Panthers speak similarly brutal language. In moments like these Daniels makes a cogent point: that estranged father and son aren't so far apart in their struggles and aspirations as they would like to think they are.

Whitaker does plenty with an indrawn breath or a slightly lifted brow--but he isn't working with a screenplay from an Ishiguro novel, nor does he enjoy the deft guidance of a James Ivory (at one point Gaines actually quotes a line, not from the Ivory film but from an interview about the film, where Hopkins summarized his character with the observation that ideally a room should feel emptier when the butler is present; Hopkins actually makes you feel that vacuum while Whitaker with no small help from Daniels fails--possible because the feat requires subtlety). Whitaker's role (heroic restraint in the face of dramatic circumstances) also bears striking resemblance to Cherry Pie Picache's emotionally wounded-up surrogate mother in Brillante Mendoza's Foster Child--only Mendoza doesn't provide dramatic catharsis and spiritual uplift at the end of his film. 

What Daniels has done (or failed to do) can't help but make me better appreciate Eddie Romero's achievement in his Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (The Way We Were Then, The Way We Are Now, 1976)--yet another hapless Gump figure traipsing his way through history, only with tongue pressed firmly in cheek. Comedy solves a lot of problems in historical chronicles--you are forgiven the unlikeliest coincidences, you're excused from maintaining a wearying fidelity to realism, the same time comedy is constantly analytical; it tends to take an issue apart and hold it up for close examination, and properly used it can still develop an emotional wallop. The Butler could have used a bit more analysis, a lot less  catharsis; at the very least Daniels could have used more comedy to cut through all the cheese he poured over his huge steaming pile of nachos. 

Coming home

The impact of Ryan Coogler's intensely felt Fruitvale Station is belied by the relative innocuousness of the title: unless you know about or heard of what happened you'd be thinking the film is some kind of documentary on San Francisco's mass transit system.

It's some kind of document all right: the final twenty-four hours of Oscar Grant III, a young black man arrested and shot to death (accidentally, not-so-accidentally) by transit police on New Years' Day, 2009.

I've no large issues with the film's ending--far as I can see it's a powerful piece of filmmaking, apparently well researched and for the most part accurate. I like it that the more overtly brutish and possibly racist of the transit officers (Kevin Durand) isn't the one who fires the fatal shot; that it isn't quite made clear--or at least Coogler manages to recreate the confusion at the time--whether or not Grant's hands were handcuffed at the time, or if (as the officers claimed) he was really reaching for his waistband in an apparent attempt to draw a gun (he was unarmed). I think Coogler with the less-than-coherent imagery and editing is trying to make a larger, more powerful point: that a black man's existence is in such a state of ferment and turmoil his life can be cut short at any time, just like that.

Coogler makes a similar point earlier, in a subtler manner: Grant and his friends board the fateful train which pulls away; the camera stays put and as the train blurs into motion the passengers inside become shimmery and ghostlike, almost as if they threaten to flicker completely out of existence. Lovely, memorable effect.

More troubling I suppose is his recreation of the earlier part of Grant's day. Coogler doesn't hide the fact that Grant is a repeat criminal offender, that he has used drugs in the past and is still using, and that he's less than faithful to his girlfriend. On the other hand he plants little hints here and there that tend to mitigate these character flaws--to cite three: he loves dogs, he's seriously thinking of quitting drugs, and if he flirts with a pretty girl it's mainly to help her out at work.

The first hint is the most problematic; the entire incident did happen--but to Coogler's brother, not Grant; Coogler admits to trying to establish a metaphor, that Grant is like that pit bull, a basically goodhearted creature with an unhappy reputation. The second (giving up drugs) was apparently discussed by Grant with his mother and girlfriend--though no one actually saw him go so far as to throw away an expensive bag of grass.

Can't help but liking the third little detail--for a while there you're not sure if Grant is being helpful or trying to pick up the girl, and the actor Michael B. Jordan plays up this ambiguity beautifully; also, this is one of the few details that seems to have some basis in fact, as the grandmother did say he called her asking for her fish recipe.

Think Coogler weakens his film when he tries to mitigate his protagonist's many flaws, when he tries to both present the flaws and defend his protagonist however indirectly from the uglier implications of those flaws. Coogler misses the more difficult but possibly more rewarding argument: that no matter what faults Grant may have (and even if every accusation leveled at him were true he'd hardly be the worst person aboard that train) he didn't deserve to be shot in the back, lying on his belly on the floor of that station.

Still it's a harrowing experience, and call Coogler irresponsible for picking the aftermath of the Treyvon Martin case to release his picture, I'm willing to admit the film articulates something, a frustration we feel on the issue of race in America: we may have come a long way, but have an even longer way to go. 
Much to-do

Joss Whedon's adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is pretty much what you'd expect--sexy fun--but I didn't expect it to be so much of a piece with the rest of Whedon's work. Smart and attractive people dealing out wit in intricately woven, kilometric lines? That's so--Buffy. Or Firefly.

Not saying Whedon's managed to pull Shakespeare down to the level of television (well-made television); time and time again he's borrowed characters, situations, ideas from The Bard--he's just taken a major source of inspiration and brought it to the big screen. Plus he goes on to demonstrate how unintimidating Shakespearean English can be, if you've got a cast of actors confident enough and deft enough to wrap their lips around all that archaic (yet still playable after all these centuries, still of-the-moment pertinent) dialogue such that the meaning is not only clear, but the actors clearly had fun speaking them.

Helps that much of the film is casually--even carelessly--shot and cut together, giving the very opposite impression of a formal Shakespeare drama; Whedon has things hopping and we're put on alert trying to keep up with his lively sense of pace. 

If Much Ado feels so Whedonesque, the grounds on which the play is performed--Whedon's own house--feel so, well, Italian, or at least Santa Monica California doing its level best to be Italian (the play is officially set in Messina, Sicily). This along with (as Whedon himself notes) the film's extensive use of window panes, glass, reflections, candlelight, sunlight and shadow play on classically Shakespearean themes like deception and truth, of something or someone or someplace pretending to be what she, he or it is not, from that pretense forging a new truth--or at least a more persuasive lie.

There's a bright side (Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice's (Amy Akers) belligerence hiding a budding affection for each other) and dark side (Claudio's (Fran Kranz) festering distrust of Hero (Jillian Morgese, in her debut role), fanned by the machinations of Don John (Sean Maher)). Matters come out right in the end (this is a comedy after all), but Whedon doesn't stint on the more pessimistic implications of the play, as mistrust and misogyny wrap their tentacles around Hero's helpless form to the point that even her own father Leonato (Clark Gregg, in arguably the finest, most understated performance here) accepts the calumny directed against his daughter with heartchilling speed, and the only ally she can reach out to is her friend and confidante (and fellow woman) Beatrice. People in distress act instinctively, and Hero's instincts have her choose along gender lines--that's how it is, the play seems to say, though it also makes you wonder: why should this be so? Why do women more easily trust women, why do men put much more faith in men, and should Hero continue loving a man who has demonstrated so little of both?

Hero and Claudio's relationship produces much of the play's drama; Benedick and Beatrice's churns up much of the comedy--but also much of the warmth, as theirs is the older story with more than a bit of history, and not just in the play. Whedon fans recognize the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice as the famously star-crossed lovers in his series Angel and call it cheap fan service, but watching them consummate that tragically brief romance in this modestly scaled, sloppily shaped Shakespearean comedy is like having a little ribboned gift presented for our delight. Ackers and Denisof aren't just a pair of pretty faces: you can tell they're totally comfortable with each other, and the developing fondness on their faces isn't just skilled emoting, it's genuinely felt. Wonderful fun.


1 comment:

Noel Vera said...

Zero what? The movies discussed? This blog? Why fire up so many neurons to make so pointless a gesture?

Oh well. Doesn't seem to be an ad. Maybe even adds a touch of mystery to my comment section.