Tag Archives: C+

PASSION

Brian De Palma is on his best behavior for the first hour or so of “Passion,” his English-language adaptation of Alain Corneau’s “Crime d’amour,” the 2010 psychological thriller about a battle between two women in the corporate boardroom that turns into something disturbingly—indeed, fatally—personal. True, he does amp up the lesbian suggestions inherent to the plot, but not to an extreme degree. But then he goes berserk in the final forty minutes, giving the last reels the full De Palma treatment of split screens, weird camera angles and elaborate tracking shots—not to mention a dreamlike, hallucinatory mood that’s a major departure from its cooler, more cerebral source. And yet while the gleefully overripe result is admittedly somewhat balmy, it certainly holds your attention even as its excesses might encourage a giggle or two. This is a guilty pleasure par excellence, the picture the awful “Femme Fatale” aspired but failed dismally to be. And it represents an exhilarating return to the director’s stylish form after the miscalculated grittiness of “Redacted.” Though you can’t logically buy into the movie in the slightest, at least you can enjoy it for the lurid trash it is.

De Palma transfers the story to Germany, where Christine (Rachel McAdams), a svelte, beautiful and ambitious upper-echelon executive at the Berlin branch of a global advertising firm, cultivates her assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), a mousy type who nonetheless has good ideas, including one for a commercial that knocks out the New York owners. But when Christine takes credit for it, hoping it will get her the promotion to the States she wants, Isabelle simmers at the betrayal and plots revenge, which includes bedding Christine’s boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson). Christine responds by humiliating Isabelle in front of the entire office and making it appear that Isabelle has threatened her in response, which sets the stage for a gruesome murder and a subsequent police investigation that ends in the apparent perpetrator being imprisoned. But all is not as it initially appears, as a series of increasingly implausible twists, some of them involving Isabelle’s own assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), ultimately make clear.

Or unclear, since frankly De Palma’s narrative sleight of hand doesn’t result in a plot that really adds up—except in the overheated fashion that some of Dario Argento’s crazier giallos can be said to make sense (watch for a stray reference to Christine’s family, for example). And his visual razzmatazz (abetted by cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, an Almodovar regular), while undoubtedly impressive from a purely cinematic point of view (a split-screen montage that juxtaposes a killing with a ballet based on Debussy is technically pretty amazing), muddies the waters still further. The result is almost a self-parody of the director’s early work, but still it’s impossible to take your eyes off it, however absurd things grow. And with his old colleague Pino Donaggio on hand to provide a background score that’s oddly upbeat until it turns to his customary shrieks toward the close, the likeness to “Carrie” and the films that immediately followed becomes ever more pronounced.

McAdams, Rapace and Herfurth throw themselves into the steamy, hallucinatory world De Palma has created with admirable abandon. Their exuberant overacting is set in even greater relief against the deliberately dull performances of the supporting cast, especially the smarmy Anderson and the cop (Rainer Bock) and prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) who are ultimately tasked with trying the disentangle the web the script has spun.

There isn’t a way in the world to describe “Passion” as a good film. But especially for those who recall De Palma’s early work with affection, it will prove a perversely enjoyable one.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER

Lee Daniels’ history-based drama can be considered a sort of sequel to “Backstairs at the White House,” a 1979 NBC miniseries that followed the experiences of a mother and daughter who served on the staff at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over the course of eight presidencies, from Taft to Eisenhower. Essentially “The Butler” takes off from there, being loosely based on the experiences of Eugene Allen, a black man who served at the White House from Eisenhower through Reagan. Using that character—but changing the name to Cecil Gaines to allow for a good deal of dramatic license—the film sets the butler’s career against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement occurring over the same period.

Curiously, the script is more faithful to the surrounding events than it is to those of the protagonist’s personal life. The actions attributed to the various presidents—shown in dramatized White House scenes but complemented by archival footage in many cases—are for the most part verifiable at least in spirit, even if they have obviously been tweaked for effect.

On the other hand, the choice of actors to play the various presidents may strike one as curious. James Marsden gets by as Kennedy, but Robin Williams never strikes the right tone as Eisenhower, and Liev Schreiber lacks the sheer stature of Johnson. John Cusack gets the shifty manner of Nixon right, though he looks little like him, while Alan Rickman is surprisingly effective as Reagan (surely there’s more than a bit of a joke in having Jane Fonda play Nancy). Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter get by unscathed, as they appear only in news footage.

Still, as a potted overview of changing presidential attitudes toward civil rights policy, “The Butler” offers a reasonably accurate sketch. That’s less true, however, of the script’s treatment of its unifying character. One can’t speak with much confidence of the portrait it draws of Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), which is presented here as a union troubled by infidelity on her part with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) who’s a layabout and gambler, until Gloria sees the light and changes her ways. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of literal truth to the story of the butler’s two sons, one of whom—Charlie, played at various ages by Isaac White and Elijah Kelley—is simply invented to serve as one of the many young soldiers killed in battle in Vietnam while the other—Louis, played by David Oyelowo—is transformed into a long-time Civil Rights fighter who’s contrasted with his father’s more cautious, deferential ways. The father-son relationship, which leads to their estrangement and eventual reunion (a schmaltzy event topped in the sentimentality department by a coda set against the backdrop of the 2008 election), is the major device that allows the film to become a personalized history of the entire Civil Rights movement. But it’s not history but historical fiction, down to Martin Luther King’s (Nalsen Ellis) observations to Louis about black domestics—though it certainly fulfills the picture’s purpose to be the story of blacks’ triumph over second-class citizenship rather than, or in addition to, the biography of a single man.

This is an earnest, well-intentioned film, less flamboyant in style than Daniels’ earlier ones (“Precious” and “The Paperboy”) but not as cinematically bland as “Backstairs at the White House.” It’s certainly blessed with a formidable cast. Whitaker underplays in comparison to the others around him, but he certainly brings unflappable dignity to the role, and shows fire in an outburst against Louis and his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) during their Black Panther period. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are energetic as two of Gaines’s White House kitchen colleagues, and Winfrey plays dowdy as Gloria, with Howard doing a rather broad caricature as the cynical deadbeat she plays around with for a while. Kelley is fine as the ill-fated Charlie, but Oyelowo has many more opportunities to shine as the committed Louis, and takes advantage of them. And in what amounts to a prologue Vanessa Redgrave is typically luminous as the sympathetic plantation matriarch who befriends Cecil after her cruel son (Alex Pettyfer) abuses the boy’s mother and kills his father, while Clarence Williams has a nice cameo as the man who teaches Gaines the tricks of his trade. Technically all is solid if unspectacular, with Tim Galvin’s decent production design and Ruth Carter’s period costumes set off by Andrew Dunn’s cinematography, which gives the images a burnished glow.

“The Butler” is obviously a labor of love for all concerned, and it’s hard not to be moved by its reflection of the struggle African-Americans have endured in their still-incomplete movement toward true equality. Of course, it’s manipulative, melodramatic and rather simplistic as well—a circumstance that puts it on a par with a good TV docu-drama. And it probably would have worked better in that format if mini-series were still in vogue.