Friday, August 23, 2013


I'm not a fan of Lee Daniels. At all. The trailer for his latest film; The Butler, enraged me and made me laugh out loud at the same time. Forest Whitaker is one of my all time favorite actors so it saddens me to see him in a role that looks so beneath him (like almost everything else hes done in the last 7 years). Yes, I'm judging a film I haven't seen (and never will) but I know enough from that god awful trailer that I want no part of what The Butler is selling (sorry, but when you've seen as many movies as I have you earn the right to judge a book...err, movie, by its cover every once in a while just like every other human being does from time to time). Do we honestly need yet ANOTHER movie like this? Contrary to what mainstream cinema would have you believe, there's actually a lifetimes worth of original stories concerning black people that has yet to be explored on the big screen beyond stories of servitutde (no matter what kind of uplifting/drivin' miss daisy spin Lee Daniels tries to pull with The Butler).
But at the same time, the movie looks like such obvious Oscar bait that all you can do is laugh at it.
The emotions that Daniels' work brings out of me is mostly negative but at least he gets my blood pumping...or boiling I should say. That counts for something. There's filmmakers I LOVE that I couldn’t care less about these days or bring myself to write more than a few sentences on (Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, etc) so Lee Daniels should really be humbled I'm taking the time to write about something that concerns him.

Criticizing & trashing a guy like Tyler Perry is pretty pointless nowadays. His films are awful but his core fans will remain his core fans for life so what’s the point of wasting time breaking down why I hate his work? The world of Tyler Perry is pretty separate from mine and I hope it stays that way. But Lee Daniels is a name that’s breaking in to my world/film scene and I'm not very comfortable with that. Like Tyler Perry, Daniels' films show a predictable/one-sided view of black people that I feel has been explored enough in cinema at this point. What’s worse is that people are just eating his stuff up and praising him. I remember back in 2009 at the NY Film Festival all anyone could talk about was Precious while works like The White Ribbon (probably one of Haneke's best) & White Material (a much better film concerning black people on a global scale) were getting less attention.

But The Paperboy (2012), the story of a journalist (Matthew McConaughey) and his brother (Zac Efron) trying to solve a murder that an innocent, although bad, man (John Cusack) has been wrongly convicted of, is Lee Daniels' ONE fascinating film that I cant stop thinking about. I'm man enough to admit that I feel stupid for passing this up at Toronto last year. I'm sure I would have had the same reaction that I did when I saw this for the first time a few months ago (anger, confusion & fascination) but it would have at least stimulated my mind unlike the large majority of disappointing stuff I saw at the festival last year. I certainly don’t love this film unconditionally but at the same time I cannot fully dismiss it. On one hand, this film is made up of elements that I'm either indifferent towards (John Cusack's presence) or downright don’t like (Nicole Kidman's post-op face & Macy Gray's voice). Then on the other hand, The Paperboy is also made up of things I DO like: the new "re-born" Matthew McConaughey (who owes a lot of his cinematic "rebirth" to this film), complex characters that you cant either root for or against and the kind of trashy noir-ish atmosphere found in a Jim Thompson novel (The Paperboy is definitely a distant cousin of The Killer Inside Me). Like his contemporary; Nicholas Winding Refn, Lee Daniels draws inspiration from various cinematic sources with this one. Imagine a young John Waters fresh off of making Pink Flamingos & Female Trouble setting out to make an Oscar contender under the control of a studio, influenced by William Friedken's Cruising and Carl Franklin's One False Move and you kinda got The Paperboy.

I don’t mean to make a comparison between Daniels & Waters just because they’re both gay, American, male, directors but at the same time there is a sense of style that modern gay male filmmakers have over a lot of modern straight filmmakers (with the exception Michael Mann who has style over just about everyone). I can’t put a word or phrase to it but if you're familiar with Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, early 90's era-Gus Van Sant, John-Cameron Mitchell, Greg Araki, Xavier Dolan and a few more openly gay modern directors, I think you all get that particular uncategorizeable cinematic style I'm talking about. Lee Daniels certainly isn’t on the same level as some of the aforementioned filmmakers but he has earned his spot among them with The Paperboy. Actually, The Paperboy has many connections with the cinema of some of the gay directors I just named. Besides the fact that Daniels deals with hidden/repressed homosexuality in The Paperboy like Todd Haynes did with Poison, Velvet Goldmine & Far From Heaven or Kalin did with Swoon or John Cameron Mitchell did with Hedwig & The Angry Inch, my issues with The Paperboy are very similar to my issues with Haynes' Far From Heaven (lets also not forget that Paperboy co-star Zac Efron starred in a John Waters re-make and Nicole Kidman's performance is very reminiscent of her performance in Gus Van Sant's To Die For)...


If you read my review on Far From Heaven you'll see that I was a little conflicted by Todd Haynes, who is openly gay, creating such a shitty, cowardly, GAY character in the form of Dennis Quaid. Yes, in a perfect world anyone should be able to create any type of character they want, but with such discrimination and misguided hatred towards gay people in society, I just felt that Quaid's character (a cheating, abusive husband) didn’t help the cause. But that’s my own personal point of view. I'm sure Haynes felt he knew what he was doing. Lets also not forget that Far From Heaven is the greatest acting Dennis Quaid has ever done in his life. With The Paperboy, by the end of the film Daniels makes every prominent black male character out to be some disturbed, dark, sadistic homosexual. Once again, Lee Daniels does NOT carry the weight of all black & gay people on his shoulders when he makes a film. He can make whatever he wants and craft any kind of character he wants. Don't get me wrong, just about every character in The Paperboy is messed up in some way but its on another level with the black male characters. In one scene, Matthew McConaughey, who has been keeping his homosexuality a secret up until this moment, gets tied-up, beaten & raped by a group of black men he tries to hook up with. A few minutes later, David Oyelowo, McConaughey's journalist "sidekick", reveals to Zack Efron that he's also gay (and also not British as we were lead to believe) in a very sinister way like its some dark dirty thing. Neither of these moments sat well with me and to this day they make me uncomfortable. I'm not uncomfortable with the homosexuality either. I'm uncomfortable that whenever something homosexual is revealed in the film it’s associated with violence, shadiness & aggression concerning black men. What’s even more strange is that all this came from the vision of a gay, black male (Daniels). To take this a step further, Matthew McConaughey's character is clearly a self-hating homosexual. He likes to be beaten, cut & abused while having sex and doesn't even tell his brother, whom hes very close too, about his sexual orientation. Actually, when McConaughey's character reaches his demise (he gets his throat slit by Cusack), he seems to find joy in the pain. Are there, or were there, strands of the same self-hatred in Lee Daniels? It’s so strange for someone (Daniels) that’s part of such a specific (often discriminated) demographic (gay black man) to paint characters that are part of that same specific demographic in such a sinister way. If anyone reading this has seen the film please let me know if I'm reading to deep in to something or if I'm WAY off in my analysis.

To call this film "trashy" is an understatement. But that’s not exactly an insult. Lee Daniels has to know this film is somewhat trashy. He seems to embrace it in the same way John Waters embraces the trashiness in his work. Not to say there aren’t some serious & complex issues in this film (repressed homosexuality, murder, rape & deep-seeded family drama) but at the same time, there's scenes involving Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron, John Cusack jacking off while Nicole Kidman teases him from across the room and Efron is half naked or at least shirtless in half of the film in a way that makes you go "...hmmmm". Lets also not forget this film is set in the deep, swampy south so everyone is sweaty & greasy looking which adds to the overall trashiness.

With the exception of Nicole Kidman, who plays John Cusack's wife and Zac Efron's love interest, Daniels does a pretty good job of creating that retro/1970's feel. Yes, he falls in to that trap filmmakers sometimes fall in to by giving the male supporting characters sideburns (what other way could a filmmaker convey to the audience that the film is set in the 70's without sideburns?) but besides that, the music, wardrobe and atmosphere is pretty authentic.
McConaughey's performance was the BEST part of this film for me. I honestly didnt expect The Paperboy to take the dark and somewhat sad turn it did towards the end. I didnt even think much of his character until the last 30-40 minutes then I did a 180 (so did the film in a sense) and he became the most interesting person in the whole story. I dont know if this is his greatest performance but its definitely up there with the best work he's done in his career so far.
Ever since seeing Zac Efron in Linklater's Me & Orson Welles I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in any film geared towards adults over the age of 25. His overall performance in this isn't anything great (some moments are a little bad) but he plays angry very well in this and he certainly doesn't ruin the movie like I'm sure a lot people would have assumed.
What's interesting about John Cusack's performance is that I couldn't really see anyone else playing his part yet for some reason I didn't really get anything out the performance he gave. This was his opportunity to hit a homerun supporting performance (his character is in the entire film but only in a few scenes that are spread throughout) and it just felt a little flat.

Even though its kinda like the "black sheep" of the family, The Paperboy is part of this new un-even/problematic/overrated yet interesting group of films that explores the south in either a poetic/Malickian style (Aint Them Bodies Saints, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Ballast, etc) or in a mysterious backwoods kind of way (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories, etc). Personally, I'm only a fan of Ain't Them Bodies Saint & Ballast out of all those films, but they still make up a scene/movement that deserves to be mentioned.

The Paperboy makes me wanna see The Butler even less than I already wanted too which I didn’t think could be possible. Beyond the repressed homosexuality and murderer there's some race issues in The Paperboy too. There's one scene where Zac Efron loses his cool and calls David Oyelowo's character a nigger and throughout the film Daniels subtly shows the degrading & unglamorous side of being a maid (specifically through Macy Gray's character whose unique, one of a kind mannerisms are put to good use in this film). Instead of hacky & embarassing moments of racism there's some sly moments that show racism and the power dynamic between black people and white people in the south back in the day. It bothers me that Daniels is following up his exploration in to the shitty side of being a servant in The Paperboy with a film that appears to show the "up" side or respectable side of being a servant with The Butler. Once again, I haven’t seen The Butler (and I won’t) but you and I both know that the trailer for that film shows enough.

Clearly I have a lot of negative/conflicting stuff to say about the The Paperboy but I wouldn’t have taken the time to write so much about it if there weren't some redeemable qualities. If I had to rate this I'd give it a 2 outta 5 stars for the first half and a 4 outta 5 stars for the last half. I seriously recommend this to everyone (Lee Daniels fan or not) because I could really talk about this one for a while. So on some level this film IS kind of a success...


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