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Audrey Kupferberg: Lee Daniels’ The Butler And Blue Jasmine

Two films currently showing in area theaters are LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER and Woody Allen’s latest film BLUE JASMINE.  Both are serious films about aspects of the human condition, and are recommended to audiences who are willing to view film as a mirror to real life.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER comes to us from – yes, of course—producer/director Lee Daniels, who is remembered for his award-winning feature PRECIOUS.  The fact that he has included his name in the title of his new film is a bit odd, since others have worked to write and produce and present this project.  For instance, Danny Strong, whose credits include MAD MEN, GILMORE GIRLS, and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, wrote the fact-based screenplay about Cecil Gaines, a young African-American cotton picker whose life spans near-slavery and racial segregation, through the civil rights movement, to the election of an African-American President.

For much of the 20th Century, Cecil Gaines served a string of U.S. Presidents as a White House butler.  LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER attempts to parallel national and world events against the lives of Gaines and his small family.  The film takes us from lynchings in the American South of the 1920s, to the mid-century Freedom Riders, then later to the rise of the Black Panthers.  All the while, we are privy to Gaines and his family—a wife who drinks and then does not, a son who is an activist, and a son who fights in Vietnam.

Forest Whittaker plays Gaines with determination and dignity, but it is Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines who commands the screen more powerfully than any other actor in this film.  This is an Academy Award level performance.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER provides a spiraling view of 20th Century history, as its personal story unfolds.  At times, the film tries too hard and is a mishmash of stock footage.  At other times, the editing is awkward and the narrative is unbalanced, and it obvious that cuts have been made without regard to narrative clarity.  Even so, this is a film that is provocative in its willingness to tell a story of racial hatred, of inhuman treatment of blacks, one that should make responsible Americans weep with shame.

BLUE JASMINE is Woody Allen’s new film, and it is brilliant.  For those expecting lots of laughs, forget it.  But don’t stay away, because this is a gripping drama about a middle-aged Park Avenue rich bitch who has lost everything.  Now she pops pills and swigs them down with Vodka.  She frequently loses her grasp on reality and flies off into memory—often talking aloud to herself in public places.   CateBlanchett is perfect as Jasmine, and her performance certainly helps to make for a successful film.

But what really is stunning about BLUE JASMINE is Woody Allen’s beautifully crafted screenplay.  The dialog is almost non-stop, and expresses Jasmine’s sick mental state.  For the first half hour, the story was intoxicating yet unclear, and then gradually it took hold.   BLUE JASMINE, without offering a single good laugh, shines among Woody Allen’s most significant filmic works of art.  It is one of modern cinema’s most powerful portraits of a deranged woman.

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