Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NYFF50: Lee Daniels gets it just right with THE PAPERBOY, playing the festival tonight and opening theatrically this Friday

One of the most "fun" times I've ever had at the movies came from watching a new director named Lee Daniels go so far over the top in a movie called Shadowboxer that he very nearly ended up coming back through the bottom. This classic (of sorts) film, if you haven't seen it already, is a must. It stars Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, as a pair of mother/(step)son assassins who are also lovers (you're probably beginning to get the point already) and boasts an every-bit-as-terrific group of actors in supporting roles. This is must-see camp, whether intentional or unintentional, I haven't quite figured out.

Mr. Daniels, shown at left, then went on to a little movie called Precious, which Oprah got hold of and the rest is tinkered-with history. Precious, too, was over-the-top, but because it had an oh-so-needy protagonist at its center, the film came off as more "serious," even though many of us had some trouble accepting it quite like that. It was also filled with good performances (no doubt about it, Daniels corrals top actors and lets them strut their stuff), but whether the filmmaker was more interested in shocking us than entertaining and/or edifying us was up for grabs.

Now comes THE PAPERBOY, a new melodrama/mystery/
memory film, which plays tonight at 8:30 at the New York Film Film Festival (as part of its Tribute to Nicole Kidman: The actress, one of the film's stars, is shown at right) and then opens theatrically on Friday. Finally, I believe, Daniels has hit his mark almost perfectly. His new film is as shocking, sleazy, sexy, ugly and, yes, entertaining, as you could want. And when the filmmaker deals with subjects such as race, class, "otherness" and sexuality, he nails these, as well, deeply and beautifully.

The Paperboy is one of those non-judgmental movies that will drive some people crazy (all of Daniels films are and do, I think). Set in the 1960s American South, it offers a look at an entitled, white, small-town newspaper-owning family led by Scott Glenn (above), whose two sons -- played by Zac Efron (below, right, as a young man still trying to discover what he wants and needs) and Matthew McConaughey (below, left, who has moved to larger, more sophisticated surroundings as a noted reporter in Miami).

Into their lives comes one of the town's sluts (a particularly fine performance by Miss Kidman), who appears to have a predilection for prisoner lovers. Just now she's fixated on a man found guilty of murder (a commanding, shocking turn by John Cusak, below), whom she and McConaughey believe is innocent.

Stir these elements, as Daniels has done (he also co-adapted the screenplay from a Pete Dexter novel, with the help of Mr. Dexter), and you have one hell of a rip-roaring and equally unsettling film. On the envelope-pushing side, the filmmaker gives you one of the most shocking sex scenes I've yet to witness on film -- one that we, as well as the other characters present, can't take our eyes off. Later there's a post-sex scene that is equally shocking.

What gives the film its peculiar oompf is its consistent refusal to judge the behavior of its characters. It sees this behavior fully, understands it and allows us to do the same, and this goes miles toward helping us identify to some extent with everyone we see (including the character played by Cusack, who proves the most difficult of all).

Race is personified via Macy Gray (above), who is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses. Playing the maid (and kind of big sister/nanny to Efron) in the household, she captures the intimacy of her role, as well as its difficulties in navigating the rest of the family. Efron himself may have his best role yet, which he handles with the proper mix of youthful insistence and charm, along with a very normal need to rebel. His relationship to Kidman's character proves particularly painful and fulfilling.

McConaughey has already hit three home runs this year: Bernie, Killer Joe and now this (which makes Killer Joe look tame). As the brother with his own baggage and secrets, the actor is marvelous, giving a quiet, deeply felt performance. Also in the cast is David Oyelowo (at left, above and below), who is quite good as the "British" newsman working with McConaughey.  

I suppose I should not credit the movie as being great, and yet it seems to me that everything it tries to do, it achieves. At the very least The Paperboy is a great exploitation movie. From Millennium Films and running 107 minutes, the film screen at the NYFF this evening, and then opens across the country this Friday -- in New York City, the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, DC, Chicago and Fairfax, VA -- and in many more cities the following week. Click here (and then click TICKETS on the choice bar at top right) to see the complete listing of playdates, cities and theaters.

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