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HILLARY FOR PRESIDENT?

Are we ready to have the Clintons in the White House again? According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, Democrats certainly are. The poll showed Hillary Clinton currently holds a six to one lead over anyone else in her party. HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, the new biography by Jonathan Allen (the White House bureau chief for Politico) and Amie Parnes (White House correspondent for Washington paper The Hill), explore whether she can go all the way this time, taking readers from her devastating defeat in 2008 through her transformative period as Secretary of State. Bring your most burning questions about the Clintons for what should be an insightful conversation.

Wed., Feb. 12, 7 p.m., 2014

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CALL TO ACTION

Two years ago, Bill McKibben was arrested in front of the White House and thrown into jail for leading a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. In his new memoir, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, the environmentalist and bestselling author of Eaarth and The End of Nature recounts his journey as he learns how to solve the world’s growing environmental problems. From a Vermont beekeeper’s hives that produce honey sold locally to the picket line in Washington, D.C, where he managed to start one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in decades, McKibben, founder of 350.org, presents ways everyone can get involved in the fight against global warming. Tonight, he launches Oil and Honey as a part of the Brooklyn Book Festival’s Bookend events.

Wed., Sept. 18, 7 p.m., 2013

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SCREEN GEM

Two years ago, Bill McKibben was arrested in front of the White House and thrown into jail for leading a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. In his new memoir, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, the environmentalist and bestselling author of Eaarth and The End of Nature recounts his journey as he learns how to solve the world’s growing environmental problems. From a Vermont beekeeper’s hives that produce honey sold locally to the picket line in Washington, D.C, where he managed to start one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in decades, McKibben, founder of 350.org, presents ways everyone can get involved in the fight against global warming. Tonight, he launches Oil and Honey as a part of the Brooklyn Book Festival’s Bookend events.

Wed., Sept. 18, 7 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 20, 7 & 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 21, 7 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 22, 2 p.m., 2013

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Our Nixon Reveals the White House’s Home Movies

Few political figures have given liberals of a certain age more pleasure than Richard Nixon. To watch such an unrepentant and obvious liar fall so far, and so spectacularly, was something to behold in 1974. For anyone politically cognizant at the time, his resignation represented the glowing, Venn-diagram center of disillusionment and hope: Your country’s leader could use the scummiest tactics to preserve his little fiefdom (terrible), but he could also be brought down (amazing). Now, of course, we live mostly in the disillusionment segment of the diagram: We monitor even the leaders we essentially like, just to make sure they’re worthy of our trust. But the fall of Nixon will always shimmer like a golden flame in our memories. As a friend of mine often says, he’s the gift that keeps on giving.

On that score, Penny Lane’s debut feature documentary, Our Nixon, should be pure pleasure. Beginning in 1969, three White House newbies—Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Chief Domestic Adviser John Ehrlichman, and the youngest of the bunch, Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin—took up their Super 8 home movie cameras to chronicle their exciting new lives in the political spotlight. That footage was seized by the FBI as part of the Watergate investigation and then stored away, forgotten for nearly 40 years. Our Nixon collects some of the choicest bits, integrating images of long-ago White House Easter egg hunts and lunar landing footage with little-heard excerpts from the White House tapes that ultimately brought down Nixon and his cronies. Interspersed are clips of after-the-fact interviews with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, all pussyfooting around their guilt and culpability.

The result is more entertaining curio than revelatory document. Our Nixon doesn’t really tell us much more about Nixon or these three henchmen than we already knew. Some of the footage here is mundane, blandly cheerful family-related stuff: Chapin’s kids cavorting with a sinister-looking Easter Bunny on the White House lawn, for example. Some of it is mildly historically relevant: There are a few shots of Haldeman wearing a furry hat and stubby suede gloves, standing in front of China’s Great Wall in 1972, turning his own camera on whatever camera is turned on him. There’s footage of Nixon at daughter Tricia’s wedding, wearing a proud-papa tux and looking as dapper as a guy like that possibly could. In between, there are images of the nefarious commander-in-chief descending from various planes and entering various rooms.

The images have the grainy, vaguely faded look you’d expect. Sometimes they seem snoozily familiar; other times, they resemble strange missives beamed from another planet, a long-ago, faraway place where some residents hover above all other workaday beings, puffed up with their own status—their invincibility is a given. This isn’t intended to be a complete history of Watergate: For that, there’s nothing like Mick Gold’s magnificent 1994 BBC documentary miniseries Watergate (not available on DVD, though you can watch it on YouTube). Our Nixon is intended as a more intimate portrait of these key figures in the scandal, and Lane does give us a sense of them as human beings, particularly in her clever culling of later TV interview footage: We see an older Dwight Chapin circa 2007—his baby-face handsomeness having given way to sad, saggy jowls—speaking with dewy-eyed fondness about how thrilled and excited he was to be part of the Nixon White House, and how he, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman used to goof around. He makes the trio seem as cute and harmless as puppies.

For a second or two. Mostly he just evades blame, as we see Haldeman and Ehrlichman doing in similar TV interviews conducted before they died (Haldeman in 1993, Ehrlichman in 1999). What’s more intriguing is the way Our Nixon chronicles the president’s growing paranoia, though that’s mostly evident in voice clips from the tapes, not from the Super 8 footage. We hear him grousing to Haldeman and Ehrlichman about some show he watched on TV, where a nice, average, working guy is made to look ridiculous by his hippie son-in-law. (He was talking about All in the Family.) He complains about then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s being interviewed by some girl journalist he probably met in a bar, without showing any evidence that he knew who the girl in question was. (It was Oriana Fallaci.)

In the end, though, Our Nixon is an elusive piece of work. It doesn’t add much to our understanding of the man himself, though admittedly, there may not be much more that we want or need to know, anyway. The one truly startling bit of footage shows the president, in 1972, introducing the Ray Conniff Singers at a White House event, almost apologizing in advance for how straitlaced they are: “If the music is square, it’s because I like it square.” But one member of this squeaky-clean outfit turns the tables on him by holding up a banner handwritten with the words “Stop the killing” and offering a brief, impromptu lecture on the immorality of the bombing of Cambodia. We don’t get to see Nixon’s reaction, but we can guess what it was. It’s a bold moment, and an invigorating one. If nothing else, Our Nixon may open up the joys of hating Nixon to new generations.

Kicking Dick: It never gets old.

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The Butler Finds Urgency in the Conventional

At the movies, straightforward storytelling, the kind in which a director and his cast push a story forward in waves of action and feeling, has become so out of fashion it’s almost avant-garde. Moviegoers, it seems, need to be cool: not too moved, not too surprised, not too impressed. We wouldn’t want to be taken in, would we? We know we’ve seen it all before—even when we haven’t.

We haven’t seen a movie like Lee Daniels’s The Butler. The world of mainstream film wasn’t teeming with multigenerational sagas set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, nor is it rife with movies in which all the white actors—big ones—appear only in supporting roles.

The Butler—a sort of mini-history of late 20th-century black America as seen through the eyes of one longtime White House domestic worker, played by Forest Whitaker—is blunt where it needs to be. Sometimes it’s too didactic or sentimental. But unlike Daniels’s previous pictures, Precious and The Paperboy, it doesn’t pretend to audacious storytelling. Daniels is that rare contemporary filmmaker who’s not afraid of melodrama. The Butler is so old-school it feels modern: Stylistically, it could have been made 30 years ago, but its time is now.

The Butler opens, inauspiciously, with stiff voiceover: Whitaker’s character, Cecil Gaines, tells the story of his childhood picking cotton in 1920s Georgia. Cecil learns early on that he’s at the mercy of the white folk for whom he and his parents work. The plantation owner’s son (a sociopath played by Alex Pettyfer) first rapes Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey) and then murders his father (David Banner). As a grudging act of recompense—you’d hardly call it kindness—the family matriarch (played unflinchingly by Vanessa Redgrave) invites Cecil into the big house to train as a domestic servant, though that’s not the phrase she actually uses.

The invitation changes Cecil’s life. He learns good manners and discretion, qualities that serve him well when he eventually becomes a waiter at a swanky hotel (Clarence Williams III is the supervisor who gives him his big break) and later earns a slot as a butler at the White House, where he serves under eight presidents, beginning with Robin Williams’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Others are played by James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman, all impeccably cast; Schreiber’s LBJ is particularly robust, barking orders from the toilet seat as his beagles flop around him like tired minions.)

The Butler is adapted from a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, detailing the story of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen. (The movie’s official title, changed at the last minute as the result of a lawsuit instigated by Warner Bros.—which released a short called The Butler in 1916—is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, though no normal person is going to call it that.) Danny Strong, writer of HBO’s Game Change, fleshed out the story and enlarged its scope.

Cecil is happy enough in his line of work, which allows him to ably support his kids and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). But his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), chafes under the status quo; he first becomes one of the Freedom Riders and later joins the Black Panthers. You could call that a basic generation-gap screenwriting contrivance, or you could call it a smart way to dramatize the turmoil and necessary change brought about by the civil rights movement. It’s both: Cecil may yearn for white people’s respect, but his children understandably want to push for more.

In Precious, the characters were walking symbols for the worst horrors of inner-city life. The Butler puts its characters first. Daniels re-creates some of the most potent and horrific images of the civil rights era, including those of young black protesters being blasted with firehoses. But his approach is, for the most part, more personal than instructional. You can see where everyone’s coming from in The Butler, why some characters are afraid to ask for more while others dare to demand it.

Daniels’s history lesson isn’t always graceful. At times The Butler suggests, far too optimistically, that the presence of servants of color in the White House actually helped shape policy, and sometimes characters declaim rather than speak. In a recent Parade interview, he explains that when he showed the movie to his family, his 30-year-old nephew asked him, “Did some of this stuff really happen?” a question Daniels found distressing. In the same interview, Winfrey, asked if young people today know enough about the civil rights movement, was even blunter: “They don’t know diddly-squat. Diddly-squat!”

Then again, one person’s history lecture is another’s common sense and straight talk. When Cecil says, in voiceover, “Any white man can kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it,” it’s impossible not to think of Florida today.

There’s something else going on here, too. There are more terrific black actors in Hollywood than there are good roles they might actually land. The Butler creates an open, freeing space for lots of these performers. Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia: Everybody’s good. Whitaker is one of those observant, understated performers who says everything between the lines. His Cecil has spent a lifetime being deferential to white people, but as one character cannily points out, subservience can be quietly subversive.

Winfrey may be the finest of all. You’d think she might turn Gloria into a snoozy role model. Gloria is flawed (she drinks), but Winfrey knows when to go for laughs, too—she takes the role seriously without making it self-serious. One of Gloria’s big dreams is to visit the White House, but she has to wait a long time for it to happen. (Mrs. Reagan—played, like a tiny powerhouse, by Jane Fonda—is the first First Lady to extend the invitation.) That’s part of the reason Gloria resents her husband’s dedication to his job, and to his presidents, particularly the kindly, anxiety-ridden JFK.

One night, after she and Cecil have been arguing, Gloria rouses herself from bed—she’s just a little bit sozzled—and goes over to her vanity mirror, where she applies a coat of lipstick as meticulously as only a truly angry woman can. She taunts her husband: “I bet you wish I spoke French, just like Jack-ay.” There’s bitterness in that moment, but Winfrey also makes it funny. This is the opposite of great-lady acting—it’s something much better, more vibrant and alive, and whatever The Butler‘s flaws may be, Winfrey’s off-the-cuff fortitude is emblematic of its spirit. Daniels has made a proper movie, with all the conventionality that implies, yet it’s progressive in its heart. Sometimes the best way to fight the power is to bend it to your will.

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White House Down Is the Most Sharply Observed Spoof Comedy Since Team America

Surprising proof that Hollywood still can craft a memorable studio comedy, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down stands as a singular achievement in parody, its auteur’s intentions be damned. It’s not just a pitch-perfect attack on every risible plot point afflicting today’s all-exposition-and-explosion filmmaking, it’s also a mad liberal’s vision of an America beset by white wingnut terrorists, set in a sketch-comedy White House so broad that if you didn’t know Jamie Foxx was starring as its president you might guess it to be Leslie Nielsen.

Apologies if revealing that the terrorists are Stormfront-types strikes you as a spoiler. Doing justice to the breadth of hilarity on display here will involve divulging some details, but the film is as crazy-dumb durable as a Twinkie. Lifetimes could pass with me spilling its secrets, and it would still sit there, spongy and triumphant.

That would include celebrating, in point-by-point specifics, the delicious way every single thing any person says or does in the first half-hour pays off much later in the most rousing, ridiculous ways—in moments audiences will applaud out of appreciation that, at last, the most shameless tricks of the most shameless directors have been exposed by a master satirist. Remember the hurt you felt when Spielberg, in that Jurassic Park sequel, threw a set of uneven bars into a dino-island storage shed just so the acrobatic skills the tween daughter had mentioned on the mainland could come back to dispatch those raptors? A bit of flag-team heroism in White House Down does to that moment what Airplane did to Airport, what Walk Hard did to Walk the Line, what Emmerich’s own The Day After Tomorrow did to real global warming. The tragic is inflated to sublime comedy.

(Sorry: spoiler for Jurassic Park: The Lost World.)

Anyway, if a stupid moment has turned up in too many movies, it’s here, too, only funnier. I probably shouldn’t mention that a straight-arrow character’s weirdly comic ringtone—”The Spanish Flea”!—heard in the first 15 minutes might happen to be crucial in the last 10. Or that there’s key exposition embedded in the scene where a know-it-all kid schools a White House tour guide—a tour guide who later stands up to armed, murdering terrorists to defend a precious vase. (Pronounced vahzz, of course, just like Margaret Dumont would. She was also in comedies!) Or the way that Emmerich—whose other comic mode is idiot destruction à la Jonathan Winters at the gas station in It’s a Mad, Mad World—actually finds a way to stage a car chase without leaving the White House. Three armored SUVs circle the North Lawn Fountain, like Chevy Chase’s family stuck in the Parisian roundabout in European Vacation, which is nowhere near as funny as this movie. Then the president of the United States fires a rocket launcher out the window of a car while terrorists are machine-gunning him—a vicious burlesque, perhaps, of Harrison Ford’s President Bad-Ass back in Air Force One.

There is a story to all this. Set in a science-fiction America where nobody’s ever seen Die Hard, White House Down imagines that, in the name of peace, wise President Jamie Foxx has asked Congress to pull every American troop from the Middle East because he has struck a bargain with the new president of Iran. The opposition party’s speaker of the house objects, for some reason. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum (playing a character whose name I bet he, too, would have to look up) is visiting the White House with his YouTubing scamp of an estranged daughter (Joey King)—a devastating critique of movies’ impossible children.

Tatum, playing a war-hero D.C. cop, interviews for a job with the Secret Service and is told by his old friend Maggie Gyllenhaal that, ick, he’s too working-class to guard the president because he got C’s in college. So, his dreams shot, and his daughter not believing in him, Tatum slumps along with a White House tour, his overcooked plight skewering a common fallacy of Hollywood heroism: Every one of this character’s personal problems are solved by the bad guys’ evil scheming.

Just in time, cue the terrorists, who are actually more than mere rightwing cranks. I won’t spill their leaders’ affiliation, but I will give this hint: It’s with one of the industrial complexes.

From there we get the most sharply observed spoof comedy since Team America. All the conventions of PG-13 suspense films take their well-deserved knocks: The dozens of dead hardly bleed, the word “fuck” is only spat once during the greatest crisis America’s ever faced, children endlessly weep with guns in their faces. (“What monsters would take this material seriously?” the movie seems to be asking.) Eventually, Foxx and Tatum team up, kill some assholes, tenderly treat each other’s wounds, and leave you hoping the producers ponied up for the rights to play “I Will Always Love You.” The shootouts aren’t as clear or funny as the ones in those paintball episodes of Community, but you’ve seen much worse.

My favorite bit: Foxx says, early on, in a bang-on parody of a vapid hopeful speech, that his peace plan will prove the pen is mightier than the sword. Later (spoiler!), in the Oval Office, the chief bad guy quotes that back. Guess what non-weapon object President Foxx then jabs into his neck. Come on—guess!

Often, the hilarity is indisputably intentional. If you think you’ll laugh and clap, try it; if you know you’ll hate it, you’re right. A fun drinking game: Once the dramatic eight-minute countdown clock starts, estimate how long it takes to get near zero. I guess at least 25 minutes.

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ON THE WATERFRONT

Sure, we love indulging in ’80s films in the park during summertime, but we don’t mind that alt-movie house Film Forum is giving outdoor screenings a bit of sophistication with six international films playing at Socrates Sculpture Park Outdoor Cinema. A collaboration with Rooftop Films, the festival runs every Wednesday for eight weeks of movies, music, dance, and food, with the Long Island City waterfront as a backdrop. It opens tonight with Our Nixon, an all-archival footage documentary of Richard Nixon’s presidency shot with a Super 8 camera by three of his young, ambitious White House aides (who would all later go to prison).

Wed., July 3, 7 p.m., 2013

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Olympus Has Fallen Gets All America! Fuck Yeah!

The first of this year’s dueling Die Hard in the White House opuses (to be followed in June by Roland “Independence Day” Emmerich’s White House Down) begins with a slo-mo Old Glory and the first horns and snare drums of composer Trevor Morris’s John-Williams-on-steroids score—and, well, things get a lot more “America! Fuck yeah!” from there. Directed at a jingoistic fever pitch by Training Day‘s Antoine Fuqua, Olympus Has Fallen quickly hurtles through the bare minimum of exposition—a square-jawed, newly widowed POTUS (Aaron Eckhart); a brooding ex–Secret Service hotshot (Gerard Butler) who blames himself for the First Lady’s death—before unleashing a small army of North Korean baddies on Pennsylvania Avenue’s most desirable address. What follows is an all-you-can-eat buffet of shlock, from the retro, Robocop-era visual effects to the Delta Force–worthy parade of Oscar winners and nominees in peril (Secretary of State Melissa Leo, Speaker of the House Morgan Freeman, Secret Service Director Angela Bassett, Army Chief of Staff Robert Forster) to the utterly shameless 9/11 imagery (including Beltway tourists crushed by chunks of an imploding Washington Monument). A Red Dawn for the Tea Party era, Olympus Has Fallen is pretty ridiculously entertaining—or at least entertainingly ridiculous—for long stretches, dulled only by the realization that there are many parts of the country where this will play as less than total farce.

Slideshow: 15 Movie Presidents We Wish Were Real

 

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Mr. Cuomo Goes to Washington (To Beg for Cash)

New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s got a busy day ahead of him in Washington D.C. — which includes meetings with White House officials, the House speaker, and the Senate majority leader — where he’ll make the case for New York’s need for a $42 billion appropriation to help the state recover from Hurricane Sandy.

Initially, the governor thought $30 billion in federal coin would do the trick. Last week, however, Cuomo said the state needed $32.8 billion in reimbursements and an additional $9.1 billion to help rebuild — and modernize — New York’s infrastructure.

This, of course, is happening as federal lawmakers duke it out over how to keep the country from going over the so-called “fiscal cliff.” So $42 billion for the Empire State might be a tough figure for the governor to achieve from the cash-strapped federal government.

Cuomo’s tentative schedule is as follows:

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Cuomo’s tentative schedule is as follows:

12:30 PM Governor Cuomo Meets With White House Officials
The White House
CLOSED PRESS

1:45 PM Governor Cuomo Meets With Appropriations Committee Chairman and Vice-Chairman Senator Daniel Inouye and Senator Thad Cochran
Hart Senate Office Building (Room SH-722)
CLOSED PRESS
Note: Meeting will also be attended by Senator Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

3:00 PM Governor Cuomo Meets With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
U.S. Capitol Building (Room S-221)
CLOSED PRESS
Note: Meeting will also be attended by Senator Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

4:00 PM Governor Cuomo Meets With House Speaker John Boehner
U.S. Capitol Building (Room H-232)
CLOSED PRESS
Note: Meeting will also be attended by U.S. Rep. Pete King, U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, and U.S. Rep. Bob Turner.

4:30 PM Governor Cuomo Meets With Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi
U.S. Capitol Building (Room H-204)
CLOSED PRESS

5:00 PM Governor Cuomo and Members of New York State’s Congressional Delegation Hold Media Availability
Capital Visitor’s Center (Room 202)
OPEN PRESS

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High Noon

Dir. Fred Zinnemann (1952) A film loved and loathed by the both the right and left—Eisenhower adored it; John Wayne hated it; Bill Clinton screened it at the White House 17 times—Zinnemann’s real-time Western concerns the conflicts of conscience of both Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his new Quaker bride, played by Grace Kelly in her first major screen role.

Sat., July 21, 2, 4:30, 6:50 & 9:15 p.m., 2012