REVIEW: The Butler

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The Butler
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia

There seems to be a much bigger movie lurking behind this version of The Butler (I refuse to type out Lee Daniels’ The Butler every time so deal with it).  With so many celebrity cameos as presidents and first ladies, it must have been a hell of a thing to cut into something that Harvey Weinstein would release.  Robin Williams gets maybe five minutes of screen time as Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jane Fonda has only one major scene for her much-hyped turn as Nancy Reagan.

And yet, for all the wishing and hoping that there was more, what’s here is powerful enough on its own.  The Butler is the story of the mid-twentieth century that the movies (and Mad Men) never really have the balls to tackle.  It is that of the ideological and generational feud between black domestic workers and their Freedom Riding children.  Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have created a sporadic epic that, despite its flaws, packs quite the punch.

Their movie is not just the story of any black family, though. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a servant of presidents and, as his wife (Oprah Winfrey) likes to brag, sworn to secrecy about what he hears.   His life is based on Eugene Allen, a butler during eight administrations in the White House.  Cecil provides a middle-class living for his family, which also includes sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (played as a child by Isaac White and as an adult by Elijah Kelley).

Louis grows up to be heavily involved in the civil rights movement when he goes to college in Tennessee.  The lunch counter sit-in he takes part in with other activists is the movie’s most grueling, effective sequence.  Daniels places the camera at the center of the impossibly brave young men and women as they are shoved, degraded and eventually arrested.  He brings the movement to vivid life through Louis’ character, and Oyelowo is terrific in the role.  Louis’ fraught relationship with Cecil provides the movie with its theme, and Daniels certainly doesn’t waste any of the movie’s 132 minutes.

In fact, I would almost have preferred The Butler as a miniseries or, at the least, as a three- or four-hour movie.  While everything here makes perfect sense, it’s amazing how much emotion Daniels is able to draw out of the movie when it zips through most of its history like a fifth grader trying to rush his homework.  The famous names that dot the marquee (except Whitaker and Whinfrey) seem like marketing pawns, though Alan Rickman is enjoyably out of place as Ronald Reagan.

THE BUTLER

The Butler is most rushed in the beginning, when Cecil is a young boy working on a plantation where, in the span of two minutes, he hears his mother being raped and sees his father murdered by the same man.  The punch of this sequence comes when it becomes clear he can just leave, he’s not a slave.  Daniels orchestrates this scene with no sense of place, it could have happened a hundred years ago or fifty.  This suggests that institutional racism is its own form of slavery, something that the rest of the movie echoes.

From that plantation, Cecil makes his way into servitude, which is the occupation he builds his working life around.  As he says several times in the movie, he has one face for his family and friends, and another while serving white people.  Though the racial policies of each president changes, Cecil still serves them the same.  There is no triumphant comeuppance to Richard Nixon when says he wants to “gut” black power groups.

Whitaker is very good at channeling the conflicting pulls inside Cecil.  As angry as he gets when Louis shames him for his job, he always seems to absorb it as if it’s true.  Winfrey, who is certainly the biggest celebrity draw to the movie, is also quite good as his wife.  This story shows us that they’ve built a life together, one that exists outside the movement even though it intersects with it unavoidably.  While Louis becomes deeply rooted in the civil rights movement, their other son fights in Vietnam.  All the while, Cecil must “appear invisible” to the commander-in-chief who oversees it all.

Because of its attempt at a total illustration of African American experience in this era and not just the struggles, The Butler becomes a blatant confrontation against every white-washed movie about racism, most importantly 2011’s The Help. As self-serious as the movie may sound, it is often fairly light on its feet (Liev Schreiber’s Lyndon B. Johnson rants while taking a shit).  This is, after all, the same director who brought us the wonderfully trashy detective story The Paperboy last year.  In both movies Daniels brings a playful, cinematic sense of the sixties while also honestly illustrating the not-so-invisible racial dividers embedded in this country’s DNA.  That this movie actually has a chance of reaching a mainstream audience, though, makes it all the more thrilling.

Grade: B-

REVIEW: Fish Tank

Fish Tank
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Written by: Andrea Arnold (screenplay)
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Harry Treadaway, and Kierston Wareing

Beginning with a head-on view of its protagonist surrounded by the blue walls of an abandoned apartment, Fish Tank explains its title almost right off the bat.  Mia, the 15-year-old girl occupying that frame, takes a little bit longer to get to know, though.

Director Andrea Arnold laces this confrontational tale of emerging adulthood and sexuality with vulgar language and despicable acts; more importantly, though, she fills it to the brim with sympathy.  Though Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives in the slums of Essex with her abusive mother and equally vulgar sister, she’ll be the first to tell you she’s not a victim.  In the first ten minutes, she headbutts a girl just for having the nerve to argue back at her and she attempts to free an imprisoned horse from a band of gypsies.

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The Big 10: No Easy A’s

Out of the dozens of reviews we’ve done since we started this blog, we’ve had only 10 A’s.  For a movie to deserve a perfect rating here, it doesn’t have to be perfect: it needs to be different.  It has to bring something new to the movie table, or do something old so well that it feels new.  Here are our 10 ‘A’ reviews, as diverse as an obese teenager’s quest for societal independence or a man avenging his father’s death in 19th century America.  (Side-note:  though we rarely hand out straight A’s, we’ve also only awarded one F… to a movie ironically called The A-Team.)

Amélie

Being John Malkovich

Casino Royale

District 9

Gangs of New York

A History of Violence

In the Loop

Precious: Based On the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire

Up in the Air

Where the Wild Things Are

The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar: Stuck Between a Bomb, and a Blue Face?

Image courtesy of New York Daily News

Even though there are 10 Best Picture nominees this year, as usual it comes down to a couple front-runners. As the March 7th air date approaches, two films, one of which is unexpected, have emerged as clear front-runners.

In this corner, the people’s champion; James Cameron’s high budget, jaw-dropping 3D epic Avatar. In the other corner, the critic’s darling; Kathryn Bigelow’s low budget, highly praised, action face-melter The Hurt Locker.  So, how did it come to pass that these two films made it to the top?

Avatar was always a front-runner.  Ten years in the making, big twelve million dollar camera, 3D visuals to die for- combine these three things with James ‘Titanic’ Cameron, and you have yourself a sure-fire hit.  However, it was initially speculated that either Up In the Air or, way earlier in the season, Precious would square off with it.  As the many daunting awards ceremonies have shown though, Jason Reitman’s film is really only going to expect a screenplay award, while Lee Daniels can only expect Mo’Nique’s Best Supporting Actress win for his film. How did Bigelow edge them out then?

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Precious

 

Precious: Based On the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher (screenplay), Sapphire (book)
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carrey, and Paula Patton

Who wants to watch a movie about an illiterate fat girl from Harlem? After seeing director Lee Daniels’ fiercely, unapologetically honest Precious, you will add yourself to that list.

This movie had a lot to prove. With a cast of either unknown, inexperienced, or ill-reputed fame, it proved to have one of the best ensembles of 2009. With almost no budget, no hype, and no help but what was on the screen, it won over crowds at the Sundance Film Festival and got Oprah to endorse it. In a way, this movie struggled much like its protagonist.

On the surface, this film seems conventional.  At a glance, it appears to be yet another urban tale about a poverty stricken youth escaping the clutches of the ghetto.  Then again, if this film teaches you anything, it’s to never take anything at a glance again.  Daniels makes sure you look straight on into the eyes and life of a person that you would typically pass on the street and write off as stupid and fat.

In a way, the life of Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones plays out like that of a horror movie (Frankenstein, not Friday the 13th).  She doesn’t know who she is or what she is capable of, all thanks to the lack of love present in her creators.  Where many see home as a place of haven to escape the world, Precious sees it as the strongest part of the storm.  Abused by her mother and raped by her father, Precious would interpret the phrase “There’s no place like home, “ much differently than most.

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