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-

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REVIEW: The Conjuring

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The Conjuring
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes (screenplay)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston

The Conjuring is a legitimately frightening movie without taking the gory (i.e. easy) way out.  It is at once an ode to ’70s horror like The Exorcist or Suspiria and a clever subversion of the modern “found footage” sub-genre.  The movie is so well-edited and pieced together that other people in the theater I was in shrieked and squirmed in an almost equally convincing manner as the characters.

There are two main families at play here, though the Perrons do a bulk of the screaming.  They are a beacon of working class stability, and director James Wan makes it quite clear from the beginning how temporary that is for them as they take up residence in a secluded old house.  He stalks the parents and their five daughters through the moving-in process, giving us a sense of their familial rituals while also hinting at how the script (by Chad and Carey Hayes) will later use that against them.  ,

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REVIEW: World War Z

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World War Z
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Max Brooks (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz and James Badge Dale

There is no grand re-imagining of the zombie movie with this adaptation of Max Brooks’ critically acclaimed World War Z.  Despite the hype and the presence of Brad Pitt, it is almost disarmingly straight-forward.  A contagion is spreading, turning everyone into zombies, there is a cure somewhere and a man must go find it.  And he does.  And that’s pretty much it.

Director Marc Forster ensures that it’s quite a thrilling ride, opting for frantic, well-choreographed action sequences than flesh-ripping. By the end, though, it felt like a story that, while sincere, was ignorant of the fact that this movie has been made fairly continuously for the past few decades.  It doesn’t do something new with the idea of zombies, the filming technique is similar to the frantic style of 28 Days Later but on a larger and less gory scale.

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REVIEW: This Is the End

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This Is the End
Directed by: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
Written by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg (screenplay), Jason Stone (short film)
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel

This Is the End rotates between being one of the funniest mainstream comedies in recent memory and one of the sloppiest.  If the budget had been hacked in half and forced directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to go without all the CGI demons, it would have been ten times as good.

As it stands, though, it’s hard to argue with a movie where some of the funniest Hollywood actors play themselves during the apocalypse.  Every actor is at the top of their self-mocking form, and when the movie doesn’t detour into much weaker action territory, it’s hilarious.

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REVIEW: Frances Ha

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Frances Ha
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig (screenplay)
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper and Adam Driver

Frances Ha may be the most uplifting film that Noah Baumbach has made, but with a filmography mostly defined by feuding families and the psychologically destructive aftermath, that doesn’t seem like a very difficult feat to overcome.  It is, though.  What  makes Frances Ha brilliant is that, despite the relentless, elliptical French New Wave editing and structure, it feels effortlessly modern and also retains a distinct sense of melancholy.

Baumbach’s decision to shoot in black and white (and a detour to France midway through) makes the influence of Godard and Truffaut even more confrontational.  It is still very much a movie of its time, though, with its frank if jittery examinations of female sexuality and friendship and its pleasingly liberated conclusion.

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REVIEW: The Hangover Part III

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The Hangover Part III
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin (screenplay), Jon Lucas & Scott Moore (characters)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong

Is there any point in trying to look at The Hangover Part III as anything but a petulant piece of filth?  Of course the answer is no, but in a franchise built on uncompromising filth, that isn’t necessarily all bad.  Make no mistake, though: this is a very bad movie.  The story abandons the “What did we do last night?!” set up of the first two installments, and apparently can’t survive without it.

There are scenes of abduction and violence conducted with small crowds of people looking on in the background of the shots.  Several characters are shot and killed and the every men at the center of the story are hardly affected.  And yet, there is a kind of demented charm to this final installment as we get a sense that director Todd Phillips is almost daring us to try and make sense of a series built on sacrificing coherence for gross-out.  With the aid of his three main stars, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, and a slew of others, he has created a movie that exists as a series of gags barely connected by anything other than familiar faces.

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REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Gene Roddenberry (TV series)
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana and Benedict Cumberbatch

The second installment of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot checks all the necessary boxes to make it an effective summer blockbuster, which is its biggest problem.  It feels like a laundry list of co-mingling plot points and action set pieces, more calculated business venture than artistic Enterprise.  Abrams is a good enough ringleader that all the pieces fall together nicely and the high tech toys he gets to play with are a good action showcase, but the movie will fizzle away when a new good enough sci-fi blockbuster opens in a couple weeks to take its place.

Into Darkness, despite its heftier title, is not a plunge into darker territory, as second franchise installments often are.  Sure, one of the series’ most famous villains, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), surfaces, but it feels just as light on its feet as Abrams’ 2009 reboot.  The best thing about it is still the chemistry between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose humorous ideological clashes provide the movie with much of that lightness.  There are exceptional action sequences, including an astonishing sequence of space diving to an enemy ship, but they aren’t nearly as entertaining as watching Spock attempt a romantic relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana).

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