James Marsden

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

I like what I like, and just because the critics have lauded your work, or it’s popular – that doesn’t mean I will be inclined to join the herd.  Some of director Lee Daniels’ filmography includes movies that I don’t prefer.  That’s no knock on his filmmaking, but rather a commentary on his subject matter. I’ve seen Monster’s Ball, which he produced, and I thought it was an excellent film.  It could not be described as a “feel good” movie, however.  I don’t typically enjoy “heavy” movies that settle over the viewer and linger long after the credits have rolled.  For this reason, I avoided Daniels’ Precious, though I understand that it was a powerful film.  With The Butler, he has decided to do that annoying Tyler Perry thing where he makes sure that his name precedes the movie title,* but I’ll overlook it – because The Butler is quite simply a tour-de-force contribution to contemporary American cinema.  It deserves immediate consideration alongside other American classics with the manner in which it interwove American history seamlessly with wonderful dramatization.  This is arguably the best movie of the summer, and a must-see film.

The Butler is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served in the White House for 34 years, which is my entire lifetime.  Forest Whitaker (The Last Stand) stars as Cecil Gaines, a fictional version of the titular character inspired by Allen.  The art of being a butler, particularly one at the White House, requires a certain temperament and character.  The movie begins by depicting the circumstances that shaped Cecil’s life and developed his character.  He grew up on a cotton farm in the South, where his father (David Banner, This Christmas) worked as a sharecropper.  Although slavery was long over, the power dynamic remained unchanged in many Southern states.  At an early age, Cecil learned that resistance against the status quo might cost you your life.  As meager compensation for a family tragedy that he witnessed, Cecil was brought in from the field into the house, where he would be trained as a “house nigger,” cultivating a strict attention to detail that would serve him well in his life’s work.

Cecil eventually left the cotton farm and found work as a servant, working under the tutelage of an elder butler (Clarence Williams III, American Gangster) who further refined Cecil’s skillset.  He explained to Cecil that there is one face that you show Whites, and there is your true face that you show everyone else.  I was conflicted in my perception of Cecil’s work at various times throughout the movie.  On the one hand I was put off by the inherent subservience of his tasks, particularly the necessity with which he faded into the background, as if the notice of his mere presence would be an affront to his employer.  On the other hand, there is a quiet dignity in the position, and the attention to detail indicated an impressive work ethic.

Eventually Cecil’s impeccable job performance landed him a position at a posh Washington hotel, which is where a White House employee was so impressed that he notified Cecil when a service position became available at the White House.  Cecil began working at the White House during the Eisenhower Administration and would come to know each President’s eccentricities and disposition.

The film chronicles Cecil’s tenure at the White House as America evolves over the decades and through the various Administrations.  Initially his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, Beloved) is pleased with Cecil’s esteemed new position, which affords him the ability to be sole provider for his family.  However, she eventually begins to feel neglected as he spends more time away from home, enraptured with his job.  He becomes fast friends with fellow employees Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr., Red Tails) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz, The Hunger Games).  Gooding turned in a scene-stealing performance as the crudely affable Carter, while Kravitz added quiet gravitas to his slight role.  The film was rife with notable actors, which I will address later.

The Butler’s strength lies in its artful juxtaposition of Cecil’s life at the White House with the social upheaval of the 50s, 60s and 70s.  While Cecil worked daily in a sterile, sanitized environment, America raged beyond the White House walls, careening to and fro down an historical path.  Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo, Jack Reacher) was at the forefront of these tumultuous times, participating actively in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.  One of the more effective scenes in the movie depicted this juxtaposition perfectly, expertly highlighting the divide between father and son.  While Cecil meticulously sets banquet tables for a State Dinner, Louis and his classmates participate in a sit-in, where they are abused and taunted by White patrons.  As the father serves his country literally through servitude, his son rails against his country through active (though peaceful) resistance.  It is not until much later that father and son realize that they are not so different after all.

The Butler is an authentically American movie.  It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants a brief synopsis of a critical time period in American history.  Viewers who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War will recall those difficult times, and younger viewers may be startled at a glimpse into an America that is far different from the land we now call home.  Actual events from history were dramatized in startling fashion, and the fear that characters experienced was always underscored by the jarring reality that this in fact did happen.  There was a scene where Louis and his girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia, The Kids Are All Right) rode a bus on a “Freedom Ride” through the segregated South.  Their bus was stopped, and a racist mob descended upon them.  Their fear was palpable, and there were factual touches interspersed with the dramatization.  This is a testament to Daniels’ deft hand, and a slew of Oscar nominations should be forthcoming.

The performances in this film were amazing, as the cast includes a virtual who’s who of names, from Robin Williams (The Big Wedding) as Dwight Eisenhower to Jane Fonda (The Newsroom) as Nancy Reagan.  Cecil’s relationship with each president was unique, though he may have been partial to JFK (James Marsden, 2 Guns) due to his influential civil rights legislation and the fact that he brought a unique family dynamic to the White House with his youth and small children who brightened up the place.  The only President for which I noted a hint of disdain was old “Tricky” Dick Nixon, ably though briefly portrayed by John Cusack (The Frozen Ground).  Many characters were important figures in American history (past presidents and cultural icons), but were only minor pieces of the movie, like Martin Luther King, for example.  It is a testament to the film that so many wonderful actors played such small roles.  The film is weighty and substantial in every respect, from casting to direction.  Forest Whitaker embodied Cecil Gaines’ quiet strength, and his servitude belied an understated courage.  Whitaker gave the performance of a lifetime, and he should be in contention for another Academy Award.  Actually, you could tell me that any one of this prolific cast was in consideration for an Academy Award, and I would deem them worthy.

I loathe long-winded reviews, but how could I cut this short? It was a sweeping film that covered an expansive time period in American history, and I wouldn’t do the film justice if I didn’t address the more compelling aspects of the storyline and the attendant performances.  Some movies simply must be seen.  The Color Purple and Forrest Gump come to mind for some reason.  Even if you aren’t crazy about either of those movies – they had to be seen.  Similarly, The Butler is required viewing. Grade: A+

*After writing this review, it came to my attention that Daniels and the movie studio had legal reasons for titling the movie this way, so my comparison to Tyler Perry wasn’t warranted. Still funny though!

2 Guns

What do movies and sports have in common?  Match-ups.  It’s all about the match-ups baby.  Some cinematic pairings just get us excited, like the prospect of Mark Wahlberg (Pain & Gain) and Denzel Washington (Flight).  Washington is a living legend, and Wahlberg has cemented his place in modern cinema with critically acclaimed turns in films such as The Fighter and The Departed, for which he received Oscar nominations.  The action comedy is on the rise lately, and 2 Guns tantalized moviegoers with the rare opportunity to see Washington bring levity to a performance.  Unfortunately, even charismatic leading men can’t save a goofy script.

Washington and Wahlberg are Bobby Trench and Michael Stigman (Stig), respectively.  When we meet the pair, they are hatching a plot to rob a small bank to swindle a drug lord named Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) out of his holdings.  They each have distinct reasons for wanting to pull this caper, but each is keeping the real reason a secret.  At first blush we think these two are criminals, after all who else would be robbing a bank?  In actuality they are both “undercover” in their own way, with Bobby being a DEA agent and Stig having firsthand experience with naval intelligence, despite the appearance of being a career criminal.

As each plays fast and loose with the law, the viewer is left wondering if our protagonists are corrupt or just deep undercover.  Bobby tries to convince fellow agent Deb (Paula Patton, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol) that the robbery will serve as a way to nab Papi, while Stig is beholden to corrupt superior officers (James Marsden, Straw Dogs) within the Navy.  Their plan goes awry when they find out Papi’s bank vault yields a much larger heist than expected.  Not only do they need to ascertain the origin of the surplus money, they must ward off several factions who will stop at nothing to retrieve it.  Complicating matters is the fact that Bobby and Stig can’t really trust each other after having lied about their true identities.

I’ll start with the positive.  Washington and Wahlberg have tons of chemistry and good comedic timing.  I don’t have an issue with their performances at all; my issue is with the source material.  The storyline was simply foolish and muddled, and much of the characters behavior was far-fetched.  The screenplay marks the big screen debut for writer Blake Masters, who has previously worked in television.  Maybe his next effort will be more successful, although 2 Guns appears poised to have a solid opening weekend.  Nevertheless, it takes more than two talented leading men to make a successful movie, even if the pairing looks like a “slam dunk.”  Even a dynamic duo like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro aren’t a sure-fire success if the script is wanting (see Righteous Kill).  If those two legends can team up for a dud, no tandem is above reproach.  The rest of the cast did little to bolster the movie, and it will not be remembered as a summer standout.  I’m not saying it was horrible, just very mediocre – in spite of its two stars.  Grade: C

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission


Straw Dogs *spoiler alert*

I looked forward to Straw Dogs for a few reasons.  First off, it looks like my kind of movie: dark, unsettling, and potentially delving into some real human emotion and touching on some  intriguing psychological themes.  Secondly, it features a nice piece of man candy in Alexander Skarsgard, better known as vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood.  I like Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) and James Marsden (X-Men: The Last Stand) too.  So it stands to reason I would have enjoyed Straw Dogs, a remake of the 1971 thriller of the same name which featured Dustin Hoffman.  Well, I didn’t dislike it but I can’t say I really enjoyed it either.

David and Amy Summer have relocated temporarily to Amy’s hometown in Mississippi for a reprieve from Hollywood.  David is a screenwriter and Amy is a modest television star.  Her father has recently died and they need to settle some things with his home.  At the local bar they meet Amy’s old high school flame Charlie, a tall handsome former football star that time has forgotten.  He and his cronies remember Amy well, and they haven’t changed much.  David is clearly out of his element, surrounded by hyper-masculine drunken good old boys who admire his Jaguar and wonder why his shoes have no laces.  Amy is every bit as lovely as she was in high school, and her fancy Hollywood lifestyle and husband stand in stark contrast to her humble beginnings.  It’s almost as if her selection of David as a mate is a rejection of Charlie and his way of life.  It sounds like a bit of a stretch, but Charlie makes it clear that he still has a thing for Amy.  His lascivious stare and inappropriate gestures are obvious, though David does nothing to discourage it.  In fact, he hires Charlie and his gang to patch up the roof of the barn next to their remote property.  His reasoning is that Charlie is an old friend of Amy’s, so why not give him some work.  This proves to be a decision that has devastating consequences.

Tensions rise out at the house, as Charlie and company start working.  They are already drooling over Amy, lamenting missed opportunity with her while inwardly snickering at her choice of man.  There is no excuse for their leering, but she doesn’t help matters by jogging around in barely-there shorts without a bra.  She complains to David, who tells her to dress more appropriately.  This scene is a bit of foreshadowing David’s inability to protect and defend his wife.  When the family cat is found hanging by its neck in the closet, Amy demands that David take action.  He seems reluctant to point the finger at Charlie and his gang, though it’s unlikely that anyone else could be responsible. Instead of confronting the men, David seems as if he is still looking for acceptance from them.  Instead of proving his manhood by sticking up for his wife and making her feel safe; he seeks to prove it by showing this group of goons that he’s one of them.  When they invite him to go hunting, he accepts.  Unbeknownst to David, the hunting excursion is really a ruse to get David to leave Amy unattended at the house.  While David roams about in the woods, Charlie and another crony invade the Sumner home and victimize his wife.  These are men that went to high school with Amy, they are not strangers.  They view her as an unattainable object, one that has transcended their current station in life.  I think it is just as much about David as it is Amy.  They don’t view him as a man.  They don’t respect his relationship with his wife and they question his ability to protect her.  Violating Amy is a twisted assertion of their manhood, and a cruel thing to witness.  Even more unsettling than Amy’s rape was the aftermath.  Amy doesn’t tell him what has happened, and he has no idea that his wife was violated by the same men he has refused to confront.  Now that David was duped into hunting and embarrassed, he is ready to fire Charlie and his men.  Amy calls him a coward, and we as viewers know why.  She can’t expect him to know intuitively that she was raped, but he’s done nothing to inspire confidence up until this point.

When David fires Charlie the next day, the stage is set for everything to come to a violent head.  When the local town hothead (James Woods) and former high school football coach comes looking for his daughter’s mentally-challenged would-be boyfriend on the Sumner property – things turn nasty when David refuses to give him up.   This was the final act of the movie, the big payoff.  I enjoyed seeing Charlie and his fellow brutes get their comeuppance, but the final scene did not undo my previous frustration.  Why is David more protective of a stranger he barely knows than he was of his own wife?  Straw Dogs had the potential, but something fell short.  I do think it captured the almost imperceptible delineation between football and religion in the South, and the simplistic but happy way of life found beyond the bustling metropolis.  Something was missing though. Perhaps the original is more rewarding.  I think I’ll cue up the Netflix…