Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:



March 6, 2010


 Greetings again from the darkness. A sequel?? How dare they? When I first heard that Tim Burton was taking on Lewis Carroll’s story, I was very excited. What better director to take on this most peculiar work than the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice, Batman Returns and others? The man is a visual genius. But a sequel??

Early in the film, we find an almost 20-year-old Alice being proposed to in front of a large crowd of Victorian high society types. She spots a rabbit in the bushes and excuses herself, chases the rabbit, and quickly falls down the rabbit hole. The wild ride begins.

Mr. Burton’s visual feast takes Alice (Mia Wasikowska) through many of the situations we (and she) are familiar with. The main difference is this is her “return” trip to Wonderland and she is no longer a little girl. She is told her destiny is to defeat the Jabberwocky so that the evil Red Queen’s ruling power can be assumed by her sister, the good white queen. This destiny takes Alice through many sites and characters we don’t often see.

Johnny Depp is cast as her friend the Mad Hatter and delivers yet another unique, full-bodied performance.  His “mad” look is achieved through a bird’s nest of red hair, giant yellow saucer-sized eyes and make-up that would make Lady Gaga jealous. The Red Queen, who captures the Hatter, is played wonderfully by Mr. Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter. She has marvelous voice inflections and is as quick with an “off with their heads” as she is a “I need a pig”. Her sister, the White Queen, is played oddly but beautifully by Anne Hathaway. The sibling rivalry is a hoot.

We are treated to voice work from three of the best ever: Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and Alan Rickman. Unfortunately, Mr. Lee and Mr. Gough have VERY limited lines, but it was nice of them to contribute. Also contributing are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Matt Lucas.

Once I adjusted to the fact that this was not a re-imagining of the original works, but rather more of a sequel or next step, the film worked fine for me. What I did miss was the amazing word play of the great Lewis Carroll. Of course, anyone who actually understood his writings will probably be a bit bored with this version. Luckily, that affects very few!

Mr. Burton’s visuals are successful and will probably appeal to most ages. The 3-D seems to have been an after-thought and is most effective with the really cool Cheshire cat. The youngest kids will struggle to follow the Mad Hatter’s accent-heavy dialogue, but the pictures and characters (Tweedle-Dee and Dum) should be enough to keep them entertained.