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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc

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SECRETARIAT (2010)

September 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The story of Secretariat is legendary in the world of thoroughbred racing. Being a sports fan, it is always fascinating to witness domination by a singular athlete – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer. Secretariat was the Michael Jordan of racing. In 1973, Big Red dominated racing like no other.

What makes this even more amazing is that Secretariat is actually the second most interesting story … his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (played here by Diane Lane), was his match in competitive spirit. This Disney movie actually spends as much time on Ms. Tweedy as it does the fabulous horse.

Disney does what Disney does best. This is an all out feel-good, rah-rah movie in the vein of Seabiscuit, The Rookie, Rudy and even Hoosiers. Don’t expect in-depth analysis of the racing world, horse training or even horse farm operations. This movie is made to deliver a warm fuzzy via the perseverance of a strong-willed lady and an incredibly majestic animal.

Expect some over-the-top touches such as John Malkovich‘s portrayal of trainer Lucen Laurin, horse-whispering by Ms. Lane, and plenty of heart-string tugging as is customary from the fine folks at Disney. Expect historical facts to be treated a bit lax in some scenes (no mention of 1972 Derby winner Riva Ridge, also from the Chenery stables). Expect none of that to matter as this is a crowd-pleaser, not a documentary.

In addition to Mr. Malkovich and Ms. Lane, there is some fine support work from (former Senator) Fred Thompson, James Cromwell and Nelsan Ellis (so great as Lafayette in True Blood). Directed by Randall Wallace, whose most recent directorial effort was 2002’s We Were Soldiers, this is entertainment for all ages and an easy introduction to the champion that was Secretariat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy strong, smart female characters (Diane Lane, not Secretariat) OR you thought Seabiscuit should have won an Oscar

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to John Malkovich for fashion tips OR you think pari-mutuel betting is allowed at the cineplex