REVIEW: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”


Lee Daniels’ 2013 drama “The Butler” is very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a White House butler for 34 years before retiring in 1986. During those years Allen served under 7 different presidents and became a beloved member of the White House staff. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is built on these handful of facts but goes on to invent its own story which is sometimes too overt and preachy but at other times intensely powerful.

In the film Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the main character. His life is quite different from the real life of Eugene Allen. Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation and endures plenty of horrors. But a series of fortunate events sees him eventually being hired as a butler to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. During his years at the White House huge nation-changing events occur which not only effect the presidents he serves but his family at home.


Speaking of his family, Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong go heavy on the dramatic family dynamics. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is a boozing shrill whose attitude can change in a second. His oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is a disgruntled young man who would rather be proactive in the fight for equality. His youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the fun-loving baby of the family who enlists to go to Vietnam. They are all built for high drama and we get plenty of it. Some of it really works on an emotional level. Other times it feels contrived and utterly predictable.

The film seeks to create a historical profile chronicling race relations in the United States. Much of this is done surrounding the Louis character. He ends up going to a college down south where he partakes in various action groups. This leads to protests, arrests, and even encounters with the Klu Klux Klan. There are moments where the tension is incredibly well developed and the discomfort of what you’re watching is powerful. But there are also a few things that I couldn’t quite shake. For example Louis happens to be present at so many of the events that made headlines from the Alabama bus firebombing to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His presence certainly helps out the story but feels more or less like plot devices.


But it’s Cecil who is the real attraction and Whitaker is amazing. He is the real heart of this picture and watching him age as the film moves forward makes you feel as if you’ve been on a journey with him. It is hard to gauge at times what Daniels thinks of the character but I thought he was compelling. I also loved the work of David Oyelowo. The 37-year old actor actually first appears as a teenager and is very convincing. But he’s even better as his character springboards into some of the film’s more powerful scenes. The supporting cast is strong and features Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave just to name a few. Then there is the unusual assortment of actors who play the presidents. The strongest performances come James Marsden who plays Kennedy and Alan Rickman who plays Reagan. Perhaps the weakest is Robin Williams who is oddly cast as Eisenhower.

Even with the film’s ambition and deeply moving moments, “The Butler” still comes across as a big Hollywood piece. That’s not always bad. There are several big moments that work very, very well. But the further I got into the movie the more it felt scripted. Unlike the more raw and organic “12 Years a Slave”, this film seems to be more dependent on plot gimmicks and melodrama. It also can’t help but get a tad political specifically in the final third of the film. Still, I can’t downplay the great work by the cast led by Forest Whitaker. He’s simply brilliant. I also really enjoyed the smarter and more focused scenes which can be both inspirational and challenging. I just wish we had been given a few more of them.


“The Last Stand” – 3.5 STARS


It only took a couple of cameos to get Arnold Schwarzenegger back in form and now he’s back (yes I just said that) in “The Last Stand”. You would never doubt that this is a standard Schwarzenegger picture except for the fact that the days of the one-man-army seem to be gone. But don’t misunderstand me, Arnie still pumps a ton of lead, fires the one-liners, and kicks plenty of bad guy butt. It’s just that he’s older, he knows it, and the movie takes that into account. In fact, the movie has a lot of fun with it which is just one of the reasons why it works as a whole.

First off, this is an old school action picture and that will automatically turn off some people. Some will dismiss it as retro cheese while others will dismiss it as simply mindless entertainment. I can’t argue with either of those assessments other than to say it shouldn’t be dismissed. “The Last Stand” has its share of cheesiness but intentionally so. And it’s certainly not stimulating, thought-provoking cinema but it never pretends to be. It’s a simple, straightforward movie without an ounce of pretension and it.


Schwarzenegger plays the sheriff of a small Arizona town named Sommerton which sits near the Mexican border. It’s a quiet little town and nothing happens there, that is until a local farmer (played by Harry Dean Stanton in a wonderful cameo) is found shot to death. It turns out his murder is connected to the escape of a powerful drug cartel boss in Las Vegas. The drug lord, named Cortez, is heading to the Mexican border and Sommerton is the only town that stands in his way. Needless to say, Arnie and company use the town as the last stand between Mexico and this murderous kingpin.

There’s a good supporting cast around Schwarzenegger even though no one goes to one of his films expecting Oscar caliber performances. I loved seeing Forest Whitaker in a prominent role. He plays the FBI agent who Cortez escaped from. The normally obnoxious Johnny Knoxville plays the village idiot and manages to keep his goofball schtick under control. The lovely Jaimie Alexander and Genesis Rodriguez both get moments to flex their tough girl muscles. Eduardo Noriega is a perfectly detestable villain and Peter Stormare has a blast as one of his hired hands. And then you have the always entertaining Luis Guzmán who is a a lot of fun and delivers several good laughs. None of these performances will knock your socks off, but were you really expecting them to? They go as far as the material allows them and for this kind of story that’s more than adequate.

Last STand 1

But c’mon, this is all about the action right? Director Kim Ji-woon brings a slick and stylish eye for action sequences. But what I like best is how he keeps his camera under control. So many of today’s action movies overuse quick cuts and herky-jerky cameras which makes impossible to see what’s going on. Ji-woon uses these techniques some but they never muddle the scene. Weather it’s a massive firefight or a 150 mph car chase through a corn field, he’s always in command of his camera. Now he does go heavy with the blood and some kills aren’t for the squeamish, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to letting out a “wow” or two.

The days of Arnold walking around shirtless with bowling ball biceps and taking out full armies by himself may be over but “The Last Stand” shows he’s still the king of the action flick. Look, this movie is exactly what it sets out to be and nothing else. The plot is pretty basic and there’s not one single surprise in the entire movie. But it’s also one wild ride and the perfect vehicle for Schwarzenegger. You get plenty of bangs, plenty of bullets, and plenty of bodies. You also get some pretty good laughs along the way. I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I want from a Schwarzenegger movie. Mission accomplished.