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.
Back in 1989 Cameron Crowe wrote and made his directorial debut with “Say Anything…”, a teen romantic comedy that still stands out from the bulk of the teen flicks we still get today. So many teen films adhere to the annoying formula of vulgarity mixed with immaturity and they treat their characters as shallow and stupid stereotypes. “Say Anything…” does none of that instead choosing to give us genuine characters who feel grounded in reality. These are the types of characters you can relate to and care about which makes for a much more authentic experience.
Crowe clearly has no interest in creating another portrait of teen debauchery. This film features real characters struggling with real problems and sharing real emotions. But Crowe’s writing also allows for a fair share of humor which always comes at just the right time. For all its sweet romance and well conceived drama there are some really funny moments as well. But perhaps what I’m the most thankful for is that Crowe actually gives us well developed and layered characters. He opens these people up for us and allows us to see what’s inside. That’s a key ingredient to getting the audience to latch onto the characters and their stories.
The story starts on graduation day at a small Seattle, Wasington high school. John Cusack plays Lloyd Dobler, an average, everyday student with no clear vision for what he wants to do with his life. He’s a very honest and forthright guy who finds himself attracted to Diane Court (Ione Skye), the class valedictorian. On paper this doesn’t look like the perfect match, something Lloyd’s best friend Corey (Lili Taylor) is happy to point out. But Lloyd and Diane are two characters that we’re happy to invest in and their unlikely romance makes for good cinema.
Both Lloyd and Diane have struggles in there individual lives that Crowe takes time explore. I mentioned Lloyd’s uncertainty about his future and with graduation day behind him time is running out to decide what he’s going to do. His parents are overseas leaving him to live with his sister and her son. I couldn’t help but feel he was a kid needing his parents presence and love. Yet Lloyd is still a good guy even though he’s unsure. Diana is the smartest girl in school which has socially distanced her from her entire class. She doesn’t appear to have any close friends and her one confidant is her father Jim (John Mahoney). She chose to live with him during her parents’ divorce and the two have a very close and open relationship. But outside of her father, Diane has no one else she can truly call a friend.
Crowe stays away from the standard teen movie cliches and formulas when bringing these two together. Their emotions feel so authentic and their problems complicate things in ways people are sure to relate to. There’s a lot of talk about honesty in “Say Anything…”. Lloyd is a honest and sincere young man and that plays a big part in his relationship with Diane. Her relationship with her father is built entirely on honesty and trust. Honesty is such a big part of the film and when it’s broken, just like in real life, it can often times carry heavy consequences.
Cusack is pitch perfect for this role. I’m not the biggest fan of his but I have admired some of his work. Here he relays that teen enthusiasm and nervousness surrounding new found love. But there’s also a innocence and vulnerability that he brings which I really responded to. Skye has her moments as well. At times her performance can be very convincing as she moves between heavy, emotional scenes and others where she conveys an almost childlike exuberance. But there are some times where she plays things a tad to big and she ends up standing out for the wrong reasons. Mahoney is brilliant as Diane’s father. He gives us such a likable character and several times we feel as if he’s going to go down the conventional road that most of these teen movie fathers travel. Mahoney is so believable and his performance really shines later in the film.
“Say Anything…” is over 20 years old now but it still maintains its freshness in a genre thats grown repetitive and stale. It’s a film that treats teens as sensible human beings with real world feelings and issues. Cameron Crowe’s writing is crisp and his direction is sharp. He gives us a film that feels like an 80’s movie with a new decade’s vibe bursting out of it. But regardless of its age and imperfections, “Say Anything…” still stands out today. But that’s no surprise. Good movies always seem to.
Perhaps my favorite bit of movie news this week came with the release of the first trailer for John Hillcoat’s “Lawless”. “Lawless” Official Trailer #1 looks like a tough and gritty Prohibition period action flick. Anyone who has read my Most Anticipated Movies of 2012 post already knows that this film, (previously named “The Wettest County”), is one I can’t wait for. The movie features a cast of some of my favorite performers including Tom Hardy, the underappreciated Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, and Mia Wasikowska. And then there’s Shia LaBeouf, an actor I simply don’t care for. I’m hoping he doesn’t drag the movie down and by the looks of the “Lawless” Official Trailer #1 there’s a lot more that overshadows him. Everything about the trailer looks GREAT particularly Hardy and Pearce and I am really amped up for this picture. Just click the links to watch the “Lawless” Official Trailer #1. The movie is set to be released on August 31st.
The ad campaign for “The Dark Knight Rises” is really starting to take off. Each week brings new news and information to what is hands-down my most anticipated movie of 2012. Everyone may recall that director Christopher Nolan shot several scenes of “The Dark Knight” for IMAX. Well it was released that over one hour of “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed for IMAX. That may not sound like a big deal, but as someone who watched “The Dark Knight” on both IMAX and the regular screen, the difference is well worth the extra ticket cost.
But in even bigger Dark Knight news, it was announced that a brand new full trailer will debut in front of next weekend’s “The Avengers” movie. As if I needed any more incentive to see “The Avengers”, now I have a new “The Dark Knight Rises” trailer to look forward to. The trailer is said to show a new and clearer audio for Bane as well as several scenes of brand new footage. I’m getting giddy just thinking about it!