The Butler

‘The Butler’ tells the story of – oh wait, let me backtrack. Lee Daniels has got Tyler Perry Syndrome and has decided to call his latest film ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’. I guess he didn’t want to put his name on his previous film ‘The Paperboy’. Thankfully, Nicole Kidman doesn’t urinate on any former US presidents in this movie.

‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ has been #1 at the box office for the last two weekends and it might just be the highest grossing film again this weekend (or just behind the One Direction documentary). I decided to finally catch up with it to see what the fuss was about. 
Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, Forest Whitaker is the fictionalized Cecil Gaines, an African-American who eyewitnesses key events of the last century during his 34 year tenure as a White House butler. Such events include the Civil Rights movement, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal – things we’re not particularly proud of.

As we head into the Fall season and with the Toronto International Film Festival just around the corner, I can confidently say that this movie is total Oscar bait and may receive some accolades (especially in the acting categories). To be sure, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ is a good movie – I’m giving it a positive review; but, part of me wishes that the filmmaker didn’t try so hard to get my tears. Even though he almost succeeded in that attempt, the moments where he is trying to make us feel uplifted, proud, and have us reach for our Kleenex are the weakest parts of the film – I was surprised that the “For Your Consideration” caption didn’t appear at the bottom of the screen during such scenes. This is a movie filled with powerful scenes and great performances and I think a little more subtlety could have made this a great film instead of a good one.

But, it is a good film and good movies should be celebrated. The movie’s most powerful moment for me: The Butler and his kitchen coworkers (played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr) are setting up a state dinner; intercutting this scene is David Oyelowo (as The Butler’s son) and a group of nonviolent protestors occupying a racially segregated lunch counter in Nashville. So, we’re seeing this fancy dinner taking place in Washington D.C. while at the same time in the southern part of the States, we’re seeing black people being provoked and beaten by the diner’s customers. Police officers show up to defuse the situation by also beating on the black folks.

It’s refreshing to see a movie that tackles important subjects like the civil rights movement and racism from the black point of view. ‘The Help’, which has a big hit in 2011, sort of scratched the surface on its racial themes and though it was a respectable (and good) motion picture, it lacked daring – the entire story is told from the white point of view; the Emma Stone character begins this writing project when she discovers the maltreatment of black housekeepers. Lee Daniels is an African –American filmmaker and I really liked seeing this story about black people going through this movement. 

The performances are great all around. I think it’s safe to say that Forest Whitaker will be a lock for a Best Actor nomination – he is dignified, elegant, and strong playing the inspiring title character (the kind the Academy likes to reward). Oprah Winfrey (as the butler’s wife) shows great range and even gets to be a little trashy here (given that there were some incredible lead female performances this year, she may not receive an Oscar nom for her work here). But, to me, the real star here is David Oyelowo – his character has the most interesting arc and we see him grow as a 17 year old high school student to a 60-something supporter of the Democrat party. The script does occasionally put him in Forrest Gump-like situations – he is always at the wrong place at the wrong time; the aforementioned diner incident, then he’s attacked by the KKK while traveling on the freedom riders bus, then he’s with the Black Panthers, then he’s there when Martin Luther King gets shot. But, I suppose that’s what this movie is really about – us being able to witness our recent past through the eyes of this family.

More actors: Robin Williams is Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden is John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan, and Obama is Obama on the television sets in the background. Of all the presidential impersonations, James Marsden’s Kennedy is the best – Marsden pulls this off effortlessly – he looks the part and he has the accent down. John Cusack is able to find the insecurities within Nixon and build on that – it’s not a great imitation but the method makes for an unexpectedly good performance; one that doesn’t turn him into a caricature.

In any case, the actors playing the presidents are all background players and inconsequential to the story. What Lee Daniels and his screenwriters do really well here is take these defining political moments in American history and boil them down to human-sized experiences (which is also what ‘Forrest Gump’ did effectively). ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ isn’t a perfect film – I found the film’s episodic structure to be a little messy and found some of the Oscar-clip moments to be somewhat forced. But, this is an important movie and all the members of this large ensemble cast bring their A-game. I’m sure we’ll be talking about this movie again during Awards season. QED.

The World’s End


‘This is the End’, ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Oblivion’, ‘After Earth’, ‘World War Z’, ‘Warm Bodies’, and now ‘The World’s End’ – our poor planet; one would think Roland Emmerich directed all these movies but he decided to scale back this year with his ‘Die Hard’ in the White House project. ‘The World’s Ends’ marks the third entry in Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto’ Trilogy; now, this snack will be best enjoyed by those who saw the first two entries in the “series” – ‘Shaun of the Dead’, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ – to those who haven’t, consider this a highly recommended homework exercise. But, it isn’t a prerequisite to appreciating what’s on display here – even with all the boozage, this movie can stands on its own two feet.

Why is it called the Cornetto Trilogy? Well, each film in the series features a different color/flavor(?) of Cornetto ice cream. It’s as simple as that.

As for the plot – we follow a group of friends in their 40s who discover an alien invasion during an intense pub crawl along the Golden Mile (which encompasses twelve bars, the last of which is called The World’s End). They attempted the pub crawl back in 1990 but never made it to the finish line.

Like its two predecessors, the script was written by Mr. Wright and Simon Pegg; Mr. Pegg stars in the picture alongside Nick Frost. Along for the ride this time are Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Rosemund Pike. Who wouldn’t want to go drinking with these guys? The show stealer here is Pegg – charismatic but idiotic; he’s also broken and clingy. Academy voters never reward comedies – at the end of 2013, I challenge anyone to name five other lead male performances with this much range. I’m serious – I think he is that good. My only very minor quibble with the picture – Rosemund Pike (the one female cast member) doesn’t have nearly enough to do (a common mistake among  pictures having a dominantly male cast).

After the hilarious first act, I found myself wondering if the Five Musketeers (Pegg’s brilliantly idiotic character doesn’t seem know to know many musketeers there were) could sustain its high energy, heart, and humor – the answer was a resounding yes. Oddly enough, I became more involved as the story progressed despite the many abrupt tonal shifts that I would normally rip other films apart for; this comedic team can perform the trick high-wire act because they’ve deconstructed the genre (or sub-genre) into its basic elements and created their own rules in terms of construction. If the movie feels messy, that’s because it’s supposed to. Like ‘This is the End’, ‘The World’s End’ does turn into a chaotic sci-fi comedy with lots of in jokes and 90s pop-cultural references (some of which, admittedly, had to be explain to me).

This could be called ‘Monty Python and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or even ‘Village of the Damned Drunks’ but I think the movie is much smarter than that. The writing is keenly observant; both in its wild comedic exchanges and its low-key moments which make us realize that there is a sweet human element to this. There aren’t too many apocalyptic pictures that can be described as cute and heartfelt. Even when the film goes in directions we can’t possibly expect (and does become gleefully violent), it still gives the main actors a chance to show us dramatic range that we haven’t seen in their previous collaborations. I suppose global (or at a bare minimum, regional) annihilation can be utilized for some relationship workshopping; after all, this was also the case in ‘After Earth’ and ‘This Is The End’ but it just feels more authentic here. There is a sense of the world ending from an internal perspective – growing up and gaining responsibility at the expense of one’s sense of adventure; and how much we want to relive those times. I’ve seen a number of friends in recent weeks who talk at endless lengths about how good it was back in the day. Some have grown up, others haven’t – or more appropriately, refuse to do so. I think this movie captures that notion wonderfully.

Why beat around the bush? ‘The World’s End’ might just be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year. Thanks to hilariously clever (and profane) script,  the typically hilarious Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, along with its excellent supporting cast, as well as the editing, special effects and set design, this movie is a completely blast from start to finish. “The World’s End’ is everything ‘The Hangover’ movies should have been – there won’t be any headaches with this one. Thank you, Edgar Wright – I can think of no better way to wrap up this Cornetto Trilogy. Cheers mate! QED.

The Conjuring

‘Despicable Me 2’, ‘Grown Ups 2’, The Smurfs 2’, ‘Red 2’, ‘Monster’s University’ (or ‘Monsters Inc 2’). Aiya! So many sequels. Not this one though. ‘The Conjuring’ which is now in its fourth week of release has already grossed $113 million on a +$20 million budget. Horror movie usually open strong at the box office; then, bad word of mouth pushes it out of theatres quickly. ‘The Conjuring’ did what no 21st century horror movie has done – it actually scared me. A lot. I’ve been comparing it to classics of the genre; but, so have most people – in the last few weeks, this movie has been described by most as “the scariest movie since «insert person’s favourite horror movie here »”.

It’s haunting in all the right ways; we can now forgive Lili Taylor who was in the terrible remake of ‘The Haunting’ back in 1999. Supposedly based on a true story that took place in 1971, the film follows paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed as they try to help a family terrorized by a demon in their farmhouse. That kinda sucks – you dump all that money into the house only to have Satan jump in and seize control. All of a sudden, the family dog won’t enter your house. The clocks stop working at 3:07 a.m. Unexplainable bruises appear on the mother’s arms/legs/back. Ghosts of children start to appear. Some WTF stuff takes place. You want to shout “Get out of the house!” Then the characters explain why they can’t simply move out. And still, you want to shout “Get the @%^& out of the house!” 
The creaking sounds of an old house can ratchet up dread. What makes ‘The Conjuring’ a very good horror film is that it presents us with old school scares. This is a bit of a surprise coming from director James Wan who essentially invented the torture porn genre with the first ‘Saw’ film – thanks to him (and his many imitators), most contemporary horror movies consist of us watching deranged people inflict pain, suffering, dismemberment, and death on innocent victims; such films show these scenes from the torturer’s viewpoint so we don’t get to sympathize much with the victims. There’s something really unsettling about that sub-genre of horror pictures; it isn’t for me and I’m not really sure who those movies are meant for aside from the criminally insane. Truthfully, I blame James Wan for it. But, ‘The Conjuring’ isn’t as bloody or gory a film like most modern horror pictures; and Mr.Wan (with both this movie and ‘Insidious) has gone back to old school horror filmmaking. 

Though shot digitally, the film feels like a classic horror picture from the 1970s – you know, the ones that relied on creative intelligence rather than elaborate torture setups. Wan has some fancy camerawork – slow zooms and complex long takes. There’s great attention to lighting and color effects; atmospherics and slow simmering tension keep the jump scene “gotchas” coming and there are a lot of them. They even worked on me – I’ve seen hundreds of horror movies during my lifetime; I thought I knew all the tricks and couldn’t be fooled but this movie had me. There is a creepy doll in this movie named Annabelle – the very thought of the doll in its enclosed case gives me chills. The restraint Mr.Wan employs is very admirable, even if his technique becomes increasingly hysterical, especially in the last act containing a cray cray exorcism. 
Now, some of you are going to skip ‘The Conjuring’ because you think it might be too scary for you. And some of you need big, recognizable stars to hook you in – I can almost guarantee that you will see better acting in this little horror flick than any other big budget summer blockbuster currently playing in theaters. You may not have heard of Patrick Wilson – he’s a very good actor and an underrated one; he’ll get the appreciation he deserves at some point I’m sure. But the movie belongs to the women, both young and old, who deliver believable performances (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Shanely Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, and Mackenzie Foy). If you haven’t already, give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised as I was. Now, I’m off to another horror picture called ‘We’re the Millers’ – oh, it’s not a horror flick? Oh. QED.

The Lone Ranger

Why did ‘The Lone Ranger’ flop? With a budget of $215 million, its domestic total as of the time I’m writing this review (8:55 p.m. EST on August 1, 2013) is $85 million. Ouch! Why would Disney take such a gamble? The highest grossing Western of all time is ‘Dances with Wolves’ which grossed $184 million ($31 million less than the cost of ‘The Lone Ranger’) – this, of course, does not take inflation into account. Either way, it’s quite a bet; and after last year’s ‘John Carter’ (which only grossed $73 million with a budget of $250 million), you would think Disney would take less of a risk. What happened here? Can we point our finger at the genre itself? Did people have issues with Johnny Depp playing Tonto? Is it because the story it’s based on failed to resonate with viewers under the age of 70? Was the poster a big advertising fail? Did the score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes push viewers away?

That’s too bad. Critically, I’m in a small minority (nearly one in four). I don’t care – I’m going to defend ‘The Lone Ranger’ because I think it is much better than its current reputation suggests. This is a colossally-sized picture with a hero who is as dorky here as the Winklevoss Brothers he portrayed in ‘The Social Network’. Yep, Armie Hammer plays ‘The Lone Ranger’ – not a name recognized by many moviegoers just yet but he has a bright film career ahead of him. As mentioned earlier, Johnny Depp plays Tonto, a Comanche Native American – a foolish-looking fellow stumbling around with face paint with a dead crow on his head. He probably purchased it from the blind kid in ‘Dumb & Dumber’.

As far as plot is concerned, all you need to know is that these two become an unlikely and even squabbling team as they try to track down a villain; this quest eventually has them running into characters played by Helene Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson, and William Fichtner.

‘The Lone Ranger’ didn’t find an audience today and I doubt this review is going to change that. But, I am glad that my review will be archived. Like the Coen Brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’, Spike Lee’s ‘25th Hour’, and Steven Spielberg’s ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’, this is a picture that many will reassess a number of years down the road, and file under “Initially Misunderstood”. If I’m wrong about this, then fine, I’ll be the guy who gave a Yes vote to ‘The Lone Ranger’ in a time when few others did.

The movie is equal parts Western and amusement park ride. The Western part of the movie evoked fond memories of Serge Leoni’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ both in terms of its beautiful picturesque setting and for its “every man for himself” viewpoint. And while some may argue that this is the vantage point from which many Westerns are seen, there’s something oddly amusing about it being applied to a Disney production. The amusement park ride piece of the movie reminded me of the ‘Indiana Jones’ films; the climax of ‘Temple of Doom’ and ‘The Lone Ranger’ are very similar – runaway trains on opposing tracks. These are classic pictures I’m referring to – there is an old school feel to this movie. With its eccentric framing devices, director Gore Verbinski at least gives some thought as to what goes in the frame and what stays out; and when the camera moves and why. Even the slow-paced scenes are visually striking thanks to some detailed image compositions (and a terrific booming score by Hans Zimmer). A subtle example of this can be seen in Helen Bonham Carter’s brothel – as she lifts her one leg up (which is used as a gun a la ‘Grindhouse’), you may notice a portrait of her as a young lady in the background.

Armie Hammer is a charming performer – ladies, you may not like the fact that he wears a mask throughout most of the movie as it covers his handsome face. But, the show stealer is Johnny Depp – his comedic timing is perfect here; it’s a nearly stone-faced silent performance that pays tribute to Buster Keaton. Not that the kids this film is aimed for will know who Buster Keaton is.

There is more going in ‘The Lone Ranger’ than it may appear on the surface. We first meet Tonto at a carnival display circa 1933 – he is believed to be a wax figure of the noble savage but turns out to be a very aged Tonto. He proceeds to tell a young boy his tale and takes us back to 1869. Tonto doesn’t want to boy to eat up the official story of How the West was Won; in this scene, the boy is taught not to instinctively trust what he is told just because it is written. The Lone Ranger is a good guy. But his work is in the service of dishonest people (though he doesn’t know it at first). When he does realize this, he becomes an accidental outlaw – the equivalent of a Robin Hood.

What also distinguishes ‘The Lone Ranger’ from other summer blockbusters is that it isn’t wall-to-wall noise. Verbinski gives the characters some breathing room; it’s perfectly fine for characters to have a conversation in between some very noisy action sequences. And while I appreciate this aspect, I do think it leads to the film’s weakness – an overlong running time of 149 minutes. The picture loses some steam in the midsection; characters seem to pop in and out, certain scenes end abruptly without transitioning over to the next one smoothly. But, this has always been Verbinki’s weakness (all three ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ films suffered from bloated runtimes).

I realized I’ve failed to answer the questions I’ve posed at the start of this review. William Goldman once said “When it comes to Hollywood, no one knows anything.” True enough but about a month ago, Steven Spielberg predicted that there would be an implosion – in which half a dozen (or more) blockbusters would flop. I don’t know what he based this conclusion on (yet) but he is right. This is a topic that may have to serve as its own blog post. But, I’m glad Disney took a risk with ‘The Lone Ranger’ (even if they aren’t). To me, this is a special movie – a dazzling summer spectacle; spectacular and wise; comprised of familiar pieces, yet collectively its own contemporary thing. Only time will tell if this will gain status as a cult classic – I suspect it will. QED.