I think it’s safe to say that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is no Django Unchained when it comes to race relations. No, this chronicle of the life of a black butler who served at the White House over eight administrations is a bit too well intentioned for that. At the same time, it’s one of those well intentioned movies that probably would have benefited from being a little less well intentioned.
…The Butler is what is usually called middle brow—in other words, it’s a film that deals with serious and challenging subject matter, but does it in a way that will never seriously challenge anyone (while making them think it does). It’s a movie that takes no real chances, has no real edge, does nothing new, because in the end, the choices the producers, the director (Lee Daniels, hence the title) and writer Danny Strong make, feel as if they were made with a firm eye on the box office. This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t entertaining. It’s definitely that (though somewhere towards the end, one does start to feel its length). But in the end, it’s little more than that.
For those of you who have been on a walking tour of Siberia for the last few months, Lee Daniels’ The Butler revolves around Cecil Gaines, a black man who rose from cotton picker’s son to being a domestic at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The story is basically ironic. It’s about a man who is fixed squarely in the midst of history (he can’t seem to turn around without it smacking him in the face), yet at the same time, takes absolutely no part in it. He watches it go by, like a parade, but never actually marches with it.
The strongest scenes in the film are the scenes of everyday life of Gaines’ family and friends, the times they gather to gossip, play cards, drink. There is an incredible naturalness to these scenes, an improvisational verisimilitude that is often riveting. At times it feels as if one could watch these scenes of domesticity flow on forever. All of which leads to a second bit of irony: the less political the movie is, the more alive and vibrant it is. Whenever the focus is on the issues, the more on the nose and obvious it becomes until it takes on the weighty tone of one of those message pictures from the old days of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox.
By using what is called poetic license, screenwriter Strong is able to dramatize every single important civil rights issue and event from the 1950’s on. He does this by giving Gaines a “the times, they are a changing” son (in real life, the character Gaines is based on had no such troubled relationship with his offspring). Whatever event Gaines doesn’t witness himself, his son can experience them by going on the road with the freedom riders, being a personal friend of Martin Luther King or joining The Black Panthers. If this method of story telling comes across as convenient, well, it is. And while the scenes at Gaines’ home feel fresh and felt first hand, the rest of the movie comes across more like a Cliff Notes (remember those) version of race relations in America.
This is seconded by the casting of such stars as Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, James Marsden and John Cusack in the white roles. Much has been made of this stunt casting. But it should also be noted that this is stunt casting in which none of the cast is given any stunts to do. Almost no one really resembles, and at times barely sounds like, their real life counterparts (the make up feels especially uninspired). Only Jane Fonda really escapes unscathed in her role as Nancy Regan (a further irony: the former anti-war activist playing the people, here and in The Newsroom, that she use to rail against when she was younger).
But if the movie is saved, it is saved by the dynamic performances of the rest of the cast. Forest Whitaker is perfectly fine as Gaines, but it’s Terence Howard, Adriane Lenox, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz who shine as Gaines’ fellow workers and neighbors.
However, towering over everyone is Ms. Oprah Winfrey who takes no prisoners with her performance as Gaines’s wife. Before her appearance, the movie is little more than sincere, a bit stiff and familiar. But from her first appearance, slightly slattern, obviously tipsy, a cigarette dangling precariously from her mouth, she brings an energy and intensity to the screen that was missing earlier. It’s a deeply moving performance.
Two more issues to be noted. First, in the social media and criticism world that surrounds this movie, there is a suggestion that this is an original and ground breaking story, something that’s never been told before. But are people really this young? In many ways, one could make the argument that this is little more than a sequel to a popular TV mini-series from 1979 called Backstairs at the White House which dramatized the lives of people like Gaines from the time of Taft to Eisenhower (with Andrew Duggan in the Robin Williams role).
Second, I remember when there was a lot of criticism of the movie The Help, a movie about southern domestics, criticism that often came out before the movie was even released. I’m not sure why there was so much anger toward that film, but not toward this one. Gaines is far more passive than any of the characters in The Help, all of whom were far more willing to risk their lives and positions than Gaines would ever think to do (the most he does is demand equal pay for blacks as for whites, but he demands it at such a late date and so near his retirement, it seems a hollow victory and has none of the emotional resonance that the decisions made by the characters in The Help did). And if you’re one of the ones who thought the maids in the earlier film were stereotypes, then logically you should consider Gaines to be something out of a 1930’s movie. For those of you who trumpeted Lee Daniel’s The Butler, but criticized The Help, you not only should have your head examined, you need to apologize to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
Frankenweenie is the full length version of director Tim Burton’s short film called, astonishingly enough, Frankenweenie. The 87 minute version is written by Leonard Ripps and directed by the aforesaid Burton. Like the short film, the story here is your basic boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog, but with a Mary Shelley twist. Victor, a young boy in high school (who for some odd reason starts out as a filmmaker and then suddenly switches a third of the way through to become a scientific genius, a standard trope in Hollywood these days, I guess), figures out a way to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life after it is hit and killed by a car. While this version is not boring and is enjoyable enough, I can’t bring myself to say it’s much more than that. The short was clever and refreshing. The full length feels a bit padded and bloated, filled with some extra monsters created the same way Victor brings Sparky back to life, but with no real explanation as to why they turn out so differently than Sparky does (other than that the story needed padding). The strongest aspects of the movie are some beautiful miniatures (Rick Heinrichs, Tim Browning and Alexandra Walker did the production design and art direction) of an Andy Griffith like home town filled with Leave it to Beaver houses, as well as stark and effective black and white photography that makes you think the story might turn into a duck and cover educational film at any moment (the time period is the ‘50’s). The city the story takes place in is called New Holland—it’s unclear why since no one is Dutch. Well, there actually is a reason—it’s to justify the existence of a windmill so the climax can mimic that other movie with Boris Karloff. In the short, the windmill was located in a miniature golf course—a cleverness this version often lacks.
The Paperboy is a southern melodrama that out Gothics William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams put together (the various fetishes dramatized here read like a typical night out at a German S&M bar with water sports not of the Olympic kind and Black on White bondage and torture). Though Nicole Kidman is in it, it’s Zac Efron who is sexually exploited here with the writers (Peter Dexter, who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on, and Lee Daniels, who also directs) going out of their way to film him in tighty-whities and shorts (in all fairness, Matthew McConaughey also bares his butt a couple of times, but I suspect that that’s only because it’s a standard clause in his contract). The movie starts out well, but soon loses its way and finally seems to stop going anywhere. This may be because it feels as if something is missing at the core of the story. It’s about two reporters (the aforesaid McConaughey, and David Oyelowo, as a somewhat fey version of Sidney Poitier) investigating the conviction of a man on death row in the home town of McConaughey’s character. What’s missing is a compelling or convincing reason why they care, or perhaps more importantly, why their paper, and only their paper, cares. Without this, it’s unclear that anything is at stake and the tension quickly seeps out of the story, with it all becoming a tough swamp to slog through, both literally and figuratively. No one gives a bad performance, while Kidman and John Cusack (as the weirdo on death row) giving the strongest. To be honest, McConaughey does push his bit a bit too much, as he is wont to do, but Efron in the title role (he plays McConaughey’s younger brother) is surprisingly good, until he has to really emote; but even then, he does well enough for the circumstances. In the end, though, the story is never quite believable, especially a Governor’s pardon resulting from a newspaper story based on anonymous sources that is obviously full of lies (hey, it could happen). The movie might have worked a little better if everybody, including Dexter and Daniels, were having a bit more fun with it (or any fun at all), but no, everyone is deathly serious here. So, if a ranking would help, when all is said and done, this is no Killer Joe, which in its turn is no The Killer Inside Me.
Sister is the Swiss entry in the Academy Award foreign language film category. Written by Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand and the director Ursula Meier, it’s a very solid and at times moving character study of Simon, a young teenager who goes to a resort in the nearby mountains and steals equipment and skis and sells them to make money to support himself and his sister. Simon is played by Kacey Mottet Klein, who handles the role as capably as his character steals. You may not approve of what he does, but you have to admire his lack of self pity, his self reliance and his Trump-like entrepreneurship. The story grows in strength once the big reveal is, well, revealed, and matters get far more complicated, both emotionally and practically. There are strong guest turns by Sweet Sixteen/Red Road’s Martin Compson and The X-Files Gillian Anderson. The somewhat downbeat subject matter ends on a glimmer of hope, slim as it may be.