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Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster-1Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.

105174_galI’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.

The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.

While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.

This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.

105665_galThen you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.

Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Magic Mike (2012)

magic-mike-posterAfter all the hype and the derision from my friends, I finally saw Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper opus Magic Mike, and it does not pain me to say, as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that I found it mostly enjoyable. I understand the detractors, many of whom were let down by the relentless, frothing hype generating the film’s box-office success. The characters are fairly shallow, and almost all of the supporting players are one-dimensional; many of the male strippers only have their abs and a name to work with as far as characterization. There’s also the general absurd nature of the world of male stripping, where women are whipped into a frenzy and men almost comically gyrate atop them, or in some instances, literally pick them in the air to swing their junk into. The last act also rushes all sorts of storylines: the rookie’s fall from grace, Mike (Channing Tatum) coming to the realization to leave the business, a hastily thrown together romance. With all that said, I was always interested in just watching the ins and outs of this profession put on screen. And when the plot falters, there are always the impossible charms of Tatum to bring me back. Matthew McConaughey is also fascinating to watch as a mixture of showman, zen artist, and sexual being. I even found the dance/stripping sequences to be worthwhile as few insights into the various characters. While being less than magical, Magic Mike’s shortcomings don’t take away from what it has to offer. That may be the most unintended inuenduous statement I’ve ever written for a film review.

Nate’s Grade: B-

In Time (2011)

Andrew Niccol is a filmmaker that has earned my respect and my hard-earned money. After The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War, this guy has me hooked. I forgive him 2002’s S1mone, which had some good ideas in need of a better plot. Lo and behold, his latest film, the sci-fi thriller In Time, falls victim to the same issue. Niccol’s premise is more intriguing than the people onscreen.

In the near future, science has solved the age-old question or mortality, for a price. Every human has an internal clock somehow embedded in his or her arm. It kicks in at age 25 and then people have one year remaining. Time is the only currency that matters. People work jobs to add minutes to their time. When it comes to a cup of coffee or a bus fare, you pay in minutes off your time (a hooker says, “I’ll give you ten minutes for an hour”). The rich are well stocked in time but the poor must fight every day just to keep alive. Sam (Justine Timberlake) works in a factory just to make ends meet. His mother (Olivia Wilde, we should al be so lucky) gives her son an extra 30 minutes for his lunch; humans can “pass” time from one to another through touch. This will come back to bite her. One day Sam meets a tall dark stranger who’s lived for over 100 years and is tired of it all. He donates all his time to Sam. This is a no-no in the future. The timekeepers are a police force, lead by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), that polices time allowances. They’re paid to basically make sure that time remains the property of the upper class. Sam hobnobs with the elites, including Philippe Weiss (Vincent Kartheiser), a man who owns thousands of years. When the (Van Damme-less) time cops come looking for Sam, he makes a run for it, taking Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) as his hostage. The two eventually fall for one another as they dash across the country stealing time.

In Time has all sorts of ideas running through its system. What it doesn’t have it much of a plot to go with its heady sci-fi setup. Will is a fugitive but he never really formulates any sort of tangible plan. There’s no higher plot or goal here other than “sticking it to the man” but what exactly does that mean in this context? I understand he’s upset about losing a loved one, but his plan for vengeance or justice or whatever you want to call it lacks needed clarity. It feels like he and his cohort are just making it up as they go along. The film is at its worst when it descends into a populist, sci-fi Bonnie and Clyde, where Sam and Sylvia storm these time banks and redistribute the minutes, becoming heroes to the day-to-day drudgers. The ease that these two people have at knocking over bank after bank, armed only with a handgun, seems hard to swallow. The banks aren’t going to have tougher security especially after word gets out? Niccol adds plenty of chase scenes to fill out his plot but it doesn’t do much more than pad a half-baked story. The end confrontation goes in a direction I shall shamefully describe as “action movie idiocy.” You’re going to tell me that a timekeeping pro doesn’t pay attention when his clock is minutes away from death? Furthermore, I’m stunned that the people onscreen don’t act with more urgency when their time runs out. When death is on the line, I imagine a human being would resort to any kind of irrational desperation just to get a few minutes more, yet In Time shows a demoralized populace that just seems to give up. That makes the heroes-as-revolutionaries storyline even more implausible. Here’s a tip to Niccol: if it’s Sylvia’s last day on Earth, maybe you don’t have her racing for her life in heels. I’d think the gal would have purchased some decent running shoes by this time.

The ideas presented are compelling, though I wish Niccol had continued to push further. The social satire is pretty on-the-nose about the class system. I would have liked Niccol to be more biting in his social critique, perhaps carving up the rich as more venal than pampered. It’s true that they can live forever… unless something violent happens. This may be the future but there’s still no cure for a bullet to the head. The rich may live but they must live in sheltered, insular communities; a life encased in bubble-wrap. There is much potential there that goes unexplored. I also wanted a global sense of what was happening. Is time traded on the stock market? Are there different values placed on human time based upon geography? Is a Japanese life more valuable than a Ukrainian? The glimpses we do get about how the world operates are enticing and clever. The time roadblocks, tolls asking increasing amounts of time to pass into more affluent communities, feel authentic to the world and a cruel way to limit class mobility. When Sam pays for his expensive dinner he tells the waitress, “And take a week for yourself.” The timekeepers are only allotted a day at a time, so they can’t get carried away (I think it’s the futuristic equivalent of having the pizza delivery guy only have twenty bucks on him so he’s less likely to be the victim of theft). For the most part, In Time feels like it has some of the neat sociological quirks down but misses the psychological ramifications of its premise. People stop aging at 25. What does that do to a person’s sense of self? What about the peculiarities of dating? There’s definitely a sexual farce waiting to be written here. But let’s focus on the main dilemma – scrapping every day for just enough to stay ahead of the countdown. It’s an apt allusion to the working poor, but we never really see the tremulous stress that such a situation demands. This is life and death stuff, folks. The panic of inflation should also have been something Niccol paid more attention to. Just upsetting their time budgets could rock people’s world. There’s a lot more human drama inherent in this story that Niccol ignores, or flat out dismisses, for some standard Hollywood frills, namely chases and contrived romances.

Timberlake has shown that he has some chops when it comes to acting in shrewd supporting roles (The Social Network, Black Snake Moan). His skills aren’t really well utilized by In Time. The role of Sam is pretty bland, lacking edge or depth. This part could have been played by anyone not befitting Timberlake’s genetic credentials. Timberlake can make a credible action hero, though his charm covers up for his lack of intimidating presence. There is one regrettable moment where he wails at the death of a loved one, and it hits the wrong notes and feels laughably awkward. Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) also turns on a dime from being a scared hostage to a romantic partner. Her role gets reduced to being dragged by the hand by Timberlake; she’s human luggage. Murphy (Inception) does a fine job of being a dogged, Tommy Lee Jones-style pursuer. Kartheiser works that reptilian sleaze he’s perfected on Mad Men. The guy is like a younger version of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Daybreakers), possibly the most reptilian of all living actors. The strangest part about casting is that it’s an Alpha Dog reunion (Timberlake, Seyfried, and Kartheiser all had supporting roles).

In Time is a better idea than a movie, and it’s an idea that deserves more examination. Niccol’s film has some interesting ideas and concepts, but it seems too slavish to a typical Hollywood blockbuster boilerplate. The characters are pretty bland and the thrills are too. I wanted to spend more time in this brave new time-obsessed world; I just wanted to spend it with other characters. The populist Bonnie and Clyde plotline doesn’t seem to gel. If the rich can control the arbitration of time, why don’t they just ungodly raise the price of things? In a a generation or two, the rich will weed out all lower classes thanks to near literal social Darwinism. The social commentary is a bit heavy-handed and simplistic. I wish Niccol had ditched his young heroes/lovers and explored the particulars of his world more, especially the portent psychological implications. In Time doesn’t feel like a complete movie, just a finished one. Ultimately, the film’s greatest sin may be that it wastes too much of your own time.

Nate’s Grade: C+

I Am Number Four (2011)

Despite being based upon a young adult book series, I Am Number Four is an unfortunate title. What do you call the sequel? I Am Number Four 2? I Remain Number Four? Let’s not even mention the obvious pan that is begging to be covered by that title (“I Am Number Four? More like I Am Number Two!”).

Number Four, a.k.a. “John” (Alex Pettyfer), is your normal teenage alien hiding on Planet Earth and trying to live a regular life while eluding intergalactic mercenaries. Numero Quatro has relocated to the town of Paradise, Ohio with Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his alien guardian who poses as dear old dad. The two are trying to keep a low profile because Number Four is one of the last nine super-powered aliens from a dead planet. The aliens develop different special abilities as they mature and Number Four has begun to notice that his hands glow in the dark. Number Four catches the attention of Sarah (Dianna Agron), a pretty gal whose ex-boyfriend happens to be the super jealous quarterback. Number Four also befriends the school’s nerd (Callan McAuliffe) who thinks his father was taken by aliens. He’s not exactly keeping the desire low profile. Numbers 1-3 have been killed by a pack of alien mercenaries who intend to dominate Earth, and now Number Four is next.

While neither special nor afflicting, I Am Number Four is a pretty mundane, mediocre, special effects driven goof aimed primarily at young teen males. The plot lacks any trace of nuance and seems fantastical in what should even be ordinary. The Ohio town is one of those small towns that exist in the minds of west coast studio executives, where everyone gathers round for a carnival and the roads are mostly of the dirt variety. Sarah’s family is one of those ideal, chatty families that exist primarily in the minds of nostalgia. They don’t just sit around and chew their food; they are actively involved in dinner cutesy dinnertime games and cutesy embarrassing interactivity. But the movie never lets you think about these inauthentic tidbits for long before more explosions or colorful special effects rattle you. The plot follows an almost mechanical process, supplying some PG-13 skin (ladies in low rise jeans! Cleavage!) or some rudimentary chase scenes at a fairly brisk pace. The story borrows liberally from many sources, including a dash of super powered loner Spiderman stuff, angsty teen romance from Twilight, and a sprinkle of whatever is playing on TV right now as you sit reading this.

The action is never really takes off beyond the general concept of Things Exploding and People Running. Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) can string together a series of pleasing visuals but they never amount to much. The film lacks real suspense and any risible sense of excitement. The action sequences are disposable but at least Caruso makes sure that the audience can follow along. I thought with all the sci-fi elements that the film would make more interesting choices, but alas I Am Number Four relies all too easily along commonplace action tropes like it’s an accomplishment. Number Six (Teresa Palmer) gets to walk away from an explosion in slow-motion (while she wears sunglasses). Nobody in town seems to ever pick up on the mounting collateral damage of this interstellar spat. Caruso and the screenwriters are too content to just be happy playing with the special effects toolbox, emulating the favorite moments of the sci-fi action genre. And one of those tropes is that ANIMALS CAN NEVER DIE. Number 4 has a shape-shifting guardian pet that decides to take the form of a dog. Then when things get rough, this dog mutates into a hulking CGI creature, which still looks like a dog. And when he gets wounded fighting another CGI monster, it’s not enough that we get the pained dog cry but the filmmakers decide that he also has to transform back into a regular Earth dog at this point to hammer home the image of pooch in trouble. Shameless to the very end. And then, during our resolution this space dog has to come hobbling out.

Fortunately for the audience, the actors are all rather beautiful. Pettyfer (Alex Rider) isn’t much when it comes to this thing called acting, but he’s got abs you could scrub laundry with and really that’s half the part of playing a hunk from outer space. I give the guy more credit just for having to be saddled with the lame superpower of glowy hands. It’s a long wait for those glowy hands to become instruments that launch glowy fireballs. For most of their screen time, Pettyfer’s power just looks like he’s clenching two very powerfully charged indigo-glowing cell phones. Olyphant (Deadwood, Hitman) is too young for me to be covering as the dad to a 17-year-old kid. I still remember Olyphant in 1999’s Go. Maybe that’s just my hang-up. The ladies are all gorgeous are all in the flawless skin and teeth variety, you know, the ones that populate every small town. No one truly makes much of an impression but they’re easy on the eyes. It’s like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue come to life with extra explosions (and more clothes).

The only actor that stands out is Kevin Durand and he’s under pounds of makeup as the chief villain. Durand first came to serious attention as a season-long villain on TV’s Lost as Martin Keamy. He has a real distinct menace that doesn’t come across as self-satisfying or ironic. He’s got a real presence and it seems like casting directors have caught on to this former Canadian standup comedian. From there Durand has become something of a go-to guy when it comes to large intimidating men and men with some kind of mild speech impediment; his characters in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Legion, and even Robin Hood all sounded like they had their mouths stuffed with cotton. Durand always has a good time with his bad guy roles, whether they are flinty or over-the-top. I enjoy watching this man onscreen even if he’s under some fairly lackluster creature makeup that makes him look like a tattooed shark man.

The point that caught my attention, and was scantily mentioned but once without nary a rejoinder from any character, was the fact that the big bad evil aliens are killing the alien teens in order. No reason is ever attempted. There are nine super alien teens but for some reason these interstellar killers are uncontrollably anal-retentive (“We may be vicious monsters, but we respect the value of numerology”). It makes little strategic sense to stick to the doctrine of taking out your enemy one at a time and in a predetermined order that everyone knows about. It also means that presumably Number 9 will be the hardest to vanquish since they will have the longest time to master their super power. Later on, Number 4 gets an added boost from a sexy, slinky Aussie who happens to be Number 6. My first thought: “What the hell happened to Number 5?” Then I figured that Number 5 has to be locked away somewhere in a protective safe house at an unknown location. Because that affords Number 6 to do whatever the hell she wants; the evil aliens would just have to stop and say, “Look Number 6, we’d really, truly love to vaporize you right now, but first we gotta go find and kill Number 5 first. See ya later.” If that’s the case then Number’s 7-9 need to get off the bench and team up. Number 4 can’t keep this up forever, guys.

I Am Number Four is tailor-made for a young male audience that doesn’t have the urge to see something harder or edgier. It’s got superfluous jet-ski stunts, girls with flat tummies, explosions, cool space weaponry, CGI monsters, villains in long black trench coats, failed attempts at romance, a dog, and even a reference to famous Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. It’s not an incoherent cacophony of light and sound like you’d find in a Michael Bay film; director D.J. Caruso is like Bay lite with more self-discipline. I Am Number Four is fairly derivative stuff but nothing worth getting upset about. After you see derivatives of derivatives, you start forgiving the final product for lacking any discernible flavor. All of the elements come together in rather harmless fashion making a rather empty but harmless sci-fi action flick.

Nate’s Grade: C

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