Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
Black Panther is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior. It’s unlike any other super hero film prior. Yes, there have been African-American leading men in comic-based movies, notably Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire-all-badass Blade. However, this is the first movie I can think of with this kind of budget, this kind of backing, and with this kind of ownership over its cultural heritage and the heavy burdens it carries.
We last saw T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War mourning the loss of his father, the king of the African nation of Wakanda. The outside world does not know that Wakanda sits on a vast supply of virbanium, the strongest and more durable metal in the world and the key to Wakanda’s impressive technology. Under a holographic cover, Wakanda is a thriving metropolis with flying cars, skyscrapers, and next gen weapons. T’Challa goes home and must earn the right to the throne. However, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former top-level black ops solider, is looking for his own path into Wakanda and onto the throne. Killmonger teams up with arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to force Wakanda to deal with being cut off from the world.
This is a movie populated almost entirely by black faces, notably black women (more on that later), and they are given a mainstream platform that celebrates its multitudinous African roots and traditions thanks to co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed). This movie is proudly black, which will rankle some on the fringes of society, as if celebrating one’s own identity is somehow denigrating those who do not apply to that status. Black Panther is not an exclusionary movie because of its content and execution; this is a very accessible movie to a mass audience, even those who haven’t been paying attention to every nitty-gritty detail in the previous seventeen MCU entries. There are only two characters from other MCU films that appear, one as a post-credits cameo and the other an officious representative (Martin Freeman) of the outside’s clandestine organizations. This is a unique world isolated from the long shadow of colonialism. Wakanda has never known, to our knowledge, the depravity of the European and American slave trade. They have continued to develop uninterrupted by conquerors, slave traders, and the crippling aftereffects of racism. The Wakanda people could very easily be the conquerors themselves. They’re the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and hide as a “third-world nation,” utilizing the ignorance of the Western world to its security. The world of Wakanda is a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and defiantly independent nation.
The larger theme is over the responsibilities inherent to those with privilege. The nation of Wakanda is vastly successful by all conventional metrics. T’Challa must wrestle with whether to continue their exclusionary stance, ignore the plight of the larger world and say it’s none of their business or engage with the world, potentially putting his own kingdom’s peace and prosperity at risk. It’s a simple enough theme and yet it has tremendous weight to it especially when you account for those on the other end of the Wakanda borders. The character of Killmonger is a direct reflection of this. His experiences in Oakland are not the ideal pairing with the luxury of Wakanda. Killmonger sees Wakanda’s great influence as a way to protect beleaguered black citizens of the world and especially in the United States. It’s a way to prevent more senseless deaths from black citizens who were slain as a result of the fear of just being black (a powerful example was Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station). It’s a pointed political statement that doesn’t get too heavy-handed (even though I would have preferred that). It questions the value of isolationism especially when suffering can be prevented. Killmonger works as a villain because you can understand his point of view. He goes beyond the need for vengeance. The wrongs he wants to right are larger and historical. Even Killmonger’s last line really attaches itself to this theme. T’Challa offers him a way out but with imprisonment. “No,” Killmonger declines, “My people were the ones who leaped over the sides of the slave ships. They knew death was better than bondage.” The emphasis is “his people,” not T’Challa’s, not Wakanda. His people were the ones who suffered from slavery. Could Wakanda have possibly prevented it?
Another wonderful surprise of Black Panther is its incredible all-female ensemble that provides expert support to their king. T’Challa has the good fortune of four strong women, each of them having a different and vital relationship to him. The standout will be Danai Gurira (TV’s Walking Dead) as the fierce chief of security, Okoye. She has a swagger that vacillates between being intimidating and being brashly enjoyable. Okoye has many of the best lines and she throws herself into every fight. There’s also a sense of duty that transcends a single man that challenges her loyalty. Letitia Wright (TV’s Humans) plays Shuri, the Q of this world, the top scientist and creator of many a gadget. She’s T’Challa’s little sister and their interplay is very competitive and teasing. She’s looking to be more involved in the action and a highlight is when she teams up with her big bro. Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book) is Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who comes in and out of his life as an undercover spy. All three of these women have a powerful sense of agency and are integrated in important and essential ways. Even though Nakia may slide into that romantic interest role, she still has a vibrant life outside whatever feelings she may or may not have for the hero. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who radiates strength and fortitude. These women gave me some of the biggest moments of entertainment in the entire 135 minutes of movie.
Now some careful readers might note that I haven’t done much to emphasize the actual action of the super hero action movie, and that’s for a good reason. Black Panther stands stronger on theme and character than it does its actual action sequences. Coogler had a wonderful sense of scale and verisimilitude with 2015’s Creed, relying on long takes to put the audience in the heightened drama of the boxing ring. With Black Panther, the action sequences can lose a sense of immediacy. Many happen at night or are filmed and edited in ways that diminish some of their impact, like hand-to-hand combat in splashing water where the splashes obscure the activity. Other scenes felt like a video game CGI cut-scene. Speaking of video games, Black Panther’s suit has a crazy ability to absorb the kinetic energy of weapons, which means the stakes take a dip when our hero can merely just stand and allow himself to get shot repeatedly. The payoff for this absorption is a giant energy shockwave but it plays out like a fighting game’s special feature. It’s an aspect that’s not really utilized in a satisfying or unique way. The final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger feels too weightless in execution. It’s meant to even the playing field by nullifying their extra abilities, but if they both have the same “Panther powers” isn’t the field already even? The third act, the usual punching bag for MCU critics, is the best part of the movie from an action standpoint. It utilizes the characters in significant ways and allows for organic complications while still maintaining its wider sense of spectacle. Plus it’s one of the few action sequences that allow all the pyrotechnics to be enjoyed during the visibility of day.
Boseman (Marshall) was an excellent choice for a stoic and too-cool-for-school character that can glide right on by. The ageless Boseman is at his best when he’s working off the other actors, especially his female posse. He has a couple of very effective emotional confrontations as he learns of his family’s secrets. As steady and soothing a presence as Boseman can be, this is Jordan’s movie. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) has been Coogler’s cinematic good luck charm and we’re still benefiting from that divine kinship. His character is at the heart of the central thematic question. While T’Challa is ultimately the one who has to decide, it is Killmonger who embodies that need for change and the desire to rectify the past. There’s a flashback with Jordan that got me to tear up, and this guy was the villain! It’s one of the film’s biggest mistakes sidelining Jordan for far too long. After his introduction, Killmonger is strangely absent for the next hour or so of the movie, ceding the spotlight to Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), a more antic and goofy scenery-chewing baddie who has a few regrettably “faux hip” lines of dialogue that land awkwardly. Serkis is having a blast but can feel like a holdover from a different film.
Much like last summer’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It has a personal significance that I will not be able to fully tap into, no matter the expansive powers of empathy. Black Panther, as a long-awaited cultural moment, will have many ripples of inspiration. After my early screening, I sat back and watched an African-American boy, no older than seven or eight, walk out of the theater in a daze. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he said in astonishment, “That was the best movie ever.” That kid has a hero he can call his own. That matters. Black Panther, as a work of art, is rich in topical themes and has a wide supporting net of exciting, robust, and capable women. I enjoyed how personal and relevant and political the movie could become, folding new and challenging ideas onto the MCU formula. Coogler is a marvelous director and storyteller showing rare acumen for being able to handle the rigors of a Hollywood blockbuster and deliver something hearty. The action has some issues and there are some structural hiccups that hold it from the MCU’s upper echelon (I enjoyed all of the 2017 MCU movies better). Black Panther is a winning movie when it features its sterling cast celebrating their virtues and solidarity and a still respectable enough action spectacle when called upon for big screen duty.
Nate’s Grade: B
In the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.
Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.
Rogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.
There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.
It all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.
With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.
Let’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.
Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.
Nate’s Grade: B
For the new sci-fi film Arrival, I felt that an unconventional review might be suitable considering that the movie is about communication. Therefore I sought out my pal Eric Muller to converse over the many qualities of this intelligent movie. Enjoy, dear reader.
General plot synopsis: a dozen mysterious alien ships hover above the ground across the globe. The government seeks out the assistance of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, to try and establish a communication line with the aliens and determine whether they are friend or foe.
Nate Zoebl: So Eric, my good friend, let’s talk about our first impressions of director Denis Villenueve’s Arrival. I was really taken with just how cerebral it all was. Given the director’s pedigree (I absolutely loved Sicario), I was expecting an intelligent movie that wouldn’t follow the same blueprint as, say, Independence Day: Re-Something or Other Go Boom, but in many ways this movie feels like you’re studying for the SATs. I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s a rather highbrow movie that follows a team of smart people doing something incredibly hard with a level of precision that brings an intense sense of realism to the scenario. It made me think of Arthur C. Clarke science fiction where if first contact were to happen it might go very much like this. It’s a linguistics puzzle box and I found that to be fascinating. The movie delivers on that front. I’m sure the casual moviegoer will be bored by the lack of intensity for two acts of movie but I was delighted. You?
Eric Muller: My first thoughts were, “Wow, Hollywood made a first contact movie that looks like how the real first contact would go.” Unlike other Hollywood blockbusters, this movie is patient. The focus of the movie is not the actors or special effects like other contact movies, the focus of Arrival is the script. The movie is a love letter to language and communication. The director did an amazing job of telling the story and also flipping conventional storytelling.
Nate Zoebl: We’ll get into more of the flipping the script, so to speak, in our spoiler section but I heartily agree. I’ll also admit that I feel much like Amy Adams as I await your next reply in this discussion (not to make any general comparisons to you and heptapod aliens). I think patience, as you cited, is one of the movie’s greatest virtues. It takes its time, it naturally develops, and this is definitely evident in the first act. The step-by-step process of Adams and Jeremy Renner and the other scientists being escorted to the alien ship, suiting up, being told the hazards and unknowns, and going inside, experiencing the different gravity, and coming up close to the giant white wall that promised so much on the other side, it’s teased out in a fashion that allows for anticipation to rack your nerves. The fear of what they’re stepping into really settles in.
Eric Muller: I’m okay with being compared to a heptapod. I appreciated the movie taking its time, allowing the audience to learn and discover at the same time as Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. In other movies, learning the new language is usually done in a 15-minute montage. This movie is a Sci Fi movie dedicated to discovery, which is what science is.
Nate Zoebl: It’s definitely a movie of discovery and I appreciated that it doesn’t gloss over the challenges and details of that. It’s also a discovery of our heroine, but again we’ll save that discussion for a little bit. At its core, it’s a movie about language and communication. How are we able to connect and interpret others? If 12 giant alien ships, which kind of looked like Pringles chips, were to one day appear randomly across the globe, how do we interpret intent? That’s the movie’s ticking clock, uncovering the intent of the seven-legged squid-like aliens before the more alarmist elements of our society give in to paranoia and destruction. How would an alien species even begin to try and have another understand its language? That’s a fascinating starting point. I appreciated that the alien language was, indeed, alien. It’s made up primarily of inky pictographs, circles with slight variations. This movie must have been nirvana for a calligrapher.
Eric Muller: There are going to be a lot of tattoos based on heptapod language. But you said it; the language barrier would be the first and hardest barrier to overcome in this situation. And there is one scene that really illustrates that point. When Forrest Whittaker asks Amy Adams why she is showing the aliens just simple words. Adams breaks down why the question “What is your purpose here on Earth?” is such a complicated question. Especially to anyone who doesn’t understand English.
Nate Zoebl: I think that’s such a smart scene because it opens up for us dumb-dumbs in the audience just how complicated language can be. He asks why teach them words and she says so that they have a vocabulary that they can answer back with. Arrival is kind of like the most intriguing ESL class you never took at the Learning Annex. What technical elements really stood out for you in the film?
Eric Muller: My favorite thing was them getting inside the spaceship. I know it was a simple camera trick with some CGI but it looked so good.
Nate Zoebl: Villenueve films are downright impeccable when it comes to their technical merits. Sicario was, top to bottom, a beautiful movie from looks to sounds to editing. The cinematography for Arrival was tremendous and really accentuated the overall eeriness. Also, the sound design deserves an Oscar. The sounds of the aliens as well as the disconcerting musical score kept me on the edge of my seat. The special effects were best used sparingly. The aliens themselves worked best when they were somewhat shadowed, allowing our imaginations to go into overdrive to fill in the rest.
Eric Muller: Was it just me or did the aliens looks like the final form of the Elcor species from Mass Effect? For a budget of only 47 million, Arrival looks better than a lot of movies made with three times that budget.
Nate Zoebl: My question for you: was this central mystery enough for you before the pieces fell into place in the third act and the movie’s larger end design was revealed? I think we’re getting close to talking about all that good spoiler stuff, but before we do I wanted to know if the central drive was enough for you and in particular if the characters worked well enough. We’re treated to a tragic series of flashbacks to provide some back-story to Adams, but I don’t know if I’d say the movie presents much in the way of characterization until the third act (promise, we’re getting there…). Hear me out, old friend: I almost think Renner’s character is the typical “girl” part that Hollywood fills in these kind of larger movies, the co-lead which is really meant to support the main character and, typically his, journey of self-actualization or healing or whatever. I think there might be some subtle gender politics being subverted there or maybe I’m reading too much into an underwritten character.
Eric Muller: The central mystery was more than enough to keep me interested. As I noted earlier, we were discovering the events just like Any Adams. And you are right that this movie feels like if it had been made 10-15 years ago the genders for the two main leads would have been swapped. Probably have had Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.
Nate Zoebl: The natural sequel to The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down. I suppose it’s here we should start getting into spoilers, so if anyone would like to remain pure, please come back later to read the rest of our conversation.
[WARNING: SPOILERS FROM HERE]
Nate Zoebl: It’s a movie about language and our interpretation of language and I think, very cleverly, Villenueve and the screenwriter play with the language of film storytelling. We’ve been assuming from the start that these snippets of sense memories from Adams were of her tragic past. Au contraire my friend, they are revealed to be not flashbacks but flash-forwards to a future she has yet to live. Rust Cohle was right; time is a flat circle.
Eric Muller: This movie is a classic twist on a golden age Sci Fi story. Amy Adams’ character arc could have been an episode of the Twilight Zone and been just as good.
Nate Zoebl: I think the filmmakers make something we’ve seen before, and frankly have become somewhat trite, and subvert it while making the movie and the central protagonist far more interesting. We’ve seen the tragic character that has to overcome the grief over the death of a child before, even recently in 2013’s Gravity. We’re primed for that kind of familiar Hollywood back-story to provide a dollop of depth to the main character. And then when the reveal comes, it makes the scenes have even more emotional power. Adams knew that she would have a daughter who would ultimately die as a teenager of some sort of awful disease, and Adams chooses to go ahead with this future fully knowing the unbearable pain that waits. This revelation instantly makes her character so much more interesting and puts the audience in her place to ask whether we would do the same.
Eric Muller: It is a great twist on a story we have seen before. Also it puts her in the position of whether she tells her husband about their daughter’s future.
Nate Zoebl: And that philosophical divide is ultimately what dooms her marriage. Here’s my choice, and I’ll be interested if yours varies: I would have gone along with it too. Yes, knowing what is to come means that a child was brought into existence to die sadly as a teenager and will suffer, but she will also live and love and laugh for many days beforehand, and knowing the end provides a lens that incentivizes every moment spent together. Yes she will die eventually but any one of us could be snatched from the world at any moment. At least she got to know love and life for so many years before it was taken away from her. How would you choose in this scenario?
Eric Muller: I would let my wife know so we could enjoy every minute with our child.
Nate Zoebl: Let’s step away from the emotional aspects. The end reveal also provides a jolt of energy to the climax because now it becomes a race against time, but time is also forward and backwards. Amy Adams has to stop the Chinese military from striking the alien ships and she has to use information from events that have not happened to save the day in the past. It’s a heady moment of criss-crossing plot streams that really works.
Eric Muller: That reveal, that scene with Amy Adams with the Chinese general, was my favorite scene in the movie. The writing, the way it was shot, and the timing. The timing of that scene gave the audience a chance to breathe and fully take in the reveal.
Nate Zoebl: The scene reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film I wasn’t that fond of beyond its second act planet-to-planet investigations. The screenwriter in me wants to criticize the use of the future to bail out the past because it feels a tad too easy. However, while it really irritated me in Interstellar (couldn’t you be a bit more helpfully specific, Future People?!) I didn’t have a problem with its use in Arrival. Maybe I’m a hypocrite but I feel like the execution is much more impactful here and it doesn’t undo the plotting from before. It doesn’t feel like a cheap trick. The heptapod aliens experience time as a circle rather than linearly, much like Dr. Manhattan crushing through the past, present, and future simultaneously. If we could see our future selves and the actions we make, and inform our current decision-making, I think that would probably bring about a rare world peace. Also, I really liked that the aliens weren’t just these benevolent gifters but had an agenda as well because they know humans will save them thousands of years in the future. It’s like they intervened so we could save ourselves.
Eric Muller: I also liked that the aliens said they will need us in 3,000 years. We never discover what the aliens need from us then. I think we went over this earlier, but Arrival is not a new story but just a great take and twist on that story.
Nate Zoebl: I liked that open-ended nature of the story. What if the aliens had come to Earth and spoke in nothing but emojis? Lots of pictures of eggplants and “A-ok” fingers and strangely anthropomorphic poop.
Eric Muller: Then we would use Amy Adams’ soon-to-be-dead daughter to solve the mystery.
Nate Zoebl: The aliens would essentially be modern teenagers (I’ll shake my old man fist at The Kids Today). The daughter would be all like, “Whatever mom.” And then we’d all be dead. Though the ending reveal raises the question of fate versus free will. Can these future events and memories be prevented? I don’t have an answer.
[END OF SPOILERS DISCUSSION]
Nate Zoebl: So Eric, what would you rate this movie?
Eric Muller: I have to go 5 out of 5 stars. One of the best movies I have seen this year. It was a better version of Contact. When you look at it versus Independence Day: Resurgence, it did everything right that ID4 2 failed at, like how you view Civil War versus BvS.
Nate Zoebl: Fair enough, though please don’t ever bring up BvS in polite conversation without first giving me plenty of advance warning. I’m still working through that one. I think I’d rate it an “A-” myself, and I might change that in time. I think the only thing that held me back from a full “A” is that it saves the emotional investment a bit too late to have the full wallop I think it intended.
Nate Zoebl: Now, on a scale of eggplant emojis, how many eggplants are you giving this movie?
Eric Muller: Is this where I admit I’m too old to understand emojis?
Nate Zoebl: I’ll also admit that I don’t understand the appeal, especially conversations that are nothing but emojis. Fittingly, I’ll end this discussion with pictographs:
[Smiley face emoji + cat dancing emoji + little green alien with “we’re number one” foam finger emoji + movie theater emoji + eggplant emoji + “A-ok” fingers emoji]
Nate’s Grade: A-
The last time writer/director Scott Cooper looked at a rural, low-income, hand-to-mouth existence, he helped lead Jeff Bridges to Oscar gold with Crazy Heart. It would make sense then for Cooper’s follow-up, Out of the Furnace, to populate those same hills. It also makes sense why actors would flock to Cooper’s next project. It’s a film that strives to be a little of everything, a slow burn and artful revenge thriller, but ultimately will please few, the actors wasted here included.
In rural Pennsylvania, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a diligent steelworker who always has to be on the lookout for his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Prone to impulsive decisions, Rodney routinely finds himself in debt to bad people. The situation magnifies when Russell is sent to prison for a few years due to a fatal car accident he was responsible for. When he leaves the penitentiary, life has only gotten worse. Russell’s ailing father passed away while he was locked up. His girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has moved on with police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Most distressing, Rodney has gone through four tours of Iraq and is deeply troubled. He’s fallen into old habits and gotten involved in an underground bare-knuckle fighting ring run by the ferocious Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Rodney runs afoul of Harlan and disappears, and Russell goes on the warpath for vengeance.
The problem is that Out of the Furnace doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the pack. We get little insight into the hard lives of these men. Both brothers are haunted by guilt and trauma, squeezed by few economic opportunities, and feeling like life itself is trapping them in corners. However, their path is already predetermined. Russell is destined to stay on the narrow path of responsibility, suffering slings and arrows, but striving to do the right thing. We see this time and again. And Rodney is destined to make poor decisions, desperately getting in over his head and reaching out to all the wrong people. We see this time and again. Each part is solidly locked in, and so we wait because we know their exact trajectory. We know something bad will happen to Rodney and we know Russell will be driven to seek justice his own way. Likewise, Harlan is a scary psycho without complexity. He’s just a drug-addled, violent, scary dude, but he’s so one-note. Lena, once she briefly reunites with Russell, is completely absent in the film, as if her unrequited position is all she serves for our purposes. Cooper displayed a terrific ear for lived-in characters with Crazy Heart, and the details of this world feel honest, it’s just that there aren’t enough of them. The storyline is engraved with little variation, and Cooper doesn’t take full advantage of his great cast, relying upon familiar scenes and elements to establish his loosely drawn characters. We’ve seen these burnouts and lowlifes and dignified blue-collar workers all before. This is a film that wants to be challenging but too often seems to take the easy road.
The very plot structure also seems amiss. As stated above, the journey seems set in stone, so then when something bad does happen to Rodney, it feels overdue. Rodney doesn’t meet his ultimate bind until halfway through Act II, and then when the plot shifts to vengeance, it becomes an uncomplicated straight line. And a streamlined plot with little variation or surprise, with characters that are customary, can get boring. Once Russell is on the warpath, there is little complications or obstacles, or even moments to contemplate the full extent of his actions. And then the movie is done. Because the final act plays out exactly as you anticipate, the movie leaves you feeling anticlimactic. The payoff is unsatisfying. Plot reorganization would have benefited the Russell vs. Harlan storyline. Rather than draw out Rodney’s ultimate screw-up, which everyone is just waiting for from minute one, why not have his screw-up be the Act I break, coming around the half-hour mark rather than more than an hour into the film? That sets the story forward and provides enough space for Russell to work upwards toward Harlan as well as examine what kind of man he is becoming. As it plays out, Harlan is crazy but also easy to access despite the threats of what the rural hill people will do to visitors. If a revenge story was the method that was going to test Russell’s character and redemption, then we needed to get to this crossroads sooner, especially since everyone is waiting for it to happen.
The power of the acting goes a decent way to compensate for the film’s unresolved investment. Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) internalizes most of his character’s emotions, always trying to hold back a swell of anger and guilt, to just keep going one day at a time. He delivers another strong performance as a man struggling to do the right thing. In this day and age, even a passable Bale performance is going to be above average. Affleck (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is a go-to actor when you have a desperate character that is clearly outmatched. His volatile performance is laced with sadness, as you understand how cursed Rodney feels, how the universe hands him bad break after bad break. Affleck tinges his hopelessness with a resigned weariness, as if he’s just seeking a final release. Harrelson (Now You See Me) stews villainously, erupting with extreme violence. He’s a scary guide helped by Harrelson’s flicker of madness he imbues the character with. It’s too bad he doesn’t do anything memorable outside the opening minute. Whitaker (Lee Dainels’ The Butler) probably gets the worst of it, and I think he knows it, which is why the actor adopts a gravely speaking voice that sounds like he has a frog in his throat. Beyond the fact that he’s linked with Russell’s old flame, there isn’t anything important to mention about the character, nor is there anything for Whitaker to do other than make limp threats about letting the police focus on Harlan.
Out of the Furnace is one of those movies that gets details right but loses sense of the big picture. Its blue collar, working class characters are given the right clothes, posture, look, but they’re not given enough material to breathe as characters. The people in this movie end up becoming dispensable parts of the background, serving their strict plot purposes and then dissolving again, lacking complexity and personality. The characters aren’t strong enough for this to be character-driven; the plot isn’t given sufficient structure for this to be a searching moral exploration; the pacing and direction don’t provide enough thrills for the film to work as a revenge thriller. And so Out of the Furnace, while not being a bad film, falls short of truly working as a character study, as a moral examination, as a traditional pulpy revenge thriller. It’s got a great cast and some wonderful production values that convey the weight of low income America, but the movie just lacks an engaging story to justify the talent in use. A few more revisions would have helped, but Out of the Furnace ultimately comes up short because it lacks any sort of lasting heat.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Before 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.
I’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.
Then 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