Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend

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Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises

The General’s Daughter


The General's Daughter

Madeline Stowe is tired of being taken to John Travolta's favorite cheap bar whenever they go out on a date.

(1999) Mystery (Paramount) John Travolta, Madeline Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Daniel van Bargen, Peter Weireter, Mark Boone Junior, John Beasley, John Frankenheimer. Directed by Simon West

 

The United States Army is, in many ways, a cult in the eyes of us civilians. Think about it: People dress the same, address civilians with courtesy and respect (for the most part), engage in a life governed by a rigid code of morality and when threatened, protect their own. At least they don’t hand out flowers in airports.

The General’s Daughter looks at that code in a critical manner. Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a member of the elite Criminal Investigation Division, a branch of the Army that investigates crimes committed on military property and/or by military personnel. He is brought into an investigation when a beautiful female officer (Stefanson) is raped and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Another investigator, Sara Sunhill (Stowe) who, as it so happens, used to be intimate with Brenner, is brought in to be a partner with her somewhat reluctant ex.

Also, as it turns out, the beautiful officer is the daughter of the base commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (Cromwell). Campbell is getting ready to retire from the military, with an eye toward a political career. So the intrigue is sky-high, with a smarmy MP (Hutton), an edgy psych officer (the always-excellent Woods), and a guilty-looking assistant (Williams) lurking about the edges.

At the risk of giving away too much, two elements of the military are under the microscope here: the Army’s attitude towards women and the Army’s attitude towards cover-ups. I can kind of understand the latter; in order to be effective, an armed force must have the respect of not only those who potentially might oppose it but also of those it defends as well. The U.S. Army doesn’t like to appear vulnerable or mistaken. It takes steps to protect its reputation almost as vigorously as it takes steps to protect this nation.

Of course that can lead to several gray areas, morally-speaking. While instances as far out into the gray as The General’s Daughter are extremely rare (although the Navy’s Tailhook scandal comes to mind), the fact is that the potential for these kinds of shenanigans exist. Perhaps that’s why this movie is so effective.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Travolta is actually a fine actor although he makes a pretty damn fine movie star as well. Here he plays a man walking through a moral minefield and is being forced to choose between what he knows is right and the good of the Army. It’s not an easy choice by any means and through Travolta we can see the character wrestling with his moral dilemma.

He has a spectacular supporting cast; Woods and Cromwell shine, and Stowe, Hutton and Williams are all excellent as well. All of them are among some of the finest actors in the business, now and almost 15 years ago when this was made. Still, this is definitely Travolta’s show and he’s at the top of his game here.

“The General’s Daughter” is not always an easy movie to watch, although as thrillers go, it’s top-notch. The solution is not what I expected, and it made me think long after the lights had come up in the theater. That’s a lot more than you can ask out of most thrillers – heck, most movies.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining thriller with unexpected twists. Travolta is in his best form here; he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Portrays the Army in a somewhat negative light. The murder/rape scene may be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very graphic and disturbing rape and murder scene, some perverse sexuality (as the MPAA so delicately puts it), plenty of strong language and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Fort MacCallum scenes were filmed at Savannah State University in Georgia and at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on an estimated $95M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make enough to be profitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Promotion