“We turn a blind eye” – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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“In America, we turn a blind eye to how badly we treat our own, while pointing the finger at other countries’ abuse of their people.”

I paraphrase one of the more thematically powerful statements made by Forest Whitaker as the titular character “Cecil Gaines” in Lee Daniels’ latest The Butler.

The film fictionalizes the true story of a butler in the White House who served (literally) every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The movie is good … quite good actually.  While not as much of an emotional gut punch as Daniels’ superior Precious, the movie embraces its melodramatic DNA and paints a compelling portrait of an African-American family unraveling at the seams against the backdrop of America’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Like Precious, however, The Butler suffers from an overly episodic structure and crazy-Love-Boat-guess-who-is-playing-the-next-cameo-role stunt casting.

(I must say, though, that Mariah Carey owes Daniels a whole lotta love for whatever magic trick he has pulled to make her seem like an accomplished actress. No lie. Glitter? A foggy, foggy memory now. A true public service to us all.)

So back to that quote. With that statement (made, unfortunately, while Whitaker and his cinematic wife Oprah Winfrey are both attired in satiny track suits – the 80s! – and saddled with some pretty dodgy old age makeup), Cecil sums up the movie’s big idea … and it’s a doozy. We are a nation of hypocrites, spreading the gospel of freedom, human rights, and dignity across the globe while depriving those self-same ideals from our own tax-paying citizenry.

The film’s structure, contrived as can be, offers point/counterpoint as Cecil interacts with a rogues’ gallery of Commanders-in-Chief, all of whom turn to Cecil at some point, asking his opinion on key moments in civil rights history (usually while he is handing them a cup of tea or something – seriously).

Simultaneously, in a feat of the kind of logic that only appears in Oscar-bait movies like this (or Forrest Gump), Cecil’s oldest son Louis is an active participant in each and every one of those key moments: he’s at the lunch counter sit-in; he’s on the Freedom Bus; he’s with Martin Luther King, Jr.; he’s a Black Panther. And, by the way, Cecil’s other son ends up enlisting for Vietnam for some inexplicable reason, mostly so the audience has a touch point for that bit of our history as well.

The fact that the film is so compelling (and doesn’t buckle under the weight of this tv-movie-esque structure) is a testament to Daniels’ exceptional cast. And what a cast! Each president (and one First Lady) get the Hollywood treatment, with the weaker links being Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Ronnie and the best being Liev Schreiber as LBJ (I would actually watch that spin-off movie, and I don’t like LBJ) and John Cusack as Tricky Dick.

I got a big kick from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan – there is a spiky sweetness she brings to the brief minutes she is onscreen. Because of Daniels, I’ve become a fan of Lenny Kravitz as an actor (never much cared for him as a musician). Kravitz, as one of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, is by no means a master thespian but he has presence – warm, welcoming, and good with a quip. Cuba Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, as another colleague of Cecil’s is grating, which is as much a function of his unnecessarily vulgar lines as of his performance.

Whitaker and Winfrey are the film’s heart. The best moments of the film are those depicting them as husband and wife, consumed by the caustic sadness and bitter anger generated living in a world that marginalizes their humanity while draining their souls.

I’m not necessarily a fan of either performer; I often find them hammy and self-absorbed, but in this film they are both grounded and compelling, with their more indulgent tendencies a welcome flourish on an, at times, overripe script.

In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and … Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.

Never trust a movie with a colon in the title … The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

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Yeah, I wanted to see The Butler. I still want to see The Butler. Tonight, I did not see The Butler.

Nope, instead, I saw The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Yup, you read that sentence correctly. Any film that has that many cryptically ominous words AND a colon in the title is truly as bad as it sounds. At least we still have truth in some advertising, regardless how inadvertent. Cold comfort.

When will this turgid phase of young “adult” fiction-turned-cinematic tripe finally pass like the hastily consumed, calorically empty fast food dinner it is? (I apologize for the colorful, though apt, metaphor.) Whom do I get blame for these movies? Harry Potter? Edward and Bella? Dawson’s Creek? Oy.

I’m not sure what to say about this one. Simply put, this film stole two and a half hours of my life that I’ll never get back. (The trailers beforehand weren’t even interesting. Another adaptation of what I personally view as Shakespeare’s least interesting work, Romeo and Juliet? With Paul Giamatti?!? Really?!)

After the movie, my friends and I spoke at length about movies and tv shows that move us to tears (in a good way). The chat had nothing to do with this film, but we had it nonetheless. You want to know what made me cry about this film … other than the colossal waste of production time and money it represented?

I’ll tell you what made me cry…that THIS is the way Hollywood chooses to use the brilliant Jared Harris as he moons around like an angsty, tattooed version of his father Richard’s last role Dumbledore (which also was kind of a crime against humanity and art, but not as bad as this).

CCH Pounder, also a terrific actor, is relegated to Viola Davis’ mystic sci-fi blockbuster cast-offs as some spooky voodoo witch landlord who, at the film’s midpoint, turns into a strange hybrid of Lord of the Rings’ Golem and Whoopi Goldberg’s character from Ghost.

Oh, and our hero? The darling Lily Collins, so charming in the underrated though clunky Mirror Mirror, borrows heavily from the Kristen Stewart balsa wood school of acting while bringing a smidge of Annette Funicello’s furrowed brow and Kate Beckinsale’s leather/lycra-wearing-demon-slaying contortions. What the h*ll?

This movie is a mess. I don’t think it would even make it through pilot season on The CW. And they’ll put anything on the air.

The plot? What plot. Something about a girl born with some sort of magical powers to kill werewolves or vampires or demons while befriending angels and lurking about spooky old museum/castle locations in what appeared to be the Manhattan of 1984’s Ghostbusters. Oh, and poor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Lena Headey, and Jamie Campbell Bower show up to collect a paycheck and act out some portentous nonsensical mystical hoo-ha.

Yup, could have been watching The Butler. Instead, saw a movie with bad CGI, worse dialogue, and a colon in the title.

Here’s hoping when I finally see The Butler, Jane Fonda and Oprah don’t suddenly turn into mopey vampire-slayers.

Ring a ding ding! A new Rat Pack’s in town: Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Detroit’s Ford Field

Look, ma! Their stage!
[Photo by Author]

Niece Gabby before the big show
[Photo by Author]

Have you ever seen a concert that’s just so good that there isn’t much to say about it?

Me neither. But I did last night.

Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s tour-de-force concert Legends of the Summer hit Detroit’s Ford Field last night with the gale force of a hurricane. It was a marvel. And it was so good…for once I’m at a loss for words. Or at least a loss for quips.

Timberlake with guitar…and a very large peace sign. [Photo by Author]

I’ve seen a lot of concerts this year, for some reason – P!nk, Suzanne Vega, Shania Twain, New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, BoyzIIMen – and I enjoyed them all thoroughly. They all pale in comparison to this show.

Why? For one, there were no flying motorcycles, no gymnastic feats, no flying saucers, no aerial acts, no trapeze artists, and no horses. (Well, I will say, I thought the two live horses at Shania’s show were pretty amazing and really sweet.) There was just music and the joy of performing… though admittedly the lacquered red rectangle of a set that turned into a million different light projections was a nifty technical addition.

The D brings folks together! Surprised to find a former co-worker seated nearby [Photo by Author]

Timberlake and Jay-Z shared the stage about 70% of the time, and, reminiscent of the Rat Pack vibe that Timberlake has been rather successfully co-opting for about a half dozen years, the two swells bounced off each other musically, complementing each other’s showmanship beautifully.

Neither performer missed a beat as they sailed through nearly 40 songs in about two and a half hours. The show is briskly paced and does not bore for one second.

Timberlake, who used to suffer a bit from the “hey look what I can do now” curse of too many child performers (and of a couple of show choir show-boaters I avoided during high school), has mellowed at the ripe old age of 32 (!). He moves effortlessly from piano to keyboard to vocal to dance with finesse and surety, his former overeagerness having transitioned beautifully to a playful confidence.

Tiger stage projection during Jay-Z performance
[Photo by Author]

And Jay-Z (who I think is about my age) was like the elder statesman – Martin or Sinatra to Timblerake’s Sammy? I don’t know his music as well as I do Timberlake’s and I’m not always nuts about hip hop (with the shining exception of my fascination with Kanye West) but Jay-Z made me a convert. He approached his rhymes like a jazz musician who isn’t afraid of melody. He swoops and glides and compels the audience to hang on to every word. Mesmerizing.

The show was a graduation present of sorts for our niece as she heads off to college, and I could tell that it was just the right send off. She was on cloud nine during the nearly hour-long departure from the stadium. For once, the exiting crowd was a fun extension of the evening as opposed to a burden as everyone seemed euphoric.

That big red stage…kinda looked like a Target store display [Photo by Author]

(One notable exception being the truly obnoxious inebriated Kardashian clones seated immediately behind us during the whole show. Note to future concert-goers: just because you have floor seats does not give you the right to keep pushing your chairs against the patrons in the next row. Thank goodness for the sweet folks in front of us, who, sensitive to our plight, moved their seats up to give us more room.)

Yup, kids, there’s a new Rat Pack in town and it’s led by Jay-Z and JT. They only have a few shows left this summer. Don’t miss ‘em! (And lookee there…guess I did have something to say after all…and even a quip or two!)

A flat gin and tonic? RED 2

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The original RED was like a crisp, bubbly gin and tonic on a hot summer day: refreshing, predictable yet surprisingly fun, and (uber-confidently) offering no nutritional value.

The sequel – with the unremarkable title RED 2 – is like that bottle of tonic water you find in the back of the refrigerator in August: still useful, but kinda flat, redundant, and probably should have been thrown away before you used it.

Did I have fun watching RED 2? I sure did. Do I remember what the heck I just watched? Not really.

The plot is pretty much a retread of the original, which was a fun critique of our ageist society’s awful tendency to decide that some “older” folks have passed their “sell-by” date…when said folks still have plenty of kick-ass, world-changing rage left in them.

Bruce Willis is still doing that bald, pursed lip thing he always does (which is somehow weirdly acceptable in this context) and the always reliable John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Mary Louise Parker save the day with some wonderful community theatre-esque character work. (I do wish, one day, Parker could play a character who isn’t so pathetically co-dependent, given the anti-co-dependent-co-dependency she blasted so caustically well in Angels in America. Ah, well.)

The film, in essence, becomes a sequence of zany hats that Malkovich wears to comic effect as the troupe moves its way across numerous Euro-ish locales in pursuit of a nuclear weapon of some inconsequential stripe.

God love Catherine Zeta-Jones who is so good but is so saddled with the world’s worst be-banged wig in a key supporting role. (Michael Douglas, I’m not sure, but I kinda think you ruined this Welsh ROCK STAR.) And the also dependable Neal McDonough (whose hair gets more orange whose and skin gets more khaki with every role) is truly wasted as the big bad, though he does wring a laugh or two out of the lame script. (Don’t even get me started on poor David Thewlis who is annoyingly hamstrung with a stupid role as a wine-obsessed intelligence broker.)

It sounds like I hated this movie. I didn’t. I liked it a lot. But everyone involved – including Anthony Hopkins as a quirky and evil(!!!) arms developer – deserved a MUCH better script.

In fact, I suspect we will watch this flick about 18 more times on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon when STARZ repeats this over and over. (It will play much better on a small screen.) It’s just too bad: such a collection of fun stars ready to kick out the jams…and given a script that is nothing but regurgitated jelly.