Countdown: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

11 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

…Holy mackerel! For one brief shining moment (probably passed already by the time you read this), Reel Roy Reviews is #1 (!) in sales on Amazon’s list of best-selling movie guides and reviews. Don’t know how long this will last, so check out the photographic proof here!

Here is a snippet from Roy’s review of The Butler: “In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’s 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.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” – Prisoners

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In post-9/11 America, paranoia and violence, xenophobia and religion have become a toxic brew. It is in these murky waters that the new film Prisoners trucks.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve who shows a surprising level of fair-mindedness for our nation’s current warts-and-all rugged surburban survivalism. The atmosphere is overcast and thick, defined smartly by the bleak Midwestern weather that typically blankets the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even that choice is symbolic – for what are we truly thankful anymore when real (or imagined) bogeymen lurk around every corner … and we are armed to the teeth to shoot them (as well as any neighbors who get caught in the crossfire)?

I can’t even begin to summarize the mobius strip of a plot in the limited space here. (That’s what Wikipedia is for, after all!) The long and the short of it is that two families  – one deer-hunting, Jesus-loving, stranger-phobic and the other yuppified, highly-educated, inclusive – venture across their tract home lawns to break bread on Thanksgiving only to find the young daughters of each brood seemingly vanish into thin air.

The prime suspect is RV-driving, greasy-haired, 80s-glasses-wearing Boo Radley-in-training Paul Dano (a mumble-mouthed marvel). And, as you have no doubt gathered from the trailers, hot-headed Hugh Jackman, for whose character violence is a deep-seated expression of his faith, abducts the supposed kidnapper and brutally tries to “Gitmo” the truth out of him.

The sad reality – and the film’s ultimate revelation – is that there is no black and white “truth,” in even the most horrific of circumstances, and violence only begets … well … more violence. I won’t spoil the “fun” as it were, but there are surprises (but blessedly not M. Night Shyamalan-style SHOCKS!) aplenty. The twists are all logical and integral to the plot, leaving the viewer with the perspective that if only the characters, in their rush-to-CNN/Fox-News-judgment, had slowed down for just one minute, they would have seen the real picture much sooner.

The film is a series of muted grays – visually and emotionally. Just when you feel certain in your philosophical alignment with one character (say, Jackman’s righteously raging papa) or another (say, Jake Gyllenhaal’s “facts will set you free” police detective), the story – like life – ebbs and flows and leaves you questioning your … faith.

At times, the film is a bit obviously symbolic in the way early Hitchcock could be: rain = sadness and torment, frost and snow = frustration, children = innocence lost, plaid = middle class. Yet, there is also extraordinarily complex thematic work here that I will be mulling for days.

Most notably, at the heart of the film, there is a jigsaw puzzle of faith and disillusionment and self-determination. The mantra “pray for the best; prepare for the worst” gets repeated at least a half dozen times by Jackman and occasionally by Gyllenhaal. The irony is (without ruining the film) that all of Jackman’s prayer and preparations actually make things worse while Gyllenhaal’s agnostic “slow and steady wins the race” approach proves (arguably) best in the end.

This is a mightily powerful film, extremely well acted. The powerhouse cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard (who brought me to tears for some reason nearly every time he was onscreen), Len Cariou, and an especially crackerjack Melissa Leo (about whom I potentially could write another entire entry but only by completely spoiling the intricate plot).

I don’t know how I will feel about this film tomorrow or next week or next month (my parents who viewed it Friday warned me about that) but I am so glad I saw it. I suspect this film will become a dark and unsettling touchstone for our era, and I hope one that will cause those brave few among us to question their deeply ingrained assumptions/prejudices about their fellow man.

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

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“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.