REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games

23 03 2012

From the very beginning of “The Hunger Games,” it is very clear that this literary adaptation has in common with “Harry Potter” only the hype surrounding their release.  While Rowling and an army of talented directors transported us to a universe accessible only in our wildest imaginations, writer/director Gary Ross shows no such inclinations in bringing Suzanne Collins’ best-seller to the big screen.  As her novel is meant to hold a mirror up to our own reality-TV saturated culture, he plants the film in an America just a little bit of social upheaval removed from our current one.

He has no interest in sweeping formalist cinematography that basks in the beauty of castles and countryside.  Ross’ style adheres more closely to the films of Danny Boyle with a kinetic desire propelling every shot; watching the struggles in the wilderness harkens more to Aron Ralston’s fight against nature in “127 Hours” than it does to anything in the Forbidden Forest.  The editing is more deliberate, too, lingering on the actors to communicate internal monologues with their eyes rather than conveying that the editor forgot to take their Ritalin.

Of course, not everything in the film looks as gritty as District 12 and as unyielding as the Arena.  The Capitol, where the rich and the elites bask, is embellished to the maximum for an especially emphasized contrast.  The men and women look like they walked out of Hunter S. Thompson’s acid trip, and their lavish makeup and attire are nothing short of ridiculous.  (So don’t be surprised if “The Hunger Games” takes home a technical Oscar or two next February.)

All of this makes Panem, a strange society born from the ashes of an America that tore itself apart, a fascinating place to build a story of triumph over the odds.  16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister.  The Games require the competitive edge of an Olympic athlete in addition to the cut-throat inclinations of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and it gets worse for Katniss as class bias is institutionalized in the rigid caste society of Panem.

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