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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 1, 2010)

1 10 2010

Long before there were your creepy Facebook “friends” who could stalk your photos, there were people like Sy Parrish, the creepy photo developer in Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo,” the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Robin Williams plays the SavMart employee whose fixations drive him to violate all notions of privacy.  With no family or friends to speak of, he lives vicariously through the Yorkin family, whose pictures he has developed since the birth of their son.  Sy compulsively saves their pictures, compiling them on a giant wall in his home.

One day, obsession turns to possession, and he manages to convince himself that he is a member of their family.  We never figure out what leads him to these delusions, be it greed, envy, loneliness, depression, or some other compulsion.  And it is precisely because of his undefined motive that “One Hour Photo” is so scary; we could know someone like Sy.  Or he could know us.

Williams is absolutely frightening in the lead, and his performance is only aided by the shock value when we realize this is the man who gave us “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Flubber.”  It’s not just his movie though.  Mark Romanek’s direction is sharp, and his script is full of many keen observations on the meaning of a photo.  In the era where we tag ourselves in picture after picture on Facebook, “One Hour Photo” is one of the rare movies that becomes more relevant as the technology in it becomes irrelevant.





NOLAN REVIEW: Insomnia

11 07 2010

After the smashing success that was “Memento,” Nolan went mainstream and made a movie for Warner Bros. – a remake of the Danish film “Insomnia.”

“Insomnia” is definitely the most conventional and least Nolanesque movie that Christopher Nolan has made in his career, but even that doesn’t stop it from being one great movie.  It’s a great psychological thriller and murder mystery that is well plotted and paced, plus it features three great performances from Oscar champs Pacino, Williams, and Swank.

Tough-as-nails cop Dormer, played by Pacino of course, is sent along with his partner to investigate a murder in summertime Alaska – where the sun doesn’t set.  And the disturbing beating and death of the teenager doesn’t get to Dormer so much as that sun does, which causes him to grow restless.  As if that isn’t enough, his partner is willing to throw him under the bus for personal gain, and he has to put up with a zealous hometown cop (Swank) who learned how to do her job from the lessons he preached.

It’s got that same kind of eerie, psychological vibe as “Shutter Island” gave off this year.  But what makes the pendulum swing in favor of Scorsese’s latest over Nolan’s film is the directorial control.  Scorsese slowly leads us into the mental anguish of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, making us grow more and more anxious until we almost can’t take it anymore.  Nolan in “Insomnia” only hints at Dormer’s torment by giving the occasional visual clue.  At the end, he goes all in and uses the cinematography and quick editing to make us feel nauseous and overwhelmed like the character.  It’s very effective, but the power might have been even greater had it been more present throughout the movie.

In fact, I’d like to see Nolan remake his own movie here in a decade or so.  Not necessarily “Insomnia” itself, but with more filmmaking expertise, he could revisit this genre and give it a masterpiece.





What To Look Forward To In … November 2009

7 10 2009

The holiday movie season begins to kick into high gear in the month of November, as does exciting Oscar season.  Accordingly, this post is longer than the previous monthly preview posts.  Brace yourself for movie mania coming your way in a few weeks.  Sit back, relax, and let Marshall guide you through the coming attractions.

November 6

From the mainstream movie perspective, the hot movie of this weekend will be Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”  Shot with the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to make “The Polar Express,” the movie will cash in on premium ticket prices from 3D and IMAX 3D screenings.  My main concern about the quality of the movie itself lies with its principal actor, Jim Carrey, who will act as Scrooge and all three ghosts.  I doubt Zemeckis will permit it, but I fear that Carrey will make a mockery of Dickens’ classic novel much in the fashion of Mike Meyers with “The Cat in the Hat.”  Regardless of what critics say, I will probably end up seeing this with the family for some good old-fashioned family fun at the movies.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the first movie of the holiday season to which George Clooney lends his talents.  Here, he plays a a military man in charge of a secret unit that attempts to use psychic powers for military purpose.  One such activity is to attempt to kill goats just by staring at them.  The movie also stars Ewan MacGregor as the reporter who discovers it all; the cast also includes Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  The movie is directed and adapted by Grant Heslov, previously nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The trailer seems to show Heslov’s approach as similar to the Coen Brothers who usually provide a fun-filled romp.  Maybe the film will be a bona-fide indie hit, and Overture Films will be able to claim their first movie to gross over $50 million.  But we’ll have to see.

I’ve already written about the Oscar favorite, “Precious,” in a previous Oscar Moment.  I’ll post the trailer here just for the sake of promoting it, but if you want to hear my thoughts, read the post.

Two thrilling movies also open this week.  First, “The Box” with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, seems to have an intriguing premise: if you push the button on the box, you will get a million dollars, but someone you don’t know will die.  However, it looks to be more interested in cheap thrills than exploring moral issues.  The other, “The Fourth Kind,” looks downright scary.  If horror is your thing, this looks like the movie for you.  I saw the trailer at “District 9,” and even if you don’t want to see it, you have to ponder the validity of the “true story” behind the movie.

November 13

Disaster porn reaches its pinnacle this weekend.  “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic film, will have some of the biggest destruction and explosions the world has ever seen.  The trailer was so mind-blowing that I am willing to overlook all vices in the plot to see the world’s greatest landmarks get wiped off the earth.  My only comment is that if John Cusack somehow finds a way to stop the end of the world, I will be enraged.

The other major wide release of the week is “Pirate Radio,” a movie that Focus Features so desperately wants you to see that they changed the title from “The Boat that Rocked” just a few weeks ago to appeal to you. Are you flattered? You shouldn’t be. The movie seems like comedic Oscar Bait, but it didn’t do well Britain, the country of production. Focus scrambled to change their focus from awards movie to popular movie. So whenever this pops into a theater near you, be armed with the knowledge that “Pirate Radio” is merely a washed-up Oscars wannabe. But make the decision to see it for yourself.

New York and Los Angeles get the treat of watching Wes Anderson’s adaptation Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  I have the utmost respect for Anderson for not conforming to the growing trend to do all animation through computers.  Anderson’s film uses the stop motion technique, moving an object gradually to give the illusion that it is moving.  Even more exciting that Anderson’s eccentric style in an eccentric medium is the voice cast.  Clooney voices the titular character, the cunning Mr. Fox.  The cast also features Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray.  What’s not to like?  (NOTE: The movie expands on November 20 and enters wide release on November 25.)

For those who like very obscure indies, “That Evening Sun” with 87-year-old Oscar bridesmaid Hal Halbrook has his latest shot at the gold.

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