Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) – Lee Daniels
Now here’s a film that’s way, way better than it has any right to be. Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a butler that works in the White House and serves eight different Presidents, all the way from Eisenhower to Reagan. What a watershed time in history, right? But the trailers made this look like your typical cheesy movie. Forrest Whitaker in old age makeup. Oprah as his wife. Robin Williams as Eisenhower. John Cusack as Nixon. Alan Rickman as Reagan. Lots of orchestral flourishes and fanfares. Quiet, stoic heroism, etc. Well, the movie has its flaws, but it’s actually pretty darn good. Whitaker’s performance skips right by all the possible pitfalls; it’s naturalistic and the changes he makes as Cecil ages never feel less than real. Oprah Winfrey gives a very compelling performance as Gloria; her performance is probably second only to Whitaker’s in the film. She makes Gloria a compellingly real person; in some scenes, she’s surprisingly cruel to her longsuffering husband and in others she reveals very real emotional struggles. The final scene of the couple together is really astonishingly great scene with both actors at the top of their game. The film also has a lot more on the ball than I expected it to. The racial politics aren’t as simplistic as they might be; the film parallels Cecil’s role as a servant to the President with the role of Cecil’s son as a civil rights activist and it occasionally is surprisingly vivid and striking in the way it does that. There’s an early scene in which Daniels cuts back and forth between a scene of students being brutally beaten during a sit in at a lunch counter and a scene of Cecil setting an elegant table for a state dinner. Point made. But the film allows both characters to be flawed and occasionally too hard-line in their respective thinking. The film isn’t trying to teach one simple lesson about racial politics; it’s attempting to get you to think about the experience of living through the tumultuous events of the civil rights era (and beyond: into the Black Panther era and the apartheid era) and how different people saw those eras very differently. One admires Cecil for his pragmatism and intelligence and pride, but not for his go-along-to-get-along philosophy; one admires his son for his bravery in confronting racism and his unflinching sense of morality, but not so much for the raging anger he has toward his father and his belief in the power of violence and vengeance. As to the Presidents, and with this ensemble, I do have to talk about them. Robin Williams does the least as Eisenhower. John Cusack’s first scene, of Nixon the Vice President visiting three of the butlers in the White House Kitchen to quiz them on how “your people” see him, is a creepy masterpiece. But it does kind of grate, the fact that no one on the production thought to spend even a minute or two on making Cusack look, sound or move like Nixon. James Marsden is fine as Kennedy, if too bland; and again, no effort made at the voice. Alan Rickman is probably the best in terms of a pure imitation; his Reagan has the soft voice and the easy affable manner of the real deal. He moves the same too. And the film has a brief scene of Reagan refusing to listen to a couple of Senators on Apartheid; that scene captures his steeliness too. It feels like an honest, rounded portrayal and the best in the film in terms of accuracy. The most entertaining, by far, is Liev Schreiber’s scenery chewing, exuberant performance as Johnson. His first scene, in which he goes on a blistering rant about people leaving too many lights on in the White House, is wonderfully energetic. His second scene, in which he lectures his assistants on policy while seated on a toilet, beagles sprawled at his feet, is even better. It’s not a subtle performance, but it’s a deliriously wonderful one. Long story short (way, way too late for that), I actually genuinely recommend the film. It dodges just about every bullet that could have brought it down and takes only minor wounds from the ones that it does catch. What a surprise.
Blue Caprice (2013) – Alexandre Moors
So, this sounded really great on paper. What the movie has going for it is its subject matter: the Washington Beltway sniper killings of 2002. It also has its perspective going for it: the lens the movie uses is the two killers and the strange father-son relationship they seem to have had. Yes, I thought, a movie about the process of radicalization. We need that movie. We need a movie to help us understand how someone progresses from being a basically normalized member of society to a radicalized murderer. We’ll get inside this process via this relationship. Well, this movie was dreadful. The film took a very minimalist approach; everyone involved in the film has been calling the movie “restrained.” Well, there’s “restrained” and then there’s “I have nothing at all to actually say.” This movie falls squarely in the latter camp. The dialogue is elliptical and sparse; it only occasionally really addresses the real issue of the shootings. And when it does, as when Isaiah Washington, as the older shooter, gives a long speech about his plans to start a training camp in Canada that will allow him to send snipers into major cities all over the country, it still never gets to the pressing question: Why? Why on earth would anyone do this? The film is, in fact, frustrating in its steadfast refusal to have any kind of point or dig into anything with even the slightest depth. When the movie wraps, I had no idea what had driven these men to do what they did; I had no idea why they related to each other or if they even really cared about each other; I had no idea what exactly they believed in; I had no idea, basically, about the events that transpired except “Yup, I guess that happened.” And one other unanswered question: why make this movie?
Don Jon (2013) – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Ever since John Mayer set himself on fire during an interview with Rolling Stone, I’ve been waiting for this movie. The most incredible bit of self-exposure that Mayer did, as far as I was concerned, was when he talked about porn, masturbation and sexual relationships. He openly stated that he preferred masturbation and porn to having a real relationship; so much easier, you know. Hearing him say it, I felt like he’s said something that was unexpressed in the subconscious of the modern American male. Gordon-Levitt has finally made the artwork I’ve been waiting for on the subject. His brilliant performance, brilliant script and brilliant direction give the story an incredible charge. Don Jon is a promiscuous, hot-tempered, church-going Jersey Boy. He’s also a porn addict. He doesn’t realize this until late in the movie; we recognize it immediately. This addiction complicates his relationships in ways he can’t seem to understand. It comes between him and his new flame, Scarlett Johannson. And he can’t understand the devastation he causes when he flatly tells his mother that he doesn’t want a wife and kids. But when he’s in the midst of shopping with his girlfriend and he keeps getting mental flashes of porn, it’s easy to see what’s happening. He’s in one of those moments in a relationship when we have to work to keep the relationship going; he’s remembering that there’s a way to get sexual release without the work. The film is incredibly sexually explicit and profane, but how could it not be? The script is often very funny and just as often very insightful. The ensemble is absolute perfection. Gordon-Levitt is a wonder and Johannson gives one of her best performances as a young woman who is not as sympathetic as she first appears to be. As Jon’s parents, Tony Danza and Glynne Headley are wonderful; Danza in particular is a fireball of anger and profanity – every scene he’s in is a laugh riot. Brie Larson gives a surprisingly smart performance as Jon’s sister; she initially appears to be a stereotypical younger sister, but late in the film, she reveals a surprising depth. The film is incredibly entertaining and Gordon-Levitt’s direction in this film, his debut, makes me very excited about what he’ll do next. He certainly has his own unique style and vision here and it works perfectly. But more than just a funny, smart movie, it feels to me like an important one. It feels like a movie that speaks to a problem exactly of the moment. The ubiquity of porn has, in my opinion, had a detrimental effect on modern society and this film gets at exactly the ways and the reasons it has. It’s a magnificent movie. Gordon-Levitt has always been one of the absolute best actors of his generations; now he’s one of the best directors too. Can’t wait to see where this goes.
2 Guns (2013) – Baltasar Kormakur
I went into this movie expecting it to be a kind of guilty pleasure type movie. I had been surprised that it was getting reasonably good reviews and so I decided to give it a try. Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are a couple of criminals; unfortunately, they’re both also undercover agents from different agencies. Soon, they’re “in over their heads,” “on the run,” “betrayed by their superiors,” and a host of other clichés. But something about this movie just really, really works. Washington and Wahlberg have real chemistry and the script is actually genuinely funny, which is kind of worth commenting on when it comes to this genre. The supporting cast is equally good. Bill Paxton is a load of fun as a cornpone CIA agent on the trail of the two agents; he has his own spin on Russian Roulette and it gets at least two big laughs. Edward James Olmos really steals the show as a Mexican drug kingpin that enjoys his job a little too much; every scene he’s in is a winner. Paula Patton and James Marsden are given less to do, but they’re pros, of course, so no one’s missing any marks if you know what I mean. This isn’t some kind of incredibly intricate puzzlebox movie; nor is it a grim and relentless neo-noir film. It’s a fun thriller, with a lot of laughs, a lot of fun performances and enough factions after the same thing (since the “thing” is forty million dollars, it kinda makes sense a lot of people would be after it, I suppose) to keep things interesting. This is kind of my new go to movie when I’m talking about how a genre film can be totally true to the genre conventions and tropes and still be awesome because of the care taken to be even just a little smarter than usual when it comes to the script and the acting and the direction. I went in not expecting much; I got a really, really fun, very funny thrill ride. I recommend it quite highly actually. You’ll have a blast.
Metallica: Through the Never (2013) – Nimrod Antal
I’m not a big fan of 3D, but this film isn’t being released in 2D, so I went and caught it in IMAX 3D. Just, from the beginning, let me say that this is the first 3D movie I’ve seen where I didn’t feel that the 3D didn’t actively detract from the movie watching experience. The movie itself is a real masterpiece. It’s an interesting idea at the outset. The director filmed a live Metallica concert and then he filmed a fictional story about a Metallica roadie struggling to get across town to pick up a bag for the band – along the way, he runs into riots, car accidents, murders and, ultimately, a death-dealing, gas-masked horseman intent upon killing him. The story is less excellent than the concert, but it’s fun in a weird kind of way. But it’s the concert that takes your breath away. The camera work is stunning, putting you right on stage with the band. The clarity is amazing. The music . . . well, if Metallica’s back catalogue still needs defending to you, I think there’s no convincing. But the performances are electrifying; the sound quality is amazing. It’s a pummeling experience and, yes, what can I say? I was indeed headbanging like a madman. The band is really amazing. Hammett and Hetfield seem to really complete each other on stage; Hetfield owns the stage with the confidence and intensity of a true rockstar, stalking the stage like a tiger while Hammett is unassuming, subdued, almost embarrassed by the furor his incredible guitar solos ignite. As to Lars Ulrich, well, what can be said about his absolute madness on the drums? I highly recommend this film extremely highly for anyone. Certainly no Metallica fan should (or probably will) miss this astounding, mind-melting movie.