Sometimes there are movies you hope will be really good, because to say anything against them would be nearly the same as disparaging their message. The Butler (ahem, excuse me) Lee Daniels' The Butler is one of those. Unfortunately, it is not really good. It tries to be about family struggles and race relations, but in lacking one focus ends up being about neither. It is essentially a well-intentioned cameo reel.
The movie is about Cecil (Whitaker), a man who has elevated himself from cotton farmer to hotel butler. He lands the gig of a lifetime being one of a handful of butlers at the White House, which gives him an inside perspective to the political turmoil around civil rights and changing times.
As I said, the movie is well-intentioned, but ultimately directionless. Cecil is a deliberately non-political man, so any foray into civil rights is shown through his son, Louis, who leaves college to be a freedom rider. This is certainly noble on his part, but for us is no different than any other movie about civil rights ever. It also has the added burden of being a story of which everybody knows the end: after tribulation, they triumph and win equal rights. It adds nothing to the incredible human drama of the civil rights movement, which is almost shameful in a movie purporting to be about just that.
On the other hand, there is the story we don't know about Cecil's complicated family life. He all but disowns his son for being a freedom rider. His wife is an alcoholic and their marriage isn't exactly a model of happiness. But all of this feels depthless. Of course they overcome their problems, and it is about as simple as that. What could have been a compelling family drama with a backdrop of civil struggle is not much of either.
On the other other hand, there is Cecil's experience serving seven US Presidents. This, of all the rest, could have been the most unique part of the movie, but felt the most haphazard. Most of them are miscast, ranging from a Robin Williams who looks like he's just finished chemo playing Eisenhower to Professor Snape with a haircut as Ronald Reagan. None has more than a few minutes or is any deeper than a caricature touched by Cecil's plight as the father of an activist. This is somehow shown to be the tipping of the scales for Kennedy to speak out, for Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act, and for Ronny to intervene in South Africa.
It is not a poorly-made or even a poorly-acted movie, only poorly conceived. What could be a lasting testament to the civil rights struggle or an honest personal portrait of a regular man with an uncommon story only ends up being a maudlin attempt to tug our heartstrings.
Lee Daniels' The Butler features Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, 500 cameos, and is rated PG-13 for thematic material and racial language.
Summer is now ended, and with it the season of escapist blockbusters we all love. And, truly, it was a more-than-bearable season this year. One of the harbingers of late summer (in Salt Lake, anyway) is the arrival of Woody Allen's annual picture show at the Broadway. This year, it was Blue Jasmine, and a fine way to end summer it was.
Blue Jasmine concerns itself with a woman, Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett. She has recently divorced her mogul husband (Baldwin) in New York and arrives in San Francisco to live with her less well-to-do sister in an attempt to rebuild her life.
The movie is more than anything else an intense and often poignant psychological portrait. It has as much forward-moving plot as any of Allen's movies ever have, instead taking its time to show us Jasmine as she was and how she has become. And in this, Blanchett shines. She transitions effortlessly from beautiful and carefree to despondent to feigning carelessness to melancholy and fifty others in between. She gives life to Allen's words in a remarkable way.
And his words themselves are spectacular. As much as I love Allen's comedies, I think his writing talent comes through many times better in settings like this. It of course is alive with his trademark wit, but this is tampered with darker emotions and tense drama. His characters here are much deeper, and justly so, because his subject matter is much deeper. A common theme brilliantly satirized in his comedies is this psychosis caused by wealth and isolation from normal society (see especially Sleeper, but also the California parts of Annie Hall and any present-day American other than Gil in Midnight in Paris). Here it is given a different kind of treatment. Jasmine's problems arise essentially from her inability to accept any unpleasant reality. What makes for hilarious moments in other settings translates to sad and ultimately revealing scenes here.
But this isn't just Jasmine's problem. Everyone else seems to be in a situation they'd rather not be in, and is, in one way or another, in some stage of denial. Ultimately none of us are who we pretend to be on the outside. We create an elaborate façade to convince ourselves that everything is how we want it to be, but in looking in the mirror it peels away, and we are left with no more than our unsatisfactory selves.
Blue Jasmine features Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard and Louis CK, and is rated PG-13 for thematic stuff and some swears.
I feel like there has been a sort of renaissance of science fiction of late. It started slowly with independent pictures like Moon, growing until last year's Prometheus was a big deal. After that we had things like Looper and Oblivion, continuing the trend. One of the fathers of this new sci-fi movement is South African Neill Blomkamp, who blew us away with 2009's District 9. Now he is back with a new effort called Elysium. It is a chilling vision of the future that refuses to be only an escape from the dog days of summer.
Elysium takes place in 2154, by which time Earth has become insufferable to live on. The solution? An off-planet refuge free of disease and poverty. The trouble? It is accessible only to the rich and powerful. Our hero, an ex-criminal named Max (Damon) becomes ill from radiation exposure and decides to do whatever possible to get up to Elysium in order to save his life.
The thing with Blomkamp's work (so far) is that it is tremendously socially conscious and to me, most of Elysium is not about one man's struggle for survival and justice, as I've just synopsed. It is a disturbing an oddly realistic portrayal of capitalism taken to its psychopathic consummation, and of intolerance leading to national borders being made along monetary, rather than political or cultural lines. It is a story of solvable problems left alone to fester and grow. His version of L.A. doesn't have any of the seedily-romanticized underground culture it might have in, say, Blade Runner or even Terminator. It looks more like a slum in Mexico City or a favela in Rio de Janeiro. And how many of us are comfortable with that?
It seems to echo a little bit of Ray Bradbury, who was so good at showing us the darker side of ourselves through seemingly innocent or even "benevolent" acts. In an attempt to make life better, the designers and inhabitants of Elysium create a polarized social situation between classes and monopolize things like health care and employment. These aren't problems we create for ourselves on purpose, but we create them for ourselves nonetheless.
Another thing I enjoyed was the international element in the movie, a movie not necessarily intended for an international audience. The first lines are given in Spanish. The actors come from places like South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. Foster's character is a French woman. This in itself is a portrayal of the growing internationality of the world, something the world of Elysium can't quite cope with.
I'm glad that there is another thoughtful and though-provoking science fiction movie for us to chew on. It isn't necessarily a perfect movie, but I don't think a movie needs to be perfect to be enjoyable. At any rate it is a genre that has been spread a little thin until recently, and I'm pleased at its apparent comeback.
Elysium is rated R for swears and violence, and features Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, Sharlto Copley and Alice Braga.
by Chase Harrison