The Butler

We have no tolerance for politics in the White House

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Robin-Williams-Forest-WhitakerLee Daniels takes a page out of John Carpenter’s book: attempting to force us to give a crap about who directed the movie by putting his own name in the title.  This always fails.  Why not include the DP, the key grip, and the editor in the title as well?  What about the makeup artists who made Forest Whitaker look like an old man?  Or what about, y’know, the writer?  I’m not against everyone involved getting proper credit, but a film not written by the director belongs to the director insofar as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World belongs to me just because I bought a copy and had my own reading of what it was all about.

Thankfully, the film itself does not fail.  The Butler features Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, in part based upon Gene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House under several presidents.  Starring alongside Whitaker is Oprah Winfrey, who should really quit the talk show/phony philanthropy schtick and become a full-time actress, as Cecil’s patient wife, Gloria, who must deal with not only Cecil’s long hours at the White House (which he’s not allowed to talk much about anyway), but the absence of her son Louis (David Oyelowo), who embarks on a life of activism in spite of his father’s insistence that the family stay apolitical.  The film’s narrative runs through Cecil’s and David’s entire lives over several decades, showcasing the points at which they intersect.  Gloria’s home life is touched on to some degree as well: she battles her own alcoholism, the horror of not knowing what’s happening to her own family members while they’re away, the advances of her lecherous neighbor (Terrence Howard), and whatever Cecil himself happens to bring home from work (and she is left in the dark for so long that JFK’s assassination doesn’t seem like such a big deal to her).

The various presidents are played by a cornucopia’s worth of movie stars, including Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower completely straight, John Cusack as the opportunistic Nixon, heartthrobby James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as the characteristically befuddled Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Minka Kelly in a great (albeit tiny) performance as Jackie Kennedy.  Best of all is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose hilarious vignettes could have carried an entire movie.  Each character fits into their sections well, but the star power becomes overwhelming sometimes – Vanessa Redgrave appears in a small role during Cecil’s childhood on a plantation, and Cecil’s coworkers (larger roles) are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  The inevitability of another famous person showing up every ten minutes is not too distracting, but it’s a bit funny, giving the film a “meta” quality it probably doesn’t want.

Where the film falters is the use of thematic voiceover – something never necessary to a film’s movement; didn’t we learn that in Blade Runner?  Cecil’s rich voice sums up each section of film by restating exactly what we just watched and heard, while we see real archive footage of things that actually happened at that time.  This is not ancient history, however; this is historical information that everyone living today already knows about.  And when a film is already upwards of two hours, this stuff needs to be chopped.  There’s also some sloppy and obvious dramatic irony: Nixon tells Cecil, “I’m not going to resign, no matter what!” when the audience knows full well that he will.  Sentimentalism also nears full stride: piano music over melodramatic dialogue, and so on.  Much of the movie is genuinely emotional, but attempting to squeeze tears out of an audience using every device possible actually takes away from that.  We even get a Hollywood Mentor played by Clarence Williams III, who tells Cecil that the “N word” is “a white man’s word, filled with hate,” and after a lifetime of using the word, Cecil never speaks it again.  Is the character’s advice good?  Yes, of course it is.  But moments of epiphany are a sham, and scenes like this are designed for synthetic echoes later in the movie.

I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the film’s overt messages about racism are oversimplified (and whether the portrayal of the Black Panthers is as cartoony as what they showed us in school), but what cannot be denied is the genuine impact of seeing the Freedom Bus torched with Louis aboard (one of the historical events wisely dramatized and not shown entirely in archive footage); the cringe-inducing image of a segregated water fountain; our collective concealed rage at Cecil’s boss’s apathetic reactions to Cecil’s insistence year after year that the black staff be paid as much as the white staff.  In the showing I attended, there was plenty of cheering at triumphant moments (and, not surprisingly, in a theatre full of white people, an obnoxious amount of “What did he say?” in reaction to Cecil’s dialect [which, by the way, is spoken in an American accent!]  I consider myself adept at understanding dialect, but it sometimes seems like no one else is even trying).

In spite of its rigid narrative, The Butler manages genuine impact and a whole lot of true moments.

The_Butler_posterLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013); written by Danny Strong; directed by Lee Daniels; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

And we all fall down

deathlyWouldn’t you know it; the local movie theatre finally developed an organized and professional way to hold midnight premieres for the Harry Potter films, just in time for the final installment in the series.  I guess they can keep the new and improved process in mind when The Hunger Games and whatever other angsty young-adult books are translated into film next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is, as the title suggests, the second part of a 5-ish-hour film, and believe me, this one feels like the second half of a film.  Director David Yates, in one of his only wise moves in this film, wisely avoids rehashing Part 1 and wasting time.  We get right into the story, with stubbly young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) chatting with the folks he rescued in the previous film and attempting to learn the secrets of two sets of MacGuffins: the Deathly Hallows, mystic objects most people do not believe exist, and therefore, in the realm of movie logic, must exist; and the Horcruxes, objects tainted with dark magic by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), which contain pieces of his soul.  The falling action of the Potter series follows Harry’s mission, along with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) hunting for a way to destroy Voldemort, as Voldemort’s forces close in on Hogwarts School and prepare to annihilate its inhabitants.

Performance-wise, the film is solid, and as mentioned in my review of Part 1, seeing so many legendary British actors together in one spot is a treat.  As such, the supporting cast is infinitely more interesting than the main trio, as Harry remains stalwart throughout seven (or in the film’s case, eight) stories and never shirks his Boring Hero act.  Rickman as Severus Snape, Fiennes as Voldemort, and Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall steal much of the show here.  The film also features a nice scene with Kelly MacDonald (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Helena Ravenclaw, a ghost who possesses secrets about one of the final Horcruxes.

Yates’ use of character is not as strong here as it once was, and on some occasions, we really feel as though we’ve missed something.  Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Kingsley (George Harris), Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) and several others are given very limited screen time and not allowed to say much, yet we’re expected to feel sympathy at their deaths (which are mostly unseen), and satisfaction at their killers being brought to justice.  Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), two of Harry’s more interesting schoolmates, are given plenty to do, and to the film’s credit, it’s nice to see virtually every minor cast member from the last four or five films involved in the defense of Hogwarts, even if they’re just standing there.  Nick Moran, Chris Rankin and a few others reprise their roles, but keep silent, as though they’ve been told not to speak lest the studio have to pay them more if they utter a line.

Yates makes several good choices and slightly more bad ones.  Aside from character issues, little of the actual fighting is shown in the much-anticipated Battle of Hogwarts.  We get snippets of unnamed extras fighting and dying as Harry and the gang run past to their next objective, but little to no fighting footage of any supporting cast members (characters with names) is seen.  I do wonder if there were deleted scenes featuring these characters.  As this movie is shorter than the last one, would it have been so bad to keep the footage in?  Additionally, after the already action-heavy opening third of the film ends, the clever and occasionally well-written dialogue of Part 1 gives way to nonstop action and CG.  Many of the scenes feel rushed, and I felt like I was being asked not-so-politely to simply accept character relationships forged five films ago and not worry about “talking” in this one.  Do filmmakers realize that battle scenes are especially boring when we don’t care about the characters who do the battling?

I would also like to ask David Yates why villains must crumble to pieces or melt when they die.  The heroes are seen bloodied and beaten, sometimes torn apart, while the main bad guys vanish into dust or explode into a gemlike blue substance.  This is not what death looks like.  When Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) died in the fourth film, there was impact.  Know why?  Because he is cruelly murdered at point blank range, and his lifeless body flops unceremoniously onto the ground, eyes open and lustrous.  We know who, we know why, and it feels real.  The old Wicked Witch death (i.e. melting, crumbling, vanishing into smoke, or otherwise completely transmogrifying) is not an effective portrayal of death if you’re trying to evoke emotional impact, because the audience cannot equate it with anything from real life.  There is nothing to associate the feeling with.  If you’re a big fan of the books and don’t care about any of this, suffice it to say “it didn’t happen in the book,” and have at it.

The strongest section of the film involves revelations about Snape’s past, and Alan Rickman does not shortchange us with his performance, nor does Yates with the time he devotes to these scenes.  There’s a lot to like in the film, particularly the memories sequence, the wonderfully-done special effects (especially the multiplying treasure in the Gringotts vault), and the appropriate level of climax, given what this story has been building up to.  Perhaps the most enjoyable part of a film like this is seeing it in a crowded theatre with an audience who doesn’t know what’s going to happen.  Reactions are golden.

The film, while not the best in the series and far below the best of art, is an experience worth having, and closes out the series with Seinfeldian flair. It’s time to bid these characters farewell, so if you’re a big fan of the series, fret not.  Your life is not over.  There’s a world of amazing books out there, for which these served as barely a warm-up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; written by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Ralph Fiennes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

‘allo, beau’iful

Whilst standing in line for David Yates’ second jab at directing the later entries in the Potter film series (Half-Blood Prince), I overheard/eavesdropped on a conversation between two young men, or “bros” to use the parlance of our time.  “They’re making the seventh movie into two?  Why?” one asked.  “Because they’re douchebags” was the other’s response, and it occurred to me that when the average film-goer uses the term “they,” it comes out in a tone just so dismissive that for a moment I wonder whether these folks don’t believe films are put together in one day and delivered to the theatre by the Celluloid Stork.

Now, I would have though the series’ devoted fans would be thrilled that they’re getting more content.  Even at two hours twenty minutes, the first installment of Deathly Hallows feels jam-packed with events, superfluous characters, frustrating loose ends and exhausting sequences of suspense.  Given the source material, however, Yates handles the material well, managing to make it more than a jumbled attempt to correct previous acts of over-zealousness.  We get a veritable A-list of British actors, and despite the fact that most of them have tiny roles (or even cameos in some cases), it’s something of a delight to see John Hurt, Bill Nighy, Warwick Davis, Nick Moran, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane in the same film.  It doesn’t have quite the same effect as Machete‘s ensemble cast, but this is quite a different kettle of fish, isn’t it?

A lot of what holds the film down is, again, the source material.  The seventh story focuses so much on “items” and “fetch-quests” that for a moment you may think you’re rifling through your RPG inventory trying to figure out what half of these baubles are for. Here’s a comprehensive list:

Horcruxes– Seven objects selected by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) which contain a piece of his soul.

Deathly Hallows– Three MacGuffins of massive power that everyone wants.  If you’re keeping score, Harry has two and Voldemort has one.

Broken Piece of Mirror– If you haven’t read the book, put a giant question mark here, because it’s never explained in the film or any before it.  If you have, you’re already angry at me.

Hermione’s Purse– A magic bag which contains…well, everything.  To the director’s credit, this is the first time in a film I’ve seen the classic “bottomless bag” gag used in a scene where it wasn’t the center of a joke.

In the proper tradition of MacGuffins, none of the above items will have any significance by the end of the third act (Part II, which comes out in July).

Finally, in this film, the acting skills of the three leads comes full circle.  Up until the fifth film, the shaky performances of the kids were padded by the slew of excellent actors surrounding them, but this time they’re on their own, and they carry the film well enough.  Rupert Grint’s acting has come the furthest (in the film, at least), and it becomes difficult to stifle chills during a scene in which Ron Weasly lives up to his name and…well, weasels his way out of the Quest.  Emma Watson also steps up to the plate, becoming Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) mature guiding hand, and the film doesn’t quite clarify with which of the two strapping young lads she’s in love, especially during some tender moments with Harry in the tent.

The story has all the makings of a young adult fantasy classic: the Quest, a bunch of magical items, amazing spells; as well as the stuff modern youths and fanboys get off to: kids with superpowers, needless love triangles, you know the drill.  The inner soul of the series has always been rather hollow in the sense that, besides the absence of the author’s writing chops, the protagonist never changes.  Harry walks the straight and narrow so consistently throughout seven books that the inevitable victory over unbridled darkness is not only routine, but tiresome.  Rowling throws in a few deaths and maimings of beloved secondary characters for dramatic impact, but most of us aren’t fooled nor distracted.

One of the most striking aspects of the film are the little touches that make it different than the last.  While Half-Blood Prince is a quieter tale about personal discovery and teen angst, this one is told on an epic scale.  For the first time, we see all of Voldemort’s followers in one room.  We see the changes in the Ministry of Magic, whose influences cast a heavy nod in the direction of George Orwell, as the slogan “Magic is Might” looms over a statue of a wizard trampling normal humans (“muggles”).  Pay close attention to the costumes chosen for the footsoldiers of the Ministry – a nod to Nazi Germany?  We also get new characters such as Yaxley (Peter Mullan), who nonchalantly leans back in his chair as “blood traitors” are sentenced to death.  The gorgeous Clémence Poésy returns as Fleur Delacour, who is to marry Ron’s oldest brother, Bill (Domhall Gleeson, son of Brendan), the victim of a werewolf attack, and the choice to have Bill report the news of Mad-Eye’s death is both inspired and startling.  Perhaps my favorite of the additions is Nick Moran, best-known for his role as Eddie in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as Scabior, a dirty-haired bounty hunter known as a Snatcher.  Moran is not only allowed to retain his amazingly-pleasant-to-listen-to East End accent, but his role is expanded from that of the novel, and in the film it seems that Scabior is the leader of the Snatchers, barking out orders even to savage werewolf Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno).  For a moment, I could have sworn I was in the London underworld.

Ultimately, the film succeeds, not only for the fresh-faced teenage girls in hand-me-down robes and five-inches-too-short skirts who attended every midnight premiere and annoyed the hell out of the adults in the middle row who wanted to listen to the dialogue, but also those adults themselves.  The only disclaimer I can put on the film, for those who want full enjoyment, is this: don’t get too wrapped up in the details.  There are unnecessary name-drops and sideplots that are picked up and thrown out faster than sale-price egg salad, but what really matters is the characters, how they’re going to deal with what’s ahead (once they actually figure out what that is), and how the whole journey makes you feel when it’s done.  That said, I believe the end of the franchise is in good hands.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows : Part 1 (2010); written by Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Ralph Fiennes.