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)

Cloud Atlas

I will not be subject to criminal abuse

I have a single question about Cloud Atlas, the near-three-hour epic by the Wachowski siblings, and it’s a question I hoped I would not have to ask: what’s the point of it?  I know what it’s going for, but I’m not sure it ever gets there.  The film, despite being independently produced, is exactly the kind of problem-film crowding every marquee and raking in the cash, and in that sense, it’s doing Hollywood’s work free of charge.  It’s high on spectacle, short on depth (and take “depth” as every kind of depth – character, moral, story, philosophy).

Cloud Atlas is a successful genre-sampler; that is to say, it gives its audience a taste of a few different kinds of generic film-genres without actually delivering an entire movie of any type.  To its credit, it interweaves the narratives of six small stories and remains impressively easy to follow, and it’s emotionally gripping when it really wants to be, but in the end, our engagement, attention, and (perhaps) tears reward us with little more than exhaustion.  This is not to say that any of the widely diverse cast of actors do a bad job with what they have (quite the contrary), but recognizing so many missed opportunities and narrative dead-ends in a movie so long is a bit frustrating.

The actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Zhou Xun, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and David Gyasi – each play five or six characters in different ages of the world, perhaps with the intention of a “shared souls” type of connection that we’re never made consciously aware of.  Some of these transformations lead to the film’s greatest pleasures: Hugo Weaving as a brutish female nurse, Tom Hanks as a psychotic Scottish (?) author who responds to critics by murdering them, Jim Sturgess as a Korean secret agent, Halle Berry as a male surgeon, and so on.  While I’m not completely comfortable with actors playing other races, none of these race/gender transformations are done with the intention of humor, and the Wachowskis (mercifully) understand that blackface (i.e. a white person portraying a black character) isn’t acceptable, and dodge a bullet.

The main stories/roles are as follows, in a chronology not completely obvious at the outset: a lawyer (Sturgess) travels home from a slave plantation while being poisoned by a greedy doctor (Hanks) and befriending a stowaway slave (Gyasi); a 1930s love affair between a young composer (Whishaw) and a scientist (D’Arcy) is conducted by letter as the former attempts to write his masterpiece in the company of a hubristic musician (Broadbent); a 1970s investigative journalist (Berry) sabotages an oil company determined to halt nuclear energy progress while being stalked by a deadly assassin (Weaving); a present-day (2012) publishing mogul (Broadbent) deals with the consequences of his hackneyed business decisions and attempts to escape a home for the elderly in a comic counterpart to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cloned “fabricant” in 2044 “Neo-Seoul” (Bae) makes a Plato-esque exodus from her life of servitude and sparks a failed revolution that will eventually lead to her being revered as a goddess, and finally, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii,  a mumbling would-be warrior (Hanks) attempts a mutually beneficial partnership with one of the last members of a dead technologically-advanced society (Berry) while seeing hallucinations/visions of Old Georgie (Weaving), an incarnation of the devil, who tries relentlessly to convince the former that this partnership will result in the ultimate collapse of society, and not salvation.

These stories in and of themselves are imaginative, tense, and fun to experience.  The most rewarding part of the film is imagining that the characters who share faces also share souls – look at the evolution of each actor’s various characters in the timeline.  Look at where they end up.  This also raises some questions, however, such as why every single one of Weaving’s characters is pure evil.  Most of the actors play both good characters and also those who start out on the “wrong” path but are redeemed in some way.  Weaving plays a violent assassin, an unsympathetic slave owner, an unfeeling corporate board member in charge of ordering executions, the aforementioned brutish Nurse Ratched clone, and finally, the devil.  Is the idea that the devil makes his way into every story, reinforced by the fact that he has the same face?  The film is populated with these types of religious overtones, and the straightforward idea that “Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb, we are bound to each other, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future” is shopworn, unsatisfactory payoff for such an ambitious narrative, and more or less turns the film into 160 minutes of buildup.  The most satisfying bit of connection in the film occurs when we see how different cultural fragments, including phrases, lend different meanings to different peoples and settings.  Cavendish (Broadbent) shouts to a clerk in the nursing home, “I will not be subject to criminal abuse!”  We laugh as he huffs and puffs his way out the door.  Later, Tom Hanks plays an actor playing Cavendish in a movie based upon his life, and delivers the same line in a posh-looking mockup of the nursing home, and when Yoona (Xun) watches the film and shouts the very same line to a real-life diner customer who abuses her, the line finally achieves the meaning and impact Cavendish intended for it.

There are two gay characters, and both end up with guns going off in their mouths.  There are egregiously derivative sub-narratives, including concepts from Soilent Green and Blade Runner.  The made-up dialect of the post-apocalypse Hawaiians is corny and shows a very fundamental lack of knowledge about the evolution and digression of language (whether this is the fault of writer David Mitchell or the screenwriters, I couldn’t tell you).   There are two attempts at image patterning (one is teeth, and the other is a birthmark shared by several characters through the ages), but they are abandoned for hours of reel and hurriedly scraped together later for the illusion of plenitude or meaning.  Payoff would have been the prevention of Frobisher’s suicide after wondering for three hours whether he’d go through with it.  Payoff would have been a real revelation about why Berry’s character in the 70s recognizes a symphony composed by Whishaw’s character in the 30s.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a thousand times before I die: you cannot write with the intention of having an audience interpret what you mean.  Deliberate ambiguity is cheap and irresponsible.  It appears as though the Wachowskis haven’t grown out of that since the final Matrix film.  Additionally, Cloud Atlas is excessively violent, which strips away much of the film’s wonder and fantasy.  I’m not particularly squeamish (I’ve continuously named True Romance as my favorite movie), but I’m averse to gratuity, and plenty of the more grisly moments here could have been depicted off-screen for the same (or arguably more impactful) effect.  This, along with the unrealistic portrayal of sex (both dangerous in a movie teenagers will be sure to flock to), is a trap the Wachowskis are known to fall into, but they’ve avoided it before – look at Speed Racer.

Such an ambitious project, occasionally rewarding and entirely captivating in the moment, deserves better.  Did I enjoy seeing it?  Yes, very much.  But films should seek to achieve more than spectacle and the simple enjoyment of experiencing it the first time.  You get far more out of a book the second, third, and fourth time you read it, and if films want to be considered “art,” their creators should set aside their own self-importance and give this concept some thought.  I know, I know.

Cloud Atlas (2012); written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tim Twyker; adapted from the novel by David Mitchell; starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving.

Total Recall

We can remember it for you

recallThe first third of Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall (Total Remake?) is very good sci-fi with beautiful Blade Runner-esque set designs and imaginative inter-universe ideas, including a weapon that shoots a rope, binding the target and subsequently allowing manual control of the victim through simple hand movements.  Once the film devolves into a chase scene that seems to last an hour and a half, however, the formulaic action and stock characters become a bit tiresome.  The most inspired sections of the film feature references to the original Philip K. Dick story and the original movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who isn’t quite the actor Colin Farrell is, but whose fish-out-of-water Douglas Quaid character seemed to fit more organically in the setting), including near-exact replicas of scenes and ideas from the original movie, the infamous three-breasted woman (Kaitlyn Leeb), and a robot who gets its arms ripped off whilst standing on the wrong side of an elevator (See you at the party, Richter!).

Colin Farrell stars as Quaid, pulling his nearly perfect American accent, which is kind of a shame in that the dystopian future of the story suggests that the only habitable parts of the world are now Britain and Austrailia – why couldn’t Quaid be an Irish guy?  And why does everyone else have to pull a phony American accent when they’re supposed to be fighting for rule of Britain and when, like Blade Runner, the Chinese have taken over most worthwhile industries?  Not a terrible foul, but a bit confusing and unnecessary.  Costarring with Farrell are Kate Beckinsale as Lori, Quaid’s wife who turns out to be a government agent sent to kill him, as played by Sharon Stone in the first film.  Lori’s role is expanded here, and instead of being blown away by Schwarzenegger before a laconic bon-mot (“Consider that a divorce!”), she engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Quaid that doesn’t end until the final thirty seconds of the film.  Jessica Biel appears as Melina, a resistance member with whom Quaid must team up, played by Rachel Ticotin in the original.  Bryan Cranston, as likeable as he is, plays an effective (if hopelessly one-dimensional) villain here, taking Ronnie Cox’s role as the ruthless Cohaagen.  Here, instead of an evil CEO who removes the air from Mars, he’s the president of Britain (called UFB in the film) who seeks to invade Australia (“the Colony”) and crush any attempt at rebellion.

The story, as usual, follows Quaid as he works a dead-end job, this time in a factory producing war machines that look like a mix between Imperial Stormtroopers and the LOKI Mechs from Bioware’s Mass Effect series.  He and his wife are stressed out from their jobs, and Quaid decides to escape by visiting REKALL, a company offering a virtual reality experience in which incredible fantasies can be implanted into the customer’s mind as false memories.  Quaid meets Mac (John Cho), an operator at REKALL, who gives Quaid the chance to experience his fantasy as a secret agent.  As he hooks Quaid to the machine, however, something goes wrong.  “You’re a goddamn spy,” Mac says as he looks over Quaid’s files.  Just then, the operators are gunned down by Cohaagen’s police force, and Quaid, out of sheer instinct, kills them all using impossible martial arts and pinpoint skill with close-range firearms.  The film does a great job, as the Schwarzenegger film did, of maintaining the confusion about whether this is reality or in Quaid’s mind.  He’s accused of being a secret agent just seconds after he asks to be placed in a fantasy setting in which he is one.  Everything Mac offers Quaid in the fantasy eventually comes true in the film, including the fact that at different points in the story, he’s working for both Cohaagen and rebel leader Matthias (Bill Nighy in a cameo).  The final shot of the film mirrors the ending of the original, which resolves the story but leaves its reality open to a closer reading.  It’s a great payoff, but I’m not sure the hour-plus of nonstop action is worth the ending unless you’re a fan of the original, however.

The movie suffers from a case of Island Syndrome, with good actors speaking badly-written dialogue.  The conversations alternate between laconic and exposition-packed, and Farrell’s showdown with Cranston reminded me more of 2011’s frustrating thriller Unknown than the 1990 Total Recall.  What that film had that this one doesn’t was a strong woman; the Manfluence Principle is in effect here, as both major female characters are obsessed with Quaid: one (Melina) with romancing him, and the other (Lori) with murdering him.  Characters also speak background information in place of any sort of inventive revelation; for instance, Quaid and his coworker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) speak aloud plenty they’ve already known about each other for years and would go without saying, such as how long they’ve both worked in the factory and that it’s kind of a shitty job.  Harry appears later in one of the film’s best scenes, a reimagining of a scene from the original combining the characters of Mel Johnson, Jr. and Roy Brocksmith, during which Harry claims to know that this is all part of Quaid’s fantasy and not really happening.  Quaid must figure out within a very short time whether this is a lie, and in either case make a decision with irreversible results (in the original, Schwarzenegger sees a bead of sweat roll off Brocksmith’s face and realizes he’s nervous, therefore he’s lying; I won’t spoil what Farrell’s Quaid does).  The tension nears that of the original and far surpasses the tension in any of the remake’s scenes, save one in which Quaid slices his own hand open to remove a tracking device.

Finally, Wiseman’s film seems to take the opposite stance on the Occupy movement that Nolan’s new Batman film did, albeit much more subtly than the bloated superhero epic.  The government is conspiring against its people by airing propaganda about a group of freedom fighters who simply want equality (calling them”terrorists” as we’ve heard so many conservatives do).  Nighy’s briefly-seen Matthias character takes on a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein role here, taking the heat for the UFB’s transgressions and reflecting the American public’s (don’t blame me; I didn’t choose the accents) unslakable need for scapegoats and blame-magnets, regardless of truth or guilt.

I’m not sure why this remake needed to exist (do any?) but the action is constant and intense (unless you’re like me and extended CG-action scenes induce a boredom so potent that you wish you were at work).  What works most of all, though, is the sci-fi setting and landscape.  More stories (hopefully better written) could take place here.  To be honest, the character I was most interested in was John Cho’s frosty-haired REKALL operator, who, depending upon your take on the film’s reality, could have been responsible for all of the story’s events.  As derivative as these ideas were even in Philip K. Dick’s time, they make for good sci-fi.  If screenwriters with the skill, will, and drive to make better stories in this universe exist, then as Arnold said in the original, “Give these people air!”

Total Recall (2012); written Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and the 1990 film; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale.