Movie Review ~ The Water Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: A boy sets out on a quest to save his ill mother by searching for a mythic figure said to have magical healing powers.

Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello

Director: David Oyelowo

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It wasn’t that long ago I was talking about actors trying their hand at directing and how some take their time to move behind the scenes.  Robin Wright made her feature film debut with the small indie Land which was practically a one-woman show and now there’s David Oyelowo arriving with his own directorial unveiling.  While both have had formidable careers throughout the past four decades (Wright is actually entering her fifth), it’s interesting to see them both challenging themselves on their first time up to bat in the big leagues with material that mines detailed and emotionally taxing ground. 

Thankfully, the skill that has assisted the likes of Oyelowo in his impressive list of credits makes him an ideal match for The Water Man, a coming-of-age family drama with a bit of folklore magic thrown in for good measure.  Working from an original script by Emily A. Needell (also making her full-length debut after several shorts she wrote/directed received some attention), Oyelowo calls in a few favors to gather a cast with some credibility and lucks out in finding that all-important unicorn in films centered on children: young actors that can actually act without coming off cloying or who grow to be intolerable by the end.

Young Gunner (the warm and winning Lonnie Chavis) has found an outlet for his artistic energy and a retreat from a darkness looming in his home within the comic books he has been creating. Unprepared to accept his young mother (Rosario Dawson, Trance) is terminally ill with leukemia and unable to discuss his feelings with his retired military father (Oyelowo, Chaos Walking) recently back from a long stretch overseas, Gunner fixates on a legend in his small town that has piqued his curiosity.  The tale of The Water Man that supposedly lives in the forest has been passed down through generations but while some elements have changed, one has not: The Water Man can cure disease and stave off death. 

Convinced finding The Water Man will be the solution his mother desperately needs, Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who he’s heard has firsthand knowledge of the mysterious figure.  At first reluctant to do anything to help this younger kind, teenage Jo strikes a bargain with Gunner to bring him to the man he seeks.  As Jo and Gunner head into the woods and begin an adventure that will put them in the way of various outdoor elements and challenges they couldn’t imagine, Gunner’s dad works with the local sheriff (Maria Bello, Prisoners) and an unkempt town historian (Alfred Molina, The Devil Has a Name) to find the children before they run into danger.

Though The Water Man is being billed as a film for families, I would caution parents to give this one a second thought before showing this to young and/or impressionable children until you’re able to have a discussion with them about its themes.  Needell’s script has a sweet and subtle way of going about talking on tough topics like impending grief and loss but those are ideas which could be hard to grasp for children too young.  For everyone else, Oyelowo’s film winds up to be a film with real spirit and an amiable charm that casts a warm glow over its brief run time. 

It would have been great to see the film’s final act match the strength of what had come before but the magic of Needell’s script can only cast a spell for so long.  When it breaks, it tends to create a vacuum that a number of other pieces of The Water Man begin to get sucked away into.  Suddenly, the performances feel a little wooden and everyone is trying too had to make their final emotions count and that doesn’t jive with the laid-back style that came naturally in the previous 75 minutes.  It should be said that Oyelowo ends the film right where he should and follows it with a well-done end credits sequence over which a song written and sung by his honey-voiced wife plays.

Not the type of film that lingers long in the memory, mostly because nearly everything about it feels like standard storytelling, just done better than most, The Water Man is short enough to fill your cup but not quite to overflowing.  If anything, it demonstrates that Oyelowo has taken much of what he’s learned as a respected craftsman in his field and applied that to his work as a freshman director.  It can come off at times like an artist up to bat for the first time, but this is a solid double for those playing at home.

Movie Review ~ Chaos Walking

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality, where all inner thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Ray McKinnon

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know, folks, there may be some trouble keeping Tom Holland on the A-List if these past few weeks at the movies have been any indication.  It’s no wonder the hype machine on the third Spider-Man movie (titled Spider-Man: No Way Home, due later this year) surprisingly kicked into high gear right around the time the blistering review for Holland’s Apple TV+ film Cherry started popping up.  Just two weeks later, Holland has a new project coming out and another reason for his team to be sweating.  I can only imagine what bit of Spider-Man news will come out this weekend to direct attention away from the news that Chaos Walking is another dud from Holland, though this time it’s not entirely his fault.

This long in the works adaptation of the first book in a trilogy of YA novels by Patrick Ness published in 2008, it’s not shocking in the least why Chaos Walking struggled to get off the ground over the years.  Arriving on the scene in the midst of a number of other popular series for teens being adapted into movies with more of an adult slant, a fair share of high-profile writers tried their hand at the script before it finally wound up back with Ness who gave it a final polish.  At one point, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was circling the project and while that might have been an interesting route to take, I actually think the director Lionsgate wound up with, Doug Liman, is a solid choice.  Responsible for admirable work like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is no stranger to complex narrative or impressive visuals so he wouldn’t have struggled with bringing to life a world that has unique characteristics while not getting too deep in the fantasy of it all.

Two hundred years in the future on another planet called, of course, New World, is the small settlement of Prentisstown, named after the malevolent mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who presides over the entirely male population.  All of the females of the group were killed by the Spackle, native inhabitants to the planet that descended on the group one day not long after the settlers arrived on the planet, around the same time both genders discovered the planet gave them the ability to hear and sometimes even see the thoughts of other men.  The women’s thoughts, however, were hidden. These thoughts on display came to be called “Noise”.  While the book has the luxury of explaining this phenomenon in detail, the movie skirts the subject fairly quickly so we’re left with a “that’s that, move on” sort of attitude, not that we can ever hear the “Noise” that clearly thanks to the sound design being so muffled throughout.

Too young at the time of her death, Todd Hewitt (Holland, The Impossible) never knew his mother but is aware she trusted Ben (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter, writer of Southpaw & creator of Sons of Anarchy) to care for him as his adoptive parents after she was taken.  So he spends his days trying to suppress his Noise while helping on Ben and Cillian’s humble farm.  He’s returning from the field one day when he sees something he’s never encountered before but only heard about…a girl.  Crash landing on the planet as part of the Second Wave, Viola (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) is the only survivor from her crew and needs Todd’s help to find a communication device to contact her ship so they know she made it and won’t abandon their mission.  However, Viola’s arrival uncovers a deadly secret from the history of Prentisstown that a number of people, including the town’s holy man (David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky) would just as soon stay buried.  Pursued by those he formerly trusted, Todd and his dog Manchee accompany Viola to the far ends of New World where they’ll discover more truths about Noise, New World, and each other.

To his credit, Ness has laid a groundwork for a series that has potential.  So why is Chaos Walking so decidedly unexciting in its action and unmoving at its core?  Much of that comes down to what I think are simple logistics; nothing in the movie ever works in harmony so you have, essentially, chaos throughout.  The acting doesn’t seem to gel with the script, finding some of the cast exceling by tuning in their performances and taking the material for what it is and nothing more (like Ridley who got good at that working on the Star Wars films) while others take it too far in the other direction, working so hard to uncover what’s not there that they wind up totally blank themselves (sorry, Mr. Holland).  The simplistic, truncated script doesn’t seem to work with the style of movie Liman wants to make, either.  Liman’s action sequences are the best parts of the movie without question but they’re few and far between and never turn the dial up far enough so that you feel like any stakes are raised.

Chaos Walking also has a very bad habit of letting the focus fall on the wrong people for too long and forgetting (sometimes entirely) about characters that were introduced as important.  I won’t say who, but there’s one character played by an Oscar-nominated performer who never gets a final scene, so we have no idea what happened to them.  The last time we saw them, they may have been in danger but Liman and Ness never make it clear which way the teeter was tottering. It’s unfair to leave people hanging like that.  Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin that you simply do not do if you want a compassionate audience to remain even the slightest bit on your side.  Again, I don’t give out spoilers but if you’re paying attention to who goes with Viola on her journey you might be able to guess what said sin is.  And it’s not pretty.  It’s a cheap movie device that screenwriters should find a way out of using because it’s expected and, when it happens, only serves to show the inherent weakness in creative thought for how to motivate your hero/heroine.

Before I forget, we have to circle back to Ridley and Holland again.  Though Ridley manages to come out slightly unscathed here, there’s still a bit of a wonder why she’s back in this neo-sci-fi work so close to the end of her tenure in Star Wars.  If I were her agent, I’d be steering her away from these types of roles in favor of work that is completely different, so she isn’t pigeonholed.  Ridley is a solid actress but there isn’t much for her to work with, but at least she’s able to fashion it into something not totally goofy.  The same can’t be said for Holland who is reduced to muttering most of his lines (turn the subtitles on, you’ll thank me), many of which are descriptions rather than actual sentences, so he comes off like he’s just verbally pointing out things. “Yellow Hair” “Girl” “Pretty” “Bug” “Girl” “Pretty”.  Could another actor have fixed this?  Maybe not, but Holland seems more confused with what to do than anything… all the way up to flashing his bare bottom while fishing for his dinner.  The scene feels there to wake up anyone that might have been about to doze off.

Though this is based on the first book in a trilogy I’d be amazed if Chaos Walking performs well enough to warrant a sequel and it seems as if the filmmakers knew that too.  Thankfully, while the door is clearly open for a continuation, the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on how you’re approaching the film.  As a fan of the novels, I’m sure you’ll see the possibilities of what’s to come.  If you are new to the series and were entertained, could be that now you are invested and are crossing your fingers they can get Ridley and Holland back together again to finish the story.  However, my camp is the one that gets to the end and is ready to walk on past any more installments.  It doesn’t walk, nor run, nor jump, nor fly…Chaos Walking merely limps along, disappointingly so.

Movie Review ~ The Midnight Sky

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lone scientist in the Arctic races to contact a crew of astronauts returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.

Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall

Director: George Clooney

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Ardent fans may disagree, but George Clooney has reached a point in the career of a successful actor that I always look forward to.  This is the time after an actor has paid their due (he appeared in later seasons of TV’s Facts of Life and the schlocky sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes), had great commercial successes (a star-making turn in ER for NBC and a string of blockbuster hit movies), and won critical accolades (an Oscar for acting in 2006’s Syriana and one for producing 2013’s Argo, not to mention multiple other nominations).  He married after years of professed bachelorhood and is a father when he believed he was too immature to be one.  With all that under his belt…what’s next?  The answer? Sort of anything he wants to do.

Along with contemporaries like Jodie Foster and, to a smaller extent, friends Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Clooney has earned the privilege (right?) to be ultra-picky with the work he does, often going long stretches without a film in the can or in production.  Leaning toward more producing than acting or directing, Clooney the actor seems to have taken a backseat to the other roles he seems to prioritize more right now.  So, like those other A-list stars mentioned above, when he does peek his head out for a film role (and directs it as well), it’s something to perk up for because there was obviously something about this certain project that was motivating enough to step back in front of the camera.

That film is The Midnight Sky, premiering the week of Christmas on Netflix, and it’s really a two-for-one kind of deal.  Both are Clooney movies through and through, for better or for worse…it all depends on which one you’re in the mood to see.  One is more of a movie Clooney is known to act in, with a sleek sophistication that builds in suspense the deeper it flies in the face of uncertainty.  The other reminded me of a feature Clooney had helmed in the past, one more focused on human drama on a smaller, more intimate level. Both pieces have their merit and varied degrees of satisfying realization throughout, but it’s delivered in a package so depressingly bleak that even an unexpectedly emotionally vibrant finale can’t clear the clouds away.

The year is 2049 (where are all the Blade Runners, I ask you?) and astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, The Monuments Men) is alone at a research station in the Arctic Circle.  Evacuated after an unspecified global event three weeks earlier, it appears the Artic Circle is the last stand for humanity according to the radar showing whatever it was that happened inching closer to the pole Lofthouse is nearby.  Terminally ill and without family, Lofthouse chose to remain in the facility where he spends his time doing a lot of nothing save for monitoring the ongoing devastation and self-administering his daily dialysis.  Flashbacks to a younger Augustine (Ethan Peck) show an inspired young man that feels he found the answer to life on another planet, K-23, and we come to understand the study of that planet through a satellite circling a distant solar system became his one true passion in life above all other things, including a woman he loved (Sophie Rundle) but let slip away.

As he monitors the missions in space, he sees there is one crew still bound for Earth and they’re returning from a mission that involved exploration of a satellite near Jupiter that Lofthouse created.  Returning to Earth and whatever has taken place would be bad news and so Lofthouse begins attempting to make contact with the spacecraft Aether and it’s five-member crew.  Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo, A Most Violent Year) and communications office Sullivan (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), the crew is unaware of the catastrophe on their home planet, having been unable to contact mission control during the end-stage of their return voyage.  With his facility satellite not strong enough to relay a dependable signal, Lofthouse will have to trek in perilous conditions to a nearby facility if he is to get a message to Aether before its too late for them to turn back.

Based on a 2016 novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted by Mark L. Harris (Overlord), I won’t venture too far further into the plot of The Midnight Sky because there are some elements that are best left to be discovered as you travel on the journey.  Though it’s not a spoiler, per se, there is a small girl (the non-verbal but expressive Caoilinn Springall) Clooney finds has been left behind in the main research facility that becomes his companion on his frozen mission through ice and snow.  She serves as a silent sounding board for his thoughts and an outstretched hand of comfort when he finds he needs it most. Oscar-nominee Demián Bichir (A Better Life), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), and an excellent Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures) make up the crew of the Aether, becoming important pieces in what eventually is seen to be a mystery of sorts that’s been staring us in the face from the start.

What also becomes obvious is that as grand as the movie is in certain key moments and for as well-made as the picture is, it operates too much as distinct independent features that it never quite feels like the two stories are tied together.  Long sequences with one storyline make you totally forget the other one is happening, and how the ramifications that what is happening in Plot #1 have a direct impact to Plot #2.  An important development in Plot #2 more than 2/3 of the way through is almost nullified by a bit of information from Plot #1.  These types of overlaps abound, and it pulls the movie apart rather than binding it to be stronger as a whole.  I either wanted to see more of the two features interacting with each other (because when they do, it’s all systems go for high-stakes suspense or emotional resonance) or one feature that plays solo.

Following in the footsteps of recent bleak outlook films like Songbird and Greenland, The Midnight Sky doesn’t seem that interested in finding a happy ending to appease us and that’s completely the prerogative of the filmmakers.  I continue to be curious to see how audiences embrace these types of movies during our current situation…do we really want to imagine a future even more depressingly futile than now?  Maybe it’s because my eyelids started to get just a tad heavy near the end but the finale from Clooney and Lester pulled the rug out from under me a bit too fast.  It achieved the desired impact, I think (I hope), and while the actual ending skirted the line of being too abrupt, there was a short section right before the credits played where Clooney achieved something fairly beautiful where all the elements of a film (visuals, Alexandre Desplat’s unsurprisingly hefty but surprisingly haunting score, performances) joined in harmony.   Like the stars up in the blackness, there are several of these shining moments in The Midnight Sky…I wish there were more.

Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

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Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Most Violent Year

most_violent_year

Synopsis: A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981 centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.

Release Date:  December 31, 2014

Thoughts: Writer/director J.C. Chandor has had a most prosperous last few years after receiving an Oscar nomination for his debut feature Margin Call in 2011. He followed that up last year by giving Robert Redford one of the best roles of his career in All Is Lost which I loved but divided many a moviegoer. Chandor is back in 2014 with this highly anticipated crime drama starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) that looks like an intriguing mix of styles that have echoes of of Scorcese, De Palma, & Cassavetes. Could be a sleeper hit thanks to its distinguished pedigree.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.