The Silver Bullet ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Thoughts: Madeleine L’Engle’s celebrated 1963 novel has been on my bookshelf for years and holds a special place in my heart.  I’ve seen high school productions of it (and been in one myself) and made it through most of a 2003 made for television film that couldn’t capture the energy of its source material.  Now comes a new adaptation from one of the writers of Frozen directed by one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.  Ava DuVernay (Selma) has assembled a dynamite A-List cast and, from the look of things in this first teaser, a damn fine film.  Starring Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Reese Witherspoon (This Means War), Mindy Kaling (This is the End), Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty & the Beast), newcomer Storm Reid, and Zach Galifianakis (Keeping Up with the Joneses) as The Happy Medium, this is one page to screen adaptation I’m welcoming with open arms.

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.

Movie Review ~ The Hundred-Foot Journey

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Kadam family clashes with the proprietress of a celebrated French restaurant after they open their own nearby eatery.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon

Director: Lasse Hallström

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Before the screening I attended of The Hundred-Foot Journey, producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg took a minute to introduce the film and use various food metaphors to describe the experience they had reading the book and seeing it transition from page to screen. Both seemed a little too earnest in their praise, making it feel like we should like the film because they liked it so much…were it only that easy.

I’ll say that The Hundred-Foot Journey is a rare case of a film knowing exactly what kind of viewers it wants to target. It’s the Oprah Book Club members, your moms, your third grade teachers, and the AARP members that may not be able to travel to the South of France but will surely queue up for a movie involving a displaced Indian family opening up a restaurant across the street from a hoity-toity French eatery. The trouble is, once Spielberg/Winfrey get audiences in the door, they don’t have a main course to satiate our hunger.

Nicely (if pedestrianly) directed by Lasse Hallström (The Hypnotist, also at the helm on another okay-ish foodie orgy film, Chocolat, in 2000), The Hundred-Foot Journey has been slyly marketed as a battle of the restaurants with Indian patriarch Papa Kadam (Om Puri, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) setting up shop too close for priggish Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren, Hitchcock) comfort. Actually, the film spends little time on this plot, instead feeling content to pinball between numerous arcs before settling on the least interesting one of the lot.

Ah, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself, something the script by Steven Knight (adapted from the novel by Richard C. Morais) could never be accused of.

Hallstrom and Knight pack a lot into 122 minutes and if only more of it were as engaging as Mirren and Puri are in their supporting roles. The film engages these two only when conflict or comedic relief is needed before shuffling them off to the side in favor of blander ingredients. That would be Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon as, respectively, Puri’s son and Mirren’s sous chef. Though Le Bon manages to impress with charms suggesting a Gallic Winona Ryder, Dayal is stuck in the weeds as the character we should be rooting more for. When the film switches focus (again) to Dayal for the latter part of the film, it falls completely flat and never recovers.

Thinking back on the film I kept landing on several opportune occasions and characters that, for whatever reason be it script or novel, are just flat out ignored. Though Papa has five children only three are given any sort of screen time and even then two of them eventually evaporate into the background. Taking place in a quaint French village, the foodie mayor and his disapproving wife are shown often but their quirky interaction is never fully explored.

A major complaint I have about movies set in a foreign land is the insistence on speaking English in situations where no one believably would. Mirren runs a high end French restaurant with, it’s insinuated, a fully French staff. So why does she stop in the middle of a lesson to make a point in saying “In English please, so we can all understand.”? I looked around to see if she was referring to us because who else would need to hear it in any language other than French? Though Mirren makes the most out of a role surely intended for Meryl Streep, she can’t get away from the truth that the character is reduced to a plot device rather than feeling like a flesh and blood creation.

Staying two reels (or, courses) too long, I didn’t love this journey…but I did overhear the lady sitting next to me exclaim to her friends “I would have watched the movie for another five hours!” So, Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Spielberg…you might just have a savory sleeper on your hands. I’ll pass on seconds, though.

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.