Friday, August 16, 2013

‘The Butler’ covers recent history via stunning White House story, stellar cast

By Steve Crum

Historical fact and fiction successfully merge in the very watchable Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Danny Strong’s script covers 34 years of mid to late 20th Century American history as witnessed by White House butler Cecil Gaines. (Gaines is based on the real life Eugene Allen.) Forest Whitaker portrays Gaines, a turn that will likely garner an Oscar nomination. Daniels, who catapulted to directorial fame with 2009’s Precious, does a superb job here. He and Strong have compressed an engrossing saga covering the Civil Rights Movement, five presidents, a family’s generational growth, and a love story into 132 minutes. It had to be a daunting task, but it works. 

Similarities exist between The Butler and the 1979 TV miniseries, Backstairs at the White House. But the stories are far from parallel. Backstairs was based on the best selling book by Lillian Rogers, which recounted both her and her mother’s tenure as White House seamstress and housemaid, respectively. Backstairs’ historical times range from Presidents Taft to Eisenhower. Butler Cecil Gaines’ White House service begins with Eisenhower, and ends with Reagan, covering eight presidential terms. 

We get Cecil Gaines’ backstory as the film opens in 1926 Georgia. A young Cecil works with his parents as sharecroppers, but overseen by nothing less than a white plantation thug. Beatings, rape, and unprovoked shootings are commonplace, and Cecil is soon orphaned. He works for years as a house servant, and then, as a penniless teen, leaves to travel north. Luckily for his survival, a progression of jobs ensue involving butler duties. Fast forward to knowing the right people and being recommended to a White House butler position. 

Once he is hired and establishes a comfortable relationship with his fellow White House butlers, the script takes a necessary shorthand turn--as it had already done when skipping through a decade of Gaines’ early years in Georgia. This is no criticism; just realize the need to do so. Otherwise the film would require a 10-hour miniseries. 

The Butler certainly is not short on star power. Oprah Winfrey is Gloria Gaines, Cecil’s wife, who supports her husband and children with love and bearing. I have to say that while Winfrey’s acting chops are seldom utilized (this is her second movie since 1985’s The Color Purple), she is a fine performer. In fact, virtually every actor and actress in The Butler is above average. Cuba Gooding, as fellow butler Carter Wilson, does so well in a role worthy of his Oscar winning stature. Others include Terrence Howard as a drunken, immoral friend of the Gaines family; and David Oylowo as the Gaines brilliant but idealistic son, Louis. 

Again, the plot covers a whole lot of territory, reflecting the history of that time. So we get capsule glimpses of events, mostly tragic, like the Freedom Riders’ bus, marches, and Woolworth sit-ins. Sure, the KKK is there, along with vulgar, spitting bigots that shame USA history. All the time, Cecil Gaines silently serves a line of presidents, hearing hurtful things he cannot discuss, and witnessing history behind the scenes without comment. Even at home, he is sworn to secrecy. Forest Whitaker’s sad eyes serve him well here, reflecting an inner struggle and pain. 

All the presidents are played by name actors who do okay, and most are cast against type. Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower does not have much to say, and is pretty staid. (For Williams that IS acting.) Seeing him with white hair, and nearly bald, Williams resembles Truman more than Ike, due to his nose and chin. James Marsden does a credible JFK; and Liev Schreiber has some very good acting moments, both hilarious and troubled, as the eccentric LBJ barking out orders while sitting on the toilet. Nixon (John Cusack) has his own quirks, accented by foul language. (Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are oddly missing from the film. A time constraint?)

Casting Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan is too much of a stretch. However, Jane Fonda is absolute perfection in her brief scenes as Nancy Reagan. 

It is admirable that the script reflects on historic events, such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, by juxtaposition from the White House point of view to Cecil Gaines and his family’s. In each case, Gaines is exposed to multiple sides of current events while struggling for inward balance. 

The powerfully emotional sequences in The Butler make the bravura finale truly wrenching. 
GRADE on a Scale of A to F: A-
Even the film's trailer is fascinating:

Friday, August 9, 2013

Blomkamp’s sci-fi yarn ‘Elysium’ has its moments, but pales to his ‘District 9’

By Steve Crum

Elysium concerns the haves and have-nots, featuring a society with no middle class, only the rich and poor, and a strictly enforced border to keep the two classes separated. Why, it’s a documentary about 2013 USA! No, it is a sci-fi yarn set in “the late 21st Century” which paints a bleak future for the world. Like the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion that came and went earlier this summer, Elysium is all about the social mores of control, particularly government control. Just to emphasize the connection to the status quo, there are references to Homeland Security. 

Current paranoia about our federal government is realized here, probably enough to reinforce those who reportedly are storing up their guns and ammo in fear of some kind of takeover. In Elysium, there are indeed stored guns, but per se underground, accessed through illegal means. Earth’s leaders do not permit its slave-like citizenry to have weapons. 

Director-screenwriter Neill Blomkamp, who imprinted the movie history map with his incredibly original District 9, does not equal that triumph. But portions of Elysium come near. Reminiscent of District 9 is the overall slum that earth has become. Blomkamp frequently and wisely cuts to overhead establishing shots so we are reminded. Ground zero is a life of filth, disease and squalor, gang graffiti-splattered walls, and raggedly dressed civilians kowtowing to robot policemen figuratively and sometimes literally keeping them in line. When central character Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) snidely jokes with one cop, he is immediately beaten to the ground for insubordination. In fact, his jesting nearly gets him arrested with another robot. In flashback, we find DeCosta has been a rebellious back talker since he was raised by orphanage nuns. 

DeCosta’s childhood friend and sweetheart, Frey (Alice Braga) is now a nurse supporting a terminally ill little daughter. By the time DeCosta reunites with her, he has a criminal record, and is soon to contract a cancer virus thanks to an accident at his workplace factory. The plot really gets interesting when he, his old girlfriend, and her child shuttle off to the luxurious, high tech space station Elysium. Think the stereotypical circular space station depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the indoor track astronauts would jog. Multiply the size of the station by about 10, and you have Elysium, within which a huge city exists with manicured lawns, trees, modern buildings, and swimming pools. 

Factor in that DeCosta has willingly been transformed into an android to sustain his life by giving him superhuman strength. In the trailers, one can see metallic additions from his bald head and down. Since Elysium citizens have access to MRI-like machines that rid one’s body of any imperfections, including diseases, both DeCosta and Frey definitely want to take advantage. 

Elysium turns out to be not so utopian after all, since it is on the verge of a coup due to the rambunctious and cold blooded Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) wanting control over the slightly more humanistic President Patel (Faran Tahir). 

Blomkamp definitely has a flair for sci-fi, and does well with the look and feel of a future earth. Action sequences are very well done, but, like most movies of this genre, acting overall is secondary to the action. However, both Damon and Copley stand out. Jodie Foster is virtually wasted with little dialogue and no memorable scenes. Her best line is representative: “Send them to deportation! Get them off this habitat!” Incidentally, the always watchable William Fichtner is notable as a factory CEO. 

Oh, and add some drones the government uses to keep its earthlings in line. Surely Blomkamp is not referencing anything to do with 2013. 
GRADE on a scale of A to F: B
Check out the Elysium trailer: