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Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Jobs • Blue Jasmine

August 22, 2013

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (** ½) PG-13

The true story of Eugene Allen, an African-American man, who in his role as white house butler served numerous presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, is the basis for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The film is so titled because Warner Brothers threatened to sue producer Harvey Weinstein over the rights to an earlier pic from their catalogue also titled The Butler. Eugene Allen, the basis for this film, has been given the name Cecil Gaines in this Butler tale, although how much of Allen’s real story wound up in the Lee Daniels’ film is questionable.

To sum up this film, I would say that it comes across as a greatest hits collection of the most memorable moments of the civil rights movement. Too often the film simply doesn’t go deep enough, emotionally or otherwise.

Robin Williams as Eisenhower & Whitaker as Cecil Gaines

A good chunk of it comes across as flat, largely just skimming the surface of events. Nuance and subtext are not director Daniels or screenwriter Danny Strong’s strong suit, but the more astute film fans going to the film will know that already. Most of the plot points are telegraphed well in advance with the audience being bludgeoned over the head with them. The fate of most of the central characters will not come as a surprise to anyone well versed in melodrama.

What the film does offer is an opportunity for Forrest Whitaker, in his role as the title character, to shine. He’s really good here and does the best he can with what he’s given to work with. He plays it for all it’s worth and I found his performance to be mostly convincing. If the film’s script does Whitaker a disservice, then you’ll have to give him his due for trying to make up for any shortcomings. As for the rest of the cast, Oprah Winfrey brings to mind echoes of a watered down version of her lauded performance from The Color Purple from decades ago, while the much lauded casting of such actors as John Cusack, Alan Rickman, and Robin Williams as former presidents comes across as an extreme case of stunt casting. In fact, the scenes where we actually get a glimpse of those presidents interacting with Cecil are such a small portion of the film that the filmmakers could have easily gone with no-name actors and the film would have been none the worse for it.

If I’ve given the impression that The Butler is a bad film that isn’t my intention. It isn’t a total misfire and there are some powerful scenes that ring true from time to time. The trouble is there aren’t enough of them and for a film that wants to give its audience a unique perspective on the struggle for civil rights that’s not a good thing.

Jobs (**) PG-13

 The general consensus that actor Ashton Kutcher is too much of a lightweight to pull off portraying technological wunderkind Steve Jobs isn’t exactly laid to rest in the biopic Jobs. I do think it is worth mentioning that this may not be entirely the actor’s fault. He certainly has the look and the mannerisms down pat and there are moments when he comes across convincingly. The problem with the film Jobs isn’t necessarily one that can be attributed to the acting/casting department. No, the problem lies mostly in the lackluster scripting and directing side of things.

One of the many things wrong with Jobs—and there are many—is that the film simply doesn’t go deep enough to give us a sense of who the man really was. The stuff in the film that deals with the technological advancements that Steve Jobs was responsible for are done on the level of a made for TV movie, and not a good one at that. Each sequence detailing Jobs’ successes comes across as rushed and glossed over and to make it worse, are backed with a soundtrack of worn out 70s/80s pop hits that most discerning music fans would be fine with never having to hear again in their collective lifetimes. The way the film is put together we never seem to get a sense of what Steve Jobs is actually doing until it’s all said and done. Then it’s on to the next sequence, which plays out identical to the one before.

Having said this Jobs must be given some credit where credit is due. That would be mainly in its avoidance of portraying Steve Jobs as some kind of saint. The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Jobs was a dead beat dad for some years, that he was hygienically challenged (he rarely bathed as a young man), and that he was fiercely competitive to the point where many of his co-workers came to hate him and everything he stood for.

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in Jobs

The movie’s story arc covers Jobs’ time spent developing the Apple I personal computer, his ouster from the Apple project, his role in the development of the Macintosh, and finally his triumphant return to Apple as he revitalized the once thriving brand name in the mid 1990s. What the film doesn’t cover is his battle with pancreatic cancer, which finally took his life in 2011. The film has a tendency to gloss over Jobs’ romantic relationships as well.

Walter Issacson’s bestselling 2011 bio of Jobs is said to be the basis of yet another film about the famed entrepreneur. This Jobs film just happened to beat it to the punch. I really hope the other film happens. It would be sad to think this would be the only cinematic portrait of a man who changed the world in such a grand way. That would be a tragedy indeed.

Blue Jasmine (***) PG-13

I always greet the release of a Woody Allen film with some level of excitement. When you stop to think of it, what other working filmmaker continues to be both as prolific and as interesting as he is? Allen’s continued growth as a filmmaker is something that is unmatched in the annals of cinema. Even when he fails, as he did with last year’s To Rome With Love, one can still easily take something away, some nugget of insight, from the experience.

With the release of each new Woody Allen film you never quite know what to expect and the same could be said of Blue Jasmine. There are many surprises. For one thing, a large chunk of the picture was filmed in San Francisco and given Allen’s oft quoted distaste of the California lifestyle, that’s something of a surprise. Then on the technical side of things, it’s interesting to note that the film was lensed in gorgeous widescreen, something that the Woodman has only done a handful of times in his forty-four year career as a writer-director. I could go on but you get the point. Blue Jasmine doesn’t have the feel that one normally associates with a typical Woody Allen film, much like his 2005 film Match Point. There are a few flashes of Woody’s world that we’ve come to know over the years, specifically in a few flashback scenes set in New York City, but by and large the film has an inspired, non-Woody feel to it. Considering that Woody is nearly eighty years old, that’s something to take note of too.

Actress Cate Blanchett gives a towering performance as the title character, Jasmine, a former member of New York high society whose life has fallen on hard times.

Blanchett as Jasmine in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, opening Friday

As the film opens, we see Jasmine making the move to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Jasmine is in dire financial straits and, we later learn, has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and appears to be quickly headed for another if things don’t turn around quickly. She mumbles to herself and seems to live mostly in memories of her past life, a life that was built on her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) financial misdeeds at the expense of others (think Bernie Madoff). Jasmine refuses to give up in her quest of once again attaining upward social mobility and looks at her sister’s life condescendingly, especially when it comes to Ginger’s choice of lovers, both past and present. Jasmine doesn’t seem to realize that her former husband’s shenanigans are one of the chief reasons why Ginger is probably never going to attain any more mobility than what she currently has.

Among the many great performances to note in the film, comic Andrew Dice Clay’s turn as Ginger’s ex husband is the most surprising. He reveals a depth here that I never knew he had. It’s ample proof that Woody Allen isn’t down for the count just yet. 

Jobs and The Butler are at the Carmike in Hickory. Blue Jasmine opens in Hickory at the Carmike on Friday, August 23.

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