<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>I think it’s safe to say that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is no Django Unchained when it comes to race relations.  No, this chronicle of the life of a black butler who served at the White House over eight administrations is a bit too well intentioned for that.  At the same time, it’s one of those well intentioned movies that probably would have benefited from being a little less well intentioned. 

…The Butler is what is usually called middle brow—in other words, it’s a film that deals with serious and challenging subject matter, but does it in a way that will never seriously challenge anyone (while making them think it does).  It’s a movie that takes no real chances, has no real edge, does nothing new, because in the end, the choices the producers, the director (Lee Daniels, hence the title) and writer Danny Strong make, feel as if they were made with a firm eye on the box office.  This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t entertaining.  It’s definitely that (though somewhere towards the end, one does start to feel its length).  But in the end, it’s little more than that.  
For those of you who have been on a walking tour of Siberia for the last few months, Lee Daniels’ The Butler revolves around Cecil Gaines, a black man who rose from cotton picker’s son to being a domestic at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The story is basically ironic.  It’s about a man who is fixed squarely in the midst of history (he can’t seem to turn around without it smacking him in the face), yet at the same time, takes absolutely no part in it.  He watches it go by, like a parade, but never actually marches with it.
The strongest scenes in the film are the scenes of everyday life of Gaines’ family and friends, the times they gather to gossip, play cards, drink.  There is an incredible naturalness to these scenes, an improvisational verisimilitude that is often riveting.  At times it feels as if one could watch these scenes of domesticity flow on forever.   All of which leads to a second bit of irony: the less political the movie is, the more alive and vibrant it is.  Whenever the focus is on the issues, the more on the nose and obvious it becomes until it takes on the weighty tone of one of those message pictures from the old days of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox.
By using what is called poetic license, screenwriter Strong is able to dramatize every single important civil rights issue and event from the 1950’s on.  He does this by giving Gaines a “the times, they are a changing” son (in real life, the character Gaines is based on had no such troubled relationship with his offspring).  Whatever event Gaines doesn’t witness himself, his son can experience them by going on the road with the freedom riders, being a personal friend of Martin Luther King or joining The Black Panthers.  If this method of story telling comes across as convenient, well, it is.  And while the scenes at Gaines’ home feel fresh and felt first hand, the rest of the movie comes across more like a Cliff Notes (remember those) version of race relations in America.
This is seconded by the casting of such stars as Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, James Marsden and John Cusack in the white roles.  Much has been made of this stunt casting.  But it should also be noted that this is stunt casting in which none of the cast is given any stunts to do.  Almost no one really resembles, and at times barely sounds like, their real life counterparts (the make up feels especially uninspired).   Only Jane Fonda really escapes unscathed in her role as Nancy Regan (a further irony: the former anti-war activist playing the people, here and in The Newsroom, that she use to rail against when she was younger). 
But if the movie is saved, it is saved by the dynamic performances of the rest of the cast.  Forest Whitaker is perfectly fine as Gaines, but it’s Terence Howard, Adriane Lenox, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz who shine as Gaines’ fellow workers and neighbors. 
However, towering over everyone is Ms. Oprah Winfrey who takes no prisoners with her performance as Gaines’s wife.  Before her appearance, the movie is little more than sincere, a bit stiff and familiar.  But from her first appearance, slightly slattern, obviously tipsy, a cigarette dangling precariously from her mouth, she brings an energy and intensity to the screen that was missing earlier.  It’s a deeply moving performance.
Two more issues to be noted.  First, in the social media and criticism world that surrounds this movie, there is a suggestion that this is an original and ground breaking story, something that’s never been told before.  But are people really this young?  In many ways, one could make the argument that this is little more than a sequel to a popular TV mini-series from 1979 called Backstairs at the White House which dramatized the lives of people like Gaines from the time of Taft to Eisenhower (with Andrew Duggan in the Robin Williams role).
Second, I remember when there was a lot of criticism of the movie The Help, a movie about southern domestics, criticism that often came out before the movie was even released.  I’m not sure why there was so much anger toward that film, but not toward this one.  Gaines is far more passive than any of the characters in The Help, all of whom were far more willing to risk their lives and positions than Gaines would ever think to do (the most he does is demand equal pay for blacks as for whites, but he demands it at such a late date and so near his retirement, it seems a hollow victory and has none of the emotional resonance that the decisions made by the characters in The Help did).  And if you’re one of the ones who thought the maids in the earlier film were stereotypes, then logically you should consider Gaines to be something out of a 1930’s movie.  For those of you who trumpeted Lee Daniel’s The Butler, but criticized The Help, you not only should have your head examined, you need to apologize to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.


Iron Man 3 is one of those movies you don’t really look forward to seeing, but when you do, it actually turns out to be much better than you ever thought it would be.  In fact, I think I’ll go out on a limb a little bit here and say that it’s a pretty nifty movie and you won’t be disappointed.
The beginning did fill me with a sense of foreboding.  The whole thing begins with a flashback in which all the actors pushed their characters just a bit much (Guy Pearce is particularly weak here; well, actually, I thought he was embarrassingly bad, but perhaps that’s just me) and the humor was just a bit too, too.  But once everything jumps to 2013, the film quickly finds its sea legs and we’re off on an adventure that is basically, as is the norm for a Marvel superhero, an existential crisis meets the apocalypse.  
Not everything works quite as well as it might.  Robert Downey, Jr., back once again as the man in the tuna can, can’t quite sell his anxiety attacks and his voice over is a bit clunky at times (though it does lead to a nice little punch line at the end which means, non-spoiler alert, you must, MUST, stay in your seat until that last little credit has left the screen).  But let’s not be petty.  Director Shane Black, who co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce, has filled the dialog with tons of wit of the tongue planted firmly in check kind and has come up with a story in which excitement abounds by leaps and.
But perhaps what really makes this entry is an unexpected delight of a first rate supporting cast.  In fact, in many ways, that’s all this movie is.  Not a series of action scenes filled with CGI special effects in which a director is trying to make up for his penis size, but a series of roundelays in which Robert Downey, Jr.’s acting style has a pax de duex with one character after another.   In fact, as a friend of mine pointed out, this was an Iron Man movie without Iron Man since Tony Stark is separated from his body armor for such long periods of time, he actually has to solve the problem as a mere mortal like the rest of us.   He’s also more than dependent on his sidekicks than usual, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pot and Don Cheadle as Rhodes, both of whom made the wise decision of sticking around for the paycheck (they’re both very good, Paltrow surprisingly so).
But to get back to subject, these scene stealers include such cameos as the not seen enough Dale Dickey as the mother of a suspected suicide bomber (I guess she’s the person you go for if you can’t get Melissa Leo); Andrew Lauer as an “I’m your biggest fan” satellite technician; and a series of guards who quickly realize that they aren’t paid enough for this shit.  But certainly special note should be made of Ty Simpkins who plays a precocious tyke whose cajones haven’t dropped yet, but he still has enough of them to try to guilt trip Stark.   If he’s not brought back for the next installment, his manager should sue.
Still, with no reflection on the aforesaids, no one can quite steal a scene like the sly Sir Ben Kingsley.  Like the movie, his first scene as the Mandarin (or Man Daren in the Chinese version) filled me with a sense of foreboding as he employs just about the worst American accent I’ve heard in some time.  But suddenly, he…no, sorry, I’m not supposed to say, it’s one of the best twists in the movie, and he gives the best performance in the film.   I mean, when he…no, I can’t, I just can’t.  You’ll just have to see it. 
And what superhero, studio blockbuster would be complete without villains, villains and more villains.  In fact, that was about the only thing worth the price of admission for Iron Man II, Mickey Rourke’s powerhouse performance as Ivan Vanko.   Here we have Pearce as Aldrich Killian, a scientist who does some sort of rigmarole with the brain and DNA that has the unfortunate side effect of creating human time bombs (my friend said he wished they had dealt more with that and I said they could have dealt with it for the entire movie and I still wouldn’t have had any idea what they were talking about).   Pearce gives one of his more relaxed performances in awhile.  Oh, and Rebecca Hall is his second in command, but you’ll have to forgive me if I almost forgot her since she doesn’t really have anything to do.   
But speaking of the villains, I do have to be honest and say I am a bit squeamish in the movie’s attitude toward terrorism, blaming it on bullying and a hell hath no fury like a woman scorned one night stand.  It’s all a bit cartoonish, even for a comic. 
But hey, arrive for the CGI and stay for the Kingsley.
Tell me what you think.

Reviews of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard

Sunshine Cleaning is a movie about estranged sisters who bond after starting a business cleaning up crime scenes. It’s one of those formulaic films that have been the basis of American movies since the dawn of silents: someone goes on a three act journey and has a character arc change by the end. As such, the movie is obvious and takes no real chances. At the same time, the script is intelligent and well written (by Megan Holley) with some moving moments and it’s doubtful the audience will be disappointed. It also has some fine acting, especially by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the sisters and a fine supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins, Jr. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should because the gimmick, the cleaning service, actually overshadows and distracts from the hero’s journey rather than really informs it. The sisters bond more in spite of it all rather than because of it. And there’s one scene, where Amy Adams attends a baby shower, that doesn’t have a strong enough pay off and falls flat. It probably doesn’t help that she has a big speech about what she’s gotten out of cleaning up crime scenes when in reality it’s Blunt who is the one who has come to realize what Adams has supposedly, but not really, learned here.

The Great Buck Howard also has Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn (though this time Zahn is playing the typical Steve Zahn role, complete with unflattering mullet). Like Sunshine Cleaners, it’s also formulaic as well as entertaining and intelligently written (this time by Sean McGinly, who also directed). In it, a man played by Colin Hanks, leaves law school in a huff and against the wishes and knowledge of his authoritarian father (play by Hanks’ real life father, Tom Hanks, who probably isn’t as authoritarian as his character or Colin would probably have never entered show business). In the end, …Buck Howard works better than Sunshine Cleaning because the gimmick here, an over the top character based on the real life over the top mentalist Kreskin, is more central to Hanks’ character arc and provides an ending that is wittier and cleverer than Sunshine Cleaning’s. It’s also buoyed by a delicious performance by John Malkovich as Howard and an equally delicious performance by Tom Hanks playing an unsympathetic character, something he’s actually very good at and the kind of role he hasn’t really played since perhaps That Thing You Do. It’s nice to know that if the public grows tired of Hanks being cast because he’s instantly likeable, he can always take a page from Alan Alda’s page book and revive his career by playing assholes.