August 27, 2013

MOVIES: Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)

A wildly uneven hodgepodge of a movie, with some performances and scenes that work extraordinarily well, and some that are total disasters.

The story, based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, is that of a butler -- here named Cecil Gaines, and played by Forest Whitaker -- who works in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years. There is a brief prologue, in which we see Cecil as a child, living in something not too far removed from slavery, taken from the field to the house by Southern matriarch Vanessa Redgrave (because apparently there were no elderly Southern actresses available that day), whose offer to teach Cecil to be "a house nigger" is, by 1912 standards, an act of kindness.

The movie splits its time between Cecil's work at the White House and his family life. The White House half of the movie is marred by a series of celebrity cameos as Presidents and First Ladies, most of which are so badly miscast -- Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ -- that they feel like an endless series of Saturday Night Live sketches. James Marsden at least makes a reasonably good attempt to get the voice right as JFK, which is more than most of the presidential actors do. (By far the best of these cameos is that of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.)

The central story of Cecil's home life is his estrangement from son Louis (David Oyelowo) over David's involvement in the civil rights movement. And by "involvement," I mean that Louis is the Forrest Gump of civil rights, present at every major event -- a Woolworth sit-in, the Freedom Rides, Selma, jail with MLK in Birmingham, Memphis for the MLK assassination, Oakland with the Black Panthers. (Somehow, he misses the March on Washington, but that's about it.)

As Cecil ages, Whitaker chooses to reflect that age by making Cecil's speaking voice increasingly hushed and mumbly, and for the last half-hour of the movie, it's very hard to understand much of what he says. Far better (much to my surprise) is Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria. It's a role that plays into Winfrey's public persona in some ways; Gloria is the grande dame of her household, used to being the center of attention (and loving it), and knowing exactly how to play to whoever else is in the room. Her relationship with Cecil is the strongest thing in the movie, a bond that remains sexual even when the two are no longer young; even in an embarrassingly awful black-and-white disco-era jumpsuit, Winfrey is sexy.

The Gump-iness of the civil rights story works against it, and makes it hard to take seriously. There is one spectacular scene, though, in which after a few years of estrangement, Louis and his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia), who is even more radical than Louis, come to dinner with Cecil and Gloria. In the argument between Louis and Cecil, we get a real sense of why some older African-Americans were scared by the intensity and the radicalism of some activists. I would have loved to have seen that idea explored more deeply (and there's a great movie there waiting to be made).

The good stuff in The Butler is very good; the bad stuff is ghastly. The whole is uneven enough that I can't recommend it with any enthusiasm, but I wouldn't argue too strongly against it if you're interested, either.

August 25, 2013

BOOKS: The View From Penthouse B, Elinor Lipman (2013)

The thing that always strikes me about Lipman, and the reason I so enjoy her books, is that she is kind to her characters; she likes them all, and is willing to see the good in them, even when they've done bad things.

Our central characters here are sisters Gwen-Laura and Margot, each unexpectedly single. Gwen's husband died a year ago, and Margot's marriage ended in divorce after the scandalous trial of her husband, a fertility doctor who sometimes saw to his patients' inseminations a bit more personally than was appropriate. Margot got the penthouse in the divorce, but neither sister has a job, so Gwen is happy to accept Margot's invitation to move in. That doesn't help to pay the bills, of course, so they take in a third boarder, the dashing young Anthony.

The novel isn't plot-heavy in the traditional sense. A lot happens, but it doesn't feel particularly organized towards reaching a climactic moment; it's a more casual narrative of the ordinary things that happen to the sisters and the group of friends and family that forms around them. Gwen takes her first steps into dating; Margot tries to cope when her husband is paroled; Anthony's assorted boyfriends pop in and out.

It's all told with great charm and wit, and even the paroled ex-husband is allowed to be more than just a cartoon villain. It's a novel about the courage to continue after a crushing blow; the strength to support your loved ones (and to accept their support); and the importance of family, whether it's born or chosen. It is both deeply human and intensely humane, and I enjoyed it immensely.

MOVIES: Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

What a horrid mess this is.

It's 2154, and Earth is so badly polluted and unpleasant that the rich folks have fled to Elysium, a space station orbiting the planet. On Elysium, there are manicured lawns and swimming pools; most important, there are medical pods, high-tech gizmos capable of diagnosing and curing any illness or injury in about a minute.

Down on Earth, meanwhile, the poor live in slums and scrape out a living doing hard labor in factories. One such worker, Max (Matt Damon), gets zapped by a heavy dose of radiation that will kill him in days if he can't find a way to get to Elysium and into a med pod.

The planet is guarded by Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), whose hard line stance on illegal immigrants -- she believes in shooting their shuttles out of the sky -- puts her in conflict with the more moderate President Patel (Faran Tahir).

So Max needs to get to Elysium, Delacourt wants to depose Patel (with the help of William Fichtner's Carlyle, a man so evil he literally orders people not to breathe in his direction), and the two are inevitably headed for conflict.

Alyssa Rosenberg has already done a fine job of tearing apart the confusion of the movie's health care dichotomy, but even if you toss that issue aside, Elysium just isn't very interesting. None of the characters have enough depth to be convincing, even by summer blockbuster standards, and Foster has chosen a bizarre accent that seems to be an indecipherable mix of French, South African, and Upper-Class Snob. The action sequences aren't exciting; Damon and the obligatory love interest (Alice Braga) have no chemistry; and the use of a sick child to generate pathos is the cheapest sort of emotional manipulation.

Entirely skippable.

August 24, 2013

MOVIES: In a World... (Lake Bell, 2013)

Writer-director Lake Bell also stars as Carol, a voice actress who ekes out a living giving accent lessons and doing the occasional commercial; her dream is to break into the world of movie trailers, where women are very rarely hired. Among her chief rivals is her father, Sam (Fred Melamed), a legend in the business.

This is an entertaining look into an obscure corner of show business, and Bell's screenplay is charming and funny. She's also a very likable and charismatic leading lady, and she's done a fine job of surrounding herself with talented actors. Chief among them is Melamed, who is (as he demonstrated in the Coens' A Serious Man) a master of using serenity and calm as a form of passive-aggression attack. There's also fine work from Ken Marino as another voice actor, Demetri Martin as the co-worker with a longstanding crush on Carol, and Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry as Carol's sister and brother-in-law. (And Eva Longoria displays a nice sense of humor in a cameo appearance as herself.)

The romantic subplots for Bell and Martin, and Watkins and Corddry, do drag a bit, and are far less involving than the stuff set in the voice industry, but that central story is so involving and fascinating that the romance doesn't get in the way too badly.

I hesitate to say this, for fear that it will make the movie sound like a political polemic, but this is a seriously feminist movie about the importance, both literal and figurative, of women finding their voices. But rather than the angry screed that might suggest, In a World... is a lively movie that skillfully makes its political points in a delightful way.

MOVIES: The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013)

A surprisingly fresh take on the last-year-of-high-school romance that deftly avoids virtually all of the cliches of the genre.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is a cocky boy who lacks ambition and is well on his way to a life of dissolute alcoholism; you can already see the puffiness settling on his face. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is a smart girl has everything going for her except for self-confidence. (And both are far more interesting and complicated than those rather reductive summaries would suggest.) The relationship between them will, of course, change them both, but not necessarily in the ways or to the degree that you expect.

Both Teller and Woodley are terrific here; it's a particular joy to watch Woodley blossom once she gets some positive attention and encouragement. There are also fine small performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler as Sutter's parents; Chandler gets to play a less noble father figure than we're used to from him, and he handles it nicely.

Absolutely delightful movie, and proof that there's always a new and interesting way to handle familiar material.

August 07, 2013

MOVIES: the catching up concludes

And to finish getting caught up, quick thoughts on a couple of titles:

Morgan Neville's 20 Feet From Stardom is a delightful documentary about backup singers, focusing primarily on four women who have spent most of their lives in the background. Some of them have taken shots at stardom themselves, but fate and circumstance never gave them the big break they needed. I could have done without a few moments where some of the other talking heads in the movie stretch a little hard in trying to tie their fates to broader issues of racism and sexism, and the movie isn't terribly innovative in style, being mostly a series of talking-head interviews.

But the music is spectacular, and there's a scene late in the movie where Lisa Fischer, singing in 4-part harmony with herself, does a slightly popped-up version of Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night" that had my jaw on the floor.

And Despicable Me 2 is a very entertaining sequel that manages to give the popular minions more to do without letting them entirely take over the show. I might have hoped for a bit more vocal energy from Benjamin Bratt, whose villain falls a bit flat, but aside from that, I liked the movie a lot.

August 06, 2013

MOVIES: Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), having lost everything in the downfall of her Bernie Madoff-esque husband (Alec Baldwin), arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and put her life back together.

Among other things, this is Allen riffing on A Streetcar Named Desire -- fragile woman arrives to stay with working class sister, and clashes with her tough-guy boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) -- but Woody Allen may be the director least suited to a study of American class differences. His attitude towards his working class characters is painfully condescending; poor Cannavale, who I normally like very much, is stuck dese-dem-dose-ing his way through the movie because the accent is a stronger character trait than anything Allen's script provides.

Mostly, though, this is a study of a woman in full-on nervous and emotional collapse. Jasmine has never had to work in life -- she dropped out of college without a degree to get married -- and is utterly at sea when left stranded in the world with no money. She and Ginger aren't close enough for her to get any real emotional support there, and Jasmine, as Allen's surrogate, looks down on Ginger from such a snooty height that it would never occur to her to seek it.

Blanchett's performance has been much praised here, and is an early contender for an Oscar nomination, but it didn't work well for me. It is, to be sure, a performance that displays great technique and precision, but in this case that's a big part of the problem. It's a performance in which you can see the acting as it happens; Blanchett's every choice and character tic are visible. Blanchett is so perfectly and visibly in control that I never found it possible to believe that Jasmine was out of control. It's a performance that desperately needs some sloppiness, some chaos, some sense of unpredictability and surprise, and never has any of those things.

As for the rest of the cast, only Baldwin comes off well, and he's working in very familiar territory for him. Hawkins, who I've always though much overrated, struggles to maintain a consistent accent, and none of those she attempts sound particularly American. Cannavale, Louis CK, and Andrew Dice Clay are buried under so many layers of Allen's contempt that they can't possibly do any decent acting; and Peter Sarsgaard, as Jasmine's potential new beau, is noticably uncomfortable with the tempo and rhythms of Allen's dialogue.

August 05, 2013

MOVIES: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

A remarkably strong first film, based on the true story of Oscar Grant, who was killed by an Oakland transit cop at a train station early on New Year's Day 2009.

Coogler follows Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) through his final day, and it's a very ordinary day. Wake up, squabble with girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), take daughter to pre-school, shop for groceries, flirt with pretty girl at the fish counter, go to Mom's birthday party, drop kid off with her aunt so that you and girlfriend can go out for New Year's Eve. About the only thing that won't feel run-of-the-mill for most viewers is the scene in which Oscar arranges to sell some pot to a friend, and Coogler makes sure to emphasize that Oscar is trying to get out of that part of his life.

And through no fault of Coogler, the very ordinariness of that day makes the movie's first hour a little dull. There's nothing terribly interesting or dramatic to hold our attention; all we have to keep us going is a building sense of dread. (The movie begins with some of the actual cellphone footage shot by other people on the platform, so we know exactly what we're building to.)

Something that is Coogler's fault, though, is the way in which Oscar's daughter is used; her scenes with Oscar are laden with foreboding, and their dialogue often comes across as ironically prophetic. ("Daddy, I'm scared." "Don't worry, baby. I'm gonna be fine" and so on.) There are also a few too many ominous shots of trains entering and leaving stations.

Once the shooting happens, though, the final act of the movie is riveting, largely due to the performance of Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mother; Spencer's grief and pain, and her struggle to maintain her composure while her son is dying in the hospital, are searing.

Not a perfect movie, certainly, but some of the flaws are inherent to the material, and Coogler has done as much as possible to mitigate them. Certainly worth seeing for Jordan's and Spencer's performances, and as a strong debut from Coogler, whose next project will be worth looking for.

August 04, 2013

MOVIES: White House Down (Roland Emmerich, 2013)

White House Down is a dumb popcorn movie, and there's nothing remotely surprising about it -- it is essentially Die Hard in the White House -- but as such things go, it's mostly fun. The supporting cast is better than a movie like this needs (Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke), and Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx play the leads -- respectively, a would-be Secret Service agent and the US President -- with their usual charisma. The movie finds moderately creative ways to get all of the action movie cliches into a movie set almost entirely on the grounds of the White House; we even get a fairly good car chase.

I was bothered by the way the movie uses the character of Tatum's daughter; I get that we need to put someone sympathetic in jeopardy to give Tatum his motivation, but even in that context, watching a kid being beaten and manhandled by grown men yanks me out of the escapist mood. And there was no reason the character needed to be a kid; it just needed to be someone Tatum cared about enough to fight for, and whose respect he needed to earn -- a parent, a wife, a sibling. Make it, for instance, the younger college-educated brother who Tatum thinks has never respected him, and you've got the same story dynamic in a way that doesn't make you cringe when you watch.

MOVIES: Monsters University (Dan Scanlon, 2013)

In which Pixar wastes considerable effort on a remake of Revenge of the Nerds.

Mike and Sully meet as college students (a blatant contradiction of their backstory as estalished in Monsters Inc.), and wind up stuck in the nerdiest frat on campus, with whom they must win a campus competition in order to remain in school.

Monsters University is a pleasant enough movie, but it's not nearly as good as Monsters Inc., and by Pixar standards, it's a disappointment. There was one really terrific sequence, in which Mike and Sully find themselves stranded in the human world; those five minutes could have been the inspiration for a really interesting movie. The punchlines fall flat, and aside from John Goodman and Billy Crystal in the leads, there's not much of interest in the voice acting. Nathan Fillion is probably best of the supporting players, doing a variation on Captain Hammer, his arrogant blowhard from Dr. Horrible.

The short that played before the movie, "The Blue Umbrella," was a bit of goopy sentiment not nearly at the usual level of Pixar shorts. Very meh.

MOVIES: The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013)

Very well acted, albeit formulaic, coming-of-age tale.

Our hero is 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who is being schlepped out to spend the summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend (Steve Carell) at his beach house. The would-be stopdad is an obnoxious schmuck, and Duncan is already dreading the summer. Meeting the summer neighbors doesn't much help -- there's the perpetually tipsy couple (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) who are there for dinner almost every night, and the loud, brassy floozy (Alison Janney) who lives next door with her pretty young daughter (AnnaSophia Robb).

And so Duncan flees to the local rundown water park, where manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who has never quite grown up himself, takes Duncan under his wing, and the relationship between them -- surprise, surprise -- helps both to grow up a little.

Performances are excellent, and Sam Rockwell is the standout. He's been doing remarkable work for years now -- if you haven't seen Moon, go watch it, for heaven's sake -- without ever getting the recognition he deserves, in part because he's too quirky and eccentric a presence to easily fit into any of the usual leading man molds; and while the role he's given to play here is a fairly standard lovably goofy manchild, he brings more nuance and subtlety to it than the script provides.

And the rest of the cast is also strong; everyone gets a moment or two to shine. Liam James, in the lead role, more than holds his own in this group of fine actors; Toni Collette has some particularly fine moments in a campfire scene where she realizes that Carell may not be everything she'd hoped he was.

But all of that fine acting is put to the service of an awfully familiar story -- misfit kid begins to find himself when he becomes the protege of just the right misfit grownup. The movie is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote The Descendants; based on that movie and this one, they don't bring a lot of originality to the table, but they can tell a formulaic story better than most. (They also play small roles as members of the Water Wizz staff.)

Entertaining, and worth seeing for the strength of the cast, but familiar enough that you could easily wait to see it at home rather than rushing out to the theater.