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The Butler (2013)

The Butler #2

by Steve Habrat

It isn’t uncommon for one or two Oscar hopefuls to sneak into movie theaters near the end of the summer, when the aliens have been battled back into space and the superheroes have hung up their capes until next May. It really is a nice change of pace considering that blockbuster fatigue does begin set in by early August. Recently, hype has been slowly building around Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, but for weeks now there has been plenty of talk about director Lee Daniels’ star-studded new picture The Butler, a film that is bound and determined to get some sort of recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Butler is certainly an absorbing drama that digs deeply into a wound on American history, a wound that still hasn’t quite healed up. Based upon the life of Eugene Allen, Daniels’ latest effort is bursting at the seams with performances from a roster of Hollywood who’s who, and one that is carried off into the clouds by the always-fantastic Forest Whitaker, who should probably start ordering a tux right now for Hollywood’s big night. While there is plenty of family melodrama and quiet personal anguish that pierces the heart, Daniels may have missed a shot at the Best Picture and Best Director category due to a few bungled sequences that resemble something you might see on a made-for-TV movie, not something you’d see in an Oscar hopeful.

The Butler begins in 1926, with a young Cecil Gaines witnessing his father (played by David Banner) being gunned down after speaking up about the harassment that his wife (played by Mariah Carey) has been enduring at the hands of the vile cotton plantation owner. The young Cecil, who has been learning how to work the cotton fields, is soon pulled from under the hot Georgia sun brought into the plantation household to learn how to act as a house servant. A few years later, Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) leaves the plantation and ends up landing a job as a butler at the Hotel Excelsior in Washington D.C. After charming a handful of Washington bigwigs, Cecil is contacted by the White House about a job as a butler for the Eisenhower administration. Cecil accepts and quickly becomes a favorite among the White House staff as he silently observers multiple presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (played by James Mardsen), Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (played by John Cusask), and Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman)—and the difficult decisions they are tasked with making. Meanwhile, Cecil’s home life begins to suffer as his wife, Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey), develops a drinking problem and falls into the arms of another man (played by Terrence Howard), his oldest son, Louis (played by David Oyelowo), gets swept up by the Civil Rights Movement, and his youngest son, Charlie (played by Elijah Kelley), gets shipped off to Vietnam.

With so much history to cover, you fear that The Butler’s two hour and ten minute run time may not be quite enough to do it all justice, but Daniels handles a majority of it with ease. Sadly, there are a few years that are reduced to a quick-cut montage of fuzzy stock footage. Some of the more violent stretches are sanitized for a PG-13 audience but there are still a handful of images that manage to haunt (a pair of black men hanging battered and bloodied are a grim warning and the riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination are appropriately angry and raw). One of the most powerful stretches of The Butler is a sequence that finds Cecil preparing a ritzy White House dinner while his son and a handful of his friends march proudly into a diner and request service in the non-colored section. The sequence is superbly edited together and it effectively builds tension in the way it closes itself around the viewer, backing us into a corner as white-hot hate crashes all around. This particular sequence doesn’t mince words but there are a number of scenes that seem defanged. One of the softer moments comes when Cecil’s son Louis is bopping along happily on a bus with his Freedom Rider friends when their bus is suddenly cornered by an enraged group of KKK members. Rather than allowing the action to play out at normal speed, Daniels makes the perplexing decision to bring the violent encounter to a slow-motion halt in an awkward attempt to really underline the fact that these hate-spewing monsters are the very definition of evil. This moment, which should have you holding your breath, comes off like something you’d see in a History Channel documentary rather than a Hollywood movie. I suspect that at normal speed, this scene would have had both black and white viewers covering their mouths in horror.

The Butler

Carefully worked into this historical tour is a melodramatic portrait of a family that is on the verge of coming apart. Cecil is forced to quietly keep his composure as he brings tea right into the Oval Office and face individuals who are fully capable of doing something about the racial tensions ripping America to shreds. Watching Whitaker tackle this role is never short of amazing and the way he allows us to glimpse his heavy heart through his sad eyes is really something special. He’s a frustrated father, an absent husband, and warm face that greets school children with a plate of cookies as they arrive at the White House for a field trip tour. Winfrey, meanwhile, is a huge surprise as Cecil’s bored housewife, who turns to the bottle and another man to fill the empty gap in her life. Winfrey is absolutely on fire in a sequence in which she berates a fatigued Cecil as he tries to get some sleep. Then there is Oyelowo’s Louis, Cecil’s pissed off son who is sickened by the way his people are being treated. He starts out with small protests that earn him a night or two in jail (as well as a pot of hot coffee thrown in his face) only to graduate into the Black Panthers with a grimacing galpal that tells the conflicted young man that she is willing to kill for her people, a statement that forces Louis to look inward and find an alternative way to help African Americans earn equal rights. He’s equally as strong as Whitaker every step of the way.

As far as the rest of the all-star cast goes, they’re somewhat of a mixed bag. Williams is as good as ever in his few scenes as Eisenhower, Mardsen is grossly miscast as the charismatic Kennedy, Schreiber is a ball of energy as Johnson, Cusack is slouched defeat as Nixon, and Rickman is a showy and unbending Reagan. Jane Fonda turns up in a brief appearance as Nancy Reagan, who invites the popular Cecil to a White House dinner that he’d normally be serving. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz offer up strong supporting roles as two other butlers at the White House who become chummy with lovable old Cecil. David Banner’s small but affectionate role as Cecil’s father is impressive and Carey is completely wasted (and barely recognizable) as Cecil’s abused mother. Nelsan Ellis appears in a small role as Martin Luther King Jr., but his presence doesn’t seem to pack the wise wisdom that it so desperately wants. Daniels should have left him to the stock footage that he liberally uses as the film’s guiding track. Overall, The Butler is certainly a handsome film (don’t forget to take in the meticulous sets and period clothing) and one that sets out to encourage every single viewer—whether they are white, black, young, or old—to reflect on the topic of race in America. It certainly does spark a bit of reflection on the issue, but the film is just a bit too innocuous to really shake things up like it wants. However, The Butler is still an entertaining film that features a powerhouse performance from Whitaker.

Grade: B+

Barbarella (1968)

by Steve Habrat

In all the years I have been seeking out and watching cult classics from years past, by far one of the most unusual is Jane Fonda’s kinky 1968 science-fiction film Barbarella. Based on the French comic books by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella certain does look like it stepped out of the pages of steamy pulp in intergalactic go-go boots. Directed by Roger Vadim, Barbarella is a carefree and trippy celebration of Fonda, who was married to Vadim at the time the film was made, and her bare naked body as it flits around sets that look like leftovers from Forbidden Planet. While it is certainly not a film you would seek out for an absorbing story, Barbarella comes up a half-winner due to the alien worlds it sends us off to and the tongue-and-check jibber jabber that is delivered through half-cracked smiles by each and every actor in front of the camera. While there are plenty of moments in this soft-core color explosion to like, there are plenty of moments where the extreme camp and bloodshot misadventures of Barbarella wear thin on the viewer. I certainly found myself struggling to stay on the line cast by Vadim, mostly because the initial thrill of the film’s flamboyant manifestation fades about half-way in and we are left with a goofy piece of pop art struggling to keep its head above the boiling cosmic goo.

In the distant future, sexy space traveler Barbarella (Played by Jane Fonda) is zooming through the galaxy when she receives a transmission from the President of Earth (Played by Claude Dauphin). The President asks Barbarella to travel to the planet of Tau Ceti and retrieve Dr. Durand-Durand (Played by Milo O’Shea), the inventor of a devastating weapon called the Positronic Ray, and return him and the weapon safely to Earth. As it turns out, Earth is now a peaceful place, where weapons are forbidden and sex has a man and woman taking exaltation transfer pills and pressing their palms together. Barbarella accepts the mission and as her adventure plays out, she hooks up with Catchman Mark Hand (Played by Ugo Tognazzi), blind angel Pygar (Played by John Phillip Law), kindly Professor Ping (Played by Marcel Marceau), and the evil Black Queen of Sogo (Played by Anita Pallenberg). Through these encounters, Barbarella is reintroduced to the joys of real sex and also finds herself partnering with resistance leader Dildano (Played by David Hemmings) to topple the Black Queen.

Barbarella is probably best remembered for the opening anti-gravity strip tease performed by the leggy Fonda, who sheds her stuffy spacesuit and bears it all for those who are interested. It is probably the most artfully photographed scene of the entire film as she dangles in her shag-carpeted spaceship. The rest of the film is just bursting with bottled sexuality that is dying to be uncorked. You’ll chuckle at suggestive set pieces and how the film pauses for one outrageous sex scene after another. The funniest is by far Barbarella’s encounter with Catchman Hand, who pulls off a big furry overcoat to reveal an equally hair chest that has him resembling a big drooling bear. The cosmic sex is complimented by a lounge jazz score that seems horrifically out of place and absolutely perfect at the same time. Things really hit a new level of crazy when a villainous character straps Barbarella into a devise called the Excessive Machine that, yes, pleasures you to death (I couldn’t make this up). Despite the heavy sexuality that will have even the most uptight viewer undoing one or two buttons, Barbarella is fairly tame for a film based on an adult comic strip. It walks a fine line between porn spoof and legitimate science fiction adventure that seems desperate to have a bit more depth. My guess is there is some uncharted lore here but Vadim can’t resist pausing for heavy kaleidoscope petting that becomes a bit stale by the time the film hits the hour mark.

And then there is Fonda’s performance, which thrust her into stardom and proved that she can wear the hell out of a pair of tights. Fonda is portrayed as a gee-whiz goofball with a heavy dash of gullibility and innocence in her big bedroom eyes. There are times where I fully believe she wants to burst into laughter, especially when she is attacked by a bunch of flesh-hungry dolls or answers the President’s transmission in her birthday suit, but she keeps it together. Barbarella also has to hold a record for the most costume changes caught on film. Throughout this hour and forty minute adventure, Fonda wears countless revealing getups that expose her unmentionables in some way, shape, or form. As far as the supporting players go, there is John Phillip Law’s Pygar, an eerie statuesque angel who I swear is a robot. Frankly, I thought he was the most bizarre character in all of Barbarella and he really creeped me out, especially when he stares blankly off screen and says an angel is “love.” Marcel Marceau gets kooky as Professor Ping, who slinks around a wasteland called the Labyrinth while munching on flowers. David Hemmings is the high note here as the bumbling Dildano, a resistant fighter who doesn’t appear to be capable of resisting much of anything. Anita Pallenberg is also a marvel as the lesbian Black Queen who is supposed to be evil but sometimes isn’t. She cackles gleefully through her dialogue that has her calling Barbarella her “Pretty, Pretty”. Milo O’Shea also gets to let his villain flag fly as Durand-Durand but he is never as much fun as the Black Queen.

To be honest, I’m sort of at a loss when it comes to truly evaluating Barbarella because the film almost defies criticism. It’s just such a strange film that you almost have to see for yourself to truly understand how anomalous it is. Part of me really enjoyed all the lava lamp kinkiness but part of me was simply appalled by how bad the film is at parts. I found myself impressed with the meretricious cosmic environment even if some look like they were painted on a giant canvas. I had fun with some of the characters while others just rubbed me the wrong way or freaked me out (Pygar is especially weird). As someone who adores cult cinema, it was easy for me to see why Barbarella has earned such a cult following but more often than not, Barbarella was just boring me rather than entertaining me in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Overall, Barbarella is a middling swirl of hallucinatory Technicolor that quickly wears out its welcome. At least Fonda makes for good eye candy.

Grade: C-

Barbarella is available on Blu-ray and DVD.