Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Oprah. Five presidents played by everyone from Severus Snape to Mrs. Doubtfire. Every major Civil Rights group in history. Terrence Howard trying to have an affair with Oprah. A 90-year time span. There’s so much going on in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” that it shouldn’t work, but to figure out why it does, look no further than its title.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is not just the film’s titular character but its heart. The son of a Georgia sharecropper, he eventually becomes a White House butler, serving for seven presidents (five of whom are depicted in the film) throughout one of the most cataclysmic periods in America. It could be easy for Cecil to be a symbol, but Whitaker ensures that despite the tumult of history Cecil is grounded in his humanity. The mere slackening of Whitaker’s shoulders or worry in his brow says so much more of Cecil’s internal struggle of working at a racist White House than a line could. The film is often contrived and heavy-handed, but Whitaker is always understated and therefore the most sympathetic and powerful character on screen.

However, Lee Daniels doesn’t miss any opportunity to discuss the Civil Rights movement in all of its fervor. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is the poster boy for the movement by participating in almost every element of it: riding the bus with the Freedom Riders, hanging out with Martin Luther King, Jr., becoming a Black Panther and eventually a politician. This is the part of the film that gets weighed down by its own significance. Yet the juxtaposition of Louis’ active struggle for freedom with Cecil’s calm servitude is striking.

Despite the dramatic tone of the film, the presidents add some humor, whether intentional or not. John Cusack twitches like his prosthetic nose doesn’t fit him quite right and plays the smarmy, paranoid Nixon like a caricature. If possible, Liev Schreiber’s farcically crude LBJ is even worse. Schreiber’s accent flips between thick Texan drawl and his natural California clip, as if he thought his role was small enough he didn’t need to bother mastering it. Even though James Marsden and Alan Rickman make a fairly good Kennedy and Reagan respectively, they are overshadowed by others who took their cameo too literally.

Even with all of its flaws, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is grounded by its characters, who remind us that behind every institution and movement is a person just trying to get by. Oh, and Oprah was surprisingly great.

Review: Blue Jasmine

I reviewed “Blue Jasmine” for Vox Magazine. You can read my review on its website or below:

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It would be easy to hate the titular character of Woody Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine.” Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a former member of the one percent who flippantly flings around her wealth like her Birkin bag. When she isn’t going on a narcissistic rant, she verbally attacks the only people who still support her. She is selfish, spiteful and entitled. Yet, Allen manages to make her sympathetic while making one of his best films in the process.

Still reeling from her financial ruin and mental breakdown after her husband (Alec Baldwin) was caught for crooked finance, Jasmine arrives at her estranged sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) apartment in San Francisco. She doesn’t know how to get a job and frequently talks to herself when she isn’t popping Xanax. Despite Jasmine’s dire circumstances, she doesn’t miss any opportunity to belittle Ginger and her rough and tumble boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale).

Unlike most Allen films, there are no rich people in “Blue Jasmine.” Yes, Jasmine used to own a Manhattan apartment and two beach houses, but she is as broke as her sister who works at the supermarket now. This is a rare Allen film that acknowledges class division but with a sense of humor instead of condescension. It helps that Allen casts comedians such as Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. as two former lovers of Ginger’s, bringing a sense of levity to a film about one woman’s personal crisis.

Jasmine is the perfect anti-heroine in this age when Wall Street bankers are the villains. Blanchett plays with her abandon and dares to show all facets of her character from the most vulnerable to the repulsive. Even at her most unlikable, Jasmine is one of the most complex female protagonists in film today and is surprisingly sympathetic.

“Blue Jasmine” doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen film. He is intentionally absent from the screen, and the dialogue is far less self-indulgently anxious than usual. But in some respects, this is a quintessential Allen film and why he’s considered one of the greats — it’s about humans at their most fragile and neurotic when only humor and brutal honesty can save them.

Review: The Kings of Summer

mov_the-kings-of-summer_130409The bizarre camaraderie between teenage boys has always been mythologized in American cinema. In that magical age from 12 to 16, everyone from the class clown to the rebel without a cause find each other and form a special misfit gang. In a few years, they won’t even be friends but for a special summer or two they form holy bonds as they traipse through the woods in search of missing boys, make Super 8 films or play on the little league team. Like a Greek comedy or tragedy (depending on the film), the cast of characters and their story is always the same but the connection to them is still universal and eternal.

“The Kings of Summer” is another boys adventure film, but one that recognizes all it owes to its genre to epic effect. Like a modern day Ferris Bueller, Joe (Nick Robinson) is charismatic and take-charge to the point of arrogance. He helps break his more sensitive Cameron-like friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) out of his shell but sometimes pushes too hard. Desperate to escape their overbearing parents, Joe, Patrick and an idiosyncratic Teddy DuChamp-esque character named Biaggio (Moises Arias) take to the woods to live off the land. With a dash of Thoreau (complete with the hypocrisy of occasionally going into town for resources) and The Swiss Family Robinson, the three boys attempt to become their own men. Yet as they learn, escaping responsibility and hardship is the opposite of manhood.

Like its grandiose title, everything in “The Kings of Summer” is amplified. The hyper-stylized, slow motion cinematography as the friends have their “boys will be boys” moments puts everything in a larger than life context. Yet the script is just charmingly oddball enough to bring it back down to Earth. Arias is a non sequitur personified with his deadpan one liners and skittish physical presence. Biaggio helps to diffuse some of Joe’s overly clever persona and is one of the sincerest characters despite his eccentricities.

However, the best part of “The Kings of Summer” is where it deviates from the formula. In most coming-of-age films the parents are an unexplained conflict or fodder of cheap jokes, but “The Kings of Summer” won’t let Joe belittle the difficult relationship he has with his father, Frank (Nick Offerman). He is just as much part of the problem as the solution, and Offerman gives us his characteristic sardonic delivery but with more heart.

“The Kings of Summer” manages to smartly straddle the line between being an over-the-top mashup of the best in its genre and boiling down to the essence of these films: friendship is a stronger bond than blood, freedom cannot be taken but must be given, and manhood needs to be earned.

Review: The To Do List

I reviewed “The To Do List” for Vox Magazine. You can read my review there or below:

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To do list for raunchy teen comedy: Take one over-educated but under-experienced nerd. Give nerd two edgy friends who encourage nerd to get into trouble. Add in one long, hot summer, complete with a bad summer job, to inspire shenanigans. Throw in Christoper Mintz-Plasse for some awkward humor. Set film during an ironically hilarious decade such as the ’80s or ’90s for no apparent reason. Cast Jonah Hill or Michael Cera, and you have a guaranteed hit.

Ever since “Superbad”, the teen sex comedy has become a genre in its own right, but it usually focuses on the fledgling sexuality of teenage boys, as if the girls who get them off don’t deserve to get off, too. “The To Do List” follows the formula but with one notable twist, a girl, Aubrey Plaza, is the one looking for a good time.

Plaza plays Brandy Klark — high school valedictorian and virgin. Determined to figure out the sex learning curve before she heads to college, she creates a to do list of all the extracurricular activities she missed out on. She practices on various high school classmates, who, fortunately for the audience, happen to be famous comedians such as Donald Glover and Andy Samberg.

But this isn’t about the men, “The To Do List” is a feminist sex comedy. Brandy is more interested in getting into someone’s pants than romance. In an interesting role reversal, it’s actually Brandy’s male friend, Cameron (Johnny Simmons), who falls for her. In the end, though, none of the boys matter more than Brandy’s friends, Wendy (an enthusiastic Sarah Steele) and Fiona (the sassy Alia Shawkat). This isn’t about making female sexuality the butt of the joke. It’s about empowerment.

Politics aside, though, “The To Do List” is choke-on-your-popcorn funny. Plaza uses her signature deadpan humor well, especially in contrast to the more over-the-top comedians such as Bill Hader (her deadbeat boss) and Rachel Bilson (her catty sister). Director Maggie Carey grew up in the ’90s, so the film is set in ’93 and uses the timing wisely by referencing everything from skorts to grunge. The nostalgic setting combined with modern feminism is its cleverest ploy.

It would be easy to dismiss “The To Do List” as another ridiculous teen sex comedy, but it’s a rare film that portrays female sexuality in a positive light, and for that it’s better than the formula it follows.

Review: We’re the Millers

I reviewed “We’re the Millers” for Vox this week. You can read my review on its site or below:

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The funniest part of “We’re the Millers” is the gag reel at the end. The actors can finally break out of character and the cliched script. Unfortunately, it comes too late, and the audience realizes the movie could’ve been so much better if its actors were left to their own devices not the hackneyed jokes they got instead.

The premise of “We’re the Millers” is so ridiculous that it just might work. David (Jason Sudeikis) is a low-level pot dealer who loses his stash. To repay his boss, he must move a huge shipment of pot from Mexico. Going from dime-bag dealer to mule is a rough transition, so David creates a fake family to get past the border. Like a deranged reality show cast, the Millers are made up of stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston), teenage runaway Casey (Emma Roberts) and David’s overly innocent teen neighbor, Kenny (Will Poulter). What follows is the typical road trip gone rogue plot: double crossing drug dealers, nosy vacation friends and a disgusting penis gag with halfhearted one liners throughout.

The Millers themselves are the best part of the gag. Sudeikis says every line with a snark that lets on that even he knows he is too good for this film. He and Aniston have an excellent bickering chemistry. Her famous striptease scene is played for laughs, not raunchiness, and for once, it’s easy to say that Aniston is perfectly cast.

Their kids are a weaker link, however. Although they add well to the awkward family set up, their characters are too flatly written to be engaging on their own, and the actors don’t have the comedic chops to improve them. The best parts of the film are when the Millers mock their family dynamic, but this predictably detours to them turning into a real family.

Just like the Millers might look like a real family but aren’t a convincing in reality, “We’re the Millers” is only a lackluster comedy that could’ve been great had it let its actors out of the confines of a stale script.

Review: The Way, Way Back

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“The Way, Way Back” wants to be too many things. It’s the tenderhearted coming-of-age story in which an awkward, lonely boy finally makes friends who see him for who he really is. It’s the dysfunctional family drama where everyone but the mother realizes her boyfriend is bad news. It’s the nostalgic theme park comedy with a bunch of aging Peter Pans pretending their lives aren’t lame. But it never quite works and reminds you of the better films it’s pulling from.

Introverted Duncan (Liam James) is dragged on his mother’s (Toni Collette) summer vacation with her arrogant new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his petulant daughter. The Massachusetts beach is like spring break for parents as Duncan watches the adults drink and flirt the nights away, but Trent still finds time to criticize Duncan. He seeks refuge at the rundown local water park, Water Wizz, where he gets a job and befriends the charismatic manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell.) Like a watered down “Adventureland,” Duncan finally feels like he belongs amidst the group of quirky characters.

The flaws of “The Way, Way Back” can be traced to its three main actors. Duncan is meant to be socially awkward, but James takes his role too literally and mostly seems like he can’t act. As if to compensate, Rockwell is overly charming and incapable of saying anything other than a one-liner like a knockoff of Bill Murray in “Meatballs.” It’s amusing but makes his character flat and consequently, the deeper bonding moments he has with Duncan seem contrived. However, if anyone should worry about his career, it’s Carell. He’s become almost too good at playing an asshole. Trent is a one-note bully with absolutely no justification for why he’s so ruthlessly mean to Duncan. Even worse, Collette’s character inexplicably lets Trent walk all over her and her family. Without the back story on any of these characters, it’s hard to understand their plights and even harder to sympathize.

As always, Allison Janney is a saving grace as the inappropriate neighbor who boozes her way through the summer. Weirdly enough, her “kooky best friend” role is more developed than anyone else. She’s more than just cheap jokes because we actually understand why she’s using humor to cope. If only writers and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash had written all their characters this strong.

That’s not to say that “The Way, Way Back” isn’t entertaining because it will certainly make you laugh for a few hours, but like a ride down a water slide — it’s fun but ultimately not fulfilling.

Review: The Heat

the-heat-5Recipe for Hollywood buddy cop movie:

– Add one uptight, know-it-all FBI agent (Sandra Bullock.)

-Dump in a brash, rough cop (Melissa McCarthy.)

-Mix, but do not expect ingredients to blend well.

-Pour in alcohol, and they become best friends. They start kicking ass and taking names, literally.

-Sprinkle in a fight to add some spice to their new friendship.

-Crack in an injury to remind them how much they love and respect each other.

-Pepper with a some great one-liners.

-Add a dash of slapstick comedy.

-Bake for 2 hours and get a tasty but predictable comedy.

This didn’t ruin the plot of “The Heat” for you because you’ve seen this movie before. Whether the agents in question are Tom Hanks and a large dog or two Beverly Hills cops and Eddie Murphy, this movie is about as original as the butter on your movie theater popcorn.

But you’ve never seen this film before with two female leads. Yes, it’s sad but true that it took Hollywood until 2013 to realize that women can helm an action comedy not about dating or weddings, and that they can do it just as well, if not better, than men.

“The Heat” works because McCarthy is willing to push not just genre limitations but crass humor to the point where you might choke on your popcorn. It’s evident she got her start in improv because her rule seems to be “go all out and wait for someone else to rein me in,” and fortunately, director Paul Feig (also behind “Bridesmaids,” let’s have him direct everything) has a very loose grip. Whether its sexual innuendo or chasing perps down with her junker, she adds a spontaneity and edge to an otherwise hackneyed genre. Unfortunately, she also frequently overshadows Bullock, who is a decent comedian in her own right but not nearly as wild as McCarthy. However, without Bullock to balance her craziness, McCarthy might be overbearing.

“The Heat” seems to mark a golden age for McCarthy, and though she does deserve all of the praise she gets, future directors need to be prudent. McCarthy, who has made her reputation by playing over-the-top characters, is dangerously close to becoming just another a celebrity comedian who always plays some version of herself. Shannon, her character in this film, has a back story and specific quirks, but she mostly feels like McCarthy doing her schtick. If you like McCarthy’s signature belligerent delivery, this is good news and makes a generic comedy worth watching, but McCarthy needs to make sure she doesn’t get caught up in the over hype.