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The Butler (2013)
Directorial Narcissism Run Amok
I looked forward to watching the Butler. I was anticipating that this "inside" source within the White House would be able to reveal to us some kernel of history previously unknown to me. I was sadly disappointed.
My first clue should have been the fact that it was titled Lee Daniels' the Butler. Silly me had thought that the butler's name was Lee Daniels and that layers of proofreading had failed to notice the extra apostrophe in Daniels and the missing comma before the Butler. I was stunned that the director felt so self-important as to interject himself into the title. I had thought that that practice disappeared with the death of Otto Preminger or Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show. Silly me. It should have alerted me to the self aggrandizing film that was to follow.
My next clue should have been the on-screen statement that this was "inspired" by actual events; not "the following is a true story," or even "based on actual events." So, what I should have expected was a fiction hidden within historical events. A black man's Forest Gump, if you will.
There is much angst floating about the ethers of the Internet about how this movie was robbed: neither Lee Daniels nor Oprah Winfrey were accorded an Academy Award nomination. Neither deserved one. Let me explain why.
In the first place we followed the life of Cecil Gaines through thirty some years of his time in the White House, through the presidencies Eisenhower Bush. During each administration some historic event was highlighted and served as the opportunity for Lee Daniels to tell us how badly black people have been treated in this country. Well, we get that. Black Americans have been treated horrendously in this country and in many places, still are. I don't need a movie telling me that every ten minutes. So the screenplay was less story than an indictment of the sins of white people, interjected in frequency and location with all the appropriateness of pairing a fine Bordeaux with an Oscar Meyer wiener.
The acting was an embarrassment: Robin Williams as Eisenhower? Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson? James Marsden as Kennedy? John Cusack as Nixon? Seriously? I have not seen such poor casting in an awfully long time. I was surprised to find a segment wherein Kennedy connecting with Gaines telling him how he now understand the plight of the black man, borderline sobbing to boot. That he had changed Bobby Kennedy's heart, he had changed Jack Kennedy's heart. Really? I've heard of presidents having kitchen cabinets but this was ridiculous. Similarly, the primary black characters were miscast. Forest Whitaker is one of my all-time favorite actors. But to put him in a role where, without substantial makeup, this 52-year-old man must portray a young thirty-something, is criminal. Same could be said for 37 year-0ld David Oyelowo, cast in the part of a college-age son. Oyelowo is a fine actor with an extremely bright future. This role certainly will not be helpful. Then there is 59-year-old Oprah Winfrey, playing the part of an early 30 something woman when it's clear that she is closer to 60.
There are factual inconsistencies which other posters have pointed out such as Nixon lobbying the White House servants for votes in an area, Washington, D.C. which did not vote for president. Or the inclusion of musical numbers that have not yet been created. That Gaines would have been allowed to hold such a position with a son substantially involved in the Black Panther Party is fantasy.
This movie did not deserve my time which I have lost forever nor does it deserve an award of the status of the Golden Globe or an Oscar. Since you cannot get back the time that you spend watching this textbook case of Hollywood narcissism, move onto something else.
A Common Man (2013)
Watch with understanding eyes
"A terrorist plants several bombs throughout the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka and threatens to detonate them unless prisoners are released."
That's the brief synopsis of this movie. That, and the poster art for this movie would lead you to believe it is an action-packed thriller. It isn't. It is a c-grade movie from Sri Lanka made for the direct-to-DVD, American market. Sri Lanka isn't known for its film industry, at least in the United States. Considering that it isn't a terrible movie. It just isn't the quality American film goers expect when plunking down $4.99 to view it from the local cable company.
I'm not going to discuss the plot except to say --- think Die Hard without the special effects, decent acting, or passable dialog. I selected this because Ben Kingsley and Ben Cross had the leads, surrounded by a cast of Sri Lankan filmmakers and actors. The Sri Lankan film industry is young and the money isn't there to employ the film techniques the U.S. film industry has invented and perfected. So A Common Man gets some forgiveness here. It's a decent attempt to cater to the U.S. market. But most of the U.S. Audience will be disappointed by its overly amateurish feel.
In this first place, as a struggling (read: hopeful) screenwriter, I was not surprised by the formalistic plot. All principal characters, and a few irrelevant ones --- included, no doubt, to create drama and/or a layer of unpredictability --- are introduced during the first thirty minutes. Unfortunately, the middle --- the place where characters are developed, the plot rises to its dramatic peak, and the way out presented --- is largely absent. In very real terms the movie goes from Act I to Act III with a cup of coffee in between.
The dialog was rudimentary. Well, really not very good. One scene that stands out is a discussion between the principal character, played by Academy Award Winner, Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and the tele-journalist, Dilky, played by Numaya Siriwardena, where Dikly is objecting to being used to facilitate the "crime" being perpetrated by Kingsley's character. A young journalist is being given the biggest story of her career and she is prattling on about the morality of it all. To top it off the dubbed dialog suffered from some very serious synchronization issues.
The special effects were ... well ... not special. The camera work was a cross between a hand held wielded by someone with a neurological disorder and a stationary unit that did not permit Ben Cross from moving around apparently, to prevent him from walking out of the shot. The soundtrack was mediocre and frequently played over the actor's lines.
The Sri Lankan actors were somewhat less-skilled than an introductory college theater class. Unfortunately, both Bens (Cross and Kingsley) sowed up, walked through their lines and left. Other reviewers on other sites have trashed these two fine actors for their somnambulistic performances. In reality, that's all that can be expected when two extraordinary actors are placed in the hands or a director who is very much less extraordinary and/or in a film with a paltry budget.
Given all of this I still recommend this film. It is instructive not for the incompetence of the production crew --- for they are hardly that --- but because much can be learned from this early foray into the U.S. market by a foreign film industry in it's, by our standards, infancy.
Recommendation: Watch but, with understanding eyes.
Family of Spies (1990)
Compelling story but, butchered
This is a compelling story that, save a few scenes or series of scenes, was utterly butchered by cost conscious producers.
The acting was politicized. John Walker was portrayed as smarmy and reckless. This is, of course, at odds with the fact that Walker operated a ring of spies. It is difficult to believe that this incredibly narcissistic character --- as portrayed in the movie --- could carry on for eighteen years without getting caught. Similarly, Andrew Lowery as Michael Walker, is an interesting choice in that physically, he looks like the buffoon he portrays. In keeping with the political focus of this movie, Michael Walker had to be portrayed as the simple-minded idiot, rather than an effective operator. Lesley Anne Warren played the alcoholic who was too weak to stand up for herself --- a victim. Barbara Walker was complicit in the activities of her ex-husband even after being divorced for eight years. All are caricatures of a moralistic political film --- spies who hurt us are narcissistic, incompetent, bumbling, stupid, etc., rather than skilled operators acting in their own interests.
The sets --- especially the poorly fabricated one in the submarine control room were stereotypical. If submarines had that much room they'd be a club med.
However, Director, Stephen Gyllenhaal did the best with what he had to work with --- the sequence in the Ramada Inn as Walker sensed the FBI was closing in on him was exceptional. The tension was exquisite.
This story needs to be re-made a la Breach.
Hunt for the I-5 Killer (2011)
I posted the following on the chat board: "First, I knew this was a Canadian production when all of the police kept referring to "The I-5". All federal interstates are referred to by their number preceded by I, i.e. I-5, I-40, I-84, etc. Second, learn something about our laws ESPECIALLY when it is made for broadcast in the States. Example A -- We cannot tell someone not to leave town (as the Beaverton PD detective) unless they are under arrest. Example B -- for someone on probation it is not necessary to get a warrant for a search: someone released on probation in Oregon consents to searches as a condition of release. Example C -- Woodfield was a sex-offender. The fact that he violated probation by changing residence without the permission of his probation officer would have resulted in his arrest and detention without bail. Third, learn about police and legal procedure in the States. Example A -- no judge is his/her right mind would call a probation violation committed by a sex offender as a technicality. Example B -- little Beth would not have been given the run of the police department unless all the other detectives were willing to risk their cases over chain-of-custody issues." What can I say? This was drivel. In addition to my comments above, I found the dialogue to be unnatural and self-serving: they used it to create "drama". They failed. People don't talk like that. The acting was terrible. John Corbett ran around like an emotional basket case, flying off the handle at every opportunity. If the real Dave Komenic had been that way it would be difficult to see how he made it through twenty-eight years without getting canned. If you can't create drama through dialogue have the actors run around being emotional. Sara Canning had no subtlety at all. Granted, this was one of her early gigs but, the director should have ordered up several takes and given her some "direction" to get it right. Tygh Runyan seems to think that serial killers are glib and arrogant to the police. Arrogant, probably. But serial killers get away with these crimes by being able to act innocent --- they are sophisticated con men, great actors. Runyan apparently didn't learn this in acting class.
Don't waste two hours you'll never get back on this drivel.
Little People, Big World (2006)
I am a disabled rights activist that loves to see people with disabilities (PWD's) portrayed realistically. This doesn't do that. Watching this show taught me that PWD's don't work real jobs yet have the money to develop their property, take very fabulous vacations, afford private school educations for their kids, own more vehicles than they have family members; spend lavishly on childish things (the town); don't plan well (everything Matt does); make business decisions on a whim (the wedding farm); whine about going bankrupt (Matt); whine about their kids not doing anything for the business that they did not chose (Matt); whine about Matt spending too much money without doing anything to stop him (Amy); constantly throw temper tantrums (Amy); take terrible risks with the safety of themselves or others (the trebuchet, DWI); have a lot of friends with disabilities who never seem to visit them after season three; who have children who don't curse, smoke, drink, have sex in the barn, take drugs, fight; never encounter any architectural barrier; etc. Good little Christian little people with darling children.
Is this pandering to how the able-bodied population wishes to see PWD's? Probably.
I cringe every time I watch this show. I watch because I hope it will change. It hasn't; it won't.
Right story, wrong audience
This was difficult to watch. It was, I believe, intended for outsiders. Unfortunately, only insiders would know the players without a score card. Not many casual viewers would have known that "Tim" was Tim Geithner; "Hank" was Hank Paulson, etc. Only Dick Fuld was identified and had I not read something about the period I would not have known who was being portrayed.
It was also a great story told very poorly. There was a brief voiced-over introduction by an irrelevant character but, nothing nearly in depth enough to initiate the casual observer as to the historic nature of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. In fact, we enter the story well into the crisis. Again, insiders would not have cared but, the casual observer, the people who need to watch this, would not have understood the references to Bear Sterns, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac without some introduction or "ramping up" to tie the threads together and put the event into perspective. As such, without the before (Bear Sterns, Fannie and Freddie) and the after (AIG, Wachovia, Morgan Stanley), the story is about one rich dude with a bad attitude trying to get a number of "suits" to help him out of a jam. In actuality, it was a serious event the full implications of which we will not know for many years. The fact that 47 percent of Americans think the Republicans would do a better job of running the economy indicates how little about the causes of this crisis main street really understands; they are ready to give the keys to the car back to the guys who ruined it in the first place.
All in all --- important story directed at the wrong audience.
What a waste of time
The plot was typical disaster fair --- change a few words and you have the Posiden Adventure ... the specials were garbage ... I noticed a lot of people able to stay on their feet while running through the "quake". Having been through lesser quakes I marvel at their balance and agility. A lot of well known actors (Dule Hill, David Cubitt, Beau Bridges) must of been starving to consider appearing in this one. Kim Delany apparently wasn't over her dismissal from CSI: Miami. I expected her to forcefully yell 'evidence' every few minutes. She never had a handle on the scientific terms --- never sounded as though he understood enough science to convince me that she was a gifted geologist. Another pretty-woman-in-peril-threatened-by-Catastrophe movie. I gave it a "1" because it was the lowest I could go.