I know I saw no more 2013 movie blitzes, but I lied. So here’s another one with some high profile flicks.
The Butler (2013)
The natural inclination is to assume that The Butler is the black Forrest Gump — a simple unassuming man who happens to be a bystander in major historical events that shaped the world.
But that’s not really fair. For starters, The Butler is a “true story”, apparently, as it is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a real-life African-American butler who worked for the White House for 34 years. Here he is renamed Cecil Gaines and is played by Forest Whitaker. Secondly, most of the film is focused on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, contrasting Cecil’s desire to just “do his job” at the White House against his son Louis’s (David Oyelowo) active involvement. Thirdly, The Butler is nothing like Forrest Gump in that it is a serious drama almost devoid of humor. And lastly, The Butler stars Oprah!
The film is directed by Lee Daniels, who was at the helm of the award-winning Precious back in 2009. That was a small budget, personal drama, whereas this is an ambitious epic filled with major Hollywood stars, though the general feel of the films are largely similar. In other words, it is engaging, never really dull, but never superior entertainment. And depending on your perspective, you may find it either emotionally satisfying or too obviously manipulative.
I have heard mixed reviews about the film, which reflects my feelings toward it. The performances are brilliant — there is no doubt about that and I don’t think anyone expected anything less with this cast. That said, I found the casting a little bit jarring. With the exception of the little known David Oyelowo, just about everyone else is a recognizable star. You have Mariah Carey playing Cecil’s mother in a small cameo, Terrence Howard as a neighbour, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as co-workers, and a whole bunch of big names playing American presidents — Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marston is JFK, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, and strangely, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan. That doesn’t even include all the other recognisable names such as Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, and so forth. And of course, there’s Oprah, who is an excellent actress but too…Oprah…to avoid being a distraction.
It was interesting watching the historical events unfold, though if you are not American, and in particular African-American, the emotional impact may be less powerful. More importantly, Cecil Gaines was not a particularly charming protagonist — he had his moments, but by and large he was a very muted, restrained man, and anytime he did something out of the ordinary it felt overly sentimental. I’m not saying there wasn’t any subtlety, though the nuances definitely could have been handled better. The relationship that drove the movie, that between father and son, was executed well, but I think the film undercuts itself with too much obviously intentional melodrama that audiences who know what they’re in for will easily see through.
3 stars out of 5
The Counselor (2013)
The Counselor is one of those WTF movies where there are a lot of big names attached and you can’t figure out why. It’s based on an original screenplay by Cormick McCarthy, whose novels have been adapted into solid films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road. It’s directed by the legendary ridley Scott and features an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. But the film — and I have to be honest here — is crap.
Fassbender plays eponymous Counseler, a lawyer of some sort who gets in over his head when he becomes involved in a drug deal with Mexican cartels. The film features a lot of conversations that appeared to have no direct relation to the plot, and they speak in ways that make you feel like there is some big mystery involved when things are actually very straightforward and simple. It is also a film that fancies itself as a bit of an erotic thriller — there is some raunchy pillow talk between Fassbender and his in-film girlfriend Cruz, and Cameron Diaz makes love to a car. Yes, you read that correctly.
It is quite a violent film, though there is really only one scene that made me a little squirmish. People who hate Brad Pitt should love it.
My main problem with this movie is that it tries too hard to create an atmosphere it does not deserve. The makers of the movie talk about things such as greed, primal instincts and dealing with the consequences of our choices, but at the end of the day it’s just about a guy who gets into a drug deal, things go wrong and shit happens. Except not a whole lot actually happens. For all the talking and acting, it is shocking how little action and suspense there is.
So despite the big names and the solid performances, The Counselor has to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. We know Cormick McCarthy can be brilliant, but this is him at his pretentious worst.
1.75 stars out of 5
The Way Way Back (2013)
A film that should have gotten way more buzz than it did. Coming of age films aren’t what they used to be, which is why The Way Way Back is such a refreshing and yet nostalgic breath of fresh air.
Liam James is quite the revelation as 14-year-old Duncan, and awkward, withdrawn and humorless teenager who reluctantly goes on a summer holiday to a small seaside town with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his typical teenage daughter (Steph Ramsey).
Being the way that he is, Duncan naturally hates it there as everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives without him. But then he meets two people who change his life. The first is the pretty older daughter of a neighbour, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who seems to be more intrigued by Duncan’s odd personality than hanging out with other popular girls her age. The second is the manager of the local water park, played by Sam Rockwell, a carefree dude who is full of fun and jokes but appears to be stuck permanently in a state of arrested development.
Before long Duncan begins working at the water park and gets to know a whole host of quirky, oddball characters. While he struggles at home dealing with his family life, he begins coming out of his shell at work where everything seems to flourish for him.
At first glance this is the type of film we all feel like we have seen before, but there is just something about it that works.
My guess starts with the immensely likable characters who all have their own quirks and are believable despite not being developed to perfection. Duncan, to be brutally honest, comes across initially as a potential mass shooting waiting to happen, but then we fall in love with his innocence and naivete. He makes you want to root for him, and that’s very important.
Rockwell is also brilliant as the lovable larrikin, the type of big brother we all wished we had. Even Steve Carell is brilliant playing against type as the douche bag villain who is not necessarily a terrible guy but whose judgmental attitude and selfish motivations we instantly recognize.
Additionally they are a bunch of scene stealing minor characters, from Allison Janney’s talkative neighbour and Toni Collette conflicted mother to Maya Rudolph’s frustrated water park employee. All of them are memorable in their own way.
While there is nothing remarkable about it, The Way Way Back is a delight. It’s sweet, funny, heartfelt and powered by great characters and performances. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of my underrated hits of 2013.
4 stars out of 5
Drinking Buddies (2013)
I heard about Drinking Buddies through word-of-mouth. It’s an indie film with Hollywood stars; an exploration of workplace relationships that relies predominantly on improvised dialogue.
Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, a pretty girl who is mutually attracted to her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) at a Chicago brewery. Unfortunately for both of them, they are each involved in a relationship with someone else. For Kate, it’s a casual boyfriend (Ron Livingston), but for Like, it’s a little more serious with his steady girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).
The strength of Drinking Buddies lies in the performances, which feel very natural (probably because of all the improv), and as a result the relationships also come across as genuine.
It’s an interesting premise, one most of us who have worked closely with others in a group environment can relate to, and in this case everything is accentuated because their inhibitions are lowered by the constant presence of alcohol.
It asks us what the boundaries are in a supposed “platonic” relationship between co-workers. It’s one thing to be attracted to someone, but it’s another when it comes out to acting out forbidden desires. What is the line and what constitutes crossing it?
My main gripe with the film. and the primary reason I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, was that I couldn’t bring myself to like either Kate or Luke, in particular Kate.
Without giving too much away, I was uncomfortable with the way they acted around each other, and, without revealing how far things go, I felt they crossed a lot of lines even early on.
I kept feeling like they kind of deserved each other, but I wasn’t rooting for them to be together because I didn’t care for them. By contrast, I developed much more sympathy for their significant others, even though they arguably crossed more lines than Kate and Luke.
Still, this was a well-made, well-performed drama that tackles some complex and thought-provoking issues. I just wish I liked it more.
2.5 stars out of 5