Archive for the ‘The Butler (2013)’ Category

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Distributor: Starz / Anchor Bay

Release Date: 14/Jan/2014

Region: Region A

Length: 132 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 French Dolby Digital

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: Notes: Includes a DVD and UltraViolet. The DVD is available as a separate release.

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It would seem that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a critical success. A quick glance at the film’s Rotten Tomato rating shows that the film received positive reviews from %73 of the critics. However, most of these “positive” reviews are walking on eggshells. Almost all of them discuss some major problems with the film and leave the impression that the critic was disappointed with the overall result. It is evident that these critics did not want to publicly denounce a film that had such good intentions.

These veiled criticisms are warranted and the issues discussed at times overwhelm the film’s positive aspects.

Peter Travers barely veiled his criticisms. His true opinion about the film is unleashed in the opening paragraph. His attempt to redeem his criticism is feeble:

“There’s no denying the stumbles that mar this alternately riveting and risible historical epic (big stars in bad makeup doing cameos as American presidents – yikes!). Yet Lee Daniels’ The Butler holds you, provokes you and ultimately moves you…” (Rolling Stone, August 15, 2013)

Scott Foundas was also among the critics that tried to sneak criticism in through the back door. In the end, these criticisms make so much noise that it is difficult to notice his praise:

“…Where Forrest Gump kept its parade of historical personages restricted to real archival footage, however, The Butler nearly capsizes in the first hour under a flotilla of special-guest-star presidents and first ladies who seem imported directly from Madame Tussauds. Given Daniels’ background as a casting director and the savvy stunt casting he’s done in the past, it’s stunning how off most of the calculations are here, from Robin Williams’ embalmed Eisenhower to Alan Rickman’s ghoulishly overacted Reagan. And while Strong has written a sly, funny scene in which then-vice president Nixon panders for votes among the kitchen staff, John Cusack is so un-Nixonian in the role that the whole thing feels like a put-on. (Tyler Perry would have been preferable.) Liev Schreiber and James Marsden fare better as LBJ and JFK, respectively, even if their scenes never quite transcend a certain mechanical, Illustrated Classics feel. Amazingly, the film omits one of the juiciest anecdotes from Haygood’s article, in which JFK blanches at the sight of Sammy Davis Jr. arriving for an official White House soiree with his white wife May Britt on his arm.

Only Whitaker and his stoic, sentry-like presence keep things from turning completely corny… In her first live-action dramatic role since 1998’s Beloved, Oprah Winfrey makes the most of her few scenes as Cecil’s dutiful wife, Gloria, though she isn’t given much to work with, and the [film’s] efforts to manufacture some third-act marital strife feels plastered on for cheap dramatic effect. Meanwhile, whatever seismic historical events don’t pass under Gaines’ nose at work turn up in his living room like clockwork, thanks to one son, Charlie (Elijah Kelly), who goes off to Vietnam, and another, Louis (David Oyelowo), who devotes himself to the civil-rights struggle

The Butler is being sold with the ad line “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” and the movie strives to suggest that, by sheer, steady force of presence, Gaines — and men and women like him — managed to have a significant impact on race relations in America. But in dramatic terms, it never quite makes the case. Gaines’ voice is so quiet that it takes him until the 1980s to make a stand for equal pay for blacks on the White House staff — a moment Daniels treats as a watershed, but which seems more like a sad reflection on the slow crawl of racial progress at the seat of government…

…There’s no denying, though, that Daniels knows how to push an audience’s buttons, and as crudely obvious as The Butler can be — whether juxtaposing a Woolworth’s lunch-counter protest with a formal White House dinner, or showing a character keeling over at the breakfast table with oxygen tank attached — it’s also genuinely rousing. By the end, it’s hard not to feel moved, if also more than a bit manhandled…” (Variety, August 8, 2013)

Rafer Guzman seemed to echo other reviews, but seemed to mask his criticism better than many of the other critics:

“…But the movie is marred by too many simplistic notions. The American presidents are mostly op-ed cartoons — John Cusack’s loutish Nixon, Liev Schreiber’s hard-charging LBJ — and they have an annoying habit of begging Cecil for major policy advice. One glaring omission is Jimmy Carter, who as a white Southerner of roughly Cecil’s generation might have made for fascinating, if fictional, dialogue…

The Butler is often so good and so powerful (Rodrigo Leão’s aching score helps) that the pat moments feel even more disappointing. It’s another eyewitness-to-history movie that wraps America’s messy past in a too-tidy package.” (Newsday, August 16, 2013)

Kenneth Turan was among the few brave critics who voiced his opinion without marinating his criticism in polite praise. In the end, Turan found the same faults that other critics found:

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is neither as good as it might have been nor as bad as survivors of The Paperboy may have feared. An ambitious and overdue attempt to create a Hollywood-style epic around the experience of black Americans in general and the civil rights movement in particular; it undercuts itself by hitting its points squarely on the nose with a 9-pound hammer…

Strongly acted by a cast top-lined by Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, “The Butler” has its share of strong dramatic moments in a story inspired by the real-life career of a White House employee who served eight presidential administrations for a total of 34 years from 1952 to 1986…

…Getting involved in this kind of general audience material is something new for the director, a lover of excess (Precious as well as The Paperboy) who candidly commented in publicity material: “As a filmmaker I really had to restrain myself. It’s hard to do a PG-13 movie being Lee Daniels.”

Though that rating imposes some constraints, the director’s contempt for subtlety, weakness for cliché and perennial determination to wring every last drop of emotion out of a situation are inevitably factors here.

Nevertheless, The Butler reveals Daniels’ ability to create believable black middle class situations that are so hard to come by on mainstream screens. (It took the combined efforts of close to 40 different producers to finally make this film a reality.)

But paralleling this gift, and hampering The Butler, is Daniels’ tin ear when it comes to white folks, individuals who do not have a fraction of the recognizable humanity of the black characters even in the rare moments when they’re not being racists or morons or both.

Five name actors, from Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower through Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, play presidents Cecil Gaines served and not one of them is remotely believable. Movie audiences who’ve suffered for decades with unrealistic portrayals of African Americans and Native Americans in multi-racial pictures are now being asked to do the same with Caucasians…

…When it comes to how Cecil and all those presidents interact, The Butler does not achieve a similar realism. Whenever a president needs a sympathetic ear, or a presidential child like young Caroline Kennedy is in search of a patient reader, Cecil manages to be magically around.

Where The Butler really starts to give off mixed messages is when Cecil’s son Louis comes of age…

The Butler turns poor Louis into a kind of African American Zelig, present at every key civil rights era turning point. That’s Louis sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, getting fire-bombed on a Freedom Rider bus, getting assaulted by a fire hose in Birmingham, being with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis just before he died, donning a beret and becoming a Black Panther as Carol’s hair morphs into an Angela Davis afro.

It’s not that all this stuff didn’t happen (see Stanley Nelson’s excellent Emmy-winning doc “Freedom Riders” to get the full story), but it strains credulity to have it all happen to one person, and all in the context of a strained father-son relationship.

Daniels’ pulp instincts do lead to vivid sequences such as the intercutting of a White House dinner with that Woolworth sit-in, but this is one significant film where less would have been a whole lot more.”  (Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2013)

This reviewer is in agreement with all of these criticisms, but there is one issue that stands alone as the film’s Achilles heel. It is a lack of subtlety in both the script and the direction that keep the film from ultimately achieving the film’s admirable intentions. One wishes that both Strong and Daniels trusted their audience enough to allow for subtext. What might have been an honest look at the civil rights movement is turned into a gimmicky film that relies too much on uneven melodrama and story clichés that have been seen in films many times before. The film has a number of strong moments, but it is ultimately an enjoyable disappointment.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 Stars

The Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case with reasonably attractive artwork and case is housed in a slipcover with the same cover artwork.

cover (front and back)

The animated menus employ footage from the film supported by Rodrigo Leão’s score.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

Anchor Bay’s 1080P transfer isn’t perfect, but certainly has its strengths. The overall look of the film is rather soft (this seems to be a aesthetic choice and not a problem with the actual transfer), but the image showcases adequate detail. The disc’s weakness seems to be in clarity, although certain shots seem to be beautifully defined.  Black levels and colors seem to be accurately rendered and there isn’t any troubling DNR or aliasing to speak of. One feels that the disc certainly represents the film as it was seen in theaters and should not disappoint fans of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 Stars

The included 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is perhaps not as active as many filmgoers have come to expect from modern films, but this mix accurately represents this dialogue heavy film. There is adequate dynamic range and the sounds seem to be subtly distributed in a manner that is not distracting, but will immerse the audience into the world of the film. The score benefits from both the lossless transfer and the mix and serves the film admirably. There is nothing here to complain about.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 Stars

Lee Daniels’ The Butler: An American Story – (22:04) – (HD)

One prefers a “making of” documentary to be more comprehensive and to inform audiences about the making of the film. More often, they simply feature cast and crew members discussing the film and praising the other participants. While this piece features some ‘behind the scenes’ footage, there is very little substance found in this featurette. It plays like an extended EPK.

The Original Freedom Riders – (3:52) – (HD)

This featurette might have been an amazing documentary. The participants in this piece actually were freedom riders and discuss the experience. It is extremely interesting, it is simply too short and does not provide viewers with enough information. This is a shame, because it might have been worth the price of the disc.

Deleted Scenes – (HD) – (21:07)

The best supplement on the disk is this gallery of deleted scenes. All of these scenes were wisely omitted, but fans will find it interesting to view what didn’t make the cut.

Gag Reel – (HD) – (5:12)

The disc includes over five minutes of bloopers. These are only mildly amusing but remain interesting.

“You and I Ain’t Nothin’ No More” Music Video by Lenny Kravitz and Gladys Knight – (HD) – (2:22)

This short video includes footage from the film and from the recording sessions for the mentioned song.

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Final Words:

Lee Daniels’  The Butler is a film worth seeing. Whether it warrants a purchase or a rental will depend on the individual.

Review by: Devon Powell