Monday, August 26, 2013


Rated:  PG-13

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo

Director: Lee Daniels (What was your first clue?)

Genre:  Drama

Witnessing one's father being gunned down in cold blood because he stepped out of line in the white man's world in the pre-civil rights era will have a lasting effect on a child. . For Cecil Gaines, the central character in Lee Daniels' The Butler, it shaped his entire life. And while we could say that Mr. Gaines rose to the top of his profession as a butler at the White House--he was still walking on egg shells in another man's world. Don't express opinions. Especially about politics. Know your place and stay in it.  Ironic, then, that Cecil would have a son who became active in the civil rights movement of the sixties, throwing his lot in with the freedom riders down south, and later joining the militant Black Panther party. 

 The Butler is a tale of two generations as different as black and white. ( And please don't make me insert "Lee Daniels" as a prefix  every time I mention the name of this movie. Does Quentin Tarantino put his name in the title of his films? Let's just name another football stadium after its corporate sponsor and leave it at that.)

 It's a good thing that the character of Cecil  Gaines is a composite, loosely based (and blatantly inaccurate) on the life of Eugene Allen, the man who served eight presidents in the White House from 1952 to 1986. Because Mr. Gaines is not an admirable or likable individual throughout most of this film.  It's not his Uncle Tom attitude. Given the era he came up in, we can allow  him that.  It's his outright hostility and barely concealed resentment toward his son, Louis, who represents everything Dylan was waxing nasally about in "The Times They Are a--Changin."  The boy just seems to have a nose for trouble. Challenging authority and landing his ass in jail. Why ya tryin' to upset the apple cart?  Riding in the back of the bus ain't so bad.

But times change, and people do too. And if you are like me, you'll be rooting for Cecil to come around as well. 

I've felt that Forrest Whitaker was one of our finest actors since seeing him in The Last King of Scotland. He has solidified that opinion here. Oprah Winfrey, as his wife,  does a credible job as a woman starved for attention--seeking it elsewhere because Cecil is up in the big,  I mean White House, doing his thing. And then we have all those cameos by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, Jane Fonda, and Liev Schreiber, representing the various presidents and/or their wives from Eisenhower to Reagan . Going strictly by appearances, some miss the mark,  as Marsden doesn't look much like Kennedy. But Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda absolutely nail Ronald and Nancy Reagan.  Especially Fonda, who has the first lady's mannerisms and walk down pat.  I was expecting to hear "just say no" dribbling mindlessly from her lips at  any moment. The irony of casting some of these Hollywood "pinkos"  as the likes of Richard Nixon and  Ron and Nancy Reagan is not lost on those of us who lived through the era.

And the era is the real star of The Butler. The turbulence of the civil rights struggle is dramatized,  then complemented with actual footage of redneck cops beating up peaceful marchers...the vicious dogs...the high powered water hoses--it's all there to remind those too young to have witnessed it that yes, these things really happened in a place  we called America. At times, however,  the film slips into mawkish stereotypes, as when Louis and his girlfriend sit down to dinner with his parents. Louis never removes his Black Panther beret, and his gal sports an Afro that rises about two feet atop her head. It's all for dramatic,  and rather humorous effect; but I tend to think that a real version of Louis, with everything he's been through, would have the sensitivity to remove his hat at the table. 

We aren't really sure whose side the movie is on until the closing credits, which give credit where credit is due. 

Grade: B+


Nice review, Tim. Well-expressed and thoughtful. But if we had gone to see this flick together and you had called Oprah Winfrey's performance "credible," I would've beaten you over the head with my ticket stub! Credible? She was (blankety-blank-blank) brilliant. Mark my Oscar-predicting words, she's gonna win this year's gold statuette for Best Supporting Actress. Kudos to everyone involved in this movie. But special praise must be given to the editors. The cuts—from a posh White House dinner to a lunch counter sit-in where the protesters are being spat upon—speak visual volumes about that era in history.

As far as the various presidential cameos go, the one of Lyndon Johnson played extremely well by Liev Schreiber is about as unflattering as you can get. No doubt, an accurate portrayal. (I encourage those of you with HBO to catch this actor in "Ray Donovan.")

When the end credits rolled and I tried to stop weeping and sniffling, choking down more tears, the fellow I went to see THE BUTLER with made a comment I agree with. (See, Tim? I do agree with some opinions!) He felt it was slow in the beginning, a bit confusing at that party with the bickering neighbors. Yes, the drunk guy—played with missing front teeth by Terrence Howard—figured into the plot later on. But if I had anything to criticize about this fantastic film, it would be the subplot between him and Cecil Gaines' wife. I felt it was unnecessary.

Grade: A

Friday, August 16, 2013


Rated: R

Stars: Ali Suliman,  Reymonde Amsellem
Genre: Drama
Director: Ziad Doueiri

A Palestinian surgeon, who has built a successful career for himself in Israel, is about to be honored at an awards ceremony. As he waits to be introduced, he receives a call from his wife,  but dismisses her with his can't-you-see-I'm-in-the-middle-of-something-important attitude. So early on, what lies at the heart of The Attack is revealed (though not all will recognize it as such). 

A failure to communicate.

So much so that I thought the film should have been titled "The Call," (but there is another recent movie with the same name).

When a suicide bombing brings a flood of broken rag-doll victims into the hospital where Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is employed, he must work feverishly to try to save them. Then, the ultimate punch in the gut. Dr Jaafari's suddenly deceased wife (Reymonde Ansellem)  is suspected of being the bomber. His life will never be the same. Initially, he is accused of being a party to the plot.  When his name (but not his reputation) is cleared on that front, he embarks upon a harrowing mission to Palestine to search for answers as to why the woman he thought he knew could be led so tragically astray.

The Attack features fine performances from Suliman and Ansellem, who is shown in flashbacks of their life together before the shrapnel hit the fan. The ending is haunting,  and perfectly poignant. The film doesn't favor either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And it doesn't attempt to answer substantial questions as to why the madness of their situation has gone on, and continues on with no resolution or end in sight. (Don't be fooled by the upcoming "peace talks." That's just a political show.) 

A more important question, I think, is what turns human beings into suicide bombers in the first place. The obvious answer is that a people who feel so downtrodden and so utterly without hope or faith in the political process, may come to  feel that there is no alternative. We live in an end-justifies-the-means world. But when we make the decision to go there, we relinquish all claim to the humanity we purport to be defending.  No, in the end it's about communication, or the lack thereof on a human level. 

When all around we see only  "other,"  then there is no brother.

Grade:  A


Usually, I read what Tim writes before adding my two cents. This time I must make my comments ahead of his. (I'll be out of town when he sees THE ATTACK and reviews it.) I want to start by saying that a good friend of mine back east recommended this film well over a month ago, saying it had 'changed his life!' I kept waiting for it to come to La Jolla. When the preview arrived, I gathered that THE ATTACK was a foreign film, most likely shot in Israel, about a surgeon who fainted when he was told that his wife was a terrorist. A helluva a teaser!

Tim has already filled you in on the plot. I prefer to fill you in on the feelings I had when—dazed and saddened—I staggered out of the movie theatre, mumbling to myself, "Nothing is all wrong or all right, all good or all bad..." THE ATTACK forces the viewer to come to terms with this. No matter what your politics are. I used to be married to somebody Jewish; a non religious man who, although he was bar mitzvahed, knew next to nothing about what it meant to be a Jew. (Even as a shiksa, I spoke more Yiddish than he did having worked at a guitar store in the heart of Manhattan.) Years later, I dated an Arab who was born in Lebanon but moved to Montreal. He was raised Catholic and I remember him telling me that when one of his four sisters married a Muslim, his family disowned her. I've never been big on history or religion but this fellow certainly gave me a different perspective on why there is such hatred among the Palestinians for the Israelis. I'm neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine but I can definitely identify with the horror (and confusion) of being lied to by someone you love. For me, THE ATTACK tries to explain—if such a thing can really be explained—what motivates a suicide bomber. Everything about this film was thought-provoking and brilliant.