The Butler (2013)

The Butler (2013)

You can almost detect when Oscar season is approaching. It’s not that the leaves change colour, nor is it the appearance of snow, or any media-related hype. No, you can map its arrival by the genre of films that are spewed out by Hollywood. Once the sumemr blockbusters are over, you get the tired out films that weren’t good enough throughout September… then you get the autumnal blockbusters. But then… then you get the dramas. Generally those about real life struggle. War’s quite a hot topic in recent years. But let’s not forget that this is ‘merica… and what do we want from an American film? Probably something either pro-US or heavily US-centric. So looking over the release schedule we can see a lot of movies about war (again), as well as that classic card… race, and slavery. Let’s all welcome The Butler – the first of this season’s retrospective look at black history in the US.

The Butler (2013)

The Butler, along with 12 Years A Slave, represents the tried and true offering of race-based cinema entertainment. It’s Oscar-bait and unshamedly so, one would presume. Will it get this Oscar? Well… I’m not so sure. That’s not to say that The Butler is a bad film; it’s very watchable. But you can’t help but feel a touch of deja-vu. No, not because it retells the real events that occurred in the US between 1951 and the present day in relation to Civil Rights and equality… no, it’s more because it feels like you’re watching Forrest Gump again.

Let me keep no secrets from you: Forrest Gump is a fantastic film in our eyes. Thoroughly entertaining, heart warming and funny on occasion too. All the time set against the backdrop of the big events of the 20th Century. We saw Tom Hanks meet Elvis, fight in Vietnam, help get Richard Nixon impeached and start up Bubba-Gump. Forrest Gump was a very clever film and was shot very, very well. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that The Butler was trying to recapitulate the feelings generated by that film!

The Butler (2013)

The Butler stars Forest Whitaker (see – another Forrest / Forest!) as the eponymous butler, Cecil Gaines. Brought up on a cotton plantation and shaped by his upbringing as a house servant following his father’s death, he eventually becomes hired as a butler at The White House serving President Eisenhower. Gaines stays there through the decades of black oppression that would follow and sees Presidents come and go over time. At the same time, he has to balance his home life with his wife (Oprah Winfrey) and sons. One of whom, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes deeply politicised and works his way through most of the black power groups of 1960-1980, including the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers. This combination of Cecil and Louis’ lives fills in the bulk of what The Butler is about.

As I say, The Butler is far from a bad film. It’s really enjoyable and it’s delivered really well. This is of course due in no small part to the fantastic ensemble cast, including Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., James Marsden, John Cusack and Lenny Kravitz amongst many others. It’s a sensational casting coup and it’s always a gentle thrill to see a recognisable actor appear throughout the 2 hours of the film.

The Butler (2013)

Speaking of run time, the film never really feels bloated either. It flows well and doesn’t dwell too long in any particular era, just like Forrest Gump before it. However, where it fails to meet Forrest Gump‘s high standards is in its ability to make you simultaneously laugh and cry. The smiles are there (just not laughter), but the tears? They fail to form. Forrest Gump‘s finale has every person capable of displaying emotion in tears. You know the bit I’m on about – where Jenny passes away (not a spoiler… the film’s almost 20 years old!). The Butler fails to do this. Indeed, I found the ending particularly hard to stomach.

It all just seemed too saccharine and “go USA!” at its conclusion. For a film that had spent so long highlighting the dirty underbelly of what is essentially “modern” days USA, the end just felt too contrived and forced to give that “hell yeah, we’re a great nation” impression. I get why it was done: things coming full circle, but it felt hammy and literally had me squirming in my seat. It instantly dropped half a Phage for the ending alone. As I say: a really good film, but not without its flaws. These flaws certainly don’t lie in the casting, especially Forest Whitaker who is sublime, as always. It’s just… it’s just not Forrest Gump.

The Butler is a valiant first entry into what is sure to be a crowded pre-Oscars film season. We can wave goodbye to the popcorn marathons and engage in some more lofty sounding films. Whilst I certainly don’t feel that The Butler will pick up any Awards come February, it can stand tall as a solid film. Even if it does come a bit close to mimicking what’s gone before.

Maybe it’s telling that I keep comparing The Butler to Forrest Gump. To me, Forrest Gump feels like it came out yesterday and not 20 years ago. Time flies. But it all seems very “now”. Maybe I shouldn’t be comparing to a film that is essentially over two decades old. But then again, if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck and swims like a duck… well, it’s probably a duck. That’s what momma woulda told y’all.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand (2013)

How often do you hold people to their word? You know, when someone says something to you and they really pull through a bit later down the line. It might be “I’ll call you soon”, or “we’ll definitely go on another date”… sometimes these hopes are cruelly dashed and date number two never comes (oh what could have been!). But one guy has really been true to his oath. Way back yonder he told us all “I’ll be back”, and you know what? He is! Sure, it might have been his catchphrase for more years than it should have been, but here he is. Back once again for the renegade master us all in The Last Stand

Yessiree, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back. And not just in a cameo role… no, he’s back in the lead heading up an action movie. He may have had some personal things to take care of (being a Governor, fathering illegitimate kids), but he’s doing a Sylvester Stallone and relaunching his Hollywood career. But he’s doing it different to Stallone. You’d expect Predator 3 or Terminator X, surely? But here we see him take on an original film. Well, I say original… it’s not quite the most unique film you’ll see this year…

The Governor's back... he said he would be...

The Governor’s back… he said he would be…

Arnie plays Ray Owens – the county sheriff of the sleepy town of Somerton. And he’s old. He’ll tell you this a few times, as will other people. Remember: he’s old. Anyway, his town’s going to get a whole lot less sleepy as fugitive drug cartel leader Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is heading to Ray’s town to plough on through to Mexico. On his tail he’s got the FBI, headed up by Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and everything they do seems to fail… but can Cortez make it past Ray (who’s forgot that he’s The Terminator) and his rag-tag bunch of deputies, including Luis Guzmán and Johnny Knoxville?

As you can see, it’s not the most remarkable plot. It’s a pretty by-the-books action movie where you already know the eventual outcome and can probably even take a guess at any twists and turns. But that’s not the point – this is classic action movie territory. It’s got more car chases than you can shake a stick at (and I can shake my stick at a hell of a lot of cars), an explosive array of weaponry and yes, a good dose of humour. Whilst the film is strangely lacking the “big” Arnie lines of yesteryear, he still manages to throw in a quip or two. Nothing in Dr. Freeze territory, but a nice smattering nevertheless.

The Last Stand (2013)

I’m also pleasantly surprised to see a good supporting cast in the movie. It seems that nowadays when big action heroes make their return, they return very much alone without any other stars in the cast. Yes, yes, we can overlook The Expendables and The Expendables 2 because that was the whole point of those films! It was refreshing to see Forest Whitaker taking a role in the film. Sure, it wasn’t one of his most memorable performances, in fact you’ll probably forget it, but you can’t deny that the guy is a great presence on-screen. Similarly it seems that Johnny Knoxville has found his niche as the slightly unhinged Lewis Dinkum. He can just totally let go and go as crazy as he likes and it works splendidly. One could argue that Knoxville out-acts Arnie when on-screen, but I guess that’s the point – Arnie’s an old guy who’s been burnt before – he’s world-weary.

I just felt that sometimes it was as if Arnie wasn’t 100% on the set. Maybe I’m comparing him to 1990’s Schwarzenegger when we last really saw him regularly on-screen. This is a different character. It may have been intentional, but I’d have liked some more nostalgia in there. I wanted a witty kill line. I wanted him to get to a chopper. I wanted him to scream “nooooo” in his Austrian-American accent. It seems that fellow comeback King Sylvester Stallone is only too happy to engage in some fan service in his outings. Time will tell whether Arnie will follow suit or will plough on in a resolutely “same but different” approach.

Who doesn't love a CORNY car chase? Yeah, we can pun too...

Who doesn’t love a CORNY car chase? Yeah, we can pun too…

Where the film falters for me is that it sometimes felt a bit too “fast and loose” and some of the dialogue and scenes were entirely superfluous or screamed “PLOT EXPOSITION”. It also had a hell of a lot of plot holes in there too. Sorry, but how in the world does Cortez’s car go for so long on one tank of petrol considering it’s 1000 horse power? That’d need refilling every 16 miles! Also, there’s this whole “race against the clock” theme… but how in the sweet name of Dr. Freeze does all of this happen in the space of 90 minutes of “in film” time? They’re incredibly organised in Somerton it’d seem. OK, maybe they’re not crushing holes, or even really holes, they’re just flawed logic. But I guess this is an action movie… we can suspend our disbelief.

The Last Stand marks Arnie‘s return to the big time in Hollywood. It probably isn’t the bona fide classic return to form that many were hoping for, and many of the funniest parts are in the trailer, but it’s a solid start for his return. I’m just keen to see where he heads next. Casting my eye over his upcoming schedule hints at a return to the Arnie of yesteryear… I just hope that he does it gracefully so that he doesn’t come off as the old man that The Last Stand wants to paint him as.

So he is back. He said he would be and he is. Well, at least he’s back in body. His quippy, slightly larger than life ego is still yet to show up. Please, for the love of god put him in a film that includes helicopters, a crazy plot and a lot of people dying in gag-filled ways… DO IT. DO IT NOW!!

Phage Factor:

3 Star