Lee Daniels’ The Butler

No matter how many times I read that title, this movie will always be either Tyler Perry’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, obviously, or less obviously, Danny Strong’s The Butler to me. (Whatever gets you through the day, you know?)

I so looked forward to watching this because of the cavalcade of stars playing various presidents, and on some level I knew this would be disastrous, but I didn’t actually envision other parts of the movie being disastrous. The Butler felt like one bad play, one good play, and one mediocre movie mashed together into a single behemoth media event. The bad play contained horrible makeup, Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, John Cusack as Nixon, Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as Reagan, Mariah Carey as the title character’s silent mother, and speaking of title characters, Forest Whitaker as the actual butler, Cecil Gaines. Everyone in that group, including Forest I believe, was stunt-cast. They all did the best they could, especially Forest, but none of these people had any chemistry with one another. Forest was incredibly difficult to understand, and tried too hard to make his accent “humble;” I know he was supposed to come from a poor background and everything, but this is a movie made in English. Some sacrifices have to be made, and changing the dialect of the main character ever-so-slightly to make him more easily heard was not one of them.

The good play contained Cuba Gooding Jr. as Cecil’s best friend, Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Alex Pettyfer doing his best Michael Fassbender impression, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Nelsan Ellis as MLK Jr., and precisely no one as Barack Obama. Yes, all of these save for the last one are stunt-casts, too, but they were so much better and more convincing. Oprah was dazzling, and infuriating because WHAT CAN’T SHE DO?! Cuba, well, I wish he would show up in more stuff (and Terrence in less) because his enthusiasm is so genuine. I think Jane Fonda is more Nancy Reagan than actual Nancy Reagan is. Nelsan Ellis looks like MLK, for Pete’s sake. And Schreiber was quite odd as Johnson, to be honest, but he acted the hell out of it so I have to give him props for trying, and for doing that one scene on the toilet. Thank god they edited around Obama, instead of stunt-casting him, because the movie would have ended on such an awkward note. (“And… Jay Pharaoh as President Obama! Give it up!”)

The mediocre movie flipped back and forth between moments of saccharine, string quartet-heavy scenes that were supposed to make you cry, and reenactments of historical events that actually did make you cry. The diner sit-ins, led by David Oyelowo as Cecil’s son Louis, were incredibly powerful to watch. It must have been so difficult to stage those scenes, and to feel a fraction of the pain that the students felt as they were being beaten by racists and bigots for merely sitting at a diner counter and attempting to order food. Even Minka Kelly, stunt-cast herself as Jackie O, made me tear up. They put her in the pink suit and everything, splashed with blood like on the day Kennedy was shot, and just showed her freaking out alone in a room in the White House. You don’t think about that until the moment is in front of you. And, of course, at the end of the movie, when BHO is elected, Cecil Gaines’ entire face and body and soul light up. It’s like everything was worth it for him. Saccharine, again, but probably very true. The movie is based on a true story, after all.

I commend all of these big names for being involved in telling such an epic tale, but I wish so much that the tale had been told better, with less focus on who’s-playing-who and more focus on the small characters that propelled Cecil through his life. Cecil himself was one of those small characters who fit himself into the lives of great people, but he never really got credit for being there until the end of his life. I just hope the real guy got some satisfaction out of knowing that others would know his story.

Blue is the Warmest Color

I’d scold the French–yes, all of them, and not just the director of this movie, Abdellatif Kechiche–for making an unnecessarily long piece of art, but I’ve definitely lauded a work of equal length that came out within the last few months. Then again, that work contained a lot less ennui and a lot more Leo. To each their own.

I jest, sort of. Blue is the Warmest Color is a very beautiful movie, at its best. The light is radiant in practically every shot. Adèle Exarchopoulos is both completely magnetic and easily hatable as Adele, surpassed only by the object of her affections, Emma (Léa Seydoux). I say “hatable” partially out of envy, I suppose — this movie sort of exemplifies everything that we “sheltered” Americans have come to believe and stereotype about the oversexed, overtly comfortable French. Adele and Emma get it on so often and so well that it’s impossible not to be envious of them. Then again, the frequency is also exhausting, and that brings me back to my original point, which is that the movie is too long.

The French translation of this movie is “The Life of Adele,” and that’s honestly what I wanted more of. Less staring, less screwing, less thinking, less crying, more living! I get that those first four gerunds are, in fact, living, but I feel like this movie would have benefitted from more dialogue. It’s clear that Adele is more immature than she is mature, even if she’s capable (at age 20!) of having a meaningful relationship with a woman while still possibly identifying as straight, because she expresses her feelings and thoughts very inconsistently. And I love that about her. I found her rambles and soliloquies to be the most enjoyable part of the film, because they allowed us to get to know her better than she knew herself. And even though I hated when Adele’s school friends interrogated her about her new blue-haired friend — girls are absolutely cruel at that age — I thought those interactions informed us more than those she had with Emma. After awhile, her scenes with Emma, sex and otherwise, became tiresome and redundant. And, come to think of it, Emma was cruel in her own way. She came across incredibly confident in her own powers of seduction, and then later punished Adele for basically being 20. The ending for these two wasn’t happy or sad. It was just an ending. Ennui, as I said before. How French.

It’s hard to tell how much of Exarchopoulos is in the character of Adele — is it the character or the actress that hates for other people to see her smile? Is it the character or the actress who never fully closes her mouth? Is it the character or the actress who can’t really make eye contact with anyone? These nervous habits can be attributed to being just barely a twentysomething, but they could also be subtle additions by the actress. Either way, I found them brilliant (artistically) and frustrating (to watch). With Seydoux, on the other hand, it was clear that she was acting, but only in the sense that she’s more established, and older, and looks completely different in real life from the butch pixie she inhabits in this movie. Her effortlessness was more in her charisma; it’s easy to identify with Adele’s inexplicable attraction to her.

In the end, the question I really wanted answered was: Who is the bad influence here, Adele or Emma? Is Adele behaving like the child she is in an attempt to live an adult fantasy life? Is Emma enabling it? Is Emma doing more harm than good by warping Adele’s sense of herself? Is Adele living with utter delusions? Oh, and what about Emma’s girlfriend, Sabine? I felt bad for her. I’d also hoped she would have gotten more screen time in a three-hour movie, but this was basically the Adele and Emma show. I’m all for an occasional art film, and I do think the two leads were superb in their roles, but this movie went from poetic to emotionally and sexually exploitative in a matter of (180) minutes. Call me American, but I’d rather spend that time watching Leo fake a quaalude episode again.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’m so glad I don’t dislike Wes Anderson movies anymore. I realize that’s an antagonistic way to begin a blog post, especially one I intend to be inherently positive one, but it’s the truth. I watched this movie with complete joy, and also with the complete realization that there were things in it that would have bothered me five years ago, and no longer do. The plot is twisted enough to surprise you, but straightforward enough to catch all of the details. A clean caper, and a deliciously profane one at that.

Past me was so caught up in the deliberate aesthetics of it all, and the general asshattery of the conversations that Anderson’s movies would incite. Current me realizes that Anderson doesn’t take himself so seriously that he needs to inject both beauty and deep, profound meaning into his films. The visuals suffice, the story is fun, and then you don’t have to think for a long time afterward about how much you may or may not relate to the characters. In fact, if you do relate to any of the characters in his movies, it’s likely that you lead a fanciful, ridiculous life. Wes Anderson should be on Vine, by the way. Or Instagram video, because he’d blow our minds with the existing filters.

Ralph Fiennes may have shoved his way into a completely new career as a light-hearted, effeminate dandy. Seriously, I could watch him as Gustave all day, and he’s way better at it than he ever was at a romantic lead. (And he is very good at that.) He has a Colin Firthiness about him, in that he knows exactly when to be glib and when to be aloof, and he times his behaviour perfectly. Of course, much of that timing was in the script, but he still delivered it with true aplomb. I can’t imagine any of Anderson’s usual players in that role. I’m always delighted when he works a new person into his posse.

That being said, I wish Anderson weren’t so damn loyal. It was cute to see Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzmann, and Bill Murray pop up in tiny roles, but at this point the three of them were playing the very specific, recognizable-to-the-audience roles of “people in Wes Anderson films forever.” I think I would have liked to see Edward Norton’s Nazi General-esque role played by someone else, too; he’s just not a tough guy (or not anymore, anyway). Then again, maybe he and Brad Pitt are pulling another Tyler Durden on us — Norton’s Henckels in this movie is Pitt’s Raine in Inglorious Basterds. It’s fun to think of it that way, anyhow.

I did thoroughly enjoy Adrien Brody as Dmitri, mostly because in some alternate world he really is the reedy son of reedy Tilda Swinton (who wore makeup to age her to 84). Willem Dafoe came through as his vampiric self, brass knuckles and eyeliner and all. The Twilight franchise probably kicks itself every day, only to remember how much money it made. (Yes, I just anthropomorphized a franchise.) And Jeff Goldblum almost surprised me by almost not playing himself, but dare I say his precious pipes basically guarantee that from ever happening. I don’t remember what his character name is, because it’s basically lawyer Goldblum. The man is a national treasure, to be sure, but sometimes I wonder if he must get bored playing The World’s Card, and if his voice will ever change at all.

Oh, right, the kids. Saoirse Ronan can do no wrong, and Tony Revolori has a long career ahead of him of playing any role he wants. So long as they keep the Mexico-shaped birthmark and pencil mustache, respectively, off their faces. (That was weird.)

One final note, and it’s a conjecture. Jude Law’s quiet role as the Young Author and Narrator, made me realize that he’s having a McConnaisance of his own–a Rennaislawnce, if you will. He is the British McConaughey, in that he is a supremely tan heartthrob who has chosen to age well and gracefully out of rom-coms and into roles that don’t necessarily require him to be shirtless or smiling. Of course, McConaughey is completely nailing it right now; it’s hard to beat a run like that, but Law’s recent choices have been really interesting. Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Contagion, Side Effects, Hugo… His last rom-com, in fact, was The Holiday, and what a good one to hiatus on. He fancies himself as more of a serious actor now, with occasional dabbles of action thrown in, and I think he’s completely capable of the nuance. They’re still casting True Detective Season 2, right?

The Lego Movie

As you’re watching this delightful little movie, play the guessing game with yourself. If you can get Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, and Will Arnett, big whoop. If you can get Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, and Charlie Day, nice work! If you can get Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, and Channing Tatum, congratulations! You’re more of a dork than I am. Tatum stumped me. I swear it won’t happen again.

If Arnett never gets to play for realsies Batman because he’s too much of a clown, and Tatum never gets to play Superman for realsies because he’s too much of a beefcake, at least they’ll have this 90 minutes of fun to look back on. And hopefully they’ll remember it fondly, because I sure do. See, it’s not that The LEGO Movie is so good that I’m wishing I were back in the theater, though that would be just fine. It’s that, on top of the great storyline and hilarious visuals, this movie makes you remember how fun it was to build random crap and make up stories about it. This movie puts your own childhood imagination up on a giant screen, and makes you wish you were young again.

The animators worked painstakingly here. When Emmet (Pratt) took a shower, water did not rain down on him — small circular clear and white lego pieces did. When Emmet did jumping jacks, his feet did not go out to the side — he did jumping scissors instead. The city he lived in was filled with very obvious generic references to “POPULAR MUSIC!” and “FOOD ITEMS!” and all manner of visual jokes about how boring our society is that I can only imagine were completely lost on kids. The enemies of the state were things like Exact-0 knives and Kra(zy) Gl(u)e and Nail Polish. This isn’t really a kids’ movie at all, in fact. It’s both a parody of a kids’ movie and a movie about kid stuff made for adults. It’s incredibly layered, brick on brick. (Be right back, going to go pat myself on the back for that one.)

Now I want to buy more legos and listen to that ridiculous song. Now I want Will Ferrell to do even more voice work, and Dad work. He really evokes a deep sympathy when he’s not aping around as Ron Burgundy or any of his other man child characters. We know this because we saw Stranger Than Fiction, and we want more like it. This movie gave us about 5 minutes of that, and 85 of the aping in voice form, but we’ll take it. He’s our ape and we’ll love him forever.

So many props to a freaking corporate brand for making a genuinely fun movie to watch, a movie that makes fun of the product it’s shilling (why did Shaq get his own LEGO man?) and still leaves room for a good, completely insane tale. Your move, K’Nex.

The Devil in the White City

It’s hard for me to think of a time when I did not consider Chicago to be my favorite city. My first visit there was when I was five, and I was hooked on its kind majesty, its flat expanse, its alleys and bridges and tunnels and unity despite all that architectural division. And its FAO Schwarz toy store, of course. I’ve visited again and again, always dumbfounded by how such a kind and cultured urban space could exist in the middle of the country, and by how other cities seem not to adopt its simple, unique demeanor. In fact, I was there just six months ago, intending to read The Devil in the White City in situ, but Byrne’s How Music Works took a little longer than I intended. Now I’m desperate to go back, because it turns out that I knew nothing of the city’s incredibly dark past. The seediness makes me that much more curious.

In the introduction to The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson warns us that we’re about to read something so unusual, so unbelievable, that we might forget it’s non-fiction. And he was right to issue that warning. There were so many times, paging through this book, when I’d forget it was all true. As the story of Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the 1893 World’s Fair, trudged along, I wondered why it wouldn’t pick up, why the author hadn’t chosen to pace the story with more fervor and excitement. But that trudging must have mimicked real life, the constant bureaucratic pitfalls, weather delays, labor shortages, equipment problems, transportation issues, and other large-scale annoyances that Burnham encountered as he was trying to erect a city within a city in a fraction of the time that a normal city could have been built. The book only dragged because Larson chose to tell it in a parallel timeline with that of H.H. Holmes, blue-eyed pharmacist and cold-blooded killer. Holmes’ murderous activities were far more interesting from the outset, again, until I remembered that everything he was doing had happened to real people, and then I wished it had all been made up. Larson toys with our emotions without even making anything up. He’s a master of non-fiction — that’s probably why this book was a National Book Award Finalist, among many other reasons.

It’s not perfectly written — he strives to maintain a good portion of the type of language used at the turn of that century, and so some of the metaphors feel outdated, clunky, and even unnecessarily cheesy. He rarely editorializes, and even though this maintains the factual accuracy of the book, I almost wish he had inserted his own opinions of the buildings and the behaviours of the cast and crew, because he must have gotten to know them quite well as he was researching the book. I suppose he let their actions speak for themselves.

But he manages to paint a very different portrait of Chicago than any other I’ve seen before, using the shades of its black and white sides, and thus telling a far more stark and beautiful story. At once I want to know what that Chicago was like, in its utter chaos and stench, and I also know that I’d probably be the exact victim that Holmes targeted. Chicago sounds terrifying and enticing — how calm it seems now.

The idea of a World’s Fair is so foreign, just over 100 years later. I suppose the Olympics or the World Cup has taken the place of these kinds of events, and even so, the host city and country don’t really have to construct buildings like they used to. The stadiums are lasting legacies, but the athlete villages disappear. Anyhow, the pressure was so great back then, to succeed, to sustain bragging rights, to uphold a reputation across the world, to avoid disappointing and offending, to instill values — though our world has changed dramatically, and judgement is almost instantaneous, I find it comforting that modern society across the world has abandoned this idea of the World’s Fair. Of course, these fairs still exist, but they don’t seem to carry the same weight that they used to. Now that travel is more readily available, so we can travel the globe if we have the means, instead of letting it come to us.

Now when I return to Chicago, I’ll have even more of an appreciation for the majesty of its buildings and the mystery behind them. Even though much of what was built for the fair is gone now, I want to go back to Jackson Park and just think about it. Over the course of one summer, fame, fortune, and favor gathered in one place. The poor experienced opulence and the wealthy experienced grunge. Maybe that’s why I like it so much — everything evens out in the Midwest.

Just a single quote, because it’s more fun to read and experience the story than pinpoint the language:

p. 97, regarding one of many extravagant banquets // “It was the first in a sequence of impossibly rich and voluminous banquets whose menus raised the question of whether any of the city’s leading men could possibly have a functional artery.”

Blade Runner

Oh, how high my expectations were and oh, how quickly they were dashed. If you read this blog, or know me, maybe you would have guessed that ahead of time. Props to you. I was letting the promise of the cast get the best of me — Harry! Sean Young a.k.a. Lois Einhorn a.k.a. Ray Finkle! Rutger Hauer a.k.a. the Hobo himself! Darryl “First Name Boys Name Last Name Girls Name” Hannah! Edward James Almost! Come on.

Granted, I don’t have a lot of experience with or deep interest in sci-fi. That isn’t to say that I don’t like it. I just don’t know much about it. I dabble sometimes, but I mostly try to get the greatest hits for the sake of the pop culture reference, and the ever-so-slight curiosity. (I love Fringe and Inception so that should explain more, if need be.) I pictured this movie as some grandiose, high-octane, action-packed, along-for-the-ride, other trailer adjective here movie. It most certainly was not. Harry was a guy who had to find fake humans and kill them. He did so very slowly, and maybe fell in love with one of them — who’s to say, the ending had a very Sopranos-like quality — and all the while EJO was whispering in his ear while he ate what I assume were alternating meals of bahn mi and pho.

I know I’m missing a lot of the point of this movie. I have not yet read the Philip K. Dick novel on which it is based, and I am happy to report that seeing this movie and being utterly confused by it only makes me want to read the book more. I want to know more about this backstory, so maybe I can appreciate how Ridley Scott attempted to tell the story. There were times when the utter state of 2019 Los Angeles was completely depressing — this guy pointed out that it was always raining, for example, and dark, and smoggy, and horrid — and others when it was devastatingly beautiful. The tiny lights in the skyscrapers really looked like a smattering of jewels, especially in such a dense city center. Both of those predictions aren’t far off. Thankfully Los Angeles isn’t quite in that state, but five years from now, who knows? This movie could be more prescient than we realize.

Harrison Ford is just so much more weighty and magnetic than this movie presents him to be. He’s in the background, unflashy, wearing Indy clothes but lacking that Indy charm. He just growls a lot, not as much as he did in Ender’s Game, but we certainly know now that he’s been practicing for awhile. He has almost no chemistry with Young, and he just mopes around, stewing in his own incredible ability to spot the “replicants” but sort of powerless beyond that.

One question, nerds: Why do replicants bleed real blood? Was the 2019 science intended to be THAT good? I don’t get it.

Then again, I don’t get the rest of this movie, either. Sorry.

Wonderfalls

I think that using the phrase “spirit animal” to describe a fictional character or a famous person is generally very hacky, but I really need to use it in this case. I’ll forgive myself if you do, too.

Jaye Tyler is that phrase for me. I thought it was Rory Gilmore for awhile, and then I thought it was Liz Lemon for awhile, and then I tried to convince myself that it could possibly be Claire Underwood, but that’s really more of a pipe dream, sartorially and attitudinally. No, it’s Jaye Tyler through and through.

nothavingit

Caroline Dhavernas’ detatched, intelligent, trusting, inexplicably loyal Jaye Tyler is what Kat Dennings and Aubrey Plaza have made a career on. Her Jaye Tyler is nuanced, specifically relatable, and frustrating. Jaye Tyler is me. Minus the talking to animals part.

I do talk to myself, though. I’ll admit it. (Who doesn’t? If you don’t, you’re kidding yourself.) Seeing this character portrayed on television brought me great comfort, and knowing that it was cancelled because mostly likely there are few people who could relate to it brings me even more comfort. It’s an ego thing, I guess. Jaye isn’t an extremely likable person; she grew up in a privileged home and got a good education, she’s capable of more than she’s allowing, and she doesn’t relate to her siblings but she doesn’t have a bad relationship with them, either. She’s just stuck, somewhere, in her own head. She lacks the ability to express why she’s stuck, and she doesn’t particularly want to be unstuck, either. She’s comfortable living and working in a tchotchke shop in Niagara Falls and complaining about how boring her life is.

So why do the inanimate animals–the wax lion, the totem mole, the caged bird–talk to her? And why does she feel compelled to follow every instruction they give her? It’s not really explained, but it doesn’t need to be. She needed to feel special somehow, and this is what her mind gave her. It gave her little messages that mucked up her life and created drama out of nothing, and then helped her learn about the place of her job, her family, her friends, her lovers, in her life. She didn’t feel like she needed to be listened to, but she didn’t mind being noticed once in awhile. She forced herself to listen to the animals because somewhere, deep down, her morals wouldn’t let her do otherwise. I completely, totally, get that.

I also get why she was such a dumbass when it came to Eric (Tyron Leitso, dreamboat). He was too good to be true, in a way that freaked her out, because he wasn’t too good to be true, and she couldn’t handle it. She couldn’t handle letting her mind wander to the place where she’d inevitably ruin the relationship, and she pulled the plug too soon. Of course [spoiler alert] it is a television show, and Bryan Fuller is nothing if not a romantic, so Eric does make a triumphant return (after a confusing situation with his ex-wife rears its ugly/pretty head). But the innocent, playful way that their relationship comes about, and the show’s use of emotional cliffhangers at the end of a couple of episodes (particularly the 9th and 10th) really made me feel like I was feeling whatever Jaye was feeling. That sense of being cut off, of not knowing how to fix something you just caused? Wonderfalls nails it.

Wonderfalls isn’t some soap opera, though. I don’t want you to get that impression. It’s a weird, supernaturally-laced show with occasional horror and historical fiction and suspense elements thrown in for fun. One episode in particular, the 12th, goes off on a pretty long tangent at an Indian reservation upstate. It actually made no sense within the larger context of the show, and it was probably my least favorite episode of the 13, but it demonstrated how zany and interesting things could have gotten. Those episodes could have been more frequent, and thus more polished, and the show could have gone in so many cool directions. Dealing with the same boy-girl relationship episode after episode can be tiring, and the show knew that, but it had to end things well once it got the cancel-call.

It would have been thrilling to see more from Lee Pace and Tracie Lords, too — as Jaye’s brother Aaron and Jaye’s best friend Mahandra, respectively, their romance seemed a little forced, for the sake of giving Pace more screen time, especially. (Not that I’m complaining, he’s my #1.) But in the long term vision of the show, whatever that would have been, their relationship would have been worth exploring; he, the religious studies student, she, the sassy waitress. As they found out about what they did or didn’t have in common, they’d be forced to adapt or break free. (I’m just glad I get to see the spectacular Katie Finneran on the MJF show now. She went from uptight lawyer to relaxed mooch sister with such ease.)

I shouldn’t talk as much about the hypothetical, because the show is over, and it ended on a nice note, and maybe it couldn’t have even gone on for much longer anyway. Bryan Fuller’s shows are big, beautiful dreams, and as a result, they fizzle kind of easily. It’s too bad that television can’t handle them, but at least there are a few of us in on the fun. And the less I know about Jaye Tyler’s future, the better. I can make it up as I go along.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 825 other followers