Monthly Archive for February, 2015

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2/28/15) SHO (2013 ***1/4) Directed by Lee Daniels, starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. The son of a murdered sharecropper gets a job as a butler in The White House, where he serves eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan. Based on a true story, this film tells the story of the civil rights movement from a unique vantage point: The eyes and ears of a man standing only a few feet from the American presidency. The story ultimately becomes a conflict between the approaches to working for equality, with Cecil Gaines representing one way (slowly changing the system from within) and his radicalized son Louis representing another (by any means necessary). Cecil lives his life subservient to a parade of powerful white men, all the time living in fear of losing his job should he slip and say what’s truly on his mind. While we enjoyed the film, there was (as my wife called it) a definite Forrest Gump (1994) vibe to it. This effect was exacerbated by the parade of familiar faces in the white house: Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) and Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan). (For understandable reasons, Ford and Carter were omitted.) While the star power was undoubtedly intended to attract publicity and/or box office, in my view many of the casting choices (particularly Cusack and Schreiber) in The Butler were questionable.

Mystery Team

Mystery Team (2/28/15) Encore (2009 **1/2) Directed by Dan Eckman, starring Donald Glover, D.C. Pierson, Dominic Dierkes, Aubrey Plaza and Bobby Moynihan as Jordy. A team of grown-up child detectives set out to solve their greatest mystery yet… a murder! There are times when I’m programming our DVR and I come across descriptions of movies that intrigue me enough for me to mark them for recording. Such was the case with Mystery Team. After watching it, I felt I appreciated the premise far more than I enjoyed the actual execution. The film was nominally a comedy / mystery, with the primary source of humor coming from the contrast between children’s literary detectives like The Hardy Boys and the reality of contemporary society, where seven year olds may swear like sailors and have sordid motivations for sticking their fingers into hot blueberry pies. Having said that, there were times when the film surprised me, as was the case when Duncan, the team’s “genius,” found himself digging into (sorry) a shit-filled toilet to retrieve a stolen ring that had dislodged itself from a stripper’s vagina. The screenplay was co-written by the film’s three stars, which doesn’t completely surprise me. Mystery Team definitely had a certain whiff of a personal passion project, and though it clearly had its shortcomings, I applaud the filmmakers for getting the project made.

Agent Carter, Season 1

Agent Carter, Season 1 (2/27/15) ABC (2015 ***) Series created by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, starring Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray and Bridget Regan. 8 episodes, originally aired 1/6/15 – 2/24/15. Straight out of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (by way of an internet webisode), SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve) agent Peggy Carter is enlisted by industrialist inventor Howard Stark to become a double agent. I had high hopes for this midseason replacement for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It started off with a bang, and I liked the idea of Carter playing both sides of the fence while tracking down Howard Hughes… er, Stark’s stolen weapons. But then it seemed like that narrative goal got redirected and the show became about the secret Russian program to create super-killer little girls who grow up to be trained assassins. I didn’t necessarily mind, only that the writing seemed to get increasingly weaker as the season went on, so that by the abbreviated season’s finale climax wasn’t all that special.

Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle (2/26/15) Encore (1967 ***1/4) Directed by Richard Fleischer, based on the books by Hugh Lofting, music by Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Newman, starring Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough and Geoffrey Holder. A British veterinarian with the ability to “talk to the animals” and less-than-polished people skills goes on a voyage to find the Great Pink Sea Snail, as one does. I reluctantly acknowledge that, by objective standards of cinematic quality, Doctor Dolittle is not a great film. I say this even though it was nominated for Best Picture. However, it remains a sentimental favorite of mine, and watching it again after all these years conjured forth fond memories of childhood. I particularly loved the music and fetched by wife to listen with me to “Fabulous Places,” a song I’ve come to associate with her and her love of travel. (I was delighted that as the characters sang that she was able to say “been there” time and again.) Another personal tidbit: As a child, I had the LP of the film’s songs as performed by… Alvin and the Chipmunks. Some of the songs from that album can be found on Youtube.com, and I highly recommend checking them out.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2/23/15) DWA Screening (2014 ***1/4) Directed by Morten Tyldum, based on the book by Andrew Hodges, screenplay by Graham Moore, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Rory Kinnear. At the height of World War II, Alan Turing and his crack team of mathematicians will stop at nothing to crack the Nazi’s un-crackable enigma code. My awareness of this film was heightened by its nominations at The Academy Awards, and the screenplay win and impassioned speech about “staying weird” by Graham Moore. Because of its Oscar win, I was probably extra critical about the writing, which I found at times to be less than subtle. I also wondered how much of Alan Turing’s story had been embellished or amalgamized. Still, even if it’s only fractionally true, it is amazing to think that a single, autistic-spectrum individual played such a pivotal role in the defeat of the Germans in WWII. And that makes it extra hard to think of the unjust treatment of Turing because of his (then-illegal) homosexual nature, a treatment that ultimately led to his suicide.

Night Will Fall

Night Will Fall (2/18/15) HBO (2014 ***) Directed by Andre Singer, written by Lynette Singer, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and featuring archive footage of Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock and others. This documentary tells the story of an abandoned documentary about the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of WWII. Much of this documentary is made up of the horrifying footage shot in camps Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau. Of course, watching such a film late at night as I did, runs the risk of the nightmarish images giving you literal nightmares. But watch it I did. The story behind the original unfinished Sidney Bernstein / Alfred Hitchcock documentary, entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was interesting, though I’m not sure Night Will Fall told it in the most interesting manner, nor did it really go into what happened (in the “present day”) subsequent to the discovery of the project. I kind of got the impression that this documentary was made in part as an excuse to use the footage. It’s particularly sad that the original project was shelved in the interest of German reconstruction. As terrible as the discovery of what the German’s had done was, a story like this had to be told, though some of the footage was shown as part of a film called Death Mills (1945), directed by Billy Wilder.

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (2/18/15) HBO (2014 ***1/4) Directed by Doug Limon, based on the novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. An American Army Major in London fighting an alien invasion gets the ability to reset time by dying. I kind of get why this F/X-heavy (and I mean wall-to-wall F/X) film with a budget of $178 million only made $100 million domestic. Clearly Tom Cruise no longer has the star power he once did, though he was quite good. The main problem was that the film’s complicated plot was not for the faint of heart. Hell, I barely understood it, and had a teensy bit of trouble with the idea that getting splattered with alien blood would give you the ability to master time. But enough about box office performance speculation. I very much enjoyed the film and enjoyed Cruise in it. And there was something fun about the Groundhog Day (1993) meets Starship Troopers (1997) plot. Is it for everybody? Probably not, but if you’re a fan of machine guns, alien guts and smirking A-holes getting their comeuppance, this is the movie for you.

SNL 40th Anniversary Special

SNL 40th Anniversary Special (2/15/15) NBC (2015 ***1/2) Directed by Don Roy King, featuring cast members and hosts spanning 40 years and music by Paul Simon, Sir Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus and Kanye West. Live from New York, forty years of Saturday Night Live are celebrated by those who were a part of its history. With the exception of a few years in the early 1990s, I’ve watched Saturday Night Live almost continuously since it began, way back on October 11, 1975, and Lorne Michaels’ show will always occupy a special place in my heart. I remember seeing the 20-year and 30-year anniversary shows, which I recall as being primarily clip-driven. I absolutely loved the approach they took with the 40-year special, which was to celebrate the show’s history not only in the form of well-worn highlights from the archive, but also via live sketches like “Jeopardy” and “The Californians.” In many ways, this 3.5-hour (4.5 hours including the red carpet pre-show) telecast was a fun hybrid between an awards show like The Academy Awards and a super-sized version of the regular show, and that felt very appropriate. It was also a very different experience than I was expecting, and that tickled me. Understandably, the outstanding question is what’s ahead: Will Lorne Michaels (who is 75 now) step down, and if so, what would that mean to the future of the show? Who might be considered to fill his shoes? My wife’s vote is for Tina Fey, by the way. Will SNL make it to 50? Let’s find out together, shall we?

Black Sunday

Black Sunday (2/15/15) Retroplex (1977 ***) Directed by John Frankenheimer, based on the novel by Thomas Harris, starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller. An Israeli terrorism expert must do whatever it takes to stop a devastating bomb plot at the Super Bowl. I have to admit that prior to watching this film I was only familiar with Shaw from his role as Quint in Jaws (1975). He was quite good in this film, playing a man with the worse job imaginable and absolutely no sense of humor. Watching this film from the futuristic post 9/11 vantage point of 2015, it’s a bit of a challenge to appreciate how the world saw terrorism nearly forty years ago. In spite of a little overly dramatic acting on the part of Bruce Dern, Black Sunday was pretty realistic and ripe with verisimilitude. Well, up to the fight atop the Goodyear blimp, anyway. Another reason to watch this film is the score by John Williams, who was still a few months or years away from his most iconic work with Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Postcards From the Edge

Postcards From the Edge (2/14/15) Encore (1990 ***) Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Carrie Fisher, based on her book of the same title, starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Quaid, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman. An actress and recovering addict is forced to move back home with her legendary mother. I don’t think I’ve seen this film since I saw it in the theater during its initial release. A thinly-veiled autobiography, it has a lot going for it, including a heartfelt screenplay by Fisher, and a particularly sweet and gentle performance by Gene Hackman. It’s a good film but never managed to elevate to the level of really great. I think the problem might have been that not all that much actually happened. And yes, I understand that’s one of the downfalls of working with autobiographical material: Real life does not necessarily make for an engaging story.