Rosewater

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Jon Stewart

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Rosewater may be watered-down in the drama department, but then that’s missing the point that Jon Stewart already seems to be blossoming from satirical news show host into a feature film maker with serious potential.

You won’t find many (if any) of Stewart’s signature snide remarks in this cinematic adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Distilling the essence of that account into a rather harrowing hour and forty minutes couldn’t have been any small task, yet Stewart adapts with confidence Bahari’s being detained and brutal interrogation at the hands of Iranian authorities for 118 days — a kind of confidence that seems a natural extension of his ability to look a camera dead-on and resist the urge to crack wise whenever it was appropriate.

This somber account isn’t in the conversation of award-winning biopics, but Stewart’s dedication to exploring a serious, often potent subject matter is impressive regardless. Rosewater is earnest yet it never becomes powerful enough to arouse emotional responses; lenses dedicated to reflecting the tension that continues to define American and Middle Eastern relations have a more journalistic presence rather than anything that feels truly cinematic. But perhaps it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the final product never could be described as bombastic or self-serving.

Performances from Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia enrich the film with paranoia and distrust but it’s really how Stewart puts together an empathetic portrait of human beings being lodged in between a rock and a hard place. Bodnia’s Javadi (a.k.a. Rosewater), though clearly an unlikable and hostile man, is shaded with a humanity that saves him from one-note villainy. We witness the perpetual berating and detaining of the journalist as a function of Javadi taking orders from his higher ups. We notice these 118 days take a toll on him, though nothing like what they do to his prisoner. And clearly there are fundamental ideological differences that assure neither party are ever going to see eye-to-eye, but during the course of Rosewater‘s extensive imprisonment scenes we glimpse at a more disturbing reality: there’s an unsettling sameness about the extremist beliefs of Javadi and Maziar’s commitment to maintaining his innocence.

In one stand-out scene toward the end, far past the point where the blindfold Maziar must wear at all times signifies little more than an asinine Evin Prison regulation, Stewart beautifully displays how one triumphs over the other, and though it’s no spoiler to suggest which one does win out, the denouement finds The Daily Show host announcing that he has plans beyond sitting behind that desk, reading and analyzing ridiculous headlines. This is the film at its most optimistic and moving.

Rosewater doesn’t try to be a damning political statement. It’s about a man’s journey through psychological (and often physical) abuse and torment. For us, the torment is knowing how close Maziar is to freedom. His words carry truth but they aren’t worth listening to as far as Javadi and his higher-ups are concerned. To them, the journalist’s so-called treasonous acts speak for themselves. To them he’s a symbol of an uprising those in power couldn’t hope to suppress if enough of them spread across the land. The documentation of the violent reactions of citizens following the presidential election of 2009 isn’t an innocent act; it could galvanize the oppressed into action against a righteous government. Such ignorance is the hardest pill to swallow.

Rosewater reflects honestly upon a crisis situation that hardly feels sensationalized. Stewart demonstrates a knack for showing compassion towards his fellow man, even the ones we ought to loathe completely. Of course he’s never telling us to root for the bad guys, and he’s not exactly deterring anyone from celebrating the good ones outright. In his debut film Stewart is reminding us that every common human experience is tinted by some shade of gray. Some grays are certainly darker than others.

Recommendation: Jon Stewart has created a bit of cinema that has potential to be more powerful, but there are marks of a new talent present all throughout. Rosewater is politically-charged, but its surprisingly restrained in that regard and more often than not doesn’t lean too heavily one way or another. It’s a film worth checking out for anyone curious to take a glimpse at Stewart’s possible post-Daily Show career. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “There are certain situations, that if you film them, won’t do your friends or the movement any good.”

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TBT: Team America – World Police (2004)

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So, today’s a fairly crowded day on the calendar for yours truly. Somehow this Thursday would become one in which we would be simultaneously celebrating a brand new theme for TBT, as well as my blog’s third birthday/anniversary and, oh yeah, the Fourth of freaking* July! That’s how things go sometimes, I suppose. Call it the perfect storm of me trying to catch up on everything. Now, on to the subject at hand. Given the perfect timing for this new theme, let’s jump right into a movie that is likely to divide my readers straight down the middle (or maybe not). For several reasons. These will become obvious as we start talking about

Today’s food for thought: Team America – World Police

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Force-feeding you your freedom since: October 11, 2004

[DVD]

AMER. . . . .You know what? No. No, I’m not going to even try to open the review that way. That’s just way too easy.

While that beyond-enthusiastic anthem reverberates off the walls of your brain I’ll steer the focus in a different direction. You may recall the kind of frenzy Team America – World Police threw everyone into at the time of release. This was a film — one involving marionettes and toilet humor — that managed to not only make fun of how seriously North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jung Il took himself, but it did so without drawing his ire and possibly waging war with American filmmakers. Or Americans in a much broader sense. Yeah, that would be more likely.

This was a film that banked on audiences being well-adjusted enough to not be completely offended by what is essentially jingoistic porn. And. . .wow. I really mean that quite literally. I had forgotten about that one scene. . .

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“Huuuzzaahhh!!!!”

Team America – World Police is the brainchild of two men who probably don’t need to produce actual offspring. Sorry if that’s incredibly cold, but hear me out. This is Trey Parker and Matt Stone we’re talking about, the parents of South Park. As such, this film spares no expense at sounding, acting and looking (at times) an awful lot like the hit animated show now about to debut it’s one billionth season. The duo’s second theatrical effort, Team America was at once a cult hit whose ‘cult’ has swollen to mainstream-fandom levels. Rightly so, because it occasionally borders on genius. It’s alright if you consider this over-the-top comedy as being subservient to only a niched market, however. This is a loud, proud film that was just begging for everyone’s attention, even if it didn’t ultimately earn it from everyone.

While our fearless — but not stringless — heroes traverse the world stopping bad things from happening and generally being an awesome spectacle to behold, in North Korea a storm’s a-brewing with the nefarious Kim Jong-Il plotting to convert every major city on the planet to third-world rubble. After the team suffers a major loss during their visit to Paris, they must scout a new team member and eventually come across popular Broadway actor Gary Johnston (voice of Parker). Yes indeed, we’re not talking about the fact that they took out both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, but what we are looking at is a real loss of. . .puppet life.

Following an unfortunate sequence of events, Gary finds himself gutted by the fact his acting talent has led to much chaos and failure despite the World Police’s best efforts to keep America safe and sound. This will eventually lead to second-chance opportunities Gary and the team desperately need. It will also lead to one of the film’s most offensive and downright disgusting scenes. Unfortunately scenes such as these are virtually requisites with anything South Park-related. This “act of faith,” along with one or two other brief scenes, are merely collateral damage for sharing in the duo’s unabashedly vulgar sense of humor.

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“Hold me closer, tiny dictator. . .”

The vulgarity will no doubt continue to repel, maybe even repel more than it has attracted viewers. It’s certainly a hurdle one must get over in order to fully embrace the madness that is this movie. The type of film this is often earns its horrendous reputation in a hurry, and for those certain select scenes it is often a reputation well-deserved. Yet to dismiss Team America: World Police as a pointless exercise in gross-out and an effort to simply stir up controversy (not so unlike the upcoming Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy vehicle The Interview) would be to ignore its intricacies and intelligence. Secondary to the scathing commentary about America’s image overseas is the depravity, the violence, the ugliness.

Not to mention, the silliness.

If you are willing to give a thought to the prevailing ideas herein, you’re sure to find a movie worth turning to again and again any time you find the tumult of the current political climate an unbearable white noise. Pop in the DVD and settle in for some hearty chuckles.

And of course, the song.  F**k yeah!!!

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4-0Recommendation: Fans of South Park have no reason not to have already seen World Police a million times by now. Or at least once through. This is an absolute riot, best served up to those who can stomach some fairly vulgar and crass material. There’s certainly worse stuff out there, but perhaps this section is more useful as a ‘who not to recommend this film to.’ If you’re not a fan of the show, may I suggest spending your Fourth of July with a different patriotic film.

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: Upon reading the one-line pitch for the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, Parker and Stone both found the concept to be absolutely absurd and hilarious, prompting them to get started on spoofing the very idea, using life-like marionettes to up the ante. The plan was to create the film and have it ready for release the day after the official release of said disaster film. It soon was brought to their attention that such a move could prove to be less of a joke as a legal matter. They scrapped the idea and began pitching Team America instead.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Wedding Crashers (2005)

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Throwback Thursday March-es on with the final entry of the month hitting on yet another comic note. Really, comedies are pretty easy to review for this feature since they make up a majority of what I have in my DVD collection. They lay strewn across my floor in front of my T.V. and very often I find myself weaving a path through them as I shuffle throughout my apartment. When nothing seemed to be standing out for this week, a white and red cover grabbed my attention and it was none other than another solid comedy featuring two actors who often find their contributions to comedy maligned, sometimes perhaps excessively so. Though I don’t deny the accusations of the pair becoming a predictable routine at this point, I cannot and will not hate on the chemistry that is quite evident between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Sure, their usage has been at times misjudged or mishandled. Such is the nature of what they’ve chosen to do this point in their careers; its a very hit and miss approach. And maybe they are more miss than hit, and so be it. Very similarly to a post I did last year, I think I’ll use this space to get on my high horse as I defend why I support a movie like 

Today’s food for thought: Wedding Crashers

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Release: July 15, 2005

[DVD]

If you are going to crash a wedding, you better do it with a Vince Vaughn who is in Swingers-mode and the other guy who looks like he’d be willing to throw back a shot with you even at the most inopportune of times. Yes indeed, if you happen to have the likes of Jeremy Grey (Vaughn) and John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) in your midst you may well get your tickets to the boobs-‘n-booty show punched if you even so much as take a sip of their outrageous Kool Aid. Just don’t drink the other stuff, unless getting roofied is your sort of thing.

You might consider them, particularly Vaughn’s larger-than-life Jeremy, as a pair of frat guys who strategically and perpetually avoided growing up. That’s precisely who both of them were, and that’s precisely the lesson to be learned in Wedding Crashers. One needed only to mention the term ‘wedding season’ to witness them pitching tents in the crotch of their pants. They may have posed as divorce mediators at the film’s open, but off the clock (which is to say for the rest of the duration) they posed as anything but when in the presence of their other ‘clientele,’ single women they picked up at weddings. In their world of hard partying, ‘mazel tov’ may as well have meant ‘Hello’ and ‘get lost’ was translated as ‘I love you.’

David Dobkin followed up Shanghai Nights with this completely reckless and gleeful joyride that pit Vaughn and Wilson alongside one another as they assumed their most infectious roles to date. Other terms that might apply: sleazy; dishonest; desperate. Sure, those are all good, although they are largely dismissive of how good Vaughn and Wilson’s chemistry was here. Vaughn was the yang to Wilson’s comedic yin. Or the other way around; whatever, it still works.

Jeremy and John had become quite skilled in the art of the con, and with the latest season of festivities drawing to a close, Jeremy decided to raise the stakes and the thrills by crashing a major wedding event hosted by none other than U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William Cleary (Christopher Walken). It would be the last big hoorah of the year. His partner’s reluctance to dive in headfirst, however, caused Jeremy to question his commitment to the cause, perhaps even to their friendship.

And because this was a movie, John eventually caved and the next thing we knew we were waist-deep in politicians, pretense and another ridiculous scheme concocted by the two sex-fiends/lawyers. While the day was intended to honor Secretary Cleary’s daughter’s wedlock, neither she nor her husband-to-be were intended to be the focus. What ensued proved you can’t apply peanut butter without jelly: Vaughn and Wilson shared the screen so as to never really draw more attention to the other. In tandem, the two were fantastic, with Vaughn working his size and a very goofy, doe-eyed stare to his advantage while Wilson poured on the saccharine sweetness like they were molasses. Both had proved to be successful strategies in the weddings leading up to this. Would they be as successful with the women they inevitably meet at this spectacular occasion? Or would their hard-on for hard partying go flaccid right at the last second?

This raunchfest not only benefitted from the two great and energetic lead performances in Vaughn and Wilson, it featured an intensely humorous antagonist in Bradley Cooper’s break-out performance as Sack Large (yes, that indeed would make it Large Sack if ever to be written out on a legal document). Cooper at the time was convincing as this tough-guy jock who really had no interest in his girlfriend, Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams), other than to make her his trophy wife, but the character is so much funnier now when one pauses to consider how against-type he was playing. But he was not alone in the strong contributor category. A very strange man named Todd (played by Keir O’Donnell), the son of the prestigious William Cleary provided a great foil for Vaughn’s Jeremy as Jeremy reluctantly became entangled in the family with the excitable red-head woman he intended to one-night stand. Todd took affection to Jeremy and this side story offers up some of the film’s most painful guffaws.

Not forgetting the quality Will Ferrell cameo as Chazz, who was the notorious albeit deluded man who invented ‘the rules of wedding crashing,’ or the beautiful montage of half-naked women being bedded in the film’s earlygoing set to the classic celebratory song ‘Shout,’ Wedding Crashers has assured its place among the great raunchy comedies of modern day filmmaking. It has all the trademarks of a classic, in the interest of full (frontal nudity) disclosure.

With increasing numbers of people subscribing to the notion that the Vaughn-Wilson comedy vehicle has long since run out of gas, perhaps a revisiting of Wedding Crashers is in order, just to remind one’s self of why the pattern exists at all. Why have they been recycling themselves? What once worked really well that doesn’t so much anymore? It’s hard to imagine there being another Crashers-quality match-up between Vaughn and Wilson, even for this fan. 2005 spawned a comedy that simply hit all the right notes, romantic, comedic and otherwise.

Yes indeed, we have a stage-five clinger on our hands.

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3-5Recommendation: It’s a great reminder of the potential Vaughn and Wilson have on screen together. Having not reached a comedic level like it since, it’s easy to understand a lot of the complaints guided their way yet some of it seems excessive. Wedding Crashers sees the two in fine form, along with it bringing out sterling performances from a varied and deeply talented crew of comedians and comediennes. This one’s for anyone who ever said weddings can’t be fun. What a blast this procession is.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “It’s the first quarter of the big game and you wanna toss up a Hail Mary! I’d like to be pimps from Oakland, or cowboys from Arizona, but it’s not Halloween. Grow up Peter Pan, Count Chocula. Look, we’ve been to a million weddings. And guess what, we’ve rocked them all!”

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com

American Hustle

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Release: Friday, December 20, 2013

[Theater]

Catch Me If You Can‘s little brother decides to show its face in 2013, sporting a cool name, a slick, sexy visage and the necessary wardrobe/make-up department to cover up all the acne pimples and skin blemishes its suffering from as it starts to stumble awkwardly into adolescence.

To that end, little bro has turned out to be quite the attention whore as well (if guys can be whores). My, how the previews have hyped this one up; puffed up its chest to the point where one might think if it were pricked by a pin, the entire thing would explode. But the only thing that would rush out — don’t worry, it wouldn’t be all gory and bloody — would be a substantial amount of air. That would be the sound of an ego slowly deflating as the excessive two-hour runtime plods ever onward.

The story of American Hustle is similar to the story of Frank William Abignale, Jr., at least structurally, in that it purposely meanders, it likes to take its time developing, and (here’s some great news) it makes outstanding use of a cast that is to die for. That last quality applies more to David O. Russell’s follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, considering it has possibly the best one of the year.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man with a hairline not many would be jealous of. His fashion-oriented, equally cunning partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) finds the man to be a little physically out of shape but his confidence and mental tenacity far outweigh his belly. Together they con people out of thousands of dollars, posing as art appreciators or collectors. . .or, whatever they are. Getting hung up on those details is not so important. What is, though, is the fact that their good luck of making money illegally eventually will run out, and indeed they get busted by the loose cannon FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (an incredibly fun Bradley Cooper).

DiMaso strikes a deal with the pair, telling them that if they apply their skills to a sting operation in which he’s targeting some of the nation’s most crooked politicians and power brokers, both Irving and Sydney will be pardoned of their previous crimes. They need four major busts, which will include nabbing Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They soon embark on a wild journey through some of the most politically corrupt and criminally-linked tiers of society that inhabit the streets of 1970s New York City.

While it features a grab-bag of talent, little bro is pretty reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. The opening act drags us deeply into the slightly questionable relationship between Irving and Sydney. But O. Russell realizes we need to have an anchor point somewhere with a cast this large; he attempts to root our emotions the deepest with this only slightly more empathetic duo. But once we are through the first thirty or so minutes, the real fun and glamour commences.

American Hustle seriously benefits from O. Russell’s direction, as he cleverly infuses a substantial bit of humor with some scenes of solid tension and applies it to the entire colorful cast in nearly equal measure. Jennifer Lawrence plays up Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn perfectly — it’s nearly impossible to think the actress is a mere 23 years old (two years older than my little brother for crying out loud), as her performances, perhaps capped off by this one, are marks of an incredibly matured, seasoned actress. The director’s hand and the talented cast blend for some truly brilliant scenes that make up for American Hustle‘s otherwise rather bland and frankly disappointing story.

After you strip down the fancy clothes, the over-the-top characterizations and lush, elegant settings, what you have left might be best described as a pissing contest between professional liars and cheaters. Who shall come out on top? Chances are, it won’t be the ones most are expecting from the outset. And chances also are that none of them are quite as adept as Frank William Abagnale, Jr., to invite yet another comparison. Unfortunately such comparisons are hard to avoid when the essence of the story is so similar. This may be a more glamorous cast to stick with, but expectation levels are so high with this film that anything less than perfect feels a little like a con in itself.

True that the art of conning is made more complicated here, since it will involve the government (whereas DiCaprio’s character was constantly outlasting and outsmarting it). Still, there’s a lot left to be desired when this one concludes.

American Hustle is nonetheless a pretty fun time at the movies. Reiterating, there are some sequences and moments that shout Oscar potential and there’s no denying each incredibly talented performer here is having a blast with the material. A lot of that can also be pinned down to what they get to wear, though. Brad Cooper’s hair in curlers is downright chuckle-worthy. The banter back and forth between Cooper and Bale is priceless. The last thing that springs to mind when seeing Lawrence here is Katniss Everdeen. Heck, even Amy Adams is decent.

Throw in a couple of silly cameos and you’ve got a little brother that flaunts his swagger so casually you don’t really mind because you know he’s putting it to good use more than you are.

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3-0Recommendation: American Hustle is a raucous comedy that is mostly successful in bringing forth the laughs. It’s story is a little confusing at times and it won’t be until the very end that things become clear (if they do at all), but as long as you go in with an open mind and expectation levels at a reasonable height, this should be the fun you might necessarily expect out of all this excess bullshot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favor over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well.”

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Photo credits: http://www.moviehdwallpapers.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

I think the real question here is, “Is it pretentious for the director to include his name in the title of the movie?” Or is it just pretentious to think about this being pretentious? Perhaps I’ll address that later Nick addresses this down below in comments, but in the meantime — the answer to the first is a resounding “Heck no.” Daniels’ film, featuring Forest Whitaker in a possible career-defining role, is both a heartwarming and tragic epic that unfolds similarly to Robert Zemeckis’ multiple-Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in that we visit several crucial periods in American history and see how they impact the life of a strong central character who undergoes both external and internal changes throughout.

The resultant timeline is full of emotional highs and lows. As one might imagine, there’s likely to be a lot of lows, since the material incorporates the violence from the civil rights movement along with the Vietnam conflict, just as two major examples. Despite the horrors on display however, there is a substantial amount of pleasantness to the proceedings. A lot of it stems from Cecil Gaines’ family life and the general essence of Whitaker in this role. He is absolutely fantastic — it’s clear he’s fully embraced the importance of what his character meant (his Cecil Gaines is actually based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen). Nominations should be awaiting with this one.

Even despite the movie being a rather loose adaptation, his life story is miraculous, to say the least. Growing up on the Westfall plantation, Cecil bears witness to gut-wrenching violence of the worst (most personal) kind. After it happens, the elderly Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Cecil he is to start working inside the house from now on. Though the job was offered out of pity, his general treatment doesn’t exactly improve much as the notion of being an invisible servant in whatever room was impressed upon him rigorously. As gloomy as his situation initially seems, and Cecil doesn’t know it yet, this is finally a job with transformative powers.

Similarly to Forrest Gump, The Butler is a lengthy journey and takes its time to unfold. Patience may be required, but also it is with great ease that most people should be able to adhere. Daniels’ vision may wander around a bit, but the transitions made from scene to scene are often subtle yet very powerful. From the plantation house Cecil moves on for the city life in search of his next job. The woman he used to work for is nearing her death and he sees no future staying around the plantation anymore. He soon comes across a man named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) under dire circumstances and asks him for a job doing anything at all. Maynard reluctantly agrees to temporarily help out a malnourished Cecil. However, Maynard quickly learns just how good Cecil’s skills are and he suggests the boy move on to still bigger things. He informs him of a job opening at a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C. and that he should consider applying. From the hotel, Cecil’s gainful employment continues as he moves up to the White House after discovering an open position for a butler there.

Daniels allows each scene to speak for themselves. As each one unfolds, Gaines’ worldview widens steadily and our respect for him grows accordingly. There’s a wonderful flow to the way small villages give way to the rush of the bigger city. The audio narration, read by Mr. Gaines, explains circumstances to us so even though we don’t have many “images” of these places, the time and places are anchored efficiently with what he has to say about them. Eventually we will meet a fantastic crew of other butlers who staff the busy American landmark: some who stand out the most are Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s upbeat Carter and Lenny Kravitz’ more reserved, but respectable James.

And of course, once we’re inside the White House we also will be getting to see the current leaders of the nation at the time. One of the most effective elements in Daniels’ film is his rotating door of great actors filling in significant roles, specifically the eight different presidents under which Cecil serves throughout his 34-year career. When Cecil first enters the Oval Office, we see a very thinly-haired Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s discussing something with members of his Cabinet while Cecil politely serves tea. The moment is just enough to give us the impression that a significant wind of change is about to start blowing  given the discussions ongoing. All those who fill in the presidential roles are terrific and similarly contribute to the scale of this story. Other famous personalities in the White House that we get to revisit include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber); Richard Nixon (John Cusack); and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Each actor really makes their mark on each of their respective presidential roles and it’s quite a bit of fun seeing how the attitudes and atmospheres change with each new leader.

While these sweeping changes are being examined at the top tier of the political ladder, Cecil must always mind his business and be sure to strictly stick to his job. . . . . . that old nasty adage of being seen, but not heard really applies here. By doing just that, the mild-mannered Cecil becomes one of the most entrusted employees within the building which is by no means an accidental occurrence. As he has attempted to be all his life, Cecil is simply a patient and humbled man who retains every ounce of his dignity even though things at home aren’t exactly perfect. His eldest son, Louis, isn’t particularly proud of his father and often overlooks the fact that he’s had to work extremely hard to get to where he’s at now. Louis leaves for college in Tennessee, where Cecil knows trouble is likely to find him, but Louis isn’t listening. His wife, Gloria (a beautiful and heartwarming performance from Oprah Winfrey was a terrific surprise for me) is more supportive of her husband but also more supportive of her son making up his own mind. A nail is driven between Louis and Cecil’s point of view on the issue of segregation that’s currently ravaging the nation and this becomes a major focal point of the latter half of the film.

With that said, it becomes increasingly obvious as the years pass and the story amasses more and more historical significance that Daniels’ has essentially created two movies in one. One is the story of Cecil and his evolution from the terrible cotton fields to the dignified role he plays in serving the many presidents. This is arguably the overriding narrative. The second is clearly the idealogical struggle between Cecil and his eldest son, who both obviously want policies and social status to change for blacks. Whereas Cecil is content to fight the good fight that he always has by maintaining his calm and working hard, Louis feels drawn more to the revolutionary points of view shared by the Black Panthers — and I needn’t say much more about that. We can see where that story may or may not go.

Because of the heavy emphasis on the struggle between father and son, the movie seems to take on a bit too much, perhaps more than it rightfully should have to handle in this limited run time. Had the movie lasted in excess of three hours the cumulative effect might have been more profound. Instead, the story moves back and forth between Cecil and Louis for about an hour and it can get a little confusing. Who should we have to care about more? There are definite answers to that question, but Lee Daniels doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not the worst complaint you can have for a movie with this much history tied into it, but it’s difficult to ignore the obvious transitions between the three major acts.

These moments are marked by Cecil’s entrance into the White House for the first time (thus identifying Act Two), and the start of the Vietnam War (Act Three). Although the fact that the two stories — that of Cecil and that of the relationship between him and his oldest son — don’t mesh as smoothly as they could have, this seems to be a relatively small issue with a movie carrying this much weight. Not to mention, every member in the Gaines household are represented with brilliant performances by young actors David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) and Isaac White (who plays the younger sibling, Charlie). It may be obvious when we’ve shifted gears a little, but their screen times are both equally captivating and White is absolutely hilarious as Charlie.

I really can’t say enough about the cast. Everyone involved turns in stellar performances and considering that, this movie is far better than it maybe should have been. It’s hardly a groundbreaking story that we learn of here, even despite the incredible truth behind it and when one considers the horrible political culture in America at the time. One man comes from behind to get ahead of most everyone else and of course, things go all but smoothly for him along the way. Gaines suffers terrible personal losses, as well as he experiences the pain of a nation suffering from prejudice, hatred and division. Even though we’ve journeyed through the filth and grime with other public figures in movies before, Whitaker’s performance truly makes Eugene Allen iconic — a label which he perhaps earned himself; but the actor confirms it.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it’s not perfect and at times darts between historical and familial themes of devotion, betrayal, respect and dignity, the direction by Lee Daniels affords the film a beautiful aura, a respectful tone and a richly detailed culture from start to finish. It’s both funny and extremely serious; simultaneously poetic and dispassionate. Juggling these extremes cannot have been an easy task, and if you’re willing to see how it’s handled, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Rated: PG-13 (hard)

Running Time: 126 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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