Film Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler (dir by Lee Daniels)


Dare I admit it?

When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I was not impressed.

Yes, the audience applauded as the end credits rolled.  And yes, I know that almost all of the mainstream critics have given it a good review.  I know that Sasha Stone has been hyping it as a surefire Oscar contender.  I know that, up until 12 Years A Slave introduced us all to an actress named Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey was considered to be the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But it doesn’t matter.  The Butler did little for me.

I also realize that the film ended with a title card that announced that what I had just watched was dedicated to the American civil rights movement.  In many ways, that title card felt like emotional blackmail, implying that if you criticized The Butler than that meant you were also criticizing the brave, real life men and women who risked their lives to fight for equal rights.

However, when you put emotions and good intentions to the side, the fact of the matter is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not that good of a movie.  One need only compare The Butler to some of the other films that were released this year that dealt with the African-American experience — films like 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station — to see just how safe and uninspiring The Butler truly is.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the son sharecroppers (played by David Banner and Mariah Carey) in the deep south.  After Cecil’s father is murdered by plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), Cecil is raised and educated by the wealthy Annabeth Westdall (Vanessa Redgrave).  Eventually, the teenaged Cecil leaves the plantation and ends up working in a hotel where he’s educated in how to be a master servant by the elderly Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who brings a quiet dignity to his role).  Cecil eventually gets promoted to a hotel in Washington, D.C.  It’s there that he meets and marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).

In 1957, Cecil is hired to work at the White House.  Along with befriending two others butlers (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), Cecil also gets the chance to observe history play out first hand.  Starting with Dwight Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) and ending with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, giving a performance that is incredibly bad), Cecil watches as President after President deals with the civil rights movement.  Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) are portrayed as being heroes while others, like Richard Nixon (John Cusack), are portrayed as being villains but all of them have the watchful eye of Cecil Gaines in common.

Meanwhile, at home, Gloria has a brief affair with Howard (played by Terrence Howard and really, you have to wonder what Cecil was thinking leaving his wife alone with anyone played by Terrence Howard) and Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved with the civil rights movement and grow increasingly estranged from his father.

The Butler actually starts out pretty well.  There’s a lengthy sequence where Louis and a group of students are trained on how to conduct a sit-in that’s extremely compelling to watch.  However, then John Cusack shows up wearing a big fake nose and the entire film starts to fall apart.

From a cinematic point of view, the film fails because it ultimately seems to be more dedicated to trotting out a parade of celebrity cameos to actually telling a compelling story.  As is his usual style, Lee Daniels directs with a heavy hand and, as a result, the film is full of emotionally-charged scenes that fail to resonate for longer than a handful of minutes.

My main issue with The Butler is that the film literally contains no surprises.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens and, at no point, is the audience actually challenged to consider the way they view history or race relations.  Whereas films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave truly challenge our assumptions, The Butler encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for being so enlightened.  Every single frame of The Butler is specifically designed to fool us into thinking that we’re watching an important and challenging movie.

Because of a silly copyright lawsuit, the official title of The Butler is Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  However, that title is very appropriate because The Butler is definitely a Lee Daniels film.  Even if you didn’t know it beforehand, it would be easy to guess that the  same man who directed Precious and The Paperboy also directed The Butler.  As a director, Daniels specializes in making simplistic points in the most bombastic way possible.  The results are films, like The Butler, that are more concerned with manipulating an audience than challenging an audience.  When audiences applaud at the end of The Butler, they aren’t so much applauding the film as much as they are applauding themselves for having seen it.

What If Lisa Marie Was In Charge of the Golden Raspberry Awards


If you’re following the Awards ceremony, you know that two major events are coming up next week.  On Tuesday, the Oscar nominations will be announced.  But before that, on Monday, the Golden Raspberry Award nominations will be announced.  For 32 years, the Golden Raspberries have been honoring the worst films of the year and they’ve always served as a nice counterpoint to the self-congratulatory nature of the Academy Awards.

Now, on Monday night, I’ll be posting what I would nominate if I was in charge of the Oscars but first, I’d like to show you what I’d nominate if I was solely responsible for making the Golden Raspberry nominations.

Now before anyone leaves me any pissy comments, these are not predictions.  I know that these are not the actual nominations.  I know that the actual Golden Raspberry nominations will probably look a lot different.  These are just my individual picks.

(My “winners” are listed in bold print.)

Worst Picture

Anonymous

The Conspirator

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

The Rum Diary

Straw Dogs

Worst Actor

Daniel Craig in Dream House, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Aaron Eckhardt in Battle: Los Angeles

James Marsden in Straw Dogs

James McAvoy in The Conspirator

Brandon Routh in Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

Worst Actress

Kate Bosworth in Straw Dogs

Anita Briem in Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

Claire Foy in Season of the Witch

Brit Marling in Another Earth

Sara Paxton in Shark Night: 3-D

Worst Supporting Actor

Paul Giamatti in The Ides of March

Mel Gibson (as the Beaver) in The Beaver

Sir Derek Jacobi in Anonymous

Giovanni Ribisi in The Rum Diary

James Woods in Straw Dogs

Worst Supporting Actress

Jennifer Ehle in Contagion

Amber Heard in The Rum Diary

Willa Holland in Straw Dogs

Vanessa Redgrave in Anonymous

Oliva Wilde in Cowboys and Aliens

Worst Director

Roland Emmerich for Anonymous

Rod Lurie for Straw Dogs

Kevin Munroe for Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

Robert Redford for The Conspirator

Bruce Robinson for The Rum Diary

Worst Screenplay

Anonymous, written by John Orloff.

Another Earth, written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling

The Beaver, written by Kyle Killen

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, written by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer.

Straw Dogs, written by Rod Lurie.

(That’s right, it’s a tie.)

Worst Screen Couple 

Rhys Ifans and Joeley Richardson in Anonymous

Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave in Anonymous

Brit Marling and any breathing creature in Another Earth

Mel Gibson and The Beaver in The Beaver

James Marsden and Kate Bosworth in Straw Dogs

Worst Prequel, Sequel, or Remake

Arthur

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Scream 4

Straw Dogs

Transformers 3

Is Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs The Worst Film of 2011?


It’s probably a bit too early to answer that question.  After all, we’ve still got 3 months left to go in the year and Roland Emmerich’s take on Shakespeare (a.k.a. Anonymous) hasn’t been released yet.  So, no, Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs cannot be called the worst film of 2011 yet.  Instead, it’s just the worst film so far.

Straw Dogs is a remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film.  In the Peckinpah film, David Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman) is a pacifist who, upon moving to the childhood home of his wife Amy (Susan George), is repeatedly harassed by the locals until he finally takes his very brutal revenge.  It’s a flawed and uneven film that still carries quite a punch.  I wouldn’t say I’ve ever enjoyed watching Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs but it’s undeniably powerful film.  As for the remake, Peckinpah has been replaced with Rod Lurie, Hoffman by James Marsden, and Susan George’s controversial character is now played by Kate Bosworth.  None of these changes are for the better.

Lurie’s version of Straw Dogs almost slavishly follows the plot of the original.  He’s made just a few changes and none of those changes are for the better.  The most obvious change is that, while the first Straw Dogs took place in rural England, Lurie’s version takes place in Mississippi.  It’s pretty easy to guess Lurie’s logic here.  Lurie, after all, previously created the television show Commander-in-Chief in which President Geena Davis heroically struggled to save the nation from fundamentalists with Southern drawls.  Lurie’s vision of Mississippi is some sort of Blue State nightmare where everyone drives a pickup truck, goes to church, cheers at football games, and makes supportive comments regarding the War in Iraq.  In the original Straw Dogs, David Sumner is a truly a stranger in a strange land, an American who doesn’t realize just how out-of-place he is in rural England.  In the remake, David Sumner is just a guy on vacation from the West Coast.  He really has no excuse for being quite as dense as he is when it comes to not pissing off the locals.  By changing the locale, Rod Lurie essentially just makes his film into yet another example of Yankee paranoia.  This wouldn’t be such a problem except that Lurie seems to be taking it all so seriously.  He really seems to feel that he’s making a legitimate contribution to the whole Red State/Blue State divide.  Watching the film, I had to wonder if Rod Lurie truly believed that it’s impossible to get a cell phone signal in Mississippi. 

The other big difference is that in Lurie’s version, David Sumner is no longer a mathematician.  Instead, he’s now a Hollywood screenwriter who is apparently working on an epic screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad.  (“I figured out a way to get Khrushchev in on the action!” he says at one point.)  To be honest, David’s screenplay sounds kinda boring and it’s hard not to sympathize with the “hillbilly rednecks,” (as David calls them) who ask him why anybody would want to watch his movie.  (The rednecks also ask him if he thinks that God had anything do with the Battle of Stalingrad.  Speaking as a nonbeliever, I have to say that this film was almost hilariously paranoid about any sort of religious belief.)  Part of the power of the first Straw Dogs came from the fact that David was an academic.  He was a man whose life was about theory and that made it all the more shocking to see him explode into action.  It also explained his non-existent social skills, because he was, after all, the product of a very insular, intellectual existence.  However, in the remake, David just becomes a condescending jerk who’s working on a screenplay for a film that most viewers would have little interest in actually sitting through.  (Add to that, it was hard not to feel that this new David was just Rod Lurie’s Mary Sue.)

David is in Mississippi because it’s the childhood home of his wife, Amy.  The character of Amy is problematic in both versions of Straw Dogs but, to be honest, I found her character to be even more illogical and insulting in Lurie’s remake.  In the original Straw Dogs, Amy is portrayed as an idiot who flirts with every man she sees, taunts her husband to the point of violence, and (by that film’s logic) puts herself in a situation that leads to her rape.  The character is, in many ways, an insulting stereotype but at least she’s a consistent insulting stereotype.  The remake’s Amy is presented as being a considerably stronger character.  She doesn’t openly flirt with the local rednecks, she and her husband are a lot more obnoxiously lovey dovey, and (as opposed to in the first film), it’s never suggested that she actually enjoys being raped.  Kudos to Lurie for trying to make her a stronger character.  Yet, at the same time, the remake’s Amy still does a lot of the same illogical things as the original Amy.  The original Amy at least had the excuse of being an idiot.  The remake’s Amy just comes across as being an inconsistent, poorly-concieved character.  Eventually, it becomes obvious that director Lurie wasn’t trying to make Amy into a stronger character as much as he was just trying to be politically correct.  (Another thing that the two Amys have in common is that neither one of them wears a bra.  It made sense in the original film because the original Amy was presented as being something of a wannabe flower child.  In the remake, it just comes across as Lurie’s dirty boy excuse to get a peek at Kate Bosworth’s nipples.  Seriously, who goes jogging without a sports bra?)

Anyway, the remake follows the path of the original.  David and Amy return to Amy’s home village where they meet Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (played by an amazingly hot and sexy Alexander Skarsgard).  David hires Charlie and his redneck buddies to repair the roof of an old barn.  Charlie, who is obviously still attracted to Amy, spends the entire first part of the movie subtly humiliating David and basically being a bully.  Somebody strangles Amy’s cat.  Amy says it was Charlie and his friends.  David replies, “I can’t just accuse them.”  Eventually, David is taken on a deer hunt by Charlie’s friends and while he’s gone, Charlie and his buddy Chris rape Amy. 

(In the original it was a snipe hunt and the sight of Dustin Hoffman searching for a nonexistent creature while his wife is being raped was quite disturbing and perfectly symbolized his character’s impotence.  In the remake, David is once again left alone in the woods but this time, he shoots and kills a deer and, unfortunately, James Marsden isn’t a good enough actor to let us know what that means.)

Amy never tells David that she was raped, nor does she go to the authorities.  (This makes a sick sense in the original.  In the remake, it just seems like an effort by Rod Lurie to degrade a previously strong woman.)  The next night, David ends up sheltering the local sex pervert in his house while Charlie and his drunken friends attempt to break in.  This leads to David revealing that, as opposed to being “a coward,” he’s actually as vicious a killer as everyone else in the film. 

In the original version, this was a disturbing revelation if just because Sam Peckinpah emphasized not so much the killing as the fact that, as the siege progresses, David begins to enjoy the killing more and more.  Once Peckinpah’s David has given into the reality that he too is an animal, you realize that it’ll be impossible for him to return to being the essentially decent man that he was before.  In the original, you start out cheering David’s revenge but soon, you just want it to stop.  Much like the originalTexas Chainsaw Massacre, the film is so thematically nightmarish that you end up thinking you’ve seen a lot more blood than you actually have.  It sticks with you.

However, since Lurie’s remake is a film devoid of nuance or subtlety, the sudden explosion of violence on David’s part is neither surprising nor all that exciting.  And since James Marsden is no Dustin Hoffman (to put it lightly), you don’t see any change in David once the violence begins.  He’s not a man turning into an animal as much as he’s just a 90210 reject with a scowl on his face.  He kills a lot of men but he looks oh so pretty doing it and Amy cheers him on every step of the way.  (In the original, Amy was terrified of her husband’s new side.  I would be too.)  Since Lurie isn’t a good enough director to generate a sincere emotional response to seeing David turn into a killer, he instead lingers over all the blood and gore like a pervert struggling to catch his breath while secretly looking at a snuff website.  In short, the original Straw Dogs condemned violence by pretending to celebrate it.  The remake celebrates it by pretending to condemn. 

Okay, you may be saying, so it’s not a great film.  But is it really the worst of 2011 so far?  After all, Alexander Skarsgard gives a charismatic, bad boy performance and James Woods has a few good scenes as a venomous former football coach.  And director Lurie, while he may be incapable of keeping the action moving at a steady pace, does manage to make Mississippi look pretty.  That’s all true but I still say that Straw Dogs is the worst movie of the year so far.  Why? 

Because it’s not only a remake of a film that didn’t need to be remade but it’s also a remake that was apparently made by people who don’t have a clue about what made the original an important film to begin with.  It’s a film that’s gloriously unaware of its own tawdriness, a sordid mess that can’t even have fun with the possibilities inherent in being a sordid mess.  Arrogantly, director Lurie invited you to compare his film to Sam Peckinpah’s by not just ripping off the film’s story (as countless other enjoyable films have done) but by claiming the title as well.  It’s a film that represents Hollywood at its worst and for me, that’s why it’s earned the title of worst film of 2011 so far.

(One positive note: Perhaps this terrible, insulting remake will encourage someone to track down the original Straw Dogs and see how this story was meant to be told.)