This is an strangely slushy movie from Lee Daniels, whose last two films (Precious and The Paperboy) bristled with unexpected life. By contrast, this star-packed drama uses a true story to trace the Civil Rights struggle from the 1950s to the present day. But it's been so fictionalised that it feels kind of like a variation on Forrest Gump.
Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation, where the cruel master's kindly mother (Redgrave) taught him to be a house servant. Years later, he marries Gloria (Winfrey) and moves to Washington DC, where he gets a job in the White House as a butler to presidents from Eisenhower (Williams) to Reagan (Rickman). His job description is simple: "You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve." And yet as the nation grapples with its racist culture, he has a quiet influence on each leader who moves through the house.
Whitaker narrates the film in drawling flashbacks, while the story flickers between Cecil and his eldest son Louis (Oyelowo), an activist who is involved in every key moment in the Civil Rights movement. And their younger son (Kelley) is sent to Vietnam. So it's like a condensed version of late 20th century American history, made notable by the lively cast of cameo players including Marsden (as JFK), Schreiber (LBJ), Ellis (MLK) and Cusack (Nixon), plus Fonda as a lively Nancy Reagan.
Continue reading: The Butler Review
Although set in the 1970s, this dramatic thriller has a distinctly Western vibe to it, digging into the darker emotional corners of characters who are trying to make it through life on their own terms. It's moody and evocative, focussing on internal feelings rather that big action beats, so it feels dreamlike and a bit sleepy. And also strangely mesmerising.
When we meet Bob and Ruth (Affleck and Mara), they're hopelessly in love. She knows he's not good for her, but she's pregnant so makes the most of it. Short of cash in rural Texas, they plot a messy bank robbery, during which he injures police officer Patrick (Foster) and is sent to prison. Four years later, she's now living on her own with her young daughter, watched over by Bob's old mentor Skerritt (Carradine). But she's also struck up an awkward friendship with Patrick. So when Bob escapes from prison and comes back for her, he's in for a rather nasty shock.
Writer-director Lowery uses striking visuals and minimalistic dialog, shooting scenes with an unexpected sensuality to explore each point where these people interact. Everything is understated (the title is never explained at all), which allows the actors to give delicate, transparent performances that catch us off guard with their honesty. Affleck, Mara and Foster are fascinatingly complicated as three parts of an untidy triangle that only hints at romance. Carradine adeptly provides both wit and gravity to his scenes, while Parker gives a beautiful performance as Bob's reluctant buddy.
Continue reading: Ain't Them Bodies Saints Review
Filmmaker Daniels follows up his acclaimed hit Precious with what might be the trashiest movie in recent memory: a swampy thriller packed with desperate characters hiding grisly secrets. Daniels and his cast dive headlong into this garish world, refusing to blink as they take us to the fringes of human behaviour. It's so marvellously audacious that we feel like we need a shower after watching it.
The film takes us into the steamy backwoods of central Florida in 1969, as Miami journalist Ward (McConaughey) returns home with his black colleague Yardley (Oyelowo), who sparks whispers of racism everywhere he goes. Staying with his editor dad (Glenn) and delivery boy brother Jack (Efron), Ward is investigating the case of death row inmate Hillary (Cusack), whose trashy fiancee Charlotte (Kidman) is filing an appeal. The 20-year-old Jack is instantly smitten with the overtly sexual Charlotte, who seems happy to seduce every man she meets. And as Ward, Yardley and Jack dig deeper into the case, they get several startling surprises.
Daniels keeps the film sweaty and snarky as he delves into the story's seriously dark corners. And the actors all go along with him. The always terrific Kidman really goes for broke here, prowling through each scene and oozing raw sexuality. It's no wonder she triggers Jack's lust, and Efron plays him with a delicate balance of intelligence and naivete, underscored of course with relentless horndog desire. None of the characters are as dumb as they look, and McConaughey, Oyelowo and especially Cusack revel in playing against expectations. Each actor packs every line with attitude and insinuation, creating fascinating chemistry along the way.
Continue reading: The Paperboy Review