Lee Daniels’ The Butler enters the Oscar conversation early, but PEOPLE’s critics say the tech-heavy JOBS and Paranoia feel like outdated programs.
Here’s what to see and what to skip this weekend:
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition: While Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) thrives as a White House butler thanks to his discretion and subtlety, this film doesn’t bother with such quiet niceties.
Loosely based on the story of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan, Lee Daniels’ The Butler chooses instead to barge into complicated conversations on race, politics and our nation’s tricky history reconciling the two. It’s a flawed, but ultimately satisfying, jaunt through the ages, told by a man who learned tragically early to keep his mouth shut.
It’s just one word, in fact, that effectively costs young Cecil both his sharecropper parents in the 1920s South, one utterance that changes his life forever. Though there will never be justice for the boy, there is a future when the lady of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) takes him in to teach him how to be a house Negro. (They use a different term, of course, but that doesn’t mean I will.) Cecil’s growing expertise at the trade, saving him from his parents’ fate, is something of a miracle. That he soon becomes an eyewitness to history is the stuff of legend.
Still, it’s Cecil who makes the most indelible impression, not the various presidents and first ladies who stroll through in cameo after cameo (including Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber and Jane Fonda). In fact, the White House gets somewhat short shrift, as Cecil’s quiet dignity and presence fill the screen. It’s a star turn that’s sure to get some notice come awards season, and deservedly so, particularly since Whitaker has to compete for attention with David Oyelowo, who plays Cecil’s activist son, Louis. Once Louis comes of age to fight for civil rights, director Daniels’s focus goes with him.
The split narrative makes for a more nuanced debate on race relations in America (father and son don’t at all agree on the efficacy of protesting and getting arrested), but it does strip the film of some cohesion.
Also stealing her share of the spotlight is Oprah Winfrey, who proves she can still deliver a powerful dramatic turn nearly 30 years after her Oscar nod for The Color Purple. As Cecil’s boozy wife Gloria, she’s loving and proud one moment, bitter and snide the next. It’s a splashy role and Winfrey turns in a real performance, though it may take you a moment to get past her very Oprahness.
While the cast delivers, The Butler stumbles occasionally in its Gumpy stomp through history as it hits all the major flashpoints. Plus, Daniels has a bad habit of undercutting the emotional power in some scenes, though I hasten to add that there are moments in this film that stand as his best work. The Butler is a bit uneven, perhaps, but no less heartfelt for its flaws.
Watching stars like Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford waste their talents in an empty thriller like Paranoia is like seeing lions at the zoo. Sure, they’re still impressive, but you can’t help regretting the venue. The two play rival tycoons who use new recruit Adam (Liam Hemsworth) as a pawn in their bid to outmaneuver each other. (As the dumbest tech genius alive that’s pretty much all he’s good for.) Plot points are telegraphed from miles away. World-changing software ideas are dreamed up and executed perfectly within hours. Characters behave nothing like actual people. For a movie that’s all about innovation, it’s a shame that there’s nothing new here.
And Skip This – Unless You Really Dig Ashton Kutcher
As Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, Ashton Kutcher proves he has a far wider range than his previous roles would suggest. He’s cagey, expressive and undeniably compelling as the mercurial magnate, but the film isn’t nearly as clever or inventive as Jobs, himself.
I have to admit, the opening scene, in which an older Jobs introduces the world to the iPod, actually gave me goose bumps. (It’s wondrous to think how much he changed all of our lives.) But from there the film just hits its marks, moving by rote from one moment in the company’s early history to the next.
We never find out how someone so in touch with human instinct could be such a creep, or how he reconciled with the daughter he shunned – according to the film it just happens. But the performances, including the phenomenally talented Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, make the two hours bearable.
Proceed with Extreme Caution …
Kick-Ass 2 It s hard to know what to make of Kick-Ass 2. On the one hand, after a summer of watching a bloodless zombie infestation and cities crumble while nary a citizen comes away with scratch, there’s something oddly cathartic about seeing a movie that not only refuses to avert its gaze from the violence at its center, but openly wallows in it.
As Kick-Ass and Hit Girl (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz, both just as good as they were in 2010 original) face off against a super villain with a profane moniker (fellow returnee Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who s cheese has not aged as well), blood gushes. Arms, legs and necks crackle, pop and snap.
But how much is too much? For me, it was when a cadre of bad guys slaughter 10 consecutive NYPD cops, the last couple via lawnmower. And at that point, the real carnage is still to come. Who needs it?
Fans of the original, those with iron stomachs and particularly twisted senses of humor, and very few others.
Ironically, Jim Carrey, who later denounced the film s violence on Twitter, seems to be having the time of his life as Colonel Stars and Stripes, a gangster turned vigilante leader. The twinkle in those masked eyes shows that he was in on the joke, at least for a while.