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Lee Daniels' The Butler(2013)
A look at the life of Cecil Gaines who served eight presidents as the White House's head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.
For more about Lee Daniels' The Butler and the Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray release, see Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on January 9, 2014 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: John Cusack, Forest Whitaker, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Minka Kelly
Director: Lee Daniels
» See full cast & crew
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray Review
Anchor Bay serves a good Blu-ray.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, January 9, 2014
You've served your country well.
There's far too much inconsistency in The Butler to elevate it to the "masterpiece" status a film of its scope, story, and powerful lead performance deserves. The film garnered as many headlines for its title as it did its content, removing some focus from the latter and placing the director's name above the former. Perhaps the film should have instead simply been renamed Nice Try. There's plenty to admire in The Butler -- within the contents of its story, the portrayal of some of its characters, and the technical mastery with which it is photographed and assembled -- but there's nearly as much to dislike, including a rather loose grasp of history, several poor performances (and equally poor casting) from actors who are capable of significantly better, and a feeling by the end that the movie is more a celebration of Barack Obama the man than it is a celebration of the culmination of the civil rights movement and a solemn reminder of where the country has been and what has come from its journey, which is the point, just a point that becomes lost under a clumsy, overreaching, almost excessive finale. The film is enjoyable in spurts and enlightening in spots, but the unevenness is too much a burden for the "good" half to carry for the duration.
A young Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey Jr.) witnesses his mother's rape and his father's murder on a Macon, Georgia cotton plantation in 1926. He's thereafter moved into the house to serve the family that destroyed his. Years later, he leaves behind his traumatized mother in search of a better life. Now early into adulthood, Cecil (Forrest Whitaker) finds employment in the hotel service business, landing in Washington, D.C. and meeting and marrying a hotel maid, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Some time passes, he and Gloria start a family, and he receives a telephone call with an opportunity to interview for a rarely opened butler position at the White House. Cecil is hired on, serving first President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and remaining for several decades, working alongside Presidents Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), Ford, Carter, and Reagan (Alan Rickman). Meanwhile, his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a key player in the civil rights movement and, later, the Black Panthers and Democratic politics.
The Butler tells an extraordinary story about a life that finds purpose and stability in the service of others. At its core, it's a classic "rags to riches" tale, with hopelessness and de facto slavery standing in for the former and a white-glove, front-row seat to history representing the latter. It's a quintessential American story in many ways, traversing the worst the nation's history has to offer while espousing respect, hard work, dignity, and dedication as a means of escape and discovering a purpose, and perhaps even a destiny, on the way to personal stability and contentment. While the Gaines family never strikes it rich, at least not monetarily -- this isn't The Pursuit of Happyness -- Cecil's service does provide him with a greater understanding of how the world works even while sheltered in adulthood from many of its problems, problems his sons battle firsthand instead. The film often contrasts Louis' activism and front-lines participation in the civil rights movement with shots of Cecil performing his duties for the upper crust of American political society. While that neither diminishes Cecil's commitment to his job nor in any way elevates the very real physical, emotional, and familial pains Louis endures, it does effectively portray two very different sides of America's history in one of its most tumultuous eras.
Yet that portrayal of American history is also a large part of the film's downfall. Many of the picture's historical inaccuracies -- including a change in the lead character's name -- are well documented across the Internet, but to the picture's credit it does paint a solid foundational portrait of its time both inside the White House and outside of it on the streets of the real America. The film badly fumbles its casting of historical figures, however, and nearly every secondary character comes across almost as a caricature of the person. Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as President Johnson, John Cusack as President Nixon, and Alan Rickman as President Reagan are fair to fully unconvincing, some barely looking the parts and others barely capturing the mannerisms, dialects, or spirits of the men they portray. It doesn't help that the Presidents are depicted in only brief and all-too-candid plot-serving moments, such as Johnson's grouchy, almost garrulous time on the toilet or Nixon's disheveled post-Watergate darkened room and presumably drunken rantings. Rickman comes closest to capturing the essence of the man he plays, and his effort is supported by a surprisingly balanced effort from Jane Fonda in a few brief scenes as Nancy Reagan, who not only looks the part but exudes the sweetness and kindly demeanor for which the former first lady is known. Only James Marsden as John F. Kennedy really seems to fill the shoes with the gravitas his character commands. He captures a charming innocence and the energy of the President's youth very well, perhaps not hitting every accent or looking like a mirror image of the late 35th President, but he's certainly a beacon amongst a collection of dubiously cast and (mostly) poorly performed Presidents.
The film does shine where it's needed the most. Forrest Whitaker delivers an Oscar-caliber performance and one of the finest of his career, arguably bettering his astonishing, Oscar-winning effort as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Through the magic of makeup and a deep, natural understanding of his character's place in the world and progression through it -- from his first job in the hotel service business to his first interview at the White House, from serving Presidents to dining with Reagan, from retirement to rejoicing in Barack Obama's election in November 2008 -- Whitaker falls into part and never leaves, and he's even better outside the black tie White House position and in the more intimate and equally important story-driving family scenes. So good is Whitaker that the performance reinforces one of the more subtle points the film tries to make, showing that Gaines is in many ways a superior public servant than those he serves, remaining steadfast and true to himself and never truly unwinding and losing sight of who he is, where he's been, and where he's headed. In no scene is that more evident than his late-night Oval Office sit-down with President Nixon. There are plenty of other very well-done and rather deep and nuanced themes that run through the film, including Gaines' own "politicking" (despite a warning against political activism by his employer, Mr. Fallows) for equal pay for the White House's black employees. Whitaker and co-star Oprah Winfrey make for a convincing and lovable couple, culminating in a beautiful, honest, heartfelt scene late in the film when they travel to Georgia and retrace his roots.
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Butler isn't the most attractive movie to land on Blu-ray in 2014, but it holds its own nicely enough. Anchor Bay's 1080p presentation appears faithful to a source that often looks a bit dreamy, slightly blown out and bright. Still, it commands solid details and strong clarity throughout, showcasing complex facial features, clothing lines, and the many regal accents around the White House with ease and attention to accuracy. Grasses and old, weathered wood seen in a critical scene near the end are also very well defined. Colors are bright and even. Red carpeting and gold trim around the White House are particularly fabulous. That same near-end scene with the grass and wood also reveals some very nice, bold colors on the Gaines' jumpsuits. Black levels are fine, and flesh tones appear even. Grain is moderately thick throughout most of the movie. While it's not reference material by its very nature, Anchor Bay has released a quality upper end presentation that should satisfy most all viewers.
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Butler's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack is quite good. There's a nice orchestral score to open, balanced across the stage and featuring particularly good accuracy from its clean highs, deep lows, and even midrange. Musical presence remains a strength throughout the film. A good number of environmental sound effects effectively pull the listener into several locales, from the cotton fields of 1926 that spring to life with the din of chirping birds and buzzing insects to some of the more sonically robust and complex moments from the height of the civil rights era. Driving rain and cracking thunder effects prove even and enveloping in those scenes in which they appear. A fair bit of bass accompanies a few overlaid explosions heard during some vintage Vietnam news footage. Dialogue flows evenly and consistently from the center. This is a very well done track, from nuanced elements to flowing score and everything else it has to offer.
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Butler contains a short "making of" documentary, a featurette, a music video, and several deleted scenes. With optional English subtitles.
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Butler misses its opportunities for greatness but is nevertheless a solid picture that students of history will enjoy, though perhaps not love. No picture in recent memory feels so divided as this, on one hand telling a captivating, important, touching, and heartfelt story of a man's personal rise from nothing into prominent, respected witness to history, paralleling the rise of the civil rights movement and ending with the election of the country's first black President. On the other hand, the film is littered with out-of-place actors, subpar performances, dubious history, and a finale that's at one moment touching and at another overplayed, destroying the point it's trying to make. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release of The Butler delivers good video and excellent audio. A few supplements are included. Definitely worth a rental and fans can purchase with confidence.
Lee Daniels' The Butler: Other Editions
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Blu-ray Sales, Jan. 13-19: Riddick Battles The Butler for Number One - January 23, 2014
For the week that ended on January 19th, Universal Studios' Riddick took the number one spot on the Blu-ray-only media chart, knocking down the winner from the previous five weeks, Despicable Me 2. This sci-fi thriller, the latest installment in the adventures ...
• This Week on Blu-ray: January 14-21 - January 12, 2014
For the week of January 14th, Universal Studios Home Entertainment streets Riddick on Blu-ray. Other titles include Fox's Enough Said, the docudrama The Butler, Lionsgate's You're Next, The Spectacular Now, and Pride and Prejudice releases, and Criterion's Rififi ...
• Exclusive Giveaway: The Butler - January 8, 2014
Blu-ray.com, Anchor Bay Entertainment and The Weinstein Company are offering three members the opportunity to win a copy of Lee Daniels' The Butler, which stars Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, ...
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