Film Review “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hour 12 minutes
The Weinstein Company

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

For me school was about teachers constantly pounding the same subjects over and over into our heads. Every year we’d go over the same material…history, English, science…but obviously it’s tweaked just a little to give us that fresh feeling even though it’s the same thing. Late middle school and the beginnings of high school is when you’re finally able to branch out and dive past the simplified textbooks handed out at school and begin to get a taste of something more in-depth. When it comes to the civil rights era, we were taught about Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Those aren’t bad people to start out with, but what about those behind the scenes? Their stories and their influences on the times are so much more compelling and that’s what “The Butler” goes for.

Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) is a hard working man who has always done his job to a tee. Even as a young lad, while he watched his slave owner murder his father and sexually abuse his mom, he has maintained a cool demeanor and was raised as the perfect house servant. He’s exactly what the White House wants. A man who puts his job above everything else and someone who never reacts or speaks about politics. Those two things don’t sit well with his wife, Gloria (Winfrey) and his son, Louis (Oyelowo). Gloria loves the fact that he’s so successful in life, but unhappy that many of her days are spent alone at home, chain smoking and washing away her sorrows with alcohol. Louis wishes that his father, within constant contact with everyone in the White House, would speak up for civil rights.

Cecil and his son represent two different ideas during the civil rights movement and neither are wrong in their thoughts or ideals. Louis starts his journey as a Freedom Rider, moving on to Black Panther and then to an aspiring politician, spending half of his time in jail for protesting. Cecil continues gaining the admiration of those around them and impressing each and every President with his back breaking work. Both father and son’s journeys highlight specific pivotal parts of the civil rights movement. Besides the social impacts, the movie also profiles the home life of Cecil and Gloria, which is the main emotional draw of the film. It’s their life’s journey that will make you laugh, feel tense and at times tear up.

Every little intricate character is well cast but the centerpiece of this ensemble is Forest Whitaker, who puts up a top-notch performance. If there’s any weakness among the powerful cast, it’s Oprah. While she’s not terrible, she never matches the same highs that Whitaker does and is often outdone by Oyelowo in their scenes together. The actors who play the Presidents are all well suited, but never get enough time to draw upon the historic mannerisms, while the actors portraying Cecil’s co-workers in the White House are a delight to watch whenever they’re called upon.

This is an “inspired by” story, which means that you can’t take everything at face value. However, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have penned a very good movie. There’s never a dull moment and I would almost say it’s one of the more enjoyable flicks of the year. Come Oscar time this movie will definitely be getting some nods, but it may not be strong enough to reel them in. This movie is definitely riddled with political overtones, but that shouldn’t stop you from being satisfied with this imaginary look at a key part of our nation’s history. The journey of Cecil and the journey of our country are one in the same. Tough times always lay ahead, but perseverance will overcome our struggles. If I can walk out of a movie feeling good with that message, it’s better than anything I was taught in elementary school.

Chris Butler & Sam Fell talk about directing “ParaNorman” and working with stop-motion animation

Chris Butler & Sam Fell are the co-directors of Laika Animation’s latest stop-motion animation film “ParaNorman”.  The film is the first stop-motion film to utilize a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets and breaks all the boundaries which past stop-motion films have faced.  Media Mikes had a chance to chat with the directors about working in the horror genre and blending it with stop-motion animation.

Mike Gencarelli: I am a big stop-motion fan but I see a trend with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, Coraline” and “ParaNorman” all tend to have creepy aspects, why and do you you feel this aspect relates to stop motion?
Chris Butler: I think is the tradition of the medium. If you trace it back to its early days, in the 1890’s the very first efforts in stop-motion were creepy. “The Dancing Skeleton” was one of the first back in 1897. I think what it comes down to is they feature inanimate objects moving on their own accord, which in itself is something like black magic going on there. If you look at the pioneers of this medium, there was a certain creepiness to them. There has always been that slightly unsettling side of it. I believe it is entirely to do with it being real objects moving. When Tim Burton comes along and re-invents with with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, he is playing on that and having fun with that slightly dark sense of humor. I don’t think it should be the limitation of the medium by any means. “ParaNorman” is kind of spooky but I think there shouldn’t be any real limits to the kind of stories you can tell with stop-motion.

MG: This is the first stop-motion film to utilize a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets, tell us about about that decision?
Sam Fell: Obviously these things aren’t designed for stop-motion animation. You are always taking a chance. We wanted to do something different on this film. They got a color printer in the studio and we did some experiments with it initially with the character Neil, who is covered in  freckles. When we saw it on the tested it big screen it just looked so promising. It was one of those spine-tingling moments, when you see something you’ve never seen before. We didn’t know if it was going to work on all the characters or if it would literally last over a two year production. We took a risk and went for it but it really turned out so well. When you see how the light fall on those faces or comes through them. I think the characters look less like dolls and are even more tangible and believable.

MG: I read that Norman alone has about 8,000 faces, how does that compare from other stop-motion films?
SF: I think with the numbers of faces, it has increased exponentially. I think Norman had a possible 1.5 million expressions at hand. We would never even use all of them since I don’t even think the human face can use that many expression. But that was at our finger tips. So pretty much whatever we wanted to do with this character we were able to do. It was really freeing because in the past stop-motion has had it limitations. There was replacement heads as far back as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” but they had to be hand-sculpted, so they were limited. Pretty much every limitation has been blown up on this movie. The boundaries in place of previous stop-motion movies, we broke them all. That was how we felt going into this. We thought let’s push this as far as we can and see what we can achieve. Everything we tried to do…it worked.

MG: The film is animated for a younger audience but is quite scary for some kids, how can you reflect?
SF: I think we wanted to make a family movie more than a kids movie. Something aimed at the teens or actually “tweens”. It is about an 11 year old boy and reflects their lives on screen. We wanted laughs, as well as scares and in a way it is like designing a roller coaster ride. We actually think that kids like scares. It is firstly entertaining and it also adds in a dramatic story. The hero, in this case a kid, has real challenges. You take them through it and show the darkness can be defeated. I think it makes for a great ride. We didn’t want to wimp out on the scares. We may loose the toddlers or the preschoolers but that is the risk you take. It is very hard to make a film for everybody…without being bland.
CB: We were specifically referencing an era of movie making that I think was a little braver. The movie that I grew up watching like “The Goonies” and “Ghostbusters”. They weren’t afraid to have scares and show an imperfect world. But they did it with humor and style. I miss those movies and I feel that they are also sorely missed by many people. So it was nice to play in that era again. Even though it was a contemporary movie, it was very much referenced by the films of the 80’s.

MG: I loved the Easter eggs for horror fans like the hockey mask and ringtone, any other hidden gems?
CB: The movie is so dripped with references that I don’t even known where to start. It is not just stuff that was in the script. I wrote in the bar in touch is called the Bargento, in reference to the old Italian movies. The name of Neil’s dead dog is Bub, which is the name of the tamed zombie in “Day of the Dead”. Most of the characters surnames are either horror movie directors or writers, even if they do not appear in the movie. On top of that we have a whole crew of movie fanatics, who were responsible for making the props and locations. They stick all kinds of stuff in there as well. It is difficult to even pin-point how much there is actually in there. Sam’s name even ended up on the old tramps underpants [laughs].
SF: I didn’t ask for that by the way [laughs].


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Blair Butler talks about writing for G4TV’s “Attack of the Show”

When I’m asked how/why I got into film reviewing I cite three film critics whose work inspired me. The first is Steve Otto, who was the film critic of the Tampa Times when I was in high school. He took the time to talk to me every time I stopped by the paper and would often lend me photos to reproduce with my school paper reviews. Second was Stephen Hunter, who was the film critic of the Baltimore Sun when we first met. I actually paid $50.00 in a PBS auction for a chance to go see the film “Beastmaster” with Stephen and then discuss it with him during lunch. When I got into the promotions/marketing field I got to work with Stephen often and we became friends. He later went on to write for the Washington Post and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for Distinguished Criticism. The third is Robert (Bob) Butler, former film critic for the Kansas City Star. When I arrived (the first time) in Kansas City in 1979 the first thing I read in the local paper was Bob’s review for the film “10.” The more I read his work the more I began appreciating how much fun and passion one person could share with the written word. When I moved to Baltimore I would pick up the Star at the local out of town newspaper stand each week and did that until I moved back to KC in 1996. I finally got to meet Bob when I was admitted into the Kansas City Film Critics Circle. To now be considered a colleague of someone I admire was a pretty great feeling.

I give you this background information as a way of introducing Blair Butler. You probably know her from her stand up comedy routines, appearances on the G4 television network or creator of the popular comic book “Heart.” That’s how I knew her until her mother, Ellen, remarked to a fellow critic that “Blair was coming home this week.” After listening for a few more moments It suddenly dawned on me that Blair was Bob and Ellen’s daughter! Small world.

Blair was indeed “home” this week, appearing at Planet Comicon 2012. While here she graciously took time out to answer a few questions.

Mike Smith: How did a girl from Kansas develop a love for comic books?
Blair Butler: My Dad took me to Clint’s Comics in Westport and let me buy comics out of the 25 cent bin when I was little. After reading some really terrible issues of Werewolf by Night and She-Hulk, I stumbled onto Batman and the New Mutants – and I was hooked for life. After a brief lapse in the mid 90s (I got burnt-out on gimmicky covers, variants, and style-over-substance) I came back to comics thanks to great titles like Planetary, The Authority, and Geoff Johns’ run on JSA. And I’ve been there ever since.

MS: How did you get involved with G4?
BB: I was hired as the head writer for “X-Play,” a videogame show on the TechTV network. When G4 bought TechTV, the two networks merged – and I wound up becoming the comic book correspondent for “Attack of the Show” – which was an amazing opportunity that I’m incredibly grateful for. If I knew at age 12 that I’d be covering comics for part of my day job, I think my 12-year-old self would hyperventilate with excitement.

MS: You once reviewed comic books in your “Fresh Ink” segment of “Attack of the Show,” by rating them either BUY, BROWSE or BURN. Have you ever gotten a nasty message from someone whose work you trashed?
BB: Well, the good news is that I haven’t used the BUY, BROWSE, or BURN system for a few years on the show – primarily because I was pretty adamantly opposed to the suggestion of “burning” any comics. Now, I usually only review comics that I really love on the Live edition of “Attack of the Show,” or on my weekly review segment at — so thankfully, I haven’t met any furious writers or artists. Yet.

MS: What do you have coming up in the future?
BB: Well, I’ll be busy writing full-time for “Attack of the Show,” as well as working as a correspondent for two of the show’s signature segments: “Fresh Ink” – where I cover the wide world of comic books, and “M.M.A. Chokehold,” where professional fighters come in and do analysis for several of the biggest UFC events. We’ve have Chuck Liddell, Urijah Faber, Forrest Griffin, Nate “Rock” Quarry, Roy “Big Country” Nelson, Mayhem Miller, and a ton of other great fighters on the show, so — as a fan — that’s been amazing. And now that I’ve written my first comic book HEART — about a young, up-and-coming cage fighter named Oren “Rooster” Redmond – I’m hoping to make even more comics. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to make them with my amazing HEART collaborators, artist Kevin Mellon and letterer “Crank.”