Friday, September 13, 2013

Film Round-Up for September: "Morning," "Una Noche," "Short Term 12," "I Give It a Year"

Brie Larson (left), future Oscar nominee.
Reprinted with permission from ICON, here's an eclectic collection of reviews. The reason? Well, August and early September is a time when the new releases go on. Next month should be more promising.

"Short Term 12" was excellent. I'm rooting super-hard for Brie Larson.


Morning (Dir: Leland Orser). Starring: Jeanne Tripplehorn, Leland Orser, Laura Linney, Elliott Gould, Kyle Chandler, Jason Ritter, Gina Morelli. A married couple (real-life husband and wife Orser and Tripplehorn) can’t cope with the death of their young son. Over the course of several days away from each other their lives unravel. He reverts to the behavior of a child, playing with toy trains and eating Spaghetti-Os. She walks around like an anesthetized soul in a Swedish film, alternately zoning out or lashing out at those who try to comfort her. Orser, who also wrote and directed, has a good story and a knack for telling it through images. (The opening shots of the house—eerily quiet and unsettling—set the tone.) It’s a shame that Morning doesn’t have a narrative base to support its two main characters, so Orser and Tripplehorn (who is, to put it nicely, over her head here) come across as wailing theatrically instead of expressing their characters’ anguish. The way Morning is constructed we care more about the supporting characters than the leading one. Another crippling issue: a crucial plot point will make you wish Orser had used that as the script’s thrust. [R] **

Una Noche (Dir: Lucy Mulloy). Starring: Dariel Arrechaga, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, Javier Núñez Florián. Best friends Raul (Arrechaga) and Elio (Florián) long to leave the sweltering despair of Havana, where, according to Raul, all you can do is “sweat and fuck.” Salvation lies in Miami, 90 miles across the ocean, and in a barge constructed from wooden planks, inner tubes, and a prayer. Mulloy paints modern-day Havana as a pitiless pit of poverty and decadence, so you know exactly why the boys want to leave. But that doesn’t mean they should. Elio is in love with unaware ladies’ man Raul, who believes his long-estranged father will be thrilled to reunite. And Elio’s clingy twin sister (de la Rúa de la Torre) wants in because she cannot bear to be away from her brother. So many movies tell immigration stories that serve as triumphs of the human spirit. Mulloy shows that the desire to leave can be fueled by delusions. Just because the mission is noble and right, there’s no guarantee the participants will succeed. You are invested in Una Noche because its characters never stop battling against their fate. Filmed on location in Havana on 35 mm film. Inspired by a true story. [NR] ***1/2

Short Term 12 (Dir: Destin Cretton). Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield. Quick-witted and no-nonsense, Grace (Larson) effectively supervises a halfway house for troubled youths. Her personal life is a different story. She’s in a serious relationship with her co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom’s Gallagher Jr.), who clearly loves her. That’s not enough. Grace’s unfortunate past prevents her from opening up, while a recent development forces her further inward. Throw in the arrival of a new charge (Dever), who reminds Grace too much of her own troubled childhood, and Grace’s carefully constructed equilibrium threatens to shatter. Larson (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now) is fantastic in a star-making turn—she is dramatically compelling while remaining fragile and human-sized—but she’s surrounded by fantastic performances, including Stanfield as an 18-year-old resident who is afraid to leave the only loving environment he’s ever known. Directed and written with assurance and heart by Cretton, this might be one of 2013’s best films when all is said and done. [R] ****

I Give It a Year (Dir: Dan Mazer). Starring: Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris, Simon Baker, Stephen Merchant, Minnie Driver, Jason Flemyng. Business executive Nat (Byrne) and novelist Josh (Spall) had a whirlwind courtship. Now closing in on a year of marriage, the two cannot stand each other. And more appealing options have emerged. Nat is enchanted with her client (Simon Baker), a rich American who is also handsome and intelligent. Josh, for reasons never made entirely clear, gravitates toward his ex-girlfriend (Faris). Everyone knows who should end up with whom, but director-writer Mazer’s idea of originality is to overstuff his frantic affair with “inappropriate” humor. So we have to endure Faris getting tangled in a threesome, stuffy parents viewing risqué honeymoon photos, and a marriage therapist shouting at her husband David Mamet style. This bombardment can’t hide a glaring omission: Mazer, a longtime collaborator with Sacha Baron Cohen, forgets that a romantic comedy—even a spoof of one—must feature people we actually have some affection for. Even the wonderful Byrne can’t help much this time around. [R] **

The Big Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Standing in the shadows of history.
Oh yeah, this will get a ton of Oscar nominations--though I won't care if that happens since it's quite good. Sorry for the tardiness of the review. It's been obnoxiously busy around these parts. 

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.


Making a crowd-pleasing historical film isn’t that hard. Making a good one is damn near impossible because it’s so tempting (and easy) to cater to the lowest common denominator. Just show stock footage that reminds us of more challenging times, making sure to reveal the sentimental spot in that historical briar patch. This is usually done by having a character comment about “how those days were so, so tough.” And highlight the fashion and music of the good old days, because nostalgia is the cement that holds the rickety structure together.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on a 2008 Washington Post profile, never chokes us with its historical swoop—interactions with presidents, various social movements, and oh so many hairdos. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong are more concerned with telling a good story about a father and son divided—and later reunited—by history.

Growing up on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, Cecil Gaines saw his father shot to death by a white man. Young Cecil’s reward was that he was taught to be a “house nigger” or butler, a skill he took to a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. and ultimately to the White House, where, according to the movie, he served presidents Eisenhower through Reagan.  

Along the way, Cecil achieved a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, complete with a wife (Oprah Winfrey) and kids, which was miles away from the cotton fields. In 1957, this is a dream life for most, especially African-Americans. Times are changing. Older son Louis (David Oyelowo) looks at the world differently. As a butler, Cecil is taught that “the room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Louis is tired of living life as an invisible man, forced to stay on one side of the line. He leaves for college in Tennessee fully intending to fight the power. 

Years pass. Cecil (played in his adult years by Forest Whitaker) continues to serve in the White House while Louis looks to forge a new identity, taking up the cause of the Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Father and son grow further apart, even though each is making progress. Cecil is there for the Voting Rights Act; Louis holds vigil at Woolworth’s lunch counter and faces the unforgiving blast of fire hoses.

Louis thinks he knows everything, dismissing his father’s job—one that gives a black man dignity in a world where it’s hard to come by—as the career of an Uncle Tom. The young man expresses his views from a distance and without context, not realizing that Cecil’s hard work has allowed him the ability to protest. And Cecil, committed to a lifestyle of being neither seen nor heard, doesn’t realize that the acts of kids like Louis are why presidents are passing legislation to make things equal.

There is no Forrest Gump-like gimmickry. Remove the high-profile presidential cameos from Lee Daniels’ The Butler and you still have a searing family drama. I never thought I’d say this about Daniels, a director whose best-known work is either exploitative (The Paperboy) or an urban poor burlesque (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire) but he’s finally learned to hold back. Instead of trafficking in schlock, he builds his scenes, taking the time to draw out characters in living rooms and front porches. The conversations feel real, not like historical footnotes. We always return to two men making their way in an unforgiving world: one by working twice as hard for half the pay, and the other by any means necessary.

The performances are lived-in, realistic, and keep you involved. Whitaker plays the lead role as a kind man navigating constant hurt, not as an observer to change. Terrence Howard is all oily charm as Cecil’s tomcatting neighbor, and it’s so nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. find his swagger. Winfrey sheds her entitled air to play a woman whose increasing distance from her husband and her son cause her to drift into booze and questionable decisions. Her unraveling is treated as part of a family’s evolving history. Sometimes things are good, sometimes things turn bad. If we stick together, it’ll all be just fine.  

I think that’s why people have already flocked to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler. We need a reminder that we’re living our lives the right way, that what happened in the past led us to better times. People want their souls fed, and Daniels and Strong have offered a heaping plate of comfort food, a lovely, lyrical film that focuses on people, not pomp. 

Note (10/1/13)--It's come to my attention that Cecil Gaines is not the actual name of the butler profiled in The Washington Post story. It's Eugene Allen. My apologies for any confusion.