The Butler is based on the real life story of Cecil Gaines, an African-American who served as a butler in the White House through eight administrations. Cecil, played by Forest Whitaker who always disappears into whatever role he’s inhabiting, here takes on the part of a man whose job is to please by not making his presence felt; as he’s told by one employer–the room “should feel empty” when you’re in it.

The Butler starts out with Cecil as a young boy in the 1920s working on a cotton plantation in the South. From the very beginning the story is set up to tug at your heart strings and what human being with a heart and mind wouldn’t be affected by the horrors of the brutal racism of the time. The film is emotionally affecting and will make you tear up but it’s hard to escape the feeling you’re watching a movie meant to do just that.

Despite this undercurrent of manipulation the life of Cecil Gaines is extraordinary and certainly worthy of a film. The changes that occurred in American society in general, and specifically in terms of civil rights during the more than 30 years Cecil worked in the White House, and his proximity to the seat of power and history give the film weight. Continue reading »

A new year is a time of reflection and starting over but December 31, 2008, would be the last day of 22-year old Oscar Grant’s life. Fruitvale Station, the debut film of writer/director Ryan Coogler examines that fateful final day in the life of the young man whose life was cut short when he was shot in the back by a police officer at the BART Fruitvale Station in the early morning hours of 2009.

In the aftermath of the incident, as in similar cases of an unarmed black man being shot by a police officer, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) was both demonized and deified by the opposing sides. The strength and accomplishment of Fruitvale Station is that it doesn’t take either of those positions. Instead, it depicts Oscar as a three-dimensional and flawed young man with an uncertain future who wants to be a better person. The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that he has a prison record, sells marijuana, and hasn’t always been faithful to his girlfriend and mother of his child, Sophina (Melonie Diaz.) Oscar, who is fired for being late to work, also has a temper and we see it flare when he confronts his former boss about getting his job back.

But, like all human beings, Oscar has many sides. He’s a devoted and loving father to his four-year old daughter, aspires to be a good son to his mother (Octavia Spencer), and genuinely does love his girlfriend. Jordan, a standout since his days on The Wire delivers a performance that firmly establishes him as an A list actor. He naturally embodies Oscar and exposes the fear and doubt beneath his protective hard exterior as well as the playful, easygoing persona that he shared with friends and strangers alike. Continue reading »

Man of Steel takes the familiar Superman legend and transforms it into an original, truly epic and personal story about identity, individual responsibility and what it means to be human. It is the rare superhero movie that manages to combine first- rate special effects and action with three dimensional characters that you care about and real heart and emotion.

The opening sequence on Krypton fully envisions this world in a way that it’s never been realized before. The depiction of Superman’s home planet is darkly imaginative and spectacularly sets  up one of the film’s main themes that of predestination over free will.

Russell Crowe is convincing and imposing as Jor-El, Krypton’s leading scientist who warns his people that Kyrpton is doomed. Aware that it’s too late to save his planet, he and his wife Lara jettison their son Kal-El, the product of the first natural birth on Krypton in hundreds of years, to Earth.

British actor Henry Cavill with his handsome chiseled face and piercing blue eyes is the embodiment of the iconic American superhero. He is a great Superman able to convey vulnerability, ambivalence, strength, and finally a man willing to accept the responsibility that comes with his extraordinary abilities. Cavill has real chemistry with Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Adams continues the tradition of the independent and gutsy reporter Lois who doesn’t exist just to be rescued by Superman. Continue reading »

Baz Luhrmann is back with a spectacular, kaleidoscope sensory bang The Great Gatsby. The memory of the pseudo mystical, everything but the kitchen sink misfire Australia is instantly wiped away as you’re plunged into decadent 1920s New York and the gleaming estates of Long Island.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a writer and bond trader trying to make it on Wall Street guides the viewer on this journey. Nick’s wealthy cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old money, unfaithful husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) introduce him to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. As is typical of Luhrmann, the first twenty minutes of the film is on overload and there is one especially frantic scene of drunken excess that could cause a brain seizure but thankfully the film settles down after that.

Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as J. Gatsby the handsome, mysterious millionaire who further draws Nick into this world of free flowing liquor, beautiful women and sleepless nights when he invites Nick to one of his never-ending, lavish, over the top parties on his castle-like estate. The invitation, like the parties, is by design engineered to lure the object of Gatsby’s affections Daisy back to his side. Continue reading »

Matthew McConaughey has years of bad films to atone for and with Mud he comes one step closer to making us forget those lost years of wasted talent. Though, it’s the two young actors at the center of this coming of age reflection on love and family that somehow manage to steal the show in spite of the outstanding cast and McConaughey’s soulful performance in the title role.

Both Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone are total naturals and deliver star making performances reminiscent of those in Stand By Me. Sheridan has that same combination that River Phoenix possessed of a seemingly tough exterior mixed with a deep vulnerability and innocence. Lofland matches up to Sheridan with his funny, charming performance as Ellis’s practical and loyal best friend.

The boys set off on an adventure to a nearby island along the Mississippi River to claim a boat wedged up in a tree as their summer hideaway only to find someone has beat them to it. They get a lot more than they were looking for when they stumble upon a mysterious stranger living on the island named Mud who they soon discover is wanted for murder.  Mud enlists the boys in helping him to fix up the boat, so he can escape with his childhood sweetheart and love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon.) Like all love stories with a history of violence, trouble follows and the boys find their plans for a carefree summer dangerously complicated. Continue reading »

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