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WEINSTEIN COMPANY

MOVIE INFO

Director:
Lee Daniels
Cast:
Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman , James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, David Banner, Mariah Carey
Writing Credits:
Danny Strong, Wil Haygood (article)

Tagline:
One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.

Synopsis:
The Butler tells the story of a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family. Forest Whitaker stars as the butler with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and many more. Academy Award® nominated Lee Daniels directs and co-wrote the script with Emmy®-award winning Danny Strong.

Box Office:
Budget
$30 million.
Opening Weekend
$24.637 million on 2933 screens.
Domestic Gross
$116.293 million.

MPAA:
Rated PG-13

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio:
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles:
English
Spanish
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
English

Runtime: 132 min.
Price: $39.99
Release Date: 1/14/2014

Bonus:
• “An American Story” Documentary
• 9 Deleted Scenes
• “The Original Freedom Riders” Featurette
• Music Video
• Gag Reel
• DVD Copy


PURCHASE @ AMAZON.COM

EQUIPMENT
Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


Lee Daniels' The Butler [Blu-Ray] (2013)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 13, 2014)

Apparently late summer has become a good time for period pieces related to African-Americans. In August 2011, The Help took in a strong $169 million, then in August 2013, Lee Daniels’ The Butler came out of nowhere to rake in a tidy $115 million. Do two movies constitute a real trend? Probably not, but I’m sure studio executives took notice.

Butler follows the life and career of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). As a child in Georgia circa 1926, young Cecil (Michael Rainey, Jr.) witnesses the abuse of his mother (Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father (David Banner). These experiences convince Cecil to remain quiet and subservient so he can survive.

Cecil becomes trained as a house servant and eventually develops a service career in a hotel, where he gradually rises through the ranks. His talents take him to Washington DC, where he marries fellow employee Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and winds up an staff member at the White House. We follow him through his experiences under several presidents and also observe his relationship with son Louis (David Oyelowo) as the younger Gaines embraces the civil rights movement and takes a path much different than his father’s quiet acceptance.

Few films attempt a chronological path as long as what we see in The Butler; the movie starts in 1926 and goes all the way to 2009. While the breadth of time impresses, it creates a movie without the ability to dig deeply into any single era.

That leaves it with a “greatest hits” feel, especially given Gaines’ job. Much of the time, Butler comes across as little more than an excuse to bring famous historical characters and events to life. We see multiple presidents as well as other noted figures and situations.

This emphasis turns Butler into a Cliffs Notes take on history and neuters its characters. Because it rushes through periods so rapidly, we get little investment in any of them, and the drama suffers. Once we wind up in one era, the film needs to move on to the next, so we never find ourselves able to dig into anything well.

It doesn’t help that Butler features such a passive character at its heart. I understand that the movie wants to depict Cecil’s journey, but this moves so slowly that it barely registers, and Cecil does so little so much of the time that we occasionally forget he’s our lead.

And so does the movie. After the first act, Louis arguably turns into the main character, which I understand, as his path through the civil rights movement offers a whole lot more intrigue and excitement than does Cecil’s passive state.

Too bad all of this feels so false and contrived. The film takes multiple liberties to place its participants in the Right Historical Place at the Right Time, and these stretch credulity. The Butler wants to touch on every notable event it can remember, logic be damned, and the story suffers for it.

Questionable casting choices don’t help. Actually, our leads – Whitaker and those who play his family – do fine, but The Butler indulges in odd stunt casting for other roles, primarily the presidents. These choices start with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower and progress through John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Of all the presidents portrayed, only James Marsden as John Kennedy makes any sense; the others range from perplexing to bizarre.

Off-kilter casting doesn’t automatically equal bad casting, but in this case, the choices flop. The actors seem so different from what we’d expect for those characters that they become an active distraction, and none of them manage to channel the roles in a satisfying manner.

Billed as being “inspired by a true story”, one shouldn’t expect much connection to reality from Butler in terms of the real story. Taken from the tale of actual White House butler Eugene Allen, the film appears to use that source in only the loosest manner, which seems like a shame. While I understand the typical need for artistic license, this case feels so extreme that it becomes a burden.

None of these factors make The Butler a bad film. As noted, many of the actors do well in their parts, and a few good historical moments appear. Nonetheless, too much of the film seems phony and contrived, and those factors make it a disappointment.


The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus C-

Lee Daniels’ The Butler appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This was a solid visual presentation.

Overall, I felt sharpness seemed positive. A smidgen of softness occasionally appeared; most of that came from the stylistic looseness that matched the period visuals – and attempts to make various actors look younger. Despite those moments, the movie usually displayed fine delineation. No signs of jagged edges or shimmering, and I witnessed no edge haloes. Print flaws remained absent in this clean presentation.

Like many period films, Butler went with a semi-sepia feel, though it also tended toward teal and orange at times. Within those choices, the colors seemed fine. Blacks were dark and tight, while shadows looked smooth. I felt pleased with this transfer.

Given the movie’s character focus, I didn’t expect a lot from the film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, but it offered occasional zing. Most of the livelier moments revolved around the civil rights sequences, as they gave us some dynamic moments. A thunderstorm or two also brought out broad, engaging material.

Otherwise, one should anticipate fairly atmospheric material. Music spread across the speakers well, and environmental elements added a good sense of place. There wasn’t a lot here to dazzle, but the mix suited the story.

Audio quality came across as positive. Speech seemed natural and distinctive, without edginess or other problems, while music appeared full and rich. Effects rarely taxed my system, but they were accurate and showed good range. The movie brought us a solid “B” soundtrack.

Despite the film’s box office success, it lacks a ton of extras. An American Story goes for 22 minutes, four seconds and includes comments from director Lee Daniels, journalist Wil Haygood, writer Danny Strong, producer Pamela Williams, character inspiration’s son Charles Allen, and actors Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, James Marsden, Robin Williams, David Oyewelo, Yaya Alafia, and Jane Fonda. “Story” looks at story/characters, cast and performances, and Daniels’ impact on the production. Along the way, a few decent notes emerge, but te program tends toward the hyperbolic and promotional. It also strongly suggests that the film presents a more accurate portrayal of the “real butler” than it does, which makes it rather deceptive.

Nine Deleted Scenes fill a total of 21 minutes, seven seconds. The most prominent extra segments focus on young Cecil, as we see more of him on the plantation as well as his journey after he leaves. These can be interesting to fill in gaps but they tend to slow the tale.

We also get a bunch more material during the Kennedy administration. We see Cecil read to Caroline Kennedy, and we also watch a glimpse of the Cuban Missile Crisis. None of these tend to be especially fascinating.

Otherwise, a few short tidbits flesh out the collection. We observe a bit more of Louis and his activities, and we check out some other events like the aftermath of MLK’s assassination. Again, these have some interesting elements but don’t really contribute to the overall film – and can become completely superfluous, as during one minute of Gloria as she feeds her fish.

A short featurette called The Original Freedom Riders occupies three minutes, 52 seconds and offers notes from original Freedom Riders Julia Aaron Humbles, Dr. Ernest Patton, Larry F. Hunter, Dr. William Harbour, and Charles Person. They give us a hint of their experiences during the civil rights movement. The show’s brevity is a shame, as I’d like to hear much more from these folks; “Original” has good moments but it goes by too quickly for the desired impact.

Next comes a Music Video for Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz’s “You and I Ain’t Nothin’ No More”. The video mixes footage and photos from the recording session with movie shots, so it’s a snoozer. The song is short and unmemorable.

Finally, we find a Gag Reel. This goes for five minutes, 12 seconds and shows the usual goofs and silliness. A few funny ad-libs occur, though, so it’s not a bad collection.

The disc opens with ads for Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. No trailer for Butler appears here.

A second disc provides a DVD copy of The Butler. It includes all the same extras as the Blu-ray.

Well-intended but erratic, Lee Daniels’ The Butler turns into an awkward history lesson. At its core, it boasts a potentially fascinating tale, but it veers too much from reality and ends up as little more than a “greatest hits” reel of political events from the 1950s to 1970s. The Blu-ray offers solid picture and audio along with a handful of decent bonus materials. The Butler does manage occasional glimmers of intrigue, but it’s too superficial to succeed.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main