Movie reviews: The Butler

The Butler ***

Movie reviews: The Butler

They also serve who stand and wait. Loosely based on the real-life experiences of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked for eight American presidents in the White House, The Butler (12A) stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a fictional character who observes the evolution of the civil rights movement from a unique perspective. The personal is very much the political here, as Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) experience racist discrimination and, subsequently, triumph and tragedy through the experiences of their sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). The key question asked by Lee Daniels’s film is whether Cecil, in his role of trusted butler and occasional confidante to the wealthy white men in the White House, is a ‘house negro’ or a quietly subversive presence at the very heart of power. It’s a question that for the most part goes unanswered. Daniels puts the emphasis on the civil rights movement itself, blending powerful re-enactments of historical events with old newsreel footage. One of the stand-out scenes in the movie comes when Daniels juxtaposes young black protestors taking seats at a whites-only lunch counter with Cecil and his colleagues setting the table for a lavish White House banquet. While the historical context offers an awesome narrative power, however, the character of Cecil Gaines is a little lost in the midst of it all. The fact that Daniels stuffs a host of famous actors into the story doesn’t help, with the likes of John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams and Vanessa Redgrave all appearing in brief but distracting cameos. That said, Whitaker cuts an impressive figure as he grows from a helpless victim of brutal racism into a canny survivor who grows in dignity over the two-hour running time, his life’s work vindicated when he lives to see — spoiler alert! — Barack Obama elected to the White House.

Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous lead in The Counsellor (16s), a lawyer who decides to organise a $20m drug deal with a Mexican cartel, a decision with disastrous consequences for him and his loved ones. It’s a familiar set-up, although what makes this crime thriller different is the fact that it’s written by literary novelist Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott. Toss in a star-studded cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, and you have an instant classic. Right? Erm, no. The problems begin with McCarthy’s script, which is far less interested in narrative staples such as character development and dramatic consequences as it is with pointless philosophising on the bleakness of the universe, although there’s quite a bit of witless maundering on the essence of women thrown in for good measure too. The characterisations are wilfully bizarre too. We are given no good reason, for example, as to why Fassbender’s legal counsel character might want to dive head-first into the murky world of drug-dealing with a Mexican cartel, and the obsession with cheetahs, which extends to an animal-print tattoo running the full length of Cameron Diaz’s character’s back, would be the most ludicrous aspect of the movie if it weren’t for a bonkers sequence in which Diaz makes love to a car. Oddly, the performances are quite strong across the board, despite the fact that the actors are hamstrung by unbelievable characters, but overall The Counsellor is an excessively wordy exercise in self-indulgence.

Don Jon (18s) stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jon, a guy with an unhealthy appetite for sex, and particularly internet pornography. Then he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a woman so beautiful that even Jon is prepared to settle down — although making a commitment, Jon believes, doesn’t necessarily mean giving up your online addiction. Written and directed by Gordon-Levitt himself, Don Jon opens up as an enjoyable raucous satire of a particular kind of testosterone-pumped Italian-American male. The audience understands that Jon needs to get in touch with his feminine side if he is to find happiness, but anyone considering Don Jon as a date movie should be aware that Jon’s life-journey takes extended detours into lectures on the issue of male inadequacy. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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