Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
The humorous thing about the mandatory inclusion of the director’s name in this film’s title is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler looks almost nothing like Lee Daniels’ previous efforts. This film is a little more detached and makes the audience an observer of the events, rather than a participant. As a film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler works a lot better as a history lesson than a stand-alone narrative, but that’s not totally a bad thing.
Despite being jam-packed with acclaimed stars, the film is far from performance driven. Forest Whitaker does what the script needs and Oprah is better than I expected (which is to say, decent), but almost every performance of a real historical figure is cartoonish and absurd. These actors, along with the episodic nature of the story, makes the film feel more like a Disney World ride through the history of the Civil Rights movement.
However, what the film gets absolutely right is that it never feels like a film aimed at white people to show all the great things that they contributed to the fight for equality. There is no white protagonist acting as a proxy for the audience and each American president seems to only loosely contribute to the fight. It’s the people in the streets and behind the scenes who really enact the change and in the case of this film, all of them are African American heroes.
The Spectacular Now (2013)
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
Director James Ponsoldt and star Miles Teller accomplish an impressive feat with The Spectacular Now. In the opening moments they give us a protagonist that is incredibly hard to root for – a cocky frat boy archetype who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. Gradually throughout the film this character’s exterior is chipped away at to reveal a self-loathing individual who still has a lot to figure out. Teller really emerges as a standout here (and redeems himself after his previous two projects Footloose and Project X). Shailene Woodley also gives a strong turn and Kyle Chandler has an excellent bit part as the absent father.
Ultimately, The Spectacular Now does not add anything special to the “high school students trying to figure out their place” genre and in the future it will likely be forgotten in favor of superior efforts like The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, or Rebel without a Cause. It is smarter than recent movies about high school students, however, and worth its brief 90 minute running time.
”The Walking Dead: Season 1” (2010)
Grade: C | 1st Viewing
The creators of the AMC show “The Walking Dead” set themselves up for an incredibly high level of difficulty in creating a zombie show that takes itself completely seriously. Other shows about supernatural phenomena (“True Blood,” for instance) usually have a sense of humor and play up the fact that they are in on their own joke. “The Walking Dead,” however, wants you to feel the daily dread of these characters’ lives in this post-cataclysmic world and to that end it is only mildly successful.
“The Walking Dead: Season 1” commits two sins that make me hard to appreciate it. Firstly, all of its major characters seem to exist in crystal clear, black and white sides of morality. The good characters are strong, assertive, and pristine examples of human goodness. The bad characters not only antagonize the protagonists, but also happen to have major character flaws (like racism, for one explicit example). Secondly, the show seems willing to kill off every character except the ones that get any type of development. This may be unfair criticism because the first season was only six episodes long, but the only characters that die are the individuals who we know next to nothing about. In some cases, their deaths are dragged out in a half-hearted attempt to gain audience sympathy, but it never worked for me. This is perfectly exemplified in the final moments of the season when Dale goes back into the CDC to save Andrea, the annoying blonde who lost her sister, but doesn’t even bother trying to save the black lady (I don’t believe she was even given a name), who we know absolutely nothing about, even though they are sitting right next to each other.
Those criticisms along with occasionally laughable clichés like the shower montage made it hard for me to enjoy this series. Luckily, having watched most of Season 2, it appears to be getting better.