Saturday, September 28, 2013

Double Feature: 'The Butler' and 'Insidious: Chapter 2'

Yeah, yeah, it's two consecutive reviews. Getting back on schedule has been more difficult than I had anticipated, and I'm still catching up. It doesn't help that Hollywood is releasing more wide-released titles per week than I'm currently able to keep up with, And so I'm finally getting around to two older, important films this week in Lee Daniels' The Butler and James Wan's Insidious: Chapter 2.

"You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve." If Cecil Gaines (loosely based on real-life Eugene Allen) had heeded that statement, we likely would never have gotten The Butler, which tracks the rise of Civil Rights from the antebellum south until the modern day, from the point of view of a longtime White House server. Featuring an ensemble cast and a story (and director) tailor-made for African-American audiences, it's obvious that this film is expressly geared towards the moviegoers that made The Help such a hit just two years ago.
Bowties are cool, now.
The Butler might not possess The Help's overall sense of charm, but it does have quite a bit going for it. The cast is largely excellent, headlined by the "Forrest Gump meets Bubba Blue" lead performance of Forest Whitaker (that comparison might normally be a complaint but it works here), but also by the bevy of talents -including James Marsden, John Cusack and Alan Rickman - as various US Presidents. The Butler presents a very unique perspective of the inner machinations in the White House, and some of the highlights involve Cecil being present (and in true fashion, completely ignored) as decisions are being made that affect worldwide events. The story, though long and at times overly familiar, does pull itself together in the final act, justifying every scene that one might originally have thought to cut.
Yes, that's Oprah. No, she doesn't deserve an award.
It's just a shame that not everything works. The Gaines family becomes representative of the Black American family, from losing a child to Vietnam to being the victims of looting and violence, but the fact of the matter is that Cecil Gaines is the least-interesting character in this tale. That's not a knock against Whitaker's performance, which does its absolute best to save the character from cliche hell, but with the screenplay, penned by a perhaps overly-reverent Danny Strong. Too much narration and too little to do means that we're far more interested in anything else happening. My favorite scene did not involve Cecil at all - it was a conversation between his sons - played by David Oyelowo (an amazing actor no matter his limited screentime) and Elijah Kelley - that I thought stole the entire movie. There aren't enough quiet scenes like this, with the scene so focused on the talents of the actors and nothing else. Speaking of which, Oprah Winfrey - in her highly-touted return to the big screen - is also not given nearly enough to do. Despite being a central character, and despite being involved in several sub-plots, Winfrey is often just shown as a typical dissatisfied housewife, complete with all the usual tropes, a big name wasted in a do-nothing role.
In Django: Unleashed they would now fight to the death.
The Butler's biggest problem is an unexpected one; at just over two hours, it's actually too SHORT for the tale it tries to impart, or at least for Daniels (an overrated filmmaker at present) to capitalize on fully. A miniseries on the same topic would have been a better fit (say, an hour dedicated to working for each President between Eisenhower and Reagan?), and allowed the amazing cast and the worthy story the time it needed to grow. Many people are talking about The Butler being up for awards this winter. I don't know about all that (MAYBE nominations for Whitaker and Oyelowo), but I do recognize some of the merits of their argument. Flawed as it is, there's a lot to like in this ensemble piece. I just don't think it's good enough to not wait for the DVD.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is also trying to reap the benefits of a predecessor from 2011, in this case the excellent supernatural horror film Insidious. Taking place immediately after that modern classic ended, Chapter 2 picks up with the newly-reunited Lambert family trying to recover from the events that had almost stolen their eldest son Dalton's (Iron Man 3's Ty Simpkins) soul from his body. Despite thinking they are safe from the malevolent spirits that had haunted them, the family begins to experience even more unexplainable occurrences, as a new threat begins to emerge. Soon, Renai (Rose Byrne) begins to suspect that the ghosts have a new plan for capturing her son's soul... and that her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) did not come back from his trip to the spirit world without a malevolent monkey on his shoulder.

Maybe I'm just comparing Insidious: Chapter 2 to its progenitor, but I can't help but be a little disappointed in this sequel. The acting certainly is not the problem, as Wilson and Byrne are the same talented, under-appreciated actors who broke out back in 2011. And Simpkins, given a little more to do, was solid enough. Returning actors Barbara Hershey and Lin Shaye, as well as newcomer Steve Coulter, are wonderful performers, though they're given a bit too much to do, relatively speaking. (side note: one character runs off to spend a day and a half on an investigation... LEAVING HER FAMILY TO DIE) The film successfully manages to copy the tension and scare tactics of the original, thanks to James Wan's direction and horror experience, as he's already proven in this year's The Conjuring.
Hi, you're home! How was your night out? I was just putting the kid down!
Unfortunately, that's about all that is good here. As I mentioned before, the side character are not just given more to do, but TOO MUCH. Part of the first movie's charm was its focus on the trials of beleaguered parents Renai and Josh, but here they are sidelined for most of the film while others go off on frightening scavenger hunts. Also, while the atmosphere is amazing, the specific scares feel recycled, and there's nothing that matches the turntable playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" from the first film. The opening twenty minutes, which serve as a minor prequel and setup to the current story, feels like an afterthought, so horrible are the dialogue and the acting. Some of the jump scares work, but it's all less subtle than I remember from the original, and reeks of rushed script-writing by co-star Leigh Whannell. It's obvious that they were trying to pump out a low-budget sequel to a bona fide hit, and the story suffered from the haste.
He just read the script.
In the end, Chapter 2 has its moments, but doesn't match the overall brilliance of its predecessor. While I enjoyed how Wan tied everything together between the two films and the seemingly disparate plot threads throughout, it's not enough for fans of old-fashioned horror. If you really want to see a creepy, dark and sometimes unintentionally funny, scary movie, then a rental of the first Insidious should be MORE than enough to whet your appetite. The sequel is unfortunately a cobbled-together rush job, unworthy of the name it inherited, and MAYBE you can go ahead and see it on DVD if you REALLY want.

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