Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler, 20 Feet from Stardom, and In a World ... (along with a brief mention of We're the Millers)

     Stand—or Sing—by Me and Love Will Keep Us Together
          Review by Ken Burke       Lee Daniels' The Butler
Forest Whitaker is a semi-fictionalized version of a servant at the White House through 4 decades, carefully witnessing the Civil Rights upheaval that shook this society.
                                                              20 Feet from Stardom
A rousing documentary about the unsung background harmonizers who bring life to live performances, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and others.
                                                              In a World ...
Even in an hermetically-sealed industry such as voiceover talent for movie trailers and TV ads the star-lit aspirations rage high in Lake Bell’s marvelously inventive comedy.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

This week’s ramble will attempt to find reasonable commonality among 3 seemingly different films, but they all have the connection of being about people who have important roles to play in their specific milieus, albeit supporting roles where they’re not supposed to be recognized as individuals but are expected to fade into various levels of the background as someone/something more “important” commands our attention.  We begin with the one that offers the largest historical and conceptual sweep, Lee Daniels’ The Butler (not a case of director ego here but of corporate conflict as Warner Bros. insisted that this release not interfere with one of their titles—from 1916!—even though you can’t copyright a title, but given that both WB and … The Butler’s releasing group, The Weinstein Co., subscribe to the MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau there was a noisy problem resolved by adding in the director’s name), based on the true situation of African-American Eugene Allen serving as a butler at the White House from the last days of the Truman administration into the second Reagan term, in a role where he was expected to be quiet and servile during the most tumultuous period of civil rights expansion in American history since the abolition of slavery.  A lot has been changed from Allen’s life to that of fiction-inspired-by-fact Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, although we also have Cecil at age 8 by Michael Rainey Jr. and age 15 by Aml Ameen) in this film, including starting his D.C. service 5 years later, with Eisenhower (Robin Williams—somewhat plausible), converting actual son Charles (Isaac White when younger, Elijah Kelley as a teenager) from a soldier who served in and returned from the Vietnam War into a victim of it to add emotional impact to the story of a society that barely treated his father as a human being as a young man yet was gladly willing to sacrifice his son to a war that his father never understood the reason for, and creating an older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), to allow for this offspring to offer direct challenges to Cecil’s seeming acceptance of accommodation—although within the ultimate center of U.S. power—when others of his race were demanding freedom, dignity, and full citizenship in the 1960s Civil Rights movement of lunch-counter sit-ins, interstate-bus Freedom Riders and marches in the South with resulting attacks from the KKK, riots following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with the expectation that after some gains were made at home that similar changes should happen with our “allies,” such as South Africa with its horrible segregation policy of apartheid.  Essentially, the film explores the complex life of a man who as a young boy in 1926 Macon, GA watches his mother, Hattie Pearl (an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey), be raped by the owner of a cotton farm, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), and his father, Earl (David Banner), shot dead by this man simply for barely registering anger and grief at the act, then is taken in by the landowner’s mother, Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), and groomed to be a “house n****r,” (although more out of a sense of obligation than true pity on her part for young Cecil’s situation) where he learned the essential attitude of a compliant “Negro”—“The room should feel empty when you’re in it”—a skill he internalized (even if he had to constantly deny to himself how degrading and self-effacing it was) but that served as an ongoing source of conflict with son Louis and likely some silent (at best) resentment from wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey; good to see you back on screen again, oh Queen of All Media).

While we get Presidents Ford and Carter only in actual news footage, the other POTUSes are played by a variety of well-known actors:  Kennedy by James Marsden, Johnson by Liev Schreiber (for me, the worst merge of actor and historical personage, but that’s surely open to debate because I’d say that the best is done by Marsden, offering a reasonable job of rising above the level of desperate-attempt impersonation), Nixon by John Cusack, and Reagan by Alan Rickman, along with wife Nancy by Jane Fonda … yes, you read that correctly … who’s the first First Lady ever, in 1986, to invite Cecil to attend a State Dinner as a guest rather than as a server.  The Black-Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)-like situation here (one that Daniels admits he intended) implies that while Cecil never initiated an actual conversation with any of his bosses his restrained response to a question which he just happened to be in the right place to answer seems to have inspired some of them to various actions—Ike sending the troops to Little Rock to enforce the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that de-segregated public schools in the late 1950s, JFK using the resources of the federal government to respond to segregationist violence in the mid-1960s South—although his silent presence in the room with Nixon seemed to have no impact on the “benign neglect” policy toward Blacks not involved with Black enterprise (a strategy only intended to solicit votes, not change a racist society) nor on Reagan’s firm decision to veto any Congressional attempt to oppose racial injustice overseas (with such scenes it's clear where Daniels' political sympathies lie, but I fault him not because I'm there as well; others might not see it in the same light).  After years of harsh conflicts with Lewis over “Uncle Tom” pandering to White expectations vs. more active social action, father and son suffer a long-term break when Lewis joins Oakland’s Black Panthers and brings Angela Davis-lookalike girlfriend, Carol Hammie (Yaya Alafia), home for an explosive family dinner.  Reconciliation finally occurs after Lewis’ disillusionment with the Panthers, Charlie’s death abroad, and Cecil’s attendance at the State Dinner where he’s reviled by his fellow servants while understanding that his presence is merely a gesture rather than true acceptance so he chooses to retire, all of which leads to father and son arrested together at an anti-apartheid rally.  By the end of this history lesson Cecil has lived to see Obama elected which results in the long-serving butler being called back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to meet the culmination of all that he had hoped would come from way back in the days when Eisenhower rose to the challenge set down by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.  In the process we get to see other famous actors tired of sitting on the sidelines as well (Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz) but none of their characters earn our quiet, enduring respect as successfully as Cecil, who balances pride in his country with a silent rage at how dishonest it was toward large segments of its citizenry.  

 Some will see the intended respect for Cecil and all the others who tolerated their lack of progress as being a situation that inevitably would change while the substantial strength of close family ties would offer them the familiar sustenance that we see represented with hearty helpings of fried chicken in scene after scene; others will see the presentation of this noble message and the justified chaos that confounded the restrained Lewises of the 20th century as overcooked corn, a series of melodramatic scenes that fail to articulate the real man behind all of this fictionalization who’s largely been lost within the need to offer audiences a summary of events that many of us have not experienced from the insiders’ perspectives.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler forces us to acknowledge how viciously racist U.S. history has been and give honor to those who opposed it (with excellent acting by those in the shadows of power even if the Presidential portrayals come off a bit absurd at times), all of which is important and commendable, but in trying to cram in so much within a roughly-standard 132 min. running time our ambitious director runs the risk of leaving us with the impression that everything in the lifetimes of ourselves back to our grandparents moved quickly and changed drastically, ultimately for the better.  If only it could have been that simple.

Unlike Daniels’ film, which respects the larger historical context that it represents but must—from running-time, dramatic impact, and story arc considerations—navigate a course that acknowledges but also reconstructs its source material, 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville) is a pure documentary with no re-stagings of its content events (although some might consider the final group song, in which a few of the principals—whose biographies we’ve witnessed over the previous 80 or so minutes—are intentionally brought together for one rousing finale of “Lean on Me,” a bit artificial because these women don’t normally sing as a unit in concerts but this film isn’t just an historical survey of their careers, instead more of a conceptual look at supporting vs. lead roles in the music business, in essence a celebration of a few really dynamic women and what they’ve contributed to decades of pop tunes, so arranging for them to further that celebration in acoustic as well as friendship harmony is a natural closing act for the premise here, with no artificial ingredients to worry about)20 Feet from Stardom at its simplest wants you to know the names of some very talented women because you’ve likely heard their voices for years but didn’t know who they were.  There are a few male singers with sound bites in the film also and certainly there are plenty of male backups in the biz, but the superb talent on display from these women (mostly Black, and not necessarily by chance in that the vocal training they received in the type of church choirs most of them grew up in likely provides a much more viable preparation for crossover into r&b/blues/gospel-influenced rock than does the type of vocalization that we get at the start of 20 Feet from Stardom from some 1950s White women harmonizing in a Perry Como TV show [I speak from some limited experience here, having been a member of the UT Austin Catholic Student Center Liturgy Singers much of the time from 1967-1977 while doing my various college degrees; we put a decent folk sound to more contemporary-style hymns but except for one rousing rendition of “Oh Happy Day” we never came close to the church-fueled energy the singers in this film produce]) provides all of the content we need for a most satisfying doc, and, besides, how many male backups can you name that deserve such a spotlight as the women featured here?  Besides, if you want White male singers—or even Black ones—their presence is easily available in the interviews or archival footage of the more-prominent, much-better-paid leads that these backup women have worked with since the 1960s:  among the testifiers praising/performing with their lesser-known collaborators are David Bowie, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie Wonder—although there are tributes from front-stage women as well such as Cheryl Crow (who’s done some backup work herself) and Bette Midler.  While there is a constantly-shifting focus (in order to interweave all of these extraordinary talents rather than just present a chronological timeline) among the main supporting singers (intentional oxymoron there), the film invariably gives its ultimate priority to Darlene Love (on the left in the photo below), not only because she was the unaccredited voice on hits of Phil Specter’s group, The Crystals (“He’s a Rebel, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”), but also because she’s probably had the most successful solo career of them all and, I think, is the only one to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 2011.

While I don’t mean to slight any of the others who get brief mention in 20 Feet from Stardom the other primary focus points beyond Darlene Love is on Merry Clayton (shown in the photo accompanying the previous paragraph; most famous for the Rolling Stones recording of “Gimme Shelter” from the 1969 Let It Bleed album), Lisa Fischer (most famous for singing “Gimme Shelter” on tour with the Stones since 1989—I saw her in person last May; while the New Jersey show from last December featured Lady Gaga in this duet I’d take Lisa’s version any day), The Waters Family (who’ve also provided voices for everything from Michael Jackson’s huge-hit Thriller to Disney movies to bird sounds in Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]), Judith Hill (who was also training with Jackson for the ill-fated “This Is It” tour), and Claudia Lennear (a former Ikette for Ike and Tina Turner, the only one of them to consciously—possibly regretfully—leave the music world because of difficult inconsistencies and now teaches Spanish [although Darlene Love recounts the slow years in her career when she turned to house cleaning for income]).  Taken together the collective talent of these incredible singers (and the others that I haven’t even given mention to, such as Táta Vega, who may be best known for her work with Elton John) gives you reason to see this film just for the thrill of hearing such stunning work all in one place as well as to admire the determination of these essentially-unknown-yet-aspiring-divas, both for continuing to strive for the stardom that they so richly deserve and for continuing to find work as they can in an industry that no longer focuses on the “wall of sound” approach of Specter and Motown, while often eliminating the need for backups in the recording process by the use of overdubs of the lead vocalists.  Therefore, these under-appreciated professionals often provide the personal support to each other that is lacking from large-audience appreciation, such as in the aforementioned “Lean On Me” performance in 20 Feet from Stardom where Love takes the lead, with support from Hill (center in the photo above), Fischer (right), and someone else who was in the film (and must be important in her own right to have been included in this quartet, but all we got on her were interviews rather than performances so I’m afraid her name slipped past me—an ID from anyone reading this would be most appreciated; sorry that the others behind Love are in soft focus and the shot is a bit dark but this is the only photo I could find that showed all of them together).  While I don’t have a clip of that specific performance I can offer you one just featuring Darlene (at watch?v=HhQd4BgyKvc), which I’ll use as my musical connection for all 3 of these reality-based/inspired offerings this week because this song sums up so much of what each of these works is about in terms of being a “background” presence even though the unheralded person has so much more to offer if allowed a foreground opportunity (as Love amply demonstrates in the clip).

Lake Bell’s (writer, director, lead actor) In a World … doesn’t share the historical inspiration of … The Butler, nor is it about actual figures on the margins of the entertainment industry as with 20 Feet … (although legendary voiceover talent Don LaFontaine [see the second clip recommended below in relation to this movie] serves as the standard by which all other accomplished and hopeful VO vocal actors judge their fictional performances; however, this movie does find a basis in an aspect of the real world that we’re all familiar with at least through osmosis and has some viability in being paired with the other 2 above by reminding us that like Cecil Gaines, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, etc. there are others who contribute actively to the world we inhabit, often bringing pleasure to the experience of the situations that they are part of, but who will likely never be known by name to society at large although they have decent respect from those who share their largely-ignored presences, as long as the members of those inner circles don’t turn on each other for daring to rock the pecking order of established folks who’ve been paying dues longer or with more command that the brash newcomer on the scene).  Few in the VO world of movie trailers, commercials, and other brief aural guidances to a wide range of products and services would assume they could ever move up to on-screen stardom (unlike the more ambitious vocal talents we encounter in 20 Feet …), but those with enough self-assurance would like to at least see themselves as contenders for LaFontaine-replacement-status (he died in 2008), especially if his “In a world where …” trailer intros were to be revived, as is the central plot conflict of In a World …, as aspiring star Carol Solomon (Bell) is competing not only with egocentric Gustav Warner (Ken Marino)—although that doesn’t deter him from a sexual fling with her in order to dull her competitive spirit—but also with Gustov’s mentor, her own pompous father, Sam Soto (stage name, changed from Solomon; actor is Fred Melamed, convincingly conniving in the role), who’s never encouraged either of his daughters (the other one is Dani [Michaela Watkins], a concierge at a post L.A. hotel) to think that they could top his level of achievement.  Each of these characters comes with a love interest (for Carol, it’s Louis [Demetri Martin], sound engineer of her favorite recording studio; for Sam it’s his much younger paramour, Jamie [Alexandra Holden] who nicely rises above what we assume is her airhead persona at the conclusion; for Dani it’s husband Moe [Rob Corddry], although her indiscretion with a horny Irishman almost breaks them up; and for Gustav, it’s any full-length mirror he can find), which helps sustain them as the various relationships fall (back) into place, especially with Sam who finally acknowledges—after Jamie’s ultimatum—his daughters as he’s receiving the Golden Trailer lifetime achievement award, even after the humiliation of Carol beating him as the voice for the upcoming The Amazon Games quadrilogy (sometimes 3 books and their adaptations just aren’t enough for an effective series, as J.K. Rowling proved long ago)In a World … functions as bit of a movie-biz inside joke, but the writing is sharp and hilarious, the acting is always right on the mark, and the general pace of the easily-absorbed 93 min. makes for a satisfying encounter and departure (along with some useful cameos from the likes of Eva Longorio—playing herself getting accent coaching from Carol—and Geena Davis as Katherine Huling, producer of the Amazon films who reveals to Carol some inner politics of the industry she's not yet aware of, that she won the voiceover competition as a feminist statement from on high rather than with superior talent).  We can only hope to see more of Lake Bell pursuing future projects with such spirited enthusiasm as what we get with In a World …

While I won’t offer an official review of been-in-release-for-awhile We’re the Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber), I will note that I have little interest in future projects of this sort and would likely give it at most 2 ½ of my precious 5 stars if offering a for-the-record rating (but given that I invested the time to see it I’ll pass along my comments in case it’s still lingering at a theatre near you).  Here the premise is completely opposite of anything we’re explored above regarding integrity, talent, and reasons for respect and recognition:  instead we get 4 of Denver’s lower lights attempting to smuggle a massive amount of marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico—Jason Sudeikis as David Clark, a low-level dealer suddenly on the hook to his distributor (Ed Helms as Brad Gurdlinger) for $43,000; Jennifer Aniston as Rose O’Reilly, a down-on-her-luck stripper who lives in David’s apartment building; Emma Roberts as Casey Mathis, a punky street kid; and Will Poulter as Kenny Rossmore, a naïve but lovable teenage virgin acquaintance of David’s (all of whom I admire for gamely pushing their silly roles as far as plausibly possible, but there’s only so far you can go with a concept like this).  Using the premise that border guards will be less likely to hassle a family in a huge RV, they pose as the Millers (for a price, of course, although semi-scuzzy David has the chance to make a much bigger score with this delivery than he’s revealed to his accomplices) when they make the run with more trouble past the border than at it, while consistently foul mouths, a genital sight gag that’s the grossest-looking thing since the cringe-inducing-zipper-fly scene in There’s Something about Mary (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 1998), unending complications, and a final bonding bring them into the Witness Protection Program where their family charade can continue now that they’re all really fond of each other (we should be so lucky).  Some of the gross humor is pushed so far that you can’t help but laugh at it while the stereotypical Mexican drug thugs are just too silly to be truly offensive (at least to me, but then again I’m not Mexican so I’ll defer to the more appropriate among you).  Overall We’re the Millers just goes to show that while pure, unadulterated fiction doesn’t necessarily need the historical/actuality-stimulus of the films noted above to be effective some version of such a tactic might be useful with stories such as this that just spin and sputter wildly, not connected to much of anything except broad farce (which may be all you’re looking for in diversionary entertainment, but I’d rather go back for a second helping of Iron Man 3 [Shane Black; reviewed in our blog’s May 11, 2013 posting])—which got a measly 3 stars—than mess with the Millers again.  Instead, I encourage you to get energized with the fabulous vocalists of 20 Feet from Stardom or at least consider refreshing yourself on history too important to be ill-informed about in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  And don't hire the Millers for any one-way hauling jobs or be prepared for the worst.

If you’d like to know more about Lee Daniels’ The Butler here are some suggested links: (30 min. interview by Gayle King with director Lee Daniels and actors Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey—audio is a bit low at times)

If you’d like to know more about standing 20 Feet from Stardom here are some suggested links: (10:43 interview from Sundance with director Morgan Neville and singers from the film Darlene Love and Merry Clayton)

If you’d like to know more about what it's like to be In a World … here are some suggested links: (5:26 mini-doc on the previous actual king of voiceovers, Don LaFontaine, who sets the standard for the characters of In a World …)

I know this doesn't support a full-fledged review, but if you’d like to know more about We’re the Millers anyway here are some suggested links: (you might also appreciate this one—–which retains the raunchiness of the original movie but you may have to sign in to confirm your age in order to watch it—Big Brother is always watching what you're watching in case you need to be watched) (starts with the same off-color version of the trailer above and then goes into a short interview—about 3 min.—with actors Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, and Will Poulter conducted by my favorite off-the-wall video host, Houston’s own Jake Hamilton—which, gosh darn it, we don’t see much of this time, so you'll just have to be satisfied with a repeat version of some of George Carlin's unspeakable words for your best entertainment here; I'll offer you an excerpt from an R-rated version [Well, what else could it be?] of his routine at, even though if I ever had any hope of a reprieve from Google on not allowing advertising on this site because of my occasional use of adults-only content this clip nails the coffin shut forever so be forewarned that Carlin's language may melt your ears)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Hi Ken!

    Finally checking out your blog! Now I know where to go when I want a real review. Just got my first article published online and, of course I have a blog too.
    Be seein' ya!

    1. Hi Lemia, Thanks for replying here, joining the Members group, and for maintaining contact for these many years.

      For everyone else, Lemia was a marvelous student of mine at Mills College some time ago and is now a very dedicated filmmaker. If you'd like to know more about aspects of the culture in Syria than what I've seen in mainstream news I encourage you to connect to the above links and read her article and blog. Ken

  2. Hi Tabia and Tippu, Thanks for making note of a means to watch Lee Daniels' The Butler online. I have no connection to these recommendations and cannot vouch for them in any way. Ken

  3. Valuable info On Voice Over Artists Australia. Lucky me I found your web site by accident, and I am shocked why this accident didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

  4. Hi Josh, Thanks for the kind comments. Have you had a chance to see In a World ... yet? Whenever you do I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Ken

  5. Ken, it appears with a little better marketing you could be on PBS as the skinny guy and Pat could be the other thumb.

    Finally caught The Butler (who wants to ask for tickets or even talk about Lee Daniels?); the studio could have called it The White House Butler and pulled in more audience than they already have, although the film seems to be doing quite well even here in the deep south.

    It is a good film and Oprah could get a nomination; I also thought the Kennedy actor was spot on given he wasn't Vaghn Meador. The Jackie character was extremely effective in her two onscreen minutes. Seems they could have found a better Reagan but Jane Fonda was pretty ironic as Nancy. Overall the historical references and film clips effectively enhanced an overall positive viewing experience.

    The White House Butler (opps) does carry a strong indictment of US racial policy in our modern era. Klu Klux Klan over a hundred years after the freeing of the slaves? Nixon and Reagan came across as obstructionists; perhaps the Bush presidencies improved the Republicans chances of ever winning minority votes again. Again, an effective film on many levels.

    My vote is to see the film with an audience, even if it might be accessible elsewhere for free.

  6. Hi rj, Well, I'll have to talk to Pat about that thumb thing (Maybe now that both of the originators are gone the copyright has lapsed, but I know that Ebert appointed some surrogates to continue his video tradition; I watched once, felt like I was seeing freshmen college students in an introductory criticism class and haven't been back since. But, as we're speaking of ironies here, when Siskel and Ebert left PBS to go commercial there was a chance to send in audition tapes in hopes of replacing them. I was teaching at SMU, had made friends with Dallas Morning New film critic Philip Wuntch, so we sent in a tape, but you may have guessed by now that we didn't get chosen. Maybe Pat and I would have better luck, although I think he'd be much stronger on camera than me--I've seen him act in The Fantastics and he has a great stage presence. I was also doing a cable TV film review show in Dallas back in the '80s and had a hell of a time being comfortable talking to a camera.)

    Glad to know that you liked (Whatever You Want To Call It) The Butler so much because I have a lot of respect for it, despite any caustic comments made above. I do think that Whitaker and Winfrey were especially effective in their roles (and a nomination for Oprah might well be a reasonable consideration, depending on what else we see between now and the end of the year), with Jane Fonda doing a very reasonable, respectful Nancy Reagan as well. Finally, I agree on the "see it with an audience" recommendation, as it brings impactful responses in many scenes, well worth sharing even if with a roomful of strangers.

    Keep those comments coming, Mr. Semi-Official Third Guy in the Dark; always great to hear from you. Ken