Two ensemble flicks, one delights, one doesn’t

After the Toronto International Film Festival, Hollywood comes alive with talk of golden bald statues. The good news is that buzz-worthy films have already hit theaters. The bad news is that very few of these early hopefuls withstand the long and drawn out spectacle that is award season. Then again, Argo – 2012’s Academy Award Best Picture – took second place as the People’s Choice Award at last year’s TIFF.

Blue Jasmine

It isn’t surprising when a movie written and directed by an Oscar alumnus is brought into the fray. Here I refer to Woody Allen, best original screenplay winner for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Midnight in Paris. No question his work is often an acquired taste. Whether you have been a fan of past films or a naysayer of all, Blue Jasmine is sure to leave its mark in this year’s run for a big prize. The story in itself is a bit jumbled, a flashback/flash forward sort of affair where the characters drop big plot lines as a preamble to the scenes to follow. The formatting distracts from what really makes the film zing – the casting.

Cate Blanchett will forever be an Oscar darling, though shockingly, she has only taken home the prize once for portraying Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. As the eccentric and spoiled wife of a scheming husband who dies and leaves her with “nothing”, her Jasmine seeks respite with the adopted sister her husband bamboozled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Popping Xanax at the slightest provocation, her panic-attacking borderline-manic self-centered ego is a marvel to watch as she all but embodies the female counterpart to Allen’s neuroses. The pressured speech, the squinty eyes, the suddenly jerky body movements. Every gesture and phrase transforms the elegant Blanchett into the caustic insensitive mess that is Jasmine.

The remainder of the cast rounds out the film with panache. Alec Baldwin, as always, plays a stellar villain, though he may never meet his peak performance in Malice. Sally Hawkins as the forgiving adopted sister, Peter Sarsgaard as the self-righteous politician, Louis CK as the seemingly sweet love interest, and even Andrew Dice Clay as the down and out construction worker, they all rescue an otherwise off-kilter script from Allen’s tumultuous San Francisco.

The Butler

Attempting a bit of casting magic himself, Lee Daniels overindulges in his ensemble piece with a capital E. The endless array of celebrity faces through The Butler is enough to distract even the most stoic of viewers from a well-intentioned story. This is worse for the fact that the majority of the characters are as superficial as the polish used on the silver dinnerware.

The fact that The Butler is based on a true story may perk Oscar’s ear, but the rapid succession of historical events leaves little time to delve into the characters. As much as Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey try to carry the piece, their well-executed performances (yes, Oprah is being hailed as an Oscar hopeful) are buried beneath a series of events that would have made for a better documentary miniseries than a personal biopic. Well, personal biopic would not be accurate since the real life butler did not experience the horrific family tragedy we witness in the cotton fields, did not have a son die in the Vietnam War, and did not have a second son, never mind one who was involved in the Black Panthers. What a disservice to the original butler whose service spanned eight presidents from Truman in 1952 to Reagan in 1986. It is as if his real life were simply not interesting enough to promote Daniels’ agenda.

The miscasting of the presidents, too, has received a lot of press. Robin William as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy (excellent, by the way), Liev Schreiber as Johnson, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. Caricatures all but entertaining nonetheless. What I found more contrived, however, was how a brief interaction between the butler and a president would be followed by a critical moment in civil rights history. Daniels would have you think this one man somehow shaped American civil rights by serving in the White House despite all the politics and rhetoric exploding across the country. The Butler comes across as self-important and insulting to all those who struggled through these trying times.

Woody Allen and the civil rights movement seem to have so little in common but for sharing the same theater space. Blue Jasmine has a near clinch for a Best Actress nominee in Blanchett and Lee Daniels’ The Butler remains hopeful for Winfrey as a Supporting Actress. But there are a lot more movies to come between now and nomination time. These early hopefuls should not hold their breath. But breathe away, Miss Jasmine, breathe away.

Blue Jasmine: 3 stethoscopes (for Cate)

Lee Daniel’s The Butler: 1 stethoscope

Dr. Tanya Feke is a family physician and guest columnist for the Town Times. She has been press credentialed to the LA Film Festival and continues to pursue a love of film. Her reviews are rated on a five stethoscope scale. Follow her blog (www.diagnosislife.com), Facebook page (Diagnosis Life), or twitter (@tanyafeke).



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