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Lee Daniels' The Butler: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet Review

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) movie poster Lee Daniels' The Butler

Theatrical Release: August 16, 2013 / Running Time: 132 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Lee Daniels / Writers: Danny Strong (screenplay), Will Haygood (article "A Butler Well Served by This Election")

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Carter Wilson), Terrence Howard (Howard), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Alex Pettyfer (Thomas Westfall), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), Yaya Alafia (Carol Hammie), Aml Ameen (Cecil Gaines - 15), David Banner (Earl Gaines), Colman Domingo (Freddie Fallows), Nelsan Ellis (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Nealla Gordon (Senator Kassebaum), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines - 15-25), Minka Kelly (Jacqueline Kennedy), Adriane Lenox (Gina), Mo McRae (Black Panther), Pernell Walker (Lorraine), Jesse Williams (James Lawson), Clarence Williams III (Maynard)

Buy Lee Daniels' The Butler from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet DVD Blu-ray Instant Video

Nearly thirty years ago, Winston Groom wrote a novel about a simple man whose extraordinary life was intertwined with 20th century American history. The man fought in and protested against the Vietnam War, ran across the country twice, met multiple U.S. Presidents.
You know the story because it is Forrest Gump, adapted into the beloved Tom Hanks movie of the same name.

You may well be reminded of that film, both the top-grossing release and Best Picture of 1994, as you watch Lee Daniels' The Butler. The Butler claims it is inspired by a true story and whereas Gump is largely a comedy, this can only be classified as a drama. Nonetheless, the experience is similar, as the life of a seemingly unremarkable man becomes a device for revisiting our collective past and charting a nation's progress.

The film opens in 1929 Georgia, when Cecil Gaines is a young black boy working on a plantation. After seeing his father (David Banner) shot dead for objecting to the land's owner (Alex Pettyfer) having his way with Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey), young Cecil gets upgraded from cotton picker to house servant. As a teenager, Cecil stumbles onto a job in a pastry shop, which leads a position at the Excelsior Hotel in Washington D.C.

Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, a man who enthusiastically begins working as a White House butler in 1957. Though proud of her husband, Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey) is disappointed she never gets to see his workplace.

By now, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) has a wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons. His tactful way of remaining apolitical gets him discovered and lands him a job at the White House. In 1957, Cecil is asked to fill one of the six butler slots at the Presidential mansion. He's told the job's average tenure is thirty years and that's about how long Cecil will serve the leader of the free world.

Befriending his fellow butlers, the bawdy Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and serious James (Lenny Kravitz), Cecil gets close to and friendly with a parade of presidents: Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).

While Cecil is performing admirably in his duties, his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an activist, determined to secure racial equality. Louis' beliefs and willingness to demonstrate land him in and out of jail, while estranging him from his status quo-accepting father, whose only cause is getting equal pay and opportunities for the White House's black butlers.

A slight prosthetic nose isn't nearly enough to make John Cusack look like President Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) promises to back Cecil's quest for equal pay, but takes an interesting stance on South Africa.

First things first, the movie is called Lee Daniels' The Butler and not simply The Butler because the production
failed to file proper paperwork with the Motion Picture Association of America. Quite humorously, Warner Bros. submitted a complaint on account of a lost 1916 silent short film they inherited titled The Butler (oh, the confusion!). The MPAA, with whom The Weinstein Company has publically clashed on multiple recent occasions, required a title change and accepted the director's name being added in a font 75% as big as the rest of the title. What looks like a display of ego from the director of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire and The Paperboy is actually just a legally obligated compromise and a fascinating one that gave the film some free press.

Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong apply four heavy hands to this film. They present decades of civil rights progress from the contrary perspectives of an apolitical Presidential servant and his outspoken son, who becomes a Black Panther. Their narrative is only slightly more believable than Forrest Gump's story and it is obviously heavily fictionalized. It's also far from graceful.

You can tell from the bizarre list of actors and their roles that casting was one of the highest priorities and biggest challenges for this film. To introduce a modern President every fifteen minutes or so, portrayed by a recognizable actor in either sufficient (Williams, Schreiber) or insufficient (Cusack, Rickman) make-up and hairstyling is just as distracting as it sounds.

None of the portrayals seems especially on task (the ones with the better make-up also give better performances). You can argue that this is irrelevant because these performances are little more than cameos. But that's a dangerous path to go down, because if the Presidents don't matter, then what of their primarily trivial interactions with the passive Cecil? And if those don't matter, we're left with simply the contrast of father and son, which though more substantial than the rest is also clearly contrived and forced. In fact, these two adjectives are among the first to spring to mind in describing the film at large. Daniels and Strong want Cecil Gaines' story to be America's story. They want it to be inspiring and poignant. But they make it too tidy and fictionalized. There's narration that never quite works and the ending cheapens and instantly dates the film by bringing us up to nearly the present day.

Judging from the windbreakers worn by Gloria and Cecil Gaines (Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker), it must be the '90s. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" uses both make-up and costumes to depict the passage of time.

The real butler profiled in Wil Haygood's 2008 Washington Post article cited as the inspiration for Strong's screenplay was named Eugene Allen. Few details from Allen's life make it into the film. His troubled, redeemable son is pure screenwriter invention. The secondary younger sibling does have a historical basis, but one whose path departs from the movie version. The unflattering presidential behavior is not based on Allen's real experiences, but our, or rather Strong's, current understanding of their presidencies.

All that limits one's appreciation of The Butler. It's not a good enough film to deserve artistic license and the license it takes seems to hurt more than help. It's a nice idea in theory,
but it lacks almost all of the personality and emotional punch of Forrest Gump, a comedic, loose adaptation of a novel that obviously made no claim of being true.

Though Strong previously wrote for cable (the HBO movies Recount and Game Change) and this feels like it could easily have gone that route too, instead it became one of 2013's biggest commercial triumphs on the big screen. An independent film produced by assorted companies for $30 million, The Butler tore up the box office at the end of summer, grossing $116 million domestically and another $51 million overseas. The former made it the fifth highest-grossing film in the nine-year history of The Weinstein Company. The four that have earned more -- Django Unchained, The King's Speech, Silver Linings Playbook, and Inglourious Basterds -- all were nominated for Best Picture and won at least one major Oscar.

Back in August, The Butler seemed assured that much, based even just on its success with the general public. But a strong crop of year-end releases has now made this one of a number of Weinstein releases that may very well narrowly miss out on a Best Picture nod. The Butler has not featured extensively in the awards season to date, its biggest notices coming from the Screen Actors Guild, recognition that is often proportional to the size of a film's cast. The fact that actors make up the majority of the Academy may help it sneak into a major category, but it's already surprisingly out of the running for the Make-Up and Hairstyling award. Now, its best and possibly only shots at becoming an Oscar nominee are Winfrey slipping into the not terribly deep Supporting Actress category and maybe snagging a slot in Best Original Song.

Presumably, Weinstein expected a more exciting week for the film when it scheduled a Blu-ray combo pack and DVD release for tomorrow, two days after the Golden Globe Awards (from which it was completely shut out) and two before the Academy Award nominations are announced. With or without such accolades, the film seems certain to sell well and its proximity to Martin Luther King Jr. Day (King is dramatized in the film) and Black History Month can't hurt.

It's worth mentioning that The Butler appears to have only narrowly been spared another Weinstein/MPAA ratings battle. The film curiously includes a crude sexual story and some hard profanity, but softens them with the sounds of a locker slamming and plates clattering. It's a very corny way to keep this PG-13, which it's worth noting that none of the four aforementioned Weinstein hits needed to succeed.

Lee Daniels' The Butler: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: January 14, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone Blu-ray ($34.99 SRP), standalone DVD ($29.98 SRP)
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Lee Daniels' The Butler looks terrific on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1 transfer stays so polished, sharp, vibrant, and clean throughout that you're sure to notice even the briefest and most presentable licensed period shot. This exemplary picture asserts the film as cinema, not television.

One can muster no complaints regarding the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. Rather than taking the Forrest Gump approach, it largely refrains from needle drops, though when it does add a period tune, it distributes it well, without overpowering dialogue.

Lee Daniels directs James Marsden and Minka Kelly as the Kennedys in "'Lee Daniels' The Butler': An American Story." The deleted scenes show more of the activist activities of Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo).

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Each of the two discs gets a sturdy supply of bonus features, all of which the Blu-ray presents in HD.

Things begin with the TV-ready behind-the-scenes documentary "Lee Daniels' The Butler: An American Story" (22:04). It gathers thoughts on the real story, its significance to black people and the demands of making an epic that takes place over fifty years. Praise for the cast and Daniels is passed around. We also get a decent amount of behind-the-scenes looks at filming.

Next, we get nine deleted scenes (21:07). They feature more of Cecil as a plantation child and as a young man on his own. There's also John F. Kennedy learning about the Cuban missile crisis and more black reactions to civil rights news.

Real Freedom Riders react to the film's portrayal of their activism. Gladys Knight sings "You and I Ain't Nothin' No More" in a music video.

"The Freedom Riders" (3:52) gathers reflections from some of the people who rode the real Freedom Bus and their reaction to the film's dramatization of it.

A music video for Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz's short song "You and I Ain't Nothin' No More" (1:45) features recording studio photographs and video.

Terrence Howard makes Oprah Winfrey laugh in the unlikely gag reel included. Robin Williams appears as Dwight D. Eisenhower on the DVD's main menu for "Lee Daniels' The Butler." This marks Williams' third film portraying a President, but first not to be made out of wax.

Finally, a gag reel (5:12), an unexpected and fairly unusual inclusion,
amuses with its goofs and horseplay. Surprisingly, there's no Robin Williams cutting loose.

The discs open with trailers for Fruitvale Station (SD) and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (HD).

The menu places listings under a standard montage of clips. Sadly, Weinstein Blu-rays continue to neither support bookmarks, nor resume playback, making them inferior in one way to DVD for those who have trouble carving out enough time to watch a long film in one sitting.

The Butler is the first standardly-packaged Anchor Bay Blu-ray I've seen which is topped by a cardboard slipcover. Joining the full color Blu-ray and plain silver DVD inside is an insert supplying your Digital HD UltraViolet code. In another break from tradition, Weinstein and Anchor Bay also extend a Blu-ray-only option, with no DVD, no digital copy, and no slipcover for a list price $5 less (and a sale price only about $2 less).

Gloria and Cecil Gaines (Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker) don't see eye to eye with their son's civil rights activism in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Lee Daniels' The Butler is easy to watch and kind of enjoy, but uninspired fictionalization makes it fall short of its lofty goals. It's a movie passing itself off as a film and one whose politics, story, and shallow, dizzying design are tough to digest.

This Blu-ray stands as a highly satisfying release, with its combo pack versatility, strong feature presentation, and hour of substantial bonus features. If you liked the film and anticipate wanting to see it a number of times, you shouldn't hesitate to pick up this edition.

Buy Lee Daniels' The Butler from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet DVD Blu-ray Instant Video

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Reviewed January 13, 2014.



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