I’ve recently seen these three new films, and I would have to rank The Butler as the best of them. Forest Whitaker plays a man who served as a butler in the White House from the Eisenhower Administration through the Reagan Administration. The film is based on a true story, although names are changed and I don’t know how much of the detail of the film is true or imaginary. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife. Various movie stars have brief cameo appearances as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. (They don’t have anybody playing Ford or Carter, whose presidencies are briefly skirted over with some news clips.) The butler — like most of the service staff at the White House during the period in question — was African American, and it is interesting to see the butler and other service staff standing around as presidents and other officials discuss civil rights issues, maintaining their impassive posture and avoiding getting involved in any political discussions, since it is a prerequisite of their job that they be totally apolitical. The contrast is drawn with the butler’s older son, who goes off to college in 1960 and immediately gets involved in the civil rights movement, participating in a lunch counter sit-in, voter registration activities in the south, marching with Dr. King, etc. The film provides a valuable history lesson from an unusual perspective, but it is not overly didactic.
In fact, that is part of my problem with Elysium, which I found to be rather heavy-handed in its political message. Matt Damon plays an ex-con centuries in the future who is trying to go “straight” but is defeated by the inequalities in his society. Earch is so polluted and decayed that the wealthy live on a satellite orbiting the planet, their Elysium, while the common working folk barely exist on the earth below. The Damon character, subject to abusive treatment at his job, is needlessly exposed to a massive dose of radioactivity, and must struggle to get to Elysium where there is the technology to cure his condition. To do so, he falls in with a “criminal element” (or freedom fighters, depending how you see it). I thought this was a film with an interesting premise that was weighted down a bit with its political message and ultimately devolved into what you always seem to get with a high-budget mass market action picture – lots of slam bang and special effects….
Finally, Blue Jasmine, the latest from Woody Allen. This is a very disturbing film in which all the characters are flawed, some so much that they are totally unlikeable, especially the principal character played by Cate Blanchette. The location shots in New York and San Francisco are fun for anybody familiar with those cities — identifying where scenes were shot is a diverting parlor game for New Yorkers attending Woody Allen films — but I found my sympathies were not really engaged much by the characters, even though the story held me throughout.
So, if I were deciding which new movies in first release I wanted to see, I would rank The Butler well above the other two.