Monday, September 30, 2013

THE FIVE THINGS THAT HOLLYWOOD SHOULD LEARN FROM THE TV SERIES BREAKING BAD

Original copyrighted caricature of the cast of BREAKING BAD illustrated by Jeff York.

The AMC series “Breaking Bad” ended its five-year run on Sunday night, September 29, and it went out with a finale that was both riveting and perfectly suited for the show. From the beginning, “Breaking Bad” never pulled its punches, starting with its title. It was a morality play about a cancer-stricken science teacher who brokered a bargain with the devil when he chose to cook Meth to leave a nest egg for his family. But the evil was always in Walter White to begin with and as he became more and more successful in the drug trade, his true colors were exposed. His pure, superior Meth concoction was known by its baby blue hue and it became Walt’s true legacy. And with it, Walt’s soul was revealed too and it was quite black.

If only “Dexter” had a finale as true to its lead character. Over the years, the writers of the Showtime series turned their sociopath into too nice a guy. And in doing so, they struggled mightily to find a fitting end to the serial killer’s saga (http://exm.nr/18ksMxR). But no such thing happened on “Breaking Bad”. Show runner and creator Vince Gilligan kept a sure hand on his creation throughout its run. He and his staff never lost their focus on Walter White (played by the utterly incredible Bryan Cranston). Very little got in the way of their clearheaded storytelling. No B stories, no secondary narratives; instead they kept a laser focus on this man who needed to matter in his life, no matter how much death he’d cause in ensuring a legacy.

In the final episode, White proved to every doubter in his world that he was a criminal mastermind worth being feared and revered. He tied up all the loose ends in his dangerous life. And he even did some good, though setting things right for his family and Jesse meant leaving an awful lot of bodies in the wake. The final episode was very smart, exceedingly focused and utterly appropriate. Hopefully, others in Hollywood will study it and learn how to tell better stories. Here are some of the key lessons to be taken from the sublime show that was “Breaking Bad”:

Don’t stay too long at the dance

Gilligan pitched “Breaking Bad” as “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface” to AMC television (http://n.pr/pZjCad) and he promised he’d only take five seasons to do it. And despite the growing popularity of the show with each subsequent season, Gilligan remained true to his word. Staying too long at the dance has plagued too many a series and film franchises. “Dexter” and “Lost” should’ve stopped at least a season or two before they did. And “Paranormal Activity” is now cranking out inferior sequels every year. There have been far too many series that have lost their way and kept milking the cash cow anyway. But “Breaking Bad” wasn't one of them. It didn't lose its way and knew just when to quit. And the show went out on top.

Characters, not special effects laden set pieces, drive narrative

UTA president Jeremy Zimmer says that the disappointing summer of CGI spectacles will teach Hollywood to invest in better stories and not expensive special effects (http://bit.ly/19JTH5v). Let’s hope so. When the destruction of city streets is driving too many entertainments from “Transformers” to the new “Man of Steel”, it’s not only skyscrapers that are being toppled, story is too. In the best entertainments, character remains front and center. “Breaking Bad” was riveting television by keeping its focus on its complex characters. Just watching the contention between Walt and his wife Skyler (the quietly formidable Anna Gunn) was as exhilarating as any alien invasion on a 50 ft. screen. High concepts, comic book heroes, and over-the-top CGI can only take you so far. Human interaction is still the most special effect of all on any screen.

The best monsters are always the human kind

Walter White was a monster and one that would be especially wise for any horror movie filmmaker to study and understand. Sure, ghouls and goblins are scary, but man is almost always the truest beast (http://exm.nr/LIlegL). White was truly as chilling as any vampire, ghost or zombie. And the fact that he was a recognizable and even relatable human being made his reign of terror all the more horrifying.

You don’t need an R rating to be edgy
One of the extraordinary things about the run of “Breaking Bad” was that it happened on basic cable. It couldn’t show nudity, nor could it use profane language with abandon. It also had to use violence sparingly to make it past the censors. It didn’t have nearly the advantages or freedom that theatrical movie releases have, or shows like those on HBO or Showtime. Yet it was just as shocking and compelling as any R-rated fare.

Why? Because “Breaking Bad” used its limitations to its advantage. It made the most out of the show’s verbiage, letting words hurt as much as violent actions. The show made the word ‘bitch’ funny and even scary, as uttered by the rash, troubled Jesse Pinkman (the wondrous Aaron Paul). And it made what was unseen as scary as what was viewed. This show felt like a hard R rating, yet it would probably have only yielded a PG-13 on the big screen. It would behoove other shows and movies to be so resourceful and so powerful.

Characters don’t always have to be redeemed at the end
Redemption can be a compelling theme in any story, but circling down the drain can be just as incredible. In “Breaking Bad”, the main character’s great flaw was his ego. White’s insecurity drove his choices to take out anyone who got in his way, often ruthlessly, whether they were competitors or innocent bystanders or his own DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). Even in the penultimate episode, Walt just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He was going to turn himself in as his cancer returned and his options became fewer and fewer. But when he saw former colleagues painting him as less than smart, his ego took over for one last time. He’d show them. He’d show them all. And indeed he did. 

Ultimately, White achieved exactly what he set out to do. He provided that nest egg for his family after his death. But he wasn’t redeemed as a hero. He was a bad guy who took out some other bad guys. He was just better at being bad than they were. And he knew it. And reveled in it. As White told Skyler towards the end, "I did it for me." Not for family, as he always protested. That was a lie. And he was very good at lying, as good as he was at being a gangster. And as he died on the floor of that Meth lab he was so proud of, he left this earth a man whose soul had perished a long time ago.

It remains to be seen how “Breaking Bad” stands the test of time, but I have a feeling it will be remembered and revered as one of TV’s best. And that will be in large part due to the fact that it left the air the same way it started - being true to its story, its audience and the dark journey of its protagonist, a man ironically named White. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

DEXTER SEASON FINALE CUTS AND RUNS

Jennifer Carpenter and Michael C. Hall in DEXTER (original caricature copyrighted by Jeff York)

After eight seasons, Showtime’s most popular series “Dexter” ended on Sunday, September 22. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading now. If you did catch it, you most certainly realized how fitting a finale it was because the conclusion was just as meandering and misguided as the entire last season. Dexter the character may have escaped death but the show was not as lucky. Its heart stopped sometime last season, if not sooner.

It didn’t have to be this messy, but the final season introduced far too many new characters and wasted oodles of time on superfluous secondary storylines like CSI Masuka’s long-lost daughter (http://bit.ly/1Ymu6b). Worst of all, the show simply stopped being smart. Would Dexter really choose a life with a woman who tried to kill both him and his sister Deb? And how was it that no one in the police department could put two and two together after all this time? The horror wasn’t in its serial killer premise, it was in the insipidness of the writing this year. The sloppy storytelling made the once great show a shadow of its former self. 

“The Walking Dead”, “American Horror Story”, “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries” are horror shows thriving on TV, and they all have “Dexter” to thank for it. “Dexter” paved the way for prime time horror, starting a renewed interest in it on TV with its runaway success after its 2006 premiere. “Dexter” forced studios to reconsider a genre that had too often failed there in the past. (The ambitious “American Gothic” in 1995 comes quickly to mind. http://bit.ly/vyRT2) And Showtime’s biggest hit not only stretched the boundaries of horror, it asked us to relate to and even cheer for a sociopath. That’s rather remarkable.

The very first words of the series were “Tonight’s the night” as Dexter trolled the streets of Miami looking for his next victim. Yet he wasn’t some drooling, Ripper-esque fiend. Dexter was a handsome, all-American boy type. He was a snappy dresser and terrific at his job, working as a blood spatter expert for Miami Metro homicide. Irony like that was one of author Jeff Lindsey’s droller jokes in his Dexter book series. And the Showtime adaptation got a lot of mileage out of such wit early on in the show’s run. At times, “Dexter” played like a black comedy juxtaposing Dexter’s ‘dark passenger’ against Florida’s candy-colored hues.

But the show wasn’t just a near-satire with Dexter cheekily taking his blood work home with him at night. It was a dissertation on what constitutes evil. The show posed a complex query about whether or not a psychopath had the capacity to change, to learn to change, and if so, how far could he go in his empathy. Not surprisingly, as Dexter became more and more immersed in the normal world around, he realized he too could have friends, date, and even love. He was still a monster in many ways, but he was trying to be less beastly.

And as Dexter grappled with his demons, Michael C. Hall gave one of the sharpest performances ever in the history of the medium. To his great credit, he never shirked from showing the unflattering sides of Dexter – the self-satisfied smirks, the hateful glares, the shocking swiftness of his violence. And Hall showed the lighter side of Dex too, that side that could feel. He shrewdly infused his character with a boyish curiosity, making his awe at how humans behave into something almost adorable.

As good as Hall always was, his show wasn’t as consistently on the same level. Like any series dependent upon foils, “Dexter” the show was only as good as the guest villains that challenged the killer side of him. The villains in season 1, 2 and 4 (played by Christian Carmago, Jaime Murray and John Lithgow, respectively) were a cut above the others. Their baddies were so despicable you couldn’t wait for Dexter to get them on his kill table. Dexter may have been a killer but his father’s code taught him to only kill those that had it coming.

Thus, Dexter made moral choices in his killings, and as he tried to be more adaptive to the normal world around him, he started to become more humane. He learned to love his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) and even married her. They had a baby together, Harrison, and Dexter became a doting father to him as well as Rita’s two kids from her previous marriage. Dexter became more and more sociable as well. Heck, he even joined the bowling team from work. And most importantly, he came to truly respect, care for, and look out for his stepsister Deb.

As played by the raw and riveting Jennifer Carpenter, Deb exemplified everything that Dexter wasn’t. Like him, she was a good cop, but where Dexter was cool and in control, Deb swore like a sailor, drank to excess, and chased bad boys into bed. She wore every emotion on her sleeve, and while Dex couldn’t relate, he learned to understand and care for her. Theirs became the true ‘love story’ of the series.

And for the first four years, with those themes in place, it all worked spectacularly well. The high water mark came in its fourth season when Dexter became enthralled with Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow). Mitchell was a family man who also happened to be the Trinity Killer, an elusive serial killer who’d gotten away with his crimes for over 30 years.  But as Dexter befriended him, under the alias of ‘Kyle Butler’, he realized that Mitchell was not a mentor, but rather a horrible man, butchering innocents and sadistically bullying his family at home. Dexter took him out too, but not before Trinity slaughtered Rita. Dexter’s dreams of a happy, normal existence were now of the pipe variety. And it was time to pay the piper.

 But the piper never came to collect the bill. Despite ‘Kyle Butler’ being a person of interest in the Trinity case, that plot thread was abandoned. The show was renewed for two seasons after the record Lithgow ratings and its success may have softened its edge. It didn’t help that guiding force show-runner Clyde Phillips also departed after the fourth season and the show started to falter immediately.

The next three seasons saw Dexter battling not only weaker villains but less than inspiring storylines. Dexter softened too much. He became too nice, too sweet, a real mensch. Dexter was now a great dad, a friendly co-worker, and a man who loved everything from his Cuban sandwiches to sex with various lady guest stars (http://exm.nr/OyRL5x). “Dexter” had become cute and cuddly. And he stopped being scary. It was a horrific mistake.

Deb’s discovery of the truth about her brother at the very end of season six gave the show back some of its spark. (http://exm.nr/Z98RPz) And when Deb killed her boss at the end of season seven when she found out Dexter’s secret as well, the show was teed up to be startlingly dramatic in its final season. The horrors of Dexter’s double life were all coming home to roost. The collateral damage was substantial, and Dexter was going down.

Only he didn’t. Sure, Deb spiraled out of control for a few episodes, quitting her job and binge drinking, but her threats to confess both their crimes never came to fruition. And along with that pulled punch, the rest of the season careened from one silly subplot to another, like Quinn’s relationship with Harrison’s nanny, and the introduction of a police psychiatrist (Charlotte Rampling) and her long-lost serial killer son. When serial killer Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) returned, all hope was lost. Dex went all lovey-dovey for her and planned to run away to Argentina with the woman who tried to poison him. This once vital show had sadly turned into an unintentional farce.
The cast of BREAKING BAD (Original caricature copyrighted by Jeff York)

And it all looked even worse compared to how stunning the final season of “Breaking Bad” has been. With only two episodes left in that series, Walter White’s double life has been utterly exposed and he’s lost everything. That could’ve been Dexter’s storyline too. Instead, Dexter escaped largely unscathed. No one left at Miami Metro found out he was a serial killer, and his son and Hannah escaped. Only Deb died, and her death seemed like another contrivance, considering her bullet was fatal. She lost oxygen to her brain in the operating room and was declared brain dead.

If the show had concluded in its fifth season, with authorities closing in on Dexter and his ‘Kyle Butler’ connection to Trinity, the show would’ve gone down in history the way we’re seeing “Breaking Bad” conclude. It would have been fascinating to see how all of those in Dexter’s inner circle would’ve reacted to finding out the truth about him. And what would Dexter’s experience of shame and humiliation have been like for him? It would have been amazing television to see him deal with that much feeling.

Ultimately, the show chose not to go that route and its reputation suffered because of those missed opportunities. And its last season was almost a debacle. Still, “Dexter” will go down in history as a show that was once truly groundbreaking and an exceptionally challenging drama. My God, we rooted for a serial killer for eight years. Dexter had us all breaking bad. Unfortunately, his ending just wasn’t any good. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

OSCAR WORTHY VS. OSCAR DUE


Robert Redford is getting a lot of Oscar buzz already this season. His movie ALL IS LOST hasn’t even opened nationally yet, but those who’ve seen it at various film festivals and screenings are suggesting he’s a lock for a nomination. And he’s likely the favorite to win too. At age 77, it would be his first acting Oscar. He’s won an Oscar for directing ORDINARY PEOPLE and an honorary one for Sundance, but he’s never taken home the gold as a leading man. And he’s been a leading man in six decade of movie acting. 
Robert Redford in ALL IS LOST
If he wins, it will likely be for a terrific performance, but most likely for a lot of other factors. The Academy always considers a number of things when voting. It’s seldom just about the performance.

The idea of winning an Oscar outright because the performance is so amazing is almost never the way the voting goes. Instead, it’s all about who’s due and for what reason. A number of other considerations sneak into the mix too. Is the movie still fresh in the memory of the voting members? Does the film have momentum or did its talk value peak months before the awards voting? Who’s won before? Who hasn’t? Who’s the most likable? Who’s the sexiest? (A big consideration when voting for actresses. Sadly.) There are so damn many things to consider, it’s no wonder Oscar prognosticating has become a cottage industry online. (Just ask the folks over at GoldDerby.com or AwardsDaily.com)
James Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
It’s always interesting to me to see who gets a ‘make up’ Oscar. That's the Oscar they’re due because for some inexplicable reason they were passed over before. Jimmy Stewart immediately springs to my mind, as he didn’t win in 1939 for his landmark role in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. He lost to Robert Donat in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS that year. It's a good performance in a good movie, but it's hardly in the league of Stewart's classic role. Apparently enough Academy members realized their oversight immediately and gave Stewart the Best Actor Oscar the very next. His win for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was fine, but it was no Mr. Smith.  
Renee Zellweger in CHICAGO
That happens a lot in the Oscar balloting. Very seldom to people win for the performance they should have. Shouldn’t Renee Zellweger have won a supporting actress Oscar for JERRY MAGUIRE in 1996? (Heck, she wasn’t even nominated!) How about a lead Oscar for her incredible singing and dancing turn as Roxie Hart in 2002's Best Picture winner CHICAGO? Nope, she lost there too. Instead, the Academy finally awarded her a Best Supporting Actress statuette for COLD MOUNTAIN the very next year. It was a performance that drew bad comparisons to Granny Clampett in THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES but at least the Academy corrected their errors, right?

The Academy's timing is pretty bad. The last 20 years alone are filled with people who didn't win for the right film. Nicole Kidman didn’t win for MOULIN ROUGE, but did THE HOURS. I’d argue that of the three female leads in that weepie  she was the least worthy of award consideration, but alas, Kidman was due. And she won. Finally. But for the wrong movie. Similarly, the incredible Denzel Washington was passed over for his towering work in both MALCOLM X and THE HURRICANE, so when the Academy finally got around to giving him a Best Actor Oscar it was for TRAINING DAY, a film nobody thinks Washington won outright for. But that's how Oscar make up balloting goes. 
William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD
My favorite actor of all time is William Holden and he won Best Actor for STALAG 17 in 1953. It’s a good performance in a solid film but his Academy Award worthy turn was three years earlier in SUNSET BOULEVARD. The winner that year was Jose Ferrer, a terrific actor in a good performance as CYRANO DE BERGERAC, but what film has stood the test of time? What performance is still talked about today? It’s Holden’s, no question.
Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER
And when you think about films that actors don’t win for versus the one they finally nabbed Oscar gold for, it’s more than a little ridiculous. Al Pacino didn’t win an Oscar for either of THE GODFATHER movies, SERPICO or DOG DAY AFTERNOON. He finally won, after eight nominations, for his bellicose “Hoo ha!” in the overwrought SCENT OF A WOMAN. Likewise, the Academy didn’t deem Dustin Hoffman’s landmark work in THE GRADUATE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY or LENNY as Oscar worthy. They finally got around to honoring him for KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Seriously, Ted Kramer versus Ratso Rizzo? You tell me which one he should’ve won for.

Which brings us back to Redford. He’s only been nominated for one acting Oscar before and that was for THE STING (1973). Redford’s terrific in that movie, and he carries the frothy bubble of a caper film on his capable shoulders, but it’s not an Academy Award worthy role or performance. Redford could have won for two that definitely were - BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE CANDIDATE. Yet Redford wasn’t even nominated for those two biggies.
One could argue that Redford could have and should have also been nominated for THE WAY WE WERE, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN. But he wasn’t. Now, 40 years after his last Oscar nod for acting, Redford may very well win for the adventure film ALL IS LOST. It's a lost at sea saga where Redford apparently is the only one on screen for virtually the entire movie.  

Better get that speech ready, Bob.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

THE BEST OF A BAD SUMMER AT THE MOVIES


Perhaps I’m a touch late with this wrap-up of the summer movie season. Kids are back in school. Labor Day came and went. And yet, summer is technically with us until September 22nd, so I’m still timely. I think the reason I put off this list was so that I could still see a few more films to leave the summer on a high note. And the indie feature THE SPECTACULAR NOW did just that, adding a positive light to one of the less than impressive summers on record. (Here’s my take on why it was so dismal: http://bit.ly/16AicWv)

Nonetheless, there were big, sunny bright spots on the summer scene. Thus, I’ll focus here on those highlights and hopefully they’ll stick in our memory more than the dreck.
BEST SUMMER MOVIE
It’s been quite a run as of late for Woody Allen. I’ve enjoyed his summer entries three years in a row now, starting with 2011’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, a witty riff on art and nostalgia. Last year, he gave us TO ROME WITH LOVE, a bubbly bauble of a multi-storied romantic comedy set in Italy. And this year he wrote and directed BLUE JASMINE, which is one of his all-time best. It’s a dark character study about a rich woman named Jasmine who’s lost her husband, her wealth, and her home in New York. She’s forced to move to San Francisco to live with her working class sister and her adaptation skills are minimal to say the least. She’s a modern day Blanche DuBois, still living the lies of her richer days, and she wreaks a haughty havoc wherever she goes. Woody Allen has always written great female characters and Jasmine is one of his sharpest. And Cate Blanchett gave a towering performance as the devastated soul clinging to her past as tightly as her Louis Vuitton clutch.

BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett in BLUE JASMINE. I think the Oscar is in that Vuitton bag of hers.
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW
BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
The standout male performance of the summer, and the year so far, is that of 26-year-old actor Miles Teller. His work as Sutter Keely in THE SPECTACULAR NOW blew my socks off. His teenage character is the life of the party - funny, charming, a true people person and a very self-aware young man. Except for the fact that he’s quickly becoming a functioning alcoholic, relying on his flask to get through the day. He’s a good kid doing some very bad things. His drinking enables him to shirk responsibility, take a devil-may-care attitude, and even lead a nice girl astray, pulling her into his darkness. This is a teen romance laid bare, with the actors performing sans make-up, and their emotions raw and revelatory. We see Teller’s real scars and blemishes in every shot as well as his no-fuss brilliance as an actor. It's a great performance in a terrific film.

BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Shailene Woodley’s supporting turn in THE DESCENDANTS two years ago was no fluke. She is a superb young actress, giving the best supporting performance of the summer as Aimee Finecky in THE SPECTACULAR NOW. As Sutter Keely’s rebound girlfriend, she wears every emotion on her sleeve, and we in the audience fall in love with her too. She’s one of the best actors of her generation, right up there with Jennifer Lawrence, and I cannot wait to see all that her career brings.
Benedict Cumberbatch in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
He wasn’t really playing the Khan we remember from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, but Benedict Cumberbatch knocked it out of the park as the titular bad guy wreaking terror throughout the universe. He not only gave STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS its fun, he gave it its darkness. Cumberbatch dominated every scene he was in with his searing gaze, eloquent diction and menacing physicality. I thought that Ricardo Montalban should have gotten an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor back in 1982. Here’s hoping that Cumberbatch is remembered in the same category for his super-villain turn.

BEST COMEDY
There were not a lot to recommend, but three stood out to me: THIS IS THE END, THE HEAT, and THE WORLD’S END. All were character-driven. All were smart. And two were about an end-of-the-world apocalypse. (Go figure!) I loved Edgar Wright’s late summer entry from England, THE WORLD’S END, but I give the slight edge to THIS IS THE END. It made me laugh aloud two dozen times, especially since it was such a viciously funny takedown of celebrity entitlement. Seth Rogan, James Franco and their actor friends all played ‘themselves’, portrayed as shallow, coddled Hollywood punks who were unworthy of entering heaven after God destroys our planet. For such an uproarious 'slob and stoner' comedy, it was surprisingly moral and thoughtful about what constitutes greatness in the world and it gets my vote as best comedy for being so funny and so true. 
Hugh Jackman as THE WOLVERINE
BEST ACTION FILM
I liked many summer entries including FAST & FURIOUS 6, IRON MAN 3, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MAN OF STEEL, but the one I want to see again is THE WOLVERINE. We’ve seen a lot of that hirsute X-Man Logan on the big screen, what with half a dozen appearances over the last 12 years, but Hugh Jackman still amazes in the role. There’s more nuance in his work than anyone else has done in a superhero role.  And THE WOLVERINE used the great Chris Claremont & Frank Miller graphic novel as its source material. The Asian themes and settings added a lot of texture to this multi-layered comic book thrill ride. And it certainly deserved to be a bigger hit than it was, so rent it when you can. I know I will.
Patrick Wilson in THE CONJURING
BEST HORROR MOVIE
As you may recall, I review movies for the Examiner online, and specialize in covering the world of horror for them (http://exm.nr/SN3ij5). And this summer had two of the best of the last few years - THE CONJURING and YOU’RE NEXT. The latter was a cheeky, character study of an already dysfunctional family being attacked by outside marauders. And the former was a demonic possession tale that really delivered the scares. Director James Wan reined in his flashier flourishes to let the simple humanity of the family living in a possessed home do all the heavy lifting for him. Its realism helped ground it and make its frights all the more believable. And Wan got great performances out of his character actors cast including Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as ghost hunters, and Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the heads of the beleaguered family. This film had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. And I leapt out of it more than once too.
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in THE BUTLER
BEST SURPRISE
With celebrity stunt casting filling the president roles in this film, I feared that THE BUTLER might be just an oversized Lifetime movie. Instead, director Lee Daniels performed a bit of a miracle with his film about a butler who served the White House for over 50 years. He did so by keeping its focus on the African-American characters. It was all about them, not the flashy star cameos. And shrewdly, unlike THE HELP, he resisted the urge to have a Caucasian character ‘save’ the day here. Instead, Daniels concentrated on the story of the butler's family and how they reacted to the history around them. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it was such a big hit at the box office. The black, working class perspective was refreshing and insightful. And despite a movie that sometimes tried to cram too much into its 2-½ hour running time, this film was never less than thoughtful, moving and fascinating throughout. And its excellent leads - Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo - should all be remembered come awards season. 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke returned in BEFORE MIDNIGHT as the star-crossed lovers, finishing up the third and final film in director Richard Linklater's romantic triptych. I loved these characters in their two previous outings BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, and their journey here, sorting through their ravaged love, is a fitting end to one of the most unique and beautiful achievements in cinema. And it's easily one of the year's best efforts.
Ben Kingsley in IRON MAN 3
IRON MAN 3 was a lot of fun, mostly because of the scary, then hilarious, villain turn by Ben Kingsley. He stole scenes from Robert Downey, Jr. And how many actors can do that these days?

Michael B. Jordan in FRUITVALE STATION
FRUITVALE STATION, the winner of best film at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, was a taut and moving study of an ex-con (Michael B. Jordan) trying to go straight whose luck runs out at a fateful Bart stop in Oakland, CA. It was writer/director Ryan Coogler's first feature film and it's a stunning debut.

THE BLING RING was another winner from writer/director Sofia Coppola. She’s become quite adroit at examining disaffected, privileged youth. This film focused on bored Hollywood rich kids who developed a taste for breaking into celebrity homes and stealing their money, clothing and accessories. They wanted to be like Paris Hilton, for God's sake - I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!


So, Establishing Shot followers, what excited you this summer? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please share them here!