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"Lee Daniels' The Butler" 3stars

Lee Daniels directed, but truth be told, it's "Forest Whitaker's The Butler" as he eloquently embodies the story of one man, eight U.S. presidents and a journey from picking cotton to picking an African-American as leader of the free world.

Mr. Whitaker appears to age before our eyes, from a butler quietly quaking at serving coffee to Ike to one invited to a state dinner by President and Mrs. Reagan.

An 8-year-old Cecil Gaines sees his father shot by a white farm owner and is transferred into the house where he learns to serve meals to that very man. When he later leaves the shattered remnants of his family behind, that training helps him secure jobs at hotels and, then, the White House in 1957.

"The Butler" tells the story of a man and a movement in a conventional but compelling way. Where some films, such as "Mississippi Burning," "Malcolm X," "Nixon" or "Bobby," dramatize a single incident or period, this one tracks the sweep of history through eight decades, three in the White House.

"The Butler" functions as a historical highlight reel, dramatizing such watershed events as lunch-counter sit-ins, Ku Klux Klan attacks on the Freedom Riders, the assassinations of JFK and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the rise of the Black Panthers, Watergate and the toll of the Vietnam War.

"The Butler" follows Cecil and wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) through family unity, estrangement, tragedy, awakening and rebirth, with Mr. Whitaker hitting all the right notes.

The casting is both an embarrassment of riches and occasional case of stunt hiring gone awry as with Mariah Carey as young Cecil's mother, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. When it comes to the presidents, Liev Schreiber as LBJ and Alan Rickman as President Reagan are the best, and John Cusack as Richard Nixon the worst. James Marsden supplies the hair, accent, empathy and warmth to JFK.

Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

Extras include "Lee Daniels' The Butler: An American Story" and "The Original Freedom Riders" featurettes; deleted scenes; gag reel; and music video of "You and I Ain't Nothin' No More" by Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz.

-- Post-Gazette

"Enough Said"3.5stars

After the two dozen plus cast members of "Enough Said" are listed in the closing credits comes the simple dedication: "For Jim."

As in James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack in June in Rome. He co-stars in the romantic comedy from writer-director Nicole Holofcener ("Friends With Money"), alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener and Toni Collette.

At first you cannot help but think it's "When Elaine Met Tony (Soprano)." But that disappears almost immediately in this California-set story featuring Gandolfini as Albert, a divorced dad and TV archivist, and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus as divorced mother and masseuse Eva. They meet at a party and bond over their almost empty nests; each has a daughter leaving for college in the fall.

The "Enough Said" relationship grows complicated when Eva starts to see Albert in a new, unflattering light and he naturally doesn't take kindly to critical and hurtful wisecracks. Driving home with disappointment and anger in his eyes, you see a brief, mild flash of the Jersey mob boss.

"Enough Said" will resonate with adults who often feel disenfranchised by a diet of superheroes or teen-themed trilogies or violence-soaked action movies or who simply don't relish R-rated material.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, some thematic material and brief language.

-- Post-Gazette

"Fruitvale Station" 3.5stars

"Fruitvale Station" opens with grainy cell-phone video of police officers forcing an unarmed black man to the ground on a subway station platform in Oakland, Calif., as incredulous or alarmed onlookers shout, "Let him go!"

The handcuffed man is forced face down as a white officer draws a weapon and fires the shot that will be heard 'round the Bay Area and then the nation. It kills 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009 and triggers protests that would be echoed, on a larger scale, after the death of Trayvon Martin.

"Fruitvale Station" goes beyond the headlines and heartache and shows Grant as a son, boyfriend, doting father, drug dealer who served prison time, and a man trying to start the new year with a fresh slate.

Director-writer Ryan Coogler moves from the video to the earliest minutes of Dec. 31, 2008, with the talented Michael B. Jordan ("Parenthood," "Friday Night Lights," "The Wire") playing Oscar. We know we are watching a dramatization of his final hours, which makes even the happiest moments bittersweet or shadowed by dread.

Oscar's girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), suspects him of seeing an old flame, but he pledges his love and loyalty to her and their 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

The balance of the day is consumed with normal activities made abnormal by the fact that he will not have the luxury of doing them again, from picking up his child from preschool to weighing a trip to San Francisco to watch fireworks.

"Fruitvale Station" is not a documentary but a fictional portrait of a 22-year-old. It runs just 84 minutes, long enough to put a face and family on a man whose daughter asks a simple question in the opening hours of 2009 -- "Where's Daddy?" --- for which there is no easy answer.

Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.

Extras include "The Story of Oscar Grant" featurette and a Q&A with Mr. Coogler, Mr. Jordan, co-star Melonie Diaz and producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker.

-- Post-Gazette

ALSO THIS WEEK: 

■ "You're Next": When a gang of masked ax-wielding murderers descends upon a family reunion, the hapless victims seem trapped -- until an unlikely guest proves to be the most talented killer of all. Reunites cast from "A Horrible Way to Die."

 "Blue Caprice": Real-life snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area with a three-week shooting spree in 2002, inspired this drama starring Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond.

■ "Carrie": Move over, Sissy Spacek, and don't slip on the blood. Chloe Grace Moretz plays the title role, an outcast sheltered by her deeply religious mother (Julianne Moore) who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

 "20 Feet From Stardom": Documentary about the backup singers who brought shape and style to popular music and the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others. A look at Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Darlene Love and Tata Vega along with interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting, plus rare archival footage.

■ "The Spectacular Now": Miles Teller is a partying charmer and high school senior who unexpectedly falls for a good girl, played by Shailene Woodley.

"Riddick": Vin Diesel reprises his role as a dangerous escaped convict wanted by every bounty hunter in the galaxy. When he's left for dead on a sun-scorched planet that appears to be lifeless, he battles alien predators and alerts mercenaries who rapidly descend to the planet in search of their bounty.

"Short Term 12": A 20-something supervising staff member of a foster care facility navigates troubled waters.

"Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love": The composer is profiled in the PBS "American Masters" documentary.

"A Single Shot": When John Moon (Sam Rockwell) accidentally shoots a young woman, the isolated hunter becomes the hunted.

"Frankenstein: The Real Story": History channel look at all the raw details and facts on the character.

-- PG staff and Rick Bentley, McClatchy Newspapers


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