Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
To make a good movie, you must start with a compelling story -- and that describes Danny Strong's "Forrest Gump"-like adaptation of Wil Haygood's 2008 "Washington Post" article about Eugene Allen, the White House steward who had served eight U.S. presidents. Soft-spoken Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is an engaging amalgamation of several butlers who worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As a sharecropping youngster in Macon, Ga., Gaines saw his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and father (David Banner) shot. He was subsequently trained as a domestic servant by the cotton plantation's elderly matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), who observed: "The room should feel empty when you're in it."
Leaving the rigidly segregated South, Gaines perfected his dignified, white-gloved skills at posh hotels until he was recruited to join the prestigious White House staff. The day he was hired, gentle, unassuming Gaines was told: "We have no tolerance for politics at the White House."
As a silent, firsthand witness to history, he dutifully served each first family from 1957 to 1986. His steadfast devotion infuriated his frustrated, alcoholic wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and alienated his rebellious elder son (David Oyelowo), who joined the civil-rights movement, became a Freedom Rider, then a Black Panther, while his younger son was killed in Vietnam. Gaines' intergenerational, domestic conflict parallels African-Americans' turbulent struggle for equality during the 20th century.
Director Lee Daniels ("Precious," "The Paperboy") astutely cast savvy Whitaker as the resilient, richly-nuanced, Oscar-contending lead, paired with powerful Winfrey. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz score as Gaines' co-workers, as does Terrence Howard as a nefarious neighbor. Jane Fonda's Nancy Reagan cameo is superb, but Robin Williams, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber and Alan Rickman fare less well as Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson and Reagan, while James Marsden and Minka Kelly impersonate the Kennedys. Problem is: famous faces can be distracting.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is an ambitious, affecting 9, a challenging, haunting, historical epic, hoping to follow the success of the similar, late-summer 2011 release "The Help."
"PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS"
It's been three years since "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," so a bit of exposition reminds audiences that the Percy (Logan Lerman) is the half-human son of the sea god Poseidon.
When Camp Half-Blood, the teenage demigods' woodsy refuge, is suddenly in peril, Percy and his friends, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a satyr, and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, must retrieve the fabled Golden Fleece from the titular Sea of Monsters (a.k.a. the Ber-muda Triangle) in order to restore the camp's protective barrier.
They're joined in this quest by Percy's half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith), an insecure, sweet-natured cyclops with one huge CGI eye. Not surprisingly, they're in rivalry with highly competitive, self-centered Clarisse (Leven Rambin), daughter of Ares, who has joined forces with Luke (Jake Abel), the roguish, resentful son of Hermes. Combative Luke is determined to use the Fleece's restorative powers to resurrect evil Cronos, the vengeful Titan who was vanquished centuries ago.
Based on Rick Riordan's young adult books, it's formulaically adapted by Marc Guggenheim ("Green Lantern") and awkwardly directed by Thor Freudenthal ("The Diary of a Wimpy Kid"), who has recast Stanley Tucci as wine-loving Dionysus, the frustrated camp director; Anthony Head as the centaur Chiron; and Nathan Fillion as Hermes, god of travelers, messengers and thieves, now serving as manager of a UPS store. Missing are Sean Bean, Kevin McKidd and Steve Coogan as Olympian brothers Zeus, Poseidon and Hades.
This is the kind of visual adventure popularized, years ago, by animator Ray Harryhausen. Converted to 3-D in post-production, the most notable special effects include the fire-breathing Colchis Bull, a supernatural taxi ride with three haggling Graeae (Missi Pyle, Yvette Nicole Brown, Mary Birdsong), a sea-faring jaunt aboard a Hippocampus and a climactic battle with Polyphemus, the cyclops guarding Circeland, an abandoned amusement park. Problem is, there's little urgency or peril.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" is a flimsy 5, fantastical fun aimed at preteens familiar with pop-culture Greek mythology.
"WE'RE THE MILLERS"
Just after TV's "Friends" concluded, I had the opportunity -- on separate occasions -- to interview then-married Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Pitt yearned to become a father, yet Aniston was determined to be a movie star. Pitt has achieved his desire, while Aniston still wallows in the stems and seeds of raunchy, pot-smuggling comedies like this.
After his stash is stolen, David Clark (Jason Sudeikis), a small-time Denver drug dealer, is desperate to avoid the wrath of his distributor/buddy Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms). When he's offered $100,000 to smuggle a "smidge" of marijuana across the Mexican border, David decides his best disguise is as the RV-driving father with an all-American family. So he recruits Rose O'Reilly (Aniston), the stripper-next-door whose ex has left her with financial debts, along with a nerdy, naive neighbor Kenny (British actor Will Poulter) and Casey (Emma Roberts, niece of Julia), a sullen runaway. The fact that David is lonely is a given, as is the formulaic road trip that can only lead to suburban domesticity.
Hobbled by a hackneyed script assembled by Bob Fisher and Steve Faber ("Wedding Crashers") and Sean Anders and John Morris ("Hot Tub Time Machine"), director Rawson Marshall Thurber ("Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh") makes each subversive set-piece utterly predictable, including the sweet-natured, sappy conclusion.
There's the stereotypical drug lord (Tomer Sisley), his henchman (Matthew Willig) and horny cop (Luis Guzman). As a strait-laced Christian couple whose marriage needs sexual spice, scene-stealing Nick Offerman ("Parks and Recreation") and Kathryn Hahn ("Girls") add needed humor.
This is 37-year-old Jason Sudeikis' first film after leaving "Saturday Night Live." From here, hopefully, it's onward and upward. As for the 44-year-old Aniston, her streak of crude comedies continues, following "Horrible Bosses" and "Wanderlust." Perhaps it's time for a career transition from cover girl to character actress.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "We're the Millers" is a distasteful, mediocre 6, concluding with obligatory outtakes that are funnier than the film itself.