REVIEW: Elvis & Nixon

18 04 2016

Elvis and NixonDirector Liza Johnson has a tendency not to go for the easy laughs, perhaps even to the detriment of the films. In 2014’s “Hateship Loveship,” she almost never allowed Kristen Wiig’s pathetic protagonist to become the butt of the joke, even as she gets mercilessly pranked by a child half her age. Similarly, in “Elvis & Nixon,” the first name mentioned in this meeting of the minds seems ripe for humor at the expense of his larger-than-life persona.

Yet the comedy never really comes out of what feels like an easy farce. Johnson opts for a tone more dramatically oriented where the laughs feel incidental, not the very foundation of the film itself. She deserves a certain amount of respect for taking a more difficult path, but the question of “why?” does loom rather large. “Elvis & Nixon” is a glorified made-for-TV movie (perhaps not coincidentally, Amazon Studios is handling the film and giving it a relatively half-hearted theatrical release) which goes for entertainment value over thematic articulation each chance it gets. Her will for the film seems to clash with its essence.

Johnson seems to genuinely care for the characters, particularly Elvis Presley, played by Michael Shannon in the same way Michael Fassbender portrayed Steve Jobs: conceptual over essential. Sideburns and sunglasses might be his get-up, though Elvis is a walking meditation on celebrity more than anything else. For reasons that seem partially out of genuine concern and partially out of a “Make America Great Again”-style quest for greater societal repute, Elvis decides he wants to become a Federal Deputy At-Large to crack down on the drugs messing with kids’ minds. To do so, he feels the need to engage President Richard Nixon, performed by Kevin Spacey as a variation of Frank Underwood that spent significantly less time on the row machine.

The film is essentially just the lead-up to their meeting and then the meeting itself, nothing more or less. It’s simple and to the point, which proves both a strength and a weakness. Strong when considering how streamlined the whole operation is (“Elvis & Nixon” runs a slender 86 minutes) yet weak when contemplating all the threads of minor storylines that never get the development they deserve.

This is mainly disappointing for Alex Pettyfer, an actor in the midst of mounting a comeback after on-set drama with “Magic Mike” got him blackballed in the industry. As Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ right hand man, he must learn the consequences of his loyalty as they place a great strain on personal relationships. Too bad the film grants him such second fiddle status that his struggles feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of the narrative. B-2stars





REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: In Time

27 02 2013

The concept behind “In Time” is actually fairly interesting, and maybe that’s why I was willing to overlook some of the film’s shortcomings.  In a dystopian ultra-classist 2169, people stop aging at 25, and living any longer than that requires you to literally buy time.  Extra time seems to come from just one extra strong and special handshake.

Such a kind of transfer begs the question of why people don’t just go steal it from the rich people why they sleep.  Or why people don’t just use tight grips or shake with superglue.  Needless to say, the broad strokes of inspiration blinded writer/director Andrew Niccol to the many plot holes in this world.

Watching the movie from a post-Occupy world certainly highlights this extreme case of social inequity as the rich live forever and the poor die young.  From my sociology classes in college, I can tell you that inequality is corrosive for society and poverty is quite literally a lethal force.  “In Time” is very conscious of these things and holds an interesting mirror up to the audience watching the film.

Sadly, that mirror is fogged up by some sloppy storytelling and a plot that ultimately can’t sustain beyond the novelty of the “time as life” concept.  The characterization is decent, but the cast of good looking actors who can still pass for 25 – including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer – don’t do much to elevate the material.  The intelligence of the social commentary ultimately gives way to a fairly standard action film, but the themes raised in the beginning are enough to make me feel that “In Time” was not entirely wasted time.  B-2stars





REVIEW: I Am Number Four

25 05 2011

If you are willing to get over the initial corniness of the plot of “I Am Number Four,” you might find that it’s not so bad.  In fact, it’s actually quite enjoyable.  The movie is high-octane action with plenty of noise, but there’s something there that I can’t quite enumerate or describe.  It’s a movie I kept telling myself I shouldn’t like (I mean, it IS a Michael Bay-produced venture) – yet I wound up having some of the most fun I’ve had at a sci-fi movie in a long time.

The story isn’t anything spectacular: Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is an alien on earth hiding from the Mogadorians, a hostile tribe that invaded their home planet and intends to kill the nine toddlers who escaped.  But here’s the catch – they can only be killed in sequence, and three are dead.  Masquerading as John Smith in Paradise, Ohio, Number Four tries to blend in to the high school crowd to lay low, befriending the conspiracy theorist Sam (Callan MacAuliffe) and wooing the big jock’s girl, Sarah (Dianna Agron from TV’s Glee).

On paper, it actually sounds kind of stupid.  The acting isn’t exactly spectacular, nor does it provide any profound insights into alienation or bullying in modern high schools.  (Trust me, I just finished four years of high school.)  But even though on paper, “I Am Number Four” doesn’t seem to work, on screen it actually does.  Why is that?

I think it has to be because of the energy that D.J. Caruso endows the movie.  Just like his previous helming efforts, “Disturbia” and “Eagle Eye,” there’s an electricity and excitement that bursts through the screen and infects the viewer.  He keeps the movie running at a perfectly paced clip, adeptly balancing human elements and big bangs.  Caruso takes the audience on a roller-coaster ride, that although familiar, still provides a walloping dose of fun. B+