Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Elvis & Nixon (dir by Liza Johnson)


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When you think of actors who you could cast in a biopic of Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon is probably not the first actor who comes to mind.  And yet that’s just what the people behind Elvis & Nixon did.  They also cast Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, a decision that, on the surface, makes more sense than Shannon playing Elvis.

And yet, in the finished film, it’s Shannon who gives the memorable performance while Spacey often seems lost in the role of Nixon.  Fortunately, with Kevin Spacey’s role largely being an extended cameo, Michael Shannon is the one who is in nearly every scene of the movie.

Elvis and Nixon is based on a true story.  In 1970, Elvis Presley asked for a meeting with Richard Nixon who, if the film is to be believed, wasn’t quite sure who Elvis actually was.  It turns out that Elvis was very concerned about the growing popularity of illegal drugs.  In between consuming prodigious amounts of legal drugs, Elvis formulated a plan.  Perhaps he could go to the White House and convince Nixon to deputize him.  Elvis could be a special agent of the FBI.  Even more importantly, maybe Elvis could get a FBI badge.

So, was Elvis sincere or was he just crazy?  Elvis & Nixon walks a thin line between those two possibilities, suggesting that Elvis may have been a bit unblanced but he was also achingly sincere.  Michael Shannon plays Elvis as a man who is blissfully out-of-touch but who truly wants to make the world a better place.  As played by Shannon, Elvis is defined by ennui.   He may be the biggest star in the world but he still struggles with the feeling that he hasn’t accomplished anything.  This is a film that asks, “When you’ve reached top, where else can you do?”  Elvis wants to make the world a better place by combating the spread of drugs.

And he also really, really wants that badge.  There’s an almost child-like petulance to Shannon’s Elvis.  He may be sincere but he’s also very much used to getting whatever he wants.

For that matter, so is Nixon.  And Nixon really doesn’t want to visit with Elvis.  Of course, that’s before his White House aides mention that being seen with Elvis could help him with the youth vote when he runs for reelection.  And then his daughter says that she wants Elvis’s autograph….

Anyway, it all leads to a meeting in the Oval Office and a scene that would have worked better if Spacey’s performance as Nixon was a bit less of caricature.  That said, the scene still works because Michael Shannon totally invests himself in the role of Elvis.  When he’s talking to Nixon and showing off his karate moves, Elvis is happier than we’ve ever seen him.  He’s performing on the biggest stage of his career.

Elvis & Nixon came out earlier this year.  It’s an enjoyable film, even if it’s never quite as good as you might want it to be.  If nothing else, this film proves that Michael Shannon can pretty much do anything.

 

Film Review: Endless Love (dir by Shana Feste)


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Oh, what a disappointing film this turned out to be!

When the trailer for Endless Love came out way back in the closing days of 2013, both me and my BFF Evelyn were seriously excited about seeing it.  The trailer was great!  It featured Florence + The Machine!  The movie looked hot and sexy and fun and…

Well, let’s just rewatch the trailer, shall we?

Here’s the thing:  Sometimes, trailers lie.

I saw Endless Love when it was originally released in February but I didn’t review it.  I meant to review it but somehow I never got around to doing so.  And, unfortunately, the film itself was so bland and forgettable that I actually struggled to think of anything to say about it.  Some movies make you laugh.  Some movies make you cry.  Some movies make you mad.  And some movies are just there.

Endless Love is a just there type of movie.

That said, when I saw that Endless Love would be making its cable debut on Cinemax on Saturday night, I decided to give it a second chance.  “Who knows?” I thought to myself, “Maybe I just went into the film with unrealistic expectations.  Maybe I was just in a bitchy mood when I saw it.  Maybe, on a second viewing, I’ll discover that Endless Love works on a purely emotional level…”

No such luck!  Having watched Endless Love a second time, I can now actually remember enough about the film to finally get around to writing a review.  However, I have also now been reminded why I didn’t care much about the film the first time I saw it.

Endless Love is essentially a collection of generically pretty scenes that all feature pretty performers thinking about love, talking about, and making love.  Recent high school graduates David (Alex Pettyfer) and Jade (Gabriella Wilde) start going out.  Jade comes from a wealthy family.  David does not.  Jade’s overly protective father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), does not approve of the relationship because Jade has an ivy league future ahead of her while David has no plans to attend college at all.  Jade becomes more rebellious.  David lectures Hugh on the fact that nothing is more important than love.  Hugh takes out a restraining order against David.  Jade goes off to college.  David tries to secretly see her.  And, of course, there’s a fire.

(Though, unlike in the original Endless Love, the fire is not deliberately set.  This is Endless Love  reimagined as a Nicholas Sparks novel.)

And who really cares?

The problem with Endless Love is that we’re supposed to care about David and Jade and we’re supposed love how obsessed they are with each other but David and Jade are two of the most boring people ever so who cares?  Alex Pettyfer is nice to look at.  Gabriella Wilde is pretty.  But, as a couple, they have next to no chemistry.  Instead, they come across like one of those vapid couples that my boyfriend and I always worry we’re going to end up getting trapped in an endless conversation with.

(“How did you two meet?  Wait, before you start — let me tell you how we met… It’s a great story…you guys are going to love this…we were both attending kindergarten on a dance scholarship but the ballet kids all hated the ballroom kids.  Then they moved to Iceland and I asked my dad if we could move to Greenland and then…”)

And again, this just shows the power of a good trailer.  Watching the trailer, you would never guess how boring David and Jade truly are.  Incidentally, the best parts of the trailer are all taken from a “David and Jade dating” montage that occurs about halfway through the film.  As such, the scenes that made me want to see Endless Love pretty much just serve as filler in the actual film.

Also, Florence + The Machine are nowhere to be heard in the actual film.  And their haunting, atmospheric music would have been out of place anyway.  Florence + The Machine embraces the power of ambiguity and Endless Love takes place in a world where there is no ambiguity.

However, there is a lot of blue.

Seriously!  (And yes, I do realize that there’s a typo in my tweet but everyone is allowed to be illiterate on twitter so get off my back.)  This movie opens with a high school graduation where everyone is wearing a blue robe and the entire cast is so oppressively cheerful and overwhelmingly pleasant-looking that I briefly wondered if they were supposed to be a graduating class or a cult.  Later on, David works at a valet at a country club and, of course, he wears a blue shirt.  Everyone who belongs to the club also appears to be wearing a blue shirt, except that it’s a lighter shade of blue than David’s blue.  It’s just odd-looking and reinforces the feeling that Endless Love is less a movie and more a collection of commercial outtakes.

Endless Love, of course, is a remake of a film from the early 80s.  The first Endless Love isn’t very good but it’s at least a lot of unintentional fun!  And you can read my review of it (and even watch the film!) by clicking here.

Film Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler (dir by Lee Daniels)


Dare I admit it?

When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I was not impressed.

Yes, the audience applauded as the end credits rolled.  And yes, I know that almost all of the mainstream critics have given it a good review.  I know that Sasha Stone has been hyping it as a surefire Oscar contender.  I know that, up until 12 Years A Slave introduced us all to an actress named Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey was considered to be the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But it doesn’t matter.  The Butler did little for me.

I also realize that the film ended with a title card that announced that what I had just watched was dedicated to the American civil rights movement.  In many ways, that title card felt like emotional blackmail, implying that if you criticized The Butler than that meant you were also criticizing the brave, real life men and women who risked their lives to fight for equal rights.

However, when you put emotions and good intentions to the side, the fact of the matter is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not that good of a movie.  One need only compare The Butler to some of the other films that were released this year that dealt with the African-American experience — films like 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station — to see just how safe and uninspiring The Butler truly is.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the son sharecroppers (played by David Banner and Mariah Carey) in the deep south.  After Cecil’s father is murdered by plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), Cecil is raised and educated by the wealthy Annabeth Westdall (Vanessa Redgrave).  Eventually, the teenaged Cecil leaves the plantation and ends up working in a hotel where he’s educated in how to be a master servant by the elderly Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who brings a quiet dignity to his role).  Cecil eventually gets promoted to a hotel in Washington, D.C.  It’s there that he meets and marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).

In 1957, Cecil is hired to work at the White House.  Along with befriending two others butlers (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), Cecil also gets the chance to observe history play out first hand.  Starting with Dwight Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) and ending with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, giving a performance that is incredibly bad), Cecil watches as President after President deals with the civil rights movement.  Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) are portrayed as being heroes while others, like Richard Nixon (John Cusack), are portrayed as being villains but all of them have the watchful eye of Cecil Gaines in common.

Meanwhile, at home, Gloria has a brief affair with Howard (played by Terrence Howard and really, you have to wonder what Cecil was thinking leaving his wife alone with anyone played by Terrence Howard) and Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved with the civil rights movement and grow increasingly estranged from his father.

The Butler actually starts out pretty well.  There’s a lengthy sequence where Louis and a group of students are trained on how to conduct a sit-in that’s extremely compelling to watch.  However, then John Cusack shows up wearing a big fake nose and the entire film starts to fall apart.

From a cinematic point of view, the film fails because it ultimately seems to be more dedicated to trotting out a parade of celebrity cameos to actually telling a compelling story.  As is his usual style, Lee Daniels directs with a heavy hand and, as a result, the film is full of emotionally-charged scenes that fail to resonate for longer than a handful of minutes.

My main issue with The Butler is that the film literally contains no surprises.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens and, at no point, is the audience actually challenged to consider the way they view history or race relations.  Whereas films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave truly challenge our assumptions, The Butler encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for being so enlightened.  Every single frame of The Butler is specifically designed to fool us into thinking that we’re watching an important and challenging movie.

Because of a silly copyright lawsuit, the official title of The Butler is Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  However, that title is very appropriate because The Butler is definitely a Lee Daniels film.  Even if you didn’t know it beforehand, it would be easy to guess that the  same man who directed Precious and The Paperboy also directed The Butler.  As a director, Daniels specializes in making simplistic points in the most bombastic way possible.  The results are films, like The Butler, that are more concerned with manipulating an audience than challenging an audience.  When audiences applaud at the end of The Butler, they aren’t so much applauding the film as much as they are applauding themselves for having seen it.

Trailer: Endless Love


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When Jeff and I went to see the remake of Carrie earlier today, we arrived at the theater just as the trailer for another remake started to play.  The first version of Endless Love was released in 1981 and is best known for featuring the film debut of Tom Cruise.  The second version of Endless Love will be coming out next year on Valentine’s Day.

Judging from the trailer, the film looks like it could be both sexy and silly; sexy because it stars Alex Pettyfer and silly … well, really, for pretty much the exact same reason.  However, I will give this film that benefit of the doubt just because I appreciated the fact that the trailer made good use of Florence + The Machine’s cover of Addicted to Love.

 

6 Films That Are Not The Dark Knight Rises: The Girl From Naked Eye, Magic Mike, Rock of Ages, Ted, 21 Jump Street, and Underworld: Awakening


Right now, everyone seems to be heading out to see The Dark Knight Rises for the first, second, or hundredth time.  By my own personal count, the  various writers here at The Shattered Lens have seen the film a combined total of 12 times since it opened on Friday.  (Myself, I’ll be seeing it on Tuesday.)

But what if you don’t want to see The Dark Knight Rises this week?  What if you just don’t want to deal with the big crowds?  Maybe you want to wait a few months so that you can see it for a dollar.  Or maybe,  you showed up at the theater and discovered that the showing was sold out or perhaps you’re just not into the whole Batman thing.  What then?  Well, believe it or not, there are other movies out there and below, you can find 6 reviews of films that came out this year but are not The Dark Knight Rises.  Some of them are worth seeing and some of them definitely are not.  But all six of them are alternatives for those of you who want to see a movie but, for whatever reason, don’t want to see The Dark Knight Rises.

(Even better, they’re six films that I saw earlier this year but, until now, still hadn’t gotten around to reviewing.)

1) The Girl From Naked Eye (dir by David Ren)

Jake (Jason Yee) is the driver for a sleazy escort service that’s headquartered out of a strip club called Naked Face.  Jake ends up falling in love with Sandy (Samantha Streets), an escort who writes poetry in her spare time.  (Yes, one of those…)  When Sandy is murdered, Jake goes on a violent search for her murderer.

The Girl From Naked Eye is a pretty uneven and rather predictable film but I actually enjoyed it.  It’s obvious that director David Ren is a fan of the same old film noirs that I love and, at its best, Girl From Naked Eye is a loving tribute to those films.  Streets is likable as the ill-fated Sandy and Gary Stretch brings some unexpected depth to his villainous role.  Perhaps best of all, Girl From Naked Eye is only 80 minutes long.  Sometimes, you just don’t need that extra 30 minutes to tell your story.

The Girl From Naked Eye is very much an independent film so it might be playing near you or it might not.

2) Magic Mike (dir. by Stephen Soderbergh)

After me and my BFF Evelyn saw Magic Mike, I hopped on twitter and I tweeted, “Memo to single guys.  Go hang out around the theater when Magic Mike gets out.  You will get laid!”  Yes, Magic Mike is that type of film…

“Magic” Mike (played by Channing Tatum) is the most popular attraction at Xquisite, a male strip club that’s run by Dallas (a wonderfully sleazy performance from Matthew McConaughey).  Mike ends up serving as a mentor for Adam (Alex Pettyfer) while pursuing Adam’s disapproving sister (Cody Horn) and saving up his money so that he can start his own business.  However, the life proves a lot more difficult for him to leave then he originally thought…

There’s actually a lot of plot in Magic Mike but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  The film knows that we’re all here to watch Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, and Joe Manganiello shake everything that they’ve got and the film does not disappoint.  Director Steven Soderbergh’s directs in such a way that the film’s dance numbers are both exciting and, at the same time, distancing.  By taking a rather documentary approach to otherwise salacious material, Soderbergh reminds us that, ultimately, Tatum is just doing a job and fulfilling the requirements of fantasy as opposed to reality.

When Christy Lemire of the Associates Press gave a less than positive review to The Dark Knight Rises, all of the fanboys on Rotten Tomatoes became obsessed with the fact that she had previously given a positive review to Magic Mike.  Many of them left comments complaining that the only reason Lemire enjoyed Magic Mike was because it featured naked men.  While all one has to do is read Lemire’s review to see that’s not the case, so what if it was?  Films have been objectifying women for over a century.  What’s wrong with a little fair play?

Magic Mike is still in theaters.

 3) Rock of Ages (dir. by Adam Shankman)

In this adaptation of the hit Broadway show, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is an innocent girl from Oklahoma who dreams of finding super stardom in Los Angeles.  She gets a job working as a waitress at an incredibly filthy-looking club run by Alec Baldwin and she also gets a boyfriend (played by Diego Boneta) who is an aspiring musician himself.  Everything’s great except for the fact that the mayor’s puritanical wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) hates rock and roll and wants to close the club down.  Luckily, alcoholic rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is willing to help out.  Did I mention that Russell Brand is in this film as well?  Because, he like totally is…

Rock of Ages gives you a chance to watch your favorite actors and actresses shake it to some of the least danceable music ever written and it’s just about as bad you might expect.  Between the vanilla performances of Hough and Boneta and the film’s rampant sexism (every female in the film is either a shrew or a whore and apparently, the only thing that can redeem them is allowing Tom Cruise to drunkenly cop a feel), Rock of Ages is a combination of the forgettable and stuff that you wish you could forget.  For a director who specializes in musicals, Shankman seems strangely lost here and the majority of the big numbers feel lifeless.  The one bright spot is Mary J. Blige who shows up in a minor role and quickly reminds everyone what singing is all about.

Rock of Ages opened with a lot of hype but that hype didn’t translate into box office success.  You can probably still catch it at the dollar theater but you might want your money back afterward.

4) Ted (directed by Seth MacFarlane)

Ted tells the story of a lonely 8 year-old boy who, one night, wishes that his beloved teddy bear Ted might come to life.  Well, Ted does come to life and ends up proving to the world that magic does exist.  Briefly, Ted and his owner are celebrities but soon, Ted’s fame fades and, 28 years later, Ted (voiced by director Seth MacFarlane) and his owner (now played by Mark Wahlberg) are slackers who spend their time smoking weed, watching TV, and obsessing over pop culture. (At times, it almost felt as if the film was a documentary about life here at the TSL Bunker.)  However, Wahlberg’s girlfriend (Mila Kunis) feels that Ted is holding him back and eventually, Wahlberg is forced to make a choice between childhood friendship and adult love.

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Seth MacFarlane’s.  I hate the Family Guy and I’ve never gotten through more than 2 minutes of The Cleveland Show.  However, I also have to admit that I enjoyed Ted for what it was.  It’s a massively uneven film that pretty much tells the same joke over and over again but that joke (i.e. a cute toy saying or doing something incredibly crude) turns out to be surprisingly resilient.  For their part, Wahlberg and Kunis are a likable couple and Kunis does a good job generating some much-needed sympathy for her thinly drawn character.  Add to that, Joel McHale is in this film and how can I not enjoy a film that features Joel McHale?

Ted is still playing at a theater near you.

5) 21 Jump Street (dir. by Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Morton (Jonah Hill) and Greg (Channing Tatum) have been unlikely friends since high school.  Greg was a jock and bully while Morton was a guy who looked and acted a lot like Jonah Hill.  When Greg and Morton graduate high school, they both enter the police academy together and, upon getting out of the academy, they find themselves assigned to hazardous duty like patrolling the local park.  However, it turns out that there’s a new designer drug out there and Hill and Tatum are both sent back to high school.  Only now, they’re working under cover…

21 Jump Street was a real surprise when it came out earlier this year, a laugh-out-loud comedy that managed to both satirize and celebrate the conventions of the American cop film.  Hill and Tatum had a lot of chemistry together and there was something oddly touching about watching Hill return to high school and discover that he was now considered the cool guy while Tatum was now the outsider.  21 Jump Street has kinda gotten forgotten in all the hype surrounding The Avengers and the Dark Knight Rises but ultimately, 21 Jump Street can stand with those two films as proof that occasionally a big-budget studio production can turn out to actually be a good film.

(Plus, James Franco’s look-alike brother, Dave Franco, is in it!)

21 Jump Street is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray but it’s also still playing at a few dollar theaters across the country.

6) Underworld: Awakening (dir by Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein)

Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is back and this time, she’s searching for Michael, who has gone missing.  The plot doesn’t make much sense and the film has one of the most disappointing endings ever but it does provide the viewers with everything that they’ve come to expect from an Underworld film (with the exception of Scott Speedman, who does not return to the role of Michael in this film).

Underworld: Awakening opened at the beginning of the year, got terrible reviews, and made a decent enough amount of money that there will probably be yet another installment in the series come 2014.  That said, Underworld: Awakening is probably the most vapid of all of the Underworld films (and that’s saying something) and, following the releases of both The Avengers and the Dark Knight Rises, it looks like even more of an empty exercise in CGI and action than it did when it was originally released.  That said, this film does star my girl crush, Kate Beckinsale, and, after watching her in this film, I spent a few hours looking for monsters to fight.  I will always recommend any film that features a women kicking ass and that’s about the only reason I have to recommend Underworld: Awakening.

Underworld: Awakening is currently available on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

Lisa Marie’s Guilty Pleasure: Beastly (dir. by Daniel Barnz)


Much like Take Me Home Tonight, Beastly is a film that I missed when it originally played in theaters but then later caught via On Demand.  While Jeff and I were visiting Baltimore last month, Jeff’s younger sister, Jessica, recruited me to watch Beastly with her and I was more than happy to do it.  Getting to meet and spend time with Jessica was one of my favorite things about visiting Baltimore.  Even though we’re not actually related (which is actually a pretty fortunate, all things considered), we were like sisters from the moment we met.  Perhaps that explains why we spent Beastly giggling and trying not to choke on microwave popcorn.

I really don’t want to have to talk about the plot of Beastly because it’s one of those films where the plot is somehow both painfully simple and annoyingly complicated (as opposed to complex) at the same time.  Basically, Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is a conceited high school student who picks on a sullen witch.  This witch is played by Mary Kate Olson and, since she’s supposed to be a goth here, she dresses exclusively in black and scowls a lot but that can’t change the fact that she’s still Mary Kate Olson.  Anyway, Pettyfer is running for high school political office and gives a speech where he declares that good-looking people are better than normal-looking people.  Olson is so disgusted with this sentiment (because, apparently, Mary Kate Olson is supposed to be one of the “normal” looking people) that she casts a curse on Kyle.  Suddenly, Kyle is transformed into the “Beast,” which in this film means that he loses all of his hair, his skin gets bleached, and he gets some aesthetically pleasing tattoos on his face.  I mean, seriously, he looks better once he’s cursed.  But Kyle doesn’t see it that way and neither does Kyle’s father who quickly sends Kyle away to an isolated New York apartment.  Anyway, Kyle learns that he had can go back to being a pretty boy if he can make someone fall in love with him and kiss him.  But who could love someone with kinda pale skin?  Fortunately for Kyle, Mary Kate Olson isn’t the only girl in the movie.  Vanessa Hudgens is there too.

I can’t really argue that Beastly is a good film because it’s not.  Actually, it’s kinda, sorta, really, really … well, not good.  The film drags (which is why you have to watch this with someone talkative because otherwise, the slow spots will seem even slower), the actors either refuse to or are incapable of bringing any sort of real pathos to their roles, and the film’s lesson — don’t judge a book by its cover — is sabotaged by the fact that even the “ugly” members of the cast still look better than most people do at their absolute best.

And, in the end, if I had to explain why I enjoyed Beastly, it’s precisely because it was so bad and so silly that the film actually became enjoyable despite itself.  As we watched this film, I lost track of the number of times that either Jessica or myself said, “God, this is so stupid,” in between giggles.  (Though Jessica eventually decided to keep count but, of course, we then just started to say, “God, this is so stupid,” every chance we got just so she’d end up with the highest number possible.)  This is one of those films where everyone looks like a model, the dialogue drips with pretension and melodrama, Mary Kate Olsen plays a glowering goth, and all plot holes are immediately followed by a musical montage.  Oh, and to top it all off, Neil Patrick Harris just showed up out of nowhere, playing a blind man who likes to hit golf balls off of the top of a New York City apartment building.

In short, Beastly is a perfect film for those of us who enjoy a little guilt with our cinematic pleasure.