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


elvis__nixon_poster

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.

 

Playing Catch-Up With The Lesser Films of 2015: Get Hard, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Pixels, The Wedding Ringer


SPOILER ALERT!

One or more of the films reviewed below will appear on my list of the 16 Worst Films of 2015!  Can you guess which one(s)?

Get_Hard_film_poster

Get Hard (dir by Etan Cohen)

Will Ferrell is funny and Kevin Hart is funny and you would think that putting them together in one movie would be especially funny but … nope.  Get Hard, which I watched on HBO a few weeks ago, is incredibly not funny.  Ferrell plays a hedge fund manager who is convicted of fraud and embezzlement and it’s a sign of how haphazard this film is that I was never really sure whether he was supposed to be guilty or not.  Anyway, Ferrell is terrified of going to prison but fortunately, he runs into Kevin Hart.  Hart is playing the owner of a car wash here, a mild-mannered family man who simply wants to be able to afford to send his daughter to a good school.  However, Ferrell assumes that, since Hart is black, Hart must be an ex-con.

So, Ferrell hires Hart to teach him how to survive in prison and Hart agrees.  And, to be honest, this is not a terrible idea for an edgy satire but the film pulls it punches and never really exposes or challenges the racism that led to Ferrell hiring Hart in the first place.  Instead, it’s more interested in making homophobic jokes about prison rape (there’s a particularly long and unpleasant scene where Ferrell attempts to learn how to give a blow job that feels like it was lifted from a deservedly forgotten 90s film) and eventually, it devolves into a painfully predictable action film.

Paul_Blart_-_Mall_Cop_2_poster

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (dir by Andy Fickman)

I know what someone out there is saying.

“YOU’VE NEVER EVEN SEEN THE FIRST PAUL BLART: MALL COP!!!  WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO REVIEW THE SEQUEL!?”

Well, listen — it’s true.  I’ve never seen the first film and the only reason I watched the second one (on HBO at a friend’s house, which means that it literally cost me nothing) was because I had heard how terrible it was and I figured that I should see it before making out my list of the worst films of the year.  But, even with that in mind, I think I can still give this film a fair review.

(At the very least, I’ll try.  Dammit, I’ll try.)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is one of those films that is so forgettable that you forget about it while you’re watching.  Kevin James plays Paul Blart, a mall security guard who goes to Las Vegas for a security guard convention and ends up getting involved in thwarting a big heist.  It’s a comedy, though I can’t think of a single time I laughed.  Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 was not quite the abomination that I had been led to expect.  It was, in no way, comparable to Birdemic, April Rain, or Man of Steel.  Instead, it was just an incredibly empty and soulless film.  It was a zombie movie that existed only to eat money.

One thing that is frustrating about a film like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is that Kevin James seems like he could actually survive appearing in a good film, if he could just get a chance to make one.  He’s likable and he’s got an everyman quality about him.  But, for now, he seems to be trapped in films where he either plays Paul Blart or he’s surrounded by talking animals.

PixelsOfficialPoster

Pixels (dir by Chris Columbus)

Speaking of Kevin James, he’s also in Pixels!  He plays William Cooper.  When he was a kid, he was obsessed with playing video games.  Now that he’s an adult, he’s the President of the United States!  And he still keeps in contact with his best friend from childhood, Sam.  Sam, needless to say, will never be President.  When Sam was a kid, he was traumatized when he lost a national video game championship.  Now that he’s an adult, he installs home-theater systems and he’s played by Adam Sandler…

When Earth is invaded, it turns out that the aliens are under the impression that video games are real!  So, they recreate a bunch of classic video game characters and send them off to do havoc.  Who better to stop them than the President and Sam?  And who better to help than a nerdy conspiracy theorist (Josh Gad) and Eddie Planet (Peter Dinklage), the same guy who cheated in order to defeat Sam at the video game championship….

If you’re thinking that sounds like way too much plot for a silly comedy about video games coming to life, you’re right.  Pixels has some cute moments (though, based on the comments and occasional laughter of the middle-aged people in the theater around me, I get the feeling that a lot of the film’s video game-themed humor was a bit too “before my time” for me to fully appreciate) but oh my God, it was such an unnecessarily busy movie.  The idea behind Pixels had some potential but the film refused to take advantage of it.

I’ve said this before and I always get some strange looks but I honestly do think that — if he would actually break out of his comfort zone and stop doing movies that mostly seem to be about finding an excuse to hang out with his friends — Adam Sandler could be an acceptable dramatic actor.  Check out his work in Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People, Reign Over Me, Spanglish, and even the first half of The Cobbler.  (Tarantino even wrote the role of Donny Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds with Sandler in mind.)  The fact that Sandler could be doing good work makes his continual bad work all the more frustrating and annoying.

TheWeddingRingerPoster

The Wedding Ringer (dir by Jeremy Garelick)

And speaking of Josh Gad…he’s also in The Wedding Ringer!  For that matter, so is Kevin Hart.  Hart plays a guy who, for a sizable fee, will pretend to the lifelong best friend (and best man) for grooms who do not have enough real friends to fill out a wedding party.  Hart refuses to get emotionally involved with his clients but that all changes when, despite himself, he becomes friends with Josh Gad, who is on the verge of getting married to Kaley Cuoco.

The Wedding Ringer got terrible reviews but it also was very popular with audiences and I imagine a lot of that had to do with the relationship between Hart and Gad.  Both of them give very sincere performances that elevate some otherwise unpromising material.  The Wedding Ringer wasn’t good (it’s predictable, it’s portrayal of Kaley Cuoco’s character verges on misogynistic) but, at the same time, it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be.  In the end, it was pretty much a typical January film.

I'm so excited!  I'm so excited!  I'm so ... wait a minute, am I just here because this is a post about bad movies?

I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so … wait a minute, am I just here because this is a post about bad movies?

Which of these four films will make my list of the worst 16 films of 2015?  The answer shall be revealed soon!

 

 

Any Takers For “Spring Breakers” ?


spring-breakers-IGN-poster-debut-610x903

So, we’ve finally discovered what it takes for Harmony Korine to go mainstream — a couple of  established stars, a little T&A, and hey! — he’s in the club. Hell, he can even manage to get himself invited onto Letterman outta the deal — although apparently he can’t stick around for long. Still, the fact remains — long (hell, decades) after you’d given up on the very notion it would ever happen, Hollywood has opened its doors to the guy who gave us GummoJulien Donkey-Boy, and Trash Humpers. And truth be told, he didn’t have to dumb down his sensibilities all that much in the process.

Okay, yeah — Spring Breakers is full of Girls Gone Wild-type footage of hot young flesh parading around in bikinis (or less), muscle-heads partying in jock straps, beer bongs being poured on impossibly tight stomachs, impromptu lesbian make-out sessions, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s piled on so thick and so repetitiously that there’s no way Korine can possibly be engaging in anything but parody of the Bacchanalian subculture he’s depicting. The film never takes itself too seriously, even when it ventures into some pretty dark territory, and it seems to me  that our guy Harmony is sending a none-too-sly message to the Tinseltown suits who previously wouldn’t have touched his work with a 50-foot pole : “this is what you want? Okay. But we’re doing it my way.”

And frankly, that “way” hasn’t changed much — the ultra-naturalistic hand-held camerawork, hallucinatory pacing and editing, and free-from improvisation (as usual, the story per se here doesn’t seem to follow any set “script” as you or I understand the term and appears mostly to consist of the actors getting into character and then ad-libbing from there) of his earlier efforts remains, and the end result is more akin to a series of “found footage” snippets pieced together pretty haphazardly than anything else. The setting may be different this time around, but the basic Korine modus operandi is essentially the same.

In short, if you’ve been following this guy’s career over the course of the pas couple of decades, you’ll only think you’re getting into something different with Spring Breakers, but by the time Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” plays over the end credits, there’s no doubt that this work fits in very comfortably with the rest of his directorial oeuvre. Think Trash Humpers in bikinis, or Gummo with “hotties” rather than genetic rejects, and you won’t be too far off thSo, here’s the deal — four friends (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife, Rachel) at a piece of shit college in piece of shit Kentucky are bored out of their minds and want to go down to St. Pete to live it up over Spring Break. There’s just one problem — they don’t have enough money. In order to alleviate that situation, three of them (Gomez’s character — named, appropriately enough, Faith — a devoutly religious young woman most of the time sits it out) decide to pull a heist at a local fast-food chicken stand using those purportedly realistic-looking squirt guns the cops are always telling us fooled ’em whenever they shoot some poor kid who was holding one dead. They get away with it and head down for a week of sun, fun, sex, booze, and drugs — but they don’t get away with that, because they’re busted at a party that gets out of hand. Don’t fret too much, though, friends, as they aren’t forced to cool their heels in jail for very long. A local dope dealer/wannabe-rapper who goes by the handle of Alien (James Franco, doing his best impression of Gary Oldman in True Romance , just substitute hip-hop for reggae) takes a liking to them when he sees them in court and bails ’em out en masse. Does he have ulterior motives? Of course, and watching him use pimp-like “turning out” psychological manipulation on the ladies in order to seduce them into into being hench-women in his pot-selling-and-armed-robbery enterprise (his only other “employees” are two identical twin brothers that Korine taps from the low end of that gene pool he’s always wading in  ) is both creepy and cool at the same time.

That being said, Alien’s not a one-dimensional character (even though most of the girls, frankly, are) and he does seem to develop a genuine emotional bond with his new recruits. Faith doesn’t fall for his shtick and hops a bus home, but the rest are in. And that, of course, is where the troubles really begin.

Korine follows a pretty delicate balancing act the rest of the way — he eschews standard “don’t aim higher than your station in life or it’ll end in tears” morality-play-style sermonizing even though the material could be played that way pretty easily, while simultaneously upping the ante on the over-the-top-ness of it all in a manner so sly that you almost don’t even notice that it’s happening. The ladies get Alien to fellate a gun silencer and it feels perfectly natural, fer cryin’ out loud! But what the hell, they all appeared before the judge in nothing but their bikinis a few short scenes ago, so anything goes here, right?

sb_05886_wide-06c6935db4ddef9146576f2e298d85bd0682b527-s6-c10

The final shoot-’em-up at the end, at which point another of the former-foursome has made her way northward after taking a bullet in the arm, does in fact strain credulity a bit, but by then the ethos of the film —in short, presenting the blatantly absurd in the most free-form, unforced manner possible — is so firmly established that, even if you don’t exactly buy it, you don’t mind it. The flick’s firing on all its admittedly warped cylinders, and your choices are either go with the flow or pull your hair out. Since I don’t have all that much hair left, the decision is  a pretty simple one.

2477-Spring_Breakers_Harmony_Korine

I suppose, at the end of the day, there will be those who go into this thing for no other reason than to see three-and four-way sex or former “Disney Girls” gone bad. If that’s your thing, fair enough — but I have to warn you, if that’s what put your butt in the seat, you’re destined to head for the exits scratching your head, even though the film delivers everything you want to see in even more ample proportion than you’d probably been expecting. The rest of us? We’ll have thoroughly enjoyed a movie that’s never as stupid as it pretends to be.