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.

 

It’s Better Than Last Stand: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, directed by Bryan Singer)


X-Men_-_ApocalypseIt is easy to forget what a big deal the first X-Men movie was in 2000.  At a time when Joel Schumacher was still the industry’s go-to director for super hero films, X-Men announced that films based on comic books did not have to be campy, silly, stupid, or feature Alicia Silverstone.  When X-Men was first released, critics and audiences were surprised to see a comic book film that was intelligent, well-acted, and actually about something.

The only people who were not shocked were those of us who grew up reading the X-Men books.  We already knew that the X-Men was about more than just heroes with super powers and flashy costumes.  We knew that the battles within the pages of the X-books were always meant to serve as a metaphor for racism and real-world prejudice and, since many of us felt like outcasts and mutants ourselves, we related to the characters.  We already knew that Magneto was often a sympathetic villain while Prof. X was not always a likable hero.  We knew that almost every battle that the X-Men fought came down to the question of whether or not different types of people could peacefully co-exist.  Unlike the critics, we were not shocked by X-Men‘s subtext.  Instead, we were just happy that Bryan Singer did not fuck things up.

All of the comic books films that have followed have owed a debt to critical and commercial success the first X-Men movie.  Without that success, there would probably have never been a Dark Knight trilogy or even an MCU.

FallofmutantsThe success of X-Men has also led to a 16 year-old franchise of movies about mutants and their struggle to live in a world that fears them.  X-Men: Apocalypse is the 9th installment in that franchise and it is based on the Fall of the Mutants storyline, which ran through several Marvel comics in 1988.

Continuing the pattern set by X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse takes place in the past, back when Charles Xavier was still James McAvoy and Magneto was still Michael Fassbender.  (Unlike Days of Future Past, neither Patrick Strewart nor Ian McKellan makes an appearance.)  The year is 1983.  Ronald Reagan is President.  The Cold War still rages.  The music is better than it is today.  Xavier is running his school for gifted mutants youngsters.  Magneto is living, under an assumed name, in Poland.  Magneto is married and has a young daughter and as soon as I saw them, I knew they were going to die.  Magneto’s family never survives.

In Egypt, an ancient and powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is awakened after being entombed for centuries.  Readers of the comic books will immediately recognize En Sabah Nur as Apocalypse.  Planning to destroy the world so that he can rebuild it in his own image, Apocalypse recruits his four horseman — Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto.  Apocalypse also wants to recruit Xavier to his side but Prof. X still believes that humans and mutants must learn to co-exist.

livingeraser1What’s interesting is that, even though Fassbender and McAvoy share a few scenes, this is the first X-Men film to not feature any sort of debate between Xavier and Magneto.  Magneto, one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, is actually a little boring here and, without those debates, Apocalypse lacks the subtext that distinguished the best of the previous X-Men films.  The emphasis is less on what it means to be an outsider and more on defeating Apocalypse.  Unfortunately, Apocalypse is a great character in the comic books but he does not translate well into film.  Unlike Magneto, who has several good and justifiable reasons for not trusting humanity, the film version of Apocalypse is portrayed as being pure evil and little else.  His plan to destroy the world never makes much sense and he is almost as bland as Dr. Doom in the latest Fantastic Four reboot.  Apocalypse could be any villain from any comic book movie that has been released over the past 16 years.  He could just as easily be the Living Eraser.

Apocalypse is also an origin story, showing how the modern incarnation of the X-Men first came to be.  We meet young versions of Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler (played by Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) makes a brief appearance that feels like it was mostly included to set up the character’s third stand-alone film.  Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Evan Peters also return in the roles of Mystique, the Beast, and Quicksilver.  Peters is featured in the movie’s coolest scene, though that scene is basically just a redo of Days of Future Past‘s coolest scene.

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(There’s also a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Dazzler, which I guess means that Marvel’s disco queen will eventually be appearing on movie screens.)

X-Men: Apocalypse is not as good as either First Class or Days of Future Past but it’s still better than The Last Stand.  (Since Apocalypse takes place in 1983, Scott and Jean go to see Return of the Jedi and talk about how the third film of any franchise always sucks.)  It’s entertaining but, without an interesting villain or any sort of examination of what it really means to be an outcast,  Apocalypse is also forgettable in a way that X2 and Days of Future Past never were.  As a lifelong fan of the X-Men, I could not help but be disappointed.

Plus, this movie needed more Deadpool! (Note: Deadpool is not in X-Men: Apocalypse.)

Plus, this movie needed more Deadpool! (Note: Deadpool is not in X-Men: Apocalypse.)

One thing that especially bothered me is that Days of Future Past ended with Xavier promising to explain to Wolverine why he, Scott, and Jean were all still alive despite having been killed in The Last Stand.  If you were hoping Apocalypse would clear that up, don’t hold your breath.  I guess that question will remain unanswered until the 10th film.

Speaking of which, First Class was set in the 1960s and Days of Future Past largely took place in the 70s.  Apocalypse is an 80s movie so the next installment should be set in the early 90s.  Will Scott be listening to Nirvana or will he be playing air guitar to November Rain?  I guess we’ll have to wait to find out!

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X-Men: Apocalypse Drops In With It’s Final Trailer


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20th Century Fox have to be feeling quite giddy and confident with their slate of blockbusters this summer. Deadpool slayed everyone that went up against it during it’s February release and has climbed the box-office charts to the levels I think even Fox executives couldn’t imagine.

Now comes it’s main comic book film property returning this summer with it’s biggest story, yet. X-Men: Apocalypse has been a storyline fans of the Marvel Mutants (not part of the MCU) have been clamoring for ever since the first X-Men film surprised everyone all the way back in 2000.

Bryan Singer returns for his 4th go-round with these new band of Merry Mutants (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine the only holdover from his original cast) with the immortal and first mutant En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse up to no good. We get a bit more of the plot in this final trailer and even more city-wide destruction (I’ll give it a pass considering it’s being committed by someone called Apocalypse and not Superman).

X-Men: Apocalypse will bring the war on May 27, 2016

X-Men Apocalypse Super Bowl TV Spot


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The X-Men film franchise helped usher in the this golden age of comic book films. Looking back at those early films makes for a love them or hate them reaction. The first two helped establish the beloved characters onto the bigscreen while successive sequels and spinoffs did much to try and tear down the goodwill created by the former.

Matthew Vaughn helped in the franchise course correction with the surprisingly good X-Men: First Class. Bryan Singer’s return with that film’s follow-up with X-Men: Days of Future Past was another step in the right direction. It even marked the beginning of Fox’s attempt to replicate Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe building.

X-Men: Apocalypse is suppose to help build on the foundation laid down by the last film. It also looks to be a sort of reboot of the core characters to their much younger versions. The doomsday vibe of the film really comes off well in the trailer and it shows enough action to excite fans.

Then they show a great looking Psylocke using her psy-blade in a way it was never meant to be as. Just embrace books Fox. Just embrace it instead of mucking it up.

X-Men: Apocalypse will bring the war on May 27, 2016

Horror Film Review: The Lazarus Effect (dir by David Gelb)


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I finally saw The Lazarus Effect and … bleh, who cares?  You may remember that the Lazarus Effect came out earlier this year and it got some attention because it was one of the first horror films to be theatrically released in 2015.  But then the reviews came in and they were all awful.  And then the movie opened in theaters and audiences saw it and soon, social media was full of tweets and updates about how disappointing the film was.  I meant to see it but the movie just kind of came and went.  Looking at my records, I can see that — when the Lazarus Effect was still in theaters — I instead chose to see Kingsman, Cinderella, and Maps to the Stars.

But, last night, I finally found the time to watch The Lazarus Effect and … well, I think I made the right decision skipping it.  The Lazarus Effect is about a bunch of scientists who discover a serum that can be used to raise the dead.  For instance, they use it to bring back to life a dog but guess what?  The dog isn’t very happy to be back and he spends most of the movie glaring at every human that he sees.  One of the scientists (played by Olivia Wilde) worries that the dog may have happily been in “doggie heaven” and now resents being brought back to life.  Mark Duplass, playing her boyfriend and fellow scientists, laughs at her but it turns out that Wilde had a point.

The other scientists are played by Donald Glover and Evan Peters.  There’s also a videographer, played by Sarah Bloger, who is there to record all of the experiments.  You may notice that I’m not using any character names and that’s because the characters themselves are not that memorable.  You remember them because of who played them and not because of anything that the character may have said or done.  It’s true that The Lazarus Effect has a pretty good cast but it doesn’t matter because none of them are really given anything worthwhile to do.  It’s not so much that anyone gives a bad performance — though the usually very effective Mark Duplass certainly does come close — as much as it’s just a case that the characters just aren’t that interesting.  They’re all recognizable stereotypes and, if you can’t exactly predict the order in which they all die from the minute they show up on screen, you obviously haven’t seen enough horror movies.

Anyway, after they bring the dog back to life, Olivia Wilde ends up getting electrocuted so, of course, Mark Duplass decides to use the serum to bring her back to life.  Needless, that was a big mistake.  Not only does she return with a lot of super powers but it appears that Wilde left her soul in whatever afterlife she was inhabiting.

So, now, you’ve got an angry Olivia Wilde wandering around and killing people…

And it should be interesting but it’s not.  The idea has promise but the movie does nothing new or unusual with it and the talented cast mostly just goes through the motions.  The Lazarus Effect ends with the promise of a possible sequel.  Let’s hope it’s a promise unfulfilled.

6 Late Film Reviews: 300: Rise of Empire, About Last Night, Adult World, Jersey Boys, Ride Along, and Trust Me


Well, the year is coming to a close and I’ve got close to 50 films that I still need to review before I get around to making out my “Best of 2014” list.  (That’s not even counting the films that I still have left to see.  December is going to be a busy month.)  With that in mind, here are late reviews of 6 films that I saw earlier this year and had yet to get around to reviewing.

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1) 300: Rise of an Empire (dir by Noam Munro)

Last night, I watched 300: Rise of an Empire for the second time and I still couldn’t figure out what exactly is going on for most of the film.  I know that there’s a lot of fighting and a lot of bare-chested men yelling and, whenever anyone swings a sword, they suddenly start moving in slow motion and dark blood spurts across the screen like Jackson Pollock decorating a previously blank canvas.  The style of 300 has been co-opted by so many other films that 300: Rise of an Empire feels more like an imitation than a continuation.

At the same time, I’m resisting the temptation to be too critical of 300: Rise of the Empire for two reasons.  First off, this movie wasn’t really made to appeal to me.  Instead, this is a total guy film and, much as I have every right to love Winter’s Tale, guys have every right to love their 300 movies.  Secondly, 300: Rise of an Empire features Eva Green as a warrior and she totally kicks ass.

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2) About Last Night (dir by Steve Pink)

Obviously, I made a big mistake this Valentine’s Day by insisting that my boyfriend take me to see Endless Love.  (I still stand by my desire to see Winter’s Tale.)  I say this because I recently watched this year’s other big Valentine’s Day release, About Last Night, and I discovered that it’s a funny and, in its way, rather sweet romantic comedy.

About Last Night tells the story of two couples, Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) and Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall).  All four of the actors have a very real chemistry, with Hart and Hall bringing the laughs and Ealy and Bryant bringing the tears.  The film itself is ultimately predictable but very likable.

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3) Adult World (dir by Scott Coffey)

In Adult World, Emma Roberts plays Amy Anderson, an aspiring author and recent college graduate.  Despite her own overwhelming faith in her own abilities, Amy struggles to find a job outside of college.  She is finally reduced to working at Adult World, a small adult bookstore.  Working at the store, she befriends the far more down-to-earth Alex (Evan Peters) and eventually discovers that one of her customers is also her idol, poet Rat Billings (John Cusack).  Amy proceeds to force her way into Rat’s life, volunteering to work as his assistant and declaring herself to be his protegé.  However, it turns out that Rat is far less altruistic than Amy originally thought (and with a name like Rat, are you surprised?).

Adult World is a flawed film but I still really enjoyed it.  The story has a few problems and the film never really takes full narrative advantage of Adult World as a setting but the entire film is so well-acted that you’re willing to forgive its flaws.  Cusack gives a surprisingly playful performance while Evan Peters is adorable in a Jesse Eisenberg-type of way.  Emma Roberts shows a lot of courage, playing a character who is both infuriating and relatable.

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4) Jersey Boys (dir by Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood’s upcoming American Sniper has been getting so much attention as a potential Oscar contender that it’s easy to forget that, at the beginning of the year, everyone was expecting Jersey Boys to be Eastwood’s Oscar contender.  In fact, it’s easy to forget about Jersey Boys all together.  It’s just one of those films that, despite its best efforts, fails to make much of an impression.

Jersey Boys is based on one of the Broadway musicals that tourists always brag about seeing.  It tells the true story of how four kids from the “neighborhood” became the Four Seasons and recorded songs that have since gone on to appear on thousands of film soundtracks.  The period detail is a lot of fun, Christopher Walken, who has a small role as a local gangster, is always entertaining to watch, and the music sounds great but Eastwood’s direction is so old-fashioned and dramatically inert that you don’t really take much away from it.

Hopefully, American Sniper will be the work of the Eastwood who made Mystic River and not the Eastwood who did Jersey Boys.

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5) Ride Along (dir by Tim Story)

School security guard Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) wants to marry Angela (Tiki Sumpter) but Angela’s tough cop brother James (Ice Cube) doesn’t approve.  In order to prove himself worth, Ben goes on a ride along with James and the results are just as generic as you might expect.  Probably the only really funny part of the film was the way that Hart delivered the line, “You’re white!  You don’t fight!” but we all saw that in the commercial so who cares?

On the plus side, Ice Cube has a lot of screen presence and is well-cast as James.  As for Kevin Hart — well, he should probably be thankful that About Last Night came out a month after Ride Along.

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6) Trust Me (dir by Clark Gregg)

In Trust Me, Clark Gregg both directs and stars.  He plays Howard, a fast-talking but ultimately kind-hearted talent agent who mostly represents children.  After losing some of his most popular clients to rival agent Aldo (a hilariously sleazy Sam Rockwell), Howard meets Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a 13 year-old actress.  Soon, Howard is representing Lydia and trying to land her a starring role in a major production.  Howard also finds the time to tentatively date his next door neighbor (Amanda Peet).  However, there’s more to Howard than meets the eye.  He is haunted by the death of one of his previous clients and his guilt leads him to become especially protective of Lydia.  When Howard concludes that Lydia is being sexually abused by her crude father (Paul Sparks), he attempts to protect her from both him and the Hollywood system that’s threatening to corrupt her.  It all leads to an oddly tragic conclusion…

I say “oddly tragic” because Trust Me is, in many ways, an odd film.  As a director, Gregg gets good performances from his cast but he never manages to find a consistent tone.  The film starts as a Hollywood satire and then it becomes a romantic comedy and then it turns into a legal drama before then becoming an all-0ut attack on the way the entertainment industry treats child actors and then finally, it settles on being a tragedy.  As a result, Trust Me is undeniably a bit of a mess.

And yet, it’s a compelling mess and the film itself is so heart-felt that you can’t help but forgive its flaws.  If nothing else, it proves that Clark Gregg is capable of more than just being Marvel’s Agent Coulson.