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.

 

Embracing the Melodrama #48: Coyote Ugly (dir by David McNally)


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“Never give up on your dreams!” is such a familiar movie cliché that I have to admit that there’s a part of me that really wants to see a mainstream, big budget studio film that proudly declares, “Give up!”  We’ve seen so many films about photogenic people who leave pretty but predictable small towns and end up in big, scary New York City that we pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen as soon as they step off that bus.  They’re going to get robbed.  They’re going to end up at an all-night dinner.  They’re going to meet the lover of their dreams.  They’re going to get quirky friends.  They’re going to become a success.  And, most importantly, they’ll be advised to “never give up on your dreams!”  It’s not that I’m cynical or that I don’t enjoy watching people succeed.  It’s just all so predictable that I found myself yearning for a film that will not slavishly follow the formula.

Unfortunately, 2000’s Coyote Ugly is not that film.  In fact, Coyote Ugly is such a thoroughly predictable film that it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that it’s also a film that’s been embraced by a lot of people.  It never ceases to amaze me how, whenever Coyote Ugly shows up on cable, twitter is full of viewers declaring their love.

Coyote Ugly tells the story of  Violet (Piper Perabo), who may look like an ordinary waitress from New Jersey but who aspires to be a songwriter in New York City.  As the film begins, she is in the process of leaving her loving but overprotective father (John Goodman) and her best friend (Melanie Lynesky) so that she can move to the big city and never give up on her dream.  Before she leaves, she’s asked to sign a piece of paper so that it can be tacked to the wall of the local pizza place.  It’s a tradition, apparently.  Before anyone leaves town for New York, they’re asked to leave behind an autograph.  The wall is covered with signatures, indicating that apparently every waitress in New Jersey thinks that she’s a songwriter.

Violet moves to New York and, at first, it seems like she might not make it.  Her apartment is a dump and her neighbors get mad whenever she sings.  (Violet responds by setting up a small recording studio on the roof of her building.)  Nobody is willing to listen to her demo.  About the only good thing that happens to Violet is that she meets Kevin (Adam Garcia), an Australian who encourages her to never give up on her dreams.

Eventually, Violet finds herself in one of those all-night diners that always seem to pop up in movies like this.  She notices that the girls seated at a table near her seem both to be happy and to have a lot of money.  It turns out that they work at the Coyote Ugly Saloon and since one of them (played by Tyra Banks, in a cameo) is quitting so she can go to law school, that means that there’s soon going to be an opening at the bar.

After talking to the Coyote’s owner, Lil (Maria Bello), Violet manages to get a job as a bartender.  Along with serving drinks to a combination of hipsters, frat boys, and stock brokers, another part of Violet’s job is to jump up on the bar and dance.  Eventually, she even gets a chance to sing when it’s discovered that the sound of her voice (or, to be technical about it, LeAnn Rimes’s voice since Rimes provided Violet’s singing voice) can somehow inspire drunks to stop fighting and act civilized.  Violet bonds with her fellow bartender Cammie (Izbella Miko) while the other bartender, Rachel (Bridget Moynahan) takes an instant and almost pathological dislike to her.  Lili is tough, Cammie is a flirt, and Rachel likes to set things on fire.  That’s about all we find out about them.

Even when her father disowns her for working at the Coyote and even when she and Kevin have a fight over her extreme stage fight and Kevin’s refusal to talk about his troubled past, Violet never gives up on her dreams!

And, if you can’t guess every single thing that happens in Coyote Ugly before it happens, then you really need to start watching more movies.

Despite the fact that the movie is named after the Coyote Ugly Saloon and it’s full of scenes of Violet and her co-workers dancing on top of that bar, the Coyote Ugly itself is actually pretty superfluous to the overall film.  The film itself is all about Violet pursuing her dream to become a songwriter and the bar itself really doesn’t play that major of a role into her eventual success.  Instead, it’s just a place where she works.  Violet could just as easily have worked at a particularly rowdy Dave and Buster’s and the overall film would have turned out the same.

And that’s a shame because, while watching the film, it’s hard not to feel that a movie about either Lil, Cammie, or Rachel (or, for that matter, a film about Tyra Banks going to law school) would be a thousand times more interesting that any film about boring old Violet.  I mean, here we have a film named after a business that is owned by a woman and that specifically employs and potentially empowers other women and what does the movie do with all of this material?

It tells a story so predictable and so simplistic that it could just as easily been generated by a computer program.

Coyote Ugly is a massive mixed opportunity but, for whatever reason, some people seem to love it.

https://twitter.com/jhali_/status/487998680163561472

And good for them.

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Is It Too Late To Hate On Movie 43?


Originally,  I wasn’t planning on ever seeing Movie 43.

Remember Movie 43?  That’s the comedy with the huge ensemble cast that came out in January and stayed in theaters for about a week.  The trailers looked terrible, the commercials looked terrible, and finally, the reviews were terrible.  In fact, the reviews were so terrible (Richard Roeper called it the Citizen Kane of bad movies) that, at first, I was perfectly content never to see it.

However, as time passed, I continually heard Movie 43 referred to as being one of the worst films ever made.  Every 12 months, I post my picks for the 26 worst films of the year and I knew that Movie 43 was one of those films that would either appear on that list or, if it didn’t, I would have to be willing to defend the title’s absence.

I realized that before I could either defend or condemn, I would have to sit through the movie.  After all, I figured, it’s only 90 minutes of my life.

90 minutes that I’ll never get back, I might add.

Movie 43 is an anthology film in which 13 separate comedic sketches are loosely linked together by one overarching story.  For the most part, this is a film that was presumably made both for adolescent boys and for men who still think like adolescent boys.  Most of the humor is derived from bodily functions and there’s a real strain of misogyny running through the entire film.  However, the film’s problem is not that it’s crude and misogynistic but that it manages to be so dull about being crude and misogynistic.  If you think its hilarious when Meg is insulted on Family Guy or when Seth McFarlane smirks after making an anti-Semitic comment, you might enjoy Movie 43 but the rest of us are going to find far less to enjoy.

Oddly enough, there are actually two different versions of Movie 43 in circulation.  In the version that was released in U.S. theaters, the various vignettes are tied together by a story in which an insane director (Dennis Quaid) pitches scene after scene to a callous movie executive (Greg Kinnear).  In the version that was released in the UK, they’re linked together by a story about 3 teenagers searching for the most offensive film ever made.  To be honest, both versions are pretty stupid but I prefer the one about the 3 teenagers, if just because that way I can pretend that neither Dennis Quaid nor Greg Kinnear had anything to do with this movie.

As for the sketches themselves, there’s 13 of them and they are a mixed bag as far as both humor and quality are concerned:

1)      The Catch (dir by Peter Farrelly)

Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman go on a blind date.  Jackman has testicles hanging from his neck and only Winslet thinks this is an odd thing.  This skit goes on forever.

2)      Homeschooled (dir by Will Graham)

Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts explain how they’re making sure that their teenage son is getting the full high school experience despite the fact that he’s being homeschooled.  They do this through a combination of hazing and incest.  This skit worked pretty well, mostly because of the dedication that Schreiber and Watts brought to their absurd roles.

3)      The Proposition (dir by Steve Carr)

Uhmm…yeah.  So, this is the skit that opens with Anna Faris asking Chris Pratt to defecate on her.  I skipped over it because, quite frankly, life is too short.

4)      Veronica (dir by Griffin Dunne)

Neil (Kieran Culkin) is working the night shift at a depressing grocery store when his ex-girlfriend Veronica (Emma Stone) comes in.  They argue about who infected who with an STD.  Little do they realize that Neil has accidentally turned on the intercom and everyone in the store can hear them.  I actually kind of liked this short skit.  Culkin and Stone had a lot of chemistry and it was well-directed by Griffin Dunne.  Plus, it only lasted 2 minutes and, therefore, ended before the joke got old.

5)      iBabe (dir by Stephen Brill)

The iBabe is an MP3 player that happens to look like a life-size nude woman.  Unfortunately, a fan was built into the iBabe’s vagina and now, teenage boys are being dismembered while fingering and fucking iBabe.  Richard Gere plays the President of the company that makes iBabe.  I’ve never thought of Richard Gere as being a comedic actor and his performance here does nothing to change that.

6)      Superhero Speed Dating (directed by James Duffy)

Robin (Justin Long) goes speed dating and Batman (Jason Sudekis) tries to mess things up for him.  This skit – which also features (and wastes) Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, and Bobby Cannavale – is so incredibly bad that I don’t even know where to begin.  Between this film and his appearance in last year’s The Conspirator, I’m having to rethink my slight crush on Justin Long.

7)      Machine Kids (directed by Jonathan Von Tulleken)

This commercial parody asks us to consider the children who work inside copiers and vending machines and how they are effected when we criticize those machines for not accepting our dollar.  This was actually so weird that I couldn’t help but love it.

8)      Middleschool Date (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

7th grader Amanda (Chloe Moretz) is having her first “middle school” date with Nathan (Jimmy Bennett) when she starts her first period.  In response, Nathan and his older brother (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) panic.  Believe it or not, this was actually one of the better parts of Movie 43, if just because the scene’s humor comes not from Amanda getting her period but instead from how every male around her descends into histrionics as a result.   It helps that this was the only part of Movie 43 that was both written and directed by women.  It also helps that director Elizabeth Banks is so clearly on Amanda’s side.  The end result is one of the few moments in Movie 43 that doesn’t feel misogynistic. 

9)      Tampax (dir by Patrik Forsberg)

This is another fake commercial.  Two girls are at the beach.  One uses tampax tampons and the other doesn’t.  Guess which one gets eaten by a shark?  As opposed to the previous skit, this bit of menstrual humor was obviously written and directed by a man (and the message, not surprisingly, is “Ewww!  Girls are scary and dangerous!”) but I’m going to have to admit that this one made me laugh if just because, like Middleschool Date, it reminded me of some of the period horror stories that I used to hear (and believe) back when I was younger.  (Though I was raised to be more concerned about bears than sharks…)

10)  Happy Birthday (dir by that noted comedian, Brett Ratner)

Pete (Johnny Knoxville) kidnaps an angry leprechaun (Gerard Butler) and gives it to Brian (Seann William Scott).  The leprechaun’s equally angry brother (also played by Gerard Butler) shows up and violence ensues.  Watching this skit was like being told a joke by someone who has no sense of humor.

11)  Truth or Dare (dir by Peter Farelly and Patrik Forsberg)

Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant are on a first date and Merchant has testicles on his neck…oh wait.  Sorry, that was Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet’s skit.  In this skit, Berry challenges Merchant to game of truth or dare.  It escalates as the dares get continually more and more outrageous.  Whoops?  Did I say outrageous?  I meant to say stupid and oddly dull.  Watching this skit was like listening to a someone who has no sense of humor continue to tell a joke even though everyone else has already guessed the punchline.

12)  Victory’s Glory (dir by Rusty Cundieff)

In this parody of “inspirational” sports movies, Coach Jackson (Terrence Howard) speaks to his basketball team before they play their first game against an all-white team.  The gist of the speech is that Jackson’s team is going to win because they’re black and the other team is white.  This skit started out strong but, like a lot of Movie 43, it ran on for a bit too long.

13)  Beezel (dir by James Gunn)

This was actually my favorite part of Movie 43.  Unfortunately, since Beezel shows up in the middle of the end credits, I get the feeling that a lot of disappointed audience members had probably already walked out of the theater before it even began.  Beezel is a cartoon cat who has an unhealthy obsession with his owner (Josh Duhamel).  When Duhamel’s girlfriend (played by Elizabeth Banks) catches Beezel masturbating to pictures of Duhamel in a swimsuit, Beezel responds by plotting her demise.  Beezel was actually the only part of Movie 43 that truly felt edgy and unpredictable.  This is largely because this segment was directed by James Gunn, one of the few truly transgressive artists currently working in mainstream film.

So, here’s the question: is Movie 43 the worst film of 2013 as so many critics have claimed?  A few isolated moments aside, Movie 43 is pretty bad.  Even the parts of the film that do work can’t hope to compete with the pure horrifying incompetence of that parts that don’t.  However, thanks largely to James Gunn and Elizabeth Banks, it’s still a smidgen or so better than Tyler Perry’s Temptation.  (For all of its failings, Movie 43 never suggests that AIDS is God’s way of punishing wives who stray.  Nope, for that message, you have to go to Tyler Perry.)

Movie 43 is not the worst film of 2013.

It just seems like it.