Elvis & Nixon

'Elvis & Nixon' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joey Sagal; Hanala Sagal; Cary Elwes

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Maybe it would’ve been too cheesy to use, but I was totally surprised when I never heard the line “Elvis has left the building.” But let’s get one thing straight: Elvis & Nixon is plenty cheesy, so it might have actually fit. I guess I have to move on now.

With two figures as iconic as The King and Tricky Dick filling the frame, Liza Johnson‘s decision to fashion a breezy, lightweight dramedy around them is, in hindsight, a sensible one. After all, she knows we’ve all come to listen in on a singular conversation, one behind closed doors. And since this isn’t Frost-Nixon she has no compunction to prop everything up on stilts for the stakes just aren’t as high here. There are barely any stakes at all, as a matter of fact. Despite that, Johnson’s aware of the remarkable position she’s in, able to use creative license as a way to get a foot inside the Oval Office on that day, December 21, 1970.

This infamous meeting took place prior to Nixon taping all of his conversations. No one knows what really happened. What was spoken about? What was Elvis trying to gain by meeting with the leader of the free world? How did he act? How awkward was Nixon? Most importantly, did Elvis thank him very much on the way out the door?

As the story goes, Elvis, disturbed by the deteriorating fabric of American society as drug abuse and stinging Vietnam protests swept across the nation, felt a responsibility to help in the fight against the counterculture. Call it counter-counterculture. He was into collecting police badges and was proud of the concealed firearms they enabled him to carry. All that Elvis lacked was a federal badge and the authority to actually go undercover as a “federal agent at large.” He felt his appearances in movies afforded him the art of disguise and he would be able to infiltrate schools without being recognized. So he sought approval first from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and when that didn’t pan out he requested a meeting with the President.

Elvis & Nixon is a film that lives and dies on its casting, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Michael Shannon certainly looks the part, donning the mutton chops (I don’t care if they’re not real, they look pretty good on him), the gold-plated necklace and rings. He’s got his collar riding high around his neck, and the ladies come swooning, flocking into whatever room he’s in just for a visual confirmation that “it’s him.” As to the Prez — fans of House of Cards are going to have to dial back their expectations of Kevin Spacey’s cinematic politician. Even while embracing Nixon’s relatively off-putting demeanor, Spacey is so stiff in the role you’d think he’s never played a man in such power before.

Those two are such consummate professionals the fact I could never see past the actors wasn’t an issue. If anything, it’s a treat being aware of performers working with material with this many implications, just to see what two of the greatest working actors today are able to do. That hand-slapping reflex test was improvised by Shannon, apparently. Of the two, Spacey is generally better because you could argue his awkwardness blends magnificently with Nixon’s persona. Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis, though his soft charm and towering presence positively oozes The King of Rock’n Roll.

Supporting them is an impressive albeit random mix of recognizable names. Some, like Colin Hanks’ Egil “Bud” Krogh, fare better than others. Krogh is significant as he’d go on to be convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, so it’s difficult to believe someone as innately likable as the son of Tom Hanks would have this potential to be so corrupt. Evan Peters plays another faceless White House employe — Dwight Chapin — and he barely registers. Worst of them all is Alex Pettyfer, Elvis’ close friend and confidante Jerry Schilling. Pettyfer prefers to sleepwalk rather than use charisma to get through. In a surprising twist, though, Johnny Knoxville seems to be taking acting a bit more seriously these days. He’s quite watchable as another member of the ‘Memphis mafia,’ Sonny West.

The film moves quickly, working from the outside in, providing glimpses of the powers that be, comfortable and in control in their respective spaces before the weight of inevitability obliges the editors to get to the good stuff, a dynamite, if not bizarre, twenty-minute scene in which Spacey and Shannon are allowed to unbutton and let loose. Weak supporting parts notwithstanding, Elvis & Nixon is a graceland for larger-than-life characters. It’s a movie where every actor has to fight in some scenes to be taken seriously, but hey, this isn’t heavy drama, so what does it really matter in the end as long as we have some fun with it?

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Recommendation: Elvis & Nixon turns out to be a very fleeting event. It essentially improvises one of the stranger moments in the Nixon presidency by giving us a visual of what happened behind closed doors. It’s a film for those looking for less intense Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon-lite. That doesn’t mean that this is an altogether forgettable film, though. The fact that this very bizarre afternoon really happened is likely to stay with you for some time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Who the f**k set this up?”

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Kill the Messenger

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman 

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Stories like this make me feel better about writing about less hardcore things than politics  . . . . like movies. Because even as a much-loathed film critic your work may come home with you, but it’s not likely to ever actually follow you home. (Unless, of course, your name is Armond White.) I don’t want to become Armond White.

Jeremy Renner puts down that fancy bow and arrow of his — at least for the moment, until Tony Stark screws up again — to pick up notepad and digital audio recorder in this grounded, tense drama about American investigative journalist Gary Webb, an ambitious man who ended up exposing one of the most controversial and disturbing sociopolitical developments of the mid-1990s and later would go on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the effort.

The American ‘crack epidemic’ of the 1990s, when compared to catastrophically violent and global paranoia-inducing developments such as 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism, might now seem something dangerously close to irrelevant; merely an irregularity in the rhythm of the cultural heartbeat. To dismiss as forgettable the moment in which the public became aware of certain facts involving the United States government and the sudden discovery of a massive influx of crack-cocaine on American streets would be to crush one particular journalist’s life work under the rubble of indifference. And in this case indifference might very well be worse than the reception that was awaiting him when he first broke the news.

That, in case you were wondering, was a tidal wave of overwhelming doubt, hissing criticism and public shunning. It would all culminate in Webb’s questionable suicide ten Decembers ago.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News, the modest city paper Webb reported for, published his most ambitious work, a three-part, 20,000-word exposé generously detailing the corruption within the CIA as it related to Nicaraguan rebels (or Contras). It asserted the profits made off of the black market distribution to susceptible Los Angelinos (and one can only imagine how far beyond) went to funding, and perhaps even arming and supplying, the rebels. Though, Webb doesn’t quite point the finger directly. His work suggests members within the CIA were aware of the situation, and that President Reagan shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to allow for the transactions to occur. Beyond the ego this publication, now infamously known as The Dark Alliance, is where trouble would begin in earnest for Webb.

As the titular ‘messenger,’ Renner amps up his intensity. Sufficiently a leading man — an oddly amiable one at that — he’s distinctly human but there exists beneath the surface a machine set on overdrive. Clearly something compels this character that surpasses familial duty, a persistence that doesn’t allow a father and husband to sleep well at night. Why can’t he stop digging deep into extremely treacherous affairs? Or perhaps the better question: what, if anything, would motivate him to cease and desist? If nothing else, Kill the Messenger goes to prove the lengths required to secure that most coveted of career affirmations.

Cuesta manages to set the performance against a satisfactorily researched background. We travel to dangerous prisons, hold casual (and not so casual) conversations with incredibly dangerous and idealistic extremists, and we flirt with the opposition as much as we shun our friends. Even if we pass through many security checkpoints with a little too much ease and conveniently skip through certain plot details, the development is sufficient enough to leave minimal questions about the actual investigating part. His supporting cast — Rosemarie Dewitt (who plays Webb’s dutiful wife Sue), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor Anna Simons), and Oliver Platt (who takes on the role as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos) — all contribute thoroughly. Unfortunately Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen are wasted in cameos.

Considering the big picture, Renner’s staunch determination conflicted with more than his readers and the general public. When personal relations and friendships become involved, this is where Michael Cuesta’s directorial limitations are exposed as the slump into depression and the subsequent loss of virtually all personal and financial value are hardly unexpected. Not that these things aren’t difficult to experience. This is what really happened (an approximation, anyway). It’s just as incredible to watch how one story, a single idea can consume a person.

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3-5Recommendation: Kill the Messenger offers a strong lead performance for an often overlooked and steadily rising talent (original casting choices favored the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — yawn). A not-so-subtle indictment of an American society (and of news outlets most damningly) that doubted a single journalist could dig up this much dirt on this many people possessing this much power. For aspiring journalists, this movie might be a must. Not necessarily for the reminding about ethical boundaries and how not to cross them (Webb’s whistleblowing strategy is certainly not a good example) but more so for a clear illustration of the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I thought my job was to tell the public the truth, the facts; pretty or not, and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, and what they stand for. . .”

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TBT: Wedding Crashers (2005)

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Throwback Thursday March-es on with the final entry of the month hitting on yet another comic note. Really, comedies are pretty easy to review for this feature since they make up a majority of what I have in my DVD collection. They lay strewn across my floor in front of my T.V. and very often I find myself weaving a path through them as I shuffle throughout my apartment. When nothing seemed to be standing out for this week, a white and red cover grabbed my attention and it was none other than another solid comedy featuring two actors who often find their contributions to comedy maligned, sometimes perhaps excessively so. Though I don’t deny the accusations of the pair becoming a predictable routine at this point, I cannot and will not hate on the chemistry that is quite evident between Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Sure, their usage has been at times misjudged or mishandled. Such is the nature of what they’ve chosen to do this point in their careers; its a very hit and miss approach. And maybe they are more miss than hit, and so be it. Very similarly to a post I did last year, I think I’ll use this space to get on my high horse as I defend why I support a movie like 

Today’s food for thought: Wedding Crashers

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Release: July 15, 2005

[DVD]

If you are going to crash a wedding, you better do it with a Vince Vaughn who is in Swingers-mode and the other guy who looks like he’d be willing to throw back a shot with you even at the most inopportune of times. Yes indeed, if you happen to have the likes of Jeremy Grey (Vaughn) and John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) in your midst you may well get your tickets to the boobs-‘n-booty show punched if you even so much as take a sip of their outrageous Kool Aid. Just don’t drink the other stuff, unless getting roofied is your sort of thing.

You might consider them, particularly Vaughn’s larger-than-life Jeremy, as a pair of frat guys who strategically and perpetually avoided growing up. That’s precisely who both of them were, and that’s precisely the lesson to be learned in Wedding Crashers. One needed only to mention the term ‘wedding season’ to witness them pitching tents in the crotch of their pants. They may have posed as divorce mediators at the film’s open, but off the clock (which is to say for the rest of the duration) they posed as anything but when in the presence of their other ‘clientele,’ single women they picked up at weddings. In their world of hard partying, ‘mazel tov’ may as well have meant ‘Hello’ and ‘get lost’ was translated as ‘I love you.’

David Dobkin followed up Shanghai Nights with this completely reckless and gleeful joyride that pit Vaughn and Wilson alongside one another as they assumed their most infectious roles to date. Other terms that might apply: sleazy; dishonest; desperate. Sure, those are all good, although they are largely dismissive of how good Vaughn and Wilson’s chemistry was here. Vaughn was the yang to Wilson’s comedic yin. Or the other way around; whatever, it still works.

Jeremy and John had become quite skilled in the art of the con, and with the latest season of festivities drawing to a close, Jeremy decided to raise the stakes and the thrills by crashing a major wedding event hosted by none other than U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William Cleary (Christopher Walken). It would be the last big hoorah of the year. His partner’s reluctance to dive in headfirst, however, caused Jeremy to question his commitment to the cause, perhaps even to their friendship.

And because this was a movie, John eventually caved and the next thing we knew we were waist-deep in politicians, pretense and another ridiculous scheme concocted by the two sex-fiends/lawyers. While the day was intended to honor Secretary Cleary’s daughter’s wedlock, neither she nor her husband-to-be were intended to be the focus. What ensued proved you can’t apply peanut butter without jelly: Vaughn and Wilson shared the screen so as to never really draw more attention to the other. In tandem, the two were fantastic, with Vaughn working his size and a very goofy, doe-eyed stare to his advantage while Wilson poured on the saccharine sweetness like they were molasses. Both had proved to be successful strategies in the weddings leading up to this. Would they be as successful with the women they inevitably meet at this spectacular occasion? Or would their hard-on for hard partying go flaccid right at the last second?

This raunchfest not only benefitted from the two great and energetic lead performances in Vaughn and Wilson, it featured an intensely humorous antagonist in Bradley Cooper’s break-out performance as Sack Large (yes, that indeed would make it Large Sack if ever to be written out on a legal document). Cooper at the time was convincing as this tough-guy jock who really had no interest in his girlfriend, Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams), other than to make her his trophy wife, but the character is so much funnier now when one pauses to consider how against-type he was playing. But he was not alone in the strong contributor category. A very strange man named Todd (played by Keir O’Donnell), the son of the prestigious William Cleary provided a great foil for Vaughn’s Jeremy as Jeremy reluctantly became entangled in the family with the excitable red-head woman he intended to one-night stand. Todd took affection to Jeremy and this side story offers up some of the film’s most painful guffaws.

Not forgetting the quality Will Ferrell cameo as Chazz, who was the notorious albeit deluded man who invented ‘the rules of wedding crashing,’ or the beautiful montage of half-naked women being bedded in the film’s earlygoing set to the classic celebratory song ‘Shout,’ Wedding Crashers has assured its place among the great raunchy comedies of modern day filmmaking. It has all the trademarks of a classic, in the interest of full (frontal nudity) disclosure.

With increasing numbers of people subscribing to the notion that the Vaughn-Wilson comedy vehicle has long since run out of gas, perhaps a revisiting of Wedding Crashers is in order, just to remind one’s self of why the pattern exists at all. Why have they been recycling themselves? What once worked really well that doesn’t so much anymore? It’s hard to imagine there being another Crashers-quality match-up between Vaughn and Wilson, even for this fan. 2005 spawned a comedy that simply hit all the right notes, romantic, comedic and otherwise.

Yes indeed, we have a stage-five clinger on our hands.

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3-5Recommendation: It’s a great reminder of the potential Vaughn and Wilson have on screen together. Having not reached a comedic level like it since, it’s easy to understand a lot of the complaints guided their way yet some of it seems excessive. Wedding Crashers sees the two in fine form, along with it bringing out sterling performances from a varied and deeply talented crew of comedians and comediennes. This one’s for anyone who ever said weddings can’t be fun. What a blast this procession is.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “It’s the first quarter of the big game and you wanna toss up a Hail Mary! I’d like to be pimps from Oakland, or cowboys from Arizona, but it’s not Halloween. Grow up Peter Pan, Count Chocula. Look, we’ve been to a million weddings. And guess what, we’ve rocked them all!”

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Nelson Mandela. Now there’s a name that has ‘Hollywood movie’ written all over it.

With the passing of such an extraordinary figure a mere month ago, the moment doesn’t seem to be any riper for a major motion picture about him to be sweeping across the globe. While it’s pretty difficult to conceive of this international release date being any more strategic than just being a ‘Christmas Day release’ (that’s a profitable enough decision to begin with), some of the more pessimistic of us are inclined to speculate that perhaps someone on the inside knew about certain developments in their subject’s health, on a medical level, on a level most of us wouldn’t care to know or recognize as being true. With the saddening foresight that this man might not be around for much longer, why not use that as leverage to potentially gain an even bigger audience?

That is, of course, to suggest: what would the box office turn-out be if this film was released, say this past summer? Next summer? Two Septembers from now? Would a later release date help the film fulfill its potential to move audiences?

Most people probably don’t think of movie releases being manipulative. And yet reality dictates that, with a time frame such as this (Mandela dying twenty days prior to the release), the subject would suddenly become more relevant; the potential for emotional connectivity would become much greater. If we didn’t have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela no longer being with us, this Christmas release would otherwise seem a little arbitrary.

Unfortunately, all of that is pure speculation. Some readers are probably shaking their heads at the level of cynicism on display. I don’t blame those people for thinking I’m overanalyzing the situation, but I think I’m going to stand by my conviction that Hollywood’s suits (i.e. some of the happiest people on Earth) really dug the idea of this suddenly becoming a much more timely tribute to Mandela. Especially when the film’s screenplay seems to support my perhaps off-kilter views.

At two hours and twenty minutes in length, Long Walk to Freedom is really a long sit. It overstays its welcome, a concept that must be difficult to believe if you have yet to see this, because it deals with one of the world’s most influential human rights activists. How, pray, does a topic like this wear thin?

Oh, how it does. . .

Written more as a thoroughly-detailed biography special on the History channel, director Justin Chadwick’s ambition isn’t to blame, entirely. As one can imagine, he had to sift through a tremendous wealth of information about the subject and the climate of South African politics of the time, so perhaps the condescendingly low-brow style of the film should be forgiven. Though this too often has the feel of a history class lecture, there’s ultimately nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not the film most are going to be expecting when it features one of the most rapidly-rising British stars at this moment.

The film is almost saved by London-native Idris Elba’s authentic portrayal of Mr. Mandela. Naomie Harris vies for some potential nominations as well, as she steps inside the role of Winnie Madikizela, Nelson’s second wife, an extremely frustrated woman who turned to more radical and violent measures of fighting for her fellow oppressed people. With both leads clearly committed to giving the film some gravity — Elba’s heavily-covered-in-make-up facial expressions are on multiple occasions heartbreaking and are effective in visually demonstrating the burden the real life figured carried with him for his long, long life — Long Walk can’t be dismissed completely as a ‘bad’ film.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the experience is underwhelming, which is a crime unto itself. Chadwick makes sure he maintains a reasonable number of inspirational quotes from the man himself, but it looks like we, the folks who were hoping to learn something about this iconic figure, might have to wait a few more years before being treated to the proper Mandela biopic. With absolutely no offense to the two lead performers — since they are virtually the only reason this film bears significance at all — Long Walk feels much too rushed, another sign this was a product of emphatic marketing to the public.

Elba and Harris do all they can with the material, but even their own personal, strong convictions about who their characters were drown in a sea of mediocrity and obligatory sentimentality.

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2-5Recommendation: It’s hardly an offensive film, even considering how middling the end results are. If you know literally nothing about the man (if that’s the case, shame on you) you will come away with a newfound respect for the struggles of these people and this man in particular. But if you’ve done any research whatsoever about this troubling bit of history, you’re not likely to be as moved by his dramatized on-screen plight. And to me, that just ain’t right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “No person is ever born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People learn to hate. They are taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

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