Monday, July 31, 2017

Elvis & Nixon

Director: Liza Johnson
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Ahna O' Reilly, Ashley Benson, Dylan Penn
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

On the morning of December 21, 1970, a meeting took place at the White House between two of the most important and controversial public figures of the 20th century. It created a moment immortalized in a legendary photograph that became the the National Archives' most requested image. Thankfully, Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon isn't exactly a movie about that, at least in the strictest sense. If it was, there's a chance we'd be exposed to a reality that's nowhere near as funny or subversively entertaining as what ends up on screen. And while we all probably could have lived without the disturbing knowledge that "The King" and the disgraced 37th President of the United States share an alarming amount in common, isn't it kind of strangely unsurprising? The casting would imply the film's a big joke, and while that's true to an extent, it's at least a really funny joke that also works as a deep dive into the complicated personalities of these two eccentric figures.

Clocking in at a breezy 86 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, focusing tightly on the immediate events leading up to this infamous meeting and the actual event itself, which definitely doesn't disappoint, thanks largely to the two immersive performances carrying it. This is one of those little footnotes in history that upon reflection signifies much more than it did at the time, with the film's strongest aspect being how well it conveys that. Everyone involved is so blissfully unaware of how simultaneously important and ridiculous this all this. It's hard watching without drawing parallels to current events, contemplating just how thin the line separating politics and celebrity has become. For better or worse, you could easily argue that this rarely discussed encounter helped pave the way, its implications still reverberating through the culture. 

It's 1970 and singer Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is enjoying somewhat of a career resurgence off the heels of his late '60's comeback special, his fame and public recognizability at an apex. But despite this enormous success, the problems currently facing America heavily weigh on him as he lounges in his palatial Graceland estate, joined at the hip by best friend and "Memphis Mafia" cohort Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and bodyguard Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville). Disturbed by the hippie movement and worried the drug culture is rapidly eating away at the minds of the era's youth, Elvis makes it his mission to get sworn in by President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as an undercover "agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

To accomplish his lofty goal, Presley will have to find a way to reach Nixon, and after showing up at the gates of the White House with a handwritten letter, his request eventually makes it into the hands of top administrative officials Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), Evan Peters and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, After initially brushing it off as a ridiculous joke, they soon recognize the obvious, very real opportunity the meeting presents for Nixon to overhaul his out-of-touch, old fashioned image, particularly with young southern voters. But getting the President on board is full of an entirely new set of challenges, culminating in an encounter for the ages as Elvis meets Nixon.

There's a reason the film is titled Elvis & Nixon and not Nixon & Elvis, as the script devotes a considerably larger amount of time to Presley. He's the one on the journey, he's the mind we're granted access to, and at times, it's a fairly strange place to be. Torn between his loyalty to and love for a profession that's afforded him so much and the discomfort of having strangers viewing him as "Elvis" 24/7, he sees a lot of himself in Nixon, who also came from humble beginnings and shares similar conservative values.

The casting of Michael Shannon, known for playing psychotic creeps and menacing weirdos, is unusual not only due to him lacking any physical resemblance to The King, but because the choice seems like it could be some kind of inside joke on audiences. If this were an all-out mindless comedy that might be true, but anyone truly familiar with Shannon knows just how much more he's capable of bringing to it. And he does.

Shannon really gets under Presley's skin during a period of his life where he really did come across as a disturbed eccentric, albeit a likable, well-meaning one. When Elvis is at first informed that the President has no desire to meet him, Presley's not insulted that Nixon doesn't want to meet the one and only "King of Rock n' Roll," but rather sad and disappointed as an American because he has some ideas to share and thinks and they'd be friends. The deflated look on Shannon's face is more akin to an overgrown child being told they won't be meeting Santa Claus than a spoiled celebrity not getting what he wants. It's a small but crucial example of one of many nuances the movie gets right.

Much of the comedy comes from those closest to the two men trying to control uncontrollable personalities since no one really has any idea what will happen when they meet. Nixon is portrayed as an insulated old man, so stubbornly grasping to traditional values it comes as little surprise he has no idea who Elvis Presley even is. That he may have in reality has no baring on the fact that this movie believably theorizing that he didn't is just perfect. It isn't even until his team have to use his daughter to get through to him that they're able to finally set the wheels in motion.

No stranger to playing the Commander-in-Chief on House of Cards, Kevin Spacey now gets to tackle a real one and his physical embodiment of Nixon's mannerisms, posture and way of speaking are frighteningly on point, even taking into account the great actors who have previously tackled the role. While he doesn't get the screen time Shannon does, he makes the absolute most of it, conveying the type of defiant personality that would eventually lead to his downfall. He definitely lived and worked in a bubble, and there's no getting around the distracting fact that Spacey's portrayal will draw inescapable comparisons to our current President.

Finding plenty of common ground in their mutual disdain of hippies, The Beatles, and communism, it was inevitable Elvis and Nixon would hit it off, their discussion as off-the-wall as you'd expect and then some. The rest of the characters are mere window dressing, as they should be, attempting and often failing to keep their bosses' worst tendencies in check. Like how Presley basically tries to sneak an arsenal of firearms into the Oval Office and the person most perplexed as to why that's not  permitted is Nixon himself.

While all the characters' quirks are on full display in the eventual encounter, this semi-biographical account still somehow avoids feeling like a parody because it has genuine affection for two otherwise good men who each had their personality flaws magnified by the pressures of the spotlight. Under different circumstances, maybe both would have been regarded a bit differently, and perhaps even deserve to be. Elvis & Nixon zeroes in on that to become a fun, engaging trip back in time that's as straightforward and direct as the meeting itself.              

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O' Reilly
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away some key plot details**

When it was announced that Disney's purchase of the Star Wars franchise would include the development of a series of standalone spin-off films, I winced. Or more accurately, I feared it for a number of reasons, a few of which are validated, but mostly dismissed by Rogue One, a much better than expected effort given all the trepidation, hype and nearly insurmountable expectations surrounding it. Call it what you'd like, but it's still Star Wars, and its hardcore fans, freshly basking in the critical and commercial success of The Force Awakens, expect greatness each time out. In fact, if we know anything about them at all, it's that they demand it. And that's essentially my entire problem with Disney doing this. If these standalone films are THAT great, how will that not make the other "real" ones seem less special or not dilute the brand? And if these spin-offs disappoint, we don't even need to get into the negative effects that will have, on both Disney's bottom line and the recently rejuvenated public goodwill toward the franchise after George Lucas stepped away. But, I also get it. It's silly resuscitating this franchise if you're not going to milk as much from it as you possibly can.

When it was decided this would be a dreaded "prequel," a whole new potential set of problems presented itself since a burning desire the see this universe expanded is held by only the hardest of hardcore fans. If Lucas' prequels taught us anything, it's that the more we actually learned about the backstory of the galaxy, the more uninteresting it became. Rogue One doesn't bore us with talks of taxation and trade tariffs, but it also doesn't feature Luke Skywalker or Han Solo either. Disney knows where its bread is buttered so they have to be careful, its grip on their property understandably tightening with each new release. A lot is on the line, and any director looking to recreate the franchise in their own vision need not apply. The man hired for this job is Gareth Edwards, who works well within those tight confines to makes something that's not exactly Star Wars, but isn't too far off from it either.

While I wouldn't go as far as some as some as praising it as the franchise's best film since The Empire Strikes Back, it's still a very good one that's darker and grittier than expected. It's more like a cover of a Star Wars film, only just not as close of one as J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, which was a reproduction so authentic it could easily be considered the real thing. While that's not necessarily a debit, it's also kind of all over the place, baring the hallmarks of many cooks in the creative kitchen. Despite these obstacles, it does all come together as an oddly thrilling experience, especially in the final 45 minutes, when these movies tend to feel most bloated. What works really does and what doesn't sticks out, but besides being an entertaining adventure and a solid Star Wars chapter, it's worth examining as a possible template of what to expect from these spin-offs moving forward.

A flashback introduces us to young Jyn Erso, whose father, research scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is being threatened by Imperial weapons director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), to take his family and leave the planet Lah'mu in order to complete work on the infamous Death Star. With her mother killed and father taken into Imperial custody, Jyn escapes with the help of Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Fifteen years later, an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from an Imperial labor camp by Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who takes her back to the Alliance, where she's informed of a rescue mission to retrieve her father, still working for the Imperial Army.

After a holographic message communicated from defecting Empire cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) reveals her father has valuable information about a weakness embedded within the Death Star, Jyn, Cassian, blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) set out to find him.  When complications arise involving the true intentions of the mission, it becomes clear that the Empire is not only stronger than expected, but its Death Star capable of even more mass destruction than imagined. Somehow, they have to obtain the blueprints, but with Krennic getting his marching orders from Grand Moff Tarkin and the shadowy menace of Darth Vader looming, it could very well end up being a suicide mission for the Rebels.

Forgoing the traditional opening crawl that's started each the preceding seven films in the franchise, Rogue One establishes itself early on as slightly different. The decision to abandon this but retain the "A Long Time Ago..." title card is a curious one, as is the call to hold back a bit with the familiar music throughout, picking and choosing their spots for Michael Giacchino's sampling of John Williams' original themes. There's a lot of housekeeping that goes on in the opening hour since Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script must introduce a slew of new characters and fill in enough backstory so that we're not completely lost and can connect the dots to the characters and events within the universe we are familiar with from the previous films.

While this isn't as tightly put together as The Force Awakens, with a lot of narrative stuffed in and transitions between locations not always seamless, at least it's a true prequel in every sense of the word. What occurs directly relates and even bleeds into the events of Episode IV and if the Death Star has started to become a narrative crutch for the series, it's hard to blame them for going back to it given its recognizability and importance. Unlike Lucas' prequels, this actually looks like one in that its dirty and grungy enough to have believably taken place before the events with which we're most familiar. Picking up where Abrams left off, there's still a healthier balance of practical effects and green screen CGI, with only two very notable exceptions. And as much as the comparisons to the Empire Strikes Back  seem a bit overblown, it is fair to claim that this is the and most crisp looking installment since then, with Lion cinematographer Greig Fraser again delivering stellar work, especially when it comes to the visuals in the latter half.

Of everything, character development suffers most as the story races along toward the battle at Scarif, which will occupy much of the film's final thrilling act. Casting was key and if Felicity Jones doesn't initially jump out as a typical Star Wars protagonist, she changes minds in a hurry. Of all these new faces, she was the one audiences most needed a connection to with and she manages it in both the combat scenes and more dramatic moments involving her father.  It's definitely a stark contrast to Forest Whitaker, who really hams it up, drawing unintentional laughs in his role as a Rebel extremist. But that's an improvement over the complete lack of entertainment a bland Diego Luna provides as Cassian, who's clearly intended to be a "bad boy" pilot in the vain of Han Solo, or more recently, Oscar Issac's Poe Dameron. Whether it was how the character was written, performed, or possibly a combination of the two, he instead comes off as a poor man's version of both, completely lacking in charisma and personality. More memorable is Donnie Yen as the blind monk Chirrut and Alan Tudyk, who makes the pessimistic, matter-of-fact K-2SO droid an inspired alternative to the R2's and C3PO's of the galaxy.

Perhaps no contemporary character actor could be better served in the part of an Imperial Military Director than Ben Mendelsohn, who's carved out a nice supporting career playing exactly these types of creepy, slimey manipulators. It may be kind of a one-note role, but he sure hits it thunderously well. And he does it under fairly unusual circumstances, acting in many scenes opposite the CGI ghost of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Guy Henry). In a development George Lucas would undoubtedly endorse (and is probably jealous he didn't get a chance to incorporate himself), modern movie technology can digitally resurrect deceased actors and fully immerse them into scenes opposite current performers. While we can joke about how this dreaded day has finally arrived, it's actually executed fairly well in this case and is likely less distracting than if Lucas were still at the controls.

It helps that Cushing always had a robotic presence and ghastly countenance that made him terrifying on screen, making him in many ways the perfect subject for this kind of a cinematic experiment. Whether we need something like this is another debate entirely, but those involved should at least be commended for pulling it off well, despite reintroducing a reliance on technology that previously hampered Lucas' prequels. If they wisely pick their spots it won't be a problem, but their other attempt at it in the film with a far bigger name comes off, at best, as a needless distraction. While those involved couldn't have known at the time they'd be digitally resurrecting another deceased actor in Carrie Fisher, that still doesn't explain why it looks so awful. Thankfully, it's quick,  logical within the framework of the story, and we still have her for an upcoming Star Wars film that will hopefully serve as a proper swan song for the actress.

Even the most casual of fans will be able to pick up on certain Easter eggs sprinkled throughout and cameos from familiar minor and major characters, occasionally showing up in the background or foreground of various scenes. Most of them work well and don't feel shoehorned in, but what everyone really wants to talk about is the film's worst kept secret: The reappearance of Darth Vader. Still voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones but with two new actors (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous) taking over for David Prowse in the suit. And while not quite as physically imposing, there's no mistaking that the character himself is as formidable as ever. He has only a couple of brief scenes, but one in particular that comes late, puts to rest any concerns that his appearances wouldn't be carefully chosen or played for maximum impact. Not only was it worth the wait, but it's not a hotshot, adding a pertinent layer to the narrative.

Whatever its issues, Rogue One offesr something that no other installment preceding it did, except possibly the far inferior Revenge of the Sith. An ending with tragic resonance. Not completely, but enough to make you wonder how much Disney must have debated going with it. To their credit, it would have been easy not to and everyone still probably would have eaten it up anyway since it's Star Wars. But they did, and it's that decision, and the entire execution of the final battle that makes the film linger longer than it otherwise would. Fans like to know what they've seen on screen means something, and for this franchise, where the stakes are suddenly even higher than usual, Rogue One delivers that, and even a bit more.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Kheshav Jadhav, Priyanka Bose
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Lion earns its Best Picture nomination in its opening half, trusting the audience to not only comprehend, but become completely enveloped in a story that's initially spoken entirely in Hindi, and without the benefit of subtitles. It turns out to be a wise bet. The opening 45 minutes are so expertly calibrated and performed, brimming with lump-in-your-throat moments of disbelief, perseverance and astonishment, it was almost inevitable that whatever followed would pale in comparison. That it doesn't, at least completely, is somewhat of a tiny miracle, with much of that credit going to Australian director Garth Davis, who in adapting Saroo Brierley's 2013 autobiographical novel, A Long Way Home, temporarily refutes the theory that Hollywood filmmakers pander to the lowest common denominator when it comes to depicting foreign cultures.

It opens with a mistake that has ripple effect on more than a few lives, but the true revelation might come in how frequently something like this occurs, or how little we hear about it. Then after a certain point, Luke Davies Oscar-nominated screenplay does kind of hit a wall, which has led to harsh criticisms that the film stretches out a 30-second spot for Google Earth to a two-hour running length. But there's just too much else it has going for it to make those completely complaints valid since, despite a weaker middle portion, the performances, cinematography and underrated musical score make it too powerful an experience to dismiss.

It's 1986 and a five year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), older brother Guduu (Abhishek Bharate) and younger sister in a tiny, poor village in Khandwa, India. One night, when Saroo joins his brother Guduu for a night of train-hopping for food, Guduu leaves his napping little sibling at a station and when Saroo awakens to find his brother hasn't returned, he boards a train headed to Calcutta. Now completely lost and wandering around a city where he doesn't speak or understand the Bengali language, Saroo must survive on the crowded streets and rely on the help of strangers, some with motives more nefarious than others. After landing in the custody of police and eventually an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley and goes to live with them in Tasmania.

We catch up with him twenty years later as a young man (now Dev Patel), studying for his degree in  hotel management and involved in a relationship with American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara). But despite Saroo having a fulfilled life and more than anyone from his background could have hoped for, there's an incompleteness that eats away at him, stemming from a desire to track down his biological family and make sense of that night's events over two decades ago. While his adopted mother struggles with family challenges of her own, Saroo wrestles with the guilt and hope of finding "home," embarking on a journey of self-discovery sure to have a lasting impact on those he holds closest.

The opening section actually shares some similarities with the last entirely Indian-flavored Best Picture nominee (and eventual winner), Slumdog Millionaire. And while we know, like that film, we'll eventually be given our happy ending, the scenes of kids on the street here have a far different tone, especially when watching a scared young Saroo aimlessly searching for his brother in a perilous situation surely qualifying as an immediate "Amber Alert" if it took place today in the states. Even in 1986, as commonplace as lost, homeless children in India may have been, it's still kind of frightening to see through western eyes.

What really sells this is the editing and the likably adorable child actor playing young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, whose combination of wide-eyed panic and innocence, along with some steely determination, carries the first half of the picture, eliminating the language barrier for both him and us. It seems like eternity he's on the streets, avoiding kidnappers and potential child molesters on his way to who knows where. It's disturbing how few people care about kids like him running around in the streets and really do nothing even when they think they are. That is until, by sheer luck, he meets someone who finally takes the necessary measures to offer actual help.

After watching this five-year-old struggle to survive after being separated from his sibling, it's of little surprise the second half of the film would have to work hard to match the Dickensian heights of its opening hour, both in tone and quality.  But it works well as a logical next chapter, thanks largely  to the strong performance of a nearly unrecognizable Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, whose suddenly jolted into finding his biological family, but fears the ramifications of what going forward with such a plan could do to his adoptive mother, already at the breaking point dealing with her other adopted Indian son, the emotionally disturbed Montash. The casting of both the child and adult versions of this role are spot-on, as actors Kheshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa are so eerily identical in both manner and appearance you'd really think the filmmakers pulled a Boyhood, checking in with the same person twenty years later.

The entire second half really belongs to Patel, who nearly everyone had written off as a one-movie wonder after Slumdog Millionaire peaked almost a decade ago. And for a while there, it really looked like they were right. He returns in a big way here, a better, more mature actor, fully capable of handling the complexity of emotions running through Saroo as he embarks on his (Google) search for his birth mother. Just the very conceit of this true story could have been problematic on screen, but Patel takes what could have been a dramatically inert arc and draws us into his journey, which is as much internal as external. It helps that the first half of the picture was so strong, that our recollection of the opening half hour drives nearly all interest in the rest, with him filling in the blanks.

Rooney Mara's role and performance has been criticized by some as a throwaway, and while her work as Saroo's girlfriend Lucy won't be the first discussion point coming out of the film, it shouldn't  anyway. It's entirely functional since we need to know the man that young boy has become and what his life evolved into in the twenty years since the train station, not to mention what he could potentially be risking or giving up by doing this. Her part is what it is, and the never uninteresting actress serves it well, despite the nagging feeling she could have been given more. The other half of the equation is Nicole Kidman, who as Sue gets opportunities in the latter half to convey a woman crumbling at the emotional distance that's been put between her and her family, which has more to do with the struggles of raising the far less adjusted adopted son than Saroo's secret urge to reconcile his past.               

Intelligently addressing universal issues involving memory and identity, Lion tells a worthwhile, important story that most will feel more fulfilled having experienced. As for whether it manipulates, all movies do. The real question is how well. Aside from an unnecessary ending coda that spends too much time reinforcing a point the preceding hour and a half made perfectly clear (an epidemic these days), this more than passes that test, and does it with two phenomenal performances in the same central role, one which could easily be remembered as the year's most satisfying acting comeback.