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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Susan Granger at the Movies: ‘Elvis & Nixon,’ ‘A Hologram for the King,’ ‘The Huntsman:...’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Chronicling an amusing historical anecdote, Liza Johnson’s droll reminiscence “Elvis & Nixon” shows how Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) met President Richard M. Nixon (Kevin Spacey) one afternoon.

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In late 1970, watching the news at Graceland, Presley becomes so infuriated with the growing drug problem and moral decline in the United States that he shoots out the TV set with a .45. That’s his first reaction.

His second is to become an undercover federal agent. But – for that – he’ll need a badge from J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Narcotics. And the only way to get one is from the president of the United States.

So it falls it Presley’s long-time confidante, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), along with Memphis crony Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), to deliver a rambling, hand-written letter to the White House and convince Nixon aides Egil “Bud” Krough (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) to arrange an appointment.

Oblivious to Presley’s influence, Nixon has absolutely no interest in meeting the pop singer – until his daughter Julie begs for an autographed photo. Once the two meet, protocol is discarded as the King and POTUS chat informally – with Presley gulping the president’s Dr. Pepper and munching his M&Ms.

Michael Shannon digs beneath the ridiculous glitz and swagger to reveal Presley as seriously delusional, yet down-to-earth Southerner who firmly believes he can secretly infiltrate disruptive groups, like the Black Panthers, and bring them to justice.

In contrast, Kevin Spacey embodies hunched-over Nixon’s chronic insecurity and social ineptitude with remarkable mimicry, never succumbing to caricature.

Inventively fictionalized, it’s astutely directed by Liza Johnson as a “Dr. Strangelove’ish” two-hander, focusing on the quirks and foibles of these two iconic figures.

FYI: the most requested photo in the National Archive is the one of Presley and Nixon shaking hands at the conclusion of their Oval Office meeting on Dec. 21, 1970.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Elvis & Nixon” is a surreal 7, revealing a bizarre moment in the Oval Office.

Divorced, broke and unable to pay his daughter’s college tuition, Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is introduced in “A Hologram for the King” via an angst-filled, fantasy dream sequence, singing Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime.”

Apparently chosen for this job because of some vague connection to the Royal family, Clay is an affable, middle-aged American businessman who arrives in Saudi Arabia to sell a 3D holographic communications system to King Abdullah.

Jet-lagged, Clay oversleeps his first day on the job, forcing him to find a driver-for-hire, wise-cracking Yousef (comedian Alexander Black), to take him to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET), where his clueless team are stuck in a tent on a construction site surrounded by camel-strewn desert.

Disoriented, unsettled and impatient, Clay must not only deal with the obvious cultural differences in this eerie model city but also his existential loneliness and need to rediscover a sense of purpose.

It’s two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’ heartfelt performance that propels your interest, particularly when a flashback shows Clay’s father (Tom Skerritt) berating him for outsourcing of American jobs at the Schwinn Bicycle Company.

As days pass while waiting for the King or, at least, his liaison to arrive, Clay discovers a large cyst on his back; this metaphoric growth, he fears, is sapping his strength and vigor. Which leads him to a sympathetic Saudi physician, Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), and a subtle relationship develops.

Adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel by German writer/director Tom Twyker, it’s a timely, if trifling allegory about malaise and globalization, not far removed from Jack Lemmon’s “Save the Tiger” (1973), Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation” (2003) & Ewan MacGregor’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (2011).

On the Granger Gauge, “A Hologram for the King” is a strangely stylized, absurdist 6, so it’s not surprising that the epigraph comes from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: “It is not every day that we are needed.”

So much went wrong with the disjointed prequel sequel “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” that it could serve as a warning to aspiring filmmakers.

First, there’s no Snow White.  After Kristen Stewart had a scandalous, ill-fated fling with married director Rupert Sanders, it was obvious that neither would be returning for this next episode.

Salary troubles surfaced when Sony e-mail hacks revealed Charlize Theron was to be paid substantially less than Chris Hemsworth; she refused to sign until she got the same $10 million-plus as her co-star.

Then, A-list screenwriters David Koepp and Frank Darabont exited the project, leaving Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin to dabble with (but never develop) the campy, medieval characters created by Evan Daugherty – with a nod to Elsa’s Snow Queen in Disney’s “Frozen” – under the aegis of VFX supervisor-turned-director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.

The characters are introduced by a narrator (Liam Neeson): there’s scheming, perennially evil Queen Ravenna (Theron) feuding with her disillusioned younger sister, Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt).

They’re challenged by former child soldiers Sara (Jessica Chastain) and Eric (Hemsworth) who, years ago, were kidnapped from their homes and forced to serve in Freya’s frosty Army.

Then along comes Prince William (Sam Claflin), who recruits hunky, ax-throwing Eric to recover the coveted Magic Mirror. He’s joined in this quest by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon) and Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith), along with Sara.

What works? The spectacular visual effects, particularly the shape-shifting liquid gold of the Mirror – thanks to production designer Dominic Watkins, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and costume designer Colleen Atwood.

On the Granger Gauge, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a fumbling 4, a fatally flawed fairytale.

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( Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)


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