You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Tuesday, 28 June 2016


How do you a find a new take on not one but two of the most imitated figures in modern history? From Forrest Gump to Bubba Ho-Tep, Secret Honour to X-Men: Days of Future Past, not to mention the cavalcade of films that bear their names, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon are probably better known to us as personas than in person; partly by design, of course. Whether it’s the howling lycanthropic Nixon of Futurama or the gyrating heartthrob of Jailhouse Rock, only the core mannerisms remain in memory: the hunched back and beady-eyed stare; that cocky sneer and “a-thank you, thank you very much”. Though hardly an in-depth “character study”, Elvis & Nixon succeeds in getting — albeit shallowly — under the skin of both its leads. 

The film details the lead-up to the meeting that took place between the king of rock n’ roll and “Tricky Dick” on December 21st, 1970. It all began a few days earlier when Elvis (Michael Shannon) suddenly left Graceland and flew to Washington DC with the stated aim of becoming an undercover “Agent at Large” with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs — in order to combat the rise of drug culture in the United States, don’t you know. Accompanied by two of his so-called Mafia Memphis, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and lookalike Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), he set about trying to secure some face time with the man he thought most likely to make it happen: President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). 

Fortunately for Elvis, Nixon’s staff happens to include Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks), head of the Special Investigations Unit, and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters). Both appreciate the positive impact an association with Elvis could have on Nixon’s appeal to the younger generation; even if White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan in cameo) takes some convincing. Krogh and Chapin make for an amiable pair of squares — they even have matching overcoats — but Watergate is on the horizon. 

Elvis, meanwhile, has grown disillusioned with the life he leads. The film, directed by Lisa Johnson, never delves into his obsession with law enforcement, but it’s clear that this a man for whom the giggling women (when he’s there they giggle) and expensive jewellery (he’s a prisoner of his fashion regime) have lost their charm; even if he never does. His former associate Jerry — half handler, half friend — truly loves Elvis, but feels himself being drawn back into the orbit of a man who can’t help but be the centre of everyone else’s world. 

Shannon, peering out from beneath that hair and those sunglasses, eschews all the markers of the usual Elvis performance. The accent, for instance, is his own. Instead, he offers an understated portrait of a public figure who, for all the karate and the stir he creates, feels like a UFO; serenely touches down where he pleases, seemingly oblivious to the world freaking out around him. It’s something of a departure for the famously intense Shannon — not least in being genuinely quite amusing. Aside from a brief inaudible scene involving an open-top car, two pretty girls, and CCR’s Susie Q, we never even hear him sing. Elvis & Nixon’s soundtrack notably features no Elvis — it would certainly make for a misleading addition to any CD collection. 

Similarly, excluding one snippet of a phone conversation with Henry Kissinger, the film offers us nothing of Nixon’s politics. Spacey’s performance may be the more typical of the two — there’s the apelike hunch, the prickly demeanour, that oh-so imitable voice — but, even as a known mimic, there’s no sense of impersonation. Shannon and Spacey bring a subtlety to their respective roles that pays off particularly in the interplay between a legend and a president; Elvis obliviously breaking protocol, Nixon grudgingly coming to respect this kooky interloper. 

Any such meeting certainly lends itself to comedy of the zaniest sort — Elvis believes his years of costume and makeup have made him a master of disguise — but it’s acutely observed enough that it never feels like its going for easy laughs. Elvis & Nixon’s script, written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes, may feel like a TV movie — a form in which the premise has already been offered —  and offers a few stagey moments of self-reflection on Elvis’ part. Even so, the film, if not quite kingly, certainly won’t leave you feeling crook. A-thank you, thank you very much.

Elvis & Nixon gets a 6.5 out of 10

Monday, 27 June 2016


They’ve back, just when we might have dared to hope that we were safe the next wave of big-budget blockbusters with meaningless subtitles sweeps into cinemas. Just as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to set the world alight by treating its material with undue reverence, Independence Day: Resurgence fails to set the world alight — while narratively doing exactly that — by treating its material with no reverence whatsoever. 

The film sets out to reprise more or less exactly what it did twenty years before with little of the novelty, a touch more irony, and nary a decent speech to be heard. While in 1996 the wholesale destruction of world monuments was considered worthy of “oohs” and “aahs” aplenty, nowadays it barely merits a “meh”. World-threatening peril, by forces alien, natural, or of our own devising — or, in the case of X-Men: Apocalypse, mutants — are more or less the spectacle du jour. As Jeff Goldblum’s wryly startled David Levinson notes amid plummeting skyscrapers and, one would assume, the attendant loss of human life, “They always go for the landmarks.” 

In all fairness, the dead do cast a large shadow over Independence Day: Resurgence; mostly in that the film’s younger generation (Liam Hemsworth’s cocky maverick, Jake; Jessie Usher’s too-earnest-to-be-quite-cool Dylan Hillier; Maika Monroe’s would-be Ripley, Patricia; ) can’t hold a candle to Will Smith’s cigar-chomping, alien-belting war hero from the first film. A lack of star power (or willingness to invest in it) doesn’t help counter the impression that this is primarily a cash grab. 

There’s a utterly subsidiary Chinese pilot, played by model-actress-singer Angelababy, who — despite serving as a would-be love interest for Travis Tope’s cheerfully dweeby Charlie — feels like a calculated play for a wider audience. Brent Spiner runs around dementedly in his undies with a matted white mane of hair and Bill Pullman salvages sound dignity as the shellshocked former Prez. The alien mothership may be substantially bigger, there are katana-wielding African warlords and magic spheres, but even the film’s high-tech lunar base feels like a case of Ender’s Again? For all of the heroic sacrifices none of them mean very much. 

This is Independence Day: Regurgitated*, a thin, warmed-over gruel that even the prospect of an intergalactic sequel can do little to infuse with any flavour.

3.5 out of 10

* Thanks to Amarpal Biring for that one.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016


Adult Life Skills

Adult Life Skills is one of those low-key, quirky dramedies that, if executed poorly, has the potential to be be near enough unwatchable. Fortunately, as executed by first-time writer-director Rachel Tunnard and her more than able cast, the film is instead a mopey, mirthful study of making magic out of mundanity. 

Jodie Whittaker stars as Anna, a bereaved twin who spends her days doing admin at a small-town Yorkshire rowing club and her nights making videos with a tinfoil spaceship and her anthropomorphic thumbs. She sees faces in places — in egg cartons, in wood grain. She flirts awkwardly with soft-spoken, number-driven real estate agent Brendan (Brett Goldstein). She also lives in a shed, which her mum (Lorrain Ashborne) despairs about ever getting her out of. It’s only when Anna is forced to look after Clint (Ozzy Meyers), a scowl-y, cowboy-obsessed kid with troubles of his own. 

Though perpetually verging on preciousness — Edward Hogg appears as a character credited as The Snorkeler — Adult Life Skills has enough insight into arrested development and grief to sidestep the trap of the twee.

6.5 out of 10

Tale of Tales

Tale of Tales is The Brothers Grimm as Terry Gilliam should have made it. 

Inspired by Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone — from which the film gets its name — and directed by Gomorrah’s Matteo Garone, it weaves together three archetypal fairytales: the jovial king (John C. Reilly) and bitter queen (Selma Hayek) longing for a child; one kindly yet capricious ruler (Toby Jones), his romantic daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), the flea and the ogre; and the two crones (Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson) who inadvertently mislead a lusty prince (Vincent Cassel). Shot on location around Italy, sumptuously designed, and with a suitably fantastical score from Alexandre Desplat, Tale of Tales is baroque, bloody, alluring and repugnant. 

The film might not have much by the way of substance, nor is Matteo the first filmmaker to turn his hand to fable — fellow Italian Pasolini did so with his Trilogy of Life back in the ‘70s — but when the scenery is this sumptuous and the monsters this grotesque, it’s hard to begrudge a little fancifulness.

7 out of 10

The Neon Demon

Like its predecessor, Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, was also booed at Cannes. Unlike its predecessor, only the film’s final third might merit such a reaction. 

The film starts as a glossy, lurid scrutiny of beauty and what it elicits. Elle Fanning embodies radiant ingenue Jesse whose arrival in Los Angeles stirs lust and possessiveness in the male fashion set — Alessandro Nivo as a verse-declaiming designer, Desmond Harrington as an intense, hollow-cheeked photographer — and jealousy amid a kind-to-be-cruel clique of models — including Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, and neighbourly but unreadable makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). The film deftly plumbs these thematic depths with both clarity and unpredictability, which gives way to shock value and detached symbolism.  

An Under the Skin about the skin itself, Cronenberg’s Crash where the paraphilia is flesh instead of steel. There’s more to The Neon Demon than meets the eye till, all of a sudden, there isn’t.

8.5 out of 10