Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Meddler, Elvis & Nixon, Hockney, A Hologram for the King

The Meddler
Elvis & Nixon

A Hologram for the King

Capsules on a light late April week of movies:

Susan Sarandon has delivered so many strong performances in recent years, it’s nice to see her rewarded, in Lorene Scafaria’s “The Meddler,” with the kind of showcase role Blythe Danner scored in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and Sally Field received in “Hello My Name is Doris.” She’s Marnie Minervini, recently (and wealthily) widowed and transplanted from Jersey to L.A. to be near her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), who works in the TV biz. Marnie is, as you may have guessed, an Italian yenta, congenitally incapable of respecting her daughter’s boundaries; she regularly brings up the longtime boyfriend who dumped Lori, and even makes an appointment for herself with Lori’s therapist (and importunes her to blab). At length, Lori leaves for New York to shoot a pilot, leaving Marnie to throw Lori’s lesbian friend a second wedding, babysit another girlfriend’s daughter, and drive the “Genius Bar” guy who helps her at the Apple Store to night school.

One afternoon, the absent-minded Marnie walks onto a movie set and becomes the least inconspicuous extra of all time. There she meets a retired cop serving as production security. He goes by Zipper, and he’s played by J.K. Simmons at his most winning, in a mustachioed role highly reminiscent of Sam Elliott’s in the aforementioned “Dreams.” He and Sarandon share a lovely and unforced chemistry that pays off in moments of quiet and inferential self-revelation. How could we not want them to end up happy together (even if it’s on his chicken farm in Topanga)? Unfortunately for the highly talented Byrne, filial resentment isn’t much to build a sympathetic character on, and the perhaps in-over-her-head Scafaria leaves Sarandon to do virtually all the heavy lifting. So she lifts, and looks bangin’ doing it.

Liza Johnson’s “Elvis & Nixon” is so thin, it almost has to be a put-on (and plays like one). This is, no joke, a movie about the 1970 White House meeting between Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, who desperately wanted to be deputized a “federal agent at large” (complete, importantly, with badge) and sent (incognito!) to infiltrate counterculture groups. Elvis and Nixon are portrayed, respectively, by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey, accomplished actors who are nonetheless all wrong (as in, when you watch them you can’t think about anything but how wrong they are) for the parts. The conversation inside the Oval Office is one of the goofiest in movie history, and not in a good way. To eke out a feature-length runtime, Johnson pads the story with Elvis’ entourage (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville) and Nixon’s personal assistants (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters), none of whom I could pick out of a lineup. It’s insulting; it’s boring; it’s ridiculous - and as substantial as a wet paper towel.

Randall Wright’s “Hockney” is Exhibit #3,751 in support of my argument that – if it’s not fair to say too many documentaries are being made nowadays, then certainly too many documentarians think their work is done when they’ve chosen a subject. The artist David Hockney is simply not compelling; his aphorisms, for instance, which Wright uses as title cards, might qualify him for the writer’s pool at Hallmark. A lady on queue for another film warned me that she’d come out of “Hockney” having learned almost nothing, and she was right; he’s an instantly recognizable but deeply unrevealing figure. Given the seriously overlong 112 minute runtime, we’re entitled to more.

Finally, a generous 1.5 stars for Tom Tykwer’s tonal ten car pile-up “A Hologram for the King,” adapted loosely from the Dave Eggers book. Tom Hanks plays Alan Clay, a bumptious American who arrives in Saudi Arabia to pitch the king on a hologram-based videoconferencing service. Alexander Black is Alan’s driver and guide Yousef, a role of fingernails-on-chalkboard humor. Sarcasm operates on the assumption that the listener, like the speaker, can look upon his situation from outside (above). When that assumption is false, as here, the effect is to incur the listener’s passionate animadversion. As the king’s visit to the embryonic would-be metropolis for which Clay’s company hopes to provide the IT keeps getting postponed – as lower-level officials cancel planned meetings, as the AC breaks down and the WiFi signal vanishes – a malaise descends upon the formless, episodic “Hologram,” and I checked out. Only Sarita Choudhury, as the forward-thinking doctor who removes a cyst from Clay’s back and begins seeing him romantically, registers favorably (or maybe I just like her last name).

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