Friday, April 22, 2016

“A Hologram For The King”– Movie Review



This week at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended The World Premiere of the new drama, “A Hologram For The King”, starring Tom Hanks. 


When an American salesman travels to Saudi Arabia to sell technology to The King, can he overcome significant cultural differences in order to make the deal?


Alan (Hanks) has both his career and personal life on the line:  his employer is sending him on an extended trip to Saudi Arabia in order to pitch their new cutting-edge hologram technology for online conferencing.  Given that his own boss doesn’t even have a great deal of confidence in Alan’s ability to make this deal, he’s under considerable stress.  At the same time, he’s recently divorced and experiencing some financial setbacks that, among other things, have forced his daughter to put her college education temporarily on hold, much to Alan’s consternation and embarrassment. 

Once in Saudi Arabia, Alan encounters all kinds of problems.  To start with, he consistently misses the shuttle that would take him to the government offices he’s supposed to visit and must therefore hire a driver (Alexander Black) to transport him.  But even when Alan is at the office, he faces substantial resistance:  his IT Team isn’t being treated particularly well and the executives that are his points of contact constantly evade him, either intentionally or coincidentally; of particular concern is the Saudi King, crucial to making the final decision, and he’s nowhere in sight.  The best Alan can manage is to befriend the company’s payroll manager Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who apparently has the hots for him.  

And just what exactly is that lump on Alan’s back, anyway?  Showering in his hotel room, he’s alarmed by this growth.  As if he doesn’t already have enough to worry about, now his health is at issue.  Alan sees a local physician, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), who assures him it’s only a cyst, which she can easily remove.  After follow-up visits, they soon form an affinity and start seeing each other outside office hours.  Meanwhile, with the whereabouts of the Saudi King still very much up in the air, will Alan’s presentation ever actually occur or has this entire venture been a colossal waste of time?


Without a doubt, the best part of “A Hologram For The King”, is its opening sequence where Hanks performs his own version of The Talking Heads’ classic, “Once In A Lifetime”.  It is a promising start on a number of levels; for one thing, it’s surreal and a naturally funny Hanks really takes advantage of its inherently humorous aspects.  Also, the lyrics to the song portend the overarching theme of the movie itself.  While it may be a bit harsh to say that the film goes downhill from there, it’s certainly fair to say that nothing that comes thereafter quite lives up to that first scene. 

If “A Hologram For The King” is salvageable at all – and there’s a debate for you – it is through the performance of Hanks, The Everyman of American motion pictures.  There is a substantial dark side to this movie, but Hanks’ comedic talents are able to balance it throughout.  The film tries to pose the question of how to successfully overcome a culture clash.  However, the bigger question is one that is asked both by and about the protagonist:  “What happens when you’re nearing retirement and you suddenly realize your life has turned you into the loser you never thought you’d be?”  Combine that with the fish-out-of-water theme and it’s difficult not to root for Hanks’ character. 

Because there are multiple plotlines in “A Hologram For The King” – the various conflicts in Alan’s personal life as well as the goals set in his professional life – they all need to get resolved to one extent or another by the conclusion.  Although this happens, the plausibility of some of the resolutions may be called into question.  While some may appear realistic on one hand, there are others that come off as a little too contrived and convenient.  It may be something of a stretch to say that all the various messes get cleaned up in the end, how they get cleaned up may be dubious – once again, perhaps the only thing that could allow viewers to suspend their disbelief is the mere fact that it is Everyman Tom Hanks.   

A Hologram for the King (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

“Elvis & Nixon”– Movie Review


This week, I attended The Centerpiece screening at The Tribeca Film Festival:  the World Premiere of the new comedy, “Elvis & Nixon”, starring Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon.


When rock star Elvis Presley decides to become a federal narcotics agent, he requests a meeting with President Richard Nixon – but if Nixon consents to the meeting, will he also agree to making him an agent?


In 1970, rock and roll legend Elvis Presley (Shannon) was discouraged by the current events of the day:  American youth protested against the Vietnam war, pervasive lax morality and most importantly, rampant drug usage.  Having enjoyed immense success for many years, Elvis felt a sense of duty; he decided he needed to lobby then-United States President Richard Nixon (Spacey) to make him an undercover drug enforcement agent.  Elvis called upon his good friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to accompany him on a trip to Washington, D.C. where he would deliver a handwritten letter to Nixon requesting a meeting.  

Things, however, do not go as planned.  Although the letter eventually makes its way to Administration official Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and is granted permission to pitch it to The President, Nixon flatly rejects the idea.  When Elvis gets the news, he’s crestfallen and decides to return to his Graceland mansion in Tennessee until Jerry convinces Krogh to appeal to Nixon’s daughters.  Once they learn their father has a chance to meet The King Of Rock And Roll, they beg him for autographs and photos.  Learning this, Nixon reconsiders his original position and grants Elvis a brief meeting.

With preparations for the meeting underway, it becomes clear this is turning into a power struggle between these two different men.  Initially planning to keep the meeting to five minutes, Nixon is cajoled by Elvis, allowing him to extend his stay.  Eventually, however, Elvis hits Nixon with The Big Ask:  an official badge from the Bureau Of Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs making him an undercover agent.  Seeing Elvis is delusional, Nixon tries to dissuade him – but can Elvis talk The President into awarding him a badge?


“Elvis And Nixon” is hardly a movie anyone needs to see immediately – if ever. For all of its oddities, however, the film’s daffiness and congeniality renders it as an occasionally entertaining experience in its own cumbersome way, sometimes overcoming a cumbersome script with performances that are really out there.  Why such gifted actors as Spacey and Shannon consented to it may forever remain a mystery.  Spacey refuses to act behind make-up – he only remotely resembles Nixon and his imitation of the disgraced President is adequate (those who’ve seen his impressions of Al Pacino or Johnny Carson know just how good a mimic he can be).  

Shannon, perhaps to his credit, resists the temptation to go Full Metal Elvis; his only resemblance to Elvis is in his unorthodox dress and hairstyle and he does not appear to even attempt some semblance of an impersonation.  Instead, he seems to be making a considerably more nuanced acting choice by presenting Elvis as almost likeable despite The King’s gullible nature (or naiveté).  By contrast, Spacey seems to have chosen to make a mockery of Nixon; he is intentionally playing the President for laughs whereas Shannon’s Elvis is completely unaware of how ridiculous he truly was.  

Together, the two make for some amusing moments during the actual meeting, although you may feel ashamed of yourself for laughing; these two egomaniacs are so impressed with their own sense of self-importance they just can’t seem to get over themselves –which is part of what makes their pairing so curious.  Clearly, “Elvis And Nixon” is merely an imagining of what happened not only during the meeting, but in the events leading up to it as well; much of what is here is taken from Elvis’ long-time friend Jerry Schilling, who wrote a book about his relationship with The King Of Rock And Roll.    

Elvis & Nixon (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“The Family Fang”– Movie Review


This weekend, I attended a screening at The Tribeca Film Festival of the new comedy-drama, “The Family Fang”, directed by Jason Bateman, in which he co-stars with Nicole Kidman. 


When adult siblings seek their parents who have turned up missing under mysterious circumstances, will it turn out to be yet another one of their hoaxes?


Annie and younger brother Baxter Fang (Kidman and Bateman) have been doing the best they can to carry on with their lives despite their unusual upbringing.  As children, their parents Caleb and Camille (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunket) were notorious performance artists known for filming the pranks they pulled on an unsuspecting public – pranks which usually included the participation of their offspring Annie and Baxter.  Eager to please their parents in exchange for the implicit understanding of unconditional love, Annie and Baxter allowed themselves to be used in their parents’ warped form of home movies, which made them famous.

As an actress starring in small, independent films, Annie’s career is stalling; due to a personal history of unpredictable behavior and substance abuse, many studios are now reluctant to hire her and her own agent is losing confidence.  Baxter, on the other hand, became a writer; after getting a couple of novels published (one to great acclaim), he now finds himself stuck on his current project due to severe writer’s block.  He is then forced to accept various freelance journalism assignments wherever he can find them in order to make ends meet. 

After a freak accident forces Baxter to grudgingly reunite with his sister and parents, he and Annie are soon awash with memories of their disruptive and unorthodox upbringing.  Eventually, Caleb and Camille must take off, leaving Annie to care for Baxter in the upstate New York home where they were raised.  Later, police notify the siblings their parents’ car was abandoned at a rest stop – Caleb and Camille are nowhere to be seen, but the car is covered in blood stains that are believed to be Caleb’s.  With their parents presumed dead, Baxter is determined to move on – but when Annie suspects this may be yet another elaborate con being pulled by their parents to reestablish themselves as society’s pre-eminent performance artists, can she prove Caleb and Camille are both still alive or will the police provide evidence otherwise? 


Jason Bateman showed off his skills as a director in the hilarious comedy “Bad Words”, in which he also starred; he has scored yet another major triumph in this unusual film, “The Family Fang”.  It is difficult to pull off a balance between the two extreme ranges of black comedy and serious drama, yet somehow, Bateman has managed to succeed, intermingling flashbacks between Baxter and Annie’s childhood juxtaposed against present day.  “The Family Fang” is a wild ride, but one with a cohesive structure and deeply satisfying conclusion.

This movie is based on the novel of the same title by Kevin Wilson and its screenplay adroitly adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire.  The movie is greatly assisted by some excellent casting choices, not the least of which being Walken as the oddball father who coerces his family into satisfying his own egotistical needs.  Kidman herself is also quite good as the rightfully suspicious Annie, who’s at the end of her rope both professionally and emotionally.  Maryann Plunket is believable as the mother who seems to go along to get along, sublimating her own artistic career goals in the process. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the cast and screenwriter.  Bateman was brought into the project by Kidman, who originally owned the property and was interested in hiring him both as director and co-star; he added that part of his decision to do this movie was that following a broad comedy like “Bad Words”, he wanted the opportunity to do something weightier.  Kidman told attendees that what she found gratifying about the project was bringing a novelist like Wilson to a larger audience.  She lives in Tennessee with her husband and Wilson is an author also from that state. 

The Family Fang (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

“Demolition”– Movie Review

demo (1)

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Demolition”, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper. 


When a man suddenly becomes a widower, will his mourning drag him down into a life of self-destructive behavior or can he overcome his sorrow?


After Davis (Gyllenhaal) survives a horrific automobile accident, he learns his wife has perished.  Now a widower, he finds himself being forced to face life without her and figure out how to move forward.  As a successful financier who works for his father-in-law, Phil (Cooper), their tenuous relationship is now put to the test even further.  Emotionally a bit ragged, Davis is not exactly in the healthiest state of mind and becomes inexplicably drawn to a life of destruction and damage – whether it’s concerning himself, other people or inanimate objects. 

Phil soon picks up on Davis’s oddball behavior – dismantling fixtures in the men’s room at their office, taking apart a leaking refrigerator at home and working (for free) with a demolition company in order to take down a neighborhood house where a rebuilding project is set to commence.  What little trust Phil may have had left in his one time son-in-law is now out the window.  Instead, Phil starts a scholarship fund in his daughter’s name and tries to get Davis involved so he can have some say in how his late wife will be remembered; Davis, however, appears less than fully committed to the idea.

When at the hospital awaiting word on his mortally injured wife, Davis has an unsatisfactory encounter with a vending machine.  This leads him to an obsession where he writes to the customer service department of the company that rents out the vending machines; eventually, he hears from their customer service representative Karen (Watts), with whom he develops an epistolary relationship.  Eventually, this leads to their meeting – an unfortunate one because she’s in a relationship with the owner of the vending machine company and Davis is forced to mentor her troubled adolescent son.  Will these experiences lead to further pain for Davis or can he use them to find his way out?


It is arguable whether or not “Demolition” is intentionally overwrought – but overwrought it most definitely is.  Clearly, the movie is trying to show how difficult a mourning period can be after the loss of a loved one, but Davis is such an unsympathetic character that it gets increasingly difficult to muster very much compassion for him; this is due not only to the odd behavior he exhibits but also because of what viewers learn about him through the course of the film.  There have long been imperfect protagonists, but Davis is more imperfect than some others.

Problems with the script include dramatic contrivances and convenient coincidences that challenge the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief.  Among the conceits is the use of letters (yes, that’s actual letters, not e – mails or Tweets or Facebook posts) to the customer service department of the vending machine company; this is done for two reasons – one, to provide us with a bit of backstory about the protagonist and the other, to set up the potential romantic involvement with Karen.  This is not easy to pull off because it’s so obvious it’s hard to ignore the attempt to hoodwink us all. 

The movie played at this year’s South-By-Southwest festival and was well-received, winning The Audience Award.  Gyllenhaal’s performance has also garnered positive reviews, despite the fact that it dances precariously close to the border of chew-the-scenery before a subsequent scene reins him.  Moments where Davis is seen destroying things are certianly intended to illustrate how he can be in control of destruction as a reaction to his own life being destroyed; yet these scenes that are supposed to leave us exhilarated and enthusiastic merely wind up making us feel exhausted and enervated.   

Demolition (2015) on IMDb