Elvis and Nixon A Stinker Supreme

ELVIS and NIXON (2106)
Directed by Liza Johnson
Amazon Studios, 86 minutes, R (for language and insipidness)
Zero stars

Have you ever done something so stupid that you were aware of your own idiocy as you were doing it? That was my experience in watching Elvis and Nixon. I'm embarrassed that I actually viewed the entire thing. It is simply one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It is miscast, misdirected, and as broad as a mid-70s Elvis double-knit jump suit.

It depicts an event so inherently bizarre that it beggars the imagination that it actually took place. On December 21, 1970, Elvis showed up at White House gate and requested a meeting with President Nixon. He told startled guards to call him Jon Burrows because he was "working undercover," and that his reason for wanting to see the president was so he could obtain a Bureau of Narcotics badge to give him "credibility" in fighting the war on drugs. If that strikes you as weird, what does it say about the Nixon administration that his request was granted? Picture it—Elvis enters the White House in sunglasses, a purple cape, a gold belt the WWF would have deemed too garish, and bearing a gift of a commemorative Colt-45 for the president. You read it right: Elvis brought a gun to the White House. Yet he got to spend QT with Nixon, hugged the president, and got his badge. That makes Nixon nuttier than a Payday.

Elvis probably had some big holes in his own marbles bag by then. He possessed an arsenal of guns, a growing collection of badges he cadged from various local law enforcement agencies, and harbored the delusion that he personally could wean Woodstock Nation from its use of controlled substances. His marriage to Priscilla was strained and was about to go on the rocks, and let's not forget the Jon Burrows thing. Did Elvis actually imagine that he could simply change his name and that he'd be able to go undercover? As if.

He was also incredibly vain by then. Elvis was insanely jealous of the popularity of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones because they were more popular with young people. Those same teens and young adults increasingly viewed Elvis as a nostalgia act. Worse still, this meant that Elvis' audience was increasingly double wide middle aged women seeking to relive the 1950s. Despite recent comeback tours, Elvis wasn't growing as an artist, which is the slippery slope to Gabor-Kardashian Syndrome—being famous for being famous. Elvis was just a few years removed from being a cheesy, bloated Vegas spectacle. In a tragically ironic twist, Special Agent Burrows would also spiral downward from drug use.

You've probably noticed I've not said much about the film. It doesn't warrant saying much, but here goes. When you have material as juicy as this, you could do one of two things: direct a searing psychological drama or go for camp. Director Liza Johnson veers toward the latter but doesn't have the skill to make a film bad enough to become a cult classic. The end result is directorial slop that makes Ed Wood look like an auteur.

Michael Shannon as Elvis is the worst case of miscasting since Marlon Brando played a Mexican in Viva Zapata! I sat in jaw-dropping stupor from Shannon's embarrassing ineptitude. He sported, for starters, the most obvious bad toupee I've ever seen. Second, Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis and his affected mannerisms were so forced that were you to see such a clod at a bar lounge you'd exclaim, "Worst Elvis impersonator ever!" I'm surprised Shannon got work after this misadventure. Kevin Spacey doesn't look much like Nixon either, but he's such a pro that he inhabits his character. He's the only thing worth watching. The rest of the cast manages to make it through without drooling, but they're just playing 1970s dress-up.

In Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl, the character Elliot Garfield described his acting effort as "Capital P, capital U, capital TRID." I can think of no better way to describe Elvis and Nixon. What was I thinking?

Rob Weir


Quiles and Cloud: April 2017 Album of the Month

April 2017 Album of the Month

Cajuns use the word lagniappe (LAN-yap) to describe a small gift thrown in as a bonus. Compass Records recently did this for me. I requested a review copy of another Compass artist, which is very good. But they also threw in a download for Quiles and Cloud and it's safe to say that I adored Shake Me Now. If you're wondering about the band's agnomen, it's a combo of the last names of Maria Quiles (vocals/guitar) and Rory Cloud (guitar/vocals). The band also includes bass player Oscar Westesson.

The title track is indicative of how the trio approaches its material. The appellation suggests a song that rocks, but this is not that sort of record. The group has won a few bluegrass awards, but genre wise, Shake Me Now rests in the seam where folk, bluegrass, jazz, and Americana overlap. The group doesn't try to shake anyone— the effect is more like being swaddled in velvet. If I had to classify this record I'd say it's like Appalachian music without the twang and with its raw edges smoothed and soothed. Quiles and Cloud can ratchet the excitement when need be, as on "Black Sky Lightning," the opening track that hooked me, but it's the soft side that really highlights how special they are. As Alasdair Fraser often observes, most reasonably talented musicians can play fast, but you have to be really good to play slowly. And sometimes that's the best route for bringing home a song's essence. Check out the tender "Mississippi River," which makes you want to join the vocalists as they drift away from dull care. Think you know the Dylan song "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere?" Check out what Quiles and Cloud do with it and you might conclude you've never really heard it before. Maria Quiles has a voice that bathes you in gentleness, even when she comes at you strong, and her close harmonies with Cloud are a thing to behold. "Faded Flowers" is a particularly fine example of this, plus it's another beautiful heart-tugger.

The warmth of the vocals is skillfully contrasted with and integrated into Rory Cloud's robust flat-picking, Quiles' rhythm guitar, and Westesson's standup bass, which he sometimes bows to provide resonant bottom and atmospheric ambience. This winning formula is used on the trio's thoughtful mix of originals, covers, and traditional songs. Of the last, there is a delightfully restrained version of "Worried Man Blues," a jazzy, finger-popping take on "Feelin' Good," and a version of "Deep Ellum Blues" that's simultaneously countrified, soulful, and haunting. My only complaint is that this San Francisco-based trio won't be anywhere near me in 2017. But I'm eternally grateful to Compass for the best lagniappe I've received in quite some time.

Rob Weir




Reliving the Oscars on Video


If you didn't get to see the films that won Best Picture at the Oscars, don't despair—unlike big-screen cotton candy like La La Land, both Moonlight and The Salesman will work well on your television set.

As you probably know, Oscar presenters mistakenly announced that La La Land had won as Best Picture. Glad that error was caught, because Moonlight (A24 Pictures, 111 minutes, R) is by far the superior picture. It's a Hollywood rarity as a prizewinner: an all-black cast with a black director, Barry Jenkins. Is it a "black" film? Yes and no. It certainly deals with the poverty, addiction, and diminished life circumstances within inner-city ghettos populated by people of color, but it's also about role models, father figures, LGBT issues, and—to paraphrase Langston Hughes—what happens to deferred dreams. Jenkins centers his film on Chiron and unveils his life in three parts: "Little," "Chiron," and "Black." Within this structure we move from idealism to harsh reality to hedonism and (perhaps) a search for redemption.

We first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a skinny boy in Miami's Liberty City. He is picked upon by bigger kids for his bookish ways and shyness so severe that he is literally tongue-tied when he flees a gang seeking to beat him up and is found wandering by Juan (Mahershala Ali). Director Jenkins cleverly twists white morality tales in which a character with a rough exterior turns out to have a heart of gold. Juan really is a bad dude—a drug dealer who packs heat and commands deference in the 'hood. But Juan is also the father that "Little" lacks. Chiron lives with single mom Paula (Naomi Harris), who works hard but also does crack and has a string of boyfriends, each less appropriate than the predecessor. By contrast, Juan is partnered with Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a true ghetto angel whose home is one of linen, clean sheets, and home-cooked meals. Through Juan and Teresa, Little dares to dream; he even cultivates a friendship with Kevin (Jaden Pinder).

In Part Two, Chiron's dreams soar and are shattered. As a youth, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is still skinny and his aspirations have taken psychological and physical beatings. His is a world of unexpected intimacies, betrayals, and violence. By the time we meet Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) again in "Black," he is a ripped physical dynamo living a perverse American Dream and filled with self-loathing. Can Teresa, his mother, and/or Kevin (André Holland) help him find redemption?

If you think recent movies are lame, Moonlight will restore your faith. You would have to search long and hard to find a negative review of this gem. Jenkins should have won Best Director—no one else had the chutzpah to build a trilogy in less than two hours, construct distinct narratives, and direct three sets of actors—all for $1.5 million. Ali won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but his was just one of uniformly brilliant performances. It's just a matter of time before we start thinking of Ms. Monáe as an actress first and a singer second. All three Chirons are superb, James Laxton's cinematography is stunning (check out what he does with cool color and mixed film stock), stereotypes tumble, and somehow—in the midst of varying levels of despair—we brush elbows with a deeper humanity.

The Best Foreign Film Oscar went to The Salesman (Memento Films, 124 minutes, PG-13). I still think Iceland's Rams was better picture, but it's hard to begrudge anything done by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past). I constantly marvel over how he gets work past mullah censors. This film is in Persian with English subtitles, but you'll recognize parts of this play-within-a-film as it concerns a husband/wife team rehearsing Death of a Salesman while a real-life domestic tragedy/drama unfolds outside the theater.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a modern, magnetic, and commanding teacher and director set to play the role of Willy Loman. Problems emerge when he and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) must vacate their apartment when a nearby construction project destabilizes the building. Luck is with them when fellow cast member Babak (Babak Karimi) offers an apartment whose previous occupant suddenly left. Strangely, though, Babak is vague about who she was or why she left her things behind. Matters take an ominous twist when Rana is accosted while bathing. The assault on Rana reveals Emad to be less progressive than we first supposed. He becomes obsessed with finding the man who did this— not because Rana was terrified and bloodied, but because of the stain on his honor.

This is a film about humiliation, obsession, patriarchy, revenge, assumptions, and masculinity. Farhadi deftly interweaves themes from Death of a Salesman and we begin to see Emad as akin to Willy in being stuck on the wrong side of social change. Emad's descent into revenge fantasies soon wearies his theater colleagues, especially Babak—whom Emad goes off script to insult— and Kati, a single mother whose sympathies are with Rana. Is Emad a symbol for Iran's theocratic rulers—cruel, self-righteous, and mired in out-of-date values? One wonders if Farhadi has pulled the wool over mullah eyes by cleverly immersing such implications within a mystery and its bathetic resolution. Has Emad become Willy—a man in pursuit of illusions and living in a bygone world? Does his definition of morality parallel Willy's antiquated values?

Farhadi likes to personalize clashing worldviews, often placing them within domestic settings. His is also a masterful microcosmic look at the pull of tradition versus the push of secularization. Is it also a veiled critique of Islamic fundamentalism? You don't have to imagine the film in this light, as it's dramatic in its own right. Part of the puzzle centers on the identity of the mysterious previous apartment tenant. Pay attention to who is drawing on the walls early on, as I think it's a clue. But Farhadi's forte—and maybe the reason he gets to take surprising liberty—is that he only reveals part of what he's thinking and leaves the rest for viewers to contemplate.

Rob Weir