It happens every April–movies, movies, and more movies crash into theaters and onto VOD, clamoring for attention before tentpole season begins. What to see? Besides my personal best of the year, some still playing (and one yet to open), here’s a rundown.
Musician biopics–Hank Williams (I Saw the Light), Miles Davis (Miles Ahead), and Nina Simone (Nina) have been off-key this year. Better is Born to be Blue, with Ethan Hawke more than credible as the heroin-addled Chet Baker, in an impressionistic account of the trumpeter’s comeback after dealers broke his front teeth. Such a terrible episode, necessitating him to relearn his technique, would serve as a course correction for most, but Baker is a magnet for trouble, careening despite the steadying influence of an actress (Selma‘s Carmen Ejogo) who met him on the set of an abandoned biopic about his tumultuous life. That film is a fiction, and the movie shuffles freely, and delicately, between real-life and invented episodes that gauge the measure of a difficult talent, dogged by addiction and appropriation problems. (Davis is also a character here.)
I met writer-director Robert Budreau at the Montreal World Film Festival ten years ago (that’s my comment on the DVD box art of his first feature, That Beautiful Somewhere), and his passion for music was clear. (He also directed a documentary about Bob Dylan fans.) Rather than compete with the iconography of Baker established by the documentary Let’s Get Lost (1989), Budreau and Hawke focus on the unsteady path he navigated, through discarded lovers, botched and meager career opportunities, and an unloving family, with Stephen McHattie righteously terrifying as Baker’s father. “Get out of this right now,” he advises Ejogo upon meeting her, evilly if not entirely incorrectly. Baker’s final choice is one we come to understand.
An entirely contrived meeting of unlikely personalities, Elvis & Nixon is presented by Amazon Studios, and streaming is the natural home for an extended sketch spun around a brief meeting the president and The King had in the Oval Office in 1970. The encounter was commemorated in a famed photograph, and the movie, directed by Liza Johnson (who gave Kristen Wiig a good dramatic showcase in Hateship, Loveship) and co-written by actor-producer Cary Elwes, imagines what brought them together. Alone in Graceland, and separated from Priscilla and Lisa Marie, Elvis (Michael Shannon) watches multiple TVs (one showing Dr. Strangelove) and fixates on America’s longhair-led decline. Alone in the White House, Nixon (Kevin Spacey) fumes against his enemies. The president rolls his eyes when Elvis, who with a bushel of badges given to him from friendly cops fancies himself some sort of law officer, requests a private meeting, but his advisers (including a harried Colin Hanks) figure it might be good PR. What they don’t figure is that Elvis will bring his own, gun-toting team to the sitdown, and the breakdown in protocol is good for a few chuckles. The biggest laugh comes when Elvis reveals his “secret plan” to Nixon; I’ll be streaming Spacey’s superb doubletake at the president’s disbelief. The two stars are in semi-caricature mode throughout, though Spacey leaves little doubt that he could be a great Nixon under different circumstances; Shannon is himself “doing” Presley, whom celebrity has rendered a kind of accidental performance artist, impossible for mere mortals to comprehend. (Surprisingly, he most resembles Presley when he removes his outsized glasses.) The movie forges ahead with a forgettable plot involving the sanest of Elvis’ minions (Alex Pettyfer), who needs to be in LA for a make-or-break meeting with his fiancee’s parents. But forgettable plots are why God invented fast-forwarding, and the good vibes generated by the two leads make Elvis & Nixon a modest diversion.
Captain Picard meets Ensign Chekhov in Green Room–not an Comic-Con, but in a skanky Nazi skinhead bar in the backwoods of Oregon. That it doesn’t go well is an understatement. Next weekend’s TCM Festival is getting a “Smell-O-Vision” revival of Scent of Mystery (1960)–the gimmick is unnecessary for Green Room, which reeks of flop sweat, junked furniture, cheap beer, gnarly, sweaty patrons, and the poverty of a punk lifestyle so desperate “The Ain’t Rights,” a band fronted by Anton Yelchin, are forced to siphon gas from cars to keep their decrepit vehicle on the road. It doesn’t take long for a fetid atmosphere supplemented by (intentionally) rank production design and lighting to stink of blood, savage wounds, and corpses, when the band run afoul of club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) when they accidentally stumble upon lurid transgressions. The opposite of unhinged, Darcy is a scarily reasonable villain, who, like the fierce pit bulls at his disposal, has one objective in mind–slaughtering the band members (including Alia Shawkat), then disposing of their bodies. But The Ain’t Rights refuse to play his tune, and an explosive situation plays out in tight spaces. Jeremy Saulnier, of the grim and grimy revenge indie Blue Ruin, has the money for a name cast and more elaborate prosthetic effects, yet retains that basic dog-eats-dog aesthetic for an effectively nasty survival horror movie.
Nicole Kidman–well, what can I say that I haven’t said already? Her latest, The Family Fang, should come with defibrillators, to resuscitate the boxoffice. A good actress, she goes down swinging here. Adapting a bestselling novel, David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote her Oscar-nominated turn in Rabbit Hole (and is on terra firma after the flop Poltergeist remake), has given her a choice part, as one of a pair of siblings whose performance artist parents used them as part of their trendy outrages as children. In middle age, she and her brother are at loose ends, still bearing the scars from their experiences. When their parents disappear, and are feared dead, she convinces her hostile brother (who is glad to see them gone) to search for them, which reopens wounds. She and Jason Bateman are nicely attuned to one another and generate convincing sibling chemistry, in what might have been a freewheeling family farce, the sort of show Lindsay-Abaire used to concoct Off Broadway. They’re let down, however, by Bateman the director, who in his followup to the more amusing Bad Words has made the film as beige and uninviting as Green Room, for no reason other than to demonstrate a high seriousness about material that could have slipped on a banana peel or two. It’s a strained treatment, further smothered by a gloomy Carter Burwell score. Still, there are peeks of merriment here, mostly from guest shots by a cast to fill a New York theater season, and Maryann Plunkett and the irrepressible Christopher Walken as the wayward parents. (You know the movie’s not working as it should when your sympathies are with them and not their kids.) Bonus points for Marin Ireland, as the only person in the cast allowed to smile.
Choices, choices. I wanted to see Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, but it’s down to odd showtimes in Manhattan and Warner Bros has given up on it. Paramount isn’t doing much better with Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, a title that doesn’t apply to the movie’s appeal. There are other movies scattered around but somehow I found myself at the opening day engagement of Tale of Tales, which failed to set Cannes on fire last year and is only now limping into arthouse release. I knew what was in store, and I wasn’t wrong. Tale of Tales is what happens when a director known to hit hard (Matteo Garrone, of the outstanding Gomorrah) gives himself over to the realm of the fantastic. Not nearly enough, however. This is a movie where a sea monster is killed and its heart eaten to induce pregnancy, a flea is bred to human size to thwart contestants vying for a princess’ hand (it’s complicated), an old woman has her flesh flayed to the bone to restore her stolen looks, a cannibal ogre roams the land, etc., and it’s all kind of dull, in a high-toned, no-fun zone where everyone speaks English to appeal to a wider marketplace beyond Europe. Not happening. Veteran producer Jeremy Thomas has name on some groundbreaking classics (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, The Last Emperor) and several movies no one ever wants to see a second time, not that I would throw Tale of Tales onto that pile. (The other one he has coming next month, no hesitation.) Healthily budgeted, with Sicilian castles showing off their beauty before Peter Suschitzky’s camera, it emphasizes, pleasingly, practical over digital effects, and Salma Hayek and Toby Jones get into the proper fairy tale spirit as two of the tales’ doomed monarchs. Magical it’s not, however, and what feels like an antidote to witless Hollywood fabrications like The Huntsman: Winter’s War provides little cure.
Ip Man 3, one of the year’s few foreign-language success stories, has returned on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD, if you missed it. More should have been done with it theatrically–the audience for such a film hasn’t been tapped in some time, but it exists. Not transcedent entertainment, perhaps, yet it has lots of colorfully choreographed action, that widescreen Shaw Brothers ambiance, and…Mike Tyson. The Blu-ray is a fantastic rendition, visually and sonically, with a variety of bone-shattering formats to tune into. While a 3D option absent in its US theatrical engagement would have been welcome, Well Go USA gets props once more for offering these films at a fair price, with some bonus content, too, including a making of, behind the scenes footage, and interviews with Donnie Yen and Tyson. In a crowded marketplace, there’s a guy who certainly stands out.