‘Elvis’ has left the building

Even Kevin Spacey can’t salvage this lame sitcom about a real-life meeting between a President and the King

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ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Elvis & Nixon opens with the back of President Richard Nixon’s head, as he listens to his morning briefing in the Oval Office. A few seconds later he spins around and we see Kevin Spacey, instantly realizing how, with a minimum of makeup, he is able to transform effortlessly into Tricky Dick. He’s a dead ringer.

The action then cuts to Elvis Presley, played by Michael Shannon (about a decade too old, 40 pounds too light), and that’s where we spend the next 30 minutes … sans Spacey. It’s as if Beyonce came out to sing a song and you had to spend the next half hour with Coldplay. (Oh… right.)

Screen shot 2016-04-21 at 10.56.56 AMElvis & Nixon — which, at barely 80 minutes, would be more suited for a long episode of TV — never recovers from the short tease of Spacey followed by the long reality of Shannon, woefully miscast as the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. There’s no meaningful way in which Shannon evokes Elvis. Certainly not in terms of charisma, of which he is sorely lacking. He does have intensity, but that’s a different thing than what Elvis embodied, as least as translated in Shannon’s Method-y, Less Strasberg-ish acting choices. There’s no levity, no wit. The comedy (and it is a comedy) falls totally flat. When we finally get back to Spacey, the movie is almost half over, and he simply cannot salvage it at that point.

The story is basically true; in 1970, Elvis Presley — then already beyond his chart-topping years, descending into the rattled, drugged-up state that would take his life within seven years, at age 42 — decided he wanted to “go undercover” for the Feds, acting as a kind of spy in Hollywood to rout out the pushers and dealers selling narcotics.

Of course, he didn’t need to go undercover — they were all on his speed-dial. Nope, Elvis just wanted a cool-ass badge.

The movie fails, and fails big-time, because it never posits any concrete reason why Elvis was seized by this fit of misplaced patriotism, why the badge meant anything to him. Indeed, Elvis whines to his lackeys (Alex Pettyfer, who is good; and Johnny Knoxville, who isn’t) that no one sees him, the man — they see the image he creates. That’s a lazy psychological trope of most wannabe celebrity biopics, and makes even less sense here; by its nature, a badge is precisely intended to make people see what is represents, not the person individually. It’s a damning bit of self-defeatism.

If director Liza Johnson, or Shannon, or the script (co-written by, of all people, Cary Elwes) bothered to work toward explaining this conundrum, there might have been something dramatic to latch onto; or, they could have done what Spacey does, and say, “Hey, this is a comedy — let’s overplay and have fun.” They never do. Spacey is swimming against the tide here; he hints at the caricature underneath his jowly, Nixonian tics. Shannon has no similar sense of lightness in his performance — he’s all dour self-reflection. (Maybe they should have called it Elvis or Nixon — it’s like two separate films.)

Shannon has sniffed in interviews that he carefully studied Elvis for the role, but such evidence is missing from his performance. There are a few minutes, especially from a distance, where he seems to have Elvis’ swagger, but it feels like it’s from the wrong era. The famous photo of Nixon and Elvis together reveals Elvis as already overweight and tired, his eyes hooded from drug abuse, a blank expression looking like a fleshy death mask. He’s a shell of a man, but still more attractive in the face than Shannon, with whom he shares no resemblance. Shannon barely moves his face when he speaks, other than his lips — it is like watching a serpent hiss its lines.

Director Johnson also presents a visually uninteresting piece of film for us to get lost in. The cinematography has a flat, TV-quality brightness to it, which is then edited in with archive footage of a completely different film stock that looks as if it might have been shot by Abraham Zapruder and stored under an outhouse for 40 years. The Oval Office set, especially when compared against the lush verisimilitude of Spacey’s House of Cards, looks cheap and unfinished to the point of being embarrassing.

You watch Elvis & Nixon with a peculiar blend of bemusement and disappointment, sadly wondering how so much potential for a stinging satire went so wrong, in so many ways.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 22, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘House of Cards’

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Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara in ‘House of Cards’

 

Like any normal person, I spend much of my weekend on a binge. Not alcohol or food, but just as addictive.

On Friday, Netflix released Season 2 of its hit series House of Cards, with all 13 hour-long episodes going live at once. And if you could watch just one hour and not crave the rest, you are a stronger person than I.

Season 1 came out of nowhere 54 weeks ago, leap-frogging the streaming service’s much-anticipated Arrested Development reboot by four months, and went on to win several Emmys. It deserved them; it deserved more. The series — an adaptation of a 1980s-era British show, which itself was taken from several books — is about Democrat House majority whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his Machiavellian efforts to seek revenge on the those who snubbed him for the secretary of state slot in a new administration. And, scene by scene, he takes them down until he’s finally tapped to be the new vice president.

But he doesn’t stop there.

Season 2 picks up the moment Season 1 left off. Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are adjusting to increased scrutiny, but before he’s confirmed as veep, there are a few personal matters he has to take care of. And one of those — a “holy shit!” moment that occurs late in Episode 1 — is among the most shocking developments I’ve ever seen on a TV show. It’s a game changer, and it hooks you, even more than all Season 1 did.

There are several more stunning developments throughout the ensuing chapter, involving hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality, as well as Wikileaks-ish journalism, national security and political expediency, which Frank wields like Richard III. Indeed, its biggest flaw may be that Frank’s underhandedness is so calculated, and yet so risky, it skirts the edge of nighttime soap opera in the unlikelihood he could get away with as much as he does. And he does get away with a lot.

Spacey, with his drawling, reptilian ease, is a thoroughly detestable yet charismatic anti-hero, a villain who still manages to be better than all the other villains around him. Wright’s coolness matches Spacey’s, though she seems more human, while the rest of the cast — all excellent except for the still-weak Kate Mara, whose part is diminished this season — provide able support. If you don’t have Netflix, you need it. Well, it, and a 13-hour stretch of uninterrupted “you” time.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Starvoice • 07.22.11

By Jack Fertig

CELEBRITY BIRTHDAY

Kevin Spacey turns 52 on Tuesday. The two-time Oscar winner battled gay rumors by blatantly not talking about his personal life. Apparently he had enough when he told both Playboy and Gotham magazines that he is not gay. Currently starring in Horrible Bosses, his latest cause is fighting for freedom for the people of Belarus with fellow celebs Mick Jagger and Jude Law.LEO  Jul 23-Aug 22
What’s most important to you? Being fabulous only works when it serves a deeper purpose. That’s what you need to get clearer on. When it’s all over, what do you want to be remembered for?

……………………….

THIS WEEK

Mercury and Neptune are in opposition, creating a struggle between rationality and irrational, artistic passions. Religion and atheism are articles of faith that cannot be explained or proven. Artistic appreciation is subjective. You can explain and describe how you feel about all those things especially well now, but there’s no winning any arguments there.

……………………….

VIRGO Aug 23-Sep 22
Self-criticism promotes self-improvement. Taking to heart every negative piece of crap around you is another thing. Filtering is your forte. Consider the intent behind remarks aimed at you.

LIBRA Sep 23-Oct 22
Let friends distract you from your worries, but let a few help you sort out the real problems from the pointless head trips. Helping others worse off also helps you keep perspective.

SCORPIO Oct 23-Nov 21
As your artistic vision turns to deeper directions, friends lead you to new possibilities. Let go of logic. Inspirations for your career also defy logic, but think ahead before acting on them.

SAGITTARIUS Nov 22-Dec 20
To know where you’re going you need to know clearly where you’ve been. Deep affection and new understandings are great, but don’t lose perspective.

CAPRICORN Dec 21-Jan 19
Nothing is quite right. Some mad, flashy display like a drag show or surrealist art exhibit should put you in the state of acceptance to make more intuitive connections.

AQUARIUS Jan 20-Feb 18
Sometimes you can’t even connect with your most beloved, adoring partner on what’s sexy. Relax and hold on to your self-confidence. It will pass.

PISCES Feb 19-Mar 19
When you lose track of yourself, trust your partner to tell you. Throw yourself into your work. The tasks you take greatest pride in will get you back on track.

ARIES Mar 20-Apr 19
Pay attention to details. Don’t obsess. When you find yourself losing perspective, stop and breathe. Take your work seriously, but not morbidly so. A little fun and relaxation is necessary.

TAURUS Apr 20-May 20
Change a few things around the house. If you don’t live alone, your frenetic aesthetics could be disrupting. Talk with your roommates or family members. They help you develop a plan.

GEMINI May 21-Jun 20
Family chats get very dramatic. Is your sibling helpful or a provocateur? You do need to talk, but be more careful about what you actually say. Also, be very careful to listen.

CANCER Jun 21-Jul 22
Remember what’s important. Advance ideas to provoke discussion to learn from others. Facts and figures aren’t everything, but when using them, make sure they’re accurate.

Jack Fertig can be reached at 415-864-8302 or Starjack.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas