Movie Review: “Elvis & Nixon”


Elvis & Nixon (2016, 86 minutes)

A less likely film meeting between a pair of larger-than-life characters you would be hard-pressed to find. But the real encounter between rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Aaron Presley and President Richard Milhous Nixon really did occur in December of 1970. The acorn from which this gnarly oak quickly sprouted came from the seldom explored mind of Presley when he decided enough was enough. This country was going straight to hell, reckoned Elvis, with all these hippies ingesting copious amounts of dangerous drugs. To help clean up this mess, Presley decided to volunteer his services as an undercover narcotics agent for the federal government.

To accomplish this lofty goal, why not go directly to the most powerful man in the world? When this meeting was actually proposed to the president by White House staffer Egil “Bud” Krogh, the president said something to the effect of, “Why the bleep would I want to talk to that guy?!!” Nixon was persuaded it might help him with the youth vote in the upcoming 1972 election. To think that Nixon could ever corral “the youth vote” had to have been suggested by someone who had never spoken often to youth of any stripe.

Against his better judgment, Nixon (played affably with a minimum of “harumph” by Kevin Spacey) is convinced to meet the ’50s rock icon by his younger daughter, Julie Nixon, who does not appear on screen. All she wants is an autographed photo of Elvis. Dolled up in his best Las Vegas ensemble, which includes a solid gold belt, a foot wide in the front and worthy of a World Wrestling Federation champion, Elvis (Michael Shannon) manages to get inside the White House to meet the man at the top. Although Shannon neither looks nor sounds anything like Elvis, his portrait comes straight from the heart.

Who knows how accurately the collision of American cultural titans is portrayed in this picture directed by Liza Johnson? Unlike Watergate yet to come, no smoking-gun tapes exist from the real event. Elvis surprised the president by showing him a few of his favorite karate maneuvers, and made it clear that all he wanted from this meeting was an undercover G-man’s badge to help fight the war on drugs. It’s something he might have acquired with less trouble by searching the backsides of different cereal boxes.

By the end of the affair, Nixon and Elvis have become, dare it be said, pretty tight. It’s a movie that may have you chuckling to yourself as you emerge from the cinema, and who would have ever thought that would happen, particularly if you’re old enough to have lived through the quicksand-like scandal that would soon bring this same president to his knees.

—Jud Cost

Movie Review: “Miles Ahead”


Anyone expecting the buttoned-down Miles Davis from the late-’50s/early-’60s period, the days with John Coltrane as his tenor sax player and Gil Evans as his arranger on larger works, is in for a big shock with the era selected by director Don Cheadle for this long-anticipated Davis biopic. It’s the late ’70s, and Davis hasn’t played live in a while. Some interested parties want to know: What’s he been up to lately?

A Rolling Stone freelancer comes knocking on the door of Miles’ NYC apartment to find out and gets punched in the nose by the jazz trumpet legend before he can explain why he’s here. It’s an angrier, freakier, long-haired version of Miles Davis he’s faced with, rather than that guy in the Brooks Brothers suit, lighting a cigarette on various LP sleeves. The only vestige from quieter days is Miles’ raspy speaking voice, the result of not maintaining a period of silence after minor throat surgery. As if.

Davis (Cheadle) drags Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) inside, and the hapless journalist is immediately dragooned into service as Miles’ driver/flunky to help him recover a large can of tape from a recent studio session that’s fallen into the wrong hands. It’s a big deal, since Miles apparently hasn’t recorded in years, and various greedy record-industry types look upon this as his possible “big comeback.” Lots of crockery is broken when Miles’ sweetie/LP cover girl Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) enters the picture, giving the story, at times, an updated ’50s sitcom kind of feel. Everything but the rolling-pin on the noggin.

Davis, whose quintet/sextet releases with either Coltrane or Wayne Shorter on tenor, as well as his epic 19-piece, big-band excursions charted by Evans, serve as undeniable proof the trumpet legend always had his ears open for the next big move. His quintet headlined a few Fillmore gigs in the early ’70s for Bill Graham, with the Grateful Dead relegated to the under card. All that aside, Miles Ahead—its title taken from a superb 1957 collaboration with Evans that has Davis playing flugelhorn rather than trumpet—flew by like the midnight express. It will remain imbedded in your brain like that mesmerizing, nine- and 10-note riff from Kind Of Blue‘s “So What.” Anyone with a whit of interest in Davis’ career would miss this movie at his or her own peril.

—Jud Cost

Movie Review: “Burnt”


As a public service, MAGNET occasionally feels obligated to issue a “crap alert” to warn citizens of a recent movie that might prove dangerous to their mental health. Consider this an ongoing form of vaccination to prevent a potentially hazardous film-going experience.

One can only guess this “comedy” was meant to be aimed at the “foodie” audience. When a new film stars Bradley Cooper, pretty much the leading man of his semi-generation, and the movie turns out to be a real stinkeroo, it’s imperative to get the word out before too many of the unwary wander into the clutches of Burnt. Directed by John Wells with wooden dialog by Steven Knight, this one smells of leftover lasagna after the power’s been cut off to the fridge for a week. If you didn’t score a free pass, guess what: You’ve been “burnt.”

Cooper, whose career has been nothing but net recently (American Sniper, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) completely swallows the peach pit on this one as Adam Jones, a hotshot American chef who spends all of his time being his own worst enemy. Due to an out-of-control drug habit, he’s already blown his gig at a cutting-edge restaurant in Paris. And now he’s talked his way into running the kitchen of an upscale new eatery in London, owned by Tony (Daniel Bruhl, much wimpier here than his portrayal of Formula One race driver Niki Lauda in 2013’s Rush).

Jones excels at creating those tortured little nouvelle cuisine meals that resemble a photo from Creative Gardening magazine that should be presented on tea saucers rather than dinner plates. And he spends most of his time in the kitchen screaming at his line staff and throwing crockery against the wall. This boorish behavior is meant to suggest the chef is unhappy with whatever it is they’re doing (or not doing) that stands between him and that coveted third star from the esteemed Michelin restaurant guide.

Despite Jones’ non-stop boorish behavior, one of the lead girls from his staff, Helene (Sienna Miller, who played the wife of Cooper’s lead character, Chris Kyle, in American Sniper) still loves the guy. You might be able to believe she could fall for this big bully, but in the end, Cooper’s overwrought, cardboard cook lies on the kitchen floor like a filet mignon that’s been run over by a delivery truck.

—Jud Cost

Movies Of Today: “Mistress America”


I saw Mistress America as one of a crowd of eight this week. Before the film, starring Greta Gerwig and directed by Noah Baumbach, was halfway through, the audience had been thinned out to only four. It’s shocking to admit I was almost one of their number, since I’d been counting the days until Mistress America‘s arrival. But just like that, as Jackie Wilson once put it, “Disappointment was my closest friend.”

I loved Frances Ha, the 2013 movie that also featured Gerwig and was directed by Baumbach (and was also co-written by both) with a similar “non-story” line to that of Mistress America. An upbeat woman of about 30 comes up with one crackpot scheme after another as she shuffles around the insider haunts of Manhattan where she’s known and adored by just about everyone. The most memorable sequence in Frances Ha found our girl strutting across an NYC street, stumbling awkwardly on the far curb, then resuming her triumphant gait as though nothing had happened.

Change the Gerwig character’s name from Frances to Brooke, and add Tracy Fishko (the excellent Lola Kirke) as a college freshman whose mother is about to marry Brooke’s dad. Then double the dialog load spoken by Brooke, and everything starts to wobble out of control. Brooke just won’t shut up. What once was quirky and endearing has become tedious, almost to the point of requiring over-the-counter pain meds. I looked at my watch (never a good omen) and realized we still had 50 minutes to go in a damaged feature that clocked in at a scant 87 minutes to begin with. Beads of sweat began to pop out on my forehead.

Mistress America falls flatter than a Macy’s balloon the day after Thanksgiving with an overly stagey sequence where Brooke and Tracy visit the posh residence of Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Once Brooke’s pal, Mamie-Claire is now an arch-enemy who stole, then married Brooke’s one-time boyfriend. Brooke has come to ask Mamie-Claire’s husband to help finance a restaurant that everyone knows will never happen. “Aren’t those my cats?” Brooke demands of Mamie-Claire in the funniest moment from a clunky scene that only tightens the screw-top lid on this disappointing vintage.

—Jud Cost

Movies Of Today: “The Water Diviner”


Whether he’s ducking friendly fire from the LAPD in a rundown motel in L.A. Confidential, fighting for his life with a short sword and a shield in Gladiator or creaming three Greek soldiers with a cricket bat in current post-World War I epic The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe hardly ever loses his cool. It’s his ace in the hole as one of the finest actors of our time, this ability to keep his head when everyone around him is going ballistic. Crowe’s understated work here is reminiscent of the most heroic moments of John Wayne (True GritRio Bravo).

A few years after the end of WW I, the wife of Joshua Connor, overcome with grief by the loss of her three sons at the battle of Gallipoli in 1915, drowns herself in a pond. Connor (Crowe) swears he will bring the bodies of his boys back home and bury them beside their mother. The Aussie farmer possesses an uncanny ability to find water in the wilderness, a knack that will soon come in handy.

After arriving in Turkey, Connor meets Ayshe (Olga Kurylenkov), the proprietor of his Istanbul hotel, whose husband has also died at Gallipoli at the hands of the ANZAC troops. And he encounters Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), whose Turkish forces were responsible for taking the lives of Connor’s boys. Now working to identify the remains of the Gallipoli campaign, Hasan becomes an unlikely ally in Connor’s mission.

Crowe’s excellent directorial debut is an effective portrayal of the grisly side of what was once known as “the war to end all wars.” And, much like Saving Private Ryan, a World War later, it is highlighted by one man’s attempt to complete a Herculean task that seems well nigh impossible.

—Jud Cost

Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”


As a public service, MAGNET occasionally feels obligated to issue a “crap alert” to warn citizens of a recent movie that might prove dangerous to their mental health. Consider this an ongoing form of vaccination to prevent a potentially hazardous film-going experience.

The measured pace of the first 15 minutes of Kingsman: The Secret Service might lead you to hope this might be an updated James Bond in the making. Its excellent cast includes Colin Firth as Harry Hart, the Kingsman agent who takes an interest in the son of a fellow spy who is killed in action. The shtick, a real groaner here, is that each agent assumes the code name of a knight of the round table with Hart as Galahad. Michael Caine grinds out a few minutes as Arthur, Kingsman’s CEO, and Mark Strong is Merlin, second in command. The early tip-off to the foul odor that will completely engulf this two-hour stinker (and those who sit through it) long before the credits roll is the appearance of the son of Hart’s fallen comrade. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin is played by Taron Egerton, a pretty boy who looks something like a pudgy Channing Tatum and spouts a clumsy British working-class accent that betrays the fact Egerton hasn’t a shred of acting talent. He couldn’t play a lamp post if they screwed lightbulbs into both ears. By comparison, Channing Tatum is Laurence Olivier. If they awarded platinum ingots for totally miscasting a usually excellent player, Samuel L. Jackson, as Richmond Valentine, the most pleasant “bad guy” in recent memory, would leave Donald Trump with nothing to wear but a wooden pickle barrel with two shoulder straps. Kingsman reaches its putrescent apex with 50 minutes left to tick off while peeking at your watch, when an entire church full of bigoted Kentucky rednecks is massacred, one by one, by Hart. Apparently, the Brits still haven’t caught on that the greatness of America lies not in the murder of those with repulsive points of view, but in its legal protection of such mean-spirited speech. Which goes to show why even lumpy gruel like Kingsman: The Secret Service can be found in American cinemas everywhere.

—Jud Cost

Movies Of Today: “Palo Alto”

Just to prove that our grizzled movie guy Jud Cost doesn’t spend all his time squinting at old Harold Lloyd silents or grimy b&w film noir for our Vintage Movies series, here’s proof that he does watch new movies, too. Not only that, but he’s pretty sure he actually liked this one and maybe wants to recommend it to you.


Palo Alto (100 minutes)

Palo Alto played yesterday at the local art house, and my reaction to it was as confused as the lives of most of the kids depicted in the movie. It’s the newest noble attempt to make the high school film of its time. And, like the characters here, it’s difficult to make up your mind about how well it succeeds. For one thing, these feel like real kids, not just actors. You go through a roller coaster of emotions as you watch “current” teenagers experiencing the same old list of things to do—or not do—mostly at night: sex, drugs, booze, bad parties, smoking, reckless driving, bullying, vandalism. It’s all still there, just dressed a little differently than when you were in school.

April, portrayed by Emma Roberts, is a virgin who plays on the soccer team and trains for her sport by knocking off a pack of coffin nails everyday. Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who thinks he may like April, is basically a decent kid who gets caught in the legal fallout from the seriously bad behavior of his best buddy, Fred (Nat Wolff), a borderline misogynist. The unspectacular way things unfold here brings back the car rides you shouldn’t have accepted with some fucked-up person behind the wheel. Or the marijuana laced with something nasty you shouldn’t have smoked that made you think you were going to die. And that was you who vomited all over the interior of your “new” second-hand VW beetle and then had to stagger out to the driveway at 4 a.m. to hose down the car, inside and out, so your mom wouldn’t see (and smell) the damage when she got up early next morning to read the paper.

One thing is certain about the debut work of 27-year-old director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of the man everybody called “Frankie,” according to a friend who once wrote music for the imposing film director in Marin County). She’s created something that is utterly plotless. Like the way teenage life, itself, comes at you, it’s just a series of random events, some forgettable, some kinda lame and others even worse. James Franco wrote a book of short stories about his home town (Palo Alto) that shaped the movie’s script. But with no specific Palo Alto locales, this could have been shot anywhere. Franco plays Mr. B, a soccer coach who’s becoming attached to April. You root for her not to do it with him, but she succumbs anyway. If you’re looking for something that kinda explains the high school years of the social networking crowd, the same kids you’re always badmouthing for staring into their iPhones instead of talking to one other, this one will help explain things about as well as anything—whatever the hell that means.

Movie Review: “Noah”


As a public service, MAGNET occasionally feels obligated to issue a “crap alert” to warn citizens of a recent movie that might prove dangerous to their mental health. Consider this an ongoing form of vaccination to prevent a potentially hazardous film-going experience.

In a moment of post-Oscar desperation, I saw Noah yesterday at the local art house. It was way too long, with a few interesting moments, but not nearly enough to justify spending two-and-a-half hours of your life wading through it. Shot mostly in dim light in Iceland by Darren Aronofsky, it makes the volcanic landscape appear almost alien. I always appreciate Russell Crowe, but he was pretty one-dimensional in this one as Noah. Lots of mud in the face mixed with plenty of snot and sweat from the manual labor necessary to build a boat about the size of a modern cruise ship full of norovirus. That’s in stark contrast to his three young sons whose coifs and facial hair always appear to be freshly barbered. And the ladies, including Noah’s wife (Jennifer Garner), who manage to add touches of runway couture (scarves tossed over bias-cut necklines) to their simple garments. Even the bible-belters will have a tough time swallowing the part where Noah and his family are taken under their collective wing by a couple dozen 30-foot tall “watchers,” who, it says here, were once angels who failed in their mission and were turned into “rock people” by the Big Guy. Nobody utters the Thing’s signature line, “It’s clobbering time!” but who knew God worked for MARVEL comics back then? These protectors are now clumsy (but likable) behemoths who pulverize any of the hordes of bad guys aiming to sabotage Noah’s mission, which he interprets as exterminating the last of the human race, including his family, after saving all the planet’s lovable lower species from the deluge in his wooden ark. I would have re-named the movie Power Trip: It’s Not Easy Being Dad and found a place, maybe, for Adam (the name works here) Sandler to lighten things up just a bit. Wonder if the cool new pope has anything to say about this one. Utterly missable, says I.

—Jud Cost

Movie Review: “Transformers: Dark Of The Moon”

As a public service, MAGNET occasionally feels obligated to issue a “crap alert” to warn citizens of a recent movie that might prove dangerous to their mental health. Consider this an ongoing form of vaccination to prevent a potentially hazardous film-going experience.

I took my grandson Nathan, a 14-year-old who must appear directly in this movie’s marketing crosshairs, to see Transformers: Dark Of The Moon yesterday. I was well aware how bad the first two Transformers stunk up the joint critically. But actually being there, cowering as a horde of giant robots crushed each other and tossed humans around like dandelions on the front lawn, was a brain-shriveling experience I won’t want to repeat. Next time around, director Michael Bay might think about omitting the human “actors” altogether. A script? Not really necessary. Get right down to the metallic carnage to cut at least an hour off this baby. Come on, is (not-so) pretty boy Shia LaBeouf (or a wax facsimile thereof; hard to tell) skittering around a trashed Chicago, looking stressed, supposed to be someone kids can identify with? Unh-uh. As for underwear model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (the new babe who replaces Megan Fox from the first two TFs), she’s so lifeless she makes LaBeouf (at least six inches shorter than Rosie) look like Laurence Fucking Olivier by comparison. Close-ups of Rosie’s botoxed face give the impression her “lips” were just smashed by a very large brick. And what were old troupers Frances McDormand, John Turturro and John Malkovich doing here? Answer: a bunch of capital S’s with two lines drawn down the middle. The final, excruciatingly loud, battle sequence with the good giant robots swinging CGI haymakers at the bad giant robots must have clocked in at a staggering 50 minutes. You are praying it will stop about 10 minutes in, but you’ll be looking at your watch at least 15 more times before it’s over, pal, with a migraine percolating. When the credits finally rolled, it felt like an ambulance attendant had slapped those two electric things onto your chest that bring you back to life. By then, you may want to ask the guy to, please, just leave you alone. Death, where is thy sting? Final verdict: Nathan thought the movie was just “OK,” certainly not what the suits in the board room of the Transformers franchise wanted to hear.

—Jud Cost

Movie Review: “Valley Of The Heart’s Delight”

As a public service, MAGNET occasionally feels obligated to issue a “crap alert” to warn citizens of a recent movie that might prove dangerous to their mental health. Consider this an ongoing form of vaccination to prevent a potentially hazardous film-going experience.

Why bother reviewing a movie released in 2006, four years after the fact? Apparently, Valley Of The Heart’s Delight was shown at a San Jose film festival as a work-in-progress in ’06, got lousy reviews from the attendees and was subsequently “fixed” by adding new music and a different opening-credit sequence. Or so they thought. Better they should have tossed the entire production into the nearest roaring fireplace. It’s hard to believe this movie could ever have been much worse than it is now. You and a couple of your friends could have done better without any film-school training. But there it was, for a short run last week at San Jose’s Camera 3, playing before crowds that could have fit into a large phone booth.

At one point, Heart’s Delight must have seemed like a can’t-miss proposition. It’s a retelling of San Jose’s darkest hour, when two suspected kidnappers and murderers of the son and heir of the owner of Hart’s department store were seized from the local jail by an angry mob and lynched in nearby St. James Park in 1933. What could possibly go wrong with turning this into a low-budget blockbuster? Where do you start? How about amateurish, hamfisted directing by Tim Boxell in his maiden feature-film effort? You’d expect more from somebody who cut his teeth on a couple of made-for-TV movies. A lousy, cliche-ridden script from Miles Murphy gets laughs in all the wrong places by tacking on a painful love “interest” between the two leading characters. Hiro Narita’s murky camera work gives this the feel of Super 8 film in somebody’s backyard. And the editing job appears to be a random sequence of unconnected events.

The use of vintage, Depression-era automobiles, driven very slowly, screams out, “If any of these cars comes back with so much as a scratch, our budget is screwed!” They’ve even managed to forfeit any historical interest here by changing all the names of the characters and tacking on a flimsy “they hanged the wrong guys” sub-plot. Every 10 minutes the script calls for somebody, for no apparent reason, to refer to what’s now known as Silicon Valley as “the valley of heart’s delight,” usually in front of a chamber-ofcommerce billboard extolling the virtues of, you guessed it, “the valley of heart’s delight.” We get it, we get it.

And then there’s the acting. Every scene (and there are plenty) with Gabriel Mann (as cub reporter Jack Daumier) making goo-goo eyes at Emily Harrison (as Helen Walsh), the well-heeled sister of the murder victim, reminds you of the worst high-school play you’ve ever seen. Their onscreen chemistry is the sound of two department-store mannequins colliding. How somebody managed to rope respected character actors Bruce McGill (D-Day from Animal House) and Pete Postlethwaite (recently seen as a scary crime boss in The Town) into this fiasco is anybody’s guess. Is blackmail too strong a word?

Boxell and Co. even manage to sleepwalk here through what should have been the climactic scene, the lynch mob in the park, filming it without any sense of anarchy or danger. It feels more like a San Jose State fraternity prank, a Friday night TP-ing of the sorority next door, than a horrific act of lawlessness. The film’s long-anticipated final scene shows a pregnant Helen Walsh and dad-to-be Jack Daumier, sitting by the fireplace, vowing to name their baby “whether it’s a boy or a girl” after her dead brother. It could have been worse. Somebody cut the part where Lassie trots in with a string of newborn pups and everybody laughs.

—Jud Cost