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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

It seems genuinely odd to be writing about a Tom Hanks film in limited release, but such is A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, a bizarre and mildly life-affirming tale of struggling American businessman Alan Clay (Hanks) circa 2010, attempting to close a big deal in Saudi Arabia that will make the newly divorced dad enough money to pay for his daughter’s college. Just before leaving for the city of Jeddah, he had to pull his daughter out of school, and it’s clearly something he’s having a difficult time dealing with. His daughter is actually fine taking a year off, and doesn’t resent her father in the slightest, but that makes little difference to Alan.

In A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, Clay is an IT expert, attempting to give a presentation to the Saudi King about his company’s state-of-the-art holographic teleconferencing system. He has a support team with him in a tent with no wifi signal and spotty air conditioning, and they all enter into a seemingly random waiting game for the King to visit, a process that may take days, weeks or even months, which wouldn’t be nearly as bad if their location wasn’t in the middle of nowhere in the desert, the site of a future city that is already under construction, but is a long way from being finished.

Because Alan is having trouble adjusting to a new sleep schedule, Alan tends to oversleep and miss the shuttle that takes his team the hour to this city in progress, so he hires a driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), who also acts as translator and great tour guide, and the two become fast friends. The surreal nature of the changing face of Saudi Arabia makes A Hologram for the King an interesting and fairly painless watch. Some of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world are being constructed, but there are still public executions once a week and women remain subjugated to a degree.

Based on a novel by Dave Eggers and adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer (CLOUD ATLAS, RUN LOLA RUN, PERFUME), the film offers Hanks the chance to play one of his most Capraesque characters in years. He’s a man on a mission, not only for his company but for his life and family’s well being. He’s also a man falling in love, in this case, with a female Muslim doctor Zahra Hakem (Sarita Shoudhury), who is helping him deal with a growth on his back. She opens his eyes to an entirely different side of Saudi culture that brings to light some of the hypocrisy and rule bending that goes on away from prying eyes. The film actually works better as a romance than it does a piece of light social commentary, and I found myself rooting more for this couple to find a way to be together than for Alan to get his contract.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING allows Hanks to be charming, easy to like, and to use some of his classic, fast-talking ways to be persuasive and talk his way into or out of anything. Like most films do, they play to the strengths of their lead actor to such a degree that you almost can’t imagine anyone else playing the role. That doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie, but at least the filmmakers are smart enough to know what they’ve been handed. I don’t use the word often, but HOLOGRAM is almost the embodiment of a pleasant experience at the movies. It doesn’t challenge your way of thinking too much, unless you have issues with Muslim characters being good people, in which case you are challenged in more ways than one. If you’re caught up and perhaps tired of your tentpole releases this weekend, this might make for a nice palate cleanser.

Writer-director John Carney has made several films over the years, but for some reason, it’s his three works about the process of creating music that have touched and stuck with people the longest, beginning with his groundbreaking film ONCE, which blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and was all the better for it. Three years ago, Carney struck a different kind of gold with the infectious and charming BEGIN AGAIN, with Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Hailee Steinfeld.

But there is something about Carney’s latest film, SING STREET, that cuts right into the heart and soul. Set in Dublin, during the 1980s, the film is about a 14-year-old boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who attempts to escape his strained family life by starting a band (called Sing Street, named after the actual street where their school is, Synge Street), with the hope of becoming good enough to move to London. He does this for the love of a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), but his journey through the various styles of ’80s music (thanks to a touching music education from an older brother played by Jack Reynor) is what sets this film apart. The boys in the band—all school mates—listen to Duran Duran, so they write a Duran-ish-sounding song; they listen to The Cure or Depeche Mode or even Hall & Oates, and they end up using elements of those artists in their original music.

As much as SING STREET excels as a trip down a very musical memory lane, the film doesn’t come across as nostalgic, especially when it comes to the time and place. The film opens with a scene involving Conor’s warring parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) letting the boy know that he has to go to a Christian Brothers school because they can’t afford his tuition any longer. The backdrop of the school’s brutality and questionable head priest makes the music more of an escape than simply a tool for future success or a way to win a girl’s heart.

SING STREET is also about the process: writing songs, conceiving and shooting videos, rehearsal, and constant music education to expand the band’s horizon. I’ve always been a firm believer that the creative process can be entertaining to witness on film, and Carney proves that as he has before. The band’s first song, “The Riddle of the Model,” is clunky and overly synthy, but there’s a spark of something really good in there. By the time you make it to their final number, “Drive It Like You Stole It,” they are as catchy as anything on the radio at the time, maybe more so.

There’s one sequence near the end of SING STREET that is a fantasy sequence/musical number that is meant to be Conor’s vision for the video for “Drive It,” but the elements and characters in the video make it clear that his ambitions with his music go far beyond being famous or well liked. It’s easy to forget how young he is, and he still holds out some hope that making it in a band will somehow fix all that is wrong in his life. He’ll get the girl, his parents will settle their differences, and those at the school who torture him will become his allies. Of course, this is a fiction, a daydream, but it adds a depth to Conor and the movie that makes it both uplifting and melancholy—something Carney seems to specialize in as well.

Leaving this film felt, to me, like Carney reached into my teenaged brain and hurled it up onto the screen. SING STREET is a joyous journey, a great love story, and a slap in the face at the establishment. But it’s also PG-13, so if you have musically inclined kids, you should absolutely take them to see this.

I hope you all get a chance to see TOO LATE, the debut film from writer-director Dennis Hauk, not necessarily because it’s a great movie—although it is quite good and, even more, it’s quite memorable—but because if you do see it, then you’ll be in one of the few remaining theaters that still projects 35mm film. Hauk shot his movie in five, 22-minute takes (with credits, it’s 107 minutes long), which is the running time of a full magazine of Technicscope 35mm film. And while this may sound like a gimmick, the technique lends an immediacy to the five sequences that editing would likely have ruined or altered and made more ordinary, and Too Late is far from ordinary.

Meant to embrace the tropes of a ’70s private detective stories set around Hollywood, the film chapters are sequenced out of order to hide a few key reveals for just the right moments. But the overall plot involves a private dick named Sampson (John Hawkes) who gets a phone call from a stripper named Dorothy (Crystal Reed), whom he met years earlier and they formed a connection that involved a non-romantic, but still quite serious love. During his search for Dorothy, Sampson effectively runs through a series of encounters that force him to take a hard look at the often seedy and damaged world he’s called home for longer than is healthy.

Sampson’s search leads him to a gangster’s mansion occupied by the likes of Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey, as well as the deeply intoxicated and mostly naked wife of Forster’s character. Perhaps the biggest discovery for me was how strong an actor Dichen Lachman (familiar to many who like Joss Whedon-created TV series) is as Sampson’s ex-girlfriend Jill, a former stripper who now runs a drive-in movie theater. They have a lengthy exchange in the final act that is so good as both a way to wrap up the story we’ve seen so far and a great stroll down memory lane for these two old acquaintances.

We actually get to witness the way Sampson and Dorothy first met in one of the middle segments of TOO LATE, and it opens up his motivation for wanting to find her so desperately. But as the title implies, we know early on that his search will be in vain. Hawkes is fantastic here, playing an absolute mess of a man, who still has the wherewithal to pull it together enough to dive into his investigation, even though Dorothy was only in his life for one night. He brings a shady type of justice to the scenario and a clarity to this mysterious story that is vital to making TOO LATE work so well. With supporting performances from the likes of Natalie Zea, Joanna Cassidy, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Hauck’s first feature is both an impressive technical achievement and a moving and gripping narrative. I’m already curious what he’s got next up his sleeve.

According to title cards that bookend the very silly and surprisingly revealing ELVIS & NIXON, the most requested photo in the National Archives is one of Elvis Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon. They also inform us that Nixon didn’t start recording the meetings in his office until shortly after this historic and mysterious exchange. I feel safe in assuming that the primary mission of writers Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes), as well as director Liza Johnson (HATESHIP LOVESHIP), is to underscore and make us laugh at the absurdity of these two figures meeting in the Oval Office in December 1970. But there’s also a quite telling story here about the nature, power and influence of celebrity.

In truth, ELVIS & NIXON isn’t really about the meeting at all. In a film that clocks in at just under 90 minutes, the two central figures don’t even meet until about an hour into the film. What this work is really about is the swirling wheelings and dealings of people in both men’s lives who somehow managed to make this sit down happen at all. Elvis (Michael Shannon) sought out an old friend, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who had left Presley’s organization to work in Hollywood and was on the brink of getting engaged to his girlfriend. But somehow he gets pulled back in to his friend’s mission to meet with Nixon (Kevin Spacey) for the express purpose of receiving some sort of law enforcement badge to help the president crack down on un-American activities in the hippie and rock community. 

If this self-appointed mission sounds obtuse, then you’re starting to get a sense of Elvis’s vague idea of how exactly he was going to help on the front lines of fighting crime, and it becomes clear after a short time that all he really wants is a federal badge of some type to add to his collection of regional sheriff badges from across the nation.

Schilling and Presley actually make it to the White House gate with a letter for Nixon requesting the meet, and the two take up residence in a Washington, D.C., hotel to await a response. The letter makes its way to Nixon’s calendar keepers, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks, in one of his funniest performances) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), who somehow get to present the idea to Nixon, who immediately rejects it until they enlist the help of one of Nixon’s daughters, who turns out to be a big Elvis fan and wants an autograph. Eventually, the meet is set during Nixon’s usually designated nap time.

Of course, the running gag of ELVIS & NIXON is twofold. In terms of the film’s story, it’s clear that Presley is beloved in a way that Nixon simply never was or could be. Everywhere that he shows up, women swoon and throw themselves at him in a way that barely phases him, while men simply take in the spectacle of his pseudo-superhero jumpsuits and custom-made sunglasses. Even high-ranking members of the FBI (represented here by the great Tracy Letts) bend over backwards to accommodate Elvis’s ridiculous requests. But the other gag is purely visual. Michael Shannon looks absolutely nothing like Elvis Presley; he looks like Michael Shannon in a Halloween costume, and that’s partly the point. If enough people in the film look at Shannon in awe, barely able to get the words out without stammering, then we start to believe the illusion.

But it’s the brief but wonderful meeting of these two delusional minds that sends the film into the stratosphere. The history, the gravitas, the importance of being in the Oval Office—they mean nothing to Elvis. He’s there on a mission that even he hasn’t thought out completely, but he’s not leaving without a badge and a crime-fighting assignment from the highest levels of government. Nixon is both amused and charmed by Presley, and before long, he starts to see (or imagines he sees) the similarities in their histories—coming up from nothing to become known around the world. The president also has a mission: get a photo with Elvis and get that autograph for his daughter.

Shannon and Spacey move around each other as only two trained theater actors do; it’s a dance, it’s about power, it’s about testing protocol and how far one can bend the expected social graces of this scenario. Even if all the behind-the-curtain material is total fiction, it remains endlessly fascinating to watch these two titans of acting simply do their thing, strut and stumble and inhabit these characters. ELVIS & NIXON is also a cautionary tale about both men, the last bit of glimmering hope before it all went to hell. The Watergate break-in was a year and a half later; and Elvis was already existing in a fantasy world that eventually led him to gluttony, loneliness and drugs. This story is set in a time when such frivolity was still possible for both men. There’s a mist of melancholy that hovers over this whole film, and that only makes it more poignant while also being quite goofy.

With an immediacy and desperation that reminded me of Two Days, One Night, the latest from director Stéphane Brizé, (A FEW HOURS OF SPRING; MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON), THE MEASURE OF A MAN, stars the superior Vincent Lindon (who won a Best Acting prize at Cannes last year) as Thierry Taugourdeau, a recently out-of-work middle-aged man looking for employment, eventually finding a dehumanizing job as a security guard at a big box store where he must continuously monitor for both shoplifters and employees trying to get a little something extra out of the store.

With a wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and mentally challenged son (Matthieu Schaller) at home, Thierry is forced to bear witness to some truly hopeless behavior. Most of those who are stealing from the store are doing so because they are in a position so similar to what Thierry was going through before he was hired that he feels terrible about each sad interrogation. The film moves from one demoralizing scene to another, from Thierry seeking employment, worried that his unemployment benefits are nearly expired, to going to interviews and interview training that make him feel foolish, to being forced to sell his beloved vacation RV near the beach and having to haggle over the price with someone trying to take advantage of his desperate status.

THE MEASURE OF A MAN is about the slow chipping away of dignity and self-respect as we get older and more fearful that our means of making a living are behind us. Lindon’s quiet, understated performance does a tremendous job letting us see just how angry and fearful someone in that position can be. By the end of the film, we know Thierry is going to do something to save his soul and as an act of protest, but we’re not quite sure what and the final act of the film is underlined with tension and anxiety. 

The film moves from scene to scene with no clear measure of how much time has passed between them, which rarely matters. And by creating this series of vignettes, director Brizé pieces together a period in a man’s life during which he hits his lowest point and struggles to rise out of it. It’s a work that generates a great deal of power and emotion from simplicity, and it features one of the more harrowing performances you’ll likely see this year.

-- Steve Prokopy
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