New releases: Elvis, Dick, Nina and the King of Saudi Arabia

Some of the films shown at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival are receiving immediate theatrical release. It could be purely coincidental that at the same time that President Obama is visiting the King of Saudi Arabia to establish “improved” relations, a movie is released dealing with a salesman going to Saudi Arabia to meet the same person.

Hologram for the King couldn’t have come out at a better time. With a star like Tom Hanks playing Everyman Salesman, the film will certainly draw attention. With an impressive opening scene of trick photography showing his house disappearing, then his car, then his family, then everything he knows and loves, Hanks finds himself plopped down in a tent in an empty Saudi city. Totally disoriented, he discovers his team out in a hot tent pitched on the hot sand outside the giant mansion where he is supposed to meet the King. He’s there to sell the country an advanced holographic program that miraculously brings people who are far apart next to each other in 3D.

But things go drastically wrong. His assigned driver is a weird guy who lives in the mountains and drives an old jalopy and fears it will be blown up by a jealous husband seeking revenge. Every foreign salesman there seems to be drinking and drugging when these are totally illegal. A giant empty city has been built with housing that can’t be rented. The country apparently has more money than it knows what to do with, and strange people come in and out of the story.

During a drive to the mountains to visit the driver’s family, they accidentally get on the “Muslim Only” road and stress ensues. Meeting the family, Everyman jokingly says he’s working with the CIA, which causes tensions there, and then he comes across a cache of guns. He expects the worst but discovers they are only used to shoot wolves that attack their cattle. He gains their trust by displaying his shooting skills. Hanks is asked if he would come back and support a democratic opposition, and says without thinking, Of course.

This is a strangely disorienting film, but then so must be Saudi Arabia. This is a daring stretch for Tom Hanks who must be feeling typecast from his all-American roles. Crazy things happen and there are occasional political references, impossible to avoid when the locale is Saudi Arabia. The ending is low-key and unexpected. Director Tom Tykwer, who helmed the hyper-cinematic award winner Run Lola Run, also appears to be taking a leap here.

The whole film feels as fanciful and fake as the vacant city. It was filmed in Morocco, Boston, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (I doubt much was filmed there), but the country doesn’t look very appealing. None of the lead roles employ Arab actors. The Saudi driver is played by American actor, Alexander Black. The supposed Arab woman doctor who is attracted to Hanks after treating a cyst on his back, is played by Indian actress Sarita Choudhury. Too bad they didn’t give an Arab a chance to win an Oscar.

But if you’re interested in the politics of the region, I highly recommend a free YouTube film, produced by the prolific British documentarist, Adam Curtis. His Bitter Lake tells of the clandestine 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz, onboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal, which set up relations that have lasted to this day. Remarkable forgotten history is exposed that helps explain how America got to this point in the Middle East. A mesmerizing film!

Elvis & Dick

Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon are two names you wouldn’t think to associate, but the image of their brief 1970 meeting in the White House is the most requested photograph in the National Archives. Few people know the history behind the smiling handshake, the unbelievable conjoining of two opposing constellations – Elvis, probably the most famous entertainer in the world at the time, alongside the fiercely conservative “leader of the free world” who would seemingly have better things to do than meet a pop icon. But the film explains the two main reasons this rare event took place.

The president’s team convinced him that being seen with a hero of the young generation might improve his image among the mostly hostile opponents of his reactionary policies. And secondly, they both shared a strong disdain for communism. The film portrays Elvis as a neurotic anti-communist determined to become an undercover drug agent for the Narcotics Bureau. He didn’t like the Beatles or anyone associated with drugs, LSD, marijuana and all those “hippies” – sort of a hypocritical stance considering he eventually died of a drug overdose.

Elvis and Nixon, the cinematic treatment of this curious historical event, is very effective and entertaining. Michael Shannon, with his wrinkled face and sardonic expressions, plays Elvis, and is so good that he makes you think he is the Elvis we all know, with that cherubic image and flamboyant stage attire that we associate with the King of Rock and Roll. Interestingly, Shannon recently played one of the most convincing villains in film history as the real estate schmuck in 99 Homes. Here he makes Elvis look like an ignorant fool, poking fun at his hyper-inflated sex appeal to every woman he meets, and his apparent naïveté of how government functions. Elvis seems to think he can just walk into an office and ask to get an undercover FBI badge to wear, while bragging about his unique ability to go “underground” to infiltrate the drug music culture and root out all the commies.

The film reveals many aspects of Elvis’s life during this fading period when he began to lose some of his audience appeal to groups like the Beatles and other drug-influenced bands. But how much of this really happened, especially with Nixon? Are the filmmakers having fun with this historical meeting of a pair of neurotics? The handshake picture survived, but surely the real interactions are enhanced by implying that Nixon, who at first only granted 5 minutes with the superstar, became so enamored that he called off his staff and stayed throughout his allotted daily rest time. He apparently gave in to the meeting understanding that Elvis would sign a picture for his younger daughter. Elvis in disbelief states, “You mean the other one doesn’t want one too??”

Both lead actors shine in their roles. Kevin Spacey, also known as a great impersonator, nails Nixon’s speech patterns and expressions, though makeup might have helped create Nixon’s signature “ski nose” to make it more believable. The story also focuses on Elvis’s one true friend, Jerry Schilling, who lives in L.A. and grew up with the King. Looking a bit like him, he’s his alter ego, a man fighting to be a normal husband and father, but often attracted to the glamour world that his friend thrives in. He escorts Elvis to the White House for the historic meeting. How much is real doesn’t really matter: The story and the actors have great fun playing with history, and viewers should, too.

Did the role call for “blackface”?

Another music biopic soon to be released is Nina, a narrative that’s part of a spate of new films about one of America’s seminal artists. Nina Simone was a “one-of-a-kind” entertainer. Her looks, music and behavior were so unconventional that finding an actress to capture her singularity would be nearly impossible. Unfortunately, supermodel Zoe Saldana, despite all the hype and attempts to bring this relevant story to the screen, missed the mark. Her superstar looks and slick singing style are so far from the real earthy Nina, that anyone familiar with this legendary singer will not feel her presence in the movie, despite the true story and the great songs that are remixed in the updated sound score.

As an artist associated with many social issues, racism and civil rights predominantly, Nina suffered through years of physical and mental anguish, with her bipolar emotional bouts and self-medicating by alcohol abuse. But her music was sui generis. She was a unique product of American racism and injustice, a society that would welcome your talents but reject your skin color. The film strangely steers from her heavy political statements, mostly dwelling on her relationship with her calming manager Clifton, played by the very competent David Oyelowo. He met her in a hospital during treatment for manic-depressive behavior. She sensed his strength as a nurse to help her through the challenges she continually faced in her battle with the bottle and mental illness. He was her manager for the last 8 years of her career.

It was easier to accept Michael Shannon playing Elvis as a caricature than to watch Saldana attempting to channel the nitty gritty Simone. There was much rumbling in the community about Saldana having to apply “blackface” to resemble Nina’s looks. She certainly captured Nina’s flamboyance and stylish wardrobe. Much respect goes to Saldana for lending her free time and talents in guiding youth in the areas of substance abuse and sex, however that doesn’t give her the ticket to portray one of the most important figures in American music. But maybe this will entice a whole younger generation to seek out the real Nina, her amazing repertoire of songs, many of them strongly political, such as ‘To Be Young Gifted and Black” and “Mississippi Goddam,” and her uncanny power to persevere against all odds to become one of the world’s most beloved and talented artists.

Photo: “Hologram for the King”  |  Den of Geek


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.