I say 3/8 because I only last 45 minutes. When a plot is so formulaic, not to say stupid, you count on enjoyable performances to keep you interested. Unfortunately, the all-star cast was as flat and unconvincing as the plot. Sandra Bullock is a fine actress, but a compulsively criminal mastermind she is not. Cate Blanchett is rarely my favorite, and her shaggy hairdo, a la Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, did not a character make. Little spark anywhere, lot of absurdity everywhere.
The King tells a story of America over the last 60 years using the life of Elvis Presley as its metaphor. From an era of innocence and authenticity and world-shaking change, we progress, or regress, to bloated stagnation with money the only goal, from Tupelo to Las Vegas. But director Eugene Jarecki doesn’t preach; he lays out a visual and musical buffet from which the viewer can pick and choose and to which, I suspect, one could return for seconds. I have been a diehard Elvis fan since 1955, so the shots of him performing “Don’t Be Cruel” and talking with his eyes twinkling would have almost been enough for me. The social commentary by Elvis scholars and critics added a second, provocative layer. Another thread was the musical vignettes, with performers, often obscure to me, singing in the backseat of Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce. Without any announcement, they covered the spectrum of music that colored America around Elvis: the blues, country, Americana, rock, surf, gospel, torch, even early hip-hop. The car itself was a character: it helped tell the story as it drove from Tupelo to Memphis to Nashville to New York to Hollywood to Vegas. Jarecki, too, appeared on camera, never obtrusive but enough to offer us a way into the picture. There were talking heads who didn’t have obvious connections to Elvis or music – Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers, Van Jones, Ethan Hawke – but again expanded the movie’s horizon beyond specialists. In the background, archival clips reminded us of what else was going on: Martin Luther King, Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, juxtaposed with flashes of Donald Trump and the 2016 election. When Elvis, in a final performance, lets loose on “Unchained Melody,” we don’t know whether to believe there is still power and life in the mess we’ve made, or whether this is the last extravagant bloom for a hemorrhaging society.
This could be viewed as a film about the PTSD of Vietnam veterans, a father-daughter relationship or social communities, but I admired it most for the coming-of-age performance by Thomasin McKenzie, a wonderfully ingenuous New Zealand actress. She seemed to grow up as she moved from the forest to living with others, even while her father couldn’t change. After reading the brilliant novel, “Yellow Birds,” I wasn’t surprised by the father’s inability to cope with society, but it still seemed rather a stretch to believe he could survive and raise his daughter on a diet of foraged mushrooms. But as I’ve said, concerns about the plot – and I had many – took a back seat to the pleasure of watching Tom.
Whether you think “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was warm and fuzzy or vapid and cloying will determine your reaction to this movie, which faithfully recounted the career of Fred Rogers and his unique view of television. Regardless of your view, and I lean toward the latter camp, the film does make one wonder if kids are inherently attracted to pie-throwing and violence; or if not, has children’s television had such an influence? Of course, we should all agree that more portrayals of niceness and goodness would be beneficial, but I’d rather they come with the art and intelligence of Sesame Street.
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