EncoRRRe

I first watched S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR the same way I enjoy most big-budget Indian action: alone in a near-empty AMC Elmwood theater, with no prior context and no friends to discuss it with on my exit through the lobby.  I reviewed the film with the same approach I usually take with muscles-and-explosives action flicks from Tollywood & Kollywood (films like War, Master, Karnan, Saaho, 2.0, etc.), judging it against the relatively timid payoffs of comparable Hollywood series like Fast & Furious and the MCU.  The difference is that RRR has taken off in a way none of those other films have. It’s been constantly praised in the months since that first viewing (sometimes hyperbolically, often charmingly) in every corner of online film discourse I can name.  By the time I revisited RRR for a recent episode of the podcast, I was armed with way more cultural & industrial context about what makes it so explosively entertaining, as well as what makes it politically shaky.  I still don’t fully understand why it’s the only Indian action epic that’s enjoyed such a long, prominent shelf life in Western film discourse, but I do love that one has broken through.  It would be great if others follow, at the very least so I can better understand the roided-out action media I’m used to watching alone in the dark.

The only thing that’s really helped clarify why RRR is such an international hit was seeing a more recent, mediocre entry in its genre without as much novelty or fist-pumping energy.  Shamshera is another ahistorical Indian action epic about violent rebellions against British colonizers.  That rebellion is also led by the strongest, most badass hero the world has ever seen – a man so over-praised and over-muscled he can only be compared to superheroes or gods, often in his own titular theme song.  It’s a formula you’ll see repeated dozens of times if you watch enough Indian action, and it’s one that’s always entertaining, no matter the overall quality of the film.  Watching Shamshera wield a comically huge battle axe and command an army of CGI crows against his people’s British oppressors is a familiar thrill that never loses its potency no matter how many times it scorches your eyeballs.  And yet, when compared to more deliriously over-the-top actioners like RRR & Enthiran, it’s a little lackluster.  Shamshera plays like a Bollywood studio attempting to outgun the more eccentric action coming out of South India without ever quite matching their volatile energy. It still was an entertaining trip to the movies and still highly preferable to its American contemporaries, but it’s also such a straight-forward, barebones entry in its genre that it makes RRR stand out even more in contrast.

Speaking of RRR‘s American equivalents, I continued to think a lot about the qualities I crave in Indian action flicks on my very next trip to the theater after Shamshera.  Not only is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic just as long & loud as Shamshera (a whopping 159 minutes), it’s also yet another sprawling epic that elevates a real-life historical rebel to the status of a god-like superhero.  In this case, the proto-rockstar’s superpower is making white teenagers horny, something Luhrmann conveys through on-screen comic book panels (which are also used to illustrate Shamshera‘s prologue) and the wild shrieks of teens witnessing his pElvic thrusts for the very first time.  It’s possible I was only thinking about Indian blockbusters while watching Elvis because I had revisited RRR & Shamshera within 24 hours of that screening (accounting for 6 of those very hours, combined), but it’s just as probable that they’re all pulling inspiration from the same source.  The grandeur & spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s cinema feels like a direct descendant of traditional Bollywood musicals, which both he and modern Indian action directors like Rajamouli are now warping into new, weird pop art.  I often struggle with that same attention to spectacle in American films, especially in CGI-heavy action franchises like Star Wars & The MCU.  Luhrmann’s Elvis transcends that mental barrier in a lot of ways though.  It’s maniacally tacky, and it has the most individual camera set-ups I’ve ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer production, playing more like a three-hour trailer than an actual movie.  I wasn’t even sure if I liked it until I heard someone complain “That is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” on the way out, and I found myself getting defensive.  It’s also, in its own deranged way, kind of brilliant.  Elvis delivers the exact propulsive, baffling, brain-smashing entertainment I actively seek out in South Indian action movies but find questionable in Hollywood productions, to my shame.  In a roundabout way, revisiting RRR made me eager to revisit Baz Luhrmann’s back catalog of Moulin Rouge!-style spectacles to see if I’ve just been snobbish in my rejection of their shameless, spectacular cheesiness, which I suspect is the case.

All of this is just to say that I’ve been enjoying discussing & thinking about RRR for the past few months.  Usually, I can only sustain a discussion of a similar Indian action film for a few minutes, as I try to explain how that industry is matching the delirious heights of American & Hong Kong action in their own 80s & 90s heydays to someone who could not care less about the inane words flooding out of my mouth.  Nobody was around, for instance, just one month earlier than RRR to discuss Radhe Shyam, a volatile romcom about a lovelorn palm reader who essentially gets into a fistfight with the Titanic.  Not all these over-the-top action films deserve the same level of attention & adoration as RRR, which really is an exceptional specimen of its genre, but it’s been cool to see one of these wildly entertaining action flicks break through with American audiences instead of just disappearing after a single-week theatrical run.  The continued discussion not only made me appreciate RRR even more on revisit, but it’s also helped me clarify my thoughts on other films with similar, soaring payoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

Elvis & Nixon (2016)

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In 2011, Vanity Fair broke a real-life story about Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, and Liz Taylor hopping into a car for a road trip to Ohio to escape NYC during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Yes, that really happened. Early this year, it was announced that this beyond bizarre story will be adapted as a made-for-British-TV movie, which is about the most perfect next logical step for that odd pop culture anecdote I could imagine & something I can’t wait to see. In the meantime, while we’re impatiently counting the hours until the Brando-Jackson-Taylor road trip comedy of our dreams materializes, we have a much more well-known odd pop culture anecdote to tide us over: Elvis & Nixon.

Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold.

A large part of what makes Elvis & Nixon an interesting exercise is its ridiculous casting. Despite wide cultural success on a much-watched Netflix drama, Kevin Spacey is in a weird moment of his career right now. His biggest silver screen role of 2016 is a business man who gets magically transformed into a cat so he can learn a life lesson, so his participation in this other camp delight kind of makes sense. Spacey’s Nixon impersonation is, predictably, serviceable and, although neither actor look any more like their respective historical figures than the stars of Bubba Ho-Tep, you can occasionally forget that you’re looking at a famous actor at certain moments in his performance. Michael Shannon, on the other hand, is still in the art film cycle of his career, having just starred in the brilliant sci-fi chase thriller Midnight Special, so it was amusing to see him pop up in something so goofy in a full-length role instead of a one-off cameo gag. Shannon’s Elvis is a singularly strange performance, maybe his weirdest outlier role since he played Kim Fowley in the Runaways movie.Thankfully, Elvis & Nixon knows exactly how interesting that performance is, allowing Shannon to dominate a majority of the screen time, relegating Spacey’s Nixon to a curiously small, supporting role despite what the title suggests.

Shannon plays Elvis with the weird, soft-spoken energy of a late-in-life Michael Jackson, portraying The King as an out-of-touch loner with unlimited cult of personality power. Elvis is acutely aware of how strange & eccentric he appears, intentionally leaving himself “buried under gold, jewels, and money” so that he becomes “an object” instead of a person, lost inside his own icon status & blending in with his own impersonators. Still, he’s dead serious about joining the War on Drugs and doesn’t care at all how many people he has to confuse or inconvenience to achieve that goal. Shannon’s Elvis is oddly delicate & childlike, but also a powerful force that won’t take “No.” for an answer, a perfect foil for Spacey’s much more realistic, but equally stubborn Nixon.

Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about. Why a presumably pilled-out millionaire would suddenly become so concerned about the rise of popularity of Communist leanings among hippies and attempt to stop the ways “drug culture is ruining our youth” is anybody’s guess, an avenue of inquiry the film’s barely interested in exploring. Elvis’s plan to win the war between “The Establishment” & “The Youth” is even more bizarre & seemingly half-baked once you realize he believes he can go “undercover” as a federal agent thanks to his experience in costume & disguise from his roles in dozens of feature films, despite having one of the most famous faces on the planet. How much of Elvis’s dedication to pro-Establishment/ant-drug sentiments is true to life is surely up for debate, but the movie is clearly just having fun with the absurdity of the idea, not at all dedicated to pursuing historical integrity.

Spacey’s Nixon is just one player among many (including a strange supporting cast of Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, and indie popstar Sky Ferreira) who are here to gawk at the bizarre presence of The King, with his weird little laugh, his outburst of amateur karate, and his large stockpile of firearms. Shannon plays the lowkey humor of the situation beautifully and Elvis & Nixon’s best moments are in watching the cultural icon perform simple tasks like watching television, eating a donut, and waving politely. The climactic meeting with Nixon promised in the title (and in the infamous photograph that inspired the film) is just icing on the highly unlikely, yet oddly enjoyable cake. Michael Shannon’s soft-spoken Elvis is the magic in the batter.

-Brandon Ledet