If you know in advance that writer/director Sofia Coppola's latest film is going to cover the life of Priscilla Presley from the week of her introduction to Elvis to the day she walked out of Graceland for good, and also know that only one performer is going to play the role from ages 14 through 27, your first sight of Priscilla lead Cailee Spaeny might come as a shock.
Sitting alone at a diner on the U.S. Military base where Priscilla's father is stationed in Germany, Spaeny is initially seen dreamily perusing a magazine, and what immediately catches your eye isn't that the 25-year-old performer looks convincingly 14. She looks convincingly 12, and when Priscilla is invited by one of her dad's fellow officers to meet Presley – the 24-year-old, at the height of his superstardom, being stationed on the same base – her unaffected shyness and wide-eyed disbelief make her appear younger still. It was at this point, some five minutes into the movie, that two troubling questions came to mind: (1) Just how icky is Priscilla's eventual union with Elvis going to seem?; and (2) How the hell is Cailee Spaeny going to pull off the transition from unformed fangirl to poised and confident divorcee? Happily, I needed have worried, because in Coppola's and Spaeny's capable hands, the answers turn out to be: (1) Only a little; and (2) Very well indeed.
Although her works always boast identifiable storylines, Sofia Coppola doesn't create narrative features so much as mood pieces, and this biographical drama (based on Presley's 1985 memoir Elvis & Me) is absolutely teeming with mood. In truth, there's more event and incident in Priscilla than in most of her films. But because so much of this tale has been been well-documented over the decades, Coppola is at liberty to take the majority of her plot points as givens. There's no need for her to go into tedious, verbalized detail about Priscilla's and Elvis' four-year, largely chaste courtship before their marriage, or Priscilla's virtual imprisonment in Graceland while Elvis seduced half of Hollywood, or Priscilla witnessing her husband's downward spiral into drug addiction. Coppola is smart and shrewd enough to know that, in all likelihood, we know what she knows regarding Priscilla's 13 years with – and oftentimes without – the most famous man on Earth. What we don't necessarily know, unless we've read the memoir, is what it was like to be Priscilla Presley during those 13 years. By the time the end credits roll here, we feel as though we do … mostly.
I'm sure that reams of grad-school thesis papers have been written on the connective tissue of Coppola's movies; her favorite themes certainly aren't hard to find. But I can't think of another writer/director who has so fully dedicated herself to exploring the loneliness of privilege, be it in the über-wealth of her characters in Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere, the stifling middle-class ennui of The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring, or the Southern-grandeur-gone-to-seed self-deception of The Beguiled. Priscilla's title figure would seem to have everything she could ever want: the love of a world-renowned music icon; a spacious estate in Tennessee; servants forever at her beck and call. Yet because their relationship is entirely on Elvis' terms, Priscilla herself is barely allowed to exist. It's Elvis who determines when their romantic ardor is allowed to get physical; he who determines her comings and goings; he who shuts down Priscilla's interest in getting a job because “you need to be home for me.” Meanwhile, his affairs with starlets are in all the gossip magazines and his entourage of beer-guzzling relatives and cronies circles him like a wake of vultures whenever Elvis isn't filming or on tour. And there, either waiting at home or in clear sight upon his return, is the eternally overlooked Priscilla, heartbroken and anxious and desperately unhappy.
Cailee Spaeny does tremendously lovely work whenever Priscilla is allowed, even briefly, to enjoy her time with Elvis, who's played here by the charismatic, deeply handsome Jacob Elordi. (He doesn't much resemble Presley, but looking like Jacob Elordi is its own perk.) Spaeny radiates joy in Priscilla's early exchanges with her idol, as well as subtly unbridled shock that this guy would ever choose her, and that giddy sense of amazement continues through the early scenes of the Presleys' union, most notably in a gorgeously playful sequence of the two photographing one another (clothed) during a presumed week spent in bed. Yet Spaeny reserves her greatest performance feats for Priscilla's many scenes of silent discontent. To her credit, Coppola never allows her material to drown in sadness; the film is easy to sit through, and its expressive cinematography (by Philippe Le Sound) and anachronistic song selections – none of them Elvis tunes – do a lot to lighten the heavy load. Spaeny and her director, though, keep the proceedings firmly rooted in Priscilla's interior life, and the less that the movie's star gets to say, the more thoroughly we experience our heroine's dawning consciousness and expanding maturity. By the film's final image of Priscilla driving away from Graceland, her journey echoed by a perfectly chosen Dolly Parton tune, we're amazed that we could ever have bought Spaeny as a 14-year-old.
Like many of Coppola's cinematic achievements, Priscilla is a delicate (and, also as usual, somewhat redundant) little jewel box of a movie, and I would have preferred it had those jewels been put through more wear and tear. Specifically, I wanted far more from the movie's last half-hour, after the Presleys moved out West and the latter finally found some outlets: enrollment in karate class, outfits to her taste, friends of her own. Bizarrely, though, you can feel Coppola beginning to wrap things up the moment this “new and improved” Priscilla began to find her voice. Perhaps this is how events transpire in Presley's memoir, too. But as soon as Priscilla is no longer a victim, the movie doesn't seem to know what to do with her. We get one or two scenes of Priscilla confronting her husband about his drugs and exhaustion, and one scene of attempted forced sex, and that's it – she's done with him, and out the door she goes. It couldn't have been that simple, right? For all the time spent on its protagonist's internal struggles, Priscilla seems curiously uninterested in the ones concerning the decisive end of her marriage, the decision-making process behind her escape handled with a weird tidiness that doesn't much align with what came before. This is hardly an argument against seeing the film, which is otherwise terrific. Yet given how fully we're made to empathize with and understand Priscilla Presley and her motivations, it's strange, and kind of unsatisfying, that our chief response to her ultimately leaving Elvis is “What took you so long?!”
In many, if not most, triumph-of-the-underdog sports dramas, it's the sporting sequences that deliver the fireworks, and the conversational prep leading up to them is what we have to endure to get to the good stuff. In directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyl's and Jimmy Chin's Nyad, it's the other way around. With Annette Bening playing famed (and rather notorious) long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll, I could have watched this seasoned pair of performers argue, laugh, and bond with one another for hours on end. It was the swimming scenes themselves that I quickly grew bored by, and for the simple reason that witnessing one swimmer in action – despite the threats of exhaustion, hypothermia, oceanic predators, and the like – doesn't make for terribly arresting viewing. But don't just take my word for it. In one training sequence here, Bening's athlete jumps into a pool and begins her laps, and Foster's coach shouts her encouragement while standing and heartily applauding. The next time we see Bonnie a few hundred laps later, she's seated and her rallying and clapping is distinctly muted. The third time we see her a few hundred laps after that, she's fast asleep.
Written by Julia Cox and adapted from the memoir Find a Way, Nyad (newly streaming on Netflix) follows its titular figure's five attempts – her last one, in 2013, successful – at being the first person to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark tank. Due to questionable record-keeping and a lack of independent observers, Nyad had this staggering achievement revoked by the Guinness Book of World Records and it was never officially certified. You won't find that information in Vasarhelyl's and Chin's telling, however, because their version of events is a full and complete Hero's Journey, with the 60-something Nyad refusing to let age, the elements, or pesky sea denizens stand in her way, and her accompanying team of boaters willingly giving up their time and other employment opportunities to make Nyad's dream come true.
You may find that unwavering support surprising, if not downright unbelievable, considering that Nyad, as the movie makes clear, spent most of her time from 2011 to 2013 being an arrogant, rude, demanding ass ache. I say this with nothing but respect. As opposed to the heavily sanitized figures in most inspirational sports flicks involving real (and still-alive) people, Nyad almost goes out of its way to demonstrate its heroine's character flaws: her short temper, her insufferable self-regard, her consistent attempts at inflating her own legend. (On more than a few occasions, Nyad reminds her bored listeners that she shares a last name with the water nymphs of Greek mythology.) She is, in short, deeply unlikable – or would be if Bening's refusal to tone down the awfulness one iota weren't such a thrill to watch. For much of the film, Bening looks like utter hell, suffering as Nyad is from sunburn, dehydration, jellyfish stings, and so forth. But the performer's vanity-free approach extends to her take on Nyad's personality, and regardless of whether you like Nyad, you find yourself respecting her for being so completely who she is without giving a damn what others think.
Plus, we have Jodie Foster around to make Bening's Nyad more redeemable, because if this blunt, funny, sensible woman can accept God's gift to swimming as a pal for life, she can't be all bad. As written, Bonnie is little more than a compendium of “tirelessly devoted bestie” and “crusty-but-lovable coach” clichés. Foster, though, is so specific in her tenacity and tough love that it's almost as if she's creating a brand-new archetype before our eyes, and she nearly singlehandedly salvages the swimming sequences; Bening may be pushing herself to underwater extremes, but its Foster's reactions on the boat that give us a true sense of the physical and emotional stakes. Aside from Rhys Ifans, playing a senior member of the support team, none of the other participants in Nyad's record-setting treks are granted any distinct character flavor. Yet Foster alone provides more than enough, and I don't think it's exaggeration to say that Nyad's ultimate triumph, as rendered here, is more acutely Bonnie's – she's the one, when composer Alexandre Desplat's score reaches its inevitable crescendo, whose victory moves you to tears.
Vasarhelyl and Jimmy Chin are best-known for 2018's Oscar-winning Free Solo, a harrowing yet enthralling documentary about extreme climbing, and 2021's similarly gripping The Rescue, about the near-tragedy involving a team of young soccer players in the bowels of the Tham Luong caves. It makes sense, then, that whenever the focus isn't expressly on Bening and/or Foster, Nyad is at its best during scenes of procedure: detailing the weather and predator conditions; explaining how and why Nyad is swimming off-course; seeking solutions to seemingly impossible problems. (For the swimmer's record to hold, none of her teammates are allowed to touch her, making requirements like feeding her and providing her with medication challenging.) In truth, the directors may be relying too heavily on their experience in docs, given the plethora of interview footage with the actual Diana Nyad and her voice so frequently interrupting the narrative with snippets of past interviews. Yet they still make Nyad a worthy view, even if it's Bening and Foster who make it a memorable one.
THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER
Even a well-made movie is hard to recommend if you spend most of that movie's length praying for it to be over. That was my reaction to director Neil Burger's The Marsh King's Daughter, which does such a solid job of establishing its antagonist's hatefulness and its empathetic figures' decency that I frankly didn't want to see what would happen next; I just wanted to see the end credits roll.
Based on a 2017 novel by Karen Dionne, Burger's film introduces us to young Helena Pelletier (Brooklynn Prince), a girl of about 12 who lives a secluded existence in initially unspecified marshes with her mother (Caren Pistorius), a seemingly humorless taskmaster, and her father (Ben Mendelsohn), the obviously favored parent. Papa Jacob lovingly teaches the girl to hunt and fend for herself, but after several scenes that could be transpiring anywhere between the mid-1800s to the present, Dad goes off alone on a hunt, and a stranger on a motorcycle appears. He's lost and has no cell-phone reception: Could Helena and her folks help him out? This dislocation is quickly exacerbated by Jacob shooting the man in the neck and Helena's mother hauling her unwilling daughter off on the stranger's vehicle. Jacob, it turns out, kidnapped Helena's mother more than a decade ago, brought her to his cabin in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and forced her to give birth to his child, and after his subsequent imprisonment, he escapes and looks to reclaim the family he once lost – meaning the now-adult Helena (Daisy Ridley) and her own child (Joey Carson).
I can't begin to tell you how much, from moment to moment, I didn't want to watch this movie. First off, you've got Mendelsohn in bad-guy mode, and even ignoring the lisp, his entire being here exudes louche perversion and cruelty; he's a fine actor, I guess, but I'm always deeply unsettled whenever he's around. Then you've got Ridley as our heroine. She's isn't a very distinctive performer, but she's easy to root for, and plays Helena's building paranoia and terror with genuine force. And then you've got the supporting cast, which can be effectively contained to three individuals: the cute-as-a-button Carson; the entirely honorable and sympathetic Garrett Hedlund as Helena's husband Stephen; and the reliably outstanding Gil Birmingham as the sheriff who initially saved Helena's life and eventually became her stepfather.
I felt confident that the kid would survive, but as soon as I saw how sweetly Hedlund's and Birmingham's characters were, I spent the entirety of their screen time waiting to see what nightmares Mendensohn's psychopath had in store for them. (Considering Jacon's grotesque appropriation of Native American rituals, it seemed highly unlikely that the Native American Birmingham would survive with entrails intact ... and I also remeber the actor's sad fate in Hell or High Water.) In other words, The Marsh King's Daughter was doing its job: I loved the heroes and loathed the villain. But it wasn't any fun kind of love/loathe. It was more like the prospect of sitting through Room again, with its second act instead finding Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay threatened with a forced return to their tormentor's garage.
If this is your idea of a good time, by all means go to town. (Go to town quickly, though – Burger's film didn't crack the box-office top 10 in its opening weekend.) For my part, I'll simply say that there was much in the movie to admire. The performances are all topnotch, with Ridley delivering an especially touching bit in which she finally comes clean with her husband, even if Brooklynn Prince's is the more touching, effortless take on Helena. Elle and Mark L. Smith's screenplay does a fine job of subtly revealing information, while cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler's photography gives the Michigan marshes a delectable strangeness. And although the last half-hour tends to repeat its effects, Burger keeps the goings-on progressing with impressive inevitability, and pulls off dynamite set pieces involving a violent highway collision and a frightening tumble down a cliff. The Marsh King's Daughter succeeds in its genre goals and is a considerable accomplishment. I kind of hated it.
WHAT HAPPENS LATER
Because it had been so long since I'd seen her in anything, I found myself irrationally fearful for Meg Ryan's well-being when she didn't appear in last year's Top Gun: Maverick – when, in fact, the movie chose to kill off her sweetheart Carole Bradshaw rather than have Ryan return to play the mom of Miles Teller's Rooster. Aside from ill health, what reason could there possibly be to not extend at least a cameo to the woman who made “Take me to bed or lose me forever!” a generational touchstone? But I'm delighted to report that, as evidenced by What Happens Later, Ryan is indeed alive and well, and also acting in, directing, and co-writing a romantic comedy ... if one designed for audiences that apparently no longer exist.
A nutshelling of its plot might make What Happens Later sound almost criminally remedial, as the entire storyline centers on the chance reunion of Ryan's Willa and David Duchovny's Bill – former lovers of many years who haven't seen one another in a quarter-century, and who accidentally meet (cute) at an unnamed regional airport during the Storm of the Century. The whole movie consists of their attempts at small talk and inevitable breaking down of barriers to dig at the meat of their doomed relationship. But WHL is consistently wittier and more self-knowing than you may anticipate. It's clever, for instance, that our leads' characters are both “W. Davis”es – she being a Wilhelmina and he being a William – whose name confusion inspires a comic gambit or two. It's also a nice, rhyming tip of the genre cap that Willa is traveling to Boston but lives in Austin, and that Bill is traveling to Austin but lives in Boston. Yet the film saves its most charming coup de grâce for its presentation, because while we do see background extras milling about and hear a few random PSAs, Willa and Bill are the sole characters in the film, as well as the only people who speak aside from the droning loudspeaker announcer who seems cognizant of the pair's situation. (In the credits, this mystery voice is credited to the alias “Hal Liggett,” but come on – it's gotta be Bryan Cranston.)
Suffice it to say that Ryan and Duchovny are excellent company to be in for just over 100 minutes, and they don't need any supporting bananas to augment their winning chemistry. With its script by Ryan, Kirk Lynn, and Steven Dietz, What Happens Next is based on Dietz's two-character play Shooting Star (which I'm now dying to read), and Ryan's film version should perhaps subsequently be studied in film-school courses as the ideal way to “open up” a two-hander for the movies. Employing a wide-screen format that you'd think would be detrimental to a two-person piece, Ryan pointedly employs the space to demonstrate the figurative distance between Willa, the free-thinking, pot-smoking idealist, and Bill, the buttoned-down, anxious conservative. She proceeds to tighten or expand the gap as the ex-lovers get emotionally closer or further away, and consequently avoids that awful trap forever laying in wait for films based on plays – the one that instinctively labels all such attempts as “static.” Ryan's film breathes, and not just because the alternately catty and soulful conversation flows so gracefully from the tongues of these seasoned pros.
I did have a few quibbles. Willa's and Bill's habit of constantly addressing one another as “W. Davis” got a pretty noxious workout, and it's evident that Ryan, as a performer, has been out of practice with this genre for a while; she could always be counted on to make goofy faces, but the ones she makes here seem more practiced than reflexive. Still, she's lovely and mostly relaxed, and Duchovny is working at the peak of his charm, and the camerawork (by Bartosz Nalazek) does wonders in making its 60-something leads look either their actual age or in their 30s at will. And while much of Willa's and Bill's transactions are devoted to how shitty the world has become in the decades since, you know, Nora Ephron was writing romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally … and Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, this rom-com re-look also knows when to give the harangues a rest, and focus instead on who its protagonists were then, and who they are now. It may not be a great film, or even a great film for its genre. But I absolutely adored What Happens Later, and even though the film came in ninth this past weekend with a measly $1.56 million in domestic ticket sales, I hope fans of long-departed “classic” romantic comedies give it a look on the big-screen scale it deserves. The film's end-credits dedication simply reads: “To Nora.” It's hard to imagine a more fitting tribute. It's also hard to imagine Nora Ephron herself watching the movie from on high and not whispering, “Nice.”
In the retro universe of writer/director Christos Nikou's Fingernails, a world in which people have no cell phones, listen only to 20th-century songs (most of them on vinyl), and stare at boxy computers straight out of the early-'80s, the prevailing notion is that romantic love can be scientifically proven through a momentarily self-mutilating exercise. I had heard Nikou's movie (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene and streaming on Apple+) described, and largely praised, as a Black Mirror-adjacent tale of technology fundamentally destroying our humanity. But having seen the film, I can only presume that the film's decades-ago sci-fi setting was in reality an insurance policy, because had it been set in modern or future times, no viewers would accept a plot or characters this unremittingly stupid.
The gist, so far as I could glean in this badly under-imagined script (co-written by Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis), finds potential life partners wanting to ensure and advertise their love through a process initiated by the unimaginatively named Love Institute. Couples go through a series of tests designed to gauge their mutual interest, and then each of the partners has a fingernail extracted without anesthesia, popped into a microwave oven, and “scientifically” determined as to whether they're a zero-percent match, a 50/50, or a 100-percent. The lack of deviance in those numbers would already clue any normal human into wondering whether the math was up to snuff. But the morons in Fingernails take all the results as gospel, including our protagonist Anna (Jessie Buckley), who is 100-percent certified with her dullard boyfriend Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) despite having undeniable feelings for her co-worker and mentor Amir (Riz Ahmed). What's a girl to do?
Well, how about ignoring the whole nail-pulling bullshit to start with? It would be one thing if, as might've happened in a biting Black Mirror episode, people in the Fingernails world had to go through this ridiculous process – if it were the only way to get a marriage license, say, or the only way to legally have kids. But the participants in this dipstick scheme are putting themselves through a nutjob regimen through their own free will (at a party, Anna and Ryan dine with friends who proudly attest to not having undergone the testing), so there's no reason to feel for anyone's finger pain or their disappointment if an ancient Apple computer gives them a result they don't like. These dummies brought their misery on themselves. Even the full-nail extraction bit doesn't make a lick of sense, because after recounting the film's conceit to my parents, my dad asked why they didn't just remove part of the nail for the DNA instead of the whole thing. This is an 83-year-old with dementia who admitted his inability to follow the plot of What Happens Later when we saw the film together, and even he was able to identify Fingernails' fatal narrative flaw.
Making matters more egregious is the top-tier cast Nikou somehow recruited for this thing. Buckley is a wizard at the subtle reveal of conflicting motivational shadings; Ahmed is a sublimely raw, emotionally transparent actor; White, owing to his fame on The Bear, is the current poster-boy for sexy soulfulness. I'm not sure that any of them have ever been less convincing that they are in Fingernails, which forces each of these usually unimpeachable talents to behave with such abject idiocy that their characters barely register as human. (We're actually meant to believe that Ahmed's purportedly brilliant scientist has never before heard the German adjective “wunderbar.”) We're at least treated to an enigmatic, scratchy-voiced cameo by Annie Murphy, and the first reveal of the title's meaning provides some unpleasant pop. But otherwise, Fingernails is a senseless, lethargically presented mess. It only could've been worse had it been screened on a chalkboard.