Thursday, June 23, 2022

A splashy 'Elvis' from director Baz Luhrmann


    It's entirely possible that Baz Luhrmann's Elvis is exactly the movie the director wanted to make. Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Australia, The Great Gatsby) tells stories in heaving rushes of narrative that rely on speed and visual flair as much as on content. 
     Luhrmann doesn't seem to know the word "enough." He specializes in excess. His movies aren't lifelike; they're supercharged and episodic -- and in the case of Elvis, a collection of conjoined themes careen off the screen.
    Luhrmann's distinctive style turns Elvis into a whirl of a movie that swivels and pivots in much the same way that Elvis did on stage.
     The movie’s style also mirrors Austin Butler's performance as Elvis, perhaps the first major rock icon, the all-American boy who dipped into Black culture and emerged a superstar. 
    Boosted by near-hallucinogenic close-ups of his face, Butler charms, sweats, and gyrates his way through a performance that he improbably pulls off without seeming like an Elvis impersonator. His work feels fresh and that's a hell of an achievement.
    Still, there’s risk in filling the screen with so much verve: To put it another way: There's a whole lot of shaking' goin' on (to quote a non-Elvis rock anthem) but you may find yourself wondering  what underlies Luhrmann's vigorously drawn sketch-book of a movie.
      Energy carries Elvis a long waybut the movie also can be viewed as a big splash into what ultimately may be the shallow end of the pool. Oh well, the splash can be fun.
      To some extent, Elvis is held together by a narration provided by the man who made Elvis into a phenom, the Dutch-born huckster who called himself Col. Tom Parker. 
    Tom Hanks plays Parker with a weird accent, added girth, and an ever-present cigar. The movie portrays Poker as a devil who tried to steal Elvis's soul in return for bringing his carnival  skills to the promotional effort that pushed Elvis to the American center stage.
    Scuzzy, ingratiating, and conniving, Parker emerges as a weird curiosity. This might be the first time I've been puzzled by Hanks's acting choices. His sleazy, parade-float approach to Parker threatens to capsize the movie, even as it underscores Luhrmann's point: Parker helped Elvis achieve fame while thwarting The King's artistic development 
    Parker led Elvis into sugar-coated Hollywood movies, and, in his later years, chained him to Las Vegas where he sometimes seemed a near parody of himself, Elvis as the ultimate Elvis impersonator.
     But let's go back to the beginning. Elvis starts on a fast track, offering scenes in which young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) revels in the Black music of Tupelo, Mississippi. As a kid, Elvis was inspired by gospel and when he moved to Memphis, he received advice from B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) 
     Luhrmann treats Elvis's forays into Black culture more as inspiration than appropriation. Young Elvis heard and felt the music and answered its call -- or some such.
     After hooking up with Parker, Elvis starts as a low-billed member of a country music review built around Hank Snow (David Wenham) and Jimmie Rodgers Snow (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It doesn't take long for Elvis to light flames of desire among the teenage girls who screamed at his every move.
      Luhrmann spews exclamation points as the movie offers its rendition of  social commentary: Stodgy folks objected to Elvis's sexualized moves, perhaps because they stemmed from observing Black performers. 
     None of this is fully explored in Luhrmann's collage of a movie: References to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are grabbed at like rings on a merry-go-round. 
     Parker understood the resistance to Elvis and tried to sanitize him.  He even convinced Elvis to join the Army in 1958. (The movie doesn't point out that Elvis was drafted and never made a fuss about fulfilling his military obligation.)
      Of the supporting players, few stand out. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis's father, the man who became his manager but who cow-towed to Parker. Helen Thomson makes a bigger impression as Elvis’s mother, a God-fearing woman whose death shattered Elvis. 
      While serving in Germany, Elvis met Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), the woman who became his wife. She, too, gets short shrift.
       A 1968 TV Christmas special receives much attention. A rebellious Elvis decides to defy Col. Parker and the show's sponsors who want him to don sweaters for what they hope will be a family-oriented holiday treat. 
      Despite Elvis's insistence on doing the show his way, he was lured to Las Vegas by Parker who used Elvis's contracts with hotel owners to negotiate his way out of gambling debts. 
       Elvis's fate was sealed. He wanted to tour the world. Instead he gained weight, popped pills, and worked hard to haul his star power from the wreckage Parker helped create.
       And, oh yes, the music. Luhrmann includes contributions from Stevie Nicks, Chris Isaak, Gary Clark Jr., Shonka Dukureh, Doja Cat, Les Greene, Ann Nesby, Kacey Musgraves, Elvis, Butler, and others. 
       Luhrmann's approach to the music tells you something about the movie, which can be viewed as a tribute to eclecticism orchestrated by Luhrmann as if he were wielding an electrified baton.
       Elvis rushes across the screen like a wave that refuses to break, carrying great chunks of bio-pic detail and pop-cultural riff in its foamy wake.
      But at two hours and 39 minutes, Elvis overstays its welcome and the movie can't entirely escape the downside of too much frenzy, which, alas, is too much frenzy.  
     Call my reaction "mixed." Elvis can't be called deep or definitive, but there's plenty to enjoy in the story of a star who couldn't stand still and a movie that follows suit.    
  

A kid tires to outwit a serial killer


    A small point but ...
    The Black Phone takes place in North Denver in 1978. In an early scene, we see an abusive father reading a copy of The Rocky Mountain News, the now-defunct newspaper where I worked as a film critic for 27 years. 
     Nice touch, I thought. Setting the movie in 1978 allowed The Rocky, as those of us who worked at the paper fondly referred to it, to live again.
     But wait. In The Black Phone, the paper appears as a broadsheet. The Rocky was a tabloid. 
     Few will care or even notice but I wish the filmmakers had provided the full satisfaction of seeing the paper fully exhumed on screen.
    Now that I've gotten that out of my system, the rest of the  movie:
    Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil, and two Dr. Strange movies) tells the story of 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), a kid who's kidnapped by a serial killer (Ethan Hawke) who imprisons the boy in a dingy basement. 
   As it turns out Finney's fierce younger sister Gwen  (Madeleine McGraw) can dream things that are real. She ardently prays to Jesus, requesting that he grant her the dreams that will enable her to locate her brother.
    If you're a Hawke fan like me, you'll probably want to know that Hawke spends most of the movie behind a grotesque horned mask with interchangeable parts: A leering rictus of a smile can be replaced by a scowling frown.
    Hawke plays The Grabber, a fiend who has been abducting North Denver boys and killing them. Posing as a magician, Grabber cruises the neighborhood in a black van filled with black balloons. 
    Before he's abducted, Finney has trouble with bullies at school. We'll learn that the movie will teach Finney to stand up for himself. Excuse me, but there had to be an easier way. Maybe a karate class.
    The soundproof basement where Finney is kept has one defining feature, a black rotary phone that, according to The Grabber, doesn't work. When the wall phone starts ringing, Derrickson creates mystery about exactly who's calling poor Finney. And how can he be getting calls from a long disconnected phone?
     The situation breeds a fair amount of suspense. We never know when The Grabber will unlock the cellar door and confront his prisoner, even as Finney searches for a way to escape.
    No fair telling more but the movie, based on a story by Joe Hill, makes sketchy work of an alcoholic dad (Jeremy Davies) who beats Gwen with a belt because she's starting to act like her mother, a troubled woman with clairvoyant powers who killed herself.
   The mixture of the supernatural (Gwen's dreams and those callers on the phone) and old-fashioned serial killing don’t totally mesh and the movie sometimes squanders credibility.
   No slouch when it comes to horror, Derrickson knows how to create a tension-breeding mood of menace. But jump scares, a couple of attempts at humor, and intermittent helpings of Hawke can't quite push the movie over the top.
   The movie, by the way, was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.




 

Friday, June 17, 2022

He played some of the world's worst golf

 

If you look at the picture on the right, you might suspect that you're about to read about a movie set in the world of golf. You'd be half right. There's golf in The Phantom of the Open, a British movie comedy starring Mark Rylance, but most of the golf is bad enough to be laughable. Early on, we learn that Rylance's Maurice Flitcroft qualifies as a caring guy: He married his wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) even though she was pregnant with another man's child. That child (Jake Davies) grows up to become become Maurice's boss at a shipyard in the port town of Barrow-in-Furness.  Maurice and Jean have children together, twins played by Christian and Jonah LeesThe twins dream of becoming famous disco dances. Why not?  It's the '70s. Maurice, who's 46, has his own dream. He wants to compete in the British Open, even though he knows nothing about golf and has never played the game. Based on a true story, Phantom of the Open follows the exploits of Maurice who in 1976 actually made his way into the British Open, where he chalked up a miserably high score of 121, the worst in the tournament's history. Rhys Ifans signs on as the official who wants to boot Flitcroft from the sport.  The golf establishment is dutifully alarmed but the bumbling and unflappable Maurice assembles a fan base. Don't look for a life-changing experience, but Rylance and the rest of the cast keep director Craig Roberts' Phantom of the Open close to par.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

A retired teacher hires a sex worker

 


I can't say that I totally bought into Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, director Sophie Hyde's two-hander about an older woman (Emma Thompson) who hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) in a desperate attempt to add spark to a life that has grown pot-bound. A retired teacher and widow, Thompson's Nancy Stokes arranges to meet McCormack's Leo but approaches the task with a major case of ambivalence. Set almost entirely in the hotel room where Nancy arranges several meetings with Leo, Good Luck to You Leo Grande relies on McCormack's ability to project easy charm and Thompson's willingness to play a woman with qualms about her life, her aging body, and her grown children. Thompson's serio/comic gift enables her to play characters who seem to be in constant conversation with themselves. The movie concludes with an act of daring by the 63-year-old Thompson. Both actors are asked to turn the movie into an endorsement of the pleasure that liberates Nancy from what had been a repressively conventional marriage (no orgasms). Katy Brand's screenplay eventually asks Leo and Nancy to face each other minus the trappings of illusion, which, in turn, means facing themselves. The story evolves in predictable ways but McCormack and Thompson  keep things real.


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Cruz and Banderas in top comic form

 


 The movie Official Competition begins plausibly enough. A  successful businessman decides that money isn't enough: He needs to leave a cultural legacy. What better way to make a mark than by financing a movie? Argentine directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn start with that premise but quickly settle into a look at the competitive conflict between two actors (Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martinez) who have been cast in a project that's supposed to fulfill the businessman's dream. Jose Luis Gomez plays the tycoon, a naive fellow who buys the rights to a novel he hasn't bothered to read. Sporting an out-sized pile of frizzy red hair, Penelope Cruz portrays the film's director, a woman with novel ideas about how to obtain the performances she wants from her two stars. Much of the film focuses on rehearsals as the actors prepare for the shoot. Banderas's Felix, who has had some popular success, eschews method-oriented probing. Martinez's Ivan, who teaches acting, takes the opposite view, insisting on depth and authenticity. Duprat and Cohen have a gift for sight gags, one involving a boulder that has been hoisted into the air by a crane. Cruz and Banderas display finely honed comic chops and Martinez helps ground the movie with Ivan's seriousness. Official Competition may not expand your view of filmmaking. But the movie proves entertaining and funny and Cruz and her two compatriots work at levels that fill Official Competition with enjoyment.

No classic but 'Lightyear' proves likable


 The Pixar universe keeps expanding. Based on a character developed in 1995's Toy Story, Lightyear begins by telling us that young Andy (remember him?) received a Buzz Lightyear action figure after seeing the movie that we're about to watch. Andy loved the that movie.
  Me? I’d say it’s more “like” than “love.”
  I guess that suggests a touch of disappointment. The expectations for Pixar movies remains high and the Toy Story franchise has endeared itself to both parents and children. 
  But, hey, “like” isn’t nothing.
  The movie finds Buzz (voice by Chris Evans) as full of himself as ever. He and his fellow Space Rangers have traveled to a distant planet where a mistake by Buzz strands his fellow voyagers, some of whom were hibernating on Buzz's ship. 
  A chastened Buzz must then wrestle with an epic-sized helping of guilt. Buzz, after all, isn't supposed to fail.
  Buzz's hoped-for redemption involves being able to fly at hyper-speed, which -- should he accomplish the task-- will enable him to save those he stranded on a forbidding planet which hosts lethal insects and vines that latch onto human prey. 
   Buzz keeps trying but each time he returns to base, everyone else but him has aged. He's gone for four minutes but those who remained behind have aged four years.
   This includes Buzz's buddy Capt. Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), a Space Ranger who marries a woman and becomes the matriarch of a couple of generations of space dwellers. Lesbianism is handled simply: It exists. No big deal.
   Eventually, Hawthorne's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) will form a ragtag crew with Darby Steel (Dale Soules), a felon with experience in explosives, and Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), another in the movie's group of unlikely heroes.
    Evans, by the way, takes over for Tim Allen who did the Buzz voice work in previous Toy Story movies.
    Despite its sci-fi trappings, Lightyear isn't Pixar's most adventurous effort even though Buzz isn't a toy in this movie. He's a character in a futuristic adventure that gives him a robot companion, a cat named SOX (Peter Sohn). 
   Gifted with great computational powers, SOX proves a better problem solver than Buzz, who prides himself on finding solutions when the going gets tough.
   Eventually, Buzz learns to trust his new pals but not not before confronting Zurg (Josh Brolin), an emperor who  may remind you of evil imperial space characters from other movies.
   Director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) may not have reached the stars with this one but Lightyear‘s animation upholds Pixar's standards of quality while telling a story that keeps us involved.
   

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Adam Sandler's basketball drama

   

    I don’t know how realistic Adam Sandler’s NBA movie Hustle is, but I suspect blistering authenticity wasn’t really the point.
    A variety of real NBA players add credibility to a story about a frustrated international scout (Sandler) who believes he has discovered the next big basketball thing. 
   Appearances by Kyle Lowry, Dr. J,  Trae Young, and others crop up like bold-faced names in a gossip column but the core of the movie revolves around the relationship between the hot-tempered  Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) and Sandler’s Stanley Sugarman. 
   Before Stanley makes his big discovery, he's road-weary and frustrated. He thinks he's earned a spot as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, a franchise that has employed him for 30 years. Team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) gives Stanley a long-awaited promotions but dies soon after making his promise.
   The late owner's bull-headed son (Ben Foster) reneges on the deal, sending a dejected Stanley back on the road. 
   While watching a playground game in Spain, Stanley finds Bo and arranges to bring him to the US.
  Director Jeremiah Zagar spends a fair amount of time showing how Stanley prepares the talented but undisciplined Bo for organized basketball at the highest level. Bo runs Philadelphia's hills, refines his footwork, and submits to Stanley's rigorous training regimen, which involves getting up at 4 a.m.   
    The supporting cast rounds out the story. Queen Latifah signs on as Stanley's mostly supportive wife and Jordan Hull plays his teenager daughter, a kid whose birthdays he always manages to miss because he's traveling.
    The best small roles belong to Minnesota Timberwolves' star Anthony Edwards, who plays Bo’s major on-court antagonist, and Kenny Smith, a former player turned TV commentator. Smith portrays a sports agent with enough juice to secure Bo a spot at the NBA draft combine.
   A bearded Sandler doesn't equal his work in 2029's Uncut Gems but proves effective as he benches his broad comedy impulses to play a decent guy who's trying to fulfill one last dream.  Hernangomez, who plays for the Utah Jazz, may not have discovered a second career but he holds his own.
  A sprinkling of back story dribbles through. As the story develops, we learn about Stanley's derailed shot at pro ball and single dad Bo's devotion to the young daughter (Ainhoa Pillett) he left in Spain with his mother (Maria Botto). 
   You'll probably out-guess many of the movie's moves. I don't know how much that matters. Available on Netflix and in selected theaters, Hustle plays its game well enough to merit a look.
   

The dinosaurs roar; ‘Dominion’ doesn’t

   

   Giant genetically engineered locusts ravage midwestern crops, a greedy corporation poses as humanity’s techno savior — and, oh yeah, dinosaurs roam the earth. 
  Donning a threadbare ecological mantle, Jurassic World Dominion rambles for roughly two and half hours, alternating action sequences, exposition, and a trio of plot threads. 
    Despite the presence of Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum echoes of the original movie prove feeble, and an uninspired story leaves Jurassic World regulars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard with little do but gawk at the CGI creatures.
    Pratt and Howard play characters who spend the movie trying to rescue a kidnapped duo —a baby T-rex and a cloned 15-year-old girl (Isabelle Sermon).  Biosyn, an evil corporation that operates out of Italy's Dolomites, wants to exploit the pair for profit — or some such.
   Sermon’s Maisie was created by her late mother, a scientist who fashioned her from an altered version of her own DNA.
    Director Colin Trevorrow keeps the production from looking as meager as its ideas, providing some of the expected jolts, one from a creature billed as the world’s largest carnivore.
    Not surprisingly, many of the human characters stare directly into gaping, toothy dinosaur mouths and do what people in such situations are expected to do; i.e., scream at the top of their lungs.
    If you’ve seen all the Jurassic World movies, you know the environment that the movie inherits is one in which some of the dinosaurs are cute, at least in so much as large reptiles can be considered adorable.
    A few additions put a bit of spring in the movie's thudding steps. DeWanda Wise signs on as a freewheeling woman who winds up working to defeat the evil corporation. Mamoudou Athie plays Biosyn’s affable communications officer. Dichen Lachman portrays a woman involved in the illegal dinosaur trade, and Campbell Scott portrays the duplicitous head of Biosyn. 
    In these blockbuster-starved days (Top Gun Maverick being the exception), Dominion may do well at the box office — at least initially. Although not nearly as lame as it could have been, the movie drags its tattered carcass through several possible endings. 
   Only the dinosaurs, a bit minimized in importance here, give the movie any roar. I’m speaking literally. They're very loud.
   Otherwise, Dominion rehashes familiar themes about the dangers of tampering with nature and pushes its characters through situations that breathe little new life into an already depleted franchise.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The war-scarred life of a British poet

 

    Few filmmakers are as deeply versed in sorrow as Terence Davies, the British director of such films as Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and, more recently, A Quiet Passion
  A cinematic essayist and poet, Davies never entirely forsakes narrative but often transcends it, giving his work a reflective quality, the emotional weight of living as transients in a time-bound world. Davies knows the grief of understanding that time ultimately swallows us all. Davies’s films can be seen as invitations to mourn.
      On its surface, Benediction -- Davies's latest film -- might be called a bio-pic -- and in some respects it is. The movie tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon, a poet whose conscience and outrage was formed in the trenches of World War I. 
    Struck by the brutality and barbarism of war, Sassoon deemed himself a soldier whose duty included preserving the lives of other soldiers. To make his point, Sassoon issued what he called A Soldier's Declaration. He withdrew from the fight in1917.
     A decorated soldier, Sassoon wasn’t a pacifist. He argued that young men were being sacrificed to a policy that needlessly prolonged the bloodshed. The politicians had made dying on the battlefield pointless.
    Davies deals with Sassoon's life as a morally outraged soldier and, later, as a disaffected poet and gay man who suffered disappointment and rejection in his personal life. 
    Jack Lowden portrays Sassoon as a young man and Peter Capaldi portrays the aging, embittered Sassoon. 
    Moving between Sassoon's youth and his later life, Davies creates moody scenes, sometimes punctuating them with real war footage, each a small plaintive statement. So many gone and for what?
    Sassoon's rejection of combat was followed by an enforced stint in  mental hospital where he met and developed deep feelings for Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), another poet. Ordered back to the front, Owen had the misfortune of being killed on the battlefield a week before the war-ending armistice was signed. 
    Davies devotes considerable attention to the gay circle in which Sassoon traveled after the war. In addition to popular entertainer Ivor Novelllo (Jeremy Irvine), Sassoon had relationships with socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and actor/theater director Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth). 
    A gay man himself, Davies idealizes little about gay life in the 1920s and '30s. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during most of Sassoon's life but the small gay community Davies depicts was no blissful haven. Cruelties were not uncommon and many of the characters unleash  them with lacerating wit.
    Sassoon eventually married. He found a woman who had no illusions about who he was -- Kate Phillips as a young bride and Gemma Jones as Sassoon's older wife. Perhaps Sassoon felt marriage would give him respite from the whiplash ferocities of life among the gay social elite or maybe he was looking for stability.
    Lowden has the easier task of portraying the young Sassoon. Capaldi must play a mean-spirited poet who battles with his son George (Richard Goulding). An aggressively skeptical George wondered about his father's late-life conversion to Catholicism; Sassoon evidently believed Catholicism might help him find  permanence in a world full of kaleidoscopic shifts.  
  It's always dangerous to look for the creator in the creation, but many have suggested that Davies, or at least part of himself, resides somewhere inside this story. I’m not sure it matters.
  I can't say that Davies brings Sassoon fully to life as a writer but as has been the case with much of Davies work, Benediction is at its best when it tries to hold the ever-vanishing past close, fixing it in art and memory. A futile pursuit perhaps but Davies imbues it with elevating sadness and beauty.