ELVIS: 3 ½ STARS
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in a scene from “Elvis.” (Warner Bros. Photos via AP)
“Elvis,” the new King of Rock ‘n’ Roll biopic from maximalist director Baz Luhrmann, starts with a glittering, dazzled Warner Bros logo and gets flashier and flashier from there.
The film is told from the perspective of Elvis’ manager (Austin Butler), Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks under an inch or two of makeup), a peddler with a flair for spotting talent and a gift for manipulation.
Working on the carnival circuit taught Parker that a great act “gave audiences feelings they weren’t sure they enjoyed”, a norm the first hip-shaking Elvis met and surpassed. .
Their partnership is one of the best-known and best-documented success stories of the 20th century. For twenty years, through the birth of late 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and Hollywood’s cheesy years, to the legendary 1968 comeback special and the rise and fall of Las Vegas, Elvis and the Colonel shook and worked their way to the top of the charts and into the history books.
“Elvis” covers a lot of ground. From young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) discovering his love of music in black rhythm and blues artists and the Mississippi church music he absorbed as a child, to his final white jumpsuit days in Vegas, Luhrmann shakes, rattles and rolls in a blur of imagery and spectacular sound design.
It entertains the eye, but looks like skipping a stone across a lake. If you hold the stone just right and throw it across calm water at the correct angle, it will skim for what feels like an eternity without ever breaking through the surface.
“Elvis” is a very good movie. An explosion of pop art that vividly tries out the different time frames and styles of the story; this has a visual and sound impact. Sadly, Luhrmann is content to make your eyeballs dance, your gold TCB chains vibrate, and just scratch the surface.
We learn that Elvis was the sum of his country music and R&B experiences and influences, was fueled by the adoration of his audience, and aware of the social change of the 1960s, but there is no excavation, no true exploration of what made the singer or his manager actually tick. It might seem fitting that a movie about a man who drove pink Cadillacs and wore phoenix-embroidered jumpsuits and capes would be over the top, but those images are already so woven into the fabric of popular culture that it seems cliché, more like a bigger hits album than a biography.
Butler is a charismatic performer, embodying Elvis at several stages of his life and, despite the shallowness of the storytelling, delivers a rounded performance that transcends the imitation of a man who spawned a generation (or two) of imitators.
It’s rare to see Hanks play a character without redeeming qualities. “I’m the man who gave the world Elvis Presley,” he says. “And yet, there are those who would like to portray me as the villain of this story.” His portrayal of Colonel Parker annoys, with his theatrical Dutch accent and imperious, manipulative manner, he’s definitely the villain of the play. It’s a pantomime of the big, bad musical director, the one who considered his client to be a musical cash machine and the little Suite.
As the end credits roll, “Elvis” comes across as an idealized look at the boy from Tupelo who became king by paying homage to the power of music that made him a legend.
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Ethan Hawke, left, and Mason Thames in a scene from “The Black Phone.” (Universal images via AP)
THE BLACK PHONE: 4 STARS
Ethan Hawke seems to have entered the villain phase of his film career. After a popular turn as religious zealot and cult leader Arthur Harrow in Disney+’s ‘Moon Knight’, he returns to haunt your dreams as a masked serial killer nicknamed The Grabber in ‘The Black Phone,’ who now stars in the theatres.
Adapted from a short story of the same name by acclaimed author and Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, and set in 1978, “The Black Phone” centers on shy baseball pitcher Finney (Mason Thames, who looks like a teenager Patrick Swayze).
Bullied at school and ostracized by his classmates, things aren’t much better at home where his abusive, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies) doesn’t seem to have a clue how to parent him or his sister. chubby Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).
In town, children disappear, lured by The Grabber, a serial killer who approaches his prey disguised as a macabre children’s entertainer and a question: “Do you want to see a magic trick?”
Finney becomes the sixth victim when The Grabber knocks him out and takes the boy to a soundproof basement with an old black telephone hanging on the wall. Although disconnected, Finney soon discovers that he can communicate with The Grabber’s previous victims over the phone. In the dungeon, the voices of the dead attempt to help her escape, while Sister Gwen searches for clues in a series of vivid psychic dreams. “Please, please,” she said. “Let dreams come true.”
“The Black Phone” is an intense and effective horror story about captivity, terror and friendship. Finney spends most of the film trapped in The Grabber’s basement, relying on ingenuity, a little help from some otherworldly entities, and an untapped reserve of courage to survive.
Aside from the spooky and supernatural element, it’s the actual terror of the very earthbound Grabber that’s shocking. With no motive other than to satisfy his own twisted desires, he is the specter of blind malevolence. Hawke, playing through a mask for 99.9% of the film, projects pure evil. Most of his dialogue might look almost innocent on the page, but add high-pitched affectation and expert delivery, and a line like “I’ll never make you do anything you don’t like” becomes “I’ll never you do everything you won’t like. That break is where the threat is, and Hawke plays those goosebumps moments beautifully.
Thames delivers an authentic and resourceful performance, but it’s McGraw as Brandon Gwen who steals the show. She wouldn’t have been out of place in a number of 80s Amblin films. She’s resilient, has a good sense of swearing, and brings heart and soul to her dysfunctional family unit.
Director Scott Derrickson faithfully recreates an inviting 1970s backdrop, painted with a mix of teenage concerns, like bullies and the cute girl in the lab class, edged in a darker, more violent hue. It may have been a simpler time, but Derrickson isn’t all about nostalgia. You could always get beat up on the way home from school, or worse. It feels authentic, and when the real horror kicks in, it hits hard.
“The Black Phone” is a disturbing horror-thriller that doesn’t rely on gore, just loads of tension, suspense, atmosphere, and dread that doesn’t rely on a supernatural to terrify.
SLASH/DOS: 3 STARS
A scene from the movie “Slash/Back”. (Photo courtesy SXSW)
Most horror films are set in obscurity, but the spunky microbudget “Slash/Back,” a new coming-of-age alien invasion flick playing in theaters right now, is unique. Set in Pangnirtung, a remote fishing community in Nunavut, the action unfolds under the relentless glare of 24-hour summer solstice sunlight.
The main action kicks off as rebellious Maika (Tasiana Shirley) and her friends, Jesse (Alexis Vincent-Wolfe), Leena (Chelsea Pruksy) and Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), hijack a boat and set off to explore sunny local landscapes . . Instead of the beauty of nature, they are confronted with a polar bear, but not just any polar bear. Large and bloodthirsty, it attacks Maika’s younger sister, Aju (Frankie Vincent-Wilfe) before Uki shoots the beast, scaring it away, but not before it sprouts eel-like tentacles.
The friends quickly assume that the polar bear was actually a shape-shifting Ijiraq, an evil creature from folklore, which can appear in many different forms. Or is it an alien? Or both?
Either way, it’s bad.
To protect their community, the friends take ulu knives, machetes and even a few hockey sticks, combined with innate courage, a deep understanding of horror movies and traditional knowledge gleaned from Maika’s father, who was the most great city hunter, to rescue people and the place they love. “No one fucks with Pang girls,” is their battle cry.
“Slash/Back” evokes memories of “Attack the Block”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing”, with a hint of “Super Eight” for good measure, and yet manages to do something unique. It works like a coming-of-age story with sci-fi overtones, but it’s the characters and the setting that set it apart. Blending an exploration of Indigenous identity and culture with badass kids summoning their full capacity to protect their community deepens the story, adding layers of subtext to a familiar action story.
Casting brings more charm than acting, but each character brings something special. From Maika’s “No Justice on Stolen Land” slogan splashed across the back of her leather jacket, to the calm and loving Jesse, the characters are easy to root for and, above all, authentic.
Director Nyla Innuksuk’s “Slash/Back” is a smart, lo-fi genre flick that’s part social commentary, part charm, part fear.