ELVIS (2022)

June 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m one who grew up spinning my mother’s Elvis 45s and LPs for hours on end. Long before I ever saw one of his movies, I had memorized and mimicked the vocals and stylings of his early recordings. For me, the love of his music was ingrained before any understanding of the cultural influence and impact that had occurred years prior. This background undoubtedly played a significant role in my enjoyment of this film. Many will find bashing this movie to be easy and justified, and I do understand. There are those who view Elvis Presley as little more than a punchline – a drug addicted fat guy chomping on peanut butter and banana sandwiches and forgetting lyrics on stage. Then there are those who view writer-director Baz Luhrmann (THE GREAT GATSBY, MOULIN ROUGE) as a cinematic trickster more committed to flashy visuals than facts and story. For me, the visuals and music of this spectacle were driven by a fully committed actor and a filmmaker serving up a tribute to a cultural icon.

Luhrmann co-wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce (a frequent Luhrman collaborator), and their approach seems three-pronged: the background history and influences of Elvis’ music, the “caught-in-a-trap” life he led, and the force that was Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis’ manager). In fact, much of the story is told from the tainted perspective of an elderly Parker, who is in poor health and near death. In Parker’s mind, he is the ‘hero’ who delivered Elvis to the world, and not the evil huckster who rode his meal-ticket into the ground, while severely limiting artistic opportunities like serious movie roles and international tours.

Playing Colonel Tom Parker, buried beneath a fat suit and facial prosthetics, is Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Further distractions come courtesy of the accent, which is actually pretty close to Parker’s speech pattern. We see Parker’s carnival background and hustler mentality, and watch as he first drools over Elvis along with the teenage girls in the Louisiana Hayride audience … although while the girls enjoy the sexuality, Parker sees nothing but dollar signs. It’s atop a Ferris wheel that Parker entices Elvis with dreams of stardom and wish fulfillment. Elvis is played by Austin Butler (Tex Watson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD), and Butler perfectly captures Elvis’ early innocence and naivety, as well as the immense physicality of those early stage performances that sent girls (and some boys) into a tizzy.

Luhrmann takes us back to Presley’s childhood in poverty while living in Tupelo, Mississippi, and it’s here as a young boy wearing a Captain Marvel Jr logo (played by Chaydon Jay) where he is first moved by the gospel music from inside the black church. In fact, Luhrmann makes a point throughout the film to connect Elvis to the music roots of blacks – gospel, blues, R&B. He later befriends BB King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), and is awed by Little Richard (Alton Mason), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh), and a stunning Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola). This is crucial as Luhrmann is aware of the ’cultural appropriation’ talk associated with Elvis these days, and how the singer absorbed the music that moved him and presented it to the wider audiences that had been previously untouchable by black artists. The influences are beyond debate just as the opening of doors was welcome.

Elvis’ path from Beale Street to Sun Records to RCA is tracked. The Sam Phillips and Sun Records connection is shown only briefly, but Phillips (Josh McConville) is acknowledged for releasing Elvis (driving his Crown Electric truck) so that he could sign with Parker. It was a remarkably standup thing to do and a familiar situation that has resulted in many court battles over the years for other artists and agents. We get a glimpse at Elvis’ extremely close bond with his mother Gladys (Helen Thompson), whose faith and heavy drinking are both on display. We can see the pride Elvis carries as he shows her Graceland for the first time. Richard Roxburgh plays Elvis’ father Vernon, and as time goes on, he’s not portrayed in a flattering light – seemingly more interested in money than in doing right by his son.

Elvis enlisting in the Army is viewed as a necessary public relations step due to the outcry from religious conservatives over his onstage movements clearly sponsored by the devil himself. We see one scene of Elvis courting Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), but she’s only described as a teenager, so Luhrmann has chosen to gloss over the age difference and the unusual circumstances of those years between meeting and marrying. Also receiving the ‘glossed over’ treatment is Elvis’ movie career. It’s handled via montage with Austin Butler’s face superimposed into actual clips of the films. Another element that the film quickly skips through is the “Memphis Mafia”, Elvis’ entourage of assistants and hangers-on. They are mostly shown here as background characters, and some of these guys went on to write ‘tell-all’ books to line their pockets after Elvis died. It turns out the Elvis’ loyalty to them was not reciprocated once the gravy train ended.

Colonel Tom Parker was neither a Colonel nor a Parker. He was born Andreas van Kujik in The Netherlands and emigrated to the United States in order to pursue the American Dream and boat loads of gambling debt. Supposedly he treated Elvis pretty well, but it’s frustrating to know that so many business decisions were based on Parker’s personal needs rather than Elvis’ artistic development. As you would expect, Tom Hanks handles the role of ‘villain’ and Snowman quite well.

Austin Butler portrays Elvis from the early 1950’s to the mid-1970’s. It’s a terrific performance and one worthy of great admiration. Butler immersed himself in Elvis and it shows, perhaps never better than the infamous 1968 Comeback special. Black leather in the round, rocking to his hits, was a smash in TV ratings, and re-established Elvis as the star he was. The special also features Elvis in white suit belting out “If I Can Dream”, and Butler nails the emotion-filled performance. I consider this (Elvis’ actual song) one of the all-time most memorable rock/pop moments alongside Bill Haley and the Comets releasing “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” (1954), Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (1955), Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk Festival (1965), Sinatra singing “My Way” (1969), Hendrix at Woodstock (1969), Live Aid (1985), and Kurt Cobain/Nirvana unplugged on MTV (1994).

We go behind the scenes for the dealings that brought Elvis and his new big band approach to the International Hotel (now The Hilton) in Las Vegas. Once again, Butler is spot on during the stage performances, and this brings the musical catalog full circle. Elvis’ musical roots and that early fascination never left him – regardless of whether it was his early trio, or the orchestra in Vegas. Despite the extended run time of 2:49, Luhrmann had to make some tough choices on what to include and what to omit. In a career that spanned less than 25 years, Elvis recorded more than 700 songs … none with the help of Auto-Tune. His amazing voice could be smooth, soulful, playful, or powerful, depending on the song – even at the end. We see one of his final stage performances (with Butler’s face superimposed over the clip) recorded a mere two months before his death in 1977. With guitarist Charlie Hodge holding the microphone, a bloated and drug-addicted Elvis delivered a most memorable rendition of “Unchained Melody”. He would soon be dead at age 42.

Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler have provided a dazzling look at a remarkable career that changed the music industry and society. The film is quite a visual and musical and historical treat. We have grown so accustomed to reveling in the “bad” side of celebrities, that a celebration of one might seem trite to some. However, fans will enjoy most of this, despite the constant feeling that Elvis was trapped and lived with an underlying sadness for so many years. Elvis may have left the building, but Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler, and the musical legacy continue ‘Taking Care of Business in a Flash.”

The film opens in theaters on June 24, 2022

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CYRANO (2021)

December 31, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Joe Wright has proven how adeptly he can re-make a classic love story. You’ll likely agree if you’ve seen his versions of ANNA KARENINA (2012) and/or PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (2005), which are in addition to his best film (also a love story), ATONEMENT (2007). Working from the terrific script Erica Schmidt adapted from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Wright delivers a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac that delivers all of the intended “panache” of the original tragic-romance.

Peter Dinklage (THE STATION AGENT, 2003) stars as Cyrano, a master swordsman and orator who entertains with words that cut like a surgeon’s scalpel … except when he’s weaponizing those words for love. Haley Bennett (SWALLOW, 2019) plays Roxanne, the secret object of Cyrano’s desire, though she views him as but a close friend and confidant. Instead, her gaze is upon the newly arrived Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a virile and handsome man lacking the charisma and common sense required to court Roxanne. This dilemma lends itself to the melding of Cyrano’s word being delivered by the preferable packaging of Christian.

Rather than Cyrano’s oversized nose, the film uses Mr. Dinklage’s diminutive stature and feelings of unworthiness of Roxanne’s affections to create the division, and yet it’s the musical aspect that takes a bit of getting used to. Dinklage excels in the film’s best sequence, as early on he humiliates a poor stage actor, a rebellious act that ends in a duel … entertaining for the play’s audience as well as us as viewers. It’s the connection between Cyrano and Christian that leaves us missing the good stuff. It all happens quickly and efficiently, rather than a slow transition from foes to partners. The film is at its best when Cyrano’s loneliness is at the forefront … Dinklage excels in these scenes. In fact, Wright and the actors (Dinklage and Bennett) nail the ending which packs the punch Rostand intended.

Mr. Dinklage has long been married to the film’s screenwriter Erica Schmidt, and Ms. Bennett and director Wright have a daughter together. These ties may have contributed to the effectiveness of the best scenes, though we do wish Ben Mendelsohn (as De Guiche) had a bit more screen time. The three most well-known film versions are CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1950) starring Jose Ferrer, ROXANNE (1987) starring Steve Martin, and CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1990) starring Gerard Depardieu. Wright’s latest version is set apart with the musical aspect, and certainly the Dinklage performance ranks amongst the best. Edmond Rostand’s play was a fictionalized version of the life of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), but the romance, ego, and self-doubt applies to all eras.

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THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020)

October 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Tom Hayden, Alex Sharpe, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner, and John Froines. Those were the defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot at the 1968 National Democrat Convention in Chicago. So why were there 8, when they are known as the Chicago 7? Well, writer-director Aaron Sorkin (Oscar winner for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010) not only answers that question, but also fills in many of the blanks for those of us who have known only the highlights of the story.

This story has been told many times before in books, articles, and other movies, but it’s never before had Sorkin’s focus on the spoken word and the transcripts pulled from the 1969 trial. For those familiar with Sorkin’s work, his penchant for absurdly rapid and a bit too on-the-nose chatter is renowned. Here, he has assembled a truly superb cast that revels not just in the words, but in the historical aspect and the modern day relevance. There are a lot of characters to get familiar with, and Sorkin doesn’t delay in introducing each of them by name and affiliation.

Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, Oscar winner for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, 2014) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) represent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and are focused on the lives being lost in the war. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the leaders of the Youth International Party (the Yippies) and their goal is to disrupt the system through chaos. Actual Boy Scout leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a conscientious objector and part of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, aptly nicknamed “The Mobe”. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is the leader of the Black Panthers, while Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty, “The Americans”) were protesters, but can’t understand why they are lumped in with the more recognizable group leaders.

William Kunstler (Oscar winner Mark Rylance, BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) are the attorneys for all except Bobby Seale, whose attorney was unable to attend due to a medical emergency. Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the hand-picked prosecutor for the Justice Department, while Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is the presiding judge. Other key players include Kelvin Harrison Jr as Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, and the always great Michael Keaton as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Lewis.

There is a lot going on here for a courtroom drama. The diverse personalities alone make this a must watch. Flashbacks to the violence and the interactions between police and protesters are mixed in between testimonies. We are also taken into the Conspiracy House, where conversations and debates between the accused get quit colorful. There are also glimpses of Abbie Hoffman’s college campus speeches/performances which illuminate his thinking, and some of the best conflicts occur when Abbie and Hayden are going at each other in such contrasting manners. Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a true lightning rod in the courtroom. Is he biased or incompetent … or both? His behavior is what drives attorney Kunstler, the ultimate believer in the law, to finally understand what Abbie had said all along … this was a political trial – a show of governmental power, and an attempt to quash anti-war activists. This trial occurred mere months after Nixon was elected, and though they never share a scene, the sword-fight between newly appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) and outgoing AG Ramsey Lewis (Keaton) is a thing of beauty. Keaton especially shines in his two scenes.

“The Whole World is Watching” became a common protest chant as the government worked to shut down the movement to end the Vietnam War. Netflix and Sorkin have capitalized on the current political and social environment to demonstrate what happened 50 years ago … the more things change, the more they stay the same. Abbie Hoffman states, “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before”, and that ties in brilliantly with the desire for Cultural Revolution. Hayden’s intellect in on display here, and Rylance is the real standout as Kunstler, though Langella (the Judge) and Abdul-Mateen (Bobby Seale) aren’t far behind. The scene where Seale is bound and gagged in an American courtroom is one of the most uncomfortable moments I can recall. There may be some questionable directorial choices, but the story and performances make this one to watch.

Premiers on Netflix on October 16, 2020

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THE HIGH NOTE (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who better to play an aging diva at the crossroads of a hugely successful singing career than the daughter of Diana Ross? Of course, nothing is ever that easy and if Tracee Ellis Ross wasn’t ultra-talented herself, the film wouldn’t work at all. Now, please understand, director Nisha Ganatra’s follow up to last year’s LATE NIGHT is excessively formulaic and predictable, but it’s a pleasure to watch Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) as singer Grace Davis and to hear her sing for (I believe) the first time on screen.

The film is from the first (and previous Black List) screenplay by Flora Greeson, a former personal assistant in the music industry, and it follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades” franchise) as Grace Davis’ hard-working assistant. While spending most of her time running errands in her Chevy Nova for her celebrity boss, Maggie dreams of becoming a music producer. See, she studied music composition in college and listened to the radio growing up … and she bobs her head when listening to music she likes. So obviously she’s “qualified.” Maggie is as ambitious as she is lacking in self-confidence and experience.

The aforementioned crossroads Grace is facing has to do with choosing whether to record her first new album in a decade, or taking the safe and financially secure route of accepting a long-term Las Vegas residency. Her agent, Jack Robertson, is played by Ice Cube in full tough-guy mode, as he pushes Grace to bank the cash. Although her career is stuck in recycle gear with live albums and greatest hits, Grace longs to record new music, though she also understands the realities of the music business (and explicitly states the history for anyone not following along – including Maggie).

Maggie oversteps her position with Grace by urging her to write and record new songs. Maggie re-mixes some of Grace’s music and butts heads with the hotshot producer (played by Diplo) Jack brings in to turn Grace’s hits into thumping dance beats. “Is that dope or is that dope? Trick question, it’s dope!” (Diplo nailing the punchline). June Diane Raphael adds her comic flair as Gail, the career moocher who lives in Grace’s pool house, and offers up advice to Maggie on how to milk the situation.

All it takes is a chance encounter at the local market for Maggie to have a career opportunity fall in her lap. She meets charming and smooth David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr, WAVES), and after some classic music banter, she hears him sing and is convinced she can produce his music. The only problem … she lies to him about her profession and experience. Lying and misrepresentation may have played a key role in the music profession over the years, but it creates a real mess for Maggie and David.

When things go sideways for Maggie in every aspect of her life, she retreats to the security of her dad’s (Bill Pullman) humble home/studio on Catalina Island. He’s a DJ and the one who taught Maggie her love for music. His home also leads to the reconciliation that allows the film to move towards the ending it was meant to have. It should also be noted that Zoe Chao and Eddie Izzard have brief roles as Maggie’s roommate and a veteran pop singer, respectively … both talented performers underutilized here.

The film has a similar structure to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA minus the biting dialogue and insightful commentary on a high profile industry. It briefly touches on ageism, sexism, and nepotism, as well as the ‘money vs art’ question, but the purpose here is entertainment, not enlightenment. True artists have an incessant need to create, often risking a comfortable position to stretch themselves … showing the iconic Capitol Records building a few times, and contrasting Maggie’s Nova with Grace’s Bugatti, doesn’t quite make the philosophical statement that we’d expect for a deeper message. Instead, it’s a feel good movie. It’s comfort food, and it’s delivered with a crisp bow on top. Expect a romantic fantasy, where the love partner is music, and enjoy the talents of Tracee Ellis Ross. And let’s hope they got clearance from Michael B Jordan for his mention.

Available VOD on May 29, 2020 at https://www.focusfeatures.com/the-high-note/on-demand/

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WAVES (2019)

November 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether in sports or music or movies, watching talent blossom and grow is wondrous. For movie lovers, this describes young filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, whose first feature film KRISHA really grabbed me at a film festival in 2016. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), and now with only his third film, Mr. Shults has delivered an even more ambitious story with wide-reaching impact, yet he remains true to his intimate and personal approach. In fact, with WAVES, he basically delivers two brilliant films in one.

A terrific opening credits sequence takes us inside the life of a teenager. There is constant motion, laughter, the longing for independence, and signs of responsibility and structure. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, LUCE, 2019) is a high school student, talented athlete, pianist, son, brother, and boyfriend. He’s living an upper-middle class life in a beautiful home with his dad (a powerhouse Sterling K Brown), stepmom (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and younger sister Emily (breakout star Taylor Russell). His dad owns a construction company, and is tough and demanding as a parent, incessantly pushing his son to do and be more. His fatherly advice comes in the form of telling Tyler that black men have to work harder than white ones … never stopping to give praise or affection. He’s the type of father who challenges his son to arm wrestle while in a restaurant and critiques his wrestling match victory by telling him the lesser opponent should have been dispatched much quicker. The pressure is relentless, though offered with the best intentions … a college scholarship and a successful life.

Tyler’s stepmom is loving and supportive, and his sister Emily is very sweet and quiet, living in the shadows of big brother. Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) seem to have a good relationship and Tyler appears to be dealing with the pressures. But then, as is common with life at this age, things go sideways quickly. A shoulder injury, self-medication, and Alexis’ late period bring this ideal world crashing down on Tyler. Just when it seems things can’t get worse, they do.

Shults’ film is really two love stories separated by a tragic line. Whereas the first half belongs to Tyler, the second half is owned by his sister Emily. Dealing with a situation and emotions that should be beyond her maturity level, Emily proves how strong she is, and how the heart can always respond to compassion and caring. She meets one of Tyler’s ex-teammates Luke (yet another brilliant Lucas Hedges performance). Luke is socially clumsy and 180 degrees from being a smooth-talker, but he’s smitten with Emily and offers her a lovely, if unlikely, companionship. First love is almost always awkward and watching these two navigate is quite charming and heart-warming. A road trip leads to bonding and a better understanding of each other.

As the film shifts in focus and tone, characters are pushed to emotional limits. The film offers snapshots of moments without disturbing the flow or Shults’ commitment to rich texture. The photography from cinematographer Drew Daniels is creative and varied, and adds much to the presentation. Music is also vital here. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds the perfect touch, and the soundtrack contrasts the tastes of today’s generation with what the parents relate to (Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”), even forming a surprising connection at one point. For other fans of Shults’ film KRISHA, you will enjoy a quick scene with Krisha Fairchild as a high school teacher.

Proms, pregnancy, parties, pills, and parents are all common topics for films dealing with teens, but this one digs deeper than most. It’s based in south Florida and is quite the stylish and heartfelt drama, slicing open the traits that make us human. A lifetime of good decisions builds a foundation, and one or two bad choices can topple all the good ones. When Tyler and his teammates are pumping up before a match with chants of “I cannot be taken down!”, we all know that life can absolutely take you down. Tyler learns this lesson in the harshest of ways, while his sister Emily deals with the aftermath. Themes of acceptance and forgiveness give this the feeling of the work of a much more experienced filmmaker, but evidently Trey Edward Shults is just this talented.

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