Austin Butler in Elvis


The first time we see the title character in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis – I mean truly see him – is the first time that anyone really did: standing behind a microphone, guitar in hand, as the spotlit entertainer in a small Southern music hall. He's wearing pink; sweaty bangs tumble over his forehead; he's obviously nervous as hell. But then the man begins to sing. And then the man begins to move. And in what feels like mere seconds, the house explodes with rapturous astonishment and joy – a veritable tidal wave of excitement crashing through the audience and onto the stage.

Among those witnessing this historic sight is the movie's on- and off-screen narrator “Colonel” Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the carny huckster who will eventually, effectively become Elvis Presley's creator, enabler, and destroyer. Parker recognies the future star's talent and potential, as well as the narcotic jubilance he's inspiring. But there's one particular image that sticks in Parker's memory, and consequently sticks in ours: that of a young, dumbstruck woman in the crowd who's so clearly overwhelmed by the singer's impassioned vocals and feverish gyrations that she isn't screaming, isn't smiling, and most assuredly isn't looking at him. Probably for the same reason you're not supposed to stare directly at the sun.

As bio-musicals go, I can't say I learned a lot from Elvis – or at least not more than I'd glean from a quick scan of the artist's Wikipedia page. But Baz Luhrmann movies aren't designed to make you learn, and they're not really designed to make you think, either. They're designed to make you feel, and in that debut-of-the-King sequence, for the first time in 54 years on this planet, I actually, finally felt the distinct magic of Elvis Presley that his legions of fans have forever raved about. It's not lost on me, of course, that this sensation came courtesy of an actor – albeit, in Austin Butler, an intensely fine one – portraying Presley, as opposed to my being knocked out by the genuine article. Yet that's the sort of miracle that Luhrmann and Butler achieve here. There's plenty to conceivably gripe about: the biographical shortcuts and excisions; the Luhrmann-ian leanings toward style over substance; the dodginess of Tom Hanks' accent. Complaints, however, feel moot in the face of the stellar, supremely emotional entertainment that Elvis' director and star deliver. And for their film's two hours and 39 minutes, Luhrmann and Butler deliver that entertainment again and again and again.

Tom Hanks in Elvis

I have friends who largely detest Bohemian Rhapsody but have happily viewed the film numerous times over just for the rush of the Wembley Stadium finale. Watching Elvis is like getting a Wembley scene every 10 minutes. The biographical elements are predictable and mostly un-illuminating, at least if you have even precursory knowledge of Presley (or the subject of nearly any show-biz bio-tragedy, really): humble beginnings; skyrocketing fame; troubles with the law and an unscrupulous manager; career downslide; career resurrection; abandonment and drug addiction; death; fin. Yet the musical highs in Luhrmann's opulent, operatic saga are so high that, seemingly every few minutes, you feel as though you may never come down from them.

No one does “go big or go home” quite like Baz and his four-time-Oscar-winning wife and design collaborator Catherine Martin, and beginning with an Elvis-in-his-youth set piece that offers a literal bridge between the Black honky-tonk and gospel tunes that would inform his style (and that many would say he brazenly and unfairly appropriated), the musical sequences here possess an acutely heightened, almost mythic quality. This is true of our brief encounters with the King's idols, among them B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard (Alton Mason), Mahalia Jackson (Cle Morgan), and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) – talents who may be sidelined in Elvis' narrative, but who are absolutely aren't in terms of screen impact. And it's devastatingly true regarding Butler's Elvis. It's been several days since I saw Luhrmann's movie, and I can still not only hear but genuinely feel the power of that initial “That's All Right” kicker, and the incendiary rendition of “Trouble” that causes an inevitable riot, and the exhilarating “If I Can Dream” that helped make 1968's comeback special legendary, and the “Suspicious Minds” knockout that could singlehandedly argue for the artistic greatness of Presley's early Vegas years.

Prior to Elvis, I hadn't given much though to its subject one way or the other; I never owned an Elvis album – nor, as memory serves, did my parents – and can count the number of Presley movies I've seen on the fingers of one hand. (Perhaps Luhrmann and his trio of co-screenwriters presumed the same of their audience as a whole, given that the King's active screen career gets maybe five minutes of the film's focus.) Yet when the closing credits were preceded by footage of the actual Elvis, bloated and perspiring in his later years, offering a rendition of “Unchained Melody” to shake the heavens, I could barely contain my sobs – and my newfound affection was testament not only to Luhrmann's grandly staged celebration of the singer's gifts, but Butler's uncanny and deeply moving channeling.

Austin Butler in Elvis

The 30-year-old, as he must, gets the externals just right: the hip-swiveling; the sweetly unthreatening sneer; the vocal cadences accurate enough to avoid “Thankyouverymuch” caricature. But while his Presley is forced, by circumstance, to be a guarded public figure, Austin himself is like an open wound; whether giddy in love with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) or mourning the death of his beloved mother (Helen Thomson), Elvis' emotions can't seem to stop bleeding out. While Butler is sensational as the young Presley, it's something of a shock that he's even better – more forceful, more thunderously present – as the aging one, especially considering that his facial features and waistline never remotely approach the physically we associate with the King in his final years. (It's possible that the film's entire posthetics budget was spent on Hanks.) Butler is at his absolute finest, however, in the concert scenes, delivering a combination of his own vocals and lip-synched Presley numbers – apparently a 30/70 split – that constitutes perhaps the most convincing pre-recorded singing I've ever witnessed on screen. This is truly a performance for the ages.

And how, you may ask, is Hanks' performance, regardless of that spotty quasi-European dialect? Pretty damned great, I have to say – though I certainly understand arguments to the contrary. It's a weird thing having to actually defend Tom Hanks, of all actors, and there's no denying that he's going for “Big!” in his interpretation just as much as Luhrmann is. But while his grotesque, morbidly obese, unerringly hateful Tom Parker is indeed something of a reptilian cartoon, that eternal twinkle in Hanks' eye allows you to fathom how this creep could so successfully con Presley and his milquetoast father (Richard Roxburgh, the Duke from Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge) for so many years. The casting is brilliantly insidious – who doesn't love Tom Hanks?! – and so is the screenwriters' decision to make Parker this tale's official teller. With Hanks in the role, Parker is a scoundrel and a charlatan (a “snow man,” he calls it), but one whom you're still willing to give the benefit of the doubt for as long as you can – not realizing until much later how effectively he's snowed you in the process. (A classic unreliable narrator, Parker tells us that Elvis' historic Christmas special was all his idea – forgetting, or hoping we'll forget, that Presley completely scrapped all of the colonel's plans for a tacky hour of sappy carols and ugly holiday sweaters.)

Like most of his fans, I'd presume, I wish that Baz Luhrmann made movies with greater frequency; hard as it is to believe, this is only the director's sixth since his 1992 Strictly Ballroom breakout, only his third in the last 20 years, and his first since 2013's remake of The Great Gatsby. But patience can indeed be a virtue when it leads to something as captivating as Elvis, a work so phenomenally enjoyable that, despite my many words of praise, it really only requires four stated with a complete absence of irony: Thank you very much.

Ethan Hawke in The Black Phone


With the film set in the suburban Denver of 1978, a masked killer of children is on the loose in The Black Phone, director Scott Derrickson's supernatural-horror thriller that proves the poisoned apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The apple, in this case, is Joseph Hillström King, who writes under the pen name Joe Hill, and who authored the 2004 short story upon which Derrickson's and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill's genre outing is based. The tree is horror icon Stephen King, who is Joseph/Joe's dad, and whose output has been collectively (and, one hopes, approvingly) usurped for this endeavor, as there's a young psychic à la The Shining, a malevolent clown à la It, and excessively chatty kids whose conversation sounds years ahead of the way pre-teens actually talk à la most every Stephen King ever. Yet the movie is an admirably understated winner, if an occasionally upsetting one.

Despite a couple of effective jump-scares that are visible to us but, in a refreshing change of pace, not our hero, the movie isn't terribly frightening, in large part because Ethan Hawke's readings as the stringy-haired lunatic with the black balloons are too childishly sing-songy, and consequently too familiar, to generate much tension. (This routine worked far better for James McAvoy in Split, who at least had the benefit of other personalities to occasionally retreat into.) But Derrickson, as he proved in Sinister, has a gift for evocatively creepy compositions and clearly understands the advantageous use of silence, and he does excellent work with his young leads Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw, who may be precocious as hell, but who also suggest major talent. Thames, in particular, is spectacularly assured and focused as Hawke's latest target, his very adult composure when trapped in a basement and receiving beyond-the-grave calls from previous victims finally giving way to wholly believable 12-year-old panic and tears. (McGraw, meanwhile, is heart-stabbing when her gender-flipped Danny Torrance is brutally spanked by her father, whom Jeremy Davies plays with unsettling, alcoholic unpredictability.)

Meaningful visions and helpful ghosts aside, there's not much to The Black Phone – it feels every bit like a short-story adaptation perhaps needlessly stretched to feature-film length. Yet it's engaging and affecting and provides a solid jolt of Stranger Things malevolence, and earns immediate bonus points for the casting of James Ransone, the befuddled Deputy So-and-So (yup, that was his character name) from the Sinister flicks and the grown-up Eddie Kaspbrak from It: Chapter Two. Not since Bruce Campbell in the icon's Evil Dead prime has an actor looked to be having so much fun popping his eyes in genre service, and while he's not around as much as you may want here, Ransone still manages to practically steal the film with one hysterical, self-loathing snort of coke. Oh, that James. Such a clever so-and-so.

Mark Rylance in The Phantom of the Open


Offhand, I can think of no British actor whose first appearance in any movie gets me smiling quite as hard as Mark Rylance … unless maybe it's Sally Hawkins. And as if to answer an unsent prayer, the two English greats – he an Oscar winner (for Bridge of Spies), she a two-time nominee (for Blue Jasmine and The Shape of Water) – are now paired as a devoted married couple in The Phantom of the Open, director Craig Roberts' inspirational-sports dramedy that's the complete inverse of most inspirational-sports dramedies, in that its protagonist, at his sport of choice, is laughably awful.

Inspired by the actual exploits of middle-aged Maurice Flitcroft, a golf novice who lied his way into the 1976 Open Championship and scored a record-setting (in a bad way) 121 in the qualifying competition, Roberts' and screenwriter Simon Farnaby's film – based on Farnaby's and Scott Murray's nonfiction book – is, in most ways, prototypical Brit-com to its teeth. There are humorless prigs (principally Rhys Ifans' dyspeptic Open official) and random eccentrics galore (Maurice had twin sons who were a prize-winning disco-dance duo!), and every borderline-insane, ethically shaky, and possibly illegal thing our protagonist does is bathed in a somewhat offensive “Oh, but he's so endearing!” glow of très-adorbs, feel-good humanism. Roberts' movie is oftentimes like Eddie the Eagle with a morally compromised chain-smoker on the slopes. But the thing is, Eddie the Eagle worked, and so, too, does this anti-triumph-of-the-underdog entertainment.

Fair assessment or not, few sports feel quite as self-consciously snobby as golf. So it's a delightful comic treat to watch Maurice not only obtain admission into the Open but actually play it, horribly, to the bored and increasingly impatient exasperation of his fellow contenders, and to the initially aghast, eventually supportive viewers watching on television. (In the most hilarious/mortifying moment of the championship, Maurice's miraculous shot that should've resulted in a birdie leads to four or five putts before the ball finally sinks.) Because real life is nearly always stranger than fiction, Roberts and Farnaby don't have to do more than tell it like it was for the narrative to be consistently, amusingly gripping; there's no need for invention when the facts give us Maurice entering the tournament again in subsequent years under disguises and monikers such as Arnold Palmtree and Count Manfred von Hoffmanstel, or when he gets a tournament in Grand Rapids, Michigan, named in his honor.

And, of course, The Phantom of the Open has Rylance and Hawkins, which would be reason for a viewing regardless of presentation. The rare dramatic actor who's also a master comedian (by all means, check out his funny/scary portrayal in the springtime release The Outfit as soon as you can), Rylance is traditionally magnificent here, never overselling either Maurice's naïveté or his cheeky duplicity. Despite her subtly fearsome talent, though, the real surprise is Hawkins, who plays the clichéd Supportive Wife with such lovely encouragement and lack of vanity that you think the movie will ultimately forget about her – and when it doesn't, she's treated to the sort of deserved hero's welcome that movie audiences are more used to seeing awarded to Rocky Balboa or Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. In the end, The Phantom of the Open is about a hero, all right. It just happens to be about the one who's packing the title character's sandwiches and kissing him on the cheek for luck.

Cooper Raiff and Evan Assante in Cha Cha Real Smooth


The competition is certainly fierce, but the 2022 Sundance Film Festival hit Cha Cha Real Smooth – now streaming on Apple+ and, like The Phantom of the Open, currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene – may be the Sundance-iest Sundance movie of all time. It's a low-key, low-budget, coming-of-age dramedy. It was directed, written, and co-produced by its star, who in this case is mid-20-something Cooper Raiff. It features gentle laughs and an unconventional romance and an upbeat teen with autism and a supporting cast boasting indie stalwarts Dakota Johnson and Odeya Rush alongside middle-aged comic vets Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett. And at nearly all times, this sweet, quirky, well-meaning outing is endearing and excruciating in nearly equal measure.

Raiff has cast himself as Andrew, a 22-year-old ne'er-do-well who shares a bedroom with his teen brother (the relaxed, honest Evan Assante) and a house with his loving mom (Mann) and much-maligned stepfather (Garrett). He attends a party during which he falls for the older single mom (Johnson) of an autistic girl (Vanessa Burghardt, who's also autistic), and where he's convinced to forge a career as a self-professed “party starter” for local bar and bot mitzvahs. That's about it, plot-wise. (If you think that's a bare-bones outline, you really need to check out the film's Wikipedia synopsis, which is a miracle of antiseptic concision.) And there's really nothing wrong with a premise this simple so long as something, you know, interesting or funny or surprising happens with it. In most ways, however, Cha Cha Real Smooth is where interesting, funny, and surprising go to die. Despite a few Life Lessons learned and a heart occasionally broken and mended, Andrew is the exact same friendly, kinda-frisky, kinda-dull regular dude at the end that he is at the start, and everyone involved gets their Happily Ever Afters in the prescribed Sundance manner. I'm no big fan of fellow Sundance/Apple+ hit CODA, but Raiff's film – the cinematic equivalent of a puppy licking your face for 105 minutes – makes CODA look like freakin' There Will Be Blood.

But you know – it's likable, I guess! (Which was apparently the chief qualification for a Best Picture win this year.) With his broad, cartoon-feature handsomeness, Raiff is an appealing-enough presence, though it's tough to imagine what acting gigs this might lead to beyond Early Victim in a Slasher-Flick Reboot. Johnson continues to give performances with more depth than the roles she's assigned, and Mann does some of her sweetest, least affected comedic work in years; on roughly a half-dozen occasions, I wished I was watching her character's journey rather than Andrew's. If there's any real reason to sit through Cha Cha Real Smooth, however, it lies with the touching, naturalistic Burghardt, whose readings are the only ones that be legitimately considered fresh and unexpected, and who doesn't buckle to the simpering laughter-through-tears schmaltz that affects even the sturdier members of the cast. While Raiff's outing is a bumpy ride, Burghardt, at least, produces moments of real-smooth sailing.

Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande


Truth be told, by this point, I expected more pandemic movies. Not movies about the pandemic, mind you, though I certainly expected more of those, too – how have more than two years passed since the COVID outbreak and I've only seen a handful of films (most memorably Drive My Car) that have even passingly acknowledged the imprint of face masks on our lives? But while you can hardly call director Sophie Hyde's terrific romantic dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (now streaming on Hulu) a pandemic movie, it at least feels like a pandemic creation: a feature-length release with, barring a few very minor roles, two characters, one general setting, and nothing but conversation – and a bit of sex – to fill the time.

Even though Katy Brand wrote its original script, Hyde's movie also feels very much like the filmed version of a play, not unlike Fran Kranz's magnificent four-hander Mass (a work completed pre-pandemic). Events are nowhere near as troubling this time, however, because as opposed to gathering for a postmortem on a school shooting, Leo Grande's leads have convened to give Emma Thompson her first orgasm. She plays Nancy Stokes, a late-middle-aged widow who hires the strapping, titular sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to meet her in an upscale hotel room for a couple hours of what she never experienced in her many years of marriage. (She's made a list.) The film, consequently, recounts several of their get-togethers as Nancy and Leo meet up and every so often hook up, and for just over an hour and a half, Hyde's and Rand's intimate chamber piece is a true pleasure: witty chat and honest revelations delivered with agreeable good humor and light pathos by McCormack, and devastating wit and trenchant complexity by the sublime Thompson. I found a few of the “surprise” narrative turns resolutely unsurprising, and the movie, I felt, became a bit labored as it reached its literal and metaphoric climaxes. But I have no doubt that this impressively balanced achievement will resonate far stronger with more ideal demographics than mine, and in any case, 90-plus minutes in the company of Emma Thompson is never something to sniff at. She's so good here, in truth, that Thompson may easily have been in the running for another Oscar had Good Luck to You, Leo Grande been given a theatrical release and not merely a debut on Hulu. Sorry about that, Emma. Guess another Emmy will have to suffice.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher