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‘Elvis’ Review: Baz Luhrmann Gets Caught in a Biopic Trap

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There were many Elvis Presleys. The young, gorgeous Elvis who transformed pop music with a quiver of his voice and a wiggle of his hips. The movie star Elvis, who cranked out one musical after another and nearly lost his audience for good. The sequined jumpsuit Elvis, thrusting and karate kicking his way across the stage of the International Hotel in Las Vegas. And finally, the bloated, exhausted Elvis who seemingly worked (and drugged) himself to death.

The best thing you can say about Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is it contains every single one of those Elvises, and all of them are played with impressive fidelity and energy by Austin Butler. A working Hollywood actor for more than 15 years, Butler firmly establishes himself in Elvis as a magnetic screen presence of the highest order. In his prime, Elvis was one of the greatest live performers in history, and Butler proves himself up to the task of embodying the King of Rock & Roll. Whether the movie is worthy of him — or of Elvis himself — is another matter. For all of Luhrmann’s glittery visual panache, Elvis plays like a very conventional and very overstuffed biopic about an unappreciated genius who was exploited by the people around him.

The key figure doing the exploiting in this case is Elvis’ longtime manager Col. Tom Parker, played in the film by Tom Hanks. Although Hanks bears little physical resemblance to the real Parker (and he looks ridiculous beneath an enormous pile of prosthetic makeup), his interest in the material makes sense. As an actor and a filmmaker, Hanks has made a slew of movies about this period in American history and the music business. Elvis is right in his wheelhouse.

Hanks’ Parker narrates Elvis from his deathbed, following a collapse in 1997. As morphine drips ominously into his wrinkly arm, Parker flashes back to the earliest days of his relationship with his most famous client. As the story progresses, Parker repeatedly pleads his innocence in any role in the great star’s premature death at the age of 42.

There are many ways Hanks could have approached this role. The route he chose was to play Col. Parker as a James Bond villain, complete with outlandish yet implacable foreign accent, corpulent face, garish clothes and cane, and even a headquarters high atop the Las Vegas strip. All that’s missing is a cat to stroke as he fiendishly plots to keep Elvis from hiring a better manager or finally undertaking the international tour he spends years trying to get off the ground. (Parker, real name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, was an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands. Elvis strongly suggests he prevented Presley from ever venturing overseas because of his lack of a passport and his fear that if he ever left the country he would be deported.)

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Warner Bros.

It’s a rare bad performance from Hanks, but the larger issue is that the emphasis on Parker and his perspective adds nothing to the movie’s portrait of Elvis Presley. For all his screen time and narration, Parker remains a simplistic figure: Greed, manipulation, and little else. If Parker had interests beyond wringing every last cent possible from Elvis Presley, or any sort of private life or family, you won’t see them on display here; they never come up even a single time. You’ll learn more about this man skimming his Wikipedia page on your way out of the theater than you do in this 159-minute movie.

Elvis himself fares better, if only because Butler is so thoroughly compelling at every step along his journey. He’s uncannily good at channeling Presley’s electric charisma on stage, and Elvis is never better than when Luhrmann sits back and lets Butler perform. His recreations of the ’68 Comeback Special and Elvis’ Las Vegas debut are thrilling. If Butler’s acting career ever fizzles out, he could surely make a very good living as Vegas’ best Elvis impersonator.

But Lurhmann only seems to understand — or at least is only interested in — Elvis the icon, not Elvis the person. There are surprisingly few scenes where Elvis and Parker just talk, and even fewer that give us a window into Elvis’ mental state when he’s not performing, thinking about performing, or worried about whether he’ll be able to perform in the future. (One brief scene where Elvis brushes his teeth and has a conversation with his wife Priscilla feels like an aberration the movie could have used a lot more of.)

Elvis focuses so intensely on certain small chunks of Elvis’ life that long periods wind up getting glossed over in absurdly rushed montages. The pacing is off-putting; in the span of about four minutes, Elvis gets served with a draft notice, heads overseas to join the Army, and his mother dies of a broken heart, supposedly because she was so fearful about his military service. But the film contains just a single scene of Elvis in uniform, where he woos the 14-year-old Priscilla (played by the 24-year-old Olivia DeJonge) by telling her of his lifelong dream to become a movie star.

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Warner Bros.

One scene later, Elvis sits atop the decaying Hollywood sign, contemplating the metaphorical ruins of his fading career. “I used to dream of being a great actor like Jimmy Dean!” Elvis moans. He went from dreaming of movie stardom to becoming the highest-paid actor in the film business to a has-been in about 45 seconds of screen time.

The whole film is like that. Luhrmann, who loves to luxuriate in images of over-the-top opulence, clearly adores Elvis’ music and fashion sense, and he credits him and his irrepressible dance moves with awakening America’s latent sexuality in the middle of the 20th century. Another long chunk of the film chronicles Presley’s reaction to the threat of arrest if he can’t keep from thrusting his pelvis on stage. (Spoiler alert: Elvis cannot keep from thrusting his pelvis on stage.) Luhrmann absolutely conveys Presley’s impact and importance even as he celebrates his style, swagger, and songs.

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But rather than chart Elvis’ gradual shift from proto-rocker to Vegas crooner, it digs into a handful of moments — usually concerts that let Butler flex his talents — and skips over any of the scenes that might explore Elvis’ musical evolution or his decline into drugs. Every Elvis does appear, but how they connect to one another is mostly left to the audience’s imagination.

Additional Thoughts:

-I don’t demand total historical accuracy from a movie, but there are a lot of moments in Elvis that are obviously, distractingly phony. For example: In Elvis, Robert F. Kennedy is shot in the midst of filming the famous 1968 Comeback Special, temporarily shutting down production while Elvis abandons the show’s planned, family-friendly ending in favor of a new protest song that Elvis writes himself. The song, “If I Can Dream,” was written for the special, but not by Elvis. Plus, Kennedy died weeks before, not the night before Presley shot the finale.

-In true Baz Luhrmann fashion, even his writing credit on Elvis is gaudy: He’s credited once for the film’s story (with Jeremy Doner) and twice for the film’s script (with Sam Bromwell and with Craig Pearce).

RATING: 5/10

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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