You don’t need my input on the god of thunder, dinosaurs, minions, or yet another retelling of the Spiderman origin story (unless Timothee Chalamet is spinning the web). I do, however, wish to make THREE suggestions for movies that may have escaped your notice and which I hope you check out as soon as possible:
ELVIS— It’s a phantasmagoria of a film by the Australian king of kaleidoscopic cinema Baz Luhrmann. This time he’s set his prismatic sights on Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) the King of Rock n’Roll as seen through the eyes of that carney con man Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) who brought his sideshow sensibilities to bear on the unvarnished Elvis and the potent effect he had on audiences. Through a diabolical combo of chicanery and emotional extortion, Parker turned Elvis into the biggest show on earth, and it turned out Elvis offered him a lot to work with– a style that put him at the nexus of black and white music at a cultural moment cresting toward a tumultuous era in American race relations and a volatile new sound that fused gospel, country, Mississippi blues, and revival tent soul–all propelled by a “rock a billy” beat and supercharged by the animal magnetism of a white performer whom audiences had never seen move like that.
Luhrmann captures it all in a brilliant sweep of a screenplay anchored by two exceptional performances: one a prosthetically plumped Tom Hanks as the cagey colonel whose origins and accent were a mystery (the colonel of what?). The wily Parker kept his gambling habit hidden by playing a lifelong game of three card monte with the King who never could keep his eye on the ball or his net worth. No one else did either.
And then there’s Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. The performance is shockingly good. Butler, besides looking like the man, has somehow swiveled his way into an eerily accurate verisimilitude. The moves, the tilt of the head, the swagger, the cadence of the voice (Butler sings with Elvis’s vocals sometimes layered in). But this is not your garden variety impersonation. It’s a fully fleshed out performance …Butler renders a lost look in his eye, the latent loneliness, the simultaneous innocence and sexuality of the performer. We watch Elvis searching for, occasionally finding and ultimately becoming an exaggeration of himself.
The film takes us on a wild ride from Elvis’s impoverished beginnings to his bloated end, with key emotional and psychological inflection points along the way including the shadow of his stillborn identical twin brother, a childhood fascination with comic book superheroes, a complex attachment to his doting mother (Helen Thomson) and an ineffectual business manager dad (Richard Roxburgh). There was the army stint, the patient Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), the beached movie career, the crazy Christmas TV special which signaled Elvis’s comeback in black leather– until drugs, women, and weight out paced the music, his chief means of expression and express train to fame, and he lost track of himself for good before Parker ran him off the rails. Baz’s biopic offers a keen sidelong glance at Elvis as a cautionary tale of commercialism as it cannibalizes the raw talent of an unwitting soul. It made me sad.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH– Cooper Raiff is the genius behind this offbeat gem of a film. He wrote, directed, and also stars as a twenty-something bar mitzvah party host who is attracted to the mother (Dakota Johnson) of an autistic teen (Vanessa Burghardt) one of his younger brother’s (Evan Assante) classmates. This film goes absolutely nowhere you think it’s going, and covers a lot of deep, subtle ground in the process.
Raiff and Johnson are unusually charismatic together; their dialogue feels unscripted, their reactions to each other thoroughly spontaneous. Raiff ‘s performance as a young man figuring things out is surprisingly touching, as is his screenplay which views everyone as somewhere on the spectrum, navigating who we are and how we meet each other. No one here is exactly as they initially appear, but the “adults” in the room grow to understand that openness, flexibility, respectful acceptance, and humor favor genuine connection. Terriifc supporting work by Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett as parents. The film is grounded in a poignant appreciation for the sadness and joy of moving through this crazy life. Now streaming on Apple TV+
GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE–Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson should earn another Oscar nomination for this stunningly courageous, refreshing performance as a straight-laced widow who hires a beautiful young male sex worker (Daryl McCormack/ “Peaky Blinders”) to jumpstart and expand her sex life. The result? Both of their lives are revitalized. How easily this might have become something cringey, shallow, and/or silly instead of the profoundly wise, funny, and moving film it is.
Trust me– the film goes there; there’s no shortage of intimate encounters between this couple, sexual and otherwise, but all of their intimacy feels organic and rooted in who these characters are as whole people. Their conversations feel remarkably natural and the word is the actors didn’t use an “intimacy coordinator” for their sex scenes, relying instead on their own relationship as acting partners during rehearsals which allowed them to navigate safety as they explored each scene. Furthermore, the movie recalibrates the primacy of sex and desire in human relationships without fetishizing it, in effect, putting sex in its proper place in the pantheon of joyful expressive outlets human beings can employ to connect with themselves and each other. Ironically, the most intimate parts of the film had more to do with emotional and psychological vulnerability than physical intimacy.
In a challenging, lonely, and increasingly virtual world, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is a surprisingly sensual, life-affirming affair. By the last scene the movie has somehow erased the line between actors and the characters they play, and the audience and the characters we play– with each other and ourselves. What a potent elixir for relaxing into our true selves and just being. Now streaming on Hulu. As Elvis would say, Thank you. Thank you very much.