It’s been nine years since Baz Luhrmann made a mess of The Great Gatsby and, if nothing else, gave the world a Leonardo DiCaprio GIF so ubiquitous that searches for “cheers” and “congrats” will likely generate it within the first two or three results. Now, the Aussie’s signature brand of moon-eyed maximalism is out to claim another cultural icon as his latest victim. The music biopic Elvis is about everything you would expect from the Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! director: visually extravagant, thuddingly obvious, occasionally inspired, and above all, supremely self-satisfied. At 159 minutes, it plays like the longest supercut video ever uploaded to YouTube. Sure, it moves and doesn’t feel its length while you’re watching it but by the end, it becomes clear that little new has been conveyed about the King’s legacy.

Austin Butler sports the well-oiled mane of Memphis rocker Elvis Presley, who meets Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) backstage at a Louisiana Hayride show in 1954. The King’s signature shaking was born that night and Parker sees dollar signs in those hips, convincing Presley to let him manage his career from there on out. We then take a whirlwind tour through Elvis’s life and career, influenced by rock pioneers like Little Richard (Alton Mason) and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the latter of whom particularly sees his potential to break down racial divides in the country. To avoid arrest for his lascivious gyrations, Parker arranges for Elvis to be drafted into the Army and while stationed in Germany, the heartthrob meets his future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge).

There’s a popular exercise in film school used to study editing technique, where the professor will show a stretch of a film and the class is asked to clap when a cut is made in the movie. If that class was shown Elvis, it would generate a steady applause so convincing that it may finally make Luhrmann happy enough to stop chasing it so desperately. Amid the orgy of triple split screens and roving camera movements, there are some fun edits: a ferris wheel spinning out of control blended into an early hit record revolving on a phonograph was my personal favorite. But this is a chaotic scrapbook for a 20th century titan who deserves one but doesn’t really need one either, given how much has already been said and written about him.

Elvis is a tale of two performances. Presley has been portrayed numerous times of the big screen but it doesn’t take long for Butler to set himself apart as king of the King performances. He nails every era of Elvis’s walk of life, from the insecure greasy-haired kid still finding himself to the pelvic-thrusting showman to the aging bejeweled Vegas staple. Luhrmann doesn’t linger long on the negative aspects of Presley’s personality but Butler is still able to find some nuance and subtlety in the role amid the hagiography. I don’t know how much of what we hear from Elvis’s voice is actually Butler singing and after the first couple songs, I really didn’t care. The movie magic became real and the actor embodied the character so thoroughly that I didn’t question it from that moment on.

Then we have Tom Hanks. Colonel Tom Parker is a bizarre figure, a Dutch-born huckster whose origins are still shrouded in mystery to this day but whose relationship with the best-selling solo music artist of all time begs investigation. Even though Luhrmann frames this story around Parker recalling his time with Elvis during the Colonel’s final days, neither he nor Hanks get any closer to uncovering a deeper truth about this tenebrous figure. Hanks goes about Parker as a cock-eyed cross of PT Barnum by way of Dr. Demento, donning a fat suit and muttering with an unplaceable accent as he leers off-stage much less convincingly than he did in That Thing You Do! years ago. It’s a bizarre and bad performance that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at working in this otherwise down-the-line biography.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Minions: The Rise of Gru, a follow-up to the 2015 megahit which tells the origin story of the supervillain Gru as he meets the titular yellow creatures while living in the suburbs as a teenager.
Also exclusively in theaters is Mr. Malcolm’s List, a period drama starring Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu about a young woman living in 1800s England who helps her friend to get revenge on a suitor who rejected her for failing a requirement on his list of qualifications for a bride
Streaming on Hulu is The Princess, a fantasy action movie starring Joey King and Dominic Cooper about a strong-willed princess who is kidnapped for refusing to wed a cruel suitor intent on taking her father’s throne.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #68 – Lightyear

I’m joined by my in-laws Deb and Dennie Doud as we blast off into Lightyear, the latest Pixar offering now playing only in theaters. Then we talk over some other streaming options like Operation Mincemeat, a 2022 World War II movie now on Netflix, and The Staircase, which is available to watch in its entirety on HBO Max. We also heap more praise atop Severance, whose first season is available to watch now on Apple TV+. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.


After two long years of having their premieres relegated to direct-to-Disney+ release, Pixar is finally back in theaters. While their latest effort Lightyear doesn’t match the quality of the outstanding trio of films (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) that were launched on the streaming service, it’s a fun and familiar spin-off that will reacquaint theatergoers with the studio’s magic. Fans of Toy Story may be confused as to why Tim Allen, who voiced the toy Buzz Lightyear, hasn’t returned for this entry. The reason is that this new movie is meant to act as the movie that actually inspired the Buzz toy within this universe, a sort of “origin story” for the new action figure Andy got all those years ago. Admittedly, it’s a confusing and strained framing device but once Lightyear takes off, it doesn’t matter much anyway.

Chris Evans voices this version of Buzz Lightyear, a headstrong Star Command Space Ranger whose job it is to explore new planets across the galaxy. After one such expedition goes haywire, Buzz attempts to escape with his crew of 1200 in tow but accidentally damages their ship in the process. Many years pass as Buzz completes trial runs with hyperspace fuel to get his stranded crew off the planet but by the time he’s successful, they’ve developed a livable colony and most don’t want to leave. Buzz recruits a small group of outsiders, including Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules), to help him get the necessary materials to get the ship travel-ready again but Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his invading robot army have other plans in mind.

Though Lightyear borrows liberally from sci-fi touchstones like Star Trek and Interstellar, the rhythm of its narrative follows the familiar structure of many animated adventure films where obstacles crop up and our protagonists have to think up a way around them. Buzz wants to be a lone ranger, so to speak, but along the way, he’ll learn the value of companionship and teamwork. Visually, the movie doesn’t always break new ground either; Buzz’s attempts to break into hyperspace will no doubt remind audiences of the Darkstar scene from the recently-released Top Gun: Maverick. But there are some choices with chronology and story that do break the mold, like a montage of the time that flies away from Buzz during his hyperspace runs that echoes the “Married Life” sequence from Up.

There’s also a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethic to certain creative choices too, like the inclusion of a robot “therapy cat” named Sox to help Buzz during his quest. The animated genre is saturated with animal friends that help human heroes in their journey and while Sox isn’t entirely unique in its conception, the character completely works in this setting and practically scampers away with the whole movie. Voiced by Peter Sohn, who played Emile in Ratatouille and various smaller characters in other Pixar films, Sox has a humble and helpful timbre that seemed to channel Tom Hanks’ most genial and gentle work. Plenty of laughs are derived from the juxtaposition of Sox’s ability to make advanced calculations and hack into computer systems with his proclivities towards feline behavior like wanting belly scratches and chasing laser beams.

Sequels and spin-offs are my least favorite sub-genre of Pixar movies and while Lightyear certainly isn’t as banal as the Cars follow-ups or Monsters University, it’s not up to the level of the three Toy Story sequels either. The screenplay by Jason Headley and director Angus MacLane relies too heavily on action-adventure tropes while having to rope in Toy Story lore and Pixar pathos along the way. Not every Pixar movie has to reach for the profundity of their most meaningful work but their more escapist efforts should at least strive for a sort of cinematic equivalent. Perhaps it didn’t help that the theater in which I saw this film had pretty wimpy sound; the dialogue was audible but the surround sound didn’t kick in for impact during the action scenes. Despite the pedestrian story, I will likely give Lightyear another chance on my home theater system in the future.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Black Phone, a supernatural horror movie starring Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames about a boy who is abducted by a serial killer and locked in a soundproof basement where he starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Also exclusively in theaters is Elvis, a music biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks which chronicles the life and career of legendary singer and actor Elvis Presley.
Streaming on Netflix is The Man From Toronto, an action comedy starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson where a case of mistaken identity intertwines a New Yorker and an assassin while the pair are staying at an Airbnb.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cha Cha Real Smooth

After taking CODA all the way to Best Picture Oscar gold earlier this year, Apple TV+ continues their trend of putting down serious cash to acquire wholesome hits out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though Cha Cha Real Smooth didn’t quite score the $25 million price tag that the streamer shelled out last year, $15 million is still a chunk of change to put down for distribution rights of a movie titled after lyrics from a DJ Casper song. It turns out to be another laudable purchase from the formidable streaming service, by virtue of being in their wheelhouse of magnanimous entertainment and in line with their quality-over-quantity pattern of content development. Putting the business aspects aside, it’s simply a sweet movie with a smart script and two winning leads.

Cha Cha Real Smooth follows amiable and adorable twentysomething Andrew (Cooper Raiff) as he toils away at food court oddity Meat Sticks while living with his mom (Leslie Mann) and his stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett). While taking his teenage brother David (Evan Assante) to a bat mitzvah, he inspires young mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) to hit the dance floor and get funky to “Funkytown”. Andrew takes this as a cue to try his hand at becoming a party host and professional DJ for the mitzvahs to come, while also helping take care of Lola while Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) is perpetually out of town on business.

The 24-year-old Raiff, who is also the writer and director of Cha Cha Real Smooth, has an infectious energy and youthful exuberance that comes across in both his performance and his filmmaking. The sharp screenplay allows us to gain insight on who Andrew is by the instant and lasting connections he forms with those around him. By the time he and Domino have their second and third conversations, it seems like these two have known each other for years. Andrew’s boyish charm almost makes him seem too good to be true at times but Raiff shades him with moments of ugliness, like his not-so-subtle jabs at his stepfather, that show the downside of being so demonstrative. “I know how to soft-step,” he drunkenly details to Domino one evening. “I just don’t want to right now.”

The inevitable romance between Andrew and Domino is necessarily given the most amount of screen time in Cha Cha Real Smooth but Raiff finds pivotal moments for Andrew to share with all the main characters where they truly see each other. Even though Andrew isn’t exactly someone who is in a position to give out life advice, his younger brother David still giddily looks up to him for tips about how to get through middle school. There’s a conversation Andrew has with his mother late in the film that is so open-hearted, gracious and downright sweet that she jokingly asks him if he’s trying to kill her as she tears up. Andrew’s interactions with Joseph are understandably awkward and even terse but their final scene together underscores how these two men with different backgrounds and sensibilities have found common ground.

Johnson, who also serves as a co-producer, has become something of a star in the indie movie circuit since her work in the Fifty Shades trilogy and she delivers another well-calibrated performance here. Domino has a push-pull relationship with Andrew where she’s withholding one minute and unmistakably flirtatious the next. Raiff and Johnson have a palpable chemistry that makes their time together feel vibrant, even if we’ve seen these story beats in other romantic dramedies before. The film’s overall arc is familiar as well and even though it’s still enjoyable, I hope Raiff is able to push himself even more artistically in his next effort. Big-hearted and bright, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a charming and charismatic film that, indeed, goes down real smooth.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Lightyear, an animated adventure starring Chris Evans and Keke Palmer that serves as an origin story for the Buzz Lightyear space ranger character that inspired the correlated toy from the Toy Story films.
Streaming on Netflix is Spiderhead, a sci-fi thriller starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller about two convicts living in a near-future society where prisoners can reduce their sentence time by volunteering for experiments using emotion-altering drugs
Premiering on Hulu is Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a romantic comedy starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack exploring the relationship that develops between a retired widow and a young male prostitute after their initial tryst.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


In the opening shot of the new thriller Watcher, Julia (Maika Monroe) looks out a taxi window with a glimmer of excitement at the Bucharest buildings that surround her new residence. She and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved from the US to Romania for work, even though Julia doesn’t know the Romanian language nearly as well as her hubby. She spends her first days there working to remedy the linguistic barrier, listening to foreign language courses while discovering the city on-foot. But bumming around Bucharest gets much more tense by the presence of Daniel (Burn Gorman), an across-the-way neighbor who too frequently looks into the married couple’s apartment window and who Julia suspects may be following her around as well.

Watcher is the first feature from writer/director Chloe Okuno and while it may not be the most auspicious debut, there are some signs of promise in the way she brings the audience into this tale. Visually, she captures rainy Bucharest in its paradoxically opulent griminess as the high-concept story vacillates between stately and seedy. All the angles to suggest a shadowy figure is stalking Julia are there, from the negative space of the most tense frames to the shallow focus on Julia’s worried face. Like Monroe’s 2014 breakthrough It Follows, it’s all about putting us in the mindset that the protagonist could be in danger and under pursuit at any moment. Up until the final 15 minutes, the pace and rhythm is in line with a slow-burn thriller, although it can feel more like it’s spinning its wheels rather than calculatedly creaking them for effect.

Where Watcher flats flat is in the scant screenplay, adapted by Okuno from a script written originally by Zack Ford. There is shockingly little character development amid the limited ensemble; a next-door neighbor character played by Madalina Anea may be the most well-rendered person in the whole film and she’s only really in a few scenes. Okuno does a fine job setting up the scenario of whether or not Julia is actually in danger and considering what she should do about it but the conflicts therein too often become redundant. I understand that Okuno is more concerned with establishing a mood of unease rather than writing scenes of lengthy dialogue but nevertheless, there has to be a compelling narrative first to make the atmospheric scenes resonate.

From a story perspective, Watcher plays like a Eurotrash mash-up of two classics, one from a very similar genre and another from a different genre entirely. Polanski’s horror film Repulsion, which also follows a young woman’s descent into paranoia through her perceived encounters with menacing men, seems to have been a touchstone for Okuno while making this film. While existential dramedy Lost in Translation isn’t scary, I was often reminded of Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte when watching Monroe’s Julia try to find herself in an intimidating new city. Glusman’s Francis also shares similarities with Giovanni Ribisi’s Translation character, both blasé workaholics whose disinterest in their wive’s satisfaction (and well-being, in Watcher’s case) should land them in hot water more than it actually does.

Glusman hasn’t made much of an impact on me in his filmography thus far and he’s a total bore as a character who needs sharper definition to make the relationship angle of this movie work. It doesn’t help that he and Monroe have little to no chemistry, although it’s possible that was somewhat intentional. Monroe is a talented young actress and this should theoretically be as much a showcase for her abilities as It Follows was 8 years ago but this project just isn’t up to her level. It’s hard to tell what on the page drew her to this role but I hope she’s able to find better scripts in the future, if for no other reason than to firmly retain her scream queen status. Watcher wears the guise of better voyeuristic thrillers but it’s ultimately not much more than window dressing.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Jurassic World Dominion, the conclusion to the Jurassic World trilogy starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, which finds dinosaurs now living alongside humans all over the world as the fight to determine the true apex predator comes to an end.
Streaming on Netflix is Hustle, a sports drama starring Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah about a former basketball scout who tries to revive his career by recruiting a player with a checkered past from overseas to play in the NBA.
Debuting on HBO Max is The Janes, a documentary highlighting a group of activists who built an underground network that provided safe and free abortions prior to the passing of Roe v. Wade.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup