‘Elvis’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Elvis Presley has always been present in my life since I was a baby. My father idolized him and played his music all the time. Without even realizing it, those songs and his movies were engrained into my brain. And now, whenever a song of his comes on, the lyrics just flow out of me. He has made such an impact with his music, movies, and performances because everything has just been passed down to the next generation. He’s not the King of Rock and Roll, he’s just a King in the industry because his fans adored him, and he did in return. Of course, Presley did credit Black artists, whom he looked up to when he was a kid, and owed his love of music to them. Director Baz Luhrmann showed all of his ups and downs, but most importantly, who he was as a person. 

Elvis highlights the two decades that Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) managed him. The film is narrated by Parker and it is truly the only way they could have done it. The only one close enough to Presley was Parker, and we get to see that relationship. Presley was this wholesome American boy who suffered from stage fright before walking out on that stage. Parker knew he had it in him, and once he saw him on that stage, he knew exactly what he needed to do to rise to fame. If you know Luhrmann, his style is pretty distinct. Viscerally, there’s so much flashy camerawork within the first fifteen minutes of this movie. And Luhrmann set the tone of how extravagant Parker made Presley. There is no one else who could have made this biopic because of the amount of excess and flare he brought to it, to tell the King’s story.

This is possibly one of Luhrmann’s most polished and tame films that he has made. His signature style was all over this, but somehow this is his most grounded film. The one reason this particular biopic stands out above the rest is the performance from Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. Some actors completely embody the artist they’re playing, but this is just a different case entirely. Butler became him and adopted his physicality, his vocal twang, his little idiosyncrasies, and had the star quality only Presley had. It is an incredible experience to watch Butler perform such iconic songs while sounding exactly like him. He studied Presley and you could see it all over. Even when they had to age him, it was a perfect performance from Butler. 

Elvis isn’t a perfect movie, but it was a beautiful tribute to a man who was caught in a trap and he couldn’t walk out. Luhrmann made sure to show that he was being suffocated by the visuals onscreen through the strings being pulled by Colonel Tom Parker. There were some great editing choices and split screens that worked because we got to see Presley’s growth as a performer and as a person. The important thing to take from this movie is that he adored his fans and just wanted to get out there day in and day out for them. In a way, Colonel Tom Parker set everything during his time in the industry to create longevity for him afterwards. The Parker/Presley marketing machine is, and always will be, the blueprint for marketing purposes. It’s more of a celebration of his life for the majority of the film, but Luhrmann did show the darkness he carried with him as well.

‘The Black Phone’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

There can be supernatural thrillers that are marketed as horror films, like The Black Phone. Director Scott Derrickson has made a name for himself in the horror genre because of Sinister (one of the most terrifying movies to ever be released) but that’s not enough to hold the audience over for this one. Once a writer dives into the supernatural nature of spirits, the story can get a bit ridiculous. In this case, The Black Phone didn’t expand or provide any backstory on why the supernatural element was present. The original story written by Joe Hill was very strong, but sometimes when these stories are translated to screen, it doesn’t work in the same way. 

We meet Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) who is a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, who’s being held in a soundproof basement by a sadistic, masked killer named The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). When a disconnected phone on the wall starts to ring, he soon discovers that he can hear the voices of the murderer’s previous victims — and they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney. On top of that, Finney’s little sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) has these visions that eventually come true. She can help the detectives find where The Grabber takes these young boys. Thames and McGraw are the stars of this movie because they compliment each other so well as brother and sister. 

Instead of labelling this as a supernatural thriller, this can also be seen as a coming-of-age film for young Finney. He has been bullied his entire life and is very timid. He tries his best to stay out of trouble and he can control his anger. On the other side of this, his little sister Gwen is an outspoken spitfire that defends her brother and expresses herself with her words. McGraw stole the spotlight because of her lines of dialogue and she made the movie better. Once Finney is captured by The Grabber and the phone starts ringing, the second half of this film just drags on. The way the other lost children helped Finney escape from The Grabber was fine, but it just felt overly long and a bit convenient. There were tools placed in the room that are placed there to help him escape. 

The Black Phone looked promising but the way the story was executed wasn’t engaging. Ethan Hawke had some great moments, but he was ultimately wasted in a role that could have made The Grabber iconic. Because it was a short story first, it feels like the majority of the story was explained, rather than shown to the audience. And in horror movies, it’s always more fun to see what the villain of the story is capable of. The one takeaway is that the sound design and the violence within the movie were really strong and made an impact during certain scenes. It has a strong premise, but it could have been executed more viscerally to make that connection to the characters. 

Dances With Films Selection: ‘Live Out Loud’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Within the past five years, times have been tough for everyone. We’ve seen so much loss and it’s hard to find a silver lining. Many people turn to any art medium for a sense of comfort or to express their emotions. Whether you’re painting, writing, or designing something that form of expression is cathartic and will always help you heal. The documentary Live Out Loud shows three people experiencing homelessness in Portland, Oregon who are empowered and begin to heal from childhood trauma by learning to make films in a grant-funded program. Director Melissa Gregory Rue was able to capture the lives of these people and share their journey in such an authentic way.

What was so interesting about this documentary was seeing how everyone’s mind works differently, especially within a creative mindset. There are different perspectives for everything and art can be moulded to complement the artist’s mind. People may suffer from traumatic events that affect their perspective on life and those stories are always important to explore. Everyone deserves to have the space to process their trauma and grow as a person in any space. Even though these people suffered through poverty, their outlook on life was always positive and they showed determination to do more. It is a heartwarming piece that will show you how everyone lives their lives differently and how they can start their dream at any point in their life.

Even though the camerawork and editing were a bit generic, the people and the importance of their stories are what make this a good watch. The way they take the time to sit with each person and explore their background is great. On top of that, we see their growing love for filmmaking and how this is a safe space for their ideas and their stories. Through filmmaking and storytelling, there is a powerful way to express oneself. We see a range of emotions in this documentary while they are trying to fix the relationships in their lives and work on themselves. What Gregory Rue wanted to show is that everyone can find their way if someone is willing to extend a hand. There needs to be more kindness in this world so everyone can have an opportunity to grow into the person they want to be.

Live Out Loud is a lovely documentary about second chances and how the arts will always be a safe space to grow as a person. It’s something that can be so personal to many people because of the freedom of expression through any medium. Movies, music, words, and paintings are all important things in this world because it all involves human connection. That’s the reason why the arts are always comforting to so many people. Even in the darkest of times, art becomes an outlet for a wide range of emotions and it will always be a grey area. There is no right or wrong, it’s all based on feelings and how you express them. Seeing a documentary such as this one give others the room to do whatever they want to do is refreshing and grounded in humanity. 

‘Lightyear’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

“To infinity… and beyond!” 

For those born in 1995 (like myself), Toy Story was something special. Our generation grew up with Andy and his toys. So to see this franchise get bigger and better as the years go on is great. Lightyear has been a long time coming and it makes sense for the Buzz Lightyear toy to have his origin story displayed on the big screen. Yes, this film is made for everyone, but it also felt oddly personal for 90s babies. Maybe, I’m just an emotional person when it comes to Pixar, but this just felt different. It was a weird mix of nostalgia and a brand new story for the Buzz we know and love. What worked so well is that the Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story and the Buzz Lightyear in his origin story both had the same character development. Those callbacks to the toy version made Lightyear special. 

In his original adventure, Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) embarks on an intergalactic adventure with a group of ambitious recruits and his robot companion. The story is straightforward and has many obstacles for Buzz along the way. Lightyear is dedicated to the Space Ranger program and thinks that is what defines him at the beginning of this film. He has his best friend, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) who is with him every step of the way. And in true Pixar fashion, within seconds, we understand how strong their friendship is. Some beautiful, heartfelt moments between the characters show the importance of having the right support system around you. Once, Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer) comes into the mix, the pressure of fulfilling a legacy is also shown. In a way, Izzy and Buzz both help each other understand their place in the world. 

Naturally, when we think of Buzz Lightyear, we think of Tim Allen. But now, hearing Chris Evans voice the original character that the toy is based on, it’s impossible to hear anyone else. Evans has always wanted to be in a Pixar movie and having him play one of the most iconic Pixar characters is perfect casting. Voice acting can be difficult because of the line delivery, but Evans made it seem effortless. It’s almost like you could see him saying the lines as we saw Buzz on screen. He was so expressive and just so wonderful as Lightyear. This works because Evans is such a likable actor and Buzz is an iconic character, so it feels like a comforting combination. Similar to Evans, Keke Palmer was a joy to watch as Izzy and she matched Evans’s energy. Having both of them on two different journeys with one common connection made for an interesting dynamic.

Lightyear has stunning animation that will take you into space with Buzz Lightyear. Pixar has perfected its animation and it has gotten to the point where it seems so lifelike. The scenes in space, especially on an IMAX screen feel so epic in scale. Animation can always push the boundary a bit more than live-action and that’s why it added a different feeling when watching this on the big screen. Even though the story may feel a bit generic, the emotional connection with Buzz and the Hawthornes moves the story along. The one character that will be everyone’s favourite after watching this movie is Sox. He is a little robotic cat, that Alisha got for him as his emotional space companion. Buzz learns to love Sox and the two of them make a great pairing throughout the film. This movie is fun for the whole family and is something old Toy Story fans will appreciate because it will make them feel like a kid again. 

Lightyear will be released in theatres Friday, June 17th. 

‘Spiderhead’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

The world as we know it has changed drastically in the past three years. And it’s hard to even remember how we were living before. There are larger companies that will always take over and insist that they know what is best for the global population, but most of the time that is not the case. In Escape to Spiderhead, the short story written in The New Yorker by George Saunders, he explores the evolution of drugs and human emotions. Even though the premise of the story is somewhat farfetched, it could also be something that could happen shortly. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick adapted the short story for the screen, and director Joseph Kosinski gave it his unique touch. 

In the near future, convicts are offered the chance to volunteer as medical subjects to shorten their sentences. One such subject for a new drug capable of generating feelings of love begins questioning the reality of his emotions. Kosinski throws you into the concept of this film right from the beginning, which makes for a pretty rocky start. It’s almost disorienting to work backwards and place the scientific aspect of the medical subjects before learning who they are. But, in a way, they are convicts being detained, so it almost makes sense to present the drug before the characters in a formal way. As the film goes on, the structure becomes a bit simpler and it’s easy to follow. The box filled with vials of different emotional drugs is placed on everyone’s lower backs and you can see the shift in emotions when Doctor Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) turns the dial on his phone. 

The one thing about Spiderhead is that even though it was a bit awkward and slow at times, this cast gave solid performances. Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) both have done horrible things and they think the trials help them process their pain. In a way, when someone does something by accident, it haunts them for the rest of their lives, and the film poses the question: what truly makes a person bad? Jeff and Lizzy think they deserve all the pain in the world for what they did, and they are compliant with the trials no matter what. But once the trials get a bit more intense, Jeff questions the real reason Abnesti went into pharmaceuticals. There are moments where Teller, Smollett and Hemsworth had to show a wide range of emotions within seconds, which can be fun, but also challenging. It was impressive to see the switch when the different drugs entered their system and changed their emotions.

Spiderhead has a very interesting concept and that is what keeps you engaged the entire runtime of the movie. There are some weak spots and the film seems to drag at times, but the acting always picks up at the right moment. The film does get stronger as it goes on and it gets darker. It is a movie that highlights grief, trauma, and guilt, and how that manifests into something else later on. Chris Hemsworth does give one of the best performances of his career. This is the first time where he loses himself in a character and it was fun to watch him explore his range. What made this movie even more fun was the wonderful soundtrack. The songs that were used throughout really made for some interesting action scenes, which Kosinski is so good at directing. 

Spiderhead will be released on Netflix Friday, June 17th.