Elvis (Warner Bros., Blu-ray + DVD, PG-13, 159 min.). Generally, one either loves or hates a Baz Luhrmann film and “Elvis,” which he directed and co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, is very much a Luhrmann film, starting with the opening diamond-encrusted logos that spin like kaleidoscopes, then lots of split screens – as many as eight at once – and montages that move the story along. For this take on Elvis Presley’s life, Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “The Great Gatsby”) uses the viewpoint of Elvis’ shady manager Col. Tom Parker to tell much of the tale. Parker, who was neither a colonel, a Tom nor a Parker, gives his side of the story, while being near death, to counter reporting and books critical of him. Parker’s carnival roots are emphasized as is his idea that “show business is snow business.”

The movie hits on most of the highlights of Elvis’ life, with particular attention to the teenaged Elvis’ love of black blues and gospel music, including his visits to Beale Street clubs. Luhrmann masterfully shows these early influences mixing them within a sweaty performance of “That’s Alright Mama.” The Beale Street visits including performances by Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh doing “Hound Dog”) and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). There’s also Gary Clark Jr. playing guitar in the sequence.

Also covered are Elvis’ quick rise to fame, including his controversial television appearances, his stints in the Army and Hollywood (those still fun movie musicals), his comeback TV special and his multi-week stints at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.

Austin Butler (TV’s “The Shannara Chronicles,” “Ruby & the Rockits”) is wonderful as Elvis, especially the younger Elvis, getting all the moves down and capturing the vitality of a man brimming with talent that needed to be expressed through physicality, as well as music. Butler sings the early material, while the later performances are a blend of his voice and Elvis’ real recordings.

Reliable Tom Hanks plays Col. Parker with lots of facial prosthetics and a Dutch-inflected Southern drawl. Olivia DeJonge (TV’s “Will”) plays wife Priscilla Presley and has the look down pat.

The early portion of the film is the best part and hooks the viewer. The latter parts are a bit more standard biography, but there are still more wonderful moments, including Elvis’ performance of “Trouble” that just about starts a riot with its fan reaction and leads to the police pulling him off stage. The result of the performance was that Elvis served two years in the Army rather than going to jail for lewdness. It is not until two hours in that Elvis’ overuse of pills enters the story.

Bonus features include a look at the reasons for the film with Luhrmann, who says it is a gateway to study America and popular culture, and actors Butler, Hanks and DeJonge (22:23); and looks at the music and other performers (7:33), Elvis’ style (8:02) and reinventing the locations in Australia (7:26). There also is a lyric video of “Trouble” and the ability to just view the 19 musical scenes (46:19) or visit them individually. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Raymond Massey plays the future president in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” Courtesy of Warner Archive Collection

 

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940, Warner Archive Collection, Blu-ray, NR, 109 min.). Even more so a standard biography, but once again giving a lot of time to the early days, including an unfulfilled romance with first love Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard), and devoting a lot of late time to the last Lincoln-Douglas debate, the film succeeds in being both informative and entertaining. It also helps that Raymond Massey (“Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Things to Come,” TV’s “Dr. Kildare”) looks like he was born to play Lincoln.

The film was directed by John Cromwell (“The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Anna and the King of Siam”) and written by Grover Jones, who adopted Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Massey, who originated the role on stage, received an Oscar nomination, as did cinematographer James Wong Howe.

The film shows all the frailties and strengths of the young man who grew up to become our 16th president. Ruth Gordon (“Harold and Maude,” “Rosemary’s Baby”) turns in a strong performance as wife Mary Todd, who is driven and determined that her husband becomes president. The film takes about a 16-year leap from their marriage to his run for president. Gene Lockhart (an Oscar nominee for “Algiers” and the father of June Lockhart of “Lost in Space” fame) plays debate opponent Stephen Douglas.

One thing made me curious. Lincoln refers to dishonorable electioneering, but no details are given. The sole extra is the April 22, 1940, Lux radio broadcast adaptation with Massey, Otto Kruger, and Fay Bainter (59:57). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extra 2 stars

Blow Out (1981, Criterion Collection, 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray, R, 108 min.). Writer-director Brian De Palma’s thriller, with political intrigue leanings, did not fare well at the box office – probably due to its ending – but is a masterful film, informed by the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and a variation on Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (1966), only using audio as well as film to prove a crime, and an echo of Ted Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which a politician’s watery crash results in a death.

This time, it is the politician, a shoo-in as his party’s presidential candidate, who dies in the crash, as his female companion Sally (Nancy Allen, then De Palma’s wife) is rescued by Jack (John Travolta), a sound engineer who was nearby recording nature sounds. Jack is convinced he heard a gunshot prior to the tire blowout, which caused the candidate’s car to go off the bridge into the creek.

The film has a great “trick” opening that, using a Steadicam, takes the viewpoint of a killer who knifes a guard, views some kinky stuff going on in a girls’ dormitory and then moves in on a girl showering and pulling back the curtain Alfred Hitchcock style.

We soon meet Jack, who provides sound effects for a sleazy Philadelphia exploitation film factory. “Coed Frenzy” is the fifth film in two years he has worked on, but they need to get the victim’s scream right and new wind sounds. So, Jack is outside taping sounds when the accident happens. He latter connects with Sally – there is great chemistry between Travolta and Allen, who previously worked together in De Palma’s “Carrie” – to see if she heard the gunshot. He then learns Sally works for divorce investigator Manny Karp (Dennis Franz of De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”) as a prop to get incriminating photos.

In fact, there was a gunshot, and the actual killer is Burke (John Lithgow, who was in De Palma’s “Obsession”), who begins a string of murders of Sally lookalikes in preparation of killing her.

Also, Hitchcockian, and very James Bond, is an ending dash by Jack through a Mummers’ parade. De Palma often employs split screens or dual in-focus parts of the frame to convey extra information.

Bonus material includes interviews with De Palma (57:48; 2010), Allen (25:25; 2011) and Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam (15:03). There also is a gallery of Louis Goldman’s photos and De Palma’s 1967 experimental film “Murder a la Mod” (80 min.), which also involves a sleazy filmmaker (Jared Martin in his debut, later of TV’s “War of the Worlds”) and a murder, with some silent movie-style fun antics involving the Otto character (William Finley, who also performs the pretty good title song). The booklet has an essay by critic Michael Sragow and Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker review. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Sniper: The White Raven (Ukraine, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or DVD, R, 112 min,). The based-on-a-true-story film follows the transition of a physics teacher into an effective sniper soldier after suffering a senseless tragedy in 2014 at the hands of invading Russian soldiers in the Dumbas region. The film is the debut feature from Marian Bushan and stars Pavlo Aldoshyn as Mykola, the teacher/soldier. Initially, Mykola and his wife Nastya (Maryna Koshkina) were eccentric pacifists who had built an eco-friendly home on a hillside (think where Hobbits live).

Eventually, Mykola is after a very skilled Russian sniper they call Sery, who has killed at least five Ukrainian snipers and three machine gunners. The no-frills film spends some time on Mykola’s sniper training, where his physics knowledge actually comes in handy for estimating the distance of targets. The package cover shot is from near-to-the-last shot of the film. Grade: film 3.25 stars

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

filed under: