Movie Review ~ Priscilla


The Facts:

Synopsis: When teenage Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley, the man who is already a meteoric rock-and-roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, a vulnerable best friend.
Stars: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Tim Post, Lynne Griffin, Dan Beirne, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Dan Abramovici
Director: Sofia Coppola
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: In the eyes of Hollywood, there are two sides to every (love) story, and with those tales come the inevitable competing biopics. In 2022, Baz Luhrmann released his all-encompassing take on the life of Elvis Presley to huge fanfare. Though not a slam-dunk critical darling, it built on the strong word-of-mouth from audiences to become a sizable hit, with repeat business a key factor in its success. A typically Lurhmann-esque cavalcade of decadence, it was a visual feast that had Austin Butler’s once-in-a-lifetime performance as the late singer becoming the talk of the town and just missing out on the Oscar. (He should have gotten it, in my opinion.)

Now, a year later, Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring) offers her vision of a different perspective on the private life of Elvis. Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 autobiography Elvis and Me, the ex-wife of the King is given more prominence than was afforded in Lurhmann’s film. Still, it does not tell us anything we didn’t already glean from the earlier film. Instead, what Priscilla winds up coming across as is a poorly timed, by-the-numbers attempt to insert itself into the consciousness of a public already aware of the lives of its subject. 

Living with her parents in Germany while her father was stationed at an army base near Bad Nauheim, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex) had a relatively sheltered life before she was invited to attend an off-base party and met Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, Deep Water). At that time, the singer was already an established star who enrolled in the military in part to clean-up his reputation. Though they had a 10-year age difference, the 14-year-old Priscilla quickly falls in young love with Elvis, only to have her heart broken when he flies home and resumes his fast-lane lifestyle. Never count out true love, though, because three years later, Elvis still has feelings for Priscilla, and he flies her over to Graceland.

Married at 22, by then, Elvis had fully groomed Priscilla, Coppola would argue in more ways than one. Ditching her All-American looks for the dark eyeliner, fake lashes, and huge hair that would become her staple for a time, Priscilla was isolated in Graceland while Elvis played around the world making movies and performing to sell-out crowds. The arrival of their daughter, Lisa Marie, a year after they married, would help them for a time, but the bond they had when they first met overseas would never truly be regained. Both had growing up to do, and Coppola delves into the new age practices Elvis explored before being shut down by Col. Tom Parker (who is never seen here and barely mentioned) and Priscilla’s aim for self-improvement through healthy living that eventually led her to leave her husband.

Peppered with good supporting work, Priscilla is mostly a two-hander shared by Spaeny and Elordi.  Elordi has the unenviable task of following Butler’s incredible work and, to his credit, creates his own Elvis that works for what Coppola’s film is trying to do. The Australian Elordi doesn’t quite nail the Southern accent (he does better as a Brit in the upcoming Saltburn), but he puts on the appropriate amount of Presley charisma that makes him irresistible to everyone, no matter what your orientation is. Spaeny (who won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for her work) is no slouch either, transforming from a mousy early teen to a self-aware mother taking a considerable risk in walking away from a life of comfort. There’s not much space to stretch into deep emotional wells in the small arena Coppola affords, but I think that’s also intentional.

While it’s lovely to look at and carefully assembled when seen from a coldly technical standpoint, Priscilla is mostly an emotionally vacant and chilly response to 2022’s far more vibrant litigation of the life of Elvis Presley and the relationship with his ex-wife and mother of his child. It may not have taken center stage like in Coppola’s film, but at least Luhrmann’s movie found a new way to calculate the biopic formula. Priscilla uses basic addition to get its total, and that feels like a far too easy way to get a solution to the complexities of intricate relationships.  

Movie Review ~ The Marsh King’s Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman with a secret past will venture into the wilderness she left behind to confront the most dangerous man she’s ever met: her father.
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, Caren Pistorius, Brooklynn Prince, Gil Birmingham
Director: Neil Burger
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: At first glance, The Marsh King’s Daughter looks like a movie that should receive a wider release as we make the curve out of the early fall season into more wintery watch weather. It’s coming from a mid-sized studio (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions), a director with a respectable list of credits to his name (Neil Burger, Voyagers, Divergent), and a cast that, while not fully A-list, at least has developed a reputation for delivering quality performances. It’s also based on a widely praised international bestseller from 2017 which remains a popular read today.

Ah, but then you get a look at Burger’s film, adapted from Karen Dionne’s novel, and you begin to understand why it’s taken so long to get the movie out of development hell and into theaters for a limited release in the first place. Initially set to begin filming in 2019 with Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander in the title role, production stalled out and soon lost its star and director (The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum) before getting started again two years ago with Burger taking over directing with Daisy Ridley assuming leading lady responsibilities. Who knows what the Tyldum/Vikander version would have looked like or if it could have been any better, but as it stands now, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a soggy slog of a suspense drama.

I’m unsure where to draw the line on spoilers for the framework of Dionne’s mystery, so I’ll start by saying there’s an evident familiarity with what’s happening at the film’s beginning. Young Helena (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project) lives a secluded life off the grid with her parents and is devoted to her father (Ben Mendelsohn, To Catch a Killer). This survivalist has been raising his daughter to fend for herself without emotion. Helena’s mother (Caren Pistorius, Unhinged) isn’t on the same page and is often excluded from the daddy/daughter exploits in the wilderness. A twist is revealed that separates the father from the two, and the film jumps ahead to an adult Helena (Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), now a mother with a family of her own.

Having put her time with her father behind her, when she receives news that he is likely coming back to look for her, memories of the past are drudged up. These memories provide greater context to the life she thought she was leading as a child and paint a different picture of the man she idolized and now fears. To protect her daughter and loved ones (including a totally wasted Garrett Hedlund, The United States vs. Billie Holiday), she’ll put the skills she was taught, that she never forgot, to the ultimate test as she comes face to face with the man who gave her everything she knows…and can anticipate her next move.

The first hour of The Marsh King’s Daughter is a snoozefest, a real languid exercise in a silly narrative construct that builds up this house of cards we can see will be knocked over by a Dramatic Turn of Events. Burger, who has displayed a verve for movies that have a simmering underlying energy, is off the mark on this outing, giving viewers nothing to build any dramatic weight off of. It’s only when Helena leaves the safety of her new life and ventures back to the one she left behind that the movie takes off, but by then, even intense work from Ridley and Mendelsohn can’t drag the proceedings back to solid ground.

Ultimately, I feel The Marsh King’s Daughter made for a good read but would never make anything other than an inert movie. Though screenwriters Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) and Elle Smith punch things up for the finale, that opening hour is so slow and uneventful you wonder what could have been done to save it. Even the production design feels barebones, though there are some nice cinematographic flourishes from Alwin H. Küchler along the way. If you are a fan of the book and want to see how the characters on the page look in motion, check this out. For all others, there are better places to travel than this buggy boggy Marsh.

Movie Review ~ Quiz Lady

The Facts:

Synopsis: A tightly wound, game show-obsessed woman must come together with her chaotic sister to help pay off their mother’s gambling debts.
Stars: Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Jason Schwartzman, Holland Taylor, Tony Hale, Jon “Dumbfoundead” Park, Will Ferrell
Director: Jessica Yu
Rated: R
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  While I don’t claim to play favorites, I have learned who I can depend on in movies/television. These actors will show up in projects that may not blow your mind but will turn in performances that will keep you engaged throughout. With an array of memorably scene-stealing roles in their roster of credits, two actresses that have earned their place on my “must always see” list are Sandra Oh and Awkwafina.  Finding out they were co-starring in a Hulu comedy premiering at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival playing reunited sisters moved Quiz Lady high on my list to see while attending the festivities. 

Routine and organization are critical to Anne Yum’s life. Her house is in order, she picks up after her dog, and she goes to work diligently at her hum-drum accounting job before coming home to watch Can’t Stop The Quiz, a long-running gameshow hosted by Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell, Spirited). Order goes out the window when the senior living home housing her mom calls Anne to report that her parent has gone missing, which brings her harried big sister Jenny (Sandra Oh, Turning Red) back onto the scene. Not only has their mom vanished, but she’s done so after racking up a massive gambling debt to a local loan shark who now expects the sisters to pay up. 

Without the funds to pay and noticing her sister is still an ace at Can’t Stop the Quiz, Jenny hatches a scheme to get Anne (Awkwafina, Renfield) to the auditions for the show so she can defeat the reigning champ (Jason Schwartzman, Asteroid City) and make enough cash to get the creditors off their backs. Thus begins a wacky, whacked-out road trip where the wild sister and the wallflower learn a thing or two about the other as they attempt to help their absent mother but do more for their relationship by the time they get to their destination.

There’s a broad appeal to this very broad comedy written by Jenn D’Angelo (Hocus Pocus 2), but it sadly doesn’t showcase either actor operating at the top of their game. True, there are enough moments in Jessica Yu’s film that give both women opportunities to play outside their comfort zone, but neither look settled in this new space. Oh comes across as really swinging for the cheap seats and whiffing it…yet she never embarrasses herself like other actresses could have. There’s a bit of a desperation in Oh’s desire to break out of her usual role, and it’s admirable, but paired with Awkwafina (who’s a more natural Jenny-type), it feels misaligned. Awkwafina fares better, but I didn’t ever fully buy her as a person so withdrawn or reserved.

I’m going to toss a late-breaking curveball your way. Here are two reasons why I will tell you to 100% see Quiz Lady. The first is for Ferrell giving one of his least Ferrell-y performances and nailing it. As the host of the quiz show Anne idolizes, he has a Fred Rogers charm that isn’t phony or played for laughs. There’s a moment when Terry and Anne get 1:1 time that’s some of the best onscreen work Ferrell has ever done. The second is for a cameo appearance near the end that is bound is get most viewers that grew up in the ’80s a little misty. That it involves national treasure Holland Taylor’s (Bombshell) crotchety next-door neighbor character is even better. Genuine feeling goes a long way, though it can seem at odds with a comedy that often takes on problems it can’t fully solve.

Movie Review ~ Sly


The Facts:

Synopsis: Explores Sylvester Stallone’s life and nearly 50-year career, from a rough childhood in Hell’s Kitchen to struggling actor to action filmmaker and star of Hollywood franchises
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Stallone, Henry Winkler, Talia Shire, John Herzfeld, Wesley Morris, Quentin Tarantino
Director: Thom Zimny
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Ultimately, I find that the point of watching any documentary is to learn something about the subject, and too often, with a look behind the curtain of Hollywood life, it never feels like you’re finding out something authentic. That’s not the case in the new Netflix documentary Sly, which premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. (This review uses part of the original thoughts I shared then.) 

Director Thom Zimny uses a brief 95-minute run time to cover the expected titles of Sylvester Stallone’s career (yes, even Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) but expends more of its energy in allowing the audience to listen to the man himself tell us about the life he has led until this point. As with any origin story, we must return to the beginning and Stallone’s upbringing. Raised in Hell’s Kitchen under a competitively tyrannical father, Stallone emerged from his early days as a struggling actor knowing that if he wanted interesting roles, he had to write them for himself.

This is how audiences came first to know Stallone as Rocky and eventually John Rambo, a role conceived quite differently in its original incarnation but changed to one with more resonant motivation once Stallone came on board and tinkered with the script. It’s surprising to hear how much Stallone (Creed) gets in there and reworks screenplays to fit not just his style but to improve the movie experience for the viewer – he’s laboring to make his films more than just a cookie-cutter retread of the last box-office blockbuster. Sometimes, it pays dividends, and others, it leads to ill-advised efforts like the disastrous 1983 Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive or 1984’s Rhinestone.

Though I think this could have been longer (hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, interviewed here waxing poetic about Stallone’s talent, just got a 3-part doc on Netflix!) and explored more of Stallone’s family life, the concise nature of Sly aligns with the man himself. As he showed onstage when he introduced the film in Toronto, he’s a man of few words, but his charisma in commanding a room is undeniable.  No documentary can accurately capture that, but Sly does above-average work by reminding us what made him a star to begin with.