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Movie reviews: Elvis, The Black Phone

Austin Butler shines in a biopic that's "All Shook Up."
Credit: Warner Bros.

ELVIS

Ah, to be Austin Butler right now! A shooting star for channeling the King of Rock 'N Roll ... convincingly! Up 'til now, he was best known for teen TV shows like "The Carrie Diaries" and "Zoey 101." On the big screen, he played a bit part as a serial killer from Dallas named Tex Watson in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." But he sent a tape to Baz Luhrman before the Aussie director was even officially auditioning for "Elvis," performing "Unchained Melody" at the piano. And he beat out the likes of Harry Styles and Miles Teller for the role of a lifetime.

Baz (He goes by his first name, just like Elvis) is known for his audacious extravaganzas ... "Moulin Rouge," perhaps the best and most successful. Here, he decides to tell the Elvis story through the eyes of carny-turned-manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks, buried in prosthetics. 

The film starts out like the frenetic spectacle you might expect, but to Baz's credit, he allows the story to settle in. We see the roots of Elvis music - in the religious revivals and black music of his 'Shake Rag' neighborhood of Tupelo, Mississippi ... to the R&B Memphis music scene of the 50s. We also learn about his start on the "Louisiana Hayride" circuit (if you were lucky enough, you saw him perform along with Hank Snow and others around North Texas, including several stops at the Dallas Sportatorium). Then, the movie works through the expected steps of an Elvis biopic: Priscilla, Graceland, Vegas, Decline. 

All flash, some flashback.

Anchoring all this is the star-making performance of Butler. He has the shy but sly young Elvis down pat, even singing the music of that era (they use actual Elvis recordings for his later numbers). Hanks was curious casting, and telling the story through Parker's eyes, even more so. I guess Baz wanted it make it more Shakespearian than it was. So, you gotta pump up the 'Shylock!' To me, it's a major distraction. Just take a look at the dailies, Baz. Your headliner is your man! The film also breezes through Elvis's movie years (some Ann-Margret would have been fun.), and more of the later years likely wound up on the editing room floor, because they felt rushed.

That said, I love Elvis music and really enjoyed the movie. Butler is a triumph. Baz's choice to go 'All Shook Up' at least makes it unique.

(Warner Bros. Rated PG-13. Running Time 2 hrs. 39 mins. In Theaters Only.)

THE BLACK PHONE

If scares are more your thing, terror factory, Blumhouse, has churned out another one. 

Ethan Hawke steps into his first role as a horror villain in "The Black Phone." Based on a short story, the setting is 1978 North Denver. He plays 'The Grabber' who lures tween boys into his black van with magic and balloons, and they never return home (oh, those masks you've seen in the trailer, terrifying!). 

A black phone hangs on the wall in the room where he keeps his victims. The phone's not connected, but his latest captive makes some other-worldly connections in an attempt to break free.

The always reliable Hawke reunites with his "Sinister" director Scott Derrickson (who also directed "Dr. Strange."). The Oscar-nominated actor brings a certain gravitas to the role. The kid in the basement, is played with pluck and resourcefulness by newcomer Mason Thames. And Madeleine McGraw as his foul-mouthed, spiritualist little sister, adds more feistiness. Look, I don't like movies that feature kids beating up each other, swearing and becoming victims of sick predators, and sometimes I wonder why these films are made. 

But given the genre, this one's not bad! 

By the way, after "The Black Phone," Hawke took the role of a Marvel villain in "Moon Knight." Maybe he's onto something!

(Universal Pictures. Rated R. Running Time 1 hr. 42 mins. In Theaters Only.)

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