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WBGO Film Critic Harlan Jacobson has an "Elvis" sighting at the 75th Cannes Film Festival

Austin Butler and Tom Hanks at the 75th Cannes Film Festival
Harlan Jacobson
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks at the 75th Cannes Film Festival

The 75th Cannes Film Festival ends this weekend with the awarding of its Golden Palm, the Palme d’Or. It can be a fancy joint, with its famous red carpet, but it’s also a launch pad for films coming our way. Having begun with Top Gun 2, Cannes effectively draws to a close with a big, glittery, out of competition screening of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which played like an Emergency Room shock to the heart of a festival that slumbered with films that meant well. Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, is on the scene.

HJ: Elvis reflects Aussie director Baz Lurhmann’s penchant for smashing an atomic pinata of exploding moments, sketching out the life of the young Presley in Tupelo black gospel and blues, on to Memphis, BB King, Big Momma Thornton, Sun Records, and worldwide super stardom in the 1950s. The kid does moonshot hip movements, and the old-world order saw moral collapse the way it did with jazz 30 years earlier. Southern White Democrats wanted to lock up their women and children. Elvis, the film, conjures the storms around his infamous TV appearance, cooling off for two years in Germany in the Army, finding Priscilla, returning to Hollywood, and finally going to slowly drug out at 42 in Vegas in a white jumpsuit swept aside by the tides. By the mid-60s, the young forgot about Elvis, and much of what Lurhmann does in two hours and forty is Elvis 101. Luhrmann takes some liberties with history to explain who Elvis was and to position him as an artistic rebel who fought The Man to the end, which he wasn’t, just so the film can play to young audiences now, not just those who lived Elvis then.

The first hurdle in doing Elvis had to be who ya gonna call to do the King? Austin Butler, who had a small part in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, gives Luhrmann everything he asked for, albeit in a reduced package physically. Butler does the lost boy pout and the lightning striking his body gyrations that send the panties flying, though I confess I thought the panties didn’t raining down till I saw the Beatles in ’64.

Lurhmann frames the story narrated by the devil voice over of Col. Tom Parker, the promoter-packager who built Presley into a colossus, then did whatever it took to hold on to him.

Elvis intuits that he is bigger than Parker, who plays him as he saw him, a child. As the Colonel, Hanks is saddled with doing a voiceover that links all the set-pieces of Elvis life and career. Hanks is buried under pounds of goop to give him a neck the size of a tree trunk and an indeterminate accent said to be Dutch, because Parker was postwar stateless, without papers, living as a Southern gentleman concert promoter when he stumbles over Presley here, like Bruce the Shark seeing a baby seal.

The Aussie Luhrmann’s best work – screen romances that started small and grew exponentially in size and scope -- Strictly Ballroom in 1992, Romeo and Juliet in ’96 with the baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio wooing Clare Danes, and Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in 2001 were properly electrifying. But Australia in 2008 and The Great Gatsby nine years ago left the distinct impression that Luhrmann was now relying on Glitter-pop extravaganza to get by.

In Elvis he needs a hit, Cannes has provided the launch pad, and my bet is that however over the top-Luhrmann-style and that whatever the critical shortcomings, the film makes a billion dollars worldwide. It’s Jaws as a rock opera that swallows the whale whole. I wasn’t moved to tears, as the Elvis faithful will be – but what about you? Warner Brothers is betting on it, first by bringing the film to the world stage in Cannes, then to you stateside June 24.

On to that French phenomenon, James Gray, who is a much beloved and revered director, more so than from whence he comes, Queens, New York.

The story of his new film, Armageddon Time, was filmed just blocks from where Gray grew up in Flushing in the 1980s.

Banks Repeta, an androgynously cute redhead who seems like he sprang whole from a painting by Vermeer, stands in for Gray as Paul Graff, a second-generation Jewish Ukrainian immigrant kid with the innate can’t-help-himself American outlaw tendencies that flower at PS 173 and later at a Kew Gardens-Forest Hills prep school. Gray pairs him with Jaylin Webb as Johnny, the black kid and Paul’s best friend in the class getting the bum’s rush to ruin. Whether Gray lived the discrimination story at the heart of this tale or not, Paul and Johnny’s story is what they’re talking about now when people square off in PTA meetings over Critical Race Theory.

Jeremy Strong as Gray’s plumber dad re-channels all that smoldering Kendall Roy frustration eyeing the throne in Succession into a late 20th century Jewish plumber’s angst about keeping your nose clean. Anne Hathaway lays down one more in her series of psycho-cringe moms, starting with Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married and vastly toned down here into “tawwk like this” Queens PTA mode from the nut self she unleashed in WeCrashed, as Adam Neumann’s Lady Macbeth. Anthony Hopkins is somewhat improbably used as a Jewish bubbeh, but he’s never less than absorbing, and who better than Tovah Feldshuh to get the Queens bubbee down pat.

Armageddon Time may be the closest peek inside Gray’s personal history, but all of them -- Little Odessa with Tim Roth, Two Lovers with Gwynneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix, and The Immigrant with Marion Cotillard – reach for wider context. He has since become a large canvas, genre adventurer -- Ad Astra, with Brad Pitt in Space; The Lost City of Z, with Robert Pattinson pirating the Amazon (back when it was a river); We Own the Night and The Yards, two New York criminal shtunk films with Joaquin Phoenix again and Mark Wahlberg as borough cops and weasels.

The talk about Gray always is why he is loved in France so much more so than Flushing. Gray cuts through all the red-carpet reserve and hoo-ha of France. The best people, when they are artists who step up and live out their working lives on a large stage, always have a moment when they are overwhelmed by where they are. Armageddon Time, Gray told the Lumiere crowd, is his story. Except – and here he did that Queens thing of wagging his bead back and forth rapidly in a “Well ya know” move, ya gotta leave a little wiggle room for plotting. First you cry, then you make stuff up, then you laugh. Jewish that, when any time is Armageddon Time.

and I'm Harlan Jacobson.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.