Then Playing — Near Dark; Elvis; Amsterdam

Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987). It’s amusing now to see that Kathryn Bigelow filled her solo directorial debut with actors imported from Aliens, the action sequel made the previous years by her future husband, James Cameron. Especially since Cameron has a habit of repeatedly using the same actors, it’s like they were assembling their own power couple troupe of thespians willing to emote effusively while coated in corn syrup dyed red. Near Dark is a modernized Western disguised, though just barely, as a vampire romp. The film follows Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a country-mouse doofus who’s dazzled by the flirty prettiness of Mae (Jenny Wright). Her version of administering a hickey comes with some very particular side effects, including indoctrination into a rough gang that isn’t exactly thrilled about this newcomer. The plot is negligible (Bigelow is co-credited with Eric Red on the screenplay), but Bigelow clearly knows it. She’s there to fill the screen with kinetic style and headlong storytelling. Both goals are handily achieved, making Near Dark feel like a slightly upscale Roger Corman production, pleasingly so. As the most recklessly gonzo of the blood-drinkers, Bill Paxton energetically overdoes every scene as only he could.

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann, 2022). This musical biopic perfectly meets the expectations of excess held by any seasoned filmgoer given the basic information that Baz Luhrmann made a movie about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Luhrmann wastes no time whatsoever in inundating the viewer, essentially introducing Elvis with an onslaught of over-direction. It’s immediately exhausting and actively off-putting. But it’s also giddily exciting in its audaciousness, and the frenetic rhythms soon feel like a valuable element in capturing the wild whirl of the icon’s rise to unprecedented global fame. The list of what doesn’t work is long: Tom Hanks’s Batman-villain turn as Colonel Tom Parker, the onion-skin thinness of every character apart from the primary twosome, the jarring choice to suddenly leap over almost all of the nineteen-sixties after paying granular attention to so much else. Luhrmann’s strange magic trick is that missteps that would sink just about any other film simply become part of the spectacle, further entertaining evidence of filmmaker’s unhinged ambition. Austin Butler is ludicrously dazzling as Elvis Presley. He has the head start of playing one of the most imitated human beings in the history of the planet, and he shrewdly uses that advantage. Within that ready-made form, though, he brings a lot of additional detail, much of it conveyed through precisely calibrated shifts in body language that communicate the general state of Elvis’s inner being at any given moment.

Amsterdam (David O. Russell, 2022). Following an atypically prolific stretch that included three straight Oscar nominations for directing, David O. Russell went seven years between features only to return with a sprawling mess that sabotages its cast with a wildly varying tone. Christian Bale is the only major cast member whose performance is consistent, presumably because he ignored it when the director barked, “Now try one with no inflection in your voice!” The film’s plot bumper-cars along with three unlikely pals (Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington) who bonded amidst the carnage of World War I. Years after they return stateside, they get entangled in a conspiracy layered in tedious complications. Russell clearly yearns to offer commentary on modern right-wingers playing footsie with fascism, but there’s no deftness to his approach. Amsterdam manages to come across as both smug and confused.

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