ROCKETMAN (2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s billed as a musical fantasy. If you are familiar with Elton John’s discography and history, you’ll want to keep that in mind as the film unfolds. The reward is a colorful spectacle worthy of one of pop music’s most successful songwriters and greatest showmen. Director Dexter Fletcher (EDDIE THE EAGLE, 2015) and writer Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT, 2000) make frequent use of Elton’s music within the fabric of the storytelling. It’s no traditional biopic, nor should it be, given the wild ride of the man whose story is being told.

Taron Egerton tears into playing Elton John like it’s the role of a lifetime. And he succeeds in a way that makes it seem that could be true. Most of us first recognized Taron’s talent as “Eggsy” in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), though I’m not sure we expected such a dynamic step up so soon. This is not some actor merely mimicking the movements of a celebrity. This is an actor taking possession of a role. Without the costumes, Taron doesn’t look much like Elton John. He certainly doesn’t sound like Elton John … though his voice does justice to the classic songs. Despite those things, he is captivating on screen, both in the dramatic moments and the musical mania.

Elton’s childhood and the strained relationship he had with his parents (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Macintosh) are given much attention, as is the support and love of his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With two self-centered parents wishing he didn’t exist, the child piano prodigy might never have attended the Royal Academy of Music if not for grandmother Ivy. Of course, the professional relationship that meant the most to Elton’s career was his songwriting collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and much of the film is devoted to this prolific partnership – in fact, one of the most spine-tingling moments occurs as Bernie hands Elton the words to “Your Song” and Elton proceeds to set it to music right in front of us and Bernie. Whether that’s historically accurate or not, it provides a thrilling moment on screen for the creative duo.

Elton John in rehab is used as a framing device for the film. This allows him to walk us through his life … after admitting to having issues with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping and anger. In other words, one of the most successful musicians of all time was a mess. And we get to sit front row as he details his early sexual confusion, his desire to be loved, his early professional frustration, and finally a career that exploded – covering him with money, adoration, stress, and more frustration. We see the warts and all.

Supporting roles are filled by Richard Madden as John Reid, Elton’s lover and manager; Tate Donovan as Doug Weston, owner of Sunset Blvd’s Troubadour; Rachel Muldoon as Kiki Dee, Elton’s collaborator on  their big hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”; and Stephen Graham as Dick James, the famous music publisher who first signed Elton.

As someone whose favorite Elton albums are “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Madman Across the Water”, and “Honky Chateau”, it’s easy for me to appreciate the time period covered here (roughly 1970-1983), and also to recognize the ‘artistic license’ taken with the timelines and events. His 1970 gig at Troubadour features a rowdy version of “Crocodile Rock”, which wasn’t even written yet … although the scene makes for great cinema. Many of the songs that advance the story are used out of sequence, but it’s quite effective to see and hear them in context. His marriage to Renate Blauel and the rehab stint featured both occurred after 1983, which we can assume is the story’s stopping point given the use of the “I’m Still Standing” video as a finale. Even the use of John Lennon over Long John Baldry doesn’t really matter since this is all about the spectacle, and for spectacle, you’ve likely never seen costumes (including eyeglasses and headdresses) used to such startling effect … and so frequently. The baseball “uniform” Elton wore during his 1975 Dodger Stadium gig has always made me a bit uncomfortable, but it’s recreated beautifully for the film.

Given that comparisons to the recent BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are inevitable, it should be noted that director Dexter Fletcher rescued the final production of that film before finishing this one. Freddie Mercury and Elton John are two of the most fascinating figures in music history, and while both films are enjoyable, it’s ROCKETMAN that is willing to take the riskier path by highlighting the flaws of a creative genius. So criticize if you must, but you’ll probably still be singing in your seat.

watch the trailer:

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DIFF 2015 – Day 9

April 21, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 9 – Saturday April 18

FRAME BY FRAME (documentary)

DIFF 2015 Silver Heart Award Winner

frame by frame Greetings again from the darkness. Sitting comfortably in our recliners or desk chairs, we have come to take for granted the exceptional work of photojournalists from inside locations we ourselves would never risk going. These folks risk their lives to capture otherwise unimaginable conditions and injustice from around the world.  Co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli profile four courageous photographers from Afghanistan.

Documenting the truth with a camera seems so simple; however, as one of the photographers explains, he often finds himself running towards the spot from which everyone else is running away. Put yourself in this situation … you are taking photos of a solemn religious ceremony when suddenly a bomb explodes and bodies, limbs, blood and destruction are everywhere. Do you stay to record the fallout and help the injured, or do you run away from the scene in case another bomb is set to detonate? This film doesn’t judge, but instead it matter-of-factly points out that these photographers understand the role they play in exposing such evil and cruelty.  In other words, they stay.

One of the photographers profiled is Massoud, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his stunning photo of “The Girl in Green”. Massoud is now head photographer of AP – Kabul, and he remains in touch with the girl and her family, while maintaining his mission of documenting history in his country.

The most heart-breaking and anger-inducing segment involves Massoud’s wife Farzana, who is also a photojournalist. Yes, a female photojournalist in Afghanistan. Her personal story is so touching as she was a mere 13 year old girl when she had her first run-in with The Taliban, which had seized control in 1996 – making photography, education, history and any semblance of women’s rights a thing of the past. She shares her story which serves as her inspiration to record the injustices toward women that remain in the country, despite the social improvements since The Taliban was ousted from Kabul in 2001.

This review is no place for all the details covered in this emotional and powerful and informative documentary, but to paraphrase one of the photographers … “my heart was crying but my eyes had no tears left”. Please don’t mistake what these brave people do with the personal infringements of the celebrity paparazzi. The only similarities are the cameras they carry. These photojournalists and the others like them around the globe understand that their “empathy brings meaning to their photographs”, and that photographs are the only assurance that a segment of the population will never again be “voiceless”.

 

DIFF 2015 Award Winning Short Films

The last few days of a film festival allow the opportunity to catch up with the award-winning films that we may have missed. Below is a recap of the six award winning short films from this year’s Dallas International Film Festival:

WORLD OF TOMORROW (USA)

Directed by Don Hertzfeldt. The animated winner jumps ahead 227 years to show us a world where cloning provides everlasting life and perseverance of history and memories. It also depicts a world where financial status remains important, and leaves us with the philosophical thought … “Now is the envy of all dead”.

CAST IN INDIA (India/USA)

Directed by Natasha Reheja. Have you ever noticed that the manhole covers in NYC are stamped “Made in India”? Ms. Reheja noticed and thus began her journey to foundry where the bronze plates are crafted. It turns out these are highly skilled workers who take great pride in their work, face labor union issues, and sacrifice their hands, feet and backs for the manually intensive manufacturing process.

THE FACE OF UKRAINE (Australia)

Directed by Kitty Green. We see a stream of auditions from girls of various ages wanting the highly coveted role of the Ukrainian legendary figure skater Oksana Baiul – former World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist.

ONE HITTA QUITTA (USA)

Directed by Ya Ke Smith. This provides a look at the despicable fascination of some high school kids regarding videos of violence … especially a “one hitta”, which is blindsiding some innocent with a punch to the face. It also takes us inside a classroom where a teacher pays the price for being in a no-win situation with a punk kid named Jason, whose clueless mother only contributes to his sickening actions.

THE CHICKEN (Germany/Croatia)

Directed by Una Gumjak. It is a pristine example of how a short film can so quickly capture our attention and shift tone from comedy to danger to heartfelt. During war-torn 1993 Sarajevo, a girl receives the gift of a live chicken from her soldier father, and what follows is worthy of the film’s award.

MELVILLE (USA)

Directed by James M. Johnston. The combination of a bleak diagnosis and pregnant wife lead to open mic night at a local hangout, and the unforgettable lyrics of “F Cancer”.

 

RADIATOR

DIFF 2015 – Grand Jury Winner

radiator Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut of writer/director Tom Browne might be best suited to live theatre, though it works just fine on the silver screen. So fine in fact, that is was named the Grand Jury winner at the Dallas International Film Festival. On the surface it looks like yet another glimpse at the miseries of aging; however, it doesn’t take long before we viewers are entangled in this three-headed web of marriage, family, dominance and the struggles of growing old and losing control.

Fortunately the bleak subject matter is juiced with enough dark comedy that we actually laugh out loud periodically, while other times we manage at a smile for the smattering of sweet moments. Daniel (played by co-writer Daniel Cerqueira) is beckoned to the rural family home by his mother Maria (Gemma Jones) as she finds herself at a loss on how best to deal with Leonard (Richard Johnson), her husband and his dad.

This is a towering performance from Mr. Johnson, and he plays it full hilt as some odd type of tyrannical tragedy. See, Leonard’s reign as a force in family and life is now relegated to wallowing in his own sorrow, pain and feces while committed only to lying prone on the sofa and bossing his wife about the house with menial tasks for which he demands perfection. When Daniel arrives, he is taken aback by the squalor and demeanor of his once powerful father. He does what any of us would do … he takes control by ordering a hospital bed, getting dad cleaned up, etc.

As viewers we initially see things through the eyes of Daniel and Maria – on the wrong end of Leonard’s demeaning abuse. Somewhere along the way, there is a subtle shift in viewpoint and tone. The roots of love and marriage are revealed to run inordinately deep after so many years. An act of cruelty can somehow be forgotten and life can move on … even after situations that might never survive a shorter-term relationship. This shift is brilliant writing, and at a level we don’t typically see in movies.

In fact, the film seems to disprove one of its more poignant lines: “The black moments smother any flicker of light”, and instead builds on another: “Just because someone changes, doesn’t mean you stop loving them”. You will likely recognize all three lead actors, and each of them deliver excellent performances. Despite the subject matter, my takeaway is actually summed up in yet another line from the film … “I remember so much pleasure”.

 

 

 


YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

October 10, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sound and fury signify nothing. The narrator begins the film by reminding us of Shakespeare’s words. I can’t decide whether or not this was a confession by Woody Allen that he realized the movie fits that phrase. I have followed Mr. Allen’s film career since the early 70’s and have learned that sometimes disappointment follows. Of course, there are also times when pure screen magic occurs, making the journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, there is no magic here, just sound and faux-fury.

Here is a convoluted recap of the story: Elderly woman Helena (Gemma Jones) is dumped by her doesn’t want to admit he’s aging husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). He tries to be a swinging bachelor and ends up marrying a gold-digging call girl named Charlamaine (Lucy Punch). Helena looks for guidance from Cristal (Pauline Collins),a fortune teller referred by Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). Sally is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a morally bankrupt one-hit wonder in the novel-writing business. She works at a very successful art gallery run by Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally and Roy yell at each other a lot and Sally has eyes for Greg, who instead has eyes for Iris (Anna Friel), a painter Sally discovered. Roy has peeping eyes for Dia (Freida Pinto), whom he can see from his bedroom window.

So, you get the idea. It is actually a set-up that fits perfectly with a Woody Allen film. A madcat story where no one is happy with their life and they each seek proof of their worth. Interesting that they seem to have some security with their current partner, but it’s just not enough. The cast is stellar, and London makes the perfect setting. However, nothing really clicks. Manly Josh Brolin just doesn’t wear neurosis well. I didn’t enjoy watching Naomi Watts yell at people. Anthony Hopkins’ character is such a pathetic re-tread that it really annoyed me. Mr. Allen obviously finds Freida Pinto appealing because her character gets perfect lighting and comes across as a victim, despite dumping her fiancé.

Despite all the turns in these sub-plots, only one of the stories really has any finality to it. Now I don’t mind endings that leave much to the imagination, but I do get irritated when it appears the filmmaker just lost interest. Even when that filmmaker is Woody Allen. 

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe Woody Allen only makes timeless classics OR listening to Leon Redbone sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” is worth $10 to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are susceptible to the directives of fortune tellers OR you just can’t take one more film about a struggling writer, a lustful senior citizen or a career woman whose biological clock is ticking.