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:

Advertisements

DONNYBROOK (2019)

February 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Is it a coincidence that I’m reviewing this moving on Charles Darwin’s birthday? “Survival of the fittest” could be the subtitle to writer-director Tim Sutton’s bleak film adapted from the novel by Frank Bill. The film would have us believe that, once born into poverty and a hopeless existence, the only daily decisions to be made are: Do I try to survive another day? Should I kill myself? Should I kill someone else?

Is that bleak enough for you? Sutton’s film provides glimpses of each of the three questions, but mostly it’s an expose’ on the violence that is generated from a community of poverty, addiction, abuse, and crime. It isn’t clear and doesn’t matter which of those things comes first … they all lead down the same path. Jamie Bell plays “Jarhead” Earl, a military veteran looking for an escape route for his young kids and his junkie wife (Dara Tiller). Having a knack for fighting, and an apparent ability to take a beating, Earl decides the only way out is by winning the $100,000 grand prize for the Donnybrook … a no-rules bareknuckle cage fight. Of course his only route to the entry fee is via armed robbery. Have I mentioned this is bleak?

Earl doesn’t talk much, but he tries to protect his wife from the local meth dealer, a brutal savage named Angus (Frank Grillo, THE GREY) who has an awkward partnership with his younger sister Delia (Margaret Qualley, NOTIVTIATE) as they make the rounds taking care of business. Angus is the type that resorts to violence in every situation, and we witness his lack of value on human life is just about every scene he is in. Delia is a bit more complicated, as she longs for a way out, and accepts even a momentary reprieve. To top it off, we have a Detective Whalen (James Badge Dale, “The Pacific”) who is “chasing” this brother-sister outlaw duo … well at least he chases them between drug and booze fueled sidetracks.

The story takes place in the rural Midwest with towns and people those on both coasts never give much thought. When Earl finally reaches the Donnybrook, we are treated to what appears to be a redneck Burning Man festival where the revelers only stop hooting and beer guzzling long enough to sing the National Anthem while the American flag waves. We are left not knowing if this is a commentary on poverty, male aggression, or the forgotten class. It has some tonal similarities to the excellent OUT OF THE FURNACE, but isn’t close to that level. None of filmmaker Sutton’s first 3 movies have found much of an audience outside of festivals, and it’s a safe bet this one won’t either.

watch the trailer:


FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (2018)

January 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Old Hollywood glamour is merely something we read about or reminisce about these days. Part of the reason is that we are almost as likely to see a favorite star on TV as in a new movie, and a bigger cause is that we simply know too much about them as people … the mystique has been replaced by (too many) personal details and divisive political influence.

Classic movie lovers always have favorite performers, and there were certainly some great ones in the Golden Era: Bogart, Gable, Hepburn, Davis, etc; however, I’ve always felt there was one actress who time seems to have forgotten. Gloria Grahame never seemed to choose the easy route (either on screen or real life), and she turned in some terrific performances in the 1940’s and 50’s. You might only know her as Violet in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but she was also an Oscar winner for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), and had standout roles in OKLAHOMA! (1955), THE BIG HEAT (1953), and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). Her talent allowed her to fit as well for a musical or family film, as in the Noir Thrillers for which she seemed to thrive.

So why all the background on a mostly forgotten actress from a bygone era? Because Annette Bening magically channels the late actress in her role as Ms. Grahame in the final stages of her life. Director Paul McGuigan’s film is based on the memoir of Peter Turner, a young man who had a relationship with the actress in her later years. Turner is played here by Jamie Bell (BILLY ELLIOT) and he and Ms. Bening are so believable, that we are fully drawn in by their characters and their touching story.

Opening with the actress in her dressing room prepping for a dinner theatre version of “The Glass Menagerie”, the film conveys much in these few minutes. Clearly, this is an actress far removed from the Hollywood spotlight. We also sense her immense pride is still present, and the glass of milk is for relief from her discomfort … later self-diagnosed as “gas”.

We start in 1981 and flashback to 1979. Creative transitions between scenes and times add a stylish element to a story that is ultimately about human relationships, aging and loneliness. The need to be cared for when sick is as crucial as the importance of being a dependable caregiver for loved ones. The film’s script from Matt Greenhalgh allows for an empathetic look at these topics through the eyes of people we quickly care about.

Julie Walters (Bell’s dance teacher in BILLY ELLIOT) is exceptional as Turner’s mother and Ms. Grahame’s caregiver. Other supporting roles include Kenneth Cranham as Turner’s dad, Stephen Graham as his fiery brother, and Vanessa Redgrave as Ms. Grahame’s mother. We never get the back story on why Ms. Grahame feels so connected to the Turner family – only that the 28 year age difference between herself and Peter didn’t much matter to either of them.

There is a sexually-charged disco dance with Ms. Grahame and Peter in her hotel room that makes clear why any young man might fall for her, but it’s really in the quieter moments where the film and Ms. Bening and Mr. Bell shine. The emotions and pain are palpable, and yet neither her spirit nor his devotion will quit. The music from Jose Feliciano and Elvis Costello is terrific and comfortably fits a story of love and aging and illness, while also reminding us … once a starlet, always a starlet, even when the star has faded.

watch the trailer:


SNOWPIERCER (2014)

July 5, 2014

snowpiercer Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to understand how frequent movie goers develop an affinity for certain directors, however, it’s important to not blindly praise based on a name. Korean auteur director Joon-ho Bong has previously delivered a couple of artistic and interesting genre movies with The Host and Mother. His first (mostly) English language film is a sci-fi, politically-oriented action thriller that is based on a French graphic novel, and utilizes well known actors from the U.S. and U.K. This is definitely “world cinema”.

The basic premise is that a man-made experiment to “fix” severe global warming change goes bad, leaving the earth as an uninhabitable frozen tundra … even worse than Green Bay. The only survivors are those aboard a perpetual motion train that circles the earth year after year. Onboard is a class-segregation system (ala The Hunger Games) with the richest 1% at the front (first class) of the train and the 99% lower class bringing up the rear (steerage). This case of haves vs have-nots leads to the expected rebellion by the oppressed lower class.

As the rebels make their way towards the front of the train, each car brings new obstacles … in fact, each car plays like a new level in a video game – each different and more challenging than the previous. In between are a wide variety of creative fight scenes that allow the director to show off his visual acumen in close-quarter battles – some quite violent.

Comic relief is provided by a near clown-like Tilda Swinton. Her appearance and delivery are hilarious and seem better fit for a Wes Anderson movie … well, if not for the fact that I found the entire movie works better as a comedy than the political commentary it’s meant to be. Each of the main characters provide a bit of interest on their own: Chris Evans as the main rabble-rouser, Jamie Bell as his right-hand man, John Hurt as the old-timer and Octavia Spencer as the wronged-mother. Actually the best story line involves Nam and Yono (Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung respectively) as a father-daughter team with skills integral to the rebellion, as well as their own agenda.

While the fight scenes were well-staged, I couldn’t help but think of beer commercials every time the camera provided an exterior shot of the train. Luckily these shots and the abundance of posturing and lame dialogue kept me chuckling enough that it overshadowed the high number of ridiculous sequences … not the least of which is the final introduction to the Wizard of Oz-like train engineer in the front car.

Director Joon-ho Bong continues his technical advancements in visual and action effects, but he will need to deliver much tighter stories to capture a large U.S. audience. In fact, more drama was delivered by his real-life “final cut” battles with Harvey Weinstein than the on screen uprising.

***NOTE: I think having Ed Harris wear his beret from The Truman Show would have been a nice effect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true “world cinema” production featuring talent from Korea, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe class warfare (even with a stop off at a sushi bar) is a topic best suited for real life

watch the trailer:

 


THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

December 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not that I am hoping for marital strife, but I like it when Steven Spielberg wants to get out of the house, especially when he joins forces with Peter Jackson (serving here as Producer). This year he has delivered awards contender War Horse and this crowd pleasing motion-capture animation film (also) for the whole family. If you are unfamiliar with Tintin, it is a long-running, extremely popular European comic series by Herge’, who passed away in 1983.  This is Planes, Trains and Automobiles … plus Ships, Rowboats, Motorcycles, Zip lines and just about every other form of transportation that comes to mind.

Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) is an investigative newspaper reporter who looks 14, but clearly isn’t. He lives on his own, travels the world and is treated as an adult by those with whom he crosses paths. There is an early scene where Tintin is sitting for a local artist and the resulting portrait is an exact replica of his simple look in the comic series. Tintin has a trusty sidekick … his genius little dog, Snowy. Together they go on adventures that Indiana Jones can only dream about! This particular story focuses on the hunt for the lost Haddock family treasure. Tintin literally stumbles into the drunken sea Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) who is more concerned with his next swig of whiskey than the the fact that he has been kidnapped by the bad guy Rackham/Sakharine (Daniel Craig). This bad guy has unlocked the mystery location of all the clues to the lost treasure and needs Captain Haddock for the final step. Unfortunately for him, Tintin and Snowy get in the way and try their darndest to stop him.

 The action sequences are amongst the most exciting and thrill-packed that you will ever see. They look like “Jonny Quest” on steroids. The story is quite convoluted and complicated, and small kids will be totally lost on exactly WHY the characters do what they do. But it won’t much matter, because the visuals of each scene are captivating. There are even a couple of Interpol agents on the trail … Thompson and Thomson (voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, respectively).  Expect many site gags tossed in to offset the breakneck pace of the globe-trotting adventures.

 Spielberg has always done nice work when he can go after a kid’s imagination – even big kids like me. The look of this movie is pretty amazing, especially when compared to 2004’s The Polar Express. If you doubt how far technology has come, look at these two side by side.  Many of the characters here are as close to lifelike as we have seen – check out the skin and facial contours of Captain Haddock and Sackharine.  Wow.  Herge’ creation is given script work here by Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. The great John Williams provides the score. This is one you can bring the kids to and all will enjoy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of animated family fun with loads of action OR you just want to see how far motion-capture technology has come

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: to you, Indiana Jones is the be all and end all of action heroes in the movies OR you refuse to get props to anything with French origins 

watch the trailer:


JANE EYRE (2011)

March 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. For a film to rate highly with me, mass appeal is not necessary. The requirements are an interesting story that is well cast, well acted and well directed. Though it is often required reading in high school, the novel by Charlotte Bronte is a timeless classic and among the most popular of all time. The key roles in this latest film version are played well by Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax), Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane). Cary Fukunaga directs. He was also responsible for the powerful 2009 film Sin Nombre (highly recommended).

There have been numerous film and TV versions of this classic over the years, with the 1943 version being the most famous. Orson Welles starred as Rochester and Joan Fontaine was Jane. While that version still works, this year’s model is the first that I believe surpasses that one in quality. The two keys are the performance of Mia Wasikowska and the direction of Mr. Fukunaga.

 The film surprises a bit with it’s flashback approach, but it works well in linking the older Jane with her early struggles. This version really rests heavy on Wasikowska’s shoulders and she does not disappoint. You will recognize her from her recent turns in Alice in Wonderland, and The Kids Are All Right. She quickly jumps to the head of the Jane Eyre class. Very impressive.

Fukunaga’s direction relies on art direction and spectacular lighting. He draws in the viewer to this dark and mysterious world where much goes unstated, yet so much is communicated. The good girl/bad boy battle is always fun and moreso when the good girl is a remarkably independent and brassy girl, while the bad boy is very dark and dangerous. Of course, this is Hollywood so the novel’s unattractive Rochester is played by the strapping Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds).  I even thought the “reveal” was well-handled and the fall-out simple enough to follow.

 What always attracted me to this story was the strength and perseverance of Jane herself. To find a girl with such fortitude and moral stamina despite her upbringing and longings means the central character is both fascinating and easy to pull for. She is what we would wish of our own daughters … self confident, full of character and observant of what is fair and just.

If you aren’t the literary type, don’t expect to enjoy this film. Watching it is truly like the visualization that occurs when reading a top novel. I was completely drawn into life at Thornfield Hall and the life of Jane Eyre.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the classic novel OR enjoy strong female characters OR appreciate an atmospheric approach to literary subject 

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the nuanced courtship of two polar opposite characters does not provide enough action, gun play or explosions for your taste