SING 2 (2021, animation)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. When an animated movie for kids banks over $600 million at the box office, we wouldn’t expect 5 years to pass before the sequel appears. But that’s exactly what has occurred with writer-director Garth Jennings’ follow-up to his hugely popular 2016 original featuring a troupe of anthropomorphic animals singing and dancing. This franchise doesn’t belong to Pixar or Disney, but rather Illumination, the studio behind the DESPICABLE ME films.

As one would expect, the sequel includes a return of the favorite characters (and voices), including koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), mama pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), rockin’ porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), and sensitive gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton). The stakes are higher for our warbling friends this time. The film opens with our furry friends performing an “Alice in Wonderland” production that features the Prince song, “Let’s Go Crazy”. Additionally, our retinas are scorched with every color known to mankind, reminding us of the land Oz … fitting because song #2 is Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”. The latter works because Buster has just been informed by talent scout Suki (Chelsea Peretti) that his team is ‘cute’, but “not good enough”. See, Buster’s dream is to introduce the act on a global scale.

Most of the rest of the movie involves: Buster dodging threats from evil tycoon Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale). Crystal is a wolf (of course) and is a powerful presence in a Las Vegas-style city built for entertainment. The other key element here is Buster’s promise to Crystal to deliver Clay Callaway (U2’s Bono) to the new production. Callaway, a lion, has been a reclusive rock star ever since a personal tragedy robbed him of his desire to participate in society. The bonding between Ash and Callaway is probably the best part of the story, and this occurs after Ash (Ms. Johansson) makes her point about equal pay (imitating real life) just after jamming to a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’ song.

In a move that makes little sense, Mr. Jennings has crafted a more complex story than what we saw in the first movie. This one will be difficult for many kids to follow, and involves the power and ego of Crystal, as well as nepotism with his entitled daughter (voiced beautifully by Halsey). But why complicate something that doesn’t need to be more complicated?  Most kids just want to watch the animals on stage, singing and dancing and doing goofy things. The sci-fi stage production “Out of this World” finds Meena teamed with a preening partner voiced by Eric Andre, while she dreams of connecting with the ice cream elephant voiced by Pharell Williams. Ash and Callaway are at the climax of the show with a version of Bono’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Also included are many familiar tunes by such artists as Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish, and The Weeknd. Many life lessons are served up here, including the importance of following your dream, but at one hour and fifty-two minutes, it’s easily 20 to 25 minutes longer than most kids will likely sit. While we can admire Mr. Jennings’ desire to deliver a sequel with value, we do question the wisdom in revising the template.

Opens in theaters on December 22, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


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:


KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

February 16, 2015

kingsman Greetings again from the darkness. In 2010, writer/director Matthew Vaughn turned the superhero genre on its ear with the hit Kick-Ass. With this most recent film (back with co-writer Jane Goldman), he has done the same thing to spy-thrillers.  We get the well-tailored look made famous by Roger Moore’s James Bond, the fanciful and lethal gadgets from early Bond films, the ever-present umbrella (put to new uses here) of “The Avengers” John Steed, and the ultra-suave and debonair manners of Napoleon Solo from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”  We get all of that in a surprisingly effective and fun action performance from Colin Firth.

Fun is the operative word here. It’s clear all parties involved are having a great time, especially Mr Firth going drastically against type. There are two action-packed and pretty humorous (in a demented way) fight scenes. One is early on inside a London pub, and has Firth flashing his particular set of skills against a group of thugs. The other (and even more raucous) fight occurs inside a church and is set to Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. The body count piled up as fast as the guitar licks.

As spectacular as the fight scenes are, the real fun here is in the characters. The old guard of the Kingsmen includes Firth as Galahad, Mark Strong as Merlin, Jack Davenport as Lancelot, and Michael Caine as Arthur. This long-standing group is one part international spy, one part Knights of the Round Table … and these gentlemen are extremely well trained and impeccably well dressed. When one of their agents dies on the job, the recruitment boot camp kicks into gear. Made up of a group of relative newcomers to the movie world, the two most interesting are Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Adding to the intrigue, Eggsy is the son of a former Kingsman, and has some skills that aren’t initially apparent.

Of course, what would a spy-tribute movie be without a colorful villain? Samuel L Jackson plays lispy megalomaniac Valentine, who has a quick gag reflex when it comes to violence. Fortunately his henchman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is equipped with razor sharp leg prosthetics and some ultra-crazy fighting skills.  We even see Mark Hamill as Professor Arnold … fans of the Mark Miller/Dave Gibbons graphic novel will appreciate the irony.

Firth and Egerton play off each other quite well in the mentor-pupil relationship, and Egerton is clearly set up for the franchise sequels … as is his friend and fellow Kingsman, Ms. Cookson. For those who think the Daniel Craig Bond films are too dark and serious, this provides a flashback to lighter Bond fare (minus the misogyny). Many hot topics are touched on: class warfare, domestic abuse, racism, etc, but mostly this can be taken as a rollicking good time because “it’s not that kind of movie”. It does, however, remind us that “manners make the man”.

watch the trailer: