Movie Review ~ Rocketman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Elton John’s life, from his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music through his influential and enduring musical partnership with Bernie Taupin.

Stars: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Fair is fair and I have to say right off the bat I was really rooting for Rocketman leading up to its release date. It’s not just because I’m a fan of Elton John or star Taron Egerton or that I was craving something with a different kind of movie magic than we’ve had so far in a strong 2019. Deep down, I wanted it to be better than Bohemian Rhapsody. There. I said it. I wanted it to best the 2018 biopic that was kinda about Freddie Mercury and kinda about Queen but ultimately not really about either because it couldn’t be fully honest about anything. That it went on to make so much money wasn’t a huge surprise considering the lasting impacting of Queen but it’s staying power in the cultural conversation was truly something to stand in awe of. I still haven’t fully come to terms that Rami Malek walked away with a Best Actor Oscar for his hammy, bug-eyed portrayal of Mercury. It’s a performance that almost instantly aged poorly and after seeing how right Egerton gets it as Elton John I think you’ll agree.

So yes…this was one I wanted to like but was more than ready to pounce on if it went down the same rose-colored glasses wearing path tread by Malek and company last year. Thankfully, every tear that wasn’t shed and thrill I didn’t feel in Bohemian Rhapsody were felt doubly in Rocketman. Here’s the right approach to find your way to the heart of a biopic: take a life story and tailor the film to the colorful character at its center. A film biography of Elton John would never have fit within your standard “and then he became a star” formulaic movie and screenwriter Lee Hall wisely knows that. Working with director Dexter Fletcher (who, in an weird twist of fate, took over directing duties for the last three weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody), Hall tells of John’s genesis in a sometimes surreal, often fantastical, always musical fashion and it’s a yellow brick winner.

Growing up in affluent Middlesex, Reginald Kenneth Dwight showed a knack for playing the piano just by ear at an early age. Though clearly a prodigy, he found little support from a selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, Pete’s Dragon) and emotionally cold father (Steven Mackintosh, Kick-Ass 2) until his grandmother (Gemma Jones, Bridget Jones’s Baby) offered to take him to lessons with the Royal Academy of Music. An awkward adolescence led to his early adulthood as a pianist for visiting soul and R&B acts. Answering an ad for songwriters, the newly renamed Elton John came to Liberty Records, a fortuitous job inquiry as this is where he’d be paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) who would become his collaborator for the next fifty years (and counting!).

With hit songs garnering acclaim in the UK and sending them on a tour to America and the famed Troubadour nightclub, Elton and Bernie experienced celebrity at a time of extreme excess. Any kind of fantasy you want is yours. Any drug you desire is within your reach. No dream is too small if you have the money to pay for it. The more cash they bring in and the higher Elton’s star rises, the greater the divide between the close friends becomes…driven further apart by John’s substance abuse and his tortured relationship with his business (and romantic) partner John Reid (Richard Madden, Cinderella).

This true story of the meteoric rise of Elton’s early career, troubled mid-life, and eventual redemption is told using the soundtrack of the music he created with Taupin. It’s not wall-to-wall music and at 121 minutes it’s perhaps ten minutes shorter than it had to be but Fletcher takes that trim running length to keep things moving at high velocity like it’s central character. The songs are used creatively and not always in the order they were written and it’s nice to hear nearly all the main actors get the chance to use their voices at some point.  While it’s not a comprehensive documentation of the Elton/Bernie catalog, the film finds clever ways of getting brief bits of songs in at various points throughout.  Keep your ears open…especially for instrumental tracks.

The bulk of the singing and almost the entirety of the movie, rests on Egerton’s capable shoulders and he more than stands up to the challenge. Looking back at the wild looks Elton has worn onstage over the years gives you one part of the puzzle that is the singer and it’s up to Egerton to show us the side we haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. Thankfully, Elton appears to have given the filmmakers carte blanche to include what they wanted.  While the film doesn’t shy away from his dependence on drugs, alcohol, and other vices it doesn’t portray him as an unwilling participant either. This is no pity party for a man who took a very active role in his drug abuse.

Egerton commits 150% to the role and anything less would have been phoning it in.  He takes every costume piece and accessory to the max and he dances and sings like a dream.  By the actor finding his groove with such verve, it allows us to buy what Egerton is selling…like when Elton describes himself as fat.  Though they try to bulk him up by putting him in any number of wide corduroy jackets and neckerchiefs, there’s no way Egerton has extra poundage to emulate the roly poly musician when he was a youth.  He does better in Elton’s later years when he’s losing his hair and the ravages of drugs and alcohol are beginning to take their toll.

Supporting Egerton nicely are Bell as talented lyricist Taupin.  It’s always strange (or, a little bit funny?)  to see Bell so grown-up all these years after Billy Elliot and I’m surprised we didn’t see him dancing at some point in the movie.  Madden and Egerton take on ‘Honkey Cat’ for a laugh and while Madden won’t be recording a CD anytime soon he acquits himself nicely.  Howard and Mackintosh have difficult roles as the enduring villains of the film but they don’t cut their characters any slack, making the final moments of the film that much more impactful.  For a full on camp performance, look no further than Tate Donovan (Argo) as outlandish Troubadour owner Doug Weston…I like Donovan but boy did I wince every time he nearly flew away onscreen.  I also thought a brief appearance by Dutch stage star Celinde Schoenmaker as Elton’s wife (!) was interesting and wanted more time with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon, Mary Poppins Returns)…but who doesn’t?

Fletcher has a nice eye for keeping things visually interesting and not just in the costume department. Small scenes give way to large choreographed numbers that burst with energy and a few of these key moments create goosebump shivers up your spine. A transition from young Elton to Egerton’s Elton in the middle of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ comes at the same moment when highly physical dancing is kicked up a notch. Then there’s the quiet scene on an ordinary day when Bernie gives Elton the lyrics to ‘Your Song’ and the entire house stops what they’re doing to listen to Elton find his way through the notes to the melody that is so instantly familiar – it’s truly a magic moment.

What Hall and Fletcher miss on are opportunities to go a little deeper with the material or finish their thoughts in scenes that are building to an emotional climax. On more than one occasion I felt a scene was heading toward a resolution only to have it interrupted by a musical number. I know you can only get so much of a life into a two hour movie and you’re never going to get the whole story but key characters get touched on so little you wonder why they were included at all. Elton’s brief marriage of convenience is one example. I know why it’s there but it’s not given any true emotional weight, nor is there some finality with a few of the characters that deserve some rounding of the rough edges we’re left with.

Yet even with these examples of the movie skimming the surface instead of taking a deep dive, it has great emotional resonance. Elton’s sexuality is spoken about with casual frankness…as are opinions of those who don’t accept him for who is. I applaud everyone involved (including the studio) for keeping in the moments that show two men together and don’t treat it as lascivious or wrong or something for anyone to be ashamed of. Even if it makes the film overall more of a tough sell to some audiences, it’s dealing in honesty first and that’s commendable.  I wasn’t expecting the movie to choke me up as much as it did but on several occasions I was greatly moved by what was happening onscreen.

I was lucky enough to see Elton John in concert earlier this year on his final tour and it dovetailed nicely into seeing this biopic. Though his range is smaller than it used to be and he rarely came out from behind his piano, he held a sold out crowd completely captive for two and a half hours based almost solely on the strength of his music. That is the true sign of an artist. I’d have loved to see Rocketman arrive in theaters a year earlier because then Bohemian Rhapsody would have arrived in its shadow and been held under some scrutiny for the facts it fudges and it’s almost pathological need to please instead of tell the truth. This music-filled life-story of Elton John isn’t afraid to be a warts-and-all look into his world and still have the audience on his side when the credits roll.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla: King of the Monsters


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The crypto-zoological agency Monarch faces off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Charles Dance, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds, Zhang Ziyi

Director: Michael Dougherty

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I guess I never knew quite how popular Godzilla was until I started doing my homework in prep for seeing his latest Hollywood endeavor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. While this film is only his third movie to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, it’s the 35th overall to feature the big green lizard/dragon/sea beast that smashes big cities with a mere flick of his craggy tail. That’s pretty impressive for a mega-monster originally conceived in 1954 as a cautionary tale on nuclear technology. As the world changed, so did Godzilla’s alliances, though his popularity waxed and waned over the ensuing decades, getting revived very few years to keep him in the public consciousness.

After a disastrous attempt at bringing him to life for American audiences via a 1998 soggy blockbuster, in 2014 director Gareth Edwards found a formula that worked with the impressive, popcorn-chomping, good-time fun of Godzilla. Always hungry for the next big franchise, Warner Brothers was already in the works on a sequel to their hit film when they decided that 2017’s Kong: Skull Island would be a tie-in experience that was slightly retro-fitted to expand upon their “monster-verse”. With two titans now in their corner and plenty of foes from the subsequent canon of sequels (official and cheapie otherwise), the studio went all in with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The resulting product is one that doubles down on the monster mayhem but misses the mark on the human element that its predecessor made time for.

Five years have passed since Godzilla went head to head with two massive creatures that left much of San Francisco destroyed. Returning to the depths of the ocean, Godzilla hasn’t been seen since, nor have any more ghastly beasties risen from the ground to wreak havoc. Still, crypto-zoological organization Monarch has been continuing their covert work on the titan project that began years earlier. The discovery of Skull Island helped them pinpoint other locations around the globe where sleeping beasts may lie and outposts have been set-up in these areas to study these creatures and protect the outside world from disturbing their slumber.

Paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown, Stranger Things) live on one of the Monarch outposts and as the film opens they are present for the birth of Mothra, a giant caterpillar creature that Emma has developed a way to communicate with. No sooner has contact been established when an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, playing his umpteenth villain) bursts in, abducts mother and daughter, and makes off with the device that not only can communicate with the titans but can also rouse them from their rest and send them on a rampage.

As the titans are let loose, including Rodan and the alpha-est alpha of them all, the three dragon-headed beast King Ghidorah, it calls forth Godzilla from the fathoms and he doesn’t seem too happy about cutting his watery rest short. Audiences should be pleased, however, that Godzilla gets far more screen time in the sequel and actually gets to be the bona-fide star of his own film. He definitely gets more screen time than some of the top-billed stars, many of whom seem to have signed up only to stand with their mouth agape on the bridge of a ship/aircraft carrier/submarine and occasionally throw out bits of trivia (I’m looking at you Zhang Ziyi, The Grandmaster). At least lead player Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now) is a marked improvement over the teeth-gnashing overacting of Bryan Cranston in the first film…but the scenery is still chewed to the bone by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) who manages to not only play the same irksome character in each movie but wear the same athleisure wardrobe as well. The only two notable actors reprising their roles are Ken Watanabe (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) as Monarch scientists and both seem to be squeezing each others hand for moral support for much of the picture.

Cutting his teeth successfully on smaller films like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, director Michael Dougherty graduates to the big time in a big way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an overwhelming film and at times it feels like you’re getting swept away into a vortex along with everyone else in the movie. Surprisingly iffy special effects at times go hand in hand with stunningly rendered creature feature work – when Godzilla and King Ghidorah charge each other (seen in the previews but even more exciting in context) there a definite electric charge that ran through the audience.  Dougherty is best when the action is pulled back on a massive scale to see the creatures in their full glory — it’s only when we get up close and personal that you begin to see the seams…the man in the rubber suit as it were.

If only that pesky plot-stuff didn’t pop up to get in the way of all of the chaos from these colossuses, right? While the crux of the plot has the whiff of something audiences already explored in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, Dougherty penned the script along with returning screenwriter Max Borenstein and franchise newbie Zach Shields.  The film feels like a hodgepodge of ideas and necessary exposition to get us caught up to where we need to be before the next film, Godzilla vs. Kong, arrives in March 2020.   There’s a whole lot going on here and not a lot of time for anything to sink in. Major plot points are glossed over — don’t blink or you’ll miss that a character has a twin who appears in one scene while two major characters perish in separate parts of the movie and we barely notice because it’s so hard visually to see what happened.  As is the case with many sequels, there’s more mythology to explain and some of it (such as where Godzilla goes when he isn’t in battle mode) is quite interesting but we’re yanked away so fast it begins to feel like Daughtery is contractually obligated to get to the next big clash.

This is one of those pure entertainment films that doesn’t ask much of you outside of 2 ½ hours of your time and the price of a ticket. It’s escapist stuff that’s big, loud, silly, but ultimately a fun watch. If you’re spending time thinking about why the actors are doing what they’re doing then you’re missing the point of it all – just wait a few minutes and Godzilla will be back to show you why he’s king of the monsters. Bow down.

Movie Review ~ All is True


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the final days in the life of renown playwright William Shakespeare.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Jack Colgrave Hirst

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: We’ve all seen Shakespeare when he was in love but what about when Shakespeare was in despair? That’s what seems to be on the mind of producer, director, and star Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton when they decided to film All is True without much fanfare. If anything, All is True is a nice reminder that it’s possible to make a movie with three quite respected stars and not have anyone know about it until it’s ready to be released. It wasn’t until 2018 was nearly finished that people were aware this even existed and there was even a very brief discussion that Branagh would be a late addition to the Best Actor Oscar pool. Then people started seeing Branagh’s Bard picture and the buzz cooled considerably…and I can see why.

Look, I’m a Shakespeare fan but not a Shakespeare snob so I’m ok with filmmakers playing a little fast and loose with the Bard. I get a chuckle anytime a play or musical adds him as a character that can poke fun at his persona and I think the man himself would get a huge kick out of the many ways his works have been re-envisioned over the hundreds of years his plays have been in the lexicon. I’m wondering, though, how he’d feel about certain elements of his personal life being examined onscreen and conclusions being drawn from pure conjecture. Would he still be laughing at particular truths being leveled toward him and his family?

Branagh is clearly a fan of the man as well, having starred in and directed countless Shakespeare works over the years. He’s one of the foremost experts on the playwright and based on the performance he gives he’s well suited for playing Shakespeare and for directing the film. Yet there’s something to be said about being too reverential to your subject and getting too close to the work. You run the risk of becoming myopic to what constitutes engaging entertainment and what others would want to see. Before you know it, you’ve produced a chamber piece that has limited appeal – and that’s what winds up happening with the respectable but stodgy All is True.

William Shakespeare (Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) has returned to his home in Stratford after his Globe Theatre burns down in 1613. Frequently absent after the death of his only son in 1596, his arrival isn’t exactly met with excitement from his wife Anne Hathaway (Dench, Skyfall) or his daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson, About Time) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder, Murder on the Orient Express). Still consumed with unresolved grief from the loss of his son, Shakespeare spends his days building a garden in honor of his only boy, stopping only to quote verse, converse with his family, or speak with an array of visitors that seek some form of council.

The film feels like a series of brief one acts involving Shakespeare and his family being involved with events around town. Instead of Elton’s script just focusing on Shakespeare working through his heartache with the help of his family, we get introduced to several Puritan members of the church and townspeople that pass through their lives. One daughter is accused of infidelity, another must overcome her own sense of self-loathing in order to move on in her blossoming relationship with the town lothario, then Shakesapre’s own sexuality comes into question when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast) comes to visit. The only family member that seems to get the short end of the stick is Anne, though Dench, always true to form, makes the most of every frame she’s in and every line she’s given.

The whole movie plays out with some truly lovely cinematography from Zac Nicholson (Les Misérables) that’s often filmed in one long take or on stationary cameras. People sit and deliver most of their lines with very little movement necessary, creating the effect you’re watching a play instead of a movie. Using candle-light in the evenings and natural light during the day, Nicholson captures the realistic world that Shakespeare would have lived in during that time…and also the mundanity of it as well.  Much like a Sunday matinee, don’t be shocked if you find yourself resisting the urge to nod off on several occasions.

I can’t say All is True is an entertaining picture or even one that I enjoyed when all was said and done. Though admirably performed (Dench, in particular, is grand) there’s just a casual sameness to the film after a while. Much of the running time follows people in highly distressed, unhappy stages of their lives and it’s only when some inkling of happiness is introduced the film finds a lightness and snaps out of its dirge-like funereal march toward the end credits. It’s brief…but it’s welcome.

Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.

Movie Review ~ Brightburn


The Facts
:

Synopsis: What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?

Stars: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams

Director: David Yarovesky

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: If you ask even the most hardcore comic book or superhero fan, they’ll tell you the most difficult movie to get through is the origin story. The necessary evil in the introduction of any known entity, it’s the one entry that often gets marked down for its inevitable sameness.  It’s made all the more frustrating when a studio goes back to the drawing board and wants to begin their big franchise from the ground up again…because it means another take on how our hero or heroine came to be so very super.  While some films have found new angles into the telling of these tales, most find themselves fumbling through rote storytelling arcs as a means to a predictable end.

Living in an age where remakes and reboots are all the rage, I can see the appeal of Brightburn to a studio hungry for an interesting property that poses quite the question to viewers:  What if a childless couple found a baby in a demolished spacecraft and raised him as their own, but rather than growing up to be a hero he becomes malevolent?

On an ordinary night in 2006, the town of Brightburn, Kansas saw its population grow by one when Tori and Kyle Breyer’s prayers are answered and a baby boy literally falls from the sky. Over the next 12 years the Breyer’s don’t speak of that night, telling the boy only that he was adopted and living a peaceful life on their remote farm.  They notice, though, that he’s never sick, never bleeds, never gets a bruise.  On the eve of his twelfth birthday, a strange beacon coming from the barn awakens Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, Avengers: Endgame) and it flips some kind of switch inside him, unleashing a host of powers he never knew he had. Over the next several days these powers will grow, as will his desire to take over the world…starting with Brightburn.

Turning the Superman origin story on its ear, Brightburn most definitely has the kernel of a unique concept but it’s unfortunately not been developed too far past that logline.  What’s arrived in theaters is a half-baked movie born from a half-baked idea.  The script from Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn feels like a second or third draft that needs more work because the dialogue is weak (we’re talking Saturday Night Live spoof sketch level bad) and the second half of the movie are just repetitive scenes of Brandon enacting grotesque violence on people that run afoul of him.

Admittedly, there’s some art to a few of these gore displays but they are peppered amongst uncomfortable scenes that are incredibly awkward to sit through. Did we really need to have the moment where Kyle (David Denman, jOBS) has “the talk” with Bradon and tells him about masturbation? Or several squirm-inducing passages where Brandon makes unwanted advances on a preteen girl in his class…going so far as to show up in her bedroom to terrify her?  It’s one thing to stage horror sequences where adults have gory maladies befall them but the objectification of the children was a skeevy step director David Yarovesky should have avoided.  There’s a pervy undertone to the movie that can’t be ignored.

The biggest misstep by the filmmakers is that they abandon their revisionist idea almost as soon as they introduce it, reducing Brandon to just being a creep instead of someone evil to his core.  That his parents ignore his behavior for so long starts to be a reflection on their bad parenting more than his devolving to a darker side.  By the time everyone realizes what’s going on, it’s too late and we’re already in the final act.  Even though it’s blessedly short at 91 minutes (85 not including credits) the movie struggles to maintain focus, mostly due to poor plotting and inconsistent pacing.  The last 20 minutes are a mish-mash of bad CGI and headache-inducing light flashes.

There’s most likely several factors Brightburn made it to theaters at all and didn’t go straight to Netflix where I think it would have found greater success.  With James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) producing a script written by his brother and cousin, he brought on old friend Banks (Pitch Perfect 2) as its only notable star and while she’s not A-List enough to open a movie she’s liked by quite a view movie-goers.  Also, considering its vague superhero ties it must have seemed like a good bit of counterprogramming to release it during the Memorial Day weekend in the hopes that audiences would give it a go without reading reviews first. The studio not screening the movie for critics was a clever move…but only fanned the whiff of a turkey my way.  When will they learn?

Movie Review ~ Aladdin (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A kindhearted street urchin and a power-hungry Grand Vizier vie for a magic lamp that has the power to make their deepest wishes come true.

Stars: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid, Negahban, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When Disney released their animated Aladdin in 1992 it was right around the time when I had passed over from being the target audience for their bright musical fare. I remember seeing it in the theaters, though, and finding it to be long and kind of…boring. Over the years it has been one I’ve regarded with some occasional interest but it’s never high on my list of re-watchable Disney Classics. To me, the movie will always be synonymous with two things: Robin Williams as the Genie and the song ‘A Whole New World’, both enduring classics no matter what you think about the film.

When Disney announced Aladdin would join their ever growing roster of live-action adaptations of animated classics, I could understand why they’d think this would be an eye-popping visual feast that would translate well but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they’d want to try and top the unforgettable work of Williams. It seemed like a losing battle. As the movie came together, there were more curious decisions from the studio. Tough-guy director Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) would be at the helm? No songs from the expensive Broadway musical of Aladdin would be utilized in the film? Will Smith would be taking over as the Genie? Early previews and set pictures didn’t do much to quell the fears that this was going seriously astray but I can honestly say when I walked into the screening on a rainy day I was looking forward to settling in for something special.

The short and easy review of the 2019 live-action Aladdin is say that it rubbed me the wrong way. Almost from the very beginning, I knew this wasn’t going to meet expectations on any level and I was proven right for the next 128 minutes. From the rushed opening third to its saggy middle and lackluster finale, it seems like almost everyone involved forgot what kind of movie they were making. When they were focusing on music, they forgot to make it sound good. When they were focusing on fantasy, there was no effort to be truly transporting. This is film that’s overly conscious and cautious, staying decidedly in a safe zone much of the time, only occasionally finding some magic.

An unnecessary framing device introduces Smith (Suicide Squad) as a mariner with two children asking him to sing them a story instead of just telling them one. Not known as a singer, when Smith opens his mouth to sing for the first time it’s a remarkably flat tone that rarely shows range. The big notes feel enhanced or are drowned out by a gigantic chorale delivering quite a few new lyrics written by Pasek/Paul (The Greatest Showman) and original composer Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast). Smith’s narrator relays the story of Aladdin (Mena Massoud, Run This Town) a scrappy ragamuffin on the streets of Agrabah that has a meet cute with a Princess in disguise (Naomi Scott, The 33) and falls in love.

When Aladdin later sneaks into the palace to reconnect with Princess Jasmine, he’s caught by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, Murder on the Orient Express) the Sultan’s traitorous Vizier who needs to find a “diamond in the rough” to enter the Cave of Wonders and search for a magic lamp. When Aladdin accidentally releases a Genie (Smith) from the lamp and is granted three wishes, he uses one to become a visiting Prince to win the heart of Jasmine. It isn’t long before Jafar recognizes the Prince, putting all in Agrabah in danger when the Vizier schemes to get back the lamp at any cost.

The story of Aladdin stretches back to ‘The Arabian Nights’ from the 18th century and is an oft-told tale through the centuries. Surprising to me was that its original story differs quite a bit from the fairy tale we all grew up on, though it isn’t shocking how dark things get for Aladdin the way he was originally written. Screenwriter Ritchie and John August (Frankenweenie) stay away from a total revisionist version of Aladdin (ala the stellar live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon from 2016) instead choosing to follow the structural outline from the animated film rather closely. This makes the film feel even more beholden to its hand-drawn predecessor and invites unfavorable comparisons off the bat.

For starters, there seems to be a need to speed through the introductory moments of the movie. The credits have barely ended and we’re on a bullet train to get to that magic lamp and Smith’s Genie – which is understandable because the Genie is supposed to be the most memorable thing in the movie. The trouble is Smith’s rather charmless Genie is kind of creepy, all buff torso and swirly cloud for legs. The ‘Friend Like Me’ number, such a mega-shot of adrenaline in the film and a literal showstopper on the Broadway stage, barely registers because Ritchie has the Genie zooming around the screen in such a frenzy we don’t know where to look or what to follow. Unconvincing CGI throughout doesn’t help matters when you are always keenly aware the desert-set movie was shot on a soundstage, even if some location shooting was done in Jordan.

While Kenzari sinks his teeth nicely into the scenery as Jafar, I questioned why they turned the character from a creepy older man in his fifties to a brooding mid-thirties guy that isn’t quite threatening until his true intentions are revealed. Massoud is just fine as Aladdin, as blandly interesting as the character has always been. He may be the titular character but he’s never been the star of his own movie…not with Williams (and now Smith) there to overshadow him. He develops some good chemistry with Scott, though, and that goes a long way in making him more memorable. The real find is Scott who gives Jasmine the kind of 2019 make-over the character was sorely needing. Though saddled with the worst song (Pasek/Paul/Menken’s woefully Glee-ish ‘Speechless’) she makes the scene directly after that truly come alive by delivering a very “woke” speech with conviction. For some reason, Billy Magnussen (Game Night) turns up as a doofus Prince also vying for Jasmine’s affection in a scene that should have been excised.

Flashy numbers like ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ are meant to be the crowd-pleasing ones but the most winning number in the movie and, ultimately, the best sequence in the film is the one that has always worked like a charm and that’s the ‘A Whole New World’ number. Flying through the skies on a magic carpet, Aladdin and Jasmine sing that beautiful music and lyrics and you remember, however briefly, why Aladdin became a classic in the first place. If only the filmmakers had used this simple and sweet sequence as a jumping off point maybe they would have dialed down some of the garish excess evident in the rest of the movie.

So far in 2019, Disney is 0 for 2 in live-action remakes. Dumbo didn’t fly back in March and while I think Aladdin will make more money, it won’t do the kind of business Disney is hoping for. That leaves The Lion King in July with a big question mark and an even bigger target on its back. Can that be the one to right this sinking adaptation ship?

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Terminator: Dark Fate

 

Synopsis: Plot unknown

Release Date: November 1, 2019

Thoughts: I know it’s difficult to do, but even after watching the trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate I’m trying not to jump for joy quite yet. The last time we all got excited for a new Terminator movie we wound up with 2015’s stinkeroo Terminator Genisys.  In 2019, the studio is counting on fans turning out not only for the familiar face of Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Expendables 3) but for original creator James Cameron (Titanic) returning as producer and, most very importantly, Linda Hamilton appearance as Sarah Connor.  This first teaser doesn’t give us much indication how much Schwarzenegger and Hamilton will be involved in Tim Miller’s (Deadpool) new “day after Judgment Day” Terminator film but with Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) already impressing as a tough new breed of Terminator and action set-pieces that indicate some jaw-dropping fun…I’m hoping for the best.

The Silver Bullet ~ Midsommar



Synopsis
: What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Release Date: July 3, 2019

Thoughts: Horror movies are always a bit divisive between elitist critics and populist cinephiles but 2018’s Hereditary managed to unite them almost universally.  It took me a second watch to truly appreciate what writer/director Ari Aster was going for and even then I still had issues with the finale.  That aside, I’m looking forward to Aster’s next summer screen scare, Midsommar and from the looks of this second trailer audiences are in for another squirmy ride through some very freaky goings-on.  I like that the film is set completely in the daylight, giving Aster and his actors little room to hide – I just hope this time the ending can live up to everything that has come before.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil



Synopsis
: Explores the complex relationship between the horned fairy and the soon to be Queen as they form alliances and face new adversaries in their struggle to protect the moors and the magical creatures that reside within.

Release Date: October 18, 2019

Thoughts: Though it was inspired by an undying classic and received a prestige release from Disney in 2014, Maleficent still managed to defy some lofty expectations to become a sizable hit.  Retelling the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the supposedly evil protagonist (how very Wicked of them), the film had great visuals and a nice style but suffered from often being a word-for-word remake of the animated film.  It’s taken five years but the studio has enticed Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) back to play the titular character and expanded her tale in an original story.  This first teaser hints at some interesting new alliances and feels less like a plain cash-grab. Will new director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) help to elevate Maleficent: Mistress of Evil from being a sulky sequel?

The Silver Bullet ~ Judy



Synopsis
:  Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.

Release Date: September 27, 2019

Thoughts: Our tiny toes have just dipped into the summer blockbuster waters and already studios are teasing us with Oscar hopefuls arriving in the fall. That’s ok because this long overdue biopic of doomed star Judy Garland looks like a nice turn for Renée Zellweger who has been laying low for the last several years.  Could Judy be the comeback vehicle that gets her a fourth Oscar nomination and maybe a second win?  It’s too early to tell for sure but more than fine to speculate this far out.  The first look at the September release features Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) singing as Garland and while she doesn’t sound quite like Judy she definitely looks like her in the brief clips shown.  True, fleeting glimpses don’t equal a convincing performance and I actually found it concerning how little extended glances we get – but let’s just chalk it up to the teaser quality of this teaser trailer.