Movie Review ~ Rocketman


The Facts
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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rocketman

Synopsis: A musical fantasy about the uncensored human story of Elton John’s breakthrough years.

Release Date: May 31, 2019

Thoughts: If the phenomenal (and, in my mind, baffling) success of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody taught us anything, it’s that audiences still have a soft spot for music biopics…even if Oscar voters didn’t feel similar to the far better achievements of the musical fable of A Star is Born.  Anyway, that sore spot aside, the first trailer for Elton John’s lifestory Rocketman is out and it already looks like the type of glitzy glam spectacle Bohemian Rhapsody failed to deliver fully on.  I’m hearing the film is a more fantastical take on the material like Across the Universe and you can see hints of that in the preview.  Plus it benefits from star Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) actually singing in the lead role (take that, Rami Malek!) and evidently impressing Elton himself who has come out in praise of the rising star.  Directed by Dexter Fletcher who, strangely, was brought in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when its original director was fired, I’m hoping audiences will give John the same kind of love they gave Queen.

Movie Review ~ Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If you were to visit The MN Movie Man’s house during the early eighties, on any given weekend you can be sure that at some point Pete’s Dragon would be unspooling on an oft-rented (eventually purchased) VHS cassette.  The 1977 Disney musical production was a household favorite and Helen Reddy’s plaintive Candle on the Water remains one of my favorite tunes to this day.

So you’ll understand that when I heard Disney was adding Pete’s Dragon to it’s expanding list of remakes, I was less than thrilled.  How dare the studio take its folksy tale of a boy and his dragon changing a small New England town and its residents for the better and put a 21st century spin on things…and would they stoop so low as to have some pop princess warble out an auto-tune version of Candle on the Water?  Right up until the lights went down and the Disney logo appeared on screen I was on the defense…but then something downright magical happened.  I loved this remake.

When I say loved, I don’t mean in the same way you say “I love that new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer” but loved in the sense that you feel a wave of warmth emanate from your belly just thinking of certain key scenes in writer-director David Lowery’s damn lovely re-imagining.  Not only is it the best family film to come along in ages but it’s without question the best movie released so far this summer.  People wanted to believe that the terrible Suicide Squad would save the (summer) day and forgive the June and July trespasses but it turns out that Pete’s Dragon is the one that flies highest.

The first thing Lowery did was wisely throw out everything but the names of Pete (Oakes Fegley, This is Where I Leave You) and his dragon Elliot (spectacularly rendered via CGI).  Gone are the songs, the East coast setting, and the plot involving a runaway orphan finding a home with a lighthouse keeper and his daughter in the early 1900s.  Lowery knew the charming yet staid quaintness of the original and it’s accompanying songs wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences so he’s set his film in the 1980s Pacific Northwest.

By the time the credits are over, toddler Pete has been orphaned via tragedy and adopted by a gentle dragon he names Elliot before disappearing into the forest for the next six years.  Found by a kind forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) and befriended by her future stepdaughter (Oona Laurence, Bad Moms), a near-feral Pete warms to this new family but struggles to leave the pain of his past and his fire-breathing constant companion behind.  There’s some late in the game roughness involving a logger’s (Karl Urban, Star Trek) plot to hunt down and trap Elliot that gives the film some tangible conflict but it’s the emotional conflict that is the biggest test for all involved.

This is a film you’ll get a good cry at so just go with it and enjoy the way it kindly pushes your emotional buttons.  It’s not manipulative or malicious in its intent and, man, it feels so good to have an honest response to a movie this far into 2016 when many films have left me cold.  The actors, especially Howard and Fegley, do outstanding work and Robert Redford (All is Lost) exudes grandfatherly warmth as Howard’s dad with his own ties to Elliot.

Where the 1977 Elliot was an animated goofball with neon lime green scales and pink accents, the 2016 version is impressively created as a furry tenderheart endlessly devoted to Pete.  With dog-like mannerisms (watch him struggle to get a giant log through two towering trees), Elliot wins you over from the first time he appears onscreen and thankfully the folks at Disney don’t keep him under wraps/invisible for much of the movie.

Beautifully produced and told with grace, Pete’s Dragon is the kind of remake that shows how to do it right.  If the original wasn’t broke, don’t fix it via a remake but use it to inspire a new tale that can stand on its own against its predecessor.  The two films may share a title but they couldn’t be more different in style and tone…and this new version easily earns a spot on the shelf of future family classics.

Movie Review ~ Jurassic World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond. After 10 years of operation and visitor rates declining, in order to fulfill a corporate mandate, a new attraction is created to re-spark visitor’s interest, which backfires horribly.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Chris Pratt, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Nick Robinson, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Katie McGrath, Lauren Lapkus, Andy Buckley

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The original tagline for Jurassic Park was “An adventure 65 million years in the making” and I can summarize my thoughts on Jurassic World with something quite similar: An adventure 65 million and 22 years in the making. After wading through two lesser-than sequels that were equal parts boring and silly, audiences finally are getting the sequel we’ve deserved for the last two decades. It’s not as ground breaking or awe-inspiring as the first film but it comes pretty darn close by going back to where it all started and creating a rarity in filmmaking these days…excitement.

Largely ignoring the events that transpired in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World feels like the direct sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film and mores the better because of it. Now the film is free from having to explain away “Site B” and the lame San Diego-set finale of the first sequel. From its opening title shot of hatching eggs leading into a clever nod to an iconic image from the original, the movie earns its stripes by introducing us to actual characters this time around, rather than walking meals on wheels destined to become dino chew toys.

Brothers Gray (Ty Simpkins, Insidious) and Zach (Nick Robinson) are leaving their wintery Wisconsin homestead for the warm weather and excitement of the Jurassic World theme park. Gray is a big dinosaur buff but it helps that their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is head of operations at the dino-themed world of wonder. There’s some thin subplot with the boys and their bickering parents but the film largely forgets about it and so should you.

Claire doesn’t have much time to spend with them because she’s in the midst of securing sponsors for the park’s newest attraction, a genetic hybrid dinosaur cooked up in the lab (governed by B.D. Wong, the only returning character that isn’t from the prehistoric era) as a way to renew interest in the park. You see, the public is bored with dinosaurs now that they are so easily accessible so the park has to reinvent itself every few years to stay financially stable. There’s a heavy amount of product placement in the film but unlike other summer blockbusters the products featured here are there for a purpose, showcasing the rampant consumerism and sponsorship in marketing today.

Fears about the safety of the containment facility of the new species means that Claire has to call on rugged Owen for assistance. Played by Chris Pratt, Owen is a retired army man that has a bond with the four raptors he’s been training and doesn’t have time or interest in the financial stakes of the park. When the clever dinosaur manages to escape (in the first of several gruesome and gruesomely thrilling sequences), Owen and Claire work together to take down the beast on the loose before she makes it to the main section of the park where 20,000 tourists are enjoying fun in the sun.

Admittedly, the media hype surrounding the film has spoiled more than a few of the surprises the theme park has cooked up in the past two decades. From a gigantic water-based dinosaur to the pterodactyls housed in a mountain aviary, there isn’t much the film hasn’t outright shown or hinted at in the ads leading up to the release. But fear not, more than a little of the fun of the film is seeing how it all comes together…and don’t forget this is the island where the original took place so keep your eyes out for well-placed mementos of the past. The finale may borrow a bit from 2014’s Godzilla but I found it to be an adrenaline-fueled reward for those of us that have waited so long for the sequel.

If I’m going to knock the film for anything it’s the violence. Yeah yeah yeah, it’s a PG-13 movie and it’s not as gory as it could have been but it’s simply too frightening to take young children too. Many an unlucky soul is eaten and they don’t always go quietly so I’m urging parents to think twice before bringing their children along with them. The violence isn’t just to humans either and I was a little amazed at how visceral a reaction I had in several dino on dino battles.

I had heard some internet buzz that the CGI was poor in Jurassic World but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s some top-notch creations here and the effects team mixes computer animation and animatronic models with skill, once again blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. From a baby triceratops giving a ride to young children to the fearsome size of the genetically created Indominous Rex there are moments in Jurassic World where I was transported back in time to the first screening of Jurassic Park.

While I doubt any cast assembled could top the original, director Colin Trevorrow has cast the film with some unexpected choices. Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) is a nice, meaty slick of bo-hunk that comes across better in the finished film than he did in a frightfully bad clip released a few months back. I’ve always found Howard to be a bargain basement Jessica Chastain and it’s true her blunt ginger bob is the most severe thing about her, but she too makes for a good female protagonist even if she’s forced to do it in a cream ankle-length sheath dress and high heels. Claims that the film has a sexist tone aren’t totally unfounded, but it feels like it comes from an old-school battle of the sexes place rather than a misogynistic one (helps that the screenwriters are husband and wife).

Making a huge leap from his first film (Safety Not Guaranteed), sophomore director Trevorrow seemed like a random choice when it was announced he was sitting in the director’s chair but credit producer Steven Spielberg (JAWS) with knowing talent when he sees it. Trevorrow keeps things tight and exciting from beginning to end, never letting the audience get ahead of the film and treating them to a bundle of scares and adventure along the way.

I’d waited over a decade for another Jurassic Park movie and wasn’t the least bit disappointed in Jurassic World. It not only honored the film that started it all but made a comfortable place for itself on the shelf next to Spielberg’s history-making effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jurassic World

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Synopsis: Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond.

Release Date: June 12, 2015

Thoughts: I love the holiday season that is swiftly approaching, the great food of Thanksgiving, the joy of Christmas, the promise of a New Year, and the anticipation of an awards season that looks to be packed with the most worthy of contenders.

After watching the first trailer for 2015’s Jurassic World, though, I kinda want them all to be over so we’ll be that much closer to seeing what’s up with the dinos 22 years after their debut in Steven Spielberg’s landmark original.  I was skeptical at first that this fourth film would be in line with the sillier third entry but our first look has a Spielberg vibe of adventure and wonderment flowing through its veins.  With Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) heading the cast and a nice tease of familiar dinos and one nasty new one, this park can’t be open soon enough.