Movie Review ~ Silent Night

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Nell, Simon, and their boy Art are ready to welcome friends and family for what promises to be a perfect Christmas gathering. Perfect except for one thing: everyone is going to die.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Lucy Punch, Holly Aird, Trudie Styler, Dora Davis, Gilby Griffin Davis, Hardy Griffin Davis

Director: Camille Griffin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Every now and then I find that I run into a bit of a crisis as a reviewer.  Here’s the situation I face.  There’s a movie I’ve seen which I know is worth a look, yet I have trouble with an outright recommendation because there’s something about it which could turn the viewer against it and, by proxy, me.  I don’t want you to end up hating me and “ghosting” my webpage in the future.  Obviously, if this was my full-time job and I was getting paid for my thoughts I would have less trouble just churning these musings out without worry but I sort of, y’know, care about you and your trust in me so I’m going to be always upfront. 

In the spirt of that message (and the season) I need to tell you the new Christmas-set UK film Silent Night is one of the most unrepentantly bleak movies you’ll encounter this year or any year in recent memory.  Dealing with a family that gathers at a secluded country estate for a yuletide celebration on the eve of a population-ending event, one they all know is coming, there’s an invisible ticking clock hanging over the ninety-minute film which makes it feel both too short and never ending at the same time.  Timed for release on the second Christmas the world is spending in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a well-made but unsettling drama offering none of the easy-outs you may be expecting. 

For Christmas this year, everyone attending Nell and Simon’s gathering has been asked to bring one important item…their own suicide pills.  Due to an environmental catastrophe which has sent a cloud of toxic gas throughout the land, all humans will perish, and it’s set to hit British soil on Christmas.  This is known. There is no escape.  The most humane way to deal with it, and not suffer the horrific effects of dying by the gas, is to take the pills issued by the government with your loved one and die quickly rather than painfully.  First though, there’s a feast to be had and the guests are arriving.

In addition to Nell (Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method), Simon (Matthew Goode, Stoker), their eldest son Art (Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit) and their twin boys, the revelers include steely Sandra (Annabelle Wallis, Malignant) who is bringing her less than well-liked daughter, fun-loving lesbian Bella (Lucy Punch, Into the Woods) and her more button-downed wife (Alex Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cruella), and reflective James (Sopé Dìrísù, His House) and his newly pregnant wife Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp, Wolf).  Not everyone is so sure about taking the pill, Sophie is about to bring new life into the world and maybe wants to wait to see if the gas is survivable, Art doesn’t want to have his parents decide his fate for him.  Various points throughout the night provoke stark questions about death, human rights, and who has the ultimate choice about existence.

Director Camille Griffin (mother of Roman who plays Art) makes a wonderful debut that’s as challenging to watch as it is interesting to debate. It’s meant to be a conversation starter and boy is it ever.  It’s certainly a well-made movie, just horribly sad and without much reprieve throughout.  I can’t lie and say it has the rosiest of endings but can offer a shred of light and say that in ending the way it does, there are lessons to be learned that we can all benefit from in some way.  Is Silent Night one to consider swapping out one of your Christmas favorites for?  Not a chance.  However, maybe you can wait until March or April to try this out one…unless you enjoy the sadness the holidays can bring.

The Silver Bullet ~ The King’s Man



Synopsis
: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them.

Release Date: September 18, 2020

Thoughts: In 2014, the spy adventure Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit with audiences and critics and presented a cheeky fun alternative to the wise acre superhero franchise films that were multiplying like rabbits.  It also helped to introduce the public to Taron Egerton who would return in 2017 for the go-big-or-go-home sequel before hitting the big time with his hopefully Oscar nominated turn in 2019’s Elton John biopic Rocketman.  With Egerton’s star on the rise and booked out on other projects and with the franchise having bankable legs, 20th Century Fox was in a bit of a tough place with director Matthew Vaughn on how to continue the story of the elite gentlemen’s agency that battled boffo baddies in style.  The answer?  Go back to the beginning. Recently moved from it’s original February release date, September 2020 will now bring us The King’s Man, tracking the original formation of the organization featuring Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace), Djimon Hounsou (Charlie’s Angels), and Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil).  I’m sure I’ll miss the Egerton-factor but this second trailer feels in the same spirit as the two previous films with action packed intrigue to spare.  Looks like royal fun.  

Movie Review ~ Rocketman

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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.

Movie Review ~ Kick-Ass 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Jim Carrey

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Like I said in my review of the red-band trailer for Kick-Ass 2, I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2010 original which had a premise (everyday kid turns crime fighter with less than spectacular results) that was exploited ad nauseam and was much longer than it needed to be.  While I enjoyed that when the good guys got a beat down they actually bled and that some had vocabularies that would make a sailor blush, the original film just felt played out before the first reel was done.

So a sequel was not high on my wish list in the grand scheme of things.  Ah, but when you have a film that does surprisingly well at the box-office that didn’t cost a lot to make, movie studio execs quickly get those crazy dollar signs instead of pupils and before you know it three years later I found myself taking in a decent if totally unnecessary second chapter in the story of Kick-Ass and his rough and tumble compatriots.

In the years since the first film, two of the three leading actors have turned in some interesting work.  While Dark Shadows wasn’t the hit Chloë Grace Moretz thought she signed up for, her character had a wacky arc that the actress went to the mat with.  Even more surprising, Aaron Taylor-Johnson got the Oliver Stone treatment in Savages before buttoning-up nicely for Anna Karenina last fall.  It was refreshing to see that both actors easily slid back into their roles and try though they might to get something cooking with the development laid out by writer/director Jeff Wadlow, there’s only so much you can do with very few ingredients.

The worst thing about the movie is not the crazy violence (violence so outlandish that star Jim Carrey, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, refused to promote it…after cashing his sizable paycheck, natch) or the funny-in-a-sad-way performance of Christopher Mintz-Plasse (The To Do List…and what’s with the three name names of our leads?) but that it’s not very well made.  This had to have had a larger budget than the original…so why does everything from the sets to the costumes to the special effects look so flimsy and cheap?  There’s a chase scene on top of a van that, while impressively choreographed, appears to be filmed via time travel to 1985.

Another sticking point was that the movie keeps our two leading players apart for so much of the movie.  While Moretz is off working a Mean Girls meets Carrie subplot (bad-timing, because Moretz is starring in October’s Carrie remake), Taylor-Johnson is making new friends in Carrey, Donald Faison, and Lindy Booth as upstart civilian superheroes.  When Moretz and Taylor-Johnson are together the movie finds a pleasantly comic groove but these moments come too little, too late.

All said, Kick-Ass 2 is no gem and not a film worthy of your dog days of summer time or effort.  If you’re a fan of the original, this can wait until you can rent it…all others are advised to pick something else.  (Check my archive if you want a few suggestions!).