Movie Review ~ Sing 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Buster Moon and his friends must persuade reclusive rock star Clay Calloway to join them for the opening of a new show.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Cannavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Bono, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman

Director: Garth Jennings

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As animated films have developed into more sophisticated works over the last two decades, they’ve been praised for their efforts to include their adult audiences in on the fun just as much as their target audience.  The feeling from the studios seemed to be, “why not engage the grown-ups taking these kids to our movie at the same time.  It will likely attract more ticket-buyers who won’t mind taking their small ones to a particular title instead of the more mature content they might drag them to instead.”  (Truly, anything to keep an adult from bringing anyone under 14 into an R-Rated movie is absolutely fine by me!)  This attitude toward inclusion of all ages has led to a boon in business and writing that is more finely tuned, something I appreciated.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that unspoken truce between studios and adults has waned more than a little bit and a number of animated films have become little more than ninety-minute noise machines, swirls of color that pass by without leaving any lasting impression on the viewer.  At least the reviewer that has a driver’s license, votes, and pays taxes.  I know I’m not the target audience for a movie like Sing 2 so ultimately all that matters is what a youngster comes out of the film feeling.  In that light, take my review as thoughts for the adults that may be considering this title over another to watch with their kids or even a solo trip based on their film preferences….because if you ask a child what they think about Sing 2 after all 112 minutes are up (yes, nearly two hours long), they’ll give it a guaranteed thumbs up. 

It’s been a minute since Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Serenity) rebuilt his decaying theater, saved by a kindly patron (Jennifer Saunders, Isn’t It Romantic) who witnessed the talent from a motley crew of animals with various hang-ups who participated in a singing competition.  Still selling out crowds, Moon wants to take the show to the next level, but a visit from a talent agent speaking on behalf of tycoon Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) tells them they aren’t up to snuff.  Undeterred, Moon gathers his top talent (including Reese Witherspoon, Mud, as a mother pig with confidence issues) and heads to meet Crystal in person and in the process winds up pitching an over the top show starring a reclusive singer (Bono) without having the faintest idea of how to pull it all off. 

It’s simple to see how writer/director Garth Jennings plans to connect the dots from the start, so the best you can do is wait to see which songs Jennings chooses to use.  As in the first one, the voices on display from the cast are surprisingly strong from actors that aren’t (or weren’t at the time of the original) known for their singing.  Taron Egerton (Rocketman) performs a powerhouse version of Coldplays “A Sky Full of Stars” while Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) makes a loud entrance with “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.  Bono’s presence means a good supply of U2 songs are touched on and the band contributes an original song that isn’t half bad.  The bummer is that so many of these singing moments are brief snippets of songs.  Coming out so soon after West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM! when we basked in the glow of full-scale musical numbers, this feels like a Cliff Notes version of what a musical should be.

I imagine the first film is one a number of parents will have on as background noise to keep their kids occupied while they wrap their presents, and it might be wise to wait until Sing 2 is available next Christmas to do the same.  It’s not worth the time (or cash) to travel to the theater for that family event, not when there are other titles with better lessons out there (Encanto springs quickly to mind, available soon on Disney+) hitting stronger notes.

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.

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Legend (2015)

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Synopsis: Identical twin gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray terrorize London during the 1950s and 1960s.

Release Date:  September 11, 2015

Thoughts:  Here in the U.S. we have our share of famous gangsters. From Al Capone to Lucky Luciano to John Dillinger, the roster of rouges leaves a colorful trail of crime that’s been brought to the big screen in a number of varied films. For UK audiences, mention The Kray Twins and the same sort of name recognition and interest will arise. A story already brought to the screen in 1989’s The Krays, in 2015 writer/director Brian Helgeland (42, L.A. Confidential) and star Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Child 44, The Dark Knight Rises) will give the organized crime twins new life. Despite a yawn inducing title, Hardy’s rising star should give this one a little extra boost.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Synopsis: A veteran secret agent takes a young upstart under his wing.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: This adaptation of the comic book “The Secret Service” looks fairly interesting based on this trailer I originally saw way back in May with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sure, we’ve been inundated with countless big screen treatments of books focusing on seemingly ordinary teens that are tasked with saving the world…but something about this reminds me of a working class James Bond and that’s intriguing. Though I’ve grown weary of Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) popping up in every movie, I’m even more concerned about the recent overexposure of Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight). Kingsman: The Secret Service will mark the sixth film of his to be released in 2014…thank heaven he dropped out as the voice of December’s Paddington! Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass 2), this potential franchise starter could be a nice film to take in during the crisp autumn season.