ROCKETMAN

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Music: B+

The comparisons are inevitable, so I’ll start with the obvious question: is Rocketman a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody? And, objectively speaking, Rocketman is the superior film, from pretty much every aspect and angle — except, perhaps, for the featured music itself.

But is Rocketman as enjoyable to watch as Bohemian Rhapsody was? That’s a very different question, and it really depends on where your previously existing loyalties and tastes lie. For instance, I was pretty fundamentally disappointed in Bohemian Rhapsody, but still found the music irresistible, because I have long connected to the music of Queen. By contrast, as much as I have long been a massive fan of many classic rock bands and artists from the seventies, I was only introduced to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Supertramp, The Moody Blues, even Queen by my parents, none of whom had any Elton John Records.

So, for me personally, this is the thing with Rocketman: I never got any introduction to his back catalogue in my youth, and so I have no more than a cursory familiarity with Elton John’s music. This has an effect on how much I can enjoy the film, and I am confident that any bona fide fan of Elton John will absolutely love it.

The thing is, if a movie about Queen and Freddie Mercury had been made as well as this movie about Elton John, then Bohemian Rhapsody would have been the best of both worlds. As it happened, audiences loved Bohemian Rhapsody way more than I did, launching it to massive global success the likes of which Rocketman could never hope for, thanks to the far more enduring nostalgia for their music and for a transformative performance by the star.

I would be hard pressed to call Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John “transformative.” He doesn’t even look that much like the guy, honestly. As opposed to Rami Malik looking incredibly like Freddie Mercury but failing to get very deep into his character, however, what Egerton manages is to get into the spirit of Elton John as a character, which is frankly the makings of a film with far more successful execution.

And then there is another truly key difference: in Bohemian Rhapsody, the singing of the character Freddie Mercury had the voices of Rami Malek and Canadian singer Marc Martel seamlessly blended with that of real-life Freddie Mercury. In Rocketman, which is a true musical somewhat in the spirit of Across the Universe (except in that movie the story is entirely fictional and in this one it’s based on real life), Taron does all of his own singing — and he’s really good. Some say he’s better than Elton John himself.

The comparisons with and connections to Bohemian Rhapsody don’t end there, given that Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, is the one who, uncredited, was brought in to finish up Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired due to “erratic behavior.” It could be argued that what is good about Bohemian Rhapsody can be credited to Fletcher, and here he’s officially given credit for the entire film.

Him and, perhaps, editor Chris Dickens. Biopics are notoriously difficult to feel like they sufficiently tell a story in the space of just a couple of hours, but the largely stylized nature of Rocketman, combined with it being a musical, makes it feel a lot more natural to present the life of a character in a series of vignettes, which cover many years of a person’s life.

And with Richard Madden as Elton’s sometime lover and manager; Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother; and particularly Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, Elton’s longtime lyricist, the supporting cast is well rounded with competent players. All of them do a bit of their own singing, always to songs from the Elton John back catalogue, and some transitions from dialogue to singing are smoother than others. There are sporadic moments when the narrative of Rocketman sags a little. But, they are always followed by yet another fabulous sequence that easily wins you over.

The story is told in flashback style, with Elton in full “Elton regalia” attending a twelve-step program meeting, telling his story. I often thought about how Elton was dominating the meeting discussion to tell a story that was being turned into this movie, but I guess that’s just my OCD talking. Let someone else talk, man! But, this movie isn’t any of their stories. And over the course of the film, Elton systematically sheds the plumage of his costume, until we are finally seeing the essence of him as just a deeply flawed person with addiction issues. There is a moment where he literally hugs his inner child, and that’s a little corny, but we can live with it.

Rocketman does do a nice job of representing Elton John’s gayness — a pretty sharp contrast to a major sticking point with critics of Bohemian Rhapsody. Rocketman is quite frank about Elton’s sexuality without ever getting especially explicit, proving that you don’t have to whitewash over key elements of a person’s identity in order to make them relatable to mass audiences.

All that said, there is still a slight hollowness to Rocketman, a feeling that, in spite of the movie’s overall finesse, we still don’t get very deeply into who Elton John really was and is. There is plenty of spectacle here, and it is eminently entertaining. On the other hand, it could be argued this is just the nature of biopic films — if you want to get further into the weeds of a person’s psyche, two hours just isn’t enough time — read his autobiography (there’s one coming in October 2019).

What I liked most about Rocketman was that, although it’s an “authorized” biopic, it seems clear Elton John is interested in owning his mistakes. This is a man with addiction issues that nearly did him in, and the movie makes that very clear. And that’s also what makes it unusually uplifting for such stories: it didn’t do him in — he survived, and he still lives: this actually has a happy ending, a superstar self-actualized after a satisfying redemption arc. It’s the kind of story made for Hollywood, only this time it’s a fantastical reflection of real life.

Partners in rhyme, Jamie Bell and Taron Egerton as Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

Partners in rhyme, Jamie Bell and Taron Egerton as Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

Overall: B+

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Fighting with My Family opens by thrusting us into the local Norwich, England wrestling world of the Knight family, playing up how passionate this foursome is about the profession. It’s based on a true story, and the actual Knight family is from a town called Penzance in the southwest of England, but maybe the filmmakers thought that would remind too many people of Gilbert & Sullivan? Now I’m imagining the overlap in a Venn diagram of Gilbert & Sullivan fans and World Wrestling Entertainment fans. It’s probably at least a little wider among Brits.

Anyway, the family consists of middle-aged parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey, about as far from Game of Thrones’s Cersei as she could get), running a local business of small-time wrestling performances. With their eldest in prison, their star players are son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh). To a person, they are well cast, a playfully vulgar, tight-knit family with working-class charm to spare.

This movie does not shy away from the ins and outs of the wrestling industry, and early on Ricky finds himself explaining that “it’s not fake, it’s fixed,” and the job can result in serious injuries. Not since Darren Aronovsky’s gritty The Wrestler (2008) has anyone presented so honest a look at wrestling; the difference now is that writer-director Stephen Merchant moves away from self-destruction for a feel-good movie about triumph of will and moving beyond the limits of initial circumstances.

It’s a pretty standard Hollywood story arc, but you know what? Fighting with My Family works rather well on its own terms. I suspect at least one secret to its success is the British angle; Merchant himself is English, and thus offers a vital perspective. It seems less likely this movie’s sweet sincerity would play the same way in the hands of an American filmmaker.

And yet, it also stays true to the sensibilities of wrestling, and in particular wrestling fans. In spite of some subtle jabs here and there (“Our fans can’t read anyway”), this movie has no contempt or judgment of those who love and participate in wrestling. It gets a nice couple of scenes with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a decent supporting performance by Vince Vaughn as an American wrestling coach.

The basic story focuses on young Zak and Saraya’s dream of becoming professional wrestlers — together, but difficulties must be overcome when only Saraya gets chosen to move on in the selection process. It’s relatively transparent how much of the story here is embellished for dramatic effect: Zak must deal with boiling resentment; Saraya must look past her own judgments of other, prettier women wrestlers and learn to make some friends.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie that I would not immediately expect to like, due to my own admittedly unfair biases. I was super into a movie like The Wrestler, but that was a movie about obsession and self-destruction in deeply nuanced ways, with wrestling as the backdrop. Fighting with My Family is a very different movie, the kind that is heartwarming by design, and is also clearly made by and for genuine fans of wrestling.

I’ve never been a fan of wrestling. I am, however, a fan of solid storytelling, and charismatic performers, both of which this movie has plenty of. It makes it the rare kind of movie that, for instance, both my more populist-leaning family members and I can enjoy. You could say this is a movie for everyone, a great choice for mixed company with people who can rarely agree on what to watch. At least, as conventional as its storytelling is, it has a subversive streak to it. I wouldn’t quite call it wholesome, but I would call it great entertainment for the whole family.

The family that body slams together stays together.

The family that body slams together stays together.

Overall: B+

STAN & OLLIE

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

Maybe John C. Reilly has been too busy to do the lower-tier types of promotion for Stan & Ollie, as he has not appeared on any of the several movie-related podcasts I listen to. Steve Coogan has, though. I heard at least two podcast interviews with him in the past two months, talking about this movie, making me wonder when the hell it will open locally in Seattle, or if maybe it came and went and I somehow missed it. To be fair, one of those podcasts was WTF with Marc Maron, which John C. Reilly had already been interviewed on, about two and a half years ago. And — oh, look: Reilly has also been on NPR’s Fresh Air himself, just last month. But that counts more as a radio show, yes?

I do have a point here, which has two angles. First, the promotion of Stan & Ollie has seemed appropriately old-school, for a movie about Hollywood comic superstars who had been at the peak of their careers in 1937 — 82 years ago. The most widely consumed promotional appearances at that time, no doubt, would also have been on the radio. Now, podcasts are the 21st-century’s answer to radio, essentially free radio on demand, and for the first time, I literally went to a movie solely because of a guest on podcasts supporting this project.

Curiously, I had never once seen a movie trailer for this film, and I go to the movies usually multiple times a week. Who’s behind the promotion of this movie, anyway? Do they even know what they’re doing? I might not even have known this movie existed but for podcasts, or maybe just checking to see what was playing at local theaters.

It usually doesn’t bode all that well for a movie to get a February release date, as it happens. And to be honest, as sweet at Stan & Ollie is — it’s not bad — it still seems fitting. This movie focuses on the waning, later years of Laurel & Hardy’s careers. As in, when their biggest fans were themselves getting on in age. And that was in 1953. How many twentysomethings alive today even know who these guys are?

And therein lies the challenge: sure, it’s possible to make a great movie that resonates with younger audiences even if it’s about largely forgotten movie stars. It’s all in the telling. The very slight issue here is that Stan & Ollie is presented as though made for those audiences that were getting older. In the fifties.

That said, the performances are fantastic, and arguably alone worth watching the movie. John C. Reilly dons a lot of prosthetics to become Oliver Hardy, only recognizable if you look for him in the eyes, and listen to his relatively distinctive voice. Steve Coogan, a consummate character actor, fades more easily into the role of Stan Laurel, although being a native Brit, his attempt at an American accent comes in and out at points.

Ultimately, Stan & Ollie is a sweet testament to enduring friendship, a tale of these two men attempting to keep things going even after resentments about career moves made sixteen years prior, when they were at the peak of their career, in 1937. Director Jon S. Baird, however, can’t seem to move the action far beyond inert. There’s a great scene that commands attention a little more than halfway through the film, in which the two nearly come to blows at a reception, and for a moment I got a little excited that, well, things would actually get exciting. The potential fizzles.

Most of the rest of the time, Stan & Ollie is filled with nostalgic warm fuzzies, and is not interested in much beyond that. It becomes the kind of biopic that will understandably remain of interest to audiences who are already fans of the real people the characters are based on, but I struggle to imagine anyone with only a cursory familiarity with them finding this story all that compelling. It’s a competently told, very well-acted biopic that is pleasantly meandering at best, and listless at times.

It’s about as thrilling as it looks.

It’s about as thrilling as it looks.

Overall: B

THE FRONT RUNNER

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

If The Front Runner is any indication, Jason Reitman’s directorial ambition is to be a low-rent Robert Altman. From the opening sequence, we get elaborately choreographed sequences with a lot of low-volume chit chat, overlapping dialogue that is ultimately without much substance.

In this case, it begins with Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) conceding his loss of the party nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The moment comes after the camera pans through media vans and new anchors and packed crowds with political signs outside hotels, then tips up to the window to the room housing the Hart Campaign. This whole pre-credits sequence ends with a similar shot of campaign staff drinking away their disappointment at a bar, which is where Hart declares that winning wasn’t “what it was about.” What was it about, then? “Now they know who we are.”

Jump four years later to the 1988 election campaign, and The Front Runner depicts the three weeks immediately preceding Hart dropping out of the race. We know it’s three weeks because the title card says it specifically: Hart is the Democratic front runner by a large margin, but, “A lot can happen in three weeks.”

In the end, I rather wish this movie did a better job at showing us who the people in it were. Instead, it is far more concerned with the procedural depiction of how the story of Hart’s infidelity made it into the press. There is particular focus on The Miami Herald (with staff played by Kevin Pollack and Bill Burr) and The Washington Post (with an editor played by Alfred Molina), and this is really where The Front Runner stumbles.

This is a movie, more than anything, about how the downfall of Gary Hart marked the end of privacy for politicians in mainstream media. Presumably whether this was the definitive turning point could be debated. The disingenuous thing about The Front Runner is how it depicts journalists who are, to a person, each of them conflicted about the moral dubiousness of what they are doing. Not one reporter here is unscrupulous about this kind of work, which is patently ridiculous. Our country in 2018 being run by individuals who attack a vital free press is one thing; depicting all journalists as somehow being forced to compromise an inherent nobility is not a whole lot better.

Then there is the couple at the center of it, Gary Hart and his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga, elevating the material with her performance as always). Reitman observes his characters with a consistent detachment, offering a macro view of the media circus as well as the campaign chaos hardly kept under control by a campaign manager played by J.K. Simmons. He never truly gets into the heart of these people, rather settling for a surface reflection of how they handle the media crisis. There is very little in the way of character development.

Granted, Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart is a guarded man, that being a big part of his downfall. It’s easy in retrospect to declare that there’s no reason to give a shit about what a politician does with his private life, especially after the likes of Anthony Weiner or, god help us all, the Trump Era. Gary Hart’s problems look positively quaint by comparison. Maybe he simply should have learned to be as nakedly shameless as the politicians we have today. On the other hand, I still found it difficult to feel any sympathy for him. He knew very well what world he lived in in 1988, and this was what being a conniving liar got him.

But, okay, Jason Reitman clearly isn’t making any attempt to make the man sympathetic anyway. The Front Runner’s purpose is to show us how we got to where we are today, with Hart’s story as the starting point. But if that’s the only purpose, it might as well have been a documentary. The Front Runner succeeds as an intermittently engaging procedural about media interference, but with a couple exceptional scenes, it fails as a drama.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Overall: B-

BlacKkKlansman

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

It can be somewhat frustrating when the tone of a movie trailer doesn't exactly match the tone of the movie. The trailer for BlacKkKlansman makes it look a lot more fun than it actually is. The film certainly has a healthy sprinkling of humor and levity, but the trailer condenses them in a way that sort of makes you expect something a lot more light-hearted, if still very serious in its satirical value.

The unique mystery with this film in particular is whether that was a choice simply made by the movie studios that financed it, as is pretty typical with more straightforward attempts at comedies that don't necessarily work -- or, if director Spike Lee was himself pointedly intentional about it. This is a man who has made a career out of pressing audience's faces against essential issues, and this is one way to get people into seats.

To say that there is a lot more going on in that vein with BlacKkKlansman would be an understatement. There is a tonal shift at the very end that forces you to think, Oh . . . shit. And then you walk out of the theatre a daze, having had to watch something you knew was coming, did not want to see, but knew it had to be seen. One could also argue that the way I just put that oversells it as a bait-and-switch. But it's really going to depend on who you are, and what your ancestral relationship is to America.

In any case, this is Spike Lee's best film in years; maybe even his most vital work since 1989's predictably divisive Do the Right Thing. Lee has had a bit of a whirlwind career since then in terms of quality, from going pretty low (Bamboozled) to surprisingly palatable mainstream (Inside Man) and back again, to exposing the breaking seams of American culture. That's what's going on in BlacKkKlansman.

And how many people even knew the true story this was based on? I certainly didn't. In 1979, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs police department infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. His name was Ron Stallworth (here played by John David Washington), and as he talks to the KKK over the phone, he enlists white cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pose as him at actual meetings.

Spike Lee makes many interesting choices in the telling of this story, with varying levels of effectiveness. After the marketing leads you to expect a highly stylized comedy, the story begins at a surprisingly slow pace, following along with Stallworth as he's hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department and initially positioning him in the records department. It would be easy to assume Stallworth faced plenty of hostility from the rest of the department, but Lee focuses on just one blatantly racist cop making things difficult for him, likely both for the sake of economy in storytelling and at least some level of deference to white fragility.

There's a lot of story to tell here, after all, and at 135 minutes, BlacKkKlansman is fairly long. Lee even goes out of his way to make it feel not just like this was set in 1979, but like you're watching a movie made in 1979, with specific choices of cinematography (shot by Chayse Irvin, who also shot Beyoncé: Lemonade) and especially musical score (Terence Blanchard). It all feels very "1979 movie." This seems to be a bit of a thing this year; Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot used similar techniques, albeit in a wildly different context.

And relatively early on, just as you're beginning to wonder if the whole movie will be this slow, something interesting happens. There's a scene with a man who "may or may not be a former Black Panther" giving a speech to a local black audience about black pride, black power, and possible black revolution. It crackles with energy, and Lee takes several moments to cut back and forth from the speaker (Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins, making such excellent use of his single scene that he must be noted) and random audience members' faces, imposed upon a black background, rapt with attention. It's an artistic marker of a turning point in a community.

Although I have some mixed feelings about BlacKkKlansman's effectiveness as a movie, there's no denying the many similar ways in which Lee interweaves different thematic elements with subtle artistic finesse. David Duke (Topher Grace, well restrained) is disarmingly polite, even when speaking directly to the black people he openly despises. And much is made of the Jewishness Flip Zimmerman barely acknowledges even to himself, hammering home that black Americans are hardly the only people here with, as Stallworth puts it, "skin in the game." (This would include myself: as Zimmerman poses as a bigot and makes liberal use of epithets, "faggot" is used as much as any other.)

I'm tempted to say Adam Driver gives the best performance in the movie, but hesitate due to how potentially problematic it is for a white critic to praise the one white star in a movie about black oppression. Who knows what conditioned biases I have that I don't even realize are there? There's nothing wrong with John David Washington's performance -- I just didn't find it as affecting. To be fair, it's also curious that Lee presents Stallworth with a cocky confidence, and Zimmerman as the man who does any true soul searching when confronted with a hatred of his kind never personally experienced.

Another thing I can't decide: is Spike Lee's presentation of Colorado redneck bigots caricature? There's the local KKK chapter president's idiot brother (Paul Walter Hauser, previously seen in I, Tonya, evidently getting typecast as dim-witted fat dipshits). And then there's the wife of the KKK chapter's most suspicious member, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who is a bizarrely even mix of bubbly homemaker and hateful bigot. She happily goes along with being tasked to place explosives in an attack on Black Student Union President Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, luminescent), eager to please. By extension, I can't decide if their being rendered caricatures even matters. Or maybe it's deliberate, which would be subtly provocative in its own right. God knows non-white people (hell, anyone not white, male, and straight) have been presented as caricature since the dawn of popular entertainment.

This is all to say that BlacKkKlansman is not a perfect film, but it's that rare kind of film whose status as essential viewing is far from dependent on perfection. It's ripe for discussion and intellectual debate. Whether it's for its entertainment value or for facing hard truths -- both of which come in equal measure -- this is something people need to see.

Two guys with "skin in the game": The Stallworth Brothers.

Two guys with "skin in the game": The Stallworth Brothers.

Overall: B+

MAUDIE


Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

If you know little about art, like me, then perhaps you have never heard of Maud Lewis, a woman famous for her folk art paintings until he death in Nova Scotia in 1970. You thus also perhaps did not know that Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins as Maud and Ethan Hawke as her husband, Everett Lewis, was based on their story.

It's a story that covers a lot of years, starting from the time Maud left the care of her cold aunt and selfish brother to answer an ad for a live-in housekeeper. She was in her mid-thirties; Everett was forty. He lived in a one-room house outside of town and felt he needed help with housework -- which, eventually, he wound up tending to himself while Maud spent her time painting.

These two had their own clear sets of challenges. Maud lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which caused her to hunch over and have some difficulty both walking and holding paint brushes. But not only did she manage, but one would be loathe to say she "suffered" from this condition -- indeed, Maud is a woman who easily appreciates the simplest pleasures of life. She loves a window. When she explains why to the woman who starts commissioning paintings from her (a lovely Kari Matchett), it's almost eye-opening. It makes sense.

Everett, for his part, is almost cripplingly emotionally repressed, if not of below average intelligence. He doesn't quite know how to deal with Maud at first, and is briefly violent. For a woman in the late thirties and forties, Maud proves surprisingly assertive. She finds way to stand her ground. These two never quite seem to know how to talk to each other, but a love grows between them over the years that is very sweet.

Maud paints for pleasure, and at first she starts with charming little illustrations on the walls of her and Everett's tiny little house. Eventually her paintings get noticed, and even start making money. Over time, this is a slight complication in a relationship between two simple people who are living an otherwise very simple life together.

And it all unfolds with a quiet confidence thanks to director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White, who tell us this story in an unassuming yet completely absorbing way. And Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke each give stellar performances, which on their own turn Maudie a film that demands attention. We follow them over the course of decades, and yet it never feels rushed -- a rare achievement in film. By the end, after we've seen them spend a life together and then contend with endings, it does turn into a bit of a tear jerker. If you're looking for a good cry, you could do worse than this.

Maud and Everett are two very different people who found each other by chance, one's effortless charm slowly eroding the other's obstinately hardened exterior. You'll fall in love with both of them.

Sally Hawkins shines as MAUDIE.

Overall: A-



[Archive of older A-grade movies on LiveJournal]