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+

Advance: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Music: B
Animation: B+
Special Effects: B+

Watching Mary Poppins Returns, I kept wondering how it might play to anyone who has never seen the classic 1964 original. Surely there will be plenty such people. Perhaps it makes a positive difference to them to be removed from how blatantly this sequel coming 54 years later traffics in nostalgia?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the first film, with Julie Andrews in arguably her most iconic role, that nothing can possibly stack up to it. Mary Poppins Returns attempts to recapture a whole lot of the kind of magic that really only existed in a bygone era, but excels when making bits of original magic. In other words, this film is full of its own delights, and also a bit of a mixed bag — especially if you’re looking for something for which there is no comparison.

Comparisons are quite literally what this movie is asking for, though. So let’s start with the stuff which, if far from terrible, well, could have been better.

It’s not often that I wish a movie were longer than it is, especially when it’s already 130 minutes. (The original film was 139 minutes.) Much of Mary Poppins Returns is not quite frantic, but just shy of it; it feels very much a product of its time, ironically — as though made for people with no attention span. It’s packed to the gills with story, and the story seldom gets any room to breathe.

That said, maybe it doesn’t need to be longer — the story could have been given room to breathe if the first “magic of imagination” sequence were simply done away with, and all the rest of the scenes fleshed out a tad. This movie jumps right in with a bathtub number that is rather over the top with its undersea colors and effects, and it’s just a little much, a little early.

I might not have had so much of a problem with packing so much story in, if that story weren’t so contrived and undercooked. This time out, we get Colin Firth as a bona fide villain — a character type I don’t recall existing at all in the original Mary Poppins. The charm of the original film was the simplicity of its themes: if there were any villain, it was time itself, and how it robs grownups of their childhood wonder. This idea returns here, but it’s attached to a ridiculously predictable plot involving the search for shares in Michael Banks’s bank, in time to save his lifelong home from being repossessed.

So yes, some of this is outright nitpicking — but when it comes to the legacy of a film as pitch perfect as Mary Poppins, there shouldn’t be so much room for it. The music in particular is fine, but “fine” is not good enough for Mary Poppins, who once regaled us with such unfortgettable tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Feed the Birds.” Not one song here comes remotely close to such classic songs: no answer to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” no “Chim Chim Cheree.”

Granted, for those of us who grew up watching that film so many times we practically memorized it, it arguably doesn’t matter what anyone making a sequel did, they just couldn’t win. So from my perspective, it’s a great compliment to Mary Poppins Returns that while it’s nowhere near as great as I wanted it to be, it remains far better than I feared.

This movie falters when it attempts to recreate specific ideas and feelings from its predecessor, which it does a lot — instead of Dick Van Dyke as a chimney sweep, we get Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamplighter, complete with many friends who come together for an elaborate dance sequence much like those of the chimney sweeps in 1964. The inclusion of stunts on bicycles feels strangely like a strained attempt at modern sensibility while coming up slightly short of the original choreography.

But, once it gets past that slightly ill-advised bathtub swimming sequence, Mary Poppins Returns does offer several sequences that are both original and an effective expansion on the original sensibility. Popping into the animated world of the etching on a ceramic bowl, a horse and carriage rides along a path that curves with the bend of the bowl. In this sequence, the blending of animation in a specific-era Disney style with live action has a comforting authenticity to it.

As for the live-action cast? Honestly, Emily Blunt, while otherwise very well cast in the title role, slightly overdoes it at times with the Poppins pomposity. Other times, in spite of there being no replacement for Julie Andrews, Blunt seems to channel her surprisingly well. Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer are serviceable as the grown Michael and Jane Banks. Michael, now a widower, has three children of his own, played with more childlike wonder than precociousness by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson.

Poppins’s return is much more about setting things right with the grownups than the actual kids here — she simply uses the kids as a means to that end. Of course, the adults being the ones with a lesson to learn was the original idea — a tried and true concept that really needed no conceit about shares in a bank to be tied to it.

Mary Poppins is undeniably fun regardless, and I must admit, by the very end, after a truly delightful number involving balloons at a spring fair, I finally decided I was fully on board. Sequences like that convince me I’d enjoy watching the movie again, even with its many minor flaws. Not one of those flaws are fatal, after all — they simply weigh down the legacy it’s clearly attempting to live up to. For every flaw, though, there’s a new delight. Many of them involve brief appearances that inevitably bring on a smile: Meryl Streep as “Topsy,” Poppins’s eccentric cousin who fixes things; Angela Lansbury as the balloon seller; even Dick Van Dyke — not as Bert the chimney sweep, but this time as an old bank executive. His spry performance at 93 years old might be worth the ticket price alone.

Of course, I really wanted Dick Van Dyke to be coming back as Bert. Don’t get your hopes up on that one! Consider that less of a spoiler than a way to avoid being disappointed during the movie. It’s wonderful to see him onscreen no matter what part he plays.

And contrived as it is, the Mary Poppins Returns script does have its clever moments. You could call it uneven: slightly rough patches of story telling, and other parts that are smooth sailing. It’s the moments of smooth sailing that keep you believing in the power of imagination.

The Banks children young and old think to themselves . . . “Hey, you’re not Julie Andrews.”

The Banks children young and old think to themselves . . . “Hey, you’re not Julie Andrews.”

Overall: B

Opens Wednesday December 19.

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

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

The zombie genre has been so overdone for so long. now even “funny takes” on the zombie genre are overdone — from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to Zombieland (2009) to Warm Bodies (2013) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). Even television shows are getting in on the “funny take on zombies” action, from The CW’s iZombie to Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.

The point is, there really is no original take on zombies at this point. Even the idea of a genre mashup has been done, with roughly the same amount of middling success, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which, if you can believe it, worked better as a novel). Honestly, I should have known better. Anna and the Apocalypse is clearly trying to hark back to the original “edgy comic take” on zombies, Shaun of the Dead, being a low-budget British production with clear affection for the American productions it emulates.

I could be said this film is a mashup of four different genres, if you want to consider “Christmas” a genre. Anna and the Apocalypse is a horror-comedy-musical Christmas movie. The thing is, director John McPhail blends these genres fairly well, all things considered. Most strikingly, the music and songs are good — they’re catchy, the performers have fantastic voices, they often have irresistible beats. The actual zombies don’t show up until maybe a third of the way through, and there are several songs prior to that, as though this story is a perfectly straightforward musical about kids in school. A British High Shool Musical with a slightly quirkier sense of humor.

And to be fair, I did laugh pretty hard a few times. Still, McPhail can tend to linger on the same gag just slightly too long, until the joke runs out of steam. Perhaps the relative earnestness of the songs themselves is part of the joke. But if that’s the case, then that part of the humor is slightly too high-minded to work for a production that basically amounts to “scrappy.”

When the songs aren’t going on, the dialogue in Anna and the Apocalypse is not particularly concerned with wit, which is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot of pretty forgettable stuff said in this movie. There are some memorable moments, such as the beheading of a zombie in a snowman outfit.

Anna and the Apocalypse is mostly fine, which is about as glowing a review as it deserves. It would find a comfortable home on any streaming service; there is absolutely no reason for anyone to go out of their way to see it in a theatre. It seems strange that any effort should be made to give movies like this a theatrical release, and such cinematically visionary work as Roma get a single week in theatres before being disseminated on mobile devices.

So, Anna is fun enough, and good for a few laughs. But it does have a key thing in common with all these other comic takes on the zombie genre: it’s okay, not great. The only one that comes within spitting distance of greatness is the original comic British zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead, and one could even make the case that that one’s overrated. Why do we need all these “zombie comedies,” anyway? The endless stream of zombie horror movies wasn’t enough?

Well, it will be eventually. Maybe even with Anna and the Apocalypse, which is about as entertaining as it looks (as in: moderately), and pretty much guaranteed not to make a whole lot of money. Especially if, curiously, it apparently has some kind of promotion deal with MoviePass — making it literally the only movie available to users on the day I went. (I showed my MoviePass card to the cashier and he said, “Yeah, you better use that while you can before the bottom falls out.”)

Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience here. I went to see this movie only barely convinced to: because the critical response was slightly better than average; I had free access via MoviePass; there was nothing better playing at the moment; I love Christmas. I’ve been bitching about there being too many movies about zombies for ages — since before I started bitching about superhero movies (and now also Star Wars movies) over-saturating the market. Tonight, I literally settled for Anna and the Apocalypse. It proved to be a movie that can work if it’s something you’re settling for. It has well-sung, toe-tapping music, at least.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Overall: B-

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

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

The Greatest Showman is revisionist drivel. It could have been something better, but apparently director Michael Gracey thought it best to settle. He got an ensemble cast packed with stars, and the greatest demand he placed on them was to phone it in.

The marketing materials for this movie tout it as "featuring the Academy Award winning lyricists of La La Land." This begs the question: who gives a shit? La La land had its faults but it also had charm to spare, and it wasn't because of its lyrics. I just finished watching The Greatest Showman two hours ago and I couldn't repeat a single line from a single song.

And when that's the description of the best part of a film, the film's got problems. It's somewhat mystifying that Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams should be cast in lead parts in a musical that features several people in much smaller parts, many of them children, who are far better singers than they are. And Michelle Williams is utterly wasted here, as Charity, the wife who left her family riches for poor P.T. Barnum (Jackman), is an actor whose talents are unsurpassed by any other in her generation. You wouldn't know it to see her here, simply being the loving and supportive wife of the guy who invented the circus. You should skip this movie and watch her instead in the stunningly impressive All the Money in the World, in which she actually plays a woman with agency.

I mean, in The Greatest Showman, she's pretty -- that seems to be what she's here for. But everyone in The Greatest Showman is pretty, even Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady. Maybe Zac Efron especially. Okay, maybe not Dog Boy. I don't know who plays him; the guy got no lines -- nor did the vast majority of the human "curiosities" who populate the earliest iteration of Barnum's circus.

It strikes me as telling that the word "freaks" is used very sparingly in this film -- maybe two or three times. Here is a story of exploitation -- of both people and animals -- sanitized to the hilt. Who are they fooling with this shit? Sure, the circus performers do find themselves pushed aside in Barnum's quest to gain acceptance in high society, but the idea of prejudice against the "other" is here simplified to the level of a lesson learned in a children's book. This would include Efron playing a guy who defiantly courts a young black woman (Zendaya), but nothing even close to race is even mentioned anywhere in the dialogue. The story comes within spitting distance of addressing issues obvious to the time period, and never once so much as directly acknowledges them.

Some of the music, at least, is rather nice. None of it is especially memorable, save for the few cast members who can truly sing -- not all of whom are even singing with their own voice. Rebecca Ferguson has the largest supporting part for a character who sings quite a few songs, and he voice was dubbed by Lored Allred.

As P.T. Barnum's enterprises evolve, some of the song sequences feature some nifty choreography. These are the moments with the potential to render The Greatest Showman irresistible in spite of its flaws. Alas, they are fleeting. They remain part of disparate elements impossible to form a cohesive whole. Sometimes, a great voice sings a few lines in a song nice enough almost to become infectious. But the moment passes, and you're left with the time to ponder how this movie lacks the slightest bit of depth.

And then a scene shifts, and you're practically knocked over with cliches. Michelle Williams's scarf flapping in the breeze as she's kissed by Hugh Jackman would work better if there were anything knowing or self-aware about it. But The Greatest Showman wants us to accept it as a straightforward musical entertainment, at times even as an earnest one, but then it seems to think we won't notice when it's being ridiculous. P.T. Barnm coming to meet his family waiting for him at the ballet on one of his elephants? That's just the icing of dumb on a cake of stupid.

I was occasionally entertained enough by The Greatest Showman to forget how dumb it was -- it's a special kind of movie that can make you forget the entire time. This is not that kind of movie.

Circus freaks as props:  The Greatest Showman  can't figure out what it wants to be, or to do.

Circus freaks as props: The Greatest Showman can't figure out what it wants to be, or to do.

Overall: C+

TWIST Advance: SATURDAY CHURCH

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

Back in 2008, there was this thoroughly charming, coming-of-age / coming-out movie that was also a gay-themed musical, called Were the World Mine. Its music was so wonderful that I bought the soundtrack. Ah, those innocent -- or maybe ignorant -- cisgendered, white-centric days.

That's not to denigrate Were the World Mine in any way, as to this day I would eagerly recommend it to anyone. Its Shakespearean themes are magically interwoven into its story, and it remains a unique vision worthy of attention. But a lot of time has also passed since then, and we now live in a post-Tangerine world. In 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected, we lived in a time of naive hope. The 2017 Trump era underscores the need for attention to wider ranges of oppressed communities, and to intersectionality, and Saturday Church couldn't be coming at a better time.

Indeed, it should be very much considered a compliment to say that Saturday Church bears notable resemblance to Were the World Mine. It doesn't rip it off in any way, and neither is it literate in the same way -- rather, it expands upon similar concepts, and draws a clearer line between fantasy and reality, even as it indulges in fantastical musical numbers. These are all literal fantasies of its main character, Ulysses (Luka Kain, fairly new to feature films after some experience in both commercials and on Broadway, very well cast here), a young teenager withdrawing from the harsh real-world reactions to a budding interest in women's clothes.

With Saturday Church, writer-director Damon Cardasis is not preoccupied with gender identity, particularly when it comes to his main character. The hard-nosed Aunt Rose, recruited to look after Ulysses and little brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher) in the wake of their father's death as their mother has to take on extra work, is the only one who makes a point of characterizing Ulysses as both "a black boy, and he's gay." But Aunt Rose, played by Regina Rose without much nuance perhaps because her character is the most one-dimensional, clearly doesn't know what she's talking about.

Ulysses takes the subway into Manhattan, encounters a group of young trans women, and gets invited to the Saturday Church of the title, inspired by a real-life church program for LGBTQ youth.  These transgender women, who are a few years older, takes Ulysses under their wing, along with a young boy, Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), who develops a sweetly romantic interest. Neither he nor any of Ulysses's other new friends spend any time discussing labels -- an almost ironic notion, given that Saturday Church is one of very few films in which trans women of color are actually played by trans women of color: the only other notable one that comes to mind is, again, Tangerine. That said, for all their entertainingly jaded sarcasm, they prove to be real friends to Ulysses, very much encouraging the blossoming of interest in makeup and high heeled shoes.

In its way, Saturday Church is also a coming-out story, only within the context of gender variance. And make no mistake, there is some real emotional pain and some sexual trauma, a realistic reflection of what too many people go through in order to survive. This movie goes out of its way to reflect the stark realities of many trans women of color in particular, the wide range of attitudes toward sex work and the constraints on finding lasting relationships. What makes this movie truly stand apart is how it spends equal time on the unequivocal joys that can also be found along the journey of authentic self-discovery.

To say I found Saturday Church deeply moving would be an understatement. Sure, it made me laugh, it made me cry. It made me cry for multiple reasons. I shed tears for the familiar tensions Ulysses endured in the face of ignorant family members, contrived as they sometimes were. But for perhaps the first time at a movie with so much focus on transgender issues, I shed far more tears of joy, quite literally, as I watched a young person never specifically gendered find an authentic self.

The musical sequences, used both sparingly and effectively, are icing on the cake. Unlike a more conventional musical, where characters burst into song for no discernible reason, here the singing is always part of the main character's elaborate fantasies, which still grounds them in the real world. Compared to Were the World Mine, which I just can't help doing because the films are so similar in concept, the songs are not quite as good, the lyrics less refined or clever, but on average the vocal talent here is far better.  Saturday Church features some truly great singing, albeit paired with choreography that could have used a little more polish.

That said, any minor complaint I might have about it is nothing but nitpicking. It's all about the story, and even with at least one particularly one-note character, this story is deeply affecting. Saturday Church has charms all its own, unlikely to be forgotten for some time.

Luka Kain turns tragedy into beauty in  Saturday Church.

Luka Kain turns tragedy into beauty in Saturday Church.

Overall: A-