Rocketman

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Dexter Fletcher.  Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones.

An unreliable narrator covers a lot of storytelling sins. If a plot point seems unbelievable or outlandish, but it’s coming from the lips of a narrator who’s extremely dishonest, an addict, or highly depressed, that plot point can and should be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of Rocketman, highlights from Elton John’s life are shaped into a musical fantasy, framed by narration from Elton recounting his life’s story in group therapy.

That life story follows the standard beats of a biopic: talented child becomes famous, hits rock bottom, and then turns his life around. There’s nothing particularly new about this sort of musician biopic, especially compared with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which largely follows the same narrative pattern.

However, when compared with Bohemian Rhapsody, all the ways Rocketman excels become apparent. As Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Rocketman embraces its musical form and doesn’t shoehorn songs into a clichéd narrative. Instead, it works a narrative around those songs much like Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, or Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

After an elaborately and outlandishly costumed Elton Hercules John (Taron Egerton) marches into a recovery group at the film’s beginning, the film flashes back and forth between that meeting and memories of his life, which ultimately led Elton to seek help with his addictions. The first memory receives a song of its own as Elton sings, “I was justified, when I was five…” and then the film transitions into a full-scale production number of “The Bitch Is Back” to set up Reginald Dwight’s (Matthew Illesley and later Kit Connor) childhood and serve as a welcome to the show number.

Much like 2007’s Beatles inspired Across the Universe, the songs are re-orchestrated to fit the context in which they are being sung. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used for a bar fight and passage of time as Elton plays there for several years. The overall effect throughout the film is both a moving tribute to Elton John and his music and an effective use of the music to underscore the drama.

The drama draws from mostly well-known episodes in Elton John’s life. His classical piano background, which is apparent in all of his songwriting, and his prodigious ability are the focus of the first section. The latter is obviously exaggerated, but that is in perfect keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. His meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) by chance and their years long collaboration as well as Elton’s abusive relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) form most of the film’s narrative. The backstory is a little too thorough, trying to cover too many details, and it slightly bogs down the film’s pacing. This is the type of story where a nonlinear recollection of memories from Elton at rock bottom would probably have made a stronger effect.

However, despite the predictable trajectory of the narrative, the film soars in its presentation of the music. The best musical choice among many great ones is the song that frames the film. Coupled with Elton walking into therapy is an instrumental of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which returns as an 11 o’clock number at a crucial moment between Bernie and Elton. Since that song is about dreams not turning out as planned and walking away from the razzle dazzle of showbiz, it is a perfect and highly poignant choice, especially when the chords of that song are the first thing we hear in the film.

One song I was truly surprised not to hear was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” For a film that takes this unflinching a look at the dangers of addiction, there were countless places where it would have been a perfect fit, either as a testament to Bernie’s support through Elton’s substance abuse or in regards to Elton acknowledging his homosexuality and escaping his unhealthy relationships.

As Elton, Taron Egerton does a commendable job singing some rather difficult songs and convincingly portrays the high highs and low lows of Elton’s life through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Dexter Fletcher, after completing the last couple scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody, shows he does have a good eye for staging musical numbers.

Lee Hall, who collaborated with Elton John on Billy Elliot the Musical, has penned a script that honors his friend and his music while refusing to lionize him or his mistakes. Most beautifully, it shows the power of any great art, in this case Elton John’s music, to transform, inspire, and be a means for both creator and partaker to share in something greater beyond themselves. And for that, I’m exceedingly grateful to have seen this movie too.

 

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Missing Link

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chris Butler.        Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.

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Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.

With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.

Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.

The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:

  1. It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
  2. It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
  3. The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
  4. There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
  5. Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
  6. It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
  7. It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
  8. The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
  9. It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
  10. It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
  11. It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.

The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.

Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.

Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.

Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.

Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor.                   MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment

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Unplanned

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.   Starring Ashley Bratcher, Brooks Ryan, Jared Lotz, Emma Elle Roberts, Andee Grace Burton, and Robia Scott.

Orson Welles famously said that the two things he always found laughably fake when depicted on screen were sex and prayer. Unplanned, being a Pure Flix production, obviously has no scenes of realistic or unrealistic sex. However, it does feature several scenes of prayer, which in my opinion showcase the wisdom of Welles’ statement.

The most preposterous prayer scene comes at the film’s climax, when members of 40 Days for Life pray over a container of aborted fetus parts about to be disposed, which is crosscut with Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson having her breakdown after witnessing an abortion firsthand, which ultimately led to her becoming a leader in the pro-life movement. It is such a neat and tidy culmination to the story threads that it feels more contrived than anything else, and the actors’ delivery of the lines with their hands outstretched makes the prayer seem like a sort of incantation, which is proved to work by the crosscutting to Abby.

That moment isn’t any less on the nose than the rest of the movie, but it probably best summarizes the weaknesses of the latest film from the makers of God’s Not Dead. Unplanned isn’t nearly as atrocious as the former movie from writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, who also direct this time, but a similar preaching to the choir and lack of subtlety significantly undermines this film as well.

Unplanned tells the story of Abby Johnson (Ashley Bratcher) who went from being Planned Parenthood’s employee of the year and director of their clinic in Bryan, Texas to pro-life activist after she witnessed an ultrasound guided abortion. After an opening scene celebrating Abby’s picturesque family life with her husband and daughter—setting an unmistakable tone that this is a pro-life Christian film—the next scene is a depiction of that turning point in Abby’s life. Then the film flashes back eight years to show how she got there.

As a woman who undergoes a drastic conversion, Bratcher gives a fine, mostly believable performance. The conversion narrative is substantially weakened not only by opening the film with the catalyst for it, but also by the incessant voiceovers, reminding us roughly every five minutes that the conversion is going to happen. It is clear that Konzelman and Solomon do not trust their audience or their material and feel obligated to tell the easiest story for their target audience to hear, despite Abby’s voiceover to the contrary.

The movie is not completely devoid of merit. The lighting and cinematography are well above the average faith-based production. Two scenes stand out in particular for landing the dramatic punch that the filmmakers blatantly wanted the entire film to have. One is a flashback to Abby’s first abortion in college where the disorientation of the procedure to the recovery room is conveyed through skilled lens, lighting, and editing choices. The other is a scene when Abby lies about the blood on her sneakers to her daughter Grace (Andee Grace Burton) to the disapproval of her pro-life husband Doug (Brooks Ryan). The shot reverse-shot confrontation punctuated with the sound effects of Abby removing said sneakers is undeniably well crafted and underscores the moral seriousness the rest of the film could have had.

The flashback structure does not work on a purely dramatic level, because it gives away the denouement of the story from the beginning. When the movie attempts a flashback within a flashback, presumably before Abby started volunteering for Planned Parenthood her junior year of college, the timeline quickly becomes muddled, and it is not clear whether she had two abortions, a one-year marriage, and a divorce while in college before she started working at Planned Parenthood or after that time.

Dramatic license is obviously going to be taken in any adaptation of a true story, and I do not begrudge the filmmakers for streamlining events or choosing more dramatically exciting alternatives (such as taking the injunction Planned Parenthood filed against Abby all the way to a trial). However, enough events seriously stretch credibility (e.g. there is hardly any conflict between Abby and her staunchly pro-life parents over working at Planned Parenthood, Abby picks at a dissembled fetus seeing its human form but later is traumatized by the human-like features of an ultrasound picture of a fetus) that I several times questioned the reliability of Abby’s narration.

One thing I am truly surprised to read in praise of the film from pro-life circles is the “sympathetic” portrayal of Planned Parenthood employees. They are all either sneering, predatory, malevolent witches (such as Abby’s boss Cheryl, played by Robia Scott) or well-meaning, but naïve and moronic enablers of said witches. The best comparison I can think of would be to imagine a film about the sex abuse scandal that portrayed all Catholics as falling into one of those two categories. Would anyone say such a portrayal is respectful or sympathetic?

The movie is very slightly more successful in its challenge to the pro-life movement, depicting two instances of violence and harassment from pro-lifers. However, it immediately suggests that such antics are from fringe lunatics who are in no way a natural extension of the rhetoric of the movement as a whole, while simultaneously trotting out right-wing talking points (George Soros! Liberals only say they want to reduce the number of abortions) that were used by pro-life leaders to elect a sex predator who dehumanizes women, immigrants, and refugees much in the same way abortion dehumanizes the unborn.

I’ve heard accounts of pro-choice viewers watching Unplanned and changing their mind on abortion. Not to belittle those claims, but this movie so relentlessly preaches to the choir that I would be shocked if it changed anyone’s mind regarding abortion, unless they were already on the fence about it. I’ve seen more than one pro-choice viewer say it inspired them to donate to Planned Parenthood.

If one believes abortion is the termination of a human life, then the movie’s depiction of that will probably be a powerful and horrific reminder of the value of all human life. If not, those scenes will probably come across as cheesy CGI. Given how contrived the rest of the film is, it would be hard to argue with anyone who feels that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: C

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Scrap

Year of release: 2018       Directed by Leena Pendharkar.      Starring Vivian Kerr and Anthony Rapp.

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In some ways, Scrap is an extended trailer, a hint of a feature film to come that will hopefully be equally thoughtful and compassionate. At the same time, as a twenty-minute short it functions well as a brief window into a couple days in the life of a homeless woman.

Beth, played by scriptwriter Vivian Kerr, lives out of her Prius while desperately driving to various job interviews in the LA area while hiding the state of her life from her brother Ben (Anthony Rapp) and her daughter Birdy (Skylar Hill) who has been staying with her uncle. Additionally, Beth travels from neighborhood to neighborhood to find a place to park her car and sleep in the back seat where she won’t be harassed.

Reasons for harassment include a vandal smashing her car window to take some of her possessions and threats to call the police under the assumption that she must be a prostitute. Those assumptions reflect the overwhelmingly disparaging view that many people take toward the homeless, concluding that they either deserve it or must be drug addicts, sex workers, or some other group of people often branded as “lesser.”

Indeed, Beth herself is not free from those prejudices, as she works diligently to make sure her daughter, her brother, and his wife do not find out about her living situation. Her own self-shame adds another layer of difficulty to her life, and the film is honest about how difficult it can be to overcome such prejudices, even when they affect one as directly as Beth.

How long Beth has been homeless and searching for a job while her daughter lives with her brother is unclear. The story presented in the film feels entirely like a middle act with more backstory and a subsequent act to come when it is adapted into a feature film later this year—hence my calling it an extended trailer above. It is still very effective, with that middle act tightly told, moving from introducing us to Beth to building tension in the job interviews and altercations to the final exchange with her brother.

In their brief amount of screen time Kerr and Rapp convincingly portray a supportive yet not entirely close brother and sister, both of whom care about one another but are unsure how much to ask of the other. There is a natural chemistry between Kerr and Rapp, which should translate smoothly into a longer version of this story.

Scrap succeeds both as a promise of that feature length version, but also on its own both as a means of raising awareness for the homeless and as a challenge to reexamine any prejudices that we may harbor toward them.

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Us

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Jordan Peele.       Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elisabeth Moss.

 

Vague spoiler warning

There is a piece by John Cage titled Credo in US. Whether Cage meant the last word of that title to be an emphatic declaration of me and you or an abbreviation of United States is deliberately ambiguous. Given the time he composed the piece and his own politics, it is quite possible that he intended a double meaning for the title.

I think Jordan Peele is attempting a similar wordplay and political commentary with his second feature, Us. I say think, because there are so many ideas in the film that it is difficult to know exactly what it is about, and there are enough twists to the story that more than one interpretation is possible.

One of the twists is particularly aggravating, because first of all, it’s obvious and something that any relatively knowledgeable viewer will be considering throughout the movie. It occurred to me as a possibility in the second scene. Secondly, that twist completely contradicts earlier scenes, making certain actions completely unbelievable. Finally, it undermines the entire story by suggesting several possible interpretations, which are ultimately meaningless, because it fails to change anything regarding who is inflicting the horror on whom.

One of the more credible interpretations of Us is that it is an indictment of capitalism’s dependency on classism and enslaving the working class. If that is the movie’s thesis, then the final twist makes sense since it seemingly implies the identity of two characters makes no difference, because they’ve been inevitably pitted against one another by capitalism’s economic injustice. However, if that is a correct interpretation, then it seriously undercuts the horror, because it retroactively makes it impossible to care about either character.

The characters themselves, excepting a few scenes of clichéd horror film stupidity, are wonderfully written and even better acted. Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely phenomenal as a nervous wife and mother, haunted by a nightmare she experienced at a fair as a little girl. In her second role as a sinister doppelgänger, she conveys the desperation from a lifetime of suffering and enslavement superbly. Winston Duke provides both comic relief and support as her husband, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex make an endearing pair of siblings.

The snobby white neighbors are far less interesting as characters, but as the mother of that family Elisabeth Moss creates a memorable and compelling version of a shallow, first-world white woman with first-world white-woman problems. She is an excellent foil to Nyong’o, especially when it seems that the film is going to be about the differences between white and black Americans and the ways that each is socially allowed to respond to threats and discomfort. After the plot goes around several sharp turns, her presence in the film makes less sense, but she still has some great scenes of unadulterated body horror.

One of those scenes involves a pair of scissors that will unquestionably be one of the most memorable film scenes of 2019, even if that scene has no explanation and seemingly serves the plot in no discernable way. I certainly have no objection to great scenes that have no dramatic purpose (flamethrower guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road, anyone?), but Us is laboring so hard to have a point or several in nearly every scene that the imagery comes across as baffling, because almost everything about the film is inviting comparison as some sort of allegory.

The opening title card references the underground network of railways that runs through much of America. The 1986 Hands Across America frames the film in a way that invites a cross-examination of the way our country has long functioned. References to the judgment in Jeremiah 11:11 appear throughout the movie. It is clear that the film wants to question and critique the network that much of the U.S. has been built on, but it’s not really clear what that critique is and whether its focus is racism, classism, materialism, or all of the above.

Us is a movie in which if you excerpted any individual scene, you would see excellent acting, skilled directing, good pacing, and a great atmosphere of tension skillfully infused with bits of comedy. And yet, the whole is distinctively less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, the parts are good enough that the film remains a fun and diverting ride as long as you don’t expect too much cohesion at the end.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: Some gruesome violence and its aftermath, moments of horror and suspense, and occasional rough language.                MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

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