Posts Tagged B-rated films

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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Mary Queen of Scots

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Josie Rourke.       Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, and David Tennant.

Mary Queen

“Better a live rat than a dead lion.” So says a character in one of the best plays and movies about the religious convictions and subsequent conflicts instigated by the English reformation. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lives by the conviction “better a dead lion than a live rat.” In 1561, with tensions between Catholics and Protestants still high in Europe, that is a dangerous principle to hold, and for anyone who knows their British history, it is one that cost Mary dearly.

The latest cinematic telling of that history assumes that knowledge, and it opens with brilliant crosscutting between Mary processing to her execution in 1587, Elizabeth I approaching her throne, and then back to Mary’s return to Scotland from France in 1561. The imagery draws a powerful parallel between the two queens, foreshadowing the ensuing conflict with a bookend that suggests their inevitable fates. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in the film such thought is given to the editing, and the rest of the film settles into a fairly rote history lesson, highlighting the main points in the power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.

That is not to say Mary Queen of Scots is a bad history lesson. With grandiose and austere production design, stylish costumes and makeup, a talented cast, and some beautiful cinematography of the Scottish countryside the whole film remains watchable. However, the script and pacing are too pedestrian for the film as a whole to rise to the level of its parts or themes.

This is a strongly feminist take on Mary Stuart and her desire to unify England and Scotland, which I believe is not unusual for films about her. What is unusual is something that I’ve only seen in one other film, The Girl King from 2015. Both these films about strong female monarchs who are Catholic or wish to become Catholic, which functions a rebellion against their patriarchal Protestant courts, not only link Catholicism with protagonists’ feminism but also with their liberalism and anachronistic pro-LGBTQ beliefs.

As bizarre as this may seem, especially in twenty-first century America, I think there are parallels in that comparison worth exploring. In England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catholics were a persecuted minority, much the same way LGBTQ people were for nearly all of the twentieth century. If a misogynistic patriarchy is the established norm throughout most of Western history, linking that to the dominant religion of a period film’s setting is not an illogical decision—after all, religion has often been abused to rationalize power struggles. Continuing this dramatic license, if a minority religion is then linked to the ways in which a female protagonist challenges said patriarchy, I think there is a dramaturgical basis for the comparisons made here.

However, I think the ideas themselves are more interesting than the film’s handling of them. That above paragraph is probably more thought than any of the filmmakers gave to those themes, as the driving force behind most dramatic choices seems to be: Mary is a progressive rebel.

The recurring motive throughout the movie is that Mary is too independent, and her taking agency of herself like a man threatens the toxic masculinity of the Scottish and English lords. As a contrast with Mary, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) defers to her council and allows herself to be parliament’s pawn. In one of the film’s better exchanges, she tells her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that the throne has made her more of a man than anyone else, but she has just embraced the desires of the power-hungry men surrounding her. The woman who acts as an equal with the men is Mary, and she is detested for it.

This power struggle mostly plays out through the determination of the Protestant nobles to prevent England from ever having another Catholic monarch. Overlaying the sixteenth century religious conflict with a contemporary feminist angle creates a parallel between the bigotries of five hundred years ago and those of today, as can be seen in David Tennant’s frothing at the mouth, right-wing fundamentalist portrayal of John Knox.

The one performer who really stands out is Margot Robbie. Her final two scenes walk a perfect balance between Elizabeth’s compassion for her cousin and the role she has embraced in serving her council. It’s probably the best example of the film’s themes of religion and gender roles in a society dominated by men.

I am a huge fan of Ronan, and I firmly believe that she was robbed in losing awards for both Brooklyn and Lady Bird. However, her performance here, while very good, lacks the empathy those other characters had, and as fitting as her austerity is for Mary, it pales next to the range of emotions Robbie achieves in her portrayal of Elizabeth.

As a story of two queens caught between men’s games of political intrigue, the film never quite achieves the urgency and tension it should. Nonetheless, telling this chapter of history solely from their perspectives makes for a thematically fascinating subversion. Since the winners get to write history, the losers of conflicts are often reviled, sometimes rightly and other times not. Mary Queen of Scots was viciously reviled by the English and her subjects during her lifetime while Elizabeth I was beloved. The film’s modern lens invites us to consider the reasons behind that, and it is an idea I appreciated even as I wish the film did more with it.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: An off-screen rape, a bloody assassination, several consensual sex scenes—one rather violent, non-graphic wartime violence, and fleeting nudity.             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

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A Star is Born

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, and Anthony Ramos.

Sometimes there’s a film, and it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in with the zeitgeist and has enough going for it that nearly everyone becomes swept up with it, celebrating its great achievements. A Star is Born may be that film. It certainly wants to be that film, and in nearly every scene it bends over backwards in its attempts to do so.

The fourth cinematic incarnation of a talented ingenue discovered by a famous artist has a lot to commend it. The song performances are amazing, the acting intense and emotional, the drama engaging and tragic with direction that mirrors each scene’s emotions precisely.

I could never escape the feeling that it was one giant collage of Oscar clips, with each scene edited for maximum impact in a twelve second clip at the ninety-first Academy Awards.

That style of storytelling works surprisingly well for the first act, in which veteran country music singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) performing in a nightclub. Impressed by her talent, he flirts with her and spends the night talking to her, culminating in him inviting her to perform in his next show. She says no, so he has his driver stalk her the following day until she changes her mind and quits her job for a one-night performance.

If Jack’s behavior seems creepy, the film wants us to know it’s okay, firstly because she playfully calls him out on it, secondly because he doesn’t hide that he’s an alcoholic, so he’s being honest, and thirdly because Jack is not aggressively sexist like some of the other jerks in the bar. It might be the most pathetic tie-in to the #metoo movement I’ve seen in a recent film, especially considering not a single male character is capable of listening to Ally, other than her friend and coworker Ramon (Anthony Ramos). To be fair, the film portrays most of these scenes from Ally’s perspective, but it wants to have its cake and eat it by portraying Jack’s behavior as a sort of meet cute routine.

The second and third acts follow the predictable beats for a story of a fading, depressed, alcoholic star and a quickly rising sensation, both of whom fall in love with each other. There’s the honeymoon romance, the temporary estrangement, irrational jealousy, and heartbreaking setbacks. There’s a strong supporting turn from Sam Elliott who has a “surprising” relationship to Cooper’s Jack. There’s a light critique of the showbiz industry and the unhealthy side of fame that doesn’t in any way threaten the status quo of the entertainment world.

In other words, it is the perfect level of mildly self-critical to make Academy members feel thoughtful and introspective while simultaneously making them feel proud both of how inclusive they are and of their valuable contributions to the world.

Lady Gaga gives an electrifying performance (especially when she’s singing) in a role that feels like it was meticulously crafted to win an Oscar, and she’s good enough that I won’t even be upset when it probably happens. Her acting and singing chops just about make the film worth watching.

I have never been the biggest Bradley Cooper fan, and while it is blatant that the film is an egotistical passion project for him, I found his Sam Elliott impression enjoyable and one of his better performances. The scene where Elliott tells Jack (Cooper) that “you stole my voice” is unquestionably on the nose, but I honestly didn’t mind.

The biggest problem for me was how hard the film labors in nearly every scene to win the Oscar, knowing that there is a very good chance it may succeed. In addition to the quasi-critiques of unethical producers and the faint connections to #metoo and #timesup, there’s the requisite sad ending to tell us we watched something profound, even though said ending could have easily been avoided with more believable writing. And of course, the entire film is about show business, the Academy’s favorite subject. In short, it’s the Oscariest batiest movie ever.

And you know what? Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott all clearly have such a great time with their roles, that I kind of ended up having one too, and I almost didn’t even care that this is an emotionally manipulative pile of Oscar bait, which will steal all year-end discussion from the actual best movie musical of 2018.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, non-graphic sexual encounters, and occasional rough language.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

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The Greatest Showman

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Michael Gracey.   Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.

The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.

The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.

“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.

“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.

However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.

Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).

Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.

Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity.                MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Matt Reeves.                   Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, and Toby Kebbel.

Andy Serkis has described War for the Planet of the Apes as a film about the battle for Caesar’s soul, and that is the war which consumes most of the action in this film. The fighting between apes and humans which began in the prior film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes a backseat where both species, either as individuals or as a whole, live or die according to their own choices.

In a film where the outcome is predetermined – because the trilogy which War concludes serves as a prequel to a world where humans have died out and apes have inherited the planet – diverting the heart of the action from an apes versus humans standoff is a wise choice. That way we can feel the tragedy of humanity’s extinction without rooting for either side to eliminate the other. This is a stark contrast and improvement from the first film of this trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where all the humans were either forgettable, clichéd good guys who could die off without any sense of loss or insufferable monsters whom any normal person would want the apes to destroy.

However, the second film, Dawn, changed that by showing the best and worst of both humans and apes, and by pitting Caesar (the leader of the chimps played by Andy Serkis) against Koba, (Toby Kebbel) an ape consumed with hatred toward humans for the abusive experiments they had carried out on him. Koba’s ghost continues to haunt Caesar after an early tragedy in War reveals to Caesar that he has a capacity for the same level of hatred. If the primary conflict in the last film was ape versus ape, here it is ape versus self.

Caesar’s internal wrestling with rage, along with the consequences of the choices he makes as a result, weakens the Moses figure he otherwise is to the apes, who are trying to pass through a desert to their own promised land in order to escape slavery or death at the hands of desperate humans willing to attempt anything in order to survive.

Here, there is very little good to be found in humanity who given themselves over to fear and anger in their desperation to survive. The worst of man is personified by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel who views himself as fighting a holy war for the survival of humanity not only against apes, but also against a new strand of the virus which killed millions of humans while increasing apes’ strength and intelligence, and against other humans who disagree with his extreme methods. The Colonel is the leader of the villains, much as Koba was in the last film, but as there was with Koba, there is a scene where we learn the source of his anger and extreme methods, making him, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable.

Like many fanatics, the Colonel is religiously driven: crucifying apes, blessing his soldiers with the sign of the cross, appropriating the U.S. national anthem in a borderline idolatrous way, painting alpha and omega symbols on the American flag, and carving them onto apes he’s convinced to serve him. It’s certainly possible that the alpha and omega were chosen to reflect the simultaneous end of humanity and rise of the apes, but the religious connotations of those Greek letters can hardly be overlooked in light of the other symbols.

When the Colonel finally has his main confrontation with Caesar, his rationalization is a perversion of love, which has taken a good thing (protection of humanity) and twisted it to justify any atrocity needed for that end. It reminded me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves regarding unhealthy patriotism that “can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of [Heavenly Society] and use them to justify the most abominable actions.” (The Four Loves, p. 38)

“I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds – wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine – I become insufferable.” (The Four Loves, p. 37)

The Colonel has passed from insufferable to monstrous, and when Caesar witnesses that, he sees his rage taking him down that path as well. Thus, it is fitting that the ape versus man conflict between Caesar and the Colonel forms a smaller part in Caesar’s own struggle that drives the film.

Ministering to Caesar’s better nature is his oldest surviving friend the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who finds a peculiar child (Amiah Miller) who personifies one of the Colonel’s fears and reminds Caesar about the costs of violence. All the themes tie together pretty obviously, and at times, the film is a little heavy-handed and the pacing a little too drawn out, but as an examination that twists the traditional revenge tale it succeeds very well.

As a chronicle of how the apes inherited this planet, War for the Planet of the Apes serves as the strongest installment of the trilogy which began with humans cutting corners for the sake of profits and science and culminated with them cutting ethical corners to engage in acts which made them more brutal than the beasts they feared. It’s unquestionably tragic, but Matt Reeves’ film treats it with the solemnity it deserves, while never forgetting to remind us of the more peaceful outcome that was sadly rejected in favor of violence.

 

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content advisory: Gun violence, ape fights, some mild gore, an implied off-screen euthanasia, torture of apes.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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