Category: Movies


It seems to be the year of films that explore the music icons of my generation. Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a biopic about Queen and a bio-fantasy about Elton John in the blog Rocketman Flies High on the Heels of Bohemian Rhapsody. Now, here we are with an even more imaginative take on what the Beatles have meant to the world, as explored in Yesterday, directed by the marvelous Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Days).

The clever concept reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life. During a mysterious global power outage, the main character, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), gets hit by a bus. When he recovers, the struggling songwriter discovers that suddenly no one remembers the Beatles—never heard of them. They also never heard of several other ubiquitous elements of modern life, but I won’t give those away here.

Jack’s failure as a performer quickly turns into unimaginable success as he passes himself off as the writer of beloved songs like “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” and—of course—“Yesterday.” But after an alternative-universe kind of meeting with one of the Beatles-who-were, he realizes that lying to the world—and losing the love of his life (played by the lovely Lily James)—is just not how he wants to live.

Sure, there are TONS of plot holes and some heavy-handed handling of just how AMAZING the Beatles were (they’re compared at various points to Leonardo da Vinci and Mozart), but it’s an enjoyable fantasy film. It pokes fun at many modern foibles, includes apropos “playing themselves” appearances by Ed Sheeran and James Corden, and features the music of the Beatles. Yeah, those songs really are great, and that’s why they endure and a movie like this can be made about them.

So leave the disbelief at home and enjoy the situational comedy and romance. It’s like something they write songs about.

James Corden plays himself.

In Yesterday, Jack appears on James Corden’s talkshow.

Looks like there are more films about our favorite music to come, as Blinded by the Light comes to the screen to tell a story about the inspiration that Bruce Springsteen’s music offers. And I for one can’t wait to see what comes after that!

Rocketman - Taron Egerton

Taron Egerton as Elton John

As a kid, I listened to Elton John records almost as much as I wore out the grooves in the vinyl of my Queen LPs!  So, I found it amusing that the film Rocketman emerged on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody and its success. The two movies take different approaches with poetic license when it comes to rendering the rock-legend biopic. And, interestingly, b Dexter Fletcher directed both films (though Bryan Singer is director-of-record for Rhapsody, having started the project).

The first concert I ever attended was Queen, back in the day. (Yes, I realized I am dating myself.) I was and remain an avid fan, especially of classic Queen through about the News of the World release. Naturally, I approached the Rhapsody film with a critical eye. Yes, there are some easily spotted inaccuracies, and I was particularly miffed to see a blue-eyed Freddie Mercury, but it seemed that’s all anyone focused on. Overall, the movie is rousing and entertaining. I loved it, bought the DVD, watched it again, and will in the future!

cast of Bohemian Rhapsody.

The cast of Bohemian Rhapsody: dead ringers for the band Queen.

But maybe “reality” was the issue: Rhapsody seemed to make painstaking efforts to be realistic—the cast were dead ringers for the band members, the band’s inimitable soundtracks were beautifully blended in, and Rami Malek even had a movement coach to emulate Freddie Mercury’s stage strutting. Possibly the attention to these details acutely pointed out the inattention (intentional or not) to other facts about when and why certain events happened. When that happens, suspension of disbelief is tough to attain with a straightforward biopic.

Such is not the case with Rocketman. From start to end, the film is filled with fantasy sequences and metaphor. For instance, rather than presenting Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs in any semblance of chronological release order, it peppers the story with them wherever they reflect events in Elton’s life. The music is not confined to concert scenes; people burst into song and dance as needed. Lapses in the time continuum represent the drug-and-alcohol-induced confusion that Elton suffered before seeking help.

The most powerful metaphor in the film starts with the first frame and continues through almost to the end. In a classic example of retrospective narrative, Elton reveals how he plummeted to his low point as he talks to a support group at a rehab facility. As the film pops back in on him telling his tale, he’s also removing pieces of a bejeweled devil outfit and eventually ends up in a simple tracksuit. After that, he’s back to being Elton—albeit a sober one—as he dons a showman’s outfit for a rousing rendition of “I’m Still Standing.” It’s all tongue-in-cheek fun and pretty immune to any nitpicky fact-checking.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a devil suitRocketman also avoids lip-sync analysis by actually having the lead actor sing. Luckily, Taron Egerton is not only a good actor but a decent singer. Anyone (like me) who knows every note of at least two dozen Elton John songs by heart can tell immediately it’s not Elton’s voice. But Egerton does an amazing job, and the way this fantasy-musical-biopic is structured, it fits right in with the story and allows the character to modulate for a scene in ways that a soundtrack never could.

Taron Egerton as Elton John at the Troubadour

Photo by David Appleby/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (10242448j) Taron Egerton as Elton John ‘Rocketman’ Film – 2019

The fantasy aspects also mean that the adult Elton John can talk face to face with the young Reggie Dwight that he was, and characters can float in thin air to reflect the euphoric excitement of Elton’s American debut at the Troubadour.

In the end, both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are wonderful films about the rock of my youth. I’m hard-pressed to choose the one I’d like to have with me on a deserted island.

 

Cheers and happy moviegoing!

 


Postscript: I was fortunate enough to see Elton John’s final Saturday night concert in residency at Caesar’s Palace before his retirement in May 2018.Elton John in concert at Caesar's Palace May 2018

florence-foster-jenkins-posterA wealthy and connected socialite deludes herself that she is a talented soprano and aims for staging a concert at Carnegie Hall, topping all of her other dubious musical accomplishments. Her doting husband and compliant accompanist enable her, and no one else speaks out, until a reporter who attends the concert cries “the emperor has no clothes” and bursts her bubble.

Very funny stuff. And the funniest part? It all happened! Yes, truth is truly stranger than fiction.

Streep, left, as Lady Florece, as she liked to be called, and the real Florence at right.

St. Clair Bayfield was Florence’s longtime companion, though it seems they were not actually married.

Director Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins is engaging and fun to watch, and it’s one of those slices of little-known history that makes you want to learn more. I love these kinds of films, when they are executed as well as this one is. Of course there are the instances of Hollywood poetic license to add drama, but the story is just a hoot.

 

Playing the lead is Meryl Streep, whose performance is, as ever, marvelous. She dexterously emulates tone-deafness, and her character is affable as the afflicted yet undauntedly persevering Lady Florence. Hugh Grant falls smoothly into the role of her amiable and facilitating husband, with a mixture of saintly patience and all-too-human appetites.

 

Cosme McMoon was at the height of his piano-playing career with Lady Florence, and he ended up becoming interested in bodybuilding.

The toughest sell for me was the casting of Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) as Cosme McMoon, Florence’s piano accompanist. It’s a personal thing, I concede. Helberg is perfect for the role. He is geeky and puny and a talented piano player, like the real McMoon (which some purport was a pseudonym to protect the real performer’s reputation). But I could not get over seeing Howard Wolowitz on the screen, and I expected him to be living with his mother when Florence goes to see him, and yelling, “All right, Ma!” when she summons from offstage.

The supporting cast adds depth and flavor to the story, perfectly helping depict the grand deception that served Florence’s fantasy.  They used her, and she used them. Ah, the rich.

A

Oh, goodness. It’s been WAY too long since I posted.

I blame it on TV! There are so many terrific shows on these days, that I have become as addicted to the boob-tube as I am to the silver screen. Maybe more about that in a later post …

MV5BODU4MjU4NjIwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDU2MjEyMDE@._V1_SX214_AL_For now, I want to revisit an old favorite which just turned 20 years old. Despite a daunting lineup of TV shows, I still insist on watching films either that I own or that are available on the premium channels. A recent choice was The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is epic, spanning a 20-year period and encompassing such motifs as stunning patience, preservation of humanity, deserved redemption, and ultimate justice. Stars Tim Robbins (as Andy Dufresne, a convicted murderer who professes innocence) and Morgan Freeman (as old-timer inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding) are perfect in their roles, and the supporting cast is stellar.

There are many touching moments in the film, such as when various characters muse about things like the reasons for their life choices. There are also uncomfortable moments, usually involving major injustices and heartbreaking tragedies. shawshank-redemption-1And then there are the moments we cheer: when someone’s intelligence and patience are rewarded, when human kindness shines through bureaucracy, and when the “good guys” get the upper hand on the “bad guys.” And that’s another interesting twist—in this story, the goods guys are not who you’d expect.

The Shawshank Redemption has become a quiet classic in the 20 years since it was made. If you have not seen, check it out. It’s truly worth watching!

The Academy Awards air this evening, so I’ll try to be brief. Here is a quick look at the final three Oscar hopefuls for Best Picture. Yes, I managed to see them all!

The-Oscars-2014-logo-585x359

index12 Years a Slave

Sorry to be a dissenting voice in an otherwise admiring crowd. I was so ready to like this film, based on the true-account book written by kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup. It should have been riveting, but it turned out to be rather a snooze-fest.

images4Despite some excellent performances, some of the casting is actually a bit distracting. Examples include two likable and over-exposed Brits (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender) as southern plantation owners (really?), walk-ons with a few lines for Brad Pitt and Garret Dillahunt, and a waste of talent in a small role for Paul Giamatti. A stirringly brutal portrayal of an overseer is turned in by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Looper), but soon we’re back to sleepwalking through the story. Perhaps the most genuine and heartbreaking performance comes from relative newcomer Lupita Nyong. By contrast, most of the other actors look like they are doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie.

images2The main problem is similar to the issues of focus and emphasis that I mentioned with the movie Captain Phillips:  there is no sense of the actual time span of Northup’s captivity, and there is little rendition of the severe disorientation of becoming a slave after living as a respected member of society. These aspects, intricate to the story, would have made this movie far more fascinating. As it is, however, it becomes simply another in a long line of films documenting the tragedies and injustices visited on slaves in America.  Other films have already done that, and more eloquently.

imagesAn additional irritation was the use of oddly placed close-ups and scenes with no action or expression in them. I cannot believe this film is up for an editing award, much less Best Director for Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). These shots—like looking up the nose of a woman who is about to sing, or watching Chiwetel Ejiofor sit and stare for nearly a minute—add nothing and simply interrupt the flow. All in all, this was not one of my favorites.

C+

 

11176448_oriNebraska

I was warned that this film is a downer and boring. Nothing could be farther from the experience I had!

index3A marvelous slice of Americana, this little gem is shot in black and white and viscerally evokes the feel of struggling farms and small towns, their salt-of-the-earth residents, and road trips through the heartland. It’s true that for most of the film, discomfort floats near the top of the emotional brew: discomfort with aging, with unrealized dreams, with the dysfunctionality of families and the large-scale struggles of Middle America. It’s true stuff, this. We sit and watch people be patient, or impatient, with one another, we listen to old men chat as they watch a football game, and most of us can say, “I’ve been here. I’ve heard this conversation.” The discomfort makes the film’s payoff all the sweeter.

images10Veteran actor Bruce Dern is marvelous as Woody Grant, a tired, alcoholic, mildly demented old man who holds on to a delusion because, well, that’s all there is left. Will Forte (of Saturday Night Live comedic fame) lovingly plays the ultimate good son, who learns more about his father in a few days driving from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska than he ever knew before, and then provides the aging man with a perfect gesture of love and respect.

 

images11

Many of the portrayals seems stiff at first, bringing to mind home movies and low-budget filmmaking.  But the style really works to create a “realistic” portrait of characters that are rather readable at first glance, until it becomes apparent that there is more to all of them than meets the eye. We hear about their dreams and disappointments, we see them deal with what life hands them, and we finally see them as real and individual rather than mere types. Terrific performances are turned in by June Squibb as Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s other son, Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, and many other supporting actors.

Granted, Nebraska may not be a movie for everyone. The plight of aging average-Joe and his family may not be of movie-watching interest to many—heck, it isn’t always my cup of tea either—but the story this movie tells is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in the best of ways.

A-

 

Philomena

index2Philomena is a tale of profound misery—well told, amusing at times, fascinating to watch and learn from—but still misery. In this story based on reality, the superb Dame Judi Dench plays an aging Irish woman who as a girl was relegated to an abbey for unwed mothers to give birth, work to pay both debt and penance, and agonizingly watch her son carted away by adoptive parents, never to be seen again. Now, fifty years later, she is still determined to discover where he ended up. Steve Coogan (typically a comic actor known for the likes of Hamlet 2) co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Martin Sixsmith, the dislodged journalist who helps “Phil”—as he comes to call her—to find out what happened to her son.

images7 Like 12 Years a Slave, this movie tells of a shameful past about which not much can be done now, except to remember and honor those who went through it and vow to never let anything like it happen again. And like Nebraska, it tells of family relationships that might be difficult for some to understand; also like Nebraska, it features a comedic actor-turned-serious (both do a splendid job of it). Unlike either of those films, Philomena is truly tragic.

The story and performances are excellent (including Sophie Kennedy Clark as young Philomena), and the movie is well worth watching. Coogan marvelously plays his character as jaded by years of political journalism and then awoken to indignant rage by what he learns through following Phil in her journey.

images6However, I found the Pollyanna-like acceptance of Phil a bit beneath the acting chops of Dench. Perhaps if someone not as well-known had played Phil, this might not have been an issue; but then again, maybe this movie would not be a Best Picture candidate either. It also was a bit bothersome, on a relational level, that Phil’s daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) is involved and helping her in the search for the brother she never even knew about. It’s not addressed how she felt about this; what was the real daughter’s reaction to hearing that her mother thought about the lost son daily, though her daughter is there in front of her all along?

Still, the balance of views about events (Philomena’s acceptance, at least in the film, and Sixsmith’s disgust and anger) make for thought-provoking cinema.

B+

My Winners and Runners-Up

I can’t call these my predictions—one just never knows, especially with the changing face of the Academy. But here is how I would vote for a few of this year’s awards to be distributed:

 

Best Picture: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Runner-Up:  American Hustle

 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey

Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto

Runners-Up: close race between Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Runner-Up: Julia Roberts

Best Cinematography: Nebraska

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