ROCKETMAN

rocketman

by Alan Yudman

Elton John’s life is perfect fodder for a movie, and not just because he is famous or an outrageously flamboyant performer. His story is one of soaring highs, monumental lows and redemption. You know, the stuff of good drama. The bold choice made in ROCKETMAN is combining that arc with a catalog of all-time great pop music to tell Elton’s story. So be prepared going in.. this is a musical.

Director Dexter Fletcher, working from a script by Lee Hall, goes for it. There are elaborate choreographed dance routines, bizarre fantasy set pieces and intimate interpretations of the songs of John and Bernie Taupin that are woven in to help tell the story.

The film depicts Reginald Dwight’s loveless childhood. A distant father and a mother who didn’t seem to know how to give love. It’s no wonder Elton John became an addict. It is clear he used pills, cocaine, booze and sex to fill a big hole in his heart. He finally realized what it was to love and be loved after his world came crashing down around him and he got help.

This is Taron Egerton’s movie. He is in just about every scene (except for the young Reggie Dwight). His performance is occasionally over the top, but he is portraying such a flamboyant personality that is mostly works. He also does his own singing and pulls it off. It’s not an impersonation.. more of an interpretation. Whatever it is, it works. It could have been distracting, but after a while you forget that’s not Elton singing. One standout scene is the depiction of “Your Song”. It may be the best moment in the movie.

The other performance worth watching is from Richard Madden as John Reid, the business manager who uses Elton’s neediness as a way to manipulate the star into another loveless relationship. All so Reid can make piles of money. He is loathsome.

Jamie Bell is fine as Bernie Taupin. You get a sense of his relationship with Elton that really seems to be that of two brothers. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Sheila Dwight, Elton’s mother. She gets the point across, but it is a bit uneven. Can’t they find a British actress to play a British woman? Her accent slips on occasion.

Giles Martin was the music producer on the film, an important job in a musical. He does an outstanding job arranging and interpreting the songs to fit the story. My only quibble is they used “Pinball Wizard” to depict one out of control, drug addled, sequence. A more on the nose choice may have been “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but that’s all about choice. Who am I to tell them how to producer their movie. Another important job in this film is Costume Designer and Julian Day nails Elton’s outrageous costumes. I won’t spoil it but just keep “I’m Still Standing” in the back of your mind. If you watched MTV in the ’80’s you might thank me. Or you might want to slap me. Either way, watch for it.

The one thing this film suffers from is what most movies in this genre suffer from.. it feels rushed. I’ve seen worse examples, and better, but it’s a genre problem they deal with as best they can. I have to believe this is a true depiction of the emotional rollercoaster of Elton’s life since he was an Executive Producer on the film.

There will be inevitable comparisons to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, RAY or any other biopic about a musician. Those are false equivalencies. ROCKETMAN owes more to a traditional musical like DREAMGIRLS. It should not get lost on anyone how difficult it is to pull off a musical that is also a biopic. Given the degree of difficulty, ROCKETMAN mostly sticks the landing.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

by Alan Yudman

John Wick goes interior.. thinks about the consequences of his actions and decides to honor his wife and dog by doing good work and volunteering at an animal shelter.

Allow me to cut that faux plot to ribbons with one of the thousands of knives and samurai swords used in the latest ultra-violent (uber violent.. what’s more violent than violent?), sequel JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. But there is something of a message here about choices and consequences.

Chapter 3 picks up less than an hour after the Chapter 2 left off. John has been targeted for execution by The High Table after breaking the rules by killing someone inside the safe haven of The Continental. Winston (Ian McShane) give him an hour to prepare. How can he escape thousands of assassins motivated by a $14+ million bounty? If you have to ask you don’t know John Wick.

Other than the great style created and continued by director Chad Stahelski (and David Leitch in Chapter 1), you come to see what new ways they will find to kill people. I won’t spoil them with specifics but think, in no particular order: Horses, knives, guns (“lots of guns”), motorcycles, swords, dogs, and well I kind of lost track at some point. And each method is unique. It’s not just, “ok, let’s fight with swords”. It’s “ok let’s fight with swords in a complete bonkers way.” That is why this franchise continues to build its box office and really keeps getting better with each installment.

Many people will think of the iconic Keanu Reeves role as Thomas “Neo” Anderson or Ted Logan. Nope. For my money, this is it. John Wick requires Reeves to mine his ability to be a very good physical actor without spending a lot of time emoting or talking. He glowers, he kills, he embodies the bad ass assassin with just enough humanity to allow you root for him.

The rest of the cast is awesome. You look at the list and wonder, “how did they get that actor to do this”? Angelica Huston, Jerome Flynn (Bronn from Game of Thrones), McShane, Lance Reddick, Lawrence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos (the Chairman from Iron Chef America) all have prominent and important roles. And they’re all great. Asia Kate Dillon is wonderful as “The Adjudicator”, tasked with making everyone pay for helping John (remember, choices and consequences). The standout though is Halle Berry. She is a total badass in this as the “Winston” of the Casablanca Continental who helps John because of a blood oath. There is honor among assassins.

My only quibble, and it’s a minor one, is that the final big fight set piece may have gone on a bit too long. But that’s a taste thing and didn’t make me like the movie any less.

I’ve read some criticism about the way they set up the inevitable John Wick: Chapter 4. My response would be, what? There is a totally satisfying twist that makes it believable. The John Wick series is the gold standard in this genre. And who wouldn’t want more gold?

BOOKSMART

by Alan Yudman

I have read some reviews that call BOOKSMART a female Version of SUPERBAD. I don’t know how true that is, but let’s allow this wonderful movie stand on its own merits.

There is so much to love in this film, let’s start with the story. Two high achieving high school seniors think they are the best in their school. Hard to argue they aren’t. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is the class president and is headed for Yale. Her best friend Amy is an out lesbian who is going to Columbia, but not before going to Botswana for a year to help women’s health. They believe they are the best among losers. But, Molly’s chance encounter with three classmates make her realize she and Amy have blown it. The three are going to Yale, Stanford and getting a six-figure coding job with Google. Molly’s plan–make their last night before graduation an epic one.

What transpires is madcap, hysterical and emotional. Molly pushes Amy out of her comfort zone. They’re friendship is pushed to its limits and then break boundaries and at least one law. They realize their classmates are not the losers they thought. In fact, some are pretty cool, and there are regrets about not exploring friendship and love anytime before that one night.

All that would be it ok if not for two things: The outstanding cast and Olivia Wilde’s direction.

Beanie Feldstein is a genius. She plays each comic moment perfectly, she doesn’t overplay or underplay it. Her timing is perfect. But the quiet or more dramatic moments play just as true and real. Feldstein had a small, yet important, role as Saorise Ronan’s best friend in LADY BIRD. That’s where you first saw what is possible. Now that potential is fully realized. Kaitlyn Dever is fantastic as Amy. She shows a vulnerability and insecurity that defines Amy and makes her character’s development all the more satisfying. Billie Lourd is a genius. Her turn as the weirdo Gigi is perfect. The character is one note, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t eat up every scene she is in. The rest of the cast who play the students are fine and serve their purpose of acting as fodder for Molly and Amy. There are also great small performances from Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Mike O’Brien, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte.

As good as Feldstein is, the real breakout here may be Wilde. After directing music videos and some smaller projects, this is her first big movie. And she is more than up to it. She is not afraid to take chances (see a drug / trip-out scene like none you have seen before]. But delets scenes breathe, she doesn’t try to impose a style. Wilde just point the camera and trusts her cast and a good script from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins. I cannot wait to see what is next.

Combine all that with a great soundtrack and you dare a really well done) funny summer comedy. In a world where sequels and remakes dominate. Book SMART is a welcome breath of fresh air.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

by Alan Yudman

It has been 11 years since IRON MAN first opened our eyes to what we now know as the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE. That’s 22 movies, the final episode in this chapter of the MCU being AVENGERS: ENDGAME. So that’s characters from ANT-MAN to VALKYRIE. The potential for a bloated mess is absolutely there as Marvel brings this saga to a close. AVENGERS: ENDGAME is a near perfect example of how to button up a story.

What some fans may miss is the intimate storytelling in the first part of the movie. Well, maybe they won’t miss it but they may forget about it as the intensity grows and it returns to the expectations placed on Marvel movies. These are flawed people. No matter their extraordinary abilities they are dealing with failure, grief and loss. Those are not themes you come to expect in this genre. These heroes are supposed to be able to solve any problem by punching it, blowing it up or “superheroing” it into submission. The Avengers failed at the end of INFINITY WAR. They all feel the loss and guilt. None feels that failure more than Thor. Tony Stark is rescued, but his anger toward everything is overwhelming.

So when they find Thanos and decide to kill him, take back the Infinity Stones and snap the world back into existence it doesn’t seem like one of their normal, well thought out plans. It feels raw and not fully thought out and possibly doomed to failure. A second failure or an extension of the previous one is too much. We jump ahead 5 years and some have tried to move on, but Thor has turned depression into a kind of art form.

They all seem resigned to the existence they are living, until Ant-Man arrives with the greatest title for a plot device in Marvel history… a “Time Heist”. The scenes where they try to recruit Thor and Tony Stark to help out are great, especially when Tony figures out how it can work.

It’s challenging to write how great this all plays out without spoiling large chunks of the film. The “Time Heist” plan brings resolution to several threads, but also gets hijacked by Thanos with the help of Nebula. Again, you are just going to have to trust me here because I don’t want to spoil anything.

The plot takes turns that I didn’t see coming (and some that could be anticipated based on knowledge of projects that are already in the works). Once the Avengers begin their redemption arc it is an incredibly satisfying thrill ride. Every set piece works. The end of the line for certain characters works. It doesn’t feel like fan service and it is most certainly not forced or out of character. Each feels logical and earned.

There were moments in the theater when the entire audience cheered or screamed with joy. There were others where I could hear definite sobs (some may have come from me.. maybe..). You knew instinctively that characters would reappear, but that didn’t make it any less thrilling when they did. Everyone get their moment to shine. Not one character’s appearance felt forced or like the Russo brothers were merely fulfilling fan service. There were some corny bits but it was a kind of sweet cornball and given that they were few and far between in a 3 hour movie, well all is forgiven.

Joe and Anthony Russo should get some kind of award. To take characters from 21 previous movies, at least 21 arcs and expectations of millions of fans around the world and put it all together in a package like this is remarkable. Here’s the thing. This is not just a great genre movie. This is a great movie period. There are some great performances from Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo (you have to see what they did with Hulk.. it’s great!) and Josh Brolin. But Robert Downey, Jr. is unbelievable. I doubt they’ll talk about an Oscar nomination, but maybe they should. He has played Tony Stark now in 3 Iron Man movies, 4 Avengers movies, 1 Captain America movie and a brief appearance in the newest Spider-Man (I think that’s it, hard to keep track at this point). What new could an actor bring to such a familiar character. But Downey does it. There’s parts of Tony we’ve never seen before and Downey, who could have just phoned it in, goes deeper into the character than we’ve ever seen before.

The end of this chapter of the MCU is a turning point. We will go forward with Black Panther, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange. There is nostalgia for what was, but not sadness. A perfect end to a great story is satisfying. And AVENGERS: ENDGAME may be the most satisfying end to a film series I have ever experienced.