Rocketman

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writer: Lee Hall


It doesn’t seem possible to talk about Rocketman without also talking about last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Aside from sharing surface similarities (both films are about legendary glam rock superstars from the 70s and 80s and closeted queer man) and both having been directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over the Freddie Mercury biopic when its original director was sacked amid allegations of sexual misconduct, it was Bohemian Rhapsody that really drove home for many people what a tired genre the music biopic was. Ever since Walk Hard came out and demonstrated just how predictable and clichéd these movies so often tend to be, it’s been difficult to take many subsequent biopics seriously (with notable exceptions like Straight Outta Compton). Bohemian Rhapsody hit so many of the same typical beats of the genre (the naïve singer, the disapproving family, the ‘one shot’ moment, the cesspit of sex and drugs, the triumphant redemption, etc.) that it bordered on self-parody. Perhaps it’s an inevitable by-product of the fact that most of the great 20th century musicians deemed worthy of receiving the cinematic treatment have tended to live similar lives, but just about every genre has their share of common stories and characteristic tropes to contend with. What made the music biopic seem so banal in comparison is how their stories seldom seem interested in actually saying anything beyond ‘here’s a noteworthy person who lived an interesting life and wrote some good songs that you should listen to on the soundtrack album we’ve compiled’.

That’s where I think this movie differs the most. While it has all the same tropes that I listed earlier as Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman never feels like a film that’s simply going through the motions. Not only does it find new, creative ways of depicting the kinds of features and moments we’ve already seen in countless films of this kind, but it also applies them in service of telling an actual story with something substantive to say. Rocketman isn’t just a film depicting the life and times of Sir Elton John (Taron Egerton); it is on a far deeper level the story of a fundamentally broken man trying to learn to love and accept himself. It is that simple distinction that makes the traditional elements of the music biopic that it employs not clichés, but instead vital ingredients in the story of itself. We get, for example, the disapproving parents in the form of Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), a stiff, stilted and stuck-up soldier who views his son (née Reginald) as little more than a nuisance, and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), who clearly loves her son but is so engrossed in her own daily working-class struggles and lack of romantic fulfilment that she appears largely uninterested in the boy’s extraordinary talent and success. Their disapproval and indifference aren’t mere obstacles Reginald Dwight has to overcome in order to become the legend he’s destined to be, they are symbols of the emotionally repressed, sexually conservative, homophobic culture he grew up in and they play significant roles in shaping him into the self-hating, self-destructive man he grows into.

What also distinguishes this film from the usual trend of biopics that came before is the rock ‘n’ roll musical style through which it tells its story. There’s something of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical in the way that it shoots such song and dance sequences as ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’ and ‘Honky Cat’ from a moderate distance with sinuous movements and few cuts, allowing us to appreciate the intricate staging, flashy choreography and lively performances on display. These sequences were shot with digital technology however, which allows them to pull off some clever effects and tricks with a fluidity that looks positively seamless such as one bit in which Elton literally steps through a door into his past and another where the teenage Elton scrambles through an opening in a fence and emerges as his adult self. The gimmick never gets old because the film often plays around with different stylistic flourishes and moods depending on what feels appropriate to the story. ‘Tiny Dancer’ is shot in an intimate and serene manner like something out of a Robert Altman film while ‘Pinball Wizard’ is a whirlwind of psychedelic close-ups. The dynamic energy of these scenes and the kinetic way they lead into each other is perfectly suited to the movie’s tone as Elton finds himself spiralling further and further into a drugged out haze where he loses all sense of time and geography and finds himself stumbling between disconnected scenes.

For all of the film’s wild set pieces and stylistic impulses, it never loses track of its central thesis. That the movie presents itself so blatantly as a fantasy grants it licence to indulge in ideas and devices that would be immediately dismissed in more conventionally narrated film. The framing device, for instance, whereby Elton ditches a concert in a flamboyant devil outfit, enters a therapy session at a rehab clinic and proceeds to recount his life story might at first appear to be little more than a hackneyed set-up to give the film a conventional form of structure, but I think it only reads that way if you approach the film from the most literal possible perspective. To me it comes across as something more theatrical; Elton is the lead player delivering his monologue and the addicts listening to him are his Greek chorus. Rocketman isn’t supposed to be understood as a documentary account of Sir Elton John’s life; it’s a dramatic reading that’s more interested in uncovering truths than it is in stating facts. The therapy setting is there because it’s a frame of reference that we can easily recognise and understand, one that invites reflection, self-criticism and perspective. The fantasy serves to enable Elton to express the way he sees the world in tangible ways and to have direct dialogues that could never happen in real life with his parents, his long-time collaborator and friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his duplicitous manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden), and his past self.

Grounding it all is Egerton as Elton, delivering the kind of performance that’s so transparent, full of life and forceful that at times you forget there’s even an actor there. Oftentimes Rocketman feels less like the performance of Elton John’s life than it does the story of Elton himself, as if they somehow convinced a de-aged version of the man himself to relive his most glorious and devastating moments, from defying gravity while singing ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour to jumping into a swimming pool in a drunken attempt to kill himself. Egerton is perfectly game for all the film’s outrageous impulses and complements its overall tone in just the right way, acting and switching between the parts of the soulful artist, the outlandish diva and the wretched misfit from scene to scene, walking the fine line between profound seriousness and cheeky self-parody and remaining at all times utterly sincere. He also sells Elton’s sexuality in all the ways Bohemian Rhapsody wouldn’t allow Malek to do as Freddie, both in its affection (including an explicitly gay sex scene, apparently the first by a major Hollywood release) and debauchery. This could have perhaps been explored by the film at greater length and detail the way that Soderbergh did in his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, but by mainstream Hollywood standards the degree to which Elton’s sexual desires and compulsions are given prominence is almost revelatory.

It seems a little unfair to say that Rocketman is the movie Bohemian Rhapsody should have been considering what two different figures Elton and Freddie were (and especially given how differently their stories ended), but I do think this film is a demonstration of what the latter could have been. It’s a film that understands fully well that the story of an extraordinary man and his music cannot hope to be adequately told through ordinary means. Rocketman instead sets out to tell its story on its own unapologetic terms and you’re either along for the ride or you’re not. The film plainly states its mission statement when it has a musician tell Elton “you gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you wanna be”. This is a movie about how Elton found his true identity for himself by inventing one. It isn’t a story about a ‘real’ person and for that reason could never have been told in a realistic, straightforward way. This movie has far more interesting things on its mind than the greatest hits of Elton John’s life, it has something deep and personal it wants to say about the man whose life inspired it and does so in the way he would himself in all camp and sincerity. The film is unabashedly sentimental, especially in the finale as Elton finally has a heart to heart moment with his inner child, and doesn’t care about coming across as schmaltzy because, in that moment, it’s what we the audience, as well as the character, need.

★★★★★

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum

Director: J.A. Bayona

Writers: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


I think what surprised me the most about this film was how much the trailers gave away and yet how little they prepared me. After watching the adverts I was able to predict beat for beat how the events were going to unfold and who was going to end up where doing what right up to the third act, but even now I am still astonished by how fundamentally ridiculous and derivative it all was. After the first Jurassic World, which I enjoyed and felt brought something new to the franchise while still remaining true to the original’s spirit but still fell short of the standard, I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Even then, I still cannot wrap my head around what I saw. Fallen Kingdom is somehow both unremarkable for how dull and banal most of its story and action is and also mindboggling for the utter lunacy behind some of the choices that were made. This is an Attack of the Clones level of ineptitude I’m talking about here where it doesn’t seem possible for a movie to be this insanely stupid and still be so lacklustre.

Picking up after the events of Jurassic World that led to the closure of the park, the lives of the dinosaurs are now threatened by the impending eruption of a formerly inactive volcano on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now running an organisation lobbying for the protection of the dinosaurs, is about to lose hope when she is approached by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the prim, proper, and seemingly earnest businessman who always appears in these kinds of movies. He runs the organisation responsible for resurrecting the dinosaurs, owned by Dr. Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and they are putting together a rescue operation. They need Claire’s help to track the dinosaurs and bring them back safely, especially Blue, the intelligent and last living velociraptor. In an eye-rolling twist, Claire realises that the only person in the world who can rein Blue in is the last person in the world she wants to see, her ex-boyfriend and Blue’s former trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Owen has no interest in joining their operation but, after speaking to Claire and realising that there’s no movie if he sits it out, he agrees.

Things are a-go and Claire assembles her team, which as well as Owen includes Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), an IT technician who screams whenever anything moves, makes a sound, or exists, and Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), a dino vet who has never actually treated nor even seen a dinosaur in the flesh. They tag along with a mercenary troop led by the gung-ho Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and head for the island on the day that the volcano is scheduled to erupt. Here they must contend with rampant dinosaurs, scorching lava, and double-crossing mercenaries serving some ulterior motive. After nearly drowning in a pod, shot in a single take from within the spherical trap as it gradually fills up with water (the best action scene in the film), Owen, Claire, and the comic reliefs realise that they’ve been had and must stow away on the departing cargo ship to escape. One tedious, drawn-out scene later, they reach their destination and there learn the insidious reason why these dinosaurs were saved from their doom.

The remainder of the movie takes place in a Gothic mansion like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel with thunder and lightning all through the night and secrets around every corner (which might have been fine if I weren’t there to watch a dinosaur movie) and what we get is this tiresome and underwhelming game of cat and mouse (or, rather, dinosaur and human). As Claire and Owen work to liberate the captive creatures they cross paths with a seedy, villainous character played by Toby Jones (because they’re always played by Toby Jones), Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the obligatory kid who gets herself into all kinds of trouble but never comes to any harm, and another generically evil, blandly-designed, genetically-engineered dinosaur. It really bothers me how both Jurassic World movies have featured lab-designed dinosaurs as their big bads but have neglected to push the boundaries of what’s really possible, opting instead to make both of them barely distinguishable variations of raptors and T-Rexes. If you’re going to invent your own dinosaur, then get creative! Give them triceratops horns or a stegosaurus spike tail or pterodactyl wings or laser eyes or something! Anything!

Anyway, that’s the least of this movie’s problems. After the conclusion to Jurassic World with the escape of the dinosaurs and the collapse of the park provided the set-up to many interesting possible directions, Fallen Kingdom takes so many steps backwards it winds up retreading the territory they’ve already explored in the other films. The very idea of a nefarious organisation sending their team of idealistic, naïve characters to an island of dinosaurs to serve some secret scheme is straight out of The Lost World, except this time there’s a volcano. The movie is filled to the brim with scenes and images copied and pasted directly from the previous Jurassic Park films including the kid hiding from the dinosaur in an enclosed space, the predatory dinosaur falling through the glass, and the human villain getting chomped by the T-Rex. I know that there are certain things that we except to see in a Jurassic Park film the way we do with Star Wars and the Marvel movies, but there has to be some variation and progression. By revisiting the same plot in the same way and following the same beats, all this movie is demonstrating is that the characters in this universe are incapable of learning from their own mistakes. Fallen Kingdom even rips off its direct predecessor by splitting up Owen and Claire just so we can watch them argue about everything all over again before inevitably getting back together.

There is only one thing I really admire about this film and that is its willingness to confront the moral argument at the heart of the Jurassic Park films. What I love about the original 1993 film is how well it captured the sense of miraculous wonder that came with seeing living, breathing dinosaurs for the first time, allowing you to care for the creatures while still fearing them for all the chaos and destruction they could cause. The film acknowledges how dangerous it is for science to try and tamper with nature and the subsequent films have done nothing but confirm and reinforce the idea that bringing these dinosaurs back to life was a mistake. Time after time after time human attempts to control and interfere with them have failed as the beasts have consistently proven that they cannot be contained and that there is no place for them in a world where they are no longer the dominating species. Thus, faced with the prospect of a second extinction of the dinosaurs, Fallen Kingdom debates the question over whether they should be allowed to live or die. But then it bungles that debate in the most inept, outrageous way imaginable.

Before the plot gets started we sit in on a hearing held by Congress on whether they should act to save the dinosaurs or not. In this scene Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is invited to testify and he argues in favour of extinction. He reasons that the dinosaurs had their time on Earth a long, long time ago and that bringing them back to life was a mistake that has blown up in humanity’s face more than once. This imminent volcanic eruption is an act of God and it strikes Dr. Malcolm as nature’s way of correcting itself. Therefore let nature take its course. Let the dinosaurs die. In a movie that’s supposed to have me root for Claire and Owen’s team and their goal to save the dinosaurs, it doesn’t speak well that in less than five minutes of screen-time Dr. Malcolm won the moral debate hands down. Not a single thing that happens in this movie convinces me that these creatures deserve their chance at life, especially not after Fallen Kingdom makes its case with a plot twist and a resolution that defies any sense of logic, reason or sanity. Never before have I been so horrified by the catastrophic implications of what is supposed to be an uplifting, optimistic ending.

Fallen Kingdom is a formulaic, characterless Hollywood sequel that stomps along with the same sense of purpose as a soulless, genetically-engineered dinosaur. There is nothing at all to emotionally invest the viewer in the events of this film. There is no sensation of majesty or wonder about the dinosaurs because the movie never makes any time for it. There is no suspense in any of the action or story because the movie advertises everything it’s about to do and then explains it all after the fact anyway. It’s not even as good as The Lost World (which is already a low bar to set) because Bayona’s direction, while competent, isn’t a match for 1990’s Steven Spielberg. There is also no affection, humour or wisdom in any of these characters because there is no feeling in anything that they do. The one and only character who exhibits any shred of humanity in this film is the one who has just had enough of it all, the one who feels that everything has run its course and that there’s nothing more to say or do. I don’t want to walk away from a Jurassic Park movie agreeing with the guy who thinks that the dinosaurs should be left to die so that the rest of us can move on with our lives but here we are. That is how badly this movie dropped the ball.

Pete’s Dragon

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks


After The BFG, this is the second blockbuster I’ve seen this summer that has evoked within me memories of Spielberg’s E.T. People like to complain that they don’t make movies like that anymore but the truth is that they do. They may not get made often enough or may get overshadowed by something more popular like Minions, but they’re still there for people to watch. Like The BFG, this movie targets itself towards young children but also offers something for the teenagers and adults who remember what it was like to be that age. Like in E.T. the plot in Pete’s Dragon is secondary to the central relationship being focused on. The film is childish in its playfulness and whimsicality but also adult in its tranquillity and stillness. Although they may not get made or seen often, the claim that Hollywood’s children’s movies have lost this thoughtful and wondrous quality is just wrong.

Six years ago, a little boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) got lost in the forest and was found and rescued by a great but friendly dragon with the ability to turn invisible. Pete names the dragon Elliott (sound familiar?) and goes on to live with him in the forest. When an older Pete spots a lumberjack crew chopping down some trees near his home, he is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of the foreman Jack (Wes Bentley). After he gets caught, Jack’s girlfriend, the park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes Pete in and tries to learn who he is and where he came from. When Grace learns about Elliott, she finds herself believing the story her father Meacham (Robert Redford) used to tell her about the time he came across a dragon in the forest. Pete agrees to lead them to Elliott, unaware that Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), a hunter, has also encountered this dragon and plans to catch him.

One of the things Pete’s Dragon accomplishes so well is that it captures the subtle yet immediately identifiable sense of what it feels like to be a child. The forest and the dragon that inhabits it not only look enormous, they feel enormous the way that everything does when you’re little. It captures that childish sense of adventure in both its wonder and scariness, a sensation that Pete’s parents remark on right before the car crash that would leave him an orphan. Bravery, says his father, is what he needs to see an adventure through and that is what a lost, scared and forlorn Pete finds in Elliott. It is significant that we meet the dragon immediately at the beginning because it means that imagination and fantasy are allowed to reign supreme. How trite would this movie have been if it had opted for ambiguity surrounding the dragon’s existence assisted by misunderstandings and dismissals by joylessly unimaginative grown-ups? This is a movie that appreciates the depths and possibilities of children’s dreams and imaginings and fully embraces them.

In this film Pete names Elliott after the dog in the book he’s reading and their relationship plays out in a classic A Boy and His Dog fashion. The dragon is simply teeming with life and personality and shows himself to be caring, loyal and protective of Pete. He is a smart and perceptive creature capable of reason and thought, allowing their friendship to be a mutual one on an emotional level. Elliott needs Pete every bit as much as Pete needs him. At no point does Elliott talk in this movie, meaning that the movie must convey his character solely through his expressions and personality, something that it does marvellously. A lot of the film’s heart is carried through by the humans as well with their subtle yet affective performances, save its two-dimensional baddie. Howard’s portrayal of a sweet and down-to-earth woman witnessing a phenomenon beyond anything she could have imagined is a moving one. Redford, being the old pro that he is, acts everybody else under the table as he manages to bring a childlike innocence to his role without it seeming silly or even quirky.

There is no shortage of smart and thoughtful children’s movies being made today and not all of them belong to Pixar. Pete’s Dragon, like The BFG before it, is a charming and enchanting movie that I found to be delightful. It takes itself and its audience seriously, but not too seriously. The film is sincere, restrained and heartfelt but it is also bright, exciting, funny and childish. While there are many kid’s movies that make the misstep of always being on the move and constantly making noise for fear of losing the children’s attention, Pete’s Dragon is a movie that allows itself to stand still, take a moment, and just breathe. Perhaps the approach isn’t as nuanced as it is in a typical Studio Ghibli feature, but it is welcome regardless. If it is to be believed that these movies are indeed a dying breed, then I truly hope that audiences will embrace and cherish this film and all the others like it.

★★★★

Jurassic World

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Irrfan Khan

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


Jurassic World is a film that has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor Jurassic Park is a universally beloved and acclaimed film that pretty much sets the standard for what a perfect summer blockbuster should be. It was fun, it was exciting and it gave the audience something that they had never seen before. This film is so affectionately regarded by most who have seen it that the audience expectation for this follow-up was a complex mixture of hopeful anticipation and callous scepticism. I think that just about everyone waiting to see this film wants to like it, but we have been burnt twice before. Therefore it’s easy to have our reactions clouded by our desires to both love and hate this film. I personally expected this film to fall somewhere in the middle, not amazing but not terrible either. In the end what I expected was mostly what I got but the film also did something that I wasn’t expecting at all, something I’ll get back to later. I don’t think this film lived up to the original (and perhaps it never could) but I still had fun watching it and think it is a worthy sequel.

Many years after the incident in the original film, the park is now open, is fully functional, and is a huge success. However the park’s popularity is waning as people are starting to get bored of dinosaurs, a temperament that I felt was very true to the spirit of this age. Therefore the park’s manager Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) hope to invigorate public interest by using gene-splicing to create new breeds of dinosaurs. Meanwhile Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the head of InGen security, comes to the park and proposes that the dinosaurs be trained as military weapons. He is rebuked by Owen (Chris Pratt), a raptor trainer who maintains that dinosaurs cannot be tamed or controlled but are instead fierce and intelligent creatures that can only be approached through a relationship of mutual respect. Shortly after Clare’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) arrive at the park, chaos ensues when the new genetically engineered Indominus rex escapes from captivity and wreaks havoc across the entire island.

This is a flawed film, there’s no getting around that. The characters for the most part are pretty basic and underdeveloped. Clare in particular is very uninspired as an uptight, frigid woman who gets a lot of flack from the film despite being smart, independent and successful. Owen is essentially the only character to even be given a story-arc as he seeks to understand the nature of the dinosaurs and what sort of relationships human beings can share with them. The story is a bit sketchy but I do think it works considering the type of film Jurassic World is trying to be. There are plenty of holes and flaws to criticise but there are also some clever ideas that I felt redeemed many of the film’s misgivings. The best parts of the film are the action scenes involving the dinosaurs. These scenes are fun to watch, they’re ripe with tension and they’re even executed in new and creative ways as opposed to recycling the sequences from the original film. It could be argued that the film goes overboard sometimes (one character death springs to mind that felt to me like overkill) but I was still very much entertained by what I saw.

However what really astounded me was that this film did something I did not expect at all. It actually felt like a Jurassic Park film. It actually captured the same sense of awe and wonder, the same balance of violence and playfulness and the same epic scale as the original classic, albeit to a much lesser extent. The characters are not as memorable, the tension is not as palpable and the sense of wonder is not as astonishing, but the feeling is still there. There is a lot in this film that contributes towards capturing this effect such as the inclusion of the John Williams theme and the allusions towards the events of the original film. More than anything though it is the visual spectacle that was able to convey the sense of grandeur and wonderment that the first film had originally created. It may not have been as strong or as potent as what Jurassic Park created but it nevertheless gave this film a certain dimension that made it feel like part of a bigger whole. It was this dimension that inspired my inner child’s nostalgia and whimsicality and that gradually drew me into this film.

I get the feeling that the audience’s reaction to this film is going to be very much split. Those who have seen Jurassic Park are inevitably going to hold it as the definitive standard, a standard to which this film does not ultimately measure up. Whether or not they feel Jurassic World holds up as a worthy sequel depends on what they expect from it. Those who expect this film to measure up to the quality of the first film (or, dare I say, surpass it) will be disappointed. Those who are looking for a fun and entertaining film that captures the same tone as the original, even if it is to a lesser extent, will I think be satisfied. I’d like to think that younger children who perhaps have not seen the original film might be able to experience that same sensation of awe and wonder that the first film inspired. However the film does make a point of how dinosaurs have ceased to be a sensation and that children are no longer awe-struck by them. I suspect that this comment is an allusion to the state of films in general where CGI blockbusters have become such a norm that the visual spectacles they create hardly even register with viewers anymore. Gone are the days when Jurassic Park was the biggest and most breathtaking film of its kind and where CGI dinosaurs were the most incredible visual simulations imaginable. Even though films with new and innovative ideas are still being offered, Hollywood has reached a stage where it has all (to a certain extent) been done before. It is small wonder then that Jurassic World has found it so difficult to distinguish itself this summer.

★★★