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.

★★★★★

Advertisements

Bastille Day

Cast: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Eriq Ebouaney, José Garcia

Director: James Watkins

Writer: Andrew Baldwin


Given the tragedies that Paris has seen in recent months, an action-thriller featuring a terrorist plot in the French capital seems like the last kind of film that any studio would want to release. Bastille Day, which was filmed before either of the attacks on the Bataclan theatre or the Charlie Hebdo offices took place, seems to me to be more a victim of bad timing than anything. This film is at its core a silly but enjoyable action movie and shouldn’t be misconstrued as something it is not. While it may seem a little inappropriate to some, it is just too trivial and meaningless to be offensive. In a way the fact that it was released at all might even be a good thing. It signifies a refusal to be defeated by the tragic events that have befallen Paris and other places like it. While Bastille Day is not nearly smart or sophisticated enough to be anything more than a typical run-of-the-mill thriller, I’m still glad that I was able to watch and enjoy it.

A few days before the French national holiday of Bastille Day a con artist called Michael Mason (Richard Madden) stumbles into a crisis beyond anything he could have imagined when he steals and disposes of a bag containing a bomb. The bomb ends up detonating and killing four people, leading Michael to become a target for the CIA. Leading the investigation is Sean Briar (Idris Elba) who immediately tracks Michael down and takes him into custody following a chase over the rooftops of Paris. During the interrogation Michael manages to convince Sean that he is nothing more than a bystander who was in the wrong place at the wrong time stealing the wrong bag. Realising that he can use a man with Michael’s talents, Sean enlists him to help discover whether the intended explosion is part of a larger plot.

What saves this film from being a bore is that it contains two leads who work well together and who add much energy to the story. What holds it back from being a marvel is that the story itself is quite silly and the action isn’t particularly thrilling. There’s enough going on in this film to hold your attention for about 90 minutes (provided you’re willing to switch off your brain for that time) but certainly not enough to bring you back. The film tries to be socially relevant with its use of revolutionary hashtags and viral videos as the inspiration behind an attempted uprising against the government, an attempt that utterly fails when confronted with logical thinking and common sense. However things like logical thinking and common sense have no place in a film such as this which at its best thrives when you aren’t getting caught up in the implausibility or absurdity of the story. Admittedly overlooking such flaws would doubtless have been easier had the action been more impressive but what action they did have sufficed.

Luckily Idris Elba and Richard Madden are both there to liven things up. Even though they’re both British actors putting on American accents who sound like British actors putting on American accents, they share a chemistry that is most enjoyable to watch on screen. Elba’s character is effectively a simplified, less nuanced version of John Luther; a reckless, belligerent agent who plays by his own rules but who also gets results. It’s fun and all, just don’t expect to see Elba bring his A game. Madden plays a similarly standard character as a swift and nimble pickpocket who keeps getting himself into trouble but who is ultimately noble at heart. Hardly revelatory or groundbreaking stuff but it gets the job done. I enjoyed following these characters as they went about saving the day and they made what was otherwise a generic, run-of-the-mill movie fun and memorable.

A complex and challenging drama Bastille Day is not. It is far-fetched, clichéd and more or less by the numbers. Anyone who expects anything more is watching the wrong film and anyone who expects anything less will, I think, be pleasantly surprised. There is nothing in this film that you will not have seen in a dozen other thrillers, but Elba and Madden are both good enough that the film never quite feels banal or redundant. This is the kind of movie where you can happily switch your brain off for an hour and a half to enjoy some over the top action with a little bit of language and T&A mixed in. While knowledge of the attacks in Paris does inevitably have a dampening effect on this movie, Bastille Day should not be interpreted as any sort of commentary on the subject. It has neither the brains nor the inclination to be that kind of movie. It would be almost like viewing Commando as a representation of the United States Army. Just enjoy it for the trivial, nonsensical action movie that it is.

★★★

Cinderella

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Sophie McShera, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz


Live-action Disney remakes seem to be on the rise now with the confirmation that such films as Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and Mulan are about to get their own. While I’m not against the idea of updating these classic films per se, I do think that that the execution has for the most part been underwhelming. This has mostly been due to either the filmmakers changing what doesn’t need to be changed or not understanding what made the original a classic in the first place. I don’t think Alice in Wonderland worked because it tried to introduce logic and reason to a world that is supposed to defy those conventions and I don’t think Maleficent worked because it tried to change the one part of the film that I didn’t think needed to be changed at all, its villain. Therefore I wasn’t really expecting much from the Cinderella remake.

Cinderella is, of course, the classic story of a young girl who is forced into servitude by her evil stepmother but who is then given the chance to go to the ball and meet the prince after being visited by her fairy godmother. The updated version offers an account of Ella’s exceedingly happy childhood which is cut short by her mother’s tragic death, during which she imparts onto Ella her greatest lesson: “have courage and always be kind”. Ella (Lily James) takes this lesson to heart as she never allows her sunny disposition to ever be diminished, not even by her new, unwelcoming stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When her father passes away Ella is gradually revoked of her status as a daughter and instead becomes a servant to the household. As life gets harder for her Ella maintains her sunny disposition and never forgets the words that her mother spoke to her.

In Disney’s attempt to update this story there is a lot that works better than the original but also a lot that does not. Perhaps the biggest downgrade from the original film is Cinderella’s character who, rather than a determined, strong-willed girl trying to make the best of the life she has been given, is reduced to an irrationally cheerful dreamer who greets adversity with apathy rather than resolve. Her struggle becomes less believable and less compelling because, at the risk of sounding heartless, she doesn’t really suffer enough. The first ten minutes of the film, which I found to be a cringingly schmaltzy ordeal, show Ella and her parents living this excessively joyful life in which everything is sunshine and rainbows, a temperament that Ella maintains for the remainder of the film. Therefore her attitude towards any hardship that she encounters is to greet it with a smile and to hope for something better, an attitude that I felt diminished the oppressive nature of the life she had been subjected to. As opposed to the original character, who suffered a great deal at the hands of her wicked stepmother and in turn became all the more determined not to be dispirited or defeated, this Cinderella never seems to suffer all that much due to the excessive complacency she exhibits and her inability to feel any sort of pain or sorrow.

Another character who I felt was a step down from her original counterpart is the stepmother. Although the film does give her a few deliciously evil moments (and Cate Blanchett relishes every second of them) they are far too little. The film attempts to add a bit of depth and complexity to her character by providing her with a backstory and a motivation behind her actions, but the personality is a sheer downgrade. This stepmother is not nearly as threatening or as menacing as the original character nor as enjoyably evil. I found this villain to be far too silly and camp to be at all intimidating and not in an entertaining way.

With all that in mind, there were plenty of things about this film that I did like. One character who is a vast improvement over his original counterpart is the prince (Richard Madden) who in this film has an actual personality. This time around he and Cinderella actually meet beforehand and are able to form a bond with one another. Additionally his story-arc about succeeding his father (Derek Jacobi) as the king and being pressured by him and by the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into marriage is actually quite a compelling one. Cinderella is also a gorgeous film to look at with its stunning sets, magnificent costumes and enchanting visual effects. Helena Bonham Carter provides a breath of fresh air in her quirky cameo as the Fairy Godmother.

What really bothered me about this film was Cinderella’s character and the way she affected the story. The incessant chirpiness that she maintains in light of the adversity and oppression she undergoes negates any sense of suffering and so I was less invested in her struggle. Her hardships do not seem at all tragic because she refuses to acknowledge them as such. Rather than try to make the most of her difficulties, she instead accepts them as they are and smiles as she bears them. Such an attitude is much too naïve and foolish for the smart, independent character that she is clearly supposed to be and betrays what the original film stood for. When Cinderella finally gets her reward at the end, it doesn’t really feel like she’s earned it. All of this is supposed to hammer in the film’s moral about having courage and being kind, a moral that gets repeated often but that is never actually taught (or at least isn’t taught very well). I did not hate this film, far from it, but I do think it is a failure as an upgrade to the original tale. What it attempts to add in reason and logic it loses in character and emotion.

★★★

[On a side note: The film opened with a showing of Frozen Fever which I liked a great deal. It was fun and enjoyable and the perfect way to get an audience into the Disney mood.]