Sunday, June 02, 2019

The Bitch is Back: The Visually Stunning “Rocketman” Soars

“Rocketman” seems to be a bit of an anomaly in the music biopic movie genre. While the movie’s story follows the same beats of most movies in these genre from the recent “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “The Doors” to “Walk the Line” and “Ray,” “Rocketman” flips things around by turning the story of Elton John into a flashy musical in which characters break out into songs. Think “Across the Universe” if it was actually about The Beatles. The film features an uncannily good performance from its young star Taron Egerton who embodies the soul of Elton John (and even does his own singing). “Rocketman” has spectacular musical sequences even if it’s framed in a been-there-done that story of the price and dangers of fame and dealing with family members who don’t believe in you. But its message of tolerance and acceptance in a world that seems to be moving backwards and not forward is inspiring welcoming, and uplifting.

“Rocketman” begins where most music biopics end, the lead character winding up in rehab. Through flashbacks Elton John (Egerton) tell the story of his life. As a kid (born as Reggie Dwight) he was a young musical prodigy who had a natural talent for playing the piano. And no surprise his parents are assholes. His mother is played coldly by Bryce Dallas Howard and like most characters she plays you just wanna slap her across the face. But I digress. The childhood sequences in most films like this tend to be dull and boring. WE get it he or she was a musical genius at age 10. But at least this time we get flashy musical numbers set to the songs from the musician the movie is about. Who doesn’t love a musical sequence set on a suburban street with the song “The Bitch is Back?”

From there the film follows Reggie as he joins a band, begins collaborating on songs with a songwriter named Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), changes his name to Elton John, and discovers that he’s attracted to men. One of the film’s strongest elements is the lifelong friendship that forms between Elton and Bernie. Bernie accepts Elton’s homosexuality and they make beautiful music together. Eventually Elton begins a physical relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden). The film is frank in its depiction of their relationship which is certainly new territory for a big budget music biopic released by a major studio. Of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” did mostly the same stuff last year but was unfortunately much maligned.

Speaking of which, “Rocketman” is helmed by director Dexter Fletcher who helped steer “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” successful post-production process (which led to 4 Oscar wins) and certainly does wonders here too. On paper “Rocketman” is really a snooze of a script in regards to the story but screenwriter Lee Hall and Fletcher take something that’s rote and cliched and turn everything upside down by making it a flashy musical. The musical sequences are fantastic and make the film come alive. The music is really what makes you care about everything that’s going on in the film.

“Rocketman” feels like a really well done Broadway-to-film adaptation. There’s nothing particuarly groundbreaking or shocking about Elton John’s life as far as music biopics are concerned but Egerton is a revelation and uncanny as Elton, the musical sequences are exceptionally fun and high energy, and the film’s progressive messages will hopefully not fall on deaf ears. Fans of Elton’s music or musicals in general will certainly be in gay heaven and anyone else who stumbles into the theater by accident.  GRADE: A-

Maternal Sunshine of the Insane Mind: Octavia Spencer Makes “Ma” Worth Your Time

“Ma” is directed by the same guy who directed Octavia Spencer to an Oscar win for “The Help.” That would be Tate Taylor and he’s certainly not the most visually exciting filmmaker working today but he knows how to get great performances out of actors. The brilliant Ms. Spencer needs no help however and she finally marks her first real lead role with a perfect balance of weirdness and psychotic glee as the murderous Ma of the film’s title. “Ma” is an exploitation film that is elevated by the presence of great actors letting loose and realizing that doing trashy genre work is where the most fun roles are. It’s the teenage characters who don’t get to have nearly as much fun. The film feels like one of those creepy early 90s thrillers where a seemingly nice character turns out to be a wacko. Sign me up.

Produced by outstanding horror production company Blumhouse – who specializes in low budget films with smart scripts made by talented filmmakers - “Ma” is the type of film that could either be utter garbage or something special. I’d say it falls somewhere in-between. The film follows a teenage girl who moves with her mom from California to the Midwest. She befriends a small group of kids who enjoy spending their time trying to get booze and drugs. The straitlaced Maggie (Diana Silvers) isn’t about give up the chance to make friends so she plays along. The kids hang out in their friend Andy’s dad’s van outside a liquor store and try to get adults to buy them alcohol. There they come across a nice woman who’s walking a three legged dog. She initially says she’s not interested in buying them beer, but then figures why not be the cool adult for once? This seemingly sweet woman is Sue Anne (Spencer) and she just so happens to be batshit crazy. Of course the kids don’t know this yet. Sue Anne lets the kids come to her house and party in her basement since she’d rather them drink there rather than driving drunk. They even nickname her ‘Ma.’ The fact that Ma may have ulterior motives is another story...

It’s no surprise that Octavia is essentially doing her best Annie Wilkes. No one plays crazy quite like Kathy Bates, but Spencer is certainly up to the task. The character actress has basically been typecast as the mom or best friend - usually in a 1960s setting. Here she gets to be fully unleashed and it’s magical to watch. Nothing in Scotty Landes’ script is particularly original or groundbreaking; it’s essentially the groundwork for a plump, juicy role for a woman nearing middle age. And since Spencer is so great in a role that she’s never quite done before, it’s the teenagers who are somewhat bland and forgettable. They don’t really get to do much besides party and act like fools and eventually complain about how creepy and weird Ma is getting.

“Ma” takes its time building suspense, Spencer is fantastic, and the score from composer Gregory Tripi is great. This is essentially low budget trash that has found its way to the mainstream and I'm totally fine with that because Spencer has finally gotten a great lead role. I don’t think it transcends the genre and it’s not quite up the level of what Kathy Bates was able to accomplish in “Misery” but it’s schlocky, goofy fun with a delightful wicked streak – especially in the final act, though things don’t quite go as far as I expected but I sure enjoyed my time at Ma’s and witnessing her slowly become unhinged.  GRADE: B