2019 Summer Movie Review: Rocketman

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Elton John (Taron Egerton) collaborates with songwriter Bernie Taupin in Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher’s spectacular biopic of Sir Elton John. (Source: AZ Central)

A biopic of living legend Elton John has been in development for years. The singer’s first choice to play him was Justin Timberlake, but the first actor attached to play him was Tom Hardy. However, budget issues, creative differences, and the fact Hardy couldn’t sing caused the project to be put on hold. Michael Gracey (The Greatest Showman) stepped out as director of Rocketman while Dexter Fletcher (who directed the overlooked Eddie the Eagle and finished directing Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer got fired) stepped in. With Taron Egerton playing the titular artist, it’s about time to get the music biopic Sir Elton John deserves. It certainly paid off brilliantly!

Elton John (Egerton), born Reginald Dwight (rising newcomers Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor play the singer as a youngster), grew up in Middlesex with his horrible parents Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and caring grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). He dreams of songwriting and playing the piano; becomes a prodigious student at the Royal Academy of Music.

As an adult, Reggie changes his name to Elton John and meets his music partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They meet inside a cafe, discuss about popular music, and become friends almost instantly (they still collaborate to this day). Scottish music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) works under his wing while having a brief relationship. Although struggling with his alcoholism, drug addiction, and homosexuality, Elton’s motivation is to get the love he deserves.

As a big fan of Elton John, there are a lot of things in Rocketman that would have disappointed. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse) make up for what Bohemian Rhapsody got wrong. There is a lot of graphic content (e.g. drug use, sexual content) suited more for adults, and not dumbed-down to appeal more teenagers. Instead of lip-synching, the stars actually sing the songs. Rocketman is unlike your typical music biopic. It’s a jukebox musical and a fantasy wrapped into one fantastic movie.

Egerton brings a lot of flamboyant energy and charisma as Sir Elton. It makes perfect sense not just because he looks like him, but they hint it in Sing when his character performed “I’m Still Standing”, and the singer made a small appearance in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. His singing is the icing on the cake.

The movie opens up with him in rehab wearing his “stage gear”, as he perfectly describes his ridiculous costumes he wears while performing live, setting up what’s to come during the two-hour ride. He struggles getting the respect from his friends and family, while living in his own little world. During the “Rocket Man” sequence (featuring gorgeous cinematography by George Richmond), he sets off into the night sky from the crowded arena like a rocket, and explodes like a firework, which resembles how Elton’s fame sets off. While in the “Bennie and the Jets” sequence, he fantasizes himself in an orgy, which showcases the descent into sex and drug addiction. I just love how the two contradict each other perfectly.

After coming a long way from winning everyone over with his impressive debut in Billy Elliott, Bell does great work as Bernie Taupin, and definitely a front-runner for Best Supporting Actor during awards season. Madden’s John Reid is one everyone loves to hate; he manipulates Elton for money after their first significant night with each other.

“I think it’s going to be a long, long time” (yeah, I had to go there) for a music biopic to top something as magical and devastating as Rocketman. With its colorful, extravagant sets, terrific performances, a screenplay that never shies away from Elton’s successes and struggles, this movie has its heart in the right place. One of the year’s absolute best!

10/10

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2019 Summer Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum

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John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is running out of time in the masterful third film in the beloved cult action franchise. (Source: Entertainment Weekly)

John Wick didn’t become a big box-office hit when it hit theaters in 2014. However, it didn’t stop people from loving it for Keanu Reeves’ terrific performance as the titular hitman getting vengeance on a group of Russian gangsters after they killed his dog. With its straightforward premise, the thrilling action set pieces, and the surprising amount of dark humor, director Chad Stahelski and the crew thought it would be a great idea to have John Wick go on more adventures. The superior sequel contained much more action and visual wonder to carry through. The third film–subtitled Parabellum–showcases what audiences expect from the franchise, and shattering expectations to give another violent and badass ride against time.

In the previous film, John Wick (Reeves) is stripped from his services as an assassin for killing a member of the High Table. Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental Hotel, declares “excommunicado”. It means a $14 million bounty is put on his head, so anyone can gun him down. John runs through the mean streets of NYC, and meets a ballet instructor, known as “The Director” (Anjelica Huston), who helps him to go to Casablanca to clear his name. Along with colleague Sofia (Halle Berry) and her two German shepherds, John must run against the clock before it’s too late.

Stahelski’s direction has become more confident with each entry in this awesome franchise. Yet again, he and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who also worked on Chapter Two) do a fantastic job capturing the over-the-top action set pieces (that are just as brutal and bone-crunching as before) and the abstract beauty with its massive scale. Hearing the guns going off is music to my ears. The final showdown at the hotel is one of the best action sequences of all-time.

Reeves, yet again, proves he can play a vulnerable anti-hero who can kick anyone’s ass if they get too close. This movie gives more insight to John’s mysterious past (explaining it will ruin the experience for everybody). Like with the previous two films, he does his own incredible stunts. There’s one scene where he takes down a group of assassins while riding on a horse that is nothing short of amazing! The supporting cast also has their shining moments; Laurence Fishburne provides enough suave energy as the Bowery King and McShane is as awesome as always. Berry, whose career has been going downhill for years, makes a surprisingly resonant role as the colleague who helps John in the middle of the stifling desert.

John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum will make audiences leave the theater smiling and wanting more. It has recently been announced a fourth film will come out in two years. Look forward to seeing more high-octane adventures from the badass hitman.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Booksmart

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Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) embark on one wild misadventure after another in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart. (Source: AZ Central)

Ever since film existed, there have been plenty of high-school classics that defined a generation. American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, and Superbad among others have all set the standard. Olivia Wilde sits in the director’s chair for the first time with Booksmart, a raunchy yet surprisingly poignant and downright hilarious portrait about the hardships of female friendship and growing up. Along with four female screenwriters, the movie brings something fresh to the genre.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have been best friends since childhood. They are about to graduate from high school, kudos to focusing hard on their education, acing the SATs to get into Ivy League schools (Amy is about to go to Columbia, while Molly is going to Yale) and participating in extracurricular activities. The duo realized they missed out on the good times during their high school years. They both thought it would be a good idea to cram four years of fun into one crazy night they will never forget. Soon, they begin to learn about the truth of their friendship.

It’s extremely difficult to make a teen comedy to be crude without being too offensive. Yes, the two talk about sex, get into a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, go into a hilarious acid trip (rendered through stop-motion animation), but it focuses on their friendship and the means of being there for one another. After a series of script rewrites, it pulls off brilliantly.

Wilde has chosen a rock-solid cast to play the high school students. What’s refreshing is none of them are portrayed as stereotypes, but more as actual teenagers. Known for her breakout performances in the TV series Justified and Last Man Standing, Dever excels as Amy, the smart girl who came out of the closet during her sophomore year. She tries to have the courage to ask her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), an awkward skater girl, to go out on a date. It’s not until reality begins to slap her across the face.

Her chemistry with Feldstein (who rose to fame in Greta Gerwig’s directing debut Lady Bird), is enough to make Booksmart worthwhile. Molly, who is just as quirky and supportive to her best friends, wants to grow up to be the youngest Supreme Court justice. There is a great scene early on where she overhears her peers mocking her in the bathroom. Then, Molly walks out of the stall to give her criticism about what she heard. I have never witnessed a scene as brutally honest as anything I’ve seen all year.

The supporting cast has their shining moments as well. It includes Jason Sudeikis as the principal, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s parents, and the scene-stealing Billie Lourd (the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) as wild-child Gigi, who always appears at the most random situations. I bet she had a blast being in this movie!

Booksmart is destined to be the next teen comedy classic. Featuring razor-sharp dialogue, a realistic portrayal of high school, and wonderful performances. Well done, Olivia Wilde!

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Tolkien

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J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) poses with his “fellowship” in Dome Karukoski’s first English-language film Tolkien. (Source: Washington Post)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is one of the best writers who ever lived. He brought readers to a different world containing fantastical worlds and inventive languages. His imagination of Middle-Earth was brought forth to the big screen. Everybody has seen and loved Peter Jackson’s marvelous Lord of the Rings trilogy that went onto win numerous film awards. The New Zealand director came back to direct The Hobbit trilogy. Although it didn’t earn as much praise as before, it was great to be a part of a wonderful world everyone wished they were a part of.

After the popularity of those films, a biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien and his inspiration of writing his popular novels needed to happen. In his first English-language film, Finnish director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford focus on the writer’s early years. Fans of the source material will be sadly disappointed with Tolkien.

The movie starts off with Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) as an orphan. At a prep school, his life changes when he forms a friendship with three boys–Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Robert (Patrick Gibson). Together, they form a secret society called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, where they sip on tea and discuss each other’s literary work.

Meanwhile, Tolkien develops a relationship with the lovely Edith (Lily Collins), who is also an orphan. She inspires him to write his popular Middle-Earth saga. However, their relationship gets in the way when he and his friends are enlisted in the trenches of World War I.

Making a biopic of the famous writer isn’t a problem. However, the family and his estate did not endorse Tolkien at all. It’s not a terrible movie, but it feels contrived and occasionally dull. The narrative jumps all over the place from No Man’s Land to the author’s past, which doesn’t help with its poor pacing. Hell, even the war sequences showcase what other war movies have done better. Although the cinematography by Lasse Frank is passable, they feel too generic. It is a treat to catch the numerous references from Tolkien’s work, though.

Hoult is no stranger when it comes to playing famous authors. He played J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye, which also didn’t receive positive reviews. Here, the 29-year-old British actor delivers a strong performance as Tolkien, who captures his charm and wisdom of creating his own world. Two of the interesting aspects of the film is his fascination in linguistics. In one scene, we see Tolkien drunk in the middle of the courtyard shouting in Elvish to the stars. The fact he created languages and drew his own settings for his stories is amazing!

Another interesting aspect is his relationship with Edith. He and Collins are the two who keep the film moving. If the movie only focused on their relationship alone, it would have been more watchable. However–the movie has a lot of potential that hardly adds a lot to its unfocused narrative. Tolkien deserved to be so much more!

5/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame

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The Avengers fight against time in Avengers: Endgame. (Source: IMDb)

It has been more than ten years since Iron Man released in theaters. A movie that marked the introduction to a franchise that would eventually span across 23 movies. Ranging from truly great movies to cinematic disappointments, the franchise introduced so many characters that everyone has either grown to love or love to hate. Even seeing the core superheroes, such as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk, teaming up in 2012’s The Avengers was a movie buff’s dream come true. Everyone has known their origins and how they evolve in modern society. The latest entry, Avengers: Endgame, marks the end of an era.

The movie leaves off after the heartbreaking finale of Avengers: Infinity War, where the powerful demigod Thanos (Josh Brolin) used the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the universe with the snap of his fingers. The remaining Avengers, which include Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), must find a way to bring their allies back. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns after spending five years in the “quantum realm”. He figures out a way to travel back in time. The Avengers reassemble to undo Thano’s actions once and for all.

[This is only the set-up. If I go on about the plot, it would give away too many plot points.]

Anthony and Joe Russo return to the director’s chair for an epic for the ages. Written with enough razor-sharp wit and poignancy by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, there is so much going on that the three-hour runtime goes by like a breeze. It’s easily the most depressing film in the MCU (I admit, this is one of the few movies where I did get misty-eyed), since it follows the superheroes dealing with trauma after Infinity War. They all have one more chance to set everything right before it’s too late in some thrilling action set pieces.

The movie features the biggest cast in any blockbuster in the last twenty years. Every single one of them all have their shining moments. The ones who stand out are Downey Jr., Evans, Hemsworth, Renner, and Johansson. At this point, all of the characters write themselves.

I can’t imagine a more satisfying conclusion than Avengers: Endgame. Don’t worry, though. The MCU is far from over. Peter Parker is making his return this summer in Spider-Man: Far from Home. There are upcoming television spin-off series centering on Loki and Hawkeye among others (not to mention Disney owning 20th Century Fox). There’s plenty more to come for this seemingly endless franchise.

10/10

“In The Bedroom”: A Haunting Maine Tale

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Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) are stricken with grief in Todd Field’s 2001 indie drama In the Bedroom. (Source: The Playlist)

In 2016, a little movie came out called Manchester by the Sea. Set in a small New England town, it contained a powerful message involving grief. As Lee, the main character, returns to his old hometown, his past slowly begins to creep up on him after his brother dies. Its depiction of New England feels as if the audience is watching real people battling really tough situations (not to mention, the way they talk).

Fifteen years earlier, there was a movie that received unanimous praise when it premiered at Sundance. It also became the first movie from a major film studio (Miramax) that was not only set, but also filmed in the beautiful State of Maine. In the Bedroom (2001) does sound like the title for a sexy thriller, but director Todd Field (Eyes Wide Shut) creates a little something that will haunt viewers once the credits begin to crawl.

Based on the short story Killings, Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) has recently returned home to Camden, Maine, to work on the harbor after graduating from college. He plans on going for a graduate degree in architecture. His father Matt (Tom Wilkinson) is a local doctor, who loves listening to the Boston Red Sox on the radio. His mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is a music teacher at the Rockland High School, who is teaching a summer music program.

However, they are both concerned about their son. The reason being is because Frank is dating a woman named Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who is twice his age and has two young children. When Natalie’s ex-husband Richard (William Mapother, Lost) returns to make things right for Natalie and the children, all hell begins to break loose.

The titular “bedroom” refers to the back compartment of the lobster trap. As Matt explains early on, the lobster enters the trap (“kitchen”) As it catches the bait, it soon becomes trapped (“bedroom”). While showing an injured lobster to one of the kids, he says if there are more than two lobsters in the “bedroom” compartment, something like that is going to happen.

This becomes a metaphor throughout the film. For instance, the scene where Richard comes into the house to shoot Frank dead. This becomes the set-up of what is to come of our main characters. Matt and Ruth begin to grieve over their son while being forced to see Richard out on bail, which ticks Ruth off after hearing he’s only accused of manslaughter.

The performances from the all-star cast are one-of-a-kind. But–Spacek and Wilkinson really carry it home. Out of the five Oscar nomination this movie received, they were both nominated, respectively, for Best Actress and Best Actor. Known for his performances in The Full Monty, Michael Clayton, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the British actor never lets his accent slip to give such an emotionally moving performance. Same goes to Spacek, who rose to fame with Badlands, Carrie, and winning an Oscar for Coal Miner’s Daughter. She gives one of her best performances as Ruth. Notice how she isolates from Matt. They both avoid discussing their pain while dealing with this tragedy. Then, they confront each other in one of the most natural arguments ever put to film. Matt accuses Ruth of being “too controlling”, while Ruth accuses her husband by letting Frank “get away with everything.” This indicates why Matt decides to plan an act of revenge to make them settle the tragedy once and for all.

With his slow-burning screenplay and sensitive direction, Field allows the viewer to understand Matt’s world and his morality of the whole situation. Hell, even Matt’s friends begin to understand what he and Ruth have been going through. In one scene, he and his friends are playing cards one night. Everything goes silent. Until Carl (W. Clapham Murray), who loves reciting poems, quotes a verse from “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

There are things of which I may not speak;
There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
And a mist before the eye.
And the words of that fatal song
Come over me like a chill:
“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

The scene would have gone down as manipulative. What makes it work, though, is it steers clear of all those cliches about losing someone dear. Take a look at Matt’s face after the recitation. He knows there is something that needs to be done. Everything was going just fine until the tragedy. His friends are always there for him no matter what. The poem serves as a reminder to avenge what was so wonderful in life and to have it all thrown away in a blink of an eye. When the climax comes, it’s damn near impossible to look away.

In the Bedroom is one of those rare dramas from the early 2000s that hits all of the right notes. There will never be any other movie set in Maine containing so much raw emotion from its characters. It’s one of those movies I’ll watch for the rest of my life.

Movie Review: Gloria Bell

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Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is on the search for happiness in Sebastian Lelio’s America remake of his own Chilean film, Gloria. (Source: Variety)

Chilean director Sebastian Lelio is not the first director to remake one of his own movies for American audiences (think Alfred Hitchcock with The Man Who Knew Too Much). His 2013 film Gloria met with universal acclaim from critics as an honest and realistic portrait of a 50-year-old woman making ends meet. After the success of his first English-language film Disobedience, he casts Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore in a role of a lifetime. She leads a terrific ensemble in a flawed yet solid character study.

Instead of taking place in Santiago, this remake is set in Los Angeles. Moore plays the title character, a free-spirited woman in her fifties who has been divorced for over ten years by her ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett). She spends days working in her office at an insurance agency, trying to call her two grown children–Anne (Caren Pistorius) and Peter (Michael Cera)– to no avail.

At night, she hits the dance floor to the numerous nightclubs the city has to offer. She usually dances alone, but she tries to make-up with people her age; if not, older. One night, her life changes when she meets Arnold (John Turturro), who is also divorced with two grown children of his own. After falling madly in love, things begin to get complicated.

Lelio understands the American vibe this version portrays. Every scene feels realistic, especially the era Gloria is living in. With advanced technology taking over, she prefers to live life the old-fashioned way. Moore gives a spectacular performance as a woman who is searching for happiness. Whether it’s trying to find out how a hairless cat always gets into her one-bedroom apartment and can’t standing to overhear her noisy neighbor off-screen (The All-American Rejects lead singer Tyson Ritter, in an effective performance while off-screen), the audience sympathizes with her in every scene she is in. “When the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing,” she says while eating dinner with Arnold and her friends.

Mark her words. While she has moved on, Turturro’s Arnold is trying to get over his changes in life. However, his children are always worried about him. They call him almost every chance they get. That’s why things are starting to become difficult for the two of them. Even when he steps aside to call his kids, he is never seen again. It makes Gloria the least bit worried. Not only that, she sees her two children move on while she is still trying to find her place in life. Lelio is at his most riveting when he has the camera following her every step of the way, even if she doesn’t utter a single line.

The movie, however, is not perfect. There are times where Gloria Bell feels somewhat dull and sluggish at times. There are a few scenes that feel out-of-place, which derails the flow of the pace. Whenever we see Gloria dance to the kick-ass disco soundtrack, it’s hard to resist. It’s nothing I’ll ever see again, but I’m glad a movie like this exists. Now, time to watch the original.

7/10