Thursday, May 30, 2019


Please don't mistake what I am about to say as a dig at the movie, "Booksmart" is well made, targeted at an audience that should embrace it and it is really well cast. It is not however the second coming. Every time a film has some progressive element which appeals to cinema fans, it gets pushed at them as if it is medicine that will cure the reactionary ills that drive the movie business. Trying to force fans of independent movies into a moment runs contrary to the instincts of those fans.  I think that's exactly what has happened to this movie. Had it been discovered by cinephiles and shared with their own passion, it could have taken off like some of the movies it is compared to. As it is, there was a big launch of this, focusing on the fact that it is a female centered film, and the world shrugged.

The two young actresses who star in this film are accomplished performers.  Beanie Feldstein was terrific in "Lady Bird" a couple of years ago, playing a similar character with a very different personality. Kaitlyn Dever was familiar to me as a long running character on the TV series "Justified" where she was frequently the standout in a cast of very good actors. The two of them together in this film are convincing as off center smart girls who may have missed something along the way. Maybe it is a little regressive to suggest that the road to empowerment might include having a little respect for people who don't share your perspective. In that sense, I can see how feminists, progressives and others might suffer some shade in the afterglow of the film. Listen to the segment of the speech Molly is supposed to be giving as her valedictorian at graduation, and compare it's tone to the one she actually completes. Social Justice hearts were probably breaking all over the place. 

Director's often get praise for elements of a movie that they are not always responsible for, typically the script. Actress turned director Olivia Wilde deserves credit for some of the things that she clearly is responsible for. The relationship between the two girls is documented not just by what they say but by the body language they use when saying it. The dance moves, the head shakes and facial expressions come out of a vision of who these young women are.  They are confident but also a little too cocky. They are shy in the way most teens are, they feel overshadowed by pretty people and a high degree of social uncertainty. Wilde blocks some of their conversations as intimate but presents them as public. The most artistic piece of visual flair is the reveal of Amy's fantasy in the pool at the party they finally make it to. The underwater shot is just the thing to throw cold water in the face of what seemed like a traditional happy ending (although we know it can't work out the way we are hoping, there has to be a third act shift).

Because I am not in the demographic this film is aimed at, I really don't get or care for some of the soundtrack selections. Modern hip hop filled with expletives is annoying to me and it is typically annoying at a high volume. The softer indie rock sound seems so wane as to almost evaporate before you hear it. This is a dualistic choice on the part of the film makers and it probably works better for a younger crowd and maybe a female audience as well. I will say that the biggest laugh I had at the theater came when Alanis Moristte's 90s screed on relationships was being done karaoke style by the wrong people.

I can easily see how this movie could become a cult gem like "Dazed and Confused" has. Audiences who find it now will come back to it in a few years and think of how prescient they were for embracing this film. Others will discover it where most films like this are going to end up in the next few years, streaming on some service. They will howl with delight and wonder how they missed it when it first came out. This will develop a reputation as a hidden treasure, you can bet there will be a dozen hipster critics at the end of the year with "Booksmart" on their top ten lists. I can't say that they will be wrong, but I can say the movie is a little too smart for it's own good. Selling yourself as the next "thing" is almost certainly going to doom you to a pile of "New Coke" and "Segway" discards. 

Friday, May 24, 2019


"Rocketman" is the Elton John biopic that is both musical drama and comedy. I was able to see an early screening last week and because I've been so busy I have not yet been able to post a review at least until now. Let me just say I was really impressed with his film and I enjoyed it immensely. There are things about it that some may not care for, but if you like musicals, this is going to be your “cup of tea”.

Unlike last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, “Rocketman” does not attempt to tell the story of its subject in a linear fashion using the songs as a structure for the subjects chronology. Rather, the songs in this particular film appear in no particular order except to reflect events that happen in Elton’s life and make a particular point.

The story starts with a flashback to his childhood as he is coming to grips with his own demons. Elton John appears to have been a prodigy as a child when it came to listening to music. After briefly hearing a complicated piece of music he could reproduce it on his own on the piano. This talent made it possible for him to attend a Fine Arts Music Academy, where his talent could be developed. Since the story is based on Elton’s own ideas, it seems that the only person who backed up his desire to learn the piano and develop his talent was his grandmother. If Elton’s parents are still alive they might very well be disappointed at the way they have been portrayed on screen. His mother appears to be a lazy indifferent woman who had little interest in her son other than what he might do for her. His father was a cold hard man who did love jazz but seemed unable to share this love with his son. Much of what follows reflects Elton John's attempt to connect with his parents through his fame and success in the pop music field.

The director of this film, Dexter Fletcher, who had a hand in completing Bohemian Rhapsody last year, has been given much greater freedom in telling the story of this pop phenomena. The musical sequences are staged very much like old style Hollywood film where the neighbors might form the chorus line and where the audience becomes a choir. We often fade out of a real world situation into a fantasy element which mirrors the emotion that are reflected in the story. Of course those emotions are heightened by the fantastic music of Elton John and the lyrics of his partner Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. The two actors who portrayed these partners do an excellent job but special credit certainly must go Taron Edgerton who not only does a credible impression of Elton John as a character, but also performs the songs himself lending credence to the scene by using his own voice. Edgerton is not the only person who sings on screen several secondary characters also have moments where they a warble a few lines or sing the chorus of one of those very familiar tunes.

There are some fantastic visual elements in the film highlighted by the depiction of Elton John’s star making turn at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. This was a concert that I remember reading about in the Los Angeles Times back when I was in middle school. The dynamic performance and the setting turned an English pop star, who is not yet famous in his own country, into one of the biggest stars in the United States. This galvanizing event brings John and Taupin into the Southern California music scene where the usual tropes of a rock and roll tragedy and then redemption are played out. There is of course a great deal of attention paid to Elton’s use of alcohol and drugs and the effect they had on his mood and self esteem. The biggest negative however appears to be, the romance he began with a man who became his American manager, played by Richard Madden.  The passion that he felt is portrayed on the screen effectively but so is the disappointment that he has in this fickle and somewhat backstabbing character.

Of course other highlights in the film include mini concert performances including his appearance at Dodger Stadium in front of a massive crowd. Even in this grandiose setting however, we can see the faults in Elton John's emotional journey. We sympathize with the contradictory circumstances of his professional success versus his personal failures. There is a devastating scene where Elton connects with his father and the father's new family. It's easy to understand how a relationship like this could drive his ambition but frustrate his heart. Taron Edgerton manages to pull on our heart strings but also frustrate us with his depiction of Elton’s poor choices. It's only after Elton reaches bottom, including a brief marriage to a woman he barely knew and whose heart he broke, did he begins to come to grips with his faults. Again the musical sequences dramatize these events very effectively and in a completely different way did the diorama version of Freddie Mercury that we got last year.

If it weren't for the fact the Bohemian Rhapsody received award attention this last season, “Rocketman” would be a contender for many prestigious film awards next year. It is somewhat hard to imagine that the Academy would give it’s award for performance, two years in a row, to an actor portraying a pop star. If ever it was necessary to repeat yourself at the Oscars this year should be one of those situations, Edgerton is that good.

My daughter is not a huge fan of Elton John but she was looking forward to this film quite a bit because she is a fan of young Edgerton and loved him both in Kingsmen and Eddie the Eagle. Surprisingly, she only recognized about a third of the songs in the film. I on the other hand,  knew every song and was suitably impressed by the way they were being used by the film makers. Both of us felt that this was one of the more satisfying films we've seen this year and we look forward to revisiting it when it opens wide next week.

Monday, May 20, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum

Five years ago, I stumbled upon "John Wick" at a particularly low point in my life. A mindless action piece like that was just what the head doctor would order. I admired the commitment it made to the world that they had created and the fantasy of violence that resulted. Two years ago we got a second dose and it was a guilty pleasure that I never really felt guilty about. Revenge movies are probably my favorite go-to genre for relaxation and cathartic emotional action. As stories, these movies are not really deep or compelling. There is the barest sense of a plot. These are films that move on a few good characters, surrounded by about a million disposable ones. We watch as just about that many get disposed of.

"Parabellum" is the latest chapter in the series, a franchise that looks like it is going to be around for a long while. Keanu Reeves just gets more desperate, more beat up and more angry with every entry. The fantasy criminal society that he travels in is so ridiculously complex and interdependent that it defies credulity and simply has to be taken at face value.  The international nature of organized crime is something that makes SPECTRE look like amateur hour. That's okay though, it's cool to have your own mint, and to be able to turn every beggar, cab driver or bellman in a town, into a cog in a criminal enterprise. The idea of the "Continental" hotel working as a five star Marriot for crooks in multiple locations around the world gives some structure to we outsiders as we try to navigate the intricacies of criminal etiquette.

So if story is largely irrelevant, and the world building is fascinating obtuse, what makes the films work as well as they do? The answer is the star  and the action choreography. Keanu Reeves at one time was likely to be remembered as "Neo" in the Matrix movies. That may have been a bit unfortunate since only the first one was very good. I think however, that character will be replaced in his obituary with the role of grieving hitman John Wick. These movies are getting better rather than worse with each entry, and they are doing better business as well. That is a successful franchise worth being remembered for. His thespian skills mat operate in a narrow range, but his action skills expand every year. He is more polished and accomplished with the martial arts moves in these films and the choreography of the gun play is handled by him with aplomb.

There are new characters added to the story as we go along and one of them is played by Halle Berry. Some of you may have doubts about her, but rest assured, after this movie, her action credentials are in order and she has an open passport to kick ass in movies for the next decade. Her character only appears in the film for about twenty minutes, but it was a jam packed twenty minutes that sets up just enough backstory to make what happens feel natural if not credible. This sequence includes two other co-stars that shall remain nameless but who provide a great link between her character and John Wick. They get each other, even if they don't much like one another.

The first section of the movie is a chase through NYC. We go through parts of Manhattan that are not covered on the "Big Apple Tour" bus schedule. John Wick runs, drives, rides and sometimes flies through the night, engaging in one fantastic confrontation after another. There is an extended knife scene that finally includes a moment of gore that will make you squint your eyes. The deaths in these films are usually so rapid and continuous that we don't get much time to contemplate how they would really feel, this one is an exception. My two favorite "kills", to use the horror vernacular, are provided by an animal that John encounters as he is running from all the pursuing assassins [this seems to include at least a third of the people in the five boroughs.] Don't want to give too much away, but it is quick, unexpected, painful and hysterical all at once.

The closing fights with the Asian gang members played by the two badasses from "The Raid" films were terrific. The character of Zero, as played by actor/martial artist Mark Dacasos is intimidating and charmingly funny at the same time. This film moves into a more super stylized presentation than even the first two chapters, so much so that the jokes actually work as a result. Plain and simple, if you liked the first two films, you will certainly like this one, and there is a great chance that you will like it even more because the director, Chad Stahelski has added humor to his arsenal of weapons. I' ready for Chapter 4 when it gets here.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Long Shot

One way that you can tell that Charlize Theron is a great actress is that you can believe she has fallen for Seth Rogan in this movie. Of course it plays to some of the worst traditional chauvinist fantasies that a beautiful woman can be in love with a shlub like this, but you know what, it works because the actress sells the idea and plays it in a low key manner with just the right amount of trepidation to start with and then a full blown commitment.

This is a romantic comedy filtered through the irreverent humor that typifies movies with Seth Rogan. The premise seems like it is something that should not work in the real world but we do have the American Political situation as it is, so it seems plausible. The President has decided not to seek a second term and is willing to endorse his Secretary of State to replace him. She would be the first female President and her background will be a point of contention in the election. Masters of Analytics have assessed her on her qualities and they need to punch up her humor numbers. Theron is the Secretary of State and Rogan is a long ago neighbor who happens to be an acerbic writer with some wit. After they connect by accident she chooses him to help craft her voice and make more of her points in an amusing way.

This is sort of the flip side of "The American President" with a little bit of "The Contender" thrown in. Layer on a big helping of "There's Something About Mary" and you will understand what you are getting into. It is formulaic, but there are tweaks to the formula that are outrageous and make the movie funny in a way that we probably should not be laughing about. Rogan is presented as a clown at first, bumbling his way into the scene by making stupid mistakes. Theron is overworked, idealistic and ambitious, all things that typify a woman in the world of politics. Still, there are bits that are amusing before the two start to fall for each other. I loved the micro naps that Theron's character indulges in, and Rogan's mode of dress is infantile to begin with. Once they are thrown together and the sexual part of the relationship begins, the humor becomes more coarse. Frankly, the ultimate threat the couple faces from hacked footage on his computer is something that goes over the top, but "There's Something About Mary" is over twenty years old now, so it will probably be old hat for audiences weaned on that sort of humor.

O'Shea Jackson Jr. plays Rogan's best friend and he gets to have a moment that I never thought I would see in a Hollywood film. The two of them discuss politics at one point and Jackson's character reveals something about himself and cogently explains his position and it is a moment of sanity about how the world ought to be. The willingness to look at other points of view is what allows us to function as a society, and this film acknowledges, even if it is for humorous purposes, that this is not the way politics currently functions. I don't want to suggest that this is a serious political film but it does have some interesting themes and that is one of them.

In the end, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for the romantic comedy beats that make up the genre, and your willingness to care for the characters. I was won over despite feeling that both characters were a bit self centered to begin with. I liked the way their past is woven into the story to make them a bit more real, and the awkwardness of their attraction is not ignored by either of the characters. A real romantic partnership exists when the two people complement one another in the ways that their partners need them to. It may be a cliche when Jerry Maguire says in the romantic climax of that film, "You complete me," but it is true of real love and that felt like it worked here. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Exploding Helicopter Podcast: You Only Live Twice

I was a guest recently on the "Exploding Helicopter" Podcast. The host Will and I discussed our favorite respective subjects, Chopper Fireballs and 007.
There are links below to listen.

Here are the Links for you.