Films in May

New Releases
Rocketman – I was a bit nervous of this film going in. I’m not a particular fan of Elton John and I’d been frustrated by Bohemian Rhapsody which I’d found entertaining, but compromised in terms of addressing the full story of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Rocketman however managed to satisfy me on all fronts. The two films do share a director in Dexter Fletcher (who took over, uncredited, on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer left) so there’s definitely been a learning path that Rocketman has been the beneficiary of.
A key thing that’s different is that this is a musical, not a film with music in it, but a film that immediately reveals that it will break into massive song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. No excuses are needed for it, and they are utterly shameless in manipulating the emotions. Music can make you feel joy, sadness, anger, and connection almost immediately, and Elton John’s music is exemplary and used to tremendous effect. I was completely emotionally connected to the characters, utterly immersed and entwined with them.
One of the cleverest tricks Lee Hall the writer has done is to frame the biography as Elton’s own telling of his story. This is a bit of a get out of jail free card for any over-simplification of people or events or any overly “on the nose” dialogue; that’s just how he remembers it and presents it. Elton John doesn’t come across as a saint by any means, but it is still a one sided story with most of the supporting characters coming across as rather one-dimensional (particularly the ‘villains’ of the piece). But while that frustrated me hugely with Bohemian Rhapsody (lesson – managers are all terrible), it was absolutely fine here because it was all framed as Elton’s point of view. The only other rich character was the lyricist Bernie Taupin, who I didn’t know anything about and was played with beautiful understatement by Jamie Bell. Their relationship was just another of the points of joy of the film.
None of this would have worked without the breath-taking performance of Taron Egerton. He signs, he dances, he struts, he melts down and he does that thing that I just can’t even fathom – plays a character who’s playing a character, continually trying to present a different persona to the world and losing track of who is real. The only negative thing I can think to say is that I was occasionally distracted about how they were managing to dub in the original voice of Elton John because I couldn’t believe Egerton was actually managing to match him. He was. He’s just that good.
The word that I keep thinking of is ‘joy’. That may be a bit odd, because there’s a lot of heartbreak and darkness in Elton’s life and this film doesn’t shy away from that. But there’s a thread of joy running through it that never gets lost – Elton and Bernie love music, love creating it together and love the performance, and the audiences (both within the film and watching the film) love their music. I dare anyone to think of Crocodile Rock, or Pinball Wizard or Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and not grin. I’m off to buy a soundtrack.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
I’ve got no idea about Pokemon. I’ve never played any of the games or watched any of the cartoons, so I came with zero baggage. My cinema companions on the other hand are moderately obsessed with pokemon go and quite well versed in the details of the series. I think it’s really quite impressive that both them and I enjoyed the film thoroughly, it quite slickly delivers both the basics for newbies and the richness for fans. I wouldn’t say I understood everything completely, but it was a kind of happy lack of understanding as it all just bubbled over me. The universe of the film feels utterly credible even if it is bonkers, it all seems to have just about enough internal consistency to let you go with it. The plot is well paced and even if elements are predictable, and twists are telegraphed it manages to put enough spin on old tropes to get the job done. But if all that sounds a bit underwhelming, the most important thing is that it’s really fun. I laughed loads and was charmed even more; Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds both have such a natural delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed into going with whatever they say. It’s also visually absolutely stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city), which makes it well worth a trip to see on the big screen.

Eighth Grade – I went in with big expectations based on lots of critical praise, and people saying how much of a revelation it was to see a presentation of a ‘normal’ 13/14 year old, someone quiet, anxious, uncertain and struggling. I wish I could say I liked it as much as others did. I certainly felt for the main character and could recognise parts of my own childhood, but as a whole I didn’t get lost in her like some people seem to. From an intellectual point of view it was interesting to see what it’s like being a 13 year old American today (specifically a white, reasonably affluent one) – with phones, pool parties, malls and changing schools at 14 rather than 11 as in the UK. Maybe it was just that there were too many differences for me to really connect to her. It definitely wasn’t a fault of the performance, that was very impressive for someone actually that age.
I often don’t get on with films that just kind of noodle along, not really having much of an arc, I often don’t find them very satisfying and that as true here. Obviously a swift resolution to the themes wouldn’t have been realistic at all, but it made me think again of how strong the concept of Boyhood was – jumping through periods of someone’s life to show things do change, just not quickly.

New to me
Lars and the Real Girl – The name of this film rang a bell, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good bell or a bad bell. The synopsis “a delusional young man strikes up an unconventional relationship with a doll he finds on the internet” is a bit risky and I wasn’t really in the mood to watch a film about people being cruel. I relaxed a bit when I saw Emily Mortimer was in it, as she can’t be anything other than lovely. And that’s what the film is, just lovely. It somehow manages to neither make fun of Lars, nor become too dark with the mental health issues being raised. It just deals with them, like people would (or at least as you hope people would) with kindness, empathy and humour. I came away feeling genuinely uplifted.

The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) – I came incredibly close to switching this film off about 1/2 hour in, it was only really my lack of enthusiasm to find something else to watch that kept me with it. For a change my disengagement with the film came from the fact there was too MUCH going on, everything was thrown at the audience full tilt, exposition was delivered in intense ‘briefings’ rather than naturally and I felt like I should be taking notes. There were just too many characters, locations, timeframes, and plot threads. All of it was interesting, it was just so overwhelming that I never felt settled and confident that I was getting everything. This is a particular challenge when trying to follow very fast paced subtitles, I kept missing the beautiful visuals, or vice versa. Things didn’t make sense, but I think that was just because I was missing bits. All the ingredients were solid, it was just completely overwhelming.

Murder by Numbers – I figured I couldn’t go too wrong with a thriller starring Sandra Bullock, how wrong I was. This is TERRIBLE. It’s badly written, badly directed and even the charm of Sandra Bullock and a young Ryan Gosling cannot rescue it. There is no elegance to anything, no layers to anything. Characters are single note, plot twists are obvious, there’s no subtext or subtlety. The final indignity is the dramatic conclusion which has some of the worst blue-screening I’ve ever seen. If no one in the production could be bothered to put any effort in, then I don’t recommend any audiences do either.

Cafe Society – I remain, as ever, underwhelmed by Woody Allen. Cafe Society just kind of bumbles along, never being funny enough for a comedy, or challenging enough for a drama. I didn’t like or care about any of the characters, and was uncertain where anything was going. The only thing that really engaged me was pondering whether it was misogynistic or not, and while I didn’t come to a conclusion, the fact that I was thinking it is probably enough.

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