ROCKETMAN: 4 ½ STARS
From the get go “Rocketman,” the new Elton John jukebox biopic starring Taron Egerton, is more revealing and blunter than last year’s wildly popular but hagiographic Queen movie “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Using flashbacks John, in full stage regalia, tells the story during an AA meeting. The movie and his tale begin with a revelation. “My name is Elton Hercules John and I’m an alcoholic, and a cocaine addict, and a sex addict and a bulimic and a shopaholic who has a problem with weed and anger management.”
From the blunt introduction we’re led through the singer’s life on a broken timeline, jumping to and fro, blending fact and fantasy.
Jumbled up in the mix are his terrible parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) — when he tells mom he’s gay she replies, “We will never be loved properly.”— his songwriting partner and muse Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), plus mounds of cocaine and hit songs used to punctuate the autobiographical action. Unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” prudish attitude regarding Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality, “Rocketman” is out and proud, detailing John’s intimate relationship with partner and manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
Part “Moulin Rouge” by way of Ken Russell‘s “Tommy,” “Rocketman’s” startling opening number, “The Bitch is Back,” establishes that this is no warmed over “Bohemian Rhapsody” clone. It is a musical, not simply a musical biopic. Characters burst into song and Elton John songs are woven into the score.
Of course, music is a large part of the story. In the tradition of musical theatre “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” isn’t simply performed as one of John’s biggest hits, it’s moves the story forward as a duet between John and his ex-wife-to-be Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker).
To illustrate the transcendent nature of John’s star-making U.S. debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles director Dexter Fletcher gets metaphysical. As he plays “Crocodile Rock” both John and the audience levitate as if the music is taking them to a higher place. It’s trippy but wordlessly conveys the excitement of those early gigs. Add to that dancing Teddy Boys and flamboyant stage costumes and “Rocketman” feels Broadway bound.
The surreal storytelling effortlessly captures the heady, “Who wants to go to a party at Mama Cass‘s house?“ days of Elton John‘s early rise to stardom. Later, when John becomes a walking, singing rock n’ roll cliché director Dexter Fletcher amps up the style to portray the lifestyle the musician himself describes as “madness.” As such the biographical details are jumbled but “Rocketman” is more about capturing the moment not the exact details.
It is glittering eye candy but there is much humanity on display. In one remarkable scene Taron Egerton as John prepares for a live show with copious amounts of cocaine and wine. Staring into the mirror he tries to find his game face. From dead-eyed to sparkly in the flash we see the two sides of a man who once said, “I wish I was someone else.”
Egerton is a dead ringer for John, even if doesn’t sound like the voice from the classic recordings. In a performance that portrays the humanity and the outrageousness of someone who says, “I do not live my life in black-and-white,” Egerton grabs the singer’s essence.
Nice supporting work from Jamie Bell as lyricist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as John’s boyfriend and manager Reid and Stephen Graham as music industry wheeler-dealer
Dick James, who advises John to “buy something flashy, put on a great show and don’t kill yourself with drugs,” add to the flavor of the piece but it is Egerton’s show. He can sing and dance but also mines the character to find an emotional resonance missing from many biopics.
“Rocketman” is sometimes a little too on the nose in its song selections. As Taupin, who will eventually call the singer his brother, and John bond the soundtrack plays “Border Song’s,” “He's my brother let us live in peace,” refrain. It’s a tad obvious for a movie that pushes buttons in terms of style, portrayal of sexuality and the flexibility of the biographical timelines.
By the film’s coda, however, it’s clear this is a tale of self-reckoning. There is much talk of reinvention, of “killing the person you were born to become the person you were born to be,” and as John becomes the person he is meant to be this very specific story’s “I’m Still Standing” message of resilience becomes universal.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS: 2 ½ STARS
If Blue Öyster Cult were to write the hit song “Godzilla” today they’d have to change the lyrics. In 1977 they sang, “Oh, no, there goes Tokyo.” Today the prehistoric sea monster has expanded his worldview beyond Asia and is now concerned with the entire planet.
The action in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” begins when paleo-biologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by terrorists. What would these bad people want with this Emma and Madison? Turns out Emma belongs to the crypto-zoological agency Monarch, a scientific watchdog group who study the Titans, creatures long believed to be myths.
Along with her ex-husband Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) Emma invented "the Orca,” a device that allows communication with these mysterious beasts. More importantly, for the bad guys at least, it can also "control them using their bioacoustics on a sonar level."
As reluctant hero Mark teams with Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) to save Emma and Madison from the kidnappers the Titans, Mothra, Rodan, the three-headed King Ghidorah and others, rise, threatening to destroy the earth. It’s the ultimate clash of the Titans as Godzilla (who now appears to have a beer belly) stomps in to level the playing field. Cue the Blue Öyster Cult: “Go, go, Godzilla (yeah).”
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a remarkable achievement. It’s one of the most incomprehensible movies in the “Godzilla” franchise and that is really saying something. This story of restoring harmony to the world by releasing these angry monsters is pure codswallop and remember, this is the series that once devoted an entire movie to the king of the monsters teaching his dim-witted son how to how to control his atomic breath.
I’ll start with the script, and I only call it that because it contains words and was presumably written by people and not some kind of Kaiju-Auto-Cliché generating device. Ripe with pop psychology (“Moments of crisis can become moments of faith.” #Deep), horrible dialogue (“We’ve opened Pandora’s Box and there is no closing it!” #howmanytimeshaveweheardthat?) and several big emotional moments you won’t care about because the characters are walking, talking b-movie stereotypes, the movie is as clumsy as the script is dumb.
But you don’t go to a Godzilla movie for the human content; you go to see Titans battling it out and on that score “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” delivers. Unlike the 2014 Gareth Edwards reboot the new film wastes no time in introducing the radioactive monsters. We then sit through a bunch of pseudo-scientific pontification until the main event, the cage match between G-zil and his three-headed foe. In those moments the film improves, mostly because these characters don’t spout endless exposition about saving the world. They simply fight. It’s WrestleMania with fire-breathers and when they’re wreaking havoc it’s a good, fist-pumping time.
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is in 3D—Death, Destruction and Decibels—and has a certain kind of cheesy appeal. Watching the cast of good international actors try and play it straight as they muddle through the nonsense leading up to the climax is fun for a short time but next time I hope we get more actual monsters and less monstrous scripting.
HALSTON: 3 ½ STARS
He was once the single most successful American fashion designer ever, a man who counted Andy Warhol and Liza Minelli among his best friends. Studio 54 was his playground and he made Pill Box hats a sensation after designing one for Jackie Kennedy. He was Halston, a pioneer, nearly forgotten today.
From his early days as head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman to his stunning late 1960s success to his domination of the 1970s, he defined what was fashionable for the in-crowd.
“He took away the cage,” says former “Halstonette” Pat Cleveland. “He made things as though you didn’t really need the structure as much as you needed the woman.”
He designed luxurious pieces from single pieces of material, usually silk or chiffon, doing away with the extras like bows and zippers, creating form fitting clothes that, as Minelli says, “danced with you.” His clothes were for a modern time when women’s lives had changed and they were very popular. “You were free inside your clothes,” says model Karen Bjornson.
In 1973 he created a sensation presenting a runway show at the Palace of Versailles, which made him one of the first American designers to rock the world of Parisian couture. Minelli says the staid audience were wowed by the show. “They went bananas. All that energy and that joy and that wonder and that curiosity. That is America.” Years later he made similar inroads in China, breaking through in a way none of his contemporaries were able to emulate.
The ambitious designer’s company was growing as quickly as his acclaim. Money came in the form of business deals with Norton Simon holding company that also owned cosmetics giant Max Factor and a disastrous deal the down market JCPenney. One reporter labels the deal, "from class to mass," and it marks the decline of Halston’s empire.
French filmmaker Frederic Tcheng is a specialist in the genre of fashion docs. He previously directed “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” and co-produced and co-edited the feature “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” It’s a world he understands and the kind of story he is expert in telling. For the most part his instincts don’t let him down here. He doles out the details, carefully weaving together the personal and professional story of a man whose career was destroyed by excess—he spent $2000 to $3000 a week on cocaine — and compromise.
Tcheng ‘s choice to use a framing device, an unnamed narrator played by fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, posing as an employee in the Halston archives feels like an unnecessary addition given the natural, dramatic rise and fall of the story.
“Halston” is part biography of a creative genius, part cautionary tale for artists who throw their hats in the ring with big corporations and lose everything, including the right to use their own name.