Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship

Victoria & Abdul

In Victoria and Abdul the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the majestic Judi Dench) is about to be celebrated in all its pomp and circumstance.  The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria is  sixty-eight years old. An honorary gold coin– a Mohur– has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India recognizing Victoria as the Empress of India.   Two Indians are conscripted to deliver the Mohur: Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).   

The early comedic scenes tease with the warm-hearted, kind and generous nature of an elderly queen with her young, handsome Indian clerk.. She  is surprised to find that his company and his cultural differences are a refreshing respite from the hypocrisy of her retinue.

Victoria questions the role she is expected to play as the head of the Indian subcontinent, and as their unlikely friendship deepens, she becomes aware of the cultural richness of India and her ignorance of the country she reigns over.  Devoted to learning Urdu and the philosophy of the Qur’an, and writing in its script, the Queen regains her enjoyment of life in her old age, at the same time soon evoking jealousy and suspicion among members of the Royal Household. Her inner circle–particularly her ne’er-do-well eldest son Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), who has no affection for her,– wish to ultimately destroy Victoria and Abdul’s friendship or even the Queen herself.  Bertie,  who will become Edward VII upon her death, bemoans that she has lived so long. 

Abdul’s  swift rise to high status, including honorary memberhip in the Royal Household, immediately rankles her son, and other members of court, since royals and British in general never mingle socially with Indians except those who were royalty themselves.  For an Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable.   To eat at the same table as the aristocrats and  to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Racism was intolerable for the Queen, and her “dear good Munshi”–Victoria’s Urdu title of  “advisor” for Abdul– signaled Abdul was deserving of the utmost respect as her trusted confidante.  For  the final fourteen years of her reign, Queen Victoria continued to have an extraordinary friendship with Abdul, in spite of conspiracies and plots to undermine her maternal affection.

In the climax of Victoria and Abdul,  the Queen, despite her advisors’ prejudice and outright lies, insists they  welcome Abdul into their midst.  She gives an extremely moving “insanity” speech  which is  a masterpiece of acting. It serves  as a memorable meditation on her life in her twilight years.

Queen Victoria  is a role made for Judi Dench, who epitomizes both the loneliness and tiresome burden of a monarch ruling for over six decades. Learning a new language, a new religion, and a new role as the mother of a son she always wanted is typecast for Dench,. She plays weary and obstinate with equal believability and effectiveness.  In one poignant moment of dialogue, Victoria announces joyously that she has fallen back in love with life as she fights off  the inevitable “banquet of eternity” (mortality).

And Ali Fazal holds his own opposite Judi Dench in a compassionate, complicated role as the Munshi.  He exudes a purity, warmth, and compassion that seems well-balanced, not obsequious or fawning, towards the most powerful ruler in the world.

 Highly recommended.

Note:   Following Victoria’s death at the age of 82 in 1901, her son and successor, Edward VII, returned Abdul to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of his correspondence with Victoria. Abdul subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in 1909.  The relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul remained  little-known until the discovery of Abdul’s journals a century later.

Chernobyl–An Ignominious Reaction

Chernobyl HBO miniseries

          Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

A  tour de force of unprecedented tragedy, Chernobyl is a masterpiece showcasing Russian heroes who have been unknown or forgotten by history.   In some ways, Chernobyl is a horror movie of the bio-disaster kind: the dramatization of that fateful morning when thousands of residents experienced the horror of intense radiation without any warning by the bureaucrats who knew or should have known what was at stake.  More than three decades later, the disaster remains haunting The creeping dread of  the suffering endured is portrayed starkly and brutally. A grim understatement of what can go terribly wrong at any moment, the viewer witnesses  the heroes who bear testimony to the unspeakable errors of human operators ordered to cut corners, threatening public safety. 

Chernobyl is difficult to watch.

Recreating this small city in 1980’s Ukraine, Chernobyl‘s producers carefully evoke the clothes, nuclear facility, hospitals, and  residential life in grim grey light, foreshadowing probably the worst nuclear accident in history.

“We seal off the city,” Zharkov–the manager of the nuclear reactor,– tells everyone in the plant. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

The Soviet system of propaganda and corruption existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with lies, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

But, unlike Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, Chernobyl  is not only about nuclear-plant safety. Chernobyl is about a coverup of the worst kind: the most egregious arrogance and indifference to suffering  by a bureaucratic brotherhood  pledged to  secrecy.  Consequently, information was  shared only among a narrow elite obsessed with their own interests and survival.

Note:   The former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.  Ukrainians are being reminded of the consequences of Chernobyl by a government that has slashed health benefits for the men who heroically fought to contain the Chernobyl disaster, instead reserving funds to develop Chernobyl as a tourist attraction.  For deeper research into the Chernobyl disaster, listen to the podcast, “Uncovering the Story of Chernobyl” on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/738019227/uncovering-the-story-of-chernobyl

The Commuter –Train to Hell

The Commuter

Action thrillers are not a staple in my movie-going diet.  Nonetheless,  I like the ones Liam Neeson stars in , and The Commuter fits his murder conspiracy/ abduction genre. 

Insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson’s character) is a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman who commutes to midtown Manhattan every day, familiar with almost all of the other passengers. 

On the train home, Michael meets a mysterious woman named Joanna (the always-excellent Vera Farmiga), who claims to be a psychologist researching distinct classifications of personality types. Joanna makes a  proposal:  a  hypothetical situation to do “one little thing”– to locate “Prynne,” the alias of an unknown passenger, who doesn’t belong and has stolen something.  No one will get hurt.  And Michael will receive $100,000 as payment.

This happens to be the very day when Michael has been unceremoniously terminated from his job.  So Michael agrees, only to be unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that carries life and death consequences.

The Commuter is a crowd-pleaser for viewers who want an action-packed drama that will appeal to adults in the family–especially to those who like testosterone-driven action and  impossible leaps and bounds across train cars, simulating Tom Cruise in some of his Mission Impossible scenes and Denzel Washington’s besieged character in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.  Entertaining without too much violence. The Commuter held this viewer’s attention until the very surprising end.   

Note:  Available on Netflix (DVD) and Amazon Prime.  There is little  bloodshed but quite a few choreographed fights, both one-on-one physical combat and ammunition firing.

Fahrenheit 11/9–Fourth of July

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary,  Fahrenheit 11/9, released in September of last year, is an interesting take on the 2016  presidential election .  (The film is named for the day Trump was declared the electoral winner.) This is another film in Moore’s canon of what is wrong with America, not his best but still worth  seeing.  The 39th Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor went to Donald Trump.

Although purportedly about Trump’s election and how the country got there, Fahrenheit 11/9 is also about other issues close to Moore’s heart including the 2014 Flint water crisis, and the local government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that levels of lead were unsafe to drink.  An unusual scene of Obama’s visit to Flint and how he disappointed local residents is eye-opening.

Moore also compares Trump’s rise to power to that of  Hitler in hate speeches against different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation. Showcasing recent racial violence, Fahrenheit 11/9 concludes that the  Constitution no longer protects the majority of our citizens from the wealthy and powerful. And, therefore, the American Dream is now nothing but a dream.  Highlighting social and political injustices,  Fahrenheit 11/9  insists that the election of Trump is a wakeup-call to the country for radical transformation. 

Although extremely provocative with multiple political targets–including not only Republican presidents but also Clinton and Obama,– this is not one of Michael Moore’s best documentaries.  It is somewhat scattered and loses its focus on what happened to the country when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump took  the electoral college.

Nonetheless, there is much substantive analysis of the political structure we have in the US, filmed with the director’s characteristic zeal, passion, flair, and wicked sense of humor.  Highly recommend for the 4th of July or when any gimlet-eyed vision of the US is called for.