The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor. The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020 with the final celebration on February 11.
The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in real estate, or venturing on their own to start a business or to invest money in a long-term project, major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.
On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy. Political unrest will continue and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum. Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.
To avoid escalating conflict by
unscrupulous populist governments who overlook
or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must
be recognized and practiced. In
addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to
ameliorate climate change. Jealousy of
those who have polluted the plant will rise.
Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie
theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely
distributed through move theaters. Of
the 43 reviews, here are my favorites. Another difficult year to make my listicle. As in past years, both television and cinema
have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.
The following list is not ranked, only
grouped by genre and date of review.
INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA
1) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World (January 13 review)
Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding,
lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its
subsequent impact on our daily lives.
We see extremes: medical marvels
saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces
a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.
documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more
clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how
revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.
Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial
discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard
were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.
this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of
scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and
snow plows. In Order of
Disappearanceis part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’
comedic treatment of snow country.
this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous
floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps
that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens
multiple times a day.
Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for
watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San
Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is
a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet
up fifteen years later. Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall
Park) were best friends who, as teenagers, had sex for the first time and
then stopped talking to each other.
comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.” The
universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring secrets and
lies, told and sometimes motivated by love.
7) Late Night—Women Do
It Right (November 5 review)
In Late Night we
see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in
which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own
talk show. (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the
“bitch-boss from hell”).
Carter, a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver
between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly
white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice
and decide to stand up for what’s right.
9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)
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.”
Jokeris a devastating
portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero
Batman, takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and
for good reason. Now we see the masked Joker as few could have
Netflix series — Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El
Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most
powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana
production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.
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
criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist
in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He
recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have
nothing to lose.
14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”
(September 11 review)
with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main
theme is unexpected consequences: the turmoil of events that turn
everything upside down.
A “Narcos” or “El
Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by
the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),
we see a new first. Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug
cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and
outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or
queenpin?) of Sinaloa.
This investigative journalistic documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story. The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.
of director Rachel Lears’s early access
to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war
rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more
From a pool
of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female
candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela —
each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established,
seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she had to
work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure.
After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of
health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to improve America’s broken health-care system. Cori
Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the police shooting of an unarmed black man and
the resulting army tanks that showed up in her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter,
Paula Jean Swearengin, watched her
friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the
for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had
to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera
hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in. All four were heavily invested personally:
“We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin
says. But ten-year incumbents are hard
unsurprisingly, emerges as a telegenic,
exuberant force . She is all that and
more. In the closing credits, we see AOC
riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the
thrill of her victory on a crisp,
January morning before the swearing-in ceremony. She’s a television cameraman’s dream: young,
attractive, and charismatic with the emotive, energetic oratorial skills of a much more
seasoned public speaker. Nothing seems
to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing
leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote
social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity,
whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn,
talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube. She is a media darling and that makes her a
political star worth watching.
Down the House will
knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for
The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.
A volatile and
incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention
of Luce’s parents. The essay inflames
the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.
Luce’s parents do
not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although
their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce. Other parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do
you believe in the face of unconditional love? Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to
define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and
therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold.
A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him?
Luce is a
gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse. This film is also provocative in terms of
Luce’s achievements validating his liberal parents’ convictions about social
justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul. There
are no easy answers.
Race and white privilege are
examined under a psychological microscope.
Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed,
this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making
for uncomfortable viewing.
Luce is boldly
ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film: Who is “anointed” by others to succeed? The
myth of the American dream and succeeding all on your own, especially in the glowing
light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.
with a chilling and morally ambiguous
ending. The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and
how much it has influenced who you are now.
No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce
shouts this to the audience loud and clear.
“You never really know what is
going on with people.” (Luce)
Note: Now available on Netflix.
Indochine (1993)–Heart of Darkness
Indochine is a testament to the hubris and delusions of first French imperialism and then American trauma to follow .The sense of time and place unfolds in 1930 French Indochina (Vietnam). from the years of French colonial rule to the stirring of a revolution by zealous and determined young Communist idealists,..
Indochine concludes in 1954 when the French are on the cusp of being forced out by Communist forces after a century of colonization. Seen through the eyes of a rubber plantation owner, Eliane (the ethereal Catherine Deneuve, nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), Indochine is an allegory for the corrupt and depraved. The often opium-smoking French are seen clinging to their delusional belief that they could sustain their dominion over the impoverished, virtually enslaved Vietnamese.
The narrative is a family drama between Eliane and the orphaned five-year old Vietnamese girl, Camille (newcomer Linh Dan Pham). who is adopted by Eliane . Indochine has another narrative as well: a love story between a French navy officer, Jean-Baptiste, and both Eliane and Camille.
As the struggle against French imperialism grips Vietnam, Jean-Baptiste and Camille have to choose sides. As the focus shifts to the love story between Camille and Jean-Baptiste, and the awakening of the sheltered privileged Camille to the plight of most Vietnamese Indochine‘s pace deepens and quickens.
The anticolonial revolt plays out in some expected patterns, with the decadence of the dying days of a fading colonial regime. Old paternalistic, often brutal customs have outlasted their lords and yet the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in this case) adhere tenaciously to property and servants with a certain stubborn and oblivious pride. They are yesterday’s story, but arenot ready to realize or admit it.
Indochine is ambitious, gorgeously photographed but also too slow, too long, and too languishly structured in the first half of the story. It is not altogether a successful film because of this. Yet it is still worth seeing, perhaps mostly for implying that the French still do not quite understand what happened to them in Vietnam, and they’re not alone.
Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that presents the lesser-known story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political career are adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.
The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction. But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here. For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator. Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California, a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss. Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.
Four years after JFK had become
president, with the US in crisis at
home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses
an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon
plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.
As the anti-war movement gains
strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means
necessary to defeat. He isolates himself
with a handful of trusted advisors and
prepares for a second term.
In a historic landslide, Nixon is
re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the
Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel
his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts,
a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.
It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has. Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it. The parallels with today are frightening.
Joker is a devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness.
This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman, takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason. Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.
In Joker a marginally
employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the
astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding
a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a
children’s hospital. He is a disposable,
invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he
shares a dreary low-rent apartment.
Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly
mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as
the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but
more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness
In close-up shots of his clown-face
mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face
to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels
that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.
Joaquin Phoenix gives
such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the
actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken
on a journey to see the dissolution of sanity under a
Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed
bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a
range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he
dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he
surrenders to his insanity.
This is a character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and
at times subversive and disturbing. This
character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award
nomination for Joaquin Phoenix. A great
joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable. Joker pushes all boundaries in its
portrayal of a deeply disturbing,
subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a
The HBO six-part series, Years and Years, is a dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis.
In Years and Years the
viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that
allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and
concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain.
The harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma
Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la
Trump, divides the nation with her
controversial opinions and policies. In
tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the
impact of an unstable world on their lives.
Beginning in 2020, three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027. With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.
In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to 2035, Years and Years has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.
In 2020 air raid sirens blast over
all regions of the UK, with news that
Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island. Panic and misinformation spiral out of
In a series of unfortunate events, there
is a financial crisis due to the
collapse of an American investment bank.
A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ
individuals from voting. Arrests and detention become the rule of law
for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.
By 2027 the coalition government of Great Britain has
collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified
corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put
By 2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight.
By 2029 attacks on journalists
increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn.
Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens
at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide. In one of
the most powerful monologues (see
video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many
small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect, creating the toxic environment everyone now
lives in. Today perhaps? And so it
now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies. The military isn’t storming parliament. The
change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and
yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary
life goes on.
Years and Years, through
its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic
lens. A sum of the problems and
anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary
projection, resonant of a prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.
The sixth and last episode took me by surprise. The
tone seemed off, shifting gears into
much more futuristic science fiction.
We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a fake ending.
In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat.. A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent. [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ] Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences: the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.
Every episode will keep you wanting more. Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos) is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds. Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates. At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates.
The title of the Spanish version,Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies. In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary
The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted, Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists. While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.
Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up the inmates are forever changed at almost a cellular level.
Note: Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.
La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix. This is a Spanish “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.
A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.
Named after cities, each
robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less
desperate life. In La Casa de Papel “Tokyo”
is the unreliable narrator, with a
winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed
wounds. She narrates each character’s
backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow
team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish
Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of
their plan in negotiating with the police.
The Professor oversees the
heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an
extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit
excessively cerebral Professor wins over the public, who are angry at the powerful
banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.
The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions
and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the
hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police
inspector. An extraordinary string of
plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags
throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected
twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly unpredictable chess game between the police
and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its
“telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for
the next season!
There are three Parts [=Seasons].
Part 1 has 13 episodes; Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and were released December 2017 through July
2019. The filming of Part 4 of La
Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.
comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.” The universal theme– of
the gathering of a family clan harboring secrets and lies, told and sometimes motivated by love.
opening scene of The Farewell,
taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible
grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it
portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine, she need not worry. She has stage 4 lung cancer.
to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a
wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented
as a family reunion. The granddaughter,
Billi, a young millennial living in New
York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich
Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai
rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago)
believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s
death due to her advanced age. So, at the wedding, there is forced
merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly
mourning their beloved Nai Nai. Only Nai
Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.
The cultural and
geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes
irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between
them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her
American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options
underscore their closeness.
But, The Farewell also delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its
unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film
examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the
complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.
performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to
seriousness seemingly effortlessly. The
Farewell is a winner!
Note: The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.
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.
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.
Rocketmanends 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