Rocketman


Rocketman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Maybe I should’ve tried to be more ordinary.”

In the opening sequences of Dexter Fletcher’s entertaining and surprisingly moving “Rocketman,” which focuses on Elton John’s breakthrough years, it is communicated with blinding clarity that the subject will never receive the love he deserves from his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh). And so the viewers are inspired to make an assumption: The rest of the picture will be about Elton attempting to fill that void. On the one hand, the presumption is accurate. There is an abundance of rock-and-roll, sex, booze, and drugs. On the other hand, the film is able to overcome the expected trappings of a musical biopic because it is willing to embrace a more introspective approach—even if it means applying the breaks on its forward momentum. It dares to take risks—sometimes unnecessary risks. And that’s rock ’n’ roll.

It is an interesting way to tell a story, particularly when real-life events merge—at times quite suddenly—into imaginings and longings. The approach is never the same. A song and dance number can break out at any time: in the middle of a suburban street, at a psychedelic party, while making a record, while arguing over a record, back stage before a big show, even when one’s life is on the balance. It makes the point that putting on a performance is almost like another addiction for Elton. That is why when confronted by the searing question of why he feels the need to put on ostentatious outfits during a show, he cannot provide a strong answer. A performance is expected out of him, on and off the stage. He feels the need to deliver because he does not wish to disappoint his fans—just as he is afraid to disappoint his parents who are already cold to him.

While all of Elton’s memorable songs are present, from “The Bitch is Back” and “Your Song” to “Crocodile Rock” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” notice that if these were stripped away completely, the movie would be able to stand on its own. Taron Egerton plays Elton John with such high level of vivacity, even when his character is in the dumps, that it is near impossible not to feel impressed with his all-in approach. Egerton shines most when paired with Jamie Bell, portraying Bernie Taupin, the lyricist alongside Elton’s melodies and Elton’s best friend. The love shared between Elton and Bernie is so strong and infectious, I caught myself wishing they had a movie of just hanging out, laughing, being silly, writing songs.

It does not glamorize the life of a superstar. In fact, the screenplay by Lee Hall makes a point that it can be such a cripplingly lonely profession. It is a great challenge to discern between those who only want you for your fame and money and those who genuinely care about you. Elton is able to find financial success, but he remains that child who yearns to be hugged by his father. This theme runs throughout the film and it becomes sadder every time the subject is disappointed by a person he thinks is being true. And so he snorts another line of cocaine. Followed by gulping down yet another bottle of vodka.

Unlike the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” is proud to embrace its subject’s sexuality. Instead of hiding it, or toning it down, or shaming it, as in the former picture, it is celebrated here—not by flooding the movie with characters who nod or smile approvingly but through Elton’s resiliency as a gifted artist who just so happens to be a homosexual. Here is a musical biopic with elements of fantasy that gets it exactly right.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged


47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“47 Meters Down: Uncaged” is not unlike its predecessor in that attempting to survive a series of grizzly shark attacks is an indirect way of solving a personal crisis on land. Specifically, stepsisters Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and Sasha (Corinne Foxx) not only do not get along, they do not consider each other as sisters. This is established during the opening scene in which the former is bullied by schoolmates and the latter chooses to stand by with her friends in silence. Most of us will recognize immediately the story’s ultimate destination and so the journey there must be strong. On a few levels, it delivers. But it leaves plenty to be desired as a potent survival horror.

The movie is beautifully photographed, particularly the early underwater scenes that take place in the ancient Mayan city. Because the caves are unexplored for the most part, there is a certain creepiness in the solemn statues and obelisks, how corridors tend to get narrower the deeper one gets into the labyrinthine city. We even get to lay eyes on the catacombs, skeletons undisturbed for many decades. There is a sense of wonder and claustrophobia in these sequences which suggest that some thought and genuine care is put into picture instead of rehashing the same old scenario as the predecessor. It is apparent that this is not just a movie composed of jump scares involving sharks. Johannes Roberts co-writes (along with Ernest Riera) and directs both works; I detected a certain pride in making the work as good a genre piece can be.

But the characterization is a significant shortcoming. Aside from the superficial conflict between Mia and Sasha, we are never provided a genuine sense that they are family even during the later scenes when they finally learn to have each other’s backs. Perhaps it has something to do with the script, the fact that it never bothers to pause, to breathe, to allow its main players to connect. Once the scuba diving gear is on, it is all business—wonderful in theory if the material could find surprises, big and small, on a consistent basis. The work is fond of the following formula: new area to be explored, shark attack, panic and splashing about, escape. Once in a while an inconsequential character gets eaten (some gnarly deaths).

It should have taken a page from Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows.” In that film, although the script is barebones, it is so efficient in allowing the audience to understand how its character recognizes a problem and finds solutions. She is smart and resourceful. Early on in “Uncaged,” it is acknowledged that Mia is an experienced scuba diver. It is so disappointing that when the chips are down and the pressure is up, she, like the others, ends up panicking and screaming as if oxygen tanks would not run out of air. The previous “47 Meters Down” makes a point not to scream, breathe, or panic so much because every movement uses up oxygen. This fact is not brought up even once in this sequel. It’s Survival 101.

Is it unrealistic? A resounding “Yes!” But I enjoyed it enough, particularly the twist regarding the sharks. Since these creatures have been living in these caves for so long, surely they must have acquired abilities that typical sharks do not possess. Had there been a bit more research during the screenwriting stage, the level of creativity would have surged. Perhaps the characters struggling to survive against these sharks would have been forced to become more resourceful.

The Irishman


The Irishman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” reaches full power only in its final seventy-five minutes—which is a long wait because the entire work is about three-and-a-half hours. Within this compelling final section, we observe two things: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) betraying a friend during his time as a hitman for the Mafia and his family leaving him, Frank now a regretful elderly man who cannot even walk, in the nursing home to rot. The latter is a betrayal in itself—at least Frank’s mind. Because, for him, working for the Mafia for as long as he did was an act of protecting his family. In reality, however, the strangers he called friends could have just as quickly turned their backs on him. This is a story of a man who lost everything. And by the end he is nothing.

We meet numerous personalities within the Philadelphia crime family. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is peppered with a wicked sense of humor, especially when the movie screeches to halt and right next to a man’s face is a quick description of how he would come to meet his demise. More savage is in how Scorsese focuses on the big personalities—like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), one of the leaders of the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an obsession for decorum and punctuality—and constantly puts them through a wringer. Bufalino and Hoffa are nearly complete opposites, in temperament and physicality, but Scorsese is so confident and so focused in communicating to us what gets under these men’s skins. Pesci and Pacino deliver strong, hypnotic performances—they are masters of keeping silent but saying more than enough. And De Niro matches their terrific performances every step of the way with seeming ease.

However, the majority of the film failed to engage me in a way that is completely enveloping. While showing Frank’s rise within the Mafia ranks is consistently beautifully photographed, especially in getting period details exactly right, the dialogue possessing a firecracker quality at times, and historical events are tied into the plot in a relatively seamless manner, I found nothing particularly fresh in the rising action. I felt as though the director has told this type of story before with far more energy and creativity in “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” and “Casino.” It feels like dragging our feet while traversing a familiar pathway. It is without question that the work lags and sags in parts.

Another problematic element is the de-aging technology. While it is impressive to see the performers magically turn young, I urge you to look a little closer. Focus on the eyes. This technology fails to get the eyes right because a young face is often shown possessing old eyes. It is creepy at times, yes, and some may even find it amusing, but more problematic is the fact that it is highly distracting during the most dramatic or tense sequences. As a viewer who has made it a habit to really look into the eyes of the characters in order to try to understand what it is they really mean behind their words, silence, and actions, aged eyes not matching much younger faces is impossible to overlook.

An additional shortcoming, but to lesser degree of severity, is the occasional voiceover not quite matching the lips. A tighter editing might have helped to cover up the poor audio post production. But for a high caliber director like Scorsese, this is an elementary mistake; I found it insulting that the final product, from a technical standpoint, is this sloppy.

“The Irishman” is worth seeing at least once, but it is far from this master filmmaker’s best work. The intention to tell a sprawling but personal story is present, but I feel both the innovation when it comes to telling a fresh crime story and the discipline to ensure the presence of top-notch technological and technical elements are not always present. See it mainly for the performances.

Black Christmas


Black Christmas (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Although Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” is not a straight remake of the 1974 cult classic, it is apparent that the work is without inspiration. The victims, most of them women, still behave as though they have never seen a horror picture and so they end up making the same mistakes as sheep destined to be skewered in slasher movies. You cannot help but groan when a sorority girl asks, “Hello? Is anybody there?” while seemingly alone. You know precisely what’s about to happen when another sorority girl decides to go upstairs to look for an item in the dark. Halfway through, I could not help but wonder about the point of it all. I came to a conclusion: Because slasher flicks are cheaply made—and this movie does look cheap—this is just another desperate attempt to make money. You’d be wise to avoid it.

Yes, it is also one of those “Girl Power!” movies. That is supposed to be its fresh take on this familiar story of sorority girls being terrorized by a killer, or killers, on campus during the start of Winter Break. But that is not enough to make a strong horror story. In a way, an argument can be made the original is already that kind of work. It just wasn’t so in-your-face about it. The feminist stance is utilized like a sledgehammer; notice how the final act is so similar to the final episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which aired fifteen years ago: Women, weapons in hand, rising up against evil. What was fresh and fun then is tired and lame now. It feels forced. Unlike the film, the show was given an entire season to develop its themes.

An attempt is made to make the viewers empathize with the lead character. She is named Riley (Imogen Poots), still traumatized from having been raped by a fraternity president. The authorities were not convinced that she was raped, and so he got away with it. We are provided no information as why the cops did not believe her, or whether they even performed a proper investigation. The screenplay simply insists that we trust the superficial dialogue. Riley copes by staying away from social events, but she does have a core group of friends with whom she feels comfortable to be around (Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady). We expect for these girls to start meeting gruesome deaths just about the halfway point. And they do.

Expository sequences suggest that fraternities are inherently racist. While interminable and preachy on occasion, the screenplay brings up an interesting discussion about legacy and why we as a society, especially us Americans, tend to have a difficult time letting go of certain histories or historical figures even though everybody knows what they stood for. Doing so perpetuates the oppression of people of color, of women, of the poor, of those who may not fit within the heteronormative sphere. But then the screenplay goes nowhere with the ideas it brings up. Instead, we are provided a twist so ridiculous we cannot help but laugh then ask ourselves, “Is this really where the story is going?”

It is ironic that despite its identity politics, “Black Christmas” struggles with staking an identity of its own. Co-writers Takal and April Wolfe should have strived to create a potent horror flick first and foremost. Scares must be present. There must be tension, build-up, suspense, thrills. Catharsis must not only be well-earned, it must make sense within the scope of the story. Instead, we are offered regurgitated material and we are expected to take it passively. It is junk entertainment without the entertainment.

Men in Black: International


Men in Black: International (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

F. Gary Gray’s “Men in Black: International” is a tolerable but forgettable reboot that does not take enough risks because the studio is afraid to provide a work so different that fans of the franchise may find it unpleasant, off-putting, or unrecognizable. But guess what? The last entry was released seven years ago. The more appropriate move, one may argue, is to overhaul the series completely, turn it toward a different direction, and let it rip. It may or may not have worked. But at least it would have been memorable, a fearless experiment. Instead, however, we are handed this reluctant reboot, too safe to become anything more than a movie to be forgotten about once the end credits appear. A losing strategy was chosen.

We follow Molly (Tessa Thompson), dubbed Agent M by Agent O (Emma Thompson), lead of Men in Black’s New York branch, during her probationary period in London. Smart, observant, and highly enthusiastic to learn more about the secret organization, Agent M recognizes that Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) is one of the top suits within the London branch, and so she finds a way for the two of them to work on a case. The screenwriters, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, make the correct decision to establish the protagonist before the banters and the effects-heavy action sequences. Because we get a sense of her quick wit, resourcefulness, and determination, we do not question her qualifications. If only the rest of the picture functioned on this level.

Exchanges between H and M are hit-or-miss. While Hemsworth and Thompson share some chemistry, it is never fiery or crackling. Perhaps it is in the way the characters are written when together. They have different personalities but they are not opposites. And because they are not opposites, they rarely clash. And because they rarely clash, drama fails to reach a zenith.

It is apparent the duo are meant to be liked, together and apart. They are played with cool and gusto by the attractive leads, but this approach comes across as boring at times. The humor is like a gentle tap on the shoulder when there are instances where we crave for a playful punch in the gut. Furthermore, it oozes political correctness when it comes to gender and I found it to be both distracting and patronizing. The casting itself is already daring. Why not go all the way?

I enjoyed the curious creatures that populate this universe. There are nudges to previous “Men in Black” films but these are rarely ostentatious. I smiled at the small moments when the camera would linger for an extra second or two to admire an an extraterrestrial’s body shape, skin texture, tentacles, number of heads, humanoid eyes. They need not talk, or grunt, or do anything to have a personality. It gives the impression that the filmmakers are proud of the special and visual effects outside of the action scenes even though these effects do not always blend seamlessly into the environment.

Speaking of action scenes, they are tired and generic. There is nothing special about toy-looking guns shooting colorful lasers. Cue the swooshing sound effects and CGI explosions. To me, these are mere punctuations to the adventures Agents M and H must go through to forge a formidable partnership. After all, the point is to revive a nearly dead franchise. If this core wasn’t strong—and it isn’t about half the time—then the movie would have been an exercise in futility.

Terrifier


Terrifier (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The high on gore, low on scares slasher flick “Terrifier” may appeal to those who are simply in it for the gratuitous violence, but those looking for a solid story with (even marginally) interesting characters are advised to stay away. It is apparent that writer-director Damien Leone aims to deliver a work that pays homage to 1980s horror pictures. On the surface, an argument can be made that it succeeds. There is a high body count. The plot is straightforward. Even the ending hints a possible sequel. But it is lacking in ways that really count.

The story unfolds during Halloween, but it does not seem to serve much purpose. Sure, it gives the excuse for potential victims, often female, to wear sexy costumes. They scream, trip, and slither their way through confined spaces. They get stabbed, gutted, suffocated, and the like. Standard stuff. I grew tired of it by the third victim. It, too, provides the villain a way to blend into the environment. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) wears a black and white clown outfit with a death white mask to complete the ensemble. He carries around a trash bag. He sports a creepy smile. He does not say a word. He does not even scream even when a massive nail is impaled on his foot. There is a cartoonish quality behind the goings-on. But take away the holiday aspect and these killings could have occurred on any given night.

I was not amused by any of it and yet I was not able to look away. I was marginally curious whether either of the two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), on their way home from a Halloween party, would make it through the night. These two are archetypes: the sensible brunette and the dumb blonde. The only difference between these girls and their ‘80s counterparts is that they have a cell phone. Odds are the blonde will not make it halfway through the film. She fails to recognize a threat nearly every single time. Surely, the writer-director will attempt to modernize the tried-and-true formula… right?

And therein lies the problem: A case can be made that taking either route of the blonde or the brunette surviving is a cliché. In the post- post-modern era of slashing and stabbing, nothing feels fresh any longer. When Tara phones her sister, Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi), about twenty minutes into the picture, alarms going off in our heads suggest she is likely to be the final girl. She is the studious type. The girl who stays in during Halloween to prepare for a midterm the next day. We are constantly ahead of its maneuverings and it makes for a passive experience.

What makes Art the Clown terrifying? Is it because he relishes taunting his victims? Is it because he shows no sign of remorse as he mutilates his prey? Is it solely due to the clown mask and costume? He is provided no background information. The thing about the better ‘80s slasher flicks (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Friday the 13th”) is that the antagonist is provided at least a semblance of substance. Although unsettling at times, Art the Clown is neither an effective nor a memorable villain. He is not terrifying. It would have been more appropriate to name the movie “Mutilator.” This clown will not be remembered twenty years from now. Not even five years from now.

The final ten to fifteen minutes shows the screenplay at its weakest. There are plenty of opportunities to slay the killer, but they are not taken. Characters appear to step out of danger just in time and then the very next shot is them dead or dying. The most minute common sense is thrown out the window altogether. Particularly idiotic is when the final girl finally makes it outside and yet… she runs back into the building of horrors where she can once again get trapped by the assailant. At the very least she should be screaming to the top of her lungs while outside so the neighbors could hear and call for help.

Sidewalks of New York


Sidewalks of New York (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Sidewalks of New York,” written and directed by Ed Burns, is the kind of picture for audiences who love to listen to interesting people talking about their lives—specifically, what they think of the idea of love versus what it actually is; how they perceive relationships and how it ought to work; how they define sex and how it relates to their own definition of happiness or contentment. The work does not offer the expected three-act structure which is appropriate given its faux-documentary feel. Rather, it employs a freewheeling approach, warm and always welcoming, daring to draw a smile on those willing to look closely and listen. It is not demanded that we judge, but it asks that we relate.

Credit to the casting by Ali Farrell and Laura Rosenthal for choosing effortlessly charismatic performers who are also capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions especially during closeups when the camera aims to capture every bit of tic and twitching of facial muscles. Every person we meet is a curiosity in some way. Although there is interconnection among them, it is refreshing that they do not all meet by the end, forced into a ludicrous situation by a tired setup. Its restraint in handling how the story is presented is quite admirable. Similar works within the sub-genre has shown it is difficult to balance a laidback attitude while maintaining a consistent forward trajectory. Not once does it lose its way.

Particularly intriguing among the strong batch of actors is David Krumholtz, portraying a Jewish doorman named Ben who is convinced he has found love (Brittany Murphy) after having been divorced (Rosario Dawson). In a way, the character represents young idealism; he goes after what he perceives to be love with great enthusiasm and boundless energy, like a puppy given freedom to play and roam at a park on a holiday weekend. But observe closely and recognize his greatest fear: that his life would constantly be defined by the divorce that permanently destroyed a part of him. An important detail of the character is his penchant for music of the past. What is music but love in melody form?

Burns’ screenplay makes numerous smart choices. I enjoyed that even the most unlikable character, played by Stanley Tucci, is given dimension. Yes, the dentist is a womanizer, cheating on his wife (Heather Graham) with a nineteen-year-old waitress (Murphy) at every opportunity, so brazen and obvious about it that everyone at his workplace knows that his “lunch hour” is really a “quickie” trip to a hotel, but the character is shown under a tragic light, too. It is not necessary that we like him; however, it is crucial that we recognize the sadness not only in his situation, especially that he isn’t getting any younger, but also in his desperation. Clearly, he is not built to be in a monogamous relationship and yet he forces himself to fit within such a box. Griffith, so convinced he is always in control, is a product of his environment more than he realizes or care to admit. While some viewers may detest him for his actions, I felt pity for him.

The aforementioned extremes show why the movie works. It does not attempt to write a rulebook on relationships or its trials and tribulations. Rather, the picture is concerned with excavating details from underneath the surface, just like how Burns hopes that the audience comes to appreciate New York not just through its reputation or word-of-mouth but in actually looking at the small details like graffitis on walls, diverse groups of people walking down the street, the noises in the background. It is both a contemporary comedy and a love letter to a place and community that the writer-director clearly loves and respects.