Review: ‘Rocketman’ is an exuberant, earnest chronicle of a rocker

From its opening moments, no one’s going to make the mistake that Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” – 120 minutes of the life and times of Sir Elton John – isn’t about someone destined to be a star. A sparkling sheen worthy of the flamboyant rocker imbues the movie’s spirit before we even see him, enough to provide a jolt of familiarity even to those who can’t tell “Crocodile Rock” from “Your Song.”

But “Rocketman” isn’t just a flight of celebrity fancy—the opening seconds, however cathartic, is a bait-and-switch with an effectiveness in line with how much you really know about Elton’s life. And when the cinematic energy reaches stratospheric heights after a slightly turbulent bit of setup, the movie bares its ambidexterity at painting the portrait of Elton John not as a star, but as a comet—at once a a majestic force burning through records sales charts and sold-out stadiums and also an an enigma of self-destructive tendencies, hurtling through the vast space of celebrity at speeds none can be expected to smoothly navigate.

Continue reading →

Advertisements

Una poca de gracia: Lou Diamond Phillips on his breakout turn as Ritchie Valens

[This article was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.]

SAN ANTONIO — Search the internet for video evidence of Ritchie Valens’s iconic-but-all-too-brief career as a Latino rock pioneer, and you’d find yourself searching for hours.

In fact, there’s only one bit of footage that’s easily found on YouTube—a brief performance by Valens in the 1959 movie “Go, Johnny, Go” that sees him crooning to some club-goers. That film is only 75 minutes long, features the likes of Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, and was released four months after Valens died in a tragic plane crash at just 17 years old.

The real-life story of Valens was over right as its second chapter was beginning. But its first has had such a profound impact on pop culture – specifically the timely infusion of Chicano influence into rock ‘n roll as the genre was beginning to blossom – that it’s easy to forget the California musician’s professional career lasted less than a full year.

That brevity also made things a bit difficult for the young actor who would portray Valens 28 years after his death in the film named after his biggest hit, “La Bamba.”

Continue reading →

Review: ‘Yardie’ is an underwhelming directorial debut from Idris Elba

The director’s chair being filled with established actors is becoming an increasingly popular card for Hollywood to pull these days, albeit with wildly varied results.

Up until this point, the reception to those efforts in a way mirror the novice auteurs behind the camera; Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” – perhaps you’ve heard of it? – garnered near-universal acclaim to the tune of multiple Academy Award nominations. It’s a beloved film, much like its director-actor was before its release.

On the flip side, another actor still working under the radar despite having collaborated with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen quietly directed one of the most intoxicating films of 2018. But Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” was, to a similarly strange degree as its director, seemingly never meant to break into the cultural consciousness in a meaningful way, despite the praise heaped onto it by critics.

So it will be interesting to see how Netflix’s audience responds to “Yardie,” the enticing-but-jumbled directorial debut from Idris Elba, when it’s released on the streaming service in mid-March. Though if merit has any say, it may struggle to hold the attention of movie-watchers. There’s a restlessness at the heart of the film, but in the end that attitude does little more than throw crime, familial drama, music and a sprinkling of Jamaican lore into a pot to create something of underwhelming taste.

Continue reading →

Review: Netflix’s ‘Fyre’ is a party documentary if there ever was one

An edited version of this review originally appeared on thecriticalcritics.com, and can be viewed here.

The documentary genre experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2018. Capitalizing on that, Netflix is swooping in at the start of the year with another original deep-dive of their own, this one concentrated on the events leading up to, making up and resulting from 2017’s Fyre Festival fiasco.

And like the organizers of the now-infamous, titular luxury music festival in the days leading up to their tropical oblivion, Fyre has a lot of things on its mind.

You’re most likely familiar with the story — a 20-something entrepreneur and Ja Rule collaborate to put on the party of the decade to disastrous ends — and director Chris Smith knows it. Fyre begins with the assurance that if you clicked “Watch Now,” it’s not because you’re unfamiliar with the greatest party that never happened, as reads the film’s tagline (and world’s most concise obituary). It’s because we can’t wait to revel in watching a disaster unfold.

And unfold it does, in what is a story of superlatives, the kind of narrative aesthetic that exists as its own advertising campaign: Sky-high sums of money, the world’s most sought-after models, proclamations of “first time ever” and “never again.” It’s a party documentary if there ever was one, where the fun of watching and the twisted ecstasy of sharing in an increasing sense of disbelief is amplified with friends. Continue reading →

Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t just bad; it’s borderline appropriation

A fist is raised. Feet are stomped. A guitar riff rings out. And a legacy is cemented.

The final 20 minutes or so of the new Freddie Mercury biopic/Queen story – it isn’t quite clear – is essentially a mini Queen concert, specifically recreating the band’s 1985 Live Aid appearance. It’s the prime reason why at some point, someone has recommended you watch “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the biggest and loudest screen you can.

The suggestion has legs, though to somewhat of a fault. It’s an energetic and appropriately entertaining sequence driven to an obsessive pursuit to include every detail from the real-life event, exhibiting as much authenticity as is absent in the previous 100 minutes of the film.  Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Juliet, Naked,’ a delightful (if unfinished) updating of the love triangle trope

We all have idols. Human monuments – whether in the public’s consciousness or merely our own individual headspaces – who we venerate in blogs or by internal means.

But in those obsessions, do we ever stop to monitor ourselves, and consider how we believe they influence the world don’t mirror how they perceive themselves? Have we ever thought about what we’d say if we ever met them, or worse, if they alleged our perceptions are off-target?

That’s one of a few simultaneously interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts explored in Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked.” It’s also arguably its most interesting, interweaving adoration and comically exaggerated (or perhaps not?) reverence, though the one Peretz spends the least amount of time deconstructing. Continue reading →

Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is visually gorgeous, surprisingly grounded and vaguely formulaic

After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.

Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.

But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring. Continue reading →

Review: The ambitions of ‘Sing’ don’t match those of its characters

Maybe in any other year, Garth Jennings’ “Sing” would rise to the top of the animated crop. But with its holiday release, when many in the audience has experienced “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” “Sing” subsequently falters against the heavy expectations we might unconsciously place upon it.

But even when watching “Sing” on its own merits, its notes still fall flat. It’s an entry that, with its overabundance of characters and storylines, doesn’t wrap up in a way that isn’t predictable or particularly memorable, either.

The film’s boasts a pretty impressive cast, with Matthew McConaughey, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johnansson and others lending their voices to animated counterparts. Those include Buster, a naïve and overambitious theater-owning koala, the self-indulgent mouse Mike, and Johnny, the gorilla who participates in his family’s criminal ways when all he wants to do is sing.

None of these narratives are particularly new, and, unfortunately, neither are their conclusions. The bigger problem – and the biggest of the movie’s downfalls – is that these are only three in at least six or seven storylines that are all seemingly at odds with each other for the spotlight. It seems like Buster should be the protagonist, along with his quest for redemption, but if it is, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.

sing-tiff-illumination-entertainment

As far as the other characters, they are frustrating in their own motivations that seem consistently forced on the screenplay’s part. Daddy issues, stage fright, having to choose between possible superstardom or current responsibilities – it’s all here. The difference is that the characters feel like they are always choosing the path that obviously leads to trouble down the road.

And that’s without mentioning that a prosthetic body part of probably the most charming scaled creature we see onscreen tips the first domino that sets the overarching plot in motion.

But most people might not go to “Sing” looking for innovative storytelling. They’re banking on the nostalgia of hearing some of their favorite tunes. The good news for those viewers: They’ll get what they came for, and then some.

Especially in the first act, where the movie’s setup amounts to little more than an assault on the senses as we move from character to character setting up their stories; and then eventually from song to song in one particular sequence that is headache-inducing in how much it throws at you.

I’m not saying you won’t be able to tell songs apart – you will, and one of your favorites perhaps even makes it into “Sing’s” over-inflated final act.

But for a movie that seemingly is supposed to be a reflection on the power of individual dreams and the songs that are involved on the way, “Sing” sacrifices charm for cheap attempts at empathy when so many other animated offerings this year have excelled at providing both.

 

“Sing” is rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril 

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson 

Directed by Garth Jennings 

2016

Begin Again will delight music enthusiasts, and satisfy the regular moviegoer

At its simplest, Begin Again – directed by John Carney and starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – is a celebration of music.

But as the film shows, even something simple can be beautiful, like an acoustic ballad. And although held back mildly by a middle act which leaves a tad more to be desired, Begin Again takes that message to heart with believable performances and heartfelt and heartbreaking tunes which do a good job telling the story on their own.

Ruffalo plays Dan, an out-of-his-prime music executive who is searching for authenticity in a New York music scene that is being fueled more and more by money. It becomes quickly apparent, as these stories usually go, that he hasn’t put as much effort into his family as he should, but rather is focusing on his job too much to no avail.

Enter heartbroken songwriter Gretta, played by Keira Knightley, who doesn’t aspire of stardom. Her sole desires were to help spark hubby Dave Kohl’s career in the music biz…until he began showing signs that the his new lifestyle isn’t up to par with her.

Dan hears Gretta play at a chance encounter that is much like a different kind of love at first sight, and the two embark on creating a wholly unique album together.

Dan and Gretta share their musical interests in the always pretty locales of New York City.

Dan and Gretta share their musical interests in the always pretty locales of New York City.

Don’t be mistaken, this is a story reminiscent of many we’ve seen before, but the way Carney focuses on the music and songs – more specifically, the stories behind the songs – is where he gets off. Begin Again teaches a lot about music and the many things it is. It is a remedy and a poison. It is all encompassing and intimate. It is diverse and it is unifying. And the best, most relatable songs are the ones with emotional backstories.

Diehard music geeks, especially of the acoustic indie variety, will have an absolute ball with Begin Again. Where the average person will see a large portion of the film, in which the album is being made, as repetitive and middling, musicians will be able to relate to the intimacy of the process of producing music, and how it affects those involved. Begin Again is astutely aware of its priorities; to show how music can be cheerful even when it’s sad. Some moviegoers will understand that better than others, and that’s okay.

Ruffalo (Now You See Me, The Avengers) is superb in his role. Always engaged, lively and believable, his joy at finding real music is easy to see, as is the pain when talking about his past. Ruffalo also shows to have some great timing with comedic deliveries, and doesn’t have to be saying a word to show he is one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood today. Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement) also puts in a memorable performance as a young Nora Jones-type singing of lost love and various other melancholy themes. Who knew she could sing?!

Maroon 5 frontman Levine brings his musical chops to Begin Again as rising star Dave Kohl.

Maroon 5 front man Levine brings his musical chops to Begin Again as rising star Dave Kohl.

In the supporting cast, Adam Levine, who knows a little something about the music industry, makes his big screen debut as a rockstar who has his priorities jumbled. He’s right in his natural habitat as Dave Kohl, at least when he’s singing. In the more human parts that require him to actually act, he’s relatively stiff as cardboard, never really one who we particularly want to be together with Gretta. Cee Lo Green and Mos Def have appearances in the movie that are much more memorable than Levine’s extended cameo.

Where Begin Again succeeds is exemplified by its third act and ultimate ending. It isn’t overly done as some movies these days choose to go; Carney knows that too much of a good thing doesn’t always work. The ending doesn’t succumb to predictability, and it’s humble and intimate. It’s simple, and it works to great effect.

 

In a Nutshell

Led by strong lead performances of both the acting and musical variety, Begin Again explores the essence and strength of music to elevate itself above the regular clichés.

8.0 / 10 or Worth your time and money in a Summer of loud blockbusters, and you even get a couple new tunes to check out!

 

Begin Again is rated R for language 

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine

Directed by: John Carney

2014