Rocketman

Posted on May 30, 2019 at 5:42 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extended substance abuse including drugs and alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Suicide attempt, family issues
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 26, 2019
Copyright 2019 Paramount

Elton John strides purposively down a corridor dressed in what looks like devil costume for Liberace’s Halloween party. But he is not moving toward a stage or recording studio. He is not going to sing or compose. He is going to tell his story to a different kind of audience, a support group in a drug rehab facility. And to us.

Rocketman,” produced by Sir Elton himself, is a sometimes-impressionistic retelling of the classic VH1 “Behind the Music” story of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Instead of “and then I wrote” with a chronological rehash of hits, celebrity encounters, romantic ups and downs, and AA-style amends, it is a dramatic version of a jukebox musical, with full-on dance numbers and songs that match the mood of the moment. Director Dexter Fletcher, who also finished up “Bohemian Rhapsody” after the original director was fired, wisely uses the more flamboyant elements of the story as a backdrop and keeps the camera focus on Taron Egerton (the “Kingsman” movies and “Eddie the Eagle,” also directed by Fletcher). He makes us see the energy and magnetism of Sir Elton as a performer, but it is in the most intimate close-ups that we see Sir Elton the person, vulnerable, scared, and longing to be truly accepted.

As Sir Elton tells his story to the support group, he removes the costume, a piece at a time (the horns come off first), and he reveals his own layers as well, starting with the child then known as Reg Dwight (an impressive Matthew Illesley), who lives with his distant father (when Reg asks for a hug, his father says, “Don’t be soft.”) and his self-involved mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his kind-hearted grandmother (Gemma Jones). Reg’s musical gifts are evident immediately; he can play anything he hears. He gets a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (his grandmother takes him there when his mother can’t be bothered).

And then he hears Elvis, and it’s all about rock and roll. His band plays back-up for touring American acts, and he changes his name (“Elton” was nicked from a bandmate; in the movie John comes from John Lennon but in real life it was from his mentor, “Long John” Baldry). And then he answers an ad for singers and songwriters and, when he says he composes and does not write lyrics, an unopened envelope is handed to him and it turns out to be from Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot and Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool). They form a close working and personal relationship.

And then there is the breakthrough performance at LA’s legendary Troubadour club. The future Sir Elton at first refuses to leave the bathroom when he hears that musical legends are in the audience: some of the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, Neil Young. But then he comes on stage and it is magical. We see him, and then the audience literally float up into the air, an exquisitely lovely moment that perfectly translates the euphoria of the performance.

Then there is a troubled romantic and professional relationship with a new manager (smoldering Richard Madden as John Reid) and unimaginable excess as he still struggles for acceptance from his parents. In a particularly wrenching scene Sir Elton sees his father, who will not see him perform, warmly affectionate with the children of his second wife. As we return to the scene at rehab, we see him finally able to accept the love he so desperately wants.

Egerton showed us in the “Kingsman” movies that he has what it takes for the performative side of this story, but this is the first time we have had a chance to see just how sensitive and subtle an actor he is. There are moments when we can see three or four different emotions on his face at once, as in his phone call to his mother to tell her he is gay or when he is mesmerized, terrified, and flickering back and forth between being open and hiding his feelings with Reid.  In one split second he goes from drugged-out, depressed, and anxious back stage to full-on rock star as he walks out toward the audience.  It is hard to imagine there will be a better performance on screen this year.

Sir Elton wanted the focus of this story to be on his personal life and his feelings, interpreted by the music, rather than his story as a composer and performing artist. For that, of course, we have Sir Elton himself, his music videos and recordings of his live performances, and the songs which over decades have said so much.

Parents should know that this movie includes extensive substance abuse, a suicide attempt, family dysfunction, addiction issues, sexual references and situation, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What person did he want to be? Which is your favorite Elton John song? How do you like this more subjective form of storytelling?

If you like this, try: the music of Elton John and other real-life stories of musicians including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “Walk the Line”

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted on May 30, 2019 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/sci-fi action, peril, and violence, massive destruction
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 26, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
There are a lot of monsters in and around this movie. “Monster” in its most literal meaning refers to san imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening, basically, something that falls outside of what we consider “normal.” But we use the term “monster” to describe people whose behavior is extremely cruel, violent, or hateful. Note: the Latin root of the word can mean “warn.”

All of that is on display in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” an Avengers-style roundup of the classic kaiju (“strange beast”) monsters from post-WWII movies about enormous creatures who cause massive destruction as white-coated scientists make frantic calculations, the military deploys its most powerful weapons, skyscrapers are knocked down, politicians debate, and ordinary people run and scream. And so we have our title character, Godzilla, who has been a, well, monster hit at the box office, with the longest continuously running movie franchise, from 1954 to the present day, 35 films so far. Then there are the flying reptile Rodan, the gigantic insect-like Mothra, and the three-headed, dragon-like King Ghidorah.

And then there are the people. It would be a stretch to call them “characters” because they mostly exist to represent different sides in the movie’s key divide, metaphor for metaphor for arrange of geopolitical issues ranging from refugees and immigration to environmental destruction to the role of public and private entities in national security and that oldest of themes, hubris as reflected by the age of atomic weapons. These issues are literally brought home in the way that a formerly married couple, Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark (Kyle Chandler) Russell, and their daughter Madison (“Stranger Things'” Millie Bobbie Brown). They were so traumatized by the death of their son in the last monster attack that they split up. Mark is now off in the wilderness studying wolves. Emma is still studying kaiju and working on a special thingamagig that can be used to control the monsters and prevent further destruction.

Only Madison knows about how Emma plans to use it. And when the monsters who had been dormant re-appear Emma brings Madison along in what appears to be a very poorly timed take your daughter to work day. As Emma’s colleagues are mowed down by an “eco-terrorist” (Charles Dance) Emma and Madison are captured.

Meanwhile, there is a debate in the outside world about how to deal with monsters. Should we kill them all? Should we acknowledge that they are the next stage of evolution and live with them? As one character says, when asked if they could just be our skyscraper-sized pets, “No, we would be theirs.” And the question of who really are the monsters is raised with just enough heft to add some interest without ever getting in the way of the reason for the movie, which is big things fighting with other big things.

I know, I know, you want me to get to the good stuff. And you can relax; I just spent more time on exposition than the film does. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty knows why we’re here and boy, does he deliver, with the help of outstanding special effects and design crew. It is possible, I suppose, that you may have a chance to catch your breath at some point, in which case you might consider what the people behind that first Godzilla movie 65 years ago, with production values that might have seemed a bit crude even then, might think if they saw these never-less-than-spectacular kaiju, never less than majestic, every battle powerfully staged.

Even if they had worked on the characters and dialogue with as much imagination as they did with the creatures, it would just be a distraction. The international cast gives it what they can, but the only use for lines like “It’s an existential challenge to our world!” and “The earth unleashed a fever to fight the infection,” “You are messing with forces beyond your comprehension!” plus references to “playing God” and saving the world is to stay out of the way of the action. Happy summer — the popcorn pleasures have arrived.

Parents should know that this is a monster movie with extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, violence, mayhem, and destruction. Characters use strong language and there are issues of betrayal and family tensions.

Family discussion: What is the significance of the comment about the difference between the way Eastern and Western cultures see the stories about dragons? How would humans find a way to co-exist with monsters? Which humans behave like monsters?

If you like this, try: the kaiju movies, “Rampage,” and “Pacific Rim” and its sequel

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Aladdin

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/action peril and violence, attempted murder, near-drowning, discussion of sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Issue of female autonomy and power
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 16, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
It is a bit of a puzzle that a director known for dynamic action doing a live action remake of a musical animated film that was exceptionally lively has somehow produced a movie that seems bogged down, even static. The new “Aladdin” from co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Sherlock Holmes”) is colorful and tuneful, but for much of its just over two hours running time it lumbers along, despite its best efforts to entertain.

The original Disney animated version of “Aladdin” is one of the studio’s all-time best thanks to a wonderfully melodic score, with songs by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman and possibly the all-time greatest animated movie voice performance in history, Robin Williams as the Genie. The mercurial Williams found his ultimate mode of presentation with the help of Disney’s top animators as the magical, infinitely malleable, cartoon character, instantly creating characters ranging from Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre and a bunch of zombies, always retaining the essential heart and humor that made a fantasy come alive. (The closest Williams ever came to replicating avalanche of portrayals might be his innumerable improvisations with a shawl on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) No live action version, even with the help of the latest CGI technology and the powerhouse charisma of Will Smith, can match the kaleidoscopic imagination of the 1992 Genie.

This version does make some substantial improvements in the story of the “street rat” who loves a princess and then, with the help of the genie in a magical lamp, pretends to be a prince so he can court her. Disney says it has the most diverse cast in the studio’s history, and it is great to see all of the lead roles performed by people whose ethnicity matches their characters, with Egyptian-born Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott, of British and Indian heritage, as Jasmine. The locations are authentic as well. Filmed in Jordan, and with the always-outstanding work of the Disney production designers, the settings are splendid, and the classic songs still sound fresh and hummable, especially “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” The film should really be called “Aladdin and Jasmine” because it gives the princess a full, meaningful role in the story, respecting her agency, ability, and dedication to her people. It gives her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) more agency, as well, unlike the animated character, who spends much of the story in an enchanted fog. And it’s nice to see Genie get a bit more of a story, too, thanks to the handmaiden to the princess, played by “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad.

But the story-telling itself is foggy in this version. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the story’s villain, does not have the menace of the original. He seems young and angry, more petulant than ominous. There is a hint of an intriguing backstory for him that gets lost in the busy, “look at me”-ness of the film. A storyline about whether the Sultan should approve invasion of another country does not work well and a dance number with the Genie controlling Aladdin has too many cuts to deliver on the humor of the situation. The “Step Up” movies do these moments much better, and Jasmine’s new song from “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is outshone by the originals. A wink at the map of Disneyland as Jasmine does the ancient equivalent of Googling “Prince Ali” is out of place.

If there had been no animated version, this one would have served as an entertaining family movie. But as has happened too often with Disney’s live action remakes of its best animated films, it is just an unnecessary reminder of how much we loved the original.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy peril and violence including near-drowning, attempted murder and references to killing and to sad death of parents, action, brief alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What would your three wishes be? Remember to be careful with your words! Why was Aladdin so awkward when he becomes Ali? Why was Jafar so angry? What does it mean to be a diamond in the rough, and what made Aladdin one?

If you like this, try: the original Disney animated version and the stories of the 1001 Nights

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted on May 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon style peril and violence involving people and dragons
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019

My full review for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is posted at rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

The final chapter of the “How to Train Your Dragon” saga is visually stunning and emotionally satisfying, with a conclusion that may leave the parents in the audience a little tearful….Sometimes the banter in the film can be too silly, and the reintroduction of the characters can be a bit awkward, especially when one of the teenagers tries to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). The script is also weakened by dumb insults between the twin characters, and an over-used storyline about whether a couple is ready to get married. But the opening scene of liberating caged dragons is excitingly staged and the film gets better quickly when it becomes more comfortable with its deeper themes. The characters have to rethink some of their ideas about tradition, change, what makes a home, and loss as “part of the deal that comes with love.”

The film’s breathtaking images provide a fitting accompaniment to the characters’ emotional struggles. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins served as a consultant on all three movies and I’m guessing he played a part in developing the exquisite quality of natural light, particularly in the flying scenes and a stunning phosphorescent-lit encounter. The visuals keep us inside a rich world of fantasy—the variations in dragon species continue to dazzle—one that is always grounded in human fears and feelings that are very real and very moving.

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A Dog’s Journey

Posted on May 16, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and sad deaths of humans and animals, automobile accident, stalker, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
In “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, the soul of a dog named Bailey (voice of “Frozen’s” Josh Gad) was reborn over and over as we saw him (and sometimes her) with different owners, from a boy named Ethan to a police officer, to a lonely single woman, and ultimately back to a middle-aged Ethan again, now played by Dennis Quaid. Through it all, Bailey wonders what his purpose is, and learns that, like the rest of us it is to love and be loved, and to be loyal to his “pack.”

Bailey’s story continues in “A Dog’s Journey,” also based on a Cameron book. This time the tender/sad/sweet series of rebirth stories are all in the same family, as Bailey’s purpose is to look after Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ.

At the end of the last movie, Bailey helped to reunite Ethan with the girl he loved in high school, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). As this movie opens, both Ethan and Bailey are a bit creaky in their joints, but they are still devoted to one another. Hannah’s son was killed in an accident when his wife Gloria (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin) was pregnant. Now she and her toddler daughter live on Ethan’s idyllic farm, which is always bathed in golden light and looks like something out of a coffee commercial. Ethan and Hannah adore their granddaughter, and the little girl loves them and Bailey but Gloria is restless and insecure. She takes the girl and refuses any contact with Ethan and Hannah. As Bailey dies, Ethan whispers that he should find CJ and take care of her.

And so Bailey is born as Molly adopted by now 11-year-old CJ (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). She has to hide the dog from Gloria, who has become alcoholic and neglectful. Molly is a great comfort to CJ, her only source of stability other than her best friend Trent, who has adopted Molly’s brother.

As CJ grows up (now played by British actress/singer Kathryn Prescott), Bailey finds a way to keep coming back to her when she needs it most.

The gentle humor in the film comes from what Bailey does and does not understand. Does understand: “take care of CJ,” “go where the good smells are,” “when Ethan crouches and throws the deflated football, leap over his back and catch it.” Does not understand: “what does shhh mean?” “why is CJ spending time with someone who is not in our pack when I have just led her to her long-lost best friend Trent (Henry Lau)?” The sweet moments come from the connections, between humans and between humans and dogs. The cute moments come from — did I mention all the puppies? There are plenty of “awwww” moments to go around, with reconciliation, support, and reunion, and plenty of human and canine characters to care for. I’m glad Bailey keeps coming back.

Parents should know that this film includes sad deaths of humans and animals, potty humor, a car accident, serious illness, drinking and drunkenness, a neglectful parent and an abusive boyfriend.

Family discussion: What convinced C.J. that her grandfather was right about Bailey? Why was it hard for her to acknowledge her feelings about Trent? Is there an animal that has been special to you?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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