Category Archives: Biopic

Blu-ray reissue: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28,2020)

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The Grey Fox – Kino Classics

I was overjoyed to finally retire my dog-eared VHS copy of Philip Borso’s underappreciated 1982 gem. Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (which puts it in a sub-genre that includes Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet).

The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”). The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Jackie Burroughs is excellent as well, playing a feminist photographer who has a relationship with Miner. John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist.

Kino’s Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit. (Full review)

Blu-ray reissue: The Elephant Man (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2020)

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The Elephant Man – Criterion Collection

This 1980 David Lynch film (nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (John Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened to him.

While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectfully and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white (by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nod for his performance, more impressive when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Great work by the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 4K restoration, archival interviews with the director, Hurt, co-producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sangar (and others associated with the production), a 2005 program about the real “elephant man” John Merrick, and more.

Hands up: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2020)

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What were the odds? A couple weeks ago, I Tweeted this:

I hadn’t thought about The Grey Fox in years; it’s one of my favorite 80s sleepers. Something about Senator Kaine’s “gentleman bandit” couture made the film suddenly pop into my head.

Flash-forward one week: I receive an email alerting me that Philip Borsos’ 1982 gem has undergone a 4K restoration and was premiering May 29th for a limited run via Kino-Lorber’s “Kino Marquee” platform (small world!) The studio distributes to a network of select cinemas nationwide, giving movie fans a chance to buy “tickets” and support their shuttered local art house venue by streaming through that venue’s website. Here in Seattle, the film is playing via the Grand Illusion theater’s virtual screening room; for other cities / venues click here.

Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”).

The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth (who died in 2000 at 80) brings an uncanny authenticity to the role; not only because of age-appropriate casting, but thanks to his rugged countenance (undoubtedly stemming from his previous three decades as a stuntman). Farnsworth literally looks like he stepped directly out of the 19th-Century and walked right into this film.

John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist. Miner gets out of prison and heads north to Washington state, where he lodges with his sister and her husband and finds work. The straight and narrow wears thin on the restless ex-con. He talks a dim-witted fellow worker (Wayne Robson) into traveling with him up to Canada to be his partner-in crime. As stagecoaches are a thing of the past, Miner (not unlike Butch Cassidy) intuits a bright future in robbing trains.

Eventually Miner has to cool his heels, as a dogged Pinkerton man (Gary Reineke) is hot on his trail (he’s noticed that the perpetrator of a string of train robberies in Canada has a suspiciously similar M.O. to Miner’s past stagecoach robberies in California). He and his cohort settle in a small town in British Columbia, where Miner (now living under an alias) meets and develops a relationship with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs). Do Miner’s bad, bad ways catch up with him again? That would be telling.

Borso paints an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (along the lines of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet). The 4k restoration is gorgeous, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit.

The Virtual International Film Festival: Week 2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 18, 2020)

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Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

I’ve covered the Seattle International Film Festival for Hullabaloo since 2006. Over that 14 year period I’ve reviewed over 200 SIFF films. So I thought I’d comb my archives and curate a “Best of SIFF” festival that doesn’t require leaving the safety of your abode.

So welcome to Week 2 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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Bad Black (Amazon Prime Video, tubi) – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks. (Full review)

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Becoming Who I Was (Amazon Prime Video) – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness. (Full review)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Amazon Prime Video) – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Full review)

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Endless Poetry (Amazon Prime Video) – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?”, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope.

Endless Poetry, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself. (Full review)

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Home Care (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes) – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak.

An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) are an endearing screen couple. The stories we’ve been hearing about the selflessness of health care workers who are on the front lines of the current Covid-19 pandemic adds a new level of poignancy to Horak’s film. (Full review)

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Mekko (Amazon Prime Video) – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world. (Full review)

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Polisse (YouTube, iTunes) – A docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011). (Full review)

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The Rocket (Amazon Prime Video) – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a remarkable performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; perfectly capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (iTunes) – There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments; a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)

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This May Be the Last Time (Amazon Prime Video) –Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

This is two films in one; both family memoir and academic study. Harjo investigates a story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inspires the second layer of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, Harjo traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey. (Full review)

…one more thing

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Good news-You can catch first-run indie films from home… via SIFF’s virtual cinema:

Due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding COVID-19, our Cinemas are temporarily closed and the 46th annual Seattle International Film Festival has been canceled. SIFF will be on hiatus for the next few months while a small team takes care of SIFF’s assets and plans for the eventual reopening of SIFF.

In the meantime, we’re pleased to be working with distributors to bring you virtual screenings of new independent films. Stay home, stay healthy, and support SIFF with Virtual SIFF Cinema!

On each film detail page, you’ll find a link to the distributor’s screening portal where you’ll be able to rent the film and begin watching. As part of the revenue goes directly back to SIFF, this is a great way to support us during this time and see new films!

…and this just in!

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Another cancelled 2020 film festival that has devised “virtual” solutions for carrying on is Tribeca. While the physical event has been scrapped (for obvious reasons), the organizers are keeping the spirit and mission of the annual event alive by offering film fans worldwide access to select programming specially curated for online viewing, from April 17 through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

Want to dive in now? A Short Film a Day Keeps Anxiety Away is a fun place to start!

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca is also providing accredited press access to some of this year’s selections (features and shorts). I’m happy to report I have been granted access, so starting next Saturday, I’ll be sharing some reviews of new films to keep an eye out for in the near future. In the meantime, check out the Tribeca Film Festival website for more info.

The ragman’s son: RIP Kirk Douglas

By Dennis Hartley

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Kirk Douglas December 9, 1916-February 5, 2020

This one hurts. Not a shocker at age 103. But still…this one hurts. Beyond a legend…last of a breed. Where do I even begin?

In his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas wrote:

The biggest lie is the lie we tell ourselves in the distorted visions we have of ourselves, blocking out some sections, enhancing others. What remains are not the cold facts of life, but how we perceive them. That’s really who we are.

An astute and particularly self-aware observation for an actor to make.  After all, you could say that actors “lie” for a living, always pretending to be someone they are not; “blocking out some sections, enhancing others” to best serve the character.  That said, the best actors are those who can channel this human flaw into a superpower that brings us face-to-face with “the cold facts of life” when necessary and reveal universal truths about “who we are”.

Kirk Douglas could do that with a glance, a gesture, a shrug. He was a very physical actor, but you had a sense there was a carefully calibrated intelligence informing every glance, every gesture, every shrug.

He played heroes and villains with equal elan but injected all of his characters with a relatable humanity.  He was one of the last players standing from the echelon of “classic” Hollywood…a true movie star.

I hope the Academy does him justice with a worthy tribute Sunday night. He deserves one. Ru in shlum, Issur Danielovitch Demsky.

Ultimately, the work speaks for itself.  There are so many great Douglas films, but here are 15 “must-sees” available right now via cable on-demand and rentals  (this is based on my Xfinity package; so depending  on your subscriptions, “results may vary”-as they say).

Spartacus (HITZ on demand)

Paths of Glory (ScreenPix on demand)

Ace in the Hole (Paramount PPV)

Lust for Life (Xfinity PPV)

Seven Days in May (Warner Brothers PPV)

Out of the Past (Warner Brothers PPV)

Lonely Are the Brave (Universal PPV)

Detective Story (Paramount PPV)

Gunfight at the OK Corral (STARZ on demand)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (EPIX, Prime Video, tubi)

Young Man With a Horn (Warner Brothers PPV)

The Bad and the Beautiful (Xfinity PPV)

Two Weeks in Another Town (TCM on demand)

I Walk Alone (Paramount PPV)

The Man From Snowy RIver (STARZ on demand)

Ten years gone: Top 10 films of the last decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 25, 2020)

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Really? Another decade slipped by again when I wasn’t looking? This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the 400+ first-run films I reviewed between 2010 and 2019 and share my picks for the top 10 of the past 10 years. Happy viewing! Alphabetically…

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Black KkKlansman –So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense.

(Full review)

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Blade Runner: 2049 So many films passing themselves off as “sci-fi” these days are needlessly loud and jarringly flash-cut. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story is not as deep or complex as the film makers want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90-minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing and immersive. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

(Full review)

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Certified Copy – Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curve-ball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Orson Welles) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture.

(Full review)

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Computer Chess – The most original sci-fi film of 2013 proved you don’t need a $300 million budget and 3-D technology to blow people’s minds. For his retro 80s-style mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski finds verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws idiosyncratic characters into a jar, and then steps back to watch. Just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things get weird…then weirder. Dig that final shot!

(Full review)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel – In the interest of upholding my credo to be forthright with my readers (all three of you), I will confess that, with the exception of his engaging 1996 directing debut, Bottle Rocket, and the fitfully amusing Rushmore, I have been somewhat immune to the charms of  writer-director Wes Anderson. To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

At the risk of making your head explode, I now have a second confession. I kind of enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. I can’t adequately explain what happened. The film is not dissimilar to Anderson’s previous work; in that it is akin to a live action cartoon, drenched in whimsy, expressed in bold primary colors, populated by quirky characters (who would never exist outside of the strange Andersonian universe they live in) caught up in a quirky narrative with quirky twists and turns (I believe the operative word here, is “quirky”). So why did I like it? I cannot really say. My conundrum (if I may paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Producers) would be this: “Where did he go so right?”

(Full review)

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Love and Mercy – Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. There are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’n’roll biopics I’ve seen in years.

(Full review)

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The Master – As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised take-down of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I found it to be a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure- the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix deliver a pair of knockout performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull.

(Full review)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?” Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam. What I am prepared to share is this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have rarely been better, Margot Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9-year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

(Full review)

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Samsara – Whether you see Ron Fricke’s film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The man who gave us the similar cinematic tone poems Chronos and Baraka drops a clue early on in his latest film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala (it must take days). At the very end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen turns out to be the preface to the monks’ next project-the ritualistic de-construction of the painting (which I assume must take an equal amount of time). Yes, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity.

(Full review)

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed, and cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

(Full review)

 

 

 

Get the papers, get the papers: The Irishman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2019)

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If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so …funny.

Funny how?

It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. It’s funny. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything. Like my cousin.

True story. I have this cousin. Technically 2nd cousin, I think (my dear late mother’s 1st cousin…however the math works). Due to our age spread he’s always seemed more like an uncle to me. He’s a character. A funny guy …always with the jokes. A modne mensch.

At any rate, he’s Brooklyn born-and-raised (as was my mother). Earlier this week he and I had a little exchange going on Facebook regarding The Irishman. I had posted about how excited I was that the film had finally dropped on Netflix following its limited 2-month theatrical run.

I know what you’re thinking: “Bad movie critic! Shame!” But why schlep to the theater, with the parking and the ticket prices and the overpriced stale popcorn…and besides I’m already paying extra for Netflix on top of my $200 Comcast bill so dammit I will have my own private screening, on my couch thank you very much.

Anyway, my cousin commented that The Irishman was great, and that “the 3½ hours went by very quickly”. Knowing that portions of the film’s narrative (which is steeped in mob history) take place in NYC, I half-teasingly replied to him:

“I’m guessing that a lot of Scorsese’s period mob films are kind of like a stroll down memory lane for anyone who grew up in NYC back in the day?”

To which he wrote back:

“The Gambinos were one block up on Carroll Street about six blocks from us …and we learned at an early age to stay away from any men wearing suits with a newspaper folded underneath their arm.”

That cracked me up. I thought it was, y’know …funny. But then he followed up with this:

“These men in suits usually had a schlom [sic] rolled up in the newspaper and were on the way to bust up somebody who was a slow payer. If they had to come back the 2nd or 3rd time they usually beat up the man’s wife, now we had two things to worry about.”

The uh, “scholm”? He must have been reading my mind, adding:

“The schlom was a piece of pipe or a heavy piece of cable-when you saw these guys you just walked the other way.”

Oh. That’s not so funny. It’s just, y’know, the way my cuz tells the story and everything.

One thing’s for sure-after 50 years of film-making Martin Scorsese knows how to tell a story and everything. And while it is not the only subject he makes films about, nor is the subject his exclusive domain, few living filmmakers have his particular flair for telling stories about the Mob; specifically for the way he pulls the viewer inside the heads of people who feel perfectly at home living in the shadows of a completely amoral universe.

Despite the consistently visceral, in-your-face nature of his crime dramas, Scorsese once commented “…there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.” C’est la vie.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!

Slipping into place from the get-go like the natural bookend to a triptych that began with Scorsese’s 1990 “true-crime”-inspired New York mob drama Goodfellas and continued with Casino, his 1995 film set in the mob underworld of 1970s Vegas, The Irishman ambitiously paints an even broader historical canvas of underworld chronology; from Albert Anastasia to Sam Giancana to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Joe Columbo. And that’s just a warm-up. Maybe you find out who ordered the Jimmy Hoffa hit. And possibly JFK (such elements of the narrative reminded me of James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid).

At the center of this swirling, blood-spattered history is “the Irishman”-Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hitman who, if his real-life counterpart’s “confessions” are to be believed (as documented in Charles Brandt’s non-fiction source book I Heard You Paint Houses, adapted here by Steve Zaillian) is like the Forrest Gump of the mob underworld.

“Painting houses” is mob slang for carrying out hit jobs. As the retired geriatric iteration of Sheeran pointedly assures us (breaking the fourth wall Goodfellas style throughout the film), he was a very good “painter” back in the day. He knew some guys. We meet them via flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Sheeran’s key cohort is Russell Bufalino (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly had to be brow-beaten out of semi-retirement by Scorsese and co-producer De Niro to get the gang back together for just one final heist). In younger days, when he is working as a truck driver for a meat packing firm, Sheeran has a (friendly) chance encounter with Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania mob family.

The pair’s professional association does not begin at that time, but Sheeran is later “officially” introduced to Russell by his cousin Bill (Ray Romano), a union lawyer who gets Sheeran off the hook for skimming meat shipments and selling them to a Philly mob.

This is Sheeran’s entree into the mob underworld, and the ensuing tale, which spans the 1950s through the 1970s, is nothing short of a grand Mafia epic (whether it’s 100% factual or not). The story begins in Philadelphia but shifts locales to cover events that went down in New York City, Detroit and Miami (Scorsese’s use of Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” for his establishing shot of Miami is so money I nearly plotzed).

A significant portion of the film involves Sheeran’s association with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a treat to savor De Niro and Pacino sharing so much screen time; a long-overdue pairing of acting titans that was comparatively teased at in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat.

I’m on the fence regarding Pacino’s take on Hoffa. It’s quite…demonstrative. Then again, Jimmy Hoffa was a larger-than-life character. Also, De Niro’s performance is relatively low-key, so perhaps it’s just their contrasting styles.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent…and populous. Stephen Graham (as “Tony Pro” Provenzano) is a standout (the always intense UK actor had a memorable recurring role as Al Capone in the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire).

The cast also includes Bobby Cannavale (another Boardwalk Empire alum) and Anna Paquin (as Sheeran’s eldest daughter). I didn’t recognize comedian Jim Norton (as Don Rickles) or musician (and Sopranos veteran) Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale until the credits!

Ultimately, the film belongs to (and hinges on) De Niro and his performance; and he does not disappoint. He and Scorsese have collaborated so closely for so many decades that it is hard to distinguish when one or the other’s aesthetic begins and the other one’s ends. Not that this collaboration signals the “the end” of either artist’s creative journey; if anything, it serves to remind movie audiences what real classical filmmaking is all about.

The filth and the funny: Dolemite Is My Name (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 2, 2019)

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When I was in the 6th Grade at Ft. Wainwright Junior High in Alaska, everyone in class was assigned to choose, memorize and recite a Robert Service poem (I’m assuming this is a uniquely Alaskan rite of passage…although I can’t speak for public school traditions in the Yukon Territories). As most Robert Service poems go on longer than the Old Testament, this is not a casual assignment. My choice… “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.

Then his lips went in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And “Boys,” says he, “you don’t know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I’ll bet my poke they’re true,
That one of you is a hound of hell…and that one is Dan McGrew.”

There’s a lot more to it, involving a gal named Lou and how this miner dude (“fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear”) gallivants into the local saloon like Rocky Racoon lookin’ for trouble but I think I probably chose it because it gave me an opportunity to work “blue” in front of the class without being admonished by the teacher.

Flash-forward to my junior year of high school. Specifically, that is when I bought an LP called Dolemite for President completely on a whim (OK…the somewhat prurient nature of the album cover and the fact that they kept it behind the counter may have initially piqued my interest). I was also really into comedy albums at the time, and the record store clerk assured me that this obscure comic Rudy Ray Moore was a laugh riot.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I smuggled it home (I definitely did not want my parents to see the album cover, and intuitively figured it would be wise to listen with headphones). The track list was intriguing; with cuts like “Dance of the Freaks”, “Farting Contest”, “Long Island Duck”, “Sit in Your Mama’s Lap” (you can ah…Google the rest).

Side 1 opens with Moore in character as presidential hopeful “Dolemite”, who gives an expletive-laden campaign speech touting his (very!) progressive platform (inspiration for Bullworth?) From a stylistic standpoint it was a fairly standard-issue standup monologue.

But the next cut, “Stack-A-Lee”, was…poetry.

Billy said “Stack? You’re takin’ my money, so get on your knees and pray
With your life…you’re gonna have to pay.”
Stack said “Billy…are you for real? I want you to listen, and listen well
I’m the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell!”

I wasn’t able to contextualize “why” at the time, but it somehow reminded me of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (although, the miner loaded for bear didn’t refer to himself as “the bad motherfucker that blows the devil out of hell” while calling out Dan Mcgrew).

Most bits on the album turned out to be in rhymes. Filthy, dirty rhymes. I laughed and laughed and became a Rudy Ray Moore fan. He was fresh and original; and his incorporation of long-form verse was more developed than “There once was a girl from Nantucket…” Like Redd Foxx meets The Last Poets (or Robert Service with Tourette’s).

Flash-forward 47 years (jeezus) and I’m doing background research for my review of the 2019 Moore biopic, Dolemite Is My Name. I was surprised to learn from the film that Moore’s rhyming style was not 100% “original”, after all. Rather, it was rooted in an African American oral tradition called “toasting” (not to be confused with “Here’s to your health!”). I came across this enlightening 2004 University at Buffalo news release:

“Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition,” a book collected and compiled by SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson of the University at Buffalo, is back for a second go ’round. […]

The book collects a popular form of African American literature and folk poetry known as “toasts.” For 30 years, it carried the reputation of a “stone cold classic,” mightily praised by critics, cultural historians, musicians, poets and general-interest readers alike. The book includes a new CD of Jackson’s original field recording of the toasts in the book.

“Toasts are just one aspect of a rich tradition of verbal arts in black culture,” Jackson says. “Public performance of rhyming verse has ancient African roots. And we see it now in rap and hip-hop, which are a mix of African American, Caribbean and several other traditions.

“Toasts are the starting point for rap,” he says, “both in the poetry itself and the way it was used and performed in public situations. As the novelist and former Buffalonian Ishmael Reed says, if you want to understand rap and hip-hop, you’ve got to understand toasts.”

The toasts featured in the book, says Jackson, come from various sources, including street corners, barber shops, bars and jails — “places young men hang around without much to do.”

Although Jackson says the stories told in these works can be personal and intimate — and he has heard blues lyrics and Robert Service poems recited as toasts — they generally celebrate a number of folkloric figures from African-American culture like “Stackolee,” the famed bad man said to have murdered a guy over a Stetson hat […]

Hmm. After reading that, I dug deeper. The first documented reference to a song called “Stack-a-Lee” (by “Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano-thumper”) was in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald in 1897. Robert Service published “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in 1907.

I don’t hold a degree in ethnomusicology or poetry, but it does raise a tantalizing possibility that Service, like Rudy Ray Moore, could have been inspired by traditional African-American toasts (all I have to do is tell the truth …and no one ever believes me).

Not that the subject of Robert Service (or his poems) ever arises in Dolemite Is My Name (running concurrently in theaters and on Netflix), but the film does impart everything you ever wanted to know (but were afraid to ask) about the late cult comedian and filmmaker.

The film was a labor of love for producer/star Eddie Murphy, who has been pitching a Moore biopic to studios for decades. Repeatedly thwarted by reticence of studio execs to green light a project about a relatively obscure entertainer, Murphy persisted until Netflix gave a nod. This adds nice symmetry to the film; as it mirrors Moore’s own perseverance.

Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film depicts how Moore (Murphy), a struggling middle-aged musician and standup eking out a living working at a Hollywood record store and moonlighting as a nightclub MC, found the “hook” that brought him notoriety.

Circa 1970, Moore begins to take “professional” interest in the storytelling skills of Ricco (Ron Cephus Jones) a wino who habitually panhandles at the record store. Ricco regales anyone who has change jangling in their pockets with the raunchy misadventures of a fictional pimp/badass named “Dolemite”. Ricco delivers his tales in the form of rhymes.

This gives Moore an epiphany; he dry-runs the “Dolemite” persona on stage one night, replete with pimp regalia, street attitude, and nasty toasts, and to his delight the audience eats it up. Word-of-mouth spreads, and the new-and-improved act makes him a local hit.

To capitalize on the unexpected career surge, Moore next sets sights on making “party records” that would surpass even the bawdiness of Redd Foxx, who at the time was one of the most popular “blue” acts that was releasing “adults only” comedy albums (although it’s not mentioned in the film, Moore had already released three traditional comedy LPs between 1959 and 1964). As he was still a relative unknown quantity outside of the African American community, Moore initially had to go the D.I.Y. route.

Once he was able to gain a wider fan base from his records, Moore decided to take it to the next logical step…the movies. The final two-thirds of Dolemite Is My Name focuses on the making of Moore’s first independent film, which was called (wait for it) Dolemite.

Bereft of studio backing or deep-pocketed investors, Moore finagles an abandoned L.A. hotel as a sound stage. He assembles a mostly amateur cast, hires some UCLA film students as crew, enlists a black consciousness-woke playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) as screenwriter, and sweet-talks an actor with some Hollywood credits named D’Urville Martin to be his director (played by a scenery-chewing Wesley Snipes).

Moore casts himself as the film’s eponymous hero, a kung-fu fighting badass pimp (this was the peak of the “blaxploitation” era, in case you hadn’t picked up on that) and his stage act partner/comedy foil Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) as his leading lady (made on a shoestring in 1975, every bit of Dolemite’s lack of funding and/or film-making prowess showed on the screen; nonetheless it did find an audience and became a surprise cult hit).

I was getting a strong whiff of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood while watching Brewer’s film. It immediately became clear as to “why” when I looked up Alexander and Karaszewski’s screenwriting credits and discovered Ed Wood to be among them (I’m a little slow sometimes-but I’m nothing if not intuitive).

While it doesn’t tell the complete story of Moore’s life, Dolemite Is My Name captures the essence of what he was about; mostly thanks to Murphy’s committed performance, which is the best work he has done in years.

Mind you, I wouldn’t file it under “good clean family fun”,  but Dolemite Is My Name is nonetheless an entertaining, upbeat, and affectionate portrait you won’t need to hide from your parents.

Blu-ray reissue: Backbeat (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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Backbeat – Shout! Factory Blu-ray

By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in their slick suits didn’t just pop out of Liverpool fully formed as such; they had already paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints. The most formative (and tumultuous) time for the band was the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period”, a series of gigs in Germany from 1960-1962.

Iain Softley’s 1994 drama is set during this period and lasers in on the close, volatile friendship between John Lennon (Ian Hart) and original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliff (Stephen Dorff). The film also delves into Sutcliff’s star-crossed relationship with a beautiful German hipster named Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), who is credited for inspiring the band’s signature “mop top” haircuts. Kircherr also encouraged Sutcliff to pursue his painting (he was much more accomplished as an artist than as a musician). Absorbing take on a fascinating and bittersweet chapter of the band’s history, with sensitive acting and direction.

Shout! Factory’s 2K transfer is sharp and audio is dynamic. Extras include commentary track by Iain Softley, Ian Hart, and Stephen Dorff.

I never sang for my father: Rocketman (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2019)

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So…Baz Luhrmann, Ken Russell, and Bob Fosse walk into a bar. Out pops Rocketman, an unabashedly over-the-top biopic about an unabashedly over-the-top superstar. And considering that it’s been unabashedly executive produced by said over-the-top superstar, it is surprisingly not so much a vanity piece as it is a self-abasing confessional.

With lots of singing, dancing, and jazz hands.

The eponymous astro-powered gentleman is Reginald Kenneth Dwight, aka Sir Elton Hercules John…pianist, singer-songwriter, balladeer, glam-rocker, pop star, composer, and a man prone (at times in his life) to drug-alcohol-sex-food and/or shopping addiction.

It is the latter iteration (a walking gestalt of coked-out, fucked-silly, booze-soaked, self-absorbed and over-pampered rock star excess) that the director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody) and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) present as the film opens.

In case we don’t glean that this troubled, troubled man is about to face his inner demons by going full confessional at an addict recovery meeting, Elton (Taron Egerton) makes a grand entrance with a world-weary plod down a long hallway, bedecked in a devil costume that recalls Tim Curry’s Mephistophelian creature in Legend. He looks…unwell.

The support group device is a launch pad; a flashback-generator enabling rocket man to blast off into inner space, access his drug-addled memory banks and reassess his life as a mashup of kitchen sink drama, lurid soap, Fosse musical and MTV video (fasten your seat belts, check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…it’s gonna be a bumpy night).

Rocket man’s earliest recollections roil through his psyche. We observe young Reggie (Matthew Illesley) constantly vying for attention from his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father (Steven Mackintosh). But alas, it is for naught; Dad is cold and distant as the moon and Mum is vain and self-absorbed (in one telling scene, Reggie is traumatized when he stumbles upon Mum and future stepdad having a shag in the back seat of a car).

In fact, it is his Gran (Gemma Jones) who becomes his nurturer (in real life, John was raised by his maternal grandparents). She is the one who encourages her daughter to invest in piano lessons for Reggie when he begins to demonstrate a natural ear for music early on (his Dad, despite being a trumpet player and a jazz fanatic, is oddly ambivalent).

[SFX: phonograph needle ripping across vinyl] A quick note, before I proceed. If you are a stickler for linear timelines, 100% historical accuracy, and such-abort this mission now. As I noted in my review of Fletcher (and Bryan Singer’s) biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody:

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So, when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kraken of pedantic angst. So, I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

And so, I was fully prepared, and therefore did not flinch (okay maybe I did twitch once or twice) when, for example, pre- “Elton” Reginald and his band launched into “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” a decade before he and Bernie Taupin actually co-wrote it.

Steel yourself for these anachronisms; a good portion of the songs are chosen to fit the scene, rather than the actual historical timeline. That said, since we’re (largely) talking the Elton John/Bernie Taupin catalog here…one could do worse for a movie soundtrack.

This turns out to be an effective device. For example, in my favorite music vignette, wherein Elton debuts the finished version of “Your Song” for writing partner Bernie (Jamie Bell), it lends a completely new and emotionally resonant subtext to a familiar tune. While I’ve heard the song 100s of times over the years, I’ve never considered the possibility (as the scene infers) that it’s Bernie’s way of telling Elton he loves him, but “just not like that” (which Bernie says to Elton, whilst gently deflecting a romantic pass).

My gift is my song
And this one’s for you

(Elton’s 2019 net worth is $500 million…a loving “gift” indeed, in the fullness of time).

In case you were wondering, not all of Elton’s romantic overtures are deflected; the film is open and honest regarding his sexuality. There is no “straight-washing” (which was a bone of contention regarding Fletcher and Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody). So, if Aunt Mabel is an Elton fan but maybe a little conservative, just a caveat that she is going to get the truth, the whole truth, and…oh fuck it. There’s gay sex, alright? Bring her-she’ll deal.

The film is fueled by Egerton’s knockout performance, which obfuscates a few “backstage drama” clichés. He’s also a terrific singer. He doesn’t mimic Elton’s voice, but does capture his essence (most of the songs are truncated or reconstructed anyway). Ultimately, it’s more musical fantasy than biopic. For just the facts, ma’am…read the Wiki entry. But if you’re up for singing, dancing and jazz hands…you’ll dig Rocketman.