Rocketman: Launch Failure [u]

In Walk the Line, a music producer tells an as-yet unrecognized Johnny Cash that he doesn’t need any more gospel songs.  Ready to dismiss him as another act doomed for failure, the producer asks Cash the following:

If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying,
and you had time to sing
One song people would remember before you’re dirt…
One song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth…
One song that would sum you up…
You telling me that’s the song you’d sing?
That same Jimmie Davis tune we hear on the radio all day?
About your peace within and how it’s real and how you’re gonna shout it?
Or would you sing something different?
Something real, something you felt?
Because I’m telling you right now…
that’s the kind of song people want to hear.
That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.
It ain’t got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash.
It has to do with believing in yourself.

With trepidation and little confidence, Johnny Cash then begins to sing one of the most powerful songs ever written in the history of rock or country, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

That is one big “AH HA!” moment.  The kind of moment that the weak, ineffectual Rocketman never gets within a country mile of.  And that is one of the keys to why, despite partial success as a musical, Rocketman is a broken movie.

As a drama, it fails utterly and completely. Compare to Love & Mercy, which as far as telling a story about love and finding happiness, stands as a minor masterpiece when viewed next to Rocketman.   As a biopic, Rocketman face-plants.  I.e., it’s a disaster.  Even the supposed alcoholism of Elton John – low-hanging fruit – is mangled badly.

On top of all that: with all the music included, there is but a scant brush of “Candle in the Wind, ” and omission entirely of the obvious “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Funeral for a Friend”/”Love Lies Bleeding,” and “Levon”. There’s no rule that you have to include songs A, B, C, D.  I have no problem including lesser songs to tell your story.  I have no problem taking your own approach to the story.  But if you’re going to do that, the result has got to be a lot better than Rocketman.  Generously: a low 5/10

Comparison Notes: Crazy Heart, Shine, Walk the LineGet on Up, Love & Mercy, Ray, Amadeus, The Doors: “Let me tell you story about heartache, and loss of God” — and does he ever

UPDATE 7/1/19: I don’t know why I was being generous before.  5/10 felt wrong the moment I typed it. This movie’s got some good music, naturally, but it peeved me.  4/10

A Toasty Cold War

I went into Cold War hoping to receive some limited salvation from this abysmal year in movies at the hand of Paweł Pawlikowski, the director of Ida, one of the best movies of the last 10 years.  Something, maybe, to eke out at least a Top 5 of 2018.  No such luck.

The problem is that despite the magnetism of the femme fatale Joanna Kulig, the movie is a narrative jumble, especially in the latter half as transitions from one stage to the next seem unfounded and disingenuous.  I wasn’t entirely buying the love story at the heart of the movie either — the chemistry did not work 100%.

I BLAME AMAZON

For all the narrative issues, I blame Amazon, not the director.  Bezos didn’t stick his fingers in Ida, and the result was a lot better.

The dreaded square-frame-for-no-reason rears its ugly head again too.  It was not at all distracting here, but unlike with Ida, it did not seem to add anything either.  Nonetheless, I liked the singing, I liked the music, and I liked the dancing.  All very nice.  There were some luminous moments to be certain.  And the star’s magnetism throughout, even if she’s a bit spoiled.  The post-war Polish setting provided some edification as well.  And finally, maybe I’m giving someone too much credit, but I think there’s a clever double entendre with the title as a cherry on top.  7/10

Comparison Notes: the aforementioned Ida4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 DaysLa Dolce Vita, Barbara, Wings of Desire, Under the Skin, A Star Is Born (2018), La La Land, Leviathan, Blue Valentine

Film Brief: Anna and the Apocalypse

A yawner.  Too boring; not enough originality.  It’s heart is in the right place, and there’s a very mild chuckle or two, but there is no reason for this movie.

A big problem was the fairly uninspired music.  Somehow the singing seemed disconnected from the action in a way that did not afflict La La Land or Rock of Ages.  Music was clearly performed in a studio separate from the action, and the two could never quite hook up — so an ‘F’ for sound design / engineering.  3/10

Comparison Notes: Zombieland, Fido, the aforementioned La La Land and Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia, Les Misérables

Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

la-la-land-poster

I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

 * * *

Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

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la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

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UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

Friday (Mostly) Fun Flick: Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect - poster

Pitch Perfect makes no pretense at any sort of originality.  You might generously call it a mashup of similar-genre films such as Bring It On, 8 Mile, and The House Bunny.  So we have a mashup movie full of mashup songs — a mashup squared if you like.  Not so generously, you could call it a straight but weak rip-off of Bring It On — just swap out cheerleading with a cappella singing and lower the directing skill and production value a few pegs.

Pitch Perfect begins by throwing you right into a singing competition, and rushes choppily forward.  In a way it’s refreshing, but there’s also a lack of narrative ability here.  Luckily, that’s not what this movie is about.  Though utterly contrived, Pitch Perfect admits it.  It knows what it’s about: fun singing performances and scattered light Pitch Perfect - text blockcomic moments, some better than others.  As a comedy it only half succeeds — largely based on the affection we have toward Anna Kendrick & Co., but whenever the actors sing, so does the movie.

So judging it strictly as a musical, Pitch Perfect is not nearly the success of Rock of Ages, but by spending enough of the running time in song, it succeeds.  Jersey Boys failed because it didn’t focus on the music.  Despite its narrative shortcomings, Pitch Perfect succeeds by knowing what it is: a musical.  Just wish it had been as completely entertaining as Kendrick’s “Cups” video.  Now available via iTunes rental.  6/10

Flashdance Flashback

Flashdance poster - medium

Sundance HD has been airing Flashdance (1983) recently, which certainly puts the iconic 80’s hit in a new light.  Though it was one of my favorite films when it came out, the best viewing I could muster in my formative years was via VHS tape and 19″ Sony Trinitron.  55″ HD makes a big difference.

I was so impressed with what I saw that I considered a “Cinematic Greats” post.  Then I watched a little more and realized how meaningless that category would become once I threw Flashdance in with the likes of Bound, Fargo, and After Dark, My Sweet.  There is obvious cheese in no short quantity here — including the watered-down, Rocky-based plot — and Michael Nouri as the male lead is an absolute hack.

But the spirited dance numbers, original music, and Jennifer Beals’ winsome performance push it into positive territory.  I agree with the criticism out there, but when I see a Tomatometer rating of 33% while Blade Runner sits at 91% and is considered by many to be among the greatest of all films, well, that’s backwards-world.

Despite its flaws, Flashdance holds its place in the pantheon of iconic 80’s pictures, and, as such, is highly recommended and essential viewing — just make sure to watch in HD, and with decent sound.

Once Is Enough

Once - poster large

ON AMERICAN IDOL THIS WEEK, I happened to catch a snippet of one of the hopeful singers performing a lovely song, and so kept tuned in long enough to recognize the source: an original piece from the Irish indie Once (2007), which I had just seen a couple nights prior.  Fortuitous I caught that, as this year’s Idol bored me out of the gate — it seems they’ve done away with the humorously awful tryouts that always made the first several episodes of the show so fun.  So I’ve done my best to avoid the show this season.

Why fortuitous?  Because it allowed me to reach a better understanding of this special little movie.  Upon watching it, I felt a little let down.  It’s basically a broke boy (“Guy”)-meets-broke immigrant girl (“Girl”) tale that we’ve all seen before, with the main storyline distinction being that the characters both have considerable musical talent, and are both tied away from each-other in such a way as to make difficult the development of any romance.

Once - still

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as “Guy” and “Girl”

The story is handled here and there in a contrived, clichéd way, and there are problems with some of the musical numbers sounding un-‘live’ — some of the supposedly live performances seemed to me like overt studio productions.  For example, a scene in which “Girl” walks down the street singing with headphones must have been recorded in studio; there is a sonic quality which does not mesh with the picture.  This problem I found distracting at times, though I imagine a lot of viewers might not notice the discord at all.  In fact, it may just be that the movie did not play well on my stereo — but that’s all I have to go by.  Another issue: I am generally very good at picking up on thick dialects, as long as the language is English.  But there were times in this film when I actually had to turn on captioning to figure out an important word here or there.

* * *

You might think by all I’ve said that I didn’t like Once, but that’s not at all the case.  The obvious comparison here is last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis [prior post], which did not have any issues with sound recording.  So why is Once such a better movie?  One key element is the music.  Whether or not the songs had an occasional unwarranted ‘studio’ sound, it was nonetheless lovely, original, compelling music.  The music of Once is what really sets it apart — indeed, its theme song won the Oscar that year.

The budding, yearning romantic friendship, portrayed with excellent acting by all involved, is the other strength of this movie.  I wish more had been done with the story — at a brief 86 minutes, this is one of the few times I would have liked to have seen a longer film — but what is there is golden.  There is undeniable chemistry between “Guy” and “Girl”, and watching it play out on screen was a pleasure.  7/10

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Comparison Notes: Recommended: Les Misérables, Walk The Line, Rock of Ages, Shine, Ever AfterSearching for Sugar Man, Crazy HeartMy Name Is JoeBlue Valentine (street scene with guitar); Not Recommended: Inside Llewyn Davis