What delights lie in store for us in June’s crop of movie reviews? Well, how does Rocketman, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of Monsters, Booksmart, I Am Mother, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix grab you?
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Elton John has never been a an artist I ever reach for, for reasons I don’t think I’d examined until the release of this film. I think it’s because at the time my musical tastes were developing and, let’s be honest, ossifying, Elton was bashing out saccharine drivel like Candle in the Wind and Circle of Life, which I’d be pleased to never hear again, thank you so very much. Perhaps somewhere in my mind was a vague appreciation of some of his earlier work, but in general, the amount of brain cycles I devote to Elton John in a typical year is zero. Therefore, not all that fussed about a film that chronicles his rise to stardom and subsequent collapse into a pile of drugs.
Yet, that’s what I watched in Rocketman, with Taron Egerton wearing the comical shades of the showman in later years, although we’re also looking at his early life – the discovery of his talent for the piano and a family life that’s at best cold, particularly from his idiothole of a father. We jump around in time through the framing device of an addict’s support group, where he relates his life story in typically fabulous regalia, through his songwriting pairing with Jamie Bell’s Bernie Taupin and romantic pairing with Richard Madden’s John Reid, the huge success that came with breaking into the American market, and how he turned to drugs and casual sex to deal with the pressure of all of this. That, at least, is it in a nutshell, if you want more detail there’s plenty of wikipedia articles on Elton’s life.
It is not, by any measure, a complete history of his life, nor an entirely accurate one. The usual cinematic shortcuts have been made, but I read an article by John in the Guardian where he says this has the emotional truth of it, at least, and I’m inclined to believe it. It’s not sugar coating or minimising any of his less than exemplary behaviour, or how he was treating other people and himself at his lowest. So, not unvarnished, exactly, but a light coating at worst.
It does have a good amount of charm, and Egerton is very good in the lead role. It weaves the best of John’s early career songs into the narrative in as organic a way as you’re going to get for this sort of thing, and I found it to be a surprising amount of fun. In that regard it’s a lot like Bohemian Rhapsody, except without having to ignore the whole sexual assault of a minor thing. And indeed in Dexter Fletcher, the films shares an unofficial director after Singer went to ground at the tail end of filming. The boy from Press Gang done good.
Whatever else Walt Disney was, proven or alleged, he was, undeniably, an artist, and cared about the films that his studio produced. The corporation that bears his name, though, is a different matter entirely. Long before its current cultural hegemony, Disney had shown itself to be perhaps the West’s single greatest stifler of innovation and artistic expression, with its corporation-friendly, artist-antagonistic pursuit of ever more restrictive copyright legislation having an undeniably deleterious effect on art and culture.
However, there have always been artists working within and under Disney’s auspices and the studio has continued to produce beloved animations, almost in spite of itself. Beloved, that is, unless you are me, as I think Disney’s crap. There are exactly three Disney films I like, with perhaps another three I have some fondness for. Why this is a problem we will get to shortly.
Disney long ago abdicated stewardship for the artistic integrity of its intellectual property, and its current kick of producing live action remakes or re-imaginings of its animated classics isn’t much different from its behaviour for decades, though I will say that, a general distaste for remakes aside, this current trend is much preferable to the interminable second and third-rate direct to video/DVD/streaming dreck with which the name Disney was sullied, though with not one but two streaming video services to fill I suspect we’ve not yet seen the back of those.
So what’s my point? Good question, and I’m kind of wondering myself. But it’s probably to do with Aladdin, the second of THREE live action adaptations Disney is putting out this year alone, after Tim Burton’s woeful Dumbo earlier this year, and The Lion King which will drop in just a couple of weeks. Now Aladdin, see, is one of those three Disney animations I actually like, and having been largely let down already by an adaptation of one of the other two, 2016’s The Jungle Book, I was apprehensive.
If you’ve seen the animated Aladdin then you know how this film goes as, apart from fleshing out the character of Jasmine a little, this is largely identical to the original in the broad sweeps, with only the details being different. If you’ve not, then it’s a fairly classic tale of boy with monkey meets girl with tiger, boy with monkey uses magical blue man to win heart of girl with tiger, and nasty man with parrot tries to ruin everything, and in the end boy with monkey learns important lesson about true self. With songs and elephants. All directed by Guy Ritchie.
The biggest issue I have with 2019’s Aladdin is casting, and I suppose we should first address the elephant in the room, or at least the magical blue fella who turns a monkey into an elephant in the room. Will Smith really faced a thankless task as the genie: not only was Robin Williams a beloved actor, his turn as the genie in the 1992 animation was similarly beloved and really quite iconic, so there was simply no way, no matter how good his performance, that he could ever escape the shadow of the late Williams. The revelation, then, is that while he’s clearly no Robin Williams, and really he can’t sing all that well, Will Smith is the best thing about the film, and by a margin. The film, which had been treading water until then, comes alive when the genie is introduced about half way through, and his charm and comic delivery, while not flawless, lifts everything around it.
Elsewhere things are not so rosy. For all of the busy marketplaces and the royal court, Aladdin has six characters of any impact or importance. It should have seven, but Gilbert Gottfried’s Iago has become just a dumb bird, though Abu fortunately fares somewhat better. I’ve mentioned Genie, so that leaves four. The actors playing Aladdin and Jasmine, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, are both pretty (table stakes, of course) and they can carry a tune but they don’t radiate charisma. They’re fine, but no more. Navid Negahban’s sultan is a bit of damp squib. While the animated counterpart was a bumbling oaf, this version is… there? I kept imagining him being played by Nadim Sawalha, and that seemed much better casting to my mind.
But we come now to absolutely the biggest problem of the film: the villain. Jafar is a grand vizier, a term nigh-on synonymous with “cackling megalomaniac”. The portrayal of such a character can even be over the top, a pantomime villain (it’s perhaps even preferable), or calls for whoever the Iraqi equivalent of Charles Dance is. Marwin Kenzari’s Jafar, however, is a complete non-entity, a milquetoast villain so insipid and unengaging that he threatens to derail the whole enterprise.
On the whole Aladdin is at best alright, though it does have its moments and there are enough fun numbers or comic scenes sprinkled throughout (the Prince Ali set piece and the jam scene being the highlights) to keep it moving and ensure a passable level of entertainment. Had Will Smith not been in such good form, though, then this could have ended very differently.
The big issue I have at the end is: why? And it’s a weary why, a why to which I, and everyone, already knows the answer: money. Well, money and a lack of imagination or willingness to take a risk. The original, animated, Aladdin wasn’t done in cartoon form because the technology didn’t exist to successfully make it another way, it was made that way because it’s a specific art form, one on which the studio was founded. Also, cartoons, especially ones set a millennium ago, don’t age. But exist it does and you could certainly do worse with your time than watch Aladdin 2019, even if doing so potentially encourages this sort of nonsense.
Godzilla: King of Monsters
Gather round, children, as I relate unto thee the complex and labyrinthine plot of Godzilla 2, as it was called on some posters in a cruel mockery of all known counting systems – there am some monsters, and they do fights and that. 7/10.
Hmm, okay. There’s a little more to it, but none of it is why you’d watch a monster flick. Namely them there humans, scurrying about like they are in some way more interesting than skyscraper size monsters suplexing each other. Humans like Vera Farmiga’s Dr. Emma Russell, a scientist for the shadowy Titan studying group Monarch who goes off the reservation and, alongside ecoterrorist and, to be honest, afterthought, Charles Dance’s Alan Jonah, sets about freeing all the known Titans across the world in the hopes this will wind humanity’s neck in a little, and allow the planet to recover.
What remains of Monarch attempts to stop this, with a personal interest for Kyle Chandler’s Dr. Mark Russell, estranged husband of Emma dealing with the collateral loss of one of his kids in the last Godzilla attack, leaving him ill-disposed to the big fella, now worried about the safety of Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell, currently on the lam with her mother.
There’s also some talk about a device that communicates / controls Titans, a thistle whistle I think it was called, but this is a film where Ken Watanabe climbs an underwater Mayan temple to offer a nuclear missile to a dinosaur god, so maybe science isn’t exactly the strongest suit the film has to offer and we should nod politely and move on.
Indeed, had this film been approached by Michael Dougherty in the same manner as Gareth Edwards’ boring Godzilla, it would have been a dumpster fire. That film was either ashamed it was a Kaiju movie, so often did it hide away its star and only attraction, or else taking entirely the wrong lesson from horror movie monsters. This, while still having more human interaction than is strictly necessary or advisable, does at least deliver more on the monsters knocking lumps out of each other front.
The visual stylings may be a bit Marmitey, I suppose, but I was rather fond of the various atmospheric conditions that provide a bit of a more dramatic backdrop for action than sunny blue skies, and I think it delivers well on those battle scenes enough for me to like this an awful lot – easily more than the first (not first) Godzilla, or Kong: Skull Island, or Shin Godzilla for that matter.
It’s a long way from perfect – you’re going to have to tune out a lot of very poorly sketched or motivated humans bumbling about to really enjoy this, but it caught me in the correct frame of mind, I suppose. I had few expectations, and this exceeded them.
Films set in US high schools tend to bother me, as they are almost invariably utterly alien places filled with twenty year olds, at least half of whom will be absolutely loaded.
Debut director Olivia Wilde’s coming of age comedy Booksmart is set in a high school filled with 22-23 year olds (and the odd almost thirty year old), several of whom are loaded and who behave in that completely alien and unrelatable way that US high school students do, at least on film. This worried me at first, but it turns out that Booksmart is basically Superbad with girls, and I’m fine with that.
There really isn’t much of a plot: best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have devoted themselves entirely to schoolwork, eschewing parties and other extra-curricular fun, but when they discover the day before graduation that, contrary to their assumptions, the people who went to the parties and had fun also did well in school they try to fit in several years’ worth of missed socialising into one craaaazzzyy night.
There are fallings-out, truth-tellings, new experiences and everything else you would expect from such a film. The praise for the film has been fulsome and ebullient and while much of it is hyperbolic it is a fun, funny and kind hearted film that I can absolutely recommend. Much of this is due to the chemistry between the leads, who became as close on set as their characters are in the film. An energetic soundtrack (which pleased me no end by featuring Handsome Boy Modeling School’s Holy Calamity) and music by Dan the Automator helps things along, even if it is a little prescriptive at times.
First time director Wilde produces a remarkably cohesive film from a script by four screenwriters, and while the themes of not judging people and treating people with respect are both somewhat heavy handed and obvious, its heart is absolutely in the right place and there’s plenty of humour throughout. Definitely one to check out.
I Am Mother
It’s another Netflix science fiction film! Wait, no, come back! It might not be another Mute, or Cloverfield Paradox, or The Titan. It might be another Annihilation, or… okay, the odds aren’t good, I admit.
In an Fallout-esque vault, a robot we’ll come to know as Mother, voiced by Rose Byrne, hatches a human eggchild, who will in the fullness of time grow up to become Clara Rugaard’s Daughter. There’s been an extinction level event of some non-specific contagion, maybe, we’re told, or alluded to, at least, and Mother seeks to raise a new generation of earthlings in the safety of the sealed vault. Daughter is the practice run, so to speak, before hatching a new batch.
As such, Daughter is being trained in the difficult areas of philosophy and empathy, and will be tested on her progress. Just for fun, you understand. Nothing sinister at all. However the equilibrium of the vault is thrown when a strange Woman appears at the door, in the shape of Hilary Swank’s, er, Woman. Look, names are a thing you can use, script.
She brings with her tales on robots ran amok, killing people, and agitates for Daughter leaving this facility immediately, and, well, I suppose the rest should be given spoiler warnings, but it’s a science fiction film with artificial intelligence. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
However, it’s a well enough written film, combined with a spiky turn from Swank, that did at least have me thinking that it might be about to be doing something a little less obvious in places, before, well, not doing that. You could perhaps argue that the rational for the AI’s action gets a fairer shake here, but it’s not moving too far away from the genre tropes.
You can draw a straight line between a few influences here, taking a bit of Moon and a lot of Ex Machina, but they’re all good wells to draw from, and I Am Mother winds up a net positive with solid performances, a decent enough story that in the end perhaps doesn’t quite fully actualise its intriguing first third set up, and some very decent production design.
It’s nothing like as intriguing as Annihilation, but it’s much closer to it in terms of quality than another Mute. So, that’s nice.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
A family drive down a quiet road sometime in the 1970s while the troubled but powerful child in the back seat has some sort of episode, causing the car to crash spectacularly. The child in the back seat doesn’t grow up to be Mark Strong in Shazam!, however, but Jean Grey, which threw me as I have definitely seen almost exactly this opening gambit already this year.
Fast forward to the 1990s and, after receiving a direct call from the US president (on the special “X-phone” that is absolutely not a Batphone), James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier despatches the X-Men into space to rescue the astronauts aboard a stricken NASA space shuttle. While the rescue is successful, Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey is imbued/infected/implanted with some sort of mystical space stuff that makes her go a bit scatty.
A bunch of shape-shifting aliens land on Earth shortly after the X-Men return, where one of them takes on the identity of Jessica Chastain’s “person in clothes, with hair”, and they seek out Jean because they want the mystical magical space stuff so they can conquer Earth and create a new home for themselves after the space stuff destroyed their last home. Or something.
At the same time Jean is lashing out at her friends, killing one of them and causing a few to get a bit pissed and want to kill her, and she’s dangerous and angry and powerful, until she isn’t and suddenly they have to band together again to fight Jessica Chastain’s totally a character, honest.
The fact that its ending had to be hurriedly reshot because its original space-based super magic woman finale was too similar to Captain Marvel may have played into its favour as the confined setting for its showdown is definitely more interesting, but the climactic moment very much left me feeling “is… is that it?”
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a spectacularly underwhelming film that somehow manages to be worse than X-Men: The Last Stand, though not in its entirety as it, for instance, scores a solid win for a complete absence of Vinnie Jones.
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