Rocketman (2019)

2020 #3
Dexter Fletcher | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Rocketman

The director and star of Eddie the Eagle reunite for another biopic of a bespectacled British icon… though I’m not sure how favourable global music megastar Elton John would consider that comparison.

Both films concern a regular lad from a working-class background who dreams of something bigger — in Eddie’s case, Olympic glory; in Elton’s, music stardom. But that’s more or less where the films diverge, because whereas Eddie’s ski jumping adventure was rendered as a family-friendly comedy, Elton’s seduction by sex and drugs and rock and roll is altogether more adult. But it’s also a world away from grim and gritty seriousness, because director Dexter Fletcher regularly injects flights of fancy and fantasy. Elton may end up in a very dark place (before inevitable salvation, natch), but it’s a helluva lot of fun getting there.

In my review of the year before’s big musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody — which Fletcher ended up guiding through a third of its shoot and post-production after credited helmsman Bryan Singer was fired — I wondered which director was responsible for that film’s “occasional bold directorial flourishes”. On the evidence of Rocketman, I’d guess they were Fletcher’s idea. His staging and camerawork are often highly imaginative here, really cutting loose during the musical numbers. (Fletcher’s next job is taking over the Sherlock Holmes films from Guy Ritchie, a task that certainly requires the kind of visual panache he’s demonstrated here.)

Piano man

Indeed, this isn’t just “a film about music”, but a proper musical. It isn’t just a simplistic jukebox musical either, nor a standard musician biopic where the character performs some of their hits. Well, it is both of those — it’s a jukebox musical because all the songs are from Elton’s back catalogue (plus one new one so it could vie for the Oscar, of course), and the character of Elton John does perform some of his hits in recording studios and on concert stages. But it’s also more than that in the way it’s executed. Other characters break into song from time to time too, and there are clever reimaginings of several recognisable tracks. This is a restlessly imaginative movie.

Egerton is superb in the lead role, crafting Elton as a much more nuanced figure than he’s sometimes regarded; a truly rounded individual with a considered interior life. One might argue the whole drugs storyline is somewhat predictable or even rote, with some surprising mirrors of the much-criticised Bo Rhap (“surprising” because where that film was roundly criticised for its clichés this has received a much more generous critical response)… but if that’s the true story, that’s the true story, right? Egerton certainly negotiates it with believability. Much praise for the film has focused on his performance, leading to significant awards nominations (like at BAFTA) and wins (a Golden Globe), but there are several great supporting players too, not least Jamie Bell as Elton’s lifelong songwriter and true friend, Bernie Taupin.

The cumulative effect is a movie that is highly enjoyable but not without depth; that offers toe-tapping entertainment and filmmaking thrills in its musical numbers, while also digging into its subject’s troubles and their causes. Like an eagle, or a rocket, it doesn’t just fly, it soars.

5 out of 5

Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

Fantastic Four (2015)

2016 #110
Josh Trank | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic FourSometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about, even if that fuss is overwhelmingly negative. Obviously that’s the case with the most recent attempt to bring Marvel’s popular “first family” to the big screen. The behind-the-scenes stories are already the stuff of movieland legend, so I won’t repeat them here, but what of the film itself? Or the version that ended up available for public consumption, anyway.

Reimagining the group’s origins, the film sees young genius scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) recruited to a research institute where he works with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her adoptive brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the precocious and rebellious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to develop a teleport to another world, Planet Zero. When the device is proven to work, the institute’s supervisor rules astronauts will get to take the maiden voyage. Annoyed, the scientists rope in Reed’s childhood friend Ben (Jamie Bell) to help them use it first. But things go horrendously awry, leaving the gang with new abilities…

That chunk of the story takes most of the first hour. Other than being a little slow getting to the point, considering most viewers know where it’s all going, and perhaps not building the characters’ relationships as thoroughly as it could have, I thought it was shaping up as a pretty decent film. It’s not a mind-blowing masterpiece, and it’s certainly not faithful to the original comic, but as a sci-fi movie? It’s good. Not incredible, but good. Well, aside from one truly terrible reshoot wig.

Then the story suddenly jumps forward a whole year, and things go to pot. From that point the film’s ideas aren’t bad, but it feels like the movie was ripped apart and put back together awkwardly, with parts missing, some out of order, and other bits added to cover gaps Awkwardly assembledand serve as new pieces — like a shattered mug that’s been reassembled with lashings of superglue and using a handle from another vessel, which has inexplicably wound up a slightly different size and shape to how it used to be. Considering the studio got cold feet and insisted on massive reshoots, this is quite possibly exactly what happened.

It climaxes with a rushed action sequence on Planet Zero, which was clearly constructed entirely during reshoots (the constant presence of Reshoot Wig gives that away, if nothing else). The speed with which it’s dispatched makes it feel anticlimactic, despite the alleged world-destroying scale, and mainly leaves you wondering how the film originally ended. When it’s done, the heroes return to Earth and triumphant music swells… as they survey a scene of total devastation. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through. There are still more signs of a rushed production: the CGI used to realise the Thing is pretty good for most of the film, but an unbearably cheesy final scene looks like a poorly-composited unfinished draft. Allowing such a rushed, underfunded, and heavily reshot final act to be released feels amateurish on Fox’s part.

While the studio are obviously keen to blame director Josh Trank for all the film’s problems, and possibly sink his career in the process, I can’t help but think it’s their own fault. It was they who chose to commission a “dark and serious” take on the Four, at odds with their usual depiction, but then wimp out and not follow through on the directorial vision they’d chosen. Despite what some fans would say, it’s this lack of commitment that’s the actual problem. Even in the face of the success of the lighter-toned Marvel Studios movie universe, Too cool for superhero schoolFox like to keep their superhero movies Serious and Dark — and why not? Before this, it had worked pretty well for them across seven X-Men movies, while their colourful-and-cheery earlier attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen met with unwavering derision and diminishing box office. It was not an illogical choice to try something different tonally.

In the end, however, this version crashed and burned even harder than those earlier films, both with fans and at the box office. Meanwhile, the latest X-Men movie was similarly ripped asunder by critics and has only performed acceptably; and concurrently, superhero comedy Deadpool took the world by storm. Perhaps this will create a sea-change in the way Fox approach their superhero properties? Only time will tell — though with Deadpool 2 set to offer more of the same and a Wolverine threequel following in its R-rated footsteps, while another X-Men movie is surely in development but not officially announced and the planned Fantastic Four sequels have been quietly cancelled, perhaps it already is.

Fantastic Four’s real problems are twofold: deviating so heavily from the original comic book, which meant from the outset that an awful lot of fanboys were always going to hate it; and then not having the confidence to see that vision through, titting about with things in post. The latter results in a mess of a second half where the whole thing unravels. It’s not perfect before that, but it’s a decent sci-fi movie. I’d love to see Trank’s original cut — I’m not sure it would be a great film, and I’m damn sure it still wouldn’t properly resemble the Fantastic Four of Marvel’s comics, but I bet it would be a lot more consistent than this, and consequently better.

Beam of blue light shooting into the sky? Never seen that before...What could have been a comfortable 3-star movie, maybe even 4 if it followed through well enough, is dragged down to 2 by studio meddling. Will they never learn? Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed enough of Fantastic Four that, while it won’t be going on the long-list of contenders for the best movies I’ve seen this year, I won’t be putting it on the list for the worst either.

2 out of 5

The Eagle (2011)

2015 #60
Kevin Macdonald | 106 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Hungary / English & Scottish Gaelic | 12 / PG-13

The EagleChanning Tatum is a brave Roman general whose father lost his company’s standard, the titular eagle, north of Hadrian’s Wall (a real historic event, coincidentally depicted in Centurion). Determined to reclaim his family’s honour, he ventures north with slave Jamie Bell to attempt to retrieve it.

Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth, director Kevin Macdonald’s film is, perhaps surprisingly, almost leisurely paced, as much about mood as it is about action. Big fights and battles clearly aren’t the film’s goal or forte, though an early sequence where Roman forces battle druids outside the fort Tatum commands is excellently done. Conversely, it makes the last-stand climax feel a little underwhelming, even somewhat anticlimactic in its briefness.

Between the two battles, Macdonald has made almost an understated second-century buddy movie, as Tatum and Bell trek across the North, bonding — or not — as they encounter the locals. Personally, I rate both of these actors (Tatum, a little to my surprise, has really grown on me this year), so the focus on their cautiously-trusting, always-uncertain relationship worked for me. However, the movie’s real strength lies in how incredible it looks, with rich cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle that shows off some dramatic scenery, shot on location in Scotland and Hungary. When the duo reach a far-north tribal camp, there’s an edge-of-the-world — indeed, almost other-worldly — Sceneryquality to the setting, characters, and imagery that’s quite striking.

The Eagle is a little more thoughtful and measured than you might expect from a PG-13 adaptation of a children’s adventure novel. Clearly a movie that doesn’t meet with all tastes, it has a number of strong qualities that did mesh with mine.

4 out of 5

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

2014 #134
Steven Spielberg | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn1981: Steven Spielberg reads a French review of his movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. His high-school-level French serves him well enough, although there’s repeated use of one word he doesn’t know: Tintin.

25 years later: Spielberg has been struggling to make a film version of Hergé’s character for quarter of a century. While developing a live-action version that would feature actors under heavy prosthetics so as to resemble their comic book counterparts, he realises Tintin’s famous dog, Snowy, will need to be computer generated. He reaches out to Peter Jackson and Weta, fresh off their ground-breaking work on The Lord of the Rings. Their test footage is so successful, it gives Spielberg another idea…

2011: after 30 years, Spielberg finally brings the boy reporter to the big screen as a motion-captured animation. Reviews and public reception are mixed, particularly in the US, but they’re all daft because The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is bloody brilliant.

Combining events from three of Hergé’s original albums, the story sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchase a model ship that is highly desired by the mysterious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). A riddle hidden inside the model sets the ever-inquisitive reporter on a quest to find out what nefarious deeds Sakharine is planning, along the way bumping into drunkard Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who holds the key to the entire mystery. Cue a globetrotting adventure that, yes, is very much in the Indiana Jones mould.

Tintin and HaddockApparently some Tintin purists weren’t so keen on the actual adaptation — elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws have been mixed in to a plot primarily taken from The Secret of the Unicorn, the sequel/second half of which, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is reportedly used sparingly. Plus, in the original tale Sakharine is a minor character who wasn’t responsible for much, apparently. As someone who’s only read one of those three volumes, and even then not since I was young, such things didn’t trouble me. What superstar screenwriters Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat, Edgar “Cornetto trilogy” Wright and Joe “Attack the Block” Cornish have captured is the spirit of Tintin: an engrossing mystery-adventure, laced with gentle satire and smidgens of slapstick comedy, but with real stakes and peril too.

A talented cast are up to the task. Bell adopts a posh-ish accent for the titular hero, and while some of the accusations of blandness aren’t wholly misplaced, he’s plucky and determined enough to make for an appealing lead. The king of mo-cap, Serkis, is able support as Haddock, while Craig makes for a very effective villain — I hope his post-Bond career, whenever that arrives, sees him playing villainous roles more often. Interestingly, it was his mannerisms that have survived the animation process the most. I mean it in an entirely non-critical way when I say every other character could have any actor behind the mo-cap baubles, but Sakharine’s face and body move with all the recognisable movements and expressions of his actor.

Of course he can't talk, he's a dogThe slapstick is mainly hoisted by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the physically-identical Thomson and Thompson — a true advantage of animation, that. I imagine some find their parts tiresome because of their inherently comic role, but they’re likeable versions of the characters. Even more joyous is Snowy, though. Well, I would like him, wouldn’t I? His internal monologue, such a memorable part of Hergé’s books, is omitted (as it is from every film version to date, I believe), but he’s full of character nonetheless. Some of the best sequences involve Snowy running in to save the day. I don’t think they quite got the animation model right (the one glimpsed in test footage included in behind-the-scenes featurettes looks better, for my money), but his characterisation overcomes that.

Bit of an aside, but I think there’s something notable about almost everyone mentioned so far: Moffat, Wright, Cornish, Bell, Serkis, Craig, Pegg, Frost… All British. I know that’s because we’re awesome ‘n’ all, but I think it’s also indicative of Tintin’s status in the English-speaking world — which more or less boils down to “unknown in America”, but also “pretty darn popular in Britain”. At least Spielberg, the man who wanted to cast an American as Harry Potter, seems to know this (further evidence: they’ve hired another British screenwriter for the sequel). For whatever reason, Tintin has never clicked in America, while the books remain very popular over here. It therefore feels like there’s a better chance for the films’ fidelity by using Brits (who have the correct tone and style almost ingrained) than by using people coming to the stories entirely for the first time, and perhaps bringing a more generic blockbuster sensibility. On the other hand, this might just be a horribly xenophobic way of interpreting a coincidental appearance by so many Brits in key roles — after all, Tintin’s Belgian, so it’s not like using Brits is “true to source”.

Action directionOf course, one very important person is neither British nor Belgian: Spielberg. The screenplay’s balance between peril and comedy is spotlessly enhanced by his peerless direction. In a world stuffed to the gills with lesser blockbusters that palely imitate the groundwork Spielberg and co laid in the ’70s and ’80s, work like this should remind people why he’s still the master of the form. The film is shot with an eye for realism (so much so that some viewers have been convinced it was filmed on real locations with real actors, with some CG augmentation for the cartoonish faces, of course), which helps lend a sense of plausibility and also genuine jeopardy. It’s easy to get carried away when working in CG animation, but often the most impressive works are ones that behave as if they’ve been shot largely within the limitations of real-world filmmaking technology.

That said, Spielberg isn’t afraid to make use of the freedom afforded by working in a computer-generated realm when appropriate: there are some spectacular individual shots, the most obvious being a single-take chase sequence down a hillside through a town. Even better are some of the transitions, which would be literally impossible to realise in live-action — without resorting to effects work, anyway. They’re hard to accurately describe, especially without ruining them, in part because each instance is different; but they do all look incredible, and, again, serve the story rather than being flashy for the sake of it.

It always went ok on Flight Simulator...The tone on the whole is resolutely PG — actually, like many an action-adventure blockbuster used to be before everything went slightly darker and PG-13. So, for example, Tintin wields a gun on occasion, but never at another human being. The focus is on the story, which happens to lead to some adrenaline-pumping sequences, rather than a lightweight excuse to link together a bunch of punch-ups and chases. Ironically (though, for anyone who knows what they’re talking about, entirely expectedly) this makes the action all the more exciting. It also mean there’s a lighter touch than many current blockbusters offer; a greater presence for humour, including among the action. I guess that’s not fashionable these days, when everyone’s become so po-faced about their big-budget entertainment. However, with the likes of Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy proving immensely popular, perhaps the tide is turning, and maybe the still-on-the-cards Jackson-helmed sequel will find itself better received because of that.

I genuinely don’t understand the muted reaction to this first Tintin, though. It perhaps shows where blockbusters have gone awry in the last decade or two, and perhaps the incidental disdain animation is viewed with among some — I wonder: if the same movie had been produced in live-action, would some of those critics have been better disposed to it? I don’t think it would have actually been a better film, and perhaps it would even have been slightly worse (some of the visual impact would be lost), Herge's Adventures of Tintin!but some viewers would have seen it (even subconsciously) as more of a “real movie”.

As I said at the start, those people are Wrong. The Adventures of Tintin is a fantastic adventure movie, and should prove to anyone who doubted Spielberg after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that, when it comes to globetrotting action-adventures, he’s still the man to beat.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is on BBC One today at 4:25pm.

It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.