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Movie Reviews
'Yesterday'
(PG-13 / 112 mins)

Overview: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, BBC's Eastenders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again).

Then, after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed ... and he finds himself with a very complicated problem, indeed!

Verdict: The premise of 'Yesterday' is that, for some strange reason with no explanation whatsoever, a worldwide electrical blackout causes the entire catalog of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star, a.k.a. The Beatles, to vanish from existence with one man, a struggling singer/songwriter named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), the only person who remembers either them or their music.

He proceeds to pass off their songs as his own and becomes an overnight sensation who catches the ear of Ed Sheeran and gets signed to a major label recording contract by cutthroat music producer Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon).

Along the way he is estranged from his longtime manager and childhood best friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James), not realizing until it’s almost too late that his feeling for her go way beyond the strictly platonic.

That’s it. That’s the movie, and as intriguing an idea as that might be, I’m not at all certain that Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill screenwriter and Love Actually and About Time writer/director Richard Curtis is the guy to pull a conceit like this one off.

Working from a story he originally conceived with Jack Barth and handing the directorial reins over to Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later and Trainspotting filmmaker Danny Boyle, the scenario he’s composed never strays too far away from the readily anticipated.

His tale is perfectly content to be a moderately pleasing, overtly melodramatic what-if curio piece that places more emphasis on the potential romantic longings of its two leads than it does anything else.

As enjoyable as the movie can be it oddly flatlines right at the moment it should be building to a knockout crescendo, and I found its climactic choruses strangely forgettable and not at all worth humming as I exited the theatre.

The weird thing is that Boyle and Curtis don’t do a particularly good job of making it clear just exactly why The Beatles entire catalog would resonate so instantaneously with a modern audience.

I totally get why a songwriter like Sheeran would be blown away by something like “The Long and Winding Road” or “Let It Be.” Those are exquisitely constructed songs with superior lyrics that have stood the test of time for a reason.

But I honestly don’t get why something like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” would be a universal smash outside of Russia, or how “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “I Saw Her Standing There” wouldn’t sound anything other than slightly archaic in the 2010s no matter how passionately they were being performed.

On top of that, a key component to The Beatles success were the crafty, pitch-perfect harmonies that Lennon and McCartney so often manufactured for their band to perform, an aspect of their musicianship that is lost when it’s just one man up on the stage performing on his own.

Still, there is an incontestable charm in watching Jack figure out how to use the band’s music to his advantage. He’s such a nice guy, so unassuming and selfless, the idea that he is going to go through with passing off someone else’s work as his own even though for all intents and purposes none of their art existed in the first place so alien to him he’s instantly aghast that he’s even contemplating doing it.

But when he sees the response from Ellie and his friends when he first sits down and starts singing the title track, when Ed Sheeran shows up at his family’s door asking him to go tour a few Russian clubs with him after hearing a couple songs, Jack almost can’t help himself.

The singer is faced with an existential crisis that offers up a number of moral and ethical questions, the weight falling upon his shoulders as his ruse continues building exponentially at virtually the same rate as his fame also grows.

Not that Curtis seems to be concerned with almost any of that. His script reduces all of these ideas to easily digestible platitudes that basically culminate by saying, “love is all you need,” and little else.

But that paraphrasing of The Beatles is reductive and rudimentary, adding a layer of melodramatic schmaltz to their music that, no matter how emotional many of their songs might have been, was arguably never there until now.

Worse, his depiction of Ellie and her feelings for Jack often feel as if they are from another era entirely, and while I’m all for stories that explore how someone’s feelings of love and affection are not always reciprocated as one hopes they would be, her character would be more at home in an Andy Hardy vehicle than it is in one set in 2019.

Thankfully James is far too talented an actress to make Ellie anything other than supremely likable, the more odious aspects of her situation having nothing to do with her.

The Cinderella and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again star has an enchantingly innate ability to warm even the hardest heart to its melting point, the quiver of her lip coupled with the alluringly crooked nature of her smile positively infectious in the best possible way.

She has melodious chemistry with Patel, and in a movie without near as many issues I’m certain I’d be sitting here singing their mutual praises as boisterously as I possibly could if that were not the case.

That’s not going to happen. Boyle is a great filmmaker who is hardly afraid of sentiment (just watch his magnificent family drama Millions), but even in his lesser efforts like Trance or The Beach his imprint upon the material is always noticeable.

But that’s not how it is with 'Yesterday', and if you had told me Curtis had directed this and was just utilizing Boyle’s name as a pseudonym I’d be hard-pressed to find any reasons to say you were wrong.

The last third of this drama is an ineffectual slog that wastes the talents of its stars, and as breezy, inoffensively enjoyable and as adorably light as so much of this was to suddenly hear it hit so many sour notes was undeniably disappointing, my emotions gently weeping the more I keep thinking about it.





'Toy Story 4'
(G / 90 mins)

Overview: Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) has always been confident about his place in the world, and that his priority is taking care of his kid, whether that's Andy or Bonnie.

So when Bonnie's beloved new craft-project-turned-toy, Forky (voice of Tony Hale), declares himself as "trash" and not a toy, Woody takes it upon himself to show Forky why he should embrace being a toy.

But when Bonnie takes the whole gang on her family's road trip excursion, Woody ends up on an unexpected detour that includes a reunion with his long-lost friend Bo Peep (voice of Annie Potts).

After years of being on her own, Bo's adventurous spirit and life on the road belie her delicate porcelain exterior.

As Woody and Bo realize they're worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy, they soon come to find that's the least of their worries.

Verdict: Adding a dash of creepiness to the usual formula, 'Toy Story 4' exceeds expectations by - ahem - toying with them.

It's not as if the world needed a fourth Toy Story movie. After an unbroken string of gems, Pixar has been hit-and-miss since Cars 2, and Toy Story 3 was a step down from its predecessors, although it did manage to deliver a great third act and a poignant coda that seemed to wrap up the franchise and put it to bed for good.

What more was there to say after Andy passed on his toys to a new child?

Surprisingly, 'Toy Story 4' has an answer good enough to justify the film's existence as something more than a cynical cash grab. It may not be A-list Pixar, but overall it is better than its immediate predecessor.

Fans will not only be pleased to see the lovable characters back in action; they will be surprised to see a new story unfolding on its own terms, uncompromised by concerns for preserving the franchise.

You don't need an advanced degree in plot structure to see that 'Toy Story 4' is all over the map. First, it's about Woody feeling bad that Bonnie chooses to play with other toys. Then it's about Forky wondering why he's alive.

Next it becomes about rescuing Forky from the antiques store, which leads to the subplot about Gabby wanting Woody's voice box, which in turn segues into Gabby's dream of being chosen by the granddaughter of the store owner; which leads to one of Pixar's patented third-act action scenes, in which the other toys prevent Bonnie's family from continuing on their vacation, which would leave Woody and Forky behind.

You also don't need an advance degree in existentialism to see that Forky's angst shouldn't be particularly remarkable in the Toy Story universe. After all, his Big Question ("Why am I alive?") could just as easily have been asked by any of the other toys, all of whom were created by humans; the only difference is that he was not made professionally. This isn't really enough to self-awareness more of an issue for him than it is for the others.

Fortunately, this is not a problem, because Forky's suicidal tendencies are a plot device that give Woody a problem to solve; the film rightfully focuses on Woody's issues, which form the film's emotional core.

The first level of genius of Pixar's writing team is that they know how to wrap the various set pieces and plot devices in a character-oriented story, which is ultimately about Woody finding his place in the world in the wake of Andy having outgrown him.

The glue holding the film together is the love story about Woody reuniting with Bo, who was given away nine years before the events of this film take place.

At that time, Woody's loyalty to Andy prevented him from running off with Bo, but now things are different, and Woody has to decide whether he is acting simply out of desperation to make himself feel useful when he might be better off following his own personal happiness.

The second level of genius of Pixar's writing team is they know how to dramatize this conflict with action, hiding the love story in the weave of other plot threads, then tying them all together and taking the film around full circle in a way that allows for a revisiting of Woody's earlier decision after he has gone through enough adventures and hardships to give him a new perspective affecting the choice he will make.

It would be unfair to reveal that decision, but let's say that it is completely motivated by the character and the story, not by planning for future sequels. It's pure and perfect.

The horror elements are a welcome surprise: those amusingly creepy ventriloquist dummies certainly outshine Chucky, and Gabby's harvesting of Woody internal organ (well, voice box) has an aura of mad science surgery.

Even better, this apparent tangent turns out to be part of the film's emotional fabric - Gabby becomes Woody's mirror-image, also acting desperately to win the love of an indifferent child, revealing the dangers of too desperate to be needed.

Ultimately, 'Toy Story 4' is not up to the standard of the first two installments, but it asks some interesting questions: Is it better to be free or to belong?

If being needed gives your life meaning, does it also restrict you from following your own bliss? Heady stuff for a family-friendly entertainment, but the film is amusing throughout, if not hilarious, mixing the familiar gang with some new characters (stunt rider Duke Caboom is more annoying than funny, but Ducky and Bunny are a blast).

Pixar's computer-generated animation continues to improve, making the once-amazing original Toy Story look almost drab by comparison. (The technique still seems better suited to anthropomorphized toys than to humans.) Randy Newman's score expertly underlines the big emotional moments.

Like its immediate predecessor, the latest Toy Story sequel delivers a wonderful resolution that redeems any missteps along the way - it's a three-star film with a five-star ending.

There is less of the interplay between Woody and Buzz, who is reduced to supporting character here; fortunately, Buzz's time onscreen is well spent, especially near the end when he delivers an ambiguous line that informs Woody's ultimate decision.

Buzz's limited screen time is perhaps emblematic of 'Toy Story 4's success: the movie doesn't deliver exactly what you expect, but it does deliver.





'Child's Play' (2019)
(R / 90 mins)

Overview: A contemporary re-imagining of the 1988 horror classic, 'Child's Play' follows Karen (Aubrey Plaza), a single mother who gifts her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) a Buddi doll, unaware of its more sinister nature.

Verdict: Conceived by Don Mancini, directed by Tom Holland, and scripted by Mancini, Holland and John Lafia, 1988’s 'Child’s Play' was a nifty horror yarn that introduced the world to Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif), a “Good Guy”-brand doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer following a voodoo incantation.

Kevin Yagher designed the excellent effects that animated the Chucky doll, with a clear distinction between the harmless “Good Guy” mode and the demented killer look.

In other words, simply based on looks, it was easy to see why kids would want a Good Guy doll and equally obvious why absolutely no one would want a psychotic one.

The new version, also titled 'Child’s Play', has no room for such niceties, preferring to bask in laziness at every turn. In this rendition (which tellingly received no input from Mancini or Holland), Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) isn’t evil because he harbors the soul of a mass murderer; instead, he’s naughty because a disgruntled factory employee disabled all of his AI safety features.

Be still, my beating heart. It’s a ludicrous concept, although I suspect some susceptible viewers might arrive home after the screening and worry that Alexa might burn the house down or, even worse, cancel their Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions.

As for the look of Chucky? The poor design means he’s as creepy before he’s possessed as afterward, and the thought of children lining up to buy this hideous doll is only slightly less believable than the thought of 5-year-olds queueing up to purchase a Che Guevara T-shirt or a DVD of Antonioni’s 'The Passenger'.

The general plot is the same, as Andy’s mom (Aubrey Plaza) gives her son a Buzz Lightyear — wait, wrong Andy — gives her son (Gabriel Bateman) a damaged Buddi doll that ends up going on a homicidal tear.

But the story modifications do this version no favors, particularly the risible climax in which shoppers are bombarded by Chucky-controlled toys.

With a scarcity of scares and little internal logic at play, here’s one defective product that should be placed back in the box posthaste.





'Dark Phoenix'
(PG-13 / 114 mins)

Overview: In 'Dark Phoenix', the X-MEN face their most formidable and powerful foe: one of their own, Jean Grey.

During a rescue mission in space, Jean is nearly killed when she is hit by a mysterious cosmic force. Once she returns home, this force not only makes her infinitely more powerful, but far more unstable.

Wrestling with this entity inside her, Jean unleashes her powers in ways she can neither comprehend nor contain.

With Jean spiraling out of control, and hurting the ones she loves most, she begins to unravel the very fabric that holds the X-Men together.

Now, with this family falling apart, they must find a way to unite -- not only to save Jean's soul, but to save our very planet from aliens who wish to weaponize this force and rule the galaxy.

Verdict: ‘Dark Phoenix” isn’t kidding about the “dark” part. The latest, and probably final, chapter in the X-Men superhero saga is a somber, even funereal affair — not in a stylish, Christopher Nolan-esque way, or even a la “Logan,” the deliciously cynical comic-book-noir contribution to the mutant canon from 2017.

Rather, if a movie can be said to suffer from low-grade depression, this one certainly seems to be, shuffling in its socks and bathrobe through a not-quite-two-hour running time with an attitude that is closer to grudging obligation than enthusiastic commitment.

The movie opens, with a literal bang, in a violent, 1975-set prologue that introduces us to the film’s protagonist Jean Grey, first seen as an 8-year-old girl (Summer Fontana) who is about to experience tragic loss, thanks to the unintended consequences of her telepathic and telekinetic abilities.

Jumping ahead 17 years, we next meet Jean’s 25-year-old self (Sophie Turner), a young woman now more confident in her paranormal gifts, having been raised — with all the requisite self-esteem of modern pedagogy — in a school for mutant children run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).

Jean is one of Charles’s X-Men, a band of superheroes with extraordinary physical and mental abilities — and a hotline to the president, from whom they receive their marching orders.

This dynamic is a little different from the typical X-Men movie, in which mutants are seen as freaks and outcasts. If things are topsy-turvy here, it’s because the time-traveling plot of the 2014 film “Days of Future Past” altered the franchise’s timeline (including the erasure of Jean’s death in the 2006 film “The Last Stand.”)

One of those presidential marching orders soon comes in. A spaceship full of astronauts has been damaged in Earth’s orbit. The X-Men, whose powers range from teleportation to controlling the weather, must save them.

Their mission goes off with only one tiny hitch: While in space, Jean is irradiated with some kind of strange cosmic energy, rendering her even more powerful — and, unfortunately, more of a loose cannon — than before.

She comes back perpetually P.O.’ed, a Popeye with a reserve of supernatural spinach that always lives inside her, and over which she has little control.

Naturally, bad things ensue!

From this point on, 'Dark Phoenix' seems to go into a kind of low-energy mode, which is especially ironic, considering that it’s about a being who is touted as the most powerful entity on Earth. (This assessment comes from Jessica Chastain’s character, a mysteriously otherworldly figure who wants a taste of Jean’s mojo for herself.)

Sure, there are some fights — most of them internecine, as various X-Men start to doubt the leadership of Charles, a powerful clairvoyant who is revealed to have tinkered with Jean’s mind as a child.

Alliances shift, old resentments are stirred, and Charles’s sometime nemesis Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) comes out of semiretirement in the agricultural commune where he lives with a band of renegade mutants.

Half the people in the movie want to kill Jean, and half of them want to save her from herself. A handful of government stormtroopers just want to lock the whole crowd up after Jean’s misbehavior freshly demonizes the mutant community.

But despite what sounds like all-out war, 'Dark Phoenix' mostly plays like turgid psychodrama, with characters throwing around cheesy lines like “I thought I’d lost you,” “Why can’t you admit you were wrong?” and “She’s not your little girl anymore.”

By the time the X-Men finally get around to doing what they do best — levitating metal trains, shooting eyeball lasers, conjuring lightning and engaging in dueling mind-control — it all feels borderline tedious, like a game of superhuman rock-paper scissors.

There are some kicks, here and there. The character of Peter Maximoff — a super-fast mutant known as Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who stole the show in “Days of Future Past” — is mostly sidelined here, despite getting in a couple of mildly funny lines.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with 'Dark Phoenix.' There’s way too much darkness, and not enough quicksilver wit.





'John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum'
(R / 131 mins)

Overview: In this third installment of the adrenaline-fueled action franchise, super-assassin John Wick (Reeves) returns with a $14 million price tag on his head and an army of bounty-hunting killers on his trail.

After killing a member of the shadowy international assassin's guild, the High Table, John Wick is excommunicado, but the world's most ruthless hit men and women await his every turn.

Verdict: Superior exercises in action-movie formalism, the John Wick movies evoke everything from Fritz Lang’s silent thrillers (in their imagining of vast, underground criminal networks) to Gene Kelly’s musicals (in their inventive and breathless fight choreography) to Brian De Palma’s self-aware genre pastiches (in their allusions to high art and the way they veer close to parody).

This third entry in the series picks up about an hour after the second one ended, when the international assassins’ guild placed a $14 million bounty on the head of Keanu Reeves’s unflappable killing machine.

As in the film’s predecessors, the plot barely matters; it’s simply an excuse for director Chad Stahelski and company to stage one remarkable action set piece after another.

Some of the more impressive ones take place in New York’s Chinatown, a Moroccan palace, and the lobby of a luxury hotel. With Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston, and Ian McShane.





'Ma'
(R / 110 mins)

Overview: Oscar (R) winner Octavia Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a loner who keeps to herself in her quiet Ohio town. One day, she is asked by Maggie, a new teenager in town (Diana Silvers, Glass), to buy some booze for her and her friends, and Sue Ann sees the chance to make some unsuspecting, if younger, friends of her own.

She offers the kids the chance to avoid drinking and driving by hanging out in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober. Don't curse. Never go upstairs. And call her "Ma."

But as Ma's hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma's place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on earth.

Verdict: A good thriller movie with elements of horror needs the right cast, some intriguing suspense, and a compelling backstory that reveals a bit about the villain’s motivation.

'Ma' has several of these elements. Set in small-town Ohio, the film follows Sue Ellen (Octavia Spencer), a lonely veterinary assistant who randomly befriends a group of teens after reluctantly agreeing to buy them some much-coveted alcohol.

There’s Maggie (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers) who has recently arrived in town with her newly divorced mom, Erica (Juliette Louis). There’s Andy (Corey Fogelmanis)–the boy who catches Maggie’s eye, Darell (Dante Brown) the token Black boy in the crew (in a town that has a shocking number of Black folks), Chaz (Gianni Paolo) the pretty boy jock, and Hayley (McKaley Miller), who rides the fine line between being badass and overly entitled.

Taking pity on the kids and their lackluster hideaway, which consists of the great outdoors and a disgusting pile of trash, Sue Ellen offers Maggie and her crew her basement as a hangout. However, she has several conditions.

The teens are never allowed anywhere else in her home; one of the kids must always stay sober for the drive home, and no cussin’. She even fixes up her unfurnished basement so that it’s more comfortable for the teens.

Perhaps I’ve just been living too long, but red flags were raised almost as soon Sue Ellen’s invite left her lips. There seemed to be no real reason why a middle-aged woman would want to hang with a group of teens.

But alas, this is Hollywood so I was able to suspend my concern for a brief period.

Unfortunately, my ability to go with the flow ended right around the time Sue Ellen adapted the nickname “Ma” and randomly pulled out a gun on one of the kids.

After terrorizing them for a few seconds, she asks him, “You think I’m Madea?!” Though she acts like it’s all a joke the teens–mostly Maggie, start to realize something isn’t quite right with their new older BFF.

That’s when the movie starts to fall off the edge. Sue Ellen begins stalking the teens–blowing up their phones and social media accounts and randomly appearing on their high school campus.

We learn through several flashbacks that Sue Ellen has always struggled to fit in. Back in the ’80s while she was in high school she was subjected to a horrific assault (can we stop using sexual assaults as plot points in film?) that led to a mental break and a revenge plot more than two decades in the making.

If Ma had leaned more on traditional horror tropes rather than forcing the actors to throw all of their talents on top of a flimsy script the film might have worked. Unfortunately, the further along 'Ma' gets, the more perplexing it becomes.

Though I tried to reserve my judgment of the film until the end, when Sue Ellen literally paints Darrell’s face white, declaring that there is only room for “one of them”–the entire flick descended into complete pulp.

With plot holes as wide as gaping doors, and no real command on whatever mental illness Sue Ellen was surely suffering from, all you can really do is laugh at the movie.

I really wanted 'Ma' to work. The young cast is fresh and earnest, Spencer is beyond entertaining as she swings from one mood to another without any warning, rhyme or reason.

Also, the scenes between Maggie (Silvers) and her mother, Erica (Lewis) were compelling enough that I wanted to know more about their mother/daughter relationship and their backstory over everything else that was happening in the movie.

Unfortunately, with the campy script and the plot line ripped straight from Hulu’s The Act–by the third act of 'Ma', the movie literally implodes in on itself leaving the audience wondering, WTF they just watched!





'Rocketman'
(R / 121 mins)

Overview: 'Rocketman' is an epic musical fantasy about the incredible human story of Elton John's breakthrough years.

The film follows the fantastical journey of transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John.

This inspirational story -- set to Elton John's most beloved songs and performed by star Taron Egerton -- tells the universally relatable story of how a small-town boy became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture.

'Rocketman' also stars Jamie Bell as Elton's longtime lyricist and writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as Elton's first manager, John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton's mother Sheila Farebrother.

Verdict: Winged, horned, sequined, penis visibly flopping in his thin orange pants, Elton John (Taron Egerton) first bounds into 'Rocketman' down a hallway draped in white light, as if he’s making his way to the stage and the cheers of an arena full of adoring fans.

Instead, in a mischievous gag, it’s revealed he’s actually going, in full costume, into rehab (after fleeing, we later learn, a near-disastrous performance at Madison Square Garden).

This is a wink: Rock star vanity projects can’t help but open with the star headed into a career-defining comeback concert, a return to glory, before flashing back decades to show how we got there.

The bait-and-switch is a coy signal that, if this movie can’t quite reinvent the form, it’s at least going to stomp on it in sparkly red heels. The movie, sorry to say, can’t quite keep up that swagger.

Instead, 'Rocketman' mostly proceeds with studious fidelity through the stations of the rocker biopic, with only a few formal tweaks to the formula.

We return swiftly to boyhood, where young Elton (variously Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) is ignored by his father (Steven Mackintosh) and insidiously doted on by his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, hamming it up agreeably in wigs and carnival-red lipstick).

Unlike many other big-ticket rock origin stories, 'Rocketman' does locate some giddy energy, especially early, in staging its jukebox scenes as old-fashioned musical numbers, with choreographed bits set to refashioned classic songs that distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling.

Alas, when no one’s dancing, the movie dutifully hits us with lines like “I wish I was someone else” as it careens toward adolescence and young adulthood, at which time, in short order, Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John, finds his lifelong songwriting partner in Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and realizes he’s gay.

The movie’s depiction of that last bit has been the subject of advance hype and scrutiny. At first, 'Rocketman' settles on a refreshingly blunt, breezy depiction of John’s sexuality, with John making a pass at Taupin early in their professional romance, and a coming-out scene, involving a girlfriend and strewn clothes, played for laughs.

As John heads over the Atlantic and performs his famed shows at the Troubadour, in Los Angeles, he first meets—according to the movie, anyway—John Reid (Richard Madden), the music manager.

They have instant chemistry, and before long, they have sex: real, live, camera-doesn’t-turn-away sex. They kiss. They grind. They even face each other in the act, a detail Hollywood fumbles so often that I still meet straight people who don’t know that’s how gay men have sex most of the time.

The scene ends before long and leans heavily on gauzy, soft whites, but it is, in a word, inoffensive—to gay viewers, and, as some executives out there are surely hoping, to most audiences panicked by too much man-on-man.

What it is not is particularly groundbreaking. Nor does it make Paramount, the movie’s distributor, the “first major studio” to “depict gay male sex” on screen, as stories in the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times have claimed.

Paramount seems to be relying on a narrow definition of “major studio” (was United Artists not a major studio when it made Cruising back in 1980?) to position itself as a trailblazer in the event that 'Rocketman', a major summer bet for the company, should underperform at the box office; never mind that the movie is an unabashed musical and decidedly less pandering than, say, Bohemian Rhapsody (the inevitable comparisons to which I will get to shortly).

For their part, the stars, Egerton and Madden, have been more circumspect, playing up the scene’s significance only in the sense that it was emotionally pivotal to the movie. They are correct. The unabashed gay lust is rare, at least in a movie of this size, and it has plenty of heat, emotional and otherwise, thanks to fine performances.

Madden, in particular, has harnessed his icy stare and uneasy erotic energy enough in his recent screen appearances that I hope he tops the short list for actors you hire when you want them to look, in love scenes, like they’re going to eat their co-star.

As it happens, this much-dissected sequence and the dizzy rise-to-stardom moments around it—including, at one point, a rock club audience that spontaneously levitates, literally, to John’s stateside debut—are also the high point of the movie.

John’s relationship with Reid deteriorates quickly, and he depressively takes to “fucking half of L.A.” (which the movie declines to depict) and channeling his decadence through prodigious volumes of cocaine (which it is quite eager to depict).

Once it gets to the usual collection of famous performances, substance abuse scenes, and historical headlines splayed across the screen, 'Rocketman' never quite finds the wild momentum its characters seem to chase around in all those musical numbers.

The dance sequences themselves, to songs like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and the titular track, are plentiful but land inconsistently, particularly a strange “I’m going to rehab!” number set to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with choreographed stretchers and doctors spinning around the superstar as he finally realizes he’s hit rock bottom.

Meanwhile, we frequently revisit that opening group-therapy meeting so John can tell us how to feel and narrate his downfall, an understandable crutch that nearly sinks the movie in a bizarrely stagey emotional climax that collects all the principal players together in one room, in formation, to each deliver a closing monologue.

It wasn’t the first time that 'Rocketman' made me wonder whether there had been an Elton John stage musical on which the movie was based. There wasn’t, but the movie often feels as if writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) had conceived the book for one and then rejiggered it as a screenplay.

Which brings us back to the dreaded comparison. 'Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired (Singer received sole credit), and that has perhaps unfairly tethered the two movies, which also share a music-industry leech in John Reid and the creaky closet of a fabled rocker.

It does better with the closet part, though it doesn’t take much to improve on Rhapsody there. Egerton’s controlled mania as John will be a welcome antidote to anyone who found Rami Malek’s toothy turn as Freddie Mercury an empty showpiece.

Egerton also sings Sir Elton’s songs himself, a feat I will leave it to Elton-heads to assess.

Most tellingly, both movies included creative participation from the subjects and their estates, a regrettable necessity to secure music catalogs. And if all music biopics tend to feign the warts-and-all treatment, it’s no surprise when they focus far more on the spontaneous creative brilliance of their anointed legends than on their personal failings.

That’s certainly true of Rhapsody, but it’s not always of 'Rocketman'. Save for a protracted, comic series of text-on-screen epilogues, Egerton’s John—prompted by years of abuse, granted—is mostly depicted as having been, offstage, a childish, mean, graceless jerk.

It’s a little startling. 'Rocketman' celebrates the skyward achievements of its subject right there in the title, and plenty elsewhere, but it may also remind you that he was, for great stretches, a self-professed bitch.

Unfortunately, there’s one more crucial difference. Say what you will about Rhapsody—I have—but its stadium-rocking Live Aid climax at least provided a stirring, if dishonest, crescendo to the movie.

'Rocketman' struggles to find one, and it really shows. Fletcher, freed on his own, makes a movie more inventive, lush, and convincingly intimate than Bohemian Rhapsody, but it also sort of trails off. You almost long for that triumphant reunion concert after all.





'Godzilla: King of the Monsters'
(R / 121 mins)

Overview: The new story follows the heroic efforts of the crypto-zoological agency Monarch as its members face off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

When these ancient super-species - thought to be mere myths - rise again, they all vie for supremacy, leaving humanity's very existence hanging in the balance.

Verdict: There is such a clear disdain for the human element in 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters', one wonders if there wasn’t a way to make this sequel with monsters alone.

Co-written (with Zach Shields) and directed by Michael Dougherty, this film picks up five years after the wreckage of the first. The loss of life was devastating for many, the Russell family included.

After the death of their son, Mark (Kyle Chandler) fell into a bottle and ran away while Emma (Vera Farmiga) fell into her work for Monarch, the agency devoted to discovering and protecting/destroying these mammoth creatures, which they call titans.

While Mark and Emma’s daughter (Millie Bobbie Brown) tries to keep the relative peace between her parents, Emma perfects a device that allows humans to communicate and pseudo-control these beasts.

Since Mark was one of the initial creators of this device, he’s forced back into the fold. Unfortunately, nefarious motivations prevent things from going smoothly.

A straightforward villain played by Charles Dance is just the tip of iceberg in a script that lives for its twists, logic be damned! Credit where it’s due, Dougherty does (sometimes) deliver on the promise of his film’s subtitle: there are plenty of monsters, and Godzilla does appear to be the king.

When they fight, there are glimmers of the B-movie banger that was promised. There are also, however, cutaways to a slew of supporting characters quipping incessantly at the action, Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch chief among them.

Gareth Edwards’ outing got a lot of credit for holding its proverbial cards back and ramping up tension throughout, filling out the world in which Godzilla was emerging.

And while this writer was not as enamored with that strategy (and execution) as others, King of the Monsters serves as a reminder at the difficulty in making one of these movies. There is not a single human character in this picture worth investing in.

Furthermore, much of the narrative is formed from rationalizations that feel devoid of real thought or consideration. Most of these people are scientists and military higher-ups, making the lack of intelligence hard to swallow.

Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, and Sally Hawkins all return and are given markedly less to do. And though Aisha Hinds and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are welcome additions, they are left with scraps in a screenplay painstakingly devoted to introducing monsters and reacting to their glory.

There has always been a lack of logic to these movies, but all pretense slips away here. Within minutes, Mark offers the most logical answer to the problem of “we found huge creatures underground whose existence will surely kill us.”

He’s quickly ignored. Meanwhile, other, far more problematic, stop-gaps are put into motion throughout that result quite literally in the destruction of the planet. Who knows how many actual human beings are left at the end of 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters', but after the lizard’s forthcoming bout with King Kong, let’s hope they’re not forced to endure much more.





'Pet Sematary' [2019]
(R / 101 mins)

Overview: Based on the seminal horror novel by Stephen King, Pet Sematary follows Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), who, after relocating with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two young children from Boston to rural Maine, discovers a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near the family's new home.

When tragedy strikes, Louis turns to his unusual neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unfathomable evil with horrific consequences.

Verdict: Sometimes the dead are worth resurrecting. That's the case with 'Pet Sematary,' the effective and suitably creepy remake of the 1989 adaptation of the Stephen King novel.

This new 'Pet Sematary' is tightly wound and unfolds at a steady pace, and features strong performances from its sturdy cast.

Of course it is slightly disingenuous for a Hollywood remake to preach against bringing the dead back to life, but no matter. (A more self-aware film would have doubled as a commentary on reboot culture, but no sense in biting the hand that feeds.)

Jason Clarke is Louis, an ER doctor who is moving his family — his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) — from Boston to Ludlow, Maine to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Their large property extends far back into the woods behind their house, where there lies a cemetery for pets, and beyond that, a mysterious burial ground where the dead can be brought back to life.

Louis' neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow, aces as always) takes Louis back to the site after Church, the family cat, meets an untimely end. Except when Church comes back, he's not quite himself; the furball's hair is all tattered and he comes with a newly acquired mean streak.

What's better, accepting the finality of death or settling for rebirth with a few minor flaws? That question is tested when Ellie is in an accident and Louis takes matters into his own hands.

In closing, 'Pet Sematary' addresses issues of death and our unwillingness to accept it in a fun, frank manner. The dead don't always have it this good.





'Dumbo' [2019]
(PG / 112 mins)

Overview: From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure 'Dumbo' expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight.

Verdict: Disney's latest live-action remake of one of the studio's animated classics gives Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) another chance to vamp with an empty spectacle that is fine for children and perhaps nostalgia-inducing for adults who watched the 1941 original on VHS. The acting from everyone onscreen, including Colin Farrell as a former trick rider and Danny DeVito as a ringmaster circa 1920, is so anachronistic and unnatural that their interaction with CGI is a respite.

The flying baby elephant is cute and the production design is eye-catching. The upsides end there. The refurbished story, both numbing in its predictability and painstakingly woke, is the clearest indicator that this reboot need not exist; sorry!





'Avengers: Endgame'
(PG-13 / 182 mins)

Overview: The grave course of events set in motion by Thanos that wiped out half the universe and fractured the Avengers ranks compels the remaining Avengers to take one final stand in Marvel Studios' grand conclusion to twenty-two films, 'Avengers: Endgame.'

Verdict: A triumph of sorts. Not of acting: with some notable exceptions — a beer-bellied, tragicomic Chris Hemsworth as Thor among them — a feeling of exhaustion has crept in with a number of the principals over the 10 or so years since Iron Man set this gargantuan, quippy super-opera in motion.

Nor of dialogue: not even Don Cheadle can deliver a line like “We are all about that superhero life,” and the little speeches tend to fall flat, to the point where the film gets self-conscious about them.

Nor of direction: for the first hour or so, the Russo brothers rely heavily on your good will toward the superfolk who remain in the wake of “blue meanie” Thanos’ halving of the universe’s population, and the relentless stream of fan service in the two hours that follow may leave even the truest believer feeling milked.

But a triumph of feeling: of itches scratched, of sorrows and angers eased, even of longings fulfilled. A triumph of theme: the team’s [SPOILER ALERT?] time-travel gambit hammers home the Why We Fight virtues of home and hearth, of Mom and Dad and the kids.

And above all, a triumph of plotting: thread after narrative thread tied off in neat and sometimes unexpected (and unexpectedly satisfying) fashion.

In conclusion, and without giving away anything specific, the MCU will go on and on, but this chapter — and the American pragmatism vs. American ideals bromance that drove it — have well and truly come to their “Excelsior! Nuff said!” moment!





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