A WILD ROCKET RIDE
I’ve got to admit that I’ve never been an Elton John fan. I was never drawn to his music nor flamboyant stage persona. However, Rocketman has ignited interest from me. Dexter Fletcher’s film is a very entertaining and unusual biopic told both with regular dramatic scenes and fantasy-driven musical sequences that add an element of magical realism to the milieu. This set-up also allows for songs to be thematically presented out of order of their emergence—in real life, a teenage Elton did not sing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”—which was a major complaint about Bohemian Rhapsody.
Beyond portraying the larger than life persona of Elton John, star Taron Egerton sings every number that he performs in the film, which is an impressive feat in itself. While the Elton John that we know has publicly projected a strong air of confidence, this story shows us both his vulnerable and angry sides that arose as a result of abandonment by a stern military father and betrayals by various family members and associates over the years. The entire narrative is framed around an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that John immediately attends at the start of the movie. From there, we learn about his troubled childhood, profound collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell), rise to stardom, and lapse into drug and alcohol abuse as a result of the pressures of fame and keeping himself closeted for years. My one chief complaint is that the years are never fully laid out. While the closing titles indicate that the depicted timeline could end around 1991, it finishes with the recreation of the video “I’m Still Standing” from 1983.
Rocketman is a very fun ride—the choreography of the musical sequences is truly impressive and Egerton’s star turn really sells the movie. The Blu-Ray comes packed with bonus material, including extended musical sequences, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and liner notes from John himself that discuss both this movie as well as his forthcoming autobiography, Me, which is due out in October. For Elton John fans in particular, they should make good companion works. And as you can guess from the construction of this film, there will likely be an attempt to turn it into a Broadway musical. John has actually written for the Great White Way, so that makes total sense.
MONSTER MASH OF THE TITANS
I’ve been a lifelong Godzilla fan ever since I terrorized my kindergarten classmates with my impression of beloved kaiju clashes. My adoration for the Big G has not abated as evidenced by my substantial collection of movies, toys, T-shirts, and soundtracks. When Hollywood put him on screen back in 1998 in that awful Matthew Broderick vehicle directed by Roland Emmerich, I was pretty sure they were never going to get it right the way that the Japanese had. But along came Gareth Edwards and the solid 2014 reboot, made in conjunction with Toho Studios, and my stance softened.
This long-awaited sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) which is written and directed by Michael Dougherty, resurrects many of the massive “Titans,” which is how the giant kaiju are referred to in this series. Ecoterrorists (led by Charles Dance) want to bring balance back to a world overrun by humans, so they set about releasing long dormant Titans being monitored and contained by a secret global group called Monarch. With the three-headed dragon Ghidorah, also known as Monster Zero, leading the pack, a number of giant creatures are re-awakened, including Rodan (who is not on our side) and Mothra (who is). Naturally, our human protagonists, who include a constantly griping Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, and Ken Watanabe, figure out how the hell they can contain these creatures before they destroy our world. There is also a family drama element that involves Brown being caught between two parents (Farmiga and Chandler) with clashing world and monster views. Both of them play critical roles in the story.
I’ll be honest: I was expecting more from this movie. Despite the dazzling visual effects, intense pace, and rousing score from Bear McCreary, the writing itself feels a bit lazy, paying lip service to lofty themes without diving deep enough into them. The solid cast can only do so much with that. Dougherty does well culling together mythology from past Japanese efforts to update it to the modern day, but the character motivation and development are often lacking. Godzilla: King of the Monsters relies too heavily on digital overkill to make an impression on its audience, when a bit more restraint and more introspective human moments would have balanced out the immense scale of this piece. That’s what made many of the classic Godzilla movies work.
The thermonuclear finale takes place in my hometown of Boston, which earns the dubious distinction of being leveled during its climatic showdown. That actually does have a highly emotional component that I wish had existed throughout other parts of the movie. Many Godzilla fans will likely enjoy this updated retelling of the kaiju franchise, but I wish Dougherty had managed to push things further rather than essentially turning our childhood icon into a big screen videogame.
STALK AND SLASH
Alice, Sweet Alice (1973) was part of my eighties VHS youth, and upon re-watching it recently, I realized that I forgot how good it is. This movie is known to many as Brooke Shields’ first film, before her controversial turns in Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon, and Endless Love, and long before her mid-nineties hit TV series Suddenly Susan. It is also thematically removed from all of that fare. Her bratty child character actually dies within the first 15 minutes of the movie (before her first Communion), and the investigation into her death points the finger squarely at her emotionally disturbed sister (Paula Sheppard) who is jealous of the preferential treatment her sibling receives from her single mother (Linda Miller). But as other people die, the question arises as to who the real murderer is.
This was one of only five films directed by Alfred Sole, who previously made a porno called Deep Sleep that led to obscenity litigation against him while he was making this film, which itself is critical of the Catholic church. That interesting aspect of the production is highlighted in the bonus features included in Arrow Video’s nicely packaged reissue, which includes a restoration of the film from a 2K master. Alice, Sweet Alice, also titled Communion, is actually a taut psychological thriller with horror elements that features some excellent cinematography and fairly solid performances from the cast. In spite of its low budget, the film manages to invoke real dread and tension and conjures a gruesome finale that will surprise you. This is a cult horror movie that deserves wider recognition. It’s not overly bloody and has just the right undercurrent of nastiness.
WRATH OF THE WEEPING WOMAN
About a decade ago, I discovered the eerie 1961 Mexican horror film Curse of the Crying Woman (aka La maldición de la llorona), which was derived by the same Mexican folk tale that inspired this James Wan-produced effort from writers Mickey Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis and director Michael Chaves. That original version was more old school in its approach (I need to revisit it), while this latest incarnation clearly amps up the tension in modern fashion with loud bursts of sound and big jump scares.
In The Curse of La Llorona (2019), social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) makes the unexpected mistake of rescuing two young boys from a dark closet where their mother has imprisoned them. Anna thinks the frazzled woman has lost her marbles, but it turns out that an evil spirit called La Llorona was stalking them. After those kids turn up dead in a river far from safety, the spirit of La Llorona sets her sights on Anna’s two children. Now the beleaguered mom must use her own resources, and seek the help of a jaded curandero (Raymond Cruz), to learn more about why the vengeful spirit arose and how to exorcise her from their lives.
Although I’m a fan of the James Wan horror oeuvre—of which this falls within The Conjuring universe—The Curse of La Llorona does not add much to the cinematic lineage of malignant spirits. It does benefit from being inspired by a real Mexican ghost story used to scare children into obedience, and some of the actors discuss that very fact in the bonus features. Cruz enlivens things with the deadpan humor he brings to his curandero character, and Chaves ratchets up the tension. Although not a classic for the ages, Llorona is somewhat satisfying. You’ll likely be creeped out by the end, although you’ll probably wish they’d gone deeper into the mythos of the creepy matriarch which would’ve made the scares more effective.
SHE’S MY SEXY FRANKENSTEIN
When one looks back on the nineteen-eighties teen films from acclaimed writer–director John Hughes today, his sexist impulses become painfully apparent in certain moments. While movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink hold up much better, Weird Science (1985) is problematic because its basic premise—two horny, socially awkward teen boys (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) use then-high-tech to conjure a hot, provocatively dressed woman (Kelly LeBrock) to be their real-life girlfriend—certainly flies in the face of modern #MeToo and “woke” culture. (Of course, the way date rape is laughed off in Sixteen Candles is far worse.) Having not seen Weird Science in a long time, I found myself rolling my eyes throughout its first half.
But then the second half came along, and it changed my perspective on Weird Science. While LeBrock’s character Lisa is originally paraded around as a sex goddess for the boys, they never actually take advantage of her nor do they know what to do with the fantasy they have brought to life. She in turn starts teaching them life lessons about being social, talking to real women, and standing up to bullies, particularly by conjuring a trio of Mad Max-type bikers to invade their house party and threaten them.
I can certainly see how Millennials and Gen Z kids will look at this movie and go “WTF?” There are many aspects that could have been excised to keep this sci-fi comedy from being so blatantly boy-centric and chauvinist, although in one of two liner notes essays included in the Blu-ray package, gender politics-focused journalist Alexandra Heller–Nicholas argues for a reappraisal of the movie. She does not condone the overtly sexist material, but she does argue that Lisa is in fact smarter and deeper than one would expect, and that she serves a higher purpose. I can appreciate that viewpoint.
At the end of the day, this is a movie best left for Gen Xers who grew up with John Hughes flicks and appreciate the craziness of science fiction and fantasy films of the decade. There are certainly better examples of the genre that one could point to, but even more evolved Gen Xers will probably have a soft spot for a lot of the comedy material here, particularly Bill Paxton’s obnoxious military sibling. As expected, Arrow’s Video reissue includes loads of new and vintage bonus material to satiate fans of this quirky curio.
SUN DRENCHED HORROR
About twenty years ago, I saw a dark rock band from Boston called The Reflecting Skin, not realizing that they got their name from this long-lost cult classic written and directed by Philip Ridley and starring Viggo Mortensen. Actually, calling The Reflecting Skin (1990) a horror movie is not entirely accurate. It’s that unusual cinematic animal that defies easy categorization because it boldly works against genre expectations.
Eight year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) lives in the nineteen-fifties Midwest and suffers under the oppression of his abusive mother and emotionally pathetic father. They are struggling financially, and they await the return of his older brother (Mortensen) who’s been serving in the military in the Pacific. But a scandal implicating his father—specifically a local child murder—turns their world upside down. Seth thinks that mysterious and grieving widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) may actually be to blame after she secretly tells him that she’s 200 years old. Thinking that she is a vampire, Seth begins to fear for his life, and he becomes even more perturbed when his brother returns and becomes amorously linked with her. Further troubling matters are four punks roaming the heartland territory in a black Cadillac, with their possibly sinister intentions not yet known.
Part of what makes The Reflecting Skin so beguiling is the fact that nearly the entire film is shot in bright sunlight that amplifies the golden fields of wheat and Midwestern landscape that the characters occupy. Rather than rely on darkness and gothic trappings, Ridley and cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist) create a lush, dreamy world with nightmarish elements that one cannot escape from in the shadows. The film is beautifully shot and, despite its slow pace, keeps you anticipating how the events will play out. The bonus features—a making-of feature, commentary track from Ridley, and liner notes essay from Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche—provide excellent analysis and further dissect this unusual film. It turns out that The Reflecting Skin has been available in subpar pan and scan or less than stellar transfers on DVD for many, many years, making the Film Movement Classics HD reissue essential not only for new viewers but for longtime fans of the film.
The Reflecting Skin is American Gothic done right.
BORN FOR BATTLE
It took producer/co-writer James Cameron 20 years to turn the anime/manga property Battle Angel Alita into a major Hollywood production directed by Robert Rodriguez (and called Alita: Battle Angel). It needed a coalescing of the proper evolution of digital effects, the appropriate script (co-written by Cameron with Shutter Island‘s Laeta Kalogridis), and finding the right star. Spunky Rosa Salazar turned out to be the perfect choice for the title role.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Iron City, located beneath the legendary floating paradise of Zalem, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and partial torso of the discarded cyborg Alita in a massive scrapheap. He brings her back to life with a new body and tries to help her remember who she was. During the course of this process, she falls for a young man named Hugo (Keann Johnson) who secretly hunts cyborgs for their parts and profit and the chance to escape to Zalem. As she remembers more of her past life and her warrior impulses instinctively emerge, Alita seeks, against Ido’s wish, to become a bounty hunter and enters a world of violence and danger. She is also being monitored by outside powers, which includes a cyborg engineer (Jennifer Connelly) and a vicious entrepreneur with Zalem connections (Mahershala Ali) who oversees a Rollerball-type competition called Motorball. The ultimate champion of that sport will also get the chance to ascend to that fabled city in the sky, which Alita wants to infiltrate.
Salazar shines as Alita, brightening the role with such passion and emotion that the extra-large CG eyes she is given—in homage to the original manga and anime—don’t feel jarringly out of place. The key problem here is the writing which suffers from anemic character development and a dearth of strong emotional crescendos. The high-energy action sequences and masterful digital effects can only compensate for that so much—the script needed more finessing. There are moments that click because of Salazar’s excellent performance, but overall Alita: Battle Angel needed a greater emotional punch to be truly effective. Perhaps in the proposed sequel, which this movie clearly sets up, that issue can be corrected.