Review in Brief: Vice (2018)

Reminder: a compelling protagonist doesn’t have to likeable, or good, they just have to be interesting. Dick Chaney was, and remains, an evil bastard, but he and his rise to power behind the throne is fascinating nonetheless. Adam McKay approaches political biography with the same cheeky glint in his eye as he did the World Financial Crash with THE BIG SHORT, but despite some killer one-liners this is a more serious-minded affair. The performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carrell carry the film through some serious stylistic and tonal whiplash. For a film based mostly on conjecture and word-of-mouth, you can buy most of this could have happened based on how screwed up the world is now. Worse than any one thing the man did is the political climate he helped perpetuate, as hammered home in a bile-inducing post-credits scene set in a particularly vocal think tank. SSP

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60s Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Kubrick stare, eat yer heart out: Columbia Pictures/Hawk Films

When author Terry Pratchett wrote about his time working as a publicist for a nuclear plant, he described how he came to realise that there’s no funnier phrase than “two completely independent failsafe systems”. The extent to which everything goes as wrong as it can go because a madman easily exploits a supposedly foolproof system is at the heart of the satirical brilliance of Stanley Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE.

When a fanatical and unhinged Air Force officer orders a nuclear strike on the USSR, it’s up to a pushover RAF Captain (Peter Sellers) the President of the United States (Peter Sellers) and a mad scientist (Peter Sellers) to prevent nuclear Armageddon. The only trouble is that the foolproof failsafes put in place do not allow for an active bombing wing to be contacted, let alone recalled…

This is Kubrick at his leanest, punchiest and most mischievous. He exaggerates to ridiculous degrees for comic effect but clearly hit a nerve given the US Government’s overblown response. I’m sure he found being put on a watchlist hilarious, and deeply satisfying.

You might find yourself asking if it’s sexist that the only visible female character is a secretary in a bikini. But then you think about it and realise that of course everyone else in this farce is a man: no woman could be this stupid. Speaking of Miss Scott (Tracy Reed) her scene has her repeat and shout high-end military secrets delivered over the phone to her general/lover in the bathroom.

Absurdist gems are scattered throughout. Bombing wing officer Major Kong’s (Slim Pickens) cowboy hat is kept in the safe next to the military codes. Captain Mandrake doesn’t have enough change to call the president with vital intel to prevent Armageddon, so has to ask the poor operator tasked with connecting him to the White House to reverse the charges. The titular character’s…quirks.

Captain Mandrake might be a character Sellers could have performed in his sleep with the cut glass accent and nervous tics, but the way he plays being forced to humour a psychopath is mesmerising. Dr Strangelove as a character is an excuse for Sellers to explore the art of over-the-topness and President Merkin Muffly is Sellers as his best straight-man, acting with utter incredulity at the escalating situation. His one-sided phone conversations with the (unheard) Soviet Premier play out like Bob Newhart routines with the President faltering and becoming increasingly embarrassed at his own country’s sheer incompetence.

Several key members of the ensemble threaten to steal the show from Sellers, Sellers and even Sellers. Of particular note are Sterling Hayden’s paranoid conspiracy theorist, and main antagonist, General Ripper. Hayden walks that knife-edge of playing madness convincingly, terrifyingly, without turning into a parody of a dangerous and severely mentally ill man. George C Scott is also great as the posturing blowhard, nuke-first-ask-questions-later General Turgidson (see a trend with these names yet?). Considering how much of the film takes place at the American airbase on lockdown or in the war room, you’ll rarely not be entertained by Hayden or Scott playing off one of Sellers’ colourful creations.

This is one of the few films where we’re cheering, nay praying for, the classic war movie heroes not to succeed. The teamwork, camaraderie and improvisation in a tight spot demonstrated, not to mention the matching song played throughout their scenes runs counter to what we know they are trying to achieve. The movie language runs counter to what we’ve learned over the course of the story, it’s mocking our expectations of a war film.

It’s a comedy, and yet everyone dies. We’re destroyed by our unbelievable stupidity. It has to be up there with the bleakest movie endings ever. Kubrick clearly thinks we as a species deserve no better. At least we’ll go out (slightly uncomfortably) laughing. SSP

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Chernobyl: Audience Adulation vs Critical Consenus

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Nuclear shroud of lies: HBO/Sister Pictures/Sky

According to the IMDb, HBO/Sky’s miniseries CHERNOBYL is now the most critically acclaimed TV show of all time. It’s in all the trailers now: “9.6/10”. This does not matter. I’m not one of those “who cares what the critics think?” viewers – pop cultural criticism has its place. What I’m here to argue is that the success of a show like Chernobyl goes much deeper.

Having a significant, perhaps one of the most significant of all world events as the basis of your TV series helps. Even if you don’t know the ins and outs of what happened, just saying “Chernobyl” to the average person on the street conjures certain phrases – “nuclear meltdown”, “radiation poisoning”, “cancer” – and images of deserted grey tenement blocks. The show presents the evidence for academics and experts to debate and the gut-wrenching real human experience for everyone else.

Word of mouth is far more important to selling a hard-going and upsetting true story than 5* reviews. A guy down the pub telling his mate he gave the show a go, expecting to find simply depressing but instead became completely enraptured by it, contributes far more to people watching, and therefore a show’s actual success, its current place in the public consciousness, than a critic banging on about the performances or the political and thematic subtext.

The thing is, unless you have a prior interest in the subject you likely won’t “feel like” popping on an episode of Chernobyl straight after, say, a long day at the office. But if someone you know and trust has recommended it and you give it a go, then you’re hooked. I’ve spoken to a few friends who were reluctant to start it lest it left them depressed, but they still ended up watching a couple of episodes back-to-back because they had to see what became of these characters they came to care about.

The atmosphere on the show is pervasive, the near-constant soundscape of nuclear hums and Geiger counter clicks envelops you in this world. Once you’re sucked in and the characters and their stories compel you, the real-world injustices hit home. It’ll probably compel even the most history-phobic viewer to do their own reading, to verify just how wrong the “official” story is.

I was told I had to watch Chernobyl by my parents and by a friend. They were right. Three moments in particular will stay with me. When the arrogant Chief Engineer Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) still refuses to accept that the Chernobyl reactor exploded even when presented with incontrovertible evidence – there’s this little moment, a pause as he looks at the photos, a crack in his armour appears dead you realise he’s just a Party Man who’s terrified of what will happen to him if he admits the truth. Then when during the trial Legasov (Jared Harris) repeats a statement given in defence of the actions of the USSR, “Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen? That’s perfect – they should put that on our money”. Finally, as the final episode draws to a close we are presented with some statistics, and the final one left me livid: regarding the death toll, “the official Soviet recording puts the figure at 31”.

Watch Chernobyl because it’s worth seeing, because it’s a story worth passing on. Then tell others to do the same. It’ll stay with you. SSP

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Review in Brief: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

BEALE STREET was this year’s biggest Best Picture snub. Not even a nomination. It’s not just a socio-historically coded title, the film represents a state of mind and a state of being – be proud of who you are and where you come from. It’s bold to start your story with the downward turn then use flashes of the heady good times to punctuate the drama. It has one of the best uncomfortable family gatherings ever committed to film. Nicholas Brittell’s swooning score somehow doesn’t feel like it’s overcompensating – the humanity spills over the edges of the screen. Tish and Fonny’s (Kiki Lane and Stephan James, both excellent) life together was stolen by a system rigged against them. Watch the documentary 13TH as a companion piece to get absolutely livid at the injustice. It’s less ethereal than MOONLIGHT, but arguably more relevant and just as beautiful. Barry Jenkins is a preeminent filmmaker. SSP

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Review in Brief: Green Book (2018)

I can’t say GREEN BOOK is a bad film, it’s too competent. But it’s a very ordinary Best Picture winner. To its credit, the realities of being a touring black musician of any calibre during this period are not ignored. A handful of good scenes and the easy chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali nearly make it all worth it. But it relies too much on easy stereotypes without saying anything even remotely profound about them, and some of these shortcuts to characterisation are damaging, even if you’re aiming for a lighter tone. Even when you’re bringing class and intellectualism into the mix for your discussion of prejudice you’re always on dodgy ground if your white character gives a black character a lecture on how to be better at being black. Yes, even if by the end of the film he and his family put a pin in being racist for Christmas. SSP

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Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)

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You gotta be forking kidding me: Disney/Pixar

How many really good fourth movies are there? After STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME and, depending on your 80s tolerance, ROCKY IV, I’m drawing a blank. TOY STORY 4 did not need to be a thing, and yet it I can’t deny that it more than justifies its existence.

When Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) creates a new friend from trash at her first day of kindergarten, it’s up to Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang to teach Forky (Tony Hale) the joys of being a toy. But Forky’s escape attempt during a family road trip leads Woody to question his own place in the world and to reconnect with an old flame.

It might be because it’s more explicit this time round, or maybe I was just too young when I watched the other films, but I’d never really appreciated the toys as parents message before. The toys see their role as supporting their kids, being there for them whenever they need them and for as long as they need them.

I would have never expected a character determined to kill himself to be central in a Toy Story movie. Forky, who from the first teaser trailer looked like a cynical, even lazy creation, is a master stroke. Anything can become a toy if a kid plays with it (I for one was particularly beguiled by empty cardboard boxes and saucepans as a small child) but given sentience, would every object be able to cope with the sudden responsibility of emotional attachment? Forky has an existential crisis when he is no longer thought of as disposable (his favourite thing to say for much of the film is a hopeful “Trash?”). He can’t do his job once well and then sleep forever in the comforting trash: more is expected of him, and he didn’t ask for this.

Woody is again acknowledged as an antique toy, making you wonder how many more Andys there were he perhaps can’t remember anymore. Do toys have perfect recall or do their memories fade and go fuzzy just like ours? Does whatever magic that brings these toys and utensils to life wear off or are they cursed to be alone when their loved ones move on?

A good chunk of the film takes place in a shop called Second Chance Antiques. How on the nose can you get? I also can’t think of a quicker route straight to the heartstrings (that unwanted toy gathering dust is *sob* going to get another chance at being loved). It’s a literal jumble of interesting and mundane objects and the setting allows for talented animated to invent imaginative chase scenes and hide in-jokes in the background.

There’s a fair amount of disturbing horror imagery in the shape of our antagonists, a doll and her retinue of four antique ventriloquist dummies. Scares are not alien to this franchise – just look at Sid and his Franken-toys in the first TOY STORY – but it may catch some younger viewers (and their parents) off-guard. Speaking of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), you’re gearing yourself up for a Stinky Pete or Lotso-style twist and they refreshingly go in a completely different direction.

It’s Hanks’s movie, mainly Woody’s emotional arc. Tim Allen given noticeably less to do as Buzz, usually just acting as a punchline (was Buzz always this stupid?). I loved Bo Peep-as-Sarah Conner from T2. Annie Potts gives the most layered performance of the ensemble and makes you regret her absence from much of the series. Keanu Reeves gamely sends himself up as Canadian daredevil Duke Kaboom (“Yes…I…Canada!”)

Besides all the usual Pixar big-heartedness, there’s some good one-liners, well-timed slapstick and running gags. There’s an unexpectedly dark suggestion of how to delay Bonnie’s family leaving to give Woody and Forky chance to get back: “Let’s frame the dad and send him to jail!”, new double-act toys Bunny and Ducky (Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele) have a creative solution to every challenging situation that comes their way and the third of a trio of “Combat Carls” (all voiced by an appropriate Carl Weathers) is always left hanging in the celebratory high-five stakes.

The ending to Toy Story 4 may not be as pitch-perfect as those that came before, may not be as much of an outright “weepie” but the implications of it all, where and how we’re leaving these characters has a time delay: it may well floor you by the time you get back home. They’ve tied up this story in an incredibly satisfying manner once again, that is until they come up with an idea for TOY STORY 5 in another ten years. SSP

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Review in Brief: See You Yesterday (2019)

SEE YOU YESTERDAY is a minor-key delight. Riffing a lot on BACK TO THE FUTIRE II but with punchy social commentary, the film has a special guest star in an early scene, and his appearance would have been enough, but they have him say his catchphrase as well. The movie is carried by two effortlessly compelling performances from Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow as time-jumping BFFs. It manages to be stylish, bright and breezy whilst never losing sight of what matters. It’s far more relevant to what’s going on in the world right now than many bigger-budgeted sci-fis and marks director and co-writer Stefon Bristol out as a a distinct artistic voice. Much like something like WE ARE THE BEST! it would be a shame if more pre-teens (especially black pre-teens) didn’t see this just because of a silly thing like strong language. But it’s on Netflix so who’s stopping them…SSP

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Review: X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

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Don’t worry, soon we’ll both be in better movies!: Twentieth Century Fox/Donners’ Company

I’ve already forgotten most of APOCALYPSE, though I do for some reason remember Michael Fassbender floating in the air, looking bored and not saying anything for half an hour. I also recall the apparent finality of the ending, with the mutant superhero team finally assembled and in their comics-accurate costumes, then the X-door closes, job done. But no, writer-director Simon Kinberg couldn’t resist having another go at the most beloved X-Men storyline of all. But has he made the same mistakes with DARK PHOENIX as he did with THE LAST STAND thirteen years ago? No, he’s made all new ones!

Following a successful space rescue mission, the X-Men are celebrated as heroes. But Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) returns to Earth changed and carrying the unstoppable and hugely destructive Phoenix Force. Can her team, her family, bring her back to the light?

To be fair to Sophie Turner, at least she gives a performance. At least Phoenix and what it does to the young psychic is the absolute focus of the story this time. Unfortunately, once again it’s scene after scene of other characters telling Jean what she is feeling in a given moment and what she should do. Just like Magneto did in Last Stand, Jessica Chastain’s alien character says she should be free, her powers fully unchained then proceeds to use her like a sentient gun. Where’s the agency of this title character?

Professor X (James McAvoy) and his questionable actions come across a little better this time round. He at least seems conflicted and guilty about messing with Jean’s subconscious when she was a child rather than a mind-raping sociopath. This is mostly because you have Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult, the only genuinely good thing in this) as an incredulous audience stand-in and their grief-stricken argument in the kitchen of the X-Mansion is one of few highlights.

Early on, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, glad to be out) questions why Professor X hasn’t renamed his team “The X-Women” yet since it’s the female members of the team always saving the day? She’s not wrong, but wow Simon Kinberg that’s a crashingly awkward way of saying it in your movie. Speaking of Kinberg’s writing, he regularly contradicts the previous movies, some of which he wrote himself. I’m sorry to do this sort of analysis but there’s that little else of interest here. How did Jean manifest her Phoenix powers last time to beat Apocalypse if she encounters the Phoenix Force for the first time here, ten years later? Why does Professor X claim to have built Cerebro when we clearly saw Hank do this in FIRST CLASS, and more importantly why doesn’t Hank correct him when he’s standing right behind him?! And are we really expected to believe Charles, Erik and Hank are somewhere between 50 and 60 years old by this point? Why didn’t you even give Michael Fassbender a little bit of grey at his temples?

The film looks exactly as expensive as it thinks it needs to. A flashy set piece at the beginning and one at the end aside, all the action looks a bit TV series finale.  The space rescue looks good but is a pretty boring and unimaginative sequence. The X-Men following Jean back home as her powers awaken is devoid of life and virtually identical to the same scene in Last Stand (only the victim of Phoenix’s power changes). The New York nighttime street skirmish is messily put together bordering on incomprehensible. The final train fight is entertaining when focussing on the mutants with the more visually distinctive powers (basically, Magneto and Nightcrawler) but is just stalling for time before the final Phoenix confrontation.

Fatally for this adaptation there’s just not enough human feeling to this take on the most emotional, even melodramatic X-Men story. Despite giving Scott/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) plenty to do, it mostly amounts to running and optic blasting, and shouting “Jean!” ad nauseam. Asking us to really care about this Jean/Scott relationship after only spending one-and-a-bit films with them (where they’re only now getting any real screentime) is a bit of an ask.

This is the last X-Men review I’ll be writing for the foreseeable, which makes me rather sad – I love the X-Men. But the Fox movies have been patchy at best, and hopefully the next iteration of these characters won’t so quickly lose sight of who they are and what they’re about. You’ve been gifted one of the most interesting and diverse ensembles of characters out there: use them. SSP

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Review: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

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How long left on this godawful shoot, Ian?: Twentieth Century Fox/Donners’ Company

Remember how for the opening flashback of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND they smoothed out Patrick Stewart’s face to an alarming degree to make him look 25 years younger but just gave Ian McKellen some hair dye and a hat? Maybe because Stewart has looked the same since at least the early 80s they had to make Professor X’s past appearance look more drastic, but it was terrifying nonetheless. Things didn’t get much less distressing in the 100 minutes that followed…

The war between humanity and mutantkind is brought to a head by the invention of a cure for mutation, prompting terror attacks from the radical mutant leader Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his followers. Only the heroic mutant X-Men can prevent catastrophe by defending humanity, meanwhile apparently deceased teammate Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) returns and is far from herself…

So a boy crying in a bathroom with blood and feathers on the floor somehow equals mutant to his dad? It looks more like the kid has been covertly slaughtering chickens. Speaking of which there is precisely zero point to Angel (Ben Foster, whose every subsequent performance was better) being in this.

Fanservice alert: teasing the Sentinels in the Danger Room, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) doing the “fastball special”, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) finally fully icing up. I see you movie, and I’m not impressed. Also, introducing mutant power classes is fanboy nonsense that cheapens every character involved. Speaking of cheapening, “You reading my thoughts?” She doesn’t have to, Logan – you and the pervy camera clearly just ogled her cleavage.

Even with all the first-draft, explaining away all ambiguity and nuance dialogue (“What was that?” / “Danger Room session”, “They’re ready” / “But are you?”) Hugh Jackman is somehow still good. Kelsey Grammar is still good even in blue. Ian McKellan does his best with the worst and most simplistic rendering of Magneto in the entire series.

Having Grammar’s Beast in a diplomatic capacity as a mutant in the human President’s cabinet is a really nice idea, pays off the resolution of X2 and then…goes nowhere. Thst should have been the basis for a good chunk of the movie – I wanted Beast added to THE WEST WING!

The Bobby/Kitty (Ellen Page) ice skating scene is nice and all, but it undermines him as a character who always been decent before (where’s Rogue’s shoulder to cry on?) and further dumps on Rogue (Anna Paquin) by having her not confront him and just walk out of the movie. Rogue should fight; it’s in her nature. This mutant desire for normality played a lot better with young Beast in FIRST CLASS, whose mutation was more noticeable.

Forcing a cure on an unwilling population who isn’t sick is the natural end-point to the overarching allegory of Bryan Singer’s X-films, so I can see why they went for it. “The Cure” should have been the while movie and “Dark Phoenix” should have been the basis of at least two more films.

Belligerent, high-and-mighty Professor X is an uncomfortable fit. “The greater good” is more a Magneto thing, and because they turned Professor X into Magneto, they had to turn Magneto into something far less interesting. He’s basically Emperor Palpatine in this, and I couldn’t think of anything else but the Anakin/Palpatine/Windu scene in REVENGE OF THE SITH during the Jean/Professor X/Magneto confrontation.

“In chess the pawns go first” is the worst line Magneto could have uttered if you want him to stay true to his character. Aside from cheapening the playful scenes of gamesmanship and ideological and philosophical debate he had with Xavier in the first two movies, it’s just not him. His methods may be uncompromising, but he should shed a tear for every mutant life lost in his campaign for freedom.

There’s a wonderful simplicity to the gag of a mother locking her family car door as Magneto and his brotherhood of pissed-off mutants march by. We’re starving for good jokes this token effort may get us through! Almost as funny is seeing that some bright spark organised for Magneto’s closest ally to be transported in a small convoy of metal vehicles.

The final battle is an underwhelming close to a superhero trilogy. I suppose it’s to be expected as Magneto didn’t really assemble an army, he assembled the audience to the warmup act of a small music festival. Our grand finale is a jumble of indistinct characters, boring fight choreography and terrible wirework. But you already know this; The Last Stand is still a massive letdown thirteen years later. Join me next time to see just how Simon Kinberg screwed up his Dark Phoenix: Take 2. SSP

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Review: Rocketman (2019)

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Saturday night’s alright… : Marv Films/New Republic Pictures

ROCKETMAN is the second musical I’ve really loved this year. Whereas the first, WILD ROSE kept its cowboy-booted feet firmly on the ground, the story of the man formally known as Reg Dwight’s formative years and breakthrough floats off into another plain. This is more rock opera than straight biopic, is appropriately camp and always feeling emotionally connected even as it removes itself from reality.

Reginald Dwight, AKA Elton Hercules John’s (Taron Egerton) life from childhood to breakthrough, fame and rehab (and not necessarily in that order) as told through his music.

Taron Egerton is a force of nature in this. Yes, he’s very kind casting for young Elton John even when given happy teeth and a receding hairline, but you really don’t mind after he belts out the first tune. Making his mark in the opening scene as he swagger-staggers into rehab in full stage regalia, he completely metamorphoses into Elton. A few scenes of an predictably miserable childhood later Egerton yanks the spotlight back to him, completely owning the strikingly choreographed musical number to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and the energy never dissipates again. Bryce Dallas Howard is…leftfield casting for Elton’s mother, but she’s better here than she has been in a long time here (despite some not good old age makeup later on), with strong support also coming from Gemma Jones and Jamie Bell.

It’s the dramatic license, the liberties taken with the chronology of songs and events that frees the film, that gives it a loose energy. What song from Elton’s entire career conveys where he’s at at this particular moment in life the most effectively? Who cares if it’s one of his later hits that he’s singing as an unloved child (Matthew Illesley)? Very early on in his career we see him don the first of his eye-catching stage costumes and from here on he rarely lets his performance persona slip, entombing his myriad issues behind flamboyance, substances and sex.

Elsewhere when fantasy takes precedent, Elton’s onlookers, in a rather playful decision from director Dexter Fletcher, occasionally appear to notice when we hit the realms of magical realism. Audiences float, Elton rocket-boosts off into the sky, in one dazzling montage he goes through a decade’s worth of costume changes in thirty seconds as his piano spins and throws off a ring of fireworks.

The film it reminded me most of wasn’t another musical but another biopic of a musician that played fast and loose with perception and how making art can alter it: AMADEUS. Both films only use a great musician’s documented life as a starting point for telling a story that’s interesting, artistically, thematically and emotionally, on its own terms and both get quite surreal as well.

I know Fletcher probably doesn’t want to be reminded about how he was left clearing up someone else’s mess but it’s only when compared to distinctive projects like this that it becomes clear how far short BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY fell. It was just so mechanical. It didn’t seem interested what made its subject tick, just what he could do. This is the warts-and-all examination of a superstar we want. Sex and drugs and rock and roll and then some.

It’s appropriate that the film’s final musical number is “I’m Still Standing”, complete with Egerton cleverly inserted into the iconic music video. That’s Elton speaking to us as a survivor of a bad time in his life. It was also essentially Egerton’s audition piece, he having already performed it as an animated Gorilla in SING.

Rocketman demonstrates mastery of sound, colour and movement throughout, much like Elton himself. This is without a doubt Dexter Fletcher’s strongest film, one of the most engrossing and entertaining biopics around and a feelgood new musical to boot. This is the kind of film that Freddie Mercury deserved. SSP

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