Rocketman (2019)

I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.

Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.

-Brandon Ledet

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings.

And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.

Around my office I’m known as the guy who likes the weird artsy shit (and, if you’re reading this site, you probably are that guy or gal or person of a nonbinary nature in your office too), but I also genuinely love a surprise, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek roller coaster of an action film when one somehow stumbles out of the studio system to slouch toward either notoriety or be forgotten. I wasn’t at all interested in the first Kingsman after seeing an overlong preview for it on FX during American Horror Story until a friend promised me that there was more to it than met the eye. And there was! It’s an unapologetic spy film that cribs from My Fair Lady (explicitly), blows the heads off of hundreds of people in a colorful fireworks display, and twists the familiar elements of the gentleman spy and action genres so far around that they essentially break off. It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it was an exceedingly well-choreographed exercise in bubblegum brutality and Blofeldian pomp.

The new film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is all of those things as well. It’s a little more bloated than its predecessor in length and that nudge-nudge-wink-wink factor (it’s a fine line that’s difficult to manage/navigate), while running a little leaner on some subtlety. Sure, there are no lines that lean so heavily on the fourth wall as the original’s clunky “This ain’t that kind of movie, bruv,” but there is a salon robot that files down and a fifties themed villainous lair buried in “technically undiscovered” ruins in a jungle, not to mention the best use of Sir Elton John in a movie since Almost Famous.

We pick up where we left off last time, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton), codename Galahad, still mourning the loss of his mentor Harry (Colin Firth), the previous Galahad. We learn that he’s still dating Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), whom he rescued from Valentine’s base at the end of the previous film and that the apparently-killed Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a Kingsman recruit who failed to make the cut, was mangled at the end of the last film but is still alive. In fact, he’s working for Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drug empress who wipes out all of Kingsman but Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the agency’s surrogate for Bond’s Q. The Kingsman doomsday vault points them in the direction of a kind of sister organization known as Statesman, which uses a distillery as the front for their off-book missions. After some of that good old-fashioned Let’s You and Him Fight nonsense, the remnants of Kingsman team with the Statesman cowboy stereotypes to thwart Poppy’s plan to strongarm the U.S. government into decriminalizing all drugs by withholding the antidote to a virus of her own design. “Champ” Champagne (Jeff Bridges) is the leader of his group: wild card party animal Tequila (Channing Tatum), archetypal honorable gunslinger Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and shrinking violet Merlin equivalent Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Before they reach the finish line, there’s much discussion of John Denver, a tussle or two with a couple of killer robotic dogs, a man being forced to eat a hamburger made of his friend, and a painful looking identity-erasing makeover. Also, there’s a subplot about the evil unnamed PoTUS (Bruce Greenwood) cackling and lying. And a wedding.

A lot of people have taken issue with some of the more subversive elements of the film and the way that they turn our hero into a bit of an idiot, but I like that. It’s another way of subverting the Roger Moore Bond’s tropes, because Eggsy isn’t the perfect wish fulfillment hero that Bond is. His friends are uncouth, he’s careless with his lethal gadgetry, and he doesn’t see an obvious traitor in his midst until it’s almost too late.When Whiskey and the Galahads (band name!) visit a facility hidden within some kind of ski resort, you expect that it’s going to be a play on the fact that Roger Moore’s Bond skied all the time, in A View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, and The Spy Who Loved Me. But nope, there’s no overlong ski chase, just a giant skyway plummeting from the sky.

Eggsy is still the un-Bond, and while this film fails to have the same (relative) gravity as it managed to maintain via the character arcs of the first, there’s a development there that I think is being overlooked by those who are decrying this as a bombastic failure, either as a follow-up or a standalone film. One of the things that people seem to be most upset about is the fact that Eggsy chooses to call his girlfriend and get permission to sleep with another woman in pursuit of the mission. Yes, it’s dumb in that it’s poorly timed (he couldn’t have called her on the way to the rendezvous?), but it reflects another anti-Bond quality that makes Eggsy more likable and relatable. For all the power fantasies that he fulfills, James Bond is an aggressive womanizer and kind of an asshole. He always gets the job done, but you know that if his marriage to Tracy Bond had lasted more than eight minutes he would have given her the old Betsy Draper special every time he was in the field, whether it was beneficial to his mission or just because he was bored. The film goes out of its way to show you just how unlike Bond Eggsy is in this way, and it’s actually refreshingly original. Also, there’s a laser whip.

I’ve also seen some responses to the political commentary in the film, which is allegedly slanted left. I was surprised to read this interpretation of the film after my screening, as I actually thought the film was rather toothless in its reflection of the current American political climate (not that I expected any deep commentary at all in this one, but by making the PotUS a major character, you invite that criticism). After all, in the last one, it was made pretty explicit that President Obama (along with essentially every political leader save for Tilde and her father and perhaps a few other dissidents) was a willing participant in villainous mastermind’s evil scheme. I’ve seen dismissal of the Oval Office subplot as being “pandering” because the evil president’s moral victor is an older blonde woman, a way of giving liberals the world that they want to live in. I didn’t (and don’t) see it that way, however. All of the reporting that we see within the film comes straight from Fox News, and, in comparison to the complicit Obama of the first film, the evil President herein is given neither a name or an explicit political party, and doesn’t have the mannerisms or characteristics that would truly make him an analog of Trump: no combover, no dayglo skin, no broken or rambling sentences or rogue trains of thought. There’s no actual political commentary here, and that’s fine; this is just another generic evil president in a long line of fictional evil presidents. If you see Trump in this performance, well, that’s up to you.

Overall, this is a sequel that works. It’s a bit paler and a not quite as fun, but it’s stylish, witty, visceral, colorful, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a film that’s not to be taken seriously, and it delivers on the promise that the (spoilery!) trailer sets up. On a scale of sequels that copied the template of the first film verbatim from Men in Black II to 10 Cloverfied Lane, it errs on the “scenes from the last one, but with a twist!” side, but there’s still enough new to satisfy you, as long as you’re willing to get lost in a candy kingdom of headshots and people getting cut in half. And Elton John in fabulous feathery shackles.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Country Bears (2002)

Imagine if the infamous The Band documentary The Last Waltz was remade as a dramatic film where every actor was created by the animatronic technicians behind the Chuck E. Cheese house band. Now rework that premise into an 88 minute live action Disney comedy and you have the delightfully nightmarish flop The Country Bears from 2002. Much like other blatantly commercial misfires of pop culture past (Mac & Me, Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Monster Trucks, etc.), The Country Bears‘s main draw is the disturbing novelty of its character design, the titular bears. The movie is too short and too ramshackle for the absurdity of its animatronic country musician bears to ever wear off, so every wiggle of their roboticized ears and every flicker in their dead robo-bear eyes registers as a crime against Nature. What distinguishes The Country Bears from other nightmarish misfires of shameless commercialism, however, is that its various goofs & gags can actually be genuinely funny on top of its overall surrealist novelty. Directed by Animaniacs writer (and Pinky & The Brain creator) Peter Hastings, the film is somehow successful as a straightforward kids’ comedy (for the kids who don’t wake up screaming later that evening, at least).

Our protagonist and audience surrogate is a preteen bear robot voiced by Haley Joel Osment, who opens the film asking human parents (including Steven Tobolowsky), “Am I adopted?” over the breakfast table. His human brother, a generic teen bully with early 00s frosted tips, is befuddled that his parents tell a white lie in that moment and that no one seems to care that Beary Barrington is a bear, taking it into his own hands to tell the truth. This inspires Beary to run away from home on a road trip to the concert hall where his all-time favorite band, The Country Bears, used to play regularly. Discovering that the robo-bear version of The Greatful Dead is currently broken up and the concert hall is in danger of being demolished, Beary vows To Get The Band Back Together in order to save the historic space that stands as his bear culture mecca. The plot is mostly a series of set pieces from there as he collects bear musicians voiced by Stephen Root, Toby Huss, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt (in a disturbing bear form the producers are hoping you’ll find sexually attractive), etc. for the climactic, day-saving concert. Standing in the way of success is a demolition-happy real estate developer played by an especially deranged Christopher Walken and a set of idiot cops tasked with bringing Beary home to his “family.”

Watching these hideous robo-bears play their giant guitars, banjos, and harmonicas, it’s easy to fantasize about how much better this film could be with a punk or metal soundtrack than it is with the lackluster country pop served up here. There is something subversive about dedicating something so visually bizarre to a wholesomely American artform, though, and no matter how bland the music gets, the bears never stop being fascinating to look at, whereas if this film were made in the last five years they’d be rendered in grey mush CGI. As the winking-at-the-audience cameos from unexpected celebrities like Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, and Elton John pile up, the movie’s normalized commercial sheen becomes even more bizarre in juxtaposition with its hideous character designs & zany Animaniacs humor. Sped-up bus chases, cops getting beaten senseless by automated car washes, musical arm pit farting, and old lady diner patrons pulling saxophones out of nowhere amount to the logic of a music video or a Saturday morning cartoon, which makes the VH1 Behind the Music-inspired premise all the more ridiculous. The film never pauses long enough to allow you to wonder how this human/bear society functions socially or why Beary Barrington would have a Nine Inch Nails poster on his bedroom wall. The whole thing just barrels through diners, weddings, car washes, dive bars, and music video shoots toward the inevitable, day-saving concert climax. It comes and goes so quickly and with such bizarre enthusiasm that I barely had time to notice that I was constantly smiling throughout.

-Brandon Ledet