It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?
Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.
I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.
The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.
The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?
There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.
The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.
The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.
With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?
Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Given the high-profile treatment of a popular documentary and an awards-bait caliber feature, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people either thought justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was due for recognition or was about to die. On the Basis of Sex takes more than a few nods from 2012’s Lincoln, showcasing its subject trying to pass key reforms/legislation as a means of better insight into his or her lasting legacy. To that end the film is a success. It’s an intelligent legal procedural taking time to find judicial footholds, craft compelling arguments, and the back-and-forth challenges of overturning hundreds of years of precedent that viewed women as essentially lesser. If you enjoy rhetorical debates on legal minutia, this might be the movie for you. However, if you wanted to get a better understanding of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) the person, then you’re out of luck. She’s more or less the vessel for social justice and the film keeps her more as a lionized symbol for change than as a person. Her frustrations, such as being denied the same opportunities as men, are meant to serve as a reminder of the frustrations of the many. There are a handful of scenes with dismissive, doddering middle-aged men that feel too stagy, and yet I’m sure that these same curt comments and patronizing behaviors were a daily affair (and still are). Jones doesn’t feel like she has a full grasp on the character beyond as symbol (her Brooklyn accent is a bit slippery as well). You also get to process the reality of Ginsburg as a sexual being as she initiates PG-13 sex with her supportive husband (Armie Hammer). It’s kind of like thinking about your parents having sex. On the Basis of Sex feels a bit, ironically enough, too old-fashioned. It’s got dramatic courtroom showdowns, including an eleventh hour speech, and all the old Oscar bait tropes we’d expect from this sort of movie. It plays to every expectation of its audience. Beyond learning about the legal arguments, there’s nothing new or insightful here. Stick with the RBG documentary and hear the same stories from the real deal herself.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+
It’s rare to see an original musical given this sort of stage and attention. We usually reserve this space for tried-and-tested properties from Broadway or whatever animated film Disney has deigned to remake for an extra billion dollars in goodies. Another question is whether the movie will make the use of its big screen potential, as we’ve been inundated with smaller-scale musicals that are satisfying but lacking in an awe-inspiring sense of scale. The Greatest Showman is a big, splashy, 80s-styled Broadway musical that deals with big moments, big characters, and big emotions. It wears its mighty sincerity on its sleeve and challenges you not to get swept away with all of its charming pomp and circumstance, and for the most part I did just that.
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is an unemployed salesman trying to provide a life of luxury and imagination to his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and two daughters. He opens a theater in New York City and hires folks with unique appeal, a bearded woman (Keala Settle), a little person dressed as Napoleon, other so-called “freaks” and several trapeze artists. The show garners some controversy but still attracts a crowd. He reaches out to a rich playboy Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to better shore up the finances. Phillip is reluctant but eager to step away from the pull of his parents, which includes falling in love with Anne (Zendaya), a trapeze performer. Barnum achieves enough success to force his way into the moneyed world of New York high society but he doesn’t feel they accept him, so he reaches out to renowned opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and convinces her to come to America. Barnum plans a cross-country tour for his newest star and plans on going with, soaking up every standing ovation from the upper class. With his focus distracted, Barnum is in danger of losing those closets to him.
This is a loving throwback to those old Broadway days and it succeeds admirably on the big screen, taking its circus setting and opening up the space. There’s a rooftop dance among hanging sheets that reminded me of classic Rogers/Hammerstein. I was particularly fond of the choreography of two duets, both with Efron. The first, “The Other Side,” he is being wooed by Barnum in a bar and the two men circle each other in negotiations, eventually jumping on tables, the bar top, and pounding and sliding shot glasses to naturally match with the percussive elements of the catchy song. The “Rewrite the Stars” lovers’ duet is playful and romantic as envisioned in its location, the center ring of the theater . Zendaya swings along ropes, rings, and weights, making their “will they won’t they” song a literal flirtatious dance, their orbits getting closer to one another, and the staging makes the emotions of the song feel even larger and more resonant. If you’re a fan of the unabashed, big audacious musicals of old with a sincerity that could approach mawkish, then you’ll definitely be in for a treat with what The Greatest Showman offers.
Reading that the Oscar-winning musical team behind the listless tunes from La La Land was the ones cooking up the original Showman songs did not inspire me with confidence. Well, apparently what they really needed was people who could sing and a canvas that allowed for a wider array of musical instrumentation. The songs mimic the movie in its presentation of exploding emotions and earnestness, and the big group numbers have a habit of feeling very kitchen sink in their melisma. It’s all the notes, all at you, with a thundering backbeat, and it can be a little overpowering at first to process, but eventually you adjust to its ecstatic rhythms. The opening number “The Greatest Show” threw me for a loop, with quick audience foot stomps cut with a millennial whoop and then laid over a dozen other musical tracks. It hits you hard but serves as a fine introduction, teasing you about the world to come and Barnum’s showcase. The song is also emblematic of my biggest quibble with what is otherwise rousing musical numbers insofar that it’s overproduced. There are solid melodies with each song and its reprise; however, it feels like the arrangements cannot settle on when to stop adding stuff. The songs can feel cluttered, weighed down by the added production. Barring that, it’s 39 minutes of original music that puts the Oscar-winning La La Land to shame.
With any musical, different numbers will strike people differently, so I’ll highlight some of my favorites. The aforementioned “The Other Side” has a playful jaunty beat that builds and builds, nicely lending itself to showoff moments for Jackman and Efron as they try and outsmart and eventually out dance (the musical equivalent of persuasive speaking?) one another. the lyrics are also sharp (“I live among the swells/ We don’t pick up peanut shells”). It’s also a nice change of pace from the anthems and ballads that populate much of the soundtrack. Speaking of ballads, “Never Enough” might come from the least important character in the overall story but my goodness does Voice alum Loren Allred, providing vocals for Ferguson to lip synch, give it such a wallop. The emotion in the singing is crystal clear and made me wince because it’s so good. I’m one of those crazy people who care more about the performances in my big screen musicals than hitting all of the correct notes (see: Les Miserables), but it’s nice when a performer can grant you both. There’s no shame in lip-synching, La La Land. “Tightrope” is Williams lamenting her martial changes but the real revelation is her singing. She takes a fine song and makes it better. The song getting the most awards attention is the anthemic “This is Me” about accepting one’s self like a “Let it Go.” Keala Settle takes complete ownership with her booming vocals and passionate intonation. It’s a calling for all outcasts and delivers the inspirational groundswell into a millennial whoop pinnacle. There wasn’t a song that didn’t engage me at some level, either musically, performance-wise, or even presentation, and that’s one of the most important aspects for a musical.
Jackman (Logan) might just be blessed with more charisma than anyone on the planet, and so when he has that twinkle in his eye, you’re willing to go on whatever journey with the man. This has been a passion project of his for years and Jackman and he puts his all into being a captivating conman who can get high on his own hokum. He’s leaping off the screen to entertain and his dexterity and natural showmanship parlay well into bringing great, bustling life to his character. Efron (Baywatch) is an appealing actor who can so easily pull you in with his adeptness at comedy, acting, dinging, and dancing. It’s been a while since Efron hoofed it up on the screen and he hasn’t missed a step. Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is a born star. She has a moment late in the film where her hoarse voice repeats the chorus of “Rewrite the Stars” and she pushes it from being cheesy into being touching. Williams (All the Money in the World) is better than her underwritten material affords and brings warmth to her understanding, doting wife. For fans of the excellent Netflix series GLOW, which is also all about showmanship, that’s Sheila the She-Wolf as a young Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin) greeting Barnum.
Now, the direct sincerity of the entire production is somewhat called into question by its very sanitized approach to P.T. Barnum. One way of looking at his “freak show” was that he was empowering the less fortunate and providing a safe space for them to call a community and earn a wage in a discriminatory job market. Barnum gave them a sense of dignity. Another way of looking at it is that Barnum was exploiting people who had no other options and selling tickets for the public to indulge its morbid curiosities. Barnum is a fascinating figure before he even conjures up the idea for his circus. He was an abolitionist who dropped out of school at fifteen, owned and operated a newspaper by age 21, was jailed for libel, exposed a credit scheme to gain his theater, four in the Civil War, and was a purveyor of any ridiculous and ghastly theatrical stunt, including an enslaved African woman’s autopsy to prove she was really 160 years old. Barnum is a complicated historical figure with a wealth of anecdotes that would make great storytelling potential.
The movie invents a Barnum for an invented tale, which isn’t necessarily a problem except that what we get is absurdly simplistic in comparison to the complex source. Barnum becomes a poor kid with great aspirations, most of which seems to be either joining the rich elites or sticking it to them and their snooty sensibilities. Likewise, being a champion of the “freaks” is naively unsophisticated for a man as craven for publicity as Barnum. The simplicity also extends into the supporting characters that have meager morsels to work with considering the considerable attention Barnum draws. An interracial romance between Phillip and Anne has tremors of importance but falls back on easy signifiers lacking greater examination, like Phillip’s agog family response to him being interested in “the help.” It’s a shame because Efron and Zendaya are terrific together and a simple gesture like reaching out to hold hands can have such power. Charity is the put upon wife we see all-too often in the stories of Great Men, and her domesticity represents the source of Barnum’s true happiness. You see, dear reader, Barnum’s character arc is that he wants to stick ti to the rich elites, than he wants to be accepted by them, and then he learns the errors of his ways and goes back to appreciating his family and life’s smaller pleasures, those pleasures are still living comfortably. It’s a strange stop-and-smell-the-roses sort of lesson, and it’s even weirder when Barnum seems to lose interest in his community of performers he’s gathered. The subplot where Barnum abandons his theater to tour with Jenny Lind feels both obvious and unnecessary. The only tension is whether or not there will be an affair, and the impact of Jenny Lind seems overall fleeting, forcing conflict in contrived fashions. For a man whose life story was writ large and fascinating, The Greatest Showman conjures a sedate replacement.
As I was watching and smiling to the soaring emotions and tunes, I kept thinking how 17-year-old me would have likely tore this movie to shreds, lambasting its earnestness as a mawkish attempt to wring out a feel-good story from a questionable source. 17-year-old me would have snickered about how gloriously unhip The Greatest Showman is. Mid-30s me has a much easier time not just accepting sincerity but also appreciating it. The performances are charming, the performers able, and the songs slyly catchy. The story of P.T. Barnum is sanitized with mixed results but the ebullient feeling coursing through this film is undeniable and worked its magic over me. If you’ve been missing the big Broadway musicals of old, The Greatest Showman will be a three-ring treat.
Nate’s Grade: B
Back in 1994, popular culture was rabidly obsessed with figure skating thanks to Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the “bad girl” who was accused of coordinating an attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya’s skuzzy husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), had hired a friend to “intimidate” Kerrigan, and the end result was a broken knee and the world-famous outcry of, “Why?!” I, Tonya takes a look at the players of this media circus and lets them tell their own stories in their own words.
I,Tonya feels brazenly like a Scorsese movie populated with kooky Coen brothers characters. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) cribs from the best and uses all those propulsive camera moves, voice over leading to fourth-wall-breaking, and music needle drops to draw an audience into this crackling crime story. The biggest decision made by screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) is the dueling perspectives of Tonya and Jeff being given equal treatment. They both sit for a series of on-camera interviews and will even interrupt the flashbacks to object. Jeff will recount a time Tonya chased him around with a loaded shotgun, and then Tonya will turn to the camera and argue that this moment never happened. I, Tonya doesn’t tell you who to believe and who to doubt. The account will purposely contradict one another, often demonizing the other party and painting themselves as a larger victim of fate. The movie is steadily entertaining as it mixes moments of light and dark. Tonya breaking the fourth wall to talk about her domestic abuse is another way of showing just his disassociated she’s become to a life of abuse. It turns fourth wall break into coping mechanism. I was laughing at the buffoonery of Jeff’s goons and moved by the relentless torment of Tonya. It’s a story that’s worth revisiting and is given an invigorating sheen of inept crime thriller. Gillespie goes a little too hard with the Scorsese speed ramp zooms and quantity of literal song selections, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment impact.
This is a film about reassessing preconceived notions about who the characters are, what the story exactly is, and where the truth lies amidst all the madness. Tonya scoffs, “There is no such thing as truth,” as if she were channeling the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. This becomes a foundational thesis of the movie as we’re presented with conflicting personal accounts where characters will break the fourth wall to criticize the validity of what they are doing or saying. All of these conflicting accounts force the audience to constantly reconsider what we are seeing and being told. We have to consistently think about the source and how there might be bias at play. As expected, Tonya and Jeff’s differing versions of events paint the other as more knowingly duplicitous. Tonya flat-out accuses Jeff of years of physical abuse, the kind of relationship Tonya’s vicious mother had primed her for. LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would say all of her cruel hostility was valuable in an ends-justify-the-means crucible. Through fighting to earn the approval of an abusive authority figure, Tonya became one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, the first to achieve the vaulted triple axle. LaVona shouts that “nice” doesn’t get you anything in this world (her own mother was nice and LaVona became a waitress). People throughout I, Tonya are reshaping worldviews, angling for sympathy, and spinning history for personal advantage. Everyone wants to be a victim, a martyr, or at least the person who was right in the end. By the end, you don’t know what exactly to believe and whose truth is closest.
This was a media scandal that the public gladly gobbled up every new morsel, bringing out the knives to carve up a villain served up on the Olympic stage, but I, Tonya is a very empathetic portrayal that still doesn’t take the edge off of its title heroine. She grew up poor and scrappy and had to make her own costumes for her skating performances. From a technical standpoint, Tonya Harding could out skate anyone, but she didn’t fit into the cookie cutter beauty pageant image of what a wholesome girl should represent. The same bias against her, the trailer trash girl who couldn’t catch a break, was still dragging her down even when her skating was superior to her competitors. It definitely helps to paint a sympathetic portrayal for the woman, and that’s even before the years of abusive relationships, and a husband she may have returned to in order to appear more “wholesome family.” It’s easy to castigate Tonya Harding as a villain, but it’s even harder to see the person inside the caricature that was sold for mass media consumption.
The use of humor has to be very delicate because of all the controversial material. We have naturally offbeat characters doing incredibly stupid things, and then we have a husband repeatedly hitting his wife. This seesaw of tone means that the comedy needs to be precise or else it will undercut the drama or, worse, cross into gross mitigation of abuse. LaVona is a popular source for verbal abuse, and it’s meant to be shocking, but at no point do I think the film trivializes the conditions of Tonya’s childhood for ironic comic fodder. It’s presenting an abnormal treatment of an abnormal upbringing, and the later detours with “The Incident” are highlighting the naturally cracked criminals. These people were not good at what they were doing and were easily caught. The nimwits-try-their-hands-at-crime subgenre is ripe for laughter, in particular Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and his self-professed masterful skills at counter terrorism planning. The Tonya Harding scandal is so inherently sensational and with so many bizarre, colorful characters that to treat it without its penchant of natural humor would be a disservice. Crazy people doing dumb things are going to tend to have some humor value. Where the film falls short is in the realm of media satire. There are a few tasty morsels sprinkled throughout, like LaVona forcing reporters to stand behind a rope line if they wanted to snap her picture, but overall the media satire feels flat. Bobby Cannavale (Spy) feels completely wasted as a Hard Copy reporter/exposition device. He offers few insights and fewer colorful anecdotes. The most pointed the film gets with media commentary is when Tonya looks directly into the camera and accuses each person of being her abuser. It’s a stark turn that stops the action cold, and the audience has to think about their own tacit approval through media consumption. By rewarding this coverage and the easily packaged version of events, have we all played a part in Tonya’s suffering and shame?
Robbie (Suicide Squad) is sensational in the role, eliciting so much emotion that it can instill whiplash. One moment you’re impressed by the depth of her vulnerability and the next you’re whistling at her hard-as-nails persona and sheer tenacity. It’s an unapologetic performance that goes dark places and serious places, but Robbie doesn’t stoop to pander. Tonya wants your empathy but she doesn’t want your pity, and she sure as hell isn’t going to pretend to be somebody she’s not. The tricky part is the question over who is Tonya Harding. With Robbie, she’s a profane firebrand who is impatient with a world that refuses to accept her and her talents. The scene where Tonya is stripped of ever competing again in professional figure skating is a dazzling piece of acting on Robbie’s part. Tonya has sacrificed much of her own life for this sport, and by her own admission she doesn’t know how to do anything else. To see it all go away with the pound of a gavel, she pleads for jail instead as a more humane punishment. This feels like Robbie marking her grand entrance into the next acting echelon in Hollywood.
The supporting roles nicely serve their purpose, with Janney (The Girl on the Train) being the obvious standout. Her hellish mother is overpowering in every sense. Janney is abrasive and fierce and a crutch for the screenplay when it needs something shocking. I do not doubt the voracity of what the Tonya and other participants have said about LaVona, but the filmmakers don’t know when to leave enough alone. There are insights to be had through LaVona’s relationship with her daughter but it’s too often one-note. She’s the angry older woman berating people for shock, comedy, or a transition.
I, Tonya might change your mind about Tonya Harding. She’s definitely unrepentant in the movie while at the same time asking you to view her with an empathy that was lacking during the parade of 1990s tabloids. She’s an abuse survivor who had to claw for every advantage she could earn. You might not like her, or maybe you’ll grow to appreciate her, but you will understand her better. Robbie is outstanding, Janney is highly memorable and perfectly cast, and the direction provides plenty of jolts, from electric camerawork to the energetic propulsion through its diverging viewpoints. The dark comedy works, the serious drama works, and the domestic violence is not trivialized with so many ironic winks. I, Tonya is an unflinching expose that forces you to question the validity of everything. It’s a movie that dares you to question your perceptions while you’re keenly watching. Perhaps twenty years later, Tonya Harding will get whatever she is due.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The young author sub-genre has become an awards season cottage industry. We’ve seen recent stories about J.M. Barrie, Jane Austin, P.L. Travers, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole assortment of the Beats. Even in 2017 there have been stories about a young J.D. Salinger (Rebel in the Rye), the creator of Wonder Woman (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and soon Charles Dickens (The Man Who Invented Christmas). We seem to relish watching the formation of brilliance, or at least watching a recognizable creative voice find their flights of inspiration. Goodbye Christopher Robin is meant to be another in the tradition of young author movies served up on a platter for season-ending awards and recognition. Goodbye Christopher Robin is so serious, clumsy, and tacky in final execution that it enters awards bait self-parody.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is coming to terms with his PTSD after his experience sin WWI and trying to re-enter the literary and theatrical world of London. He finds inspiration through the imaginative play dates with his young son, Christopher Robin a.k.a. “Billy Moon,” and in time the formation of Winnie the Pooh’s world. The book is met with immediate success and Alan and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), are all too ready to ride the wave of fame. Christopher is raised by his kindly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Eventually, Christopher grows to resent his parents, the public’s assumption about himself, and the very name of Pooh itself, so much so that he volunteers to go to war as a means of just escaping the overbearing attention of the spotlight.
The opening act of this movie is the best part, and it’s all pre-Pooh. It also helps that it focuses more on Alan Milne rather than his son, who will take a far larger role later. Milne is already a slightly prickly character who doesn’t exactly fit in with the British upper class. He’s also trying to process his PTSD and return to some semblance of a normal life. He’s also struggling artistically, and this is where the film is at its most interesting because it has the most focus. We get to really delve into the triggers and emotional state of a character in a way that feels engaging. We spend time establishing a person, a trauma, and how it impacts his relationships. It’s not the most singularly compelling drama but it’s still more effective than what regrettably follows.
Where things start to go irreversibly downhill is the exact emergence of Pooh. While Milne is spending more time with the son he doesn’t fully know how to relate to, he’s also pumping his boy for ideas during their play for a children’s story. We get the expected but still lazy moments of all the little signifiers in their lives that connect with future characters. Then one Pooh gets published it becomes an international best seller and the movie just zooms through plot. It goes from releasing the book to everyone in the world loving it literally in a minute of screen time. The Milne family, and especially Christopher Robin, can’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded by fans. This is also where the film makes a sharp turn and reveals Alan and Daphne Milne to be really terrible parents. As soon as success appears, they’re actively exploiting their child at every opportunity, including such stunts as a radio station also listening in to father wishing his son a happy birthday over the telephone. If there’s a chance they can sell more books, get extra publicity, or simply parlay their fame into something, they take it, and often Christopher Robin is left home alone with his nanny while mom and dad lap it up. Rarely have you seen childhood neglect made to appear so strangely whimsical.
Even this abrupt plot turn could have worked as an interesting and unexpected portrayal of a literary family that lost the “family” sensibility once fame and fortune arrived. Unfortunately, this is not really a movie about consequences being felt because we’ve got to speedily move onto the next plot point in order to fulfill the formula. After Olive has her big speech about how the Milnes have been mistreating Christopher Robin, it’s literally two scenes later where Alan comes to agree. Lot of internal turmoil there, huh. Christopher Robin’s life gets so bad he’s practically begging to go to war. Even his fate during the war is something the film doesn’t leave unanswered for long. Why dwell on the consequences of decades of bad parenting when we can still careen into a feel-good ending that will attempt to poorly wipe clean the slate? Everything is resolved so rapidly and without larger incident that rarely does the story have time to register. We’re never going to feel great insights into these characters if the film doesn’t give us time. Who cares about hardships and betrayals if they’re just going to be erased in the next scene or if some life lesson will be ham-fistedly learned, but not earned, in short succession?
This is not a subtle movie by any means. The second half of Goodbye Christopher Robin is all about how the boy’s life is awful and how much he dislikes the spotlight. The father comes up with the solution of sending Christopher Robin to a boys’ home way out in the country. As soon as dad leaves, the boys instantly start bullying and harassing Christopher Robin, literally throwing him down flights of stairs while chanting insults. Dear reader, the next part astounded me. It is during the shot of him being pushed down the stairs that the movie uses this sequence as a transition device. By the time Christopher Robin stumbles to the bottom of the stairs he is now a teenager. It’s as if he has been falling down the stairs for a hellish decade. Then there’s the moment where dad sees his son off to war at the train station. As he looks back, for a brief moment it’s not teenage Christopher Robin boarding that train but young child Christopher Robin. I laughed out loud at this moment. It’s too earnest and too clumsy not to.
The acting cannot save this movie. Gleeson (The Revenant) gets to be that kind of aloof where the actor pronounces words with great care. His acting style is a bit too removed and opaque to really feel much for his character, especially when he cedes the spotlight to his neglected and exploited son. Robbie (Suicide Squad) is just completely wasted. She might be the film’s biggest villain and her disapproving stares look like they should be accompanied by cartoon steam coming out of her ears. Macdonald (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fares the best mostly due to her genuinely appealing nature. It also doesn’t help matters when it appears that our young Christopher Robin, newcomer Will Tilston, was hired for his toothy grin and dimples. This is not an especially good child performance. It’s powerfully winsome but in an overly cloying manner. It was hard for me to work up much empathy for Christopher Robin because the performance kept left me cold.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a feel-good movie that made me feel like checking my watch. It’s tonally off with its mixture of sentiment and indifference, zooms through important plot points rather than dwell on the impact of decisions, and looks for any opportunity to bludgeon an audience rather than deliver something genuine and subtle. If you’re a major fan of Winnie the Pooh perhaps you’ll get something out of it knowing its author was a terrible parent. This wasn’t a movie that made me feel authentic emotions. It felt too clumsy, too mechanical, and ultimately too miscalculated. The only awards this might be contending for at the end of the year are not the kind it’s going to want.
Nate’s Grade: C-
We’ve seen this story before, the efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal and its sloppy cover-up from the perspective of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who tirelessly collected clues, followed leads, and investigated the facts. That movie was All The President’s Men and was terrific. This movie is all about Mark Felt, the man who was the “Deep Throat” confidential informant, and it’s a bit less than terrific. It’s hardly even a movie because Felt’s story just isn’t that interesting. The film offers little new insights into Felt as a character or his personal struggles working against his own government. The FBI director is portrayed like a glowering Bond villain. The other characters come in and out, leaving little impact except to remind you that they’re famous. Felt’s personal life is also a bore, including Diane Lane in a thankless role as his alcoholic wife distraught over Felt being passed over as the new FBI director. He also has a missing daughter who ran off to a commune. There’s one moment where Felt feels paranoid and tears apart his office, but then we simply move on. There’s not enough here to justify a full-fledged movie. Whatever writer/director Peter Landesman (Concussion) does it’s not enough to make this story interesting, and that’s because Felt’s involvement in Watergate is minimal at best. All the President’s Men was about journalists uncovering the evidence and putting together the pieces. This movie is just about a guy who knows everything and has to get it out there. It’s inherently less interesting. Even the subtitle of The Man Who Brought Down the White House seems misinformed; I’m fairly certain that was Nixon. The Mark Felt story was told better when he was merely a minimal figure in someone else’s Watergate story. Just watch All the President’s Men instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Founder aims to be The Social Network of hamburgers and milkshakes, a warts-and-all biopic of a huckster who glommed onto other’s success and transformed it into an empire, a pragmatically ruthless entrepreneur run rampant with ambition and leaving behind a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled little people. Michael Keaton, on a roll since Birdman, teams up with screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) to bring to life the story of the man behind the ubiquitous golden arches. The details are routinely fascinating and the movie presents a larger thesis on shifting and conflicting concepts of the American Dream and whether a ruthless yet victorious huckster is to be celebrated, pitied, scorned, or all of the above.
In the mid 1950s, Ray Kroc (Keaton) was a struggling milkshake mixer salesman striking out with just about every drive-in and dinner in the Midwest. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is exasperated by Kroc’s flights of fancy, shilling whatever new product might be his ticket to riches. His life changes thanks to one very efficient hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Caroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), have ordered eight of Kroc’s milkshake mixers because they can barely keep up with demand. Kroc travels out West to see for himself and discovers a tasty and speedy hamburger assembly line that nobody else is doing. He pushes the McDonald brothers to franchise their model with him in the lead. They’re wary but agree with a strict contract that still gives full executive decision-making to the brothers. Kroc languishes at first but finds growing success, barely able to keep ahead with the mounting overhead costs. Kroc wants to keep going but the McDonald brothers are unyielding over their terms of business. Kroc schemes to push them out of their own business, establish himself as the founder, and take their very name for himself.
Firstly, the story of the formation of McDonald’s is probably far less known than the formation of Facebook, and this provides plenty of opportunities for illumination. It is an inherently interesting story. There’s the invention of the modern-day fast food assembly line and the difficulty in perfecting this process and getting customers acquainted with the new reality. Initially, after years of drive-in service, customers are befuddled that they have to physically walk up to a window and order and throw away their own trash. The early history, hiccups, and adjustments are interesting, but it all gets more engrossing once Kroc comes aboard. It’s here where the film becomes very business-like in its examination of Kroc’s ruthless business tactics that lead to his ascent. Without Kroc’s intervention, perhaps the world would never have known the name McDonalds. He’s not an instant success either. He’s already middle-aged when he comes across the McDonald brothers. He’s not a brilliant salesman by nature. He’s cunning and doggedly persistent, the key he tells us since the world is rife with talented, educated, and good people who go nowhere. Kroc is a constant motor that can never be satisfied. Ethel asks him if anything will ever be enough, and after a short pause he replies without pretense, “Probably not.” He cannot enjoy success because he always feels he should be entitled to more. It’s the kind of unmoored ambition that leads him to throw his litigious weight around, knowingly breaking legal contracts and handshake deals to get exactly what he wants. Kroc’s business triumphs will remind certain viewers of Donald Trump, a man who uses similar advantages of wealth to exploit others and force them into advantageous deals. Even when explicitly in the wrong he just rolls along undeterred.
It is Keaton’s (Spotlight) movie and he more than delivers under pressure. Keaton adopts a speaking affect that makes the character weirdly magnetic without being wholly charming, an interesting combination that reflects the conflicted nature of Kroc. He’s a fast-talking salesman who enjoys the sound of his own voice but he doesn’t fool himself. He’s a man who knows what he wants and it just happens to be everything. He knows his limitations but he strides forward. He is bursting at the seams to get out from under the thumb of the McDonald brothers, who he sees as limiting the growth of a company that is more his than theirs. Kroc delights in being treated to the upper echelons of power. He loves having people proverbially kiss his ring and lavish his greatness. It’s the story of a man who scraped by his entire life until stumbling upon someone else’s genius idea. Keaton plays the man with a wily canniness that is always entertaining, channeling the actor’s natural oddball energy and style into a Midwestern McBeth. He says if he saw his competitor drowning he’d “shove a hose down his throat.” He’s generally cold but Keaton and Siegel don’t present him with a standard redemption arc. He’s kind of a hapless jerk at the start and becomes a powerful, egotistical jerk by the end. Keaton’s layered performance gives the film a solid anchor to keep viewers invested in the film.
If only the other parts of The Founder had as much nuance and care as Keaton’s role. The supporting characters have flashes of interest but are too relegated to be much more than symbols or less developed foils to Kroc. The McDonald brothers have a poignant level of tenderness to them but they’re set up to be symbols of American values that will inevitably be trampled upon by Kroc’s corporatist version of the American Dream. Mac is the hopeful and trusting brother, Dick is the no-nonsense devote to quality and ethics, and together they could use additional ambiguity or depth. They’re meant to represent an older way of doing business, the familiar edict that hard work, dedication to customers, and quality will pay off. The brothers are successful and content at their level of success; they lack the naked ambition of Kroc and his disregard for the rules. They’re set up to be defeated and swindled and victims of Kroc’s tactics, which limits them as characters. There’s a sliver of detail with Dick’s concern for his brother’s diabetes threatening him, but the brothers are more martyrs than anything else. You anticipate their defeat with slight dread but more a sense of impending inevitability. Their good-natured values are no match for the winner-takes-all mentality of a man on a mendacious mission.
Similarly, Kroc’s wife is another figure set up from the start to be trampled upon. She’s supportive but not supportive enough Kroc feels. Like the McDonald brothers, she’s too content within her station and what she deems a good existence, a life of dinners at the club with a retinue of upper middle class friends. Ethel is a plain looking woman of simple pleasures. You already know that there’s a ticking clock before Kroc will trade up. With these expectations, more could have been done to establish her character. Too often Kroc’s selfish, indifferent, or casually hurtful broadsides are treated with silent suffering from Ethel. She’s set up as a walking pained reaction shot. It almost gets to comical levels as the pattern repeats itself and you anticipate a slightly elongated, wounded reaction shot. Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), is a sweetly smiling prize but proves herself more than a pretty face. She shares Kroc’s ambitions and proposes swapping real milk for instant milk mix to save refrigeration costs. There’s obviously more to this woman, who we meet already married to a business associate of Kroc’s, but the movie keeps her as a mostly symbolic, almost Fitzgerald-esque trophy. The other side characters that come into Kroc’s orbit, B.J. Novak’s scheming real estate fixer, Kate Neeland’s esteemed secretary, Justin Randell Brooke’s loyal lieutenant, are clipped so that they only appear in the film when they offer some service or advice useful to Kroc. Perhaps there’s a meta level here exploring how Kroc views those seemingly closest to him in strict transactional terms, or perhaps I’m just reaching for more.
The other liability from an otherwise still entertaining script is the director. Hancock is better known for softer, feel-good films about American values. The Founder is a story that subverts all of those notions and Hancock doesn’t seem to master the skills in order for the satirical and darker implications to land. The onscreen visuals seem to clash with the movie’s overall disquieting tone. The colors are bright and the musical score by Carter Burwell seems curiously jolly at points, confusing the tone of darker scenes. It just doesn’t feel like Hancock had a good feel for the material and how best to execute it. It feels like he’s missing the layers of potential with Siegel’s screenplay. I’ll readily credit Hancock for part of Keaton’s terrific performance but Hancock’s touches are best realized in the art direction details recreating a bygone era. I feel that somebody like a Steven Soderbergh would have tapped more into this story’s satirical potential.
The Founder is an entertaining biopic of a scoundrel who ran roughshod over others dreams and turned their success into his own. It’s anchored by a complex performance from Keaton. It’s a rags-to-riches story that doesn’t tell the audience how to think about its centerpiece character. He’s underhanded, sure, but he’s also got everything he wanted and his tactics proved successful. Is this an ends justify the means story to rationalize the power of avarice, or is this an exploration of the darker undercurrents of the passing American Dream usurping others’ dreams and accomplishments (closing text informs us that McDonald’s feeds one percent of the world’s population every day)? The movie doesn’t seem to take a stand, neither fully condemning nor excusing Kroc’s actions. The tale behind the worldwide fast food giant is full of supersized drama and interesting procedural details about the rise of the most recognizable name in burgers. It’s unfortunate then that the movie struggles to reach the same heights as Keaton. The supporting characters are tragically underdeveloped and kept as figures for comparison to chart Kroc’s ascendance. Director John Lee Hancock also feels like an poor fit for the material, his instincts seemingly at odds with the film’s tone and intentions. The Founder is an interesting movie with a strong central performance but it can’t help but feel like its destiny was far greater, that it’s not meeting the full potential of the material.
Nate’s Grade: B