“ Rocketman”

One sees the film “ Rocketman” for Taron Egerton. This thirty-year-old Welsh actor does all his own singing ;and like his name, which is a variation of “thunder” in Welsh, he literally thunders on screen. The energy of his performances is breathtaking. Two key scenes are memorable. One has Egerton as Elton John rise with his legs behind him while still playing the piano keyboard. The audience levitates to his performance while singing ” La la la la” to the razzle dazzle. The second visual fantasy has Elton diving into his pool in a drug and alcohol whacked suicide attempt only to have his childhood-self sitting in a space helmet on the pool’s floor as Elton slowly swirls in his silk Versace robe.

Director Dexter Fletcher of “Bohemian Rhapsody” fame uses a musical video format to outline Reginald Dwight’s rise to fame as Elton John. Matthew Illesley plays the eight-year-old prodigy with the song ” The Bitch Is Back”. He directs fantasy orchestras from his bed and warrants placement in music classes for the gifted. On a Royal Academy Of Music scholarship, Dwight is taken to lessons by his grandma (Gemma Jones). His mother ( Bryce Dallas Howard) is busy with her philandering, and his father ( Steve Makintosh ) is cool to his son’s ” softness” and equally self-absorbed.

The lonely, emotionally neglected boy plays out in AA therapy sessions with the circle repeated in his abuse of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Bulimia and non-stop shopping get mentioned, as does poor anger management. While these sins are enumerated, the executive producer ( Elton, himself) and the producer ( David Furnish, his partner) balance the warts with Elton’s 450 million dollar philanthropic activities. This being said not much character insight is given. Compared with Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Elton seems underexamined ,and therefore, more shallow.

The character with depth is Bernie Taupin ( Jamie Bell ). Taupin is the lyricist, who for fifty years supplied Elton with the grist for his themes. Elton composed the music and and added the accoutrements of performance art. Be it feathers, outlandish glasses, sequins, or platform shoes. Twenty some songs wend their way through the film: “Crocodile Rock”, ” Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, “I’m Still Standing”, “ I Want Love”, “ Hercules”, “ Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, ‘Rocketman”,“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Honky Cat”, “ Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest”, “ Border Song “, and my favorite, “Your Song”. Others  like “ Candle In The Wind” are given a few lines and chords. It is quite a song fest of adulation.

Jaime Bell’s Taupin is a great foil to the self-serving new manager and pretend-lover, John Reid (Richard Madden). I loved the scene where Taupin and Elton collaborate on a park bench. Bernie later tells Elton that he doesn’t have to put up with the unfaithful John. John is vehement and tells Elton that his 20% of the profit will stay long after Elton kills himself. Elton feels “ frozen on the ladder of life”. At 28, Elton is back in re-hab and soon after marries an Italian studio producer named Renata. They sleep in separate bedrooms, and the marriage does not last long. “Rocketman” ends on a positive note with pictures of his now partner, David Furnish, and their two sons.

This saga of mega-celebrity is channeled beautifully by Taron Egerton. His frenetic energy owns the film.

“ Seraphine ”

“Seraphine” (2009) is based on the relationship of art collector and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde and French primitive painter, Seraphine Louis.

In 1912, we see Seraphine as a dowdy maid cleaning the floors and stripping the bed of a German art dealer. She notices his sadness and offers him her “energy” wine. She shares that walks in nature often make her foul moods lift. He pays not much heed of her, but appreciates her kindness. When Seraphine later shows her displeasure at a woman jumping into his bed and making loud noises to roust him, he smiles at her misconception.

Wilhelm (Ulrich Tuker) confides that the woman is his sister, and that Seraphine shall never find a female lover in his bed. The religious Seraphine understands his secret. Later, when he asks where she gets her red paint of such unusual consistency, she smiles and says that she has her secrets, too. Thus begins an unusual alliance.

Belgian comedian, actress, and screenwriter Yolanda Moreau is cast in the role of Seraphine. For this portrayal, Moreau won the Cesar Award for Best Actress. Moreau, also, directs: and these directorial talents seem to merge with her acting ability to make us care about her character while giving viewers an objective distance which mirrors Wilhelm’s own. Bathing in a stream, collecting clay for her paints, or pouring wax from the votives at church for her own use, Seraphine is busy with life. She sings as she paints. Her exactitude meshes with ecstasy in just the right doses. She signs her board and later her canvases before she begins her art. Flower and fruit motifs furl and wind and rewind in this self-taught artist’s pieces.

Creating and making due with one meal a day, Seraphine is looked in on by the villagers, who understand that her painting is admired by the now absent art critic Wilhelm Uhde. ( As a German, he has been chased out of France right before World War I.)  Uhde has discovered Rousseau, and he sees a primitive kindred soul in Seraphine. He has helped support her by making certain she has supplies. He wants her to focus on her gift rather than on domestic drudgery. Money is given to her landlady to acquire a larger suite with a studio. A young, neighbor girl helps Seraphine buy silver and set up house with new dishes, and even a samovar. A tad heady with the generosity of this new found patron, Seraphine purchases a pricey bridal gown, which she wears in a bizarre scene which causes the villagers to call the constables. It is here, that we have a mad artist of sorts.

The asylum provides no art therapy as a recourse, and Seraphine is ultimately buried in a common grave in 1942. She was 78. Her work was exhibited posthumously in “ The Modern Primitive Exhibition of 1945”.

Director Martin Provost, also a Cesar Award winner for this film, develops both main characters. We see Wilhelm in Germany caring for his sick lover. Ten years pass. Seraphine continues at paint, and Wilhelm sees her work in a townhall exhibit. He searches and finds her and is appalled at her state. We see him trying to better Seraphine’s lot by paying for a private quarters on the asylum’s grounds. He relishes her work and respects her privacy. His grief strewn face is as upsetting as Seraphine’s  straight-jacketed moans and screams.

The cinematography is lush. Wind and light swirl around us. Reminiscent of Francois Truffaut ‘s films “The Wild Child” and his “Adele H”. Even the harsh interiors are lighted by moon or candle flame. Seraphine hugs trees and bounces in stream beds. Restrained and bed bound, the suffering artist rends our hearts in a pure white cell. While current Van Gogh films like “ Loving Vincent” (reviewed Oct. 29th, 2017 ) are structured around the art, “Seraphine” focuses on the woman, who hears her guardian angel’s whispers. This is a moving film that draws us back to her almost medieval designs: colorful, ordered, yet sometimes frightening.

In “Seraphine” artful questions emerge about the creative spirit, and for some, like myself, an artist is introduced through her story.

“Meeting Gorbachev”

Restroom chatter after viewing Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’ s Gorbachev documentary dispersed in one communal sigh. One patron added, ” I did not realize what a nice man Mikhail was! ” An 87 year-old widower, who loved his wife and rose from the brilliant son of Russian peasants to head the Soviet Union comes across as profound, too.

In a series of three contemporary interviews and archival videos, Herzog and Singer elevate the man by showing a core of sensibility that reminded me of my father in both temperament and strength. Genuine, funny, and able to establish immediate rapport, Gorbachev shines as a world leader, who never forgot the people. Like a good personnel director, he listened and stayed positive. His task was to make life better for all, not just for the people in power. He visited all outposts of the Union, and he walked when he had to. The film’s title, “Meeting Gorbachev” is perfect. At one point as he stands nose to nose with a female citizen, he jokes that he can not get much closer.

While nuclear disarmament and the unification of Germany are highlighted, this documentary focuses on the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev. Based on his biography and on William Taubman’s book “ Gorbachev: His Life And Times” ( 2017) , we see him as intelligent, perceptive, wise, and somewhat tragic. He became a “ person non-grata” to those Russians who blamed him for the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992. The end of the Cold War is what he takes credit for ~ using his power to make the world better for people.

We learn that his mother was strict and illiterate, and that his father Sergei, a war veteran told Mikhail on returning from the battle field that , “ we fought until we ran out of fight. That is how we must live.” Twenty million Russians were lost in World War II. We witness Easter flowers being placed on his parent’s graves. Respect was valued; recklessness looked down on.

The most prestigious university in Moscow was Moscow State, founded in 1755. Philosophy, Medicine, and Law  degrees were offered. Mikhail studied law and met his future partner, Raisa, here. Raisa studied philosophy. They married and had one daughter. Their union was said to be a profoundly happy one, and seeing Mikhail’s soft flow of tears as he talks about her death in 1991 is moving.

His genuineness permeates the film. Gorbachev was chosen as the youngest leader of the Soviet State, because of his extraordinary political talents. Perestroika, a series of reforms meant to improve the stagnant 1980’s Soviet economy, and Glasnost, a new transparency and openness by lifting press restrictions etc.., were at the top of Gorbachev s agenda. He believed that a complete restructuring was essential.  High -ranking officials were rankled. Hardliners and KGB types fought back. Rumors of ill health are debunked by Mikhail, but the power struggle forced his resignation in 1991. Tragic for everyone but Boris Yeltsin and his old-guard handlers.

At one point after the incompetence of  Chernobyl, Gorbachev intones that “people who do not understand cooperation and disarmament should get out of politics.” He wanted a ban on nuclear testing and the elimination of nuclear weapons. “ The death of civilization” he feared. He saw the banning of an entire class of intermediate range weapons as progress.

There were parts of this documentary that I loved. The way Gorbachev would touch his hearing aids to better hear Herzog was sweetly evocative of age. His love of sweets and his surrender to diabetes were likewise humanizing. His pregnant pauses effective in highlighting the weight of his words. Momentous handshakes, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, human longing for freedom and unity all touch us. Gorbachev’s  belief in Communism, his warm smile, his efforts, will stay with viewers.

The boogie-woogie being satirized in a Moscow University skit in the 1940’s, the modern methods of wheat harvesting and sheep shearing, the penchant for Russian medal giving, and Kremlin Wall burial rites add panache to the delight of        meeting Gorbachev for me.

“ Red Joan”

Well-paced and well-acted, “Red Joan” causes time to fly and a tale of global patriotism to shine. A spy for love and peace, Judi Dench and Sophie Cooksen bring the real Melita Norwood to light. Based on the Jennifer Rooney novel ” Red Joan”, this film by the same name, tells the true story of a Cambridge physics whiz of the 1930’s who spied for the Russians for all the right reasons: love and peace.

A period piece with lovely music by George Fenton keeps us intrigued through two lovers, a suspicious death, a blackmail of a friend and fellow spy, a marriage, and a MI5 arrest of a elderly woman, some fifty years after her crime. Throw in the formation of the Atomic bomb and the politics of the time and a chain reaction is ready to explode on the screen. The fact that it doesn’t is part of the story. No country is torpedoed after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The premise is with Russia and the U.S. both having the bomb, the balance of power will keep us all safer.

No real spy gadgets are utilized except for a series of saintly medals like St. Albert and Saint Christopher that have the ability to undetectibly kill when a pin is pricked in one’s forearm’s fold. A santitary towel, or feminine hygiene product, hides a hidden camera to be easily tossed into a canal before MI5 agents discover it.

The past and the present is interwoven in Lindsay Sharpero’s screenplay. Sophie Cookson is the young Joan, idealistic, and primed to be deflowered and politicized by her first lover, Leo ( Tom Hughes), who calls her ” my little comrade” and “Jojo” in turns. And there are many turns. Their secret haunts and embankment picnics may still rebuild the world in a whole new way.

When Joan discovers Leo’s relationship with her friend, Sonya ( Czech actress Teresa Srbova ), heartache ensues, but a Communist sympathizer she remains. Joan’s second lover becomes her boss on the atomic bomb project and ultimately her forgiving husband, Prof. Max Davis ( Stephen Campbell Moore). A member of their Cambridge group, now in a high British office, is personally blackmailed by Joan. Personal relationships and spy life don’t mix well, but this allows for a normal life in Australia, or ultimately in Bexleyheath, South East London.

In a sentimental turn, Joan’s barrister son Nick, played by Ben Miles, represents her in front of the media as she is dubbed “The Granny Spy”. She was not prosecuted due to her age. Her fictional son ( she had only one daughter) never learned of his father’s arrest for his Russian sympathies in lieu of his mother.Joan believed she was fighting for all humanity, and Max believed and loved her. She tells Max that she was fighting for the living.”I love my country.” She could have added,”I love our world”. When Nick asks his mother how much his dad knew, she simply says, “Enough”.

Director Trevor Nunn begins with Judi Dench pruning her English garden. She has pruned her conscience in the same way. Signing a contract to absolute secrecy was erased for a higher good. A KGB recruit she may be, but the Russians were our allies and scientific research needs to be shared. The balance of power is at stake. This film balances heart and intellect but in 1930 style. Those looking for “The Enemy Within” will be annoyed at the lack of physical action. I liked this film more than most reviewers.

“Sunset” ( The Hungarian film “ Napszallta” )

Hungarian film director Nemes Laszlo has been called unconventional. I reviewed his award-winning “ Son Of Saul” ( Nov. 14th, 2015 ) where he enlightened us by forcing viewers to live horrific pieces of the Holocaust. I am familiar with his use of fire and fireworks, his focus on one main character, and his hellish view of humankind, but none of this prepared me for “Sunset”.

I was befuddled throughout. At one point I thought I may have been seeing two vampire tribes vying for power. The fall of an empire never crossed my mind. A corrupt monarchy came later, but by then I was just sidetracked by the perplexing gender freedom of a twentyish, orphan-raised female protagonist allowed to walk anywhere in 1913 Bucharest. And this is mostly what she does~ walk, though there is the occasional carriage, tram and train, and rowboat.

The camera rarely leaves Irisz Leiter’s face. Hungarian actress Juli Jakab plays Irisz, and she resembles the American actress Kristen Stewart with her ferret-like directness. She is looking to meet a brother she did not know she had. She is warned that he is a monster, but she is not to be deterred.

Irisz has come to to Bucharest initially to establish herself as a milliner in the fashion house that her parents once owned , Leiter House.  A conflagration of some type demolished their family. Whether the parents died or were eventually employed in a carnival-like freak show is unclear, like much of the film. Though Irisz lifts the black netted veil of her wide brimmed hat, we never really see her clearly. Like the Vaseline smeared over the camera lens, we get only the impression of a girl seeking the truth and her place in the world.

What is clear is how women are abused for the sexual pleasure of depraved royals. If this is an allegory about the Austrian-Hungary break-up and the Dual Monarchy, it is beyond me to explain in light of this film.  Foot fetishes and imperial weirdness take on a rapine violence and then we see our Irisz in the trenches of WWI. If anyone can explain this film, I would like to hear from you.

 

 

“ Hotel Mumbai”

The  most arresting thing about the film “Hotel Mumbai” is that the actual cell phone calls made by the terrorist mastermind are used verbatim. To hear the psychological ploys used in this kind of brainwashing enlightens us. We hear “ You feel strong. You feel calm. Paradise awaits you, ” and we are chilled. By the time we see twelve or more young zealots with backpacks jump from a small rowboat like vessel, we are ready for the enactment of true events. “ Remember your training. The whole world is watching”, echoes and appalls.

While it feels rather sacrilegious watching a true disaster enfold, the suspense/entertainment factor is quickly overridden by the Indian staff’s heroics in putting their guests’ lives first. The body count is documented at one-hundred and seventy-four souls. Over half are  staff members trying to shepherd their guests to safety.

One of the most harrowing scenes was of young security women at first ordered to call a room and lie that help was on the way. Once the  terrorists rapid fire could be heard, the guards refused to call another room; and they are sacrificed to the cause.

The terrorists are shown as pawns. Their cell phones are billeted with propaganda.” Look at what they have stolen from you, from your grandfathers. Remember your training.” Likewise, the hotel staff is humanized. Dev Patel is a Sikh waiter with an infant daughter and a pregnant wife, whose sister does not show up to babysit. Rushed to change plans, he forgets his polished shoes and is almost dismissed from his shift when he shows up in socks and sandals. Various other hotel staff members are introduced , and we begin to admire the leadership of the head chef, Hermant Oderoi. Anupam Kher of the medical television series “ New Amsterdam” plays Oderoi. Some actual footage of the 2008 terrorist attack is used.

The Hotel Mumbai guests are introduced like in most disaster films. Their major personality strengths and flaws are highlighted. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are the married couple bringing their infant and amah to the luxury hotel. They are greeted with leis and invocations of “namaste” as they settle into perfectly regulated bath water temperatures and floating flower petals. The other world luxury of champagne and white gloves is juxtaposed against the young terrorists seeing a flush toilet for the first time. The disparity of creature comforts is starkly made.

The suspense is  relentless. Who will survive and who will die ? What would we do in similar circumstances ? One no-no everyone in the theatre would agree on would be the unpreparedness of the amah, or nanny. Tilda Cobham-Hervey plays Sally. She has no pacifier or bottle and never thinks just to open her blouse as a means of quieting a baby.

Anthony Maras is the debut director of this Australian-Indian-U.S. film. It is violent and has a video-game quality that is alarming. The random killing is loud and then punctuated by eerie silence.

All the while we are reminded that “ the guest is God”. Whip cream is piped on plates as we hear “none deserve Allah’ s mercy.” Over 1,000 guests and 500 staff members are trapped and under siege. The Indian Special Forces are all in New Delhi hours away. One jihadist calls  home to tell his father and sister that he loves them. A hostage recalls a saying to quash fear: “ Don’t be afraid to jump, you just may fly.”

Six hours of hide and seek, grenade throwing, fires and explosions, and media intrusions leave viewers exhausted. The final Muslim prayer said by the grief-stricken Zahara will stay with you, and so will the mastermind’s  “Be brave m my lions”. Not for the faint of heart.

“The Aftermath”

“The Aftermath” is a beautifully filmed post World War II drama set in Hamburg. Based on a novel by Rhidian Brook, this film beckons me to read the novel just to see how long it takes to feel any connection to the main character Rachel Morgan. Keira Knightley at first seems like a closed book of shallow needs and prejudiced failings. She has come from London to be with her husband Lewis, who has important work in the British Occupied Zone of Germany as Regional Governor . He is such a good man that actor Jason Clarke may find himself beatified by viewers. The Morgans seemed mismatched in empathy for broken spirits and fallen edifices.

The Elbe flows and we learn more. Both Rachel and Lewis are in the throes of grief. Their eight-year-old son had been killed in his bedroom in a blitz of German bombing. Lewis buries himself in work, never really asking for details in his son’s death. Subconsciously blaming his wife for not better protecting him, Lewis only in retrospect asks if he suffered. Rachel finds herself wondering about Lewis lack of display of feeling, and identifies with the subsuming grief of the architect whose manor house they inhabit. His wife, Claudine, was also killed in a British fire bombing. He is left with a daughter Freda to raise.

A love triangle develops with the architect, Stephen Lubert, played dashingly by Alexander Skarsgard, who in a lovely scene practices his English in front of a mirror, “ Welcome, please come inside. Let me show you the house.” Lewis has graciously allowed the father and daughter to remain on the estate. They move to the attic rather than to one of the many wings. This keeps them out of the refugee camps and into the daily life if the Morgans. Stephen re-centers vases on tables and takes pride in his home’s furnishings. He is lonely, appreciative, and physically attracted to Rachel, who seems to hate all Germans. She initially rejects his proffered hand shake. A challenge, physical need, and shared grief are motives for the lust to follow. There are foreshadowings of subdued desire with a female nude replacing a portrait if Hitler, a stain that can’t be removed was at first covered up with a lace curtain. Melodramatic coupling ensues after an aggressive kiss. Director James Kent keeps the sex scenes smoldering. The pairing of Knightley and Skarsgard sets up a loyalty and betrayal theme that is resolved at the film’s end.

The marriage of Lewis and Rachel is balanced nicely against the affair. They sleep together, talk of their honeymoon. Lewis is heavy with the compliments, and patient with Rachel’s primping and pouty demeanor. She is at first unhappy with her husband’s suggestion that the Lubert stay. “ I was looking forward to it just being us.” Rachel states, though one knows she would need the staff to carry on. Lewis tells her that “ none of this is as it was supposed to be”.  There is chaos out there, and no food. Meanwhile, Rachel complains to the maid that the plants are blocking the light and need to be moved. The staff roll their eyes and talk in metaphors, like “ maggots on bacon”.

The cinematography of Frank Lustig is what you come to see as the superlative in “ The Aftermath”. The blues and golden ochres stay with you, the soft and focused lighting is like poetry. Production designer Sonja Klaus deserves credit, too. My movie partner noticed the German china as a duplicate of her own brought back by her mother in the late forties. Rachel’s seamed stocking are perfectly straight, their son’s maroon sweater frayed just enough, and Rachel’s German so inexact that she calls the maid delicious rather than the meal. Velvet and pearls are Rachel’s regular garb. We wonder why she doesn’t help out in a soup kitchen.

Rachel tells Lewis that he is stifled under all that righteousness, when their bedtime is interrupted, she sarcastically tells him “ to go save Germany”. Privileged selfishness is hard to sanction, yet in the end we understand Rachel better, and it saves the film.

The violence in “ The Aftermath” is fast, yet suspenseful~ a hard combination. We know Lewis is right when he says that it is not war that makes us men. It may be love and forgiveness.

The British opine that the Yanks got the view, the French got the wine, and they got the ruins. The tension sizzles as uprisings flair with hardline Nazis. Occupied zones have been dealt with in other post WWII films, and there are many stories to tell. “ The Aftermath” meshes the pain of war with the psychology of healing. I have trouble seeing Rachel as the best part of Lewis, but that is love for you.