‘Rocketman’ flies, ‘Hustle’ amuses

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 26, 2019
Photo by: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment Taron Egerton, as Elton John, recreates his famed Dodgers Stadium show in "Rocketman."

Owls Head — Rocketman (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 121 min.). A winning performance by Taron Egerton, who does all his own singing, as Elton John lifts “Rocketman,” an overview of John’s less-than-nurturing childhood and rise to fame, accompanied by drug and alcohol addiction. The screenplay perhaps is too simplistic in blaming John’s childhood and constant search for love for his excesses and missteps, but the musical numbers – often full-blown fantasy moments – are wonderful.

John himself served as executive producer and Dexter Fletcher, who previously directed Egerton in “Eddie the Eagle” and most recently finished “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer's departure. Both films are essentially a greatest hits-style Broadway musical as biopic. “Bohemian Rhapsody” earned star Rami Malek the Best Actor Oscar for playing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, and that was without singing; I would not be surprised if Egerton nabs an Oscar nomination as well – he is that good. Egerton also stars in the “Kingsman” series of films. The screenplay is by Lee Hall, responsible for both the stage and screen versions of “Billy Elliot,” which had music by John.

The film opens with John, in full outlandish devil costume, including giant wings, walking into a group therapy session. The film returns to that session many times, with John wearing less of the costume each time, as he tells his story, which is shown in flashbacks, beginning with his childhood that included a father (Steven Mackintosh) who was emotionally cold to him and a promiscuous mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who would later tell him she wished she never had children. It was his grandmother who enabled young Reggie (he was born Reggie Dwight) to take advantage of the Royal Academy of Music scholarship he was offered. (In one of the deleted scenes, Reggie’s teacher states he could have a solid orchestral career in classical music, but, of course, John was in love with rock ‘n’ roll.)

Some of the production numbers are so good, they make one re-examine the lyrics with new meaning. Such is the big production number “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” which starts with teenaged John playing in a pub, moves onto the street and then into a carnival, where Egerton takes over the role and ska and Indian sounds are added to the number by music producer Giles Martin (son of the legendary John Martin, who worked with The Beatles among others). Or the simple idea of having Bernie Taupin (John’s lyricist, played very nicely by Jamie Bell, who played the title character in the film version of “Billy Elliot”) sing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” after a disagreement with John.

More surreal musical numbers include John’s breakthrough performance of "Crocodile Rock" at Los Angeles's Troubadour, in which he levitates at the piano and the crown levitates as well, while "Honky Cat" becomes all about spending his newfound wealth with new manager John Reid (Richard Madden) and turns into a tribute to MGM's Freed Unit, with many costume changes and a city skyline backdrop. (Reid, by the way, became John’s lover, but saw him more as a cash cow than a romantic partner.) The song “Rocket Man” itself is even more complex, as it begins with John diving into a pool in an apparent suicide attempt and then singing with his younger self (Matthew Illesley), who is playing a little piano on the pool floor, before he is carted away on a gurney by paramedics, who take him straight to a concert at Dodger Stadium, which ends with the baseball-suited John shooting into the sky.

Bonus features include the extended musical sequences for “The Bitch Is Back,” “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache” (when John and band were the backup band for touring American soul acts) and “Honky Cat”; and 10 deleted and extended scenes (19:39), including young John abandoning classical music, two scenes with the apartment landlady, three non-group session rehab scenes and two scenes that touch on the AIDS crisis, something John supported in real life.

Featurettes that deal with the making of the film include one on the creative vision with Fletcher and the real John (7:08); production design and costumes, with John, Taupin and costume designer Julian Day;  (8:55); staging of the musical numbers (10:09); Egerton becoming John, with Egerton and John (7:52); and Egerton working with Martin in the recording studio (11:33). One can also jump directly to 22 songs; and watch the lyrics to 13 songs (35:44) or to the whole film for sing-alongs. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The White Crow (Sony Pictures Classics, standard DVD, R, 127 min.). Directed by Ralph Fiennes from a script by David Hare (“The Hours”), this is a more standard biopic as it chronicles ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s life from childhood to his defection from the Soviet Union at age 23 in Paris. Hare says in the supplemental material that while dialogue may have been made up, most of the film is based on real events, down to Nureyev’s upset with a restaurant waiter.

The film jumps between three time periods in Nureyev’s life: his impoverished youth in Ufa (he actually was born on a train); his dance study beginning at age 17 in Leningrad with teacher Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes); and his five-week performance visit with the Kirov Ballet to Paris in 1961. Unfortunately, sometimes this jumping around of time is downright confusing and I could not tell whether some scenes were in Leningrad or Paris.

The plus of the film is Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, 23, a first-time actor, but a fine dancer who captures Nureyev’s physicality and energy. The dance sequences are wonderful, but far too brief and too few. Nureyev became a game changer as he wanted to leap as grandly and pirouette as powerfully as the ballerinas with whom he shared the stage. As he puts it at one point, he borrowed the ballerinas’ femininity. Previously, the traditional male role was to just stand there and support the females as they soared. The film does not shy away from Nureyev’s selfishness, which sometimes turned into surliness, nor from his homosexuality. Louis Hofmann (so good in “Land of Mine,” “Center of My World”) plays his first male lover, East German dancer Teja Kremke.

The film depicts Nureyev’s defection as personal rather than political. We see Nureyev drink in the culture of Paris — the art, music and nightlife — often accompanied by Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose boyfriend had recently died, with ballet company minders and KGB eyes following him. It is believed Nureyev’s nightlife is what caused Russian authorities to stop him from going on to London with the rest of the Kirov Ballet, which Nureyev took as a threat on his career, if not his life.

The film does not explain Nureyev’s fondness for Saint, as mostly she is sad or depressing and there certainly was no sexual chemistry, but she does play a large role in the film’s ending, where the film finally has some tension. The film also misuses ballet superstar Sergei Polunin in the small supporting role of Nureyev’s fellow company member and road roommate. We only get to see Polunin dance once.

Extras include a making-of look (7:45) and an interesting Q&A with Fiennes, Hare, Ivenko and his translator (27:05). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 2 stars

The Hustle (MGM/Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 94 min.). In this female-centric remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson play scam artists of opposite backgrounds who are forced to work together. Hathaway is Josephine Chesterfield, who is firmly established in her small French Riviera community of Beaumont-sur-Mer, a position the brash Penny Rust (Wilson) threatens unless Josephine becomes her mentor and partner. Josephine is all sophistication and the long con, while Penny is basically a low-life and more slapstick.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988) starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin, and was itself a remake of “Bedtime Story” (1964), which starred David Niven and Marlon Brando. Despite an amusing “Lord of the Rings” play, in which Penny plays the demented sister of bride-to-be Josephine, the pair still do not trust each other and decide to compete to see who can con an unsuspecting tech billionaire (Alex Sharp of “How To Talk To Girls at Parties” as Thomas Westerburg) out of $500,000. Whoever wins gets to stay in the fictitious French Riviera town.

For the first half of the film, which was directed by Chris Addison (TV’s “Veep”), Wilson’s humor is just too broad and dumb to be actually funny. Hathaway maybe tries a shade too hard to be the opposite. The film gets better when Sharp’s Thomas arrives, who seems a sincerely nice guy, even a bit naïve. However, at the same time, Penny decides to be “blind” in order to win Thomas’ sympathy. Still, there is some fun as the two women go against each other.

Bonus features include audio commentary by Addison; a look at the characters and film (4:34); the chemistry between Hathaway and Wilson (5:30), which really does not show up that much on screen; and a look at the costumes, production design and director (6:31). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 2 stars

The Brink (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 99 min.). There is a double meaning to the title of this action film that sees a disgraced policeman (Jin “Max” Zhang as Sai Gau) go after a gangster (Shawn Yue as Jiang Gai-cheng) who is planning to rob his former boss of a treasure of gold bars that are hidden on the ocean floor. Sai Gau was almost imprisoned after his partner falls to his death during the opening action sequence. Trying to atone, Sai Gau has “adopted” the dead man’s daughter (Cecilia So), helping her financially.

The film is rather ordinary in plot, but contains some spectacular action sequences, including a rare underwater fight. There also are some good car explosions along the way and a fight in a parking garage. Near the end, Sai Gau is on a boat during a typhoon, when Gai-cheng arrives to retrieve the gold. The fight topside in the storm is another highlight. Jonathan Li was nominated as Best New Director for this film at the 2018 Hong Kong Film Award, while Chung Chi Li was nominated for Best Action Choreography.

Extras include a four-part making-of look (11:32) that shows some of the wire work, looks at the characters and shooting the underwater scene, as well as the special effects, including creating the typhoon. The final fight in the storm took a month to shoot. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Wagon Master (1950, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR, 85 min.). Reportedly, this film was one of director John Ford’s favorites. The story is relatively simple, but the film’s strength is showing how tough the conditions were for settlers moving West during the country’s early days. This film is about 50 Mormons, headed to new homes along the San Juan River. They are led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond, who would go on to fame as Major Seth Adams in the TV series “Wagon Train” from 1957 to 1961). Elder Wiggs is quick to temper, but a good man at heart.

Elder Wiggs hires two horse traders to guide the Mormons and their 10 or so wagons to the San Juan Valley in Utah. They are Travis Blue (Ben Johnson of “The Wild Bunch,” “The Last Picture Show”) and Sandy Owens (Harry Carey Jr. in the third of nine films he made with Ford; also of “Red River”). The film features magnificent scenery – even in black and white, Monument Valley looks magnificent – and includes four songs penned by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers. There even are a couple of square dances.

Along the way, the wagon train comes across a medicine show, whose members they help, and which provides a possible love interest for Travis in Miss Denver (Joanne Dru). Sandy’s eye already has been captured by one of the Mormon women, Prudence Perkins (Kathleen O'Malley). The script by Frank Nugent and Patrick Ford (director Ford’s son) makes the wise choice of making the bad guys not Native Americans, but rather a family of outlaws led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). Future “Gunsmoke” star James Arness plays Floyd Clegg, but says nary a word.

The sole bonus is a good one, audio commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and star Carey, who talks about working with Ford. Bogdanovich also includes excerpts from his 1966 recorded interview with director Ford. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extra 3 stars

Moonfleet (1955, Warner Archive Blu-ray, NR, 87 min.). Directed by the great Fritz Lang (“M,” “Metropolis,” “The Big Heat”), the story is set in Dorsetshire, England in 1757. Stewart Granger (“Scaramouche,” “King Solomon’s Mines”) plays Jeremy Fox, who has returned from the war in the Colonies to take over an estate in the small community of Moonfleet. The area is known as a hotbed for smugglers, so it is no surprise that Fox runs the biggest smuggling outfit. The film was made in CinemaScope for MGM.

Into this scene arrives a young boy (Jon Whiteley as John Mohune) whose mother was a friend of Fox’s and whose family used to own the estate. With her death, young John has been sent to Fox with the hope that he will raise him. While it is never stated, it certainly seems like John might be Fox’s son. Fox at first wants to send John off to a boarding school, but then changes his mind as he grows fond of the boy. Meanwhile, John stumbles into an underground crypt in the church cemetery that the smugglers use for meetings and sees that Fox is their leader. John also finds a clue that leads to the hidden diamond of Redbeard, a local legend that many believe still kills people despite being dead.

Fox is tempted by a business proposal from Lord Jamie Ashwood (George Sanders of “Rebecca,” “All About Eve,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) to participate in an overseas investment. Lady Ashwood (Joan Greenwood) would like nothing better, as she would like to carry on an affair with Fox.

The film’s first half is a bit slow and devotes too much to Fox’s social life – including a gypsy dance  at his dinner table -- but once young John stumbles onto the smugglers, things pick up. There also is an interesting fight with sword (Fox) verses pike. The best use of the CinemaScope comes near the end with night-time stuff on a deserted road, involving Ashwood’s coach. Lang, after 21 years in Hollywood, returned to Germany after making this film. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

The Buster Keaton Collection Vol. 3: Seven Chances and Battling Butler (1925, 1926, Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray, NR, 136 min.). In “Seven Chances” (57 min.), Keaton plays James Shannon, who tries for more than a year to tell Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer) that he loves her, but chickens out each time. The film opens with five versions of the same scene, with only the weather and the size of Mary’s dog changing each time. Then James learns he will inherit $7 million from his grandmother, but only if he is married by 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday – which happens to be that same day.

At the same time, the brokerage firm he works for is facing financial ruin and possible criminal charges, so his partner (T. Roy Barnes as Billy Meekin) is all-out to help James get hitched. The trouble is that Mary turns James down, when he says he needs “someone” to marry. The race is then on to find a bride. James and Billy try seven women at the club with no luck, so Billy puts a story in the afternoon newspaper that draws hundreds of prospective brides to a church. James, though, still wants Mary, and soon those hundreds of white-dressed women are chasing him all over town. Here, the film gets into some of the physical comedy Keaton was noted for.

In “Battling Butler” (78 min.), it turns out the effete Alfred Butler (Keaton) shares a name with boxer Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald). Alfred, the non-boxer, has been sent camping in the woods by his father, but Arthur brings along all the comforts of home, including his valet (Snitz Edwards, who played the lawyer in “Seven Chances”). While “hunting,” they encounter a young local woman (Sally O’Neil), whom Alfred falls in love with. When her father (Walter Jones) says he does not want any weaklings in the family, Alfred’s valet pretends that Alfred is the boxer. That works because the fight is only on the radio, but the boxer unexpectedly wins the championship, causing wrinkles in Allred’s plan. He eventually has to take the boxer’s place and train for the bout with the Alabama Murderer.

These are new restorations of both films. “Battling Butler” does show some wear in one scene. The sole bonus feature is a look at Keaton’s physical style of comedy and how he did all his own stunts. Those discussing it include filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, film critic Leonard Maltin and actor Bill Hader. Grade: films 4 stars; extra 1 star

The Buster Keaton Collection Vol. 2: Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator (1924, Cohen Film Collection, NR, 111 min.). Also available is this collection with two of Keaton’s films from 1924. In “Sherlock Jr.” (45 min.), Keaton plays a movie projectionist who daydreams himself into the movies he is showing and merges with the figures and backgrounds on the screen. One day, he dreams he is Sir Conan Doyle’s master detective. A case he has to solve is himself being framed by a rival for stealing his girlfriend’s father’s pocket watch. Kathryn McGuire plays the girlfriend and Ward Crane plays the rival. Keaton’s own father, Joe, plays the girlfriend’s father.

In “The Navigator” (59 min.), Keaton as Rollo Treadway and McGuire as his girlfriend Betsy O’Brien are cast adrift on an otherwise deserted ocean liner – this after she had rejected his marriage proposal. When the ship, owned by Betsy’s father, runs aground on a desert island, they are chased by cannibals.

Again, both films have been newly restored. Bonus features include a look at Keaton as “the Great Stone Face” (4:26) and as a comedian (3:51) with the same commentators as on the other disc. Grade: films 4 stars; extras 1 star

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