Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Rocketman Review

Right off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody (which I still have not seen), director Dexter Fletcher along with screenwriter Lee Hall attempt to tell the tale of Elton John, a man who needs no introduction but whose life on screen is a mere shadow of the real life lived.  Biopics of musicians are tricky territory for film, as fans often walk away pointing out all of the errors of the story, while non-fans walk away with just snippets of the whole.  Although Rocketman falters partly because of anachronisms (and there are many), its real downfall is its inconsistent story-telling technique and its failure to capture the essence of the man being portrayed.

It starts off oh so promisingly, with a beaten down John admitting himself into rehab and addressing his younger self, who unexpectedly belts out “The Bitch Is Back” before transporting both Eltons to the streets of 1940s London, with gloriously saturated colors and a gaggle of dancers accompanying the song.  While witnessing this opening number, I think – okay, we’re in for a fanciful ride of rehabbing Elton looking back on glimpses of his life, out of order, grand, exaggerated, and accompanied by one of the finest musical oeuvres of the 20th Century.   I’m all in.

But the story devolves quickly into a very chronological and predictable narration of Elton’s broken life that betrays the promising start to the film.  We’re introduced to John’s uninterested father, his inconsistent mother and his supportive grandmother, and while there is some pain portrayed for sure, none of it is so terribly traumatic that it explains what happens later in John’s life – when his addictions manifest themselves into massively self-destructive acts.   By the time he auditions for music publisher Dick James, pounding out snippets of songs not composed until the 1980s (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and “Sad Songs”) the movie has lost all credibility: it’s neither a fanciful dreamlike whirlwind nor is it an accurate narrative.  Instead, it vacillates between a very boring and inaccurate portrayal of Elton’s real life and jarring dreamlike scenes that bear no relation to what’s preceded them.

More troubling is the lack of joy portrayed in the film.  Yes, the story is coming from the viewpoint of Elton at his lowest point in life, but to deny this character the sheer elation he experienced in the 1970s is to deny the man his due.  The now-sober Elton has admitted many times that he had a blast during the 70s, despite – or perhaps because of – his self-destructive tendencies.  In the film, he’s always somber, always self-conscious, always struggling, so that the scene at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton is first discovered by American audiences and where he and his nameless band levitate during their performance, utterly falls flat.  It should have been electric.  Near the film’s end, Elton tells his mother, “I’ve fucked everything that moves.  I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The audience would be correct to cock their heads in confusion and utter, “Huh?”  We didn’t get to see Elton enjoy a second of it, and the only thing Elton John fucks on film is his manager John Reid.

And why on earth is the band nameless?   Throughout John’s heyday, his bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were essential.  There are no scenes showing their camaraderie.  No scenes where the musicians bring the songs to life, making brilliant recordings at the Chateau d'Hérouville in France.  No scene of them appearing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 with none other than John Lennon in what was to be his last live performance.  Not everything could be included – I get it – but some part of their glorious ride should have been depicted.

I found it particularly funny that in the scene in which John fleas to rehab, they show the Twin Towers among the New York Skyline, as if that historical accuracy was essential, but not the fact that John went to rehab in Chicago.  Look, you can play with facts in films.  I get it.  Artistic license is important (just ask Oliver Stone), but why work so hard on irrelevant facts and not at all on others that Elton John fans will deem essential?  You want Elton to sing “I’m Still Standing” after rehab instead of eight years before, that’s cool with me, because the lyrics of the song support the scene.  But what is gained by making the band a four-piece instead of a three-piece at the Troubadour, or having Elton play “Crocodile Rock” three years before its release?  If you’re going for fantasy, go all in.  If you’re going for a realistic biopic, stick to as many facts as you can. 

The film does shine in a few different ways besides the opening scene.  Taron Egerton is terrific, and he looks enough like John to pull off the ruse.  He also sings the material, which is impressive.  I also love the use of John’s musical themes in the orchestral score, sometimes very subtly.  And the scene of John playing ”Pinball Wizard” while rotating between costumes, signifying not only the passage of time but his rise to superstardom, work extremely well.

Unfortunately, little else about the film does.

The Florida Project

A month ago, I lamented about this year’s best picture Oscar nominees and listed the few movies I saw in 2017 that I thought deserved recognition, only one of which made the Oscar cut: Get Out.  I’d like to add one more movie released in 2017 that should have been recognized for more than just a best supporting actor nomination for Willem Dafoe: The Florida Project, a low-budget film released last fall to rave reviews, though if you blinked, you might have missed its theatrical release.

The Florida Project is one of those rare films that I gravitate toward – short on plot, long on characters and realistic slices of life.  It brings to mind some other films like Beginners, Nebraska, Lovely and Amazing, The Squid and the Whale, Boyhood and the Joe Swanberg films (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire, All the Light in the Sky, and the like), though its portrayal of the American poor through children’s eyes has almost nothing in common with those films.  In that sense, it’s like no other film I’ve seen.

Director Sean Baker’s portrait of poor families living in a rundown motel outside of Disney World is captivating, largely due to the amazing talents of child actors Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malik and Valeria Cotto.  Much of the film is shown through their perspective, as they stroll from motel to ice cream stand to waffle house to cow pasture to abandoned homes.  I marveled at some of the dialogue between the children and am curious about how much was scripted and how much was simply kids being kids, as they express wonderment of a fallen tree that’s kept growing or take delight in sharing an ice cream cone.

The adults are worthy of note too, and not just the incomparable Willem Dafoe – wonderful as the motel manager who, without sentiment, protects the lives of his poor tenants in ways large and small, a more important figure in their lives than the mobile food pantry volunteers who hand out bread in the motel parking lot.  Bria Vinaite, who plays mom to Prince’s Halley, is also a standout as an aimless adult doing whatever she needs to do to pay next week’s rent, including using her daughter to hawk wholesale perfume in a country club parking lot.  Yes, she’s a neglectful parent, but I found her also to be sympathetic, as her love for Halley shines through at times, though not always in the most conventional way.

The film shows a side of life that we don’t often get to see – the American poor, eking out a living, relying on each other for basic niceties, not having the luxury of caring about politics or the environment or the economy.  Surviving is all they have time for.  Like my experience watching the film Boyhood, I kept waiting for the Hollywood dramatic turn: a car crash, a molestation or a murder.  There were times when the kids were running through a parking lot or crossing a street, and I winced, expecting one of the children to land on the hood of a car.  But like Boyhood, The Florida Project doesn’t take the easy way out.  Many lives are crushingly difficult, not because of life-altering events, but because of the harsh, daily grind, when one day bleeds into the next, never exercising the difficulties of the day preceding it.

Often, I value a movie on how much I’d like to see it again, and I was taken with something Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote about the movie.  He was more harsh in his assessment of the characters the film portrays, but he still loved the film.  He writes: ”…you’ll most likely not want to see (it) twice, but seeing it once is an experience you’ll not soon forget.”

I think he and I agree on this point.  I’m not sure I’ll be eager to rent this movie again, even for all it’s attributes.  But if you haven’t seen it once, you’re missing out.

A Poor Batch of Oscar Nominees

Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences?  I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot.  Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.  In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.

Not so this year.  I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.

Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:

Get Out

Wind River

All the Money in the World

I, Tonya

Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie.  It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win.  Which means it probably won’t.

Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?)  Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.

Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.

The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc.  I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit. 

Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter.  I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers.  A missed opportunity.

Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed.  Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill.  Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s.  Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb.  Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture.  When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men ­– The Post is a disappointment.

My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen.  I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family!  Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.

Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year.  Not bad!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously.  In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.

And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example).  I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.

Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender?  I don’t know.  It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen.  I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.

But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).

Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.

Siskel and Ebert

A few days ago a friend of mine and I were discussing movies – what makes a good one and whether a well-executed movie that aims low is better than a poorly-executed movie that aims high – and I recalled a movie review of Siskel and Ebert. As I told it, Ebert was reviewing a Heather Locklear monster movie of some kind - Swamp-something-or-other – and Ebert gave it thumbs up, only to be challenged by Siskel for having given a thumbs down just a moment before for a drama that didn’t quite hit the mark.

And since time travel is possible through the magic of youtube, I can rest easy knowing that although I may not remember someone’s name a minute after he introduces himself, I can recall with stunning accuracy a twenty-eight year-old memory involving two people I never met discussing movies I’ve never seen.

Man, I miss these guys. Some of my most indelible memories are of their movie reviews. I vividly recall their reviews for “Once,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and on and on. Very often what they said was as interesting or entertaining as the film itself. Sometimes more. 

Last night my wife and I watched “Baby Boom,” which I had never seen before, and after it was over I gave her four reasons why I thought it was a bad film. She humored me, and then humored me more when I said, “We gotta see what Siskel and Ebert said about this.” Sure enough, there it was on the internet. Siskel surprisingly liked the film. Ebert did not. Score one for Roger on that one.

But there were many reviews of both Gene’s and Roger’s that I disagreed with. Ebert put “Minority Report” at the very top of his list of best movies of 2001 – I’m still scratching my head over that one. But that was half the fun. They had opinions, but more importantly, they had personalities behind the opinions, and I genuinely liked both of them whether or not I agreed with them.

By coincidence, I just finished reading Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, and I highly recommend the read, if for no other reason than the short chapter in which he espouses the virtues of the eatery Steak and Shake. That alone is worth the price of admission. But what I’m really going to take away from the book is a list of art that I haven’t yet explored and that is sure to be thought-provoking: certain movies by Altman and Scorsese, any movie by Bergman or Fellini, and writings by Studs Terkel and Thomas Wolfe. These will keep me busy for a while, and when I need a little break I can go to http://siskelandebert.org/ and take in a few reviews. I could spend a whole week doing nothing but.

How Accurate Do Historical Films Need to Be?

Journalist Christian Caryl recently wrote a commentary in the New York Review about the movie, The Imitation Game, highlighting many of the film’s historical inaccuracies that he feels aren't trivial.  On the contrary, he contends that the film cooks up a portrayal of Alan Turing—the gay, wartime, British mathmetician who is the film’s subject—that is so far off-base, it crosses the line of artistic license and leaps into a world of artistic negligence.  He writes that the film “not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character—it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.”  The film, he concludes, sends an “extremely distorted picture of history.”

I was intrigued to hear Caryl articulately make his point last week on NPR’s radio show, "Worldview,” along with show host Jerome McDonnell and film contributor Milos Stehlik.  At the crux of the debate was this: how accurate should historical films be, is there a line that should not be crossed, and does it really matter?

Whatever integrity Caryl built up for the first half of the show—during which he skillfully pointed out the problems with The Immitation Game—was quickly obliterated when asked about Selma, a film that's suffering similar scrutiny for its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King.  Caryl admits that the latter film takes “a lot of liberties with the history, some of which I found a little tough to swallow” and claims that people’s view of Martin Luther King with be “strongly shaped” by the movie.  Oddly, Caryl still recommends Selma.  Why?  “I thought it was just a damn good story.”

So, presumably, if the makers of The Immitation Game had simply made a better movie, then the historical errors could be overlooked?

During the show, host McDonnell didn't initially let Caryl’s inconsistencies off the hook, and asked him why he was okay with Selma.  Again Caryl answered, “You know, it’s a crackin’ good story…The Imitation Game I think is a bad story. A stupid story.”

Hmmm.  I personally don’t care what Caryl thinks is a good story vs. a bad story, and I’m thankful he’s not in a position of determining which films get made and which do not.  Whatever valid points he made in his essay were completely erased by his own inane argument on the radio.

But more distrubing to me is the following remark Caryl made: “A lot of people nowadays get their history from movies.  It’s that simple."

Excactly where he collected the data to formulate such a far-reaching claim is unknown, but it must be a sad, sad world Caryl lives in when most people with whom he interacts are clueless nincompoops.  Who are these people Caryl speaks of whose intellects are so flimsy that a two hour film can completely mold their viewpoints?  It’s true that I lean left politically and generally hate the right-wing attack on liberalism as “elitist,” but you know what?  In this case they would be correct to cry foul.  How much more elitist can one be to presume that most filmgoers (but not Caryl himself, of course) will have their sense of world history shaped by a movie?

Caryl's inconsistency and unsubstantiated claim notwithstanding, the question still lingers:  Does any of this matter?  Do films need to follow a guideline and be careful to portray history accurately? 

I'll answer the question with a series of additional questions: Is Amadeus an accurate portrayal of Mozart and Salieri?  Did Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins depict Nixon accurately in the film Nixon?  How about the character of Thatcher in The Iron Lady?  Or J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland?  Oscar Schindler in Schlinder's List?  How about Hitler in Downfall?  Or Muhammad Ali in Ali?  The list goes on and on and on of films that were not meant to be the final say in a person’s life, but rather an entertaining interpretation. 

In other words, artistic. 

Huh.  Go figure.

Caryl overlooks a few other important points:

1)     All art is slanted, be it film, photographs, paintings, and yes, even documentaries (I doubt even Caryl would claim that Michael Moore’s films are objective).   And funnily enough, a film like Zero Dark Thirty which some blasted for supporting the use of torture, I found to be a film steadfastly against torture.   What?  A piece of art can conjure up multiple viewpoints?  Nah!

2)     People are not as dumb as Caryl presumably believes.  I have seen Nixon the movie.  It does not shape my viewpoint of Nixon the man in any way, shape or form.  I have not yet seen Selma, but I gotta believe it won’t shape my view of MLK more than the words and images of the Man Himself.  This brings me to my last and most important point...

3)     Historical films provide a gateway for learning more about the subject.  I knew nothing about Turing before seeing The Imitation Game (which I quite liked, by the way).  I still know little about him, but I at least have the salient facts down: Turing was a brilliant, gay man who—along with many others—helped crack the code to the Nazi’s Enigma Machine and was later arrested for having an affair with another man.  Now, that isn’t much to go on.  But you know what?  Because of the film, I may now choose to investigate further so that in time I’ll have a more complete picture of Alan Turing, The Man, instead of Alan Turing, The Character

In that sense, we owe a great debt to The Imitation Game.

Let's allow filmmakers do what they do best: entertainment us.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved