Friday, May 31, 2019

A superstar, loopy lady, and smart French comedy make it three to see

Elton John's very musical bio, a bravura performance in a creepy, occasionally funny thriller, and the latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas help fill northeast Ohio screens with plenty to watch for this first weekend of June.

Egerton commits to the full John makeover to become "Rocketman."
"Rocketman," named not as much after John's 1972 smash single as the way it describes his sex-and-drug-infused life, will have his fans singing about this authorized biopic and, of course, along with all his hits.

Just about every familiar note is here, from "Benny & the Jets" to "Your Song," with a slew of flashy production numbers highlighted by "Saturday Night's Alright" and "The Bitch Is Back." The latter opens the proceedings and features cherubic Matthew Illesley as little musical wunderkind Reggie Dwight.

The recognizable, therapy-induced plot shows how Reggie became Elton, in spite of  his cold-fish dad (Steven Mackintosh) and cruel, screwball mom (Bryce Dallas Howard), but with the constant encouragement of his loving grandma (Gemma Jones). Sadness, in fact, seeps through much of John's flashback-heavy life until that good ol' in-your-face rock 'n' roll helps get him through in the same way it undoubtedly carries the movie.

Some fascinating visuals certainly help, not to mention the terrific work of Taron Egerton in the lead role. The 30-year-old Brit, heretofore most notable as the guy from the "Kingsman" films, doesn't necessarily look much like John, or even sound like him when he truly sings his heart out. The trademark glitzy wardrobes he gets to wear, though, and the ever-pulsating vibe insisted upon by director Dexter Fletcher (who finished helming "Bohemian Rhapsody" after Bryan Singer was fired) seem a perfect match for Egerton's charismatic flash.

Adding the second best performance to the often outrageous mix is Jamie Bell, as lyricist Bernie Taupin, John's legendary writing partner and "the brother he never had." Bell has worked constantly since making his screen debut as "Billy Elliot" almost 20 years ago in a role that brought him a handful of awards. Expect some strong end-of-year acclaim for his fine supporting turn here, too, in a movie written by Lee Hall, the same man behind the "Elliott" screenplay.

Rated "R": language throughout, some drug use and sexual content; 2:01; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Speaking of awards chances, if a psychotically evil Kathy Bates could win a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for "Misery," then a similar, if more empathy-provoking Octavia Spencer deserves major consideration as the titled "Ma."

In what might be the performance of the year so far, Spencer puts this disturbing tale on her versatile shoulders and runs away with it, a second movie this week (see "Rocketman" above) that shows what a tormented childhood might incite.

In the case of Ma, an eventual nickname for Spencer's Sue Ann, her initial reluctance to buy liquor for a carload of under-age teens should have been the instinct to follow. Instead, she not only agrees, but then invites the four kids to party at her house.

Is she simply looking for company? A safe haven for the teen-agers? Or are Sue Ann's personal demons, steadily unveiled by way of more flashbacks, already working overtime?

Those are the questions that allow Spencer to go to work herself on an array of possibilities -- and personas -- friend, mentor, confidante, sexual predator, lonely heart, put-upon veterinarian's assistant, and many more, perhaps even serial killer.

As directed by Tate Taylor, who put Spencer through her Best Supporting Actress paces in "The Help," the ever-surprising "Ma" keeps us on our toes, despite a few horror staples and characters you suspect and, perhaps, hope will get their comeuppance.

Among Spencer's competent co-stars, Diana Silvers ("Booksmart") fills the bill as the movie's leading lady for the younger crowd, while Luke Evans, Juliette Lewis, and Missi Pyle connect the dots between generations. "The Help" buddy Allison Janney also sneaks in occasionally as Ma's boss. Nothing else will be revealed here.

Rated "R": violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and teen drug and alcohol use; 1:40; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Finally, in what might be a slice of the aforementioned Assayas' prolific career, "Non-Fiction" pits the ever-changing written word against digital publishing with a fun peek into an abundantly conversant segment of French society.
Binoche sparkles again.

As always, that means such intelligent talk comes with unabashed infidelity among most of the worldly players, including a wife and TV actress agreeably inhabited by Juliette Binoche.

One small concern: This is a good movie, but French-speaking viewers likely will call it a great one. The rest of us may find the constant discourse in Assayas' clever screenplay impossible to appreciate without keeping an eye on those bothersome subtitles.

For a bit more on writer/director Assayas, scroll down to the end of my wrap-up of last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Non-Fiction" enjoyed its North American premiere in front of a well-versed packed house.

Rated "R"some language and sexuality/nudity; 1:47; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

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