Movie Review

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Elton John: So how does a fat boy from nowhere get to be a soul man?

Wilson: You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.

The first moments of “Rocketman” easily establish the world in which this film will take place. In full demonic costume, Elton John descends on a rehab group therapy session. This serves as the framework throughout this unusual musical.

Promoted as “based on a true fantasy,” this is less a biopic of Elton John (who produced) but a fantastical rumination on the power and price of superstardom. Chronology and accuracy of time line are flexible at best but this by no means is a complaint. The result is a flashy, frenetic and wholly engaging two hours where we are treated to John’s rise and ultimate self-destruction. 

The movie is both a traditional and a unique musical, most often using the songs to further the story rather than focusing on his concert career. The unusual gambit pays off in Dexter Fletcher’s imaginative direction of Lee Hall’s scattered but satisfying screenplay.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The film shifts quickly from the rehab group therapy as John literally steps into his past. A cold and distant father (an appropriately uncomfortable Steven Mackintosh) paired with an indifferent and narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, in an ugly but believable performance) fuel his need to find himself.

“I wish I was someone else,” laments his boyhood self, Reginald Dwight. With the encouragement of a benevolent grandmother (the always wonderful Gemma Jones), he begins to take piano lessons, graduating to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music.

The film hopscotches through the next years as he begins playing with the pub band, Bluesology. The story then hits the highlights. These include connecting with music publisher Dick James (a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Stephen Graham), meeting and working with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (a saintly Jamie Bell) and his debut at the Troubadour, a Los Angeles club. It is here he meets John Reid (Richard Madden, a little too full-on villain) who becomes his manager and his lover.

Much of the film follows this destructive relationship. John then begins the transition to the flamboyant persona that would carry him through much of his career. With success comes a life of excess as he becomes embroiled in alcohol, drugs and sex.

The film’s center needs to be its heartbeat.  In the starring role Taron Egerton creates a mesmerizing, three-dimensional performance and even provides his own vocals. Egerton smoothly arcs from the inhibited Reggie to the outrageous but equally self-doubting
Elton John. He manifests a complete rainbow of humanity, with shades of loneliness showing through even the grandest moments. Egerton is a marvel and drives the entire film.

As for the music, nearly two dozen songs are used, including “The Bitch Is Back” (a fascinating opening), “I Want Love” (highlighting the family’s dysfunction), “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” (chronicling his early years), “Honky Cat” (embracing his life of indulgence), “Rocketman” (an attempted suicide and recovery), “Bennie and the Jets” (spiraling down), “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” (emphasizing his break with Taupin), as well as various concert moments.

Special note should be made of Adam Murray’s interesting, sometimes dreamlike and often athletic choreography. Costume designer Julian Day’s reimaging of Elton John’s spectacular wardrobe is a whirlwind of sequins, feathers and glitter.

The creators chose not to present the last three decades of his life, instead opting for a quick summation, including sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. While it would have been nice to follow his recovery and the second act of his career (“The Lion King,” “Candle in the Wind,” etc.), it finds an appropriate ending to an epic journey. “Rocketman” is thoroughly entertaining with all of the glitz and razzle-dazzle one would expect to celebrate this legendary icon.

Rated R, “Rocketman” is now playing in local theaters.

Dave Morrissey Jr. returns as Benjamin Tallmadge in ‘Traitor.’

Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook will present Times Beacon Record News Media’s latest film, “Traitor,” on Sunday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. The special screening is preceded by the award-winning “One Life to Give” at 6 p.m. Admission is free, TBR’s gift to the community. Call 631-751-7744 for more information.

Photo courtesy of Fathom Events

In honor of its 30th anniversary, “Field of Dreams” will be screened at more than 600 select theaters nationwide on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 16, and Tuesday, June 18, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events.

The film tells the tale of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) as he follows a vision and a mysterious voice (“If you build it, he will come.”) encouraging him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. Along the way, he encounters ghosts of famous baseball players, including “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, and wrestles with his rocky relationship with his late father.

Upon its release in 1989, the film earned critical acclaim, an eventual Oscar nomination for Best Picture and the adoration of dads everywhere. A heartwarming experience that has moved critics and audiences like no other film of this generation, “Field of Dreams” is a glowing tribute to all who dare to dream.This special two-day event includes exclusive insight from TCM Primetime host Ben Mankiewicz.

Participating movie theaters in our neck of the woods include AMC Loews Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook on June 16 at 1 and 4 p.m. and at 4 and 7 p.m. on June 18; Island 16 Cinema de Lux, 185 Morris Ave., Holtsville and Farmingdale Multiplex Cinemas, 1001 Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale on June 18 at 7 p.m.

To purchase your ticket in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaityln Dever in a scene from the movie. Photo by Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

By Daniel Dunaief

Although it’s getting a lot of buzz, few moments in “Booksmart” are worth the price of admission. It’s just not that funny, charming, unique, innovative or engaging.

The story follows two high school girls, Amy (played by Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein) who are at the top of their class. Academic overachievers, they suddenly realize on the eve of their graduation that their classmates have done well academically too, have gained admission to top colleges and seem to have engaged in a social scene that clearly hasn’t included them. The two best friends spend the rest of the film trying to make up for lost party time on their last day of high school.

The antics that follow mirror the shenanigans of “Superbad,” albeit from a female perspective. The problem is that this film from Annapurna Pictures doesn’t do for awkward high school girls what “Bridesmaids” did for rowdy and raucous women.

Amy and Molly have their own little world, which includes an extended dance sequence on the street and an endless stream of compliments about how great each of them looks. While these moments of connection, which likely originated from years of a developing and co-dependent friendship, appear to be genuine and reflect their friendship, they can’t and don’t replace more substantial memories or interactions that allow them to coexist, and feel like they might be thriving, on their booksmart island.

Just about everyone else in the film is a woefully underdeveloped character. Jason Sudeikis, who is married to debut director Olivia Wilde, plays Principal Brown. Clearly exhausted and burned out by his job, Brown can’t stomach the holier-than-thou attitude Molly demonstrates when she lectures him.

He shuts the door on her until later, Amy and Molly discover that he moonlights as an Uber driver. Yeah, funny stuff. Well, it could have been, but it doesn’t play out especially well, even when the girls accidentally share some raunchy sounds from a phone he’s charging in his car.

Jessica Williams, who plays teacher Miss Fine, is a 20-something version of Molly and Amy, relating well to them because she clearly followed a similar school-committed path. She weaves in and out of the film, sharing a few details about breaking free of the bonds of commitment and academic dedication, but again, her character is neither especially funny or poignant.

“Booksmart” is desperate for the equivalent of a McLovin, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse in “Superbad.” Sure, he’s ridiculous and awkward and overwhelmed by various moments, but he’s amusing, awkward and desperate in ways that are charming and relatable.

The other characters in “Booksmart” are one-dimensional. Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, plays the offbeat Gigi, who seems rich and strange. She floats in and out of scenes with Skyler Gisondo, who plays Jared. Neither character adds much and yet they each enter scenes like unwanted weeds and then disappear, only to spring up again.

While “Booksmart” has an interesting premise, with two intelligent seniors eager to catch up on the social scene they missed through academic dedication, it fails to deliver memorable scenes or compelling dialogue.

Rated R, “Booksmart” is now playing in local theaters.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets the genie (Will Smith) in the Cave of Wonders

By Heidi Sutton

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 27 years since Disney released the classic animated feature film “Aladdin.” This weekend, the much anticipated live-action remake opened in theaters and reviews have been mixed.

Written by John August and Guy Ritchie, and directed by Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes,” “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”), it follows the 1992 film’s storyline closely and includes all of the favorite characters from the original but also expands on some of the characters.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in a scene from the movie

The story takes place in the fabled city of Agrabah where Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) adviser to the Sultan (Navid Negahban), seeks to retrieve a magic lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders. He enlists the help of a street rat named Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a “diamond in the rough,” who becomes trapped in the cave. When Aladdin finds the lamp and polishes it, a magical genie appears and grants him three wishes.

Along with his pet monkey Abu, the genie and a magic carpet, Aladdin spend the remainder of the film disguised as Prince Ali of Ababwa trying to woo Princess Jasmine while trying to stay clear of Jafar.

Massoud is perfectly cast as “Aladdin,” both looking and sounding the part, and succeeds in bringing Aladdin from animation to life. Naomi Scott brings a fresh take on Princess Jasmine, making her a strong political figure who wishes to be Sultan.

Will Smith has the Herculean task of being the genie this time around and pulls out all the stops in ensuring that his character gets the maximum laughs. “Robin Williams didn’t leave a lot of room for improvement in the development of the genie,” said Smith in a recent interview on the “Graham Norton Show,” adding that he wanted to maintain the nostalgia but add a new flavor to it. Although many of his lines are from the original film, Smith, in Fresh Prince fashion, adds rap to his songs, works out a lot and also develops a crush on Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).

All of the wonderful songs by Alan Menken we have come to love are in the film, including “A Whole New World,” “A Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” with one new song, “Speechless,” performed beautifully by Scott.

Aside from being visually stunning, with many special effects, the film does have its issues. Although not a cartoon, the movie at times feels cartoonish. The animals – Raja the tiger, Lago the parrot and Abu the monkey – are computer generated and look it, and the people in the film look like Disney characters as they sing, dance and mull about in over-the-top costumes.

The length of the film is also problematic. While the 1992 film was rated G and was only 90 minutes long, this version is rated PG and is over two hours long, a stretch for families with young children.

That being said, Ritchie’s modern-day version of “Aladdin” has its own charm and is a fitting take on the Arabian Nights tale for fans of the original.

Up next for Disney is a live-action remake of “The Lion King” set to open in July.

From left, Jacob Mariani, Gio Chiesa, Jenna Lennon, Benji Dunaief and Julia Tranfaglia. Not pictured, Fernando Gutierrez Photo from Benji Dunaief

To honor the tireless and dedicated young professionals whose combined talents produced two delightful and historic films, Times Beacon Record News Media’s “One Life to Give” and “Traitor,” we congratulate them on their graduation from Emerson College in Boston on Sunday, May 12. We wish them continuing success in their future careers and hope to work with them again soon. 

Benji Dunaief, director

Benji Dunaief grew up in Philadelphia but was born in Manhattan, which is his excuse for being a Mets fan. In the third grade, his parents got him a LEGO Steven Spielberg stop-motion movie making kit, and a love for building with LEGOs quickly transitioned into a passion for making films. He graduated with a bachelor’s in visual and media arts: film production. 

Through his films, Benji strives to bring to light true stories of forgotten heroes and marginalized communities. He is currently in development on multiple projects, both narratives and documentaries, and in the future looks to begin a career in commercial and feature film directing.

Jenna Lennon, script supervisor

Born and raised in Boston, Jenna Lennon didn’t travel too far from home when she decided to attend Emerson College. Now, she is graduating from Emerson with a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in publishing. Working on the crew of “One Life to Give” sparked a love of movies she didn’t know she had, and since then Jenna has developed her writing skills as a film critic. She has also gone on to work on numerous film sets. Currently, Jenna works for the Walt Disney Company as part of the Disney College Program in Orlando, Florida. Starting in August, she will join the rest of the “One Life to Give” crew in Los Angeles.

Jacob Mariani, 1st assistant camera

Jacob Mariani has been working with Benji on his creative adventures for years. An experienced filmmaker, Jacob has been working with cameras since he was only 4 years old. Jacob is also a longtime wildlife photographer specializing in birds. He grew up on Long Island and spent most of his life in Nassau County. Graduating with a bachelor in fine arts in visual and media arts: film production, Jacob has moved to Los Angeles and is currently working as a freelance camera operator.

Julia Tranfaglia, gaffer

Massachusetts native Julia Tranfaglia is a producer, director and cinematographer based out of Los Angeles. She is a graduate from Emerson College with her bachelor’s in visual and media arts: film production and a minor in marketing/business. 

Julia is motivated by her passion to make a difference, believing that filmmaking as a means of storytelling has the power to encourage empathy. She is committed to creating films that focus on important, untold perspectives, providing a platform for new voices to be heard. In her free time, Julia enjoys traveling and visiting friends and family. Occasionally she can be found playing her saxophone, particularly “Careless Whisper.”

Fernando Gutierrez, co-editor

Fernando Gutierrez was born in El Salvador and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Manheim Township High School in 2015 and is graduating from Emerson College with a visual and media arts major focusing in editing and postproduction as well as a minor in psychology. He prides himself on his drive to accomplish even the most difficult of challenges. Fernando is an extremely dedicated individual constantly looking to improve himself in his professional, personal and social life. He is always looking to grow and never shies away from the uncomfortable.

 

You’re invited!

Join us for a special double-bill screening of TBR News Media’s award-winning films at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook on Sunday, June 23. 
“One Life to Give,” the story of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, will be screened at 6 p.m. followed by “Traitor,” the sequel that chronicles the capture of British spy Major John Andre, at 7:30 p.m. As TBR’s gift to the community, the event is FREE.
For more information, please call 631-751-7744.

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

By Daniel Dunaief

An improbable relationship between a hot-headed and schlumpy reporter Fred Flarsky, played by Seth Rogen, and a driven and successful Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) forms the basis of Jonathan Levine’s rom-com “Long Shot.”

Set in contemporary Washington, D.C., and New York, the Lionsgate film addresses some current political issues, even as it centers around the pairing of the brilliant and successful Field with the less polished but talented writer Flarsky.

Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen and a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

For starters, the movie earns its R rating with numerous bawdy humor, phallic references and strong, unrestrained language. It is not a cute parable about modern times that forces people to reconcile their differences and clean themselves up because of some broad theme like love conquers all — it is a feather duster heading for the audience’s funny bone. If you liked other Rogen films like “Knocked Up,” you’ll likely enjoy this one as well, even without his customary collection of collaborators.

The film offers few true surprises, even as it hits its humorous target several times, evoking laughter from an audience that appreciates the hijinks that spring from the combustible and rule-breaking Flarsky and the controlled Field, who entered the political fray because she wanted to change the world.

Flarsky isn’t exactly a trophy partner for Field, who is putting together an international environmental policy as a triumphant final act as secretary of state before she announces her candidacy to succeed her vacuous boss, President Chambers, played by Bob Odenkirk. A former TV star — hmm, I wonder where they came up with his character — Chambers is leaving the highest office in the land as he attempts to become a crossover film star.

Once she decides to run for office, Field learns from an image team that she needs to add humor to her speeches. Enter Flarsky, a former neighbor whom she used to babysit, who is also a talented and shoot-from-the-hip writer.

Every movie, even an odd-couple rom-com needs some kind of villain. Parker Wembley, played by Andy Serkis, fills that bill. Wembley owns an expansive and conservative media empire — uh, yeah, the challenge to figure out the inspiration for this character isn’t terribly taxing, either.

Wembley meanders in and out of the film, offering a menacing and overblown presence who will force the couple not only to confront their differences but also to maneuver through the kind of tension those who live public lives desperately try to avoid.

“Long Shot” has a few sidekicks who add necessary spice to the film, including Maggie Millikin (June Diane Raphael), who says what many in the audience are thinking as Field allows her developing attraction to Flarsky — say what? — to threaten her promising political career.

Creating Flarsky’s one-person entourage, Lance, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. who bears a striking resemblance to his father Ice Cube, offers support, encouragement and a few surprises for the strong-willed Flarsky.

As with some of the other supporting actors, Agent M, played by Tristan D. Lalla, has a memorable and solid deadpan line when Flarsky asks him not to tell anyone about his relationship with Field.

While Rogen and Theron genuinely try to bridge the differences between the characters, it is unclear, other than through Flarsky’s compelling writing, why Field is so enthralled with him. Sure, Rogen has been successful in other movies and has built an effective career as an underachieving underdog, but her character doesn’t know that.

Even if the movie doesn’t break much new ground, deliver any huge surprises or provide grist for intense postmovie discussions, it does offer an easygoing and humorous break from our own reality.

From left, curator Jud Newborn, Pantheon Books publicist Kathryn Zuckerman, author Victoria Riskin, and Cinema Arts Centre Director Dylan Skolnick Photo by Ryan T. Perry/CAC

Author Victoria Riskin, daughter of Hollywood film icon Fay Wray and legendary screenwriter Robert Riskin, signed copies of her latest book, “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir” at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington on Monday. The book signing was held at a reception following a screening of the original 1933 “King Kong.” The event was curated and produced by Jud Newborn.

Michael Pawluk Photography

‘THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS’ — Thomas Paine

Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society will host a screening of TBR Media Productions’ Revolutionary War drama, “One Life to Give,” at the Rose Caracappa Senior Center, 739 Route 25A, Mount Sinai on April 8 at 7 p.m. Followed by a Q&A with Executive Producer Leah Dunaief. Free and open to all. Light refreshments will be served. Limited seating. Call 476-5742.

‘Dumbo’ is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In viewing Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” it is hard not to compare it to Disney’s animated feature that served as source and inspiration. The delicate and wonderful cartoon ran 65 minutes and was both enchanting and heartbreaking. Like all of Disney, there is delicacy about this 1941 film that has made it an enduring classic.

The story in both cases is that of the baby elephant, Jumbo Jr., a pachyderm born with giant ears. It is what makes him different that ultimately proves him special. These giant appendages give Jumbo Jr. — crowned Dumbo — the gift of flight. Ultimately, it is a tale of the “other” — a being ostracized for being different and then finding success, and, more importantly, joy in this distinction.

The original film ends with Dumbo’s rise to fame and his reuniting with his mother. Burton’s version extends the length and the plot to a bloated two hours. The film is stunning to watch with incredible CGI in the creation of the title character. Dumbo is a wholly realized creation with eyes that are mournfully soulful. The film (in 3-D) is visually satisfying but comes up short on character development. 

The story is set just after the end of World War I. Wounded soldier Holt (a brooding but sympathetic Colin Farrell) returns to a failing circus and to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, in nicely understated performances). He has lost his arm to the war and his wife to influenza. The circus is run by a roguish charlatan, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, doing what he does and does well), and is populated by the expected archetypes — the mermaid, the strongman, the snake charmer, etc. Instead of pursing this world and background lives, Burton opts for broad strokes and frenetic action.

It is the children, and, in particular the scientific Milly, who discover Dumbo’s gift. After the reveal of Dumbo’s talent, the film shifts with the arrival of a villainous entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (scenery-chewing Michael Keaton with an impenetrable and unrecognizable accent). Vandevere fools Medici into signing away his company so that he can headline Dumbo in his Dreamland amusement park. Here, the world becomes even bleaker as it segues into a clumsy indictment of corporate greed. What ensues is often tense and dramatic, but there is a desolation that pervades, only lifted by the final images of freedom.

While there are plenty of homages to the original (the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the pink elephants are particularly clever and a mouse in a uniform harkens to the antecedent’s sidekick), the film has a very modern point of view, especially on the issue of caging animals. It is an important message and one that needs to be heard, but rings oddly false in its period setting. 

Finally, the question one must ask is, “Who is this film for?” The answer: It is a children’s film that is perhaps too dark for the children.

Rated PG, “Dumbo” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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