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Movie Review

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is comprised of three collections of short horror stories written for children by Alvin Schwartz; the first book was published in 1981. Schwartz wrote original or curated well-known tales that ranged from traditional ghost stories and folklore to urban legends. Many a young reader came across these books at their school libraries and would remember them best for Stephen Gammell’s truly disturbing but incredibly powerful illustrations. 

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

In 2011, HarperCollins featured tame new art by Brett Helquist (Lemony Snicket), resulting in a good deal of discussion as the original pictures were very much part of the iconography. It should also be noted that the American Library Association listed the works as the most challenged series of books from the 1990s and has continued to stir controversy for its violence and macabre topics. 

Now these stories have been brought to the big screen in an intriguing film. This is not a horror anthology, a form that became popular in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s.  Instead, the stories are interwoven into a high-stakes plot that deals with a haunted tome where, “You don’t read the book; the book reads you.” 

It is Halloween 1968 and a trio of high school students along with a mysterious young man end up in a supposedly haunted house. Here, they unleash the spirit of  Sarah Bellows, a girl who was suspected of murdering children before the turn of the century. At the heart of the legend is her book of “Scary Stories.” In a traditional trope (think Candyman, Bloody Mary), it was rumored that she could be summoned by asking her to tell you a story — the last story you will ever read. This setup puts the group on a path whereby six of the tales from the book come to life, placing them in the midst of the stories.

The film is well-paced and well-acted.  There are a few jump-out scares and just a handful of mildly gross moments; the latter are handled stylishly and never cross the line. 

For the most part, “Scary Stories” centers on the characters in action and their search for the truth about Sarah and her family. Her past and the family’s history are gradually revealed and, ultimately, it is a morality tale where the monster is perhaps more sinned against than sinning. It is no coincidence that the film is played out during the height of the Vietnam War and, specifically, the final days of the 1968 election where the country would eventually experience a different kind of evil in the figure of Richard Nixon.

The cast is uniformly strong, with Zoe Colletti’s Stella being the driving force. She is a cross between the traditional scream queen and the self-actualized teenager we have come to expect in horror films.

Colletti is well-supported by Michael Garza as Ramón, the stranger with an important and surprising secret. The sidekicks, Auggie and Chuck, played by Gabriel Rush and August Zajur, respectively, are funny but grounded. It is this quartet that is central to the film. Unlike most latter-day horror and slasher films, this one centers on real friendship and, therefore, we are able to invest in their fates. In a supporting role, Dean Norris is particularly sensitive as Stella’s single father. 

The monsters, as would be expected given the source, are one-dimensional. This is intentional and appropriate as they are rooted childhood scares and fears — those terrors associated with the campfire and what lies underneath the bed. There are only occasional nods to the Gammell visuals, and the film would have perhaps been more frightening if these had been more prevalent.

Smartly directed by André Øvredal, the screenplay was adapted by Dan and Kevin Hageman, from a screen story by producer Guillermo del Toro, as well as by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. They have done their work well, finding a nice balance between humor and horror. Rated PG-13, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a clever outing, making a welcome addition to the genre.

From left, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura and Viveik Kalra in a scene from the film

By Jeffrey Sanzel

It is an unlikely premise. In 1987, 16-year-old Pakistani Javed Kahn (Viveik Kalra) finds solace and encouragement in the words and music of Bruce Springsteen. Javed rejects the music of his own generation for the earlier work of the New Jersey native. And yet, it is “inspired by a true story.” “Blinded the Light” is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, “Greetings from Bury Park.” Manzoor co-wrote the screen play with director Gurinder Chadha and Paul Maydea Berges. The result is a mix of comedy, drama, fantasy and an unusual approach to the musical.

Growing up in Luton, England, Javed lives in a world plagued by racism, both small and large. Incidents involving the neo-Nazi National Front as well as the damage of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic polices are very much present in his day-to-day life. Javed, who began keeping a diary at age 10, writes poetry as well as lyrics. His dreams are kept at bay by his very traditional father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Early in the film, Malik loses his factory job, sending the family into a financial tailspin. His hope is that Javed will go into a real profession — doctor, lawyer, accountant — and is appalled and angered by Javed’s more esoteric hopes.

Introduced to the work of “The Boss” by a Sikh “dude,” Roops (an easygoing Aaron Phagura), Javed finds that Springsteen’s ideas speak directly to him. The songs are integrated throughout the film — sometimes as background, other times as actual numbers sung by the characters and occasionally shown through the lyrics circling in and out of Javed’s head. The result is mixed but makes its point. In addition to the title song, the film includes various versions of “I’ll Stand by You,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Badlands,” “Hungry Heart,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road” and “The River,” among others.

At heart, “Blinded by the Light” is the story of a young man trying to find his identity. There is nothing complicated or deep about his struggle. Teenage angst has long been explored, and there is a distinctly John Hughes quality to much of the film. However, it is the darker and very real shades of prejudice that separate this from classic teen fare. The result is a two-hour diversion that is both honest and charming if short on surprises. In the end, it manages to make some real statements about intolerance and the power of the written word.

Much of this is due to Kalra’s endearing performance. Whether trying to navigate school, fighting with his traditional father, mooning over his crush — a rebellious Eliza (feisty Nell Williams) or trying to write lyrics for his friend’s, Matt (goofy-cool Dean-Charles Chapman) band, Kalra brings a wide-eyed reality, with every moment a discovery. Ghir shows a father in real pain, a man caught between two worlds. As Javed’s mother, Noor, Meera Ganatra, displays quiet strength and compassion. In a few short scenes, David Hayman brings a deeply touching arc as the stand-offish neighbor Mr. Evans, a World War II veteran who is moved by Javed’s poetry.

Sometimes the material sways toward the obvious. His teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) is the standard trope of supportive educator. A scene with Eliza’s conservative parents has an almost sitcom feel to it. There is a slightly forced takeover of the school’s radio station. There is a strange scene where Javed and Roops sing to some racist hooligans. 

On the other hand, there are surprising glimpses into worlds unknown, most notably a secret daytime dance hall for British Pakistani students. And sister Yasmeen’s (Tara Divina) wedding day is both vivid and jarring. And, always, Kalra’s sincere Javed is at the center. Ultimately, the film presents an earnest hero in a sensitive and worthwhile coming-of-age story. Rated PG-13, “Blinded by the Light” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Garth Stein’s beautiful 2008 novel The Art of Racing in the Rain tells the story of Enzo, a golden retriever, adopted by race car driver Denny Swift. It is told from Enzo’s point of view, in Enzo’s voice, beginning at the end of his life. Enzo believes what he has seen in a television documentary on Mongolia – that dogs will come back as humans. What seems like an amusing premise makes for a powerful, memorable tale. Stein’s absorbing, descriptive prose catapulted the novel to the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks – and rightly so.

Now the book has been turned into a slightly rushed but not entirely ineffective feature film. Following the book’s plot closely, screenwriter Mark Bomback and director Simon Curtis honor the spirit and the structure if never quite capturing the underlying pulse. As with the novel, the story begins with the elderly Enzo and then goes back to Denny bringing Enzo home; Denny’s courtship of and marriage to Eve; the birth of their daughter, Zoe; Eve’s illness; and all that follows.

Little happens that is not predictable and there is a distinct lack of character development. Scenes are quick and the viewer is rarely allowed to stay on one moment or incident for long, resulting in a lack of tension. The life-and-death scenarios are scrolled through like a flip-book, occasionally holding briefly, but, overall, just moving to the next situation.

This shortchanges the majority of the cast who often seem to be sharing the same dialogue: “Hello, Enzo,” “Denny, is there anything I can do for you?,” and “Goodbye, Enzo.” Friends, family and co-workers flit through the film without making much of an impression. Even Amanda Seyfried, as Denny’s wife, is given very little to play beyond winsome and happy then winsome and sick. The usually dynamic Kathy Baker (as Eve’s mother) is lost in the screenplays simplicity.

Milo Ventimiglia (from TV’s This Is Us) makes a sensitive and charming Denny. While not an actor of great range, what he does, he does well. He captures Denny’s warmth and earnestness as well as his passion for racing. He is wholly believable, finding joy and pain in Denny’s achievements and struggles.

Where the film falls flattest is in the latter part of the movie. The book’s devastating and acrimonious custody battle is declawed to the point of almost being meaningless. The dispute is clumsy and meanders without raising any genuine conflict so the resolution is toothless. The film does manage to recover for a touching denouement. 

With all its flaws, however, the film works on a visceral level. This is due to two related pieces. First, Bomback wisely mines Stein’s prose for the majority (if not all) of Enzo’s voice-overs. Enzo’s perspective is the narrative soul and they have wisely not stinted. At all times, we are aware of Enzo’s observations and his deep-felt attachment to Denny. The entire movie is infused with this near-human, thoughtful and sensitive point of view.

And, second, Kevin Costner’s flawless voicing of Enzo is what ultimately pulls tautest on the heartstrings. Costner’s soothing rumble is the true soundtrack and one that will resonate long after the movie is over.

Those who have read the book might be disappointed with the film’s condensed, hurried approach to the story, which occasionally becomes sentimental when it wants to be sincere. But no one can deny that, in the end, it is a story told with directness, with compassion and with heart.

Rated PG, The Art of Racing in the Rain is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

When approaching the films of cinematic auteurs, the tendency is to evaluate based on their entire body of work. While there is a logic to this, it is ultimately of limited value to someone actually experiencing the movie. Often, this is the road taken when the film is disappointing or less than the artist’s previous work. Fortunately, in the case of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has written and directed a strange but truly original love letter to the films of the late ’60s, creating a tapestry of real-life events and fictional characters. The upshot is an epic, enthralling, sometimes chaotic, often messy, but (mostly) satisfying journey.

Brad Pitt as stuntman Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in a scene from the film

Once Upon a Time interweaves a trio of threads: the fictional story of Rick Dalton (an amazing Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV western star on his way down, and his stuntman-gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, iconically charming); neighbor Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie); and the infamous Manson Family. Throughout, the narratives overlap, diverge and finally come together. The film is long but never boring, painting a vivid portrait of the seedier world of Hollywood.  

The performances are universally strong. Brad Pitt is warm and easy as the good-guy lackey with a past. His easy façade belies the darker shades beneath. Ultimately, he is the true hero in this world of faux cowboys. 

Margot Robbie captures Tate’s innocence. There is an enchanting scene where she attends her most recent film – Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew; her face is a wonder as she marvels, childlike, at her own image. With the least dialogue of any of the principals, Robbie manages to capture both Tate’s hopes and fragility. The actors playing members of the Manson Family are appropriately wide-eyed and menacingly mercurial, most notably Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and Damon Herriman, seen only briefly but to great effect, as Charles Manson.

But it is DiCaprio, as the self-destructive Dalton, who is a revelation. The portrait of an actor being pushed from hero to heavy, struggling with the twin demons of inadequacy and alcohol, is spot-on. Whether seen in clips from his ’50s network show Bounty Law, beating himself into a performance, or engaging with an 8-year-old costar (a delightful Julia Butters), he is funny, honest and completely human.  

There are assorted cameos and supporting roles from a who’s who of Hollywood, including Al Pacino (sounding surprisingly like Mel Brooks) as a stereotypical Hollywood player; Dakota Fanning, a chilling “Squeaky” Fromme; Bruce Dern as George Spahn, who rented his ranch to the Mason Family; Mike Moh as a hilariously arrogant Bruce Lee; Kurt Russell, low-key as a stunt coordinator and the film’s narrator; Rebecca Gayheart as Booth’s shrewish wife (whom he may or may not have murdered); and the late Luke Perry as TV actor Wayne Maunder, among others.

In its homage to the 1960s, Once Upon a Time is gritty and peripatetic, resulting in a picture that seems to have actually been shot in 1969. Sparing no detail, this is an immersion in a rough, bygone Los Angeles. The film alternates between satire and drama, reality and fiction, often jarringly so. A comedic moment juxtaposed with the tense shadow of the coming murders is clearly and, we assume intentionally, disturbing.  

But this is part of the greater whole that Tarantino has shaped in his semifictional Hollywood. There are moments and gimmicks that step out of this world but, fortunately, they are few and Tarantino lets the narrative carry the context. The final 10 minutes (and the only true graphic ones) can be best explained by the title. To say more is to detract from Tarantino’s bold and certainly controversial twist.

Rated R, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an audacious, occasionally maddening film, but one that Tarantino fans – and others – will certainly embrace.

A scene from 'The Lion King.' Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Disney has reached into its vault to create live-action versions of 101 Dalmatians, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Jungle Book and, most recently, the disappointing Dumbo and the mediocre Aladdin. Its newest release is the The Lion King, a remake of the 1994 animated classic, presented as a photorealistic computer-animated feature. The end result is stunning but unsettling.  

The original Lion King was a revelation. It dealt with difficult subjects and never pandered; it was wholly entertaining, truly sincere, and played to all ages. With loose shades of Hamlet, there was humor and humanity. It spawned the highly theatrical Tony Award-winning musical that has run for over two decades.

A scene from ‘The Lion King.’ Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

With few script embellishments from the original, the latest offering is just a new approach to animation. It is visually glorious, with every shot and every frame a breathtaking work of art. It is as realistic as if they were filming wildlife in its natural habitat. 

And therein is heart of the problem. In creating creatures that truly appear real — and they do — there is little to no expression. As animals do not communicate with their faces, it often feels static and detached in the dialogue sections. Much of the film seems like a nature documentary with voice-overs. The flip side is that the violence is brutally convincing with moments that are genuinely frightening. The hyenas are particularly alarming — and when they attempt to alleviate this with comic lines, they come across as psychotic.  

Directed by Jon Favreau, the film follows the original very closely (though clocks in a full 20 minutes longer). The opening is as beautiful and powerful as the original with the assemblage of animals coming to the presentation of young Simba, crown prince of the lions. The death of the patriarch is every bit as heart-wrenching if not more. The lion cubs could not be cuter. There are one or two very funny surprises; an amusing nod to Beauty and the Beast is welcome in one of the darker stretches.

In addition to the brilliant cinematography, the vocal artistry is first rate. J.D. McCrary and Donald Glover as the young and grown Simbas, respectively, bring honesty to their shared role. 

Billy Eichner is hilarious as the meerkat Timon, with a nice assist from an underplaying Seth Rogen as the warthog Pumbaa. 

John Oliver is comically uptight as the bird Zazu while John Kani brings genuine gravitas to the shaman-like Rafiki. Alfre Woodard is appropriately warm and strong as matriarch Sarabi and the great James Earl Jones, the only hold-over from 1994, returns as Mufasa and delivers a performance equal to his original. 

Especially strong, finding both danger and dimension, is Chiwetel Ejiofor as the treasonous Scar; what is interesting is that of all the characters, his face somehow manages to communicate the most expression.

The delightful music of the first film is here: It once again features the Oscar-winning work of Hans Zimmer, Tim Rice and Sir Elton John.

Because of the realistic and often savage violence, it seems that it might be too frightening for young audiences. So while engaging and inventive, ultimately, Disney’s The Lion King leaves the viewer with a certain disconnect and questioning not so much as why it was made but for whom.

Rated PG, The Lion King is now playing in local theaters.

A scene from ‘Toy Story 4’. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

By Jeffrey Sanzel

A film that aims to explore the pains of growing up, that endeavors to touch on love and loss, on sense of self and self-worth, takes on a huge challenge. That the movie aspires to a balance of humor and honesty makes it even more challenging. That an animated feature is told through the eyes and voices of toys seems impossible. However, as seen through the first three Toy Story movies, it is more than attainable. In a franchise that grew in both depth and art with each film, finding more laughter and more tears, it is the exception to every rule. The newest addition, Toy Story 4, is certainly one of the best films of the year.

Woody introduces Forky to the other toys. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Here are 100 minutes of pure entertainment, alternating between laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly touching, in a film that never feels like a sequel. It plays on multiple levels, providing jokes and slapstick, clever asides and deep insights, so that audiences of any age will be completely engaged from start to finish.

Woody (the always marvelous Tom Hanks) now belongs to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) but has been put aside for cowboy Jessie (Joan Cusack). This does not change Woody’s mission to make sure Bonnie is taken care of at all times. When Bonnie reluctantly goes to kindergarten, she finds solace in creating Forky, crafting him from a spork, googly eyes and a pipe cleaner — an opportunity that Woody engineers. Forky becomes Bonnie’s obsession and solace. What she doesn’t realize is that Forky (a scene-stealing Tony Hale) does not want to be a toy. Eventually, guided by Woody, Forky learns his value.  

Toy Story 4 is what we have come to expect in the series without ever feeling like it is a repeat of its earlier chapters. The movie includes a wild road trip, a dazzling carnival and a range of hijinks and colorful characters that make for a nonstop adventure. 

Eventually, the crew is reunited with the now self-actualized Bo Peep (a sly and knowing Annie Potts) who has found freedom in being a “lost toy,” living a full life in what can only be labeled renegade and off the grid with a posse of like-minded toys. Much of the latter half of the film also centers around an antique shop, ruled by Gabby Gabby (a flawlessly wicked Christina Hendricks) and her minion of ventriloquist dummies. Gabby Gabby is, at first, the villain of the story; but there is much more to her and her journey.

The film features many returning voices including Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear (comically learning to listen to his inner voice), Wallace Shawn as the neurotic Rex, John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, Estelle Harris as Mrs. Potato Head, Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head (from archival recordings), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly and Carl Weathers in a terrific running joke as three different Combat Carls. All of them deliver incredibly enjoyable performances, mining the most of their individual and team moments.

Newcomers include Keegan-Michael Key as Ducky; Jordan Peele as Bunny, an outrageous plush pair; and Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a second-rate Evel Knievel toy. There are wonderful cameos from Mel Brooks (Melephant Brooks), Carol Burnett (Chairol Burnett), Betty White (Bitey White) and Carl Reiner (Carl Reineroceros).

Josh Cooley, whose directorial credits include The Incredibles, Cars and Up, has beautifully guided the entire film. The excellent screenplay is by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton (with a total of eight people credited with “story by”). The literally hundreds of artists who worked on the picture have contributed to an emotionally seamless and visually stunning whole.

If the ending doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch of Toy Story 3, it is still wholly satisfying, bringing to a close a classic and heartfelt odyssey. While perhaps not perfect, Toy Story 4 comes pretty close.

Rated G, Toy Story 4 is now playing in local theaters.

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Fans of Mindy Kaling, best known for “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” have been flocking to theaters to see her debut as feature writer for “Late Night,” a by-the-numbers comedy that takes on the issue of diversity in the workplace and makes its statement with a connect-the-dots expectation. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, there are no surprises but it still makes for an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes.

Emma Thompson in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson plays legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury whose ratings have been slipping. She has surrounded herself with an all-male, all-white staff and is described as a “woman who hates women.” In response to this, she gives her long-suffering producer Brad (a wonderful Denis O’Hare) the task of hiring a woman. Through slightly unbelievable machinations, he brings on chemical plant worker Molly (Mindy Kaling) to the writing staff.  

Instead of a true examination of hiring practices, what ensues is humorous but contrived as Molly is first ostracized and then embraced by the team. There are occasional edgy moments – including Molly writing a topical and controversial monologue joke – but these risks are few. For the most part, it adheres to traditional comedy tropes, including an ill-fated and unnecessary romantic entanglement that feels incomplete. (There is a sense throughout the film that a good deal ended up on the cutting room floor as certain ideas and conflicts are introduced but not seen to conclusion.)

The first turning point is when Katherine discovers she is going to be replaced by a mainstream and extremely coarse comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, a subtle performance that avoids caricature). With this impetus, she goes to war with the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, saddled with a two-dimensional character). With Molly’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks guidance, Katherine begins to reinvent herself.

Minday Kaling in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson, one of the greatest and most versatile actors, creates a delightful monster of a boss. She never talks to her writers and doesn’t even bother to learn their names. When forced into a room with them, she gives them numbers. This is not done with cruelty but rather by someone who cannot be bothered with the people beneath her. Of course, in a comedy of this nature, she gradually learns to appreciate them.

Thompson’s depth is best shown when interacting with her ill husband Walter (a touching John Lithgow) and in an impromptu performance at a hole-in-the-wall benefit downtown. In the latter scene, the audience can see her pondering the mortality of her career.

Kaling is Thompson’s co-star and conscience. She is also “Late Night’s” writer and producer, which perhaps explains some of the weaknesses. As an actor, Kaling is a personality performer. There is no genuine complexity in her work but she is comfortable in her persona. She is watchable but, unlike with Thompson, as a presence, she is not transformative.  

The film is bolstered by a cast of strong actors in convincing performances, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Hauser and John Early. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Thompson and Kaling, there are no other fully developed female characters.

The second act crisis is clumsily manipulated but, once again, the actors are able to make it work. “Late Night” builds to an expected resolution but, given the nature of the film, it is the one that the audience hopes for and expects.

Rated R, “Late Night” is now playing at local theaters.

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.

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.