Rocketman (D)


L and D received mixed signals from the Taco Bell Index as we headed out for the opening night of the Elton John biopic / musical, Rocketman.   It appeared that the power was completely out in the building, including the usually illuminated signage, yet the driveup line was at least 10 strong, backed up out into the street.   What could this possibly mean?

Judging by the sub-tepid crowd in a virtually empty theater, I take it to mean that Rocketman won’t be a hit.  If you like Elton John songs (and who doesn’t?), you will probably enjoy the music, but I was personally restless throughout as I waited for the movie to settle into its rhythm.  I don’t think it did.

L has already weighed in here and I think he’s right that you will probably find something to like — the sartorial splendor, the dance numbers, the set depictions, the concert scenes.  And I have seen some reviews that congratulate Mr. John, who was executive producer on the piece, for not portraying himself in the most flattering light. Sure.

But, I just can’t get past how boilerplate the plot was, and how the character development was basically non-existent.  Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll just *had* to be more fun than this, or why bother at all?   Bohemian Rhapsody suffered the same Lifetime Movie Network storyline fate, but the film makers in that case seemed to realize that showing Queen in outlandish costumes bolstered with 15-minute long concert clips was a winning strategy. I think Rocketman followed suit with the suits, but came up short on most other fronts.  It’s a better movie, and yet the payoff isn’t as great.

Over the $6.30 bar (the state of Wisconsin added tax to movie tickets!), but you can probably wait to see this on your home screen.



Booksmart is an intelligent and funny mashup whose ROFL parts don’t necessarily add up to a must see movie night. And even though my job as a high school film teacher was on my mind entering the movie (with the end of the school year upon me, as in the film). And even though the film is ostensibly about high school, it nevertheless did help me laugh. So if you want to kind of get away for a while and have a few good laughs I would recommend this film to you. But if you are looking for a solid all around film on the par of a Lady Bird or Eighth Grade, Booksmart isn’t going to cut it for you. 

As a mashup, Booksmart incorporates the awkward feeling of Eighth Grade, almost like a sequel but without the sense of predestined gloomy finality. It’s not the funniest thing you’ve ever seen (The 40 -Year-Old Virgin) or the most exploitive (Assassination Nation) or even one of the funniest things (Office Christmas Party). But like Long Shot, it certainly has its moments. There is also a feeling here reminiscent of the classic Scorsese comedy After Hours and Blockers with the primary action taking place over the course of one twisting crazy night. 

Many of the characters in Booksmart do seem familiar in spite of their one dimensionality. And the film does to its credit try to go into a little more depth with some of the characters. There is also a shout out to Gilmore Girls, which is apropos. If you’ve ever seen His Girl Friday or any screwball comedy, the lines come fast and furious, the banter withering, the re parteeing. So it’s unrealistic in that sense but some will find the style engaging. There are also just absurd moments that I loved like having fencers in the background of a scene in the high school courtyard. But this is followed up with grounded conversations about real world dilemmas. Falling off the edge of high school, like The Graduate. As I mentioned in my Eighth Grade review, it’s not easy being a kid and that certainly comes through in Booksmart as well. I found that though the film pulled from many sources and familiar storylines it also seemed to create an original synthesis. The pool scene and airport scenes were beautifually shot, the graduation scene, reminiscent of Stripes was also well done. 

There are some great cameos here by Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte. But I think the film is stolen by the eccentric and totally out there frenemy Billie Lourd as Gigi.

Booksmart certainly hit the 6 dollar Thursday bar, kept me laughing and thinking and covered some original cinematic ground with a strong mashup style. Do I think that you could also happily wait for it to stream on your favorite platform. Yes, I do.   

The Hustle

downloadThe Hustle is odd.   L&D tend not to do too much pre-scouting of these movies, so we just knew it fell in the grifter-comedy genre.  But within a few minutes of sitting down it became apparent that this is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which itself I believe was a remake)with female leads Anne Hathaway and  Rebel Wilson replacing Michael  Caine and Steve Martin (mostly respectively).  Among one of the many reasons it is odd is that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, while funny in spots, just wasn’t that strong of a story, relying on Caine and Martin’s gravitas to carry enough laughs to make it worth your while.  

And that’s my review of this one:  Wilson and Hathaway are pretty funny and we both laughed out loud here and there, but the story was quaggy and we left the theater thinking maybe we should have seen Tolkien instead.  The big downside is that attempts to remake some of the stronger scenes from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — Caine unwittingly racking up winnings at the tables and Martin’s portrayal of Ruprecht — just didn’t stack up.  Hathaway and Wilson have their moments, sure, just not enough of them.  But we did laugh.  Comedy is still hard.

Another potential plus for our readers in the tundra, the movie is set along the French Riviera, wherever that is, and it is gorgeously shot.  As we labor through the 32nd week of winter here in east central Wisconsin, even movie screen sunshine is welcome at this point.  But our guess is that you will get a much bigger payoff from Long Shot.

Long Shot

Long Shot  2019 Movie  Official TV Spot “Molly” – Seth Rogen  Charlize Theron   YouTube.png

Long Shot is the triple-entendre title of the new comedy featuring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogan.   In short, some of the parts are greater than the whole, with laugh-out-loud material throughout. The movie itself is somewhat unpredictable and yet still I felt underwhelmed.  Perhaps that is because the would-be protagonist is so unlikable?  I’ll have to think about that one.

The title of the film has two immediate and obvious possibilities.   Rogan stars as a bigoted ideologue / idealistic journalist, who quits his job when a Rupert Murdock-esque character buys the newspaper where he is a star investigative reporter.   Following his sacking, he runs into Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), who grew up next door to Rogan and babysat him through his pubescent years.   She’s clearly out of his league, so that’s the first long shot.   The Secretary learns that the incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) is not planning to run for reelection, setting her off on a world tour brokering an environmental deal that will launch her own presidential campaign.  And a woman angling for a presidential bid provides the second long shot.   This sets up nicely as a boy-girl buddy roadtrip platform for the Rogan-Theron romance to blossom (or not).

The movie has more than its fair share of political humor and it is less skewed than you might expect.  Rogan is an off-the-shelf knee-jerk liberal who comes to realize that maybe the world is not as black-hat, white-hat as he thinks it is.  Of course, as Secretary of State the Theron character is used to realpolitik, and it is the clash of their two worlds that the movie will eventually resolve.  It is more nuanced than an SNL sketch, but doesn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously as Vice.  Comedy is hard.  And we recommend this movie for the laughs alone.

Subject to caveats, of course.  The movie earns its R rating with more than its fair share of blue humor, including a third possibility for the film’s title that further pushes the boundaries for Hollywood comedy reasonableness.  If sex and drugs jokes aren’t your thing, you should sit this one out.   Otherwise, give it a shot.   Theron is great.  Rogan isn’t too bad.  And there is enough other stuff along the way that will keep you laughing and keep this off TNT.



Rather than review Serenity, I would prefer to reflect briefly on a few questions that we were able to discuss during the last four-and-a-half hours of the resolution (where L rocked back and forth in his stadium barcalounger mumbling “serenity now, serenity now” to himself).  First, why wasn’t this done as a straight film noir?  It seems like there was plenty going for it without the idiotic turn (see L’s review).  The second question is one L posed just last week (maybe it’s something about January movies):  what makes a film interminable?  Serenity offers one possible answer, which is that making an idiotic turn prematurely can be the difference between excusable (see A Quiet Place)  and the never-ending story — this movie just would not end.  Third, what would compel Matthew McConnaughey to take this role?  Was it the awesome location in paradise and all of the flexing and fishing and, um…. yeah, the steamy and extensive interludes with Diane Lane and Anne Hathaway?  Was it the chance to smoke indoors (with some of loudest-burning cigarettes since Nick Cage in Wild at Heart)? The fresh fish?  The chunky paycheck? Is this really the best script he’s seen since Gold?

Anyway, try not to think too hard about any of this, because the more you reflect, the less you will like this movie.  Indeed, you may downright start to hate the movie and hate yourself for sort of enjoying it and wanting to talk about it.   If you just can’t help yourself along these fronts, stay home.

But if you a movie junkie and you do break down and go, L&D recommend that you channel your best Frank Costanza and just let it pass over you, like a warm tropical breeze tainted with a hint of cigarette smoke.

Mmmmm, I feel better already.




Conclusions and Relevance  If you like watching Matthew McConaughey do anything or nothing at all with his shirt off, this movie was made for you. Further, if the idea of a topless Matthew McConaughey trying to reel in a giant tuna makes you involuntarily gnaw at whatever it is you happen to be holding in your hand then this is must see cinema. For the rest of us, not seeing Serenity will add 1 hour and 59 minutes to what poet Mary Oliver calls our “wild and precious life”.

With a TBI (Taco Bell Index) of 1, i.e., one car in the Taco Bell drive thru near the movie theater, Serenity was doomed from the start. Consequently it happened to be an extremely low turnout for opening night. Word must have gotten out. Do people read reviews? Or at least the headlines of reviews? In any case, I came in open minded and found there are actually a few things that Serenity has going for it. In terms of production design, it’s fantastic. The creation of Plymouth Island is impeccable down to the Maersk logo on the shipping container that professional fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) calls home. And it’s enough to throw you off in an interesting way. Examples: Speaking French but driving on the British side of the road. Caribbean style street vending carts and the typical pastel colors of that region but in a Polynesian landscape. Shrines to Hindu deities yet a constant spin of zydeco on the radio thrown into the mix. All to seal the idea of a place that is everywhere and nowhere. There is also some genre bending, with a noir drama meeting a psychological sci-fi thriller. Serenity is an elaborate Twilight Zone episode peppering you with some well-thought-out clues along the way. Solid performances by Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou and Jeremy Strong shore up this tangled web of McConaughey letting lose and going Full McConaughey — in the best way. 

So where does Serenity go sideways? I was going to say where does Serenity sink but my better half (not D, but rather my wife) informs me that I am too young to be making those types of jokes. However, I’m not too young to make dudity jokes, of which many were made at the theater as there is a fair amount McConaughey dudity (aka male nudity) as referenced in the abstract to this review. Back to the point being that the reveal, the twist, is exposed too soon. The denouement spreads into a facepalm inducing news reporter VO, then into a vomit-in-my-mouth-a-little inducing slo-mo hug of father son saccharine sap and mercifully crashes in an epilogue of a drone shot into the sunset. As the lights come up in the theater I commence with the head shaking. Why did the filmmakers let ACT III unravel like that? Was it a spell that McConaughey cast over them? I believe it was something to that effect. Not unlike the protagonist of this film, the filmmakers had a hard time viewing the story objectively. Some of this films’ strongest points come when issues of PTSD and existential epistemology are explored. But these lines of inquiry are quickly abandoned in favor of the noir yarn and so neither philosophy or McConaughey’s bare ass can cary the amount of credulity needed for this exploding can of worms narrative. In Serenity, the big one does get away. (Sorry, can’t help it.) Ultimately, as the TBI indicates, if you pass on Serenity you won’t be missing much. 


Yes, that’s soldiers riding on sharks.

L&D continued our busy December with tickets for the late opening-night showing of Aquaman this past Thursday.   Regular readers probably know that we don’t particularly like trailers and try to time our arrival right for when the Marcus Theater promotion hits the screen.  This turned out to be something of  a problem, as the building was locked when we arrived, and we had to wait a good five minutes before an errant customer finally exited the building, allowing us to get into the theater and to our seats during the opening aquarium scene starting around midnight.

Well, let’s just say that we probably would have been better off had we remained locked out the the building.  The movie is spectacular and it is a spectacular mess.  By 12:20 I was looking at my watch.  At 12:45 I almost asked L if he wanted to leave.  After that, I just kicked back in my recliner and got what I deserved from expecting more from a DC movie.

So what about all of those critics and fans who say this is a triumph?   I’d say, yes, Jason Momoa plays the title character with gusto.  And, yes, the underwater visuals are pretty “trippy.”  Actually, the above-water visuals are pretty outstanding, too — I’m definitely up for a trip to the beach.  And, yes, it is an action packed affair.

But, there’s always a big but…

This story?  Really?  It’s a combination of canned story (evil stepbrother, disputed line to the throne, quest for world domination) and make-believe backstory rubbish thick enough to make the writers of the Star Wars prequels blush.  Even if there are seven kingdoms of Atlantis, do we have to visit all of them and have the evil stepbrother (Patrick Wilson) carry out a gratuitous execution followed by a series of explosions at every one of them?  It’s like Thor and Loki meet Jar Jar Binks and Kylo Ren (Black Manta?).  At least there were no annoying alien sidekicks in this one.  Even the extra scene during the credits is a disappointment:  that guy was mad before, but he’s really mad now.  Sorry for that spoiler.

As for the acting, aside from Momoa, the script doesn’t really allow for much.  L&D favorites Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman are both in the movie and both remarkably forgettable.  Is that fun for them?  Were they even in it?  Or is it just a CGI recreation?  Maybe we can ask next time they are in town.

What we are left with is $200 million in beautiful visuals and lots of drama-free action, and I just shake my head and wonder what could have been.  It amazes me what some of the most talented people in the world choose to spend their time doing. The recommendation for this one is to keep your money in your pocket.  On the other hand, “box office don’t lie!”  But, in this case, it might be telling you a little bit of a fib.




Can You Ever Forgive Me? & Green Book


There are a lot of commonalities in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Green Book, though it may not be apparent on the surface. For starters both are period pieces, early 1990s and 1950s respectively, at least in part both are New York stories, both depict the real life of an LGBT person without their sexual identity being the focal point of the story and they are buddy movies about artists. 

Another aspect these films share is that the trailers are absolutely useless. Even the great zingers in these films build up over time. The writing is fantastic and the laughs are meaningful, not forced from an armlock. YOU’RE LAUGHING, RIGHT? 

Performance-wise Melissa McCarthy shows off an impeccable range. It’s a devastating, funny and realistic performance. You don’t doubt her portrayal of author and literary forger Lee Israel for a single moment. 

Mahershala Ali’s performance is spot on as sophisticated piano virtuoso, Dr. Don Shirley and his Odd Couple routine with ever impressive Viggo Mortensen brings out the real humanity and depth of both of these characters. “I understand that life can be complicated” says Mortensen’s Tony Lip, a man otherwise known more for his knuckles than his compassion. Their adventures on a music tour in the segregated deep south of not so very long ago America brings our history to light in a truthful and in between the laughs, heartbreaking way. 

These films are Oscar worthy in various artistic and technical categories. If you are looking for funny, deep, thought provoking, well-crafted, historical and yet personal films to watch, I recommend Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Green Book to you. 

Creed II


The opening shot of the opening scene of Rocky (1976) is of a painting of Jesus on the wall of the Church converted to a gymnasium, with Our Savior looking down on a match between a couple of third-rate fighters, Spider Rico and Rocky Balboa.  As writer, director, and now super-duper star, Sylvester Stallone explains it,  “The character of Rocky was built on the idea that he was chosen to do something.  That’s why the first image in Rocky is the picture of Christ.” As it is said in Proverbs:

The eyes of the LORD are in every place, Watching the evil and the good.

If the Lord is lucky, he will not have to see Creed II, an abomination of a movie bringing the Rocky series to its lowest point since Tommy Gunn.   The movie is at once predictable and incoherent, one that sets up some foundational existential questions, and then inexplicably pretends like it didn’t.  Have you ever had a friend ask you a serious question and then talk over you while you are trying to answer it?  That’s pretty much how the tail end of this movie goes.

Okay, so that is probably a little harsher than it needs to be.  And I am sure my allergic reaction at least partly stems from high expectations for the rebirth of the series.  I am a reasonably big fan of the Rocky movies, particularly the original, Rocky IIIRocky IV (a guilty pleasure), and L&D really liked last year’s Creed, as a flawed but entertaining movie that had a lot of heart.

While Creed II has some heart, what it has a lot more of is the plot lines lifted directly from Rocky III and Rocky IV.  The movie opens with the title character ascending to the  heavyweight championship juxtaposed with the spawn of Ivan Drago beating down challengers in the dingy gyms Moscow has to offer.   The elder Drago is in his son’s corner, and we see an (obviously) American fight promoter gym rat keeping tabs on both sides of the world.

This is essentially the set-up of Rocky III, comfortable champ, hungry challenger. Instead of Mr. T, however, we get the Son of Drago, who lacks the charisma and intrigue of his father, so the film just decides to focus on the elder Drago (Dolph Lundgren).   You may recall from Rocky IV that it was Ivan Drago who killed Apollo Creed in the ring back in the 1980s.  Rocky, of course, “avenged” this tragedy by not only defeating Drago on his home turf in the Soviet Union, but also by winning the heart and minds of the Soviet crowd in spectacular and ridiculous fashion.

Fast forward to Creed II and we learn that the elder Drago has yet to live down the loss. His moneyed countrymen spurn him, and his charismatic wife (Brigitte Nielson) walked away from both Ivan and their son, Viktor.   As Jung famously observed, “the greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents,” and, indeed, it is up to Viktor to make amends for the shortcomings of his father.   Together with the American fight promoter, the Dragos visit Philadelphia to goad the new champion into a match.  That the young Adonis Creed feels  compelled to fight under his late father’s flag puts the basic geopolitical tensions of Rocky IV into play, along with Drago-Balboa, Drago-Creed, Drago-ex-Mrs. Drago, Creed-papa Creed, Creed-mama Creed, Creed-Bianca, Donny-Biancas-baby Creed, to name a few.

Although there is way too much going on and I have many issues with what the movie actually attempts to resolve, I will just mention that my primary objection has to do with the treatment of fighter safety, particularly the question of a corner’s decision to stop a fight.  Because it is bad form for a fighter to “quit” it is often incumbent on the referee or the corner to step in and save the fighter from himself.   Firstly, it is the referee’s responsibility to stop a fight when the fighter is unable to defend himself anymore.  Absent an official stoppage, the fighter’s corner can “throw in the towel” when it believes its fighter has had enough punishment.

This, of course, is a paramount issue because presumably Apollo Creed might have made it out of the ring so many years ago if Rocky or Apollo’s long-time trainer Duke Evers had thrown in the towel on his behalf.  Indeed, we learn that Rocky feels the pain two-fold because he was the champ who should have been fighting Drago, and he also was in the corner that didn’t protect Apollo.  Apollo’s widow (Felicia Rashad) also feels the pain of loss, spending her life amidst Apollo’s fortune and glory, but without the man who made it all possible.  And then, of course, there is young Adonis himself,  feeling the pain of being deprived of a father at the same time that he is about to become a father.

That actually doesn’t sound too bad of a plot, does it?  If they had to go back in time, would they have stopped the fight when their fighter was in danger?

The movie wrestles with this in a perfunctory fashion, but it ultimately throws in the towel when it matters most.  For me, this was both disappointing and stupefying, and, beginning with the tire in the ring during training, I just don’t understand why Stallone let the script follow that path.  If the rifle is hanging on the wall in the opening act, it had better go off by the end of the film — if it doesn’t get fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there!  Is this really what young Adonis Creed was chosen to do?

On the plus side, there are actually a lot of things on the plus side.  Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky continues to be a great and emergent character, and Stallone himself continues to be a modern marvel of HGH.  I half expected him to get in the ring and spar a few rounds himself.  Even better, we have Michael B. Jordan being his great self, though his greatness is limited by the more cartoonish motivations given to him by the script.  He continues on his relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and her character and her music are both taken seriously.  The principal focus on Adonis and his family continues the rightful transition toward emphasizing African-American characters, as it is, of course, African Americans who continue to dominate the U.S. boxing scene.  Indeed, Jordan and Stallone have a great exchange on this point over baby names.

We also get to see Dolph Lundgren again, and he really has this strong, silent type thing nailed.  He isn’t given much to work with, but he is entirely believable.  I will also say I was pleased that the Brigitte Nielson character is satisfyingly predictable, and she manages to light up the movie without having to say a word.  With those two taking center stage, the young Drago — you know, that big muscly guy that almost gets run over by a Hummer a couple of times — isn’t given anything to work with.  Who is the villain here, anyway?

So while the plot is just too much tried and not enough true, there is probably enough to like here to rally this one above the $6 bar.  It has played to mostly positive reviews and we are undoubtedly headed to Creed III, so if you have seen the first seven in the series, there is probably enough here to warrant seeing the eighth.  The Achilles heel is not that the movie didn’t entertain, but that it could have rivaled the “original” with a bit more imagination and work on the script side.

Next time, I’ll manage my expectations better.  And I hope the Creed III folks will either fire that rifle or keep it out of sight.

Bohemian Rhapsody


The key to enjoying a movie like Bohemian Rhapsody is managing expectations.   Months out, L didn’t seem terribly excited about the prospects of attending opening night, so we agreed we were probably not going to be breaking out the *Instant Classic* tag for this one.  But we had a good attitude and low expectations when we parked ourselves in the front middle seats and let ourselves recline into the sounds of one of some of the greatest pop / rock hits that ever graced AM radio.

L was right to be afraid:  the movie was not good.   I would describe it as a big budget Lifetime Movie Network production shot amidst a writers’ strike.   The back stories are weak. The main story lines are generally trite.  The emotional payoffs are minimal.  This sad state of affairs should be expected given the tumultuous nature of the film’s development, and I’m guessing the politics of this movie’s development were more interesting than what the movie reveals about the history of the band.

Even so, there are a number of big pluses.  Firstly, Rami Malek and his prosthetic teeth make for a convincing Freddy Mercury.  Second and thirdly, what they didn’t spend on writing they seem to have saved for wardrobe and production values.  And, finally, Mike Myers is barely recognizable and mostly fun as the red-headed curmudgeon.  Adding that all up, L&D left in a reasonably upbeat mood.  If you like Queen’s big hits, it isn’t a complete waste of time.

One note of caution, however, the more I read about the development of this film vis a vis the fact vs. fiction angle, the worse it gets.   So I quit reading.  But, suffice it to say, if you are a stickler for Queen history, it’s probably best to stay away from this one.

So, while we are happy we saw it, I don’t think we’re quite generous enough to brandish the *Not Terrible* tag, either.   I’m guessing that when this one hits TBS I will fire up the Greatest Hits album instead and give “Under Pressure” its due.