The rise of Elton John into pop superstardom is a magical, visual fantasy of a musical biopic – with a stand out performance by Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eddie the Eagle).

Addiction (alcohol, cocaine, sex) battles are writ large in director Dexter Fletcher’s (Sunshine on Leith, Eddie the Eagle) telling of the early days of success as a shy and withdrawn Reggie Dwight evolves into the flamboyant Elton John. And whilst there’s no claim for Rocketman to be a true telling, the solid foundation to the tale is provided by the long-term friendship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell – Billy Elliot, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool).

Inevitable comparisons with last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody aside, a slow, family-life start in the outer London suburb of Pinner kicks into life with the screen arrival of Egerton. His look and mannerisms are uncanny, his singing excellent – and whilst Rocketman generally avoids providing any real depth to the man himself, it is entertainment with a capital E.

Rating: 65%


‘Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again’


Whether you like/liked ABBA or not (and it’s more than 40 years since they won Eurovision), there’s no denying their catchy, upbeat pop is some of the most joyful around. And that’s true of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Cheesy, superficial, predictable it may be as we travel back in time from Mamma Mia to see where it all started. Yet…

Casting is inspirational (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver – for Meryl Streep and Hugh Skinner – Hampstead, Les Miserables – for Colin Firth in particular). Selection of songs perfect for the narrative (Cher as Meryl Streep’s mom!) and even Croatia standing in for the original Greek island is a perfect setting. Sheer unadulterated joy – even if, other than singing the songs, everything is forgotten about the minute you walk out of the auditorium.

Rating: 63%

‘The Greatest Showman’

greatest_showman_ver7It’s a slick, entertaining, all-singing, all-dancing old-fashioned musical of the life of one of the greatest of all showmen – impresario P.T.Barnum.

The founder of the modern circus, according to The Greatest Showman the innovative Barnum (Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables, Wolverine – in a role he was born to play) overcame poverty, married for love (Michelle Williams – Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea) and tapped into the fascination of the bizarre by setting up a circus of morbid curiosities and ‘freaks’. Success follows, but in wanting acceptance by polite society, Barnum almost bankrupts himself and his marriage by touring the  Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Snowman) around America.

Sanitised to make it a family spectacle, The Greatest Showman, even with its patchy soundtrack, stirs the heart with its acceptance of difference and diversity, even if, at the end of the day, it’s shamelessly old-fashioned and predictable.

(The sad thing about the film is that its telling is very far from the truth, with Barnum early in his career dubiously involved in loopholes in the slave trade, did not come from a poor background and he made almost $15 million in today’s money from the Lind tour. There’s poetic license and then there’s poetic license).

Rating: 53%

‘Sing Street’

sing_streetDelightful, feel-good and totally endearing, the latest from John Carney (Once, Begin Again) yet again presents the good in both character and narrative (and provides a ripper of a soundtrack).

A nostalgic revisit to the 80s with a story that, whilst hardly innovative (new boy at school overcomes bullying, wins the girl and gains popularity), uses music to flesh out its tale. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a convincing innocent discovering his inner Duran Duran or The Cure – and the relationship with his music mentor brother Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Free Fire) adds an extra layer of oddball warmth.

Rating: 69%

Who’s going to win? Oscar thoughts.

academy_award_trophyWith the Oscars dished out this coming weekend, and, having seen all nine features up for best film, thought a little personal ruminating would not go amiss (there’s enough of others out there).

Naturally, it’s a personal take on those nine films. Some I do not think should even be on the list; others are noticeable by their absence (Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals in particular). But of those nine, my choice for best film falls unequivocally for Moonlight.

The Golden Globes got it right when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted it best film – drama. The two separate categories for best film – drama and comedy/musical – certainly helped the Barry Jenkins-helmed feature avoid competing against the critical behemoth that is La La Land. But it’s the better film (personally speaking). Resonant, poignant, performed by an ensemble cast with quiet dignity, it’s a quite extraordinary film.

La La Land, the odds-on favourite to win a swag of Oscars including best film, fell into that ‘it’s good but not that good’ category for me – and is only fifth of the nine on my list. But in its celebration of LA and Hollywoodland (and a quite haunting soundtrack), it will probably win the big one (at least).

Any other year, the indescribably sad Manchester by the Sea would have likely topped my favourite of the year. Like Moonlight, it’s another quiet drama with superb performances from all and sundry, although in her few scenes Michelle Williams is devastating (as is Casey Affleck).

It’s hardly original – and we’ve seen Jeff Bridges play laconic lawmen for what seem forever (partly because he’s so good at it!) – but Hell Or High Water is a particularly fine example of its genre but unlikely to cause any surprises (it’s a film that appears to be constantly finding itself second or third in all its categories).

Lion surprised me by the respect it gave to the early part of its narrative – almost half its running time is set in a subtitled India. It’s a true story very well told and it was good to see Dev Patel gain recognition at the BAFTAS for his performance (it would be a major surprise if he repeated the feat and picked up Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali in Moonlight).

The rest of the nine films are likely to be also rans, although Fences is a powerhouse in terms of acting. August Wilson’s film betrays too much of its theatrical roots to be truly convincing as a feature film. Arrival is an intelligent sci-fi but, like Hell or High Water, features high on lists of five or ten without topping any of them. Hackshaw Ridge surprised by finding itself in the running for best film. Highlight of Mel Gibson’ war film is the superb editing and cinematography (sadly no recognition for Simon Duggan in the latter category). And then there’s Hidden Figures which was a great true story disappointingly told.

So I’d love it if Moonlight took home the best film award but it’s hard to see it beating out La La Land.

Personal ratings of the films nominated for the best film Oscar

Moonlight (91%)
Manchester by the Sea (88%)
Hell or High Water (80%)
Lion (75%)
La La Land (73%)
Fences (69%)
Arrival (67%)
Hackshaw Ridge (63%)
Hidden Figures (57%)

‘La La Land’

la-la-land-posterA gorgeous homage to 50s Hollywood musicals and French director Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort), La La Land is regarded by many as one of the best films of 2016 and a potential multiple Oscar winner.

Like those 50s musicals, the premise is simple enough – boy meets girl, they fall in love, they go their separate ways with lots of dancing in the streets and showstopping tunes. Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson, The Ides of March) is the jazz musician down on his luck, Emma Stone (Birdman, The Help) the wannabe actress. Their chemistry is palpable with Stone a stand-out as the vulnerable yet determined Mia.

The hype is a little over the top for this throughly enjoyable but overlong celebration of its genre – it’s a good film rather than great. But as a follow up to the superb Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle is proving to be one of the most exciting writer/directors around.

Rating: 73%

‘Into the Woods’

sq_into_the_woodsWith a fabulous cast (Meryl Streep in particular), the first two-thirds whizz by in an entertaining frenzy of composite fairy tales. But once the initial quest is achieved (the end of the first act in the original stage production) and a secondary narrative evolves, the effervescence becomes somewhat flat.

But have to love the music – Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd: the Barber of Fleet Street, Follies, A Little Night Music) is a genius!

Rating: 66%