Rocketman Soars, Dark Phoenix Stumbles

I saw two movies in the theater this weekend. One of them was really great, the other was just okay. Let’s talk about ‘em.

First up is Rocketman, the critically acclaimed Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton as the legendary singer. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie, the musical sequences were exhilarating and the songs were so well done that the first thing I did when I got home from the theater was hop on iTunes and buy the soundtrack.

Paramount Pictures

The film charts Elton’s life from his childhood, where he was born as Reginald Dwight, to his rise to the heights of fame and his perhaps inevitable fall to the depths of substance abuse and depression, to his attending rehab and getting the scattered fragments of his life put back together. It’s a familiar arc, and this kind of story has been seen before in other biopics, musical or otherwise.

But it’s told with skill, great acting and awesome music. Like many people, I have a great deal of affection for Elton John’s music, and the film paints a compelling portrait of his life. The movie even finds creative ways of incorporating the songs into the dialogue and the story, making them an integral part of the film. The movie takes a fantastical approach to the music, frequently turning the songs into elaborate musical numbers.

It’s a very effective approach to the material, and I loved how the filmmakers were able to use the songs to help tell the story. It’s not exactly a realistic film in that sense, it’s more of what you might call a musical fantasy. It works like gangbusters and is also thematically appropriate given that Elton’s drug use sometimes turns his life into a blur.

It also doesn’t shy away from the more sordid aspects of Elton’s life. I don’t know how much the movie’s story deviates from the actual details of Elton’s life, I’m assuming it takes some liberties simply because movies based on real events and people often do. Regardless, the movie’s story is very cohesive and easy to follow. Scenes of Elton’s drug abuse and other addictions can be hard to watch, but the movie treats the material with respect and never descends into hopelessness.

Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, and he does all his own singing. I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to take on the role of such a beloved entertainer, and not only to sing well but to sing like Elton John. I thought Egerton did a terrific job, and I sincerely hope he’ll get some Oscar buzz once awards season rolls around.

The sets and costumes are fantastic and the movie ends with a montage showing pictures of the real Elton in some of the over-the-top costumes he wears in the movie. It shows respect and love for Elton while also showing how faithfully the movie reconstructed the details of his life. The movie isn’t always easy to watch but the experience is very enjoyable and the music, of course, is excellent.

Much less enjoyable was Dark Phoenix, the latest (and last, for now) entry in the long-running X-Men series, which has been going for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, the series goes out on a low note. Dark Phoenix isn’t a completely terrible movie, but it’s certainly not very good.

Basically, a rescue mission to space goes awry and Jean Grey gets blasted with some kind of terrible cosmic power, and she starts to manifest dangerous and unpredictable abilities, leading her friends the X-Men to attempt to save her. If the story seems familiar, it’s probably because the X-Men series has told it before, in thee 2006 movie X-Men: The Last Stand. The Dark Phoenix storyline was one of several subplots in that much-maligned movie, and never got much time to breathe, so here it is again. And while it is nice that one of the most acclaimed storylines in all of superhero comics now gets an entire movie to itself, I just wish that the results had been more satisfying.

20th Century Fox

This movie has some very basic problems. The first is that the Phoenix Force or whatever it is that’s possessing Jean is given very little explanation. There are some shape-shifting aliens who want to capture Jean so they can use the power for themselves, but these aliens are given virtually no background and it is never clear who they are or what they want. They’re a vaguely evil presence that shows up periodically. It’s impossible to give a damn about them. One of the greatest sins of this movie is that it casts Jessica Chastain as a shape-shifting alien and then gives her nothing to do except glower. These villains, if you can even call them that, are a complete bust.

The other problem is that Jean never does anything evil enough. Pretty much all she does is (spoiler alert) accidentally kill Mystique and then flip a few cop cars. I haven’t read the Dark Phoenix comics, but the internet informs me that in the comics the Dark Phoenix destroys a solar system and kills five billion aliens. In the movie, all Jean does is accidentally kill one X-Man, and that’s about it. The movie doesn’t do nearly enough to sell her as a galaxy-destroying threat.

It also doesn’t have any idea what to do with most of the characters. Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver, who was so much fun in previous X-movies, has maybe half a dozen lines of dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique gets killed off early in the movie, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted her character to be killed off so she wouldn’t have to make any more X-movies. That’s pure speculation on my part, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

And here’s something that bugs me: the movie takes place in 1992. Characters like Professor Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast were in X-Men: First Class, which took place in the 1960’s. They would now have to be in their fifties at least, yet none of them look like they’ve aged a single day. Heck, X-Men: Days of Future Past took place largely in the 1970’s, and Quicksilver, who was in that movie, looks exactly the same. He should be in his mid-30’s. He looks like he’s about eighteen. The movie didn’t even try to make any of its characters look older. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill by complaining so much about this, but this lack of respect for basic continuity drives me nuts.

Dark Phoenix is a competently-made and well-acted movie. The climactic train battle was quite a bit of fun and gave all the X-Men creative ways to use their powers. Sophie Turner is also quite good as Jean, and does very good work here. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are actors that I don’t think are capable of giving bad performances, even if Fassbender is underused.

I like the X-Men film series overall, even though it’s had it’s share of ups and downs. Dark Phoenix, sadly, is one of the downs. I prefer to think of 2017’s Logan as the conclusion to the X-Men series, since that movie had the emotional heft and strong sense of closure that Dark Phoenix sorely lacks. This was the directorial debut of longtime X-Men movie producer/writer Simon Kinberg, and his film has its moments but ends up being a disappointment.

Disney now owns the X-Men film rights, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll be seeing different versions of our favorite mutants in future MCU movies. Some of the henchmen in Dark Phoenix wear armbands that say MCU on them, which I’m pretty sure stands for Mutant Containment Unit, but I couldn’t help but think of Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s nothing more than a coincidence, but it’s one that I found amusing.

The next movie I’m excited about is Spider-Man: Far From Home, but that doesn’t come out until July 2nd, so I’ll have to think of something else to write about until then. Maybe I’ll bring back the Roger Moore Bond movies, or ooooooh! Maybe I’ll write about Netflix’s Punisher series, starring the always-excellent Jon Bernthal. Exciting possibilities!

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