CineScene

Mediocre ‘Booksmart’ One for the Dustbin; Earth Wins (Kind of) in ‘Godzilla’; ‘Rocketman’ Takes the Cake

By BILL GEIGER | Jun 12, 2019

Long Beach Island — An old friend returned to the cinema this week, to compete for space in this column with an unusually good musical biopic and an interesting take on the traditional high school comedy.

That old friend, of course, is Godzilla, the ancient “dinosaur” with the unusual pattern of dorsal appendages, who shows up every few years with a slightly different story. It turns out that Godzilla fights Elton John for bragging rights as the best film of the column, while two high school seniors, best friends and undoubtedly the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked students in the school, learn valuable life lessons during their last night before graduation but don’t necessarily win any awards.

I’m speaking of course about our triad of films for this week, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “Rocketman” and “Booksmart.” Each film has a logical chance, based on its story, to soar to the top, and each film, based on its story, can crash land into the valley of despair. It’s all about how plausible the story is. This week, we have a couple of doozies!

The first of these is “Booksmart,” the rookie directorial effort of actor Olivia Wilde. If we take “street smart” to be the opposite of “book smart,” then the two main characters, Molly and Amy (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, respectively), are the poster children for the latter. It’s very apparent the two high school seniors have no idea what life is like outside of their Advanced Placement classes.

Their story begins on the last day of classes in what appears to be a very liberal California-situated senior high school. Our first appearance of the school’s head, Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis), occurs while he’s addressing the school with the morning announcements, and it’s clear he wants the last day to go smoothly, though one shot of the corridors and the anarchy in progress, coupled with his comments about the last day, indicate otherwise.

All this is lost on Molly and Amy, who have played it straight throughout their four years and are being rewarded: an acceptance to Yale for Molly and a gap year volunteering in Africa for Amy. Both girls feel superior to the “dorks” who are partying and playing around, and their contempt for the other 98 percent of the senior class is palpable and strong.

The one thing Molly wants to do is go to a party. She feels she and Amy have missed the chance to do this all four years, and she doesn’t feel her “education” will be complete unless they (she and Amy) go to a bash. There is an ulterior motive: Molly likes Nick (Mason Gooding), whose aunt’s house has been taken over for the party, and Molly thinks she might stand a chance with Nick if she can just meet him and talk to him.

Amy, on the other hand, does not want to go, but she concedes, non-committedly, and the film takes a circuitous route to the big celebration. First, the girls go to the wrong party. Once they are at the correct party, the film slows down so the girls can approach their goals – Molly to look for Nick, and Amy to look for the girl she was attracted to, and for the first time the inseparable pair is separated. Amy instead has an intimate encounter with a different girl, while Molly’s Nick is in a hot clinch with Amy’s original object of desire.

One thing the girls learn from their night of debauchery – and in Amy’s case, a night in jail – is they really did not know a thing about their classmates. The film’s coda is of course graduation day, and it looked like the students, oddly enough, graduate in a vacant lot where only the graduates are in attendance, no parents, no families, no visiting dignitaries.

The graduation scene looked all wrong, for a lot of reasons, and because of it, my estimation of the film dropped a few pegs. It started out pretty low to begin with, because it looked like first-timer Wilde cut some wide corners in her production. A lot was left to chance, to the audience filling in the spots she didn’t feel like filling, or one or two scenes not being enough to lift the script. That’s a shame, for a little tweak here and there would have elevated that script (and film) from the merely mediocre to something other than that.

There is a scene set in a unisex bathroom, for example, where several students take Molly to task for her attitude, not knowing that Molly was in one of the stalls. It’s a good scene, and shows how Molly does not know much about what the other students think of her. It’s plain as day what she thinks of them, but it’s nice to have the shoe on the other foot for once. In fact, many of those “dorks” are going to Yale, Princeton and Stanford. The girls just did not know them enough.

Unfortunately, in “Booksmart” this type of revelation does not happen nearly enough, and the film falls down into the dustbin of summer movies because of it. There are many graduations happening around now, and one can only hope that the graduating seniors have a better sense of who they are than Molly and Amy. Too bad. Those two could have used a little more street smarts and a little less book smarts.

*   *   *

In “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” the titular character assumes a role for which he is uniquely qualified, the “king of the hill,” “A-number one,” “top of the heap.”

Godzilla is like a politician running for office. Every four years or so he has to rise up, dust himself off, arrange what I always thought looked like little Christmas trees along his spine down to his tail, and go destroy something like a city or a country. First, it was various towns in Japan, for I believe Godzilla was born in the land of the rising sun, sometime during the 1950s, most likely as the result of the two atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on the island in 1945 as a way to end World War II.

Then, after a fairly long series of movies featuring the monster and some of his cronies like Mothra and Rodan between the 1950s and the 2000s, Godzilla appears to have a growing following in U.S. production companies; films in 1998 and 2014 both feature the monster in roles that stray a bit from his Japanese origins.

As a monster he was always shown as needing nuclear energy to maintain his metabolism and his monster cred, since he was born of the nuclear testing that went on in the Pacific after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the nuclear bombs, the superpowers experimented with hydrogen bombs, many times more powerful than the two dropped on Japan, and Godzilla thus became dependent on that energy. This fact plays an important role in “King of the Monsters.”

This new film takes an ecological approach to the problems of the Earth, blaming overpopulation as a major factor that leads to environmental degradation, climate change, species extinction and, in short, all the problems. One of the principal scientists in the film, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), has invented a way to control some of the monsters by sound waves.

Her belief, one apparently shared by many, is before humans were able to populate the planet monsters roamed, not dinosaurs but rather what they call titans, King Kong, Godzilla, Mothra, those types, who were able to sense an imbalance in Earth’s homeostasis and could right the planet when needed.

A passel of ecoterrorists led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) assert human overpopulation is the root of all evil and attempt to recruit Emma into their fold. They attack one of the subterranean headquarters of a company called Monarch, which has made itself the repository of all the information relating to the titans, now resting comfortably in their lairs under certain areas of Earth.

Alan wants to use Russell’s sound wave invention to wake the titans and allow them to destroy vast swatches of the planet and its inhabitants. For a man professing to be an environmental champion, he sure has a funny way of showing it. Attacking the Monarch facility in China, where the larval stage of Mothra is getting ready to pupate, Alan and his minion attack force invade the facility and proceed to kill almost everyone of consequence.

He captures Emma and her teenage daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), forcing Emma to use her sound device to wake the other titans, allowing them to run rampant across the planet, changing the face of the earth in their wake. This is ecoterrorism in the extreme. Geez, who wants this to happen?

Brought along for the ride from Monarch’s perspective is Emma’s estranged husband and Maddy’s father, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler). Maddy has been getting emails from Mark, but has not told Emma, knowing she would disapprove. Maddy turns out to have a pretty fair ability to size up a situation, and can take matters into her own hands if the situation calls for it. As for Mark, he’s a “seat-of-the-pants” kind of guy who knows a lot more than he lets on and often tells the other scientists how some monster thing will play out. He’s like the coach he played on “Friday Night Lights.”

So Monarch has two problems on its plate: monsters running around destroying things and Emma and the terrorist Alan, bent on waking up all the titans. They figure out a very important thing about Godzilla: he’s an apex predator, but he cannot defeat one of the other monsters, a three-headed hydra-like creature called Monster Zero, or in the popular mythology of the people, King Ghidorah. Turns out Monster Zero is not of this world, which would account for its apex predator role, and also for the fact that none of the earthbound titans, including their apex predator, Godzilla, is able to defeat it.

Besides Chandler and Farmiga, there are some pretty good stars showing up for the fun. Bradley Whitford plays Dr. Rick Stanton, and David Strathairn is Admiral William Stenz. Also in the production is Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa; O’Shea Jackson Jr. as CWO Barnes; Thomas Middleditch as Sam Coleman; and Sally Hawkins as Dr. Vivienne Graham. Rounding out the major cast is Ziyi Zhang, who plays Dr. Ilene Chan, and Aisha Hinds as Col. Diane Foster, the head of Earth’s military defenses.

If destruction appeals to you in a film, this one is for you. They never really say, but there’s probably an island somewhere in the South Pacific that does not get destroyed by the Titans and Monster Zero, and truth be told, Godzilla does his share of destroying things, too. So if you want, you can get to that island and start over. Just be sure it is not one of the ones serving as a test site for a hydrogen bomb.

For once, the major forces of destruction are not aimed at Godzilla, but at Ghidorah. There’s not much left at the end, but Earth inhabitants are resilient, and soon they will be rebuilding their homes. It won’t be with a great amount of technology, however. It will be pretty primitive, so the hope is Earth can heal while some of that rebuilding is happening. And Godzilla will be king of the monsters.

Earth kind of wins with this film. It still is a lot to process.

*   *   *

Most of the musical biographies in our long and diverse history of stardom as found in our musical biography archives have linear plots, where the main protagonist will have a difficult family life as a youth, show promise as a youngster on a particular instrument, start a band, get noticed by someone who counts, and gets a break by having his band open for a prominent band.

As his stardom grows, he is convinced by an unscrupulous person to dump his agent and hire Mr. Unscrupulous, whereupon he succumbs to the temptation of drugs and alcohol, has a friend from his past try to reason with him, insisting the only way out of this trap is to get help, but the star will not do that because he likes his drugs and alcohol. Finally, after several attempts to kill himself, he has to get help, so he does. Some stars repeat that last step several times; some take that step only once.

Those two paragraphs above sum up the life of Elton John (Taron Egerton) in “Rocketman,” but the path of that life is anything but linear. Holding the film together are the things Elton tells a support group he has entered, and that group will save him from his worst self. In “Rocketman,” John’s songs serve as a backdrop and device for what’s going on in his life, along with the stuff he tells the support group and the people who populate the story, and make the film work.

The film begins with strains of “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” as John, wearing a devil’s costume with huge red wings and horns on his head, walks out of a venue and into a cab, for the ride to the sanatorium, where he will discuss his life and his problems and overcome his addictions, which by this time include heroin, alcohol and pretty much anything that will get him high.

His childhood was dominated by a father, Stanley (Steven  Mackintosh), who did not understand young Elton (at that point still Reginald Dwight) and was devoid of emotional attachment to him. The film hints at the fact that Stanley might be suffering from PTSD but does not take it any further.

Elton’s mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), flighty and for the most part inconsequential to him, paid him a little more attention than Stanley did, but not by much. Young Elton lived with his mother and grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones). Ivy was the one who encouraged Elton to go with his music, and who took him to his auditions as a young man.

Early on, John’s ability to hear a song and immediately know how to play it figures into his innate ability to shine, and he’s given a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where his talent finally finds an outlet and people praise him for his great gift. As he ages, and develops into a pretty good composer, he needs to find the agent who will get his songs on the radio. He meets up with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two hit it off and begin a fruitful collaboration.

Elton’s first agent gets him a booking at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and Elton, now in his 20s, hears who is in the audience and panics. He doesn’t want to play in front of all of them, but he goes out, sings the first few words of “Crocodile Rock,” and rocks the place. His career is off to a great start. He also meets John Reid (Richard Madden), a Scot who is gay and knows Elton is gay, and thus leads him to bed, putting a major spin in Elton’s life.

John knows what he likes, and Reid can give him that, so he takes him on as his manager and parts ways with his first manager. This happens all the time with rising stars. Problem is, Reid no longer cares for Elton, cheats on him, and is only interested in his 20 percent commission. This is when Elton hits rock bottom, and before he sings at any other concert, he goes to get help, and thus begins his road to recovery.

All kinds of good songs populate this part, including “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” which Elton and Bernie Taupin sing, and the title song “Rocketman,” which has the lyric “I’m not the man they think I am at home,” a perfect description of Elton’s life. Songs play a large part in the early going, too, as Elton at various ages sings and dances his way to his older self, showing the progression in his life and in his music.

“Rocketman” is a good movie mostly because of the songbook, but I can’t say enough about Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John and Jamie Bell’s as Bernie Taupin. These two anchor the film. “Rocketman” is a joy to watch and to get lost in all those songs from the early 1970s that I used to listen to in high school. But it’s not just nostalgia, because most people, as far as I know, know those songs, too, and Egerton does a good job singing them.

In our competition this week for best film, it wasn’t even close. “Rocketman” wins easily.

 

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