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Cinema Chat: News Out Of Cannes, 'Rocketman,' 'Godzilla: King Of The Monsters,' And More

May 31, 2019

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Everybody's favorite movie-loving duo is back together again!  In this week's "Cinema Chat," WEMU's David Fair and Michigan and State Theater executive director Russ Collins talk about the latest movie news and all of the new films coming to the big screen this weekend.


‘Rocketman’ Launch: Elton John Musical Biopic Blasts Off In World Premiere That Lights Up Cannes

“It is the movie I wanted to make, and that doesn’t happen often,” said no one other than Elton John on at the after-party for the world premiere of the movie all about himself, Rocketman.  Paramount chose the 72nd Cannes Film Festival to launch its big summer hope, and if reaction with a seven-minute standing ovation was any indication, it is a hit.

The star, Taron Egerton, gives the first performance guaranteed to be an Oscar contender, actually used Elton’s classic “Your Song” as an audition to get into his drama school.  He was clearly fated to play Sir Elton from that moment on, even if Tom Hardy was once touted for the role in which he planned to lip sync to John’s original tracks. Thank god that didn’t happen — Egerton is the real deal as Elton.  It is not always easy to play someone still living and do them justice, but Egerton is, in a word, remarkable in the role in which he sensationally does all his own singing.  That’s right, no lip syncing as Rami Malek did in Bohemian Rhapsody and still won the Best Actor Oscar.  Egerton sounds like Elton but also fully captures the rock star’s spirit and passion in his interpretations of that immortal songbook.  It may be the best musical performance since Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning turn as Loretta Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Dexter Fletcher, who replaced Bryan Singer on the troubled production of the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody and shot about 20% of the finished film, told me he made a musical in this instance and that is exactly what it is — not a musical biopic but rather a full-blooded musical with stunning numbers set around John’s vast catalog.

As for Elton John’s opinion of Egerton’s portrayal?  “When I watch the movie I don’t see an actor playing me, I see myself, ” he said at the after-party before introducing Egerton to duet on the title song and first single from the soundtrack.

“Rocketman” hits theaters May 31, but based on the Cannes premiere that should resonate. Cannes needed a film like this, and it got one.

Netflix, Shmetflix: At Cannes 2019, the Movies Needed Every Inch of the Big Screen

By OWEN GLEIBERMAN, Head Film Critic for Variety (Native Ann Arborite and U-M grad)

In the May 24 edition of The New York Times, there was a column by Timothy Egan, entitled “The Comeback of the Century: Why the Book Endures, Even in an Era of Disposable Digital Culture,” that celebrated those things that come between two hard covers as a larger phenomenon than mere nostalgia.  The column keyed off the surprising strength of books in the marketplace: the hours that people still devote to them, the proliferation of the independent bookstores that were supposed to be going the way of the dodo bird, the falling off of electronic reading devices like the Kindle.  In the middle of the column, there was a shockingly extreme and revealing quote from the late Steve Jobs, who in 2008 said, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

The reason that quote is so revealing is that 1) it was never really true, and 2), to the extent there was a small grain of truth to it (i.e., highbrow wags have been warning about declining literacy levels since the 1960s), you’d think that a cultural figure as dominant as Steve Jobs would have wanted to hold that glass up to the light and look for the part that was full. You’d think he would have wanted to be a guardian of reading. But no: He looked at book culture — and old media culture in general — and, in a few words, trashed it all, with staggering inaccuracy.  What that should tell you, since Jobs was a brilliant man, is that he got the death-of-reading thing so wrong because what he was really expressing was his wish.

I get that same feeling when I hear prognosticators of the pop-cultural landscape talk about the the waning of the motion-picture experience. If you believe everything you hear, then binge-watching is the key entertainment act of our time, and there are 4,379 good reasons not to bother going out to a movie theater anymore.  (The ads before the trailers, the cell phones and the popcorn munchers, the general sticky rudeness of it all: We’ve heard the anti-theater litany a thousand times.)  If you buy into the catechism of the new technology, movies are still good for spectacle, and will be for quite a while — otherwise, the new Disney-Fox behemoth wouldn’t be plotting out blockbuster universe sequel systems through the next four centuries. But surely the rise, rise, and rise of streaming will do movies in!

That’s what the war of words, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, between the forces of Cannes and Netflix was really all about: not just the issue of whether Netflix films like “Roma” or “22 July” would be allowed to qualify as festival competition entries (they weren’t), but what the future was going to look like.  After all, let’s assume that “Roma” had been part of the Cannes competition, and that it had won the Palme d’Or (which, in hindsight, doesn’t seem a farfetched scenario).  What would it say to the world that even a Cannes Film Festival winner would then go out to be experienced, essentially, on a streaming platform? It would say that if they can beat the movies there, they can beat them anywhere.

But this year at Cannes, with Netflix literally out of the picture, all that dialogue seemed a distant memory. No one was sitting around debating the fine points of French government regulations about three-year windows, or whistling past the graveyard of America’s own inevitable streaming-vs.-theatrical, studio-vs.-exhibitor window war — a clash of capitalist–aesthetic forces so titanic it’s destined to make the battle between Hollywood talent agencies and the WGA look like a misunderstanding between friends.

What people were doing at Cannes this year was seeing movies that declared themselves, in dozens of different ways, to be movies.  That was their power and allure.  And the reason that no one was talking about Netflix very much — beyond the usual industry white noise of chatter about it — is that a number of the key films at Cannes this year owed their impact to the big screen in a way that was so potent and obvious and inevitable, so tied up with their molecular essence, that it literally went without saying.

There was no better example, to me, than “A Hidden Life,” Terrence Malick’s epic, enveloping true-life drama about one man’s journey into the darkness — and the light — of self-sacrifice.  Visually, the film is extraordinary. Much of it was shot in the Austrian countryside, where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), the farmer who refuses to enlist in Hitler’s army at the outset of World War II, works the land in a place that looks like the opening sequence of “The Sound of Music” as painted by Bruegel.  But that’s because Malick uses his camera as a virtual sensory heightener, transforming this land of mountains and grass into the Garden of Eden as seen through a wide-angle lens.

And the film’s meaning is rooted in that splendor.  This, “A Hidden Life” tells us — this beauty, this paradise, this heightened vision of what all of us call home — is the place Franz has been blessed with, and the one he will now leave, through his willingness to die.  Every caress of Malick’s camera eye says (or, rather, forces the audience to ask), But how could Franz leave this place?  The world that Malick presents is, in a way, too sublime for self-sacrifice. Yet that becomes the measure of Franz’s radicalism.  He will leave this beauty behind because, and only because, he glimpses a mirror of that beauty on the other side.  His life will end, but his love, like that land, is eternal.

All of this hinges on our grand immersion in the world that “A Hidden Life” shows us.  The movie is cinema at its mightiest and holiest. It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses. Some, in fact, will prove resistant to it (it was not universally beloved), but “A Hidden Life,” as much as any film I’ve seen in the 21st century, is totally contingent upon the big screen.  It needs to be bigger than you are, because it’s about bigger things than you — or anyone else.  It’s about how the quietest acts of resistance are part of what save civilization.

The fact that Fox Searchlight paid $12 to $14 million to obtain distribution rights, in the U.S. and several international territories, to “A Hidden Life” may seem like a corporate folly, given that Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which starred Brad Pitt, only grossed $13 million domestic.  Yet that film made $61 million worldwide, and “A Hidden Life,” with its European vantage on Third Reich fascism (an unfortunately timely theme right now), has the potential to be a landmark event in foreign territories.  (It can also play as a Holocaust movie, of sorts, for the Oscars.) That said, the audacity of the Fox Searchlight deal — $12 million for a three-hour Terrence Malick art film — is that it felt like more than just a deal.  It felt like an act of faith, a vote for nothing less than the unique transcendent appeal of movies. (We’ll learn, later this year, if it is vindicated.)

There were other Cannes films, many of them, that needed to be bigger than you.  Movies like “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ thrillingly atmospheric and tempestuous gothic face-off between a grizzled lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and his surly apprentice (Robert Pattinson), a movie that plunges you, with stunning authenticity, into the hardscrabble spookiness and mechanical ingenuity of the 19th century.  Or another rapturous period piece that worked in exactly the opposite way: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Céline Sciamma’s tale of the slow-burn dance between a budding artist (Noémie Merlant) in the late 18th century and the young woman (Adèle Haenel), about to be married, whose portrait she’s engaged to paint. Sciamma has made one of the rare romantic costume dramas that’s rooted in the creaky quietude of the era — it’s there in every inch of her delicate, hovering images, which the actresses undermine only with their eyes.

The films at Cannes that demanded, and earned, the big screen also included “Les Misérables,” Ladj Ly’s jagged propulsive tale of police brutality in a French housing project; “Little Joe,” Jessica Hausner’s stately trancelike horror film, with its armies of creepy red-tendril flowers and its sly skewering of psychotropic drugs as a conformist conspiracy; and the Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s grand teeming scurrilous social thriller about an impoverished family of con artists who launch a scam so gnarly and chaotic that every mad detail of it needs to be writ large.

And then there was Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” a movie I saw close to a week ago, and what has stuck with me more than anything is the sense-memory of Quentin’s Los Angeles — not just the cars and fashions and pop songs, the sculpted mid-century neon kitsch of the restaurants and movie theaters (at one point, there’s a dazzling montage of fabled nightspots flipping on their lights at dusk), the TV-Western backlots that are like knockoffs of old movies that were themselves imitations.  No, it’s the way they all combine in your head, the way Tarantino invites you to take a dip in his heightened vision of a Hollywood backwater that once was.  I seriously doubt I’d be thinking about that movie in the same way if I hadn’t seen it on the big screen.

For a hundred years now, movies have been sparked by the art-vs.-commerce dialectic.  How ironic it is, then, that in the movie-theater-vs.-streaming showdown, the old paradigm of going out to a movie (even a major commercial one) is now on the high-end/boutique/art side of the equation.  The argument goes: People want what they want, at least where technology enables it, and what they want now is streaming. They want to belong to the Couch Potato Forever Club.

But just as books made a “comeback,” not the way vinyl made a comeback, as an analog-geek so-old-it’s-new-again novelty fetish object, but because books never went away, since it turned out people had a primal and timeless love for them, the motion-picture experience isn’t going away, because people have a primal and timeless love for it. Yet the essence of that love is that it refuses to be measured only by numbers. Going to the movies, as the key films at Cannes proved this year, is a sacramental experience.  It cannot be replaced. It cannot be reduced. It cannot be streamed without a loss of some of that essence. In reminding us of that, Cannes got back in touch with its glory.

OPENING DOWNTOWN

"The White Crow"

At the Michigan (Opens Friday, May 31): This film follows the life of Rudolf Nureyev, played by acclaimed dancer Oleg Ivenko.  From his poverty-stricken childhood in the Soviet city of Ufa, to his blossoming as a dancer in Leningrad, to his arrival at the epicentre of western culture in Paris in the early 1960s, this is the true story of an incredible journey by a unique artist who transformed the world of ballet forever.  Director Ralph Fiennes' film was inspired by the book "Rudolf Nureyev: The Life" by Julie Kavanaugh.

"Rocketman"

At the State (Sneak Peaks Thursday, May 30 and opens for full run Friday, May 31): This is an epic musical fantasy about the incredible human story of Elton John's breakthrough years.  The film follows the fantastical journey of transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John.  This inspirational story -- set to Elton John's most beloved songs and performed by star Taron Egerton -- tells the universally relatable story of how a small-town boy became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture.  The film also stars Jamie Bell as Elton's longtime lyricist and writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as Elton's first manager, John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton's mother Sheila Farebrother. 

SPECIAL SCREENINGS DOWNTOWN

"Breakfast at Tiffany's"

This film plays Sunday, June 2 at 1:30 PM and Wednesday, June 5 at 7:00 PM at the Michigan Theater as a part of the SavCo Hospitality Summer Classic Film Series, presented by the University of Michigan Credit Union with media support from MLive.  In June, July, and August, we will be celebrating generations of filmmakers and their nostalgic treasures!  Based on Truman Capote's novel, this is the story of a young woman in New York City who meets a young man when he moves into her apartment building.  He is with an older woman who is very wealthy, but he wants to be a writer.  She is working as an expensive escort and searching for a rich, older man to marry.

Ann Arbor Academy Film Festival

This event plays Monday, June 3 at 7:00 PM at the Michigan Theater.  Free and open to the public!  Ann Arbor Academy and 2457 Productions present Film Fest 5.  Ann Arbor Academy’s video production program has produced a handful of short films and animations during this academic year.  Come share in the excitement as these wonderful projects are premiered on the big screen.

"How We Live - Messages to the Family"

This film plays Wednesday, June 5 at 7:00 PM at the State Theatre, presented in partnership with the Ann Arbor Film Festival.  Free for AAFF & MT Gold Card members!  “Imagine we are sitting at home, the screen is set up, the projector ready, and we start watching home movies together,” suggests the calm voice of the filmmaker Gustav Deutsch at the beginning of how we live.  The film assumes this same calm as it undertakes its journey via amateur film recordings gathered from archives in Austria, Italy, Holland, and England.  The film “travels” from Boston to Italy; from the USA to Austria’s Burgenland; from Maryland to Greece; and between Vienna, Sydney, and Switzerland.  And so the film not only produces a community between various people from various places, but also establishes a timeless togetherness, allowing generations of filmmakers to speak to one another and – via the medium of the movie screen – to us.

CONTINUING DOWNTOWN

"The Biggest Little Farm"

At the Michigan: This year's Direct From Sundance selection!  This film chronicles the eight-year quest of John and Molly Chester as they trade city living for 200 acres of barren farmland and a dream to harvest in harmony with nature.  Through dogged perseverance and embracing the opportunity provided by nature's conflicts, the Chester’s unlock and uncover a biodiverse design for living that exists far beyond their farm, its seasons, and our wildest imagination.

"Red Joan"

Joan Stanley (played by Academy Award® winner Dame Judi Dench) is a widow living out a quiet retirement in the suburbs when, shockingly, the British Secret Service places her under arrest.  The charge: providing classified scientific information to the Soviet government for decades.  As the interrogation gets underway, Joan relives the dramatic events that shaped her life and her beliefs.

"Wild Nights with Emily"

Unique and surreal, this film sheds new light on the life one of our most celebrated poets. The poet Emily Dickinson's persona, popularized since her death, has been that of a reclusive spinster - a delicate wallflower, too sensitive for this world.  In this humorous drama, Molly Shannon captures the vivacious, irreverent side of Emily Dickinson that was covered up for years - most notably Emily's lifelong romantic relationship with another woman (played by Susan Ziegler).  After Emily's death, a rivalry emerges when her brother's mistress (played by Amy Seimetz) along with editor T.W. Higginson (played by Brett Gelman) published a book of Emily's poems. 

"Amazing Grace"

Shot in 1972 over a 48-hour period in Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, this stirring documentary captured the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history by Aretha Franklin.  This album marked Franklin's thrilling return to her gospel roots after she'd earned 11 consecutive No. 1 pop and R&B singles, won five Grammys and released more than 20 albums.  

"Booksmart"

At the State: Told from a wildly original, fresh and modern perspective, this film is an unfiltered comedy about high school best friends and the bonds we create that last a lifetime.  Capturing the spirit of our times, the film is a coming of age story for a new generation.  The story follows Dever and Feldstein's characters, two academic superstars and best friends who, on the eve of their high school graduation, suddenly realize that they should have worked less and played more.  Determined never to fall short of their peers, the girls set out on a mission to cram four years of fun into one night. From Director Olivia Wilde and starring Kaitlyn DeverBeanie FeldsteinJessica WilliamsLisa KudrowWill Forte, and Jason Sudeikis

"Photograph"

In this film, two lives intersect in Mumbai and go along together.  A struggling street photographer, pressured to marry by his grandmother, convinces a shy stranger to pose as his fiancée.  The pair develops a connection that transforms them in ways that they could not expect. 

"Hail Satan?"

Chronicling the extraordinary rise of one of the most colorful and controversial religious movements in American history, this film is an inspiring and entertaining new feature documentary.  When media-savvy members of the Satanic Temple organize a series of public actions designed to advocate for religious freedom and challenge corrupt authority, they prove that with little more than a clever idea, a mischievous sense of humor, and a few rebellious friends, you can speak truth to power in some truly profound ways. 

OPENING AT THE MULTIPLEX FRIDAY, MAY 31

"Godzilla: King of the Monsters"

The new story follows the heroic efforts of the crypto-zoological agency Monarch as its members face off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.  When these ancient super-species - thought to be mere myths - rise again, they all vie for supremacy, leaving humanity's very existence hanging in the balance.  This is a sequel to the 2014 film "Godzilla" and the 35th film in the Godzilla franchise.  Also stars Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, and more!

"Ma"

In the psychological horror film, Oscar® winner Octavia Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a loner who keeps to herself in her quiet Ohio own.  One day, she is asked by Maggie, a new teenager in town (played by Diana Silvers, "Glass" and "Booksmart"), to buy some booze for her and her friends, and Sue Ann sees the chance to make some unsuspecting, if younger, friends of her own.  She offers the kids the chance to avoid drinking and driving by hanging out in the basement of her home.  But there are some house rules: One of the kids must stay sober.  Don't curse.  Never go upstairs.  And call her "Ma."  But as Ma's hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma's place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu