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james debate

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughan
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Studio Rocket Pictures
Running time 121 minutes

rocketman 2019 film elton john taron egerton queen rami malik bohemian rhapsody oscar academy

I was sceptical about seeing Rocketman. The new Elton John biopic came to within a whisker of making it onto this year’s Hot List, but ultimately I was put off by the feeling that there was something a bit cheap and opportunistic about the whole thing. I was naturally sceptical of another studio putting out a rock and roll biopic so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody’s award winning run, even more so with the unusual decision to depict a biographical film in the form of a jukebox musical, one which shoe-horns existing songs into a context for which they weren’t written. Fortunately this is one of those situations where I am glad to admit that I was wrong.

Rocketman does not officially release in cinemas until later on this week, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a preview screening, and I have to say it was one of the more enjoyable cinema excursions in recent times. 

I have already mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody once in this post. Given the similar subject matter and proximity of release it is perhaps only natural that people will make the comparison. Still, I don’t like to review things by comparison, so I will discuss it only once more, and very briefly. Rocketman is a considerably better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. From the filmmaking, to the writing, to the acting, just about every element of Rocketman on another level to Bohemian Rhapsody, so much so that to even compare the two in terms of film quality is a bit laughable. Still, it has to be remembered that despite its modest success on the awards’ circuits, Bohemian Rhapsody was given quite mediocre reviews by the critics, so I will go even further. Rocketman is not just a better film, it is a very good film indeed in its own right.

This is, of course, the biopic of Elton John. A latter-day John in rehab forms the framing device for the singer's life story, from his early childhood to first commercial success, and ultimately his self-destructive spiral and comeback. It's the classic rock-star's parable, uniquely told through some visually spectacular set-pieces and extravagant musical numbers.

And extravagant they are. There's no faulting this film for its sense of style. This is a visual treat from its flamboyant set design and abundant use of colour to its sumptuously indulgent camera shots. Things start off somewhat slowly and more in the mould of a traditional biopic, until the turbulent events of John's childhood smash all semblance of John's grounded reality and send him into the wild journey of his career. As John's mental health deteriorates, so too does each scene become increasingly surreal and chaotic, blurring into one another until even John can't tell where he is from one moment to the next.

Of course, it helps that the music is this good. Ordinarily I find it a bit tacky when a musical forces existing songs into its story, with lyrics that clearly weren't written for the script. Mamma Mia and David Bowie's Lazarus are prime examples of this that come to mind. But for some reason it didn't bother me here. Perhaps it is because the set-pieces are surreal and abstract enough that you don't try to take them as literal depictions of narrative, or perhaps the songwriting is such that it simply better lends itself to different contexts. Whatever the reason, it works a treat here, and several moments in this film even gave me goosebumps with just how brilliantly it was all choreographed.

But above all it is the electric performance of Taron Egerton that steals the show. Egerton throws everything of himself into this role, capturing the soul and energy of his subject right down to a tee without ever resorting to impersonation. It helps that Egerton turns out to be a fantastic singer, more than doing justice to these classic tunes. Egerton is hardly a new face in the industry, but this nevertheless feels like a career making performance, one that will surely see him launched into the awards circuit and those upper echelons of stardom.

It is much to this film's credit that it does not shy away from the dark elements of John's life. Unlike other musical biopics, this is not a sanitised depiction of his life. The full gamut of John's narcotic use, psychological issues, and sexual extravagances are on full display, and the result is a story that is disarmingly honest and personal.

If there is one main criticism, it is that after spending two hours building up to John's complete breakdown, the whole mess gets resolved far too quickly. There is no depiction here of the struggle to recovery, of the misery of getting free of addiction. Falling to rock bottom was a journey, but getting back up again seems far too easy.

Similarly there are times where the psychological exploration of the film's troubled subject feels only little more than skin-deep. It is a torment that gets told primarily through decades old lyrics and figurative dance numbers more than actual analysis or discussion. Rocketman certainly doesn't shy away from the topic, but seems content to give viewers the headline and move on, rather than delving further into the detail, or more importantly, the struggle to overcome.

Ultimately these are minor criticisms that can be forgiven for the sake of artistic licence. While there are moments where you wish they would go further, Rocketman nevertheless manages to capture the bright highs and dark lows of being an artist better than most films, and does so in a way that is constantly exhilarating and ultimately hugely uplifting.

Rocketman makes for thrilling viewing. It is extravagant, outrageous and over the top, capable of beauty and brilliance, ugliness and folly. It is a mesmerising ride that never falls anything short of hugely entertaining, just like its subject.

Monday 13 May 2019

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

Manchester City champions 2019
It has been a nail-biter of an end to the season; not just in the Premier League's record breaking title race, but in the relegation and European qualification battles that last right up until the final curtain. It has been riveting stuff, and best of all since Manchester City won again, I don't even need to look for a new picture for this article!

Liverpool ultimately finished runner up with a frankly astonishing 97 points, a haul that would certainly have won the title in just about any other season. It is a testament to two highly accomplished sides, both of whom can look back on the season with a great deal of pride.

Meanwhile, a battle for Champions League qualification that featured Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United proved fascinating for quite different reasons. Each of those four teams has had an absolutely torrid end to the season, playing poorly with results to match. The fact that Chelsea, out of the running for much of the season and seemingly completely incapable of a win in the latter weeks, managed to eke out third place right at the death speaks more to the utterly shambolic form of their competitors than it does to their own performances. Time and time again Chelsea dropped points in a pathetic manner, only to be granted a reprieve by their equally dismal rivals, such that fans of the eventual victors and losers alike can only help but be embarrassed for each other.

Otherwise, it was a season of high drama, but relatively few shocks. Everton, West Ham and Leicester took their customary position in the top half of the table, yet entirely clear of European contention. Nouveau riche Wolves delivered a hugely impressive campaign as expected, whereas on the other hand noveau riche Fulham delivered a limp relegation-bound attempt at a season, as frankly few expected.

But someone had to go down, and this year that burden falls to Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield. Cardiff and Huddersfield will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone, but Fulham had been expected to make a decent go of it on the back of a £100 million pound spending spree, and there will rightly be an inquest as to what has gone wrong this season.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2019:

Winners: Manchester City- Winners by a hair, and still undoubtedly one of the world's top sides. Deserved champions.

Relegated: Cardiff City, Fulham, Huddersfield Town - Little was expected of lightweight Huddersfield or the shambolically run Cardiff City, but for Fulham to have even been in the relegation discussion after spending so much money will surely go down as one of the league's great flops.

Player of the Year: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) - While his team may look increasingly unimpressive, Hazard remains the league's standout talent and he proved as much again this season by leading the league in assists whilst also achieving a new personal best in goals. No single player has been directly involved in as many goals this season.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - A second year in a row for Alexander-Arnold, undoubtedly one of the great young fullbacks in world football and a potential star of English football for years to come.

Best Goalkeeper: Ederson (Manchester City) - It has been a formidable season for the Manchester City shot-stopper, whose reliability between the posts has been a huge factor in the often narrow results that eked out the club's 1 point advantage over Liverpool.

Manager of the Year: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) - A difficult choice between the top two, but whereas Pep inherited a largely title-capable side, few can discredit the singular impact that Klopp has had on transforming this Liverpool team into one of the world's best.

Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) (22 each) - Rare to share this award, even more rare to split it three ways. Last year's winner Salah may not have hit the astonishing heights of last season, but nevertheless ended up as one of the league's leaders alongside teammate Sadio Mane and Arsenal's much improved Aubameyang.

Most Assists: Eden Hazard (Chelsea) (15) - See above, arguably his best season yet in a blue shirt, despite the struggles of his club.

Overachievers: Wolves - It is true that many, including this blog, had predicted this heavily invested Wolves side to be something of a surprise package in this year's Premier League, but actually going and living up to that promise is another matter. For a newly promoted side to have such a strong debut season, ultimately finishing the best of the rest outside the top six, is an impressive achievement, regardless of how much has been invested.

Underachievers: Manchester United - Last year's Premier League runner up had been expected to number themselves among the frontrunners in this year's title challenge, but that's not how it turned out. For United to have not even qualified for the Champions League will have come as a bitter disappointment. One manager has already been sacked for it, and we may yet have a second face the chop before too long.

Best signing of the season: James Maddison (Leicester City) - Making the step up from Championship to Premier League is a big ask for any young player, few succeed. James Maddison has thrived and established himself as one of the league's brightest new faces.

Worst signing of the season: Fred (Manchester United) - Every season has a big money move that fails to live up to its billing, and this year that is Fred. A £52 million fee makes Fred the 4th most expensive signing in the club's history, and yet he has only managed 10 starts in the league. Fans will be hoping for more next season.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2019:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2019

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Saturday 4 May 2019

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Amy Pascal
Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Hailee Steinfeld
Studio Lord Miller Production
Running time 117 minutes

spider-man spider man into the spiderverse 2018 film oscar academy

Spider-Man is one of geekdom's most iconic superheroes, and yet it was not until the early 2000s that it received a full cinematic effort, with the Saim Raimi trilogy. Since that time, the franchise has become something of an IP football to be fought over by both Sony and Marvel film studios, which has prevented the sort of long-term continuity that has become the norm for these big superhero franchises and result in a number of disjointed reboots and interpretations.

Needless to say, when Marvel finally managed to wrest the live-action rights from Sony once and for all, it was a big deal, and Spider-Man has now joined the multi-billion dollar pantheon of Marvel's Avengers franchise. Meanwhile, Sony have been quietly working away on Spider-Man products in other forms of media for which they retain the rights. Yet for all the hype of Tom Holland and Homecoming, it is Sony that might just have come up with the best Spider-Man film yet made.

I recognise that I am a bit late to the party with this one. After all, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did just win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and receive near unanimous critical acclaim. But despite all the high praise, I came into this one skeptical. This film was coming so soon after the critically and commercially successful new live-action adaptations. In addition, there is also a certain stigma attached to animated films that means they are usually taken less seriously than their live-action counterparts. So when I began to see all the claims of greatness: yes, I was skeptical. When it fend off both Disney and Disney Pixar to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, an award that has historically been so utterly dominated by Disney and Disney Pixar that it might as well be the Oscar for Best Disney Feature, I was intrigued.

There are a lot of qualities that make this such a special film. Most obviously, the production quality is extremely high. This is a visually striking film, with masterful use of sound and music. The all-star cast contains some great talent, from Shameik Moore and New Girl's Jake Johnson to Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. The supporting roles, too, are full of big names including Chris Pine, Oscar Isaac, Liev Schreiber and Nicolas Cage. So while this may be an animated spin-off of the larger franchise, it is clear that no effort has been spared in making this something of an event picture.

But the real key to this film's success is Lord and Miller's script. It is clever, surprising, and genuinely funny. It is full of loving references to past Spider-Man films, online memes, and the wider Spider-Verse of the comics. This is not just some light entertainment for the family either. The script knows when to take itself seriously; there are several moments of real pathos and a plot that proves surprisingly poignant.

Animated or not, this is just a good film. An engrossing and original story well told and presented through a highly accomplished production. This is a film that can be enjoyed by both newcomers and die-hard fans. This really is the best Spider-Man film yet made, and arguably one of the best films of 2018 in general. Easy to recommend.

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