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The Elder One (2019)
7/10
Darker than Lion, and inferior
23 September 2019
A teen boy idolizes his older brother, who was a star in a Moslem ritual dance. However, his brother has left mysteriously for Bombay, and, chafing under his guardian, steals a boat and escapes the island, with only a phone number to make contact.

Getting into Bombay, he falls into a society that is darker than depicted in Lion, There is the orphanage with child abuse, human traffickers, prostitutes, and eunuchs. Along the way, themes of homosexuality, gender identity and gender expression are also explored.

Much as I wanted to like the film, I have reservations. Like Lion, the boy does not speak the language of the city he ends up in, and subtitling loses that distinction. There is a long flashback sequence explaining why the elder brother left home, but not why he did not choose a better path for his exit. Finally, the coincidences that are needed to make the film work are unbelievable.
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Western Stars (2019)
9/10
A very good concert album with introductions
15 September 2019
Instead of touring his latest album, Bruce Springsteen made this movie of its contents. It was mostly recorded in his century-old barn, with a 30-piece orchestra, some new vocal arrangements by Patti Scialfa, and an audience of a few friends and the horses in the stables below.

Each song is introduced by Bruce, often as a voiceover as various images play, some of which are Bruce's archival photos or home movie clips. The lynchpin song is Western Stars, about an old cowboy still going on, when many of his contemporaries have left their boots (a song likely to be self-referential, given his approaching 70th birthday).

I saw this film at the Toronto International Film Festival, but not at the premium-priced world premiere, so Bruce had already left, leaving fellow director Thom Zimmy to answer questions. Bruce's directorial contributions included writing and producing the song introductions, and co-selecting the archival material to include. The intros make it feel that this album is a collection of poems set to music. With songs about cars, trains, heartbreak, and love, I wonder if someone will do a full country re-creation of the material. The film ends with a bonus song (that fits the overall theme), which is more upbeat than Moonlight Motel.

Even being only casually acquainted with Bruce's music, I found this film fascinating. It is probably a must-see for actual fans, especially those who have already memorized the lyrics. It is expected to open commercially October 25.
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Workforce (2019)
6/10
Class warfare in Mexico City
12 September 2019
Warning: Spoilers
A group of workers are building a luxury mansion in Mexico City. The owner pays them late, falsifies documents to avoid compensating for an accident, and the workers' Union is powerless. Some take a measure of revenge by slipping in at night, and using facilities they built but would never otherwise enjoy. When the owner dies with no heirs, they occupy the almost-finished house, trying to claim ownership via squatters' rights.

I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the director said the 2 basic elements of the plot are known occurrences in Mexico - the rich building big houses, and the poor squatting in unoccupied ones. The action revolves around one main character, where the secondary characters are mostly played by actual construction workers. There are various actions that are hinted at, or occur off-screen, and that director's choice eventually got me irritated. But if you like contemporary social commentary, this is your film.
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6/10
A portrait of a money launderer
12 September 2019
As a young man, Brause is working for a foreign exchange firm when his boss introduces him to the shady side of business - spiriting money out of the country to Swiss banks. Eventually he marries his boss's daughter - part of the film deals with his family life. He starts making deals of his own, working for criminals, crooked politicians, and anyone with suitcases of money, to launder their money or move it overseas. However, being a bank with no legal protection has its own set of problems, as he finds out.

This is an interesting portrait, though I was surprised that, given the title, there was no dealings with black market currency exchanges. I could follow most of the rouges' gallery fairly well. However, I just could not identify with, or cheer for, the main character. Hence the rating runs a point below what I would otherwise have given it.
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Wet Season (2019)
7/10
Portrait of Singapore
12 September 2019
A Malaysian-born woman is married to a Singaporean man, and living in Singapore. She is busy. She is trying to get pregnant, and when her husband is not in the mood during her fertile period, resorts to using her husband's frozen product. She is the evening caretaker of her stroke-ridden father-in-law, who spends much time watching martial arts movies on TV. She is also a high school teacher in Mandarin, whose ethnic Chinese students are not motivated to learn their heritage language. When she tries to run a remedial class, it rapidly dwindles down to one student - who happens to be a martial arts artistic competitor. As the time for her duties overlap, the student develops a case of Hots for Teacher.

Seeing this at the Toronto International Film Festival with Q+A, the director mentioned that the wet monsoon season (and the time period of the film) lasts 6-8 weeks. The rain serves as an indication of the teacher's mental state, as well as acting as the soundtrack of the film. The backbone of the story is that Singapore kids are far more interested in English, the language of commerce, than their heritage. (Interestingly, the lone student interested in Mandarin suggests he might want to do business with China.)

Overall, a good film.
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Incitement (2019)
10/10
A chilling docudrama of the assassination that changed Israel
9 September 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This film is a re-creation of the life of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, from the time of the announcement of the 1st Oslo peace accord, to the actual deed. While Yigal was already a nationalist (he starts by being arrested at an anti-Oslo rally), various forces encouraged or abetted him towards assassination.

There is his mother, encouraging him to greatness, as per his name. There are rabbis who proclaim that Jewish law should supercede secular law, and also that Rabin is a "Persuer" and an "Informer", permitting him to be killed. There is a Likud / Bibi rally, where calls to kill Rabin go unchecked. There are girlfriends / potential brides, who just distance themselves from him but not report his thoughts to authorities. About the only person who comes off well is his father, who said that, if Rabin should be struck down, it should be by the hand of God and not of man.

I was at the world premiere (see: trivia), where the director said the film project was started 5 years ago, and it is just coincidental that it is coming out as populists hold hate-filled rallies.
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8/10
Better than The Farewell
9 September 2019
A Korean-American family is gathering on New Year's Eve Day for a traditional NYE dinner. The mother has stomach cancer. While the father claims he can take care of her, the son has abandoned his NYC job to do so. He is also preparing dinner based on mother's recipes and directions he had learned from her. The daughter eventually also arrives for the event.

As the son prepares dinner, flashbacks / memories of earlier family events fill out some motivations for the current members. These can sometimes be hard to distinguish from "present day", as the son's appearance remains unchanged. From the Q+A (I saw this at the Toronto International Film Festival), the director gave 2 possible reasons: the film's low budget, or since these were the son's memories, he doesn't have to change.

All 4 members of the family have different reactions to the mother's illness, which makes it more honest than the forced happiness of The Farewell. My only quibble is a final memory should have been placed somewhere else in the film, as it weakens the ending
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Two of Us (2019)
8/10
The dangers of being closeted
9 September 2019
Living in apartments across the hall, Nina and Madeleine are technically neighbors and good friends, but they are secret lesbian lovers. Widowed Madeleine is not out to her adult children, so when Nina finds Madeleine collapsed with a stroke, her children (and the hired 24-hour caregiver) cut Nina out of Madeleine's life.

The bones of this story has been explored in Cloudburst. However, while Cloudburst is more humorous, this film is more heartfelt. Good performances by all, especially the heartbroken Nina, desperately trying to sneak some connection.

My quibble with the story: Given Nina's known closeness with her mother (and who saved Madeleine's life by calling an ambulance in time), I am surprised that Madelein'e daughter didn't start by accepting Nina's offer of providing occasional help to the caregiver. And even if Madeleine can't speak, can't she find some other way to communicate she wishes to see Nina?
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4/10
An advertisement for deaf cult(ure)
8 September 2019
Warning: Spoilers
When a heavy metal drummer has a rapid hearing loss, his musical partner / girlfriend could have attempted to ask her rich father for money to cover his cochlear implant surgery. Instead, she abandons him to a group that teaches people how to adapt to deaf culture - a group that acts like a cult (no outside contact, no use of artificial devices like implants).

From then it felt like an advertisement. Besides the happy deaf people (adults at the group home and young people at a special class in school), when he raises the money himself to get the implants, they don't work well, and he only finds peace (and God?) when he turns them off.

I saw this at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the director acknowledged inspiration from his grandmother, who went deaf without modern supports, and assistance from the deaf community. The film is captioned for the hearing impaired, but not all sign language is subtitled, which shows who the film is directed towards.
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Red Fields (2019)
6/10
A musical that is depressing and confusing
7 September 2019
I saw this at the Toronto International Film Festival, with director Q+A, so I could more understand this film. It is based on an old rock opera, but the director changed the music from western to traditional - an artistic choice that, however, helped keep the mood downbeat, especially since the music was the key to the film. There is a (singing) narrator, and musicians were hired to perform, rather than actors hired to sing.

The story, and the production, is timeless, given that Israel is in a state of perpetual war, and soldiers with injuries are not uncommon. However, when Mami takes her husband out of hospital and tries to make it in Tel Aviv, she suffers a series of misadventures that lead to a transformation. While this seems to be a fantasy, logic rules don't apply, as the vegetative-state soldier gets to sing songs too.

Rather than use the original title of Mami, the director retitled it Red Fields, a reference to bloody battlefields. The confusing part is that I thought the film was pro-war, when the director's intent was to be anti-war.
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Three Summers (2019)
8/10
Doing what is needed
6 September 2019
The action takes place over 3 consecutive specific Decembers, in a seaside house in a gated community. In 2015, the master of the house is making shady deals, his wife is busy shopping for clothes and art, his widowed father is a grumpy old man, while his 20-year-old son has returned home for a party.

But the focus is really on the housekeeper, who acts as butler, and rides herd over a small group of other servants. She is enterprising, selling her kitchen creations over the internet, and is planning on building a roadside kiosk to hawk her wares.

But in 2016, the master is arrested in mass corruption arrests (along with many of his neighbors), and his assets are frozen. The mistress escapes abroad to be with her son, leaving the servants to take care of the ailing father with no money or owed wages. By 2017, the resourceful housekeeper has managed to monetize whatever assets she has control over, to keep the household afloat.

This is an interesting view of Brazilian society, as to what could happen to the "downstairs" people affected by their superiors' corruption scandals. I saw this at the TIFF world premiere, where the director mentioned that the movie was actually shot in the Brazilian summer. That was ironic, since my one quibble is the storyline about shooting a Christmas commercial in December seems to be a bit late.
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The Pass (2016)
7/10
This film has a split personality
17 August 2019
In 2 of 3 acts, the hunky leads spend much of their time shirtless, down at times to underwear, which screams "gay exploitation". But the subject is serious - does it make you happy to be rich and famous, while betraying your best mate, and more so, your true self?

Adapted from a stage play, all 3 acts are set in (different) hotel rooms. However, there is much discussion about what happens on the football (soccer) field. The title has dual meaning - there is a physical pass, and a football pass, both key to the central drama.
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9/10
An effective debunking of the charge "Patient Zero" caused AIDS across America
30 July 2019
This is the story of Gaetan Dugas, often known as Patient Zero of the AIDS crisis. It is told by friends and associates, activists and artists, and various doctors and researchers of the mysterious gay cancer. It turns out that Gaetan is likely not "the monster who brought AIDS to America", and that "zero" was a mistaken identifier that led to the idea he started it all. Gaetan was part of the cultural resistance to the no-sex suggestion from doctors, given that only a decade had passed since homosexuality had been removed from the list of medical disorders. Ironically, while Gaetan was disbelieving of sexual transmission, he was a great help to the researchers. Also, while playing only a small part in the book And The Band Played On, that scandalous part was what finally brought the book, and AIDS, into public consciousness.

So this is an effective revision of the story of a man who was scapegoated for AIDS.
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Woodstock (2019 TV Movie)
10/10
Woodstock: behind the scenes
28 July 2019
I saw this on the big screen, as part of Toronto Hot Docs' Woodstock 50th anniversary series. It started before the concert idea even came about, showed the then-cultural situation in the U.S., and the scrambling just before and during the festival itself.

I was promised a behind-the-scenes documentary, and there was lots of it, with enough snippets of music for a nice diversion. By using archival footage and photographs, the director brilliantly avoided using talking heads. Given that everyone involved is now in their 70's, this allowed us to just see the young people of that time, freezing their images of a magical, if brief, period.
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The Farewell (I) (2019)
6/10
Don't Tell Her (Chinese title)
22 July 2019
Billi emigrated from China to the U.S. with her parents at age 6, but has kept in close touch by phone with her grandmother (known as Nai Nai). 25 years later, she is shocked to find her parents going back to China for the wedding of her cousin (another branch of the family who emigrated to Japan), but Billi is not invited because she is "too busy". It turns out that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and has a short time to live. However, all interactions with doctors go thru Nai Nai's younger sister (Little Nai Nai), who is keeping Nai Nai in the dark, but has arranged the wedding as an excuse for the family to get together. Billi is excluded because she might spill the beans.

Billi makes her way to Nai Nai anyway, where various members of the family warn / bully her to keep quiet. Some are perfectly happy with the lie, on the basis that the family should bear the burden of bad news rather than the sick person. Others are less sure, but go along with it - Billi's father mentions that this would be illegal America (presumably patient's rights). Some have a hard time dealing with it, including the groom.

I am not happy with the premise of the movie for several reasons.

With limited western exposure to Chinese culture, the writer / director is casting all Chinese as pathological liars, when my impression that the "white lie" was the prerogative of white people, as viewed from TV's Modern Family. When we 1st see Nai Nai, she is on her cell phone talking to Billi, in a hospital waiting room waiting for her CT scan, but she tells Billi she is elsewhere (not in hospital).

One line of dialogue was "In China, when you get cancer, you die". In modern China, there should be therapies that can prolong life, and it should be up to the patient to decide on what therapy to take (or not). It would be difficult to treat patients without their knowledge of what they were being treated for.

Finally, Nai Nai has a strong personality. She insists on a big wedding banquet (even though the bride and groom haven't known each other for long), and also to take care of the details (she is furious when her order for lobster was replaced with crab). It seems strange that she would let her sister deal with the doctors, even as her cough worsens and she goes back to hospital for a change in pills.

I would have preferred a story where the dying knows the truth, and is dealing with it - something like Beginners or It's My Party.
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6/10
Emigrant returns "home".
21 July 2019
When Sara was a young girl, her parents emigrated from Uruguay to Canada. Now Sara has returned to visit her paternal grandmother Magda. The trip was planned for both her and her father, but he mysteriously couldn't make it. Both of them have turned out to be economic disappointments. As Magda complains to her friends: What is the point of going to Canada just to work as a waitress? Meanwhile, Sara's distractibility and inability to complete tasks leads to a tragedy.

This is a decent portrait of the split personality of someone away for a long time who is "coming home". Even though she speaks fluent Spanish, everything feels a bit "off". In tone, therefore, it fits with the writer / director's life experiences (I was at a screening with her Q+A). However, the film has too many loose ends for me to enjoy it fully.
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4/10
Not accessible to non-Javans
5 June 2019
In Java, Indonesia, an adult Juno recalls 3 periods of his youth. As a child, he is recruited by a man into Lengger, a traditional dance style, against the wishes of his mother. Older, he serves as an assistant to an aspiring young boxer. Later, he serendipitously meets and joins a Lengger dance troupe. By then, the dance has fallen on hard times, and its practitioners are forced to move from village to village.

There isn't enough dancing to show me that Lengger is a "female dance performed by men". As someone who serves, it is still unclear to me about Juno's sexual orientation or gender identity. He does serve as the "young male lover" - a sort of magic talisman - to an aspiring politician, while ironically as a photo of them holding hands threatens the politician's image and career.

Possibly to bring in the audience at the Inside Out LGBT film festival, the catalog photo is of Juno and the boxer, both shirtless - the part of the story that has nothing to do with Lengger. There are some nice images, but I don't quite get the story.
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Adam (I) (2019)
8/10
A Gender-identity story with role reversal
5 June 2019
In a summer before marriage equality, high schooler Adam gets permission to stay with his big sister, a college student in New York City. Unknown to their parents, she is a lesbian, and her social circle consists of activists in the lesbian and trans communities. Hanging around that group, Adam is mistaken for being a trans man. When he starts dating a women he met at a party, he does come clean about his age, but has to frantically study to keep up his masquerade as a trans man.

There is emphasis within the community that what matters is gender identity in the head, and not what is physically present "down below". There is a poignant scene at the Trans Camp swimming hole, where body-affirming participants go skinny-dipping, while Adam sits alone on shore, fully clothed. Adam is, effectively, fish out of water, as he lives a lie in order to pass as trans and have a relationship.

I saw this at the Inside Out LGBT film festival, with director Q+A. The screenplay was adapted from a novel by the original author, who then hired a trans director to direct it. Their toughest casting problem was for the title role. Because it had a sex scene, they could not cast an actual 17-year-old, but had to find someone who looked the part of one, who hadn't overdosed on "T".

This film is recommended for those who are not too disturbed by a cast full of trans and lesbian characters, while interested in knowing more about it.
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José (II) (2018)
7/10
Decent composite of Guatemalan gay youth
5 June 2019
Jose is the only child who is still living at home with his mother, with both having to start a commute before dawn to their respective jobs. Jose's sexual release is with men in a hotel that rents rooms by the hour. When offered chances for a long-term relationship, Jose has a battle between love and loyalty to his mother.

I saw this film at the Inside Out LGBT film festival, with a Q+A with the co-writer. The director and writers spent time in Central America interviewing subjects, and this is a composite of their research. Unfortunately, references to Guatemalan culture and history could be lost to foreigners. Rather crucial to the story is the frequency mothers may hang on to their youngest children to avoid being alone (there is a reference to Jose's sisters). Other references are to a civil war and an earthquake, both of which killer a great number of people, but may be extraneous to the main theme of choices in life.

The film is shot in a raw, gritty style, but that suits the environment the characters live in.
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8/10
Quirky view of a marriage to a homosexual man in China
28 May 2019
To appreciate this film, you have to also appreciate, or at least tolerate, quirky directorial decisions.

The story takes place over an adult's lifetime - from when young women were living 2-to-a-room in a company dormitory, to the "present day" (main story line) when the woman is only months from retirement. To linearize the story, she gets married, has a child, finds out that her husband is homosexual, but remains married. Divorce seems to have been occasionally mentioned, but the couple are never on the same wavelength at any time.

The pregnant daughter returns home from the U.S., white husband in tow, in order to give birth in China. The mother is a constant tale of woe, starting with her dog switching allegiances to her husband. Even though she is interested in going to the U.S. with her daughter, she refuses to divorce, but instead joins a Buddhist cult, trying to pray her husband into being cured of homosexuality. From flashbacks, confrontations, and silences, various pieces of family history and secrets are revealed.

A subplot involves the husband's lover marrying a lesbian, so that her IVF baby can have legitimacy. Together with the mother's caution against the gossips for anyone unmarried over the age of 30, this film suggests that, over the years, traditional respectability is still a major social force in China.
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7/10
Love, lust, or commitment
27 May 2019
Pete, a single black man, has an affair with Jack, a married white man. Pete's father, a lawyer, is upset that Pete is dating a married man for the 4th time, and urges Pete to commit and settle down. Meanwhile, Jack has had homosexual episodes since his teens, married the prettiest girl in his class, had 2 kids, and both Jack and his wife have successful careers. Regardless of his behavior, Jack confesses to his counselor that he doesn't want to be gay or bisexual. While Pete and Jack declare their love for each other, will Jack finally divorce his wife, and will Pete be willing to wait for the divorce?

I saw this at the Inside Out LGBT festival, and the Q+A answered a puzzle I was having. The story was set in the present - Jack's brother-in-law warns Jack against leaving an electronic footprint by texting or sending "dick pics", and Jack's lawyer jokes about his "1st divorce", given that same-sex marriage is now legal. But the "don't want to be gay" attitude seemed to be from an earlier period. It turns out that the inspiration for this film came from the writer / director's experiences earlier in life, before he became too old to play Pete himself. OK, I understand, but it still means I give it a mixed review.
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Cubby (2019)
7/10
Time to grow up
27 May 2019
After college, artistic Mark escapes from his Indiana hometown to a fake job in New York City, where he rents a room in the apartment of his college roommate. Taking a job as an after-school babysitter to a 6-year old, the 2 bond together very well. Meanwhile, he meets Leather Man, who may be a figment of his imagination, from a porn magazine he found at home years ago. In certain BDSM scenes, Leather Man tells him to seek his safe space, which to Mark is his childhood "cubby".

But Mark is not all together, especially financially, and prefers street drugs to his prescription pills. So reality intrudes, and he has to eventually adapt.

Mark was played by the writer / director, and I found the character absorbingly irritating. I was charmed by the line drawing illustrations that permeated the film - something Mark could likely have done. The net result is, to me, a mixed review.
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7/10
Hot in the closet
27 May 2019
In Argentina, when one man invites a co-worker ("the blonde one") to live in a spare room in his apartment, things surprisingly get hot and steamy. But the closeted one want things to otherwise stay the same, unwilling to come out to his friends, who repeatedly visit unannounced, creating a form of coitus interruptus.

I saw this at the Inside Out LGBT film festival, where I'm sure some members of the audience appreciated the attractive leads, action, and nudity. However, the clunky dialogue (as represented by the subtitles) means that this film is likely appealing only to a select audience.
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8/10
A documentary of accidental gay porn entrepreneurs
27 May 2019
This is a very interesting documentary of the life of a straight Jewish couple. Seeking income of any sort, they start distributing Hustler magazine, then take over a bookstore whose owner has been delinquent in payments. It turns out that the bookstore's main business is gay porn, and they manage to make a success of a business they don't fully understand. Their good reputation in the porn community lead to their producing gay porn movies, including ones by superstar Jeff Stryker. Along the way, they have to deal with people disappearing in the AIDS era, a porn prosecution under the Regan administration, keeping a blind eye to what was happening in their "back room", and keeping their 3 children from learning what the "bookstore" really sells.

The last part becomes ironic, when 1 of their sons had to come out as gay, which did bother his religious mother. Meanwhile, this movie was a project of their daughter, who managed to get intimate confessions that would not be possible with a stranger
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Rocketman (I) (2019)
9/10
Great Musical - But where's the love?
24 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Elton John fans should see this movie. If you know very little about EJ and his music, it may make a lot less sense to you.

Elton Hercules John checks himself into rehab. In a group therapy setting, he recalls his life as a musical fantasy. There is his childhood, unable to get affection from his father. There is his mother, who, while supportive / accepting, warns him that his lifestyle will leave him without true love. There is his fortuitous collaboration with Bernie Taupin, and his relationship with his manager John Reid. There is his increasing reliance on alcohol and drugs (both prescription and illegal), eventually leading to rehab.

EJ's music is everywhere, highlighting the emotion of the moment. It could be an instrumental excerpt of a hit, a snatch of some lyrics, up to full song-and-dance numbers, including some more obscure songs. The songs are well performed by Taron Egerton as EJ, Matthew Illesley as young Reggie, and other cast members. The music may not necessarily be chronological, but serves the story, rather than stop and supplant it.

My references for this review are last year's biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, and Alberta Ballet's Love Lies Bleeding (a ballet using EJ's music and inspired by his life story). Rocketman beats Bohemian Rhapsody by several counts, including the use of music, and in not shying away from the main character's homosexuality - EJ and John Reid are shown being passionate with each other. The ballet, meanwhile, is a wonderful interpretation of EJ's music, but dance does not allow for narrative.

Here is where Rocketman lost its one point of rating. The ballet (based on when it was written) ended with EJ meeting David Furnish and finding love. Rocketman ends with EJ leaving rehab, and shooting the music video I'm Still Standing. His meeting and marrying Furnish, and having kids, are relegated to postscript text. This is the "normal" life that he had been denied, and thought he could never achieve, but this part of his life is very de-emphasized. Maybe at 2 hours, there was already enough movie (sequel, anyone?). Given that Furnish is listed as a Producer and EJ as an Executive Producer, they must be OK with the story arc. But I do wish for a personal (and not just musical) happy-ever-after ending.
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