Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Streaming Update: Good Omens and Catch-22

Television has seen fit to do treatments on two of our favorite books with widely varying results. Neil Gaiman turned Good Omens, the cult classic he wrote with the late Terry Pratchett, into a wonderful labor of love; George Clooney took the 20th-century American classic Catch-22 , a tenderloin if there ever was one, and sliced it into chipped beef on toast. Guy S. Malone, Researcher and I critically review both efforts.
-- Yours, FilmZ and GSM,R

Good Omens streaming on Amazon Prime (6 episodes) -- a review by FilmZ

We are huge Neil Gaiman fans, and it all started when Morgan Rasputin, the godmother to our youngest, gave us Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, which Gaiman co-authored with his friend, brilliant British humorist Terry Pratchett.  This witty and loopy take on the Bible's Revelations is a soul-sibling to Monty Python, and it's no surprise that the authors sent it to Terry Gilliam for critique.  Gilliam did more than critique; he wanted to make it into a film himself.  For whatever reason, those plans fell through, and it took until now for the stars to align, sadly, four years after Pratchett's death. Gaiman has poured loving care into the series in honor of his great friend and colleague.  In addition, as talented as Gilliam is, the whimsical, nuanced story needed more room to breathe than a two-hour film could contain, and, as it turns out, a six-episode series is just about as nice and accurate as it gets.

In the beginning (couldn't resist), there was Adam and Eve, of course, and the Tree of Knowledge.  As we all know, the serpent--AKA the demon Crawley--tempted Eve, Eve took the bait, and the first couple was expelled from Eden.  Fearing their fate in the wild, the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), gave them his flaming sword, which God had entrusted to him.  Crawley, in a PR makeover, changed his name to Crowley (David Tennant), and he has been jousting with Aziraphale ever since.

Flash forward to 11 years ago and Aziraphale, who now owns a rare book shop, and Crowley, who hot-rods around London in a vintage Bentley, have become quite comfortable with Earth and mortals (as a superior says, they've "gone native").  So, when two dukes of Hell present Crowley with the Anti-Christ. to be placed with the family of--who else--American diplomats, the demon becomes understandably distraught.  He turns to his longtime angelic adversary and the two conspire to avert the Apocalypse, scheduled for the child's 11th birthday.  Complicating matters, the inept Satanic nuns who run the hospital inadvertently lost track of the Anti-Christ and placed him with a nice English family in the village of Little Tadfield.

In the ensuing years, Aziraphale and Crowley dodge the bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell, including the Archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm) and Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) and stave off the Four Horsemen--actually motorcyclists--led by Death (Brian Cox) as they try to locate the lost Anti-Christ, now named Adam (Sam Tayler Buck), who leads his own pre-adolescent gang, called Them.  At the same time, several humans are catching on.  Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), a witch and descendant of Agnes Nutter, also a witch, whose 16th-century prophesies are accurate but difficult to decipher, and they may save the human race; Newton Pulsifer, Witch Hunter Private, who falls hard for Anathema; Witch-Hunter Sgt. Shadwell (Michael McKean), a fanatic; and Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), a medium and part-time Jezebel.

If that sounds like a large cast of characters, it is, but Director Douglas Mackinnon and Neil Gaiman work hand-in-glove.  As the characters hurtle toward the End Times, we encounter inventive and outrageous occurrences and the actors seem to be having a blast in the process.   Good Omens' good-natured humor and thoroughly likable cast all serve to leaven its satirical bite, though backlash from some Christian groups is not surprising.  Some sensibilities have been offended by a Black Adam and Eve, and a female God (Frances McDormand).  To paraphrase Patrick Henry: If this is blasphemy, they made the most of it.
9.0 out of 10

Catch-22 streaming on Hulu (6 episodes) -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Catch-22 is our favorite book of all time.  Joseph Heller's classic anti-war satire is a one-of-a-kind novel; a critique of war, bureaucracy, and capitalism condensed in 400-some pages that swing from hilarity to tragedy.  Also, though we are George Clooney fans as an actor, as a producer and a director his results have been spotty, giving us the excellent Syriana and the Edward R. Murrow biopic Good Night and Good Luck, but also churning out highly anticipated but ultimately disappointing fare like Suburbicon and The Monuments Men.

In fairness, anyone who has read Catch-22 knows it doesn't lend itself to film.  Over 40 characters and the Moebius strip chronology Heller employed to portray the random chaos of both war and the military-industrial complex -- it's enough to make a screenwriter quit the business.  Credit Clooney's ego for taking on the task; discredit Clooney's ego and the writers, Luke Davies and David Michod, for artistic choices that defang the biting satire and bring order to the purposeful chaos.

Having also seen Mike Nichols' 1970 film treatment, we were optimistic when we learned Clooney and Grant Heslov had planned a six-episode series.  Nichols hired an excellent cast and he captured the surreal insanity of the novel, but the two-hour film could only provide a Cliff Notes version of Catch-22.  And yet somehow it better captured the soul of the novel.  Clooney's series is beautifully shot, the air raid sequences are jarringly immersive, and, in the #MeToo era, taming the novel's 1960s misogynistic moments was wise (though the misogyny was a product of its time and a device the novel uses to show the animal brutality of war, and Heller does vilify it).  The chronological layout of the series, however, and the sketchy characterizations leave us with a run of the mill story.  Christopher Abbott's portrayal of the protagonist, Yossarian, comes across as a sad-sack malcontent and suffers in comparison with Alan Arkin's on-the-nose frantic, desperate hero.

Other gripes: calling Yossarian "Yoyo" throughout when it's only a momentary diversion in the novel; underutilizing the estimable talents of the likes of Kyle Chandler as Col. Cathcart and Hugh Laurie as Major ___ de Coverley; bracketing the Snowden incident--the main reason for Yossarian's insanity--as a vague hint in the first episode to be addressed only in the last half-hour (whereas in the novel it is an ongoing stem, revealed by dribs and drabs, building tension until it comes crashing down emotionally at the end); arbitrarily introducing new--and inferior-- material while neglecting parts of the novel that gave the story its soul (Nately's Whore, Chief White Halfoat); and finally, completely changing the ending.  Incredible.  Watch Catch-22 if you wish, but please understand that you will not have experienced anything akin to the novel.
5.0 out of 10

Rocketman: a Brief Evisceration

Rocketman -- a review by FilmZ

I'm taking the reins from Guy S. Malone, Researcher on this one for the sake of Elton John.  Full disclosure: I didn't want to see the movie, either; after being a huge Elton John fan in the '70s, his songs became so overplayed that I'm just done (except for "Your Song").  And the Czarina warned me that the movie was dark, dark, dark, which cinched it.  But Serfing Dude, a connoisseur of classic rock said he "really wants to see it," and Don Swedanya said he would see anything that didn't have super heroes in it.  So, off we went, despite my desire to see Dark Phoenix--a Monty Python romp, by comparison.

First the positives.  The foundation is solid: it's directed by Dexter Fletcher (the man who saved Bohemian Rhapsody after Brian Singer was fired); it contained some of the most iconic music from a rock icon; it had an excellent cast, headed by Taron Egerton as Elton John, Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard as EJ's Mum, Gemma Jones as Grandmum, and Richard Madden as John Reid, EJ's manager.  Fletcher brought out convincing performances, top to bottom.

Rocketman, though, seems unable to decide what it wants to be: a rock biopic, a musical, a surreal fantasy, a group counseling session on excessive behavior, a poison pen letter to EJ's parents.  So, it tries to be everything and ends up being less than the sum of its parts as it jolts from genre to genre and backward and forward in time like a kidney-busting wooden roller coaster.  Even songs are played out of chronological order--as a pre-fame late 1960's teen, he performs "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," a song not introduced until 1973's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album.  The film does check all of the tropes of musical biopics: the sensitive child, misunderstood by his parents; the recognition of talent; the skeptical recording executive; the rapacious (in this case, literally) manager; the big break, followed by a (ahem) rocket-ride to stardom; the downward spiral of substance abuse; the reckoning; the recovery.  The focus--too much--is on the excesses and the demons they rain down on Elton, and it's only in epilogue that we see happiness come to him.

Inevitably, Rocketman will be compared to Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, to its detriment, we believe.  Several small warnings and one big one: While BR and ASiB are dramatic films with music, Rocketman is a musical with some big choreographic numbers.  Those musical pieces and the flights of fantasy take us away from the story (big turnoffs to Serfing Dude).  As good as Egerton is (he does his own singing, unlike Rami Malek in BR) and as great as Elton John's music is, those interludes are not energetic enough to lift us from the downbeat pall of self-indulgence, self-loathing, and self-destruction that weights the film.  Compared to Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody is inspirational, and A Star is Born provides much better balance, leavening humor and drama and a cinematic flow and synergy between story and lyrics.  But the worst, as pointed out by Don Swedanya, is the portrayal of Elton John's homosexuality.  This is surprising for an effort championed by John himself.  As portrayed in Rocketman, a person of the evangelical persuasion could conclude that Elton John's homosexuality was not genetic but rather a product of an overly strict, uncaring father and a vapid, distant mother, and thus make EJ a candidate for gay conversion "therapy."  To us, this is the major crime of Rocketman.
5.0 out of 10, strictly for the attempt at originality and the across the board performances
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