In Theaters

The creative spark within each of us longs to be released. But that typically doesn’t happen until we give it the catalyst it needs to free itself, something we generally don’t supply until we recognize exactly what’s required for that to happen. Sometimes it even calls for elements and influences that we might ordinarily think would be highly unlikely for achieving success. Nevertheless, when these components come together, they can truly work magnificent wonders, a synthesis depicted in the entertaining and inspiring new musical biopic, “Rocketman” (web site, trailer).

Young Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley) led a quietly challenging life while growing up in London’s Pinner neighborhood in the 1950s. As the often-ignored, often-criticized only child of a frequently absent military father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), and a self-absorbed mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), Reggie struggled for any attention and affection he could muster, most of which came from his doting, live-in grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones). Unlike Reggie’s parents, Ivy could see that her grandson was gifted, even if a bit shy and withdrawn. That became apparent when the young lad showed a natural aptitude for music, most notably playing the piano and being able to compose beautiful melodies virtually spontaneously. His skills were so adept, in fact, that he soon earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

Given the development of his talent, Reggie hoped that it would earn him the recognition from his father that he so craved, especially since Stanley was an avid music lover. Unfortunately, Dad continued to ignore and criticize his son as he always had, maintaining the distance that had long existed between them. What’s more, when Stanley learned that Sheila was having an affair with another man (Tom Bennett), he left for good. Fortunately, though, Reggie’s abilities continued to develop in his father’s absence. And, as the reserved tunesmith became a teenager (Kit Connor), he began taking an interest in a style of music that would change his life – rock ʼn roll.

As a young adult (Taron Egerton), Reg and a group of friends formed a band called Bluesology, successfully landing a series of gigs playing backup for American artists like the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles on tours of the U.K. But, despite the steady work, he grew restless, wanting to break out on his own, something he was at last able to do in 1967, when Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) of Liberty Records introduced Reg to an aspiring lyricist, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). And, in a move aimed at boosting his charisma, the pianist decided to change his name to something more captivating. Reggie Dwight thus became Elton John, a name that would soon become synonymous with pop music.

Taron Egerton gives a signature performance as music icon Elton John in the superb new biopic, “Rocketman.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Elton and Bernie had a great chemistry from the outset. The songwriting duo joined forces with Dick James (Stephen Graham) of DJM Records, a curmudgeonly music industry pro who expected much but knew that pushing his new talent would pay dividends, as it did with the release of the singles “Border Song” and “Your Song” in 1970. James also helped arrange a live concert at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, a performance that set the audience – and Elton’s career – on fire.

The young rocker was an instant success, but not just on the stage. Elton soon met John Reid (Richard Madden), an up-and-coming music manager/promoter who would revolutionize his new client’s career. With a string of hits like “Rocketman,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel” and successful concert dates featuring fabulously flamboyant costumes and outrageous stage antics, Elton’s popularity grew by leaps and bounds. More than that, though, as Elton’s love interest, Reid helped the pop star become comfortable with his sexuality, something that he struggled with for years. Even though Elton was not yet ready to come out as a gay man, he was at least finding satisfaction in ways that had always seemed to elude him.

Long-time collaborators Elton John (Taron Egerton, right) and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, left) launch a storied career in director Dexter Fletcher’s latest release, “Rocketman.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

With Reid’s assistance, Elton became a musical phenomenon, soaring to super-stardom in the ʼ70s with a string of hit singles and albums, as well as nonstop concert tours. However, the pressure of success gradually took a toll. Elton soon became hooked on alcohol and a variety of other recreational substances. He also became an out-of-control shopaholic, spending lavishly at every turn. And, if that weren’t enough, he began to see that he was partnered to a philanderer who showed little genuine interest in him, one who was increasingly using Elton as little more than a meal ticket.

Elton’s life began to spiral downward as he descended into a life of addiction and sexual compulsion. He desperately tried to drown his disappointment over the breakdown of his relationship, as well as bury a variety of unresolved issues from his upbringing, many of which spurred problems with anger management and eventually led to a suicide attempt. He also struggled with trying to stay in the closet, attempting to cover himself by pursuing a short-lived unsuccessful marriage to his friend Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker). And, as he descended into this deepening personal nightmare, his circumstances began to negatively impact the relationships that mattered most to him, such as his friendship and collaboration with Bernie.

With so much at stake, Elton realized he had to get clean, to vanquish his personal demons, which included all of the foregoing, as well as a bout with bulimia. But was it too late? Could he overcome the issues that had taken him so far down – and so far away from his true self? That’s what the rocketman had to find out for himself.

Supportive grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones, right) and self-absorbed mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard, left) witness the rise of their future rock star son, Elton John, in “Rocketman.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Frequently absent father Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh) missed out on much of his superstar son’s upbringing as depicted in the musical new biopic, “Rocketman.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

At the time Elton bottomed out, his life was a mess, and, ironically, that’s where the film actually starts out, telling his story through a series of flashbacks intercut with scenes from group therapy sessions in which he bares his soul. It was a painful process for someone who seemingly had it all. But, if he was going to get clean, he had to discover how he got that way in the first place, an unraveling process that required him to get in touch with his deepest and innermost feelings.

From an onlooker’s viewpoint, most of us would probably say that the fame and fortune he attained is enviable. Who wouldn’t want a life like that? At the same time, though, many of us would also likely wonder why he also underwent the profound heartache that nearly cost him everything. He thus experienced everything from exultant joy to the pit of despair, both ends of the emotional spectrum.

Self-serving manager/promoter John Reid (Richard Madden, right) frequently ran afoul of music industry professionals like Dick James (Stephen Graham, center) and even his own client and life partner, Elton John (Taron Egerton, left), as seen in “Rocketman.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

One might ask, “What would be the value in experiencing such extremes?” In many instances, this often has to do with learning particular life lessons, usually those that aid our overall personal growth and development. For instance, in becoming accomplished as a composer of music that reflects many different moods, perhaps Elton needed to experience them all firsthand in order to identify with them, to provide himself with the emotional inspiration needed for translating these feelings into finished melodies. Indeed, would he have been able to write the music for such melancholic pieces as “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” or “Candle in the Wind” had he not felt the sadness associated with the emotions behind these works? Likewise, could he have composed an uplifting, toe-tapping hit like “I’m Still Standing” had he not gone through personal travails and managed to triumphantly survive them?

This notion is important not only for examining his body of work, but it’s also a crucial narrative device employed to carry the story in the film. In many ways, “Rocketman” is actually a movie musical that tells Elton’s life story through his many diverse compositions, the pieces strategically interspersed to mirror the events and moods he experienced over time. In that regard, this truly is an example of art imitating life, in large part because that life arises from the artist within each of us, the one that creates our existence.

Elton’s story also inspires us by showing how we can break through the perceived limitations that hold us back from living our destiny. The controlling nature of Elton’s parents, for example, no doubt helps to explain his reserved nature while growing up. Out of fear of ridicule, he consequently retreated within himself, bottling up his considerable talent for years. Those abilities remained dormant, just waiting for the right moment to be liberated. And, when he finally gave himself permission to let those talents out, they came rushing forth in a torrent of creativity and flamboyancy. With his vision thus unleashed, he was free to let it take him places that he may have once thought unimaginable – and to bring him success beyond his wildest dreams.

Ever flamboyant, pop icon Elton John (Taron Egerton) led a lavish lifestyle during his meteoric rise to stardom as seen in “Rocketman.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

That sense of liberation spilled over into areas of his life other than his music. It made its presence felt in his personal life, particularly in the area of his sexuality. Even though he struggled for years to publicly acknowledge his true orientation – something that many gay men and women of the time wrestled with – he nonetheless allowed himself to act on his feelings and explore what they could offer him. This was not an easy feat in light of the constant chiding he experienced about the prospect, even into young adulthood, including by those who supposedly loved and cared about him. (His mother, for example, claimed she knew he was gay from the time he was a child but never encouraged him to act on it for fear that he would end up leading a lonely life and never be loved “properly.”) And, despite Elton’s admission during his therapy sessions to being a sexual compulsive, he still overcame the fear-based limitations that had held him back from being himself and subsequently finding true love (something, by the way, that came his way after getting clean, Sheila’s caustic cautions notwithstanding).

Through our remarkable creative powers, we can yield meaningful results that exceed expectations, no matter what the milieu of expression and even when it seems we’ve passed the point of no return. Elton John’s life story shows us this and has a rollicking good time doing so. Let’s hope we have the wits to jump on our own bandwagon and do the same for ourselves.

“Rocketman” wins big on every front. Director Dexter Fletcher’s lavish biopic hits all the right notes from start to finish. Its inventive song-based approach to this character study adds punch to the storyline, playing like an old-style musical, one that actually works in a contemporary cinematic landscape largely devoid of this genre due to stale or forced releases (that’s saying a lot considering my general dislike of this genre). But, then, that’s been made possible by the film’s carefully chosen song list, one that contains many recognizable, eminently likable tunes (it’s hard to believe that one artist wrote so many classic works). These strengths are further enhanced by a superb production design, featuring sets and costumes whose assignments had to have been dreams come true for the professionals who created them.

Of course, none of this would have worked were it not for the positively outstanding performance of Taron Egerton, an Oscar-worthy portrayal if there ever were one. The rising star may well have cemented his future with this role, disappearing into the character so much that it even convinced his real world counterpart that he was watching himself on the screen. In addition to his portrayal of the legendary rocker, Egerton does all his own dancing and singing, sounding almost indistinguishable from the protagonist himself. This is a truly magnificent performance.

It should come as no surprise that “Rocketman” has drawn more than its share of inevitable comparisons to “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), the Academy Award-winning biography of pop star Freddie Mercury, the longtime front man for the rock band Queen. True, both films tell the life stories of famous pop musicians who shared many traits in common, including sexual orientation, substance abuse and their manager. True, both pictures follow their meteoric rise during the ʼ70s and ʼ80s. And true, both movies feature the involvement of filmmaker Fletcher (even though his contributions to “Bohemian Rhapsody” weren’t widely publicized). However, that’s where the similarities end. The storytelling approach used in this film, for example, is completely different from its cinematic cousin. And, obviously, the story itself is all its own. While it’s tempting to see the parallels between these two pictures, in all fairness, viewers should not think of them as cookie-cutter copies of one another; that’s simply not accurate.

In the end, the life we create truly is a sum of all of its parts, no matter how seemingly incongruous and implausible they might initially appear. Because of that, we should take nothing for granted, for we may not always know what’s behind what shows up in our existence, regardless of whether we purposely drew such elements to us or whether they strike us as random, out of character or unexpected. Those elements could well combine to bring us what we secretly (or perhaps even unknowingly) desire most. Such circumstances truly could enable us to rocket to success. Just ask Elton John.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Understanding Intents

When we converse with someone, we like to think we understand the meaning behind everything they’re saying. But are we truly grasping the beliefs, intents and motivations underlying their statements? And what about their actions and gestures – can we say the same about those, too? Sometimes we need to take a closer look to make sure that we’re correctly reading their intentions, a theme that runs through the latest installment in the X-Men franchise, “Dark Phoenix” (web site, trailer).

In an alternate version of 1992, life for the mutant beings known as the X-Men is finally starting to improve after years of widespread public prejudice and skepticism, concerns raised during turbulent incidents depicted in the previous two films in the franchise, “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016) and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014). In fact, the group’s mentor and leader, Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), is about to be honored by the President (Brian d’Arcy James) for his efforts at helping the mutant students of his special school learn how to channel their powers and abilities into productive pursuits. That positive image is further reinforced when a contingent of X-Men saves the crew of a space shuttle from disaster, a triumphant accomplishment that earns them a hero’s welcome upon their return to Earth.

The figure chiefly responsible for the success of the space rescue is Phoenix (a.k.a. Jean Grey) (Sophie Turner), a mutant who is able to focus her psychic powers to work various kinds of miracles, such as establishing a protective energetic shield against opposing forces, something she did in helping to save the shuttle crew. It’s a skill she’s possessed since she was a child (Summer Fontana) but that she has often struggled to control. In fact, that lack of control contributed to the death of her parents (Hannah Anderson, Scott Shepherd) in a horrific car accident when Jean was eight years old. Despite the heartache of that tragedy, though, the incident brought her into contact with Prof. Xavier, who essentially raised the youngster and helped her learn how to put her talents to best use.

Phoenix (a.k.a. Jean Grey) (Sophie Turner) struggles to manage her tremendous psychic powers in “Dark Phoenix,” the latest installment in the X-Men movie franchise. Photo courtesy © 2019 Marvel & Subs. and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

In spite of Jean’s heroics, however, she’s not quite the same when she returns from her space adventure. She’s somewhat out of sorts, having apparently been exposed to some potent energetic source that has interfered with the functioning of her psychic powers. It’s a cause for concern for her peers, most notably her friends Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as well as her romantic interest, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). Somewhat surprisingly, Prof. Xavier doesn’t appear to be as concerned as the others believe he should be, but then he’s more preoccupied with getting ready to accept his accolades than worrying about someone who has a history of ups and downs that have always managed to work themselves out.

Matters get amped up, however, when Jean learns some disturbing news about her past. Given her presently unstable state of mind, those revelations set her off, leading to an unforeseen tragedy and the release of an onslaught of fury against her longtime mentor. These events upset relations among the X-Men and Prof. Xavier, since he’s being held responsible for everything that has now transpired. He contends that he believes he acted in Jean’s best interests, but, with havoc reigning among his kindreds, he’s become something of a pariah to those who have trusted him for so many years.

Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, second from left) and three of his mutant students, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, second from right) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp, right), prepare to help a troubled colleague in the latest installment in the X-Men franchise, “Dark Phoenix.” Photo courtesy © 2019 Marvel & Subs. and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Meanwhile, Jean goes in search of an old colleague, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), an X-Man who has had a stormy on-again/off-again relationship with Prof. Xavier over the years. When she explains what’s happened, she enlists his support to get retribution. But, on her way to seeking vengeance, a further wrinkle develops that threatens to exacerbate an already-tense situation.

In a remote lakeside community, an alien craft makes a discreet landing. The ship’s occupants take over the bodies of local residents, their contingent led by a being known as Vuk (Jessica Chastain). She and her minions are on a mission to acquire something they desperately crave, a powerful force that they believe will make them invincible. And the source of that elusive enigmatic power is Jean.

With Vuk and company in pursuit of Jean, and with chaos erupting among the X-Men, the threat of havoc being unleashed looms large. The stakes are incalculably high as the community of mutants is on the verge of being torn apart. Meanwhile, all of the goodwill that has been built up between the X-Men and the public is in danger of coming undone, potentially plunging society back into rampant suspicion and mistrust. Given these circumstances, it will seemingly take a miracle to resolve matters. Should that happen, though, perhaps a new Phoenix will rise from the ashes, supplanting the Dark counterpart who’s threatening to let loose a reign of terror on the planet.

Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) worries about the well-being of an X-Men colleague in the new superhero adventure, “Dark Phoenix.” Photo by Doane Gregory, courtesy © 2019 Marvel & Subs. and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

If someone were to ask, “Is fire good or bad?”, what would you say? Ultimately, it would depend on what it was to be used for. To provide heat or to cook food, fire would be seen as a valuable tool. But, if it were to be used in an act of arson, it would be seen as a weapon of destruction. In essence, the fire itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad; what matters is how it’s used, something that depends on the intents underlying its application.

The various elements that are part of our lives often have dual purposes, both positive and negative, their characterization dependent on the intended use behind them. A hammer, for example, can be beneficially used for hanging a picture or detrimentally employed for smashing a window. It all depends on the beliefs underlying its use.

So it is also with our consciousness. But that’s an issue Jean has struggled with throughout her life. Learning how to manage her power has been an ongoing challenge; sometimes it’s used for good and at other times for questionable purposes, depending on how she believes it should be deployed. The principal question for her is knowing what to do when, especially when it comes to putting on the brakes.

Understanding this is important not only where our own intentions are concerned, but also with the intentions of others. If we misinterpret their motivations, we may subsequently respond just as erroneously with reactions that are off the mark, potentially making matters far worse. It’s the metaphysical equivalent of pouring an accelerant on a raging bonfire. This is at the heart of the conflict that arises between Jean and Charles after the revelations about her past emerge; he believes he was working for her benefit, while she saw it differently. This misunderstanding thus leads to circumstances that threaten to get out of control, and, given Jean’s powers, they could potentially end up far more disastrous than imagined.

Phoenix (a.k.a. Jean Grey) (Sophie Turner, left) matches wits with an alien known as Vuk (Jessica Chastain, right) for control of an invincible power source in “Dark Phoenix.” Photo by Doane Gregory, courtesy © 2019 Marvel & Subs. and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Is there a solution for this? That’s hard to say, but something that could help immensely is learning to cultivate a wider view of possibilities. If we take a narrow view of things, we may be able to envision only a limited range of options, most or all of which might not be in line with someone’s actual underlying intents. However, if we can broaden our horizons and ponder possibilities not previously considered, we may be able to avoid needless and potentially damaging misunderstandings. That’s something Jean should keep in mind if she hopes to keep peace in her adoptive family.

“Dark Phoenix” may not be a great X-Men offering, but it’s certainly not as bad as what many critics and some fans have been saying. This character-driven superhero tale is somewhat overwritten when it comes to exploring (and frequently misinterpreting) motivations, incorporating contemporary social issue symbolism, and getting in touch with feelings, so much so that the story tends to drag in the first half. The opening also gives surprisingly short shrift to the action-adventure elements, a shortcoming that’s fortunately made up for at the back end. However, when it comes to the story’s philosophical and metaphysical themes, the picture is spot-on, providing thoughtful viewing yet again in an unlikely context. In all, this release may not match its predecessors, but it does share valuable insights worth considering, all wrapped up in a well-acted, beautifully photographed package.

The marketing materials for this film have suggested that this could be the end of the franchise. Given the longevity and success of this series, I personally doubt that. In all likelihood, it will go through a reboot or a retooling, but I’m sure it will be back in some way, shape or form. If I’m wrong, however, I must admit that it would be disappointing if this film marked the end of the franchise, given that it’s a somewhat lackluster offering compared to its predecessors. And, considering all the many fine hours of entertainment the X-Men have provided over the years, I certainly hope that’s not the case.

It’s easy to misread others if we’re not looking closely enough. And that’s unfortunate, because such a simple misunderstanding can have tremendous consequences, such as a lost friendship, a failed relationship or the end of an otherwise-productive collaboration. In light of that, then, it would be worth our time and effort to examine our beliefs and the motivations of others to determine what’s really going on. If we fail at this, we may lose something that we can never get back, and what a tragedy that would be.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Determining What Has Value

We all have our priorities when it comes to determining what we believe has value. But what exactly are those determinations based on? Do they arise from rigorously scrutinized considerations, or do they stem from arbitrary, capricious, cursory examinations? Are they decided upon by consensus, or do they vary from one individual to another? And are they fixed or flexible, changeable as needs arise or forever rigid? Those are among the questions examined in the quirky and thought-provoking new comedy-drama, “The Fall of the American Empire” (“La chute de l’empire américain”) (web site, trailer).

Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry) struggles to figure out what to do with his life. The soft-spoken, compassionate, thoughtful thirtysomething possesses a Ph.D in philosophy yet is reconciled to working as a delivery man for a Montreal courier company. As much as he values his education and intelligence, he also sees it as a curse. Knowledge, he has concluded, has become an underappreciated commodity, one that few people and organizations value. He laments that it can’t be put to a more useful and meaningful purpose. He thus anguishes endlessly about his underutilized abilities, stuck in a job in which he’s painfully underemployed and woefully underpaid.

What’s worse, though, is that Pierre-Paul’s ennui has begun to spill over into other areas of his life. His girlfriend, Linda (Florence Longpré), a single mother who works as a bank teller, has grown tired of his insipid, pathetic, rhetorical hand-wringing. And, after a year-and-a-half of dating with apparently little romance and no clear sense of direction for a potential future together, she has come to see him as a lost, pitiable soul, someone on whom she wants to waste no more time.

When Linda walks out on Pierre-Paul, he now has even less going for him in his life. He gets some personal satisfaction working at a soup kitchen for the homeless, especially when he’s able to help out his friend Jean-Claude (Vincent Leclerc), one of the charity’s regulars. But is this enough to fill the painfully obvious void that’s consuming this increasingly lost soul? After all, the only things he has to go back to after his volunteer pursuits are a small apartment and a job he abhors. He truly longs for a life-changing opportunity that will enable him to put his intellect, talents, outlook and idealism to use for fulfilling a greater and more benevolent purpose. Little does he know, however, that such an opportunity is about to come his way.

While making his delivery rounds, he arrives at one of his stops just as a robbery is taking place. Two thugs, Jacmel (Patrick Emmanuel Abellard) and Chenier (Kémy St-Eloy), are caught up in a gun fight outside the business as Pierre-Paul seeks cover out of harm’s way. Hiding amidst a flurry of bullets flying around him, he witnesses both crooks get shot. Chenier is killed while Jacmel is injured and runs away. But, as this incident goes south, something unexpected happens with the potential to change the unwitting onlooker’s life: Both criminals drop the huge duffel bags they’re carrying, each stuffed with enormous stacks of cash grabbed during the robbery. When Pierre-Paul sees the loot staring back at him, he’s faced with a big decision: Does he turn it over to the authorities who are racing toward the crime scene, or does he grab the money for himself? With approaching sirens blaring, he must act fast: Will he listen to his conscience and choose the moral path, or will he nab this unforeseen bounty for himself?

With nary a moment’s hesitation, Pierre-Paul snatches the oversized sports bags and stuffs them inside his delivery van, hastily hiding them behind packages yet to be delivered. It would seem the discontented intellectual’s moment has at last come. But now what?

Within moments, police arrive, and the investigation begins, led by Detectives Carla McDuff (Maxim Roy) and Pete La Bauve (Louis Morisette). They suspect Pierre-Paul knows more than he’s saying, but they can’t prove anything. Meanwhile, as the authorities interrogate the courier, an unexpected visitor arrives on the scene, mobster Vladimir François (Eddy King). It seems the money stolen from the business belonged to him, stored there for safekeeping since he believed it to be an innocuous location that no one would suspect as a hiding place. Word of this soon makes its way to Pierre-Paul, which prompts him to wonder what to do with the cash – and whether he’s suddenly wanted by both the cops and the mob.

After the detectives allow Pierre-Paul to leave the crime scene, he stops at home to drop off the cash, but he’s now faced with two questions: (1) How is he going to store the money? (After all, given the size of the stash, there isn’t a mattress large enough to hide it all); and (2) What is he now going to do with his newfound fortune? (Having never had so much wealth before, he hasn’t taken the time to consider what to do with it). For the time being, he decides to rent a storage locker and stash most of the money there, leaving only a fraction of the cash on hand while he decides what to do.

In the wake of all this excitement, Pierre-Paul realizes he needs to relax and blow off some steam. He decides to treat himself to a little fun. With Linda out of his life, he hires an escort. But the woman he contacts is no ordinary streetwalker; given his intellectual sensibilities, he meets up with a seemingly erudite call girl, Aspasie (Maripier Morin) – allegedly the most expensive in Montreal – whom he finds online. Like most naïve first-time johns, and considering his particular needs for stimulation of a nature other than just physical, he’s instantly smitten with his sophisticated new acquaintance, becoming the latest victim of an ensnaring “romantic” cliché almost as old as his companion’s profession. But, somewhat unexpectedly, Aspasie (whose real name is Camille Lafontaine) takes a genuine liking to her young client, one that seems to be based on more than a business transaction.

Underemployed philosophy Ph.D Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry, left) and his newfound “companion,” Aspasie (Maripier Morin, right), seek to make the most of an unexpected financial windfall while being pursued by both the mob and police in director Denys Arcand’s latest comedy-drama, “The Fall of the American Empire” (“La chute de l’empire américain”). Photo by Van Royko, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Despite this diversion, however, Pierre-Paul is still left with the question of what to do with his money. But a solution comes from seemingly out of the blue while watching TV. He learns that former high-profile mobster Sylvain “the Brain” Bigras (Rémy Girard) is about to be released from prison, ready to fulfill his intention of going straight by becoming a professional financial planner, a profession he trained for while taking classes during his incarceration. Given his unique skills, Pierre-Paul believes the Brain has just the qualifications he needs to help him out.

Pierre-Paul arranges to meet the newly released ex-con, but he’s initially uninterested in sharing his expertise with someone who appears to be involved in something way over his head. However, with a little convincing, Bigras relents and agrees to help the witless neophyte. That happens when the Brain realizes he can pool his own long-hidden funds with those of his new client to create a sheltered financial structure that no one can touch (or even trace), one put together with his newly acquired knowledge of the mechanics of international funds transfers. The unlikely duo soon joins forces with Aspasie and one of her former clients, Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), an allegedly respected but oily financial front man, to develop the scheme further. But, with McDuff, La Bauve and François all on their tail, they must act fast to stay ahead of them. And, when others become involved in the fray, like Pierre-Paul’s ex-girlfriend and the surviving thief who originally stole the money, the scenario threatens to spin out of control.

How everything plays out will keep everyone guessing right up to the end, especially when it’s revealed how the stash actually ends up being put to use. Money can indeed be employed for truly creative purposes, especially when the right intents are behind them. But just getting to that point may be the biggest challenge of all.

Former mobster-turned-financial planner Sylvain “the Brain” Bigras (Rémy Girard) reluctantly agrees to help a witless client hide a huge stash of illegally acquired cash in the insightful new French-Canadian comedy-drama, “The Fall of the American Empire” (“La chute de l’empire américain”). Photo by Van Royko, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Like many of his other films, French-Canadian director Denys Arcand’s latest offering presents a richly layered tale, one in which there’s much more going on than meets the eye. On the surface, the picture tells the story of a crime caper peppered with colorful characters in unusual circumstances. However, upon closer inspection, this offering is loaded with social and philosophical themes, ideas whose relevance in contemporary society couldn’t be more pertinent.

In this film, the director asks us to examine which commodities we believe have value – and which ones don’t. This is an exercise aimed at getting us to take a good hard look at what we believe to be most important and, regrettably, what’s easily disposable.

At the heart of this story is something on which nearly all of us place considerable value – money. But what is money really? In purely practical terms, it’s just paper, yet, for whatever reason, we imbue it with incredible power that makes it supremely important. So what’s the real source of the power here – the material on which the currency is printed or the belief we put behind what that paper represents? It’s almost unthinkable that it would be the paper; after all, the cost of the raw material that goes into creating it is minimal. Moreover, the cost of printing a $5 bill is virtually identical to that of printing a $100 bill, so what really accounts for such a wide discrepancy in their value? From this, it would thus seem that the money’s perceived value comes from the beliefs we hold about it, particularly when it comes to what we believe it can help make possible.

When Pierre-Paul acquires his newfound stash of cash, the previously disempowered courier suddenly finds himself in possession of a physical commodity that symbolically represents the notion of power and value. The paper itself isn’t worth much, but what it can enable, thanks to the belief power we’ve put behind it, can be used for truly transformative purposes.

Montreal police detectives Carla McDuff (Maxim Roy, left) and Pete La Bauve (Louis Morissette, right) doggedly track down a huge stash of cash lost in a high-profile robbery in “The Fall of the American Empire” (“La chute de l’empire américain”). Photo by Van Royko, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

But what purposes should we use such a resource for? Well, that depends on what we think it should be used for. Should we use it for self-serving purposes, such as lining our own pockets? Or would it better utilized by funneling it into altruistic pursuits, such as helping the downtrodden? That’s where the question of value once again comes into play.

If a more equitable distribution of wealth would benefit society as a whole, then why aren’t we doing it? That’s a tricky question. For instance, many of us may want to see this result but don’t know how to accomplish it. We may have given away our power to a limited few who have taken advantage of us and prevented us from reaching this goal. Or we may not have thought creatively enough in coming up with solutions that make the distribution possible.

If we want to achieve such an objective, we need to devise workable solutions. We essentially need to find the means to match the message, something that calls upon us to fuse practicality with idealism. Pierre-Paul, for example, is looking for an opportunity to put his abilities to use, one that reflects his intellect, his compassion and his desire to see a better world. As an underpaid, underemployed courier, though, there’s little he can do. He needs the means to better situate himself to fulfill his goals.

This is something that suddenly becomes entirely possible when an unexpected windfall drops in Pierre-Paul’s lap. When he is confronted by this stash of cash, he has a choice to make – one that would be “ethical” but would return the money to a corrupt system or one that could be channeled into worthwhile pursuits, including those that have the potential to benefit those who have been cut out of society’s blessings. He may not be fully aware of the implications at the time he makes his choice, but, when he instinctively grabs the loot, almost without thinking, something in his intuition must have been telling him that this godsend will eventually allow him to achieve his dreams – even if it would seem to violate the morals and ethics he’s been led to believe must be unquestioningly supported, no matter how corrupt the system is that espouses such notions.

Underemployed philosophy Ph.D Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry, left) and his former girlfriend, Linda (Florence Longpré, right), reach an uneasy truce to work together while setting up a secure, untraceable overseas financial structure in director Denys Arcand’s latest release, “The Fall of the American Empire” (“La chute de l’empire américain”). Photo by Van Royko, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

By following up this action with the connections he forges with the Brain, Aspasie and Wilbrod, Pierre-Paul thus gives himself the practical means for pursuing what he’d like to do. He thus fuses the elements needed to make the marriage of message and means possible.

Of course, we might not always get things right on our first attempts. Indeed, we may make some serious – even potentially criminal – missteps along the way. But we always have an opportunity to redeem ourselves, to make amends for our past mistakes. Such do-overs allow us to begin anew, and so it is with many of the characters in this film, such as the Brain, Aspasie and even Pierre-Paul. They get a chance to renew themselves and embark on lives in new and improved realities.

At the same time, those who have wronged others – in this case those who are members of a greedy establishment – run the risk of seeing the consequences of their actions coming back to haunt them in big ways, often snared by their own means and methods. Some might call this karma or poetic justice, but mostly this is the impact of responsibility coming home to roost. When we seek to achieve our objectives at any cost, with no regard for the fallout that may accompany those efforts, we can experience a painful lesson. But, as noted above, the possibility of redemption always looms, too, making this yet another of the destinations we visit while on our journeys of personal discovery.

True to his signature style, Arcand’s latest offers his incisive insights into the human condition in much the same way as in his previous efforts. While the film is a bit talky at times and likely tells you more than you ever wanted to know about international monetary transfers, the picture has a heart and serves up more than a few pointed observations about ethics, greed and society’s recognition (or lack thereof) of what really has value. This beautifully filmed offering shows off Montreal in its best light while delivering a colorful tale of personal evolution, particularly when it comes to enlightening us on how to avail ourselves of opportunities when they come along. Although not for everyone, this fun, witty and observant release is a pleasant way to spend a few enjoyable hours at the show.

It’s been said that “Money is the root of all evil.” But is that true? What about those instances where it’s directed toward doing good in the world? Is that wrong? I’m sure the beneficiaries of such courtesy, consideration and kindness wouldn’t think so. In the end, money, like our beliefs, is a tool, one that can be put to either beneficial or destructive uses, depending on the intents underlying its application. Let’s hope we choose wisely.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.