Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hollander, Mike Meyers, Priya Blackburn. Written by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Bryan Singer.

I had pretty low expectations going into Bohemian Rhapsody. I worried that it would overly prettify Queen’s surviving members’ stories or overly dramatize Freddy Mercury’s sexual preferences and his related death. There was plenty of the former, and not too much of the latter, and since there’s a decent amount of emphasis on the music itself, the movie feels pretty good.

The movie follows the biopic formula, and I suppose that’s a good thing. For those of us unfamiliar with the band’s origins and its musical ambitions, it’s enlightening to see how members of the band worked together to create the sound and feel of their music, how (for example) A Night at the Opera began with the concept of rock and roll performed with the scope, scale, and aspirations of opera, and how the band moved into a farm for the recording sessions.

One recurring theme is that Queen was a band. In one early scene, an interviewer begins a question with, “As the leader of Queen—” only to be cut off quickly and sharply by Mercury, who insists, “I am not the leader of Queen; I am only the lead singer.” Other scenes show individual creative contributions by bassist John Deacon, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May. For a rock and roll geek like me, this is the good stuff, if the content can be believed.

This is where I have my biggest issue. Some of the dialogue, especially in scenes where the band is talking about itself, feel like promo videos for Queen albums. Here’s some made-up dialogue that’s not in the movie, but it could very well have been.

May (to a record label executive): The first single must be “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Exec: The song is six minutes long! Radio won’t play it!
Deacon: They’ll play it because we’re Queen.
Mercury: They’ll play it because it’s beautiful.
Taylor: And if you don’t like it, we’ll leave right now!
Mercury: And you’ll forever be known as the guy who let Queen get away!

The band takes several such moments to demonstrate how rock and roll it was, how Queen wasn’t just Freddie Mercury and some guys, and how its members always knew what they wanted. The overall feel is horribly manufactured as if to present Queen in its best possible light.

And that’s not rock and roll at all.

My second-biggest issue is the issue I have with most musical biopics. There’s just not enough of the band creating the music, and there’s not enough of the band performing the music, although there’s a good amount of the latter. Not once do we see the band perform a song in its entirety, not even the track whose title is the movie’s. This is a crime. The film does get big points for showing us an enormous chunk of the Live Aid performance, but again: it would have been nice there to experience at least one whole song the way the audience experienced it.

That music, though, is as sweet as ever. If you love Queen, it’s impossible not to leave feeling good.

69/100
7/10

Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen (2018)
Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eliza González, Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger. Written by Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

It was difficult to ignore the trailer for Welcome to Marwen. It promised Steve Carell in his best, outsider mode, which I’ll sign up for every time. Robert Zemeckis is always a coin toss for me, but he did make several films I like very much (I have not joined the anti-chorus of haters for Forrest Gump ,a movie I still love) so I try to set my sights low before sitting down with my Junior Mints. In some ways my expectations were greatly exceeded. In a few ways they were a bit too high.

Carell plays Mark Hogancamp. We meet him three years removed from a vicious beating that wiped all his memories away. Suffering from extreme PTSD, Mark has learned to deal with his demons by creating a small, WWII-era Belgian town named Marwen. Marwen is populated by a G.I. Joe kind of doll who looks like Mark and is named after Mark, plus a half dozen beautiful women dolls, all counterparts of women in Mark’s real life.

Mark creates and enacts elaborate scenarios with his dolls, posing them for photographs coveted by collectors.

The setup is pretty creepy, but there’s some novelty here that make the premise itself mostly work. Most of the credit goes to Carell’s strong, tortured performance, Zemeckis’s audacity, and sympathetic supporting characters who indulge Mark’s eccentricities while keeping him anchored in the real world.

Yet the movie’s greatest novelty, an uncanny animation that brings Mark’s dolls to life, is its greatest weakness. Midway through the film, I silently begged the film to give us less—much less—Marwen and much more Mark. Alas, Zemeckis hits the accelerator hard, and at least half the film has us seeing the real world through Mark’s make-believe dramatizations, and it goes well past tired, into maddening.

Like most metaphors taken too far, Marwen gets cheesy, forced, and ridiculous. Mark is surrounded by people reaching out to him with genuine, human touch, and while it’s fully understandable that he would retreat further into his pretend world as his real world becomes increasingly stressful (in its most brutal sense), by now we get the picture and would much rather see the story from his real friends’ real perspectives.

The hobby shop clerk who sells Mark his dolls is clearly interested in him, liking him as he is, caring enough about him to deal with his damage. His employer patiently reminds him of his work schedule. His new neighbor, a very pretty woman named Nicol, genuinely wants to be Mark’s friend. What is Mark to them? We never really find out.

Instead we get a heavy-handed metaphor worn thin without any sense of the real struggle Mark goes through to put on his best self. We get rising action rising acting rising action climax oh man that’s how you’re going to get us there?

And now a word about Leslie Mann, whom I adore, who plays Nicol. Mann’s voice has a quality I cannot explain but it hits exactly the right nerve for me in a way rivaled only by Mary Steenburgen. I didn’t know she was in this movie until, so deeply in love with her voice was I after a few scenes, I snuck a peak at the movie’s Wikipedia article and saw that it was her. Here she has a head of deep red hair, which may be why I never recognized her, and her voice is quite a bit higher, but it retains a sweetness that all by itself makes this movie worth it to me. I understand this is a unique position, which is why I’m explaining it here. My rating of the film is going to be crazy biased. Emphasis on crazy.

Last month I gave a greatly flawed plot major make-up points for excellent performances in Green Book. The performances here aren’t quite as good and they have much more to make up for. Leslie Mann’s voice makes up for a lot, but not that much.

55/100
5/10

Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, and Liev Schreiber. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman.

There’s a lot to spoil about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so what I’ll say here will not tell you much about it. Still, I think it’s safe to offer a few thoughts in the interest of convincing you it’s worth checking out.

I kept saying holy moly. Leave your pessimism at the box office and meet Spidey where he is: at the crossroads of multiple universes, animated unlike any concept you have about what a comic book superhero movie looks like.

The story may sound like typical teen-angst fodder but it stands out because of what’s going on as the film tells it: multiculturalism, hyper-surreal visuals, and plenty of humor. I can’t believe the filmmakers get away with some of their bizarre decisions, but they get away with them all because once the movie establishes itself as a story where anything can happen, anything happens.

Audaciously imaginative and one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Kid-friendly. Just go.

8/10
81/100

Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner (2018)
Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kevin Pollack. Written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, and Jay Carson. Directed by Jason Reitman.

The Front Runner is Jason Reitman’s film about the candidacy of Gary Hart for the 1988 presidential election. There are a lot of approaches a filmmaker could take for a picture like this. It’s the rise and fall of an intellectual, good-looking senator. It’s the victimization of a young model aspiring to a career in government. It’s the turning point in our national discourse where a politician’s personal life becomes relevant for American voters. Or it’s the moment when American journalists stopped turning a blind eye to politicians’ dalliances and actively reported on them.

Reitman hits that last one, with dramatizations of conversations between publishers, editors, and reporters at the Washington Post and Miami Herald. The decision to pursue a story about Hart’s relationship with his alleged mistress Donna Rice is nothing shy of an identity crisis for everyone involved and for the institution of journalism.

I was confused and annoyed by the director’s decisions in the first half of the film. Some reviewers have called the overlapping dialogue, quick edits, and enormous number of characters Altmanesque, but I’ve never been this confused by an Altman movie. As the film progresses, a few key characters emerge (notably A.J. Parker, a fictional Washington Post reporter played by Mamadou Athie), and the movie becomes a lot less chaotic. I want to see this again to decide if I simply got used to the style or if Reitman deliberately creates an experience that becomes less confusing as the story progresses.

Hugh Jackman is excellent as Hart, and Vera Farmiga, as always, is terrific as well, playing Hart’s wife Lee. I’d never heard of Molly Ephraim, who plays a fictional Hart campaign scheduler and kind of Donna Rice’s handler when things get hot, but she’s an interesting actress in kind of a challenging role.

Although the film has its problems, when it ended I felt I’d come through an amusement park ride, baffling at first but strong and clear at the end, although Reitman seems deliberately to avoid making a statement.  Instead, he presents the moment as important and lets the viewer make the judgment. The film suffers some because of it.

I have a strong bias in favor of Reitman, who is probably one of my two favorite working directors, but I didn’t know he directed this until the end credits rolled. I clapped quietly when it was over, then felt kind of thrilled to see that it was Reitman I applauded.

7/10
71/100

Review: Green Book

Green Book (2018)
Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly. Directed by Peter Farrelly.

The Green Book, I learned early this year, was a directory published in the United States between the 1930 and 1960s, and listed businesses friendly to African Americans. Michael Wilbon, whose parents were from the South, said they didn’t travel home from Chicago without it. I’m disappointed in myself for not being aware of it, but it’s something that kind of hints at why a movie like this still needs to be made in 2018, and it excuses the film’s one major flaw.

Mahershala Ali plays pianist Don Shirley, who embarks on a tour of the Midwest and South with the other musicians in his trio, a white bass player and a white violinist. The record company insists he hire a white driver, someone who can keep trouble away from Shirley on the tour. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Vallelonga, “Tony Lip” to his friends and associates. He’s pretty much a mob-connected goombah whose work history includes “taking care of problems.”

Much of the plot here is predictable in events and tone. If you’re thinking what I thought when I saw the trailer, that this is kind of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, you’re not too far off, and this is the flaw. “Pandering,” “condescending,” and “preachy” came to mind as I tried to figure out my feelings midway through the movie, but none of them really hit the mark. Later, I heard someone refer to it as kind of an After School Special, and that’s it. It feels like it exists to teach me a life lesson.

Yet I just admitted I had no idea the Green Book existed, so how can I blame a film for thinking I should know about it? It doesn’t change my feeling that this tone is a huge flaw, but it softens it a bit.

What really redeems the film is the fantastic acting by Ali and Mortensen. Each is completely unrecognizable, painting his character with a fine brush, as compared to the sledgehammer offered by much of the plot. There is one heavy-handed Don Shirley monologue that in a lesser actor’s hands could be groan-inducing, but is instead heartbreaking. Shoot, even someone like Denzel Washington, who is by no means a lesser actor, would likely elicit groans here. Instead, Ali presents a lifetime of vulnerability and alienation in a short minute to his tough-guy companion and it’s an amazing thing to see.

Give some credit to the writers who, in one very tricky moment, turn Frank Vallelonga into the guy the film wants us to believe he is. “The world is a complicated place,” Franks says, and somehow it’s exactly right for Frank, for Don, and for the audience. A moment of gentle grace in a film that often has trouble finding it.

The acting is so superb that it makes the movie quite a bit better than it should be. The National Board of Review named Green Book the best film of the year. I can’t go that far, but it is the rare movie that rises above its script and becomes something special on the strength of its excellent acting.

8/10
80/100

Review: A Star is Born (2018)

A Star is Born (2018)
Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay. Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters. Directed by Bradley Cooper.

It was seventeen years between Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland, twenty-two years between Garland and Barbra Streisand, and now forty-two years between Streisand and Lady Gaga as the titular star in A Star is Born. I mention this only because I’m thinking about the disconnect I felt with the music in the 1954 version and about how much I enjoyed the music in this 2018 version. Some stories deserve to be retold in ways that connect to their intended audiences, and maybe this is one.

Some people say once a film has achieved cultural icon status, there’s no point in remaking it, but I’m not one of these people. Art is consumed, but it is also created, and its creation is most often where the magic and beauty are, and if we didn’t all feel this way we would be stuck with one interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and one version of “All Along the Watchtower.” The world would be a poorer place.

Is the world a richer place with this third remake of A Star is Born? It’s too early to tell, but it’s already spawned one hit single (“Shallow”) and Oscar buzz for its stars. Of the four films, it has the best music and possibly the best acting, and if anyone in the cast wins an acting Oscar it will be a first: Gaynor and Fredric March lost to Louise Rainer and Spencer Tracy. Garland and James Mason lost to Grace Kelly and Marlon Brando (The Country Girl and On the Waterfront—they never had a chance!). Neither Streisand nor Kris Kristofferson were nominated for acting awards, but Streisand did win an Oscar for best song.

More important, Gaga and Cooper have something different to say in this telling of the tale. There was a hint of a statement in the 1976 film about rock music and pop, but here it seems to be the central theme. This movie is less about a relationship, less about self-destructive personalities, and more about music and success. This may also be its biggest shortcoming, but the shift in emphasis validates a third remake.

Our falling star is now named Jackson Maine and our rising star is Ally Campana, and their meeting is very much like Esther’s meeting John in 1976. Ally’s singing in a drag show when a drunk Jackson stumbles in. Their connection is nearly immediate, and they get to know each other very quickly. Before they’ve been acquainted 48 hours, Jackson practically forces Ally onstage to perform one of her songs. She’s an immediate hit.

The first half of this movie is better than any half of any of its predecessors. Cooper and Gaga are a joy to watch, crackling with chemistry and sincerity. Cooper adopts a Kristofferson-like look and sound, while Gaga is all kinds of humility and sweetness Streisand couldn’t approach (and possibly only Gaynor equaled). Gaga’s music in real life doesn’t do a thing for me; if it moves me at all it moves me out the door. But here in their early scenes, absent the veneer of a pop show with all its choreography, makeup, costumes, and sheen, we have an actress perhaps less skilled than her opposite but making up for it with utter vulnerability.

Ally on stage is likeable, but her pop music feels fake, and if that weren’t blatant enough a statement, there’s a moment where Jackson offers her a pep talk, saying her audiences will love her if she always effing means what she’s singing.

But as Sam Adams wrote in his critique on Slate, “the further from Jackson’s influence Ally gets, the worse her music becomes.” Cooper’s message may not be as overt as Adams interprets it, but there’s so much in the setup about having a voice, having something to say, and trusting others that he’s definitely on to something.

The worsening of Ally’s music doesn’t necessarily dictate a worsening of the story, but it is the case here, and the second half is a letdown after such a promising setup. Still, my fondness for the film is salvaged by a decision Cooper the director makes near the end, giving us something none of the earlier movies offered, making 2018’s A Star is Born the best of the four.

7/10
77/100

Review: A Star is Born (1976)

A Star is Born (1976)
Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson. Written by Frank Pierson, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion. Directed by Frank Pierson.

This second remake of A Star is Born is the logical bookend for the collection. In 1937, Janet Gaynor played a rising movie star. In 1954, Judy Garland played a rising star of movie musicals. Now in 1976 Barbra Streisand plays a rising star of pop music, this time as Esther Hoffman instead of Esther Blodgett, with Kris Kristofferson as her alcoholic discoverer, John Norman Howard instead of Norman Maine.

“Are you a figment of my imagination,” John asks the audience as he takes the stage for a live performance, “or am I one of yours?” It’s a great line, practically an epitaph, and John repeats it until it moves past poetry and into cliché, a rather excellent statement about self-destructive rock stars and the relationships they find themselves in all the time, according to VH-1 True Hollywood Stories.

Kristofferson provides the movie something the earlier versions didn’t: a male lead with charisma to tug back against the star. John’s rock-star magnetism and rough road-weariness almost make alcoholism sexy, where in 1937 and 1954 all it did was make men weak. I want to say I disapprove of such representation, but it feels appropriate, and it makes for a much better dynamic.

John discovers Esther when, after a big concert, he orders his limo driver to take him to the bar where Esther is performing. From the beginning, she’s confrontational and tough. John’s drunken behavior is messing up her gig, and she tells him so right in the middle of her show. When John takes her home after the show and offers to come up, Esther says no, but he’s welcome to show up for breakfast in a few hours if he’s up for it.

Esther calls the shots in this relationship from the beginning, and while John nudges her onto the stage for her turn in the spotlight, her success, like the successes of the Esther Blodgetts before her, is entirely hers. A star is born; she isn’t made.

The music in this incarnation is far better than in 1954, and although Esther’s songs don’t exactly thrill me, she performs them with a sexy stage presence that makes it difficult to turn away. John’s country-flavored rock has the outlaw vibe of Kristofferson’s own music, and my only complaint about his performance is that we don’t get to hear enough of it. Darn alcoholism.

This remake suffers from some of the same period-related stuff as the first remake. It worships Streisand the actress-singer a bit too adoringly and segues twice into that Seventies staple, the golden sunlight country road long drive music video, complete with lens flares. You see the first one coming a mile away, and the second one is only a surprise because who expects that twice?

Some of the pacing is also misguided. There are a time and place for candlelit bathtub lovemaking scenes, I suppose, although what they are I can’t tell you. Esther’s fights with John also get tiresome and too long. They love each other but it’s a damaged relationship. We get it.

It’s pretty harsh to blame a 1970s film for being too 1970s, but I blame the 1954 film for being too 1950s, and the enduring films of any era should be called out for their excesses. It’s a fine movie with some definite highlights and a few too many self-indulgences.

6/10
67/100

Review: A Star is Born (1954)

A Star is Born (1954)
Judy Garland, James Mason. Written by Moss Hart. Directed by George Cukor.

Esther Blodgett is a singer in a band when she meets Norman Maine, a Hollywood star at the very beginning of his career’s decline. Although this 1954 version is my least favorite of the four A Star is Born films, Esther and Norman’s meeting in this one is the best. Norman’s drunk when he wanders onto a stage where Esther and her band are performing. Rather than let Norman be embarrassed, Esther quickly incorporates him into the act, as if he were part of the show.

It’s an immediate display of grace, sensitivity, talent, smarts, and self-assuredness that characterizes Esther throughout the film. If only such economy in development could be employed the rest of the way.

Instead, we get a three-hour marathon that’s alternately engaging and sloggy. Everything we love about younger Judy Garland is right here, as if the film were written about her, and everything some of us (me) hate about 1950s movie musicals and their showtunes is right here as well, in overwrought, boring excess.

Take out most of the songs, and the film would be a pleasant length, but the filmmakers are determined to make it a comeback tour de force for Garland, who’d been out of movies for four years following the end of her time with MGM.

I’m grateful that this movie holds true to the original in one very important aspect of Esther’s career. Although Norman cracks the door open for Esther’s chance in the movies, Esther kicks it down with her talent, charm, and niceness. She’s pretty, but she’s not that pretty, just like the first Esther Blodgett. Some guy who has the hots for her does her a favor, but Esther makes Esther. It’s the best thing about the film.

When Esther’s first major film premieres for the Hollywood VIPs, we’re treated not only to a few minutes, but what feels like practically the entire movie. It’s misery.

Esther’s career is on the rise, while Norman’s is on a self-destructive path downward. It’s just as interesting as the original except that James Mason’s Norman Maine is not nearly as likeable as Fredric March’s and there’s really very little romantic chemistry between Garland and Mason. They’re much better and much more believable as best friends.

Could have been a great movie if not for all those songs!

6/10
61/100

Review: A Star is Born (1937)

A Star Is Born (1937)
Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander.  Directed by William A. Wellman.

Esther Blodgett is a North Dakota farm girl with dreams of Hollywood stardom.  The original A Star is Born movie pretty much begins with her family thinking she’s crazy for even entertaining the notion.  Her grandma, however, believes that if you’re willing to risk everything in pursuit of your goals, you have to do it.

Esther relocates to Hollywood, where she discovers the supply of young, aspiring actresses far exceeds the demand.  She’s about to give up when a chance encounter with one of filmdom’s legends, Norman Maine, leads to an audition, a minor supporting role, and the lead in her own film.  Soon, her career is on the rise while Norman’s is on the decline.

The Esther-Norman relationship drives the film, because while Esther may have needed Norman’s little boost to get through the door, she’s not at all dependent or needy in her relationship with Norman or in any other relationship.  Norman clearly needs her far more than she needs him. She just really, really loves him, and he doesn’t quite know how to be loved.

In nearly every way, A Star is Born looks and feels like the popular movies of its time, but with a smart, strong woman taking the lead.  Norman is no tragic hero—he’s not a hero at all—but he’s a man loved by a woman. Could his demise have been reversed by a woman like this, or by anyone?  The film seems to think not, and as Norman travels along his beautiful, downward spiral, Esther goes along with him because someone has to try.

Fredric March as Norman and Janet Gaynor as Esther are a great screen couple, and Gaynor’s performance is especially impressive, the best reason to watch this film more than once.

75/100
7/10

Review: Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade (2018)
Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson. Written and directed by Bo Burnham.

Kayla is in the last week of eighth grade, where she’s pretty close to invisible and doesn’t seem to have any close friends. Her classmates vote her “Most Quiet,” which bugs Kayla. She doesn’t think of herself as quiet; she doesn’t want to be quiet. She has things to say, but she can’t seem to interest anyone in hearing her.

Like many young men and women, Kayla spends most of her waking time in front of a screen. A smartphone from which she Snapchats her activity, a MacBook on which she produces YouTube self-help videos for almost no audience. In these videos, she presents herself as socially competent, a positive thinker, an assertive friend. She’s none of these things in real life, and the only person who seems genuinely interested in everything going on with her is the one person she doesn’t want listening: her single-parent father.

Because most of us were eighth-graders millions of years ago, we’re like Kayla’s dad. We see what a bright, interesting, resilient young woman Kayla is. Unlike Kayla, we also see that the young people around her, the popular kids throwing pool parties at their huge homes and the nerdy cousins and the handsome (barely pubescent) jocks all have their own growing pains.

Perhaps they struggle differently, but they struggle as deeply. Kayla doesn’t see that the pool party girl knows her married mom flirts shamelessly with Kayla’s dad, or that the nerdy boy is, by virtue of being the least cool person in the room, perhaps the only person at the party not pretending to be something he’s not, and therefore the one most worthy of her friendship.

Kayla takes a foray or two into the world of grownups (read: high-schoolers) where she sort-of experiences the kind of acceptance she longs for. I don’t know what such excursions were like for anyone else, but I imagine Kayla doesn’t see anything especially unusual.

Which makes Eighth Grade one of the realest looking movies about pre-high-school I’ve ever seen. Performances all around are solid and thoughtful, and the script brilliantly gives grownups (read: people old enough to be Kayla’s parent) one film and young people another, both of them sincere and provocative. This is one of the best movies for younger teens I’ve seen in a very long time.

9/10
92/100