Monday, January 28, 2019

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Malello, Lucy Boynton
DIRECTOR: Bryan Singer/ Dexter Fletcher
GENRE: Biopic

I have to admit I've never been a huge Queen fan. A lot of their stuff seemed to straddle the line between pop/rock and pretentiousness. Rock and opera should avoid each other like any two people named Trump and Pelosi. But there's no denying that "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," and a few of Queen's other songs are forever classics. 

I also knew the story of Freddie Mercury would be an intriguing one, and as a music connoisseur it was one I should familiarize myself with. So even if I didn't care for the movie, I'd at least come away a little more knowledgeable. As it turns out, I was lifted and uplifted by the film's driving energy.

What Bohemian Rhapsody may lack as far as compelling story telling is made up for by the pounding tsunami of sound as the Queen classics are sprinkled liberally throughout (the hits just keep on comin!)--and, of course, the character study of Freddie Mercury--their guiding star--that is at the heart of the film.   

We see a little bit of Freddie's humble beginnings. He was born into a poor family from India. There is the developing conflict with his straight-laced father, who urges him to embrace good thoughts, good words, good deeds. Some quick shots of Mercury working as an airport baggage handler, and then its on to the pivotal moment of his life--being at the right place at the right time when he encounters a band that had just lost its lead singer. He is able to sell himself enough for them to give him a shot. 

As this is a PG-13 rated film, I knew that Freddie's bisexuality would be treated more or less with kid gloves. Indeed, it's his heterosexuality which is emphasized in the beginning, the ongoing love of his life being Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). A few discreet male on male kisses later in the film, and the rest is pretty much left for us to fill in the blanks.

Rami Malek gives a virtuoso performance. He has all of Mercury's strutting moves down pat. There is one little thing. In the first half of the film he's got long hair, and his appearance and mannerisms make him more of a dead ringer for Mick Jagger than Freddie Mercury. (See if you notice it.) Later, when his locks are shorn and the mustache is added, he is an uncanny double for his subject.

What we come away with in the end is a portrait of a sensitive soul lost between two worlds, who never feels that he quite fits in anywhere. And of course the music. The climax is a faithful recreation of Queen's triumphant appearance at Live Aid in 1985, and it will knock your support stockings off. 

Sooo...unlike The Favourite...and unlike Vice...and maybe one or two others...Bohemian Rhapsody actually deserves it's Oscar nomination for Best Picture. 

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

...And Rami Malek deserves his Best Actor nomination. I was unfamiliar with this 37-year-old from Los Angeles, who won an Emmy in 2016 for his role in the hit TV series "Mister Robot." Wow. Was I ever impressed with Malek's portrayal of music superstar Freddy Mercury. His cavorting on and off stage was painfully real. So were his lonely moments. And I applaud the casting of his bandmates who looked amazing like the real ones – as seen during the end credits.

This movie left me feeling high. Almost as if I'd actually attended Bob Geldof's Live Aid concert. I clapped my hands and stamped my feet, sang along with "We Are The Champions." (And I wasn't the only one in the movie theater doing it, either.) It's so refreshing in this season of slow-moving (Roma), politically charged (Vice), comic bookish (Black Panther) films to be swept away by a musical blast from the past. I had no idea how many hits this legendary group had produced. And I have to give high marks to screenwriter Anthony McCarten who let us see how "Queen" (or any rock group, really) handled their rise to fame – from a tight knit family to four separate egos vying for creative control.

Did Malek do his own vocals? Because lip-synching is always on some level noticeable,Malek's voice is mixed with Canadian singer Marc Martel (a well known impersonator of Freddy Mercury) to create Mercury's incredible vocal range. So it is Malek, but not entirely. In all the concert sequences, it's pure unadulterated (newly-released) Queen.

I really enjoyed this one.

Grade: A
  

Friday, January 25, 2019

THE FAVOURITE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS:  Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman
DIRECTOR: Yorgos Lanthimos
GENRE: Drama/ Dark Comedy

It's the early 18th century. England's Queen Anne, in declining health--mentally and physically--reigns during the time of the War of the Spanish Succession. Against this backdrop, we have the story of three women: The queen (Olivia Colman), her close friend and confidante Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Sarah's cousin who has fallen on hard times and is looking to land a gig as a nanny or a maid at the palace. 

Sarah starts out as the queen's favourite (I'll stick with the British spelling!) She calls a lot of the shots for the ailing monarch (think Dick Cheney in the Bush White House). But Abigail isn't the sweet thing she comes off as in the beginning. Her ambition is to take over Sarah's position as teacher's pet, and that involves servicing the queen in every way you can imagine. 

 Thus begins the subtle skulduggery and behind the scenes machinations as the two women try to undermine and discredit one another, and they will stop at nothing. The wigged-out (pardon the pun) men of the royal court, who pop up here and there, ineffectively attempting to advise the capriciously cranky queen on affairs of state, are essentially props here as the gals take center stage.

The Favourite could alternately be entitled Lifestyles Of The Rich And The Severely Overdressed. It does nothing to disprove my theory that British period dramas exist only to keep costume designers from starving. But don't let the era and all the pretentious get-ups fool you into thinking this is some kind of stuffy historical drama. It's a bawdy and strangely savage movie. The women have ducks thrown into the air and then they shoot them,   just for target practice. Not in one but in multiple scenes. In another scene a pet rabbit is nearly crushed underfoot, deliberately, by one of the petulant primary characters. (What's the point? To reinforce in our minds that these women are cold-hearted and essentially dead inside? We don't need to be hit over the head with the obvious). There are multiple instances of people puking. Boobs, butts, and bitchery. This is what gets nominated for Best Picture at The Oscars in 2019. 

And though The Favourite is set in the 1700s, it effectively gets its contemporary feminist slant of strong women and subservient men across. That's the ticket these days. 

This too shall pass.

 Are commendable performances from Colman, Weisz and Stone, along with some gorgeous cinematography enough on their own to make The Favourite a great film? I think not, old chap. 

Grade:  C

JILL'S TAKE

The best thing about The Favourite are the myriad bunny rabbits hopping about, pooping on every lavish carpet in the Queen's chambers. I kept pitying the film crew having to clean up after them. Yes the sets were breath-takingly opulent and, yes, the women were bona fide bitches. But "Downtown Abbey" it ain't. (I happened to love that series!)

I can't understand why this piece of British history (did the Queen really keep pet rabbits?) has garnered such favor with The Academy. Then, again, I disagree with all the nominations Roma has received, too. It felt painfully long and drawn out. And the woo-woo rabbit-ridden ending left me cold.

Since all three female actresses have been nominated, I guess I'll have to credit them with good performances. Especially Olivia Colman who played the demanding and demented queen to screechy perfection. But who needs to be yelled at for one hour and fifty-nine minutes? Not me.

Grade: D -



Wednesday, January 16, 2019

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins
GENRE: Drama/ Romance

It's a rare thing when we can cite the music as being the transformative element in a film, but Nicholas Britell's exquisite and mesmerizing score is what turns If Beale Street Could Talk from what might have been just a good, hard-hitting, and poignant drama into a poetic work of art. And when we use poetic to describe a film, we're ascending into the rarefied air. 

Yes, there's a love story at the heart of this film, but it's no fairy tale. Far from it. If Beale Street Could Talk--based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin-- dramatizes the endemic injustice in America of blacks being railroaded and locked up for crimes they didn't commit.

Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) are a young unmarried couple living in Harlem during the early seventies who are clearly in love, and seemingly have been since childhood. The opening scene of the film, which slam-bang portends its overall brilliance, is a doozy. Tish's family invites Fonny's family over to hear the announcement that Tish is going to have    Fonny's baby. Director Barry Jenkins uses the ebb and flow of circumstances and emotion effectively not only in this scene but throughout the entire film--as what starts out as a celebratory occasion suddenly turns ugly. 

But love will carry this couple through, as flashbacks and flash forwards show them in their first intimate encounter (tastefully done yet quite realistic), the joy of searching for and finding their first apartment together, and finally the incident which leads to Fonny being misidentified by a rape victim and put behind bars. 

How does a family with limited means work to reverse a miscarriage of justice in a climate of racism in America that has never been eradicated but just keeps morphing into new forms like a virus? That's  your central theme, and it's played out in heartbreaking fashion as we hope against hope along with Tish, who never gives up hope, and the two families, who will resort to doing whatever it takes to obtain the finances to support their effort.   

Here is where Regina King as Tish's mother shines, as she tracks down the elusive rape victim and tries to get her to recant her story. It's high drama, but it never feels melodramatic. It just feels achingly real.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the one glaring turn off for me, and that's the incessant cigarette smoking by nearly all the central characters. It's almost as annoying watching it as it would be to be in the presence of someone blowing smoke in your face. I don't know if director Jenkins was thinking this would enhance the grittiness or the authenticity of his story--but I looked up some stats and the smoking rate among whites and blacks in the U.S. is essentially the same, at around 15 percent, so having all these prolific puffers seemed like overkill. If you want to engender sympathy for a character, don't give him dirty habits. That aside, I think If Beale Street Could Talk has a good shot at being one of the nominees for Best Picture at The Oscars in February.    

Grade:  A -

JILL'S TAKE
(
Well, well, well. I never quite know how Tim will react to a film we choose to review. And since it is his blog, I always read his opinions before adding my own so we don't repeat ourselves. All I can say about this film is "I concur." It felt so real that I often thought I was watching a documentary. Forget about Romeo and Juliet or Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, this couple's love for one another was brilliantly acted and completely believable.

It is not an easy tale to watch. The injustices of being black in America dominate If Beale Street Could Talk and force the viewer to look at how little has changed since Baldwin wrote this story. 

I too loved that family scene Tim mentioned at the beginning of the film, as it showed how intolerant blacks can be toward each other. (Intolerance doesn't choose sides.)

My two gripes (very minor ones):  I was confused by the title since the story takes place in Harlem not Beale Street; and Fonny getting a life sentence for allegedly raping a Puerto Rican girl seemed like overkill.   

If Stephan James and Kiki Layne, the two star-crossed lovers, don't earn Oscar nods, I'll rip up my ticket to the Academy Awards Ceremony. (Not that I actually have one!)

Grade: B++




Thursday, January 10, 2019

ROMA (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron
GENRE: Drama

Before viewing Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971--where Mexican government agents murdered 120 student protesters. Otherwise you will see what's going on, but you won't know the reasons behind it.

Roma--based on director Cuaron's childhood memories--follows the daily life of Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker for an upper middle class family in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood. It will require some patience on your part during the first half of the film, because it's slow, but the payoff is in spades later on. There are kids running around being kids, a grandmother, and a neglected spouse (Marina De Tavira) pining for her husband who is off enjoying the company of his mistress while telling the family he's on a business trip. 

What is remarkable here is that this family seems so utterly real...in fact it's hard to believe that any of the kids cavorting and jousting with one another, Cleo going about her daily chores, and a spirited dog who craps all over the place were rehearsed. For good reason, as Cuaron acknowledges that for many of the scenes, nobody had scripts (especially the dog.)

Cleo has a very scary boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a radical martial arts enthusiast who gets her pregnant and then disappears, though he will figure in prominently during the latter portion of the film's recreation of the turbulent student revolt and the government's violent criminal reaction. The climactic scene, where Cleo is called upon to be the heroine, is jaw-droppingly powerful.  

It is Cuaron's masterful touch with both the scenes of mundane family activity and the events occurring on a grand scale with a "cast of thousands" that sets Roma apart not only in the foreign movie category at The Golden Globes-- where it won for Best Director and Best Foreign Film--but I dare say against any other film out there. 

Expect more recognition for Roma at The Oscars. It's currently playing in theaters and streaming on Netflix. See it on the big screen if you can!

Grade: A
  

JILL'S TAKE 

My advice? Never see a movie after watching an awards show. Your expectations are bound to cause disappointment. Such was the case with me and Roma. After so much high praise from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), I assumed I'd be seeing the likes of La Dolce Vita or The Bicycle Thief. Well at least it was in black and white.

A second piece of advice? Never watch a movie with subtitles on a 41" TV. (Especially after you've had a big dinner and are feeling sleepy!)

I was not awed by Roma. Noisy kids and shitting dogs do not, for me, make a cinematic masterpiece. Granted, the scene where Cleo rescues her charges from drowning is worth the price of admission. As is the frontal nude scene of her worthless boyfriend demonstrating his skill as a martial artist. But lordy, lordy. This movie has the speed of a somnolent sloth!  It was all I could do to stay awake until the end credits. Of course, I should have known Roma would be slow-moving based on the endless water-splashing opening credits.

Sorry, folk. Not my cup of pulque.

Grade: C -
  

Thursday, January 3, 2019

VICE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrel
DIRECTOR: Adam McKay
GENRE: Biopic

Dick Cheney still stands as one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history. He championed the invasion of Iraq, the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp where prisoners classified as enemy combatants had no legal rights to prove their guilt or innocence, and the form of torture known as waterboarding, which was illegal under international law. For starters. He never met a situation where the end didn't justify the means. 

It's all covered, and so much more ad nauseam, in Vice, Adam McKay's overly long biopic on the life and times of our purportedly most influential vice president. I don't think it will win him any new converts.

We start with Cheney's wild days as a hard drinking youth and follow his rise to power as a congressional intern, White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and as "shadow president" in the second Bush administration. A straight retelling of factual events can be pretty dry stuff, and Vice is cleverly constructed enough to make that more palatable, with a false ending in the middle and a mysterious narrator whose identity is shockingly revealed in the latter part of the film.

It kicks into another gear with the dramatic and jarring events of 9-ll, with just enough actual news footage inserted to make it uncomfortably real again. Illustrating how Cheney was allegedly calling 
a lot of the shots on that day, with a hapless George W. Bush doing what we remember him best for--deferring to greater minds to take him firmly by the shoulders and steer him in the right direction, like a kid playing pin the tail on the donkey.

Christian Bale, as the younger and the older Cheney, has the voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms down to a T...but it's carried to the point of where it becomes more of a caricature than an acceptably believable portrayal. Sam Rockwell, on the other hand, totally nails George Bush in all of his clueless glory. Steve Carrel, who doesn't look anything like then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is always fun to watch, regardless. Amy Adams gives the strongest performance of the bunch as Cheney's no-nonsense wife, Lynn.

Watching Vice is like reliving a bad dream you had at the turn of the millennium. A cast of good actors making you forget, but only for a short moment, the bad political actors and the scary dream we are living through at the turn of a new year. 

Grade :  B -


JILL'S TAKE

Here we go again....I feel like the Movie Grinch of 2018. (Oops, I meant 2019.) Yet another film that I really didn't enjoy. In fact, I detested it.  Granted the subject matter calls for more talk than action.  And the main character isn't exactly warm and fuzzy.  (I kept wondering how the real Dick Cheney feels about this less-than-flattering biopic.) But the script was a mishmash of fast forwards and flashbacks that made my head spin.  Yes, it covers many many years of political shenanigans--if war and 9-11 can be described as such. But unless you are a history buff, it gets tiresome.  I was far more intrigued by how the Cheneys reacted to their daughter being gay than how corrupt our political leaders are.  

I only wish I could have edited this overly long, overly tedious film.  It's being touted as a sure-fire Oscar contender but I have my doubts.  Maybe for Christian Bale's makeover. Or Steve Carrel's. And Sam Rockwell not only looks like George Dubya, he captures his aww shucks personality perfectly.    

I admit that writing a movie about such an unemotional character isn't easy. We already know about Dick Cheney and his misdeeds.  So keeping the audience engaged in his life story is next to impossible.  And whether the writer tries to distract us with bombs blowing up bodies, or Lynn and Dickie cuddling up in bed, reciting lines from Shakespeare, I felt totally manipulated.

I was really looking forward to seeing Vice which made the actual experience that much more disappointing.  But maybe you won't feel that way....


Grade: D