Bohemian Rhapsody

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (uncredited).             Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, and Mike Myers.

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Considering Bohemian Rhapsody unexpectedly and undeservedly won the Golden Globe award for best picture—drama last Sunday, I thought now would be a good to share my thoughts on it.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that does exactly what you expect it will do. It shoehorns Freddie Mercury’s life into a formulaic biopic, and it also showcases enjoyable covers of Queen’s greatest hits in what is basically an extended music video.

In other words, if one enjoys this movie at all, that enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how much they enjoy the music of Queen. And for the record, I’m a pretty big fan of Queen.

At just over two hours in length, Bohemian Rhapsody almost evenly splits its runtime between depicting a fictitious, streamlined creation process behind Queen’s most famous songs and performances of those songs as well as depicting a simplified and highly fabricated summary of Freddie Mercury’s life, focusing on his rise to stardom, his relationship with Mary Austin, his homosexual affairs (but not his heterosexual ones), and his role as a member of Queen.

The half that is essentially a lengthy music video of Queen’s greatest hits is a lot of fun, and it’s almost enough to carry the movie. The half which attempts to provide some portrait of Mercury’s life is a total train wreck.

Rami Malek gives a commanding performance showcasing some impressive vocals, and when singing, he almost sounds like he could be Mercury. The movie makes a big deal about his very noticeable prosthetic teeth, far more noticeable than Mercury’s, and that becomes a tiring distraction when he’s not performing. As the other members of the band, I thought Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joe Mazzello played off Malek passably well, and as trite as the lines about a band being a family are, the dynamics among the four actors are enjoyable enough that it didn’t matter too much that they were all taking a backseat to Malek’s Mercury.

The first big problem is that there is no driving force beyond enjoyment of Queen. The second big problem is that for the extreme liberties the film takes with Mercury’s life, those liberties form a dull, clichéd story about a lower class nobody rising to fame, the fame going to his head, fighting with his friends, then reconciling in the nick of time for a big concert. Most of that never happened. While Mercury (and other members of Queen) recorded some solo albums, the band never broke up, and the Live Aid Concert was not a last-minute plan after a hurried reunion, and I seriously doubt Mercury ever became this insufferable.

The other big problem with the movie is how massively unlikeable Mercury becomes while under the influence of his abusive, manipulative boyfriend Paul (Allen Leech), which takes up a significant portion of the film. I spent much of the film shocked that anyone would portray gay men as pejoratively as this in 2018, especially one who, in the world of the film, is a victim of abuse.

That brings us to the unavoidable issue that Bryan Singer, himself accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, directed the majority of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it seems the film’s unhealthy understanding of sexuality mirrors his own, as can be seen when the film shrugs off Mercury attempting to grope a man as an innocent drunken mistake. Admittedly Singer was fired from the film, but it seems that was because of a scheduling conflict, and he was hired with those counts of sexual assault against him well known.

The very fleeting relationship Freddie has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) at the film’s end hardly makes an impression after the time spent on the toxic relationship between Freddie and Paul. The other major issue with the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality is that it refuses to let him define it. In an early scene Freddie tells his distraught fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that he’s bisexual, and she corrects him that he’s gay. Considering that the film never challenges her, and that it neither acknowledges that Mercury continued to identify as bisexual nor shows any of his affairs with women, calling the film an act of bi-erasure, as some critics have done, is not underserved.

At the same time, the music of Queen is incredibly powerful, having moved and inspired millions, and the film respects and acknowledges that, even as it fails to spin an engaging story around that power. Nonetheless, roughly half of the film is a decent music video with a soundtrack featuring “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” “Love of My Life,” and the title song. And when the film ends with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions,” it makes it easy to focus on the real star of the movie: the music of Queen.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

 

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Mary Poppins Returns

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Rob Marshall.      Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, and Angela Lansbury.

Mary Poppins Returns

When Jurassic World and Star Wars: Rogue One were released a few years ago, both with scores by Michael Giacchino, I noted at the time that as talented a composer as Giacchino is, when his John Williams imitations were placed next to the original John Williams cues, the only thing he accomplished was reminding audiences that he is not John Williams.

Of all the wonderful songs that the Sherman brothers wrote for the original Mary Poppins, one of the least impressionable is probably Jane and Michael’s nanny advertisement: “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition…” When Mary Poppins returns to the Banks’ home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as the title of this sequel fifty-four years later promises she will, that tune plays as underscoring. Save for one scene saturated in nostalgia toward the film’s end, that brief bit of underscoring packs more of an emotional impact than anything else in this film. And as talented as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are, when clips of the Sherman brothers’ songs are placed next to their new songs here, the only thing that achieves is reminding audiences that they are not the Sherman brothers.

Shaiman is unquestionably a good composer, but his best work in musicals has been the raunchy, irreverent satires. While none of his songs here are bad, the style of music he writes well is so different from the simple, light-hearted sincerity of the Sherman brothers’ original songs, and his attempts to imitate that here pale in comparison. It does not help that the plot points of Mary Poppins Returns follow the original almost exactly, and the song placement occurs at the same dramatic points. “Can You Imagine That?” is emphatically not “A Spoonful of Sugar,” nor is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” the equal of “Step In Time,” and “The Lovely London Sky” is no “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” “The Place Where the Lost Things Go” is a good song and one of the two best of the score, but once again it doesn’t hold a candle to its dramatic counterpart, “Feed the Birds.”

The one song that is debatably a better piece of music than its original equivalent is “A Cover Is Not the Book,” which Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) perform within the animated world to the delight of the children. It breaks strongly enough stylistically with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” not to be a reminder of that song, and we get to watch a top-notch vaudeville routine with Blunt and Miranda, complete with the latter rapping and decent dancing from both of them. At the same time, it really stands out musically and dramatically, feeling like it would be more at home in a darkly satiric musical such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

That song segues into one of the few places where Mary Poppins Returns does break with the original with the introduction of a villain, both in the real world and in Mary Poppins’ magical outings. I understand the dramatic purpose of teaching the Banks’ children how to recognize whom and whom not to trust, but it noticeably darkens the tone from the rest of the film, and more problematically it leans too heavily on the over-used cliché of the surprise villain. To be fair, the audience learns of that character’s evil intentions early on, but I literally said to myself the scene before that reveal, “I really hope that character is sincere and not a villain,” knowing that would most likely not be the case.

If it is not clear by now, I absolutely love the 1964 Disney original. It was one of the few VHSs my sisters and I watched repeatedly as children, complete with our own dance routines involving some of the non-fragile living room furniture. With its painstaking care to mirror the original, Mary Poppins Returns is certainly not a bad movie, but it is one that constantly invites comparison to the original, and that is not a comparison it benefits from.

The plot here concerns adults Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), the former who is continuing her mother’s political activism, and the latter who is trying to raise his three kids despite a recently deceased wife (hurrah for another Disney cliché) and the bank threatening repossession of their home, against which he took out a loan. Michael is a disorganized wreck, and he and Jane have both forgotten the wonder and magic of their childhood time with Mary Poppins, becoming preoccupied with the hardships of daily life. (Just for once, I’d love to see a family film where a child grows up and doesn’t forget his/her magical adventures.)

As the magical nanny, Emily Blunt knows better than to imitate Julie Andrews. Her take on the character is slightly less prim and proper, but it is still plausible to call her “practically perfect in every way.” For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Blunt’s characterization, and she once again proves her formidable singing and acting chops. Lin-Manuel Miranda is her screen equal as Jack, a next-generation Bert who accompanies her and the children on their magical adventures.

The trailers spoiled that Dick Van Dyke has a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. While it is easy to guess who he’s playing, I won’t say here. I will say that scene is the only one I truly loved, not just for his appearance, but also for the choice of underscoring and for the lines he references from the original film. It was the one bit of nostalgia which landed perfectly.

As delightful as it was to see Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final scene, the song which accompanies it, “Nowhere to Go but Up,” is such a pale retread of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that the magic was promptly lost for me.

In a time of deconstructions and reboots that subvert their originals, one thing I am grateful for is that Mary Poppins Returns has nothing but affection for the original film, and that affection only serves to increase one’s admiration for the original, even as it reminds you that you would be better off watching the original for the hundredth something time.

 

Personal Recommendation: C+

Content advisory: Mild menace.                                             MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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Mary Queen of Scots

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Josie Rourke.       Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, James McArdle, Jack Lowden, and David Tennant.

Mary Queen

“Better a live rat than a dead lion.” So says a character in one of the best plays and movies about the religious convictions and subsequent conflicts instigated by the English reformation. Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) lives by the conviction “better a dead lion than a live rat.” In 1561, with tensions between Catholics and Protestants still high in Europe, that is a dangerous principle to hold, and for anyone who knows their British history, it is one that cost Mary dearly.

The latest cinematic telling of that history assumes that knowledge, and it opens with brilliant crosscutting between Mary processing to her execution in 1587, Elizabeth I approaching her throne, and then back to Mary’s return to Scotland from France in 1561. The imagery draws a powerful parallel between the two queens, foreshadowing the ensuing conflict with a bookend that suggests their inevitable fates. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in the film such thought is given to the editing, and the rest of the film settles into a fairly rote history lesson, highlighting the main points in the power struggle between England and Scotland, Protestants and Catholics, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.

That is not to say Mary Queen of Scots is a bad history lesson. With grandiose and austere production design, stylish costumes and makeup, a talented cast, and some beautiful cinematography of the Scottish countryside the whole film remains watchable. However, the script and pacing are too pedestrian for the film as a whole to rise to the level of its parts or themes.

This is a strongly feminist take on Mary Stuart and her desire to unify England and Scotland, which I believe is not unusual for films about her. What is unusual is something that I’ve only seen in one other film, The Girl King from 2015. Both these films about strong female monarchs who are Catholic or wish to become Catholic, which functions a rebellion against their patriarchal Protestant courts, not only link Catholicism with protagonists’ feminism but also with their liberalism and anachronistic pro-LGBTQ beliefs.

As bizarre as this may seem, especially in twenty-first century America, I think there are parallels in that comparison worth exploring. In England and Scotland in the latter half of the sixteenth century, Catholics were a persecuted minority, much the same way LGBTQ people were for nearly all of the twentieth century. If a misogynistic patriarchy is the established norm throughout most of Western history, linking that to the dominant religion of a period film’s setting is not an illogical decision—after all, religion has often been abused to rationalize power struggles. Continuing this dramatic license, if a minority religion is then linked to the ways in which a female protagonist challenges said patriarchy, I think there is a dramaturgical basis for the comparisons made here.

However, I think the ideas themselves are more interesting than the film’s handling of them. That above paragraph is probably more thought than any of the filmmakers gave to those themes, as the driving force behind most dramatic choices seems to be: Mary is a progressive rebel.

The recurring motive throughout the movie is that Mary is too independent, and her taking agency of herself like a man threatens the toxic masculinity of the Scottish and English lords. As a contrast with Mary, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) defers to her council and allows herself to be parliament’s pawn. In one of the film’s better exchanges, she tells her chief advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce) that the throne has made her more of a man than anyone else, but she has just embraced the desires of the power-hungry men surrounding her. The woman who acts as an equal with the men is Mary, and she is detested for it.

This power struggle mostly plays out through the determination of the Protestant nobles to prevent England from ever having another Catholic monarch. Overlaying the sixteenth century religious conflict with a contemporary feminist angle creates a parallel between the bigotries of five hundred years ago and those of today, as can be seen in David Tennant’s frothing at the mouth, right-wing fundamentalist portrayal of John Knox.

The one performer who really stands out is Margot Robbie. Her final two scenes walk a perfect balance between Elizabeth’s compassion for her cousin and the role she has embraced in serving her council. It’s probably the best example of the film’s themes of religion and gender roles in a society dominated by men.

I am a huge fan of Ronan, and I firmly believe that she was robbed in losing awards for both Brooklyn and Lady Bird. However, her performance here, while very good, lacks the empathy those other characters had, and as fitting as her austerity is for Mary, it pales next to the range of emotions Robbie achieves in her portrayal of Elizabeth.

As a story of two queens caught between men’s games of political intrigue, the film never quite achieves the urgency and tension it should. Nonetheless, telling this chapter of history solely from their perspectives makes for a thematically fascinating subversion. Since the winners get to write history, the losers of conflicts are often reviled, sometimes rightly and other times not. Mary Queen of Scots was viciously reviled by the English and her subjects during her lifetime while Elizabeth I was beloved. The film’s modern lens invites us to consider the reasons behind that, and it is an idea I appreciated even as I wish the film did more with it.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: An off-screen rape, a bloody assassination, several consensual sex scenes—one rather violent, non-graphic wartime violence, and fleeting nudity.             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

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The Lion in Winter

Many thanks to Darryl Armstrong for inviting me to contribute to Rise Up Daily with a review of one of my favorite movies, which happens to be one of my favorite Christmas movies as well.

 

 

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Chosen: Custody of the Eyes

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Abbie Reese.

One of my favorite memories from my years as a Catholic homeschooled child was the time another family organized a field trip for five homeschooling families to visit a local Benedictine abbey, where we got to spend the day with the cloistered nuns, helping them with their work and attending two of their daily prayers. Some of the kids got to work in the garden, others make butter, some did carpentry. My sister, myself, and one other child got to milk cows. It was a fun day participating in a life that most people don’t get to see.

With a quietly observant camera, director Abbie Reese achieves a similar participation in the life of a Poor Clares community as she documents the novitiate process of Sister Amata over the course of several years. This convent is more cloistered thanthe convent I visited almost twenty years ago, at least as I remember it. The Poor Clares here maintain a spirit of silence, which I don’t remember the Benedictine nuns doing. However, the serenity and joviality of the nuns and their willingness to work with Abbie is nearly identical to the reception we received. In the film, we witness daily chores such as leaf raking, gardening, shoveling snow, and making communion wafers, and we are able to remotely participate in the nuns’ recitation of the rosary and the liturgy of the hours.

The nearest point of comparison is the 2005 documentary about the daily lives of Carthusian monks, Into Great Silence. One main difference between that film and Chosen: Custody of the Eyes is the degree of intimacy with which we can observe the monastic life. Chosen documents the daily routines of the convent through the quite literal perspective of Sister Amata.

Working as the primary cinematographer, the young novitiate used a handheld camera to record her daily activities, providing a journalistic commentary on her spiritual growth and her adapting to life in the convent. If this sounds like a recipe for a cheesy, poorly filmed documentary, it’s not. Sister Amata has an incredible talent for focusing a shot, properly angling the camera, and capturing some beautiful and delightful imagery. She finds a natural way to film the nuns while preserving the anonymity many of them desire.

One thing that Sister Amata mentions is learning the routines of the monastery. In a very early scene she discusses maintaining custody of her eyes while trying to unobtrusively observe the gestures and movements of the other nuns so she can learn from them. She explains staring at anyone would make them the object of one’s attention when sole focus of the nuns’ life of prayer should be God.

Throughout the film Reese, through Sister Amata’s cinematography, employs a similar custody of the camera inviting contemplation on the part of the viewer. With the exception of Sister Amata, we don’t get to know any of the nuns as characters, especially as they are rarely the focus within each scene. Yet, there is still a connection we feel with them from observing their interactions alongside them, and the focus on daily tasks, ritual, and prayer—the actions of the nuns—makes the convent life seem more immediate.

One of the earliest documentaries, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, makes a strong connection between the ideas that the eye is the window to the soul and a camera can be a window to the world. In this documentary, we are given a brief window into a cloistered convent, and it becomes both a record of one woman’s progression through her novitiate and an opportunity for us to reflect on a way of life of which most people are unaware.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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