Tag Archives: movie reviews

Bohemian Rhapsody Movie Review

Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody hits many familiar notes and plot points as it explores the great showman that was Freddie Mercury and his iconic band Queen. There’s strain in his family – his actual one and the one that consists of his band mates. There’s the rise to fame and corruption of it. We have relationships strained to the point of apparent breakdown before reconciliation. Truth be told, many of these story arcs are so well-worn that you may feel you already know the words to them in the screenplay before they’re spoken.

However, it manages to succeed in a couple of meaningful ways. More than most music biopics, Rhapsody often captures the sheer magic that was Mercury. In the performance of Rami Malek, we have more than a fine impersonation (with the assistance of fake teeth). His work here captures the magnetism that Queen’s front man had. Additionally, the film builds its tale around their music that culminates in a Live Aid set that plays like a phoenix rising through the ashes.

We first meet the awkward looking Freddie handling luggage at Heathrow in London. He’s shy to a point, but also brimming with confidence in his vocal abilities as he rightly should. Freddie takes advantage of a lead singer opening in the band Smile and dubs it Queen. The rest, as they say, is history.

Regarding that history, Rhapsody has taken its licks for alternating some of the band’s timeline and events. It’s fair criticism, but the aim here is more of a celebration of the tracks that Mercury, Brian Ferry (Gwilym Lee, who nails the guitarist’s look and stance), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) create. Segments are featured around the title track, “We Will Rock You”, and “Another One Bites the Dust”. Freddie’s relationship with Mary (Lucy Boynton) is chronicled through the creation of “Love of My Life”. She’s his one-time fiancee who realizes his homosexuality perhaps before he does. Yet their bond is stronger than the physical.

The screenplay from Anthony McCarten also delves into the group’s business dealings. There’s a cheeky scene about the release of “Rhapsody” that allows Mike Myers (as a very 1970s looking record exec) to reference his famous head banging scene in Wayne’s World. We see the hangers-on that nearly deep six the band. Contrary to early reports, we do glimpse Freddie’s promiscuity and substance abuse and eventual AIDS diagnosis.

It’s not the movie’s nature to go too far down that rabbit hole. If you are expecting that, you may walk away disappointed. I walked away impressed by its achievement in capturing what made Freddie and his musical family so special. I didn’t walk away sensing any of the well-publicized behind the scenes drama that resulted in director Singer being replaced well into the shooting schedule by Dexter Fletcher. And I certainly left marveling at Malek’s commitment in bringing Freddie to the screen, with the loud and gorgeous sounds of his live performance in front of a billion plus people ringing in my ears.

*** (out of four)

You Were Never Really Here Movie Review

When You Were Never Really Here ends, you may think you just witnessed a lot more gory violence than you actually did. That’s because the character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a universe drenched in depravity. Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature wallows in that world in the same way some of Paul Schrader’s directorial and written works do. Like Taxi Driver, we witness a Big Apple underground that is rotten to the core. Joe even has a nagging dental issue like Nick Nolte did in Affliction. This is not to suggest Ramsay is a knock off artist. Far from it. She’s a talent that saturates this with sadistic style, even if it ultimately lacks in substance. I couldn’t quite escape a feeling that this is Taken for the art house crowd, but it’s well done.

Joe is a former solider who served in Iraq and in the FBI. Quick flashbacks reveal the horrors he’s seen not only there, but in a troubled childhood. He now works in the shadows as a blunt force for hire who rescues trafficked girls. When not on assignment, he cares for his sickly mother (Judith Richards). A state senator (Alex Manette) utilizes his services to track down his young teen daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov).

This latest job leads to some revelations about the individuals behind the abduction. However, the film’s plot is less of a focus than Joe’s mental state while keeping up with it. The traumas of what’s to come have to compete with his stress disorders of prior ones. In a career filled with fine performances, Phoenix impresses again. With his unkept beard and near Terminator like concentration on inflicting pain on some real bad guys, he’s hard to turn away from. That’s even when the cruelty (both seen and implied) is occurring.

The picture is lean (clocking in at an hour and a half) and filled with mean spirits. It’s a credit to the lead actor, Ramsey’s filmmaking abilities, and an ace score by Jonny Greenwood that we stay with it.

*** (out of four)

BlacKkKlansman Movie Review

Spike Lee mixes laughter with anger in the truth is stranger than fiction tale BlacKkKlansman. While it takes some liberties with historical accuracies (set seven years earlier than when its events actually transpired), there’s no mistaking Lee’s connecting of the then with the now. He’s not a subtle filmmaker and this finds him in his feisty and stylish element.

It’s 1972 and we know that from the strategically placed Nixon re-election signs. There’s also discussions on who’s a better movie hero – Superfly or Shaft? Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is a rookie cop hired as the first black officer in Colorado Springs. His superiors assign him to go undercover at a civil rights rally to monitor behavior. That leads Stallworth requesting a more unconventional operation, especially for the era. He wishes to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, a group whose actions are more worthy of keeping tabs on. The color of his skin obviously presents a challenge. So while he establishes a relationship with Klansmen over the phone, it’s fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who joins them.

The main characters of the local Klan organization are the untrusting Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), the too trusting Walter (Ryan Eggold), and trusted to be always drunk Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Stallworth’s telephone skills eventually put him in touch with Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). It so happens that the Klan’s targets could involve Stallworth’s love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the black student union.

BlacKkKlansman is a police procedural for much of its running time with numerous excursions in grander issues. There’s a wonderfully edited sequence going back and forth between two very different rallies discussing the same subject – D.W. Griffith’s incendiary 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. While this is set 46 years ago, the screenplay explores that time over 100 years ago in riveting fashion. It also touches on the present day in Charlottesville with fierce urgency.

There are times when Lee is saying that little has really changed. Washington (whose voice in particular resembles his father Denzel’s) shows himself to be a promising performer. Some of the biggest laughs come from his phone banter with the clueless Duke. Driver’s character has perhaps the most interesting story arc. He’s a non-practicing Jew who’s at first ambivalent about his assignment. His disgust with the people he’s infiltrated with soon matches that of Stallworth. The romance with Patrice is a bit underwritten, but it’s a minor quibble.

Tonal shifts are abundant here. It serves less as a distraction than a message that humor can be found through the pain of racism and the characters who display it. The images of Charlottesville also show both rallies in that event and it’s a heart wrenching scene. BlacKkKlansman, through light and dark moments, is a stark reminder of our past and present that is Lee’s own rallying cry.

***1/2 (out of four)

Sorry to Bother You Movie Review

In one sense, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is conventional with its pro-labor and anti-corporate message. How it gets there is wildly unconventional, often original, occasionally hilarious, and clearly from a new filmmaker making his voice and views heard. Riley comes from the world of hip hop and his political perspectives are unmistakable in short tracks. With nearly two hours to work with here, his words can’t possibly be as tight and controlled. This film is messy, but rarely a mess. Like the best music in the genre, it’s not easily forgotten. Similar to a bass line or lyric that won’t escape you, moments here have the same effect.

LaKeith Stanfield is Oakland native Cassius Green, who’s struggling to find a job that pays the bills. He lives in a garage with his artsy girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He owes lots of back rent to his uncle (Terry Crews) that owns the property. While the Golden State area looks current, the picture is set in an alternate reality. There’s a massive conglomerate that goes by WorryFree. We see ads on TV that promote a life of not paying bills and free housing. The catch? A lifetime contract of servitude. It’s absolutely an allegory for the director’s view of today’s workforce. While WorryFree seemingly appeals to many, this is not so for Cassius, Detroit, and lots of protesters.

Instead, Cassius finds work as a telemarketer and he initially finds it mundane and challenging. That is until a coworker (Danny Glover) imparts his secret of success. That recipe is using his “white voice”. Those voices are provided by recognizable faces for main characters including David Cross, Lily James, and Patton Oswalt. Cassius suddenly finds himself climbing the corporate ladder once the modulation happens. It leads him to gain the designation of “Power Caller”. That means moving to a swanky floor where only the Caucasian voice is allowed to be used. This also means he becomes a scab to his fellow workers and to Detroit. His financial rise soon puts him in touch with the leaders of WorryFree and its CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

Once that partnership is forged, Sorry to Bother You veers into genuinely unexpected directions (trust me on this one). Riley, however, never strays too far from the overall message. He’s got a fine cast to deliver it. Stanfield (best known for his supporting role in Get Out) is terrific and we’ve certainly never seen Hammer like this before. There are some genuine laugh out loud moments. One involves a passive aggressive argument Cassius has with friend and coworker Salvador (Jermaine Fowler). Another pertains to Steve’s unexpected reaction to Cassius’s reaction when a key plot point is revealed.

When we get to the third act, its unconventional tone gallops into an entirely new gear. It’s not totally successful, but I found myself admiring Riley’s kitchen sink approach to it. For viewers looking for something that’s often remarkably different, Bother hits those notes with enough frequency for a solid recommendation.

***1/2 (out of four)

Passion Movie Review

Brian De Palma dips into his old bag of tricks once again with Passion, resurrecting his exercises in stylistic silliness. From Dressed to Kill to Body Double to Femme Fatale, it’s the director’s return to what could be described as Hitchschlockian. His affinity for the Master of Suspense has been evident for decades. Unlike Hitchcock, his homages come with a hard R rating and an increased level of the ridiculous. De Palma is winking hard here with throwbacks to past uses of split screen, which is used memorably in a ballet sequence mixed with blood. If only the whole thing were more consistently enjoyable.

The character of Christine (Rachel McAdams) is one that’s basically required to smoke cigarettes and she does. She’s an ad exec with limitless ambition and a do whatever it takes attitude. Her assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) appears more quiet and reserved, but it turns out she’s ruthless as well. She’s having an affair with Christine’s beau (Paul Anderson) and that dynamic creates all kinds of melodrama as Christine wants her in that way as well. It all comes with a heaping of the sleaze De Palma is known for gleefully wallowing in. Karoline Herfurth plays Isabelle’s subordinate who also has a massive crush on her. Essentially, everyone has a thing for Isabelle. Rapace is stuck with the more subdued role while McAdams gets to have a good time with her over the top part.

Dressed to Kill is easily the filmmaker’s finest work in this genre. Nothing has really come close since, but all follow-ups certainly have their flashes of depraved fun. That applies to Passion, but it takes too long to get there. For De Palma aficionados, the nostalgic payoffs don’t really begin until that screen splits and twists start to follow. Unfortunately that’s about an hour into the proceedings. By then, even De Palma’s most ardent fans burning for Passion might have subsided a bit.

**1/2 (out of four)

Eighth Grade Movie Review

It’s not often that I find myself rooting for a character as much as I did with Kayla Day in Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade. Played with vulnerable authenticity by newcomer Elsie Fisher, this is a coming-of-age story different from others we’ve seen before (The Edge of Seventeen is another recent winning example). What makes this rather unique is an occasional urgency of now as it explores social media fixation, anxiety, and even issues of consent that have dominated headlines over the past months.

Burnham is a comedian who made his mark online in YouTube videos. That’s what his main character is trying to do when we first meet her. Kayla is a shy thirteen year old who achieves the unfortunate distinction of being voted Most Quiet student. She’s about to graduate eighth grade and enter the awkward world of high school. Yet there’s still a bit of awkward middle school to go. Kayla posts faux inspirational streams that go mostly unseen where she offers the best advice she’s garnered at a young age. Not having many friends, Kayla’s daily interaction is with her kind single dad (Josh Hamilton, who has some fine moments).

Kayla is ready to branch out of her shell, but hasn’t figured out how. And there’s nothing about Fisher’s portrayal of her that feels the least bit fake. That’s a credit to the actress playing her and Burnham’s perceptive screenplay. One could think that’s a bit awkward itself coming from a male writer in his late twenties. However, Eighth Grade speaks to the uncomfortable nature we all found ourselves in back then. This includes a game of truth or dare with a senior boy that generates more suspense and heartache than expected.

The script includes some archetypes we anticipate in the genre. There’s the nerdy kid who crushes on Kayla. The heart-throb boy she crushes on who is only after one thing. Of course, there’s the popular girl who pays her zero attention. We’ve seen them often. We rarely see a depiction of a teen like Kayla with this much care and attention to detail. That’s what makes her character special and worth cheering for. No one is really watching Kayla at this point in her life, but we get the feeling she’ll be worth keeping an eye on as life goes on. Watching what Burnham does in showing her adolescent experience is well worth viewing.

***1/2 (out of four)

 

Skyscraper Movie Review

Rawson Marshall Thurber takes a break from directing comedies and Dwayne Johnson is on a hiatus from pairing with jungle animals in Skyscraper. Drawing clear inspiration from The Towering Inferno and Die Hard, the action thriller casts Johnson as Sawyer, an ex FBI agent who lost a leg in a hostage situation gone wrong. It didn’t all turn out badly though because he ends up marrying his surgeon (Neve Campbell) and they have two cute kids. Sawyer now works as a safety analyst for giant buildings and the biggest one has just been erected in Hong Kong by a billionaire entrepreneur (Chin Han). An occupational hazard develops when some terrorists led by Roland Møller set The Pearl (what the 200 plus story structure is named) on fire. Sawyer must then save his family from the burning. If you think one of his kids is asthmatic and the screenplay uses that overused cliché, you sure are right!

For a filmmaker who’s done Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We’re the Millers, and Central Intelligence (with Johnson), Thurber keeps this a mostly humor free experience – save for our protagonist’s affinity for duct tape. While I’ve already mentioned its most obvious influences, the climax pays homage to The Man with the Golden Gun, of all Bond pics. That one is on the lower end of 007 efforts and so is this as far as Johnson’s action output.

Skyscraper never bothers to develop worthwhile villains and that’s something Die Hard sure had. The Towering Inferno had cutting edge effects at its time. Not here. And, um, the aforementioned Bond movie had a main bad guy with a third nipple. So that’s something.

Johnson manages to exude some charm, but it can only go so far with this ultimate nondescript affair. I could say something obvious like “Skyscraper didn’t floor me”, but that would be as lame as putting in a kid with asthma.

** (out of four)