Bohemian Rhapsody

There are times when Bohemian Rhapsody lures the viewer in with its adherence to the rock and roll story formula and the genuinely great music, but it mostly fall flat in its widely varying tone and its twisting of events to fit the desired narrative. It is a largely unsatisfying mix of excellent and dreadful.

Leading up the good side is the performance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He captures the look almost perfectly, as well as the mannerisms during performances. It is an astounding performance that has to be astounding for the movie to work at all. Everyone else is fine. They are perfectly good, but this is Malek’s movie. The only other person who stands out is Mike Myers, who in a bit of stunt casting plays a studio executive that hates Bohemian Rhapsody.

That stunt casting hits on one of the flaws of the movie. Not that Myers is bad, it is in fact great to see him again. But the movie does a lot of little stunt bits. They vary from mildly amusing, like Myers, to frustrating, like the weird focus the movie uses during a hackneyed media appearance meltdown. The movie is just full of these little bits that mostly serve to change the tone for a few minutes in weird ways and distract from the story being told.

That story is another problem, mostly because the movie changes fact to fit a very tired rock and roll story arc. A big part of the last act is the band breaking up, something that never really happened. In the movie they get back together to perform at Live Aid, even though they had really spent most of the year before on a world tour. I will give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that the framing of Freddie’s sexuality as the root of his problems, that he lost his way by leaving his heterosexual relationship, was an inadvertent implication during the rote rise and fall story they wanted tell. I think part of the problem is focusing on Mercury’s personal life while also trying to keep things PG-13, so the movie has to show what is going on by implication, but it is not very careful about what implications it is giving rise to. I realize the struggle that any biopic has in telling the story within the time allotted, but the telling here feels really sloppy.

What the movie does well, though, is the music. The movie shines when it is showing Queen being Queen; when they are performing or creating music. That is the good stuff, and it feels unfortunately underserved. There could and should have been more of the how they made their music. The movie does have the good sense to end with an extended recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, which is enthralling. The making of Bohemian Rhapsody is likewise very entertaining.

That is the problem with Bohemian Rhapsody; quite a few of the pieces are excellent, but the whole is less than satisfying. It stumbles whenever it isn’t directly focusing on the music, which is what everyone came to see. I can’t really recommend anyone go see this, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone either.

**1/2

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Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is a lot of fun. Perhaps a touch too long and lacking the punch it needed to push it over the top, but still it is mostly a ton of fun to watch as it goes along. It ends up feeling a touch like a discount Tarantino movie, but that is still better than most movies.

The El Royale is a hotel that sits on the state line between California and Nevada. Half of the hotel is in one state and one half in the other; the hotel concierge has an extended presentation on the set up. One night, four guests arrive at the El Royale; salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan(Jon Hamm), priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet(Cynthia Erivo), and the abrasive Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Each of them has their own story and the movie shows each story in sequence, but they all happen simultaneously. All of them have secrets. Even the hotel and its concierge have secrets. All of them smash together and none of the guests leave unscathed.

Seeing all of these separate stories come together is the fun of the movie. Two of the characters are not who they say they are, two are hiding dangerous secrets. Poor Darlene is just trying to find a quiet place to practice for a gig she has the next morning. One character’s secret brings the dangerous Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like figure who runs something of cult. None of the stories naturally intersect; the characters could have easily shown up on different days and been in and out with no trouble.

The problem is that the movie sets up all these interesting characters and stories, but ends up cutting off some interesting avenues early. I don’t mean to critique what I wish the movie was and not what it is, but I would have liked to see more of at least one or two characters that end up dead fairly early in the film. Other stories get disappointingly anticlimactic conclusions. That is also kind of the point, but in the end it leaves the movie feeling like it lacks a little punch.

Even minor characters make an impact thanks to the cast. Nick Offerman plays a character who dies during the opening credits, but he still makes an impact. The same goes for Shea Whigham as a prison doctor in a scene or two. The big one is Chris Hemsworth, who shows up in the back half as Billy Lee and infuses him with an unforgettable dangerous swagger. The main cast is great as well. Hamm has a special amount of smarm as the unctuous Laramie. Bridges is his usual excellence. The relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, who plays the concierge Miles, are highlights of the movie; they are the heart. Cynthia’s Darlene is determined despite all the crap that her life has flung at her, and is also capable of thinking on her feet; she is no damsel or rube to be taken in by the various characters. Miles is that sort of rube; he buys it all. He seems pathetic and things proceed to get worse and worse for him, but he never loses the kindness that he alone seems to possess.

Most of this movie is delightful, but there is a little something that is missing. It reminds me of the Hateful Eight, which also sees a group of unrelated people thrown together with deadly results. But that movie has some surprises in the last act that ramp up the drama. This movie spends most of its surprised early and at the end it plays out just like it seems like it will. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end of an otherwise very entertaining film.

****1/2

A Star is Born

A Star is Born is one of the most earnest movies I’ve seen in a long time. It is a big showbiz tragedy done without any irony. It isn’t a new story, this is the fourth version of A Star is Born, but it is incredibly well told.

Bradley Cooper directs and stars as Jackson Maine, an aging alcoholic rock star. One night after a gig he stops at the nearest open bar, which just so happens to be where Ally, a struggling singer played by Lady Gaga, is performing. The two of them spend the night together and Maine invites Ally on the road with him. At one of his concerts, he brings her onstage to sing with him, jump starting her career. But as her career takes off, his starts to come down. This is accelerated by his drinking. Still, they love each other and get married. But eventually, Maine’s demons catch up with him, leading to a tragic end.

I don’t really feel like I’m spoiling the story much, as this is the fourth version of this movie and they all follow the same arc. This movie is just incredibly well made. Gaga is fantastic as Ally. Her performance feels very natural. Cooper is likewise excellent as Maine. He is doing something with his voice that really shouldn’t work, but it somehow does. The supporting cast, namely Sam Elliott and Andrew Dice Clay (!?!), are great as well. Elliot, playing Maine’s much older brother, is especially good.

This is a movie about two musicians, so for the movie to work the songs they sing have to up to snuff. With one exception, that is a real strength of the movie. The big number is “Shallow,” a duet the two of them sing the first time Ally is on stage, but there are several other memorable songs spread throughout.

There are really only two things in the movie that come up short for me. The first is that it seems like Cooper’s character gets the bulk of the attention. The movie is called A Star is Born, but we see more of one fading than of the other being born. It’s not that the middle section of the movie, when this is happening, is bad; it just makes her feel like a secondary concern rather than a driving force in the movie. The other is that the ending song is kind of bad. There are a lot of good songs on this soundtrack, but the one Ally sings at the end is easily the worst. That moment needed to land and the song really didn’t work for me.

I’m not going to lie, I teared up during this movie. It wasn’t during any of the Ally/Maine stuff though. It was the last interaction between Cooper and Elliott as Cooper tells him that he’s always looked up to him and Elliott desperately backs his car out of the driveway fighting back tears. Stuff with brothers always works on me and this was good stuff.

****1/2

BlacKkKlansman Review

Spike Lee comes in the with final great movie of the summer with BlacKkKlansman. It is an interesting mixture of tones and subjects that manages to be both entertaining and enlightening. The movie has powerful performances and still sadly relevant subject matter for a movie set 40+ years in the past. There is some unevenness, but the whole thing is an unforgettable experience.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is at first relegated to the files room, but soon they need him to lead an undercover operation into a black student activist group. From there he gets promoted and ends up in the intelligence division. In his new job he cold calls the KKK to start looking into their activities. He is successful, but he used his real name. That starts a new undercover operation with Flip (Adam Driver) playing Stallworth in public while Ron keeps up his connection over the phone. They work together to infiltrate the group and stop a bombing the KKK has planned.

There is a lot more going on than just the plot. Lee sets up parallels between the black student union activities, and black power movement, and the KKK, showing the surface similarities and more crucially the deep differences. There are the comparisons between the two cops central to this investigation as Flip is Jewish and Ron black. It is also just delightfully entertaining, with some 70’s style on top of what is, outside of its heavy themes, as delightfully fun cop movie. Driver shows once again how great an actor he is. Topher Grace is good as a delightfully contemptible David Duke. John David Washington gives what should be a star making performance; we will see more of him. The movie also has one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever seen, as it punctures the fun the movie had built up and cements connections to the problems the country is currently facing. It ends the movie with a hammer blow that left me in tears.

The only note that rings sour in the film is the scene where all of the good cops catch the bad cop in a sting operation. It just doesn’t work, especially with the captain, who has shown himself in the movie to be at best a tentative ally of the protagonists participating. The scene doesn’t work in the context of the film; it comes out of nowhere and I don’t know why it is there, knowing that that sort of cop is even today rarely punished in any way for that sort of behavior. Still, that is one short scene in a movie that is otherwise excellent.

This year has had quite a run of racially conscious movies, from Black Panther to Sorry to Bother You to Blindspotting to BlacKkKlansman. Other than Black Panther, they are not movies that were on my radar coming into this year, but all of them have turned out to be some of the best I’ve seen this year. I hope this is not a blip but the start of a trend.

****1/2

The Spy Who Dumped Me

I won’t lie, I didn’t walk into The Spy Who Dumped Me really expecting to enjoy it. I walked into that movie hoping to squeeze a little more value out of my MoviePass subscription before it disappeared. So I ended up being pleasantly surprised by this little action comedy that remains somewhat entertaining while largely flubbing one half of its formula.

The Spy Who Dumped Me stars Mila Kunis as Audrey, a woman who was recently dumped by her boyfriend over a text message. One day at work Audrey is abducted by two men who identify themselves as as Sebastian, from MI6, and Duffer from the CIA and inform her that her ex-boyfriend was a CIA agent who has disappeared. They think he left something with her and will return for it. He does, but is shot by an assassin. He tells her to go to Austria to deliver the item to his contact. So Audrey and her best friend Morgan, played by Kate McKinnon, go to Austria and get involved in a spy plot.

One half of The Spy Who Dumped Me’s action comedy mix is much stronger than the other. The movie is generally not funny. There are a few amusing lines or sequences, but it frequently alternates between gross out violence and stupidity that do not elicit much in the way of laughs. Fortunately, the action side of the movie is more than competent. It tries really hard to be funny, but it has that loose, improvisational style that is so popular but only rarely funny. This isn’t a movie where it really works. Only McKinnon seems adept at it, and everyone else is just trying to keep up. When the humor actually comes out of the plot, it actually tends to be funny. Another problem is that it leans hard on humor from over the top violence and it is largely not funny. The action, though, is pretty well staged. It is comprehensible, if not particularly ambitious. The shoot out in a Vienna restaurant is especially solid. Also the subsequent chase is good. The action scenes are solidly competent.

The performers do a lot of the work in making this movie worthwhile. Mila Kunis does good work as the straight woman in the formula, in over her head but without a better idea of what to do. She has good chemistry with both of her costars, McKinnon and Sam Heughan, who plays Sebastian. Kunis is underrated as a low key action star, or maybe I just like Jupiter Ascending more than most, and is generally a solid comedienne. The problem is that McKinnon is in a different movie than everyone else. That has worked for her in the past, like in Ghostbusters, but here it doesn’t quite work. Heughan, who is great in Outlander, shines here. He shows he can do the action scenes in the chances he gets and has a generally affable presence that helps sell the comedy.

The Spy Who Dumped me is not a movie that does anything particularly well. It doesn’t surprise or impress. You likely know every beat that is coming as soon as the movie starts. But it is competent. There is nothing about it that is egregiously bad. It is just kind of there. I enjoyed it, but I enjoy each of the three central performers on their own and enjoyed them here. It is just kind of middle of the road. I don’t regret seeing it, but I doubt I will remember it in two months.

**1/2

Mission Impossible Fallout Review

Mission Impossible has been on a sustained run of excellence lately. I’m not a huge fan of the third movie, but Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation were both excellent. Fallout lives up to the series’ high standards. I don’t know that I like it quite as much as the previous two, but it is in the same conversation.

The movie starts with Hunt and crew trying and failing to recover some stolen plutonium. As Hunt readies to track it down again, the CIA steps in. This sets up the dynamic that runs through most of the movie. Hunt is given a CIA watchdog, Walker played by Henry Cavill. Walker is interesting; he’s all bravado and surety, but also more than a bit of a screw up. In one of the movies standout set pieces, of which there are a full handful, he HALO jumps into a thunderstorm, which results in he and Hunt nearly falling to their deaths.

I am not going to try to explain the plot, other than to say that the MI guys are after the plutonium, but someone on the good guys side is a double agent. Also, Hunt has to go undercover as the villainous buyer of the plutonium, but the price brings Rogue Nation’s villain back into the mix. Meanwhile, Ilsa Faust shows back up, but she is working toward a different goal than Hunt. It just makes the whole thing a mess of conflicted loyalties and objectives. While there isn’t much unsurety of who is on who’s side, it all works spectacularly.

Fallout brings back most of the crew that Hunt has built up over the last few movies. Ving Rhames is back as Luther and gets probably more to do than he has had for the last few movies. It is mostly talking in a radio of delivering exposition, but at least it’s something. Simon Pegg’s Benji, meanwhile, gets slightly scaled back, mostly because Cavill takes his role as Hunt’s sidekick for most of the movie. Still, he’s there and he’s great. Rebecca Ferguson returns as Ilsa Faust, and she is just as great as she was in Rogue Nation. Renner isn’t back, but Alec Baldwin gets to do a little more than he did last time. Really, the ancillary cast this series has built up is one of its greatest strengths.

Fallout moves from one amazing action set piece to another. There is that HALO jump, which is followed by a fight in nightclub bathroom. Then there is an extended motorcycle chase through Paris that is wonderful. It all ends with a helicopter dogfight and, no joke, a fist fight on the top of (and side of) a mountain. This is something that series has done well for the longest time, and Fallout is at least equally as amazing as any of the previous movies.

Despite my praise, the movie that comes to mind to compare this to is Spectre. That movie tried to suggest that the Bond series had been building to something since Craig took over and Spectre was trying to be the culmination of that. Except almost none of it worked; it was terrible. Fallout pulls a lot of the same tricks, tying together unrelated threads from three previous movies that maybe weren’t meant to be connected. Except Fallout actually makes it work. It doesn’t try to add stuff in retroactively, it builds it all forward. It actually plays out more like the latter Fast and Furious movies.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is one of the most enjoyable movies of the summer. I hope Tom Cruise has another one of these in him.

****1/2

Skyscraper Review

Skyscraper could and should be much better than it is. All of the elements for a fun summer action movie are here, but they just are combined haphazardly to make for something shockingly unenjoyable. There is a modicum of fun to be had with Skyscraper, Dwayne Johnson remains the best action star on the planet and there are some well done scenes, but this movie is eminently skippable.

Skyscraper looks like straight up Die Hard rip off, but that is only part of what it is. It combines Die Hard with plenty of Jurassic Park. The basic idea is Die Hard, with terrorists in a skyscraper and one man having to work his way through them to save his family. But in Skyscraper, the building is a technological marvel. Viewers are supposed to awed by it like they were when they first saw dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The building owner is happy to show off his creation, which is brought low by sabotage and then disaster. So not only is The Rock working against the bad guys in the tower, he is also working against the building itself. It isn’t a bad idea, but it mostly just makes the movie feel super busy.

That plays into the movie’s biggest problem; all of its characters are just voids. It has only been a few days, but I can’t remember anyone’s name. Other than loving his family, The Rock’s character is a nonentity. His kids have personalities like “has asthma” and “is girl.” His wife is … also there. The villains get no more development, nor do the cops or the building owner. They all have maybe one trait or more likely just a goal, but there is nothing there to grasp onto.

The Rock does have a handicap, which is an interesting choice. He lost a leg in an explosion, so he wears a prosthetic. It adds a layer of vulnerability to the normally indestructible persona he exudes. In the end, the prosthetic is used as more of an asset than a handicap.

There are some solid action scenes, mostly dealing with The Rock hanging off the side of this very tall building. The less effective scenes happen in the building. Early on the movie sets up a completely unrelated to the building technological marvel whose use in the finale is so blatantly obvious that it is insulting. The building is topped by what is essentially a Star Trek holodeck. It feels like someone took the climax out of a different screenplay because there wasn’t a satisfying conclusion to this one.

Skyscraper is just not good. I can’t fault any of the actors, they are giving it their best. The Rock never appears to be giving less than 110 percent in any movie. But the material here is somehow both too thin and overstuffed. A lot happens in the movie, but since it doesn’t happen to characters someone could care about it feels completely pointless.

**1/2

Three Identical Strangers & Won’t You Be My Neighbor

While Moviepass continues to sputter and struggle in what I genuinely hope are not its death throws, I am feeling like celebrating the summer I have spent with the service. I signed up for MoviePass in March, and finally got my account active in May. Since then, I have seen nearly 20 movies using the service. Some are movies I would have seen regardless, like Ant-Man and Solo, but many other are movie that I would likely not have taken a chance on in theaters were it not for the fact that my ticket was already paid for. Chief among those movies are a pair of documentaries I saw and that I don’t feel like I could write full reviews for. So here are a pair of mini reviews for two excellent documentaries I saw this summer with MoviePass.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor tells the story of Fred Rogers, the man behind the children’s show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I don’t have a lot to say about it; the movie is inspiring and uplifting, but it is hard to explain without just recounting the movie completely. Won’t You Be My Neighbor details Rogers life and while it doesn’t shy away from struggles and missteps he made, it paints the portrait of a man who was as genuine and kind as he appeared on his TV show. Fred Rogers believed that he could use television as a force for good and to help educate children. He proved this with his popular and long running show that touched the lives of millions. This is just a wonderful story told in a very good movie.

****½

Three Identical Strangers

This documentary tells the true story of identical triplets separated at birth who found each other at college. The story of the brothers themselves is engrossing and somewhat tragic, the mystery behind their separation is equally intriguing and a little less satisfying. Also, some the stuff the movie somewhat posits about nature v nurture is questionable. The movie starts with one of the brothers going to college, only to be recognized by people he’s never met. Eventually, it is discovered that he looks just like another student. So he meets up with this other student and discovers that they share a birthday and were both adopted out of the adoption service. When the story appears in the paper, a third brother emerges. They then look into how the brothers got separated, which is itself quite a story, though one that the movie learns really hard on for no more of an answer than they found. The movie also looks at how the upbringing of the brothers may have affected their adult lives, and uncomfortably points fingers to explain some things. That is a dark mark on what is otherwise a fascinating movie.

****½

Ant-Man and The Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp is the perfect antidote to the world changing events of Avengers Infinity War. The stakes in that movie couldn’t be higher, while Ant-Man and the Wasp have easily the lowest stakes of any superhero movie to date. It brings back all the characters from the first movie for some very personal adventures.

Ant-Man deals a lot with the fallout from Scott’s involvement in Captain America Civil War. Unlike the rest of this team, Scott took a plea deal and ended up on house arrest for a couple years. Incidentally, his involvement also put his friends, Hope Van Dyne and Hank Pym, on the run from the government as well. As the movie starts, he is days away from getting his freedom, but he also starts having dreams of Janet Van Dyne, who was lost in the Quantum Realm years before. This leads to reconnecting with his erstwhile allies and sneaking out on his sentence.

That sets the stakes for this movie. Scott has to get back to his house before he is caught violating his house arrest. Hank and Hope, meanwhile, are trying to put together a rescue mission for Janet. Then there are the villains. The first is Sonny Burch who is trying to steal Hank’s tech with the vague idea of selling it on the black market. Hank’s tech isn’t weapons, though I’m sure it could be weaponized, and Burch doesn’t have any bigger evil scheme than steal Hank’s stuff and sell it to someone else. Then there is Ghost, who needs Hank’s tech to solve her problem of turning intangible. Again, she has no great villainous plot; her goal is just as personal and as sympathetic as the good guys’.

Keeping it low stakes works for Ant-Man. It gives a lot of time for banter between Scott and his friends, a group of ex-cons running a security business, as well as between Scott and Hope and Hank. This works really well mostly because Paul Rudd, who plays Scott, is delightful. The same is true of Michael Pena. Walton Goggins, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Douglas are all also good, though none of them really get enough to do. And no movie has enough Michelle Pfeiffer. The action is largely carried by Evangeline Lilly as Hope. Scott does his part, but Hope does the majority of the fighting and is great in it. The size changing powers are visually interesting and lead to a lot of interesting fight choreography. Again, that is a plus for keeping the stakes low, with it mostly being a lot of hand to hand fighting between one or two people who can change size and a handful of thugs who can’t or with one person who can phase through solid matter.

The villain is another thing this does well. Ghost’s methods are criminal, but she is mostly just opposed to our heroes more than evil. It is easy to understand why she is getting the help that she is from certain characters. All she wants is to have her problem fixed, and she needs Hank’s tech to do it. The conflict arises because her need conflicts with the need of Hank and Hope to get Janet back. It is understandable, logical and compelling.

Where is falters, as much as it does, is that it doesn’t have a whole lot that was not already in the first movie. It re-configures some things and gives us a character in action that we didn’t get to see before, but it is mostly just more of what we’ve already seen. Still, it is well executed and mostly very funny, so it is hard to hold its lack of originality against it.

I doubt this movie will be remembered as among he cream of the Marvel crop, but Ant-Man and The Wasp seems a more compelling movie to return to than the epic but exhausting Infinity War or many of the other larger than life adventures.

****1/2

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom

While the original Jurassic World, which I have cooled on quite a bit since writing a fairly positive review of when it came out, was content to mostly just do the Jurassic Park again, but bigger and “better,” Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom tries to do more. In many ways, the Jurassic World movies echo the Disney Star Wars movies. The first does everything in its power to remind you of why you liked the series in the first place, the second does a little of mashing up other sequels in an attempt to propel the series forward after the back looking entry. But like how Jurassic World kind of fumbled the call back to the original formula, Fallen Kingdom pushes the series forward while giving the viewer no reason to believe that it has any clue where it is coming from.

A few years after the disaster at the park in Jurassic World, the volcano on isla nubar, where the dinosaurs are, becomes active and is going to erupt. Claire, Bryce Dallas Howard, is part of a group that is trying to do something to save the dinosaurs. She gets help from Benjamin Lockwood, the previously unknown partner of John Hammond who wants to save a few species of dinos and take them to another island. The need Claire to get into Jurassic World’s systems, and they need her to recruit Owen Grady, Chris Pratt, to help them get the velociraptor Blue. Once they arrive at the island, it becomes clear that they are not there to save the dinosaurs for any humanitarian purposes, but to capture the dinos for reasons unknown. Eventually it becomes clear that the genetic experiments that created the Indominus Rex are still happening.

Like the original Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, Fallen Kingdom splits time between the islands and the mainland and brings some dinosaurs to the mainland. It has the main characters there on an altruistic mission and the villains there for profit. While the series always was scifi, Fallen Kingdom pushes it further in that direction. The cloning procedures that brought the return of the dinos is now so much more than it started as.

There are times when I find Fallen Kingdom almost admirable, but it ends up feeling like a collection of ideas for further Jurassic adventures. There isn’t a lot to tie the various strands together. The island stuff is almost fully disconnected from the mainland stuff. Someone just had the idea of dinosaurs and a volcano. Just like someone had the idea of a raptor sneaking around a big old mansion. The movie just kind of throws all these things out there and hopes the viewer can make something of them. Characters get lost along the way, held together only by Chris Pratt’s and Bryce Dallas Howard’s charm.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. Despite how jumbled it seems, there is a certain amount of fun to be had with dinosaurs in these various scenarios. The way the movie just goes for even its most outlandish ideas has a charm all of its own. But I can’t imagine looking back fondly on this movie even a year or two from now.

**1/2