Bohemian Rhapsody

Freddie Mercury and his Queen bandmates get the biopic treatment in Bohemian Rhapsody, an occasionally inspiring but generally middling overview of the arena rock group and its larger-than-life lead singer. Creative differences between the real-life band’s surviving members and Sacha Baron Cohen, who was originally slated to play Mercury, have loomed over the production since 2010 and it’s no big surprise that the band ultimately favored a more play-it-safe approach with the material. With a rousing soundtrack and a litany of on-the-road montages, die-hard Queen fans will have plenty to enjoy in this film but those looking for a deeper dive will likely be disappointed.

We’re introduced to Mercury (Rami Malek) as he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) the night that they serendipitously find themselves in need of a new lead singer. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), the group re-forms under the name Queen and begins selling out shows around the world after the success of their debut album. The film skims through the highs and lows of the band’s career but tends to focus on the struggles of its elusive lead singer, including his atypical relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his hard partying lifestyle that would eventually drive a wedge between himself and the group.

The cast, aside from the distracting presence of Mike Myers, is well-realized and each performer does solid work in their respective roles but it’s Malek who shines brightest in the spotlight. He gives an appropriately commanding performance that’s worthy of the towering persona that Mercury exuded in real life and by the time we get to the iconic Live Aid performance, Malek is practically indistinguishable from the real Freddie as he struts around the stage. In addition to mastering Mercury’s slinky physicality and stunning vocal range, Malek also digs past the singer’s haughty exterior to reveal a wounded soul with more insecurity than he’s willing to let on.

The biggest issues with Bohemian Rhapsody tend to come from behind the camera and generally center around the thoroughly unimaginative storytelling from director Bryan Singer, who was fired about one month before filming ended. From the introduction of Freddie’s disapproving parents to the pleas from Mary Austin that Freddie’s “burning the candle at both ends”, Singer leaves no rock-biopic cliché unturned; he follows a well-worn formula that even those unfamiliar with the genre will be able to pick up on early in the film. It’s also apparent that Singer has little to say about the band’s legacy and it seems the influence of May and Taylor as executive producers has steered the film towards hagiography.

It’s unfortunate that the life of a musical firebrand like Freddie Mercury has been sanitized to this degree but this is clearly the kind of innocuous product that 20th Century thought would play best to general audiences. Even though the script is full of moments that range from unlikely to downright false, screenwriter Anthony McCarten does land some quality zingers as Mercury and crew snipe with higher-ups in the record industry. Bohemian Rhapsody is at its best when it focuses on the hard work of four musicians who crafted 15 studio albums in their relatively limited time together but as an examination of a rock icon, it’s regrettably tame and toothless.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grinch, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rashida Jones, is the latest update on the 1957 Dr. Seuss book about a grumpy creature who’s out to ruin Christmas for the nearby people of Whoville.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, starring Claire Foy and LaKeith Stanfield, follows hacker Lisbeth Salander as she squares off against a foe who has ties to her past.
Overlord, starring Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell, is a World War II horror film that pits American paratroopers against violent creatures bred from a secret Nazi experiment.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, the first English-language feature from French director Jacques Audiard, stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns-for-hire caught in the middle of the California Gold Rush. Their latest mission, handed down from their employer known simply as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), revolves around a scientist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has allegedly developed a chemical that makes underwater gold much easier to locate. Also hot on Warm’s trail is detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hopes to extract the secret formula from the chemist before the Sisters finish the job.

Advertising for this film has pitched it as a kind of buddy comedy between Reilly and Phoenix and with the former’s work alongside Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, the strategy seems sound. The truth is that this is much more of a straight-ahead Western; sure, it has a few quirks here and there but the general tone is more stoic and somber than the trailer lets on. Having said that, I appreciated that this film stuck to its genre so thoroughly, especially in a time when the closest thing to Westerns that are typically released tend to be action movies that just happen to be set in the Old West.

The central conflict and its embedded themes are tied directly to the film’s setting in the mid-19th century, a time when so much of the country ran rampant with lawlessness while beacons of civility could be found in emerging cities. Eli finds himself drawn to these indicators of a burgeoning modern society; he’s taken with curiosity as he’s introduced to a toothbrush and giggles with glee as he flushes a toilet for the first time in their San Francisco hotel. Charlie, the younger and more impulsive of the brothers, is more skeptical of the changing times and doesn’t see how his violent urges could fit into a more decent and polite community.

Audiard unpacks these themes delicately across the movie’s 2-hour runtime and while the first half can feel a bit aimless and slow at times, the film’s second half picks up considerably as the four main characters converge in the wilderness. While Reilly and Phoenix aren’t always convincing as actual brothers, the two fine actors do turn in reliably great performances as two men whose ideologies seem to be veering in different directions. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal do fine work as well, despite the latter’s slightly ponderous accent choice, but the screenplay doesn’t quite develop their characters as much as I would have liked.

The script, co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain, not only provides some contemplative dialogue between the four men but also keeps the audience on their toes with some unexpected turns in the story. Aside from a couple comedic moments, the movie largely feels like a traditional Western and is often refreshingly old-fashioned. In its evocation of greed and its focus on camaraderie amongst characters in dire circumstances, I was reminded of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like that film, The Sisters Brothers finishes strong by building to a final scene that perfectly ties up everything that came before it.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton, is the highly anticipated biopic about the stadium rock band Queen and specifically its eccentric lead singer Freddie Mercury.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy, is the latest adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker about a young girl who is transported to a magical world.
Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 giallo classic about a young dancer who joins a distinguished dance academy that holds disturbing secrets.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup